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Did She Fall?


Thorne Smith



FOR a moment Scott Munson stood poised in the driveway watching the gliding roadster until it raced round a curve, then, going swiftly through a rear door of the club-house, he reached the veranda just in time to see Emily-Jane Seabrook signal Daniel to stop. For a moment it looked to Munson as if Daniel were going to disobey the summons of the gracefully fluttering hand, but slowly the car slackened speed and came to a reluctant stop.

At that moment Munson became aware of a figure standing beside him, and turned to inspect the tense body and clenched hands of Sam Stoughten. Munson's eyes swept to the other's face and lingered there fascinated by what he saw written on the tight lips, the grim jaw, and the chin aggressively out-thrust. And behind the lenses of the glasses Scott caught a glimpse of the fires of hell itself. Stoughten stood there thus for a moment, his guard of reserve down, then his body relaxed as if defeated, the chin dropped, the hands swung helplessly, and the man turned back to the club-house.

In this brief flash of self-revelation Sam had furnished Scott Munson with still more food for thought. And Munson's first thought was that Emily-Jane had more than one seeming friend who did not wish her any too well.

"Half a mo'," cried that young lady, as she ran down the steps and gaily approached her prospective brother-in-law, now waiting sullenly behind the wheel of his car.

Munson saw that much, but what he did not see, nor did anyone else for that matter, was the swift change of expression that took possession of Emily-Jane's features the exact moment she felt sure she was free from the observation of others.

No more of the frank-eyed Emily-Jane. Gone—vanished! Here was a new creature, a thing ridden by a hot venomous fury. Laughing Emily-Jane had become a hard-voiced, blazing young devil, something a trifle subhuman. At first she had nothing to say but much to look, then gradually an unpleasant smile re-arranged the lines of her lips.

"Don't do that again, Daniel," she said evenly. "You wanted to make a fool of me in front of the whole damn club. Well, don't do it, Daniel. Don't do it, my ex-slave."

She laughed, as Daniel's face darkened. And had she but known it each ringing note was doing a terrible thing to her.

"Wipe that look off your face, Daniel," she went on softly. "Look like you used to, or have you forgotten how?"

"Yes," said Daniel at last. "It didn't make sufficient impression, but you seem to remember."

"You're going to live to regret that, Daniel," she said, leaving a pause of ice between each word.

"I doubt that," replied Daniel, looking at her strangely. "But what do you want? I'm waiting."

"Tell your brother I'm lunching at the club," she said, "and explain to him in words of one syllable about tonight. You're going to make the formal announcement and drink to our happiness. You'll like that, won't you, Daniel? You're the head of the family, you know, such as it is. That's about all for now," she went on, after a short pause during which she had been enjoying the effect of her words. "That's about all except that I suggest you stop treating Lane Holt as if he didn't belong. He's a particular friend of mine. I'm fond, of Lane. Very. And, Daniel dear, you might as well make up your mind to be a good boy right now. We'll be better friends that way . . . much better friends. If you don't behave" —once more she paused and looked at him consideringly— "if you don't, Daniel, I'll kick over the whole damn apple cart. You have more to lose than I, you and your precious friends. And the harm that I can do can never be undone. Remember that, Daniel. Now you may go."

Her silvery laughter fell pleasantly on the soft quiet air and brought a responsive smile to the lips of several sentimental dowagers clucking round their daughters on the veranda. Emily-Jane was always passing happiness along.

She had just passed great quantities of it to Daniel, but there was little suggestion of a smile on his lips as he sent his car, like a whirring curse, down the sweeping driveway of the Coastal Country Club.

Emily-Jane's short talk with Daniel had done her small good. If she had not been altogether popular with him before, she was far less now. As he went brooding over the country road on his way homeward, Daniel Crewe swore both darkly and deeply in his heart that for once in her life Emily-Jane was not going to have anything like her way. She would never defeat him. He knew this now. And he also knew why she would never defeat him. But this knowledge, instead of bringing to him the relief one would expect, filled him with a sort of dull horror. He experienced a desire not to be alone with himself, and at the same time felt a strong inclination to lie down somewhere and hide like an animal—not like a man.

Already he felt the world withdrawing a little from him. Already he stood aside as if he were another person and criticized the determination that was solidifying in his mind. He had a strange feeling that within his very being he was utterances not lost on the ears of two men who were standing a little apart from the group. Its effect was to cause the cohiding and protecting a stranger, a furtive, stealthy stranger with whom he must become friendly so that he should no longer fear his promptings.

This furtive stranger was assuring him in no equivocal language that he had been a damn fool to ask Scott Munson those revealing questions just now. That had been a decidedly false step. Daniel must be more careful. There must be no more false steps. From now on he must avoid arousing the slightest suspicion. Tonight, for instance, tonight of all nights, he must convince the world that he admired and respected his brother's future wife. He must go through with it successfully. A man can do anything if he tries. Another thing, he must attempt to erase all traces of suspicion that might lie in the mind of his friend Scott Munson. No. Better leave Scott alone. Let that conversation pass. The harm had already been done.

Daniel stopped the car at the side of the road and wiped his forehead. Why was he sweating so? He held up his hands before his eyes and looked at them intently. Then for a long minute he studied his features in the driver's mirror. Any change? No. None that he could see. Quite the same old Daniel. A trifle pale perhaps. Still, there was that unaccustomed sensation of trembling, of trembling inwardly. Better take a drink, suggested the stranger, and Daniel, acting on this never unwelcome suggestion, drew a silver flask from the side pocket of the roadster and helped himself.

As he did so a car, filled with acquaintances, flashed by, some of its occupants being just human enough tolook back, as if to make sure of having seen something unusual.

"Strange thing for Dan Crewe to be doing," said a man named Jackson. "Never saw Daniel drinking all alone before. Must have needed it badly. Had to stop his car and pull up at the roadside. The thirsty devil couldn't wait till he reached home."

But Daniel had not heeded the passing of the car. His nerves had ceased jumping. Yes, he would go home now and make one last effort. He would try his luck with Barney.

If he only could. If he only could. At the thought of possible success his world came back a little. Daniel almost prayed.

* *

Back on the club-house veranda Emily-Jane was chatting spiritedly with young and old alike. That was one of her many charms. She always found time to be gracious to the mothers and fathers of her friends.

"If only the other young people would try to be more like her," was a general observation.

"Dan's such a lovable old bear," she was saying, "but such a goose. He's so fussy and nervous about tonight that he looks for all the world like an undertaker trying to sympathize with a corpse."

Propheti utterances not lost on the ears of two men who were standing a little apart from the group. Its effect was to cause the color momentarily to withdraw from Sam Stoughten's ruddy face. He turned abruptly away and sought a secluded chair. Scott Munson idly moved in his direction.

"Yes," continued Emily-Jane, "the poor man's elected to make the formal announcement, and he doesn't seem to have the vaguest idea how to go about it. He'll probably begin with, 'Come, all ye. Come, all ye. The honorable judge is now sitting'!"

Amid general laughter she escaped from the circle and flashed down the veranda. As she passed Sam Stoughten's chair she paused lightly—tauntingly.

"Hello there, Sambo," she said. "All alone and sullen. Where's black-eyed Susan?"

"Why, haven't you seen her?" asked Stoughten in a casually bitter tone. "Why not write to her? You admit yourself you're good with letters."

"Perhaps some day I'll take your advice, Sambo," she replied.

"Then you'd better be quick," said Stoughten. "Meaning what?" asked Emily-Jane.

Stoughten did not answer.

"Don't be a fool, Sambo," said the girl, after a moment of thoughtful silence. "And don't try to frighten me. Admit you're licked and behave yourself. Good-by, Sambo, dear."

She passed lightly on down the veranda.

Presently Scott Munson moved quietly from the shadow of an alcove near the water-cooler and, seating himself by Stoughten, deliberately lighted a cigarette.

"Smoke, Sam?" he asked, extending his case.

The hand that selected a cigarette trembled slightly. "Thanks," said Sam, but for several minutes he made no attempt to light the cigarette.

* *

Daniel found his brother contentedly at work in the dining-room, the last place in the world any normal painter would select for his efforts. The room was almost dark, the curtains being drawn, but Barney seemed to be either unaware of the lack of light or indifferent to it. Today he was engaged in seeing the most uncompromisingly yellow bananas in shades of girlish pink. On the table at his elbow was a bowl of fruit, pieces of which he had already partly eaten as if to make sure that his subjects were authentic. It would have been a pity to waste so much talent on stuffed fruit. Daniel stood looking down at the painting over his brother's shoulder.

"Even the specks are wrong," he observed at last, with a note of the old bantering challenge in his voice.

"Don't take them too much to heart," replied his brother, without troubling to look up. "They're my specks, after all. I see 'em that way, so they are that way. Go paint some specks of your own. I'll match my specks against yours, speck for speck, catch as catch can."

"Oh, all right," said Daniel. "It's a wonder to me you can paint any specks at all in this light."

He sat down at the long table and stretched his arms wearily across its deep, glowing surface.

"I've decided to accustom myself to painting in entire darkness," announced Barney. "I may even start a new school of painting. It will be altogether intellectual, uninfluenced by externals, dependent on neither color nor form. Just pure thought—the brain transferred to canvas."

"Yours transferred to canvas would leave it quite unspoiled," observed Daniel.

"In that there would be some deep significance," said his brother.

"When you paint in the dark," asked Daniel, not in the least interested, "how will you know what you're painting?"

"It is better not to sometimes," replied Barney soberly. "Far, far better. But the real answer is, you won't know."

"Not even when you've finished?" asked Daniel.

"Probably not," said Barney, "because in my proposed school all pictures will be not only painted in darkness but also hung in darkness. One will be expected to view them in pitch blackness and to criticize accordingly. Too many critics of pictures are influenced by what they see rather than by what they don't see. That is a great mistake. Now in my school every artist will enjoy an equal advantage—complete invisibility. Of course there will be trained guides to lead people about. I've thought it all out."

"To me," said Daniel, "it's about the most reasonable idea you ever had."

"Thanks," replied Barney. "Where's the girl?"

"She told me to tell you she was staying to lunch at the club with the rest of the gang," said Daniel, then added mendaciously, "She thought it would save a lot of fuss and bother in view of the doings tonight."

"There's a brain for you," Barney remarked admiringly. "Thinks of everything and everyone. Well, it won't be long now. I beat you to it, Dan, old son. And there's a damn fine girl just dying to marry you. Why don't you do something about June, Dan? Let's all get married together. We'll be tagged so we won't get mixed up, as they always do at least once or twice in all good Franco-American farces."

Daniel was beginning to feel his nerves quivering again. This was due to a sharp realization that perhaps never again would he and his brother be able to talk thus together. He rose and sought the sideboard where he poured himself a drink. Then he came back to the table.

"I say, Barney," he began, and there was that in his voice that made Barney stop daubing and look up at his brother anxiously. "Listen here, Barney," Daniel began again, "I'm not at all sure about tonight. Do you feel you're doing the wisest thing? After all, you two have known each other less than a couple of months at the most. What I mean is, old man, you're pretty damn happy as you are—we've been happy together. We can keep on being happy—traveling and all that sort of thing. No end of possibilities. I'm not going to get married for a long, long time. Why not wait a while longer with me? There's a lot of things we can enjoy together. Don't let's go through with the formal announcement which actually is an open invitation to your wedding. Why, Barney, kid, in only a couple of weeks you'll be a married man! What then? Let's clear out. Let's do any-thing. Call it off, will you . . . or . . . or . . . wait a little longer. Just wait and see what happens. Give me a chance, Barney. We'll go right away. Just think—"

He broke off with the nauseating knowledge of failure. Barney's face had fallen. The boy was amazed. Not unlike a too trusting pup that had been smitten suddenly by a cat that had led him to expect better things, he now looked up at his brother. Daniel's gaze was filled with a deep entreaty. Then he looked away. Instinctively his eyes sought the shadows.

"Get yourself another drink, old boy," said Barney in a quiet voice. "I know how you feel, but of course you're all wrong about everything. My being married will make no difference at all. We can go on living just the same as ever and do all the things we've planned. I know how you feel. I'd feel the same. Don't you think I haven't thought about it myself? I have—lots. And of course you must marry June. The four of us will have one hell of a high time."

"Guess you're right, Barney," said Daniel, but there was no conviction in his voice.

"Cheer up," Barney said, and laughed light-heartedly. "Of course I'm right. I'm always right about everything. You've got to admit that. And anyway the cakes and everything are all ordered. Aunt Matty would have a horrible fit. She'd die, perhaps, or bust with a deafening report."

Daniel nodded slowly and smiled. The Furies seemed to be jigging grotesquely on his grave. Reason was reeling drunkenly to bed. A crazy parachute was dragging him over a cliff. He would let go soon. Then the drop . . .

"No," he remarked. "I guess it would never do, especially now that the cakes have been ordered, and all that about Aunt Matty. No, Barney, we mustn't let her bust with a deafening report."

"I merely mentioned the cakes in passing," grinned Barney, now thoroughly satisfied that everything was once more as he wanted it to be. "They're fairly good at that." He extracted one from his pocket and popped it into his mouth. "Fairly good but lamentably small. Crisp ! Have one. Besides we love each other."

Daniel picked up the soiled-looking object his brother had tossed across the table and, after removing several adhering threads and a family gathering of tobacco crumbs, followed Barney's inelegant example.

"There's paint on it," he said.

"I know," agreed -Barney. "There's paint on all of them. Just slightly though."

"You're going to have a swell time of it tonight," said Daniel, "if you don't make yourself sick on a lot of truck beforehand. I'd better speak to Aunt Matty about you."

"No, don't," put in Barney hastily. "Leave her entirely alone. She's been watching me all morning as it is. And speaking of cakes, do you remember, Dan, when we were boys and I'd be locked in the room, how you used to put cakes and stuff in an old shoe and I'd pull it up to the window with a string? Well, ever since then I've never been able to enjoy an honestly acquired piece of cake. To be thoroughly enjoyable it must be pilfered."

He paused and looked back on the past. Something in that old dark room seemed to evoke memories. He was secretly a little frightened himself about the party that night, and was unconsciously seeking escape in memories of the days when he and Daniel had been boys together.

"You know, Dan," he went on wisely, "I don't think father would have been half as hard-boiled if mother had been alive. He must have missed her like the devil. . . mother . . . not having her and all. Just a couple of damn disorderly sons. I can, see things better now."

From a sense of loyalty, a sensitive understanding of Daniel's position, Barney always included him in the hard treatment he himself had received. It was almost as if he were trying to justify his father and at the same time to let Daniel know that he understood. Then, again, it made his childhood seem a little less unshared.

"You got all the raw deals, Barney," said Daniel, not trusting himself to look at his brother, the closest creature to him in all God's world. "All the tough breaks were yours, but the old man really wasn't like that—not really."

The room had grown quiet now. Daniel was standing at one of the windows. He had parted the curtains slightly and was looking out on the lawn. Then his gaze lifted, and he was looking out across the lawn to the far-away water-rimmed edge of the sky. And he felt himself out there amidst a vast silence and peace. He was alone out there between the sea and the sky. He was alone and resting, his problem forever solved.

What was he going to do about it? He shivered a little. Only too well he knew. He turned back to the room.

He stood contemplating the small, firm, and strangely lined face of his brother. Suddenly it came over him that this would be in all likelihood the last time he would ever see him so completely happy again. He wanted to retain that memory . . . to fix it in his mind.

"You're sure about tonight, then, kid?" he asked diffidently.

"Sure, Daniel, dead sure," said Barney.

"All right then," said Daniel. "I think I'll go and dig up June. She might do a little something about food. Get back to your leprous painting, Barney. Do your specks."

But Barney did not return at once to his painting. He remained seated at the table running his fingers through the fine straw-colored hair that gave the ap, pearance of straying casually about his head. From a nut-brown face, prematurely old yet hauntingly attractive, a pair of large, speculative eyes, touched with the wisdom of a child, stared into the darkness. He was re-painting the years of his childhood in entirely fresh colors. He sat quite still, all hunched up and untidy, like an ancient gnome greedily poised above a bowl of fruit.

Dan had been strange just now, he felt. There had been something different about him. He had suggested a person who was going away for a long time to some shut-off place.

And Barney wondered why. Perhaps because of to-night, he decided. Daniel was all wrong. He would get over that.

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