The Breath of Scandal/Chapter 21

CHAPTER XXII

GREGG'S business misfortune had occurred several days before; but although many people knew of it, Gregg did not mention it to Bill until a couple of days later than this, as he wanted to save a bit of news as useful for cheering Bill, as that was sure to be, for a particularly depressed occasion. No time with Bill was exactly a cheery one, in these days; yet some evenings found him nearer bottom than others; so when Gregg came into the flat after supper one night and discovered Billy lying motionless on his back on the couch and gazing hopelessly at the ceiling, Gregg tossed his hat away and took a seat just out of the glare of the reading lamp which was uselessly burning.

"Lost your job, Bill?" he suggested quietly; and when Billy paid not the slightest attention, he repeated it patiently until Billy demanded, "What in the world are you talking about?"

"Lost your job, I said," Gregg informed him.

"How could I lose my job?" Billy returned.

"Oh, it can be done," Gregg said cheerfully. "If you're no good at it, there's others that are; lots of others these days. I've done it myself."

"Done what?"

"Lost my job."

Billy slowly turned toward Gregg. "They let you out, you mean?"

"You've guessed it."

"Why?"

"Wasn't earning check-room costs on my hat."

"Why weren't you?"

Gregg shook his head; no more with Billy than with Mrs. Russell would he take refuge in generalities on business conditions.

"You know perfectly well why they let you out!" Billy charged him, becoming interested. "You're not a salesman; you never have been; you're just a good-looking, pleasant person, Gregg; that's your advantage and your curse. I've always told you that. Now maybe you'll believe me and get to work."

"Where?"

"What did you say?"

"Where'll I get to work?"

"Why? Can't you get a job now? What's happened to your friend Hartford and the others who were so crazy to get you a couple of months ago?

"A couple of months ago, everybody seemed to think that all that was needed to buck up business again and put it at its peak was a cheerful disposition," Gregg said feelingly. "I had that; I still have—most of it; but—well, Hartford's not putting his carburetor on the market at all this year. Banks won't back him; and even he admits it's a rotten time. Everybody all of a sudden started telling me it's a rotten time—to put me on the payroll, at any rate. And since last week Thursday I've seen 'em all—everybody who's ever bunked himself that he wanted me to work for him. I'd have mentioned it to you before, but I knew you're never very interested in partial returns; but every precinct's heard from now, Bill; and it's a landslide."

"Because every one that knows you," said Billy deliberately, "knows that you've never really worked. Do you want really to work now?"

"No," said Gregg, without taking offense. "I wouldn't go so far as to claim that; but I certainly need to go on drawing pay for the so-called activities which I've been palming off as work."

Billy tossed up his hand in the vehemence of his disgust.

"To mention a few reasons," Gregg went on cheerfully, "not in the order of their moral importance, Bill, but simply as they occur to me in order of inconvenience; bank balance; I'm overdrawn."

"Hummp," said Bill.

"I owe my normal amount of money."

"Including the mortgage on your car?"

"Thanks," said Gregg. "I was forgetting that; thirteen or fourteen hundred more. Oh, look here Bill; I do know the exact amount of the principal—twelve hundred fifty; but I haven't doped the interest. Then I'm rather above normal in the amount I'm back with you in our costs here; ain't I, Bill? Exactly how much?"

Billy faced about with his broad, red face flushing. "You know I'd never bother you about that, Gregg! That's all right," he cried, in one of his sudden somersaults into emotion. "As long as I have a room or a meal, you have half, Gregg; you don't owe me a red cent and you never can!" And he got up and grabbed Gregg's arm and squeezed it.

"The devil I don't and I can't," Gregg acknowledged, unbeautifully; Bill meant it, he knew; and there was warmth about Bill, when he felt like this, which made Gregg glow and almost made him show how he felt about Bill. But that would be maudlin, Gregg said to himself; maudlin. Yet it had been a particularly unpleasant, lonely week for Gregg, so here, with Bill's arm about him, he had deliberately to check himself from thinking about Bill; which he did by remembering Marjorie. And, at the same moment, Bill remembered her and drew away his arm.

"Oh, what're we talking about money for, when Marjorie's gone and no one knows where she is!"

"Yes; some one knows," Gregg said to him. Partly the admission was the result of his feeling for Bill, he realized instantly; but not entirely that; for he had decided with himself a few days ago that, unless some word came from Marjorie, soon Bill must know all that he did.

"What?" Bill grabbed him with both hands. "What did you say?"

"Rinderfeld knows, Bill," Gregg said, deciding to give it him all at once. "He's had her address since the first."

"Rinderfeld? How?—Where is she, Gregg?"

"I don't know."

But Billy gripped him only harder and accused. "You knew where she is and you could sit here and talk to me——"

Gregg stopped him. "I don't know where she is or anything about her but that Rinderfeld, I am sure, has her address."

"Oh!" Billy gasped in his confusion. "He's found her, has he?"

"Marjorie left her address with Rinderfeld when she went away," Gregg informed directly.

"What? When did you find that out?"

"I've known it all along," Gregg confessed. "Ever since she went away. In fact, she told me the last night I saw her, about a week before she went, that she was going, and no one would have her address but Rinderfeld." And Gregg related some of the circumstances, but recognized that Bill, for a few moments, actually considered him crazy; or else Marjorie must have become touched with madness, her troubles must have turned her mind. It took several minutes for Bill even to begin to comprehend, and then all that he seized was the fact that Marjorie deliberately and premeditatedly had planned to sever all connection with her family and friends except through Rinderfeld. Furiously, then, Bill accused Gregg for keeping this from him.

"How you could live in this flat with me! How you could see me every day, night and morning, Gregg! How you could sit down and talk over with me what might have happened to her; how you could have watched me walk the streets, looking for her, hoping for her, praying for her; and you knew that all along and did not tell me! How——" Billy assailed him between attempts to get Rinderfeld on the telephone; for Rinderfeld's home number was reported busy and his office did not answer.

Most of it Gregg took in silence, though now and then a remark from Bill goaded out something like, "Bill, I've walked the streets hoping for her, too."

Rinderfeld's home number answered; Mr. Rinderfeld was not in; but the girl would communicate with him at once. Billy requested and then demanded to know where he was; but Rinderfeld had no simpleton taking his calls. The girl took Mr. Whittaker's number and she presumed Mr. Rinderfeld would call Mr. Whittaker.

Rinderfeld did so in less than five minutes; and before the end of one more, Rinderfield hung up. Billy tried to trace the 'phone Rinderfeld called from but got no information.

"He's home!" Billy charged in one impulse; then, "He might be with Marjorie now!" Billy snatched his hat and stick from the closet; but, not really believing Rinderfeld home, he went back in his impotent fury to Gregg. "What did you keep that to yourself for?"

And Gregg still managed to restrain himself. To have told how Marjorie had taken him into her heart that evening when—before he, in turn, offended her—she had protested against the inability of Billy to aid her; to have claimed the information she gave as a secret between her and himself, a confidence which she assumed he would keep and keep particularly from the man most bound to prevent her plan; anything like that would surely make matters worse; so Gregg rejoined only, "You'll get no more change out of Rinderfield than you got over the 'phone. I've seen him, of course. He says, what he's been telling you, that until his client, who in this respect now is Marjorie, wishes her address given, he can not supply it. She does not wish it; and she doesn't reply to letters yet. Of course I've tried."

But that made matters worse. "You haven't given me even a chance to try. I could have written her long ago! I could have made her reply; or made Rinderfeld lead me to her! You—you!" Billy was beside himself now. "You didn't want me to try; you wanted to keep her to yourself. That's why you tell me now, after you've found you can't do anything. You knew she was going, when you could have stopped her—or I could—because you wanted her to go so you could get her from me; you——" he thrust, breathless, before Gregg, who went white, believing at that instant that Bill meant to attack him. The muscles throughout him tugged and appeared to tighten, but Gregg kept himself down while he stood still, relaxed, before Bill.

"All right, Bill," he managed after a moment. "If that's what you want to believe, go to it." And he turned and went to the window where the shade had been left up; Billy did not follow him nor did Bill speak to him again. Bill went out and when Gregg felt the slam of the closed door, he shook and could not quickly check his shaking; for he knew he had lost Bill, since Bill would never forgive him and he realized that he had helped neither Bill nor Marjorie nor any one else.

And he went weak and sick with fear for Marjorie. Suppose Bill was right! Suppose she couldn't take care of herself—wherever she was. Suppose frightful, unthinkable things were happening to her this instant; or had happened; or would before—before what? He did not know what was to be the end. He had supposed that some day, soon, Marjorie would send for Bill and him; or at least let them know how she was and what she was doing. When she had not, did that mean she had got into more than she bargained and that—— Gregg's fears, after this combat with Bill, led him on and on into dismay. Then he began to get himself together; he should not have done more to prevent Marjorie, he argued with himself; she had been bound to do what she had and interference would have had the effect only of driving her to more desperate means, perhaps; she had been determined to discover and scrutinize life which she did not know, and she would come through safe, he believed; and the better and nobler and greater for it. But, could he be sure?

A little before midnight, Billy returned, having waited at Rinderfeld's apartment until Rinderfeld appeared; and though Billy evidently had threatened physical violence, he had go no "change" out of Rinderfeld; yet, before coming home, Billy had accomplished something by rousing out of bed the head of the most reliable private detective agency in Chicago and employing service which guaranteed that one competent operative would constantly watch Rinderfeld and report his movements and particularly inform William Whittaker instantly when Rinderfeld was found in the company of a certain girl of twenty-two who was described.

It was as a result of this stratagem that, about eight o'clock in the evening of the sixth day later, William Whittaker, who then was alone in his apartment on East Pearson Street, received word that Rinderfeld was in the company of a girl, whom the operative believed the one described, and that she was dining with Rinderfeld and another man and a girl at a certain restaurant on the North Side. So it was that Billy set out and, arriving at the restaurant named, he found there, with Rinderfeld and two others, Marjorie.