The Breaking Point by Mary Roberts Rinehart - HTML preview
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Mrs. Crosby stood on the pavement, gazing after the car as it moved off. She had not her brother's simplicity nor his optimism. Her married years had taken her away from the environment which had enabled him to live his busy, uncomplicated life; where, the only medical man in a growing community, he had learned to form his own sturdy decisions and then to abide by them.
Black and white, right and wrong, the proper course and the improper course - he lived in a sort of two-dimensional ethical world. But to Lucy Crosby, between black and white there was a gray no-man's land of doubt and indecision; a halfway house of compromise, and sometimes David frightened her. He was so sure.
She passed the open door into the waiting-room, where sat two or three patient and silent figures, and went back to the kitchen. Minnie, the elderly servant, sat by the table reading, amid the odor of roasting chicken; outside the door on the kitchen porch was the freezer containing the dinner ice-cream. An orderly Sunday peace was in the air, a gesture of homely comfort, order and security.
Minnie got up.
"I'll unpin your veil for you," she offered, obligingly. "You've got time to lie down about ten minutes. Mrs. Morgan said she's got to have her ears treated."
"I hope she doesn't sit and talk for an hour."
"She'll talk, all right," Minnie observed, her mouth full of pins. "She'd be talking to me yet if I'd stood there. She's got her nerve, too, that woman."
"I don't like to hear you speak so of the patients who come to the house, Minnie."
"Well, I don't like their asking me questions about the family either," said Minnie, truculently. "She wanted to know who was Doctor Dick's mother. Said she had had a woman here from Wyoming, and she thought she'd known his people."
Mrs. Crosby stood very still.
"I think she should bring her questions to the family," she said, after a silence. "Thank you, Minnie."
Bonnet in hand, she moved toward the stairs, climbed them and went into her room. Recently life had been growing increasingly calm and less beset with doubts. For the first time, with Dick's coming to live with them ten years before, a boy of twenty-two, she had found a vicarious maternity and gloried in it. Recently she had been very happy. The war was over and he was safely back; again she could sew on his buttons and darn his socks, and turn down his bed at night. He filled the old house with cheer and with vitality. And, as David gave up more and more of the work, he took it on his broad shoulders, efficient, tireless, and increasingly popular.
She put her bonnet away in its box, and suddenly there rose in her frail old body a fierce and unexpected resentment against David. He had chosen a course and abided by it. He had even now no doubt or falterings. Just as in the first anxious days there had been no doubt in him as to the essential rightness of what he was doing. And now - This was what came of taking a life and moulding it in accordance with a predetermined plan. That was for God to do, not man.
She sat down near her window and rocked slowly, to calm herself. Outside the Sunday movement of the little suburban town went by: the older Wheeler girl, Nina, who had recently married Leslie Ward, in her smart little car; Harrison Miller, the cynical bachelor who lived next door, on his way to the station news stand for the New York papers; young couples taking small babies for the air in a perambulator; younger couples, their eyes on each other and on the future.
That, too, she reflected bitterly! Dick was in love. She had not watched him for that very thing for so long without being fairly sure now. She had caught, as simple David with his celibate heart could never have caught, the tone in Dick's voice when he mentioned the Wheelers. She had watched him for the past few months in church on Sunday mornings, and she knew that as she watched him, so he looked at Elizabeth.
And David was so sure! So sure.
The office door closed and Mrs. Morgan went out, a knitted scarf wrapping her ears against the wind, and following her exit came the slow ascent of David as he climbed the stairs to wash for dinner.
She stopped rocking.
"David!" she called sharply.
He opened the door and came in, a bulky figure, still faintly aromatic of drugs, cheerful and serene.
"D'you call me?" he inquired.
"Yes. Shut the door and come in. I want to talk to you." He closed the door and went to the hearth-rug. There was a photograph of Dick on the mantel, taken in his uniform, and he looked at it for a moment. Then he turned. "All right, my dear. Let's have it."
"Did Mrs. Morgan have anything to say?" He stared at her. "She usually has," he said. "I never knew you considered it worth repeating. No. Nothing in particular."
The very fact that Mrs. Morgan had limited her inquiry to Minnie confirmed her suspicions. But somehow, face to face with David, she could not see his contentment turned to anxiety.
"I want to talk to you about Dick."
"I think he's in love, David."
David's heavy body straightened, but his face remained serene.
"We had to expect that, Lucy. Is it Elizabeth Wheeler, do you think?"
For a moment there was silence. The canary in its cage hopped about, a beady inquisitive eye now on one, now on the other of them.
"She's a good girl, Lucy."
"That's not the point, is it?"
"Do you think she cares for him?"
"I don't know. There's some talk of Wallie Sayre. He's there a good bit."
"Wallie Sayre!" snorted David. "He's never done a day's work in his life and never will." He reflected on that with growing indignation. "He doesn't hold a candle to Dick. Of course, if the girl's a fool - "
Hands thrust deep into his pockets David took a turn about the room. Lucy watched him. At last:
"You're evading the real issue, David, aren't you?" "Perhaps I am," he admitted. "I'd better talk to him. I think he's got an idea he shouldn't marry. That's nonsense."
"I don't mean that, exactly," Lucy persisted. "I mean, won't he want a good many things cleared up before he marries? Isn't he likely to want to go back to Norada?"
Some of the ruddy color left David's face. He stood still, staring at her and silent. "You know he meant to go three years ago, but the war came, and - "
Her voice trailed off. She could not even now easily recall those days when Dick was drilling on the golf links, and that later period of separation.
"If he does go back - "
"Donaldson is dead," David broke in, almost roughly.
"Maggie Donaldson is still living."
"What if she is? She's loyal to the core, in the first place. In the second, she's criminally liable. As liable as I am."
"There is one thing, David, I ought to know. What has become of the Carlysle girl?"
"She left the stage. There was a sort of general conviction she was implicated and - I don't know, Lucy. Sometimes I think she was." He sighed. "I read something about her coming back, some months ago, in 'The Valley.' That was the thing she was playing the spring before it happened." He turned on her. "Don't get that in your head with the rest."
"I wonder, sometimes."
"I know it."
Outside the slamming of an automobile door announced Dick's return, and almost immediately Minnie rang the old fashioned gong which hung in the lower hall. Mrs. Crosby got up and placed a leaf of lettuce between the bars of the bird cage.
"Dinner time, Caruso," she said absently. Caruso was the name Dick had given the bird. And to David: "She must be in her thirties now."
"Probably." Then his anger and anxiety burst out. "What difference can it make about her? About Donaldson's wife? About any hang-over from that rotten time? They're gone, all of them. He's here. He's safe and happy. He's strong and fine. That's gone."
In the lower hall Dick was taking off his overcoat.
"Smell's like chicken, Minnie," he said, into the dining room.
"Chicken and biscuits, Mr. Dick." "Hi, up there!" ho called lustily. "Come and feed a starving man. I'm going to muffle the door-bell !"
He stood smiling up at them, very tidy in his Sunday suit, very boyish, for all his thirty-two years. His face, smilingly tender as he watched them, was strong rather than handsome, quietly dependable and faintly humorous.
"In the language of our great ally," he said, "Madame et Monsieur, le diner est servi."
In his eyes there was not only tenderness but a somewhat emphasized affection, as though he meant to demonstrate, not only to them but to himself, that this new thing that had come to him did not touch their old relationship. For the new thing had come. He was still slightly dazed with the knowledge of it, and considerably anxious. Because he had just taken a glance at himself in the mirror of the walnut hat-rack, and had seen nothing there particularly to inspire - well, to inspire what he wanted to inspire.
At the foot of the stairs he drew Lucy's arm through his, and held her hand. She seemed very small and frail beside him.
"Some day," he said, "a strong wind will come along and carry off Mrs. Lucy Crosby, and the Doctors Livingstone will be obliged hurriedly to rent aeroplanes, and to search for her at various elevations!"
David sat down and picked up the old fashioned carving knife.
"Get the clubs?" he inquired.
Dick looked almost stricken.
"I forgot them, David," he said guiltily. "Jim Wheeler went out to look them up, and I - I'll go back after dinner."
It was sometime later in the meal that Dick looked up from his plate and said:
"I'd like to cut office hours on Wednesday night, David. I've asked Elizabeth Wheeler to go into town to the theater."
"What about the baby at the Homer place?"
"Not due until Sunday. I'll leave my seat number at the box office, anyhow."
"What are you going to see, Dick?" Mrs. Crosby asked. "Will you have some dumplings?"
"I will, but David shouldn't. Too much starch. Why, it's 'The Valley,' I think. An actress named Carlysle, Beverly Carlysle, is starring in it."
He ate on, his mind not on his food, but back in the white house on Palmer Lane, and a girl. Lucy Crosby, fork in air, stared at him, and then glanced at David. But David did not look up from his plate.