The Breath of Scandal/Chapter 7

CHAPTER VII

THE office door of Felix Rinderfeld, attorney-at-law, gleams in gold letters with his name and estate alone. It faces a long white hall which is on an upper floor of one of the modern office buildings on Clark Street and, upon opening the door and glancing ahead through the wide, specklessly clean window opposite, the visitor looks upon the gray, columned façade of the Cook County Courts block.

It is not the most delectable highway of downtown Chicago,—Clark Street. Michigan Avenue, with the lake front park to its east, is at once the Fifth Avenue, the Mall, the Avenue de l'Opera of Chicago, the boulevard of hotels and clubs, of jewelers and costumers, of hatters and bootmakers, of tea rooms and confectioners, of the Art Institute and Orchestra Hall. Marjorie Hale knew Michigan Avenue well from the Blackstone north. On Wabash Avenue, which lies next to the west, she knew, of course, McClurg's bookstore, Lyon and Healy's, Colby's and several other stores. On State Street she was familiar at least with the squares from Carson Pirie's to Marshall Field's; and even on Dearborn, which is mostly a man's street of commerce and contracts, she could identify a building or two; but she was almost a complete stranger to Clark Street in daytime when the theaters which occasionally drew her there at night were closed.

She passed along squares where remain many of the stiff, old and dingy structures erected in the seventies during the first hasty rebuilding following the great fire; and what chiefly caught her eye this morning, as Billy escorted her, were lurid film posters, pawnshops and cutlery displays; the huge, sooty colossus of the city hall and county buildings did not, in her mind, elevate the street. She had a feeling of being lowered as she sought Rinderfeld's number; she had never thought of herself as client of those who had business to do about the divorce courts.

But there was nothing second-rate or deteriorating to self-respect in the air of Rinderfeld's office; quite the contrary; it was a Rolls-Royce—or at least an excellent pseudo-Rolls-Royce—sort of office, even in the waiting room where Marjorie now found herself. If he had ever luxuriated in the maroon ostentation of heavy mahogany for office furnishings, he had learned better and stepped higher to the repression of dull walnut of delicate Chippendale-like lines in chairs and in side table upon which reposed no ordinary five and ten-cent weeklies, but Country Life, Field (the English edition), the Spectator and the two volumes of Wells' "Outline of History." The girl who sat at a small, Chippendale walnut desk near a door so obviously private that it needed no label was no usual office attendant; she was pretty, but repressed, pale without a patch of rouge; she was almost nunlike in her black dress, high about the neck and, as Marjorie noticed when she arose, lower than usual in the skirt.

"You are?" she asked quietly and without any apparent personal curiosity.

"Miss Conway," Marjorie replied, using the name that Rinderfeld had assigned her for her communications with him.

"About ten minutes, I think," the girl said and resumed her seat. No distinguishable word came through the solid door, but there was the hum of a heavy voice. No one else was in the waiting room, but in a few minutes a gray-haired, well-dressed, self-important man of about fifty-five entered brusquely, nodded to the attendant, who nodded to him, and sat down rather suddenly in a chair opposite Marjorie, after picking up the copy of Field which he did not read but held as a sort of screen over which to peer. While Marjorie was still wondering in what relation to scandal he was waiting upon Rinderfeld, a buzzer under the Chippendale desk sounded in the most demure of audible tones and the black-gowned young lady arose and half-opened the door beside her; after Marjorie passed in, the door closed silently but with firmness.

With equal firmness was closed a farther door by which the gentleman of the deep, humming voice evidently had made his exit; for Rinderfeld was alone. He was on his feet on the other side of a flat, delicately legged table desk which was at the middle of the large, soft, blue Chinese rug which carpeted the room. In the waiting room the walls were grasscloth hung with a couple of good etchings; here on three walls were panels of the same hue of walnut as the desk and filing case and chairs; paneling too was between the two windows on the west which, like that in the waiting room, gave a view of the county courts. Possibly Rinderfeld did not quite appreciate the effect of overdoing elegant repression; obviously some one must pay for all this; and for the first time Marjorie affrightedly speculated on the cost of Mr. Rinderfeld's retainment. For her glance at him upon entering had relieved her of her overnight terror that inevitable public scandal threatened her. Rinderfeld was reassurance and self-confidence itself.

"Come, sit right here," he invited for greeting, bowing and turning the Chippendale chair at the left end of his table so that it faced his own more directly.

"Good morning, Mr. Rinderfeld," she replied nervously, and sat down as bidden.

"It is very good of you to call here," he said, still standing before her and estimating her. "We might talk elsewhere, but here we are certain never to be disturbed."

It had been impossible for Marjorie to deliberate on the night when he followed her to Fursten's, whether this man was personally contemptible or not; she had been altogether too dazed to think of him as a man possessing personal qualities other than the knowledge of how her father, her mother and she might be saved from the morass of infamy threatening to rise about them. She knew, of course, that Billy despised Rinderfeld and that Billy was awaiting her outside rather with an idea of disinfecting her, when she emerged from this office, from the contamination of this man; but there was nothing about the lawyer's manner which seemed contaminating. He was affected, but with nothing worse than over-courtliness in his manner; certainly it was far better to err on that side than by over-familiarity with a girl placed in her relationship to him. A really coarse man might be expected to express himself by putting his hand upon her; but Rinderfeld had so wholly refrained from such contact that he had avoided even offering his hand when she entered.

She appreciated this in him; she appreciated, too, the perfect cleanliness and healthfulness of his appearance. He was a bit overdressed; in what respect, she could not see, for it was in no one respect; his blue serge suit was perhaps too perfectly tailored; his shirt too silky; his tie too perfectly arranged; his lack was no more than a saving touch of the casual; he seemed to realize that lack and to attempt to remedy it, as he sat down.

"I hope I have not worried you by asking the privilege of this talk."

"You mean nothing more has happened yesterday, Mr. Rinderfeld?"

"Nothing in the sense that happenings are strokes of fate completely beyond human control: but of course the regular sequence of events proceeds."

He said that calmly, but it shortened her breath again after the temporary relief of first seeing him. "What is the regular sequence of events, please?"

Rinderfeld leaned slightly toward her, resting his left arm on his desk; a dictation phonograph was too near him and he pushed it slightly farther off. "The people, who knew, are talking more, of course."

"What people who knew—of what, Mr. Rinderfeld?"

"Of the situation at the apartment on Clearedge Street prior to the—accident of the other night."

"Oh; who knew of that?"

Rinderfeld smiled slightly; not an unpleasant smile and not suggesting amusement at her innocence or superiority over her. He was smiling to reassure her before she heard his next words.

"The other night, when I talked with you, I did not know how many might happen to be informed; possibly they might be very few, so I did not discuss the matter with you. Since then I have found that the usual number of neighbors and others seem to have fairly accurate information of events up to the shooting; they do not seem to know of that; they know something happened night before last, but they have not yet learned what."

He smiled again in reassurance, but Marjorie gasped and went weak. Rinderfeld straightened and waved his hand before him as though brushing away a fly.

"Think of them as flies, my dear young lady," he said. "Flies cause troubles, do they not? Do they not?" he repeated and, as he evidently meant to force an answer, Marjorie nodded.

"Exactly," Rinderfeld agreed. "Now, where are they to be found in their season? Everywhere outdoors; is that not so?"

When again he waited, again Marjorie nodded.

"Now what do we do about them? Do we go out to exterminate them? No; we screen against them, knowing if we keep them out of our houses we are safe. Only if they come in are they capable of causing us trouble. That is the way with these fly humans who know what we might wish they do not; keep them out and, no matter what they know or say, they cannot harm you. It is as simple as that."

"Of course you understand," said Marjorie, "that is not quite clear to me."

Rinderfeld nodded. "I am going to ask you, for a few moments to think accurately or, at least, to follow me while I assign to the different items of conduct and reputation the exact values which they possess—in distinction from the values which we like to pretend we hold them at. You read the papers, of course."

"Yes."

"You cannot have failed then to have become familiar with the fate of a certain prominent gentleman in New York City who, by the publication of scandal against him, found it advisable to resign a position which was one of the most important in the world. Now what, in your opinion, forced him out?"

"Why," said Marjorie. "What he did. When his associates learned that, they could not keep a man of his character in his position."

Rinderfeld nodded, not in agreement; he was telling her merely that she had said exactly what he expected her to say.

"His character had nothing to do with it. How many of his associates, do you suppose, were surprised and shocked by the morning papers? My dear young lady, let us think. What a veritable cloud of witnesses his wife produced against him, and the newspapers interviewed—servants, sailors, clerks, jewelers and what not. The number of people in every layer of society who suspected his character was extraordinary; you would have said, if you had known it, half would have been more than sufficient to ruin him but, until his wife brought charges against him in court, they were all harmless. They could whisper; undoubtedly they did; they could wag their heads; but they could not strike him.

"He could have snapped his fingers at them all—in fact, for several years he seemed to have been snapping his fingers at them—and he could have continued to do exactly as he pleased had he kept guard over the gate to court action against him, which was through accusation by his wife.

"That immediately turned his most private affairs into the most public of property. Perhaps you have been amazed, in reading in the papers of the scandal of other men's lives, how the newspapers so quickly gathered the facts which they publish. My dear young lady, in most cases they have been known even to the newspaper men for months or years; but the newspapers were helpless to handle them until court action started by somebody makes proper and publishable known facts which, before some one complained in court, would have been libel. Of course the publication in no way alters the man's character—merely his reputation; and it does not alter even his reputation with the people nearest him, who had known about it before. But now they discover they must cast him out, because every one else knows too. It is not, you see, the unforgivable sin which destroys him but the no-longer-concealable scandal. If it were the former, there would not be many—pardon me; you will say I am cynical instead of merely experienced. But now we may, perhaps, proceed to a more business-like estimate of our immediate needs than might have been possible a few minutes ago."

He arose, and crossing to a table upon which stood a silver carafe with a couple of goblets, he poured two glasses of water and returned with them on a small silver tray.

Marjorie gazed at them as though not recognizing what they were for; they were beautiful, extravagant goblets with silver applied on the glass; but the expensiveness did not impress her now and did not remind her of the probable extortion of Rinderfeld's fees. In her sickening fright, she could feel only dependence upon this man, so assured and expert in her troubles. He spoke to her twice, urging her to drink, before she was able to refuse, whereupon he drained one glass and, resuming his seat, placed the other goblet on the desk near him.

"You may now see that it is relatively unimportant that twelve or fourteen neighbors of Mrs. Russell may be aware that all has not been regular with her and that they may have identified the man. For all practical purposes they are harmless; some of them undoubtedly feel sympathy for them both; some feel it is none of any one's else affair; a few, unquestionably, are shocked. But very few people, without some motive of self-advantage, take the trouble of disciplining others. They merely take it out in talk. There is one chance—perhaps as large a chance as one in a thousand—that some busybody from Clearedge Street may visit your home. I may say the chance exists only if there happens to be a neighbor who lives by the profession of morality. I mention this solely that when it may occur to you, you will disregard it.

"To discover who may be dangerous, we have merely to reckon who may consider himself benefited by ruining your father; as well as I have been able to calculate so far, there are only two. One is Russell. He tried blackmail which he rather in judiciously backed by a flourish with a revolver which he fired, I believe, in excitement and not intentionally. Undoubtedly now he is frightened; when your father recovers and returns to business, he may again be heard from—but not now unless in connection with the man whom we have immediately to guard against, Stanway. Unquestionably you know Mr. E. H. Stanway."

Marjorie nodded; her lips were very dry and she longed now for the water at Rinderfeld's elbow, but she would not ask for it.

"I've known him all my life," she said. "He employed father, who started as his clerk, Mr. Rinderfeld."

"Exactly, and who now is Mr. Stanway's most dangerous rival—in fact, his only dangerous rival for the presidency of the Tri-Lake Products and Material Corporation. I have only had a day to go into details of their present organization, so I will be glad if you correct me in any misconception. Stanway has never been a real worker; he inherited from his father a stock interest which got him a sinecure position in a then unimportant department of the company. He happened to employ your father, and his department began to grow till it was doing the biggest part of the business of the company. Stanway was a figurehead; but as he and his relatives held the controlling stock they kept him in office, though, to keep your father, they had to pay him more than Stanway; then Stanway succeeded in transferring your father to another department and instantly Stanway's end began dropping and the new department jumped up. A few years ago, there was nothing to do but make your father general manager and again greatly increase his salary. To satisfy Stanway, they raised him to vice-president, but did not increase his pay. As general manager, your father has made a remarkable record, not only during the boom of the war, but since. I am told that Tri-Lake Products and Materials actually employ more men to-day than last year; their output has increased and they have not missed a dividend.

"Nominally, this has happened under the administration of Dorsett, the president, but his health has been bad for years; his contribution has been chiefly in promoting and backing your father against the Stanway family interest and keeping him a free hand. Stanway, as vice-president, and therefore nominally a superior to your father, has so far succeeded in saving his face. When Dorsett dies—as he is likely to do any day, I understand—the showdown must come. Your father, I presume, will not remain if Stanway is made president."

"No," said Marjorie. "I've heard him say so; half a dozen other big companies have been after father, Mr. Rinderfeld."

Rinderfeld nodded. "And if your father is made president, Stanway will not stay?" He made that a question.

"Father himself has said he didn't see how Mr. Stanway can; he's referred to father, even in these last years, as 'my clerk' at every possible chance."

"So I have heard. Now, these are no times for a company, which is still taking on men and paying dividends, to indulge in family affections when electing a president for a ten-million-dollar corporation. Stanway knows that his own cousins—or enough of them to make a majority of stock with the other crowd will vote your father in when Dorsett dies or resigns, unless he can make it impossible. This accident the other night must have seemed to him made for his hand."

Marjorie jerked quickly; through the blur of her brain, attempting to receive and arrange so many amazing ideas so rapidly, suddenly she perceived at what Rinderfeld was aiming.

"You mean, Mr. Rinderfeld," she said, reaching her hand forward to his desk, "that Mr. Stanway knows of—that?"

"Knows?" said Rinderfeld judicially. "He has known about 4689 Clearedge Street, I am quite sure, for some time. Possibly he has been waiting for some such accident as has happened; possibly——" Rinderfeld stopped abruptly and more eloquently than by any words he could have said he suggested that which flashed into Marjorie's mind. He seemed to see, by watching her, that he need not say it.

"You mean, Mr. Rinderfeld," she repeated again her address of him, "that Mr. Stanway—caused that?"

Rinderfeld turned and picked up the second goblet from his desk and sipped the water sparingly.

"Causation, my dear young lady," he said, clinging to his abstention from even once repeating her name or her father's, "is always difficult to prove. If you ask me whether I think that Mr. E. H. Stanway's desire to insure his own election to the presidency of the Tri-Lake Products and Material Corporation and the sudden and as yet unexplained recrudescence of interest of Russell in his former wife, whom he deserted and who divorced him, are purely coincidental as to time, I would reply to you that, in my opinion—as yet unsustained by material evidence—they are not."

Marjorie's fingers clenched tightly on the edge of Rinderfeld's desk; she was hot now, tense and eager to fight. She forgot entirely, for the moment, her father's contribution of guilt toward his own undoing. Stanway, his enemy—and hers—had planned the disgrace or, at least, planned to profit by it. For the moment she was stirred against Rinderfeld and almost angry at him for being able himself, when so arousing her, to keep so cool. And Rinderfeld realized this, as he seemed, after a moment's reflection, to realize everything.

"To you, it is, of course, terrible," he said, putting down the goblet carefully on his silver tray. "To me—in what state would I keep myself if I allowed myself to be torn up about such things? But do not imagine too much; our friend undoubtedly fell far short of expectation of the shooting. There was to be a scene, undoubtedly; that should have been all; that should have been enough. Now, though what has happened has unquestionably exceeded expectations in certain respects, in others it has brought about embarrassments. Russell is not at hand; the rôle of the accuser is therefore vacant. It is never an over-agreeable rôle. The law may have commanded that the sinner be stoned, but when it was suggested that he who was without sin cast the first stone, the crowd melted away, you may remember. Stanway will do nothing openly or directly, however much he knows; he will call, I feel quite sure, upon your mother."

Marjorie stood up because she could sit still no longer. "Now, I know why you sent for me."

Rinderfeld glanced up at her and inclined his head slightly. "Obviously I can not prevent that call; as obviously I can not be at your home to meet him when he comes. You can and you can render him harmless simply and easily, if you will."

"How can I?"

"He will arrive with the idea that he is the bearer of news; you will meet him and when he starts to hem and haw over his story take it up for him and finish it—and him." Rinderfeld suddenly indulged himself in a laugh. "I would like to see him when he finds that he has no news; when he finds that you know, he will not imagine anything but that your mother must also know—and that she is complacent. Then, what can he do?"

Marjorie stared and, in a moment, nodded and Rinderfeld arose. "He has one more barrel to fire," he confessed, "but leave the pulling of that charge to me. If I prove mistaken in the expectations I have given you—or if anything else out of the ordinary occurs—communicate with me at once. We understand each other, I am sure, perfectly."

Marjorie nodded again; she recognized that he wished to end their interview, but whereas, before entering this room, she could not have dreamt of wishing to prolong her talk with Rinderfeld, now she would stay. Not because she failed to understand or because she was curious as to what was the other charge of Mr. Stanway's which Rinderfeld planned to pull. She had thought all she could about the threat of Stanway; suddenly it had sunk to secondary importance, and what overwhelmed her was that which had caused her to cry to Doctor Grantham yesterday morning; why had her father done what he did?

Doctor Grantham had avoided answering her; if he himself understood, he would not tell; and now Marjorie doubted the fullness of the doctor's comprehension. She had not even put the question to Billy; and now she thoroughly realized why she had not; for Billy, though a man, was almost as unequipped with experience in such affairs as she. But here was a man with experience beyond any other whom she might meet and who, where he might have been personal and unpleasant, had preserved perfectly the professional throughout this difficult conversation with her. As she thought back upon it, she was amazed at how he had got through it without personal offensiveness and yet imparted to her what he had; she felt she could ask him anything and he could keep it impersonal; and she felt that, when he answered, he could tell her the truth.

"Mr. Rinderfeld!" she said with a sudden appeal, but then stopped.

Rinderfeld glanced at her and waited and, when she did not proceed, he said, "Why did he do it? That is what you want to ask, I know."

"Not Mr. Stanway, Mr. Rinderfeld; I mean——"

"I know whom you mean," Rinderfeld finished for her. "That is what every woman, who comes here for the first time, wishes to know. Wives they are, usually. I used to try to answer that question; now, I know it is useless; a person who has to ask it admits that she is incapable of understanding the answer. I am very sorry; but I am sure that it is so."

"Why can I not understand? It's not enough to tell me it is because I have to ask that question."

Rinderfeld evidently was not accustomed to so vigorous a rebuttal and, as evidently, he liked it. "No," he said. "You're right; it's not. Though I can't attempt to tell you the other, I can tell you—if you wish—why, in my opinion, you are incapable of understanding. Undoubtedly you consider yourself at least acquainted with men; undoubtedly when you have spoken of your friends, you have said that many of your closest were men and you considered yourself upon as easy a basis with them as with girls; there are men, probably, who—you say—would tell you anything frankly and to whom, you would say, you could tell anything. Is that not so?"

Marjorie startled a little and flushed. "Please go on," she begged.

"Whereas, the fact is that no man you have ever talked to has told you even so much as half the truth. They have told you, probably, how they have felt toward you and your sort, but never how they feel toward what we may term, for convenience, other women. For you are a good girl; all your friends are good girls, living in prosperous, honorable, protected homes. A man of the sort you meet would consider himself lower than a dog—and his friends would put him down below the lowest cur if they let him live at all—if ever once he adopted within himself an attitude toward you which he may, without loss of a single friend, persistently hold toward other women. When such a man marries a girl like you, one of three things is bound to happen; either he has fallen into the passion which we may call pure love and at least temporarily—and perhaps permanently—he abandons all other attitudes except the one he maintains toward you; or, in another case, he maintains both his former attitude toward you and his other former attitude toward other women, or, in the third, he shows his wife both. In either of the latter instances, I am very likely to hear from some one soon."

He had not avoided her while speaking; but now his glance shifted from her to the dictation machine on his desk. It was plain he considered he had said all he wished and he desired her to go. "Thank you," she said, subdued. "Thank you very much. I am what I am—so ignorant that I can not even understand an answer as to why my father has done what he has—because I live in a prosperous, honorable, protected home, you said. Then, if I did not, I would soon become able to understand?"

Rinderfeld looked up so quickly that he almost jerked. "Too soon," he said sharply. "The women like you who never understand make the world worth living in, I think; I'm not sure," he qualified honestly. "It is one of the anomalies of life I'm trying to make out purely from a philosophical standpoint. It has nothing to do with my business. At least, don't you try the understanding; leave that, as you leave other unpleasant items, to men like me. We'll handle it for you."

His hand moved slightly on his desk; she did not see him touch a button, but she heard behind her the almost inaudible buzzer on the other side of the wall in the waiting room; and she knew that the signal was given to show in the florid-faced, gray-haired man. Rinderfeld moved, in courtly manner, toward the farther door directly communicating with the hallway.

"At any time telephone me, in emergency, here or at my home number; some one always knows where I am." He had returned wholly to business, and she made a business-like reply and stepped into the hall.