To Walk the Night
‘The form in which this narrative is cast must necessarily be an arbitrary one. In the main it follows the story pieced together by Dr Lister and myself as we sat on the
terrace of his Long Island house one night in the summer of 193–. But in retelling it I have not tried to follow exactly the wording of our conversation. To do so would leave many things obscure to readers who did not know Selena, Jerry, and the rest of us. Therefore I have allowed myself the liberties of adding certain descriptions of people and places, and of attempting to suggest now and again the atmosphere of strangeness, even of terror, which was so much a part of my life while these events were in progress.
My belief is that this story is unlikely to attract much attention. Essentially it is concerned with people whose very names, with one exception, are unknown to the general public. One of them is now dead and another is alive merely in the physical sense of the word. The evidence which I can bring forward in support of its truth is almost wholly indirect, and psychological rather than circumstantial.
With some hesitation I submitted galley proofs of this book to Alan Parsons, who worked on the LeNormand case from its beginning. The letter he sent in reply is confidential, and I am not free to print it here. Thanks, however, to valuable suggestions from him the presentation of the facts has been revised in several places, and where my narrative touches upon the evidence in the official records it is at least accurate. Its interpretation, of course, is entirely Dr Lister’s and mine. What Parsons may have thought of it I cannot tell for certain. But some weeks ago, in making a final check on the transcripts of parts of the evidence, I went to his office at New Zion. When his secretary brought me the case folders I observed that she took them out of a file drawer labeled “closed.”
I am not sure that it is wise to make this story a matter of public record. Dr Lister and I have hesitated before doing so. Our ultimate decision is based upon the belief that it is never expedient to suppress the truth. We do not expect it to secure immediate acceptance. There are some experiences which are alien to everyday life; they are “doomed for a certain term to walk the night” before the mind of man either recognizes them for what they are or dismisses their appearance as fantasy.’
Berkeley M. Jones
Long Island, 1954
And mind alone is never whole,
But needs the body for a soul.
– Struthers Burt: Pack-Trip: Suite
Chapter One: End of Evening
THE driveway began to dip to the long pitch of the bluff. The old taxi lumbered around curves and dropped heavily down the slope, its tires making a strong, harsh noise as they rolled over the gravel. The sound told me, without my having to open my eyes, how close we were to the house. Only a minute more to lie back in the refuge of this dilapidated sedan and be carried along without effort and without thought. Then the narcotic of traveling, of surrendering myself to the mere forward motion of train and automobile, would wear off. For twenty-five hundred miles and three days I had tried to imagine what I would do when the wheels under me stopped rolling and I should have to rouse myself to action.
The air coming through the open window was already fresher, with a coolness in it from Long Island Sound. Reluctantly I propped myself upright in a corner of the back seat and looked out. We were within a few hundred yards of the house. There was a glitter of water, darkened to the color of blued steel, shining between the stems of the trees. Fireflies were beginning to show in the laurels on each side of the road, and the birches had taken on a twilight glimmer. Almost there. I wanted to tell the driver to slow down, that I was not ready to have the journey end yet. Instead, I straightened my tie and rubbed some of the dust off my shoes.
We swung round the last bend and left the trees behind us. The familiar outline of the house was black against the sudden sweep of the Sound and there was no light in the windows on the landward side. Even the bulb under the porte-cochere was dark. After all, there was no reason why it should be lighted to receive me. What I had come to tell Jerry’s father did not require light or welcome. Always before, when I had come here, there had been radiance in the windows and eagerness in my own thoughts. The impassive face of the building tonight was actually welcome because it did not remind me so much of those other times.
The car ground to a halt in front of the door. Thomas must have been listening on the other side of it. He came out at once. A flood of thin yellow light spilled across the narrow porch, blotched waveringly by his shadow as he came down the two alighting steps. The way he walked, with the stiff carefulness of an old man, startled me; I did not remember him like this. His butler’s coat, made for him by Dr Lister’s own tailor, did not fit him any more, and the stoop in his carriage was new too. Seeing him come out to meet me made the whole thing more real and less tolerable. My throat thickened, and I did not trust myself to speak for some seconds while I paid off the driver and hauled my bag out of the car. My muscles, I saw, were almost too weary to obey orders, and I heard myself grunt as I tugged at my suitcase.
“Hello, Thomas,” I said, and my voice sounded harsh and rusty.
“Mr Berkeley, sir,” he replied, giving my name the English pronunciation. Even in the shadows of the porch I could see how still and gray his face was, how carefully he had composed the lines at his mouth and eyes to betray no emotion. His appearance shocked me; the picture of Thomas in my mind was of another man entirely, a younger, straighter man with the laughter in his eyes only partly concealed by a professional decorum. Thomas—the Thomas that I had grown up with—was only incidentally a butler. He was a tall, brown man who could handle a jib sheet like a sailor and shoot tin cans in the air with a revolver. He was the companion of Jerry’s boyhood and mine, the man from whom we had learned how to ride and fish and swim. The Thomas in my mind seemed to have no connection with this tired old man who was carrying my bag with a perceptible effort. I wondered if my own face was as changed as his. Did I look twenty years older?
As we crossed the porch I could not keep from staggering. There was no sensation at all in my legs, and walking was a laborious, conscious process.
“Steady,” I heard Thomas’s low voice behind me.
“I’m all right.”
“Yes, sir. Of course.”
The hall was cool and empty. Most of the rugs had been taken up for summer and the dark oak floor glowed somberly under the wall lights. To the left a broad, heavily banistered stair curved up and away into the dark, but on the right the hall continued clear across the house to a pair of big double doors. Beyond them I had a glimpse of the reach of the Sound and the color of the sunset. As I always did when I entered it, I thought again what a good house this was, full of comfortably large furniture and a sense of space. Women sometimes said that it was like a club, but we never minded that. We liked its dignity and its impersonality, and the absence of any feminine influence—no woman lived in it and there was no reason why it should look as if one did.
Thomas switched on the stair lights. “We have given you your old room, sir,” he said, and began slowly to carry up my bag.
“But,” I began to object, “doesn’t he want to see me right away?”
“The Doctor is on the terrace, Mr Berkeley. He thought you would prefer to wash and change before—” He left the sentence uncompleted, but I understood what he meant. He had been about to say, “before you go out to tell him about his son’s death.”
I followed Thomas up the stairs, heavily and without any further protest. Under my hand the banister was smooth and solid. Jerry and I slid down it, I remembered, the first night I had ever come here. Nothing was changed except Thomas. The house maintained its air of stability and peace, and even in the stupor of grief and weariness in which I was I felt again the old sense of belonging to it. We went down the upstairs corridor to the familiar door.
Thomas opened it and switched on the lights in the room beyond. “Home again, sir,” he said, and swallowed.
He was right. This low, wide room with its windows looking over the water, its dark-blue leather easy chair, its broad walnut bed, the huge old desk in one corner, and its shelves and shelves of books was my real home, much more so than any of the guest rooms in which I always had to stay when I visited Grace and her husband. Grace is my mother, and she and her second husband, Fred Mallard, have lived for the past fifteen years in a succession of smart, theatrically-furnished apartments which never contained a real place for me. So, when I used to come home from school, and later college, I simply occupied the guest room and was treated almost as a guest too, except for Grace’s infrequent attacks of maternal tenderness.
After Jerry and I became such fast friends, Dr Lister practically adopted me as a second son. I spent more time in the house on Long Island than I did with my mother, and she was visibly relieved to have me off her hands. Grace was grateful to Jerry’s father for taking an interest in me, and not in a wholly selfish way. She admitted that she and Fred were not the sort of people who ought to have children dependent on them and she knew that I needed a certain feeling of security and stability that her way of life could never provide.
The room to which I now came had been mine ever since the summer after Jerry’s and my third-form year at prep school. We had arrived at the house full of excitement and plans for the summer to find that Dr Lister had done over two upstairs rooms, put a bath between them, and furnished them specially for us. When he showed me mine he said: “This is your room. You can do anything you like in it provided you keep it neat. When you aren’t here, nobody else will be allowed to use it.”
I had stammered out some sort of thanks, interrupted by a whoop as Jerry came bursting through the connecting door.
“Hey, Bark! Isn’t this somepin?”
But it was more than “somepin” to me—it was what I had always wanted: a place that was securely my own and that would remain so no matter how many times Grace moved from apartment to apartment. I had grown up in this room.
Thomas began to unpack my bag. That was familiar too; he had done the same thing a hundred times before. Even in the stupor which dulled me I saw him give the customary glance of inspection to each shirt and pair of socks before putting it away, a habit he’d got into when he first learned what school laundries do to buttons and fabric. The silence between us contained no unspoken question. I knew that he did not expect me to say anything to him, to tell him the things that had happened. Like myself, he was trying not to think. Slowly and heavily I began to undress.
When I glanced at him next he had stopped taking out my clothes and was holding to the footboard of the bed, looking down into the suitcase and shaking a little. I knew at once what he had come upon and went over and lifted it out myself. It was the silver vase which Jerry and I had found one summer in a Paris antique shop and brought home because we wanted it more than anything else we’d seen abroad. The metal felt cold and heavy in my hand, and the silver curves of the thing reflected the lights and the room in a sliding jumble of distorted images. For a second I hated it. And yet it was a beautiful thing, with a flawless six-inch replica of the Winged Victory on its lid and the long Greek lines of the vase body flowing into the base.
I carried it across the room and set it on the wide window ledge. The goddess strained exultantly forward toward the darkening Sound and the wide spaces of the evening sky. Under her feet, in the hollow breast of the vase, was a double-handful of white crystalline ashes. Thomas must have guessed that I would choose our silver urn to hold Jerry’s ashes.
“I’ll leave it there until we decide,” I said.
“Yes, sir.” He went on with his unpacking. “Have you had your dinner, Mr Berkeley?”
“I had something in the station. I’m not hungry.”
He nodded, snapped the bag shut, and stowed it in the closet. “I’ll start the shower, sir. Will you have it hot?”
“No,” I said. “Lukewarm.”
“Yes, that’s best in hot weather.” He disappeared into the bathroom.
I finished my undressing, hardly able to focus my attention on what I was doing. When you haven’t slept except in snatches for several days things begin to seem unreal. My memory was flashing disconnected pictures in front of my eyes and some of them were more real than the four walls of the room. They were pictures that I did not want to look at, but they came to me in steady succession in spite of myself. What would it be like, I wondered, if I tried to go to sleep tonight? How many of these images would I have to look at again and again before they faded into blackness? Even on the edge of exhaustion, as I was, I dreaded the thought of shutting my eyes.
The shower felt good. The feel of the water running down over my skin was enough physical pleasure to stop me from thinking very much, and it was comfortable to be clean again after three days on the train. The rush and patter of the water began to put tag ends of songs into my mind:
I’ll have a rendezvous
With you. . . .
No, that was not a good song. There would be no rendezvous again for Jerry and me. Try something else:
Soft o’er the fountain
Lingering falls the southern moon,
Far o’er the mountain—
“Far o’er the mountain!” Far over the looming cliff of Cloud Mesa with the white adobe house in the shadow by the spring! That was something else I did not want to think about. Songs were no good. I turned off the water and dried myself slowly. The more I hurried the sooner I’d be talking to Dr Lister.
Thomas had laid out flannels, a soft white shirt, and one of the club blazers Jerry and I wore when we sat on the terrace and drank and looked at the water and the summer night. We used to do that often when there wasn’t a dance at the club and we didn’t feel like going for a drive. I slipped into the clothes, grateful for their cool cleanness, combed my hair, put pipe, tobacco pouch, and matches into my pocket, and started down the hall.
The routine of doing pleasant, familiar things had made the past half hour endurable, but it deserted me part way down the stairs. The worst moment of all was coming now, and I knew it. Jerry’s lather was waiting for me on the terrace, waiting to hear the story I had to tell him. I had no fear of that; he was equal to anything that could happen to him. I never knew a man who had such mastery over himself as Dr Lister. Even when I told him that his son had shot himself there would be no crevice in his armor. And because I was almost as much his own son as Jerry had been it would be easier for both of us.
What I was afraid of was something quite different. It was not the telling of the facts about Jerry’s death that would be difficult. Somehow I had to give them to him without making him begin to think. I must present my story in such a way as to make it seem natural, and it wasn’t natural. It was, on the surface, tragically unreasonable and inexplicable. The idea of suicide did not belong to Jerry’s character, and Dr Lister would know that as well as I did. The first question he would ask would be, why? As I went down the stairs I wondered how I was going to answer that question without telling him at least a part of the things that I had come to know and believe.
There was danger in that. The things he would want to know could not be stated in terms of tangible facts, of events and people shaped into a recognizable pattern. For the first time I admitted to myself that there was a possibility of connection between small, disturbing things in the past and the present fact of Jerry’s death. What that common denominator was I did not know, but I was certain that I did not want to find it out. Merely admitting its existence gave me a feeling of tightness inside that was familiar. It was, I realized, fear. And fear of a shapeless, misty thought that was as insubstantial as a ghost.
But Dr Lister would not believe in ghosts. I did not myself, for that matter. I must tell my story matter-of-factly, as if that shadow in the corner of my mind did not exist. That was all. I must not make him feel, as I did, that something horrible lay behind what I said. It could be dangerous to let him begin to sort and arrange the elements of the past so that he, too, thought he saw a ghost and began to think back, selecting here a fact and there an overtone, weighing one trifle of evidence against another until he had a complete story.
The pieces of the puzzle were all lying in my mind, of so much I was sure. I felt that if I looked at them, thought about them, they would slip together into a picture of the truth, and the feeling frightened me. My conscious mind rejected the idea of knowing or thinking anything more about the events of the past two years. But Dr Lister would not consent to that, once started. He would want to get down to the bedrock of the truth. Donne’s tremendous lines went through my mind:
Whoever comes to shroud me, do not harm
Nor question much
That subtle wreath of hair about mine arm;
The mystery, the sign you must not touch—
When we shrouded Jerry in our talk tonight we must not question much. He had been unhappy, his marriage had not turned out to be what he had hoped from it, and he had shot himself. Those were the bald facts. If there was anything behind them, it had best stay in the shadows. I would tell my story carefully, as nearly within the bounds of truth as I could, but suppressing some things. It would not be wise, for example, to say that she had been in the room when Jerry picked the gun out of the drawer and … I was tired too, my own mind not entirely clear. I should have to be very careful.
The double doors at the end of the hall were still open. I stepped out on the terrace. Below the balustrade the land sloped down in a long sweep of grass to the beach and the waves on the sand. Framing the lawn on either side, the trees were heavy clusters of black shadow against the sky. By now the lower air was full of the silent sparks of fireflies. There was no wind at all. Almost in the zenith, the great constellation of Scorpio sprawled across the sky, and as I saw it I remembered another time when I had stood under the stars, and another smell quite different from that of the flowers blooming under the balustrade.
Jerry’s father was sitting at the white iron garden table to my right. In the middle of it was a candle in a hurricane lamp socket, a tall bottle of sherry, and two glasses. The gleam of the candle picked out the crisp whiteness of his hair and shadowed the sockets of his eyes. I could see no sign of sorrow in his posture; he sat as erect as always with one arm stretched before him across the tabletop and the brown fingers of his surgeon’s hand holding one of the glasses. It was his habit in summer, at the end of evening, to sit out here drinking sherry, and he was doing it tonight. There was something admirable in the fact that he had made no exception of this one evening, and the usualness of it steadied me. I went across the stone flagging and sat down opposite him at the table.
“Hello, Bark,” he said, and smiled.
“Hello, dad.” He liked me to call him that.
“Your trip must have been hot and uncomfortable, this time of year,” he said, pouring me a glass of sherry. His hand, like his voice, was entirely steady.
I lifted the glass and looked through the wine at the flame of the candle. “Yes.” The sherry was noble, neither dry nor sweet and with a fine, full body. “This is good stuff.”
“The best. How are you feeling?”
“Tired. I couldn’t get a plane reservation.”
He looked at me. “We can talk about this thing in the morning. Don’t feel you have to speak of it now.”
“Thanks.” He said nothing more but continued to look at my face as if trying to read it. I avoided his eyes and told him, “The ashes are here, in the silver vase. I thought he’d like to have them in it.”
“That was good of you.”
In the silence that lay between us I heard the bumbling of an insect against the glass of the lamp and the faint slither of water moving on the beach below us. He was expecting me to speak, and I knew that I ought to say something to help him and to lessen the torment of his waiting. But there was nothing to say except “Jerry’s dead, and I’ve brought his ashes back to you in the silver vase.” My mind was empty—the least word of thought echoed hollowly in it.
“Don’t try to talk, Bark. Sit here with me a few minutes and then we’ll go up to bed.”
I made an immense effort of will. “It happened the day after I got out there. In the evening, a little earlier than this. I didn’t tell you the whole story in my telegram. He … he shot himself.”
What he said next contained the whole quality of his character. “So. I wondered what sort of accident it was.”
“That was it,” I said.
He was quiet for a while. When he spoke next his voice was remote, detached. “Tell me how it happened.”
This was the danger point, I told myself. What I said now would either satisfy him or set him on the track of the mystery I was resolved he should not think about at all. “He went into the little study. After a few minutes we heard the shot. He was lying across the desk. The gun was on the floor beside him. We couldn’t do anything for him.”
“She and I.”
“I see.” He took a careful sip of wine. “And there was no letter, no note? He didn’t write anything to explain?”
“No.” I didn’t want him to think about that, so I went on quickly. “I got his body into the car, and drove to Los Palos. As soon as I was through with the undertaker and the coroner I caught the train home.”
“What about her?”
That was another question I didn’t want him to raise. “I don’t know.”
“Did she drive in to Los Palos with you?”
“You didn’t just leave her in the house?”
I looked squarely into his eyes and said, “When I was ready to leave, she wasn’t in the house.”
He was puzzled, I could see, and I was aware in some subtle way that he was beginning to doubt something in my story. “You didn’t see her again, then?”
“That is strange. Very strange, and not quite like you, either, Bark.” He paused. “Do you know where she is now?”
“Look here, my boy,” he said finally, “I have somehow got the impression …”
“There’s no impression to get, dad. I don’t know where she was when I left, the house, but I think she had gone up to the top of the mesa. I didn’t know when she would come back, and I couldn’t wait. She’ll be all right. The sheriff’s men drove the car back to the house. She can come away any time she wants to.”
He was staring out over the water, the clean outline of his profile with its high, thin nose and jutting chin stamped out in dull bronze against the night. I recognized the expression on his face, the sureness of his look, the calm determination in the set of his mouth. It was the way he looked when he performed a difficult operation.
“Bark,” he said finally, “are you in love with Selena yourself?”
The question shocked me, it was so wide of the mark. “God, no!”
“But you are afraid of something. I wondered if you were afraid of falling in love with Jerry’s wife.”
“I’ve never felt that way about her for a moment.”
“Then,” he said, “I used to think you might be afraid for Jerry. That you had some intuition it would end like this. Was that it?”
I was grateful for the opening, the chance to give a logical excuse for the feeling he had managed to detect in me. “Yes,” I said, “I was afraid of that.”
He withdrew his eyes from the dark stretches of the Sound and looked full at me. “Then why are you still afraid? It has happened, as you feared it might. What else is there still to dread?”
“Nothing,” I replied without meeting his eyes.
“You ran away from her. I don’t understand that.”
“Jerry told me she often went up to the mesa at night, alone. I left her because I thought that was the best way. I think she wanted me to leave her.”
He said, “I see,” in a tone entirely empty of conviction. Then, after a while, in a low voice and half to himself: “I cannot believe that a son of mine would commit suicide. Even if he was not happy with his wife.” For the first time his voice trembled slightly.
“Don’t think about it.” And then, knowing how his pride and his conviction of Jerry’s fineness were being humbled, I said without thinking, “And you’ve got to understand that what he did was not cowardly.“
“Killing yourself is not a brave business.” There was nothing I could say to that; it was a part of his own creed, and it was, I could have sworn, no less a part of Jerry’s. He went on, slowly, to himself, “I should have expected some word from him—” For one instant the discipline of his face relaxed, and the grief and despair in his heart looked out at me.
“Don’t,” I cried, “don’t! He did think of you. There wasn’t time—” and stopped, appalled.
He took me up instantly. “You haven’t told me everything!”
“No, not everything.”
“Was he killed?” I didn’t say anything, and he pressed me relentlessly. “Was he murdered? Did she kill him?” All the violence of his emotions, so sternly repressed up to now, was in the questions.
“No,” I told him, “he shot himself. I saw him do it.”
“Ah,” he said, quietly again. “You were in the room?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“And she was there too.” It was a statement, not a question.
“Yes.” I added nothing more.
He paused and watched me. When he spoke, his voice was gentle. “Will you tell me the whole story, now?”
“It wouldn’t do any good, dad, and it might do a lot of harm. The facts are the only things that matter, and I’ve told you those. I’m not holding anything really important back. Don’t ask me any more questions, for God’s sake.”
He looked at me quietly, and as happened between us sometimes, I knew what he was thinking. He expected me to remember the fifteen years that the three of us had been together and come to realize that I must share with him whatever knowledge about this thing I had. Relying with such conviction on those years, on the tradition of absolute trust among the three of us, on a thousand inescapable ties, he was sure that I would tell him the rest of it. But he did not know what he had to fight against. No anxiety to spare him or myself was holding me silent. It was, I admitted to myself, fear, and fear of an intangible something too slight to formulate in words. What exactly I was afraid to say I could not tell, but I understood that once I began to talk about it to him it would become more definite and more horrible. Instinct told me that the less shape I gave that shadow the better for both of us. And if, by keeping silent, I had to forfeit his confidence and spoil a relationship that mattered deeply to me, that was nevertheless the smaller evil. I filled my pipe and lighted it, and I did not speak.
The thing that broke my resolve was so trivial and fortuitous that I was not on guard against it. The absolute quiet that surrounded us was broken by the click! click! click! of a dog’s nails tapping on the slates of the terrace. Beyond Dr Lister, in the penumbra of the candle glow was a patch of familiar blackness. It came toward me gravely and joyfully, tail wagging and one crimson triangle of tongue lolling out. Boojum, Jerry’s Scotty. With dignified eagerness he crossed the terrace and came to my chair. Sedately he sat up and put one black paw against my thigh; his head was cocked to one side and his eyes were bright. It seemed to me that there was the inevitable question in them, and something hot rose in my throat. I put my hand on the rough hair of his skull and scratched him in the hollows behind his ears. He whined.
I tried to say “Boojum!” and couldn’t.
Dr Lister stirred in his chair. “You can’t do it, Bark. I don’t know what it is you haven’t told me yet, but nothing will be right until you do.”
My resolution crumbled. Jerry had been my best friend. To let his father go on believing that he had causelessly, in a moment of insanity, shot himself was utterly unjust to him. And yet, even as I began to speak the sort of quick stab went through me that comes when you realize that you have made an irreparable mistake.
“There’s something behind it,” I said, “and I don’t know what it is, but I know it’s there.”
“What sort of thing?” he asked me.
“That’s what I don’t know. But Jerry found out, and once he knew it he killed himself. I’ve been afraid to think about it, and I still am. It’s not an ordinary thing. It’s connected with her, and with LeNormand, and with all sorts of things that have happened the last two years.”
He said, “If it will explain why my son committed suicide, I want to hear it. And if it’s any question of justice—“
“No, it’s not a question of justice.”
“Or even”—and there was steel in his tone— “of revenge—”
I looked up at the night above us, studded innumerably with stars. “You can’t revenge yourself,” I told him. “Here’s the way it was.”
Boojum lay down across my feet as I talked; his body trembled slighlly, like a car with an idling motor, as he panted. Dr Lister listened, leaning forward and twirling the glass with its topaz wine between his long fingers. The night was a vault that shut us in and swallowed my words as I spoke them.
I told him just what had happened when Jerry died. He heard me out with no sign of the agony it must have been for him. Only his face grew stiller, more sharply etched, and the glass in his hands revolved more and more slowly. I left out nothing, from the time I caught the Century out of New York to my return, except one thing that would mean nothing to anyone except me. I even told him my thoughts on the staircase coming down from my room, and of my fear.
“And you haven’t defined this thing you are afraid of, even to yourself?” he asked me when I had finished.
“No,” I answered.
He took a sip of wine. “Between us we ought to be able to understand it, if we think about it a little.”
“I don’t want to think about it any more.”
“Then it will go on festering in your mind, and in mine as well. I’ll always wonder if you could not have told me something more that would . . . that would make this thing less intolerable.”
I said, “I don’t want to die. Jerry thought this thing through, and that’s why he’s not alive now.”
He leaned forward, put his hand on mine for a brief second, and asked me, “Just what do you think living is for?”
For him, perhaps for me, it was a fundamental question. Dr Lister based his whole life on integrity and he had taught me to do the same thing. Integrity of mind, of will, of loyalty to the people one loved. He believed that the purpose of life was to live it well; unless he could explain to himself why Jerry had committed suicide, there would be, for him, a stain on his honor. I thought of a time when he had turned to me during one of the talks the three of us used to have about life and death and time and humanity and all the incomprehensible generalities and said, gravely, “The one unforgivable fault is weakness.”
And now it appeared to him that his only son had done a weak and dishonorable thing. The foundations of his life were attacked by that act—everything he lived by and had taught his son to cherish was smirched by it, put into question. There was nothing in life so important, now, as to probe into the motives behind Jerry’s action and find there the honor and courage that his instinct told him must be behind the immediate fact.
It was not so easy for me. Although I loved Jerry and his father more than any two people on earth, I was not of quite the same breed. It is not necessary for me to know that every action of the people I belong with is founded on honor and courage. I think you have to be born into the aristocratic, Spartan mind, and I was not. There is an easygoing, friendly, perhaps insubstantial strain in my family that is a part of me. But more immediate than my heritage was the memory of two days and two nights under Cloud Mesa. I had told Dr Lister the story of what happened during them, very much as it is set down in this narrative in a later chapter, but I could not translate to him the odd, tight tone of Jerry’s voice—a tone I had never heard before from him in spite of the dangerous moments we had shared—nor the calm, impersonal regret in Selena’s eyes. I wondered if she was at that very minute on the flat tabletop of the enormous mesa, looking up at the western stars. And if she was, what was in her heart? As I imagined her there, a curious feeling of alarm went through me. Perhaps she was imagining me here in her mind, putting out the fingers of that damnable intelligence of hers to touch the stuff of my own brain. A prickle went along my spine at the thought. I did not want her to be thinking about me in any way.
Dr Lister’s question was still heavy in the air between us. I had not answered it. If there was any point for me in the process of living, it lay in my relationships with people who were close to me, and if I was to preserve the one most important to me of all I should have to tell him everything I knew, put each separate piece of the puzzle before him. And then the nameless fear in my mind would have a name, and what would happen after that I couldn’t even guess.
“All right,” I said with despair and fear in my heart. “I’ll tell you the rest of it.”
He smiled. “Good. I knew you would.” He took out a cigarette, lit it, and poured each of us another glass of the sherry. “Whatever it is you’re afraid of, we’ll find the answer to it. There’s nothing the human intelligence, properly applied, can’t cope with.”
I tried to put behind my words all the conviction I felt. “Oh, yes, there is. Your intelligence won’t be able to do much with this business, if it is what I think. This isn’t a detective story or a problem of deduction.”
He looked puzzled. “Well, I don’t know what you mean. But I think I have an idea—”
“Don’t think,” I told him. “Thinking won’t get you anywhere. Don’t refer what I say to any system of logic or to your scientific training. I’m certain of one thing. The answer we are looking for doesn’t lie in anything you—or I—know. Maybe it’s in what we don’t know. And perhaps there isn’t any answer.”
He said quietly, “We’ll see.”
“Yes,” I answered. “We’ll see. But not with logic. We tried before to solve LeNormand’s death with our minds, and we failed. You know that. Now you want to know why your son killed himself. It’s the one thing on earth that I never want to know. But I’ll help you if I can. Whatever it is, Jerry found it out, and not by thinking.“
His look was a question.
“He found out,” I said brutally, “by living with it.”
“Ah.” His fingers tightened on the stem of the glass. “Then it did all start with their marriage?”
“No. Before that.”
He nodded. “When they met, then.”
“The day before that.” I settled myself in my chair and put a fresh match to my pipe. “The day almost two years ago when Jerry and I drove down to the State game.”
And as I began to tell him about that a cold finality settled upon my mind. Whatever the end, it was inevitable now.
Chapter Two: Autumn Weekend
“THIS looks good enough.”
“Sure,” I agreed.
Jerry cut the car off the edge of the concrete and into the mouth of a lane that ran back between scrubby thickets of second-growth trees. A few yards in was a battered sign that said:
TO ADATH JESHURUN CEMETERY
“You have a cheerful taste in picnic grounds,” I observed.
He grinned. “It’ll be quiet.” There was a sort of turnaround in a clearing; we swung into it, and he cut the motor and ratched up the emergency. “Is this okay, or do you want to go clear in and look at the monuments?”
Getting out of the car, my legs were stiff. It had been a long drive, and cold. “Do they have monuments?”
“Damned if I know.” He handed out the cardboard box of sandwiches.
There were four sandwiches and a couple of hard-boiled eggs in it. I lifted the lid of the luggage compartment and laid them out on the inside deck. Jerry was still rummaging in the compartment behind the seat. In a moment he produced a fifth of Scotch, two or three bottles of White Rock, and a couple of paper cups. I set them out beside the sandwiches. The whole display looked attractive.
“We ought to photograph that and send it in to Esquire,” I suggested. “The smart picnic for young graduates returning to their alma maters for football games.”
“I don’t want to photograph it, I want to eat it and drink it, right now.” He poured out two stiff ones in the Lily cups, and splashed in a little White Rock. “God, it’s cold. This ought to be good for what ails us.”
We touched the rims of the cups together. “Well,” I said, “here’s to ’em.”
“And to hell with State.”
The Scotch was good, warm all the way down.
We sat on the rear bumper and began on the sandwiches, talking about the team between swallows. A raw November wind was rustling around in the bushes like a rat in a packing case. Even at noon, and with the sun shining, it was cold. After a while we didn’t notice it so much, and by the time the Scotch was all gone we felt a whole lot better. We agreed that State was going to be tough, but Morten-son, our right half, would be the best back on the field, and our line was sure to be stronger. Jerry thought we’d win by four touchdowns; I wasn’t so sure. Anyway, it was going to be a great game. After a while we stuck the empty bottle and the box and papers into a pile of brush and got back into the car.
“Good-by, folks,” said Jerry, nodding up the road. “Sorry you can’t come with us.” He swung the big car around with a rush and we headed on toward the game. The Scotch inside us was fine; it was a fine day. Everything was fine. We sang “The Best Old Place of All” at the top of our lungs. The road went away under the tires in a slipstream of blurred gray.
By and by we saw the towers come up against the sky. Drunk or sober, I love that place, and it always makes a lump in my throat to see those sharp Gothic pinnacles notch up above the trees. Neither of us had been back in the two years since graduation, and I suppose we got sentimental about the fact. Then we were in the midst of traffic, and everything began to feel like a football game. We had to park half a mile from the stadium, and by the time we got to the portal the exercise of walking, and the cold air, had reduced the effects of the Scotch to a pleasant glow.
There was the usual push and jostle around the turnstile. And a classmate whose name neither of us could recall who seemed unwholesomely glad to see us. Once inside the gate, we brushed through a phalanx of freshmen who wanted to sell us programs, cushions, and God knows what. The muffled blare of bands was pouring down the tunnels from the bowl, and outside the door of the Ladies’ Room was the inevitable sore-looking gent with a folded blanket over his arm, worrying for fear he was going to miss the kickoff. We shuffled down our tunnel with the roar of seventy thousand people coming at us from the other end, louder and louder. Then the field, amazingly green and mathematically striped with white, and on it the two teams, warm-ing up.
Dr Lister moved a little in his chair and said, “Don’t bother with all these details, Bark, unless you want to.”
“I’ve got to tell the thing this way,” I replied. “These things are all part of the picture. You won’t find the answer anywhere but in the whole story. Besides, something happened at the game that may have a meaning.”
He nodded and drew on his cigarette. I took a sip of sherry and went on.
We were going to kick off. Our boys were strung across the field just behind their own forty-yard line. They looked fine with the sun catching their gold helmets and their light-gray jerseys new and clean. The State eleven, in red and black, weren’t so pretty, but they looked like ball players. . . . Big Dan Hewitt, our left tackle, was going to kick it; he raised himself on his toes and began to run forward. As his boot met the ball the line of gold and gray was surging forward; the ball arced up into the air.
There’s something about a kickoff, something indescribable and thrilling. It’s the curtain going up on a new play, it’s the little white roulette ball clicking into the compartment, it’s waking up Christmas morning when you’re ten years old. Underneath the ball as it tumbled end over end through the air the two teams flowed into each other. Men were sprawling out on the grass. The kick was coming down in coffin corner; the State man who caught it never had a chance. Thompson and Ives, for us, hit him like a ton of bricks. And as he went down, the ball squirted out of his arms; one of our gray jerseys fell on it instantly. The noise in the bowl was terrific.
Jerry was pounding my back, and I his, and both of us were yelling. There was a flask in my pocket. We each took a short, quick nip from it.
They lined up. The ball was on the thirteen-yard line. We tried a tackle slant that didn’t gain a thing, and then on the next play Mortenson started around right end. He was a beautiful ball-carrier, always driving fast with his knees high. He went over the line standing up; not a State man even touched him. There was so much noise on our side of the field that I could not hear myself yelling.
“Jesus!” Jerry bawled into my ear. “Was that sweet!” Even though he’d made his Phi Bete key junior year, Jerry’s language at such moments was always unacademic.
While Hewitt was kicking the goal, I got out the flask again, and we had a stiff one apiece to celebrate. The liquor was warm, but we didn’t care. The score was us—7, State—0, and the band was playing “The Best Old Place of All” as the boys drifted down the field and got ready to kick off again.
The State receiver didn’t fumble the second time. The red and black jerseys were mad. Their fine was charging like bulls, the interfering backs were diving at our boys savagely, and little by little the ball worked its way up the field till the two lines were right below us. Jerry was watching the play like a hawk and silently except for a few profane and professional comments to me out of the side of his mouth. He’d made his own letter senior year, and perhaps he was too technically intent to notice a thing that began to make a curious impression on me. Something was happening to the crowd.
Yard by yard the ball was moving down the field; our team was roused now and fighting. The two lines were meeting on even terms; the tackling was growing more and more savage. The State side of the bowl had been a torrent of noise during that long advance, everybody over there standing up on every play. It was terrific to watch—the two lines taut against each other, the flash of the ball as the center shot it back, the slog! of the lines as they met, and the wedge of red and black jerseys that disintegrated in the welter of our tacklers. Old-fashioned football, perhaps, but it was tremendous drama, and the crowd knew it.
Now, comparatively, it was growing quieter and quieter in the bowl. Even up in our seats we began to hear the hoarse, panting voice of the quarterback calling out the starting numbers, and the thud of the tackles. There were almost no cheers. Seventy thousand people were sitting silent, leaning forward in their seats, welded into one unit, I began to realize. The back of my neck prickled with awareness of the mass emotion focused on the two teams, the game below us. The whole bowl was filled with human excitement, with hope and fear, with longing for triumph or a desperation of defense. Once I’d noticed it, it seemed to me I could almost taste the damn thing in the air. It was more real than the blue haze of tobacco smoke rising lazily up the slope of the stands. And as I became fully aware of that quality, that intensity, it began to make me somehow uneasy. I wondered if it was like that when there was a lynching, or a revolution. I was aware of frightening power without control, of a field of force in some other dimension than our usual three. Perhaps in that fourth dimension of time, for I have no idea how long the whole thing lasted. It may have been only a minute or two, possibly no more than a few seconds. Anyway, it ended when Stanwicz, the State halfback, faded back and arched a long pass dead into the hands of his own right end, who scored right then and there.
At once the feeling of tension broke; the State side of the stadium turned into a riot of color and sound, and around us the gloom was thick. But oddly enough, I felt happier than I had the moment before. It was a relief to have the suspense over with, to know the worst, and to be free of whatever it was that I had just been feeling.
“Let’s have a drink,” said Jerry. “We’re always suckers for forward passes. That end ought to have been covered.”
I gave him the flask and took a small one myself after he was through. Just then State missed the try-for-point, and the score was still in our favor, 7 to 6. Jerry grinned. After three years of Bart Wilmuth’s coaching he wasn’t what the English would call “sporting” about football. In the game, his idea was to win, and win by as big a score as possible. No dirty playing, no cheating of any sort, but fight like hell all the time, be on the long end of the score when the timekeeper fires the final gun, and never mind about giving three cheers for the other side when they score on you.
“If Mortenson can get away once more on that 32 play,” he observed, “it’ll just be a question of how big a score we can run up. The State boys have about shot the works.”
But Mortenson didn’t get away. We were crowding them all the rest of the half, and all through the second half as well, but we never quite put the ball across for another touchdown. Up and down the field the two teams surged, and there was a lot of good, hard football played, but it was all an anticlimax after the opening quarter. I kept waiting to feel that sense of crowd unity and mass emotion, but it did not develop again. The game was grand, but it remained a spectacle and nothing more. When the timekeeper’s pistol cracked for the end the score was still 7 to 6.
Before the last half was over, the sun had dropped behind Orchard Hill and it was bitter cold in the stadium. My feet were numb, and even finishing off my flask hadn’t kept us really warm. We didn’t join the snake dance. Neither of us gives a damn for pieces of goal posts, and we felt decidedly let down as we worked our way toward the portal. It hardly seemed to matter that our team had won; there was no exhilaration of victory at all. We were both quiet, and conscious of the fact that the liquor had begun to wear off. I’ve said a good deal about our drinking, but the truth is that we were not drunk, or anywhere near it. For one thing, we had been out of doors all day, and the not-inconsiderable amount of Scotch we’d consumed had all been drunk in the open air, and the cold. We were simply tired and somewhat cold as we waited for the crowd to empty out of the tunnels, and then drifted along through the outer gate of the stadium.
So Jeremiah Lister and Berkeley M. Jones stood outside the gate of the stadium, whence practically all but them had fled. It was nearly dark; the stars were splattering all except the western sky, and it was cold as Siberia. We began to walk back toward the car in silence. After a while Jerry said something under his breath and stopped short in the road.
“Well?” I asked him.
“I just had an idea.”
“No, thanks,” I told him firmly. “I’ve already had all the Scotch I’m having today.”
Jerry laughed. “Yeah. Now that your flask is empty.”
“What other idea is there?”
“It seems pretty flat, just heading back to New York now. Our first time here in two years.”
There was something in that. “We could drop round and see the boys at the Lodge.” Its members always referred to our fraternity as “the Lodge.”
“No. Let’s go see LeNormand.”
It seemed inappropriate. I thought of that middle-aged, punctilious, intellectual scholar. “In the shape we’re in now?” I asked in surprise.
“Sure. He’ll be just the thing after the emotional debauch of a football game.” He went on with a grin: “My God, I never realized before how hard the crowd at a game has to work. When you’re playing you get pooped, and work up an honest sweat, but when you’re watching a game like that one you’re absolutely all in at the end of it.”
Still I wasn’t too interested in the idea. “What about the liquor on our breath?” I suggested.
“He’ll never notice it. He’s always smoking that smudge-pot of a pipe. Anyway, I haven’t seen him since we got out, and he’s a decent egg. The perfect antidote to the late lamented orgy.” He turned and struck off toward the campus.
I went along. Jerry had always liked LeNor-mand—he’d been the only man our year to take the course in celestial mechanics—and he and LeNor-mand used to spend whole nights in the observatory, talking over everything under as well as in the heavens. LeNormand must have been very lonely after he came over to this country. The University had bribed him away from some English college where he’d made a brilliant record. When he got here he found most of us pretty unregenerate, astronomically speaking, and the new equipment he’d been promised somehow never did materialize. So he kept to himself, did what research he could, I suppose, with the inadequate telescope already there, and only let himself go with one or two intimates on the faculty, and with Jerry. He never went out socially, so far as I know, and the rumor was that he hadn’t spoken to a woman since his mother. A silent, reserved, intensely intellectual and hardworking man, as I remembered him.
Our senior year he published something entitled, as near as I can recall it, “A Fundamental Critique of the Einstein Space-Time Continuum.” Maybe that isn’t the exact wording, but it conveys the general idea. I found it unreadable, myself—out of the first fifty words I knew the meaning of only twenty-eight, and it turned out later that I was wrong about one of those. Jerry waded through it, and with the help of his bull sessions with the author, claimed he knew what it was all about. That’s not important, perhaps; what matters is that the article brought down a storm of abuse on LeNor-mand. Apparently the rest of the boys in the astronomy league doubted everything about it from its mathematics to LeNormand’s sanity. If he hadn’t been such a famous man to begin with, Jerry thought, they’d have asked him to resign from the faculty.
Within a week after the article was published the scientific mudslinging had begun, and Jerry must have been the only supporter LeNormand had. Probably it was nothing but loyalty on his part, but I could never be sure with Jerry. He had a curious facility for picking out the right answer, for cutting through to the truth even without knowing all the facts. And I know LeNormand wanted him to do graduate work in mathematics. Anyway, it was a case of two of them against the rest of the world, at least as Jerry saw it. LeNormand and he would engage in terrific correspondences with rival astronomers all over the world. Some nights Jerry wouldn’t get back to the room till three or four in the morning; he did all the typing of those letters for the professor. But that business stopped long before graduation. I remember that one night Jerry came back from the observatory about eleven. I was surprised. I hadn’t expected to see him before morning.
“You and LeNormand didn’t run out of words to call the other nuts, did you?” I inquired.
He tossed his hat on the window seat and sat down at his desk. “Yes,” he said.
“You mean,” I asked incredulously, “LeNormand admits he’s licked?”
“Hell, no.” Jerry was irritated. “He’s just not writing any more letters. He told me tonight it would be stupid, and perhaps dangerous.”
“Dangerous? Why? He might lose his job?”
Jerry shook his head, puzzled. “I don’t think that was it.”
“Well, then it must be that he’s afraid of the other guys. I suppose they are hellions when roused.”
I could see I was annoying him a little. “Don’t be a damn fool.” He was silent a moment. “It was a good row while it lasted. I used to enjoy those letters he wrote, you know. He’s got a knack of saying the nastiest things in the most abstract sort of way. And the funny thing about it all—” He paused.
“Is what?” I prompted him.
“Is that he’s just as right as he was originally.”
“Maybe they’ve shaken his faith.” The shot did not seem to penetrate.
“Maybe so.” He was thoughtful. “But I’ll tell you this. He had the answer to everything they wrote to him, and they didn’t have the answers to his stuff.”
I put that down to Jerry’s loyalty. “Probably he got sick of the whole argument.”
“Perhaps,” he said, and began talking about something else. He told me later that LeNormand never brought up the subject of that article again, and he didn’t dare mention it to him. But he puzzled about it a long time after. LeNormand’s attitude was what he couldn’t get over.
The whole episode came back to me as we stumbled up the road to the campus. I turned toward Jerry.
“I suppose you want to find out the latest news in the LeNormand versus Einstein contest,” I suggested.
There was an almost imperceptible pause before he spoke, so I knew I had guessed what he was thinking about. “I dunno. I won’t bring it up right at first.”
“Listen,” I said. “If you two savants are going to sit up till all hours talking mathematics, relativity, or whatever the hell, I’m not coming.”
“We won’t. I just want to say hello to him again. He was damn decent to me, and he’s a lonely man.”
I was undecided. “Maybe I better not butt in on your call.”
“Don’t be a damn fool,” said Jerry.
But I was, and proved it by walking on up the hill beside him. We were on campus now; splashes of warm and cheerful light were coming out of the windows of the dorms, and more than a suspicion of the sounds of revelry by night. Our breaths were dimly white in the air. Jerry was walking briskly; I could tell he was eager to get there, maybe to get there and get it over with. Our shoes made crisp, far-reaching sound on the slate flagging of the walk.
The Eldridge Observatory is on the highest part of the campus, a cube of a building with a white, bulbous dome at the top. It’s one of the simplest structures imaginable, two stories high and with a couple of classrooms on the ground floor. The instrument room, as Jerry called the actual place where the telescope was, occupied the whole of the second floor, and was roofed by the dome. LeNormand used it for his office as well. There was—why do I keep saying “was”?—not everything in this story is in the past tense—there is only one door to the place. We could see it ahead of us at the top of the walk we were on.
“He’s there,” said Jerry with satisfaction. “The light’s on over the door.”
We went on up the walk. There’s an old saying that every step you take is a step toward your grave.
The door was shut. Jerry rapped on it a couple of times, but nobody answered.
“He’s gone home for dinner,” I suggested.
“No,” said Jerry, “he always turns off the light when he leaves. He must be in there.”
He knocked again on the door. It was cold where we stood in the dark, and still except for the faint slither of the wind through the leafless trees. I shivered.
“Let’s go. Let’s go and find a drink.”
Jerry shook his head and put his hand on the knob. “Let’s make sure he’s not here, first.”
The door opened and we went inside quietly. The light in the shallow hall was on, a single raw, yellow globe that left even that small space half dark. The doorways to the classrooms at the right and left were open rectangles of blackness. There wasn’t a sound. I felt my guts contract. It was one of those times when some subconscious part of you is afraid for no reason. A deserted house will give me the same feeling.
“Hello, LeNormand,” Jerry called. I suppose he wasn’t speaking loudly at all, but his voice rang in that little hall.
There was no answer. Or wasn’t there? As I think over it now I am not so sure. Perhaps there was a thin sliver of sound above us. I can’t quite dredge it up out of my memory, but it was as though someone in the room above us had shifted position ever so slightly. Probably it was nothing.
A couple of steps in front of us was the round iron pillar about which revolved a spiral of steel stairs. That was—is—how you get up to the instrument room. We looked at it.
“It’s all dark up there,” I said. “Let’s go find a drink some place and—”
Jerry took a half step forward, looking up to the place where the stair cut through the ceiling like an auger.
“I think he’s up there,” he said with a faintly puzzled tone.
“Nuts. He must have heard you and he hasn’t answered.”
Jerry was obstinate. “Yes, but I think I see a light up there.”
I craned past his shoulder. At first I couldn’t make out what he meant, but then I did notice something. There was a flicker of light filtering through between the treads of the two top steps. That’s just what it was too, a flicker of light, not steady, but wavering from bright to dim and then bright again.
“Hey, LeNormand!” Jerry cried.
Nothing. Not a sound in reply. Only the light kept on flickering.
“Hell,” said Jerry. “I’m going up.”
I was right at his heels as we climbed the curving iron stair, just far enough behind to keep my nose from getting kicked. Jerry kept going round and up faster and faster with an odd urgency, and beyond him the flickering, wavering light grew stronger and stronger till he was nothing but a silhouette in front of me. He took the last few steps two at a time.
“Come on,” he flung at me over his shoulder. “Come on, for God’s sake!”
We burst into the instrument room almost side by side.
LeNormand was there, all right.
Chapter Three: The Stars Are Fire
DR LISTER interrupted me. “Bark, we’ve all three talked this over so often—”
“Yes,” I agreed, filling my pipe again slowly. “But always as a mystery, a problem of detection. I have begun to wonder if we’ve ever discussed it, ever thought about it in another way.”
He looked hard at me without a word.
“I mean . . . well, I can’t tell you yet just what I do mean. But I want to go over the whole thing just once more, impersonally, narratively. Negative evidence is as important as positive. Listen without thinking of the dozens of theories we’ve formed and discarded in the past two years. And remember”—I felt my voice grow unsteady—“that Jerry, too, is dead now.”
Still he said nothing, though I thought his face had lost a little of its color. Around us and above us the night was black; Scorpio had swung imperceptibly toward the western horizon. I struck a match and laid it on the tobacco in my pipe bowl; the flame leaped and shrank as I drew on the bit. Its light flickered and wavered, like the light in the instrument room of Eldridge Observatory on that night two years ago when Jerry and I burst into it.
The room was round and perhaps twenty feet in diameter. It was roofed by the observatory dome, an inverted bowl with a great slot cut out of it where the slide was open. I remember that stars were sharply visible through the opening. The walls and the inside of the dome were painted gray, or some light-absorbing color, and the floor was bare. The telescope was mounted on a concrete base in the middle of the room, and its long barrel was aimed up and through the slide in the dome, trained on some star a thousand light years away, I suppose. In the silence of the room there was a single sound, the ticking of the clockwork motor that revolved the dome above us, moving it with the same tremendous precision as the earth itself, spinning on its axis.
Between us and the telescope was LeNormand’s plain deal worktable, with a single hooded, gooseneck student’s lamp spilling a little circle of light out on its top. Back to us stood a wooden chair, varnished oak, of the sort that universities must buy in carload lots. LeNormand was sitting in that chair, looking at us. His arms hung straight from his shoulders, and his head was so far bent over the top of the chairback that it was completely upside down. His eyes were open, looking right at us, but there was no expression on his face at all. It was like the face of a man asleep. Of course, he must have been dead, even then, but it still seems to me that the eyes moved once, just as we appeared in the doorway.
Fire was growing up his back and around his head like a great vine. Tentacles of it licked the back of the chair and wavered to and fro over his body; there was a great blossom of flame around his head. His face looked out at us between petals of live fire. It was not the kind of fire that a burning log gives, a yellow, lambent glow. It was not like anything I ever saw before. Clear, white, silent, flickering as fast as a snake’s tongue, writhing like streamers of kelp in a tide race, it twined over and around and into the body of LeNormand as he sat there. It was a parasite on him, possessing and consuming him, apparently endued with a life of its own and nourished by its host, LeNormand. In the instant we stood, fixed with horror and amazement, in the doorway we began to smell what the fire was doing: the the choking fume of burning hair and another smell that was still worse.
Lots of things happened in the next ten seconds. I ordered my legs to take me down the stairs and out of that appalling room; instead, they seemed to be carrying me straight toward LeNormand. As I went, I remember vaguely that I struggled out of my overcoat. Jerry had leaped to the wall near the stair well, and out of the corner of my eye I saw him snatch down the fire extinguisher there. The blast of heat and the stench, as I got nearer, were terrific. With the coat in front of me I flung myself at that incandescent figure on the chair. It and I went over together with a crash.
As we struck the floor, a tongue of flame went across my face.
Then I was kicking the chair away from me and wrapping LeNormand in the folds of my coat. Something cold and wet hit the back of my head, and I began to choke.
“Roll clear,” I heard Jerry tell me. His voice was cool and urgent. I flung myself to the side and scrambled to my feet. With the fire blanketed by my coat, the room was almost dark. Jerry was standing with spraddled legs, the fire extinguisher in one hand and the nozzle of its short hose in the other. A jet of hissing liquid probed something black and huddled on the floor; tendrils of smoke were rising. Jerry kicked back a corner of the coat and turned the stream of chemical on whatever was underneath.
That was all I saw. I went down the stairs as fast as I could. My knees were weak as hell. I just about got outside in time. When I was too exhausted to gag any more I went back up. My mouth tasted of bile and Scotch, and yet I could still smell that acrid, sweetish smoke of burning flesh.
When I got back all the lights in the instrument room were on. The place looked impersonal. Jerry had supplemented my coat with his own, but except for that one long, dark blotch on the floor, the overturned chair, and a puddle of stuff from the extinguisher there was no change. I pulled myself up the last two steps by the hand rail and went into the room.
Jerry looked at me. His face was white. He licked his lips, started to say something, and stopped. I couldn’t think of anything to say. Most of my mind was busy telling my stomach to stay in the usual place. Finally the silence got to me; I felt that unless I said something I should be sick again.
“Well?” I managed to get out.
“Are you all right?”
I wasn’t entirely sure. “Yeah. If I didn’t lose any essential part of me down there.”
“Jesus, I’m sorry.”
“I’m okay now,” I told him. “Is he . . . ? Have you . . . ?” I didn’t know how to put the question.
Jerry nodded. “I looked at him. He’s dead, all right.”
“I see you used your overcoat too.”
He looked away and said, “His feet were sticking out.”
I saw him swallow.
Neither of us said anything for a minute after that. I got to thinking. “What do we do now?”
Jerry took a couple of steps toward the overcoats, and then stopped. “I’ve been wondering about that myself.”
“We ought to tell somebody.”
He almost smiled. “Sure. But just who?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, there’s the Dean. And there’s Prexy. And we might get a doctor from the infirmary. And the undertaker. And the police, of course.”
This last was a new idea to me, but it made sense. There’d have to be some sort of investigation into how LeNormand had come to die. That fire . . .
“I guess we ought to call the police.”
Jerry admitted that. But it was a University matter, any way you looked at it. As he pointed out, this would be front-page news tomorrow, and it was important that we do the whole thing carefully. We talked it over and agreed the safest thing to do would be to call Prexy and leave it up to him. He could handle it any way he wanted.
“Listen,” said Jerry, when we’d agreed on that. “Suppose you phone him. There’s a couple of things here I want to look at.”
Probably he saw I was still pretty shaky. “There’s nothing here I ever want to see again,” I said, and went down the stairs.
At the bottom of the spiral there was a telephone, one of the old-fashioned kind with the brown oak box, fastened to the wall. The University had its own on-campus system. I picked up the receiver. After quite some time a kid’s bored voice said in my ear, “University.”
“Get me President Murray.”
“He’s not to be disturbed. There’s a trustees’ dinner tonight.”
I was annoyed. This guy was probably a green kid with a scholarship. “Listen, freshman,” I told him. “This is an eccentric old millionaire who wants to leave the U a million dollars. And I want to talk to Murray. Get him.”
“Yes, sir.” Bells rang, clicks occurred, and eventually Prexy’s smooth, careful voice was there in the receiver.
“This is President Murray.”
In four years at the University I’d never spoken to Prexy before. I was suddenly nervous. “President Murray, I’m Bark Jones, class of ’thirty-two.”
“I’m very sorry, Mr Jones. I’m extremely busy at the moment. If there is anything I can do for you—”
I cut him short, “This is serious, sir. I’m not drunk or playing a practical joke. I’m at the observatory, and there’s been a serious accident. Jerry Lister, a classmate of mine, and I think you had best come up here right away.”
His voice changed its quality. Some of the smoothness went out of it. It became alert, suspicious, a trifle peremptory. “What sort of accident?”
I told him Professor LeNormand was dead. He didn’t believe me. I told him again.
“Mr Jones, if this is not absolutely—”
“Absolutely and positively,” I affirmed.
“Have you notified anyone else?”
“No,” I said. “We considered that this was a University matter. We want you to come at once and take the thing off our hands. Better come alone. It’s a nasty business.”
His voice still sounded incredulous, but he told me, “Very well. I shall be there in ten minutes.”
I hung up and sat down on the bottom step; my legs felt like boiled macaroni, and my mouth still tasted abominably. There was a high, continuous, ringing sound in my ears.
“Hey, Bark!” It was Jerry’s voice from the top of the stairs.
“Coming,” I told him, and decided on the way up to keep count of the number of times I had to climb those damn stairs. This was the third trip.
Jerry had turned out the lights again and found a couple of chairs some place. He made me sit down, first producing, to my pleased surprise, a flask.
“If you think you can hold this down, now, you better have some.”
I held it down, all right. It was fine stuff, Irish, and must have come out of the family cellar. Our drinking and our talk, as I reproduce it, sounds callous. Perhaps it was. But after a shock like the one we had just experienced, your emotions retreat to some quiet corner of your brain and you set up, in self-protection, a superficial toughness of mind to keep from going crazy. I was glad to get a drink, and because I could not tolerate too much silence in that room, I accused him of holding out on me.
“Always prepared,” he replied. “I used to be a Boy Scout once.” His manner changed, and he stared at the floor for some moments without speaking, as though he were trying to decide about something difficult. “I suppose Prexy’s on his way?”
“Said he’d be here in ten minutes.”
Jerry nodded. “There’s a couple of things we better talk over before he comes, Bark.”
“My God,” I said. “This thing is foul enough already. I don’t want to talk about it. Let Prexy shoulder the grief.”
He cut me short. “That’s all very well. I don’t like this any better than you do. Besides, LeNormand was my friend.”
“Forget it. We’re going to be asked a whole lot of questions, Bark. Prexy first, and then the police, and then, I suppose, the newspapers. Just what are we going to tell them?”
“Why . . . that we came in here—I suppose it was about six o’clock—and found LeNormand here, burning up in his chair, and . . .”
Jerry looked hard at me. “Yeah. We came in here and LeNormand was in his chair with his head hanging down over the back of it, and he was burning. Burning like a torch. Suppose somebody told you that story?”
It did sound unconvincing when he put it as baldly as that. The questions I’d been fighting to keep out of my mind began to stampede into it. How did the fire start? How could LeNormand have just sat there while it burned him alive? Had he carelessly jammed a lighted pipe into his pocket and set fire to his clothes that way? Then he must have died soon after, because no man would sit calmly in his chair and be burned to death. Heart failure? Perhaps that was it.
Jerry cut in on my thoughts. “While you were telephoning, I looked round this place. It’s going to be pretty hard to explain how it happened, Bark. You saw him just as we came in. Did you think he Was dead then?”
“He must have been.”
“Did you think he was?”
“No,” I had to admit. “I thought I saw his eyes move. I thought he was looking at us.”
He nodded. “So did I. Maybe it was the flicker of the fire.” He paused. “Take a look at that chair, but don’t touch it. There may be fingerprints.”
I got up slowly and crossed the room to the overturned chair. I had to force one foot deliberately and consciously ahead of the other to get there, and it took every ounce of will power to do it. Leaning over carefully, so as to include nothing else in the room in my field of vision, I looked at the chair. Of course, at the time it was dark in the room, but even the light from one gooseneck lamp was enough to show that the chair was not the way I’d expected it to be. Instead of being blackened with fire and charred clear up the back, it was almost unmarked. There were a few varnish blisters toward the top of the back, but that was all. I thought of that flick of fire that had gone across my face when I tackled LeNormand and couldn’t decide whether it had felt hot or not. It must have; all fires are hot, so I must have felt the heat, but I couldn’t remember that I had. And apparently the chair hadn’t. It simply was not burned. I turned toward Jerry.
“This is the damnedest thing.”
He nodded and said carefully, “I looked at him too. His back is burned clear through.”
My stomach began to turn on its foundations. “I’ll take your word for that.”
“You know,” he observed calmly, “this thing is going to look like a crime. In fact, murder. A torch murder.”
I left the chair and went back to him. “And we’ll be the principal witnesses?”
“Witnesses,” said Jerry, “or else . . .”
“Or else what?”
“Nuts,” I said. “They won’t suspect us.”
“The only way out of this place is the front door. We had it in view for five minutes before we got here. Did you see anyone come out?”
“It was dark.”
Jerry looked at me sadly. “Yes, it was dark, but we’d have seen the motion, at least, if someone had slipped out. Unless the police find some other goat, it looks to me as if we’d be unanimously elected. Somebody did it.”
I could see the point. We might be in for a nasty time. “How about saying that we did see somebody—just a shadow—go out the door?”
He didn’t think much of that idea. In fact, his opinion was that it wouldn’t pay to lie to the police. I thought privately that it might be accident or suicide, or lots of things besides murder, but I could see that Jerry was right about one thing. We were going to be in the limelight for a couple of days. Our final decision was that each of us would tell his own story and stick by it.
All the time we were talking Jerry was wandering round the room, looking at everything. There were some scattered papers and a pencil on top of the worktable, and he spent some time staring at them. As far as I could tell, the papers had equations of some sort on them, and Jerry finally decided to copy them into his notebook, though he kept muttering that they didn’t make sense and he couldn’t understand them at all. The paper was the sort they sell by the tablet at the University co-op, and the edges of the leaves looked faintly yellow as if the sheets were old.
I began to feel completely shot. My legs ached, my head ached. I felt dirty all over, and tired to death. There was a nasty taste in my mouth.
“What the hell’s keeping Prexy?” I said fretfully. “I want to get a shower and some sleep. I feel like the latter end of a misspent life.”
Jerry grinned. “You ain’t seen nothing yet. Forget about the shower and the sleep. Just impress this place, and the way everything is in it, on your mind. We’ll be questioned till we’re liable to forget our own names.”
He was obviously right, and I tried to follow his advice. But there were so few things to look at and the whole affair was so conspicuously a nightmare that it all began to seem unreal to me. I wondered if I had d.t.’s. Maybe this was the way they took you. Perhaps if I could get hold of some sleep and a competent doctor I’d be cured of the whole illusion. Just then there was a swish of tires on the gravel.
“Prexy’s here,” said Jerry. “And now the fun begins.”
We crossed to the head of the spiral stairs; there was the slam of a car door, and the brisk click of the latch at the entrance.
“Mr Jones?” his big voice boomed out in the hall below.
“Right up here, sir,” I called down.
He came up the stairs, irritation and purpose in every stamp of his feet on the treads. “Mr Jones, I trust the extraordinary story you told me over the telephone a few minutes ago—“
And he was in the room, his words abruptly silenced by its quiet austerity. Before he had perfect control of himself, I heard him give a single sniff, as the impact of the smell still lingering in the air took him by surprise. Even though he did not see LeNormand at once, he said nothing, asked no questions, but looked swiftly about him. He had no doubt in the world after that first breath.
Prexy is a fine-looking man, big as a house and built like an athlete, with a granite face and hair as gray as stone. His manner is heavy rather than pompous, and he never appears to be at a loss. My own idea is that his worst enemy has been a terrible temper, and that he has learned to keep it chained up so tight that he gives an impression of being almost devoid of feeling. I always think of him more as a major in the marines than as an educator; sometimes I suspect he does himself. There’s no doubt, though, that his iron purpose and executive force have put life into the whole University. That evening he was dressed for a formal dinner—tails and white tie.
Jerry broke the momentary silence. “Over there,” he said, with a flash of his eye toward the long, dark bundle on the floor.
“Thank you,” said Prexy. “You’re Mr Lister?”
“I’ll talk to you both about this in a moment.” He went across the room evenly, steadily. Then he was kneeling beside our overcoats. I saw one hand reach out to draw them back, and looked quickly away. The clockwork of the dome ticked steadily on, the pinprick stars burned in the black sky beyond the opening, and I could see my breath, faintly frosty in the cold air of the room. When I looked again, Prexy was just standing up. He came back to us, glancing from Jerry to me without the slightest expression of any sort on his face. But I’d swear it was whiter than it had been, and the lips more firmly pressed together.
“You gentlemen did exactly the right thing in calling me,” he said. “It’s LeNormand, and he’s dead.”
Jerry said, “I think you’d better hear our story before doing anything further.” And he told the whole thing, quickly and concisely.
When he had finished, Prexy asked: “Have you anything to add to that, Mr Jones?”
“Mr Lister, Mr Jones, you must surely be aware that your story is almost impossible to believe. Your account of the discovery of Professor LeNormand’s body is absolutely incompatible with the nature and extent of the burns.” His voice was not quite so decisive. “I have never seen a human body so—” he paused for a word—“so nearly incinerated.”
I couldn’t think of a thing to say. Neither of us could. We stood there, silent, with our eyes on his face.
Prexy seemed disappointed. “You both came down to the game this afternoon?”
“Unless you are extraordinary young men, you have both taken a few drinks. How many?”
I told him, and he listened, apparently without disapproval. “But we’re not drunk, sir,” I concluded. “The story Lister and I have told you is true, absolutely, in every detail.”
He frowned. “It can’t be true. However this thing happened, a man would not sit in his chair and allow himself to be burned to death . . .” His voice faded.
“Unless he was dead already,” Jerry said.
“Heart failure . . .” Prexy’s voice was doubtful.
“On the other hand, what about that fire? Does anything about it strike you?” Jerry’s intonation almost demanded an affirmative answer.
“He always used to smoke a pipe,” I said. “Perhaps he put it in his pocket before it was entirely out, and then his heart failed, and his clothes caught on fire, and—”
Prexy stopped me with one look. “A wool suit smolders, Mr Jones. It does not burn like that; it could not have created a fire that must have been as hot as a blowtorch. That is why I wished to make sure that your story is complete. You have left out nothing? You are concealing nothing?”
“No,” said Jerry flatly.
Prexy tried again. “It is my duty to report this to the police,” he said, “and the moment I do so there will be an investigation. You must both understand that you will be questioned over and over again. The police will be as dissatisfied with your story as I am.”
Jerry laughed, a little sharply. “President Murray, we have been over all this together. We debated inventing a more plausible story to tell you and the police. We decided to stick to the truth.”
Some idiotic impulse made me add: “‘Integer vitae, scelerisque purus,’ you know, sir.”
Prexy smiled faintly. “How these little tags of learning do stick, Mr Jones! Let me advise you not to try them on Chief Hanlon. I fear that, like Shakespeare, he has little Latin and less Greek.”
Jerry looked pleased with me. I think he imagined I had made a dint in Prexy’s court-martial calm. But he brought the conversation back at once to the focal point by asking, “Did you look at the chair, sir?”
“No, I didn’t.” Prexy’s tone was impatient, but at once he went across the room and examined it, just as I had done. As he straightened up he looked at Jerry incredulously and said, “And you are still determined to stick to your evidence that Professor LeNormand was actually sitting in this chair when you found his burning body?”
“What else can we do?”
He didn’t seem to have an answer to that. Frowning thoughtfully, he began to inspect the room in detail, staring at its meager furniture and the howitzer barrel of the telescope with puzzled eyes. We watched him apathetically, and when he came back across the room, Jerry said flatly, “Nothing.”
“Nothing, as you say, Mr Lister. Nothing at all”
It seemed to me that this was going on forever, that the events of this night would slow down the hands of time till all creation stopped. Time was not passing—it was stretching like a gigantic rubber band, it had ceased to exist, it was an illusion accomplished with mirrors and beveled gears, and the machinery had ceased to create the illusion. My thoughts were so many and so confused that they canceled each other; every cell in my brain felt as though it were loaded with a different charge.
The thing was becoming intolerable, and I knew Jerry was feeling something the same way; his face was set and the gray of his eyes was darker than I had ever seen it. I knew he was intensely nervous by the way he kept sliding the palms of his hands back and forth against each other.
“You remember that gesture he always had, dad.”
“Yes, I remember it.”
“He used to do it just before the kickoff when he was playing football.”
“And when he got married, before the ceremony.”
I went on with my story, quickly.
Prexy, though, was perfectly self-possessed. He roust have been wondering if we were a couple of murderers. He must have been thinking about what all this would mean to the University, about the publicity and the crowds of curiosity seekers that would soon be littering the campus, about the difficulty of keeping his faculty and the student body quiet, and about a thousand and one other things. But he was making his decisions as calmly as though the whole thing was mere routine, like the reading of minutes in a trustees’ meeting.
“I wish,” he said finally, “that I could spare you two gentlemen something of what lies ahead of you in the next few hours. You can imagine the difficulties in which this places me.”
We assured him that we could.
He went on. “The story you have told me is so extraordinary that I believe you are telling the truth. Whether this is a case of accident or murder I cannot decide. Ultimately the police will have to decide it. I must, therefore, telephone them at once and attend to certain other matters as well. I put you both on your honor as University men not to touch anything in this room until I return from the telephone downstairs.” And without waiting for any reply he went down the spiral steps and left us alone in the room.
“‘I pledge my honor as a gentleman,’” said Jerry in a low voice, “‘that during the course of this examination I have neither given nor received assistance.’ ”
It was the honor pledge we all used to write at the end of every exam paper. I laughed. “So far as he’s concerned, we’re still undergraduates.”
We could hear Prexy’s full-throated voice booming in the hall below. He called the police, the Dean’s office, the infirmary, and several other places. After a while we stopped listening to him. Perhaps some other sort of person would have been excited at being thrust willy-nilly into the midst of a disaster like the one of that night, but we could find no stimulus in the situation. We were tired. The game had drained us of emotion. The liquor had worn off, and the adventure was not a nice adventure. If I shut my eyes I could still see LeNormand’s body in its strange, horrible position, the great parasite of fire growing out of it, and the flicker of the eyes as we came into the room. It was frightening. The chill in that observatory chamber came from something colder than the night November air. It went in deeper than my bones. It went into my mind.
“This is grim,” Jerry observed.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said with what must have been a feeble effort at jocularity, “to me this is all in the day’s work. I take it in my stride.”
“Of course, you do.” His face was unsmiling. “Somehow, I’m not quite so much of an iron man. I don’t like it.”
When Jerry talked that way, it was no use trying to be flippant. I suspected that he saw something more in the situation than I did and that he was alarmed about it. He told me what it was after a while.
“Bark, listen.” He lowered his voice. “This is a murder, all right. It’s too incredible to think it’s an accident, or the result of heart failure, or anything like that. It’s a cinch the autopsy will prove I’m right.”
“Admitted.” He added nothing more, so I went on. “And it’s a murder that we didn’t commit, though I bet a lot of people are going to think we did.”
He shook his head. “I wonder. After all, we haven’t any motive. None whatever. And neither of us has any Krafft-Ebing tendencies. And just how did we commit it? No, I think the papers will shy clear of accusing us. even indirectly.”
“It’s the police that worry me, not the papers.”
“Don’t fool yourself.” He was positive. “The police won’t be able to find a thing to implicate us, because there isn’t anything to find. In a way, I must have been one of the few friends LeNormand had over here. We’re in for a nasty siege of questioning, but the police will start looking elsewhere pretty soon.”
“How do you figure that?”
“LeNormand had some enemies. And we both know who they are.”
I examined my mind and drew a blank. “I don’t.”
He was impatient. “Don’t be thick. How about all that correspondence I used to type? The row he had with Trimble and Pforzman and Stanward, and the rest of them? There’s the motive. I’m sure of it.”
I looked at him in astonishment. “You mean you think those star-gazers and atom-busters would kill each other over the Einstein space-time theory? Nuts!”
Jerry didn’t think it was impossible at all. He insisted that the matter was vital, fundamental, that I had no idea of the importance of LeNormand’s theory, and that if he was proved right it would reveal a lot of his esteemed contemporaries as scientific jackasses. They wouldn’t lose their standing in their own little world without a fight. Jerry thought some one of them might have been desperate enough to kill LeNormand. He pointed out how bitter the letters had been.
To me the idea was unthinkable, and I said so. I asked him if he had any single man in mind.
“Then,” I told him, “forget it. Don’t, for God’s sake, uncork that idea on the police. Next thing you know they’ll have Einstein down at headquarters, going over him with a rubber hose. And the poor guy came over here from Germany to get away from all that.”
He laughed. “Okay. I wasn’t going to tell them anything except what we saw, anyway. If they find out about that old row, though, I may have to tell them the theory. And there is one thing that supports it.”
I saw that he really was serious. “What’s that?” I asked skeptically.
“What about the fire?”
“It must have been a chemical—maybe thermite or something of that sort. No ordinary substance would burn into flesh and bone as deep and fast as that did. If you get me, it must have been a scientist’s kind of fire.”
I took a little time to digest that idea. It was plausible, but I simply couldn’t believe that any of LeNormand’s professional critics and antagonists would want to kill him. Most scientists, in spite of the movies, aren’t murderous mad geniuses at all. There were several other things that were against the theory.
“And if I’m right about that,” Jerry continued, “the autopsy ought to reveal what the stuff was.”
“But what about the chair?” I objected. I felt we weren’t getting anyplace.
He looked thoughtful. “LeNormand must have been knocked out first. The stuff was put on him, and then he was set in the chair. The murderer must have touched it off as we came up the stairs.”
“And then he put some more of it on his feet and evaporated himself,” I suggested.
Jerry pointed to the open slide in the observatory dome. “He must have gone out that way.”
From his tone it was plain that he wasn’t satisfied with his own theory. Neither was I, but I had no alternative suggestion. We could think of nothing further to say; each of us was trying to find a theory, however vague, to cover the facts and prove we were not the only ones to visit LeNormand in that cold, round room. After a moment we heard Prexy coming upstairs again. As he entered we stood up; it was astonishing how much he made us feel like undergraduates.
“Sit down, gentlemen. You must both be pretty tired.”
Obediently we sat.
“I shall remain here with you until the police arrive. And then,” his face altered, but whether to tenderness or pity, or something subtler, I could not make out, “I shall have the melancholy duty of bringing the news of this tragedy to Mrs LeNormand.”
“Mrs LeNormand!” Jerry’s exclamation was one of incredulity and shock.
“Yes,” said Prexy, half to himself, “Mrs LeNormand. You didn’t know he was married?”
“No. . . . And he never told me … I saw no announcement … I mean, this is absolutely a . . .” Jerry was floundering.
“We were all surprised,” Prexy admitted. “I don’t believe anyone expected it. He wasn’t the sort of man who gets married ordinarily.”
“For God’s sake,” I said, “when did it happen?”
Prexy’s expression as he looked at us was introspective. He must have been thinking fast with most of his mind and answering us with nothing but the top layer of it. “About three months ago. He appeared at one of Mrs Murray’s summer teas and simply presented her to all of us as his wife. It was quite a sensation.”
I could imagine that. The microcosm of University society must have been rocked to its center. LeNormand, of all people! Why, it practically amounted to bigamy, the man was so genuinely wedded to his work. He ate with it, lived with it, slept with it. Many a time Jerry had commented on the fact that LeNormand had utterly no use for women. He wouldn’t even employ a secretary, which was one reason Jerry had done so much of his secretarial work for him. He certainly was old enough not to be swept off his feet, and disciplined to the ascetic life he had chosen. I couldn’t imagine what he wanted with a wife, and surprised as I was I could see that Jerry was completely thunderstruck. He was staring at Prexy as though he expected to learn it was all a joke.
“President Murray,” he said finally, “I wish you’d tell me more than that. Who is she? Where did she come from? Why did LeNormand . . . ?”
Prexy frowned. “I’ve told you almost all that I, or anyone else so far as I know, can tell you. Not one person in the University had ever seen her before. LeNormand was matter-of-fact about it, at least on the surface, but he’s never given us a word of explanation. We couldn’t pry anything out of him. We couldn’t even—” He checked himself. “This is all really beside the point.”
Jerry was urgent. “No, it isn’t. If LeNormand got married—and I knew him well, sir, I was his friend—there is something strange about it. I can’t think of a thing that would make him want to surrender his … his freedom. Why, even the most beautiful woman in the world—”
With no expression on his face at all, Prexy said slowly, “Some people might say that she is the most beautiful woman in the world.”
Chapter Four: INTERREGNUM
BRAKES squealed on the road outside. We could hear the voices of several men.
“Ah, the police,” said President Murray. I thought there was a note of relief in his voice, as though he was glad to have an interruption and a termination to our talk.
Yes, indeed, it was the police. The boys in blue. The guardians of the peace, the representatives of law and order, arriving at the scene of the crime, if crime it was. A little stir of excitement went through me as their steps began to clang on the stairs.
Chief Hanlon was in the van, a white-haired cockerel of a man with sharp eyes and a bit of the brogue still stuck to the knife-edge of his tongue. I hadn’t seen him since Founders’ night at the Zete house, when a few of us were organizing a little bonfire in honor of the old Lodge. Our mistake was in departing from ancient custom, which dictated the selection of a telephone booth from some farmer’s back yard as the piece de resistance of the pyre. That night we decided to use the town’s one and only police booth as a variation; who would have supposed the old boy would hear about it at two in the morning? I saw him grin briefly at Jerry and me when his eye lit on us.
“Hello, b’ys,” was all he said to us.
At his heels was young Pudge Applegate. Pudge is the son, and I presume heir, of Collegeville’s former bootlegger, and also Hanlon’s son-in-law. He weighs a scant two hundred and twenty-five pounds, practically all of which he carries below the neck. Although his uniform always looked as though he had had it laundered on him quite some time before, he was not so fat as his nickname suggested. If Chief Hanlon was the brains of the force, he was certainly its brawn.
And then there was Old Harry. None of us ever knew his last name; he’d been a University proctor till he got too old and philosophical to bear down hard on the pranks and wanton wiles of Young America on the loose. Then the Collegeville police force secured his services. I don’t know that he ever made an arrest.
For a minute or two the three of them, after greeting Prexy respectfully, simply stared about them silent in the presence of that round, cold room, the dark hummock of LeNormand’s body stretched out in the shadows on the floor, and the lingering reek in the air. Finally Chief Hanlon made a quick inspection of the body and returned to ask a few questions of Jerry and me. We told our story flatly and briefly, and he did not cross-question us about it. I’ll say to his credit that he realized immediately that he was up against something outside his experience, something uncommonly nasty. Almost at once he scrawled a note to Parsons, head of the county detectives, and sent it off to New Zion, the county seat, by Harry, to whom he gave some whispered instructions. I wondered for a moment why he did not telephone, till I remembered that the switchboard girls would promptly broadcast the story. He kept his own hands and Pudge’s off everything in the room, and after he had heard our story he sent Pudge outside to watch the building. He verified from Prexy the fact that Doc Nickerson at the infirmary had been summoned. Then he simply sat on a chair and whistled between his teeth. Prexy left after a few minutes, promising to return later, and the three of us were left alone in that vault. The silence was oppressive; the only time it was broken was when Hanlon stopped whistling for a moment, stared at Jerry and me with his cold blue eyes, and said:
“You b’ys seem to be on hand fer the fires.”
We didn’t know how to take that, so we said nothing. Hanlon grinned after a minute and recommenced his whistling. The machinery of the dome kept on ticking. Time went on stretching. I don’t know how many minutes elapsed before Doc Nickerson arrived, but his appearance was welcome. He nodded to Jerry, whom I suppose he remembered from football days, and went right to work. His examination didn’t take long.
“Don’t move him any more than you can help, doc,” Hanlon cautioned. “Don’t touch nothin’ else.”
“I haven’t moved him at all,” the doc said. He turned to his little black bag, took out some cotton and a bottle of something or other. Moistening the cotton with whatever was in the bottle, he swabbed off all his fingers carefully and stood up. “He’s dead, of course. Burned to death, apparently. The burns are very severe. The muscles of the upper back and shoulders seem to have been almost entirely consumed. The left scapula is calcined.” He closed his bag and came over to us. “How did this happen?” He, too, seemed to feel the same incredulity that had affected Jerry and me and Prexy. “I never saw such burns before.”
I started to say something, but Hanlon silenced me with a wave of his hand. “Doc, can ye think of anny way that such burns could be caused? The poor fella’s half cooked.”
Nickerson shook his head. “It seems almost as though a blowtorch had been held at his back.”
Hanlon took him up on that. “Thin he must ’a’ been dead whin it was used on him?”
But the doctor was being conservative. “I can’t tell. Obviously, there will have to be an autopsy.”
“Perhaps heart failure . . .” Jerry’s voice was tentative.
“It’s impossible to tell anything now. But LeNormand came to me a few days ago for a going-over. He did that every year. He was sound as a nut last Tuesday.”
“Ye don’t tell me.” Hanlon’s voice sounded a trifle disappointed.
Jerry said, “Doc, could those burns have been made with a chemical?”
“A chemical? What have you got in mind?”
“Something like thermite.”
It was a new idea to Nickerson. He paused. “I don’t know. I don’t know the effect of the stuff at all.“
“They use it in welding,’ Jerry explained. “And they used something like it on incendiary bombing raids. Along with napalm. It’s a mixture of powdered aluminum and iron oxide.”
Nickerson rubbed his ear thoughtfully. “A chemical analysis of the calcined matter and the edges of the clothing ought to settle the point. But I didn’t see any slag. Still, it’s an idea.”
Hanlon glanced quickly at Jerry. “Ye’ve a theory, young feller.”
“No,” said Jerry. “Not even a hunch. Something must have done it, though.”
“Isn’t it possible,” I ventured, “that the thing is an accident? He could have put his pipe, lighted, into his pocket.”
Nickerson shook his head. “I don’t see it. Even if he had accidentally set fire to his clothes, and even if they had been soaked in gasoline, I don’t believe he could have been burned like that.” He turned to the Chief. “Do you want me to do anything more?”
Hanlon fidgeted a little in his chair. “Well, maybe you better wait till Parsons gets here. He’s head of county detectives. Likely he’ll have Doc Merritt with him. The two of yez can maybe put yer heads together and figure the mess out.”
“All right,” said Nickerson.
We found him a chair, and he sat down with us. Silence descended again. I had expected that Hanlon would keep firing questions at us, try to shake our story, try to “break” the case right away. Instead, he did nothing. For a time I was puzzled, even vaguely uneasy about his inactivity, and then the obvious answer occurred to me. Collegeville is owned, body and soul, by the University. Hanlon was shrewd enough to see that this affair would create tremendous excitement and perhaps a scandal; whoever tackled it would be opening a hornets’ nest without gloves. His tiny department was not fitted, any more than he himself, to handle a situation of this sort. He was playing it safe; he was going to turn the case over, untouched and unhandled, to Parsons.
When the county men arrived, they appeared to approve of his decisions. Parsons was a slow, calm, neutral sort of man, but he knew his job. He turned Merritt, the county doctor, loose on the corpse. He had photographs taken of every inch of the observatory building. He had every surface tested for fingerprints, and took ours, Hanlon’s, Nickerson’s, and Pudge’s. He sent a man over to Prexy’s house to ask him if he’d mind coming back at once. After listening once to Jerry’s story and mine, separately, he noted down our stadium ticket numbers, and listed the people we’d noticed at the game who might be able to corroborate our presence. He studied the floor, the walls, and every piece of furniture in the room. He took a note of the company that manufactured the fire extinguisher Jerry had used. A man was sent out to examine the ground outside the building under the dome opening. He put us through our stories a second time and a third. He hammered and hammered at us, patiently explaining that our story was not very likely. He suggested that we might care to supplement it. When Prexy appeared, he talked quietly with him for a long time, nodding his head from time to time and glancing over at us or at the place where LeNormand’s body had been before his men had taken it away. After Prexy left, he climbed up to the dome slot himself and summoned the fingerprint man after him. He was all over the place, remorselessly, efficiently, and unhurriedly.
It all took a lot of time. Somewhere around midnight he turned to us.
“I don’t want to make this any harder for you two than I have to,” he said. “I don’t want to lock you up. You’re the only witnesses I’ve got, and your story is fishy as hell. But I can’t find anything to incriminate either of you so far. By morning we’ll have the results of the autopsy, and perhaps some new information. I’ll have to go over the whole thing with you again. So you’ll have to stay in town tonight. Where are you going to sleep?”
Jerry and I sighed. We had seen this coming. Jerry told him, “We can stay at the Lodge—our fraternity house, the Zeta Kappas.”
Hanlon nodded. He knew the Zete house, all right. Parsons seemed not too pleased by the suggestion.
“We can get a bed there, and borrow razors and stuff in the morning,” I urged. “It’s too late to find any place else.”
Parsons was still dubious. “Well, I dunno.”
Hanlon was on our side. “Sure, Mr. Parsons, the b’ys are roight. They’ll be asy to find in the mornin’ and it’s the sinsible place fer thim to go.”
“Oke.” Parsons wasted no more thought on us. “I’ll send a man around to the Zeta house in the morning, when I want you. Stay there till you hear from me. On your way, now.”
We went down the iron stairs numbly. As we left the room we heard him telling Chief Hanlon to arrange an interview in the morning with himself, Prexy, and Mrs LeNormand, and do it diplomatically. Even the great Parsons was sensible of how much power the President of the University has, and it was plain that he was anxious to offend no one.
Outside, both of us drew in great lungfuls of the icy air. It felt almost like getting out of jail to be walking alone across the campus. Without our coats we felt cold, but something of the oppression that had settled on us back there in Eldridge Observatory began to lift. The ringing in my ears diminished, and my legs felt a little less leaden.
“This is an improvement,” Jerry said after a while.
I remarked that the air smelled good. It was not the most felicitous possible observation.
“Poor devil,” Jerry muttered. “Hell of a way to die. I hope they get the bastard that did it. . . .”
“Married, by God. Married. Bark, what could have got into LeNormand? He had no more use for women than the Sultan’s right-hand man. LeNormand was all brain. What do you suppose was in his mind?“
“Prexy said she is the most beautiful woman in the world.”
“Not quite. He said some people might think so. And remember the Queen.” “The Queen” was campus slang for Mrs Murray.
We agreed that Prexy might be prejudiced. But neither of us could explain LeNormand’s having taken a wife. Jerry thought that if she was half as beautiful as Prexy said she might provide the motive, and the idea seemed to give him a good deal of satisfaction.
“And, Bark,” he concluded, “as long as there’s this other angle I’m not going to say anything about the row over LeNormand’s work. I don’t want to stir up that kind of mess, and there’s probably nothing in it anyway. The best thing for us to do is to answer all their questions and volunteer nothing at all.”
“I’m with you there,” I told him. “But it’s up to you. You’re the one who knows the inside story.”
“Let’s not talk about it any more,” he said, and we walked along in silence through the dark.
By and by we came to the Zete house. The brethren were in good voice by then, and the victory over State was being properly solemnized. We went up the front steps and rang the bell, shivering. A pledge came out, and we identified ourselves. Buzz Clark, the chapter president, came into the hall to greet us. He was magnificently cordial, but he would have welcomed a tax collector in the same effusive way by that time. He told us to hang up our hats and come in and have a drink. We declined, and asked if there were a couple of beds in the house. He asked us gravely where the ladies were. We told him to go to hell. It went on like that for quite a while. Buzz shouted to the pledge to bring us a couple of drinks, but we wouldn’t take them.
“My God,” he said finally. “You guys lose your grip fast after you get out of this place.”
We admitted that we were not the men we used to be in college, but insisted that for a couple of elderly wrecks like ourselves bed was the only place. He took us upstairs finally, and turned us into an empty room. I can’t remember undressing or getting into bed.
I stopped speaking and began to sift the sand of my memory once again, hoping and yet half afraid that I had missed telling some small fact, some nuance of word, some impression of eye or mind that might provide the key to the answer. There was nothing.
“That’s how it was,” I said slowly. “I’ve told you everything, dad.”
Dr, Lister was leaning forward, his forearms on the table, staring at the topaz star that the candlelight kindled in the sherry bottle.
“Yes,” he replied. “1 think you have. All three of us. have considered the matter a hundred times. Parsons, too, is a great detective in his way. There is nothing to go on, no clues, nothing but incredibilities.” He repeated the word softly. “Incredibilities.”
“There is an answer,” I told him, “but I think the answer itself is an incredibility.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I know that Jerry found the answer, and that having found it he killed himself.”
He made an impatient gesture. “Why? Because he was afraid to tell it? That’s not like Jerry.”
“No, I don’t think that was it. I have a feeling that he did what he did— (the lifted gun, the flat, hard crack of the report echoing in that Western room) —because he was afraid to have us, or anyone, learn the answer. Afraid that he might tell the truth, a truth he was afraid to have us know.”
He poured us each another glass of sherry. “Are you too tired to go on? Shall we wait till morning? It must be almost eleven o’clock now.”
“No,” I said. “I’m not too tired. I don’t want to shut my eyes.”
We woke about nine the next morning. I was surprised at how well I felt after a shower, a shave with Buzz Clark’s razor, and a good breakfast. Neither of us had a hangover, and though I felt a little lazy and weak in the legs, I found that I was ready for anything the day might bring. Jerry, too, was less grave and preoccupied. We went into the library and read the morning papers. There was nothing in them about LeNormand’s death; the story had apparently broken too late, at least, for the out-of-town editions. We read the account of the game the day before. As usual, the papers carried the story as if the game had been a moral victory for State, but they always dislike us, and even bias could not conceal the fact that we’d been on the long end of the score. Bill Bonham’s account in the Record contained a passage I still remember and which confirmed my feeling about that first quarter:
State punched out its first-quarter touchdown with an
impressive display of power and old-fashioned football. The
boys from Brunswick took the ball deep in their own territory,
and in a series of pile-driver bucks and slants drove down to
the University twelve-yard line, where Stanwicz heaved the
leather dead into the arms of Moroney for the score. The
advance had the crowd breathless, and toward the end you
could have heard a pin drop in the big bowl. . . .
“Toward the end you could have heard a pin drop.” He was right, and it recalled to me the odd sense of tension, the surcharge of human emotion and passion I had felt so strongly the afternoon before.
Parsons sent for us as we finished with the papers. Apparently he had shifted his base of operations, for the car drew up in front of the imitation Gothic town hall—in Collegeville everything tries to match the University’s style—and we were shown into the police station in the wing at the right.
To my surprise, Prexy was there, and so was Doc Nickerson. Parsons was sitting at a long table with a lot of papers spread out in front of him. He looked gray-faced and deadly tired, but he mustered up a smile for us.
“Sit down, boys. There’s nothing formal about this. Just want to ask you a few more questions.”
Prexy cleared his throat authoritatively. “I am quite sure, gentlemen, that you will not require the presence of a lawyer at this hearing. Nevertheless, if you wish to have legal advice, you are entitled to demand it.”
“That’s all right,” Jerry said as we took a couple of chairs. “Go ahead, Mr Parsons.”
“When you walked toward the door of the observatory you had it in full view?”
“Yes, though of course it was dark and there was only the one light, and we weren’t watching it consciously.”
“But you are both still positive that no one came out of that door during the time you were walking toward it?”
Jerry paused. “Neither of us saw anyone. The odds are that one of us was looking toward the door every second of the way.”
“Then, from the time you approached the observatory, you don’t believe anyone could have left it without attracting your attention?” Parsons seemed to be aiming the question at me.
“Well,” I said, “not through the door. ”Somebody might have got out through the slot in the dome.“
“They didn’t,” said Parsons grimly. “There’s a wide bed of plants on that side of the building, and anybody leaving that way would be sure to leave traces. There aren’t any.”
Suddenly Jerry stiffened beside me and leaned forward. “There is one way that someone could have got out of the building without our knowing it.”
Prexy looked surprised, but Parsons smiled. “Aha!” Then, after a pause, “Well, Mr. Lister?”
“Whoever did it might have sneaked down the stairs when he heard us at the door, and gone into one of the classrooms. They were dark and we didn’t look in there. Then, when we went up the stairs, he could have slipped out and made his escape.”
Parsons looked triumphant. “You’ve got a head on your shoulders. What do you say, Mr Jones?”
I was puzzled. “I can’t see any reason why it isn’t possible,” I replied.
“But you don’t think it was that way. Why not?”
“Well,” I struggled to find words for an intangible impression, “when we entered the hall I glanced at the two dark open doors of those classrooms. There may have been somebody in one of them, but it didn’t feel that way. It felt like an empty house.” Putting it that way sounded silly to me, but Parsons nodded encouragingly.
“Yes,” he said, “I know the feeling you mean. I often rely on it myself. But in this case,” he looked at us all thoughtfully, “I think we have to decide that that is how the murderer got out of the building.”
“The murderer,” Jerry said. “So you’re sure it is murder?”
“There wasn’t a trace of any organic defect to make it anything else,” said Doc Nickerson.
“Did you look for traces of chemical?” Jerry’s voice was eager.
“Of course, we can’t be positive this early” (the Doc’s voice was positive though), “but I couldn’t find a trace of any such agency. I tested for thermite—” here he grinned at the two of us “—and I’m almost certain nothing of the sort was used. Of course, we won’t be sure until the analyst’s report comes in.”
“So there goes your theory,” observed Parsons with a certain satisfaction. “Now, young feller,” he went on with a pointed look at Jerry, “from what you said last night and what I’ve been able to find out, you used to be a friend of the professor’s. That right?”
Jerry nodded. “Yes, I suppose so. As much of a friend as he ever had, I think.” I noticed Prexy frown a moment at this.
“Then”—Parson’s voice seemed to me to contain an entreaty concealed under its brusqueness— “what about any enemies? Did anyone hate him, do you know?”
“Not to the best of my knowledge.”
“You don’t know of any personal rows he may have had?”
Jerry rubbed his palms together. “Well, he did have an argument with some other astronomers and physicists. But he stopped it of his own accord. In a way, he sort of gave in.”
“Ah. What was this row about?”
“Professor LeNormand wrote a paper called ‘A Fundamental Critique of the Einstein Space-Time Continuum.’ Some of the men in other universities and foundations disagreed with him.”
“And the row was over that?” Parsons sounded disappointed.
“It wasn’t really a row. It was a scientific argument.”
Prexy said smoothly, “That was over two years ago. I am quite sure the whole thing was a closed issue. We all admired LeNormand’s work enormously, but the feeling about the paper was that he had left the—er—solid world of scientific fact a bit too far behind him in this work.”
Parsons nodded. “It’s the kind of murder motive I’ve never been able to believe in myself.” He was silent for several minutes, apparently trying to think of another question to ask us that would make sense. Finally he picked up two folders of typewritten papers. “Here are a couple of statements, one for each of you. Read ’em over and sign ’em.” He shoved them across the table at Jerry and me.
We read them carefully. In mine, at least, there was nothing that I had not said, and that was not, so far as I knew, the literal truth. I signed on the last page, and Jerry did the same with his. Parsons gathered them in, inspected the signatures, and jotted down our New York address.
“Well, boys, I guess that’s all you can do for us at present. Your stories are consistent, and I can’t find a reason for holding you. If you move or anything, keep in touch with us.”
We promised to do so.
“And one more thing. If I was you I wouldn’t talk about this to anybody. See a lawyer if you want to, but don’t talk to the papers.”
“For the protection of the University’s good name,” Prexy said to Parsons but with a weather eye on us, “I am quite sure they will be discreet.”
Again we promised to be good boys.
Parsons stood up and shook hands with us. “You can go now. Thanks for helping us out all you could.”
My own idea was that he was putting on an act for Prexy’s benefit, but it was all to the good so far as we were concerned. The thing could have been much more unpleasant, and certainly we were treated with every consideration. Lightheartedly we left the room and the building. On the sidewalk in front we paused for a moment to discuss our next move, and I felt a hand on my arm. To my surprise it was Prexy.
“Let us walk down the street a little way,” he said. “There is something I want to ask of both of you.”
A little mystified, we turned and started toward the campus. “If we can do anything more—” Jerry began.
“I know”—Prexy’s voice was very careful—“how horrible this has been for both of you. Doubtless you both wish to wash your hands of the whole matter, but I am compelled to ask you to assist me in one more way.” He paused. “By the way, you handled yourselves, in your relations with the police, like gentlemen and University men.” That was, for Prexy, equivalent to giving us the accolade.
“Thank you,” Jerry said. “Of course, if there is anything more we can do, we’ll be only too glad.”
“Good,” said Prexy. He swung us right, down Santvoord Street. “Last night, and again this morning, when I talked with Mrs LeNormand”—he paused to give us the picture of a strong man noble in the accomplishment of even the most heartbreaking of duties—“she expressed a strong desire to see you. Naturally, she wishes to thank you for your courage and intelligence last night.”
Nothing in this world appealed to me less at the moment than the idea of talking to LeNormand’s widow. To me it seemed desirable not to bring the full horror of the tragedy home to her in any concrete, immediate way, such as meeting us and talking with us. No good could come of it, and probably there would be a painful scene. Still, there is an obligation to see a thing through, to do anything requested in a time of disaster.
Apparently Prexy guessed what was going on in my mind. He went on: “I urged her not to harrow herself in this way, and assured her that you would both understand it if she did not see you. But she was very insistent that I should bring you. I consented. You will find her a quiet woman, not prone to hysterics.”
“All right,” said Jerry after a while, “I don’t see how we can refuse, in any case.”
“Thank you,” Prexy said, and the three of us walked along in silence. After a time we turned into Camden Place, and up the walk of the shabby white house where LeNormand had lived. Prexy lifted the brass replica of the Lincoln imp and knocked on the door firmly, three times.
Chapter Five: Beauty for Ashes
JERRY told me afterward that LeNormand’s living room, into which we were shown by a red-eyed domestic, had not changed in a single detail from his recollection of it. The room was square, with two windows on the street and another on a side yard; you entered it from the central hall through a wide double doorway. There were two Morris chairs with faded upholstery, a lumpy-looking sofa with a cretonne cover, several bridge lamps of the sort sold at the co-op for students’ rooms, a small, rather ugly mahogany bookcase with glass doors, and on the walls three or four pictures obviously not selected by the University Art Department. On the center table was a litter of magazines and two untidy ash trays. In short, it was a bachelor’s room and plainly the habitation of a man who did not care much how things looked.
What astonished me was the complete absence of the feminine touch. Brides, particularly those of recent standing, generally make an immediate, if superficial, attack upon the bachelor dowdiness of their husbands’ quarters. They run to new curtains, and vases of flowers, and what they often call “touches of color to brighten the place up a bit.” But there was nothing of that nature here. The room was exactly as it must have been before LeNormand married. The air smelled faintly of tobacco smoke, and I noticed in one of the ash trays a black, battered pipe with the marks of his teeth on the bit. The sight of it irritated me; I felt that it would have been more decent to put it out of sight.
Prexy, Jerry, and I stood around in the room, not quite knowing what to do with ourselves. I wanted to smoke but wondered if it was the proper thing, and decided not. Jerry’s look was fixed almost apprehensively on the open doorway; once he put his hands in his pockets and then took them out again immediately. For no good reason the tune of “Deep in the Heart of Texas” started running in my head. I wanted to whistle it and just caught myself with my lips already puckered. Prexy was studying a mezzotint of an old mill by moonlight as though the thing were the work of a master.
When we heard the sound of steps on the stairs we knew she was coming. It was a slow, uneven tread, with something apathetic in it. Most of all, it seemed to me heavy and slipshod, as though she did not care how clumsily she placed her feet. Then she came into the room.
The human imagination is an odd thing. Prexy had said that some people might consider Mrs LeNormand the most beautiful woman in the world, and my mind had been busy creating an image of the woman to whom, had I been Paris, I should have awarded the golden apple. She did not look anything like the figure I had constructed in my mind. The first thing I saw about her was that she was atrociously badly dressed. Dowdy was the only word I could think of to describe her appearance.
She had on a dark, rough tweed skirt, badly cut, so that the hem line was uneven. Above it was a neutral-color knitted sweater with unbecoming half-length sleeves. Her stockings were the wrong shade for the skirt and her shoes a pair of new Oxfords badly scuffed at the toes. The whole effect was precisely what I should have looked for from LeNormand’s wife, but I had been waiting to see a beautiful woman. My first sensation was one of relief. Grace and her butterfly philosophy of life had made me leery of beautiful women. Prexy’s characterization of Mrs. LeNormand had disturbed me. But this creature—! It would be easy to fob off a few banal and sympathetic remarks and make a swift exit. She was just a person, nothing more.
As I looked at her a second time I saw with a rush of astonishment that I was wholly wrong. The clothes did not belong to her. It was as impossible to imagine her in modern dress as to think of the Winged Victory in tennis shorts. She was tall, almost six feet, and neither slender nor in any place too full. Her hair, untidily collected at the nape of her neck, was the color of winter sunlight, and her eyes, set wide apart below level eyebrows, were a dark, violet blue. Underneath the incongruity of her clothes was a body perfectly integrated, part with part, so that it had the unity of construction and harmony of relationship that great sculptors have now and again succeeded in capturing. In her body, in her hands with their strong, round fingers, in her face, there was strength, beauty, unity.
So far I have not mentioned her face. At the time, except in one particular, it did not appear to me as beautiful as I learned later, through seeing her often, that it was. Her features were strongly modeled and spaced so superbly from the wide, even forehead to the clean, springing line of the jaw that I had an impression of an abstraction or a conscious work of art which expressed not the beauty of a single woman but the essence of all women’s faces. She wore no make-up at all and her skin was so white that it seemed to shine like silver in the shadow of the doorway. Her lips were pale, if anything, but against the clear pallor of her skin they were almost startling. It was almost the face of Pallas Athene, if you like, and yet there was nothing of the goddess about her. Something was missing.
Looking at her as she came toward us, I wondered what it was. I could see no grief or shock in her expression, and not much of anything else. There seemed to be no life in her. As she walked I half expected she would drag her feet with each step. Her face was simply vacant. She hardly looked at us as she came into the living room, and her eyes were withdrawn, as if there was nothing on which it was worth their while to focus. The nearest I can come to a description of her is to say that she was like one of the beggars on a city street whose faces are indifferent to life because they no longer have anything to hope for from it. She was not tragic, or sorrowful, or frightened. She was simply indifferent.
The three of us had unconsciously lined up in an awkward row to meet her. She walked toward us and came to a halt, and I thought for a moment that she was hardly aware of our presence. Her eyes, at any rate, were not fixed on any one of us.
Prexy cleared his throat, bowed, and said, “Mrs LeNormand, may I present Mr Lister and Mr Jones?”
We bowed too, and murmured sounds without meaning under our breaths.
She looked at each of us in turn but did not offer to shake hands or invite us to sit down. Indeed, throughout the whole short, incredible interview— I thought of it as an interview, and not a call or visit —she did nothing that an ordinary woman would do. The glance she gave me when Prexy introduced me was blank, devoid of any expression. I might as well have been a piece of furniture. When she spoke her voice was consistent with the rest of her. It had inflection and beautiful clarity and control, but there was something not in it that I missed. Some color, a small imperfection of tone or accent that would have made it the voice of a person.
She said, “I want to thank you for what you did for my husband.” There was no obvious emotion behind those twelve short words.
Even then, the words themselves were something of a surprise to me. I felt they composed a statement, that they were her idea of the proper, appropriate thing to say. And “my husband!” Why had she not said “for what you did for Walter”— surely it was more natural to use the name she must have called him by? There was in the whole speech a quality I definitely did not like. Perhaps the two first-person pronouns. I looked quickly at Jerry to see what he might be thinking about this woman and what she had just said.
He was muttering something like “sorry we could not have come sooner, been of some real use,” but his expression, the tone of his voice startled me. I had lived too long with him not to know when he was being natural and when not. Decidedly, this was not any side of his character that I knew. He was on the defensive, and not because of the awkwardness of the situation. And it was more than de-fensiveness, it was an awareness of danger. At the time I could not have put it so precisely, but he was like a man who, dining with the Borgias, has just felt the harsh rasp of the poison in the wine but seeks to conceal what he is feeling.
She noticed it, I am positive of that, and for an instant she hesitated, looking at him. Then she said, “It is very good of you to come to see me. President Murray has told me of your bravery.”
She kept on looking at him until Jerry began to flush. And as I watched her I saw something happen to her face. The vacancy of her look began to disappear. Interest came into her eyes. She seemed to collect herself, to shake off some stupor which had been on her, and to return to the present world. It was astonishing, and I did not entirely like it. There was a dispassionate quality to her inspection of Jerry that was far from complimentary. Whatever it was that was waking in her, it had an unusual effect on me. I wanted to take a step backward, to keep it at more than arm’s length until I understood it better. But after all, it was not directed at me. Jerry appeared ill at ease but plainly he did not resent her look as much as I did. He returned it, in fact.
“Yes,” she said again, “you were brave. Both of you.” The second sentence sounded like an afterthought.
We deprecated her praise, told her it was nothing. There was really no bravery in what we had done, or at least it did not seem so to me at the time. Perhaps I was wrong about that, and she was wise. To her the whole thing may have worn a different aspect.
She turned to me and said directly, “He was dead when you found him?”
The entire interview seemed so strange that her question caught me napping. The picture of LeNormand’s eyes moving leaped to my mind, and I must have hesitated a fraction of a second.
“Yes.” Jerry spoke swiftly, emphatically. “I want to tell you, Mrs LeNormand, that when we first saw him his face was very calm. I am sure he suffered no agony at all. The—the details are horrible, I know, but I have the feeling that he must have died without pain.”
“It helps to know that,” she said carefully. After a moment, still looking at Jerry, she went on. “I cannot understand his death. There is no reason for it.”
Prexy said, “You mustn’t think about it.”
“I know,” she replied, “I know. You must not think me strange for asking these questions. The answers to them may help me to stop going over and over it in my mind.”
“If there’s anything more we can tell you—” Jerry said.
She turned to him again with a curious intensity. “It will seem a foolish woman’s question to you, Mr Lister, but he didn’t leave any message, any note, anything to explain what happened to him?”
Jerry shook his head. “There was nothing, Mrs LeNormand. I am sure he did not know he was going to die.”
“No,” she said. “Of course not. But sometimes, when he was staying all night with his telescope, working, he sent me notes to say that he would not be home. If there was such a note as that, I should iike to know of it.”
A little wind had sprung up from the Sound, and the trees were whispering in the dark. Under the starshine the water of the bay was moving, the ripples coming faintly toward us and making the Sound seem like a river, flowing out of invisibility and pouring itself on the shore. As I watched it, the illusion of a current was so perfect that I had to remind myself there was no flow, no current there, but only the eternal, unchanging reservoir of the sea.
“Of course,” I said to Dr Lister, “I can repeat the words we said, or something like them, but I cannot reproduce a conversation. Expression, the posture of bodies, the pitch and timbre of voices, the gestures, are all lost in the retelling.“
He had been listening to me with the most extraordinary attention. “I understand that, naturally. . . Neither of you ever told me what was said when you first met her.”
“It’s odd,” I went on, “how quick one is, at moments like that, to take things at their surface value. When she said to Jerry, ‘It will seem like a foolish woman’s question to you, Mr Lister,’ I think we both accepted her estimate of what she was saying. Now it does not seem at all like a normal question to me. And her story about the notes LeNormand used to send to her. Does that sound credible to you?”
“No,” he answered.
“You see, these are things that I have been fitting together in my mind. They are all small things, but they add up to something.”
He nodded. “You think she knew all along . . . ?” His question did not finish itself; none of the questions I had asked myself over and over ever quite completed themselves.
“When LeNormand died,” I reminded him, “she was at home. The cook was still there, washing dishes. She saw her there, sitting in the living room, three times in that half hour. She could not have done it—physically impossible.”
For several moments he was silent, thinking. “Perhaps there was a plot. Some accomplice.” His voice sounded as if he could think of the answers to that as easily as I.
“She gained nothing by LeNormand’s death. What sort of plot could there have been?”
He nodded. He was beginning to lose some of his confidence in his own power of intellectual analysis, I think.
Her question about a note from LeNormand had astonished me. Never once in Jerry’s picture to me of the man had I got the idea that he was capable of thinking of anything or anyone else after he once started to work. It was impossible to think of him writing: “Darling—can’t make it home for supper. Don’t wait up for me; I’ll be here late.”
“There wasn’t any note,” I blurted out. “We looked at his papers. They were just some equations.”
“Ah,” she said quickly, and her tone did not quite convey disappointment. “Equations.” And then, after a moment, “You mean, just notes about his work?”
“Yes,” Prexy said gently. “Mathematical symbols that he used to express the relationships of things.”
“Thank you.” Her voice was still perfectly level. “I should like to have the last things he used and wrote.” It was a natural sort of request, but somehow it surprised me a little.
“I’m afraid the police will have to keep them, for a time at least.” Prexy sounded almost as though he were explaining something to a child.
“Yes. Yes, of course.”
Jerry said quietly, “I can’t begin to tell you how sorry Bark and I feel about this, Mrs LeNormand. Your husband and I were friends. If there is anything at all we can do for you, please feel that we’ll be only too glad to do it.”
She looked gravely at him for several seconds. “Thank you. It is very kind. If there is anything, I shall most surely call upon you.”
In the awkward pause that followed, Prexy cleared his throat. “Mrs LeNormand,” he said, “if you would like me to get in touch with any members of your family, or his, make any—er—travel arrangements, I shall be only too happy.”
She seemed for the first time at a loss. “I do not know anything about Mr LeNormand’s family. . . . He never spoke of a family. … I don’t know what is the right thing to do.”
We were all deeply surprised, I think, but Prexy recovered himself quickly. “I understand,” he said soothingly. “I shall see what I can find out. Doubtless in England . . . And what about your own family?”
She shook her head. “I have no one to notify.”
“No one?” Prexy’s voice was, for all his control, clearly incredulous.
“No one at all,” she said with a faint smile.
“I see.” But it was plain that Prexy did not see, that she had baffled him, thwarted him in some way not clear to me at the moment.
“When I have had a few days to think this all over,” she went on, “I shall consult you, if I may, as to what is best for me to do.”
“Certainly. I shall be only too glad.” Prexy’s voice sounded stiff.
“Please,” she said, looking at each of us in turn, “do not be too distressed. Do not worry about me. I shall be all right. And do not think of this dreadful thing which has happened. It will be best for all of us not to think too much about it. We must leave it to the police. Thank you all again for coming.” It was an incredible sort of speech for a woman in her situation; without waiting for any reply from us, she turned, left the room, and went up the stairs. I noticed now with what flawless, integrated grace she moved, and how, under her clumsy clothes, her body was a moving statue, incredibly changed into flesh and blood.
For a moment the three of us stood there, staring foolishly after her. The sound of her footsteps died out along the upstairs hall.
“Well!” Prexy’s tone was incredulous and for the instant distinctly irritated, but he covered it up smoothly by going on at once. “Since there is nothing more we can do for Mrs LeNormand—”
We went out at once; I was last through the door, and as I went I felt for an instant as though there was something at my back. The click of the latch behind me was pleasant.
Prexy said good-by to us on the sidewalk in front of the house; he thanked us for coming and promised to keep in touch with us about the progress of the investigation. Again, in a fatherly way, he warned us against talking about what had happened. Then he was off, his broad shoulders square, his step, as Charles Lamb once said, “peremptory and path-keeping.” We watched him go in silence.
“And now, what?” I asked.
“Let’s see if the car is still there,” suggested Terry, “and if it is, let’s get the hell out of this place.” He glanced swiftly up and back at the house behind us as we swung off toward the bowl.
It was a cold, clear Sunday. The November sun lighted every twig of tree and detail of building as we crossed the campus. The chapel bell was tolling with bronze insistence as we walked, and our feet scrunched loudly in the gravel.
Without my overcoat, the air had a shrewd bite to it, and I should have been uncomfortable had I not been too busy thinking to notice how I felt. The interview with Mrs LeNormand, as I went over it in my mind, bothered me more and more. There is no predicting how people will react to tragedy and disaster, and I realized that because Mrs LeNormand had not behaved or spoken as I expected a grief-stricken widow to do, I yet had no right to see anything queer or unnatural about it. But there was a flavor to the interview that eluded me, that I could not put a name to, but which I definitely disliked. I thought of her as she came down the stairs, of the way she looked at us and specially at Jerry, when she talked, of the extraordinary quality of her beauty. I tried to imagine her married to LeNormand, their courtship, their sharing a common bed. It was all incredible. She was no more to be imagined in any of those ways than her magnificence was to be confused with the shabby clothes she had been wearing. I thought about those clothes for a while. I felt that if I could understand them I should have learned something about her.
“Jerry,” I began tentatively, and stopped.
“Those clothes she wore. Did you notice them?”
“No.” There was a suggestion of reproof in his voice, but I disregarded it.
“Well,” I said, “they were terrible. Dowdy and unbecoming and inappropriate and messy and the kind of thing you can imagine a Bryn Mawr senior’s wearing and no one else.”
He glanced at me with a little frown. “I don’t see what you’re trying to say.”
“I was wondering,” I said carefully, “why she dressed like that.”
“Good God,” Jerry replied in amazement, “what do you expect? Paris fashions when her husband’s not yet cold—?” He bit off the end of the sentence.
“Easy, easy,” I said. “Whatever she wore this morning, it had to be something she already had. I can’t believe a woman like that would ever dress herself in that skirt, that sweater, those shoes.”
He saw that I was in earnest. “Well, I didn’t notice especially what she had on, but I’ll take your word that it offended your aesthetic eye.” He paused and said, half to himself, “Though if you have an aesthetic eye—well, shoot, what’s on your mind?”
“Well,” I went on doggedly, feeling foolish, “I just wondered if LeNormand had bought those clothes for her.”
“It’s possible. What of it?”
“Several things of it. One is that I never got the idea from you or from LeNormand the few times I saw him that he was the sort who would buy any woman clothes, not even his wife.”
Jerry grinned. “No, you’re right there. But the only thing that proves is he probably didn’t buy them after all.”
I tried again, another way. “She is a very beautiful woman,” I said, “and beautiful women almost always know they are. And they don’t dress to conceal the fact.”
“She didn’t conceal it.”
“Damn it,” I said, “you don’t get the point. Those clothes were too wrong for her even to own them. For one thing, she’s too intelligent—”
That was it, of course! Why hadn’t I realized it before? She was too intelligent. Too intelligent. For all her beauty and her strangeness, it was the quality of mind that had most impressed me about her. The way she had questioned us, the precision and calculation of everything she had said after the first minute or so came back to me in a rush. She had not been speaking from grief or even loneliness. There had been something she wanted to find out from us, something she had found out from us. Perhaps more than one thing. At any rate, she had cross-examined us mercilessly and directly, and I’d been such a dunce I had not even realized she was doing it. I felt my mental pulse begin to quicken. If that was so, what did it mean?
The first conclusion I came to was a disappointing one. Neither her beauty nor any mystery about her was necessary to explain her marriage to LeNormand. He had met someone intellectually equal to himself. She was a woman, and so he had married her. Perhaps she had been as surprised, as glad as he must have been to find, in a world of little people thinking small, imprecise thoughts, a person of the same intellectual size and efficiency. The very fact, I thought, that LeNormand was such a lonely man, so little in need of people, must have made the attraction between them deep and strong. It was natural they should have married, natural even, I had to admit, that she should care nothing at all for clothes. Perhaps it was inevitable that she had reacted to the news of his death in a purely mental, impersonal sort of way. The quality they had in common would make anything more customary for the rank and file of humanity out of place—a psychological absurdity. People with minds as strong and clear as I realized upon reflection hers must be were more likely to be stoical and self-contained. I began to feel I’d been scenting mystery where there was none.
“I don’t see,” Jerry was saying, “what intelligence has to do with the clothes a woman wears, necessarily.”
“All right,” I conceded somewhat crossly, “forget it. I had an idea, but on second thought it isn’t so hot.”
“One thing,” said Jerry. “It’s no mystery now why LeNormand married her. Prexy was right. She damn well is the most beautiful woman in the world.“
“She’s certainly one of the most intelligent.”
“Maybe.” He did not sound particularly interested.
“You needn’t try to be that way,” I said to him, with a little prickle of annoyance beginning to come into my tongue, “I saw you look at her when she started to cross-examine us.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“Listen,” I said to him patiently, “when she began asking us all those questions, I saw you go on guard. Mentally, I mean. You got something right then that I’ve only just doped out.”
“For Christ’s sake, Bark!” His voice was sharp for an instant and he checked himself immediately afterward. Then he looked at me and grinned. “No man can remain a mystery to his roommate, I suppose. Well—” he paused and thought a moment— “you’re about half right. Something did go through my mind. I’ll admit that. You go on looking into the crystal globe of my character a bit more, and you ought to be able to tell what it was.”
He was nice about it, but the snub was there just the same. We walked on in silence, I a good deal annoyed at him and he apparently sunk in some thought that did not include me or my annoyance.
The car was still there, solitary in the parking field and looking like a monument. We got in it and started back to New York without saying anything more. It was bitter cold and we stopped once along the way to have a drink from Jerry’s flask.
All the way back there was an emptiness inside me, a Sunday Weltzschmerz, due, I suppose, to nervous fatigue. Perhaps a few more drinks or a couple of sodamints would have cured the feeling of foreboding which haunted me, but I don’t believe so. Some subliminal part of my mind must have understood that the die of the future was cast, and that Jerry and I were headed toward different lives from any we had known thus far.
Chapter Six: What Seems So Is Transition
THERE is one thing to be said for Mondays. They take the mind off everything else. When I reached my desk the morning after our return to New York, it was three feet deep in unpleasantly persistent folders from the tickler file. By the time I had worked my way to the bottom of the heap it was six in the evening, and I headed down toward our Greenwich Village apartment with almost nothing in my head but plans for the next day’s work and an increasing enthusiasm for a shower and a leisurely presupper cocktail.
Although the stories in the papers had been sensational, none of them mentioned Jerry’s name or mine, and only one or two referred to the fact that the body had been found by “two young graduates of the institution.” Most of the reporters seemed to feel that it made a better story to have Prexy discover what had happened to LeNormand, and he had been drawing an infamous quantity of publicity. I was well content to let him have it all, and more than a little grateful to him and Parsons for not giving our names to the press.
Jerry had a fire going in the grate, and the cocktail shaker was already standing on the coffee table in front of the sofa. I took a quick shower, with a drink before and after, and felt fine. Then I went out to the kitchen and fixed supper. It was my week to cook and Jerry’s to wash dishes. We ate heartily, but without conversation, and I left him washing the dishes. His only comment was that when I cooked a meal I used every utensil in the kitchen.
Before he came back into the living room I made a discovery that left me distinctly unhappy. The drop leaf of the desk was down, and a partly written letter in Jerry’s hand was lying on the blotter. Without meaning—or wanting—to, I read the salutation. It was:
My dear Mrs LeNormand—
It gave me an odd start to see her name, and although my first thought was that perhaps I, too, ought to write her some sort of note of condolence, the more I considered it the more out of place a letter from us—either of us—seemed to me to be. Perhaps Jerry had thought of something else that he wanted to tell her, but I doubted it. The only other idea that occurred to me was that he wanted to write to her, and the implications of that were not entirely plain to me.
After a while he came in from the kitchen and sat down at the desk; he never even glanced in my direction, but began to go on with the letter. I tried to read. The scratch of his pen across the paper distracted me.
“If you’re writing to Dad,” I said, “tell him from me that his Irish whisky saved my life.”
He didn’t look up. “Oke,” he said, and his pen went on steadily.
I turned on the radio, feeling pretty cheap as I did it.
“For God’s sake,” said Jerry, “shut the damn thing off. I can’t think with all that noise.”
I flipped the switch and sat down in another chair, feeling restless. There is something irritating about having a person write a letter in the room where you are; I always want to interrupt them, and jn this case I wanted to more than usual. After a few moments Jerry got up and took a book out of the bookcase, glanced at it, and carried it over to the desk. Some insane impulse prompted me to say
“I did but see her passing by,
Yet will I love her—”
“Damn you!” Jerry whirled round in his chair. “Did you see this letter?”
“I don’t have to,” I told him. “Remember sophomore year? You used up half Palgrave’s Golden Treasury on that babe from Poughkeepsie. I know the symptoms.”
His face was white. He stared at me for a minute, and I wondered if he was counting ten before he spoke. “And you don’t approve?” he asked politely.
Then I had a choice to make. Either I could provoke him to the point where we’d have a row — and it was really less painful and injurious to go through a mangle head first than row with Jerry when he was angry—or I could turn the whole thing off with a decent remark, in which case the tension would subside. The trouble with the second method was that sometimes it left a rankling sore, and besides, I wasn’t sure but what it would be better to have Jerry mussing up my back hair with his customary athletic thoroughness, unpleasant though the process would be for me. It might snap him out of the whole thing.
“As a matter of fact,” I said as cuttingly as I could, “I did accidentally see the salutation of your letter. You shouldn’t have left it out. And I don’t approve.” The look on his face, the slight narrowing of his eyes, told me that he was getting ready to take positive action, and suddenly the impression came over me that this would not be like the other swift-brewed, swift-forgotten rows we had had in the past. “But I’ve acted pretty stinking about it,” I told him, “and I’m sorry for that.”
He put his pen down slowly and went over to the sofa. I couldn’t tell what he was thinking about.
“It doesn’t really matter whether you approve or not,” he said, but his tone was almost questioning.
I admitted the truth of that.
For a while he lay on the sofa and looked up at the ceiling. “I know what you’re thinking,” he said. “We could have a row about it if you—if we— liked. Brothers always have the nastiest sort of fights, because they’re really civil wars.”
I couldn’t refuse that olive branch. “Hell,” I told him, “I don’t want to fight.” I searched my mind to make what I felt clear enough for words. “I’m more worried, I guess, than anything. Mondays are always foul.”
He nodded and then looked across at me. “Why does my writing to her worry you?”
I couldn’t put it specifically. “It’s just that she’s I don’t know how to phrase it. She’s not your type.”
He lay back on the sofa and laughed until I began to get mad at him. “My God, Bark! I suppose if the Old Man sends me down to City Hall tomorrow, and you hear about it, you’ll think I’ve gone down for a marriage license!”
“Only one nut, and you’re it.” He stopped grinning, and went on sadly. “I want to ask her when the funeral is going to be. I think it would be decent for me to go, don’t you?”
My face began to feel hot. “Will you excuse it, please?” I said to him, and then, less flippantly, “I forgot about that. I’m an ass.”
“Okay, forget it.” He went back to the desk, finished the letter in a minute or two, and took it but to the mailbox right away. When he came back he had an evening paper with him, and we read over the account of the case in it. Nobody seemed to have found out anything, nobody was giving any interviews, and the only new item in the whole story was a picture of Mrs LeNormand. Even in that inferior reproduction the extraordinary, sculptural quality : of her face came out strongly.
We went to bed early because we were tired and neither of us wanted to run the risk of further talk, but as I was dropping off to sleep, something slipped back into my mind, and I spoke into the darkness of the room.
“Just why in hell did you need a book of poems to ask her when the funeral was going to be?”
“You go to hell.”
Instead, I went to sleep.
He lit another cigarette and said, “You never told me about that episode.”
“It isn’t one I’m very proud of.”
“Then you are telling it to me for a purpose.”
“Yes,” I said, and paused. The night was luminous around us. Starshine is the lovely word for the light that is faintly implicit in the dark of a clear and moonless night. But it is not, the greater part of it, a radiance from the stars. Jerry once told me that most of it was caused by the fact that the gravitational field of the earth bends the rays of energy from the sun around the curve of the earth and causes the whole upper air of the night to glow dimly from the molecules which those rays strike and excite.
The tip of his cigarette turned red-white for a moment. “And your purpose is . . . ?”
“To explain how he felt, even then. Except when it was a question of her, Jerry was never . . . devious . . . like that. From the very first, you see, he was different about her. He must have felt that there was something not quite right . . . I’m not being very clear.”
“I understand you,” he said, and turned to look out across the Sound.
The funeral was that Thursday. Jerry took the whole day off to go to it, but I sent some flowers and stayed in the city. I knew he did not want me to go with him, and there was no real reason why I should. Several times during the day I had a momentary feeling of uneasiness, though when I stopped to think about it I was not just sure why I should feel that way. Once I detected myself wishing flatly that I had gone along.
When I got back to the apartment, Jerry was already home. He looked tired, and quiet, and somber in his dark suit and black tie. After a few tentative remarks I discovered that he did not want to talk, and silence suited me just as well. When you have roomed together as long as Jerry and I had, it is almost like a marriage. There are plenty of times when it is more comfortable simply not to talk, and our silence was a friendly one.
After supper Jerry poured himself a drink and looked across at me. “They buried him out at the Clear Brook cemetery.”
“Oh,” I said.
He twirled his glass in his fingers. “I arranged for the stone. She asked me to.” He paused and stared into the amber of the whisky. “She asked me what to put on the stone.”
I couldn’t think what to say to him about that. It was all of a piece, I thought, with her behavior when we called at her house that Sunday morning.
He said slowly, “I told her just his name, and his dates and S.T.T.L.”
I was startled. “Why that?” I asked him.
“LeNormand wasn’t a Christian exactly. . . He was a scientist. And I remembered your telling me that the Romans always put that on their tomb-stones.”
The whole idea was astonishing to me. Why should Mrs LeNormand have asked Jerry about the details of her memorial to her husband? A moment ago it had seemed natural to me, because it was consistent with her behavior at that strange interview with her last Sunday. Now, it seemed to me that the only rational element in the two episodes was their common denominator of strangeness. Neither of them was to be understood in common, human terms. “S.T.T.L.!” I thought of the inscription on a grave far out along the Via Appia outside Rome, a stone that an ancient Roman matron had erected for her husband, T. Sulpicius Arva. That, like so many of the others, had borne those initials, and I remembered my telling Jerry about it and what it meant—Sit tibi terra levis.
“May the earth lie light upon thee,” I murmured half to myself.
“Yes,” Jerry said, and then, after a moment, “He wasn’t really a Christian, and I don’t think she is.”
“I know,” I said curiously, “but he wasn’t a. pagan, either; and even if she does look like a living Praxiteles, I doubt if she is.”
He looked a little embarrassed. “Well, maybe it wasn’t the right thing, but she was so proud, so steady, so in command of herself that I thought of her as one of those Roman matrons, and the whole thing just came into my mind. It seemed appropriate, somehow.”
“Oh,” I said. Then what I had taken for an intellectual coldness that came from the mind because heart was not involved in Mrs LeNormand’s reaction to her husband’s horrible death had seemed to Jerry a stoic, Roman suppression of emotion. Well, maybe he was right. I began to see her in a new light, even to discard some of the hostility that my one encounter with her had aroused. Perhaps I had not been entirely fair.
“Hell,” I said to Jerry, “it was a swell idea. It just surprised me at the moment. I see the reason for it now.” Another thought came into my mind. “Who else was there?”
He stared into his glass and finally said, “Just she and I and Prexy and old Doc Lassiter from the Math Department.” There was pain in his voice. “Hardly any flowers, even. It was rotten. I felt sorry for her.”
“What’s she going to do now, I wonder?” And I found suddenly that I was intensely curious; what new niche could such a woman as Mrs LeNormand find in life? She had told Prexy and Parsons that she had no family. Apparently, then, she had no home to which she could go back. Life in Collegeville, surely, would prove almost intolerable to her under the circumstances, even if her strange beauty— I cut that thought off right there.
Jerry did not look at me as he replied. “I told her that she ought to get away. She can’t stay on there, Bark, it would be plain hell. She needs to get away someplace where the life would be different, and take her mind off what’s happened. Someplace where she could disappear from sight, find new friends and a new interest in life. Don’t you think that’s the dope?” The entreaty in his voice was plain. He looked at me half defiantly, half pleadingly.
Naturally, I knew then what else he had said to her. He had told her to come to New York. I faced the issue squarely; subconsciously I must have known all along what sort of effect she could have on Jerry, and no matter what I thought of her there was no possibility of evading the ultimate issue. And just as you know at the very outset of a Greek tragedy that the gods have willed a full carload of grief for the protagonists, so now I felt certain that if Jerry and Mrs LeNormand were to fall in love with each other there could be no happy ending to it. It was not my affair beyond a certain point, and I felt instinctively certain that that point had already been passed. Tragic though the outcome might be, there was nothing for me to do now.
“Well,” I observed as casually as I could, “the obvious place is New York.”
He nodded and gave me a grateful look. “That’s what I told her.”
“And what, Mr Bones, did she say to that?”
“I think she agreed. She told me she hadn’t made any plans as yet, but she’s going to let me know if she comes to the city.” He was silent for a moment, and his eyes were withdrawn. I guessed that he, too, was looking ahead and weighing things in his mind. Then he smiled, as though he had thought of something pleasant. “When she does come, we’ll have to rally round and give her a good time.”
“Sure,” I said, making the mental reservation that it probably wasn’t in me to give that woman a good time but that she’d never miss me so long as Jerry was on hand.
For a while, then, the conversation came to a full stop. Neither of us could think of a way of getting it going again, though I could see that Jerry had something else he wanted to say if he could find the right formula. He took one or two thoughtful pulls on his highball.
“Listen,” he said finally, “I know you think this whole thing is crazy. Probably it is. But to tell you the honest truth, I was wondering if Grace . . .” He stopped and looked at me.
I couldn’t imagine why he should mention her at this juncture. My mother is one of the most de-lightful women in the world from one point of view. From more than one point of view. In fact, Grace is a wonderful woman who was simply not designed by God to be a mother. She is gay and charming, still looks only about thirty, dances superbly, dresses in the most flawless taste, has a notable flair for in-terior decoration, reads a lot more books than you’d suspect, and lives the ideal life for her with Fred Mallard. He inherited about a million dollars at the age of twenty-one and wisely retired from life’s more strenuous battles. The two of them travel over Europe and America together, dance, drink, make love to each other—they’re a disgustingly devoted couple—move into a different apartment every year just to have the fun of fixing up a new place, collect various minor sorts of objets d’art, and are generally as delightfully ornamental additions to the theory of the leisure class as you could hope to find. They have a vitality about everything they do that is practically indistinguishable from youth, but it is never obtrusive.
But Jerry’s half-finished question about Grace startled me. He and she had always got on superbly together—partly because she was so grateful to Jerry’s father for virtually adopting me and hence removing the problem of little Berkeley Jones from the bright lexicon of her life with Fred. Jerry, I knew, had always liked her, and recently, as he had got old enough to appreciate her, I think she had begun to delight him. After all, of her sort she is perfect and irresistible, and Jerry, to whom she was indirectly indebted and for whom she was not in any way responsible, was really a protégé of hers. She used to labor over his taste, give him subtle little presents of a bit of chinoiserie, or a rather overornamental dressing gown for Christmas, in what I feel sure was a campaign to feminize his solidly masculine taste.
But where, I asked myself, did Grace fit into the idea that Jerry was trying to convey to me? I could not believe that he had any notion of chaperonage. I decided to be blunt. “Where does Grace come in? I can’t see what—”
“I know,” he said quickly. “But she—Mrs LeNormand—doesn’t know a soul in town, and I thought maybe Grace could—”
The idea struck me as supremely funny. I laughed long and loud, perhaps a little too long and loud. “Jerry, for God’s sake!” I finally managed to get out. “Grace is not the person. Not now, for Lord’s sake!” I could see Grace trying to organize sober little dinner parties of intellectuals and the kind of social start that would be possible for the recent widow of a college professor.
He looked pained at my laughter, and a little embarrassed. “Sometimes, Bark, I think you don’t appreciate your mother.”
“Of course, I appreciate Grace, but what could she do?”
Jerry hesitated. “She could talk to her and, well,” his voice got a bit defiant, “she could sort of tell her things.”
“Tell her things?” I couldn’t see at what he was driving. “What sort of things?”
He got red and looked away. “Things like how to fix your hair right and where you get clothes, and all that woman’s stuff.”
My first temptation was to laugh again, but I stifled it. This was the kind of conversation that seems silly and pointless on top, but underneath I knew that we were working out something, and that it would be easy to say one really wrong thing and thereby close a door that we might need to keep open. I began to see, too, that Jerry was a man with a fixed idea, and that he had gone far enough with it to map out a plan of campaign. I was still wondering just what he was trying to prove when he stood up and started toward the kitchen with his empty glass in his hand.
“You see,” he said, with his receding back toward me so that I could neither see his face nor have time for a reply, “I got to thinking about all that stuff you said last Sunday, and she does wear pretty terrible clothes.” The kitchen doorway swallowed him.
I filled my pipe slowly and tried to figure just where we were at this point. One thing stood out plainly: there was nothing hypothetical about Mrs LeNormand’s coming to town. It must be pretty well understood or Jerry would not have begun counting on Grace to make Mrs LeNormand over into the well-dressed woman. But that presented me with another thought, one that on closer inspection I did not care so much for. It meant that Mrs LeNormand had been easy to persuade about coming to New York. Either she had been planning it ahead of time, or Jerry had had little difficulty in selling the idea to her. There was no reason why she should not come to the city, that I could see, and certainly no special reason why she should. Unless . . . unless the only reason she had to go anyplace was the slight one of Jerry and her slender contact with him. Perhaps that reason was more compelling than I liked to think about.
The whole situation appeared to me strange and made me uneasy, with a feeling of anxious uncertainty that was not related to the past. By that I mean I was not now thinking about the death of LeNormand, and the horror of his body burning in that chair under the round, gray dome of the observatory. Instead, it seemed to me that whatever it was I dreaded lay in the future. There was something less than final about LeNormand’s death anyhow. Even then I was sure that it would not be solved by the police, at least until they discovered the motive for it. I wondered if Mrs LeNormand knew the motive. If she did, apparently she had not confided it to the police, for they, to judge by the papers, were making no headway at all.
Well, it was plain that she was coming to New York, for unless that was so, I knew that Jerry wouldn’t have brought up the matter of Grace, and her function as a civilizing influence on Mrs LeNormand. For an instant I let my mind play with the probable progress of that experiment, and the ultimate complete annihilation of poor Grace’s lightly gay efforts (most of her efforts were lightly gay, but generally they were effective) to make a silk purse out of … out of what? Out of the most beautiful woman in the world. Grace, I considered, would be definitely fighting out of her class and would not be able to accomplish anything. How wrong my imagination was in this respect I was not to find out till later.
Jerry came in from the kitchen.
“Listen,” I said to him, “let’s quit this beating around the bush. There’s no point in it. When is Mrs LeNormand coming to New York?”
I started to say “Jesus!” in surprise, and then choked it off. The surprise lasted only a fraction of a second, but the cold inner conviction of alarm stayed with me all night. It was too soon. It was too swift. It had passed out of the realm of things that are odd and unpleasant into a sphere where they are so odd that their cumulative effect is terrifying.
Chapter Seven: Trifles Make the Sum
ALWAYS before, when I have thought back to the weeks between Selena LeNormand’s coming to New York and Jerry’s marriage to her, it has seemed to me that nothing important happened in them. And yet the small things might have added up to much more than I made of them at the time. I think now that my psychological state blinded me to a good deal that a more sensible man would have noticed and added together.
Jerry was a man in love. He was certain that Selena was the only woman in the world, and looking at her magnificent beauty it was not hard to understand why he thought so. There are undoubtedly a number of more valid reasons for loving a woman than her beauty, but I have never heard of a beautiful woman who went through life unloved by any man. If I had not formed a deep dislike of her, tinged somehow with fear, at that first meeting, I am sure I should have been in love with Selena myself. As it was there were times, particularly after Grace had taken the clothes question in hand, when it stopped my breath to look at her.
From the very start it was obvious that she was attracted by Jerry. When I saw them together I could never be sure that she loved him, but remembering the change that came into her face when she first saw him, in LeNormand’s house in Collegeville, I never doubted his power to affect her deeply in some way that was not at all clear to me. I don’t believe there was a single minute from the beginning when she did not intend to marry him.
One of my reasons was that she never paid the slightest attention to any other man. Judging her by other women, as I used to do in those days, I considered she must be in love with him. Now I think that she intended to marry Jerry for two reasons. The first was that he could give her something that no other living man could. When they were together she depended on him as though she were an alien and Jerry a fellow countryman of hers. That was natural enough when you remember that Jerry had been almost the only friend of LeNormand. Though it sounds absurd to put it so melodramatically, her second reason must have been that she was afraid not to marry him. He was the best alternative which presented itself to her, and he gave her, I now believe, more understanding than anyone else could have. And in that fact lay her chief danger and his.
Of course, I am being clearer and more definite about the relationship between them now than I was at the time. The weeks when their romance, if you could call it that, was developing were miserable ones for me. It was impossible for me to like Selena, and Jerry knew that. The fact made relations between us awkward and uncomfortable. Yet it was not a fact that either of us could refer to openly. I had to put up some appearance of pleasure in his happiness, and it was a strain. Part of the time I felt like a hypocrite. Our two immediate families were the only people, I thought, who guessed what was going on, and I could not talk to them because I would seem selfish and ungracious if I confided my misgivings about Selena. Many times I decided to go and talk the whole thing over with Grace, but there was the question of my loyalty to Jerry.
My solution to the quandary I was in was not the wisest one in the world. I spent all the time I could eating, drinking (a good deal of that), working, and sleeping. In every way I could I tried to conceal how unhappy I was and put up a presentable front. Inwardly, my solution was to think as little as possible. The result was that between alcohol and a self-induced obtuseness to events I managed to overlook the actual meaning of several episodes.
The first of them happened a few days after Selena LeNormand came to town. As Jerry requested, I had explained the problem to Grace. Grace is an acute person, in her way, and when I talked to her beforehand about the situation and what she was supposed to do, I think she fathomed my feelings, and I know she was prepared for something out of the ordinary.
Jerry and I had gone round to the latest decorator’s delight in which Grace and Fred were living. The walls of the living room were, some of them, leaf green, and others a dull, twilight sort of blue. The furniture was upholstered in dull silver-colored cloth, and there was one of those Brancusi streamline things in an alcove at one end of the room, indirectly lighted, so that it gave you the feeling of an evening star. The place was magnificent, and exactly like a stage set. We both goggled at it; they’d only moved in a month or so before, and though we were used to Grace’s apartments, this one was a stronger dose than usual.
“Well, darling,” I said to her, “this is positively one of your nobler efforts.”
She smiled at me, and said, “Yes, isn’t it rather sweet? I’ve always loved these colors and meant to have a room in them someday.”
Jerry was surveying the place with a look of amused interest; his eye lit on the Brancusi thing and he smiled briefly, then sat down tentatively at one end of the big sofa. Grace saw his glance.
“I do hope you approve, Jeremiah,” she said in the tone of a woman who is talking at the bridge table to cover up a finesse she intends to try.
He nodded at the wall niche. “That thing there is good. I like it.”
Grace was taken aback. I could see that she had hoped to be able to tease him with it. To find him approving the most extreme item of a décor carried to the far edge of extremity puzzled her. But she rallied nobly. “I knew you would, my precious.”
Jerry dismissed it with his highest praise. “It’s almost pure mathematics.”
Grace sat down somewhat abruptly at the other end of the sofa, lit a cigarette—mercifully not one of her special, imported ones—and said, “Your friend telephoned a few minutes ago. She has a lovely voice.”
Jerry said, “Hasn’t she?” in a noncommittal tone.
Grace gave him her quick smile and crossed her legs. “Poor Fred had to go out tonight. They’re doing something or other at the Brook Club.”
“Probably drinking again,” I suggested. Grace and Jerry let the remark go.
“Anyway,” she went on, “I think we can get along without him for one night.”
I saw that she did not mean to let Jerry off easily. She had deliberately got Fred out of the way for the occasion, but she meant him to know it and appreciate the fact.
Jerry landed one of his rare quick lefts to the chin. “Thank you,” he said.
I laughed, and Grace gave me a little snoot of mock irritation.
“She said she was on her way,” Grace went on.
Jerry said, nervously, “This is very good of you.”
“Nonsense,” said Grace. “I’m complimented, my pet, really. Two tributes to my taste, from you, in the same week!” She waved her cigarette toward the Brancusi. “But, of course—” and she grew quite serious, for her—“I am not altogether comfortable about this, Jerry my lad.”
He looked at her calmly. “I know,” he said, “You have scruples. You think maybe you ought to tell Dad.”
Grace looked genuinely shocked. “Heavens, no. Not that. But“—and she sighed delicately and so perfectly that I couldn’t tell whether she meant it or not—”I don’t approve of getting serious about life, and matrimony, and the opposite sex, at your tender age. I did, and I know now that I should have waited and played around a few more years.“
Jerry said doggedly, “I’ve thought about all that.”
“And you’re determined to be unreasonable?” Grace cocked an eyebrow at him.
“Yes,” he said firmly.
“Very well,” she told him. “Very well. I shall do my part—that is, if it’s possible. Now tell me something about your young woman, Jerry. Bark’s so hopeless at describing people.”
I had been at pains to give Grace a detailed picture of Selena, but not an altogether flattering one. Something of my personal bias had shone through, and Grace, like a conscientious workman, wanted to get the specifications direct from the drafting room.
The doorbell rang exactly then, and Grace got up at once to answer it. Jerry, sitting on the sofa, began to rub his hands together and stare at the pearl-gray carpet. I got up, uncertainly, and put my hands in my pockets. After a moment Jerry rose too, and moved toward the foyer. We could hear Grace’s light, gay voice saying things like “My dear, it’s so nice to meet you,” and the quiet, perfect modulation of Selena’s voice answering.
They came into the room, and as I saw Selena again, the prickle went down my spine. She was tall —a whole head taller than Grace, and she moved down the room toward us with the long, free stride of an Italian hill-village woman. I looked at her face, wondering why I could not like her and if there would be anything in her expression that I could get hold of and put a name to in my own mind. There was nothing, or almost nothing. It seemed to me that her mouth was deliberately curved into a smile and that her eyes were wary. At any rate, she took in the room with one instant glance, but it had no visible effect on her.
This time she was wearing a black evening dress, and the white-silver of her arms and shoulders and throat was unforgettable. But the dress itself was hopeless. I saw Grace purse up her lips momentarily when she looked at it. For one thing it was cheap, and a little too short for her. Then, more than anything else, it was vulgar. Glittering black sequins which were too large, and all wrong anyway. The line in front was too extreme, and at no place did the thing really fit her. Worst of all, there was a sort of girdle around the waist made to imitate braided gold and fastened in front with a large buckle containing a sizable fragment of ruby glass, Much, if it had been what it pretended to be, would have been worth a young fortune.
This time I noticed something about her hands. The fingers were long, and round, and gave the impression of tremendous force and strength. They were lovely, but aside from being scrupulously clean, they were quite uncared for. The nails were untinted, and short—not even polished.
We sat down, and Grace smiled at all of us, reassuringly. Jerry and I were covertly staring at Selena, though I suspect with very different expressions, and Grace was looking at Jerry almost as though she did not trust herself to join us in an inspection of Selena.
“This is a very interesting room,” Selena said. Her tone conveyed to me that she meant the words literally. The room interested her.
“I’m so glad you like it.”
“Grace,” I said, somewhat heavy-footedly, “is a good bit of an interior decorator. She takes a fresh apartment every year, just for the fun of trying a new stunt with it.” I can remember still how inane my own voice sounded as I delivered myself of that conversational gem.
To my surprise, Selena turned to me and said, “New things are always an adventure.”
Grace started, and looked pleasantly surprised, but Selena’s next comment aborted whatever hope she may have been feeling.
She had turned and was looking at the Bran-cusi, a good twenty feet from where we were sitting. It glowed there in its niche, a cylinder of perfectly symmetrical polished brass, tapered at each end to a point. “Ah!” Selena’s vioce was coolly regretful. “What a pity it isn’t perfect.”
Jerry and Grace were floundering. “Why—” said Grace, and “What is—” said Jerry, simultaneously.
I thought this was the best chance I was likely to have, and I leapt at it. “If it were perfect,” I said to her quickly, “it would not be beautiful.” The thing looked flawlessly symmetrical to me, I’ll admit, but I had to find out what she would do when attacked.
Jerry scowled a little and looked as if he did not like what I had said, but Selena turned to me with something that I thought was real interest.
“Then you think it is beautiful,” she said in the tone of someone making an incontrovertible observation.
Grace laughed easily, and probably sincerely, stood up, and beckoned to me. “Bark and I will go fix some drinks. I need him to get the ice out of the frigidaire; this one is a very stubborn case.” It was flat, not at all up to Grace’s standard, but it had to serve. We left the room to Selena and Jerry.
Once in the pantry, Grace leaned against the dish cupboard, stared at me, and said, “How old is that woman?”
It was something that had not occurred to me before. I ran over her image in my mind. She was obviously young. How old were the Greek girls in the frieze of the Parthenon? “Oh,” I hazarded a guess, “around twenty, I suppose.”
“You think so?” I could see that I had surprised her. “You don’t like her enough to be charitable,” she said with a grin, “but I should have guessed she was at least thirty-five.”
Thirty-five! I couldn’t believe it for a minute, but Grace was damnably shrewd about other women. While I melted the cubes out of a couple of trays of ice I reviewed Selena again, mentally. Grace was watching me with an expression of bright interest on her face.
“You can’t be right,” I said finally. “There isn’t a line on her face.”
Grace nodded. “No, my lamb. But the eyes.”
“What about her eyes?”
“Well,” said Grace slowly, “they aren’t the eyes of a girl who’s just lost her husband in a dreadful sort of—accident. They aren’t the eyes of a girl at all, really.”
“All right,” I conceded. “They aren’t the eyes of a girl.”
“There you go again,” said Grace. “I can’t imagine how I came to have such a stuffy child. Your father was rather sweet, you know.”
The ice finally and reluctantly separated itself from the last tray. As I tossed the cubes into the bucket with what I hoped was an air of indifference, I said, “You still haven’t told me how her eyes tell you she is thirty-five.”
Grace shrugged. “You need to have everything so literal. Look into them the next time. They are wise eyes, cool and wise.” She said nothing for a minute, then she laid her arm on my shoulder. “She is not my sort, Bark my angel, but I think she is lovely. I’ll do my best with her, for Jerry’s sake and yours.”
She always made me cross when she talked like that; it was as much a pose with her, and as little, as everything else she said and did. I looked at her hard, and said, “Look here, Grace . . .” and stopped.
“I know,” she said lightly, “don’t be difficult. I don’t like her any more than you do, but”—and she looked me in the eye firmly and with a certain twinkle—“we both owe a lot to Jerry, my pet, and I’m going to give him just what he wants. He’s made up his mind anyway.” And she slid through the pantry door with the tray of glasses, leaving me to follow with the ice bucket.
The rest of the evening passed somehow. I tried to decide whether Selena was as old as Grace thought she was, and couldn’t. The conversation was jerky and unreal; Grace did her best to get it started, but somehow every subject was stillborn. She mentioned Noel Coward’s latest play, but apparently Selena had never heard of it or him. I tried football and books, but neither of them was a subject that Selena appeared to care about in the slightest. If Jerry could have appeared ill at ease, he would have that evening; I knew him well enough to know that he was desperately uncomfortable. He eagerly seconded all Grace’s attempts at small talk, and all three of us drank a good deal in an inconspicuous sort of way. As for Selena, I had wondered what liquor would do to her. She tasted her highball almost curiously at first, without any expression of either pleasure or distaste. Later, after we had had a couple of rounds, she drank about half her first glass. A moment later she set it down on the table and looked at it with a fleeting expression that seemed to me at the time to have been surprise or wonder, and never touched her drink again for the entire evening.
Grace was really superb. She led the talk around to the question of the winter styles with all the finesse of a children’s photographer arranging a difficult grouping. She asked Selena what she thought of the new something-or-other hats.
Selena thought a moment. “I don’t think,” she said finally, “that I have noticed them.”
“But, my dear,” said Grace instantly, “you simply must. They’re so absolutely right for you. Do let me take you round to my man. He makes all my hats for me. Designs them individually.”
Jerry struck in quickly. “You know, I think Grace is right. They’d be stunning on you.”
Selena looked at him quickly, and there was something in her look that was, if not warm, at least eager. Then she turned to Grace. “That is very kind of you, Mrs Mallard. I’d like to have you help me, if you would. I am afraid I’ve not been paying the proper attention to clothes.”
There was nothing to say in the face of a remark like that. Jerry colored a little around the collar, and I looked hard across the room and tried to keep my face impassive. Grace was not apparently affected by it, but what she said next was, I think, designed to draw a little blood.
“Of course not,” she said sympathetically; “you haven’t any reason to. But when you’re my age, my dear—”
Selena studied her for a moment; I half expected her to ask Grace just what her age was, and began metaphorically reaching for my hat. Instead, she smiled, and said, “You must excuse me. I am afraid I am not accustomed—” and then stopped suddenly. It was the first time I had heard her utter an incomplete sentence, and the effect was somehow pleasing. I felt a little less appalled by her than ever before.
Grace softened instantly, and made immediate talk about trifles, and the evening wore along. Before we left, the women arranged to meet next day, and I realized that Selena was as good as made over. Once Grace got started on her, she would never stop till the job was finished. Jerry, I could see, was pleased that the covert purpose of the evening was advancing so satisfactorily, and he shot a glance of gratitude at Grace. But he was obviously anxious, once the appointment had been made, to leave, and we went before ten o’clock.
The three of us came to a halt at the front door of Grace’s apartment house.
“I’ll take Selena home,” he said to me. “You don’t need to bother, and thanks a lot, Bark. Grace is one of my favorites, and I wanted Selena to meet her.”
“That’s all right,” I said awkwardly, and then, “I’ll leave the light on in the living room, and the door unlocked.” I turned to Selena; she was standing at the curb in the electric twilight of a New York street at night, straight, tall, and beautiful, so that it made my throat ache to look at her, and I hated her and was afraid of her.
“Good night, Mrs LeNormand,” I said.
I meant to add that I’d be seeing her, or something to take the curse off the moment, but I couldn’t say anything more. She looked at me, and I felt that everything I was thinking and feeling must show in headlines on my face.
She gave me her hand. It was cool and very strong. “Good night, Mr Jones. We’ll see each other again soon. Your mother is very kind; I’m sure that she will be able to help me a great deal.”
A taxi swooped in to the curb, and she and Jerry got into it. The red taillight dwindled down the empty street. I stood on the curb and thought about her last remark. She had certainly gone right to the heart of the evening’s purpose with a directness that was disconcerting.
“You see,” I told Dr Lister, “these are little things. Perhaps they have no meaning.”
He poured us each another glass of sherry; the bottle was beginning to look empty, but neither of us felt any reaction to the wine. Drinking it was a formality, a thing that gentlemen did together. Perhaps it blunted the strangeness of our talk together and made it easier to go on. I raised my glass and sipped slowly.
“What you are telling me,” he answered thoughtfully, “includes many things that I have always wanted to know. Neither of us can be sure just what is important.”
“We have talked all the big things over so often—LeNormand’s death, and Jerry’s marriage, and Selena. The answer must lie, if we can find it at all, in the small incidents, the overtones.”
“Yes,” he said. “You’re right. Go ahead, if you are not too tired.”
I wasn’t tired. I was long past that point. But I was afraid. Already some dim idea of the sort of story I had to tell was taking shape in my mind, and what I could distinguish of it was beyond the edge of reason.
The transformation in Selena during the next two weeks was astonishing. It was plain that she was thrusting the past resolutely behind her, that she did not intend to wear mourning either literally or figuratively. The fact that she was willing to go everywhere with Jerry so soon after LeNormand’s death surprised me, though I was more embarrassed on Jerry’s account than critical of her for it. As for Grace, she made no comments, at least to me, but she remade Selena from the skin out, and it was amazing to watch that beauty come to light day by day; always before, I had been violently conscious of Selena’s clothes, but now you never noticed what she had on. Just looking at what she was took all your eyes.
Grace’s innovations had another curious effect. She had taken Selena to her own hairdresser, and he had done something to her hair which was masterly in its way. Lipstick and a manicure, too, subtly changed her. There were other things. I have mentioned the long, free stride with which she walked. Gradually it shortened, and though it lost no grace, her walk became less conspicuously different from other women’s. At first she had never used a gesture when she spoke, but imperceptibly she began to accompany some of the things she said with a motion of the hand or a turn of her superb head. Watching her, one evening, I realized that there was something familiar about her new gestures, and in a moment it came to me that they were Grace’s, flawlessly imitated and employed at just the same moments. Even the way she walked . . .
My original feeling that Selena was a statue come to life gradually dissolved. I no longer thought about her as some disturbing sort of Galatea, and though my deep distrust of her never disappeared I found myself talking to her more and more as I would to any other woman, and thinking about her indeed, not as a woman, but as the girl Jerry was going to marry.
By that time there was no pretense about it between the two of us. He never made a formal announcement to me; the nearest he ever came to it was once when we discussed what would be the earliest advisable date. When, as sometimes happened, I went out with them of an evening, I fell into the easy habit of making joking, more or less concealed, references to their getting married. Doing so made me feel, to myself, a pretty good sport about the whole thing, and while Jerry took all my remarks at their face value, there was at least one time when Selena, after one of them, looked at me gravely and said, “You are a generous person, Bark.” I had the grace to feel ashamed of myself.
One night, early in December, the three of us were to go to the theater. It was one of those occasional balmy days at the outset of the New York winter when the weather is more like May than December, and it is almost too warm to wear a coat. We had two or three cocktails at the apartment— that is, Jerry and I did while Selena ate some of the canapes. After that first highball at Grace’s I never saw her take another drink.
When we went down to the street we decided to walk a few blocks before taking a cab. The night was bland, and we sauntered along, talking, past the brownstone and brick fronts of the houses. I felt quite happy. All at once a girl came down the stoop of a house as we were passing, and turned up the street ahead of us. What followed was trivial, but somehow it disturbed me deeply and, as well as any one thing, it illustrates the quality in Selena that froze my occasional efforts to like her.
The girl was sixteen, or so, I suppose, and she had on a party dress and high-heeled slippers, and an evening cape that was obviously new. Jerry and I watched her, idly, and the same observation must have reached us almost simultaneously. Plainly, our predecessor had on her first “grown-up” party dress and slippers. She walked along with the most careful dignity, looking neither to right nor to left. Everything in the carriage of her head, the formality of her walk, the care with which she put one silver slipper down in front of the other proclaimed that she was feeling not only thoroughly mature, but a lady, or more likely, a movie queen. As we came to a darker stretch of the sidewalk, her promenade suddenly stopped. She skipped over to the curbing and began to walk along it, balancing herself with her arms and almost running along the edge in quick, uneven steps. Then she crossed the sidewalk, half running, and darted up the step of another house. We could hear the radio playing dance music inside.
Jerry’s grin of amusement met my own, and we began to laugh. Both of us were delighted; there was no need to comment at all. All Jerry said was “Swell!”
Selena looked at each of us in turn for a moment. We were still chuckling. “Why are you laughing?” she asked us.
I looked at her, but she seemed serious. “That girl,” I explained.
“Oh,” she said, and then, “but what was there to laugh at? Do you know her?”
“No, no. But she had on her first party dress, and she was so grown up, and then she simply had to go and try walking the curbstone.”
“But how do you know that was her first party dress?” she asked me.
“Good heavens,” said Jerry, “you were a girl yourself once, weren’t you?”
That was the night I got the letter from Parsons. For once, Jerry and I came home together after leaving Selena at her hotel. The night elevator man handed it to me as we went up, and as soon as I saw the Collegeville postmark I stuck it in my pocket. I didn’t know who was writing to me from there, but I had a sudden, cold feeling that it was going to be something I wouldn’t like, and the fact that it was a special delivery proved it must be important.
I put it on the bureau and waited till I got into my pajamas. Jerry eyed it once or twice, but said nothing. Finally I was ready for bed, and there was nothing left to do but open it and read. The typewritten address didn’t tell me a thing. I tore the envelope open.
MY DEAR MR JONES:
No doubt you will be surprised to hear from me in this way, but as the matter is not strictly official, I prefer to write you. I want to ask a favor of you. Will it be possible for you to come down to Collegeville sometime this week? I am still working on the case, as you probably know, and am anxious to have some help from you if you can give it to me.
The question is one which I think only you can answer for me satisfactorily, and as I would like to keep it confidential, I hope you will come down alone. Unless I hear from you I shall expect you on the ninth, by the eleven o’clock train. Please meet me at Police Headquarters.
Very truly yours
ALAN L. PARSONS
Chief, County Detectives
Jerry had been watching me as I read. When I finished he said, “Somebody die and leave you a million dollars?”
“No,” I said, trying to sound impersonal. “Just something I have to attend to later in the week.”
But I lay awake a long time, wondering. It hurt to lie, to conceal something from Jerry, but worse than that was my conclusion that Parsons must have found something, some clue, and wanted to confront me with it. And if he wanted me to come alone, it meant that whatever he had found must implicate Jerry. Or perhaps it implicated me. Maybe he had come upon the story of LeNormand’s using Jerry to type the letters to the other astronomers, and wanted to ask me about it separately. But that didn’t seem entirely logical. I revolved every possibility I could think of in my mind. I even considered waking Jerry up and telling him, but then I felt I had no right to do that.
“Say, Bark,” his voice came to me through the dark from the other side of the room. “You asleep?”
“I just thought I’d tell you. Selena and I are getting married next month. We plan on the twelfth.”
“Gosh, that’s swell. You’re a lucky guy.” I hoped my voice sounded convincing.
“I’ll have to ask Dad to be best man, of course, and it’ll be just a very small ceremony.”
“Sure,” I said.
“You’ll be there, of course.”
Chapter Eight: Questions, No Answers
THE eleven-o’clock is a good train. It makes the run to Collegeville in under two hours. I sat in the smoking car, watched the miles pour past the window, and tried to figure out something that had happened the night before.
After I’d got Parsons’ letter I’d asked my employers if I could have leave of absence for the ninth. They gave it without any questions. Then the idea came to me that since I wouldn’t have to work on the ninth, the evening of the eighth would be a good time for a party. So I asked Jerry and Selena and Grace if they wanted to go out on a binge. I owed Grace something, in an indirect way, and I wanted to show Jerry that there were no hard feelings and be the first to celebrate his and Selena’s setting a date for their marriage. All three of them liked the idea, and we arranged to meet at the apartment at seven.
While dressing, Jerry and I had one or two cocktails just to make sure there was no poison in them. After a while Grace came in, wearing a dull-red dress with swirling skirts and gold sandals. She had her hair done a new way and looked entrancing. As soon as I saw her I knew she’d firmly decided to look like nobody’s mother. Competition with Selena may have been in her mind too; and if it was, she’d struck just the right note to get away with it. They were so utterly different that no one would think of comparing them.
I was suddenly delighted with her and glad to see her and felt very unfilial indeed. When I kissed her I noticed that she had on a new perfume.
“Well, darling,” I said. “You’re enough to start an Oedipus complex!”
She laughed and remarked, “Fred thinks you’re mean not to have invited him.”
“This is his night for the club, isn’t it?”
“Yes, but tonight he didn’t want to go especially.”
“I bet that was after he saw you in this outfit.”
She went over to the tray and picked up a cocktail, tossing me an impudent grin over her shoulder. “What an imagination you have!”
I told her it didn’t take any imagination, and we had a quick cocktail together. It was Jerry’s week in the kitchen and he was out there fixing a few hors d’oeuvres. What with my previous drinks and Grace looking so attractive and the conviction that in throwing this party I was doing something really nice for a change I began to feel extremely good.
“By the way,” I asked her, “what’s that perfume you’re wearing? I like it.”
“Gracious but you’re gallant tonight, my pet. It’s called Adieu Sagesse.”
“You ought to give a bottle to Selena.”
She stuck out the tip of her tongue and said “Miaouw” at me and we both laughed.
Jerry came with a plate of stuff that he’d made to go with the cocktails, and told Grace she looked stunning. We all had another drink. Then he told her that he and Selena were to be married the twelfth of January.
Grace shook her head at him in admiration. “As a child, Jeremiah, I remember you were the shyest little boy I ever knew. And here you are, positively bursting into matrimony. Are you going to marry her in the ordinary way or come riding up on a big white horse and sweep her into your arms and dash off?”
He blushed. “Grace, it’s not so bad as that, surely.”
“No,” she said, “I know it. I’m really delighted, of course. Selena’s the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen, and you’re lucky. And so is she.”
He blushed again. “Please. Spare my blushes.”
“You do it so nicely.”
He laughed and said, “You’re hopeless, Grace.”
“Not entirely, my lamb. But pretty old to change. You must allow an old woman her peculiarities.” Then her manner changed, and she stopped Smiling. “I’m just foolish enough to rush in where angels would fear to tread, Jerry. Have you told your father?”
He nodded. “Yes. I called him up last night.”
“And what did he say?”
Jerry looked a little uncomfortable. “He said he’d talk to us both about it when we go out there this weekend.”
Grace laughed. “The famous Lister reticence extending to the telephone, I see. Well, as for that, don’t worry. Just let Selena handle him.”
The doorbell rang, and she came in. A pleased smile came over Grace’s face, and I suspected she was complimenting herself on Selena’s dress. And well she might; it was a masterpiece. Silver green the color of aspen leaves and cut so simply and severely as to be very nearly ostentatious. Jerry’s heart went into his eyes, and I could not blame him.
After the greetings were over I proposed a toast to the wedding and the three of us drank it. Selena, as usual, drank nothing, and watched the rest of us with a faint smile as we clinked our glasses together. But it was all very gay—gayer than any time I spent with Selena either before or afterward.
She was wearing a ring, a square-cut emerald with a deep, burning green heart to it that was the sort of thing you see displayed in Tiffany’s window all by itself. We exclaimed over it.
“Goodness, darling,” said Grace. “If any of my men had ever offered me an engagement ring like that, I’d have insisted on marrying him right then and there for fear he might escape me.”
Selena looked pleased. “Jerry must have been extravagant,” she said.
“Yes,” he told her, “and gosh how I loved it!”
But I stared at the emerald without being able to think of a word to say. It struck a note of finality that took some of the bloom off the evening for me.
After one more cocktail apiece we sallied forth to do the town. Walking toward the avenue and a taxi, Selena and I dropped a few steps behind Grace and Jerry. After a few yards she turned to me and said, without preamble:
“You are unhappy about Jerry and me.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Please, Bark. Tell me the truth.”
“Well, then, I think you’re rushing things a little.”
“You mean that we ought not to be married so soon?”
“Jerry said some people might think that. But why do they?”
I turned to look at her in the dusk of the street. Perhaps she was making fun of me. But apparently she was serious. Her lips were level and her eyes direct.
“Well,” I told her, “it’s customary to wait a little longer.”
She was insistent. “Yes. I know that. But why?”
I referred her to Hamlet, Act I, but she did not know, or pretended she didn’t, what I meant. In desperation I explained that the popular view was that it took more than a month or two to forget a first husband and turn to a second love.
“Oh,” she said. “I wondered. Sometimes it is hard to understand just what is behind your ideas.”
It was an extraordinary remark, and I did not know how to take it. Before I could ask her, she went on. “But I think it is all right for Jerry and me to be married, even so soon. You see, I never loved LeNormand.”
This was getting beyond me. I told her that whatever she and Jerry did was their affair.
“Yes,” she said, “but I want you to understand it. You are Jerry’s best friend.”
“And as such,” I told her, “the only thing I want is to see him happy.”
Mercifully a cab drew up at the curb beside us before this insane conversation could continue. I was angry at Selena for simply tramping into the middle of a complicated situation and talking bluntly about it. I resented the fact that she had put me so thoroughly on the defensive, and concluded finally that the less I had to do with her direct interrogations, the better the evening would go for me.
It was after a good dinner over which we sat until past ten o’clock that the incredible part of the performance took place. The three of us, at least, had drunk enough not to want to end the evening there and then. It was too late for the theater, and we decided that the thing to do was to dance. After a lot of argument between Grace and me we took a cab to Barney’s. It’s a small place, east, in the middle Fifties, but the thing I liked about it was that the music was never too loud and somewhere Barney had picked up the idea that people can be amused in other ways than by bawdy jokes and undressing girls. Not that I have any objection to either of those forms of entertainment. But some instinct in me rejected the notion of celebrating our particular occasion in other than the nicest way I could think of. And I counted on Barney to provide as much nice-ness as was consistent with having a good time.
The music was really good. I had not danced with Selena before, and the moment I began I knew it was going to be an experience. My expectation had been that we’d have a difficult time together on a dance floor. There was too much constraint between us and an antagonism of character we both recognized. In addition, she was very tall. And yet, she danced as no woman I have ever met. I forgot myself completely, and I could not think of her any longer as a woman. Instead, it seemed to me that my arm was round the moving shape of the music itself. The low, insistent beat of the rhythm was in every muscle of her body and she was completely weightless. We moved round the floor like a part of the melody. I remember thinking that this was the first time dancing had ever seemed to me an art. The people sitting at tables on the edge of the floor followed us with their eyes. I am not an exceptional dancer—scarcely even average—yet when the music stopped there were scattering handclaps from the spectators and I discovered that we had been left almost alone on the floor. Also, it occurred to me with surprise that we had not exchanged a word in the entire dance. I took her back to the table. Jerry and Grace were sitting there talking together.
“Fella,” I told him, “this girl of yours can dance.”
He was pleased. “It’s an experience, isn’t it?”
Selena smiled and said, “This is easy music.”
I sat down at the table and picked up my highball. The way Selena danced did not at the time seem to me to belong in her character. I thought of her awkward clothes when I had first seen her, of the stiffness and coldness of most of the things she said. The contrast with the fluid rhythm of her body in my arms a moment ago was puzzling. I told Grace about it later, when Jerry and Selena were on the floor. She watched them awhile with her eyes partly closed, smiling to herself.
“You never know,” she said.
After Grace and I had trod a couple of measures it was midnight. Most of the lights went out, and Barney himself pattered out into the middle of the dance floor and held up his hand. He had a spotlight trained on the bald spot at the back of his head, and with his round, pink face he looked like an Old Testament cherub.
“Ladies, gentlemen, and visitors from out of town,” he began, and went on to tell us that he had a special attraction to offer this evening. It turned out to be an Egyptian “prestidigitator and magician,” who, at least for business purposes, called himself Galli-Galli. After some inevitable puns on the fellow’s name, Barney announced that following his performance Galli-Galli would circulate among us and perform sleight-of-hand tricks at the tables. We were welcome to figure out how he did it if we could.
Barney retired and was followed by a long roll on the orchestra drums and a flood of light from the spots. Into the middle of the noise and brightness leaped a little brown man with a wizened face. He wore a turban and a green-and-white striped robe with long, flowing sleeves.
His first concern was to bow elaborately in all directions and look us over with a pair of large, melancholy black eyes. Then he exclaimed “Galli-Galli!” in a high, pleased voice and began throwing colored balls into the air. There was an astonishing number of them, taken, I suppose, from his sleeves, and his juggling was beautiful to watch. He wove patterns and figures with the arcs of the balls in the air, and at the end made them disappear as surprisingly as he had produced them. There was a burst of applause, and he smiled delightedly at us. His own skill, in the acts which followed, seemed to delight him, and he was constantly saying “Galli-Galli!” with a sort of childlike enthusiasm.
Selena was watching him without expression. Once or twice, at some particularly dexterous or mystifying bit of business, she smiled slightly, but that was all. After the first few tricks, she seemed bored and paid no further attention to him. Grace, on the other hand, was fascinated. She had her mouth open in an “oh!” of surprise most of the time. When the lights came up, Jerry and I clapped loudly and shouted “Encore!” The little man bowed to us several times and finally made his way di-rectly to our table.
On closer inspection he was even older than he had looked under the spotlight, and I don’t think there was much doubt that he was an Egyptian. I liked him at once.
“Galli-Galli do card tricks,” he said, producing a deck. “You like?”
We told him we would and he asked us to inspect the cards, which were in a sealed deck. We broke the paper and looked carefully at them, front and back. There were the conventional fifty-two and everything seemed to be in order, so we told him to go ahead.
He made cards appear and disappear in one way and another, but most of the tricks I had seen before. Perhaps he knew others even better, but we never got a chance to see them because the most inexplicable of the things Selena ever did in my presence intervened. It happened in the middle of one of his tricks. He had handed the deck to me and told me to shuffle it. I did so, thoroughly. Then he told me to pick out a card, in my mind, but not to separate it from the pack. Mentally I selected the four of clubs. Still following instructions, I asked Grace to cut the pack, which she did, and handed the cards to Jerry. He spread them out in a fan across the tablecloth, back up.
“Now,” said Galli-Galli to me, his black eyes smiling, “you know which card is yours?”
I hadn’t the faintest idea. “No.”
“You know?” he asked Grace.
“My dear man . . .” said Grace.
“And you?” Selena was apparently startled at the question.
“Certainly,” she said, reached out one white hand, and turned over the four of clubs.
For one instant a look of incredulous surprise stamped itself on Galli-Galli’s face. My own jaw must have been sagging. Then the little Egyptian rallied himself.
“That right?” he said to me.
“It certainly is,” I told him.
He bowed very low, more to Selena, I thought, than to the rest of us, scooped up the cards, bowed again, and left the table. The three of us watched him go and then turned with one accord upon Selena.
She was looking distressed.
“Darling,” said Jerry, “would you mind telling us how you did that?”
“Goodness, Selena,” said Grace, “we ought to form a bridge partnership at once, my dear.”
She shook her head
“Listen,” I said. “You can’t just do a thing like that and leave us all in the dark. How is it done?”
But she wouldn’t tell. At first she refused to say anything about the trick and then she insisted that it had been simply luck.
At the time I didn’t wholly believe her, and sitting in the Collegeville train the next day the thing seemed fantastic. Not once had she touched the cards, and I had told no one which card I had picked. I went over and over the scene at Barney’s in my mind, and the answer eluded me. If it was luck, it was one chance in fifty-two, and there had been nothing uncertain about the way she turned that card over. More than anything else, her calm, almost disinterested manner had impressed me. She seemed to view it as a trick to amuse children.
Familiar landscapes and towns began to flash past the window. I saw that we were only a few miles out of Collegeville, and my thoughts turned to Parsons and his reason for sending for me. Perhaps he had made some progress on the LeNormand business, though there was nothing in the papers to suggest it. In any case, it must be more or less unofficial, or his summons to me would have been of a different sort. On the whole, I decided, the indications were that he had discovered nothing definite.
My anxiety about Jerry’s marriage, my instinct that it was in some way wrong and undesirable, had preoccupied my mind. For a week I had hardly thought about the murder of LeNormand except casually. I was convinced that it was insoluble, and my memories of it were so appalling that I had walled it off in a corner of my mind and tried to forget about it. And yet it was a part of the fiber of every day I lived and of most things I did. Only last night I had been sitting in a night club with LeNormand’s widow, almost without realizing how short a time had elapsed since her husband’s death. So much had happened in the intervening weeks that the night when we had found his burning body seemed a year, instead of a month ago.
Jerry, I reflected, had not put the thing out of his mind to the same extent that I had. Several times I had come home to find him at the desk, surrounded with crumpled sheets of paper on which were marks that looked to me like the figures and symbols on LeNormand’s observatory table. Once I had found in the wastebasket a floor plan of the observatory, apparently drawn from memory, and he had even used the University Directory for some purpose, for I found it on the table one morning. I wondered why he was so eager to get to the bottom of the thing. The obvious suggestion was that because it concerned Selena it was important to him. But I rejected that idea. Psychologically, I should have said the normal thing for him to do was to think as little of the past as possible, to seek to put as much distance, mentally, between it and his present as possible.
The sight of Armitage Tower coming up above the trees ahead of the train heightened the feeling of tension that had been growing in me. Whatever was to happen in the next few hours, I was afraid of them. As the train pulled into the station and I started down the car steps I was aware of a dryness in my mouth and an uncertainty in my knees that were symptoms of a nervousness that was first cousin to fear.
Chapter Nine: Interrogation
I TOOK a taxi to the town hall and went up its steps with my heart hammering at my ribs. Parsons was in the police-station room where he had talked to us before, sitting at the same long table. In front of him was a large black entry book of some sort and a pile of papers. He was chewing on the stub of a cigar and jotting down notes on a block of scratch paper with quick, decisive stabs of his pencil. There was an air of effectiveness about him.
He looked up for a second as I came in, waved a hand in a gesture of welcome, and remarked, past the cigar, “Sit down. With you in a second.”
He was genuinely busy, all right. I thought for a moment that he was putting me off to let my nervousness and anxiety come to a head, but as I watched his broad, blunt fingers scrambling through the papers in front of him and the quick way he glanced from them to his notations on the pad I realized that he was tremendously concentrated, perhaps even excited. He had something, or thought he did. I filled a pipe and lit it, trying hard to keep the match from trembling in my fingers, and leaned back in my chair.
Finally he straightened up, pulled a couple of fresh cigars from his pocket, thrust one of them toward me, and then, seeing my pipe, retracted it. After he had his own smoke going well, he blew two or three rings at the ceiling, shoved his chair back, put his feet on the table, and looked at me.
“One thing, Mr Jones,” he said. “There’s nothing to worry over. This is just a talk between the two of us. Nothing official about it.”
“I’m not worried,” I told him.
“Good.” He was silent for a moment. “I suppose you and Mr Lister have done a lot of thinking about this thing the last few weeks.”
“Well,” I said, “some, of course.”
“Tell me. Have you got any new ideas since I saw you?”
I was a little surprised at this question, and wondered what he was trying to get at. “No,” I told him. “At least I haven’t.”
“You haven’t,” he repeated. “What about Mr Lister?”
“I don’t think he has, either.” He was silent, so I added, “We don’t talk about it very much.”
“I can understand that,” he said, and looked at me thoughtfully. “Mr Jones,” he said finally, “I’m going to be frank with you. This is just between us two.”
“I won’t repeat a word of it.”
“All right.” And then, with emphasis he added, “Not even to Mr Lister—or Mrs LeNormand.”
“The fact is, I haven’t got to first base with this case. I don’t know any more than I did four weeks ago, except that everybody’s story seems to be straight. I can’t find a single clue or a single fact to go on. I haven’t even been able to find a single person who saw a stranger on the campus that night.” He paused and smiled. “And when the police begin looking for mysterious strangers, it’s a sign the case is not going so well.”
His manner was certainly disarming. He had me on his side, whatever it was, already.
“Now,” he went on, “when I get stuck like this on what I’ll call the physical side of a case—what you’d say were clues—I try to figure on the thing from another angle. And that’s the characters of the people in it. Psychology, you’d call it, and motive.” He looked at me pretty sharply, but though I’d likely have given away any thought I had, I didn’t have one. My mind was a blank, so I suppose my face didn’t help him much.
“Motive,” he continued, “is usually a pretty easy thing to spot. Money first, by a long shot, and then women. There are a couple of others, like hate and revenge, but you hardly ever run into them unless there’s a maniac somewhere.”
I thought about that. “Well,” I said, “none of those seems very useful in this case.”
He nodded. “Money, certainly not. He had nothing besides his salary and a five thousand dollar life insurance policy. And apparently he had no professional jealousy to deal with in his work. So I figured out it must be that the motive revolved around some woman.”
I began to see where he was headed, and the palms of my hands started to sweat.
“And the only woman,” he went on inexorably, “is Mrs LeNormand.” I didn’t say anything, so after a time he asked, “What do you think about her?”
I took a moment to frame an answer to that one. “It’s hard to tell you. She’s not like anyone else. She’s intelligent, and quiet, and she knows her own mind …” I floundered and stopped.
Parsons took a long pull at his cigar. “Mr Jones, you’ve used some funny words for a young man talking about a pretty woman. ‘Intelligent,’ ‘quiet,’ ‘knows her own mind.’ I’d say you didn’t like Mrs LeNormand much. Right?”
“Yes,” I admitted.
He took his feet off the table and leaned forward earnestly. “What I want to ask you next is something that could be misunderstood. Before I say it I want to tell you that I think you’re okay. I mean, I like you and maybe I understand a little something of the spot you’re in. And you strike me as—well—as regular. So don’t go thinking I mean what I don’t mean.”
“All right,” I said. “Go ahead and ask.”
“You don’t like her, and you admit it. Are you sure you aren’t jealous?”
I got red and then laughed. “That’s a hell of a way to put it,” I said. “I guess it might be fair to say this: Jerry and I grew up together. We’ve been a close corporation for ten years or so. Now the corporation—” I realized that I was saying too much and stopped suddenly.
He paid no attention. “Now the corporation looks as though it might be dissolved, and by someone you don’t like. That about it?”
“Just about,” I admitted.
“Well” he said, “you’ve been honest with me. And don’t think I wouldn’t have known if you’d been lying.” He tapped the pile of papers in front of him. “I’ve got a complete file here on what all three of you have been doing ever since you left town.” He gave me a sharp glance. “I’m a policeman. I’ve got to know things like that. Don’t get sore.”
“I’m not sore.” But it did make me angry to realize that we’d been spied on all the weeks since LeNormand had died.
“That’s good,” he said, and I could see he didn’t believe my denial a bit. “Now then, the point is this: You aren’t jealous of Mrs LeNormand, but you don’t like her. You resent her. Mr Lister, on the other hand, is in love with her.”
I simply stared at him. The man was as calm, as unconcerned, as sure of himself as God Almighty. I began to get really angry. “What the hell business of yours is it—” I began.
“Don’t be silly, Mr Jones. You know what business it is of mine. I’m paid by this state to find out who killed Professor LeNormand, and by God I’m going to do it if I have to injure every single one of your delicate feelings.”
He was right, of course. I began to calm myself down a bit. “I’m sorry,” I said. “It is true that Jerry is in love with her, and I suppose if you know what we’ve been doing you couldn’t help finding it out.”
Something I said must have amused him, for he grinned to himself an instant and went on. “What I’m after is why you don’t like Mrs LeNormand. That interests me a lot more, frankly, than why Mr Lister is in love with her. I’m hoping that you can tell me why you don’t like Mrs LeNormand.”
“Well,” I began, “I’m not sure that I can.” I could, of course, have answered instantly, “I don’t like Selena because I am afraid of her,” but that wouldn’t have made sense to him. It didn’t make sense even to me. So I said, “I think, as near as I can put it, I don’t trust her.”
My answer seemed to excite him. He studied me carefully a moment and said quietly, “You don’t trust her. Can you tell me why, or tell me at what times you don’t trust her, or what she does that gives you the feeling of distrust?”
That was the question I’d been asking myself for weeks. If I could explain to my own satisfaction what was the basis of my distrust of Selena, life would become a whole lot easier. The very fact that I did not know what it was about her that I hated— or feared—was at the bottom of much of my recent unhappiness. Perhaps Parsons’ questions would clear up some of the confusion in my mind.
“You’ve asked me a hard question,” I told him. “I’ve been thinking about it for weeks and I can’t decide. It’s no special time and no special thing. She asks the damnedest things, sometimes. And if she has a sense of humor, it’s not like other people’s. She strikes me as cold-blooded.“ He was watching me intently and nodding his head at each statement. ”I tell you what she’s like,“ I went on. ”She’s like a foreigner, like some of the Germans over here during the war, I imagine. She doesn’t want to let on that she isn’t an American.“ This suddenly struck me as carrying coals to Newcastle. ”You must have interviewed her. You know the quality I mean.“
“Yes,” he said, “I know the quality, but I don’t know how to describe it. I thought maybe you could help me.”
“That’s as close as I can come to it.”
He was silent a moment, rolling the dead cigar in the corner of his mouth and looking out the window. “You said she was like a foreigner.” I didn’t add anything to that, so he went on. “Well, Mr Jones, is she a foreigner?”
The question took me by surprise. “I don’t know. You must have the answer to that. Don’t you always take down everything about a person in a case like this? Where they came from and how old they are and whether there was any insanity in the family and all the rest of it?”
He continued to gaze out the window. “Usually. Usually. Not this time.”
“You mean to say you didn’t ask her all those things? Jerry and I practically had to list the fillings in our teeth.”
“Of course, we asked her.” He was frowning. “We asked her a dozen times. All she would tell us was that she didn’t have a family or any relatives anyplace. She wouldn’t even trust us with her maiden name.”
I made my tone as sarcastic as I could. “And naturally you wouldn’t take advantage of her in her bereavement.”
“Listen,” he said, and from his hard stare at me I saw my remark had not pleased him, “this case is dynamite. I can go so far, and then the whole University will be down on my neck. What do you want me to do? Take her to the station house and try persuasion? The whole force would be out of a job in a week.”
“All right. I spoke out of turn.”
“You did. Anyway, forget it. Maybe you can tell us poor ignorant policemen what we want to know. Who is she and where did she come from?”
“I don’t know.”
He sighed. “Then I’ll have to ask you another question that’s liable to make you mad. Can you find out?”
“If she wouldn’t tell you she probably won’t tell me.”
“That’s not what I mean. You’ve admitted that Mr Lister is in love with her. If anybody will know, he’s the fella.”
“For God’s sake,” I asked him, “do you want me to play stool pigeon on my best friend?”
He grunted. “I thought that’s the way you’d take it. Use your head, Mr Jones. I’ve got to have that information, and how I get it won’t make any difference if she’s not mixed up in this thing. If she is, do you want your friend going round with her?”
“No,” I admitted. “But all the same I can’t get it for you. I doubt if Jerry himself knows, as a matter of fact. At least, he’s never said anything to me.”
“So he doesn’t know either.” Parsons’ tone was not surprised. “Well, well, well!”
“Surely,” I suggested, “even if she wouldn’t answer your questions you could find out about it in other ways.”
“Surely.” His voice was deceptively gentle. “I suppose your idea would be to work back from clues, eh? Labels on her lonjeray and so forth?”
That was more or less what I had been thinking.
“Well,” he said, “if it’s any comfort to you, we did trace her clothes.”
“And what did you find?”
He held up his thumb and forefinger in the traditional symbol for zero. “We’re not as dumb as cops are supposed to be, Mr Jones. We’ve traced a lot of things. Maybe later I’ll have to tell you a little about that. Right now I want to see if we can get at this thing from another angle.”
“If I can help you—” I said humbly.
“Right.” His tone was brisker. “About this strangeness of Mrs LeNormand’s. This feeling you have that she’s a foreigner. Assuming for a minute that she isn’t, would you say that she came from a definite social class?”
“What have you been doing,” I asked him, “reading Karl Marx?”
He smiled. “Well, I have read some of it at that . . . we got a lot of God-damned reds in this county. Some of them right here at the University.“ He looked down at one of his notes. ”I see here where a fella named Berkeley M. Jones used to belong to the University branch of Americans for Democratic Action. That was two years ago. You outgrown it?“
“Some of it,” I admitted.
“Takes time. Takes time.” He was relishing the point he had scored. “But this isn’t pitching any hay. What I’m getting at is, do you think Mrs LeNormand came from a family that was, say, of the proletariat, or—er—the bourgeois, or is she an out-and-out bloodsucking capitalist?”
“I never thought about it.” The question nuzzled me, like everything else connected with Selena. Nothing about her seemed to fit into conventional pigeonholes. “She has a good mind. My guess is that her family was probably professional. Her father might have been a lawyer or a doctor or maybe a professor.” The minute I’d mentioned the professor idea I felt sorry. Suppose it started him off on that whole business of LeNormand’s row with his fellow scientists? Jerry would be dragged back into it, and there would be a whole hell of a mess. But Parsons was apparently talking about something else.
“—and when I told you I was stumped on this case, Mr Jones, I meant it. I don’t know what the next step is. Everything we find out leads us up a blind alley, and the only light I can see … I guess I’ll have to tell you about that and then ask you some of the same questions over again. Maybe when you understand what’s in the back of my mind you’ll be able to help me more.” He was arranging papers and folders in front of him into precise piles. Then he lit another cigar and leaned across the table in my direction. There was uncertainty in his manner, as if he doubted the wisdom of telling me what was on his mind. And well he might. In the months afterward, when I had to live with his story and its implications, I wished a thousand times that he had thought better of it, kept it to himself. And yet, even if he had never spoken, there would have been no difference in the outcome. Thwarted as he was by the case at every turn, he had no choice, I suppose.
“Quite a while ago,” he began, “I mentioned that we’d even gone so far as to look for some outsider, some mysterious stranger, as I put it, on the night of the crime. When we couldn’t find one I figured we better check back on a few other things. Local gossip naturally was one. But there wasn’t any gossip about LeNormand and his wife, outside of a lot of old hens brooding around about her and who she was and why he married her and why she married him, and all like that. Now in my experience, Mr Jones, a murder is a thing that doesn’t just happen out of a clear sky. By that I mean, if you look close enough you’ll discover a whole lot of little things, straws in the wind, you might say, coming ahead of it. Usually you can uncover some of these things by keeping your ears open. But like I said, there wasn’t any real gossip. Nobody even thought there was any bad blood between them. It’s hard to believe with a woman like her and a husband like he was that there was never any trouble, but I couldn’t even find a single old cat who claimed that Mrs LeNormand had been playing around with another man. So the gossip angle petered out. Sometimes, too, in my experience, some of these things that come ahead of a murder go so far as to get into the police records.“ He opened the big black ledger in front of him. ”So Cap Han-Ion and I went through the blotter book for a long ways back.“ He sighed. ”It seems to be fairly restful, being a policeman in this town. We didn’t find a possibility till we hit August. And then we came on something that probably doesn’t mean a thing. Except that it’s an open case, and it has a woman in it.“
For the life of me I couldn’t decide what this was leading up to. But I could see that we were coming to something that excited him.
“Early in August”—he looked at the book—“on the seventh, to be exact, there was a disappearance in this town. And the person that disappeared was a woman.” He stopped speaking and began to fiddle with his pencil. There was something uncertain about him then, as though he were trying to decide a point that was vital to him without letting me in on the story. Finally he jabbed the pencil at the scratch paper and said, “I’m going to tell you the whole story because it’s the only way I can get the information I need. But I want you not to interrupt me, and I want you to give me your word of honor as a gentleman that what I have to say will go no further. You’re not to speak a word of it to anyone. Okay?”
I gave him my word of honor. Keeping it turned out to be the hardest job I ever tackled in my life.
Parsons was looking grave and a little doubtful, but he went on finally. “About eight o’clock in the evening, August seventh like I said, a tourist named Jamison, Stewart Jamison, stopped up here by the Sunoco station to get some gas. He was driving an old Ford, a beat-up half-ton pickup like they got on farms sometimes. With him was his wife and their daughter. It was the daughter that disappeared.”
He paused and licked down a flap of tobacco on his cigar. “I want to tell you about the daughter. Her name was Luella—Luella Jamison. The Jamisons live in a little town in South Carolina, and if you don’t mind I won’t tell you the name of it. They’ve got a farm down there, and they’re dirt poor. Cap says the car was a wreck on wheels, and when he talked to them he noticed that their clothes were old and mended. But he says they seemed kind of a high type, for all that. They were clean and nice-spoken. Both of them, he says, were tall and fairly good-looking, but it struck him that they were pretty old to have a daughter only twenty. The man must have been about seventy, and the woman, his wife, not much younger. That’s about all I can tell you about them—I’ve got some pictures that I want to show you later. All except for one thing. The daughter was an idiot.”
That hit me. I had not known what to think about Parsons’ story except to wonder what connection it had with the LeNormands and with Jerry and me. I could see still less connection after he spoke these last five words, but something went through me almost instantly after I heard them. The only way to describe the feeling is to say it was like the click of the latch on a door closing behind you. But even as I felt it I lost the reason for the feeling; for one fleeting second things had made sense, and then it was all a jumble again.
“The way it happened,” Parsons continued, “was like this. Mrs Jamison got out of the car, and got her daughter out, to go to the rest room. Mr Jamison was checking the air pressure on the tires at the moment. You know how those filling-station rest rooms are. You get to them around a couple of angles of pretty close latticework. The ladies’ room at the Sunoco place is very small—just big enough for one person at a time. So Mrs Jamison fixed up Luella first, and then she led her out and put her hands on one of the uprights of the latticework and told her to hold on to it. Then she went in herself, and when she came out, the girl was gone. There wasn’t a trace of her, and nobody saw her go. It was just the end of dusk, and the girl had on a dark cloth coat. Mr Jamison and Jack, the guy at the station, were stooped over, working on the tires, and Cap couldn’t find anyone who saw the girl.
“I better tell you a little of what Cap and I found out about Luella. She’d been an idiot from birth. She was nearly six before they could teach her how to walk, and she never did learn how to dress herself, or feed herself. And furthermore, she couldn’t even speak. ‘She used just to make a few little noises sometimes,’ her mother told me. None of the doctors in their part of the world could do a thing for her, and naturally it was pretty tough on the Jamisons, she being the child of their old age and all, and an only child at that. They hadn’t got married till Mrs Jamison was way over forty, and they hadn’t expected to have any children at all. When Luella came, they were tickled to death, at first. Then, when they saw how it was, they decided it was God’s will and did everything they could for the kid. Being poor, it wasn’t much, but they always kept her neat and clean, and never gave up hope that sometime they’d find a doctor who could do something for Luella. She wasn’t so much of a burden on them as you might think. At least that’s the impression I got after talking to them. She wasn’t subject to any kind of violent fits, or anything like that, and always did what they told her to if she understood it. Things like hanging on to that lattice post, I mean. They never used to worry about leaving her by herself at the farm; if they both had to be away for a while, they’d latch the door to her room and leave her sitting in her chair. Mealtimes they would have her at the table, and Mrs Jamison would feed her. Every way they could they tried to bring her out, and there’s no doubt about their both loving her. There’s a big photograph of her in the living room of their house now. . . .
“I’m telling you all this so you’ll get the picture of these people. I must say I liked them. Both good Anglo-Saxon stock from away back. His people were English and he’s proud of them in a quiet sort of way. He told me his great-grandfather was a famous scientist, or mathematician, or some such thing. He had a couple of books the old boy wrote more than a hundred years ago.“ Parsons smiled apologetically. ”They were so glad to have a visitor, they showed me everything in the house. Maybe I’m getting softheaded, but I’m positive those two would never cook up a disappearance act even if they didn’t love their kid, which I’ll bet my last dollar they did.“ He looked out the window again. ”It was pathetic the way she cried when she talked about Luella.
“Well, came some of that farm prosperity you used to read about in the papers. The Jamisons were cut in for a slice of it. At first they saved, but later they decided to use the money on Louella. They wrote a lot of famous doctors up north about her case. Most of them answered that it didn’t sound as if anything could be done, but one man wrote and said if they could get her up to him he’d make an examination and charge them his minimum fee. Then, if he thought he could do anything, he would make some sort of arrangement about later payments. It was a good man, too,” said Parsons. “I looked into that.”
He picked up a folder from among his papers and glanced into it thoughtfully. There seemed to be half a dozen photographs in it. A sudden anxiety to look at them came over me. I reached out my hand.
“In a minute,” he said. “The rest of the story is short so far as facts are concerned. The girl never turned up. It’s pretty hard to see what could have become of her. Even if she’d fallen into the lake, her body would have come up. Cap and the boys dragged most of it, anyway. I thought for a while she might have got picked up by some other car, maybe, but there’s no evidence of it, and that idea raises a whole lot of others. I won’t go into them all with you now, but I’m pretty well satisfied, myself, that that didn’t happen. For one thing, the state troopers were having a driving license checkup a mile or two down the road, and they’d have been apt to notice anything as out of the way as a car with some guy in it who’d just got hold of a feebleminded girl by mistake. Now I want you to look at the girl in this picture.”
He handed me what turned out to be an enlarged snapshot of the front of a farmhouse. There was a section of path in the foreground, edged with white-painted stones. Then the house, a small, clap-boarded one with a veranda across its whole front length. Even if the boards were obviously in need of paint and the whole place looked as pinched and poor as you could well imagine, it was neat and clean, and not in bad repair. I couldn’t see any broken boards in the veranda, and the curtains at the windows were trimly and evenly looped.
Two people were sitting in rocking chairs on the front porch. One was a spare, almost gaunt woman in her sixties, with the thin hair pulled up from her ears and piled in an old-fashioned coiffure on the top of her head. She wore a bleached-looking Mother Hubbard and old, high-button shoes. There was a basket of what seemed to be sewing in her lap. The other figure took my eye at once; I was hardly aware of the rest of the picture at first. It was a girl —Luella, of course. She was sitting in a rocking chair next to her mother. But where Mrs Jamison was clearly looking at the person who had held the camera, the girl’s eyes were not focused on anything. She was simply staring into the distance. Her mouth was partly open, and her whole body was slumped into the chair. Her arms were lying out along the sides of the chair, and in one hand she held something which I could not make out at first. Then I saw it was a rag doll. It was dangling from her fingers. She wasn’t paying the slightest attention to it. Even if no one had told me she was an idiot, I could have guessed it after one glance. Everything about her was mindless, vacant, not human. I looked at her face a long time. It seemed to have regular features. The eyes were the same distance apart as Selena’s. The hair was apparently darker, but the porch was in shadow.
I pointed that out to Parsons. He merely observed that the color of hair was one of the least permanent things in this world.
He showed me other pictures, several of them. Even one blurred enlargement of the face of Luella Jamison. I dislike remembering that enlargement even to this day. I looked at all of them for a long time. I remember my heart beat so sickeningly in my throat that I could scarcely breath.
Parsons finally broke the silence. “What do you think, leaving the hair color out of it for the moment?”
“God,” I told him, “I don’t know. It’s inconceivable that it could be Selena. In a general way, I suppose this girl does look something like her. But I can’t tell what that face would be like with a mind behind it. … Can you?”
He seemed disappointed. “No, you’re right about that. But in general, Mr Jones, would you say that it was impossible for her to be Mrs LeNormand?”
“I can’t say that it would be impossible. But her hair would probably have to be bleached—and I know damn well Mrs LeNormand’s hair isn’t bleached—and she’d have to have more than the ordinary amount of intelligence before she’d be even close.”
“Yes,” he said, and then after several seconds, “yes” again.
“I don’t get it,” I said finally. “There must be something more up your sleeve than this. What about fingerprints?”
He grinned at me. “You might make a detective someday. I’ve got Mrs LeNormand’s, of course. But I haven’t got Luella Jamison’s and I can’t get them. Mrs Jamison is too good a housekeeper. She washed Luella’s room, cleaned all her things, once a week. And when she went back home, brokenhearted, she got the room all ready again for the girl. There may be some of her prints down there, but none that could be identified positively. I couldn’t find any at all except ones made by Mr or Mrs Jamison. A girl like that,” he added, “touches mighty few things, when you come to think about it.”
“Listen,” I said to him. “I don’t see your point at all. You seem to have gone down there, and spent a lot of time on this Luella Jamison. From what you say, you must think she has some connection with Mrs LeNormand, or even be Mrs LeNormand, and yet you know her. You know she is intelligent. You know how she speaks and handles herself. You even know, or ought to know,” I added thinking of his reports on our New York activities, “that she dances.”
“Oh, yes.” He was quite calm. “I know she dances, all right. She dances a month after her husband is murdered.” He must have seen me wince. “I don’t blame Mr Lister. He thinks he’s got to get her mind off it, and he loves her anyway and wants to dance with her, so it’s a good idea to take her dancing.” He waved his hand again. A large chunk of cigar ash fell off onto the table. “Damn. And I know she talks too. Not a trace of a Southern accent, either. But there are some things about the way she talks that puzzle me. It’s what she doesn’t say.”
I asked him what he meant by that.
“I seem to be giving you a lot of lectures this afternoon,” he replied. “Being a college man, maybe you’re used to them. I’ll tell you, Mr Jones. Even professors talk like human beings. What I mean is that when they’re not dishing it out to their stu-dents, they talk in a way that tells you a lot about their past lives, if you listen close. Little words, ex-pressions they use. Gestures too, and facial expres-sions. You know what I mean. Individual ways of saying things that have been built up over years of talking. It’s like a style, in writing, I guess. And it’s never quite the same in any two people.”
Certainly I knew what he meant, and I knew that it was the absence of this quality in what Selena said, particularly when I first knew her, that bothered me. It was unnatural.
“I see what you mean,” I told him.
“Mrs LeNormand talks as if she was reading it out of a grammar book,” he said.
That had been Walter LeNormand’s way too, I suddenly remembered. And the thought gave me a twinge of uneasiness.
“LeNormand talked that way too, generally,” I told him. “At least, he did when I spoke to him the few times we ever met. And he was precise about everything connected with words and figures.”
“Unh hunh.” He didn’t seem specially interested.
Neither of us said anything for a minute or two. I was thinking hard, and Parsons’ idea seemed completely fantastic when I got through considering it. How could this Luella Jamison have run away from her parents and turned herself into the sort of person Selena LeNormand was? I put this to Parsons after a while.
“I know,” he said. “It’s almost impossible. If her insanity was due to a piece of bone, pressing on the brain, and it got knocked back into place and made her normal again . . . sort of an unlikely thing, though, and I can’t find a doctor that will admit the possibility.”
“Naturally not,” I said virtuously.
The remark appeared to nettle him. He looked at me a moment then and said, “All right, put this in your pipe and smoke it. Luella Jamison disappeared the evening of August seventh. On August ninth, at ten-thirty in the morning, Joe Peters over at the county building in New Zion issued a marriage license to one Walter R. LeNormand of England, and a certain Selena Smith. Smith!” There was contemptuous suspicion in the way he said it. “Selena Smith, of Lafayette, Oklahoma. Aged twenty-one. And there isn’t any Lafayette, Oklahoma.”
Chapter Ten: CRAS AMET QUI NUMQUAM AMAVIT
“YOU can see what sort of a case it is, Mr Jones.” Parsons’ voice was harassed, and he chewed irritatedly at his cigar. “There isn’t a damn thing I can go to work on. Nothing but a half-baked idea, and every time I think of that I wonder if I’m getting too old for this sort of work.”
He was right, of course. He knew practically everything I knew, except one thing. One thing that I hardly liked to admit even to myself; that Jerry was going to marry this woman, whoever she was, in a little over a month. As soon as I thought about that I realized something else, something that instantly destroyed my whole peace of mind. I knew this possibility about Selena, and I had promised Parsons not to tell anyone, not even Jerry, about it. It was frightening to know I’d have to live with the story of Luella Jamison, and think about it every time I looked at Selena, and never be entirely sure it wasn’t true.
“Of course,” Parsons was saying, “I’ve tried to trace LeNormand’s ever being seen with Mrs LeNormand before August seventh. And no one that I can find ever saw her until the ninth. LeNormand didn’t even leave town except once, and that was on the tenth. He took his car out of the garage about seven, and drove north along Route 72. I don’t know where he went or what he did, and I can’t find out. He got back to town in the evening.”
“Did they get married in New Zion?” I asked him.
“No. A man named Willetts, a justice of the peace, married them. He lives on the Collegeville turnpike about five miles this side of Zion.” He paused to grunt and then went on. “Sometimes I wonder how some of these birds learn enough to be justices of the peace. They’ve got to know how to read and write. That’s about all this Willetts does know, and he writes awful slow. But his story agrees with Joe’s, over at the county building, in one respect. It was raining on the ninth, and both of them remember that Mrs LeNormand was wearing an old trench coat that was too long in the sleeves for her. Joe said it was a man’s coat. She didn’t have a hat. And there was a trench coat in LeNormand’s closet when we went through his things.”
“What about their cook?” I asked him.
He grinned. “Bessie! God, what a time I had with that woman! She talked more than all the rest of the people in this case put together. The trouble was, she was up in Hampton till the fifteenth, visiting her cousins. LeNormand gave her the first two weeks in the month for her annual vacation. When she got back, she says, Mrs LeNormand was already there, and she rambled on and on about how messy the house was. If that means anything.”
There was a long silence while he looked at me with a smile on his face and waited for me to say something. I looked back at him and tried to imagine some explanation for what he had told me. I couldn’t find any. There seemed to be no proved connection between one set of facts and another.
“Mr Parsons,” I said finally, “I never knew that detectives would talk so frankly. I wish I could, but I don’t quite see how I can help you, or what all this proves.”
“Hell,” he said without losing his smile. “There aren’t any secrets in this case, and you’re doing all you can. I don’t suspect anybody because I can prove that nobody I know of at the present time was anywhere near that observatory when LeNormand was killed. You two were the closest, and I can’t find a reason in the world why either of you should want to do a thing like that. I’m taking President Murray’s word for it that neither of you knew about Mrs LeNormand before that night.”
“We didn’t,” I assured him.
His smile changed a little. “Of course, if I could trace her and prove that you or young Lister knew her before she married LeNormand—”
“Well,” I said, “I can’t prove we didn’t, of course, but the psychological evidence, at least, is all against it.”
He nodded. “Yes. I grant you that. Now I want you to think carefully once again: do you remember anything Mrs LeNormand ever said that would give a clue to her past? Where she came from?”
“No,” I told him. “I’ve begun to notice that she never talks about anything that happened before . . . before last month.”
He was disappointed. “Hasn’t she even mentioned any names, people or places, that she knows?”
“None that I can recall.”
“Well, be on the lookout for things like that, will you, and let me know if you come on anything?”
I didn’t like that idea much. “After all,” I started to say, “I can’t very well—”
“Get this straight,” Parsons said, taking the cigar out of his mouth and looking at me with no smile at all. “I don’t suspect her, personally, for a moment. There’s no evidence of any row between her and LeNormand. She was in the house when it happened, according to Bessie’s own testimony, and nobody on the streets saw her between her house and the observatory. No, she couldn’t possibly have done it. But there’s a mystery about her, and I can’t clear it up. If I could, I’d damn well know who killed Professor LeNormand. And I want to point out to you, my friend, that if she turns out to have a past, and the kind of past that breeds a murder, the quicker Mr Jeremiah Lister finds out about it the better. If he doesn’t, there’s always the chance he’ll find himself burned to death one of these days. That’s one reason why I want your co-operation.”
Of course, he was right. I agreed to let him know anything I found out. He thanked me and stood up. I gathered that was my cue to leave, but I had one more question I had to ask him.
“Mr Parsons,” I said, “you’ve told me a lot of things bearing on why Professor LeNormand was killed—”
“Proving,” he said quickly, “that I can’t figure out why he was killed. Or who killed him.”
“Yes,” I said. “But do you know how he was killed?”
He scowled. “Yes and no. Half the faculty here has been working on that. The consensus of opinion is that he was burned to death—”
“No kidding!” I exclaimed.
“—and that the burns were not made by fire or by chemicals, but by some sort of rays.”
“Rays?” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “They tell me they can produce burns something like that, only small, down in the physics lab in the hush-hush section. But one of them went over the chair where LeNormand was sitting with a Geiger counter, and couldn’t tune in a thing. I didn’t bother to order an exhumation after that. The guy said other places, with bigger equipment, they could produce bigger burns.”
“For God’s sake,” I said, “I pity you. An atomic energy angle along with everything else.”
He shrugged. “Like everything else in this case, there’s no proof one way or another. Whatever the stuff was, it didn’t leave anything to analyze or work with. I’m not smart enough in the scientific field to work down that angle. About all the good it does me is to tell me the sort of person the murderer is likely to be.”
“Maybe,” I suggested, “he’s a mad inventor someplace in South Carolina who knew the Jamisons and—”
He shook me warmly by the hand. “Good-by, Mr Jones. You were very kind to come doxvn here.“ fie was pushing me gently but firmly across the room. ”I’ll keep in touch with you. Let me know if you find out anything. And for God’s sake“—by this time he’d backed me through the door—”don’t try to think up any theories like the mad inventor“— I was halfway down the front steps—”because you won’t get anywhere with them. I’ve thought of them all myself, already.“
I shouted back a good-by to him through the swinging door and turned toward the station, chuckling. You couldn’t help liking the man. Thinking back over the discussion, I realized he’d handled me skillfully. But he hadn’t extracted the fact that Jerry and Selena were going to be married in a month. And as I thought of that, I felt a sense of despair.
A shooting star plummeted down like a tear of light and vanished in the dark above the Sound.
Dr Lister’s face was set into lines that were strange to me; he looked cold and watchful, like a man waiting for the sun to rise on his execution day. His gaze was fixed on the yellow shape of the candle flame—odd how much it looked like that Brancusi Grace had in her apartment.
“You see,” I said, “I am breaking my promise to Parsons. I am telling you something that he told to me in secrecy, but I think he would want me to speak now, if he were here.”
His lips moved slowly. “Yes. Yes, of course he would. I see what you have been living with. I’m sorry that there were those weeks when . . . when we did not understand each other.“
“That doesn’t matter.”
“It matters to me,” he said heavily. “I was not as wise as I should have been.”
“You didn’t have any way of knowing. Let’s not speak of it again.”
He nodded his head quietly, and after an instant said, “Have you found out yet whether she was —is—Luella Jamison?”
The question seemed to echo at me from the night that held us suspended like two motes in a drop of dark water. I wet my lips with my tongue. “Yes, I think I have.”
Life in New York for the next month was pure and unadulterated hell for Berkeley Jones. I could not work—fortunately the holidays gave us a slack season and I got by on that score—and I could not eat, and I scarcely slept. Most of the time I was more or less drunk, and doubtless I was thoroughly unattractive to those who loved me. Grace, after a bad evening at her apartment in the course of which I cried maudlinly and stupidly about Jerry’s approaching marriage, told me that I was disgusting and ought to see a doctor she knew. She had him call on me and he turned out to be a psychoanalyst. Dr Lister was more intelligent—after watching me put down three highballs in about fifteen minutes he told me that my enthusiasm was admirable but I’d be having quite a hangover one of these days if I didn’t taper off. He spoke of what happens to the insides of permanent alcoholics and predicted he might be operating on me one of these days. Then he asked me if I was sleeping well, and I told him that I’d given the process up as a waste of time. He wrote me out a prescription, and in a lucid moment I had it filled. I got several nights of real sleep out of those powders, but then the prescription ran out, and I was ashamed to ask for another.
Jerry did his best to keep things from getting too bad. He knew me so well that he understood it wasn’t the fact of my not liking Selena, or the regret that we were breaking up our partnership that was making me act as I was. But he couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to go out with the two of them once in a while—why I refused even to go to dinner at Grace’s when Selena was going to be there. (He didn’t have a mental picture of the face of Luella Jamison, idiotically empty, and sick-eningly half familiar, to tempt him into comparisons every time he saw Selena.) He was patient with me, and kind, and put me to bed several times, and swore at me, and kept plenty of liquor in the house so I wouldn’t go out and get boiled where he couldn’t keep his eye on me. But there were times when his patience wore thin, and once he said, “For Christ’s sake, Bark, either tell me what’s eating you and get it over with or quit making a damned exhibition of yourself every night like this!”
But I didn’t tell him, or anyone else. Liquor doesn’t make me talkative, so I gave nothing away. I told Jerry that even if he didn’t understand what the hell was wrong with me, not to worry about it. I promised to snap out of it sometime soon.
“God,” he said. “I hope so. I’ve never seen you like this.”
“Live and learn.”
He bit his lip, and for an instant I wondered if we were going to have a fight. I should have welcomed it. Instead, he shook his head. “Something’s got into you. I don’t know what it is and I wish you’d tell me. We’d both be happier.”
“Forget it. I’m all right. It’s nothing to do with you, anyway.”
“You’re not all right. And since you won’t tell me, I have a good idea it’s something about Selena.”
“No, I’m not. Listen, you ape. Don’t worry about hurting my feelings. Go ahead, tell me what it is. I promise not to get mad.”
I was tempted. It would be so easy to blurt out the whole story. In a way, he had a right to know it, in spite of my promise to Parsons. Jerry was the one who was marrying Selena, and if there was something wrong with her, something dreadful in her past, he was entitled to fair warning. It was on the tip of my tongue to begin telling him about Luella Jamison. But what good would I accomplish? He was in love with her. Nothing I could say would keep him from marrying her. To put that ugly story into his mind would simply poison some of his happiness without altering his course in the slightest. Jerry was not the man to change his mind once it was made up. So I held my tongue, and merely said, “You’re making a mountain out of a molehill. The trouble with me is that I’ve been piling up hangovers, one on top of the other.”
“You don’t like Selena, Bark. I know it and I can’t help it. But you didn’t like her before, and it didn’t take you this way. You were swell the night we went to Barney’s. What’s happened recently that makes so much difference?”
“You and Selena haven’t had a row, have you?”
“God, no,” I said. “Listen. Quit worrying about me.”
“Damn it, she doesn’t feel this way about you. She thinks you’re swell. Did you know that?”
I thought, oh, she thinks I’m swell, does she? Like hell. She knows what I think about her. If she can turn over the four of clubs out of fifty-two cards without batting an eye she can damn well read my mind and learn what I think about her. All I said was “That’s nice.”
He turned on his heel and went out of the room. “Sometimes you make me sick.”
I felt rottener than ever and went out to have a drink. It tasted sour on my tongue, but then so did everything in those weeks. I hated myself and ordered another drink while I reflected on what a louse I was and how much like Luella Jamison Selena looked sometimes.
That was the day I went out and bought them a wedding present. I must have been no soberer than my average for the month because what I got was a library edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. At the time there seemed to me something ironically humorous about that. ‘Jerry and Selena,’ I thought to myself, ‘two such fine minds, can sit in front of the fire. He can read volume EXTR-GAMB and she can have JERE-LIBE, and it will be a lovely domestic evening.’
Then I grew ashamed of myself and bought them a water color by Marin that I’d always wanted, and was so broke I had to borrow money from Grace. She made me promise not to use it on liquor.
Jerry was finding this a trying period too. His family were united in their opposition to his marriage and did little to make his life tolerable. They grumbled and pleaded with him in groups and severally. The worst of the lot was his Uncle Horatio Delavan, a little dried-up gospel shouter of a man who walked in on us unannounced one night. Jerry met him at the door.
“Hello, Uncle Horry.”
“Good evening, Jeremiah. I should like to have a word with you.”
I could see that Jerry didn’t expect it to be a matter of one word, but he swallowed something that was on the tip of his tongue and asked the old boy to sit down. I retired to the bedroom but I didn’t close the door.
“Jeremiah,” said Uncle Horry’s voice in the tone of a bank vice-president calling up a small depositor to tell him he has overdrawn his account, “I won’t beat about the bush, my boy. I want to talk to you about your—er—abrupt marriage to this woman.”
“My marriage to Mrs LeNormand, Uncle Horry. Please remember her name. It’ll help.”
“Very good. This Mrs LeNormand. Your aunt Mabel and I are very much distressed, my boy, very distressed indeed.”
Jerry’s voice was ominously calm. “I’m sorry about that, Uncle Horry. I don’t believe there is anything to be distressed about.”
“Possibly not. But your aunt Mabel and I feel strongly that you are not acting with proper circumspection.” He cleared his throat and inserted a note of unction into his voice. “After all, there is generally a good reason for most customs. And it is customary to allow more time to elapse between the —er—end of one marriage and the beginning of the next.”
“There is no good reason I can think of why we should not get married next month.”
“Convention, Jeremiah. And this murder case. You are both implicated, innocently, I grant. But people will talk.”
“Let them talk all they want. I don’t give a damn.”
Uncle Horatio sounded pained. “Tut, my boy, there is no occasion for strong language. Let us discuss this matter like gentlemen.”
“There’s nothing to discuss. It seems to me wholly my own affair, uncle. Dad and I understand each other, and that seems to be all that matters.”
“Of course, if your father—”
“Dad’s having the wedding in the Long Island house. Is that evidence enough for you of his atti-tude?“
Jerry was becoming quieter and lower-voiced with each answer, an invariable sign in him of mounting rage. He answered the next few questions, which had to do with Selena’s religion, in a tone that ought to have warned his uncle. But sensitivity to the moods of others was never Uncle Horry’s chief claim to fame. When he learned that Selena was not a communicant of any church he began opening up the vials of wrath, quoting liberally from Old Testament sources. The gist of what he had to say was that any member of the family who married a heathen would need no blowtorches in his afterlife. How long he might have gone on I don’t know. But after one particularly perfervid sentence, Jerry stopped him.
“Careful, Uncle Horry. Don’t say anything you’ll be sorry for later.” I heard his chair scrape across the floor as he rose. Nothing came out of Uncle Horry after that but a splutter. In a few seconds Jerry said with cool impersonality, “It is better to marry than to burn.”
That was the end of this particular episode. Uncle Horry took an indignant leave. When the front door slammed shut I came out of hiding.
“Well,” I told him, “apparently Uncle Horry is on the side of the angels, anyway.”
He glared at me and then began to smile. “He’s harmless, of course. Only he does get under my skin.”
“Listen, fella,” I told him. “Why don’t you shut him and all the rest of them up? Postpone the marriage a few months and they’ll come round.”
“You too?” he said. “Damn it, Bark, I don’t get any peace from the lot of you. Even Grace. Last night she called me her ‘impetuous young Lochinvar’ and a lot more stuff. What do they think I’m going to do? Sit around and let Selena go on living alone in a hotel, with no friends and nothing to do, and be miserable? With that nightmare of his death to haunt her day and night? Even if she never did love him, it’s a horrible thing to have to remember.” He looked at me pleadingly. “Can’t you see how it is? I don’t even know how much money she has. Maybe right now she’s worrying about not having enough. Damn it, Bark, I want to look after her. I love her and she loves me, and why the hell should we wait months and months just because it’s customary?” He began pacing up and down. “Listen, Bark. I think you have the idea that this is all in my mind. Well, it isn’t. I don’t want to wait for her, but I would if she wanted me to.”
The implication of that took a second to reach me. “So she wants the wedding for next month?”
“Yes,” he said. “And I see why too. I’ve told you. She’s not the kind of person who makes friends with every Tom, Dick, and Harry. She hasn’t any Teal friends except you and Grace, besides me.”
That, I considered, was putting down the best possible total for Selena’s friends. Grace had introduced her, I knew, to some of her own crowd, but with Selena such a recent widow, and not speaking the same language that they did, I suspected that she had many lonely hours sitting in her hotel room, waiting for the evening and the time when she could be with Jerry. The thought awakened no sympathy in me because she never impressed me as a person who needed friends.
“Of course,” I said cautiously, “it must be a rotten way of life, the one she has now. And I see that she couldn’t have stayed in Collegeville.”
He looked at me directly, and said, “When we got engaged, Bark—and I wouldn’t tell another soul in the world this—she said, ‘Marry me soon, Jerry. I need you.’ So we decided on January. I told her it would be like this with most of the family, but she doesn’t care and neither do I.”
Yes, I admitted to myself, she did need him in some obscure way I could not understand. From the very first time they had met, there in LeNormand’s house in Collegeville, I realized that she had been attracted to Jerry. And if that was so, and if she asked him to marry her soon, I had to admit that he was doing the right thing, although I felt it would have been decent of her to think about him as well as herself.
“Hell,” I said, “don’t let them upset you. You’re probably right, and if Dad approves, that’s all that matters.”
“Yes,” he said thoughtfully, “Dad doesn’t mind.” I said nothing, and he seemed to be thinking to himself for a minute. “Selena handled him marvelously. We went out there that weekend after your party, you know. Someway or other, she got round him that first night. I thought there’d be a row, but there wasn’t. They went into the library and talked awhile, after I told him our plan, and he just came out and gave me his blessing, so to speak.”
He stirred in his chair, took out a cigarette, and lit it. In the glare of the match his face was composed.
“Yes,” he said in the impartial tone of a man who neither defends nor praises himself, “I told Jerry to go ahead. I could not have prevented their marriage, and I wanted to have him feel that I was behind him in whatever course he chose for his life. Let me tell you what happened in the library:
“We went in,” he began, “after dinner. I told her that I wanted to talk a little with her before anything was settled too finally. We sat down beside the fire, and I tried to choose my words carefully. Aside from her beauty I realized that I knew very little about her. So I began by telling her something about Jerry, and what he meant to me. I mentioned the fact that I had had to bring him up myself, and that if there were faults in his character which she discovered later on, she must not think too harshly of me.
“‘Of course, he has faults, Dr Lister,’ she told me, ‘but so does every human being. I do not mind that. I expect that.’
“That struck me as rather cool, and I felt that I hadn’t created the atmosphere in which I wanted to talk to her. So I told her that she must understand that Jerry did not need my consent for anything he chose to do, but that I loved him and wanted to see him happy. I told her something, too, about our family, and that we are proud of it because we have held ourselves to a code of personal conduct that is not altogether the ordinary one. I explained that even though she felt she was marry. ing Jerry, it was not a case of Jerry alone. That we are, on the Lister side at least, a united family of which Jerry was a part.
“My expectation was that she would tell me something of herself, but she made no reply to me at all, so I asked her finally, as tactfully as I could, if she would mind telling me who she was and where she came from.”
He drew deeply on his cigarette and looked reflectively along the terrace. I felt that he was trying to make clearer something that was still puzzling to him.
“She did not answer me at once. As I waited for her to speak, Bark, I had a feeling that I had said something that offended her, but I paid no attention to it because it seemed to me I had asked nothing that was not proper for me to know.
“At last she sighed and said, ‘You are entitled to ask me that question, Dr Lister. But it is easier for you to ask it than for me to answer it.’
“I had the feeling that she was putting me off. My next remark was some sort of apology if I had said anything to disturb her.
“‘No,’ she said, ‘it’s not that. Perhaps, if I explain what I mean, you will understand why I cannot tell you more.’ She gave me the definite feeling then that what she was going to tell me was all the information I would get out of her. ‘Walter LeNormand once rescued me, Dr Lister. He was a man I think you would have liked. Your son liked him. I ought to tell you that I did not love him. But I liked him and I admired him. He took me into his house, he married me, when I was alone and in need of protection. He is dead now, and nobody knows how or for what reason. But when we were married my past ended. It was a new life for me, a life that he gave me and made for me. There was nothing in my background that you need to think about or worry over. Jerry loves me for what I am, not what I have been. I want you to do the same thing. I shall be good to your son and try to make him a good wife.’
“Then she said nothing more for a while. ‘In a way Jerry, too, rescued me. After my husband’s death I did not know what to do. I was alone again, and in a world of unfriendly people. Jerry has changed all that for me without having to question me. Please think of me as Selena LeNormand and no more than that. I want you to like me or not like me for what I am, not for what I have been.’ She stopped and looked at me a long time. ‘I give you my assurance that there is nothing dishonor-able, by your own standards, in my past, and that my people, too, are the equal of yours.’
“When she finished speaking, Bark, I did not know what to say. I felt that she would tell me no more even if I questioned her further. As I repeat it to you, all that she said constituted nothing more than a polite and devious way of telling me that she would not tell me anything about herself. But as she spoke to me in the library, I felt a great respect for her. There was character in her words and the way she said them.
“I debated the wisdom of trying her again. If there was a mystery in her past, I felt that I had to know of it. Yet it was essential to me not to maneuver myself into the position of opposing the marriage. You see that, don’t you?”
“Yes,” I answered, I see how difficult it was for you.“ His story interested me, but I had known all along that he knew no more than I did. And yet, had he only realized it, he had had in that library the only opportunity any of us ever had to save Jerry’s life. There was no blame in that. If he had known what the stakes were, he would have played his cards differently.
“It seemed wisest to me,” he went on, “not to insist. I simply asked her if she felt there was any danger that her past, whatever it was, might sometime confront her and Jerry when it was too late.
“She leaned forward in her chair and replied, ‘No. No. I promise you that will never happen.’
“We went on talking for a while about other things. I began to feel a great admiration for her as a person. She gave me the impression of tremendous inner strength. And I could not doubt her intelligence. Jerry, I felt, had chosen wisely. It would be an experience to live with a woman like Selena. I thought of their future together without fear. She was his equal, I believed, in the things that really matter. If I had to choose between an ordinary girl, no matter how much I might approve of her background, and this woman to whom I was talking I should not have hesitated.
“Only once did I wonder if my judgment was wise. We had been talking about the future, and without meaning to pry into any understanding there might be between her and Jerry I mentioned my pleasure at the thought that he was getting married and said something about my hope that they would have children.
“‘No,’ she said again, urgently. ‘You must not expect that.’ My face must have showed some surprise or disappointment, for she went on, after a moment, ‘at least, not for a while.’
“My first feeling was one of embarrassment. Evidently I had blundered into something. I told her that I did not want to make her unhappy, but that I hoped there was nothing to prevent their having a family when they got ready.
“She smiled at me, the warmest, most sympathetic smile I think she ever gave me. ‘Oh, no,’ she said, and there was a note of something like hope in her voice. ‘I want to have children someday.’ ”
He was silent, and I knew that he could add no more to the problem that concerned us both. Time was passing, and I went on with my story immediately. Nothing he had said gave any further substance to the shape without shadow that was haunting my mind. And yet, neither did what he had told me seem to conflict with the growing clear-ness of its outline.
Jerry and I went out to the Long Island house several days before the wedding. Grace was there too, and a couple of Jerry’s aunts and uncles. Everything was very quiet, of course, and though all of us had our reservations, probably I was the only one who felt really serious about possible objections to Selena.
She behaved, I must say, beautifully. The first evening she was there, Dr Lister showed her all his prize books—the Sir Thomas Browne that he found in a little shop in Tokyo and bought for a few yen because the Japanese proprietor thought it was only an English book, the special Melvilles he was so fond of, the association copy of Endymion, and his collection of Arabic treatises on mathematics. She spent about ten minutes looking at one of those, I remember, although she confessed that she did not know a word of Arabic. Just the same she gave it back to him with a smile and said it was interesting. He laughed and said she was the first woman who ever thought that about it, and she was welcome to come in and read it any time she liked.
Of course, her beauty was like a candle in the house. Wherever she moved she seemed to bring a light with her, and it was pathetic to watch Jerry follow her with his eyes. Yet I never saw them exchange any very passionate intimacies. Once, coming into the room we always called the extra room— a sort of little box that opened off the library and had originally been intended for a secretary’s workroom—I found him sitting beside her on the old, battered leather sofa in there. He wasn’t holding her at all, but was bent over her hand, kissing it. She was looking at his head with a clear, almost wondering gaze, and there was, I thought, a little smile on her lips like the ones children have when they are not quite sure of themselves.
I excused myself hastily, of course, and went away, but I felt good about it. They made a swell couple, and perhaps she did have a heart. Later I found her in the library, alone, looking at some of Dr Lister’s books again. She had on a heavy, dark-cream knitted sweater and a dull green woolen skirt, and no ornaments at all except the big, square-cut emerald ring Jerry had given her. I asked her if I could come in.
“Certainly, Bark,” she said, and put down her book.
I settled myself in the big chair that I liked, over by the hearth. Looking at her, meeting those extraordinary eyes of hers gazing steadily across at me, I felt suddenly sheepish. “Selena,” I said.
“I just wanted to tell you that I am sorry for the things that have happened this last month. I haven’t acted very decently, I’m afraid.”
“You mustn’t feel that way.”
“I know, but I’m sorry about it. Listen, Jerry is a swell guy, see? The best is none too good. Treat him well.”
She kept on looking at me. “I want to,” she said finally. And then, “What do you wish me to do?”
I couldn’t meet her eyes. “Oh, you know. Give him a break.”
“No,” she said, “I do not know. Am I not being the way I ought to be?”
The conversation, I felt, was getting out of hand, and I began to feel silly. “Yes,” I told her, “I suppose you are. Don’t mind me. Maybe I have a hangover.” Then I began to get stupidly intense. “If you don’t know what I mean, it’s a compliment to you, but all I want to say is, remember Jerry is the finest man you’ll ever meet. There’s only one way to be with him, and that’s completely honest.” It was on the end of my tongue to add, “And if you are Luella Jamison, for God’s sake tell him so,” but I did not risk that.
She listened to me without moving and without changing her expression. Then she got up and crossed over to my chair. As she stood there, looking down at me, I began to feel sorry that I’d said as much as I had. Maybe it was the impersonal calm of her expression, but I felt again the touch of dread, brushing the fringe of my consciousness, which she seemed capable of imparting to me. She put one hand on my shoulder as I sat there.
“Bark,” she said, “I am going to try to do what you want me to do. And I shall try as wisely and as hard as I can. Does that satisfy you?”
“Yes,” I told her.
“You hope,” she went on calmly, “that I shall make Jerry happy. You do not hope it a fraction as much as I do. But you must stop thinking about me as you have been doing.”
“I haven’t been thinking about you in any special way.”
“You have been resenting me. I do not object to that because it is natural, I believe. But you distrust me. You must not do that. You must forget anything that may be in your mind about me. Jerry and I have more things in common than you think. We shall be all right if no one interferes with us.”
Without looking back once she went out of the room. For a long time I sat there, staring out the bay window at the snow swirling and eddying in the air outside. Maybe it was watching the storm that made me feel so cold. But I think it was my passive realization that whatever it was I did not like about Selena—and I still could not put a definite name to it—nothing in me was strong enough to resist her. There was a profound force of some sort in her.
What she had actually said to me was not a snub, which I had richly deserved, but a warning, and so assured a one that it frightened me. Yet, looking back at the scene, listening to her repeat those words in my mind’s ear, I realize that there was something else in them which I did not perceive at the time.
After a time I persuaded Thomas to bring me a drink, and went on sitting beside the fire. Grace came in, looking charming and full of enthusiasm. She disapproved of my attitude and occupation.
“What are you doing, my lamb, sitting here and moping and drinking?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Cheer up,” she said brightly, “tomorrow’s the great day. You’ll feel better once it’s over.”
She settled herself in Selena’s chair. “You’re still not reconciled, I see.”
I got up and kissed her. “Come on, darling. Give me a break. I’m a damn fool, I know, but I hate the fact as much as everybody else tells me they do.”
She said soberly, “I think you’re spoiling things a little for Jerry. It’s your manners I criticize.”
“And not my motives?”
“Get me a cigarette, will you, my angel? Thanks.” She projected a cloud of smoke large enough to conceal her expression. “No. I think your motives are of the purest.”
I felt a rush of gratitude toward her. There was one person who did not believe I was a complete fool, then. “You take some of the weight off my mind. I was wondering if I was going nuts.”
She spread her hands in a gesture of humorous resignation. “Selena is a beautiful woman, but . . .” She said no more.
“But what?” I asked her.
She got up, came over, and pulled me out of my chair. “But I still don’t know how old she is.” She tucked her arm under mine and we went away together. Grace had her moments, all right.
The morning of the twelfth it stopped snowing and the sun came out. The decorators were busy in the house, so Jerry and Selena and I went sliding on the drive. There’s a long run down the bluff and on past the house to the very edge of the Sound. A couple of the pitches are pretty steep; Jerry and I had been going down them for years, but I’d never got entirely accustomed to the drop just below the terrace, where the sled shoots out into the air and you feel yourself in a free fall the second before the crash as the runners hit the slope below.
Our big sled just held the three of us, and I must say for Selena that she never turned a hair. Once when I turned and looked at her sitting behind me there was a look of exultation on her face.
After a while we went inside and Thomas brought us hot buttered rum in front of the fire. We sat there talking and laughing, and Jerry and Selena held hands. Then it was time for lunch, and then it was after lunch. In no time at all we went upstairs to get dressed. The ceiling of my room was white with the reflected sun off the snow. I had a drink while I dressed. Happy is the bride the sun shines on and God damn that collar button. Time to go downstairs and pin a smile on your face as you go out the door. Thank heaven, it was not a large wedding. The fewer people present the better. The music playing Lohengrin, because Jerry insisted that only the most conventional and sentimental of weddings would do for his girl after a first marriage presided over by a justice of the peace named Willetts.
“Here comes the bride” . . . walking by herself and looking so beautiful in Grace’s dress I felt almost sick. Silver-gray cloth, like metal and as soft as velvet, and a narrow fillet of flowers around her head. Lilies of the valley from the hothouse, probably. . . . Her eyes, shining and cool, remote as the stars and with a light in them. Her face was still and she looked more than ever like a statue come to life.
“Where is the groom?” . . . Jerry in a cutaway, standing beside the hall table made into an altar, and looking white and thin-faced and dangerous, the way he used to look when he lined up on the field before the kickoff and tightened the chin strap under his helmet. . . . The quick smile when he glanced at his bride while the minister was praying. The responses, firm and low from both of them . . . “And if any person know just cause” … I knew what might pass for a just cause . . . “or forever hold his peace.” . . . All right, forever hold my peace. Jerry kissing Selena, kissing his wife. Everybody kissing the bride. . . . Your lips are cold, Selena. . . . Yes, such a lovely ceremony. . . . I’ll have another glass of champagne when you get to it, Thomas. . . . Yes, doesn’t time pass quickly. It does seem like only yesterday that we were . . . The two of them going upstairs to change. Plenty of time. The boat doesn’t sail for hours. . . . No, I don’t think it’s any secret. They’re going to Bermuda. . . . Thanks, Thomas. This is swell champagne. . . . Here they come now. Whack him on the back as he goes out the door.
“So long, fella.”
“So long, Bark. See you in six weeks.”
The sound of a loose strand on the chains, flailing away methodically under the left rear fender. Damn, I meant to fix that before they left . . . champagne. . . . No, dad, I’m all right. This stuff is harmless . . . talk . . . champagne . . . now what did I say? . . . more champagne . . . (and suppose I should tell you, my dear lady, that my best friend just married a woman who was probably an idiot less than a year ago? How would you react to that, I wonder?) . . . just one more, Thomas. I can take care of myself. . . . Sure, I’m going up right now . . . just a little drunk, that’s all … hold still, Thomas, and we’ll get into these pajamas okay. . . . God, what a night outside! Moon on the snow. . . . Happy the groom the moon shines on. . . . My God, that stuff makes the room go round. That’s Orion, that big constellation … I remember . . . damn all memories. . . .
Chapter Eleven: Events Leading up to a Telegram
I DEVOTED the next couple of weeks to pulling myself together. It was high time. I’d been drinking so much that my hand trembled every time I picked up a glass, and several mornings I had to go to a barbershop rather than risk shaving myself. Work was beginning to pile up at the office, and somehow or other I got through it. Actually I was glad to be busy because it kept me from thinking or feeling lonely, and I did so well in a couple of cases that they gave me a raise in salary. In some respects, life was very satisfactory.
On the other side of the ledger was the fact that there was at this time what amounted to an estrangement between Dr Lister and me. The way I had behaved before and after the wedding (and I was very drunk indeed—Thomas informed me afterward I said things that all present would remember for years) was unpardonable. Dr Lister told me frankly that he was ashamed of me and that he found it hard to forgive my conduct.
The result was that I found myself more alone than ever before in my life and for ten days I could not get adjusted to it. Coming home each evening to an empty apartment with the prospect of long hours by myself had a depressing effect on my morale, and there was the constant struggle to stay away from the Scotch.
Often I wondered if I had acquired some sort of obsession about Selena and her marrying Jerry. There seemed something unbalanced about the distrust of her that I felt whenever I thought about her. After all, there was little cause for my feeling except that LeNormand’s death was an ugly thing, and it was out of that horror that she and Jerry had met and not-so-ultimately married. The fate that had overtaken LeNormand, whatever its cause, was not a thing I could contemplate quietly as a possibility for Jerry, and there were too many unresolved mysteries about Selena and her first husband’s death to please me. Maybe the Italians can live happily on the slopes of Vesuvius, but I am not that sort of person.
While Jerry and Selena were still away on their wedding trip I rented a two-room apartment for myself farther uptown. For a time, at least, they planned to live in our old place, and I spent a good deal of time down there getting it ready for their return. I resolved that it would be in impeccable order when they got back to it, and believe me, it was. New paper on every closet shelf, everything put away in the proper place, wedding presents all unpacked and arranged, even the pictures hung for them. I put my Marin over the fireplace, where it looked very well indeed. Uncle Horatio’s lithograph of the Good Shepherd—a grisly sort of thing—I hung in the foyer where it would, if necessary, soften up bill collectors and help speed the parting guest.
I must admit that there was an element of selfishness in all this. I wanted Selena, in particular to be in my debt; it gave me a sensation of nobility to bury my personal feelings and think of her and Jerry’s pleasure and comfort. The whole performance was a piece of self-dramatization, but they got the benefit of it and it was harmless.
So far I haven’t mentioned the letter I had from Jerry. It was as reserved and noncommittal as all his letters, but I could read between the lines that he was happy: “The weather here has been warm and sunny almost all the time. You ought to see the moonlight nights we have.” And more of the same. He mentioned Selena only once. “I know you are going to like her when you know her better. She says to send you her regards.” Well, that was as might be. At any rate, it was rather a pointless letter except for a postscript: “P. S. Have you heard anything more from Parsons? I suppose he hasn’t made any progress? There’s not much American news in the paper down here.”
So far as I knew he hadn’t reached any solution. I hadn’t seen him again myself, but Dr Lister went down one day to New Zion. On the way home he dropped in at my new apartment—one cold February evening it was—and we had a drink together. He told me where he had been.
“Did Parsons have anything new to contribute?” I asked him.
He shook his head. “No. I don’t believe he knows any more now than when he started on the case.”
I wasn’t so sure of that. Offhand I could think of one discovery of his, Luella Jamison. Of course, that had nothing to do with the case. But the coincidences were curious.
I decided to fish around. I wanted to find out whether Parsons had mentioned anything about Luella to Dr Lister. “What is he working on now?” I asked.
“That I don’t know.” He went on, a little embarrassedly, I thought. “When this engagement of Jerry’s first came up, I wrote Parsons.”
“Oh,” I said. “I didn’t know that.”
“Of course, I did. I had to make sure that the authorities didn’t believe she was implicated.”
“Parsons told me then that he could guess why I was writing to him. He assured me that so far they were fairly positive that Mrs LeNormand was not implicated. He said that she had a perfect alibi personally, and there was no evidence to show she was an accessory before the fact.” He smiled grimly. “He also remarked that there was no evidence that she was not.”
“That was just official caution.”
“Yes,” he agreed. “So I thought. But I went down to see him today to find out whether anything new had come up that concerned us. I’m pretty well satisfied that it hasn’t.”
“Thank God for that.”
He put his fingertips together and stared at them. “I don’t believe the police will solve the LeNormand business.”
“No,” I agreed.
“It’s unfortunate, in a way. I think we’d all be happier if it were cleared up.”
Personally I wasn’t so sure about that. It depended on what the truth was. “I guess so,” I replied.
“You and Jerry haven’t suppressed anything that might come out later?” He sounded apologetic as he asked the question.
“We haven’t suppressed anything.”
“Good. I think the wisest thing we can all do is to forget the whole matter until the police have something more to report.”
He talked on about small affairs for a while and then he left. I felt unhappy. We had talked together like chance acquaintances.
The Empress docked on a Wednesday afternoon, and I went down to see her come in and meet the two of them. Dr Lister had planned to be there too, of course, but an emergency operation came up at the last minute and he could not make it.
Jerry was looking magnificent, radiating a quiet happiness, and conspicuously proud of his beautiful wife. Selena did not seem much changed to me, and certainly she had lost none of her beauty. People, even in the irritating confusion of the customs, stopped to stare at her, and once a couple of schoolgirls sidled up to ask for her autograph. Apparently they thought anyone as gorgeous as Selena must surely be in the movies. They were plainly disappointed when I told them she was just my friend’s wife and nobody they’d ever heard of. Though after I’d assured them of that I wondered if it was strictly accurate. In fact, one of them did say, “We’re sorry, mister, but my friend and me thought sure we’d seen her in the movies or the papers or someplace.”
In the taxi going uptown, Jerry presented me with a pipe he’d bought in Bermuda, and I was glad to have it. They made me sit between them, and were so cordial and generally sweet, particularly Jerry, that I had a suspicion they’d decided I was a problem child and would have to have special, careful treatment. But all in all, things passed off pleasantly and I left them at the door of their place feeling glad that I had arranged it so perfectly for them. All they had to do was walk in and begin living in it. I’d even started the milkman to calling again.
The months that followed were good ones. Jerry must have told his family how decent I had been about the apartment. They began to look at me again as if I was human, and best of all, Dad and I returned to the old intimacy that meant so much to both of us. I went out to Long Island many times, and often when Jerry and Selena were not there. On such occasions Dad and I did not discuss them. We had an unspoken agreement about that.
I had hoped to grow to like Selena as I came to know her better. But it just didn’t happen, though I learned to admire her in certain ways. She had a quiet self-control that made any open break impossible, and an almost unbelievable modesty about her beauty, a very rare quality in my experience. As time went on, I found it easier to be with her because I finally discarded Parsons’ thought that she might be Luella Jamison. She knew too much, her mind was too clear and logical, she was too full of information about the most abstract subjects ever to have been an idiot. Watching her, I came to the conclusion that she had had a long and exceedingly thorough education. That alone could account for the way she could talk to Jerry and Dr Lister about astronomy, or mathematics, or archaeology. It might, too, account for her almost gauche insensitivity to the prejudices and peculiarities of the people around her. Wherever she came from, she had been educated in an atmosphere of objective intellectuality, and her interests molded in ways unlike those of most other women. Then I would remember the way she danced, and not be so sure.
When she was out at the house, she spent a lot of time in the library, reading every conceivable sort of book. Jerry and I would urge her to go driving with us, or play ping-pong in the basement, or occasionally, on a fair day, go out on the Sound in our sloop. She seldom came along, but when she did she was equal to the occasion. I remember one blustery March morning when we were out on the water and she was taking her turn at the tiller. A cold, shouting wind was coming down the Sound, and the sloop heeled under it till the cockpit coaming was all but awash. Selena sat there with the wind blowing her hair and whipping color into her face, calmly watching the level of the water racing along the lee deck. At the instant when I’d decided that we’d be wet the next second, she eased off the helm and the wash retreated from the coaming. She never batted an eye. That proved to me that she had courage and steady nerves. But I was glad to take my turn at the tiller. I like to play things with a margin of safety.
That side of her was, if anything, admirable, but beyond admiring her, there was nothing else you could do with Selena. She had somehow never learned the little easy give-and-take that lubricates every agreeable human relationship. She could talk well on many subjects, but she never seemed able to converse, and it is conversation liberally sprinkled with badinage that I enjoy. When she spoke she never made an allusion; she never reminisced, she never said anything silly. Every sentence was a statement or a question. She seldom laughed, but she did have a silent sense of humor of some sort. At intervals she would give a silent, almost secret smile that told me she was relishing something to herself. I find it hard to recall examples of the quality I am trying to suggest, but I remember one night when we had all been sitting in the library.
After a time we fell to playing bridge in a desultory sort of way. Grace was out at the house that weekend, and Jerry and I had been playing against Selena and her. Incidentally, Selena was the most astonishing bridge player I ever met. She never seemed to lose an unnecessary trick, and though occasionally a finesse of hers would go wrong, I noticed that when it did she always smiled in that little private way of hers. After an hour or two we got bored, and decided to stop. Grace, who had been keeping score, had no trouble adding up Jerry’s and my side of the ledger, but the entries in the female column were staggering. Grace puckered up her forehead and wrestled with her pencil, muttering to herself, while Jerry and I laughed and told her we conceded the match.
Suddenly Selena leaned forward, picked the score pad out from under Grace’s nose, glanced at it casually for a moment, and remarked, “Three thousand eight hundred and sixty.”
Jerry took up the pad after her while Grace simply sat looking astounded and relieved. After a minute or so he said, “That’s right,” with a note of puzzled admiration in his voice. Jerry was exceptionally quick with figures himself, which was why he was such an asset to his firm of statisticians. I think he was piqued by Selena’s speed. “You’re quite a lightning calculator,” he observed. She simply went on smiling lightly and impersonally.
It was that summer, a few months after the bridge game, that Selena showed me a new side of her character, and one that I was to think of often later on.
One day, in August if I remember rightly, Jerry was playing in the club tennis tournament. He’d put me out the day before, to my relief, and it was really too hot to do anything. I suggested to Selena, on some impulse or other, that we drive out to Montauk. She agreed readily enough, though I felt that the idea didn’t specially appeal to her.
For an hour or so we rode in silence. From time to time I glanced at her, sitting coolly and easily in the corner of the seat opposite me. She was immaculate, in a dull blue, severely simple frock and a wide, plain straw hat with a white ribbon around it. Just looking at her made me feel cool, and in a way rested. I felt that there was a truce between us, and resolved firmly to do nothing to violate it.
After a while, without apparently speaking at me directly, she said, “I think Jerry is very happy.”
“Yes,” I told her. “Why shouldn’t he be?” It was meant to be gallant, of course, but she did not take it that way.
“You didn’t expect him to be happy after he was married to me.”
“Nonsense,” I said, but I thought to myself that it was going to be hard to keep civil if she went on this way. She was an infuriatingly direct woman.
“On the contrary,” she said, “you are thinking that I am being annoying. I want merely to know whether you have any suggestions.”
“Suggestions?” I said blankly.
“You remember how once, before Jerry and I were married, you told me to be good to him?”
The recollection made me squirm a little, but I had to admit it.
“So,” she said, “I have tried. Do you think I have succeeded?”
“Yes,” I told her.
She looked at me through those disturbing violet eyes of hers and said, “You know, I am not accustomed to people like you and Dr Lister and Jerry. Perhaps sometimes I make mistakes with you.“
“Yes,” I said, feeling that this was getting curiouser and curiouser, “from my point of view, you do. I think you ought to relax a little more.”
She sighed. “I don’t quite know how to do that.” Her tone of voice suggested that she would look into it in the near future and learn the technique of relaxing.
“Anyway,” I said, “let’s not talk personalities. You’re you and I’m me, and I guess that’s about all there is to it.”
“Yes,” she said, and smiled that odd smile of hers.
“Tell me,” I said, after a pause, “do you like this part of the world?”
She looked at me in surprise. “Why do you ask me that?”
When I had asked the question, I had been merely making casual conversation, but her reply put a sudden scheme into my head. “Oh, I was just wondering. Some people think California is God’s gift to geography. And I have a cousin who thinks highly of the state of Maine. Everybody has his favorite part of the country.”
“Long Island is a satisfactory place, don’t you think?”
“Yes,” I admitted. “The north shore, anyway. I like parts of the South, too—the Carolinas and Georgia. Ever been down there?”
“No,” she said. “I don’t believe I should like it. The Southern girls that Jerry knows always seem to me unintelligent, and they have double names like Mary Lou and Sue Ellen. They seem silly to me.”
“Well, there’s something in that,” I said, adding mentally that she could add a little Southern charm to her own character without loss, and feeling distinctly irritated that I hadn’t trapped her into some sort of admission about her past life and where she came from.
She looked at me and smiled. “You’re strange, Bark. You ask one question and really want to find out the answer to another one, don’t you?”
I felt annoyed at her for calling the turn so exactly. “How do you always know what I’m thinking?”
“You give it away,” she answered.
“How?” I asked her.
“Why,” she said, and paused. “I suppose you’d say that if a person went into a room and shouted something loudly, even if he was all alone in the room, he wouldn’t be keeping what he was saying entirely to himself?”
“That’s what you do with your mind, Bark.”
“You mean you can read my mind?” The idea terrified me and embarrassed me simultaneously.
She smiled. “Not the way you mean it. But everybody gets some thoughts from the people round them. You know that.”
“Well,” I began hesitantly.
“You all talk incompletely,” she went on. “Listen to what people say to each other sometime. The real conversation isn’t wholly in the words. The words are clues to what the person speaking is trying to convey. The rest of it goes direct from one mind to another. You must have noticed that.“
“This is odd,” I thought to myself. “But I suppose she is partly right.” Aloud I said, “And I give out clues to what I don’t say as well as to what I do?”
“Hmm.” I decided to try her out. “Suppose you tell me, then,” I said, mentally deciding that her theory was ridiculous, “what I’m thinking now?”
She laughed. “Stop the car. I’ll give you a demonstration.”
I pulled up along the edge of the road.
“Now,” she said, “you don’t believe I’m right. Just sit back a moment and listen.”
I leaned back in the seat and waited. Selena was not smiling any more, but I did not feel that she was wholly serious, either. I felt suddenly and uncomfortably that she was amusing herself at my expense. Gradually I felt that she wanted me to do something. What, I did not know at first, and I looked at her puzzledly. She never smoked, of course, but I thought I might offer her a cigarette. The silence between us was getting uncomfortable. I pulled my case out of my pocket and extended it to her. “Have a cigarette,” I said.
The tension between us snapped at once. “Drive ahead,” she said. “You know I never smoke, Bark.”
“Listen,” I said. “What the hell was all that about?”
She said composedly, “I just asked you for a cigarette without speaking. And you offered me one.”
That was that. I thought about it as we drove along, but I didn’t come to any conclusion. “It’s a good stunt,” I said once.
“Yes,” she said.
“I hope you don’t pull that sort of thing on your poor defenseless husband.”
“Oh,” she said, lightly, “Jerry isn’t a bit like you.”
And with that I had to be content.
We had a picnic lunch out by the lighthouse, and watched the waves come in, and it was all very agreeable except for a few minutes in which Selena undertook to explain to me the theory of neap and spring tides, all in response to some idle remark of mine about how far above the water the high-tide mark seemed to be that day. I was too sleepy and full of sandwiches and iced beer to care much. But it annoyed me mildly that she should know everything like that. A certain amount of ingenuous ignorance, I decided, was a great factor in feminine charm.
Riding home that afternoon, I thought to myself that I had never before spent a day alone with a person and learned so little about them. Inevitably it is an irritating thing to have a person—man or woman—refuse to let you see a single inch into his or her character. My stock of small talk had run out, and I was simply driving along the turnpike, watching the road and the other cars and thinking of little, when a curious thing happened. Selena reached forward suddenly and ratched up the emergency. Instantly the car began to skid; the tires screamed on the asphalt, and I had the devil of a time keeping us from turning turtle.
In the middle of my struggle with the wheel a bright yellow roadster full of prep school kids shot out of a narrow drive in front of us and swerved roaring off down the highway. They must have missed our front bumper by inches. I unlocked the emergency and we rolled on; sweat was running off me in rivulets. It was the closest call I ever had in my life; undoubtedly Selena’s quick yank on the brake had saved us from an ugly smash. As I thought of it I realized that the road down which the yellow car had come was entirely hidden from the highway by a stone wall and a belt of trees. There was no way I could have known that that car was coming.
“God!” I said to Selena, who was sitting perfectly quietly beside me. “Thanks! That was too close. I can still hear the angels singing.”
She nodded quietly. “There was no way you could see that road.”
“No,” I agreed. “Damn kids like that. Their parents oughtn’t to give them cars.” She was silent, and a belated question came into my mind. “How did you know they were coming?”
“I—what is it Jerry says?—I had a hunch.” And she smiled.
“Well,” I told her, “keep on having them!” But it seemed to me that she acted with amazing speed and directness for a woman with nothing but a hunch.
I ought to have felt grateful to her, and in a way I did. In another, the incident had in it one of the seeds of the irritation and uneasiness that Selena always seemed able to evoke in me. How had she known that car was coming? I went back a day or so later and looked at the place; there was absolutely no way of seeing past the wall and the trees. The only explanation was a sort of clairvoyance. Hunches as good as that one of hers simply couldn’t be due to chance.
The months that followed flowed into one another without anything of importance to this story. I was getting on well in my work, and devoting more and more time to it in consequence. I saw less of Jerry and Selena that winter than I had expected to, and I could see, when we did meet, that Jerry was delighted with my progress and puzzled by it. He himself was not deeply interested in the statistical work he was doing, though I understand he did it brilliantly. On several occasions he told me that most of it bored him. He admitted he put in as little time at his office as he could, and I wondered if he was growing lazy, which would have been unlike him, or just what he was doing that occupied the rest of his time. One evening I found out.
He and Selena and Dad and Grace were to come round to my apartment for a buffet supper on a Sunday night. I liked to give a sort of informal meal once or twice a month that way and ask just the people I really was fond of. I suppose partly because I was making some money and wanted to spend it on entertaining the people who’d done so much for me, especially Dad. Sunday was the best night for my schedule, and Grace was glad to come because Fred was playing in a golf tournament somewhere in Florida.
This particular time Jerry and Selena came early. The cocktails were not even ready and I was in my shirt sleeves, but Jerry was so plainly excited and enthusiastic over something that details like that didn’t matter. He had something under his arm, and as soon as the greetings were over he presented it to me with a flourish.
“Here, Bark. With the compliments of the author.” And he grinned.
It was a thin, gray-covered little magazine with a three-deck title, some sort of journal of mathematics. I ran my eye down the table of contents, and sure enough, there was the name of Jeremiah Lister.
“I’ll be damned!” I said, turning over the leaves to his article. “What hath God wrought!”
“You may well say that,” he told me exultantly. “That obscure and droopy-looking little publication is more exclusive than the Racquet Club. And I have crashed its austere gates.”
“Well,” I said, sparring for time and looking at the article, “this is a surprise. And my novel only half done. You’ve beaten me to publication, all right.”
Jerry’s piece occupied only two pages and it might as well have been a Sanskrit inscription for all the sense I could make out of it. There was a short editorial foreword by the brain that conducted the magazine in which Jerry’s work was spoken of as “brilliant,” “original,” and “highly suggestive.” After looking helplessly at the text for a few seconds, I said, “I bet Selena helped you with this.”
“No,” she said, apparently taking my jest seriously, “I didn’t help him.”
“I should say not,” he added. “She was opposed to the thing from the start. She told me it was a waste of time, but even in the face of discouragement I persevered. I like doing stuff in that field.”
“As that immortal opus we had in school, Fraser and Squair’s French grammar, would say, ‘chacun à son gout.’” I was really pleased about the article. Jerry was a bright lad, all right.
“What does that mean?” asked Selena.
“Every man to his own brand of folly,” I told her.
She looked surprised. “But this isn’t foolish. Jerry’s article is absolutely correct.”
“I was being flippant. The real translation is, ‘every man to his own taste.’”
Jerry said, “Don’t try to read the thing, Bark. Just put it away on your shelf of first editions. It’ll be a collector’s item someday.”
“Nuts,” I told him. “I’m intellectual as hell. Everybody knows that. I’m going to leave this lying round on the living room table to impress people.”
He laughed. “It’ll be all over rings from highball glasses in a week, then.”
I took it across to the bookcase. “In that case, I’ll put it beside the Gertrude Stein book Grace gave me for Christmas. The two of them will serve to remind me that there are plenty of things I’ll never be able to understand.”
Selena followed me. “Who is Gertrude Stein?” she asked me with interest. “A woman mathematician?”
“Not exactly,” I informed her. “Here. Take a look,” and I handed her the volume.
She opened it and looked at the first few pages. “Are there people who understand this?” she asked me.
“Well, there are people who say they do.”
She went over to the sofa and sat down with the book. I hung up their coats and began mixing a cocktail. In a few minutes Selena got up and put the Gertrude Stein back on the shelf.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” she said. “You ought not to put Jerry’s article next to it.”
“I’m just teasing him,” I told her.
“Don’t pay any attention to him, darling,” said Jerry, lolling back in my best chair. “He’s trying to keep me from getting a swelled head.”
I poured the cocktails. They were good Grace came in and we had another round. I showed her Jerry’s piece.
She wrinkled her forehead over it for a minute. “Goodness, Jeremiah my sweet, I don’t see how you have time for such things with a wife who looks like Selena.”
Jerry blushed and laughed. “What I haven’t got time for,” he said, “is my job at Howard and Neurath, Statisticians. I’m quitting the end of next week.”
“You are?” I was surprised, though I knew he was not tremendously keen about working in an office.
“Yes,” he said, “I’ve about decided that what I really want to do is teach.”
It seemed right to me, and I told him so.
“First, though, I’ve got to get a Ph.D. That means writing a thesis.”
“Swell,” I told him. “I can think of nothing more repulsive than writing a thesis, but you’re the type to enjoy it.”
“Thanks. It’ll be a year’s work, anyway. Selena and I are thinking of going to that place of Dad’s out west.”
I remembered then that the Listers owned some sort of house in Arizona or New Mexico that neither Dad nor Jerry, I think, had ever been to. An artist or somebody left it to them, but they’d never made any use of it.
“Isn’t it way the hell and gone in a desert?” I asked him.
“Yes. But it’ll be quiet and give me a good chance to work. We won’t be lonely.” He looked fondly at Selena.
Grace turned to Selena. “Are you going to let this entirely mad young man make a female anchorite out of you, Selena? I wouldn’t tolerate it for a moment!“
“She doesn’t mind,” said Jerry.
“No,” Selena admitted. “I don’t see any reason why we should not go. Only I wish Jerry didn’t have to write this thesis he has in mind.” She turned to me. “Can’t he teach without writing anything?”
“Well,” I told her, “you can’t get a job these days in any good college without a Ph.D. And that means a thesis, as Jerry says.”
“I see,” she said, and her voice sounded thin and curiously disappointed. I did not understand why, but she was an incomprehensible woman.
They left within a few weeks, and we all went down to see them off. When the train had pulled out into the cavernous gloom of the Grand Central cave and left us standing on the platform, I felt an obscure feeling of sadness and foreboding. Jerry and I had been growing apart, of course, as our lives diverged, but this time, as we separated, it felt like the end of something.
We wrote, of course, from time to time. Jerry’s letters were postmarked “Los Palos,” and at first they came about once a week. Gradually they grew more infrequent, and so did mine. I gathered that he and Selena were enjoying their lonely life out there, but in the last one or two of his scrawls there was an unfamiliar note that I could not quite analyze:
“Selena seems to like the country out here [he wrote me in June] and it certainly is big and impressive after you get over the bareness. I’m working hard and making real progress; the only trouble is that there are so many things I’d like to be working on at once. My study window looks right out over fifty miles of desert—it would be as easy as hell to get lost out there and nobody would ever find you. Selena walks a lot and sometimes I get worried for fear she won’t get back before dark, but I guess she can take care of herself. You’d get a kick out of this place, Bark; why don’t you come out here sometime later?“
I wrote him and said that I’d like to come sometime, but that I was hellish busy and doubted if I’d find much time even for a week’s vacation. His letter left an uncomfortable impression in my mind, though. I felt that he wanted me to come and was too proud to ask me. Then, when I thought it over, I realized that he was just lonely, and I stopped worrying about him.
A month later my doorbell rang at nine o’clock in the evening. It was a Western Union messenger. The telegram said:
CAN YOU COME AT ONCE MEETING LIMITED TUESDAY
MORNING LOS PALOS HOPE TO SEE YOU
I cursed, got leave of absence from my office, and caught the Century the next day. Dad came down to the train with me.
“You’ll let me know at once,” he said, “if it’s anything serious.”
“Sure,” I told him.
Both of us were wondering why Jerry had wired only to me, and what had happened, but there was no certainty of reaching him in time with a telegram from us. They had no telephone at Cloud Mesa, and Dr Lister thought it was too far from Los Palos for Jerry to come in every day.
As the train pulled out, I saw his anxious face watching me through the glass of the Pullman window. I gave him a grin that I hoped was reassuring, and settled back in my seat. Something told me that what was ahead was all of a piece with the strangeness of the last year and a half. The switch points clattered under the wheels, and the train began to rush northward through the tunnel under Park Avenue.
Chapter Twelve: Conversation Piece
LOS PALOS lies along one side of the railroad tracks. In the sharp light of early morning it had an almost surrealist clarity of outline. I stumbled down the Pullman steps, half awake, and looked it over without pleasure.
Only one building in the ragged row that faced me beyond the highway was of brick. The rest were wood, cracked and bleached with sun and want of paint, a shambling rogues’ gallery of stores, saloons, garages, and restaurants. There seemed to be no reason for the town’s existence. Beyond the highway and the tracks the bare, gigantic sweep of brown valley fell away for mile upon mile without a single spot of green or the solitary cube of a house. There was not even the interruption of a fence. It was far from cold, but I shivered as I looked into that immense emptiness of desert and turned back to Los Palos.
On my right the scrubby façade of Main Street terminated in a blazing red-and-white service station, and to the left, at the other end of town was another, equally garish in yellow and scarlet, to mark where the town ended and the desert began. The station itself was a drab frame building without even the dubious distinction of the jigsaw scrollwork that belonged with its period. Beyond it, towering over the whole town, stood the water tower.
Los Palos, in short, was simply one of those desert towns, born when the railroad was building, maintained in a precarious, stunted life while desert-pastured cattle were still worth shipping to market, and dying slowly ever since the profits had gone out of ranching. As I looked it over, it seemed already half swallowed in the immeasurable miles around it, like an old, battered tramp steamer foundering slowly out of sight of land on a calm sea. It depressed me. If this was Jerry’s contact with the rest of the world, certainly Cloud Mesa must be a solitary place. I stretched my eyes across the valley to the westward, and though there was a rampart of naked mountains far, very far away, I could see nothing that corresponded with his descriptions.
There was no one on the platform but a thin old man in a shiny blue serge suit whom I took to be the station agent. He looked at me for a few minutes, idly, and went inside the building. Main Street was deserted, and none of the stores seemed to be open. Certainly nothing in Los Palos was worth waking up for as early as quarter of six in the morning. I put my two suitcases down where Jerry was sure to see them if he drove up before I came back, and strolled across the highway—Main Street —to look for breakfast.
After some wandering up and down I discovered the Sanitary Lunch, where one unshaven counterman collected a breakfast of sorts with maddening deliberation. My impatience proved pointless. The coffee tasted like the lees of the water tower, the baked apple had been there a long time, and the bacon would have disgraced a camping trip the first morning out. I inquired about an egg.
“Ain’t come in yet.” And then, after a silence of several minutes, “That’ll be four bits.”
I paid him and got out. Main Street had waked up while I had been eating; I noticed a man sweeping the sidewalk in front of the Tres Hermanos saloon, and a small dog several doors away was smelling at the base of a telephone pole. And just before I crossed the street a dusty Hudson sedan, moving at better than sixty miles an hour roared through Los Palos in about fifteen seconds. I looked after it enviously and went back to the station. There was nothing there, of course, but I sat down on the baggage truck and lit a pipe.
The country was something to look at. If you are used to the little landscapes of Long Island, of New Jersey, even of upstate New York, it takes quite a while to realize the real size of Western scenery. The southernmost peak of the range across the valley was probably as far from where I sat as New York is from Philadelphia. And there was scarcely a thing to catch the eye between me and it. I sat there and let my gaze range over the wide floor of the valley and pretended that time was passing. After a while I consulted my watch and it was five minutes after six. I had been in Los Palos less than half an hour; it occurred to me that anyone who could stand fifty years of the place would have lived five ordinary lives anywhere else.
All this is trivial, in a way, but it gave me a queer, lost feeling to be sitting there on the station platform gazing out over several hundred square miles of desert with the death-in-life of Los Palos at my back. I was nervous. My pipe tasted bitter and strong in my mouth and my heart felt as though it were beating faster than was necessary. There was no use speculating on why Jerry had sent for me, but the fact that he had done so bothered me. I had expected, when we said good-by to each other in New York that we would meet again rarely and casually. There had been an atmosphere of finality about that parting. Jerry, I had felt, now was a part of my past, but hardly of my present. And suddenly he had sent for me, begged me to come at any cost. All the way out on the Limited I had wondered whether he needed me because of Selena, and some quarrel he had had with her. Or perhaps the loneliness out here. . . . But Jerry was not that sort of person. He knew how I felt about his wife, and he was proud, much too proud to admit that he was lonely with her, or that I, who of all people had been most opposed to his marrying her, could do anything to help him. Jerry never needed help. And yet, what else could he want? He knew that it was inconvenient for me to come. … I gave the whole thing up, but there was something disquieting about it just the same.
My own thoughts annoyed me. They were born of nothing more than irritation, perhaps, at being kept waiting in a dismal little town with nothing to do and a bad breakfast in my stomach. Los Palos was not my kind of place; I was incongruous in it. Even my clothes were ridiculously good and wholly inappropriate for such a town. I started to call myself a fish out of water until I looked again at the leagues of desert. They made the phrase a ludicrous understatement . . . Meiosis, the Greek word for it was. . . . There was no water out there, no water, and even no moisture except, perhaps, in the center of some cactus plant or the veins of a rattlesnake. There was nothing at all out there. Except one remote, minute, crawling pennant of dust with a dark speck at the head of it.
For three-quarters of an hour I watched that plume of dust come nearer. It grew with agonizing slowness, but long before I could make out the details of the car I felt sure it must be Jerry. Now and again the sun caught the windshield and flashed brightly back at me, sometimes car and dust cloud were hidden behind a brown swale in the valley floor, but as I was finishing my second pipe it swung up over a last rise down beyond the water tower, crossed the tracks, and roared up to the station.
My first thought was that Jerry looked marvelously well. He was wearing a white shirt, open at the neck and with the sleeves rolled up; his face, his neck, his forearms were burnt dark with sun, and his hair was bleached to a pale gold color. He jumped up on the platform and ran toward me. Again I had a moment of uneasy surprise. Never that I could remember did Jerry run except when he was playing some game. He sauntered toward you, usually. But now there was an eagerness in him; I knew at once that he was more than ordinarily glad to see he, and that, too, surprised me. But he gave me no time to think or to be surprised.
“Sorry to be so damn late. Got a flat halfway here and lost a lot of time.”
“That’s okay,” I told him. “I’ve been giving Los Palos the once-over.”
He grinned swiftly. “Swell place, isn’t it? You ought to see it Saturday nights. Some of the stores stay open till half past eight or nine at night.” He looked at my bags. “These your things?”
“Well,” I said, “the rest of the crowd has gone and left these, so I better take them.”
“Hell,” he said, “it’s swell to see you.”
We got into the car. “By the way, want to pick up anything before we pull out? Last chance.”
“Listen,” I told him, “if you know a quick way out of this place, for God’s sake take it.”
“Hold on,” he said and put the accelerator down on the floor boards. We went out of Los Palos like a bat out of a belfry, and I didn’t look back. When we cut across the tracks and hit the desert road we were doing all of fifty, and in spite of the one-track, sandy cart trail we seemed to be on, we kept going like that. The big Packard swallowed the countless turns and dips and pitches of that road with a sort of dizzy recklessness, and after half an hour or so I began to feel uneasy at our unrelenting pace. After all, if anything happened, we were already a thirsty day’s walk from the nearest town, and the mountain range ahead of us appeared to be no nearer. I looked tentatively at Jerry. He was sitting easily behind the wheel, wrenching the car around the curves and meeting the savage roughnesses of the road with a sort of negligent carefulness that partly restored my confidence.
“Don’t spare the horses, you hard-riding Westerners,” I suggested.
He looked at me fleetingly. “It gets hot out here after eight o’clock in the morning,” he observed and went on driving.
And it was beginning to get hot. I took off my coat, vest, and tie, and stowed them in the rear seat, nearly getting pitched out in the process. Then I lit another pipe and tried to relax while we burrowed down one slope and up on the opposite side without slowing for an instant. From the station platform the country over which we were driving had looked fairly level, but I now saw that there was no flat stretch in it. And no end, either, though after a while we began to go up more often than down and I deduced that we were headed up the far side of the valley. The range ahead of us began to look less naked; I could make out trees in some of the canyons and we commenced to run quarteringly across a series of draws in which there were a few small, dry bushes.
I looked back. Los Palos was small and clear in the desert air, shrunk to the size of a Chinese ivory carving. Now and then its image wavered as I looked at it; the heat was beginning to rise from the baked sand and bare rock of the earth between. The ridges, the sharp, unweathered angles of the rocks, the wild, jumbled rise and fall of the land gave me a sense of isolation. Man was a stranger to this sort of country; it belonged on some airless planet circling sunward of the earth. I looked again at Jerry, glad that I was not alone, and saw in his face something that I had overlooked at the station. For all the brown of his skin, it was tighter over the bones of his face. There were wrinkles at the corners of his eyes that I had not seen before, and his lips were thinner and set together with a nervous firmness. He had to watch that devil’s road with all the concentration in him, of course, at the speed we were traveling, but even that failed to account wholly for the tension in his face. And I had the feeling that though he was glad I was with him, he wasn’t thinking about me much. Something else was occupying the part of his mind behind his driving reflexes. And I did not have the faintest idea what it was.
Sometime after eight o’clock in the morning our road turned gradually left and southward, and after a while we were running parallel to the mountains west of us. The motion up and down the barrancas began to be almost as regular as a long ground swell. After several miles we came to a deeper draw with a steep face to one side, and along its base a patch of shade. Jerry pulled the car into it and turned to me. In the sudden silence I could hear the bubble, bubble of the water boiling in the radiator.
“We’ll stop here a little and cool off,” he said, and got out of the car.
We walked around some, and I told him it was lonely country.
“Yes,” he said. “It takes time to get used to it. Then you love it.”
“I suppose so.”
Suddenly he looked at me and grinned. “Hell, I forgot. We have breakfast.” He rummaged in the back of the car and brought out a thermos of coffee and several bacon sandwiches. I thought of another picnic meal—how long ago?—that we had eaten together on the bumper of another car. I hoped this time . . . and then shut my thoughts off. The coffee was hot and exceptionally good.
“Selena seems to make better coffee than most brides,” I said to him.
He pushed at a pebble with his foot. “I made this,” he said. “Selena doesn’t cook.”
“None of the old biscuit jokes need apply?”
“No. She doesn’t really care much for food, one way or the other.” His voice implied he hadn’t said everything that was in his mind.
I wondered if this was his way of getting at something he wanted to tell me. “Well,” I observed, “at any rate, you certainly have it all over the Sanitary Lunch so far as coffee is concerned.”
“God, don’t tell me you had breakfast there!”
“Four bits’ worth.”
“I’m sorry. We should have stopped before. I just kept on driving without thinking, I guess.”
I finished my second bacon sandwich. “It’s okay. This makes up for it.”
“Too bad we haven’t any Scotch.”
So I knew he was thinking back too, but I made up my mind not to let him know. “Oh, hell, I’ve signed the pledge, or practically so. Abstemious is the word for me these days.”
He was silent a long time. “I’m glad you’re doing so well at the job.”
“I wouldn’t say that. But it’s an improvement over my performance awhile back. Hell, Jerry, I owe you an apology for a lot of things. I acted like a fool.”
He didn’t look at me. “You had reasons. In a lot of ways they were good ones.”
“I didn’t even have an excuse, really.”
He got on his feet and began walking up and down in front of me, looking at the ground. “Listen, Bark. Before we get there, I want to talk to you a little while. So you’ll know what you’re getting into and why I wired you.”
“First of all, don’t get the idea there’s anything wrong between me and Selena. I—well, I’m more in love with her now than I was when we got married.”
“Sure,” I said. “You’re a couple of swell people.”
“Thanks. And I’m going to sound like an ass when I tell you what’s on my mind. In one way, I’m happier than I’ve ever been before, and in another —well, everything’s just enough wrong so I’m worried.“ He wet his lips and went on. ”You aren’t married, so I don’t know quite how I can explain it to you. It’s just that everything goes so far, between us, and then it stops.“
I started to say something and stopped, embarrassed.
“No. It’s not that. . . . We—I mean, the sex part of it is all right. It’s something I can’t put into words, exactly. But when you’re in love, you want to give everything to the person you love. Sex is only one aspect of it. Does this make any sense to you?”
“Of course, it does.”
“And you don’t only want to give everything to the person you love, but you want to be given everything in return. It’s a two-way proposition for each person.”
“My true-love hath my heart, and I have his,
By just exchange, one for another given.”
“Yes,” he said. “It’s got to be a just exchange. That’s the point.”
“And it’s not that way?” I asked him.
He stopped walking and faced me. “I feel all the time as though she was holding something back. Sometimes it’s almost as though she felt I wasn’t old enough to know something. And I can’t find out what it is. What it is she knows that I don’t. There’s something in between us, that’s all. And yet, she loves me, Bark.”
There wasn’t anything in this that I couldn’t give him a comforting answer to without having to open my memory to that fantastic story Parsons had told me, that story of Luella Jamison. There was, thank God, a more plausible explanation.
“After all,” I said, “you make her sound as if she had a sort of mother complex. And that’s natural enough, in a way. Don’t forget this is your first marriage, but it’s her second.”
He began to pace back and forth again, kicking at stones. “No, that’s not it.”
“Of course, it is.”
He shook his head. “Don’t forget, she wasn’t married long. And to LeNormand. That first marriage doesn’t count.”
A premonition of something unpleasant went through me; I didn’t know what I expected him to say next, but what he did say shocked me for a moment.
“You see,” he said in a low voice and without looking at me, “when we got married she was a virgin.”
After I rallied from that sudden statement it did not appear so surprising after all, and I felt glad for him in an inexplicable way. And then I saw what he was getting at. It made it all the harder to explain something that he felt was missing between them.
At this moment a sense of loneliness so acute that it was almost like fear came over me. I remembered the bleached sterility of Los Palos with nostalgia. Here in the middle of an enormous and lifeless desert I was talking to the man who had been, who still was, my best friend, and yet if I could in any way have escaped from him I would have done so at once. No reason for my sudden gust of feeling presented itself, but I knew that I ought not to be there, that already the whole horrible web of circumstance that had caught us both and changed us, and from which I thought I had escaped, was closing in on me again. I looked at Jerry, and the tightness of his face began to make me feel afraid. He had changed, and there was a long gap of unshared time between us, a time when we had been growing and altering in different directions. I was afraid, not of him, but of what he wanted with me.
“So you see,” he was saying, “it isn’t the ordinary thing at all. We’re not unhappily married. Don’t get that idea.”
“Hell,” I said, “I haven’t got any idea at all.”
He looked straight at me. “I’ve got to try to tell you what’s bothering me and then I want you to tell me something. Something that I’m sure you know. You’ve got to know it.”
“All right,” I said. “Anything I can tell you I will.”
“Selena and I got married pretty quickly after LeNormand’s death,” he said, and there was a perfectly objective tone in his voice; I could not tell whether he regretted the fact or not. “The rest of you didn’t approve of that. One of the things you and Dad both said, at various times, was that we ought to know each other better. You remember that?”
“Yes,” I told him.
“Why did you tell me that?”
It was a question I did not want to answer, so I parried it as smoothly as I could. “I guess both of us felt it was a little too rapid for, well, for being entirely sure of your happiness.”
He looked disappointed. “I imagined that was Dad’s idea, but I thought maybe you had something more definite in your mind.”
“No,” I said at once.
“Well,” he went on after a pause, “it wouldn’t have made any difference.” He stopped as if he wanted me to agree with him, or disagree. I couldn’t be sure which.
“I don’t see what you’re driving at.”
“Damn it!” he said harshly. “I don’t know any more about Selena than I did the day I married her.”
His voice seemed to ring in the trench of the barranca where we were. The sound of his words seemed to expand, to go into the ground and penetrate the rock wall under which we were standing. It echoed in the air, in the heat, in the sun that encompassed us. A year and a half had passed since Jerry had married Selena. In all that time she had not told him who she was or where she came from, then. The only possible explanation was the story Parsons had told me, the terrible theory that Selena was Luella Jamison.
He was watching me closely. After a while he went on. “I don’t know if I can explain it to you. You know how, in stories, some little habit of the wife’s or the husband’s grows and grows out of all proportion in the mind of the other until finally there is an explosion? Well, that’s the way it is with me. And I’m afraid of the explosion. Bark, do you know that everything Selena ever says to me is based on nothing but the present or the future?” He stopped a moment and looked down the ravine and out across the desert. “You don’t notice how many things people say that go back to their childhood, or to their past. People they refer to, things they remember, familiarities with this and that. Everybody is like that and doesn’t know it. Everybody but Selena.”
“Listen,” I said to him. “She had a shock, don’t forget. Naturally she doesn’t want to think back of that.”
He sighed. “No, Bark. She’s talked to me often enough about LeNormand, in a funny sort of way, and quite a good bit more about Collegeville. Faculty wives and all sorts of things. But never anything at all before that.”
I was afraid to ask what was in my mind, but I knew that it was then or never. “Doesn’t she ever talk about her family, even?”
He stared at me with dry eyes and a set mouth. “No. Never. That is—” and he stopped suddenly.
“You see,” I said, “you’re holding something back. It isn’t so bad as you make out.”
“Once,” he said, and his voice was tighter than before. “Once she said something about her family. At least, I suppose it was her family.” Then he was silent for quite a while. “It was when we were on our honeymoon in Bermuda. We had a little house to ourselves, you know. One night I woke up. Our bed was by the window and the full moon was coming through it in a perfect flood of light. She was lying there in it, in the moonshine, asleep.“ He licked his lips and went on. ”I saw her lying there, lovely, perfect, asleep, with the moon full on her face. You know how beautiful she is?“
“Well, I can’t tell you exactly what just looking at her did to me. It somehow made me a bigger person after a while. I stopped being myself or knowing anything except how much I loved her. And I leaned over finally and kissed her, and she woke up. She looked at me a minute and I could see she wondered why I had waked her. And then she smiled a little as if she knew how much I was loving her, and moved over closer to me. We lay there and looked out the window at the moonlight on the lawn and the trees and the distant ocean, and didn’t speak. Finally she sighed a little, or I thought she did, and said something in a low voice. It was meant to be to herself, I reckon, but I overheard it.” He stopped again.
I didn’t speak.
“She said—” Jerry’s voice was low and wondering—“she said, ‘This is the thing my people do not know.’”
“Jesus!” I said before I could stop myself. I had expected anything but that puzzling remark; it did not fit in with the things Parsons and I had discussed; it made no sense for Luella Jamison to have made that remark.
Jerry took careful aim and kicked a bit of rock out into the hard sunshine on the other side of the ravine. “That’s the only reference she’s ever made. Oh, I’ve asked her, but she never tells me. Sometimes she just laughs and says I’ve got to forget she had any past at all. Several times I’ve tried to press her into telling me.”
“What happened then?”
“It sounds silly to say it, but she got so angry I was afraid to go on.”
“Do you think she has a guilty conscience or anything?”
“God,” he said impatiently, “I don’t know. I’d swear she had nothing in her whole mind that she was ashamed of. But it’s the not-knowing that torments me. It’s the noticing that she never goes back of that time in Collegeville. It’s the feeling that there’s something she won’t share with me, some part of her that she won’t give. And it’s begun to scare me. Suppose it is something pretty horrible— that wouldn’t make any difference to me, and she knows it. Suppose this damned thing—this reason she has for not telling me who she is—comes out sometime and I’m not ready for it. It got so that I was afraid to have her meet strangers for fear they were a part of that past of hers, whatever it was. That’s one of the reasons we came out here.”
I could think of nothing to say to him.
“‘This is the thing my people do not know,’” he quoted slowly and half to himself. Then he turned to me and said, “Bark, I have a hunch that you know something about Selena that I don’t. You’ve got to tell me what it is.”
“Don’t be silly,” I said quickly. “How could I? You’ve been with me practically every time I’ve seen her, and all through the LeNormand business.”
“No,” he said. “You’re not being honest with me. I know you pretty well, Bark, and I’ve been thinking back over everything. After that time you came back from Collegeville, you were different, in lots of ways. You drank more. You avoided being with us. There was something on your mind, something that you knew. And it’s either something you found out by yourself when you went back there, or it’s something Parsons told you. And it’s something that I’ve got to know. Maybe you think I’m hysterical or foolish or completely nuts, but I tell you I’ve got to know what it is.” He looked at me steadily and with an eagerness that made me feel almost sick.
Yet, there was my promise to Parsons. I could break that and tell him the story of Luella Jamison, but there was no way in which I could see that doing so would help him. Instead, it would simply add another uncertain horror to revolve in his mind. After living with the story of that incredible disappearance and the possibilities it contained, I knew what it could do to a mind that fastened upon it. No, certainly I would never tell him anything about that.
“Parsons,” I answered carefully, “was stuck. He told me we were being followed; he knew all about what we had been doing. Knowing that, got me sort of nervous. That was why I was funny about things then.”
He disregarded my words. “So you won’t tell me.”
“Listen,” I said. “The only thing I know that you don’t has nothing to do with you or Selena, except indirectly. It’s nothing that will help you in the least, and I gave my word to Parsons that I wouldn’t tell anyone about it. He told me because he wanted me to tell him whether it had any connection with the LeNormand case, and it didn’t and I told him so. That’s all there is to that.”
He shook his head. “All right. You’re a stubborn guy when you make up your mind. But I want you to promise me one thing.”
“What is it?”
“After you’ve been out here awhile, I want you to think whether you’ll tell me what that thing was, and whether you notice anything else that could help me.”
I nodded. “All right,” I said, “but I’d have told you long ago if I’d thought it was a good idea.”
We climbed into the car again without saying anything more. As he put the car in gear, Jerry said, “And Parsons never found out who killed LeNormand.”
“No,” I said. And then I wondered if somehow he had the idea that Selena had anything to do with it. “Anyway, he told me he was positive that Selena and you and I didn’t do it. He said he could prove that much.”
Jerry said nothing for a moment as he swung the car back into the miserable road. “Parsons is a smart man. I thought he would solve it.”
“Well,” I said, “he didn’t have anything to go on. No clues, and no motive, and no witnesses.”
Jerry drove intently and without looking away from the road. “There were those equations. . . . Remember the sheets of old notepaper on the table?”
“Yes.” But I couldn’t see what they proved. “After all, figures don’t lie, let alone murder.”
Jerry smiled fleetingly. “I’ve been playing around with those equations. Selena came in the other day and found me at it. Like a fool I told her what I was doing. She didn’t like it.”
“Oh,” I said. “Why not?”
“I dunno, exactly. I suppose it’s a piece with the rest—not wanting to have anything to do with the past.”
“Well,” I observed, “I remember she was interested in those Arabian books of Dad’s.”
“Yes,” he said, frowning a little, “she knows a lot of math. I can’t figure out where she picked it up. From LeNormand maybe.”
After that it grew too hot to talk. The car rolled steadily along, about west by south, on the long road to Cloud Mesa. Just before eleven o’clock we reached it.
Chapter Thirteen: Cloud Mesa
AROUND and above us the night was growing old, The stars were points of smaller light, the shadow masses of the trees had denser, less distinguishable shape against the sky, and the water of the Sound glinted seldom and faintly . . . “The darkest hour” . . . That hackneyed tag of speech went through my mind as I turned to Dr Lister.
“It will be dawn soon” I said. “But this is the part of the story that matters most.”
“Of course,” he said. “Are you too tired to go on?”
“I’m too tired to stop.”
“You mustn’t be afraid to call a halt if you wish.”
He did not seem weary at all. Erect as ever, quiet, with his eyes fixed upon me steadily, it gave me strength to look at him.
“We could never go back to this,” I said. “It is better to finish now.”
“Yes.” His voice was calm, but I noticed that one of his fingers was tapping against the edge of the table.
The last few miles of our ride, the road went uphill steadily. We must have climbed nearly a thousand feet. Then we swung round a shoulder of the mountains and saw Cloud Mesa.
It was something of a geological puzzle to me. In shape it resembled the ordinary mesa of the Southwest, with the usual steeply sloping sides, covered with rocky detritus and ending toward the top in sharp cliffs of naked rock. The level expanse of its summit was as sharply marked as the edge of a table, and on the valley side it rose sheer from the floor of the desert. But its western edge seemed only partly separate from the wall of mountains behind, and the northern, narrower end slid down to the floor of a mountain ravine into which our car began to dip. Sharp and clear I could see the cube of the house about halfway up the mesa’s northern slope and shining white in the sun.
The place had been built by an artist named Eberhardt whom Dad had once befriended. He had come out to the West to paint and to recover from the effects of a dose of gas in Belleau Wood. Before he died he did some strange, harsh-colored pictures of the desert country which I never liked because there was a brutality in them that you couldn’t ignore. He left most of them and the house as well to Dr Lister—out of gratitude, I suppose. It had remained empty until Jerry and Selena came there, and my heart sank a little as I looked across the ravine. If there was ever a lonelier place, or one more dwarfed by its setting, I never saw it.
Jerry pulled the car up in front of a weather-beaten sort of shack that was apparently used for a garage, and we got out stiffly. He hauled forth my bags and we went toward the house. Seen at close hand, it was not quite so forbidding; the walls were a whitewashed cream in color, and there were the conventional blue shutters. It was larger than it had looked from where I had first seen it. Apparently there was a spring just behind the house; at any rate, there was a patch of green which must have meant water in this thirsty country.
Selena was standing in the doorway to greet us; she was wearing a yellow linen dress and sandals. Her beauty was unchanged, so far as I could see; the sun did not appear to have tanned her bare legs and arms, and her face and hair were as I had remembered them, sculptural and perfect. Later, when she moved, I saw that she was walking once again with the same long, swift stride that she had when we first knew her and before she began to imitate Grace.
“Hello, Bark,” she said, and held out her hand.
I took it and told her I was glad to see her, which was a lie. I think she knew it.
“Well, Bark,” said Jerry. “Welcome to our humble home.” His voice didn’t sound quite natural to me.
I told them both I was glad to be there, and we went into the house. Inside it was dark and cool; the floor was tiled, and the heavy adobe walls seemed to hold the freshness of the night all through the heat of the day. The room we entered was clearly the living room, with a big fireplace to the left, at the eastern end. It did not have much furniture aside from several Navajo rugs on the floor, a long settle in front of the fireplace, a large table of unpainted wood, and three straight chairs.
Jerry opened a door on the far side of the room. “This is your place,” he said, and carried my bags in. The room was scarcely more than a cubicle, with a bed, a washstand, and a single window opening to the east. “I think you’ll find everything you want.”
“Sure,” I said, “this is palatial.” But actually I found myself thinking of it with an obscure sense of relief as a sort of refuge.
After I’d washed and got into some old clothes, Jerry showed me the rest of the house. Next to my room was a sort of small study, well lined with books, which he told me was where he worked. Behind the study was a large bedroom where Jerry and Selena slept, with a door opening out of its west wall. The kitchen was in a lean-to shed at the southwest corner of the house.
I wondered what there was about the place that bothered me. It was pleasant enough inside, and done with a simplicity and directness that were agreeable. Even the half dozen or so of Eberhardt’s pictures on the walls could not explain why I felt uneasy. But as soon as I stepped out of doors again I saw the reason. The great bulk of the mesa loomed towering and imminent above the house; incalculable tons of rock and earth seemed almost suspended above its roof; the very scale of that slope above you made you feel like an ant. I don’t know how better to give the effect than to say that I felt always as if a giant were about to step on the house and all of us in it.
Jerry showed me over the place with much pride, and I began to feel that I had been a fool about my first reaction to it. But behind his enthusiasm and the steady flow of talk which he kept up I felt his relief at my coming. How long had the silences been when just the two of them were there alone? And later, in the afternoon, when the blue shadow of the mesa poured down and over the house and left us in a sort of twilight my uneasiness returned to me. We watched that shadow swoop down the slope above us, and after it had swept over the house I turned to go indoors.
“Wait a minute, Bark,” said Jerry. “I want to show you something else.”
He led me a few yards up the slope and pointed to what looked like the remains of a uneven rock stairway that began behind the spring and clambered up the wall of the mesa above us.
“Cliff dwellers. God knows how long ago, but you can still climb their stairs. Want to go up?”
I saw that he did, so I agreed. It was not a really hard or dangerous ascent; the stairs were steep but in pretty good shape. Although we stopped to breathe and look back and down several times, it was only a quarter of an hour or less until we were at the top.
Below us spread the gigantic sweep of the desert, tarnished gold where the sun still lay, and purple blue where the shadows from the western mountains were racing across it as the sun sank behind us. Watching that great tidal wave of darkness pouring across the valley, I suddenly realized how truly the earth was a ball, hung in gulfs of space and spinning around its axis with majestic precision and power. I almost thought I could feel the eastward surge of the mesa under my feet.
After a moment we turned and walked across the level top. It was very bare, with a few bushes, and here and there a low mound that Jerry said he suspected were the remains of ancient houses. Ahead of us was a slight rise in the ground; as we drew near it I saw that on it stood an oblong of rock.
We halted and looked at that single piece of weathered stone, massive, rough-hewed by the chisels of men who were dust a thousand years ago. Unmistakably it was an altar.
“‘To the unknown God,’” I said.
Jerry stared down at it a long time. “Yes,” he said finally. “‘To the unknown God,’ only I suppose they had a name for him. The people who lived up here.”
Certainly this was one of the “high places” that men of the very ancient world had felt to be holy, whether in Palestine or in the American desert. Even when houses had stood on the mesa top, this must have been a still place, aloof and plainly not a part of the business of human living at all. So they had hewed a stone and put it where it could lie for century upon century, here on this height, under the sky and swept clean forever by the great winds. An altar, yes, and in a place where they had felt that the immensity of the universe touched the immediacies of the earth on which they lived. This stone was their ebenezer; it marked their recognition of the something more than they could put a name to, a memorial to the tremendous force or will that had created the earth and the stars.
I turned away from it reluctantly, and yet eager to leave the height and the wind that blew by us. Such vastnesses lay around us that I was suddenly hungry for a roof and a fire and four close walls. Jerry seemed more than willing to go at once; we scrambled down the shadowy stairs with cautious haste, and as we went we saw that Selena must have lighted a fire, for flickers of orange radiance spilled out of the windows below us.
Jerry and I got the supper ready. Selena sat in the living room and read; I remembered that Jerry had said she did not cook, but I felt a little annoyed at her just the same. When we finally got it assembled, it was a workingman’s supper; the climb and the air had given me a tremendous appetite. The two of us ate heartily, but I noticed that Selena moved the food around on her plate but swallowed hardly more than one or two bites. It was a quiet meal, perhaps because we—Jerry and I—were wolfing our food, yet as I ate I thought how seldom they spoke to each other. But the food was good, and I didn’t much mind the silence.
After it was finished, we pushed back our chairs and I lit a pipe. A feeling almost of peace came over me; for the first time I felt at home, not strange in any way. I smiled at Selena and said, “This is very pleasant, Selena. I’m glad I came.”
She smiled back at me almost automatically. “It is a beautiful place, isn’t it?”
Jerry seemed determined to keep the conversation going; he began to explain that the life grew on you, and that you never got tired of watching the desert and the mountains, and that we should have to take some tramps as soon as I got used to the climate.
After a while Selena asked me if I thought I had everything I needed in my room.
I said I thought I had.
She told me, “You’ll be sleepy early tonight, I think. The desert makes you sleepy, and the air at night.”
Jerry added quickly that, while I could turn in any time I wanted to, he hoped I’d sit up and talk for a while. He began to stack the dishes and carry them out to the kitchen, firmly declining my efforts to help him. Selena went back to the settle in front of the fire and picked up her book again. Once, as Jerry was cleaning the crumbs from the table, she turned and looked over her shoulder at him.
“Are you going to work tonight, Jerry?”
“Well,” he said, and there was a faint flavor of apology in his tone, “I’m almost through, you know, and I thought I’d do a bit more. I think I’m getting somewhere.”
“Darling, it’s no use, you know. I wish you would give up the whole idea.”
His face set a trifle stubbornly. “Ah, you must allow for an old man’s crotchets. I get a kick out of it.” And then, turning to me, he said swiftly, “I’m doing a bit of mathematical research for my thesis. It’s really based on that dope of LeNormand’s, but I think I see a way to present it so the boys will swallow it. If I do, it’ll be worth publishing.“
So that was what he was working at. I wondered why Selena did not like it. Plainly it annoyed her very much, but she contented herself with saying, “You are wasting your time.”
Jerry laughed. “Don’t worry your handsome head over my math, my sweet. It’s harmless.”
She made no answer, but I thought in the uncertain light of the fire that an expression had gone over her face of a sort I could not quite define. Still, her face was shaded by the lamp behind her, and I was not sure.
We could hear Jerry, back in the kitchen, whistling to himself and splashing the water in the dishpan, but she read on in her book without lifting her head, and I sat smoking my pipe and watching her. Suddenly I saw a curious thing. She was crying. There weren’t any tears, and she didn’t make a sound, but her face was contorted with grief and the hand lying beside her on the settle was clenched till the knuckles were white.
Any woman, by crying, can make me entirely miserable, but with Selena it was doubly unbearable. I did not associate that sort of weakness with her, for one thing, and, for another, because I did not like her it made it impossible for me to notice that she was crying at all. So I got up and stood by the mantel and smoked my pipe and looked at the fire and pretended that I did not know what she was doing.
Some fragment of sound made me look up. She had risen, and without looking at me or making the slightest sign she went down the room and out the front door. It closed behind her, but in the instant when she opened it I had seen beyond her the black, star-sprinkled sky of the Western night and the distant shouldering silhouette of the mountains to the west. A gust of cold air went through the room and the fire flickered. Jerry stuck his head into the room for a moment when he heard the door close, but returned at once to the kitchen without saying anything. The water went on splashing in the dishpan, but he had stopped whistling.
Nothing in life, I think, ordinarily happens in great, thunderous episodes of obvious and dramatic force. Life is a series of small things, and most of them mean much or little depending on how the observer thinks of them. I, for instance, didn’t pay any real attention to the things that happened in that room that night. And yet, if I had I would have seen a pattern in them, the pattern of the fifth act of a tragedy, when the play is all played out and only the final words, the ultimate destruction of the protagonist, await fulfillment. I see these things now for what they were worth, the last small events before an unthinkable horror of a thing was to happen. But at the time I thought merely that Selena had gone outside to get control of herself, that she would be back soon, and that it was embarrassing to be stuck into the middle of a mess like this. And I couldn’t quite get over a feeling of surprise at Selena’s crying. There didn’t seem to have been enough cause for tears, even for a woman with much less fortitude than Selena had. Thinking back, I couldn’t believe there was any real reason for her crying at all; she had been annoyed with Jerry, not hurt by him.
After a moment I went over to the settle and sat down. Selena’s book was in my way, and as I moved it to one end of the seat, I saw it was an old copy of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, a book that I felt sure came from the bookcase in Jerry’s room in the Long Island house. I picked it up idly—she had left it face down—and began to read at her own place:
“. . . and as evening grew darker hundreds of variegated lamps were lit. . . . The sailors danced on the deck, and when the young Prince came out there, more than a hundred rockets shot up into the sky.”
“Hey, Bark!” It was Jerry’s voice from the kitchen.
“Will you have Scotch or rye?”
He appeared with a tray, a bottle, a pitcher of water, and two glasses. “Even if you have practically signed the pledge, as you claim, a nightcap or two won’t hurt us.”
“Hell, no,” I agreed. “I’m all for an occasional renewal of youthful folly anyway.”
“You always were a philosophical so-and-so,” he said. “Personally, I just drink without thinking out a formal reason for it.”
He poured us a couple of stiff ones. They tasted good there in front of the fire, and I took a long pull. “This is the McCoy, Jerry.”
“Yeah. It’s good to see you again.”
“Here’s to it.”
“Down the hatch.”
He poured out another apiece, and we took it slower. Jerry stared into the fire for a while and then turned to me, almost impulsively. “You see how it is.”
“Damn it,” I said, “I don’t see anything.”
He looked at me thoughtfully as if to find out whether I meant it. “She’s gone up there, you know.”
“Up to the top of the mesa.”
“My God,” I said. “In the dark? She’ll fall and kill herself!”
His answer came after quite a while. “She never has.”
I let that sink in for a minute. “You mean,” I asked him incredulously, “she goes up there often?”
“Almost every night.”
“Are you serious?”
“Yes, I’m serious as hell.”
“But, Jerry,” I argued, “it doesn’t make sense. What does she do it for?”
He swirled the whisky and water in his glass round and round and stared at it. “I wish I knew. I wish to God I knew.”
“Listen,” I said. “There must be some reason. Maybe she likes to be alone and look at the stars and moon from up there.” Even while I was speaking, it sounded foolish.
“Maybe.” He added nothing to that one word for a time, and then took another drink. “I followed her once. It took me a hell of a while, even in the moonlight, to get up there. When I did, I couldn’t see her anywhere. The moon was bright too. But, of course, it’s a big place. After a while I called, but she didn’t answer.” He put his glass down between his feet and fished out a cigarette. “She must have heard me, though, because the next morning she bawled hell out of me for going up. Told me it was too dangerous, and I mustn’t do it again.”
“For Christ’s sake!”
He was groping in his pockets. “Got a match?”
I found a solitary paper packet in my own pocket. There were only a few matches left in it. “Here.”
He lit his cigarette, blew out a long funnel of smoke, and observed, “I’ve got so I don’t mind any more.”
We had a few more drinks and felt fine and talked over the old days, and it was pleasant. Twice, I remember, Jerry put more wood on the fire before we went off to our respective beds. And when I blew out the lamp in my room, I had neither seen nor heard Selena come back to the house. But I thought to myself, she must have come in by the door into their bedroom.
The next day was much cooler. A sharp wind was coming down off the mountains, and I was surprised to see a gray scud of cloud across the sky. Jerry and I set out, after breakfast, for a walk up toward the peak beyond and behind the mesa. Selena must have come home, for she was at breakfast, looking very still and without any morning small talk. She said she didn’t want to walk, and that it was not a nice day, but she hoped we’d have a good time.
There was nothing really worth telling about the walk. We climbed pretty far up one shoulder of the peak and sat down to eat our sandwiches in the lee of a rock pinnacle. After we finished, I filled my pipe and Jerry put a cigarette in his mouth. Then, for a few minutes, we thought we didn’t have any matches. Finally he found the paper I’d given him the night before, and by the mercy of God I got my pipe going with the last one. He lit his cigarette from the pipe, and I scaled the empty match paper out into the wind. We watched it fall, idly and without attention. If I had known what was to happen, I might have paid a good deal more heed to its long, curving drop out of sight. As it was, though, we sat and smoked contentedly for a while, and looked down across the desert.
“Bark,” said Jerry, keeping his eyes on the view, “would you be willing to tell me now what it is you know?”
“I can’t,” I told him honestly. “It wouldn’t do you any good and it wouldn’t prove a thing.”
“Would it prove anything about who killed LeNormand?”
“No,” I said. “I’m positive it wouldn’t.”
“Okay.” He was quiet, as though planning what to say next. “I’ve got something I want to tell you, and get your reaction to. Do you mind my talking about it?”
“Of course not.”
He leaned back against the rock, “I’ve come to the conclusion that if I could find out who killed LeNormand and why, I’d know about this thing that’s between Selena and me. I’ve been thinking over the whole business for a long time now. And I’m reasonably sure I’ve figured out what the only clue is.”
“Pretty long-range work, wasn’t it?” But I was worried; I didn’t want to reopen that whole murder case. I most emphatically did not want to remember that night in Eldridge Observatory.
“No,” he said calmly. “It wasn’t long-range work at all. I had the clue with me. Those equations that were on LeNormand’s table. He was working at them when he died, I’m sure of that.”
“Even if he was,” I told him impatiently, “a few pencil scratches on a piece of paper are seldom fatal.”
“That depends. They are if they’re an order to a firing squad. Listen, Bark, you don’t know what a big thing LeNormand was on to. The biggest thing in the world, by God!” He was silent for a second. “Do you remember any of your college math?”
“Well, I’ll try to explain it to you in words, then. Only it’s hard to put into words. LeNormand’s work followed the stuff of a guy named Minkowski. Ever hear of him?”
“He sounds sort of Polish.”
“Damned if I know what he was, except that he was a great mathematician. LeNormand always spoke of him as if Minkowski was the only man who would have understood his own ideas. But LeNormand was way beyond Minkowski.”
This didn’t interest me much. “Minkowski! Why do these mathematicians have such cockeyed names?”
“Nuts,” said Jerry. “There have been jokes about your own name, if it comes to that, and mine sounds like part of a mouthwash. Let me try to get this across to you. Minkowski worked on the problem of time, among other things. Lots of people talk about time as if it were a fourth dimension. In a way it is; everything tangible has length and breadth and thickness and also it exists in time. It lasts. It has duration. If it didn’t, you wouldn’t be able to grasp its existence any more than you could figure out something that lacked one of the other three dimensions.”
“All right,” I said. “I agree to all that.”
“But,” he went on, very earnestly, “in another way time isn’t like the other dimensions. You can’t see the time dimension of anything. You can even forget about it the way Euclid did, and do lots of things to geometrical figures, at least on paper, without taking it into account at all. This fellow Minkowski discovered that time is not any ordinary spatial quality of anything, but his idea was that it would become so if it was multiplied by the square root of minus one.”
“My old friend,” I remarked, “the square root of minus one! I haven’t thought of it in years. It’s in the same class with that other thing, the nth power. And wasn’t there a funny-looking symbol that represented infinity?”
“There is.” He looked at me curiously. “The inside of your mind must be a queer place.”
“It’s cozy,” I told him.
“Yes. Well, LeNormand figured out a set of equations that proved the serial nature of time.”
“Sure. There isn’t just one time. There are lots of times. Why, everybody believes in that, if you stop to think about it. You’ve heard people say, ‘time passes slowly,’ or ‘the time went by like lightning.’ Well, it’s sort of like the old song about who takes care of the caretaker’s daughter? If you talk about time passing, you’re actually measuring it against something, and that something is a sort of second time.”
I felt distinctly confused, but I knew that once Jerry started to explain something all hell would not deflect him, so I sat and waited for the rest of it to roll over me.
“The nearest way I can give you an idea of LeNormand’s work is to say that he applied this theorem of Minkowski’s to the conception of a serial time, or a bunch of times running on up into infinity. I know you don’t get it, and it’s not a thing you can explain even with diagrams, but I guess you can see that everyone, from Einstein to little old Bill Feldman in the Math Department, was on his neck for it.“
“My God,” I said, “I don’t see how they even understood it.”
“They didn’t. Well, that’s about all I can tell you about LeNormand’s theories, because it’s all I’m sure I understand. There’s one last equation. I’m working on it now. If I can decipher what he was putting down in that …” Jerry’s voice trailed off for a moment. “Anyhow, you see why I think LeNormand had hold of something big. He used to tell me some things you could do with his stuff, just for fun. I remember he said once that if you could control your mind after you were dead and outside your body, you could make it travel through time. He used to tell me that it would do a lot of Christians good to go back and take a look at the Crucifixion before settling down to an eternity of bliss.”
“Nice,” I said, “a very nice, pleasant thought to take home with you.”
“Hell,” said Jerry. “I don’t suppose he meant that stuff. Or most of it, anyway.”
We sat there for several moments without any more words. Perhaps Jerry was thinking. For my part, I knew that I could never understand what he had been talking about, so there was no use my trying any thought. I just sat.
After a while he went on, and his voice was lower and graver, somehow. “LeNormand was killed by some kind of chemical, or else a ray of some sort. More likely a ray, though God knows where it came from. And it must have been because of his work. There was no other reason to kill him.”
“There was Selena.”
“Yes,” he said. “Selena. Selena who won’t tell me who she was before we met her. Bark, can you, for God’s sake, tell me why she should be so silent about her past unless it would connect her, or someone she is sheltering, with that murder?” His voice was suddenly strained and urgent.
“Listen,” I said quickly, “there’s nothing to that idea. And if it’s any comfort to you, it wasn’t what Parsons and I talked about, either.”
“Thanks for that much.” He stopped a moment and wet his lips. “You don’t know, I suppose, whether he ever investigated to find out who Selena is?”
“Yes,” I told him, “he did.”
“And did he find out?”
“You see what I have to think, don’t you, Bark? I know it was a scientist’s murder. I am certain Selena knows who did it. That’s why she’s keeping such a careful watch against giving anything away about her past.”
“And she married LeNormand just to keep an eye on him?”
He nodded grimly. “Yes. Damn it! Do you think I like this? Do you think I enjoy suspecting my wife of being implicated in a murder—a horrible murder, at that, and of a man I liked damned well?”
“I think you’re building a lot on a pretty slender foundation.”
“Yes,” he admitted, “I know that. But there’s another thing. She hates my working on that stuff of LeNormand’s. She doesn’t like it, and she tries to stop me. Remember last night how she told me it was useless? That’s the word she uses when she wants to say a thing is altogether bad. Suppose she has the idea that if I go on with what I’m doing, the same thing will happen to me that happened to LeNormand?”
It came over me at last in what torment he had been living; there was nothing I could say without putting another and equally horrible alternative in his mind, the alternative that Selena was Luella Jamison. And yet, I wish now that I had told him Parsons’ story.
“Bark, don’t you see how much of it fits? Think how intelligent Selena is. Half the time I believe she knows more about LeNormand’s work than I do. Just from little things she lets drop once in a while. Where else could she get that intelligence from but a scientist’s family, that intelligence and her knowledge?”
“You’re born with intelligence. You don’t acquire it.”
“Anyway, your whole idea is crazy. It’s as thin as tissue paper, and as improbable as a movie scenario. What scientist do you suspect?”
“I don’t suspect any one of them. There are fifty men whose careers would have been ruined by LeNormand’s work.”
“Are any of them missing a daughter or a wife?”
He looked at me, hard. “I don’t know yet. I’m getting reports on all of them from an agency.”
“You see, Bark,” he said quietly, “if I can’t eliminate this horrible idea I have in my mind, I’ll have to live with it for the rest of my life.”
Chapter Fourteen: Sometime Is Now
WE got up, after that, and started down the mountain. The wind was cold at our backs, and we hurried. Several times I should have liked to smoke another pipe, but the matches were all gone. I muttered about that annoying fact to Jerry, and was surprised to find that he was very much bothered about it. He was certain that the matches we had used there on the mountain were the last ones in the house. I couldn’t believe it, but he was really worried. He insisted that since he was the one that did the housekeeping, he would know whether there were any more matches, and most assuredly there were not. Neither of us liked the idea of a fireless evening, a cold supper, and a long drive into town the next day. Suddenly he stopped and turned back to me with a grin.
“Say, I know what we can do! We’ll get a fire with a spark from the car battery. Why didn’t I think of that before?”
And we went slogging on down the slope with lighter hearts. Jerry was worried about Selena’s being pretty well frozen by the time we got there, and we hurried as fast as my legs and shortness of wind would permit.
Our path brought us round the shoulder of a ridge and into sight of the house about a quarter of a mile ahead of us. The moment we saw it, both of us stopped. The window at our end, a living room window, was glowing with light. From the orange warmth of it in the shadow of the wall, from the way it flickered, even at that distance we knew the light could come only from the fireplace. Instantly I was disappointed. Probably some primitive survival in the back of my brain, or possibly nothing but a hangover from Boy Scouting, had made me look forward to our firemaking experiment with a perverse sort of anticipation. Now it would not be necessary. Selena had a fire.
The effect on Jerry was different. He looked at the light awhile without speaking or moving. For a minute or two his expression was incredulous, and then it changed, tightened, altered, in a way that I could not analyze.
“Well,” I said, “we won’t have to try our luck with a couple of dry sticks or a pair of battery cables, after all.”
“No,” he said. “She’s lit a fire. She’s lit a fire.” He seemed puzzled and perhaps slightly uneasy.
“Maybe she thought of the battery stunt before we did, or maybe she found a match,” I suggested
“No,” he said, “the car’s still in the shed and there wasn’t a match in the house . . .” His voice trailed off slowly, reluctantly, I thought.
“Oh, well,” I told him, “any fire is better than none. ‘Take the gifts the gods provide.’”
He looked at me. “What’s that? Oh, yes, sure.” But he wasn’t thinking at all about what I had said.
He kept the lead as we went on to the house, but he was no longer hurrying. In fact, it seemed to me that he was hardly moving with any purpose at all. If it hadn’t been the end of a fairly long tramp, I’d have thought him merely strolling. Several times he lifted his head and looked toward the house; each time I noticed how tense his face was, and how remote the expression around his eyes.
Sure enough, when we entered the living room there was a big, crackling fire on the hearth, dried desert wood that burned intensely and was gone to ash in an hour. Selena was sitting on the settle, looking into the flames. There were filaments of fire glow in her pale, bright hair, and a faint flush on her cheeks from the heat.
“Hello,” she said. “Have an interesting walk?”
“Sure,” I said, “only keeping up with a long-legged mountain goat like your husband is no job for one who hath been long in city pent.”
“He does walk fast, doesn’t he?”
I went over and stood with my back to the fire; the heat soaked into my legs and took some of the tiredness out of them. Jerry was standing behind the settle, behind Selena; he took out his package of cigarettes and put one between his lips. His voice was perfectly casual.
“Gimme a match, will you, honey?”
That woman could think, and think fast. Only the smallest trace of some expression went over her face; then she stooped and pulled out from the flames a long twig of mesquite.
“Here,” she said, and held it to his cigarette.
He drew in a long drag of smoke and looked at her across the flame without saying anything except “Thanks.”
She tossed the twig back into the flames and sat down again.
“We were worried,” I remarked. “Jerry was positive there wasn’t a match in the house, and we used our last up on the mountain. But I see you found one.”
Jerry came round the end of the settle and stood at the opposite side of the fireplace, looking down at his wife. “Yes,” he said, with an unsuccessful attempt at lightness in his tone, “where did you find the match?”
She looked up at him and there was a sort of stillness in her face that I shall never forget. “Does it matter?”
“No,” he said, “it doesn’t matter at all where you found it. It matters if you found it.”
The remark made no sense to me at all, and I still don’t understand it, but Selena did. She stood up.
“You shouldn’t have said that.” There was no anger, no sharpness in her tone, only weariness and what sounded to me at the time like despair.
Jerry was staring at her; the look on his face was so thinly sharp, so direct, so full of horror that I was instantly aware that this conversation, which was meaningless to me, possessed some sort of positive and dreadful implication for him. “So,” he said, “so that’s it. I’ve wondered for a long time.”
She looked at him calmly. “I tried to stop you.”
“Yes,” he said. “You tried to stop me. That was kind of you.” He threw his head back and laughed, a short, nervous laugh that had the timbre of fear in it. “That was condescending of you—Selena.”
“No,” she said in a very low voice, “no, Jerry, it wasn’t condescension.”
He was watching her, I noticed. His eyes never moved from her face. I saw, too, that he was trembling, that his hands, at his sides, were twitching, and that his lips, which had suddenly become thin and gray, were quivering slightly. He licked them. “I would have found out sometime,” he said to her at last. She made no reply. “But sometime is now.”
“Yes,” she said, and her voice was impersonal.
Suddenly he was in complete command of himself. “Do you know what I am thinking?”
“Of course,” she said.
“Am I right?”
She nodded her head gravely. “You know that too.”
“All right,” he said, as though agreeing to something, and turned to me. “Bark, you don’t know what this is all about, do you?”
“No,” I told him.
“That’s good,” he said, and there was affection in his voice. “I want you to do me a favor.”
“Sure,” I told him.
He left the fire. “I want you to take something to Dad from me when you go. I’ll write it out now . . . before I forget it.” He went into the study, and I followed him somewhat uncertainly. The whole thing was confusing, and for some obscure reason I felt frightened. Selena followed me, but she stopped in the doorway.
Jerry was sitting at the desk in there. The last gray light from the east came through the window behind him and lighted the room with a dull, unlovely color. He was writing by the time I reached the room, with a swift, racing drive of his pen as though to finish before the light faded entirely. I watched him a minute, conscious of Selena white and glimmering in the dusk of the door behind me. All at once, with a quick, impatient gesture he crumpled the note and flung it into a corner.
“Hell,” he said, with a swift, tight grin at me. “It’s not so important, after all.”
The rest happened before I knew it. The gun must have been there in the desk drawer, ready to his hand. He simply put it up to his head and pulled the trigger.
The crash of the shot in that small room made my eardrums ring. The revolver clattered to the floor beside his chair; his arms went out across the desktop, and his head sank forward between them. It seemed to me that for an instant after the shot his eyes were looking at me. Then I couldn’t see them any more.
For a long time, an unmeasured sequence of nothingnesses, I stood there in the room and stared at him. There is no way to explain how I felt, for I don’t suppose I felt at all. My only sensation was one of having ceased to live, and a horrible tightness in my throat.
I was aware that Selena was moving past me. She walked to the desk slowly but without uncertainty, and her face was perfectly quiet, the face of an angel who knows neither sorrow nor loss nor death nor anything else that quickens the pulse of living men and women. She placed her hands, palm down, on the surface of the wood and leaned forward a little, looking down at him silently. Then she put her hand, her long hand with the strong white fingers, on his hair, so lightly that she scarcely touched his head. The next instant she was across the room and stooping to pick up the crumpled note in the corner. I watched her take it up and go out of the room. A moment later I heard the front door open and close again.
Of course, I did all the things that you think of to do. He was dead, but I felt his heart to make sure. It was still warm inside his shirt. Some cheaply melodramatic instinct made me wrap up the gun in my handkerchief; afterwards I was glad I’d done so. It saved a lot of trouble with the sheriff. I carried his body into my own room, and laid it out on my bed; I could not imagine taking it into the room he had shared with Selena. Closing his eyes was the hardest part. Then I went into the living room and built the fire up high and lit all the lamps. The whisky bottle was in the kitchen; I found it easily enough, but I did not drink much. It seemed to stick in my throat. There was nothing else to do till morning; that long and twisted road into Los Palos would be indecipherable in the dark.
As I sat there I began to wonder if Selena was coming back. I kept listening for the sound of her step outside the door. But there was silence except for the strong rush of the wind past the house and the steady crackle of my fire on the hearth.
Nothing that I thought or felt through that long night is of the least consequence. In reality I was simply waiting, in a chaos of loneliness and sorrow and fear, for one of two things: Selena’s return or the first light of morning. After a long time the eastern window began to show gray; I went at once to start the car. In the dusk outside, the great loom of the mesa over my head made me shudder in spite of myself. I looked up where I knew the line of steps to be, wondering if she was coming back to the house. But there was no one there.
The car started easily enough, and I got it round to the front door, as close as I could. When I went inside again, I left the engine running. I liked the sound it made. Getting him into the tonneau was horrible enough, but I was past the ability to feel any more. Before I left, I put out the lamps and the fire, and left the door open, in case she came back. Then I blew the horn, over and over again. Its harsh, deep yell went echoing up and down the valley and came back flatly from the face of the mesa behind and above me. She did not come. I put the car in gear and rolled slowly down the road toward the desert and Los Palos, seventy miles away.
The rest of it isn’t important, though it was tedious enough, and long before the formalities with the sheriff and the undertaker were over the numbness that had got me as far as Los Palos without agony had worn off. I don’t know why they all took my story so readily at its face value, but, of course, there was the gun and the powder burn on his forehead. The sheriff went back with some of his men to try to find Selena, but she wasn’t there, and he told me the house was just as I had left it. He managed to make me admit that Jerry hadn’t been entirely happy with his wife, and that seemed to satisfy him and the coroner’s jury. They let me go quickly. There wasn’t a plane reservation to be had, and anyway it was a half day’s travel to the nearest airport, so I simply caught the morning transcontinental out of Los Palos three days later. The only stop I made was at my apartment. I wanted to put Jerry’s ashes in the silver urn.
Chapter Fifteen: Early Light
WHEN I had finished speaking I felt tired and empty of all emotion. For better or worse, the story was told. As I looked back over it I wondered whether there was in it anything more than the record of a personal obsession, springing out of the shock of finding LeNormand and a subconscious jealousy of Jerry that an analyst might put an ugly name to. The episodes that seemed strange to me might appear natural or coincidental to a calm, clear mind like Dr Lister’s. Nowhere in the course of my narration had I produced any tangible proof of my instinctive belief that Selena was different from all the rest of us, and that in some way not clear to me she was responsible for the deaths of two men.
And yet, sitting there tired and miserable, I had a swift feeling that something was yet to be said or done. It seemed to me there was an immanence in the air and that we were not at the end of the story. I could not guess what the end would be, but I dreaded it.
Dr Lister did not speak for a long time. His hands were clasped in front of him on the table and he was staring at them as if the shape of his own knuckles was strange to him. Neither of us moved. Above and around us the night was undergoing a change; the great constellation of Scorpio was low on the western sky and the darkness was turning to a tarnished, misty silver. Again, as on Cloud Mesa, I thought of the eastward spin of the earth, rolling through space. The minute area of its surface which the two of us occupied was being turned toward the sun—the house, the trees, the wide reaches of the Sound, the whole eastern edge of the continent borne along inexorably into the light of a new day. Miles away the bellow of a Diesel made a muted, savage insertion of sound in the silence between us.
He unclasped his hands at last and looked at me thoughtfully. “That is all you have to tell me?”
He put his palms down flat on the table, stood up, and blew out the stump of the candle. “It does not seem to prove anything,” he said, and sat down again. “Do you believe there is some connection between all the things you have told me?”
I studied for a minute, trying to find a way to give him the feeling that I had. “Yes, I’m sure there is. I know there is something behind the whole business because I know that Jerry found out what it is. That’s why he shot himself.”
“And you don’t know what this thing is?”
“No,” I said slowly, “I don’t. Except that it is connected with Selena. Everything goes back to her.”
He nodded. “She is a strange person. I grant you that. But except for her character—which I don’t wholly understand I’ll admit—I can’t see anything definite to give you this impression you seem to have.”
“What about LeNormand’s death? No one’s been able to explain that, but it happened. And what about Galli-Galli and the cards? That seems to me something more than just chance or coincidence. How about the things that happened on that trip to Montauk? And the fire she lighted out at Cloud Mesa. How did she light that?”
Even as I asked the questions I could imagine the answers he would make. LeNormand’s death was an unsolved mystery. The police had never been able to find the murderer, but they don’t find every murderer anyway. Galli-Galli and his cards was a trick, in a night club where I was none too sober and probably easy to fool. Most mind reading of the sort I’d accused Selena of on the Montauk road was a matter of close observation of the small gestures and expressions of the other person, and Selena was a highly intelligent woman. She had pulled on the brake because some scrap of sound or a flash of sun reflected from the approaching car had warned her. And as for the fire at Cloud Mesa, she had simply found a match. There was no part of my story which did not have a rational explanation.
“All those things,” he said quietly, “are out of the ordinary. But I don’t see any mystery in them. I can think of an explanation for every single one. Except LeNormand’s death, of course.”
“And Jerry’s,” I said brutally.
“Yes,” he replied in a low voice. “That is the hardest of all for me to accept.”
“Please, dad,” I said, “before you make up your mind that I’m suffering from some sort of delusion, try thinking about what’s happened from the other point of view. If you can show me that there’s nothing in it, you’ll be doing me a profound service.”
“All right,” he agreed, and lit a cigarette. He looked across at me with sympathetic toleration. “Let’s skip the minor things for the moment. Begin with Jerry and LeNormand.”
“There are some common factors there,” I said.
“Yes. What are they?”
“The most important of all,” I said, “is that there’s no explanation in either case. The presence of Selena, and Jerry, and me too, I suppose, in the immediate vicinity both times.”
“One more thing,” I told him. “The equations. LeNormand’s equations. They were part of the setting.”
“All right,” he conceded.
“And there was a fire, both times.”
“You can eliminate some of those factors. Jerry had nothing to do with either fire. And I didn’t. That leaves Selena. Selena and the equations. Jerry was working on them out at Cloud Mesa. Don’t forget that.”
He leaned forward. “Go on.”
The pieces were slowly fitting themselves together in my mind, but nothing was wholly clear yet, and the picture which was forming was not translatable into ordinary words. “The only other thing I’m sure of,” I said lamely, “is that when Jerry realized Selena had managed to light that fire, he thought at once of something else. But I’m not entirely sure what it was, and I can’t put it into words.”
“Well,” he observed after an uncomfortable pause, “most of what you’ve said tonight has been about Selena. That’s true, isn’t it?”
“And that means, or suggests, that if you are right the answer must lie in her.”
“I know it does.” There was no shadow of doubt in my mind on that point. “It’s got to. If we knew who she is and where she came from—” I could not complete the sentence.
“What do you think?”
He shook his head. “I don’t see how she could be. Even if the idiocy were the result of some mechanical factor, and not congenital, it could not have cleared up so fast.” Then he looked out over the Sound and said in a low voice, “Though I see what you’ve had to live with. It’s no wonder—” He stopped suddenly.
“It’s no wonder I have a fixation about her, you were going to say. If I have one. I’m still not sure. Tell me honestly what you think of Selena. You could look at her without thinking the things that have been tormenting me.”
When he finally spoke he chose his words slowly and carefully. “Selena is the most intelligent and the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met.” He paused again, and went on in an altered voice. “I was not entirely happy about Jerry’s marrying her. She seemed hard to me, not merely on the surface but all the way through. I kept watching her, hoping to see her tender or openly in love with Jerry, and I never did. She was cold and reasonable; impersonal is perhaps the word, and I never knew whether she was different to Jerry. I worried about it. I didn’t believe, till tonight, that she had another side at all.”
I was puzzled. What, I wondered, had I told him to make him revise his estimate of Selena? “I still think all that about her,” I told him. “She frightens me. She’s all mind and no heart. She simply stood there, knowing what he was going to do, while Jerry—”
“Yes,” he admitted, “I know everything you can say. But there are two little things. You said she touched his hair after . . . after . . .”
“Hell,” I said, “she’s seen movies and plays. She learned that gesture somewhere, the same way she imitated Grace. And it wasn’t much.”
“No, not much. But the other thing she couldn’t have learned. You told me that the first evening you were out there, she was reading one of Jerry’s old books. Do you remember saying that? One of his old books of fairy stories.”
He had put his finger on the one thing that seemed really out of keeping with the rest of her. Her other actions and moods—if you could call them that—seemed to me wholly consistent with some rigorous private standard of her own. A standard that came from the mind. But I could not understand why she should be reading Hans Christian Andersen. And as she read, she had been crying, silently, to herself. Why? It was incredible.
“Yes,” I admitted, “that was strange. I can’t explain that.”
“I think I can,” he said, and his tone was gentle. “I am glad you told me about it. To me it proves that she was fond of him.” My look must have informed him that I didn’t understand what he meant, for he smiled and went on in the voice he reserved for his rare personal confidences. “You’ve never been married, so you may not understand. But to some women—Jerry’s mother was one of them—the thought of their husbands as children, as small boys, is extremely touching. I suppose very likely it’s the maternal part of their sex instinct dominating all the rest for the time being. That’s why Selena was crying when she read Jerry’s book, one that belonged to him when he was a boy.”
Of course, it was possible. Neither Grace nor any other woman has ever yearned over me as a child or as a husband, so I didn’t know. But my immediate feeling was that Dr Lister was wrong. If Selena was moved to tenderness and even tears by something, I felt sure it was not because she was thinking of Jerry as a boy. There had been an intensity and a bitterness in her face then, as I remembered it, which did not fit in with such a theory.
It was hard to believe, indeed, that anything Selena read would stir her deeply, especially a fairy story. She was not the sort of little girl, I was willing to bet, who cared much for fairy stories, and to suppose that now, when she was so appallingly mature and with a mind like hers, she should deliberately invite tears . . . No, it didn’t fit. She read anything and everything that came under her hand, but none of it affected her. And if this story had moved her, it had done so by sheer chance.
Anyway, what I’d seen on the page to which the book was open hadn’t seemed sad. What was it? Something about lanterns being lighted and sailors dancing. I couldn’t quite bring it back into my conscious memory.
“I was trying to remember what story she was reading,” I told him finally, to explain my silence. “I only looked at the few words I told you about— sailors lighting lanterns on a boat or something.”
He nodded. “Yes, that was a favorite of Jerry’s when he was eight or so. I used to read it aloud to him while he ate his supper. It’s the one called ‘The Little Mermaid.’”
I didn’t remember it. “Oh,” I said vaguely. “Well, I don’t suppose it matters.”
“‘The Little Mermaid,’” he went on, “is the saddest and the best of all Andersen’s stories. You must have read it. Don’t you remember the little mermaid princess who lived at the bottom of the sea? One day she came up to the top of the water and saw a ship with a prince in it. She saved him from drowning and brought him to land. And she fell in love with him.”
It came back to me with a rush. “Yes,” I said with a sense of inner excitement that I did not stop to analyze, “that’s it. And didn’t she go to some witch to be made into a human being?”
“The witch transformed her fish’s tail into legs and feet, but whenever she walked she felt as if she were treading on sharp knives. She gave her tongue to the witch, so she could not speak. And she agreed that if she didn’t win the prince’s love, she had to die without an immortal, human soul.” He looked away. “Jerry always used to cry about that part of it.”
The rest of the story was flashing through my mind as he spoke. How the little mermaid, after devoting herself to the prince, found that he was going to marry someone else, and how, on his wedding night, she slipped over the rail of the ship on which the wedding party was sailing, and dissolved into the sea foam. I remembered it all, now, and the hot feeling of tears in my eyes when I had first read it. Perhaps it had moved even Selena.
Perhaps. But in the instant when the memory of the story completed itself in my mind, another explanation for Selena’s reaction to it occurred to me. She might have cried because the story was moving and beautiful—or because it was true.
It was a fantastic, horrible notion, and I wanted immediately to stop thinking it. I remembered Jerry’s face as he looked at Selena there on the settle before the fire she had somehow managed to light. Certainly there had been horror and incredulity in his eyes. It was possible that he had been thinking, then, the same thought that was beginning to crystallize in my own mind. I felt an intense acceleration of every image, feeling, operation of my consciousness. My thoughts were not under my control; they flickered back over the whole of the story I had just told. And nowhere did they find positive proof that the thing which was growing, expanding into unwelcome life in my brain was impossible.
The panic fear that swept over me as I realized that I might have discovered the answer was indescribable. I felt no sense of triumph at having found out the secret of Selena and her life with Jerry and the rest of us. Instead, I was sinking into icy, black water, being suffocated by its pressure, drowning in arctic night and winter. Layer after layer of cold and blackness was piling up above me and the fright of death itself was pounding in my pulse. Fear like that, real fear, is an invasion, a physical thing full of ice and death that enters into every fiber of the body and possesses the mind. The worst of it was that there was no tangible thing with which I could deal. There was nothing to run away from and nothing to confront. This terror sprung from a nebulous idea, a half-perceived theory. . . .
My face must have given Dr Lister a suggestion of what was in my mind. He was staring at me with alarm. “What’s the matter, Bark? What’s happened to you?”
His voice came from a distance. I tried to answer, but my lips were stiff. I licked them. “Something just occurred to me. Something that might explain her, or part of her.“
“What is it?”
I wanted to tell him, but I knew that he would think I was out of my mind. There was no way of expressing it that would not sound incredible. “I can’t put it into words, yet,” I said. “But it’s about Selena. I don’t think she’s—well—normal.”
Incomprehension was stamped on his face. “I don’t see what you mean. Do you think she’s insane?”
“No,” I said, “not insane. There’s nothing wrong with her mind at all.”
“What is abnormal about her, then?”
“Her self,” I told him, separating the two words deliberately. “There’s something entirely different about her. She isn’t like most people. She has a better mind and a better body, but the quality I mean hasn’t anything to do with comparatives.”
“You think she’s unique, in some way. Nobody else in the world is like her?”
“Well,” I answered, “I don’t know about that. Maybe there are others of her kind. If there are, they’re cleverer. They don’t show it.” The thought that I might be right about that made me pause. Even the possibility of encountering again someone like Selena, or of living in a world where another like her existed, was appalling to me. I went on quickly. “Anyway, I hope she’s the only one. Can’t you see how utterly different Selena is from you and me and Grace and everyone else we know? It’s a difference that’s much worse than if she’d lost an arm or a leg, or had her face smashed in an accident. Those things are just on the outside. This is something that goes clear through her.”
He shook his head. “I haven’t the remotest notion what you are trying to say.”
“Well,” I replied, “I’ll have to phrase it differently. Don’t you feel that there’s a lack in her? Don’t you see that she is incomplete somehow?”
“No. No, I don’t believe I do.”
“You said yourself that she was cold. I’d put it another way. She hasn’t any soul.”
He made an impatient gesture with his hand. “This isn’t getting us anywhere. Let’s stick to facts.”
“Facts!” My voice sounded harsh in my ears. “There are all kinds of facts. Do you admit it’s a fact that Selena is different from every other person you’ve ever known?”
“Yes, I’ll admit that.”
“And what sort of difference is it?”
“No two human personalities are ever identical.”
“You’re evading the question.”
“No,” he said. “I’m not evading anything. Selena is not like you or me or anyone else. But the same could be said for you, or for me, or for anybody.”
“Good God,” I said in desperation, “can’t you see that she is more different than anyone you’ve ever known? Can’t you understand that the reason for it isn’t the normal variation between one person and the next? She’s never been a part of the rest of us. She’s been a visitor in every thing and every place I’ve ever observed her.”
“Yes,” I said, shivering with a cold that did not come from the air around us. “She’s never been anything else.”
He looked thoughtful. “That is a good description of her attitude … I never thought of it in just that way. There is something alien about her, perhaps.”
“And another thing. Her mind. You admit that she’s intelligent. She’s more than that. She’s so intelligent that she’s either a genius or else—” I did not dare complete the sentence.
He caught me up on it at once. “Or else what, Bark?”
“Or else,” I went on, with every word sticking in my throat, “she isn’t human at all.” He stared at me. “Her mind, I mean. Not her body.”
“I don’t know that I understand you.”
“I don’t understand it myself. I don’t know what it means, either. But I think that Selena’s intelligence isn’t human. It isn’t akin to anything in the rest of us. Her mind wasn’t part of a baby and then of a child and then of a girl. It didn’t grow up and go through the experiences that are common to every human life. It wasn’t given to her by heredity, the ways yours and mine were given to us, with traits of our parents and maybe our ancestors blended into it. And I don’t believe it was shaped by environment, either. According to your own science, dad, every living minute of every person is recorded on their brains. Each thing that ever happened to you or to me is a part of us, written into some page of our minds. I don’t believe the writing on the pages of Selena’s mind is in any language you or I know. At least, not till recently. The first entry we could read, I think, would be dated August seventh, two years ago.”
“That was when Luella Jamison disappeared in Collegeville?”
He was looking at me as if he couldn’t believe that he had understood me at all. “Then your idea is that Selena’s mind suddenly began to function on that day?”
“No,” I told him. “My idea is that her mind appeared on that date.”
His voice was incredulous. “Appeared? Appeared from where?”
The question was one that I had known he would ask. If I knew the answer—and I was afraid to think whether I did or not—I did not want to speak it. There would be finality about uttering it, and I did not want anything final. “I don’t know from where. From some other place. That’s as near as I can come to it.”
“You can’t believe that. There’s no conceivable . . . Unless you think she’s possessed?”
I nodded. “Yes, something like that.”
“Impossible. I’m not even sure there is such a thing as possession. Split personality, perhaps. But Selena isn’t a split personality.”
There was no argument about that, of course. “No,” I assented, “she’s all of a piece throughout.”
“Well, then,” he said, and I could see that he was impatient, “I don’t see how you can say—”
I cut into his sentence. “Her mind is all of a piece. It doesn’t belong with her body. It’s just living in it, if you like to put it that way.”
“This is a terrible idea,” he said slowly, and shook himself as if to get rid of it. “I don’t believe you’re right about it. It’s not scientific.”
I shrugged. What difference did it make whether every truth was a scientific truth?
“What,” he went on carefully, “is your theory of the cause or purpose of this . . . this mind visitation in Selena?”
“I’m not sure. But there’s the Hans Andersen story to go back to. The little mermaid wanted a soul. I think that’s what Selena wants too.”
He struck his hand down on the table. “Let’s be sensible. I don’t like these vague words. Exactly what do you mean by ‘soul’?”
“Everybody means the same thing by it,” I retorted. “Soul is the part of you that isn’t your body and isn’t your mind either. It’s what ties you together inside. It’s the essence of what you are.”
He shook his head. “Emotions—which appear to be about what you mean by ‘soul’—are effects of certain glandular imbalances arising from sensory stimuli.”
“Stop being a doctor, dad. You know better than that.”
“Sorry.” He looked at me gently, excusing me because of my fatigue and what I had been through.
“No,” I said sharply. “I don’t want you making allowances for me. Do you honestly believe that all that scientific rigmarole you just recited really means anything? Does it explain anything to you? What about art and religion and love? What about sorrow, dad? Are all those things nothing but the product of some glandular imbalances, as you put it?”
“I don’t know,” he said, and his voice was so low I could scarcely hear it.
“Yes, you do. They aren’t. They can’t be. Ask Selena. She’ll tell you they can’t.”
He answered quietly. “You’re not very coherent. Perhaps if you explained this whole idea of yours in simple words, I’d be able to understand it.”
I was ashamed of my outburst. “I wasn’t attacking you, dad. But I know I’m right. Let’s put it this way: Selena cried when she read the story of the little mermaid. She cried because she saw in it the elements of some experience of her own. She is an alien too. And so that story moved her deeply.”
“Naturally,” he said thoughtfully, “if you are right, it would do so.” He was silent for some time, staring at the tabletop. “I cannot accept your assumption. It is too full of mystery. I have a scientific mind, perhaps. I can’t believe that Selena is anything but an extraordinary woman—an adventuress perhaps and possibly a foreigner.”
I had expected he would say that. “I hope you’re right,” I answered. “My theory is— Well, I wish to God I’d never thought of it. But it does explain a lot of things that you can’t.”
“Go ahead,” he said. “It will be better for you to get this off your chest.”
“It all begins,” I said, “on the evening when Luella Jamison was standing outside the rest room of the Sunoco station in Collegeville with her hands on the lattice. Think of her there, a body with no mind, no intelligence at all. Probably the brain cells were inside her skull all the time, but they weren’t connected to anything. Within three or four minutes Luella Jamison vanishes. It took intelligence to do that one thing and do it as fast and efficiently as Luella did it. Ten times more intelligence than Luella ever displayed before. You’ll grant that.”
“Yes,” he said reluctantly, “I’ll admit that, I suppose.”
“Luella’s body suddenly acquired a mind. I don’t know yet where it came from, though I have a guess. But anyway, it went straight to one certain place in all Collegeville, like steel to a magnet. It went straight to Walter LeNormand. He must have been in the observatory at the time, getting ready for his night’s work. Luella Jamison walked in on him. What happened between them I don’t know, but in two days he married her. And Luella Jamison, who did not know her own name, probably, became Selena LeNormand.”
“You’re theorizing,” he interrupted. “How do you know she went to LeNormand?”
“Because there is no other place she could have gone, and no other likely place Selena could have come from. Because Selena has to have an intelligence near her powerful enough, like LeNormand’s, to give her some point of contact with human existence. When we met her first, after his death, she was dull and stupid, almost in a trance, till she met Jerry. His mind was the same kind as hers. It made her come to life again. Jerry and LeNormand had the same sort of intelligence. They were mathematicians. For that matter,“ I added, ”there were mathematicians in Luella’s own ancestry, if you’ll recall.“
“Yes. Parsons said that.”
All the time I was talking to him the certainty that I was right kept growing and expanding inside me. With every word I spoke, the truth came to life in my brain like a winter-torpid snake in the spring sun. I no longer fought against the fear of it, because there was no room left in which to fight. Revulsion and terror were in every corner inch of my consciousness. My face must have reflected some of it, for Dr Lister watched me with concern and a professional suspicion. But I was indifferent to that. All I wanted was to complete the story, as if, by communicating it to him I could siphon off some of the cold dread I was experiencing.
When Luella Jamison walked into Eldridge Observatory, she went there because she knew that LeNormand was there. At least, she knew his intelligence was there. With the force that was in her mind, that was a part of her, it would be easy to get him to marry her. Hadn’t she made me offer her a cigarette when I knew she never smoked? That was a small thing, but she could have done anything with me, and even with a man like LeNormand. So she lived with him, learning the ways of people, adapting herself to an unfamiliar life, just as the little mermaid lived among mortals when she first came up out of the sea.
“Surely you don’t think Selena’s mind came out of the ocean?” he asked me when I reached this point in my exposition.
“No,” I said. “It wasn’t the sea.”
So things had gone for several months. And then LeNormand, who must have been living by that time in a strange world of surmise and perhaps of fear, went back to his work, his great paper on space and time, and began to go over his equations. He must have made his final discovery the afternoon of the State football game.
And when he made that last step which put the whole thing clear before him, a demonstrated truth, he must have sat there thinking about it. Certainly then she knew what he was doing, even though she was not in the room with him. I remembered how she had read my mind so often in the past, in unobtrusive ways that I had overlooked because I did not see their implications. How much more easily could she have known what LeNormand had found, what intense and mathematical symbols were forming in his brain as he worked and thought! She sat there, in his house, and understood what he had found. To her it seemed so clear, so true, so irrefutable, that she decided he had to die.
Dr Lister cleared his throat. “Why should LeNormand have been a menace to her because he’d made some sort of mathematical discovery?” His tone suggested that the question ought to reveal my own folly to me.
“I can’t tell you that. But remember what Jerry said about its importance? ‘The biggest thing in the world, by God!’ All I can guess is that somehow LeNormand’s discovery was connected with Selena.”
“His mathematics, you mean?”
“Yes,” I answered him slowly, “his proof of what Jerry called the serial nature of time. It had something to do with her.”
“But what?” he said impatiently. “Do you think she was jealous of it, or what?”
“No. I think LeNormand believed he’d found a way to test his theory.”
“The only way he could do that would be to travel through time, physically, or at least mentally.”
“Yes,” I admitted.
“But that’s absurd.”
“Selena didn’t think so. She killed him to keep him from trying it.”
“This is all mad,” he asserted. “Why should she care?”
I looked at him and tried to make him feel the conviction that was in me. “Because she didn’t want him to find out where she came from.”
“So,” he said, and his tone was pure amazement. “You think she—or her mind—came through time.”
“From the past or the future?”
“I don’t know. Maybe there isn’t any difference.”
Dr Lister looked at me with pity openly in his eyes. “This is all delusion, Bark. Your mind is playing tricks on you. There’s no sense to this notion of yours, and no evidence for it.”
“Yes, there is,” I told him. “There’s one piece of evidence. That is what she said to Jerry in Bermuda, lying beside him in the moonlight. She said, ‘This is what my people do not know.’ You see, she was beginning to find out what she had missed with LeNormand. Her mind was learning from her body. It takes mind and body both to make a soul. Living with Jerry taught her something of what it means to be a human being.”
“Then why should she have let him kill himself?”
“You must see that now. Jerry never stopped wondering about LeNormand’s death. His love for Selena made him all the more anxious to find the solution to it. He believed that those equations were the important clue. He had tremendous mathematical ability, and he studied them until he understood what they meant. After that, when he saw the fire that Selena had lighted, he thought of the fire that killed LeNormand. And then he knew why LeNormand died, and how.”
“Selena was responsible for both the fires, then?”
“How did she create them?”
I was very tired, and I could see that he did not believe me. I had not convinced him. The dark thought that obsessed me, the fear that was almost overwhelming me had no existence for him. There was no use going on. “It doesn’t matter how she created them. I don’t know. You’re just asking the question to humor me. I haven’t convinced you.”
He spread his hands in a gesture of apology. “You’re tired to the point of collapse, Bark. People’s brains get queer kinks in them when they’re as exhausted as you are.” He was quiet for a while. “In a way, I wish I could believe you. Any explanation would be better than none at all.”
“Not this explanation,” I told him. “I’ve never been so afraid in my life as I am this minute.”
He tried to smile. “You’ll feel differently after a good sleep. I’ll give you something that will relax you.”
“I hope so,” I replied. “I hope you have the chance to do that.”
“Of course, I will.”
“Yes,” I said, “you will if I’m wrong. But not if I’m right.”
“Think back,” I told him. “Remember what happened to the other two people that found out.”
“And if you’re right, you think the same thing will happen to us?”
I steadied my voice as much as I could. “She will know that we have found out. And she will come here. After all, it’s been almost a week since Jerry . . . She could have been here days ago.” The very certainty in my voice alarmed me. “She’ll come, all right. Whether she’ll kill us or not, I can’t tell you.“
“No,” he said, “you mustn’t let thoughts like that get the upper hand. Selena is just a woman, a strange woman. This nightmare you’ve built up in your mind will pass in a few days. You’ve had a shock, and you are tired. That’s all there is to it. We’ll go upstairs now and have some sleep.”
“All right,” I said. “I don’t want to argue with you. I want you to be right. I’ll take your sleeping powder, or whatever it is, and wake up sane again. But, first, I’m going to sit here for five or ten minutes. That’ll be time enough to demonstrate to me that she isn’t coming. It was quick, the two times before.”
We sat waiting. The dawn was absolutely still around us. Nothing moved. Dr Lister looked at my face quietly with his hands folded. I think he was planning the details of his treatment to restore me to myself. I hoped that the first thing he would do would be to exorcise the cold, irrepressible fear that went through me in steady, pulsing waves with every beat of my heart.
The pause seemed never-ending. Gradually I saw resolution begin to shape his mouth. He was on the point of saying something. At that very instant there was a stir at my feet. It was Boojum. He walked out from under the table, stiffly, and turned to look down the terrace toward the corner of the house behind Dr Lister. He did not growl, nor wag his tail. He simply looked. After a few seconds his ears went up stiffly into two triangles. Both of us were watching him; out of the corner of my eye I saw something like hesitation come into Dr Lister’s face.
There was a sound of footsteps beyond the corner of the building.
The color went out of his face, then, in one swift wash of gray that left him looking old and broken, but not afraid. The lines around his mouth tightened; he lifted his head and half turned in his chair.
She came toward us walking with that same long, swinging stride. Even when I knew, as I did then, that she was not a person, not human, not of my own sort at all, there was something so magnificent about her that no fright or revulsion could cancel the effect of it. The fear inside me was swallowed up by a passive expectation. This was the inevitable end of the story, and whatever was to happen, it was out of my power to influence it in any fashion.
She came to the table and stood beside it, with the tips of her fingers resting on its top, looking down quietly at both of us.
“So,” she said, after a while, “you found out.” Her eyes rested on me with no expression in them that I could read.
“Yes.” My voice sounded perfectly calm.
She gave me a half smile. “You are a strange person, Bark. I should never understand you. I suppose you hate me.”
“I am afraid of you,” I told her.
“There is no need for that,” she said, and her voice was cool and impersonal. “Nothing will happen to you or to Dr Lister. I do not intend to kill you. What little knowledge you have is of no danger to me. You cannot prove any of it, and the rest of the world will not pay any attention to your story if you tell it.”
Her calm, complete assumption of superiority stung me, even in the lethargy of will that possessed my mind. “That isn’t what I mean.”
She studied me thoughtfully. “You are afraid of me for some other reason, then.”
“Yes,” I said. “For what you are.”
It seemed to me that a look of pain came into her eyes. “Oh. To you that makes a difference. And yet you do not know what you are yourself. You do not know what any other human being is. You know as much about me as about anyone. More, perhaps. We have seen each other often. Once, I even saved your life. But you are afraid of me because I am not like you.”
“Yes,” I said again. “Go back where you came from.”
She moved her hand, almost irresolutely, across the top of the table. “That is not so easy. . . . Living here has changed me. Why should you hate me when you do not know, all of you, where you came from yourselves?”
“Leave us,” I told her. “Even if you know the answers to all our questions, leave us. You don’t belong here.”
Her voice was quiet. “I have found that out. I shall go back.”
Dr Lister turned his chair and stared at her. “Before you go,” he said, and his voice was hard and bitter, “I want to ask you something.”
She lifted her hand in assent.
The expression on his face as he spoke was a mingling of loathing and incomprehension. “You seem to know what Bark has said about you. Is he right?”
She met his look squarely, and in the way she stood and answered it in silence for a moment I could feel the power of her anger. “Did you suppose,” she said finally, “that you were alone in the enormous spaces of the universe? Do you believe that you are the ultimate product of creation? There is nothing unique about you.” Her tone was so level, so coldly insistent that even Dr Lister averted his head and seemed to shrink in upon himself. “Is there any reason why I must leave you alone? You do not own me and you have no power over me. Why,” she said, and there was an edge of bitter amusement in her tone, “when the earth has traveled around the sun a few more times, you will be dead.”
He lifted his head and there was defiance on his face. “Yes,” he said, “and you do not seem much concerned with death. You have lived here two years, and in that time you have brought about the deaths of two men. You talk as if that were nothing.”
She dropped her eyes. “I know how important that seems to you. Believe me, I did not mean to kill either of them.”
Dr Lister said coldly, “I don’t believe you.”
“Walter LeNormand’s death was sheer accident. I had no intention of killing him. I wanted nothing but to stop him from thinking, prevent him from going on with his work. I knew what he had discovered, what more he would find if he went on thinking. I was determined to stop him. There aren’t any words to tell you what I did; there is a way of using the force of the mind, and I used it. I turned it on him, I willed him to stop thinking, to lose consciousness. My plan was to go, then, to the observatory, and destroy his work. But I forgot one thing.”
“What was that?” said Dr Lister, as if he were humoring her.
“The football game. Thousands of people sitting at it, excited, emotional, pouring out a force a thousand times more powerful than a bolt of lightning. It was that force that killed him. It magnified, if you like, the force of the impulses I was sending until they were so powerful they consumed him.”
“I see.” There was nothing in his voice to give me a hint of what was in his mind, but when he spoke next there was a level deadliness in his tone that I had never heard in it before. “You also killed my son,” he said.
She turned toward him so that I could no longer see her face. “Jerry,” she said, as though the sound of his name hurt her intolerably, “yes. Jerry had to die too, and because of me. But what else could have happened? He realized the truth. Do you think he could have lived with it?” There was no answer, and she turned to me. “Do you, Bark?”
“No,” I said.
She turned back to Dr Lister. “Bark’s answer is the only one. I tried to stop him. I didn’t want him to find out. But he did. And he was too intelligent for the rest of you. In time he would have found a way to make people listen to him. I could not let that happen.”
He dropped his eyes from her face and looked at the table. “Damn you,” he said.
“Before I go,” she went on without paying any attention to his words, “I want to tell you one thing more. If I could stay, if there were anything here left to stay for, I should do so.” She turned and looked full at me. “The little mermaid had to go too, because there was no longer any possibility of love.” I saw that there were tears in her eyes. “Good-by, Bark. I loved your friend.” Turning to Dr Lister, she half lifted her hand as if to touch him, in the same gesture I remembered from Cloud Mesa, and then withdrew it. “And I loved your son,” she said. “Remember that.”
With a single quick motion she stripped her finger of the two rings, the one with the great square emerald in it, and the narrow band of gold with which Jerry had married her, and put them on the table between us. They lay there, bright and beautiful, on the painted iron, and we looked at them. I did not see her go, but the sound of her feet died along the terrace and around the corner of the house.
When I picked up the emerald ring, it was still warm from her finger.
“Whoever she is,” said Dr Lister after a long time, “she knows how to make an exit.” He said nothing more for a full minute. “There is no proof. It is all fantastic. She talked like a madwoman, and yet . . . The only real fact is that Jerry is dead.”
He stood up, and we went into the house together.
There are two things to add to this story.
When the place at Cloud Mesa was closed and its contents shipped east to us, I went through Jerry’s papers with care. The notebooks for his thesis alone were missing. What became of them I have never found out, but the inference is obvious.
Luella Jamison has been found. I heard about that from Parsons. It appears that her father, getting up early one morning to go to town, found her standing at the front gate. She was holding on to the pickets of the fence beside it. He led her into the house and she slipped at once into the routine by which she had always lived. According to Parsons, the Jamisons are happy because she is home again.