Crisis for Everil
He said she was a vegetable, not a woman—She said he'd make a terribly disturbing husband—Result, a good story
THE ROOM wore a look of faintly surprised dishevelment, as it always did when Hugo had just gone. Curtains were pulled awry where he had stood looking down on the lights of the city, spread far below them like an immense spangled fan. A newspaper lay scattered and rumpled on the plum-colored carpet, though he had merely glanced for a moment at the headlines. The cushions of his favorite chair were hopelessly creased, because as he sat he slid comfortably and by degrees on to his shoulder blades, long legs stretched out before him, heels digging wrinkles into the rug. Even a picture somehow hung crooked—the big one over the mantel. It was one oí Hugo’s own paintings, a spring landscape with ancient birch trees in it, all tender new green foliage and strange mauve shadow. He had given it to Everil on her last birthday. Her thirty-second . . .
Automatically she began to put things to rights. This last preposterous scene had affected her more than she had realized. Her hands were shaking as she smoothed the chair pillows; the new glazed chintz, a lovely vague blue with trails of purple wistaria across it, was already showing small cracks and pin-points under Hugo’s strenuous treatment. At least, she thought, if he really means it, if he’s really gone for good, it will save my furniture . . . She picked up the ashtrays filled as usual to overflowing with burnt matches and the heavy ash of pipe tobacco . . . Hugo striding up and down, her thoughts went on helplessly, making the room look three sizes smaller, so big and brown and tweedy among her lovely things. “I’m not going to stand for it any longer,” he had said. “Hanging about like a faithful hound ! There isn’t any reason in the world why we shouldn’t get married.”
“Except,” she had replied, and she remembered how she had tried to be calm, to be reasonable and kind, “except that I don’t want to be married, Hugo. You’d be ... a terribly disturbing kind of a husband.”
“Disturbing !” he had shouted at her. “You need disturbing, my good Everil ! Heaven only knows why I ever fell in love with a woman like you! You’re not a woman at all. You’re a vegetable. You’re a—a parsnip. Sweetish, you know, but that’s about all . . . ”
She flung the ashes into the incinerator shaft with a vicious little jerk, grimacing over the sticky, black, odoriferous residue in the onyx trays. He had stormed for hours, it seemed now, while she struggled to find the words she wanted to tell him how much she liked her own way of living, the lovely freedom, the dignity, the serenity of it. She had her job; she was head of the interior-decorating department in one of the big stores; it was a fascinating job and she was proud of it. She had a little money of her own, and so could afford these darling three rooms way up on the eighth floor of an apartment house that rose out of the hillside, towered and battlemented like a medieval castle. And she had Hugo for a friend . . . She had interrupted his tirade, a little sharply perhaps, because it hurt to think of doing without this old and splendid comradeship. “Hugo, there is simply no sense in going on like this. I’m terribly fond of you. But I’m sure I’m not enough in love with you to face the responsibility of marriage. I’m tired of responsibility—”
“Darling!” said Hugo, apparently forgetting that she was merely a parsnip. “I know you’ve had too much of it, what with the years you spent looking after your old dad, and that brother of yours laying all his worries on your competent and utterly charming shoulders. But that’s why I want to marry you. I want to look after you ...”
And then he had laid down his pipe, very carefully, in the pale blue lustre bowl on the mantelpiece—which was absolutely verboten—and tilted the painting above it to catch the light at a different angle. “This is a swell piece of work, Everil,” he had said absently, just like that, in the middle of his impassioned diatribe. “I don’t believe I’ve ever done a better. Look at that sky now . . . Darling, let’s get married tomorrow.”
“No,” said Everil.
“Why?” said Hugo, and swung about so violently that the picture rocked on its cord. “Why?”
“Because,” Everil had said in desperation, “you have too much temperament. You’re too difficult altogether. You
look like a nice, large, stolid, sensible stockbroker or something, but you act like a-—a—”
“Just like a prima donna,” Hugo had suggested helpfully.
“Exactly like a prima donna, Hugo. You’re the sort of person who would just blow up in a crisis. And marriage generally seems to be full of crises.”
“You’ve never seen me in a crisis,” he had protested, beginning to get excited again. “How do you know the artistic temperament—which is a silly phrase, Everil, and means nothing—isn’t the very kind of temperament that keys up to an emergency? And what do you call a crisis?” “Well,” Everil had said at last, a little cruelly, but she
had to end this business somehow, once and for all, “Don’t you consider this a crisis, Hugo? And you’re behaving very badly about it.”
THAT had ended it. Hugo looked at her. speechless, and then walked out of the apartment, slamming the door behind him. Oh, Hugo, my dear idiot. Everil said now to herself, going over to the mantelpiece to straighten his picture, how horribly I shall miss you ! And stopped in her tracks.
There, in the blue lustre bowl, lay Hugo’s abominable, deeply beloved, stubby little briar.
She began to laugh softly. How long would it be before he
discovered his loss? How long could he stay away, knowing well where he had left it? How lovely, how absurd, after the indignant finality of his departure, to return for a mere forgotten pipe! She was still laughing when the doorbell rang, with a prolonged and furious clamor.
It startled her. He might at least have waited till morning. She was thankful that she had not obeyed her first exhausted impulse and gone straight to bed, but was still wearing the new wine-red velvet that was so becoming to her tall darle slimness. It was possibly the wine-red dress, indeed, with its big romantic sleeves and its air of medieval enchantment, that had precipitated this recent disturbing episode. The bell rang again, persistently. With a little wise smile, the amused and faintly tender smile of a woman whose male has been behaving like an outrageous child, she went to the door and opened it.
But it wasn’t Hugo.
TITER BROTHER Lester stood there, a bulging suitcase at his feet, holding his two little daughters by the hand. His straight black hair was wildly tousled, his tie gaped, revealing a modest gold collar stud. The two children stared at her with solemn, sleep-dark eyes.
“It’s Sally,’’ said Lester hoarsely. “The doctor has just rushed her into the hospital, and I couldn’t leave the kids alone in the house.”
"Sally? But I thought—I thought it wasn’t until next month.”
“I know. Something’s gone wrong. Everil, I—can you take ’em in lili Monday? I’ve wired for Sally’s mother. She was coming in a week or two anyway, lí you think you can manage, Everil—”
“Of course I can manage!” How like Sally, the impetuous, to upset all her own careful plans as well as everybody else’s by having her baby ahead of schedule! How like Sally to be having a third baby at all in this perfectly reckless fashion ! Everil had a momentary vision of the big, old, untidy suburban house that Lester and Sally had taken because it had such a grand garden for the children—one tripped over scooters and doll carriages in the living room, and might quite well discover, at noon, the beds unmade and the breakfast dishes unwashed, while Sally, in slightly mussed pink gingham, played hilarious croquet with the two little girls over the bumps and hollows of the so-called lawn. Lester, brought up in the atmosphere of neat and gracious comfort which Everil had somehow evolved out of the golden oak and Landseer engravings of their father’s rectory, was always apologizing about the curious and habitually littered state of his household. “You know Sally has her hands pretty full,” he used to say.
With a pang Everil remembered that Sally—gay, pretty, lovable Sally—was in pain and danger.
“Of course I can manage, Lester. Do go on, dear. Sally may need you.” She swung the bag into her little hall and held out a hand to each child. “Come along, Anne. Come along, Bobbet. Auntie Everil’s going to put you back to bed.”
“And be good girls,” said Lester anxiously. “Till grandma comes for you. I’ve got a taxi waiting, Everil. 1 must hurry. I—the doctor says everything’s going to be all right. He says Sally was always a plucky one, she’ll be all right.”
“Of course she will, Lester. Now run along.” Unconsciously her voice took on the old commanding note. “Call me up and let me know how things go. But run along now, dear.”
She drew the two children in with her and closed the door. Bobbet—absurd corruption of Barbara—a little brown lively imp not quite four, looked up at her aunt with big grey eyes and said happily: “Vis is my best Sunday coat’n’at!” But Anne’s lower lip thrust out dubiously. “I want my mummy,” said Anne.
“Mummy’s not well, dear,” said Everil gently, kneeling to unbutton the saucy green coats; certainly Sally dressed them like a
pair of little dolls. “You must remember you’re her big girl, Anne, and be very good till mummy’s well again.”
“I’m five,” said Anne. Her bang of pale straight hair hung oddly above solemn brown eyes, Lester’s eyes. Everil retrieved their little crumpled sleepers from the bag, and tucked them into the pretty painted twin bedsteads in her charming green and silver room. She brought them each a glass of warm milk and a cookie; Bobbet chattered ceaselessly while she absorbed this thrilling and unwonted midnight lunch, but Anne was silent and watchful. They both kissed her, lifting small flushed soft faces from the pillows, before she turned out the light and left the room. She could not help thinking, as she collected sheets from the linen closet to make up a bed on the chesterfield: “This is the way to meet emergency. Quietly, calmly.” This was an emergency.
CHE wakened in the morning, reluctantly, with a feeling of unreality, an odd sense of loss and anxiety. She had been roused by unfamiliar noises, the thump and clanking of springs, shrill peals of childish laughter. Thrusting her feet into feathery mules she hurried into the other room, to find them jumping up and down with happy violence on her precious beds.
“No, no, darlings !” She caught Anne and kissed her, and Bobbet immediately sprang across to them, clamoring for kisses, too.
“Vese is very nice beds,” she said approvingly. “But we have little beds, with wailings all wound.”
“There’s a railing outside this window,” Anne pointed out. “What for, Auntie Everil?”
“It’s the fire escape gallery,” said Everil, and added firmly, “Little girls aren’t allowed to go on it. What about some breakfast, infants?” She was wondering why Lester hadn’t telephoned.
“Breakfast in our sleepies?” said Anne in shocked tones.
“Yes, in our sleepies!” said Bobbet with glee.
But Everil shook her head. She helped them to wash and dress, a delirious business, and was just settling them into the breakfast nook with two tall glasses of orange juice when the telephone rang. It was Lester at last. Everything was all right. Sally was all right. A boy—only six pounds but perfectly healthy. Everything was fine. His voice shook with excitement and relief. Everil sent her love and congratulations to Sally, and ordered him to come back at once for some breakfast. She went back to her two charges with a mysterious and triumphant smile.
“Daddy’ll be here soon,” she said. “And he’s got a lovely surprise for you. So eat your cereal like good little girls—” (But certainly, when the bell rang, she had hoped for a mad and selfish moment that it might be Hugo. She put him resolutely out of her thoughts, and kept her eyes away from the blue lustre bowl.)
Lester arrived in ten minutes, looking more like a tramp than ever after a sleepless night. Fie apologized for his unshaven condition and his rumpled clothes. “That darned old waiting room,” he groaned. “I walked up and down, and up and down, and then I tried to sleep in a wicker armchair! Fley, Anne! Hey, Bobbet! Have you been good girls?”
“What’s our surprise? What’s our surprise? Tell us, daddy.”
Fie grinned sheepishly. “Well, what would you say if I told you mummy had a beautiful baby brother for you, a real baby?”
“A baby brother?” Bobbet’s eyes grew round and solemn, Anne pushed out her lip again ominously. “But daddy,” she protested, “you promised us a tricycle.”
“You pwomised!” Bobbet echoed. “You did.”
“But wouldn’t you love to have a real baby to play with?”
“Not if we can’t have our twicycle, too!” said Bobbet stormily.
“Oh, Bobbet,” Everil began, but Lester had already surrendered. “All right! All right! You can have your tricycle, too!
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Daddy will buy it today. Gee, Everil, what about some coffee?”
She made him eat a good breakfast, watching his increasing yawns with sympathy. She cleared the chesterfield again and made him lie down. “Take a good sleep. Sally will be ready to rest, too, this morning. I’ll take the babies out.”
HT HEY WENT for a walk on the mountain -*—a strenuous walk, Everil found it. A pale vague sunlight spread around them, burnishing the trees to copper and crimson. October haze clung over the city, the tall white piles of office buildings rising through it like fairy palaces. The children raced and ran like little wild creatures, kicking through the delicious, scented, rustling leaves, pursuing indignant grey squirrels, jumping off stumps and stones. Bobbet fell and bumped her knee, roaring prodigiously at the sight of her own bright blood. Everil tried to treat the wound with calm and her pocket handkerchief, but sympathetic strangers gathered about and offered good advice, and Bobbet, enchanted with her audience, redoubled her howls and limped for almost five minutes after. And Anne lost herself. She darted around a clump of bushes and simply vanished, as completely as. a small dryad might be expected to vanish into her native birches. Bobbet thought it a beautiful joke and wanted to hide, too, but Everil, calling: “Anne! Anne!” with an increasing sense of panic, held her tightly by the hand. A mounted policeman, passing on the road, swung down from his horse, and leading the beautiful proud creature by the bridle, came to ask if she needed help. Everil began breathlessly: “Officer, my little niece—”
when Anne appeared from behind her with an innocent wide brown stare and wanted to pat the darling horsie. Altogether an adventurous morning.
An honest fatigue kept them almost silent through luncheon, though their charmed excitement over the pink ice cream Everil produced from the electric refrigerator was unexpectedly warming. Lester, shaved and respectable once more, was also silent and preoccupied and quite evidently in a hurry to get back to Sally. Everil asked him casually, as he was leaving, if the telephone had rung while they were out, or if the doorbell by chance had disturbed him. He assured her that neither, thank goodness, had uttered a peep. She experienced a faint and slightly dismaying consternation. Surely Hugo was not in earnest; surely he wouldn’t abandon—well—abandon his pipe. She tried to malee herself laugh over the absurdity of the whole situation while she washed the dishes with the determined and rather demoralizing assistance of the two small girls. And she was deeply concerned to notice, glancing out the window, that the misty sunshine was slowly and ominously thickening to a cloudy greyness.
By the time the last saucepan was neatly in its place and the rinsed dishtowels on the rack it had begun to rain in downright earnest, and she was faced with the problem of keeping the children amused and happy indoors. This proved far more fatiguing than the morning walk. It took all her ingenuity and resource. A series of small tragedies enlivened the afternoon. Anne suddenly remembered the absence of her beloved and utterly deplorable rag doll, a creature inappropriately christened the Lady Eleonora; and wept heartbrokenly for an hour. Bobbet shrieked with rage and chagrin when she was beggared in a noisy and not very accurate game of beggar-myneighbor which they played on the floor with Everil’s bridge cards, and also distinguished herself by having an unexpected nosebleed. When at last they were fed again and bathed and safely in bed, she realized that her nerves and body were utterly exhausted, bruised by the impact of their young vitality She shut the bedroom door and leaned, against it with closed eyes.
HT HIS was the moment that the doorbell chose to ring. “Now what?” she thought furiously. “Now who?” And flung it open.
Hugo said jauntily: “Hello there!” and stepped past her into the living room. His eyes widened with astonishment. “Good lord!” he exclaimed. “Good lord, Everil, what’s up?”
“Nothing,” said Everil. “Nothing at all. Of course you would come now ...”
She could have wept, standing there looking at the mad disorder of her darling room. Cushions flung on the floor where the children had built a house; magazines torn and tumbled among a perfect blizzard oí scraps from their ambitious cutting-out of paper dolls and pictures; on the carpet cards bent and broken, and chessmen scattered as though before a conquering army. She was conscious too of her own tousled hair, of escaping curls and tendrils that tickled her neck, and of the mussed state of the once crisp organdie ruffles that trimmed her tailored dress. And Hugo was laughing. He thrust his hands in his pockets and rocked comfortably on his heels, surveying chaos with crinkled eyelids and an infuriating masculine mirth.
“Go on and laugh!” she said fiercely. “Lester’s two babies are staying with me. Sally’s just had another one—a boy. And I’ve had a perfectly frantic day.”
“What you need,” said Hugo helpfully, “is just a little more of the artistic temperament. Just shrug your shoulders, darling, and try to realize that this cyclone effect is completely unimportant. After all, you must have given the kids a grand time. And tidiness, my sweet Everil, is a peculiar and insidious vice— a vice which is slowly sapping your soul. Now, take my studio—” “Thank you ! ’’said Everil, so sharply that her voice was almost shrill. “I know all about your studio. It’s a disgrace. All those crazy curios, and the smell of turpentine and tobacco, and wet brushes on your beautiful lacquer cabinet, and dust on everything, and ' stacks and stacks of canvases around the walls—”
“Not stacks!” said Hugo in a pained voice. “Not stacks and stacks, Everil. I do sell some of them—”
“Well, I don’t know why we are discussing it. If you don’t mind, Hugo, please collect your hateful pipe and go.”
“This hardly seems the right moment,” said Hugo sadly, “to convince you how very wrong your point of view is. I almost hoped you might have cooled off enough by this time to listen to reason.”
“Oh, go away, Hugo. I can’t stand another thing tonight. I can’t—”
A thin childish shriek cut blade-like through her words. And Anne’s terrified voice was calling: “Aunt Evvie! Aunt
Evvie ! Come quick !”
They ran together into the other room. Anne was sitting up in bed, brown eyes enormous in her small scared face. The ruffled curtains moved idly and softly in a cool breeze at the open window. Through breaking clouds the moon again was shining.
“Bobbet,” said Anne. “She went on the fir’seape gallery and tumbled down ...” By a hideous effort of will Everil strangled the scream that rose in her throat. Horror— picturing those eight stark stories downward, the rows of blank unseeing windows— horror moved like slow ice through all her veins, holding her sick and frozen.
Hugo said: “Stay where you are.” In
three long catlike strides he crossed the room and was out on the gallery. Seconds passed with the dragged-out, dreadful slowness of nightmare, punctuated by the clanging resonance of his heavy shoes on the iron steps of the fire-escape. This wasn’t real. This couldn’t happen.
He shouted triumphantly: “All right!
I’ve got her.” and her heart turned over again in her breast. She could hardly believe her eyes as he stepped across the sill with the pink sleeper-clad Bobbet, stunned and
limp and still, in his arms. Oddly, there was a pinched look about Hugo’s nostrils.
“Kids!” he exploded, laying his burden back in her bed. “My lord, Everil, she must have rolled down that ladder like a kitten and flopped across the railing of the gallery below. She was hanging over it like an empty sack. In another minute—”
I 'HEN EVERIL went straight to pieces.
She said, wringing her hands: “Hugo, what shall we do? What shall we do? Has she—is she—?”
“Knocked out,” said Hugo. And added sternly: “Everil, get hold of yourself. Anne has had a big enough fright already. Get hold of yourself.” But his hands were gentle and clever, bending and twisting the small slack limbs, prodding the small plump ribs.
“Hugo, are you sure she’s all right? Oh, anything happened to her ...” Helplessness overwhelmed her.
“Of course she’s all right. No bones broken anyway. Still, I suppose we had better call in a doctor. Where’s the nearest one, Everil?”
She pressed her hands against her thudding temples, trying desperately to think; but it was Hugo who remembered that there was a doctor in the other wing of the apartment. It was Hugo who telephoned briefly and urgently, and who opened the door to admit him three minutes later.
He was a mild and rotund little man. He sat by the side of the bed and said: “H’m, h’m, h’m!” as he examined the small patient. “Certainly no broken bones. Dóes not seem to be anything wrong. Wonderful how they fall—children ! But I think.” he added mildly, “I think I’d be inclined to have bars put up at that window.” He looked from Everil to Hugo, and Everil, ridiculously, found herself flushing. Hugo’s eyes twinkled, but he was still watching Bobbet. “She’s coming around,” he said.
The grey eyes opened and blinked at them all hazily.
“Well, young lady,” said Hugo severely, “and what were you trying to do?”
“Is vis heaven?” said Bobbet faintly, but still evading awkward questions with unerring instinct. “Is I dead?”
“Oh, Bobbet!” Everil burst out, “You naughty, naughty girl!”
“I fell down,” said Bobbet pathetically. “I fell down the steps and bumped bofe my knees. And I didn’t cry a bit. Aren’t I brave, Auntie Ewie?”
“Too brave altogether,” said Hugo. The doctor was probing thoughtfully in the region of her small stomach. Bobbet, pleased and distracted by this interesting phenomenon, assisted by drawing a deep breath and puffing herself up like a fat pink toad. Certainly there could be nothing seriously the matter with this saucy little person. Everil’s heart resumed its normal beat again. She was able to listen intelligently to the doctor’s careful instructions.
AT LAST the children were settled a -Zi. second time for the night. Bobbet was kissed and scolded and kissed again, Anne was kissed and comforted. Anne had been a little trump, Everil reflected with something like shame, all through this bad half hour. The doctor had departed, promising to look in again in the morning. Hugo had escorted him to the elevator, and Everil heard them laughing together, probably over the doctor’s little misapprehension of their domestic situation. But Hugo wasn’t laughing when he came back to the ravaged living room?
“This,” said Hugo a little grimly, “This, I suppose, is absolutely the last straw. So I’ll go, Everil.”
Everil’s still shaking knees gave under her. She sat down suddenly on the chesterfield.
“Oh, Hugo, don’t go! Don’t leave me now.”
“Why not?” said Hugo.
“I haven’t thanked you. I haven’t even begun to thank you. You were marvellous.”
“Not at all,” said Hugo politely. He walked over to the mantel and picked up his pipe. Automatically he adjusted the angle of the spring landscape the slightest fraction of an inch. “I would do as much for anyone’s brat. Even my own. if ever I have any.”
“Hugo!” she pleaded. She knew now, completely and definitely, just how much she needed him, just how essential to her were his strength and his weaknesses, his laughter and his dark moods, his odd and sensitive understanding and his naughty little boyishness. Her voice failed her, quivering treacherously at the very edge of tears. “Hugo, listen. Oh, this has been the most dreadful day! If you hadn’t been here—”
“I’m glad I was here,” he said more gently. “But I don’t see, my dear, that there is much point in my remaining longer.”
“Except,” said Everil in a very small voice, “except that I want you to. I take it all back. I’m ready to swallow all my rash
proud words. Oh, Hugo, you know how utterly I despise women who cry. But I do believe . . . I’m going to cry now . . .”
She was fumbling desperately for her I handkerchief.
“Darling!” said Hugo with sudden warmth, and sat down beside her on the ! chesterfield. He pulled out a huge square of ; snowy linen and shook it temptingly before her. “Angel, have mine!”
It was marvellous to cry. She hadn’t really cried for years and years and years. She put her head down against his shoulder, with its comfortable familiar smell of tweed and tobacco, and wept. Wildly, loudly, and frankly as Anne or Bobbet might have wept. With relief and sheer blessed happiness.