When Amanda Garth was born, a nearly-disastrous mix-up caused the hospital to briefly hand her over to the prestigious Garrison family instead of to her birth parents. The error was quickly fixed, Amanda was never told, and the secret was forgotten for twenty-three years . . . until her aunt thoughtlessly revealed it in casual conversation.
But what if the initial switch never actually occurred, and what if the real accident was Amanda’s being “returned” to the wrong parents? After all, her artistic proclivities are far more aligned with painter Tobias, patriarch of the wealthy Garrison clan, than with the uncreative duo that raised her. Determined to discover her true identity within her aunt’s bizarre anecdote, Amanda calls on her almost-family, only to discover that the fantasy life she imagines is not at all like their reality. Instead, she encounters a web of lies and suspicions that ensnares her almost immediately, and, over a murky cup of hot chocolate, realizes something deadly lurks just beneath the surface. . . .
Mixing tense family drama with edge-of-your-seat psychological suspense, The Chocolate Cobweb finds the “mistress of day-lit terror” at the top of her game (New York Times). The book, adapted to film by Claude Chabrol in 2006, remains as fresh today as it was when Armstrong wrote it over seventy years ago.
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The Chocolate Cobweb
By Charlotte Armstrong
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1976 Jack Lewi
All rights reserved.
Cousin Edna Fairchild had designed her life on the principle that far fields are greener. During a quarter of each year she flitted about Southern California, visiting a week here, a fortnight there, hinting delicately, among barbarians, of her nostalgia for the riper culture of the eastern seaboard. The rest of the year she dwelt in New York City and basked in some glory as one who wintered on the west coast and could speak wistfully of relaxed and freer customs among those who had escaped toward the sun.
Now, on a March Sunday morning, she was about to make her annual spring leap from west to east. She was going home.
They sat in the patio at the back, among the Sunday papers and the dregs of breakfast. It was that sterile hour before departure. All news had long since been told. Old times had been chewed over and the flavor exhausted. In fact, Cousin Edna was already mentally on the train and Kate Garth, her hostess, had already mentally straightened out Amanda's room and moved Amanda back into it.
Amanda was going to drive the traveler to the station. She didn't look it. She was barefoot and wore a tight pair of tattered and faded blue pants, a rose-colored shirt with the sleeves rolled up. She sprawled on the chaise, leaning on her elbows, studying the newspaper. Her short brown hair curled and clung to her pretty head.
"Mandy," said Cousin Edna, "hadn't you better get dressed?"
"Take me five minutes," said Amanda serenely. "We've got two hours."
Cousin Edna rose, strolled to the edge of the brick-paved patio, and looked around as if to soak up the sight of white walls enclosing the small pleasant yard, stylized blue froth of wisteria bloom, the gray-green olive tree. "Well, Kate, it's been lovely!"
Amanda's blue eyes slid to watch the patience deepen comically on her mother's face. Kate had been driven to mending. She couldn't read under Edna's nose. But her long strong fingers were clumsy with a needle and she took big stitches, like a child.
"What are you studying?" Cousin Edna bent over Amanda's shoulder. "'Belle in the Doorway.' Hmmmm...."
Amanda's gaze flicked back to the half-tone reproduction of a painting, there on the Sunday art page. "It's not a very good picture," she remarked with young scorn, and caught quickly at her own arrogance to qualify it: "... in my humble opinion...."
"I was going to say ..." murmured Kate mildly.
"Still so interested in art," cooed Cousin Edna.
"I think it's a stupid picture." Amanda struck the paper with the backs of her fingers. "The drawing is terrible. The light's unnatural. The subject's sentimental."
"'Tobias Garrison,'" read Cousin Edna. "Garrison! Why, Kate, isn't that the man?"
Amanda's chin tipped. She looked warily at Kate. She read on that long face the tiny reaction of regret and then the gathering of some patience and fortitude to overcome it.
"The artist!" Cousin Edna was insisting. "The same man! The one in the hospital that time! Don't tell me you've forgotten!"
"What time?" said Amanda bluntly.
"Why, the mix-up," said Cousin Edna. "When you were born. I haven't thought of that for years. Isn't it the same man? Isn't it, Kate?"
"I suppose it is." Kate's blue eyes went to Amanda with an odd, flat, bleak courage.
"I'll never forget John Garth that day!" cried Edna. "Never! The way he stood up ... The way he simply refused to be shaken! I had to admire him. It was such an odd thing. Anybody else might have been upset. Such a new baby, and John himself hardly used to the idea that he had a daughter. I really ... What's the matter? Oh, Kate, have I said what I shouldn't? Didn't Amanda ...? Oh, Kate!" This was a cry but it wasn't quite contrite. There was a bit of relish in it.
In a flash, Amanda chose her side. If there was a secret, it wasn't going to be told now, by Edna, or by Kate in front of Edna, or under Edna's avid eyes, at all. "Oh, that!" said she. "Didn't know what you were talking about for a minute." She let herself collapse on one arm, pulled the paper up with the other hand.
"Oh, then you knew? Then I haven't ...? Oh.... Oh, well, I'm glad!" And Edna sighed a windy disappointed sigh. "But isn't that strange?"
"Not very," said Kate calmly, "since he lives out here."
"Kate, have you ever met him?"
"Have you, Mandy?"
"Hummmmm?" said Mandy dreamily. "Nuh-uh.... I don't understand all the excitement about this painting."
"My goodness," said Edna, "if you're both so bored ...! Why, he's a famous man! Isn't he?"
"It's quarter to ..." said Mandy.
"Amanda! You're not going like that!"
"Don't you worry about me."
Making anxious sounds, Edna fluttered indoors. The screen slammed. The sharp slap of the wood made a period. Bees buzzed in the sun.
Amanda sat up and turned around, put both bare heels on the brick floor, and curled up her toes. "Oh, boy!" she said. "I've got a mystery about my birth!"
Kate's long clown face began to be convulsed with laughter. Her brows drew up, eyelids made triangles. "I don't know what I'm laughing at," she said. "Oh, me ...!" But she knew. It was this quick denial of a tiny doubt, denied so absurdly by Amanda's wide-open enthusiasm. So it was the warm certainty, the pure joy of their solidarity. It was a surge of love in Kate's heart for the girl in the outlandish clothes whose faith was so strong that she invited her mother to be excited and amused by the sudden dizzy notion that perhaps they weren't related.
"You'd better tell me," said Amanda, grinning and folding her legs up under her. "If I'm a duchess in disguise I want to know."
Kate shook her head. "There's nothing to it. If I've never told you, it's partly because it's so unimportant, and maybe partly because of that demon imagination...."
"If you think I've outgrown it," said Mandy severely, "I have not."
"Well, all right. The beans are spilled, such as they are." Kate sobered her face. "It seems Mrs. Garrison had a baby just when I did. Same place. Same time. Oh, a few hours' difference. It must have been a little early for her, because Mr. Garrison," she nodded at the paper, "wasn't around. Naturally, he came rushing back from wherever he was and he got to the hospital the next morning. Well, he couldn't see his wife right away, I suppose they were bathing her or something. So he rushed up to the nursery and asked one of the little student nurses to show him his child. And she showed him you."
"For heaven's sake," said Mandy mildly.
"She held you up, behind the glass, of course. She told him you were a girl. And he, naturally, just beamed on you. And then he went in to see his wife and in a little while it turned out that while he thought they had a daughter, she thought they had a son."
"It came out," commented Mandy, "in the course of conversation, hm?"
Her mother cast her an eyebeam. "So there was an uproar. I really heard very little of it at the time. But it seems he had the nurses tearing around in a panic. And he stirred up all the officials and called all the doctors to come running."
"But how could it happen?"
"That's what he wanted to know. As I understood it.... You know they put little bead bracelets on the babies and each bead has a letter on it. The bracelet spells the name. Yours broke. It's unheard of and nobody knew how it could have broken, but it did. So the little student picked up the broken cord with just three beads left on it, the first three letters...."
"Which were G-A-R," said Mandy. "Because they didn't know our first names, did they? Yes. Very neat. Of course, she knew by my pretty face I was a girl."
"She knew," said Kate dryly. "And then your father came."
John Garth was dead, been gone twelve years. Yet, just for a moment, he was alive again. Kate Garth could see him, leaning over the high bed. She heard the quiet quality of his voice.
"He just simply made everybody calm down," she said. "You were our daughter and that was all there was to it, and if there had been some kind of mistake, it was none of our affair, and they'd better straighten it out without upsetting me, or it would be our affair and they'd be sorry. He got the doctors and nurses and this Garrison man and held a kind of court of inquiry and really untangled the thing. Your father was ... very good at that."
Amanda wanted, wildly, to cry. She choked down the sensation. She said, in wonder, "Dad kinda wanted a son, too."
"Not after he saw you."
For a moment, Mandy couldn't see across the space between them. "I must have been pretty attractive when I was young," she sniffled.
Kate swallowed hard herself. "That's all," she said. "So you're no duchess, Duchess." She added dreamily, "She must be a nice woman. She wrote me a little note. Though I never saw her."
In a moment or two, Mandy stood up and stretched. "Well, I'm disappointed," she said, yawning. "Mother, how come all this was in New York? I thought you said the Garrisons lived out here. You mean they moved here since, as we did?"
"No," said Kate. "No, I think they were California people, even then. I don't know why they'd come east for the event. I don't know much about them. Oh, I've seen the name. It seems to me there was some tragedy...."
Mandy stood with her arms raised. Kate's face was puzzled, trying to remember. Mandy lowered her arms slowly. She sat down on the chaise and picked up the art page. There was quite an article about Tobias Garrison. Dean of California artists, they called him. The grand old man. An exhibition of his work, currently, at the Peck Galleries. She skimmed the story.
There was no tragedy mentioned. At a banquet, last night, they had given him a plaque. Some Art Association prize. He'd made a speech. Mrs. Garrison was there, in black velvet. Tobias Thone Garrison, the artist's only son, had been expected, but bad flying weather in the East had prevented his arrival in time for the dinner.
Years in the Orient. Return to his canyonside home before the war. Garrison scholarships given ... The show at the Peck Galleries had been up for two weeks. Included the famous "Belle in the Doorway." Last day today....
Last day today.
"Amanda!" Cousin Edna, with her hat on, was outraged in the house door.
"Belle in the Doorway," thought Amanda. She squealed and fled.
Five minutes later a poised young woman in a soft wool suit, the color of a pale banana, cut on the simplest lines, worn smartly with a dull brown blouse, put a pretty leg, neat in nylon, and a graceful foot in a high-heeled brown pump over the doorstep. This apparition held a brown bag under one arm, car keys in a gloveless hand. She wore no hat, but her hair clung softly like a shining cap, and the sunlight, as she inclined her head, bronzed it a little. She said graciously, "If you are ready, Cousin Edna?"
Cousin Edna, who would never look like that in all her life, bristled with natural resentment, but she kept her stream of compliments and grateful thanks turned on as they all moved toward the alley garage.
"Oh, Mother," said Amanda at the last minute. "You don't want the car this afternoon, do you? I might not come straight home."
"I don't need it. Supper?"
"I'll be home for that. I have a date with Gene, after. You don't mind, Mother?" Blue eyes were confident.
Blue eyes met them and smiled. "No, go ahead," said Kate. She added, "I don't know as I blame you." Because she knew full well where Amanda was going.CHAPTER 2
Amanda, driving with unconscious skill, blocked and turned aside all Cousin Edna's references to Tobias Garrison. There was a temptation to let go and listen to Edna's account, since she had evidently been on the scene, twenty-three years ago. But Mandy felt that such listening would involve some disloyalty to Kate. Or might tip off Cousin Edna that she had spilled the beans, after all. Amanda stuck stubbornly to indifference.
Once, however, she had given Cousin Edna over to the Pullman Company, she turned the Chevrolet out of the station plaza and went up Sunset, thinking of nothing else. There was no disloyalty in imagining ... imagining anything. Kate would understand that. Kate would know that no imagining could ever alter the love between them, which existed for its own sake, now and forever.
What if ...? Amanda embarked on wild surmise with a smile at herself. What if there really had been a mix-up? What if Kate didn't know all the facts? What if there had been real doubt about whose baby was which? What if it had been settled, arbitrarily, on an uncertain basis, after all? Maybe Kate didn't know that. Maybe she had been spared. Amanda thought vaguely of blood tests. She knew there were such things and she knew a little bit about them. They were negative evidence, at best. Yet Kate hadn't said anything about tests. Of course, probably it hadn't been necessary to go so far. Other evidence had been conclusive. Yet, what if ...? What if ...?
Tobias Garrison was a famous man, possibly a wealthy man. What would it mean if she were his daughter? Amanda bit her lip. It would mean, she thought, exactly nothing. She didn't know him, had no feeling about him, hadn't been subjected to his influence or his teaching, didn't know what he thought, didn't care. No, no matter what the facts were, she was Kate's daughter and John Garth's daughter. And the fame or wealth of a possible blood parent whom she had never seen, and probably, she told herself, wouldn't even like, meant nothing at all. Her "What if ...?" led nowhere. It was a strangely empty dream.
Yet, there was such a thing as heredity. Wasn't there? This yen to paint, this fascinated pull she felt toward the making of pictures ... A little tendril of excitement crept up her throat. But she went honestly back to a fact. That needn't be explained by heredity. It was already explained, by environment, again, and also Miss Alice Anderson.
As for heredity, it was from John Garth she got her ambition to be a designer. It was from him she took the resolution to study, to go to art school out here. It was from him, by way of his old friend Andrew Callahan, that she got her chance, that she held her part-time job.
John Garth had dealt with the manufacture of printed fabrics. He had never, himself, studied the artistic side of it in any school. What he knew was self-taught. What he had done, Amanda thought, had been good, but tentative and unsure. She was going further.
Eleven years old she had been when he died, young, of a sudden infection, but she had, even then, been fascinated by color and line. They had played with such things together.
Two years after he died, Kate had decided to come west. The place where he had been was lonely without him. Kate's health had been shaky. And Andrew Callahan had been importunate and kind. Kate worked in the office of Callahan's Sons, Fine Fabrics, Los Angeles. Her strong steady spirit presided firmly over accounts. She was a good businesswoman. Her bedrock dependability was invaluable, Andrew said.
And so, between them, between Andrew, who loved Kate, and Kate, who loved Mandy, Mandy got to go to art school mornings. Afternoons, in an informal and delightful kind of way, she fooled with designing, behind the scenes at Callahan's, where professionals listened to her young ideas with affectionate respect.
I am a lucky girl, thought Mandy solemnly. She would become a designer. She would be a good one, a really good one. She would do exciting things. She would forget, or at least put by as a passing phase, the influence of her teacher, Miss Alice Anderson, whose almost religious reverence for Fine Art, and particularly Fine Painting, was at the bottom of this present passion.
Mandy, scooting up Sunset Boulevard, felt herself become of age, renouncing childish things. Kate, clearheaded Kate, who made plans and stuck to them, had been a trifle uneasy over this tangential interest. Kate, dear, good, wonderful Kate, who left her so free but never freed herself, might, she knew, even marry Andrew Callahan someday. Someday, when Mandy was settled. When Mandy was out of art school and embarked solidly on her career. Or if Mandy herself were to marry.
She shook her shoulders, impatient with herself suddenly. There was Gene Noyes.
Excerpted from The Chocolate Cobweb by Charlotte Armstrong. Copyright © 1976 Jack Lewi. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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