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Did She Fall?
DAN'S LAST TRY
WHEN Daniel left his brother he felt as if he carried with him his own as well as Emily-Jane's death warrant. More than that, he felt as if he were holding in his hand the broken bits of happiness of several lives.
Like a cornered animal seeking refuge, yet knowing there was no refuge, he stood in a state of growing panic on the long, rambling front veranda of the old house. He craved yet feared the comfort of June Lansing's presence.
Far away on the other side of the Sound he could see a few scraps of white jutting up from the water like jagged teeth. A few miles out lay three islands, bare rocks sprawled out on the surface of the water like dragons resting momentarily in their slow progress seaward.
Daniel knew all of those rocks intimately, their lobster-pots and the ashes of abandoned fires, their old tin cans and remains of rotted fish—unpleasant items, perhaps, until one became used to them, until they became familiar features and loved.
Thinking of those early days of exploration with the ambitious but unsteady Barney, Daniel moved restlessly across the wide tree-studded lawn until he came to the edge of the high bluff that dropped sharply to the smooth white beach below. To the right of him twisted the Cliff Path leading to High Rock Point. At this place the bluff came to its climax—assumed the proportions of a full-fledged cliff, at the base of which lay a broken floor of rocks. There were pleasant hollows in these rocks Daniel recalled. Some were always filled with water a little warmer than the sea. Some were filled with drifting sand. Altogether an attractive haunt for children, lovers, and straying artists. To descend the cliff was no easy matter, but could be achieved by the willing of spirit and bodily activity. Most reasonably minded persons found their way to this watery retreat by way of the beach. Up from the rocks reared the bitten face of the cliff to the summit of High Rock Point, a conservative but adequate name. And from the summit of High Rock Point grew sea-loving old pine trees, scrub brush, and wiry bushes.
High Rock Point was useful as well as ornamental. It served as a place to walk to, to linger at and leave behind. It was a landmark. Local residents were proud of it, as if that mattered a rap to the cliff. However people spoke well of High Rock Point and successfully managed to keep from falling off it, which was something.
Several homes lay between the Crewes' house and the cliffs. Daniel could see their chimneys and gables now pointing through the green of the trees. He turned and looked back at his own home. Like its owner the old structure was friendly, brown, and rambling. It was a place of many large cool rooms and of many windows looking on the sea. Those in the rear gave view to an orchard that drifted away until stopped by the woods which bordered the marshes. A broad, irregular veranda virtually ran round the house and invited rest and contentment at any hour of the day. One could follow the breeze on that veranda as well as dodge the sun. On it opened at unexpected places little doors as well as large ones, and innumerable mysterious passageways invited exploration. On the ground floor no room appeared to be on a level with another one. In this house one was forever either stepping down into a room or up out of one. A large hall extended from sea view to orchard, the doors to this hall forming the frames of two charming pictures—the greens and browns and blossomings of an old orchard at the one end, while at the other, the blue reaches of the Sound glimpsed through a park of trees.
It was a house to live in, and Daniel had lived in it nearly all the years of his life. Now as he considered its familiar lines he had a feeling that the old place had about done with him, that their long term of companionship was just about at an end.
"Oh, well," thought Daniel, "might as well look up June. She's in for a tough time, too."
June Lansing watched him coming toward her across the lawn. There was something radically wrong with this man, she decided. There had been something wrong with him for weeks. Of late he had seemed to be afraid to touch her. An invisible obstacle seemed to have raised itself between them. Yet it was not quite that. The obstacle was there for Daniel alone. He seemed to be exerting some inner restraint on himself. It was a hard thing to puzzle out, yet she could not help feeling the presence of some alien and inimical influence. Daniel had changed, there was no doubting that, no pretending it away.
Ever since the arrival of Emily-Jane, Dan had begun to freeze a little, as if the life within him were chilled. He had more and more taken refuge in his own thoughts, guarding them instead of sharing them as at one time he had done so generously. Intuitively June associated with the dazzling appearance of Emily-Jane the alteration of Daniel's attitude, not only to herself but also to the world in general.
Now she watched the long, lounging figure out of troubled eyes and wondered much behind her placid countenance. She felt that this lover of hers owed it to their mutual confidence to let her help him. At least she could listen to his worries, or whatever it was that was plaguing his usually sanguine mind. She had always heard that a good woman can help a man. Yet here she had a perfectly good man who would not let her help him. June wanted to be with Daniel in whatever he was going through. Not for a moment did she suspect his loyalty. Dan was all right as far as that was concerned. It was something else, but what?
June Lansing was a loosely connected, sprawling creature, a big girl with big bones, but shapely withal. Unlike many of her sisters her well-developed bosom was no better developed than her brain. Above her ruggedly handsome face, sprinkled with a shower of freckles, lay interesting masses of flame-colored hair. She possessed a large humorous mouth capable of twisting itself into all sorts of eloquently expressive shapes. Her nose was fine but not small and her eyes, reflecting golden-brown—the shade of a proper ale—were flecked with little speckles, and were entirely her own. No other woman had eyes quite like those of June Lansing with their funny yellow specks.
Leggily ranging back in her deck chair on the lawn, she now looked quietly up at Daniel standing above her. For a moment neither spoke, then Daniel found an aimless-sounding "Hello," which he offered her.
"Is that the way? Is that the way?" she remonstrated. "Can't you manage something a little better than that?"
"How are you, June?" he asked woodenly.
"So well," she said, "I do so well that if you don't come out of your trance and give me a kiss I won't forget in a hurry I'll get up and give you such a sock with this chair that you'll go sound instead of half asleep."
Then Daniel knelt down beside her and gave her a kiss that she was destined not to forget in a long, long time, if ever. Into it went all of his love and longing for this woman, his pent-up misery and desperation. It was almost as if he were trying to lose himself in that kiss, to hide himself in her. When he rose she looked at him with pleased surprise behind which lay a shade of fear.
"Better and better," she said at last. "One would think you'd been deprived of a woman's kisses for years and years, and yet all the time you've had me. You should call more often, Dan. I like your visits."
"I'm an accommodating sort of cuss," he replied, striving to appear cheerful, "but exclusive, as you doubtless know."
"I know nothing of the kind," she answered. "For instance, where have you, been all morning and why not at my side?"
"Been at the club most of the time," he told her. "Sat out eighteen holes with Scott, then came home and badgered Barney. We had a talk or something approaching one. Since then I've been looking for you."
"And I've been under your nose all the time."
"I don't like the way you put things," he objected. "I don't want you under my nose. Rather have you under my foot. It sounds more magnificent than nose."
"Now don't try to talk to me as you would to Barney," she said. "It's beyond my dim comprehension how you two lunatics ever manage to exchange thought. You seem to go strolling casually round the fringes of an intelligent conversation, then suddenly abandoning hope, seek out the nearest by-path to inanity. Is it that you feel obligated to amuse each other, or befuddle each other? He told me this morning that he suspected you were a mental case, but I told him you were merely growing."
"I'm growing, sure enough," said Daniel. "I'm growing old at a terrific speed, but Barney doesn't amuse me any more, June. He's got me worried, that boy has."
"And you've got me no less worried," she replied seriously. "You should let Scott Munson plumb into your mind and let in a couple of gallons of daylight or let out a flood of darkness. Just what is your guilty secret, Daniel Crewe? Out with it, man—out with it! Something is wrong with you, all wrong, worried, and unhappy. Don't think for a second I haven't known. Why don't your give me a chance? I want to help. You know—kind of keep in touch with current events."
She stopped and her eyes opened wide as she saw the color slowly drain away beneath his tan and noticed that for the first time since she had known him his eyes refused to meet hers.
"Guilty secret ?" he repeated, laughing a trifle tin-steadily. "Guilty, June? Why, I have no guilty secret. And as for Scott Munson, I haven't joined the criminal class . . . yet. Not yet. Not yet. Not—"
He stopped suddenly when he realized he was needlessly repeating that crazy phrase. There was a tightness about his throat and a hot, empty sensation at the pit of his stomach. So it was already apparent, his guilt. He was branded before the deed. Good God ! And Munson had seen it, too. Even Barney had looked at him queerly. He found a handkerchief and applied it to his forehead.
"Hot, isn't it ?" he said, but June did not answer. "Or is it?" he added lamely.
"Look at me, Daniel," commanded June.
She said no more but strove to hold him with her golden-brown eyes. She seemed to be trying to draw from his brain the trouble that was there, for now she realized that there was something seriously wrong with Daniel, something that threatened their happiness. "Go on, Dan," she said at length. "Tell me."
"No, June, really," he replied, endeavoring to drive off the suspicions he feared were forming in her thoughts. "Honestly, old thing, there's nothing. What could there be? It's just Barney. I'm worried about him—about Barney and this girl. Barney's an awful kid, after all, while Emily-Jane—well, she's quite a catch, I suppose, isn't she?" He broke off lamely and looked hopefully at June.
"Is she?" asked that young lady. "Is she, Dan? What do you think, yourself ?"
"Of course she's wonderful and all that," he replied. "I know everyone's strong for her, but for some reason I don't quite fancy seeing Barney attached to such a luminary, if you get what I mean."
"Perfectly," said June, dryly. "And a little more. I get that you think Emily-Jane is a lovely girl, but—you'd do anything in the world to get rid of her."
She stopped suddenly and looked searchingly at Daniel, who in turn was looking at her with the fascination of horror. Deep in his eyes she saw something—what was it? What was it she saw there? It was furtive and dangerously driven, an expression she had never seen in the eyes of any man. And it was because she knew and loved this man so well, was so close to him in thought as well as emotion, that the terrible idea had come to her. From where did it come?
"You'd do anything to get rid of her," she repeated slowly and as if to herself. "Anything in the world." Her hands flew out and gripped him by the shoulders. She held him roughly. He could feel the strength of her fingers through his coat. "Oh, Dan, Dan!" she said.
"What—what do you mean, June?" he faltered. "What do you see?"
She gave him a push and laughed. It sounded a trifle strained. "A touch of sun," she said. "Daniel, I believe you'd love to see Barney married to a younger edition of Aunt Matty?"
Daniel's smile was a little more natural this time. "He could do a lot worse," he admitted. "The two of them get along quite happily together what with her constant recriminations and preoccupation with food. A younger edition of Aunt Matty is just what Barney needs."
June Lansing did not seem to be listening. Her eyes were leveled on the water. What was she thinking? What suspicion had suddenly come into her mind? June's silence was making him nervous.
"Dan," she asked at last, her voice steady, casual, only slightly interested, "did you ever know Emily-Jane when you were at college?"
"Never knew her . . . met her . . . danced with her . . . that sort of thing . . . heard of her, of course," Daniel succeeded in jerking out, with a fairly convincing assumption of indifference.
"And what did you hear?" she continued.
"Oh, just the usual thing. Nothing that mattered one way or the other."
"Delightfully vague and uninforming," murmured June. "Tell me, Dan, did Sam Stoughten also know her?"
"No, I don't think so. Why?" replied Daniel quickly, "What made you ask that, June?"
"Nothing in particular," said June easily, "but a good many things in general. A few weeks ago I saw them together when they had every reason to believe they were unobserved. Sam looked as if he were being confronted by a ghost, and a most unpleasant ghost, at that. But you know how Sam is with women," she continued on a note of reassurance. "He's never entirely comfortable except when Sue's around."
"Exactly," agreed Daniel. "Sam never was much of a ladies' man. He's a faithful old soul. Loyal to a fault, poor devil. Next to Barney—"
"Why `poor devil' ?" interrupted June.
"I don't know," said Daniel. "Just thinking back, I suppose. He lost out a lot in college, but he never envied his friends."
"And tonight you announce the glad tidings," observed June for no apparent reason.
"Yes," said Dan. "That's just it—the glad tidings. If you ask me it's all a lot of nonsense. Everyone knows they're engaged already. It's just an excuse to throw a party, as I look at it. And this stuff about switching off the lights for a minute just before the announcement—why that? All damn rot."
"That," said June, "was not Emily-Jane's idea. It came from some member of the club crowd. A group of her admirers are going to present her with the most gorgeous Japanese kimono you ever dreamed about."
"That well may be," replied Daniel. "I never dreamed about a Japanese kimono."
"Well you will when you see this one," went on June. "When the lights flash on, there it will be presto—all spread out on the table. Emily-Jane has many friends. Are you one of them, Daniel?"
"Of course," said Daniel, striving to put a hearty note into his voice. "Of course, June. You know that as well as I do. She's all right. It's just about Barney, that's all. Emily-Jane shouldn't marry Barney. She shouldn't do it. Of all the men in the world, why did she have to pick out him? I've nothing against the girl. Nothing."
Silence once more fell between them. Both were occupied with thoughts too delicate or dangerous to be expressed. Furtively June was studying the tense, drawn face of the man she loved. A feeling of tenderness so poignant it was painful to bear came over her for him sitting there alone with all his lies and trouble.
"Come here, Daniel," she said, and held out her arms to him. "Come here and put your head down on this businesslike bosom of mine. It was made for just such a head as yours, big, empty, and, oh, so dumb."
Then Daniel knelt down beside her and his head was on her breast. On the green of the lawn and the blue of the open sky his eyes closed wearily. What had beauty to do with him? And he rested there. It was a moment of drifting peace. Perhaps the last one he would ever know. From her body came comfort and a sense of things, of life and what had been. How tired he was. How damned uselessly tired. Was there a chance that even now he could find another way out?
"Some day," he said in a low voice, "some day, June, things will be all jake, won't they? We'll be all right, what? All of us? I'm worried, June, that's all. It's hell to have a damn fool brother."
"I know, I know," she answered. "I know, Dan."
His weakness was so unlike him it struck her like a physical hurt. At that moment she would have done anything—given herself to him—just to have eased his mind. Anything to have kept him from thinking. Somehow she was going through with it. Even in the dark she would not leave Daniel alone.
This resolution formed she lifted his head and kissed him on both eyes.
"Hit the deck, sailor," she said. "Let's go and drag some food from Aunt Matty. She reluctantly hinted that there might be some sandwiches and tea for luncheon. You need food."
Daniel had eaten and gone to his room, which held a corner position in the right wing of the house, if the rambling old dwelling could be said to have anything so conventional as wings. All the windows were filled with trees and with the Sound. The one at the side gave a long view of the Cliff Path and a glimpse of the orchard. Across the hall from him was Lane Holt's room, while directly next to his own was the room occupied by Emily-Jane.
Daniel was standing now at the side window. He was idly contemplating the stout old limb of a tree. For him that limb had friendly associations. Ever since he could remember it had been trying to get in through the window as if curious to see what the room looked like inside. Many times as a boy he had climbed out along that inquisitive old branch and thus reached the ground. He had taught Barney to make use of this convenient exit, but only after several hairbreadth escapes. Barney had always climbed with too much confidence. He had proceeded as if he expected something always to be where he was, and when that something failed him Barney came to grief.
Daniel turned from the window and his thoughts. Restlessly he paced the room. Every now and then he turned his head as if looking for something. Suddenly, he stopped dead still in his tracks. His chin went up, and he stood there waiting, thinking rapidly. Then he took a quick glance at his watch and left the room. The hall was empty. Taking a key from his pocket he let himself into the room next to his and quickly closed the door. Slowly his eyes traveled round the room. Now where would a person hide a packet of letters? Surely it would be under lock and key. Her trunk was locked. Hopeless. His long hands slid searchingly between the clothes in the bureau drawers. He turned to the suitcase and opened it. The letters couldn't be here. They weren't. He ran to the closet and flung open its door. Another bag. Daniel snatched it out and opened it. Quick, delving fingers. Nothing. Nothing! Goddamn ! They must be in the trunk and that was locked. If he could only find those letters there still might be another way out. Once more he began to search the room.
On the bureau stood an antique box fashioned to resemble a row of books. Emily-Jane had brought it with her. It was a fairly common specimen. Daniel had seen them before, but to Emily-Jane it had probably seemed an exceedingly secretive hiding place. He slid back the base of the box and pressed the center volume. In a moment the thing was open. No letters of Sam's, but three of his own and two addressed to him by Emily-Jane. Years ago she had cleverly regained possession of her own letters. He took them all and slipped them into an inside vest pocket.
Light feet falling in the hall outside. Coming closer. Daniel turned calmly and faced the door. He was leaning against the side of the open window when she entered.
"I've been waiting for you," he lied effectively. "Come in and shut the door. Lock it."
Emily-Jane without a word did just that. Her eyes swept the room and discovered that nothing had been disturbed. Daniel had been careful. He had even taken the precaution of substituting a few business letters for those that had been in the box.
It was as well he had done so. Still without speaking she crossed the room to the bureau. Her hands idly shook the box, then she turned back satisfied. Peeling off her jersey, she stood before him half nude, a silken band across her breasts.
"Well, Daniel," she said. "You've got yourself into this mess. Now get yourself out of it. My brain is quicker than yours, and Barney is at the foot of the stairs. If I call for Lane Holt he'll swear to anything. He's in his room now. Let's talk business. What's the bright idea?"
She searched for a cigarette, found one, lighted it, and seated herself on the bed. Daniel turned to the window to conceal the murder that blazed from his eyes. When he faced the girl once more he had regained his composure.
"Emily-Jane," he said, "I've come in here to ask you to call it off. You have a chance now to do a good thing, a kind thing. Do it, won't you? I'm licked. Give me Sam's letters and chuck Barney. Let me look after him."
"That would listen better from the bed," she replied coolly. "Come over here and sit down." Obediently he seated himself beside her. She flung a careless arm round his neck and blew a cloud of smoke in his face. "Now kiss me," she said.
"Will you give me those letters, Emily-Jane?"
"It's as much for your sake as ours I am asking."
"That's a lie, Daniel, dear."
"Money?" he suggested huskily. "For a great deal of money, Emily-Jane, will you ?"
"No, you fool. I'll get money and more. I can get all yours and his too if I want it. No, Daniel, I'm incorruptible. I'm far above money."
"Oh, for God's sake, Emily-Jane," he pleaded, "don't go through with it. Give me those letters and lay off of Barney. Won't you, won't you, Emily-Jane?"
It was not an agreeable sight to see this big, hulking creature pleading thus with the girl. He had swallowed his pride. He was willing to go down on his knees to her.
"No," she said. "I won't."
Then Daniel did go down on his knees before the girl.
"Those letters," he said in a voice so low she could scarcely hear him. "I ask you now here on my knees to give them to me and to give up Barney. Think, Emily-Jane, think. You've got the chance now. Won't you take it? Please. I ask you."
For answer she tossed away her cigarette and crushed his face against her breast. Then she suddenly released him and sprang up, laughing tauntingly.
"Get up from there," she jeered. "You're making a tragic ass of yourself. Come over here and help me off with my shoes."
She sank into a deep chair and extended her neat, slim legs. With lowered head as if stunned, Daniel got slowly off his knees. He felt heavy and dead as he turned to the door and fumbled with the key. A few swift strides brought her beside him, and he stood there a moment looking down at her in a dull, abstracted manner. Even now the voice of his pleading would not be stilled.
"No?" he said. "Won't you?"
As he opened the door she once more threw one bare arm round his shoulder. Then she laughed softly.
"Gosh, you're a glutton for punishment, Dan," she said. "Sorry you have to leave so soon. Call again."
The door closed on her mocking voice. Daniel was in the hall. He turned with hands hanging and came in contact with a figure that was standing perfectly still —frozen. The figure swayed slightly.
"Dan?" his name came in a whisper. "Dan?"
He took June's arms in his hands just above the elbows. In the dim light of the hall he. stooped and peered into her face. Then he shook his head slowly. Neither spoke. Again he peered down at her and shook his head. Releasing his hold on her arms he walked quietly down the hall and entered his room. The door closed.
Alone in the hall June Lansing stood looking at the door to Emily-Jane's room. All the warmth had gone out of her ale-golden eyes. They were cold spots now, cold, hard, and bright. Then she, too, walked quietly down the hall, entered her room and closed the door.
From the shadow of an alcove used for trunks, Betty, the maid, emerged and went thoughtfully about her appointed tasks. It took all sorts of people to make the world, thought she, but here indeed was a pretty kettle of fish.
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