'I used the wrong word,' Fred said. 'I didn't mean that.' He stopped the car. 'Look, kid, I don't want you to get me wrong. But I wanna ask you something.'

'Go ahead.' She looked him straight in the eye. 'We're on common ground. We both know Innes has got a million dollars.'

'Well, I just wanted to know. With the three of us going off on this trip today, do you want me to stick around? Or do you want me to disappear once in a while?' Her eyes fell. 'I'll do what you want,' Fred said. 'You understand? I dunno what's in your mind. I thought if I asked, then I'd be able to do what you wanted.'

She looked him full in the face again. 'I don't think I get you wrong,' she said. 'You're just asking.'

'That's right.'

'Well, I'll tell you. Object matrimony.'

'Uh-huh,' he said. He slid back in his seat. He didn't look relieved.

'I know damn well he doesn't need his secretary to help him close that camp. I think he's working up to . . . what I . .. Well, if I'm wrong'—she shrugged—'heaven will protect the working girl.'

'If you're wrong,' Fred said, grinning at her, 'maybe I could run a little interference for heaven, hm?'

'You think I'm wrong?'

'I dunno,' he frowned. 'Innes is no wolf. He's been sued for breach of promise twice already.' Alice threw her head back and laughed. 'Yeah, but . . .'

'Look,' she said, good-humoredly, 'I know . . .' She couldn't explain the subtle basis for her certainty that in Innes Whitlock's mind she was not to be trifled with. 'Call it woman's intuition,' she said lightly. 'I can always


He looked at her. His hands were quiet on the wheel. He seemed merely thoughtful. 'Thanks a lot, Fred,' she said suddenly.

''That's all right. I hope you make it. Money's the only thing that can help you much in the world today. Maybe that won't be for long, but for a while— Say, if I knew a dame with a million dollars, Fd make the same play.'

'Who wouldn't?' Alice murmured.

He touched the controls, delicately, and the big car slid on. In a moment or two it hesitated before a pillared gateway.

'Well, get dignified,' Fred said, putting his hat on. 'We're here.'

Alice stiffened her back. 'Look here,' she said rapidly, 'I shouldn't have said all that to you.'

'That's right, you shouldn't,' he said cheerfully. Then his face changed and his voice was wooden. 'This is the house. Miss Brennan.' The car stopped and he got out smartly, in one movement.

The broad white house door sprang open. A manservant appeared with luggage. Fred went briskly around the car and opened the tonneau door. A woman in a maid's uniform appeared with a thermos bottle. Innes Whitlock, a rug over his arm, burst out of the doorway.

'To the minute,' he said, glancing gracefully at his wrist watch. 'Good morning, Alice. How are you? Isn't this a day! I've got a picnic basket Look here, you've got to ride with me.'

The little mustache that tossed on his upper lip made him look as if he were pouting. Alice became animated and moved to the back seat. The servants bustled. They stowed things in the trunk. 'Are you warm enough, Alice? Tuck in the rug, Fred, on that side. That's it' Fred tucked the rug around her with skillful hands.

Innes's rather short pink nose sniffed the morning. He seemed somehow to give it his blessing. His rather plump white hand made a tiny gesture. The adventure had his permission to begin.

They stopped to eat their picnic lunch before noon. A little after, Alice stood in the sun on a weedy margin of the country road. The Ixmch basket, all neatly packed again,

was in her hand. Everything about her seemed particularly vivid: the pattern of old leaves and dead grasses, the green pushing thurough, the contour of the ground, higher behind her, going down to a weed-choked ditch between her feet and the car. It was just a roadside, unloved and untrodden. Even the broken fence above bounded a strip of land no one had cultivated. It was an undistinguished spot

Fred was walking back along the road, kicking the dusty grass. He saw her and came quickly to take the basket. For a second his brown eyes asked her a sober yet impertinent question.

There was the tiniest flicker, a mere flame of reproach in her blue glance, and then she turned. Innes blundered out of the brush with three wood anemones in his hand. 'Oh, Mr. Whitlock,' gushed Alice, 'aren't they sweet! What are they?' .

That was an 'if' moment. Every so often there is a point at which, if one looks back, the course of events can be seen to have taken a turn. Most moments are details between fixed points. This one was a point from which Alice's life branched off in a totally new direction. If Fred had not asked her that quick, impudent question with his eyes and if she had not, perversely, refused to answer it—partly, of course to punish him for the impudence—if she had not called out in that false voice, meant to deceive, 'Oh, Mr. Whitlock . . .'

At that moment, she might just as easily have called him Innes because she had been engaged to marry him for fifteen minutes.

He'd waited no longer than after lunch. He'd put his enameled coffee cup down, reached for her hand, and said, 'Alice, my dear, I want you to marry me.' It was very simple and rather touching. She had been able to turn to him with real surprise and say, 'Why, Innes! I'm glad you do.' Innes had, thereupon, kissed her. It was a few minutes before she could say lightly, 'Of course you know I'm marrying you for your money?' To this Innes had replied with a happy sigh, 'Just so long as you marry me ...'

Innes had come through it very well, Alice had felt. She was a little ashamed of telling the plain taith in so deceptive a manner. Therefore, it was perhaps the first stirring of a sense of loyalty to a new alliance that made her withdraw from even the shadow of a conspiracy with the chauffeur.

Вы читаете The Case of the Weird Sisters
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