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The Withdrawing Room
A Sarah Kelling and Max Bittersohn Mystery
By Charlotte MacLeod
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1980 Charlotte MacLeod
All rights reserved.
"Damn it, Sarah, you can't do a thing like that! What will the family say?" Cousin Dolph's jowls quivered with empurpled outrage. Dolph went in rather heavily for outrage.
"Who cares what the family says?" Uncle Jem yelled back. Jeremy Kelling was not more than five years older than his nephew Adolphus, but relationships among the vast Kelling clan came in all sizes and assortments. "I've never listened to any of them, and I've lived a hell of a lot more satisfying life than the pack of you put together."
"Bah! You talk a lot, but you never did anything. If I had five cents for every woman you've—" Dolph recollected that he was in the presence of Sarah, whom he still thought of as a puling infant notwithstanding the fact that she'd been married and widowed. "Anyway, I wouldn't be a dime richer than I am now."
"The devil you wouldn't. If you're so flaming rich, why don't you stump up for Sarah's mortgage?"
Adolphus Kelling waxed even purpler. "What are you preaching to me for? Why don't you?"
"Because I didn't come in for old Fred's wad as you're about to. And I've rioted away my substance as fast as it came in on wine and wassail, as a sensible man should. And I've dipped into capital, too, and you needn't start yelling again because I don't give a damn. At least I wouldn't give a damn if it weren't for this outrageous mess over the mortgages. Sarah knows I'd give her the money like a shot if I had it."
Sarah Kelling Kelling, though many years younger and a great deal smaller than either of the combatants, managed to raise her voice above the tumult. "Shut up, both of you! I don't want anybody to give me the money. This is my mess, not yours. I—I'm only grateful Alexander didn't live to find out what was going on."
This was a lie, and Sarah's voice was none too steady by the time she'd finished uttering it. Alexander would in truth have been devastated to learn that his young wife, whom he'd thought he was leaving amply provided for, might wind up without so much as a roof over her head. Yet to have lost him so suddenly and so dreadfully was a shock she still hadn't got over and probably never would.
In a way, Sarah could not herself understand why she was trying to make Dolph and Uncle Jem listen to this idea of hers. It would be far easier to chuck the whole business, let the bank foreclose, and be shut of both the tall Tulip Street townhouse on Beacon Hill and the far too large summer estate at Ireson's Landing, about twenty miles north of Boston. Then there wouldn't be the agony of waking up every morning and finding herself in the house alone.
She wouldn't be a pauper in any case. Sarah still had her own small income from the trust her father had set up. She'd soon reach her twenty-seventh birthday and be able to take charge of the principal which had escaped the looting of the Kelling estate, although her father himself had not. But to give up so easily, to haul in her horns and slink off without a fight seemed too much like a betrayal of the long, lonely battle Alexander had waged to save something for her.
So she'd thought the matter over, weighed the fors and againsts, and come up with what she'd honestly believed a sober, dignified, reasonable solution to her immediate problem. She might have known that no matter what she proposed, she'd be precipitating a full-scale family fracas.
"You've got no more knowledge of finance than a goddamn tomcat," Dolph was informing Jem, neither of them having paid any attention whatever to Sarah. "You ought to know I shan't be able to touch a penny of Uncle Fred's money for at least a year, and then there are all those charitable bequests to be taken care of. By the time I've paid the inheritance taxes and forked over endowments for fifty-seven different foundations and whatnot, I expect to be a damn sight poorer than I am now."
He winced at his own words. The thought of having to dip into his own pocket was always a painful one for Dolph. "Money isn't worth a damn these days anyway," he concluded sulkily.
"A fact which ought to bring you to your senses, if you had any, and make you realize how much more intelligent I was to blow mine while the blowing was good than you were to sit on yours and hatch a rotten egg," said Jeremy Kelling.
"Bah! And what have you got to show for all your carousing? Cirrhosis of the liver and a tail feather from one of Ann Corio's doves."
"And the fluorescent tassel off Sally Keith's left buttock," the retired roué added blandly. "Ah, those hallowed days around the bar at the dear old Crawford House, with Sally up there twitching and twirling! A bowl of chips, a pousse-café, and thou. Not you, naturally, you overstuffed lout. Did I ever tell you about Milly, the—"
"Will you two stop it?" shrieked his overwrought niece. "I don't want to hear about anybody's misspent or unspent youth, I want you to help me start a boardinghouse. And quit telling me I can't because I'm going to. Do I need a permit, or what? Dolph, you know everybody at City Hall. Can't you pull some strings?"
"Yes, Dolph, pull some strings," said Jem. "Strings don't cost anything. I know you'd never stoop to bribery because you're too damned cheap."
His nephew glared and decided to retire into outraged hauteur. "I daresay I could handle the formalities if Sarah persists in going through with this crackbrained scheme."
"I'd be a lot more crackbrained to let the High Street Bank grab my property without a struggle, wouldn't I?" Sarah was, after all, a Kelling herself, both by birth and by marriage to a fifth cousin once removed. "What's so crackbrained about a boardinghouse, anyway? Lots of perfectly respectable people have done the same. Look at Mrs. Craigie."
"Mh'h. I'd forgotten about Mrs. Craigie. Cambridge woman, right? And that Longfellow chap stayed with her. Wrote poetry, of course, but his people were all right, and he married an Appleton. Well, I suppose if you make sure to take the right sort—"
"The hell with that," said Jeremy Kelling. "Take the ones who don't squawk about the money. Stick 'em, Sarah. Make the suckers pay through the eyeballs for the privilege of living in a stately mansion in a fine old historic district and all that garbage. Put on a show. I'll pop in and play Autocrat of the Breakfast Table."
"Hell of an autocrat you'd make," sneered Dolph. "And what do you mean, breakfast table? You never even drag your rum-soaked carcass out of bed till noon. Degenerate old souse!"
"Truer words were never spoken, though I must say it's a refreshing change to hear any truth spoken by you," replied his uncle with the courtliness for which the Kellings were noted. "Getting back to this boardinghouse business, Sarah, are you in fact planning to serve meals?"
"I'm going to do breakfasts and dinners. That way I can ask a lot more rent, and since I'm used to cooking for the family anyway, I should be able to manage without much difficulty."
"I thought Edith did the cooking," said Dolph.
"All Edith, ever did was sit and nurse her bunions and complain about being overworked."
Firing her mother-in-law's former maid, even though doing so cost a monthly pension she could ill afford, had so far been Sarah's one compensation for widowhood. "I've hired Mariposa Fergus in her place. You remember that adorable young woman who was such a prop and mainstay during the funeral? She and Charles are going to live down in the old kitchen."
"A friend of hers who looks like Leslie Howard and talks like a cross between Henry Higgins in Pygmalion and Sir Percy Blakeney in The Scarlet Pimpernel."
"How the hell would you know? Leslie Howard's been dead since 1943."
"I used to see the reruns at the Brattle Theater. Anyway, Charles is alive enough, from what Mariposa tells me."
"My God, Sarah, you can't have a pair like that fornicatin' all over the back stairs. Can't you at least make them get married first?"
"I shouldn't dream of trying. Mariposa says she's tried it both ways and this is more fun. And Charles would merely arch his eyebrow with aristocratic hauteur. He has the most fetching golden curls, but he's going to slick them down when he butles. His name is Charles C. Charles."
"The other C. being for Charles, I take it?"
"No, I believe it's for Chelsea. That's where he comes from. He's an actor by profession, but he's resting at the moment."
"That means unemployed, Dolph," explained Jem. "Like you."
"Oh no," said Sarah. "Charles works in a factory daytimes and he's going to butle here during dinner for his room and board. He's been yearning to play Mr. Hudson ever since 'Upstairs, Downstairs,' and he's studying up madly on whether to serve the hock with the guinea fowl, though of course we shan't be having any. I do know scads of ways to fix chicken and hamburg, though, and I'm marvelous at pinching pennies when I grocery shop. I had to be, considering what Alexander gave me for a housekeeping allowance though he meant it for the best, poor darling."
Dolph shook his jowls. "Forget it, Sarah. You'd need at least a dozen boarders to make it work and you've only got three bedrooms in the whole damn house."
"Dolph, that's ridiculous. There's the other basement room, for one, that Edith used as her bedroom. I thought I might rent that to a student or something, since they'd have to share the bathroom down there with Mariposa and Charles."
"Never get a nickel."
Sarah ignored him. "And I'm turning the drawing room into a sort of private suite for someone old and rich who can't climb stairs. I've already had a door cut through from that powder room in the hall, and I've spoken to the plumber about putting in a stall shower there. I'm selling that McIntire escritoire to pay for the renovations. It's not under the mortgage, is it?"
"Don't ask," Uncle Jem advised.
"And what, pray tell, will you then use for a drawing room?" scoffed Dolph.
"Why the hell should she need one?" Jeremy Kelling sneered back. "Idiotic antediluvian custom anyway, the ladies withdrawing to sit on their bustles and gossip while the men stayed at the dining table and drank themselves blotto. When I start seeing double, I'd rather be sitting across from a daring décolletage than a red nose with a walrus mustache under it. Did I ever tell you about—"
"I'm sure you did," Sarah interrupted. "You're quite right, I don't need one. I'll use the library, as I'm doing now." The high-ceiled room where they sat, with its book-lined walls, its worn red velvet draperies, the portrait of the Kelling who'd founded the family fortunes over the mantel, and the dark old leather sofas and armchairs grouped around the fireplace was far and away the pleasantest room in the house.
"And I'll keep Aunt Caroline's room on the second floor for myself and turn her boudoir into a studio. I did all that book illustrating for Harry Lackridge, you know, and I'm sure I can get work from other publishers, to bring in a little extra money. And on the third floor there are Alexander's and my old rooms with the bath in between, and Mariposa has got one of her brothers-in-law, either past or present, I'm not sure which, to help me fix up those two in the attic that used to be maids' rooms and put another bathroom there, so that will give space for six."
"Ridiculous!" shouted Dolph. "Who's going to climb all those stairs?"
"Lots of people around the Hill live in fourth-floor walk-ups. Anyway, if I can't rent them, I'll move up there myself and rent the second."
"Don't you do it, Sarah," said Jem. "Take the best for yourself and put on the dog. Treat 'em like dirt and they'll eat out of your hand. Try to be a pal and they'll walk all over you."
"I hate to admit it," snorted Dolph, "but the old goat's right. You stick to your guns. Don't budge an inch for anybody. Speaking of which, where do you propose to find these hypothetical lodgers?"
"Advertise, I suppose."
"In the newspapers? My God, that's the last straw! What would Aunt Bodie—"
"Dolph," shouted his uncle, "if you don't quit dragging the whole damn clan into this, I'll get Egbert to poke you straight in the jaw." Egbert, Jeremy Kelling's man for all seasons, had been known to perform stranger assignments than this. "Boadicea's a fine one to talk, anyway. She'd rent her own bridgework if she could find any takers."
"I couldn't possibly care less about Aunt Bodie," said Sarah. "Furthermore, Aunt Emma's all for it. We talked over the whole plan while I was staying out there after—after it was all over. She's the one who thought of doing up the old maids' rooms, as a matter of fact. I'd forgotten those attic rooms were ever used for sleeping. She even gave me some blankets and linen."
"Then why didn't you say so in the first place?" Dolph snarled. "Emma's got a head on her shoulders, at least." That from him was highest praise. "Mabel will raise hell on general principles, I daresay, but who gives a damn for what Mabel says?"
"And I've also mentioned it to Anora Protheroe," Sarah went on, referring to an old and respected friend in Chestnut Hill, "and she's terribly relieved that I shan't be trying to stay on here alone. She's going to see if she can't get me a boarder for the drawing room. You know him, that Mr. Quiffen who's her husband's old fraternity brother or whatever."
"Quiffen? Must have met him sometime or other, I suppose, though I can't recall him offhand. At any rate, if he's a pal of George's he probably has sleeping sickness so he oughtn't to cause you any trouble," chirped Uncle Jem. "You see, Sarah, that's how you work it. Drop a word here and there to the right people and you'll find takers fast enough. I'll start alerting the tribe myself. How are you fixed for beds and stuff, by the way? Shall I do a little panhandling on the side?"
"No, thank you. I'm reasonably sure I can bring what I need in from the place at Ireson's. Mr. Lomax, our caretaker out there, has a friend who will lend him a truck."
"Uses it to lug fishheads to the glue factory, no doubt, and your mattresses will stink to high heaven by the time they get here," said Dolph with his customary optimism. "Well, then, Sarah, since you've made up your mind to cut your own throat, I'll see what I can do about getting you a permit."CHAPTER 2
After this family discussion, if such it could be called, Sarah went into high gear. She got Mariposa to round up a few more brothers-in-law and sold the McIntire escritoire. She knew she was getting skinned on the price, but there was no help for that. Bills for labor and materials were piling up and she needed cash in a hurry.
Perhaps she could have kept herself going by selling off the family treasures one by one, but she saw no point in just surviving. Having people around her and work to do at least kept her from thinking too much.
Sarah was still handicapped by an arm injury that hadn't fully healed. She couldn't paint or wallpaper, but she could do small jobs and drive the 1950 Studebaker Starlite Coupe that had been bought new for Aunt Caroline and kept running like a charm by Alexander. That would have to be sold, too, if anybody was buying Studebakers these days. She had nobody now to do the repairs. Garaging and insurance at Boston rates would be far beyond her straitened means. She'd already made the grim decision to take the old car off the road at New Year's, but right now she must have transportation.
When she wasn't urging her work crew to yet more frantic efforts, she was dashing from the tiny, twisting streets of Beacon Hill—lined with unbroken rows of elegant and once-elegant townhouses in brick and brown-stone, with their Bulfinch fronts and wrought-iron grilles, their window boxes so carefully tended in summer, so festive now with evergreen boughs and dried scarlet salvia—out to the deserted Victorian clapboard ark at Ireson's Landing on the North Shore. There, with the wind howling around her ears and the ocean pounding on the rocks in the distance, she roamed her vast, overgrown estate with Mr. Lomax, the caretaker, marking trees for him to cut and sell. With firewood at something like a hundred and fifty dollars a cord, the proceeds ought to pay his wages and, God willing, leave something over toward the back taxes. Sarah and Alexander had talked of selling off some of the land but she couldn't do that now on account of the pending litigation. She could and did pillage the house to furnish her empty bedrooms. If she managed to rent the estate next summer, Mr. Lomax would have to borrow the truck again and bring back all the beds and dressers, no doubt, but by then she'd either have money enough for replacements or else have made such a fiasco of her boardinghouse idea that she'd have to pitch a tent out here among the chipmunks and live on roots and berries.
Excerpted from The Withdrawing Room by Charlotte MacLeod. Copyright © 1980 Charlotte MacLeod. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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