When her husband demands a divorce, a young wife heads to Reno alone, leaving the baby with her husband and his new beloved, betting that a week trapped between his child and his mistress will make her hubby yearn for her return. By the sea, a hairdresser gets into mischief over a star sports fisherman. And in a city threatened by conflict, a World War I veteran tries to make himself useful by enforcing the blackout.
These are just a few of the scenes from the short fiction of Mary Roberts Rinehart, who in these nine brief tales shows why she was one of the nation’s most popular authors for so many decades. Though famous as a mystery writer, Rinehart is just as much at home writing drama, or taking a witty look at the lighter side of law and order. More than a century since she published her first story, Rinehart’s prose remains as sharp as an assassin’s blade.
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About the Author
Among her dozens of novels are The Amazing Adventures of Letitia Carberry (1911), which began a six-book series, and The Bat (originally published in 1920 as a play), which was among the inspirations for Bob Kane’s Batman. Credited with inventing the phrase “The butler did it,” Rinehart is often called an American Agatha Christie, even though she began writing much earlier than Christie, and was much more popular during her heyday.
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Alibi for Isabel
And Other Stories
By Mary Roberts Rinehart
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1972 Frederick R. Rinehart and Alan G. Rinehart
All rights reserved.
Once to Every Man
It was quite extraordinary. One minute Louise was sitting on the sofa, with the coffee table in front of her, and Chris was standing in front of the fireplace trying to say something. Then all at once the table seemed to be whirling around in circles. She had to wait until it had settled to speak.
"Here's your coffee," she heard herself saying. "Be careful. It's hot."
Chris gave her a queer look.
"Haven't you heard what I've been saying, Lou?"
"I heard it. It was just—"
There was no use telling him about the table. There was no use telling him anything now.
"You want to leave me. That's it, isn't it?"
To show how cool she was she took a sip of her coffee. It was boiling. The end of her tongue felt paralyzed.
"I don't want to leave you," Chris said carefully. "It's just happened, that's all. I hate like hell to tell you, but I don't suppose it's a shock. I've tried to carry on, but it—well, it isn't quite honest to go along as we are, is it?"
Her tongue began to hurt. The coffee table was still quiet, but rather blurred. She blinked.
"It isn't quite honest to ask me to be the one to go to Reno, either. You're the one who wants the divorce."
He made an impatient gesture.
"You know damned well I can't leave the business. We're busier than we have been for years. We're making money, even with taxes as they are. And I've told you. I'll provide for you and the boy. You'll not suffer. That's a promise."
She didn't say anything. She wasn't to suffer. She was to cut her life in half, but the amputation was to be painless. Well, for the last few months it had been going on anyhow, a bit cut off here, another bit there.
"You'll be able to keep the apartment," he said. "And of course you'll have Hilda. She wouldn't leave the baby. You can take her to Reno with you," he added handsomely. "It will be a change for her."
Of course this wasn't Chris at all, this tall good-looking young man on the rug, planning for her future without him, planning to marry somebody else, while she was not to suffer. Yet he was right in one way. She had seen it coming. It had been on the way ever since the army had turned him down. He had been restless after that. He had wanted to go out at night, as though he wanted to escape from something. That was how he had met Elinor.
"Look here," he said, "I wouldn't ask you to do this if I thought it would really hurt you. You know that. I'm not a brute. But you'll have Bobby, and that's what matters to you, isn't it?"
She roused herself.
"He's your child too," she said. "What did you expect me to do? Neglect him?"
"I'm not complaining, but you've managed to make him a pretty full time job, haven't you? After all you've had Hilda."
She closed her eyes. Yes, she'd had Hilda. But Hilda couldn't do everything. She cleaned and cooked, but it was Louise who wheeled the baby out to do the buying for the apartment, and who lately had had to worry about ration points and carry home in the heavy pram the day's supplies. It was she, Louise, who did the mending and the thousand and one things which enabled Chris to come home at night to an orderly apartment and a good dinner. And it was Louise who saw that Bobby did not keep him awake at night.
"You really want to marry Elinor?" she asked, still with that sense of unreality.
"That's the general idea."
She lit the wrong end of a cigarette, and the burning pasteboard tip made her cough violently. Chris was looking uncomfortable.
"I'd rather not discuss Elinor," he said. "It isn't her fault, and I don't want you to blame her. She's been damned decent about it."
Decent about what, she wondered. Decent about looking young and fresh in the evenings, after naps and beauty shops? Decent about dancing like a fairy, while Louise's feet dragged with fatigue? Decent about telling Chris how wonderful he was, and how crazy she was about him? Decent about little clandestine lunches, when she sympathized with him about the army, and simply couldn't understand why a tennis elbow kept them from taking him?
It had started, she knew, during the awful time before Bobby arrived. In the early part when they went out for the evening and she would have to leave the table and lose her dinner in the ladies' room, and in the latter months when she had looked like one of the balloons they floated over London. And Chris was fastidious. He didn't want his wife losing her meals in public places. He liked everything neat and tidy. He wanted his socks mended and the buttons on his shirts. And he wanted a wife who could hold her food and had a waistline.
Well, she couldn't blame Elinor for Bobby, or for the fact that he was a strenuous child who preferred to sleep in the daytime and stay awake at night. Or that at the age of one year he had a voice like an air-raid siren. The trained nurse had warned her never to pick him up, but what was she to do?
"Hell, let him yell," Chris would say drowsily. "He has to be trained some time."
It had resulted at the end of six months by her moving into the nursery, and now, at the end of a year, with this. She got up. The floor, like the coffee table, was behaving strangely, but her voice remained reliable.
"I suppose we're civilized human beings," she said. "I can take it if you can. I hope it works out all right."
For a minute she thought he was going to kiss her and tell her how well she was behaving. But he did not. Probably he thought it wouldn't be loyal to Elinor. But for a man who was about to pick what she considered a choice bit of poison ivy he did not look particularly happy.
"There was something else, Lou," he said. "I'd like to see the boy, maybe have him in the summers now and then as he gets older. Is that all right?"
"Why not? He's your son."
He seemed relieved. He hadn't had much to do with Bobby, but he had been mildly fond of him. He would come home and go into the nursery, where the baby, bathed and fed and angelic, would stare at him with wide unwinking eyes.
"Hello, buster. How are you tonight? Going to raise hell as usual?"
He was really pleased when one evening the baby gave him a toothless grin. But that was when Bobby was four months old. Now at the end of a year he had half a dozen teeth, an undesirable habit of spitting out food he did not like, and had taken only mildly to housebreaking. He was a baby with character, but he was nobody's angel child. Certainly he was not Chris's.
She roused herself.
"When do you want me to go?" she asked.
"I don't intend to rush you. That's up to you."
"In a week?"
"If that's the way you want it, my dear."
She didn't want it at all, of course. She was still in love with this bungling masculine idiot who, was casting her off for a blonde hussy who was merely looking for a soft life with some man, any man, and who was too dumb to know it. What she wanted to do was to take the poker from the fireplace and knock some sense into him. What she really did, of course, was to say good-night and go back and hopefully put Bobby on the chair with the little pot under it. For once he behaved nicely, and she held him a moment in her arms before she put him back in his crib.
That was when, looking down at him tenderly, she decided to abandon him.
When she passed Chris's door to empty the cigarette trays and put out the lights in the living room she saw that he was packing. He was trying to fold the new dinner jacket he had ordered after he had met Elinor, and was making a frightful mess of it. He looked up when he heard her.
"I suppose it's better to make a clean break," he said. "I'll go to the club. That's the usual thing, isn't it?"
"I don't see why," she said calmly. "This is your home. You support it. Why not stay and be comfortable?"
He eyed her suspiciously.
"You really want it that way?"
"Why not?" she said. "It will give me a chance to go over your things before I leave. As I said, I hope we're civilized. Go on in and listen to the radio. I'll put that stuff away. Then if you like we can play some gin rummy."
He looked astounded, but he went. Left alone she felt frightened and rather desperate, but after she had finished she put on the blue negligee she had bought when she had still hoped she could hold him, and won a dollar and a quarter from him. He seemed rather dazed when he paid her.
She had a long talk with Hilda the next morning. Hilda cried a good bit, but she agreed to the plan. Then Louise went out and did a bit of shopping, charging the bills to Chris and buy the prettiest things she could find. She even bought a new coat with a fur collar and a bright red hat, and for the day of her departure she ordered a corsage of green orchids. Paying for them herself, however.
She looked very gay and pretty when Chris came in to say good-buy to her that morning. She was dressed for the train, and he surveyed her glumly.
"You look like a bride," he said. "Who sent you the flowers?"
"Someone I'm fond of," she said pleasantly.
He muttered something about setting forth the funeral baked meats for the marriage feast, and he held the baby, all dressed in cap and coat, for a minute before he let him go. He even shook hands with Hilda, who obviously did not want to shake hands with him or have anything to do with him. But Louise did not let him take them to the train.
"You'd better go to the office," she said. "You'll have to make a lot of money, you know. With two families to keep."
He considered this extremely tactless, even if unpleasantly true, and he did not offer to kiss her good-bye.
"Well, have a good trip, all of you," he said. "You might wire me how the baby stands the train."
He put them in the taxi and slammed the door. He should have felt free, but he had a curious empty feeling instead. But he lunched with Elinor that day, and Elinor was wonderful. She had been looking for an apartment, and she had found one facing the park. The rent was high, but when he saw tears in her big blue eyes he threw caution to the winds.
"Of course, darling," he said. "Anything to make you happy."
He didn't enjoy his food, however. He was doing some simple arithmetic, such as adding up the rent of two apartments, alimony, taxes, and lawyers' fees. When he roused himself it was to hear Elinor mentioning a ring. It was some time before he realized that Elinor was talking, about an engagement ring.
"I don't really care," she said, "but everybody asks me about it. I haven't anything to show we are really going to be married, and after all we are engaged, aren't we?"
"Certainly we are. Also I am still married," he said rather drily.
He agreed to the ring however, and he was still doing mathematics on the way back to the office. His secretary eyed him severely when he got there.
"You had a two o'clock appointment," she said. "Mr. Stevenson waited quite a while."
He grunted. Elinor had wanted to make this first free luncheon a party and she had gone right down the menu. Now there was an account lost and probably lost for good. He grunted again.
The rest of the day was pretty bad. He did some more arithmetic on a scratch pad at his desk and then tore it up, so his secretary would not see it. He called Mr. Stevenson, who was distinctly cold. And he telephoned the pressing company to get some clothes of his at the apartment, only to remember there was nobody there.
But in this he was mistaken.
There was somebody there. When he unlocked the door to get his suitcases that evening it was to hear his young son, violently protesting against something or other. He stood quite still, the key in his hand. Then he strode back to the dining room. In his high chair at the table sat Bobby, his mouth full of something he did not like, while a worried Hilda sat beside him, looking a little pale.
"What's the meaning of this?" he demanded. "Why aren't you on the train?"
Hilda gave him a defiant glance.
"She sent us back," she said. "She thought she could manage better alone."
The awful significance of this did not penetrate at once. But he was angry. Very, very angry.
"What the hell did she mean by that?" he shouted. "She hasn't anything to do out there. Nothing but sit tight."
Hilda gave him a look of acute dislike.
"She thought she needed a rest," she said coldly. "She did, too, if you ask me."
He wasn't asking Hilda anything, of course. Louise had played him a dirty trick, but he'd show her he could take it. He went over to the high chair and stooped over his son.
"All right," he said. "Well manage, old boy, won't we? We'll show her."
It was unfortunate that Bobby that moment decided to get rid of the mouthful of spinach. He sprayed it with neatness and determination over his father's blue suit and new necktie, and it had the effect of an explosion. The resulting situation, involving towels and considerable language, seemed to delight the child.
"Mama," he said noisily. "Mama," and beat on his tray and to the point.
When things were cleaned up Hilda put her case, briefly and to the point.
"I agreed to stay," she said. "I'll do the best I can. But I can't work all day and look after Bobby at night. You'll have to take him."
"I'll take him," he said grimly. "I'll see he behaves, too."
"And I have two evenings a week out. I'll give up my afternoons, but I've got a sister. Her boy's in the war, and she needs comforting."
Well, he could take that too, he thought, still grimly. Take it and like it. He was pretty tired himself. It wouldn't be for long, and he could do some reading. He had fallen behind in his reading since he met Elinor. But Elinor, when he took her out to dinner that night, did not apparently care either to take it or like it. She looked shocked.
"Are you telling me you have the boy? She left him?"
"That's right. Of course there's Hilda."
"Do you mean she's left him with you for good?"
"Certainly not. She's crazy about him."
Elinor considered this. There was nothing soft about her blue eyes, nor even particularly adoring.
"Just remember this, Chris," she said coldly. "I'm not taking over any other woman's—" She started to say brat, but reconsidered it "—any other woman's family."
"I haven't asked you to, my dear."
"Why don't you ship him out to her?"
He smiled faintly.
"He isn't a piece of freight, you know," he said. "He's a nice little kid. Anyhow I don't think Hilda would take him."
The evening, however, was definitely sour. It ended in his agreeing to get her a ring the next day, and—having drunk a bit more than usual—in his having to take a dose of bicarbonate before he went to bed. But Bobby chose that night to put on a considerable act, consisting largely of standing in his crib and shaking the side of it until the windows rattled. He got very little sleep, and he spoke to Hilda about it the next morning.
"You understand," he said mildly, "that I can't work all day and stay up all night."
"Neither can I," said Hilda drily.
"Well, for God's sake!" he said, "get somebody to help you. Get a trained nurse. Get anybody. I need my sleep."
"It's not so easy to get help," Hilda said. "I tried over the telephone all day yesterday. Maybe you can find someone."
He went in to see the baby before he left that morning. Bobby looked bland and cheerful, and not at all like a child who would put on an acrobatic act by night and spray spinach by day. He gave his father a wide grin, and Chris grinned back at him.
"You little devil," he said. "We'll fix you now. I'll pay somebody to keep you in order."
On impulse he leaned down and kissed the top of his son's head. After all this was his boy. Some day he would grow up and they could do things together, like playing golf, or shooting, or going swimming.
"Behave yourself," he said. "If your mother doesn't want you we'll manage, won't we?"
For just that minute he forgot Elinor entirely.
Nevertheless the sense of outrage persisted all day. Grew, indeed, for Hilda had been right. There was no help to be had. Women were taking war jobs, or running elevators and driving cars, or merely living comfortably on more wages than their husbands had ever earned before. There were even no trained nurses. He practically abandoned all attempt to work, and at seven o'clock that night, having forgotten all about Elinor's ring, he called her and said he would have to stay at home that evening.
"Hilda wants to see her sister," he explained. "Why don't you come here? We can play some backgammon."
He did not mention gin rummy. It suggested too many evenings by the fire with Louise. But although Elinor came, looking young and gay and mentioning the ring once, the evening was not a success. It turned out that she did not like games. Instead she turned on the radio.
"This is that new band," she said. "Listen. Why don't we dance?"
She looked very lovely, but he was tired, his nerves for some reason were shot to pieces, and his feet hurt. They had hurt him off and on for months.
Excerpted from Alibi for Isabel by Mary Roberts Rinehart. Copyright © 1972 Frederick R. Rinehart and Alan G. Rinehart. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsOnce To Every Man,
The Fishing Fool,
The Clue In The Closet,
Alibi For Isabel,
The Temporary Death Of Mrs. Ayres,
The Butler's Christmas Eve,