Authors: Elizabeth Daly
IN THE HOUSE
HE VOICE ON
the telephone was deep for a woman's, sad and slow. It asked: “Is this really Mr. Gamadge himself talking?”
“This is Gamadge.”
“I'm Harriet LeederâMrs. Clayborn Leeder. It's such a private matter that I shouldn't have liked to give anybody else my name. Might I ask you not to mention the fact that I called to anybody at all, whether you are able to help me or not?”
“I won't mention it.”
“You don't know me, but friends of yours do. I haven't told them anythingâonly that I needed advice. It's a family thing, and rather horrid. From what they say, I really think you may be my only hope.”
Gamadge had not been giving his full attention to the speaker. He stood at the telephone table in the hall, looking through the double doorway of the library; and the scene he watched was nerve-racking. His young assistant, David Malcolm, stood in the middle of the room with an arm upraised above his head, and on his palm the Gamadge baby was balanced as a waiter balances a tray. The baby, mildly interested as usual, made swimming motions with its arms and legs.
Gamadge said loudly: “Put that thing down before you break it.”
“I beg your pardon?” asked the telephone.
“I beg yours.” Gamadge waited until the baby had been lowered to the rug, and then apologized again: “I'm awfully sorry. I was interrupted.”
“We can't be overheard?”
“I know I shouldn't be taking a moment of your time, much less asking you to come to see me. Our friends say that you're just back from Europe, and that you were hurt there.”
“Nothing much,” mumbled Gamadge. “I just got in the way.”
“Not at that precise moment,” said Gamadge, laughing. “Counter-Intelligence, as a matter of fact.”
“It's shocking of me to ask you to leave your family, even for an hour. An hour this afternoon, and then if you felt you could agree to take the job onânot a nice job at allâit would mean an hour or two tomorrow.”
“No more than that?”
“You'll think it quite enough, I'm afraid.”
No friends of Gamadge's were likely to refer anybody to him without good cause. He said: “If it's very urgentâ”
“You may not think so. Could you possibly come up and hear about it? Come at four, for tea? Perhaps you know our old brick house; the Clayborn house.”
A vision of red brick and tiled gables rose before Gamadge's inner eye. He said: “Of course I know the Clayborn house, Mrs. Leeder,” and wondered what that name was trying to say to him. Clayborn. Leeder. There was something.
She went on: “Just off the Park. I really have no one to turn to. If you decide to be charitable, you could stay on and meet the family at five. We all live here, as you may know, and if we're in town we all meet for tea at five. I should like to be able to tell them that you will represent me.”
“I have no standing of any kind, Mrs. Leeder, that would qualify me toâ”
“I'll explain. Will you come? Or does it all sound too strange? I can't say more over the telephone.”
Gamadge looked at his watch, and then gazed mournfully across to the library. He said: “Strangeness is a recommendation to me, you know.”
“I was depending on that.” The sad voice quickened. “I
expect you at four?”
Clayborn? Leeder? The names certainly had a meaning for Gamadge, but what was it? He was sure it wasn't an agreeable one. He said: “I'll be there.”
“You don't know how grateful I am. In half an hour?”
“Half an hour.”
Gamadge put down the telephone. Annoyed at having so little time for research, and at being prevented from asking questions of his wife, he opened the telephone book. He found
, and the addressânot much more than a mile up town. Lovely day, he would walk.
He got the Social Register off its shelf. His client was there, and it looked as though she were divorced; she was down as Mrs. Harriet Clayborn Leeder. No Mr. Leeder seemed to be anywhere.
there was quite a listâGavan, Miss Cynthia, Seward, Garth, Miss Elena (who was still at college). He began to remember something of the family nowâa family better known in the nineteenth century than it was to-day. It had been going strong in the '70s, '80s and '90s; in New York society, in diplomacy, in high sporting circlesâhe was sure that there had been a Clayborn racing yacht.
One or two elder Clayborns had tried literature; there had been reminiscences of European embassies, there had been a book of travels and big-game hunting. And not so long ago a Mrs. Clayborn, Gamadge was certain, had been a patron of chamber music.
They were not so much in the news nowadays. Gavan Clayborn, to judge by his clubs, still took an interest in yachting. Seward, a non-sporting character, went in for first-class clubs whose members more or less followed the arts. Garth Clayborn, named for the sporting and writing ancestor, had only achieved one of the family clubs as yetâan athletic institution of great fame. He must be young. Last of all came Miss Elena Clayborn, still at college. No clubs, poor child, at all.
Gamadge went into the library. His wife Clara was reading beside a window, his assistant David Malcolm was standing the cat Martin on its hind legs, and the baby, very masculine in shorts and a little sweater, was watching them affably from the rug.
Gamadge said: “I have to go out.”
Clara moaned. “Henry, why will you answer the telephone and get caught in this way?”
“Because my alleged assistant never answers it.”
“I never can remember to,” Malcolm said. “Damn.”
“That's going to be the baby's first word,” said Clara.
“Look here,” said Malcolm. “It's the nurse's Saturday afternoon off. Suppose I push the pram?”
“You stick to your job,” said Gamadge. “Learn something about books. All you know now is that if a book's cover is coming off it isn't worth as much as it would be if its cover wasn't coming off.”
“But you can't go out,” said Clara. “David's Miss Lucas is coming to tea, and we were going to have a rubber of bridge. When will you be back?”
Gamadge said angrily that he didn't know, and strode from the room.
Clara looked after him. “He didn't tell us anything,” she said. “That means it's a case. He isn't fit; his arm's very stiff yet. This is horrible.”
“If it's a case,” remarked Malcolm, “why didn't he ring me in on it? That's what I'm supposed to be for.”
“It must be a secret one,” said Clara, “and I hate them. Call up somebody, Dave; we can't disappoint Miss Lucas.” She added: “Too much.”
“My moral responsibility towards Miss Lucas,” replied Malcolm, “is nil.”
“Just make that clear to her then, will you?” Clara's expression was stern. “Because I'm not at all sure that she knows it.”
“Make it clear to her? How?” asked Malcolm, perplexed. “I can't very well assume that she assumes what you assume she does, can I?”
“Oh, bother!” said Clara. “Just talk to her the way you talk to me.”
“That I can't do,” protested Malcolm, “because there isn't anybody else like you.”
“There,” said Clara. “That's what I mean.”
“But that,” replied Malcolm, in hurt surprise, “is conversation.”
Gamadge, meanwhile, with his stick in his hand and a light overcoat on his arm, was walking west towards Park Avenue. It was a bright and beautiful October day in 1944, with a briskness in the air that would turn to a chill later, and his doctor had formally requested him not to catch cold.
“You're too old and you've been too sick to pretend that you're immune to the weather,” Hamish had told him.
So Gamadge had the top-coat over his arm. Thirty-nine years old and medium tall, with a slight stoop and a long, lurching stride, he was a figure in monochrome; rather colourless as to hair and skin, and with greenish-grey eyes. Quite unself-conscious, he would have been astonished to hear that there was something about him which caught the eye.
He turned up Park Avenue, and suiting his pace to the time allowed him, arrived at the Clayborn street just before four o'clock. He walked to Madison and then towards Fifth, where the Park trees were now a blur of yellow-green, with bare branches already stark among the dying leaves.
The east gable of the Clayborn house, three storeys high, rose above the tiled roof of its old two-storey carriage house and stables. These had been turned into studio apartments with skylights, the original double doors remaining to accommodate tenants' cars. The house itself, like its outbuildings, was of dark-red brick, brick as expertly chosen as the tiles and the pinkish stone of the trim. When the front elevation came in sight Gamadge paused to admire it; it must be, he thought, an H. H. Richardson; few examples of his art, so solid and yet so decorative, now remained in New York, and most of those were stablesâconverted as the Clayborn stables had been.
Yes, it was typically Richardsonâthe bands of windows below, the tall, triple-arched windows under the gables. Gamadge retraced his steps to look up at the east gable again, and its triple window. This window was falseâor had it been bricked up? The bricks within the delicate stone framework seemed lighter and newer than the rest.
Gamadge walked on to the ornamental arch that led into a deeply recessed porch or vestibule; walked past it, past the house, and along a high brick wall that enclosed a garden; trees showed above the stone coping. There was a narrow alley between the garden wall and the next house, and Gamadge, looking through to the street beyond, saw that a gate in the Clayborn wall gave on the alley.
He returned. The house had no basement, the rough stone foundations rose from grass, and the low bands of the first-floor windows were head-high from the ground.
He went up two shallow steps and into the porch; rang, and was admitted by a very old butler who smiled at him.
Gamadge said yes, smiled in return, and gave up his hat, coat, and stick.
“Mrs. Leeder would like you to come upstairs, Sir.”
As they crossed the large, dark, oak-beamed hall, Gamadge reflected that the only thing against these houses was their darkness. They were always dark, and how their architects had loved dark oak, stone fireplaces with andirons as tall as Great Danes, tapestries, bronze wall-torches, Chinese pots as big as wash-tubs, chairs to accommodate Henry the Eighth himself. They were all here, all the trappings; including tapestries with velvet borders and a vast oriental rug.
Gamadge was half-way up the stairs behind his guide when he pausedâwith one foot in the air. He remembered at last who Mrs. Leeder's husband had been. He put the foot down and continued the ascent; his mind ranging back to dim memories of a great scandal and a celebrated case. Rowe Leeder had been mixed up in the case until an alibi got him off. At that time he had been married only two years, to Miss Harriet Clayborn.
What was the case? The murder of a showgirl, or ex-showgirl, named Sillerman. Gamadge remembered no details, he had been still at his university; it had happened twenty years before. All he could recall were loud reverberationsâLeeder had been a well-known figure about town, the only son of an excellent family.
The house was as silent as the grave. Gamadge and the old butler were mounting as quietly as ghosts to the thickly carpeted landing. Gamadge had to remind himself that such houses were always quiet ones, built and furnished for quiet. Absurd to suppose that the Clayborns could still be effacing themselves, overshadowed by that old scandal. Leeder long ago had been cast out of their lives.
He followed the butler across a wide hall and through an arched doorway into a big room that extended all the way to the west end of the house. A dark room, lighted by low windows, but a handsome and a comfortable one. Big old-fashioned floor-lamps stood beside armchairs flanked by low tables, dark oils in tarnished gilt frames broke the wall space; there was one, a portrait of a high-nosed old gentleman of the seventies, above the mantel.
The butler said: “Mrs. Leeder will be here in a moment, Sir,” and went away.
Gamadge stood looking about him. Windows on either side of the fireplace, in which a wood fire burned; windows to the west, darkened by the apartment building across the alleyway. Cushioned seats below them, matching the red brocade of curtains and upholstery. At each end of the hearth a sofa at right angles, and in this little enclosure, in front of the left-hand sofa, a large round tea table furnished with a tremendous tea service and tray in repoussÃ© silver. Behind this sofa rose a great three-leaved Chinese screen to cut off draughts from the window beyond it.