If you’re carrying a torch for a brunette, don’t let a dizzy blonde direct your campaign. Look what it got this Romeo
I GUESS we were a pretty funny - looking procession coming up from the lake. Judith walked first, head high, cheeks flaming, darkly beautiful in anger. I was right on her heels and still arguing. Fifteen feet behind came the Slaphappy Angel, carrying the canoe paddles and a cushion. 1 let her lug the stuff because I needed my arms free for expostulation purposes.
“It’s a plain and fancy case of two-timing,” I expostulated now, into the fascinating fringe of blue-black hair above the nape of Judith’s neck. “Oh, shut, up,” snapped Judith.
“Tch, tch,” said the Slaphappy Angel, in the rear.
And so we reached the cottage belonging to Judy’s mother. Judy thumped up the steps, bringing her brown-and-white saddle sports shoes down hard. The screen door banged.
1 shrugged and turned. The Slaphappy Angel floated past me to deposit our gear on the porch. “Well,” I demanded, “how do you like that?” Hildegarde Blair that is what they would call Slaphappy Angel on a warrant for arrest or other legal document sat down on the steps and took cigarettes from the pocket of a yellow cardigan. “Are you going to discuss your love affair with me, Alec?” she enquired.
“Ha,” I said, enigmatically. 1 wasn’t sure about that. You see, I have trouble even yet in admitting (list the Slaphappy Angel is beyond the giggle-and-hopscotch stage. But, actually, she’s snuck up on me these last few years and turned 19. “Going on 20,” as she naïvely puts it.
She wrinkled her nose. It’s a short cute nose with a detail of freckles proceeding in brown disarray across the bridge. “Because if you are,” she said, “I may say that your technique is lousy.” I eyed her. “You run along to your paper dolls,” I said sternly. “Who are you to criticize techniques?”
She ignored that. “Look, Alec,” she said, “you shouldn’t let yourself go. Besides, Joe Watson is a famous flier.”
I exploded. “Okay,” I shouted, “he’s a flier! Is that any reason why I should hand my girl over to him?”
The Slaphappy Angel disciplined ash-blond hair that was exhibiting Veronica Lakeish tendencies. “A couple more slips like you made
today and she’ll hand herself over to him. Imagine your being dopey enough to accuse her outright of going for him! And in front of me!”
“You don’t count,” I barked.
“That,” she said serenely, “is what you think. You forget that Judy and 1 are first cousins.”
“So you’re first cousins,” I said. “So Judy’s mother makes it a hideous practice to invite you up here every summer. So what?”
She blew a lopsided smoke ring. “Judy and I have twin beds. Sometimes we talk things over, at night.”
“Disgusting little scandalmongers ...” I paused, then grabbed her arm. “Here! What’s she been saying about me? And — and Joe Watson?”
Hildy looked at me. She has very big, very deep, grey eyes with little pin dots of yellow in them.
“It’s immaterial,” she said. “The point is, you will need a new technicjue to get yourself out of the doghouse. And”—she became aca-
demic—“as I see it, three methods are open to you. You could try the Absent Treatment, Abject Slavery, or the Sea-green System. Let us consider them in their order! The—”
“Let us get you to stop babbling,” I interrupted.
“ The Absent Treatment,” Hildy said, as if 1 hadn’t spoken, “might be dangerous. It would give Joe Watson a clear field. And Abject Slavery’s not so hot with a girl like Judy. She’d be inclined to trample on you. Therefore, by elimination, we come to the Sea-green System. You must contrive, Alec, to appear desirable to another female.”
“I won’t have any other female,” I yelled.
“Ssssh,” said the Slaphappy Angel. “Don’t tell the Peruvians about it! I’m thinking of taking this case.”
“Listen, goon,” I said, “you keep out of my affairs. I won’t have you plumbering up—-”
I checked it. I didn’t have her attention. “Well,” she was saying, briskly, “that’s that. Now I’m going to get me a coke. Want one?”
There you have it. That’s why 1 call her the “Slaphappy Angel.” “Slaphappy,” because she does weird unexpected things and invariably makes irrelevant remarks during moments of high tension. “Angel,” because she has a flair for ministering to bruised souls, like mine at the time, with cokes, or eggs scrambled to just the right consistency, and such stuff. Moreover, her feet are like two celestial feathers on a dance floor, and she must have acquired her way with a sailboat’s jib straight from heaven.
“Some day,” I said, gratingly, “I’m going to strangle you.”
She laughed. W’hy I should have found a laugh like a burst of quicksilver so peculiarly nauseating, I wouldn’t know. “You, Alex Talbot,” she said, “are simply six foot one and 180 pounds of arrested infancy. An interesting psychological specimen. I’ll get the cokes.”
I WAS in the doghouse with Judy worse than JL I’d thought. But I didn’t have much time to speculate on the wretchedness of my status. The Slaphappy Angel saw to that.
She took me in charge, in a big-time way. She wafted me out to the golf course, shoved me into sailboats, rambled me about the countryside. I had no peace.
“Listen,” I said, staggering up to the eighteenth green on Saturday afternoon, “this is definite persecution. And where’s it getting us? You mentioned giving Joe Watson a clear field. Well, you’re giving him that and throwing in a green light. I’ve hardly seen Judy for three days.”
“Don’t let your emotions show on your face, Alec,” said the Slaphappy Angel. “It’s callow. You haven’t noticed, of course, that Judy’s quite aware of . . . well,
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of us. I’ve taken care of that. Putt, idiot! You’re away.”
I putted. During the process she thought up another injunction.
“Now as we walk off the green,” she instructed, “you put your arm around me. Sort of casual, you know.” “Why the devil should I?” I growled. “Because Judy and Joe Watson are on the clubhouse porch. My goodness, you’re stupid! What’s the use of my going to all this trouble if you won’t convert opportunities?” Well, Judy and Joe were there, all right, Joe looking very resplendent. I’d always liked Joe, and even now I couldn’t be exactly sore at him. It wasn’t his fault if, since he’d bad Lord knows how many missions over Germany and collected a slight wound on one of them, every dizzy dame around Blue Heron Lake was taking pot shots at him. Why, even the Slaphappy Angel had made a few halfhearted passes.
What was more, Joe had only just come home, having been held over in England since V-E Day. And he still wore his uniform, because he was in the permanent force, and even now he had only a short leave. No, i you couldn’t blame Joe for making guys like me, discharged from the Army without ever getting overseas, ! look pale pink. My gripe was at ! Judy. She was 22, and a woman, j She should have been proof against ! uniformáis.
! “Stop staUng, Alex,” said the Slaphappy Angel now “And another thing!
: At the dance tonight, try and look i as if you enjoyed my company. It i wouldn’t hurt, either, if you were to i pay me a few little attentions.”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake!” I said, horrified.
Her eyes were like a pigeon’s wing with the sun on it. But her mouth twitched slightly. “Sometimes,” she said, “I wonder why I go to all this bother. You don’t appreciate it. And if you think I get a kick out of playing around with Judy’s castoffs you’re all wet.”
“Castoffs?” I almost screeched. “Look here! Has she said . . .”
“Will you smile,” cut in the Slaphappy Angel, from between clenched teeth, “and put your arm around me? Not that way, you droop! This isn’t an adagio dance.”
I began the party that night by taking up a position in the stag line to look the talent over, as is my wont. I was permitted this pleasure for all of three minutes. Then the Slaphappy Angel took my arm from behind. She gave me a surreptitious push onto the dance floor.
And she kept me with her as if I were something hot from a jeweller’s show window.
Not that she didn’t have prospective cutter-inners. Rather to my surprise, they came from all angles. Trix Warner, who is 17 and cherishes a hopeless passion for the Slaphappy Angel, led the attack. He tapped my shoulder after we’d reeled off a snappy 15 feet. But Hildy took a death grip on me and waggled her head. We shook Trix off like a frustrated tackier.
We handed -or, at least, she did —the same dose to ail comers.
During the 20 minutes or so that we revolved around the hall, I was plenty aware of Judith’s dark head in the maelstrom. And I derived no good from perceiving it, more often than not, resting against Joe Watson’s shoulder.
“Eyes in the boat, Alec,” Hildy said, warningly. “I’m your pigeon just now.”
“Well,” I said, thinking it time to give devils their due, “I’ve had worse. You’ve become very proficient at this sport, kid. Not like the old days, it isn’t, when you used to operate on two left feet.”
“You’re nasty to remember,” said Hildy. “But that’s as close to a compliment as I’ve been able to pry out of you in three days.”
At this point Trix Warner showed in the offing for the fifth time. There was fire in his eye.
“I’ll have to dance with him now,” Hildy whispered. “But you come back plenty and often, friend. And watch your step.”
She spoke as if I were six years old, and imbecilic. 1 hooked my left fist, let the breeze of it kiss her chin and handed her over to Trix. Then I scrammed. I had a job to do.
It took some neat wangling to get Judith out to the dock. “Now,” I said, strictly businesslike, “if it’s okay with you, I’m taking off this hair shirt I’ve been wearing.”
There was a yellow crescent of a moon over the sky and the lake stretched away in a long morass of black and silver. A breeze with a little hum in it, like the echo of a guitar string, riffled Judy’s dark hair. The moon etched her face in livid fire.
“Anything’s all right with me, Alec,” she said, “until you get argumentative and—possessive.”
“When was I possessive? I only said . .
“1 know what you said. You accused me of two-timing.”
I did a bit of head hanging. “I’m sorry. I was wrought up.”
Her eyes were a couple of dreamy black stars. “I,” she said, sort of musingly, “could never flirt with Joe Watson, Alec.”
Well, that was a relief. “I’m delighted to hear it,” 1 said. “Then everything is okay with us?”
“Of course,” Judy said, and I doffed my figurative hat to the Slaphappy Angel and her knowledge of techniques.
Judy was gazing pensively at the water. “Tell me, Alec,” she said, slowly, “have you enjoyed yourself these last few days?”
I was about to remark that I’d been peering with stricken eyes down desolate vistas, hut caught myself. Even I perceived that such a quick admission would be dopey. “Oh, I’ve had a pretty good time,” I replied, with some airiness.
She gave my hand a little squeeze. “I’m glad, Alec,” she said, still in that I’m-a-dream-walking voice.
This, I knew, was an act, hut 1 couldn’t bother to say so. Because the faint perfume of her hair was having a lotuslike effect upon me. My head swam, and I was conscious of the world slowing up. But I retained enough presence of mind to slide an arm around her.
Whereupon a hideously cheerful voice called, “Break it up, kids!”
1 cursed, and Judy stepped quickly out of the semicircle of my arm. Twenty feet away stood the Slaphappy Angel, looking cool and collected, as if smashing Golden Moments were just part of the day’s work. With her, in all his splendor, was Joe Watson.
“We’re going for a ride in Jigger’s outboard,” the Slaphappy Angel announced, Unabashedly. Jigger is Joe’s kid brother. “Want to come, you two?”
I crushed down an impulse to do murder. But 1 thought, trailing after Judy, that on the dock 1 had comported myself with a smooth blend of wisdom and nonchalance.
P)R MY dough it would take a combination of King Solomon, Albert Einstein and the Answer Man to dope out how women tick. Which means that I was completely at a loss to understand why, following the dance, the Slaphappy Angel dropped me like a hot brick. Here she’d been ciowding me for days and then, all at once,
I couldn’t even find her when 1 wanted her. It was screwy, that was what.
It also put me in a hit of a fog. So much so that when I was alone with Judith I didn’t seem to operate as smoothly as usual. 1 felt as if something had laid me a mental stymie and 1 was about as articulate as a backward clam. But apparently Judy didn’t notice.
However, I deemed an explanation from the Slaphappy Angel in order.
I waylaid her one day. “See here,”
I said. “Why did you start something that you had no intention of finishing?”
She wrinkled her fascinating nose, but looked at her sandals. “1 decided you were right in the first place, Alec. I ought to keep out of your affairs.”
“Huh,” 1 said. “What it comes to, then, is that you’ve wasted three days of my time.”
“I’m sorry,” she said sombrely, “if you consider them wasted.”
“That’s no help,” I said. “What are you going to do about it?”
“Nothing,” said the Slaphappy Angel, with equanimity. “I’m just leaving you to row your own boat.” That was a hot one. I found myself feeling disappointed, and all at once I knew why. It came to me that I’d actually been missing the brat. She was loopy, of course, but strangely easy to take. In her presence I could blow off steam and there was no strain. Companionable, you might have called her.
Toward the end of that week a picnic to Squirrel Island was proposed. At such affairs the Slaphappy Angel is a big number. She takes charge of the culinary arrangements, gets her lingers burned over the open fire, and smudges her face until she looks like end man in a minstrel show. But the concoctions she whips up in the great outdoors are little short of colossal. She has a touch with steaks, hamburgers, clams and others of their ilk.
Well, we went over to the island in canoes. Joe Watson and 1 built a fire. Then the Slaphappy Angel took over. She began by sending me for more wood. When I came staggering back with it, Joe and Judith were down at the lakeside, appreciating the sunset. The rest of the gang had scattered, leaving the Slaphappy Angel alone at the fire like a female edition of Vulcan.
I started ducking away to make it a threesome in the sunset, hut she grabbed me.
“Stay here,” she commanded. “1 refuse to be entirely responsible for this repast.”
“Your alliteration’s working swell tonight,” 1 said. “What do you want me to do?”
“Just talk to me.”
“For the love of Pete!” 1 said. She prodded a hamburger with a long-handled fork. “Some day, Mr. Talbot,” she announced, with customary irrelevance, “you’re going to discover that I’ve given all my middy blouses to the Red Cross.”
“A laudable gesture,” I said. “You’re burning those vittles, kid.”
She shoved the frying pan to the edge of the fire. She still held the fork and there was a smudge on her chin and another on the tip of her nose.
“Alec,” she said, slowly, “maybe I ought to tell you that—that . . .
Oh, gosh! I guess this way’s easier.” And before 1 knew what was happening, she’d reached up and given me a swift light kiss.
I stared at her, dumbfounded. “What the ...”
But she was brandishing the fork. “Ssssh,” she cautioned. “Here are Judy and Joe. And don’t look so guilty, you poor goop!”
I wheeled around. Judy and Joe were, indeed, coming up. Judy gave me an odd, ulmost impersonal glance. I might have been a hole in a doughnut and she looking through me.
It was while we were down by the lake, Watching violet dusk come creeping across the water,that we heard the outboard motor. When the boat got close it turned out to be Jigger Watson’s. Jigger was waving something.
Two minutes later Joe, brows furrowed, was ripping open a telegram. “Well,” he said, kind of bitterly, “this tears my little leave wide open. I’m ordered back to base. Tomorrow.”
The news put a slight damper on the party. We hung around the island a bit longer, and Judy stayed pretty close to Joe. I noticed it, but wasn’t bothered. What the devil? This was Joe’s last night. I didn’t think much of myself, though, for feeling . . . well, involuntarily elated.
Then Judy suggested that we all go back to her house and dance to the radio. And surprisingly, she climbed into my canoe.
Unh-unh, I thought! Here’s where I get mine because that goofy kid kissed me in public. But Judy didn’t say a word about that. She was just sort of quiet on the ride which, I may add, I strung out as long as possible.
As a result we were the last to come in. We started toward the house but all at once Judy stopped dead.
The moon, a baby crescent a few days ago, had grown up. It drenched the lawn in silver-and-green wash and the lake behind us was a smear of brilliance. There was something enchanted, and somehow gala, about the night.
Judy stood there a moment and
her eyes seemed to be swimming. Then she stepped forward. “Oh, Alec,” she said, and kissed me, sweetly, quietly. “Alec, you’re such a nice old thing.”
She spoke as you would to an ancient collie. But so what? She’d kissed me of her own accord. And
once again I had to admit that the
Slaphappy Angel had plenty on the ball. She and her Sea-green System
had saved face.
Well, up at the house we found the gang milling around. I got into a long conversation with Judy’s mother, The others drifted outside in two’s and three’s and presently I found myself alone with Mrs. Blair, and she politely suppressing yawns. I took that for my cue to look up the crowd.
T DIDN’T see anyone, so I walked 1 around to the side of the cottage, Footsteps scrunched lightly on the garage path and the Slaphappy Angel flitted into view.
I started to speak, but checked it.
The moon highlighted her face and there was a perfectly terrible look on it. She almost scared me.
“Gluck!” she sputtered, eyes wild, arms waving. “Eheu! Gluck! glip!” And she made to go past me.
I snagged her. “Hey,” I said. “Why
are you running around grimacing and
gibbering like an ape? Why . . .”
But she tore loose and disappeared into the house.
I shook my head. She was nerts,
definitely nerts. Tetched by the moon, I walked for 10 feet and was intercepted by Jigger Watson.
It seemed he’d stayed with us after delivering Joe’s telegram and now he wanted to go home. But something
had gone wrong with the motor of his boat. Would I look at it?
I did, and it took me half an hour to get it going for him. He jumped
in then and went away. I was just turning back toward the cottage when young Trix Warner blotted the landscape. He was excited to the point
“Is that you, A-Alec?” he panted,
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in stricken fashion. “I—I . . .” He didn’t seem able to go on.
“Here!” I said, shaking his arm. “What’s happened?”
“They — they’ve eloped,” Trix gulped. “To Marburyville.”
I stared at him. “Who’s eloped?” “Hildy Blair.” Trix went around in circles. “And Joe Watson. She —she told me to tell you.”
For a moment I stood stock-still. Hildy and Joe? Eloping? It just didn’t make sense. And even if it had, why should anything that the Slaphappy Angel did cut any ice with me?
Right there something happened to me. Something very queer. I remember gaping at Trix. I remember a sudden inexplicable sensation as if the world had been kicked out from under my feet. And I remember thinking, a little wildly, that my Slaphappy Angel couldn’t do this to me.
The next thing I knew I was tearing for Mrs. Blair’s garage. I made it in nothing flat. The car sort of gasped, but it went. I tore down the driveway, swung into the main road and shoved the accelerator to the floor. For 300 yards I was a jump ahead of the wind. And then, without warning, the motor quit on me. Just went dead. And no amount of stepping on the starter could get more than a sickly wheeze out of it.
I didn’t know what was wrong and I felt too upset to try and find out. All I could think of was that here I sat in a useless car with seconds ticking away, and all the while Hildy Blair and Joe Watson . . .
All at once I got sore. Clean through. They’d played a deep game, those two. Joe, affecting interest in Judith. The Slaphappy Angel going out of her way to send my stock with Judith higher. But actually—I checked it right there. It had suddenly occurred to me that up to now I hadn’t thought about Judith. Not once.
I trod on the starter again, furiously. No soap. Just a long silly unenterprising whine. And then I swore, fit to curl the hair of a marble faun.
From close by a very calm voice said: “Oooh, Alec! Such a way
to talk to a poor defenseless car without any gas in it.”
I whipped around. There stood the Slaphappy Angel, her bright hair playing catch - as - catch - can with moonbeams.
I didn’t know quite why, at that moment, my heart should set a new record for consecutive loop the loops. Any more than I know why a warm wave of relief swept over me. But all I said was, “No gas? What are you talking about?”
She leaned her elbows on the righthand door. “Also,” she said, as one who gives sage counsel, “never siphon gasoline unless you absolutely have to. It tastes just gosh-awful.”
I tumbled a little then. Those wild facial contortions; that inane sputtering! That part was perfectly clear now. But nothing else was.
“I left about a cupful in her,” the Slaphappy Angel said, “figuring it’d take you, roughly, this far. I wanted you off the premises, you see. I can close in for the kill out here without much chance of interruption.”
I shook my head. I had to. It was full of cobwebs. “What,” I demanded, “is all this about you eloping?” She chuckled, a golden sound. “Trix Warner is very gullible, isn’t he? I actually made him believe that Joe and I were running off.”
“But why go to all that trouble?”
I said, mystified.
“Because,” she drew a long breath,
“it was such a wonderful opportunity to see if you’d let me go without a—a struggle. If you had, it would have meant that you didn’t give a darn. But you do, don’t you? And you reacted just as I hoped you would. You came like a lamb, in the only car available.”
I scratched my head dazedly. She seemed to have something, and what’s more, I was right on the verge of admitting it. But everything in its proper order.
“What was the idea of siphoning off the gas, though?” I asked.
“Nitwit,” said Hildy. “Do you suppose Aunt Helen would sit and knit or something with either Judy or me eloping? And do you suppose that Trix hasn’t told her by now? Why, she’d have jumped in this car like a shot and tried to stop them. I’ll bet she’s burning up the telephone wires to Marburyville this very minute. They’re going to Somerset to get married. They . . .”
“Who,” I asked, “is going to Somerset?”
“Judy and Joe, of course. In Joe’s jalopy. Judy made up her mind tonight, just like that, after Joe got his telegram. And Joe’s a prudent boy — he’s had the license since Tuesday. Aunt Helen will have a thousand fits when she finds out that it’s Judy and not me. But nobody ought to to interfere with them. They’re crazy about each other and it’s the real thing. I’ve known it a couple of days. But I didn’t have the heart to tell you, and I guess Judy didn’t either.”
I was silent, wondering why I wasn’t crushed to a pulp.
“She told me what she was going to do about an hour ago,” the Slaphappy Angel informed me. “And I sort ofhelped them on their way. I . . .” She broke off, looked at me hard and added, compassionately: “Do
you care so—so terribly much, Alec?” Care? It was miraculous, but I couldn’t seem to care at all. Judy’s queer phraseology that night on the dock—satisfactory, and yet, if I’d had the ghost of a brain, anything hut satisfactory ! The dopey sessions we’d had together of late, with me practically tongue-tied! The way in which I’d missed the Slaphappy Angel! Judy’s tepid kiss tonight! I understood everything now. That kiss had been Judy’s way of telling me that she was sorry for being about to hurt me. And it was nice, but unnecessary. Because, examine myself as I would,
I couldn’t locate even one small pang.
“I’m the world’s number one dope,
I suppose,” the Slaphappy Angel said, musingly. “I start out to fix things for you and Judy and, spang in the middle of my operations, I . . . well, never mind what I did. But it’s why I gave up and ducked you these last few days. I couldn’t very well keep on throwing you at Judy when I was n-nuts Oh, gosh, there I go! I’m really rather a forward girl, Alec.”
I stared at her. As I did so I was vaguely aware of something darkly beautiful flitting into my mind and then flitting out of it, forever. And all I could see was the Slaphappy Angel, light and slim and lovely in the moonglow.
“Hildegarde,” I said, using her given name for the first time in our history, “I don’t know whether to kiss you or kill you.”
Her eyes were two strayed stars. She opened the door of the car suddenly and got in, with a kind of dignified alacrity.
“Better try kissing me,” she said softly. “Could be you’ve been missing something.”
And I had. ★