The Birches was one of the grand mansions of the 1920s, with a ballroom, tennis courts, and, of course, a swimming pool. But after the crash of ’29, when Lois and Judith’s father killed himself to escape his debts, the family turned the summer home into a fulltime retreat from the world. Decades later, Judith is the queen of New York society, a fast-living beauty whose nerves are beginning to fray, while Lois still lives in the dilapidated old mansion, writing mystery novels to pay the bills. She is about to encounter a mystery of her own.
To stave off a nervous breakdown, Judith moves in with her kid sister. Terrified of an unnamed threat, she nails her windows shut and locks the door. Soon, a woman is found dead in the pool—a stranger who bears a shocking resemblance to Judith. In a family with a history of tragedy, a chilling new chapter is about to be written.
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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.
Read an Excerpt
The Swimming Pool
By Mary Roberts Rinehart
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1980 Frederick R. Rinehart and Alan G. Rinehart
All rights reserved.
One day last fall I ordered the swimming pool destroyed. For we were leaving The Birches, our family summer home for many years, and our asylum after the panic of '29. For various reasons neither my brother, Phil, nor I myself cared to stay there any longer, and the fear of the atom bomb had at last enabled us to sell it. The family that bought it had small children, so they did not want the pool.
But standing there watching a man at work, it seemed incredible that only the spring before, having sold a short story for more than my usual price and received another unexpected check, I had had it put into condition after years of neglect. Had repaired the old diving-platform and the bench along the side, and even restored the picnic table under its falling roof.
I must have been very small when it was built, but I could remember my father watching the work and not looking particularly happy. He had liked the small creek that was to feed it, and which had been temporarily detoured. But he had saved the valley above it, below the stables, and had kept it in its wild state, with trilliums and May apples and other humble little plants, even an occasional jack-in-the-pulpit on the bank. None of the gardeners was allowed to touch it.
So the pool was built over his protests, because Mother insisted on it. A swimming pool was a sort of cachet in those days, as later it was in Hollywood. But I think it worried him for other reasons, too. The water, he said, would be cold, and there was always the danger that I, at five or thereabouts, might fall in. I remember him looking down at me as it began to fill. He was a tall man, usually reserved except with me, and I have wondered since just how he came to marry Mother, or whether he was ever really happy with her. They were so different.
Anyhow, that day at the pool he was definitely worried.
"You'll have to learn to swim, baby," he said. "We can't have you falling in the thing, unless you know how to get out."
I was always "baby" to him.
As a result it was he who gave me my first swimming lessons that summer, his hand under my skinny tummy and his own lips blue with cold. After that I taught myself, usually with a frightened nurse or governess screaming at me. And the day I jumped in from the diving-platform, feet first and holding my nose, the mademoiselle of the moment actually fainted.
Yes, the pool had plenty of memories for me, some good but at least one tragic. I was glad to see it destroyed.
It is hard now to remember the extravagance of those days. True, the stables were no longer used, although the coach house still held a high trap and Mother's old surrey, and a case on the wall of the tack room showed the ribbons Father had won at horse shows and so on. I think in his mild way he resented the motor age, although he never said so.
But he loved The Birches, so called because of a grove of them on the hill near the house. He was always happy when, each early June, the family hegira from the city house began. The gardeners had been working all spring, the flower borders were beginning to show their colors, and while we were too late for the forsythia and the dogwoods, we still had the peonies and roses. Father always hurried to his wild garden, to which he had added lilies-of-the-valley, and the first time I was allowed to visit his grave I carried a drooping bunch of them and laid them there.
That was later, of course. It was years before I was told how and why he died.
As I watched the man working that day, I was thinking of those mornings of the late 1920s. Perhaps children remember more than we realize, and the expedition from town house to country place was certainly impressive: the six or seven servants, including a butler, we four children with nurses and governesses, Mother and her personal maid, and usually a dog or two, excited at the prospect of freedom and strange new scents. Inside the big house everything would be in order. Mother would look it over with complacency: the enormous drawing-room with the conservatory opening off it—both closed now for years—her morning room, the library, and Father's den. She would glance in at the service wing, where Helga and the kitchenmaid were already fussing with the huge coal stove, but she never stayed in the kitchen. That was Helga's realm.
After that she would go up the stairs to her big bedroom over the front veranda—the one where years later my sister Judith was to nail the windows shut—and watch her maid unpacking the trunks. She was a large woman, Mother, dominant and, I realize now, very proud of her wealth and social position.
She would stand by while her handsome clothes came out of the trunks to be hung on perfumed hangers, and her jewels went into the wall safe beside the big old walnut bed. If I was lucky she would not notice me, so I could stay. Sometimes, however, she ordered me out.
I think now I understand why she never really cared for me. She looked after me, of course. No one could say any of the Maynard children was neglected. But it must have shocked her profoundly when, ten years after Judith, she found I was on the way. My sister Anne was fourteen then, Phil was thirteen, and Judith was ten. That was after the first great war, when the world was pretending to be at peace, and we were carrying on as though there was no such thing as taxes, or an approaching end to our sort of living, or even another and more devastating conflict.
I arrived, however, a black-haired squealing baby who remained skinny for years, and a living, breathing embarrassment to Mother up to the day of her death.
Outside of that, in summer the Maynard family carried on much as usual for several years. In the mornings the chauffeur and the high Pierce-Arrow carried Father five miles to the railroad, where he commuted to New York and his brokerage house, and met him in the evenings. In the afternoons Mother either drove about the countryside making calls at the other summer places, or sat at home in state to receive them. I can still remember her, sitting beside her tea table with its glittering expanse of silver and china, and the butler of the moment carrying in trays of thin bread and butter, hot buttered biscuits or scones, and cakes of all sorts.
Perhaps all this background is not necessary to my story, but in a way it is. So much happened at The Birches years later, and so much of it was the outgrowth of those early days. Young as I was—I was only six or so—I remember clearly when Anne was married there in the summer of 1928.
It was a huge wedding, with a marquee on the lawn, a band there for dancing, and an orchestra in the house. And of all things I was a flower girl, in white tulle and a white lace cap! Phil said I looked like a charlotte russe, which I do not doubt. But Anne had married rather poorly, according to Mother. Martin Harrison was an unsuccessful architect, and nothing much to look at, but I daresay Anne loved him. At least she stuck to him, which is more than Judith did.
I realize now that Father hated ostentation. When I missed him I often found him down by the creek, and we would stay there for hours. But it was rare for him to make any protest. As I have said, he was a quiet man, soft-spoken and gentle, and I adored him. I would slip out of my nursery in order to waylay and hug him on his way out to the incessant dinner parties that were a part of the summer season. But I always disappeared before Mother came rustling out.
I could see her, however, by peeping around a corner. She was handsome, as Anne was later, but never the beauty Judith became. And she always wore the pearls in which Laszlo had painted her, and diamond bracelets on her left arm almost to the elbow.
I know now it was Judith who wanted the pool, Judith to whom Mother could refuse nothing. According to Anne, Father objected. Not because of the cost. Apparently there was plenty of money, but already in her teens boys gathered around Judith like flies. They broke down his shrubbery and trampled his little wild-flower garden.
"Why turn the place into a picnic ground?" he said. "It's bad enough already, with every young punk in the neighborhood cluttering the house."
Mother got her way, of course. Or rather Judith did. Judith was a curious mixture of beauty and determination. Years later Anne said she was a psychopathic troublemaker and liar from the time she was born. I don't know about that. Perhaps Anne was jealous. However, I do know that either she got what she wanted or would sulk for days until she did.
But how lovely she was! I liked to watch her brush her long beautiful hair, and put on the extravagant dresses Mother bought for her. Phil has said since that she was Mother's ace in the hole, to offset Anne's unfortunate marriage. I imagine he is right. Judith was to marry money and position, as eventually she did.
No one had any plans for me. I was still the ugly duckling in those days. My straight black hair and ordinary gray eyes, as well as the fact that I was always missing a tooth or two, were probably the reason Mother found me a real disappointment. As a result I was allowed more or less to run wild, to climb trees and wade the creek, and—after the pool was finished—to watch the boys swim and to swim myself.
I could dive, too. I would climb to the high top of the platform with Judith's crowd below, and yell at them.
"Watch me!" I would shriek in my little girl's voice. "Watch me dive!"
I don't think they ever did. All they saw was Judith, sitting on the cement rim of the pool or on the bench beside it. Even the girls would be watching her, and she was something to see. She had cut her hair sometime or other. I don't remember when, but I do remember Mother bursting into tears when she saw her.
"Oh, Judith, your lovely braids!"
It suited her, however. It grew out into small blond curls all over her head, and she hated wetting it. Then, too, she swam badly. She could ride well. She could play the piano magnificently, but she hated the water. She was always afraid of the water. Perhaps that excuses her for what happened years later.
I can still see her in her bed at the hospital, with a policeman on guard outside the door, and most of her beauty gone.
"I was afraid, Lois," she said. "I tried, but it wasn't enough."
I was thinking of all this that day last fall as I stood by the pool. The bench had already gone, the bench where the unknown woman had lost her cameo pin, and the dizzy platform from which Anne's boy Bill looked down and saw something in the water. The long picnic table was gone, too, where an old snapshot I found one night showed Dawson, our sardonic butler at the time, carving a ham.
Curiously enough, I did not remember seeing Ridgely Chandler there, the man Judith married twenty years ago. For one thing, he was older. The youths around the pool were mostly college boys, while he was well on in his thirties. He must have been there, especially during the summer of 1929. He must have watched Judith, as the others did. But knowing him later I doubt if he joined the rest in the noise or in the surreptitious drinking of those Prohibition days.
Apparently no Chandler ever broke the law.
They drank a lot, Judith's crowd, and I suppose Judith herself did, too, although she was careful on account of Father. But on Sunday mornings, running through the shrubbery to the pool, I would find bottles and flasks, empty and discarded, and once I cut my foot rather badly on one of them.
I speak of 1929 because that was our last happy year at The Birches. When we went back after the crash, as we were compelled to do, it was to make it our permanent home. All around us the big country places were empty and on the market, with no buyers. The Adrian place, nearest to ours, was closed and on the market for years.
No one had any idea of that, of course, when we moved back to the town house in late September of that year. It was always a blow to me, going back to the city, to school, to dancing-class, to all the things I hated. The city house in the East Seventies was a tall one, elegant but dreary, the halls dark, the windows heavily curtained. The nursery—I still rated a nursery, to my disgust—as well as my nurse's room, was on the fifth floor, and instead of the grounds at The Birches I had only Central Park.
It was all behind me, of course, that fall day when I stood by the pool. We had sold the furniture, and a junkman had bought the surrey and cart and some of the old stuff from the attic where I found Judith on her knees one night years later. But in clearing out my desk I had found a scrap of paper which brought back to me a sleepless night when, confused and frightened, I had sat up in bed, and picking up the pad from the stand beside me, had absently found myself drawing the outline of a cat.
I am no artist, but a cat is easy to draw: two circles, just one small and one larger, then add the ears, dot in the eyes, and wrap a tail around it.
Only this cat was a solid black, and the window curtains around it were hanging in rags.CHAPTER 2
It must have been in February of last year when Anne drove out to The Birches. It was a wet day, with rain melting the snow, and Anne was in a rotten humor. She stalked into the living-room, which had once been Mother's particular habitat, as Phil called it, and looked around her with distaste.
"How you and Phil can stand this shabby old ruin!" she said. "Why at least don't you paint it?"
"What with?" I inquired, less than grammatically. "Can you see Phil on a ladder, with a brief in one hand and a brush in the other?"
Phil was a lawyer, and not a successful one. He had very little help at his office, so he often brought his work home at night. Anne only snorted.
"Do you run to a cup of tea?" she asked. "I suppose there's no use asking for a whisky and soda."
"We're not as bad as all that," I said. "I'll mix you one, if you'll sit down and relax."
She drank her highball, but she did not noticeably relax. I gave her a cigarette and lit one myself, eyeing her as I did so. Anne at forty-two was still handsome, but stout and matronly, as well she might be, with two children to raise and educate and not too much money.
"Bill and Martha all right?" I asked.
"So far as I know. They're both away, Bill at college and Martha at school." She put down her glass and faced me. "See here, Lois," she said, "what's wrong with Judith?"
"Probably nothing that a rest cure wouldn't help," I said indifferently. "Judging by the columnists she's still the most photogenic as well as one of the ten best-dressed women in America. Also she's the leader of what they call café society, whatever that may be. What more can you ask? Or she?"
"I know. That awful treasure hunt, with a flower from Woodlawn Cemetery and a hair of the mayor's mustache! How she's kept her looks so long, I don't know." She put out her cigarette and dropped it into an ashtray. "But I think she's breaking. She's been going to a psychiatrist for a month or two. Ridge told me. And she's changed. My God, Lois, how she's changed!"
"What do you mean, changed?"
"She's thinner, for one thing, and she doesn't run about the way she did. I saw her at the Stork Club one night. She looked like a death's-head."
"What about the psychiatrist? Maybe he's slowed her down."
"I wouldn't know. He's a man named Townsend, on Park Avenue. Of course, it's smart to be analyzed these days, but I understand he's good."
"Maybe she's fallen for him," I said lightly. "That's part of it, isn't it? They call it transference or something. Anyhow Judith's almost forty. It's time she settled down."
"Women of forty are not precisely senile," she said stiffly. "Anyhow I'm not thinking of Jude. I'm thinking of Ridge Chandler. She's led him up the garden path for a long time. He's had no sort of life with her. That wild crowd of hers, drinking and staying out all night, and God knows what! He quit it years ago."
I'm afraid I grinned. "He's pretty much of a stuffed shirt. The Chandlers can do no wrong."
"Don't be ridiculous. He has a proper sense of his own dignity and position. He inherited a good name and a lot of money, and Judith's throwing them both away. I might as well tell you. She's going to divorce him."
Excerpted from The Swimming Pool by Mary Roberts Rinehart. Copyright © 1980 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.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
As usual is wrong one sister is writing mystery stories in their old summer house when her rich sister wants a divorce and then hides out at the house the thee sisters and brother own jointly
This was a wonderful book. Kept my interest which a hard thing to do!
Excellent whodunnit. Great read