Fiction

The Bequest

YVES THERIAULT July 6 1957
Fiction

The Bequest

YVES THERIAULT July 6 1957

The Bequest

YVES THERIAULT

The housekeeper, Lilian, had come knocking at his door at dawn. She had just found Edwina dead.

“She woke me up at three,” cried Lilian. “She seemed to feel better. She sent me out on an errand. When I came back, I looked in and found her ...”

Clarence shuddered. However satisfactory Edwina’s death could be, there were aspects to the fact of death itself that made him squirm —in dogs, birds or possessive wives.

“What errand could she send you on at three in the morning?” he asked.

But Lilian's face froze, and Clarence sighed. The woman had been devoted to Edwina and always resentful of him. Granted, he had come into their lives at a time when it was rather smoothly organized for Lilian.

“She made me promise not to tell,” said Lilian defiantly.

“All right. Lock the door to her room, and go to your own room. I’ll call the undertaker and make arrangements.” After a slight pause, he added: “In the morning.”

Lilian stood undecided for a moment, the hatred in her eyes boring into him. “Aren’t you going in to see her?”

But Clarence had a short laugh, derisive and somewhat sardonic. “She's dead, isn’t she?”

The housekeeper nodded.

“Well, then, what would I do in her room?”

Lilian stamped out, slamming the door. Clarence delicately shrugged his shoulders. Life with Edwina emerged in his mind, the long years of it, as he stood alone before the window. Was that a product of death, this reminiscing in almost conscious tangible form?

“There can be love,” he had told her on the eve of their marriage. “Love is an outgrowth of intimacy. Why should I lie to you? My feelings are tender, but I know they will become passionate only as time reveals you to me . .

That was years ago. He was thirty and she was forty and rich. She was also fat and insipid.

Then, marriage and the routine of life. The first month had been easy. He had a supply of words, catch-phrases: “I’m learning to love, Edwina . . . It’s pleasant and it’s beautiful . . . Let me find my way to your heart?” Later, more than a year after their marriage, when he suggested coyly that he needed a little money, she went stiff and cold in his arms. “You have your store. You said yourself that business was good.”

“I need stock. I want to enlarge the premises, move my lines faster. With a small outlay, say, twenty thousand, this could become the start of a big business.”

Edwina had three hundred thousand left her by a previous husband. But she remained adamant. Clarence bided his time. She would yield. He softened her days with words, her evenings with an amorousness he hadn’t known

was in him. It was disgusting, kissing a woman with fat, soft cheeks and bulging lips. But the trick seemed to work. She was mollified, she yielded to love. But when six months later he mentioned money again, this time she became coldly angry.

“ I here are limits,” she said in a tense voice he’d never heard before. “There are definite limits to what a woman will accept from a man. I’m willing to play at your love scenes. They harm no one, even if they make you look like a fool. But don't expect me to buy any of them with even one thousand dollars.”

I his was a new Edwina. A big, dangerous, clever woman. For a moment Clarence felt panic.

“I don’t understand . . . ,” he said. “I don’t

“You don’t recognize me?” supplied Edwina. “No, I didn’t think you would. I have taken a husband, for free. Because I felt the need for companionship. I have chosen a man in business because I thought he would be less demanding. My money is accounted for. Until I die, it is mine. I ask nothing of you. I’ll keep on supplying this house as before, leaving you to enjoy your own income as you personally wish. But that’s all.”

And it was.

Clarence attempted more tenderness in the days that followed, but he found Edwina had become reticent, not continued on page 38

continued on page 38

Clarence had played it smart. With his wife dead he’d have her money and young, lovely Doris,

HOW COULD HE MISS?

continued from page 26

Clarence was getting desperate. How long would she take to die?

to the point of locking her bedroom door, but certainly to the extent of preventing any of the more blatant attempts at befuddling her.

“Strategy,” had murmured Clarence that night, noticing with satisfaction that his image in the mirror had a cunning look that became it very well. “Strategy. What I won’t get while she's alive I must get once she’s dead.”

So he became a devoted husband. He had been tender and exuberant before. Now' he became attentive, considerate. He listened patiently to all Edwina said, nodding intelligently, commenting with calm friendship on her every sentence. He complimented with admirable restraint. He showed himself vastly contemptuous of money matters. One day she hesitatingly broached the subject of money with him, but he made a placating gesture.

“No,” he said, “let’s not discuss this. You made your position clear once, and I felt very badly afterward for not having made mine clearer before you made your decision. You see, my intention was to offer you a running partnership with me. I had excellent bank credentials and commercial property to guarantee the alliance. Unfortunately, you thought I sought only to milk you of your funds. It’s my fault for not having employed business methods with you.

I obtained a loan at the bank last year and completed the improvements I had in mind. My business is now prospering very fast."

He went back to his paper, wondering if she believed everything he said, and as he lifted his eyes later and looked at her. he saw she was watching him speculatively.

T.HEN there was Doris. She had been a pet project. At twenty Clarence had dreamed of a rich wife and a beautiful mistress. But he had been methodical. as in every endeavor. He first secured the business basis for his life, then, when

he reached thirty, the rich wife. The beautiful mistress had come later, after the second year of marriage, at about the time when Edwina had begun to feel ill most of the time. She hardly went out, and Clarence could feel very secure about Doris. Edwina had gone only once to Clarence’s store and she could not know that Doris was now her husband's secretary and interim manager at the store.

She couldn't know the girl’s cold blue eyes, as cold as Clarence's, as calculating and as dangerously implacable. Clarence,

apart from seeing Doris every day at the store, met her twice a week at night. Being a member of a business club gave him the needed freedom.

And although Doris had been definite from the first—“I like you, Clarence. You think as I do. But let’s not mix love with this kind of emotion we feel. If 1 hitch my wagon to yours, it's because you're going somewhere” — he wasn't at all convinced that some day she would not fall in love with him. So gradually he channeled his income toward her needs. The store was in no way as prosperous as Clarence had made it seem to his wife. But progress was constant and he could, knowing he was one day to inherit Edwina’s money, permit himself certain financial loans. This way he had eventually bought Doris a

car, paid her rent and furnished an apartment for her. Her clothes were expensive, their secret life too lavish. So when Edwina took to her bed for good, Clarence began to see the end of all his troubles.

EDWINA lay grotesque and unwieldy lunder the covers now. It was downhill for her. She fretted and moaned. But the cancer was deep inside the bulking flesh. It ate at her and slowly wasted her strength. Clarence had to repress a shudder each time he walked into her room. But he dutifully kissed her cheek and patted her hand, enquiring after her health. The doctor gave his report absently. She could not last long. She was too far gone.

"I have never seen such will power in a woman,” he said to Clarence. “But the end is near and frankly I do not advise the hospital."

Clarence gave the news to Doris the next day.

It set them planning, of course. With Edwina soon dead, all of their ambitions would be fulfilled.

That night Clarence hoped for a time that some word of love might come from Doris. She was elated, her cheeks were flushed and her every nerve was taut. But all she could say, that she repeated after every other sentence, was: “We’re rich, Clarence, or we’ll soon be!"

Yes, rich, and every want secure, Clarence dreamed. Hardly forty years old, money, a new wife — beautiful, blond, as ambitious as he was.

The months had dragged. Edwina’s resistance was phenomenal. And then Lilian’s panicky call in the night: death had been the stronger. Clarence had to pinch himself. This could still be a dream. He had despaired lately because the new loans on the business could not be repaid on time. One month more, he had pleaded. He had never thought a human being could take so long to die! Once, he’d even started to plan

... He would finish her ... He would find a poison or something that no one could detect . . But Lilian’s stern and watchful presence sobered him. Any little thing he’d do would be suspect.

So he had waited, praying she would die before the bank decided to take the store away from him. Hadn't he waited ten years already?

And now' Edwina lay dead in her room. Tomorrow ... at last he’d be free. Tomorrow indeed! He was free now'! Free! The beautiful thought! The heady feeling!

He went to his dresser, switched on the tw'in bureau lamps, and stood before the mirror. His face was calmer than he had expected it to be. He watched it for a long time. It w'as a pleasant enough face. He picked up his glasses and put them on. They hid the steely glint in his eyes. The contrasted lamp shades highlighted his smooth forehead, the fair hair and the incongruous crewcut, the narrow nose, the thin lips, the small head. No. it was hard to put an age on him. He felt relieved that his forty years were not blatantly apparent. He put his hands flat on the glass-topped bureau and took a deep breath. Then he inhaled slow'ly. letting the delicious feeling come out of himself in a controlled, yet tense exuberance. He wondered if it were permitted to yell with glee.

Edwina’s death, a moment ago a hazy event, was only now permeating really through his thoughts, and the feeling of finality became inevitable.

"She’s dead,” he kept murmuring over and over again. “She’s dead. It's all over . . . I’m free . .

A slow smile spread on his lips, exaggerating the thinness of the mouth. Young Doris . . . now. Doris, and life, and Edwina’s money!

HOW long had he been reminiscing?

He dressed himself and spent the whole morning attending to the death duties. There was the bank manager to see, but it could wait a few hours still. He hurried to the store—to Doris.

But Doris was nowhere in sight. Probably out to lunch, thought Clarence. He went to his office. On his bureau was a large envelope marked “Personal." He opened it and started to read.

Dear Clarence:

There’s a letter attached to this sheet of paper that needs no further explanation. It was brought to me a little later than three this morning. The way things stand now, I see no reason to spend the rest of my life with a man your age, and . . .

Clarence was stunned. He Hipped the page and there was another letter. He started to read . . .

Dear Doris:

It hasn’t been easy for me to find out about you. I had to pay large sums to some private detective before he gave me a full report on you and your relationship with my husband. The day 1 learned the complete details, I wrote this letter. After making certain arrangements, 1 pledged my housekeeper to take it to you the moment 1 died, so that you would get it before my last will and testament is read. l et’s not pretend too much. As one woman writing to another, I know perfectly well what will happert, and I am also certain that my aim will be achieved. I think I know you pretty well, although we have never met. Thus, I have left all my money to you, less a settlement on my faithful housekeeper Lilian ... ★