An Angle of the Triangle

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An Angle of the Triangle  (1921) 
by Ethel Watts Mumford
Extracted from Ainslee's magazine, 1921 Nov, pp. 120–127. Title Illustration may be omitted.

At the crossroad of life, Fate pointed the way and Ann Quartel built her own road, then followed it. But at the same crossroad, her husband’s road was built by another woman.

An Angle of the

By Ethel Watts Mumford

Author of “Aurore,”
A Pupil of Raphael,” etc.

{{di|OME wait at the crossroads of life for the finger of Fate to point the path and then meekly follow directions. Some, when the Great Indicator reveals itself, are moved to passionate and, not infrequently, successful opposition. Others hesitate until propelled onward by the shove of Circumstance or the boot of Necessity—but once in a blue moon there is one who——

Ann Quartel suddenly found herself at the parting of the ways. At least Paul had paid her the compliment of frankness. He had elucidated his position without care for her hurt. He had,in fact, dwelt with unction upon “his duty to the other woman,” At this juncture Ann laughed, and her husband stared at her, evidently wondering whether this was hysteria or scorn. It was neither. Ann was remembering this peculiarity of the masculine mind. She had met it before when called in to prescribe for friends With matrimonial complications. Later in the conversation she did not laugh. She was nearer tears.

“You've never had children, you know,” he said judicially. “Of course, that isn't your fault.”

“I've often suggested adoption,” she answered dully. And his shrug dismissed her statement as it had often before dismissed the plea.

“I want my own, my own,” he repeated sullenly.

“That is nothing but vanity,” she countered. “If you honestly wished 'to know hereditary traits,' and, as you say, 'feel a personal and private blood interest,' we could long ago have taken your brother's orphans.”

She had read him aright, and his resentment flashed. Had he not felt the necessity of his wife's coöperation with his plans, he would have flamed to insult and ridicule. But he dared not.

“Of course—you don't understand. But the fact remains, that we, Miss McGrain and myself, have agreed to marry. It rests with you whether we can do this with decency and legality, or whether we shall be forced into illegality. We shall be very grateful for your help and understanding.”

She stared at him. This man she had known for twenty years, whose wife she had been for ten! And how greatly she had loved him! She had loved his beauty and his charm of manner, his delicacy and nicety of taste in all things. She had loved all the outer manifestations, but the mind and heart and the soul of him she realized she had never known.

They were alone in her private office, the sanctum of that great business she had been brought up in, inherited, developed, and lifted to its present international importance—the great industry which was an expression of herself, the industry with which she had striven to endow her husband. She sat at her mahogany desk, her fingers buried in the masses of her ash-blond hair, her troubled, sapphire eyes fixed on the quadruple inkwell before her. On the other side of the slab of varnished wood—and on the other side of the world—stood Paul Quartel, like an employee awaiting his discharge. She looked him over, as if, indeed, this were the case, silently weighing his failure. She could not help analyzing; it was second nature to her. She realized that his winning boyishness really indicated dependence mixed with a youthful disdain for experience. She had loved his good looks, had always been acutely conscious of his physical appearance. For his handsome face and alert, graceful figure she had spent herself and her life.

He was but a boy in mind and initiation. He had need of her strength. What would he accomplish without her? Nothing. He had fallen in love with the youthful loveliness of a girl. How long would it last? Not long, she felt sure. Now he was flattered, and she knew the height and depth of his vanity. He would need her, need her sorely in the days to come. What would he do with that cheap, gaudy female? He was incapable of directing her or himself.

The moments lengthened, till, unable to bear the tension any longer, he exploded:

“For God's sake! Ann, stop mussing your hair!”

She sat up as if jerked erect in her chair. In a flash of realization she covered a whole continent of logical deductions.

If her personal peculiarities had become so distasteful to him, it was, indeed, the end. His angry exclamation was the pointing finger of Fate.

“All right, Paul,” she said quickly “I'll not block the game. Now, if you'll go, I'll think things out. You'll be going over to Ironton, I suppose, to tell her the result of our interview. Take the car, if you like. I'll have Madison run me up to the house in the flivver. Sorry to have to ask you to continue the negotiations with the Chrome Steel Company. Be in the office around ten to-morrow, when Cadman comes. I have to be at the flume. Report to me at two.”

He nodded, held out his hand, and had the grace to blush and stammer like an engaging schoolboy.

“Thanks, Ann. I ought to have known you'd understand.”

The touch of his fingers burned hers.

“Good luck!” she said thickly.

He was gone. She remained seated before the worktable, immovable, save for the clawing of her fingers through her hair. Becoming conscious of the almost automatic movement, she jerked her hands from her head and folded them before her in a white grip. “For God's sake! Stop mussing your hair!” She seemed to hear again his exclamation of concentrated irritation. Was she that hateful to him? She had many eccentric little habits and was aware of them—with mild amusement. She always rumpled her hair when she worked, when she talked of important matters, when she was excited. She would come from a directors' meeting with her ash-blond locks erect and scrambled into strange coiffures. The members of her staff soon learned to gauge the day's business by the condition of that oriflamme. It was the plume of battle tossing above their leader. She wondered how long he had loathed her mannerisms, and, unconsciously, in the stress of her feelings, her tense fingers sought her tousled, aching head once more.

Womanlike, it was this personal touch which went home. Did he hate her habit of leaving pencils all over the house? Her passionate love of animals that made her bring home all sorts and conditions of strays, and insist on their ommipresence? She knew he disliked her children's parties, Their noise disturbed him; he had no patience with questionings and persistence, for all his loud-voiced craving “for children of his own!” Had he grown to dislike her love of blue, the color in which she dressed, and affected in all her surroundings, from the paint of the motor cars to the sofa cushions and lingerie ribbons? Was the jangle of her many turquoise necklaces an irritation, and the clatter of her bangles?

She rose from her chair sharply. The bludgeoning of Fate could not cow her spirit, or wring tears and lamentations from her soul. There were adjustments to be made, matters to be reasonably discussed and arranged. She faced a terrible ordeal, but she faced it head high and with level eyes.

She had never seen Ivy McGrain, and knew but little of her. She was a beauty, she had heard, and private secretary to Gantly Cords, of the Cords Rolling Mills. Gossip, ever busy, where a pretty face is concerned, had buzzed with waspish stinging about that golden head. If old Cords had had her educated, it was only natural. She was the daughter of a trusted foreman, killed on the open-hearth. But wealthy men who “assist girls to an education,” if the girls be comely, will ever suffer questionings and sneers. And when he employed his ward as private secretary, it was as if he had offered affront to every other female employee in the county.

Ann had left the business of the firm in the outlying towns entirely to her husband. She seldom left her desk except for Chicago, or the East and West coasts; therefore, for years she had been out of touch with the offices of Ironton, of Cardick, or Wilton. Paul's confession had found her wholly unprepared. Had she had an inkling, she would have understood his tempers, his strange moods, and a thousand trifles of manner and speech which needed but a word to prove illuminating. As it was, her amazement mercifully stunned her feelings. The shock of surprise momentarily blinded her to the magnitude of the disaster.

Automatically, she left the office and summoned her car. The short drive to the mansion on the hill seemed endless.

She entered the house. Mysteriously and suddenly it was home no more. Blue, blue everywhere. She wondered if that overshadowing sapphire tone which matched her eyes had been hateful to him, because it expressed her. Her maid took her wraps and inquired perfunctorily as to the dinner hour,

“Mr. Quartel has gone to Ironton,” she told the servant. “Tell Sato to serve dinner as soon as he can. I am very tired.” Gone to Ironton! The words seemed to rouse lonely echoes in the room. Ironton! The word clanged like the irrevocable closing of a metal door.

A nine-days' wonder. The divorce and the marriage of Paul Quartel with the secretarial beauty; their departure for the West; and then, routine. No one thought again of Paul Quartel, except the lonely woman in the great house on the hill. It would have been a ten, even a twelve days' wonder, had they known that the mistress of the city's smoking forges was keeping in close touch with her former husband; that a law firm in a city half a continent away was keeping her informed of everything which concerned the new ménage, and that in a locked compartment of Ann's desk were snapshots of the conventional, suburban villa which was their home.

When the telegram—to all appearances a business message of slight importance—was delivered, announcing the birth of a daughter, the discarded wife, who had had no children, sat up half the night, the crinkled, yellow paper in her hand—thinking. His child, that should have been hers! She knew in her heart of hearts that had there been children, it would have made no difference in his life. They would have served, perhaps, to prolong an irksome companionship, but, in the end, it would have been the same. He had the temperament of intrigue combined with impatience. It would have been the same—but not to her.

She often tried to imagine what she, had she been a mother, would have done under the circumstances. She could see herself resisting, determined to hold the father at any cost, and she disliked the picture. Then she pictured herself, happy with her little one, independent, in that love, of any other need; but her virile mind objected to the bondage her emotional nature craved. She wandered in darkness, but the fact remained like the thread in the labyrinth—his children belonged to her.

Five years. The business under her skilled and sane direction had prospered beyond belief. She was a woman of importance, numbered among those the country called great. The public was regaled with magazine and newspaper items concerning her. Her fancies, her fads were anecdote and legend.

And now, there were two babies in Paul Quartel's home—that small, conventional, suburban villa which remained unchanged, except for the deterioration of wear and tear. Ivy Quartel, alone, had improved in appearance. Whatever Paul earned in his new employment went to the adornment of his pretty wife, about whose golden head, here, as formerly, the hive of gossip buzzed and stung.

The youngest baby was but a year old when Ann made a surreptitious visit to the city half a continent away. Under an assumed name, quietly dressed and thickly veiled, she came to the Palace Hotel. A glance at the telephone book informed her of the address she wanted. A hired touring car took her about the town, seemingly haphazard. With a tightened heart, she beheld the familiar façade of the yellow villa, with its plot of overdecorated lawn and garden, and on the porch, a vision of blond loveliness, in a smart-appearing frock, whose cheapness of material was disguised by its ultra-fashionable cut. The blond vision was in arch conversation with a well-tailored man in riding clothes. On the grass a colored maid idly pushed back and forth a shabby, rattan baby carriage, while a black-haired child in bedraggled pink rompers played with a smeared and grimy doll. The child looked up. It was stamped with its father's likeness as if with a die. A thrill of fierce possessiveness flamed in Ann's veins. She almost called to the driver to halt the car, but she controlled and composed herself.

The house and the playing children passed from view around a turn, but their image lingered. The vision, too, of the beautiful, gaudily dressed young woman, the impression of her manner, provocative, even suggestive, in spite of the presence of the nurse and babies. It required no more than this one glance to diagnose the situation. The young mother knew her beauty, cared more for admiration than for her home, more for the showy claptrap of her personal finery than the appearance of her house, or the well-being of any of its occupants. There was the impression in her lightly poised figure of a bird about to fly. A glow of impending satisfaction permeated Ann Quartel's being, a foreknowledge born of logic and keen insight.

There remained Paul, How had he developed? Where did he stand in his household? Ann could surmise, but she wanted to be sure. She knew where he was employed, and she guessed at what hour he might be expected to lift the latch of his garden gate which sorely needed painting.

In the abstraction of weariness, Quartel failed to notice the woman in unobtrusive black, though her path had paralleled his for some time, on the other side of the street. But nothing about him escaped her. The sag of his tall figure, the forward droop of the shoulders she had known so athletically erect. His clothes were unpressed; they were not shabby exactly, but they were lacking in that sense of “being worn.” They were thrown on, rather—the pockets bulged, the knee mark was plain in the overwide trousers, the collar was wrinkled. His handsome face was still the same, but the boyishness that had been its chief charm was gone, rubbed out by care. There were lines from nose to chin, lean, mouth lines visible even at a distance. There was no jauntiness in his carriage. At the gate, he paused. It was not the pause of ecstatic contemplation with which the man greets his home, with deep inner content—“Lo! This is mine!” It was the pause of one nerving himself for an irksome task.

The strident shriek of welcome from the black-haired child made him wince perceptibly. There was a sensible instant of hanging back; then he opened the gate with nervous fingers and met the onslaught of his small daughter. The woman on the opposite side of the street crossed diagonally. She was just behind him, within hearing.

“Daddy! Daddy!” the child singsonged, dancing on untidy feet, over which soiled socks festooned, and putting up a smiling, jam-smeared face to kiss.

He pushed her aside, and his voice was edged:

“Gad! Ellie, don't come smearing me! How many times have I told you not to paw me over if your hands and face aren't clean?”

The child wiped the offending hands on her frock, and resmeared the right one by wiping her mouth with the back of it. She showed no surprise or resentment at her father's greeting.

But Ann clenched her hands passionately and walked on at a rapid pace. How dared he talk like that to the child that should have been hers! How dared the other woman neglect her duty to that child! Her fury carried Ann half across the city. For more than an hour she walked as if pursued, but at the end she had seen the road of the future—seen it as if looking down from a high mountain, seen its final destination, and every turn and curve of its length. She did not need the finger of Fate to point the way. It was as if by her will she blazed the path, cleared it of all obstacles.

Her purchase of the big house on the hill adjoining and back of the villa was a simple matter. Through her lawyers it was accomplished without her name appearing in any way. Three weeks from the day of her arrival, she was installed in the huge, old-fashioned mansion. Servants were engaged, decorators had swept the old order and disorder out of existence and substituted whatever of comfort and adornment she dictated.

The neighborhood was interested, naturally. Neighborly curiosity was fed, as she intended it should be. An eccentric widow, every one was told, had bought the place. She was somewhat of a recluse and wealthy. Her husband and children had been lost in some vague sea disaster. She wore mourning and went heavily veiled.

Ann had arranged for a protracted absence from her offices. She had been planning, and she had adjusted her affairs for more than a year. She had trained a capable representative, and a weekly trip in her great car to a neighboring town kept her in telegraphic and telephonic touch with her business, The rest of her time was hers. Very soon she had made friends with Elvira—“Ellie,” her father had called her. “Vee” she was christened by the new Lady Bountiful. The baby she cajoled from the colored nurse. Soon she made the acquaintance of the blond and lovely Mrs. Quartel.

The daylight hours were Ann's undisturbed. Paul was away at his business. On Sundays she never went out, pretending conventional seclusion. Thus she avoided the possibility of meeting Paul, and her appearance, as it might be detailed to him by his wife and the chattering Elvira, could never have suggested her.

Indoors she wore white. Her environment was cheerful; everything that could lure and delight a child, from fantastic toys to carefully prepared goodies, was always to be found with her. It was not long before Elvira's mother discovered in the willing neighbor the most perfect of alibis.

Should she be missing from her home on one of her many surreptitious excursions, she could always tell of a motor trip in the big gray car, or an afternoon spent in the lady's company. She discovered she was being deliberately shielded—once, when the negro maid had need of her mistress, and called at the other house; again, when telephone calls were relayed. Nothing was said, no favors were asked, no confidences were made; but the young wife's recklessness increased as she felt the shadow of that protective presence. On the children, the intimacy had the most beneficial effect. Lavish tips to their ebony nurse produced a marked change in their appearance. Even the unobservant father realized it without knowing the source. Quaint dresses that set off the older child's elfin beauty appeared as if by magic, dainty frocks for the baby—fascinating, fairy things.

“She musta been plumb crazy 'bout them chilluns she lost,” explained the “mammy.” “She jest nachually kayn't get ernuf o' them babies. An' as fer Ellie—she doan know her name no mo'. She's 'Vee,' shore 'nuff. But de missus, she doan see nuffin'. Long as she's got dem white kid shoes an' her ha'r in a Marcella.”

Very soon the gifts of the Lady Bountiful were extended to include the mother of her little visitors. A hat of the best Paris make, a wrap, a fur. Carefully and wisely Ann fed the fire of extravagance. She advised the little blond parasite as to the enhancement of her beauty, with a deftness and knowledge which produced results. Like all vain women Mrs. Quartel accepted everything without question, even without gratitude, as tributes to her loveliness. Ann was always admiring, always willing to listen to complaints, always sympathetic of the admiration of others.

A few months had given her the easy affection of Ellie and the warm, relaxed confidence of little Gwen. Those months had also added to the brilliance of Ivy's butterfly wings, and had bred a taste for rare honey in that gay, ephemeral creature. It had been easy to accept beautiful things from the friendly woman, who loved her children so much; it became easy to accept gifts as costly from another donor. Ann noted a gold mesh bag, and asked no questions. The only person not surprised when Mrs. Quartel left for Europe with her lover was Ann.

She sent her maid at once to the bereaved husband, asking that the children be permitted to come and stay with her. In the big house, they would not note their mother's absence, and they could be properly cared for.

Shocked, stunned, and helpless, Paul welcomed the offer. He did not know where to turn. His children were an enigma to him, and both his wife and the nurse had been loud in the praises of the competence and kindness of the providential neighbor. He went about his business as one in a dream. His incompetence was evident even to himself. His passion for his young and beautiful companion had been blurred by irritation and failure. His pride, more than his heart, was touched, and his soul turned in unspeakable longing to the memory of strong, reliable, devoted Ann—Ann, whom he had betrayed, Ann, who had taken his treachery standing, met his cruelty with comradely kindness. She had seen him through the mess which had preceded his fool marriage to Ivy. She had gone on with her work grandly, successfully, true to him yet, he felt. Never a man's name had been linked with hers in the almost daily mention of her in the news, never a rumor of marriage. Good, strong, friendly Ann!

And then the miracle happened. A representative of a firm of lawyers called upon him. The representative came to the house, a suave, competent, little man, and, with beautiful tact, elucidated his errand. Mrs. Ann Quartel had commissioned the firm to see him. Mrs. Quartel had heard of the disaster which had overwhelmed him. She was most particular, was his client, to have it understood that she did not desire to intrude into the affairs of her former husband. But for the children, his children, she was deeply concerned. Could she not offer them her fireside and the best of care? Mr. Quartel, of course, knew that the former Mrs. Quartel was a woman of unlimited means. For the children's sake the offer was a most fortuitous one.

The position was, of course, difficult, but any one, who had known this wonderful woman so well, must rest an assured that she would more than fulfil any duties and obligations she offered to undertake. The ambassador was most conciliatory, almost deprecating. He evidently expected opposition and explosion. Could he have read his listener aright he would have seen a surge of relief, a great load lifted, a most unregenerate gladness.

Paul's hesitation was only outward. At the very first comprehension of the offer, it was as if all his unformed prayers had been answered. The boyish look returned to his face, as if touched in by the brush of a clever painter. Responsibility, care, worry departed. It was as if a sponge erased the name of Ivy from the blackboard of his mind. Her vision became only a memory of a series of pretty pictures, and a prickling sensation of petty torments. He was heartily glad she was gone. He wasn't bereaved at all. He had been a silly fool, like a boy who runs away from home. And, miracle of miracles, she'd take him back!

Ann would take him back! She had offered to make a home for the children—because they were his children. But the riot of his happiness almost made him betray himself. He called a very lame dignity to his assistance, and in his reply tried to curb the joyous words of his acceptance. He managed a few bromidic phrases—“for the children's sake he must forget himself.” “He had always entertained the deepest respect and admiration for the former Mrs. Quartel.” “Oh, yes, he intended to apply at once for a divorce! It would be wisest for the children that they should be placed legally beyond the reach of their unfortunate mother.”

The lawyer's delicate suggestion that it might be well for the members of the former life partnership, now dissolved, to meet and discuss the matter, Paul managed to meet with an appearance of condescension. A city halfway between his present place of residence and that of his former wife was mentioned. A day was set. Dizzily Paul received the courteous commendations and congratulations of the emissary, who would, he said, immediately communicate with his client. She would, without doubt, be anxiously awaiting his answer.

“It is not often,” he purred, “that Providence so quickly manifests itself.” His parting handshake was like that of the friendly undertaker, assuring the bereaved family of a speedy meeting in heavenly spheres.

Time lagged and crawled till the appointed day came. For the first time in years Paul dressed with care. His heart beat, his blood prickled, his every breath was painful with excitement.

In a dim, overupholstered recess of a conventional, hotel reading room, he at last came face to face with Ann. She rose to meet him, pale, compellent, calm. He wanted to run to her, to lay his head on her shoulder, and weep tears of relief, of home-coming. His voice and his hand shook.

“Poor boy!” she said. “Poor boy, did you think I'd forgotten you?”

At dinner that night they discussed their plans, happily, like two young lovers.

“I'll notify my employers,” he was saying. That Ann included him went without saying. “I'll go and bring the children on. They are staying with a Mrs. Farn, a neighbor of ours, a friend of Ivy's, who has been very kind——

“No,” she said; “not a friend Of Ivy's—a friend of yours. You see, I got worried about the children. I managed to come on—to—to look out for them. I'm Mrs. Farn, you see.”

Paul stared at her in amazement.

“Ann! Ann!” he exclaimed. “You wonderful——

“Oh, no, not wonderful!” she deprecated. “But, you see, I always felt that your children somehow belonged to me.” She was as innocent of her ruthlessness as motherhood personified.

Another nine-days' wonder. The extraordinary Mrs, Quartel had remarried her divorced husband and adopted his two little-girls! What a paragon of virtue! What a monument of forgiveness!

On this occasion, however, Ann did not analyze, as was her habit. Had she done so, she would have said:

“I arranged that another woman have my children for me.” In point of fact, Ann had seen the road of Fate—and built it.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1940, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.