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A Dram of Poison
By Charlotte Armstrong
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1984 Jeremy B. Lewi, Peter A. Lewi, and JacquelinLewi Bynagta
All rights reserved.
The tall man switched on the light. "I won't be a minute," he said.
The shorter man looked around the room, which was a laboratory. He ambled over to gaze, without understanding, at some apparatus.
"It's here somewhere," said Paul Townsend, lifting and shifting papers on the desk, opening the left top drawer. "Letter I meant to mail. Simply forgot. Now where ...?" He was an extremely good- looking man, six feet high, in prime state at thirty-seven. His handsome face wore a little fussy frown.
"Take your time," said Mr. Gibson, who was older, in no hurry whatever, and who liked to browse. "What's all this?"
"Ah ..." Paul Townsend found the letter. "Got it. That? That's poison."
"What have you done? Made a collection?" Mr. Gibson peered at a double rank of little square- bottomed bottles aligned to the fraction of an inch, neatly labeled, behind the glass doors of a cupboard.
"Lot of the stuff we use seems to be poisonous," Paul Townsend told him. "So best it's locked up." He came, dangling his letter between two fingers, and peered, too. "Sure is quite a collection," he said innocently.
"Looks like some gourmet's spice cupboard," said Mr. Gibson admiringly. "What are these good for?"
"I never heard of ninety per cent of them."
"Well ..." said Paul Townsend in a forgiving way.
"Death and destruction," murmured Mr. Gibson, "in small packages." He put his forefinger on the glass door. (He fleetingly remembered having once been a little boy pushing his finger, just so, against the glass of a candy counter.) "Which would you advise?"
"What?" said Townsend, batting his long eyelashes.
Mr. Gibson smiled; delicate lines spread from his eye-corners like tiny peacocks' tails. "I'm taking a poetical view," he said whimsically, "of two dozen bottles of death. I don't think the way you do. Can't help it. Teach poetry, you know." He mocked himself good-humoredly and declaimed, "To cease upon the midnight with no pain ..."
"Oh," said Townsend a little stupidly. "Well, if you mean what will knock you out quick and easy, take that one."
"That one?" Mr. Gibson made no sense of the polysyllabic word on the label to which his host now pointed. He couldn't think how it could possibly be pronounced by a human tongue. The number on the label was 333, which was simple and stuck in the brain. "What will it do?"
"Just kill you," said Paul Townsend. "No taste. No smell."
"No color," murmured the other.
"How do you know that?" Mr. Gibson had fine gray eyes and they were lit with intelligent curiosity.
Townsend blinked again. "Know what?"
"That there is no pain? Or no taste, for that matter? Fella's knocked out, as you say. You can't ask him, can you?"
"Well, I ... understand there's just no time for pain," said Townsend a little uncomfortably. "Ready?"
"Quite a place," said Mr. Gibson, giving a last look around.
Townsend had his finger on the light switch. "Wait a minute ..." He frowned. He was like a housewife with unexpected company. He saw deficiencies in his housekeeping. "I see something should have been put away Maybe it wouldn't kill you, but ... Now who left that out, I wonder? Would you mind turning away for a second?"
"Turning? Oh. Not at all." Mr. Gibson obligingly turned his back and stared at a cupboard full of breakers and tubes on the opposite wall. It's glass door made quite an efficient mirror, if you selected with your mind only the reflections, out of all you were seeing with your eyes. So Mr. Gibson idly watched Paul Townsend take a small tin of something from a table top, produce a key from a hiding place, put the tin inside the poison cupboard, relock the door, rehide the key. "O.K.," said Townsend. "Sorry, but I like to be absolutely careful."
Mr. Gibson said, "Of course," softly. It didn't occur to him to confess to his acquaintance that he now had a very good idea where the key was kept. This Townsend was a friendly chap who had happened to be eating a meal in the same off-campus restaurant and who had offered Mr. Gibson a ride home on this chilly January evening. No need to explain to the man. Mr. Gibson hated to embarrass him. And surely it did not matter.
He began to muse, instead, on poison. Why were there substances created of which men must not eat? Fire, water, air ... all good for man ... could yet, in quantity, in excess, or out of place, destroy him. Was it possible that poisons, too, had all their measures? Were they, in proper quantity, or place, or time, good, too? In minute quantity perhaps? Was it a question of discovering how much, or where, or when?
"What's that number Three Thirty-three good for?" he asked as they left the building.
"Nobody knows yet," Townsend said amiably. "But it wouldn't be a bad way to die."
Mr. Gibson had no wish for death. He forgot about it and looked up at the moon. "It is a beauteous evening, calm and free ..." he murmured.
"Nice night," agreed Townsend. "Little chilly, though. I'll drop you off now. Thanks for waiting. Then I'll get along home."
"Don't forget to mail your letter," said Mr. Gibson in friendly prose. "There's a box on my corner."
It was Mr. Gibson's birthday. Characteristically, he hadn't mentioned it. He was fifty-five years old.
He made his thanks and his good night and walked up one flight to his big and only room. He lit the lamp, took off his shoes, placed tobacco handy, selected his book. He was a bachelor.
It was quiet there. It was cozy in a masculine way. It was a little backwater and in it Kenneth Gibson was content. To himself, it seemed that his life had been spent in a series of little backwaters. He had never breasted the full turbulence of the center currents, but like a gentle, unresisting leaf had slipped along the edges of the stream, been caught and held in this or that small stopping place, slipped out, only to be carried into another and yet another, until he had sailed finally into this particular quiet reach where there was no storm but only the gentlest of ripples from time to time.
He had his niche of usefulness. He liked his work and liked his life. He had a feeling that it was soon over. If another ten or twenty years went by softly in the same pattern it would not seem long. He wasn't an aggressive or an ambition-pressured man.
Four weeks after his fifty-fifth birthday, Mr. Gibson went to a funeral. There he met a young woman named Rosemary James.
It was old Professor James who had given up the ghost. The college rallied to its own. He had been retired for some eight years, had fallen, indeed, into irascible irrationality. But he had once been the college's own and so he must have a well-patronized funeral. The word was given.
Other faculty members met his only daughter, Rosemary, for the first time that day. But Kenneth Gibson met her most significantly because of a quality he had that he, himself, thought of as a weakness. He had the gift, or the burden, of empathy.
To himself, it was a weak sensitivity. Oh, he had learned, in fifty-five years, to manage it pretty well. It had hurt him very much during the First World War.
Having been born in the first month of a new century he was, of course, eighteen years old in 1918. He had grown up in a very small town in Indiana, a backwater, with a father who owned a hardware store and was a cheerful tactless man, and a mother named Maureen (Grady) who was a little woman with a fanciful mind. He had gone from the village high school directly to the war, because it had seemed the fervently "right" thing to do at the time.
Young, compact of body and muscle, spruce and neat—for Kenneth Gibson from the beginning was one of those people who always look washed and orderly by some natural gift—even then, he had evidently had an affinity for paper and ink. He went through the war, in the fierce breeches and puttees of the day, as a clerk. Cheerful, willing, and meticulous, he had made a good one. But, although he marked paper with ink in some not unperilous places, he never actually got into a battle. So, when it was all over, nobody knew nor was anyone told that this lad was numb with horror. Nobody ever knew how his essentially fastidious soul had been lacerated by the secrets of slaughter he had come to know and had had to bear. Nobody, in those days, would have conceded the wounds in his mind to be either plausible or important. There were too many horrors experienced. He had only been able to imagine them.
Saying nothing, he dived for sanctuary and healing into books. He went to college. He escaped flaming with the youth of that time because he was older than, and a little out of step with, his classmates. Besides, he was busy healing his invisible wounds in his own way.
His father died the year he got his Master's. His mother was left in straitened circumstances, so Kenneth helped support her in her own place. He did not transport her, for he knew this would not be kind. But he took the burden. It never occurred to him, while he worked at his first meagerly paid teaching job, sent money to his mother, and even helped his younger sister Ethel on her way through college at the same time, that all this was any sacrifice. It simply seemed that his own life, as he saw it, had hit one of those backwaters. To clerk through the war was such, surely. To be a young teacher with family responsibilities was only another. He hewed to the line. He had to. No giddy young days for him.
In 1932 his mother, after an expensive illness, died, and he mourned her, but the depression was on the land and whoever had forborne to fire him from his job while his mother was alive, forbore no longer.
Ethel, eight years his junior, was out of school by this time, of course, and she was earning, and she helped him, for she too had a sense of responsibility and was reliable. He was deep in debt while he scrambled for odd jobs during those bad times.
When, at last, he got another modest teaching job he went into this backwater thankfully. It was a long grind to work off his debts, lean quiet years. But he did it. He learned to take a good deal of pleasure in seeing the old obligations melt slowly away as he satisfied them. When at last he was free and moderately prospering, the world was into the tense months after Munich.
He was thirty-seven by now, a bachelor. Of course a bachelor. He had never had enough to offer a woman of his own. Security. Prestige. Whatever. Before he got around to risking any personal alliance came 1941, and he went to war the second time.
Naturally, he clerked. Well-seasoned, perfectly at home with paper, he spent the war years in an office in a backwater—bearing this and indeed glad of it—for his soul could still wince. But never quite understanding what he was doing there that mattered at all. He only knew that somebody thought it was his duty, which he, of course, did.
In 1945 he emerged from this and met his sister Ethel in New York and said goodbye. Ethel, his only kin, had never married either. (Was it something about the mother and father?) She was a grown woman—getting along herself, in fact—thirty-seven years old. Never a beauty, Ethel, but clever and industrious, and well established in a good job. Ethel did not need him. In fact, she frightened him a little, at that time, by her ease in the turbulent business world, her blunt courage, her perfect independence.
He admired her for it very much. But he said an affectionate, but not woeful, goodbye and came to California to a job in the English Department of a small liberal arts college in a little city that sprawled and spilled over a sunny valley. His permanent backwater.
Here, for ten years, without even a glimpse of his only kin, he taught about poetry—to football players, coeds, and all variety of young people—by a kind of moral supremacy. Kenneth Gibson was obviously no Bohemian wretch with wild eyes and rebellious ideas and, equally obviously, no silken aesthete looking down a haughty nose upon the bourgeoisie. He was, rather obviously, a nice decent well-contained little man, five feet eight, still taut and compact, by no means showing his age, although his fair hair had inconspicuous threads of white in it—a most respectable man, with fine gray eyes, with a nice mouth that often wore a touch of humor on it.
The young were rocked by the fact that this man actually took this stuff seriously. It behooved them to look into it themselves and see what it was worth, then.
So he did his work well, quite often succeeding in communicating his own conviction that poetry was not necessarily sissy ... which was an achievement greater than he realized, poetry having the repute it has today.
He had his books, his acquaintances, his solitude, his work, his cozy room, and the beauty of trees, the magnificence of sky, the lift of the mountains on the horizon, and the music of men's ancient thoughts, to sustain his spirit. He had his life and he thought he foresaw how it would end. But then he met Rosemary James at her father's funeral.CHAPTER 2
Mr. Gibson sat decorously with his colleagues in the gloomy little chapel and endured the cruel, but necessary, ceremony by a little trick he had of deliberately disengaging a lot of his attention. When it was over he realized, with a pang of outrage, that off at the side, behind the curtain in the "family room," Rosemary James had been sitting through it all alone. If he had known! He had never met the girl—poor thing—but if he had known, he would have churned up the community to find somebody—anybody—to be with her. Or he would have sat in there himself. He hated a funeral—anybody's funeral—and he found himself imagining her ordeal, and furious that it had been.
When he took her hand, beside the grave, he felt the vibration of her lonely anguish. He knew in the marrow of his bones that she was exhausted and in despair and had to have hope. Had to have something, however trival, ahead of her. She could die without it.
So standing in the sunshine, on the sad turf, with the flowers heaped behind them, he said to her, "Your father must have many papers. I wonder if any of them should be published."
"I don't know," said Rosemary.
"I wonder," said Mr. Gibson. "Would you like me to go through them for you? We can't tell. There may be valuable things."
"Oh," she said, "I suppose there might I wouldn't know." She seemed timid, poor thing.
"I'd be very glad to help if I can," he said gently.
"Thank you, Mr.—Gibson?"
"Then may I come over ... perhaps tomorrow?"
"Please do," she said tremulously. "It's very good of you. Won't it be a trouble?"
"It will be a pleasure," he said. The word was deliberate. To speak of pleasure at the graveside was rough, was shocking. But she needed to have inserted into her imagination such a word.
She thanked him once more, stumblingly. A shy young woman, too upset, too bewildered, to have any poise. Not a child, of course. In her late twenties probably. Slim ... in fact a pitifully thin body, trembling now with strain and fatigue but standing up to it somehow. A white face. Frightened blue eyes, with little folds of skin at the upper outer edges that came down sadly. A lined white brow. Limp, lifeless brown hair. An unpainted mouth, pathetically trying to smile and yet not smile. Well, she could look forward now, if ever so little, to tomorrow.
"We'll see," said Mr. Gibson, and he smiled in full. "Who can tell?" he added cheerfully. "We might find some treasure."
Her eyes changed shape and he saw the flicker of wonder, of hope, and he was quite pleased with himself.
On his way home, he fumed. Poor thing! Looked as if a vampire bat had been drinking her blood. And perhaps he had. The arrogant angry old man whose brain had betrayed him and who lived out his final decade flubbing about helplessly hunting his own thoughts, which kept eluding him. Mr. Gibson was so very sorry for the girl. Poor, unattractive, tired, beaten creature—terrible ordeal shouldn't have been there all alone!
The Jameses lived on the first floor of an old house near the campus. The moment Mr. Gibson entered the hall, he received the news of poverty and decay and a sense of darkness. If this place had ever had any colors, they had now all faded down into a uniform muddiness that defeated light. Everything, although quite clean, was somehow stained. Everything was old. And there was a clutter that comes of never having guests and therefore never seeing one's home with a fresh eye.
Excerpted from A Dram of Poison by Charlotte Armstrong. Copyright © 1984 Jeremy B. Lewi, Peter A. Lewi, and JacquelinLewi Bynagta. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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