Back to the Index Page

 
 
 

Bread by Joseph Hergesheimer

I

The train rolling rapidly over the broad salt meadows thunderously entered the long shed of the terminal at the sea. August Turnbull rose from his seat in the Pullman smoking compartment and took down the coat hanging beside him. It was gray flannel; in a waistcoat his shirt sleeves were a visible heavy mauve silk, and there was a complication of gold chains about his lower pockets. Above the coat a finely woven Panama hat with a narrow brim had rested, and with that now on his head he moved arrogantly toward the door.

He was a large man, past the zenith of life, but still vigorous in features and action. His face was full, and, wet from the heat, he mopped it with a heavy linen handkerchief. August Turnbull's gaze was steady and light blue; his nose was so heavy that it appeared to droop a little from sheer weight, almost resting on the mustache brushed out in a horizontal line across prominent lips; while his neck swelled in a glowing congestion above a wilting collar.

He nodded to several men in the narrow corridor of the car; men like himself in luxurious summer clothes, but for the most part fatter; then in the shed, looking about in vain for Bernard, his son-in-law, he proceeded to the street, where his automobile was waiting. It was a glittering landaulet, folded back and open. Thrusting a wadded evening paper into a crevice he sank in an upholstered corner while his chauffeur skillfully worked out through a small confusion of similar motor activity. Before him a carved glass vase set in a bracket held smilax and yellow rosebuds, and he saw on the floor a fallen gold powder box.

Picking it up his face was suffused by a darker tide; this was the result of stooping and the angry realization that in spite of his prohibition Louise had been using the landaulet again. She must be made to understand that he, her father, had an absolute authority over his family and property. Marriage to Bernard Foster did not relieve her from obedience to the head of the house. Bernard had a car as well as himself; yet August Turnbull knew that his son-in-law—at heart a stingy man—encouraged her to burn the parental gasoline in place of his own. Turned against the public Bernard's special quality was admirable; he was indeed more successful, richer, than August had been at the other's age; but Louise and her husband would have to recognize his precedence.

They were moving faster now on a broad paved avenue bound with steel tracks. A central business section was left for a more unpretentious region—small open fruit and fish stands, dingy lodging places, drab corner saloons, with, at the intervals of the cross streets, fleet glimpses of an elevated boardwalk and the luminous space of the sea. Though the day was ending there was no thinning of the vaporous heat, and a sodden humanity, shapeless in bathing suits, was still reluctantly moving away from the beach.

Groups of women with their hair in trailing wet wisps and short uneven skirts dripping on the pavements, gaunt children in scant haphazard garb surged across the broad avenue or with shrill admonishments stood in isolated helpless patches amid the swift and shining procession of automobiles.

August Turnbull was disturbed by the sudden arrest of his progress, and gazing out saw the insignificant cause of delay. He had again removed his hat and a frown drew a visible heavy line between his eyes.

“More police are needed for these crossings,” he complained to the chauffeur; “there is the same trouble every evening. The city shouldn't encourage such rabbles; they give the place a black eye.”

All the immediate section, he silently continued, ought to be torn down and rebuilt in solid expensive structures. It made him hot and uncomfortable just to pass through the shabby quarter. The people in it were there for the excellent reason that they lacked the ambition, the force to demand better things. They got what they deserved.

August Turnbull made an impatient movement of contempt; the world, success, was for the strong men, the men who knew what they wanted and drove for it in a straight line. There was a great deal of foolishness in the air at present—the war was largely responsible; though, on the other hand, the war would cure a lot of nonsense. But America in particular was rotten with sentimentality; it was that mainly which had involved them here in a purely European affair. Getting into it had been bad business.

Nowhere was the nation's failing more evident than in the attitude toward women. It had always been maudlin; and now, long content to use their advantages in small ways, women would become a serious menace to the country generally. He had admitted their economic value—they filled every possible place in the large establishment of the Turnbull Bakery; rather, they performed all the light manual labor. There they were more satisfactory than men, more easily controlled—yes, and cheaper. But in Congress, voting, women in communities reporting on factory conditions were a dangerous nuisance.

He had left the poorer part, and the suavity of the succeeding streets rapidly increased to a soothing luxury. Wide cottages occupied velvet- green lawns, and the women he saw were of the sort he approved—closely skirted creatures with smooth shoulders in transparent crepe de Chine. They invited a contemplative eye, the thing for which they were created—a pleasure for men; that and maternity.

The automobile turned toward the sea and stopped at his house midway in the block. It was a square dwelling painted white with a roof of tapestry slate, and broad awning-covered veranda on the sea. A sprinkler was flashing on the lawn, dripping over the concrete pavement and filling the air with a damp coolness. No one was visible and, leaving his hat and coat on a chair in an airy hall furnished in black wicker and flowery chintz hangings on buff walls, he descended to the basement dressing rooms.

In his bathing suit he presented a figure of vigorous glowing well-being. Only the silvering hair at his temples, the fatty bulge across the back of his neck, and a considerable stomach indicated his multiplying years. He left by a lower door, and immediately after was on the sand. The tide was out, the lowering sun obscured in a haze, and the sea undulated with a sullen gleam. Two men were swimming, and farther at the left a woman stood in the water with arms raised to her head. It was cold, but August Turnbull marched out without hesitation and threw himself forward with an uncompromising solid splash.

He swam adequately, but he had not progressed a dozen feet before he was conscious of a strong current sweeping him up the beach, and he regained his feet with an angry flourish. The other men came nearer, and he recognized Bernard Foster, his son-in-law, and Frederick Rathe, whose cottage was directly across the street from the Turnbulls'.

Like August they were big men, with light hair and eyes. They were very strong and abrupt in their movements, they spoke in short harsh periods, and fingered mustaches waxed and rolled into severe points.

“A gully has cut in above,” Bernard explained, indicating a point not far beyond them; “it's over your head. Watch where you swim.” They were moving away.

“Are you coming over to dinner?” August Turnbull called to Bernard.

“Can't,” the latter shouted; “Victorine is sick again. Too many chocolate sundaes.”

Left alone, August dived and floated until he was thoroughly cooled; then he turned toward the beach. The woman, whose existence he had forgotten, was leaving at the same time. She approached at an angle, and he was admiring her slim figure when he realized that it was Miss Beggs, his wife's companion. He had never seen her in a bathing suit before. August Turnbull delayed until she was at his side.

“Good evening.” Her voice was low, and she scarcely lifted her gaze from the sand.

He wondered why—she had been in his house for a month—he had failed completely to notice her previously. He decided that it had been because she was so pale and quiet. Ordinarily he didn't like white cheeks; and then she had been deceptive; he had subconsciously thought of her as thin.

She stopped and took off her rubber cap, performing that act slowly, while her body, in wet satin, turned like a faultless statue of glistening black marble.

“Do you enjoy bathing in the ocean?” he asked.

A momentary veiled glance accompanied her reply. “Yes,” she said; “though I can't swim. I like to be beaten by the waves. I like to fight against them.”

She hesitated, then fell definitely back; and he was forced to walk on alone.

His wife's companion! With the frown once more scoring the line between his eyes he satirically contrasted Miss Beggs, a servant really, and Emmy.

II

His room occupied the front corner on the sea, Emmy's was beyond; the door between was partly open and he could hear her moving about, but with a cigarette and his hair-brushes he made no acknowledgment of her presence.

The sun was now no more than a diffused gray glow, the sea like unstirred molten silver. The sound of the muffled gong that announced dinner floated up the stairs.

Below, the damask was lit both by rose silk-shaded candles and by the radiance of a suspended alabaster bowl. August Turnbull sat at the head of a table laden with silver and crystal and flowers. There were individual pepper mills—he detested adulterated or stale spices— carved goblets for water, cocktail glasses with enameled roosters, ruby goblets like blown flowers and little gilt-speckled liqueur glasses; there were knives with steel blades, knives all of silver, and gold fruit knives; there were slim oyster forks, entree forks of solid design, and forks of filigree; a bank of spoons by a plate that would be presently removed, unused, for other filled plates.

Opposite him Emmy's place was still empty, but his son, Morice, in the olive drab and bar of a first lieutenant, together with his wife, was already present. August was annoyed by any delay: one of the marks of a properly controlled household, a house admirably conscious of the importance of order—and obedience—was an utter promptness at the table. Then, silent and unsubstantial as a shadow, Emmy Turnbull slipped into her seat.

August gazed at her with the secret resentment more and more inspired by her sickness. At first he had been merely dogmatic—she must recover under the superlative advice and attention he was able to summon for her. Then his impatience had swung about toward all doctors—they were a pack of incompetent fools, medicine was nothing more than an organized swindle. They had tried baths, cures, innumerable infallible treatments—to no purpose. Finally he had given up all effort, all hope; he had given her up. And since then it had been difficult to mask his resentment.

The butler, a white jacket taking the place of the conventional somber black, poured four cocktails from a silver mixer and placed four dishes of shaved ice, lemon rosettes and minute pinkish clams before August Turnbull, Morice and his wife, and Miss Beggs, occupying in solitude a side of the table. Then he set at Mrs. Turnbull's hand a glass of milk thinned with limewater and an elaborate platter holding three small pieces of zwieback.

She could eat practically nothing.

It was the particular character of her state that specially upset August Turnbull. He was continually affronted by the spectacle of Emmy seated before him sipping her diluted milk, breaking her dry bread, in the midst of the rich plenty he provided. Damn it, he admitted, it got on his nerves!

The sting of the cocktail whipped up his eagerness for the iced tender clams. His narrowed gaze rested on Emmy; she was actually seven years older than he, but from her appearance she might be a hundred, a million. There was nothing but her painfully slow movements to distinguish her from a mummy.

The plates were again removed and soup brought on, a clear steaming amber-green turtle, and with it crisp wheat rolls. Morice's wife gave a sigh of satisfaction at the latter.

“My,” she said, “they're elegant! I'm sick and tired of war bread.”

She was a pinkish young woman with regular features and abundant coppery hair. Marriage had brought her into the Turnbull family from the chorus of a famous New York roof beauty show. August had been at first displeased, then a certain complacency had possessed him—Morice, who was practically thirty years old, had no source of income other than that volunteered by his father, and it pleased the latter to keep them depending uncertainly on what he was willing to do. It insured just the attitude from Rosalie he most enjoyed, approved, in a youthful and not unhandsome woman. He liked her soft scented weight hanging on his arm and the perfumed kiss with which she greeted him in the morning.

Nevertheless, at times there was a gleam in her eyes and an expression at odds with the perfection of her submission; on several occasions Morice had approached him armed with a determination that he, August, knew had been injected from without, undoubtedly by Rosalie. Whatever it had been he quickly disposed of it, but there was a possibility that she might some day undertake a rebellion; and there was added zest in the thought of how he would totally subdue her.

“It's a wonder something isn't said to you,” she continued. “They're awfully strict about wheat now.”

“That,” August Turnbull instructed her heavily, “is a subject we needn't pursue.”

The truth was that he would permit no interference with what so closely touched his comfort. He was not a horse to eat bran. His bakery—under inspection—conformed rigidly with the Government requirements; but he had no intention of spoiling his own dinners. Any necessary conservation could be effected at the expense of the riffraff through which he had driven coming from the station. Black bread was no new experience to them.

He saw that Miss Beggs' small white teeth were crushing salted cashew nuts. Noticing her in detail for the first time he realized that she enormously appreciated good food. Why in thunder, since she ate so heartily, didn't she get fat and rosy! She was one of the thin kind— yet not thin, he corrected himself. Graceful. Why, she must weigh a hundred and twenty-five pounds; and she wasn't tall.

The butler filled his ruby goblet from a narrow bottle of Rhine wine. It was exactly right, not sweet but full; and the man held for his choice a great platter of beef, beautifully carved into thick crimson slices; the bloodlike gravy had collected in its depression and he poured it over his meat.

“A piece of this,” he told Emmy discontentedly, “would set you right up; put something in your veins besides limewater.”

She became painfully upset at once and fumbled in her lap, with her face averted, as the attention of the table was momentarily directed at her. There was an uncontrollable tremor of her loose colorless mouth.

What a wife for him, August Turnbull! The stimulants and rich flavors and roast filled him with a humming vitality; he could feel his heart beat—as strong, he thought, as a bell. In a way Emmy had deceived him —she probably had always been fragile, but was careful to conceal it from him at their marriage. It was unjust to him. He wished that she would take her farcical meals in her room, and not sit here—a skeleton at the feast. Positively it made him nervous to see her—spoiled his pleasure.

It had become worse lately; he had difficulty in putting her from his mind; he imagined Emmy in conjunction with the bakery, of her slowly starving and the thousands of loaves he produced in a day. There was something unnatural in such a situation; it was like a mockery at him.

A vision of her came to him at the most inopportune moments, lingering until it drove him into a hot rage and a pounding set up at the back of his neck.

The meat was brought back, and he had more of a sweet boiled huckleberry pudding. A salad followed, with a heavy Russian dressing. August Turnbull's breathing grew thicker, he was conscious of a familiar oppression. He assaulted it with fresh wine.

“I saw Bernard on the beach” he related; “Victorine is sick once more. Chocolate sundaes, Bernard said. She is always stuffing herself at soda-water counters or with candy. They oughtn't to allow it; the child should be made to eat at the table. When she is here she touches nothing but the dessert. When I was ten I ate everything or not at all. But there is no longer any discipline, not only with children but everywhere.”

“There is a little freedom, though,” Rosalie suggested.

His manner clearly showed displeasure, almost contempt, and he turned to Miss Beggs. “What do you think?” he demanded. “I understand you have been a school-teacher.”

“Oh, you are quite right,” she responded; “at least about children, and it is clear from them that most parents are idiotically lax.” A blaze of discontent, loathing, surprisingly invaded her pallid face.

“A rod of iron,” August recommended.

The contrast between his wife and Miss Beggs recurred, intensified—one an absolute wreck and the other as solidly slender as a birch tree. Fate had played a disgusting trick on him. In the prime of his life he was tied to a hopeless invalid. It put an unfair tension on him. Women were charming, gracious—or else they were nothing. If Emmy's money had been an assistance at first he had speedily justified its absorption in the business. She owed him, her husband, everything possible. He suddenly pictured mountains of bread, bread towering up into the clouds, fragrant and appetizing; and Emmy, a thing of bones, gazing wistfully at it. August Turnbull, with a feeling like panic, brushed the picture from his mind.

The dessert was apparently a bomb of frozen coffee, but the center revealed a delicious creamy substance flaked with pistache. The cold sweet was exactly what he craved, and he ate it rapidly in a curious mounting excitement. With the coffee he fingered the diminutive glass of golden brandy and a long dark roll of oily tobacco. He lighted this carefully and flooded his head with the coiling bluish smoke. Rosalie was smoking a cigarette—a habit in women which he noisily denounced. She extinguished it in an ash tray, but his anger lingered, an unreasoning exasperation that constricted his throat. Sharply aware of the sultriness of the evening he went hastily out to the veranda.

Morice following him with the evening paper volunteered, “I see German submarines are operating on the Atlantic coast.”

His father asserted: “This country is due for a lesson. It was anxious enough to get into trouble, and now we'll find how it likes some severe instruction. All the news here is bluff—the national asset. What I hope is that business won't be entirely ruined later.”

“The Germans will get the lesson,” Rosalie unexpectedly declared at his shoulder.

“You don't know what you're talking about,” he replied decidedly. “The German system is a marvel, one of the wonders of civilization.”

She turned away, lightly singing a line from one of her late numbers: “I've a Yankee boy bound for Berlin.”

Morice stirred uneasily. “They got a Danish tanker somewhere off Nantucket,” he continued impotently.

August Turnbull refused to be drawn into further speech; he inhaled his cigar with a replete bodily contentment. The oppression of dinner was subsiding. His private opinion of the war was that it would end without a military decision—he regarded the German system as unsmashable—and then, with France deleted and England swamped in internal politics, he saw an alliance of common sense between Germany and the United States. The present hysteria, the sentimentality he condemned, could not continue to stand before the pressure of mercantile necessity. After all, the entire country was not made up of fools.

Morice and his wife wandered off to the boardwalk, and he, August, must have fallen asleep, for he suddenly sat up with a sensation of strangeness and dizzy vision.

He rose and shook it off. It was still light, and he could see Bernard at his automobile, parked before the latter's cottage.

The younger man caught sight of August at the same moment and called: “We are going to a cafe with the Rathes; will you come?”

He was still slightly confused, his head full, and the ride, the gayety of the crowd, he thought, would do him good.

“Be over for you,” the other added; and later he was crowded into a rear seat between Louise, his daughter, and Caroline Rathe.

Louise was wearing the necklace of platinum and diamonds Bernard Foster had given her last Christmas. It was, August admitted to himself, a splendid present, and must have cost eighteen or twenty thousand dollars. The Government had made platinum almost prohibitive. In things of this kind—the adornment of his wife, of, really, himself, the extension of his pride—Bernard was extremely generous. It was in the small affairs such as gasoline that he was prudent.

Both Caroline Rathe and Louise were handsome women handsomely dressed; he was seated in a nest of soft tulle and ruffled embroidery, of pliant swaying bodies. Their satin-shod feet had high sharp insteps in films of black lace and their fingers glittered with prismatic stones. Bernard was in front with the chauffeur, and Frederick Rathe occupied a small seat at the knees of the three others. He had not made his money, as had August and Bernard, but inherited it with a huge brewery. Frederick was younger than the other men too; but his manner was, if anything, curter. He said things about the present war that made even August Turnbull uneasy.

He was an unusual youth, not devoted to sports and convivial pleasures —as any one might infer, viewing his heavy frame and wealth—but something of a reader. He quoted fragments from philosophical books about the will-to-power and the Uebermensch that stuck like burrs in August Turnbull's memory, furnishing him with labels, backing, for many of his personally evolved convictions and experience.

They were soon descending the steps to the anteroom of the cafe, where the men left their hats and sticks. As they entered the brilliantly lighted space beyond a captain hurried forward. “Good evening, gentlemen,” he said servilely; “Mr. Turnbull——”

He ushered them to a table by the rope of an open floor for dancing and removed a reserved card. There he stood attentively with a waiter at his shoulder.

“What will you have?” Frederick Rathe asked generally. “For me nothing but beer. Not the filthy American stuff.” He turned to the servants. “If you still have some of the other. You understand?”

“No beer for me!” Louise exclaimed.

“Champagne,” the captain suggested.

She agreed, but Caroline had a fancy for something else. August Turnbull preferred a Scotch whisky and soda. The cafe was crowded; everywhere drinking multiplied in an illuminated haze of cigarettes. A slight girl in an airy slip and bare legs was executing a furious dance with a powdered youth on the open space. The girl whirled about her partner's head, a rigid shape in a flutter of white.

They stood limply answering the rattle of applause that followed. A woman in an extravagantly low-cut gown took their place, singing. There was no possibility of mistaking her allusions; August smiled broadly, but Louise and Caroline Rathe watched her with an unmoved sharp curiosity. In the same manner they studied other women in the cafe; more than once August Turnbull hastily averted his gaze at the discovery that his daughter and he were intent upon the same individual.

“The U-boats are at it again,” Bernard commented in a lowered voice.

“And, though it is war,” Frederick added, “every one here is squealing like a mouse. 'Ye are not great enough to know of hatred and envy,'“ he quoted. “'It is the good war which halloweth every cause.'“

“I wish you wouldn't say those things here,” his wife murmured.

“'Thou goest to women?'“ he lectured her with mock solemnity. “'Do not forget thy whip!'“

The whisky ran in a burning tide through August Turnbull's senses. His surroundings became a little blurred, out of focus; his voice sounded unfamiliar, as though it came from somewhere behind him. Fresh buckets of wine were brought, fresh, polished glasses. His appetite revived, and he ordered caviar. Beyond, a girl in a snake-like dress was breaking a scarlet boiled lobster with a nut cracker; her cigarette smoked on the table edge. Waiters passed bearing trays of steaming food, pitchers of foaming beer, colorless drinks with bobbing sliced limes, purplish sloe gin and sirupy cordials. Bernard's face was dark and there was a splash of champagne on his dinner shirt. Louise was uncertainly humming a fragment of popular song. The table was littered with empty plates and glasses. Perversely it made August think of Emmy, his wife, and acute dread touched him at the mockery of her wasting despair.

III

The following morning, Thursday, August Turnbull was forced to go into the city. He drove to the Turnbull Bakery in a taxi and dispatched his responsibilities in time for luncheon uptown and an early afternoon train to the shore. The bakery was a consequential rectangle of brick, with the office across the front and a court resounding with the shattering din of ponderous delivery trucks. All the vehicles, August saw, bore a new temporary label advertising still another war bread; there was, too, a subsidiary patriotic declaration: “Win the War With Wheat.”

He was, as always, fascinated by the mammoth trays of bread, the enormous flood of sustenance produced as the result of his energy and ability. Each loaf was shut in a sanitary paper envelope; the popular superstition, sanitation, had contributed as much as anything to his marked success. He liked to picture himself as a great force, a granary on which the city depended for life; it pleased him to think of thousands of people, men, women and children, waiting for his loaves or perhaps suffering through the inability to buy them.

August left a direction for a barrel of superlative flower to be sent to his cottage, and then with a curious feeling of expectancy he departed. He was unable to grasp the cause of his sudden impatience to be again at the sea. On the train, in the Pullman smoking compartment, his coat swinging on a hook beside him, the vague haste centered surprisingly about the person of Miss Beggs. At first he was annoyed by the reality and persistence of her image; then he slipped into an unquestioning consideration of her.

Never had he seen a more healthy being, and that alone, he told himself, was sufficient to account for his interest. He liked marked physical well-being; particularly, he added, in women. A sick wife, for example, was the most futile thing imaginable; a wife should exist for the comfort and pleasure of her husband. What little Miss Beggs—her name, he now remembered from the checks made out for her, was Meta Beggs—had said was as vigorous as herself. He realized that she had a strong, even rebellious personality. That, in her, however, should not be encouraged—an engaging submission was the becoming attitude for her sex.

He proceeded immediately into the ocean, puffing strenuously and gazing about. No women could be seen. They never had any regularity of habit, he complained silently. After dinner—a surfeit of tenderloin Bordelaise—he walked up the short incline to the boardwalk, where on one of the benches overlooking the sparkling water he saw a slight familiar figure. It was Miss Beggs. Her eyes dwelt on him momentarily and then returned to the horizon.

“You are a great deal alone,” he commented on the far end of the bench.

“It's because I choose to be,” she answered sharply.

An expression of displeasure was audible in his reply, “You should have no trouble.”

“I ought to explain,” she continued, her slim hands clasped on shapely knees; “I mean that I can't get what I want”

“So you prefer nothing?”

She nodded.

“That's different,” August Turnbull declared. “Anybody could see you're particular. Still, it's strange you haven't met—well, one that suited you.”

“What good would it do me—a school-teacher, and now a companion!”

“You might be admired for those very things.”

“Yes, by old ladies, male and female. Not men. There's just one attraction for them.”

“Well——”

She turned now and faced him with a suppressed bitter energy. “Clothes,” she said.

“That's nonsense!” he replied emphatically. “Dress is only incidental.”

“When did you first notice me?” she demanded. “In bathing. That bathing suit cost more than any two of my dresses. It is absolutely right.” August was confused by the keenness of her perception. It wasn't proper for a woman to understand such facts. He was at a loss for a reply. “Seven men spoke to me in it on one afternoon. It is no good for you to try to reassure me with platitudes; I know better. I ought to, at least.”

August Turnbull was startled by the fire of resentment smoldering under her still pale exterior. Why, she was like a charged battery. If he touched her, he thought, sparks would fly. She was utterly different from Emmy, as different as a live flame from ashes.

It was evident that having at last spoken she intended to unburden herself of long-accumulated passionate words.

“All my life I've had to listen to and smile sweetly at ridiculous hypocrisies. I have had to teach them and live them too. But now I'm so sick of them I can't keep it up a month longer. I could kill some one, easily. In a world where salvation for a woman is in a pair of slippers I have to be damned. If I could have kept my hair smartly done up and worn sheer batiste do you suppose for a minute I'd be a companion to Mrs. Turnbull? I could be going out to the cafes in a landaulet.”

“And looking a lot better than most that do,” he commented without premeditation.

She glanced at him again, and he saw that her eyes were gray, habitually half closed and inviting.

“I've had frightfully bad luck,” she went on; “once or twice when it seemed that I was to have a chance, when it appeared brighter— everything went to pieces.”

“Perhaps you want too much,” he suggested.

“Perhaps,” she agreed wearily; “ease and pretty clothes and—a man.” She added the latter with a more musical inflection than he had yet heard.

“Of course,” he proceeded importantly, “there are not a great many men. At least I haven't found them. As you say, most people are incapable of any power or decision. I always maintain it's something in the country. Now in——” He stopped, re-began: “In Europe they are different. There a man is better understood, and women as well.”

“I have never been out of America,” Miss Beggs admitted.

“But you might well have been,” he assured her; “you are more Continental than any one else I can think of.”

He moved toward the middle of the bench and she said quickly: “You must not misunderstand. I am not cheap nor silly. It might have been better for me.” She addressed the fading light on the sea. “Silly women, too, do remarkably well. But I am not young enough to change now.” She rose, gracefully drawn against space; her firm chin was elevated and her hands clenched. “I won't grow old this way and shrivel like an apple,” she half cried.

It would be a pity, he told himself, watching her erect figure diminish over the boardwalk. He had a feeling of having come in contact with an extraordinarily potent force. By heaven, she positively crackled! He smiled, thinking of the misguided people who had employed her, ignorant of all that underlay that severe prudent manner. At the same time he was flattered that she had confided in him. It was clear she recognized that he, at least, was a man. He was really sorry for her—what an invigorating influence she was!

She had spoken of being no longer young—something over thirty-five he judged—and that brought the realization that he was getting on. A few years now, ten or twelve, and life would be behind him. It was a rare and uncomfortable thought. Usually he saw himself as at the most desirable age—a young spirit tempered by wisdom and experience. But in a flash he read that his prime must depart; every hour left was priceless.

The best part of this must be dedicated to a helpless invalid; a strong current of self-pity set through him. But it was speedily lost in a more customary arrogance. August Turnbull repeated the favorite aphorisms from Frederick Rathe about the higher man. If he believed them at all, if they applied to life in general they were equally true in connection with his home; in short—his wife. Emmy Turnbull couldn't really be called a wife. There should be a provision to release men from such bonds.

It might be that the will-to-power would release itself. In theory that was well enough, but practically there were countless small difficulties. The strands of life were so tied in, one with another. Opinion was made up of an infinite number of stupid prejudices. In short, no way presented itself of getting rid of Emmy.

His mind returned to Meta Beggs. What a woman she was! What a triumph to master her contemptuous stubborn being!

IV

At least, August reflected with a degree of comfort at breakfast, Emmy didn't come down in the morning; she hadn't enough strength. He addressed himself to the demolishment of a ripe Cassaba melon. It melted in his mouth to the consistency of sugary water. His coffee cup had a large flattened bowl, and pouring in the ropy cream with his free hand he lifted the silver cover of a dish set before him. It held spitted chicken livers and bacon and gave out an irresistible odor. There were, too, potatoes chopped fine with peppers and browned; and hot delicately sweetened buns. He emptied two full spits, renewed his coffee and finished the potatoes.

With a butter ball at the center of a bun he casually glanced at the day's paper. The submarines, he saw, were operating farther south. A small passenger steamer, the Veronica had been torpedoed outside the Delaware Capes.

A step sounded in the hall, and Louise entered the dining room, clad all in white with the exception of a closely fitting yellow hat. After a moment Victorine, a girl small for her age, with a petulant satiated expression, followed.

“It's a shame,” Louise observed, “that with Morice and his wife in the cottage you have to breakfast alone. I suppose all those theatrical people get up at noon.”

“Not quite,” Rosalie told her from the doorway.

Louise made no reply other than elevating her brows. Victorine looked at the other with an exact mirroring of her mother's disdain.

“Good morning,” Morice said indistinctly, hooking the collar of his uniform. “It's a bloody nuisance,” he asserted. “Why can't they copy the English jacket?”

“It is much better looking,” Louise added.

“Well,” Rosalie proclaimed, “I'm glad to see Morice in any; even if it means nothing more than a desk in the Quartermaster's Department.”

“That is very necessary,” August Turnbull spoke decidedly.

“Perhaps,” she agreed.

“I think it is bad taste to raise such insinuations.” Louise was severe.

“An army,” August put in, “travels on its stomach. As Louise suggests— we must ask you not to discuss the question in your present tone.” Morice's wife half-audibly spoke into her melon, and his face reddened. “What did I understand you to say?” he demanded.

“Oh, 'Swat the fly!'“ Rosalie answered hardily.

“Not at all!” he almost shouted. “What you said was 'Swat the Kaiser!'“

“Well, swat him!”

“It was evident, also, that you did not refer to the Emperor of Germany—but to me.”

“You said it,” she admitted vulgarly. “If any house ever had a Hohenzollern this has.”

“Shut up, Rosalie!” her husband commanded, perturbed; “you'll spoil everything.”

“It might be better if she continued,” Louise Foster corrected him. “Perhaps then we'd learn something of this—this beauty.”

“I got good money for my face anyhow,” Rosalie asserted. “And no cash premium went with it either. As for going on, I'll go.” She turned to August Turnbull: “I've been stalling round here for nearly a year with Morice scared to death trying to get a piece of change out of you. Now I'm through; I've worked hard for a season's pay, but this is slavery. What you want is an amalgamated lady bootblack and nautch dancer. You're a joke to a free white woman. I'm sorry for your wife. She ought to slip you a bichloride tablet. If it was worth while I'd turn you over to the authorities for breaking the food regulations.”

She rose, unceremoniously shoving back her chair. “For a fact, I'm tired of watching you eat. You down as much as a company of good boys on the march. Don't get black in the face; I'd be afraid to if I were you.”

August Turnbull's rage beat like a hammer at the base of his head. He, too, rose, leaning forward with his napkin crumpled in a pounding fist.

“Get out of my house!” he shouted.

“That's all right enough,” she replied; “the question is—is Morice coming with me? Is that khaki he has on or a Kate Greenaway suit?”

Morice looked from one to the other in obvious dismay. He had a pleasant dull face and a minute spiked mustache on an irresolute mouth.

“If you stay with me,” she warned him further, “I'll have you out of that grocery store and into a trench.”

“Pleasant for you, Morice,” Louise explained.

“Things were so comfortable, Rosalie,” he protested despairingly. “What in the name of sense made you stir this all up? The governor won't do a tap for us now.”

His wife stood by herself, facing the inimical Turnbull front, while Morice wavered between.

“If you'll get along,” the former told him, “I can make a living till you come back. We can do without any Truebner money. I'm not a lot at German, but I guess you can understand me,” she again addressed August. “Not that I blame you for the change, such as it is.”

“I'll have to go with her,” Morice unhappily declared.

August Turnbull's face was stiff with congestion. The figures before him wavered in a sort of fog. He put out a hand, supporting himself on the back of his chair.

“Get out of my house,” he repeated in a hoarse whisper.

Fortunately Morice's leave had come to an end, and Rosalie and he withdrew in at least the semblance of a normal departure. August's rage changed to an indignant surprise, and he established himself with a rigid dignity on the veranda. There, happening on a cigar that burned badly, he was reduced to a state of further self-commiseration. That is, he dwelt on the general deterioration of the world about him. There was no discipline; there was no respect; authority was laughed at. All this was the result of laxness, of the sentimentality he condemned; a firmer hand was needed everywhere.

He turned with relief to the contemplation of Meta Beggs; she was enormously satisfactory to consider. August watched her now with the greatest interest; he even sat in his wife's room while her companion moved silently and gracefully about. Miss Beggs couldn't have noticed this, for scarcely ever did her gaze meet his; she had a habit of standing lost in thought, her slimness a little drooping, as if she were weary or depressed. She was in his mind continually—Miss Beggs and Emmy, his wife.

The latter had a surprising power to disturb him; lately he had even dreamed of her starving to death in the presence of abundant food. He began to be superstitious about it, to think of her in a ridiculous nervous manner as an evil design on his peace and security. She seemed unnatural with her shrunken face bowed opposite him at the table. His feeling for her shifted subconsciously to hatred. It broke out publicly in sardonic or angry periods under which she would shrink away, incredibly timid, from his scorn. This quality of utter helplessness gave the menace he divined in her its illusive air of unreality. She seemed—she was—entirely helpless; a prematurely aged woman, of the mildest instincts, dying of malnutrition.

Miss Beggs now merged into all his daily life, his very fiber. He regarded her in an attitude of admirable frankness. “Still it is extraordinary you haven't married.”

The tide was out, it was late afternoon, and they were walking over the hard exposed sand. Whenever she came on a shell she crushed it with a sharp heel.

“There were some,” she replied indifferently.

He nodded gravely. “It would have to be a special kind of man,” he agreed. “An ordinary individual would be crushed by your personality. You'd need a firm hand.”

Her face was inscrutable. “I have always had the misfortune to be too late,” she told him.

“I wish I had known you sooner!” he exclaimed.

Her arms, in transparent sleeves, were like marble. His words crystallized an overwhelming realization of how exactly she was suited to him. The desire to shut her will in his hand increased a thousandfold.

“Yes,” she said, “I would have married you. But there's no good discussing it.” She breathed deeply with a sinking forward of her rounded shoulders. All her vigor seemed to have left her. “I have been worried about Mrs. Turnbull lately,” she went on. “Perhaps it's my imagination—does she look weaker to you?”

“I haven't noticed,” he answered brusquely.

Curiously he had never thought of Emmy as dying; she appeared eternal, without the possibility of offering him the relief of such freedom as yet remained. Freedom for—for Meta Beggs.

“The doctor was at the cottage again Thursday,” she informed him. “I didn't hear what he said.”

“Humbugs,” August Turnbull pronounced.

A sudden caution invaded him. It would be well not to implicate himself too far with his wife's companion. She was a far shrewder woman than was common; there was such a thing as blackmail. He studied her privately. Damn it, what a pen he had been caught in! Her manner, too, changed immediately, as though she had read his feeling.

“I shall have to go back.”

She spoke coldly. A moment before she had been close beside him, but now she might as well have been miles away.

V

The fuse of the electric light in the dining room burned out, and dinner proceeded with only the illumination of the silk-hooded candles. In the subdued glow Meta Beggs was infinitely attractive. His wife's place was empty. Miss Beggs had brought apologetic word from Emmy that she felt too weak to leave her room. A greater degree of comfort possessed August Turnbull than he had experienced for months. With no one at the table but the slim woman on the left and himself a positive geniality radiated from him. He pressed her to have more champagne—he had ordered that since she preferred it to Rhine wine—urged more duckling, and ordered the butler to leave the brandy decanter before them.

She laughed—a rare occurrence—and imitated, for his intense amusement, Mrs. Frederick Rathe's extreme cutting social manner. He drank more than he intended, and when he rose his legs were insecure. He made his way toward Meta Beggs. She stood motionless, her thin lips like a thread of blood on her tense face.

“What a wife you'd make!” he muttered.

There was a discreet cough at his back, and swinging about he saw a maid in a white starched cap and high cuffs.

“Excuse me, sir,” she said; “Mrs. Turnbull wants to know would you please come up to her room.”

He swayed slightly, glowering at her with a hot face in which a vein throbbed persistently at his temple. Miss Beggs had disappeared.

“Very well,” he agreed heavily.

Mounting the stairs he fumbled for his cigar case, and entered the chamber beyond his, clipping the end from a superlative perfecto.

Emmy was in bed, propped up on a bank of embroidered pillows. A light from one side threw the shadow of her head on a wall in an animated caricature of life.

“I didn't want to disturb you, August.”

Her voice was weak and apologetic. He stood irritably beside her.

“It's hot in here.” His wife at once detected whatever assaulted his complete comfort. She fell into a silence that strained his patience to the utmost.

When at last she spoke it was in a tone of voice he had never heard from her—impersonal, with at the same time a note of fear like the flutter of a bird's wing.

“The doctor has been here two or three times lately. I didn't want to bother you, and he said——”

She broke off, and her hand raised from her side in a gesture of seeking. He held it uncomfortably, wishing that the occasion would speedily end.

“August, I've—I've got to leave you.”

He did not comprehend her meaning, and stood stupidly looking down at her spent face. “I'm going to die, August, almost any time now. I wanted to tell you first when we were quietly together; and then Louise and Bernard must know.”

His sensations were so confused, the mere shock of such an announcement had so confounded him that he was unable to penetrate the meaning of the sudden expansion of his blood. His attention strayed from the actuality of his wife to the immaterial shadow wavering on the wall. There Emmy's profile, grotesquely enlarged and sharpened, grimaced at him. August Turnbull's feelings disentangled and grew clearer, there was a conventional memory of his wife as a young woman, the infinitely sharper realization that soon he must be free, a vision of Meta Beggs as she had been at dinner that night, and intense relief from nameless strain.

He moved through the atmosphere of suspense that followed the knowledge of Emmy's condition with a feeling of being entirely apart from his family. Out of the chaos of his emotions the sense of release was most insistent. Naturally he couldn't share it with any one else, not at present. He avoided thinking directly of Meta Beggs, partly from the shreds of the superstitious dread that had once colored his attitude toward his wife and partly from the necessity to control what otherwise would sweep him into a resistless torrent. However, most of his impatience had vanished—a little while now, and in a discreet manner he could grasp all that he had believed so hopelessly removed.

Except for the occasions of Louise's informal presence he dined alone with Miss Beggs. They were largely silent, attacking their plates with complete satisfaction. On the day of her monthly payment he drew the check for a thousand dollars in place of the stipulated hundred, and gave it to her without comment. She nodded, managing to convey entire understanding and acceptance of what it forecast. Once, at the table, he called her Meta.

She deliberated a reply—he had asked her opinion about British bottled sauces—but when she answered she called him Mr. Turnbull. This, too, pleased him. She had an unerring judgment in the small affairs of deference. Dinner had been better than usual, and he realized he had eaten too much. His throat felt constricted, he had difficulty in swallowing a final gulp of coffee; the heavy odors of the dining room almost sickened him.

“We'll get out on the beach,” he said abruptly; “a little air.”

They proceeded past the unremitting sprinklers on the strip of lawn to the wide gray sweep of sand. At that hour no one else was visible, and a new recklessness invaded his discomfort. “You see,” he told her, “that bad luck of yours isn't going to hold.”

“It seems incredible,” she murmured. She added without an appearance of the least ulterior thought: “Mrs. August Turnbull.”

“Exactly,” he asserted.

A triumphant conviction of pleasure to come surged through him like a subtle exhilarating cordial.

“I'll take no nonsensical airs from Louise or the Rathes,” he proclaimed.

“Don't let that worry you,” she answered serenely.

He saw that it need not, and looked forward appreciatively to a scene in which Meta would not come off second.

Above them the long curve of the boardwalk was empty, with, behind it, the suave ornamental roofs of the cottages. A wind quartering from the shore had smoothed the ocean into the semblance of a limitless and placid lake. Minute waves ruffled along the beach with a continuous whispering, and the vault of the west, from which the sun had just withdrawn, was filled with light the color of sauterne wine.

It was inconceivable to August Turnbull that soon Emmy would be gone out of his life. He shook his thick shoulders as if by a gesture to unburden himself of her unpleasant responsibility. He smiled slightly at the memory of how he had come to fear her. It had been the result of the strain he was under; once more the vision of mountainous bread and Emmy returned. The devil was in the woman!

“What are you smiling at?” Meta asked.

“Perhaps it was because my luck, as well, has changed,” he admitted.

She came close up to him, quivering with emotion.

“I want everything!” she cried in a vibrant hunger; “everything! Do you understand? Are you willing? I'm starved as much as that woman up in her bed. Can you give me all the gayety, all the silks and emeralds there are in the world?”

He patted her shoulder. “You'll look like a Christmas tree. When this damned war is over we will go to Europe, to Berlin and Munich. They have the finest streets and theaters and cafes in the world. There things are run by men for men. The food is the best of all—no French fripperies, but solid rare cuts. Drinking is an art——”

“What is that out in the water?” she idly demanded.

He gazed impatiently over the unscored tide and saw a dark infinitesimal blot.

“I have been watching it for a long while,” she continued. “It's coming closer, I think.”

He again took up his planning.

“We'll stay two or three years; till things get on their feet here. Turn the bakery into a company. No work, nothing but parties.”

“Do look!” she repeated. “It's coming in—a little boat. I suppose it is empty.”

The blot was now near enough for him to distinguish its outline. As Meta said, no one was visible. It was drifting. Against his wish his gaze fastened on the approaching boat. It hesitated, appeared to swing away, and then resumed the progress inshore.

“I believe it will float into that cut in the beach below,” he told her.

His attention was divided between the craft and the image of all the pleasures he would introduce to Meta—Turnbull. It was a lucky circumstance that he had plenty of money, for he realized that she would not marry a poor man. This was not only natural but commendable. Poor men were fools, too weak for success; only the strong ate white bread and had fine women, only the masterful conquered circumstance.

“Come,” she said, catching his hand; “it's almost here.”

She half pulled him over the glistening wet sand to where the deeper water thrust into the beach. Her interest was now fully communicated to him.

“We must drag it safely up,” he articulated, out of breath from her eagerness. The bow swept into the onward current, it moved more swiftly, and then sluggishly settled against the bottom. Painted on its blistering white side was a name, “Veronica,” and “Ten persons.” There was a slight movement at the rail, and a sharp unreasoning horror gripped August Turnbull.

“Something in it,” he muttered. He wanted to turn away, to run from the beach; but a stronger curiosity dragged him forward. Not conscious of stepping through shallow water he advanced.

A hunger-ravished dead face was turned to him from the bottom, a huddle of bony joints, dried hands. There were others—all dead, starved. In a red glimmer he saw the incredible travesty of a child, a lead-colored woman, shriveled and ageless from agony.

He fell back with a choking cry, “Emmy!”

There was a dull uproar in his head, and then a violent shock at the back of his brain. August Turnbull's body slid down into the tranquil ripples that ran along the boat's side.

 
 
 

Back to the Index Page