Betty Ann’s Villain
A tale of calf-love scorned, of a suicide that flopped and a revenge that was sweet
I DON’T know whether it should be termed a disease, an accident or a blessing. Boys of twelve and upward are constantly exposed to its ravages, while the high-school senior, toughened by outdoors and pickled in the brines of sophistication, is apparently its favorite meat, or mark.
It sneaks up behind him with a golden pitcher of hot sirup and anoints his unsuspecting head with about three barrels of romance and sentiment. He coos and dabbles around in the sweet puddle until Nature can stand it no longer, when she turns the hose on him and he recovers. The old folks call it puppy love. The angels tell me it is the real thing, straight from the fountains of paradise. Anyway, Henderson Hicks had been down with it for three weeks and Nature was getting out the hose.
He lay in the laurel thicket that fluffed the edge of a deepwooded ravine. Before him was an abandoned meadow, gorgeous with the flowering weeds of autumn, but they were wasting their beauty on his desert air.
He believed his life was a wreck.
Immediately across the field was an ancient farmhouse emblazoned with the orange and violet of evening. The sun was a coppery glare just above the hills beyond the river, but he didn’t care where it was. He believed his sun had set four days ago. All was over but the funeral, and he was sitting up with the corpse.
Y\ T1TH a heart somersault * Y he popped up on hands and knees, his bare, tawny head erected like a buck’s, his mouth open, his gray eyes wide and thirsty and greedily drinking in the sight. Betty Ann Leeds had lounged from a side door. She strolled under the appletrees and flopped into a hammock. Tall, eighteen—just his own age— black of hair and eye, dressed in old-rose trimmed with black, her hose and shoes to match!
Her people had rented the place for the summer. It was the last of August and she would soon be gone. His people had been camping for a month in a cottage down where the ravine debouches upon the river. This is how they had come to meet—perish the fact !
The first evening after their dream had exploded he had clambered up here j ust to torment himself with the sight of where she lived. She had happened to be in the hammock and he had remained in the dulcifying miseries of lovelornness until full night. The next evening he had been drawn back like a ghost to its haunting; and the next, and how, here he was at it again on the fourth.
Suddenly Orlo, her Scotch collie, trotted from the front of the house to investigate something on the pike, lost interest and fell to roaming. He wandered into the field and sniffed, and sniffing, sniffing, worked his way down a diagonal until he stood wagging his tail at the edge of the laurels.
“Come on, ol’ sport,” coaxed Henderson in an undertone.
The delighted dog crowded into the lair and sat on his haunches with the poor boob’s arms around him. Orlo licked his face. Romance with its yearning hautboys, its tender lights and sublime draperies engulfed him. Slowly he pulled a pocketbook with a pad out of his hip pocket, and with a piece of pencil at his lips stared at the paper, pondering. At last he wrote slowly, as if packing each word with inestimable treasure, and when he had finished he read and re-read the effusion with ineffable gloom.
“Betty Ann,” he read for the tenth time, “I can stand this no longer. I am going to end it all now. As the years wing onward into your happy future, think of me sometimes. Good-by forever.”
He began to fill up. He folded the paper lengthwise.
“Here, Orlo!” He placed the paper in the dog’s mouth, pressed the jaws together and pointed toward Betty Ann, who was now reading a magazine. “Take it to Betty Ann, Orlo. Take it to Betty Ann. Understand?”
The dog seemed to comprehend what was required of him. He thrashed the laurels with his joyful tail, and after some more urging loped gaily toward the house.
Henderson watched the collie as if steering it by wireless. It was the exquisite high-tension crisis of his life. He had not the faintest notion of committing suicide, but was deriving as much pleasure as if he had already killed himself. Something told him that Betty Ann still loved him harder than ever, and was merely addicted, like so many women, to the vice of self-torture. If this something had told the truth she would have more or less of a fit right there in the hammock; whereupon he would stand up, wave a sad farewell, and drag away into the bowels of the ravine.
According to the usual dramatic stupidities she would stand dumb and petrified until he had vanished, when she would have spontaneous combustion and rush distractedly after him. At this point he would gradually reappear, as if drawn back for one last fond look, and all would be lovely.
Beautiful plot! But Fate bounced out and kicked it into junk.
AS ORLO reached the orchard Betty Ann’s dad 1 strolled into view, coming from the front of the house. He whistled to the dog, merely as pastime. Orlo responded with alacrity. Henderson with a growl of dismay sank into hiding. He had supposed this dad in Toronto. This was Thursday and Mr. Leeds had only been driving up for the week-ends.
Mr. Leeds was the president of a bank. He was a dark, sparkling six-footer with an autocratic kneeaction and a thundercloud eye. Betty Ann had introduced Henderson to him four times in three weeks, yet Henderson didn’t feel well enough acquainted to enter the cage alone with him without a keeper at hand with a pitchfork and gun.
The dog gambolled around, and all was playfulness until the banker saw the white spot in the dog’s mouth.
“What you got, Orlo? Give it here, sir ! Give it here!”
After some canine frolic the dog, to Henderson’s consternation, surrendered it. The evening was still, and Henderson, although seventy-five yards away, could overhear distinctly.
Mr. Leeds, complacent with a country dinner, slowly unfolded the moist document. Writing! Hello! He glanced automatically at his daughter. Something she had scrawled and tossed aside. Still, he read it, and was promptly paid for the trouble. He stared at it. What the . . .
“Where did you get this?” he demanded of the dog. “Tell me, sir. Show me! Who gave you this?”
The dog wagged his tail and body intelligently and barked.
“Betty Ann, come here!” The command was brusque. She was in the thick of a magazine story. “What do you want?” she called, her eye shuttling down the lines.
“When you get here I’ll tell you. I want to know what you make of this.”
“Make of what?” she snapped, as she flounced out of her nest and demonstrated that she stood in little fear of her dad.
“Read that !”
Hardly curious, she accepted the paper he thrust upon her. She was vexed, but at last she focused her mind upon it and instantly got her shock.
“Where did you get this?” she gasped.
“Orlo had it in his mouth. Who wrote it? Do you know the writing?”
“The dog?” Her amazement was undiluted.
“Yes. He came across the field with it. Do you know anything about it?”
“Why—All I know is—it’s that Hendy Hicks’ writing. But how Orlo . . .”
“So, young lady! You’ve been vamping this Hendy, have you?” He had become stern and condemnatory. “You’ve got to cut this vamping appetite out. How do you know he isn’t crazy fool enough to do what he
“What he says?” she echoed, puzzled and derisive. She measured his expression. Yes, he was serious. “Why—” She stared down at the note. “He says he’s calling it all off. What’s crazy about that?” She gave a laugh, and twisting on one hip gazed at the sunset in amused despair of all dads.
“I tell you, Betty Ann, it’s a serious matter to get any fellow into a frame of mind that will write a note like this, I don’t care how big a fourflusher he may be. The question is where did Orlo get this? How do you know the poor kid isn’t already dead? The dog may have found the body and . . .”
“Body?” she almost screamed. “Why, what are you talking about?”
“Why,” he retorted ominously with gruesome astonishment, “doesn’t he say he’s going to make away with himself? It’s the language of all the notes found with the college corpses.”
“My heavens, dad,” she yelped, “how can you talk so horribly! He doesn’t say anything of the kind.”
“Orlo got it close at hand, that’s certain. I saw him out front a bit ago and he didn’t have it. Next, I see him coming from the ravine and he has it. Well ...” “Well, he’s over there, then, and gave it to Orlo.” She was scornful with triumphant relief.
“If that’s the case, we may still be in time. Come on!” With his unyielding scowl on the dark barrier of laurel and pine he strode into the field. She made no move.
“Hunt him up, Orlo!” he cried, waving the dog toward the ravine. “Get ’im ! Sick ’im !”
“Dad, you’re perfectly impossible!” she cried, stamping her imperious foot. “Why, I can’t go, anyway. Bob said he’d drive down early if he could make it and we would . ”
“Bob? Bob who?”
“What an idiotic question! Why, Bob Cheswieks. You know as well as I do!”
Mr. Leeds halted, slowly turned, and frowned her over with a ferocious something like a scare circling his eye. “Calling him by his first name already! The stranger who broke down out here less than a week ago? According to his say he’s thirty. That may mean he’s forty. He may be a massaged fifty—I never saw him. He accounts for this note, and you are contemptible!” Her dad was in earnest to the core. “Yesterday’s lover killing himself down there doesn’t concern you in the least, now that today’s is about to call. March along. We’ll look through the ravine, and then go down to the Hicks’ cottage and see if he’s there.”
“Gosh!” over in the laurels hissed Henderson, crawfishing in a panic for the ravine, “the ol’ man’s eatin’ mad. Gee whiz!”
TDETTY ANN was now thoroughly frightened, not at any prospect of finding a corpse, but of being mortified into a near-one herself. She knew Hendy and the young world. That note was baby stuff. But she also knew her father. He would hesitate at no heroic step to convert her into an old Puritan. With a petulant cry of rebellion, distress and ridicule, she began picking her way into the weeds. “I’ll ruin my shoes,” she scolded, “and snag my stockings to pieces and . . . ouch! The Spanish needles and beggarfice! My dress!”
But the broad shoulders of her dad were inexorable. The enthusiastic dog was almost at the laurels.
When Orlo bounded into the thicket Henderson was leaping recklessly down the rocky jungled steep. The bottom of the ravine was strewn with small boulders and paved with shingle and denuded strata. Quite a stream flowed among the debris, occasional pools, long and deep, beading its course.
The wild fugitive landed just below one of the longest and deepest and pranced this way and that, hunting a secure hiding-place. There were a hundred to conceal him from Betty Ann and her father, but not one that could from that darn dog. He could hear it in the laurels while the voices were sounding nearer and nearer.
At last his deranged globular eyes grappled an old half-bushel market-basket, the relic of some picnic. He dashed across the creek, snatched the basket, and waded with frantic stealth out into the pool. Its bank on the Betty Ann side was a sloping ledge of limestone two or three yards wide, above which rose a low precipice dripping with springs. The pool, he knew, was deepest along the ledge—up to his neck. And here, with his nose just above water and the basket over his head, he stood midway up the pool. It was just the place where flotsam would lodge, and the ledge was such slippery footing that no one would come near his cover.
Rings were still chasing one another abroad the surface when he saw, through the cracks in the basket, the dog race down and cross the creek and go ranging up the ravine. And soon afterward he saw Mr. Leeds negotiating a precarious descent where he had risked his own neck. When the banker had reached the bottom he took post on a flat stone and appeared to give himself over to the love of nature. Betty Ann had balked when halfway down. It was not the habitat of spindle heels.
“I can’t go another step,” she jabbered. “I’ve twisted my ankle and skinned my shoes, and my hose are gone— absolutely gone—nothing left but fuzz and runners. How do you expect me to get down this jumping-off place unless I sit down and slide?”
“Well,” called Mr. Leeds over his shoulder, “it surely is an ideal place down here for a suicide; that’s one thing.”
“I think you are just awful !” she scolded venomously. “You are not impressing me in the least.”
“I expect not. The only thing that could do that is his body. I don’t see it swinging from any of these pines. It may be in the crick, though. They often drown themselves.”
“Now,” she declared crushingly, “you are merely getting childish.”
“Listen to that!” he exclaimed to himself. Then he turned toward her. “What makes me so angry,” he boomed, “is your snippy—that’s the only wordrefusal to take anything seriously but your own sweet will.”
“If I could just once get my hands on that Hendy Hicks,” she exclaimed, stamping on her rocky perch, “you’d see me take this seriously enough.”
Mr. Leeds had not noticed the basket wobble under this shot -in fact he had not observed its presence— but his roving eye now encountered a succession of oily circles travelling across the mirror of water. “Fish, by gum!” he ejaculated guardedly. “See the ripples?”
“Maybe it’s the corpse coming to the surface,” suggested Betty Ann with excessive nicety.
The basket under this disquieting wallop flinched and joggled. More rings. Mr. Leeds discovered their source and began stalking it. It seemed to him he could detect a vague something beneath it. Instantly the intoxications of the chase had seized him. A huge catfish, carp or turtle was working at that basket!
He picked up a five-pound dornick and feverishly eyed the ledge. He stepped out on it and tested the footing. Pretty slippery. The basket not only oscillated but actually moved some inches up stream. It was thirty feet away and he must get closer for any certainty of aim.
He tried out another long step with success. Preparing to hurl his missile he took another, and more eagerly another, and in greater haste another. The basket dipped as if about to dive and escape. He made a rush to throw all his weight into discharging the stone, and discharged not only the stone but himself. The stone didn’t even hit the creek, while he in an air-clutching panorama skidded over the succulent slope and disappeared with a frightful splash.
Betty Ann screamed and scrambled frantically down to the creek, where without a thought of slipperiness she dashed on to the ledge. Her dad could swim like a porpoise, but the snapshot on her retina was that of a man killing himself.
“Dad! Dad!” she screamed as she scurried along the ledge, her stricken glare on the boiling swirls, her muscles tensing for the dive to his rescue. The next instant she shrieked at her escaping feet, grabbed at the sky, and in a confusion of arms and legs shot the shutes.
As Mr. Leeds popped to the surface some ten feet below the agitated basket, Betty Ann and her long-drawn death yell were tragically swallowed alive ten feet below him. Instinct told him it was she, and he lunged for her, but before he could reach her she had plopped into view as expertly as a seal.
“Oh, dad, you’re all right?” she blew, as she shook the water from her head. She was swimming owing to her lack of height.
“Yes—are you?” he growled. “Don’t try to get out on that ledge.”
“What do you think I am?” she retorted, beginning an Australian crawl for the shallows down stream.
Mr. Leeds now discovered bottom and walked. After a few strokes Betty Ann arose, and squeezing the water from her bob and face staggered over the slimy rubble of the bottom until she stood knee deep.
“Oh! Oh!” she stormed with a sobbing howl that was partly laughter. “If I could only get my hands on that Hendy Hicks! I’d tear him to pieces. That goofy note! Oh!” This last was a squawk and stamp.
“Don’t blame him, young lady,” rebuked her father gruffly while scraping the water from his own face. “You’re the nigger in this woodpile and you’re only getting what was coming to you. You drove him to it. Cleopatra’s nothing to you.”
“I didn’t drive him to it,” she cried indignantly. “And I didn’t drag myself nor you down in this old hole, and I didn’t drive you out on that ledge where a fly I couldn’t stand, either. The only thing I’m to blame for is trying to save you when I saw . . Here she broke off and began to laugh uncontrollably. “I can’t help it. If you could have seen the comic strip you cut taking that dive!”
He glowered like a cannibal.
“And that wonderful stone you threw— it went up on that precipice.”
His sense of humor was reviving. He turned around and contemplated the basket. It was now motionless and as innocent as could be. Henderson’s head was still in it and still whirring with the spin of unholy joy given it when poetic justice had flung Betty Ann into the creek and spoiled her date with Cheswicks. He was hilarious over having written that note and its miscarriage. He was in love with the banker for siding with him.
Yet, in spite of all, Henderson was enjoying nothing. He loathed a fourflusher, and discovery would pillory him as the cheapest one ever captured. He would rather drown. About the only stimulus that kept him alive was his epileptic soreness against that flapper down there.
“Well,” grunted Mr. Leeds with a small laugh after a long look, “I wouldn't have got any fish if I had hit the basket. Probably only minnows nibbling picnic leavin’s.”
'-PHEY turned and resumed wading.
They were just leaving the water when a furious barking burst upon the ravine. The dog which had been recalled from far afield by Betty Ann’s screams, was standing on the ledge immediately above the basket and too plainly aiming the vociferations at it.
“By Gad, I knew there was something in that basket,” cried Mr. Leeds exultantly, rushing back into the creek and up into the pool for a full view. Betty Ann, all curiosity, followed him.
“Shut up, y’darned idiot!” Henderson was hissing in a whisper through his helmet. At every hiss the dog became the more frenzied.
“Get it, Orlo!” yelled Mr. Leeds. “Jump in! Sick’m!” The dog sprang into the water and seized the suspicious object. Henderson had filled his lungs and was squatting on the bottom. The dog deserted the basket and swam excitedly about barking.
Suddenly Betty Ann lost her breath and grabbed her dad, her eyes round with horror. The corpse was coming to the surface! Then she saw that the head was alive. Tempestuous scorn replaced the horror.
“Henderson Hicks, where did yon come from?” she raved. “You’ve been hiding there all the time, so you have. You’ve done all of this in cold bloodgot me into all this outrageous mess. You knew all along we’d run out on that rock and break our necks.”
Henderson, sullenly repulsing the demonstrative dog, was walking toward them and slowly arising into view. Mr. Leeds, with a very broad and tightly rolled-in smile, was beginning to shake with merriment. He relished the defiant embarrassment in the youth’s face, and from the retaliating frankness showing its teeth in the glass eyes fixed on Betty Ann he augured much. He had decided to stand aside and let the disease take its course.
“Well, young man,” grinned Mr. Leeds, “I wasn’t so far off when I told her your body might be in the crick.” “Hendy Hicks,” stormed Betty Ann before he could find an answer. “I never heard of anyone writing such a perfectly idiotic note. I never gave you occasion to write such a note, and you have got to square me with my father. He thinks I deliberately vamped you and then flung you aside, when you know I never did anything—anything—of the kind. I never gave you the slightest excuse for killing yourself.”
“Huh?” Henderson stiffened his neck and began to lose his embarrassment.
“Yes, ‘huh!’ You haven’t been within miles of me for four days.”
Henderson lost all his embarrassment. “What?” he cried in top-heavy astonishment, “have you the crust to stand there and say to my face you didn’t time and again swear you loved me better than life and couldn’t live without me? Hay?” “What’s that got to do with writing such a low childish note?”
“Hol-lee smoke! To do? Didn’t you mean anything you said all those days when you were snuggling and kissing
“Dad, are you going to allow this beast to abuse me like this?”
“And you can’t understand why I ever thought y’meant it, can you? But you know darn well I meant every word I said. That’s right, turn your nose up a mile! Y’did say all those things and led me on and played horse with me till that long-legged grandpa from Cleveland broke down out front, and you kept him sticking round half a day and ditched me offhand—cold—worse’n any vamp in the pictures.”
“Don’t you dare talk to me like that!” she almost screamed, stamping in the water.
“Dare? Oh, the poor, dear ol’ man! I mustn’t even talk about him. And he’s coming tonight again, is he? Of course!” “I’ll not have another word from you, you ungentlemanly cad!” She was a stamping, blazing picture of brutalized virtue defending itself. “You’re like most men—perfectly impossible. The day he smashed his car and you sulked around and insulted him and me and everybody and made a beast of yourself just because the accident did keep him here several hours and I—being a lady—had to treat him politely—didn’t I tell you then-after I had stood your perfectly insane jealousy until I was nearly wi-uld—that you had gone, at last, too far? And that I was glad—glad—I had found you out before it was too late? Didn’t I? Do you call that vamping?”
“Is that so?” he returned in doubleshotted kind. “Who wouldn’t have been sore? The minute that spindle-legged old fossil showed up, you couldn't see me for dust and the way you lolly-gagged around him and slammed me every time y’laid eyes on me was a holy fright. And . . ”
“Ilel-loo, Betty Ann! Betty Ann!”
Every wheel stopped short. The hail in a thin tenor had come from the pineclad declivities above the pool.
“Oh!” gasped Betty Ann. “I wouldn’t have him catch me like this for worlds! What shall I do! Oh just see what you’ve done!” She stamped out this concentrated lye at Henderson. She whirled to flee, slipped and went clear under in a convulsion of rage. Mr. Leeds puffed with laughter. Henderson jumped to her aid.
“Keep your hands off me!” she sizzled, struggling to her feet.
When she had scooped the water from her eyes she saw what the other two were watching - a tall figure, ghost-grey in the lavender twilight, hurrying eagerly down the shingly borders of the creek. Henderson preened his nose and upperlip into an exquisite sneer. That Cheswieks! The long legs, the tailored exclusiveness, his Ritzy air —under the impact of these Henderson’s spine assumed a hostile hump. Mr. Leeds, with a twinkle in his eye, adjusted his poker face and placed his arms akimbo.
“They told me at the house,” called the tenor gaily, “that you and your father had gone for a stroll down here, and I thought I’d hunt you up ”
He halted, obviously astounded. Evidently he had not until now noticed that they were knee deep in the stream “What’s happened?” he cried in alarm.
“Come on down and we’ll tell you,” bawled Henderson in sudden friendliness.
Betty Ann gasped. “Don’t try walking on that ledge, Bob,” she called urgently. “You’ll have to go up to the top and come down this side the cliff. You can’t walk on it. It flung us in.”
“Yes, y’can,” bawled Henderson in tones of confidence that scouted Betty Ann’s fears. “If you watch your step there’s no risk at all. If you can’t swim and are afraid, of course, you’ll have to go up and around or wade the crick. It’s only six inches deep where you are but it’s slippery as ice. They fell in because they tried to run.”
“Don’t you dare try it, Bob,” shouted Betty Ann peremptorily. “He wants you to fall in.”
“I do not!” Henderson fiercely shouted at her.
“Don’t you dare yell into my face like that!” she cried back furiously at him.
“You can make it too,” bawled Henderson. “Of course, if you’ve got no nerve, you’d better wade the crick or climb the hill.”
This primitive but infallible psychology settled it. Mr. Cheswieks headed not uphill but toward the ledge.
“Don’t dare try it!” screamed Betty %Ann. “I never dreamed, Hendy Hicks,” she raged at that person, “you were such a deliberate villain—Oh, Oh! I’m glad I found you out in time!”
Hendy was too absorbed in his ally, the ledge, to be crushed by her comment. The grandpa of thirty, or so, was advancing boldly upon the shelving stratum, but there was nothing jaunty in his gait. The increasing pitch of the promenade, the moss varnished by water into green silk floss, the glistening slimes, the dark band, elbow high, from which spring water was raining, all reiterated Betty Ann’s warning. He slowed down and began watching his step for dear life. The audience was breathless and motionless. Even the dog near a bed of mint below them was a statue.
“Come on, you can make it,” rooted Henderson.
“Henderson Hicks, you’re the most inhuman monster on earth,” cried Betty Ann in a trance of horror.
“Come on! You’re over the worst of it,” bawled Henderson. “Dad! How can you stand there so perfectly unmoved?”
Mr. Leeds gave a start as if some one had knocked a three-bagger. She whirled her gaze to the ledge. Mr. Cheswicks had staggered with an outward fling of arms and come to a precarious stiff-legged stand.
“That’s nuthun! You’re all right!” bawled Henderson.
“Henderson Hicks, if he falls in—uh!”
Mr. Cheswicks had essayed another step which all clearly saw was the beginning of the end. Betty Ann screamed in helpless sympathy. Mr. Cheswicks was pawing the air while his feet were pawing the ledge. A moment of intensest suspense. If a drummer had been there the long roll would instinctively have accompanied the act. Then suddenly the end came. He sat down on his shoulder blades and rode in.
Henderson, drunk with the victorious sweets of vengeance, doubled down and pumped out a whooping succession of horselaughs. Mr. Leeds, renouncing decorum, shook like an aspen.
“Henderson Hicks,” cried Betty Ann in a transport of fury, “it’s all I can do to keep from pounding you good. You think you’re so smart, don’t you! Oh—oh!
Get out of here this instant. I mean it, sir. We rent this ravine. Get off this property instantly. I never want to see you again.”
“Don’t worry,” jeered Henderson. “I can’t get away from you too quick. If I thought I’d ever have to see you again I’d go to bed for life.”
“Oh, is that—so!”
He was wading past her, forging down stream. “Oh, I just hate you!” she frothed, stamping in the water.
“Ditto!” he drawled, with his lower jaw shoved sidewise that his face and mouth might be drawn into the requisite design. He glanced over his shoulder at the wet head bobbing down the pool. He snorted with laughter and reeled ecstatically. In a spasm of rage she scooped up and threw water over him.
He vouchsafed her not the slightest notice of this parting courtesy. He trudged steadily down creek. Every rod or two he reeled for her benefit like a drunken man and whooped with merriment. Two hundred yards below the pool the ravine makes a sharp bend to the left. As he passed around this turn in his life’s course, he tossed his arms and whooped a last peal of derision. He looked back to see if it had destroyed her. Cheswicks had reached the two and was in conversation with them. Her thin back, shivering and hunching and full of scapular angles, was the finishing picture.
“Good night, Marier—to think I ever had a crush on that!”
And breaking into a genuine whistle he struck a brisk gait for camp.