Read CHAPTER X of The House of Toys , free online book, by Henry Russell Miller, on ReadCentral.com.

AT THE DOOR

But Shirley was a fact. By morning no sleep came to him that night he had decided what he must do about that fact. It was then not a very complex problem.

He took a lightly packed bag with him to the office and at the first opportunity presented himself to Jonathan.

“May I take to-morrow off? There is a matter I must attend to at once. I can be back by day after to-morrow.”

“Certainly,” said Jonathan, without looking up.

“Thank you.” David hesitated. “Mr. Radbourne, do you know anything definite of the situation at St. Mark’s?”

“Nothing definite.”

“Do you think there’s any chance for me at all?”

“The committee will decide this week. There’s a man named Holden ”

“I know him.”

“He seems to have influence and not much else. But Mr. Blaisdell is trying to see that you get fair play.”

“Is it necessary for Mr. Blaisdell to use his influence very actively in my favor?”

“I’m afraid it is.”

“I’m sorry. I knew, of course, that you and he would do all you could if it was needed. But I thought perhaps my plans would justify the committee ”

“They do. And they justify any work that has been done for you. There is no obligation that need weigh heavily on you.”

“It isn’t that. I appreciate my my friends’ willingness to help. But I’d hoped to be able to win solely on my merits in this thing.”

“Do you wish us Mr. Blaisdell to refrain?”

“No. I need to get back into my profession. It means so much to me in a new way that I’ll be glad to have it on any terms. That doesn’t mean that I’m not grateful for the kindness I’ve had here. But I’m interrupting.” And David went back to his drawing.

All that day he avoided Esther, sticking close to his table. Not until she was leaving at the end of the afternoon did he seek her.

“Miss Summers, I forgot to tell your aunt that I shan’t be back until day after to-morrow. Will you please tell her for me?”

“You are going away?”

“Yes.” He made no explanation.

“I will tell her.”

“Thank you.” And because he was holding himself sternly rigid, lest eyes or tone cry out what must not be said, he spoke almost curtly.

She moved quietly away from him and did not once look back, though she knew he was watching her. But when a door was between them she stopped for a moment, quivering lips pressed hard, both hands tightly clenched. Then she, too, sought Jonathan.

“Mr. Radbourne, the church people telephoned to-day that I can have the position.”

“I am very glad. When shall you be leaving the office?”

“At the end of the week, if you can get some one for my place.”

“So soon! I ”

“I will stay as long as I’m needed, of course.”

“Oh, no! You’re quite right to go at once. I can get some one to do your work. But not to take your place. I shall ” Jonathan seemed deeply interested in the crystal paperweight on his desk. “We shall miss you very much.”

“I haven’t thanked you ”

“Please don’t thank me for anything. I have done nothing any one could not have done. It is,” he said huskily, “it is to my happiness, my great happiness, if I have been able to help you a very little.”

Then he looked up and saw her face.

“Miss Summers! You look overtired and I have kept you standing. You must sit down, and let me get you ”

“It is nothing at all.” She forced a smile to her lips. “It is only the reaction from yesterday. The ride home in the car is all I need. Good night, Mr. Radbourne.”

“You are quite sure ”

“Oh, yes. Quite all right, Mr. Radbourne.”

“Good night, Miss Summers.”

And when she was gone, he sat down and took a small mirror from a drawer and looked long and sadly at what it recorded. Suddenly he dropped the mirror and bowed his head on the desk.

“Esther!” It was almost a sob. “If only I could help you now!” . . .

David walked the next morning from the station to Aunt Clara’s house. He walked slowly, because Aunt Clara lived on a hill and because he dreaded facing Shirley. But he did not have to face her at once. As he neared the house he saw an automobile, filled almost to overflowing, roll down the driveway and turn up the street; and Shirley was one of the party. She did not notice her unexpected visitor.

But as he turned into the grounds he met a little sailor-suited cherub in tow of a nurse who did not know David. He dropped his bag and squatted before the child.

“Hello, old man! Aren’t you going to shake hands?”

Davy Junior clung tightly to the nurse’s skirt, put one chubby finger into his rosebud mouth and stared, round-eyed, at the big man.

“He’s always that way with strangers,” the nurse explained.

“Oh!” David winced and stood up. “He’s forgotten me, then. When he has had his walk please bring him to the house. I’d like to get acquainted with him again. I’m his father, you know.” He picked up his bag and went on to the house.

A few minutes later he was shown into Aunt Clara’s sitting-room. She greeted him in astonishment and offered her cheek for a kiss.

“This is a surprise. Shirley’s out, too. They’re gone for a picnic and won’t be back until dark.”

“Yes. I saw them start out. How is she?”

“Shirley’s quite well. And seemingly enjoying herself.”

“I suppose so,” he said.

“And the boy, too.”

“Yes. I just saw him. He ” David cleared his throat. “He didn’t know me.”

“That’s to be expected. Children forget easily. You’re not looking well yourself.”

“I’ve been working pretty hard of late.”

“Are you on your vacation?” Aunt Clara was studying him curiously.

“No. I have just to-day. I came to get Shirley to come back.”

“Are you out of debt then?”

“Not quite.”

“You’ve had a raise? Or has something better turned up?”

“I’ve had one little raise. Nothing else has happened that I can count on. But we can get along nicely now, thanks to your help.”

“For which you’re not thankful at all,” she smiled grimly.

“It was a mistake.”

“Humph!” she sniffed. “Have you lived with Shirley four years without learning that she can’t stand ”

“Suppose,” he interrupted quietly, “suppose we don’t criticize Shirley. I shan’t criticize you, either. I blame myself for letting her come here. Now we’re going to correct that mistake.”

Aunt Clara sniffed again. “What has got into you? You used to have no more spirit than a mouse. Now you remind me of your late Uncle John in some of his moods. Suppose Shirley thinks it better sniff to stay here a while longer? If you’re not out of debt you’ll still have to pinch pennies and ”

He interrupted again, still quietly. “You must help to convince her it is best. She must come before it is too late.”

“What do you mean by that ’before it is too late’?”

“I mean while I still want her to come.”

“Eh?” Aunt Clara stared sharply at him. She put on her spectacles, that she might stare more effectively.

Then a light broke in on her, a light too incredible, too dazing even for Aunt Clara’s confident mind. “Eh? David Quentin! Do you mean to tell me do you mean there is another woman? Who is she?”

He made no answer, but though his tired face went even whiter, steadily withstood her gaze.

“Such a thing never happened in our family before,” Aunt Clara gasped weakly, “that I ever heard of. I don’t know what to do about it.”

“There is only one thing,” he said steadily. “Shirley must come back at once.”

Aunt Clara took off her spectacles, rubbed them mechanically and donned them again. Her hands fell nerveless to her lap.

“I don’t know what to do,” she repeated. “For the first time in all my existence. I I have no precedents. You must leave me for a while until I can think this out.”

He rose. “You can’t think it out. I have tried.”

“You’d better lie down and get some sleep. You’re looking quite badly.”

“No. I’ll go out and find David Junior.”

“Perhaps that would be better.”

He went. For an hour Aunt Clara sat alone, trying to work out the hardest problem of life, how to raise a love from the dead. And all she achieved was a bitter self-reproach. For the first time in all her existence.

A ripple of childish laughter came to her through an opened window. She rose and looked out. She saw the Davids, little and big, sitting chummily on the lawn. Then Aunt Clara thanked God that David and Shirley had been given a son.

“We have that much to start with though it seems little enough just now.”

She sniffed, as a matter of necessity, and hastily reached for her handkerchief.

When it was time for Davy Junior’s dinner and nap she summoned David to her sitting-room again.

“David,” she began, very meekly for Aunt Clara, “I’ve been thinking it over. I ought to blame you. But I can’t. I’ve had all I could do blaming myself. Are you thinking I am a selfish, meddlesome old fool?”

David shook his head wearily.

“But I am. I was lonesome alone here in this big old house and I really thought But never mind that now. Does she that other woman know?”

“I think not.”

“Is she is she in love with you?”

“Oh, no! That is impossible. Oh, no!” he repeated. “That couldn’t be. It would be too terrible.”

“It’s terrible enough as it is. Are you going to tell Shirley?”

“That wouldn’t help matters, would it?”

“I suppose not,” she sighed. “David, you must be very gentle with her. It isn’t her fault she wanted to run away from hard times. All her life we have spoiled her, her father and mother and Maizie and I. I did it worst of all, as I never spoiled my own child. David, come over here.”

He went to the chair beside her and she reached for his hand very awkwardly.

“Oh, David, it’s going to be very hard for you all because an old fool ” Aunt Clara was crying now, noisily and unbeautifully because she had had little practise. “And I’m afraid that when you see Shirley you’ll find it even harder than you thought.” . . .

Shirley came only a little before it was time for him to start for his train. He was playing on the library floor with Davy Junior when an automobile came to a panting stop before the house. A minute later came Shirley’s voice from the hall, “Da-vy!” The little fellow scrambled to his feet and ran to meet her at the door. She caught him and swung him strongly in her arms, hugging and kissing him. And David saw that the months had been kind to Shirley. The marks of worry and discontent had been erased, her eyes danced and her cheeks glowed with health and pleasure. Oh, a very fair picture was Shirley, in the full flower of her loveliness.

But his heart went not one beat faster for her.

Then she saw him and set the child down. “David!” And she ran to him and kissed him very prettily, as a loving wife should.

“And now,” said Aunt Clara, “I will say good-by to David and leave you alone to the last minute. The car will be waiting for you when you’re ready.” She held up her cheek to David and left them.

Shirley gasped. “You’re not going to-night?”

“In a few minutes. I must.”

“But but this is ridiculous. Surely you can stay overnight at least.”

“No. I promised to be back to-morrow morning. My time isn’t my own.” Which was not quite fair to Jonathan in its implication.

“Why didn’t you let me know you were coming?”

“I didn’t think of it until this morning when I got here and saw you going out. I supposed I should find you.”

“Surely you’re not piqued because I David, what is it?” A look of dread came into the dancing eyes. “You’re looking wretchedly. You’re not going to tell me we’ve had some more bad luck?”

“I hope,” he said quietly, “you won’t call it that I came to ask you to go back home.”

“Why, I ”

It was no glad eager light that took the place of dread. It was consternation, a manifest, involuntary shrinking from what he asked. . . . Then she was in like case with him. He had not counted on that.

He felt his heart turning hard and cold; and that was not the way of the gentleness he had planned. He, too, had shrunk from what he asked; yet he had not hesitated to ask it, thinking to save her from some hurt. She, without the key, thought only of the loss of her good times. He could tell her the whole truth and she would not care if it led to good times. Couldn’t she see, couldn’t she feel, the tragedy in this end of their once pretty romance? Since she could not, why try to save her from a hurt she would never really know?

Yet he went on, though not just as he had planned.

“So you do think it bad luck? Don’t you ever want to go back, Shirley?”

“That’s foolish. Of course I do. But but the debts aren’t paid yet.”

“Pretty nearly. If we’re careful we can clean them up quickly now.”

“But it seems so foolish and so unnecessary. We could wait a little longer. The salary is so small at best. How how should we live?”

“Very simply, I fear. But,” he added, in the same even, repressed tone, “always within our means, I’m sure. We’ll go to a boarding-house first and then look around for an apartment we can afford. We’ll be starting over again, Shirley.”

“But ” She was still stammering. “But it’s been so good for Davy here. And the weather’s still warm ”

“That’s only an excuse, I think. And it’s a risk he’ll have to take. It’s better than than some other risks.”

“What other risks? Since we’ve waited so long, what difference would a few weeks more make?”

She did not guess what a temptation she was putting before him. It would be so easy to make this a fork in the road from which he and she should take different ways forever, in the end leaving him free, and at little cost to her! But he fought that thought sternly.

“Shirley, can’t you see what has happened to us? We’ve been drifting apart. We’re very far apart now. You don’t really want to come back at all. And I I could easily say, ‘Then don’t come.’ I’m capable of that just now. And you wouldn’t really care.”

“How can you say such a thing? Of course, I would care. I don’t understand ”

“You wouldn’t care or you would have come of your own accord. Shirley, I came here to coax you. I can’t, now I see how little it all means to you. But You’ve mentioned Davy. We’ve got to think of him.” He looked down at the child playing between them. “I want the boy, Shirley and I want you with him.”

There was an edge to his voice that she had never heard.

“But I wouldn’t think of leaving him. I I was going back When?”

“As soon as I can find temporary quarters for us.”

“You say I must?”

“I don’t say that. I say only, if you are coming at all, come while I want you.”

They faced each other in silence, the pretty, pleasure-loving young woman to whom life had been only a house of toys, and the rather seedy young man who had been one of the toys. The bond that held them was a slight one; a little more strain and it would have snapped. But the toy man had grown somehow into a real man whom she did not want to let go, and she knew that, as he had said, he had got far away from her. She could not understand; still she had not the key. And she was afraid.

“David! What is it I feel about you? You don’t think oh, you can’t think I don’t love you?”

“I suppose you think you do. But it’s not much of a love.” A clock struck. He had forgotten his train. “Let me know if you want to come. I’ve got to go now.”

He caught up the boy and held him close, then kissed her hastily. And before she quite realized it, he was gone.

Aunt Clara found her standing where he had left her, staring blankly at the door, unmindful of the little David tugging at her dress.

“Aunt Clara! What is it? What has happened? David has been talking about about my never going back ”

Aunt Clara made a good guess as to what had been said. And she had been doing some more thinking of her own.

“Between us we’ve nearly lost you a husband. That’s what has happened. And you’re going to pack up and pack off to win him back, for his sake if not your own. That’s what is going to happen.”

“Win him back!” Shirley’s world was fast sinking from under her feet. “Is is that what Mrs. Jim has been hinting in her letters? Do you mean you think David has stopped loving me?”

“You think it incredible?”

“But he’s my husband.”

“What’s that got to do with it? Oh,” cried Aunt Clara, “can’t you get it into your silly, selfish little head that you can’t keep a love without earning it? You’ve been a fool. And I’ve been another. I never was so foolish in my life. I wonder your late Uncle John doesn’t turn over in his grave. Come, Davy, it’s most nine o’clock. To bed with you and leave your mother to think for once in her life.”