The Complete Stories (Page 41)

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Before the end of the week, he had insisted on cutting her hair, introducing her to a new method of arranging it, adjusting her eyebrow line a bit and changing the shade of her powder and lipstick.

She had palpitated in nervous dread for half an hour under the delicate touch of his inhuman fingers and then looked in the mirror.

"There is more that can be done," said Tony, "especially in clothes. How do you find it for a beginning?"

And she hadn’t answered; not for quite a while. Not until she had absorbed the identity of the stranger in the glass and cooled the wonder at the beauty of it all. Then she had said chokingly, never once taking her eyes from the warming image, "Yes, Tony, quite good-for a beginning."

She said nothing of this in her letters to Larry. Let him see it all at once. And something in her realized that it wasn’t only the surprise she would enjoy. It was going to be a kind of revenge.

Tony said one morning, "It’s time to start buying, and I’m not allowed to leave the house. If I write out exactly what we must have, can I trust you to get it? We need drapery, and furniture fabric, wallpaper, carpeting, paint, clothing-and any number of small things."

"You can’t get these things to your own specifications at a stroke’s notice," said Claire doubtfully.

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"You can get fairly close, if you go through the city and if money is no object."

"But, Tony, money is certainly an object."

"Not at all. Stop off at U.S. Robots in the first place. I’ll write a note for you. You see Dr. Calvin, and tell her that I said it was part of the experiment."

Dr. Calvin, somehow, didn’t frighten her as on that first evening. With her new face and a new hat, she couldn’t be quite the old Claire. The psychologist listened carefully, asked a few questions, nodded-and then Claire found herself walking out, armed with an unlimited charge account against the assets of U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men Corporation.

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It is wonderful what money will do. With a store’s contents at her feet, a

saleslady’s dictum was not necessarily a voice from above; the uplifted eyebrow of a decorator was not anything like Jove’s thunder.

And once, when an Exalted Plumpness at one of the most lordly of the garment salons had insistently poohed her description of the wardrobe she must have with counterpronouncements in accents of the purest Fifty-seventh Street French, she called up Tony, then held the phone out to Monsieur.

"If you don’t mind"-voice firm, but fingers twisting a bit-"I’d like you to talk to my-uh-secretary."

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Pudgy proceeded to the phone with a solemn arm crooked behind his back. He lifted the phone in two fingers and said delicately, "Yes." A short pause, another "Yes," then a much longer pause, a squeaky beginning of an objection that perished quickly, another pause, a very meek "Yes," and the phone was restored to its cradle.

"If Madam will come with me," he said, hurt and distant, "I will try to supply her needs."

"fust a second." Claire rushed back to the phone, and dialed again. "Hello, Tony. I don’t know what you said, but it worked. Thanks. You’re a-" She struggled for the appropriate word, gave up and ended in a final little squeak, "-a-a dear!"

It was Gladys Claffern looking at her when she turned from the phone again. A slightly amused and slightly amazed Gladys Claffem, looking at her out of a face tilted a bit to one side.

"Mrs. Belmont?"

It all drained out of Claire-just like that. She could only nod-stupidly, like a marionette.

Gladys smiled with an insolence you couldn’t put your finger on. "I didn’t know you shopped here?" As if the place had, in her eyes, definitely lost caste through the fact.

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"I don’t, usually," said Claire humbly.

"And haven’t you done something to your hair? It’s quite-quaint. . . . Oh, I hope you’ll excuse me, but isn’t your husband’s name Lawrence? It seems to me that it’s Lawrence."

Claire’s teeth clenched, but she had to explain. She had to. "Tony is a friend of my husband’s. He’s helping me select some things."

"I understand. And quite a dear about it, I imagine." She passed on smiling, carrying the light and the warmth of the world with her.

Claire did not question the fact that it was to Tony that she turned for consolation. Ten days had cured her of reluctance. And she could weep before him; weep and rage.

"I was a complete f-fool," she stormed, wrenching at her water-togged handkerchief. "She does that to me. I don’t know why. She just does. I

should have-kicked her. I should have knocked her down and stamped on her."

"Can you hate a human being so much?" asked Tony, in puzzled softness. "That part of a human mind is closed to me."

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"Oh, it isn’t she," she moaned. "It’s myself, I suppose. She’s everything I want to be-on the outside, anyway. . . . And I can’t be."

Tony’s voice was forceful and low in her ear. "You can be, Mrs. Belmont. You can be. We have ten days yet, and in ten days the house will no longer be itself. Haven’t we been planning that?"

"And how will that help me-with her?"

"Invite her here. Invite her friends. Have it the evening before I-before I leave. It will be a housewarming, in a way."

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"She won’t come."

"Yes, she will. She’ll come to laugh. . . . And she won’t be able to."

"Do you really think so? Oh, Tony, do you think we can do it?" She had both his hands in hers. . . . And then, with her face flung aside, "But what good would it be? It won’t be I; it will be you that’s doing it. I can’t ride your back."

"Nobody lives in splendid singleness," whispered Tony. "They’ve put that knowledge in me. What you, or anyone, see in Gladys Claffern is not just Gladys Claffern. She rides the back of all that money and social position can bring. She doesn’t question that. Why should you? . . . And look at it this way, Mrs. Belmont. I am manufactured to obey, but the extent of my obedience is for myself to determine. I can follow orders niggardly or liberally. For you, it is liberal, because you are what I have been manufactured to see human beings as. You are kind, friendly, unassuming. Mrs. Claffem, as you describe her, is not, and I wouldn’t obey her as I would you. So it is you, and not I, Mrs. Belmont, that is doing all this."

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