The Love Talker Part 24

"I don't know how you explain a person like Rachel. Psychiatry will point triumphantly to her dreadful, sterile home life, the suppression of all her natural instincts. When she saw a way out she grabbed at it. I can't blame her for that. Jeff did promise to marry her. He would have promised anything, given her anything." Laurie turned a critical eye on her brother, who was looking very pensive. "You can understand that, can't you?" she demanded.

"Oh, yes," Doug murmured. "Well-almost anything. The girl has a certain natural..." He glanced at his aunts, and refrained from finishing the sentence.

"Hmph," Laurie said. "Jeff certainly felt it; but he had nothing to offer her. He had no source of income, no job except this one, and they couldn't have stayed here. Her father would have raised Cain, taken her back, by force or by law. In order to be together they would have had to run away to another state, and live in poverty. Rachel might have been willing to do that to escape her parents; but then Jeff told her the truth about himself, and she saw a way to gain a fortune. It must have been a dazzling temptation- herself the mistress of Idlewood, with a handsome, indulgent husband, pretty clothes, jewels, all the things a young girl dreams of. And the cost was so small-the life of one old lady who was bound to die soon anyway.

"When Aunt Lizzie met the girls in the woods last fall, Rachel and Jeff were already involved. It was Mary Ella's turn to pick millions of berries, so that the lovers could meet in their cozy cave. That was when Rachel got her brilliant inspiration-and I have to admit it was clever. She didn't want to attack Aunt Lizzie directly. She knew that if there was the slightest hint of foul play Jeff couldn't claim his rights to the estate without becoming a suspect. Nor could she arrange a convincing accident at that time of year. The weather was mild; hikers, nature lovers, hunters were roaming the woods. But if she could set up a situation whereby Aunt Lizzie could be lured out of the house during the winter months....

"Betsy's chatter about fairies may have suggested the idea, but I suspect it was that book of Conan Doyle's that allowed Rachel to develop her scheme fully. Mary Ella was borrowing books from Lizzie, remember? If she mentioned the story to Rachel- the parallels are really too close to be coincidental. The girls in The Coming of the Fairies played their tricks for the fun of it, but Rachel saw how the same idea could be used to trap Aunt Lizzie. She persuaded Jeff to take those photographs. According to him, she told him she wanted them for her little sister. Maybe he believed her; people can be pretty dumb when they're in love. When he realized what she was doing he tried to stop her. There is some evidence to substantiate that claim; he did try to keep an eye on Aunt Lizzie after it dawned on him she could come to harm chasing fairies. But he couldn't bring himself to betray Rachel, not to the police, nor to her parents."

"I don't know that I can blame him for that," Doug said thoughtfully.

"Oh, n.o.body can blame anybody for anything these days," Laurie said rudely. "I'm tired of finding excuses for crooks and criminals. Rachel is deformed. I know she had a wretched life, but so do lots of other people who don't see the murder of a harmless old woman as the key to the prison door."

"I never thought she would do those things," Lizzie murmured.

"Who would? We're all suckers for a pretty face. Even after she knocked me on the head and left me in the cave to die of exposure I didn't suspect her. When I heard Jeff in the tunnel I was sure he had come to finish me off. Then all of a sudden I remembered something-a particular smell I had noticed in that house where Rachel was baby-sitting."

"I am surprised you could isolate a single odor," said Ida, her long nose lifted fastidiously. "I am told that Mrs. Wade is a very poor housekeeper."

"Even a poor housekeeper wouldn't leave her stove turned on without making sure it was lit. That was what I smelled-gas. There were stories in the newspapers a few years ago about a baby-sitter who used to hold the child over the gas jet for a few minutes, just long enough to stupefy it so it wouldn't bother her while she was watching TV."

"Good Lord!" Doug's face hardened. Laurie was pleased to observe that this revelation had removed some of the glamour that still clung to his opinion of Rachel. "You mean she-"

"I wondered," Laurie said, "why the baby was so quiet. Rachel not only had all night for her activities, she had all afternoon and evening too. If the baby had started yelling while she was out, the neighbors might have heard it and come to investigate. Those houses are built of cardboard. Rachel did a lot of stupid things and took a lot of chances; she's too young to be a very well organized criminal. But that was one risk she didn't take. She ga.s.sed the baby."

"Good Lord," Doug repeated. "What's going to happen to that girl?"

The two old ladies exchanged glances. Then Ida said, "She will receive the best possible care, Douglas. I a.s.sure you of that. I have already spoken with Mr. and Mrs. Wilson. They were only too happy to have us take responsibility."

"I'll bet," Doug said. "Wilson is probably obliterating Rachel's name from the family Bible right now."

" 'If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off,' " Laurie agreed. "In a way this might be the best thing for Rachel. I'm not enthusiastic about psychiatric hospitals, but it's the girl's only chance. A couple of years from now she'll be eighteen, old enough to be on her own. She may be one of those people who resorts to crime only when they can't get what they want any other way. With a face and figure like hers, Rachel shouldn't have any problems. No. She's getting off easy. It's Jeff I feel sorry for."

"Oh, do you?" Doug gave her a hostile stare.

"Well, he's less culpable than Rachel. I'm sure he did try to stop her. Remember that night when you were all so strangely sleepy? Jeff drugged the after-dinner coffee. He was getting desperate; he couldn't watch Aunt Lizzie all the time, and that way he made sure she would sleep through the night and not go wandering in the woods. I was out with Hermann, so I didn't get any of the coffee."

"I wondered about that," Doug admitted. "And of course Jeff was the only one who could have doctored the coffee. In fact, he was my prime suspect all along. I'm still not convinced he isn't pa.s.sing the buck to Rachel."

"You're prejudiced," Laurie said indignantly.

Doug's brown eyes met hers, and she was surprised to feel herself blushing. At least it felt like a blush, though she was so warm she couldn't be sure.

"Jeff saved my life," she went on. "He led you to me-"

"Well, I persuaded him a little," Doug murmured.

"It was most exciting," Lizzie said brightly. "Just like those criminal dramas on television. Douglas took poor Jefferson by his collar and literally lifted him off the floor. However, Douglas, I must say that your language was not quite the thing. Mr. Kojak never used words like those, even when he was interrogating a psychopathic ma.s.s murderer."

"Auntie, I was upset," Doug said apologetically. "When I found out Jeff had bought those figurines I came tearing back here. The roads were getting slippery, so I couldn't make good time; but it gave me a chance to think, and I realized that Rachel must be involved. Auntie had insisted all along that she got the photos from the Wilson girls. That meant Rachel. Jeff wouldn't have used Betsy; a child that age couldn't be trusted to keep her mouth shut. And Mary Ella wasn't his type. So when I read that stupid, boastful note of yours, Laurie, I started to get a little worried. You had left it on the table, where anybody could have read it, and if Jeff thought you were closing in on him. . . . But I didn't get really scared till I had gone to the Wilsons and talked to Mary Ella. What did you do to that kid, hypnotize her? She spilled the whole story to me, right in front of her parents, she was so worried about you."

"I told her I'd help her get away," Laurie said. "I meant it, too."

"You should. You owe her. I told Wilson I'd beat the daylights out of him if he laid a hand on her, but there are other methods of torture, and after he has recovered from his initial rage against Rachel he won't spare Mary Ella. She's known for some time that Rachel wasn't quite right. She said she tried to warn you."

"So that's what she was trying to say," Laurie exclaimed. "I was in a hurry, and that awful stutter-"

"We'll take care of her," Doug promised. "Anyhow, I went tearing over to the Wades', looking for you. Kicked the door in-"

"Doug, you didn't!"

"Wasn't hard. Cheap lock. All I found was one groggy baby badly in need changing. I did not oblige, I'm sorry to say, but I got one of the neighbors to come over. Told her it was an emergency. It was."

"Rachel told me she had asked the woman next door to come in," Laurie said. "I should have known she was a liar."

"It's just as well for that smelly infant that we removed his sitter," Doug said. "She wasn't exactly improving his chances of living to a ripe old age. Anyhow, by that time I was frantic. n.o.body knew where you were; your trail ended at the Wades'. So I came back here. I will say," Doug admitted grudgingly, "that when I explained the situation, Jeff didn't hesitate. He thought Rachel might have taken you to the cave. It was the only place where she could be sure of privacy. He led us there-Uncle Ned and me-but he was in such a hurry we lost him in the snow and dark and we couldn't find the cave entrance until you screamed and good old d.u.c.h.ess went burrowing into the bank."

"It was too close for comfort," Laurie said, with a reminiscent shiver. "Where was Rachel all this time?"

"She'd been a busy little bee. First she got the car keys from your pocket and drove the car deeper into the woods. He had taught her to drive-among other things-last fall. Then she went looking for him. Do you realize how close all these places are to Idlewood, especially if you know the shortcuts through the woods? Rachel knew them well. She was not very coherent about the next part, but I gather she was outside while Jeff and I were having our little discussion about your possible whereabouts. She went tearing back through the woods and got there about the same time he did. I don't know what she had in mind. I doubt that she knew herself. But when she caught you and Jeff making out-"

"Douglas," Ida exclaimed. "Please don't be vulgar."

"I tried to shut him up," Laurie said. "I was afraid she might overhear. She was crazy with jealousy. That's why she tried to run me down the other night. She knew it was me, all right. The funny thing is, I don't think Jeff was in love with me, not really."

"You aren't that closely related," Doug said coldly. "Anyway, what difference does a spot of incest make?"

"Don't be vulgar," Laurie said, antic.i.p.ating Ida's comment. "I admit I found him very attractive. Any woman would. But I didn't fall for him. I'm sorry for him, though. What's going to happen to him now?"

"You could wait for him while he's in stir," Doug suggested.

"Now, Douglas," Ida said. "There is no question of prison, thank goodness. The police had to be brought in, of course, but they know only that that unfortunate girl had become infatuated with Jefferson, and had quarreled with him. Thanks to Ned's promptness in removing Laurie from the scene, the rest of the story need never come out. Rachel is incoherent and Jefferson has every reason to remain silent. He will not be charged. He will leave this part of the country and never return." Her lips twisted, as if in a brief spasm of pain, but she went on in a steady voice. "Tomorrow, Elizabeth will see our lawyer and make the will she ought to have made years ago."

"I don't want to make a will," Lizzie said rebelliously. "Douglas and Laura will have the money eventually, so what difference-"

"You will do as you're told," Doug said. "And I'll be on hand to make sure you behave yourself from now on. I'm opening an office in Frederick."

"How nice," Lizzie said, beaming.

"A wise decision," Ida remarked.

"Are you crazy?" Laurie demanded.

"Not yet," Doug said. "But in a few years, if Aunt Lizzie keeps on the way she's been going. .. ."

Lizzie hoisted herself out of her chair. Her lower lip tried to express hurt indignation, but she was so pleased she couldn't help smiling.

"Douglas, you are such a tease. I must see about dinner now, or we'll never eat tonight. In the meantime, what about a little nibble of something, and a hot cup of tea. for our sick girlie?"

She trotted out, still talking to herself.

Laurie looked at her brother, who was studying his bandaged hand with unnecessary concentration. She knew why he had made his decision. With Jeff gone, the old people would be alone. Someone had to be there. She realized, with considerable astonishment, that the idea was not without its attractions. Mary Ella needed and deserved attention; it would be exciting to help that thwarted character and mind develop. No reason why she couldn't write her thesis here, as Aunt Ida had suggested. With Herrrrrman under control and Doug livening the place up. ...

Doug cleared his throat.

"Now that Lizzie's gone we can finish this," he said. "I can't talk to her without screaming; her habit of wriggling out from under questions drives me up the wall. How much of this do you suppose she had figured out?"

"You can't describe Aunt Lizzie's thought processes," Laurie said. "They're too weird. She's like a medieval theologian; she can believe two contradictory things at the same time. And she's so darned innocent she'd never believe anyone meant to harm her. Especially her own son-"

"Her son?" Ida turned to stare at her. "My dear Laura-Douglas-have you been under the impression that Jefferson is Elizabeth's son?"

"Yes," Laurie said in surprise. "Certainly I did. That was the whole point of the plot-that Jeff would have inherited instead of us because we're only Aunt Lizzie's great-niece and -nephew, while Jeff-"

"No, no." Ida shook her head. "I cannot allow you to remain under that misapprehension. It would be unjust. Jefferson is not Elizabeth's son. He is her nephew."

Both auditors were struck dumb. Laurie knew, from Doug's bemused expression, that he was thinking the same thing she was. Uncle Ned?

Her aunt's face gave her the clue. Ida's cheeks might be a little redder than usual, but there was no contrition, no shame in her face. She sat very straight, her hands in her lap, and met Laurie's astonished gaze without avoidance.

Thirty years ago, Laurie thought. Thirty years, more or less-she had never known Jeff's precise age. . . . Ida would have been in her mid-forties. A susceptible age, she had heard. And that would explain why stern old Great-grandfather Morton had cut his erring daughter out of his will.

"It was just after the war," Ida said. "He was an officer, stationed nearby. He was married, with a family. I knew that from the start."

Her lips closed. So far as she was concerned, that was the whole story. There would be no explanations and no excuses, no regret, no expression of suffering or loss. That was not the Morton style. Nor was it necessary for her to go into such details. Laurie could imagine what it must have been like for her. A sudden overmastering pa.s.sion, at an age when she had probably thought herself safe from such weakness-and the unexpected, catastrophic result. She would not have told her lover, not Ida. But she had to confide in her family because she had no means of her own. There was no alternative in those days but to bear the child; and no alternative, for a Morton, but to give it up for adoption. What else could she have done, even if she had wanted to defy the traditions that had molded her-penniless, middle-aged, unemployable?

Laurie struggled furiously and managed to get one hand out from under the blankets. She laid it on her aunt's folded hands and squeezed hard.

"Oh, my dear," she said.

"You need not feel sorry for me," Ida said. "There were compensations. . . . The basic point of your argument is not altered by this, you understand. If Elizabeth had predeceased me, the estate would have been divided between your Uncle Ned and myself, since Elizabeth has always refused to make a will. My portion, and probably Ned's as well, would have pa.s.sed to Jefferson in due time. Or," she added, "before my due time, if that perverse young woman had decided not to wait."

"You're a wonder, Aunt Ida," Doug said. "Have I mentioned lately that I love you pa.s.sionately?" He leaned over to give her a resounding kiss on the cheek. "Now I'm going down to help Aunt Lizzie. Laurie, could I talk you into a little-er-sherry?"

"I'd love it," Laurie said.

"How tactful he is," Ida said, after Doug had gone. "He wishes to spare me embarra.s.sment."

"You're not embarra.s.sed, though, are you?"

"No," Ida said. "It was all so long ago. And frankly, now that it is out in the open, I am actually relieved. You understand, I would not care to have the entire neighborhood know; but I could endure even that with equanimity so long as you and Douglas do not think less of me."

"You know how we feel."

"Yes. And I thank you. I ought to have trusted you both, but in all sincerity, Laura, it never for a moment occurred to me that there could be the remotest connection between my youthful folly and the present situation."

"No reason why it should have occurred to you," Laurie a.s.sured her. "It is a wild, far-out plot, Aunt. I'm only sorry he turned out not to be . . ."

"A dutiful son?" Her aunt's lips curved in an ironic smile. "My dear girl, let's not pretend to be sentimental. I'm really too old to become a mother. And- you must know this-you and Douglas are very dear to me. No other relationship could alter that."

"Doug is nice, isn't he? You know, Aunt Ida, when I realized that Jeff was the guilty party, I was actually relieved. I had been so afraid it might be Doug. I didn't realize how fond I was of him until I suspected him. I've been thinking-maybe I'll do my dissertation here. Doug and I could get an apartment in Frederick, and-"

"An apartment!" If she had suggested entering a bordello her aunt's horror could hardly have been greater. "Out of the question, Laura. You can stay at Idlewood, with us."

"Auntie, I love you all, but I'm not sure I can live with you. I'd get fat on Aunt Lizzie's cooking and you'd worry if I stayed up late studying and Uncle Ned would roust me out at dawn to go bird-watching, and-"

"And I would interfere with your social life." Her aunt smiled ruefully. "I understand, Laura. I have not completely forgotten what it is like to be young. Very well. I can see why you might prefer to be independent, but for you and Douglas to live together would be ... You cannot do it!"

"I don't see why not. It's silly for us to have two places, when we could share expenses."

"Oh, dear." Ida sighed. "I suppose I must tell you. Anna should have done so years ago, but she was always lax about her duty, and I never felt I had the right to interfere. However, I have no choice now.

My dear Laura, you cannot live with Douglas because it would be improper. He is not your brother."

"What?" Of all the shocks she had had that day, this. .h.i.t Laurie the hardest. She fought free of the covers and sat upright. "What did you say?"

"He was adopted," Ida explained. "Your mother is not a maternal woman, but she was slow to realize that. Her desire for a baby was similar to the yearning of a little girl for a doll. When she believed herself incapable of producing offspring in the conventional manner, she rushed out, in her impetuous way, and procured an infant as one might purchase a toy. I can't even be sure that she and her current husband went through the proper channels and formally adopted the lad, though they always regarded him as their own. He is the son of a theatrical friend of Anna's, who perished miserably of an excess of alcohol and other indulgences. Shortly after she obtained the baby she became enceinte. I am told that often happens. So you see, Laura, you and Douglas are not related to one another at all. So far as we are concerned it makes no difference. He is our dear nephew and always will be. But you can hardly. ... I am so sorry to be the one to tell you this. I fear it comes as a shock."

Laurie collapsed against the pillows. She wondered if Doug knew the truth. Somehow she rather thought he did. Even at the airport in Baltimore- that greeting had been a little warmer than brotherly affection would explain. As she thought back over the past days, casual, seemingly insignificant looks and comments came back to her with a new meaning.

Yes, Doug knew, and she could hardly blame him for not telling her. "Speaking of elves in the woods, you and I are not brother and sister." Not an easy topic to introduce, no-especially if it had become complicated by other, unexpected emotional developments. . . .

She smiled. Her aunt, watching her anxiously, gave a little sigh of relief.

"I am so glad you are not too distressed. Yet I am afraid you must be disappointed."

"Well, I wouldn't exactly sat that," Laurie murmured. "No, I can't honestly say that I'm disappointed. I don't have too many old-fashioned prejudices, but I do draw the line at incest."

"Laura," her aunt said, "please don't be vulgar."


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