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DREAM OF FAIR WOMAN

Charlotte Armstrong

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CHAPTER ONE

He went through the hospital lobby and out the front door, aiming himself like an arrow for home. He crossed pavement, and began to thud briskly along the path, worn into the ground by short-cutting feet across the shabby little park where, on either side, the lumps and tufts of neglected grass retained, in June, only a little green from winter rain. But Matt, broken out of routine into the late sunshine, moving fast, could not help feeling an inappropriate pleasure. There was nothing exhilarating about a prompt and resolute response to intimations of catastrophe.

Poor Ma. Poor Peg. Tumbling out choppy sentences on the phone, without preliminary. Not exactly asking him to drop everything and hurry home, but needing his presence. ‘I’m all alone here,’ she had said. He hadn’t stopped for questions. He would be there in ninety seconds—to put in train whatever had to be done in these unhappy and undesirable circumstances. Poor Peg.

Yet, to be reasonable, if his mother rented rooms to strangers she inevitably risked witnessing some stranger’s fate, sooner or later. He guessed his mother had used that weaseling phrase in her shock, softening shocking truth. At least she hadn’t said ‘passed away’—a euphemism which Matt particularly despised.

He wouldn’t have expected Peg Cuneen to have called for someone to hold her hand, even in such circumstances. She had always lived with a gusto of her own. But one’s mother, Matt thought, must inevitably age and depend. In which case he would be, without question, dependable.

So he raced the park, crossed pavement again, loped up the walk to the old stucco house on the corner. The familiar doorknob leaped to his hand. She called his name. He bounded up the stairs. There she was, sitting in Betty’s small arm-chair in the back bedroom, with her small feet flat on the floor. There was something odd and ominous about her sitting down.

Peggy Marks Cuneen looked up at her tall son and said with bright shame, ‘I’m sorry, Matt. I’m all right, now.’

They were a pair not much given to caresses, so he put his own brand of comfort into his voice. ‘O.K., Ma. Don’t you worry about a thing. I’ll stick around until the doctor calls back. What happened?’

‘Well, I don’t know.’ Her face pinched. ‘She rang the bell early, not five minutes after you left. She looked worn out—I thought she’d probably spent the night on some miserable bus ride. And she dragged her suitcase right up with her. So I don’t think she cared so much what the room was like, just that there was a room where she could rest.’ Peg darted a nervous glance at him. ‘She had the money. I didn’t take it. We didn’t settle much. There wasn’t time. The phone …’ His mother tilted her head and called out, ‘Betty?’

Betty Prentiss thumped fast up the stair carpet and whirled into the room, where they were. ‘Oh, Matt, I saw you tearing across the park. Peg, what’s the matter?’

‘I’m all right,’ said his mother. ‘I’m all right, dear. It’s that girl.’

‘Oh?’

Matt said, over his mother’s head to his contemporary, ‘Well, see, I guess this character just up and died.’

Betty was a small girl with short dark hair, a freckled nose, and brown eyes, set deep. She had a mannerism, a way of lowering her head and looking up from caverns with an effect of intense attention. She didn’t pull this trick, in the moment. Her face was peeled of expression, bare in shock.

Then Matt felt his mother’s small strong hand winding itself into the flesh above his wrist. ‘Oh, did she die?’ wailed Peg. ‘When did she die?’

He looked down, all signals off. ‘I’m sorry, Peg. I thought that’s what you meant.’

‘Oh, no, no,’ cried Peg, letting him go and pushing at her own abundant dark hair. ‘The whole point is that I’m not going to have her dying. Not in my house. Not of neglect, anyhow. I told you. I said, “She won’t wake up.” I don’t know why she won’t wake up. It’s weird. It scares me.’

Matt had the immediate impulse to go and see, but his mother grabbed for him; ‘Don’t you go in there. Who knows whether it’s catching?’

Betty, who had rallied in a twinkling, said, ‘If it is, then I’ve caught it. I talked to her this morning. So I’ll go.’

She went with a flash of legs and whirl of skirt. But Matt, who couldn’t believe that whatever-it-was was ‘something catching,’ stayed and studied his mother.

Peg said to his puzzled scrutiny, ‘I guess I’m being pretty silly.’

Matt grinned at her. ‘Well, I’ll tell you. If this character is pouring off any such powerful germs as you’re imagining, then the whole town is already in epidemic. Where had she come from? Where had she been?’

‘I don’t know, dear.’

‘She came on a bus, you say?’

‘Well, I don’t know that.’

‘We’re not exactly on any transcontinental bus lines. How come she came here?’

‘She saw our sign. She might have been all night on a train.’

‘We’re miles from any railroad station. Not likely.’

‘Well, she did come here,’ said Peg tartly, ‘so that much has to be likely.’

‘She came on foot?’ Matt didn’t correct her logic but dug for facts. ‘With a suitcase? Not in a car?’

‘I didn’t see or hear a car.’

Then Betty said nervously from the doorway, ‘She just seems to be sleeping. Did you call Uncle Jon?’

‘Yes. He’s going to call back.’

‘Well, then, you’ve done all we can do,’ said Betty soothingly.

Matt was inclined to agree. He struggled to begin at the beginning. ‘You didn’t think she was ill, when she came? No visible symptoms?’

‘I thought she was just terribly, terribly tired,’ Peg said and added with nervous irritability, ‘I told you.’

‘I thought so, too,’ said Betty gravely. She crossed this spacious room, that had been Matt’s own when he was a little boy and sat down on her bed, winding her good legs around each other. ‘See, when Peg had to go down to answer the phone, I took over. Well, I mean, I told her about sharing the bathroom, and which towel bars she could use and where Peg keeps stuff, and all that. I thought she was exhausted. Or else—preoccupied.’

‘What do you mean, Betts?’

‘Oh, kind of not quite all here. I had the feeling that she wasn’t quite getting my messages. Or else she didn’t quite care, you know?’

Matt was listening intently for some facts, not impressions. ‘What did she do?’

‘Well, she closed the bathroom door,’ said Betty with a drawl, ‘and used the facilities, I presume. When I heard her come out, I was ready for school. So I put my head in at her door to say I’d see her later.’ Betty’s eyes flickered. She put her head down. ‘That’s about it.’

Matt said, ‘What I can’t figure out, Peg, is how come you decided that this girl absolutely had to wake up. You thought she was pretty beat and needed to rest. So why didn’t you just let her alone to sleep it off?’

‘You don’t understand,’ his mother said.

‘That,’ said Matt promptly, ‘is what I just intended to convey.’ And he grinned at her, fondly.

They were nothing alike, mother and son. Peg was not tall, and on the plump side. Her features were, however, strong and sharp. She had a long and pointed chin, a fair-sized straight nose, and bright brown eyes under well-defined brows. Matt was tall, and in the body, on the slender side. But he had a round head, well covered with sandy hair that insisted, unless he had it cut to a mere bristle, upon curling riotously. His nose gave a first impression of being stubby but in profile it was seen to be straight and well cut, but set at a slightly flattened angle to his face. He had blue eyes, set merrily, and a good mouth that grinned often. Peg wore a keen and driving air. Matt appeared to be easygoing. But they knew themselves to be essentially the other way around.

Peggy Marks Cuneen had, long ago, abandoned a warm clan in New York to marry Dr Peter Cuneen of Southern California, with whom she had fallen permanently in love one summer, when she had been very young and visiting her college room-mate. She had not regretted one moment of her choice, had made a cheerful and resilient doctor’s wife, borne a fine son, had always been able to settle cosily into her surroundings, informing them with her own spirit. Now that she was a widow, Peg did no moping but kept busy with good works, liking nothing better than the bustle and confusion of group activities.

Matt, who considered his mother just a touch scatterbrained, and soft to a fault, to let herself in for so many committees and chairwomanships, was not convinced that she could understand him by methods of her own. She had lived, before he was born, with a man who kept himself also in the aloof position of one who was fascinated by sequences and consequences in nature and delighted in sorting them into coolly observed patterns.

So now Peg gathered her wits to present her memories of this day in a way that would sound ‘reasonable’ to him.

‘Well, it was Mrs Ransom on the phone about the Red Cross and in a terrible twit …’ Peg groped for order. ‘Let me see. Betty went off to school. I was buzzing around downstairs until time for my luncheon. I came up, of course, just before I left, but she didn’t answer my tap on the door. I didn’t like to disturb her. So I left a note and her house key on the hall table. Well, when I came back, about three o’clock, the key was just exactly where I had put it. So I came up to see if we could, you know, get straightened around. She hadn’t said how long she’d want the room and all.’ She gave Matt a guilty, defiant lick of her eye.

‘When she didn’t answer, I cracked the door, and she was sound asleep. So I let her be. I changed my clothes and put the roast in … Oh lord, the roast …!’ She looked at her wrist. ‘It’s all right,’ she said, seeming to comfort them. ‘The oven’s on low. Where was I? Yes, then, about four o’clock, I got to thinking that she hadn’t had a drop to eat all day long. So I fixed a little snack.…’

‘She wasn’t going to board here, was she?’ her son said. (Betty boarded here, but Betty was different.)

‘I don’t fancy anybody starving,’ said Peg indignantly.

‘O.K. O.K.’ Matt winked at Betty, but Betty didn’t twinkle back. She was wound up in a leggy knot, seeming rather tense and solemn.

‘Well, she was still sleeping.’ Peg’s hand began to be dramatic. ‘And that was the first time I really tried to wake her up. Well, she wouldn’t! So I left the tray. But it was beginning to make me nervous. A little later, I came up and tried again and’—her right hand made a violent slashing motion—‘I tried hard.’ Peg fixed a stern gaze upon her son. ‘And the point is, Matt, of course, I wouldn’t have tried to wake her up if I thought I could.’

Matt jingled some change in his pocket. This was the kind of remark that always surprised him by making sense. ‘O.K.,’ he said indulgently. ‘Go on.’

‘So I called Jon Prentiss. He wasn’t there. Betty hadn’t come in. I guess I panicked. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have called and taken you away.’

‘Why not?’ Matt was very calm. ‘Tell me, did this dame speak up, at all? Did she, by any wild chance, tell you her name?’

Peg said, ‘Her name is Dolan. Wasn’t that it, Betty?’

‘Oh, Peg, I don’t know. Seems to me that’s close, but not quite right. Olin?’

‘It could have been,’ said Peg, with an air of gracious tolerance for the opinion of another.

‘Did she have a first name?’ inquired Matt, a little too patiently.

Betty folded in her lower lip and shook her head at him, ruefully.

‘She didn’t say,’ Peg told him.

Matt put his hands in his pockets and lounged against the wall. ‘To recapitulate. She told you her last name but you aren’t sure what it is. You don’t know where she came from or how she came or why. You didn’t ask her how long—’

‘She needed a place,’ his mother interrupted. Then she added from no train of thought that Matt could follow, ‘I don’t say I took to her, especially.’

Betty said, ‘Maybe we should have been able to guess that she was coming down with something. But we didn’t. So don’t pull any hindsight on us, huh, Matt?’

Betty was sticking up for Peg. She was almost family. Her mother was Peg’s room-mate of old, the very one that Peg had visited so fatefully, long ago. Betty, whose parents had moved away north, was just finishing her first year of teaching in an elementary school not too far from Peg’s house, where she was a paying guest and a courtesy niece. She stood to Matt as almost a sister, since in some long-gone days they had played together as children.

There had been a hiatus while Matt was off to one college, and Betty, in her time, to another. But the ancient friendly entanglement of two families had even found Matt his marvellously convenient part-time job, as a lab technician, in the little private hospital across the park from his mother’s house. It was Betty’s uncle, Dr Jon Prentiss, who had found the job for him, the doctor being on the staff and a close personal friend of the Administrator, a certain Fred C. Atwood. So that Betty was, in a sense, also something like the boss’s niece.

Now, both mothers were delighted to have Betty living under Peg’s loving wing. Both mothers took care not to utter, by word or pen, one word on the subject of the desirability of a romance between their children. Neither mother had fooled anybody.

But there was no romance. Or even dates. Matt, who was earning himself a Ph.D. in bacteriology the hard way, had no funds for squiring girls, especially not almost-sisters.

He grinned at Betty now and said, ‘Just lining up the facts. And here’s one we had better be sure of. Is it true that this person in the front room won’t wake up? I guess we’d better let the doctor determine that.’

‘Oh, I wish she would! I wish she would!’ said Peg emotionally. ‘Go and try. You try. Both of you.’

Matt met Betty’s eyes. There was nothing to do but obey. Betty unwound her legs and jumped up. Matt followed her.

Matt understood his mother better, now. Having been a doctor’s wife, no doubt Peg could guess at some of the possibilities here. If, indeed, this stranger had fallen into some kind of coma, then one had to consider the brain, and disease of the brain was no common cold. The fact that a stranger in the house was very possibly going to die was an idea more upsetting than a stranger already dead. It was just like Peg to feel that she could not allow it.

At the half-opened door of the front room, Betty hesitated and looked up at him from under her brows. He brushed it off as just one of her looks, not stopping to catch and consider his brief impression of some kind of warning, some kind of foreboding, some quality of presentiment that had nothing to do with the possible mortal illness of a stranger. He winked at Betty, pushed at the door and went in.

This was a big square room with one side to the park and one to the cross street. It was dim, the shades being drawn, but by no means dark. Matt realised that he had become rather unfamiliar, these days, with the upstairs regions. He never came here anymore, unless it was to carry out some necessary repair. When his father had been alive, this room had been his parents’, and, he realised now, rather a holy place to him. Now he went tiptoe, feeling helplessly intrusive, toward the double bed.

There was a girl lying on her back in the very middle of the bed, the covers drawn discreetly up to a point just below bare shoulders. She seemed to be soundly and sweetly asleep. Her breathing was slow and easy, her face serene. He could not see her hands. Nothing but the face and the hair, which was spread upon the pillow, a medley of blonde streaks, some butter-colour, some gold, some almost white. Her eyes were closed. He could not see the colour of the eyes. She was young, but no teenager. She was full woman, but young and fair. The skin was without blemish, smoothly tanned to a soft gold. The mouth was a perfect mouth, healthily pink, unpainted. The nose was small and straight, the line of the cheek smooth and perfect, with the cheekbones stunningly placed to give the whole face a dainty elegance.

Matt caught himself not breathing. He forced a swallow. He could feel, behind him, a kind of pressure from Betty, from her silence. He, then, was to act? But it was impossible to call out ‘Miss? Miss?’ The English language needed a word like Mademoiselle or Fräulein. Matt went close to the bed.

He wished, now, that he had kept on his white lab coat. He more than half expected, or at least hoped, that the girl would waken after all, at which time strange-man would be one thing but strange-man-in-a-white-coat quite another. Matt was no doctor, having changed his mind about that, but he had the dangerous little knowledge. He did not know quite how to go about this. Mustn’t be violent, surely.

He bent and took hold of one of those bare shoulders. It felt like satin to his suddenly coarse fingers. He shook her by her shoulder, gently. The girl slept on. She seemed limp, but not a lump. She was living.

He put his mouth down close to her ear. ‘Hey, you? Wake up! Come on, please? Wake up, will you?’

It was absurdly embarrassing. His voice hung out there. Nothing happened. Matt straightened, feeling unnaturally flustered. He didn’t like any part of this, didn’t like this sense of having intruded upon a shrine. He didn’t like something in the quality of Betty’s attention. He didn’t like not knowing whether the girl was naked. And he wasn’t going to ask his mother!

He went to the foot of the bed, ripped the coverings from their moorings and threw them back a little. He took hold of a small bare foot and shook it, almost roughly.

Nothing happened. She slept on, seeming in perfect peace. Matt knew he held in his hand a strange thing, a perfectly unblemished woman’s foot, with straight little toes, well-kept but unpainted toenails, the smooth flesh tanned to the same faint gold of the face—a foot as beautiful as marble, but by no means as cold.

He let it go, covered the foot quickly and turned away, achieving an air of decision. “No use getting tough, I guess. That seems to be that.’ He made for the door. He wanted to be out of here.

Betty gasped behind him, as if she could not breathe properly, ‘It’s a little bit uncanny, you have to admit.’

But he didn’t have to admit it, because the phone rang downstairs, and Matt leaped gladly to descend and answer.’

Betty Prentiss drifted along to her own room, shook her head to Peg’s look of inquiry, and sat down on the edge of her bed again.

‘You know, Peg, it was so funny this morning …’

‘What was, dear?’

‘What I said to her. She was standing in there, with only her slip on, looking … Well, you know how she looked. So kind of fey? And I said to her, “Gosh, you look as if you could sleep for a week”.’

‘Did you really?’ said Peg softly. ‘That is funny!’.

In their female minds moved a recognition of the strangeness of all things, the pure chanciness of the whole world, and the prevalence of omens, and a sense that the threads in the texture of life did not all run square. In the same eyeblink, they agreed that neither would mention this ‘funny’ remark to the men.

Dr Jon Prentiss, having once upon a time introduced his brother’s fiancée’s house guest to a certain young Dr Cuneen of his acquaintance, was old-friend-of-the-family indeed. He was also wisdom and authority. His incisive voice soon told Matt exactly how they would proceed. The place for the girl was in the hospital. She should be examined there, and all possibilities explored. He would send for her. Meanwhile, would Matt take care of notifying her people?

‘I hate just shipping her off,’ Peg said.

‘Oh, come on, Ma,’ Matt argued. ‘You can’t take care of her here. You didn’t guarantee a nursing service. A contract to rent doesn’t say “in sickness or in health” like a marriage service.’ He must comfort his mother’s stricken air with cool reason.

‘Just the same, I don’t like it,’ she said, uncomforted.

‘It’s nothing to like or dislike,’ Matt lectured. ‘It’s something to do. And we’d better go rummage around in her things and find out who the devil she is and where she came from, so we can let her own people know.’

‘I suppose,’ said Peg, without moving. She didn’t like the idea of rummaging either.

‘Don’t worry,’ said her son. ‘We’ll do the dirty work. Come on, Betts.’

Betty said, ‘We’ll take care of it, Peg. It’s the only thing to do.’

‘I know,’ said Peg. And yet … she knew more than she could say. She seemed, to herself, to be feeling something in the situation that the young folks didn’t feel at all.

In the big dim room again, Matt glanced once at the girl, who slept as before. Then he forced a deep breath and began to look around. Betty went to pick up a black handbag from the dresser top and he left her to it. There was a grey suitcase, an old one, much battered, lying on a straight chair and, thrown over it, a short white wool coat. Over the back of the chair was spread a black dress of some sleazy material, and a white slip, which even to his eyes seemed very plain. On the floor, a pair of low-heeled black pumps lay drunkenly under stockings that coiled where they had been dropped.

‘This kid,’ he concluded to himself, ‘is neither rich nor tidy.’ He opened the closet door. Nothing hung in the closet.

Betty said in astonishment, ‘Hey, Matt, there’s absolutely nothing in her purse but money!’

‘What?’

‘Look. Not a handkerchief. Not a lipstick. Just a roll of green money.’

‘How much?’

‘Two hundred and fifty bucks. No silver. No change.’

‘That’s peculiar. No I.D.? No licence? No credit cards?’

‘Not another thing!’

‘It’s un-American,’ he said. ‘Try the suitcase.’

So Betty went over to the chair, lifted the white coat gingerly aside, and opened the case. She began to itemise in a low voice. ‘One nightgown. One cotton robe. Corduroy scuffs, pretty beat up. One, two, three panties. One pink toothbrush.’ She lifted both hands high. ‘That’s it!’

‘This is ridiculous,’ Matt said, rubbing his head. ‘You know that?’

‘It’s pretty wild.’ Betty began to feel in the coat pockets. ‘One grubby handkerchief,’ she announced, ‘and positively no monogram.’ She whirled to the dresser and began to open drawers.

Matt pursued the idea of a monogram. ‘Does she have a watch on?’

‘I don’t know.’

Betty made no move, so Matt went resolutely to the bed, groped in a warm place under the covers for the girl’s left arm and lifted it into view, exposing, as he did so, flashes of gentle other flesh. The arm in his grasp was relaxed, but throbbed alive. He looked down at the watchless wrist, the ringless fingers, the blunt unpainted fingernails. He let the arm and hand gently down, outside the coverlet.

His mother spoke quietly from the open doorway. ‘Who is she?’

Matt said, with too much breath, ‘Not a thing to say.’

‘Nothing?’ said Peg, as if she had half expected this. ‘Poor child.’

Matt, who felt as if he’d put on blinders, who was cancelling his peripheral vision, who would not look again at the girl on the bed, saw his mother’s face begin to pinch. He said warningly, ‘Now, Peg!’ He thought she was going to cry.

But Peg said, flatly, ‘Then I guess she’s mine.’

‘What are you talking about? Now don’t be like that, Ma. You’re not responsible.’

‘I am. Until we find her own people.’

‘Peg, there is no law—’

She put up her chin and said, ‘I can’t help that.’

Betty Prentiss, who was running her fingers around the edges of the white paper lining of a dresser drawer, felt as if fingers were running up and down her spine.

Matt said crossly, because he was feeling a touch of panic and knew not why, ‘O.K., Ma, but try not to take it too hard. Will you, please?’

They heard the ambulance in the street and Matt went tearing down the stairs to let the men in. Motion was relief. He didn’t like this, didn’t like it at all.

When he had gone, Betty turned her head to look at Peg. Peg was looking back at her, dark eyes a little defiant. ‘If you don’t understand, then you don’t understand,’ they seemed to say. ‘But my life is my life, my self is my self, and I have to do what I see to do.’

‘I wish she hadn’t seen your sign,’ said Betty. She told herself it was too bad for Peg to have been so put upon by chance.

CHAPTER TWO

There was an old-fashioned, round, pedestal table in the corner of Peg’s big kitchen. That evening, Betty Prentiss sat sideways behind it, sipping coffee and contemplating the possibility that she was in love.

Matt was at the table, too, just finishing his late supper. Tony Severson was there, bouncing with curiosity and pumping them as urgently as he could.

But Betty wasn’t saying much. Do I want to marry Matt Cuneen? she was asking herself. If not, what am I doing here, anyway? Why don’t I take my own apartment or take one with another girl, or a whole flock of them, and live the life with the double dates and all the intrigues of my peers? Why do I hang around with a proxy mother like Peg? I don’t need a mother. And why haven’t I gone all out for summer travel, which is the thing for us schoolteachers to do? Why didn’t I arrange to go to Europe, like everybody else, with Kleenex and camera? Looks as if I wanted to stay right here. And why is that?

Something in the back of herself had evidently decided that Matt was the man for her. It wasn’t a new idea. Naturally not, with their mothers feeling as they did, and even Betty’s uncle simply assuming that one day a wedding would come to pass. To that generation, the match seemed so suitable, sensible, desirable, and safe that it made itself. As a match, Betty thought highly of it too. She and Matt were equal in status, as compatible in interest and in values as might be, and long acquainted. It ought to work.

But now, she thought ruefully, to be just about the opposite of star-crossed lovers was not the most attractive thing in the world. Not for Matt. And not for Betty, either.

It wasn’t suitability. She didn’t know what it was, but it wasn’t that. How come she suddenly knew that it was, at all? She didn’t know how she knew. But now that she knew, what was to be done?

There was another thing. Betty was well aware of a tradition that had grown up here in the last five years, since Dr Cuneen had died and Peg had resolved to stay where she was in the big house, to move herself and Matt down into the wing that ran off at the back, to rent her two upstairs rooms, and by this means, pay her house taxes. She had not been left destitute; neither was she affluent. But Peg managed, in her own way, very well. She enjoyed having young women in the house and invariably, if they showed any signs of wanting to be mothered, Peg mothered them.

But her friends and neighbours had made a running joke of the fact that almost every one of Peg’s girls had, in her day, rolled a speculative eye at the son of the house, the so personable and eligible son who lived there too. So Betty knew that she had fallen heiress to a pattern that might take some breaking. How many counts were there against her? One of his mother’s roomers, playmate from the cradle, recommended by their elders, no surprises.

How could Mr Matthew Marks Cuneen, boy scientist, not in the hunting mood, evasive by long practice, and feeling like her big brother, besides, be enticed to realise that Betty was the one for him?

Some old-fashioned methods were just too corny to consider. For instance, she was not going to try to ‘make him jealous’ because of Tony Severson, who came around from time to time. Tony worked for a newspaper, not a big-city paper but a semi-local sheet that had its yellow tinge. Young Mr Severson was not spending any of his traditional pittance to take Betty to shows or nightclubs. He liked to come by casually and pick her up of an evening, ramble around the town with a good companion, drop by a pizza parlour or a hamburger stand, or often just to drop in and sit here in Peg’s kitchen and talk. He didn’t want to marry Betty and nobody was going to think so.

Hmm. Well, now. The solution of this problem was going to take a little serious planning and effort, now that she seemed to know what the problem was. She stole a glance at Matt’s face. Yes, she liked his face. She liked his hands. She liked …

Sex? she presumed. Well, sex was all right with her, but she didn’t quite know how to begin to flirt with him, if that was the word. He could be, she guessed, rather impervious to signals of that sort. From good old Betty Prentiss.

She wasn’t sending any such signals at the moment, not being decked out at all. She had on a pair of blue capris, an old white shirt, and no shoes. Her dark hair lay wild on her head. She was just good old Betty, at home in his mother’s kitchen, with her bare feet on the rounds of the chair.

She wasn’t beautiful and strange. Betty blinked and began to listen to the conversation.

Tony Severson was the kind of young man who turned a wooden chair around, sat astride of the seat, and rested his arms upon the back rail. His reddish hair stood up and his little hazel eyes roved foxily from face to face. Peg had told him about the mysterious stranger and Tony was bound that there was more to know than he had been told.

‘You guys aren’t expert room-searchers,’ he was arguing. ‘Why won’t you let me go up there with ye olde fine-tooth comb? You’ve missed something. There has got to be a clue to this dame’s identity.’

‘There hasn’t got to be,’ Matt said, ‘and there isn’t. So you won’t go up and snoop around, because who needs you?’

One had to be rude to Tony. He invited it. He was always cheerful in the face of rudeness.

‘Take a matchbook cover,’ he went on arguing. ‘That could be a clue, for instance, to where she’d just been. Does she smoke, by the way? And say, has anybody scraped under her fingernails?’

‘For her name and address?’ inquired Betty.

‘Ah, come on. A clue to her occupation, maybe. You guys got no Sherlock blood? Does she look like an office worker? Or maybe, you should pardon the expression, like a schoolteacher? What does she look like, anyhow?’

Matt was poking at the sweet roll that was his dessert and he neither spoke nor looked up until Betty’s silence seemed to surprise him.

So Betty looked away and answered in a deliberate drawl, ‘Well, I’ll tell you, Tony—she is absolutely gorgeous.’

‘Hey! Hey!,’ said Tony, between delight and suspicion. ‘You’re putting me on? How? How do you mean?’

‘A beeyootiful blonde,’ said Betty and thought, Listen to me sound pure cat. She glanced slyly at Matt. He was munching his roll.

‘A real doll, eh?’ said Tony, making gestures that outlined huge breasts in the kitchen air. ‘I mean with all the standard equipment, yes?’

‘I presume so,’ said Matt with the regulation leer.

So Betty let her breath in slowly and deeply. She now perceived, with a little hoot of silent laughter, that fate had played the old-fashioned ‘jealous’ trick on her. It had worked very well. This was, suddenly, how she knew that, in love or no, she certainly did not want anybody else to have Mr Matthew Cuneen. Well, well, she said to herself, mysteriously smiling.

Matt was trying to conceal his irritation. He had leered as he was expected to leer. But he was thinking morosely that if they had been able to say that the stranger was an ugly old woman with a moustache, Tony would have lost interest in the business. Matt didn’t think the girl in the hospital was any of Tony Severson’s business, especially since Tony’s business was always public business. Matt wouldn’t permit Tony upstairs, to poke at those few pitiful possessions. He didn’t fancy the helpless girl being made the centre of a circus, newspaper style. Let Tony go peddle his papers somehow else.

The hospital, in the person of Dr Jon, had been somewhat dismayed when the girl’s identity had proven elusive. Nothing, of course; deterred the whole staff from the task of diagnosing and, if may be, curing her. So she was as safe as she could be, in good hands, and Matt wanted things to be let alone. He didn’t want Tony stirring up trouble. Not his kind of trouble. Matt rather wished his mother had kept her mouth shut.

The dining-room door was swinging and in came his mother with Dr Jon Prentiss behind her. The doctor was a stubby man with broad shoulders aggressively squared, and a very straight broad back. His face was rugged and habitually stern. He was a no-nonsense man. But he greeted Betty with affection and endured an introduction to Tony with courtesy.

‘We don’t know yet,’ he said to their questions. ‘Tests tomorrow.’ He sat down and Peg poured him coffee and fetched him the saccharin. He and Peg were very fond, but there was no nonsense between them.

‘How old would you say she was, Doctor?’ asked Tony briskly.

‘About Betty’s age.’

‘Young and beautiful?’

‘Well designed,’ the doctor admitted.

‘And no idea who she is?’

‘Not unless somebody’s been around here, inquiring for her.’ The doctor took the negative answer from their silence and began to sip.

‘I think,’ said Tony, speaking from the position of a young man of The world, ‘you would be well advised to call the police, Doctor.’

‘Police!’ Peg exclaimed.

‘Well, sure, Mrs Cuneen. See, maybe somebody reported her missing. Missing Persons, see, is like a lost-and-found department and what you’ve got here, you’ve got a “found” girl.’ Tony looked pleased with himself.

Dr Jon was looking at him over his cup, fixing him with his stare that could scatter nurses like petals in the wind. But Tony said blithely, ‘I’d be glad to make the call for you, Doctor.’

Dr Jon said, ‘The police knew nothing about her, as of three hours ago.’

‘Oh, I see. Well, sir,’ Tony was less patronising this time, ‘could I suggest something else? If you would like me to get hold of one of our photographers to take a few pictures, my paper would be glad to print them. Might be the way to find out who … uh … lost her.’

Matt said lazily, ‘Why don’t you keep your nosy nose out, Tony? Nobody needs you.’

‘Ah ha,’ said Tony, shaking a finger. ‘Maybe you do, old boy. What about the power of the Press?’

Dr Jon was looking at him thoughtfully. Betty said nothing. But now Peg slid into a chair beside the doctor and said, ‘It might be a way.’

‘Ma,’ said Matt. ‘Now, you don’t want that kind of thing. Believe me, you don’t realise what Tony and his paper can do to you.’

‘I wouldn’t do a thing in the world to her,’ said Tony indignantly. ‘I love her! Don’t I, Mrs Cuneen?’

Peg clasped her hands and said, ‘I keep thinking of her people. How could they come here, to inquire? She just happened to see my little sign out on the lawn. How could anybody know she would see it?’

‘A point well taken,’ said the doctor. ‘I can tell you this. It is advisable to find her people quickly. We need her medical history.’

‘As a public service,’ crowed Tony, ‘I’ll get the photographer there first thing in the morning. I’ll come myself.’

Matt said, ‘Don’t do it.’

‘Why not, dear?’ his mother asked. ‘I don’t want anybody thinking about trouble for me.’

‘I don’t think it’s a good idea for anybody,’ he said, unwilling to be more specific because he was not going to add any fuel to Tony’s highly inflammable imagination. So he offered an alternative to the doctor. ‘Why not let the police trace her?’

‘Because they said it is not their province,’ the doctor answered promptly. ‘No law’s been broken. No crime is involved.’

Betty had her feet on the floor now, and she felt Matt’s shoe nudging her ankle. ‘I don’t like it, either,’ she said at once, and sought his approving eye.

But Peg said to them gently, ‘It’s nothing to like or dislike. It’s something to do.’

And the doctor said with a Jovian nod, ‘Right. I think so. I’ll make the arrangements.’

‘Then I’ll lay it on,’ cried Tony joyfully. ‘Be very glad to, Doctor. I’ll get it a good position. I’ll write the story myself.’ He sounded as if this should reassure them as to literary quality and humane discretion. It did not reassure Matt in the least. But he kept quiet until Tony, babbling promises, had taken his leave.

Then Matt said, ‘I think we forgot something, sir.’

‘What was it we forgot?’

‘That it isn’t quite normal,’ Matt said, bearing up nobly under the doctor’s eye-beams, ‘for a person to carry no identification whatsoever. Not even an old letter. A scrap of paper. Or so much as an initial.’

Betty was with him in a flash. ‘Sure, because everybody carries some dumb thing. You mean it’s not an accident?’

‘My point,’ said Matt, grinning congratulations at her. ‘So I ask you this. Is it possibly, deliberate? Suppose she doesn’t want to be identified?’

The doctor was frowning. ‘Why wouldn’t she want to be identified?’

‘We can’t know why. But that doesn’t mean it might not be so.’

‘The fact remains,’ said the doctor judiciously, ‘that if we are going to save her life, we need all the information about her that we can get. I wouldn’t worry about offending her, myself.’

‘I wasn’t quite worrying about offending her,’ Matt said. ‘We might do worse. We might put her in some position she was trying to avoid.’

‘In danger, even,’ Betty said.

Peg’s hands fluttered alarm.

But the doctor turned to Betty and said, mock-solemn, ‘From the Mafia, I suppose?’

Or a reasonable facsimile.’ Matt remained cheerfully obstinate. ‘There are some contributing indications. She came unusually early in the morning—looking as if she had not slept at all—to a strange house, where she took what seems suspiciously like refuge. She carried nothing with her to tell who she really is. She wasn’t forthcoming.’

The doctor countered at once. ‘She was on the brink of an illness, which fact manifested itself as fatigue. She took refuge, as Peg says, because she needed a place to rest. She took a strange room because she was travelling. Witness the suitcase. I doubt the very remote possibility, that she intended to hide from physical danger, should prevent us from trying to save her from a very real and undeniable physical danger by any means we can. She is safe where she is, as far as the Mafia is concerned, or its reasonable facsimile. From some emotional problem, she can be rescued later. But we do not yet know what ails her, in the body, and we had better find out pretty soon.’

‘Oh, Jon,’ said Peg woefully.

‘So we’ll let this newspaper appointment stand, I think,’ said the doctor. ‘Agreed, Peg?’

‘Yes,’ Peg said. ‘Yes. She mustn’t die because we neglected anything.’

‘Matt? Betty?’

The doctor was taking votes, but the conclusion was already clear.

‘I guess we lose, Uncle Jon,’ said Betty for them both.

So the doctor said he had to get along home. He told Peg, sternly, not to worry. She had done and was doing the best that she could do. As would he. So he went off, carrying as much as he could of the trouble on his big shoulders. Peg went quietly off to her bed.

Matt and Betty sat on, in the kitchen.

Matt had almost forgotten that she was there. He was a little ashamed of his argument. Not that it hadn’t been of some import. It was, however, more of a rationalisation of a reluctance. An instinct?