He walked along slowly, carefully, anxious to get there yet, paradoxically, content to delay the moment of arrival as long as possible. The early morning air was crisp and bracing, and seemed to alert all his senses. Suddenly, quite unexpectedly, his mind returned to their first meeting, to the very first time he had looked into those eyes, mocking yet inviting, scorning yet bewitching, when George Marshall introduced her . . .
"Phil, I want you to meet Grace Chester, the next Maude Adams. Grace, you've heard of Philip Ransome."
He left Ransome holding her hand, gazing into her eyes, lost in the mystery of their simultaneous invitation and rejection. For Ransome, standing there mute and motioness, the laughter and the chatter of the party had faded into oblivion; he was conscious of nothing but two eyes, two deep, limpid, violet pools, and the sudden turbulence of his emotions.
She disengaged her hand with a small laugh. "Please, Mr Ransome, you're beginning to embarrass me."
"I'm terribly sorry." He blushed, tried desperately to think of something to say, something clever, something to impress her, and could think of nothing but the wonder of her effect on him.
George returned with their drinks and ended his dilemma. George put his arm around her waist and, with a laugh, remarked, "I can see it was a mistake introducing you two. At the rate he's devouring you, Grace, there will be nothing left for me to dance with later."
Ransome grinned, the unnatural restraint gone. "You should have prepared me for this gradually. Don't forget I've been leading a hermit's existence for the past six weeks. I've forgotten how to cope with beauty such as Miss Chester's."
She curtsied gracefully.
"Well," said George, "as he seems to have recovered his voice, do you think it's safe to leave you with him?"
"Oh . . ." She pondered the question. "Perhaps. Providing you stay within shouting distance."
As George wandered off to indulge his hostly duties elsewhere, Philip Ransome took her arm and guided her to the momentarily-vacated window seat.
"So you're a talented actress?" He asked the question quite guilelessly.
Her dimples grew a fraction deeper as a smile flickered at the corners of her mouth. "You mustn't believe everything George says. Though I do take my work seriously. But if we're talking about talent, let's talk about you. Do you know I'm one of your greatest fans? I've read everything you've ever written - and as for your last play . . ."
"Home From the Hill?"
"Yes. That fabulous second act, where Gertrude goes frantic with worry. God, what I wouldn't have given for that part."
"What exactly are you doing at the moment?"
"Oh!" She pushed an imaginary stray blond hair back from her face. "At the moment I'm waiting for the right part to come along. George didn't think much of the last two parts I was offered." Her face, which had settled into repose at his question, suddenly reanimated itself. "Do I gather from your remark to George that you've just finished another play?"
"Yes," he replied, thinking how often he had had similar conversations under similar circumstances. Ordinarily he would simply dismiss her as another theatrical social climber, were it not for her eyes. But those eyes! There seemed to be, hidden in their depths, the promise of a fulfillment, the mere contemplation of which left Ransome weak with anticipatory pleasure.
"Won't you tell me about it?" she begged.
He shook his head. "I never talk about something I've just finished." He grinned at her disappointment. "Tell you what, though, have dinner with me one evening and I'll let you read it."
She snatched at his hand and the sudden contact startled him. "Oh, Mr Ransome," investing the name with a mixture of reverence and awe, "must we wait? Couldn't you take me back to your place now and let me read it.?"
The abruptness of the suggestion surprised him and, at the same time, excited him. For a moment he didn't know what to say, as he glanced around the crowded room.
"But George's party . . ."
"I know. But no-one will miss us and we can come back later."
Ransome knew it was ridiculous to agree. His common sense told him he should make a polite excuse as he had so often had to do in the past. Then he looked once more into her eyes, and was lost.
Had that been a mere six months ago? He was conscious of his heart beating more loudly; the pounding of a captive soul pleading for release, as indeed his heart had been - was - captive. But willingly and eagerly, rejoicing in the sacrificial abandonment, grateful for the enslavement, for the opportunity to surrender freedom of choice and liberty of action. He had made that quite clear to her . . .
"I'm not sure I should introduce you to this fellow."
"Why? What do you mean?" She turned to face him, a look almost of anger on her face, which was quickly lost in a smile as she saw his expression of amusement.
"Well," he smiled back at her, "Ambrose Hudson does have a certain reputation. Or hadn't you heard?"
She grimaced. "Oh, that! Dear, foolish Philip. Are you already afraid of losing me?"
"Afraid? No, I suppose not." He pressed the bell on the door in front of them. "But what we've found together is unique in my experience. It is so precious that, every now and then, I think maybe I'll wake up and find it was all a dream."
She squeezed his arm gently. "Then you needn't worry. It's not a dream and it's pretty marvellous for me too, you know."
"Is it?" He grasped both her arms, rather more firmly than he had intended, and looked down into her eyes. "Is it? You know how I feel about you. You know how much you mean to me. Yet you refuse to marry me."
She pulled her arms away with a nervous, impatient gesture. "Please, Philip, let's not start all that again. Certainly not now. You know how I feel about marriage at this stage in my career and, in any case, we've only known each other a few weeks." She pulled a face. "Anyway, what could marriage give you that you're not getting already?"
The angry retort that sprang to Ransome's lips was cut off by a voice from the doorway
"Hello, what have we here . . . a lovers' quarrel?"
Ambrose Hudson was smiling scornfully as Ransome turned sharply, an angry flush on his face.
"Oh, Ambrose! I'm sorry. We didn't hear the door open. We . . . we were rather engrossed."
"So I noticed." Hudson's smile grew more mocking, as he flicked ash from the cigarette held in a long black holder. "I imagine this is the Miss Chester I've been hearing so much about. You mustn't take Philip so seriously, my dear, he's far too intense about everything. I suppose that's what makes him such a good writer. Sincerity, would you call it?" He held Grace's hand all the time he was talking. "But let us not stand here all day. Come inside. Come inside."
There were three people in the room to which he led them.
"You already know George and Adele," said Hudson. "This is Miss Larue. Angel, I'd like you to meet Grace Chester and Philip Ransome."
Angel Larue. Ransome smothered a laugh as he shook hands with the leggy redhead, ensconced in an armchair deep enough to ensure that her skirt rode up well beyond the garter-line of her flesh-coloured tights. The name was obviously that of a burlesque queen and she herself no less obviously the product of a burlesque show. All in keeping with the known form and taste of Ambrose Hudson.
"What do you think of Angel's birthday present to me?" Hudson indicated the burgundy velvet smoking jacket he was wearing.
"Oh, many happy returns, Ambrose. I didn't know it was your birthday."
Hudson beamed. "It isn't. Not for another three months. This is my last birthday present. Angel couldn't buy it any sooner - we didn't know each other nine months ago."
God, Ransom thought, how sickening the man is. And I'll bet he's totally unaware that the smoking jacket is in the most abominable taste. But he said, "Well, it's very nice Miss Larue."
She simpered. "Oh ah couldn't resist it in the shop window. And ah just had to get Ambrose somethin' to show him what I thought of him." The "had" came out as a bi-syllabic "hay-udd".
"I'm helping Angel with her career," Hudson volunteered nonchalantly. "When you arranged to come over Philip, I thought it would be nice to make a sort of party of it. So that you won't be alone while Miss Chester and I have our little private chat. In fact I suggest we go to my study immediately, Miss Chester, before the party spirit gets you."
As Hudson left the room with Grace, George Marshall took Ransome on one side. "Would you mind telling me what's going on, Phil?"
"Well, since you're here, you presumably know as much as I do."
"All I know is what Ambrose has told me: that he'd invited you and Grace Chester for drinks and thought I might like to come along with Adele. Since you like Hudson about as much as I do, I was intrigued to find out what it was all about. I'm still intrigued."
Ransome laughed. "Don't worry, George, I haven't grown any fonder of that skunk. I'm only doing this to please Grace. When she found out I knew the notorious Ambrose Hudson, nothing would satisfy her but that I introduce her to him. She's after a part in the new play he's casting."
"And you trust her with him?" Marshall grunted. "You know the swine waves parts around like carrots to a donkey. And you know where he leads the donkeys."
"I've got no fears on that score." Ransome almost failed to look as confident as his words suggested.
"Then there's another thing, Phil. What's been happening to you lately? The last I heard from you was a phone call apologising for having skipped out on my party. And taking Grace Chester with you! Not that I blame you for that. I might have done the same thing twenty years ago. But where and why have you been hiding for the past three weeks. Don't tell me you're working again. I thought you were going to take it easy for a bit."
"Working?" Ransome grinned. "I haven't done a stroke since I met Grace. What time I haven't spent with her, I've spent thinking about her."
Marshall's expression grew troubled and he glanced over to where his wife was talking to the leggy Miss Larue. "I hope you know what you're doing, Phil. I hardly knew Grace myself when I introduced you. Adele had got talking to her at the hairdressers and invited her to the party when she learned Grace was an actress. I don't even know how good an actress she is - although I'll grant you she damned good looking."
"Quit worrying, George. It's no wonder you've got ulcers. For your information I've been pestering Grace for a week to marry me, and I intend persevering until she says yes. As for her acting ability, that's why we're here. Ambrose Hudson is just a means to an end, for me as well as for Grace. The sooner she recognises the limits of her talent, the sooner she's likely to become Mrs Ransome."
Their conversation ceased as Ambrose Hudson led Grace back into the room. Her face was flushed and her eyes bright with pleasure as she announced, "Mr Hudson thinks I'll do, Philip. He's going to find me a part in his next production."
"Yes, Philip, my congratulations on your discovery." Hudson looked smugly pleased with himself. "Miss Chester is a remarkably talented person. She read Gertrude even better than your leading lady. We'll have to get together again and go into things in more detail . . . yes, more detail." He repeated the words as if savouring their sound.
Ransome thought he spotted a look of jealousy on the face of the "burlesque queen". Not that she had anything to worry about, he told himself. And then, momentarily, he wondered.
Not much further to go now. He felt a sudden prick of curiosity at what it would be like, and then thrust the thought back into the recesses of his mind, where had had determinedly laid it earlier. The thought was replaced by a recurrence of self-recrimination for not having anticipated the pattern of events, when the signs had been displayed so prominently. Or had he been too conceited and confident to see them? Even now though, he knew he should not have blamed her. She had, after all, done only what she felt she had to do.
He paused and looked up. Here I am, he thought. In a few moments, who knows, I may see her again. He felt wildly elated at the prospect, though a little afraid of having to face the accusation in those eyes. But he went on, up the steps, remembering the last time they had met . . .
He was at home, trying to write, but the words would not come. The paper before him remained blank - a silent reproach and a symbol of censure. What the hell was the matter with him, anyway? He knew Grace was busy rehearsing, and this was what he wanted. This, he knew, was something she had to do before they would finally and permanently get together. But the doubts and anxieties kept crowding back. Suppose she were successful. Suppose success went to her head. Suppose she decided her career would not allow her to marry him. Suppose, suppose, suppose . . .
Then the phone rang.
"Hello Mr Ransome, is Grace Chester there?" The anxious female voice at the end of the line sounded faintly familiar.
"Who is this?"
Of course! He could recognise that southern drawl now.
"I'm sorry, Miss Larue, she isn't here. Why don't you try the theatre; they're rehearsing this week."
"I've tried the theatre." She was beginning to sound tearful. "There aren't any rehearsals. I was looking for Ambrose. He was supposed to be at the theatre."
"There, there, calm down," Ransome pleaded. He suddenly felt far from calm himself. "I'll see if I can find him. Are you at Ambrose's now . . . ? Okay, I'll ring you there later. There's probably some perfectly simple explanation."
He replaced the receiver and, without pausing to put on his coat, dashed from the house and drove furiously over to Grace's apartment. He did not know what to expect and, not knowing, the anger welled up inside him until, when he finally knocked on her door, he was shaking with unsuppressible emotion.
It was several minutes before the door was opened to his furious knocking. Grace stood there, wearing a housecoat, her hair unkempt, no make-up on her face. For a few seconds her eyes looked started, then she said, "Why, Philip, what are you doing here?"
"I might ask you the same question. I thought you were rehearsing."
"I had a migraine, dear, and cried off. I've been in bed all morning."
"That I can believe," Ransome said bitterly as he pushed past her into the small hall of her apartment. "There are no rehearsals, are there?"
"What do you mean, Philip?" Her features were perfectly masked. Only her eyes, those amazing, profound eyes, betrayed a possible apprehensiveness.
"You know very well what I mean. Where is he?"
This time the mask slipped fractionally. "Who?" she asked.
"Never mind, Grace. I think I can find him. The apartment layout hasn't changed, has it?"
Ransome paused, his hand on the bedroom door handle, and looked back at Grace Chester, standing there with a look of fear - or was it fury? - and then he entered the room.
Ambrose Hudson sat back casually in the armchair and unconcernedly crossed his legs and adjusted his dressing gown over his knees. Then he struck a match to the cigarette protruding from the omnipresent black holder. One eyebrow flickered gently as he looked at Ransome. "Do you make a habit of bursting into other people's bedrooms? And without an invitation. Tut, tut."
The cool effrontery of the man left Ransome speechless for several seconds. Finally, in a voice trembling with emotion, he said, "And what the hell do you think you're doing here?"
A slow smile spread across Hudson's face. "Come, now, Philip. I hardly expect such a question for a writer of your standing. What's happened to your imagination?"
The smile and the question, added to the earlier torments of suspicion, seemed to do something to Ransome's control. Not fully conscious of his actions, yet dimly aware of them, as if he were viewing a shadow play, he took two strides towards the armchair and vaguely saw an arm snake out and a fist crash against Hudson's mouth. The knuckles that suddenly throbbed from their contact with Hudson's teeth were his own.
The armchair went over backwards and Hudson slid over one of its arms and landed in the hearth. His head made a cracking noise as it came into contact with the steel grate. From behind him Ransome became aware of the screams and turned to face Grace.
"I don't know what you've go to scream about. By rights it's you I should have hit."
"You brute. What have you done to him?" She rushed to Hudson's body and knelt beside it.
Ransome lifted her to her feet. "Leave him alone. He's not dead - more's the pity. I want you to tell me how he came to be here. Why did you let him in?"
She started to laugh, slowly at first, then more and more hysterically until, abruptly, she stopped. "You fool. You stupid fool. Do you imagine this is the first time he's been here?"
Ransome stared at her. "What do you mean?"
She laughed again, but sharply this time, mockingly. "What do you think I mean? Why do you think I wanted to meet him? Do you think I didn't know what he'd want? I knew precisely what I was letting myself in for and I didn't care - if it could get me what I want."
Ransome grabbed her arms. "But what about us? What about those things you said? How marvellous it was, and how it had never been like that before."
"Oh, you poor fool. Of course it was marvellous. It always is. I thought you would like to hear me say it. You had your part to play and you played it." Her face grew angry. "And now, you stupid idiot, you may have spoiled everything."
Ransome's face was ashen and he started to tremble again. "I don't believe you. You're making all this up for some reason."
He looked into her eyes and realised she was telling the truth. In the depths of those eyes he saw something he had not seen before. A mixture of scorn and pity; of annoyance and disgust.
This was how it had all started. Losing himself in the bottomless depth of those twin violet pools which seemed to engulf him, to rob him of will and reason. Now they were mocking him, laughing at him, despising him. For a brief instant her eyes seemed to widen in astonishment as the emotions they reflected changed to shock, incredulity, fear. Slowly they glazed.
He removed his hands from her throat and stared at them in wonder, disowning them, refusing to believe they belonged to him. And then, as her body slid to the floor, he heard the shrill, hysterical laughter of Ambrose Hudson.
He had reached his destination. He braced himself and took a deep breath, thinking how appropriate it was that this State should still have death by hanging. His body shuddered only slightly as they put the noose around his neck.