The Breath of Scandal/Chapter 8

CHAPTER VIII

BEFORE departing from Clark Street with Billy, Marjorie experienced a further enlightening sensation. Billy's presence had nothing to do with it; in fact, it was in opposition to his efforts that she had the experience, for Billy was doing his best to return her as rapidly as possible to her familiar environment of Michigan Avenue and the boulevard route home to Evanston, and to re-immerse her in the formal modes of thinking and feeling which had been hers. But she had no wish to reënter so immediately her world of not even so much as half the truth; and her further experience on Clark Street was suddenly to feel, by one of those flashes of perceptivity which amaze one with a demonstration of one's dull narrowness before, that Clark Street and the streets beyond—west and north and south, in their endless number—concerned her. How vitally and with what intimacy had Clearedge Street concerned her! She wanted to stand on the sidewalk and gaze about at the people passing and think of the men as men of the manner Rinderfeld knew. But Billy had kept a cab waiting for her and he helped her into it.

"Well, Marjorie," he demanded, as soon as the car started. "What did he have to tell you?" So she repeated to him Rinderfeld's analysis of the danger threatening them.

"Of course, I never thought of it that way before," she finished. "But you must have, Billy; you're a lawyer. Why didn't you explain to me how it would come out—if it does?"

"That's Rinderfeld for you!" Billy countered. "You couldn't have a much better show-up of him; what does he care about the right or wrong of any case? Try to cover up; scrape yourself clear of the consequences; that's Rinderfeld's Bible. He doesn't correct a thing."

"Probably he doesn't," Marjorie admitted. "But he does try to suggest a way in which you may be left alone to settle your own family trouble without the whole world interfering. And I don't believe he thinks I'm trying to scrape out of consequences."

Billy sat away from her, feeling injured and that she had held him cheap; then he saw her face, saw her lips tremble as she tried to steady them, saw her catch herself up bravely, and he was ashamed of himself; he called her name and he caught both her hands between his own big ones.

"Oh, Marjorie, Marjorie, don't you suppose I'd have told you all that, if it could really do you any good? But you'll find out, it won't put off even Stanway! And if it does, it can't save you from facing what's before; and you'll—we'll only make it harder and harder, dearie, by putting it off!"

He drew away one of his hands and hastily pulled down the curtains of the cab and then he put his arm about her and begged her to rest on his shoulder. But she could not. The confidence which she had gained when with Rinderfeld was vanishing. "I'm going to see father now, remember," she reminded Billy.

He had forgotten, though Marjorie had told him, that her given reason for her journey down town to-day was to visit the hospital. When she arrived, she learned that her father's improvement continued and that she would be allowed to see him for five minutes.

She found him very white in his narrow, white bed in the little, private room, with a nurse beside him; but he was conscious and his head was clear and, indeed, he was not unlike himself. His eyes met hers and gazed into hers in his old, loving manner; his lips smiled at her in fond reassurance.

"I'm going to be all right again soon, Margy," he said, clasping tighter on her hand which she slipped into his.

That weak pressure almost made her cry; and she tossed back her head and shook her tears away. How could he have sinned, as he had, and kept his conscience so clear? Yet it was not strange that his manner toward her had not changed, she reflected after a minute; for she was certain that Doctor Grantham would not yet have informed him of her presence at Clearedge Street; and he was not more guilty to-day than last week or last month or before. The change was in herself, because she had learned; and she wondered if she had never known him with a clear conscience or whether, if she knew the world as Rinderfeld did, she would believe that men like her father regarded his sin so lightly that it cast no cloud over their consciences and that its effect upon them was only the fear of scandal.

She would not let Billy accompany her home; and, starting away alone in the taxicab, she passed another, approaching the hospital, and having one passenger, a woman. Marjorie had only a glimpse of her and more of her figure than her face, but she half leaped from her seat in the certainty that the woman was Mrs. Russell.

Marjorie stopped her cab and waited until she saw that the other car halted before the hospital and the passenger got out and, evidently having told the driver to wait, went into the building. But now she did not look quite so much like Mrs. Russell.

"No," Marjorie argued with herself. "Mrs. Russell would not dare. Rinderfeld would not let her."

She had not mentioned Mrs. Russell to Rinderfeld, yet she had no doubt that he was in charge, too, of Mrs. Russell. Besides, if that woman were Mrs. Russell, what could Marjorie do? She told her driver to go on, and, returning alone to Evanston, she underwent a new emotion as she drove through wide, beautiful avenues of her neighbors' prosperous, honorable, protected homes.

Instead of experiencing merely a renewal of the dread of her neighbors, of their mercilessness if they "found out," she was swept with a sharper pang of shame for the unworthiness of her home to stand among theirs; and the conduct of her father became betrayal, not only of his family, but of all their friends. No wonder Evanston had been slow in accepting newcomers; by choosing to live in a place like Evanston, you made a more definite profession of certain ideals than by going about the business of residing in a different sort of community; you displayed at least a desire for decent, family life and for the more sober and less fleshly enjoyments. So when one did as her father had done, he harmed more than himself and his own; he took advantage of decencies and self-restraints practised by other men—restraints which had made his neighborhood attractive and desirable—and he had betrayed them.

For the moment, Marjorie ranged herself on the side of these other families which had not proved false; and despairingly she longed that hers might have been one of them.

She had late luncheon at home, for her mother had left for the hospital a few minutes before her arrival. As neighbors were beginning to hear of Mr. Hale's illness, the telephone rang frequently for inquiries; and several calls came from the office and from his friends down town; flowers were delivered and some people stopped in at the house. Marjorie let the servants continue the repetition of the information which the family was giving out; but when Clara Sedgwick called, Marjorie had her come in.

She brought the news that some people were saying that Mr. Hale was not at home, but had been taken to a hospital in Chicago for a serious operation. She was not a gossipy girl, Clara, and she did not try to trick Marjorie into telling more than she wished, but, after frankly relating what she had heard, Clara asked if the Hales wanted it denied.

Marjorie said, yes; probably it was better to deny it, but that it was true; and after Marjorie admitted this, it was plain that Clara was satisfied and suspected nothing more; so Marjorie gained another proof of the astuteness of Felix Rinderfeld who, having a serious secret to conceal, had not made the mistake of publishing a story which hid nothing, but who had supplied a less serious secret for curious friends to discover.

Clara stayed and made an effort to interest Marjorie by going into the details of favors for a dance set for next week; then she launched upon the novelties which were being suggested to the entertainment committee of the golf club to vary the usual monotony of golf for men and bridge for women, on Saturday afternoons through the approaching season. Somebody had suggested a scheme for combining a husband's golf and his wife's bridge score; but George Chaden had a better idea, and one much more applicable to the unmarried; any girl or woman, to be eligible for a bridge prize on Saturday, had to qualify by making a certain golf score during the five days previous; but if she didn't golf, she could—under certain elaborately amusing rules—get a man to qualify her.

Marjorie honestly attempted to become interested but she could not; what filled her mind was amazement that fripperies like these had previously fascinated her and that the planning and performing of them had given her satisfaction. To chatter at teas with girls as like as possible to herself; to dine between two men who had passed the tests of admission to your set; to play bridge with them, sometimes gambling mildly; golf with the same ones and, in the same company, perhaps motor; to go down town in your limousine—or in a neighbor's—to spend two hours weekly in winter in one of the seats in orchestra hall, to which your mother subscribed every year, listening to a Tschaikowsky overture and French and Italian concertos; to sit, also in carefully selected, subscribed-for seats surrounded by your own set, one night a week for the ten weeks of "opera"; to go with your mother or with Clara or Elsie to pick out dress materials at Field's or pick up something ready made in a Michigan Avenue shop; otherwise to spend your days dropping in on your neighbors, or receiving them when they dropped in on you, or idling along Davis Street unless somebody like Lord Dunsany or Tagore had been captured for the afternoon's sensation at the Woman's Club, in which case you'd drop in to look at him and hear a word or two to save you the trouble of reading his books to see why he made such a stir;—thus Marjorie was totaling her life. In order to instance to her-self a single extraordinary event, she had to call up the twenty minutes she spent in an airplane flying over the city and the lake from the hangar just west of Evanston. No wonder Rinderfeld found her so ignorant of the world that he realized it was useless to try to explain what had happened to her; no wonder that the few men, with whom she held anything approaching a conversation, satisfied her when they spoke to her in never so much as half-truths concerning themselves and their world.

It astounded her now suddenly to begin realizing how small and shut in was the world of the daughter and wife of a successful man. Sitting by her window one morning while she watched, fearing the approach of Mr. Stanway or of Russell or some one from Clearedge Street coming in attack upon her home, she counted the delivery wagons which stopped,—the grocer's, the butcher's, the ice van, Marshall Field's, Carson Pirie's, Lord's, a florist's boy, Borden's Creamery, a laundry wagon, one from the cleaner's and a runabout bringing a man to estimate on the decorating to be done soon: eleven bearing to the house materials and service to supplement the service of the three maids and one man established within and to further obviate necessity of effort on the part of her mother and herself. They—Marjorie thought—need not make a single move. As a matter of fact, they frequently telephoned orders and personally purchased some of the articles delivered, but Marjorie could not honestly assign to their activities a higher value than one of furnishing diversion or a feeling of satisfaction at doing something. For she knew that, if they never made a move, they, in that house, would have been cared for as the house had been cared for without them, when they had been abroad. If any unforeseen difficulty came up, her mother and she were not supposed to face it but to dodge it by supplementing their ordinary corps of servants with experts in domestic emergencies with which such a place as Evanston teemed.

Now her father—or rather Gregg Mowbry acting in the man's place of her father, temporarily disabled—had employed Felix Rinderfeld as a specialist in this present crisis which threatened them; and here she was at home, assigned to duty in aiding in the protection of her mother if Mr. Stanway or Russell eluded them in the outer circle of defense they had flung about her home; but otherwise they were keeping her ignorant even of what they were doing to shield her.

Billy did not know; for, when she asked him, he told her uncomfortably that Gregg and Rinderfeld on that day—it was the same on which she counted the delivery wagons—were up to something; they wouldn't tell him what, but Billy had discovered that Gregg had not been going to his office for a couple of days; and later Marjorie learned that Gregg hadn't returned to the apartment for two nights and Billy was worried.