Authors: Andre Norton
Perhaps not many people nowadays know those old sayings which have become so trite they are cast aside. Do bad beginnings lead to good endings? Our modern pessimism would perhaps deny that. I certainly had acquired some knowledge of a few things
to do the second time I came to Ladensville. As my taxi bored through the dusk of a wet post-Thanksgiving evening, I made myself resurrect some memories of past snares, delusions, and my own folly, which should have made me cringe.
Such self-torment was, I decided, second-thoughting, one of the things I must leave behind me. It must not be allowed to spoil my present slow-stirring enthusiasm or scratch the shell, which, I flattered myself I had successfully grown.
I did not have to be any longer embarrassed for that
other Erica Jansen, who had been full of futile envy for her bright, assured contemporaries, who had left her far behind in a struggle for social acceptance. Earlier, I had been out of step with the new rebels. Even their language had been a foreign tongue (and I am no linguist)—since I had been shaped to the pattern drawn up by Aunt Otilda, so hedged in by her iron-bar control that I had not even dared to look beyond the code of behavior which had been pounded into my mind from the time I could understand anything at all.
When Aunt Otilda had finally relinquished the reins of our lives (through a heart attack, which must have angered her even as she died), I had tried to break down my walls, sensing that I must do so or never learn to live at all. My life was not a collection of
—rather a prison of
Only I had had no idea how one
escape. So even now, my efforts to join the world still consisted of rather timid venturings out, and quick retreats.
A recent modest success in my writing had given me a small measure of confidence, which I had thought gone, after the cruel hurt I had known in this same Ladensville. But I sensed that I either fought back
, or I would go under completely and never have a life of my own.
Memory was like biting on an aching tooth. But now, as I tentatively tried evoking it, there was no stab to follow. Only a lingering trace of resentment and shame—shame at having been just the gullible fool Aunt Otilda had always declared that I was. Thank heaven she had never learned of my folly! I held to the thought that all that had happened to another person.
The Erica Jansen of five years ago was not the girl of today. The earlier one was safely dead, and I would keep her buried.
My freedom was what counted. I could meet who I pleased, go where I wanted. It was that freedom which led me now to this journey through a thick and dreary moisture, which was a stand-in for snow. It was running into Theodosia Cantrell today, and summoning up the nerve to speak to her, our chatter over coffee producing tonight’s invitation. With the anticipation of meeting those whose interests might be said to match mine, I looked through the window of the taxi, at slush which took on the glitter of pre-Christmas snow.
This section of the Maryland college town was new to me. The street lights seemed to be set farther apart, the spaces between them unusually dark and shadowed. I suddenly wondered what kind of a crime rate Ladensville might have. Those patches of dark could well attract muggers. Or had that insidious violence not yet seeped out this far from Washington, some miles away?
Though I knew well, after a steady flow of disillusionment, that with me anticipation always outran realization, I did look forward to this evening. Theodosia was a blazing star in a field where my own accomplishment might be likened to the flare of a match. I envied her, in an impersonal way, for a fine talent, the polished craftsmanship, her apparent ability to produce a steady flow of subtle crimes-of-the-past novels, which were always book-club choices, early climbers on the bestseller lists.
I admired her thick plait of dull red hair, her distinctively
plain face which outshone the merely pretty, her warm friendliness and that utter lack of the self-consciousness which poisoned my own attempts at social contacts. Tonight I was both flattered and a little thrilled at being asked to join the kind of circle I felt sure she gathered about her.
My cab pulled into a side street, where walled gardens concealed most of the houses. Its pace was now a crawl.
“This the place, lady?”
For a moment I shared my driver’s doubt. The building was a lightless cube, looking, in this sleety dusk, even sinister. Then I remembered the directions. “Go up that drive. I want the carriage house—in the rear.”
Dark shrubbery looped to the sodden ground, forming a frosted jungle. The dark house was that of Theodosia’s landlady, the Mrs. Emma Horvath who was at present in a nursing home. The driver and I passed under the arch of a portico and came into a courtyard, where small lamps, on either side of a door painted bright red, defied the storm with their light.
That light and the warming color of the door raised my spirits so that I used the polished brass knocker with more than my usual energy. Theodosia answered my summons, and I had a moment of disquiet, as if I had been too forceful. Was it a trick of the lantern light, or had there been a shade of irritation on her face? But the warmth of her greeting dispelled my vague doubts.
As I shed my rain-repelling scarf before the mirror in the very small entry, I caught on the mirror’s glassy
surface, behind my own dark hair and undistinguished features, a revealing glimpse of my hostess. Shadows, perhaps produced by the wrong perspective, deepened hollows beneath her prominent cheekbones, giving her a haggard, beaten look. But when I restored my lipstick to my bag and swung around, she was as I had always seen her, untroubled and vividly alive.
The room beyond was large and, at first glance, seemed filled with people. A hearthfire drew me, as fires always have. This one provided a frame for three guests who sat directly before it, their backs to the door. To the left, a slight, fair-haired man maneuvered a portable bar between two chairs, the occupants of which appeared to consider him invisible, continuing their conversation over and around him.
That old, constricting feeling—of being odd woman out—arose to daunt me again in spite of my resolutions. Just as I wanted to slip away, Theodosia’s fingers were warm on my arm, and she drew me to the trio by the fireplace.
Three heads, gray, blond, and tawny brown, turned slightly. The blonde showed the finished touch of an accomplished hairdresser—coaxed into the carefully casual style which means money in any woman’s mind. It was as short as a masculine crop might be, but, as my hostess brought me to face the three, I could see no one would ever mistake the sex of the tall girl between the two men. I mentally set my teeth against being withered by the supreme self-confidence of a woman who used all the power of her sex.
She demanded attention with her arrogance of manner, the power of her clever, exotic face, the poise of
her well-tended body. She was lacquered—polished. No. Those descriptive words meant careful rubbing with soft cloths; there was nothing soft or rubbed about Leslie Lowndes. She was faceted! I was proud of the adjective my imagination had supplied.
Burnished as a gemstone, wearing her thick hair in a style few women of her age would be courageous enough to try, her sleek figure given discreet emphasis by a stark black pants suit cut in next season’s line, she was at ease. Her features were not faultless—her nose a shade too large, her expertly made-up mouth thin-lipped. But she rendered colorless every other woman near her.
Her present companions were in contrast to each other. The tawny-haired giant to her right cupped a cocktail glass in a hand which could easily have engulfed a decanter. He arose to greet me with a stiff little bow. His face wore a serious, slightly worried expression, and I believed that the lines of his wide mouth and square chin spelled stubbornness without much humor. When Theodosia said “Hanno Horvath,” he sketched a second bow.
The third member of the gathering was a small man, or perhaps of average height made to seem less in that company. He was clearly a generation older than his companions, his gray hair close matched in color to his gray suit. Beside Leslie’s sleekness and the suggestion of brute strength which emanated from Horvath, he should have been dwarfed and colorless. But he was not. When I met his lively eyes, mirroring interest and welcome, and noted lines of humor at the corners of those eyes and about the lips shadowed by a neatly
trimmed, British-style mustache, I was both attracted and reassured.
Privately, I always thought that circulation at such parties would be immeasurably improved if the guests wore badges. Not those name-tags beloved by conventions, but rather ones reading, “I do this or that” Such would provide opening gambits for small talk.
The name the gray gentleman bore—Preston Donner—meant nothing to me. But I had a feeling that he outranked his present company in ways which really mattered—just as his quick, yet not obtrusive, courtesy was in contrast to Miss Lowndes’ cool stare and murmur, and Horvath’s bow.
“Theo—” Leslie’s drawl dismissed me. “You’ve worked wonders with this place. It always had charm, but poor Irene had no imagination—her idea of the light touch—” She shuddered with a studied movement of her shoulders. “Not that it must have been easy for her to move out, when Miss Emma changed her mind.”
I felt rather than saw Theodosia tense. “The changing about of some chairs and one sofa, both belonging to Mrs. Horvath,” she observed dryly, “can scarcely be termed an outstanding feat of interior decoration. Also had we—had
,” she corrected herself swiftly, “known of the circumstance under which this house was vacated, we would not, I assure you, be here now.”
She was, I was certain, not only answering what she considered an impertinence on Leslie’s part, but somehow making plain to the others her stand in some problem.
Leslie laughed. “Miss Emma wanted you here, and
since she always gets what she wants, that settled it. And she had set Irene out, even before Gordon made such an impression on her sympathy with his story of your house-hunting woes. Of course Irene did not like it. As if her troubles matter.”
She was watching Theodosia over the glass Leslie turned around and around. Her malice was nearly open. Even I could read it, as the tip of her tongue swept across her lower lip. She looked then as if she savored some delicious taste, before she added:
“As I said, Miss Emma gets what she wants—and always has. From Alexis Horvath’s millions to any tame escort she fancies. You’ll learn that when she is in residence again. She gets what she wants or raises hell.” Her tone was light, blt there was a hidden note in it, suggesting that was not only a warning, but in some way a threat.
Preston Donner cut through a tense moment of silence. He drew up a chair for me and coughed, a little deprecatingly, before he spoke.
“Miss Irene understands your complete innocence in the matter, Mrs. Cantrell. She was and is distressed over the sudden loss of what she considered her home, as is only natural. It was her impression, and that of the family, that this house was an outright gift on the occasion of her marriage to Miss Emma’s nephew. Though the deed did not change hands, it was thought unnecessary in a family transaction. A pity that.” He shook his head. “Miss Emma’s poor health has led to more than one sudden, unfortunate misunderstanding.”
“You mean airing of dislikes.” Leslie cut in. She apparently
had no intention of any oil being poured on waters which she desired to remain troubled. “One of which being small children. You’d think these were museum pieces.” She drew fingertips along the arm of the settee on which she sat. “The way she went on about possible damage after Stuart began to walk! Though Miss Elizabeth feels somewhat the same—to both of them things mean more than people—
“Yes, when Irene produced Stuart, and Charles was no longer a decorative naval officer but became a fixture in the hospital, Miss Emma changed her mind in a hurry. She’s been discussing will changes, too, hasn’t she? She wants attention, gallants clustering around. Hanno—Charles—” Leslie smiled. “You need not worry about
being dispossessed in a hurry, Theo—not with Gordon in evidence. And your stay here
only temporary, isn’t it?”
“It is indefinite.” Theodosia’s reply was sharp, but her tone brought about no shadow of change in Leslie’s bland expression as she smiled at her hostess. They might be exchanging meaningless chatter appropriate to the occasion.
Preston Donner turned to me with what was clearly a firm intention of changing the subject.
“You are certainly the Erica Jansen who gave us that very readable biography of Mrs. Southworth last year.” He stated that as if my small splash into the pond of the publishing world had caused a tidal wave, and now my writer’s vanity awoke.
But all I could say was yes, and that I was pleased to know he found my book acceptable.
“In my opinion you handled the problem of the
lady’s missing husband very skillfully. At a time when it was a disgrace to be a deserted wife, no matter how innocent, such details must have been suppressed nearly beyond the power of a modern researcher to uncover. You must meet Miss Elizabeth Austin. Her mother was a friend of Mrs. Southworth’s—in her latter days, naturally. People were doubtful of the lady’s respectability even then. What a queerly unbalanced sense of morality they did subscribe to. More often the innocent were punished instead of the guilty.”
“So the Austins called, in spite of an ambiguous missing husband?” Leslie commented. “How tolerant of them.”
“Who is Miss Elizabeth Austin?” I asked. Again I wanted labels, not names. And I was uneasy at the tension I felt.
Donner had leaned forward as if to launch into explanation when Theodosia stepped away and caught the sleeve of the fair-haired man who had earlier been struggling with the bar.
Beside her, he lost both color and presence. His soft mouth, certainly too curved for a man (A man should have—then I censored my thoughts. No comparisons now or ever again) was set in a near-petulant pout He could have been a sulky son forced into some social gesture by a dominant mother, whose interference in his life he heartily detested but did not have the will to combat.