The Breath of Scandal/Chapter 6

CHAPTER VI

MARJORIE began dressing about half-past nine in the morning. She had been out of bed and in many times during the hours since she undressed about three o'clock; at most of these times she had stirred purely from nervousness, but after dawn she had assigned to herself errands such as gaining possession of the newspaper, as soon as Sarah had brought it in from the porch, and listening when Martin, the houseman, answered a telephone ring.

The newspaper printed not a word about Charles Hale, not a mention of the shooting on Clearedge Street or anything about any one named Russell; and the telephone brought no alarm. The big, warm, pleasant house was as quiet and secure-seeming as upon any other morning after her father had gone away and she and her mother were sleeping late.

It was a quiet morning outside and the bright, yellow sunlight, striking through the bare trees to the snow-covered roof of the porch and shining upon the lawn, bore enough heat to dissolve the whiteness into wet, glistening patches; the sun brought the white and purple pigeons fluttering from a neighboring barn and set them to preening on the damp, steamy walk; and a flock of brown sparrows came, cheerily squabbling and chattering. When Marjorie again opened her door at the ringing of the telephone, she heard the snapping of a wood fire below; in the dining room, of course. Her mother always liked a fire at breakfast in the winter. Everything was going on so exactly as usual,—and nothing was the same; nothing could ever be the same again.

Yesterday's world had been a friendly place, free from fears and filled with pleasant neighbors preferring you happy and wishing you well; to-day, what a strange, hostile, threatening air hung over everything. Marjorie Hale, who had never known what it was to fear people, found herself afraid. If her friends knew what she knew, how they would tear her down and destroy her; they all might not want to; some of them might, conscientiously, attempt to help her; but no one, if he or if she found out, could really save her; in spite of themselves, they must join against the Hales and destroy her family.

This struck her, for long periods, utterly prostrate and nerveless with despair and ignominy and then, contrarily, it spurred her to a nervous excitation in which she felt the presence of more power and will than she had ever before possessed and in which she determined to fight that annihilating peril alone. For she was so alone that, though every one in every house about had become a pitiless menace to her, the greatest danger of all lay in her home; it was in her mother. If her mother suspected, then everything which yet was left would instantly be gone. And Marjorie could not bear the thought of more destruction. So she lay on her bed, shivering with dread, when she heard her mother moving about. Soon she heard her proceed downstairs and knowing that her mother would inquire for her, but would not send to disturb her, Marjorie remained in the refuge of her room and refrained from betraying that she was awake. The program for this day, which she had accepted from Rinderfeld, spared her as much as possible from the ordeal of explanations; according to the arrangement, Doctor Grantham was to call at half-past ten and detail to her mother the prepared story of last night; and, promptly, the doctor's car appeared and he entered the house.

Marjorie crept to her door, opened it and listened quiveringly to the voices below; perhaps "something"—that euphony for death—had happened since early in the morning. No; the doctor had come only to repeat the narrative of his friend's long-concealed ailment, the sudden discovery last evening that an immediate operation was necessary and the rest as Rinderfeld had composed it. Marjorie closed her door and went again to her window where she stood staring blankly out until she heard her mother on the stairs; she opened Marjorie's door and entered, pale and with her large blue eyes looking darker than naturally, as they did when she was anxious; but otherwise she was controlled and Marjorie was swept with miserable pride in her. For she knew that her mother had heard Doctor Grantham's hard story and without suspicion had accepted it.

"My poor child," she said with compassion and with her cold hands she clasped Marjorie's equally cold ones. "You had that to bear all alone last night. But you knew where I was, Marjorie; you knew I was with Mrs. Cleve."

"Yes, mother," Marjorie admitted and she could not help breaking down a little. She was not afraid of her mother now; she was overswept with the degradation of what her father had done, of his falseness and deception; and yet she also was deceiving her mother.

"I realize you acted only to spare me, child; that is your father in you," her mother said, with her arms about her and kissing her once. "I know he considered that he was sparing me by keeping that serious trouble hidden so long and then going off by himself to look death in the face. He always wishes to spare me, doesn't he, dear?"

"Yes, mother," Marjorie said again, wretchedly.

"He is quite, quite safe, Marjorie—Doctor Grantham assures me. Doctor will take me down to see him now. Of course, I understand your father's motives for wishing to keep his operation secret even from his friends. I realize I must not let my own feelings stand in the way of his business future. Kiss me, Marjorie.—There now, I'll go with Doctor Grantham; you mustn't think of going, child. You've been through too much already."

Marjorie was glad not to argue against her; Marjorie scarcely trusted herself to be with her mother yet. Her mother went to her own room and Doctor Grantham came up.

"How are we this morning?" he asked, in his cheery, impersonal voice. He was at the age of slow, imperceptible physical change and except for his bearing, which was naturally more assured, and his clothes, which were better, he seemed to Marjorie exactly the same as she first remembered him, coming in and asking her that same question, in that same voice, every morning of those weeks when she was in bed with scarlet fever when she was ten years old. That was when the Hales inhabited the seven-room clapboard house on the fifty-foot lot in Irving Park, and Marjorie's father took care of the furnace, and Doctor Grantham had his office above the drug store on the Montrose Avenue corner. Of course, long ago, he too had moved away and he no longer "took" general practice cases of scarlet fever and measles. While he had been becoming a great surgeon, had he, like his friend, her father, also become some one strange inside, Marjorie wondered? The question caused her to stand stiffly as he came up to her and while he lifted her hand and slipped his deft, firm fingers to her pulse.

"You mustn't keep yourself going so, Marjorie," he reproved her, kindly, releasing her wrist. "I suppose you haven't slept at all."

"No."

"You must sleep this morning. Your father is doing splendidly; there will be no trouble with your mother. You've been a champion, Marjorie. Now really try to go to sleep; if you don't succeed, drop one of these in a glass of water; drink it." He took a couple of capsules from his vest pocket and laid them on her table; then he turned away, but he did not leave the room.

"Doctor!" Marjorie suddenly appealed.

He swung about to her, as though he had been waiting for what would follow.

"Why did he do it, Doctor Grantham? Father! Why, oh, why did he?"

Grantham shook his head; he intended undoubtedly to convey to her that he could not make it out but he failed in this; he succeeded in showing her only that he would not discuss that with her.

"You can take both those capsules an hour apart, if you need two, Marjorie," he said kindly. "Don't try to figure out life in one day, girl; no brain can stand it. Take one of those and lie down and count sheep—don't think—relax; then, if you need, take the other." He went away.

"Relax! Count sheep!" Marjorie repeated to herself with disdain, standing at the window and watching her mother precede Doctor Grantham to his car; yet, when they disappeared, reaction, if not relaxation, set in; she undressed and went to bed so utterly gone that she slept as if she were drugged, though both of Doctor Grantham's capsules remained unopened on her table. It was after five when she awoke and outside the sunlight was gone; her mother was sitting quietly beside her and, as soon as her head cleared and recollection came, Marjorie discerned that her mother was still unsuspecting; nothing had occurred at the hospital or during her absence from the house to turn her mother's pure, idealistic thought into channels of doubt.

"I returned shortly after noon, dear," she said, smoothing Marjorie's forehead with her cool, steady hand. "Your father was comfortable and I have since telephoned and they tell me he is sleeping. So we have no cause to question his rapid recovery, dear—— And Doctor Grantham assures me positively there can be no recurrence of the trouble."

Marjorie had supper brought to her room but afterwards she dressed and, going downstairs, she discovered Billy, who took her in his arms. "I told Sarah not to send my name up but if you came down, I meant to be with you," he said emotionally and kissed her.

"Don't—just now, Billy," she begged, but when he released her in compliance, she held to him for a moment, "I need you so much but I can't want to feel yet, don't you see?" she tried to explain.

He assured her that he did, but she realized, when she kept away from him, that she was hurting his feelings; how big and warm he was, and what a power of feelings he had packed in him! And she did not guess how much until he drew her into the seclusion of the little den beyond the drawing-room where he shut the door tight and then put his big, strong, blundering arms around her again.

"Dear Marjorie, will you marry me to-morrow?"

It was so far from any feeling she could imagine sharing that night that she cried out, "What?"

He repeated it, pressing her to him and explaining, "I won't expect you to begin being my wife to-morrow, Marjorie. But I want to feel you're mine, whatever happens."

That frightened her more. "Why? Is father worse?"

Instantly he tried to reassure her. "Oh, no, dear. It's only the danger of scandal; if it comes, I want you to have my name."

She did not relax at that, as he seemed to expect; it made her tenser stronger, and she worked with her fingers to loosen his hold upon her. "Thank you, Billy, but a name wouldn't change—disgrace." The idea of another name shielding her seemed so trivial that she could not think about it, but she realized that his offer meant much to him; and now he elaborated it.

"If you come to feel need of my name or if I've anything else in the world that can help you, Marjorie, it's yours. Do you know, dear, how you're fixed for—money?"

"No; I haven't thought of it."

"If your father's sick a long time, or if, for any reason, he doesn't return to his office, you must know that all I have is yours. I've fifty thousand dollars of stock in father's bank in my own name, which I can get whenever I ask for it. Every cent of it is yours—ours, Marjorie—to see you through whatever's before us."

But she could not think of what he was saying; she could not continuously think even of him, though it was good to have him, good to know she could depend upon his big, honest, whole-souled love, good to feel the complete cleanliness of him in her world so suddenly soiled. Through his clasp by which he was attempting to comfort her, she became sensitive to some new danger which he was striving to deny and prevent affecting himself and her; and soon she wrung admission of it from him. Reinderfeld wished her to call at his office as early in the morning as possible.

"But there can be no need of your going yourself. I will go for you," Billy declared. "I'll make him tell me anything he has to say to you."

Through this, she perceived a controversy already passed between Billy and Rinderfeld, and she asked, "You saw him to-day?"

"Yes; he telephoned me to tell you to come and see him; he wouldn't tell me why over the 'phone; so I went to his office. And he wouldn't tell me any more."

"Why not, do you suppose?"

"Because I don't honestly believe he's anything more to tell; he said he wanted to have a talk with you; it was essential for him 'to have a private talk' with you, were his exact words."

"Where is his office, Billy?"

"You aren't thinking of going there!"

"As early as I can to-morrow."

"I told you I'd go for you."

"You've been for me, Billy."

There was nothing for him but to give in at last; he demanded the right to accompany her; but this, too, she refused and so they quarreled; and both begged for forgiveness and they compromised on the basis that Billy might meet her downtown and take her to Rinderfeld's door and wait for her afterwards.