Fiction

ONE PLUS ONE

Love was like a problem in physics to Kate, until she found out that hearts are almost as destructive as atoms when they’re split

Constance Beresford-Howe December 1 1947
Fiction

ONE PLUS ONE

Love was like a problem in physics to Kate, until she found out that hearts are almost as destructive as atoms when they’re split

Constance Beresford-Howe December 1 1947

ONE PLUS ONE

Constance Beresford-Howe

AS KATE MALONE sat at her desk in the college lab, working with a swift, silent absorption, her profile stood out against the clear March light with the purity of a head in marble. It had the same clarity and decision of line; the same remote, chiseled beauty.

Before her was a sheet covered with complex mathematical calculations. Her narrow hand moved over the page with a scientist’s precision, forming liny, clear symbols. There were no distractions in the quiet room. The light was good; her mind was fresh; and the problem before her began to work out with a certainty and definiteness that gave her profound pleasure.

The door opened and a stocky young man came in, whistling. Kate threw him only an absent glance and a mechanical “Hello, Fin.”

“Hullo! Working already?”

“I’m not early. You’re late.”

“That’s right,” admitted Phineas cheerfully. He tossed his hat on a hook and ran both hands through his shock of brown hair as a preliminary to work. Still whistling under his breath, he ambled over to a stool before a rack of test tubes. In his gentle, blunt fingers, he picked up one after another, held them in turn to the light and squinted at each. His mouth, singularly gentle for a man, wore a half smile of impudence and amusement.

“I met the depart ment head on the stairs and he almost smiled,” Fin said as he struggled info a stained smock, much tattered about the cull’s and pockets, and went on with persistent good humor: “Sorry 1 was late. Stopped to talk.”

Kate worked on silently, but a frown spoiled the purity of her brow. Fin’s sharp eye observed this and his mouth had a rather grim set as he continued:

“Found out about him, by the way. That face wasn’t caused by secret sorrow or a lurid past. .Just liver. Hamlet’s trouble, 1 daresay. That, plus long and bitter conflict with this Montreal climate . . . You know, though, 1 think the Almighty feels sorry for his poor Canadian subjects with their frozen feet and blue noses; and so once in a while He sends down a spring day like this one, to make up . . . at least, partially . . . for all they’ve been through. Don’t you think it’s a nice metaphysical theory. Doctor Malone? Katy, my pearl?”

Kate made a sharply irritated movement and said, “Shut up, will you Fin? I’m

working.”

He grinned. “All right. Just trying to gef a rise out of you. The silence itched me.” He puttered about rather aimlessly at a fable of apparatus, pausing often to look out at the rich blue of the sky. In a few minutes he looked over at Kate again and said “Say . . . where’s George?”

“1 fired him,” she said in a remote voice.

“You WHAT?”

She did not reply; and slowly all the good humor died out of Fin’s square-cut face. The blue of his eyes took on a steely quality. He went over and stood between Kate and the light, compelling her attention.

"You fired George! Katy, you know how hard up—”

With this Kate put down her pen and looked squarely at Fin, her grey eyes perfectly clear and candid. She kept her irritation well in check and spoke with her usual lucid, controlled voice.

“The boy was never really efficient; and lately

he’s been worse. This morning he came in before class to clean up and knocked over a whole row of containers. I’d taken five weeks to get the results in those jars. Five weeks of t ime and work smashed on the floor. Naturally I fired him.”

“There is nothing natural about it,” Fin said tightly. “You know the kid’s working between classes and half the night to gef his degree. Losing this job will be a calamity for him. Didn’t you stop to t hink of t hat?”

“But, Phineas, what has that got to do with his inefficiency? I’m not running a charity mission here . . . we’re trying, in a modest way, to advance science.” Her eyes looked with perfect reasonableness into his.

“You look here, Kate,” he said roughly. “George didn’t do anything that’s going to arrest the march of science. Suppose he did break a few jars? What the hell is five weeks to science—or to us? It’s the kid’s whole future I’m thinking of. He may not

be able to graduate now. Katy, can’t you see that George is infinitely more important than the principle of the thing?”

"But, Fin, George and his graduation have nothing to do with it . . .”

"They have everything to do with it!” he shouted. His ruffled crest of hair fairly crackled with intensity and his eyes were a fierce, electric blue. His voice became menacingly flat.

“Kate.” he began, “how would you like to hear a few home truths? You don’t know' or care what you’ve done to George, or what you do to anybody, for that matter. People aren’t real at all to you not half so real as, say, qualitative chemistry. All your adult life you’ve insulted the human race bypretending it wasn’t there. And, believe me, that’s the worst thing I can say about anybody.” “Fin — ” she protested, shocked. “You’re not being reasonable. You’re not ’’

"Reason has nothing to do with this. It’s got to

do with you and me, if only you knew it, Kate. For years I’ve tagged along thinking that even if it didn’t show, there must be a heart somewhere behind that brain and especially that face. But no. There’s nothing there at all. And a human being without a heart is worth exactly nothing . . . a sort of monster that doesn’t know what, love is, or gaiety or pity. You know, I’m almost sorry for you. But I’m sorrier for the people who have to cross your path.”

NEVER in her twenty-seven years had anyone ever spoken like this to Kate. The suddenness

of it stunned her and she was shaken enough to take refuge in anger.

“Fin, are you forgetting who’s in charge of this lab?” she said with icy calm. “You have some right, perhaps, to criticize the way I run it. I will give George another chance, since you think it’s important to him. But understand this: you have

no right to criticize me. After this, don’t discuss anything but physics with me. It’s wasting my time.”

“Why don’t you go on and fire me too?” Fin asked, an odd, angry smile tugging at his lips. “I’m sure you could find good scientific grounds for giving me the boot. Inefficiency, unpunctuality, whistling and insubordination. They’d all look fine on the report. Well, go ahead!” He strode to the door, pulling off his smock as he went. “Go on!” he shouted over his shoulder. “Fire me and get

another robot in here to keep you company. I’m taking the day off.”

With this, he banged the door behind him and she could hear his hard, angry steps go swiftly down the hall. For no reason—it was too late to call him back— she rose from her chair. The lab had already sunk back into its jierfect silence; t he tranquillity she loved so well. But the scene had upset her more than she realized at first. Her anger evaporated quickly. She was left with the pain that follows the shock of a blow. For a moment she stood in the grip of a vague, trembling distress. Sitting down once more, she took the pen into her hand and made an effort, to focus her mind on the figures. But her mind refused to follow a coherent line of thought; for the first time in her life it would not respond to her will. 'This was upsetting enough. But still worse was the mood that crept over her as she laid down her pen— a curious, helpless feeling of being lost, as though her very nature were being broken out of a mold and reshaped without her volition. Like a child she laid her head down on her arm.

“Am 1 a robot?” she wondered painfully. “But I’ve tried not to be. 1 like people, my mot her, my colleagues. Once I liked Fin, too. ‘A human being without a heart is worth exactly nothing’—but I ha ve a heart ! 1 ha ve ! ”

THE door banged and Mary Malóne, Kate’s mother, called cheerfully from her easy chair, “That you, Katy, love?” As Kate came in, her thick hair ruffled and her cheekH colored faintly by the wind, her mother’s warm brown eyes rested on her lovingly. She was a comely old lady herself, with whit«* hair and rosy cheeks still fresh in spit«* of her s«*venty years. “Have a nice day, dear?” she asked.

“()h, not bad, Mother. Turn off the radio, will you? I want to talk to you.” “It’s Terry and th<* Pirates,” observed Mary mildly but sh<* snapped it (T. “Well, dear? If it’s something scientific please talk slowly and us<* short words.”

“It has nothing t«> do with science,” said Kate. She pushed her hand through the maas of her hair; jabix-d t he other deep in her skirt pocket. She moved restl«*ssly about the room as she talked. Her face, usually calm and pale, looked siddly different. Mrs. Malone's <*y«*s took on a peculiar, alert hright mrss and she cocked her head well to one side to favor her good ear and miss not a word.

“Something very odd happened this morning,” Kate began. “It started with my firing the lab boy. Phineas Fletcher was angry with me for that and said 1 was inhuman. Inhuman! Of course it was emotional exaggeration . . . but it disturbed me that he should get emotional

at all . • . and over what he calls rny heart. Said I had none. Nobody likes to be called a monster! There’s nothing monstrous about a woman my age having three degrees, the Baxter prize and a pro-

fessor’s chair, is there?”

“No-o-o,” said Mary, listening keenly.

“But—I respect Fin. He’d apparently been thinking this about me for some time and it’s possible there’s some truth in it. 1 hate self-delusion. I’ve tried all my life to find the truth—why should I dodge the truth about

Love was like a problem in physics to Kate, until she found out that hearts are almost as destructive as atoms when they’re split

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myself? I thought about this all afternoon—not one stroke of work did I do. And I decided that Phineas was right. I've begun to fossilize by concentrating too much on abstractions . .

“For heaven’s sake, watch your language,” her mother said, anxiously.

“I mean it’s time I changed. The abnormal thing about me is that I m not married. Very well then: I shall marry. I must give more time to human relations and less to equations. I’ve worked it out. And got a satisfactory answer.”

“An answer?” said Mary, enquiringly. “Who is he?”

To her surprise Kate blushed a beautiful, deep color and looked away.

“1 don’t know what you'll think of this—I’ve never been remotely interested this way in a man before—and it’s difficult for me to know just how— well, this man came in, the dean’s secretary, you know—I’d met him before, of course. Last fall. His name is Martin Carr. He came into the lab today to tell me about a faculty meeting. I thought, first of all, of howwell, how nice he was to look at . . . tall and straight: smooth, dark hair, a nice grey suit . . . his voice is nice, too. He’s been on the stage. And after I’d been talking to him for a few minutes I decided Martin Carr would do.” “Do what, dear?”

“Why do to marry. He’s a bachelor, about my age, with a fair salary^. I should say a perfectly healthy and certainly good-looking specimen.” “Katy, for John’s sake!” cried her mother. “Not so fast! Are you eloping tonight? And does this young fellow guess your honorable intentions? Eh ? ’ Kate blushed again.

“No. Of course I didn’t tell him all my plans just yet. 1 didn’t think it would be sensible to speak of them right away.”

Mary shook her white head as if to clear it of a buzzing noise. “Go on back to where you were. Just what did you say to him?”

“Oh, I didn’t say very much at all.

I just smiled and made him welcome . . . I’ve always been a little abrupt with him until now, you see . . . but it was quite pleasant to sit and talk to him. I didn’t say one word about physics but got him to talk about his hobbies—poetry and music.” Here Kate sighed a little, involuntarily.

“And then?”

“Well, after half an hour or so, he said he really must be going; but as lie was obviously finding it hard to go I said “Why don’t you ask me out some evening, Mr. Carr?”

“Katy! You didn’t!”

“Certainly. Why not be perfectly honest about it? What on earth is there to hide? He said at once he’d he delighted. We’re going to His Majesty’s Thursday night.”

“Well, I’ll . . .” Mary began. After a glance at her daughter standing tall and lovely by the window, she changed her mind and said something quite different. “Well, my dear, it may work out perfectly.”

“Of course it will,” said Kate calmly. “If people would just apply a little foresight and logic to these things, they’d see at once how simple they are. The relationship between a man and a woman is a perfectly natural thing— not half so complex as it’s made out to he. In a way, Fin was right. I’ve been wrong to neglect it so long. Martin Carr is a very nice man I—I like him.” Suddenly, as if surprised at her own words, she turned and came close to her mother.

“No—of course it’s not a simple thing at all, is it? I’ve learned that already. Why am I frightened a little bit, all of a sudden? But 1 feel excited, too, and happy.” She paused a moment, then looked down with touching candor into Mary’s eyes.

“You see, 1 want so much to be a person that can be loved.”

Her mother’s eyes filled up with quick tears.

“I love you, my darling, though you probably never gave it a thought until now. I’d give anything to be with you Thursday night, invisible of course.”

MARTIN CARR did most of the talking as he drove Kate home from the theatre. He talked easily, with great self-confidence and a great deal, Kate thought as she listened to him.

But he had been excellent company. Kate felt her love affair was starting nicely. Martin seemed properly impressed by her white gown, the white film of a scarf Kate had thrown over her head as a concession to her new mood.

She felt happy about Martin; she felt grateful as the car drew up to her house.

“Thank you very much for taking me out,” she said. “It was wonderful to be with you.”

Martin thought it was very nice indeed being with Kate.

Then Kate asked him, “Do you like me, Martin?”

“Of course—of course I do. Very much.” He moved closer to her. “Very much, Kate.”

She sighed like a happy child. “I’m so glad. Please, Martin, will you kiss me before I go in?”

Martin did not mind at all. In fact his lips lingered so long over her mouth that Kate grew suddenly shy and frightened and drew away.

“When can I see you again?” said Martin.

“Why—any time ”

“Tomorrow night?”

“Of course.”

“I’ll come for you at eight.”

And he did. And their evening followed the pattern of the first. The time passed pleasantly until Kate asked him “How much money do you make, Martin?” and later “You haven’t any objection to married women working have you, Martin?” Kate was satisfied with his answers, delivered after a preliminary gulp. She felt they were getting along well, although there were times when Martin looked at her strangely.

So things went along for three weeks. Spring came to Montreal like a breath of air from paradise. The trees that arched above Sherbrooke St. wore a veil of the tenderest, mistlike green and the sky above Mount Royal was bright blue. Yellow daffodils shone in the gardens of Notre Dame de Grâce where Kate lived. The air was clear, fresh and sweet with the warmth of the sun. Kate was half giddy with the beauty she saw everywhere, as if for the first time. She marvelled at the smallest thing as though it were a miracle. There was a little smile always lingering about her mouth and sometimes—for no real reason—she would break into a peal of laughter.

Fin, on the other hand, was curiously grim and silent. Often his eye would rest on her with a mocking, puzzled expression; he was untidier than ever and had fits of irritation which he took out on George, who was back at work.

Then it ended. Suddenly like music it ended and Kate felt bereft and confused.

She was sitting at her desk the

morning after she quarreled with Martin and she heard Fin come into the lab.

“What, not working!” he said. “Fine example to the help you are, Doctor Malone, if I may make so bold.”

“He quarreled with me,” she told Fin slowly, as in a daze. “Over nothing. He said I was getting possessive. He said I said . . . queer things . . . and I was a queer person . . . and I just didn’t suit him. That’s what he said, Fin. I tried so—I wanted so much to—-I don’t know what I’m going to do!”

Fin sneezed irritably.

“My advice is to let him go. Be glad to get rid of him so easily. Let whoever’s caught him have him—and welcome.”

“It’s a little blonde called Jen Weaver,” said Kate tonelessly. “She works as a page in the library and she’s just barely literate.”

“And so is he, if you only knew it,” grunted Fin. He blew his nose resoundingly. “Go on: get to work, why don’t you? This thing isn’t any more serious than my cold is double pneumonia.”

Kate turned to him desperately, her eyes full of tears. She was vulnerable as only a hurt person can be, with no humor, no strength and no pride. “But Fin—I love him,” she said, helplessly.

He dragged up a stool to his table and set it down with a loud bang.

Kate waited a long time for him to speak and when he said nothing, she sat ' perfectly idle, as if she couldn’t think what to do next.

FOR the next few days Kate moved about in a stupor of unhappiness. This was her first experience of pain and she bore it courageously enough: but it left her with eyes, ears and mind for nothing but her own suffering. The effort of pride necessary to keep out of Martin’s way took all her strength. She would cry for hours in Mary’s arms; clung to her place in the lab, silently trying to absorb herself in formulas and graphs. Fin worked, grimly silent, at his own table. He grew more and more sullen and morose, bending his unruly brown head low over the apparatus like a sulky boy. Meanwhile his cold got steadily worse. When, one morning, he did not appear at all, Kate hardly thought twice about it, except to miss vaguely the stocky figure in the torn old smock.

But on the evening of the next day she was sitting at her desk looking blankly at the record of an experiment, when she really became aware of his absence for the first time. She looked up sharply, thinking she heard the door creak. For some reason she expected him to come in whistling and throw his hat on the hook. But no one was there; no one at all. Kate pushed back her chair. The room was empty and full of shadows. It was raining outside and the damp, cool air made her shiver. The evening sky was a leaden grey and the failing light seemed grev, too, as if it were the last night on earth. The building was perfectly silent—everyone had gone home. Once Kate would have been perfectly happy working here alone in the silence; now she felt a loneliness too great to be borne. She put on her coat, turned off the lights and locked up, quickly, suddenly eager to get home. It would be warm there; the lights would be bright. And Mary would be there with her warm brown eyes and her voice rich with affection.

But as she hurried down the drenched, shining road, Kate thought again of Fin with a sharp little stab of feeling. “I wonder if he’s all right?” she thought. “It’s not like him to stay

away. I’d better just drop in there . . .’’ And so she made a long detour around the campus to his apartment building. It was a dark, old-fashioned place with an elaborate buzzer system that never worked and a shaky elevator that worked only once in a while. At the end of a narrow hall, smelling of dust, she found Fin’s door and knocked on it sharply. There was no answer, even when she knocked again. An odd fear suddenly came over her. He must be there. And she opened the door and walked in.

“Fin, are you here?” After some blundering about, she found a light switch. The apartment was an indescribable mess. Clothes lay around on the furniture. There were pipes, books, a milk bottle, crumbs, funnypapers and a chess game on the floor. The air was thick and stuffy; a grittylayer of dust filmed everything. “Phineas!” she called again. There was a light burning in the bedroom and through the half-open door she could see the heaped-up confusion of an unmade bed. Going closer she saw that Fin’s tousled head was half submerged in the blankets and that his blue eyes were regarding her with distrust.

“Fin, for goodness’ sake! Are you ill? Why didn’t you answer me?”

“Not speaking to you,” croaked Fin. He was flushed with a high fever, she saw, and his face was puffy with sickness and sleep. He breathed with difficulty, harshly, his bright eyes fixed on her as if in mockery. Kate said nothingmore but rummaged until she found a thermometer and grimly put it in his mouth. While she waited the three minutes, the silence and emptiness of thfe dirty rooms struck her like a blow. “He’s been here two whole days alone,” she thought. “And I never . . .”

The mercury stood at 104J^.

Kate immediately took off her coat and advanced on the bed with angry efficiency. Somehow it made her feel better to be angry. “You’re a fool, Fin Fletcher, to neglect a cold like this. Why on earth didn’t you let someone know you were sick? Well—where

are the clean sheets? This room’s like an old mouse nest! When did you eat last? Have you had the doctor? What’s his name? Is there any milk in the house—or eggs? What are you doing for that congestion—if anything? And when was this house cleaned last?”

Thus scolding and harrying, Kate reduced the room, the bed and Fin to order and cleanliness. It took her nearly two hours, but at last Fin laydrowsing, full of eggnog and sulfa drugs, between clean sheets, even his tousled hair combed. Kate’s temper had remained in high gear all this time. For the rest of that night she cleaned and mopped and brushed and beat eggs and goaded pills down the patient’s throat. She phoned Mary and said with temper that she was taking care of a beachcomber and wouldn’t be home. “Which of our friends d’you mean, dear?” asked Mary. “Fin Fletcher, of course,” said Kate.

“Oh, I see. You must be awfully tired, dear . . . can’t ycu leave him to some other Girl Guide?”

“No,” was the curt answer. But just before Kate hur.g up, she thought she beard Mary give a sudden, chortling laugh.

Fin was a difficult patient, restless and rebellious.

“Let me be sick in peace,” he said hoarsely. “Quit making me healthy and miserable. Go away. Stop bullying me. Kate the Shrew, that’s you. Lemme alone.”

Then he would roll over and throw off the blankets, grumbling that he

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was too hot; or try to sit up. Kate had a difficult time, of it until later next morning when his fever suddenly broke and he fell into a deep, easy sleep. Then relief and weariness combined made her tremble so she had to sit down. “You—” she said grimly to the sleeping figure on the bed. “You’ve aged me twenty years in a single night!” But the feeling of accomplishment was so warming that she walked home oblivious of the rain. And it wasn’t until she got home again that Kate remembered to be unhappy.

FIN convalescent was, if anything, harder to deal with than Fin delirious. He developed—Kate considered out of pure cussed ness—a soulracking cough. He did insane things like standing in front of an open window in nothing but his pyjamas, so that she had to stand guard over him a great deal of the time. And was he grateful? Not Fin. On the contrary, he glowered moodily and never spoke a civil, much less a grateful word to her. Indeed, he frequently invited her to go home, leave him alone and mind her own business. Kate, sewing buttons on his shirts, paid no attention. A new tranquillity sat on her—a gentleness, as of maturity. She looked after Phineas, worked at the lab and in his apartment, and cried no more on Mary’s plump shoulder.

But there came a day, a fortnight later, when Fin was more outrageous than ever and was no longer ill enough to be excused. He was well enough t > sit up in an armchair with a rug over his knees, light a pipe and stare at Kate with blue eyes that had all their old vitality. His stare was so fiercely hostile that she moved uncomfortably.

“What ever became of Martin Carr?” he asked suddenly.

“He’s around ... 1 suppose. 1 don’t see him. You know what happened.” She flushed painfully.

“No. What did happen?”

Kate knit her fingers together tightly over her book. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Well, I do!” shouted Fin with sudden vigor. “Go on; tell me. What did happen?”

“I loved him,” she said with painful honesty. Then all at once anger made her heart drum. What right had Fin Fletcher to look at her like that, with those impudent, searching eyes?

“Go on.”

“He didn’t love me,” she said, calming herself with an effort. “He loft me for someone else. I lost him.”

“And -what’s the news about the ' broken heart?”

"It healed,” she said quietly. With a steady hand she turned the page of her ! book. Her face was now perfectly ! calm and unreadable.

"If I come over there, my girl—” said Fin in a low, dangerous voice.

“What is it you want to know, Fin? | Why do you keep trying to make me angry? You tried to make me into a different person; 1 did all 1 could to be different—and the man 1 wanted didn't like me. He wanted something different again. I guess you could go on changingforever to suit everybody’s taste. I’m going to concentrate on being myself, from now on, and people will just have to accept me as is. I’ve found mv work again. I’m quite happy. Everything is just as it was before you undertook to reform me.”

“Kate, do you really think there’s' | such a thing as going back? That anything stays the same? Do you mean to sit there and tell me that the last few months haven’t changed you?”

“Not a bit.”

“You’re a liar. You’ve learned hew to laugh and how to cry. And developed a temper. All changes for the better, I’d say. I have hopes for you yet.”

Kate snapped shut her book and rose to go, but without haste. “Don’t forget your pills at six,” she said coolly.

“I think I’ll drop in at the lab for an hour or so—got something interesting under way. You’ll be all right here j alone.”

She put on her coat and tidied the I room a little before leaving. Fin said nothing. She turned at the door finally and said “Good night,” but he didn’t answer. Somehow she couldn’t turn her back on him and go. His silence j held her like a strong and urgent embrace. The excitement she had been trying to suppress rose in a warm tide j of blood, burning her cheeks.

“Gome over here,” he said. Slowly ¡ she went over to his chair. “So—you | haven’t changed, eh?” he said. A | bright gleam of humor and tenderness made his eyes twinkle. He got to his feet, kicking away the rug about his knees. “So—you’re a machine again, eh? A robot? We’ll see about, that.”

He pulled her into his arms and laid his mouth hard on hers. She resisted at first; then suddenly yielded. A joy with sadness at its core made tears roll down her cheeks. She clung to him blindly. When he would let her speak, she said breathlessly. “Oh, Fin! It is like an equation, don’t you see? One j and one—make one.” it