from Woman's World
The Last Step
by Ellis Parker Butler
Young Mrs. Bob Willerton crossed the narrow hall between the elevator and her father's office hastily, and after the slightest hesitation, opened the door and entered. From behind the heavy veil she had worn, the small reception room seemed darker and gloomier than it was in reality. The girl at the desk looked up from the papers on which she was working.
"Mr. Chalmers?" murmured Mrs. Willerton. "May I see him?"
"He is in," said the girl. "I will see if he can see you. Will you give me your name, please?"
"I am his daughter," said Mrs. Willerton, wearily. She dropped into one of the chairs and knitted her fingers together nervously while she waited.
"Will you please come in?" asked the girl. "Mr. Chalmers is not busy."
She led the way through the narrow passage walled with filing cases into the larger room. Mr. Chalmers was standing at the window, looking out over the thousands of roofs of the city to where the East River showed a small bit of its waters, beyond which Long Island lost itself in a blue haze. As his door opened, he turned quickly.
"Well, kiddy, what brings --" he began merrily, but as she raised her veil, he stopped short. "Molly!" he cried.
Her pretty face was sad, and her eyes still red with the tears she had donned the veil to hide.
"Father!" she half-sobbed, and the next moment she was in his arms, with her face buried in his shoulder.
"Come now, kiddy, come now!" he repeated, "What is it? What is wrong? What is the matter?" and all the while he knew there could be but one thing the matter -- Bob Willerton!
"Father," she said at length, "you will help me, won't you. It isn't my fault! I have been patient, and I have tried so hard --"
"Sit down, Molly," said her father. He drew a chair close beside the one she took. His face showed the anguish her sorrow caused him, and the age lines deepened. For what, but the happiness of his daughter, and before her his wife, had he sought success? And now that the mother was gone, what had he left but the happiness of the daughter, and she came to him thus -- in tears! "Tell me about it," he said.
"Father," she said, with a wan attempt at a smile, "I am here as a client, if you will have me for one. I -- it will not be a very interesting case. It will not be a sensational case, but -- Mr. Father Chalmers, will you take a separation case!"
"Is it as bad as that, kiddy?" he asked.
"I have left Bob forever, father," she said, wearily.
"Poor little girl!" said her father. "You were right in coming to me at once. And I will take the case," he said, softly. "It is not my branch of the law, Molly, but I will take the case. I am especially equipped to to take it. Only too well equipped!"
"You don't know anything -- anything horrible about Robert, do you?" she asked. "I wouldn't want him dragged down."
"No!" her father answered, slowly. "I know nothing about Robert. Nothing but that he is young, and that you are young. Shall I tell you what I know about Robert?"
"Yes," she whispered.
He leaned forward and took her hand.
"He loved you," he said. "He loved you, and you loved him, and you were both young. You were very happy, indeed, until the first flush of the joy of being together wore off, and then he seemed to put you in the second place. His work filled more and more of his time. He came late and pleaded business, when his one thought should have been of you. Often, instead of going with you to some pleasant play, as he did so frequently at first, he would sit silently at home all evening, or spend half the night working over papers he had brought home with him. He thought less and less of you and your likes, and more and more of his work. Then he began spending evenings at his office, leaving you alone --"
"He scolded me about my expenditures --"
"Yes," said her father. "You, on whom he could not spend enough at first, had to bear his reproaches --"
"I did not bear them! I would not bear them!" she exclaimed. "Do you think I would listen to him, father? Was I brought up to count every penny that went out of my purse?"
"No," said her father, "you were not brought up so. And thus the little rent widened between you, until at last --"
"He raged at me! At me!" she cried. "This very morning, father, and my heart is broken, and I can live with him no longer. I will not!"
"He was obstinate and surly this morning," said her father, "and left without his breakfast. He said he might not be home for dinner --"
"Father! How did you know?" she asked.
"Molly," he said, "it is my own tale I am telling. Just so it happened years and years ago when your mother and I were young, and I was straining every nerve, and overstraining them, trying to build a firm foundation under my new home. You are like her in many ways, my daughter, and she was a good, good woman!"
Mrs. Willerton's eyes opened wide.
"She did not -- mother never left you, father? My mother, so sweet, and you, so kind and noble?"
The father smiled sadly.
"I should never have told you, Molly, had you not come to me just as you have, with just such trouble as troubled her then. Perhaps I am not doing right in telling you now, but I am your lawyer, and we must have no secrets between us. I went home that evening, after that last quarrel of ours, tired to the bone, sore with my overwork, angry with her, and sullen with myself. I had my arms full of work that I must do that night, and I knew the jealous hatred that would show in her manner all evening. I decided to avoid a quarrel; I would not provoke one, for I would not speak one word. I opened the door of my home."
"Yes?" breathed Molly.
"I opened the door, and there, on the last step of the stairs, stood your mother. Not then your mother, Molly, but my wife. As I opened the door she looked up with a frightened glance. She was dressed for a journey; her hand satchel in her hand, and her hat on her head. She, my wife, was going away from me! She was leaving me, just when I needed her and loved her most; when my labors were beginning to bear fruit. I fell back against the door, while she looked wildly from one side to the other, as if seeking to escape me."
"And --?" asked Molly, tensely.
"And I took her in my arms!" said her father, simply.
"And after that?"
"After the tears, and the explanations, our overtasked nerves found strength in our love to bear the burden of the middle years together. That is the solution, Molly. Go back to your husband! Bear with him! Live through these critical middle years. There is no wrong in Bob; he is making a fight for life and for love, and love must lie sleeping at times while the fight goes on."
"But I have left. I cannot turn back! My pride --"
"Your mother had pride, too, and we were happy afterward. Think of the stress of mind that drove her to flight; think of what she risked, flying to she knew not what, when she had neither father nor mother."
"But you are different from Bob," said Molly, shaking her head. "You were always good at heart. If I go back -- no, father, it would be the same thing, over and over. And mother is with me in the thought, I know."
"Child!" said her father. "How can you know your mother as I knew her, or what her wish would be? Can you know that clear, limpid spirit that was hers in the earlier years? Can you know, as I know, her hatred of deceit; her gentle soul, and what must have been her anguish of spirit before she was driven by it to take refuge in flight, with all the shame that comes to a woman who leaves her husband? No, Molly! It was knowing her so well that brought home to me the awfulness of my neglect, for nothing but unbearable anguish could have made your mother seek flight."
The daughter drew away her hand and fumbled nervously with the catch of her shopping bag.
"And yet, father," she said, and hesitated. "Were you very happy afterward? Was mother happy?"
"Yes, thank God," said the father, "we were happy!"
His eyes looked full in her eyes. She knew he was telling the truth, as it appeared the truth to him, but she let her eyes fall.
"When -- when I had told mother that I loved Robert," she said in a low voice, "and when I was happiest, just before we were married, mother spoke to me. She said --"
"Yes?" said her father, in his full confidence.
"She said," said Molly, "that the time would come, just as it has come, when -- well, father, when things would be as they are now between Robert and me, and she said, 'Molly, if that time does come, do not leave your home. Do not run away and leave your husband.' She made me promise that. She made me promise that when the time came I would come to you, as I have come. 'There are lives lived together that would be better lived apart,' she said. 'There are ruptures that can be but partially cured, and the woman must bear the suffering. It is better, in such cases, to part once and for all, rather than to live a life of deceit in a pretense of happiness!'"
The face of the lawyer grew pale.
"And all those years I thought --!" he cried.
"Father, would I tell you this if my happiness did not depend on it?" asked the daughter. "She told me to come to you -- to tell you everything. 'Go to your father," she said, 'for he is a lawyer. If it is a case for divorce, he will know the ways of the law.'"
He let his head fall forward.
"Father," said the daughter, "she said --" She paused and felt in her bag. "She gave me this," she said, "telling me to give it to you if ever such a time as this should come to me."
She held out the envelope, and he looked at it, reading the inscription before he put out his hand to take it. "For my daughter to give to her father in her day of necessity," he read in the hand he had known so well in the past. It was as if the message had come from the dead. His hand trembled as he took the envelope, and as his fingers tried, weakly, to tear it open, they touched the seal his wife had impressed on the flap. It was as if he had touched her hand! He read:
"Dear:-- Were I alive I would come to you myself with this story of my deceit. I have written 'deceit' because by so doing I can help Molly in what I foresee will be her great trial. When we were married I loved you as Molly loves Robert, and then came the time when life was no more worth living, when you were changed and hard and thought only of your business affairs. I bore it as I could, until I could bear it no longer. You will remember well how you came home that evening and found me ready for flight, and how in one moment all our differences seemed to disappear in the warm embrace, and how happy my life seemed always after that. Dear. I acted a lie!"
The old man paused and ran his hand across his eyes.
"And she seemed so happy, so happy!" he said.
"I have studied Molly and Robert well," he read on, "and I know them through and through. Robert has the same character that I found in you, dear. Molly is much like myself in every way. I foresee the time when their hot love of today will give way to the same days of anguish that came to you and me, but I had no one to guide me. I had to think out my problem for myself, and but for one thing I might have left you forever -- you loved me! And I loved you!"
The old lawyer paused again, and reread the words, which seemed illogical enough. Love? What had love had to do with it? She would have left him anyway, had he not entered the house at the moment she was about to fly! Love? Yes, after the accident of catching her in flight, perhaps!
"With my temper, Molly will want to fly from Robert, no doubt, when the time of stress comes," he read; "and Robert, with your independence of spirit and belief that he has been doing but his duty, will let her go if once she leaves their home. So I am sending Molly to you.
"Dear, I deceived you! Has not every woman in her heart a store of deceit and craftfulness on which to draw? I hope so! I hope I am not alone in my need for confession. Many women, I think, live whole lives of deceit. And I -- I have let you believe a lie for years and years.
"It was a lie, dear! I was not going to leave you! Not unless you were indeed cruel and cold and heartless, and I did not, could not, believe you were. I stood the pain of seeing you grow away from me as long as I could, and then I played a part. That day I had thought of you all day, and I could not bear to think of another evening of sullen irritation. I could not stand it; a woman's nerves will stand so much and no more. And so, dear, I put on my hat and my coat, and packed my valise, and took my seat on the last step of the stairs. I waited for hours, it seemed to me, before I heard your step outside, and when I heard your hand turning the knob I arose and stood there, on the last step. I was a tableau of 'Flight!' You opened the door, and as you saw me I watched your face, and I knew our love was safe.
"I chose the very last step, dear, because I did not want my heart to fail me at the last moment. Had I been at the top of the stair, I might have fled to my room before you could see me. I made certain that I could not spoil my effect, you see. And it was worth while acting the little lie, dear, for we have been so happy!"
The lawyer's hand trembled.
"Thank God!" he said and there were tears in his eyes. He had to wipe them away before he could read more.
"So I am sending Molly to you," the letter continued, "because you will know whether Robert is worthy, or has become unworthy. If he is bad, you will know how to secure the proper separation without noise or scandal, but if he is still the Robert I know, and his heart is sound, you will tell Molly about the Last Step."
The letter ended. There was no farewell, no signature. The father laid it in Molly's hand, and she read it slowly, and then turned toward the window and looked out over the city with unseeing eyes. Her father waited. He knew she was thinking deep into the character of her husband and into her own heart. Suddenly she turned and lifted her bag from the floor where it had fallen.
"Good bye!" she said, breathlessly. "Good bye!"
"If you want to try the law," said her father, with a smile just twitching the comers of his mouth, "I am at your service and --"
"Father," she commanded, "let my hand go. please!"
"What is all this hurry?" he asked, teasingly.
"Please let me go!" she begged. "Robert will be home before I can get there."
"Then you are going to deceive your husband?" he teased.
"Yes, I am!" she smiled. "I am going to try the Last Step!"
And then she looked up into her father's face with an expression of dismay.
"Oh!" she exclaimed. "Oh! I forgot! We live in apartments! We don't use stairs! We have no Last Step!"
She let her bag fall, but the next moment she had it in her hand again and was running to the door.
"I don't care!" she cried, recklessly. "I just don't care! People have kissed in elevators before this, I guess!"