|Previous Chapter||Contents||Next Chapter|
Good Clean Fun
IN the lounge below, everything was getting better and better. That is, if noise counted. Something in the nature of a celebration in joint honour of modern and ancient days was in progress. It was rather a loose, heavy-handed affair, but those present seemed to enjoy it. Figuratively speaking, Diana was dancing improperly on the belly of a prostrate Volstead, while Bacchus poured gin in his eye. This interesting blending of Dionysian and suburban rites was, as a matter of fact, nothing more nor less than a typical cocktail-necking party such as many find it necessary to attend in order to discover if sex still appeals. The Pagan and Christian eras endeavoured to merge while still retaining the worst features of both. The result was an evening of nice clean fun. After all, what is a neck more or less, plus adjacent territory, among friends? Wives were not so much exchanged as released on short-term loans. This was the modern touch, the smart thing to do. The festivities over, these fair ladies would be returned to their husbands a little bit thumbed and dog-eared and more than a little drunk. It was one of those sportive occasions at which enmities are inevitably aroused and sordid recriminations incubated, for by the very nature of things there are few husbands and wives whose limits of conduct and powers of self-control register exactly the same. One or the other member of the tandem is sure to go too far. Then all hell pops.
Husbands and wives who intend to carry on together at all permanently should never attend the same cocktail-necking party unless one of them passes out and is unable to know what the other is doing. Otherwise it either cramps the style of both or furnishes the divorce courts with fresh customers.
Really, it's the devil and all to be modern—much too much of a strain. It involves, oddly enough, a swift return to a primitive state of arboreal promiscuity. Few people can follow this path with linked hands and light hearts. Each side is too heavily weighted with inhibitions and prejudices. Each side is vainly endeavouring to nibble the icing of the cake in order to retain the whole. The result is rather crummy.
Into Mrs. Tim Willows's party half a dozen fresh votaries had been introduced. They had been rung up and called in, and among them were a couple of unattached young women.
There is nothing like the presence of a couple of young women, unattached, among a number of not too old matrons to accelerate the tempo of a party. The young matrons were immediately put on their mettle when Joy Tucker and Agatha Green appeared. Then the married ladies started in to prove to the world that they had found in the matrimonial state a great deal more than they had lost. As a corollary of this they naturally had more to give. On the other hand the virgins hinted of fair but difficult, although not impassable, territory still unexplored. This, of course, was a challenge to the adventurous. Altogether it was a stimulating and healthy form of competition from which the males as usual profited, adding thereby to their already overflowing reservoirs of complacency.
Naturally there was little conversation. Under the most favourable circumstances there would have been little conversation. These people were not so constituted. However, everybody talked a great deal and shouted even more. Risqué stories which were neither risqué enough nor funny enough occasioned sporadic gales of laughter. And through it all, above and around it all, piercing the smoke and perfume and the good old American tang of gin, the tireless-tongued radio lashed dancing couples into fresh paroxysms of activity.
It was just as well that Tim Willows remained alone in his room save for the companionship of Dopey and Mr. Ram. To begin with, at such parties he was not so good. He generally drank too much and observed too much, and the more he drank the more he observed, until at last he saw things that were not there at all. Then, again, his ideas of necking were disconcertedly crude. ... He believed in treating a girl like a human being entitled to an intelligent exchange of ideas. Frequently women who had been gamely prepared to offer almost unlimited necking facilities were surprised to find that they had actually been talking for at least half an hour with Tim Willows, and enjoying it. This rather frightened them. They became a trifle subdued. Several stiff drinks of gin were required to bring them back to their former state of carefree animalism. On the other hand, there had been several occasions when only the intervention of Sally and several husbands had prevented him from dragging some woman upstairs and teaching her what for, as the English insist on having it. He steadfastly refused to remember these occasions, claiming that he had been too far gone in his cups to know what he was doing. Tim Willows was too simple and direct a person to be a successful modern. He belonged to a vanished era when people talked and played and loved with effortless enjoyment.
For another reason it was just as well that Tim remained in his room. It was Carl Bentley's evening. By tacit consent the women of the company had left that gentleman to Sally. He was her man. Not even the young women attempted to horn in. Had they tried, their efforts would have proved fruitless. Carl Bentley was now hot on the scent. He had put in some of his best work on Sally and he had reason to believe that his campaign would soon be crowned by a complete capitulation. Sally was the pick of the lot, by far the most desirable woman in town, with no exceptions.
So Carl Bentley danced with Sally, drank with Sally and whispered suggestively in Sally's small pink ear. Above stairs Tim just drank and sought comfort in Kai Lung, than whom there is hardly a greater comforter, thanks to Ernest Bramah. When the unattached young women began to tap dance more with their abdomen than their toes, Bentley took advantage of the occasion. Everybody was present and accounted for, although neither clean nor sober.
"Sally," said Mr. Bentley in a voice almost as low as his intentions, "let's go out to the kitchen where there aren't so many people. You can't hear yourself think in here."
Sally looked indifferently round the room and carelessly moved off kitchenward. The blood was racing in her veins and her head felt delightfully dizzy and confused. Nothing much mattered except a good time ... a little life. This man, Bentley, was so much more dominating and possessive than Tim. She liked that. Tim, in spite of his horrid ways, was rather too much of a gentleman. He made no parade of virility. He did not endeavour to master her. Sally decided he was not quite big enough. She preferred the size of Carl Bentley. He could smother her, and at the moment she felt like being smothered. It must be said for Sally that she was far, far from being herself. Modern gin is not a good thing for good girls, although it is awfully good for bad ones. Carl Bentley, well knowing this, followed her with a bottle.
What happened in the kitchen is nobody's business. It should be stated, though, that Tim Willows and his dog descended into the small pandemonium of the lounge only a few minutes after the disappearance of Sally and Carl Bentley. He was just in time to witness Vera Hutchens slapping her husband in the face because that unfortunate gentleman had remonstrated with her for kissing the same man too long and too often.
"He always gets like this," she complained to the company at large. "Because he has a nasty mind he thinks everybody else is like him. Insults me, he does. Well, just to satisfy you, my dear,"—and here she laughed recklessly—"I'll kiss him as much as I like and you won't stop me."
This she proceeded to do. Throwing herself into the arms of a tall, quiet person who was extremely well heeled with grog, she satisfied herself and her husband as well as the man she was kissing. It did not matter so much to the man. He hardly knew whom he was kissing. He was just kissing some woman and so far that was all right.
"Suburbia at play," observed Tim in his quiet, sardonic voice. "Don't you girls and boys ever learn any new games?"
Tim was regarded with interest, particularly by several women in the room. He had managed to struggle into a pair of pyjama trousers and was wearing a magnificent dressing gown. His feet were encased in a pair of comfortably padded slippers. He had done things to his hair and tidied himself up generally. Few persons if any realised how hinged Tim Willows really was.
"Carry on," he continued pleasantly. "Some of you men who are able had better do something about Hutchens or we'll be having a murder on our hands."
This was nearly the truth. Hutchens, Vera, and the man of her choice were involved in an unseemly tussle. Vera was beginning to scream and cry, and the men were calling each other some pretty bad names. It was not a thing to see, yet at these parties it was always being seen.
Tim, whose dim but all-observing eyes had noted the absence of his wife and Carl Bentley, moved quietly toward the kitchen. Dopey, his ears flat against his head, followed fearfully. Quietly Tim passed through the pantry and opened the kitchen door. So engrossed was Bentley in his occupation that he failed to note the presence of an observer. Tim gazed thoughtfully at the man's back for a moment, then, lifting Mrs. Twill's heavy rolling pin from the rack close at hand, he brought it down violently on Mr. Bentley's head. That misguided gentleman swayed gently on his feet, then crumpled to the floor.
"Sorry," said Tim, looking coldly at a white-faced Sally, "but really, you know, the kitchen is no place for this sort of thing. One doesn't play with fire here, one actually uses it. But, of course, you know nothing about that."
He rummaged about in a drawer and produced a long, sharp knife. With this he approached the prostrate figure.
"My God, Tim," breathed Sally as the room spun round and round her, "what are you going to do?"
Tim was cold white drunk and his words seemed to proceed from an ice box rather than from a man's chest.
"I'm going to cut his damn head clean off," he told his wife, "and throw it in the faces of your friends. That will teach them to behave themselves—fighting and screaming and semi-fornicating all over my house ... what a way, what a way. Yes, off goes this one's head. Want to kiss it good-bye while it's still on?"
With a shuddering cry Sally dropped to her knees beside the still figure of Mr. Bentley. She placed a hand over his heart and looked up at her husband with a drawn face.
"Tim," she said at last, "you've killed him. His heart has stopped beating and he isn't breathing any more."
This information considerably sobered Tim. He walked over to the kitchen table and picked up a bottle of gin, from which he drank deeply. After this he passed it to Sally, who followed his example.
"Lock the door," he said, and seated himself an the table.
Sally obeyed and then seated herself beside her husband. Together they gazed down upon the victim of the rolling pin.
"He wasn't much of a guy," observed Tim, hoping thereby to comfort his wife.
"I know," replied Sally, "but if every guy that wasn't much was murdered there wouldn't be many guys left."
"I wouldn't mind that," said Tim. "What did you want to go messing round with him for?"
"He was all right," answered Sally. "Big and strong and passionate. You know how it is."
"Yes," said Tim rather gloomily. "I know how it was. Did you like him better than me?"
"No, not so much, but a girl gets that way on gin."
"Sally, these parties are rotten things. This should teach us a lesson." Tim looked at her seriously.
"Sure they are. I'm through with all of it," said Sally. "Everything."
"So is he—through for good, and so am I."
Sally passed him the bottle and Tim drank mechanically. So did Sally. Both of them by this time were quite too numbed to realise the seriousness of what had happened.
"Guess you're a murderer, Tim," said Sally at last.
"Sure I am," agreed Tim. "A confirmed murderer. What do you do in such cases? Telephone the police or just send for an undertaker and try to sneak him into a grave?"
"They'd be the last persons I'd telephone to," replied Sally. "Under the circumstances."
"Which are murder," added Tim with almost morbid enjoyment.
"Murder most foul," Sally managed to extract from some dim recess of her memory.
"He certainly does look murdered," reflected Tim. "Never saw a man look quite so dead. And just to think he was kissing hell out of you only a short time ago. By rights you should be stretched out beside him.'
"If you're not more careful of what you're saying I'll turn you over to the police," replied his wife. "That would be a good joke on you."
"You've got a hot sense of humour. What are we going to do with his nibs?"
Sally took a sip from the bottle and considered this in silence. From the lounge came the clatter of the radio and the hubbub of many voices.
"Bury him," she said at last. "That's what they do with bodies. They bury them."
Mr. Willows regarded the erstwhile Carl Bentley distastefully.
"We'd have to dig a regular Panama Canal to tuck that body in," he observed. "Why didn't you philander with a dwarf if you had to amuse yourself?"
"Wish I had now," said Sally. "By the time we've finished a trench for this one, the neighbours will think we're getting ready for a barbecue."
"A quaint whimsy," murmured Tim. "The bottle, please."
While Tim was drinking, the handle of the kitchen door rattled violently and a man's voice called out, "What goes on in there, a murder or something?"
"Something," called back Sally. "Go away and rattle another door."
"Oh, Sally," came a girl's voice. "What we know about you."
"What she doesn't know won't hurt her," murmured Sally.
"That wisecrack about murder wasn't so dulcet," remarked Mr. Willows. "We should be doing something about this body of ours. So far we're safe. Dopey was the only other witness and he crammed himself so deep in his box I doubt if he saw anything. He hasn't opened his eyes since. Guess he never will. Dogs don't like murders."
"Well, I don't exactly gloat over them myself," said Sally. "Somehow or other I don't feel like the wife of a murderer, but never having been the wife of a murderer before, of course I don't know. How do you feel?"
"Just like a murderer," was Tim's moody reply. "Like Landru, Bluebeard, and Jack the Ripper. That's how I feel."
"It must be awful."
"It is. Break out another bottle, Sally."
Sally went to the cupboard and extracted from its recesses another bottle of gin. Tim opened it and drank.
"Ugh!" he muttered. "Rotten stuff. At least he won't have a hangover."
"Yes," said Sally, reaching for the bottle. "He's got you to thank for that."
"You know," observed her husband, "what gets the best of me is that we're taking this murder altogether too calmly. From the way we sit here and discuss it you'd think we polished off some guy every night of our lives."
"It's the gin," explained Sally, nodding wisely. "And then again, people make too much fuss about murders. They're not nearly so bad as they're painted. I've felt much more upset over a game of bridge."
"You're as heartless as hell. One of us should feel sorry for this body."
"Oh, I feel sorry for it, but that doesn't help any. It was a good body."
"You seemed to enjoy it."
Sally looked at him reproachfully.
"Don't rub it in," she said. "I'll never have anything to do again with any person's body except yours."
"And you won't have much to do with that if we don't get rid of this one."
"I'm too dizzy to start in grave-digging right now," complained Sally. "Wow! I can hardly stand. Let's put it in the basement for the time being. No one goes down there but yourself."
"That," replied Tim admiringly, "is what I call a swell idea. We'll hide the beggar in the basement."
And hide the beggar they did. It was not a pretty sight to see as they pushed and dragged the body across the floor. Dopey, aroused by the noise, took one horrified look at what was going on, then disappeared from view. He decided to give the incident a miss. One had to draw the line somewhere.
Difficulties arose on the basement steps. They were steep steps, and Sally, who had gone first, found Mr. Bentley's feet pressing with undue emphasis against the pit of her stomach. She felt herself being shoved off into space.
"Can't you hold this body?" she gasped. "I can't stand its feet."
"What's wrong with his feet?" Mr. Willows inquired in an interested voice.
"There's nothing wrong with his feet, you repellent ass," replied Sally. "They're coming down too fast, that's all. Hold on to the body."
"Can't do it," groaned Tim. "It's too much. I can't hold on to my own body. Do you think you could hang on while I got a drink of gin?"
"Listen, sweetie," said Sally. "This isn't my murder, you know. It's all yours. If you don't stick around now I'll wash my hands of the body and call the whole show off. You can have the body."
"I don't want the body," replied Tim.
"Well, you can't wish it upon me. Do you think I want the body?"
"No," replied Tim. "But someone must want a body. I wonder who?"
"Don't be ridiculous," said Sally. "You can't go round asking people if they happen to want a body."
"I guess not," admitted Tim. "They might ask me how I got the body in the first place."
"Exactly. And then where would you be?"
"I'd be rid of the body if they wanted it."
"But who wants a dead body, I'd like to know?"
"Well, I don't, for one," declared Tim emphatically. "I'm tired of dead bodies. Wish to God I'd never killed this one."
"Are we going to stand here all night in idle conversation?" asked Sally.
Tim was not standing. By this time he had flattened himself on his stomach and was clinging with aching fingers to the shoulders of the much discussed body. Dopey, who had been unable to restrain his curiosity, mistook his master's strange behaviour for alluring indications of playfulness. Evidently everything was all right, thought the dog. That terrible still figure was going. Quietly he emerged from his box and with one bound landed in the middle of Mr. Willows's back. With a cry of utter horror Tim momentarily released his grip and the body began to slip.
"Hey!" called Sally. "What are you trying to do?"
Her question was never answered. Mr. Willows was too busy. Desperately he seized the body again, but it was too late. Mr. Bentley had evidently decided to take matters into his own hands without any further shillyshallying. He began to descend purposefully into the darkness of the basement. Tim Willows was right behind him with Dopey on his back.
"I'm done for," panted Sally as the pressure of Mr. Bentley's feet grew irresistible. "Here I go and here it comes."
She abandoned all further effort and the body descended swiftly upon her as she slid down the steps. Mr. Willows and Dopey were close behind and then on top.
"I'm through," came Sally's discouraged voice in the darkness. "You might as well bury me too. There's not a whole bone in my body."
"Dopey did it," declared her husband. "Damn him."
"Whether Dopey did it or President Roosevelt, the result would be just the same," said Sally. "I'm a gone girl, that's all I know. Heave this body off and let me die in peace."
It was a ghastly position to be lying there in the darkness on and under a dead body with a demented dog scraping briskly about the place. Neither Sally nor Tim ever forgot it. It was one of the low lights of their lives.
Tim staggered to his feet and, after some painful groping, switched on the light. Then he bestowed upon the rump of Dopey one of the most venomous kicks ever received by a dog. After he had rolled Mr. Bentley off Sally and lifted her to her feet, they both stood swaying above the body and gazed down at it with reproachful eyes.
"That's no way for a body to act," complained Tim. "It's more dangerous than a thing of life."
"Well, if that rolling pin didn't finish him this certainly has," remarked Sally. "Let's get the cadaver out of the way. I'm sick of the very sight of it."
"Hadn't we better cover it up in the coal bin?" suggested her husband.
"Not a bad idea after all we've been through," remarked Sally. "Between us we'd make one competent murderer."
Between them and with the interference of Dopey, who had come to regard the body with jovial familiarity, they succeeded in dragging the remains of Mr. Bentley into the coal bin. Tim Willows found a shovel and began to sprinkle coal over the unpleasant object.
"This is awful," he said, wiping the sweat from his forehead. "I can hardly bring myself to do it. If people only knew how much trouble a murder involves they'd resort to some other method."
"You should have killed him outside the house," replied Sally, "or in his own bed."
"You're worse than Lady Macbeth," retorted Mr. Willows, with a slight shudder. "By rights you should be taking this murder very much to heart, yet here you go complaining because I didn't kill him in his own bed. I could never do a thing like that."
"What, wake a chap up only to put him to sleep for good? Horrible."
"Why wake him up?"
Mr. Willows paused, with shovel lifted, and looked at his wife.
"Hadn't thought of that," he admitted. "But just the same it doesn't seem such a nice way to murder a person."
"And I suppose you consider whanging a man over the head with a rolling pin, shooting him down a flight of steps, and then sprinkling him liberally with coal is a nice way to do him in?"
"No, I don't," replied Tim, "and that's a fact, but you see, this is my first murder and I didn't have any time to plan it. It just happened on the spur of the moment, so to speak. In I come and down he goes. He dies and I'm a murderer. It seems too damn simple to suit me."
"Then order your murders better in the future," said Sally. "Do hurry up. I'm getting the horrors down here. The gin is wearing off."
"Keep the damn dog out of my way. He's trying to dig this body out," replied Tim.
Moved by a sudden inspiration he pulled off Mr. Bentley's shoes, then proceeded to submerge him in coal until the last of the body was seen. He was about to turn away when he paused hesitantly.
"Shouldn't we say a little something?" he asked Sally. "Some sort of prayer?"
"Name one," challenged that young lady.
"Well, I don't know exactly," he hedged. "Seems sort of cold-blooded to leave him here without some little thought. How about, 'Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep'?"
Sally laughed unpleasantly.
"He didn't lay him down, dearie," she explained. "He was jolly well bashed down."
"We might pray to God to forgive him for making me a murderer," suggested Mr. Willows.
"He's your responsibility, not mine," said Sally indifferently. "Go ahead and take the matter up with God. I'm going to get a drink before I throw a fit."
"You're a hard woman, Sally," murmured Tim regretfully, "but perhaps a drink would be the best thing after all."
Picking up the shoes of the departed Bentley, he switched out the light and followed his wife up the steps to the kitchen. Dopey sought his box while they sought the bottle.
"Now," said Tim with satisfaction, "you're as much a murderer as I am. You're an accessory after the fact. We can both get the chair. What do you think of that?"
"I don't think so much of that, you worm," she answered. "As a matter of fact, I think so little of that that I've a good mind to go in right now and call up the police."
"That would make you a squealer," Tim informed her scornfully.
"What do I care?" she retorted. "I'll squeal like a pig if I feel like it."
"Go on and squeal like a pig," said her husband. "Squeal like a couple of pigs, for all I care."
"I can't squeal like a pig," Sally replied sadly. "I don't know how. Give me another spot of gin or I'll squeal like a mouse."
"Then," said Mr. Willows, passing his wife the bottle, "the wisest thing that you can do is to go back to that bunch of drunken morons and make out that Bentley's gone home. Tell 'em he left by the back way and that I've gone to bed. Get his coat and hat out of sight as quickly as possible, then break up the party. I'm going to put on those shoes and make misleading tracks in the snow. Lock the kitchen door and remove the key after you. I'll lock the back door when I return."
The moment the winter night struck Mr. Willows full in the face, reason forsook him. For a long time he wandered round in the snow, leaving what he hoped were misleading tracks in his wake, but presently he forgot all about this, and finding himself standing in front of a house of vaguely familiar aspect, and suddenly realising he was exceedingly cold, he mounted the steps and unceremoniously entered the front door. In the vestibule he dimly remembered that a very pretty woman lived in this house, a Mrs. Claire Meadows, whose husband was ever absent and whose moral and social status was ever a subject of interest to those who had little interest left in life. He had met this shapely, vivid-lipped creature on several occasions and on this occasion he met her again.
As he entered the softly illuminated sitting-room he saw her lying in nothing very much on a large divan. Eyes, lips, and silk stockings formed his first impression. Gradually he became aware of an aura of flame-coloured hair and a dead white throat.
"Hello," she said rather huskily. "I knew you would come sometime."
"How'd you know that?" asked Tim suspiciously.
"Because you're the most interesting man in town and I'm the most interesting woman," he was told. Then she caught sight of his feet, burdened as they were with the huge shoes of a dead man. "God in heaven!" she exclaimed. "Why the Charlie Chaplin effect and why the pyjamas and dressing robe? Did you come here to sleep, by chance?"
"Yes," replied Mr. Willows. "By chance."
She watched him with her deep blue shadow-touched eyes as he crossed the room and picked up the book she had been reading.
"Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" he read, seating himself beside her as if it were the most natural thing in the world. "I've always liked that book. I'm glad you do too. I like you, you know."
"I need a little liking," she said in a low voice. "I don't deserve it, perhaps, but that doesn't keep me from needing it. This world is not overkind. I much prefer Alice's."
He reached out and stroked the cool skin of her white throat, and all the time the woman's eyes were upon him. Her hands lay open at her sides, their palms upturned.
When Tim Willows left the house of Mrs. Claire Meadows some time later he had completely demolished still another commandment, for, as has been previously suggested, Tim Willows could not tolerate half measures.
"I feel that someone is dreaming me," she said as he left, "and that when the dreamer awakes I won't be here any more."
"When you awake," he told her, "perhaps I, too, shall be gone."
Sally was in bed and peacefully sleeping when Tim turned into his. His mind was in utter confusion, filled with blank and vivid patches, with slowly revolving colours that comforted and accused. The events of the night formed themselves before his eyes and whirled blindingly like some weird effect seen on the screen. His thoughts were drugged to sleep.
A few hours later when the light was dirtily dim he awoke to find a tall, ghastly figure standing by his bed. The figure was wavering unsteadily as if moved by a spirit wind. Tim recognised the figure only too well, but no face of a living man could be as white as the face that Carl Bentley held down to him now. Tim was electrified with horror. He was shocked even more when words came out of the face ... dull, mumbled words with a far-off sound.
"Move over," moaned the apparition. "Move over. I must lie down."
"Move over?" said Tim incredulously. "Me move over? Good God! I'll do more than that. I'll move clean out. You can have the whole damn bed."
He sat up with a springlike snap and the figure started back, its eyes fixed with terror on the face of Tim Willows. A sudden, fearful memory gripped the tall, wavering shape. The face it saw was the face of a man it associated with the most deadly peril—death itself. One wild shriek pierced the silence as the figure turned with fluttering hands and fled from the room. Sally woke up in time to see it go. Immediately she disappeared beneath the coverings at which her husband was clawing with frenzied fingers.
"Oh-o-o-o-o dear, good little God, what was that?" she chattered. "Don't pull those covers down. Stop it! Stop, I tell you!"
"I've got to pull those covers down," said Tim, tremulously. "That horror actually wanted to get in bed with me. Imagine that. He might come back and try to do it again."
"But if he sees you over here," she protested, "he might follow and try to get in."
"He won't get a chance to see me," said Tim, "and if he does we'll just tell him flat there isn't any more room."
"You'll tell him," retorted Sally, letting her husband in. "I'll have nothing to do with a ghost, particularly with one of your making."
Tim pulled the covers securely over his head.
"Of all the nerve," he murmured. "The appalling thing tried to get me to move over."
"Pretty clubby for a man you've just murdered," said Sally. "Magnanimous, I calls it. Sinister."
"Shut up! He mightn't know."
"Spirits know all," said Sally bleakly.
"Perhaps this one is dumb," replied Tim, reaching for a straw. "I hope to God we're still squiffed and merely imagining things. Of all the damned nights."
Mr. Ram gazed disapprovingly down upon the headless bed. Things were getting out of hand ... going far too far.
|Previous Chapter||Contents||Next Chapter|