The sidewalks were scratched with brittle leaves, and the bad little boy next door froze his tongue to the iron mail-box. Snow before night, sure. Autumn was over. This, of course, raised the coal question and the Christmas question; but Roger Halsey, standing on his own front porch, assured the dead suburban sky that he hadn’t time for worrying about the weather. Then he let himself hurriedly into the house, and shut the subject out into the cold twilight.
The hall was dark, but from above he heard the voices of his wife and the nursemaid and the baby in one of their interminable conversations, which consisted chiefly of ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Look out, Maxy!’ and ‘Oh, there he goes!’ punctuated by wild threats and vague bumpings and the recurrent sound of small, venturing feet.
Roger turned on the hall-light and walked into the living-room and turned on the red silk lamp. He put his bulging portfolio on the table, and sitting down rested his intense young face in his hand for a few minutes, shading his eyes carefully from the light. Then he lit a cigarette, squashed it out, and going to the foot of the stairs called for his wife.
‘Hello, dear.’ Her voice was full of laughter. ‘Come see baby.’
He swore softly.
‘I can’t see baby now,’ he said aloud. ‘How long ‘fore you’ll be down?’
There was a mysterious pause, and then a succession of ‘Don’ts’ and ‘Look outs, Maxy’ evidently meant to avert some threatened catastrophe.
‘How long ‘fore you’ll be down?’ repeated Roger, slightly irritated.
‘Oh, I’ll be right down.’
‘How soon?’ he shouted.
He had trouble every day at this hour in adapting his voice from the urgent key of the city to the proper casualness for a model home. But tonight he was deliberately impatient. It almost disappointed him when Gretchen came running down the stairs, three at a time, crying ‘What is it?’ in a rather surprised voice.
They kissed — lingered over it some moments. They had been married three years, and they were much more in love than that implies. It was seldom that they hated each other with that violent hate of which only young couples are capable, for Roger was still actively sensitive to her beauty.
‘Come in here,’ he said abruptly. ‘I want to talk to you.’
His wife, a bright-coloured, Titian-haired girl, vivid as a French rag doll, followed him into the living room.
‘Listen, Gretchen’— he sat down at the end of the sofa —‘beginning with tonight I’m going to — What’s the matter?’
‘Nothing. I’m just looking for a cigarette. Go on.’
She tiptoed breathlessly back to the sofa and settled at the other end.
‘Gretchen —’ Again he broke off. Her hand, palm upward, was extended towards him. ‘Well, what is it?’ he asked wildly.
In his impatience it seemed incredible that she should ask for matches, but he fumbled automatically in his pocket.
‘Thank you,’ she whispered. ‘I didn’t mean to interrupt you. Go on.’
Scratch! The match flared. They exchanged a tense look.
Her fawn’s eyes apologized mutely this time, and he laughed. After all, she had done no more than light a cigarette; but when he was in this mood her slightest positive action irritated him beyond measure.
‘When you’ve got time to listen,’ he said crossly, ‘you might be interested in discussing the poorhouse question with me.’
‘What poorhouse?’ Her eyes were wide, startled; she sat quiet as a mouse.
‘That was just to get your attention. But, beginning tonight, I start on what’ll probably be the most important six weeks of my life — the six weeks that’ll decide whether we’re going on forever in this rotten little house in this rotten little suburban town.’
Boredom replaced alarm in Gretchen’s black eyes. She was a Southern girl, and any question that had to do with getting ahead in the world always tended to give her a headache.
‘Six months ago I left the New York Lithographic Company,’ announced Roger, ‘and went in the advertising business for myself.’
‘I know,’ interrupted Gretchen resentfully; ‘and now instead of getting six hundred a month sure, we’re living on a risky five hundred.’
‘Gretchen,’ said Roger sharply, ‘if you’ll just believe in me as hard an you can for six weeks more we’ll be rich. I’ve got a chance now to get some of the biggest accounts in the country.’ He hesitated. ‘And for these six weeks we won’t go out at all, and we won’t have anyone here. I’m going to bring home work every night, and we’ll pull down all the blinds and if anyone rings the doorbell we won’t answer.’
He smiled airily as if it were a new game they were going to play. Then, as Gretchen was silent, his smile faded, and he looked at her uncertainly.
‘Well, what’s the matter?’ she broke out finally. ‘Do you expect me to jump up and sing? You do enough work as it is. If you try to do any more you’ll end up with a nervous breakdown. I read about a —’
‘Don’t worry about me,’ he interrupted; ‘I’m all right. But you’re going to be bored to death sitting here every evening.’
‘No, I won’t,’ she said without conviction —‘except tonight.’
‘What about tonight?’
‘George Tompkins asked us to dinner.’
‘Did you accept?’
‘Of course I did,’ she said impatiently. ‘Why not? You’re always talking about what a terrible neighbourhood this is, and I thought maybe you’d like to go to a nicer one for a change.’
‘When I go to a nicer neighbourhood I want to go for good,’ he said grimly.
‘Well, can we go?’
‘I suppose we’ll have to if you’ve accepted.’
Somewhat to his annoyance the conversation abruptly ended. Gretchen jumped up and kissed him sketchily and rushed into the kitchen to light the hot water for a bath. With a sigh he carefully deposited his portfolio behind the bookcase — it contained only sketches and layouts for display advertising, but it seemed to him the first thing a burglar would look for. Then he went abstractedly upstairs, dropping into the baby’s room for a casual moist kiss, and began dressing for dinner.
They had no automobile, so George Tompkins called for them at 6.30. Tompkins was a successful interior decorator, a broad, rosy man with a handsome moustache and a strong odour of jasmine. He and Roger had once roomed side by side in a boarding-house in New York, but they had met only intermittently in the past five years.
‘We ought to see each other more,’ he told Roger tonight. ‘You ought to go out more often, old boy. Cocktail?’
‘No? Well, your fair wife will — won’t you, Gretchen?’
‘I love this house,’ she exclaimed, taking the glass and looking admiringly at ship models. Colonial whisky bottles, and other fashionable débris of 1925.
‘I like it,’ said Tompkins with satisfaction. ‘I did it to please myself, and I succeeded.’
Roger stared moodily around the stiff, plain room, wondering if they could have blundered into the kitchen by mistake.
‘You look like the devil, Roger,’ said his host. ‘Have a cocktail and cheer up.’
‘Have one,’ urged Gretchen.
‘What?’ Roger turned around absently. ‘Oh, no, thanks. I’ve got to work after I get home.’
‘Work!’ Tompkins smiled. ‘Listen, Roger, you’ll kill yourself with work. Why don’t you bring a little balance into your life — work a little, then play a little?’
‘That’s what I tell him,’ said Gretchen.
‘Do you know an average business man’s day?’ demanded Tompkins as they went in to dinner. ‘Coffee in the morning, eight hours’ work interrupted by a bolted luncheon, and then home again with dyspepsia and a bad temper to give the wife a pleasant evening.’
Roger laughed shortly.
‘You’ve been going to the movies too much,’ he said dryly.
‘What?’ Tompkins looked at him with some irritation. ‘Movies? I’ve hardly ever been to the movies in my life. I think the movies are atrocious. My opinions on life are drawn from my own observations. I believe in a balanced life.’
‘What’s that?’ demanded Roger.
‘Well’— he hesitated —‘probably the best way to tell you would be to describe my own day. Would that seem horribly egotistic?’
‘Oh, no!’ Gretchen looked at him with interest. ‘I’d love to hear about it.’
‘Well, in the morning I get up and go through a series of exercises. I’ve got one room fitted up as a little gymnasium, and I punch the bag and do shadow-boxing and weight-pulling for an hour. Then after a cold bath — There’s a thing now! Do you take a daily cold bath?’
‘No,’ admitted Roger, ‘I take a hot bath in the evening three or four times a week.’
A horrified silence fell. Tompkins and Gretchen exchanged a glance as if something obscene had been said.
‘What’s the matter?’ broke out Roger, glancing from one to the other in some irritation. ‘You know I don’t take a bath every day — I haven’t got the time.’
Tompkins gave a prolonged sigh.
‘After my bath,’ he continued, drawing a merciful veil of silence over the matter, ‘I have breakfast and drive to my office in New York, where I work until four. Then I lay off, and if it’s summer I hurry out here for nine holes of golf, or if it’s winter I play squash for an hour at my club. Then a good snappy game of bridge until dinner. Dinner is liable to have something to do with business, but in a pleasant way. Perhaps I’ve just finished a house for some customer, and he wants me to be on hand for his first party to see that the lighting is soft enough and all that sort of thing. Or maybe I sit down with a good book of poetry and spend the evening alone. At any rate, I do something every night to get me out of myself.’
‘It must be wonderful,’ said Gretchen enthusiastically. ‘I wish we lived like that.’
Tompkins bent forward earnestly over the table.
‘You can,’ he said impressively. ‘There’s no reason why you shouldn’t. Look here, if Roger’ll play nine holes of golf every day it’ll do wonders for him. He won’t know himself. He’ll do his work better, never get that tired, nervous feeling — What’s the matter?’
He broke off. Roger had perceptibly yawned.
‘Roger,’ cried Gretchen sharply, ‘there’s no need to be so rude. If you did what George said, you’d be a lot better off.’ She turned indignantly to their host. ‘The latest is that he’s going to work at night for the next six weeks. He says he’s going to pull down the blinds and shut us up like hermits in a cave. He’s been doing it every Sunday for the last year; now he’s going to do it every night for six weeks.’
Tompkins shook his head sadly.
‘At the end of six weeks,’ he remarked, ‘he’ll be starting for the sanatorium. Let me tell you, every private hospital in New York is full of cases like yours. You just strain the human nervous system a little too far, and bang! — you’ve broken something. And in order to save sixty hours you’re laid up sixty weeks for repairs.’ He broke off, changed his tone, and turned to Gretchen with a smile. ‘Not to mention what happens to you. It seems to me it’s the wife rather than the husband who bears the brunt of these insane periods of overwork.’
‘I don’t mind,’ protested Gretchen loyally.
‘Yes, she does,’ said Roger grimly; ‘she minds like the devil. She’s a shortsighted little egg, and she thinks it’s going to be forever until I get started and she can have some new clothes. But it can’t be helped. The saddest thing about women is that, after all, their best trick is to sit down and fold their hands.’
‘Your ideas on women are about twenty years out of date,’ said Tompkins pityingly. ‘Women won’t sit down and wait any more.’
‘Then they’d better marry men of forty,’ insisted Roger stubbornly. ‘If a girl marries a young man for love she ought to be willing to make any sacrifice within reason, so long as her husband keeps going ahead.’
‘Let’s not talk about it,’ said Gretchen impatiently. ‘Please, Roger, let’s have a good time just this once.’
When Tompkins dropped them in front of their house at eleven Roger and Gretchen stood for a moment on the sidewalk looking at the winter moon. There was a fine, damp, dusty snow in the air, and Roger drew a long breath of it and put his arm around Gretchen exultantly.
‘I can make more money than he can,’ he said tensely. ‘And I’ll be doing it in just forty days.’
‘Forty days,’ she sighed. ‘It seems such a long time — when everybody else is always having fun. If I could only sleep for forty days.’
‘Why don’t you, honey? Just take forty winks, and when you wake up everything’ll be fine.’
She was silent for a moment.
‘Roger,’ she asked thoughtfully, ‘do you think George meant what he said about taking me horseback riding on Sunday?’
‘I don’t know. Probably not — I hope to Heaven he didn’t.’ He hesitated. ‘As a matter of fact, he made me sort of sore tonight — all that junk about his cold bath.’
With their arms about each other, they started up the walk to the house.
‘I’ll bet he doesn’t take a cold bath every morning,’ continued Roger ruminatively; ‘or three times a week, either.’ He fumbled in his pocket for the key and inserted it in the lock with savage precision. Then he turned around defiantly. ‘I’ll bet he hasn’t had a bath for a month.’
After a fortnight of intensive work, Roger Halsey’s days blurred into each other and passed by in blocks of twos and threes and fours. From eight until 5.30 he was in his office. Then a half-hour on the commuting train, where he scrawled notes on the backs of envelopes under the dull yellow light. By 7.30 his crayons, shears, and sheets of white cardboard were spread over the living-room table, and he laboured there with much grunting and sighing until midnight, while Gretchen lay on the sofa with a book, and the doorbell tinkled occasionally behind the drawn blinds. At twelve there was always an argument as to whether he would come to bed. He would agree to come after he had cleared up everything; but as he was invariably sidetracked by half a dozen new ideas, he usually found Gretchen sound asleep when he tiptoed upstairs.
Sometimes it was three o’clock before Roger squashed his last cigarette into the overloaded ash-tray, and he would undress in the dark, disembodied with fatigue, but with a sense of triumph that he had lasted out another day.
Christmas came and went and he scarcely noticed that it was gone. He remembered it afterwards as the day he completed the window-cards for Garrod’s shoes. This was one of the eight large accounts for which he was pointing in January — if he got half of them he was assured a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of business during the year.
But the world outside his business became a chaotic dream. He was aware that on two cool December Sundays George Tompkins had taken Gretchen horseback riding, and that another time she had gone out with him in his automobile to spend the afternoon skiing on the country-club hill. A picture of Tompkins, in an expensive frame, had appeared one morning on their bedroom wall. And one night he was shocked into a startled protest when Gretchen went to the theatre with Tompkins in town.
But his work was almost done. Daily now his layouts arrived from the printers until seven of them were piled and docketed in his office safe. He knew how good they were. Money alone couldn’t buy such work; more than he realized himself, it had been a labour of love.
December tumbled like a dead leaf from the calendar. There was an agonizing week when he had to give up coffee because it made his heart pound so. If he could hold on now for four days — three days —
On Thursday afternoon H. G. Garrod was to arrive in New York. On Wednesday evening Roger came home at seven to find Gretchen poring over the December bills with a strange expression in her eyes.
‘What’s the matter?’
She nodded at the bills. He ran through them, his brow wrinkling in a frown.
‘I can’t help it,’ she burst out suddenly. ‘They’re terrible.’
‘Well, I didn’t marry you because you were a wonderful housekeeper. I’ll manage about the bills some way. Don’t worry your little head over it.’
She regarded him coldly.
‘You talk as if I were a child.’
‘I have to,’ he said with sudden irritation.
‘Well, at least I’m not a piece of bric-à-brac that you can just put somewhere and forget.’
He knelt down by her quickly, and took her arms in his hands.
‘Gretchen, listen!’ he said breathlessly. ‘For God’s sake, don’t go to pieces now! We’re both all stored up with malice and reproach, and if we had a quarrel it’d be terrible. I love you, Gretchen. Say you love me — quick!’
‘You know I love you.’
The quarrel was averted, but there was an unnatural tenseness all through dinner. It came to a climax afterwards when he began to spread his working materials on the table.
‘Oh, Roger,’ she protested, ‘I thought you didn’t have to work tonight.’
‘I didn’t think I’d have to, but something came up.’
‘I’ve invited George Tompkins over.’
‘Oh, gosh!’ he exclaimed. ‘Well, I’m sorry, honey, but you’ll have to phone him not to come.’
‘He’s left,’ she said. ‘He’s coming straight from town. He’ll be here any minute now.’
Roger groaned. It occurred to him to send them both to the movies, but somehow the suggestion stuck on his lips. He did not want her at the movies; he wanted her here, where he could look up and know she was by his side.
George Tompkins arrived breezily at eight o’clock. ‘Aha!’ he cried reprovingly, coming into the room. ‘Still at it.’
Roger agreed coolly that he was.
‘Better quit — better quit before you have to.’ He sat down with a long sigh of physical comfort and lit a cigarette. ‘Take it from a fellow who’s looked into the question scientifically. We can stand so much, and then — bang!’
‘If you’ll excuse me’— Roger made his voice as polite as possible —‘I’m going upstairs and finish this work.’
‘Just as you like, Roger.’ George waved his hand carelessly. ‘It isn’t that I mind. I’m the friend of the family and I’d just as soon see the missus as the mister.’ He smiled playfully. ‘But if I were you, old boy, I’d put away my work and get a good night’s sleep.’
When Roger had spread out his materials on the bed upstairs he found that he could still hear the rumble and murmur of their voices through the thin floor. He began wondering what they found to talk about. As he plunged deeper into his work his mind had a tendency to revert sharply to his question, and several times he arose and paced nervously up and down the room.
The bed was ill adapted to his work. Several times the paper slipped from the board on which it rested, and the pencil punched through. Everything was wrong tonight. Letters and figures blurred before his eyes, and as an accompaniment to the beating of his temples came those persistent murmuring voices.
At ten he realized that he had done nothing for more than an hour, and with a sudden exclamation he gathered together his papers, replaced them in his portfolio, and went downstairs. They were sitting together on the sofa when he came in.
‘Oh, hello!’ cried Gretchen, rather unnecessarily, he thought. ‘We were just discussing you.’
‘Thank you,’ he answered ironically. ‘What particular part of my anatomy was under the scalpel?’
‘Your health,’ said Tompkins jovially.
‘My health’s all right,’ answered Roger shortly.
‘But you look at it so selfishly, old fella,’ cried Tompkins. ‘You only consider yourself in the matter. Don’t you think Gretchen has any rights? If you were working on a wonderful sonnet or a — a portrait of some madonna or something’— he glanced at Gretchen’s Titian hair —‘why, then I’d say go ahead. But you’re not. It’s just some silly advertisement about how to sell Nobald’s hair tonic, and if all the hair tonic ever made was dumped into the ocean tomorrow the world wouldn’t be one bit the worse for it.’
‘Wait a minute,’ said Roger angrily: ‘that’s not quite fair. I’m not kidding myself about the importance of my work — it’s just as useless as the stuff you do. But to Gretchen and me it’s just about the most important thing in the world.’
‘Are you implying that my work is useless?’ demanded Tompkins incredulously.
‘No; not if it brings happiness to some poor sucker of a pants manufacturer who doesn’t know how to spend his money.’
Tompkins and Gretchen exchanged a glance.
‘Oh-h-h!’ exclaimed Tompkins ironically. ‘I didn’t realize that all these years I’ve just been wasting my time.’
‘You’re a loafer,’ said Roger rudely.
‘Me?’ cried Tompkins angrily. ‘You call me a loafer because I have a little balance in my life and find time to do interesting things? Because I play hard as well as work hard and don’t let myself get to be a dull, tiresome drudge?’
Both men were angry now, and their voices had risen, though on Tompkins’ face there still remained the semblance of a smile.
‘What I object to,’ said Roger steadily, ‘is that for the last six weeks you seem to have done all your playing around here.’
‘Roger!’ cried Gretchen. ‘What do you mean by talking like that?’
‘Just what I said.’
‘You’ve just lost your temper.’ Tompkins lit a cigarette with ostentatious coolness. ‘You’re so nervous from overwork you don’t know what you’re saying. You’re on the verge of a nervous break —’
‘You get out of here!’ cried Roger fiercely. ‘You get out of here right now — before I throw you out!’
Tompkins got angrily to his feet.
‘You — you throw me out?’ he cried incredulously.
They were actually moving towards each other when Gretchen stepped between them, and grabbing Tompkins’ arm urged him towards the door.
‘He’s acting like a fool, George, but you better get out,’ she cried, groping in the hall for his hat.
‘He insulted me!’ shouted Tompkins. ‘He threatened to throw me out!’
‘Never mind, George,’ pleaded Gretchen. ‘He doesn’t know what he’s saying. Please go! I’ll see you at ten o’clock tomorrow.’
She opened the door.
‘You won’t see him at ten o’clock tomorrow,’ said Roger steadily. ‘He’s not coming to this house any more.’
Tompkins turned to Gretchen.
‘It’s his house,’ he suggested. ‘Perhaps we’d better meet at mine.’
Then he was gone, and Gretchen had shut the door behind him. Her eyes were full of angry tears.
‘See what you’ve done!’ she sobbed. ‘The only friend I had, the only person in the world who liked me enough to treat me decently, is insulted by my husband in my own house.’
She threw herself on the sofa and began to cry passionately into the pillows.
‘He brought it on himself,’ said Roger stubbornly, ‘I’ve stood as much as my self-respect will allow. I don’t want you going out with him any more.’
‘I will go out with him!’ cried Gretchen wildly. ‘I’ll go out with him all I want! Do you think it’s any fun living here with you?’
‘Gretchen,’ he said coldly, ‘get up and put on your hat and coat and go out that door and never come back!’
Her mouth fell slightly ajar.
‘But I don’t want to get out,’ she said dazedly.
‘Well, then, behave yourself.’ And he added in a gentler voice: ‘I thought you were going to sleep for this forty days.’
‘Oh, yes,’ she cried bitterly, ‘easy enough to say! But I’m tired of sleeping.’ She got up, faced him defiantly. ‘And what’s more, I’m going riding with George Tompkins tomorrow.’
‘You won’t go out with him if I have to take you to New York and sit you down in my office until I get through.’
She looked at him with rage in her eyes.
‘I hate you,’ she said slowly. ‘And I’d like to take all the work you’ve done and tear it up and throw it in the fire. And just to give you something to worry about tomorrow, I probably won’t be here when you get back.’
She got up from the sofa, and very deliberately looked at her flushed, tear-stained face in the mirror. Then she ran upstairs and slammed herself into the bedroom.
Automatically Roger spread out his work on the living-room table. The bright colours of the designs, the vivid ladies — Gretchen had posed for one of them — holding orange ginger ale or glistening silk hosiery, dazzled his mind into a sort of coma. His restless crayon moved here and there over the pictures, shifting a block of letters half an inch to the right, trying a dozen blues for a cool blue, and eliminating the word that made a phrase anaemic and pale. Half an hour passed — he was deep in the work now; there was no sound in the room but the velvety scratch of the crayon over the glossy board.
After a long while he looked at his watch — it was after three. The wind had come up outside and was rushing by the house corners in loud, alarming swoops, like a heavy body falling through space. He stopped his work and listened. He was not tired now, but his head felt as if it was covered with bulging veins like those pictures that hang in doctors’ offices showing a body stripped of decent skin. He put his hands to his head and felt it all over. It seemed to him that on his temple the veins were knotty and brittle around an old scar.
Suddenly he began to be afraid. A hundred warnings he had heard swept into his mind. People did wreck themselves with overwork, and his body and brain were of the same vulnerable and perishable stuff. For the first time he found himself envying George Tompkins’ calm nerves and healthy routine. He arose and began pacing the room in a panic.
‘I’ve got to sleep,’ he whispered to himself tensely. ‘Otherwise I’m going crazy.’
He rubbed his hand over his eyes, and returned to the table to put up his work, but his fingers were shaking so that he could scarcely grasp the board. The sway of a bare branch against the window made him start and cry out. He sat down on the sofa and tried to think.
‘Stop! Stop! Stop!’ the clock said. ‘Stop! Stop! Stop!’
‘I can’t stop,’ he answered aloud. ‘I can’t afford to stop.’
Listen! Why, there was the wolf at the door now! He could hear its sharp claws scrape along the varnished woodwork. He jumped up, and running to the front door flung it open; then started back with a ghastly cry. An enormous wolf was standing on the porch, glaring at him with red, malignant eyes. As he watched it the hair bristled on its neck; it gave a low growl and disappeared in the darkness. Then Roger realized with a silent, mirthless laugh that it was the police dog from over the way.
Dragging his limbs wearily into the kitchen, he brought the alarm-clock into the living-room and set it for seven. Then he wrapped himself in his overcoat, lay down on the sofa and fell immediately into a heavy, dreamless sleep.
When he awoke the light was still shining feebly, but the room was the grey colour of a winter morning. He got up, and looking anxiously at his hands found to his relief that they no longer trembled. He felt much better. Then he began to remember in detail the events of the night before, and his brow drew up again in three shallow wrinkles. There was work ahead of him, twenty-four hours of work; and Gretchen, whether she wanted to or not, must sleep for one more day.
Roger’s mind glowed suddenly as if he had just thought of a new advertising idea. A few minutes later he was hurrying through the sharp morning air to Kingsley’s drug-store.
‘Is Mr Kingsley down yet?’
The druggist’s head appeared around the corner of the prescription-room.
‘I wonder if I can talk to you alone.’
At 7.30, back home again, Roger walked into his own kitchen. The general housework girl had just arrived and was taking off her hat.
‘Bebé’— he was not on familiar terms with her; this was her name —‘I want you to cook Mrs Halsey’s breakfast right away. I’ll take it up myself.’
It struck Bebé that this was an unusual service for so busy a man to render his wife, but if she had seen his conduct when he had carried the tray from the kitchen she would have been even more surprised. For he set it down on the dining room table and put into the coffee half a teaspoonful of a white substance that was not powdered sugar. Then he mounted the stairs and opened the door of the bedroom.
Gretchen woke up with a start, glanced at the twin bed which had not been slept in, and bent on Roger a glance of astonishment, which changed to contempt when she saw the breakfast in his hand. She thought he was bringing it as a capitulation.
‘I don’t want any breakfast,’ she said coldly, and his heart sank, ‘except some coffee.’
‘No breakfast?’ Roger’s voice expressed disappointment
‘I said I’d take some coffee.’
Roger discreetly deposited the tray on a table beside the bed and returned quickly to the kitchen.
‘We’re going away until tomorrow afternoon,’ he told Bebé, ‘and I want to close up the house right now. So you just put on your hat and go home.’
He looked at his watch. It was ten minutes to eight, and he wanted to catch the 8.10 train. He waited five minutes and then tiptoed softly upstairs and into Gretchen’s room. She was sound asleep. The coffee cup was empty save for black dregs and a film of thin brown paste on the bottom. He looked at her rather anxiously, but her breathing was regular and clear.
From the closet he took a suitcase and very quickly began filling it with her shoes — street shoes, evening slippers, rubber-soled oxfords — he had not realized that she owned so many pairs. When he closed the suitcase it was bulging.
He hesitated a minute, took a pair of sewing scissors from a box, and following the telephone-wire until it went out of sight behind the dresser, severed it in one neat clip. He jumped as there was a soft knock at the door. It was the nursemaid. He had forgotten her existence.
‘Mrs Halsey and I are going up to the city till tomorrow,’ he said glibly. ‘Take Maxy to the beach and have lunch there. Stay all day.’
Back in the room, a wave of pity passed over him. Gretchen seemed suddenly lovely and helpless, sleeping there. It was somehow terrible to rob her young life of a day. He touched her hair with his fingers, and as she murmured something in her dream he leaned over and kissed her bright cheek. Then he picked up the suitcase full of shoes, locked the door, and ran briskly down the stairs.
By five o’clock that afternoon the last package of cards for Garrod’s shoes had been sent by messenger to H. G. Garrod at the Biltmore Hotel. He was to give a decision next morning. At 5.30 Roger’s stenographer tapped him on the shoulder.
‘Mr Golden, the superintendent of the building, to see you.’
Roger turned around dazedly.
‘Oh, how do?’
Mr Golden came directly to the point. If Mr Halsey intended to keep the office any longer, the little oversight about the rent had better be remedied right away.
‘Mr Golden,’ said Roger wearily, ‘everything’ll be all right tomorrow. If you worry me now maybe you’ll never get your money. After tomorrow nothing’ll matter.’
Mr Golden looked at the tenant uneasily. Young men sometimes did away with themselves when business went wrong. Then his eye fell unpleasantly on the initialled suitcase beside the desk.
‘Going on a trip?’ he asked pointedly.
‘What? Oh, no. That’s just some clothes.’
‘Clothes, eh? Well, Mr Halsey, just to prove that you mean what you say, suppose you let me keep that suitcase until tomorrow noon.’
Mr Golden picked it up with a deprecatory gesture.
‘Just a matter of form,’ he remarked.
‘I understand,’ said Roger, swinging around to his desk. ‘Good afternoon.’
Mr Golden seemed to feel that the conversation should close on a softer key.
‘And don’t work too hard, Mr Halsey. You don’t want to have a nervous break —’
‘No,’ shouted Roger, ‘I don’t. But I will if you don’t leave me alone.’
As the door closed behind Mr Golden, Roger’s stenographer turned sympathetically around.
‘You shouldn’t have let him get away with that,’ she said. ‘What’s in there? Clothes?’
‘No,’ answered Roger absently. ‘Just all my wife’s shoes.’
He slept in the office that night on a sofa beside his desk. At dawn he awoke with a nervous start, rushed out into the street for coffee, and returned in ten minutes in a panic — afraid that he might have missed Mr Garrod’s telephone call. It was then 6.30.
By eight o’clock his whole body seemed to be on fire. When his two artists arrived he was stretched on the couch in almost physical pain. The phone rang imperatively at 9.30, and he picked up the receiver with trembling hands.
‘Is this the Halsey agency?’
‘Yes, this is Mr Halsey speaking.’
‘This is Mr H. G. Garrod.’
Roger’s heart stopped beating.
‘I called up, young fellow, to say that this is wonderful work you’ve given us here. We want all of it and as much more as your office can do.’
‘Oh, God!’ cried Roger into the transmitter.
‘What?’ Mr H. G. Garrod was considerably startled. ‘Say, wait a minute there!’
But he was talking to nobody. The phone had clattered to the floor, and Roger, stretched full length on the couch, was sobbing as if his heart would break.
Three hours later, his face somewhat pale, but his eyes calm as a child’s, Roger opened the door of his wife’s bedroom with the morning paper under his arm. At the sound of his footsteps she started awake.
‘What time is it?’ she demanded.
He looked at his watch.
Suddenly she began to cry.
‘Roger,’ she said brokenly, ‘I’m sorry I was so bad last night.’
He nodded coolly.
‘Everything’s all right now,’ he answered. Then, after a pause: ‘I’ve got the account — the biggest one.’
She turned towards him quickly.
‘You have?’ Then, after a minute’s silence: ‘Can I get a new dress?’
‘Dress?’ He laughed shortly. ‘You can get a dozen. This account alone will bring us in forty thousand a year. It’s one of the biggest in the West.’
She looked at him, startled.
‘Forty thousand a year!’
‘Gosh’— and then faintly —‘I didn’t know it’d really be anything like that.’ Again she thought a minute. ‘We can have a house like George Tompkins’.’
‘I don’t want an interior-decoration shop.’
‘Forty thousand a year!’ she repeated again, and then added softly: ‘Oh, Roger —’
‘I’m not going out with George Tompkins.’
‘I wouldn’t let you, even if you wanted to,’ he said shortly.
She made a show of indignation.
‘Why, I’ve had a date with him for this Thursday for weeks.’
‘It isn’t Thursday.’
‘Why, Roger, you must be crazy! Don’t you think I know what day it is?’
‘It isn’t Thursday,’ he said stubbornly. ‘Look!’ And he held out the morning paper.
‘Friday!’ she exclaimed. ‘Why, this is a mistake! This must be last week’s paper. Today’s Thursday.’
She closed her eyes and thought for a moment.
‘Yesterday was Wednesday,’ she said decisively. ‘The laundress came yesterday. I guess I know.’
‘Well,’ he said smugly, ‘look at the paper. There isn’t any question about it.’
With a bewildered look on her face she got out of bed and began searching for her clothes. Roger went into the bathroom to shave. A minute later he heard the springs creak again. Gretchen was getting back into bed.
‘What’s the matter?’ he inquired, putting his head around the corner of the bathroom.
‘I’m scared,’ she said in a trembling voice. ‘I think my nerves are giving way. I can’t find any of my shoes.’
‘Your shoes? Why, the closet’s full of them.’
‘I know, but I can’t see one.’ Her face was pale with fear. ‘Oh, Roger!’
Roger came to her bedside and put his arm around her.
‘Oh, Roger,’ she cried, ‘what’s the matter with me? First that newspaper, and now all my shoes. Take care of me, Roger.’
‘I’ll get the doctor,’ he said.
He walked remorselessly to the telephone and took up the receiver.
‘Phone seems to be out of order,’ he remarked after a minute; ‘I’ll send Bebé.’
The doctor arrived in ten minutes.
‘I think I’m on the verge of a collapse,’ Gretchen told him in a strained voice.
Doctor Gregory sat down on the edge of the bed and took her wrist in his hand.
‘It seems to be in the air this morning.’
‘I got up,’ said Gretchen in an awed voice, ‘and I found that I’d lost a whole day. I had an engagement to go riding with George Tompkins —’
‘What?’ exclaimed the doctor in surprise. Then he laughed.
‘George Tompkins won’t go riding with anyone for many days to come.’
‘Has he gone away?’ asked Gretchen curiously.
‘He’s going West.’
‘Why?’ demanded Roger. ‘Is he running away with somebody’s wife?’
‘No,’ said Doctor Gregory. ‘He’s had a nervous breakdown.’
‘What?’ they exclaimed in unison.
‘He just collapsed like an opera-hat in his cold shower.’
‘But he was always talking about his — his balanced life,’ gasped Gretchen. ‘He had it on his mind.’
‘I know,’ said the doctor. ‘He’s been babbling about it all morning. I think it’s driven him a little mad. He worked pretty hard at it, you know.’
‘At what?’ demanded Roger in bewilderment.
‘At keeping his life balanced.’ He turned to Gretchen. ‘Now all I’ll prescribe for this lady here is a good rest. If she’ll just stay around the house for a few days and take forty winks of sleep she’ll be as fit as ever. She’s been under some strain.’
‘Doctor,’ exclaimed Roger hoarsely, ‘don’t you think I’d better have a rest or something? I’ve been working pretty hard lately.’
‘You!’ Doctor Gregory laughed, slapped him violently on the back. ‘My boy, I never saw you looking better in your life.’
Roger turned away quickly to conceal his smile — winked forty times, or almost forty times, at the autographed picture of Mr George Tompkins, which hung slightly askew on the bedroom wall.
This web edition published by:
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08