the Mermaid on his Stomach
Paul Potter wouldn’t get out of bed and if he did he was heading for Alaska, because how could he explain to Diana about
R. B. IRVINE
IT WAS going to be another scorcher but the sun had not yet driven all the coolness of the night away from the once-fashionable street. After a whistling boy on a bicycle went by it was very quiet. There was the rumble of the City in the background, the rustling of elm trees and an early-morning child on roller skates far up the block.
IT WAS going to be another scorcb^r ^ut the sun jiacj ncq yet driven all the coolness of the night a\yay from the once-fashionable street. After a whistling boy on abicycle went by it was very quiet. There sü. was the rumble of the-. City in the background, the rustling of elm trees and an early-morning child on roller skates far up the block. The breeze that blew„>r; through the windows of the big kitchen where Mrs. Webster-£tiui Miss Tone sat finishing their after-breakfast coffee was cool and made the curtains sway in, and then out again, at irregular intervals.
Sunlight, passing between red geraniums at the window, fell onto the sink where the boarders’ breakfast dishes lay piled high, soaking in hot water; and was reflected upward, making blurred silent riffles and shimmerings on the white ceiling above the table in the centre of the room.
Mrs. Webster sat in an upholstered rocking chair, with foolscap on her knee, writing a short story.
Miss Tone, a mountainous woman, who seemed bigger than she really was because of Mrs. Webster’s skinniness, was dressed that morning in white silk and her fair hair was expensively and fashionably waved. She sat, reading the morning paper, in a dentist’s chair, once the professional property of the late Mr. Webster and kept at first for sentimental reasons and then, later on, because Miss Tone took a fancy to it. In fifteen years she had become skilled in its operation.
“Listen to this,” she said, breaking the silence disobediently. “My horoscope today says,. ‘Treat strangers kindly. Make no new ventures in love.’ ” She tittered and, laying down the paper, she raised an immense red arm to push a strand of blond hair up from her amiable face which was still flushed from the making of griddle cakes and sausages in quantity for Mrs. Webster’s nine young gentlemen. Diamond rings that Mrs. Webster sometimes suspected were real—because goodness only knew what Miss Tone did with her salary every month -gleamed on her plump white fingers.
Then feet leapt heavily down the front stairs and the front door banged shut with a crash that shook the old house and rattled the blue and white plates and the polished saucepans on the shelves.
“That’ll be Mr. Allan,” Miss Tone said admiringly. “Mr. Allan and Mr. Potter always jump downstairs instead of walking. They’re all gone now except for Mr. Potter. It’s funny he’s not down yet for his breakfast.” She paused to sigh. “He’s such a lovely, lovely eater, not one of these pickey, choosey dawdlers. It’s getting on for nine. He’d best get up or he’ll be late for work. Do you suppose he’s dead?”
BY R. B. IRVINE
As anyone who has ever written íuL'o;« knows, interruptions at any time are intolerable. They were, that morning, particularly hard to bear because Mrs. Webster was rewriting the opening scene of a short story that must be in the mail by eight that night to make the deadline for a story competition. A typist was coming by at half-past twelve to pick it up. Her heroine, sitting in a cow barn at sunset, was oblivious to the approach of a handsome stocky young stranger, with short black very curly hair. His eyes were black and hot and violent and his intent ions were dishonorable.
Spot, an obese cocker spaniel, put sharp claws up onto Mrs. Webster’s unupholstered knee.
The scene faded away. Mrs. Webster, already distracted by her lack of knowledge of the furnishings of the interior of a cow barn, brushed Spot’s innocent and loving feet savagely ofT her lap, bit the end of her pencil viciously and laid it down on her manuscript; then she lifted the whole thing up and slapped it down on the red tablecloth.
But she spoke gently to Miss Tone because the poor thing was sensitive. She counted ten, calling on God for strength, and asking herself “Who else would put up with such eccentricity?” The answer, of course, was “No one.” It was a good thing that poor daft Miss Tone had someone to look after her, to shield her, to be her refuge from a mocking world. But sometimes it seemed too difficult a task; sometimes not even the flattering respect of bank managers and bond salesmen that Miss Tone’s highly marketable agility with pots and pans earned for Mrs. Webster seemed sufficient compensation.
The statutory counting finished, she said Continued on page 50
Mermaid jlis Stomach
/fD FROM PAGE 19
there any more coffee in the ,u suppose?” and raised a i the wreath of rosebuds that •r high-piled dark-red transfeeling that it must have iheveled from the tumult of its. She wore rosebuds in her morning because she was
writing of young love, of fresh dewy innocence. “Most likely he misjudged last night,” she went on, referring to Mr. Potter. “Probably all the breakfast he wants is a raw egg and Worcestershire sauce. Or black coffee and aspirin.”
Miss Tone, before answering, tilted her chair forward, cranked herself to ground level, spun around three quarters of a circle until she faced the stove and picked her empty coffee cup off t he little china shelf that had a most conveniently adjustable arm and was part of the chair.
“We’d have heard him when he came in last night if he’d misjudged,” she said. “He and Diana Croston were among those present at the HuntleyMathewson’s ball last night, the paper says. He’d hardly misjudge at a ball. And if he had we’d have been sure to hear him. Remember last week how he wrestled Mr. Allan and they got overexcited and knocked their bureau down and broke a chair? The poor boy may be lying in his bed, too ill to cry out, writhing in mortal agony, stricken, and not a soul to tell.”
She had stepped from the chair and
moved slowly across the blue linoleum to the chromium-trimmed electric range. “There’s lots of coffee,” she said. “I’ll make fresh for Mr. Potter.” Lifting a saucepan lid she stirred for a moment and a waft of fragrant chicken soup escaped. Regardless of the exorbitance of the fees they paid, there was no justification for making fresh coffee for boarders who overslept. But Mrs. Webster did not comment. “Somebody ought to take poor Mr. Potter up some breakfast,” Miss Tone said as she recrossed the blue linoleum, carrying the glass coffee pot. Her round blue eyes were very wide and her voice sank almost to a whisper. “He may have been stabbed in some vital part with a dagger in an alley, defending the honor of his betrothed. He may have crept home to die. He may be bleeding to death. To get bloodstains out of sheets they should be put to soak in cold water immediately.” The somebody who should carry breakfast was Mrs. Webster because Miss Tone, a spinster, did not venture upstairs when the young gentlemen were at home, it being known that they were careless about wearing their dressing gowns or anything else for that matter, in the hall. The mild rebuke was hardly noticed, though, for Mrs. Webster’s mind was examining the scene in the dark alleyway; Mr. Potter and Miss Diana Croston, his fiancee, splendid in evening dress, on their way home from the Huntley -Mathewson’s ball; the blackness of the alley; the garbage cans on either side; the drunken hoodlum insulter; the gleam of steel in the moonlight; the blood on Mr. Potter’s white shirt front—. She recalled herself sharply and brought her eyes down from the ceiling where she had been estimating the red stain that would spread slowly through from the room above where Mr. Potter lay. It was time the kitchen was repainted, anyway. “1 can’t imagine anyone fighting over that spoiled scrawny-faced debutante,” she said practically. “And besides, if he was ill or anything, Mr. Allan would have said something when he came down. He wouldn’t have eaten three sets of griddles if Mr. Potter was dead in the bed upstairs.” Miss Tone mounted her chair and cranked herself up a foot. “It’s not like him to miss his breakfast,” she said, fanning her big round red face with her apron. “It’s not good for him to miss his breakfast. High-strung excitable young men like Mr. Potter who can’t stay out of love for two days running, poor souls, need their meals regular.” Mrs. Webster, stirring thick cream and sugar in her coffee, paid no attention. She was thinking that perhaps Miss Tone, having been brought up on a farm, might have some useful information about cow barns. The trouble was that cow barns had probably changed a lot since Miss Tone’s time; probably they didn’t have electric milking machines thirty or forty years ago and that was the sort of thing needed for atmosphere. For instance, the sound of the curly-headed hot-eyed stranger’s approach might be covered by the whir of the electric milking machines so that the first Mary would know of his presence would be his big hard sensitive brown hand on her white shoulder. “Perhaps,” Miss Tone said loudly, “perhaps it was one of those girls he has the photographs of on his bureau. She may have done it with a thin jeweled dagger or a paper knife, plunging it deep down into a vital part and twisting it. One of those eight, or is it nine? One of the ones he scorned when he took up with Diana Croston, that’s who
the police should investigate first.”
“Oh, for Heaven’s sake,” Mrs. Webster said under her breath. Out loud she said, “I’ll go up and see in just a minute, dear. Just let me finish my coffee,” and she picked up her cup and drained it, adding silently that God only knew how anyone expected her to get her story ready for the typist by twelve o’clock or anything else done for that matter with a crazy loon like Miss Tone around the place.
“Tell him it’s griddle cakes and sausages,” she heard Miss Tone call as she left the room.
She thumped upstairs, promising to hire a housemaid, two housemaids, to run up and down the stairs all day finding out if people had been murdered. If she had some help with the beds and the cleaning and the picking up the young gentlemen’s clothes off the floor she might get somewhere with her writing. But the wish was fleeting because an intruder in the companionable kitchen was unthinkable. And there was a pang of something that might almost be forlornness at the idea of losing touch with her young gentlemen which she would do if she didn’t tidy up their rooms.
She paused on the landing to settle the flowers on top of her red transformation and to touch up her cheeks and her lips from the big red leather bag that she carried with her always. And then, munching on a stick of gum that she took from the bag, she climbed on, her heart beating a little faster tha usual because Mr. Potter might come bursting out of his room at any minute dressed in whatever it was he wore in bed which wasn’t pyjamas because he didn’t own any - she had picked up his wardrobe from the floor enough times to be sure of that. And her heart beat faster, too, in anticipation of the corpse she might find in the big high-ceilinged room where he and Mr. Allan lived frantically in a welter of clothes and squash racquets, skis, fishing rods, books, shotguns, gramophone records, girls’ pictures, magazines and, it sometimes seemed to Mrs. Webster, a hundred thousand ties.
IT WAS dim at first when she pushed open the heavy dark-oak door after Mr. Potter called “Come in.” But the dark - red curtains drawn across the windows were billowed out by the breeze and, in the changing light, her heart skipped a beat becau; e the shape that lay so whitely still, hunched on the bed under a sheet, might easily have been a dead body. But after a second she made out the short black hair that lay in tight curls over Mr. Potter’s square head and saw that his bright black eyes were looking at her hostilely. There was no blood.
She tucked her gum into her cheek, cleared her throat and said nervously, “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” he answered in a polite flat voice. “Jusl dandy.”
Then there was silence. Mrs. Webster settled her gum securely and said “When will you be down for breakfast?”
“I’m not coming down for breakfast,” he answered, looking at her belligerently. “Or lunch either, maybe.” He pulled a bare arm out from under the sheet, ran his fingers through his close thick curls and tucked his arm away again.
Then the fresh breeze that blew in from the summer morning street outside suddenly bellowed out the red curtains violently, letting sunshine spill in, and the door behind Mrs. Webster blew shut with a crash. She started and swallowed her gum. The red curtains fell straight again.
When she was recovered, she said cajolingly, “Maybe a cold shower? And
then a nice fresh country egg in Worcestershire sauce. Miss Tone could fix you one. I’ve heard it’s good after a person has misjudged.”
Mr. Potter hunched his five feet ten of solid meat a little further down under the flimsy sheet and shut his eyes.
“How about some nice black coffee and aspirin?” Mrs. Webster persisted.
“It’s not that,” he answered crossly. “I’m just staying in bed, that’s all. Can’t I just stay in bed without everyone getting all excited?”
“Did you get fired perhaps?” Mrs. Webster asked, sympathy welling up.
“No. At least not yet, I haven’t,” he said. “I’m just not going to get up. That’s all.”
“But they’ll be expecting you at the office.”
“Oh, to hell with them. See if I care.”
Mrs. Webster, disturbed, moved into the room and stooped automatically to pick a disordered heap of clothes from the centre of the floor: a long-tailed evening coat with a brownedged gardenia, a rumpled evening shirt, black trousers, green-striped underwear, socks. She carried her load
over to a big crowded table that stood in the window and served as writing desk, workbench, bar and clothes horse. The explanation came to her.
“A lovers’ quarrel,” she said and, when he didn’t answer, she gave him advice from her extensive experienced novelist’s store. “Don’t let it upset you. Young girls are all alike. The thing for you to do is to get up now and get dressed and go to work and then, this evening, take her flowers. White roses. Or violets.” The scene began to come alive in her mind. For inspiration she glanced to the bureau where Diana
Croston’s photograph stood with seven others, all inscribed with intimate dedications. The reconciliation would take place in an expensive modern living room. Diana Croston, fashionably gaunt, would sit on a backless aluminum sofa wearing strapless pastel-blue nylon and her eyes would be made up slantwise. Mr. Potter, in a white dinner jacket, would kneel in an oldfashioned way on a thick white rug at her feet. “Be bold but very gentle,” she went on slowly. “Be inexorable but very gentle. Impetuous hotblooded young men sometimes forget that girls are shy things. They are delicate like—like—wood violets. Take her in your arms gently and reverently but inexorably and aak her forgiveness. Promise her that whatever it was that gave the offense you’ll root it out.” When she stopped Mr. Potter said loudly, defiantly. “But that’s just the trouble. I can’t root it out. Or wash it off, or any other thing.” Wrenched back from the chromium living room Mrs. Webster said blankly, “What can’t you?” Mr. Potter was holding the sheet up tightly around his thick neck and his black eyes were very bright. They glittered in the dim light. “My mermaid,” he said shortly, and then, because Mrs. Webster didn’t answer but stood beside the desk with her mouth open, he added bitterly, “My mermaid. She’s only a little one. Really. But -she’s tattooed on. Really she’s quite small. There’s no need to make all the fuss.” “Ah,” Mrs. Webster said almost inaudibly. “A mermaid.” Mr. Potter propped himself up on one elbow and wiped his face with the sheet. The movement disturbed a round shaving mirror that had been hidden under the pillow. It slipped off and fell to the floor with a clatter. It did not break and Mr. Potter paid no attention to it. “Don’t you think it’s sort of unreasonable for a girl to get sore simply because her fiance goes and gets a mermaid tattooed on him?” he said. “Honestly, is that a reasonable thing to get all worked up over or not? They told me she’d like it. Actually that was why I had it done. The man said girls thought mermaids tattooed on were nice. Much nicer than snakes.” He ran his agitated fingers through his short black curly hair again. “What man?’’ Mrs. Webster breathed. “Who told you?” “Why the man in the tattoo place. It was when we were downtown the other night after my stag dinner and Here McGowan said let’s go in this place and we did. And then they all said how I ought to have something tattooed on for Diana. Something she’d like. Well, I knew they were exaggerating a little but the man seemed so certain and it did seem like a good idea somehow so I had it done.” He paused and his black eyes wandered. “I guess Diana hasn’t a sense of humor, or something.” His voice shook a little and his face remembered something very unpleasant. “Last night at the Huntley-Mathewson’s Here McGowan had to go blatting his big mouth off and the fellows got me out in the conservatory and made me open up my shirt so they could see the way I can make her wiggle, my mermaid I mean—I had her done on my stomach. And of course Diana had to hear about it.” He stopped to pull the sheet up and mop his face again. “I’ll have to go away. I think I’m going to Alaska. I’m just lying here thinking about it. I bet people in Alaska aren’t foolish about a little thing like tattooing.”
Mrs. Webster, swept away by pity for all the world’s young lovers who
quarreled over foolish trifles, who misunderstood one another tragically, saw wolves and snow and Mr. Potter in an icicle-trimmed parka, supporting Diana Croston who had, years later, come out to find him. But then he had to go and spoil everything by muttering, “Diana a wood violet. Oh, my God. A wood rattlesnake’s more like it.”
The circle of bearded miners who stood about the lovers’ lifeless bodies, with bared heads, vanished. Mr. Potter was, she saw suddenly, just an ordinary rude ungrateful young man, a clod like all the rest. She remembered her manuscript and Miss Archibald who would arrive at twelve-thirty to pick it up. If Mr. Potter and Diana Croston refused to behave worthily she had no more time to spend on them. They could go without.
“Look,” she said briskly. “You ought to get up and go to work.” Going to work did wonders for young gentlemen she had noticed during the past fifteen years.
“I can’t,” he said. “Diana’s father is my boss and she’ll have told him all about it. And anyway, even if he didn’t mind, who’s going to take advice on their investments any more from a man who everybody knows publicly has a mermaid tattooed on his stomach?” And with a tremendous flurry of sheet he turned over so that he faced the wall.
MAKING her way downstairs, when the back of his head remained stubbornly unresponsive, she asked how anyone expected anyone to win shortstory competit ions if they had to spend all day arguing with rude young men who wouldn’t get out of bed. She would have to let the housework go until after lunch; she was so upset already it would take all of two hours to get the manuscript ready for Miss Archibald.
Crossing the kitchen to pick up her papers, she gave Miss Tone the news briefly.
“Oh, the poor sweet lamb,” Miss Tone said from the sink where she was washing dishes. “Has he tried baking soda? I’ll put the kettle on. Hot water and baking soda does wonders often.” “No, no, no,” Mrs. Webster said, gathering up her things. “It’s a mermaid, I said. Mermaid. It’s tattooed on his stomach, on the outside. It’s a picture. If the laundry comes before 1 get back be sure to remember about the shirt Mr. Smith says isn’t his. It’s on top of the refrigerator in a brown paper bag.” She started for the door.
“A mermaid. Think of that. Is she in full colors? If Diana Croston objects there’s some of those others on his bureau won’t mind, I’ll bet a dollar.” “Oh, dear,” Mrs. Webster said from the doorway. “It’s more than that. He’s worried because Diana Croston’s father is his boss and won’t like it. He says the customers won’t come to him for advice now he has a mermaid on his stomach.”
“But he’s got to have his breakfast,” Miss Tone shook her head. “If he knew it was griddles he’d come. Did you say it was griddles?”
“He won’t come down, I tell you,” Mrs. Webster’s voice rose a little even after counting ten and then five more
JS YOUR SUBSCRIPTION DUE?
Subscribers receiving: notice of the approaching expiration of their subscriptions are reminded of the necessity of sending in their renewal orders promptly.
The demand for copies to fill new orders is so great that we cannot guarantee the mailing of even a single issue beyond the period covered by your subscription. To avoid disappointment, your renewal order should be mailed to us promptly when you receive the “expiration" notice.
for good measure. She rattled the doorknob almost imperceptibly. “Once and for all, he’s going to stay in bed. Did you hear what I told you about Mr. Smith’s shirt in the paper bag on the refrigerator?”
“Let’s see,” Miss Tone said. “Go up and tell him the exterminator’s coming to fumigate the place. No, that won't do. Yes. Yes, I’ve got it. The poor lamb. Go out in the front hall and shout ‘Fire, Fire’ and then when he comes running down he’ll smell the sausages and coffee and stay to eat his breakfast like a gentleman.”
A vision of Mr. Potter’s costume if aroused hurriedly swept over Mrs. Webster. “Oh, no, no,” she said. “He’d know we were fooling him and he’d be angry.”
“Well, then, we’ll have to set fire to the house, then,” Miss Tone said thoughtfully. “Only a little, of course. Then he couldn’t be angry with us.” Mrs. Webster held onto the doorknob very tightly. “He’s not coming down to breakfast. He’s not coming down to lunch either, maybe. I wouldn’t be surprised if he never came down again. He’s trying to decide whether to shoot
himself or go to Alaska. Now, once and for all, did you hear what I said about Mr. Smith’s shirt?”
“Who? The laundry? Of course, dear. What gun is he going to use?” Mrs. Webster unclenched her teeth far enough to sav, “Oh, my God. How should I know? Mr. Allan’s shotgun, probably,” before she turned and pulled the door shut firmly behind her.
ESTABLISHED at her desk in her
quiet bedroom at the head of the third-floor stairs, with the door open so that she could hear if any crisis hap-
poned, she took up her pencil. But her breathing was heavy and her hands trembled. She could not write legibly enough for Miss Archibald.
“Mr. Allan’s shotgun. Pah!” she said under her breath and thought of other, even more cleverly sarcastic things she might have said. Though it was a waste because poor Miss Tone didn’t understand a quarter of what you told her. Set the house on fire to get Mr. Potter to come down. “Only a little, of course,” Mrs. Webster echoed. “Really, I don’t know how I stand it.” She said it out loud and tapped on her teeth with her pencil.
But the thing to do was to free her mind from petty trivialities, to become cosmic, to let her soul swing in free space, picking up vibrations from the infinite. She took up her pencil again.
Mary, lulled by the hum of the electric cow-milking machines and the low moos of contented cows, sat dreaming the long, long dreams of youth. When the stranger approached, a stocky young man with short, very curly black hair glistening in the evening sunlight, she did not hear it, nor did she feel the hot violence of his black eyes as he ...
The grammar was vaguely disquieting; and then the scene was gone and she was back in her narrow bedroom, motionless, suddenly conscious that the first-floor telephone extension on the landing at the foot of the stairs was tinkling gently in sympathy with the kitchen extension which someone was dialing. 11 must be the laundryman calling his office about the shirt. She turned her eyes back to her papers.
But she hadn’t heard the back doorbell ring. It must be Miss Tone. But Miss Tone never telephoned. Miss Tone complained that her fingers got caught in the little holes and the noise of the dial turning gave her a funny feeling as if she was being tickled.
Mrs. Webster stood up after a moment and walked slowly down the stairs to the telephone. After hesitating a moment, after twice stretching out her hand and pulling it back again, she lifted the receiver very gently and put it to her ear. Miss Tone was saying:
. .. think you should come at once. He may be going to shoot himself we think. He’s lying upstairs forlornly in his bed. First he says he’s going to Alaska and then he fondles Mr. Allan’s terrible big shiny shotgun and examines it. He won’t eat any breakfast. No one should shoot themselves on an empty stomach. It’s 1475 Beach St. We don’t know what to do. Hurry, Miss Croston, please hurry.
“I’ll come,” a girl’s voice said shakily. “I’ll be there right away. It won’t take me more than a few minutes.”
“Hullo,” Mrs. Webster said. “Hullo, Miss Croston. Hullo.”
But there was no answer. Nothing except two little clicks and then the wire hummed emptily.
Everything conspired against her. The dog-eared telephone directory slipped off its hook when she reached for it and fell down onto the floor; her rosebuds tumbled from her hair when she stooped to pick it up; a torn page delayed matters; then she sneezed suddenly and had to stop to blow her nose. When she found the list of Crostons at last, there were two full columns of them and she didn’t know the initials of Diana’s father or what their address might be.
So in the end she had to go downstairs and ask Miss Tone.
“You shouldn’t have done it,” she said as she pushed through the kitchen door. “I’ve got to call her right back. Whatever would Mr. Potter say if he found out? 1 hate to think. Besides he’s in bed. She can’t come here. What’s her number? How did you know her number?”
Miss Tone, elevated in her chair and lying back at a luxurious angle, didn’t deny anything. She pumped herself upright, saying, “But you said he was going to shoot himself.” Her blue eyes were wide and anxious. “Somebody had to do something.”
“1 did not say he was going to shoot himself,” Mrs. Webster’s voice shook a little. “I said no such thing. What’s her number? I’ve got to call her back.” “You did say it, you did.” The corners of Miss Tone’s mouth began to tremble. “With Mr. Allan’s shotgun, you said. I heard you, dear. And now you blame it all on me. The poor lamb. If only he’d just eat a little something first. I said to myself, I said—.”
“Look,” interrupted Mrs. Webster. She spoke very patiently and quietly and slowly and distinctly. “It doesn’t matter now what I said. The thing is we’ve got to call her back and tell her it was a mistake. What was her number? How did you find it?”
“Cardinal 4552,” Miss Tone told her. “You said he wasn’t coming down to breakfast or lunch, either, or dinner. And the only reason he would miss his meals is because he’s dead. He’s one of the loveliest eaters we’ve ever had. With Mr. Allan’s shotgun, you said. Anyway why shouldn’t she come?” Mrs. Webster, perched on the counter, had dialed and waved her hand at Miss Tone, signaling her to keep quiet.
Cardinal 4552 was busy first and then turned out to be the residence «f a quavery old woman who had never heard of a Miss Croston.
Perhaps it was Cardinal 4255, Miss Tone admitted. Come to think of it, it was Cardinal 4255 after all; she remembered now. She knew the number because she had written it down only two days ago when Diana Croston had phoned and left a message. But it
We wedded, and pooled our collecHons of records: Your Bach and Beethoven, my Crosby and Laine, My Clooney and Tatum, and your never-ending Concertos and trios that give me a pain.
Your culture denied you much pleasure from my stuff, And listening to yours made me restless at nights. I’m glad that we turned in the lot on a TV
For now we’re both happy, enjoying the fights.
J. E. PARSONS
turned out that she was wrong; Cardinal 4255 had been disconnected. The nearest thing to it in the phone book was M. M. Croston, Cardinal 3475; but when applied to, a frightened halfdeaf child denied there was anyone named Diana there. Perhaps, Miss Tone thought now, washing dishes dangerously fast at the sink, perhaps the exchange had been Terminal or Central after all. Sbe simply could not understand how it had gone so completely out of her head so quickly.
And then the doorbell began to ring.
MRS. WEBSTER’S stomach sank heavily. “What’ll I say?” she asked, licking her dry lips and letting the telephone directory slip off her lap onto the linoleum.
“Just tell her the truth, dear, tell her you made a mistake. Tell her how we tried to call her back when you found out the mistake you had made.” Miss Tone spoke cheerfully, drying her hands on a dishtowel.
The bell rang steadily, one insistent peal after the other.
“Maybe it’s the laundry,” Miss Tone said. “Don’t forget that shirt of Mr. Smith’s.”
But it was not the laundry; it was Diana Croston. Mrs. Webster recognized her easily. She was a tall girl, and she was very pretty, even with her gold hair in curling pins only partially covered by a blue handkerchief. Her eyebrows were thin, level lines over anxious eyes and her cheeks were very white. Her lipstick was smudged. She wore a camel-hair sport’s coat over a green cotton dress that had obviously been retired from public wear some time ago. She had feather-trimmed slippers on her feet.
“Is he all right?” she cried. “Am I in time? I drove through two red lights. Oh, where is he? Oh, can I see him?” “Look, Miss Croston,” Mrs. Webster started and then stopped to swallow and compose her mind. Miss Tone, who had followed along behind, interrupted.
“Before you see him you’d best plan a minute what you’re going to say and do, young woman. Giving us such a dreadful fright. What’s all this about you telling him it was wrong for him to get himself tattooed? What’s wrong with a man getting himself tattooed, I’d like to know?”
“Nothing,” the girl said breathlessly. “Oh, nothing. It was just that he hadn’t told me. And everyone was laughing and whispering about it and I didn’t know what was going on and — and—I guess I got angry because he was keeping a secret from me, that’s all. I guess we’ve both been going to so many parties lately we’re sort of run ragged. They kept talking about his new girl and raising their eyebrows. Where is he? I want to see him and tell him how sorry I am.”
“You made him miss his breakfast,” Miss Tone said. Her round blue eyes were indignant. “Griddle cakes and sausages it was. He thinks your father won’t employ him any more because he has a mermaid tattooed on his stomach. He thinks the customers will object. Why do the customers have to see his stomach?”
“Oh, how silly he is,” Diana cried. “He’s an idiot. Of course Dad won’t mind. Dad has a snake tattooed all over his stomach himself. Please can I see him?”
“Mrs. Webster will take you up,” Miss Tone said.
“Oh, no, no, she can’t go up,” Mrs. Webster started. “Mr. Potter’s not—,” but Diana was already halfway up the stairs.
“It’s the first door on the right,” Miss Tone called and Mrs. Webster followed.
He was still lying with his face to the wall when Diana pushed open the darkoak door and passed inside. The red window curtains billowed out into the room, letting sunlight fall onto the floor. He was probably asleep because he lay quite still while she ran lightly across the carpet and, kneeling down beside the bed, put her hand onto the curly black hair that showed above the sheet.
“I’m sorry, Paul,” she said in a low voice.
Mrs. Webster, chaperoning from the hall outside, felt her throat tighten and tears welling in her eyes.
Mr. Potter spun over with a flurry of sheet. “Diana,” he said hoarsely. “Where did you come from? What are you doing here?”
“They called me,” the girl said brokenly. “They said you wouldn’t get up for breakfast and I came right over to tell you I’m sorry. I’m sorry I was sore last night. You can have a dozen mermaids tattooed all over you. And don’t worry about Dad. He has a snake. He can’t criticize.”
Mr. Potter pulled a bare brown arm out from under the sheet and put it around Diana’s shoulders. “Diana,” he began earnestly. “I did it for you. Honestly. When they—.”
And then the treacherous morning breeze blew the door shut suddenly, without any warning, bang, right in Mrs. Webster’s face. And it was a long full minute before she realized that it was probably not going to be opened again.
She turned and started blindly down the stairs. Miss Tone would know what to do. Miss Archibald was coming at twelve-thirty for the manuscript. Miss Tone would have to do something. Perhaps it might be necessary to set the house on fire, just a little, after all. ★