FICTION

The Major Has Seven Guests

Into the midst of the seven's pseudo gaiety the long arm of Terror reaches — and then there are six

CONSTANCE REYNOLDS November 1 1939
FICTION

The Major Has Seven Guests

Into the midst of the seven's pseudo gaiety the long arm of Terror reaches — and then there are six

CONSTANCE REYNOLDS November 1 1939

The Major Has Seven Guests

Into the midst of the seven's pseudo gaiety the long arm of Terror reaches — and then there are six

CONSTANCE REYNOLDS

In a European town a group of American travellers are taken off a train and held as temporary prisoners in a quaint but comfortable hostelry, the Silver Goose, by

THE MAJOR, a severe little man with a tremendous sense of his own importance. The group consists of

LOUIS DELIUS, a middle-aged, inoffensive art dealer who tells the story:

ISAAC MOSS, a humanitarian writer who regards all dictators with horror:

JARED HOLDGATE, a self-important financier:

DORIS HOLDGATE, his blasé wife who has sought in vain for a real adventure to relieve her ennui:

CARL MUNGO, a handsome young man of uncertain occupation :

JULIE REMBER, who has been studying the violin in Germany until she concluded that its mastery was beyond her:

POLLY TARG, a glamorous cabaret entertainer.

Moss has been recording his observations on the conduci of people under dictatorships, and he is alarmed when he finds that his papers have disappeared. Mrs. Holdgate s maid has also disappeared, but before doing so she concealed three packages of cigarettes in Mrs. Holdgate’s bag. The Major is deferential to all his guests except Moss, whom he treats with ironical discourtesy: and to glamorous Polly Targ he is particularly pleasant. Pretty Julie Rember apparently becomes infatuated with handsome Carl Mungo, and he pays her marked attention. At the same time he warns Polly Targ, whom he apparently has met before, to say nothing regarding his past.

Holdgate looks serious when his attempt to bribe a servant to take a telegram to the telegraph office fails.

Next morning the group reads that numerous “traitors to the Government” were driven from their places of business: also that agitators in the pay of hostile powers will be severely dealt with.

“Do you suppose they think we’re agitators?” asks Holdgate.

“Pm sure they think some of us are,’’ replies Moss.

This is the second of five parts.

I WAS to remember Moss's words later. It almost seemed, in the light of subsequent events, that he had felt all along that certain of us were marked for tragedy; that, for all of us, that sojourn at the Silver Goose would represent a cataclysmic upheaval which would leave us changed for the remainder of our lives.

I noticed now that the innkeeper's wife was at the far end of the room, quietly laying the table for luncheon.

I could have sworn she wasn’t missing a word. I touched Moss’s hand and glanced over his shoulder toward the woman, and he showed that he understood by a slight nod. He had gone back to the paper, and presently 1 heard him give a sort of gasp—of shock, I thought, or surprise. “Damnable,” he said under his breath.

“Utterly damnable.”

The innkeeper’s wife, seeing that we had noticed her presence, had retired to the kitchen.

"What is it?” I glanced at the spot he pointed out. and. without thinking, began to read it aloud. “ ‘The arch criminal, Stanislaus Brovny, was shot by guards last night at the National Prison in an attempted break for freedom. Brovny fell, riddled by bullets, when discovered by the watchful guards. He was considered one of the most dangerous enemies of the people and a leader in the revolu-

tionary movement, but he had stubbornly refused to give information against his fellow traitors.’ ”

I looked up. The others seemed mystified, but Moss was sitting with his head bowed in one hand. “You knew him?” I asked in an undertone.

He nodded without looking up. “He was a great man. A true patriot,” he said aloud. “He had been subjected to the most unspeakable tortures, in order to make him talk. Only a man of almost superhuman endurance could have held out as he did. He was a giant, you know—both morally and physically. They couldn’t break him so—they shot him.”

Something drew my eyes toward the doorway just then. There, of course, was the Major, standing very straight and stiff like a little tin soldier. His face looked purplish: Catching my eye, he strode into the roorhq his sftord clanking.

“Very touching—the elegy for Comrade Brovny.”' His voice sounded as if it was only by an immense effort that he kept it from rising to a scream. He was speaking in his own tongue too, for the first time. “He was a dog—a traitor!”

Moss looked at him with level eyes. “Your country,” he said, “has lost one of its great leaders. A true patriot and

a loyal friend. Not only to me, you understand—a friend to all men.”

The Major fairly pranced as he crossed to where we were sitting. His buttons winked like a row of round bright eyes down his middle, and his boots gleamed magnificently. I remember thinking irrelevantly that some orderly had probably toiled for hours to achieve that shining elegance

_and that he probably received a brisk kick for his pains.

He leaned over the table, with the fingertips of both hands resting on the edge. His thumb shoved my chess queen out of her position, and I set her back carefully.

“It will be better for you to forget such friends as Brovny,” he said abruptly. His voice was low and intense, and he enunciated the words slowly as if he desired to emphasize the full significance, the menace, behind them.

HE WAS SO self-consciously impressive, so pompous and stiff with the pride of an authority which belonged, not to himself but,to-the “Government” behind him, that I found the situation confusing in the extreme. I felt that it ought to be merely ludicrous—the spectacle of this puffy little man trying to convey the idea of sinister power. He was quite capable, you suspected, of striking Napoleonic poses and uttering , àll sorts of ringing absurdities. My impulse was to smile at the Major, and no doubt my countrymen in that room felt the same way. Yet, for all our native sense of the ridiculous, which rejected the little officer’s pretensions, I could not evade the fact of Stanislaus Brovny and the rumors which had reached me of what went on at the National Prison—the dark intimations of a sadism all too realistic, and assuredly no food for mirth. It was, as I say, bewildering, as if an inexpert stage director had introduced a scene of stark horror into a comic opera.

As if he had abruptly decided to abandon the role of martinet for the time and become a good fellow, the Major straightened up and, turning his electric smile on the other persons in the room, he exclaimed:

“S-so! It is all arranged, and the colonel approves. We shall have a little party Saturday night. Music, dancing, champagne. Very gay. Very smart. We will forget our troubles.” “Will we?” Holdgate put in grimly. The Major threw out both hands in a gesture that was probably intended to convey Gallic urbanity and joie de vivre. “Ah—you Americans!” he wailed. “So solemn, so earnest! You should learn to laugh—ha ha!” “Well, we’ve come to the right place to learn.” said Polly Targ dryly.

He misunderstood her irony, as of course he would. “Ha—very good. A school for laughter, one might say. A handful of fortunate Americans who will learn to savor each passing moment, with no thought for the melancholy tomorrow ...”

It was apparent that he was working himself into that perfect frenzy of superior sophistication which many Europeans find so gratifying in dealing with transatlantic visitors. Miss Targ, who had risen from her chair to stretch herself like a beautiful tawny cat, was looking at him with veiled amusement.

“Laugh?” she said. “I’ll bet we’ll scream. But how about this party, Major?”

“The party? Oh. delightful. There is a young lieutenant who plays the piano—very accomplished. Like lightning. He will come—”

“The piano,” Julie Rember said timidly, “is badly out of tune.”

“Yes?” The Major was all concern. “But that won’t do, eh? We will have it tuned. I shall send someone this afternoon. No one can say that the Government has left a stone unturned to make your stay here a pleasant one.” He looked around as if he expected us to embrace him for bestowing the incalculable boon of a tuned piano.

Moss and I went back to our game. Holdgate had stalked over to the window and was staring out, presumably at the sentry’s bayonet. Julie Rember and Mungo remained in the inglenook, watching silently. Mungo, I noticed, was usually silent when the Major was about. It was Polly Targ who came forward, with her lithe, slightly sinuous walk, and stood close to the Major.

“You’re not forgetting,’’ she said in her more intimate voice, “that you promised to teach me your language?”

He leaned toward her, his breath coming short and labored. “But how could I forget? Tonight—tonight we start. It will be a pleasure, an experience to be remembered. But it is a very difficult language,” he added more practically, smiling as one would at a child. “It is not to be learned overnight.”

Polly was resting both hands on the back of the settee, so that she contrived to look upward at the Major, though she was several inches taller than he, when she stood to her full height. It was a trick which I was to see her perform many times within the next few weeks, and I never failed to appreciate the sound psychology behind it. There was about it a touch of genius, Polly’s own peculiar and feminine genius.

“Maybe.” she said, and her voice was a caress, “maybe you could teach me the important words overnight.”

Holdgate turned with a short cynical laugh, but the Major, for once, was speechless. He bowed and he puffed and he seemed on the verge of saying something, but in the end he simply turned and made for the door, where he swung round, clicked his heels and said, “Till tonight,” to the room at large, and vanished.

I held up that interminable chess game long enough to observe Miss Targ’s next move. She had been gazing speculatively toward the doorway through which the Major disappeared, but, with the sound of his passing out into the street, she squared her shoulders and smiled slowly. Still smiling, her eyes sought Carl Mungo, and rested upon his bland face with a look of private triumph.

IL’NCHEON over, our little band of refugees, as if by J tacit agreement, sought privacy upstairs. Holdgate was carrying aspirin and a glass of water for his wife, who had not come down at all. In that dim upper hall I saw Miss Targ inviting Julie Rember into her room, and I wondered just what strange and alarming glimpses of an alien world would be flashed before the little musician's dazzled eyes in the course of that association.

Isaac Moss settled himself at the desk which stood before the windows in our room, to do some writing. I lay back in a chair, smoking lazily and watching him. “You d better keep that under lock and key,” I said, pointing

toward his sheaf of papers as he scratched away with his pen.

He nodded. “I have an idea that it won’t make much difference though. Don’t misunderstand me. I haven't any more desire to be thrown into one of these filthy prisons than the next fellow, Delius. I haven’t a martyr complex. But the truth has got to be told. On every occasion. I can’t help it, when it seems important.”

That put me out of patience. “Well, you’d be a fool to stick your neck out,” I said sharply. “Dead men don’t tell any truths, you know. In fact they’re of no use to anyone, that I can see.”

He wanted to argue that point. “Sometimes,” he insisted, “the voices of the dead are louder than those of the living. But don’t worry about me, old man. I want to get back home. I want to make them see the things I've seen, the things that can happen when democracy’s allowed to go stale.”

Well, I’ve always given a pretty wide berth to people who have a mission in the world. I’m just obstinate enough so that about ten minutes conversation with one of those inspired souls is sufficient to rouse me to the most unreasoning antagonism. The only reason why Moss didn't annoy me more than he did, was a quality of fineness in the man himself, a certain integrity of mind and directness of motive that I had to admire in spite of myself.

I didn't want to hurt his feelings, though, by intimating that he might better save his thunder till he got home, where he could say more or less what he liked without risk of being clapped into irons. So I left him presently, to do a little exploring on my own account. As I descended the stairs I became aware of a familiar sound from below— a monotonous hammering on one piano key, over and over. The Major, I thought, had lost no time in keeping his promise to have a tuner sent in.

I looked in at the little salon, and there was the tuner, a tall, cadaverous-looking individual in a black apron, pinging away for dear life with one forefinger on Middle C. I went in to watch him. Tuners have always fascinated me. I marvel that these men, who are usually not musical in the least, can train their ears to detect the slightest shade of inexactitude in the interval between two notes. The fellow went on drumming, and tightening the strings with his key. I had thought him quite indifferent to my presence, when he startled me by saying brusquely, “Americans?” While he said it, he was banging loudly on E flat, and he didn’t look up, so at first I wasn't sure that he had spoken at all.

Recovering from my surprise when he repeated it, I said, “Yes. Guests of the Government.”

He grunted and went on tuning. After a long time he

s|x>ke again, and I had to strain my ears to catch his words over the sound of the piano. “The Dumont woman,” he said, "she was attached to some of these people, I hear. Well, they Ux>k her away to the National Prison this morning. She wouldn’t talk—here. At National they have facilities. Old Bostvec got his yesterday. A Government official, too. But he confessed. Red-hot coals in your armpits—I say, that'd make you squeal on your grandmother. wouldn’t it? They shot him afterward.”

There was something eerie about itthat amazing creature bending over the piano, never looking at me, and reciting these hideous facts in a dull monotone, "Why are they holding the Dumont girl?” I asked at last.

"Carrying military information across the border. Been at it for some time, they say. But they couldn't find anything on her. She’s a sharp one. Must have got rid of it before they grabbed her.”

My mouth felt dry. This sinister thing was closer to us, here at the Silver Goose, than I had believed possible. “And Bostvec?" I said. “What had he to do with any of us?”

The tuner permitted himself a wry smile as he bent over the keyboard. “He was sweet on that American girl that's here—you know, the blond café singer. I thought she might be interested. News leaks out. in this town. It gets around.”

“I see.” I left him crouching above the piano. I felt a little sick, and I wanted to get away by myself and think things over.

T WANDERED into the dining hall—that apartment A which I'd heard the innkeeper’s wife refer to, ostentatiously and with an abominable accent, as the “salle à tnanger." The place was deserted now, and very still. Except for the occasional soft falling of a burnt-out ember in the fireplace, and the clocklike beat of the sentry's boots outside, there was no sound. Probably. I thought uneasily, those three non-English-speaking denizens of the Silver Goose had their heads together in some remote part of the house.

I dropped into the chair by the chimney corner, where Isaac Moss had been sitting the night before, and set myself about “thinking things out.” There is a spurious sort of internationalism among that half-rich, halfbohemian set that frequents the fashionable spots of Europe—that crowd to which, unless I w as much mistaken, Mrs. Holdgate belonged. Her husband impressed me as a more serious type. Perhaps he merely tagged along against his better judgment. I didn't know about that; I was only guessing. But. at any rate. I d seen enough of that set, here and there, to know that their significance was

exactly nil. They were like a purely decorative froth floating on the surface of European life. You could blow them off, and underneath would be the darkly moving realities, untouched and forever incomprehensible to the Western mind.

It was because of this invincible Americanness. I suppose, that I was confused by the present turn of events. Chaos was all around us—I wasn't such a fool as not to realize that—but that it could reach out and impinge upon our complacent security was a shattering thought. Like most Americans who sj>end a great deal of time abroad, I had become so accustomed to the status of outsider—albeit a sympathetic and fairly understanding one, I trust—that it was disconcerting to find myself being drawn into a situation that. I felt, was no real concern of mine. It hadn’t touched me very intimately yet, aside from holding me for an indeterminate time in a border town where I would never have lingered of my own accord.

So far as I knew, none of our seven had wantonly assaulted the Eurojxean mores—yet here we were, and at least three of us were already involved in serious entanglements. Of the three, it was Isaac Moss who seemed to have offended more knowingly than the others. He must have suspected that it was dangerous to carry about the kind of stuff he had in that brief case, and still more dangerous to admit friendship with an acknowledged revolutionist. His motives were above reproach, I was convinced, but the fact remained that, in the eyes of the Government, he was of the opposition, and a subversive influence as long as he was at large.

But w-hat about Mrs. Holdgate? In all probability, she had hired the Dumont woman in g<xxi faith, on the recommendation of the “diplomat's wife.” (It would be interesting to know just who that “diplomat” was, I thought in passing.) From what I’d learned, the girl had been under suspicion for some time, going back and forth at intervals across the border, seen in company, perhaps, with other susdit persons. Possibly some other conspirator had mentioned her name, under the persuasive methods in vogue at the National Prison. At any rate, she had been snatched off that train—just before we were, no doubt—and rushed to the arms of the military police.

I could hear the tuner still pecking away at the piano, across the hall. I tried to remember exactly what he had said about Irene Dumont. "They couldn’t find anything on her. Must have got rid of it before they grabbed her Got rid of it—how? She’d either destroyed it. expecting to be seized, or else she had handed it over to someone else. The latter surmise seemed the more plausible. If the papers she carried had much value, she wouldn’t destroy them except as a last resort. Since she was travelling third class, there might have been an accomplice in her carriage. That would lxrisky in itself, though. I smiled. 1 think, when I arrived at that jxnnt in my reasoning. It was easy to guess at what had gone on in the official mind that dealt with the case. Irene Dumont was travelling under the protection of her employers. Therefore the Holdgates were the obvious accomplices. Therefore the 1 loldgates were hustled off that train and prevented from crossing the border—oh. very tactfully, since, after all. Jared Holdgate was a financial jxmer, and the results, in the event of a mistake, might be most embarrassing. It seemed altogether fantastic. It is hard to imagine people like the Holdgates interfering with the status quo, whatever or wherever the status quo may lx*. I could have assured those harassed officials, if they’d been interested in what 1 thought, that they were barking up the wrong tree.

Just at that point, something very singular hapixrned to me. Have you ever been in the midst of trying to puzzle something out, when all at once a door seems to swing open a crack—a forgotten door, far down one of those unlighted corridors of the mind and you see a sliver of light for an instant lx*fore it swings shut again? Well, a door oix-ned for a moment, somewhere behind me; something that I had heard t<xlay or yesterday, a few chance words that might throw light on the relation between that Irene Dumont whom I had never seen, and the tired, shadowy figure of Mrs. Holdgate. But where w as it, that chamber of the memory, which 1 had passed so negligently that no feature of it remained as a clue by which I could trace my way back? The door closed, far off, and 1 realized with disgust that I should probably never find it. among that labyrinth of half-remembered words and impressions.

1 tried to reconstruct every allusion that either of the Holdgates had made to Irene Dumont, but 1 was maddeningly sure that one thing—the one important thing— eluded me.

T GAVE it up at last, and went on to Polly Targ. It must

have been Bostvec that I’d heard her mention to Mungo the evening before. “Connected with the Government” —those were her words. I asked myself just how much site knew about this Bostvec; how much he had let her know. Not a great deal, l guessed. Polly Targ certainly had no more interest in the political situation than a visitor from Mars. I was inclined to believe her own explanation of the affair: she w-as simply trying to reduce the fatuous Bostvec to a state of subjection where he’d be* willing to pull strings to help her get home. Undoubtedly she needed money, and

trusted to Bostvec’s generosity to finance her passage. They are habitually broke, those hangers-on who cling precariously to the fringes of the theatrical world, and probably Miss Targ was no exception.

I tried to picture the Café d’Or in my mind. Garish, no doubt. Even the name had a suggestion of tinsel about it. Quite probably there was the Central European conception of an “American Jazz Band,” making the night hideous with infernal sound. And there was Polly Targ, walking among the tables through all the smoke and clatter, singing her insipid or ribald little songs—Polly in a golden dress, with her bright hair clinging a little damply about her white forehead, because it is work, and hard work, to "entertain”—Polly rolling her splendid eyes in the traditional cabaret manner, sitting down opposite a paunchy Bostvec, sipping the inevitable champagne, and resting her elbows on the table, the better to concentrate on the ultimate undoing of Bostvec. But his undoing had not been left in her hands after all. for Bostvec had met his destiny instead at the National Prison. He would order no more champagne.

I was interrupted by the tuner’s sticking his head in at the door with the news that the piano was ready, and would I please come and try it? I followed him into the small salon and began playing the first thing that came into my head. As I played, the fellow' was beside me, packing his tools into his bag, and I heard him muttering:

“I say, don’t let me in for anything, will you, sir? It might make it hot for me, you know.”

I mxlded and went on playing, and he picked up his bag and disappeared. Apparently that universal human hankering to be the bearer of bad tidings had been too strong for him, but in the interval of piano-tuning, he had thought better of it, and was now regretting his indiscretion.

I had been playing idly for some time when I looked up and saw Mrs. Holdgate in the doorway.

“Don’t let me interrupt you,” she said in her cool, slightly Hat voice. “I w'as merely curious. I used to play myself.”

I closed the piano and followed her into the other room. I thought I’d like to know more about Mrs. Holdgate. “Music,” I remarked sententiously, “is a perfect avenue of escape—if you have need of escape.”

She avoided that opening adroitly. “Do you think so?” she asked, looking at me from under her drooping eyelids. “My husband, on the other hand, has his own method of escape. He is writing letters. One after another. I’ve no idea what he intends to do with them, but they seem to answer his need. I supjxjse they are excellent letters, too —dignified and indignant and utterly futile.”

Shivering a little, she sank down on the settee before the expiring fire. Someone had left a small basket of wood beside the hearth, and I proceeded to pile it on with reckless prodigality. I took the chair across from her, and studied Mrs. Holdgate. She was sitting easily, leaning against the back of the settee, w'ith one hand hanging rather inertly over the side of the arm. I think the hands are often more indicative of character than the face, and it seemed that this might apply especially to Mrs. Holdgate, whose face expressed merely negation. That hand dangled from her small-boned wrist as listlessly as you’d have expected, but in construction it w'as far from weak. It was —well, a ruthless hand. I could find no other word for it. The palm, while not large, was square and strong, with the bones showing plainly through the thin white skin, and the fingers curved inward like talons—the oval nails painted a mahogany-red, which seemed, somehow', to complete the illusion of subtle cruelty. There w'as something startling about it. She had appeared so unalive, so sated and wearied, that it seemed as if her hand must belong rightfully to another woman.

In a way, her coming downstairs at precisely that moment had been fortuitous, because I’d been sitting there at the piano, wondering whether or not to tell her about the tuner’s information. 1 thought perhaps it would be wiser to speak to Holdgate about it and let him handle it, but when I saw her standing in the doorway, she looked so cool and imperturbable that it seemed absurd to suppose she couldn't deal calmly w ith any situation. And. after all, it was primarily her own affair.

So I told her of the fellow, briefly, and what he had said about Irene Dumont. Her eyes, turned toward me, widened a little, but otherwise she showed no emotion.

“Really?” she said. “How amazing.” She fitted a cigarette into a long jade holder and sat smoking it thoughtfully. The winter’s day was drawing toward evening, and it was dusk in that room. By the moving light from the fire, the angles of her face were sharpened, with black shadows marking the eyes and the hollows of the cheeks. She seemed as immobile as stone.

Her indifference exasperated me. I said. “I don't want to alarm you. of course, and it isn't my business. But, after all. the fellow said that she had been taking military information out of the country, and they didn’t find anything incriminating among her things. That means she got rid of it somehow—if she ever had it. So, if she gave anything into your keeping—anything at all—I’d suggest that you get rid of it. It might be very embarrassing, to put it mildly.”

She looked across at me writh a thin smile. “She gave me three packages of cigarettes,” she told me calmly.

T SAT up at that. Of course. That door stood wide open

now—the one I’d been trying so hard to find less than an hour ago. Holdgate had mentioned those cigarettes. I remembered it now. I remembered exactly what he had said last night.

"I thought you found them in one of your bags,” I said.

She shook her head. “No. That is what Jared thought. I knew they were there. Irene gave them to me several days ago. She said she had a premonition—those people are very superstitious—that she might not get to Geneva. She had promised to take the cigarettes to a friend of hers, and she asked me to see that he got them when he called at the hotel, in case she—in case something happened to her in the meantime. It seemed utterly silly, of course, but I thought it just as well to humor the girl. She had been— very discreet, in a matter that might have involved one of my friends in a nasty scandal. I owed her something, you understand.”

I understood. But I was thinking about those cigarettes. I’d never heard of it, but it may have been an old trick. It would be comparatively simple to roll a certain amount of thin paper inside a cigarette, and no doubt the packages could be resealed cleverly enough to escape detection. At that rate, a fair amount of potential dynamite might be contained in the three packages.

“If I may presume to offer advice,” I said. “I strongly urge you to bring those cigarettes downstairs and toss them in the fire without a moment’s delay.”

“Do you?” Mrs. Holdgate asked imperturbably. “On the contrary, Mr. Delius, I think that I shall put them in a safe place and keep them, for the present. It wouldn’t be quite sporting to let Irene down, after I’d promised to take charge of them. And besides—it is a long time since anything amusing has happened to me, so you must see that it’s asking rather too much to expect me to destroy this one meagre possibility.”

I said, “Look here. If you think that the third degree, as administered at the National Prison, is the kind of thrill you would enjoy, I can assure you you’re badly mistaken. Whatever else it may be, it’s not amusing. Take my word for it.”

“You say that,” she replied in her fiat, tired voice, “because you have not the remotest idea of how utterly unamusing everything in my life has been. You may not believe it, but any kind of emotion or sensation would be a definite relief, after complete boredom. Being brought to this place”—she waved a hand languidly to include the dining hall of the Silver Goose—“frankly, I didn’t expect much to come of it. So many things look interesting from the outside, but, once you’re in them, there is nothing but ennui. Like the time when some idiot persuaded me to go on a safari. Killing a lion seemed rather piquant from a distance. But, when it came down to it, it was as dull as everything else. The beast just stood and looked at me—as mild as a kitten. And this—this incident will turn out the same way. It’s inevitable. Nothing about it is real, or dangerous, or even very funny. Well, I won’t be taken in again.”

She was just a jaded seeker-for-adventure, apparently, but I decided to say one word more, if only to ease my own conscience. “Make no mistake about that,” I told her. “It is very dangerous to carry about stolen military documents in this country—or in any other like it. I doubt if even your husband’s influence would be strong enough to get you off, once you were caught with such things in your possession.”

She gave me her thin, sardonic smile. “You seem really concerned about my safety, Mr. Delius. Well, I promise you that when I hear the military coming for me. I will swallow the cigarettes. All three packages, in exactly three gulps. And if they’re tobacco after all, I shall probably be beautifully sick.”

That particular kind of smartness has always annoyed me. It seems the outward expression of a mind too shallow, or an imagination too limited, to perceive matters in perspective. Apparently Doris Holdgate was an extreme example of that modern phenomenon, a woman so sated and sickened with idleness and self-indulgence that she was willing to go to any lengths for a new sensation—something, anything, to lend a momentary zest to living. I tried, in that instant, to apply to her the situation which she had flippantly suggested to her husband the night before; I tried to imagine Mrs. Holdgate facing a firing squad. And. for all my contempt, I had an uneasy suspicion that she would have done it with precisely the same sceptical smile and elevation of the eyebrows with which she now sat facing me across the circle of firelight at the Silver Goose.

Well, let her, I thought angrily. If it takes a rifle discharge full in the face to supply this decadent philistine with the thrill of a lifetime, who am I to stand in her way? She’d probably be no great loss to anyone. If I could have looked ahead, of course. I would have taken Mrs. Holdgate more seriously. Yet. at that time. I doubt if even a more astute judge of character than I could have sifted the human elements confined beneath that roof, and recognized the ones that would combine to create havoc in the er.d.

Continued on page 40

Continued from page 20—Starts on page 18

There were still too many unknown quantities.

f^\NE OF those unknowns, as I realized even then, when he entered that room with his peculiar, noiseless gait, was Carl Mungo. It came to me with a small shock of surprise that he was the only one there at the inn whom I hadn’t been able to fix in my mind against some sort of past. Polly, to be sure, was a vivid figure moving before a surrealist backdrop of tawdry nightlife, and little more—but Polly, so far as I could see, was fairly typical. That she turned out to be so thoroughly an individual, and not a “type” at all, was only one example of the errors I contrived to make, in that too-common passion for card-indexing human beings and filing them away by classifications. Mungo, however, defied classification. I felt that, in fairness, I oughtn’t to allow my opinion to be influenced by what I had overheard, the evening previous, between him and Polly Targ. It certainly hadn’t been intended for my ears, and I had an uncomfortable notion that, if it hadn’t been for that, he would have appeared to me as merely a pleasant, good-looking young man—superficial perhaps, and not very original in his ideas, hut likable for all that.

I had heard it, though, and, having heard, it was impossible not to notice the thinly veiled contempt of Polly Targ toward him. Impossible, also, not to wonder at the self-effacement which had marked his hearing, every time we had all been together. It struck me that he was making a conscious effort to avoid distinguishing himself in any way. He had neither said nor done anything which would indicate that he was more than a nonentity. Only in the brief passage with Julie Rember had he shown any {xisitive character, and that seemed negligible—to all but Julie. Yet I had a curious impression that he was hanging about in the shadows, as he had been when I first saw him—waiting, waiting, it might be. for the right cue on which to step forward and take his part.

I wondered, as he came toward us smiling, if this was the moment.

“So— you’ve decided to come down and mingle with us, Mrs. Holdgate? We missed you this morning.”

Mrs. Holdgate Ux)ked at him with no change of expression, as he stood with his back to the fire, teetering slightly on his toes.

"I’m not dreadfully gregarious.” she said. “People are too much alike. All respectable underneath, even when they pretend not to be. It makes for monotony."

Mungo smiled politely. “You surprise me, Mrs. Holdgate. Would you rather they were scoundrels underneath—and pretended not to be?”

“Infinitely.” said Mrs. Holdgate. She was regarding Mungo, as he stood in front of the fire, with that same half-indifferent i curiosity that 1 had noticed the day i before when they first came together in that room. I remember thinking that, for all his apparent effort to make himself a {Tart of the background, Mungo had already achieved importance in the eyes of the three women who were there. Their reactions to his presence were varied, certainly, but not one of them was unaware I of him. Julie Rember was frankly ready to adore; Polly despised him openly; and Mrs. Holdgate, who managed to convey the idea that everyone else was to her no more than a rather unnecessary piece of furniture about the place, seemed to come partly alive, at least, when he was near. Perhaps it's some subtle feminine instinct that enables them to recognize potential enemies or lovers in men like Mungo, right from the start.

He wasn’t unconscious of her interest, I was sure of that. But it seemed to me he

didn’t rise to it very readily. He was parrying—keeping his distance. I thought, till he could make out just v hat her game was to he. I decided that this might make an entertaining comedy to watch from the side lines—so little do we realize how closely the farcical is bound up with sinister realities.

“I take it that you find respectability pretty tiresome,” said Mungo, lighting a cigarette. “What do you think, Mr. Delius?”

I said, "It sounds a little stuffy. Perhaps that is what Mrs. Holdgate means?”

“It reminds me,” she said wearily, “of Caesar’s wife. Admirable, but hardly worth cultivating. Most of the people I know spend their time desperately trying to invent new ways to violate the conventions, and it’s definitely futile, because they are incurably conventional people. Even their most radical departures from the accepted pattern are a compromise with custom—because it is smart to be startling.”

Mungo’s laugh sounded a little forced. “I can’t believe,” he said, “that you are really as blasé as you pretend to be, Mrs. Holdgate. Now I find life extremely interesting. Exciting and unexpected and —and—” He groped for more adjectives.

“Dangerous?” Mrs. Holdgate suggested, lifting one eyebrow quizzically.

Mungo stared back at her for a moment. He looked puzzled. “Well, perhaps that would be putting it a little too strong,” he said at last. “Let’s say—adventurous.”

“Let’s not,” said Mrs. Holdgate. “I prefer dangerous. Tell me something really dangerous, Mr. Mungo, and I'll promise to he interested. I thought perhaps you'd have a different point of view —certain experiences—”

“Did you?” Mungo turned and pitched his cigarette into the fire. “Did you really?” he repeated without looking around.

He’s not to be caught so easily, I thought. Nothing could have been more noncommittal than that trite reply. It was almost a rebuff. If Mrs. Holdgate felt it so, however, she did an extraordinary thing. Her cool grey eyes flickered for an instant under her drooping lids, and then that incalculable hand, which had hung so inertly over the arm of the settee, reached out abruptly and touched Mungo’s elbow with a quite perceptible pressure. The dark-red nails curved inward for a moment against his sleeve, and the bright rings glittered as they caught the fire. Mungo turned his head and looked down at her with the beginning of a smile on that corner of his face which I could see from where I was sitting—a self-satisfied smile that just escaped being a smirk.

THE next two days slipped by with no particular event to mark their passing. We remained, willy-nilly, within the confines of the Silver Goose. The Major looked in on us every evening, and once or twice during the day. He had assumed a proprietary air toward us. as if we were a houseful of wayward but not unlikeW children entrusted to his care—or a group of harmless mental cases who couldn’t, in the interest of our own safety, be allowed at large. He continued to emphasize the elaborate pains his Government had gone to in order to make us comfortable, and he went to great lengths to convince us that it was a bit of rare luck to have this incomparable hostelry thus placed at our disposal.

“You will see,” he cried, looking around at us with his eyes popping. “No trouble will be spared. Saturday evening, my friends—ah, it will be an occasion to be remembered, I can promise you.”

I think he was a little disappointed because none of us went into paroxysms of gratitude. In the intervals of dancing

attendance on Polly Targ, he sometimes stared at our circle of uncompromising faces with an expression of half-injured bewilderment, as if these particular wayward children were hopelessly outside the range of his comprehension.

It isn’t quite accurate, I suppose, to say that nothing happened during those two days. It seemed to me that our relationships were gradually shifting around into a certain pattern. Alliances began to emerge, hostilities took form. We were so close that we had, of necessity, to establish some sort of relations, each one of us with all of the others. There was no possibility of unawareness between any of us, you see. In the beginning, we were all cautiously tolerant of each other, as strangers usually are. Then came the brief era of good-fellowship that grows out of sharing a common misfortune, and trying to devise a way out. And now that was over, too, and we were slipping rapidly into one of those involved and inextricable tangles of human desires and emotions that grow up around any group of people who must live together, day in and day out.

I found some of our crisscross relations very revealing—the one between Polly Targ and Julie Rember, for instance. A more ill-matched pair could not have been imagined. They were like two birds of entirely different breeds, who unexpectedly found themselves sharing the same nest. Julie, it was clear, never quite got over being afraid of Polly. I think she was awed by the things that Polly knew, by the vast realms of experience which she suspected lay behind that glamorous figure that had been thrust into our midst —territory which, as Julie must have sensed, would be forever closed to her. Perhaps it was even an unconfessed, vague sort of envy that made her shy away. I’ve often noticed evidences of that curious reaction on the part of “good” and sheltered women toward what we used to call ladies of easy virtue. It is a phase of the unfathomable feminine that I’ve never been able to understand.

She would sit curled up in the inglenook of an evening, as still as a mouse, watching Polly’s every move, fascinated by her vulgarities, marvelling at the skill with which she wove her web of enchantment about the floundering Major. Perhaps Julie, at those times, was inclined to regret the years that she had lavished on her violin, and to wish that she had devoted herself to mastering the more ancient art of seduction. She kept looking at Carl Mungo as a child gazes at candy hopelessly out of reach. She couldn’t but notice, of course, that the only time he paid her any attention was when Mrs. Holdgate was absent. And the charm of Mrs. Holdgate for Mungo must have been even more mysterious, in her eyes, than Polly’s ascendancy over the Major. For Polly was young and vividly alive, and. if she had suffered certain indignities at the hands of the enemy Man, she at least carried her colors bravely and acknowledged no defeat But Mrs. Holdgate seemed older than time, and you fancied that the taste of her mouth would be dry and bitter as death.

Once when I shared the inglenook with her, Julie, who had been watching Mungo and Mrs. Holdgate across the room, turned to me with a look of infinite wonder on her face, and said. “She is a very strange woman, isn’t she?”

ON THE night of the much heralded party, the Major turned up in fulldress regalia, with two junior officers, only slightly less magnificent, in his wake. The lieutenants were slender, inoffensive-looking young men. They hadn’t had time, I suppose, to acquire the true martial aggressiveness of manner. One of them Continued on page 42

Continued from page 40 attached himself to Julie Rember immediately, and they gabbled contentedly in German (the only language they had in common) all through dinner.

The table, which had been concealed behind a screen all afternoon, was unveiled promptly at nine, literally smothered in hothouse flowers and ablaze wuth candles. Polly said in my ear, ‘‘Good lord, who died?” but fortunately the Major didn't hear her. He was bustling up and down, waving people into their places. A moment later he crooked his arm at Polly, w'ith an elaborate little bow, and escorted her ostentatiously to the place of honor at his right. I thought I saw him throw a look of triumph at the younger officers, as much as to say, “When you are older in the service, my friends, you too may win some such prize as this,” but I may have been mistaken. He must have dropped them a hint beforehand that Miss Targ w'as under his special protection, because, while they eyed her with frank admiration, they kept a polite distance.

Polly herself, at the far end of the table, w'as radiant in a gown of brilliant blue that left her magnificent back bare, while her arms were tightly sheathed clear down to the wrists. It was theatrical, of course, and the dramatic effect wasn’t lost on a single one of us—with the probable exception of Isaac Moss. Around the mass of flowers, I caught glimpses of Polly and the Major, touching glasses again and again, leaning toward each other to speak confidentially—and the robust, slightly mocking laughter of Polly flashed down the table like an electric shock.

Holdgate, who had been placed next to me and as far from Polly as possible, looked disgruntled. “Funny,” he said in a low voice, “how a uniform always gets them. Women are barbarians at heart. Paint and feathers ...”

I looked at him incredulously. Was it possible that he didn’t see that Polly was hoping to use the Major as a means of escape? He didn’t know anything about Bostvec, but. even so, I thought it should have been pretty obvious. Holdgate and Polly had appeared more upset by this imprisonment than anyone else. Holdgate stormed and w’rote letters—to the embassy, I suppose. Polly, content with a humbler and more immediate solution, w'as systematically enslaving the Major. That, at least, was the way I had it figured out. It looked as if Polly’s method was making more headway than Holdgate’s, but I didn’t know at that time just w'hat Holdgate was up to, in that executive brain of his.

Julie, on my other side, w'as drinking a good deal of champagne. I began to be a little concerned about it, toward the end of dinner, and— though it made me feel absurdly officious—I whispered in her ear that those bubbles were insidious.

“It sneaks up on you,” I said. “The first thing you know, you aren’t yourself at all ...”

“Well, I’m tired of being myself anyway,” she said, looking at me with her dark eyes shining. “I’d like to be someone quite different for a change—someone exciting.”

I let it go at that. I wasn’t her guardian,

I reflected, and it might really do her good to come out of her shell and expand, for once. There was something appealing about her now, with the wine spreading a crimson warmth across her usually sallow face, and the modest white dress fluttering slightly at her bosom with the palpitation of her breathing. Only when she looked at Carl Mungo, sitting next to Mrs. Holdgate on the other side of the table, did a shadow of pain fall across her face, and then it was gone almost at once, and she raised her glass again with a little flourish, laughing at some joke of the young lieutenant’s.

Isaac Moss seemed decidedly out of his element in the midst of that increasing hilarity, but it seemed to me, every time I caught a glimpse of him, that his unfailing courtesy was seeing him through. He was seated next to the other young officer,

and they appeared deep in conversation through most of the meal. The innkeeper struck me as being almost too solicitous about refilling the glasses the moment they w-ere empty, and once I noticed that Moss covered the top of his glass firmly with his hand, and the officer protested almost indignantly. A little later, I heard the lieutenant say:

“They tell me. Doctor Moss, that you have had a varied and interesting career. A figure in your own country during the late war, I understand?”

Isaac Moss smiled and inclined his head, as one acknowledging a compliment. He said something about the excellence of the venison which had just been served us.

“But you are too modest, Doctor Moss!” The officer’s voice rang out above the others, high and a little petulant.

VETE WERE all frankly listening now, * * and I was w'ondering—he seemed so insistent—if tnere had been more behind this dinner-party scheme than a mere extravagant splurge to keep us from being bored. It had appeared a little incredible from the beginning, viewed in that light.

Moss sat looking at him quietly through his glasses, and then, as if he had convinced himself that it was no use evading the issue, he said casually:

“It is true, lieutenant, that I received some local notoriety during the war. Peacemakers and truth-tellers were no more popular in my country, then, than they are in yours today.”

Holdgate muttered at me behind his hand that he’d been wondering w'here the devil he’d heard the name of Isaac Moss before. Now he placed him—crackpot, pacifist or socialist or something, wasn't he? Too many trouble-makers in the world to keep track of ’em all, Holdgate said.

We had about finished coffee when the Major sprang to his feet at the end of the table, his face flushed, and his short stiff hair standing up like bristles above his forehead. Lifting his glass, he cried:

“Each of us shall propose a toast, my friends! And to begin with, I give you our Leader—victorious !”

He needn’t give him to me, I thought. Looking down the table, I saw that Moss, like myself, merely raised his glass and made no pretense of drinking. The lieutenant beside him noticed it too, I was sure. There’s a queer streak of stubbornness in all of us, I believe, that prevents our drinking, in the name of something that’s repellent to us. It ought not to mean anything, but it does. The three officers, by contrast, were draining their glasses with that expression of fatuous solemnity to be seen on the faces of old grads at a reunion during the singing of the alma mater. They sang, too. With lifted glasses and splendid chest expansions, they bellowed the first verse of the new patriotic song—a fine old folk tune, to which had been set resounding words about the fatherland, glorious and invincible, and all that. It was sonorous and impressive, and it got an enthusiastic hand.

The rest of us, when we were called upon, delivered ourselves of the usual compliments and clichés—until it came round to Isaac Moss. It was he who upset the apple cart—unnecessarily, it seemed to me. but there is no accounting for the impulses of those who have such a dominating faith in an idea as that man had.

The officer beside him had just made a little speech about the desirability of war when the national honor was at stake, and he spoke convincingly and believingly, as a young soldier would. And then Isaac Moss got to his feet and said, in that quiet voice that compelled everyone to listen, though he made so little noise:

“War—” He paused, looking at the glass in his hand with a quizzical little smile. “But haven't we drunk blood long enough, my friends—all of us? What has war to do with honor? I give you Peace. Peace—and good will.”

There was an instant of dead silence, followed by an indescribable explosive

sound which came, I saw, from the Major. He had struggled to his feet and was leaning far down the table across the wilting roses and the low-burnt candles. A wineglass tipped over and spread a slow amber stain across the tablecloth. The Major’s face looked ready to burst. I suppose he was rather drunk.

“You have offered an insult to our country !” He flung the words at Isaac Moss as if they were hand grenades. “You have offended the honor of the fatherland. I warned you that you should learn a new tune, my friend—and, byheaven, you will!” He stood erect suddenly, and seemed to make an effort at self-control. “It would have been necessary, in any case,” he said more quietly. “But I had hoped to let it wait until this evening of relaxation was over. You yourself, Doctor Moss, have brought

matters to a head sooner.” He motioned to the two lieutenants, who had risen to their feet excitedly. “You will take Doctor Moss to headquarters for further questioning,” he said sharply.

Moss got up quietly, laying his napkin beside his plate. The lieutenants were standing behind him, looking a little foolish. He smiled reassuringly into their nervous faces. He said, “Force will not be necessary, gentlemen. I can promise you that.”

In the overwhelming silence that followed. I was aware not so much of Isaac Moss, calmly walking out of that room between the two officers, as of Polly Targ, gazing upward at the Major with an expression of unutterable contempt, and of Julie Rember clinging to my arm. halfsobbing in a panic of fear.

To be Confirmed