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The Wheeler house was good, modern and commonplace. Walter Wheeler and his wife were like the house. Just as here and there among the furniture there was a fine thing, an antique highboy, a Sheraton sideboard or some old cut glass, so they had, with a certain mediocrity their own outstanding virtues. They liked music, believed in the home as the unit of the nation, put happiness before undue ambition, and had devoted their lives to their children.
For many years their lives had centered about the children. For years they had held anxious conclave about whooping cough, about small early disobediences, later about Sunday tennis. They stood united to protect the children against disease, trouble and eternity.
Now that the children were no longer children, they were sometimes lonely and still apprehensive. They feared motor car accidents, and Walter Wheeler had withstood the appeals of Jim for a half dozen years. They feared trains for them, and journeys, and unhappy marriages, and hid their fears from each other. Their nightly prayers were "to keep them safe and happy."
But they saw life reaching out and taking them, one by one. They saw them still as children, but as children determined to bear their own burdens. Jim stayed out late sometimes, and considered his manhood in question if interrogated. Nina was married and out of the home, but there loomed before them the possibility of maternity and its dangers for her. There remained only Elizabeth, and on her they lavished the care formerly divided among the three.
It was their intention and determination that she should never know trouble. She was tenderer than the others, more docile and gentle. They saw her, not as a healthy, normal girl, but as something fragile and very precious.
Nina was different. They had always worried a little about Nina, although they had never put their anxiety to each other. Nina had always overrun her dress allowance, although she had never failed to be sweetly penitent about it, and Nina had always placed an undue emphasis on things. Her bedroom before her marriage was cluttered with odds and ends, cotillion favors and photographs, college pennants and small unwise purchases - trophies of the gayety and conquest which were her life.
And Nina had "come out." It had cost a great deal, and it was not so much to introduce her to society as to put a family recognition on a fact already accomplished, for Nina had brought herself out unofficially at sixteen. There had been the club ballroom, and a great many flowers which withered before they could be got to the hospital; and new clothing for all the family, and a caterer and orchestra. After that, for a cold and tumultuous winter Mrs. Wheeler had sat up with the dowagers night after night until all hours, and the next morning had let Nina sleep, while she went about her household duties. She had aged, rather, and her determined smile had grown a little fixed.
She was a good woman, and she wanted her children's happiness more than anything in the world, but she had a faint and sternly repressed feeling of relief when Nina announced her engagement. Nina did it with characteristic sangfroid, at dinner one night.
"Don't ring for Annie for a minute, mother," she said. "I want to tell you all something. I'm going to marry Leslie Ward."
There had been a momentary pause. Then her father said:
"Just a minute. Is that Will Ward's boy?"
"Yes. He's not a boy."
"Well, he'll come around to see me before there's any engagement. Has that occurred to either of you?"
"Oh, he'll be around. He'd have come to-night, but Howard Moore is having his bachelor dinner. I hope he doesn't look shot to pieces to-morrow. These bachelor things - ! We'd better have a dinner or something, mother, and announce it."
There had been the dinner, with a silver loving cup bought for the occasion, and thereafter to sit out its useless days on the Sheraton sideboard. And there had been a trousseau and a wedding so expensive that a small frown of anxiety had developed between Walter Wheeler's eyebrows and stayed there.
For Nina's passion for things was inherent, persisting after her marriage. She discounted her birthday and Christmases in advance, coming around to his office a couple of months before the winter holidays and needing something badly.
"It's like this, daddy," she would say. "You're going to give me a check for Christmas anyhow, aren't you? And it would do me more good now. I simply can't go to another ball."
"Where's your trousseau?"
"It's worn out-danced to rags. And out of date, too."
"I don't understand it, Nina. You and Leslie have a goad income. Your mother and I - "
"You didn't have any social demands. And wedding presents! If one more friend of mine is married - "
He would get out his checkbook and write a check slowly and thoughtfully. And tearing it off would say:
"Now remember, Nina, this is for Christmas. Don't feel aggrieved when the time comes and you have no gift from us."
But he knew that when the time came Margaret, his wife, would hold out almost to the end, and then slip into a jeweler's and buy Nina something she simply couldn't do without.
It wasn't quite fair, he felt. It wasn't fair to Jim or to Elizabeth. Particularly to Elizabeth.
Sometimes he looked at Elizabeth with a little prayer in his heart, never articulate, that life would be good to her; that she might keep her illusions and her dreams; that the soundness and wholesomeness of her might keep her from unhappiness. Sometimes, as she sat reading or sewing, with the light behind her shining through her soft hair, he saw in her a purity that was almost radiant.
He was in arms at once a night or two before Dick had invited Elizabeth to go to the theater when Margaret Wheeler said:
"The house was gayer when Nina was at home."
"Yes. And you were pretty sick of it. Full of roistering young idiots. Piano and phonograph going at once, pairs of gigglers in the pantry at the refrigerator, pairs on the stairs and on the verandah, cigar-ashes - my cigars - and cigarettes over everything, and more infernal spooning going on than I've ever seen in my life."
He had resumed his newspaper, to put it down almost at once.
"What's that Sayre boy hanging around for?"
"I think he's in love with her, Walter."
"Love? Any of the Sayre tribe? Jim Sayre drank himself to death, and this boy is like him. And Jim Sayre wasn't faithful to his wife. This boy is - well, he's an heir. That's why he was begotten."
Margaret Wheeler stared at him.
"Why, Walter!" she said. "He's a nice boy, and he's a gentleman."
"Why? Because he gets up when you come into the room? Why in heaven's name don't you encourage real men to come here? There's Dick Livingstone. He's a man."
"Walter, have you ever thought there was anything queer about Dick Livingstone's coming here?"
"Darned good for the town that he did come."
"But - nobody ever dreamed that David and Lucy had a nephew. Then he turns up, and they send him to medical college, and all that."
"I've got some relations I haven't notified the town I possess," he said grimly.
"Well, there's something odd. I don't believe Henry Livingstone, the Wyoming brother, ever had a son."
"What possible foundation have you for a statement like that?"
"Mrs. Cook Morgan's sister-in-law has been visiting her lately. She says she knew Henry Livingstone well years ago in the West, and she never heard he was married. She says positively he was not married."
"And trust the Morgan woman to spread the good news," he said with angry sarcasm. "Well, suppose that's true? Suppose Dick is an illegitimate child? That's the worst that's implied, I daresay. That's nothing against Dick himself. I'll tell the world there's good blood on the Livingstone side, anyhow."
"You were very particular about Wallie Sayre's heredity, Walter."
"That's different," he retorted, and retired into gloomy silence behind his newspaper. Drat these women anyhow. It was like some fool female to come there and rake up some old and defunct scandal. He'd stand up for Dick, if it ever came to a show-down. He liked Dick. What the devil did his mother matter, anyhow? If this town hadn't had enough evidence of Dick Livingstone's quality the last few years he'd better go elsewhere. He - "
He got up and whistled for the dog.
"I'm going to take a walk," he said briefly, and went out. He always took a walk when things disturbed him. On the Sunday afternoon after Dick had gone Elizabeth was alone in her room upstairs. On the bed lay the sort of gown Nina would have called a dinner dress, and to which Elizabeth referred as her dark blue. Seen thus, in the room which was her own expression, there was a certain nobility about her very simplicity, a steadiness about her eyes that was almost disconcerting.
"She's the saintly-looking sort that would go on the rocks for some man," Nina had said once, rather flippantly, "and never know she was shipwrecked. No man in the world could do that to me."
But just then Elizabeth looked totally unlike shipwreck. Nothing seemed more like a safe harbor than the Wheeler house that afternoon, or all the afternoons. Life went on, the comfortable life of an upper middle-class household. Candles and flowers on the table and a neat waitress to serve; little carefully planned shopping expeditions; fine hand-sewing on dainty undergarments for rainy days; small tributes of books and candy; invitations and consultations as to what to wear; choir practice, a class in the Sunday school, a little work among the poor; the volcano which had been Nina overflowing elsewhere in a smart little house with a butler out on the Ridgely Road.
She looked what she was, faithful and quietly loyal, steady - and serene; not asking greatly but hoping much; full of small unvisualized dreams and little inarticulate prayers; waiting, without knowing that she was waiting.
Sometimes she worried. She thought she ought to "do something." A good many of the girls she knew wanted to do something, but they were vague as to what. She felt at those times that she was not being very useful, and she had gone so far as to lay the matter before her father a couple of years before, when she was just eighteen.
"Just what do you think of doing?" he had inquired.
"That's it," she had said despondently. "I don't know. I haven't any particular talent, you know. But I don't think I ought to go on having you support me in idleness all my life."
"Well, I don't think it likely that I'll have to," he had observed, dryly. "But here's the point, and I think it's important. I don't intend to work without some compensation, and my family is my compensation. You just hang around and make me happy, as you do, and you're fulfilling your economic place in the nation. Don't you forget it, either."
That had comforted her. She had determined then never to marry but to hang around, as he suggested, for the rest of her life. She was quite earnest about it, and resolved.
She picked up the blue dress and standing before her mirror, held it up before her. It looked rather shabby, she thought, but the theater was not like a dance, and anyhow it would look better at night. She had been thinking about next Wednesday evening ever since Dick Livingstone had gone. It seemed, better somehow, frightfully important. It was frightfully important. For the first time she acknowledged to herself that she had been fond of him, as she put it, for a long time. She had an odd sense, too, of being young and immature, and as though he had stooped to her from some height: such as thirty-two years and being in the war, and having to decide about life and death, and so on.
She hoped he did not think she was only a child.
She heard Nina coming up the stairs. At the click of her high heels on the hard wood she placed the dress on the bed again, and went to the window. Her father was on the path below, clearly headed for a walk. She knew then that Nina had been asking for something.
Nina came in and closed the door. She was smaller than Elizabeth and very pretty. Her eyebrows had been drawn to a tidy line, and from the top of her shining head to her brown suede pumps she was exquisite with the hours of careful tending and careful dressing she gave her young body. Exquisitely pretty, too.
She sat down on Elizabeth's bed with a sigh.
"I really don't know what to do with father," she said. "He flies off at a tangent over the smallest things. Elizabeth dear, can you lend me twenty dollars? I'll get my allowance on Tuesday."
"I can give you ten."
"Well, ask mother for the rest, won't you? You needn't say it's for me. I'll give it to you Tuesday."
"I'm not going to mother, Nina. She has had a lot of expenses this month."
"Then I'll borrow it from Wallie Sayre," Nina said, accepting her defeat cheerfully. "If it was an ordinary bill it could wait, but I lost it at bridge last night and it's got to be paid."
"You oughtn't to play bridge for money," Elizabeth said, a bit primly. "And if Leslie knew you borrowed from Wallace Sayre - "
"I forgot! Wallie's downstairs, Elizabeth. Really, if he wasn't so funny, he'd be tragic."
"Why tragic? He has everything in the world."
"If you use a little bit of sense, you can have it too."
"I don't want
"Pooh! That's what you think now. Wallie's a nice person. Lots of girls are mad about him. And he has about all the money there is." Getting no response from Elizabeth, she went on: "I was thinking it over last night. You'll have to marry sometime, and it isn't as though Wallie was dissipated, or anything like that. I suppose he knows his way about, but then they all do."
She got up.
"Be nice to him, anyhow," she said. "He's crazy about you, and when I think of you in that house! It's a wonderful house, Elizabeth. She's got a suite waiting for Wallie to be married before she furnishes it."
Elizabeth looked around her virginal little room, with its painted dressing table, its chintz, and its white bed with the blue dress on it.
"I'm very well satisfied as I am," she said.
While she smoothed her hair before the mirror Nina surveyed the room and her eyes lighted on the frock.
"Are you still wearing that shabby old thing?" she demanded. "I do wish you'd get some proper clothes. Are you going somewhere?"
"I'm going to the theater on Wednesday night."
"Who with?" Nina in her family was highly colloquial.
"With Doctor Livingstone."
"Are you joking?" Nina demanded.
"Joking? Of course not."
Nina sat down again on the bed, her eyes on her sister, curious and not a little apprehensive.
"It's the first time it's ever happened, to my knowledge," she declared. "I know he's avoided me like poison. I thought he hated women. You know Clare Rossiter is - "
Elizabeth turned suddenly.
"Clare is ridiculous," she said. "She hasn't any reserve, or dignity, or anything else. And I don't see what my going to the theater with Dick Livingstone has to do with her anyhow."
Nina raised her carefully plucked eyebrows.
"Really !" she said. "You needn't jump down my throat, you know." She considered, her eyes on her sister. "Don't go and throw yourself away on Dick Livingstone, Sis. You're too good-looking, and he hasn't a cent. A suburban practice, out all night, that tumble-down old house and two old people hung around your necks, for Doctor David is letting go pretty fast. It just won't do. Besides, there's a story going the rounds about him, that - "
"I don't want to hear it, if you don't mind."
She went to the door and opened it.
"I've hardly spoken a dozen words to him in my life. But just remember this. When I do find the man I want to marry, I shall make up my own mind. As you did," she added as a parting shot.
She was rather sorry as she went down the stairs. She had begun to suspect what the family had never guessed, that Nina was not very happy. More and more she saw in Nina's passion for clothes and gaiety, for small possessions, an attempt to substitute them for real things. She even suspected that sometimes Nina was a little lonely.
Wallie Sayre rose from a deep chair as she entered the living-room.
"Hello," he said, "I was on the point of asking Central to give me this number so I could get you on the upstairs telephone."
"Nina and I were talking. I'm sorry."
Wallie, in spite of Walter Wheeler's opinion of him, was an engaging youth with a wide smile, an air of careless well-being, and an obstinate jaw. What he wanted he went after and generally secured, and Elizabeth, enlightened by Nina, began to have a small anxious feeling that afternoon that what he wanted just now happened to be herself.
"Nina coming down?" he asked.
"I suppose so. Why?"
"You couldn't pass the word along that you are going to be engaged for the next half hour?"
"I might, but I certainly don't intend to."
"You are as hard to isolate as a - as a germ," he complained. "I gave up a perfectly good golf game to see you, and as your father generally calls the dog the moment I appear and goes for a walk, I thought I might see you alone."
"You're seeing me alone now, you know."
Suddenly he leaned over and catching up her hand, kissed it.
"You're so cool and sweet," he said. "I - I wish you liked me a little." He smiled up at her, rather wistfully. "I never knew any one quite like you."
She drew her hand away. Something Nina had said, that he knew his way about, came into her mind, and made her uncomfortable. Back of him, suddenly, was that strange and mysterious region where men of his sort lived their furtive man-life, where they knew their way about. She had no curiosity and no interest, but the mere fact of its existence as revealed by Nina repelled her.
"There are plenty like me," she said. "Don't be silly, Wallie. I hate having my hand kissed."
"I wonder," he observed shrewdly, "whether that's really true, or whether you just hate having me do it?"
When Nina came in he was drawing a rough sketch of his new power boat, being built in Florida.
Nina's delay was explained by the appearance, a few minutes later, of a rather sullen Annie with a tea tray. Afternoon tea was not a Wheeler institution, but was notoriously a Sayre one. And Nina believed in putting one's best foot foremost, even when that resulted in a state of unstable domestic equilibrium.
"Put in a word for me, Nina," Wallie begged. "I intend to ask Elizabeth to go to the theater this week, and I think she is going to refuse."
"What's the play?" Nina inquired negligently. She was privately determining that her mother needed a tea cart and a new tea service. There were some in old Georgian silver -
"'The Valley.' Not that the play matters. It's Beverly Carlysle."
"I thought she was dead, or something."
"Or something is right. She retired years ago, at the top of her success. She was a howling beauty, I'm told. I never saw her. There was some queer story. I've forgotten it. I was a kid then. How about it, Elizabeth?"
"I'm sorry. I'm going Wednesday night."
He looked downcast over that, and he was curious, too. But he made no comment save:
"Well, better luck next time."
"Just imagine," said Nina. "She's going with Dick Livingstone. Can you imagine it?"
But Wallace Sayre could and did. He had rather a stricken moment, too. Of course, there might be nothing to it; but on the other hand, there very well might. And Livingstone was the sort to attract the feminine woman; he had gravity and responsibility. He was older too, and that flattered a girl.
"He's not a bit attractive," Nina was saying. "Quiet, and - well, I don't suppose he knows what he's got on."
Wallie was watching Elizabeth.
"Oh, I don't know," he said, with masculine fairness. "He's a good sort, and he's pretty much of a man."
He was quite sure that the look Elizabeth gave him was grateful.
He went soon after that, keeping up an appearance of gaiety to the end, and very careful to hope that Elizabeth would enjoy the play.
"She's a wonder, they say," he said from the doorway. "Take two hankies along, for it's got more tears than 'East Lynne' and 'The Old Homestead' put together."
He went out, holding himself very erect and looking very cheerful until he reached the corner. There however he slumped, and it was a rather despondent young man who stood sometime later, on the center of the deserted bridge over the small river, and surveyed the water with moody eyes.
In the dusky living-room Nina was speaking her mind.
"You treat him like a dog," she said. "Oh, I know you're civil to him, but if any man looked at me the way Wallie looks at you - I don't know, though," she added, thoughtfully. "It may be that that is why he is so keen. It may be good tactics. Most girls fall for him with a crash."
But when she glanced at Elizabeth she saw that she had not heard. Her eyes were fixed on something on the street beyond the window. Nina looked out. With a considerable rattle of loose joints and four extraordinarily worn tires the Livingstone car was going by.
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