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The Glorious Pool
SUE PEBBLE was Rex Pebble's wife. She had been that for twenty-one years. Obdurately, determinedly, Rex Pebble's wife. There had been times, in those years, when Sue's patience had been strained to the breaking point, but she never gave up. Start a thing, you must finish it, was Sue's philosophy, even if in name only. She liked being Mrs. Rex Pebble, she liked the house she lived in, she was not blind to her husband's faults, and best of all, she was not blind to her own. Mrs. Pebble liked her fun and could take it. Though her heart line may have somewhat resembled the twisting course of the Snake River during the years of her marriage with Rex, she had at least pursued a tangent of tacit honesty, and she had made Rex a good home.
Mrs. Pebble glanced about the spacious, well-appointed living room. Violently addicted to change in a great many different things, perhaps her best expression of this attitude had been in the quick adoption and equally rapid scrapping of various modes of house furnishings. This room, like Mrs. Pebble's emotions, had gone through regimes of horsehair, mission, antique, and Colonial. The room was now modern. It was hard but not harsh, with its pleasing tubular curves of gleaming metal and its soft, downy corduroy upholstery. Mrs. Pebble looked about her with evident satisfaction, while in a small mirror that she held in her hand she proceeded to make up her race. There was some contrast here. There were few modern lines in Sue Pebble's face. Sue had reached fifty-five years of age, and despite her often frantic efforts to deceive, on close observation she looked it.
For instance, there was her hair. It was blond. It had been blond originally, but it was a white blond now. If Sue had not developed so watertight a system for regular visits to her hairdresser's her hair would probably have showed more white than blond. As it was, she out-Harlowed Harlow. And the mouth. There was a certain tense, fierce expression about it, as though Sue Pebble hardly dared laugh out loud for fear something might crack or chip. She wore a high collar that flared around the upper reaches of her throat. Her lips were carefully outlined with sharp bright scarlet. Sue spent a great many hours a day in the huntress's passionate pursuit of beauty.
It was with no pleasure that she gazed into the little mirror. Damn it, thought Sue, you can do wonders with your figure, but what can you do with your face? Considering everything, her face was about the best it could be, but it was not exactly satisfactory from any standpoint.
With pent-up resentment, Sue Pebble thought of her husband. Rex was older than she, but he carried his years with a great deal more ease and grace. He was a distinguished old devil, she thought, and he certainly didn't deserve the break the years were giving him. These considerations led inevitably to a question that always lay smoldering, not to say blazing cheerily, in Sue's mind. How did that woman Spray Summers, the huzzy, keep her hold on Rex Pebble? Sue thought of Spray with very little envy, so she imagined, but with an amazing amount of curious respect. Simply out of professional regard, she was constantly pricked with amazement at this phenomenon. There had been quite a few men in Sue Pebble's married life, but, drat them, she thought, they had always folded their tents and silently stolen away. Spray was only a few years younger than Sue, yet she held a firm grip on the woman's husband. What in heaven's name, Sue wondered, did they do all the time—all those long evenings on which, with the poorest excuses, Rex Pebble stole away to be with his mistress?
Sue's questions and her little game of make-up were suddenly interrupted by the sound of the doorbell. Pretty late, she considered, as she rose to go to the door, but one could never tell what doorbells at late hours might produce.
It was just Kippie, Rex Pebble's twenty-three-year-old nephew, who looked so much like his uncle at the same age that Sue almost started with surprise every time she saw the boy.
"Well, what do you want at this hour?" the woman demanded. "You know very well where your uncle is!"
"I don't," lied Kippie glibly, "and besides, might I not sometimes wish to see my charming aunt?"
"Stop it, stop it," said Sue glumly. "I can't listen to any such words as those after the inventory I've just been giving myself."
"What, scoring up your lines again, you old witch?" said the young devil. "You ought to go out with me some time. I'll bet I could add a few curves of surprise to your collection."
"Oh, no, you couldn't," retorted Sue. "You look too darned much like your uncle to add a thing to my experience. I could keep one jump ahead of you in anything you did."
"I don't think that sounds very nice," said Kippie, "but I'll give you credit for the best sort of meaning. By the way, what do you mean, I should know where Rex, that old fox, is at this hour?"
"It's the children's hour, isn't it?" demanded Sue Pebble. "And besides that, it's an occasion. Twenty years ago tonight my husband seduced his lifelong mistress. You can imagine with what misgivings I sit alone at home. I'm glad you came: we might have some fun."
Kippie's young face, so disturbingly handsome to the woman, was puckered with doubt.
"Well, I don't care what the occasion is," he remarked with a curious note of concern, "but I've got to see the old codger. Something's up on the market. We might be wiped out. You know, stranded at the bread line."
Sue Pebble's nose showed that she had caught the scent. Only one thing could give her quite the look of quiet determination that was printed on her features. She rose from her chair and started toward the telephone. "I know the number," she said. "In crises, whenever I've had to get that man in a hurry, I've imitated everything from a Negro maid to a taxi driver. I only hope I don't get that slant-eyed Japanese master of lies on the phone, as I did one night."
"Here," said Kippie, catching up with her and detaining her. "Don't do that. Phoning won't do any good. I've got to talk with Uncle Rex in person. This is serious."
"Well," returned Sue, "what did you come here for?"
Kippie ran his fingers through glossy brown hair. "The truth is," he said, "I saw the light as I drove past, and I just wondered what you were doing. I thought you might be in for a little adventure."
"Adventure?" inquired Sue, pricking up her ears. "Precisely what kind of adventure? Are there men involved?"
"Well, I've got to see Uncle Rex, and we know where he is, and this is sort of an anniversary"—Kippie told the story in one breath—"and I thought it might be a lot of fun just to drop by and pay our respects—that is, your respects."
"Well, I'll be damned," said his aunt. "I think that calls for a drink." She started for the pantry. "And I don't know but that I'll take you up on that," her words floated back from the door.
So it was that several shakers later Sue Pebble, accompanied by a young man strangely resembling the youthful Rex Pebble, set forth for the home of Spray Summers. The ride, due to their condition of heightened gayety, was a fairly hilarious one, over a course that wove perilously around corners and through red lights that continued to blink their reproach at the fast retreating car.
"So this is the love nest?" said Sue Pebble as they drew up with a shriek of brakes in front of the house with the garden and the pool in which her enterprising husband had installed his mistress. "I think they ought to have Japanese lanterns out, or flags in front, or a band playing." She added, "How do you suppose they're celebrating?"
"I'm too young to answer that one, Auntie," said Kippie, "but I can use my imagination, or should I?"
"Never mind," answered Sue. "I see lights, and I think I hear music. There must be other guests. I hope I shan't have the pleasure of meeting his other wives calling on my husband's mistress, or is that too confusing?"
"The morals of this family would tax the English language," said Kippie, "and I haven't even begun to tell you about mine."
"Take it from one who knows," advised his aunt, "and stay single. Rex has been going along for years under the false impression that three can live as cheaply as one."
"All I hope is," Kippie said wistfully, "that they have as good liquor as the old girl had the last time I was here."
"Am I the other old girl when not present?" asked his aunt sternly.
"Nope," answered Kippie blithely, "I just call you old soak and let it go at that."
The woman and her youthful escort stole quietly through the little garden gate that so lately had been the scene of a near hold-up and an impromptu cocktail party. The gravel of the walk crunched under their feet as they neared the door. "Shall we ring," inquired Rex Pebble's wife, "or just break in? I seem to lack the proper etiquette for calling on the mistress of one's husband, particularly on the anniversary of her seduction. I daresay I won't be any more welcome for the anniversary present I sent, either." Sue tittered with mirth. "Bedroom slippers—for her corns. Best wishes from Sue Pebble."
"Come on," said Kippie, who was familiar with the house. "Let's just slip in the side door." They entered a reception hall, from which a stairway ran up to the second floor. It was dark and smelled strongly of whisky and burned clothing. There was a faint whiff of dog about the place, also. "There's been a party," observed the young man, "and someone got burned."
"I hope it was that wench," returned Sue Pebble uncharitably. "I can hardly wait to see her in her bedroom slippers, sitting by the fire."
"They're upstairs," remarked Kippie. "Let's go on up."
"Don't be a fool. I may be the man's wife, but I know when I'm not wanted."
"Oh, come on, we'll surprise them."
"I should think so."
"Wouldn't you like to be surprised?"
"I have been. That's why I'm a wife in name only."
"Well," said Kippie, taking Sue Pebble's hand and urging her up the stairs, "turn about's fair play."
They tiptoed up the stairs in a spirit of jovial fun, hoping that the upper floor would yield the highballs of which it seemed to smell so generously. Suddenly a door was thrust open and a small dark form padded toward them along the dimly lit hall. At its heels followed a creature of jagged outline, which appeared to be a misfit head on a very gay animal body of four legs and a joyously wagging tail. Still in the rear were two figures with locked arms. The leader of this miniature parade bore what was unmistakably a cocktail shaker. The figure hesitated; so did the procession. A light switched on.
"Hi!" Nockashima greeted the newcomers. "Unaccustomed to receive guests on upper story, but this pleasant surprise. How do, Mist' Kippie." The years had only added to Nockashima's stolid Eastern philosophy. If people wished to keep coming to call all night, that was too bad but unavoidable; and if they wished to insinuate themselves into the more intimate apartments of the house, they might hold themselves responsible for shock, not him.
"I think, in view of your perpetual rudeness and deceit over the telephone," said Sue, advancing on the diminutive figure, "that you may just pass over that shaker."
Nockashima clung to the object. "Very special property, this," he returned. "Never allow out of personal hands."
"I'll get personal with your hands," cried Sue, snatching the shaker. "That's right, Auntie," cheered Kippie, "let her have it, Nocka. I think Mrs. Pebble should be given the run of the house."
"Come, come, my good woman!" remonstrated Major Jaffey, stepping forward, "and who may you be?" A slight tussle over the shaker seemed imminent.
"I might ask the same of you," returned the woman, "if I didn't think it would be wasting good breath. I haven't the slightest idea who you are, but I would suggest that you just pick up your feet and carry them on downstairs. I'm going to have a good big highball and then take a look around for my husband. I want to congratulate him."
Major Jaffey was visibly taken back. So were Rex Pebble and Spray Summers, who stood only a few feet distant from Sue Pebble, just on the inside of a studio door. Spray called the room a studio: it was where she kept a choice assortment of spirits, vinous and alcoholic.
"In that case," the Major was humbled, "I suppose I'll just breeze along downstairs. Coming, Hal?" The fireman and the Major pressed past Mrs. Pebble somewhat fearfully, while Nockashima hurried off for glasses.
"Back in a minute, Auntie," said Kippie. "I think I'll see that we get the proper size of highball. They're a little backward sometimes around here."
Sue seemed torn between a desire to investigate the home of her husband's mistress and an appetite for the contents of the shaker. She reached for the nearest door-knob and turned it slightly. Rex Pebble and Spray Summers, on the other side of the door, hastily retreated. "I think I'd better go and see what I can do about her," whispered Rex.
"Get rid of the old hag as soon as you can," returned Spray. "What poor taste to come at this hour!" Spray drew her lace gown about her lovely young form. "I wish she could have come with the milkman."
"I'm surprised that she didn't," said Rex knowingly.
Spray stood back of the door, and Rex slipped into the hall. The man was quite unprepared for the reception that greeted him.
"Hello!" remarked Sue Pebble sharply. "No tricks, now. Quit jumping in and out of doors."
"I'm not jumping in and out of doors," the woman's husband answered in an astonished voice. He was astonished both at her remark and at the apparent calm with which she greeted him. Rex had been ready to weather a tempest of wrath.
"Well, what did you go in there for"—Sue pointed to the door through which Kippie had vanished—"and then come out here? Don't think I've had that many."
"I wouldn't put it past you," answered Rex, both vexed and mystified at his wife's behavior.
"Something's come over you since you came in this house, young man," remarked Sue Pebble sternly, "and I just want to warn you not to get fresh. You brought me here, it was your idea—be a gentleman."
"I never said a word about your coming here. In fact, I hoped you never would come here," said Rex.
"Look here, this has gone far enough. Did you or didn't you suggest that we come to see that huzzy, Spray Summers?"
"Of course I didn't. What makes you think I did?"
"Nothing more nor less than my ears," snapped Sue. "You may think I'm older than you, but I'm not deaf."
"I have no reason whatever to think that you're deaf. But I could show you a thing or two."
"What are you driving at?" asked Sue acidly. "I'm beginning to think that I'm loose with a madman. After all the things that I've done for you, that you should lure me to this evil place and then begin to play practical jokes on me." Sue Pebble was approaching the point of tears. Looking at this attractive young male, she could only think of her husband as she had first met him, and it was a pleasurably poignant memory.
"In addition to jumping in and out of doors," Sue reproached, "you have to go around without any clothes on. Whose pajamas are those?"
A light of realization began to dawn in Rex Pebble's eyes. So Sue thought he was Kippie. For the first time during the whole adventurous evening he could see himself in someone else's eyes, as he must really look, though Spray's point of view, it must be admitted, was a bit colored by prejudice and emotion.
"Look here," said Rex in a kindly tone, "I think there's a mistake been made. Come with me into the bedroom." Rex started toward a door across the hall.
"That would make two mistakes," Sue's voice was tart, "and I want to tell you that, broad-minded as I am, I'll brook no incest, even by marriage."
"Come in here and I'll tell you a secret," coaxed Rex.
"Not on your life," returned Sue, "and I think the quicker you stop this foolishness, young man, the better it will be for you. Just wait till I find your uncle, or did he put you up to this?"
Something slipped a cog in Rex Pebble's mind. He was overwhelmed with mirth at the oddity of the situation. Rex laughed loudly. "He certainly did, the old devil," he exclaimed, snatching Sue off her feet and bearing herthrough the bedroom door. There were screams in the hall which the closing door muffled.
Young Kippie, from where he stood matching glasses with Nockashima, heard the screams and came running into the hall. Spray Summers heard them too and also rushed into the hall. The two bumped into each other, then stopped in surprise. Before him Kippie saw a lovely creature in a thin lace gown, ready for bed. His eyes swept her; he was moved to speech.
"Oh, I say," remarked the young man, "this is a pleasure."
"I think you're getting too accustomed to things," said the young woman. "What did the old hag say?" "What old hag?" asked the puzzled Kippie.
"Sue, you fool, your wife," said Spray Summers.
"I have no wife," Kippie returned. Then, after glancing up and down the lovely, appealing figure, he said abruptly, "I want to come in with you. May I?"
"What for?" snapped back Spray. "Are you mad or am I?"
"Just for fun," answered the very forward young-man. "Oh, that." A pause. "Come on in." Spray's graceful hand stretched toward him.
"Just a minute, if you please," said the voice of Rex Pebble, issuing from the opposite bedroom door.
"Good gracious!" said Spray, staring at Rex and realizing her mistake. "I thought he was you. How careless of me. I'll have to watch my step. You look so much alike."
"Hold on," said the disappointed Kippie. "I thought I was myself, but apparently I'm that guy. Who are we, anyway?"
"Believe it or not," answered Spray, "he's your darling uncle Rex, and I am the mistress known as Spray. A miracle has given us back our youth, and we are preparing to make the best of it."
"No, you're not, huzzy," Sue Pebble chimed in, appearing behind her husband in the doorway. "If I have to tear his body limb from limb, I'll get the secret of this rejuvenation out of him, and use it myself." The woman threw Rex Pebble a fierce look. "Then I'll make the best of it!"
"You may have the secret, my dear," said the woman's husband, "if I can give it to you. I'm beginning to think it's more of a curse than a blessing. Particularly to be sane and yet young. The two don't mix."
"Oh, they don't, don't they?" interrupted Spray Summers hotly. "Well, fancy that! Only two minutes ago you were standing on the other side of that door—a bedroom door—suggesting things to me that I hadn't considered for years, and now here you are—telling your wife—the old cow—that you're cursed with youth. It wasn't youth you were cursed with two minutes ago."
"Well, if he wasn't cursed with youth, just what was he cursed with?" inquired Sue Pebble. Her tone had that icy cordiality which women hold in reserve for their most bitterly detested rivals. "Just what was he cursed with?"
"For my part," said Spray, raising her voice, "I wouldn't say that he was cursed with anything. But whatever it was, it was something you haven't known about for a long, long time."
"I suppose you know everything that goes on in our home?" Sue shot back at her rival.
"I certainly know everything that does not go on in your home. And I do know what goes on in my home."
"Make up your minds, girls," Kippie cut in genially. "Decide between you where something does go on. It's important."
"You keep your trap shut, you young whippersnapper," Sue hissed. "I'll thank you to keep out of what you've gotten me into. As for you, Rex Pebble," the woman flung at him, "I should think you'd be ashamed to go around jazzing up your body like that! You should be content to grow old gracefully."
"Like whom?" Spray's quiet young voice bit into the controversy.
"Like me," Sue snapped back. "I've had my fun and I don't go around like a chameleon, changing colors all the time."
"I don't suppose you put that red on your lips, either, or were just threatening to tear Rex Pebble limb from limb unless you could discover the secret of youth?"
"Since I've seen how young blood goes to old heads, I've learned a lesson." Sue spat out the words, but they deceived no one. With wonder and envy she looked upon Spray's body that glowed with beauty and vitality. There they stood, elderly blonde and young brunette, Rex Pebble's public and private life, his lost world and his world regained, while the man gazed from one to the other in silent bewilderment. Never could there have been a greater contrast between two women, yet their behavior was strikingly alike. Both wanted the man and were ready to do battle for him, even to his chagrin and embarrassment. Rex glanced at Kippie. Surprise and a little horror were written on the young man's face.
"Listen," Rex whispered. "Let's skip the tournament and get a drink." The two stole away downstairs, Nockashima following in awed silence. A few minutes later they were comfortably ensconced in the kitchen, scene of late merriment, all thoughts of the battle lost to mind. Hal and the Major toasted the new arrivals.
Upstairs Spray Summers had the parting shot as she prepared to retire into her bedroom and close the door temporarily upon this disconcerting woman.
"Incidentally," Spray remarked, "you might just drop that cocktail shaker. No wonder some people get such queer ideas in their heads. I'm sorry for anyone who can't take his drinks." The door closed none too gently.
"I'll see you later," promised Sue Pebble between clenched teeth, "and when I do, you won't know me, even if I have to cut my hair."
For the second time that evening Sue was on the verge of tears. It was all so bewildering, and she felt so left out of things. What was the secret? How had they done it? Did she have a chance in the world of catching up with this curious parade of youth? Sue felt very sorry for herself. It was extraordinary, too, how possessive she had become about Rex. She was wondering at the whole state of affairs and, in desperation, considering a drink out of the shaker which she still held when a soft hand slipped its fingers into hers.
"I heard the whole thing, my dear," murmured a pleasant feminine voice, "and I don't blame you a bit. For fifteen years I was shut up in stone and never had a chance. It's terrible."
Sue Pebble turned and stared. The girl beside her was young and beautiful in a classic, glowing sort of way. She had long hair, wound about her head, and she moved with a flowing rhythm that was unlike anything Sue had ever seen. However, Sue winced at the expression "shut up in stone."
"Don't tell me," she admonished, "that you've been shut up in a tomb and have just come to life. I couldn't stand it. Too many awful things have been happening around here."
"Very interesting, if you ask me," said Baggage, the garden piece. "That is, if you like firemen. It just happened that I brought one upstairs with me. He wasn't run out with the rest. He's gone to sleep in there." She indicated a door.
"Of course, nothing that you say makes the slightest sense to me," remarked Sue, "but then I'm getting used to that. I don't understand about the fireman or the stone or anything," she faltered.
"Come with me," suggested this unusual girl, "and I'll tell you a story that will curl your hair. Besides, if you're a good listener I'll give you a secret you'd very much like to know." Baggage led the way downstairs and out into the garden, meanwhile telling the tale of her sudden overpowering impulse to leap into the glorious pool, and its consequences.
They drew near the pool. Sue stared with envious fascination at the calm water, gently ruffled by the breeze.
"If you want to be as young as that other bi—I mean wench—you see your husband told me not to say `bitch'—why, just swim across the pool, and you'll have it."
"Have what?" Sue inquired.
"It," repeated Baggage. "Isn't that what you were wishing for just now? Youth, beauty, sex appeal, or what have you these days. Anyway, you'll be like the other one in there." This she said with a wave of her slim white hand toward the house.
Sue was skeptical but interested. Between the lines of the girl's story, which recounted so many years of gazing wistfully out at men from a cold beautiful stone face, and of watching the playful antics of couples on this very lawn, she could read genuine longing and convincing desire. She was inclined to believe the fantastic tale, if for no other reason than that the creature seemed to tell it out of such a wistful sort of memory.
"Why are you telling me this?" she asked.
"The gods only know, perhaps," said Baggage. "But I think I'm jealous. And, anyway, you're his wife, and it will even things up a bit if you both are young together. Not only even things up, but make them much livelier, and I love excitement!"
"Maybe it was what was in the shaker, but whatever it was, or is, I'm diving in that pool," said Mrs. Pebble. "The only thing I can get is a cold in the head and my clothes wet, if your recipe doesn't work, and if it does—well—let the fireworks fly!"
So saying, Sue Pebble, who had not swum with such enthusiasm in years, plunged into the silvery water. For a moment she stood poised, as though experiencing a new sensation. A delighted smile began to spread over her features, which even in the dusky light of the garden appeared magically to take on new attractions. The woman dipped her head beneath the surface and came up beaming.
"Something's happening," she shouted with joy, as with new life and vigor she began to streak across the pool. An inscrutable Mona Lisa expression grew on the lips of Baggage. For soon, on the other side of the pool, stood a girl who, even in the wet baggy clothes of a middle-aged woman, was a creature of infinite blond beauty.
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