The Breath of Scandal/Chapter 24

CHAPTER XXVI

MARJORIE that morning telephoned to Billy's apartment at an hour when Billy would probably be gone and Dora would have come in to clean.

"I'm Miss Hale," Marjorie explained to Dora. "Mr. Whittaker tells me Mr. Mowbry left with you an address for forwarding his mail."

"Oh, Miss Hale!" exclaimed Dora. "He's gone to Ontario Street," and she gave a house number. "No; no telephone there; or at least he didn't tell me."

It was plain that Dora was troubled by recent happenings; she evidently would like to talk to Miss Hale about them and there was in Dora's tone, though respectful, a shade of accusation of Miss Hale.

This was the first time Marjorie had been Miss Hale since the servants in Evanston so addressed her; and she wondered if Dora, hearing her voice, noticed any change in it. Herself, she did not know quite who she was this morning; not Marjorie Conway, or she must have gathered up the little case containing what Billy called her "tray of trash" and traveled, in business-like way, to her exclusive territory. Instead she went, empty-handed, to Ontario Street, finding the number which Dora had given her in a block of old, dingy mansions which had been comfortable city homes in the decade following the great fire but now were run-down remainders between stores and warehouses.

Gregg could have chosen the place for its cheapness only, Marjorie thought, as she gazed up at the grimy, gray glass door, the dirty transom, the paint-peeled, rusty iron rail at the side of the blackened, stone steps. The high, narrow, old-fashioned windows were open, and gray, streaked lace curtains wafted in and out.

When Marjorie rang, a sallow, black-haired, lethargic undefinable—perhaps a half-blood Chinese, perhaps a Filipino—opened the door and in carefully articulated syllables said, "Mis-ter Mow-bry may be is in; may be out. I will as-cer-tain." And he did so by retreating to the bottom of the narrow well made by the winding of the stairs and calling, in a volume of voice evidently calculated to reach the top floor, "Mister Mow-bry! For Mis-ter Mow-bry, a young lad-y at the door."

No one replied; at least Gregg did not reply, though several doors opened and Marjorie, watching the undefinable gaze upward, received the distinct impression that persons above were gazing downward. She persuaded the undefinable to climb to Mr. Mowbry's room and when he returned with a negative report, she tempered her disappointment with a certain sense of relief at not having to imagine Gregg at this moment a tenant of a room here; she was glad it was summer when the windows could stand open.

"Here at 9.30. Dear Gregg: Billy found me last night. I think I'm glad," she pencilled on a sheet of paper she had brought. "How soon can I see you? I want to, terribly."

And she wrote her Clearedge Street address, signed "Marjorie," put it in an envelope which she sealed and thrust in a conspicuous place in a wire rack on the wall beside the stairs.

It was not in the position in which she left it when Gregg returned about half-past five, nevertheless it was the first thing he saw on the rack,—Marjorie's writing!

He seized the envelope and swung about, making sure he was alone, then tore it open.

"She's back," he had thought, in his first startle at seeing his name in her writing. Back from—from what, he did not know; but she was back! Now, holding her words before him, he realized she wasn't back; it was only that Bill had found her last night; and so she was "here" this morning at nine-thirty because, having been found by Bill, she now wanted him.

"She's not back," he said to himself, almost aloud; yet "Here at 9.30." Something about that—about her starting with that and putting it in that way, "here"—was good. She'd come here herself; and he thought where he had been at nine-thirty and how uselessly; he stepped into the old, faded front parlor to look at the ticking, marble clock, for Gregg did not have a watch these days. Now it was twenty-five minutes to six; and it must be almost another hour, at best, before he could reach her; for Gregg, who had no watch, neither had his partly-paid-for car; nor even taxi fare. "Street cars have got to do," he calculated with himself, and their slowness seemed already to seize and cramp him.

The minute before, when he first saw her writing, he could have run up the flights of stairs two steps at a time with her note in his hand; but instead, he immediately had opened it, and now he climbed slowly, thinking, feeling—feeling too much, too much, he accused himself; and too much afraid.

In his room, he was slow with his clumsy appurtenances of toilet; his heavy bowl and crock of cool water and his single, stringy towel; he took time to descend to the kitchen for hot water; and though he had shaved that morning, he shaved carefully again, polished his shoes and brushed his clothes. Also he took time, when he obtained from a locked drawer the note she had written him asking him to come to dinner that night of the Lovells' dance, to compare her writing then with her writing now, and he wondered about the difference. But at last he set off to her.

Marjorie then and during the succeeding hour before he reached her was not at Jen Cordeen's but on the beach of the lake; for of course she had no idea when Gregg might get her note or when he might come; and she needed the lake this evening.

It is in reality a sea, that body of water upon which lies Chicago; and the city is situated, not up an estuary or behind a harbor or on a bay; no, the city faces right out to sea. You gaze from the streets over water limitless to the east, limitless around the circle till, north, your eye catches the shore; limitless, likewise, stretches the sea to the south; great ships steam upon it; lighthouses point to the sky; storms blow and waves wash and break and boom oceanlike on the shore, and the wind comes down from over water—vast, elemental water—water, nothing else. Or the wind is gone; not even a breeze; calm; but a hundred miles away over the water may be wind, and so the surface before you moves of itself, it seems, in rounded, silent swells, slipping toward the shore till they whiten in tiny, rustling breakers on the edge of the sand, and run up to your feet and flow back and run at you again.

So it was this evening, while Marjorie sat on the sand, the tiny waves rustling below her feet, the silent limitlessness of the horizon leading her away and away; behind her the city; and, in the moments of her self-consciousness while waiting, sometimes she thought trite things, such as that her back was to the man-made, the artificial, the passing, and her face was to the natural and the enduring. Then she became amused at herself and quoted the slogan of Goldberg's series of cartoons: "Sounds all right, but it doesn't mean anything." Yet, it did mean something and she was there because it did; for it was different to think about affairs in your room and here alone on the edge of the lake; you simply had to hold matters in different proportion.

The daylight was going when, at last, Gregg appeared; the minute before, when she glanced down the beach, no one in particular was about; and now there he was!

She had not admitted to herself, until she caught sight of him, how much she had feared that his move to the boarding-house on Ontario Street must make deteriorating changes in him; but here he was, in bearing, in dress, in manner just as he used to be! She was on her feet and he saw her.

"Hello, Marjorie!" And he took off his straw hat as he came to her just as if he had seen her yesterday and every day before; just as if they were used to meeting here. No; not just like that; she knew it and he knew she did; it was just his way of admitting, by denying, how much he felt.

"Gregg, hello!" she said and stepped to him quickly. Her hand went into his with an impatient impulse which she did not try to check; and she got the satisfaction it sought—his holding hers, not too tight; nothing more meaningless than those crushing clasps and they always hurt, too. He found some satisfaction also, she thought.

"Have trouble getting here, Gregg?"

"No," he replied slowly. "Not after I got your note. I found your place easily enough and succeeded in convincing your hard-boiled friend I was the party of first address, though I wouldn't exactly classify her as cursed with a foolishly trustful disposition."

Marjorie laughed and explained proudly, "That was Clara Seeley, my roommate. You see, after last night, Billy came again this morning and was waiting when I got home; I didn't go to work to-day. When Clara was back from work, I thought I'd come down here for some quiet and I told her, if you came, to send you."

They had dropped hands and they stood frankly looking each other over.

"When did you happen on your natural protector?"

"Oh, I've had her from the first; we've been together all the time."

"Both of you've been in luck," Gregg said and tossed his hat a little way from them on the sand. "What was that work you didn't go to to-day? What—d'you want to tell me, Marjorie, about you—what you've been at and what——"

"I want to tell you everything." That was it, she realized with herself at this moment; and she sat down on the sand, clasping his hand again and drawing him down beside her. "But first I want to know what's been happening with you, Gregg?"

"All right," agreed Gregg; and he drew a penny from his pocket. "We'll pitch for it; heads, you tell me first; tails, I tell you." And he spun it upwards and let it fall before them on the sand; and they both bent forward to see it.

"Tails," admitted Gregg. "Well, I'm soon through; probably Bill's told you most about me, anyway. I got fired because I wasn't producing; consequently, I had to cut expenses and moved to the quarters you've seen."

"You've not got another position yet, Gregg?"

"No; nor a job yet, either."

Not a word of his quarrel with Billy; and of course not a word of the start of his difficulty at his office when he was absent without leave for almost a week, because of her, and returned without offering explanation. Not an accent of regret for himself at having to inhabit the quarters she had seen; and, upon him, not a sign of any difference to him. His light-weight blue suit, which must have been new that spring, was spotless and perfectly pressed; his hair had probably been trimmed that day; she liked always the clean, well-kept look of him and, in spite of that house servanted only by the undefinable, Gregg was Gregg; and he was very good to have beside you.

"Now," he said, picking up his penny. "Your turn."

She wanted to know more of him; oh, she needed to know so much more! But she did not want him to tell her those things; and she realized he never would; and so, more simply than she could have imagined, she started to tell him about herself; about going first to see Mrs. Russell, on the morning after she had refused to speak with him for having lunched with Mrs. Russell; about Mr. Dantwill and Jen Cordeen and Clara and Jake Saltro and Sam Troufrie and Mr. Bostrock and some of her customers; of Sennen's and the strange, new but now familiar other places; and, of course, about Felix Rinderfeld and Wells' "Outline" and finally of Billy's coming. She did not recount events in order; she skipped forward, backward, forgetting some one or something she ought to tell before he could understand some one or something else; and of course she told the same happening over twice, frequently, repeating something Clara or Jake or Mr. Rinderfeld had said or she had thought. And it was a wonderful satisfaction—a wonderful relief—to go over it all with Gregg just as it came to her, to be able to say anything just as it struck her, without having to think how he would take it differently and without fear—absolutely without fear of him.

"I think," she said impulsively to him once, when she was feeling this, "you're the best sort of friend in the world, Gregg."

"Pretty dark, now," he replied; for it was in some sense a reply, at least a commentary on her praise of him.

"What do you mean?" she asked, obviously not questioning the fact that night had come.

"Oh, you're not getting a view of me."

What had she been saying just before, she wondered. She remembered that she had been speaking about Mr. Rinderfeld.

"Had supper, Marjorie?" Gregg inquired.

"No."

"Let's have some." He pushed himself up and recovered his hat.

"Where shall we? Can't we have it here? You and I go up to a delicatessen and get something and bring it back here. Or——" Marjorie seized her plan as she spoke—"I've the key of a boathouse just up here where Sam Troufrie has a canoe. Clara keeps it—the key, I mean. She gave it to me to-night."

"Fine! Then you stay here and I'll go up and get some things."

"Why shouldn't we go together?"

Gregg hesitated, half hidden in the dark. "Bill," he said unconvincingly. "He's probably about looking for you now. I don't want to give you back yet."

She laughed. "But even Billy couldn't watch every delicatessen." Then she remembered the rooming house to which Gregg had moved and she caught his forearm.

"Gregg, I'm going fifty-fifty with you on our supper."

"Oh, no, you're not!"

"You told me yourself that's what a girl ought to do."

"Not you with me!"

"Why not?" Then she demanded of him frankly, "Gregg, how much money have you with you?"

He moved slightly, withdrawing his arm from her clasp. "Three ones," he replied to her, first defensively, and then he gave in, honestly. "One dollar; one dime; and one cent."

"I've three dollars with me, Gregg. Not all earned!" she put in quickly, to avoid a seeming of boasting. "It's mostly or perhaps this is all from some money I'd had of my own before I left Evanston. Let's pool, Gregg; please! And let's go together! If you don't let me, I can't stay; I'll go right back now before I let you——"

He grasped her arm and held her quietly but with an intentness which weakened and overcame her as never had all the violence of Billy. "You'll not go back now, Marjorie," he said.

"No; but—we'll do this together, Gregg, or I'll not eat a bite. Not one; I'll not have you—living where you are, Gregg, and going without, yourself, and all because of me, anyway. Oh, Gregg, you'll not spoil this; we'll go up together and buy things together—let's buy the bread and the butter and the filling separately and make our own sandwiches out in the canoe and—you'll not spoil it, will you?"

"No," said Gregg, and let her go. "I'll not spoil it."

So they went up from the beach together to the brightness of Clarendon Avenue, which edges the sand there, and on the other side they found a shop and together, each playing fair with the other, they made their purchases. With them they returned to the shore, where they found, in the darkness, Sam Troufrie's boathouse, and Gregg carried out the canoe. "Imagine Billy using anything of Sam's," Marjorie thought, as she picked up cushions and paddle and followed to the water.

She took her place in the bow, facing him as he sent the canoe swiftly from shore with steady, almost splashless strokes of the paddle. When they were perhaps a hundred yards out, she said, "Shall we drift now?"

He gave a last vigorous stroke and put the paddle athwart and after the impetus was gone, they floated, hardly drifting, barely turning, there was so little breeze; and the stars twinkled in the dark water beside them. There was no moon that night, just a clear, starry sky as there had been on the night that they had walked along the water's edge north, up there where was Evanston and Northwestern University. Marjorie thought of that night and she was sure that Gregg must; but neither of them mentioned it yet. Neither spoke at all; they rested, listening to the land sounds coming over the water,—motor horns now and then, the rush of cars on Clarendon Avenue; with surprising distinctness, occasionally, the cries of bathers under the lights to the south and the splash of diving. Some one else on the water was playing.

"Violin," guessed Gregg.

"No," Marjorie whispered, so as to miss none of a marvelously sweet, stirring, plaintive strain. "It's a flute! And I know that and love it!" And both listened till the music ceased.

"That was made for now," Gregg said.

"Yes, it's the Meditation from 'Thaïs'!"

People nearer shore clapped; and the musician played his pipe again.

It took her back, that Meditation, to her Evanston days when, with her father and mother, she went each Tuesday night in winter to hear opera.

The people near shore tried to win another encore but the flute stayed silent and only the dance jazz came; so Marjorie cut the loaf with the knife from the lunch box Sam kept in the canoe; Gregg opened their can of potted ham and she spread the sandwiches. She had stuffed eggs and strawberries, which they ate from the stems, and he had iced ginger ale, which they drank from the bottles through straws. "A regular, old-fashioned picnic," Marjorie called it; and they handed things to each other, cleared up and put away scraps together and then, sometimes paddling, sometimes drifting, they talked or were silent just as they liked; and when either spoke it was with no feeling of necessity to connect what was in one's head now with the last subject.

"What do you know about father now?" she asked at one of these times. It was her first direct question about him.

"He's certainly keeping Tri-Lake humming."

"But he?"

Gregg took refuge in his privilege of silence.

"He's seeing Mrs. Russell, Billy is sure," Marjorie went on quietly. "Do you think Billy's right?"

"Yes, Marjorie."

It caused her no start or any agitation at all, Gregg noticed.

"When I went to see Mrs. Russell," Marjorie mentioned the incident again, "and she wasn't in, I never tried to find her again. My first idea—it's not easy for me to remember exactly what my ideas were in those days, but I think it must have been to tell her, no matter how hard it would be for me to speak to her, exactly what she was. But I guess it struck me, when I got back in that apartment where my father had been, that I didn't know; anyway, I couldn't even talk to the woman who was there. She was some one Mr. Rinderfeld had on duty, he's told me; she was there looking for Russell, in case he came back. Mr. Rinderfeld didn't know you'd found Russell then—and taken him away. You should never have done so much for me, Gregg."

After a while she said, "I told Billy this morning that I will never marry him; it's true, I never will."

Gregg drew up his paddle at that; they had been moving slowly. Drip, drip it went, over the side.

"He'll never marry any one else, Marjorie," he said, his voice as dead level as he could manage.

"I got afraid to-day about Billy."

"He'll never hurt you."

"But he might do anything to himself or to any one he imagined might hurt me; and Billy's not a slow one to imagine." Suddenly she shivered so violently that Gregg felt it. "I'm his, you see; he's absolutely sure that, if I want to do anything else than marry him, because I promised to when I knew nothing—not a thing in the world—he's sure it's the result of the damage done me by father and what I did, with Mr. Rinderfeld and with you, to conceal the truth. He's determined to bring me back to what I was."

"What do you want to do, Marjorie?"

"What can I? I can't marry Billy; I can't go back to father; I can't go to mother—not without telling her everything. I couldn't stand it; I couldn't. And I won't tell her—yet. To tell her, that would make everything that's been done—your risking your life with Russell, my lie to Mr. Stanway and father's putting him out of Tri-Lake and starting the big, wonderful things he's doing—it would make everything we've done useless, mad, crazy. And it would make Billy right. I shouldn't care about that, but I do. All along he's said we have to have our frightful, terribly personal and private disgrace out for every one to see; and I've said we haven't. Yet he may be right, when father goes on with Mrs. Russell; it may be that scandal after all is the only thing which can touch him. But there must be some other way out besides scandal or coming not to care."

"You don't feel that, Marjorie?"

"That I'm coming not to care? No, Gregg; people seem to be coming that way; but they only seem, Gregg. That's all. Take Clara."

"Your hard-boiled friend?"

"Hmhm. To hear Clara talk, you'd think she was absolutely cynical; that she expected nothing and hoped for nothing of any man and mighty little of any girl. But care for honor and decency! Why, I couldn't begin to care like that girl!" And she told Gregg how Clara had witnessed Billy's coming and how Clara had been unable to understand her not "grabbing" Billy.

"That's part of what you meant, I see," she continued, "when you told me that night at home that people down here were most of them all right and also working out relations between men and women on a sounder basis than in lots of other places. Clara certainly is; I know Billy and mother and most of our friends at home would think me absolutely crazy if I said so, but I've never met a girl as fundamentally right as Clara; for she's honest and clean, absolutely. And when she marries any man—for though she said she never will, for she could never trust any one, she will—it won't be on any kept wife basis."

"What?" said Gregg quietly.

"That's what she calls it. That's what the other girls about here, whom I know and who are married, call the wives who live with their husbands without any intention of having children and without doing any real work; for you can't call taking care of a kitchenette apartment real work for a woman. Clara's friends have children or they work. They think that when a girl marries a man without intention of having children—children, plural, children, not just one child to display as your duty done to your husband and society—she's no better than the women we call a mighty ugly name. When Clara marries a man, she's going to bear children; and if she doesn't, or when she no longer does, she's not going to lie about and gad about and take her husband's money for what—for what, if she wasn't wearing a wedding ring, she couldn't do and stay in any decent society. But that's what lots and lots of us women—us respectable girls—do on the Drive and up the north shore and in Evanston and so on and call it marriage, and call themselves respectable and useful, when they don't do a thing but live by—well, I'm still a prude, so let's call it marriage. What do you think?"

Gregg remained silent; and when she directly challenged him again, he said: "My father is a doctor, you know! up in Muskegon. A doctor sees a lot of life and sees it pretty straight but he seldom talked to me about what people call life. He did tell me, long ago, that he wanted me to know that after I was born, it became impossible for mother to have more children. Then when I was leaving home to live in Chicago, he thought maybe I might marry, I suppose, so he said to me that he wanted me to bear one thing in mind about marriage—that it wasn't made by a minister but by the man and the girl. He said for me never to think that, by taking a girl with me to a minister, I could make moral a relation which in its essence was immoral." Gregg hesitated. Then he said: "I didn't think much about that at the time or since; not until recently. I don't suppose I was able to understand it till now. It's what you've just been speaking of, Marjorie; but it's from the man's side."

And he lifted the paddle and moved the canoe. "No," said Marjorie, stopping him. "Let's go this through. I'm an only child; and I don't believe that, after I was born, anything happened to my mother but social ambition. Father, I believe—I'm going to be fair to him—at one time certainly must have wanted more children; but mother wanted to move us from Irving Park to Evanston; then she wanted to go to Europe. Well, she moved us and she went—on father's money; and once, when she came back, he'd found Mrs. Russell. It's not so strange to me now as it was. Mother was living by having been married to him and taking money from him but really doing nothing abroad or at home but spending his money; not a committee, not a directorate she would have been on, except for father's money; Mrs. Russell at least did not want him for money. Let us go in now, Gregg."

He pointed the canoe shoreward. "You're staying on at Clearedge Street?"

"I don't know. I've gathered all sorts of understandings, you see, Gregg; but I don't seem to know any better what to do. Father's life's not mine; nor mother's; nor Billy's; nor Clara's, much as I like her—love her, Gregg. She'll always be a friend of mine; but I don't honestly like to make a living selling Bostrock's Business Boosters and calling Jen Cordeen's a home. I'm sick—homesick, Gregg, often; I admit it. I want—I want so what I had or thought I had. I want to go back now and get it all back. Oh, that's silly, silly; of course I can't."

"It's not silly," Gregg denied gruffly; but that was all he could say. Here he was, without a job, in debt, with cash in his pocket fifty-eight cents now and cash in prospect absolutely nothing. So he clung tight to his paddle, as on that night when he drove with her beside him to Clearedge Street he had clung tight to his steering-wheel, to keep himself from touching her; and he held tight shut his lips.

"I'm going to have a talk with Mr. Rinderfeld to-morrow evening," she told him after a minute. "He's been a wise, true friend to me from the very first, Gregg; sometimes he's said, because he's had to say, hard things, but he's always said them as considerately as he could; and always they seem to prove true. I said some of that before him last night when Billy was abusing him; and he flushed like a boy. He's feelings; of course, he has fine feelings which no one credits him with because of his business; that's not fair to him when his business is necessary; at least, it's been necessary to us."

Gregg thrust his paddle in deep, drew it powerfully backward and lifted it out. "You're going to talk over with Rinderfeld what you ought to do now?"

"Yes," said Marjorie. "Wouldn't you?"

He held the paddle athwart again and listened to it drip, drip beside him; he listened, also, to the thump, thump of his pounding heart. Almost, as on the last night when he had been with her and she had told him of Rinderfeld, almost he spoke against the man who, without her knowing it, had caught such hold of her. But, then and throughout that week before she went away and he knew she was going, Gregg had played the side of trusting her to herself; and now he decided to play it out and so, putting his paddle into the water again, he replied:

"Yes, I'd hear what Rinderfeld has to say."

Billy, of course, had never played that side; and he was never further from any impulse to chance it than he was on the next evening when he learned the reason Marjorie was not at home to see him was that she had gone out alone with Felix Rinderfeld.

There was no doubt whatever that she had dined with him at a certain "garden" which Billy reached not ten minutes after they had left it; for a man who knew both of them had seen them together. For some reason they had risen rather abruptly, leaving on their table an order which had just been served. During the forty minutes following, Billy had no track of them and then, as he drove from one suspected place to another, he picked up Rinderfeld's trail again.

With a girl—a rather small, dark-haired, nice-looking girl—he had occupied a booth and, after some drinks had been served, they had gone out to Rinderfeld's roadster.

Drinking! For the girl had been drinking; Marjorie drinking. She had told Billy how she had drunk with Jake Saltro. Now she was drinking with Rinderfeld.

When Billy got word of them again, Rinderfeld had her under the influence of liquor; drunk or drugged, Billy thought; and again they were ahead of Billy, but now they were easier to trace. For they had halted this time at a wet resort near the edge of the city and had left it headed out from town on a concrete road running into the country. "For Cragero's, probably," some one said.

Cragero's was likely enough, a road house with a reputation, many miles away out in that dark, lonely country.

Billy drove out on that road to Cragero's as few ever had before and as William Whittaker never in his life previously had driven; he came with cut-out open and with electric horn sounding constantly, so that other motorists on the road that summer night supposed him an officer of some sort responding to an emergency call; they drew aside and let him by and watched his lights disappear, his motor roaring and horn screaming for way—way ahead.

At a turn, he left the road, skidded across soft ground to a fence and smashed a wheel; but he was unhurt, or very little injured, for he got back to the road as the nearest car was halting. This happened to be a cheaper car than Billy's and was driven by a man willing to bargain who, partly influenced by Whittaker's frantic appeals, partly induced by Billy's business card and two hundred dollars cash bonus then and there paid, exchanged cars with Whittaker. And so Billy went on.

He arrived at Cragero's a few minutes after eleven o'clock and found Rinderfeld's roadster parked. The testimony of all present in the public rooms agreed that the large, light-haired, hatless man who entered was in a state of extreme excitement,—so extreme, indeed, that several were badly frightened, thinking him actually crazy.

He did not find, in the public rooms, the sought and after an abusive argument with the proprietor, he rushed upstairs and began beating on doors and shouting. Then he attacked the house "bouncer." The testimony agreed that the bouncer, although provoked, made no attack but merely tried to stop the disturbances; when grappled, he tried to free himself and while they were struggling, they fell or tripped and threw themselves violently downstairs. The big, light-haired man happened to fall under and he struck very violently.

At the bottom, the bouncer got up; but the big, light-haired man made no move and his head turned back in a strange position.

"He's taken his, Cragero!" the bouncer realized and whispered the alarm to the circle closing about. "This guy's got his."

And then a door above, upon which Billy had been pounding thirty seconds before, opened and a cool, dark-haired man gazed down.