The Breath of Scandal/Chapter 13

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CHAPTER XIII

BILLY drove cityward, worrying and feeling injured; his worry had so much the ascendant during the first of his journey that he stopped at Devon Avenue and telephoned to Marjorie; after he heard her voice reassuring him about herself, but not asking him to return, he proceeded with deeper feeling of injustice done him. He had tried to do right and tried to make Marjorie do the right and also, he was sure, the best for her in the end; and he was discouraged and baffled by the result.

He did not feel like eating so he put up his car and went to his apartment where he had been alone now for four nights. As he approached the building, he worried about Gregg until he saw lights in the windows which convinced him that, true to the telegram, Gregg had returned; then Billy felt more injured.

If Gregg's disappearance had happened suddenly, Billy would have consulted the police long before; but Gregg's going had been a gradual process. For several evenings—these were the ones when Gregg had been watching at Kilkerry's—he had stayed out late and had refused to discuss his doings with Billy when Bill had told him he had no right habitually to keep himself up so late in the night that he incapacitated himself for business the next day. When Gregg finally stayed away all night, Billy put that down as Gregg's obstinate and irritating way of replying to criticism; it angered Billy but did not really worry him, for he was aware that Gregg rejoiced in a most extraordinarily hetrogeneous acquaintance and he supposed that one of Gregg's uncritical friends was putting him up. Later Billy did become worried; but he was feeling only indignation against Gregg and injury from him as he climbed the stairs and opened the door of his apartment.

"Hello, Bill!" said Gregg's voice instantly, cheerful as ever. "Get my wire?"

"Where in the world have you been?" Billy demanded, shutting the door behind him and staring into the living room at Gregg who had jumped up from his chair surrounded by cigarette smoke.

He asked that before having a good look at Gregg; for, as soon as he saw him, Billy emphatically amended with:

"What in the devil have you been doing?"

"Been in a fight," said Gregg, frankly and cheerily.

"And got the worst of it; that's plain."

"Oh, you haven't seen the other fellow, Bill. How's Mr. Hale now and the family—Marjorie, Bill?"

"All right," Billy replied quickly. "What took you to Freeport, Gregg?"

"Oh," said Gregg. "A freight train. Nothing's happened about Mr. Hale, then, since I've been gone?"

"No; Gregg, what have you been up to? Has it been about my affair, Gregg—I mean about Marjorie's father and——"

Bill's indignation and criticism against Gregg suddenly broke in a flash-up of partial understanding of his friend as he stared into Gregg's eyes; and with this mingled Billy's misery about Marjorie.

"Old fellow," said Gregg, dropping his defense of banter, "I'll tell you what it was; I ran across Russell the other night; to tell the truth, I heard where he might be and I got hold of him—I had a little trouble, you see—but I took him out of town and left him up near Freeport. It seemed better to get him out of the way."

And Gregg lightly sketched his combat with Russell and explained what he hoped would be the result.

Billy came to him and grasped his arm and felt over him with anxious affection to make sure that he really was as "all right" as he claimed to be.

"You shouldn't have tried anything like that, Gregg; Russell might have killed you. Then what good would it have done?"

"Well, he didn't," Gregg reminded, manifestly.

"No; but, Gregg—I hate to say it when you took all that trouble and might have got killed trying to help—but I can't see what good you've done. You say you've beaten up Russell, but really you've only shown him again that we're afraid of him—afraid to come out in the open, afraid to accuse and prosecute him for shooting Mr. Hale. You're just trying to do what Marjorie is—cover up and conceal; she thinks she can work out something that way. But she can't; she'll only get in deeper and deeper. I told her so to-night, Gregg; and she—she sent me away. I've quarreled with Marjorie; she told me to leave her house! Mrs. Hale invited me to dinner and Marjorie asked me to go; she didn't want me with her!"

With his hand still on Gregg's shoulder, he had forgotten Gregg's injury in new immersion in his own misery. And Gregg, too, forgot as he felt Billy's wretchedness. No one else could become so wretched as Bill and his bigness made it worse.

"What happened, old fellow?" Gregg questioned him, gently.

"She doesn't want me!"

"What does she want, Bill?"

"Rinderfeld!"

Gregg started, in spite of himself. "What did you say?"

Billy went back a little to explain. "She went to see Rinderfeld a couple of weeks ago, you know."

"You told me; so did he."

"I didn't want her to see him or have anything to do with him but I didn't dream that she could let that man attract her. I shouldn't say that, perhaps; a thing as low as Rinderfeld couldn't attract but he's fascinated her like a snake a bird; or he's hypnotized her. Ever since she's called on him, she's been telephoning him and doing what he tells her—no matter what, and quoting him to me. She lied direct to-day to Stanway because he told her to."

"Oh!" said Gregg. "Stanway was there to-day, was he?"

"That made our trouble."

"How?"

"She told him Mrs. Hale knew!"

"Wait!" pleaded Gregg. "Let's see! Stanway came there to see her mother, I suppose."

"Yes; and Marjorie got her mother out of the way, met him herself so she could lie to him, as Rinderfeld instructed her, and tell him her mother already knew so he wouldn't wait to tell her mother."

"Well, did he?"

"No. But——"

"Good girl, Marjorie, I'd say. Bill, what would you have the girl do?"

"Do? Do?" stammered Bill, backing away. "Gregg, you haven't seen Marjorie, have you? You've no idea what Clearedge Street and Rinderfeld have done to her. She's not the same girl at all. But oh, my God, I love her so, Gregg; I love her so much more when she's in this frightful trouble which is doing things to her—things she can't realize at all. Why, Gregg, an hour ago when I tried to show her that what she'd done wasn't right, she answered me that right didn't make any difference; she said right was only the obvious thing to do, as if any one was a fool who did it."

Gregg stared from Billy down to the floor, and he was shaking from his constraint. Poor Bill, he felt; and poor, dear, dear little Marjorie, shut in there at home with the revelation of the flat on Clearedge Street behind her, with disgrace and scandal suspended on the thinnest of hairs above her, and having no one to help her through these weeks but Billy and Felix Rinderfeld,—Bill with his blunt, blind, utterly reckless morality and Rinderfeld with his comprehensions. No wonder she turned to Rinderfeld who offered her explanations, false and degraded, perhaps, but yet explanations. He gave her something for her mind to seize and accept or attack and supplied her with mental occupation at a time when she most desperately needed it, while Bill, of course, offered her feelings when she could but revolt at the stir of passion.

He, himself—Gregg—what had he to offer her? He did not know; but, whatever it was, he was going to offer it against Billy and—against Rinderfeld. He had never imagined Rinderfeld a contestant for Marjorie; and he recognized that Billy honestly did not consider Rinderfeld as a rival to him for Marjorie, because Billy could not put Rinderfeld on the same plane with himself. But what Billy had told about Marjorie telephoning Rinderfeld and obeying him and quoting him suddenly gave Gregg a jerk of that alarming sensation known as "the creeps," which returned to him, in harder seizure later, when lost in one of those frank, picturesque, illuminating and self-informing pageants of hopes and fears which people call dreams.

In his room, Billy Whittaker lay awake long into that night, worried and utterly miserable. In his room, Gregg slept but dreamt horribly of Marjorie in a mire,—a black, steamy bog of fluid earth such as once, on a canoe trip into Canada, he saw suck down a frightened deer which had fled into it. His dream showed him Marjorie in that mire; it had caught her up to the shoulders; he could see her arms striking out as she attempted to swim. He could see her shoulders—her bare, white, lovely shoulders as they were that night of the Lovells' dance; and he knew that she was dressed, under the mire, in that new, beautiful, extreme dress her mother had bought for her and to which her father had objected in almost his last words before he left home for Clearedge Street. The black mire streaked her white shoulders but had not yet spattered her face; though it was up almost to her lips, he could see her face clearly and her hair arranged as it had been that night.

Now, in his dream, Gregg struggled to aid her; but he could not move for some one was holding him back. He fought and found that big arms clasped him and held him helpless; Russell's, they were; then they changed and became Bill's. And Bill overpowered him and pushed him away and picking up a scarf—that scarf which Marjorie had carried the night of the dance—he threw it over her shoulders; then, as Marjorie cried out again, Rinderfeld appeared and, as she sank, she held her arms to him and—Gregg awoke.

It was one of those dreams so real that Gregg, after awaking, sat up, not sure that it had not happened; of course, he quickly realized; but the terror of it did not leave him. Was it—in its essential—to be true that Marjorie, sinking in the morass, could appeal as vainly to him as to Billy and that, before she went under, she must turn to Rinderfeld? It kept him awake quite a while; and, in the morning, added intensity to the business he had assigned to himself and which took him, a little before noon, to the hall of the building on Monroe Street where were the offices with which Sybil Russell was connected.