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The Idyll of Miss Diversey
Miss Diversey fled Dr. Kirk's study followed by a blistering mouthful of ogrish growls. She stood still in the corridor outside the old gentleman's door, her cheeks burning and one of her square washed-out hands pressed to the outraged starch of her bosom. She could hear the angry septuagenarian scuttling about the study in his wheel chair like a Galapagos turtle, muttering anathemas upon her white-capped head in a fantastic potpourri of ancient Hebrew, classic Greek, French, and English.
"The old fossil," thought Miss Diversey fiercely. "It's—it's like living with a human encyclopedia!"
Dr. Kirk made Jovian thunder from behind the door: "And don't come back, do you hear me?" He thundered other things, too, in the argot of strange tongues which filled his scholar's brain; things which, had Miss Diversey been possessed of the dubious advantages of higher culture, would have made her very indignant indeed.
"Slush," she said defiantly, glaring at the door. There was no reply; at least, no reply of a satisfactory nature. There's nothing, she thought with dismal consternation, you can say to a ghostly chuckle and the slam of a dusty book dug out of somebody's grave. He was the most exasperating old—She almost said it. For a moment, in fact, it trembled upon the brink of utterance. But her better nature triumphed and she closed her pale lips sternly. Let him dress himself if he wanted to. She had always hated dressing old people, anyway.... She stood irresolute for a moment; and then, her color still high, clumped down the corridor with the firm unhurried steps of the professional nurse.
The twenty-second floor of the Hotel Chancellor was pervaded, by inflexible regulation, with the silent peace of the cloister. The quiet soothed Miss Diversey's ruffled soul. There were two compensations, she thought, to playing nurse to a creaking, decrepit, malicious old devil afflicted—thank heaven there was justice!—with chronic rheumatism and gout. One was the handsome salary young Donald Kirk paid her for the difficult task of taking care of his father; the other was that the Kirk ménage was situated in a respectable hotel in the heart of New York City. The money and the geography, she thought with morbid satisfaction, made up for a lot of disadvantages. Macy's, Gimbel's, the other department stores were only minutes away, movies and theatres and all sorts of exciting things at one's doorstep.... Yes, she would stick it out. Life was hard, but it had its compensations.
Not that they weren't a trying lot at times. Lord knows she had crawled to the whims of plenty of nasty people in her day. And that old Dr. Kirk was nasty; there was no pleasing him. You'd think a body would be pleasant and human and grateful sometimes; give a person a "please" here or a "thank you" there. But not old Beelzebub. A tyrant, if ever there was one. He had eyes that gave a person the shivers; and his white hair stood on end as if it were trying to get as far away from him as it possibly could. He wouldn't eat when you wanted him to. He refused massages and threw shoes about. He would totter around the suite when Dr. Angini said he mustn't walk and refuse to budge when Dr. Angini said he must exercise. About the only good thing about him was that when his purple old nose was buried in a book he was quiet.
And then there was Marcella. Marcella! Snippy little fluff she was; in fifty years she'd be the feminine counterpart of her father. Oh, she had her good points, reflected Miss Diversey grudgingly; but then so have criminals. Adding her up, good and bad, you wouldn't have much. Of course, conceded Miss Diversey, who had a strong sense of justice, she couldn't really be as worthless as all that; not with that nice tall pink-cheeked Mr. Macgowan so crazy about her. It certainly did take all kinds of people to make a world! Now, Miss Diversey was sure that if Mr. Macgowan had not happened to be Mr. Donald Kirk's best friend there never would have been an engagement between Mr. Macgowan and Mr. Kirk's young sister. That's what comes of having a brother and pots of money, thought Miss Diversey darkly. You go out and snare just about the best catch—Miss Diversey read the society-gossip columns critically—in the social whirl. Well, maybe when they were married he'd find out. They generally do, thought Miss Diversey, who possessed among other admirable qualities a decided strain of cynicism. The stories she could tell about these society people! ... As for Donald Kirk, he was all right in his way; but his way was not Miss Diversey's way. He was a snob. That is, he treated people like Miss Diversey with a certain good-humored, absent tolerance.
It did seem, reflected Miss Diversey as she trudged down the corridor, that the easiest way to bury the woman part of a person was to become a trained nurse. Here she was, thirty-two—no, one must be honest with oneself; it was closer to thirty-three—and what were her prospects? That is to say, her romantic prospects? Nothing, simply nothing. The men she met in the travails of her profession were roughly of two kinds, she thought bitterly: those who paid no attention to her at all, and those who paid far too much. In the first category were doctors and male relatives of rich patients; in the second were internes and male employees of rich patients. The first class didn't recognize her as a woman at all, just a machine; Donald Kirk belonged to that class. The second kind wanted to—to take her apart with their grubby fingers to see what made her tick. That groveling little Hubbell, now, she thought with a curl of her lip—Mr. Kirk's butler and valet and Lord knows what else. When he was with his betters he was the soul of self-effacement and rectitude; but still and all she'd had to slap that pasty face of his only this morning. Patients, of course, didn't count. You could hardly get goo-goo about a person when you fetched bedpans and that sort of thing. Now, Mr. Osborne was different....
A gentle vagueness settled upon Miss Diversey's hard features; almost a girlish smile. Thoughts of Mr. Osborne were—there was no denying it—pleasant. First of all, he was a gentleman; none of Hubbell's low tricks for him. Come to think of it, he was in a third class, sort of in a class by himself. Not rich, and yet not a servant. As Mr. Kirk's confidential assistant he was in between. Like one of the family and yet not like one of the family, as you might say; he worked on a salary like herself. That made it—somehow—very, very satisfying to Miss Diversey.... She wondered if she really hadn't overstepped the bounds of propriety weeks and weeks ago, when she'd only just met Mr. Osborne. How had the talk drifted around to—she blushed faintly—marriage? Oh, nothing personal, of course; she'd merely said that she would never marry a man who couldn't provide a good—a more than good—living. Oh, no. She'd seen too many marriages break up because of money; that is, lack of it. And Mr. Osborne had seemed so distressed, as if she'd hurt him; now, could that mean anything? Surely he wasn't thinking ...
Miss Diversey took a firm grip on her errant thoughts. Her amble had brought her to a door on the opposite side of the corridor from the Kirk suite. It was the last door on the wall, the door nearest the other corridor that led from the elevators to the Kirk apartment. A plain door, really an undistinguished member of the family of doors; and yet sight of it brought a slight flush to Miss Diversey's cheeks, a flush subtly different from the angry red response to Dr. Kirk's brimstone blasphemies. She tried the handle; it gave.
It wouldn't hurt to peep in, she thought. If there were some one waiting in the anteroom it would mean that he—that Mr. Osborne was probably very busy. If the anteroom was empty, surely there wouldn't be any harm in ... under the circumstances ... The old fossil couldn't talk to her that way! ... A person was human, wasn't she?
She opened the door. The anteroom was—happy chance—empty. Directly opposite her was the only other door of the room, and it was closed. On the other side lay ... She sighed and turned to go. But then she brightened and hurried in. A bowl of fresh fruit on the reading table against the wall between the windows beckoned. It was nice of Mr. Kirk to be so thoughtful of other people, even strangers; and the Lord knew enough of them came to see him and sat in the little anteroom, with its nice English oak furniture and its books and lamps and rug and flowers and things.
She pecked among the fruits, making up her mind. One of those huge sugar-pears, now? Hothouse, most likely. But no, it was too close to dinner. Possibly an apple.... Ah, tangerines! Now that she came to think of it, tangerines were her favorites. Better than oranges, because they were easier to peel. And they came apart so nicely!
She stripped the rind from the tangerine with the industry of a squirrel and proceeded to chew the damp, sweet morsels of orange with her strong teeth. The pips she spat daintily into the palm of her hand.
When she had finished she looked about, decided the room and the table were too trim and neat and clean to be defiled with pips and orange-peel, and cheerfully hurled the handful of remains out one of the windows into the court made by the setback of the building four stories below. On passing the table, she hesitated. Another? There were two very alluring fat tangerines left in the bowl.... But she shook her head sternly and went out by the corridor door, shutting it behind her.
Feeling a little better, she sauntered around the bend into the main corridor. What to do? The old devil would kick her out if she went back now, and she didn't feel much like going to her own room.... She brightened once more. A stout middle-aged woman dressed in black, with severe gray hair, was sitting at a desk farther up the corridor, directly opposite the elevators. It was Mrs. Shane, clerk on duty on the twenty-second floor.
Miss Diversey shut her eyes when she passed a door on her right; the door which—she blushed again—opened into the office of Mr. Donald Kirk, the office adjoining the anteroom. It was in this office that the gallant Mr. Osborne was to be f——She sighed and passed on.
"Hullo, Mrs. Shane," she said cheerily to the stout woman. "How's the back this afternoon?"
Mrs. Shane grinned. She peered with caution up and down the corridor, kept an eye cocked on the elevators facing her, and said: "Why, it's Miss Diversey! I declare, Miss Diversey, I never see you any more! Is the old scoundrel keepin' you that busy?"
"Damn his soul," said Miss Diversey without rancor. "He's Satan himself, Mrs. Shane. Just now he chased me out of his room. Imagine!" Mrs. Shane clucked with horror. "Mr. Kirk's partner came back from Europe or some place today—that's Mr. Berne—and Mr. Kirk is giving a dinner-party for him. Naturally, he would have to go. So what do you think? He has to dress for dinner, so—"
"Dress?" echoed Mrs. Shane blankly. "Is he nekkid?"
Miss Diversey laughed. "I mean a tuxedo and things. Well he can't dress himself. He can hardly stand on his feet, with his joints all twisted up with rheumatiz. Why, he's seventy-five if he's a day! But what do you think? He wouldn't let me dress him. Chased me out!"
"Imagine," said Mrs. Shane. "Men-folks are funny that way. I remember once my Danny—God rest his soul—was taken bad with lumbago and I had to—" She stopped abruptly and stiffened as the elevator evacuated a passenger. The lady, however, was not on the alert for possible defections of hotel employees. She exuded a faint odor of alcohol as she staggered by the desk bound up the corridor toward the other side of the floor. "See that hussy?" hissed Mrs. Shane, leaning forward. Miss Diversey nodded. "The things I could tell you about her, dearie! Why, my girls who clean up on this floor told me the awfullest things they've found in her room. Only last week they picked up from her floor a—"
"I've got to go," said Miss Diversey hastily. "Uh—is Mr. Kirk's office—I mean, has Mr. Kirk—?"
Mrs. Shane relaxed to fix Miss Diversey with a shrewd suspicious eye. "You mean is Mr. Osborne alone?"
Miss Diversey colored. "I didn't ask that—"
"I know, honey. He is that. There's been not a soul near that blessed office for an hour or more."
"You're sure?" breathed Miss Diversey, beginning to poke her square-tipped fingers in the reddish hair beneath her cap.
"Of course I'm sure! I haven't stirred from this spot all the afternoon, and nobody could 'a' gone into that office without me seeing him."
"Well," said Miss Diversey carelessly. "I think, since I'm here, I'll stop in for a minute. I've nothing to do, anyway. It gets so boring, Mrs. Shane. And then I do feel sorry for poor Mr. Osborne, cooped up in that office all day with not a living soul to talk to."
"Oh, I wouldn't say that," said Mrs. Shane with demoniac subtlety. "Only this morning there was a perfeckly stunning young lady. Something to do with Mr. Kirk's book publishing—an author, I do think. She was in there with Mr. Osborne for the longest time—"
"Well, and why shouldn't she be?" murmured Miss Diversey. "I'm sure I don't care, Mrs. Shane. And anyway it's his work, isn't it? Besides, Mr. Osborne isn't the kind ... Well, so long."
"So long," said Mrs. Shane warmly.
Miss Diversey strolled back the way she had come, her strides growing smaller and smaller as she approached the enchanted area before the closed door of Donald Kirk's office. Finally, and by some miracle of chance precisely opposite the door, she came to a stop. Her cheeks tingling, she darted a glance over her shoulder at Mrs. Shane. That worthy dame, basking in the glow of acting a stout middle-aged Eros, was grinning broadly. So Miss Diversey smiled rather foolishly and put off all further pretense and knocked on the door.
James Osborne called: "Come in," in an absent tone and did not raise his pale face as Miss Diversey slipped with high-beating heart into the office. He was seated on a swivel-chair before a desk, working with silent concentration over a curious loose-leaf album with thick leaves faintly quadrilled and holding tiny rectangles of colored paper. He was a faded-looking man of forty-five, with nondescript sandy hair grizzled at the temples, a sharp beaten nose, and eyes imbedded in tired wrinkles. He worked over the bits of colored papers with unwavering attention, handling them with a small nickel tongs and the dexterity of long practice.
Miss Diversey coughed.
Osborne swung about, startled. "Why, Miss Diversey!" he exclaimed, dropping the tongs and scrambling to his feet. "Come in, come in. I'm dreadfully sorry—I was so absorbed ..." A redness had come over his flat lined cheeks.
"You go right back to work," directed Miss Diversey. "I thought I'd look in, but since you're busy—"
"No. No, no, Miss Diversey, really. Sit down. I haven't seen you for two days. I suppose Dr. Kirk has been keeping you busy?"
Miss Diversey sat down, arranging her starched skirts primly. "Oh, we're used to that, Mr. Osborne. He's a little fussy, but he's really a grand old man."
"I quite agree. Quite," said Osborne. "A great scholar, Miss Diversey. He's contributed a good deal, you know, to philology in his day. A great scholar."
Miss Diversey murmured something. Osborne stood in an eager, sloped attitude. The room was very quiet and warm. It was more like a den than an office, fitted out by some sensitive hand. Soft glass curtains and brown velvet drapes shrouded the windows overlooking the setback court. Donald Kirk's desk was in a corner, heaped with books and albums. They both felt suddenly a sense of being alone with each other.
"Working on those old stamps again, I see," said Miss Diversey in a strained voice.
"Yes. Yes, indeed."
"Whatever you men see in collecting postage stamps! Don't you feel silly sometimes, Mr. Osborne? Grown men! Why, I've always thought only boys went in for that sort of thing."
"Oh, really no," protested Osborne. "Most laymen think that about philately. And yet it absorbs the attention of millions of people all over the world. It's a universal hobby, Miss Diversey. Do you know there's one stamp in existence which is catalogued at fifty thousand dollars?"
Miss Diversey's eyes grew round. "No!"
"I mean it. A bit of paper so messy you wouldn't give it another look. I've seen photographs of it." Osborne's faded eyes glowed. "From British Guiana. It's the only one of its kind in the world, you know. It's in the collection of the late Arthur Hind, of Rochester. King George needs it to complete his collection of British colonies—"
"You mean," gasped Miss Diversey, "King George is a stamp-collector?"
"Yes, indeed. Many great men are. Mr. Roosevelt, the Agha Khan—"
"Now, you take Mr. Kirk. Donald Kirk, I mean. Now, he has one of the finest collections of Chinese stamps in the world. Specializes, you know. Mr. Macgowan collects locals—local posts, you know; stamps which were issued by states or communities for local postage before there was a national postage system."
Excerpted from The Chinese Orange Mystery by Ellery Queen. Copyright © 1934 Ellery Queen. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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Posted July 30, 2013