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The Young Visitor.

Alex Hallam stamped in from his nightly visit to the power plant. As usual, there had been something wrong with it; and, also as usual, in his dressing gown and bare legs he had run into the cactus plant Sheila had insisted on leaving by the path.

Sheila was knitting in the living room when he entered the house, and knowing the customary effect of these excursions, she did not look up.

" I ran into that d- cactus again, he observed morosely.

She sighed. These intervals of waiting after Alex had sent off a book to his publishers were always bad. Now, isolated as they were, this one was being particularly trying.

"I should think you would know by this time that it is there, " she said. "Or put a light on the path."

"Light!" he said, jerking the tweezers from the mantelpiece and inspecting with a jaundiced eye a hairy but not unhandsome leg. "Do you know how much light we use already? Or gasoline? Do you realize that I've ceased to be a writer and become a nurse to a pair of dynamos and a motorboat? "

He extracted the barb with a jerk, and, stalking into the bathroom, came back with a bottle of iodine in hand. Both performances being painful, he yelped; but as this elicited no sympathy from Sheila, he resumed his listing of grievances.

"If everything else fails," he said darkly, "I'm a qualified plumber too. And if Mary loses another brush down a drainpipe, she can go after it herself."

The list of his grievances mounted in his mind as the iodine bit into his flesh.

"I came here to write," he went on. "But what am I? I'm a champion bug exterminator and water-tank inspector. I'm an errand boy and a snake killer. On the days George doesn't choose to show up, I'm the milkman and the postman. And I'm here to tell you that tomorrow I'm going to be a cactus remover."

" I like that cactus where it is, " said Sheila, with some firmness.

He laughed bitterly.

"Naturally. So I can step into it." He glared at her. "Whose idea was all this anyhow?"

"Yours," Sheila said calmly. "You said you wanted to get away from everything. You said you were sick of people and noise and cocktail parties. You said you wanted to get to the end of the world somewhere and write. You said--"

"All right. All right. Blame it on me. You know d- well the idea appealed to you."

Suddenly she put away her knitting and got up. She was a pretty woman, still young, but just then she looked rather worn. She had put in a week of waiting to hear about the book, bolstering Alex's ego at frequent intervals. Now she was exhausted. She drew a long breath.

"Maybe you'll get a telegram tomorrow," she said. "I certainly hope SO.99

"What do you mean, a telegram?"

"Do you have to put on an act for me, Alex?"

He stared at her. There had been moments recently when he acutely disliked Sheila, and this was one of them. He knew now why some men killed their wives. Nothing big. Nothing dramatic. Just some small thing, like being shut off with her on a spit of land in the Gulf of Mexico, with the promised road not developing, and the nearest anything at all six miles away by boat. Or being reminded that your publishers hadn't thought enough of your last book even to telegraph.

"I'm not acting," he said coldly. "If you want the exact truth, I'm bored. I'm bored stiff. I know you do your best," he added, with a sort of malignant magnanimity, "but when I wanted quiet I didn't want a graveyard. That's what this is, a nice cactus-lined graveyard. No life. Nowhere to go. Nothing to do. Nothing to--"

He did not finish, however. Something was wrong with the lights again. They were dying, undeniably dying. They faded into a dull rosy red and then went out entirely, leaving them like two enemies, facing each other in the dark.

"At least," said Sheila's voice, frigid but resigned, "there seems to be something to do. I suppose you've forgotten to order gasoline again."

"You would! " he retorted furiously. "There's plenty of gas. There's plenty of everything."

"There seems to be something missing! " she observed, and proceeded, with the ease of long custom, to find the matches, locate a candle, and light it.

"Good night," she said politely, and she went out, taking the candle with her.

Left alone in the darkness, he stared after her balefully. That was what happened in marriage. You found a nice loving girl, and, in due time, she became the sort who would have a pet cactus so you could step into it and would take away the only candle and leave you in the dark.

The iodine was still stinging. It hurt all the way up his leg, and when he fumbled for the flashlight he could not find it. Instead he upset a vase of flowers, and the water soaked his pajamas. He could hear it dripping from the table to the floor. He hoped fervently that Sheila had left her knitting there.

He stood still for a moment, divided between the desire to follow Sheila and tell her a few plain facts, and the necessity for some sort of action. Finally he chose the latter, flung out onto the porch in a rage, stumbled over a chair, and collapsed on the floor, holding his ankle and muttering in low agonized tones.

He sat there for some time. Let the lights stay out. Let the meat spoil in the electric refrigerator. Let the whole place go to ruin. What did he care? He was completely and utterly fed up. No ideas. No stimulation. This last book was tripe. It was sentimental tosh. He'd better stop writing and raise oranges. At least you didn't have to raise them on a typewriter.

He grunted and got up. There was a moon now, and in spite of his leg he contemplated it for a moment. He had always liked the moon. With Sheila the way she used to be, he could have enjoyed it, power plant or no power plant. But Sheila had changed. There was no living with her this last week or two. That crack about the gasoline, for instance ! That reminded him of the dynamos, and he made his way, cautiously this time, to the powerhouse. There was the silence of death over the place, and to his fury he found he had lost his matches when he fell. In sheer demoniac rage he kicked the cement base of the engine, and it was in the pause while he accumulated adequate language that his attention was suddenly distracted.

There was a boat coming in ! Instantly his anger subsided and his pulse rate increased alarmingly. A boat at that hour of the night meant only one thing--a telegram. And a telegram meant only one thing, also. If the book was wrong, there would be a letter, long and apologetic. It was all right. All right. All right. He would get Sheila up and they would have sandwiches and cold beer-no, the beer would be warm. Well, anyhow, he would get Sheila and tell her. She had always believed in him. She was a great girl. She--

It was a new man who was on the dock with a lantern when George, an angel of light, a messenger of hope, brought his boat to a standstill. Not that George looked like either. He had a white rag tied around his lower jaw; such part of his face as was visible was contorted with agony.

"Got a telegram for you, Mr. Hallam, " he said, without moving his jaw.

"Thanks. Hand it up." Out of the rise in his spirits flowed compassion. "Got a toothache?"

"Yes, sir. I hadn't by rights to be up at all. But the agent thought you might be in a hurry."

"Put an extra dollar on the account, George. Sorry to trouble you. 9 I

The boat slid off, a shadowy black streak in the moonlit water, and Alex stood gazing after it. What a night! What peace! He sniffed appreciatively, but, the fragrance of orange blossoms being overwhelmed by gasoline, abandoned the idea. Then, sitting down comfortably on a bench, the lantern beside him, he opened the envelope and took out the message.

It said: "Motoring to Palm Beach. Reach Baird's Landing tonight about eleven. Please meet." And it was signed " Betty. "

He sat staring at it, then slowly and savagely he read it again. Betty! What Betty? He knew a dozen Bettys, and for some unspeakable reason he was now to dress, take the boat, go six miles, pick up one of them, and bring her back. Nor were things better when, throwing his pride to the winds, he stalked into Sheila's room and laid the message in front of her.

Betty?" said Sheila, looking very comfortable in her bed and rather amused than otherwise. "I suppose it's Betty Jennings."

"Why should you suppose any such thing? "

But a cold chill struck the base of his spine and proceeded by inches up to between his shoulder blades, where it remained.

"Well," Sheila said, lying back on her pillows with the air of one who abandons all responsibility, "you rather fell for her that night before we left, didn't you? Are you sure you didn't ask her to come?'

"Don't be ridiculous.'

But his voice lacked conviction. What had he said to the darned girl anyhow? They had been dancing, and she had looked up at him with wide candid eyes and told him how lonely she often felt, and that she knew his books by heart.

"I just can't believe I'm dancing with you," she had said.

"Well, you are, my child. How is it?"

"It's divine," she had answered, and closed her eyes.

Sheila was looking at him.

"You did ask her, didn't you?"

"I may have said something. She seemed low in her mind that night, and lonely. Just if she was in the neighborhood. You know what I mean. "

"Well, she's yours, not mine," said Sheila, yawning, and, turning over, she gave every evidence of going to sleep.

He dressed in candlelight and in a state of acute indignation, and before he left, he stalked to the side of Sheila's bed.

"Are you going to do anything about this?" he inquired savagely. "Or are you leaving it up to me?"

"Up to you," said Sheila drowsily. "Put her in the guest room and tell her, for me, that I'm glad to have help for a day or two."

"What sort of help?"

Quite unexpectedly Sheila giggled.

"Never mind," she said. "You'd better hurry. And you need cigarettes if the store's open. She smokes like a chimney."

"I resent that," he said hotly. "Just because a girl is young and-and lonely, and darned good-looking, you have to pick on her."

Sheila, however, merely yawned again.

"i haven't thought of her as lonely, " she observed. " I could never see her for the crowd, especially of susceptible males. However, that's not the point. You'd better hurry."

He slammed out of the room and down to the boat. But once out on the water, negotiating carefully the twisted channel, he felt better. After all, she was a nice kid, and she had certainly liked him. She had even asked if she could call him Alex.

"If you wouldn't mind," she said. "I'm so sick of boys. They don't know anything. All they want is to have a good time. "

He warmed a bit, remembering. They had sat out a dance or two, and she had asked him why he was going away, when she had just found him. That was how it happened, too, for he had said he wasn't going out of the show her the power plant and the septic system and the water tower, and explain about the plumbing. She would see that a writer was also a man....

It seemed to him that he had barely closed both of his eyes when he heard a faint tapping on his bedroom door, and Sheila in the next bed turned over and opened her eyes.

"Alex! " called a gay young voice.

Yes?" he said thickly.

"It's a simply divine morning, Alex. Do come out and look at it."

There was a faint movement from Sheila, followed by every indication of stifling herself with a pillow. Alex gave her a bitter look, groaned, and looked at the clock. It was barely six, and the rapping was continuing.

"Alex! Are you awake?"

"Certainly I'm awake," he said with dignity. "Give me time. I'm coming. "

There seemed now to be no question about Sheila. She was fairly gasping for breath.

"If you think it's so darned funny," he said icily, "get up yourself." But she merely stopped laughing and stretched luxuriously.

"I'm taking a vacation," she said. "Get up, Alex, darling, and look at the sun. And you might look at the power plant while you're about it."

Some of yesterday's instinct toward murder revived in him, but he repressed it.

"I'm darned if I understand you lately," he said sulkily, and proceeded to throw on some clothes.

Betty was eagerly waiting for him on the porch as he staggered out, still drunk with sleep. She wore a negligee over what seemed a very thin nightdress, but appeared to be entirely oblivious of herself. Also she looked as fresh as though she had slept the clock around.

"Isn't it wonderful?" she said. "I just wanted you to see it."

"My dear child, I've seen it before," he said.

"Not with me, Alex."

He shut his eyes against the blazing early sun and, leaning against a post, yawned heavily.

"No, that's so," he said thickly. "So what?"

She slipped her fingers into his like a coaxing child.

"I want to take a walk, Alex."

"At this hour?" he said, alarmed. "You have all day to walk."

"But not when things are like this. Fresh and-well, you know. Sort of mysterious. I should think, the way you write, you loved the dawn."

I'd rather stay up for it than get up for it. And," he added virtuously, "I go for no walk with anybody dressed like that. Go and put some clothes on. "

"How funny you are! I didn't think you were. a bit like that. "

But she went, obediently enough, and he sat down on a porch chair and fell immediately to sleep. He roused guiltily on her return.

"All right. Here we are," he said with spurious liveliness. "How about the power plant? I ought to look at it anyhow. "

"Mercy, I don't want to see any old power plant. I need some exercise," she said.

From the house came a sound which resembled somewhat George's snorts the night before, and which left him indignant and outraged. The sun stabbed his eyeballs and within him was a great void, caused by the absence of morning coffee. Not for years had he faced the daylight without coffee. But in front of him was Betty, youth and romance in a pair of violently striped slacks and something which resembled a handkerchief tied around and over her young breast. Between that and the slacks was an undeniable portion of Betty herself, of which, however, she seemed entirely unconscious. Also, in her hand, she carried what was only too obviously a camera. He shied away from the camera like a scared horse.

"Good God!" he said. "What's that? "

"I thought I'd take some pictures of you," she said ingenuously. "You know, the famous author resting in the South." She was focusing the camera on him. "I do wish you'd smile, Alex. "

He loathed cameras. He loathed having his picture taken, especially at six o'clock in the morning on an empty stomach. But he forced a ghastly grin, and, as though hypnotized, he stood and sat for a half hour, while she took him from every possible angle. When at last she ran out of film, she gave him an enchanting glance.

"I won a bet on that," she said happily.

"A bet?"

"I know a man who works on a newspaper, and he bet I couldn't do it," she said.

He looked terrified.

"Now see here, no newspaper gets those pictures. They're for you, and only for you."

"I think you're sweet" was her reply to that.

He felt completely helpless. A despairing glance toward the house showed no signs of Mary and breakfast, and to his fury, Sheila's shades were still down against the light. There was a wife for you! A woman who could calmly let him in for this sort of thing and then go to sleep ! He pulled himself together with an effort. He would live up to Betty if it killed him. If she chose to consider him a nice combination of distinction and romance--He straightened his stiff back and smiled fatuously.

"All right," he said. "Now what?" The "what" turned out to be a walk, in which they covered a large part of the county. Toward the end he was staggering, but Betty was still fresh and gay, and still talking. When they reached the bathing beach on their return, she stopped suddenly.

"How perfectly divine," she said. "Alex, I'm going in. You go away somewhere and don't peek. Nobody will see me."

"The whole house can see you. "

"Well, really!" she said. "You aren't any fun at all. Sheila won't mind. "

"And why won't she mind?"

"Good gracious, Alex, she's been married to you for a hundred years! "

"Ten, to be exact. What's that got to do with it? I'm just asking," he said, eying her. "I suppose the idea is that after having been married to one woman for ten years, what I do has ceased to matter to her. Is that it?"

She looked vaguely uncomfortable.

"I wish you wouldn't go highbrow on me," she said querulously.

"Or is it," he insisted, "that I am so old that I don't matter? Let's get at this. I'm interested."

But she chose that moment to step on a buried cactus plant and to stand on one foot, gazing at him plaintively.

"It's stuck in my foot, Alex, and it hurts."

He gave a haunted glance at the house.

"Let me see it," he said. "And for God's sake be careful where you step hereafter! "

Nevertheless he felt a small but undeniable thrill when he took off her sandal and held her bare foot in his hand. It was a pretty foot, with painted nails. Like a baby's foot, he thought. He felt rather like kissing it, but after removing an infinitesimal barb, he merely gave it an affectionate pat.

"All fixed," he said. "See if you can stand on it."

She put it down, squealed, and lifted it again.

"You'll have to help me, Alex. Or carry me. I don't weigh much."

In the end he did carry her, eying defiantly an open-mouthed Mary at the kitchen window.

Sheila was inside at the table when, Betty leaning heavily on him, they reached the dining room. And he was quite certain that something had amused her. But she was cordial enough to them both, sitting, rested and fresh, behind the coffee urn.

"I'm sorry," she said, "but George didn't come this morning. No mail. No papers. No milk or cream," she explained to Betty. Would you rather have your coffee black or use canned cream?"

"Canned cream?"

"Out of cans, you know," said Sheila placidly. "You know. Babies use it."

" I'll take it black, " said Betty with resignation.

(continued next issue)
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Title Annotation:part 1; short story
Author:Rinehart, Mary Roberts
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Apr 1, 1989
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