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SOMETHING BLUE

Charlotte Armstrong

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CHAPTER 1

He punched the bell. The door clicked. He heard Nan calling down his name.

(“I’ve got so much to tell you,” she had said on the phone just now.)

He bounded up the stairs, they slipped arms around each other’s waists, and went through the little hall of the flat into what the girls’ Aunt Emily called the back room—a big shabby room with a wide window, beyond which the city of San Francisco fell away.

Dorothy was there. “Hi, Johnny,” she greeted him. “How was Columbia University? Did you learn everything?

“Oh, pretty near,” he said amiably. “How are you?” He looked down at Nan. His hand still held her lightly at the waist.

“Dear John,” said Nan Padgett, articulating precisely, as if she had practiced this, “I’m in love!” Her brown eyes shone with the news. “I’m engaged to be married!”

Well, he gave her credit for being direct and for being prompt with this blow.

“You kinda look it, Nan,” he said gravely, and took his hand slowly away. “Well! I want to hear …”

Dorothy said, “Don’t worry. You’re going to hear! She’s got no more than her left toe on the ground. First, come help me mix you a drink.”

“I sure will,” said Johnny.

He saw Nan go waltzing away toward the big window. Maybe she felt relieved to have told him. He turned into the little closed-in pantry where Dorothy had assembled the makings. He literally couldn’t see Dorothy. He dumped ingredients together, tasted. As he swallowed he said to himself, O.K. swallow it. All right, you got it down.

Now he could see Dorothy’s blonde head and Dorothy’s anxious blue eyes.

“I had a hunch, you know,” he said cozily. (She didn’t have to know how recent the hunch was.) “Don’t you worry about me, Dot.”

Dorothy said indignantly, “She’s about wild. She’s on Cloud Nine.”

“As it should be.” He patted Dorothy’s shoulder to stop her. He wouldn’t talk about Nan in a corner.

Dorothy was Nan’s cousin, a little the older of the two—certainly the more worldly one. Dorothy had beaux by the dozen. Maybe Dorothy could never reach Cloud Nine any more.

He swallowed again, put the shaker on the tray and carried the tray into the big room. “Start at the beginning,” he said cheerfully.

“His name is Richardson Bartee. I wish he were here. But he had to go back this week and tend to business. He’s flying up on Friday.” Nan tumbled all this out.

“From where is he flying up?” asked Johnny politely.

“Oh, listen …” Nan lit on the couch and patted an invitation. John sat down beside her, marveling. Nan was usually the shy one, the little one with the quaint defensive air of dignity. Now she seemed bursting with joyous energy. “How can I tell you about him! He’s big and—and good-looking and—” Words wouldn’t do what Nan’s face was doing in the way of description. “He’s got a vineyard. Or anyhow, his family has. And a winery. Imagine! And I’m going to live in the south—”

“With vine leaves in your hair.” Johnny grinned across at Dorothy. “I see what you mean,” he said. “This kid is off the ground all right.”

Dorothy was sitting and sipping. Dorothy, usually so casual and gay, didn’t smile.

Nan put her hand on the cushion between them. “Ah, Johnny, we’ve been awful fond of each other, you and I. And I always will be fond of you. But it never was like this! Do you believe me?”

He stiffened a little with the stab of this. He reminded himself how young she was. “I believe you.” He went on gallantly, “I won’t say the old ticker isn’t a little bent, honey, but it’s still going.”

Nan sighed.

Johnny put his nose in the glass. “When and where did you meet this fellow?” he asked her dreaming face.

“Two months ago. Mr. Copeland introduced us.”

“Why wasn’t I written? Never mind, don’t answer that.” He knew the answer very well. How could she have written him, or anyone, a day-by-day description of falling in love. “What say we all go some very fancy place for dinner?” he asked restlessly. “On me. To celebrate.”

“We can’t budge,” said Dorothy. “We’ve got a phone call in for Paris, France.”

“For Aunt Emily? That where she is? I thought she and Hattie Cox were going around the world.”

“They are,” said Dorothy, “but Paris is the farthest they’ve got yet. They’re on some kind of an expedition today, because we haven’t been able to reach her. The hotel expects her back before midnight.”

“Haven’t we time for dinner?”

“Midnight in Paris, France,” Dorothy reminded.

“You mean to tell me Aunt Emily doesn’t even know about this?”

“Not yet.”

“When did this engagement happen? Last night?”

“Since Sunday.” Nan sighed, as if this had been a century.

“I suppose you’ll have to let Emily get all the way around the world before the wedding,” he said comfortably.

“No,” said Nan. “That’s just it. Dick and I want to be married right now. Why not? What have I got to wait for? My job? There are a million stenographers and every single one of them can spell better than I can. Mr. Copeland isn’t going to care. I want to be married to Dick—and help him in the vineyards. And that’s all on earth I want to do.”

Johnny was astonished. This didn’t sound like Nan. Shy Nan, hesitant Nan, Nan unsure of herself. “Won’t that be a little rough on Emily?” he said gently, and knew that Dorothy stirred.

“I don’t think so,” cried Nan, “because listen! Dick says we can get married and fly to Europe on our honeymoon. And see Aunt Emily. Wouldn’t that please her?”

“Not as a surprise,” said Dorothy quietly. Johnny was startled.

“Your fellow must be in the chips,” he murmured.

“It will be very extravagant,” said Nan serenely, “but Dick knows Aunt Emily is all I’ve got—except Dotty, of course. He understands. He’s an orphan, too. I think …”

“I thought you mentioned his family.”

“Oh, well, there’s an uncle and a grandmother. And I guess the uncle’s got a wife. I haven’t met them yet. There hasn’t been time.”

He thought there should have been time. There should have been a lot more time. Nan was speeding and spinning. He wanted to put out both hands and hold her back and slow her down.

Now she said, all sparkling, “Johnny, you’re going to have to stand up with us. You’re nearly family, after all these years.”

I’m going to run this wedding,” he heard Dorothy say loudly. “I’m your family, please remember. And we’re going to talk to Emily before we plan how or when. So calm down.”

“Oh, Dot! I’m doing what you want. I’m calling Aunt Emily.”

Johnny perceived the conflict clearly now.

Dorothy changed the subject. “Going to be home all summer, Johnny? Summer school?”

“Nope. I’ll get my doctorate in exactly one more year. Comes out nice and even. I’m stale on biology.”

“Going to work this summer, then?”

“Don’t know yet. Don’t intend to work very hard,” he grinned. “Maybe Roderick Grimes will have one of his projects for me. They’re fun.”

Nan frowned. “Don’t you let him send you off some place,” she said with that gay vehemence so unlike the old Nan. “At least not this weekend!”

“This weekend!”

“Well, I hope …”

“You mean to tell me you expect to be a married woman in a matter of days!” he exclaimed. “I don’t believe it. How old are you, baby?”

“I’m twenty,” Nan said defiantly.

“Actually,” said Dorothy dryly, “she’s young enough to wait, don’t you think, ’til Emily gets around the world?”

Nan sighed the kind of sigh that announced an old argument come up again. “I’ll just bet Aunt Emily won’t make me wait,” she said.

“Nobody would make you,” Dorothy began, and the phone rang.

Nan snatched for it, pinning Johnny Sims in his corner of the couch because the long phone cord crossed his body.

He heard a voice say, “On your call to Paris, France …”

His eyes sought Dorothy’s. Dorothy didn’t like this speeding and spinning either. He said to Dorothy, “I hope this chap is over twenty-one.”

“Oh, he is that,” said Dorothy tartly. “He’s thirty-two years old.”

“Ssshhh—” said Nan.

Johnny swallowed shock. Yet he himself was twenty-eight. He could hear the operators’ voices singsonging across the continent, across the ocean.

He heard Emily, herself, say, “Yes?”

“Aunt Emily! It’s Nan!”

“Nan! Dear, is anything wrong?”

Johnny found he could visualize Aunt Emily Padgett’s small face, with the sharp little nose, frosted with old-fashioned white powder, and her pale brown hair going up all around.

“Not a thing,” cried Nan in the loud clear voice that had to go all the way to France. “Everything’s wonderful! I have news!” Dorothy had risen and stood close by. Nan wasn’t seeing Dorothy, or Johnny, either. “I’m in love,” she shouted across the world. “I’m engaged. I’m going to be married!”

“Oh, Nan!”

“Listen, Aunt Emily, we want to get married right away and fly to Europe and meet you. We could meet you in Rome. Next week? Wouldn’t that be fun?”

“Nan … it’s Johnny, isn’t it?”

“What?”

“Johnny Sims?”

Nan took in her breath. She didn’t look down at Johnny, pinned there. “No, no, it isn’t. It’s somebody—you never met him but he’s wonderful and I know you’ll think so too … and I’m so happy. Aunt Emily, we were going to surprise you—”

“Who?” The syllable crossed the ocean with a worried sound.

“His name is Richardson Bartee. Not Richard. Richardson. It’s a family name.”

Nobody spoke in Paris, France.

“Aunt Emily, can you hear me? His name is Richardson Bartee. He’s from Hestia … And he’s got a vineyard. Emily? …”

Now there was a sound on the wire. It might have been “Yes, dear.” Or it might have been “Hestia.”

“Emily, dear, we want to get married right away and fly to Rome. You will be there?”

“Don’t …” A groan.

“What?”

“No.”

“Emily?”

“Don’t …”

“Emily, darling, we just can’t wait seven whole months.” Nan began to coax. “We thought …”

You must not marry this man!” High and clear and shrill.

“Aunt Emily, what did you say?”

“I’m coming home. I’ll fly. Quick as I can.”

“Please, I don’t understand. Emily, don’t spoil your big trip. What’s the matter?

“Wait. Promise me you’ll wait?”

“Of course, I—”

“What am I going to do?” said the agonized voice so far away.

Dorothy snatched the phone out of Nan’s falling hand. “Aunt Emily? This is Dot. What’s the matter?”

“No,” the voice said. “Make her wait—I’m coming home.”

“She hung up!” said Dorothy in amazement.

Nan’s eyes shot tears like sparks. “What’s the matter with her?” she cried. “You heard her?”

“I couldn’t help it,” Johnny confessed.

“Maybe,” said Dorothy thoughtfully, “she was so sure it was going to be Johnny … (Look, we’re sorry, Johnny.) Probably she’s shocked. Wants to see Dick for herself.”

Nan’s mouth drooped. “Maybe,” she said uncertainly.

“Of course, I don’t think it’s a bad idea,” said Dorothy lightly. “She’ll be home in a couple of days—or do you want to call her back?”

“She hung up,” Nan said angrily and shook away from Dorothy’s arm. “It sounded as if she knows who Dick is and as if she knows something bad about him. Didn’t it?” she challenged them. Dorothy was biting her lip.

“Yes, it kinda did,” said Johnny honestly.

“Well, she couldn’t,” said Nan, “because there couldn’t be anything …” She walked across the room and sat down by the window. Now the sparkle and the flying air were gone. Nan was her old self, dignified, lonely, just a bit forlorn.

The big room was still. Dorothy stood with her hands clasped. Johnny sat in his corner. Nan looked out over the city.

“She’s made some kind of mistake,” Nan said, in a moment. “Probably she couldn’t hear me very well.”

“That’s possible,” Dorothy said quietly.

“I’m sorry she didn’t understand,” Nan went on. “Dick and I are in love and going to be married. Nothing is going to change that.” Her dark head came up.

“No use to worry,” Dorothy said, “until you know what to worry about.”

“Oh, I won’t worry,” Nan said remotely. “I’m not going to call Dick. I’m not going to upset him. Because nothing is going to be upset.” The dream was sobered but it was back in her eyes. “Will you stay for dinner, Johnny?” she asked politely. “I don’t feel like going out, but there’s some cold beef.” She was aloof. It was as if Cloud Nine had turned to a cold close fog and swallowed her from reach.

CHAPTER 2

Johnny didn’t stay.

He came out into the street and wished that he still lived next door. But his mother and father had built a little house out in Marin County last year, and that was Johnny’s headquarters now.

He got into his four-year-old Plymouth and started for home. What was the matter with Emily Padgett? Or rather, what was the matter with Richardson Bartee? Johnny didn’t believe that Emily had made a mistake. It was a sufficiently odd name. There was also the place—Hestia. Aunt Emily must know this man or know of him. Know a reason why Nan must not marry him? Johnny shook himself.

Looky here, he said to J. Sims, none of this dog-in-the-manger stuff! Nan’s in love with this Bartee, remember? And whatever Emily’s got on her mind, it is going to be rough on Nan.

Johnny respected Emily Padgett. Whatever it was, it would not turn out to be some female vapor.

Emily had been mother and father to the two little girls next door, whom he could remember since one wore a blue sash, the other a pink one, to Sunday school.

Emily Padgett’s brother and sister, the story went, had perished, together with their spouses, all in one cruel sudden highway crash years ago. Emily had promptly canceled any other objective of her own, to take the two infant cousins in to raise. Dorothy was the child of the sister, Nan of the brother. Dorothy’s last name, therefore, was not really Padgett but something else. Johnny couldn’t remember what and he was not quite sure it wasn’t the other way around. No matter. Emily had made them one family. Emily had joined all P.T.A.’s and Mother’s Clubs, been active with Brownies and Girl Scouts and the works. She had been a fine parent.

She had also earned a living without leaving the flat. Emily wrote short stories and evidently managed very well on the proceeds. The flat was not luxurious, but it was certainly very comfortable. The little orphan girls had had security.

Johnny himself had gone all the way through high school without paying a lot of attention to the Padgett kids next door. Then he went to Stanford for four years and to Berkeley for another. Aged twenty-three, he’d got a job, teaching biology.

It was about then that Emily Padgett and Johnny’s mother had put their heads together over a crisis. Big dance at the high school. Nan had no date. Would Johnny take her?

Johnny had protested that this wasn’t a good idea, but he had let himself be talked into it. Dorothy had whirled off in a gold-spangled dress with flowers on her shoulder. Dorothy, who was seventeen by then, had turned out tall and fair, surrounded by boys, picking and choosing among them gaily. But little Nan was different—sensitive, shy.

Nan had worn a pale green dress that night. Nan had looked ready to weep. Johnny remembered resolving that if he were going to do this, he’d do it right. He wasn’t going to look dragooned, or superior, or bored. So he’d fed and encouraged her with attention. Made a fuss. Backed her up. He’d been touched by the slow blooming of Nan’s confidence.

After that he’d kept an eye on her. Watched out for Nan. Seen to it that she got to go wherever it mattered that she went. In a way, she’d grown up with Johnny at her back. The first time Nan turned down a date for him, he’d tried to explain that she ought not to fend off other dates. But she’d been stubborn.

So they wrote letters back and forth when he spent his months in the service and all the first year he was in the east. Last summer, they were a pair. Johnny’s tall form had backed up Nan’s little figure at dances and parties.

A courtship, he thought now, is a tentative thing, an exploring, a growing thing. There should come a moment when you know. But Nan was so young. He’d looked out for her so long. Maybe he’d been a little thoughtless. He ought to be glad she’d fallen in love. He must be glad he had not thoughtlessly kept her from this experience.

There was no denying he felt his loss more bitterly than he had expected.

By the time Johnny got to his parents’ house, he knew that for all he tried to knock out of himself a sense of injury, a sense of betrayal that he had no right to feel, he did feel injured, he did feel betrayed and, in fact, he was good and sore.

His mother and father perceived, at once, that all was not well. They were not, however, the kind to pry. They fed him the leavings of the meal they had just finished, and then all three settled down for television. Johnny could sense their deep pleasure that he was home and in the room with them. But it wasn’t necessary to pay attention.

Under cover of a commercial, he asked his mother whether Emily Padgett had ever mentioned a Richardson Bartee.

“I don’t think so, dear. Emily’s gone off around the world. I guess you know that.”

“Um hum.” He didn’t feel like mentioning the possibility that Emily was turning back, for an unknown reason.

“Did you see the girls?” his mother asked. “I haven’t seen them for ages. How are they?”

“All right.”

His mother pulled her feelers in.

In the morning, Johnny went to see Roderick Grimes, who was a pink and hairless man of great wealth whose avocation it was to write semi-scholarly books about old murder mysteries. Sometimes he hired Johnny to do the research, scavenge around, interview people. Grimes was lazy. He fancied himself the Mycroft type and he was rather brilliant in the armchair. He said that Johnny had a flair.

This morning, Grimes was cordial but indecisive. He had a couple of things in mind, he said; he hadn’t chosen between them. Perhaps in another week or so? Johnny was just as glad of a delay.

He called the girls at six, when they’d be home from work. Dorothy answered.

“We’ve had a cablegram,” she told him. “Emily’s flying in at noon on Friday.”

“Anything I can do?”

“I don’t think so, Johnny. We’ll just have to wait. Maybe you’d like to go to the airport with us?”

“Of course. Pick you up downtown?” They made the date.

“One thing, Dot.” Johnny felt miserable. He couldn’t speak directly to Nan about this. “Nan said Mr. Copeland introduced them. Has she ever asked him what he knows about this … about Bartee?”

“Oh, but Mr. Copeland has been away,” said Dorothy quickly. “He went to Honolulu with his fairly new wife. Although I think they are coming back—is it Monday? Nan?”

Silence on the wire.

“She asks no questions,” said Dorothy in a low voice. (He sensed that Nan had gone away, could no longer hear.) “She’s not in a mood to be practical, Johnny.”

He knew this was so. Who ever was? The sweet dizziness of love didn’t wait for a dossier. When had it?

“Isn’t this … Bartee coming up on Friday?” he asked.

“Yes, but not until the evening …”

He couldn’t think of any more to say.

When they walked into the airport waiting room on Friday, shock exploded. The Miss Padgetts were being paged. The young man at the information desk said gingerly, “I’m sorry to have to tell you that Miss Emily Padgett has been taken ill on the airplane. The suggestion is that you might like to call her own doctor.”

Ill! How ill?”

“Her heart, they think. There’s a nurse on the airplane. Don’t worry too much.” The young man was in duty bound to say this, but he didn’t create a lot of reassurance.

Johnny whirled them into action, to call Dr. Kearns, to make arrangements at a hospital. Johnny held a frightened girl on each arm as they waited the last tense two minutes at the barrier.

Emily came off the plane on a stretcher and they ran to her. The small face was gray. The girls murmured and touched her with loving hands.

It was Johnny who said loudly, “Nobody got married, Emily.” That was all the reference there was to Richardson Bartee before Emily vanished into the ambulance.

At the hospital they were delayed by the need to answer questions for admission. At last, they started down a corridor. It was a small private hospital, Dr. Kearns’ favorite, all on one floor. They came upon the doctor around a corner.

“She ought to do, with a little sensible care,” he told them cheerfully. “Now, don’t excite her or upset her. Don’t stay too long. Not now. Excuse me? Got a patient in the next wing. Cheer up, now.”

The girls stepped softly into Emily’s room with Johnny behind them. Emily, on the bed, looked old. More murmurs of love given, received.

“Don’t worry about anything,” Nan said uselessly. The whole room throbbed with unasked questions and unadmitted anxieties.

“Maybe she ought to be let alone,” said Johnny loudly. “That’s a brute of a trip she’s just made, remember?” He was going to bully the girls out of here. This was no good. “You could come back tonight at visiting hours. Hm, Emily?”

Emily’s sad eyes looked up at him and he knew they flickered. “Give me—until tomorrow …” she said weakly.

“Of course, darling.” Dorothy kissed her hair.

Nan picked up her hand. “I wouldn’t want to do anything—ever—to hurt you in any way,” Nan said, asking for absolution.

“Darling, I know that,” said Emily, her eyes aglow with love and a mysterious sorrow.

So they left her.

Johnny took them home to the flat. Scarcely a word was said on the way. Once in the mirror he saw Nan’s silent tears. He wanted to say, “Don’t blame yourself for Emily’s heart!” but his tongue felt tied.

At the flat, Dorothy said there was nothing, really, that he could do and Nan said yearningly, “Dick will be here. Dick can take us to the hospital tomorrow.”

So Johnny left them. He rode around aimlessly for a long time. Felt useless, worried. He decided, by some uneasiness in his bones, that he must stay in town overnight, so he found a phone to call his mother.

“John? Oh, good! We were about to go to the Miller’s for dinner and there was an urgent message. The Schmidt Memorial Hospital wants you to call them, right away.”

“Then I better do it,” said Johnny, so surprised and frightened that he hung up without telling her anything.

The hospital said that Miss Emily Padgett urgently requested Mr. John Sims to come see her this evening. Visiting hours from seven to eight.

“Tell her I’ll be there.”

Johnny hung up, rubbed his face. Stood in the phone booth.

His mother and father would have gone out. Well, he’d tell them in the morning where Emily was and how. He would tell nobody anything tonight. He knew that when he, Johnny Sims, old friend and neighbor, got to the hospital at seven o’clock, he was going to be put right smack in the middle of whatever trouble there was going to be.

A little before seven, in Emily’s flat, Nan flew to take the phone. “Dick! Where are you, darling?”

“Just off the plane, love. Shall I come right up?”

“Oh, please! Oh, Dick, Aunt Emily is in the hospital.”

“Hospital! Where?”

“Right here! The Schmidt Memorial. She flew back. Oh, Dick, I didn’t call you—but she was so upset …”

“Wait a minute. Your aunt is back! In town!

“Yes. Yes, she is. I talked to her in Paris. When I told her about us, she said she’d fly home right away.”

“But why, dearest? You say she was upset?”

“Yes, she was. She said I wasn’t to m-marry you. I must wait … I don’t know why. We can’t talk to her now. It’s her heart. We can’t even see her again until tomorrow.”

“Is it serious?”

“The doctor doesn’t think so. But …”

“Well, then …” he said soothingly. “Nothing to worry about. I’ll be there just as soon as I can.”

Nan put the phone down. “You see!” she said to Dorothy. “He doesn’t know why she should be upset!”

Dorothy said, in a moment, “Maybe we’ll get it straightened out tomorrow.”

CHAPTER 3

Johnny Sims entered the hospital on the stroke of seven; nobody asked him his business. He turned right on an inner corridor and walked as far as he could passing several wings, until he came to the last wing of all. He turned left, and then, looking ahead of him, realized that a door at the far end of this last wing stood open. He could have come in that way, directly from the parking lot. Well, he hadn’t. No matter.

Emily’s room was the second from the end of the wing. She was sitting a little higher; she looked a little better.

“Johnny, dear, close the door.” He closed it. “Sit down. I shouldn’t talk too long.”

He pulled the straight chair close to the bed and leaned his head into the light. “Take it easy. I’ve got good ears.”

“You’ve known her so long. You’re fond of Nan.”

“True,” he agreed.

“Will you help me, Johnny?”

“Certainly.”

“I don’t know what to do.”

Now he thought he could see her heart struggling in her breast. He wanted to ease it. “Just tell me,” he urged quietly.

“First, promise you won’t tell Nan without permission.”

He winced inside, but he had to agree. “I promise. Go ahead.”

“You do keep your word.” Emily made this a statement.

“I do,” he agreed.

She smiled a little. The smile was for him, affectionate and trusting. And absolutely binding upon him. “I can’t … go anywhere … just now …” she began again with difficulty. “And it can’t be my decision. It must be his. So you must go.”

Johnny said nothing. He couldn’t yet understand.

“The very worst thing that could have happened …” Now her head began to turn to and fro upon the pillow. Her heart labored, as he thought he could tell. “How could I imagine!”

“Don’t put any steam in it,” said Johnny gently. “Just tell me what I must do and I will go and do it.”

“Yes,” said Emily gratefully. Her head stopped that desperate wagging motion. “But first you have to know. Nan isn’t my brother Henry’s child. I never had a brother Henry. She’s the child of a brother of mine whose name she’s never heard. You see, I changed all the names. I made up lies. I had to.”

“Go ahead,” said Johnny quietly.

“Nan’s father is in prison. He was convicted of murder seventeen years ago.”

Johnny kept smiling. He was surprised, but not too shocked. He had expected something as bad as this.

“They said he murdered Nan’s mother …” Emily’s voice sank to a whisper. “Poor Christy McCauley.”

Johnny swallowed.

“My brother Clinto is in San Quentin, Johnny. I want you to see him. Ask him what we are to do. He must decide.”

“I see. I will,” Johnny said soothingly.

“No, you don’t see,” said Emily impatiently. “He did not kill Christy. He was convicted but he wasn’t guilty. The baby … He and I didn’t see why the baby should suffer at all. It was bad enough that he had to lose his wife and go to prison for what he hadn’t done. Why should there be bad added to bad? Why should the baby grow up in the shadow of such a terrible thing? People believing that her father killed her mother. So I took the baby. I made them give me the baby. I had an agreement with the old man. And I changed my name and her name and Dorothy’s name, too. And I was never going to tell her. And all these seventeen years she hasn’t known and none of it has ever touched her or hurt her.”

“She’s had wonderful loving care,” Johnny said softly.

“Yes,” said Emily and plucked her sheet.

“Now, you feel—if she is to marry …?” he began.

“No, no, no,” Emily gasped. “Don’t try to guess, Johnny. It only takes longer.”

So he waited.

“My brother’s name is Clinton McCauley,” she said in a moment. “I’ve always gone to see him once every month. He … loves all the news of Nan. But now …” She gathered strength and went on. “Christy was killed in the Bartee’s house in Hestia. You see, she was related.”

Johnny took in air. “This Richardson Bartee is related to Nan?” he asked as calmly as he could. He thought, well, that’s it, then, and it’s bad, all right.

But Emily shook her head. “Don’t guess,” she said feebly. “It’s worse than you can guess. Much worse. No, not related. The old man had two wives. There’s nothing like that.”

So Johnny just waited.

“For seventeen years,” said Emily in a moment, “Clint has been sure …”

“Yes?”

“That the boy killed Christy. The wild kid—fifteen years old.”

“What boy?”

“Richardson Bartee,” said Emily, her eyes pits of sorrow. “Now do you see?”

All Johnny’s nerves tingled. “You say your brother is sure of this? Couldn’t you have …?”

“Proved it?” said Emily with vigor. “No. I tried.” Emily was up on her elbow and he was too shocked to press her back into a position of rest. “How can I let Nan marry,” cried Emily, “the very one—the one rotten evil soul in all this world—who killed her mother and let her father go to prison for it?”

“You can’t,” said Johnny horrified. (Oh, Lord, it’s bad, he thought. Poor Nan.) But he had to think of Emily just now. “Hush, lie back. You’re not going to let her marry him. Just tell Nan all this. That’s all you really need to do.”

“And there goes,” said Emily, “the meaning of my life and all of Clinton’s sacrifice.”

The room was quiet. He was vaguely aware of sounds out in the corridors, of lights and shadows in the windows of the next wing, across the narrow court between. He himself felt too shocked and sad to move or speak.

“But I can’t tell her, Johnny,” said Aunt Emily at last. “Not until Clinton knows. He must decide that she be told. You can see that?”

“Yes.”

“So will you go to see him?”

“Yes.”

“And will you help Nan, afterwards?”

“Yes.”

“The one wrong man in all the world … the one wrong man for Nan.”