Bill Todd -- Innovative Morality: A Short Novel of the Thirties
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 Chapter 20


Dr. Woodger's murder was discovered by two elderly golfers just in time for the afternoon paper. Since it was only a suburban paper, the murder made the headlines. There was an accompanying article with a few details and a brief, rather silly, interview with the police chief. There was also a hastily written editorial asking, more or less, what the world was coming to.

Mrs. Eloise Eliot fainted when she saw the paper. In the course of doing so, she slumped from her chair to the floor, spilling her coffee and scattering chocolates. Fortunately, her two daughters and their friend, Miss Ruth Engler, happened to be present at the time. Mrs. Eliot, in their place, would have been more concerned about the coffee on the carpet than the woman who had fainted. However, her companions, with less worldly experience, were too flustered to think about the coffee. They instead knelt by Mrs. Eliot and got her corset unfastened.

Ruth Engler, who had once thought of becoming a nurse, rolled Mrs. Eliot on to her back and pushed vigorously up and down on her chest. Perhaps because of that, the patient began to make odd noises. Ruth got off her, and, having sat her up, they offered water. Between gulps, Mrs. Eliot produced a general rage expressed with some moderately bad words. It soon developed that she was most angry with the president, Mr. Franklin Roosevelt.

The others assumed that the president had done something outrageous, at least in Mrs. Eliot's view. However, when they saw the paper, and realized that the murder of Dr. Woodger had set her off, they communicated with quick looks and murmured comments.

Mrs. Eliot's glasses had been displaced in the commotion, and, to Mary Eliot, the spectacle of her mother, unnaturally bare-eyed, sitting on the floor and emoting in her underwear was a diverting one. There was a touch of amusement in even Ruth's voice as she said,

"Now Mimsie, we'll have to get you together and up off the floor."

Just then, Mrs. Gertrude Rolfe burst in, full of the news. Oddly, her husband was one of the golfers who had come upon Dr. Woodger's remains, but he hadn't succeeded in informing his wife. That is, he had come home very excited and babbling incoherently. The babbling had continued, off and on, for several hours, and it was only when Mrs. Rolfe saw the paper that she realized what it was all about.

After Mrs. Rolfe had settled in with coffee and chocolates, Mary gave her sister and Ruth a look. There seemed to be an implicit agreement that it would be better to get away and leave Mrs. Rolfe in charge. She was, after all, quite good at saying, "Isn't it awful".

The Chinese restaurant was run by long-time American citizens who spoke to customers a curious pidgin which they thought would convince Americans of their authenticity. It was a perfect fit for Ruth and Lucy. They ordered by saying, "Me likee Moxie", and were answered by "You likee muchee muchee chow mein?" Since the procedure was always the same, it hardly mattered who said what.

Once they had sat down Mary said,

"I always hated him. I'm glad he's dead."

Lucy replied,

"He wasn't a bad golfer, except that he tried to muscle every shot."

"He tried to muscle everything and everyone."

Ruth said,

"It seems from the reports that there aren't any suspects."

Lucy, assuming a detective expression, said,

"There may be footprints or tire tread marks."

"If the murderer has any sense, he'll get rid of his shoes and tires."

"But, really, who could it have been?"

"Someone who knew his habits, and was out there laying for him."

"Sure. But he was the sort of man lots of people hated."

Mary concluded,

"Anyway, our problem is dealing with Mother."

Ruth replied,

"She won't be able to settle down until she knows whether your father is coming back. We should find him and find out."

"Dr. Stowe may have heard from him. If he has, I think he'll tell me."

As usual, Sink took Timmy upstairs with him. Mary said to Dr. Stowe,

"It must have been a nasty surprise for you."

"A shock certainly. And he was, in an odd sort of way, a friend."

"He was a bit too overbearing for me, but you had a long shared history."

"There was that. And, of course, he was a great gossip. I couldn't resist being a willing ear."

"None of us can."

"A new trial for your mother, I'm afraid."

"Yes indeed. I think she really did have designs on him."

"And he on her, apparently. Perhaps partly because of money."

"If there is a divorce, she'll certainly get a good settlement. But, of course, everything's up in the air. Have you any thoughts about my father?"

"He hasn't written or called. But I do have the feeling that he hasn't gone very far."

"Lucy called the boat people in Maine and found out that he's gone cruising in his sailboat. We don't know whether Lee's with him."

"I rather think that she is. Where would he be likely to sail to?"

"He could go down the coast toward Canada, or in this direction to Portland."

"I've been to Portland. That's a big enough city to afford some anonymity."

"They evidently took Lee's car when they left. She could have dropped him off in Boothbay to get his boat, and then driven to Portland to meet him."

"They'd then have a car at their disposal, and could go anywhere."

"Well, Lucy and Ruth and I want to find him, if only to ask whether he's coming back."

"Yes. You might be able to find the boat anchored in Portland harbor."

The next day, Mrs. Eliot had calmed enough to ask for a "serious talk" with Mary. Lucy and Ruth were banished to the Chinese restaurant, and Mrs. Eliot began,

"We've simply got to be practical! Are you going to marry Sink?"

"He hasn't proposed, but he's been asking around to find the right school for Timmy."

"That's almost as good as a proposal. It'll have to be a very low-key marriage in the circumstances. Perhaps somewhere else."

"I'm sure Sink wouldn't want anything elaborate."

"The other matter is, of course, your father."

"We've just gotten some information, and I was waiting for a chance to tell you in private."

Mrs. Eliot smiled briefly when informed of Lucy's call to Maine. When she asked about "that woman", Mary replied,

"He was almost surely alone when he went to the boatyard. It did occur to me that Lucy and Ruth and I could take Lucy's car and try to find him. There aren't that many possibilities."

Mrs. Eliot considered briefly and replied,

"I'm not sure that I'll take him back even if he comes back. So, if you do find him, you musn't promise anything, or even say that I sent you. But I suppose we do have to know whether to get the lawyers working on a divorce."

It was necessary to reply only,

"All right. I'll find Lucy and Ruth. I imagine we can get going tomorrow."

Setting out early the next morning, it was the first time that Lucy and Mary had driven to Maine without their parents. They detoured to look in the harbors of Gloucester and Marblehead, but, as Mary remarked,

"It would take a lot of tacking against the wind to get to Massachusetts, and he's never expressed any interest in coming here."

Ruth replied,

"There are so many boats here, we'd have to do a pretty thorough search to find him."

"Besides, Dr. Stowe seems to think that he'll be in Portland."

"He's a pretty smart old bird. Do you think he knows something he hasn't told us."

"I don't hink he'd lie. But he very carefully said that Dad hadn't written or called."

Ruth considered, and added,

"I wonder if they've actually met."

"I don't think he'd turn up at Dr. Stowe's house in the middle of the night. If he came in daylight, he'd probably be seen."

"If he had Lee's car, he could drive to the golf course and intercept Dr. Stowe somewhere on the back nine."

Mary nodded and replied,

"That's possible. But why would he?"

"To talk and get advice."

"In which case Dr. Stowe might actually know that he's in Portland. All the more reason to go there."

Towns such as Saco and Biddeford seemed more interesting than they had in the company of parents, and the three young ladies approached Portland in a happy mood. Even if they didn't find Mr. Eliot, they could have fun out on their own.

The yacht club was across the harbor in South Portland, but a cruising yachtsman with a yen for anonymity would hardly go there. The main harbor was full of fishing boats and steamers, and there was no likely place for a visiting sailboat to dock or moor. However, the road they were on took them up a hill to the Esplanade. It was a curving scenic drive which overlooked the other side of the peninsula on which the city lay. There was a yacht anchorage there, and Lucy stopped the car above it, taking out the binoculars she had remembered to bring.

Some fifty boats, mostly sailboats, were lying at anchor. It took Lucy only a few minutes before she was rewarded with the sight of Lee Howsam sunbathing on the foredeck of the Half Hitch, the Eliot sloop. Her master was not in evidence, nor was there any dingy. Lucy, after a moment of elation, said,

"He must have taken the rowboat and gone ashore, leaving Lee marooned."

Mary, taking a look, said,

"She looks happy enough, and she's got a book."

"We don't have any way of getting out."

"Let's find the rowboat on the beach and row out."

Ruth pointed out,

"Then, he'll be marooned on shore. And we might meet him on the beach."

Mary replied,

"We'll keep a lookout and be quick about it. It'll be embarrassing if we meet Dad. And we can find out much more from Lee."

The old-fashioned brown rowboat was immediately obvious among the boats pulled up on the sand. Lucy, in her usual costume, didn't mind getting wet. She launched the boat, and then, to the amusement of some spectators, carried Mary and Ruth out, installing them on the bow and stern seats. Lucy then jumped aboard and pulled a strong stroke away from the beach.

When they bumped alongside the Half Hitch, Lee looked over the rail and gave what Mary took to be a cry of delight. Mary and Ruth lifted their skirts to climb somewhat indecorously aboard, and Lucy was up with a single bound. Lee, acting as the hostess, produced some snacks and iced Moxie. When they were all seated in the cockpit, Mary said,

"Since we took the rowboat from the beach, Dad won't be able to get out."

"He won't be back for hours. He's meeting with lawyers."

That sounded ominous, but, before Mary could say anything, Lee asked,

"How did you find us?"

"Lucy guessed about the boat, and Dr. Stowe thought you might be here."

"Dr. Stowe? Yes. What is he doing these days?"

"He was one of the ones who discovered Dr. Sam Woodger's body. Did you know that he was murdered?"

"It's been in the paper here. I gather that there aren't any suspects."

"Not so far as I know."

"Well, there is a bit of a problem, and it centers around Dr. Stowe. We might need some advance warning."

This last was said in an undertone to Mary as Lucy and Ruth, diverted by the arrival of a large schooner nearby, were talking together. As Ruth called across to the newcomers, Lee motioned Mary down into the cabin. Sitting on the settees facing each other across the fold-down table there was a chance to talk. Lee said,

"Warren was so furious at Woodger that he could hardly function at times. And, of course, anyone like Woodger is dangerous to any Jew. The problem with eliminating people is generally that they'll be replaced by someone as bad or worse. But Woodger, because of his intelligence and energy, was virtually irreplaceable."

Mary gave a little hushed cry, but Lucy and Ruth, up on deck conversing with the neighboring yachtspeople, seemed not to notice. As she was recovering herself, Lee continued,

"And so we had to act. We got hunting rifles at L. L. Bean, and an old cruising companion of Warren's had left a pistol here. He was apparently afraid of pirates."

"And so you drove down secretly and ...."

"Did it. Yes. The only problem is that, as we left, I caught a glimpse of Dr. Stowe a hundred yards away, trying to hide behind a tree."

"So he saw."

"Probably. One never knows exactly how much he sees. But I don't think that he would realize that I saw him. And, of course, I didn't tell Warren."

"Dr. Stowe hasn't said a word. Lucy and Ruth and I thought he might have known more than he was telling, but we would never have guessed THAT!"

"I know him mostly at second hand, but it seemed unlikely that he'd tell on his best friend for killing someone like Woodger. I was still pretty nervous at first, but I'm feeling better now."

"I do know him pretty well, and I can't imagine him ever causing unnecessary trouble in that way."

"That's what I figured. Anyhow, if he came forward now, the police would wonder why he hadn't told them right off."

"There's even some reason to think that he took it in a somewhat humorous way."

"How's that?"

"Putting things together, he must have taken Mr. Rolfe out to play, knowing that the body was out there."

"It's natural that he'd want another witness."

"But Mr. Rolfe! He must have looked forward to enjoying that little man's reaction."

"What was it?"

"He apparently babbled nonsense for hours. Not even his wife could understand him."

"I can see that Dr. Stowe has some interesting depths. You should marry Sink and get him for a father-in-law."

"Actually, I think that may happen."

"Congratulations, Mary! I'd say that you've taken two men from me, but Sink was really yours from the beginning."

"Does my father count as one man taken from me?"

"This is getting rather difficult to score. Anyhow, do you want to see Warren?"

"Does he want to see us?"

"Eventually. Right now he might be hardly more articulate than Mr. Rolfe if he tried to explain his recent actions."

"So he wouldn't know what to say to me. And I'm not sure what I'd say to him, particularly since I'd have to pretend not to know about the elimination of Woodger."

"You might somehow get it across that you don't think he's a bad person for running off with me."

"Yes. You could tell him that we were here, and that I was all cheeriness and approving. The problem is that Lucy really does think that he did a bad thing. I'm glad she doesn't know the rest of it."

"It's funny that she's so conventional in some ways despite flouting the boy-girl rules."

"She and Ruth, in somewhat different ways, have to be extra- conventional to get away with being in love with each other."

"Yes. Don't ever tell her about Woodger when drunk, or anything like that."

"Have I ever gotten drunk and spilled any important beans?"

"No. I'm not really worried."

"Okay, we'll just row back to the beach. Should I tell Mother that he isn't coming back?"

"If you tell her that I told you so, she might not believe you. Besides, she'll eventually hear from the lawyers. I'm all for hiding behind the kind of prose they generate so easily."

"Something like, 'Mr. Warren Eliot, regretting being called away permanently, wishes to provide for his wife ...'"

Lee laughed and replied,

"I'm comfortable with being a woman who calls husbands permanently away from their wives."

They rowed back after a friendly farewell from Lee, and Lucy rammed the boat hard into the sand before conveying Ruth and Mary to dry ground. They then ascended the steep path up to the Esplanade and Lucy's car. There was a moment of indecision as they stood by the car, and Ruth asked,

"Is your father the sort of man who could stick out a year of doing nothing in North Dakota while she teaches?"

Mary replied,

"He's always joked about having no initiative, but I imagine he'll end up coming to school with her and helping teach."

"Well, sure. A teacher in a one-room schoolhouse is bound to need help."

Lucy said,

"They'll have to pretend to be married. Will anyone believe them?"

Ruth replied,

"My guess is that they're pretty desperate for teachers in North Dakota. It may seem unlikely that a woman like Lee would have a husband like your father, but they won't raise any questions."

As they continued to speculate, they saw a familiar figure walk along the beach toward the boats. If they had called out, they probably would have been heard. But they didn't. As Ruth said,

"From here on in, it's anybody's guess for any of us."

* * * * * * * * *

As Mary sat with Dr. Stowe in his living room, he said,

"You know, Sink really is an eccentric. I've never heard of another man asking his father to propose marriage for him."

Mary, laughing, replied,

"Then I can be the first with my indirect acceptance."

"When he gets back, we'll have to drink champagne or something."

"How about Moxie?"

"I think we do have some in the ice box."

As they checked on the Moxie supply Mary said,

"I know your secret. As she was leaving, Lee saw you as you looked from behind a tree."

Dr. Stowe almost dropped a Moxie, but Mary added,

"She didn't tell my father. It would have made him nervous."

"Goodness gracious! Of course, I wouldn't have said anything. Dr. Woodger may have accomplished a good deal in his medical career, but he was busy nullifying it."

"That's what I thought you'd think. However, as far as observation goes, your technique could be improved. You are wider than the average tree trunk, you know."

"Perhaps I should go on a diet. I'm not sure Moxie is the best way to begin."

"Oh, it's all right. Just look for a bigger tree next time."

Bill Todd -- Innovative Morality: A Short Novel of the Thirties
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