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Four Lost Ladies
A Hildegarde Withers Mystery
By Stuart Palmer
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1949 Stuart Palmer
All rights reserved.
All that afternoon harriet Bascom killed time in her hotel suite, nursing her wrath to keep it warm. She started to dress long before it was necessary, arraying herself in courage and confidence as she slipped into the underthings trimmed with contrasting Chantilly lace, the sheerest of dark flattering nylons, the simple black pumps which had cost her more than what had once been a month's pay, and finally the bustled, daringly décolleté gown with the Paris label. They were her armor.
While she dressed, her mind was busy rehearsing. It was desperately important that she start off the scene in just the right key. He must be put immediately on the defensive. Keep jabbing, keep him off balance, as they shouted at the prize fights. Only it was altogether another sort of arena that Harriet visualized—the Plaza de Toros which had so shocked and excited her on that all-expense trip to Mexico City a few years ago. The bull had entered charging and stamping in hot masculine pride, wasted his strength in futile passes at swirling, empty silk, begun to feel the barbs in his shoulders and then finally had suffered the thrust of the matador's delicate crooked sword in what the Spanish so poetically called "The Moment of Truth."
Harriet practiced her opening speech over and over, with variations. Should she be devastatingly aloof, with the faintest undercurrent of bitterness? When he came in the door, holding out his arms, she could slide elusively away. "Please! My dear boy, there's a time and a place for everything! But I think that now we should have a little talk about some of the eternal verities, you and I." Something like Tallulah Bankhead the other night in the play, or perhaps Gertrude Lawrence.
Or she could have cocktails sent up ahead of time from the Platinum Lounge downstairs, ready and waiting for him. Give him a warm Judas-kiss (fair exchange) and then as he sipped the sweet iced fire, comfortable and relaxed and smug, she could let him have the blow right between the eyes. "By the way, my dear, you're not such a very good liar! Did you really think you were fooling me with your pretty fictions the other night? I happen to know everything, do you understand, everything!" Only perhaps that sounded just a little like a radio serial.
Harriet was determined that since the scene must take place, it must happen in a manner worthy of her new personality, her new wardrobe, and the new setting. As a woman of the world she must dominate the delicately shaded moment. Some things wouldn't have to be put into words at all, but could be expressed with a glance, a subtle shrug of bare shoulders.
Only he must be kept in suspense as long as possible, to stretch out his punishment. Then at just the right moment she would tell him what she had discovered, and watch him sweat and fumble and wriggle like the worm he was.
"I'm really dreadfully sorry, but I'm breaking our date for tonight." If she used this gambit she could wear the lovely silvery-blue stole of mutation mink, as if all ready to leave and only waiting to tell him off. "I happen to have another engagement—just meeting some literary people at Twenty-One, you wouldn't know them—but I wanted first to tell you that I just happened to find out today what a stinking lousy cheat and liar you are, you stinking, lousy—" Stop Harriet, stop right there! Your voice is getting out of control and your lips are trembling.
No, no, the crying was all over and done with. That had been for this morning, after the long-distance call to Santa Barbara on the other edge of the continent, and the bursting of the rainbow bubble. Harriet had said a meek "Thank you" and hung up the receiver and then flung herself down on the satin bedspread and pounded the silk pillowcases with clenched fists, howling and screaming like a hysterical child. But she wasn't a child; she was an attractive, slightly overweight woman who looked twenty-four or so by candlelight and all of her thirty-nine years in the cold glare of morning, and she had been disappointed in love a number of times before this.
Only the other blows hadn't struck below the belt. Normally, the world being what it is, a woman of her years does not retain a belief in magic and Santa Claus and fairy godmothers, but the miraculous events of the past month had almost forced her to go back and become all starry-eyed again. She had of course read in the papers about wonderful things happening to quite ordinary people. Oil wells bubbled up black wealth in their back yards, or the phone rang one night and it turned out to be some radio program offering untold riches for just guessing the tune of some old ballad or the name of George Washington's wife (they let you win if you said Mrs. George Washington) or else the blue-eyed curvaceous daughter of a Lithuanian coal miner found favor in the jaded eyes of a billionaire's grandson and a few weeks later was aboard his yacht, with a wedding ring and a big toothy smile for the cameras.
She had never dreamed of anything like that happening to her. And then on the fifth of the month (numerologists had always said five was her number) came the news of the little legacy from an uncle of her dead father's up in Canada, and when all taxes and deductions were taken out of it there was still something over $700. A librarian without family ties, whose school friends have all married or drifted away, free of debts or real vices, can either do very little or a great deal with that amount of money. It seemed to Harriet to be too much to fritter away and too little to put away in investments.
A gallant gesture was the thing. So, feeling light-headed and a little devilish, she had let the rental library go hang one Saturday afternoon and taken the bus over to Saratoga. Serenely indifferent to racing forms and tip sheets, Harriet had played post-position Five all afternoon, craftily doubling her bets when it lost. When the fourth race ended she had nearly $1,500 crammed into her handbag, and she could no more have resisted putting it on number Five in the fifth race than she could have run the ten furlongs in 2:02 2/5, which was the time established by Little Nipper, a previously overlooked four-year-old who happened to wear the numeral 5 on his saddle-cloth. In making this surprising effort the gallant gelding broke his maiden, the track record, and a great many cash customers who had bet the favorite at one to two. If it had not been for Harriet's big last-minute wager the mutuel price would have been fantastic, but even as it was the winner paid off at better than twelve-to-one.
When the man at the cashier's window painstakingly counted out Harriet's $18,240 he congratulated her and kidded with her much more than seemed absolutely necessary. She leaped to the natural but mistaken conclusion that he was just being fresh and trying to date her up, so she seized her money and scooted for the Ladies Lounge before he could get one of his mates to tip off the internal revenue men.
The cashier was sure that the plump little woman in the gray suit and the hat with the wilted flower would show up at the hundred-dollar window on the Sellers' side before post-time for the sixth, but he was wrong.
There was a canny streak in Hattie Bascom that cropped up at odd times. Before the trumpeter had blown Boots and Saddles to call the thoroughbreds out on the track for the next race, she was bouncing homeward on the bus, sick at her stomach with ecstasy. She kept money and secret both close to her heart, having a not unreasonable fear that the income-tax people or somebody would want to cut in on her fortune. It was hers and hers alone, and she was going to use it as a bridge to Paradise. On Monday she quit her job, cut all the ties that bound her to Poughkeepsie, and enplaned for New York carrying the money and all her worldly possessions in a big battered cowhide valise that had been her father's.
Like the peach and cherry trees which sometimes burst unseasonably into bloom during the false warmth of Indian summer, Harriet blossomed. Her first base of operations had been a small room at the Barbizon, soon overflowing with the loot she lugged home from delirious hours of shopping. She chose only the best of everything—or at least the best-advertised and most expensive. With the recklessness of a little girl let loose in a candy store she hastened to make herself acquainted with the sacred names that up until now she had only glimpsed from afar in the full-page ads of the thick, expensive magazines— the ads composed in a strange language where dresses were creations, caprices, silhouettes, whimsies, and even tours de force, underwear became exquisites, and hats and gloves and shoes were accents.
Once she had her wardrobe and enough shiny new luggage to hold it, she moved to a suite at the new Hotel Grandee, two lovely big rooms high in the tower above Park Avenue, and then the shopping spree went into its second phase. There appeared a tiny watch set in a bracelet of diamonds, costume jewelry that looked more real than real, and even a few old-fashioned bits to suggest background. There were the big velvet-topped boxes of French liqueur chocolates, the Napoleon brandy that she kept in an antique silver-filigree flask, fresh orchids sent daily to her rooms, and best of all the dozens of imported perfumes in bottles shaped like torsos and crowns and jewels and animals and everything in the world except bottles.
It would all of course have palled very swiftly on Harriet without an audience, without masculine eyes to appreciate, a masculine nose to sniff, masculine hands to touch. But that too had been added unto her. She had parlayed the tiny inheritance into everything in the world she had ever wanted, and that included a lover and a proposal. She had been glad rather than sorry that they had not been introduced in the ordinary way, because in almost all the romantic films she had seen, in the magazine stories too, the boy and girl had met unconventionally. In the classic Hollywood phrase, "They meet cute."
It was all wonderful and inevitable. She had decided at once to call him "Gavin" because according to numerology that matched hers so beautifully. But names really didn't matter. He was so utterly, so perfectly right, so suitable for a husband and lover in spite of the age difference, so masculine and dependable and real. Harriet saw the rest of her life as a rosy dream, wherein she floated hand in hand with Gavin, turning to let him kiss her now and then against a background of Sun Valley ski-tows or Meadow Brook polo.
Only in the mornings did she ever have any pawky little doubts in the back of her mind— this morning particularly, because of the hang-over from the champagne. Something had impelled her to make that long-distance call, though she hated herself a little for doing it. And now—
Now she felt as might Sir Galahad if he had found the Holy Grail only brass after all, with Made in Japan stamped on the bottom.
He would pay for that, through the nose. He would suffer ten times over for every single moment that Harriet had spent this morning crying and wailing and bemoaning her fate. Because now she was herself again. A phrase came to her out of the past, from the days of her brief whirl at college when undergraduates still read Mencken and Cabell and Huneker out loud to each other. It was something about there being a strange magic in the woman who is mistress of herself, the moment, and the man.
Without in the least realizing it, Harriet Bascom took her ideas from things she had read, just as she took her tastes in package form from the advertisements. Now she repeated the words again, looking critically into the mirror over the dressing-table. Thanks to her natural buoyancy, and to the hours spent in the Cathedral de Beauté down in the mezzanine, this morning's avalanche of emotion had passed without leaving a trace. In fact, her face looked becomingly pale and interesting. Harriet practiced expressions before the glass, and found several that she must remember to use.
As for the rest of it, there was nothing much more that she could do to make the setting perfect. The luxuriously furnished rooms with their blond wood and pistachio and rose-red upholstery held just a few touches of her own personality—a few new bright-jacketed books that she'd dipped into enough to discuss, a couple of framed impressionist prints above the divan, a great vase of crimson-black Nigrette hybrid tea-roses, the portable automatic radio-phonograph in its alligator case.
For mood-music she chose Erik Satie's odd Pieces in the Form of a Pear, and set it ready on the turntable. Now the stage was completely set, the lights almost as soft and flattering as candles. She decided not to worry any more about what to say; she would have to find just the right words when the time came. The big scene would go off as she planned. Even now she didn't dare to think about the curtain.
At a quarter of seven she ordered cocktails sent up in a shaker from downstairs, on a tray with one glass because she wanted to make it clear that she wasn't drinking with him. That would be another psychological advantage.
The bellboy fought hard to live up to his rigorous training when he entered with the tray, but he could not resist a flash of appreciation when he saw her in the topless crimson, clinging gown that accentuated her generous curves in just the right places. The look in his eyes was something that Harriet needed very much at the moment; reassurance from a man, especially a young man, went to her head like wine. She could not resist tipping him five dollars.
"Gee, thank you, Miss Bascom!" he said fervently, and might have said more had she not turned casually away to start the music, keeping the volume turned 'way down. After the door closed she looked longingly at the cocktails. Then she went into the bedroom and took a good pull at the flask of brandy. Not of course that she needed it.
At ten minutes past seven—trust him to be just that late and no later—there was a knock at the door. Harriet took a quick last look in the mirror and then set her face in the proud, enigmatic smile that she liked best. Then she let him in. It added somehow to her annoyance that in spite of her hints about full-dress tonight, he was still only wearing black-tie.
It was the first time he had been in her rooms—somehow before this they had always met in some convenient cocktail lounge—but he had eyes only for her. They kissed, and then with a conscious effort she twisted out of his arms.
He just stood there, looking at her curiously. "What's wrong with you?"
"Why—why nothing at all. My dear boy, there's a time and a place for everything. But I think that now we should have a little talk, you and I—"
She tried again: "By the way, my dear, did you really think you were fooling me?"
"Harriet, I said, 'What's wrong with you?' and I mean to have an answer." Her name sounded strange on his lips, for like most lovers who have spent their hours together without other people around, there had never been need for anything but "you" or "darling." Nor had she ever before felt this whiplash in his voice.
"I'm sorry," she went on breathlessly, "but you see I have another engagement, I mean some literary friends are picking me up at Twenty-One, you wouldn't know them, and I—" The rest of it died in her throat, for he wasn't listening. He had put the black hat back on his head, as if he didn't realize where he was or else didn't care. Now he was putting on his gloves again. He was going to walk out on her, that was what he was going to do, leaving her with everything pent-up inside, everything unspoken. So Harriet took a deep breath and blurted, "All right! I know all about you, that's what's wrong! You lousy, stinking cheat and liar—you fake!"
Then she saw the look in his eyes—no, somehow she saw through his eyes as if they were windows opening into the murky horror that was his mind. Harriet was still stiffly holding out her arm to offer him the cocktail, though a moment ago the glass had dropped unnoticed to shatter on the floor.
Now he was coming toward her. And suddenly all her armor was gone, the courage and self-assurance were stripped from Harriet, melted like Cellophane before the flames of his eyes. She was naked and helpless, she was just foolish, gullible Hattie Bascom trapped in a hotel room with a man she had loved but never known until this moment. The Moment of Truth.
Excerpted from Four Lost Ladies by Stuart Palmer. Copyright © 1949 Stuart Palmer. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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