'I don't know if she'll take the hill, sir,' Fred said over his shoulder, 'but I'll try.'

'Look,' Innes said, pointing out his window and up. 'That's the house. That's the back of it.'

Alice leaned, almost lying across his lap. 'The house where you were born?'

'Yes.' He supported her shoulders tenderly. 'It was quite a place once, if you can believe it.'

Alice saw a whitish structure above some rocks which rose out of the side of the pit and went up. She had goodeyes. 'What a queer place for a door,' she said. 'Why, there's a door way up in the wall that just leads right out into space.'

Innes looked, too. His mustache brushed her cheek. 'There used to be a back porch. It was torn down years ago. Got pretty shaky. Lord, I'd almost forgotten. I must have been about ten.'

She tried very hard to think of Innes as about ten, to see his much-shaven face soft and hairless, his smudged eyes fresh and naive; to pare away hi her imagination the central paunchiness of his figure, the settled and not un- feminine width of his hips; to take out of him the starch that thirty years had put into his body and mind, to see him lithe and free and about ten. It wasn't easy.

'You had a rocky backyard to play in,' she said, with the best sympathy she had.

'No, it was a pine woods,' Innes said dreamily. 'All this land was higher than the road is now. It just sloped off, all trees. I used to know the paths. I used to lie on the ground and hear them blasting, deep under.'

Alice squeezed his hands. For a moment she thought she understood why he was reluctant to revisit Ogaunee.

'You never grew up in a mining town. You never heard the steam shovels puffing and snorting all night long. Or lived by the whistles. Well it's dead now. I . . .'

They were across the pit and in the village. Almost immediately they turned sharply to the right and began to climb. Innes forgot his reminiscence. 'Look here, Fred, we can get away right after dinner?' He spoke not to a servant, but to a man who knew the answer.

'Sure we will. Why wouldn't we?' Fred answered boldly, like a man who did know and could reassure another.

Back of them, to their left, and soon below, the town lay wholly exposed. A block of frame buildings leaned together with a gap here and there, like a tooth gone. Dwellings marched evenly in a few rows, then broke ranks and scattered. A few were lost in the hills. Across the far end, a line of railroad track made a clean edge between town and swamp.

Alice caught this maplike impression out of the comer of her eye. She had to help will the car up the hill when it shuddered and seemed to fall, when it took heart, then seemed to slip and hang on the brink of backward motion, then coughed and pushed weakly up with scrambling wheels, catching for a hold.

Once Fred said, 'The cottage, sir?'

'No, no,' Innes said, pushing on the floorboards with his suede-shod feet 'Go on, don't stop, go on.'

Fred leaned forward and by sheer stubbornness seemed to call out a spurt of power that lifted the car up the last incline and rolled it, dying, to the level drive before the door.

Innes sighed. 'O.K., Fred. Bring Miss Brennan's bag. She'll want to freshen up. Then you can get busy.'

The house was of wood, long painted white. Its facade was like a face. It had eyes, nose, and mouth, if one happened to notice. Alice looked up and saw the upstairs window eyes seeming closed under raised brows and thought the expression on the face was haughty and self-satisfied.

As they stood on the porch after Innes had turned the metal handle of the old-fashioned bell, she could see through a window to her right the outline of a pair of shoulders, tremendously broad. It was no more than an outline, dim behind the lace; but she knew it wasn't a woman.

'Are your sisters married?' she asked Innes hastily, ready to revise an unwarranted impression.

He looked shocked. 'No,' he said. 'Oh, no, none of them.' His small mouth under the mustache remained rounded for speech, but again he did not say what more was in his mind, though Alice waited. On this unfinished, even unbegun, communication between them, the door opened.

The woman who opened the door seemed, at first glance, pop-eyed with surprise. She was big-boned and rather thin, although her face was round and firm and her features melted into one another without any angles. She looked, thought Alice, like a Botticelli woman, but not so fat. There was a convex swelling under her throat, and the pop eyes were permanent. 'Why, Mr. Innes!' she said.

'Hello, Josephine.' Innes affected a great joviality, as if he were playing Santa Claus. 'Alice, this is Josephine. The car's broken down, Josephine, so I guess we're here for dinner, if you can find anything for us to eat. Are my sisters .. . ?'

The woman nodded. She made a fumbling motion with her cotton dress as if she were drying her large bright- pink hands.

'Tell them, will you?' urged Innes. 'Come in, Alice.

Put the bag there, Fred.' Innes asserted himself as if he needed to prove that he belonged here. The center hall lay between two arches. He led the way through the velvet-hung opening at the right. The house seemed quiet and deserted. A new-laid fire was burning in the grate, the kindling just caught But there was no one there.

The room was warm and a little stuffy. It was fuU of furniture and knickknacks with rugs overlying other rugs on the floor. Every table had a velvet cover and a lace cover over that. The place had a stuffed and cluttered elegance. Eveything in it was elegant of itself, to the point of absurdity. A Victorian room, Alice decided, and no imitation, either. Yet, because it was the real thing it impressed her. The conviction that these furnishings were still elegant was hard to resist. Someone so patently thought so.

'Sit down, my dear.'' Behind them, Fred had vanished. Josephine had gone upstairs. Alice loosened her jacket. 'rU ... er . .. just fetch Gertrude.' Innes made for a door in the wall opposite the front of the house.The curiosity that had occupied Alice until now was touched with panic.

'Do I look all right?' she said.

Вы читаете The Case of the Weird Sisters
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