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Full Online Book HomeLong Stories"k" - Chapter 19
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"k" - Chapter 19 Post by :farina Category :Long Stories Author :Mary Roberts Rinehart Date :May 2012 Read :2546

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"k" - Chapter 19

CHAPTER XIX

To Harriet Kennedy, Sidney's sentence of thirty days' suspension came as a blow. K. broke the news to her that evening before the time for Sidney's arrival.

The little household was sharing in Harriet's prosperity. Katie had a helper now, a little Austrian girl named Mimi. And Harriet had established on the Street the innovation of after-dinner coffee. It was over the after-dinner coffee that K. made his announcement.

"What do you mean by saying she is coming home for thirty days? Is the child ill?"

"Not ill, although she is not quite well. The fact is, Harriet,"--for it was "Harriet" and "K." by this time,--"there has been a sort of semi-accident up at the hospital. It hasn't resulted seriously, but--"

Harriet put down the apostle-spoon in her hand and stared across at him.

"Then she has been suspended? What did she do? I don't believe she did anything!"

"There was a mistake about the medicine, and she was blamed; that's all."

"She'd better come home and stay home," said Harriet shortly. "I hope it doesn't get in the papers. This dressmaking business is a funny sort of thing. One word against you or any of your family, and the crowd's off somewhere else."

"There's nothing against Sidney," K. reminded her. "Nothing in the world. I saw the superintendent myself this afternoon. It seems it's a mere matter of discipline. Somebody made a mistake, and they cannot let such a thing go by. But he believes, as I do, that it was not Sidney."

However Harriet had hardened herself against the girl's arrival, all she had meant to say fled when she saw Sidney's circled eyes and pathetic mouth.

"You child!" she said. "You poor little girl!" And took her corseted bosom.

For the time at least, Sidney's world had gone to pieces about her. All her brave vaunt of service faded before her disgrace.

When Christine would have seen her, she kept her door locked and asked for just that one evening alone. But after Harriet had retired, and Mimi, the Austrian, had crept out to the corner to mail a letter back to Gratz, Sidney unbolted her door and listened in the little upper hall. Harriet, her head in a towel, her face carefully cold-creamed, had gone to bed; but K.'s light, as usual, was shining over the transom. Sidney tiptoed to the door.

"K.!"

Almost immediately he opened the door.

"May I come in and talk to you?"

He turned and took a quick survey of the room. The picture was against the collar-box. But he took the risk and held the door wide.

Sidney came in and sat down by the fire. By being adroit he managed to slip the little picture over and under the box before she saw it. It is doubtful if she would have realized its significance, had she seen it.

"I've been thinking things over," she said. "It seems to me I'd better not go back."

He had left the door carefully open. Men are always more conventional than women.

"That would be foolish, wouldn't it, when you have done so well? And, besides, since you are not guilty, Sidney--"

"I didn't do it!" she cried passionately. "I know I didn't. But I've lost faith in myself. I can't keep on; that's all there is to it. All last night, in the emergency ward, I felt it going. I clutched at it. I kept saying to myself: 'You didn't do it, you didn't do it'; and all the time something inside of me was saying, 'Not now, perhaps; but sometime you may.'"

Poor K., who had reasoned all this out for himself and had come to the same impasse!

"To go on like this, feeling that one has life and death in one's hand, and then perhaps some day to make a mistake like that!" She looked up at him forlornly. "I am just not brave enough, K."

"Wouldn't it be braver to keep on? Aren't you giving up very easily?"

Her world was in pieces about her, and she felt alone in a wide and empty place. And, because her nerves were drawn taut until they were ready to snap, Sidney turned on him shrewishly.

"I think you are all afraid I will come back to stay. Nobody really wants me anywhere--in all the world! Not at the hospital, not here, not anyplace. I am no use."

"When you say that nobody wants you," said K., not very steadily, "I--I think you are making a mistake."

"Who?" she demanded. "Christine? Aunt Harriet? Katie? The only person who ever really wanted me was my mother, and I went away and left her!"

She scanned his face closely, and, reading there something she did not understand, she colored suddenly.

"I believe you mean Joe Drummond."

"No; I do not mean Joe Drummond."

If he had found any encouragement in her face, he would have gone on recklessly; but her blank eyes warned him.

"If you mean Max Wilson," said Sidney, "you are entirely wrong. He's not in love with me--not, that is, any more than he is in love with a dozen girls. He likes to be with me--oh, I know that; but that doesn't mean--anything else. Anyhow, after this disgrace--"

"There is no disgrace, child."

"He'll think me careless, at the least. And his ideals are so high, K."

"You say he likes to be with you. What about you?"

Sidney had been sitting in a low chair by the fire. She rose with a sudden passionate movement. In the informality of the household, she, had visited K. in her dressing-gown and slippers; and now she stood before him, a tragic young figure, clutching the folds of her gown across her breast.

"I worship him, K.," she said tragically. "When I see him coming, I want to get down and let him walk on me. I know his step in the hall. I know the very way he rings for the elevator. When I see him in the operating-room, cool and calm while every one else is flustered and excited, he--he looks like a god."

Then, half ashamed of her outburst, she turned her back to him and stood gazing at the small coal fire. It was as well for K. that she did not see his face. For that one moment the despair that was in him shone in his eyes. He glanced around the shabby little room, at the sagging bed, the collar-box, the pincushion, the old marble-topped bureau under which Reginald had formerly made his nest, at his untidy table, littered with pipes and books, at the image in the mirror of his own tall figure, stooped and weary.

"It's real, all this?" he asked after a pause. "You're sure it's not just--glamour, Sidney?"

"It's real--terribly real." Her voice was muffled, and he knew then that she was crying.

She was mightily ashamed of it. Tears, of course, except in the privacy of one's closet, were not ethical on the Street.

"Perhaps he cares very much, too."

"Give me a handkerchief," said Sidney in a muffled tone, and the little scene was broken into while K. searched through a bureau drawer. Then:

"It's all over, anyhow, since this. If he'd really cared he'd have come over to-night. When one is in trouble one needs friends."

Back in a circle she came inevitably to her suspension. She would never go back, she said passionately. She was innocent, had been falsely accused. If they could think such a thing about her, she didn't want to be in their old hospital.

K. questioned her, alternately soothing and probing.

"You are positive about it?"

"Absolutely. I have given him his medicines dozens of times."

"You looked at the label?"

"I swear I did, K."

"Who else had access to the medicine closet?"

"Carlotta Harrison carried the keys, of course. I was off duty from four to six. When Carlotta left the ward, the probationer would have them."

"Have you reason to think that either one of these girls would wish you harm?"

"None whatever," began Sidney vehemently; and then, checking herself,--"unless--but that's rather ridiculous."

"What is ridiculous?"

"I've sometimes thought that Carlotta--but I am sure she is perfectly fair with me. Even if she--if she--"

"Yes?"

"Even if she likes Dr. Wilson, I don't believe--Why, K., she wouldn't! It would be murder."

"Murder, of course," said K., "in intention, anyhow. Of course she didn't do it. I'm only trying to find out whose mistake it was."

Soon after that she said good-night and went out. She turned in the doorway and smiled tremulously back at him.

"You have done me a lot of good. You almost make me believe in myself."

"That's because I believe in you."

With a quick movement that was one of her charms, Sidney suddenly closed the door and slipped back into the room. K., hearing the door close, thought she had gone, and dropped heavily into a chair.

"My best friend in all the world!" said Sidney suddenly from behind him, and, bending over, she kissed him on the cheek.

The next instant the door had closed behind her, and K. was left alone to such wretchedness and bliss as the evening had brought him.

On toward morning, Harriet, who slept but restlessly in her towel, wakened to the glare of his light over the transom.

"K.!" she called pettishly from her door. "I wish you wouldn't go to sleep and let your light burn!"

K., surmising the towel and cold cream, had the tact not to open his door.

"I am not asleep, Harriet, and I am sorry about the light. It's going out now."

Before he extinguished the light, he walked over to the old dresser and surveyed himself in the glass. Two nights without sleep and much anxiety had told on him. He looked old, haggard; infinitely tired. Mentally he compared himself with Wilson, flushed with success, erect, triumphant, almost insolent. Nothing had more certainly told him the hopelessness of his love for Sidney than her good-night kiss. He was her brother, her friend. He would never be her lover. He drew a long breath and proceeded to undress in the dark.

Joe Drummond came to see Sidney the next day. She would have avoided him if she could, but Mimi had ushered him up to the sewing-room boudoir before she had time to escape. She had not seen the boy for two months, and the change in him startled her. He was thinner, rather hectic, scrupulously well dressed.

"Why, Joe!" she said, and then: "Won't you sit down?"

He was still rather theatrical. He dramatized himself, as he had that night the June before when he had asked Sidney to marry him. He stood just inside the doorway. He offered no conventional greeting whatever; but, after surveying her briefly, her black gown, the lines around her eyes:--

"You're not going back to that place, of course?"

"I--I haven't decided."

"Then somebody's got to decide for you. The thing for you to do is to stay right here, Sidney. People know you on the Street. Nobody here would ever accuse you of trying to murder anybody."

In spite of herself, Sidney smiled a little.

"Nobody thinks I tried to murder him. It was a mistake about the medicines. I didn't do it, Joe."

His love was purely selfish, for he brushed aside her protest as if she had not spoken.

"You give me the word and I'll go and get your things; I've got a car of my own now."

"But, Joe, they have only done what they thought was right. Whoever made it, there was a mistake."

He stared at her incredulously.

"You don't mean that you are going to stand for this sort of thing? Every time some fool makes a mistake, are they going to blame it on you?"

"Please don't be theatrical. Come in and sit down. I can't talk to you if you explode like a rocket all the time."

Her matter-of-fact tone had its effect. He advanced into the room, but he still scorned a chair.

"I guess you've been wondering why you haven't heard from me," he said. "I've seen you more than you've seen me."

Sidney looked uneasy. The idea of espionage is always repugnant, and to have a rejected lover always in the offing, as it were, was disconcerting.

"I wish you would be just a little bit sensible, Joe. It's so silly of you, really. It's not because you care for me; it's really because you care for yourself."

"You can't look at me and say that, Sid."

He ran his finger around his collar--an old gesture; but the collar was very loose. He was thin; his neck showed it.

"I'm just eating my heart out for you, and that's the truth. And it isn't only that. Everywhere I go, people say, 'There's the fellow Sidney Page turned down when she went to the hospital.' I've got so I keep off the Street as much as I can."

Sidney was half alarmed, half irritated. This wild, excited boy was not the doggedly faithful youth she had always known. It seemed to her that he was hardly sane--that underneath his quiet manner and carefully repressed voice there lurked something irrational, something she could not cope with. She looked up at him helplessly.

"But what do you want me to do? You--you almost frighten me. If you'd only sit down--"

"I want you to come home. I'm not asking anything else now. I just want you to come back, so that things will be the way they used to be. Now that they have turned you out--"

"They've done nothing of the sort. I've told you that."

"You're going back?"

"Absolutely."

"Because you love the hospital, or because you love somebody connected with the hospital?"

Sidney was thoroughly angry by this time, angry and reckless. She had come through so much that every nerve was crying in passionate protest.

"If it will make you understand things any better," she cried, "I am going back for both reasons!"

She was sorry the next moment. But her words seemed, surprisingly enough, to steady him. For the first time, he sat down.

"Then, as far as I am concerned, it's all over, is it?"

"Yes, Joe. I told you that long ago."

He seemed hardly to be listening. His thoughts had ranged far ahead. Suddenly:--

"You think Christine has her hands full with Palmer, don't you? Well, if you take Max Wilson, you're going to have more trouble than Christine ever dreamed of. I can tell you some things about him now that will make you think twice."

But Sidney had reached her limit. She went over and flung open the door.

"Every word that you say shows me how right I am in not marrying you, Joe," she said. "Real men do not say those things about each other under any circumstances. You're behaving like a bad boy. I don't want you to come back until you have grown up."

He was very white, but he picked up his hat and went to the door.

"I guess I AM crazy," he said. "I've been wanting to go away, but mother raises such a fuss--I'll not annoy you any more."

He reached in his pocket and, pulling out a small box, held it toward her. The lid was punched full of holes.

"Reginald," he said solemnly. "I've had him all winter. Some boys caught him in the park, and I brought him home."

He left her standing there speechless with surprise, with the box in her hand, and ran down the stairs and out into the Street. At the foot of the steps he almost collided with Dr. Ed.

"Back to see Sidney?" said Dr. Ed genially. "That's fine, Joe. I'm glad you've made it up."

The boy went blindly down the Street.

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