Chapter Thirty-one
 

Dummy again. She seemed to be dummy often, this afternoon. They were playing for quarter cents, but even that low stake, Nancy thought irritably, ran up into a considerable sum, when one's partner bid as madly as young Mrs. Billings bid. She was doubled, and redoubled, and she lost and lost; Nancy saw Elsie's white hand, with its gold pencil, daintily scoring four hundred--two hundred--three hundred.

"I thought I might as well try it," said Mrs. Billings blithely, "but you didn't give me much help, partner!"

"I didn't bid, you know," Nancy reminded her.

"Oh, I know you didn't--it was entirely my own fault! Well, now, let's try again. ..."

Suddenly it seemed to Nancy all wrong--her sitting here in the tempered summer light, playing cards throughout the afternoon. Inherited from some conscientious ancestor, shame stirred for a few minutes in her blood and she hated herself, and the club, and the women she played with. This was not a woman's work in the world. Her children scattered about their own affairs, her household in the hands of strange women, her husband playing another game, with other idle men, and she, the wife and mother and manager, sitting idle, with bits of pasteboard in her hands. She was not even at home, she was in a public club--

She laughed out, as the primitive wave of feeling brought her to the crude analysis. It was funny--life was funny. For a few strange minutes she felt as curiously alien to the Marlborough Gardens Yacht Club as if she had been dropped from another world on to its porch. She had been a tired, busy woman, a few years ago; by what witchcraft had she been brought to this? Mrs. Billings was playing four hearts, doubled. Nancy was too deep in uneasy thought to care much what befell the hand. She began to plan changes, always her panacea in a dark mood. She would give up daytime playing, like Mary Ingram. And she would never play except at home, or in some other woman's home. Nancy was no prude, but she was suddenly ashamed. She was ashamed to have new-comers at the club pass by, and see that she had nothing else to do, this afternoon, but watch a card game.

Sam Biggerstaff came to the door, and nodded to his wife. Nancy smiled at him; "Will I do?" No, he wanted Ruth.

So his wife put her cards in Nancy's hand, and went out to talk to him. Nancy laughed, when she came back.

"You score two tricks doubled, Ruth. I think that's too hard, after I played them!"

"Shameful!" said Mrs. Biggerstaff, in her breathless way, slipping into her seat. Two or three more hands were played, then Mrs. Fielding said suddenly:

"Is the tennis finished? Who won? Aren't they all quiet--all of a sudden?"

The other two women glanced up idly, but Mrs. Biggerstaff said quietly:

"I dealt. No trumps."

"Right off, like that!" Nancy laughed. But Mrs. Billings said:

"No--but aren't they quiet? And they were making such a noise! You know they were clapping and laughing so, a few minutes ago!"

"They must have finished," Mrs. Fielding said, looking at her hand quizzically. "You said no trump. Partner, let's try two spades!"

"Billy was going to come in to tell me," persisted Mrs. Billings, "Just wait a minute--!" And leaning back in her chair, she called toward the tea-room. "Steward; will you send one of the boys down to ask how the tennis went? Tell Mr. Billings I want to know how it went!"

The steward came deferentially forward.

"I believe they didn't finish their game, Mrs. Billings. The fire- -you know. I think all the gentlemen went to the fire--"

"Where is there a fire!" demanded two or three voices. Nancy's surprised eyes went from the steward's face to Mrs. Biggerstaff's, and some instinct acted long before her fear could act, and she felt her soul grow sick within her.

"Where is it?" she asked, with a thickening throat, and then suspiciously and fearfully. "Ruth, where was it?" And even while she asked, she said to herself, with a wild hurry and flutter of mind and heart, "It's our house--that's what Sam stopped to tell Ruth--it's Holly Court--but I don't care--I don't care, as long as Agnes was there, to get the children out--"

It was all instantaneous, the steward's stammering explanation, Ruth Biggerstaff's terrified eyes, the little whimper of fear and sympathy from the other women. Nancy felt that there was more-- more--

"What'd Sam tell you, Ruth? For God's sake--"

"Now, Nancy--now, Nancy--" said the Mrs. Biggerstaff, panting like a frightened child, "Sam said you weren't to be frightened--we don't know a thing--listen, dear, we'll telephone! That's what we'll do--it was silly of me, but I thought perhaps we could keep you from being scared--from just this--"

"But--but what did you hear, Ruth? Who sent in the alarm?" Nancy asked, with dry lips. She was at the club, and Holly Court seemed a thousand impassable miles away. To get home--to get home--

"Your Pauline telephoned! Nancy, wait! And she distinctly said-- Sam told this of his own accord--" Mrs. Biggerstaff had her arms tight about Nancy, who was trembling very much. Nancy's agonized look was fixed with pathetic childish faith upon the other woman's eyes. "Sam told me that she distinctly said that the children were all out with Agnes! She asked to speak to Bert, but Bert was watching a side-line, so Sam came--"

Nancy's gaze flashed to the clock that ticked placidly over the wide doorway. Three o'clock. And three o'clock said, as clearly as words "Priscilla's nap." Agnes had tucked her in her crib, with a "cacker"--and had taken the other children for their promised walk with the new puppy. Pauline had rushed out of the house at the first alarm--

And Priscilla's mother was here at the club. Nancy felt that she was going to get dizzy, she turned an ashen face to Mrs. Biggerstaff.

"The baby--Priscilla!" she said, in a sharp whisper. "Oh, Ruth-- did they remember her! Oh, God, did they remember her! Oh, baby-- baby!"