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Authors: Thornton Wilder

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BOOK: Theophilus North
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“Bill, I intend to enjoy it. I like demands on what you call my resourcefulness. I would like to hear the whole project from Mr. Bell's own mouth.”

“He will reward you well—”

“Stop! I'll go into that with him. When can I see him?”

“Could you be in my office at six tomorrow evening? That'll leave another day for further plans.”

I shall now have to repeat a good deal of the above material, but I want the reader to hear it from another angle. At six o'clock on the following evening Bill was sitting in his office. A gentleman of about fifty whom I suspected of having “touched up” his hair and mustache was striding about the room kicking chairs.

“Mr. North, this is Mr. Bell. Mr. Bell, Mr. North. Sit down, Mr. North.” Mr. Bell does not shake hands with tennis coaches. “Mr. Bell, I suggest that you let me start the story. If I get anything wrong, you can correct me.” Mr. Bell grunted unhappily and continued his prowling. “Mr. Bell is also a Yale man, where he had a notable athletic career. He has served at intervals on the Board of the Casino for almost twenty years which shows in what high esteem he is held. Mr. Bell has a daughter Miss Diana who's played excellent tennis on these courts since she was a child. She's a most attractive young woman with a host of friends . . . perhaps a little self-willed. Can I say that, Mr. Bell?”

Mr. Bell slashed at the window-curtains and overturned a championship cup or two.

“Mr. Bell and Mrs. Bell have discovered by chance that Miss Diana is planning to run away from home. She ran away from home once before, but she didn't get very far. The police were alerted in three or four states and she was brought home. That's quite a humiliation for a proud girl.”

“Oh, God, Bill! Get on with it!”

“The Bells are, on the whole, year-round residents of Newport, but they keep an apartment in New York and spend some months there in the winter. Mr. Bell won't mind my saying that Miss Diana is a high-spirited girl, and some of those newspapermen got in the way of reporting that she was seen in public places with certain undesirable acquaintances—including the very man she was with when that pursuit was set up.” I kept looking Bill in the eye. I could see that he had regained a large measure of his New England spunk and that he did not intend to let Mr. Bell off easily. “Now Mrs. Bell happened to come across a letter hidden in her daughter's lingeray. A man in Newport whom I know slightly sent her the arrangements for their meeting tomorrow night. It contained plans for a trip to Maryland where they planned to be married as soon as possible.”

“Oh, God, Bill, I can't stand this!”

“Whose car are they driving, Bill?” I asked.

“Her car. His car is the school truck in which he carries his teams to athletic meets. They're driving off the island on the ten P.M. ferry to Jamestown, then the ferry to Narragansett Pier. You can well understand that Mr. Bell doesn't wish to call in the police a second time. Above all, the family wishes to avoid any more of that Sunday-supplement publicity—what they call the ‘scandal sheets.' ”

Mr. Bell advanced on Bill angrily: “That's enough of that, Bill!”

“These are facts, Mr. Bell,” he replied firmly. “We've got to put the facts on the table. Mr. North must know what we're asking him to do.” Mr. Bell clenched his fists and shook them before him. “The idea, Mr. North, is that you might intercept them somewhere—somewhere, somehow—and bring Miss Diana back.—You're a free man. There's no compulsion on you whatever. Miss Diana's a mature woman; she may refuse absolutely to return to her father's home. All Mr. Bell is asking you, as a favor—as one Yale man to another—is to try. Would you be willing to see what you could do?”

I looked down at the floor.

I didn't believe in any sense in the universe. I thought I didn't believe in loyalty or friendship—but there was Bill Wentworth, maybe with his life-long job at stake. And there was that apoplectic bully; there was Mrs. Bell who ransacked the bureau drawers of a twenty-six-year-old daughter for private letters—and read them.

Of course I would do it and I would succeed. But I wasn't going to make it easy for Mr. Bell, either.

“What's your idea that I should do, Mr. Bell?”

“Why, follow them. Better follow them beyond Narragansett Pier so that whatever you decide to do won't happen too near Newport. Wait to see where they stop to eat or spend the night. Put their car out of order. Beat down their door if necessary. Point out to her what an idiot she is. The disgrace of it! She'll break her mother's heart.”

“Do you know anything disreputable about this man?”

“What?”

“This Mr. Jones—do you know him?”

“God, no! He's a nobody. He's a goddam fortune hunter. He's trash.”

“Have you Mr. Jones's letter on you, Mr. Bell?”

“Yes, here it is, and to hell with it!” He pulled it from his pocket and threw it on the carpet between us. Bill and I were also “nobodies” and “trash.”

Bill rose and picked it up from the floor. “Mr. Bell, we are asking Mr. North to help us in a matter of strict confidence. We hope that he will be successful and that you and Mrs. Bell will wish to thank him.”

Mr. Bell struggled with himself. In a choked voice he said, “I am in a very disturbed state. I apologize for throwing the letter on the floor.”

I said to Bill, “We're putting this in a large envelope and sealing it with wax. Address it to Miss Bell and write: ‘Received from Mr. Augustus Bell, sealed, unread, by William Wentworth and Theophilus North.'—Mr. Bell, may I ask where your daughter met Mr. Jones?”

“We live in Newport most of the year. My daughter and a number of her friends belong to a group of voluntary assistants at the hospital. Diana is crazy about children. She met this Mr. Jones when he was calling on his three-year-old daughter who was a patient there. He's a vulgar unscrupulous fortune hunter, just like the others. We've had to cope with these bastards over and over again. It's obvious.”

The only thing to do with a man like that is to continue looking at him expectantly, as though he were about to say something completely convincing. Without agreement and applause such men deflate; they gasp for air.

After a pause I began again. “Mr. Bell, I must propose a few reasonable conditions. There shall be no mention of any remuneration to me whatever. I shall send a bill for the exact amount I lose for canceling my engagements here. That's compensation, not payment for a job. I want a car placed at my disposal, dark blue to black in color—one that can hold three persons in the front seat if possible. I would like a good revolver.”

“Why?” asked Mr. Bell angrily.

“I won't be using conventional ammunition; I can make my own. If your daughter's car were to be found by the police at the side of a Rhode Island or Connecticut highway punctured by a bullet, it might be reported in the newspapers. I can puncture it, as you might say, naturally. I would like a sealed envelope containing ten ten-dollar bills to cover certain expenditures that might arise. I think I shall not need them; in that case I shall return the envelope unopened to Mr. Wentworth. But most important of all, if I succeed or fail, I shall say nothing about this matter to anyone outside your family. Do you agree to those conditions?”

He growled, “Yes, I do.”

“I have brought a memorandum of these five conditions. Will you sign it, please.”

He read the list and began signing his name. Suddenly, he looked up. “But, of course, I shall
pay
you for this. I am ready to pay you a thousand dollars.”

“In that case, Mr. Bell, you must
hire
someone to kidnap Miss Bell. No amount of money could hire me to do that. I see my mission as one merely of persuasion.”

He looked dazed, as though he were being led into a trap. He looked inquiringly at Bill.

“I had not heard those conditions before, Mr. Bell. I think they are reasonable.”

Mr. Bell finished signing the document and laid it on the table. I shook hands with Bill, saying, “Will you keep that signed agreement, Bill? I'll be here tomorrow night at six to pick up the car.” I bowed to Mr. Bell and went out.

The clerk at the reception desk of the “Y” lent me road maps of Rhode Island and Connecticut. I studied them closely at intervals during the next day. That about making my own ammunition was just bluff and swagger. In revolver practice at Fort Adams we had used cork bullets with a pin in them that penetrates the target board; I assumed that they could puncture a tire and I bought a package of them.

The car was a beauty. I crossed on an early ferry to Jamestown and waited at the dock before the second ferry until I saw Miss Bell's car enter the ferry boat. She was driving. I followed them into the vast dimly lit hull. Soon after the boat started she got out of the car and walking between the cars examined the faces of the occupants. She saw me from some distance and walked straight toward me. Mr. Jones followed her in a bewildered manner. I got out of my car and stood waiting for her, not without admiration; she was a tall handsome young woman, dark-haired and high-colored.

“I know who you are, Mr. North. You run the kindergarten at the Casino. You have been paid by my father to spy on me. You are beneath contempt. You are the lowest form of human life. I could spit on you. . . . Well, haven't you got anything to say for yourself?”

“I am here in one capacity, Miss Bell. I am here to represent common sense.”

“You!”

“What you are doing now will call down a world of ridicule in the newspapers; you will ruin Mr. Jones's career as a teacher—”

“Rubbish! Nonsense!”

“I hope that you'll marry Mr. Jones—and with your family sitting in the front pew, as is fitting in a woman of your class and distinction.”

“I can't stand it! I can't stand being hounded and dragged about by snooping policemen and detectives. I'm going crazy. I want to be free to do what I want.”

Mr. Jones touched her elbow lightly: “Diana, let's hear what he has to say.”

“Hear him? Hear him?—that yellow-bellied spy?”

“Diana!
Listen to me!

“How dare you give orders to me?” and she slapped his face resoundingly.

I never saw a man more astonished, then humiliated. He lowered his head. She continued shouting at me: “I won't be followed! I'll never go back to that house again. Someone stole my letter.
Why can't I live like other people?
Why can't I live my life in my own way?”

I repeated in an even voice, “Miss Bell, I am here to represent common sense. I want to spare you and Mr. Jones a great deal of mortification in the future.”

Mr. Jones found his voice. “Diana, you're not the girl I met in the hospital.”

She put her hand to his reddened cheek. “But, Hilary, can't you see what nonsense he talks? He's trying to cage us in; he's trying to block us.”

I continued. “This crossing will take about half an hour. Will you permit Mr. Jones and myself to go to the upper deck and talk this matter over reasonably?”

He said, “Any conversation we have, I want Miss Bell to be there too. Diana, I ask you again: will you listen to what he has to say?”

“Let's go upstairs, then,” she said, despairingly.

The big hall upstairs looked like a cheap dance hall, ten years abandoned. It had a sandwich and coffee counter, closed at this early season. The tables and chairs were rusty and stained. The lamps gave off a steel-blue light, such as would serve to photograph criminals. Even Diana and Hilary—fine-looking persons, both—looked hideous.

“Will you speak first, Miss Bell?”

“How could you take this nasty job, Mr. North? Some children pointed you out to me at the Casino. They
said
they like you.”

“I'll tell you anything you want to know about me later. I'd like to hear you talk about yourselves first.”

“I met Hilary at the hospital where I do volunteer work. He was sitting by his daughter's bed. It was wonderful the way they were talking together. I fell in love with him, just watching them. Most fathers bring a box of candy or a doll and they act as though they wished they were a thousand miles away. I love you, Hilary, and I want you to forgive me for slapping your face. I'll never
think
of doing it again.” He put his hand on hers. “Mr. North, I lose control of myself every now and then. My whole life has been mixed up and full of mistakes. I was sent home from three schools. If
you
—and my father—somehow pull me back to Newport this time I'll put an end to myself—as my Aunt Jeannine did. I never want to put foot in Newport again as long as I live. Hilary's cousin, who lives in Maryland where we're going to be married, says that there are schools and colleges all over where he can go on with his work. I have a little money of my own, left me by Aunt Jeannine in her will. It will help to pay for the operations that Hilary's daughter will need next year. Now, Mr. North, what has this common sense you keep boasting about to say about that?”

There was a silence.

“Thank you, Miss Bell. Can I ask Mr. Jones to speak now?”

“I guess that you don't know I'm a divorced man. My wife's Italian. Her lawyer told her to tell the judge that we weren't compatible, but I still think she's a very fine woman. . . . She works in a bank now and . . . she says she's happy. We both contribute from our salaries to pay Linda's hospital bills. When I met Diana she was in a sort of blue-striped uniform. When I saw her leaning over Linda's bed, I thought she was the most beautiful person I'd ever seen. I didn't know that she came from one of the big families. For lunch hours we used to meet in a corner table at the Scottish Tea Room. . . . I wanted to call on her father and mother, like most men would, but Diana thought that that wouldn't do any good . . . that the only thing to do is what we're doing tonight.”

BOOK: Theophilus North
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