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LAY ON MAC DUFF!

The MacDougal Duff Mysteries

Charlotte Armstrong

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Chapter One

My name is Bessie Gibbon. I am twenty years old now, and going to be married, but I was still only nineteen last February when all this happened. It began with me on the train for New York City, not knowing in the least what was going to become of me.

My mother died three years ago. I had time to get used to getting along without her before my father, who was a Methodist minister in a little town up in New York state, died, too, a year ago this fall. For a few months I lived in the parsonage with the new minister and his wife, and everybody tried to help me support myself. But it wasn’t any use. I had no business training, and anyway there weren’t any business openings. The things I could do, nobody in our town could afford to hire done. I might have been a child’s nurse, but people in our town managed with a hired girl, if that, and I couldn’t be a hired girl, on account of the prestige of the Church, nor did I want to be one. I’d have made a fine companion, but companions were a frivolous impossibility to the old ladies of Baker’s Bridge, who were tough and got along all right alone. The only possible job for me was to become somebody’s wife, but after I turned down the butcher’s son, a catch, the new minister gave up and wrote to my Uncle Charles that I was coming.

Uncle Charles Cathcart was my mother’s brother. He had offered to take me in as soon as Father died, but I hadn’t wanted to go. I still didn’t want to go, but I had to.

Uncle Charles was a kind of myth to me. I had always known there was an Uncle Charles, but I had never seen him. He hadn’t even come to Mother’s funeral, or to Daddy’s. He’d sent lavish flowers. And lots of money, too, which came in handy, both times. I knew he was fabulously wealthy, by our standards. But although he lived in New York City, not far, he might as well have lived on Mars for all he’d ever meant to me.

I had a notion that Daddy didn’t approve of Uncle Charles, or perhaps vice versa. Anyway, he was something rich and strange, far away from our strict and thrifty little world, mentioned infrequently by Mother with a kind of guilty awe, almost as if he were a disgrace to us in some way. Mother’s father had been a minister, too. I’d early caught the idea that Uncle Charles was a black sheep. And that it took special character to disapprove of him because the wages of sin, in his case, hadn’t been death but cash.

He was married. My aunt’s name, I knew, was Lina. He was about fifty years old. He was rich. He’d offered me a home. And that was every bit I knew about my future, that Wednesday evening, as the train rumbled over the high tracks, between tenements and then plunged underground, so that I knew I was nearly there.

I was scared. I felt helpless and at the same time a terrible urge not to be helpless. I didn’t like arriving in the role of a poor relation, yet that’s exactly what I was. I felt nervous and countrified and shabby, yet I was full of plans for getting a job and supporting myself, plans that I kept trying to make concrete, although they were necessarily dreamlike because I hadn’t the slightest idea what it would be like to try to get a job in New York. I hid my sweating palms in my cotton gloves and resolved to be every bit as dumb and awkward as I was bound to be, without flinching or pretending anything.

All keyed up, with my chin in the air, I got off the train into a dim vault. A redcap asked for my two suitcases. I told him I expected to be met, whereupon he picked up the suitcases and raced off ahead of me, up the ramp, and I had to follow. Pretty soon I recognized the station proper and saw that people were waiting there, watching faces. The redcap stopped and looked at me, and I looked around helplessly, ready to bawl.

A man’s voice said, “Aren’t you Miss Elizabeth Gibbon?”

“Yes,” I said, “yes, I am.” I was so grateful to him for having heard of me that I could scarcely see him, but I knew that, whoever he was, it couldn’t be my Uncle Charles. He was too young.

“I’m Hugh Miller. Mr. Cathcart asked me to meet you. Shall we look for a cab?” He took my arm and steered me after the redcap, who dashed away in another direction.

I got my chin up somehow and said, “I’m afraid I don’t know who you are, Mr. Miller.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.” He seemed confused. “I’m … I work … I mean I’m an assistant to one of your uncle’s friends. I just … well, I was there, and they pressed me into service.” He smiled at me, and, since my vision was clear by this time, I saw that he was a tall serious-looking man of perhaps thirty, perhaps more, with eyeglasses and a pale but rather nice face. He had a long nose, slightly concave and thickened at the bridge. His mouth was sharply cut, and he had good teeth. His hair was light but not quite blond, and very fine, lying close to his head. I knew, immediately, without knowing how I knew, that he was scraping along in the world without much money, that he was as much out of my uncle’s world as I was, and that I needn’t be afraid of him because his interest in me was just about zero.

We came to a place where there were taxicabs and got into one, he tipping the redcap.

“Let me,” I said.

“Oh, no,” he said quickly, and I wondered if it was Uncle’s money, but I let it go. The cab roared around underground and suddenly climbed into the middle of the city. The noise and the strangeness got me for a moment.

“You’re been to New York before?” asked my companion politely.

“When I was too little to remember it. Is my … uncle busy or something?”

“He is entertaining.”

“Oh. And I suppose Aunt Lina—” He turned his head to look at me so suddenly that I stopped. “I … I’ve never seen them, you know,” I said; “either of them. Didn’t I pronounce it right?”

“Your Aunt Lina,” he said, rhyming it with Carolina and using a very queer tone, “is out.”

“Oh,” I said. It all seemed very odd to me. After all, it isn’t every day that a strange niece comes to live in one’s house. This wasn’t the way things were done at the Methodist parsonage.

“You mustn’t be hurt,” said Hugh Miller suddenly.

“Oh, I’m not.”

“Yes you are.”

“No.”

“I’ve said the wrong thing,” he went on quickly. “You see, every six weeks or so, your uncle and his friends have a meeting. It’s a tradition, a regular thing. They get together for auld lang syne, I guess.” He had a light, rather pleasant voice. It seemed to trail off with vagueness or even irony. I felt he knew things I didn’t know and that until I knew them I couldn’t understand some subtle emphasis.

“Do you mean these meetings, or whatever they are, are important?” I said.

“Well, you see, these three men and your uncle are old cronies. They used to be in business together, one way or another, or so I understand it.” He looked around at me and hesitated. “They play a game,” he said.

“They play a game? What kind of game?”

“They play parcheesi.”

“P-parcheesi!” He seemed to be trying to explain, but the more he said the more bewildered I was.

“Yes. It’s a good cutthroat game,” he said, smiling, “and very exciting, the way they play it.”

“I know,” I gasped. “It’s a swell game, but my uncle …! Oh. You mean they gamble?”

“Not for money. They play for blood.”

He said this very quietly in his light, rather high voice and kept on looking out of the window. I struggled to make some sense out of what he had been saying. “So Aunt Lina goes out to leave the men alone,” I said aloud.

“It’s rather a large house,” he said apologetically, and I flushed. “She often goes out.”

“Where does she go?” I demanded.

“Why, to the theater and to dinner with friends and … uh … concerts you know, or to the ballet. Just … uh … out.”

“Alone!” I gasped.

“Uh … no,” he said. He dropped that cool little syllable between us and left it there.

“While my uncle stays home and plays parcheesi?”

He laughed. “You’ll see how it is,” he said more warmly. “The four of them … well, I call them ‘Pirates of Industry.’” He looked at me anxiously. “You’ve heard of Captains of Industry?” I nodded. “Well, they rather like to … uh … do each other in the eye, you know?”

“For fun?” I said.

“Oh, yes.” Then in a hurry, “I come along sometimes with Mr. Winberry just because I haven’t anything else to do, but I am not in the game, you see, so when your uncle said that your train was nearly due, why, Mr. Winberry suggested … I mean, I offered … Anyhow, here we are, I guess.”

The cab stopped and I looked out. We were on a rather quiet street, where the cars all pointed one way, and the house before us was one of several in a tight row, tall, narrow, cold, with stone steps going up to a massive double door, past a sunken areaway where I could see iron-barred windows. It looked closed and blank except for a glow in the fanlight over the high doors and behind blinds in the three tall windows on the second floor.

I got out of the cab, stepping without any warning into an icy wind that bit through my coat. I shivered and looked up. Whatever this house was like inside, I knew darned well it wasn’t going to be anything like the Methodist parsonage.

Chapter Two

The first butler I ever saw in my life was my uncle’s butler, Effans. For a long time I thought his name must be Evans and that everyone pronounced it wrong because of some joke I didn’t know. But his name was really Effans, and he opened the door for us that night.

He was an oldish man, quite short, with a small pinched face on top of a very long neck, which was always bright red as if it were chafed. I thought for a moment he was my Uncle Charles when he smiled, but he said, “How do you do, Miss Elizabeth. Mr. Cathcart is expecting you.”

Hugh Miller began to take off his coat. I didn’t know what to do, but I had a strong feeling that I mustn’t take off my coat yet, so I clutched my handbag and stood still, looking around. For the first time, I saw the shape of the staircase in my uncle’s house. It was a dizzy spiral, going up and around, not only once, but many times, endlessly, it seemed to me that night, around the well at whose base we stood. We were at the bottom of the silent core of the tall house.

This entrance hall was carpeted, softly lit, keyed low in color, luxurious. There was a beautiful cabinet against the wall. To my left were white double doors, closed. Straight ahead, under the upward swoop of the staircase, there was a small humble door. To my right a big mirror reflected my anxious face. There was no life on this floor … none at all.

“This way, please,” Effans said, picking up my suitcases and starting softly up. I followed and Hugh Miller followed me.

“Game still going on, Effans?”

“Yes, sir.”

We padded softly (because of the carpet) upward, past a niche in the curve of the wall where stood a precious-looking vase, as big as I am, filled with flowering branches. On the next floor there was another set of double doors, wide open, and as we came opposite I saw a big comfortable room, all books and leather and amber light. A man came around a corner somewhere within.

He was tall, as tall as Hugh Miller, with a great chest and a big head. He was not fat. His face was, rather, lean and dark, with long flat-curving lines along the cheeks. It was hard. The skin and the flesh seemed hard. His mouth, above a long chin, was full and yet hard. There was a dent in the side of his chin, not quite a scar. He had black and white hair, was bald in the middle. His eyebrows were dark and thin, and one of them was crooked. His eyes were blue, cold, and, at the same time, amused. He didn’t look old, and he certainly was not young. He knew too much to be young. He looked as if he knew an awful lot and it was making him laugh. I thought of Sin, out of an old-fashioned allegory, because he was ugly and fascinating and frightening and exciting and a shock to me. He had no business being anybody’s uncle, yet he was mine.

I knew because Mother had a crooked eyebrow and so have I. And I said to myself “no wonder” because I understood, now, why he had never been to Baker’s Bridge, why he hadn’t met me at the train. He just wasn’t the kind of man who visits relatives and sleeps in the guest room where the sewing machine is or stands in a railroad station meeting shabby nieces at trains. Nothing had prepared me for the power and the impact of his personality, but, somehow or other, it explained him.

He said, “How are you, Elizabeth?” His voice was rich and deep and softly on a leash, as if there were volumes more of it, as if he could, if he wished, fill the whole stairwell with sound and as if it would be no effort at all for him to do so.

“I’m fine,” I said, “Unc … Uncle Charles.”

“You found her, Hugh. Thanks.” That took me out of Hugh’s hands and signed the receipt for the package. “Did you have a pleasant trip?” said my Uncle Charles.

“Oh, yes.” All I could think of were the set phrases I had composed on the train. “I’m very grateful to you for having me here,” I said, “and I hope not to bother you too much.” Then I blushed furiously. It sounded so prim and silly.

“My dear,” said my uncle, “you’ll be no bother.” I didn’t know whether he meant to be kind and welcoming or whether he was matching me, sentiment for sentiment, as if it were a game he played with secret laughter, or whether he was warning me that I darned well better not be a bother or out I’d go. I felt hot and uncomfortable and about ten years old.

“Effans will take you up to your room,” he said. “You’ll stay, Hugh?”

“Yes, surely,” Hugh said.

I turned, stupidly surprised, to follow Effans. Then I pulled up my chin and stopped and asked him. “Am I to come down again?” I demanded of my Uncle Charles.

“By all means, please do.” I thought, he’s laughing. Not a muscle in his face moved, but I hated him for laughing.

“If you’re busy,” I said stiffly, “and if Aunt Lina isn’t here …”

“Are you tired?” he asked, with his eyebrows higher.

“No, oh no.”

“Aunt Lina,” said my uncle, rolling the words over his tongue twice, “Aunt Lina will surely want to see you when she comes in.” He shot a glance at Hugh, and the corner of his mouth quirked as if he couldn’t help it. Then he turned and went swiftly back into the big library, leaving me on the stairs and Hugh Miller standing in the doorway. He was frowning.

“Thanks for meeting me,” I said to him. “I guess I’ll … I’ll be down.” He smiled, and I trudged up after Effans, as flustered as I have ever been in my life.

The bedroom Effans bowed me into didn’t help either. It was magnificent and enormous, all gray and gold and blue, lit softly, and there were two pale wooden beds, side by side in satin coverlets. A middle-aged woman in a maid’s uniform said, “I’m Ellen, Miss Elizabeth,” and waited for my coat.

“I can’t stay here,” I said a little hysterically. “Look, there are too many beds.”

Ellen looked at me sharply. She had a plain, sensible face that might have come from Baker’s Bridge. “Miss Lina said to put you in the best guest room,” she said briskly, “and this is it. Shall I unpack for you, dear?”

I told her the truth, almost belligerently. “Nobody ever unpacked for me,” I said, “or packed for me either. And you wouldn’t understand my system, with beads in my stockings and underwear stuffed in my shoes.…”

“I bet I would,” Ellen said.

That made me laugh. I pulled off my hat and threw it on an elegant chaise longue. “Gee whiz!” I said, and sighed. I decided that Ellen looked very much like Mrs. Dillon, the milliner, up home. “Must I change my dress to go down?” I asked her.

“No, you needn’t,” she answered me directly, and I knew she liked me for being ignorant and saying so. “Just wash your face, and let me brush your head for you. Take a clean handkerchief and a drop of scent, and go down.”

“I will,” I said.

“Good,” she said surprisingly. She showed me my bathroom, apologizing because it opened from the hall. It served two rooms, she told me, mine and a tiny one behind the stairwell. “But nobody’s ever put in there.”

“I wish I could have it.”

“It’s no bigger than the master’s bathroom,” she told me with shame, “and only one window with the fire escape past it! Miss Lina’d never hear of it.”

Miss Lina sounded kind, if from a distance, but I resolved that she’d hear of it from me. I felt better by then. I began to understand that these people were giving me everything, and more, than I could possibly need and that I shouldn’t feel hurt because they didn’t seem to be putting themselves out to do it. They were rich and had everything to give me. We, who were poor, had always given “of ourselves” as Daddy used to say in sermons, but perhaps we thought it important and necessary only because it was all we had to give. My spirits were up now, and when I started down the staircase with my clean handkerchief and my bit of scent, I was full of just plain curiosity.

The library on the second floor of my uncle’s house looked upon the street with three tall windows. It was an enormous rectangle, with an alcove, which ran between the stairwell and the front of the house and must have been over the entrance doors, downstairs. In this alcove, around a beautifully made table with a parcheesi board inlaid in its surface, sat my uncle and his guests. When I came in, Hugh Miller rose and came to meet me, and my uncle rose and introduced his friends. Then they went right on playing parcheesi.

But I’d caught on now. I realized that my arrival wasn’t an Event, as arrivals used to be at home. I’d been expected, and I’d turned up on schedule; and, while it wasn’t flattering to make so little a splash, still it left me free to look around and notice things the way you want to do in a new place but usually can’t because you’re being looked at.

Hugh brought me a drink of something. I was sure it was alcoholic and only dared touch my lips to it now and then. We sat on a huge leather sofa near the fireplace where a real fire was burning. He didn’t have much to say. Yet I suppose he was sitting there just to keep me company because the other four certainly paid no attention to him, either.

My uncle’s back was toward me. I noticed that the little finger on his right hand was deformed. It stood out from his other fingers crookedly, and he didn’t use it.

Mr. Bertram Gaskell was the man at his right. He looked like a frog. He was in his late forties, I guessed, little and hunched up as if he were misshapen, with big pop eyes grotesquely wide apart under whiskery brows. He kept opening and closing his mouth with his lips lax.

Mr. Hudson Winberry, at uncle’s left, looked like a bishop, but there was something puffy and rotten about his round cheeks and pink and white skin. I guessed him to be nearly sixty. His hair was silver white and was brushed across his rounded forehead in an old-fashioned innocent-looking dip. He wore rimless eyeglasses which he touched often with a hand that had a curiously repulsive flexibility.

Mr. Guy Maxon was younger than the rest, and I labeled him the sissy. He was perfectly turned out in his clothes, handsome in a way I don’t like, very regular of feature, but with thin and quivering nostrils that gave him a look of being terribly fastidious, if, indeed, he were not sniffing disdainfully at everything around him.

And then there was my uncle, whose profile, on the side with the dent in it particularly, was piratical, keen, and cruel.

The Frog, the Bishop, the Sissy, and the Pirate had a game.

It ought to have been pleasant, sitting there in the warmth with something to drink, with a presentable young man beside me and the four others busy at their game, rattling their dice, counting their spaces. But it wasn’t.

In the first place, I began to understand what Hugh had meant when he said they played for blood. They played to win, and the devil take the hindmost. Their cries of triumph were real triumph. Their sneers were real sneers. Their malice was real malice. It was absurd and it was dreadful.

I am not ordinarily a terribly sensitive person. I don’t feel “auras” and “sense” undercurrents any more than most people do. But there was something going on in that room that made me first uneasy and then afraid. It was like pressure in the air when the barometer is low. At first I thought it was because I was a stranger, but then I realized that Hugh had stopped making even a few remarks and I couldn’t break our silence because I felt I had to keep listening, the way you listen in the night when you think you’ve heard a burglar, telling yourself it was the wind but, all the same, tense and braced for trouble.

I began to wish they’d stop playing.

“That’ll be a lesson to you,” the Frog said viciously. “Get back home, Charlie. Get back home.”

“I need a four or an eight,” said the Sissy, “and if I get them …”

“It’s against your own best interests to ruin me,” said the Bishop with a snarl.

“Hah! Never mind. I blockade.”

“Damn you,” said my uncle in a sweet whisper.

The Frog burst into mean and nagging laughter. “Look. Look, Winberry.”

“I never saw it!” cried the Bishop in glee. “Aha! I say, Charles is in a bad way, eh, boys?”

“Raw-ther,” said the Sissy.

What they were saying could have been banter, but it wasn’t. The horrible thing was that grown men could play a parlor game, and be so mean about it. I realized that my uncle’s guests were drawing together, and not very subtly either, in a confederation against my uncle. Frog rolled the dice.

“Got a choice there,” said the Bishop eagerly.

“You’re ahead,” said my uncle.

“Ah, but he’ll never make it,” said the Frog nastily. “Whereas your other man goes home.”

“That’s unwise,” my uncle said.

The Bishop looked worried. “He always gets out of everything,” he said to the Frog.

“Not this time,” said Sissy. “Now for you, Winberry.” He rolled and swore.

“I’m going to win!” squealed the Bishop. He rolled. “No.”

“Go on, count them,” said Sissy.

“By God, there it is!” cried the Bishop. “I never saw it! A four, all right. By God!” And he won.

I thanked goodness. But the game went on. It seemed there had to be a second best and a third best and a final loser. I wished they’d stop, but they weren’t going to stop until a bitter end, Hugh sat with his chin down on his chest, swishing the liquid in the bottom of his glass to and fro. I could hardly sit still, so unbearable the whole scene seemed to me. Now the other two were out to beat my uncle, and Winberry was cheering them on. They seemed to want to beat him so very intensely. They seemed to care so much about it.

“Don’t do that,” cried Winberry to the Sissy. “You break your blockade, man, and he’ll nip around you.”

Uncle threw the dice in a dead silence. His face, in profile, looked sullen and thoughtful. Who hated him so much? Or was he the angry one? He had the force to give a room its atmosphere. Weren’t the others like little mean dogs yapping around a lion when they thought they were safe from him? I ran my hand around my throat, and it was hot and my hand was icy.

“Oh, why don’t they stop it!” I murmured.

Hugh looked at me startled. I saw that his forehead was wet with perspiration. “What’s the matter?” he said, a little wildly as if he were coming out of an uneasy dream.

“I don’t like … the way they hate each other,” I whispered.

He sat up straighter, and a queer look, almost of wonder, came over his face. “Do you feel that too?” he said, in just a breath.

“Do you?” I said.

“Yes. It’s … not good.” He took out his handkerchief and fumbled nervously with it.

“Haha!” the Frog shouted, pounding the arm of his chair. “You’ll never get out of it now. And I’m out, Maxon, but you don’t care. You get your man in now and Charlie’s dished. Yessir, dished, for once.”

“For once in his life!” the Bishop said.

“Shut up,” said the Sissy, “I’m not out yet.”

“Not yet,” my uncle said.

“Is it always like this?” I whispered to Hugh.

“Not … quite. Your uncle seems to be losing tonight. He never does, you know. They say he never loses.”

“Throw a one,” the Frog said.

“Throw a one and a two,” the Bishop said.

The dice fell from the Sissy’s box, and my uncle stood up from the table. Nobody said anything. My uncle crossed the room.

“Have a drink, Hudson?” he said softly. “You, Guy?”

“I will,” said the Frog. “You lost, by God!”

As if his bluntness had let loose a flood, the Bishop began to babble. “Look at that. Three men still at home. Only one man out. He couldn’t throw a five to save his neck. No, sir. That I lived to see the day.…” My uncle, across the room, threw him a look. “And the saying goes that Cathcart never loses,” said the white-haired pink-faced man. “But he lost this time, eh? Didn’t he?”

In the silence that followed this gloating, there was a sound of someone coming in downstairs. “There’s Lina,” said Maxon, the Sissy, the youngest of them, and his face lit and changed.

“Ah.” The Frog shifted his chair. The Bishop touched his eyeglasses. My uncle drained his drink to the bottom and set the tumbler down.

In a moment she stood in the doorway, and I, halfway out of my seat for my manners, fell back in again and scrambled out all arms and legs, boneless with surprise.

She wore evening clothes. She stood a little taller than I do. She had a flower in her hair. Her red cloak fell from her bare shoulders into Guy Maxon’s expert and waiting arms. She wore a white gown. She was the loveliest, most radiant, most beautiful girl I had ever seen out of the movies. She was about twenty five years old. She was my Aunt Lina.

Chapter Three

After Lina came in that night, time began to be important. I mean the time at which each person did what he did. From now on, I will just put the times down as I go along according to the figures we worked out later.

It was five minutes before twelve when she came in.

She came straight to me. “This is Elizabeth?” she said eagerly. “I’m Lina Cathcart.” She took my hands and pulled me down beside her on the sofa. “I’m glad you’re here safely. Do they call you Betty?”

“They call me Bessie,” I said, “up home.”

“Bessie.” She put her head a little on one side. “I like that. I’ll call you Bessie, and you’ll call me Lina. Is your room comfortable? Did they give you anything to eat?”

“I didn’t … I wasn’t hungry,” I said. But I liked her. She had the right instincts. In our house, the first thing we did for any traveler was feed him.

Uncle’s guests were swarming around us. The effect Lina had on them was almost funny, yet rather horrible. Guy Maxon posted himself behind the sofa where he could look, in his haughty way, down upon her lovely head. The Bishop warmed his coat tails at the fire and leered. He really did. He used a caressing (I suppose he thought it was fatherly) tone when he spoke to her, but all the time his eyes were running busily up and down on errands of their own. Mr. Gaskell lit a cigar, and never took his gaze off her, or blinked, even, though he opened and closed his mouth from time to time in his froggy way.

But my Uncle Charles sat in a chair and looked at the dying fire. He said nothing. He seemed to have seceded from the whole gathering. And Hugh, who had gone into a corner and appeared to be glancing through a magazine, was watching my uncle over the top of it. Was my uncle sulking, or was he bored, or was he being rude because he was angry? I couldn’t tell.

Then, if that disgusting old Mr. Winberry didn’t begin to tell Lina all about the parcheesi game! He told it just as if she would find it the most fascinating story in the world. He told it with relish. He told it with details. He described the run of luck against my uncle as if it had been a flaw in my uncle’s character. He stood there and gloated out loud. He was mean and childish and nasty, and he went on and on until I thought I would be the one to scream. But Lina listened as if she were frozen in a beautiful pose, like a photograph, and my uncle looked into the fire.

It was Hugh who stopped him. He got up, as if he couldn’t stand it another minute, and said harshly, “If you don’t mind, I think I’ll be going along.”

“Eh?” said Winberry. “Wait and come up with me in a cab if you want to.”

“Are you going straight home, sir?” said Hugh, looking as if he had a bad taste in his mouth.

“No, no. I’ve told you. Have to stop at the club for an envelope.”

“Is it anything I can do for you?” said Hugh, and I remembered that, in some way, he was this man’s servant.

“Nope,” said the Bishop. Adding no thanks.

“Then, if you don’t mind, I think I’ll take a bus up now.”

Hugh’s eyes shifted to me for just a second, and I understood that he had been hanging around more or less as a matter of duty. The Bishop waved a careless permission, and Hugh began to say his good nights. I answered rather coolly when he got around to me. He smiled, though, and said he hoped to see me again as if he really meant it, and his handclasp was quite friendly. I didn’t quite know what to make of Hugh Miller. But I felt that his interest in Lina Cathcart was just about zero, too, which was remarkable.

It was ten minutes after twelve when Hugh left us.

Mr. Winberry didn’t take up where he had left off. He fell quiet, and from time to time he glanced uneasily at my uncle as if my uncle’s silence had begun to weigh on him. Lina and Guy Maxon talked a rapid kind of shorthand.

He said, “Good show?”

She said, “Fair.”

“Third act let you down?”

“Badly.”

“I heard.”

“But worse.”

“Really?”

I didn’t know what they were talking about. But I thought, then and there, that he must be in love with her, and I hoped she didn’t like him, but I was afraid she did.

They left, shortly, and all at once. Mr. Winberry wasn’t happy any more. He offered Guy Maxon a lift through the park, but Guy said he’d walk. Mr. Gaskell said he’d take a lift through the park. My uncle stirred and rose, lazily, and he and Lina went downstairs with them.

It was then twelve-thirty.

Left alone in the library, I walked over to look at the parcheesi table. I had never seen anything like it. Even the dice were made of something that looked precious, and the men were unusually large, made out of some glowing plastic in vivid jewel colors. My uncle, I noticed, had played with the red. There they lay, three of them still in his home starting place, and only one red man safe in the center goal. I turned away quickly and went back to sit where they’d left me, feeling as if that corner of the leather sofa was my prison.