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The Young Visitor.

Synoipsis: Alex Hallam, secluded on a spit of land in the Gulf of Mexico, was expecting word from his publisher any day about the fate of his latest novel. What he wasn't expecting was a visit from an impetuous young admirer, Betty Jennings. Alex's wife, Sheila, seemed strangely amused, and even relieved, at the intrusion. Alex himself was determined to live up to Betty's image. If she chose to consider him a nice combination of distinction and romance . . .

Conclusion: The meal was rather silent, but the strong black coffee made Alex his own man again. True, he yawned once or twice, but he had more of his old spirit, and some of the warmth of the evening before came back.

Now and then, Betty turned on him a pair of wide limpid eyes, and he felt young and attractive again, and not at alllike an author whose wife didn't understand him, and whose last book was so bad that the publishers had ignored it.

It is true that there was a strange twist to Sheila's mouth which might have been a repressed grin, but, with the black coffee where it belonged, he ignored it.

"And what," said Sheila brightly at the end of the meal, "are your plans for the day?"

"What are you going to do?" he inquired, with cold politeness.

"Oh, me! I'm going to rest." She gave Betty a little smile. "You don't know what it means to have you here," she said gaily"You see, Alex takes a lot of amusing, and now I can have a holiday."

Betty stared at her rather blankly.

"I thought he wrote."

"Not all the time. There are-intervals."

That sounded like another dirty crack, and he eyed Sheila coldly.

"What does he do then?" Betty inquired. "Play?"

"Well, he does a little work now and then," Sheila admitted. "He's got a power plant to fix today, but I'm certain he'll love to have you around while he is doing it."

Alex got up suddenly and looked for a cigarette. There were none, nor did a frenzied search of the pockets of his various coats produce any. Betty, left alone at the table, was looking apologetic.

"I smoked a lot last night," she said guiltily, "and I forgot to bring any. It's funny how I forget things. Ever since I came, I've had a feeling that I've forgotten something."

She looked vaguely around, but nobody was listening. The search had now involved the whole household. When he carne back to the fiving room, Sheila was gazing out intently, and she paid no attention while he looked under the furniture and poked behind cushions.

"I imagine she has gone out to get some. I think," Sheila added thoughtfully, "that that must be the reason she is taking the boat."

Somebody was certainly taking the boat. From the boathouse below came the hammering and pounding of an engine, followed by the loud roar of an exhaust. When he got to the porch, the boat was a hundred feet from the dock and, guided by a young and charming figure, was ignoring the channel and heading in the general direction of Baird's Landing.

He turned on Sheila, with the accumulated venom of being up at six, no mail, no papers, and no George.

"You let her go! "he shouted. "You stood there and watched her--Great Scott, she'll hit the bar!"

"Not for the first time, I daresay," said Sheila, without malice. "She is impulsive, isn't she?"

That, however, was lost on him. He was racing down the slope, shouting and waving, and from the boat Betty, nonchalantly at the wheel, waved back and gave him a radiant smile. Almost immediately, however, the boat hit the bar, and Betty vanished completely from his sight. It was some moments before she got to her feet and waggled a feeble hand in his direction.

His rage was mixed with relief. At least she wasn't hurt, and there was something lonely and brave about her as she stood there, looking slightly dazed.

He got the skiff and rowed out to her, and even the discovery that the propeller shaft was bent and the blades curled up like the leaves of a cabbage did not entirely harden his heart.

"Alex!" she said. "If you scold me I'll cry. You see, I just remembered--"

"Now listen," he said. "Get into this boat and forget it. You're not hurt, are you?"

"I bumped my head. You don't hate me, Alex, do you?"

"Great Scott, no."

"Do you suppose it will run again?"

"Not so you could notice it. But don't worry about that."

She seemed uncertain for a moment. Then, with an air of accepting the inevitable, she climbed down into the skiff.

"You are a sweet person," she told him, and relaxed comfortably into the stern.

At the end of two hours of hard labor, he got the launch off the bar. His hands were blistered again and the sun was boiling. Off at the bathing beach, Betty, in a negligible bathing suit, was splashing happily around, and on the porch a cool and calm Sheila was quietly knitting. When he looked at his watch it was only half past ten, and he held it to his ear to discover if it had stopped.

Sheila looked up pleasantly when he dragged himself onto the porch.

"I hate to remind you," she said, "but with George not here and the electric refrigerator off, Mary says the meat is spoiling. If we're to have any lunch--"

"Listen," he said, goaded. "I'm not worrying about lunch. That's your job. And to h-- with the power plant. I've had all the exercise I want. What I need is some cold beer and a shower, and then I'm going to bed."

"Cold beer?" Sheila inquired, and he slammed into the house.

He felt better after the shower, however. He painted his hands again with iodine, and, to avoid Sheila, went by the back door to the small powerhouse. There he was discovered shortly by a Betty still in her bathing suit, and showing a pair of long and beautiful young legs; a Betty, too, who had apparently forgotten about the boat entirely.

"Imagine your knowing so many things," she said "I knew you wrote marvelous books, but you do everything else, too, don't you?"

"Not everything," he said modestly.

She curled up in a corner and gazed at him.

"To think I'm here!" she observed complac"It's the most wonderful day of my life. Alex, darling, do tell me about your new book."

"I'm afraid it's a flop."

She squealed. "But it couldn't be, Alex. How can you talk like that? Do tell me, just a little."

In the end he did, and some of the weight left his chest, where it had been for days. By George, it wasn't so bad, as he told it. It had quality. It had novelty too. He forgot his back and his hands, forgot his sunburned face and warm beer and the change in Sheila from a cheerful playmate to a bitter creature who knitted most of the time. He sat, looking out at the waving palms and orange trees that needed spraying, and put his very soul into the narration.

"And so, at the end," he said, "they make the better choice. Life will go on. It will change many things. It will separate them, but each will know, always and forever--"

He choked a bit and glanced hastily at Betty. But Betty, in her corner, was sound asleep.

Lunch was not entirely a success that day. George had not appeared. Alex's sunburned face felt as though it would crack, his back felt like lumbago, and the chops were certainly not beyond suspicion. Sheila, who ate only a salad at midday, seemed contented enough, and Betty prattled without cessation.

"Alex told me the story of his new book," she said shamelessly. "I think it's wonderful."

Sheila choked and coughed.

"Really?" she said, with interest. "He will be so glad you approve." She pushed back her chair. "Well, what do you two young things plan for this afternoon?" she inquired casually.

"Nothing," said Alex, eying her. But he had counted without Betty.

"Why, Alex!" she said. "I thought we were going fishing. Can't we just row about a little and troll a line? I love fishing."

"Yes," said Sheila, with suspicious promptness. "Do row about a little and troll a line, Alex. We need fish for supper anyhow."

He gave her a long hard look, but she had picked up her knitting and was counting stitches.

"I suppose," he said coldly, "that the fact that I have blisters on my hands doesn't matter."

"I'll row," said Betty. "I adore rowing. Do let me, Alex, darling."

But he merely transferred the look from Sheila to her, and what he saw had lost some of its glamour.

"Not on your life," he said grimly.

He gathered up the tackle without enthusiasm. Only one rod and one reel. He wouldn't be fishing. He would be rowing. lie would be rowing and getting more blisters, while Sheila sat on the porch and took a vacation, whatever she meant by that.

It was without so much as a farewell to Sheila that hemarched out of the house and down to the boat.

He felt a good 50 by that time, but Betty, waiting for him on the dock-in the bathing suit once more and looking like a water sprite-revived him somewhat.

"I can't believe it," she said. "Isn't it divine ?"

"Isn't what divine?"

"Having you all to myself for a whole afternoon," she explained. "Don't you realize what a famous man you are? I know dozens of girls who would be simply wild if they knew. Is that my pole?"

"It's your rod, my child. And don't lose it. It's a pet of mine. Also don't count on a whole afternoon. There's a limit to what I can do."

He helped her into the boat, where she curled up like a kitten in the stern. Then he got in himself with considerable caution, due to his back. He cast off, sending a malignant glance of pure hatred toward Sheila, waving on the porch, and settled down grimly to the oars.

"It's lots more fun than a motorboat," said Betty.

"Yes. It must be," he said.

That, however, was lost on her. She had spied her first pelican and was gazing at it with much the wideeyed look she gave him on occasions.

"What on earth is it ?"

"It's a pelican. You know the rhyme. Its beak can hold more than its belly can."

"Can it?" she said vaguely.

He rowed for two hours straight, while Betty prattled steadily. There were no fish. His hands were nearly paralyzed, his back one long ache from where his head sat on it to where he sat on it himself; but he kept on doggedly. By the Lord Harry, if Sheila wanted fish, she would have fish, if he had to kill himself to get them. In due time, too, he discovered that by looking at Betty and not listening to her, he could manage better. In a world strangely cold to him lately, she was warm and friendly. She even found him romantic. He was certainly not romantic to Sheila.

He rowed obstinately far out into the bay. The black fin of a cruising shark broke the surface of the water. A fish rolled near by, and the bald pink head of a huge turtle uplifted, gazed at them and disappeared. Then he realized that Betty had stopped talking and was looking at him with a certain apprehension.

"Alex," she said, "you know this morning when I took the boat?"

Ill do."

"Well, I'd just remembered. I knew I'd forgotten something, but I couldn't think. Then I--"

"Look out!" he said suddenly. "Your rod! You've got a fish."

But it was too late. One moment the rod was there; the next it had flipped into the air and was gone.

Betty sat up suddenly and stared after it.

"Oh, Alex!" she wailed.

He made a frantic dive with an oar and promptly lost it. Then he felt the boat lurch, and looked around to see that Betty had dived overboard. He was divided between rage and horror.

"Come back here!" he yelled. "There are sharks around! Betty!"

The Betty, however, who rose to the surface emerged only for a second, and immediately went down again. He stood up in the boat, staring incredulously at where her small sleek body had left no more impression in the water than a thumb taken out of a bowl of soup.

"Betty!" he shouted. "Come up here! Don't be a fool!"

She did come up then, but she was some distance away and looking like a scared baby.

"I'm caught in the line," she gurgled, and disappeared again.

He kicked off his shoes and went overboard viciously. The little idiot! Didn't anybody teach these youngsters any sense? There was nothing gentle in the way he caught her and brought her to the surface; nothing gentle, either, in the way he untangled her.

"What made you do an idiotic thing like that?" he demanded.

But she only rewarded him with a luminous smile.

"Oh, Alex!" she said, closing her eyes. "To think you saved my life."

They were still in the water, but now he looked about for the boat. It was far away, however, and, with wind and tide assisting it, it was apparently on the way to the Gulf of Mexico, Betty was lying relaxed on his arm, an almost beatific expression on her face.

"Nobody will believe me when I tell them," she said contentedly. "And there's a big fish around me somewhere. It rubbed against me a minute ago."

He went cold with horror. Then suddenly a furious rage possessed him, and with all his heart and soul he longed to push Betty under the surface and hold her there indefinitely.

"Don't be such a little fool," he said with a vehement snort. "That was probably a shark, and now you're going to swim for your life."

She gave him a dreadful look and turned white.

"A shark!" she said feebly.

"A shark," he repeated, "and if you faint I'll slap you or drop you-and I don't much care which."

Several ages later he dragged her up onto the beach. She still had the requisite number of legs and arms, but beyond that she completely lacked attraction for him.

What he wanted was to lie down where he was and rest for a month without moving; and after that he wanted Sheila and some coffee.

It was Betty who revived first. She sat up on the sand and looked at him with her childish and candid gaze.

"Alex, darling," she said, "you weren't very nice to me, out there in the water."

"No?" he grunted.

"It wasn't a bit like you."

He turned over with an effort and looked at her. She might have been something washed up from the sea, for all his gaze implied.

"Listen," he said. "What do you know what I'm like, and what do you care?"

"Why, Alex!"

"What's more," he I've got a wife and I like her. And you can be sure that as soon as I can use my legs, I'm going back to her."

Some time later they started toward home. It was a long walk, and the beach was rough with shells. Now and then, Betty gave a plaintive cry, but Alex paid no attention.

"Alex! How far is it now?"

"Just keep on going," he said.

It was dark when the house came in sight. Alex saw with relief that the lights were on, and as they came closer, he saw Sheila, on the dock and staring anxiously out to sea. Never had she looked so beautiful to him. She was just Sheila, and he loved her. He still loved her, even when she heard the dragging footsteps and they emerged into the light.

"Well!" she said. "It must have been quite a party!"

He looked at her and grinned sheepishly.

"It came nearer to being a murder," he said.

He was comfortably tucked away in bed that night when he heard a motorboat approaching, and some time later saw George's dolorous face in the doorway. He had a cloth tied around his jaw, and he was holding something in his hand.

"It's a telegram," he said. "A repeat. Mr. Baird says he gave one to the young lady last night." Here George made a valiant effort and repressed a snort. "Then, when there wasn't any answer, this one came. What's happened to the boat, Mr. Hallam? Looks like you'd piled her up somewhere, and I can't see the skiff."

"Give me the telegram," said Alex, "and for God's sake have you got a cigarette?"

George looked surprised, but he produced a crumpled package, and Alex inhaled deeply before he opened the envelope. There was a mist in front of his eyes, but when it cleared, the message stood out, clear and beyond doubt.


He lay still for a moment. Then he flung back the bedclothes and stood on his feet. Sheila caught him as he was making for the door.

"Where are you going?" she demanded.

"To commit that murder," he said. "And this time it will be a murder."

Late that night, he and Sheila sat together in the living room. The night was chilly and there was a fire. The lights were on fur, and the cigarette boxes were full also. Remotely and receding into the distance, they could hear the engine of George's boat as it carried Betty to new fields, via Palm Beach, and there was a divine peace over everything.

But Alex was not easy. Now and then he looked at Sheila's face, smooth and lovely in the firelight.

"I'm sorry, old girl," he said at last. "I suppose it's been pretty hard on you. But it's over. You know that, don't you?"

"It's over until the next book."

"What do you mean?"

She smiled at him.

"It's always a bad time until you hear," she said"I suppose you need diversion, or something to bolster up your pride. And she did it."

"She d--near killed me!"

He leaned back. His muscles still ached and most of his body was sore, but his soul was jubilant within him. Here were peace and quiet, here were an open fire and the soft lapping of water on the beach. Even the motorboat now was beyond hearing. He drew a long breath of sheer contentment.

"It was a pretty good idea after all," he said. "This place."

Sheila, however, was not looking at him. Her eyes, instead, were fixed on the lights. There was no doubt about it. They were dying; undeniably dying. And as she looked, they faded into a dull rosy red, and then went out entirely, leaving her and Alex alone in the friendly dark.
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Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:fiction
Author:Rinehart, Mary Roberts
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:May 1, 1989
Previous Article:Tracking the rich and famous.
Next Article:Not-so-plain Jane Seymour.

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