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Cabin Fever By B. M. Bower Characters: 15578

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07

Domestic wrecks may be a subject taboo in polite conversation, but Joe De Barr was not excessively polite, and he had, moreover, a very likely hope that Marie would yet choose to regard him with more favor than she had shown in the past. He did not chance to see her at once, but as soon as his work would permit he made it a point to meet her. He went about it with beautiful directness. He made bold to call her up on "long distance" from San Francisco, told her that he would be in San Jose that night, and invited her to a show.

Marie accepted without enthusiasm-and her listlessness was not lost over forty miles of telephone wire. Enough of it seeped to Joe's ears to make him twist his mustache quite furiously when he came out of the telephone booth. If she was still stuck on that fellow Bud, and couldn't see anybody else, it was high time she was told a few things about him. It was queer how a nice girl like Marie would hang on to some cheap guy like Bud Moore. Regular fellows didn't stand any show-unless they played what cards happened to fall their way. Joe, warned by her indifference, set himself very seriously to the problem of playing his cards to the best advantage.

He went into a flower store-disdaining the banked loveliness upon the corners-and bought Marie a dozen great, heavy-headed chrysanthemums, whose color he could not name to save his life, so called them pink and let it go at that. They were not pink, and they were not sweet-Joe held the bunch well away from his protesting olfactory nerves which were not educated to tantalizing odors-but they were more expensive than roses, and he knew that women raved over them. He expected Marie to rave over them, whether she liked them or not.

Fortified by these, groomed and perfumed and as prosperous looking as a tobacco salesman with a generous expense account may be, he went to San Jose on an early evening train that carried a parlor car in which Joe made himself comfortable. He fooled even the sophisticated porter into thinking him a millionaire, wherefore he arrived in a glow of self-esteem, which bred much optimism.

Marie was impressed-at least with his assurance and the chrysanthemums, over which she was sufficiently enthusiastic to satisfy even Joe. Since he had driven to the house in a hired automobile, he presently had the added satisfaction of handing Marie into the tonneau as though she were a queen entering the royal chariot, and of ordering the driver to take them out around the golf links, since it was still very early. Then, settling back with what purported to be a sigh of bliss, he regarded Marie sitting small and still and listless beside him. The glow of the chrysanthemums had already faded. Marie, with all the girlish prettiness she had ever possessed, and with an added charm that was very elusive and hard to analyze, seemed to have lost all of her old animation.

Joe tried the weather, and the small gossip of the film world, and a judiciously expurgated sketch of his life since he had last seen her. Marie answered him whenever his monologue required answer, but she was unresponsive, uninterested-bored. Joe twisted his mustache, eyed her aslant and took the plunge.

"I guess joy-ridin' kinda calls up old times, ay?" he began insidiously. "Maybe I shouldn't have brought you out for a ride; maybe it brings back painful memories, as the song goes."

"Oh, no," said Marie spiritlessly. "I don't see why it should."

"No? Well, that's good to hear you say so, girlie. I was kinda afraid maybe trouble had hit you hard. A sensitive, big-hearted little person like you. But if you've put it all outa your mind, why, that's where you're dead right. Personally, I was glad to see you saw where you'd made a mistake, and backed up. That takes grit and brains. Of course, we all make mistakes-you wasn't to blame-innocent little kid like you-"

"Yes," said Marie, "I guess I made a mistake, all right."

"Sure! But you seen it and backed up. And a good thing you did. Look what he'd of brought you to by now, if you'd stuck!"

Marie tilted back her head and looked up at the tall row of eucalyptus trees feathered against the stars. "What?" she asked uninterestedly.

"Well-I don't want to knock, especially a fellow that's on the toboggan already. But I know a little girl that's aw-fully lucky, and I'm honest enough to say so."

"Why?" asked Marie obligingly. "Why-in particular?"

"Why in particular?" Joe leaned toward her. "Say, you must of heard how Bud's going to the dogs. If you haven't, I don't want-"

"No, I hadn't heard," said Marie, looking up at the Big Dipper so that her profile, dainty and girlish still, was revealed like a cameo to Joe. "Is he? I love to watch the stars, don't you?"

"I love to watch a star," Joe breathed softly. "So you hadn't heard how Bud's turned out to be a regular souse? Honest, didn't you know it?"

"No, I didn't know it," said Marie boredly. "Has he?"

"Well, say! You couldn't tell it from the real thing! Believe me, Bud's some pickled bum, these days. I run across him up in the mountains, a month or so ago. Honest, I was knocked plumb silly-much as I knew about Bud that you never knew, I never thought he'd turn out quite so-" Joe paused, with a perfect imitation of distaste for his subject. "Say, this is great, out here," he murmured, tucking the robe around her with that tender protectiveness which stops just short of being proprietary. "Honest, Marie, do you like it?"

"Why, sure, I like it, Joe." Marie smiled at him in the star-light. "It's great, don't you think? I don't get out very often, any more. I'm working, you know-and evenings and Sundays baby takes up all my time."

"You working? Say, that's a darned shame! Don't Bud send you any money?"

"He left some," said Marie frankly. "But I'm keeping that for baby, when he grows up and needs it. He don't send any."

"Well, say! As long as he's in the State, you can make him dig up. For the kid's support, anyway. Why don't you get after him?"

Marie looked down over the golf links, as the car swung around the long curve at the head of the slope. "I don't know where he is," she said tonelessly. "Where did you see him, Joe?"

Joe's hesitation lasted but long enough for him to give his mustache end a twist. Marie certainly seemed to be well "over it." There could be no harm in telling.

"Well, when I saw him he was at Alpine; that's a little burg up in the edge of the mountains, on the W. P. He didn't look none too prosperous, at that. But he had money-he was playing poker and that kind of thing. And he was drunk as a boiled owl, and getting drunker just as fast as he knew how. Seemed to be kind of a stranger there; at least he didn't throw in with the bunch like a native would. But that was more than a month ago, Marie. He might not be there now. I could write up and find out for you."

Marie settled back against the cushions as though she had already dismissed the subject from her mind.

"Oh, don't bother about it, Joe. I don't suppose he's got any money, anyway. Let's forget him."

"You said it, Marie. Stacked up to me like a guy that's got just enough dough for a good big souse. He ain't hard to forget-is he, girlie?"

Marie laughed assentingly. And if she did not quite attain her old bubbling spirits during the evening, at least she sent Joe back to San Francisco feeling very well satisfied with himself. He must have been satisfied with himself. He must have been satisfied with his wooing also, because he strolled into a jewelry store the next morning and priced several rings which he judged would be perfectly suitable for engagement rings. He might have gone so far as to buy one, if he had been sure of the size and of Marie's preference in ston

es. Since he lacked detailed information, he decided to wait, but he intimated plainly to the clerk that he would return in a few days.

It was just as well that he did decide to wait, for when he tried again to see Marie he failed altogether. Marie had left town. Her mother, with an acrid tone of resentment, declared that she did not know any more than the man in the moon where Marie had gone, but that she "suspicioned" that some fool had told Marie where Bud was, and that Marie had gone traipsing after him. She had taken the baby along, which was another piece of foolishness which her mother would never have permitted had she been at home when Marie left.

Joe did not take the matter seriously, though he was disappointed at having made a fruitless trip to San Jose. He did not believe that Marie had done anything more than take a vacation from her mother's sharp-tongued rule, and for that he could not blame her, after having listened for fifteen minutes to the lady's monologue upon the subject of selfish, inconsiderate, ungrateful daughters. Remembering Marie's attitude toward Bud, he did not believe that she had gone hunting him.

Yet Marie had done that very thing. True, she had spent a sleepless night fighting the impulse, and a harassed day trying to make up her mind whether to write first, or whether to go and trust to the element of surprise to help plead her cause with Bud; whether to take Lovin Child with her, or leave him with her mother.

She definitely decided to write Bud a short note and ask him if he remembered having had a wife and baby, once upon a time, and if he never wished that he had them still. She wrote the letter, crying a little over it along toward the last, as women will. But it sounded cold-blooded and condemnatory. She wrote another, letting a little of her real self into the lines. But that sounded sentimental and moving-pictury, and she knew how Bud hated cheap sentimentalism.

So she tore them both up and put them in the little heating stove, and lighted a match and set them burning, and watched them until they withered down to gray ash, and then broke up the ashes and scattered them amongst the cinders. Marie, you must know, had learned a good many things, one of which was the unwisdom of whetting the curiosity of a curious woman.

After that she proceeded to pack a suit case for herself and Lovin Child, seizing the opportunity while her mother was visiting a friend in Santa Clara. Once the packing was began, Marie worked with a feverish intensity of purpose and an eagerness that was amazing, considering her usual apathy toward everything in her life as she was living it.

Everything but Lovin Child. Him she loved and gloried in. He was like Bud-so much like him that Marie could not have loved him so much if she had managed to hate Bud as she tried sometimes to hate him. Lovin Child was a husky youngster, and he already had the promise of being as tall and straight-limbed and square-shouldered as his father. Deep in his eyes there lurked always a twinkle, as though he knew a joke that would make you laugh-if only he dared tell it; a quizzical, secretly amused little twinkle, as exactly like Bud's as it was possible for a two-year-old twinkle to be. To go with the twinkle, he had a quirky little smile. And to better the smile, he had the jolliest little chuckle that ever came through a pair of baby lips.

He came trotting up to the suit case which Marie had spread wide open on the bed, stood up on his tippy toes, and peered in. The quirky smile was twitching his lips, and the look he turned toward Marie's back was full of twinkle. He reached into the suit case, clutched a clean handkerchief and blew his nose with solemn precision; put the handkerchief back all crumpled, grabbed a silk stocking and drew it around his neck, and was straining to reach his little red Brownie cap when Marie turned and caught him up in her arms.

"No, no, Lovin Child! Baby mustn't. Marie is going to take her lovin' baby boy to find-" She glanced hastily over her shoulder to make sure there was no one to hear, buried her face in the baby's fat neck and whispered the wonder, "-to find hims daddy Bud! Does Lovin Man want to see hims daddy Bud? I bet he does want! I bet hims daddy Bud will be glad-Now you sit right still, and Marie will get him a cracker, an' then he can watch Marie pack him little shirt, and hims little bunny suit, and hims wooh-wooh, and hims 'tockins-"

It is a pity that Bud could not have seen the two of them in the next hour, wherein Marie flew to her hopeful task of packing her suit case, and Lovin Child was quite as busy pulling things out of it, and getting stepped on, and having to be comforted, and insisting upon having on his bunny suit, and then howling to go before Marie was ready. Bud would have learned enough to ease the ache in his heart-enough to humble him and fill him with an abiding reverence for a love that will live, as Marie's had lived, on bitterness and regret.

Nearly distracted under the lash of her own eagerness and the fear that her mother would return too soon and bully her into giving up her wild plan, Marie, carrying Lovin Child on one arm and lugging the suit case in the other hand, and half running, managed to catch a street car and climb aboard all out of breath and with her hat tilted over one ear. She deposited the baby on the seat beside her, fumbled for a nickel, and asked the conductor pantingly if she would be in time to catch the four-five to the city. It maddened her to watch the bored deliberation of the man as he pulled out his watch and regarded it meditatively.

"You'll catch it-if you're lucky about your transfer," he said, and rang up her fare and went off to the rear platform, just as if it were not a matter of life and death at all. Marie could have shaken him for his indifference; and as for the motorman, she was convinced that he ran as slow as he dared, just to drive her crazy. But even with these two inhuman monsters doing their best to make her miss the train, and with the street car she wanted to transfer to running off and leaving her at the very last minute, and with Lovin Child suddenly discovering that he wanted to be carried, and that he emphatically did not want her to carry the suit case at all, Marie actually reached the depot ahead of the four-five train. Much disheveled and flushed with nervousness and her exertions, she dragged Lovin Child up the steps by one arm, found a seat in the chair car and, a few minutes later, suddenly realized that she was really on her way to an unknown little town in an unknown part of the country, in quest of a man who very likely did not want to be found by her.

Two tears rolled down her cheeks, and were traced to the corners of her mouth by the fat, investigative finger of Lovin Child before Marie could find her handkerchief and wipe them away. Was any one in this world ever so utterly, absolutely miserable? She doubted it. What if she found Bud-drunk, as Joe had described him? Or, worse than that, what if she did not find him at all? She tried not to cry, but it seemed as though she must cry or scream. Fast as she wiped them away, other tears dropped over her eyelids upon her cheeks, and were given the absorbed attention of Lovin Child, who tried to catch each one with his finger. To distract him, she turned him around face to the window.

"See all the-pitty cows," she urged, her lips trembling so much that they would scarcely form the words. And when Lovin Child flattened a finger tip against the window and chuckled, and said "Ee? Ee?"-which was his way of saying see-Marie dropped her face down upon his fuzzy red "bunny" cap, hugged him close to her, and cried, from sheer, nervous reaction.

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