The Breaking Point by Mary Roberts Rinehart - HTML preview
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Wallie stared at his mother. His mind was at once protesting the fact and accepting it, with its consequences to himself. There was a perceptible pause before he spoke. He stood, if anything, somewhat straighter, but that was all.
"Are you sure it was Livingstone?"
"Positive. I talked to him. I wasn't sure myself, at first. He looked shabby and thin, as though he'd been ill, and he had the audacity to pretend at first he didn't know me. He closed the door on me and - "
"Wait a minute, mother. What door?"
"He was driving a taxicab."
He looked at her incredulously.
"I don't believe it," he said slowly. "I think you've made a mistake, that's all."
"Nonsense. I know him as well as I know you."
"Did he acknowledge his identity?"
"Not in so many words," she admitted. "He said I had made a mistake, and he stuck to it. Then he shut the door and drove me to the station. The only other chance I had was at the station, and there was a line of cabs behind us, so I had only a second. I saw he didn't intend to admit anything, so I said: 'I can see you don't mean to recognize me, Doctor Livingstone, but I must know whether I am to say at home that I've seen you.' He was making change for me at the time - I'd have known his hands, I think, if I hadn't seen anything else-and when he looked up his face was shocking. He said, 'Are they all right?' 'David is very ill,' I said. The cars behind were waiting and making a terrific din, and a traffic man ran up then and made him move on. He gave me the strangest look as he went. I stood and waited, thinking he would turn and come back again at the end of the line, but he didn't. I almost missed my train."
Wallie's first reaction to the news was one of burning anger and condemnation.
"The blackguard!" he said. "The insufferable cad! To have run away as he did, and then to let them believe him dead! For that's what they do believe. It is killing David Livingstone, and as for Elizabeth - She'll have to be told, mother. He's alive. He's well. And he has deliberately deserted them all. He ought to be shot."
"You didn't see him, Wallie. I did. He's been through something, I don't know what. I didn't sleep last night for thinking of his face. It had despair in it." "All right," he said, angrily pausing before her. "What do you intend to do? Let them go on as they are, hoping and waiting; lauding him to the skies as a sort of superman? The thing to do is to tell the truth."
"But we don't know the truth, Wallie. There's something behind it all."
"Nothing very creditable, be sure of that," he pronounced. "Do you think it is fair to Elizabeth to let her waste her life on the memory of a man who's deserted her?"
"It would be cruel to tell her."
"You've got to be cruel to be kind, sometimes," he said oracularly. "Why, the man may be married. May be anything. A taxi driver! Doesn't that in itself show that he's hiding from something?"
She sat, a small obese figure made larger by her furs, and stared at him with troubled eyes.
"I don't know, Wallie," she said helplessly. "In a way, it might be better to tell her. She could put him out of her mind, then. But I hate to do it. It's like stabbing a baby."
He understood her, and nodded. When, after taking a turn or two about the room he again stopped in front of her his angry flush had subsided.
"It's the devil of a mess," he commented. "I suppose the square thing to do is to tell Doctor David, and let him decide. I've got too much at stake to be a judge of what to do."
He went upstairs soon after that, leaving her still in her chair, swathed in furs, her round anxious face bent forward in thought. He had rarely seen her so troubled, so uncertain of her next move, and he surmised, knowing her, that her emotions were a complex of anxiety for himself with Elizabeth, of pity for David, and of the memory of Dick Livingstone's haggard face.
She sat alone for some time and then went reluctantly up the stairs to her bedroom. She felt, like Wallie, that she had too much at stake to decide easily what to do.
In the end she decided to ask Doctor Reynolds' advice, and in the morning she proceeded to do it. Reynolds was interested, even a little excited, she thought, but he thought it better not to tell David. He would himself go to Harrison Miller with it.
"You say he knew you?" he inquired, watching her. "I suppose there is no doubt of that?"
"Certainly not. He's known me for years. And he asked about David."
"I see." He fell into profound thought, while she sat in her chair a trifle annoyed with him. He was wondering how all this would affect him and his prospects, and through them his right to marry. He had walked into a good thing, and into a very considerable content.
"I see," he repeated, and got up. "I'll tell Miller, and we'll get to work. We are all very grateful to you, Mrs. Sayre - "
As a result of that visit Harrison Miller and Bassett went that night to Chicago. They left it to Doctor Reynolds' medical judgment whether David should be told or not, and Reynolds himself did not know. In the end he passed the shuttle the next evening to Clare Rossiter.
"Something's troubling you," she said. "You're not a bit like yourself, old dear."
He looked at her. To him she was all that was fine and good and sane of judgment.
"I've got something to settle," he said. "I was wondering while you were singing, dear, whether you could help me out."
"When I sing you're supposed to listen. Well? What is it?" She perched herself on the arm of his chair, and ran her fingers over his hair. She was very fond of him, and she meant to be a good wife. If she ever thought of Dick Livingstone now it was in connection with her own reckless confession to Elizabeth. She had hated Elizabeth ever since.
"I'll take a hypothetical case. If you guess, you needn't say. Of course it's a great secret."
She listened, nodding now and then. He used no names, and he said nothing of any crime.
"The point is this," he finished. "Is it better to believe the man is dead, or to know that he is alive, but has cut himself off?"
"There's no mistake about the recognition?"
"Somebody from the village saw him in Chicago within day or two, and talked to him."
She had the whole picture in a moment. She knew that Mrs. Sayre had been in Chicago, that she had seen Dick there and talked to him. She turned the matter over in her mind, shrewdly calculating, planning her small revenge on Elizabeth even as she talked.
"I'd wait," she advised him. "He may come back with them, and in that case David will know soon enough. Or he may refuse to, and that would kill him. He'd rather think him dead than that."
She slept quietly that night, and spent rather more time than usual in dressing that morning. Then she took her way to the Wheeler house. She saw in what she was doing no particularly culpable thing. She had no great revenge in mind; all that she intended was an evening of the score between them. "He preferred you to me, when you knew I cared. But he has deserted you." And perhaps, too, a small present jealousy, for she was to live in the old brick Livingstone house, or in one like it, while all the village expected ultimately to see Elizabeth installed in the house on the hill.
She kept her message to the end of her visit, and delivered her blow standing.
"I have something I ought to tell you, Elizabeth. But I don't know how you'll take it."
"Maybe it's something I won't want to hear."
"I'll tell you, if you won't say where you heard it."
But Elizabeth made a small, impatient gesture. "I don't like secrets, Clare. I can't keep them, for one thing. You'd better not tell me."
Clare was nearly balked of her revenge, but not entirely.
"All right," she said, and prepared to depart. "I won't. But you might just find out from your friend Mrs. Sayre who it was she saw in Chicago this week."
It was in this manner, bit by bit and each bit trivial, that the case against Dick was built up for Elizabeth. Mrs. Sayre, helpless before her quiet questioning, had to acknowledge one damning thing after another. He had known her; he had not asked for Elizabeth, but only for David; he looked tired and thin, but well. She stood at the window watching Elizabeth go down the hill, with a feeling that she had just seen something die before her.