Fiction

FOR 3 NIGHTS ONLY

Dave still had stars in his eyes and the brightest was the famous Maggie Raven. But no one counted on Rita playing the rowdy last act for keeps

JOSEPH SCHULL May 1 1952
Fiction

FOR 3 NIGHTS ONLY

Dave still had stars in his eyes and the brightest was the famous Maggie Raven. But no one counted on Rita playing the rowdy last act for keeps

JOSEPH SCHULL May 1 1952

FOR 3 NIGHTS ONLY

Fiction

Dave still had stars in his eyes and the brightest was the famous Maggie Raven. But no one counted on Rita playing the rowdy last act for keeps

JOSEPH SCHULL

AT FIVE in the afternoon, on schedule, the plane arriving with Maggie had droned over the business section of town. By fivethirty, Dave estimated, she was temporarily installed in a hotel suite and on the phone to Rita. Forty-five minutes later, as he swung the car round the last turn of the hills, he had no doubt that the line between the hotel and the bungalow on the lake would still be returning a busy signal.

Rita was just hanging up as he arrived. She put a small hand to her forehead with the gesture of pleasurable exhaustion which usually followed telephone conversations with Maggie Raven, and a little flush glowed in her cheeks beneath the suntan. Otherwise her manner betrayed nothing more than the normal preoccupation of an expectant hostess. “She says,” Rita quoted, “ ‘no luncheons, no receptions, no interviews, no nothings. Just gossip in the wilderness.’ ”

Dave grinned. “The dreams she has!”

Rita nodded. “I pointed out that she’s got to do a little receiving in the dressing room tonight whether she likes it or not. And if she thinks she’s getting out of the cocktail party tomorrow she’s crazy. We have to go on living in this community.”

Dinner was a flurried affair, but Mrs. Potter arrived to take charge of the children and Dave dressed in comparative peace. He had hardly settled himself in the living room for a glance at the newspaper when Rita appeared on the stairway. Her coat was draped around her shoulders and she was ready to start. It was one of the rewards of living which he never liked to miss, the sight of her cool, fragile loveliness in the first freshness of the evening. But he noticed that she was wearing her second-best dinner dress, and she had drawn her honey-yellow hair into the bun that always made her look like the teacher of a class of Dresden dolls. He grinned at the sight of it, and she made a wry little moue, her eyes cryptic behind the smile. “When you can’t win, don’t compete,” she said. “Let’s g°”

They reached the city with half an hour to spare before curtain time. Rita said, as though on impulse, “Let’s have a look at the works of David Edwards.” They drove along the familiar streets and watched the lights coming on in some of his houses— the Winston place, its cool friendly symmetry riding the crest of the little ridge as though hill and house had grown there together; the Municipal Apartments, where fifty families were living now in clean comfort for less than their nasty tenements had cost them before. Rita lifted her hand in a small, ironically pompous gesture. “There, my lord,” she said, “is also worthy work.” It was all she could do. It was the reason she had got him into town early. Ten minutes later they were in their seats and the theatre was darkening amid an expectant, electric hush.

The set was flashy and faintly vulgar. It missed the mood of the play by reaching for it. No depth, no subtlety, no flair. It was a roadshow adaptation of the New York original, but that didn’t excuse it. The instant the curtain went up he knew he could have done a better job than the overrated Broadway carpenter responsible for this. Then Maggie made her first entrance, gathering the house to her as palpably as if she held a drawstring, and nothing else mattered.

It was only in the lobby during intermission that ideas returned to him in a nagging swarm. He was still playing with the possibilities of that set, still making phantom sketches when they slipped back to their seats and the darkened house rippled into silence again. A bare angle of masonry jutting forward to emphasize the starkness of tragedy; a high, narrow window, startling with a glimpse of cloud and sky and everlasting hills. The hint of universality. It was what the set needed; but Maggie Raven needed none of it.

Before she was ten minutes into the act he felt it all again. She could have played on a bare stage. She could have played on a rail fence. She lifted you away from sterile plottings with wood and plaster and canvas, absorbed you into herself and melted with

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you into the timeless essence of life.

The last curtain call was over and people along the row were already on their feet when Rita nudged him. He scrambled up and moved into the aisle, rather glad of the hustle and confusion. It took time to get over Maggie. Later on he would be able to pick out the tired cliches and jerry-built climaxes marring a second-rate play. But clichés were dead leaves on the vine of truth, and

when the elixir of Maggie’s genius (lowed into them they bloomed. And broke your heart.

The first night in the dressing room was always an ordeal. Once a year, for half a week, Maggie swept into the town and captured it, bathing him and Rita, willy-nilly, in reflected glory. The room was already filled with avid stargazers, but they made way for Rita, and he could always count on her to supply the light, note. “Well you old Rock of Ages,” she said, going up on tiptoe to kiss the famous cheek, “you’re as potent as ever.”

Maggie swept back the glorious red hair from a face undefiled by grease paint, looked down from her six inches of extra height, and tapped the end of Rita’s nose. “Junior,” she said, “you are a dignified mother now. You should get rid of those freckles.” Then she wrapped her in a vigorous hug and observed to the crowd around, “Worst understudy I ever had. And she stole the best scene designer there ever was.” It brought the usual polite flutter in Dave’s direction. After ten years in the woods he was resigned to it. The fact that he had once built sets on

Broadway seemed to rate him a little higher than an ordinary small-town architect. It would bring on a new wave of invitation-seekers for Rita’s party and later on, probably, a couple of commissions.

They were an hour separating her from the multitude and when the last of the Cadillac owners had been waved away there was still Charlie Haymes, her manager. Charlie was pudgier and greyer, Dave noticed, and there was a shade more of grandmotherly solicitude in the way he barked at Maggie. You could no longer imagine a life for Charlie Haymes that didn’t revolve continuously and exclusively about Maggie. Each year he stormed vainly against committing her for three days and nights to the perils of woods and water. “You can skip morning rehearsals,” he conceded, “but don’t let me catch you climbing any trees. You’re no rubber legged juvenile anymore.”

“Climb one yourself,” said Maggie I cheerfully, and at last they were driving j out through the hills. It was always the ! best hour of Maggie’s visits, that first drive out in the darkness. A warm gossipy communion linking the three of them again, knitting the past year onto the skein of all the other years. It was as if those endless small-hour sessions of the old days had never been interrupted; Maggie already the star, Dave the college-boy find whom Charlie Haymes had lured from an architect’s drawing board, Rita the cool selfpossessed little unknown whom Maggie had spotted at an audition, fallen in love with and taken in to live with her. Five shows togetherand then the night in Maggie’s apartment when all the plans for the sixth had finally come right. Maggie had been running t hrough his drawings with loving approval; he had felt the glow of triumphant creation, and then, suddenly, an enormous sensation of weariness and defeat. Rita had been sitting in her usual chair, her eyes on him, toying with the latest revision of the script. He had walked across to her abruptly, taken her two hands and said, “Marry me and get me out of this.”

it had never occurred to him that Rita would hesitate; and she had not. It had all seemed right then—the real pattern for their two lives. And now ... he shrugged in the darkness as the road unwound ahead and the warm voices of the women ran on above his thoughts. Maggie couldn’t help it; the old magic, the old tumults that she stirred up like recurrent fevers, were a part of her, beyond her control. The price of knowing her, and not too high a price. The breeze began to reach them from the lake and as they rounded the last turn they could see the lights of the bungalow reflected in the water.

Mrs. Potter greeted them at the doorway with her hat on and word that the children were asleep. News of Maggie’s coming had been carefully withheld, to assure at least one night’s rest in the three. Maggie opened her bag in the living room, fished out a dancing horse for Betsy and a fearsome atomic water pistol for Tim. She tiptoed into the bedroom to leave the toys by the children’s bunks, came out, slumped gratefully into a chair and kicked off her shoes. “Home again,” she said, and she meant it.

He poured drinks and they dawdled over them for fifteen minutes. Rita complained sleepily about the bushel of canapés she’d have to make for the party tomorrow. “And don’t call Mrs. Hetherington Mrs. Higgins this year,” she lectured Maggie. “We’re still in the doghouse over it.”

Maggie laughed and said, “Bed.” She put an arm around Rita’s shoulder and steered her on a lazy, loving tour of

the room; her eyes roaming affectionately over the bookcases, the chairs, the new refectory table. She opened the big window looking down on the wharf, took a deep breath and closed it again. At the door of her bedroom she yawned expansively, lifted her arm from Rita’s shoulders and flung it out in a sleepy, magnificent gesture that managed to take in the whole establishment. “Just think,” she said, “the best set Dave Edwards ever did, and I’m playing second lead to my understudy in it.”

DAVE woke in the morning to the sound of splashing from the wharf bebw. He looked out and shuddered. Maggie had just come up from a dive and was twenty yards out into the lake. Rila pushed him away from the window and leaned out. “You glamorous grampus,” she yelled, “don’t you know it’s September?” Maggie gurgled something derisive and swam on.

By the time he had showered, shaved and collected the children, Maggie was sprawled out on the wharf, wrapped in a Lannelly beach robe. She gathered Tim and Betsy to her, toys and all, and there were ten minutes of rapturous commotion before Rita called, “Breakfas“.” The commotion went on through the meal and there was a small riot j when the school bus arrived to carry : the children off. Then it was time for him to leave for the office. High time, j Subtle, exhilarating and dangerous, the i old excitement of Maggie’s presence was charging the atmosphere. Mrs. Potter, just arrived to help with the party preparations, was all eyes and thumbs and awe. Rita was edgily waving Maggie from the kitchen, protesting that she’d better relax or rehearse or do five hundred push-ups and leave the making of canapés to the experts. He himself could feel the old little-man complex reaching up from inside to tighten his lips. He climbed into his car with the breakfast-hour glow burned down to ashes. A smalltown architect, heading for the office to work over somebody’s ten-thousandilollar cottage.

The mood stayed with him all day; it was still with him when he left the office at four o’clock to pick up Charlie Haymes. By the time they reached the house cars were already arriving. Nobody was going to be late; the seven o’clock deadline must be rigidly observed to get Maggie into town for curtain time. Rita signaled him over ( lie heads of the early comers to go to the rescue of Mrs. Potter in the kitchen, and it was half an hour before he got into the living room.

By then the crowd was a series of concentric circles radiating from Maggie. He was drawn in, as completely, as helplessly as if he’d never seen her perform before. The fact was, she didn’t perform. Maggie could save her acting for the theatre because she herself was better than any part she’d ever had or ever would have. She was wholeness; rounded, completed humanity—the dream of little lives. The earth mother, he’d called her once -giving all, needing nothing, and in the end taking the children of earth to herself. Something made him look away at last and he saw Rita across the room. Her eyes were fixed on his face, and she seemed not to notice that the stem of her wine glass had snapped. When he went to her and tried to make a fuss over the cut in her finger she turned from him brusquely. “Cheap way to steal a scene, wasn’t it?” she said.

The last of the crowd was shoveled out by seven. He and Rita stayed to help Mrs. Potter with the mess while Charlie Haymes and Maggie drove in with one of the Cadillac owners. Most of t he cleanup work was done by nine;

Maggie wouldn’t have to be picked up till eleven-thirty. He looked in on the restless children, threatened them perfunctorily, came out and fidgeted around the living room. Rita was sorting glassware, and she looked over at him moodily. “Hurry up,” she said, “and you’ll catch the last act.” He protested that he was tired and there was no hurry; but three quarters of an hour later he was in the theatre.

He might have been seeing her for the first time in his life and he might have known her from eternity. She was as familiar and as strange, as natural and

as startling as a new day. The rhythms of the lovely voice throbbing out through the darkness carried all the years and all the longings of man. There were tears on his cheeks—irrational, unashamed, having nothing to do with the play when the last curtain went down. Even when the magpie clatter of the dressing room was behind them and they were driving out through the darkness, he could find no words for her. Maggie seemed to sense his mood, uncritically and without constraint. She put her head back against the seat cushion and went quietly to sleep.

Rita,sulky and harried, was stretched out in a chair when they arrived. Tim and Retsy had sprung wide awake at ten-thirty and flatly refused to close their eyes again till Maggie came home. They were peeking conspiratorially around the bedroom door now, and they made a reckless, defiant dive for her. “Take ’em in and tell ’em one of those funny and excit ing stories of yours, Maggie,” Rita said wearily. “They’re all yours.”

He and Rita sprawled silently in their chairs, studying their toes as the giggles and whispers in the bedroom

dwindled to a somnolent hush. W hen Maggie tiptoed out to report success he got up and started for the decanter. Rita waved a negative, and Maggie had had her two for the day. He took a stiff one himself and regretted it later, because it merely added to the tumult seething in him. As he lay awake in his bed he knew that Rita was staring up wide-eyed into the darkness too. He wanted to go to her, take her into his arms and say something comforting. But it would have to be the truth for Rita, and there was nothing comforting about the truth.

IN THE morning when he woke half an hour early, sunshine was pouring into the room, the last hot spell of the year was upon them and he felt a steamy sullen depression. Almost defiantly he got out his swimming trunks and headed down for the wharf. Maggie was there already, going through the last push-ups of her morning mutine, and when she finished they dived in together and swam out side by side, almost to the middle of the lake.

When they got back his arms were like lead and he could barely haul himself onto the wharf. Maggie stretched

out luxuriously on the warm planks. Her red hair, released from the cap, welled over her shoulders, drinking in the sunshine and giving it back in richer light; her breasts rose and fell evenly. “Damn it,” he said with a sudden, envious chuckle, “why don’t you try for the heavyweight title? You’re in better condition than any of the palookas that are after it.”

She laughed. “I train harder. Have to. The old girl’s not getting any younger.”

“You’ve got thirty years ahead of you. At the top.”

“And then my scrapbooks.” She lay quiet for a while, her eyes slitted against the sunshine. When she spoke her voice was perfectly casual. “Rill wants a divorce from me.”

“Why?” He didn’t feel surprise or even interest. He doubted if he had thought of Bill a dozen times since the wedding five years ago. Another promising writer whose promise hadn’t matured. He had never seemed a part of Maggie.

“Oh,” she sighed, and for a moment she sounded tired. “1 think he feels a little like the tail of a kite. He said once that I’d made a ghost of him years ahead of his time.”

He sat looking out over the water, saying nothing. Comment wouldn’t help, and Maggie didn’t seem to expect it. “What do you think of the play?” she asked at length.

“What’s it matter? It’s got you.” “The set stinks, doesn’t it?”

“Yes. But it makes no difference.” She closed her eyes and he thought she was dozing, but there was a quizzical alertness in her voice when she spoke again. “Any regrets, Dave?” He tried to make his tone ironic and deprecating. “Over what? My fling in show business?”

“You loved it.”

“Puppy love.”

“You’d be doing more than design sets by now. You’d be directing me if 1 had anything to say about it. You were born with the flair.”

“But I was trained for an architect.” “There aren’t three men up thentoday as good as you could have been. “A broad statement.”

“It’s true. Whether it means anything or not, it’s true.”

“Well, it doesn’t mean anything now.”

She was musing; going back to the earlier thought. “That was the trouble between you and me, wasn’t it? The sets didn’t really make any difference.” “Nothing made any difference.”

She laughed, quietly, easily. “1 wouldn’t say that. But it would have been an awful nose dive for MaggieRaven if she’d tried to beat out her understudy, and missed.”

He swallowed down the constriction in his throat. “Why do you talk like that, Maggie? You never had such a thought.”

“Yes,” she sighed lightly, “I had the thought all right, Dave. And I still wonder about it, every time I’m here. So does Rita. Quite the little masochist Rita.”

“Masochist?”

“We’re both on her conscience. Did she or didn’t she wreck a great career and a great love story? Each year she goes through three days of pure hell to get the answer. And never does.” “You’re an idiot, Maggie!”

“No I’m not.” She swung to her feet in one lithe impatient motion, picked up her beach robe and turned toward the house. “I’m the earth mother— remember? Needing nothing from anybody. Which must make me something quite interesting biologically.” There was a matinee to be coped with and arrangements had to be discussed at the breakfast table. Rita said, “In this one-car family, gorgeous, you create problems. I think the Master had

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better skip the o.Lce this morning and drive you in after lunch.”

Maggie was noncommittal. The children seized opport unity by the forelock and demanded a holiday and a picnic. An hour later, after bustle over sandwiches and gear, they were chugging up the lake. Maggie had brought along a new script; she was impressed with it, and rolled off bits of the speeches to the vast delight of the children. Rita, lying back with her eyes half closed, shook her head and marveled. “The difference between you and me,” she drawled sleepily, “is that in my mouth corn sounded like corn.”

Maggie laughed and tossed the script onto the picnic hamper. “What do you expect? Instantaneous combustion? You only stayed around for three years. ”

“Long enough to find out I was no good.”

Maggie ran an arm around her shoulder and squeezed. “That’s a reflection on my judgment, but we won't argue. You’re a very smart little wench. And it’s a pity you’re such a damn fool.”

September was doing its glorious best; the two hours under the trees had all the magic and few of the rigors of high summer. Mosquitoes viewed them with good-natured apathy. Ants seemed busy on other concerns. Tim and Betsy, packing most of their lunches, set off to explore the woods. The three adults sprawled in the shade, reminiscing on the old days with easy affectionate nostalgia. When the children came charging back they sighed, looked at their watches and hauled themselves reluctantly to their feet. “Maggie,” Rita said as they were packing up, “in the drab lives of the Kdwards you are the greatest thing there is. And I’m a little slut.”

Maggie looked her squarely in the eye. “You are an almost unadulterated darling, but I repeat what I said on the way up. It’s a pity you’re such a damn fool.”

Their mood was buoyant and expansive by the time they reached the house. “Hurry up and change, both of you,” he ordered, “and we’ll make a party of it between shows. We’ll take Charlie Haymes along.”

It was agreed with alacrity. Maggie raced for her room and Rita for the telephone to get Mrs. Potter. She came back as he was tying his tie, her picnic mood faded. “No Mrs. Potter,” she said. “Her sister’s sick. And no time to hunt up another sitter.”

Maggie protested loudly from behind her half-closed door. “There’s lots of time. Dave can run me in and come out later for you.” He hesitated at the thought of his piled-up desk and the long drive back and forth, but one glance at Rita’s face made him hasten to confirm the arrangement. He’d look in at the office for an hour or so, phone Rita about four. She was running through her address book for sitters’ names as he and Maggie hurried to the car.

It was only when they reached the theatre that he realized he couldn’t face t he office this afternoon. He swung the car into a parking space, took the ;eys from the dashboard and looked up into Maggie’s enigmatic eyes. “I want to build up my resistance to you. I’ll catch the first act anyway.”

He stood at the back of the crowded house with Charlie Haymes, hoping that the earthy drag of the hard-boiled showman would keep his feet on the ground. Instead, both men were lifted away together. After fifteen years Charlie was still as susceptible to Maggie as a high-school kid. They looked at each other, a pair of sheepish worshippers, as the first act ended.

Because he knew he wouldn’t be able to drag himself to the telephone during the final act he called Rita at intermission. “Why so early?” she asked.

“I decided to take in the show. I’m calling from the theatre.”

“Oh.” Her voice went suddenly flat. “Well, it’s all right. There’s no sitter to be had.”

“You’re sure?”

“Perfectly. And it doesn’t matter. It’s stifling even out here, and I’ve 'ost my ambition for roast beef in a ot hotel.”

“Well—” his voice was uncertain.

He felt she was lying about the sitter, and he didn’t care.

“Tell Maggie I’ll see her in the morning,” she said. “They’re sending a car from the airport for her at ten.” Then he heard the click of the receiver as she hung up.

He went back for the last act; gave himself to Maggie completely. He said nothing to Charlie Haymes about dinner; waited in the car, alone, for Maggie to join him.When she came out she greeted his explanation about Rita with noncommittal silence, and remained silent as they drove to the

roadhouse he had suggested for dinner. “Maggie,” he said as they sat down, “did you bring that new script in with you?”

She was surprised. For Maggie, she looked even a little uncertain. “Yes,” she said. “Why?”

“Will you let me have it during the show tonight?”

She leaned back and studied him, her hands flat on the table. Then she picked up the oversized menu and opened it with sudden interest. “I see,” she said. “Sure you can have it.”

She was very quiet during dinner,

quiet all the way back to the theatre. He didn’t mind. He felt exhilarated and confident. Alone with the script in the manager’s office he read and made notes, got the fundamentals clear, waited for the mood to grow up around him. He didn’t hear the swelling murmuras the theatre filled, didn’t hear the buzzer as the curtain went up. He had taken a pile of paper from the desk drawer and was filling the backs of the letterheads with sketches. His eyes were alight. Intermission had come and gone, the second act was well on its way when at last he folded the papers, stuffed them in his pocket and went out to stand in the back of the theatre.

Maggie was coming up to the big scene, but in a way it left him unmoved this time. He felt equal with her, poised on the same heights. He was already seeing her move as he wished her to move through the scenes sketched on the papers in his pocket. He was alive with her, flamingly alive, in the passionate labors of a new creation.

He was impatient for the play to end, impatient to be done with the dressingroom bustle and farewells. Everything had come clear for him now. He knew why it had been Rita instead of Maggie. He knew what Tie felt now each time Maggie was with them. Littleness. The stifling walls of the cocoon, the hitter frustrated oblivion of one who had chosen to be little where Maggie had chosen to be great. But no choice was final while a man was alive.

He held himself to silence as they pulled away from the theatre, waited till they were out on the darkness of the j highway. Then he pulled the sketches from his pocket and dropped them in her lap. “Maggie,” he said, “let me do that play for you. Let me direct you.”

She toyed with the papers in silence for a moment. Then she snapped on the dome light and began to study them. At last she folded them again, creasing the folds several times, and handed them back. “The touch, all right. You haven’t lost a thing.”

Her voice was odd and cool. She sat stiffly, her eyes on the road, for 1 what seemed hours. Then she looked j over at him. “What would it do for j you, Dave?”

“I’d forgotten what it was like—fire in your brain, wings on your shoulders.

I used to feel like a god watching our plays come alive. I want that feeling again.”

“Our plays, Dave?”

“All right—your plays. But I gave something to them.”

“Nothing that really mattered. You said so yourself.”

He shrugged stubbornly. “I could have given more. You said that. And I will now. I want to go back to it, Maggie.”

“With Rita and the kids?”

“They’ll come.”

She shook her head slowly. “No, Dave, they won’t. I’d make a ghost of you as I have of Bill. Rita knows it. And so do you.”

He took it in silence. She was letting him down easily. He had made his choice ten years ago and the choice was final.

They reached the house, he swung the car into the driveway and they got out. She put a hand on his arm as they stood there in the darkness. “Dave,” she said—and for once the unerring voice seemed to falter on the light note —“sometimes I think I’ve been miscast.

I haven’t the tastes of a femme fatale. Would you do this show for any other wench on Broadway?”

“I don’t know, Maggie.” His own voice had become uncertain now. There was a querulous, evasive note in it. “What’s the point?”

Her hand tightened on his arm. “You know the point, Dave. I’ve had long enough to see it working out with Bill, and Charlie Haymes, and half a dozen others. I was a nice, lively, healthy farm girl. But something else got stirred into my makeup. It reaches out to people, takes hold of them; I can bring a whole theatre full of them out of their seats with a flick of my hand. And that’s fine. It’s what I’m up there for. But, it also swallows men; good men— their brains, their hearts, their ambitions. They want to spend them on me, make me over into their own image of me, something a lot bigger than I am. And it’s heartless thankless waste, because in the end nothing is left of their work but what’s mine.”

“Maggie!” He put out a hand to

her, but she caught it and drew it gently to his side. “Don’t, Dave. I don’t want to ham this. It always had to come, and I’m going to say it if it kills me. Why did you walk out on me ten years ago, with Rita?”

“I was in love with her.”

“No you weren’t. Not then. If anything, you were in love with me. But you knew you had to get out— away from all the plaster-and-canvas passions and rickety souped-up fairy tales. You had to get away from me if you were ever going to do anything real—anything of your own. And you knew Rita could help you. Well, she has. And of all the homes you’ve built, Dave, your own’s the solidest. It’s no set that you knock apart now and ship on to some other stand. You couldn’t. And you don’t want to.”

He turned away in dull angry frustration. They came into the house. The lights were on, but the living room was empty. So were the bedrooms. Rita and the children were gone. He looked at Maggie, appalled.

She was standing by the big window, watching his face, and suddenly she laughed. “You see?” she said. Then she gestured out of the window, and he became conscious of the glow from the wharf.

Rita was down there with Tim and Betsy. The children seemed posted as an audience, and Rita was going through what he suddenly recognized as an imitation of Maggie in her big scene. Maggie had just caught on too, and she drew in her breath with a quick gasp as fragments of lines floated up to them.

it was a magnificent parody, brilliant and cruel as the forked tongues of lightning in the distance. Rita must have been drawing on her memory and making up what she lacked, but there was nothing missing from the sense of the scene, and nothing merciful. Every move was recognizable but wrong; every gesture completely authentic but wickedly underlined. Mood was overstated, cadences were just off, rhythms distorted. Every peak of the scene collapsed—with a flick of her wrist, a quiver of her voice—into bottomless inanity. Subtle as it all was, the children had got the point with the impact of a comic strip and were screaming with laughter.

“The devil!” Maggie exclaimed. “The little wicked she-devil!” She was not amused. She stalked out of the room toward the steps leading to the wharf and he followed her hastily.

They had almost reached the rim of light about the wharf when Maggie spun round on him. “What price fairy tales now?” she hissed. “Made mincemeat of me, didn’t she?—with her left hand. I’ll never be able to play that scene with a straight face again!”

Suddenly he threw back his head and laughed at her. Rita heard him, broke off in midsentence and burst into tears as they came onto the wharf. “1 couldn’t help it, Maggie. I couldn’t help it! When you’ve got even the kids so they can’t sleep I had to blow off steam somehow. I wish you’d never come here! I wish I’d never known you. I wish ... !”

He took one masterful step across the wharf, lifted Rita in his arms and dropped her with a resounding splash into the water. Tim and Betsy screamed with panicky delight, and when Rita bubbled to the surface there were sputtering giggles mixed with her tears. He reached down and hauled her onto the wharf. Then he lifted her in his arms and held her up to the ruffled Maggie.

“Beg the lady’s pardon,” he said to her. “There’ll be no more dramatics around here. Three days of Maggie once a year is enough.” if