Fiction

Mary, Mary QUITE CONTRARY

When a fading actress turns her tigerish talent for revenge on the spoiled son of the director, the script suddenly switches to gas ovens and jail cells

RONALD R. SMITH August 1 1952
Fiction

Mary, Mary QUITE CONTRARY

When a fading actress turns her tigerish talent for revenge on the spoiled son of the director, the script suddenly switches to gas ovens and jail cells

RONALD R. SMITH August 1 1952

Mary, Mary QUITE CONTRARY

RONALD R. SMITH

When a fading actress turns her tigerish talent for revenge on the spoiled son of the director, the script suddenly switches to gas ovens and jail cells

THE SYPHON hissed. “When.” I said. “When.”

Bland handed me the glass. He was a big man but he always wore clothes that hung on him. Broad, domed, hairless brow, long arrogant upper lip, the mouth below curly with a sort of strait-laced humor. He had lectured on English literature at the provincial university where I had misspent some of my youth. He was now a film director of some celebrity and a grass widower. He had one son.

"How’s Jerry?” I said.

“I don’t really know. He claims he’s all right. But he's still too fond of his own society.” Jerry had cracked up psychologically at the end of the war. He seemed unable to forgive himself for it in spite of a good army record during the fighting.

Bland put his glass down. "He used to want to write, vou know. I’ve urged him to do his war memoirs—not that anybody is likely to care what a subaltern thinks about war. But I thought that if he gave the ghosts that seem to haunt him a thorough inspection he might exorcise them.”

Outside a pneumatic drill stuttered in long bursts like machine-gun fire. We were sitting in half-darkness. The light from the workmen’s flares coming in through the windows of Bland’s flat flickered on the ceiling.

The door buzzer croaked three times. Bland’s crepe rubber soles made soft thudding noises like bare feet. He came back following Mary Lodge. She was saying to him. honevedly menacing: "You know why I am here,

don’t you, John?”

She carried herself awfully well. She had rather prominent cheekbones and a bold, desperate jawline. Her face had the cohesive qualitv of bronze. Except for her mouth which was full, soft, entwined with anguish. It made her smile strangely moving. She was a distinguished actress who had somehow missed greatness. She was a widow with a nineteen-vear-old daughter.

“Hello, Mike.” She was disappointed Bland was not alone.

“Hello, Mary,” I said. “It's been donkey's years. And I have to dash. Just my luck.”

She smiled. “I begin to think my appearance unnerves people.”

’"Sit down. Mike,” Bland said. “You too, Mary. Drink?”

She slipped out of her coat and left it lying on the carpet. She sat down, crossed her legs. “Mike won’t be able to protect you, John. Don’t delude yourself.”

Bland pinched a web of loose skin on his neck. “I'm in need of protection?” It seemed to me he knew what was coming.

“Why did you give my part in The Unconquered to Elsi Dorak, John?” Bland shook his head slowly, hanging on to the skin of his neck. “It was never your pan, Mary. Never for a moment.”

"Why did Max say it '.vas'”'

"Because he can't resist a beautiful woman: because he is an interfering old ass. I do my own casting. Marv.”

"And the part is quite beyond my capacities?”

"Marx-. Marx-. You’re not going to try to turn this into „ personal affront. That would be grotesque.”

"I didn't suppose it needed any turning.”

He sat up. "Mary, you'x-e seen the script. Teresa is a peasant girlShe is unconquerable because she has an infinite capacity for submission —a patient vegetal quality. You’re incapable of submission. Mary.”

"Are we discussing my character or my acting?”

"Some distinguished views to the contrary, it's my opinion that they cannot be separated. A tiger will nex-er portray an old sheep dog x-ery convincingly.”

"And I am the tiger?”

He smiled his thin episcopal smile. "The Spanish when they wish to give their highest praise, say, to a horse, say of it that it is ‘much horse.’ I would say of you. Mary, that you are much tiger: superblx’, to the ultimate degree that beautiful creature.’’

It was getting darker. The light from the flares outside fluttered xxTaithlike about the ceiling. Mary’s face turned Continued on page 43

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toward Bland remained immobile, the bronze quality pronounced. “Am I to take it then, John, that this charming little excursion into zoology is your final answer?”

Bland brought his hands slapping down onto his heavy thighs. “You can take it, my dear, that even when you adopt this minatory feline tone, that I shall not permit you to jeopardize a splendid career by allowing you to force me into miscasting you in The Unconquered.”

“Three newspapers have announced that I am to have the part. It will be humiliating to have to ask them to withdraw it.”

“My dear Mary, it simply cannot touch you.”

She picked up her coat. She was wrong, of course. But my sympathy was with her. Bland’s pomposity —quite innocuous—left over from his professorial days was infuriating. Mary laughed soundlessly, bent over me and looked into my face. I caught a breath of musky flesh-warmed scent. I could not distinguish the color of her eyes in that light but they unquestionably did have that sleepy smoldering quality so eminently tigerish. “Don’t you think, Mike, that John is much ass to torment a much tiger?”

“I do.” And looking into her eyes I certainly did. Bland chuckled, roused himself. “Look, Mary, don’t go yet. We—.”

She pushed him back into his chair, her hand on his chest. “I’ve a dinner engagement. I can see myself out.” At the door she gave a throaty little growl.

When she had gone Bland said: “You know I like Mary.” He appeared quite unaware how deeply she felt about what seemed to her a humiliation and a threat to her precious career. And yet he liad a reputation for subtle film interpretations.

THE TABLES at Sorbi’s were crowded. It was stifling under the low ceiling. I decided not to stay; to have a drink at the bar and to eat elsewhere. As I made for the door someone called my name. At an unobtrusive table behind a square pillar I saw Mary. I had not seen her for several weeks. I went back. “You know Jerry, don’t you?”

Jerry Bland sat opposite her. He had an elfish good-natured face; pointed chin, wide mouth, sardonic eyebrows; nis mousy, dry-looking hair was as tangled as a forkful of hay. He was flushed and fairly tight.

“What-ho. Mike,” he said carefully. “Ingloriously sober, I see. Sit down and have a drink.”

I refused; said I had still three hours’ work to do.

“Well sit down for a minute at least.” Mary said. Her eyes were shining. And not from the wine.

“Celebration?” I said.

“Jerry's finished his book.”

“In the middle of chapter three. Discovered I can’t write. We’re celebrating literature’s gain by the revelation.”

Mary laughed. “Nonsense. Jerry.” 1 understood now why her eyes sparkled. To some women it is exciting to watch the disintegration of a young man. And more thrilling still to be its conscious cause. And all this was a gratuitous byproduct for Mary; the real victim was to be John Bland who had a deep but curiously timid affection for his son.

“You are looking radiant. Mary.” I added maliciously: “And how is your —your little girl?”

She laughed in my face. “That's

less than tactful, Mike. You know quite well that Jane is almost Jerry’s age.” (A wilful exaggeration.) “She’s quite happy, I believe—as happy as the present young will allow themselves to be. She’s Clara Hannett’s secretary, and lives with her. I have to try to conceal her some way.”

She laughed again. The deliberate placing of herself in a different generation, the emphasis on her age—it was all an audacious parade of strength. Jerry lacked her effrontery; moreover his flush was fading into a rather unhappy pallor.

“See a lot of Jane,” he said. “Great friends.”

“How nice.”

He looked at me sharply, blinked several times, then relaxed again. He turned to Mary. “Tired of this place. Old folks’ tea atmosphere about it. How about the One-two-one-two?” The One-two-one-two was the kind of place that makes a lot of money till the police become interested.

Mary returned my look steadily, smiling in her anguished way. “Of course, if you want to, Jerry.”

He got to his feet abruptly. His

face was a delicate shade of eau de Nil. "You’ll have to excuse me.” He left the table, crouching a little, bentkneed, urgent.

“Congratulations, Mary. The softening-up process goes well.”

.“You’re being cryptic, Mike. And, I suspect, stuffy.”

“If it’s stuffy to feel a bit sick seeing you trap a boy in order to hurt his father, then I'm stuffy.”

“Go on. There's something charmingly fin-de-siècle and gaslit about it.” “Even using your own daughter—” Her eyes smoldered. “Jane has

nothing to do with this.” She recovered herself astonishingly quickly, smiling. “-Jerry's twenty-six. He's been a soldier. You talk as though he were a schoolboy.”

“Jerry’s a sick boy and you are driving him deliberately into the gutter.” (I was becoming more revival meeting every minute.)

I felt someone breathing on the hack of my neck. Jerry was standing behind me. his lower lip iutting childishly.

”Sit down," I said.

I half rose. I think he thought I was going to hit him. He swung his right fist at me. I slipped it easily, took him by the lapels and thrust him into his chair. A glass rolled off the table and broke. “Jerry!” Mary said sharply. “Jerry! Brawls in restaurants make ugly publicity.”

Jerry dropped his hands. “Sorry. Mary. Sorry, darling.”

Her reputation safeguarded Mary smiled her tortured smile. “You must humor Mike. Jerry. He’s only being avuncular. You said something about moving on?”

'Time I pushed on too.” I said. “Sorry. Jerry.”

He looked up smiling amicably. “Forget it, Michael.”

“Goedendag, oom Mike," he called after me halfway across the restaurant. In his present state it seemed exquisitely witty to him to call me uncle in Dutch. I heard them both laughing. I was sincere enough but I felt a humbug. Moralizing was not my cup

THREE or four days later I ran into Mary in Regent Street. “For vour protege’s sake.” she said, “you will be delighted to hear that I am going to the country for a week or two.”

“The rake's progress has become automatic. I suppose. I take it you have provided him with suitable companions in your absence?" She pretended not to understand; but it was a designedly thin pretense. Her eyes were bright with malice: she wanted me to know I was right. She was an actress. She needed an audience.

“Mary." I said, “you're a —.” It was a thoroughly gross army term and at the last second my pluck failed me and I could not use it to this beautiful woman. She leaned forward, whispered the exact expression in my ear and squeezed my arm affectionately. “You're a most endearing man. Mike.” she said. I carried on to the bank to see about some French francs.

The night before I left for Paris I passed Jerry in Picadilly talking to a tall blond girl with a rococo hairdo and wearing a mock leopard-skin coat. He waved and said: "What-ho. Mike.”

Then to the girl, in a loud voice: "You wouldn't think young fellow like that could be the suffragan bishop of Bampopo. would you?"

"Gosh, and you called him Mike." the girl said.

4 COUPLE of weeks in Paris has the effect always of making me feel that the world is irrevocably falling apart but that it is really a most trifling matter anyway—I'm talking of c business trip not r wassail. But my insouciance invariably evaporates crossing the Channel: life appears stem and intrusive the moment I set foot on English soil. This time was no exception.

I dumped my luggage in my rooms and went out again. It was early evening. Everything looked unkempt and the air was grey and flat. I bought a paper and went into the little pub off Bishopsgate where they have the parrot that says "Curse you. Master Copperfield.” I ordered a drink. The

headline announced the end of the strike. The heading of the right-hand column read: “Girl unconscious in flat. Son of film director held.”

I knew before I started reading that the man was Jerry; the blond girl I had seen him with had had the air of somebody fated sooner or later to be found unconscious somewhere.

A neighbor of Jerry’s had smelt gas and called the police. They had found the girl In a grave condition, her head badly bruised, unconscious on the floor. The gas fire was on and unlit. Jerry they found asleep in the bathroom. There was an almost empty Calvados bottle and two used glasses in the sitting room.

The barman told me where the telephone was. Bland was not at home: -Jerry’s flat yielded nothing. The newspaper stated that the girl had been taken to the Lady Dorothy Hospital. It was not far from Bland’s and I knew that he was acquainted with some of the staff: it was a possibility. I called the hospital and asked for Bland. They couldn’t help me. I asked if Coatman. a doctor, a friend of Bland’s, was there. When Coatman knew who I was he brought Bland to the telephone.

The cadence of Bland’s voice was slower and more measured than usuai. He was the sort of man adversity improved, hardening his rather pompous complacency into something like stoicism. He said the police were with the girl waiting to take a statement if she regained consciousness. They would not let Bland see her. The blowon the head was not so serious as they had first thought but she had absorbed a lot of gas. The doctors were optimistic. -Jerryhad refused to see Bland, refused to see anyone, refused to speak of the affair at all. He lay on his bunk in his celi with his eyes closed. Bland suspected that Jerry had no idea what had happened but was not prepared to admit it.

He had been at the hospital most of the day. I suggested that he did no good staying. He said they had hopes of the girl coming to fairly soon. I said there was always the telephone: Coatman or somebody could keep him posted. I think he consulted Coatman: then he said with a sort of weary relief: “I’ll be over at my flat in ten minutes. If vou have nothing better to do. Mike . .?"

He was pacing the floor when I got to the flat. His ey-es were red-rimmed and he looked exhausted but he kept on the move as though he felt that if he remained still despair might settle on him and paralyze him. I poured drinks for both of us: he drank his standing. I prompted him to talk as lie thumped backwards and forwards across the room. Distracted as he was he spoke with an enviable lucidity—though he carried his empty glass in one hand and his cold pipe in the other as if he had forgotten they were there. He added nothing significant to what I alreadyknew. "The girl will live.” he said. "Coatman says they promise it. That’s an enormous relief " He stood still for a moment, sagging, looking down at the carpet, twisting the pipe in his right hand “But it’s going to go pretty hard with Jerry in any case. Young man with too much money, living in idleness, drinking, vice—I can see what they could make of it."

He was like a man in an air raid, crushed by his inabilityto hit back. I decided to offer him a weapon—his own anger—and r. target. I threw compunction overboard and said: "The responsibilityfor this rests squarely on Mary.”

He was less surprised than I expected. He kept walking. “I know they have been together a lot recently

and that they have gone the pace pretty well.”

“They have not gone the pace. Jerry has done that for both. Maryis a miser: she hoards her beauty.”

“But, Mike, do you think she would deliberately set out—?”

“She all but admitted it to me.”

It was not working as I had hoped. I guessed why. He had suspected all along what I knew. He was arguing against himself as well as me. He waved his arms vaguely. “But to do that simply over The Unconquered business. It’s—it’s so disproportionate.”

“Proportion’s whatever you think it is. For Mary the fate of the whole human race wouldn’t tip the scales against her career. And it’s always fallen short of her aim. She feels dispossessed. It’s made an anarchist of her. ruthless, i spiritual bombthrower.” I was getting into my stride when I heard the handle of the outer door turn. I stopped. We heard the click of heels. Marycame in.

SHE LEANED against the door looking swiftly from one to the other of us. She w-ould not have been Mary if she had not known at once that she had interrupted a discussion of w-hich she w-as the subject. She was wearing a dark costume and light make-up: it enlarged her eyes and gave an unusual delicate air to her still face. “I came as soon as I heard about it,” she said in a flat drab voice.

Bland was wearyand embarrassed. He waved his arm in a wide almost drunken gesture for Mary to sit down. She crept mousily across the room and sat down with her knees together. It was an elegant performance. But she was an actress: only doing expertly what most of us do clumsily. No one spoke. A radio was switched on somewhere and a gaylittle tune tinkled on a piano frisked round the room. Bland started to pace self-consciously.

Mary said: “I can guess what Mike has been saying, John.”

Bland did not answer. Typically, I thought. Mary's first consideration was not Bland or -Jerry but extricating herself. I waited wearily to be denounced. “It’s true,” Mary said, “quite

Bland stood still looking at her. She stood up. “I felt so contemptibly helpless.” she said “And you were so complacent, so entrenched. I wanted to shake your complacency-, to show my strength: to be more than just one of your marionettes.”

Bland simply shook his head stupidly. Mary walked toward him. “But John, I couldn’t foresee this, could I? Could I, John?”

“I was complacent,” Bland said. “Yes, I was complacent.”

Bland’s admission seemed to stagger her—even more than hers had surprised me. She stared at him for a moment, turned quickly and returned to her chair. Got up again and walked to the window. Silently and quite immobile she stood looking out. In the light shining up from the street I could see the silvery track of a tear.

I almost leapt out of my chair: the telephone shrilled. Bland hesitated, picked up the receiver and said firmly: "Bland here.” Mary half turned, her face away from me. I heard Bland’s series of yeses and noes; deliberately I made no effort to interpret them. Finallv Bland replaced the receiver and said: “It’s my solicitors. They say

theycan probablyget McLeod.”

Mary said suddenly: “Is there

nothing I can do? Surely there is something I can do.”

Bland said timidly, as if apologizing for having no better activity to offer: “It would be nice if you’d make coffee,

She got up eagerly and went out. For the first time Bland «at down. He leaned back and closed his eyes.

We sat drinking coffee and waiting for the telephone to ring, Bland and I filling the room with tobacco smoke. I heard the radio program change twice before it was switched off—and we had not spoken fifty words. I think that we were afraid to talk, afraid that in some way talking would be tempting providence. As darkness fell it became rather cold. I switched on the electric fire. In the cherry glow Mary looked across at me and though she didn’t in fact, I could see that she wanted to cry again. She was touched by what she took to be a little gentleness directed toward her. This rather

pathetic response to a purely reflex action on my part for some reason depressed me. Confusedly I felt it as ominous and the conviction began to grow in me that the girl at the hospital was dead and that for some official reason Bland could not be informed. My uneasiness must have communicated itself to the others. Bland after sitting for more than an hour and a half got up and began to pace the room again, moving in and out of the steady glow from the electric fire. Then Mary stood up and said rather breathlessly: “Would you mind, John, if I went out for a breath of air for a minute?”

“Go with her, Mike,” Bland said.

I SLIPPED my raincoat over her shoulders. We ignored the lift. An elderly man passing us on the stairs mistook us for someone else and said: “Good night, Mrs. Linkman ” Mary wished him good night and said to me: “1 wish I were Mrs. Linkman, whoever, whatever she is.”

On the first landing she caught my arm. “The telephone!”

We could just hear it. “Bland’s?” I said. “Are you sure?”

She couldn’t possibly have been sure. “Yes,” she said.

We ran back up the stairs. I opened the door of the flat softly and heard Bland’s voice. I closed the door again. “Let's stay out here until he’s finished.” I said. “I hate having anybody watch me when I’m telephoning.”

Now and then we caught a faint monosyllable from Bland. Mary took my arm and leaned lightly on it She whispered: “I’ve never really known

you very well before, Mike.” I pressed her arm. We stood there for what seemed a long time listening to the muffled murmur and to our own breathing; both of us, I think, feeling that a barrier we had perversely erected between ourselves was gone.

When the time came 1 was reluctant to go in. Mary opened the door. The room was still thick with tobacco smoke made rosy by the fire. Bland, a ponderous, drooping figure, leaned against the wall by the telephone, oddly with his arms folded. He stared at us vaguely without speaking. This is the finish, I thought. Then suddenly he said in a thoughtful voice: “She

laughed. She actually laughed.”

“Who laughed?” I said.

“Jerry’s clear,” he said.

Mary ran towards him shedding my raincoat. I picked it up as she embraced him on both cheeks like a French general.

He held Mary at arms’ length smiling rather fatuously. “We must sit down and I must tell you about it,” he said.

We sat down. A few spots of thundery rain spattered against the windows. He pressed his temples as if to organize his thought.

“Briefly. The girl is all right. She laughed when she was told why the police were there. The thing was accidental, purely.”

Jerry had been in one of his desperate moods. He had wanted to set out and paint the town. The girl could see that he was heading for trouble so she suggested that they should go to his flat and get drunk instead.

Mary gave a little gurgling laugh. It occurred to me that I was not exactly an expert on women. I wouldn’t have expected that girl to raise a finger to keep anybody out of trouble.

“Jerry—he’s no stomach for drinking, you know— after a while went and shut himself up in the bathroom,” Bland continued. “The girl felt cold. She went to try to light the gas fire. She was a little tipsy. She half turned it on. was overcome by dizziness, fell and cracked her head on something. Jerry, as she says, couldn't possibly have known anything about it.” He smiled propitiatingly. “It’s not so much a sordid little story as one of youthful folly.”

“What about Jerry?” I said. “Does he know all this? What’s being done about him?”

Bland twisted the stem of his pipe. “He fainted when they told him the girl was all right.” He shook hi« head smiling rather sadly. “So he had of course to make up for that with a little bravado. When they told him he was free to leave he asked them if he might not stay the night as it was getting late and he rather liked the place. They let him. He comes out in the morning.”

“He’s a charming, foolish boy,” Mary said.

I thought it was time 1 did a little belated justice to the girl. I said: “The girl doesn’t come out of it at all badly. She could have made a frightful thing of it.”

BLAND took out his pouch and began to stuff his pipe. “He was very lucky.” He looked up from his pipe at Mary. “It was Jane ”

I saw Mary stiffen. Bland said: “It’s all right. Mary. Jane is all right.

I have Coatman's assurance—.”

“But John. John The newspapers! The ruinous publicity! Did you tell Coatman that on no account, on no account whatsoever, must any reporter be allowed—.” She saw the look on Bland’s face and hesitated. Then her voice became hard: “Well, did you?” Bland smiled his thin episcopal smile “My dear Mary, you make me feel very guilty. In the excitement of learning that your daughter and my son were out of danser I quite inexplicably—quite inexcusably forgot the cardinal consideration: your career ’’

"John, you’re not speaking to a spotty undergraduate, you know."

Mary was at bay again: her face had taken on that hard perdurahle quality I had so often seen there. B!and. leaning back in his chair, laboriously elaborated his pedantic — and harmless; perhaps the more stupid for that — sarcasms. And I. swiftly donning my cloak of righteousness, had scrambled back into the seat of judgment. The crisis had been over less than ten minutes and we couldn't get back quickly enough to our own little egos. The wheel had made a complete turn and we were all where we started from.

“John,” 1 said. “Let's have a drink quick while we still have an excuse for celebrating.” ★