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By Mignon G. Eberhart
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1956 Mignon G. Eberhart
All rights reserved.
Matt stood at the window, looked out at the gray lake, the gray December sky and talked of fear. "Fear is a virus," he said. "It's a creeping paralysis. It stops thinking. It stops action. In the end it destroys the heart and soul." His rangy figure, his black head were outlined sharply against the gray light beyond him. There was a bitter anger in his voice, anger at the injustice of a world which can make a child its victim.
Laura glanced uneasily at Jonny. The child was listening too. She sat very still in an armchair which was too big for her, so that her feet dangled above the rug. She looked, now, very American in her short white socks and black-strapped pumps, her simple, blue wool dress with its pleated skirt and white round collar. Her smooth brown hair was parted in the middle and two fat braids ended in neatly tied red ribbons. Only her Slav blue eyes and the generous breadth of the cheekbones in her round little face suggested her Polish blood. Her eyes were suddenly very grave, watching Matt. Her lap was full of a tangle of new hair ribbons, yellow and blue and green and red, which Matt had brought her, and her square little hands were quiet, too, holding the ribbons.
The kitten sat beside her, a watchful regard on the ribbons. His eyes were as blue as Jonny's.
Laura said, "Careful. She's beginning to understand more English than we think."
"I know." Matt swung away from the window and came back to them. The slatey look left his eyes when he looked down at Jonny. He gave her a gay, reassuring twinkle. "Everything is all right now, Jonny. Good. Understand? Dobre. "
Jonny's grave gaze searched his face for a moment. Then some inner secret alarm, which his voice when he spoke of fear (rather than the words of which she understood so little) had seemed to rouse, quieted. It was as if she had asked a question and he had answered it promptly and comfortingly. Gaiety came back into her face like sunshine. "Dobre," she said. "Good." The kitten made a dab at a ribbon, and Jonny laughed.
Matt said, "Well, I've got to be on my way. What do you want for Christmas, Jonny?"
"We mustn't spoil her," Laura said, but knew that she was smiling at the child as fondly as Matt.
"No fear of that," Matt said, rather shortly. And, of course, he was right. They knew very little really of Jonny Stanislowski's short past but they knew that in all probability it had not included gaiety and fun, walks along the lake and visits to the zoo, hair ribbons and Siamese kittens and all the little treats and surprises Matt arranged for her. Matt brought her some sort of present almost every day, and now Jonny seized upon the gaily wrapped box with confidence. It had been that which had brought forth his outburst of anger that afternoon. Jonny had run to the door to meet him. She had flung herself upon him; she had chattered in her own rapid, excited mixture of Polish and English, which was as a matter of fact mainly Polish, only studded by the few English words she knew but lighted by her gay, expressive face and gestures. Then she had gone through his overcoat pockets confidently in search of her present. She had found there the package of ribbons. She had opened it laughing and triumphant; it was a game she and Matt understood.
As Matt watched her his mobile Irish face had sobered. "Can you imagine that, Laura, a month ago! She's a different child." And then unexpectedly he had talked of fear, fear which can infect even an eight-year-old child.
Jonny understood about Christmas; she and Laura and Matt had all talked of it, Laura and Matt searching for words in the Polish dictionary with which Laura had supplied herself when Jonny was placed in her care, but baffled as usual by the pronunciation of the mysteriously placed consonants, resorting to English and to what Matt called sign language. Matt had told Jonny Christmas stories, with the child listening as intently as if she understood every word of them. He had recited "The Night before Christmas," prompted, when memory failed, by Laura. Jonny had painstakingly recited it after him, a phrase at a time, pronouncing the strange English words with great care. She was delighted with the names of the reindeer and repeated them over and over, slowly and tentatively at first, then more confidently, "Up Donner, up Blitzen—"
She laughed at Matt now. "Saint Nich—o—las—" she said, carefully dividing the syllables.
"Right," said Matt. "Old St. Nicholas is coming down the chimney with a bag full of presents. You wait and see." He touched the child's brown head, tweaked the square little chin, then went into the hall, got his hat and coat. Laura and Jonny followed. Matt said, "If it is a nice day tomorrow we might go to the zoo again. How about it?"
Jonny said clearly, her high childish voice vibrant with confidence and delight, "Bears."
"Okay, honey, the bears it will be. And hot chocolate in the little restaurant in the trees." Matt opened the door of the outside corridor and looked down at Laura. His eyes were suddenly very blue and dancing. He said unexpectedly, "You are a honey, too. Did that ever occur to you? See you tomorrow."
He was off down the corridor toward the bank of elevators. Laura closed the door slowly—and something very gay and yet rather mysterious went out of the day.
She stood for a moment in the small entrance hall watching Jonny who now was making a game with the kitten, dangling a red ribbon and laughing as Suki darted at it with swift, sepia-colored paws.
Matt loved Jonny and Jonny loved Matt. And the moment little Jonny Stanislowski had walked down the gangway of the plane from Vienna, clinging hard to Matt's hand, but with something sturdy and self-reliant about the small figure, too, she had walked also into Laura's heart.
Perhaps she reminded Laura of her own childhood, not too far away, when Conrad Stanley—born Stanislowski—had been her only friend. So it was of course Laura's duty to offer to see to Jonny temporarily, until something could be settled, for Laura, young as she was, had been named by Conrad Stanley as one of the trustees for the perplexing Stanislowski provision in his will. It was also her duty to take the child into her small apartment, if only to discharge in some small measure the deep debt of gratitude she owed Conrad Stanley and consequently to his little great-niece.
The circumstances in which little Jonny Stanislowski had come so unexpectedly to live with Laura were simple. Conrad Stanley, dying, had left a very large fund to his nephew, Conrad Stanislowski, living in Poland. All efforts to communicate with Conrad Stanislowski had failed, but his child, little Jonny, had been found and brought to America.
Doris Stanley was the obvious person to see to Jonny; she was Conrad's young and lovely widow. Doris quite frankly had not wanted her. Charlie Stedman, who was Laura's co-trustee and an old friend of Conrad Stanley's, lived a comfortable bachelor existence at his club; clearly it was impossible for him to undertake Jonny's care. Matt would have liked to take Jonny, but again it was not practicable.
Matt was not married; he was a lawyer, his office in the Loop; he was young, he had a small but growing practice; he lived in a hotel apartment. If he had taken Jonny it would have involved a troublesome business of finding a housekeeper and, indeed, a different and larger apartment. The practical problems of undertaking a child's care were difficult to solve. But it had been Matt who found Jonny and brought her to America, for he was Doris Stanley's lawyer.
He had once been engaged to Doris, before her marriage to Conrad; he had known Doris for many years, but he was her lawyer, too. When Conrad Stanley died, three years before, Doris had instantly turned all her affairs over to Matt. And that of course had involved Matt in the chore of carrying out the provisions of Conrad Stanley's will. It had proved to be, in fact, a rather onerous chore for all of them, Laura and Charlie Stedman and Matt, that is. Doris, quite comprehensibly, had not been much interested in finding Jonny's father, Conrad's nephew, and certainly not much interested in Jonny.
But they had all met the plane, Laura, Charlie and Doris, riding to the airport in Doris' luxurious, chauffeur-driven car. There had been a little discussion as to what to do with the child. Doris had said flatly that Jonny should be put straight into a boarding school; she had indeed made some preliminary arrangements. Charlie had debated it, as he always debated anything, and then said that that might be the best solution. Laura had thought of her own small apartment and the tiny extra bedroom across the hall from her own; it would be easy to transform that room into a child's room with gay chintz on the bed and at the windows, a small chair, a little table, shelves for toys—her thoughts swept irresistibly on. However, she told herself firmly, it wasn't possible for her to take Jonny.
Laura was a secretary for a law firm; she had got the job immediately after Conrad Stanley's death. She worked for no particular member of the firm or staff; her services and those of several other trained secretaries were called upon as and when needed. It was consequently a busy and exacting sort of job, interesting in its variations and rewarding as a challenge. But the hours were long. She was away from home all day, leaving shortly after eight in the morning, coming home in the crowded bus which stopped eventually at the corner of Lake Shore Drive, a half-block from the towering apartment house. She reached her own apartment if she were lucky at about five-thirty. She was proud of her little apartment; it was small and inexpensive but it had light and air and sunshine and a wide view of Lake Michigan, and more than anything it was home, the only real home Laura had had since she was a child, almost as young as this strange little girl they were going to meet. But there was no place in it for a housekeeper as well as Jonny; besides, it would be almost impossible to find exactly the right kind of housekeeper, a motherly, sensible woman they could trust with the child. No, she couldn't take Jonny.
The three of them stood in a little group, watching the plane land. It was a bright, windy day. Doris' exquisite profile was almost buried in her furs; her smart black hat hugged her blond hair. Even there, in the windy, chill space at the gate, the scent of a perfume like carnations in a summer garden drifted like a fragrant little cloud from the handkerchief in Doris' handbag as she took out a compact and scrutinized her lovely face in the tiny mirror. She moistened her pink lips and smiled, closed her handbag and watched the incoming plane.
Charlie stood beside her, watching the plane, too, as it came in to a landing. His head was bent against the wind; he held on his dignified gray homburg with one neatly gloved hand; the other was at Doris' elbow. And then the plane moved slowly toward the gate and stopped. At last figures began to descend the gangway, hats and coats and skirts swirled by the wind, and Matt's tall figure was among them. He saw them and waved and pointed them out to Jonny, who gave them a grave look and clung to Matt's hand.
Doris flashed into vivacity when she saw Matt; her pansy-brown eyes and her pink lips smiled. She ran to meet the two figures; she kissed Matt; she greeted the lonely little figure beside Matt, briefly and it seemed to Laura perfunctorily. Jonny eyed Doris soberly and clung to Matt's hand.
Doris was not at all pleased with the fact that there was a Jonny Stanislowski. And she liked a child to be attractive, well mannered and well dressed; Jonny was neither. Her little face was set, almost stolid in its immobility. She wore a faded, purplish coat which was too small for her, a round sailor hat which was too old for her, long black stockings and awkward, ugly shoes. Only her blue eyes, meeting Laura's, betrayed the fact that she was frightened. Laura, unexpectedly, had bent and kissed Jonny. Matt then had kissed Laura, too, lightly, on the cheek, before he spoke to Charlie.
Afterwards in the car they talked of Jonny while the child sat, still and rather frightened, yet trying not to show it, close beside Matt. "I'll take her to my apartment tonight," Doris said. "But the place for her is Harthing. You know, the Harthing School for girls. I've already talked to Miss Harthing on the telephone. I am sure she will take Jonny."
Charlie agreed. "It seems a good plan, at least until the estate is settled. Then we'll have to make some permanent arrangement for her."
But Laura looked at Matt and he was looking at her; then she said quite suddenly, "No, I'll take her—I'll give up my job. I can get another one later, when we decide what to do about her. I'd like to take her now."
Doris bit her lip, but looked relieved. Charlie said after a moment, thoughtfully, that was very kind of Laura. Matt said, his eyes flashing blue, that it was splendid. "—It's the perfect solution. I don't want her to be put in school among strangers."
"Laura is a stranger," Doris said quickly. "We are all strangers, even you, Matt."
He had Jonny's hand close in his own big one. "Not I. We got acquainted. She's a good little traveler."
Charlie said sensibly that there was a matter of expense to consider; if Laura were serious in her offer to give up her job to look after Jonny, she must be reimbursed from the estate. "Don't you agree, Matt? Doris?"
In the end it was settled without much discussion. Doris' big car deposited Laura and Jonny and one of Matt's big leather suitcases at the apartment house. The suitcase held an odd assortment of clothing—two dark woolen dresses which had obviously been passed on to Jonny as they were outgrown by other children, a woman's sweater, darned, a heavy flannel petticoat, more long black stockings neatly rolled together, and a Paris doll, which Matt had given Jonny, wrapped tenderly in paper. The next day Laura and Jonny had gone shopping. That night Matt came to tell Laura the whole amazing story of finding her, of cutting through red tape, and of bringing her home. He had come nearly every day since then—to see Jonny of course, but Laura had seen him, too. But the daily visits would end in January; by then, three years after Conrad Stanley's death, the estate would be settled. The permanent arrangement for Jonny would be made. And Matt's daily visits would end, for almost certainly he and Doris Stanley would then be married.
So then, too, this curiously happy interlude for Laura would come to an end. Jonny would no longer provide a gay and warm focus; Laura would go back to work; the routine of her life would reestablish itself. It had been a pleasant routine, well flavored by her sense of independence. But it wouldn't be so pleasant now and Laura knew why. She would miss Jonny—but she would also, too much, too constantly, too deeply and too hopelessly, miss Matt.
Jonny drew the red ribbon teasingly across the rug and the kitten sprang upon it furiously, its little black tail lashing in pretended anger. Just then someone knocked softly on the door. It was so unexpected that it startled her. It wasn't Matt returning; he wouldn't knock like that. The soft, almost furtive knock came again. She opened the door.
A man stood outside. He was rather small and thin, too small somehow for his clothes, which looked bulky and clumsy—foreign, Laura thought. He had a slender, pale face, a high, narrow forehead and sharp features, an intellectual face but a rather weak one. His eyes were pale blue, and looked washed out yet very intent. He said, "I am Conrad Stanislowski."CHAPTER 2
"Conrad—" Laura stared at him incredulously. "But we tried to find you! For nearly three years we've tried to find you!"
"I was in Poland. May I come in?"
"Oh—oh, yes! Please come in."
He slid instantly into the hall and closed the door behind him. There was something furtive, too, in his quick movements and in the way he closed the door. Suddenly Laura thought, he's frightened. He said, however, quickly, "I've come to see my child. She's here, isn't she?"
Laura's impulse was to say, certainly; she is in the next room. But in the very instant of speaking she remembered her responsibility as trustee. From his position directly before the door he could not see the living room, but she moved a few steps down the hall and closed the door into the living room. His eyes flickered; she was sure that he knew why she closed the door but he did not move. She said, "We didn't expect you. We had given up trying to find you. We wrote you—so many times, but we didn't hear from you. Two of our letters came back. They had been opened. They were marked 'address unknown.'"
Excerpted from Postmark Murder by Mignon G. Eberhart. Copyright © 1956 Mignon G. Eberhart. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
why mother could get custody back after deserting child until money shows up or could stay in country considering red scare at time is questionable.