‘Have they been here long?’ she asked.
‘Some of them nearly all night, I understand, madam, and the others came very early this morning. They’ve been waiting to see Mr. Curtance, and he only went downstairs a few minutes ago.’
‘I see. Then perhaps you had better not disturb him at present.’
As the girl went out, Mary relaxed on her pillow, looking unseeingly at the ceiling. It was impossible, as she knew from experience, to tear Dale away from the pertinacious young men of the Press. The Public came first, and herself second. She reached out her hand for the newspaper and re read the final paragraph. It had to come! What a fool she had been to pretend to herself that it would not. She let the paper fall and lay thinking of Dale and herself.
When she had married Dale, she had partially understood him, and had managed to work up a sympathy with his interests. Now, she was forced to admit, she understood him better and had lost sympathy with those interests. In rare moments of complete frankness she admitted her jealousy of those other interests and her resentment of other people’s share in him.
Ten years ago, when he was just twenty four, he had won the first non stop Equatorial Flight and for that thousands of people had begun to idolize him. And it had only been the start of a fantastic record of success. He had gone on to triumph after triumph, collecting prizes and further acclamation in his spectacular career. Since then he had lowered the Equatorial record three times and still held it, together with the Greenwich to Greenwich Meridian record, and goodness knew how many more. Partly through luck, but mostly by hard work and endurance he had grown in the public view to the stature of a fabulous superman: the stuff of which the old world would have made a demi god.
She had regretted, but accepted the tact that the mass could give him something which she as an individual could not. Curiously, it was his preoccupation with inanimate things which caused her more active resentment. Once, in a state of depression, she had confided to a friend:
‘With Dale it is not people who are my rivals so much as things. Things, things, things! Why do men think so much of things? Big, restless and to them such absorbing things. Why are they always wanting to change and invent more machines, more and more machines? I hate their machines! Sometimes I think they are the natural enemies of women. Often when I see a rocketplane go by, I say to myself: “Mary, that is your rival it can give him more than you can. It has more of his love than you have.” . . . No, it’s not nonsense. If I were to die now, he would turn to his machines and forget all about me in making them. But if his machines were taken away, he would not devote himself to me he would mope and be miserable. I hate his machines. I’d like to smash them all into little bits. They frighten me, and sometimes I dream of them. Big wheels whirling round and round and long steel bars sliding up and down with Dale standing in among them, laughing at me because I can’t get at him, and there are rows and rows of cogs waiting to grind me up if I try. All I can do is to stand there and cry while Dale laughs and the machines rattle at me. I hate them, I tell you. I hate them!’
It had not been wise, she realized now, to extract that promise from him that he would give up racing rocketplanes and only enter contests for lightweights of the flipabout class. He had given it only grudgingly and it had fretted him though he had tried at first to hide it. Now she knew he was going to break it so, apparently, did the newspapers.
Her thoughts were broken into by a crunching of gravel beneath hurrying feet. Voices, mostly male, shouted incomprehensible sentences to one another. There was a dull throbbing of engines followed by the whirr of revolving sails as the gyrocurts and other flipabouts on the lawn began to take the air.
The door opened and Dale came in. He bent over and kissed her. Seating himself on the side of the bed, he took one of her hands in his own and apologized for his lateness. Mary lay back, watching his face. She heard scarcely a word that he said. He looked so young, so strong and full of energy; it made her feel that despite the ten years between them; she was the elder. Impossible to think of him as anything but an adventurous youth. It came to her with a sudden stab that he was looking happier than he had for a long time.
‘Dale,’ she interrupted, ‘what did all those reporters want?’
He hesitated for a fraction of a second.
‘We had a little trouble down at the shops last night. Nasty business. They wanted to know all about it, darling. You know how they’re always after every little detail.’
She looked steadily into his eyes.
‘Dale, please be honest with me. Weren’t they much more interested in that?’ She picked up the paper and pointed to the final paragraph. He read it, with a worried look on his face.
‘Well, yes perhaps they were.’
‘And now that you’ve told the whole world, don’t you think you might tell your own wife?’
‘I’m sorry, dear. I wasn’t telling anyone at all nobody would have known anything about it for months yet if it hadn’t been for that business last night. Then they were on to it at once=they couldn’t be stopped.’
‘Dale. You promised me you would give up rocket racing.’
He dropped his eyes and played with the fingers of the hand that he held.
‘It’s not exactly rocket racing ‘ he began. She shook her head.
‘But you promised me ‘
He got up and crossed to the window, pushing both his hands deep in his trouser pockets.
‘I must. I didn’t know what I was saying when I promised that. I thought I could settle down and give it all up. I’ve tried, but I’m not cut out to be a designer of other men’s machines. Hang it all, I’m still young. These last two years I’ve designed and built some of the best rocket planes in the world and then I’ve had to sit by like an old fogy of eighty while young fools lose races with them, crash them by damn bad flying and God knows what else. Do you think it’s been easy for me to watch them being mishandled while all the time I know what they are capable of and could make them do it? This last year has been just hell for me down at the shops; it’s been like, like giving birth to one stillborn child after another.’
‘I’m sorry, Mary darling.’ He turned back to her. ‘I shouldn’t have said that.
But can’t you see what it means to me? It’s taking all my life away. Try to see it, dear. Look, all your life you’ve wanted the baby you’re going to have; suppose you were suddenly told that you couldn’t have it after all —-could never have a baby at all. Wouldn’t everything become worthless for you? Wouldn’t the bottom just drop out of life? That’s how I’ve felt. I promised you I would give up the thing I’ve wanted to do all my life the thing I’ve been doing all my life until I met you. Well, I’ve tried, I’ve done my best, but I can’t keep that promise . . .’
Mary lay silent. She did not understand: did not want to understand. He was selfish and stupid. To compare a smashed machine with a stillborn child. Talking as if his passion for speed and more speed could be compared with the urge to bear a child. What nonsense l He spoke like a child himself. Why couldn’t he understand what it meant to her. ..?
He was going on now. Something about her creating with her body and he with his mind. That neither of them should be permitted to ban the other’s right to creation. Well, she had never said that he should not create rocket planes only that he should not fly them. It was not fair . . . It was his child that she was going to bear. His child that was making her feel so old and ill…
‘What are you going to do with this new rocket?’ she asked at last.
‘Have a shot at the Keuntz Prize,’ he said, shortly.
Mary sat up suddenly. Her eyes widened in a horrified stare.
‘Oh, Dale, no’ Her voice trailed away as she fell forward in a faint.