It Can't Happen Here

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Chapter 28

As usually happens in secret service, no one detail that Sissy ferreted out of Shad Ledue was drastically important to the N.U., but, like necessary bits of a picture puzzle, when added to other details picked up by Doremus and Buck and Mary and Father Perefixe, that trained extractor of confessions, they showed up the rather simple schemes of this gang of Corpo racketeers who were so touchingly accepted by the People as patriotic shepherds.

Sissy lounged with Julian on the porch, on a deceptively mild April day.

"Golly, like to take you off camping, couple months from now, Sis. Just the two of us. Canoe and sleep in a pup tent. Oh, Sis, do you have to have supper with Ledue and Staubmeyer tonight? I hate it. God, how I hate it! I warn you, I'll kill Shad! I mean it!"

"Yes, I do have to, dear. I think I've got Shad crazy enough about me so that tonight, when he chases good old Emil, and whatever foul female Emil may bring, out of the place, I'll get him to tell me something about who they're planning to pinch next. I'm not scared of Shad, my Julian of jewelians."

He did not smile. He said, with a gravity that had been unknown to the lively college youth, "Do you realize, with your kidding yourself about being able to handle Comrade Shad so well, that he's husky as a gorilla and just about as primitive? One of these nights—God! think of it! maybe tonight!—he'll go right off the deep end and grab you and—bing!"

She was as grave. "Julian, just what do you think could happen to me? The worst that could happen would be that I'd get raped."

"Good Lord—"

"Do you honestly suppose that since the New Civilization began, say in 1914, anyone believes that kind of thing is more serious than busting an ankle? 'A fate worse than death'! What nasty old side-whiskered deacon ever invented that phrase? And how he must have rolled it on his chapped old lips! I can think of plenty worse fates—say, years of running an elevator. No—wait! I'm not really flippant. I haven't any desire, beyond maybe a slight curiosity, to be raped—at least, not by Shad; he's a little too strong on the Bodily Odor when he gets excited. (Oh God, darling, what a nasty swine that man is! I hate him fifty times as much as you do. Ugh!) But I'd be willing to have even that happen if I could save one decent person from his bloody blackjack. I'm not the playgirl of Pleasant Hill any more; I'm a frightened woman from Mount Terror!"

 

 

It seemed, the whole thing, rather unreal to Sissy; a burlesqued version of the old melodramas in which the City Villain tries to ruin Our Nell, apropos of a bottle of Champagne Wine. Shad, even in a belted tweed jacket, a kaleidoscopic Scotch sweater (from Minnesota), and white linen plus-fours, hadn't the absent-minded seductiveness that becomes a City Slicker.

Ensign Emil Staubmeyer had showed up at Shad's new private suite at the Star Hotel with a grass widow who betrayed her gold teeth and who had tried to repair the erosions in the fair field of her neck with overmuch topsoil of brick-tinted powder. She was pretty dreadful. She was harder to tolerate than the rumbling Shad—a man for whom the chaplain might even have been a little sorry, after he was safely hanged. The synthetic widow was always nudging herself at Emil and when, rather wearily, he obliged by poking her shoulder, she giggled, "Now you sssstop!"

Shad's suite was clean, and had some air. Beyond that there was nothing much to say. The "parlor" was firmly furnished in oak chairs and settee with leather upholstery, and four pictures of marquises not doing anything interesting. The freshness of the linen spread on the brass bedstead in the other room fascinated Sissy uncomfortably.

Shad served them rye highballs with ginger ale from a quart bottle that had first been opened at least a day ago, sandwiches with chicken and ham that tasted of niter, and ice cream with six colors but only two flavors—both strawberry. Then he waited, not too patiently, looking as much like General Göring as possible, for Emil and his woman to get the devil out of here, and for Sissy to acknowledge his virile charms. He only grunted at Emil's pedagogic little jokes, and the man of culture abruptly got up and removed his lady, whinnying in farewell, "Now, Captain, don't you and your girl-friend do anything Papa wouldn't do!"

 

 

"Come on now, baby—come over here and give us a kiss," Shad roared, as he flopped into the corner of the leather settee.

"Now I don't know whether I will or not!" It nauseated her a good deal, but she made herself as pertly provocative as she could. She minced to the settee, and sat just far enough from his hulking side for him to reach over and draw her toward him. She observed him cynically, recalling her experience with most of the Boys … though not with Julian … well, not so much with Julian. They always, all of them, went through the same procedure, heavily pretending that there was no system in their manual proposals; and to a girl of spirit, the chief diversion in the whole business was watching their smirking pride in their technique. The only variation, ever, was whether they started in at the top or the bottom.

Yes. She thought so. Shad, not being so delicately fanciful as, say, Malcolm Tasbrough, started with an apparently careless hand on her knee.

She shivered. His sinewy paw was to her like the slime and writhing of an eel. She moved away with a maidenly alarm which mocked the rôle of Mata Hari she had felt herself to be gracing.

"Like me?" he demanded.

"Oh—well—sort of."

"Oh, shucks! You think I'm still just a hired man! Even though I am a County Commissioner now! and a Battalion-Leader! and prob'ly pretty soon I'll be a Commander!" He spoke the sacred names with awe. It was the twentieth time he had made the same plaint to her in the same words. "And you still think I ain't good for anything except lugging in kindling!"

"Oh, Shad dear! Why, I always think of you as being just about my oldest playmate! The way I used to tag after you and ask you could I run the lawnmower! My! I always remember that!"

"Do you, honest?" He yearned at her like a lumpish farm dog.

"Of course! And honest, it makes me tired, your acting as if you were ashamed of having worked for us! Why, don't you know that, when he was a boy, Daddy used to work as a farm hand, and split wood and tend lawn for the neighbors and all that, and he was awful glad to get the money?" She reflected that this thumping and entirely impromptu lie was beautiful… . That it happened not to be a lie, she did not know.

"That a fact? Well! Honest? Well! So the old man used to hustle the rake too! Never knew that! You know, he ain't such a bad old coot—just awful stubborn."

"You do like him, don't you, Shad! Nobody knows how sweet he is—I mean, in these sort of complicated days, we've got to protect him against people that might not understand him, against outsiders, don't you think so, Shad? You will protect him!"

"Well, I'll do what I can," said the Battalion-Leader with such fat complacency that Sissy almost slapped him. "That is, as long as he behaves himself, baby, and don't get mixed up with any of these Red rebels … and as long as you feel like being nice to a fella!" He pulled her toward him as though he were hauling a bag of grain out of a wagon.

"Oh! Shad! You frighten me! Oh, you must be gentle! A big, strong man like you can afford to be gentle. It's only the sissies that have to get rough. And you're so strong!"

"Well, I guess I can still feed myself! Say, talking about sissies, what do you see in a light-waisted mollycoddle like Julian? You don't really like him, do you?"

"Oh, you know how it is," she said, trying without too much obviousness to ease her head away from his shoulder. "We've always been playmates, since we were kids."

"Well, you just said I was, too!"

"Yes, that's so."

Now in her effort to give all the famous pleasures of seduction without taking any of the risk, the amateur secret-service operative, Sissy, had a slightly confused aim. She was going to get from Shad information valuable to the N.U. Rapidly rehearsing it in her imagination, the while she was supposed to be weakened by the charm of leaning against Shad's meaty shoulder, she heard herself teasing him into giving her the name of some citizen whom the M.M.'s were about to arrest, slickly freeing herself from him, dashing out to find Julian—oh, hang it, why hadn't she made an engagement with Julian for that night?—well, he'd either be at home or out driving Dr. Olmsted—Julian's melodramatically dashing to the home of the destined victim and starting him for the Canadian border before dawn… . And it might be a good idea for the refugee to tack on his door a note dated two days ago, saying that he was off on a trip, so that Shad would never suspect her… . All this in a second of hectic story-telling, neatly illustrated in color by her fancy, while she pretended that she had to blow her nose and thus had an excuse to sit straight. Edging another inch or two away, she purred, "But of course it isn't just physical strength, Shad. You have so much power politically. My! I imagine you could send almost anybody in Fort Beulah off to concentration camp, if you wanted to."

"Well, I could put a few of 'em away, if they got funny!"

"I'll bet you could—and will, too! Who you going to arrest next, Shad?"

"Huh?"

"Oh come on! Don't be so tightwad with all your secrets!"

"What are you trying to do, baby? Pump me?"

"Why no, of course not, I just—"

"Sure! You'd like to get the poor old fathead going, and find out everything he knows—and that's plenty, you can bet your sweet life on that! Nothing doing, baby."

"Shad, I'd just—I'd just love to see an M.M. squad arresting somebody once. It must be dreadfully exciting!"

"Oh, it's exciting enough, all right, all right! When the poor chumps try to resist, and you throw their radio out of the window! Or when the fellow's wife gets fresh and shoots off her mouth too much, and so you just teach her a little lesson by letting her look on while you trip him up on the floor and beat him up—maybe that sounds a little rough, but you see, in the long run it's the best thing you can do for these beggars, because it teaches 'em to not get ugly."

"But—you won't think I'm horrid and unwomanly, will you?—but I would like to see you hauling out one of those people, just once. Come on, tell a fellow! Who are you going to arrest next?"

"Naughty, naughty! Mustn't try to kid papa! No, the womanly thing for you to do is a little love-making! Aw come on, let's have some fun, baby! You know you're crazy about me!" Now he really seized her, his hand across her breasts. She struggled, thoroughly frightened, no longer cynical and sophisticated. She shrieked, "Oh don't—don't!" She wept, real tears, more from anger than from modesty. He loosened his grip a little, and she had the inspiration to sob, "Oh, Shad, if you really want me to love you, you must give me time! You wouldn't want me to be a hussy that you could do anything you wanted to with—you, in your position? Oh, no, Shad, you couldn't do that!"

"Well, maybe," said he, with the smugness of a carp.

She had sprung up, dabbling at her eyes—and through the doorway, in the bedroom, on a flat-topped desk, she saw a bunch of two or three Yale keys. Keys to his office, to secret cupboards and drawers with Corpo plans! Undoubtedly! Her imagination in one second pictured her making a rubbing of the keys, getting John Pollikop, that omnifarious mechanic, to file substitute keys, herself and Julian somehow or other sneaking into Corpo headquarters at night, perilously creeping past the guards, rifling Shad's every dread file—

She stammered, "Do you mind if I go in and wash my face? All teary—so silly! You don't happen to have any face powder in your bathroom?"

"Say, what d'you think I am? A hick, or a monk, maybe? You bet your life I've got some face powder—right in the medicine cabinet—two kinds—how's that for service? Ladies taken care of by the day or hour!"

It hurt, but she managed something like a giggle before she went in and shut the bedroom door, and locked it.

She tore across to the keys. She snatched up a pad of yellow scratch-paper and a pencil, and tried to make a rubbing of a key as once she had made rubbings of coins, for use in the small grocery shop of C. JESSUp & J. falck groSHERS.

The pencil blur showed only the general outline of the key; the tiny notches which were the trick would not come clear. In panic, she experimented with a sheet of carbon paper, then toilet paper, dry and wet. She could not get a mold. She pressed the key into a prop hotel candle in a china stick by Shad's bed. The candle was too hard. So was the bathroom soap. And Shad was now trying the knob of the door, remarking "Damn!" then bellowing, "Whayuh doin' in there? Gone to sleep?"

"Be right out!" She replaced the keys, threw the yellow paper and the carbon paper out of the window, replaced the candle and soap, slapped her face with a dry towel, dashed on powder as though she were working against time at plastering a wall, and sauntered back into the parlor. Shad looked hopeful. In panic she saw that now, before he comfortably sat down to it and became passionate again, was her one time to escape. She snatched up hat and coat, said wistfully, "Another night, Shad—you must let me go now, dear!" and fled before he could open his red muzzle.

Round the corner in the hotel corridor she found Julian.

He was standing taut, trying to look like a watchdog, his right hand in his coat pocket as though it was holding a revolver.

She hurled herself against his bosom and howled.

"Good God! What did he do to you? I'll go in and kill him!"

"Oh, I didn't get seduced. It isn't things like that that I'm bawling about! It's because I'm such a simply terribly awful spy!"

 

 

But one thing came out of it.

Her courage nerved Julian to something he had longed for and feared: to join the M.M.'s, put on uniform, "work from within," and supply Doremus with information.

"I can get Leo Quinn—you know?—Dad's a conductor on the railroad?—used to play basketball in high school?—I can get him to drive Dr. Olmsted for me, and generally run errands for the N.U. He's got grit, and he hates the Corpos. But look, Sissy—look, Mr. Jessup—in order to get the M.M.'s to trust me, I've got to pretend to have a fierce bust-up with you and all our friends. Look! Sissy and I will walk up Elm Street tomorrow evening, giving an imitation of estranged lovers. How 'bout it, Sis?"

"Fine!" glowed that incorrigible actress.

She was to be, every evening at eleven, in a birch grove just up Pleasant Hill from the Jessups', where they had played house as children. Because the road curved, the rendezvous could be entered from four or five directions. There he was to hand on to her his reports of M.M. plans.

But when he first crept into the grove at night and she nervously turned her pocket torch on him, she shrieked at seeing him in M.M. uniform, as an inspector. That blue tunic and slanting forage cap which, in the cinema and history books, had meant youth and hope, meant only death now… . She wondered if in 1864 it had not meant death more than moonlight and magnolias to most women. She sprang to him, holding him as if to protect him against his own uniform, and in the peril and uncertainty now of their love, Sissy began to grow up.

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