The Major Has Seven Guests
Flung together in the turmoil of crisis-racked Europe, four men and three women face —what? Timely as a news flash, a gripping story of the dangerous days
THE MAN in the black overcoat who sat in the rear seat with his wife, was indignant all the way from the railway station. They had been travelling in a first-class compartment, but that didn’t make any difference. The pair of them had been taken off the train at the border just as summarily as had Isaac Moss and myself, in our second-class estate. You understand, Moss and I had already established one of those tenuous acquaintances that one strikes up on trains and shipboard, for want of anything else to do. And now here we were, side by side in the auxiliary seats of a limousine, and both of us feeling uneasy and mystified as to why we w'ere there. It’s disconcerting to be hustled off a foreign train, without your luggage, and find yourself being rushed away to heaven knows where, with two stiff military backs turned on you from the front seat, and two strangers tucked in behind you.
Mr. Holdgate (he had introduced himself immediately when we got into the car) kept leaning forward to touch me on the shoulder in his indignation. “Look here,” he would say. “What is the meaning of all this? Can you tell me, sir?”
He seemed to assume that, because I had a working knowledge of the language, I must be involved in the conspiracy against him. I tried to absolve myself. I told him that I was as much in the dark as he was. that I was pretty well inured to European ways, having spent the better part of twenty years on the Continent, but that this was a new experience so far as I was concerned.
“Obviously,” I said, “they’re afraid of spies crossing the border. They may have doubted the validity of our passports, for some reason. Or it may be merely a gesture—a kind of nose-thumbing at Americans, individually and collectively.”
Holdgate breathed fire down the back of my neck. “I’ve been over here twenty-five or thirty times myself,” he boomed, “and never been treated to this particular incivility.”
Isaac Moss was smiling to himself. I supposed he was thinking the same thing I was. People like the Holdgates
A New Maclean's Serial
are not apt to encounter incivility in their travels. They journey from one Palace Hotel to the next, rent a villa at Cannes for the season, sun themselves on the Lido for a few weeks, pant up and down the mountainsides around St. Moritz. They looked pretty typical, the Holdgates . . .
The car was moving through the narrow, twisted streets of the town, under gables that projected so far and so low it seemed as if they must touch our top. Children stopped to stare at us occasionally, but most of the people seemed apathetic—dull, stupid, or perhaps only hardened through constant fear of authority against betraying surprise at anything. They were a hopeless, poor-looking people, in vivid contrast to the smartness and efficiency of the two officers who had us in tow.
We had passed beyond the town when they finally stopped the car. It was about dusk, but I craned my neck and peered through the window to see what kind of place they were taking us to. It wasn’t a police station, at any rate. Not even a concentration camp. It was an inn— sixteenth century, like the other buildings in the town—a gabled house, with the mountains rising from its very back yard, it seemed, and a battered silver goose banging in the wind before its dexir.
We were herded into the place, Holdgate sputtering every step of the way. His wife hadn’t said a word. She simply walked in ahead of him, holding her skirts away from the walls, seeming quite disinterested. Isaac Moss paused in the doorway and spoke to the younger officer.
“There are some papers in my brief case, lieutenant, which are very important to me. I trust that nothing will be—tampered with.”
The officer bowed. “Rest assured. Only information considered treasonable, or propaganda against the Government, will be confiscated. Everything else will be returned in good order.”
Oil lamps were burning in the dining room, and there was a small fire blazing—too small a fire, indeed, for the size of the room or the enormous black cavern of the fireplace. A number of chairs were lined against one wall, and two of them were occupied. The light was poor, but I made out a slender girl, darkly dressed, with a violin case lying across her lap, and a smooth-faced young man who was smoking the last inch of a cigarette as if his life depended on it. They looked up as we came in—curiously, I thought—but neither spoke.
Near the hearth, at a great carved table, sat an officiallooking person in a major’s uniform, with a pile of papers in front of nun. His shadow hovered like a gargantuan angel on the wall and ceiling, and seemed to lend majesty to his cropped head and bull shoulders.
"Be seated, please.” He looked us over as if we were prize animals at a county fair. “S-so !” The sibilant hissed between his teeth. "There are certain formalities, gentlemen. Information for the records. You will oblige.” He scanned a paper, frowning. “Be good enough to answer frankly. It is better so.” Although he spoke English correctly enough, he had an abrupt, jarring accent.
Three of us obediently found chairs, but Holdgate remained standing, ramming his hands down into the pockets of his overcoat and glaring at the Major. “Look here, my man,” he said in a hard voice. “I’d like to know the meaning of this. As an American citizen—”
"Quiet, please." The officer closed his eyes momentarily, as if he were tired of it all. “Mr. Louis Delius?”
I carne forward as Holdgate subsided into a chair beside his wife, still muttering darkly about international incidents. I imagine I was smiling. The whole thing seemed ridiculously pompous. It is quite as well, no doubt, that the gift of prescience is denied us at such times. As it was, the affair seemed amusing—the kind of thing that might make good telling at the club on a dull winter evening.
The Major elicited the information that I was forty-one (though I fancied I didn't kx>k it) and unmarried.
"Your place of residence?”
"I have a house in Connecticut. Actually my place of residence is almost anywhere.”
“Connecticut.” He wrote it down. I'd have given a gtxxd deal to see how he spelled it. “Your business?”
"I am not a businessman,” I said, as winningly as I could. It was bound to arouse his suspicions. All Americans must be businessmen. “I attend auctions, and I buy pictures—other objects—when they are within my means. Occasionally 1 sell them later. Otherwise, I have a small income that suffices for my needs.”
The Major stared as if he doubted my veracity, just as I had expected he would. “Art dealer,” he snapped after a moment, and wrote it down. "That will do, Mr. Delius. Mr. Jared Holdgate?”
The black overcoat was advancing truculently toward the table as I sat down. “I'm not at all sure that you are within your rights—” Holdgate began.
“I can assure you that we are quite within our rights,” said the officer. “Now—”
Mr. Holdgate announced his full name, somewhat impressively, his age as fifty, his nationality as American and glad of it, his residence New York. Questioned as to his occupation, he mentioned a list of banks and railroads, and was going on still further, when the Major held up one hand arrestingly, and said:
“That covers it. I think, Mr.—ah, Holdgate?”
“Not quite,” Holdgate broke in hotly. “There’s going to be trouble about this. I warn you. I '11 cable Washington. I’ll get in touch with the ambassador. Where’s the telephone?”
The officer regarded him without emotion. “The Government regrets that no communication can be permitted its guests till further notice.”
“Guests! Guests!” The word came bursting from I loldgate’s lips like a series of small explosions, as he stalked to his chair. His wife brushed past him, without haste, on lier way up. She was casual and “smart” in Scotch tweeds —a mildly attractive woman. Yet there was a listlessness about her that seemed to me to spring from some deeper source than the affectation often assumed by women of her world. It was as if her colors were blurred and deadened by a fatigue more enervating than any mere exhaustion of the body. She looked and moved and spoke like a person tired clear through.
She said that she was Doris Vanzelst Holdgate, thirtysix. The rest was repetition. “Is that all?” she asked then.
The Major bowed—with some irony, I imagined. Her voice was steel-cold.
“Then perhaps you can tell me,” she went on, “what has happened to my maid? She vanished, you might say, from the train, some time between ten o’clock this morning and four this afternoon. And her baggage along with her. It is inconvenient ...”
The Major lifted his shoulders and looked blank. “That is most regrettable. What was your maid’s name and nationality, madam?”
“Irene Dumont. She is Belgian.”
He wrote it down obligingly. “We will look up Mile. Dumont,” he said, bowing again. “Possibly she decided to follow some—more picturesque career—on the spur of the moment.” I got the impression that he already knew more about Mrs. Holdgate’s maid than she did, and was enjoying his little deception to the utmost.
“I hardly think so,” said Doris Holdgate coldly. “She is an old maid. Elle coiffe sainte Catherine,” she added, as if afraid he might not have recognized the English idiom.
The Major smiled unctuously. “Ah—these spinsters! One never knows,” he purred.
Mrs. Holdgate turned away indifferently and came back to her place. “The man is an imbecile,” she said to her husband, without rancor.
Isaac Moss went forward, polishing his glasses abstractedly. He was a tall, lanky man of about middle age. His face was sharply molded, with deep lines down the cheeks and across the forehead—an undistinguished face, except for the eyes. I had been struck by them at once, in the train. They burned behind his glasses with passion and a startling intensity, and seemed in direct contradiction to the mildness of his general appearance. I couldn’t connect them with the rest of him, and it bothered me.
He was fifty-eight, he replied absently, after a moment's thought. Apparently he had forgotten his age and had to figure it out.
“Your place of residence?” The Major was eyeing him narrowly.
Moss looked at him for the first time as if he actually saw him, and a whimsical smile lighted his face for an instant. “ The world is my home,’ ” he said in a clear voice.
I sat up at that. Holdgate snorted audibly and his wife edged forward in her chair, with her eyebrows raised. The two people over against the wall stirred uneasily. The Major slapped one hand impatiently on the table. It was clear not only that Thomas Paine was unfamiliar to him, but also that the famous declaration had, for him, a taint of treason.
“Come, come!” He was getting red in the face. “This is no time for levity, Mr. Moss. Where do you live?”
Isaac Moss looked past him again. “There is a certain town in Minnesota,” he said indifferently, “—if it must be narrowed down.”
The soldier wrinkled his forehead as he wrote. We all breathed easier. “Your occupation?’’
Moss clasped his bony hands behind his back and held his head high. “I travel and observe. And when I have learned, I teach.”
The Major looked troubled. “Teacher.” He wrote it down, then he laid his pen aside and leaned across the table, nailing Moss with a sharp blue eye. “You write?” he demanded suddenly, as if he had accused him of a serious offense and wished to catch him off his guard.
“I write,” Isaac Moss admitted, rather sadly.
The Major took up his pen again and wrote at some length. Then he shook himself and waved Moss back to his place. “Carl Mungo?” he said enquiringly, looking toward the far wall.
The young man who emerged from the shadows was something of a surprise. He seemed to have cast away his nervousness with the scrap of cigarette which he’d been smoking so avidly when we came in. Now that it was possible to see his face, he appeared as a remarkably prepossessing fellow. His dark hair was brushed smoothly back from a good forehead, his features were clean-cut and regular, and he carried himself with easy grace, walking as lightly as a cat across the bare oak floor. What struck me, though, was a certain haunting familiarity about him. It was like a bell ringing, far off and so faintly that you cannot tell what direction it came from.
I knew that I had seen this young man somewhere before—but where? Under what circumstances? Impossible to link him up with anything, at that moment. I was certain of only one thing: his name had not been Mungo. I’d have remembered that . . .
As he approached the Major’s table, a candid smile illumined his face. Whatever his name may have been, he was the kind of fellow you're inclined to like the instant you meet him.
“Your age, Mr. Mungo?”
“Twenty-six, sir.” Mr. Mungo seemed eager to oblige.
“Place of residence?”
Mungo laughed boyishly and seemed a little embarrassed. “Well, that’s sort of a poser, sir. I’ve— done a little bit of everything and not much of anything, if you know what I mean.”
The officer cleared his throat. “That is—unsatisfactory. We must have some definite information for the records, Mr. Mungo.”
The young man laughed again, deprecatingly, but I could see his face from where I sat, and there wasn’t any laughter in his eyes. They looked almost frightened. He glanced away, at a spot somewhere behind the Major’s head. “Recently,” he said, after a moment, “I've sold stocks. Securities.”
The Major wrote down “Stockbroker,” ascertained that Mr. Mungo was unmarried, and dismissed him brusquely. He mopped his forehead and breathed wheezily as he read off the last name on the list.
The girl came forward timidly, still clasping her battered violin case as if she were afraid someone might try to take it away from her. She looked a little pathetic, holding that black box tight against her side, wearing a mousy suit of no particular style, with a felt hat pulled down on her head, and large dark eyes peering out, frightened, from a pale little face.
I looked at my fellow travellers. They all seemed bored, restless. Miss Rember did not promise to be particularly interesting. Holdgate was strumming nervously with the
fingers of one hand on his knee. His wife had fitted a cigarette into an ivory holder, and her long, tired eyes were turned obliquely toward Mr. Mungo, who had slumped down in his chair with both legs stretched out in front of him, and was gazing objectively at his own neat oxfords. Moss was scribbling rapidly in a small notebook, living no attention to anyone.
The Major's dynamic personality was at its best with a subject like Julie Rember. “Your age?” he fairly bellowed.
“Twenty.” The poor little thing answered so faintly that I could barely hear her. You’d have thought she was in the shadow of the guillotine.
“Speak up. please. Place of residence?”
She seemed to have forgotten. Then she burst out suddenly, desperately:
“Well, which?” the Major demanded petulantly. “One or the other.” He seemed hurt, offended.
The girl began to stammer. She clutched her fiddle against her side as if it were her only friend. "I—it—I mean, they’re both the same, you know. I mean—Illinois is—a state.”
“Why didn’t you say so?" cried the Major. “That is what you should have said in the first place. Illinois. Certainly. I’m not a fool . . Your occupation?”
“I—I’m a student. I’ve been studying music. In Munich. I’m on my way home.”
“Music. A—ah. You play?” The Major looked acute.
Miss Rember nodded. Apparently it didn’t occur to her that there was anything ridiculous in the question.
“S—so!” The Major expanded his chest and looked well content, as if he had just brought a dangerous criminal to justice. Julie Rember crept back to her chair, hugging her violin. Holdgate was sitting with his head bowed on one hand, as if he were making a herculean effort to think something through. Mungo abandoned the contemplation of his shoes for a moment, and, looking up, met Mrs. Holdgate’s impersonal glance. He straightened himself and smiled nicely. She looked away, unhurried and unsmiling.
The Major stood up, stretching himself to his full fivefoot-six, and rapped smartly on the table. I expected him to say, “The meeting will come to order,” but he didn’t. Instead, he spoke a little piece which he had obviously learned by rote. He delivered it very impressively, too, and not one of us missed a word of it, I am certain.
“The Government regrets that it has been necessary to prevent foreigners from leaving the country at present. The Government has placed this residence at your disposal for the duration of the crisis. The Government wishes it understood that everything possible will be done for your comfort and convenience, but that no one will be JXTmitted to leave the premises without official sanction.”
The rest of us sat frozen, but 1 loldgate sprang to his feet. "Do you mean to say.” lie thundered, “that you propose to hold free citizens in this God-forsaken limbo, while your tuppenny Government makes up its mind whether to go to war? Why, it’s preposterous. 1 don’t know about these other people”—he cast a slightly contemptuous glance at the rest of us—"but I’ve important interests to look after. I have to keep in touch with things. I can’t lx* bottled up here like—like—”
None of us ever knew what it was that Mr. Holdgate couldn’t be bottled up like, because, at that instant, there was a brisk commotion outside the door—sounds of a scuffle and short, excited words, and. above it all. a woman’s voice, cutting clean and sharp across the stuffy obscurity in which we all sat, waiting.
“I haven’t done anything! Let me go! Take your dirty hands off me, will you?”
WE ALL looked toward the door, startled. And it was a strange scene, there in the doorway—a scene with almost no action, but amazing intensity. Two soldiers were holding a girl between them. 11er struggles to free herself resulted in nothing, since the men were great, brawny peasants, yet you could feel her energy and desperation, as she flexed her shoulders and clenched her fists, hurling anathema all the while.
“You let me go! I tell you I haven’t—you lay off me!” The Major’s voice, behind us. cut like a whip. “Release the prisoner.” The soldiers dropjx*d her as if she had suddenly scorched their hands. The girl stood up between them, in an attitude of defiance, with her chin thrust out. She began poking wisps of blond hair up under the edge of her hat—a most gay. insouciant excuse of a hat, with a pheasant feather fully two feet long.
I, for one, couldn't help admiring the way in which she stepped into the room and threw down the gauntlet before the officer.
“All right.” she said, “let me in on it. What is it—a new game? Don’t tell me. Let me guess.”
The military did not flinch, but there was a slight lowering of the Major's eyelids, barely perceptible, which caused me to look more closely at the girl. It was then that I realized, with a little shock, that here was one of the prettiest girls I had ever seen off the stage. She was considerably dishevelled, and her clothes were awry.
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The Major Has Seven Guests
Continued from page 9—Starts on page 7
Moreover, her make-up was far too blatant for my taste—blue grease about the eyes, and a mouth like an artificial cherry, freshly varnished—but in spite of all that, she was lovely.
“No one is going to harm you.” The Major’s voice sounded a little thick and surprisingly gentle. “It has been necessary to hold foreigners for a short time until certain adjustments can be made. You will be comfortable here.”
The girl took another step into the room and cast a glance around at our circle of faces.
“Just one big happy family,” she remarked. She seemed suddenly quite at her ease as she pulled a crumpled package of cigarettes from her handbag and lit one, flinging the match away with a brisk gesture.
The Major was obviously trying to pull himself together. He cleared his throat loudly. “You will be good enough to answer a few questions,” he said in a deep, official voice.
“The fewer the better,” said the girl. She came forward, her pheasant feather swaying as she walked. There was a hint of self-consciousness in her manner, but, even so, she was absurdly pretty, crossing the room on her high heels and swinging a pair of grey kid gloves in one hand with a certain nonchalance.
“Your name, please?” The Major was making a great fuss with his papers, shaking his pen, being very executive.
“Polly Targ,” she answered. “Miss Polly Targ.”
“Your age, Miss Targ?” “Twenty-three.” Her voice had undergone a marked change since we’d heard it in the doorway. Then it had been shrill, panicky. Now it was low, throaty, subtly insinuating, a voice which combined the qualities of gentility, sophistication and sex appeal.
“Place of residence?”
She let a little pause fall between question and answer, each time, like a brief curtain. “New York.”
“Occupation?” The Major’s tone was somewhat blustery. He did not take his eyes from Miss Targ’s face, and she returned his look, standing tall and slim, close to the table, flipping her grey gloves with a small whispering sound against the wood. I could see the color beginning to mount slowly to the edge of the Major's military haircut.
“I am a singer.” Miss Targ leaned slightly backward from the hips as she spoke, yet her tone gave the curious illusion that she had actually leaned across the table and said her four words directly into the Major's ear.
“H-mm. A singer, you say?”
She nodded slowly, and her voice became more and more intimate, husky and unhurried. “Yes. I have been singing in cafés. Here and there. Nice places. Smart. Swanky, you know. Paris, Berlin—all over. But they don’t appreciate a real high-class act over here.” A note of honest disillusion had crept into her voice, I thought, as if in spite of herself. “I want to get back to a country where an artist is appreciated—present company excepted, of course.”
“Of course.” The Major was very red now. “America’s gain will be Europe’s loss,” he said, staring pop-eyed across the table. I could hear his stertorous breathing from the other side of the room. Then, as if ashamed of his unwonted gallantry, he pulled himself erect, shuffled his papers together, and said, “That will do, Miss Targ—for the present.”
Miss Targ turned slowly, as if loath to relinquish the Major to his official duties, and walked down the room beneath her pheasant feather. I was interested by the emotions in the faces of the others, as she passed Mrs. Holdgate threw her a brief
glance, a mere flicker of indifference—the same kind of look, I thought, that she would have bestowed upon a cat or dog which had chanced to walk through the room. Holdgate accorded her a longer scrutiny, with emphasis on her slender legs—which were deserving of notice, I admit. Isaac Moss looked up from his notebook, at her perfumed passing, and it seemed to me that his pity made a strange, incongruous cloak for hei careless figure.
Young Mr. Mungo had left his chair without my noticing it, and was standing with his back to the room, looking out through one of the small, high windows that opened on the street, on darkness and snow.
The vivid lady sat down next to Julie Rember—an amusing study in contrasts. The little music student was still »holding her violin case across her lap as if she were afraid to let go of it for an instant. Her shy glance passed swiftly over Miss Targ and away again. Miss Targ, however, seemed quite at her ease now. She leaned toward Julie, touching the case with a crimson fingernail.
“I suppose you just play classical music on that?”
I could almost feel the inward shudder which that phrase is bound to cause a musician. Miss Rember looked startled, uncomfortable. “Well—yes. At least— yes, I suppose so.”
Miss Targ nodded. “I know. ‘Humoresque’ and things like that. I like classical music myself. Maybe you could learn to tear off some of my numbers, if we’re going to be stuck here any time ...”
Julie Rember’s thin white hands moved caressingly over the worn surface of the violin case. “I could try,” she said, and then she looked away, biting her lip, and I thought for a moment that she was going to cry.
Just then we heard a door flung open. A gust of cold wind from the street rushed through the hall and took possession of the room, and with it came four or five big fellows carrying trunks and hand luggage, some of which I recognized as my own. The Major flashed across the room, shouting orders left and right as if he were on the field of battle. Obediently, the luggage began to disappear up a stairway which vanished, after the first step or two, in the thick gloom of the hall. The Major turned to us with a satisfied smile.
“S-so!” He was actually beaming, looking like a genie who has just brought about a highly desirable miracle. “Everything in order. You will find your belongings upstairs. I will show you to your rooms. You will be very comfortable. A charming place — very ancient, picturesque. What more could you ask? Notice the hand-wrought latches on the doors. Leaded windowpanes, also. Charming!”
You'd have thought, to hear him, that he was trying to sell us the inn, lock, stock and barrel. He stood beside the door, bowing and rubbing his hands, and, when the Holdgates and Moss and Julie Rember had passed out, he gestured benevolently at the rest of us to follow, and started upstairs. I could hear his polite expostulations and the rumble of Holdgate’s indignation, intermingled in the upper darkness with the clap of feet on the ancient wood.
I HAD paused for a moment near the f(x>t of the stairs to examine an old oak dresser which I’d noticed when we came in. It was tcx> dark now to see the piece well, and I was about to give it up till next morning, when I realized that two of my fellow travellers were still in the dining room, and that I was overhearing a rather intimate conversation. Apparently they were just inside the door, not six feet from where I stood.
“What are you doing here?” It was the
voice of Polly Targ, rough with anger but suppressed almost to a whisper.
Then Mr. Mungo: ‘‘Good lord—have a heart. 1 had no idea. All I want is to get out of here. If they take a good look at that passport—I didn’t know you were here.”
Miss Targ laughed shortly, without amusement. "Well, I wouldn’t be, I can tell you, if things had gone right. I’ve been working at the Café d’Or. and I want to get out of the country. I had it all lined up too. There was an old bird connected with the Government. He used to come there all the time. Ready to eat out of my hand —and he was going to fix it for me. Then all at once he didn’t show up. and the next thing I knew they grabbed me and brought me to this hole.”
Mungo said, “That’s tough. But you’ll get out. if it’s just money you need. I’m in a real jam. Ah—keep your mouth shut, will you, Polly?”
“I’ll keep my mouth shut,” she said grimly. “And the sooner you get out of here, the better I’ll like it, too. I never saw you before and I don’t want to see you now. Is that clear?”
I started upstairs then, feeling a little guilty and more than a little upset. I had an uneasy feeling that this might not turn out to be the harmless, amusing little experience that I’d anticipated, after all. As I reached the top of the narrow, walled staircase, I could hear them coming up behind me, but they were not talking now.
TN AN upper hall, lighted by a lantern -*■ suspended from the ceiling, the Major was bustling about, showing the “guests of the Government,” as he insisted on calling us, to our rooms. I wondered what had wrought the remarkable change in his manner, and concluded that it could have been nothing but the sudden appearance of Miss Targ in our midst. From almost the moment of her arrival, the Major had begun to expand like an unfolding peony. It only goes to show, I suppose, that even the sternest of militarists may have what is sometimes called a “human” side.
I found that I had been coupled with Isaac Mossa happy circumstance, I may add. since the only other member who might conceivably have shared my room was young Mr. Mungo, and, owing to the conversation I’d just overheard, that might have been awkward—at least for one of us. Besides. I liked Moss, so far as I knew him. He seemed a harmless, impractical old fellow.
Our luggage had Wen piled neatly in the middle of the room, midway between the fireplace and the alcove which held the two beds. Moss was fumbling with a key at the lock of a brief case.
“It’s rather an interesting place,” I said, to make conversation, as I began to unpack my things, “if one must be incarcerated. Though we might prefer to be free, or at least footl;x)se.”
Moss smiled. He hadn’t found the right key yet. “A good distinction,” he said courteously. "No man is free.”
1 found myself wondering just what sort of mild fanatic he would turn out to be. I thought I couldn’t have been mistaken in those eyes. They burned with the light of consecration—but to what?
He had got the brief case open at last. As he bent over it. a lock of thin grey hair fell across his forehead and touched his glasses. He brushed it back and peered eagerly into the leather case. He reached inside, groping. Then he closed it again and straightened up. His face looked suddenly old and worn.
“They are gone,” he said, in a fiat voice. “My papers. All the notes for my book. They’ve taken everything—cleaned me out.”
There was such real and intense despair in his face as I have seldom witnessed. I went across the room and began idiotically looking into the bag, as if he might have missed something. “But why? There wasn't anything compromising, surely?” I íe made a gesture of helplessness. “Only my observations on the state of the peoples
under the dictators. All true, you under! stand. The misery, the poverty, the injustices that I have seen with my own eyes ...”
I turned away. The man was a child at heart, that much was clear. Useless, of course, to point out to him now the folly ! of carrying such dynamite about with him. i He might as well have tried to cart a truckload of TNT across that border.
“My friend,” I said, not trusting myself to look at him, “let me advise you to be careful what you say here. And keep your thoughts off paper till you’re back in the States. These people have their backs i against a wall, and you don’t bother much | about moral justice or human rights when you’re in a fix like that.”
He didn’t answer. Either he didn't understand what I was driving at, or else j he considered his personal safety too negligible to deserve attention. In the light of what has happened since, I’m inclined to think it was the latter.
Dinner, we were told, would be served at eight. It was interesting to observe the build-up of the agreeable little pretense that we were here of our own volition—a sort of free holiday, away from it all. The Silver Goose had apparently been taken over by the Government for the accommodation of political suspects. Not one of us, of course, could evade the fact of its being actually a prison. If ever we were inclined to forget the true nature of our residence, we had only to crane our necks over the ledge of one of the little front windows and see the polished blade of a bayonet and the top of a military cap passing endlessly back and forth, up and down, before the inn.
The innkeeper came out of hiding at dinner time—a scared-looking man who spoke no English—who seemed, in fact, loath to speak at all. It was hard to determine which he was the more afraid of, the military authorities or his fat wife. He had a fierce pair of mustaches which didn’t fool anyone, and he spent most of his time in the kitchen. He sent in his wife and a dull-witted serving wench with the dishes, while he himself merely popped his head in at the door from time to time, and then withdrew it promptly, like a mouse peeping from its hole. When Isaac Moss or I cornered him long enough to attempt a conversation in his own tongue, he threw us a startled glance and fled, casting behind him a scattering of short, noncommittal remarks.
“Yes, sir ... A fine day ... A laughing day ... A suspicion of snow in the air . . . Yes. sir . . . ”
I could forgive him much, however, in view of his culinary attainments. He had a way with an omelet which was sheer magic, and he even contrived to disguise the ubiquitous veal of the country so that it was not only edible, but actually delicious.
T OOKING back on it, that first meal at •*-' the Silver Goose appears as a fantastic occasion. There was an element of improbability about it, even at the time: the long, low room with its smoke-stained beams and the cavernous fireplace which could | have accommodated a whole beef (and undoubtedly had, in palmier days)—and the seven of us, wanderers and aliens. I sitting along both sides of the ancient table, like anachronisms who had bluni dered somehow out of our own proper niche in time.
All but Isaac Moss and little Julie Rember had dressed for dinner, with an almost British determination, I suppose, to preserve the amenities at all costs. Mrs. Holdgate wore black with pearls at her throat, and I noticed, now that she had discarded her hat, that her dark hair had a ribbon of white up the left side. She looked rather less wearied than she had ! earlier, but she maintained her icy comI posure. She gave the impression that nothing in the world had the power to astonish her, or to interest her for more than an instant.
Holdgate himself, on the contrary,
seemed to typify the Man of Action. He leaned across the table, holding the stem of his wineglass so firmly that I expected him to shatter it at any moment, and said:
“Our move, as I see it. gentlemen, is to get together on some plan of procedure that will get us out of this as quickly as possible. We should try to reach the ambassador, don’t you agree?”
Mr. Mungo agreed—though not very enthusiastically, I thought—and I said nothing. I failed to see how he proposed to reach the ambassador, under the circumstances. And, in any event, it did not greatly matter to me whether I stopped at the Silver Goose for a day or a month, so long as the fare was reasonably good, the beds comfortable, and the company as entertaining as it promised to be. This oddly assorted band of wayfarers had begun to take hold on my imagination. I confess, and it seemed to me that it would be a pity to have it broken up before we had become better acquainted. I had been on my way to Paris to look over a certain exhibition and pick up one or two things, if possible. But it really made very little difference whether I was in Paris or Timbuctoo at any given moment—except that I liked Paris at this time of year.
Mrs. Holdgate spoke up in her tired voice. “It seems definitely out of the question. Why should you let it annoy you? Nothing will come of it. I mean, nothing ever does come of anything.”
Holdgate made a vigorous gesture of protest with his shoulders. “That is an extraordinary thing for you to say, Doris.” He sounded offended. “A great deal comes of everything, provided it’s done with a purpose. There’s nothing haphazard about my affairs, certainly. It’s absolutely essential, as you know, that I keep in touch with things, keep my finger on the pulse of events.”
I smiled, reflecting that it’s probably that very quality which makes “big” men of Jared Holdgate and those like him: that complete lack of comprehension of their own unimportance. He could not conceivably bring himself to see that the “pulse of events” would proceed quite as usual, whether his finger were there to feel it or not. Inevitably the world accepts such men at their own evaluation.
Mrs. Holdgate looked away, as if she had abruptly lost interest in the whole subject. In the pause, the voice of Julie Rember, a little breathless, could be heard addressing Miss Targ beside her:
“But—our being kept here this way—I mean, you don’t suppose there’s any real danger, do you?”
Polly Targ, rather splendid in green sequins, smiled one-sidedly. “Depends on what you call danger, I’d say. If you’d run up against as many two-time guys as 1 have, here and there, you wouldn’t get very steamed up over a boy scout with a toy pistol, like that one out in front.”
“Oh, I don’t believe anyone is going to get shot,” laughed Carl Mungo, looking not at Polly but at Mrs. Holdgate.
“It would be quite too much to hope for,” Mrs. Holdgate observed, returning his look coolly. She turned to her husband.
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“It might be amusing, though.” she added speculatively. “How, for instance, would you behave when being shot, darling? Would you face the firing squad with noble determination to die like a man? Would you utter memorable last words, in a ringing voice? And would I fling myself upon you. like Tosca—”
Holdgate flushed. “You’ve a macabre brand of humor, Doris. After all—”
Isaac Moss, who had sat silent and downcast throughout the meal, now roused himself with an effort and spoke to Mrs. Holdgate across the table. “Have you heard any news of your maid? You said she had disappeared, I remember.”
Mrs. Holdgate shook her head. “Not a thing. I miss Irene, too. She packed beautifully.”
Her husband spoke rather testily. Obviously he was still disgruntled. “I don’t think it was particularly clever of her to stick three packages of her own vile cigarettes in with your underwear.”
Mrs. Holdgate’s long white fingers crushed a bit of cracker with unwonted vigor. “Nonsense,” she said after a moment. “She probably forgot to put them in her own bag, till after she'd locked it.” “Well, you’d better hang onto them. Heaven knows how long we’ll be here. They may come in handy next summer.” Julie leaned forward, wide-eyed. “But what do you suppose could have happened to her?”
“Probably one of two things,” Holdgate said judicially. “Either she skipped with some soldier or guard or w’hat not, or else she was arrested. They’re continually nabbing people that they suspect are spies, you know. Maybe she was, for that matter.”
“How absurd,” said Mrs. Holdgate. “Irene was a very efficient maid.”
“She might have been an equally efficient spy.”
We had finished the meal, with Camembert and coffee, and Mr. Mungo looked up and down the table now, with his boyish smile, asking:
“Can’t we make up a table of bridge?” “It seems probable,” said Mrs. Holdgate. “Undoubtedly we will play bridge, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. You play, Mr. Delius?”
I admitted it.
“Count me out,” said Polly Targ. looking fixedly at Mr. Mungo. He rather pointedly avoided her glance, I thought, stooping just then to retrieve Mrs. Holdgate’s cigarette case. As he handed it to her, I was struck again by the extreme personability of the young man. He wore his evening clothes perfectly, and there was an air of frankness and candor about him which didn’t detract from his poise in the least.
Little Miss Rember was looking at him too, I noticed—looking with a kind of awe, and the beginning of an almost devotional admiration. It was quite natural, I supposed. Mungo was as likable a fellow as I’d ever met, and good-looking, too, according to most women's standards. If it hadn’t been for what I had overheard a few hours earlier, it probably wouldn’t have bothered me in the least. But there it was, and, as I watched her covertly, I had somewhat the same feeling that I’d experienced upstairs with Isaac Moss. I felt as if something cold had touched me— a foreshadowing of calamity over which I could have no control! I glanced quickly back at Carl Mungo, but he was smiling engagingly at Mrs. Holdgate as they left the table. Julie Rember looked down at her thin hands. Miss Targ was promising Holdgate to sing later, if the game didn’t last too long. Isaac Moss remained at the table, deep in thought, for some time after the rest of us had got up.
They pulled a card table up near the fire —it was getting pretty chilly in that room —and we cut for partners. Mungo drew Holdgate, while I played opposite his wife. It was slowr, because nobody’s mind was on the game, apparently. I’m sure my own thoughts were wandering nine tenths of the time. Moss roused himself after a while,
and sank into a low chair at one side of the hearth. Polly Targ was lounging opposite, looking as restive as a captive lioness.
Julie Rember had wandered across the room and was standing on tiptoe to look through the window at the night. We could hear, very faintly outside, the regular beat of the sentry’s boots on the snowy street.
The girl turned back to the room, shivering a little and pulling a scarf closer about her shoulders. “It kx>ks as if they were all ready for war, doesn’t it?” she asked of nobody in particular.
Moss looked across at her, from under his shaggy eyebrows. “All Europe is already at war.” he said, in that voice which, for all its softness, carried surprisingly well. “The munitions, the patriotism, the hatred and the liesit is already in motion. Tomorrow, or the day after, the guns will si>eak. And it is incredible, when you consider that all of them—all of us— are so very much alike. Identical, in our joys and our sorrows and our aspirations. Quite incredible . . . all men are brothers.”
Jared Holdgate gathered in a trick with a swift movement. "Afraid I can’t agree with you there,” he remarked brusquely.
The laughter of Polly Targ, bright and sharp as broken glass, fell ui*>n the room. “Maybe you’re right, doctor, but I’ve never had to complain of them treating me like a sister.”
Holdgate threw back his head and laughed appreciatively.
“More’s the pity, my dear,” Moss said quietly. He seemed entirely unperturbed, though Miss Targ still stood there in the firelight, looking down at him with the mocking, sardonic tolerance with which one might survey a harmless idiot child. Mungo and Mrs. Holdgate exchanged a brief smile.
There was about Isaac Moss a sincerity so radiant as to be almost blinding. There was, moreover, another quality for which I can find no name except the outmoded word "goodness.”
* j 'HE outer door creaked and slammed.
-*■ The Major was once more among us, magnificent in a dress uniform, all buttons and braid and white breeches and high black txxtts, looking as if he had just stepped out of a light-opera finale. He clicked his heels together and remained glittering for a moment in the doorway before he came into the room.
“Aha —a game of cards!” he cried affably. “I see you are amusing yourselves without my help. Delightful.”
He kissed Mrs. Holdgate’s hand with a fine air, and then lie turned the full force of his military charm on Miss Targ, who was still standing on the far side of the hearth, kxiking as smooth and shining as a mermaid in her green gown. The Major bent himself almost double over her fingertips.
“Ah—but one cannot play bridge all the time, can one? We must arrange something special before long—a gala evening, what? Miss Targ will be kind enough, perhaps, to sing? Some of those delightful American songs . . .”
" ‘Flatfoot Floogie,’ ” said Miss Targ, looking at him through her long lashes.
The Major’s laughter sounded a little bewildered. “Ah, yes—Flatfoot—ah. to be sure. Charming. And our pretty little fiddler"—he turned to Julie Rember with just the right shade of condescension— “you will play for us to dance, eh? It will be very gay. There is a piano somewhere about ...”
“I’m afraid I don’t play—swing music very well,” she protested, shrinking before his splendor.
The Major waved that aside. “Immaterial. You play, we dance. You will learn a new tune, eh? Something—’’
Suddenly his restless eye fell upon Isaac Moss, who was still sitting in his corner, staring abstractedly at the fire. The Major’s whole manner altered, in the very midst of his sentence. The all-too-urbane smile which had decorated his pink face since he'd entered the room did not actually disappear, but it became somehow
twisted and distorted into an ironic grimace which was most unpleasant to witness.
“Ah. I am forgetting my very good friend, Doctor Moss,” he said with heavy sarcasm, and speaking in a loud voice. “A gentleman and a scholar, as the English would say. A voice crying in the wilderness, like Saint John. A wilderness w'here the children are nourished on fear and brought up to despair. Is it not so, Doctor Moss?”
Moss had looked up sharply at the last words, but now he turned his eyes away again, without any change of expression that I could see. The Major looked around at us all as if he had just achieved a triumph.
“It is a quotation from the learned doctor’s own work,” he explained", breathing heavily.
His small eyes returned to Isaac Moss, and it seemed to me that he was boiling inwardly at the slight response which his elaborate baiting had brought him. He took a step forward, and we could hear his boots creaking stiffly in the stillness of the room.
“Perhaps,” he said distinctly, “Doctor Moss, too, will learn a new tune.”
Isaac Moss turned his head and regarded him with a slow smile.
“Perhaps,” he said. “But the odds are against it.”
V\ 7HEN I went down for my rolls and W coffee next morning, I found Julie Rember with Mungo, in a small salon across from the main room which seemed to serve not only as a dining hall, but also as a general gathering place. There was an old square piano in the little room, and Julie’s violin case lay open on top of it. She herself was sitting on the piano bench, with her fiddle on her knee. Mungo, with his back to the door, was bending over her —unnecessarily close, it seemed to me. She looked up as I paused in the doorway, peeping around his shoulder with bright eyes, and her face, which had been so pale and pinched the evening before, now looked faintly flushed and happy.
“Good morning, Mr. Delius! Come in,” she called, quite gaily.
Carl Mungo straightened up and greeted me civilly. As he turned his head, I wondered again where it was that I’d seen him before.
“Thought I was an early bird,” I said, “but you two are earlier ones.”
Julie plucked a fiddle string with one finger. “I sneaked downstairs to practice,” she said, casting an accusing look upward at Mungo. “I was going to be very quiet and not disturb anyone. But I’d no s;x>ner got started than Mr. Mungo came down and stopped me.”
He was still lounging against the side of the piano, smiling at her. “I only wanted to see how you made that thing run so smoothly,” he protested. “I thought maybe there was a trick to it.”
Julie laughed. I had had no idea, the night before, that she possessed so much vivacity. “Well, there is. It’s just a trick of the wrist. See?” She took up her bow and drew it across the strings, and the fingers of her left hand flashed a lightning run.
“There!” Mungo sounded offended. “That’s what she was doing. And she says it’s easy. It sounds like Paganini to me!” Julie Rember put down her fiddle and sat looking at it. suddenly sober. “No, it doesn’t,” she said. “Not really. I’m not really a good violinist. Mr. Mungo. That ■—that’s why I’m going home.”
There was such a tragic note in her voice that I tried to speak lightly, to help her out. “I should think that would be a reason to stay, Miss Rember?”
She sighed. “Well, it would be, I suppose, if there was any hope, or if the money didn’t matter. But you see, some of the people in Rockford were interested in me, and they got this scholarship fund together so I could corne over and study with Gottschall. And it really was very expensive—though 1 lived in a pension
that didn't cost much, and tric'd to economize wherever I could.”
Mungo walked restlessly over to the window, as if he were bored by the details of Julie Rember’s financial arrangements.
I kept seeing her, though, wandering about half-terrified in a strange city, coming home to a mean little lodging which reeked, no doubt, of Sauerbraten and stale beer, practicing till lier arm was limp in a cluttered, ill-ventilated room—and all in order that the generous citizens of Rockford might not be let down. Poor little thing—she looked to me as if she had “economized” with a vengeance. She’d probably been existing on coffee and hard rolls for months.
“And how about the great Gottschall?”
I asked, trying not to sound too curious. “He’s a noted teacher. You should have learned a lot from him.”
“Oh, I did,” she said eagerly. “At least.
I thought I did. I studied with him for eight months. And then, just lately, he seemed to get so impatient. Every time I came for my lesson. And the last time— just a week ago, it was—he flew into a perfect rage. He snatched my violin out of my hands and threw it down on the piano—you can see the nick right here— and he shouted so, I was scared to death. He said, ‘Technique—yes. Music—no! Eight months and you still play pretty. Come back when you got some real blood in your veins—some feelings. You can’t play the violin without passion. Go away and suffer—then perhaps you learn to play Beethoven.’ ”
She repeated it word for word, as if the old fire-eater’s speech had burnt itself into her brain so deep that it could never be erased. Then she looked up at me with her lip trembling. “I packed my things right away,” she added in a dull voice.
Mungo had turned around to listen. He grinned. “The old boy must be a little cracked,” he said reassuringly. “You don’t believe that stuff, do you?”
She shook her head sadly. “I’m afraid I do. You see, it is true. Nothing’s ever happened to me. And I don’t suppose anything ever will ”
I said, “Something’s happening to you right now, you know. Here you are, penned up with half a dozen strange people, and at the mercy of a minor war lord, complete with brass buttons and a military mustache. That’s more than falls to the lot of most girls of twenty, isn’t it?” “Yes,” she said slowly. “I suppose something is happening. But”—her dark eyes rested for an instant on Mungo, smiling at her from the other side of the piano—"but I don’t know whether I’m going to like it or not.”
Polly Targ’s voice spoke suddenly from the doorway. “Like what?”
“Adventure.” Julie replied blushing, looking at Miss Targ with wide eyes. “It’s all so strange, and it frightens me— the Major and all.”
Miss Targ flicked her cigarette into an ash tray. “I don’t think you need to worry much about the Major,” she drawled, and she threw a long, slow glance toward Mr. Mungo. He looked down quickly and began removing a bit of lint from the sleeve of his tweed jacket.
Polly was standing in the doorway, looking a little haggard beneath her makeup, by the white light of morning. I wondered if she had slept badly, and if it was the encounter with Mr. Mungo that had kept her awake. She was wearing a
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blue dress of some kind, that clung softly to her body and accentuated the beautiful lines of her figure. It seemed to lend a fiattering simplicity to her appearance, far more to my liking than the hard brilliance of the night before.
“You need a nurse, kid.” she said, looking a little contemptuously, but not unkindly, toward Julie Rember. “And I guess I’m elected. Come out of this hole now, and let's see what they’ve got to offer in the line of ham and eggs.”
In the dining room, we found Isaac Moss already sipping a cup of coffee. He was sitting half-turned at the table, with his ungainly shoulders hunched a little, and his eyes looking off with such a preoccupied expression that I doubted if he knew whether it was coffee or hemlock he was drinking.
“Ah—good morning,” he said, rising to his feet with a start when he heard us trooping in. “I shall have to overcome my vicious habit of early rising, I see. I’ve always liked walking outdoors in the early morning. I quite forgot that it was— impossible.” He smiled rather wistfully.
“I’m not exactly used to living in a trap myself,” said Polly, sitting down beside him. “But I suppose you can get accustomed to anything.”
“Certainly.” Moss said. “The human animal is remarkably adaptable. Too much so, perhaps, for his own good. It takes us only a little while to learn to accept the most intolerable conditions. Even servitude becomes, not only bearable, but actually desirable, after the first moment of revolt is past.”
Miss Targ regarded him sideways, curiously. “That’s too deep for me, doctor,” she said flippantly. “Coffee and rolls, now, there’s something I can understand.” She buttered a croissant with evident relish.
Holdgate had just come in, alone, and he took up Moss’s last words as he joined us at the table. He showed a tendency to take issue with everything the older man said.
“Let me get this straight,” Holdgate said crisply, unfolding his napkin. “Do you mean that human beings take on the shape and color of their surroundings so readily that they actually get to prefer prison to freedom? Why, my dear sir, that’s absurd.”
Isaac Moss lifted dark, arresting eyes “You are still in the period of revolt.” he said quietly. “Naturally we revolt against anything that necessitates a change of habits, an alteration of plans or ideas. But there comes a day when there is no longer any resentment in us. We’ve forgotten the taste of freedom. Our chains have become comfortable with time, like a pair of shoes. The safety of bondage appears preferable to the perils of freedom. Look around you. It is happening under your very eyes ...”
It occurred to me that these were dangerous sentiments. Holdgate took a long draught of coffee. “Oh, if you’re talking about Europeans,” he conceded, “I’ll grant you’re partly right. They seem to enjoy being pushed around.”
Isaac Moss was looking into the distance with a whimsical smile. “You know,” he said, “I’ve never been able to draw geographical lines between human beings. Scratch an American or a Jugoslav or a Hottentot, and you’ll find the same man underneath. He wants to be happy.”
Carl Mungo spoke up. “But, after all, it takes different things to make people happy, doesn’t it? A Hottentot wouldn’t have much use for a washing machine, hut a Yankee housewife couldn’t live without it. Look at ourselves, for instance. Miss Rember wants to play that fiddle so beautifully that old what’s-his-name will fall on her neck and weep. Miss Targ wants a full-page picture in Variety, and four or five producers clamoring for her services. Mr. Delius wants to pick up an original Rembrandt for a song, some time. You, Mr. Moss, want us to love one another, and Mr. Holdgate probably wants the controlling interest in a few more good, solid corporations.”
It seemed to me that these personalities
were not in the best of taste, so I was pleased when Polly Targ, regarding him ianguidly through her lashes, said:
“And what about yourself, Mr. Mungo? What’s gnawing at your heart?”
Mungo looked a little flustered, but he had clearly asked for it. “Oh, I’m not ambitious,” he said, trying to laugh it off. “A little money, a little love—you knowhow it goes.”
“It’s colossal.” Polly purred, turning j away as if he were almost too much for her. “You ought to make a lyric of it, Mr. Mungo. Words and music ...”
THE atmosphere was grow-ing a bit tense for my taste, so I rushed in ! hurriedly with an enquiry about Mrs.
' Holdgate, who hadn’t appeared yet.
“She is suffering from a headache,” Holdgate responded. “I suggested that she stay in bed. This has been very hard on her nerves—losing her maid and all. Though personally I never liked the woman. Too smooth. Too servile. Made my skin crawl. I don’t like that trait in servants.”
Julie asked, “Had she been with Mrs. Holdgate long?”
“About two months, as I recall. The maid she brought over with her took French leave in Aix. Married a childhood 1 sweetheart or something of the sort. Mrs.
. Holdgate didn’t really know much about the Dumont woman, though I believe she came well recommended by some diplomat’s wife in Paris.”
After breakfast, I collared the elusive innkeeper long enough to send him off in search of a chess set. It seemed to me that, if I had any function whatever to fulfill here at the Silver Goose, it was to keep Isaac Moss from talking too much. I’d found out that he liked chess, and, as that j particular pastime is less conducive to 1 conversation than any other I know, it occurred to me that it might serve to stifle his indiscretions for an hour or so. at least. The fellow came back after a bit, lugging ■ a chess table and an old set of pieces ; carved out of bone. We set them up as J close to the fire as possible. The servant had come in and dumped an armload of ; faggots and one fairly good-sized log into the fireplace, w-hile we were waiting. They I are very sparing of timber in that country j —a laudable economic plan, but one which doesn’t exactly make for comfort in a room as large as the dining hall of the Silver ! Goose.
Polly Targ had been poking about in the comers of the room and unearthed some ancient copies of Punch. She sat down at the end by the windows and began idly turning the pages.
Holdgate was sticking pretty close to her, I noticed—seizing the opportunity, perhaps, while Mrs. Holdgate was confined to her room, though I seriously doubted if that lady could have summoned sufficient energy to object to anything her husband or anyone else might do.
Moss turned out to be a good chess player, but he was deliberate, and, in the intervals between moves, I heard Miss j Targ telling Holdgate about her home in Virginia. She didn't exactly say so, but I gathered a general impression of white S porticoes, mint juleps, and faithful j servitors. Holdgate sat looking at her. politely quizzical, with his sharp eyes moving ever so slightly, up and down and across her, as if he were estimating her probable value in the commodity market. It was the kind of look that any decent woman resents, but Miss Targ appeared entirely unperturbed. She sat back in her ! chair, with her admirable legs crossed, and spoke feelingly of Virginia. Perhaps she didn’t expect anyone to believe her. Certainly no one did, with the obvious exception of Julie Rember, who seemed profoundly impressed by it all.
“It must be wonderful.” she breathed, “to have memories like that to look back on . . .” She was sitting huddled in the inglenook, with Carl Mungo beside her.
Polly cast a wary eye in her direction, saw that she meant it, and agreed that it
was something. “Of course,” she added, “our family didn’t have much left after the war.”
Impoverished gentility sprang to life before our eyes. The dining hall of the Silver Goose became suddenly permeated by the nostalgic odors of magnolia, fried chicken and beaten biscuits. Miss Targ, in that instant, became more interesting to me than she had been before. What did we know of her, save for a brief, unlovely glimpse of cafés chantants, the blatant glitter of the second-rate cabaret?
“I can hear those darkies singing, now,” she said dreamily, “—with their banjos.”
Banjos. Naturally . . . Carl Mungo cleared his throat rather loudly and leaned a little nearer to Julie, bestowing his attention upon her, as one tendering a gracious gift.
I heard him say, in a tone for two, “You were telling me how Aunt Ellie wanted you to teach in the high school—”
Julie tucked her knees up under her plaid skirt and launched into the story of Aunt Elbe’s obsession—talking eagerly and a little breathlessly.
Mungo was obviously a past master at the art of pleasing women. In fact, he did it so expertly that I began wondering if he had made a career of it. But then, too, he had a way of handling cards that had made me doubt his amateur standing in that field. He had lost two or three dollars, to be sure, but I didn’t attach much importance to that. It was, after all, the first time we had played together. Here, at any rate, were two accomplishments at which Mr. Mungo was undeniably proficient. There might be more. He seemed a versatile fellow.
I admit, I didn’t quite understand his play for Julie Rember. She seemed hardly the type to appeal to a man of the world, so I could only infer that it was a matter of feeding his own vanity as a male; that he had observed, as I had, the beginnings of worship in her dark eyes, and couldn’t resist exercising his charm, even upon so unlikely a subject as Julie. Or perhaps it was merely his way of keeping in form.
The morning passed uneventfully enough. We began to shiver, drawing by degrees a closer circle about the fire, as it sank lower and finally threatened to expire altogether. “It’s even colder in the bedrooms,” Polly Targ reported gloomily.
I went to the kitchen door and called for more wood. The innkeeper popped his head out so promptly that we almost bumped noses, and I had a definite impression that he had been lurking just inside the door. “Yes, sir. Yes, sir,” he babbled, ducking back in like a frightened rabbit. Now that I think of it, he looked a good deal like a rabbit.
In a few minutes, the slatternly servant came shuffling in with a modest armful of wood, and began flinging it upon the fire with such venom you'd have thought she was preparing to roast a witch. Holdgate abandoned Miss Targ for a moment and came over to me with the light of invincible purpose in his eyes.
“Does she speak English?” he asked, jerking his head in the girl’s direction.
I said no, none of them spoke English— at least, not officially.
He looked puzzled for a moment, then he reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of paper money. "Well, ask her,” he said in a low voice, “if she'll take a message to the telegraph office. I’ll make it well worth her while.”
I shrugged. It was plain that he didn’t understand that no message went over those wires without the Government’s knowing all about it. I went over and stood close to the girl, who was sullenly jabbing faggots into the fire, and told her the proposition.
She stood up and backed away from me, wiping her big red hands on her apron, her mouth hanging ajar like an unhinged door. She gave the money only a passing glance. The inherent avarice of the peasant being what it is, I took this as evidence of amazingly efficient discipline
on the part of the dictator’s government. She was not tempted for a single instant, and it was a pretty sum that Holdgate was dangling before her eyes, too; as much as she earned in half a year, no doubt. But she never faltered. Fear was an even older racial instinct than cupidity.
She backed away, muttering “No—no,” in a frightened croak, and vanished into the kitchen.
I found some amusement in the spectacle of Holdgate’s confusion. He looked down at the money for an instant, as if doubting its genuineness, and then stuck it back into his pocket, flushing. He managed somehow to look angry, bewildered and crestfallen, all at the same time. I guessed that it was probably the first tight place that he hadn’t been able to buy his way out of, in the whole course of his life, and he didn't know what to make of it. It was as if an old and tried friend had failed him in an emergency. He was stunned.
JUST before lunch, the innkeeper came bringing in the morning paper. He hesitated for a moment as if wondering what to do with it. then came over and laid it on the edge of the chess table. Natural enough, of course, since he knew that Moss and I were the only members of the party familiar with the language. We were both going to ignore its presence, I think. Moss undoubtedly knew, as I did, that the sheet was simply the dictator’s mouthpiece, and that, therefore, whatever was printed therein probably bore only the remotest relation to the truth. There was no particular point in wading through it. You knew beforehand what it would be.
But our fellow prisoners were not so ready to relinquish the precious boon of the morning newspaper, however garbled or improbable its contents. To them, a paper was a paper—a matter of habit, no doubt. Holdgate brightened up at once, his eyes resting hungrily on the printed sheet.
“That’s something,” he said in his incisive voice. “At least, we aren’t entirely cut off from what’s going on outside.” I grinned at Isaac Moss across the table. That’s all he knows about it. I was thinking. “I say, can’t one of you fellows translate some of this for the rest of us? If it was German or French now, I could get the gist of it, but this jargon is beyond me.” Moss picked up the paper with a sigh and tilted his bifocal glasses at the correct angle. I feared the worst, and, as it turned out, I was right. He ran his eye down the front page, paused over a short news item, and began reading aloud in his clear voice. He translated rapidly, with a facility and an accuracy that only added to my apprehensiveness.
v “Twenty-three traitors to the Government were yesterday driven from their places of business by bands of citizens, and their stock and other possessions were confiscated. Filled with indignation
against these wolves in human form who had been preying upon the public, members of the Young Patriots’ League, comprised largely of students, took matters into their own hands and proceeded to ‘smoke out the vermin,’ as they put it. The police refused to interfere. The Leader, on being informed of their action, commended the young men for their spirit of courage and loyalty. ‘We may well be inspired by their heroic example.’ he said, in an impromptu address which was broadcast last night to all parts of the nation. ‘We who love our country better than life itself will never rest until the last of these insidious enemies within our gates has been destroyed.’ One of the cowardly storekeepers, on seeing the Young Patriots rushing eagerly up to the rooms above his shop, where he had taken refuge, sprang from a window and was instantly killed. Reports that he had been thrown from the window, said leaders of the students, are ‘Communist lies.’ One young man sustained a broken finger in the riot which attended the taking of one of the shops, and was rushed to a near-by hospital.”
Polly Targ laughed aloud. “A good time,” she said, “was had by all.”
Holdgate was pacing nervously up and down the room, with a dissatisfied scowl on his face. “That doesn’t seem particularly important,” he said fretfully.
Moss looked at him mildly through the tops of his glasses. “It is, though,” he said. “It is extremely important.”
Holdgate fidgeted up and down. “But what about the Government?” he demanded. “Are they going to declare war, or aren’t they? It’s a matter of some moment, to me at least.”
Moss shrugged slightly and went back to the paper. “ ‘The Minister of War,’ ” he read, “ ‘has issued the following statement: “We are prepared to defend the sacred rights of our country against the enemy, both within and without, to the last drop of our blood. The efficiency of our military machine is second to none, and we stand ready to use it at the first intimation that our principles are to be violated. We will brook no foreign interference with our internal problems, and agitators in the pay of hostile powers will be dealt with severely.” ’ Does that answer your question, Mr. Holdgate?” I thought I saw the trace of an ironic smile on Moss’ usually gentle mouth.
“Well, yes and no.” Evidently Holdgate was still dissatisfied. “Good lord, you don’t suppose they think we’re ‘agitators in the pay of hostile powers,’ do you?” he burst out suddenly, as if the idea had just struck him with terrific force. The humor of it appealed to me. Anyone less likely to be mistaken for an agitator than Jared Holdgate would have been hard to imagine.
Moss, however, looked grave. “I’m sure they think some of us are.”
To be Continued