A story within a story. 1928, the year of the Republican convention that nominated Herbert Hoover for the presidency. Reporter T. O. Mulhall’s train is stalled on the way to Kansas City. He crosses paths, In a small Illinois town, with Alfred Oliver, and Oliver’s protégé, aspiring actress Paulette St. Genevieve. Sharing one of the Bay Tree House’s poorly ventilated rooms, the trio make small talk, leading to Oliver’s account of the infamous (or as infamous as his own exclusive coverage could make it) Bradshaw case.
Daisy wants to lose George, gain a modest fortune, and move to Florida. She exerts her influence on the Bradshaws’ live-in handyman, Oland Coleman. Oland’s grip on reality is a little weak…but perhaps not so far from the iron-clad expectations of his small-town milieu.
This volume also contains the short stories, Are You Adaptable, and Are You Merry and Bright.
“Clear out. We don’t allow no one loitering in the lobby. And I ain’t got room for any a one of you. So clear out!”
Mulhall found this lobby unpromising. Within the meaning of the act, the Bay Tree House offered a roof overhead to travelers…one might then have called it a hotel. The front desk was of the rolltop variety, its back to the foyer. Grease-penciled on plain panelboard meant to face a wall, black scribblings, indelible carpenter’s specifications, greeted clientele.
One flight of stairs led to the first story, a second to the remaining. Mulhall could suspect the Bay Tree of being in its day a gin mill, or discreet bawdy house (or both of course—the Mickey Finns of the lower chambers a source of rifleable pocketbooks to the upper).
He’d effaced himself here among the ranks of the press, but these were thinning. Most of his colleagues had conceded the point.
Rain enfiladed the pavement, bulleting in sheets over shining brick. Thunder shook the window frame. He was stranded in this backwater burg, this southerly Podunk of the state of Illinois. Its two hostelries could not accommodate the traffic.
One man stood holding the door, rain darkening the fabric of his brown suit. Mulhall shook his head.
“I said, clear out,” the hotelier repeated.
“You aren’t speaking to me.”
“No sir, I’m singing a church hymn. Hoom am I speaking to?”
This was mockery. A sideways glance told Mulhall the others had gone.
“I mean to say…Miller, is it?…you misunderstand me. I haven’t come here expecting to be given a room. I am only waiting.”
Miller puffed air through cheeks in exasperation, left his station behind the desk and confronted Mulhall, indicating this and that with jabs of his pocket watch.
“Did I say, or did I say, we don’t allow no one to loiter in the lobby?”
“But surely, in mere civility, what with the rain…”
The innkeeper jerked his head; his lips rounded on a word that Mulhall thought, given full birth, would be out.
“My fiancée is…”
He tried, on the fly, to conjure a picture. “Driving carefully, I don’t doubt. If I were with her, I would insist that she drive carefully in a storm like this. I can only hope…”
“She’s probly run in the ditch somewheres.”
Mulhall hated consigning his fiancée to this callous ditch of Miller’s. He hadn’t even named her. He assumed an expression of great anxiety, that of the tender heart shocked by a lack of decent feeling—yes, that explained it—into a reaction somewhat tardy. He wrung his hands.
“Lookee,” Miller said.
This time tapping the back of a loosely clenched fist against Mulhall’s sleeve, he pointed through the door glass. “They got a good-sized entryway over to the bank. Train’ll be running in the morning.”
Miller stepped to the foyer, an arched space the width of an (empty) umbrella stand, and placed his hand meaningfully on the knob.
Someone was bouncing down the short flight of steps from the first floor landing to the lobby. They heard muffled thuds and the warning bleat of a floor-board soon to give way.
“Turtledove! You’re here!”
Her dark hair by withering humidity was raised into a drifting cloud. Her face was pale, her nose shiny, her arms mosquito-bitten. Her feet were bare and she wore a sleeveless frock.
“This is Alfred. I told you my husband was coming along.”
“I thought I seen you with another man.”
The girl cocked her head. “I’m talking to you, Mr. Miller. You’re a man. See how it happens?” She tugged at Mulhall’s sleeve. “Let’s go upstairs, Alfred. Mr. Miller wants to shut up for the night.”
“Hold on,” Miller said. “You, mister.”
Mulhall was bemused. She might be some sort of confidence artist; she might be a clumsy Samaritan, but she had placed him in an awkward position.
“My fiancée…” He coughed. “Whom I’d mentioned…”
“We don’t tolerate no immoral doings under our roof.”
The girl cast a glance at Mulhall, meeting his eyes…a flash of something vivid in hers. The distance, these seemed to say, was doubtful, but she meant to try the leap. Heaving as though struck by a cannonball, she threw her arms around his startled midsection.
And sank, allowing her head to fall back. “Alfred, can you forgive me?”
He gave her hair a tentative pat. “I forgive you, darling. If you can forgive me.”
She released him, rounding on Miller. “He doesn’t have a fiancée. He made the whole thing up.”
“That,” Mulhall agreed, “is entirely true.”
They heard heavier feet descend and a voice yell, “Paulette! What are you doing?”
“That’s the man!”
Right about this, Miller said it to Mulhall in an almost friendly way.
The man…squat, bulldoggish, the armpits of his white shirt stained with sweat, stepped off the lower landing.
“You quit making trouble. Get upstairs.”
“Oh, he’s a brute! You’ll have to confront him, Alfred!”
“Alfred!” The stranger glowered. “Is that who you got there?”
Twice, she thrust fingers amongst Mulhall’s ribs. He saw belatedly what she had in mind.
“Please…Paulette…don’t run away with men. I wish you wouldn’t.”
Miller said, “You’uns…”
Paulette’s friend said: “Mr. Miller, you know me. I’ve stayed with you before…”
“Huh.” Miller peered. “Reckon so.”
“Pal,” the friend began again, “I was on my way over to St. Louis from Evansville.”
“May be. Don’t care. She come, signing herself in as Mrs. Oliver.”
“Well, now. I sent Paulette on ahead to book a room, case I couldn’t hire a car anyplace. Turned out for the best. Yessir, I have fond memories of the Bay Leaf.”
He bared his teeth.
“What I want to know is, which one are you?”
“I, sir, am Alfred Oliver. I tell you no lie.”
“And this here’s your wife?”
Oliver shrugged. “She says she’s married to that guy there. His name’s Alfred. Small world.”
“Then one of you clear out.”
“Now Miller…” Oliver placed a hand on Miller’s shoulder, favoring him anew with a gangsterly grin. “You’re not a man to go peeping through transoms, are you? It’s nothing to you what old Uncle Alfred and his niece, and her husband, also named Alfred, might want with a room in your establishment. Our money’s green. Let it go, Miller.”