The Breath of Scandal/Chapter 20

CHAPTER XXI

HE, of course, was capable neither of thinking nor feeling the same constantly toward any one of them; for he was going through an upheaval, less consciously self-inflicted perhaps, but not for that less violent than Marjorie's; and his resultants confounded him far more than her discoveries confused her. For he had considered that he had taken thought and reckoned on the worst which could come, when he first took up his life with Sybil Russell. He had convinced himself that, even if the worst came, he would be chief sufferer and that he was not doing anything which cowardly endangered his wife and daughter more than himself. For he had figured that only two events were possible; either he would succeed in concealing the fact of his association with Mrs. Russell and so avoid harming any one else or he would fail and disgrace and scandal would come, but upon him, chiefly. Indeed, he had argued with himself that he would be not only the chief sufferer but, in a certain sense, the sole sufferer in this second case. For, though he realized that there must be a period of mental distress through which his wife and daughter must pass, he honestly believed that they would emerge from it much the same as before and with no final, irretrievable damage done them. Other women seemed about the same after a divorce, he observed; and their daughters held their position in society and married well.

For, if discovered, he expected to be divorced; he reckoned that, as the result of the scandal, he might be forced out of Tri-Lake, but he was wholly confident of his ability to obtain another position and make money. His wife certainly would claim alimony, and he always expected to pay it in sums sufficient to enable her and Marjorie to maintain the home; for he was not a man to consider escape from an obligation which he had assumed and never did he dream of repudiating his duty of supporting his wife and child.

He had imagined correspondence—formal, undoubtedly, but yet correspondence—passing between himself and his wife; he had fancied, even if the very worst came, that Marjorie would visit him sometimes, as he had fancied, when part of the worst actually had happened and she knew, that she would continue under his roof. How fatuous he had been! How he had hurt her more than ever he had imagined and far more than he had hurt himself. For, though he soon stilled his terrors that she had made away with herself, he never afterwards mistook the disaster to her from the blow he had struck her.

How he had undone, by that one blow, all that previously he had done for her since she was a pink baby just born; for from that moment when the nurse gave his child to his arms—indeed, from a time as much earlier as when he first learned from his wife that he was to have a child and he reckoned the even chances that it would be a daughter—he had adopted one consistent, unvarying attitude toward her, determining by all his powers to hold from her the unpleasant, the arduous, the perplexing and the ugly in life; to bring her to womanhood healthy, happy, graceful, cultured, honored, envied and all that a girl of any one's might be. And he had about succeeded at that; she was honorably desired by a young man whom, if not a favorite with Charles Hale, any one would call a good match, and who was a clean, able fellow, certain to win great success and make with her an enviable home here in Evanston or in Lake Forest or Chicago.

Now he, her father, had destroyed all that for her, he knew; he had turned her face about from proceeding to her place in a home. If that might prove the most he had done to her, it might not be so bad; it might even, in the end, become a benefit to her—so he began to argue with himself.

He was feeling for compensations, for some way of believing that a good to his daughter might after all come out of this damage he had done; and he desperately required to convince himself that there might be compensations; so he thought:

"She was a fine, able girl; she had any amount of promise; she might do anything! Yet how many fine, able girls with any amount of promise you see in all the homes like mine along the north shore and down into the city. And how few, how very, very few, of the women you see in those homes, amount to a hill of beans. How futile and inane they all are, doing nothing; phantom things, that's all. Phantom tasks, phantom labors, that's all they perform, for the phantom triumphs of overcoming them—unless they've given up even the pretense of usefulness and go in for bridge and gadding. Ninnies!" he said that aloud to himself. "Ninnies!"

Then he more vigorously reacted; Marjorie had disappeared, as she had, partly to frighten and punish him; and he would not be frightened, particularly after he learned from a letter written on the boat by his wife and sent back by the pilot that she had received a telegram from Marjorie at sailing. And he ascertained also that Marjorie had withdrawn from the savings bank the money of her own which had formed her legacy from grandmother Winfield. He knew, therefore, that she had with her, or more likely had on deposit in some other bank under another name, at least five hundred dollars.

When it became necessary for him to explain her absence to the family friends, who knew she had not accompanied Mrs. Hale, he said that Marjorie had preferred an adventure of her own to again traveling in a routine way with her mother. He gave the impression that he had known of Marjorie's plan and approved of it, but that his wife, being more formal minded, would not approve. He repeated, what he found to be the fact, that Marjorie was writing her mother as though she were at home; and he suggested that his wife's friends refrain from disturbing Mrs. Hale by mentioning in letters that Marjorie actually was not at home.

As a matter of fact, Corinna Hale had few friends with whom she kept up any sort of correspondence; and none of these cared to intrude openly upon her personal affairs. Something was wrong in the Hale family, people began to realize; it might blow over, or it might not; Mrs. Hale's absence in England might have more significance than her previous sojourns abroad; or she might return, serene and calm, to resume her place in the big, white home. Neighbors gossiped, of course; but Charles Hale was president of Tri-Lake Products and Materials Corporation; conspicuously he abode in his own home, as he had upon previous occasions when his wife and daughter were away; and men of first importance in Chicago and Detroit and Cleveland, and not a few of influence even in New York, visited him, and dined him at their homes, at hotels and clubs. For he was a bigger man than ever and, in times which dismayed little men, he put in operation big projects.

Physically he was himself again; indeed, he seemed improved, if anything, in tone and steadiness and color by the weeks of enforced rest during his recuperation. His eyes were clear, his hair regained luster; he stood and walked straight as before, with that something new, in addition to the sense of power which he previously possessed, which the acknowledgment of power gives a man. And where he walked, women raised their eyes and gazed at him. When his down town meetings with men were over and he returned to his home, or when, after he had entertained at home, the last guest was gone, Hale ascended to his room and sat around, smoking usually and half undressed, for a long time before going to bed. He never, on these occasions, wandered into his wife's room, but remained in his bedroom or in his dressing room; in the dark, he would stand sometimes with a window curtain raised and look in the direction where Sybil Russell lay. For, though several times he had spoken with her by telephone, he had not yet seen her.

He had no idea that he was about to see her; indeed, she was not in his mind at all at this particular hour of the evening when he was passing through the general dining room of one of the hotels down town, to a table reserved for him and several other men. And there she sat at a small table alone, close to the route he naturally would follow from the door to his table.

Apparently she did not see him when he entered; she was seated so that he caught glimpse of her profile first,—the fine, even lines of her brow and nose and lips, the pleasing turn of her chin, the alluring curve of her neck and the round of her breast. She held one hand in her lap; with the other she touched a spoon and weighed it, pensively, in her slender, white, sensitive fingers. She did not play with the spoon; she hardly lifted it at all, but as it was the only motion she made, it drew his attention, especially as she gazed at the little silver thing musingly. It was as if he had surprised her, all alone and off guard in reverie. She had no food before her; likely, he thought, as the swift processes of his mind swept through the trifles as well as through that which was tremendous to him, likely she had ordered and the waiter not yet had returned.

His eyes rested on her fingers; and his sight seemed to supply him with tactual sensation of her fingers clasping his as he clasped her hand; then he seemed to feel her hand softly but so intensely touching his face. His eyes traveled up her white forearm; they lifted to her face and she slowly turned her head and glanced up, quietly, calmly—oh, so like her to show herself so calm—but he knew what passion she had underneath! She met his eyes and recognized him, but no one, except himself, would have known it. He hardly would have been sure of it, if he had not been staring straight into her eyes; for they alone gave any sign. She did not gasp or quicken at all the even rise and fall of her bosom; she did not start or even let slip the spoon lightly held in her fingers; no flush flamed up. She was without rouge, as always she had been, and therefore among other women she appeared slightly pale; he always liked that; her hair was dressed almost demurely; he preferred that; she wore a simple dinner gown of blue—his favorite color—and more modest than any other woman's. And at that instant Charles Hale, if he could have summoned the power, would have banished all others throughout that wide room and drawn the walls close to confine him and her together. But he could not speak to her; he could not even stop or delay in passing her; for she forbade it. The pupils of her eyes, when they directly met his, dilated; she could not control that; perhaps she did not wish to; then she looked down again at the spoon thoughtfully, as though nothing had happened. And he had to pass on.

Fortunately, he was the last of the group on the way to his table; so none of his companions could have noticed any emotion he betrayed. At the table, he chose for himself a seat from which he could watch her without making it conspicuous, and his attention was very intermittently on business that hour. He suddenly loathed the stupid, heavy talk; he hated the mass of solid, meaty dishes before him; suddenly he longed for a woman's voice,—light, fond, tantalizing, dissembling, passionate; to have before him woman's dishes, delicate, dainty, tempting, not filling and dulling to other sensations. Sybil Russell received her order, and he could watch, from his distance, her restrained, slight motions as she was served; and the sight of her so near, and yet so shut away, inflamed him. Was she here by mere chance, he wondered. If so, what a woman to meet him as she had; what a woman to achieve such restraint, even if she were here by design, having learned that he was to dine here this night. It must be, he realized, that she had come to see him—and show herself to him—from refusal longer to bear separation from him. And how she had shown it for him, and only him, to see!

"You're mine!" he said to himself, with deep stirrings, as he glanced across at her; and he admired her more that never once he caught her glancing at him. "Wasting your time," he continued to himself with profound satisfaction, as he followed the turn of other men's eyes to her. "She's mine!"

After a while she arose and, moving in just the way he knew she would—with a slight toss of her head, her hand held a little lifted at her side, with more life in her stride than its seeming slowness disclosed, with other little characteristics which cried her to him—she left the room. And there he had to sit, breathing smoke of strong cigars, with cheese and hard, half-blackened crackers before him and listening to figures and estimates of costs and taxes.

About half-past nine, when he succeeded in getting away from the men, he did not go home; nor did he go to a club. He wandered into another hotel where he was not likely to encounter even an acquaintance, and he sat down, sullen from his loneliness and his desire. He lit a cigar and almost instantly threw it away and arose and sat in another room, stirring himself to review the disregard and neglect shown him by his wife. Now she was gone away again, satisfied—more than satisfied; indeed, she preferred to be far off, spending money he earned and without considering any duty she owed him.

Of course, he never demanded duty from her; he always—thank God—had been too proud for that. If she did not want to remain close to him, let her go! Obviously, it meant that she did not love him; any woman who loved a man would never dream of deserting him at a time like this—at the great hour of his triumph, to leave him alone!

He accused himself not at all for this desertion by her; he knew she was wholly ignorant of his unfaithfulness. No, so far as she could know, he was faithful to her as he had been faithful and kept himself faithful to her, by God, during the long, lonely, totally unjustified periods of her first desertions of him. Not many men—he told himself—would have endured that as long as he had; they would have done as he had or got a divorce.

He would have proceeded about a divorce, if that really had been the kinder alternative for him to take; but he had argued that it was not the kinder, even when considering solely his wife. For as his wife, in the relation which she maintained to him in these last years, she was thoroughly happy; she was getting what she wanted out of life—and from him, he considered bitterly. She always had got just what she wanted out of their marriage; from the very first, when she, so cool, so sure of herself, so provoking of his passions, had drawn him and known that she had him, she had let him win her because she intended to obtain, through him, just exactly what she wanted; and she had obtained it.

And he had been glad to give it to her; for he liked position, too, of course; he liked money and influence; but also he wanted, and had right to expect of her, more than that, while she—well, she seemed actually able to call it being a man's wife to bear his name proudly (for she undoubtedly was proud of him), to spend his money and do herself and him credit by the way she gained place in the world for Mrs. Charles Hale. He was proud of her for that; but pride in his mate was no substitute to him for love and passion. However, she could never understand that; what outrage she would feel—and what contempt for him—if he had told her that he, a matured man with a grown daughter, required passion still. So he had sought and found passion elsewhere; leaving his wife to continue going her own way, serene and perfectly satisfied with what she had. Consequently, so far as his wife was concerned, he had convinced himself he had done right; and what was right before, was right now—except that his daughter had become involved in a disconcerting way.

But it angered him, at this moment, when he thought of Marjorie's interference with him; her attempt at dictation to him; her disappearance to intimidate him. Women passed near him,—a woman suggestive, slightly, of Sybil Russell; women gazed at him and lowered their eyes. He was attractive to women, though they did not know who he was; and this was the time of his triumph, and his wife had left him to be alone. But he need not be alone. A woman—his woman—was awaiting him, he was sure. Not on Clearedge Street in that apartment where he had been shot and his daughter had come; but at another place they had used once. The thought of it roused him; was she there?

He arose and entered a telephone booth and called that number; she was there.

About two o'clock in the morning he reached his home, which was quiet, of course, and dark except for the night light left for him; and except for the servants, it was empty. It made him feel jumpy to-night, this deserted house of his, in his let-down reaction; and as he made a turn through the lower rooms, following an old instinct to see that everything was right, which was a relic of his days before he had a man to lock up at night, he imagined he heard a step in his daughter's room. Had Marjorie come home? What a time for her to have come! How could he face her?

He listened for several moments; then, hearing nothing, he ascended and, after listening again, he proceeded to her door, knocked and, receiving no answer, opened the door and entered.

The stillness of the room sent a shrinking through him; of course, it had been still many times before when Marjorie was away and, of course, it had been still ever since she left that note to him and abandoned him; but never till this instant had he felt it dead like this. Never had he felt how finally she was gone—gone from him not to come back; gone was his wife; gone forever from his home the quick young voices of Marjorie's and his friends; for he had made them his friends, those boys and girls who had come here. And Charles Hale had never in his pre-accountings with himself reckoned on loss of quite all this. How gone, gone the whole home was. And what was happening to Marjorie? In what strange, particular danger might she be in this moment of this night? It frightened him, set him jumpy again and overcome again with guilt. It seemed to him that this night he had again definitely imperilled his daughter.

When he went to his own room, he found a memorandum left by Martin stating that Mr. Whittaker had telephoned during the evening and left his name. This was mere routine, for Billy telephoned for news of Marjorie every evening. It annoyed Hale, particularly when he happened to answer the telephone when Billy was calling; but Whittaker's extreme attitude did not disturb Hale as much as Gregg's slight change of manner with him; for he knew that Billy condemned him wholesale for his affair with Mrs. Russell, and Billy scarcely could feel added abomination of him because he had hurt his daughter, but Gregg's different attitude was because of Marjorie. Hale did not mind meeting Billy on the street or Stanway or any one else who knew, but he could not comfortably think about Gregg, particularly when he heard from Rinderfeld that Gregg had lost his position and was unsuccessfully seeking another.