1928. The American economy appears to be booming. The world itself, following a devastating war, seems rife with promise…and for the opportunistic, easy pickings. Albeit, there has been steady talk of war, the Great One having left Europe impoverished, with none of her resentments resolved. Behind the scenes, a stockpiling scheme disguised as charity waxes; a man in love, who can’t accept himself victim of blackmailers, has staked his life on one chance. Two couples linked by an inconvenient marriage sort themselves more happily; the ignored aggrieved feel ready for vengeance…and an expert in human behavior (manipulating of) is called upon to catch a crooked office-holder.
Table of Contents
3 A Personal Choice
He had taken everything.
13 Mud in Your Eye
Luberta Bragg was going out as a woman.
25 “You’ll Be Happy to Know This, Sir”
“Freda has gone off gadding.”
“It’s not a question of damned if you do or don’t…”
50 Rite of Spring
Talou had not, after all, tracked his prey…
60 How Is a Windmill Like a Waypost
Bruner walked alongside his father.
78 “Alas, Dear Falada, There Thou Hangest”
The mission house had been founded to shelter war orphans.
92 The Watcher Watched
Nora Huey had gone with Boxer.
107 The Heron’s Foot
“You have no money.”
137 Moving On
Phillip found himself catching up to Stanley.
161 Give a Dog a Bad Name and Hang Him
Not too many people liked hounding an orphanage.
198 Drawn Upon Imagination
As a man abandoned by his wife…
Even the walks had been only a nudge.
A Personal Choice
I loved to choose and see my path; but now―
from the hymn Lead Kindly Light
He had taken everything. He had grown sufficiently ruthless that he’d taken other people’s stories as well, stories they’d confided to him, in what amounted to a covenant, between a child, as it were, of his parish, himself…and the ever-present Auditor. The ease with which he’d surrendered to this expedient, when telling lies had become necessary; of rifling this treasure-house of private affairs, proved to Stanley Carpenter the depths of his own degradation.
“Carpenter,” he told the porter, who’d collected Stanley’s trunk, his suitcase, and his hand-bag. “I am only Mr. Carpenter.” The form of address was proper, in any case. Stanley wallowed a bit. He felt that God could not revere him, and if he permitted anyone else to do so, might trip him on the rails.
“Larry,” the porter said. He touched the brim of his cap, adding, “But I understand, some people over here get to be too friendly. No, sir, you let me do that.” He waved away Stanley’s preparatory crouch, from which position he’d meant to assist in upending the hand trolley onto its wheels.
“I see your bags aren’t labeled,” Larry told him. “Do you need help, Mr. Carpenter, finding a hotel? I got a card here…”
“I am visiting my niece. I have written to my niece. And she expects me.”
Larry smiled. His smile began uncertainly, but then, shrugging one shoulder, he said, “Nice when folks visit folks. You come a long way, Mr. Carpenter. Do you need a taxicab?”
“I would consider it helpful, if you would point me to a taxi. Larry…” He held Larry in suspense, while Larry, with a bag of Stanley’s tucked under each arm, and one trailing hand gripping the trolley, waited. The smile faded, and Larry shifted on his feet.
Stanley needed methodical proceedings to keep his nerves quiet. He needed to unfasten his topcoat, one cautious button at a time―or the buttons would twist askew against gloved fingers, and he would struggle, in public, over a simple task. He knew this. He had seen in minor things, as though a guardian angel with a dubious agenda lifted him out of himself, these evidences of slipping that others saw. But they did not see yet that his interior landscape had done more…
It had dislodged and slumped, and knocked away the foundation.
At length, he produced his pocketbook. The first item was the photograph. He’d torn Phillip away from this, on the grounds of not knowing him, and because Phillip and Freda, side by side, would not fit. Of course, Stanley did not know Freda, either. But one couldn’t choose…or rather, one’s American relations were it, for choices; and of those here to whom he might go begging, he had Freda. He must pretend that the doorstep of this girl―who, at any rate, was the daughter of the man his sister had married―would be one at which he might legitimately appear.
He had, had Larry known it, his earthly fortune from which to select his tip. He had withdrawn his savings at the Post Office. He had converted £2436.00 to travelers’ cheques, later most of it to American currency. These alien economics had knocked Stanley off his rocker; he felt alive to the vertiginous consequence. Touching his money caused Stanley agitated visions of sticking paper and dropped notes. He removed his right glove and tucked it, like a parlor-maid with her dusting cloth, into his right outer pocket. He extracted, slowly, rubbing the bill between his fingers, one dollar.
“Larry,” he completed his thought, “I would like for you to have this.”
This figment, this imaginary Mrs. Chamberlain had, with her dirty dealings, left Freda Murchison at a disadvantage. Freda had got back and been arrested, the thought of Phillip causing her hand on the key to lock in place. She’d found herself turning it in a stealthy, silent way―because he might be there, waiting for her…she had no idea what Phillip’s telegram had meant.
The bungalow proved dark, and empty as it soon would be, when for non-payment of rent she had been put on the street. Which was overly dramatic. She would ask her stepmother for help, no doubt, grown hardened to it. For Dolores had known it must come to this.
And after returning to Haworth, she would find herself a woman nearing thirty, on the lookout for a means of running from home. Into Colney Hatch, if need be. She’d run once, but at six years younger. While in less embarrassed circumstances, she’d still had some bargaining power. Freda could now foresee a spiraling descent. She dropped her purse, and walked into the kitchen to pick up the newspaper, lying where she’d left it on the breakfast table.
And she noticed now, reading more carefully through the “Wanted” listings, that many of these offices were located at the same address. Many offered as a telephone number the identical three-digit exchange. Mrs. Chamberlain, whose name had sounded so respectable, and whose advertisement had billed her as a seeker of maids—white only, clean and prompt―was an employment agency’s front woman.
Freda, arriving at the office block where High and 4th Streets intersected, had climbed four half-flights of stairs to knock at number 208B, there to discover an anteroom, with sofa, standing ashtray, and two armchairs. The room smelled different from a city bus, in that it had the building’s emanations of dry rot and mildew admixed with the layers of mothball, tobacco, sweat, scent, and stinking feet, gained from churning human traffic. Certainly it was an aromatic room, one made more so by the fact that everyone in it was wet, and every seat was taken.
Freda had come from the bus stop through a slop of gritty rain. She’d wrapped her head with a scarf of cotton batiste, covering her only good hat, which she’d thought she’d better wear. Umbrellas on buses were a nuisance, after all, and Freda didn’t like apologizing for showering a stranger with raindrops or for poking him in the leg. Some took it as an impetus to conversation, and some glared, frightening her.
Standing, she hesitated, just inside the door, looking at the misted-over window panes, the sofa (old, with a wood frame and horsehair-stuffed upholstery; blue, but so abraded and oiled, that it was purplish as well)—its springs sagging badly in the center, where a girl sank wedged between two older, stouter job seekers.
The girl glanced up, taking the measure of Freda. Freda smiled, without, she knew, any warmth―yet she’d hoped for some fellow-feeling from one more or less her own age. She allowed her eyes to stray, noticing water droplets captured sparkling on the girl’s shabby boucle. When Freda again met her eyes, the girl’s face had altered to a narrow hostility.
But the man in the closer of the chairs patted the armrest. “Sit here, doll.” He added, with an angry sort of jauntiness, belied by something beseeching in his eyes, “They ain’t called nobody.”
“I have an appointment with Mrs. Chamberlain.”
She had worked, altogether in her life, for about one year…she conceded unworldliness, but counted herself not completely stupid. Freda was only trying it on, at this point. The girl who’d taken a dislike to her laughed, then dropped her jaw and began chomping at her chewing gum with, Freda thought, a will to offend.
The woman hunching nearest the ashtray stubbed out her cigarette and lit the next. The other, whose place by the closed inner door did not necessarily indicate preference in the queue, lifted her head. Her hair was a uniform, and heightened, shade of blonde―it might have been a wig. Her cheeks were rouged and her nose bulbous. Freda wasn’t sure she was over forty.
“Listen to you,” the woman said. “Where’d you learn to talk like that?” She pushed a palm against the shoulder of the girl.
Freda thought about this loser’s game. She could stay and wait her turn; perch, for that matter, on the armrest and befriend the staring gentleman. That was a lesson she’d been taught in her stewardessing days. “Anyone might put in the good word, dear. You want to marry a Duke, be sweet to the bloody valet.”
She would wait half the afternoon; her consolation, the chance to provide a clerk her name and address. Perhaps also she would be given a number not disclosed in the advertisements. She could call daily, and they would let her know when they had anything.
As she contemplated all this, shy to catch a rival’s eye, the man must have noticed her glance down over his shoulder. He didn’t shift his own eyes from his crossword, but said, “Six letters. A sound that lulls or alerts.”
Well, it so happened she’d done the puzzle that morning. She didn’t mind looking bright.
“Oh, let me think. Could it be rattle?”
Stanley wondered if all lives of crime began in this way. Mrs. Luchow’s story suited best…but naturally, he’d needed to ask himself if her story suited in every particular. The analytic process had been thus self-prompting. First, he’d reviewed the details, then chosen what he could adapt for his own purposes, discarding what was of no use. Practically of its own accord, the refinement had carried on, and Stanley’s mind had taken on this calculating criminal aspect, all evolved as a chain of organic propagation.
Of course, he’d taken passage on the Leviathan. That had been Freda’s ship, so it would be clever to learn along the way―Stanley could not help but allow himself to observe this―some conversation-starting minutiae of the Leviathan’s routines.
And he must use this girl Freda, in the manner of an opportunistic cad, because her city was the one mentioned to Stanley by Robert. His second eldest brother’s relict in Ottawa—though quite possibly she longed for a visit, and would not greet his with a face of dismay—would not do. Captain Desanges had given this city as his place of residence; to Robert, the cheek of this transparency just one more of the man’s outrages, and not to be entertained.
But Stanley, who for many days had heard nothing, when for three months previous, Talou had been his dear companion, already had felt sunk by foreboding. As regarded his brother’s allegations…as to the photos Robert had obtained, furnished by Captain Desanges, Stanley simply could not believe the import. Desanges might be every sort of scoundrel, but Stanley had seen none of these proofs with his own eyes.
Crossing the Atlantic, he’d paced the deck alone, hoping his sufferings had not wrought on his face a lowering, repellent, visible madness, that would, as well as to his fellow passengers, be off-putting to his niece. He felt convinced, and found it somewhat handicapping to his calling, that he’d not been blessed with an approachable face. During these walks, Stanley gave thought to Desanges―of whose milieu he could form no picture. The name might be false. Or, in America, notorious. Robert would indeed have supposed this to be his game, a means of trapping a respectable baronet into a public exchange of letters with a felon.
Stanley was riding now for the second time, hand luggage hugged to his chest, in the rear seat of an American taxicab. Larry, with pity in his eyes, had advised him not to pay the driver until he’d found his niece at home. Stanley had thanked Larry for this, while not disclosing the whole of his plan. With both his finite funds, and his humiliation in mind, Stanley wanted no hotel room, where he could make inquiries only through the switchboard operator or concierge.
“Is there,” he’d asked the cabbie, “a rail station in the city of New York, one that is rather out of the way?”
Lying that night in his berth, having at some expense departed westwards from Hoboken, New Jersey, he’d winnowed away at the mistakes of Mrs. Luchow’s somewhat feeble relation. She’d always been, Mrs. Luchow, ostentatious over the quality of her tea things, and her annual basket from Fortnum’s. She’d laughed, not opening her mouth, an arch chuckle swallowed for charity’s sake, as she’d related the bit about the icing sugar candies, flavored with peppermint oil, offered in a cocoa tin.
“However, one accounts the intention as the deed.”
Mrs. Luchow had smiled upwards into Stanley’s eyes, saying this, as though her words had come from the Old Testament, and he must, of course, himself endorse them.
He had worked a refinement therefore on the original, and had bought for Freda from a platform vendor a little book, which he hoped would seem gauche, while not contemptibly so.
He felt a terrible sympathy for his template’s lonely dodge, her amateurish falsehood. “Well, Margaret, she said to me, you’d asked me down last year, so I felt sure the invitation had gone astray!”
Stanley had come to the decision that a telegram was the right idea. It would be tardy, and issued from an unlikely office, for he hadn’t thought of it in time. But one could not represent an entire correspondence to have gone missing. Much better if he wired what appeared a follow-up, presumptuous in its wording…yet vague. It was, he encouraged himself, exactly what one would do after disembarking, in any case. Minus the deceit.
Arrived New York. Expect two to three days. Stanley.
He’d hesitated over the signing of the telegram. He’d concluded Freda really would not remember his first name, unless Dolores had mentioned him often in her letters, and he found it impossible she should do so. To create uncalled-for mystery would muddy the waters. He must have Freda believe him sane and plausible. He meant for some days to force himself on her hospitality.
“I thought…or, I worried…”
Stanley bent with his teacup and saucer over the table, pausing here, and glided The Mason Bees to one side. Freda reached for the book. It was a naturalist’s work, if not an entomologist’s—its contents, to be sure, all the title promised. She’d leafed through it, after Stanley had rooted it from a coat pocket; Freda had then laid The Mason Bees aside. But while he might only have been making space for the crockery, she considered that this uncle was a Carpenter…and so also was her stepmother. Dolores, had she felt a gift underappreciated, would draw attention to it in exactly that way.
“Let me just go put this on my nightstand. I’m so glad you thought of a book, Uncle Stanley.”
Alone now, and welcoming this privacy for the heaving of a sigh, Freda told herself Stanley’s comment could well linger. That would make it the conversational equivalent of portioning. Stanley’s supply of talk seemed limited; likewise, Freda’s larder was limited. She had been able, with the tea, to offer toast and jam. As a rule, she didn’t have guests.
She’d dropped her newspaper, found a working jet, filled the kettle and set it to boil. The first thud on her front stoop, the rattle of the door, only half caught Freda’s notice. But a second, more muted weight landed, and she heard a male voice speaking, another male voice answer. Phillip, she told herself…he really has come back. I hope he’s flush, damn him, spending money on a bleeding cab.
Mrs. Ruald, owner of the house, had two tightly strung lace panels fitted to rods top and bottom, over the front inside glass. Freda parted these, and saw the taxi-man’s pained expression turn ironic. He gave her a salute. The other man was a stranger. He faced the driver in three-quarter profile, engaging in a fussy and tedious business over the extracting of his fare from his wallet.
He was thin, haggard-looking, this stranger. But handsome, she thought…almost dashing with it, that suffering air. And, Freda estimated, probably aged forty or so. He had neglected visiting a barber recently. She saw him hike his valise under his arm, cast a glance that followed the driver’s gaze, then contract his shoulders with a start, as though she’d caught him stealing the welcome mat. He made her think of a scolded mongrel.
Next, he’d marshalled himself round with a sort of shiver…and she began to believe she’d once met him. This disturbance, this nagging unanchored memory, was like Mr. Bruner’s crossword clue. It distracted Freda’s mind―she’d nearly missed the significance of the luggage. She was brought back by a soft knocking at the door.
“You were saying,” she took up with her uncle, rejoining him on the sofa.
He looked worried, as he eyed Freda, but didn’t seem to remember having said he was. “About”—she raised her eyebrows—“the telegram. I told you, Stanley is Phillip’s middle name. I had guessed it one of his jokes.” Truthfully, Phillip didn’t play jokes of that type. When he was cryptic, it was a warning sign. He’d been out selling his booklets, she’d thought, and had in some way run afoul of the law.
“Well…as for myself, I rarely send them. I don’t suppose I’ve explained things very well. But then, of course, you had the letter. Only, as you say, you have never received my letter. I find it unaccountable.”
“Stanley.” She felt she ought to be frank. She decided, at that moment, to dispense with calling him Uncle. What had come to Freda’s mind was a friendly bargain.
“Don’t worry about it,” Phillip told her. “Stanley gets the luck of the draw, for showing up unannounced. He’ll just have to be a man.”
Phillip, Freda noted, had shown up unannounced, although the point was arguable―there were times he chose to live in his own house. Stanley, more sensible by contrast, had brought a gift, and a pretext. Phillip also had not closed the bedroom door. She bent her knees, twisting away from his hands on her shoulders; then briskly, she pushed the door and heard the latch click.
“Phillip.” Freda levered herself onto the dresser, sitting with her back to the mirror, and crossed her arms. “You are too sly on the subject of Captain Desanges. You know Captain Desanges.”
“Not in the least.” He sat on the bed, and his secretive smirk decorated his face, to Freda’s eye, like that of a liar.
“You had better not be cruel to Stanley. I was about to take his money when you spoiled the mood.”
“Well, we will take his money in good time. But you’ve never told me about these Carpenters.”
“Because…I don’t know them. They don’t, apparently, know one another―socially speaking. Not one representative of Dolores’s family attended my father’s wedding. I wish to heaven I hadn’t been forced to attend…”
She had been fourteen. Her new stepmother had taken her aside for a talk that Freda feared might run to any sort of ghastliness.
“One generally says, I expect we will become good friends,” Dolores said, her expression self-congratulatory in its openness. “I expect we will not. You are rather far along in years to form an attachment to a new mother. I hope we need not be enemies. And I see no prospect of that, unless you are a very provoking girl.” Dolores had smiled. That had been her humor.
Beyond Dolores, Freda had learned, the Carpenter family was gentry, on a modest and descending scale, for through two marriages the Carpenter patriarch had generated something like eight or nine offspring. The eldest son was a baronet, reasonably well-to-do. And Stanley, as Freda was reminded, had been a curate. He might still be.
“Stanley,” she’d asked him, “do you anticipate a long stay in America?”
He murmured the name of a friend he hoped to locate, cleared his throat, and repeated, “Desanges. Captain.”
Freda watched Stanley’s hands, as his fingers furtively—perhaps uncontrollably—caressed the teacup. Here, she thought, was a segue one might use to advantage. “Hotels,” she had just ventured to suggest, “can be quite expensive…”
At that moment, the knob began to turn. The door eased back an inch or two. A familiar face soon peered round the crack.
“Yes, quite. What have I done, love?” He came in without luggage, and took the armchair opposite, throwing an ankle onto a knee.
Freda poured herself a cup of cold tea, rather than meet Phillip’s eye. “Has been away,” she finished, for Stanley’s benefit. “He sells things.”
Stanley, shrinking against the cushions with a greater self-doubt, had earned a long study from Phillip; Phillip, with his salesman’s gift, at once locking onto the salient detail, with the teeth of a badger-hound.
“Desanges. Now there’s a respectable-sounding nom de guerre. Military man, one assumes. Where did you happen to meet him?”
“Oh, I suppose…we are such old friends…I hardly recall.”
Freda sat forward. Mr. Bruner, from the agency, was a secret of her own. If she could earn the money he’d promised, she would not share that news with Phillip. Bruner had mentioned missing persons. He’d mentioned this aspect of his work with a derisive snort he hadn’t explained.
And dear Uncle Stanley—she noticed it as readily as Phillip had—was ashamed of his connection with Desanges. A light shined up a side alley…where Freda had, in former times, walked only on the broad avenue. She felt she was getting the hang of this job she had not yet agreed to take on.
Today the waves were dangerously high
And I chained from the path
Climbed until I saw the summit’s bleak shape
Echoed in a pillar of cloud
My view obscured
Stayed here by a warning sign
And this was only a dream
I have not been to the sea
Lacking faith I looked behind to see your eyes
Then I awoke
Stanley was unable to sleep. The hall light was on, the streetlamps glowed through the window, the room’s varied shadows in yellow and blue feinted at his tired mind. His thoughts wandered. He sought another line he might add to the poem for Talou, and gave it up. He’d expected Phillip to be there. He’d been pleasantly surprised, at first, to find he was not. He’d met Freda only once, at his father’s funeral; this death, coming a year or so after his sister’s marriage, an event to draw most of the Carpenters.
“I know,” his brother Robert had been saying (Robert, hunkering beneath his black umbrella; Stanley, rain dripping from the brim of his hat), “what you will get, and it will be no more than fifteen hundred.”
Dolores, her new husband, and the girl, all three bearing umbrellas of their own, making for an absurdly awkward business, had crowded up, and Dolores had said, “Stanley, you don’t know Aubrey. Aubrey, this is my brother Stanley.”
He’d glanced at the disregarded girl, and could see of her face nothing, only an umbrella top, and an angry gloved hand gripping the metal shaft…but he’d had no use then for Freda, and only lately had any thought of her crossed his mind.
Stanley wondered if she were attractive. He knew of no reason why, to an average man’s eye, she should not be. His sister had sent him Freda’s wedding photo, and being Dolores, had written on the reverse, “This is my only copy.” She might have meant for Stanley to look at it and send it back, but he hadn’t done it. He tested himself with Freda, as he did at times with women. She was a woman (and not a blood relative); he could appraise her in that light.
Keeping his face out of direct view, Stanley had fished in his pocket for the book. He was lying, and trying to remember how he’d invented the story as he’d rehearsed it.
“…as I mentioned in my letter, you will not recollect, perhaps, having met me on the occasion of my father’s funeral. However…” He straightened, and thrust The Mason Bees at Freda, once and again, until she’d accepted it.
“I’m afraid,” she began, and then, after staring at the book’s title, seemed to come to a resolution. She’d grown warmer, more attentive.
Was Phillip attractive? Stanley listened to the conversation in the other bedroom, and all he could make of it was his own name, and Desanges, Desanges. Phillip, he decided, holding his opinion in reserve, had attractive manners. But these weighings of his reactions to others did not answer for Stanley the larger question. Talou had meant more to him. Talou held a place that was unique and set apart from the simple considerations of attraction and affection.
It had been a churchwarden, Mr. Parker, who’d told him about the fishing on the river Spey. Stanley had never angled in his life, but that circumstance must make his misadventure seem the more likely in retrospect. He had sacrificed a portion of his savings solely to strengthen appearances. To reach the riverbank, he must walk, and be seen walking, a distance of about a mile. He had done this for three days, before tossing his gear in the river and striking off cross-country.
The thread of Parker’s story, what Stanley remembered of it (“…rotten weather, and nearly tipped in when I dropped my fly-book…had to part ways with my two best minnows…”) Stanley had copied into his letter verbatim, with no certainty of Parker’s meaning. The words held portent; they meshed, he hoped, into the explanation that would naturally occur to Dolores. He could envision Parker at the memorial service—if Dolores could be bothered to organize one―shaking his head, and the hand of Stanley’s brother-in-law.
“Almost the same thing happened to me, sir.”
Stanley would shock his sister with this giddy talk, rattling on as though some holiday spirit could have made his Carpenter blood effervesce, but there were aspects of the scenario that must, for the sake of escape, be established. Dolores was intelligent, she would put two and two together, and the story would gain authority under her retelling. Stanley had thrown in, as well, a suggestive anecdote about a drowned man…it didn’t matter, nor could he recall, where he’d read it, but he’d recast it for his sister as both a local and a recent event. One could not pray to become the beneficiary of coincidence, but friendless men did sometimes drown themselves. He could readily picture Dolores, if confronted with a badly decomposed corpse―one held in a morgue until a family member claimed it (as had the estranged daughter of the article’s suicide)―taking a cursory look and calling it Stanley.
“Well, touch wood,” he’d written in conclusion. “I will be alone on the river for the better part of two weeks.” This would annoy Dolores, his writing to her as he never did, thus imposing on her an obligation―if not to answer, at least to have read his letter. But Stanley had given her a gift, too, which she would appreciate later on, when he was gone. The letter would be evidence; Dolores, its possessor. This chance to bully a Scotland Yard man would brace her up nicely.
Otherwise, he’d worn no disguise, traveled under no alias when he’d boarded the train for Southampton, not trusting…or rather, supposing it must inevitably fall thus, when a hapless man went fugitive…his not running across an acquaintance. His fishing holiday was flimsy cover; it would unravel under actual suspicion. Yet the first idea would surely be to search along the riverbank. And they might not think of doing so for another fortnight, if Stanley were lucky.
(more to come)