FICTION

Redheaded Girl Next Door

George found Rita hard to forget, but Virgie helped him. So did a canine liar called MacTosh, whose bite was far worse than his bark

ROBERT COMSTOCK March 15 1946
FICTION

Redheaded Girl Next Door

George found Rita hard to forget, but Virgie helped him. So did a canine liar called MacTosh, whose bite was far worse than his bark

ROBERT COMSTOCK March 15 1946

Redheaded Girl Next Door

ROBERT COMSTOCK

IN TIMES like these,” the agent said to George Nichols, “a house like this you’re lucky to get. Brown Street’s a nice quiet neighborhood. And if you wanted to raise a garden”

Throwing open the back door he disclosed a pleasant plot of growing green dominated by the wide-flung branches of a maple tree.

“If I did,” George Nichols said to the agent, “look what’s next door.”

The agent frowned as his gaze hurdled the dividing fence and alighted on an underslung semi-Scottish terrier industriously burying a bone. Suddenly, magically, 1ns frown vanished. “Brother!” he breathed.

Out of the house next door had come a girl. Her green sweater and white shorts were saliented with strategically disposed curves. The ardent spring sun tangled itself in her uncovered hair, flaming and shimmering in brassy splendor. As the iwo men watched, she took several frolicsome running steps, exuberantly kicked up a pair of loafer-shod heels, and proceeded to walk with practiced ease upon her hands. “Um!” the agent said. “Nice.”

The leer went ill with his pouched eyes and greying hair. Surveying him with distaste, George thought, The antiquateil ('asanota. What he needed when young was a goisl stiff jolt of Rita Meredith with all the trimmings.

in George’s case the trimmings had been his discovery of Rita’s engagement toan Air Force flight lieutenant as a chaser on top of a simmering case of combat fatigue. Thu whole had been a potent mixture and mighty hard to take.

Well, he w'as over that bra inquake safely. A bad case of Ritaitis was a harassing experience; but if you did recover you were immunized to woman trouble for the rest of your life. George guessed that after Rita it would take more than an acrobatic redhead to deflect him off the beam.

He said abruptly, “I’ll sign the lease. And I’m moving in on Thursday.”

“Okay,” the agent said, and went to lock the door. The lock stuck. He wrestled with it, cursing under his breath, while a vivid shade of magenta mounted swiftly from his size 17 collar to his receding hairline. Mildly amused, George said, “Let me.”

He pulled outward on the knob, twisted the key sharply, and the lock snapped shut.

“Boy, you're good,” the agent acknowledged. George explained modestly, “Houses happen to be in my line, I guess,”

“That,” grinned the agent, “is just dandy. Now when the plumbing next door goes on the fritz our little redhead will know whom to call on.”

George scowled. How like the ribald old dope to confuse a plumber with an architect. “The little redhead,” he vowed darkly, “can go jump in the lake.” Thursday found George back on Brown Street, supervising the placement of his goods and chattels between spells of working in the garden. Now and then he woull paust at the end of a row to lean on his rake and reflect upon the whimsies of Fate. Hall and McBride were designers and when priorities permitted builders of ( he latest word in prefabricated sectional dwellings. Yet he, their brightest young employee, could find no better place to lay his head than this moldering cockroach trap.

He was examining a decadent flower bed in front of the house when a maroon sedan rolled through the late evening to a stop near bis gate. A tail superciliously handsome young man in RCA F uniform got out of the car. He rang the belt of the house next door and was admitted. Shortly thereafter he reappeared, accompanied by the red-haired girl, who was attired this time in a silver wrap and a gown of robin’s-egg blue. The near-Scotty pattered determinedly after them on stubby legs.

A woman well past middle age, bearing a faded

resemblance to the girl, came out on the steps and called, “Come, MacTosh! Here, boy!”

The girl and the flight lieutenant got into the maroon car, waved to the woman, and drove away. The woman went indoors. MacTosh climbed to the topmost step and glared over at George.

“It’s a heck of a world, fella,” George sympathized with him. “And it’s lousy with flight louies.”

Butting away his rake he went indoors and to bed. He lay wide-eyed, listening to the faint night stirrings of the old house, watching the faint grey light drain off his bedroom walls. These dark hours were bad hours for him, for it was then that the hard knot he still carried inside him seemed tied the tightest. Sleep could ease the knot a little, but only a little, and sleep came very slowly.

That night sleep came not at all. MacTosh saw to that. All through the night MacTosh snuffled, growled, barked, addressed skirling Gaelic dirges to the dying moon. A little after dawn he wound up his vigil with shattering éclat by cornering an errant and appallingly belligerent tomcat. Red-eyed, and bitterly anathematizing all dogdom, George rolled out of bed and got under the shower.

As he left the house, briefcase in hand, to catch the 8.If) bus, his ears were affronted by a raucous blast of sustained skull-drilling noise that beggared even the duet put on by MacTosh and the cat. It issued from

the jammed horn of a coupé the red-haired girl had just finished backing out of the garage next door. The horrific blare made a kind of sonant vortex around wdiich the redhead, the older woman and MacTosh kept eddying distractedly.

George ran over to them. “Allow me,” he said. Raising the hood he unscrewed the horn connection. At once a beatific stillness settled again over Brown Street.

The woman began a sigh of relief that curdled halfway into a dismayed gasp. “Mercy, the popovers will be burned to a crisp!” She hurried indoors, calling over her shoulder, “You’ve got the grocery list?”

“Yes, Aunt Hattie.” The redheaded girl smiled at George. “You must be our new neighbor.”

“Right,” he said. “George Nichols.”

“Virgie Bond,” said the girl. “This is awfully good of you, Mr. Nichols.”

“Not at all,” George replied.

A cold, hard wariness was stealing into his manner. He recalled the Rita-inspired vow he had made about this girl, about all girls. Virgie Bond’s eyes were a deep, smile-snaring blue; a miniature Milky Way of gold-seed freckles spangled the short, uptilted bridge of her nose. She was, George decided, much too personable to be safe.

Her glance fell on his brief case. “I teach over at Riverside. Maybe I could give you a lift downtown.”

“I’ve a call to make first,” George responded. He eyed MacTosh, sniffing derogatively at his ankles, with chill distaste. “But thank you, just the same.”

THE call was at the nearest hardware store, where he ordered a roll of chicken wire. As a result he missed his bus and arrived half an hour late at the offices of Hall and McBride, where he was informed that Mr. Hall wished to see him.

R. G. Hall was plump and bald, with a pink face and an air of perpetual indignation.

“Gourlay Development are thinking of running up a block of our Mayfair model,” he informed George. He added, snorting, “That is to say, they want Mayfair altered until it isn’t Mayfair any more. The kitchen now—more cupboard space is wanted there. And the living room—” he pawed at the litter of blueprints and specifications littering his desk.

George studied them a while. “I think it could be done,” he said.

“Do it then,” snapped R. G. Hall. “It’s your baby. Only this has to be hustled, Nichols. I don’t need to tell you the Gourlay contract means a lot to us. It may mean something to you as well. Understand?” George understood, and he understood also the question implicit in R. G.’s tone. During his brief spell with the firm he had made a good showing, but this was the first time responsibility had been laid upon him so directly. Could he come through under pressure? The burden of proof rested with him.

R. G. Hall was eyeing him thoughtfully. “Had a pretty tough time of it overseas, didn’t you?”

George felt his shoulders twitch. “That’s all done with.” His tone was shorter than the one most underlings dared employ with R. G.

“Um. Of course. Still, no use overdoing things at first. Where are you staying, Nichols? Brown Street? Nice quiet neighborhood—lived out there myself years ago. Look, suppose you take this stuff home with you and work on it there where you won’t be bothered. We can get you any time on the phone.” George went home to the nice quiet neighborhood. The day was hot; he found Continued on page 32

Continued on page 32

George found Rita hard to forget, but Virgie helped him. So did a canine liar called MacTosh, whose bite was far worse than his bark

Continued from page 9

the house, shut up all morning, unbearably stuffy. He carried his drawing paraphernalia out under the shade of the big maple in the yard and got to work.

Through the sleepy, still air drifted children’s voices and the whir of speeding roller skates. Overhead the young leaves whispered like a crowd of friendly kibitzers. George finished his first drawing. He had begun inking it in when Virgie Bond emerged from the house next door.

She was followed by the flight lieutenant, who carried, of all things, a bow, a quiver of arrows, and a target mounted on a tripod. He set the target ! up in front of the garage, paced solemnly back to where the girl was standing, selected an arrow with the j exacting care of a William Tell and bent the bow. George heard the twang of the j bowstring, heard the vicious thuck of j the arrow striking the target.

“Bull’s-eye!” Virgie applauded.

“Nothing to it,” the flight lieutenant said. His air of modesty was so obviI ouslv faked that George yearned to choke him.

The flight louey handed Virgie the bow. “Left arm held out straight,” he coached her. “Head turned in line with the arm.” His instructions were manual as well as oral. The familiarity of his hands brought a protesting growl from MacTosh, who was watching the-whole thing with the air of a dog expecting the worst. George’s opinion of MacTosh soared upward two points from a frosty zero.

“No,” the lieutenant was saying, “you pull back the string with three fingers. Like—”

Some leftover combat instinct warned George of the misdirected missile speeding his way. He dived for safety with a precipitate abandon that sent drawing board, stool, table and ink bottle flying. Some of the ink splashed over the drawing and the rest went over George.

“Creepers!” exclaimed the girl.

The flight lieutenant called to George, “I’m very sorry. Afraid our arrow—” The rest of it died away in gurglings of ill-suppressed laughter.

George arose and began mopping ink off his face. “It was all my fault,”

Virgie Bond said to him. Her voice, while contrite, sounded suspiciously shaken. “I really don’t know what to say.”

GEORGE did, but being a gentleman born he refrained from saying it. He merely looked at her. It is difficult for any man to register outraged indignation out of a countenance zebrastreaked with ink, but George did his best. He snatched up his ruined drawing and strode into the house.

The ringing of the telephone summoned him from a bathroom session with pumice and soap. He picked up the instrument. “Hello, George,” said Rita Meredith.

George gulped and folded his knees against the edge of a luckily available chair. He croaked, “Hello, Rita.”

“They told me.” Rita’s dulcet drawl sounded amused. “I wouldn’t believe it. Brown Street, George! What on earth are you doing out there?”

“Beating the housing shortage,” George said. “The one you’ve been reading about in the papers. When did you get back, Rita? And —a—how’s Tom?”

“Yesterday,” Rita answered. “And Tom’s with the Occupation forces. George, I’ve simply got to see you right away. When can you get over?”

“I couldn’t say,” George said cautiously. “I’m with Hall and McBride, you know, and we’re mighty busy. Reconversion and all that.”

“I know,” Rita said. “All that. I’m sorry, George. If this didn’t happen to be an emergency ... I’d hoped we might still be friends.”

George hesitated. He remembered that life for Rita was one endless series of emergencies. Still, this was an appeal to his chivalry, and she sounded positively distressed. “Hang onto everything,” he bade her. “I’ll be right over.”

Slightly rumpled from his ride on a jampacked bus, but adequately deinked, George presented himself at Rita’s old apartment. “This is so kind of you, George,” Rita greeted him.

She wore a garish bird of paradise housecoat that became her as everything Rita wore teca me her. She was on the tallish side, her fine-boned slenderness rounded and shapely. Her beauty had the suave, ironed-out finish on an M.C.’s patter; it had the haunting quality of a half-forgotten song.

George was dismayed to discover within himself the recurrence of old, familiar symptoms.

“Cigarette?”

“Thanks,” said George.

She sat on the couch beside him. Reaching out a long, honey-gold arm she turned on the record player and the room was filled with the subdued twangling of Hawaiian guitars. That kind of music seemed to go well with Rita. There was something exotic about her that reminded George of rustling palms and murmurous surf and the ardent glitter of sultry skies.

Unconsciously he dabbed at his forehead with his handkerchief. _

“This wretched apartment,” Rita said. “No air conditioning. And the electric fan’s broken.”

George wondered if this was the emergency she had spoken of. He butted his cigarette, and, using his pocketknife as a screw driver, got the fan working again.

“Good as new,” admired Rita. “Nothing like having a man about the house, is there?”

George stirred uneasily. “Tom’ll be back one of these days.”

“No, George,” Rita said. “Tom’s never coming back. Not to me.”

^ “I’m dumbfounded,” George said, and looked it. “Tom and you—why, I thought it was going to be the world’s one deathless romance.”

“It was,” Rita said, “for two full weeks. And then—It was all my fault, I’m afraid. A man with his nerves worn raw by war needs understanding, tact, patience. Tom needed what I couldn’t give. I failed him.”

You got the picture: the long-suffering sweetheart nobly blaming herself for the tantrums of a selfish, badtempered fiance. George realized more than ever what an angel she was and what a beast Tom Meredith could be.

“It’s all coming to me,” Rita went on. “I treated you badly, George. I treated you terribly. Well, I’m paying for it now.”

“Forget it, Rita,” George said. “That chapter’s all over and done with.”

“Is it, George?” Rita asked softly. The telephone rang. It kept on ringing until Rita answered it. “For you,” she informed George. “A Miss Virgie Bond.” Her lips were tight.

“Virgie Bond?” George gasped. “How on earth—” He took the phone from her. “George Nichols,” he said.

“Mr. Nichols,” a voice said breathlessly, “this is Virgie Bond. 1 hope I’m doing right. We heard your telephone ringing and ringing, and we were afraid it might be important, so when I found you’d forgotten to lock your back door I went in and answered. It was a Mr. Hall calling, and he said he had to get hold of you right away, and I saw this number on your memo pad and called it on the chance you might be there. I hope I’ve done right.”

“You have,” George said. “You certainly have. Thanks a lot. Goodby.”

He dialed Hall and McBride. “Nichols,” boomed R. G. Hall, “I’ve been trying to get you. How’s Mayfair coming?”

“Pretty good,” George said. “I’ve made a fine start on the kitchenette.” Reflecting on the fate of that fine start he was thankful that a wince couldn’t show over the telephone.

“Well, I’m glad to hear that,” said R. G. Hall. “Gourlay’s in a lather to get things going. I’m depending on you, George. Keep punching.” “Roger,” George answered. “Goodby, R. G.”

He cradled the phone. “I’m sorry, Rita. Duty summons, and I must heed.”

He became aware of Rita’s intense

scrutiny. “Is duty a blonde,” she enquired, “or a brunette?”

“Neither,” George replied. “She’s a decided red—Who? R. G. Hall? He hasn’t enough hair left to formulate a color scheme.”

“You'll be back soon?” Rita said. “It helps a lot to share one’s troubles with a friend, George. I’m depending on you, really.”

“Fine.” George spoke absently. He was looking for his hat. “That makes two of you.”

“Pardon?” said Rita.

“Nothing at all,” George said. “I was just thinking out loud.”

“That’s obvious,” Rita said. “Goodby, George.”

GEORGE returned to Brown Street in a profoundly disturbed state of mind. It seemed that Rita still had the power to play upon his feelings like the bushy-haired Marx brother on a harp. It hurt George’s ego to think of himself as a harp.

Moreover, his career swung delicately in the balance. His chance to succeed was tied up with the Mayfair plans, and so far his progress with Mayfair was an absolute nil.

That night he surprised himself by sleeping soundly. MacTosh uttered not a single yap. There seemed something sinister about the mutt’s unprecedented silence. Had some wakeful soul succumbed to temptation and slipped him a strychnine-seasoned meatball? Filled with this grisly hope George got out of bed and saw, through the window, MacTosh calmly disinterring his precious Dutch sets.

Furiously he dashed out of doors. Flagstones bruised his naked feet. MacTosh looked up, saw Nemesis careering toward him in a flying bathrobe, wheeled, and lit out for the sanctuary of his own yard. He and George arrived at the fence simultaneously. MacTosh dived between two panels and stuck halfway. George raised a foot, recollected in the nick of time its unshod state, and lowered it again. Confusing the intention for the act, MacTosh yelped and, as though the foot had actually struck him, dragged himself through the gap with a desperate wriggle and limped, yiping dismally, toward the house next door.

“Stop! How dare you kick a poor defenseless dog?”

Attired in mules and a pastel-blue negligee, Virgie Bond came sailing down the steps. She snatched the palpitating MacTosh to her bosom and glared at George out of eyes that were twin short circuits, coruscating blue sparks.

“I never touched him!” George shouted back. “And what about my poor defenseless onions?”

“Is that any reason for acting like a monster? I ought to sue you.”

“And I,” George said bitterly, “ought to sue the agent who leased me this house. F or misrepresentation of fact. He told me this was a nice neighborhood.”

“He lied. It’s an abominable neighborhood. Has been for all of three days.”

George’s eyes narrowed. “I suppose it’s just a coincidence I’ve been living in it three days?”

“Coincidence? I’d call it a calamity.” For a moment they exchanged irimicable glares. Then she turned, Mactosh whimpering hypocritically in her arms, and marched into the house. Back to bed, George supposed. She was a schoolteacher, and this was Saturday, the day when schoolteachers traditionally slept in. George set his jaw. This was one Saturday morning when one particular schoolteacher would not sleep in.

Pausing only to breakfast on a roll,

he dragged out the chicken wire he had ordered the day before and began stapling it along the bottom of the partition fence. The wooden palings resounded gratifyingly to the impact of the hammer.

Afterward he brought his drawing board out under the maple and worked doggedly through the slow, somnolent hours.

He heard the click of his gate latch and the tap of brisk, light footsteps on the flagged pathway. It was Virgie Bond, carrying a tray laden with something concealed under a crisp new dish towel. Recalling what he had heard about gift-bearing Grtteks, George eyed ' her burden warily and hoped it would not turn out to be combustible.

“I’m afraid you must think we’re pretty dreadful neighbors.” She said it rather breathlessly.

“Let us be charitable,” George said. “First appearances can be deceptive.”

“Well, I’m dreadfully sorry about the ink yesterday, and about MacTosh digging up your garden. Aunt Hattie and I want to thank you for doing such a swell job of fixing the fence. And— you haven’t had lunch, have you? Maybe you’d like some lemonade and cake?”

George found her air of chastened apology indescribably charming. He warned himself not to give in too easily. But the cake was chocolate—the kind he preferred—and he was growing hungry.

“You are most kind,’’ George said. “And I accept—on one condition. Let us understand, once and for all, that 1 did not lay a foot on MacTosh.”

Her smile glimmered above the tray as she set it down on the table. “Of course you didn’t. He’s a little liar, really. But I mustn’t stop your work.” i She turned to leave.

“It’s stopped already—for lack of ideas, I mean,” George admitted ruefully. He cut himself a generous wedge of cake. It occurred to him that since she seemed to be friendly the feminine viewpoint might be helpful. “Are you, by any chance, interested in Chinese puzzles? This one’s something special.”

She glanced at the drawings. “Why, it’s a kitchenette—a little beauty. Only, isn’t it—”

“Pray speak freely,” George encouraged.

“Well, then—a bit cluttered?”

“Try telling that to Gourlay Development. All they want is the liebensraum of the Seigniory Club in a five-room bungalow.” He spoke with feeling. Already the nauseating suspicion had seized him that, with youthful brashness, he had lightly taken on himself a labor that might have taxed Aladdin’s faithful jinn.

THEY discussed cupboards gravely.

Her suggestions were apt; George found himself adopting some of them. She sat on the grass in the shade, clasping her knees, and looked on while he started afresh.

By and by he found himself talking j to her, telling her things. About his work at Hall and McBride, about London and Paris. Little commonplace things he would never have dreamed of telling to Rita. With Rita, carrying on a conversation was always a dramatic, exacting business. They talked away and George worked steadily, while the shadow of the maple grew longer and Virgin’s cake grew less. Until, challenged by MacTosh’s bark, the flight lieutenant appeared. The lieutenant looked displeased with something.

“Hello, Morton.” Virgie swung to her feet. “You two haven’t met, have you? Mr. Holquist, Mr. Nichols.” j “Glad to know you, Nichols.” Morton spoke shortly. “Ready, Virgie?’

“All set,” Virgie said, gathering up the tray.

“Thanks for everything,” George called after her. “That was the finest cake I ever buried a hatchet in.”

He watched them walk away, the flight louey’s back ramrodlike with disapproval. Morton Holquist, George reflected, shouldn’t happen to any girl, least of all to the nice kind of girl Virgie Bond had turned out to be.

The unseasonable warm spell held; the sunshiny days dragged slowly by. Rita left to spend a week with friends in New York. George slogged away at Mayfair throughout most of his waking hours, and dreamed about it at night in the brief intervals of sleep MacTosh allowed him. Virgie, who had taken an absorbing interest in the plans, joined him every afternoon under the big maple. George found these conferences most inspiring. More than ever he marvelled how such a smart and charming girl could let herself fall for a poison package like Morton.

At last there came an afternoon when George found himself waiting in R. G. Hall’s office with his fingers fervently crossed.

R. G. said to him, “Those Mayfair revisions went over big with Gourlay. Everything’s set, George. Nice going.”

George went back to his desk. He had come through; had proved to R. G.’s satisfaction and his own that he could carry the mail. His reward would be a boost in salary, the awareness of a job well done, and a lot more work to do.

The thing seemed to call for a celebration.

Rita Meredith was back from New York, he knew; she had called him up that morning. He turned to the telephone and began twisting the dial to her number. A thought stopped him. The thought of Virgie, in her green sweater and white shorts, standing beside him, looking down at his drawing board.

“Damn!” said George, and slammed the telephone down again.

He cleared off his desk and took the bus out to Brown Street. There he found Virgie perched up in his tree, reading a magazine.

“Looks like I should have done a better job on that fence,” he said.

“Niggard,” she taunted.

Throwing down her magazine she began the descent. Her hands slipped and she hurtled the last few feet into George’s outspread arms. MacTosh, jealously watching from his own yard, barked in protest.

George said, “He makes a good chaperon.”

Virgie drew away from him, suddenly shy. Blushing became her. There was something pristine and fresh about her that reminded George of lambs gamboling on pastoral meadows and the first crocuses of spring. He felt for her an affection that was warm and brotherly. And, he told himself, safe.

‘*Mayfair went over big,” he said.

“Oh, George, that’s grand!”

“How about helping me celebrate tonight?”

“I’d love to, George, only Morton’s coming over.” She picked up her magazine. “For bridge. We were going to ask you to make a fourth, but if you’ve other plans—”

George hadn’t. He went over to the house next door that evening and played bridge. He partnered with Aunt Hattie, who turned out to be a card shark, and they beat Virgie and Morton all hollow. Morton didn’t like it.

“Another grand slam.” Aunt Hattie gathered up the cards triumphantly. She sniffed at a bitter, naphthalike odor of coal gas seeping out from the kitchen. “That stove’s getting worse.

The gas company sent out a new tap, but the man hasn’t come to install it yet, and I’m afraid—”

“Let’s have a look at it,” George said.

The meter hung high on the kitchen wall, near the ceiling. While George procured a Stillson wrench from his workshop, Virgie unearthed a dubiouslooking stepladder. She warned, “It’s pretty rickety. I . . . Morton, will you come and hold it for him, please?”

Morton, out in the sitting room hunting for a radio program, affected not to hear her.

“Don’t trouble him,” George said.

He climbed the ladder and applied the wrench to the lug of the meter cock. The wrench slipped. George and the ladder went into a sudden violent tailspin.

“George!” Virgie cried. “Are you hurt?”

Sprawled amid the wreckage of the ladder and the shattered bulk of a bracket lamp that had got in his way, George blinked at her bemusedly and took swift stock. “Yes,” he answered. “My ankle.”

“It’s his own fault,” Morton accused. “The clumsy goon ought to have—

Virgie swung on him. “Morton, please go away.” She drew a hard whistling breath indicative of supercharged emotion, “Go away quick!”

Morton did.

George essayed to rise, propping himself against the wall on his sound leg. “I’d better go home too,” he declared.

“Oh, dear,” Aunt Hattie dithered. “I’ll get an ice bag.”

“Can you walk?” Virgie enquired anxiously. “Try putting your arm over my shoulder.”

George obeyed, finding that shoulder a most agreeable means of support. Aided by her he hopped across to his own house and sank down on the living room couch. Virgie helped him remove his shoe and sock and examined the ankle.

“It doesn’t look much swollen,

“Give it time,” George suggested.

“Here’s the ice bag,” Aunt Hattie said. “You poor boy! Does it hurt much?”

“Not so very much,” George said.

MURMURING something about

getting brandy, Aunt Hattie went out. Virgie picked up the telephone. “I’ll call a doctor.”

“Hey,” said George. “There’s no great hurry. I’ll call him myself. Later.”

“Oh,” said Virgie.

Setting down the telephone slowly, she came over to the couch and rearranged the ice bag. Suddenly she grabbed the injured ankle. Surprised though he was George reacted swiftly; his howl of anguish fairly brought down the ceiling. Unfortunately he uttered it just a couple of seconds too late.

“So!” Virgie said. Her hands were planted firmly on her slim hips, her eyes darting turquoise fire. “You faker,” Virgie said. “You fraud. You —oh, you indescribable snake in the grass.”

“Now wait a minute,” George pleaded, alarmed. “I didn’t intend—I didn’t mean—”

“Mean is the word to fit you,” Virgie said. “I can believe anything of you now. I believe you did kick MacTosh. Whining and playing hurt! And to think of the way you made me treat poor Morton. Why, you—”

An instant later George discovered that an ice bag, snatched up and wielded blackjack fashion, makes a formidable weapon. Particularly if it bursts on contact, showering the victim with chilly water.

Continued on page 36

Continued from page 35

Limp and deluged George heard his front door being slammed, hard. He hobbled to the bathroom and towelled himself abstractedly. His heart was beating like Sirde’s hoofs down the stretch. He had just made a stupendous discovery. He was in love all right. But not with Rita. With Virgie Bond.

It shocked him that the change-over could have taken place so quickly, so imperceptibly, and above all so completely. George was no philanderer. He had come to regard himself as a sort of twentieth-century Sir Lancelot, faithful even in error. He could not understand how in the space of one short week he had come to transfer his affections so utterly from one girl to another.

And utterly was the word for it. Rita, to him now, was nothing but an unhappy memory. Virgie was the girl he loved, the girl he wanted. And it had become appallingly clear that Virgie was the girl he wasn’t going to get.

He hadn’t intended to swing the lead. His ankle really had hurt excruciatingly at first. How was he to know it was only a slight wrench instead of a severe sprain? But Virgie thought he had tried deliberately to play on her sympathy, and she would not forgive him for that. She would make up again with insufferable Morton. She—

Suddenly he dropped the towel. “Good Lord!” he thought. “The meter cock!”

He hadn’t shut it off. The house next door was still filling with gas.

He jammed on his shoe and hastened outside. The lower windows of the Bond house were all darkened, but lights still gleamed in the upper story. George went up the moonlit path at a dot-and-carry run.

He was climbing the steps when the explosion came—a booming concussion that struck him with the soft, jarring impact of a feather mattress. George wrenched open the door and scuttled down the dark fume-drenched hall. Upstairs he could hear Aunt Hattie screaming lustily, but Virgie—where was Virgie?

There, beside the window square of moonlight, prone on the kitchen floor.

George picked her up in his arms and staggered back to the sitting room. She turned out to be a surprisingly hefty burden. He barely made the davenport, where he let her down with a thump that strained every spring. Yet she made no move, no sound.

It frightened him, her flaccid inert-

ness. He dropped on his knees beside her. “Virgie! Are you all right?”

The screaming had ceased, and hasty feet were padding down the stairs. With a faint moan the figure within his arms stirred. Gratitude surged through George like a Fundy tide.

“My darling!” he cried. “Virgie, my sweetheart!” His behavior, he was vaguely aware, had swerved wildly from its normal pattern; the gas was getting in its levitating effect. “I love you, Virgie! Speak to me, dearest!” She spoke. • Squirming convulsively to break away from his embrace, Aunt Hattie gasped, “Young man, what goes on? Have you lost your senses?”

A switch clicked and light sluiced into the room. Whirling, George saw Virgie in the doorway. She wore the blue negligee and appeared to be tottering on the verge of hysteria. And he had thought . . . but it is hard to identify a woman by a scream.

Aunt Hattie climbed unsteadily to her feet. “This world!” she exclaimed. “I don’t know what it’s coming to. When a respectable woman of my years can’t turn on the electric hot plate in her own kitchen to make herself a cup of cocoa without waking up to—w 11! I’m going back to my room.”

She went, weaving a little, but proceeding indomitably under her own steam.

George said to Virgie, “I guess I made a prize fool of myself. And I guess you heard.”

“It was the gas,” said Virgie kindly. “And it’s still escaping.”

George took a cake of soap from the sink and plugged up the leaking tap. “So that’s the way,” Virgie commented. “You know all the answers, don’t you, George?”

“All but one,” said George. “Will you marry me?”

“Yes,” Virgie said.

The glowing coil of the hot plate caught George’s eye. He snapped off the switch. “That’s what touched off the gas when Aunt Hat—Virgie! You said ‘Yes!’ ”

“Yes, George,” Virgie said again.

“I can’t believe this,” said George. He began stalking her with manifest intention. Smiling somewhat mistily, she stood her ground. He caught her in his arms and kissed her. He felt on his lips her answering kiss, sweet, shy, yet strangely potent. It fairly rocked him to his heels. Actually he felt in his injured ankle a tingling stab as though MacTosh had bitten him. A familiar snarl drew his eyes downward. MacTosh had bitten him.