Clark Ashton Smith

"I'm afraid he has found your letters to me, Leonard."

"He? Who is he?"

"My husband, of course, stupid!"

"The devil! That's awkward, if true. What makes you think your husband has found them?"

"The letters are missing—and who else could have taken them? You remember where I kept them — under that pile of lingerie in my middle bureau drawer? Well, the whole packet is gone. Also, Jim has changed toward me the last few days. He's so grouchy all the time. And he has a kind of sly look, too, as if he knew something and were watching me."

"What do you think he'll do about it?"

"I don't know, I'm sure. But it makes me very uncomfortable. The present question is, what are we going to do? Have you anything to suggest?"

Ethel Drew and her lover, Leonard Alton, stared at each other in mutual alarm. Also, their consternation was touched with more than a hint of critical appraisal. In the light of the danger that menaced their affair, Ethel wondered if Leonard were quite the ideal gallant she had imagined him to be. And Leonard wondered for the first time if Ethel's blonde deliciousness were not becoming slightly over-mature. However, they had had a lot of pleasant times together; and neither of them relished the idea of an interruption to those good times. Then, there were other considerations. Ethel was indifferent to her husband; but there were reasons why she did not care to lose him. He was a convenient wage-earner and provider of luxuries even if not of romantic thrills. And Leonard, on his part, was hardly intrigued by the vision of a divorce suit in which he would find himself playing the expensive role of co-respondent. Also, he might have to marry Ethel... and support her.

"Supposing he decides to divorce me?" Ethel, with feminine frankness, was the first to voice the thought.

"We can't have anything of that sort."

"Jim might do it. Certainly he could, with your letters for evidence." Leonard recalled certain passages of the perfervid phraseology which he had used in writing to Ethel. Also, the many direct references to episodes of their passion. What an indiscreet idiot he had been!

"I'll say he could," he rejoined ruefully.

"Well, haven't you anything to suggest?" The tone was perceptibly tart.

"If he has the letters, he must have put them away somewhere. Have you looked for them?"

"Of course I have. I went through Jim's bed-room and clothes-closet as soon as I found they were missing. Then, I searched his den. But the letters aren't in the house. It was useless to look he wouldn't leave them around like that."

"Have you searched his office? Bet you he's got them pigeon-holed in his desk."

"I haven't looked there yet — no chance to do it so far. But I thought of it. I'll try to get hold of the office-key as soon as I can. Jim may go out of town for a day or two before long, on some business deal."

"You've got to find the letters, Ethel."

"That's evident. You wouldn't be much good at finding them. Of course, it's up to me."

"But I'll come with you, if you like."

"Oh, all right. I'll ring you up when I get the key."

"Bet you anything he's got the letters filed away in his desk."

"Maybe — if he hasn't filed them with a lawyer."

Ethel Drew and her husband were at breakfast the next morning. Jim had been gulping his coffee and oatmeal in sulky silence. And Ethel was pretending a blithe unconsciousness of his manner and its implications. Jim did not speak till he arose from the table. Then:

"I'm going out of town to-day. Have to see the Chalmers Co.—also, Reed Bros. I won't be back till late tomorrow night… And I'd advise you to behave while I'm gone."

It was the first direct verbal insinuation which Jim had made.

"What do you mean?" Ethel's tone was crisp and cool.

"Just what I say. You'd better be good... if you want me to go on paying for your lingerie and breakfast bacon."

"I don't understand you. And your remarks are rather insulting."

"The hell they are."

"I think you might explain your insults."

"Is it necessary? You certainly have your nerve, Ethel. I know all about you and your little play-mate."

"Are you crazy, Jim? I don't know what you are driving at."

Jim glowered at Ethel as he drew on his overcoat.

"Oh, yes you do. Take it from me, you can't get away with this Leonard Alton business. No lounge-lizard is going to make a monkey of me. He'll have the job of supporting you, if there's any more of that stuff .... And you'll like that, won't you, hey? He'll certainly make a grand provider, with his peanut income."

"Jim, you are ridiculous."

"A great little bluffer, aren't you? Well, I know all about it …Red-hot letters to a red-hot mama!" He fairly sneered the last words. "Bye-bye. And don't forget what I told you."

He was gone before Ethel could think of another rejoinder.

"Well, that's that," she thought, biting her lip. "I've simply got to get Leonard's letters back and destroy them. They're the only evidence. Jim can be nasty, of course — but he couldn't really prove anything without them."

Five minutes later, she was ransacking Jim's room, hoping desperately that he had not taken his key-ring with him. Where would it be? It was not on the bureau, where he often left it. But sometimes he left it in his pocket. She remembered that he had been wearing a suit of brown and black checks that morning, instead of the blue serge suit he usually wore in the office.

She opened the clothes-closet. The blue serge was hanging next to the door. And thank heaven, the key-ring was in one of the coat-pockets. S he knew the office-key by sight. There it was, between the door-key

of their bungalow and the key of an old trunk. She called Leonard on the phone.

"Jim is out of town until late to-morrow. And I have the key. Will you help me to do a little burglarizing?"

"Any time, darling."

"Not till tonight, of course. The stenographer might be there during the day. You can take me to dinner, if you want to, and we'll visit the office afterwards."

"That's a good plan. Nothing like combining pleasure with business. Shall I call for you at the house about six-thirty?"

"That will be fine, Leonard. But you needn't be so flippant. Supposing we don't recover the letters?"

Ethel and Leonard were very gay that evening; and neither spoke of the missing letters, as they sat in an alcove of a fashionable restaurant. There was a tenseness beneath their gaiety, however; and they were repeating to themselves over and over the same unanswered query with which their phone conversation had ended. The tenseness grew. With a tacit agreement, they did not linger over their dessert.

A short drive in Leonard's car, and then they entered a downtown building. They boldly took the elevator to the third story. Before them, in a long, deserted hall, was the lettered glass of an office door, with the words: JAMES DREW, Fire Insurance. Ethel took the key-ring from her vanity bag and unlocked the door.

She turned on the light and began to examine her husband's desk. It was strewn with unsorted papers; and none of the drawers had been locked. She pulled them out one by one and went through them systematically. Nothing of interest in the first two — only business documents. But what were these letters in the third drawer, lying beneath some legal papers?

The letters were not those for which she was looking. But nevertheless, what were they doing in her husband's desk? They were addressed to Jim; and the writing and stationery were feminine. Indeed, they fairly reeked of femininity: the mauve paper had been perfumed with sandalwood. Ethel did not recognize the writing; but her natural curiosity was not lessened by this fact.

She opened one of them and began to read it. The letter began: "Darling Piggy," and was full of endearments and amorous allusions, couched in the diction of a demimonde. It was signed, "Your red-hot tootsie-wootsie, Flora," with a row of crosses before and after the name.

Ethel's cheeks and eyes were burning as she turned to Leonard. She was shocked and amazed — also indignant. She would not have believed Jim capable of this sort of thing. Who was this low woman with whom he had gotten himself involved?

"Have you found something?" asked Leonard.

"I've found plenty." She gave him the letter with no further comment and proceeded to open and read the next.

"Why, the old devil!" exclaimed Leonard, when he had caught the purport of the epistle. "This is rich." He ended with a chuckle.

"Do you think it so funny?" Ethel asked stiffly.

"Well, I'll be — " Leonard wisely checked himself, reflecting that no man could foresee a woman's emotional reactions.

Ethel gave him the second letter and opened the third. There were nearly two dozen in the pile. She and Leonard read them all. Most of them were damnatory proof of a vulgar liaison. Many referred to secret meetings, even to nights that had been spent together in hotels by Jim and the writer, under assumed names. One of them enclosed a snapshot, showing Jim with his arm around a plump and luscious brunette in a one-piece bathing suit of extreme brevity. The snap-shot commemorated one of their outings. The woman's full name, Flora Jennings, was signed to one of her letters — comparatively formal note which evidently dated from the beginning of the acquaintance.

"I'll divorce him!" cried Ethel when she had finished the last letter.

"But how about my letters? We haven't found them yet."

Ethel did not reply. She was re-reading one of the mauve-tinted epistles. Then, as she stuffed the whole packet into her vanity bag, she said:

"I'm going to take those letters with me — even if I haven't found yours."

"A fair exchange is no robbery," chuckled Leonard.

Jim had returned from his business trip. He and Ethel were at the breakfast table again. "Did you do what I told you?" he asked gruffly, after a period of sullen pre-occupation with his food.

"What was that, Jim?" Ethel's tone was very sweet and guileless.

"What I told you about that d-—n lounge-lizard," he snapped.

"And who is the lounge-lizard, pray?"

"Don't try any more bluff with me … I told you to watch your step with Leonard Alton."

"Oh, I remember now. You said some silly things about Leonard ....Which reminds me that the dear boy took me out to dinner, night before last."

"What?" Jim was almost apoplectic with rage. "Say, do you think you can go on getting away with murder? I found a bunch of billets-doux from this Leonard person in your bureau the other day. They certainly told me all I needed to know — they ought to have been written on asbestos instead of paper. Do you think I'm going to stand for any more of this? I've got those letters in a safety deposit box at the bank. But I'll deposit 'em with a lawyer, if there's any more funny business."

"Why, what an odd coincidence," laughed Ethel. "I put some letters in a box at the bank, myself, only yesterday."

"You did? What letters?" Jim was plainly puzzled.

"Oh, some letters on mauve paper, scented with sandalwood. They were written to you, Jim, by someone named Flora Jennings … So, I think you'd better not say anything more about Leonard."

^xxx^ xxx was added by Smith.
[xxx] xxx was deleted by Smith.
{November 7, 1930}

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