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Full Online Book HomeLong Stories"k" - Chapter 15
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"k" - Chapter 15 Post by :farina Category :Long Stories Author :Mary Roberts Rinehart Date :May 2012 Read :2593

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"k" - Chapter 15

CHAPTER XV

Palmer and Christine returned from their wedding trip the day K. discovered Tillie. Anna Page made much of the arrival, insisted on dinner for them that night at the little house, must help Christine unpack her trunks and arrange her wedding gifts about the apartment. She was brighter than she had been for days, more interested. The wonders of the trousseau filled her with admiration and a sort of jealous envy for Sidney, who could have none of these things. In a pathetic sort of way, she mothered Christine in lieu of her own daughter.

And it was her quick eye that discerned something wrong. Christine was not quite happy. Under her excitement was an undercurrent of reserve. Anna, rich in maternity if in nothing else, felt it, and in reply to some speech of Christine's that struck her as hard, not quite fitting, she gave her a gentle admonishing.

"Married life takes a little adjusting, my dear," she said. "After we have lived to ourselves for a number of years, it is not easy to live for some one else."

Christine straightened from the tea-table she was arranging.

"That's true, of course. But why should the woman do all the adjusting?"

"Men are more set," said poor Anna, who had never been set in anything in her life. "It is harder for them to give in. And, of course, Palmer is older, and his habits--"

"The less said about Palmer's habits the better," flashed Christine. "I appear to have married a bunch of habits."

She gave over her unpacking, and sat down listlessly by the fire, while Anna moved about, busy with the small activities that delighted her.

Six weeks of Palmer's society in unlimited amounts had bored Christine to distraction. She sat with folded hands and looked into a future that seemed to include nothing but Palmer: Palmer asleep with his mouth open; Palmer shaving before breakfast, and irritable until he had had his coffee; Palmer yawning over the newspaper.

And there was a darker side to the picture than that. There was a vision of Palmer slipping quietly into his room and falling into the heavy sleep, not of drunkenness perhaps, but of drink. That had happened twice. She knew now that it would happen again and again, as long as he lived. Drinking leads to other things. The letter she had received on her wedding day was burned into her brain. There would be that in the future too, probably.

Christine was not without courage. She was making a brave clutch at happiness. But that afternoon of the first day at home she was terrified. She was glad when Anna went and left her alone by her fire.

But when she heard a step in the hall, she opened the door herself. She had determined to meet Palmer with a smile. Tears brought nothing; she had learned that already. Men liked smiling women and good cheer. "Daughters of joy," they called girls like the one on the Avenue. So she opened the door smiling.

But it was K. in the hall. She waited while, with his back to her, he shook himself like a great dog. When he turned, she was watching him.

"You!" said Le Moyne. "Why, welcome home."

He smiled down at her, his kindly eyes lighting.

"It's good to be home and to see you again. Won't you come in to my fire?"

"I'm wet."

"All the more reason why you should come," she cried gayly, and held the door wide.

The little parlor was cheerful with fire and soft lamps, bright with silver vases full of flowers. K. stepped inside and took a critical survey of the room.

"Well!" he said. "Between us we have made a pretty good job of this, I with the paper and the wiring, and you with your pretty furnishings and your pretty self."

He glanced at her appreciatively. Christine saw his approval, and was happier than she had been for weeks. She put on the thousand little airs and graces that were a part of her--held her chin high, looked up at him with the little appealing glances that she had found were wasted on Palmer. She lighted the spirit-lamp to make tea, drew out the best chair for him, and patted a cushion with her well-cared-for hands.

"A big chair for a big man!" she said. "And see, here's a footstool."

"I am ridiculously fond of being babied," said K., and quite basked in his new atmosphere of well-being. This was better than his empty room upstairs, than tramping along country roads, than his own thoughts.

"And now, how is everything?" asked Christine from across the fire. "Do tell me all the scandal of the Street."

"There has been no scandal since you went away," said K. And, because each was glad not to be left to his own thoughts, they laughed at this bit of unconscious humor.

"Seriously," said Le Moyne, "we have been very quiet. I have had my salary raised and am now rejoicing in twenty-two dollars a week. I am still not accustomed to it. Just when I had all my ideas fixed for fifteen, I get twenty-two and have to reassemble them. I am disgustingly rich."

"It is very disagreeable when one's income becomes a burden," said Christine gravely.

She was finding in Le Moyne something that she needed just then--a solidity, a sort of dependability, that had nothing to do with heaviness. She felt that here was a man she could trust, almost confide in. She liked his long hands, his shabby but well-cut clothes, his fine profile with its strong chin. She left off her little affectations,--a tribute to his own lack of them,--and sat back in her chair, watching the fire.

When K. chose, he could talk well. The Howes had been to Bermuda on their wedding trip. He knew Bermuda; that gave them a common ground. Christine relaxed under his steady voice. As for K., he frankly enjoyed the little visit--drew himself at last with regret out of his chair.

"You've been very nice to ask me in, Mrs. Howe," he said. "I hope you will allow me to come again. But, of course, you are going to be very gay."

It seemed to Christine she would never be gay again. She did not want him to go away. The sound of his deep voice gave her a sense of security. She liked the clasp of the hand he held out to her, when at last he made a move toward the door.

"Tell Mr. Howe I am sorry he missed our little party," said Le Moyne. "And--thank you."

"Will you come again?" asked Christine rather wistfully.

"Just as often as you ask me."

As he closed the door behind him, there was a new light in Christine's eyes. Things were not right, but, after all, they were not hopeless. One might still have friends, big and strong, steady of eye and voice. When Palmer came home, the smile she gave him was not forced.

The day's exertion had been bad for Anna. Le Moyne found her on the couch in the transformed sewing-room, and gave her a quick glance of apprehension. She was propped up high with pillows, with a bottle of aromatic ammonia beside her.

"Just--short of breath," she panted. "I--I must get down. Sidney--is coming home--to supper; and--the others--Palmer and--"

That was as far as she got. K., watch in hand, found her pulse thin, stringy, irregular. He had been prepared for some such emergency, and he hurried into his room for amyl-nitrate. When he came back she was almost unconscious. There was no time even to call Katie. He broke the capsule in a towel, and held it over her face. After a time the spasm relaxed, but her condition remained alarming.

Harriet, who had come home by that time, sat by the couch and held her sister's hand. Only once in the next hour or so did she speak. They had sent for Dr. Ed, but he had not come yet. Harriet was too wretched to notice the professional manner in which K. set to work over Anna.

"I've been a very hard sister to her," she said. "If you can pull her through, I'll try to make up for it."

Christine sat on the stairs outside, frightened and helpless. They had sent for Sidney; but the little house had no telephone, and the message was slow in getting off.

At six o'clock Dr. Ed came panting up the stairs and into the room. K. stood back.

"Well, this is sad, Harriet," said Dr. Ed. "Why in the name of Heaven, when I wasn't around, didn't you get another doctor. If she had had some amyl-nitrate--"

"I gave her some nitrate of amyl," said K. quietly. "There was really no time to send for anybody. She almost went under at half-past five."

Max had kept his word, and even Dr. Ed did not suspect K.'s secret. He gave a quick glance at this tall young man who spoke so quietly of what he had done for the sick woman, and went on with his work.

Sidney arrived a little after six, and from that moment the confusion in the sick-room was at an end. She moved Christine from the stairs, where Katie on her numerous errands must crawl over her; set Harriet to warming her mother's bed and getting it ready; opened windows, brought order and quiet. And then, with death in her eyes, she took up her position beside her mother. This was no time for weeping; that would come later. Once she turned to K., standing watchfully beside her.

"I think you have known this for a long time," she said. And, when he did not answer: "Why did you let me stay away from her? It would have been such a little time!"

"We were trying to do our best for both of you," he replied.

Anna was unconscious and sinking fast. One thought obsessed Sidney. She repeated it over and over. It came as a cry from the depths of the girl's new experience.

"She has had so little of life," she said, over and over. "So little! Just this Street. She never knew anything else."

And finally K. took it up.

"After all, Sidney," he said, "the Street IS life: the world is only many streets. She had a great deal. She had love and content, and she had you."

Anna died a little after midnight, a quiet passing, so that only Sidney and the two men knew when she went away. It was Harriet who collapsed. During all that long evening she had sat looking back over years of small unkindnesses. The thorn of Anna's inefficiency had always rankled in her flesh. She had been hard, uncompromising, thwarted. And now it was forever too late.

K. had watched Sidney carefully. Once he thought she was fainting, and went to her. But she shook her head.

"I am all right. Do you think you could get them all out of the room and let me have her alone for just a few minutes?"

He cleared the room, and took up his vigil outside the door. And, as he stood there, he thought of what he had said to Sidney about the Street. It was a world of its own. Here in this very house were death and separation; Harriet's starved life; Christine and Palmer beginning a long and doubtful future together; himself, a failure, and an impostor.

When he opened the door again, Sidney was standing by her mother's bed. He went to her, and she turned and put her head against his shoulder like a tired child.

"Take me away, K.," she said pitifully.

And, with his arm around her, he led her out of the room.

Outside of her small immediate circle Anna's death was hardly felt. The little house went on much as before. Harriet carried back to her business a heaviness of spirit that made it difficult to bear with the small irritations of her day. Perhaps Anna's incapacity, which had always annoyed her, had been physical. She must have had her trouble a longtime. She remembered other women of the Street who had crept through inefficient days, and had at last laid down their burdens and closed their mild eyes, to the lasting astonishment of their families. What did they think about, these women, as they pottered about? Did they resent the impatience that met their lagging movements, the indifference that would not see how they were failing? Hot tears fell on Harriet's fashion-book as it lay on her knee. Not only for Anna--for Anna's prototypes everywhere.

On Sidney--and in less measure, of course, on K.--fell the real brunt of the disaster. Sidney kept up well until after the funeral, but went down the next day with a low fever.

"Overwork and grief," Dr. Ed said, and sternly forbade the hospital again until Christmas. Morning and evening K. stopped at her door and inquired for her, and morning and evening came Sidney's reply:--

"Much better. I'll surely be up to-morrow!"

But the days dragged on and she did not get about.

Downstairs, Christine and Palmer had entered on the round of midwinter gayeties. Palmer's "crowd" was a lively one. There were dinners and dances, week-end excursions to country-houses. The Street grew accustomed to seeing automobiles stop before the little house at all hours of the night. Johnny Rosenfeld, driving Palmer's car, took to falling asleep at the wheel in broad daylight, and voiced his discontent to his mother.

"You never know where you are with them guys," he said briefly. "We start out for half an hour's run in the evening, and get home with the milk-wagons. And the more some of them have had to drink, the more they want to drive the machine. If I get a chance, I'm going to beat it while the wind's my way."

But, talk as he might, in Johnny Rosenfeld's loyal heart there was no thought of desertion. Palmer had given him a man's job, and he would stick by it, no matter what came.

There were some things that Johnny Rosenfeld did not tell his mother. There were evenings when the Howe car was filled, not with Christine and her friends, but with women of a different world; evenings when the destination was not a country estate, but a road-house; evenings when Johnny Rosenfeld, ousted from the driver's seat by some drunken youth, would hold tight to the swinging car and say such fragments of prayers as he could remember. Johnny Rosenfeld, who had started life with few illusions, was in danger of losing such as he had.

One such night Christine put in, lying wakefully in her bed, while the clock on the mantel tolled hour after hour into the night. Palmer did not come home at all. He sent a note from the office in the morning:

"I hope you are not worried, darling. The car broke down near the Country Club last night, and there was nothing to do but to spend the night there. I would have sent you word, but I did not want to rouse you. What do you say to the theater to-night and supper afterward?"

Christine was learning. She telephoned the Country Club that morning, and found that Palmer had not been there. But, although she knew now that he was deceiving her, as he always had deceived her, as probably he always would, she hesitated to confront him with what she knew. She shrank, as many a woman has shrunk before, from confronting him with his lie.

But the second time it happened, she was roused. It was almost Christmas then, and Sidney was well on the way to recovery, thinner and very white, but going slowly up and down the staircase on K.'s arm, and sitting with Harriet and K. at the dinner table. She was begging to be back on duty for Christmas, and K. felt that he would have to give her up soon.

At three o'clock one morning Sidney roused from a light sleep to hear a rapping on her door.

"Is that you, Aunt Harriet?" she called.

"It's Christine. May I come in?"

Sidney unlocked her door. Christine slipped into the room. She carried a candle, and before she spoke she looked at Sidney's watch on the bedside table.

"I hoped my clock was wrong," she said. "I am sorry to waken you, Sidney, but I don't know what to do."

"Are you ill?"

"No. Palmer has not come home."

"What time is it?"

"After three o'clock."

Sidney had lighted the gas and was throwing on her dressing-gown.

"When he went out did he say--"

"He said nothing. We had been quarreling. Sidney, I am going home in the morning."

"You don't mean that, do you?"

"Don't I look as if I mean it? How much of this sort of thing is a woman supposed to endure?"

"Perhaps he has been delayed. These things always seem terrible in the middle of the night, but by morning--"

Christine whirled on her.

"This isn't the first time. You remember the letter I got on my wedding day?"

"Yes."

"He's gone back to her."

"Christine! Oh, I am sure you're wrong. He's devoted to you. I don't believe it!"

"Believe it or not," said Christine doggedly, "that's exactly what has happened. I got something out of that little rat of a Rosenfeld boy, and the rest I know because I know Palmer. He's out with her to-night."

The hospital had taught Sidney one thing: that it took many people to make a world, and that out of these some were inevitably vicious. But vice had remained for her a clear abstraction. There were such people, and because one was in the world for service one cared for them. Even the Saviour had been kind to the woman of the streets.

But here abruptly Sidney found the great injustice of the world--that because of this vice the good suffer more than the wicked. Her young spirit rose in hot rebellion.

"It isn't fair!" she cried. "It makes me hate all the men in the world. Palmer cares for you, and yet he can do a thing like this!"

Christine was pacing nervously up and down the room. Mere companionship had soothed her. She was now, on the surface at least, less excited than Sidney.

"They are not all like Palmer, thank Heaven," she said. "There are decent men. My father is one, and your K., here in the house, is another."

At four o'clock in the morning Palmer Howe came home. Christine met him in the lower hall. He was rather pale, but entirely sober. She confronted him in her straight white gown and waited for him to speak.

"I am sorry to be so late, Chris," he said. "The fact is, I am all in. I was driving the car out Seven Mile Run. We blew out a tire and the thing turned over."

Christine noticed then that his right arm was hanging inert by his side.

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