The Breaking Point by Mary Roberts Rinehart - HTML preview
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David was satisfied. The great love of his life had been given to Dick, and now Dick was his again. He grieved for Lucy, but he knew that the parting was not for long, and that from whatever high place she looked down she would know that. He was satisfied. He looked on his work and found it good. There was no trace of weakness nor of vacillation in the man who sat across from him at the table, or slammed in and out of the house after his old fashion.
But he was not content. At first it was enough to have Dick there, to stop in the doorway of his room and see him within, occupied with the prosaic business of getting into his clothes or out of them, now and then to put a hand on his shoulder, to hear him fussing in the laboratory again, and to be called to examine divers and sundry smears to which Dick attached impressive importance and more impressive names. But behind Dick's surface cheerfulness he knew that he was eating his heart out.
And there was nothing to be done. Nothing. Secretly David watched the papers for the announcement of Elizabeth's engagement, and each day drew a breath of relief when it did not come. And he had done another thing secretly, too; he did not tell Dick when her ring came back. Annie had brought the box, without a letter, and the incredible cruelty of the thing made David furious. He stamped into his office and locked it in a drawer, with the definite intention of saving Dick that one additional pang at a time when he already had enough to hear.
For things were going very badly. The fight was on.
It was a battle without action. Each side was dug in and entrenched, and waiting. It was an engagement where the principals met occasionally the neutral ground of the streets, bowed to each other and passed on.
The town was sorry for David and still fond of him, but it resented his stiff-necked attitude. It said, in effect, that when he ceased to make Dick's enemies his it was willing to be friends. But it said also, to each other and behind its hands, that Dick's absence was discreditable or it would be explained, and that he had behaved abominably to Elizabeth. It would be hanged if it would be friends with him.
It looked away, but it watched. Dick knew that when he passed by on the streets it peered at him from behind its curtains, and whispered behind his back. Now and then he saw, on his evening walks, that line of cars drawn up before houses he had known and frequented which indicated a party, but he was never asked. He never told David.
It was only when the taboo touched David that Dick was resentful, and then he was inclined to question the wisdom of his return. It hurt him, for instance, to see David give up his church, and reading morning prayer alone at home on Sunday mornings, and to see his grim silence when some of his old friends were mentioned.
Yet on the surface things were much as they had been. David rose early, and as he improved in health, read his morning paper in his office while he waited for breakfast. Doctor Reynolds had gone, and the desk in Dick's office was back where it belonged. In the mornings Mike oiled the car in the stable and washed it, his old pipe clutched in his teeth, while from the kitchen came the sounds of pans and dishes, and the odor of frying sausages. And Dick splashed in the shower, and shaved by the mirror with the cracked glass in the bathroom. But he did not sing.
The house was very quiet. Now and then the front door opened, and a patient came in, but there was no longer the crowded waiting-room, the incessant jangle of the telephone, the odor of pungent drugs and antiseptics.
When, shortly before Christmas, Dick looked at the books containing the last quarter's accounts, he began to wonder how long they could fight their losing battle. He did not mind for himself, but it was unthinkable that David should do without, one by one, the small luxuries of his old age, his cigars, his long and now errandless rambles behind Nettie.
He began then to think of his property, his for the claiming, and to question whether he had not bought his peace at too great a cost to David. He knew by that time that it was not fear, but pride, which had sent him back empty-handed, the pride of making his own way. And now and then, too, he felt a perfectly human desire to let Bassett publish the story as his vindication and then snatch David away from them all, to some luxurious haven where - that was the point at which he always stopped - where David could pine away in homesickness for them!
There was an irony in it that made him laugh hopelessly.
He occupied himself then with ways and means, and sold the car. Reynolds, about to be married and busily furnishing a city office, bought it, had it repainted a bright blue, and signified to the world at large that he was at the Rossiter house every night by leaving it at the curb. Sometimes, on long country tramps, Dick saw it outside a farmhouse, and knew that the boycott was not limited to the town.
By Christmas, however, he realized that the question of meeting their expenses necessitated further economies, and reluctantly at last they decided to let Mike go. Dick went out to the stable with a distinct sinking of the heart, while David sat in the house, unhappily waiting for the thing to be done. But Mike refused to be discharged.
"And is it discharging me you are?" he asked, putting down one of David's boots in his angry astonishment. "Well, then, I'm telling you you're not."
"We can't pay you any longer, Mike. And now that the car's gone - "
"I'm not thinking about pay. I'm not going, and that's flat. Who'd be after doing his boots and all?"
David called him in that night and dismissed him again, this time very firmly. Mike said nothing and went out, but the next morning he was scrubbing the sidewalk as usual, and after that they gave it up.
Now and then Dick and Elizabeth met on the street, and she bowed to him and went on. At those times it seemed incredible that once he had held her in his arms, and that she had looked up at him with loving, faithful eyes. He suffered so from those occasional meetings that he took to watching for her, so as to avoid her. Sometimes he wished she would marry Wallace quickly, so he would be obliged to accept what now he knew he had not accepted at all.
He had occasional spells of violent anger at her, and of resentment, but they died when he checked up, one after the other, the inevitable series of events that had led to the catastrophe. But it was all nonsense to say that love never died. She had loved him, and there was never anything so dead as that love of hers.
He had been saved one thing, however; he had never seen her with Wallie Sayre. Then, one day in the country while he trudged afoot to make one of his rare professional visits, they went past together in Wallie's bright roadster. The sheer shock of it sent him against a fence, staring after them with an anger that shook him.
Late in November Elizabeth went away for a visit, and it gave him a breathing spell. But the strain was telling on him, and Bassett, stopping on his way to dinner at the Wheelers', told him so bluntly.
"You look pretty rotten," he said. "It's no time to go to pieces now, when you've put up your fight and won it."
"I'm all right. I haven't been sleeping. That's all."
"How about the business? People coming to their senses?"
"Not very fast," Dick admitted. "Of course it's a little soon."
After dinner at the Wheelers', when Walter Wheeler had gone to a vestry meeting, Bassett delivered himself to Margaret of a highly indignant harangue on the situation in general.
"That's how I see it," he finished. "He's done a fine thing. A finer thing by a damned sight than I'd do, or any of this town. He's given up money enough to pay the national debt - or nearly. If he'd come back with it, as Judson Clark, they wouldn't have cared a hang for the past. They'd have licked his boots. It makes me sick."
He turned on her.
"You too, I think, Mrs. Wheeler. I'm not attacking you on that score; it's human nature. But it's the truth."
"Perhaps. I don't know."
"They'll drive him to doing it yet. He came back to make a place for himself again, like a man. Not what he had, but what he was. But they'll drive him away, mark my words."
Later on, but more gently, he introduced the subject of Elizabeth.
"You can't get away from this, Mrs. Wheeler. So long as she stands off, and you behind her, the town is going to take her side. She doesn't know it, but that's how it stands. It all hangs on her. If he wasn't the man he is, I'd say his salvation hangs on her. I don't mean she ought to take him back; it's too late for that, if she's engaged. But a little friendliness and kindness wouldn't do any harm. You too. Do you ever have him here?"
"How can I, as things are?"
"Well, be friendly, anyhow," he argued. "That's not asking much. I suppose he'd cut my throat if he knew, but I'm a straight-to-the-mark sort of person, and I know this: what this house does the town will do."
"I'll talk to Mr. Wheeler. I don't know. I'll say this, Mr. Bassett. I won't make her unhappy. She has borne a great deal, and sometimes I think her life is spoiled. She is very different."
"If she is suffering, isn't it possible she cares for him?"
But Margaret did not think so. She was so very calm. She was so calm that sometimes it was alarming.
"He gave her a ring, and the other day I found it, tossed into a drawer full of odds and ends. I haven't seen it lately; she may have sent it back."
Elizabeth came home shortly before Christmas, undeniably glad to be back and very gentle with them all. She set to work almost immediately on the gifts, wrapping them and tying them with methodical exactness, sticking a tiny sprig of holly through the ribbon bow, and writing cards with neatness and care. She hung up wreaths and decorated the house, and when she was through with her work she went to her room and sat with her hands folded, not thinking. She did not think any more.
Wallie had sent her a flexible diamond bracelet as a Christmas gift and it lay on her table in its box. She was very grateful, but she had not put it on.
On the morning before Christmas Nina came in, her arms full of packages, and her eyes shining and a little frightened. She had some news for them. She hadn't been so keen about it, at first, but Leslie was like a madman. He was so pleased that he was ordering her that sable cape she had wanted so. He was like a different man. And it would be July.
Elizabeth kissed her. It seemed very unreal, like everything else. She wondered why Leslie should be so excited, or her mother crying. She wondered if there was something strange about her, that it should see so small and unimportant. But then, what was important? That one got up in the morning, and ate at intervals, and went to bed at night? That children came, and had to be fed and washed and tended, and cried a great deal, and were sick now and then?
She wished she could feel something, could think it vital whether Nina should choose pink or blue for her layette, and how far she should walk each day, and if the chauffeur drove the car carefully enough. She wished she cared whether it was going to rain to-morrow or not, or whether some one was coming, or not coming. And she wished terribly that she could care for Wallie, or get over the feeling that she had saved her pride at a cost to him she would not contemplate.
After a time she went upstairs and put on the bracelet. And late in the afternoon she went out and bought some wool, to make an afghan. It eased her conscience toward Nina. She commenced it that evening while she waited for Wallie, and she wondered if some time she would be making an afghan for a coming child of her own. Hers and Wallace Sayre's.
Suddenly she knew she would never marry him. She faced the future, with all that it implied, and she knew she could not do it. It was horrible that she had even contemplated it. It would be terrible to tell Wallie, but not as terrible as the other thing. She saw herself then with the same clearness with which she had judged Dick. She too, leaving her havoc of wrecked lives behind her; she too going along her headstrong way, raising hopes not to be fulfilled, and passing on. She too.
That evening, Christmas eve, she told Wallie she would not marry him. Told him very gently, and just after an attempt of his to embrace her. She would not let him do it.
"I don't know what's come over you," he said morosely. "But I'll let you alone, if that's the way you feel."
"I'm sorry, Wallie. It - it makes me shiver."
In a way he was prepared for it but nevertheless he begged for time, for a less unequivocal rejection. But he found her, for the first time, impatient with his pleadings.
"I don't want to go over and over it, Wallie. I'll take the blame. I should have done it long ago."
She was gentle, almost tender with him, but when he said she had spoiled his life for him she smiled faintly.
"You think that now. And don't believe I'm not sorry. I am. I hate not playing the game, as you say. But I don't think for a moment that you'll go on caring when you know I don't. That doesn't happen. That's all."
"Do you know what I think?" he burst out. "I think you're still mad about Livingstone. I think you are so mad about him that you don't know it yourself."
But she only smiled her cool smile and went on with her knitting. After that he got himself in hand, and - perhaps he still had some hope. It was certain that she had not flinched at Dick's name - told her very earnestly that he only wanted her happiness. He didn't want her unless she wanted him. He would always love her.
"Not always," she said, with tragically cold certainty. "Men are not like women; they forget."
She wondered, after he had gone, what had made her say that.
She did not tell the family that night. They were full of their own concerns, Nina's coming maternity, the wrapping of packages behind closed doors, the final trimming of the tree in the library. Leslie had started the phonograph, and it was playing "Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht."
Still night, holy night, and only in her was there a stillness that was not holy.
They hung up their stockings valiantly as usual, making a little ceremony of it, and being careful not to think about Jim's missing one. Indeed, they made rather a function of it, and Leslie demanded one of Nina's baby socks and pinned it up.
"I'm starting a bank account for the little beggar," he said, and dropped a gold piece into the toe. "Next year, old girl"
He put his arm around Nina. It seemed to him that life was doing considerably better than he deserved by him, and he felt very humble and contrite. He felt in his pocket for the square jeweler's box that lay there.
After that they left Walter Wheeler there, to play his usual part at such times, and went upstairs. He filled the stockings bravely, an orange in each toe, a box of candy, a toy for old time's sake, and then the little knickknacks he had been gathering for days and hiding in his desk. After all, there were no fewer stockings this year than last. Instead of Jim's there was the tiny one for Nina's baby. That was the way things went. He took away, but also He gave.
He sat back in his deep chair, and looked up at the stockings, ludicrously bulging. After all, if he believed that He gave and took away, then he must believe that Jim was where he had tried to think him, filling a joyous, active place in some boyish heaven.
After a while he got up and went to his desk, and getting pen and paper wrote carefully.
"Dearest: You will find this in your stocking in the morning, when you get up for the early service. And I want you to think over it in the church. It is filled with tenderness and with anxiety. Life is not so very long, little daughter, and it has no time to waste in anger or in bitterness. A little work, a little sleep, a little love, and it is all over.
"Will you think of this to-day?"
He locked up the house, and went slowly up to bed Elizabeth found the letter the next morning. She stood in the bleak room, with the ashes of last night's fire still smoking, and the stockings overhead not festive in the gray light, but looking forlorn and abandoned. Suddenly her eyes, dry and fiercely burning for so long, were wet with tears. It was true. It was true. A little work, a little sleep, a little love. Not the great love, perhaps, not the only love of a man's life. Not the love of yesterday, but of to-day and to-morrow.
All the fierce repression of the last weeks was gone. She began to suffer. She saw Dick coming home, perhaps high with hope that whatever she knew she would understand and forgive. And she saw herself failing him, cold and shut away, not big enough nor woman enough to meet him half way. She saw him fighting his losing battle alone, protecting David but never himself; carrying Lucy to her quiet grave; sitting alone in his office, while the village walked by and stared at the windows; she saw him, gaining harbor after storm, and finding no anchorage there.
She turned and went, half blindly, into the empty street. She thought he was at the early service. She did not see him, but she had once again the thing that had seemed lost forever, the warm sense of his thought of her.
He was there, in the shadowy back pew, with the grill behind it through which once insistent hands had reached to summon him. He was there, with Lucy's prayer-book in his hand, and none of the peace of the day in his heart. He knelt and rose with the others.
"0 God, who makest us glad with the yearly remembrance of the birth of Thy Son- "