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The Glorious Pool
OF HUMAN BADINAGE
WHEN Sue Pebble, accompanied by that lush garden piece, Baggage, emerged freshly trim and twenty from the wonder-working waters, she made straight for Spray Summers' home with the evil intent of lifting a new gown to take the place of the one which she carried, dripping, on her arm. Sue was attired solely in step-ins, and a sweet sight she was, too. The garment fitted her appealing form like a pair of mittens, showing off its lovely contours to the best and most dangerous advantage, depending upon the point of view.
"Here," directed Baggage, "we'll just slip in the bar and have a little snifter to celebrate before we go on upstairs."
At first Sue was reluctant to enter the kitchen-bar, not because the men of the house were collected there, but because, before she took another step, she had a vain desire to observe her new build in a full-length mirror. The idea of a highball, none the less, overcame her pulsing vanity, and Sue went into the room with Baggage.
Kippie, Major Jaffey, and Hal sat in the kitchen, steeping themselves in the beneficent fumes of alcohol. Kippie had had quite a few. Robbed of the brandy bottle which Nockashima had carried out into the garden, he had laid siege to the cellar and from it taken a choice array of old Irish whiskies. Kippie knew the secret of Spray Summers' cellar, which was that, because of Sue Pebble's scruples, Rex did most of his really professional drinking away from home. Kippie was so-high with his Irish whiskies-and-waters, and was holding forth with great gusto on the vices and virtues of blondes versus brunettes when Sue and Baggage entered.
The three men, lifting their eyes through a haze, stared at the newcomers. Sue Pebble, clad in step-ins, showed not the slightest embarrassment. Temporarily Sue had lost sight of the magic of her transformation.
"Which one of you men would like to lend a girl a drink?" demanded Baggage. "You seem to be pretty well stocked."
"Both inside and outside," admitted the handsome young Kippie, "but not too much so to know a pretty girl when we see one, eh, fellows?" The Major and Hal murmured hearty approval.
"Well, I like that," remarked Baggage, since all eyes seemed to center on the charming Mrs. Pebble. "No accounting for tastes. However, you may pass that bottle around, and we'll toast your good taste." Baggage was a generous-hearted girl.
There was a general clinking of glasses.
From Sue's arm hung the dripping clothes which she had just taken off.
"Have you been immersed in a lake or something, madam?" asked the Major, by way of opening a conversation.
"I'll say I have," smiled back Sue, "and what an immersion it was, old son."
"Major Lynnhaven Jaffey, at your service, madam." This with a dignified bow.
"I'll be calling on you, probably," said Sue.
"I'm usually in bed by eleven," returned the Major, misunderstanding.
"You're one up on me, Uncle Jaffey," said Mrs. Pebble, "but you do look like an exceptionally decent sort."
At the moment Hal, the fireman, who out of the entire household had probably made the steadiest, least spectacular alcoholic progress throughout the evening, broke in, gazing at Sue earnestly.
"Say, lady," inquired Hal, "is this guy really your uncle?"
"No, I have no uncle," Sue replied. "I did have, but he's dead."
"Your uncle is quite dead, lady?"
"He should be. He was a fine fellow."
"You seem to take his passing rather calmly." Hal shook his head sorrowfully.
"He didn't pass. He was murdered." Sue looked intently at Hal.
"Don't look at me like that, lady. I didn't murder your uncle. Did I?" asked the anxious Hal.
"How could you murder my uncle?" calculated the lovely Mrs. Pebble, drinking.
"Offhand I can think of five different ways to murder people. I've been considering them for years," said Hal.
Kippie, through his bewildered point of view, had been trying to make something of this hit-and-run conversation. Apparently there was nothing to be made, only a vague doubt assailed him. He glanced sharply at the wet garments hanging on Sue's arm. Surely somewhere he had seen those clothes before. There was something very familiar about them which he couldn't quite place.
"Speaking of murder," Kippie tried a shot in the dark, "where did you get those clothes?"
"They're my clothes," returned Sue defensively. "I bought them—that is, my husband bought them for me."
"Who are you, anyway?"
"You ought to know who I am."
"Maybe I ought to, but I don't, and that's what's worrying me. You're pretty, I like you, I could be very fond of you, but I don't know you." Kippie shook his head sadly.
"Maybe I know somebody you know," said Sue Pebble teasingly. "Maybe I know an aunt of yours or something."
So that was it! A small charge of recognition went off in young Kippie's head. The woman had his aunt Sue's clothes. A murderess! She had done away with his aunt and taken her clothes.
"That's right," Kippie agreed cautiously, "maybe I might have an aunt or something. By the way, when did you see my aunt last?"
"Oh," responded Mrs. Pebble coyly, "I haven't really seen her since I put on these step-ins."
Aha—check! flashed through Kippie's mind.
"How was she?" asked the woman's nephew shrewdly. "I had a hard time with her, but I finally got her to agree to do as I said."
"What did you say?"
"I told her it was time she passed on."
The foul, heartless cruelty of it! Kippie thrilled to the scent of violent death. He almost whistled for Mr. Henry, the bloodhound, then considered how much more a hero he would be if the whole discovery of the deed devolved upon himself.
"Didn't you care for my aunt?" asked Kippie craftily. "Why did you tell her it was time she passed on?"
"For one thing," answered Sue Pebble enigmatically, "her batteries needed recharging. Then there were other things wrong with her—her husband, for instance."
"It seems to me that that's off the point," cut in Sue Pebble's self-appointed cross-examiner, helping himself to another whisky-and-soda and blinking at his aunt through heavy-lidded eyes. "I asked if you had no emotional feeling toward my aunt, no affection for her."
"But I am on the point," protested Sue. "I say that the worst thing wrong with her was her husband. He was an old fossil."
"Was an old fossil?" inquired the young man sharply, wondering dimly when it was he had last seen his uncle. He looked around the room. No Rex Pebble in sight. He tried to find his way back in memory through a tangle of uplifted glasses to the last time he had seen the man. Very darkly, as though from a great distance, he seemed to catch a glimpse of Rex Pebble leaving this room with a bottle of brandy under his arm and some most disturbing ideas in his head—something about an overdraft. That was it! Kippie had brought the news from the office himself. And Rex had gone off into the garden in a distressed state of mind. It was very evident that this beautiful creature in step-ins, who sat beside him gracefully tossing off liquors and enjoying herself, was a first-class criminal character, fit for the line-up.
"If you ask me," confided Sue Pebble, "I think your uncle was an awful fool to marry that woman in the first place. Imagine being cooped up in a house for twenty years with a person like that."
The crassness of the woman, talking about the person, or perhaps the two people, with whom she had done away, shocked Kippie to the core of his soul.
"Don't you think my uncle and my aunt got along well?" asked the young man.
Sue Pebble was enjoying herself to the fullest. To be young again and unrecognized and on her own. Besides, this handsome Kippie was a distressingly accurate replica of her own Rex when she had first married him. Sue smoothed her golden curls with a graceful hand.
"They got on well enough for a couple of old dodos," she returned, "but I can't see why you're so interested in old people and the past."
"I'm interested in justice," flashed the young man. "I won't see innocent people foully murdered and not lift a voice in protest."
"So you think I'm the murderess, do you? Well, I want you to know that your uncle had just as much to do with killing his wife as I did. Besides, if the truth were known, there's a brazen challenge who lives around here named Spray Summers, that had as much to do with it as anyone."
Things were moving entirely too fast for Kippie. He was delighted to uncover one murder, but a widespread net of crime was more than he could comprehend. It smacked too much of mass production.
Kippie's one-man investigation of the foul deeds which he suspected had been going on outside, on Spray Summers' lawn, was destined to get away from him. At this moment Spray Summers herself came into the bar. Her dark beauty was contrasted sharply with the blond loveliness of Sue Pebble. The women stared at one another, held rigid by a long bond of fascination. Spray Summers had seen Mrs. Pebble years before, when the woman was Rex Pebble's lovely young wife, and she could not forget that memory. With a jealous pang she realized that Sue, too, had discovered the secret of the pool. She coolly sized up the appealing girlish figure in the cream-colored pants. What would Rex think? Spray wondered. But Rex Pebble's nephew was not to be detoured from his criminal exposures. In Spray he sensed an ally.
"This is the murderess of your husband," he calmly introduced Mrs. Pebble. "I suspect that she may have got rid of the old lady too."
"I think she did," commented Spray thoughtfully. "She got rid of the old lady all right, and I distinctly remember hearing her say that she would also tear Rex Pebble limb from limb if he didn't give her the secret of youth that he had. Why, the poor man's probably lying all over the garden this very minute in small bits. Let's go and see."
"No, wait," Kippie directed. "We want to hear her whole confession."
"Well, if you must know, I fell in love with a younger man."
"What," said Kippie, greatly surprised, "I don't see how you could have fallen in love with a younger man. That is, without falling in love with a man who was too young."
Baggage, who had been preoccupied with Hal, having a penchant for firemen, interrupted. "Well, say a man about your age," she hazarded to Kippie. "I understand what she means. I think you're just about right. I could use you." Baggage advanced upon the young man; there was meaning in her eyes. But Major Jaffey, interested in the outcome of the inquest, detained her with a hand on her arm. "Won't you sit here, my dear?" he suggested,offering a knee. Such offers come with disconcerting infrequency in the life of a girl like Baggage. Like a drowning man, in a flash she recalled her years in stone. No one had ever offered her a knee. She sat down abruptly, but her mind was still on young Kippie, so tantalizingly like the Rex Pebble she had watched grow out of magnetic young manhood into distinguished though dapper age.
"It's a long story," continued Sue Pebble, "and I shan't burden you with it here, but, in short, this young chap was my husband's nephew."
Kippie whistled between his teeth. Things were moving around in a whirling circle. Kippie took a drink.
"Come clean, my dear," said Spray Summers icily to her rival as Kippie's expression grew darker and more bewildered.
"This, Kippie dear, is your charming Aunt Sue. But I still believe she may have murdered her husband for the secret of youth she was raving about."
"By the way," said Sue sweetly, ignoring Kippie's chagrined amazement, "where is that dirty, low-down husband of mine? He's not in the garden, I assure you. I generally imagine that you have him in tow when he's missing, my love, but I see that something or somebody else must have got the lock and key tonight. If you'll pardon me, I think I'll just go in search of some dry clothes." Sue Pebble swept from the room, a fuming Spray after her.
"God, this is too much for one fireman to bear! It would take more than a seven-alarm fire to make me feel this bad," said Hal, dropping his head on his arms.
"Quite more thrilling than any of my adventures have ever been," murmured Major Jaffey from beneath the lissom weight of Baggage. "One does not know what to expect next."
"It's a good thing I'm not a mind-reader, Grandpop," said Baggage impudently. "I've always had the idea that this was the way to start things." Baggage bounced up and down on the old gentleman's knee.
"I don't understand what you mean by things," remarked the Major, "but the drift of your inference is very bad indeed. You should keep such ideas to yourself."
"Not after fifteen years on a marble column, I shouldn't. I have every intention of telling the world exactly what I expect to do. Even if I get disappointed," added the girl bravely.
"Well, there's always the danger of trial and error," the Major told her sagely, "but I should imagine you would bat a fairly high percentage."
"Take that one," said Baggage pointing at Kippie. "I think I'll drag him out into the garden with me. For years I watched his uncle and this Summers woman behave in the most scandalous way in the night on the lawn. This one's a pretty good imitation of the original. I believe we should get along swell." The girl slid off Major Jaffey's lap and approached Kippie with determination.
"Come with me," she commanded.
"What for?" inquired the befuddled youth.
"That you should ask!" exclaimed the girl.
"It's better to ask first and get things clearly understood. I may be risking a lot."
"Don't be so old-fashioned. Come right out with it. I can't imagine what your generation is coming to if it gets so inoculated with decency that it has to hedge like that."
"I don't want to go," said Kippie stubbornly.
"Something's wrong with you, then, or else you're not Rex Pebble's nephew. He never said that to anyone."
"It's certainly time someone in this family called a halt."
"I'm not going to lower my womanhood," stated Baggage, "to stand here all night arguing about a little detail. You come with me or I'll scream. I'll scream so bloody loud they'll hear me at the police station, and then wouldn't you be ashamed? Imagine what you'd have to tell the officers when they came. Denied a little girl, just feature that—what the coppers would say!"
"I think you're disgusting—you're too plain spoken. Can't you veil a few things?"
"Veil them?" Baggage glanced down at herself with evident astonishment. "I believe in solid cloth and no veils. I'm darned sick and tired of veils. You would be too if you'd caught cold as many nights from draughty wrappings as I have. Yes, sir, I believe in good honest whole cloth, or the human hide. There's only two ways to tempt, by sleight of hand or by slight of eye."
Here the girl gave way to her emotions. "Come on, now, and listen to my story. I was the one that put your uncle and the Summers creature and Sue Pebble up to their tricks. I'm the cause of this whole evening. If I hadn't slipped off the pedestal, Rex Pebble would never have regained his youth, but I admit that if I'd thought I could have found you here, I'd have stayed down there in the garden and waited."
There was a loud infantile wail from the direction of the upper floor.
"Hurry up," said Baggage, "they're in the second generation upstairs." Kippie let his dark, fiery young eyes wander over the appealing girl. He debated. There was too much going on to go out, and yet...
"Hurry," urged Baggage, "I think we're on the point of something."
"I think we are," answered Kippie, taking her arm and moving toward the door. "I think they're bringing a baby downstairs."
They were bringing a baby downstairs. The child was Rex Pebble, who screamed and protested above the din made by the two women and by Nockashima. The devoted little man still clung to his charge, in spite of frantic snatches at the poor manhandled body of Mr. Pebble. Across the man's loins, in lieu of diapers, Nockashima had rigged up a heavy towel and a large safety pin of such a size as to make it look more like an instrument of combat than a method of holding on one's clothing. Both Rex's hands and feet were in a perpetual wriggle, while he screwed fists into his eyes, bawling at the top of his high falsetto voice. On either side Sue Pebble and Spray Summers besieged the harassed Nockashima.
"You let me have that thing this minute," shouted Sue. "He would play a trick like this on me just when I get in form. Give the brat to me, you slant-eyed Fu Manchu, and I'll do something about it."
"Nonsense," said Spray harshly. "Give it to me. It's in pain. It needs bicarbonate of soda."
"Ridiculous," cried Mrs. Pebble. "Give a baby bicarbonate of soda!"
"It isn't a baby," Spray retorted. "It's a full-grown man."
"I don't dispute you there," said the wife. "You have plenty of basis for your statement, I daresay. But it's not a full-grown man at this moment. Not unless this deceptive Oriental is a magician with bath towels."
"It's ill, just the same," Spray Summers contended loudly, above Rex Pebble's long-continuous wailing. "It does need soda or ginger or catnip or something."
"Catnip, indeed!" screamed the baby. "You get me a whisky-and-soda. How long do I have to yell for one simple little thing? Isn't it bad enough to be in this condition without having you two women pulling me about like a fishing worm?"
"Worm, ha, that's good!" cried Sue. "Worm, that you are. Do you realize that I'm a young woman, hale and hearty, and that here you maliciously have yourself changed by a supersexed wanton into a mere babe-in-arms?"
"I'm sure I'm not finding it an experience to treasure in memory," said Rex bitterly, "but the least you could do would be to get me that drink."
To Hal and Major Jaffey, who had silently watched so much go on in this particular room that evening, this was the last straw. At first Jaffey was inclined to dismiss the whole affair as a practical joke, but by the time Rex Pebble had begun to call for drinks in so realistic a fashion, the Major began to feel that anything was possible. He took a very cautious look around the room just to be sure nobody was about to surprise him with a magic baptism. To Hal, whose mouth was fixed in a permanent sort of gape, he whispered, "Look here, old man, I don't think we'd better drink any of the water around this place. As for bathing, I wouldn't be caught near a bath-tub."
Suddenly twisting himself in Nockashima's cuddling arms, with the Jap tut-tutting over him, Rex spied his two male friends. "Major," cried the infant in arms, "well, for the love of Pete, am I glad to see you?" The baby's face beamed. "And accompanied by bottle and glasses." Rex reached a tiny chubby hand of pink crinkled flesh toward the Major. "Gimme one, old scout, will you?" pleaded the child.
Major Jaffey pretended not to notice that he had been addressed. Indeed, he wondered whether he had been addressed. It was perfectly possible still that these two madwomen and the willing Japanese had conspired to take advantage of his and Hal's somewhat credulous condition.
"All right, all right!" screamed the baby to whom Nockashima clung with difficulty. "Just wait till I get out of this diaper. Just wait till I get my strength back. I'll beat you two eggs up so you won't know each other. Is this gratitude? I take you in and give you a big evening, and then what happens? You make out as though you didn't know me, just because I happen to have shrunk and have to wear a bath towel around my middle." Res tugged at the safety pin with his small pink fists.
"Boss best to leave honorable towel around loins. Very draughty, also likely to shock ladies present."
"You too, Nocka?" cried Rex Pebble. "Going back on me, making fun of me? After all the years I've known these two women," it was a strain to distinguish just what the tiny, thin voice was saying, "that I should give either of them a shock. You make me laugh!"
"Great shock possible from disappointment," murmured Nocka, adjusting his charge's pseudo-diapers. "Nockashima somewhat surprised himself."
"Keep your surprises to yourself, you Japanese limb of Satan," remarked Sue Pebble, "and let me have my husband. I'll fix him!"
Spray took up the battle cry. "He wants milk," she said, "hot milk."
"What gave you the maternity complex?" the baby asked acidly. "I never noticed you going round trying to feed babies hot milk or catnip. You were much more likely to be feeding hot babies whisky."
"May I take a close look at the little fellow?" asked Major Jaffey unsteadily, hoping to detect a fraud.
"Help yourself," answered Sue Pebble. "It's no treat. We aren't going to put him in a side show. That's the trouble. He's a perfectly ordinary baby."
"My old friend Rex, at his age," observed Major Jaffey, "really should prove something a little unusual."
"If he is, it's escaped us," snapped Sue.
"I think," said Spray sweetly, "that if you just let me have the child for a few minutes, I can work wonders with him."
"I lent him to you for twenty years," said the man's wife, "and I quite agree that you've worked wonders with him. Next time I lend anyone a husband, I'm going to have him insured."
Rex Pebble was addressing the Major fiercely between beautiful little white baby teeth, "You get me a drink, you pop-eyed, evil-minded old wreck, or I'll batter your face to a pulp when I get back my years," he muttered.
The Major, however, was literal-minded. "I should think, Rex," he chided, "that you would learn to get what you want by being a little gentleman and behaving yourself. You can't bully people, remember, because it's going to be years and years before you grow up into a big strong man again."
"Just for old times' sake," begged the baby, "hand me a small finger. It won't hurt me. I'm still myself."
"Beg honorable pardon," interrupted Nockashima in the interests of truth, "but that no strictly so. Nockashima already forced change bath towel twice. Hard on laundry. Mr. Pebble not man he used to be."
"I'll tell you what we'll do," said Spray Summers, with compassion in her lovely dark eyes. "We'll let the child have some sherry. That will be all right for him. It's in the cellar. We'll all have some. I like sherry late at night. Remember, Rexie?" the young woman asked, with a curiously knowing look.
"Yes," answered the baby, gritting its teeth.
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