Fiction

The Lady Is AFRAID

DON TRACY July 15 1950
Fiction

The Lady Is AFRAID

DON TRACY July 15 1950

The Lady Is AFRAID

DON TRACY

HOW ARE they treating you?” I asked, without thinking.

He looked up at me with those blank eyes. “Fine,” he said. “Just fine. When I’m a good boy I get a nice walk on the grounds. Beautiful grounds. But don’t step on the grass, or a guard will yell at you.”

Once Jake Kenny and I had packed into the deepest part of New Brunswick after moose. Now he had to keep off the grass when he was rewarded with a walk through the hospital’s manicured grounds.

He ground out his cigarette in a tray and watched the butt smolder briefly and die.

“Mac,” he said, casually, “do you think I’m nuts, like all the rest of them do?”

I’d been expecting the question and dreading it. I might have been able to recite some unconvincing lies to somebody else, but not to Jake Kenny.

“I don’t know,” I said. “You took an awful jolt when Elsa died and you had a nervous breakdown, they say. If you did blow your top, Jake, there’s nobody who could blame you. And it’s nothing permanent, of course.”

Some of the tightness went out of his mouth and his eyes took on a little life.

“Thanks, Mac,” he said, quietly. “Thanks for not giving me the old routine.”

He looked toward the windows, barred, oh so unobtrusively, and his fingers drummed on the arm of his chair.

“Yeah,” he said. “I had a nervous breakdown That explains everything. Even Mister Avramm.” “When you’re better,” I said, quickly, “how about the two of us spending a couple of weeks after salmon on the Gaspé? You know, we always said we could catch those things on a trout rod; not one of those pool cues they use.”

“Maybe,” he said. “I’ll be kind of busy for a while when I get out of here, of course.”

“Your office is running like clockwork,” I told him. “You don’t have to worry about that.”

“Not the office,” he told me. “I’ve got to go to Europe. I’ve got to talk to her.”

“Who?” I asked.

“Elsa,” he told me, calmly. “You see, Mac,

Mister Avramm got her, like she said he would. I’ve got to try to get her back.”

I reached for the cigarettes in my pocket. I had to do something. They hadn’t told me it was this bad with Jake.

“You’ve already got one lit and in your mouth,” Jake said. “Take it easy. I’m almost never violent, you know, and when I am it’s only because I get sore at being kept here when I ought to be out of this place and looking for her.”

“Perhaps I’d better call—” I started.

“Sit still and listen,” he cut in. “I’ve got to tell the whole story to somebody or blow up inside and you’re the most understanding guy I know. Sit still and let me tell you the story that got me in this place.”

I sat back. Maybe, I thought, spilling the whole story would do Jake some good. Maybe I was morbidly curious to hear the yarn that my friend’s fixation had produced. I don’t really know. Anyway, I sat back and listened.

ELSA and I (he said) had been married a little over two years when Mister Avramm paid his first visit.

You remember Elsa—how could anybody forget her after seeing her once? Yeah, you remember her, all right. You were one of the ones who told me I ought to take it easy, think things over, instead of rushing off and marrying her the first time she said yes. Aah, I’m not blaming you, Mac. Nobody knew anything about Elsa except that she was beautiful and when a man has the kind of dough that was left me, his friends try to protect him from alimony artists. But I knew, the first time I saw Elsa, that there never would be anybody else for me but her.

I don’t suppose a gentleman talks about his honeymoon, but I’m a nuthouse inmate and maybe that gives me privileges. Anyway, it was—wonderful. At the right times she was an earthy person, behind that austere blond beauty of hers and then, again, she was cool, remote, almost cold with me and that was okay, too. She knew instinctively which of her moods I wanted at which times.

Okay, stop fidgeting. I had to tell you that, but I’m through now.

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You know, Mac, as close as the two of us were, I never found out a thing about Elsa’s background. Oh, I knew she had a practically unpronounceable last name and she was supposed to be a refugee who’d come over here as a kid when Hitler first started going wild, but that’s all I knew. The first time I started poking into her past I got told to leave it alone.

She wasn’t coy about it. She just told me that she had few happy memories and too many unhappy ones and it would be better if we looked ahead, not backward. Well, I figured that a beautiful Jewish girl—if she was Jewish—growing up among Storm Troopers and cruds like that might have had some experiences that were better forgotten, so I didn’t ask any more questions.

We went along and every green was a one-putt green for a year, two years. Then, one day, I came home to find Elsa huddled in a chair, looking strained, scared, ready to run.

“Jake,” she told me, “I think—I know—I saw Mister Avramm today.”

I didn’t know any Mister Avramm. I’d never heard the name before but when she said the word I knew, somehow, that it was Avramm, with two ms. Not Abrams or Avery or Ailman. Avramm. Mister Avramm.

“Let’s see,” I asked. “Just where did we meet Mister Avramm?”

She gave a shudder; the kind we used to say, as kids, came when somebody walked over the place you were going to be buried.

“You’ve never met him,” Elsa said. “At least, I don’t think you have. Maybe—”

Now, I’m not a particularly trusting soul, Mac; you know that. But there wasn’t the slightest bit of jealousy in my love for Elsa. So this Mister Avramm might have been Elsa’s lover once—so my own record wasn’t exactly spotless. I sat down on the arm of my wife’s chair and brought her over close to me.

“Listen,” I told her. “There isn’t any Mister Avramm in the world who should make you feel frightened or guilty.”

“You don’t know him,” she said. “You don’t know Mister Avramm.”

“Want to talk about him?” I asked her. She spread her hands. She had long, tapering fingers, you’ll remember.

“I can’t talk about him,” she said, “because I don’t know anything about him, really. I know he’s evil, Jake, he’s terribly evil!”

“I don’t know what you mean,” I said, “but if this Mister Avramm or anybody else ever bothers you, you let me know.”

I put it down to nerves. Elsa was mixed up in a lot of women’s groups— the garden club, charity organizations, hospital work—you know. She’d been working too hard and she was tired and her imagination was playing tricks on

ABOUT a week after that, I had to go . to Montreal on business. I had to leave Elsa alone for the first time since we’d been married.

“I’ll be all right,” she told me. “The servants will be here and I think I’ll have some people in for dinner. Don’t worry about me.”

When I got back to my hotel, that first night in Montreal, there was a slip in my box telling me to call home. Elsa was crying when she picked up the phone.

“Jake!” she yelled. “You’ve got to come home! He was here!” It sounded

as though the words were being jerked out of her mouth.

“Who?” I said.

“Mister Avramm,” and then there was that strangled crying and the sound of the phone being slammed back onto its cradle.

I chartered a plane and got home as soon as I could. Every light in our place was on when I ran up the steps and banged open the front door. I could hear Elsa whimpering upstairs. When I got to her room I found her lying across the bed. Her hair was down over her face, her clothes were all wrinkled, her face was so swollen that she almost wasn’t beautiful.

“He was here!” she cried. “He came to the front door and I answered the bell and he laughed at me and told me it wouldn’t do any good for me to try to get away from him! He said he’d get me back !”

Well, I thought I knew a nervous breakdown when I saw one. I got some nembutal and made Elsa take some and then I phoned Doc Sands. He came right over and gave Elsa a needle and she went to sleep. While Doc was taking care of my wife, I went hunting for the servants. I found that not one of them was in the place.

After Elsa was undressed and under the covers I went downstairs and mixed a drink for Doc and me.

I was at the side of her bed when she woke up the next morning. She opened her eyes and stared at the ceiling and then looked at me. She reached out and grabbed my hand hard.

“He was here,” she whispered. “I knew he’d come.”

“He’s not here now,” I told her. “What happened?”

She told me she’d been listening to the radio and the program had just changed a* -.30 when the front doorbell

“I answered the door,” she said. “Mister Avramm was there.”

She swallowed and gripped my hand tighter.

“He smiled at me,” she said. “He told me—reminded me, maybe that I belonged to him and there was no use trying to run away. He said he’d always be wherever I went. Jake, he’ll get me!”

“Not with J. Kenny around,” I told her. “And what happened to the servants? What happened to the dinner you said you were going to

“I don’t know,” she said. “All of a sudden I got the idea of giving the servants the night off and calling up the people I’d invited to dinner and asking them to make it another night. I don’t know why I did it.”

By this time, it was obvious to me that there was some nut, some crank, wandering around our neighborhood scaring women. I called the police.

YOU KNOW how it is in this town, Mac, with my family and the money we’ve got. I guess they pulled cops off cases to find the man who’d scared my wife. That afternoon, the Chief called me and said they’d found the guy. Would it be all right if they brought him up to the house and had Elsa take a look at him to see if he was the right one?

I said sure. They had him there in five minutes.

He was big, all right, and goodlooking, with an olive skin and teeth that were so white they looked almost artificial. He wore good clothes and the right kind of shoes. I’d been ready to slug hir» the first time I saw him but when they brought him into the house I kept my hands in my pockets. I saw that this guy was a gentleman who’d blown his cork somehow and found his new, strange pleasure in frightening women. It could happen to anybody and he was to be pitied, not punched.

The man had full control of the situation. He acted like a fellow who knew a bad mistake had been made and also knew it was only a question of time before everything would be straightened out. He came over to me with his hand thrust out.

“Mr. Kenny,” he said, “the police say I frightened Mrs. Kenny last night. I’m very sorry; really I am.”

“You admit you were here then, Mister Avramm?” I asked.

His eyebrows went up.

“Mister Avramm?” he asked me. “My name’s Holloway. F. B. Holloway. But of course I admit I was here last evening. I’ve told the officers how I was looking for an address in this neighborhood and took the wrong turn somewhere. I stopped here to ask directions. Mrs. Kenny answered the door. She looked at me and screamed and ran back into the house. I didn’t know just what to do—naturally, I was surprised, embarrassed. I called inside to ask the lady if there was anything wrong, if I could be of any help. She told me to go away. It sounded to me as though she was crying.”

He hunched his shoulders and spread his hands.

“I didn’t like the idea of leaving a person who was so obviously—disturbed,” he said, “but I drove down the street and made my enquiries at another house. Then I went to my friend’s place. Maybe you know him— AÍ Jenson.”

Of course, we both know AÍ. He was with us on that trip we took to—yeah,

I knew AÍ Jenson, all right.

“Maybe there were two people here last night,” one of the cops said. “Maybe Mr. Holloway came here after this other man, this prowler, frightened your wife. If we could have Mrs. Kenny see this man, we could straighten this out.”

“Let’s check,” a cop suggested.

Everything checked. AÍ Jenson said he’d known F. B. Holloway for years. The police used the phone to make sure that Holloway was executive vicepresident of a top-ranking trust company. If a man ever had credentials, it was Holloway.

“It’s perfectly all right,” he told me, after I’d apologized. “These things will happen. The wife of a very dear friend of mine was afflicted the same way.”

DOC SANDS recommended a vacation for both of us and we went up to Ram’s Horn Lodge for the winter sports. We spent some wonderful days there. We skied some and we skated some but mostly we sat on the glassedin veranda and looked over the snow and held hands and fell in love again, each morning and each evening. Elsa lost her new habit of looking over her shoulder every so often.

It was on the morning of our last day that it happened again.

We’d finished breakfast and Elsa was making a third cup of coffee last when I told her I’d see to the checking-out and getting the bags down and the car around in front. I guess I was away from her table about 20 minutes, not more. When I came back, Elsa was sitting there with her head down, as though she was reading a paper beside her plate.

I touched her shoulder and it was as hard as stone and then it was a stone that shivered and shook and the sobs began bubbling out of her mouth and her words were choked, as though there was a hand around her throat.

“He’s here!” she told me. “Mister Avramm! He found me again! I knew he would, Jake!”

I got sore, Mac. We’d had a wonder-

ful time at the lodge and she’d been her old self and now, on the last day, she had to go and spoil it all with this Mister Avramm business.

“Cut it out!” I told her. “There’s no Avramm here or anyplace else! Get that through your head.”

“It was Mister Avramm!” she told me. Her voice was just under a scream by this time.

Heads started turning in our direction. A tall man came threading himself through the tables. It was F. B. Holloway.

“Is the lady ill?” he asked. “Can I be of any help?”

“Holloway!” I said. “Of all the lousy luck that brought you here!”

His eyebrows went up the same way they had when I’d called him Avramm, the day the cops had brought him around to the house.

“I beg your pardon,” he said. “My name’s Bleuvet. I’m maître d’hôtel here. If we could get the lady to my office, I’ll call the house physician.”

“Mister Avramm!” Elsa wailed.

The big man looked down at Elsa and then at me. His face took on the same sympathetic—pitying—look Holloway had given me. But this was Holloway! It had to be Holloway!

“Ah,” he said. “I did not understand, m'sieur.”

I started to say something and saw it wouldn’t make sense. I got Elsa up out of her chair and led her out to the car. The bellboys packed our bags in the rear deck and we got out of there.

“You believe me now?” Elsa asked me, on the way home.

“Yes,” I told her. “Yes, I believe you.”

I didn’t though. It was all explainable. You know how they say everybody has an identical twin somewhere in the world? Well, this Bleuvet was Holloway’s twin and it had been just our bad luck to meet up with him.

Still, I investigated. I got the best bunch of private detectives that money could buy to look up things for me. They told me that Bleuvet had been at Ram’s Horn Lodge for five years. We hadn’t seen him before that last morning because he’d been away, attending a sister’s funeral.

There were facts as solid as F. B. Holloway’s background had been. And that meant that Elsa—

You know most of what happened in here; about the psychiatrists and the others who talked to her and treated her after that trip to Ram’s Horn Lodge. She went through with it all because I think that by then she was afraid that she was—not right. Sometimes, she used to cling to me and push her face into my shoulder.

“Ah, Jake,” she’d say. “I wish I were dead. I’ll never bring you anything but trouble.”

“Jake,” she told me. “No matter what happens, you’re the only man I’ve ever loved.”

A COUPLE of months went by.

Then, one day, I felt myself coming down with a lousy cold and I left the office for home and bed just after noon. I was going up the front steps, fishing for my keys, when the door opened and he came out.

He wasn’t so well-dressed, this time. He was carrying a big cardboard case by one of those wood and wire handles that hook into the cord of a bundle. But cheap clothes and shapeless hat and all, there he was. F. B. Holloway. Monsieur Bleuvet. Mister Avramm.

I caught him by the lapels of his crummy overcoat and swung him around.

“What is this?” I asked him. “What’s the big idea?”

He smiled at me, scared.

“Nice lace,” he said. “Very cheap.”

I hauled him inside. Elsa was on the divan by the fireplace, crying hopelessly. I held onto the guy while I called the cops. They were there in three minutes.

His name was Spiros Anastopoulis and he was a Greek lace peddler. The police gave him a complete going over. They found and proved that he had served with the Greek underground resistance during the war, that he had been commended by a British general named Jumbo Wilson, that he had worked as interpreter for the American Embassy at Athens, that he had—aw, hell!

The chief of police called me down to his office a few days after the episode of the lace peddler.

“Twice,” he reminded me, “we’ve answered complaints about men bothering Mrs. Kenny. Twice it’s turned out that there was some mistake. Maybe it would be a good thing if you didn’t call us any more, Mr. Kenny, unless you know it’s something more than— uh—than a woman’s nervousness.”

“I won’t call you again,” I said. “I’ll take care of it myself, the next

I was believing it then, you see, Mac.

I was believing that there was a Mister Avramm who could show up under a lot of different names, all complete with solid backgrounds and manufactured memories and—

Okay. Maybe I get a little too excited, at times.

I guess you saw Elsa just before—it happened. Big shadows under her eyes, cheeks drawn in, too thin, jumpy, looking over her shoulder all the time.

“Tell me,” I asked her once, “just who is this Mister Avramm? If you tell me, maybe it’ll help us get rid

“I’d tell you, if I really knew,” she said, “but I don’t. I guess I’ve known him a long time—perhaps I’ve always known him. But you see I can’t even tell you how long always has been with me, Jake, and how long always is going to be. But Mister Avramm is evil. I know that. He wants me and he’ll get me and—ah, darling!”

We went to a wedding, one day, and there he was, playing the organ. All I could see was the piece of his face showing in the little rearview mirror above the keys but those were his eyes and once, when he raised his head, that was his smile. Elsa began to shiver and shake and I had to take her out of the church.

About a month after that I had to go on a job that couldn’t be handled by anybody else. I took Elsa with me. I thought the trip would do her good and, really, I was afraid to leave her alone for the two weeks or more that I’d be away. I was afraid that there’d be more lace peddlers or organists or F. B. Holloways or men named Bleuvet dropping around, and they’d all be Mister Avramm.

While the train was still in the station I felt safer than I’d felt in weeks. I tried the door to make sure it was locked 'and then I took off my overcoat and sprawled out on the seat opposite the chair where Elsa sat. She was skipping through a magazine.

The train gave a gentle lurch and started to move. I looked out at the platform gliding past.

And there he was, Mac ! There he was!

He was standing on the platform, leaning against a pillar, his eyes fixed on our window. He was smiling and as our car passed him he put a hand up to the brim of his homburg in a sort of salute. Yeah, there he was, the best-looking man ever to come out of Hell.

Elsa hadn’t looked up from her magazine and I was thankful for that. I leaned back and closed my eyes.

I’d made a mistake. I was getting so

jittery that everybody, a stranger on a station platform, looked like Mister Avramm to me. The guy I’d seen must have been a man named Smith who was seeing his wife and kids off.

I sat there, keeping my eyes closed, until Elsa put down her magazine.

“I think I’ll go up to the club car,” she told me. “Join me, or would you rather have a nap?”

“Nap,” I said. Mister Avramm was on the platform of the station. He couldn’t hurt Elsa from there and I needed time to get myself together.

She left. Maybe I dozed; I’m not sure. The next thing I knew, I was on the floor and the place was full of dust and flying gravel and the smell of hot oil. There was the sound of steel grinding against steel and people were yelling and—

Hah, the shakes again. Don’t let the doctor see me like this or I’ll be in here for a long, long time.

I suppose you read all about the wreck, Mac. The club car was forward and the freight that jumped the switch hit it head-on. They said they thought there were 21 people in the club car at the time but they couldn’t be sure. There were odds and ends they never were able to match up, exactly. I got off with what the papers always call minor injuries.

They sent a basket home that they said contained Elsa. Brooks and Lee handled the funeral. Remember how pretty the flowers were, Mac?

Your visiting time must be nearly up. I can see the guard edging his way over toward us.

The doctors say I got a rap on the head that made me this way—disturbed. Oh, they’re right! They were so right when they said Elsa was suffering from hallucinations and they were so right when they told me the rap on the head, plus the shock of losing Elsa, brought on a nervous breakdown. Never argue with doctors, Mac. They’re always right.

But they let me into the reading room on the third floor the other day and I tore this thing out of one of those picture magazines. Here, take it, and see why I know I’ve got to hunt up Elsa and Mister Avramm when they let me out of here. You’ll see why I know Elsa’s still alive, Mac. You’ll

HE LOOKED at me a while and then he shook his head.

“No,” he said, carefully. “You won’t see. I thought you would, but you’re like everybody else. You—aw, skip it!” I pushed the scrap of paper he’d handed me into a pocket as the guard walked up to us. I wanted out; I couldn’t take any more of this. Jake had been my best friend and now he was somebody obsessed by the awful conviction that his dead wife was alive, that an impossible Mister Avramm had somehow resurrected her from a train wreck and captured her.

“All right, Mr. Kenny?” the guard asked, with hollow joviality. “Shall we go back now and get ready for dinner?” “So long, Jake,” I mumbled. “I’ll see you later.”

He didn’t answer. He didn’t even look at me. He turned his back and walked away, the guard beside him, toward the door that would be locked behind him.

Outside the gate set in the high wall, I inhaled unimprisoned air to the bottom of my lungs. I reached for a cigarette and my hand touched the piece of paper Jake had given me just before our time was up.

It was a photograph of a ball given in Ottawa, with the men in tails and the women with smooth, bared shoulders. In the right foreground was a tall man with a dark skin and a wide smile. He was just as handsome as Jake had said he was, and standing beside him was Elsa. There was no mistaking her. There were her cool, grey eyes, looking into the camera, and there was her perfect mouth, twisted into a wistful smile. The picture made her look as though she were hoping that somebody —anybody—would see it and know she needed help.

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I looked at the caption under the picture. It said-

Ottawa: Gathered at the home of so forth and so forth and so forth are the Capital’s top-ranking socialites, convened to help celebrate the so forth and so forth and so forth. Reading from left to right, front row, are so forth and so forth and Count Flegg von der Roeften, in Ottawa for a few days on a visit from his Native Netherlands; and his Countess, Maria Celestine, one of Europe’s most famous beauties and youngest daughter of the House of Elpe zum Prebelst.

Mister Avramm and Elsa!

I could answer the silent appeal that Elsa was sending out from that picture. I was a lawyer and I could go to court and work to get Jake out of that

hospital and start him on his way to Holland or wherever he’d have to go to find Elsa.

Well, I did go to the Public Library to look at an Almanach de Gotha. Sure, it was right there in black and white; Maria Celestine, youngest daughter of the House of Elpe zum Prebelst; m. Count Flegg von der Roeften on March 8, 1946, at Barneveld; one son, two daughters—

I knew then that Mister Avramm would always make the records back him up. I knew then it would take a better man than me or Jake to beat

Jake was my best friend but there wasn’t anything I could do.

I closed the Almanach and crushed the clipping Jake had pushed into my hand. I tossed the scrap of paper into the wastebasket. I knew when I was licked—when both of us were licked. I could prove I was a real friend of Jake’s by going to town on this thing and—

Ever smelled the disinfectant in a hospital—even a high-priced mental hospital like Jake Kenny was in?

I wasn’t big enough to want any part of this. Not a part of it. Nobody was ever going to lock doors behind me. ★