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Did She Fall?
THE SEARCHING BLADE
SOMETHING was going to happen that night. Already things were going on, secret things in that old house. Scott Munson, slipping into his black robe, felt it in his bones. What was he going to do about it? How head this off? That well-known ounce of prevention—where could he find it? Should he keep his eye on Daniel or concentrate on Sam Stoughten? Should he divide his attention between the two? From his knowledge of men both had reached a dangerous pitch of desperation. Or would it be better to watch Emily-Jane, the object on which that desperation centered—the source of it?
To work on a case before it had actually broken was a new experience to Scott Munson. He sat down in a chair by the open window and looked out at the dark night. Perhaps he had read his characters wrong this time. Perhaps he had read into them meanings that were not there. Munson had no particular fondness for Emily-Jane. In fact, he considered her a beautiful but unpleasant little hypocrite, but surely she was not capable of creating all the strain and concealed animosity that were disturbing the atmosphere like a palpable thing. On the other hand why wasn't she? In the forty years of his life he had seen the most insignificant women accomplish disasters far out of proportion to their individual importance.
That little byplay about letters between Emily-Jane and Sam Stoughten on the club-house veranda—what, if anything, was the meaning of that? Now was the time for someone to come out into the open and to speak a piece in no uncertain words. But the trouble was people seldom spoke at the right time and always at the wrong.
Scott Munson felt that if Daniel would only tell him what was on his mind matters could be straightened out. Daniel, he feared, no less than Sam Stoughten and everyone else involved, was exaggerating the seriousness of some situation to the proportions of a tragedy. If properly staged and directed it might well be turned into a farce, or at least brought to the level of plausibility. People did not react that way, however, under certain given circumstances. The situation itself had taken control, and the actors were merely following directions bereft of reason and volition.
Well, if things must be they must, he supposed. Perhaps it was written and could not be deleted. If people perversely insisted on making a hash of their lives there was little that he could do to stop them. Then a wave of human emotion for a moment smothered the cool, impersonal logic of Scott Munson. These people were his friends, and this old house itself was too homelike and friendly to be the scene of some stupid but irreparable tragedy. But damn it all, why were his thoughts constantly dwelling on tragedy even before a tragedy had occurred? There was a feeling in the air, or was he just giving rein to his imagination? That was not like him. Some mischief must be afoot.
He rose, dropped the black hood over his head, and left the room. In the hall he saw Sam Stoughten entering Daniel's room. Sam was robed but not hooded. The expression on his ruddy, homely face was anything but festive.
"The uniform of the evening seems highly appropriate," mused Scott as he passed down the hall. "I'd give a lot to hear the conversation between those two gentlemen."
He paused, then shook his head, and swiftly descended the stairs.
Sam sat down on Daniel's bed and looked at him. There was a mute inquiry in his mild blue eyes, an expression suggestive of a decent-spirited dog, one that wanted something very badly but was too considerate to ask for it outright. Daniel turned from the mirror and regarded the slightly upturned face. Then he shook his head.
"No," he said. "I found mine, Sam—only mine."
"No," repeated Sam as if trying to puzzle out the exact meaning of the word. "Glad you found yours, though."
Neither spoke again. Daniel turned back to the mirror and brushed a hand across his face. Ten years seemed to have been added to his face since he had left Emily-Jane's room. He was trying to brush them away. It was fortunate they were wearing hoods. . . . All men would look alike tonight.
Sam rose from the bed and stood with idly swinging arms.
"Doesn't matter," he said. "I just dropped in to ask. Be getting back to Sue now. She'll be waiting. You're looking tired, Dan."
"Oh, I'm all right," said the other. "Have a drink?"
"Yes," said Sam.
Daniel swung up a bottle from the floor beside the bureau, and they drank the whisky neat. Their eyes met as they put down their glasses. A lifetime of associations mutually shared passed between them.
"I tried," said Daniel. "She caught me at it, but I don't think she suspected. They must be locked in her trunk. Couldn't go that."
"That girl's a devil, Daniel."
"She's not so good, Sam."
"And she's got the two of us, not to mention young Barney."
"Wish she were a man, Sambo."
"Don't see where that makes a hell of a lot of difference." There was a new note of hardness in Sam Stoughten's voice. "After a woman has passed a certain limit she has no sex."
Their eyes met searchingly, but not frankly, then looked away. Daniel turned back to the mirror for no reason at all. He was tired of his face.
"We were damn fools, Daniel," went on Stoughten, in a voice that seemed to be summarizing the past before writing finis. "But I was the damnedest. It was all my fault, old man. I dragged you in."
"Shut up," said Daniel, reaching for the bottle. "Have a drink."
"I had one."
They drank neat again and larger.
"Somehow it doesn't make me feel so good," observed Sam in gentle complaint. "I used to love to get drunk."
Daniel grinned. "And you did, Sam. You did. As a lord—as a whole houseful of lords, in fact."
"Not going to get drunk tonight," announced Sam. "Must keep a clear head."
"Why?" asked Daniel curiously.
"The occasion calls for it," said Sam. "One should keep a clear head tonight."
"You're not going to make some sort of a damn fool of yourself, are you, Sam?"
Once more their eyes studied each other.
"I've stopped making a damn fool of myself," said Sam deliberately. "I might make myself something else, Dan, but not a damn fool."
Dan was across the room and had seized Sam's thick wrists. Sam refused to look up. He stood there stolidly.
"Look at me, Sam," commanded Daniel. "This is my show. Understand that. My show entirely. You go back to Sue and stick by her. That's your show, your job. Stick by Sue."
"And let us all drift to hell, I suppose," said Sam. "Misery loves company," replied Daniel.
"There should be one member less," said Sam. Daniel released his grip. Sam looked up and laughed a little recklessly. "I don't know what we're talking about, Dan," he said, "but don't worry. Everything's going to be all right. Watch and see."
"I shall," said Dan grimly.
At the door Sam paused and looked back. "And, Dan," he added, "I want to thank you for all you've done in the past and for what you just tried to do."
"Remember," called Daniel as the door was slowly closing, "don't be a damn fool, Sam."
"Not a chance," came Sam's voice.
A pair of slim provocative legs flashed clown the hall. Emily-Jane seemed all legs. There was a skirt, a suggestion of a skirt. Some sort of momentarily interrupting flare of flounce, after which Emily-Jane continued once more somewhere in the region where the vertebrae either end or begin their business of being a spine, and up swept the beautiful back of Emily-Jane to her pert little neck and sleek golden, hair. She was every bit as good in front—or nearly.
Emily-Jane intended to show the world just how lucky a man Barney really was. It looked as if she would experience little difficulty in establishing her point. She was supposed to be something along the general lines of a ballet dancer.
The legs carried what remained of her to June Lansing's door, upon which she tapped lightly, then entered unbidden.
June looked up from the brilliant buckle she was attaching to her pump. Emily-Jane failed to detect the slightest sign of welcome in June's eyes, but a little thing like that meant nothing to Emily-Jane.
"I thought we'd go down together," she remarked. "How do I do?"
"Perfectly, as usual," said June. "You know that even better than I."
"Well, I'm glad you think so just the same," replied the other.
"Emily-Jane," said June, having affixed the buckle and disappeared into some sort of milkmaid's costume, "Emily-Jane, you don't give a damn what I think, and you know it."
"Certainly, I know it, but it's much pleasanter to pretend," came the cool response of Emily-Jane. "We're slated to be sisters-in-law, you know. Don't you think we'll make a happy family?"
"No," said June, with equal candor, "I don't. For some reason Daniel hates you, and you have some sort of a hold on him. I don't know what it's all about, but I do know that things aren't right. The best I can do is to suspect that you are playing poor Barney for a gull. What is all this between you and Dan? Why doesn't someone speak? I feel as if I were playing blind man's buff with an electric fan. What was he doing in your room today?"
Emily-Jane smiled wisely.
"All men are creatures of impulse," she answered. "Daniel is no exception. For the intimate details I refer you to him."
"That doesn't gall me at all, Emily-Jane," June replied easily. "He was in your room for something, but you were the last thing in the world he wanted. I know that. What I don't know is just what is behind. it all. That's what I want you to tell me."
"Once more I refer you to Daniel," said Emily-Jane.
"Do you think I'd be asking you if I hadn't already asked him?" replied June. "He won't say a word and he's worried gray about something. What is it, Emily-Jane? Help me out in this, and I'll try to make a go of things. It's a business proposition."
"One which I neither need nor care to accept," said Emily-Jane. "I'll make a go of things without your help. Apart from that I don't know what you're talking about. Are you nearly ready to go down?"
There was an ominous expression in the eyes that met those of Emily-Jane. "You're going to marry Barney?" asked June.
"Certainly," replied Emily-Jane.
"And nothing is going to stop you?"
"Not a thing that I can see."
"Then God help you is all I can say," said June. "Something tells me it won't ever come off."
"Then God help all of you," replied Emily-Jane. "You'll need Him."
"I say that, too," answered June. "I'm ready now. Let's go."
Together they left the room, Emily-Jane triumphant. Seeing them together it would have been difficult to detect that they were not the best of friends.
At the head of the stairs they masked and descended hand in hand. A lovely picture they made. In June's loose clasp Emily-Jane's hand lay unresponsive.
Bodies caught and swayed in a flood of music. Beautiful women, beautifully bare, disturbingly perfumed. Laughing couples along the rambling veranda, thirsty ones around the punch bowl. All the men in black dominoes and hoods. The hoods were easily lifted. Tonight the old house was seeing a bit of life. It was stepping out. Being gay for Barney.
"What do you think of me?" Emily-Jane asked that rather dazed young man.
Barney surveyed her from head to foot. "One doesn't have to think about you," he observed. "One knows at a glance. You're all there. Degas should be with us."
"Who is he?" she asked quickly. "Do I know him?"
"Apparently not," said Barney. "Neither do I."
"Don't be a fool, Barney," Emily-Jane told him. "With me at any rate."
"Pardon me," he replied. "Shall we indulge in a partial assault?"
Barney failed to notice the swift glance she cast about her as if seeking relief. Where the devil was Lane? No thrill in dancing with this crazy creature who was constantly making uncomfortable observations—the more uncomfortable because there was always a grain of truth in them in spite of their ambiguity.
The fact of the matter was that hardly a dozen guests had arrived before Barney began to wonder when everybody was going home. He did not hold with this party. It was too big and noisy. One never could find anyone who was not going somewhere or doing something. Everybody was so busy, so heady. He wondered if the swirling couples were happy, or if they just imagined they were having a good time. Perhaps they were, but damned if he could see it. And he was still young. What was wrong with him? Why was he not like these other perspiring and persistent young men who were constantly clutching at someone and making such a business of having a good time? He did like to dance with Emily-Jane though. She was different. She was heavenly.
"All right, then," she said, reluctantly yielding to the situation. "Come on. Let's try."
"Let's not try," objected Barney. "Let's damn well do it."
They were in the midst of things now, twisting, swaying, jerking, gliding, doing all manner of surprising and inexplicable movements. It was all very odd, people disporting themselves in such a way. But he did enjoy dancing with Emily-Jane. She made it a point to see that he liked it, and Barney was only human. Emily-Jane's body was pleasant to hold, particularly when in motion. She could cling without interfering, and before the dance was over he had begun to think he really knew how. But that was the last dance he had with her that night.
Lane Holt was on hand to claim the next one. Then Emily-Jane really did dance. Lane was worth it. He knew his stuff. Tall, graceful, perfectly poised, he carried her smoothly over the floor and away from the bemused Barney.
"I've been invited to join a party," said Lane, "after this show is over."
"Oh, you have?" answered Emily-Jane. "Going?"
"Why not?" he replied. "You're being so damned discreet."
"We might take a walk," she observed, "after the household has dug in. Can't tell what I will do after I've had a few more glasses of that punch."
"Under those circumstances the party's off," said
Lane, his arm tightening round her supple body. "Easy there, Lane," breathed Emily-Jane. "Turn those lips away. This isn't an exhibition dance. Be nice. Be nice."
"I'll be nice" said Holt. "Let's try the veranda."
"Punch first," she answered. "It's a warm night."
"You shouldn't mind it," replied Holt, sweeping her trim body with caressing eyes.
And so the dance went on. Barney at loose ends wandered purposelessly about, looking speculatively at hooded figures and wondering which one was Dan.
It was Emily-Jane who found him. He was sitting in his room by the window, looking out into the dark, moist night. His hood was off and his head rested wearily back against the chair. From below came the strains of the orchestra. Voices floated up from the lawn.
Emily-Jane entered quietly and stood looking at him for a few seconds before he became aware of her presence.
"Snap out of it, Dan," she said. "It's time now to go down and welcome me to your family."
No more pleading from Daniel. He realized the futility of trying to move this girl.
"You're going through with it then?" was all he said.
"Right now. Pronto," replied Emily-Jane.
He walked toward the door, but she did not move. She stood in his way, her young body tense. He looked down at her and her lips parted. An invitation lay in her eyes.
"Dan," she said, her voice low and commanding. "Look, Dan. Here I am. Don't be such a prig."
"Prig?" he replied hoarsely. "I wonder what you'd call a cheat."
She moved out of his way and they left the room. Thus did Emily-Jane lead her sacrifice to the slaughter.
The dancing floor was now sprinkled with tables. Everywhere food was in evidence. Also Aunt Matty. Hoods were off and mouths open. Barney was eating sandwiches with relief. It was something to do. Daniel without a word dragged him away from a fresh supply and lined him up against the heavy portières that cut off the library from the main reception room.
"Don't forget the lights," excitedly whispered a charming young thing in hardly enough to describe.
"I had," smiled Daniel, looking down kindly at the lively little upturned face. "Run along, baby, and get ready to do your stuff."
"It'll be on a table right in front of you, Dan," she said worshipfully.
"Very good," replied Daniel, nodding approvingly.
Then he sought Sam Stoughten, who was looking anything but happy at the side of his wife Sue. She was overheated but still game. They were not passionately fond of dancing, these two. With them a little was almost more than enough. Where all the new steps came from, and why, was an unsolved puzzle to them.
"Sam," said Daniel, "will you go into the library and switch off the lights when you hear a high treble and probably inarticulate voice make a noise in your direction?"
Sam disappeared into the other room.
"He's been the very devil tonight," complained Sue.
"He's teething, perhaps," smiled Daniel, and went in search of Barney, who, having grown tired of standing by himself, had drifted away to see what the salad was all about. This time Emily-Jane accompanied them back to the curtain, round which was the only cleared space in the room. Daniel had taken up his position on the left of the fair creature. Barney had tacked himself on her right. This was all very strange, he decided. All very uncalled for.
Scott Munson, his eyes fixed on the group, stood poised alertly as if trying to fix the situation in his mind.
"Friends," began Daniel unexpectedly, and at the sound of his voice the room grew quiet, "I suppose it's no use trying to keep it a secret any longer. Emily-Jane, here, has for some unaccountable reason consented to marry this brother of mine. Hence all the rejoicing. Let's drink what we can grab and wish them happiness and a long life."
"Lights out, Sam," cried a high treble voice. "Lights out."
As the lights flashed out Daniel's ankle turned slightly on an uneven spot on the floor. He lurched against Emily-Jane, who lurched against Barney.
"What the hell?" said Barney. "Is this a free for all?"
"Not yet, Sambo," called the little voice through the darkness. "Only a minute now."
"Oh, my God!" muttered Daniel suddenly.
"What is it, Dan?" called Barney. "Where are you, old man?"
Daniel did not answer.
"Dan! Dan!" cried his brother.
"Shut up, kid. Stand by," Daniel's words came in a whisper.
Emily-Jane ran her hand up Daniel's arm. There was a sharp cry in the darkness.
"For God's sake put on those lights," a man's voice called.
"We're ready now, Sambo," came the high treble. "You can turn on the lights."
"Right," came the voice of Stoughten, and the room was promptly flooded with diffused radiance.
Scott Munson took a quick step forward, blotting Emily-Jane from view of the others, and with a pocket handkerchief wiped the blood from Emily-Jane's hand.
"Say nothing," he muttered. "Go and admire that damn kimono."
He looked into the library. Sam was turning away from the switch. "Sam," he said quietly, "one moment."
Sam came to him quickly.
"Walk upstairs with Daniel, will you?" Munson said. "Take Barney with you."
The three men left the room. Then Scott Munson, taking advantage of the general interest aroused by the kimono, walked back of the curtain and carefully withdrew a long knife. There was blood upon the blade. Holding it so as not to smudge the hilt, he walked through the library, entered the hall and ran quickly upstairs.
Below in the reception room Emily-Jane was strutting magnificently in her gorgeous Japanese kimono.
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