This is another one of my favorite stories from Alfred Hitchcock’s Stories For The Not So Nervous. Enjoy!
His frail body covered by blankets and cushioned in six of the thickest pillows money could buy, Jacob Bauman watched with disgust as his butler set the bed tray before him and opened the curtains, drenching the room in morning.
“Would you like the windows open, sir?” Charles asked.
“You want I should catch a cold?”
“No, sir. Will there be anything else, sir?”
Jacob shook his head, tucking the napkin into the space between his pajama top and his thin chest. He reached to uncover the breakfast plate, stopped and looked up at Charles, who was standing like a sentinel by the window.
“You waiting for a tip?” Jacob inquired sourly.
“No, sir. I am waiting for Miss Nevins. Doctor Holmes said you were not to be left alone at any time, sir.”
“Get out, get out,” Jacob said. “If I decide to die in the next five minutes, I’ll ring for you. You won’t miss a thing.”
He watched the butler leave, waited until the door closed and then lifted the silver plate cover, revealing a single poached egg, looking like a membrane-encased eye, resting on a slice of toast. A miserly pat of marmalade and a cup of pale tea completed the menu.
Ach! Jacob regarded the food with distaste and turned to the window. It was a glorious day outside. The great lawn of the Bauman mansion lay green and even as a billiard cloth, inlaid with the gleaming white gravel of the horseshoe driveway and dotted here and there with small bronze statuary, a flirtatious goddess cloistered in cherubs, a wing-footed messenger, a grim lioness in congress with her cubs; all very hideous but all very expensive. At the left end of the horseshoe, outside the small brick caretaker’s cottage, Jacob saw his groundsman, Mr. Coveny, kneeling in examination of an azalea bed; to the right of the driveway, before the prohibitive iron spear gates, the doors of the two-story garage were open and Jacob could see his chauffeur polishing the chromium grill of Mrs. Bauman’s blue convertible while talking to Miss Nevins, Jacob’s young day nurse. Beyond the gate the outer lawn stretched unbroken to the road, a distance so great that not even Jacob’s keen eyes could distinguish the passing cars.
Poor Jacob Bauman, Jacob thought. All the good things in life had come too late. Finally, he owned an impressive estate but he was too sick to enjoy it; finally, he was married to a young woman who was beautiful enough to turn any man’s head but he was too old to take pleasure from her; and finally, he had gained a shrewd insight into the mysteries of human nature, but he was bedridden and limited to the company of his servants. Poor rich Jacob Bauman, he thought. With all his wealth, luck and wisdom, his world was bounded by the width of his mattress, the length of driveway he could see from his window and the depth of Miss Nevins’ mind.
And where was she? He turned to the clock surrounded by bottles, pills, and vials on the night table. Six minutes after nine. Peering out the window again, he saw the girl in the white uniform look at her watch in dismay, blow a kiss to the chauffeur and start walking, hurriedly, toward the house. She was a robust blonde girl who walked with a gay bounce, arms swinging, an exuberance of energy that tired Jacob vicariously. Still, he watched until she disappeared beneath the porch roof and then turned back to his breakfast. She would stop to say good morning to the cook and the maid, he calculated, and that meant he would just be finishing his egg and toast when she knocked.
He was chewing the last dripping crust of toast when the knock came; he called “Go away” and the nurse entered, smiling.
“Good morning, Mr. Bee,” she said cheerily. She put her paperbound novel on the dresser, glancing with no special interest at the chart left by the night nurse. “How are you feeling today?”
“Alive,” Jacob said.
“Isn’t it a terrific day?” the girl said, walking to the window. “I was standing outside talking to Vic before and it’s just like spring out. You want me to open the windows for you?”
“I don’t. Your doctor friend warned me about getting a chill.”
“Oh, that’s right . . . I forgot. I guess I’m really not a very good nurse, am I?” She smiled.
“You’re a nurse,” Jacob said. “Better you than the kind that never leaves me alone.”
“You’re just saying that. I know I’m really not dedicated enough.”
“Dedicated? You’re a pretty young girl, you’ve got other interests. I understand. You say to yourself, ‘I’ll be a nurse for a while, the work is easy, the food is good. So I’ll save some money until I get married.’”
The girl looked surprised. “You know, that’s just what I said to myself when Doctor Holmes offered me this job. You’re very smart, you know that, Mr. Bee?”
“Thank you,” Jacob said dryly. “You get old, you get smart.” He took a sip of his tea and made a bitter face. “Ach. Terrible. Get this away.” He kicked feebly under the covers.
“You really should finish it,” the girl said.
“Get it away from me,” Jacob said impatiently.
“Sometimes you’re just like a little boy.”
“So I’m a little boy and you’re a little girl. But better we should talk about you.” He began to re-arrange his pillows but stopped when the girl came to help him. “Tell me, Frances,” he said, his face very close to her, “do you have your husband picked out yet?”
“Mr. Bee, that’s a very personal question to ask a girl.”
“So I’m asking a personal question. If you can’t tell me, who can you tell? Am I going to tell anyone? Is there anyone I could tell? Your specialist-doctor won’t even let me have a phone by my bed to call my broker once in a while. Too much strain it would be to hear that I lost a few thousand dollars. He doesn’t know I can tell what I make and lose to the penny from the newspapers? . . . So tell me,” he smiled confidentially, “what’s your lover like?”
“Mr. Bee! A prospective husband is one thing but a lover . . . ?” She plumped the last pillow and crossed to the window chair. “I can’t imagine what you must think of me.” Jacob shrugged. “I think you’re a nice young girl. But nice girls today are a little different from nice girls fifty years ago. I’m not saying worse or better. I’m just saying different. I understand these things. After all, you’re just a few years younger than my wife. I know men like to look at her, so I know they like to look at you, too.”
“Oh, but your wife is beautiful. Really. I think she’s the most stunning woman I’ve ever seen.
“Good for her,” Jacob said. “So tell me about your lover.”
“Well,” the girl started, obviously pleased, “it’s really not definite yet. I mean, we haven’t set the date or anything.”
“Yes, you have,” Jacob said. “You don’t want to tell me because you’re afraid I’ll fire you before you’re ready to leave.”
“No, really, Mr. Bauman . . .”
“So you haven’t set the day of the week. But the month you’ve decided on, right?” He waited a moment for contradiction. “Right,” he said.
“Believe me when I tell you I understand these things. So what month? June?”
“July,” the girl said, smiling.
“So shoot me, I’m a month off . . . I won’t bother to ask you if he’s handsome. I know he is . . . And strong too.”
The girl nodded, beaming.
“That’s good,” Jacob said. “It’s very important to marry a gentle man . . . But not too gentle. The ones that are too gentle let themselves get stepped on. Believe me, I know. I used to be a very gentle man myself and you know where it got me? No place, that’s where. So I learned to be different. Not that I still don’t make the mistake now and then . . . but every time I do, I pay for it . . . A bad marriage can be a big mistake, maybe the biggest. You’ve got to know what kind of package you’re getting. But you know, don’t you?”
“Yes. He’s wonderful. Really, he is. You can’t tell, Mr. Bauman, because you don’t really know him but if you ever sat down and—” she stopped and bit her lip. “Oh, I didn’t mean—”
“So he’s someone I know,” Jacob said. “Now that’s very interesting. I would never have guessed. A friend of mine, maybe?” t
“No. No, really, I didn’t mean to say that. It just came out wrong. It’s not anyone—”
“Doctor Holmes?” Jacob guessed.
“Maybe someone who works for me?” Jacob asked slyly, watching the girl’s face.
“Charles? . . . No, no. It couldn’t be Charles. You don’t like Charles very much, do you, Frances? You think he looks down on you, right?”
“Yes,” said the girl, quite suddenly indignant. “He makes me feel that I’m some kind of a . . . oh, I don’t know what. Just because he thinks he’s so elegant. Well, if you ask me, he’s just a fish.”
Jacob chuckled. “You’re absolutely right. Charles is a fish. A cold pike . . . But then who could it be? Mr. Coveny is much too old for you so that only leaves . . .” He paused, his eyes bright and teasing, his mouth open. Then he looked past her, out the window, and said, “No, I don’t know. Give me a hint. Tell me what business he’s in . . . Stocks and bonds, maybe? Oil? Textiles?” His voice rose. “Transportation?”
“Oh, you’re just teasing me now,” the girl said. “You know it’s Vic. I bet you knew all the time. I hope you’re not mad. Really, I would have told you before but—” A knock on the door interrupted her.
“Go away,” Jacob called.
The door opened and Mrs. Bauman, a truly stunning red-haired woman, looking more like twenty than thirty in a daffodil-yellow sweater and provocatively tight tan slacks, came in.
“Good morning, all. No, sit down, dear,” she said to Frances. “How’s our patient this morning?”
“Terrible,” Jacob said.
His wife laughed falsely and patted his cheek. “Did you sleep well?”
“Isn’t he horrid?” Mrs. Bauman said to Frances. “I don’t know why you put up with him.”
“For the money,” Jacob said. “Just like you.
Mrs. Bauman forced a laugh. “He’s just like a baby, isn’t he? Has he had his orange pill yet?”
“Yes,” Jacob said.
“No,” said Frances. “Is it nine-fifteen already? Oh, I’m—”
“I’m afraid it’s almost nine-twenty,” Mrs. Bauman said coolly. “Here, I’ll do it.” She uncapped a vial from the night table and poured a tumbler full of water from a silver pitcher. “Open wide now.”
Jacob turned his head from her. “I can still hold a pill and a glass of water,” he said. “You don’t even look like a nurse.” He popped the capsule in his mouth and swallowed a sip of water. “Where are you going, dressed up like a college girl?”
“Just into town to do a little shopping.”
“Vic has your car all ready,” Frances said. “He polished it this morning and it looks just like new.”
“I’m sure it does, dear.”
“If it’s not shiny enough, buy a new one,” Jacob said.
“I was thinking of doing just that,” his wife countered. “But I thought I’d wait until you’re up and around again. Then well get one of those little sport cars that only have room for two people and we’ll go on long drives together, just the two of us.”
“I can’t wait,” Jacob said.
“My!” said Mrs. Bauman. “Isn’t it a marvelous day? Why don’t you have Charles open the windows?”
“Because I don’t want to get a chill and die,” Jacob said. “But thank you for suggesting it.”
Smiling tartly, Mrs. Bauman touched her fingers to her lips, then pressed them to her husband’s forehead.
“You don’t even deserve that much of a kiss today,” she said coyly.
“If he stays this grouchy,” she said to Frances, “don’t even talk to him. It’ll serve him right.” Her smile invited the girl into a woman’s conspiracy. “I’ll be back early,” she said to Jacob.
“I’ll be here,” he said.
“’Bye,” Mrs. Bauman said cutely and left.
“Close the door,” Jacob said to Frances.
“Didn’t she look beautiful?” the girl said, crossing the room and then coming back. “I wish I could wear slacks like that.”
“Do your husband a favor and wear them before you get married,” Jacob said.
“Oh, Vic wouldn’t mind. He hasn’t got a jealous bone in his body. He’s told me a hundred times how much he likes it when other men look at me.”
“And how do you feel about him looking at other women?”
“Oh, I don’t mind. I mean, after all, it’s only natural, isn’t it? And Vic has had—” she colored slightly. “I don’t know how we ever got talking about this again. You’re really terrible, Mr. Bauman.”
“Let an old man have a little pleasure by talking,” Jacob said. “So Vic has had a lot of experience with women, has he?”
“Sometimes it’s really embarrassing. I mean, some women will just throw themselves at a man. We were at a nightclub two weeks ago Wednesday. On Vic’s night off.”
Jacob nodded and again looked past the girl, who was starting to talk more rapidly. His wife had just become visible walking across the lawn toward the garage. She moved in a way quite different from Frances, much more slowly, almost lazily. Under the tan slacks her hips rocked, undulating, but just slightly, like a scale seeking its balance. Even the languid swing of her arms seemed to subtly reserve energy, not expend it profligately as Frances did, but rather save the strength, storing it, for the more important motions.
“. . . she was really a frightening-looking girl,” Frances was saying. “I mean, I was actually startled when I saw her come over to our table. Her hair was this jet black and looked like she hadn’t combed it for weeks and she had so much lipstick on she must have used up a whole tube getting dressed . . .”
Jacob listened absently, his eyes still on his wife. She had reached the convertible now and stood leaning against the door, talking with Vic. Jacob could see her smile widen as she listened and then, tilting her head back, she laughed. He could not hear the laugh but he recalled it, from years before, as being sharp and light, a stimulating, flattering laugh. Vic, one foot contemptuously propped on the car bumper, thick arms crossed, smiled with her.
“. . . really think she must have been drunk,” Frances said, fully involved in her story. “I mean, I just can’t imagine a woman having the nerve to just sit down in a strange man’s lap and kiss him. I mean, right in front of his date and all. For all she knew, I could have been his wife.”
“So what did Vic do?” Jacob asked, turning from the window.
“Well, nothing. I mean, what could he do? We were in a public place and everything. He just tried to laugh and pretend it was a joke or something. But I couldn’t. I mean, I tried to, but the girl didn’t move and Vic couldn’t just push her off. I mean, everyone was watching and I was getting madder and madder and—well, to tell you the truth, Mr. Bauman, sometimes I’ve got a terrible temper. I mean, when it comes to personal things like Vic, I just can’t control myself.”
“Like with Betty?” Jacob said.
Frances sucked in her lower lip. “I didn’t think you knew about that,” she said. “I’m really awfully sorry about it, Mr. Bauman, but I just walked into the kitchen to get my lunch and she had her arms around Vic and, well, I guess I saw red.”
“So I heard,” Jacob said smiling. “I didn’t see Betty before she left but Charles told me she wasn’t so pretty to look at any more.”
“I guess I did scratch her up terribly,” Frances said, lowering her eyes. “I’m really sorry about it. I tried to apologize to her but she wouldn’t even listen to me. As if it were all my fault.”
“And what did you do to the girl in the nightclub?”
“I pulled her off Vic by her hair,” Frances admitted sheepishly. “And if he hadn’t stopped me, I probably would have tried to scratch her eyes out, too. I mean, I really went crazy. It was worse than Betty, because she was actually kissing Vic. I think if there was a knife or something around, I would have tried to kill her.”
“Really?” Jacob said. His look left the girl and returned to the window. Neither his wife nor Vic was in sight then. His eyes scanned the expanse of lawn, passed the statues glinting dully in the sun, to Mr. Coveny, who was still probing at the azaleas, and back again, resting on the blazing grill of the convertible. He saw an odd shadow on the car’s hood and, squinting, defined it as the polishing cloth Vic had been using.
“And how do these little fights affect your feelings about Vic?” he asked casually.
“Oh, they don’t. I mean, how could they? It’s not his fault that women throw themselves at him. I mean, he certainly doesn’t encourage them.”
“Of course not,” Jacob said. He narrowed his eyes, intently focusing on the dark window above the garage. He thought he had seen a flash of bright yellow there. Or was it just the sun reflecting off the lower pane? No, the window was open; it couldn’t have been the sun. There it was again, among moving shadows, a very solid square of bright color, narrowing now and rising slowly, as if it were a piece of fabric, a bright cloth perhaps, being slowly removed from something, someone. And then it was gone and not even the shadows were visible within the frame of the window. Jacob smiled. “I’m sure Vic is very faithful,” he said. “If there’s anyone at fault, it’s definitely the woman. Your jealousy is very understandable. It’s only right to fight to hold on to what you have. Even if it means destroying some other part of your life.”
Frances looked puzzled. “Do you think that Vic doesn’t love me as much because of what happened? He said he understood.”
“I’m sure he does,” Jacob said. “In fact he probably loves you even more for showing your devotion. Men like things like that . . . No, I was just talking before. Just an old man’s talk. After all, what else can I do besides talk?”
“Oh, you could probably do a lot of things,” Frances said. “You’re very intelligent. I mean, at least I think so. You should find a hobby. Crossword puzzles or something. I bet you’d be great at those.”
“Maybe I’ll try them sometime,” Jacob said. “But right now, I think I’ll try to sleep for a while.”
“That’s a good idea,” Frances said. “I brought a new book to read today. I started it on the bus coming over. It’s really terrific, all about this Frenchwoman who made a fool of a lot of kings.”
“It sounds very good,” Jacob said. “But before you start, I’d like you to do me a little favor.” He turned and opened the single drawer of his night table. “Now don’t be frightened,” he cautioned as he withdrew a small gray revolver. “I keep this around in case of burglars. But it’s been so long since it’s been cleaned that I’m not sure it still works. Would you take it down to Vic and ask him to look it over?”
“Sure,” the girl said, rising, taking the gun gingerly. “Hey, it’s light. I always thought guns weighed about twenty pounds.”
“I think that’s a woman’s gun,” Jacob said. “For women and old men. Now be careful, it’s loaded. I’d take out the bullets for you but I’m afraid I don’t know very much about those things.”
“I’ll be careful,” Frances said, holding the grip experimentally. “And you try to get some sleep in the meantime. Should I tell Charles to come up while I’m gone?”
“No, don’t bother. I’ll be fine. You take your time with your fiancé. I think I saw him go upstairs to his room a minute ago.”
“He’s sleeping,” Frances said.
“Why don’t you sneak up and surprise him then,” Jacob said. “He’d probably like that.”
“Well, If he doesn’t, I’ll tell him that it was your idea.”
“Yes,” Jacob said. “You tell him that it was all my idea.”
He smiled, watching the girl leave, then nestled back in the pillows and closed his eyes. It was very quiet and he was so genuinely tired that he felt himself unwillingly starting to doze when the first shot, immediately followed by the second and then a third sounded across the lawn. He considered sitting up to watch the activity from the window but it seemed like too great an effort. Also, he reasoned, there was nothing he could do, bedridden as he was.