THE WORKS OF KATHLEEN NORRIS
THE HEART OF RACHAEL
TO MY TERESA
THE HEART OF RACHAEL
The day had opened so brightly, in such a welcome wave of April sunshine, that by mid-afternoon there were two hundred players scattered over the links of the Long Island Country Club at Belvedere Bay; the men in thick plaid stockings and loose striped sweaters, the women's scarlet coats and white skirts making splashes of vivid color against the fresh green of grass and the thick powdering of dandelions. It was Saturday, and a half- holiday; it was that one day of all the year when the seasons change places, when winter is visibly worsted, and summer, with warmth and relaxation, bathing and tennis and motor trips in the moonlight, becomes again a reality.
There was a real warmth in the sunshine to-day, there was a fragrance of lilac and early roses in the idle breezes. "Hot!" shouted the players exultantly, as they passed each other in the green valleys and over the sunny mounds. "You bet it's hot!" agreed stout and glowing gentlemen, wiping wet foreheads before reaching for a particular club, and panting as they gazed about at the unbroken turf, melting a few miles away into the new green of maple and elm trees, and topped, where the slope rose, by the white columns and brick walls of the clubhouse.
Motor cars swept incessantly back and forth on the smooth roadway; a few riders, their horses wheeling and dancing, went down the bridle path, and there was a sprinkling of young men and women and some shouting and clapping on the tennis-courts. But golf was the order of the day. At the first tee at least two scores of impatient players waited their turn to drive off, and at the last green a group of twenty or thirty men and women, mostly women, were interestedly watching the putting.
Mrs. Archibald Buckney, a large, generously made woman of perhaps fifty, who stood a little apart from the group, with two young women and a mild-looking blond young man, suddenly interrupted a general discussion of scores and play with a personality.
"Is Clarence Breckenridge playing to-day, I wonder? Anybody seen him?"
"Must be," said the more definite of the two rather indefinite girls, with an assumption of bright interest. Leila Buckney, a few weeks ago, had announced her engagement to the mild-looking blond young man, Parker Hoyt, and she was just now attempting to hold him by a charm she suspected she did not possess for him, and at the same time to give her mother and sister the impression that Parker was so deeply in her toils that she need make no further effort to enslave him.
She had really nothing in common with Parker; their conversation was composed entirely of personalities about their various friends, and Leila felt it a great burden, and dreaded the hours she must perforce spend alone with her future husband. It would be much better when they were married, of course, but they could not even begin to talk wedding plans yet, because Parker lived in nervous terror of his aunt's disapproval, and Mrs. Watts Frothingham was just now in Europe, and had not yet seen fit to answer her nephew's dignified notification of his new plans, or the dutiful and gracious note with which Miss Leila had accompanied it.
The truth, though Leila did not know it, was that Mrs. Frothingham had a pretty social secretary named Margaret Clay, a strange, attractive little person, eighteen years old, whose mother had been the old lady's companion for many years. And to Magsie, as they all called her, young Mr. Hoyt had paid some decided attention not many months before. Mrs. Frothingham had seen fit to disapprove these advances then, but she was an extraordinarily erratic and cross-grained old lady, and her silence now had forced her nephew uncomfortably to suspect that she might have changed her mind.
"Darn it!" said the engaging youth to himself "It's none of her business, anyway, what I do!" But it made him acutely uneasy none the less. He was the possessor of a good income, as he stood there, this mild little blond; it came to him steadily and regularly, with no effort at all on his part, but, with his aunt's million—it must be at least that—he felt that he would have been much happier. There it was, safe in the family, and she was seventy-six, and without a direct heir. It would be too bad to miss it now!
He thought of it a great deal, was thinking of it this moment, in fact, and Leila suspected that he was. But Mrs. Buckney, aside from a half-formed wish that young persons were more demonstrative in these days, and that the wedding might be soon, had not a care in the world, and, after a moment's unresponsive silence, returned blithely to her query about Clarence Breckenridge.
"I haven't seen him," responded one of her daughters presently. "Funny, too! Last year he didn't miss a day."
"Of course he'll get the cup as usual, this year," Mrs. Buckney said brightly. "But I don't suppose young people with their heads full of wedding plans will care much about the golf!" she added courageously.
To this Miss Leila answered only with a weary shrug.
"Been drinking lately," Mr. Hoyt volunteered.
"You say he has?" Mrs. Buckney took him up promptly. "Is that so? I knew he did all the time, of course, but I hadn't heard lately. Well—! Pretty hard on Mrs. Breckenridge, isn't it?"
"Pretty hard on his daughter," Miss Leila drawled. "He has all kinds of money, hasn't he, Park?"
"Scads," said Mr. Hoyt succinctly. Conversation languished. Miss Leila presently said decidedly that unless her mother stood still, the sun, which was indeed sinking low in the western sky, got in everyone's eyes. Miss Edith said that she was dying for tea; Mr. Hoyt's watch was consulted. Four o'clock; it was a little too early for tea.
At about five o'clock the sunlight was softened by a steadily rising bank of fog, which drifted in from the east; a mist almost like a light rain beat upon the faces of the last golfers. There were no riders on the bridle path now, and the long line of motor cars parked by the clubhouse doors began to move and shift and lessen. People with dinner engagements melted mysteriously away, lights bloomed suddenly in the dining-room, shades were drawn and awnings furled.
But in the club's great central apartment—which was reception- room, lounging-room, and tea-room, and which, opened to the immense porches, was used for dances in summer, and closed and holly-trimmed, was the scene of many a winter dance as well—a dozen good friends and neighbors lingered for tea. The women, sunk in deep chairs about the blazing logs in the immense fireplace, gossiped in low tones together, punctuating their talk with an occasional burst of soft laughter. The men watched teacups, adding an occasional comment to the talk, but listening in silence for the most part, their amused eyes on the women's interested faces.
Here was a representative group, ranging in age from old Peter Pomeroy, who had been one of the club's founders twelve years ago, and at sixty was one of its prominent members to-day, to lovely Vivian Sartoris, a demure, baby-faced little blonde of eighteen, who might be confidently expected to make a brilliant match in a year or two. Peter, slim, hard, gray-haired and leaden-skinned, well-groomed and irreproachably dressed, was discussing a cotillion with Mrs. Sartoris, a stout, florid little woman who was only twice her daughter's age. Mrs. Sartoris really did look young to be the mother of a popular debutante; she rode and played golf and tennis as briskly as ever; it was her pose to bring up the subject of age at all times, and to threaten Vivian with terrible penalties if she dared marry before her mother was forty at least.
Old Peter Pomeroy, who had a shrewd and disillusioned gray eye, thought, as everyone else thought, that Mrs. Sartoris was an empty-headed little fool, but he rarely talked to a woman who was anything else, and no woman ever thought him anything but markedly courteous and gallant. He was old now, rich, unmarried, quite alone in the world. For forty years he had kept all the women of his acquaintance speculating as to his plans; marriageable women especially—perhaps fifty of them—had been able in all maidenliness to indicate to him that they might easily be persuaded to share the Pomeroy name and fortune. But Peter went on kissing their hands, and thrilling them with an intimate casual word now and then, and did no more.
Perhaps he smiled about it sometimes, in the privacy of his own apartments—apartments which were variously located in a great city hotel, an Adirondacks camp, a luxurious club, his own yacht, and the beautiful home he had built for himself within a mile of the spot where he was now having his tea. Sometimes it seemed amusing to him that so many traps were laid for him. He could appraise women quickly, and now and then he teased a woman of his acquaintance with a delightfully worded description of his ideal of a wife. If the woman thereafter carelessly indicated the possession of the desired qualities in herself, Peter saw that, too, but she never knew it, and never saw him laughing at her. She went on for a month or two dressing brilliantly for his carefully chaperoned little dinners, listening absorbed to his dissertations upon Japanese prints or draperies from Peshawar, until Peter grew tired and drew off, when she must put a brave face upon it and do her share to show that she realized that the little game was over.
He had not been entirely without feminine companionship, however, during the half-century of his life as a man. Everybody knew something—and suspected a great deal more—of various friendships of his. Even the girls knew that Peter Pomeroy was not over- cautious in the management of his affairs, but they did not like him the less, nor did their mothers find him less eligible, in a matrimonial sense. Sometimes he met the older women's hints quite seriously, with brief allusions to some "little girl" who was always as sweet and deserving and virtuous as his own fatherly interference in her affairs was disinterested and kind. "I did what I could for her—risking what might or might not be said," Mr. Pomeroy might add, with a hero's modest smile and shrug. And if nobody ever believed him, at least nobody ever challenged him.
Vivian Sartoris, girlishly perched on the great square leather fender that framed the fireplace, was merely a modern, a very modern, little girl, demurely dressed in the smartest of white taffeta ruffles, with her small feet in white silk stockings and shoes, a daring little black-and-white hat mashed down upon her soft, loose hair, and, slung about her shoulders, a woolly coat of clearest lemon yellow. Vivian gave the impression of a soft little watchful cat, unfriendly, alert, selfish. Her manner was studiedly rowdyish, her speech marred by slang; she loved only a few persons in the world besides herself. One of these few persons, however, was Clarence Breckenridge's daughter, Carol, affectionately known to all these persons as "Billy," and it was in Miss Breckenridge's defence that Vivian was speaking now. A general yet desultory discussion of the three Breckenridges had been going on for some moments. And some particular criticism of the man of the family had pierced Miss Sartoris' habitual attitude of bored silence.
"That's all true about him," she said, idly spreading a sturdy little hand to the blaze. "I have no use for Clarence Breckenridge, and I think Mrs. Breckenridge is absolutely the most cold-blooded woman I ever met! She always makes me feel as if she were waiting to see me make a fool of myself, so that she could smile that smooth superior smile at me. But Carol's different— she's square, she is; she's just top-hole—if you know what I mean—she's the finest ever," finished Miss Sartoris, with a carefully calculated boyishness, "and what I mean to say is, she's never had a fair deal!"
There was a little murmur of assent and admiration at this, and only one voice disputed it.
"You're not called upon to defend Billy Breckenridge, Vivian," said Elinor Vanderwall, in her cool, amused voice. "Nobody's blaming Billy, and Rachael Breckenridge can stand on her own feet. But what we're saying is that Clarence, in spite of what they do to protect him, will get himself dropped by decent people if he goes on as he IS going on! He was tennis champion four or five years ago; he played against an Englishman named Waters, who was about half his age; it was the most remarkable thing I ever saw—"
"Wonderful match!" said Peter Pomeroy, as she paused.
"Wonderful—I should say so!" Miss Vanderwall sighed admiringly at the memory. "Do you remember that one set went to nineteen— twenty-one? Each man won on his own service—'most remarkable match I ever saw! But Clarence Breckenridge couldn't hold a racket now, and his game of bridge is getting to be absolutely rotten. Crime, I call it!"
Vivian Sartoris offered no further remark. Indeed she had drifted into a low-toned conversation with a young man on the fender. Elinor Vanderwall was neither pretty nor rich, and she was unmarried at thirty-four, her social importance being further lessened by the fact that she had five sisters, all unmarried, too, except Anna, the oldest, whose son was in college. Anna was Mrs. Prince; her wedding was only a long-ago memory now. Georgiana, who came next, was a calm, plain woman of thirty-seven, interested in church work and organized charities. Alice was musical and delicate. Elinor was worldly, decisive, the social favorite among the sisters. Jeanette was boyish and brisk, a splendid sportswoman, and Phyllis, at twenty-six, was still babyish and appealing, tiny in build, and full of feminine charms.
All five were good dancers, good tennis and golf players, good horsewomen, and good managers. All five dressed well, talked well, and played excellent bridge. The fact of their not marrying was an eternal mystery to their friends, to their wiry, nervous little father, and their large, fat, serene mother; perhaps to themselves as well. They met life, as they saw it, with great cleverness, making it a rule to do little entertaining at home, where the preponderance of women was most notable, and refusing to accept invitations except singly. The Vanderwall girls were rarely seen together; each had her pose and kept to it, each helped the others to maintain theirs in turn. Alice's music, Georgiana's altruistic duties, these were matters of sacred family tradition, and if outsiders sometimes speculated as to the sisters' sincerity, at least no Vanderwall ever betrayed another. And despite their obvious handicaps, the five girls were regarded as social authorities, and their names were prominently displayed in newspaper accounts of all smart affairs. While making a fine art of feminine friendships, they yet diffused a general impression of being involved in endless affairs of the heart. They were much in demand to fill in bridge tables, to serve on club directorates, to amuse week-end parties, to be present at house weddings, and to remain with the family for the first blank day or two after the bride and groom were gone.
"Queer fellow, Breckenridge," said George Pomeroy, old Peter's nephew, a red-faced, florid, simple man of forty.
"Well, he never should have married as he did, it's all in a mess," a woman's voice said lazily. "Rachael's extraordinary of course—there's no one quite like her. But she wasn't the woman for him. Clarence wanted the little, clinging, adoring kind, who would put cracked ice on his forehead, and wish those bad saloonkeepers would stop drugging her dear big boy. Rachael looks right through him; she doesn't fight, she doesn't care enough to fight. She's just supremely bored by his weakness and stupidity. He isn't big enough for her, either in goodness or badness. I never knew what she married him for, and I don't believe anyone else ever did!"
"I did, for one," said Miss Vanderwall, flicking the ashes from her cigarette with a well-groomed fingertip. "Clarence Breckenridge never was in love but once in his life—no, I don't mean with Paula. I mean with Billy." And as a general nodding of heads confirmed this theory, the speaker went on decidedly: "Since that child was born she's been all the world to him. When he and Paula were divorced—she was the offender—he fretted himself sick for fear he'd done that precious five-year-old an injury. She didn't get on with her grandmother, she drove governesses insane, for two or three years there was simply no end of trouble. Finally he took her abroad, for the excellent reason that she wanted to go. In Paris they ran into Rachael Fairfax and her mother—let's see, that was seven years ago. Rachael was only about twenty-one or two then. But she'd been out since she was sixteen. She had the bel air, she was beautiful—not as pretty as she is now, perhaps— and of course her father was dead, and Rachael was absolutely on the make. She took both Clarence and Billy in hand. I understand the child was wearing jewelry and staying up until all hours every night. Rachael mothered her, and of course the child came to admire her. The funny thing is that Rachael and Billy hit it off very well to this day.
"She and Clarence were married quietly, and came home. And I don't think it was weeks, it was DAYS—and not many days—later, that Rachael realized what a fool she'd been. Clarence had eyes for no one but the girl, and of course she was a fascinating little creature, and she's more fascinating every year."
"She's not as attractive as Rachael at that," said Peter Pomeroy.
"I know, my dear Peter," Miss Vanderwall assented quickly. "But Billy's impulsive, and affectionate, at least, and Rachael is neither. Anyway, Billy's at the age now when she can't think of anything but herself. Her frocks, her parties, her friends—that's all Clarence cares about!"
"Selfish ass!" said a man's voice in the firelight.
"I KNOW Clarence takes Carol and her friends off on week-end trips," some woman said, "and leaves Rachael at home. If Rachael wants the car, she has to ask them their plans. If she accepts a dinner invitation, why, Clarence may drop out the last moment because Carol's going to dine alone at home and wants her Daddy."
"Rachael's terribly decent about it," said the deep voice of old Mrs. Torrence, who was chaperoning a grandson, glad of any excuse to be at the club. "Upon my word I wouldn't be! She will breakfast upstairs many a morning because Clarence likes Carol to pour his coffee. And when that feller comes home tipsy—"
"Five nights a week!" supplemented Peter Pomeroy.
"Five nights a week," the old lady agreed, nodding, "she makes him comfortable, quiets the house, and telephones around generally that Clarence has come home with a splitting headache, and they can't come—to dinner, or cards, or whatever it may be. But of course I don't claim that she loves him, nor pretends to. I can imagine the scornful look with which she goes about it."
"Well, why does she stand it?" said Mrs. Barker Emory, a handsome but somewhat hard-faced woman, with a manner curiously compounded of eagerness and uncertainty.
"Y'know, that's what I've been wondering," an Englishman added interestedly.
"Why, what else would she do?" Miss Vanderwall asked briskly.
"Rachael's a perfectly adorable and brilliant and delightful creature," summarized Peter Pomeroy, "but she's not got a penny nor a relative in the world that I've ever heard of! She's got no grounds for divorcing Clarence, and if she simply wanted to get out, why, now that she's brought Billy up, introduced her generally, whipped the girl into some sort of shape and got her the right sort of friends, I suppose she might get out and welcome!"
"No, Billy honestly likes her," objected Vivian Sartoris.
"She doesn't care for her enough to see that there's fair play," Elinor Vanderwall said quickly.
"Why doesn't she take a leaf from Paula's book," somebody suggested, "and marry again? She could go out West and get a divorce on any grounds she might choose to name."
"Well, Rachael's a cold woman, and a hard woman—in a way," Miss Vanderwall said musingly, after a pause, when the troubles of the Breckenridges kept the group silent for a moment. "But she's a good sport. She gets a home, and clothes, and the club, and a car and all the rest out of it, and she knows Billy and Clarence do need her, in a way, to run things, and to keep up the social end. More than that, Clarence can't keep up this pace long—he's going to pieces fast—and Billy may marry any day—"
"I understand Joe Pickering's a little bit touched in that quarter," said Mrs. Torrence.
"Yes—well, Clarence will never stand for THAT," somebody said.
Little Miss Sartoris neglected the Torrence grandson long enough to say decidedly:
"She wouldn't LOOK at Joe Pickering! Joe drinks, and Billy's had enough of that with her father. Besides, he has no money of his own! He's impossible!"
"Where's the mother all this time?" asked the Englishman. "I mean to say, she's living, isn't she, and all that?"
"Very much alive," Miss Vanderwall said. "Married to an Italian count—Countess Luca d' Asafo. His people have cut him off; they're Catholics. She has two little girls; there's an uncle who's obliged to leave property to a son, and it serves Paula quite right, I think. Where they live, or what on, I haven't the remotest idea. I saw her in a car on Fifth Avenue, not so long ago, with two heavy little black-haired girls; she looked sixty."
"Her sister, you know, was thick with my niece, Barbara Olliphant," said Peter Pomeroy. "And funny thing!—when Barbara was married..."
It was a long story, and fortunately moved away from the previous topic; so that when it was presently interrupted by the arrival of two women, everybody in the group had cause to feel gratitude for a merciful deliverance.
The two women were Rachael and Carol Breckenridge, who came in a little breathless, the throbbing engine of their motor car still sounding faintly from the direction of the club doorway. Carol, a slender, black-eyed, dusky-skinned girl of seventeen, took her place beside Miss Sartoris on the fender, granting a brief unsmiling nod to one or two friends, and eying the group between the loose locks of her smoky, cropped black hair with the inscrutable, almost brooding, expression that was her favorite affectation. Her lithe, loosely built little body was as flat as a boy's, she clasped her crossed knees with slender, satin-smooth little brown hands, exposing by her attitude a frill of embroidered petticoat, a transparent stretch of ash-gray silk stocking, and smart ash-gray buckskin slippers with silver buckles.
She was an effective little figure in the mingled twilight and firelight, but it was toward her beautiful stepmother that everybody looked as Rachael Breckenridge seated herself on the arm of old Mrs. Torrence's chair and sent a careless greeting about the circle.
"Hello, everybody!" she said, in a voice of extraordinary richness and sweetness, "Peter, Dolly, Vivian—HELLO, Elinor! How do you do, Mrs. Emory?" There was an aside when the newcomer said imperatively to a club attendant, "We'll have some light here, please!" Then she resumed easily: "I do beg your pardon, Mrs. Emory, I interrupted you—"
"I only said that you were a little late for tea," said Mrs. Emory, sweetly, wishing with a sort of futile rage that she could learn to say almost nothing when this other woman, with her insulting bright air of making one feel inferior, was about. The Emorys had lived in Belvedere Hills for two years, coming from Denver with much money and irrefutable credentials. They had been members of the club perhaps half that time, members in good standing. But Mrs. Emory would have paid a large sum to have Rachael Breckenridge call her "Belle," and Rachael Breckenridge knew it.
The lights, duly poured in a soft flood from all sides of the room, revealed in Mrs. Breckenridge one of those beauties that an older generation of diarists and letter writers frankly spelled with a capital letter as distinguishing her charms from those of a thousand of lesser degree. When such beauty is unaccompanied by intellect it is a royal dower, and its possessor may serenely command half a century of unquestioning adoration from the sons of men, and all the good things of life as well.
But when there is a soul behind the matchless eyes, and a keen wit animates the lovely mouth, and when the indication of the white forehead is not belied, it is a nice question whether great beauty be a gift of benign or malicious fairies. Not a woman in this room or in any room she entered could look at Rachael Breckenridge without a pang; her supremacy was beyond all argument or dispute. And yet there was neither complacency nor content in the lovely face; it wore its usual expression of arrogant amusement at a somewhat tiresome world.
Both in the instant impression it made, and under closest analysis, Rachael Breckenridge's beauty stood all tests. Her colorless skin was as pure as ivory, her dark-blue eyes, surrounded by that faint sooty color that only Irish eyes know, were set far apart and evenly arched by perfect brows. Her white forehead was low and broad, the lustreless black hair was swept back from it with almost startling simplicity, the line of her mouth was long, her lips a living red. Her figure, as she sat balancing carelessly on a chair-arm, showed the exquisite curves of a woman slow to develop, who is approaching the height of her beauty, and from the tip of her white shoe to the poppies on her soft straw hat there was that distinction in her clothing that betrayed her to be one of the few who may be always individual yet always in the fashion. She was a woman, quick, dynamic, impatient, who vitalized the very atmosphere in which she moved, challenging life by endless tests and measures, scornful of admiration, and ambitious, even in this recognized ambition of finding herself beautiful, prominent, and a rich man's wife, for something further and greater, she knew not what. She was an important figure in this world of hers; her word was authority, her decree law. Never was censure so quick as hers, never criticism so biting, or satire so witty. No human emotion was too sacred to form a target for her glancing arrows, nor was any affection deep enough to arouse in her anything but doubt and scorn.
"I don't want any tea, thank you, Peter," she said now, in the astonishingly rich voice that seemed to fill the words with new meaning. "And I won't allow the Infant to have any—no, Billy, you shall not. You've got a complexion, child; respect it. Besides, you've just had some. Besides, we're here for only two seconds— it's six o'clock. We're looking for Clarence—we seek a husband fond, a parent dear—"
"Clarence hasn't showed up here at all to-day," said Peter Pomeroy, stretching back comfortably in his chair, appreciative eyes upon Clarence's wife. "Shame, too, for we had some good golf. Course is in splendid condition. George beat me three up and two to play, but I don't bear any malice. Here I am signing for his highball."
"Well, then, we'll go on home," Mrs. Breckenridge said, without, however, changing her relaxed position. "Clarence is probably there; we've been playing cards at the Parmalees', or at least I have. Billy and Katrina were playing tennis with Kent and—who's the red-headed child you were enslaving this afternoon, Bill?"
"Porter Pinckard," Miss Breckenridge answered, indifferently, before entering into a confidential exchange of brevities with Miss Sartoris.
"I'll call him out, and run him through the liver," said Peter Pomeroy, "the miserable catiff! I'll brook no rivals, Billy."
Billy merely smiled lazily at this; her eyes were far more eloquent than her tongue, as she was well aware.
"Let her alone, Fascination Fledgerby!" said Mrs. Breckenridge briskly. "Why can't we take you home with us, Elinor? We go your way."
"You may," said Miss Vanderwall, rising. "You're dining at the Chases', aren't you, Billy? So am I. But I was going to change here. Where are you dining, Rachael?"
"Change at my house," Mrs. Breckenridge suggested, or rather commanded. "I'm dining in my room, I think. I'm all in." But the clear and candid eyes deceived no one. Clarence was misbehaving again, everybody decided, and poor Rachael could not bespeak five minutes of her own time until this particular period of intemperance was over. Miss Vanderwall, settling herself in the beautiful Breckenridge car five minutes later, faced the situation boldly.
"Where's Clarence, Rachael?"
"I haven't the remotest idea, my dear woman," said Mrs. Breckenridge frankly, yet with a warning glance at the back of her stepdaughter's head. Billy was at the wheel. "He didn't dine at home last night—"
"But we knew where he was," Billy said quickly, half turning.
"We knew where he was," agreed the older woman. "Watch where you're going, Bill! He told Alfred that he was dining in town, with a friend, talking business."
"I thought it was the night of Berry Stokes' dinner," suggested Miss Vanderwall.
"He wasn't there—I asked him not to go," said Billy.
"Oh—" Miss Vanderwall began and then abruptly stopped. "Oh!" said she mildly, in polite acquiescence.
They were sweeping through the April roadsides so swiftly that it was only a moment later when Rachael, reaching for the door, remarked cheerfully, "Here we are!"
The car had entered a white stone gateway, and was approaching a certain charming country mansion, one that was not conspicuous among a thousand others strewn over the neighboring hills and valleys, but a beautiful home nevertheless. Vines climbed the brick chimneys, and budding hydrangeas, in pots, topped the white balustrades of the porch. A hundred little details of perfect furnishing would have been taken for granted by the casual onlooker, yet without its lawns, its awnings, its window boxes and snowy curtaining, its glimpse of screened veranda and wicker chairs, its trim assembly of garage, stable, and servants' cottages, its porte-cochere, sleeping porches, and tennis court, it would have seemed incomplete and uncomfortable to its owners.
Rachael Breckenridge neither liked it nor disliked it. It had been her home for the seven years of her married life, except for the month or two she spent every winter in a New York hotel. She had never had any great happiness in it, to be sure, but then her life had been singularly lacking in moments of real happiness, and she had valued other elements, and desired other elements more. She had not expected to be happy in this house, she had expected to be rich and envied, and secure, and she was all of these things. That they were not worth attaining, no one knew better than Rachael now.
The house was of course a great care to her, the more so because Billy was in it so little, and was so frankly eager for the time when she should leave it and go to a house of her own, and because Clarence was absolutely indifferent to it in his better moods, and pleased with nothing when he was in the grip of his besetting sin. The Breckenridges did little formal entertaining, but the man of the house liked to bring men down from town for week-end visits, and Billy brought her young friends in and out with youthful indifference to domestic regulations, so that on Rachael, as housekeeper, there fell no light burden.
She carried it gracefully, knitting her handsome brows as the seasons brought about their endless problems, discussing bulbs with old Rafael in the garden when the snow melted, discussing paper and paint in the first glory of May, superintending the making of iced drinks on the hot summer afternoons, and in October filling her woodroom duly with the great logs that would blaze neglected in the drawing-room fireplace all winter long. The house was not large, as such houses go; too much room was wasted by a very modern architect in linen closets and coat closets, bathrooms and hall space, dressing-rooms, passages, and nooks and corners generally. Yet Rachael's guest-rooms were models in their way, and when she gave a luncheon the women who came were always ready to exclaim in despairing admiration over the beauty of the gardens, the flower-filled, airy rooms, the table appointments, and the hostess herself.
But when they said that she was "wonderful"—and it was the inevitable word for Rachael Breckenridge-the general meaning went deeper than this. She was wonderful in her pride, the dignity and the silence of her attitude toward her husband; she had been a wonderful mother to Clarence's daughter; not a loving mother, perhaps—she was not loving to anyone—but a miracle of determination and clearness of vision.
Who else, her friends wondered, could have cleared the social horizon for Paula Breckenridge's daughter so effectively? With what brisk resoluteness the new mother had cut short the aimless European wanderings, cropped the child's artificially curled hair, given away the unsuitable silk stockings and the ridiculous frocks and hats. Billy, shorn and bewildered, had been brought home; had entered Miss Proctor's select school, entered Miss Roger's select dancing class, entered Professor Darling's expensive riding classes. Billy, in dark-blue Peter Thompsons, in black stockings and laced boots, had been dropped in among other little girls in Peter Thompsons and laced boots, little girls with the approved names of Whittaker and Bowditch, Moran and Merridew and Parmalee.
Billy had never doubted her stepmother's judgment; like all of the new Mrs. Breckenridge's friends, she was deeply, dumbly impressed with that lady's amazing efficiency. She had been a spoiled and discontented little rowdy. She became an entirely self-satisfied little gentlewoman. Clarence, jealously watching her progress, knew that Rachael was doing for his daughter far more than he could ever do himself.
But Rachael, if she had expected reward, reaped none. Her husband was a supremely selfish man, and his daughter inherited his sublime ability to protect his own pleasure at any cost. Carol admired her step-mother, but she was an indolent and luxury-loving little soul, and even as early as her twelfth or fourteenth year she had been deeply flattered by the evidences of her own power over her father. Into her youthful training no reverence for parents—real or adopted—had been infused; she called her father "Clancy," as some of his intimate friends called him, and he delighted to take her orders and bow to her pretty tyranny.
Before she was sixteen he began to take her about with him: to dances, to the theatre, and for long trips in his car. He entered eagerly into her young friendships, frantic to prove himself as young at heart as she. He paid her the extravagant compliments of a lover, and gave her her grandmother's beautiful jewelry, as well as every trinket that caught her eye.
And Billy accepted his attentions with a finished coquetry that was far from childlike, a flush on her satin cheek, a dimple puckering the corner of her mouth, and silky lashes lowered over her satisfied eyes. She was inevitably precocious in many ways, but she was young enough still to fancy herself one of the irresistible beauties and belles of the world, and to flaunt a perfectly conscious arrogance in the eyes of all other women.
All this was bewildering and painful to Rachael. She had never loved her husband—love entered into none of her relationships— her marriage had been only a step in the steady progress of her life toward the position she desired in the world. But she had liked him. She had liked his child, and she had come into the new arrangement kindly and gallantly determined to make the venture at least as profitable to them both as it was to her.
To be ignored, to be deliberately set aside, to be insulted by a selfishness so calculating and so deliberate as to make her own attitude seem all warmth and generosity by comparison, genuinely astonished her. At first, indeed, a sort of magnificent impatience had prevented her from feeling any stronger emotion than astonishment. It was too ridiculous, said the bride to herself tolerantly; it could not go on, of course, this preposterous consideration of a child of ten, this belittling consideration of her own place in the scheme as less Clarence's wife than Billy's mother. It must adjust itself with every week that they three lived together, the child slipping back to her own life, the husband and wife sharing theirs. When Clarence's first fears for his daughter's comfort under the new rule were set at rest, when his confidence in the wisdom and efficiency of his wife was fully established, then a normal relationship must ensue. "Surely Clarence wouldn't ask a woman to marry him just to give Billy a home and social backing?" Rachael asked herself, in those first puzzled days in Paris.
That was seven years ago. She knew exactly that for truth now. Long ago she had learned that whatever impulse had moved Clarence Breckenridge to ask her to marry him was quickly displaced by his vision of Billy's need as being greater than his own.
It had been an unpalatable revelation, for Rachael was a woman proud as well as beautiful. But presently she had accepted the situation as it stood, somehow fighting her way, as the years went by, to fresh acceptances: the acceptance of Billy's ripening charms, the acceptance of Clarence's more and more frequent times of inebriated irresponsibility. Silently she made her mental adjustments, moving through her gay and empty life in an unsuspected bitterness of solitude, won to protest and rebellion only when the cold surface she presented to the world was threatened from within or without.
It was distinctly threatened now, she realized with a little sick twist of apprehension at heart, when her casual inquiry to a maid upon entering was answered by a discreet, "Yes, Mrs. Breckenridge, Mr. Breckenridge came home half an hour ago. Alfred is with him."
This was unexpected. Rachael did not glance either at her guest or her stepdaughter, but she disposed of them both in a breath.
"Someone wants you on the telephone, Billy," she repeated after the maid's information. "Take it in the library. Run right up to my room, Elinor, and I'll be there in two minutes. I'll send some one in with towels and brushes; you've time for a tub. Take these things, Helda, and give them to Annie, and tell her to lookout for Miss Vanderwall."
The square entrance hall was sweet with flowers in the early spring evening, Oriental rugs were spread on the dull mirror of the floor, opened doors gave glimpses of airy colonial interiors, English chintzes crowded with gay colored fruits and flowers, brick fireplaces framed in classic white and showing a brave gleam of brass firedogs in the soft lamplight. Not a book on the long tables, not an etching on the dull rich paper of the walls, struck a false note. It was all exquisitely in tone.
But Rachael Breckenridge, at best, saw less its positive perfections than the tiniest opening through which an imperfection might push its way, and in such an hour as this she saw it not at all. Her mouth a trifle firm in its outline, her face a little pale, she went quickly up the wide white stairway and along the open balcony above. There were several doors on this balcony, which was indeed the upper hall. Mrs. Breckenridge opened one of them without knocking, and closed it noiselessly behind her.
The room into which she admitted herself presented exactly the picture she had expected. The curtains, again of richly colored cretonne, were drawn, a softly toned lamp on the reading table, and another beside the bed, cast circles of pleasant light on the comfortable wicker chairs, the cream-colored woodwork, and the scattered books and magazines. Several photographs of Carol, beautifully framed, were on bookcase and dresser, and a fine oil painting of the child at fourteen looked down from the mantel. On the bed, a mahogany four-poster, with carved pineapples finishing the posts, the frilled cretonne cover had been flung back; Mr. Breckenridge had retired; his blond head was sunk in the pillows; he clutched the blankets about him with his arms, his face was not visible.
A quiet manservant, who was by turns butler, chauffeur, and valet, was stepping softly about the room. Rachael interrogated him in a low tone:
"Oh, no, ma'am!" the man said quickly. "He's been feeling ill. He says he has a chill."
"When did he get home?" the wife asked.
"About half an hour ago, Mrs. Breckenridge. Mr. Butler telephoned me. Some of the gentlemen were going on—to one of the beach hotels for dinner, I believe, but Mr. Breckenridge felt himself too unwell to join them, so I went for him with the little car, and Mr. Joe Butler and Mr. Parks came home with him, Mrs. Breckenridge."
"Do you know if he went to bed last night at all?"
"No, ma'am, he said he did not. All the gentlemen looked as if they—looked as if they might have—" Alfred hesitated delicately. "It was Mr. Berry Stokes' bachelor dinner," he presently added.
At this moment there was a convulsion in the bed, and the red face of Clarence Breckenridge revealed itself. The eyes were bloodstained, the usually pale skin flushed and oily, the fair, thin hair tumbled across a high and well-developed forehead. Rachael knew every movement of the red and swollen lips, every tone of the querulous voice.
"Does Alfred have to stay up here doing a chambermaid's work?" demanded the man of the house fretfully. "My God! Can you or can't you manage—between your teas and card parties—to get someone else to put this room in order?" He ended in a long moan, and dropped his head again into the pillows.
"Do you know what he wants?" Rachael asked the man in a quick whisper. "Go down and get it, then!"
"I'm co-o-old!" said the man in the bed, going into a sudden and violent chill. "I've caught my death, I think. Joe made a punch— some sort of an eggnog—eggs were bad, I think. I'm poisoned. The stuff was rotten!" He sank mumbling back into the pillows.
Rachael, who had been hanging his coat carefully in the big closet adjoining his room, came to the bedside and laid her cool fingers on his burning forehead. If irrepressible distaste was visible in her face, it was only a faint reflection of the burning resentment in her heart.
"You've got a fever, Clarence," she announced quietly. The answer was only a furious and incoherent burst of denunciation; the patient was in utter physical discomfort, and could not choose his terms. Rachael—not for the first nor the hundredth time—felt within her an impulse to leave him here, leave him to outwear his miseries without her help. But this she could not do without throwing the house into an uproar. Clarence at these times had no consideration for public opinion, had no dignity, no self-control. Much better satisfy him, as she had done so many times before, and keep a brave face to the world.
So she placed a hot-water bag against his cold feet, went to her own room adjoining to borrow a fluffy satin comforter with which to augment his own bed covering, laid an icy towel upon his throbbing forehead, and when Alfred presently appeared with a decanter of whisky, Rachael watched her husband eagerly gulp down a glass of it without uttering one word of the bitter protest that rose to her lips.
She was not a prude, with the sublime inconsistency of most women whose lives are made the darker for drink; she did not identify herself with any movement toward prohibition, or refuse the cocktails, the claret, and the wine that were customarily served at her own and at other people's dinner-tables. But she hated coarseness in any form, she hated contact with the sodden, self- pitying, ugly animal that Clarence Breckenridge became under the influence of drink.
To-night, when he presently fell asleep, somewhat more comfortable in body, and soothed in spirit by the promise of a visit from the doctor, Rachael went into her own room and sinking into a deep chair sat staring stupidly at the floor. She did not think of the husband she had just left, nor of the formal dinner party being given, only half a mile away, to a great English novelist—a dinner to which the Breckenridges had of course been asked and upon which Rachael had weeks ago set her heart. She was tired, and her thoughts floated lazily about nothing at all, or into some opaque region of their own knowing, where the ills of the body might not follow.
Presently Miss Vanderwall, clothed in a trailing robe of soft Arabian cotton, came briskly out of the bathroom, her short dark hair hanging in a mane about her rosy face.
"Why so pensive, Rachael?" she asked cheerfully, pressing a button that lighted the circle of globes about the dressing-table mirror, and seating herself before it. But under her loose locks she sent a keen and concerned look at her hostess' thoughtful face.
"Tired," Rachael answered briefly, not changing her attitude, but with a fleeting shadow of a smile.
"Asleep. He's wretched, poor fellow! Berry Stokes' bachelor dinner, you know. That crowd is bad for him."
"I KNEW it must have been an orgy!" Miss Vanderwall declared vivaciously. "That was a silly slip of mine in the car. Billy doesn't know he went, I suppose?"
"No, he promised her he wouldn't. But everyone was at the dinner. Some of them came home early, I believe. But it was all kept quiet, because Aline Pearsall is such a little shrinking violet, I suppose," Mrs. Breckenridge said. "The Pearsalls are to think it was just an impromptu affair. Billy and Aline of course have no idea what a party it was. But Clarence says that poor Berry was worse than he, and a few of them are still keeping it up. It's a shame, of course—"
Her uninterested voice dropped into silence.
"Men are queer," Miss Vanderwall said profoundly, busy with ivory- backed brushes, powders, and pastes.
"The mystery to me—about men," mused Mrs. Breckenridge, her absent eyes upon the buckled slipper she held in her hand, "is not that they are as helpless as babies the moment anything goes wrong with their poor little heads or their poor little tummies, but that they work so hard, in spite of that, to increase the general discomfort of living. Women have a great deal of misery to bear, they are brave or cowardly about it as the case may be, but at least they endure and renounce and diet and keep early hours—or whatever's to be done—they TRY to lessen the sum of physical misery. But men go cheerily on—they smoke too much, and eat too much, and drink too much, and they bring the resulting misery sweetly and confidently to some woman to bear for them. It's hopeless!"
"H'm!" was Miss Vanderwall's thoughtful comment. Presently she added dubiously: "Did you ever think that another child might make a big difference to Clarence, Rachael? That he might come to care for a son as he does for Billy, don't you know—"
"Oh, I wasn't speaking of Clarence," Mrs. Breckenridge said coldly. And Elinor, recognizing a false step, winced inwardly.
"No, I didn't suppose you were!" she assented hastily.
"If there's one thing I AM thankful for," Rachael presently said moodily, "it's that I haven't a child. I'm rather fond of kiddies- -nice kiddies, myself; and Clarence likes children, too. But things are quite bad enough now without that complication!" She brushed the loosened hair from her face restlessly, and sighed. "Sometimes, when I see the other girls," said she, "I think I'd make a rather good mother! However"—and getting suddenly to her feet, she flung up her head as if to be rid of the subject— "however, my dear, we shall never know! Don't mind me to-night, Elinor, I'm in a horrible mood, it will take nothing at all to set me off in what Bill used to call a regilyer tant'um!"
"Tantrum nothing," said Elinor, in eager sympathy, feeling with the greatest relief that she was reinstated in Rachael's good graces after her stupid blunder. "I don't see how you stand it at all!"
"It isn't the drinking and headaches and general stupidity in themselves, you know," Rachael said, reverting to her original argument, "but it's the atrocious UNNECESSITY of it! I don't mind Clarence's doing as other men do, I certainly don't mind his caring so much for his daughter"—her fine brows drew together— "but where do I come in?" she demanded with a quizzical smile. "What's MY life? I ask only decency and civility, and I don't get it. The very servants in this house pity me—they see it all. When Clarence isn't himself, he needs me; when he is, he is all for Billy. I must apologize for breaking engagements; people don't ask us out any more, and no wonder! I have to coax money out of him for bills; Billy has her own check-book. I have to keep quiet when I'm boiling all over. I have to defend myself when I know I'm bitterly, cruelly wronged!"
Neither woman had any scruples about the subject under discussion, but even to Elinor Rachael had never spoken so freely before, and the guest, desperately attempting to remember every word for the delectation of her family and friends later on, felt herself at once honored and thrilled.
"Rachael—but why do you stand it?"
Mrs. Breckenridge threw her a look full of all conscious forbearance.
"Well, what would YOU do?"
"Well. I'd"—Miss Vanderwall arrested the hand with which she was carefully spreading her lips with red paste, to fling it, with a large gesture, into the air—"I'd—why don't you GET OUT? Simply drop it all?" she asked.
"For several reasons," the other woman returned promptly with a sort of hard, bright pride. "One very excellent one is that I haven't one penny. But I tell you, Elinor, if I knew how to put my hand on about a thousand dollars a year—there are little towns in France, I have friends in London—well"—and with a sudden straightening of her whole body Rachael Breckenridge visibly rallied herself—"well, what's the use of talking?" she said. But, as she rose abruptly, Elinor saw the glint of tears on her lashes, and said to herself with a sort of pleased terror that things between Clarence and Rachael must be getting serious indeed.
She admired Mrs. Breckenridge deeply; more than that, the younger woman's friendship and patronage were valuable assets to Miss Vanderwall. But the social circle of Belvedere Hills was a small circle, and Elinor had spent every one of her thirty-five summers, or a part of every one, in just this limited group. There was little malice in her pleasure at getting this glimpse behind the scenes in Rachael's life; she would repeat her friend's confidence, later, with the calm of a person doing the accepted and expected thing, with the complacence of one who proves her right to other revelations from her listeners in turn. It was by such proof judiciously displayed that Elinor held her place in the front ranks of her own select little group of gossips and intimates. She wished the Breckenridges no harm, but if there were dark elements in their lives, Elinor enjoyed being the person to witness them. Thoughtfully adding a bloom to her cheeks with her friend's exquisite powder, Miss Vanderwall reflected sagely that, when one came to think of it, it must really be rather rotten to be married to Clarence Breckenridge.
Rachael presently came back, with the signs of her recent emotion entirely effaced, and her wonderful skin glowing faintly from a bath. Superbly independent of cosmetics, independent even of her mirror, she massed the thick short lengths of dark hair on the top of her head, thrust a jewelled pin through the coil, and began to hook herself into a lacy black evening gown that was loose and comfortable. Before this was finished her stepdaughter rapped on the door, and being invited, came in with the full self- consciousness of seventeen.
"All hooked up straight?" asked Rachael. "That gown looks rather well."
"Do you good women realize what time it is?" Miss Breckenridge asked, by way of reply.
"Has she got it a shade too short?" speculated Rachael, thoughtful eyes on the girl's dress.
"Well—I was wondering!" Carol said eagerly, flinging down her wrap, to turn and twist before a door that was a solid panel of mirror. "What do you think—we'll dance."
"Oh, not a bit," Rachael presently decided. "They're all up to the knees this year, anyway. Car come round?"
"Long ago," said Billy, and Elinor, reaching for her own wrap, declared herself ready. "I wish you were going, Rachael," the girl added as she turned to follow their guest from the room.
"Come back here a moment, Bill," Mrs. Breckenridge said casually, seating herself at the dressing-table without a glance at her stepdaughter. For a moment Miss Breckenridge stood irresolute in the doorway, then she reluctantly came in.
"You're just seventeen, Billy," said the older woman indifferently. "When you're eighteen, next March, I suppose you may do as you please. But until then—either see a little less of Joe Pickering, or else come right out in the open about it, and tell your father you want to see him here. This silly business of telephoning and writing and meeting him, here, there, and everywhere, has got to stop."
Billy stared steadily at her stepmother, her breath coming quick and high, her cheeks red.
"Who said I met him—places?" she said, in a seventeen-year-old- girl's idea of a tragic tone. Mrs. Breckenridge's answer to this was a shrug, a smile, and a motherly request not to be a fool.
There was silence for a moment. Then Billy said recklessly:
"I like him. And you can't make me deny it!"
"Like him if you want to," said Mrs. Breckenridge, "although what you can see in a man twice your age—with his particular history— However, it's your affair. But you'll have to tell your father."
Billy shut her lips mutinously, her cheeks still scarlet.
"I don't see why!" she burst forth proudly, at last.
To this Mrs. Breckenridge offered no argument. Carefully filing a polished fingertip she said quietly:
"I didn't suppose you would."
"And I think that if you tell him YOU interfere in a matter that doesn't in the LEAST concern you," Billy pursued hotly, uncomfortably eager to strike an answering spark, and reduce the conversation to a state where mutual concessions might be in order. "You have no BUSINESS to!"
Her stepmother was silent. She put on a ring, regarded it thoughtfully on her spread fingers, and took it off again.
"In the first place," Billy said sullenly, "you'll tell him a lot of things that aren't so!"
Silence. Outside the motor horn sounded impatiently. Billy suddenly came close to her stepmother, her dark, mobile little face quite transformed by anger.
"You can tell him what you please," she said in a cold fury, "but I'll know WHY you did it—it's because you're jealous, and you want everyone in the world to be in love with YOU! You hate me because my father loves me, and you would do anything in the world to make trouble between us! I've known it ever since I was a little girl, even if I never have said it before! I—" She choked, and tears of youthful rage came into her eyes.
"Don't be preposterous, Bill. You've said it before, every time you've been angry, in the last five years," the older woman said coolly. "This only means that you will feel that you have to wake me up, when you come in to-night, to say that you are sorry."
"I will not!" said the girl at white heat.
"Well, I hope you won't," Rachael Breckenridge said amiably, "for if there is one thing I loathe more than another, it is being waked up for theatricals in the middle of the night. Good-bye. Be sure to thank Mrs. Bowditch for chaperoning you."
"Are you going to speak to Clancy?" the girl demanded imperiously.
"Run along, Billy," Rachael said, with a faint show of impatience. "Nobody could speak to your father about anything to-night, as you ought to know."
For a moment Billy stood still, breathing hard and with tightly closed lips, her angry eyes on her step-mother. Then her breast rose on a childish, dry sob, she dropped her eyes, and moved a shining slipper-toe upon the rug with the immortal motion of embarrassed youth.
"You—you used to like Joe, Rachael," she said, after a moment, in a low tone.
"I don't dislike him now," Rachael said composedly.
"He's awfully kind—and—and good, and Lucy never understood him, or tried to understand him!" said Billy in a burst. The other woman smiled.
"If Joe Pickering told you any sentimental nonsense like that, kindly don't retail it to me," she said amusedly.
In a second Billy was roused to utter fury. Her cheeks blazed, her breath came short and deep. "I hate you!" she said passionately, and ran from the room.
Mrs. Breckenridge sat still for a few moments, but there was no emotion but utter weariness visible in her face. After a while she said, "Oh, Lord!" in a tone compounded of amusement and disgust, and rising, she took a new book from the table, and went slowly downstairs.
In the lower hall Alfred met her, his fat young face duly mysterious and important in expression.
"Mr. Breckenridge got a telephone message from Doctor Jordan, Mrs. Breckenridge; the doctor's been called into town to a patient, so he can't see Mr. Breckenridge to-night."
"Oh! Well, he'll probably be here in the morning," Rachael said carelessly.
"Excuse me, Mrs. Breckenridge, but Mr. Breckenridge seemed to be a good deal worried about himself, and he had me call Doctor Gregory," the man pursued respectfully.
"Doctor GREGORY!" echoed his mistress, with a laugh like a wail. "Alfred, what were you THINKING of! Why didn't you call me?"
"He wouldn't have me call you," Alfred said unhappily. "He spoke to the doctor himself. We got the housekeeper first, and she said Doctor Gregory was dressing. 'Tell him it's a matter of life and death,' says Mr. Breckenridge. Then we got him. 'I'm dining out,' he says, 'but I'll be there this evening.'"
"Oh, dear, dear, dear!" Mrs. Breckenridge said half to herself in serio-comic desperation. "Gregory—called in for a—for a—for this! If I could get hold of him! He didn't say where he was dining?"
"No, Mrs. Breckenridge," the man answered, with a great air of efficiency.
"Well, Alfred, I wish sometimes you knew a little more—or a little less!" Rachael said dispassionately. "Light a fire in the library, will you? I'll have my dinner there. Tell Ellie to send me up something broiled—nothing messy—and some strong coffee."
The coffee was strong. Mrs. Breckenridge found it soothing to rasped nerves and tired body, and after the dinner things had been cleared away she sat on beside the library fire, under the soft arc of light from the library lamp, sipping the stimulating fluid, and staring at the snapping and flashing logs.
A sense of merely physical well-being crept through her body, and for a little time even her active brain was quieter; she forgot the man now heavily sleeping upstairs, the pretty little tyrant who had rushed off to dinner at the Chases', and the many perplexing elements in her own immediate problem. She saw only the quiet changes in the fire as yellow flame turned to blue—sank, rose, and sank again.
The house was still. Kitchenward, to be sure, there was a great deal of cheerful laughter and chatter, as Ellie, sitting heavily ensconced in the largest rocker, embroidered a centrepiece for her sister's birthday, Annie read fortunes in the teacups, Alfred imitated the supercilious manner of a lady who had called that afternoon upon Mrs. Breckenridge, and Helda, a milk-blond Dane with pink-rimmed eyes, laughed with infantile indiscrimination at everything, blushing an agonized scarlet whenever Alfred's admiring eye met her own.
But the kitchen was not within hearing distance of the quiet room where Rachael sat alone, and as the soft spring night wore on no sound came to disturb her revery. It was not the first solitary evening she had had of late, for Clarence had been more than usually reckless, and was developing in his wife, although she did not realize it herself, a habit of introspection quite foreign to her real nature.
She had never been a thoughtful woman, her days for many years had run brilliantly on the surface of life, she knew not whence the current was flowing, nor why, nor where it led her; she did not naturally analyze, nor dispute events. Only a few years ago she would have said that to an extraordinary degree fortune had been kind to her. She had been born with an adventurous spirit, she had played her game well and boldly, and, according to all the standards of her type, she had won. But sitting before this quiet fire, perhaps it occurred to her to wonder how it happened that there were no more hazards, no more cards left to play. She was caught in a net of circumstances too tight for her unravelling. Truly it might be cut, but when she stood in the loose wreckage of it—how should she use her freedom? If it was a cage, at least it was a comfortable cage; at least it was better than the howling darkness of the unfamiliar desert beyond.
And yet she raged, and her hurt spirit flung itself again and again at the bars. Young and beautiful and clever, how had life tricked her into this deadlock, where had been the fault, and whose?
For some undefined reason Rachael rarely thought of the past. She did not care to bring its certainties, its panorama of blinded eyes and closed doors before her mental vision. But to-night she found herself walking again in those old avenues; her thoughts went back to the memories of her girlhood.
Girlhood? Her eyes smiled, but with the smile a little twinge of bitterness drew down her mouth. What a discontented, eager, restless girlhood it had been, after all. A girlhood eternally analyzing, comparing, resenting, envying. How she had secretly despised the other girls, typical of their class, the laughing, flirting, dress-possessed girls of a small California town. How she had despised her aunts, all comfortably married and prosperous, her aunts' husbands, her stodgy, noisy cousins! And, for that matter, there had never been much reverence in her regard for her mother, although Rachael loved that complaining little woman in her cool way.
But for her father, the tall, clever, unhappy girl had a genuine admiration. She did not love him, no one who knew Gerald Fairfax well could possibly have sustained a deep affection for him, but she believed him to be almost as remarkably educated and naturally gifted as he believed himself to be. Her uncles were simply country merchants, her mother's fat, cheerful father dealt in furniture, and, incidentally, coffins, but her father was an Englishman, and naturally held himself above the ordinary folk of Los Lobos.
Nobody knew much about him, when he first made his appearance in Los Lobos, this silky-haired, round-faced, supercilious stranger, in his smart, shabby Norfolk coat, which was perhaps one reason why every girl in the village was at once willing to marry him, no questions asked. His speech was almost a different tongue from theirs; he was thirty-five, he had dogs and a man-servant, instead of the usual equipment of mother, sisters, and "hired girl," and he seemed eternally bored and ungracious. This was enough for the Los Lobos girls, and for most of their mothers, too.
The newcomer bought a small ranch, three miles out of town, and lounged about it in a highly edifying condition of elegant idleness. He rode a good horse, drank a great deal, and strode out of the post-office once a week scattering monogrammed envelopes carelessly behind him. He had not been long in town before people began to say that his elder brother was a lord; a duke, Mrs. Chess Baxter, the postmistress said, because to her question regarding the rumor he had answered carelessly: "Something of that sort."
Thirty years ago there were a great many detached Englishmen in California, fourth and fifth sons, remittance men, family scapegraces who had been banished to the farthest frontier by relatives who regarded California as beyond the reach of gossip, and almost beyond the reach of letters. Checks, small but regular, arrived quarterly for these gentry, who had only to drink, sleep, play cards, and demoralize the girls of the country. Here and there among them, to be sure, were pink-skinned boys as fresh and sweet as the apple-blossoms under which they rode their horses, but for the most part the emigrants were dissipated, disenchanted, clinging loyally to the traditions of the older country that had discarded them, and scorning the fragrant and inexhaustible richness of the new land that had made them welcome. They were, as a class, silent, only voluble on the subject of the despised country of their adoption, and absolutely non-committal as to their own histories. But far from questioning their credentials, the women and girls everywhere accepted them eagerly, caught something of an English accent and something of an English arrogance.
So Clara Mumford, a rose of a girl, cream-skinned, blue-eyed, and innocent with the terrible innocence of the village girlhood that feels itself so wise—Clara, who knew, because her two older sisters were married, where babies come from, and knew, because of Alta Porter's experience, that girls—nice girls, who went with one through the high school—can yield to temptation and be ruined—Clara only felt, in shyly announcing her engagement to Gerald Fairfax, that Fate had been too kind.
That this glittering stranger twice her age—why, he was even a little bald—a man who had travelled, who knew people of title, knew books, and manners, and languages—that he should marry an undertaker's daughter in Los Lobos! It was unbelievable. Clara's only misgiving during her short engagement was that he would disappear like a dream. She agreed with everything he said; even carrying her new allegiance to the point of laughing a little at her own people: the layer cakes her mother made for the Sunday noonday dinner; the red-handed, freckled swain who called on her younger sister in the crisp, moonlighted winter evenings; and the fact that her father shaved in the kitchen.
A few weeks slipped by, and Clara duly confided her youth and her innocence and her roses to her English husband, a little ashamed of the wedding presents her friends sent her, even a little doubtful of her parents' handsome gift of a bird's-eye maple bedroom set and a parlor set in upholstered cherry.
On her side she accepted everything unquestionably: the shabby little ranch house that smelled of wood smoke, and tobacco smoke, and dogs; the easy scorn of her old friends on her husband's part that so soon alienated her from them; the drink that she quickly learned to regard with uneasiness and distrust. It was not that Jerry ever got really intoxicated, but he got ugly, excitable, irritable, even though quite in control of his actions and his senses.
Clara was a good cook, although not as expert as her fond mother's little substitutions and innocent manipulations during their engagement had led Gerald to believe. But she loved to please him, and when flushed and triumphant she put down some especially tempting dish before him, and felt his arm about her, tears of actual joy would stand in her bright eyes. They had some happy days, some happy hours, in the first newness of being together.
Gerald's man, Thomas, was an early cause of annoyance to Clara. She would not have objected to cooking for a farm "hand"; that was a matter of course with all good farmers' wives. But Thomas was more British, in all that makes the British objectionable, than his master, and Thomas was quite decidedly addicted to drink. He never thought of wiping a dish, or bringing Clara in a bucket of water from the well. He ate what she set out upon the kitchen table for him, three times a day, chatting pleasantly enough of the farm, the horses, chickens, and vegetable garden, if Clara was in an amiable mood, but if, busy at the sink, or clearing the dining-room table, she was inwardly fuming with resentment at his very existence, Thomas could be silent, too, and would presently saunter away, stuffing his pipe, without even the common courtesy of piling his dishes together for her washing. Thomas held long conversations with his master as they idled about the place; Clara would hear their laughter. The manservant slept in a small shed detached from the main house, and there were times when he did not appear in the morning. At such times Gerald with a pot of strong coffee likewise disappeared into the cabin.
"Pore old rotter!" the husband would say generously. "He's a decentish sort, don't you know? I meanter say, poor old Thomas did me an awfully good turn once—and that!"
Clara inferred from various hints that Gerald had once been in the English army, and had met Thomas, and befriended him, or been befriended by him, at that period of his existence. But, greatly to the little bride's disappointment, Gerald never spoke of his old home or his connections there. Clara had to draw what comfort she could from his intimation that all his relatives were unbelievably eminent and distinguished, the least of them superior in brain and achievement to any American who ever drew the breath of life.
And presently she forgot Thomas, forgot the petty annoyance of cooking and summer heat and dogs and physical discomfort, in the overwhelming prayer that the coming child, about whose advent Gerald, at first annoyed, had later been so generously good- natured, might prove a boy. Gerald, living uncomplainingly in this dreadful little country town, enduring Western conditions with such dignity, and loving his little wife despite her undertaker father, would be seriously disgusted, she knew, if she gave him a daughter.
"A—a girl?" Clara stammered, her wet eyes on the doctor's face, her panting little figure lost in the big outline of her mother's spare-room bed. She managed a brave smile, but there was a bitter lump in her throat.
And she had been so brave, so sweet with Jerry, who had not enjoyed the three or four days of waiting at her mother's house; so strong in her agonies, as became the healthy, normal little country girl she was! Fate owed her a son, she had done her share, she had not flinched. And now—a girl! Fresh tears of disappointment came to take the place of tears of pain in her eyes. She remembered that Jerry had said, a few days before, "It'll be a boy, of course—all the old women about seem to have settled that—and I believe I'll cable Cousin Harold."
"Ma says it'll be a boy," Clara had submitted hopefully, longing to hear more of "Cousin Harold," to whom Gerald alluded at long intervals.
"Of course it will—good old girl!" Jerry had agreed. And that was only Thursday night, and this was in the late dawn of cold, wintry Saturday morning.
Her mother bent over her and kissed her wet forehead. Mrs. Mumford's big kind face was radiant; she had already four small grandsons; this was the first grand-daughter. More than that, the nurse was not here yet; she had been supreme through the ordeal; she had managed one more birth extremely well, and she rejoiced in the making of a nation.
"Such a nice baby, darling!" she whispered, "with her dear little head all covered with black hair! Neta's dressing her."
"Where's Gerald?" the young mother asked weakly.
"Right here! I'll let him in for a moment!" There was a satisfaction in Mrs. Mumford's voice; everything was proceeding absolutely by schedule. "And just as anxious to see you as you are to see him!" she added happily. These occasions were always the same, and always far more enjoyable to this practised parent than any pageant, any opera, any social distinction could have been. To comfortably, soothingly lead the trembling novice through the long experience, to whisk about the house capably and briskly busy with the familiar paraphernalia, to cry in sympathy with another's tears, to stand white-lipped, impotent, anguished through a few dreadful moments, and then to laugh, and rejoice, and reassure, before the happy hours of resting, and feeding, and cuddling began—this was the greatest satisfaction in her life.
Clara, afraid in this first moment to face his disappointment, felt in another the most delicious reassurance and comfort she had known in months. Jerry, taking the chair by the bedside, was so dear about it! The long night had much impressed the new-made father. They had had coffee at about two o'clock—Clara remembered wondering how they could sit enjoying it, instead of dashing the hideous cups to the floor, and rushing out of the horrible enclosure of walls and curtains—and as he bent over her she knew he had had something stronger since—but he was so dear!
"Well, we've had a night of it, eh?" he said kindly. "Funny how much one takes the little beggars for grawnted until it's one's own that kicks up the row? You've not seen her—she's a nice little beggar. You might get some sleep, I should think. I'm going to hang around until some sort of a family jamboree is over, at one o'clock—your mother insists that we have dinner—and then I'll go out to the rawnch. But I'll be in in the morning!"
"Girl!" said Clara, apologetically, whimsically, deprecatingly, her weak fingers clinging tightly to his.
"Ah, well, one carn't help that!" he answered philosophically. "We'll have a row of jolly little chaps yet!"
But there was never another child. Clara, having cast her fortunes in with her lord, was faithful to him through every breath she drew. But before Rachael's first crying, feverish little summer was over there had been some definite changes at the ranch. Thomas was gone, and Clara, pale and exhausted with the heat, engaged Ella, a young woman servant of her mother's selecting, to bake and wash and carry in stove-wood. Clara managed them all, Gerald, the baby, and the maid. Perhaps at first she was just a little astonished to find her husband as easily managed as Ella and far more easily managed than Rachael. Gerald Fairfax was surprised, too, lazily conceding his altered little wife her new and energetic way with a mental reservation that when she was strong and well again and the child less a care, things would be as they were. But Clara, once in power, never weakened for a moment again. Rachael grew up, a solitary and unfriendly, yet a tactful and diplomatic, little person on the ranch. She early developed a great admiration for her father, and a consequent regard for herself as superior to her associates. She ruled her mother absolutely from her fourth year, and remained her grandmother's great favorite among a constantly increasing flock of grandchildren. Some innate pride and scorn and dignity in the child won her her own way through school and school days; her young cousins were bewildered themselves by the respect and fealty they yielded her despite the contempt in which they held her affectations.
Clara had never been a religious woman and, married to an utter unbeliever, she had little enough to give a child of her own. But Clara's mother was a church woman, and her father a deeply religious man. It was his mother, "old lady Mumford"—Rachael's great-grandmother—who taught the child her catechism whenever she could get hold of that restless and lawless little girl.
Rachael had great fear and respect for her great-grandmother, and everything that was fine and good in the child instinctively responded to the atmosphere of her little home. It was an unpretentious home, even for Los Lobos: only a whitewashed California cabin with a dooryard full of wall flowers and geraniums, and pungent marigolds, and marguerites that were budding, blossoming, and gone to rusty decay on one and the same bush. The narrow paths were outlined with white stone ale-bottles, turned upside down and driven into the soft ground, and under the rustling tent of a lilac bush there were three or four clay pots filled with dry earth. There was a railed porch on the east side of the house, with vines climbing on strings about it, and here the old woman, clean with the wonderful, cool-fingered cleanness of frail yet energetic seventy-five, would sit reading in the afternoon shade that fell from the great shoulders of the blue mountains.
Inside were three rooms; there was no bathroom, no light but the kerosene lamps the old hands tended daily, no warmth but the small kitchen stove. All the furniture was old and shabby and cheap, and the antimacassars and pictures and teacups old Mrs. Mumford prized so dearly were of no value except for association's sake. Rachael's great-grandmother lived upon tea and toast and fruit sauce; sometimes she picked a dish of peas in her own garden and sometimes made herself a rice pudding, but if her children brought her in a chicken or a bowl of soup she always gave it away to some poorer neighbor who was ill, or who was "nursing that great strapping baby."
She read the Bible to Rachael and exhorted the half-believing, half-ashamed child to lay its lessons to heart.
"Your life will be full of change and of pleasure, there will be many temptations and much responsibility," said the sweet, stern, thin old voice. "Arm yourself against the wickedness of the world!"
Rachael, pulling the old collie's silky ears, thought nothing of the wickedness of the world but much of possible change and pleasure. She hoped her aged relative was right; certainly one would suppose Granny to be right in anything she said.
The time would have swiftly come when the child's changing heart would have found no room for this association, but before Rachael was twelve Granny was gone, the little house, with its few poor treasures shut inside it, was closed and empty. And only a year or two later a far more important change came into the girl's life. She had always disliked Los Lobos, had schemed and brooded and fretted incessantly through her childhood. It was with astonished delight that she heard that her parents, who had never, in a financial sense, drawn a free breath since their marriage, who had worried and contrived, who had tried indifference and bravado and strictest economy by turns, had sold their ranch for almost two thousand dollars more than its accumulated mortgages, and were going to England.
It was a glorious adventure for Rachael, even though she was too shrewd not to suspect the extreme hazard of the move. She talked in Los Lobos of her father's "people," hinted that "the family, you know, thinks we'd better be there," but she knew in her heart that a few months might find them all beggars.
Her father bought her a loose, big, soft blue coat in San Francisco, and a dashing little soft hat for the steamer. Rachael never forgot these garments throughout her entire life. It mattered not how countrified the gown under the coat, how plain the shoes on her slender feet. Their beauty, their becomingness, their comfort, actually colored her days. For twenty dollars she was transformed; she knew herself to be pretty and picturesque. "That charming little girl with the dark braids, going to England," she heard some man on the steamer say. The ranch, the chickens, weeds, and preserving, the dusty roads and shabby stores of Los Lobos were gone; she was no longer a gawky child; she was a young lady in a loose, soft, rough blue coat, with a black quill in her soft blue hat.
England received her wandering son coolly, but Rachael never knew it. Her radiant dream—or was it an awakening?—went on. Her mother, a neat, faded, querulous little woman, whose one great service was in sparing her husband any of the jars of life, was keyed to frantic anxiety lest Jerry be unappreciated, now that he had come back. Clara met the few men to whom her husband introduced her in London with feverish eagerness; afraid—after fifteen years—to say one word that might suggest her own concern in Jerry's future, quivering to cross-examine him, when they were alone, as to what had been said, and implied, and suggested.
Nothing definite followed. They lived for a month or two at a delightful roomy boarding-house in London, where the modest meals Clara ordered appeared as if by magic, and where Miss Fairfax never sullied her pretty hands with dishwashing. Then they went to visit "Aunt Elsie" in a suburban villa for several weeks, a visit Rachael never thought of afterward without a memory of stuffy, neat, warm rooms, and a gushing of canaries' voices. Then they went down to Sussex, in the delicious fullness of spring, to live with several other persons in a dark country house, where "Cousin Harold" died, and there was much odorous crepe and a funeral. Cousin Harold evidently left something to Gerald. Rachael knew money was not an immediate problem. Hot weather came, and they went to the seaside with an efficient relative called Ethel, and Ethel's five children. Later, back in London, Gerald said, in his daughter's hearing, that he had made "rather a good thing of that little game of Bobbie's. Enough to tide us over—what? Especially if the Dickies ask us down for a bit," he had added. The Dickies did ask them down for a bit. They went other places. Gerald made a little money on the races, made "a good thing" of this, and "turned a bit over on that." Weeks made months and months years, and still they drifted cheerfully about, Gerald happier than he had ever been in exile, Clara fearful, admiring, ill at ease, Rachael in a girl's paradise.
She grew beautiful, with a fine and distinguished beauty definite in its appeal; before she was seven-teen she had her little reputation for it; she moved easily into a circle higher than even her father had ever known. She was witty, young, lovely, and in this happier atmosphere her natural gayety and generosity might well develop. She went about continually, and every year the circle of her friends was widened by more distinguished names.
At seventeen Mrs. Gouveneur Pomeroy of New York brought the young beauty back with her own daughter, Persis, for a winter in the great American city, and when Persis died Rachael indeed became almost as dear to the stricken parents. When she went back to London they gave her not only gifts but money, and for two years she returned to them for long visits. So America had a chance to admire the ravishing Miss Fairfax, too, and Rachael had many conquests and one or two serious affairs. The girls had their first dances at the Belvedere Club; Rachael met them all, who were later to be her neighbors: the Morans and Parmalees, the Vanderwalls and the Torrences, and the Chases. She met Clarence Breckenridge and his wife, and the exquisitely dressed little girl who was Billy to-day.