Old Sinners Never Die
A Mrs. Norris Mystery
By Dorothy Salisbury Davis
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 1959 Dorothy Salisbury Davis
All rights reserved.
THERE ARE SEASONS IN Washington when it is even more difficult than usual to find out what is going on in the government. Possibly this is because nothing is going on, although a great many people seem to be working at it. Such a season occurs during the first months of change in presidential administrations. An army of newcomers is then engaged in finding places. For themselves, of course: boldly, shamelessly, ruthlessly. This is refreshing: it only becomes sordid when they start looking for places for others. The old-timers who survive the season engage themselves for its duration almost entirely in the culling of retirement lists.
So ran the speculation of Major General Ransom Jarvis on that spring afternoon in 1953 when he was put on notice that his own retirement was imminent. The General's blast of wrath all but trembled the Pentagon. Then the old boy went home for the day. He loathed his desk anyway, and it was there he had been tethered since the war's end in Europe. But it was going to be a great deal more loathsome to get along on retirement pay. A man's income should be doubled, not halved, to match the time he was given to spend it in the last, numbered years of his life.
Among the varied oppressions settling on the General as afternoon advanced into evening was a sense of parsimony. He lived at his club; he had never before quibbled with his conscience over what he put on his bar bill, but that was the state in which he now found himself. It was natural, therefore, that his thoughts turned to the presence in Washington of his son, James. Jimmie was the freshman representative from a congressional district the number of which Ransom Jarvis never could remember although he had maintained his family residence there all the years of his life. It was there, he supposed, he would have to go on retirement—to the dour care of a Scotch housekeeper who had got her start in America as nursemaid to his son! Damn it, he had not lived that long. Certainly, not that much. About to motion the bartender, his thoughts turned again to Jimmie, or more specifically, to the twelve-year-old Scotch whisky he was sure the boy favoured in Washington as well as at home. He forewent a second drink at the bar.
Whatever kind of a son Jimmie had been in other ways, he prided himself on the patience with which he had always listened to his father. Considering the worth of that gentleman's advice over the years, such patience was by now heroic. And that afternoon he was hard put. As a dear friend had said slyly after her congratulatory kiss on his election, he was now to have the winning candidate's just reward: the privilege of listening to the speeches of all the other winning candidates in the country. That was the kind of day it had been.
"But it shouldn't have happened to me during this—of all—administrations," the General complained of his retirement notice.
"You are well into your sixties, aren't you, Father? If it hadn't been for Korea this would have happened some time ago."
"I'm in my prime, boy! I could have run for president myself. Sound as a hound dog's tooth."
"The word is 'clean'. Clean as a hound dog's tooth," Jimmie said patiently.
The General grunted. "Huh. That's something else again, isn't it?"
Jimmie grinned and poured them both another drink.
His father looked about, wondering if he had not been in this house before at, say, an affair of some now extinct embassy or such. Newly decorated, of course. There were two smells he always associated with Washington. One was fresh paint. "Isn't this place a little large for you, Jimmie?"
"Are they paying congressmen this much salary these days?"
The General tried another tack. "The club has always suited me when I've been stateside. I'm limited, of course, in the entertaining I can do there—so to speak."
Jimmie grinned. "So to speak, I am too, Father."
"I wasn't speaking of that kind of entertainment. When a man reaches my age, he needs friends ..."
Oh, Lord, Jimmie thought, and once more lamented the event that had brought him to Washington and a father's care.
"He needs friends," the old man repeated sententiously, and then looked up. "Or money."
"I suppose you're going to have to face up to that aspect of it," Jimmie said blandly.
"Somebody is, and I don't think it's going to be the United States government!"
Jimmie took a long pull at his drink. "Would you like to move in here with me, Father?"
"Not if I can help it."
Jimmie laughed—out of gratification as much as amusement at the old man's bluntness. "We could bring Mrs. Norris down and live like a proper family, God help us."
Then Ransom Jarvis, surprising himself almost as much as he did Jimmie, said, "I suppose we might try it for a while." He was prompted by several considerations: if he were going to have eventually to retire to the care of Mrs. Norris, he might as well get used to it here before settling into isolation with her in the old house on the Hudson River; and he could save money living on Jimmie, as it were. He would make an occasional gesture, of course, but Jimmie had inherited entirely from his mother, and it the fortune he—Ransom Jarvis—had married into. All in all, he had not done very well by himself in such arrangements, for ultimately he also must take credit for having hired Mrs. Norris and, therefore, for the careful training she had given his son with regard to money. There was not a bairn raised in Scotland with a tighter fist than his son James.
"Do you mean it, Father?"
"Of course I mean it. Since you've taken the precaution of making a home, we should ... sanctify it."
"It was not a precaution," Jimmie said. "I like a home, I am conservative by nature."
"Mmm. Not by your father's nature. By your mother's, I dare say. And Mrs. Norris'. She puts up a good argument for environment. Her kind always does, God help me."
Jimmie laughed in spite of himself and looked the old gentleman up and down. He really was in the prime, limber of brain and joint, and bristling with energy. Jimmie drew a deep breath and said, "We must have been switched in our cradles, Father."
The General was pleased. His glass in hand, he made a tour of the house. The neighbourhood was good: Georgetown, after all. And his son's tastes were to his own liking. There was a smell of leather in the study, well-bound books, good light ... He conjured the picture of himself at work there on his own memoirs. There ought to be something in the past he could turn into a contemporary dollar—by means other than blackmail. Such was the turn his mind took with his first glimpse at the more interesting aspects of his career. He would have to be careful what he said about some people in high places, considering what he thought of them, though damn few people high or low were careful what they said about him.
He paused at a piece of sculpture and ran his hand over it, a vivid bronze nude. "Helene's work?"
Jimmie nodded. His father's reference was to Jimmie's friend, Helene Joyce, a sculptress, whose work was beginning to get international notice.
"I'll be able to sit for her now," the General said. "She's been wanting to do me, you know. Admires my head. Viewing it from the outside, that is. Let me know when she comes to Washington."
Jimmie said, "I think I might put through a call to Mrs. Norris now."
The General gave a great bark of laughter, and that made him realize that his humour had much improved. "I'll go along then, Jimmie, and start to pack."
"I've got an extra pair of pyjamas," Jimmie said dryly.
His father chose to take the words at their literal value. "Thank you, my boy, but I want to get used to the idea gradually. I've not had the offer of such hospitality since the Russians in Berlin."
Jimmie went to the door with him. "I wouldn't tell that story as much abroad as I used to if I were you, Father."
"Eh? What story's that?"
"About how well you got on with the Russians."
"Don't tell me I'm getting to be a bore with it?"
"That wasn't what I meant."
The old gentleman shaped his soft hat and put it on carefully. "Curious, how often we can stand hearing ourselves tell the same story, and go stark mad at the repetition of someone else. I promise I'll watch myself, boy."
"We'll devise a set of signals," Jimmie said. "Good-night, Father."
The General turned around at the door. "I don't think we should start off being too damned congenial. Let's leave a bit of open ground between us, so we can improve our positions, shall we?"
It was amazing, Jimmie thought, contemplating his affairs in the wake of his father's visit, how complicated a man's life could become despite his best efforts to keep it simple. One would suppose, for example, that his remaining a bachelor would ensure no household entanglements. But here he was, having suddenly to reorganize a whole ménage. He had no business bringing Mrs. Norris to Washington at all; so much of his time would have to be spent among his constituents, at home she quite belonged there. But without her, frankly, he did not think he could cope with his father, especially in this hour of the old man's discontent.
How, he wondered, was Mrs. Norris going to take to Tom Hennessy? Hennessy was a young man no farther from Ireland than his first citizenship papers, a natural-born politician, a lad with good looks and talent and far more political ambition than the man who had hired him. He was in the kitchen now, studying the finer points of parliamentarianism in case Jimmie had occasion to consult him. He was, if Jimmie had to give a name to his position, a sort of chauffeur-valet, although Jimmie had overheard him once (on the telephone) identify himself as "the congressman's press secretary".
Jimmie decided to speak to him now about Mrs. Norris.
"Sure, we'll get along fine, sir, as long as she's older than me. If it was a young one you were bringing in now ..."
"God forbid," Jimmie said.
"It'll be simple," Tom said. "I'll do for you and she'll do for me."
"It's the General we shall all have to look out for," Jimmie said, knowing very well that Mrs. Norris would soon teach young Tom who was going to do for whom.
"He's a bit lively for his age, is he?"
"Yes," Jimmie said quietly, "I guess that's as good a word for it as any."
TWO DAYS AFTER JIMMIE'S call, Mrs. Norris managed to reach Washington. The General had already moved in. It was a day that all of them expected would be busy. And the night promised to be busy also, and very gay, for it was the occasion of the Beaux Arts Ball. But no one had any notion at all of just how busy their next twenty-four hours was to be.
Mrs. Norris arrived by early train. There was nothing she liked better than to be sent for. She was, therefore, slightly put out that Mr. James was not able to meet her himself. He had always managed it, no matter how busy, on other occasions. She looked up at the tall young man who gathered both her bags from her scarcely a moment after she stepped from the carriage.
"I'm Tom Hennessy, ma'am," he said with a smile that opened his face on a beautiful set of teeth. "I'm Mr. Jarvis' personal."
"His personal what?"
"He'll have to tell you that himself, Mrs. Norris, for he hasn't made up his mind yet."
Mrs. Norris allowed herself to be led into and through the station and out to the car. Mr. James had sent that for her anyway. "How did you know me?"
"Mr. Jarvis described you—pert and perky," the young man said with more tact than she'd ordinarily have credited the Irish.
"I'll give odds it was my hat he described."
"He might have mentioned it," the young man said, throwing open the back door of the car to her. "But we're awful glad, all of us here, to see it tossed into the ring."
"I'll ride in the front seat with you," Mrs. Norris said, giving an authoritative nod of her head, and unsmiling. She had no intention of committing herself on first acquaintance to any man, be he squire or servant, youth or dotard.
CONGRESSMAN JARVIS WAS AT that moment as happily engaged as he was ever likely to be in the line of duty. Amongst the obscure committees to which he, a freshman in the House, might have been assigned was one on parks and monuments. Jimmie drew a seat on it, perhaps because in that particular session he was one of the few men in Congress able to distinguish between Pocahontas and Venus de Milo. It was altogether within the province of his office, therefore, that he met the plane on which Helene Joyce arrived in Washington that morning. Very briefly, he toyed with the notion of striped trousers and morning coat. But one never knew what he was likely to be requisitioned into at the airport in that guise.
Helene came down the ramp, a lovely mixture of furs and smiles, a hand extended, Jimmie thought to him, but just as she touched foot to ground, a gentleman in striped trousers stepped forward and caught the outstretched hand, lifted it to his lips, and showed no inclination to let it go. Helene's eyes were dancing with mischief.
"Jimmie, how nice to see you!" she cried, peering over the stranger's shoulder, and quite as though she had come on him by chance instead of arrangement. "May I present Dr. Henri d'Inde of the National Museum?"
Dr. d'Inde turned and clicked his heels, a French Impressionist no doubt, Jimmie thought glumly. Helene said, "Representative James Jarvis, Doctor."
D'Inde smiled optimistically. "Ahha! Your congressman, Madame, no?"
"Only in a manner of speaking, Doctor," Helene said in that deep-throated, sensuous tone that touched Jimmie to the marrow, and disengaging her one hand from the doctor's, she gave it and her other to Jimmie. Everything was going to be just fine.
"My dear, you look wonderful," she said and kissed his cheek. "Those campaign circles are gone from under your eyes."
"I have no trouble sleeping now," he said, "night or day. In fact, I have trouble in the daytime keeping awake."
"May we drop you somewhere, Congressman?" the museum man asked.
Jimmie assumed he had some such place as the Potomac River in mind, but he smiled and said, "I was about to ask you the same thing, Doctor."
Helene intervened, "Dr. d'Inde, I had no idea you would do me this honour, so I'd asked Jimmie to meet me, you see. Would you mind very much if I were just to come in to your office later this morning?"
"But, of course, Madame Joyce," he said pleasantly, again bowing.
He was the sort, Jimmie thought, who could turn a moment's gallantry into a lifetime advantage.
"He boasts of having seven children," Helene said placatingly as d'Inde took his departure. "He's a family man."
"I should hope so, with seven children," Jimmie said.
"I think he's very good looking, don't you?"
"Exquisite," Jimmie said.
"I'm touched even if you're pretending," Helene said, and laid her hand on his arm. "Aren't you proud of me to have got the commission? That's why d'Inde came to meet me, you know."
Jimmie squeezed her hand against him. "I'm very proud, and more than that, dear." He gave her luggage ticket to a porter, and asked for a cab. To Helene he said, "Mrs. Norris comes down by train this morning. With her here you could have been our house guest quite decently."
"The old hotel is better for me, but thank you, Jimmie."
"Likely you're right. Father's decided to move in with me now."
"Oh, dear. Your life is complicated."
"All I need is a wife," Jimmie said slyly.
"And what would Mrs. Norris do then, poor thing?"
"You two have never met, have you?"
"No, but I agree, Jimmie. Discretion is the better part of valour. Will you excuse me a moment, dear? There's a hat box I want to make sure our man doesn't miss."
She had a great habit of agreeing with him on something he hadn't said whenever he brought the subject of matrimony anywhere near the conversation, thereby deflecting him while making it seem he had saved himself. Helene had been married very young—in her Greenwich Village days, the days when she was herself a student of sculpture and a model—and the marriage had smashed very soon and very painfully for her whether by death, annulment, or possibly desertion: Jimmie had heard rumours of all of them, and considerably more of gossip about Mrs. Joyce. But even if she did some day consent to marry him, Jimmie was the sort who would not pry beyond her wish to confide. She had once said of him, he was far too tolerant for a man with political ambition. They had met only a few years ago at Helene's first major exhibition. Now she had fame. She wore it quite as well as the beauty she had preserved through a youth of struggle. She must be about his own age, Jimmie thought, the late thirties, and if she were an example of what came out of the school of hard knocks, he might wish he had had a scholarship to it himself. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Old Sinners Never Die by Dorothy Salisbury Davis. Copyright © 1959 Dorothy Salisbury Davis. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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