Chapter 5

Elaine slept later than she had in years, but woke feeling as if she had just put in a hard days work. She showered, applied what little makeup she needed, dressed and went to check on Jacob. He had already had breakfast and was sitting in one of the easy chairs in his room, reading a popular novel.

“You look very pretty this morning,” he said.

She was dressed in a lemon skirt, brown blouse, lemon hairband, and she wore a simple brown bead choker at her neck. Lee Matherly had made a point of the fact that he did not wish her to wear uniforms, for that would only depress his father.

“Thank you,” she said.

“Were I, say, forty years younger, I should surely be courting you, young lady.”

She laughed as she got the instruments to take his blood pressure, temperature and heartbeat. She pulled a chair next to his, rolled up his pajama sleeve, and wrapped the pressure cloth around his withered biceps.

“Indeed,” Jacob said, grinning at her with the good side of his face, “it's a miracle you aren't married already!”

“Marriage isn't for me,” she said. “At least not for a long while.”

“Don't bet on it,” he said, patting her hand.

She said, “Have you heard anything about Celia yet?”

He frowned. “Lee says she made it through the operation. She's still in a coma and still on the critical list, however.”

“If she makes it, she can tell us who it was,” Elaine said. “Then this terrible expectancy will be over.”

His face was stony now. “Captain Rand believes it was a hitchhiker. He says only Dennis knew the girl, and therefore only Dennis would have a motive. But Dennis doesn't have one that anyone can see. So it must have been a hitchhiker who forced her into the drive without getting out and then tried to kill her.”

Elaine remembered his adamancy that one of the family was the guilty party, and she wondered at this sudden switch. Could it be attributed to his stroke-weakened mind? Or was it something utterly different than that-was it wishful thinking? Rand had offered a good out. The faceless hitchhiker. If we could believe in that, she thought, how much easier.

“What I recommend for you, my dear,” Jacob continued, suddenly having recovered his composure and good humor, “is a walk about the grounds, a bit of sunshine and clean air-as clean as we can get this close to a city.”

“Look who's the nurse now,” she said.

But when she had finished her morning duties with him, she decided that his suggestion was not to be laughed off. She did feel as if she needed to get out, to shake off the clinging oppressiveness of the old house.

Five acres of grounds can be, she discovered, a great deal of land, especially if it is broken up by shifts in geographic contour and by stands of pines and willows which give it the illusion of a forest. All of it was well tended and crossed by flagstone walkways which wound even through the trees, through the cool, heavy shadows that did not seem ominous as the shadows in the house had. She had wandered about for nearly an hour before she came to the low, stone wall which separated the Matherly estate from their wealthy neighbors.

As she followed the wall, watching the birds wheel across the early summer sky and feeling somehow reborn in the glow of sunshine and the fresh air, she eventually noticed the neighboring house. It was not quite so large as the Matherly place, but a formidable dwelling in its own right. It was in the colonial mode, of red brick with many large windows and white shutters, high balconies and white pillars. The grounds were well landscaped, though smaller than the Matherly estate. She liked it, she thought, more than the house in which she now lived, for it was a terribly functional home. It was squared and simple, as colonial houses had always been, and not larded over with fancy pieces of stonework and gables and multi- leveled, multi-angled roofs.

As she walked further, she saw the patio, a simple brick affair which was surrounded by a knee-high brick wall A man and a woman were lying on cots, sunbathing. They were, Elaine supposed, in their middle forties. The wife was still trim and attractive, while the husband had allowed himself the luxury of an expanded middle. She looked away from them, not wanting to be nosy, and had gone another twenty paces before they called out to her.

When she turned, she saw that the woman was sitting up on her cot and waving.

She waved back.

“Come over for a drink,” the woman said.

“Is there a gate?”

“Another fifty feet along,” the woman said. Her husband had sat up by this time, and he was nodding agreement.

She found the gate, crossed through, and went over to the patio.

The neighbors were Mr. and Mrs. Bradshaw, Syd and Shiela. Before she could even introduce herself, they had to get the subject of the drink settled. They were surprised that she only wanted a coke, but let it rest when they couldn't persuade her to have Scotch or a gin and tonic. The Bradshaw butler, a young, rather handsome man named William, delivered the drinks on a silver tray, along with a variety of prepared snacks. When that was done, Shiela and Syd were ready to settle down to some conversation.

If she had realized what the nature of the conversation was going to be, she would never have crossed through the gate in the stone wall.

“You're Jacob's new nurse, I believe,” Shiela said. She was a brown-haired, dark-eyed woman, with a lot of freckles on her face which somehow added to her pixie beauty rather than detracting from it.

“That's right,” Shiela said.

“Poor Jake,” Syd put in. “He was so active, so vital before his stroke. Too much cholesterol. That's what leads to circulatory problems, you know. Blood clots, heart attacks, the whole works.”

“He still is vital,” Elaine said, possessed of a strange urge to defend the old man before this somewhat loud couple.

“You'll have to excuse Syd,” Shiela said. “He's a nut on the cholesterol subject”

Elaine looked at his overweight problem and decided it was mostly the result of liquor. Far better, she thought, to have achieved the added pounds through extra steaks, extra bread, extra potatoes.

Shiela said, “How do you like your job?”

“Fine,” Elaine said. “It's the first time I've really been on my own.”

From there, the conversation drifted into harmless channels, light banter that Elaine found enjoyable, with but a few exceptions. She told them about nurse's training and about the orphanage. This last brought forth a gush of sympathy from them which she neither wanted nor respected. She had no use for sympathy. Life was what it was, and you only got bogged down if you began to lament what Fate had given you. She discovered that Syd Bradshaw had made his modest fortune through the motion picture industry; he owned a chain of full-sized and mini-theaters within the Pittsburgh area. This would have been a fascinating topic if the Bradshaws had not continued to lace their anecdotes with anti-Matherly epithets with which she could hardly sympathize, being a Matherly employee. It seemed that Syd was jealous of Lee Matherly's greater wealth. Heaven knew, he had more money than he could use himself. Still, he envied Lee the larger Matherly fortune. Both Syd and Shiela often referred to Lee's having been “born to wealth without having to work for a penny of it.” When Elaine ventured the suggestion that Lee had been successfully managing the family affairs for some years now, Syd said, “And who couldn't make money if he had a fortune to begin with. If you have money, you can make more, even if you have no talent for it.”

The sun seemed to grow hotter, stiflingly warm, pouring down over Elaine like honey, burning honey.

She was perspiring and itchy.

The chair under her, a plastic-thatch lounge, seemed to have grown harder and more uncomfortable by the moment.

When the summer birds swooped low overhead and called out to each, other, their voices seemed magnified by the heat, converted into banshee wails that set her teeth on edge.

Eventually, she learned that Syd Bradshaw and Lee Matherly had been in the same high school class, had been to the same college. Bradshaw had come from a far less well-to-do family, and he felt that the entire purpose of his life was to “show-up” Lee Matherly, to prove the value of once having lived in poverty. He expounded the virtue of a poor childhood as loudly as he warned against the danger of eating foods too high in cholesterol. Because he had not made the fortune the Matherlys controlled and now knew that he never would, he was discontent. He could not enjoy his own achievements, his own wealth. Instead, he had to achieve his longed for dominance over the Matherlys by speaking against them and trying to lessen them in the eyes of others. It was all very sad-and silly. A childhood rivalry had ruined the adult life of Syd Bradshaw.

“Tell me,” Shiela said, as Elaine was trying to think of some excuse to take leave of them, “doesn't it frighten you, living in the same house where Amelia Matherly once lived?”

“Why should it?”

Syd said, “You mean no one has told you?”

“About Christmas Eve?” Shiela expanded.

Her boredom and discontent with these people was sluiced away as if by a fresh rain. She said, “Jacob has hinted at some tragedy or other, but I don't know the full story.”

“With this latest murder, you shouldn't be kept ignorant,” Shiela said. Her eyes sparkled now. She licked her lips, anxious to impart the story of the scandal. She had been infected with her husband's disease: incurable envy.

“Did you live here then-fifteen years ago?” Elaine asked.

“No,” Syd Bradshaw said. “We weren't born into a house like this. We had to work into it. Work! We've been here ten years now. I was not yet thirty-six when we contracted to have the house built.” He was proud of his early success.

“Then how do you know about Christmas Eve and-”

“Everyone in the city knew about it,” Shiela explained. “Maybe everyone in the state and country. It was big news!” She shuddered, but the expression came off as pre-planned and false.

“Could you-tell me about it?” Elaine asked. She knew that the story would somehow throw a discreditable light upon the Matherly name, but she could not resist learning, at last, what had happened so long ago.

“It was Amelia Matherly,” Shiela said. Her voice had dropped to a heavy whisper, as if she were speaking in the presence of the dead or within the walls of a cathedral. “No one ever thought she was normal. She was known for her drastic fits of temper. Not a merchant in town-and this suburb was a small town then, so that everyone knew of her-had escaped her temper. Her neighbors found her impossible to get along with, like decent people. She was a snob-and worse.”

“It's the worse that ended in that Christmas Eve horror,” Syd said. He performed the same staged shudder and sipped at his drink.

Shiela continued, “Dennis was ten years old, then. His brother, Gordon, was seven. Two little children, unaware of what evil lay within their own house.” She shook her head, in apparent sympathy for the little children, then went on. “Lee and Amelia had two other children then, the twins. Their names were Lana and Laura. Two darling little girls, about ten months old.”

Elaine thought she knew exactly what was coming.

She didn't want to hear it

Yet she made no attempt to stop Shiela's tale, mesmerized by the intense heat, the chatter of the birds, the humidity that was like a blanket, and the droning story of deep, lasting horror that this envious, sun-browned but unhappy woman was unfolding for her perusal.

Shiela said, “She was alone in the house with the twins when her mind snapped.”

The birds swooped overhead.

The birds cawed to each other.

The sun burned down hard, like the crimsoned coil of an oven burner.

Shiela said, “Lee was away with the boys, Christmas shopping. Jerry and Bess had the day off and were at Bess' sister's house in Mount Carmel. Paul didn't live with them then. I think he was teaching at some university in Texas-it was his fifth or sixth job. He was fired shortly after that. He never has been able to hold onto anything, that one. Anyway, Amelia was at home with Lana and Laura, by themselves.”

Oppressive heat.

The birds.

The ice in her glass had melted.

Leave, she told herself.

But she had to know.

“Anyone could have seen that the woman was not right,” Syd put in. “Anyone with common sense would have known better than to leave her at home, alone, with those two defenseless babies.”

Shiela cast a let-me-tell-the-story glance at her husband, and he closed his mouth over the rim of his glass.

She said, “Jacob was downtown, seeing to the restaurants' store of goods for the holiday dinners they expected to serve. He got home at a little after five in the afternoon, and he found her-and what she'd done.”

Shiela took a drink.

Tell it, Elaine subvocally urged the woman. She disliked the way Shiela was drawing it out for the best effect. The story of any tragedy should be told quickly, simply, to carry the least pain with it.

“She had taken a-taken a knife to the twins where they lay in their cribs,” Shiela said. She finished her drink. “She had slashed at them over and over, until there was little left of them.”

Uncontrollably, unconsciously, Elaine bent forward in her chair, as if giving way to some pain in her stomach.

“She had murdered them,” Shiela said. “And she tried to murder Jacob Matherly when he came upon her where she knelt in the blood by the cribs. He was cut badly in the shoulder, but wrested the knife out of her grasp. She ran, then, and tripped on the carpeting at the end of the stairs. She fell the length of them to the ground floor. When Jacob found her, she was quite dead.”

Legacy Of Terror
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