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little of what he had paid for! On the stairs he passed young Betsy, and he
startled the girl by the sudden glare of reproach he bestowed upon her.
Savagely he told himself he was no "feminist" that night!

The brief talk he had with Edith was far from reassuring. With no Deborah
there to wound her pride, Edith quickly showed herself friendly to her
father; but when he advised her to keep her nurse, she at once refused to
consider it.

"I want you to," he persisted, with an anxious note in his voice. He had
tried life without Hannah here and he did not care to try it again.

"It is already settled, father, I sent her away this morning."

"Then you get her right back!" he exclaimed. But Edith's face grew
obstinate.

"I don't care to give Deborah," she replied, "another chance to talk as she
did."

Roger looked at her gloomily. "You will, though," he was thinking. "You two
have only just begun. Let any little point arise, which a couple of men
would settle offhand, and you two will get together and go it! There'll be
no living in the house!"

With deepening displeasure he watched the struggle between them go on.
Sometimes it seemed to Roger there was not a topic he could bring up which
would not in some way bring on a clash. One night in desperation he
proposed the theatre.

"I'm afraid we can't afford it," said Edith, glancing at Deborah. And she
had the same answer, again and again, for the requests her children made,
if they involved but the smallest expense. "No, dear, I'm afraid we can't
afford that," she would say gently, with a sigh. And under this constant
pressure, these nightly little thrusts and jabs, Deborah would grow rigid
with annoyance and impatience.

"For Heaven's sake, Edith," she burst out, one night when the children had
gone to their lessons, "can you think of nothing on earth, except your own
little family?"

"Here it comes again," thought Roger, scowling into his paper. He heard
Edith's curt reply:

"No, I can't, not nowadays. Nobody _else_ seems to think of them."

"You mean that I don't!"

"Do you?"

"Yes! I'm thinking of George! Do you want him killed in the trenches - in a
war with Germany or Japan?"

"Are you utterly mad?" demanded Edith.

"No, I'm awake - my eyes are open! But yours are shut so tight, my dear, you
can't see what has happened! You know this war has made us poor and your
own life harder, but that's all. The big thing it has done you know nothing
about!"

"Suppose you teach me," Edith said, with a prim provoking little smile.
Deborah turned on her angrily:

"It has shown that all such mothers as you are out of date and have got to
change! That we're bound together - all over the world - whether we like it
or whether we don't! And that if we want to keep out of war, we've got to
do it by coming right out of our own little homes - _and thinking, Edith,
thinking!_"

"Votes for women," Edith said. Deborah looked at her, rose with a shrug.

"All right, Edith, I give up."

"Thank you. I'm not worth it. You'd better go back to your office now and
go on with your work of saving the world. And use every hour of your time
and every dollar you possess. I'll stay here and look after my children."

Deborah had gone into the hall. Roger, buried deep in his paper, heard the
heavy street door close. He looked up with a feverish sigh - and saw at the
open door of his study George and Betsy standing, curious, solemn and wide
eyed. How long had they been listening?




CHAPTER XXXV


There came a season of sleet and rain when the smaller children were shut
indoors and it was hard to keep them amused. They did not look well, and
Edith was worried. She had always dreaded the spring, and to carry her
family safely through she had taken them, in former years, to Atlantic City
for two weeks. That of course was impossible now. Trouble was bound to
come, she thought. And it was not long in coming. Bobby, who was ten years
old and went to school with his brother George, caught a wretched cold one
day. Edith popped him into bed, but despite her many precautions he gave
his cold to Bruce and Tad.

"Suppose I ask Allan Baird to come," Deborah suggested. "He's wonderful
with children, you know."

Edith curtly accepted his services. She felt he had been sent for to
prevent her getting Doctor Lake. But she said nothing. She would wait.
Through long hard days and longer nights she slaved upstairs. All Deborah's
proffers of aid she declined. She kept Elizabeth home from school to help
her with the many meals, the medicines and the endless task of keeping her
lively patients in bed. She herself played with them by the hour, while the
ache in her head was a torment. At night she was up at the slightest sound.
Heavy circles came under her eyes. Within a few days her baby, Bruce, had
developed pneumonia.

That evening after dinner, while Deborah was sitting with Roger in the
living room, she heard her sister coming downstairs. She listened acutely,
and glancing around she saw that Roger was listening, too. Edith passed the
doorway and went on down the hall, where they heard her voice at the
telephone. She came back and looked in at the door.

"I've called Doctor Lake," she said. "I've just taken Bruce's temperature.
It's a hundred and five and two fifths." Deborah glanced up with a start.

"Oh, Edith!" she said softly. Her sister turned and looked at her.

"I ought to have had him before," she said. "When he comes, please bring
him right up to the room." And she hurried upstairs.

"Pshaw!" breathed Roger anxiously. He had seen Bruce an hour ago; and the
sight of the tiny boy, so exhausted and so still, had given him a sudden
scare. Could it be that _this_ would happen? Roger rose and walked the
floor. Edith was right, he told himself, they should have had Lake long
before. And they would have, by George, if it had not been for Deborah's
interference! He glanced at her indignantly. Bringing in Baird to save
money, eh? Well, it was just about time they stopped saving money on their
own flesh and blood! What had Bruce to do with tenement babies? But he had
had tenement treatment, just that! Deborah had had her way at last with
Edith's children, and one of them might have to pay with its life! Again
Roger glared at his silent daughter. And now, even in his excited state, he
noticed how still and rigid she was, how unnatural the look she bent on the
book held tightly in her hands.

Still Deborah said nothing. She could feel her father's anger. Both he and
Edith held her to blame. She felt herself in a position where she could not
move a hand. She was stunned, and could not think clearly. A vivid picture
was in her mind, vivid as a burning flame which left everything else in
darkness. It was of Bruce, one adorable baby, fighting for breath. "What
would I do if he were mine?"

When the doctor arrived she took him upstairs and then came down to her
father.

"Well?" he demanded.

"I don't know. We'll have to wait." And they both sat silent. At last they
heard a door open and close, and presently steps coming down the stairs.
Roger went out into the hall:

"Come right in here, doctor, won't you? I want to hear about this myself."

"Very well, sir." And Lake entered the room, with Edith close behind him.
He took no notice of anyone else. "Write this down," he said to her. "And
give it to the nurse when she comes." A heavy man of middle age, with
curious dark impassive eyes that at times showed an ironic light, Lake was
a despot in a world of mothers to whom his word was law. He was busy
to-night, with no time to waste, and his low harsh voice now rattled out
orders which Edith wrote down in feverish haste - an hourly schedule, night
and day. He named a long list of things needed at once. "Night nurse will
be here in an hour," he ended. "Day nurse, to-morrow, eight a.m. Get sleep
yourself and plenty of it. As it is you're not fit to take care of a cat."
Abruptly he turned and left the room. Edith followed. The street door
closed, and in a moment after that his motor was off with a muffled roar.
Edith came back, picked up her directions and turned to her sister:

"Will you go up and sit with Bruce? I'll telephone the druggist," she said.

Deborah went to the sick room. Bruce's small face, peaked and gray in the
soft dim light, turned as she entered and came to the bed.

"Well, dear?" she whispered. The small boy's eyes, large and heavy with
fever, looked straight into hers.

"Sick," said the baby hoarsely. The next instant he tossed up his hands and
went through a spasm, trying to breathe. It passed, he relaxed a little,
and again stared solemnly at his aunt. "Sick," he repeated. "Wery sick."

Deborah sat silent. The child had another fight for his breath; and this
time as he did so, Deborah's body contracted, too. A few moments later
Edith came in. Deborah returned downstairs, and for over an hour she sat by
herself. Roger was in his study, Betsy and George had gone to bed. The
night nurse arrived and was taken upstairs. Still Deborah's mind felt numb
and cold. Instinctively again and again it kept groping toward one point:
"If I had a baby as sick as that, what would I do? What would I do?"

When the doorbell rang again, she frowned, rose quickly and went to the
door. It was Allan.

"Allan - come in here, will you?" she said, and he followed her into the
living room.

"What is it?" he inquired.

"Bruce is worse."

"Oh - I'm sorry. Why didn't Edith let me know?"

"She had Lake to-night," said Deborah. He knitted his brows in annoyance,
then smiled.

"Well, I don't mind that," he replied. "I'm rather glad. She'll feel easier
now. What did he tell her?"

"He seemed to consider it serious - by the number of things he ordered."

"Two nurses, of course - "

"Yes, day and night." Deborah was silent a moment.

"I may be wrong," she continued, "but I still feel sure the child will
live. But I know it means a long hard fight. The expense of it all will be
heavy."

"Well?"

"Whatever it is, I'll meet it," she said. "Father can't, he has reached the
end. But even if he could help still, it wouldn't make much difference in
what I've been deciding. Because when I was with Bruce to-night, I saw as
clear as I see you now that if I had a child like that - as sick as
that - I'd sacrifice anything - everything - schools, tenement children,
thousands! I'd use the money which should have been theirs, and the time
and the attention! I'd shut them all out, they could starve if they liked!
I'd be like Edith - exactly! I'd center on this one child of mine!"

Deborah turned her eyes to his, stern and gleaming with her pain. And she
continued sharply:

"But I don't mean to shut those children out! And so it's clear as day to
me that I can't ever marry you! That baby to-night was the finishing
stroke!"

She made a quick restless movement. Baird leaned slowly forward. Her hands
in her lap were clenched together. He took them both and held them hard.

"No, this isn't clear," he said. "I can feel it in your hands. This is
nerves. This is the child upstairs. This is Edith in the house. This is
school, the end of the long winter's strain."

"No, it's what I've decided!"

"But this is the wrong decision," Allan answered steadily.

"It's made!"

"Not yet, it isn't, not to-night. We won't talk of it now, you're in no
condition." Deborah's wide sensitive lips began to quiver suddenly:

"We _will_ talk of it now, or never at all! I want it settled - done with!
I've had enough - it's killing me!"

"No," was Allan's firm reply, "in a few days things will change. Edith's
child will be out of danger, your other troubles will clear away!"

"But what of next winter, and the next? What of Edith's children? Can't you
see what a load they are on my father? Can't you see he's ageing fast?"

"Suppose he dies," Baird answered. "It will leave them on your hands.
You'll have _these_ children, won't you, whether you marry or whether you
don't! And so will I! I'm their guardian!"

"That won't be the same," she cried, "as having children of our own - "

"Look into my eyes."

"I'm looking - " Her own eyes were bright with tears.

"Why are you always so afraid of becoming a mother?" Allan asked. In his
gruff low voice was a fierce appeal. "It's this obsession in your mind that
you'll be a mother like Edith. And that's absurd! You never will! You say
you're afraid of not keeping school the first thing in your life! But you
always do and you always will! You're putting it ahead of me now!"

"Yes, I can put it ahead of _you_! But I couldn't put it ahead of _my
child_!" He winced at this and she noticed it. "Because you are strong, and
the child would be weak! The child would be like Bruce to-night!"

"Are you sure if you marry you must have a child?"

"Yes," she answered huskily, "if I married you I'd want a child. And that
want in me would grow and grow until it made both of us wretched. I'm that
kind of a woman. That's why my work has succeeded so far - because I've a
passion for children! They're not my work, they're my very life!" She bowed
her head, her mouth set hard. "But so are you," she whispered. "And since
this is settled, Allan, what do you think? Shall we try to go on - working
together side by side - seeing each other every day as we have been doing
all these months? Rather hard on both of us, don't you think? I do, I feel
that way," she said. Again her features quivered. "The kind of feeling I
have - for you - would make that rather - difficult!"

His grip tightened on her hands.

"I won't give you up," he said. "Later you will change your mind."

He left the room and went out of the house. Deborah sat rigid. She
trembled and the tears came. She brushed them angrily away. Struggling to
control herself, presently she grew quieter. Frowning, with her clear gray
eyes intently staring before her, she did not see her father come into the
doorway. He stopped with a jerk at sight of her face.

"What's the matter?" he asked. She started.

"Nothing's the matter! How is Bruce?"

"I don't know. Who went out a few minutes ago?"

"Allan Baird," she answered.

"Oh. You explained to him, of course, about Lake - "

"Yes, he understands," she said. "He won't come here after this - "

Roger looked at her sharply, wondering just what she meant. He hesitated.
No, he would wait.

"Good-night," he said, and went upstairs.




CHAPTER XXXVI


On the morrow Bruce did not grow better. If anything, the child grew worse.
But by the next morning the crisis had passed. In the house the tension
relaxed, and Roger suddenly felt so weak that he went to see his own
physician. They had a long and serious talk. Later he went to his office,
but he gave little heed to his work. Sitting there at his desk, he stared
through the window far out over the city. A plan was forming in his mind.

At home that night, at dinner, he kept watching Deborah, who looked tired
and pale and rather relaxed. And as soon as she was out of the house he
telephoned Allan to come at once.

"It's something which can't wait," he urged.

"Very well, I'll come right up."

When Baird arrived a little later, Roger opened the door himself, and they
went back into his study.

"Sit down," he said. "Smoke, Allan?"

"No, thanks." Baird looked doubly tall and lean, his face had a gaunt
appearance; and as he sat down, his lithe supple right hand slowly closed
on the arm of his chair.

"Now then," began Roger, "there are two things we want to get clear on. The
first is about yourself and Deborah. There has been trouble, hasn't there?"

"Yes."

"She has made up her mind not to marry you."

"Yes."

"I guessed as much." And Roger paused. "Do you mind my asking questions?

"No - "

"Are you still in love with her, Allan?"

"I am."

"And she with you?"

"I think so."

"Then it's the same old trouble."

"Yes." And he told a part of what she had said. As he talked in clear,
terse, even tones, Baird's steady eyes had a tortured light, the look of a
man who has almost reached the end of his endurance. Roger smoked in
silence.

"What do you propose to do?"

"Wait," said Allan, "a few days more. Then try again. If I fail I'm
through." Roger shot a quick look at him.

"I don't think you'll fail, my boy - and what's more I think I can help you.
This is a large house, Allan - there's more in it than you know. My second
point concerns myself. I'm going to die within a year."

As Baird turned on him suddenly, Roger grimly smiled and said, "We won't go
into the details, but I've been examined lately and I have quite positive
knowledge of what I've suspected for some time. So far, I have told no one
but you. And I'm telling you only because of the bearing it has on
Deborah." Roger leaned forward heavily. "She's the one of my daughters who
means the most, now that I'm so near the end. When I die next year that may
be all - I may simply end - a blank, a grave - I am not sure. But I've made up
my mind above everything else to see Deborah happy before I go. And I mean
to do it by setting her free - so free I think it will frighten her."

Roger went on to explain his plan, and they talked together for some time.

* * * * *

Another week had soon gone by. Bruce still recovered rapidly, and the other
sick children were up and about. Deborah, in the meantime, had barely been
in the house at all. But late on Saturday evening Roger found her in her
room. She was working. He came behind her.

"What is it, dad?"

"Busy, eh?" He hesitated, and laid his hand on her shoulder with a little
affectionate pressure. "You've kept so busy lately," he said, "I haven't
had time to see anything of you. How's your work going?"

"Much better, thanks - now that the winter is over."

He questioned her about her schools. And then after a brief pause,

"Well, daughter," he said, "it has been a great fight, and I'm proud of you
for it. And if I've got anything to say - " his hand was still on her
shoulder, and he felt her tighten suddenly - "it isn't by way of
criticism - please be sure of that ahead. In this damnable war my faith in
men has been badly shaken up. Humanity seems to me still a child - a child
who needs to go to school. God knows we need men and women like you - and
I'm proud of all you've accomplished, I'd be the last man to hold you back.
I only want to help you go on - by seeing to it that you are free - from
anything which can hinder you." He stopped again for a moment.

"To begin with," he said, "I understand you're not going to marry Allan
Baird." She stirred slightly:

"Did he tell you so?"

"Yes - I asked him," Roger replied. "I had Allan here a few nights ago, and
he told me you had decided to give up your happiness for the sake of all
those children in that big family of yours. You felt you must keep yourself
free for them. Very well, if that is your decision I propose to clear the
way." She looked intently up at his face. "You're not free now," he
continued. "We have Edith and her children here. And I'm growing old - that
has got to be thought of - I don't want to leave them on your hands. So as
soon as the baby is well enough, I'm going to move them up to the
mountains - not only for the summer - they are to stay the whole year
'round. From this time on they're to make it their home."

"Father! But they can't do that! Think of the winters!" Deborah cried.

"It's already settled," he answered. "I've talked to Edith and she has
agreed. She has always loved the farm, and it will be good for her
children. In the meantime I've been talking to George. 'George,' I told
him, 'I'm going to talk to you, man to man, about a man's job I want you to
tackle.'"

"The farm? But, dearie! He's only a boy!"

"He's nearly seventeen," said Roger, "and a young moose for his age. And
old Dave Royce will still be there. It's the work George has been dreaming
about ever since he was a child. You should have seen how he was thrilled
by the scheme. I told him we'd spend the summer together up there laying
all our plans, investing our money carefully to make every dollar count."

"What money?" Deborah sharply asked. But her father was talking steadily
on:

"We already have a fine lot of cattle. We'll add to it and enlarge the barn
and put in some new equipment. In short, we'll put it in fine shape, make
it a first class dairy farm. 'And then, George,' I said to him, 'I'm going
to turn it over to you. I shall give the farm to your mother, and the rest
of the money I have I mean to invest in her name down here, so that she'll
have a small income until you can make your dairy pay.'"

"What money are you speaking of?" Deborah's voice was thick and hard, her
sensitive lips were parted and she was breathing quickly.

"I've sold the house," he told her. Convulsively she gripped his arms:

"Then tell me where _you_ mean to live!"

"I'm not going to live - I'm going to die - very soon - I have definite
knowledge."

Without speaking Deborah rose; her face went white. Her father kept tight
hold of her hands, and he felt them trembling, growing cold.

"You're soon to be free of everyone," he continued painfully. "I know this
is hurting you, but I see so plain, so plain, my child, just what it is
I've got to do. I'm trying to clear the way for you to make a simple
definite choice - a choice which is going to settle your life one way or the
other. I want to make sure you see what you're doing. Because you mean so
much to me. We're flesh and blood - eh, my daughter? - and in this family of
ours we've been the closest ones of all!" She seemed to sway a little.

"_You're not going to die_!" she whispered.

"So it hurts you to lose me," he replied. "It will be hard to be so free.
Would you rather not have had me at all? I've been quite a load on your
back, you know. A fearful job you had of it, dragging me up when I was
down. And since then Edith and Bruce and the rest, what burdens they have
been at times. What sharp worries, heavy sorrows, days and nights you and I
have gone through, when we should have been quietly resting - free - to keep
up our strength for our next day's work. Suppose you had missed them, lived
alone, would you have worked better? You don't know. But you will know
soon, you're to give it a trial. For I've cleared the way - so that if you
throw over Baird to be free you shall get the freedom you feel you need!"

"Father! Please! Is this fair? Is this kind?" She asked in a harsh
frightened tone. Her eyes were wet with angry tears.

"This isn't a time to be kind, my dear." His voice was quivering like her
own. "I'm bungling it - I'm bungling it - but you must let me stumble along
and try to show you what I mean. You will have your work, your crowded
schools, to which you'll be able to give your life. But I look ahead, I
who know you - and I don't see you happy, I don't even see you whole. For
you there will be no family. None of the intimate sorrows and joys that
have been in this house will come to you. I look back and I see them
all - for a man who has come so near the end gets a larger vision." He shut
his eyes, his jaw set tight. "I look into my family back and back, and I
see how it has been made of many generations. Certain figures stand out in
my mind - they cover over a hundred years. And I see how much they've meant
to me. I see that I've been one of them - a link in a long chain of
lives - all inter-bound and reaching on. In my life they have all been
here - as I shall be in lives to come.

"And this is what I want for you." He held her close a moment. The tears
were rolling down her cheeks. "Until now you have been one of us, too. You
have never once been free. You have been the one in this house to step in
and take hold and try to decide what's best to be done. I'm not putting you
up on a pedestal, I don't say you've made no mistakes - but I say you're the
kind of a woman who craves what's in a family. You're the one of my
daughters who has loved this house the most!"

"Yes," she said, "I've loved this house - "

"But now for you all this will stop - quite suddenly," he told her. "This
house of ours will soon be sold. And within a few months I shall be dead,
and your family will have dropped out of your life."

"Stop! Can't you? Stop! It's brutal! It isn't true about you!" she cried.
"I won't believe it!" Her voice broke.

"Go and see my physician," he said.

"How long have you known it? Why didn't you tell me?"

"Because we had troubles enough as it was, other things to think of. But
there's only one thing now, this freedom you are facing."

"Please! Please!" she cried imploringly. "I don't want to talk of myself


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Online LibraryErnest PooleHis Family → online text (page 18 of 22)