Authors: Dorothy B. Hughes
The Scarlet Imperial
T WAS RAINING. A
dripping gray rain, more like autumn than spring. Only the flowered hats and the bright feathery veils scurrying beneath the marquees below, darting out to the bus stop, told it was April. She stood there at the window pressing her fingers against the wet cold pane.
She didn’t like this job; she didn’t know why she should be wasted for six months in the office of Bryan Brewer, Importer and Exporter of Rare Objects, playing the part of a perfect secretary. She didn’t like being a secretary; there was no bite to it, no lovely excitement. She’d rather be an exquisite mannikin on the Parisienne boulevards; she’d rather be a part of the languorous adventure of a sunny Neapolitan street; she’d rather be a flowered hat and a giddy veil even in a downpour. She’d far rather be in the downpour than here in the office alone. Whether it was being alone in rainlight, or the incessant scratching of the rain on the window, or whether the monotony of the waiting had eaten into her nerves, she didn’t know. She knew only that she didn’t like the feel of this afternoon.
She left the window and walked slowly across the thick bronze rug to the mirror, the magic mirror that had lost its magic. It no longer showed anything but the perfect secretary in the perfect secretarial uniform, black tailored suit, white blouse, a face no one would look at twice; it was the usual city pattern. Perfect complexion, perfect features, a scarlet lipstick mouth, slant dark eyes, the long lashes hidden by amber-rimmed eyeglasses, dark hair hidden in a smooth roll.
She pulled off the glasses and her mouth made a gruesome mouth at the face in the mirror. That for the adventure of working in New York.
She left the mirror and went to her desk but she didn’t go behind it to her chair. It was as if she didn’t want to be cornered there. She lifted again the noon paper and her forefinger followed her eyes down the arrivals. By ship. By plane. Where was he, while she sat at an office desk from nine to five daily, nine to twelve on Saturdays? In Paris or London, Rio or Buenos Aires, Mexico City? She hadn’t heard from him since the small typewritten note broke the monotony of sitting days on end in his Aunt Hortensia’s apartment on the Square, waiting for that note. The message wasn’t signed, he was economical of his signature. Postmarked Havana. It informed her that Bryan Brewer would need a private secretary on a certain morning. That was all. She knew what to do.
She’d got the job. Bryan Brewer had been surprised that anyone was aware of the opening. She’d been surprised at how young, how attractive Bryan Brewer was. Not yet thirty; tall, dark; the kind of man she had wished she knew while she wasted youth on Towner and his friends. It wasn’t like Towner to send her to anyone like Brewer; the others had been as old or older than Towner himself, and as unattractive. She’d thought on first meeting that working with Bry might lead to something amusing. She didn’t know then about Feather. Perhaps Towner did know.
Brewer had received the resignation of Miss Grinswold, her predecessor, in the mail only that morning. Eliza didn’t tell him how she knew Miss Grinswold was gone. She didn’t tell him that this wasn’t the first time Towner Clay had known of things before they happened. She got the job and she was the perfect secretary from nine to five, from November to April. But if she didn’t hear from Towner soon, she would … She would go on being Bryan Brewer’s perfect secretary. There was nothing else she could do. Until she heard from Towner Clay.
Her fingers dropped the paper quickly, almost with guilt. Behind her shoulder across the room the door had been flung open. She knew it wasn’t Bry before she turned. He didn’t fling open a door; he put his hand on a knob, turned it and walked in on steady feet. Yet automatically her fingers folded the paper.
Standing there was a man with the bluest eyes she’d ever looked into, dark sapphire blue. For a fleet moment she had the hope he was from Towner. For the moment before he spoke.
The man was young and tall and wet; his coat was rain slashed, the rim of his wet hat was turned down all around, to meet his turned up collar. The streets of New York were crowded with men fending off the rain in that same fashion. Yet something quickened her pulse, something not in his dress nor in his natural question. Something perhaps in his eyes. Something of danger. She recognized him as a man not made of the stuff of Manhattan streets. She knew him as someone from her own world. And she was alert. Until now it had been too easy; it was never that easy.
Her wits had quickened with her pulse and she said in her best secretarial voice, “Mr. Brewer isn’t in right now. May I help you?”
The blue-eyed man looked her over from her neat black hair all the way down to her black alligator pumps. All the way down and all the way up again. He smiled when he finished his survey. He had a cocky, sure-of-himself smile on his square face. She held her apprehension quiet behind her secretarial mask.
“Where is he?” he asked. He shifted the box under his arm. It was a white box, wrapped in white paper, the shape of a florist’s box. It wasn’t wet.
She said, “I really don’t know.” Her heels were brisk rounding her desk. She sat down behind it, took up some papers as if they were important. “Is there anything I can do for you?”
“When will he be back?”
She said, “I don’t know.”
He’d followed her to the desk, dripping rain on Bryan Brewer’s bronze rug, and he stood there looking down at her. His eyes were cut like sapphires too, flecked with bright and dark. She didn’t like his smile.
She said, “He may be in before five and he may not. He didn’t say, when he left this morning.” She rolled a sheet of white paper into the typewriter. She didn’t want him to wait here for Bryan Brewer. He might recognize her for what she actually was.
He was watching her. The smile in his eyes didn’t match the smile on his mouth. “What’s your name?” he demanded suddenly. The voice went with his eyes.
“Eliza Williams,” she answered briskly. It was a nice ordinary name, Towner had invented it. “I’m Mr. Brewer’s secretary. If I can be of any assistance, Mr.—”
“No.” Then quickly he smiled again, as if he’d come to a decision. “Yes.” He thrust the white box at her. “There. Put that on ice for me. I’ll be in for it later.”
She’d passed the test. He believed in her secretarial performance. But she didn’t like his lordly attitude. She quieted temper. She began coldly, “We have no ice chest here, Mr.—”
He grinned, “Your desk is cold enough, sweetheart.” Then he made his grin into a smile, what he doubtless thought was a charming smile. “Mind you take good care of it. Don’t be giving it to anybody else but me.” He was gone before she could answer him, before she could inform him that Bryan Brewer’s was accustomed to dealing in rare objects and that his florist’s box would be perfectly safe here. He dashed out as he had dashed in, leaving no trace but the damp treads on the carpet, the box on her desk.
She took it up, thrust it into the deep lower drawer. She didn’t sigh; she released her breath slowly. He was gone. He wasn’t someone sent to spy on her; he wasn’t someone sent to tell tales to Bry Brewer. His footmarks evaporated from the rug. Outside the rain wept wearily to the window. Inside Eliza Williams waited alone.
The wet gray sky dropped lower over Madison Avenue and the lamps blinked on. The street lamps were pale fruit looking down on them from the window, here on the twelfth floor. Shrouded with the darkening rain, they hung suspended in the dim ghost light of the Avenue.
Eliza stepped back from the window. There was no reason to be chilled. The reception room of Bryan Brewer was rich and warm, safe from rain and ghost light. It looked shadowed only because of the early saffron darkness outside, because the lone desk lamp was too small for this hour of rainy evening. She’d never been in the office this late before.
She didn’t have to stay any longer. The blue-eyed man certainly wouldn’t return tonight for the package he’d left. He was doubtless across in Longchamp’s bar at this very moment surrounded by exquisite women and soft laughter, the box entirely forgotten. As forgotten as Brewer’s secretary. What was she waiting for? If he came in, he’d grab the box, say thank you, and go again that quickly. He wouldn’t appreciate it that she’d stayed after hours to give it into his hands.
Bryan Brewer certainly wasn’t coming in again. If he did he wouldn’t recognize her as something exquisite; he wouldn’t ask her to have a drink at Longchamp’s, and go on to dinner, maybe dancing. He would never know that there was once an Eliza Williams … She set her lips. She wasn’t seventeen any longer; the moon world of seventeen was long ago and far away.
If the box held a priceless lapis lazuli tea set, the blue-eyed man shouldn’t have left it here. It was probably a box of candy. Too heavy for a corsage. A box of candy for Feather Prentiss. He wouldn’t know that men didn’t give Feather candy; they sent rare ivory orchids, or primroses in January; boxes of uncut rubies, all the perfumes of Arabia. That’s what Bry Brewer would send Feather if he could pawn his soul for them. That was why he didn’t even know what Eliza Williams looked like after her six months in his office, taking his dictation, ordering his theatre tickets, reserving his tables at Toots and Morocco.
Six-fifteen. The sky growing darker and wetter. The building growing emptier and more vast. She wouldn’t wait any longer. The man could get his box tomorrow. She was going home. The smart of disappointment because she didn’t want to go home wasn’t anything new. Someday she’d give up hoping; she’d accept the dull evenings, the empty apartment. She’d give up expecting white orchids and Arabian perfumes, settle herself into the pattern of the efficient secretary she portrayed, growing grayer and more brittle by the year. Like Miss Grinswold who’d gone on to a more important secretaryship somewhere in the city. She’d even give up expecting Towner Clay to reappear. He had what he wanted and he’d found another girl to run his errands. He’d have turned up before now otherwise. This was her fate from now on. Waiting around a lonely office to deliver a parcel. Going out alone in the rain at night. Alone. Respectable. Lonely. Loneliness. And self-pity.
She looked at her watch again. Six-twenty. Slowly she put on her small black hat. She took out her lipstick savagely and put more red on her thrice reddened lips. From the mirror she saw the man shape against the door.
She knew before the door opened that it wasn’t the blue-eyed man returning. How she knew, she couldn’t say but she knew and she swiveled slowly, a small, cold wind blowing across her heart. There was no reason for it; there must be other late workers in the building. Furthermore, this was a modern, efficient building, derelicts couldn’t wander in at night. There was a man downstairs on duty, a register to sign. No one in New York knew who she was, why she was here. There was certainly nothing in the business of Bryan Brewer to draw danger to its doors. The sound of the phrase Importers and Exporters of Rare Objects might bring romantical notions to a romantical mind; one who rattled a typewriter forty hours a week knew better than to expect Polynesian thuggees lurking in dark corners.