Clara's Little Escapade
by Mary Rinehart
"The plain truth is," said Carrie Smith, "that, no matter how happy two people may be together, the time comes when they are bored to death with each other."
Nobody said anything. It was true and we knew it. Ida Elliott put down the scarf she was knitting for the Belgians and looked down over the hill to where a lot of husbands were playing in the swimming pool.
"It isn't just a matter of being bored, you know, Carrie," she said. "A good many of us have made mistakes." Then she sighed. Ida is not really unhappy, but she likes to think she is.
None of the rest made any comment. But one or two of the other girls put down their knitting and looked out over the hills.
"I hope you don't mind my saying it, Clara," Carrie said, turning to me; "but it's a mistake to have a week-end party like this. Last night when I played pool with your Bill after the rest of you had gone upstairs, Wallie refused to speak to me when I went to bed. He's still sulking."
I am not sensitive; but when they everyone turned on me and said it was a beautiful party, but why, in heaven's name, had I asked only husbands and not one extra man, it made me a trifle hot.
"As most of us see our husbands only during week-ends," I said tartly, "I should think this sort of family reunion would be good for us."
"See them!" she snapped. "They've been a part of the landscape since we came, and that's all. Either they're in the pool, or playing clock golf, or making caricatures of themselves on the tennis court. A good photograph would be as comforting, and wouldn't sulk."
Well, the whole thing really started from that. I made up my mind, somehow or other, to even up with them. I'd planned a really nice party, and even if they were bored they might have had the politeness to conceal it.
Even now, badly as things turned out, I maintain that the idea was a good one. I had a bad time, I'll admit that. But the rest of them were pretty unhappy for a while. The only thing I can't quite forgive is that Bill - but that comes later on.
There had been very little doing all spring. Everybody was poor, and laying up extra motors, and trying to side-step appeals for Eastern relief, and hiding dressmakers' bills. There were hardly any dividends at all, and what with the styles completely changing from wide skirts to narrow ones, so that not a thing from last year would do, and the men talking nothing but retrenchment and staying at the table hours after every dinner party, fighting the war over again, while we sat and knitted, I never remember a drearier spring.
"Although," Carrie Smith said with truth, "the knitting's rather good for us. No woman can enjoy a cigarette and knit at the same time."
The craze for dancing was dying away, too, and nothing came along to take its place. The debutantes were playing tennis, but no woman over twenty-two should ever play tennis, so most of us were out of that. Anyhow it's violent. And bridge, for anything worth while, was apt to be too expensive.
But to go back.
We sat and knitted and yawned, and the husbands put on dressing gowns and ambled up the hill and round to the shower baths in the basement. I looked at Bill. Bill is my husband and I'm fond of Bill. But there are times when he gets on my nerves. He has a faded old bathrobe that saw him through college and his honeymoon, and that he still refuses to part with, and he had it on.
It was rather short, and Bill's legs, though serviceable, are not beautiful.
He waved his hand to me.
"If you'd do a little of that sort of thing, Clara," he called, "you wouldn't need to have the fat rubbed off you by an expensive masseuse."
"Quite a typical husbandly speech!" said Carrie Smith.
"Do they ever think of anything but exercise and expense?"
Well, the men bathed and dressed and had whisky-and-sodas, and came out patronisingly and joined us at tea on the terrace. But inside of ten minutes they were in a group round the ball news and the financial page of the evening papers, and we were alone again.
Carrie Smith came over and sat down beside me, with her eyes narrowed to a slit.
"I didn't want to hurt your feelings, Clara," she said, "but you see what I mean. They're not interested in us. We manage their houses and bring up their children. That's all."
As Carrie was the only one who had any children, and as they were being reared by a trained nurse and a governess, and the baby yelled like an Apache if Carrie went near him, her air of virtue was rather out of place. However:
"What would you recommend?" I asked wearily. "They're all alike, aren't they?"
"Not all." Her eyes were still narrowed. And at that moment Wallie Smith came over and threw an envelope into her lap.
"It came to the office by mistake," he said grimly. "What made you have your necklace reset when I'm practically bankrupt?"
"I bought hardly any new stones," she flashed at him. "Anyhow, I intend to be decently clothed. Tear it up; nobody's paying any bills."
He stalked away, and Carrie looked at me.
"No," she said slowly, "they are not all alike. Thank heaven there are a few men who don't hoist the dollar mark as a flag. Clara, do you remember Harry Delaney?"
I looked at Carrie.
A little spot of red had come into each of her cheeks, and her eyes, mere slits by now, were fixed on the far-away hills.
She and Harry had been engaged years ago, and she threw him over because of his jealous nature. But she seemed to have forgotten that.
"Of course," I said, rather startled.
"He was a dear. Sometimes I think he was the most generous soul in the world. I cannot imagine his fussing about a necklace, or sulking for hours over a bit of innocent pleasure like my playing a game of pool after a lot of sleepyheads had gone to bed."
"What time did you and Bill go upstairs?"
"Something after two. We got tired of playing and sat out here and talked. I knew you wouldn't mind, Clara. You've got too much sense. Surely a woman ought to be allowed friends, even if she is married."
"Oh, friends!" I retorted. "If she's going to keep her husband a friend she's got her hands full. Certainly I'm not jealous of you and Bill, Carrie. But it's not friends most of us want, if you're after the truth. We want passionate but perfectly respectable, commandment-keeping lovers!"
Carrie laughed, but her colour died down.
"How silly you are!" she said, and got up. "Maybe we'd like to feel that we're not clear out of the game, but that's all. We're a little tired of being taken for granted. I don't want a lover; I want amusement, and if I'd married Harry Delaney I'd have had it."
"If you'd married him he would have been down there at the pool, showing off like a goldfish in a bowl, the same as the others."
"He would not. He can't swim," said Carrie, and sauntered away. Somehow I got the impression that she had been sounding me, and had got what she wanted. She looked very handsome that night, and wore the necklace. Someone commented on it at dinner, and Wallie glared across at it.
"It isn't paid for," he said, "and as far as I can see, it never will be."
Of course, even among old friends, that was going rather far.
Well, the usual thing happened after dinner. The men smoked and argued, and we sat on the terrace and yawned. When they did come out it was to say that golf and swimming had made them sleepy, and Jim Elliott went asleep in his chair. Carrie said very little, except once to lean over and ask me if I remembered the name of the man Alice Warrington had thrown over for Ted. When I told her she settled back into silence again.
The next morning all the husbands were up early and off to the club for a Sunday's golfing. At ten o'clock a note came in on my breakfast tray from Carrie.
"Slip on something and come to my room," it said.
When I got there Ida and Alice Warrington were there already, and Carrie was sitting up in bed, with the same spots of colour I'd seen before. I curled up on the bed with my hands round my knees.
"Go to it, Carrie," I said. "If it's church, it's too late. If it's a picnic, it looks like rain."
"Close the door, Ida," said Carrie. "Girls, I'm getting pretty tired of this."
"Of dragging the matrimonial ball and chain wherever I go, and having to hear it clank and swear and sulk, and - all the rest. I'm tired, and so are all of you. Only I'm more honest."
"It's all rather a mess," Ida said languidly. "But divorce is a mess too. And, anyhow, what's the use of changing? Just as one gets to know a man's pet stories, and needn't pretend to laugh at them any more, why take on a new bunch of stories - or habits?"
"The truth is," said Carrie, ignoring her, "that they have all the good times. They don't have to look pretty. Their clothes last forever. And they're utterly selfish socially. You girls know how much they dance with the married women when there are any debutantes about."
"The thing to do," said Carrie, "is to bring them back to a sense of obligation. They've got us. We stay put. They take us to parties and get up a table of bridge for us, and go off to a corner with a chit just out of school, or dance through three handkerchiefs and two collars, and grumble at paying our bridge losses. Or else they stay at home, and nothing short of a high explosive would get them out of their chairs."
"Destructive criticism," said Alice Warrington, "never gets anywhere. We agree with you. There's no discussion. Are you recommending the high explosive?"
"I am," said Carrie calmly. "I propose to wake them up, and to have a good time doing it."
Well, as it turned out, it was I who wakened them up, and nobody had a very good time about it.
"There's just one man a husband is always jealous of," Carrie went on, and her eyes were slitted as usual. "That's the man his wife could have married and didn't."
I expect I coloured, for Bill has always been insanely jealous of Roger Waite, although honestly I never really cared for Roger. We used to have good times together, of course. You know.
Carrie's plan came out by degrees.
"It will serve two purposes," she said. "It will bring the men to a sense of responsibility, and stop this silly nonsense about bills and all that sort of thing. And it will be rather fun. It's a sin to drop old friends. Does Wallie drop his? Not so you could notice it. Every time I'm out of town he lives at Grace Barnabee's."
Carrie had asked us all to spend the next week-end with her, but the husbands were going to New York for the polo game and she had called the party off. But now it was on again.
"Do you girls remember the house party I had when Wallie was in Cuba, before we were engaged? We had a gorgeous time. I'm going to repeat it. It's silly to say lightning doesn't strike twice in the same place. Of course it does, if one doesn't use lightning rods. Peter Arundel for Alice, and Roger for you, Clara. Ida, you were in Europe, but we'll let you in. Who'll you have?"
"Only one?" asked Ida.
Ida chose Wilbur Bayne, and Carrie wrote the notes right there in bed, with a pillow for a desk, and got ink on my best linen sheets.
"I'm sorry I never thought of it before," she said. "The house party is bound to be fun, and if it turns out well we'll do it regularly. I'll ask in a few people for dancing Saturday night, but we'll keep Sunday for ourselves. We'll have a deliciously sentimental day."
She sat back and threw out her arms.
"Good Lord," she said, "I'm just ripe for a bit of sentiment. I want about forty-eight hours without bills or butlers or bridge. I'm going to send my diamond necklace to a safe deposit, and get out my d ebutante pearls, and have the wave washed out of my hair, and fill in the necks of one or two gowns. I warn you fairly, there won't be a cigarette for any of you."
When I left them they were already talking clothes, and Carrie had a hand glass and was looking at herself intently in it.
"I've changed, of course," she sighed. "One can't have two children and not show the wear and tear of maternity. I could take off five pounds by going on a milk diet. I think I will."
She went on the diet at luncheon that day, and Wallie told her that if she would cut out heavy dinners and wine her stomach would be her friend, not her enemy. She glanced at me, but I ignored her. Somehow I was feeling blue.
The week-end had not been a success, and the girls had not been slow to tell me about it. The very eagerness with which they planned for the next week told me what a failure I'd had. Even then the idea of getting even somehow with Carrie was in the back of my mind.
The men did some trap shooting that afternoon, and during dinner Jim started a discussion about putting women on a clothes allowance and making them keep within it.
"I can systematise my business," he said, "but I can't systematise my home. I'm spending more now than I'm getting out of the mill."
Wallie Smith came up to scratch about that time by saying that his mother raised him with the assistance of a nursemaid, and no governess and trained nurse nonsense.
"That is why I insist on a trained nurse and a governess," said Carrie coldly, and took another sip of milk.
They went home that night, and Bill, having seen them into the motors, came up on the terrace.
"Bully party, old dear," he said enthusiastically. "Have 'em often, won't you?"
He sat down near me and put a hand over mine. All at once I was sorry I'd accepted Carrie's invitation. Not that there would be any harm in seeing Roger again, but because Bill wouldn't like it. The touch of his warm hand on mine, the quiet of the early summer night after the noise that had gone before, the scent of the honeysuckle over the pergola, all combined to soften me.
"I'm glad you had a good time, Bill," I said after a little silence. "I'm afraid the girls didn't enjoy it much. You men were either golfing or swimming or shooting, and there wasn't much to do but talk."
Bill said nothing. I thought he might be resentful, and I was in a softened mood.
"I didn't really mind your staying downstairs the other night with Carrie," I said. "Bill, do smell the honeysuckle. Doesn't it remind you of the night you asked me to marry you?"
Still Bill said nothing. I leaned over and looked at him. As usual he was asleep.
About the middle of the week Roger Waite called me up. We did not often meet - two or three times in the winter at a ball, or once in a season at a dinner. Ida Elliott always said he avoided me because it hurt him to see me. We had been rather sentimental. He would dance once with me, saying very little, and go away as soon as he decently could directly the dance was over. Sometimes I had thought that it pleased him to fancy himself still in love with me, and it's perfectly true that he showed no signs of marrying. It was rather the thing for the debutantes to go crazy about Roger. He had an air of knowing such a lot and keeping it from them.
"Why don't you keep him around?" Ida asked me once. "He's so ornamental. I'm not strong for tame cats, but I wouldn't mind Roger on the hearthrug myself."
But up to this time I'd never really wanted anybody on the hearthrug but Bill. If I do say it, I was a perfectly contented wife until the time Carrie Smith made her historic effort to revive the past. "Let sleeping dogs lie" is my motto now - and tame cats too.
Well, Roger called me up, and there was the little thrill in his voice that I used to think he kept for me. I know better now.
"What's this about going out to Carrie Smith's?" he said over the phone.
"That's all," I replied. "You're invited and I'm going."
"O!" said Roger. And waited a moment. Then:
"I was going on to the polo," he said, "but of course - What's wrong with Bill and polo?"
"Oh!" said Roger. "Well, then, I think I'll go to Carrie's. It sounds too good to be true - you, and no scowling husband in the offing!"
"It's - it's rather a long time since you and I had a real talk."
"Too long," said Roger. "Too long by about three years."
That afternoon he sent me a great box of flowers. My conscience was troubling me rather, so I sent them down to the dinner table. Whatever happened I was not going to lie about them.
But Bill only frowned.
"I've just paid a florist's bill of two hundred dollars," he grumbled. "Cut out the American beauties, old dear."
It was not his tone that made me angry. It was his calm assumption that I had bought the things. As if no one would think of sending me flowers!
"If you would stop sending orchids to silly debutantes when they come out," I snapped, "there would be no such florist's bills."
One way or another Bill got on my nerves that week. He brought Wallie Smith home one night to dinner, and Wallie got on my nerves too. I could remember, when Wallie and Carrie were engaged and we were just married, how he used to come and talk us black in the face about Carrie.
"How's Carrie, Wallie?" I said during the soup.
"She's all right," he replied, and changed the subject. But later in the evening, while Bill was walking on the lawn with a cigar, he broke out for fair.
"Carrie's on a milk diet," he said apropos of nothing. "If she stays on it another week I'm going to Colorado. She's positively brutal, and she hasn't ordered a real dinner for anybody for a week."
"Really!" I said.
He got up and towered over me.
"Look here, Clara," he said; "you're a sensible woman. Am I fat? Am I bald? Am I a doddering and toothless venerable? To hear Carrie this past few days you'd think I need to wear overshoes when I go out in the grass."
I rather started, because I'd been looking at Bill at that minute and wondering if he was getting his feet wet. He had only pumps on.
"It isn't only that she's brutal," he said, "she has soft moments when she mothers me. Confound it, I don't want to be mothered! She's taken off eight pounds," he went on gloomily. "And that isn't the worst." He lowered his voice. "I found her crying over some old letters the other day. She isn't happy, Clara. You know she could have married a lot of fellows. She was the most popular girl I ever knew."
Well, I'd known Carrie longer than he had, and of course a lot of men used to hang round her house because there was always something to do. But I'd never known that such a lot of them made love to Carrie or wanted to marry her. She was clever enough to hesitate over Wallie, but, believe me, she knew she had him cinched before she ran any risk. However:
"I'm sure you've tried to make her happy," I said. "But of course she was awfully popular."
I'm not so very keen about Carrie, but the way I felt that week, when it was a question between a husband and a wife, I was for the wife. "Of course," I said as Bill came within hearing distance, "it's not easy, when one's had a lot of attention, to settle down to one man, especially if the man is considerably older and - and settled."
That was a wrong move, as it turned out. For Bill, who never says much, got quieter than ever, and announced, just before he went to bed, that he'd given up the polo game. I was furious. I'd had one or two simple little frocks run up for Carrie's party, and by the greatest sort of luck I'd happened on a piece of flowered lawn almost exactly like one Roger used to be crazy about.
For twenty-four hours things hung in the balance. Bill has a hideous way of doing what he says he'll do. Roger had sent more flowers - not roses this time, but mignonette and valley lilies, with a few white orchids. It looked rather bridey. It would have been too maddening to have Bill queer the whole thing at the last minute.
But I fixed things at bridge one night by saying that I thought married people were always better off for short separations, and that I was never so fond of Bill as when he'd been away for a few days.
"Polo for me!" said Bill.
And I went out during my dummy hand and telephoned Carrie.
I hope I have been clear about the way the thing began. I feel that my situation should be explained. For one thing, all sorts of silly stories are going round, and it is stupid of people to think they cannot ask Roger and me to the same dinners. If Bill would only act like a Christian, and not roar the moment his name is mentioned, there would be a chance for the thing to die out. But you know what Bill is.
Well, the husbands left on Saturday morning, and by eleven o'clock Ida, Alice and I were all at Carrie's. The change in her was simply startling. She looked like a willow wand. She'd put her hair low on her neck, and except for a touch of black on her eyelashes, and of course her lips coloured, she hadn't a speck of makeup on. She'd taken the pearls out of her ears, too, and she wore tennis clothes and flat-heeled shoes that made her look like a child.
She was sending the children off in the car as we went up the drive.
"They're off to mother's," she said. "I'll miss them frightfully, but this is a real lark, girls, and I can't imagine anything more killing to romance than small children."
She kissed the top of the baby's head, and he yelled like a trooper. Then the motor drove off, and, as Alice Warrington said, the stage was set.
"Get your tennis things on," Carrie said. "The men will be here for lunch."
We said with one voice that we wouldn't play tennis. It was too hot. She eyed us coldly.
"For heaven's sake," she said, "play up. Nobody asked you to play tennis. But if you are asked don't say it's too hot. Do any of the flappers at the club ever find it too hot to play? Sprain an ankle or break a racket, but don't talk about its being too violent, or that you've given it up the last few years. Try to remember that for two days you're in the game again, and don't take on a handicap to begin with."
Well, things started off all right, I'll have to admit that, although Carrie looked a trifle queer when Harry Delaney, getting out of the motor that had brought them from the station, held out a baby's rattle to her.
"Found it in the car," he said. "How are the youngsters anyhow?"
"Adorable!" said Carrie, and flung the rattle into the house.
Roger came straight to me and took both my hands.
"Upon my word, Clara," he said, "this is more luck than I ever expected again. Do you remember the last time we were all here together?"
"Of course I do." He was still holding my hands and I felt rather silly. But the others had paired off instantly and no one was paying any attention.
"I was almost suicidal that last evening. You - you had just told me, you know."
I withdrew my hands. When a man is being sentimental I like him to be accurately sentimental. It had been a full month after that house party, at a dance Carrie gave, that I had told him of my engagement to Bill. However, I said nothing and took a good look at Roger. He was wonderful.
Why is it that married men lose their boyishness, and look smug and sleek and domesticated almost before the honeymoon is over? Roger stood there with his hat in his hand and the hot noon sun shining on him. And he hadn't changed a particle, except that his hair was grey over his ears and maybe a bit thinner. He was just as eager, just as boyish, just as lean as he'd ever been. And positively he was handsomer than ever.
Bill is plain. He is large and strong, of course, but he says himself his face must have been cut out with an axe. "Rugged and true," he used to call himself. But lately, in spite of golf, he had put on weight.
Well, to get on.
Luncheon was gay. Everyone sat beside the person he wanted to sit beside, and said idiotic things, and Peter Arundel insisted on feeding Alice's strawberries to her one by one. Nobody talked bills or the high cost of living. Roger is a capital raconteur, and we laughed until we wept over his stories. I told some of Bill's stock jokes and they went with a hurrah. At three o'clock we were still at the table, and when Carrie asked the men if they wanted to run over to the Country Club for a couple of hours of golf Wilbur Bayne put the question to a vote and they voted "No" with a roar.
I remember that Harry Delaney said a most satisfactory thing just as luncheon was over.
"It's what I call a real party," he said. "After a man is thirty or thereabouts he finds debutantes still thrilling, of course, but not restful. They're always wanting to go somewhere or do something. They're too blooming healthy. The last week-end I spent I danced until 4 a. m. and was wakened at seven-thirty by a fair young flower throwing gravel through my open window and inviting me to a walk before breakfast!"
"Anyone seen about the place before eleven to-morrow morning," said Carrie, "will be placed under restraint. For one thing, it would make the servants talk. They're not used to it."
So far so good. I'll confess freely that if they'd let me alone I'd never have thought of getting even. But you know Carrie Smith. She has no reserves. And she had to tell about my party and the way the husbands behaved.
"Don't glare, Clara," she said. "Your house is nice and your food and drink all that could be desired. But it was not a hilarious party, and I'll put it up to the others."
Then and there she told about the swimming and the golf and the knitting. The men roared. She exaggerated, of course. Bill did not go to sleep at dinner. But she made a good story of it, and I caught Roger's eye fixed on me with a look that said plainly that he'd always known I'd made a mistake, and here was the proof.
We went out into the garden and sat under a tree. But soon the others paired off and wandered about. Roger and I were left alone, and I was boiling.
"Don't look like that, little girl," said Roger, bending toward me. "It hurts me terribly to - to think you are not happy."
He put a hand over mine, and at that moment Alice Warrington turned from a rosebush she and Peter were pretending to examine, and saw me. She raised her eyebrows, and that gave me the idea. I put my free hand over Roger's and tried to put my soul into my eyes.
"Don't move," I said. "Hold the position for a moment, Roger, and look desperately unhappy."
"I am," he said. "Seeing you again brings it all back. Are they looking? Shall I kiss your hand?"
I looked over. Alice and Peter were still staring.
"Bend over," I said quickly, "and put your cheek against it. It's more significant and rather hopeless. I'll explain later."
He did extremely well. He bent over passionately until his head was almost in my lap, and I could see how carefully his hair was brushed over a thin place at the crown. Thank goodness, Bill keeps his hair anyhow!
"How's this?" he said in a muffled voice.
"That's plenty." I'd made up my mind, and I meant to go through with it. But I felt like a fool. There's something about broad daylight that makes even real sentiment look idiotic.
He sat up and looked into my eyes.
"There are times," he said, raising his voice, "when I feel I can't stand it. I'm desperately - desperately unhappy, Clara."
"We must make the best of things," I said, and let my eyes wander toward Alice and Peter. They had turned and were retreating swiftly through the garden.
"Now," said Roger, sitting back and smoothing his hair, "what's it all about?"
So I told him and explained my plan. Even now, when I never want to see him again, I must admit that Roger is a sport. He never turned a hair.
"Of course I'll do it. It isn't as hard as you imagine. Our meeting like this revives the old fire. I'm mad about you, recklessly mad, and you're crazy about me. All right so far. But a thing like that won't throw much of a crimp into Carrie. Probably she expects it."
"To-night," I explained, "we'll be together, but silent and moody. When we smile at their nonsense it is to be a forced smile. We're intent on ourselves. Do you see? And you might go to Carrie after dinner and tell her you think you'll go. You can't stand being near me. It's too painful. I'll talk to one of the men too."
He looked rather uncomfortable.
"Oh, I wouldn't do that, Clara. They wouldn't understand."
"Not about you," I retorted coldly. "I'll merely indicate that Bill and I aren't hitting it off, and that a woman has a right to be happy. Then, when things happen, they'll remember what I said."
He turned round his wicker chair so that he faced me.
"When things happen?" he said. "What things?"
"When we elope to-morrow night," I replied.
I'm not defending myself. Goodness knows I've gone through all that. I am merely explaining. And I think Roger deserves part of the blame, but of course the woman always suffers. If he had only been frank with me at the time it need never have happened. Besides, I've been back to that bridge again and again, and with ordinary intelligence and a hammer he could have repaired it. It is well enough for him to say he didn't have a hammer. He should have had a hammer.
At the mention of an elopement Roger changed colour, but I did not remember that until afterward. He came up to scratch rather handsomely, when he was able to speak, but he insisted that I write the whole thing to Bill.
"I can tell him afterward," I protested.
"That won't help me if he has beaten me up first. You write him to the office, so he'll get it Monday morning when he gets back from the game. If anything should slip up you're protected, don't you see? Tell him it's a joke and why we're doing it. I - I hope Bill has kept his sense of humor."
Well, it looked simple enough. We were to act perfectly silly and moonstruck all the rest of that day and Sunday until we had them all thoroughly worried. Then on Sunday night we were to steal Wallie's car and run away in it. The through train stops at a station about four miles away, at eleven-fourteen at night, and we were to start that way and then turn around and go to mother's.
We planned it thoroughly, I must say. Roger said he'd get one of the fellows to cash a check for all the money he had about him. They'd be sure to think of that when Carrie got my note. And I made a draft of the note then and there on the back of an old envelope from Roger's pocket. We made it as vague as possible.
"Dear Carrie," it ran, "by the time you receive this I shall be on my way to happiness. Try to forgive me. I couldn't stand things another moment. We only live one life and we all make mistakes. Read Ellen Key and don't try to follow me. I'm old enough to know my own mind, and all you have been saying this last few days has convinced me that when a chance for happiness comes one is a fool not to take it. Had it not been for you I should never have had my eyes opened to what I've been missing all this time. I have wasted my best years, but at last I am being true to myself. Clara."
"Now," I said, rather viciously I dare say, "let her read that and throw a fit. She'll never again be able to accuse me of making things dull for her."
Roger read it over.
"We'd better write Bill's letter," he said, "and get it off. We - it wouldn't do to have Bill worried, you know."
So we went into the house and wrote Bill's letter. We explained everything - how stupid they'd all found our party and that this was only a form of revenge.
"Suppose," Roger said as I sealed it, "suppose they get excited and send for the police?"
That stumped us. It was one thing to give them a bad night, and telephone them in the morning that it was a joke and that I'd gone direct from Carrie's to mother's, which was the arrangement. But Carrie was a great one for getting in detectives. You remember, the time her sister was married, that Carrie had a detective in the house for a week before the wedding watching the presents, and how at the last minute the sister wanted to marry the detective, who was a good-looking boy, and they had a dreadful time getting her to the church.
We both thought intently for quite a time.
"We must cut the telephone wire, Roger," I said at length.
Roger was not eager about cutting the telephone. He said he would probably be shocked to death, although if he could find a pair of rubber overshoes he'd take the risk.
"It ought to be done the very last thing," he said. "No use rousing their suspicions early."
We played up hard all afternoon. Roger kissed the lump of sugar he put in my tea, and went and sulked on the parapet when Peter Arundel came and sat beside me. Carrie joined him there, and I could see her talking earnestly to him while Roger looked out over the landscape with eyes that were positively sombre.
"Having a good time?" said Peter Arundel to me.
"Heavenly, Peter," I replied, looking at Roger. "I didn't believe I could be so happy."
"Go to it," said Peter. "What's a day or two out of a lifetime."
I turned round and faced him, my hands gripped hard in my lap.
"That's it," I said tensely. "That's the thought that's killing me. One can only be happy for a day or two."
"Oh, I wouldn't go so far as that," said Peter. "You have a pretty fair time, you know, Clara. Old Bill's a good sort."
"Oh, Bill!" I said.
"I went to college with Bill. Maybe Bill hasn't any frills, but he's a real man." He glared at Roger's drooping shoulders. "He's no tailor's dummy anyhow."
I ignored this.
"Peter," I said in a thin voice, "have you ever read Ellen Key?"
"Not on your life!" said Peter.
I quoted a bit I happened to remember.
"'Nothing is wiser than the modern woman's desire to see life with her own eyes, not only with those of a husband.'" I sighed.
"If I were Bill," said Peter, "I'd burn that book."
"'Nothing,'" I continued, "'is more true than that souls which are parted by a lack of perfect frankness never belonged to one another.'"
"Look here," said Peter, and got up; "I think you've lost your mind, Clara - you and Roger Waite both. Look at him mooning over there. I'd like to turn the garden hose on him."
I looked at Roger - a long gaze that made Peter writhe.
"'Love's double heartbeat' - - " I began. But Peter stalked away, muttering.
Carrie had left Roger, so I put down my cup and followed him to the parapet of the terrace.
"Darling!" he said. And then, finding Peter was not with me: "How's it going?"
"Cracking! They're all worried already."
"We've hardly started. Slip your arm through mine, Clara, and I'll hold your hand. Dear little hand!" he said. "When I think that instead of that ring - - " Here he choked and kissed my hand. Then I saw that Harry Delaney was just below the wall.
Carrie's voice broke in on our philandering.
"If," she said coldly, "you two people can be pried apart with a crowbar for a sufficient length of time, we will motor to Bubbling Spring. There's just time before dinner."
"I don't think I'll go, Carrie," I said languidly. "I have a headache and Roger has just offered to read to me. Do you remember how you used to cure my headaches, Roger?"
"I'd rather not talk about those days, Clara," said Roger in a shaky voice.
"I wish you two people could see and hear yourselves!" Carrie cried furiously, and turned on her heel.
"I guess that will hold her for a while," Roger purred. "Clara, you're an angel and an inspiration. I haven't had such a good time since I had scarlet fever."
Dinner, which should have been gay, was simply noisy. They were all worried, and it is indicative of how Carrie had forgotten her pose and herself that she wore her diamond necklace. Roger had been placed at the other end of the table from me, but he slipped in and changed the cards. There were half a dozen dinner guests, but Roger and I ate little or nothing.
"Act as though the thought of food sickens you," I commanded.
"But I'm starving!"
"I'll have my maid take a tray into the garden later."
In spite of me he broke over at the entr ee, which was extremely good. But everyone saw that we were not eating. The woman on Roger's right, a visitor, took advantage of a lull in the noise to accuse Roger of being in love. Ida giggled, but Roger turned to his neighbour.
"I am in love," he said mournfully; "hopelessly, idiotically, madly, recklessly in love."
"With any particular person?"
"With you," said Roger, who had never seen her before.
She quite fluttered.
"But I am married!"
"Unfortunate, but not fatal," said Roger distinctly, while everyone listened. "These days one must be true to one's self."
We were awfully pleased with ourselves that evening. I said my head still ached and I could not dance. Roger and I sat out-of-doors most of the time, and at eleven o'clock Powell, my maid, brought out a tray of what was left from dinner and the dance supper. She took it by order to a small shaded porch off the billiard room, and we found her there with it.
"Thank you, Powell," I said. But Roger followed her into the house. When he returned he was grinning.
"Might as well do it right while we're about it," he observed. "To-morrow morning Powell will go to Carrie and tell her you sat up all night by the window, and she's afraid you are going to be ill."
In the dusk we shook hands over the tray.
Well, a lot of things happened, such as our overhearing the men in the billiard room debating about getting poor old Bill on the long distance.
"It isn't a flirtation," said Wilbur Bayne. "I've seen Clara flirting many a time. But this is different. They're reckless, positively reckless. When a man as fond of his stomach as Roger lets a whole meal go by, he's pretty far gone."
Roger bent over, with a part of a squab in his hand.
"Have they bitten!" he said. "They've not only swallowed hook, line and sinker but they're walking up the bank to put themselves in the basket!"
Well, the next morning it was clear that the girls had decided on a course and were following it. Although it had been arranged that everyone was to sleep late, breakfast trays appeared in the rooms at nine-thirty, with notes asking us to go to church. When I said I had not slept, and did not care to go, no one went, and when Roger appeared at eleven the girls surrounded me like a cordon of police.
Roger was doing splendidly. He came up across the tennis court, covered with dust, and said he had not slept and had been walking since six o'clock. The men eyed him with positive ferocity.
I'll not go into the details of that day, except to relate a conversation Ida Elliott and I had after luncheon. She came into my room and closed the door behind her softly, as if I were ill.
"Well," she said, "I did think, Clara, that if you didn't have any sense, you would have some consideration for Carrie."
I had been addressing the envelope to Bill, and so I shoved a sheet of paper over it.
"I'm not going to try to read what you are writing," she said rudely.
"What do you mean about Carrie?"
"She's almost ill, that's all. How could anyone have had any idea that Roger and you - - " She fairly choked.
"Roger and I are only glad to be together again," I said defiantly. Then I changed to a wistful tone. Just hearing it made me sorry for myself. "We are old friends; Carrie knew that. It is cruel of you all to - to spoil the little bit of happiness I can get out of life."
"What about Bill?"
"Bill?" I said vaguely. "Oh - Bill! Well, Bill would never stand in the way of my being true to myself. He would want me to be happy."
I put my handkerchief suddenly to my eyes, and she gave me a scathing glance.
"I'm going to telephone Bill," she said. "You're not sane, Clara. And when you come back to your senses it may be too late."
She flounced out, and I knew she would call Bill if she could. From the window I could see that Harry Delaney had Roger by the arm and was walking him up and down. It was necessary, if the fun was to go on, to disconnect the telephone. I ran down to the library and dropped the instrument on the floor twice, but when I put it to my ear to see if it was still working I found it was, for Central was saying: "For the love of heaven, something nearly busted my eardrum!"
Ida had not come down yet, and the telephone was on a table in the corner, beside a vase of flowers. When I saw the flowers I knew I was saved. I turned the vase over and let the water soak into the green cord that covers the wires. I knew it would short-circuit the telephone, for once one of the maids at home, washing the floor, had wet the cord, and we were cut off for an entire day.
During the afternoon I gave Harry Delaney the letter to Bill. Harry was going to the little town that was the post office to get something for Carrie.
"You won't forget to mail it, will you, Harry?" I asked in a pathetic voice.
He read the address and looked at me.
"What are you writing to Bill for, Clara? He'll be home in the morning."
I looked confused. Then I became frank.
"I'm writing him something I don't particularly care to tell him."
He fairly groaned and thrust the thing into his pocket.
"For refined cruelty and absolute selfishness," he said, "commend me to the woman with nothing to do but to get into mischief."
"Will you promise to mail it?"
"Oh, I'll mail it all right," he said; "but I give you until six o'clock this evening to think it over. I'm not going to the station until then."
"To think over what?" I asked, my eyes opened innocently wide. But he flung away in a fury.
It was rather fun that afternoon. If my party had been dreary on Sunday it was nothing to Carrie's. They'd clearly all agreed to stay round and keep Roger and me apart. Everybody sulked, and the men got the Sunday newspapers and buried themselves in them. Once I caught Roger dropping into a doze. He had refused the paper and had been playing up well, sitting back in his chair with his cap over his eyes and gazing at me until everybody wiggled.
"Roger," I called, when I saw his eyes closing, "are you game for a long walk?"
Roger tried to look eager.
"Sure," he said.
"Haven't you a particle of humanity?" Carrie demanded. She knew some of them would have to go along, and nobody wanted to walk. It was boiling. "He has been up since dawn and he's walked miles."
Roger ignored her.
"To the ends of the world - with you, Clara," he said, and got up.
In the end they all went. It was a tragic-looking party. We walked for miles and miles, and Carrie was carrying her right shoe when we got back. It was too late to dress for dinner, and everyone was worn out. So we went in as we were.
"I'm terribly sorry it's nearly over," I babbled as the soup was coming in. "It has been the most wonderful success, hasn't it? Ida, won't you have us all next week? Maybe we can send the husbands to the yacht races."
"Sorry," said Ida coldly; "I've something else on."
Worried as they were, nobody expected us to run away. How to let them know what had happened, and put a climax to their discomfiture, was the question. I solved it at last by telling Powell to come in at midnight with the sleeping medicine Carrie had given her for me. I knew, when she found I was not there, she would wait and at last raise the alarm. What I did not know was that she would come in half an hour early, and cut off our lead by thirty minutes.
The evening dragged like the afternoon, and so thoroughly was the spice out of everything for them all, that when I went upstairs at ten-thirty Ida Elliott was singing Jim's praises to Wilbur Bayne, and Carrie had got out the children's photographs and was passing them round.
As I went out through the door Roger opened for me, he bowed over my hand and kissed it.
"Oh, cut it out!" I heard Peter growl, and there was a chorus from the others.
I had to stop in the hall outside and laugh. It was the last time I laughed for a good many hours.
By eleven I was ready. Everyone was upstairs, and Carrie had found out about the telephone by trying to call up her mother to inquire about the children. I had packed a small suitcase and at Roger's whistle I was to drop it out the window to him. Things began to go wrong with that, for just as I was ready to drop it someone rapped at my door. I swung it too far out, and it caught Roger full in the chest and carried him over backward. I had just time to see him disappear in the shrubbery with a sort of dull thud when Alice Warrington knocked again.
She came in and sat on the bed.
"I don't want to be nasty, Clara," she said, "but you know how fond I am of you, and I don't want you to misunderstand Roger. It's his way to make violent love to people and then get out. Of course you know he's being very attentive to Maisie Brown. She's jealous of you now. Somebody told her Roger used to be crazy about you. If she hears of this - - "
"Clara!" said Roger's voice under the window.
Alice rose, with the most outraged face I've ever seen.
"He is positively shameless," she said. "As for you, Clara, I can't tell you how I feel."
"Clara!" said Roger. "I must speak to you. Just one word."
Alice swept out of the room and banged the door. I went to the window.
"Something seems to have broken in the dratted thing," he said. "It smells like eau de Cologne. I'm covered with it."
As it developed later it was eau de Cologne. I have never got a whiff of it since that I don't turn fairly sick. And all of that awful night Roger fairly reeked with it.
Well, by midnight everything was quiet, and I got downstairs and into the drive without alarming anyone. Roger was waiting, and for some reason or other - possibly the knock - he seemed less enthusiastic.
"I hope Harry remembered the letter to Bill," he said. "Whether this thing is a joke or not depends on the other person's sense of humor. What in heaven's name made you put scent in your bag?"
He had his car waiting at the foot of the drive, and just as I got in we heard it thunder.
"How far is it to your mother's?"
"It's going to rain."
"Rain or not, I'm not going back, Roger," I said. "Imagine Bill's getting that letter for nothing."
He got into the car and it began to rain at once. Everyone knows about that storm now. We had gone about four miles when the sky fairly opened. The water beat in under the top and washed about our feet. We drove up to the hubs in water, and the lights, instead of showing us the way, only lit up a wall of water ahead. It was like riding into Niagara Falls. We were pretty sick, I can tell you.
"Why didn't you look at the sky?" I yelled at Roger, above the beating of the storm. "Bill can always tell when it's going to storm."
"Oh, damn Bill!" said Roger, and the car slid off the road and into a gully. Roger just sat still and clutched the wheel.
"Aren't you going to do something?" I snapped. "I'm not going to sit here all night and be drowned."
"Is there anything you could suggest?"
"Can't you get out and push it?"
But after five minutes or so he did crawl out, and by tying my suitcase straps round one of the wheels he got the car back into the road. I daresay I was a trifle pettish by that time.
"I wish you wouldn't drip on me," I said.
"I beg your pardon," he replied, and moved as far from me as he could.
We went on in silence. At last:
"There's one comfort about getting that soaking," he said: "it's washed that damned perfume off."
There's one thing about Bill, he keeps his temper. And he doesn't raise the roof when he gets his clothes wet. He rather likes getting into difficulties, to show how well he can get out of them. But Roger is like a cat. He always hated to get his feet wet.
"If you had kept the car in the centre of the road you wouldn't have had to get out," I said shortly.
"Oh, well, if you're going back to first causes," he retorted, "if you'd never suggested this idiotic thing I wouldn't be laying up a case of lumbago at this minute."
"Lumbago is middle-aged, isn't it?"
"We're neither of us as young as we were a few years ago."
That was inexcusable. Roger is at least six years older than I am. Besides, even if it were true, there was no necessity for him to say it. But there was no time to quarrel, for at that moment we were going across a bridge over a small stream. It was a river now. The first thing I knew was that the car shook and rocked and there was a dull groaning underneath. The next minute we had gone slowly down about four feet and the creek was flowing over us.
We said nothing at first. The lights went off almost immediately, as the engine drowned, and there we sat in the flood, and the first thing I knew I was crying.
"The bridge is broken," said Roger, above the rush of the stream.
"I didn't think you were washing the car," I whimpered. "We'll be drowned, that's all."
The worst of the storm was over, but as far as I was concerned it might just as well have been pouring. When Roger got his matches and tried to light one it only made a sick streak of phosphorescence on the side of the box. To make things worse, Roger turned round, and where the road crossed the brow of the hill behind us there was the glow of automobile lamps. He swore under his breath.
"They're coming, Clara," he said. "That fool of a maid didn't wait until midnight."
The thought of being found like that, waist-deep in water, drove me to frenzy. I knew how they'd laugh, how they'd keep on laughing for years. They'd call us the Water Babies probably, or something equally hateful. I just couldn't stand the thought.
I got up.
"Let them think we're drowned - anything," I said desperately. "I will not be found like this."
Roger looked about like a hunted animal.
"There's - there's a house near here on the hill," he said. Afterward I remembered how he hesitated over it. "We could get up there, I'm pretty sure."
He looked back.
"They seem to have stopped," he said. "Perhaps the other bridge has gone."
He lifted me out and set me on the bank. He was not particularly gentle about it, and I was all he could carry. That's one thing about Bill - he's as strong as an ox and as gentle as a young gazelle.
Well, we scurried up the bank, the water pouring off us, and I lost a shoe. Roger wouldn't wait until I found it, but dragged me along, panting. Suddenly I knew that I hated him with a deadly hatred. The thought of how nearly I had married him made me shiver.
"I wish you'd let go of me," I said.
"Why? You can't climb alone in the silly clothes you wear."
"Perhaps not, but I don't like you to touch me."
"Oh, if you feel like that - - " He let me go, and I almost fell. "You know, Clara, I am trying hard to restrain myself, but - this is all your doing."
"I suppose I broke the bridge down," I said bitterly, "and brought on the rain, and all the rest of it."
"Now I recognise the Clara I used to know," he had the audacity to say, "always begging the question and shifting the responsibility. For heaven's sake don't stop to quarrel! They've probably found the car by this time."
We got to the house and I fell exhausted on the steps. To my surprise Roger got out a bunch of keys and fitted one to the lock.
"I know these people," he said. "I - I sometimes come out in the fall for a bit of shooting. Place is closed now."
The interior looked dark and smelled musty. I didn't want to go in, but it was raining again and there was nothing else to do.
"Better overcome your repugnance and give me your hand," he said. "If we turn on a light they'll spot us."
Oh, it is all very well to say, looking back, that we should have sat in the car until we were found, and have carried it all off as a part of the joke. I couldn't, that's flat. I couldn't have laughed if I'd been paid to.
We bumped into a square hall and I sat down. It was very quiet all at once, and the only thing to be heard was the water dripping from us to the hardwood floor.
"If that's a velvet chair you're on it will be ruined," said Roger's voice out of the darkness.
"I hope it is. Where is the telephone?"
"There is a telephone closet under the stairs."
"You know a lot about this house. Whose is it?"
"It's the Brown place. You know it."
"Yes." He was quite sullen.
"And you have a key like one of the family! Roger, you are engaged to her!"
"I was," he said. "The chances are when this gets out I won't be."
I don't know why now, but it struck me as funny. I sat and laughed like a goose, and the more I laughed the harder Roger breathed.
"You've got to see me through this, Clara," he said at last. "You can't telephone Carrie - you've fixed all that. But you can get your mother. Tell her the circumstances and have her send a car for you. I'll stay here to-night. And if you take my advice you'll meet Bill at the train to-morrow morning and beat Carrie to it. She'll be in town with a line of conversation by daybreak."
He found some dry matches and led me to the telephone. Something in the way I dripped, or because I padded across the floor in one stocking foot, made him a trifle more human.
"I'll close the curtains and light the log fire," he said. "Things are bad enough without your taking pneumonia."
The moment I took the receiver off the hook I knew the wires were down somewhere. I sat for a moment, then I opened the door. Roger was on his knees lighting the fire. He looked very thin, with his clothes stuck to him, and the hair that he wore brushed over the bare place had been washed down, and he looked almost bald.
"Roger," I said, with the calmness of despair, "the wires are down!"
"Hush," said Roger suddenly. "And close that door."
It seemed rather foolish to me at the time. Since they had followed us, they'd know perfectly well that if Roger was there I was.
In walked Maisie Brown and about a dozen other people!
I can still hear the noise they made coming in, and then a silence, broken by Maisie's voice.
"Why, Roger!" she said.
"Awfully surprising to see you here - I mean, I expect you are surprised to see me here," said Roger's voice, rather thin and stringy. "The fact is, I was going by, and - it was raining hard, and I - - "
"Then that was your car in the creek?"
"Well, yes," Roger admitted, after a hesitation. He was evidently weighing every word, afraid of committing himself to anything dangerous.
"I thought you were at Carrie Smith's."
"I was on my way home."
Everybody laughed. It was about a dozen miles to Roger's road home from Carrie's.
"Come on, now, there's a mystery. Own up," said a man's voice. "Where's the beautiful lady? Drowned?"
Luckily no one waited for an answer. They demanded how he had got in, and when he said he had a key they laughed again. Some one told Maisie she might as well confess. If Roger had a key to the house it required explanation.
If ever I heard cold suspicion in a girl's voice, it was in Maisie's when she answered:
"Oh, we're engaged all right, if that's what you mean," she said. "But I think Roger and I - - "
They didn't give her a chance to finish, the idiots! They gave three cheers, and then, as nearly as I could make out, they formed a ring and danced round them. They'd been to a picnic somewhere, and as the bridges were down they were there for the night.
Do you think they went to bed?
Not a bit of it. They found some canned things in a pantry, and fixed some hot drinks and drank to Maisie and Roger. And I sat in the telephone closet and tried not to sneeze.
I sat there for two hours.
About two o'clock I heard Maisie say she would have to telephone home, and if a totally innocent person can suffer the way I did I don't know how a guilty one could live. But Roger leaped in front of her.
"I'll do it, honey," he said. "I - I was just thinking of telephoning."
They were close to the door.
"Don't call me honey," Maisie said in a tense voice. "I know about Carrie Smith's party and who was there. After the way Clara has schemed all these years to get you back, to have you fall into a trap like that! It's sickening!"
She put her hand on the knob of the door.
"Listen, darling," Roger implored. "I - I don't care a hang for anyone but you. I'm perfectly wretched. I - - "
He pulled her hand off the knob of the door and I heard him kiss it.
"Let me call your mother," he said. "She'll know you are all right when I'm here."
Well, I had to listen. The idea of her saying I'd tried to get him back, when everybody knows how he carried on when I turned him down! I hadn't given him a thought for years.
"Did you make love to Clara?"
"Certainly not. Look here, Maisie, you can afford to be magnanimous. Clara's a nice woman, but she's years older than you are. You know who loves you, don't you?"
Positively he was appealing. He sounded fairly sick.
"Get mother on the wire," said Maisie curtly. "Then call me. I'll talk to her."
Roger opened the door as soon as she had gone and squeezed in beside me.
"She's coming to telephone. You'll have to go somewhere else, Clara," he said.
"Where, for instance?"
"I may be able to collect them in the pantry. Then you can run across and get out the door."
"Into the rain?"
"Well, you can't stay here, can you?"
"I'll do nothing of the sort. Go and tell her the wires are down. They are. And then get that crowd of flappers upstairs. If they go the men will. I give you ten minutes. At the end of that time I'm coming out to the fire. I'm cold."
"And after they go up, what?"
"Then you're going into somebody's room to steal me a pair of dry shoes. Get Maisie's, she's about my size. We'll have to walk to mother's."
"I can't leave, Clara. If anything happened and I was missing - - "
When I said nothing he knew I was in earnest. He went out and told them the telephone was out of order, and somehow or other he shooed them upstairs. I opened the door of the telephone closet for air, and I could hear them overhead, ragging Roger about the engagement and how he happened to get to Maisie's when it was so far from his road home. Every time I thought they were settled, some fool of a boy or giggling d ebutante would come down again and look for soap, or towels, or matches, or heaven knows what. I could have strangled the lot of them.
By three o'clock it was fairly quiet, and I crept out and sat by the log fire. If I had had a shoe I would have started off then and there. I'm no coward and I was desperate. But I couldn't go in my silk stockings. And when after a while Roger slipped down the stairs he had no shoes for me.
"I've tried all the girls' doors," he said wretchedly, "and they're locked. Couldn't you tie a towel round your foot, or something? I'm going to get into trouble over this thing yet. I feel it."
"Go up and bring me little Teddy Robinson's shoes," I snapped. "It won't compromise you to go into his room, I daresay."
"What if he's not asleep?"
"Tell him you're going to clean them. Tell him anything. And, Roger, don't let Maisie pull the ing enue stunt on you. I may be years older than she is, but Maisie's no child."
Well, with everyone gone and Roger hunting me some boots, I felt rather better. I went to the pantry and fixed some hot milk and carried it in to drink by the fire. Roger came down with the boots, and to save time he laced them on my feet while I sat back and sipped.
That, of course, in spite of what Bill pretends to think, is why Roger was on his knees before me when Peter walked in.
Oh, yes, Peter Arundel walked in! It just shows the sort of luck I played in that night. He walked in and slammed the door.
"Thank heaven!" he said, and stalked over to me and jerked the cup out of my hand. "You pair of idiots!" he fairly snarled. "What sort of an escapade is this anyhow?"
"It - it's a joke, Peter," I quavered. He stared at me in speechless scorn. "Positively it is a joke, Peter."
"I daresay," he said grimly. "Perhaps to-morrow I may see it that way. The question is, will Bill think it's a joke?"
He looked round, and luckily for me he saw all the girls' wraps lying about.
"If the family's here, Clara," he said in a milder voice, "I - I may be doing you an injustice."
Roger had not said a word. He was standing in front of the fire, watching the stairs.
"When we found the note," Peter went on in his awful booming voice, "saying you were going at last to be true to yourself, and when you and Roger had disappeared, what were we to think? Especially after the way you two had fallen into each other's arms from the moment you met."
"How interesting!" said a voice from the staircase.
It was Maisie!
Well, what's the use of going into it again? She gave Roger his ring instantly, and Roger was positively grey. He went back on me without a particle of shame - said I'd suggested the whole thing and begged him to help me; that he'd felt like a fool the whole time.
"Maisie, darling," he said, "surely you know that there's nobody in all the world for me but you."
He held out the ring to her, but she shook her head.
"I'm not angry - not any more," she said. "I've lost my faith in you, that's all. One thing I'm profoundly grateful for - that you and Clara had this - this explosion before we were married and not after."
"Maisie!" he cried.
All at once I remembered Bill's letter, which would positively clear us. But Peter said Harry Delaney's coat had been stolen from the machine, letter and all! Maisie laughed at that, as if she didn't believe there had been such a letter, and Roger went a shade greyer. All at once it came to me that now Bill would never forgive me. He is so upright, Bill is, and he expects everyone to come up to his standard. And in a way Bill had always had me on a pedestal, and he would never believe that I had been such a fool as to jump off for a lark.
Maisie turned and walked upstairs, leaving the three of us there, Roger holding the ring and staring at it with a perfectly vacant face. At last he turned and went to the door.
"Where are you going, Roger?" I asked helplessly.
"I'm going out to drown myself," he said, and went out.
I shall pass over the rest briefly. Peter took me home in his car. I did not go to mother's. For one thing, the bridge was down. For another, it seemed better for Bill and me to settle things ourselves without family interference.
I went home and went to bed, and all day Monday I watched for Bill. Powell came over and I put on my best neglig ee and waited, with a water bottle to keep my feet warm and my courage up.
He did not come.
I stayed in bed for three days, and there was not a sign from him. Carrie and Ida telephoned, but only formal messages, and Alice Warrington sent me a box of flowers with her card. But Bill did not come home or call up. I knew he must be staying at the club, and I had terrible hours when I knew he would never forgive me, and then there would be a divorce, and I wanted to die. Roger never gave a sign, but he had not drowned himself.
Wednesday evening came, and no Bill. By that time I knew it was Bill or nobody for me. After those terrible two days at Carrie's, the thought of Bill's ugly, quiet face made me perfectly homesick for him. I didn't care how much he fell asleep in the evening after dinner. That only showed how contented he was. And I tried to imagine being married to Roger, and seeing him fuss about his ties, and brush the hair over the thin places on top of his head, and I simply couldn't.
It was Wednesday evening when I heard a car come up the drive. I knew at once that it was Bill. I had barely time to turn out all the lights but the pink-shaded one by the bed, and to lay a handkerchief across my eyes, when he came in.
"Well, Clara," he said, standing just inside the door, "I thought we'd better talk this over."
"Bill!" I said, from under the handkerchief.
"I should have come out sooner," he said without moving, "but at first I could not trust myself. I needed a little time."
"Who told you?"
"That doesn't matter, does it? Everybody knows it. But that's not the question. The real issue is between you and me and that - that nincompoop, Waite."
"What has Roger got to do with it?" I looked out from under the handkerchief, and he was livid, positively.
"Bill," I said desperately, "will you come over and sit down on the side of the bed and let me tell you the whole story?"
"I won't be bamboozled, Clara; this is serious. If you've got anything to say, say it. I'll sit here."
He sat down just inside the door on a straight chair and folded his long arms. It was a perfectly hopeless distance.
"Bill!" I said appealingly, and he came over and sat, very uncompromising and stiff, on the side of the bed. I put out my hand, and after a moment's hesitation he took it, but I must say without enthusiasm. I felt like the guiltiest wretch unhung. That's what makes me so perfectly furious now.
"You see, Bill," I said, "it was like this." And I told him the whole thing. About halfway through he dropped my hand.
"It's been an awful lesson, Bill," I ended up. "I'll never say a word again about your enjoying yourself the way you want to. You can swim and play golf and shoot all you like, and - and sleep after dinner, if you'll only forgive me. Bill, suppose I had married Roger Waite!"
He drew a long breath.
"So that was it, old dear!" he said. "Well, all right. We'll put the whole thing in the discard." And he leaned over and put his arms round me.
That ought to be the end of the story. I'd had a lesson and so had some of the others. As Carrie Smith said afterward, to have a good time is one thing, but to be happy is entirely different, and the only way to be happy is to be smug and conventional and virtuous. I never say anything when she starts that line of conversation. But once or twice I've caught her eye, and she has had the grace to look uneasy.
But that's not all. There is more to the story, and now and then I eye Bill, and wonder when he will come and tell me the whole thing. For the other day, in the back of Bill's chiffonier, I came across the letter to him Harry Delaney said he had lost. And Bill had received it Monday morning!
That is not all. Clamped to it was a note from Peter Arundel, and that is why I am writing the whole story, using names and everything. It was a mean trick, and if Bill wants to go to Maisie Brown's wedding he can go. I shall not.
This is Peter's note:
Dear Old Man: Inclosed is the letter Clara gave Delaney to mail,
which I read to you last night over the long-distance phone. I'm
called away or I'd bring it round.
It was easy enough for you to say not to let Clara get away with it, but for a time during the storm it looked as if she'd got the bit and was off. Luckily their car got stuck in the creek, and the rest was easy. We saw them, during a flash of lightning, climbing the hill to the Brown place for shelter. Luck was with us after that, for Maisie and a crowd came along, and we told Maisie the story. I take my hat off to Maisie. She's a trump. If you could have seen Roger Waite's face when she gave him back the ring! Carrie, who was looking through the windows with the others, was so sorry for him that she wanted to go in and let him cry on her shoulder.
I hope Clara didn't take cold. She must have been pretty wet. But you were quite right. It wasn't only that she'd have had the laugh on all of us if she got away with it. As you said, it would be a bad precedent.
Burn this, for the love of Mike. If Clara sees it she'll go crazy.
End of Clara's Little Escapade by Mary Rinehart