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"This isn't safe," said Howland.
Search lifted her face from the note she was writing at the small desk across the room.
He was standing at the wide window looking down. His blocky figure looked big and heavy in the small living room of the apartment with its delicate light woods and beige rug. His dark, rather short face was bent in a way that brought an unexpected memory flashing out of all the memories she had of Howland Stacy, and that was his face, beside her, bent like that in profile with its blunt nose and dark mustache, as they walked out of the church together after Richard's wedding.
That was three years ago in June. She had wondered then, fleetingly and only in the very top surface of her mind, if he had noticed the stiff hard clutch of her gloved hand upon his arm.
"It isn't safe," he repeated. "You ought to have bars or a railing put up here."
She rose and went to him without finishing the note she was writing—that innocuous, small note to the milkman with its unfinished joking reference to the milkman's own joke about the heat which he delivered through the panel in the door as regularly as he delivered her bottle of cream.
"What isn't safe?" she said, linking her arm lightly through Howland's and following his own gaze downward to the white, hot pavement far below where dark figures of pedestrians were immensely foreshortened so they looked like flat, animated little dolls scurrying along. "Oh, you mean the height?"
"It's this—this ledge," said Howland disapprovingly. "It's too low." The long window was open, and a wide ledge rising perhaps two feet above the floor was all that separated them from the dizzying plunge downward. She glanced at the ledge and then looked outward, far above Chicago traffic and sounds and heaped-up ranks of other buildings with their brick and stone and glittering windowpanes, to where the long blue-gray reaches of Lake Michigan joined in the far distance the blue sky. That afternoon in mid-July it was hot, and a soft blue haze away off there in the distance blended the horizons of lake and sky so she could not see where one met the other.
"That's why I chose the apartment," she said. "The height and the view. Look."
He followed her gaze out toward lake and sky only briefly and looked again down at the street directly but very far below them.
"All very nice. But even if you've a good head for height yourself, or think you have, it's still not safe. You'd hate to have one of your guests go plunging over. You do give cocktail parties sometimes, don't you?"
"Not often, Howie, as you know very well. Life is real and life is earnest for a gal earning her own living. Although I've just had a ten-dollar raise; you can't tell to what orgies of extravagance it will lead me."
"Well, it's your own doing," said Howland after a pause while he watched the scurrying figures far below with a withdrawn look on his short dark face. "How long has it been now since you left the family rooftree? Three years, isn't it?"
"Three years this summer."
There was another pause. Then Howland said: "You ought to let Diana keep you. She's got money enough now."
"She would keep me if I would let her."
As a matter of fact, thought Search, life would have been more serious for her during the past three years if Diana had not been so generous. The rent for her tiny apartment took a surprisingly large proportion of her salary; food took another slice of it. She could manage those two items and incidentals—gloves and dentist and even birthday and Christmas presents if she devoted enough time to looking for them—but she could never have managed smart clothes. Anything Diana chose was sure to be good and sure to cost quite a lot of money.
Howland said: "That outfit you are wearing now came from Diana, didn't it?"
She glanced down at her print dress with its cool, smart silk coat. "Yes."
"I thought I remembered it."
"It didn't suit her; she'd worn it only twice."
"Do you like to wear clothes that—don't suit Diana?" said Howland.
"Why, really, Howland—" She checked rising irritation and said coolly and sensibly: "Why on earth should I mind? Diana's my cousin. It's a smart and good suit; far nicer than I could afford. Why should I mind?"
Howland shrugged. "No reason." He turned to look at her and laughed a little, although his soft brown eyes remained opaque and rather expressionless as usual. "Don't be angry, darling. You look far more beautiful in Diana's clothes than Diana ever looks."
"There's nothing the matter with Diana," said Search rather shortly. "I'm ready to go, Howie." Her bags had already been sent down; her flat smart handbag, her hat, the package of rum-butter toffee for Aunt Ludmilla lay on the low pearwood table before the sofa.
"There's plenty of time to get to the station. How long has it been since you were at the summer place?"
"Lake Kentigern? Oh, some time. I was up in the fall two years ago—when I had my vacation. I'd better close the windows."
"I will. It's the same old place; very few changes. All the lake colony present and accounted for by the middle of May just as when we were children. But wasn't your decision to go up to Kentigern just now rather a sudden one? You said nothing about it when I saw you two—no, three nights ago."
Search turned away from the window and picked up her hat.
"Aunt Ludmilla sent for me."
"Ludmilla! Why, what's wrong?"
"Nothing," said Search slowly. "That is, she didn't say that anything was wrong. She—just wanted me to come." She went to the mirror above the bookshelves and put on the small hat with its tall rakish feather, adjusting it carefully but thinking uneasily of Ludmilla. For if Ludmilla's letter two days ago had been rather oddly urgent and puzzling, her telephone call the night before was even more urgent and even more puzzling.
"I want you to come, Search," Ludmilla had said. "We're at the house at Lake Kentigern. I want you to come at once."
"But—but why, Aunt Ludmilla? What's wrong?"
Ludmilla hadn't replied, had only said again, her voice faraway and unnatural: "Search, please come. Hurry. I need you."
"I'll come, of course, dear. But won't you tell me why?"
There hadn't been any answer then because Ludmilla had abruptly but unmistakably rung off.
And the next day, because business was slack just then, Search had managed to get a six-weeks leave. Her job would be waiting for her when she got back; she had first made sure of that. And then had packed and, when Howland Stacy telephoned to ask her to dinner, had told him she was going to Lake Kentigern.
She tilted her hat a little further over her right eye.
"It's nice of you to take me to the train," she said.
"I've got to go up sometime soon myself—to see about some repairs on the house. So we'll be neighbors again for a while; I may stay up there for a few weeks." He closed and latched the long windows, shutting out light and the muffled roar of Chicago traffic so all at once they seemed isolated and alone above the world. He went to the pearwood table and took a cigarette from the box. And with a match in his hand and his eyes watching the little flame he said: "There's something I want to say to you, darling."
His tone was casual yet different; too casual, perhaps. Search turned with a little start from the mirror.
"Why—why, of course, Howie. What is it?"
He was intent upon lighting his cigarette, and in the pause, her mind still full of her hurried preparations for leaving, she remembered that she had left the key to the apartment on her dressing table in the adjoining bedroom. "Wait, Howie," she said. "I've forgotten my key."
She went quickly into the bedroom, took up the key and saw Ludmilla's letter beside it. The letter was in its envelope, addressed to Miss Search Abbott in Ludmilla's small handwriting, usually so neat and regular but this time looking a little untidy and wavering. She reached for that too, intending to show it, with its rather puzzling phrases, to Howland, but as she turned she caught a glimpse of herself in the long mirror directly opposite. One stocking seam was twisted, and she dropped the letter, where it lay among the perfume bottles, and bent swiftly to pull and refasten the stocking so it was straight and neat on her slender leg. The window was already closed; she looked to make sure. She took the key again and went away, leaving Ludmilla's letter, its address wavering a little, face downward among the perfume bottles.
She closed the door behind her. Howland was still standing beside the sofa with the match in his fingers; he did not look at her but leaned over with a kind of deliberation to put the match in the ash tray, and Search said quickly, realizing, that she had offended him: "I'm sorry. I was afraid I would forget the key. You were going to tell me something...."
His face was perfectly smooth and without expression. It wasn't at all sulky, but it was a look she recognized. She oughtn't to have interrupted him as she had done. Well, it was no good questioning him; it was never any good questioning Howie until he'd made up his mind to tell you. She knew that, for she had known him so long and so well. So well, that is, during their childhood; not so well perhaps now, although she'd been seeing him often during the past winter. He liked gaiety, he liked to go places and he liked a smartly dressed and handsome woman with him.
Thanks to Diana and to her mother (that beautiful, proud and rather crisp and sensible woman who had died so long ago), Search was adequately endowed in both respects—and admitted it to herself with a candid little grin as she wondered just how far Howland's gallantry would have gone otherwise. And then felt a wave of compunction. That wasn't fair to Howland. Certainly Howland Stacy, with his fine car and his position in society and in his profession, and his good looks, wasn't exactly put to it to find girls. She supposed he was, as a matter of fact, rather a catch.
He said: "There's still lots of time before your train leaves." And, wanting to make amends, she went to him and put her hand on his arm.
"Howie, what were you going to say?"
He put his hand over her own.
"That's all right. It didn't matter. I was only—" He stopped. And then deliberately again put his cigarette down in the ash tray and turned to her and took both her hands. "The fact is, darling," he said, "I've been thinking it would be a good idea for us to marry. This summer if you like. What do you say?"
It was altogether unexpected. She didn't move; the look in his brown eyes held her as rigid as the clasp of his hands. She said, faltering and incredulous and altogether inadequate: "What—did you say?"
"I'm asking you to marry me. I said we could be married as soon as you like. This summer if you want to."
"Howie—" She swallowed hard and realized he was in earnest. Howland almost never joked. And, anyway, he wouldn't joke in just that way. "But I—I didn't know—"
He looked surprised.
"You must have thought of it. We've been going around together all winter and spring."
"Yes, I—I know. But still—"
"Well, how about it?"
"Howie—" He held her hands tightly so she couldn't draw away. She tried to take a firmer hold of her scattering wits. "But I didn't know—I didn't mean—marriage—"
Her voice lost itself unexpectedly in a whisper.
"Really, darling, you're acting like a child. What did you say?"
"I only said," said Search in a small voice, "that marriage is so—so final."
She took a long breath. "Howland, you must believe me. I had no idea. I didn't mean—"
"Darling, you can't expect me to believe that. Here, I'll do it properly." He released her hands and took her suddenly and closely in his arms, and as Search, still somewhat dazed, didn't move, he kissed her hard and full on the lips.
That roused her; so she pulled away from the pressure of his mouth and back against his arms—she did it instinctively, scarcely aware of it. She saw his face darken and a look in his eyes as if a veil had dropped over them. He held her there in the circle of his arms so tight and so strong that she could move no further against them.
But it was only Howie, she told herself rather quickly, rather oddly. Only Howland Stacy whom she had known since she was ten.
She had known him so well that she remembered how his upper lip tightened and lifted a little when he was angry, as it lifted then. Only a little over his white teeth, barely perceptible under his clipped black mustache, so it was almost like a smile.
He said slowly: "Oh. So you're still in love with Richard, after all."
He'd known about Richard, then, all along.
The room was very hot and very still. The murmur of Chicago traffic far below was shut out by the closed windows so it was only a distant whisper.
She ought to have remembered Howland's pride; she ought to have remembered its curious, overt sensitiveness. She ought to have remembered his capacity for hidden, smoldering anger and his extraordinarily long and stubborn memory.
He was watching her closely. Howland had always seen more with that opaque gaze than anyone suspected.
She said slowly and seriously, deeply troubled: "Howie, we'd better talk of this later. I didn't know. I've always thought of you in a—in a different way."
"That's not an answer."
"I know. But there isn't any other answer, Howie."
"Darling, you're being very silly, you know." He paused and then said coolly: "Richard's no good."
"Richard's married to Eve. They've been married for three years."
"He's married to Eve, but that's not all. He—he's made nothing of himself. Good Lord, he's not even got a job."
She said quickly: "How do you know that? He did have a job."
Howland's rather thick shoulders made a motion like a shrug.
"If you could call it a job. Piloting a commercial plane when they needed an extra pilot. Not even a regular job."
"He's been working on plane designs. Aunt Ludmilla told me.
He laughed shortly. "Well, it's come to nothing."
"You've never liked him, Howie."
"Nonsense. He's my best friend. I was best man at his wedding. You've not forgotten. But it's too bad for you to go on year after year eating your heart out for a man that married somebody else."
Queer how suddenly and sharply that hurt! As if it had a quality of truth. But it wasn't true, it couldn't be true; so it had no right to stab like that. Perhaps it touched a scar that still sometimes ached—in loneliness, in moments when something (a book, a trivial memory, a chance passer-by who swung along the street so a glimpse reminded her of Richard) brought back a flood of other memories.
That was why the thing Howland said hurt; there could be no other reason. She said quickly (and heard a defiant, overclear note in her voice with a kind of uneasiness but could not stop it):
"I'm not eating my heart out, Howie. Do I look brokenhearted?"
He didn't answer for a moment. Then he said rather thickly: "You're beautiful. I want you to marry me. Search. I'm the man for you; I'm a part of your life. Don't you realize that?"
He came to her again and took her in his arms. She did not resist this time, for she was thinking rather suddenly and poignantly that perhaps in one way Howland was right.
Marriage was important; everybody married—sometime; she wouldn't want to go through life without marriage. Howland Stacy was Howland Stacy; successful, rather sought after, as a matter of fact, and, which was more important, he shared her own life and background in a peculiarly close and intimate way.
"Let's call it settled," said Howland. "Shall we? As I said, we can get married this summer if you like."
This summer? Could things happen so quickly as that?
"Not—now, Howland. Not—so soon." As if in emphasis of the fleeting nature of time, she caught a glimpse of the clock on the desk and cried: "Howland, we'll have to hurry!"
His eyes lighted as if she had made a promise.
"All right," he said. "Later. Got your bag—keys? Come along."
So in the end she left her apartment hurriedly, forgetting Ludmilla's letter which still lay among the perfume bottles and the unfinished note to the milkman. She took her bag and the package of candy for Ludmilla and locked and double-locked the door, struck briefly as she did it by a sense of finality. When she returned the apartment would be airless and dusty, the summer would be a memory.
Excerpted from The Hangman's Whip by Mignon G. Eberhart. Copyright © 1940 Mignon G. Eberhart. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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