The Breath of Scandal/Chapter 25

CHAPTER XXVII

HALE intended to sleep late into the next morning, which was Sunday, but he roused shortly after seven o'clock and remained unsatisfactorily awake, gazing at the ceiling and the walls and out the windows of his room at his club. In part, the heat and the breathlessness of the day were to blame, for little or no air was stirring above Michigan Boulevard; the emptiness of Grant Park, across the avenue, was hazy under the slanting, orange sunlight, and beyond, the deserted lake lay mirrorlike, gleaming with a long, dazzling distortion of the sun; the city seemed unnaturally hushed. The air smelled of streets; you felt about you the oppression of enormous, crowding buildings, but the streets were almost silent.

"Sunday," Hale reminded himself aloud, when he felt this; and he turned over, shut his eyes and tried to sleep again but did not; instead he only denied conscious reflection with a result that he subjected himself to a series of unsummoned memories and impressions: of Sunday morning when he had been a little boy at home; Sunday in those days meant duties and depression and fear. God knew about you, whatever you did and wherever you were and no matter whether anybody else discovered you or not, God saw and put down and punished you, exactly, justly, without a chance of your escaping him; God! Charles Hale, president of Tri-Lake Products and Materials, did not believe much in God; but Charlie Hale, who had been a little boy, had a way of coming within him; and this projected before Charles Hale an image of his mother knowing what he recently had been doing. How she would pray and pray for him.

He sat up in bed and stared out his window. Sunday, and Sybil wanted him to spend such days as Sunday with her; she wanted themselves alone, far away out in the country, a long, peaceful, happy day. He swore at the thought of it. Sunday; he dropped back on his pillow and again closed his eyes. Sunday now in that little flat where Marjorie was born; he could not afford à servant, so Sunday was a day he helped about the apartment and played with the baby; hmm, how he could hear her, almost feel her, warm and quick—he always was proud of the quickness of her and her laugh and her straight look into his eyes. Hmm; he opened his eyes to stop seeing that. Sunday; now he was in a little clapboard house in Irving Park where he used to cut the lawn and do odd jobs about the place; now in Evanston on Sunday, where he began lying in bed longer and there came Marjorie's little, quick rap at his door. "Hello, Margy; come in!" Her little cry in response and her rush to have her arms about him and her kiss, "Oh, father, you're so fine!" And she thought that about him, felt that down to the night he went away and she came and found him at that flat.

Well, this Sunday here he was in his club and Marjorie was up there on Clearedge Street—a right enough street, as he had said to Billy. Because it was generally decent, Sybil and he had chosen it for their flat and somebody else, who also passed as a husband, had chosen it for his home with that girl who had taken poison. Hale had her street number, having traced it through the newspaper mention of the poison case; consequently he possessed the street number of his daughter's present residence, but he had not visited the place. If he did, and she was home, how could he answer what she was sure to ask?

Whittaker, of course, was looking out for her; Whittaker, indeed, appeared to be occupied with nothing else; and knowledge of that was reassuring and comforting to Charles Hale. It gave him time he needed to consider his course in respect to his daughter and that girl, not married to him nor wanting to be married, but who had no idea of giving him up; obviously, Marjorie could not be in real danger with Billy about.

It was perhaps twenty minutes later that he opened his door to see if the hallboy had brought his paper and in the dim light he read the headline spread across the front page: LAWYER SLAIN AT ROAD HOUSE.

Hale picked up the paper and carried it into his room without special thought of this sensation; indeed, he was attracted to glance at a column which had no connection with it, when his eye caught, "William Whittaker."

That brought him up; could that be Billy? There it was; no doubt about it. "With the well-known law firm of Kemphill, James, Jones and Stern."

Billy Whittaker at Cragero's road house and killed in a brawl,—Billy! What was Billy doing there? And with this, fright shot a film before Hale's sight; Billy was Marjorie's protector; he had just been thinking of him as Marjorie's protector and as making Marjorie safe.

Now he could read again. "Whittaker seems to have rushed into the roadhouse convinced that a friend of his was held there. He——"

Sight, or at least ability to focus on type, went from Hale and returned to him only intermittently; and so, now a few lines and now a few lines more he read the account—the careful, guarded half-account, or less than half-account, of what had occurred at Cragero's. All confused with "allegeds" and "it was said" and the concealment of names which a newspaper employs in its first record of a sudden event likely to involve important people and not clearly understood. But the main fact was perfectly clear; William Whittaker had gone there because he had followed some one else and he had got into trouble there because he had tried to "save" her; and, if he were not too late, anyway, he had failed. That was obvious and undeniable, because he had been killed.

And Hale, having read all that the newspaper told, dropped it and his hands went limp; his whole body went limp, even his lips as he tried to cry to himself his daughter's name, "Marjorie."

Where she was now, what had happened to her, the paper did not say; it did not actually print her name at all. It just told of a girl who was there and of a man who was with her.

"Rinderfeld!" Hale cried, his lips strong now. "Rinderfeld, the cover-up!" Of course; and how Rinderfeld had covered up for himself; he was on the ground, right there, before any one from the police or papers arrived. Rinderfeld with Marjorie!

Hale was at the 'phone on his wall. "Have a cab at the door for me at once!"

As he got into clothes, he thought, "I could telephone that place where she is. I could get the number; I could find out whether she's there, but if she is—what of it? I don't think she's dead; or gone away."

His telephone rang and he jumped; but it was only the doorman to say, "Cab is waiting, Mr. Hale."

He went down and gave the cabman the number on Clearedge Street from which the police had taken the poison case; then he sat back and told himself not to think; not to try to think. Billy dead; and Marjorie—Marjorie?

Clearedge; nearer and nearer he was drawing to Clearedge. How well he knew the turns, the names of the near-by places and streets. Ah, now he was near the number. Quiet about there; most curtains down; nobody up. A few girls and boys on the street going toward the lake for early morning bathing.

"Wait!" he cried to the driver when the taxi was before the number of that poison case. He was in the vestibule, ringing and knocking at the entrance door. A drowsy man opened, who knew no Miss Hale; so Hale shook him and described. The man recognized. "Oh, Miss Conway—in number twelve!"

Hale reached the door and knocked; knocked.

A voice answered; Marjorie's. "Who is it?"

"Marjorie, your father!"

"What?"

"Open that door!"

She opened a few inches; and there she stood, rousing from sleep. Rousing; that meant, until he knocked, she had slept!

"Why, father; what's the matter? Something's happened to mother? You had a cable? You——"

But her father stared and clung to the door casing. "She doesn't even know," he realized with himself. "She doesn't even know." And then, because he must tell her something, he said:

"No; not your mother, Marjorie. Billy!"

She jerked and drew the door farther open. "What's happened to him?"

"He's been hurt, Margy."

"Hurt? You mean, father, he's been—badly hurt!"

"Margy, he's dead."

"Dead," she repeated. "Billy dead." Of course it could not come to her; and what held it from reaching her as nearly as it otherwise might was that her father, upon seeing her, had become so queerly let down. "He's dead," he had said in strange, dull words, almost as if just remembering his news.

"Margy," he said her name again; and she stepped back into the room. "Come in here, father," she said, forgetting Clara in bed beside her.

He entered, ignoring that strange, dark-haired girl sitting up in the farther of the two beds; or rather, he saw her and accepted her as his daughter's companion. "Here is where Marjorie has been living," he thought, as he glanced about the room. "There is that girl from the slums—who Billy told me was from the slums—with whom Marjorie's been rooming." And his mind went blank about that girl; went blank now even about Marjorie, for about her he had made a mistake; and he jumped in his thought to his room at the club two mornings ago when Billy—big and red and violent in his strength—had told him of his daughter living here with this girl; and for the first time, Hale himself realized that Billy was dead.

"How is Billy dead?" Marjorie was saying to him; she had shut the door. "Father, what is it?"

He stared at her, for the instant unable to speak. His mind—no, not his mind but something driving his mind was accusing him, and he had first to reply to it. A moment ago, it had let up on him after seizing him there in his room where he had had the newspaper in his hand; there it had cried to him that he had done to his daughter what he had feared and then denied, he had done to her the frightful and irremediable; but here she was in her nightdress before him and it was—almost—as though she were at home in her own room, only alarmed. She was thinner; Billy had told him that; but, expecting that she would be yet thinner, her father found her well and sound; yes, sound! Her eyes? Just the alarm in them; her hair and her clear, soft skin seemed as they always were. So he had not hurt her so much; but Billy—Billy was dead.

"He was killed," Hale said.

"Killed. How?"

"At a road house; at Cragero's."

"Billy at Cragero's?"

"Yes; he—went there."

What had he told her in that tone he could not control? You must have been to blame for his going there; I was to blame back of you; this was in that driver of his tongue.

"When did he go there? When was it, father?"

"Last night."

"What time?"

"Before midnight. It's in the paper this morning, Marjorie."

"Let me see. Let me see!"

"I didn't bring the paper."

The door opened; the girl who had been in the farther bed was at it; how she got there, kimono on over nightdress and with her feet in slippers, Hale did not know. She had the door open and she went out; she was back in a moment with a newspaper in her hand. That newspaper! He could not see the headlines, for she held them before her. She shut the door and looked, not at him, but at Marjorie. "Here it is, kid," she said; but she did not let go of the paper when Marjorie seized it but held it between them, that front page, while the rest of the sheets—the colored comic section, the thick, black-printed folds of advertisements, slid down to the floor about their feet.

"Kid," said that black-haired girl again, that girl from the slums. "He made a pick-up last night after you left him; that's what happened, kid; and he—he" this was another he now—"he thought it was you, and he didn't care what happened to himself; what happened to himself, why, he didn't care a damn."

Then Hale, standing there, learned how it had occurred; his daughter had been with Rinderfeld at a restaurant early in the evening; Billy must have heard of that. But she had gone home and Rinderfeld almost immediately had taken another companion; Billy had missed that; he must have supposed, as this black-haired girl said, that Rinderfeld had Marjorie at Cragero's and, so supposing, Billy had not cared what happened to himself.

Hale went from the room. Marjorie, his daughter, was safe; that was, at least Rinderfeld had not harmed her; she had never been at Cragero's at all. That was what he had come to know; and, having ascertained it, there was nothing for him to wait for. Billy was dead; he had brought the news, and he had nothing useful to say to his daughter about it. Billy was dead.

Leaving the building, Hale walked down Clearedge Street without conscious choice of destination, except that he was avoiding the direction of Number 4689 and he forgot the taxi he had left waiting until the man drove after him and called.

"Oh, yes," Hale recollected. "Thanks." And he got in.

"Where to, sir?"

Where to? That was it; where to, this Sunday morning? Not to Sybil Russell; the plan of spending this day with her had set him swearing hardly an hour ago and that was before the newspaper had come. Now the idea made him sick as if with hollowness and heaviness—contradictory, how could that be, hollow heaviness—but here he had it within him. He had other contradictions, too; he was hungry; at least, the habit of eating, before he went about in the morning, was on him; but he could not feel himself stomaching food. Where to? He had to answer that or pay off the man and walk; and then, where to? That was only putting the question back to himself.

"Just drive me about a while," Hale said.

"North?" suggested the man; he meant nothing by it, nothing more than that north along the lake lie the most attractive roads on a summer Sunday morning. But north lay Evanston.

"No," said Hale. "The west side parks; just drive me through those."

He lit a cigarette as the cab turned from Clearedge; Sunday, quiet and calm; a few more bathers, in bathrobes, coats or mackintoshes over bathing suits and barefooted or in slippers, bound for the beaches; except for the cabs and street cars and here and there an opening refreshment place, no business activity. But the newspapers to-day would be busy; what had happened at Cragero's had occurred so late at night that they had been obliged to publish the few, evident facts without investigating what lay behind them; but to-day gave time for that. Kemphill, James, Jones and Stern; from the cards in Billy's pockets they had learned his business association; by this time the reporters would be interviewing the members of the firm who would be sure to mention Billy's personal friends. Yes; for a while, until Hale could put his thoughts in shape, the west side parks would prove useful this morning.

In room number twelve at Jen Cordeen's, Marjorie sat on her bed with the newspaper before her; but she no longer read it. Sometimes she stared at the headlines and at Billy's name printed below—William Whittaker—followed by those words which said that he was dead; sometimes she stared at Clara, who was dressing now and saying nothing to her.

So she had killed Billy; she had killed Billy. It ran a sort of dull, undownable refrain through her thoughts; she had killed Billy. Of course not meaning to, never dreaming that, as a result of anything she chose or did, Billy must die. But there he was out in the country somewhere in strangers' hands, dead by violence as a direct result of a course of conduct which she had chosen and which he had opposed from the first and with all his soul; and, if she had to account to no one else, she had to account to Billy for that. Mentally, she could believe that Billy was dead but she could not yet feel that fact; so here she was, considering his death while she still held the sensation that, for all she had done, she must yet complete a physical accounting with Billy and, to that accounting, was now added her responsibility in his own death.

For she was certain that he must be holding her responsible; undoubtedly, too, he must be accusing her father; but Marjorie dwelt upon her own guilt. "It is just what I always told you," she could imagine him saying, "you can't live with concealed sin." And she had said she could live with sin better than with scandal and so she had killed him.

And you could not cry over a result like that; to be able to cry, to convulse yourself in sobs and wet your face with tears, that would be a too easy, too merciful relief. No; here you were; before you, on the bed, was the record of what you had done; you had killed Billy. And, at how many turning points, when he had first ordered you and then pleaded with you and begged you to go one way, you had always gone the other leading to—"Lawyer Slain at Roadhouse"—Billy.

Here was the night you had come to Mrs. Russell's and your father's flat, and you had made Billy give you the name of the lawyer whom Gregg suggested, Rinderfeld. There, at the very first, Billy protested but you went ahead. You went, against Billy's pleading with you, to visit Rinderfeld, and you took Rinderfeld's advice against Billy. Then there was the afternoon on which Mr. Stanway called and you lied to him and, when Billy came, you told Billy of your lie and defended it, and he cried out that he could bear no longer your degrading yourself and he would tell the whole truth and have it out. You—you seized Billy's big, strong body and you shook him and told him he should not, he should not; and you used yourself up so that he got frightened about you and gave you your way again and let you go upon it,—on your way which led to this at the end—Billy Slain at Roadhouse.

"Better get dressed," Clara was saying to her; Clara, now dressed herself, had brought Marjorie's clothes, clean underwear, and a plain black and white gingham which Marjorie had bought a few days before.

"Where're you going, Clara?"

"Out," said Clara, cutting the short word very short. "Unless I can do somethin' for you, kid."

"You can't," said Marjorie and Clara went, and Marjorie did not even wonder about Clara's errand. As she made definite moves in dressing, Marjorie discovered her own purpose was to go to Billy; that gave her something to do for him. Cragero's; she had never visited the place, though she had heard of it often; she picked up the paper to learn more exactly where it was.

The telephone bell, below, was ringing; and soon some one knocked at the door. Jen Cordeen, it was. "On the 'phone, for you," Jen announced; and Marjorie was sure that Clara, on her way out, had spoken to Jen; for Jen said not even good morning; that was Jen's way,—never to butt into others' affairs and, when something was the matter, to say even less than usual. "Mowbry, he gave his name."

It obliged Marjorie to reckon in Gregg on her accounting and, ever since she had heard, she had been keeping herself from that. But now, here he was in it; she couldn't escape thought of him, though it was thought of Gregg now forever without Billy; it was thought of Billy lost to Gregg, not in any metaphorical manner, but lost, dead and gone, with Gregg never to speak to Billy again or even to speak of Billy, except as dead.

She followed Jen downstairs to the office and she thought, Did Gregg know? Had that paper, which had reached her father at his club, reached also that top floor of the Ontario Street rooming house? For the moment when she entered the office and Jen Cordeen stayed out and shut the door, Marjorie wanted to imagine Gregg yet as he had been, not knowing; and then she realized that, if he were so, she would have to tell him.

But he knew; his first tone, "Hello, Marjorie," made it as perfectly plain to her as hers, "Oh, Gregg, where are you?" made it plain to him that she knew.

"I'm with Bill, Marjorie," he told her then.

"Gregg, I want to come there."

"I'm coming back to town now; I want to come to you. No one can do any good here, Marjorie; the authorities—you understand they have to keep him where he is for a while. I've learned how it all happened; let me come there and tell you, Marjorie. I've got a car and I'll be right in; you'll wait there for me, won't you?"

"Oh, Gregg," she cried, "Gregg; Gregg." And she understood after a moment when his voice was gone that it was because he was coming; and she ran up to her room where she threw herself on her bed and received, at last, a merciful relief.

She was by her window when he arrived and she went down to the inner door as he entered; she seized his hands, cold and damp as her own were; his eyes came to hers. "He's not marked," Gregg told her first. "He lies—as if he were asleep."

"Yes," she said. "Yes; I wanted to know that."

Jen Cordeen had left the office open for them and empty; and the day bed, upon which she slept, had been made up as a couch. Marjorie and Gregg went in and closed the door.

He had on his blue suit and with it a black tie; he had worn a little color always in his scarfs; so she realized and said, "You heard before you went out."

"Yes; they got our old address—my old address—from the telephone book and tried to call somebody there by 'phone last night. Early this morning they got about and finally knocked up Dora, who was with her mother on the floor below; she gave them my address. I heard about seven o'clock."

And, bit by bit, as she could best hear it, he continued telling her.

"I got that car from Jim Cuncliffe and went out. What do you know, Marjorie? Just what's in the paper?"

"Yes." And then she told him. "Father brought it to me. He thought I—I'd been at Cragero's with Mr. Rinderfeld! He thought that was why Billy was there; and that was why Billy was there, because I was with Mr. Rinderfeld last night."

"Not at Cragero's!" Gregg denied almost sharply.

"No; but in town; we had dinner together or at least we started dinner together. We were talking and he asked me to marry him; I mean he started—I all at once understood that all along he meant—he had the idea I might marry him. I got up from the table; we'd just got our order, and he was only telling me some things about himself but you see——"

"I see," said Gregg. "You went home; and he didn't."

"It's perfectly clear to me what happened then, Gregg. He'd been telling me, admitting to me frankly that girls—women like Mrs. Russell—had formed his life; but he had stopped going with them after he got to know me. He was trying to make himself fit, he said, for me; and when I got up because I couldn't sit there with him after I realized that he planned, he expected—I went home and he—he went back to the girls he'd given up; or to one of them." She stopped again.

"To one physically like you," Gregg continued, breathing very deep. "When the reporters described her, they gave me an awful minute, Marjorie; then they went on—and I knew she wasn't you. But of course, Bill didn't know that last night. He came into Cragero's sure you were there; it was just a frightful mistake all around. Rinderfeld—of course I had my time when I wanted to get him; but not a newspaper man blamed him. Not one; no, they were fair; they said nobody wanted to kill Bill or even hurt him." Gregg looked down, cleared his throat and looked at her again.

"People who were there—lots of them decent people—gave their names and agreed that nothing was going on that was wrong when Bill came in and tried to smash into a private dining room. Cragero tried to argue with him; then they tried to put him out; that was all; so he went for the bouncer and—it happened, Marjorie.

"I've just come from there, you know. That's the truth of the end of Bill. He died all at once, just as he was; and he knows now, Marjorie, if he knows anything, that you weren't there; that'd be the one thing he'd want to know. He's found it out; so he's happy and not—not bucking life, not just forever hopelessly fighting and trying to make over life, Marjorie. That's what he'd always have to do; that's what he always did; from the first day I met him at the U. of M., he was always wanting to make over—make over things and people, no matter how impossible it was. He never wanted people—even you and me, whom he loved, Marjorie—he didn't want either of us as we have to be."

A few moments later he said, "So when you think about Bill out there at the road house, think of him not having to go on bucking life, fighting life with all his strength and will, and simply refusing to have life as—as it's got to be. You see, Marjorie, when you think it over that way, you see he had to come to something like that; nothing and no one could have stopped him. He was wrong, you see; he thought you were there and you weren't, and he wouldn't have it that you weren't there when he believed you were; so he fought them all and killed himself. And I guess, with him the way he was, there wasn't any other way out for Bill."

She said nothing to him; nor did she try to; for he had brought her comfort beyond any hope she could have held. And not once did he emptily reassure her by "it wasn't your fault"; or by "you've nothing to blame yourself for"; or by "you always acted for the best"; or by any of the other idle denials and protestations of such a time. He simply told her the truth as he felt it; and when again she cried, tears ran down his face, too. And thus, there together, he kissed her with a gentleness she had never known before, and she clung to him, for each needed the other so.

"He has to stay out there," Gregg told her then, "till this afternoon. There's an inquest, you see. I've wired his brother in Bay City who'll tell his parents; some one's sure to come down. They'll probably reply to Pearson Street; Dora'll get it. I'll have Bill brought there to-night."

She asked him about his own need of money for what he must do; and he told her, "I got fifty dollars from Jim Cuncliffe when I got his car."

She ran up to her room and brought down twenty-four dollars she had there. "You must use this for expenses, Gregg." And he took it from her, without argument; but he said:

"I'll take home now."

Home! "Home, for it's all over"; that was what his "home" said. And she knew he meant "home"; not to his own home in Muskegon, as Billy had meant to take her to his home in Bay City. Gregg meant to take her to her own home in Evanston, for it was over, her adventure here; it was over and she knew it. So she went out with him to Jim Cuncliffe's car and he took her home; then he left her to return, himself, to East Pearson Street.