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YOU'LL DIE LAUGHING
She settled herself on the couch. This was an involved maneuver for she had to be sure that just enough of the flesh above her stocking showed. Then, too, she had to be sure that a man, any man, was across from her so as to be intrigued by the display. That accomplished, she leaned back against the cushions and looked around. It showed promise of being a fairly entertaining weekend.
She smiled as she saw that Arthur Cannell was sitting down in the easy chair across from her.
He grinned and said, “You must be Irene.”
She nodded and looked at him from beneath her lashes.
“I’m going to be here for a while, too. Can I get you a drink?” he asked.
She nodded again and watched his tall, broad-shouldered body move across the room. She settled down a little more comfortably and relaxed just a trifle. This was definitely not going to be a wasted weekend. She glanced over at a small, beautifully dressed woman who looked as if she had just swallowed a small sword. Irene wondered what was burning Harriet up. In a moment she knew, for, standing over her with a drink, was Harriet’s husband, Victor.
Harriet said, “Victor, I need a drink. Do you think you could tear yourself away from Miss Jastrow long enough?”
He said, “Why, of course, darling. I’m sorry, but you so rarely drink that I didn’t think . . .”
As he turned, Cannell came back. He looked from the drink he carried to the drink in Irene’s hand and said, “Not much chance of your ever dying of thirst, is there?”
Harriet said under her breath, “There’s only one thing she’ll ever die of and that’s not thirst!”
She started as she realized that someone had overheard her. It was Mario Tolliver. He was grinning at her.
He said, “Now darling, we mustn’t be bitter.”
Irene watched them from under her lowered lashes and wondered for the hundredth time why Tolly’s neatness was so annoying. He was always impeccable. His clothes fitted too well. He was always clean shaven no matter what the hour. He never seemed to show the least trace of emotion. His bland, scarred face was always a trifle amused at the foibles of what he obviously considered an inferior race of mortals.
He was speaking again, in his soft voice which annoyed her. “My dear, you’ll only antagonize a man by a public display of jealousy like that. Save it for the privacy of your bedroom.”
Harriet didn’t seem too convinced. She shook her head angrily and said, “I can’t take much more of this. I don’t know why Victor insisted that we come to this party. Some party! The host hasn’t even deigned to put in an appearance yet”
Tolliver smiled and said, “Ah, you have a treat, a dubious one, but a treat nevertheless, in store for you. Wait until you meet the ineffable Mr. Grimsby.”
A man, short, chunky, and beaming with good nature, said, “Someone taking my name in vain?”
Tolly waved him over. “Mrs. Moody, I’d like to introduce Mr. Grimsby. Not the Mr. Grimsby, but his brother. This is Ben. You’ll like him.”
Irene yelled across the room, “Hi, Benny. How’s the world treating you?”
Ben flipped a casual hand in reply, eyed Victor who was sitting next to Irene and said, “Fine. Not as well as it always treats you, my pet, but well enough.”
Arthur Gannett, sitting on the other side of Irene, leaned over and whispered in her ear, “It’s a little crowded now. I’ll see more of you later.”
He walked away. As he passed Tolliver his mouth thinned down to a fine line. Tolliver smiled up at him and said, “You’re looking more magnificent than ever, Arthur. Still playing squash?”
Cannell almost snarled, “You know I am. I wish you’d stop calling my club every day.”
Tolliver made a move and said, “Temper, temper!”
Harriet turned to Ben Grimsby and said, “What in the world is keeping your brother? We’ve been here almost an hour and he hasn’t put in an appearance yet.”
“I can see you’ve never heard about my brother, Mrs. Moody.” Ben looked at her thoughtfully and added, “Why don’t you take my advice and ask your husband to take you home?”
Harriet was startled. It was what she had been longing to do ever since she’d arrived. She was a little puzzled about Ben’s advice. She asked, “Why do you say that?”
“My brother, Mrs. Moody, is a practical joker! You need a tough constitution to last out one of his parties! I’m afraid you aren’t tough enough.”
A booming voice bounced through the room. It was so loud that it rattled the ice in all their drinks. The voice, metallic and obviously coming from a loud speaker of some kind, said, “I heard that, Ben! One more word out of you and you can go back to work.”
There was a strained silence as they all tried to avoid each other’s eyes.
Irene broke the silence. She said, “He still hasn’t gotten tired of his little toy, has he?”
Ben gulped and smoothed the anger lines out of his face. “He’s only had the house wired for sound for a month now. I suppose sooner or later he’ll get bored with it just like all his gadgets.”
Harriet swallowed the major portion of her drink and said, “Let me get this straight. You mean your brother has dictaphones in this house?”
Irene laughed. “Sure. He’s sitting up in his bedroom now, with earphones on, listening to everything we say—aren’t you?”
The metallic voice roared out. “Sure I am. How else am I going to find out what people really think of me?”
Harriet shivered and looked around the room. Irene laughed at her and said, “Someone walk over your grave?”
Harriet essayed a small smile and said, “Yes, I’m afraid I’m not used to psychopathic hosts!”
“Who said that?” The metallic voice was high and shrill.
“I did. I am Harriet Moody. Like to make something out of it?”
Her husband leaped from the couch and put his hand over her mouth. His voice was low.
“You little fool,” he said, “do you want to ruin me? Keep still and try to make him forget you ever said that, or I’m a dead duck!”
Irene smiled to herself as she saw the fire in Harriet’s eyes flicker higher for a moment and then die down. Harriet was puzzled—you could see that with half an eye. But she was going to take Tolly’s advice and wait till she got to their room before she asked any questions.
As big as the house was, as beautifully as it was planned, with windows at every turn, the heat wave which had been promised for the weekend was getting to work.
The butler, a cranky little man who was completely out of place in the too modern home with its functional furniture and it’s unfunctional guests, came into the room where they were drinking.
He said, “Dr. Guelph has arrived.”
Irene started. What in the world was Guelph, a renowned psychiatrist, doing at a brawl like this one?
Guelph was cleaning his pince-nez as he came into the room. He was a fussy man. Medium height, medium build, medium everything, until you came to his eyes. Irene watched him as Ben Grimsby took him around the room making introductions. Guelph’s eyes weren’t probing, they weren’t deep set and piercing. They weren’t a peculiar color. They were—maybe it wasn’t the eyes themselves. Maybe it was the brain behind them. Because the eyes somehow made you feel that he could see deeper than most people—that none of your little secrets were hidden from him—that he knew all your hidden nastiness, took it for granted, and went on from there.
They were in front of Irene now. She smiled up at the doctor and said, because she knew it annoyed him a little, “Hi, doc. Remember me? I’m the gal you couldn’t straighten out.”
He winced at the “doc”, but smiled and said, “Of course. You don’t flatter yourself to think that anyone could forget you!”
She preened a little as he went on to meet Mrs. and Mr. Moody. She stopped preening as she remembered the long sessions she’d spent with the doctor—those endless sessions where he’d made her remember things she’d never wanted to face—when he made her say things about her own conduct that she—she shook her head angrily. Enough of that. She’d tried and failed. Forget. A short life and a hectic one. That was the ticket.
Cannell’s maleness impinged on her consciousness. She knew he was standing behind her before he spoke. Her nostrils flared as she thought of her secret thoughts—those thoughts that Dr. Guelph had dragged out into the open.
Cannell dropped into the couch next to her. He was wiping the sweat from his face as he spoke. “This heat just makes everything perfect. Grimsby’s bad enough at the best of times. But if he pulls one of his silly practical jokes on me in this weather I think I’ll strangle him.”
Irene looked at him and her voice was soft and caressing.
“If you put those big hands of yours around anybody’s neck, try and make it mine, will you?”
He grinned at the look in her eyes and said, “It’s a promise.” He paused and looked at Guelph who was fussily cutting the wet end off an unlit cigar with a tiny pair of scissors. He nodded his head at the doctor and said, “You know him; why does he puff away at an unlit butt?”
She smiled and answered, “It’s a case of physician heal thyself. He must stop smoking because it’s bad for his health. He knows, because it’s his business to, that most people smoke because they’ve set up a conditioned reflex towards smoking. Part of that reflex is the action of handling a cigarette or cigar. The action gives you something to do with your hands. So he gives his hands something to do and keeps his mouth occupied with the unlit—”
He interrupted. “But what about the scissors and his cutting the end off them?”
“He’s a little finicky. After he’s had it in his mouth for a while the end gets wet. He’s also against waste. So instead of throwing the butt away, he cuts off the wet end and goes happily back to fooling his conditioned reflexes into thinking that he’s smoking. Get it?”
“I’m almost sorry I asked. It all seems a little involved. Why not just cut out a habit if it’s bad for you?”
She looked at him. “Is it really as easy as that to stop doing something you know is bad for you?”
He ran his hand through his tangled black hair and said, “Well, there are habits and habits.”
Guelph cleared his throat and said to Tolly, “Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?”
Tolly pretended to think it amusing, although his eyes narrowed as he answered. “Why doctor, this is so sudden. You mean we’ve met at Atlantic City? No, that’s too common. Perhaps your opening gambit should have been, ‘Was it at Biarritz?’ ”
Guelph’s eyes wrinkled at the corners as he smiled. “You were close. But not close enough. I have it now. It was in Berlin, between the wars!”
Irene watched Tolly. For the first time since she had known him, a real emotion crossed his face. He was angry. He said stiffly, “I have never been in Berlin, doctor. You must be confusing me with someone else.”
The doctor shrugged and turned away. Irene could see from his expression that he was not convinced.
Victor, sitting on the arm of his wife’s chair, said, “I don’t like to act like a savage, but isn’t anyone else hungry?”
Harriet said, “Oh, Victor. How can you even think of food in this weather?”
Ben Grimsby called out to the hidden microphone, “What about it? Tired of sitting up there with your earphones on?”
The metallic voice answered, “Be right down, Benny, old boy.”
Ben said in a soft voice. “That’s bad. He’s too sociable. I wonder what he’s thought up now?”
Harriet was on her feet. She said, “I don’t know about the rest of you but if I’m even to think of food I have to freshen up a little.”
She paused, waiting for someone to tell her where the powder room was.
Irene finally took the cue. She said, “Come on, I’ll play seeing-eye dog. It’s down here . . .”
As the two women left the room, Dr. Guelph said to Tolly, “I’m sorry if I embarrassed you, Mr. Tolliver, but . . .”
Tolly said quickly, “Forget all about it, doctor.”
Irene came back into the room with a smile of expectancy on her face. “Hold onto your hats, kids. Here it comes!”
They looked at her in puzzlement. Suddenly the silence of the house was blasted by the shriek of a fire siren. Its scream had barely died down, when they heard their host’s laugh boom through the loud-speaker.
He was laughing so hard it was difficult to make out his words. “Ho ho ... I think I’ll die ... ho ho ... die laughing ...”
Harriet came into the room. She was red with embarrassment. She said between clenched teeth, “This has gone too far. Victor, I will not stay in this man’s house another minute!”
As Victor went to her to try and restrain her, she continued, “You can’t make me be still about this. It’s inexcusable!”
Tolly was laughing. “He got you, huh?”
Harriet turned on him. “I’m glad you think it’s funny. I’ve never been so embarrassed in my life!”
Dr. Guelph said, “Wait a minute. Take it easy, What’s all this about?”
Irene giggled and said. “Oh it’s just one of our host’s more delicate jokes. He has a siren fastened to the pull on the water chamber in the toilet. When you flush the toilet, the siren goes off.”
Harriet said, “Must I take a thing like this, Victor? I can see no possible excuse for such behavior! It’s—it’s insane!”
Ben Grimsby looked at the doctor as though to ask whether he concurred. But Guelph’s face was inscrutable. He was cutting the wet end off his now tiny cigar.
The sound of laughter, which had rattled through the house, died down. But only for a moment and then it returned. This time, however, it did not come from the concealed loudspeaker.
They all looked up at the man at the top of the stairs. He was holding his sides as he chortled. “That was really wonderful,” he said. “Haven’t laughed so much since the day the mule kicked my brother in the head! Almost broke it too. The mule’s hoof I mean, not my brother’s head.”
He continued to laugh as he came downstairs. As he reached the bottom, he said, “You folks missed the cream of the jest. I was the only one to really appreciate it. You see, I have a microphone in the bathroom, too. I heard what you said when the siren went off, Mrs. Moody!”
This time it was Mr. Moody who flushed. It wasn’t embarrassment in his case. It was anger. He said, “Don’t push me too far, Grimsby! I’ll—”
Grimsby laughed in his face. “You’ll do what? You’ll do exactly as I tell you or else!”
Harriet looked at her husband curiously. All the blood in his face drained out. His hands shook as he desperately tried to compose his features. He said in a tone of false jollity that rang on their strained ears like a lead dollar, “Ha! Ha! Guess we can take a joke as well as the next guy, eh, dear?”
Harriet saw the look of dumb entreaty in his eyes. She swallowed her pride—or at least tried to, for it stuck in her throat, as she forced a smile and said, “I must apologize for my bad temper. Of course, I don’t want to be a wet blanket. Let’s go in and eat, shall we?”
Victor took her arm and thanked her by squeezing it as they walked towards the dining room. She felt a little repaid.
Irene hung on Dr. Guelph’s arm as they followed the Moodys into the dining room. Irene said, “This’ll probably be the first dinner party on record where the women are outnumbered three to one!”
Ben Grimsby, who was behind them, said, “As peculiar as some of my brother Jesse’s ideas are, this isn’t his fault. He invited two other ladies but they had to break it at the last moment, so we’ll just have to make it do.”
Irene laughed and said, “Don’t think for one moment that I have any objections; I’ve always held that three men to one woman is just about the proper proportion.”
Jesse Grimsby, who had come up behind them, rested his hand on her back and said, “I knew you’d be happy, my dear!”
As he finished speaking, Irene jumped, for a rattling buzz on her spine made her nerves scream. She twisted around and saw that Jesse was roaring with laughter as he wound up a little watch-sized gadget which he had in his hand.
He held it up so she could see it and said, “Like the effect of my little joy buzzer? I think it’s a scream!”
The doctor said, “Very interesting, may I see it?”
Jesse handed it to him. It was a spring gadget which, when wound, controlled a little button. When the spring was released on contact, the button vibrated.
The doctor handed it back and said, “You know, I’m an amateur magician of sorts, because I’ve found that tricks have a certain therapeutic value in many of my cases.”
Irene said, “If that’s the kind of tricks you use, I can see why they have booby hatches!”
Guelph smiled at her and said, “Whoa, that wasn’t my idea. It was Mr. Grimsby’s.”
“Oh, of course. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t take my temper out on you!” She looked at Jesse’s broad back. “I could really hate that man,” she said, “if I put my mind to it and I think I will!”
The dinner table, solid glass and shaped like a paramecium, reflected their faces as they seated themselves.
Grimsby looked around proudly and said, “It’s brand new. Pretty smart, isn’t it?”
Irene, still annoyed, said, “What is this? A plot so an honest hard working girl can’t play ‘kneesy’ any more?”
“Go right ahead, my dear.” Grimsby’s smile was broad and genial. “Go right ahead, if you don’t mind an audience. And I shouldn’t think a little thing like that would bother you . . .” His voice trailed off.
Irene turned to her neighbor, Cannell, and said, “I thought they used insecticide on things like him, but I can see I was wrong.”
Cannell smothered a smile and asked Dr. Guelph for an opinion on the heat treatment for paranoia.
Guelph, anxious to change the tone of the dinner, was only too glad to speak on his specialty. His lecture on the comparative merits of rattlesnake venom as opposed to fever machines for the generation of artificial fever carried them through the soup course.
He held their attention while the fish course was served. But Jesse Grimsby startled them, just when they all had taken their first mouthfuls of the fish, by a little announcement.
He said, “I’m sure you’ll all be glad to know that you’re eating an octopus,”
That did it. The food stopped halfway down their throats. He wasn’t satisfied at that but insisted on explaining what he meant.
“You know, the things with the long rubbery legs with the suckers on them?” He smiled at the consternation on the women’s faces. The men managed to swallow their mouthsful. Irene gagged but manfully forced the suddenly rubbery food down. Harriet Moody had to confess defeat. She ran from the table, and as she ran she could hear Jesse’s laugh roaring after her.
When she returned, she found that the octopus had been removed. She sat down and made a feeble pretense of eating. The heat hadn’t let up with nightfall. If anything, it was stickier and more unbearable than before.
She was grateful when the dessert was finally served. It appeared cool and refreshing. It looked like apricots on some kind of sponge cake. She picked up her fork and cut off a tiny piece of the sponge cake. As she did so, for the first time she became conscious of the fact that Victor, her husband, was talking to her. She wondered idly how long he’d been speaking before it had penetrated. She forced herself to concentrate on what he was saying.
“And darling,” he was saying in a low tone that didn’t carry far, “if you can only stick out this horrible weekend, everything will be all right. I know I owe you an explanation, but I can’t give you one yet. Please trust me.”
She nodded as she put the cake in her mouth. It tasted strange and she realized that Jesse was eyeing her speculatively. The apricot was small and she was flustered by his unblinking stare, so, almost unaware of what she was doing, she scooped up the whole apricot and put it in her mouth. It was cool, as she had expected, but then, suddenly it seemed to dissolve in her mouth.
Her gorge rose. She was desperately ill. Cold sweat beaded her brow as she grappled with her queasy stomach. This time she barely made it to the bathroom and again as she ran she heard Jesse’s laugh booming out.
In the dining room all the others looked from their plates to Jesse’s laughing face. He roared, “You’ll die laughing when I tell you the gag.”
He had to stop talking and he laughed till the tears ran down his face. Finally he said, “In a way I’m a little disappointed, I thought I’d get more than one of you! Look!”
As he said this, he plunged his dessert spoon into what looked like an apricot, on his plate. It broke and ran over the cake. They looked more closely at their plates and realized that the round yellow object which was so perfect an imitation of a fruit was really the yolk of an egg.
Dr. Guelph said, “No wonder she became ill. Of all the horrid—”
Jesse laughed in his face and said, “Oh, come now, doctor, be a sport!”
Irene intercepted a glance that went from Ben Grimsby to the doctor. Ben’s eyes were pleading. The doctor seemed to reconsider what he was going to say, for finally he forced a weak laugh and said, “Very bizarre.”
Tolly, who had been quiet all through dinner, which was unusual for him, said, “If all the fun and games are over for the evening, can we go out in the other room and play some records?”
Jesse smiled at him and said, “Now Tolly, you know that your slightest wish is my desire. Make with your crummy jazz records, if you want to.”
As they moved in a ragged group out of the dining room, Dr. Guelph whispered in Irene’s ear, “Please do me a favor, my dear, and see if Mrs. Moody is all right.”
It was a command and Irene interpreted it as such. As she entered the powder room she could hear from the living room the first beats of Krupa’s wonderful solo on the Goodman recording of Sing, Sing, Sing.
She was momentarily annoyed at having to miss it but when she saw Mrs. Moody’s tiny frame she was all compassion. Mrs. Moody had lost all her china doll prettiness. She was like a shaking, sick child. She had obviously been very ill. Irene wet a wash cloth under the cold tap and sponged Harriet’s forehead. She whimpered like an animal in pain.
Irene brushed the dank hair from her tiny face and tried to soothe her.
Soon Harriet’s pride came to her rescue and she said, “You can stop playing Florence Nightingale. I’m all right now. Honestly I am. Look—don’t think I’m ungrateful, but I’ll feel much better if you leave me alone for a few minutes. I’ll get hold of myself and come out and join you. Really I will.”
Irene unwillingly felt admiration for the courage the smaller woman was showing, and as she walked away she said, “Listen, kid, if the going gets too tough, don’t forget I’m around.”
The Goodman-Krupa record was over when Irene got back to the living room. Arthur Cannell walked to her side as she entered. He said, “You look as if a stiff drink were in order, yes?”
She didn’t have to answer that one. She sat down with her usual attention to her legs and watched Jesse Grimsby, who was puttering with a stack of records which he was arranging so that the automatic record changer could take care of them.
Tolly said to her, “You’ll get a bang out of these. I hand picked the cream of my collection. This next one is a Bessie Smith that I paid twenty dollars for,”
Cannell came back with her drink as the high blue voice of the long-dead queen of all blues singers moaned through the room. Some of her tension left her as the notes eased their way along her system.
She smiled at Cannell and said, “That’s for me.”
He nodded and listened. Ben Grimsby had his eyes closed. He was obviously enjoying himself. Jesse was standing at one of the French doors looking out into the night. His broad back was somehow inimical. Irene took her eyes away from it and looked over at Victor Moody. He was downing one drink after another. Irene wondered how long he’d be able to keep it up at that pace with the heat what it was.
The Bessie Smith record was too soon over, and as Mrs. Moody made her way into the room, the record changer began Eddie Heywood’s Begin the Beguine.
Tolly said, “For sheer technical piano virtuosity, that boy will take a lot to beat.”
Under the spell of the almost unbelievable variations on a theme that Heywood gets out of this tune, the group relaxed. For the first time, it seemed to be what it was supposed to be—a gay weekend party. All feet were beating out time when the record ended.
“If Jesse left the records in the order I had them,” Tolly said, “the next one should be Josh White singing Strange Fruit.—And if that doesn’t cool you off by getting the hackles up on your neck, well—listen and see.”
Jesse turned to face them for the first time since they entered the room. He said, as they heard the records being changed inside the machine, “No, this isn’t the kind of strange fruit you were thinking of, Tolly. I included a recording that I made last week. Remember last week’s party?”
Irene wondered at the way Cannell, sitting next to her, suddenly stiffened. His body was rigid as though he were awaiting a shot in the back.
The record, obviously a home made one by the lack of clarity, began. It was not music. As a matter of fact, for a moment Irene wondered what it was, then suddenly, the scratching stopped and Tolly’s voice said clearly, “You’re a little under the weather, aren’t you, you big, handsome brute?”
There was no doubt about it, Cannell was all set to do something. Irene could feel his body tremble against her side.
As Tolly’s voice on the record stopped, a voice, blurred, and obviously drunk, but still unmistakably Cannell’s, said, “How’d I get here?”
Irene looked over at Tolly and wondered how she could have ever thought him poker-faced. Emotion had torn his features. Hate shown forth like a flash bulb in a dark night club. He was staring at Jesse, who stood smirking at all of them.
Cannell leaped off the divan and his voice was blurred as he raced for the phonograph. Irene thought he said, “I’ll kill him! I’ll kill him for this, if it’s the last thing I ever do!”
Jesse tried to stop Cannell, as Cannell ripped the top off the phonograph. Cannell twitched an arm at Jesse and Jesse bounced half way across the room and fell. As he tried to rise, Tolly, who was at his side, kicked him in the belly. Jesse grunted and fell back to the floor. His little, feral eyes gleamed, as Cannell tore the record off the turntable and smashed it into a thousand pieces.
Tolly, still standing over Jesse, said, “I’d like to break you into as many pieces as that record!”
Cannell turned from the phonograph and looked as though he were going to fulfill Tolly’s threat. He was almost on top of Jesse when Dr. Guelph and Victor snapped out of the trance that the unexpected happenings had thrown them into and ran to grab Cannell.
Victor got one of Cannell’s arms and the doctor the other. Victor said, “I almost think we ought to let Arthur do what he wants to. Of all the rotten, lousy . . .”
Jesse, still sprawled on the floor, said, “Don’t, doctor —don’t let him go! He’ll kill me!”
Cannell had gotten a little grip on himself. He gritted, “When I kill you it won’t be with my hands ... I wouldn’t touch anything so slimy as you are.”
Jesse got to his feet, holding his hands across his belly, and tottered to the doorway. He looked back at the people in the room. His glance swept over all of them and came to rest on his brother, Ben.
Jesse shook his fist at Ben. “You didn’t move. You didn’t try to save me! I might have been killed and you sat there on your fat behind. Fat that I put there with my food. Remember that! You didn’t move— remember, when you’re back on the bum ...”
He staggered a little as he put his hand on the iron rail that went up the stairs. He walked up the first step, then turned back. Once more his face was creased with a smile, but there was no real humor in it.
“Look at you! Look at the pack of you! It makes me laugh! Ho! Ho! It was worth it—for there’s one thing you didn’t take into account, Tolly, when you kicked me, and you, Cannell, when you hit me and broke my record! One little thing! Ho, ho ...”
He went up a few more stairs before he turned around again and laughed. “One little thing—a duplicate phonograph record! Ho! Ho! ... And neither of you knows where it is!”
Cannell looked at Tolly, Tolly looked at Cannell.
Despite the heat, Irene shuddered.
Harriet said weakly, “Does this mean the party’s over? Can we go home now, Victor?”
Jesse, almost at the top of the stairs, turned and imitated Harriet’s voice. “No. We can’t go home yet. The party hasn’t even started! And if you were thinking of going now, Victor, you’d better give it another think!”
Harriet looked at her husband hopefully but the hope died out as she saw Victor slump into a chair as though his bones had jellied.
At the head of the stairs Jesse looked down at them. Irene thought, if only he looked like a gargoyle you’d be able to understand him better, but he looks like just what he is, a more than successful upper-middle-class business man. No more and no less. Getting a little fat. Losing a little hair. You saw men like him riding around the business centers of any town in America. She wondered what twist had made him what he was. She stared at his face as though trying to read his secret there. He saw her looking at him and grinned.
He said, “No use trying my door tonight, honey. I’m locking it on the inside!”
Ben said, “Before the bric-a-brac starts flying again, Dr. Guelph, do you see why I asked you to come?”
Guelph, who had remained a passive spectator as was his wont, said, “I see only too well, but—”
Ben said, “But what? How can there be any buts? He’s mad, mad and dangerous. He’s a public menace! He’ll go to any lengths ... Hasn’t that given you enough proof?”
Guelph sighed. “Proof? Proof that your brother is a particularly despicable human being? Yes. There is plenty of that kind of proof. But, my dear man, if all the despicable humans were put in asylums, I’m afraid that. . .”
Ben was astonished. He said, “You mean he can’t be sent to an institution? That’s all I’ve been living for, praying for.”
Guelph put his hand on Ben’s shoulder and said, “There’s a world of difference between neuroticism and a psychopathic state. Unfortunately your brother is no more crazy than any of us. He is neurotic, yes, but insane, no!”
The heat seemed to beat in on them in waves. Harriet feebly wiped some perspiration off her arms and said, “I don’t suppose I’ll sleep, but I must get some rest. Are you coming up to bed, Victor?”
He took her arm as assent and they went upstairs.
Guelph looked after them. He shook his head.
Tolly stood up, still immaculate, still looking as though he were possessed of a private refrigerating plant. He said, “This has been a large evening. I think I have had more than enough. Good night.”
He paused on the stairs as had Jesse earlier. He looked at the doctor and said, “There is no more need for lying, Dr. Guelph. Of course you have seen me before. And it was in Berlin as you thought.”
Guelph nodded. “Yes. I was sure after a bit that I knew you. I am sorry I made an issue of it. I had no idea it would—”
“Embarrass me?” Tolly finished the sentence for him, “Can you not understand that over there, what I was was a thing for which I was respected. Here, there are different mores. I have to live within those mores. I didn’t want to be notorious. I probably could have kept my past a secret had it not been for our so pleasant host.”
He shrugged ruefully and touched the very tips of his fingers to the scar tissue on his face. “It’s these,” he said. “It is not everyone that would have recognized me through these.”
Guelph said, “I couldn’t have been too sure.”
Tolly shrugged, “It matters no longer. Again, good night.”
As he went out of sight, Irene turned to Dr. Guelph. “What in the world was that little routine all about?”
Guelph said, “Poor Tolly. He was once the toast of Europe. That was until one of his lovers hacked up his face. He couldn’t continue after that.”
Irene looked puzzled. “The toast of Europe? You make him sound as if he had been some reigning beauty!”
“He was,” said Guelph. “He was the highest paid female impersonator on any stage.”
Guelph finished his drink. Irene realized that it was the same drink with which he had started the evening.
Guelph said to Arthur Cannell, “If I may prescribe for you, son, you’d better try to get some sleep, too.”
Cannell nodded and went off wordlessly. Ben soon followed him.
When they were alone, Guelph asked Irene, “What brings you here, my dear? I can figure out the others. Mr. and Mrs. Moody are trapped into obedience by some hold that Jesse obviously has over Victor. Ben is here because he has no other place to go. Tolly is here because—well, because there are probably few places he is welcome. Cannell is here, I imagine, because he was bored and maybe even curious about Tolly’s interest in him. But you—”
Irene stood up and moved across the room. Her high, firm, hard breasts stood out in silhouette as she paced across the floor.
She finally said, “You shouldn’t have to ask me that, doctor. I come here because the hunting is generally good.”
She smoothed her tight dress across her hips and looked at Guelph for a long time. She laughed at herself at last and said, “But I can see that this is one hunting trip that is not going to be very thrilling.”
Guelph said, “It may not in the sense you mean, my dear, but I’m afraid that Jesse may go too far. The thrill may be—Bah! I’m getting silly. It must be this frightful heat.”
He took the unlit tiny stub of cigar out of his mouth and meticulously placed it in the very center of an ash tray.
Irene watched him. He said, “If it would only rain. The heat would break and all of us might be able to stand Jesse for the rest of our stay.”
Irene said, “Heat or not, rain or not, I have an idea our practical-joking friend is finally pushing his luck too far.”
With that, she turned and went upstairs, dreading the night of restlessness she knew was before her.
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