Bill Todd -- Innovative Morality: A Short Novel of the Thirties
Table of Contents  Last Chapter  Next Chapter  Home Page
 Chapter 17

Some Bad News

There was a letter for Mary in the morning mail. She immediately recognized Lee's writing and ripped the envelope open. The letter was terse:

Dear Mary:

I'll be leaving town immediately without being able to see you. I'll write as soon as I get settled.

Best wishes, Lee

Mrs. Eliot was watching as she read the letter. Mary could feel the intensity of the curiosity from a distance of some ten feet, and knew that she had to respond. Not having any idea what to say, she simply handed over the letter. Mrs. Eliot's reaction was obviously extreme, but held in check. Mary could hardly guess what mix of emotions might be bouncing around in her mother's mind and body.

Mr. Eliot was late for their noon dinner. It was assumed that there had been delays on the golf course. He might have been drafted into a foursome, in which case he could hardly leave before holing out on the eighteenth. However, by one o'clock, there was consternation. He would surely have called. Could he have had a car accident on the way home?

After another half hour, it was Lucy, moved to action, who decided to search the roads to the golf course. Ruth accompanied her.

Fifteen minutes later, Mrs. Rolfe stopped by. Seeing immediately that all was not well, she apologized and was retreating when Mary caught her on the porch and explained. Mrs. Eliot then came out to join them and urged Mrs. Rolfe to come in. In an attempt to keep to normal routine, they sat down with coffee and chocolates.

When the doorbell rang, Mary was the first to get up. It was a Western Union messenger boy in the quaint uniform of the company with his bicycle sprawled on the sidewalk. He was brandishing a telegram in such a way as to suggest that, while willing to hand it over, he'd like something in return. Mary saw that it was addressed to her mother as she tipped the boy a quarter. Moving back to the living room, she felt as if she were carrying a bomb.

Mary later thought that it was clever of her father to use the telegraphic style, peculiarly fragmented and devoid of emotion, to deliver his bomb. It said only:

Have joined Arctic exploratory expedition STOP Will write STOP Sincerely STOP Warren

Mrs. Eliot simply let the telegram drop to the floor as she reached for a chocolate, in the event half choking on it. By the time that the others had pounded her on the back and gotten her breathing properly, they had seen the message. Mrs. Eliot, gasping and speaking shakily, said,

"He's run off with that Lee woman!"

She then stared silently and balefully at Mary. Mary got the message. It was she who had brought Lee into the family circle. Feigning uncontrollable emotion, she fled the room. From outside the door, she heard Mrs. Rolfe say,

"It is just possible that he had a sudden impulse to explore.."

Mrs. Eliot cut her off,

"Pshaw! He hasn't the character for anything like that."

Mary, peeking in, found it quite unsettling to see and hear her mother cry. Catching Mrs. Rolfe's eye, she whispered,

"I'm going out to find Lucy and Ruth."

Jimmy was with the car in the garage down the street, wiping it idly with some sort of cloth. Mary doubted that the car needed to be wiped, and interpreted the wiping as a demonstration of control over the car, or even a gesture of pseudo-ownership. Conscious of the difficulty of getting the car away from Jimmy, she nevertheless announced that she would be driving the Packard herself. Somewhat to her surprise, it worked. She then set out in the general direction of the golf course, but ended up at the drugstore next to the little lending library.

Mary was only half way through her Moxie and ice cream when Dr. Stowe happened in. Delighted, she summoned him to her table. After he had seated himself gingerly, rather in the manner of a schoolboy playing hooky, she poured out a complete account of the day's happenings. When she finally finished, she said,

"I'm sorry to go on like this. Let me get you a drink in recompense."

Mary was already standing, and Dr. Stowe laughingly allowed that he would like a Moxie. When she returned with it, she asked,

"Did you know about my father and Lee?"

"Mostly. Your father expressed extreme guilt without saying what was the cause of it. But I think it was implicit between us what it was about."

"I found out from Mrs. Rolfe just yesterday that mother knew about it all along. It turns out that she hired a private detective."

"Really? Your mother is far from passive."

"The detective also found out about Lee and Sink. Mother told Mrs. Rolfe that he can no longer have Lucy."

Dr. Stowe seemed amused at that, and then asked Mary if she planned to return home shortly. Mary explained about her rather diffuse hunt for Lucy and Ruth, and then added,

"I don't want to go back until there are others there. I know Mother blames me for the whole thing."

"Surely, she can't do that!"

"Oh yes. I was the one who first befriended Lee, and then brought her home. It's mother's view that we amoral types tend to stick together. And, then, she may even think that my previous bad behavior inspired my father."

"Isn't that somewhat absurd?"

"Yeah, but mother thinks that there's a bad seed in the family deriving from my father's mother. It's come down to me, and I apparently brought to the surface what was only just under it with my father."

"In the face of all this, I think you should drive the Packard back to the garage. You can then come to our house and choose your moment to go home."

Mary quickly agreed.

When Mary got back to the garage, a somewhat aggrieved Jimmy told her that Lucy and Ruth had just returned. He clearly knew that something was up, and his desire to be unpleasant seemed equally balanced with his desire for information. Mary deflected both with forced cheeriness, and went to Dr. Stowe's house as he was himself arriving. As he emerged from his car, she said,

"If you'll give me a cup of coffee, I'll allow things to settle down at home for a few minutes."

As they made the coffee in the kitchen, Mary asked Dr. Stowe if he expected her father to come back. The latter replied,

"The exploration part comes as a complete surprise to me. But I think he will go to some isolated area and remain there for some time. I wouldn't be surprised if he calls or writes to me to find out how things are going."

"Yes, he'd almost have to do that. He might then base his decisions on what you tell him."

"Possibly. However, sooner or later, the question of how the income would be divided will have to come up."

"That is, if he stays away."

"Yes. And, of course, we don't really know if he's with Lee. There are coincidences."

"I think he probably is with her. I don't think they'll stay together long, but, if he's so minded, he could certainly find another woman more attractive than Mother."

"That would be expensive, and would again depend on the money."

"Yes. He's not a mercenary man in any ordinary way. But he will have to think about money if he wants to set up on his own."

"I'm afraid things will get ugly."

With that thought in mind, Mary went home. She there found four dry-eyed ladies in solemn conclave, and received only an off-handed frigid reception from her mother. Taking a seat quietly, she gathered that a call had been made to the trust company in Boston. Mr. Eliot had cashed a large check running to thousands of dollars, but that had no effect on the capital or the main income stream. As Mary knew, the income was deposited every month in a joint checking account. It was Mrs. Eliot who paid the bills and wrote the checks, but her husband had taken his checkbook with him. At this juncture, Mrs. Rolfe said to Mrs. Eliot,

"You have such an advantage in being near Boston. Each month, you can show up when the bank opens and cash a check for almost all the income. Then, wherever he may be, a check that he writes won't be honored."

That, indeed, seemed to be the solution. Lucy offered to drive her mother to the bank each month so that Jimmy wouldn't have to know. Mrs. Eliot thanked her and added,

"I don't see any need to keep Jimmy at all. That was all your father's idea."

There was undeniably a growing feeling of solidarity in the room which went well beyond a common desire to get rid of Jimmy. Mary felt that, by being quiet and demure, she could be swept along with it. Later, she would have to find ways of flattering her mother.

Before long, Lucy began fidgeting and casting glances at Ruth. Mrs. Eliot, noticing, said,

"There's no need for you girls to stay here. Gertrude and I can work some things out."

Lucy and Ruth were up immediately, and Ruth again invited Mary to accompany them. They were soon back at the Chinese restaurant with chow mein and yet more Moxie. Ruth opened the relevant conversation by saying to Mary,

"I've always liked your father, but Lu and I are siding with Mimsie on this one."

"Yes. I can understand why he's done whatever he's done, but I don't expect to be asked to join him with Timmy. That being the case, we have to work together to make the best of things."

Ruth replied,

"Mrs. Rolfe is a lot sharper than I'd realized. All Mimsie has to do is follow her advice."

"Mrs. Rolfe told me yesterday that Mother no longer wants to marry Lucy off to Sink."

"That's a good thing that seems to have come out of this. Also, Mimsie seems to be coming to the view that no men are trustworthy."

Lucy put in,

"Sink really is trustworthy. He had a girl friend, but he didn't commit adultery."

Mary, who didn't think a lot about adultery, made reassuring noises. It was just then that Lucy burst out,

"I know where Dad's gone! He's gone to his sailboat in Maine. He'll cruise in it for a couple of weeks, perhaps as far as Canada. Then he'll come back and say, jokingly, that he was doing some Arctic exploration."

That sounded entirely plausible to Mary. Everyone knew that her father's first love was his twenty-eight foot sloop, and that he was kept from it only by his wife and family. The question, immediately raised by Ruth, was whether he would have taken Lee with him. Mary replied,

"I don't know. I never heard her talk about boats or sailing at all."

"Well, you know her much better than we do."

"Yes. She's certainly daring and adventurous. If she were involved with a man, I don't think she'd hesitate to at least try something that meant a lot to him."

Lucy said,

"I've gone sailing with Dad in Maine, and I know the boatyard people. I could just call them and ask if he's there."

"You could make it sound as if he's headed there, and you're just not sure if he's arrived yet."

Lucy agreed and added,

"If Lee's with him, he'll leave her in town, get the boat from the boatyard, and then pick her up at the town dock."

Ruth concluded,

"That would be the perfect way to hide a mistress. No checking into hotels with assumed names, or anything like that."

"They would've taken her car, and no one would think anything of a car parked in the main parking lot for a couple of weeks."

It was noticeable that Lucy was feeling better about things. Mary didn't want to point out that, if things went well on a cruise, the couple might never come back. It was, in fact, Ruth who made that point. She then continued,

"If lawyers get involved, that tactic of getting to the bank first to cash checks won't work for very long."

Mary, seeing how hurt Lucy looked, brought the matter to a conclusion by saying,

"Anyhow, this is all just speculation."

Bill Todd -- Innovative Morality: A Short Novel of the Thirties
Table of Contents  Last Chapter  Next Chapter  Home Page