The Breaking Point by Mary Roberts Rinehart - HTML preview
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David had decided on a course and meant to follow it. That course was to protect Dick's name, and to keep the place he had made in the world open for him. Not even to Lucy had he yet breathed the terror that was with him day and night, that Dick had reached the breaking point and had gone back. But he knew it was possible. Lauler had warned him against shocks and trouble, and looking back David could see the gradually accumulating pressure against that mental wall of Dick's subconscious building; overwork and David's illness, his love affair and Jim Wheeler's tragedy, and coming on top of that, in some way he had not yet learned, the knowledge that he was Judson Clark and a fugitive from the law. The work of ten years perhaps undone.
Both David and Lucy found the home-coming painful. Harrison Miller rode up with them from the station, and between him and Doctor Reynolds David walked into his house and was assisted up the stairs. At the door of Dick's room he stopped and looked in, and then went on, his face set and rigid. He would not go to bed, but sat in his chair while about him went on the bustle of the return, the bringing up of trunks and bags; but the careful smile was gone, and his throat, now so much too thin for his collar, worked convulsively.
He had got Harrison Miller's narrative from him on the way from the station, and it had only confirmed his suspicions.
"He had been in a stupor all day," Miller related, "and was being cared for by a man named Bassett. I daresay that's the man Gregory had referred to. He may have become suspicous of Bassett. I don't know. But a chambermaid recognized him as he was making his escape, and raised an alarm. He got a horse out of the courtyard of the hotel, and not a sign of him has been found since."
"It wasn't Bassett who raised the alarm?"
"No, apparently not. The odd thing is that this Bassett disappeared, too, the same night. I called up his paper yesterday, but he hasn't shown up."
And with some small amplifications, that is all there was to it.
Before Harrison Miller and Doctor Reynolds left him to rest, David called Lucy in, and put his plea to all of them.
"It is my hope," he said, "to carry on exactly as though Dick might walk in tomorrow and take his place again. As I hold to my belief in God, so I hold to my conviction that he will come back, and that before I - before long. But our friends will be asking where he is and what he is doing, and we would better agree on that beforehand. What we'd better say is simply that Dick was called away on business connected with some property in the West. They may not believe it, but they'll hardly disprove it."
So the benevolent conspiracy to protect Dick Livingstone's name was arranged, and from that time on the four of them who were a party to it turned to the outside world an unbroken front of loyalty and courage. Even to Minnie, anxious and redeyed in her kitchen, Lucy gave the same explanation while she arranged David's tray.
"He has been detained in the West on business," Lucy said.
"He might have sent me a postcard. And he hasn't written Doctor Reynolds at all."
"He has been very busy. Get the sugar bowl, Minnie. He'll be back soon, I'm sure."
But Minnie did not immediately move.
"He'd better come soon if he wants to see Doctor David," she said, with twitching lips. "And I'll just say this, Mrs. Crosby. The talk that's going on in this town is something awful."
"I don't want to hear it," Lucy said firmly.
She ate alone, painfully remembering that last gay little feast before they started away. But before she sat down she did a touching thing. She rang the bell and called Minnie.
"After this, Minnie," she said, "we will always set Doctor Richard's place. Then, when he comes - "
Her voice broke and Minnie, scenting a tragedy but ignorant of it, went back to her kitchen to cry into the roller towel. Her world was gone to pieces. By years of service to the one family she had no other world, no home, no ties. She was with the Livingstones, but not one of them. Alone in her kitchen she felt lonely and cut off. She thought that David, had he not been ill, would have told her.
Lucy found David moving about upstairs some time later, and when she went up she found him sitting in Dick's room, on a stiff chair inside the door. She stood beside him and put her hand on his shoulder, but he did not say anything, and she went away.
That night David had a caller. All evening the bell had been ringing, and the little card tray on the hatrack was filled with visiting cards. There were gifts, too, flowers and jellies and some squab from Mrs. Sayre. Lucy had seen no one, excusing herself on the ground of fatigue, but the man who came at nine o'clock was not inclined to be turned away.
"You take this card up to Doctor Liviugstone, anyhow," he said. "I'll wait."
He wrote in pencil on the card, placing it against the door post to do so, and passed it to Minnie. She calmly read it, and rather defiantly carried it off. But she came down quickly, touched by some contagion of expectation from the room upstairs.
"Hang your hat on the rack and go on up."
So it was that David and the reporter met, for the first time, in David's old fashioned chamber, with its walnut bed and the dresser with the marble top, and Dick's picture in his uniform on the mantle.
Bassett was shocked at the sight of David, shocked and alarmed. He was uncertain at first as to the wisdom of telling his startling story to an obviously sick man, but David's first words reassured him.
"Come in," he said. "You are the Bassett who was with Doctor Livingstone at Norada?"
"Yes. I see you know about it."
"We know something, not everything." Suddenly David's pose deserted him. He got up and stood very straight, searching eyes on his visitor. "Is he living?" he asked, in a low voice.
"I think so. I'm not certain."
"Then you don't know where he is?"
"No. He got away - but you know that. Sit down, doctor. I've got a long story to tell."
"I'll get you to call my sister first," David said. "And tell her to get Harrison Miller. Mr. Miller is our neighbor, and he very kindly went west when my health did not permit me to go."
While they waited David asked only one question. "The report we have had is that he was in a stupor in the hotel, and the doctor who saw him - you got him, I think - said he appeared to have been drinking heavily. Is that true? He was not a drinking man."
"I am quite sure he had not."
There was another question in David's mind, but he did not put it. He sat, with the patience of his age and his new infirmity, waiting for Lucy to bring Harrison Miller, and had it not been for the trembling of his hands Bassett would have thought him calm and even placid.
During the recital that followed somewhat later David did not move. He sat silent, his eyes closed, his face set.
"That's about all," Bassett finished. "He had been perfectly clear in his head all day, and it took headwork to get over the pass. But, as I say, he had simply dropped ten years, and was back to the Lucas trouble. I tried everything I knew, used your name and would have used the young lady's, because sometimes that sort of thing strikes pretty deep, but I didn't know it. He was convinced after a while, but he was dazed, of course. He knew it, that is, but he couldn't comprehend it.
"I was done up, and I've cursed myself for it since, but I must have slept like the dead. I wakened once, early in the night, and he was still sitting by the fire, staring at it. I've forgotten to say that he had been determined all day to go back and give himself up, and the only way I prevented it was by telling him what a blow it would be to you and to the girl. I wakened once and said to him, 'Better get some sleep, old man.' He did not answer at once, and then he said, 'All right.' I was dozing off when he spoke again. He said, 'Where is Beverly Carlysle now? Has she married again?' 'She's revived "The Valley," and she's in New York with it,' I told him.
"When I wakened in the morning he was gone, but he'd left a piece of paper in a cleft stick beside me, with directions for reaching the railroad, and - well, here it is."
Bassett took from his pocket-book a note, and passed it over to David, who got out his spectacles with shaking hands and read it. It was on Dick's prescription paper, with his name at the top and the familiar Rx below it. David read it aloud, his voice husky.
"Many thanks for everything, Bassett," he read. "I don't like to leave you, but you'll get out all right if you follow the map on the back of this. I've had all night to think things out, and I'm leaving you because you are safer without me. I realize now what you've known all day and kept from me. That woman at the hotel recognized me, and they are after me.
"I can't make up my mind what to do. Ultimately I think I'll go back and give myself up. I am a dead man, anyhow, to all who might have cared, but I've got to do one or two things first, and I want to think things over. One thing you've got a right to know. I hated Lucas, but it never entered my head to kill him. How it happened God only knows. I don't."
It was signed "J. C."
Bassett broke the silence that followed the reading.
"I made every effort to find him. I had to work alone, you understand, and from the west side of the range, not to arouse suspicion. They were after me, too, you know. His horse, I heard, worked its way back a few days ago. It's a forsaken country, and if he lost his horse he was in it on foot and without food. Of course there's a chance - "
His voice trailed off. In the stillness David sat, touching with tender tremulous fingers what might be Dick's last message, and gazing at the picture of Dick in his uniform. He knew what they all thought, that Dick was dead and that he held his final words in his hands, but his militant old spirit refused to accept that silent verdict. Dick might be dead to them, but he was living. He looked around the room defiantly, resentfully. Of all of them he was the only one to have faith, and he was bound to a chair. He knew them. They would sit down supinely and grieve, while time passed and Dick fought his battle alone.
No, by God, he would not be bound to a chair. He raised himself and stood, swaying on his shaking legs.
"You've given up," he said scornfully. "You make a few days' search, and then you quit. It's easy to say he's dead, and so you say he's dead. I'm going out there myself, and I'll make a search - "
He collapsed into the chair again, and looked at them with shamed, appealing eyes. Bassett was the first to break the silence, speaking in a carefully emotionless tone.
"I haven't given up for a minute. I've given up the search, because he's beyond finding just now. Either he's got away, or he is - well, beyond help. We have to go on the hypothesis that he got away, and in that case sooner or later you'll hear from him. He's bound to remember you in time. The worst thing is this charge against him."
"He never killed Howard Lucas," David said, in a tone of conviction. "Harrison, read Mr. Bassett my statement to you."
Bassett took the statement home with him that night, and studied it carefully. It explained a great deal that had puzzled him before; Mrs. Wasson's story and David's arrival at the mountain cabin. But most of all it explained why the Thorwald woman had sent him after Dick. She knew then, in spite of her protests to David, that Jud Clark had not killed Lucas.
He paced the floor for an hour or two, sunk in thought, and then unlocked a desk drawer and took out his bankbook. He had saved a little money. Not much, but it would carry him over if he couldn't get another leave of absence. He thought, as he put the book away and prepared for bed, that it was a small price to pay for finding Clifton Hines and saving his own soul.