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THE ALBATROSS

Charlotte Armstrong

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To Fred Dannay

For Some Mysterious Reason

The Gardners stopped driving at four-thirty that Saturday afternoon. They were tired, having come south some five hundred miles since very early morning. The motel was appealing, bright with new paint, set around a court of flowers and neat grass.

In the motel, Esther arranged the blinds to dim the daylight, and took off her dress, saying she thought she’d take a nap, since it was much too early for dinner. Tom said as for himself, he’d lie down or stand up but darned if he would sit. He stretched himself upon the other bed.

Esther rammed the pillow against the stiffness at the back of her neck and let herself relax. She was twenty-eight, perfectly healthy, with a good conscience. She could fall asleep even at this unlikely hour and awake refreshed. Tom, however, was no taker of naps. Esther could hear the rustle of paper in his hands. His waking presence made her feel delightfully secure in this strange place. Where were they? Santa Clara Valley. Some little town. Good to be home tomorrow … One more day … She dozed off.

Tom pored over the map. He was playing an old game, trying to discover (like the search for the Northwest Passage) an easy way to sneak into their particular suburb of Los Angeles on a Sunday. For such close work, he needed more detail. Esther’s breathing told him she was asleep, so he rose quietly and slipped out of the room, leaving the door a few inches ajar. The car was parked behind the structure and Tom went through the tunnel-like passage between two units to rummage in his glove compartment for his book of street maps.

Esther dreamed and the dream seemed to wake her. She opened her eyes in this dim place that did not smell of home, and she knew at once that there was no Tom on the bed beside hers. But there was a man in the room, and with her sharp intake of breath there came the odour of whisky. The man was just a shape swaying in the middle of the floor, but she could sense something irrational and loosened from control. As she pushed herself up upon her elbow, the drunken stranger took a couple of lurching steps towards her.

Esther screamed.

She heard pounding feet the other side of the wall. She heard Tom cry out her name. He came in with a rush: the air eddied. The stranger had bent to rest his hands upon the footboard of her bed. Tom hit him.

The man must have been most unsteady because he fell violently.

Tom yanked at the cords, the blinds rattled, the light increased. Esther crawled on her knees to peer over the foot of the bed. The stranger was unconscious.

“What’s he doing in here?” Tom barked.

“I don’t know. I just woke up. Scared me. I think he’s drunk.”

“Fine thing!”

By now, the woman who ran the place had arrived, breathless and fearing trouble.

The stranger lay breathing very hard for a few minutes. Then he came to himself and was sheepish. Tom helped him up, none too gently. “I’m sorry, but you got into the wrong room, fella.”

The stranger said he guessed he had. He admitted his condition. He was a pudgy, pale man, perhaps forty years old. If he had troubles of his own that he had drowned in whisky during the afternoon he did not explain them. He apologized. He was all right now, he thought. He was sorry he had scared the lady. He didn’t blame her for being scared. He didn’t blame Tom, either. He and Tom exchanged business cards. The atmosphere became amiable and mutually tolerant. The motel-keeper’s face relented from a righteous decision to throw this drunk out. Instead, she convoyed him to his own room somewhere farther along the row.

And that was that.

The card identified him as Courtney Caldwell, Real Estate, Arcadia, California.

The Gardners went to dinner, Tom still breathing a trace of fire and Esther, in some deep female way, very much pleased to have been defended.

The next day ran them home to North Hollywood.

The Gardners had no children. On Monday, Tom went back to business and Esther into her own routine, shaking the house alive, restocking the refrigerator.

The Tuesday morning newspaper had a small item at the top of an inside page.

Arcadia man mystery death. Courtney Caldwell, 41, Real Estate Broker of 311 Embassy Place, dropped dead in his kitchen yesterday morning. His wife, Mrs Audrey Caldwell, and her invalid sister, Miss Joan Pell, and Harry W. Parkes, a milkman, were in the kitchen when Caldwell, without warning, fell to the floor. Examination shows the cause of death to be a severe head injury. Mrs. Caldwell can offer no explanation as to when or how it was sustained.

A sound Esther had never heard in her life before came from Tom’s throat. He handed the paper to Esther. They looked at each other.

“What do you think?” Tom’s breath soughed in, like a sigh going backwards.

“Oh, no, Tom. He didn’t fall that hard.”

“Yes, he did. I hit him hard. He fell hard. I’ve heard of such a delayed kind of … Did I kill a man?” He was looking at his right hand. Tom was big and strong, still a part-time athlete. His voice inquired now, crisply, for the fact. But his big clean hand was trembling.

“If it’s—if it’s—the same man …” Esther couldn’t control this jerkiness, “then he couldn’t have said—his wife doesn’t seem—nobody knows.…”

“He wouldn’t tell her,” said Tom. “Who is going to tell his wife he got drunk and wandered into a strange woman’s bedroom and got himself knocked down by the irate husband? Naturally, he wouldn’t tell.”

Tom was trying to be reasonable and realistic, but he was feeling anguish, Esther knew. She got herself together and spoke rapidly. “If it did happen then, it was purely an accident. His head must have struck. Some way that we couldn’t guess. He didn’t guess, either. Maybe it didn’t happen then. You can’t be sure. Maybe it is just a coincidence. Don’t.”

Tom wasn’t responding.

“What will you have to do?” she asked in a different voice.

“I’ll have to be sure,” Tom said

So Esther drew her mind back from temptation. No, of course they could not just let this go, just keep quiet and say nothing and forget about it. Tom would never forget about it as long as he lived. Nor would she. No, the only thing to do was to go tell, and find out. Tom was a man of conscience and integrity. He would do right.

Esther wished the morning paper to perdition, burned, unseen. But she knew she must be very proud of him.

So they drove together to Arcadia, which lies to the east, in the cluster of communities around Los Angeles, and not knowing where else to begin, they came to the address given in the newspaper.

It was a small apartment house, a triplex. Caldwell’s name was on the door of the first floor unit nearest the street. A house of mourning, this would be, with a funeral hanging over it, and here they came to explain that they had caused the grief and the loss. Esther held Tom’s free hand fiercely as he rang the bell.

A woman opened the door. She was about Esther’s age, small, slender, with a long graceful neck, a lined brow above quite extraordinary purplish eyes. Her complexion was pale and she wore no lipstick on her full mouth. Her dress was grey.

“Mrs. Caldwell?”

She answered in a low voice, very calm, very sweet. “I am Audrey Caldwell. Yes?”

Tom’s left hand got away from Esther’s and came to rest on her shoulder-blade. She felt the tremor to her breastbone. But his voice was steady.

“My name is Tom Gardner and this is my wife, Esther. May we come in, please, Mrs. Caldwell? We have something to tell you.”

The woman seemed to freeze for just a second. Esther expected her to say that they couldn’t come in, not now. But she bent her head in a small welcoming gesture like a bow and said gravely, “Why, yes. Of course.”

In the small living-room to which the door opened directly there sat another woman in a wheel-chair. This one was stouter, in a misshapen way. Her waist was too thick, her legs, especially the thighs, too thin. She had the same tawny-blonde hair as her sister, and the same general cast of face. But Joan Pell’s eyes were a slate blue and the fullness of her mouth was exaggerated into a sulky heaviness.

There was a framed photograph standing on a small desk top, and Esther’s eyes flew to it. Her flicker of hope went out. There would be no magic, no being let off, no waking up from the nightmare. The shaven smiling face in the photograph was a face she had seen before—slack and stupefied and bewildered … but the same.

Then she saw that there was a living man here, standing as if he had just risen from a green-grey velvet chair. Mrs. Caldwell introduced him. Detective-Sergeant Mueller of the Police Department. Tom turned to him with relief.

“What I have to say I would rather say to you, sir.”

“Go ahead,” said Mueller. He had a square face and eyes that were at once shrewd, sleepy, and unshockable.

“It might be better if I could tell you privately.”

“Okay. Want to come out in the car?”

The men left. Mrs. Gardner was asked politely if she would not sit down. Esther was five feet eight—a substantial, strong-boned girl. She loved sports and being out of doors and she was suntanned and healthy. Sitting here, in a small armless chair, she began to feel gross and huge. A little woman can sometimes make a good-sized woman feel undainty. Audrey Caldwell was a little woman and a dainty one. She had a way of moving that was slow, graceful, and elegantly controlled. Her whole manner seemed to reproach haste, reproach vigour, reproach heartiness. The tone of this place where she lived was altogether genteel. The legs of the chairs were delicate. The backs of the chairs were too straight for lounging. Colours were all subdued. Nothing splashed. Esther, in her rude health, felt like a great crude splash—all out of key.

“Have you come far, Mrs. Gardner?” asked her hostess in the gentle voice.

As Esther told her how far they had come, she thought to herself that this courteous query showed a remarkable patience with a perfect stranger at such a time as this.

The woman in the wheel-chair cocked her head. “Gardner?” she said. “Wasn’t that name on a card, Audrey?” Audrey Caldwell’s slender hand touched her sister’s knee soothingly. The cripple spoke no more. She kept watching a little suspiciously, a little defensively, as if she were ready to bristle up at the slightest threat. She made Esther think of a guardian dog, faithful and touchy.

The weather lasted for a topic until the men came back. Mueller had an air of satisfaction about him and Tom had lost all his colour.

Esther’s heart nearly broke with pride as Tom faced up to it, and did the telling himself.

When he was through, Audrey Caldwell had covered her eyes, but Joan Pell was leaning forward rather gladly.

“Well, that’s it, then!” cried the cripple. “Isn’t it? Well, that explains everything! Doesn’t it, Audrey? Courtney was walking around with that crack in his skull since Saturday! Who would have imagined!” She threw both hands up in an old-fashioned gesture. It was as if she had said “La!” in admiration.

“We’ll have to check with the doctor,” Mueller said. “But it certainly looks like the explanation. When your husband got home Sunday night, Mrs. Caldwell, he didn’t mention this incident?”

Audrey Caldwell sat still with her eyes covered. Her head shook a negative.

Tom said, humbly and fearfully, “What can I say to you, Mrs. Caldwell?” His anguish was lying before her. He would take any punishment she chose to give him. Esther could feel between her husband and this strange woman the beam and the bond of his remorse.

Audrey Caldwell did not speak for a moment or two. When she spoke, her voice was still calm and very gentle.

“Thank you for coming to tell me,” said she. “It is so much better to know. I’m sure it was an accident I know, Mr. Gardner, that you wouldn’t have had this happen …” Now she dropped her hand and the purple eyes were moist and kind and forgiving. “I am very sorry—for poor Court—for myself—and I’m sorry for your sake, too.”

“That’s … very good of you,” said Tom with a hard swallow. The bond, that intangible connection, seemed to Esther to slack off and then spring back, stronger than ever. Tom’s shoulders twitched as if he settled on the yoke of it. He turned to Mueller and snapped tensely, “You’ll want an official statement.”

“Yes, and we’ll check it. Mrs. Gardner must make a statement, too.”

“You must have been very much frightened, Mrs. Gardner,” said Audrey Caldwell softly. “What a startling thing for you. Courtney did drink, sometimes.…” Her voice trailed off sadly. Esther found herself staring and astonished. Audrey Caldwell’s lashes fell. Her face had a sweet sadness.

“Oh yes, he drank,” the sister put in quickly.

“I—was startled,” said Esther to the widow. “Thank you for understanding.” This woman was behaving so astonishingly well that Esther must come up to the mark herself. But she’d never said such a thing in her life. (Thank you for understanding.)

“Didn’t complain, did he?” asked Mueller.

“No, he didn’t seem to be hurt at all,” said Esther. “He insisted that he wasn’t. But we ought to have made him see a doctor.”

“No, no,” said Audrey with a motion of her hand as if to say: Please, no more.

So the Gardners left with the policeman.

Tom was not held. There was a lot of talking, and a lot of waiting around. There was the doctor, who looked grave and had no comfort. There was telephone contact with the woman in the faraway motel. The sergeant spoke on the phone to Mrs. Caldwell, who still seemed only gentle and forgiving and understanding. Nobody disputed the assumption that a man has a right to hit a drunken intruder who is frightening his wife. If Mrs. Caldwell did not take the view that Tom was guilty of anything, Mueller did not think the law would call him guilty either. While Tom and Esther must both testify at the inquest, they need not be afraid.

“’Course you know,” the man, Mueller, warned them from deep cynicism, “she can change her mind. People do. She might take a notion to sue you. But you got everything on your side. In the first place, there’s no way to prove this is what happened to him. Doc says he never did call that skull injury fresh. But while it might be thirty-six hours old, he isn’t going to swear it has to be. Even if he did, then what? The man was drunk and in the wrong place, and your wife and this motel-keeper can both testify to this and also that he apologized and didn’t seem too much hurt at the time. Well—it’s not a nice thing to think about the rest of your life, but you won’t be in any special trouble about it. Unless she sues. That might be a little bit unpleasant. You still got reasonable doubt on your side.”

Tom said tensely, “You don’t know of any other blow he had?”

“Nope.”

“Then how much reasonable doubt is there?”

The sergeant shook his head.

Tom said nervously, “After a few days, after the—after a while, I want to talk to Mrs. Caldwell again. It’s possible she can use some help. There’s that invalid sister. I wonder if they’ve got the means to go on with. I know money can’t bring the man back but I’d like to do what can be done. Which is little enough. I don’t want—it’s not the time to say this to her now.”

“Why don’t you go on home,” Mueller said kindly, “and come back in the morning?”

In the morning, the inquest was quiet and dignified. No tears, no accusations, no trouble, and very little publicity. The newspapers did not pounce on the case and blow it up to sound sensational or scandalous. Audrey Caldwell’s frail and forgiving undisguisable wholesomeness, seemed to put the whole affair on another plane.

Another week went by, and there was no trouble except the trouble of the mind that could not forget.

Tom had that white, strained look too often. There was just so much that could be said to him. Esther had said it all. He was not to blame, not really to blame. He had the right to defend, the duty to defend. It had been an accidentally serious fall. No one could have prophesied such an injury from a mere fall. They were not to blame for letting the man apologize and go. A man tells you he has no pain, he is not hurt, you cannot argue with him.

“We should have,” Tom said to this.

“We didn’t,” Esther said. “We’re just going to have to stop saying ‘should have.’ If you are going to say ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ … then I shouldn’t have screamed. It was that shriek I let out that made you think something terrible was going on. I’m in it just as much as you are.”

“Shall we try to skip it?” Tom said to this, wearily.

And they tried.

They had not gone to the funeral. They had sent, after painful deliberation, a carefully modest amount of flowers.

At the end of two weeks, Tom came home and told Esther that he had been to see Audrey Caldwell. Esther was a little hurt that he had worked up his nerve to go—and had gone—without telling her in advance. But she surmised that it had happened just so. He had found himself at the pitch, and gone fast, before he weakened. Now he seemed relieved that he had gone. The widow had spoken freely about her affairs.

“Caldwell didn’t leave such a lot,” Tom explained. “Insurance. Small savings. A few bonds. He made no will. What there is is tied up for months. She gets what they call a widow’s allowance, but it’s pretty slim, and there is that sister. Makes it tough for Mrs. Caldwell to get a job. I asked her to let me send her something every month—I had to, Esther.…”

“I know,” Esther said. “I know you had to. That’s okay. We can manage.”

“She wouldn’t let me, though. Wouldn’t have it,” he told her. “I wish she would.”

“I wish she would, too,” said Esther understandingly. He needed expiation. He needed a kind of penalty. Esther felt this in herself.

Even to Esther, her charming yellow house and their whole comfortable way of life began to seem sinfully easy and luxurious.

So time passed but did not seem to heal. Tom was obsessed with his obligation to the widow of the man he had killed. He went to see her several times more. Esther would hear of it afterwards. She bore this silently.

One day, when spring was coming on, Tom said to her, “Honey, would you mind terribly if we had house guests for a few days?”

“Who?”

“Well, this is what I was thinking. I went over to see Audrey Caldwell this afternoon. She and her sister are going to have to move out of that apartment. It’s too steep for them now. But she—they are having a little trouble finding a place because of the wheel-chair and all. There has to be a ramp or no steps, and unless they are on a ground floor there would have to be an elevator. Well, it would save them dishing out another month’s rent there, if they had a place to stay while Audrey looks. And since it doesn’t matter to them where they locate …”

“Do you want them to come here?” asked Esther “Because if you do, that settles it.”

“You know how I feel. I’ve got to do whatever I can for them.”

“I know how you feel,” said Esther gravely.