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The Great Mistake
By Mary Roberts Rinehart
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1968 Alan G. Rinehart, Stanley M. Rinehart, Jr., Frederick R. Rinehart
All rights reserved.
The first time I ever spoke to Maud Wainwright was in her boudoir at the Cloisters. She was sitting in front of her famous expanding table, the one at which she seated her dinner parties, with a bunch of place cards in her hand and a completely baffled look on her face.
"Come in and sit down, Miss Abbott," she said. "I can't get up. If I move, this wretched table collapses. I've seated this dinner three times already."
I didn't wonder that the table had collapsed. It was drawn out to its full length and there must have been a hundred slots around its border. You know the idea. The table can be made large or small and the cards, already written, are placed upright in the slots. It is a sort of bird's-eye view of the party in advance, supposed to make for harmonious arrangement later. Although there was a general belief that Maud Wainwright merely shuffled the cards and dealt them out. I know she once placed old Joseph Berry next to Mrs. Theodore Earle, who had not spoken to him for years.
She must have moved just then, however, for the table chose that moment to divide in the center and fall again, scattering such cards as had been placed over the white velvet carpet. She leaned back at that and closed her eyes.
"Take it away," she said. "I can't face it again. Get somebody downstairs to fix it, and don't bring it back until it decides it isn't twins."
I saw then that there was an anxious-looking housekeeper in a corner, and a lady's maid hovering about. While I picked up the cards they got the table out of the room, and Mrs. Wainwright sat back with a grunt of relief.
That was my first close view of Maud Wainwright, a big, irregularly handsome woman, probably fifty and not ashamed of it, and clad in an ancient house coat and a pair of bedroom slippers. She had an enormous head of naturally blond hair, and that day she wore it in a long braid down her back. I had not seen a braid of hair since I left boarding-school, and hardly then. She saw me looking at it and smiled.
"Don't mind my pigtail," she said. "My dear old John liked my hair, so I have never cut it. Hilda loathes it."
Hilda, I gathered, was the maid.
I found myself liking her at once. She was as plain as an old shoe. Queer how one can hear of people for years, dislike them on principle, and then meet them and fall for them. I fell for Maud Wainwright that day with a crash—braid, bedroom slippers, and all.
She offered me a cigarette and took one herself. Then she looked at me, smiling.
"Well, Miss Abbott, what about this mess I'm in?"
"I don't know," I said cautiously. "Is it a mess?"
"That seems to be the general idea. See here, what's your first name? Or do you mind? It's more friendly, I think."
"I'm generally called Pat."
"Pat," she repeated. "I like it. Short for Patricia, I suppose."
"It's a pretty name. Mine is Maud. You know: 'Come into the garden, Maud.' It's revolting, isn't it?"
I thought, for all her lightness, she was studying me. Not subtly. She was never a subtle woman; but with the semi-direct frankness with which children survey strange people. And I must have been strange to her, God knows, sitting there in that vast house of hers; a fair sample of the unprotected young woman, thrown on the world to sink or swim. When that day I had driven up the hill in my old car and faced the vast mass of the Cloisters, I had very nearly turned back. It had loomed at the end of the drive like a combination of the Capitol at Washington and the new Beverly High School, with a touch of the city courthouse thrown in, and it had frankly scared me.
But I was not frightened now. I think if anything I was amused. She put out her cigarette and sat upright.
"Tell me a little about yourself, Pat. That's only fair. If you stay on, as I hope you will, you will know all about me very soon. Dr. Sterling says you are—well, alone. Have you no family?"
"My father and mother are both dead," I said, my throat tightening.
"Never mind. I'm sorry, my dear. I suppose things weren't too good after they had gone."
"They have been pretty bad," I said frankly. "I have some real estate, mostly unoccupied or mortgaged. Not much else. If you think I can do the work—"
"Of course you can. I only hope you like us here. We'll do our best to make you happy."
Yes, that is what she said. I was to be happy. Everything was to be as cheerful as a morning in May. And it was easy to believe it that day, with the June breeze drifting in through the windows, Maud Wainwright's friendly smile, and the French doors open onto that roof garden of hers, built over a lower wing, bright with early flowers, and with a big mastiff asleep there in the sun. Happy and luxurious, there in the boudoir with its thick white rug, its pale-gray walls and its powder-blue and rose and yellow covered chairs and chaise longue. And outside, partly hidden by the shrubbery, that awful playhouse of hers, with all it was to mean to us later.
She sat up suddenly, as though all details had been arranged and we were now ready for business.
"All right," she said. "What about this dinner of mine, Pat? Is it a mistake, or isn't it?"
Privately I thought it was a mistake. To understand that, or even this story, I must make clear the curious relationship between what we in Beverly called the Hill, and what the Hill called the village. Beverly never thought of itself as a suburb. It was a self-contained unit, with its own club and its own conservative social life. Its residents could—and did—make their money in the city, ten miles away. From the eight-thirty in the morning to the five-thirty at night it claimed them. But Beverly was their spiritual home, its river was their river, its lovely old houses and gardens belonged to them, and so, until twenty years before, had the hill country which rose behind the river valley.
I had lived there all my life. I had learned to paddle a canoe on the river, had ridden to school on a bicycle before I went to boarding school, and in the Beverly Club ballroom I had had my first dancing lessons; Miss Mattie holding up her long, full black taffeta skirt, her neat toes pointing out, and two rows of small boys and girls awkwardly hopping about. "One-two-three-one-two-three." The piano going, the ballroom floor shining, and the future citizens of the village giggling and learning to dance.
Then one day something began to happen to the Hill. Up to that time it had been ours—for picnics, for hiking trips along its green lanes, and for riding our quiet family horses; we children with a groom, who was usually the stableboy, to keep an eye on us, or with Mr. Gentry, the riding master, to teach us to jump. Low brush jumps, and Mr. Gentry erect on his big horse.
"All right, Patricia. Your turn."
A coldness in the pit of my stomach, my small hands moist, and old Charlie or Joe taking the jump as though it was Mount Everest. One day Mr. Gentry's horse threw his head up and broke his nose—Mr. Gentry's, of course—and it looked quite flat and bled dreadfully.
I was seven at the time, and I wept loudly all the way home.
I suppose what happened to the Hill was happening everywhere, only this was our own particular grievance. One day old John C. Wainwright came down from the city in his car, drove up the Hill, picked out a site which concealed the village but let him see the river, and spent the next two years driving his architect crazy by traveling in Europe and shipping home vast crates of stone, marble, mosaics, tiles, and what have you. One of his purchases was an entire stone cloister from an old monastery. The architect threatened suicide, but old J.C. was firm. The plans were changed again, an open court built in the center of the house, and around it was placed the covered walk, pillars, flagstones, and all.
That was how the Cloisters got its name.
He was followed by others, of course. The exodus from the city had begun. In the next ten years—by the time I was seventeen—our beloved lanes had become cement roads, the George Washington Spring where all the valley had sent its cars for huge bottles of drinking water had become a clay pipe draining into a sewer, the old Coleman farm was a country club with an eighteen-hole golf course, and in due time a Hunt Club was organized, with a pack of hounds.
There was no feud between the two settlements, of course. Beverly simply went on being Beverly. The Hill remained the Hill. When they met, as they did eventually at the country club, they merely hit and bounced off. Now Maud Wainwright proposed to bring them together.
"Why shouldn't I?" she said, eyeing me. "I've lived here eighteen years, and I don't know a woman in Beverly by her first name."
I smiled. It was difficult for me to believe that she was not on first-name terms with anybody.
"It took my mother ten years to bring herself to leave cards up here. Then she simply left them and went on."
"But why?" she demanded. "It's idiotic."
"You were city people. Naturally you drew your friends from there."
"And Beverly didn't want us?"
"Beverly had its own life too. It was pretty well self-contained. It still is. You have to remember that we seldom saw any of you, especially the women, and it's women who make social contacts. You motored to town and back. The men met, of course; on the trains, or at clubs in the city. It just happened that way," I added. "It's odd, when you think about it. I have lived in Beverly all my life. You've been here eighteen years. And I have seen you exactly twice."
That amused her. She laughed a little, shuffling the place cards in her big, well-shaped hands.
"I see," she said. "The queen was in her counting-house, counting out her money. This awful house! Isn't it silly, Pat? And what the hell am I going to do about this party? Dr. Sterling suggests I get sick and call it off."
"Go ahead with it," I told her impulsively. "Everybody is coming, and everybody is going to like it. You might even have the young crowd in to dance afterward. I can make a list and telephone, if you like."
The idea enchanted her. She liked young people, and in a few minutes I had the best city band on the telephone and we were making a frenzied list. Only the other day I came across the list. Audrey Morgan was on it, and Larry Hamilton, and I found myself back in the car with Audrey the morning last fall when she told me about the revolver. Getting out her black-bordered handkerchief and saying hysterically, "She hated him. She wanted him dead."
I was near committing murder myself that day.
The table came back then—not as twins—and we seated the dinner. It was to be in the court itself, the long table foursquare around the lily pool in the center, with a moonlight spot on the water.
"It will be pretty, I think. I do hope they like it," she said, almost wistfully.
Personally I thought it might be a bit theatrical, but I did not say so. We worked hard, seating the thing. At five o'clock, tea came in and we took time out for it. She talked a little about herself, about her son Tony, whom she obviously adored and whom I had seen on and off for years without meeting him, about her widowhood, and even about John Wainwright.
"He was wonderfully good to me," she said, and sighed.
I was liking her more and more. Evidently she had genuinely grieved for her husband, although my own recollection of him was of a tall bald man with a gray mustache, about as romantic as a toothbrush. She was so essentially simple, for all the grandeur around her. When we went back to work I felt I had known her for years.
Now and then she queried a card. I remember she did that about Lydia's.
"This Mrs. Morgan," she said. "Is she a widow?"
"More or less. Her husband ran away years ago with a girl from his office. It was a terrible scandal at the time. She divorced him, of course."
"How sad. Has she any family?"
"She has a daughter," I said. "She's not out yet, but in a sense she's been out since she was twelve. She's a lovely thing. About eighteen. Her name is Audrey."
"And you don't like her?" she asked shrewdly.
"Not particularly. I'm too fond of her mother, I suppose."
She let it drop then, and we went on with the dinner. At some time while we worked she asked me to make out a card for myself, and after that at least a part of my mind was busy wondering what to wear, and just how a social secretary behaved under such circumstances. At last, however, we had finished. She got up and stretched her fine body, and I remembered thinking that she looked like something out of a Wagnerian opera, big, full-breasted, and with that long, thick braid of golden hair, without a thread of gray in it.
"I'd like to show you the house," she said. "You'll have to know your way around, at least." And she added, "I'm afraid it's a little overwhelming. But my John got some fun out of it, so I haven't changed it."
Five minutes later, still in the house coat but with her braid primed like a coronet around her head, we began our tour of the Cloisters. Overwhelming was certainly the word. We wandered from Louis XIV to the Empire, from fabulous tapestries and paintings to what were certainly indifferent statues, from Savonnerie rugs to billiard and gun rooms, from the console of a pipe organ to a Chinese smoking room, and in one wing to an enormous ballroom with a high Byzantine ceiling, already opened and being aired for the impromptu dance. Much of it was used only on state occasions. In fact, later on I was to discover that Tony and Maud herself occupied only a half dozen or so rooms, although there were twenty-odd servants in the house.
"Tony mostly has his parties in the playhouse," she said. "The young people like it."
But I did not see the playhouse that day. I was to know it well later, to know it and hate the very sight of it. It was twilight before I left, and Maud Wainwright stood on the terrace, watched me get into my ancient car and start it with a clash of worn-out gears, and waved a smiling good night to me. She looked a lonely figure standing there, under the high white pillars, and I find that I always think of her like that; lonely against the panoply of wealth, kind and totally unarmed against the world. Perhaps that was why she made her great mistake. For make it she did, with terrible results.
Someone has said that murder is the great mistake, the one irrevocable error any individual can make. We were to have murder, of course. But behind our crimes there lay that curious helplessness of Maud Wainwright and her inability to see evil in any individual, man or woman.
A day or two before I started this record I went in to see Jim Conway. He had just been re-elected chief of police, and he grinned at me over a desk covered with flowers, including an enormous horseshoe of white carnations from one of the local organizations.
"Sorry if I look like a gangster's funeral," he said. "Is this a visit of congratulation, or is it merely that I've become a habit?"
"I need some help, Jim."
"Not again, Pat!" he said. "Listen, sister, I'm through. I've had plenty. I've had enough to last a lifetime. All I want now is to sit here in peace and maybe look for a stolen chicken or a missing car now and then. And don't look at me like that. I'm adamant, if you know the word."
However, he was mollified as well as highly interested when I told him what I meant to do. He lit a cigarette and sat back in his chair.
"Going to write it, are you?" he said. "Well, it ought to be some story at that. Better start it off with something that will keep them reading, like Evans's trousers. Or how about Haines dodging around mother-naked that night? It isn't often you see a cop without his clothes."
But I could not be lighthearted about it. I got some papers from him that day and made notes as to dates from his records. Then I went out to my car, the same one Maud gave me on my birthday the year before, determined to tell the story as it happened day by day; and to begin it with my first introduction to Maud Wainwright and the Cloisters. And Tony.
Excerpted from The Great Mistake by Mary Roberts Rinehart. Copyright © 1968 Alan G. Rinehart, Stanley M. Rinehart, Jr., Frederick R. Rinehart. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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