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The woman in the taxi could see a brown metal plate set importantly in a stucco wall.
The driver said cheerfully, in the tone of equal to equal, "I guess this is it." He got out, banging his door.
She hunched along the slippery seat toward the curb side and still she could see no more than the head-high wall that ran severely, for all its smothering vine, some ninety feet along the sidewalk.
The driver opened her door. She put her foot out and it occurred to her that this foot, in its brown pump with medium-high heel, was still handsome. This carcass, she thought. The nerves of this carcass still vibrated to the clack and beat of the train. The face of this carcass was stiff with whatever stiffening agent it is that emanates from a Pullman car. But the carcass was sound. It was the heart, the nervous system or the soul, some inner part, that languished and had no energy to leave the cab. The carcass moved, however, and the sunlight, as if it had weight, thudded down upon her brown woolen shoulders.
Now she was able to see a utilitarian black-and-white sign hanging on an iron stand.
Furn. Hskpg apts.
She took a few steps to the corner.
The very corner was spanned on a diagonal by a stucco arch of Spanish motif which pierced the wall. She could see through it into the—courtyard, garden, she struggled for the word—patio, and to the outline of the building, a two-story L-shaped affair, in the same yellowish stucco as the wall, that occupied the inner two sides of this square patch of ground. Ah, it was like the picture postal card!
Nona Henry discounted the differences without disillusion. The postal card had shown the structure longer, lower, brighter, newer. The postal card had exaggerated the flowers. The postal card had given an impression of a building sprawling in free space.
Actually, Sans Souci stood on a Pasadena street corner, where the streets were lined with old wooden houses, some standing back, dingy and decayed, some built forward with flat fronts that had become odd shops. There was a gas station, catercorner behind her. There was a mortuary, directly across. Still, Sans Souci had a patio garden, walled on two sides. And all Americans know that advertisements make everything look longer, lower, brighter, and newer than anything really is.
As advertised, beyond the arch a very wide, paved walk led diagonally across the patio to the inner angle of the L. At about its center it widened still more to a paved oval, and on the left side of this oval a raised fountain did exist. (It did not play, as it had played on the postal card. Perhaps this was not its season.) Upon the oval too, out of the way of foot traffic, there were indeed garden chairs and small metal tables, even if the chairs were not spanking new. The remainder of the square really was a garden, and flowers did bloom here in late November ... a high tree with red in it, some low purple, some cerise. And the sun, as advertised, shone down. Just now, it slanted over the north and west wing and struck upon the fountain side of the oval, illuminating two female figures seated on a wooden bench near the fountain. To Nona Henry the walled garden, lush with unfamiliar plants, seemed, in November, romantic, exotic—in fact, charming.
The taxi driver had pulled out her luggage—the huge wardrobe suitcase, the smaller suitcase, the hatbox. Nona herself carried the little train case, together with her handbag.
She braced her body, drawing on, without premeditation, the role of the traveler, the arriving one, from afar. A woman of poised decision who had chosen to winter in Southern California. It seemed necessary to make this impression upon those two women beside the fountain and upon anyone who might be looking down into the patio from the windows of Sans Souci.
If a part of Nona Henry saw that this was somewhat silly, nevertheless as she followed the driver who lurched off along the walk with her possessions, she held in her middle and placed her feet with precision.
The elder of the two women sitting there in the sun, a small slight person with a head of white hair, made a genteel inclination of that head in Nona's direction. It reminded Nona of her mother's "bow"; it was almost Victorian. The younger woman looked up with a dreamy smile. Nona let herself nod, with ladylike discretion.
Before the heavy glass door which was set, not catercorner but evenly in the façade of the eastward wing of Sans Souci, the driver was standing, laden and baffled. Nona Henry with a pretty exclamation reached to help him with the door, but he had freed one hand by now, and they managed it awkwardly between them. It was as if she and the driver and the baggage tumbled through in a tangle.
The lobby of Sans Souci, she perceived, was reassuringly neat and elegant. A big mirror hung on the wall to her left. Under it a low-backed green couch, flanked by pinkish chairs, sat behind a coffee table upon which a low bouquet was exactly centered. Straight ahead there was another array of chairs and small tables standing in line. Lamps were lit here, shedding a warm and generous light. The carpet was agreeably squishy.
The office—a counter of dark wood, a lattice of mailboxes, a switchboard—was to her right. The man in it was pink-skinned, smooth-faced, and talking on the telephone. She could not call across the lobby to ask him whether he knew who Nona Henry was. (This is Sans Souci. This is the place, she told herself, feeling a sudden giddiness.) She paid the driver and tipped him generously, in a nervous flurry. Then she left the heap of her things and advanced on the squishy carpet. The man put down the phone and tipped his head inquiringly. "I am Mrs. Henry?" Her voice that had intended to sound poised and confident bleated off into a question mark. "You have my check? I airmailed it ..." She was nervous.
(Because she was cut off. The driver, linked to the train that was linked to the past, had gone. She stood alone in space and time and what if this man had kept no place for her? Then was she free! It made her dizzy.)
"Mrs. Valentine Henry," the man said in a smooth reassuring voice. "Oh yes. We have been expecting you. Did you have a pleasant train trip, Mrs. Henry?"
"Oh, very nice." She felt herself smirk, in relief (and disappointment).
"All the way from New York," he said admiringly. "Excuse me, ma'am?" He picked up the phone. "Rose, could you please?" He broke the connection, made another. "Kelly?" He spoke more curtly. "Luggage here."
Then he reached for a key somewhere behind him, opened a flap in the counter, and came forth. "The houseman will bring your bags, Mrs. Henry," he said. "I'll take you myself. 208." He flipped the key. "Is this your first visit to Southern California?"
"As a matter of fact, it is," she said almost gaily. (She wanted to tell him everything. I am a woman from a place where I was known. But things have happened to me....) She did not, of course, say anything of the kind.
"I am Morgan Lake," he said.
"Oh, yes, Mr. Lake." He had signed the letter, she realized.
"The elevator is this way." He bowed her to the right. Nona Henry noticed, without disillusion, that the squishiness of the carpet disappeared as soon as they had passed the corner of the lobby wall. The carpet here was hard and smooth. The light lessened. Or perhaps her eyes were sun- dazzled. The elevator was only ten steps from the lobby, just beyond a flight of stairs. It was a very small self-service type. Dark within. Nothing brisk about it. It ran with a grudge up the one story.
"I suppose one could walk up?" she asked.
"Oh yes, of course, ma'am. Some of our older people, however, dislike the stairs." He smiled. "Not many buildings have an elevator, in this area. Especially two-story buildings." (She sensed the salesman.)
"I suppose that's true," she said.
They stood close in this moving enclosure. But he was a clean-smelling man, deferential, smooth, and kind.
He opened the door to the upper corridor. They came out almost exactly at the angle. Very dim. She had a sense of being buried away from all light and all air. Many people had cooked many things in Sans Souci.
Feet were thudding somewhere, quick feet, young feet.
Mr. Lake moved quickly and called around the corner. "Kelly? 208, please."
Nona Henry saw that she was to follow him up the north wing. So she turned the corner, stretching her eyes in the dimness, holding her breath against the cookery smells. She could see daylight coming through a kind of French door at the far end of the wing. There must be a fire escape. She saw the silhouette of a man, encumbered with her luggage, who had come running up the flight of stairs and was now moving swiftly before them as if his burdens weighed nothing to him.
A door near the corner burst open behind her. Light poured through, danced past her feet. Dust seemed to puff up from the worn path in the faded carpet.
"Pick me up about seven thirty," said some woman in a hearty husky voice. "Might as well get going early. O.K.?"
"I'll wear my rabbit," said another female voice in shrill cheer. "And don't you laugh!" The speaker herself was laughing, the humorless laugh of good will.
"Listen, who's laughing?" said the husky one. "My mink, you know ..."
Then the voices ceased abruptly. Nona knew she had been noticed. She did not look behind. She placed her feet carefully. Yet the dark stuffy corridor was not quite so dismaying. Life, of course, was lived on the other side of the walls.
Morgan Lake led her to the last door on the right. He used the key. The man waiting with her bags was a Negro with a young smooth face atop a slim body that moved with an energy so abundant that it was more like rhythm, more like grace. The door went inward, and Nona stepped over the sill. Her eye ran into a half-wall, shoulder high. She turned right, the way that was open. She stood still.
Morgan Lake told Kelly Shane to put the bags in the bedroom. He had an eye on the motionless figure of the new tenant. A neat little body. Pretty feet. Pretty hair. Crinkling eyes. A woman who had been a very pretty girl. But one never knew quite how it would go, with the ones who had rented sight unseen. It depended, he supposed, on what they were used to. Some were pleased. This one was not going to be pleased. But he was braced for that.
She was standing just within the living room, the airless dim drab place that still smelled faintly of the paint that had been slapped on the kitchen. He moved around her and reached through the yellow-white glass curtains to open one of the windows that overlooked the patio.
"The dinette and kitchen are this way, Mrs. Henry," he said unctuously.
She obeyed his escorting gestures. She came through the dinette, which was no more than a passageway the other side of the half-wall. She barely glanced at the apple-green table drawn bare to the window here, and the two hard apple-green chairs. She peered over the low dividing dish cupboards into the mean little kitchen, where the new cream-colored paint looked lumpy and sticky, plastered as it had been over many ancient layers. She didn't listen to his enumeration of the equipment—stove (four blackened burners and a crooked oven door), icebox (built-in and therefore small and old and unreplaced too long), sink (and the old-fashioned tiny white tiles on the small drainboard that were uneven from sheer age). "There is an incinerator in the hall," he told her.
But she turned away. "Isn't it very dim?" she said in a dispirited voice.
Morgan Lake pulled out some long-practiced answers. "At this time of day," he said gently, "yes. You are on the northeast here. Of course, in the mornings, you will have all the sun."
"I see." Her small teeth came over her lip.
"Most people prefer," he said, "to be able to overlook the patio. It is pleasant."
He waited. He wondered about women. Why didn't they realize, the ones who had made a bargain from a distance, that they were stuck with it, for a month at least? A man would, he thought. A man would either raise complete hell, and defy lawsuits—anything to get out of it—or else he would shrug and say, "I guess I'm stuck with it, but I'll be looking around." Women ... She said with a frown, "Have you any other vacancy?"
"I don't have another double at the moment," he said regretfully. "The only actual vacancy in the building is a one-room apartment on the first floor. 109. It does face the west. Would you like to see it, Mrs. Henry?"
"One room?" she said dubiously.
"The bed pulls down." His air apologized.
"I ought to say that you might find the western sun a bit uncomfortable," he murmured, "whereas here, of course, your bedroom has two exposures. On the corner." She must value a corner, his tone implied. She must know that there were only so many corners. Gently he shepherded her back to the pseudo foyer and through the narrow door to the left of it.
The bedroom, he thought, was not so bad really. The twin beds were neatly spread in pink. The furniture was painted ivory. The two windows, one north, one east, gave a steady light. A quiet light.
"This is all right," she murmured.
He opened the door to the bathroom. It was, as he well knew, in a plumbing block, exactly parallel with the kitchen, and therefore inside. He heard her breath snuffing in. "No window?"
"All of our baths are like this," he told her, keeping his voice complacent. "There are some advantages."
"I've seen them," she said in that spiritless tone, "in hotels in the city ..." She had been animated, at first, down in the lobby.
"Oh, there is plenty of ventilation, of course," he said smoothly. "And there is perfect privacy." She was staring in at the old-fashioned tiny hexagonal tiles that lay lumpy on the floor.
"I will be glad to show you the apartment downstairs, Mrs. Henry," he said gently. "However, it does need redecorating, and so far ... Painters are very difficult, I'm afraid. It isn't ready at the moment."
"I see," she said. She turned—blindly, he knew.
He knew that Kelly was still standing in the foyer, waiting for his tip. As the woman moved, he followed and signaled Kelly with his hand, and Kelly faded. Morgan Lake himself waited for her capitulation. He knew it would come. He waited for what he had seen so often. For the female eye to begin to accommodate. For the little ideas. A picture here, she would think. A personal trinket there. Change the lamp shades. (So often they wanted to change the lamp shades.) Or she would ask for another color in a chair. Woman were resilient, he thought. They made over a place, yanking at it with their imaginations, and having done so they felt as if they had made a home. A few token material changes. A major adjustment in the mind. After this, they could put up with a good deal.
This one surprised him.
He thought he had recognized her. On the young side as widows went, but a widow, of course. And not yet too used to going it alone. Rather flustered at being far from her family or whatever. Overacting the sophisticated traveler. Determined, now, to be shrewd. But on the whole, a lively sensible little woman who would accommodate after the usual pattern.
Nona Henry said bitterly, "This is exactly right. It suits me."
His surprise kept him silent for half a moment but then he began to talk, for one talked past such a surprise. "You will find," he said soothingly, "that this location is very convenient. So near the shops and theatres. On level ground, pleasant for walking. We are rather proud of our patio, too. Now," he said to her bitterly passive face, "is there anything more I can do, Mrs. Henry? I can perhaps direct you to a market? There is a very fine market a block to the north of us. Open in the evenings."
"Is there a restaurant?" she said dully.
"Oh yes, quite near. Small, but rather nice, I understand. About a block and a half to the east, the opposite of the street. Hunt's is the name. It's not expensive of course."
Excerpted from The Seventeen Widows of Sans Souci by Charlotte Armstrong. Copyright © 1987 Jeremy B. Lewi, Peter A. Lewi, and Jacquelin Lewi Bynagta. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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