She wore a sensible blue skirt and a white blouse to dinner, a cool green band through her long hair to hold it away from her face. She had successfully rationalized away the strange conversation which she had had with Jacob Matherly, and she was prepared to enjoy herself,
Jacob did not come to the table but took his supper in his room. He was somewhat clumsy with eating utensils, Lee explained, and did not like to be seen while trying to manage for himself. At the same time, he rejected any suggestion that someone else feed him. He was a fiercely independent old man and intended to remain that way.
Without the master of the house, there were six of them at the long table in the dining room: Lee, his sons Dennis and Gordon, Paul Honneker the brother of Lee's deceased wife, Celia Tamlin who was an interior decorator whom Dennis had brought to look at the house, and Elaine herself. The major topic of the evening was the architecture of the mansion and the ways Celia felt its furnishings could be changed to compliment, rather than detract from, that unique flavor.
Elaine would have called the ornate structure a great many things, but she would never have said it had a unique flavor". Since everyone else seemed to actually enjoy the way the place was built, she kept her mouth shut except to give them the answers she thought they would most appreciate when they asked for her opinion.
Seriously, Elaine, Dennis Matherly asked, don't you think that grandfather's taste was much too stuffy for this marvelous house?
She said, I haven't seen most of it. But I do like my room and the den I saw.
Of course, certain rooms are perfect, Dennis agreed. But I'm speaking of the over-all feel of it. The drawing room is damned Victorian-and not tastefully Victorian either. Clumpy furniture, everything overstuffed, bad wallpaper. Ugh!
Dennis, at twenty-five, was the older of the Matherly brothers, though Elaine thought he acted like the younger. He was always talking with a queer excitement that kept her on edge. He found everything interesting and tried to show the others how fascinating this alcove was or that attic room could be if properly finished. He was a terribly good-looking man, muscular as his father was. But there was something spoiled about his face, something too heavy in the line of his mouth. He had always had money, and he had been spoiled by it. He dressed a bit too loud. He wore dark blue corduroy bellbottoms, along with a deep wine colored shirt with too many buttons and useless epaulets on the shoulders. His hair fell over his collar and was brushed over his ears so that only the lobes were visible.
Elaine did not care much for him.
On the other hand, she found Gordon Matherly, Dennis' brother, quite charming. He was as quiet as she was, rarely speaking unless directly addressed. He was not so flamboyantly handsome as his older brother nor so muscular as his father. He was lean and intense and very serious. All Elaine knew of him was that he had graduated with a B.A. in business from Pitt and was just beginning studies aimed at his Master's degree. He was, in other words, a man who accomplished things.
Dennis, as far as she could see, accomplished very little. He had studied painting and maintained a studio in the finished half of the attic. He had not made a financial success of his work. Elaine doubted that he ever would.
Of course, Celia Tamlin said, I have only first impressions to go on so far. But I really do think you would gain the most out of a change if you opted for a generous use of ultra-modern California grouping for your main rooms. Plastics and lamanated woods, chrome and specially treated leathers. A light wall perhaps, changing patterns and colors. The contrast between the positively gothic look of this house and the far-out furniture would create an entirely new aesthetic whole.
Lee Matherly was as skeptical as Elaine, though he vocalized his skepticism. I've always sort of liked the house. It's quiet and restful, the furniture so dark.
I agree with Celia, Paul Honneker said. I suppose it's really none of my business, since I'm not of the family, but I think the dreary place could use a- light wall. He was a large, ruddy-faced man with hands nearly as big as the dinner plates. His hair was in disarray, and he looked as if he had slept in his clothes. Despite this sign of a disorderly mind, Elaine rather liked him. He was a painfully honest man, she realized, as he had proved several times during the meal by stating his disagreement with some particularly empty-headed notion the interior decorator had proposed. If he agreed with her now, he was not merely trying to make amends, but presenting a genuine opinion.
Well, Dennis said, finishing with his food, I've asked Celia to stay overnight, at least, to get the live-in feel of the place.
Good idea, Lee said, as if he were hopeful that she would come to love the clumsy, dark furniture as much as he did.
Even if she did not learn to love the place, Lee would give Dennis the okay for major changes without much protest. Elaine was sure of that. Already, she could see that Lee favored his gaudier son. She could not say why.
Better yet, Lee said, why not stay the weekend, Celia. If you have no other plans, we'd welcome you here. This was Thursday evening, with a full day left of the work week, but Celia said she could manage it. Well, Dennis said, you'd better get started back to town to pack a bag or two. Should I come along?
Celia said, No, no. I can be into the city and back here by eleven, if that's not too late. I don't need an escort. And I know how much you've been wanting to finish the oil you're working on.
I have been a bit restless to get on with it, Dennis admitted.
Another landscape? Gordon asked. It was one of the few times he had spoken on his own initiative.
No, something special, Dennis said, ignoring the tone of sarcasm in his younger brother's voice.
A portrait of Celia, then?"'
Dennis laughed. You know that I gave up portraits when dad didn't even recognize the one I did of him. My talent doesn't lay in that direction.
The jolliness with which the older brother admitted his limitations would ordinarily have pleased Elaine. But now it seemed just another part of his irresponsible nature. He knew that he did not have a broad talent as an artist, and yet he persisted in wasting his time at it. She knew that Gordon was thinking the same thing.
You're both excused, then, Lee said.
What about me? Paul asked.
Lee grinned. You won't want to be excused until dessert comes.
Bess, Jerry's wife, a heavy woman who embodied all the stereotypical virtues of motherhood (good humor, affection, gentleness and a fantastic cooking ability), brought the peach shortcake which she had proudly announced as the final dish before she had ever served the first. It was delicious; everyone told her so. Garlanded with praise, she retired to her kitchen, beaming and content.
After dinner, Elaine intended to check in on her patient but was side-tracked by Gordon Matherly who met her at the bottom of the stairs.
At dinner, you said you'd not seen much of the house. Would you like a tour?
I thought it time I looked in on your grandfather, she said.
The buzzer will sound if he needs you. And he doesn't go to bed as early as the doctor would like. He'll be up, reading or frittering away at something until ten or eleven.
I guess it wouldn't hurt, then, she said.
Good, he said. He took her arm in a most gallant way which was not at all affected.
All of the eight downstairs rooms were furnished like the parlor, with heavy mahogany pieces and darkly leafed and flowered wallpaper- except for the study which was richly paneled and for the kitchen which was bright and equipped with all the latest machinery that Bess could desire. Even the game room, with its pool table and sports equipment racks, was like an antique sitting room into which these evidences of modernity had been dropped like bricks through tissue paper.
I like the house the way it is, Gordon said when they leaned against the billiards table to rest a moment.
I believe I do too, Elaine agreed.
This modern stuff she's promoting will become obsolete and unstylish in a year. But this furniture we have-it's never dated. It's solid and dependable.
Your father seems to agree with you.
But he'll let Denny have his way. He always lets Denny have his way. If there was bitterness in his tone, it was none like she had ever heard. He seemed only to be stating a fact.
Your brother seems rather taken with Celia, she said. She said it as a way of finding out whether Gordon was smitten with the blonde as well. She hoped that he was not.
Denny is not smitten with anyone, particularly, but himself. All his girls are awed by him. He likes that.
She's very pretty, Elaine said.
Oh, I suppose.
All that blonde hair, and that lovely rosy complexion of hers. Unconsciously, she touched her olive colored skin, drew a circle on her cheek, as if she could feel the hue of herself.
She doesn't appeal to me, he said.
He was very final about it, but she sensed that there really was a bit of envy in him. Envy for Denny's girl. Denny had probably always gotten the better-looking girls, for so many women, especially the rather silly kind like Celia Tamlin, were more enchanted with a man's looks than with his inner fiber.
She found Gordon easy to speak to, and she sensed that he was opening to her as he rarely did. Their low-key personalities, their somewhat guarded relations with the rest of the world made them soulmates of a sort. By the time they had explored most of the second floor, including the sun room, she felt on sound enough terms with him to ask him the question that had been bothering her all evening.
I understand-or believe I do-that the family experienced a tragedy of some kind last Christmas Eve.
His face changed in the instant. His brow wrinkled. His lips tightened until they were bloodless against his teeth.
He said, Then the neighbors have already gotten to you.
They can't get done talking about it, though it's fifteen years ago that it happened.
I thought last Christmas Eve was-
Fifteen years ago. And if they've been at you, you know the story in all its awful detail, don't you? He had grown accusatory, as if she were to blame for some unimaginable crime.
I didn't talk to your neighbors, Gordon, she said. She felt, paradoxically, as if she had to defend herself. Your grandfather mentioned it, but didn't tell me what had happened then. And I thought, from talking to him, that it was only this past Christmas.
His face softened a little, though he was still a long way from the talkative and charming man who had escorted her about the house.
He said, You must excuse grandfather. He becomes confused easily since his stroke.
I've begun to suspect as much.
What exactly did he tell you?
She recounted the eerie conversation.
Someone trying to murder him? Gordon asked, incredulous.
So he says.
It's the first I've heard of it.
Evidently, he has told your father.
Gordon frowned. And dad didn't want the rest of us to know how far gone the old fellow is.
Your father seems genuinely concerned about him.
They're close. Closer than dad and I. The last was said with plain dissatisfaction.
What did happen? she asked, interested enough to pursue the point still.
I choose not to talk about it.
I'm sorry if I've pried-
You better check on grandfather now, he said. He turned away from her and went down the stairs.
Whatever had transpired on that Christmas Eve fifteen years ago had been an indeed unpleasant event. The old man couldn't summon up the will to tell her, and Gordon was clearly afraid to. But why was he afraid? Was it something that would so disgust her or scare her that she might decide not to work here after all?
She clamped her imagination into a can and sealed it away. She best do what Gordon had suggested and see that Jacob was all right.
The old man was sitting in one of the easy chairs, his tray of food mostly eaten and pushed to one side. A book lay open in his lap, though he did not seem to have been reading it.
Come here and sit down, he said. His voice was a file drawn over sandpaper, delicate as sugar lace and ready to shatter into countless pieces.
She sat in the other easy chair, across from him, and she felt as if she were being devoured by the huge arms, high back and extra- thick padding. The chair was so comfortable that it was almost uncomfortable.
You've met them all? he asked.
Yes, she said. Bess is a magnificent cook.
I hired Jerry and Bess when I was a young man- and they were younger. But that is neither here nor there. I want to tell you about the others.
Tell me what? she asked. She was finding it easier to maintain her calm before the old man's pitiable condition. She supposed that, in a short while, a few days, she would be able to listen to his rambled tales of attempted murder without giving away her disbelief.
First of all, let's take Paul. He is-was-whatever tense we need for this situation-the younger brother of Amelia, Lee's wife. He is the exact same blood as she was, and we should therefore pay closer attention to him that to either of the boys. He coughed a dry cough and said, What did you think of him?
She told him what little she could of her opinion of Paul Honneker from this first meeting.
When you know him better, Jacob said, you'll see more than his jolly side. The poor boy can't hold a job. He is thirty-seven years old and chronically unemployed. Its in his nature. He can't tolerate bosses. The same as Amelia. She loathed taking orders or even responding to any request that wasn't suffixed with a 'please'. He lives here because Amelia's will provided him a place here as long as he lives. She knew how shiftless he was. She also left him one third of the stock and bond fortune Lee had built for her with what inheritance she had received from her mother's estate.
She said, You say these uncomplimentary things about Paul, but you seem to like him.
I do. Its not the boy's fault that he has that Honneker blood, the same blood that was Amelia's downfall. I pity him. I want the best for him. But the fact remains that he was her brother and must be watched.
The soft chair seemed to be growing softer as she listened to the old man's directionless paranoia and tried to think of some way to change the subject.
Denny, the old man said, has a great deal of talent. He is an artist of some merit. He plays piano and guitar, and he writes a little.
He seemed frivolous to me, she said.
Jacob raised his eyebrows, then chuckled. He is that. He certainly is frivolous. He spends his monthly check from his mother's estate as if the entire concept of money had been scheduled for the ash can the following day. He enjoys escorting pretty girls here and there-and pretty girls also require money. He drives too fast and drinks a bit too much. But, in the end, what is there to say against any of that?
He is still young, she said. But when he's forty or fifty and still hasn't accomplished anything, what will he think of himself.
Perhaps you judge him too harshly. But that is good. Be wary of him, for half his blood is Honneker blood. As is half of Gordon's.
I like him.
Gordon is anything but frivolous, Jacob noted. He'll run the family investments and eventually the restaurants. Sometimes, I wish he would gad about a bit more than he does.
She slid forward in her chair, I'm confused, Mr. Matherly.
Why it matters that half their blood is Honneker- or that all of Paul's blood is.
Amelia and Paul's parents were first cousins. As a nurse, you must know that such a close marriage between relatives can often result in the transference of undesireable genes to future generations.
Hemophilia for one.
Worse things, Jacob said darkly.
He was trying to frighten her, as he had frightened her before, but he was not going to succeed. Fear of an unknown quantity was senseless. One could only fear something concrete, something tangible whose threat was plain to see. Thus far, whatever Jacob feared seemed to be an unknown.
You haven't yet learned about Christmas Eve?
Just that, whatever happened, it was done with fifteen years ago. She smiled and leaned towards him. You shouldn't be worried, still, about something so long forgotten, Mr. Matherly.
You don't know. You weren't here.
It was the worst thing in my life, he said. It was the worst thing I had ever seen. And I had been to war, you know. I'd seen so much, but all of it was pale next to what happened that night.
He was speaking very rapidly, breathlessly now.
Don't excite yourself, she said, suddenly concerned with his welfare, afraid that she might have generated some of his hypertension.
His hand strayed to his chest. He was slightly bent, as if he were trying to encircle the pain with his body and smother it. His face, the half of it which was not perpetually grimaced, was twisted in agony.
She rose quickly and went to the medicine cabinet where she found the glycerine pills. She took two of these back to the old man and fed him one with a sip of water from the glass on his food tray.
He remained in an agonized hunch for another few minutes.
When she gave him the second pill, he soon leaned back and breathed more easily. The tiny, whimpering sounds that had been caught in his throat were now gone.
Angina, he wheezed. The word caused as much pain as the symptoms it described. He disliked the idea of being ill, dependent. It's much better now.
You'd better get into bed, she said.
Perhaps I had.
And to sleep.
It's so early yet! he protested, like a child.
Nevertheless, I think you ought to take a sedative and try to sleep.
He did as she asked. In twenty minutes, he was soundly asleep. She tucked the covers around him, turned out the light, turned on the tiny night light, and left his room, closing the door quietly behind her.
It was too bad that the attack had come when it had, for she had been on the verge of learning what it was that Jacob Matherly feared in the Honneker blood -and what had happened on that mysterious Christmas Eve more than fifteen years ago.
In her own room, once she had dressed for bed, she chose a book from the half dozen paperbacks she had brought with her and settled down under the canopy of the large bed. When she had finished only a chapter, her eyes were heavy. She marked her place and turned out the light. She had not intended to fall asleep so early, but she was exhausted from packing and driving and unpacking and meeting so many new people. It seemed impossible that this could be her first day in the Matherly house. Certainly, she had been here for years. At least months. At the very least, weeks. Sleep came instantly.
In her dream, a rare dream, it was the night before Christmas, and she was opening her gifts early. She no longer believed in Santa Claus, so what was the use in waiting for the sunrise? One of the presents was a large, red and green box with a bow as thick with ribbon as a head was with hair. She wondered what anyone could have gotten her that was so big, and she wanted to open it first. She pried the lid off and leaned forward, peered inside and swallowed hard and tried to look away and could not and opened her mouth and sucked breath and finally screamed-
She woke, perspiring.
But the scream continued.
It was not her scream any longer, and certainly not the scream of a nightmare. It was real, and it was a woman's voice, the cry of a woman in the most terrible agony. It wailed on, rising and falling, cutting across the bones of anyone who listened, like an icicle across plate glass. And then it was over with.
Elaine thought she had recognized the voice as Celia Tamlin's, even though no words had been spoken in that horrid ululation of terror.
The clock on the nightstand read 11:30.
She slid out of bed, put on her slippers. She hesitated, as she took her robe from its hanger, not certain it was wise to become involved with whatever was going on. She could see Jacob Matherly's twisted face, the intensely blue eyes, and she could almost hear him warning her
Enough! From the sound of that scream, the girl might very likely need a nurse. Already, several long minutes had passed in which she might need help. She put on her robe and started for the door.