The week that followed was an anxious one. David's physical condition slowly improved. The slight thickness was gone from his speech, and he sipped resignedly at the broths Lucy or the nurse brought at regular intervals. Over the entire house there hung all day the odor of stewing chicken or of beef tea in the making, and above the doorbell was a white card which said: “Don't ring. Walk in.”
As it happened, no one in the old house had seen Maggie Donaldson's confession in the newspaper. Lucy was saved that anxiety, at least. Appearing, as it did, the morning after David's stroke, it came in with the morning milk, lay about unnoticed, and passed out again, to start a fire or line a pantry shelf. Harrison Miller, next door, read it over his coffee. Walter Wheeler in the eight-thirty train glanced at it and glanced away. Nina Ward read it in bed. And that was all.
There came to the house a steady procession of inquirers and bearers of small tribute, flowers and jellies mostly, but other things also. A table in David's room held a steadily growing number of bedroom slippers, and Mrs. Morgan had been seen buying soles for still others. David, propped up in his bed, would cheer a little at these votive offerings, and then relapse again into the heavy troubled silence that worried Dick and frightened Lucy Crosby. Something had happened, she was sure. Something connected with Dick. She watched David when Dick was in the room, and she saw that his eyes followed the younger man with something very like terror.
And for the first time since he had walked into the house that night so long ago, followed by the tall young man for whose coming a letter had prepared her, she felt that David had withdrawn himself from her. She went about her daily tasks a little hurt, and waited for him to choose his own time. But, as the days went on, she saw that whatever this new thing might be, he meant to fight it out alone, and that the fighting it out alone was bad for him. He improved very slowly.
She wondered, sometimes, if it was after all because of Dick's growing interest in Elizabeth Wheeler. She knew that he was seeing her daily, although he was too busy now for more than a hasty call. She felt that she could even tell when he had seen her; he would come in, glowing and almost exalted, and, as if to make up for the moments stolen from David, would leap up the stairs two at a time and burst into the invalid's room like a cheerful cyclone. Wasn't it possible that David had begun to feel as she did, that the girl was entitled to a clean slate before she pledged herself to Dick? And the slate—poor Dick!—could never be cleaned.
Then, one day, David astonished them both. He was propped up in his bed, and he had demanded a cigar, and been very gently but firmly refused. He had been rather sulky about it, and Dick had been attempting to rally him into better humor when he said suddenly:
“I've had time to think things over, Dick. I haven't been fair to you. You're thrown away here. Besides—” he hesitated. Then: “We might as well face it. The day of the general practitioner has gone.”
“I don't believe it,” Dick said stoutly. “Maybe we are only signposts to point the way to the other fellows, but the world will always need signposts.”
“What I've been thinking of,” David pursued his own train of thought, “is this: I want you to go to Johns Hopkins and take up the special work you've been wanting to do. I'll be up soon and—”
“Call the nurse, Aunt Lucy,” said Dick. “He's raving.”
“Not at all,” David retorted testily. “I've told you. This whole town only comes here now to be told what specialist to go to, and you know it.”
“I don't know anything of the sort.”
“If you don't, it's because you won't face the facts.” Dick chuckled, and threw an arm over David's shoulder, “You old hypocrite!” he said. “You're trying to get rid of me, for some reason. Don't tell me you're going to get married!”
But David did not smile. Lucy, watching him from her post by the window, saw his face and felt a spasm of fear. At the most, she had feared a mental conflict in David. Now she saw that it might be something infinitely worse, something impending and immediate. She could hardly reply when Dick appealed to her.
“Are you going to let him get rid of me like this, Aunt Lucy?” he demanded. “Sentenced to Johns Hopkins, like Napoleon to St. Helena! Are you with me, or forninst me?”
“I don't know, Dick,” she said, with her eyes on David. “If it's for your good—”
She went out after a time, leaving them at it hammer and tongs. David was vanquished in the end, but Dick, going down to the office later on, was puzzled. Somehow it was borne in on him that behind David's insistence was a reason, unspoken but urgent, and the only reason that occurred to him as possible was that David did not, after all, want him to marry Elizabeth Wheeler. He put the matter to the test that night, wandering in in dressing-gown and slippers, as was his custom before going to bed, for a brief chat. The nurse was downstairs, and Dick moved about the room restlessly. Then he stopped and stood by the bed, looking down.
“A few nights ago, David, I asked you if you thought it would be right for me to marry; if my situation justified it, and if to your knowledge there was any other reason why I could not or should not. You said there was not.”
“There is no reason, of course. If she'll have you.”
“I don't know that. I know that whether she will or not is a pretty vital matter to me, David.”
David nodded, silently.
“But now you want me to go away. To leave her. You're rather urgent about it. And I feel—well I begin to think you have a reason for it.”
David clenched his hands under the bed-clothing, but he returned Dick's gaze steadily.
“She's a good girl,” he said. “But she's entitled to more than you can give her, the way things are.”
“That is presupposing that she cares for me. I haven't an idea that she does. That she may, in time—Then, that's the reason for this Johns Hopkins thing, is it?”
“That's the reason,” David said stoutly. “She would wait for you. She's that sort. I've known her all her life. She's as steady as a rock. But she's been brought up to have a lot of things. Walter Wheeler is well off. You do as I want you to; pack your things and go to Baltimore. Bring Reynolds down here to look after the work until I'm around again.”
But Dick evaded the direct issue thus opened and followed another line of thought.
“Of course you understand,” he observed, after a renewal of his restless pacing, “that I've got to tell her my situation first. I don't need to tell you that I funk doing it, but it's got to be done.”
“Don't be a fool,” David said querulously. “You'll set a lot of women cackling, and what they don't know they'll invent. I know 'em.”
“Only herself and her family.”
“Because they have a right to know it.”
But when he saw David formulating a further protest he dropped the subject.
“I'll not do it until we've gone into it together,” he promised. “There's plenty of time. You settle down now and get ready for sleep.”
When the nurse came in at eleven o'clock she found Dick gone and David, very still, with his face to the wall.
It was the end of May before David began to move about his upper room. The trees along the shaded streets had burst into full leaf by that time, and Mike was enjoying that gardener's interval of paradise when flowers grow faster than the weeds among them. Harrison Miller, having rolled his lawn through all of April, was heard abroad in the early mornings with the lawn mower or hoe in hand was to be seen behind his house in his vegetable patch.
Cars rolled through the streets, the rear seats laden with blossoming loot from the country lanes, and the Wheeler dog was again burying bones in the soft warm ground under the hedge.
Elizabeth Wheeler was very happy. Her look of expectant waiting, once vague, had crystallized now into definite form. She was waiting, timidly and shyly but with infinite content. In time, everything would come. And in the meantime there was to-day, and some time to-day a shabby car would stop at the door, and there would be five minutes, or ten. And then Dick would have to hurry to work, or back to David. After that, of course, to-day was over, but there would always be to-morrow.
Now and then, at choir practice or at service, she saw Clare Rossiter. But Clare was very cool to her, and never on any account sought her, or spoke to her alone. She was rather unhappy about Clare, when she remembered her. Because it must be so terrible to care for a man who only said, when one spoke of Clare, “Oh, the tall blonde girl?”
Once or twice, too, she had found Clare's eyes on her, and they were hostile eyes. It was almost as though they said: “I hate you because you know. But don't dare to pity me.”
Yet, somehow, Elizabeth found herself not entirely believing that Clare's passion was real. Because the real thing you hid with all your might, at least until you were sure it was wanted. After that, of course, you could be so proud of it that you might become utterly shameless. She was afraid sometimes that she was the sort to be utterly shameless. Yet, for all her halcyon hours, there were little things that worried her. Wallie Sayre, for instance, always having to be kept from saying things she didn't want to hear. And Nina. She wasn't sure that Nina was entirely happy. And, of course, there was Jim.
Jim was difficult. Sometimes he was a man, and then again he was a boy, and one never knew just which he was going to be. He was too old for discipline and too young to manage himself. He was spending almost all his evenings away from home now, and her mother always drew an inaudible sigh when he was spoken of.
Elizabeth had waited up for him one night, only a short time before, and beckoning him into her room, had talked to him severely.
“You ought to be ashamed, Jim,” she said. “You're simply worrying mother sick.”
“Well, why?” he demanded defiantly. “I'm old enough to take care of myself.”
“You ought to be taking care of her, too.”
He had looked rather crestfallen at that, and before he went out he offered a half-sheepish explanation.
“I'd tell them where I go,” he said, “but you'd think a pool room was on the direct road to hell. Take to-night, now. I can't tell them about it, but it was all right. I met Wallie Sayre and Leslie at the club before dinner, and we got a fourth and played bridge. Only half a cent a point. I swear we were going on playing, but somebody brought in a chap named Gregory for a cocktail. He turned out to be a brother of Beverly Carlysle, the actress, and he took us around to the theater and gave us a box. Not a thing wrong with it, was there?”
“Where did you go from there?” she persisted inexorably. “It's half past one.”
“Went around and met her. She's wonderful, Elizabeth. But do you know what would happen if I told them? They'd have a fit.”
She felt rather helpless, because she knew he was right from his own standpoint.
“I know. I'm surprised at Les, Jim.”
“Oh, Les! He just trailed along. He's all right.”
She kissed him and he went out, leaving her to lie awake for a long time. She would have had all her world happy those days, and all her world good. She didn't want anybody's bread and butter spilled on the carpet.
So the days went on, and the web slowly wove itself into its complicated pattern: Bassett speeding West, and David in his quiet room; Jim and Leslie Ward seeking amusement, and finding it in the littered dressing-room of a woman star at a local theater; Clare Rossiter brooding, and the little question being whispered behind hands, figuratively, of course—the village was entirely well-bred; Gregory calling round to see Bassett, and turning away with the information that he had gone away for an indefinite time; and Maggie Donaldson, lying in the cemetery at the foot of the mountains outside Norada, having shriven her soul to the limit of her strength so that she might face her Maker.
Out of all of them it was Clare Rossiter who made the first conscious move of the shuttle; Clare, affronted and not a little malicious, but perhaps still dramatizing herself, this time as the friend who feels forced to carry bad tidings. Behind even that, however, was an unconscious desire to see Dick again, and this time so to impress herself on him that never again could he pass her in the street unnoticed.
On the day, then, that David first sat up in bed Clare went to the house and took her place in the waiting-room. She was dressed with extreme care, and she carried a parasol. With it, while she waited, she drilled small nervous indentations in the old office carpet, and formulated her line of action.
Nevertheless she found it hard to begin.
“I don't want to keep you, if you're busy,” she said, avoiding his eyes. “If you are in a hurry—”
“This is my business,” he said patiently. And waited.
“I wonder if you are going to understand me, when I do begin?”
“You sound alarmingly ominous.” He smiled at her, and she had a moment of panic. “You don't look like a young lady with anything eating at her damask cheek, or however it goes.”
“Doctor Livingstone,” she said suddenly, “people are saying something about you that you ought to know.”
He stared at her, amazed and incredulous.
“About me? What can they say? That's absurd.”
“I felt you ought to know. Of course I don't believe it. Not for a moment. But you know what this town is.”
“I know it's a very good town,” he said steadily. “However, let's have it. I daresay it is not very serious.”
She was uneasy enough by that time, and rather frightened when she had finished. For he sat, quiet and rather pale, not looking at her at all, but gazing fixedly at an old daguerreotype of David that stood on his desk. One that Lucy had shown him one day and which he had preempted; David at the age of eight, in a small black velvet suit and with very thin legs.
“I thought you ought to know,” she justified herself, nervously.
Dick got up.
“Yes,” he said. “I ought to know, of course. Thank you.”
When she had gone he went back and stood before the picture again. From Clare's first words he had had a stricken conviction that the thing was true; that, as Mrs. Cook Morgan's visitor from Wyoming had insisted, Henry Livingstone had never married, never had a son. He stood and gazed at the picture. His world had collapsed about him, but he was steady and very erect.
“David, David!” he thought. “Why did you do it? And what am I? And who?”
Characteristically his first thought after that was of David himself. Whatever David had done, his motive had been right. He would have to start with that. If David had built for him a false identity it was because there was a necessity for it. Something shameful, something he was to be taken away from. Wasn't it probable that David had heard the gossip, and had then collapsed? Wasn't the fear that he himself would hear it behind David's insistence that he go to Baltimore?
His thoughts flew to Elizabeth. Everything was changed now, as to Elizabeth. He would have to be very certain of that past of his before he could tell her that he loved her, and he had a sense of immediate helplessness. He could not go to David, as things were. To Lucy?
Probably he would have gone to Lucy at once, but the telephone rang. He answered it, got his hat and bag and went out to the car. Years with David had made automatic the subordination of self to the demands of the practice.
At half past six Lucy heard him come in and go into his office. When he did not immediately reappear and take his flying run up the stairs to David's room, she stood outside the office door and listened. She had a premonition of something wrong, something of the truth, perhaps. Anyhow, she tapped at the door and opened it, to find him sitting very quietly at his desk with his head in his hands.
“Dick!” she exclaimed. “Is anything wrong?”
“I have a headache,” he said. He looked at his watch and got up. “I'll take a look at David, and then we'll have dinner. I didn't know it was so late.”
But when she had gone out he did not immediately move. He had been going over again, painfully and carefully, the things that puzzled him, that he had accepted before without dispute. David and Lucy's reluctance to discuss his father; the long days in the cabin, with David helping him to reconstruct his past; the spring, and that slow progress which now he felt, somehow, had been an escape.
He ate very little dinner, and Lucy's sense of dread increased. When, after the meal, she took refuge in her sitting-room on the lower floor and picked up her knitting, it was with a conviction that it was only a temporary reprieve. She did not know from what.
She heard him, some time later, coming down from David's room. But he did not turn into his office. Instead, he came on to her door, stood for a moment like a man undecided, then came in. She did not look up, even when very gently he took her knitting from her and laid it on the table.
“Don't you think we'd better have a talk?”
“What about?” she asked, with her heart hammering.
“About me.” He stood above her, and looked down, still with the tenderness with which he always regarded her, but with resolution in his very attitude. “First of all, I'll tell you something. Then I'll ask you to tell me all you can.”
She yearned over him as he told her, for all her terror. His voice, for all its steadiness, was strained.
“I have felt for some time,” he finished, “that you and David were keeping something from me. I think, now, that this is what it was. Of course, you realize that I shall have to know.”
“Dick! Dick!” was all she could say.
“I was about,” he went on, with his almost terrible steadiness, “to ask a girl to take my name. I want to know if I have a name to offer her. I have, you see, only two alternatives to believe about myself. Either I am Henry Livingstone's illegitimate son, and in that case I have no right to my name, or to offer it to any one, or I am—”
He made a despairing gesture.
“—or I am some one else, some one who was smuggled out of the mountains and given an identity that makes him a living lie.”
Always she had known that this might come some time, but always too she had seen David bearing the brunt of it. He should bear it. It was not of her doing or of her approving. For years the danger of discovery had hung over her like a cloud.
“Do you know which?” he persisted.
“Would you have the unbelievable cruelty not to tell me?”
She got up, a taut little figure with a dignity born of her fear and of her love for him.
“I shall not betray David's confidence,” she said. “Long ago I warned him that this time would come. I was never in favor of keeping you in ignorance. But it is David's problem, and I cannot take the responsibility of telling you.”
He knew her determination and her obstinate loyalty. But he was fairly desperate.
“You know that if you don't tell me, I shall go to David?”
“If you go now you will kill him.”
“It's as bad as that, is it?” he asked grimly. “Then there is something shameful behind it, is there?”
“No, no, Dick. Not that. And I want you, always, to remember this. What David did was out of love for you. He has made many sacrifices for you. First he saved your life, and then he made you what you are. And he has had a great pride in it. Don't destroy his work of years.”
Her voice broke and she turned to go out, her chin quivering, but half way to the door he called to her.
“Aunt Lucy—” he said gently.
She heard him behind her, felt his strong arms as he turned her about. He drew her to him and stooping, kissed her cheek.
“You're right,” he said. “Always right. I'll not worry him with it. My word of honor. When the time comes he'll tell me, and until it comes, I'll wait. And I love you both. Don't ever forget that.”
He kissed her again and let her go.
But long after David had put down his prayer-book that night, and after the nurse had rustled down the stairs to the night supper on the dining-room table, Lucy lay awake and listened to Dick's slow pacing of his bedroom floor.
He was very gentle with David from that time on, and tried to return to his old light-hearted ways. On the day David was to have his first broiled sweetbread he caught the nurse outside, borrowed her cap and apron and carried in the tray himself.
“I hope your food is to your taste, Doctor David,” he said, in a high falsetto which set the nurse giggling in the hall. “I may not be much of a nurse, but I can cook.”
Even Lucy was deceived at times. He went his customary round, sent out the monthly bills, opened and answered David's mail, bore the double burden of David's work and his own ungrudgingly, but off guard he was grave and abstracted. He began to look very thin, too, and Lucy often heard him pacing the floor at night. She thought that he seldom or never went to the Wheelers'.
And so passed the tenth day of David's illness, with the smile on Elizabeth's face growing a trifle fixed as three days went by without the shabby car rattling to the door; with “The Valley” playing its second and final week before going into New York; and with Leslie Ward unconsciously taking up the shuttle Clare had dropped, and carrying the pattern one degree further toward completion.