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The Illegitimate Stage

From the outside, it was a peaceful scene—six green-and-white houseboats moored along the east bank of the Wallan River in the shadow of a steel bridge. The houseboats nestled against a weathered gray boardwalk. Between the boardwalk and the riverbank grew cattails and marsh grasses.

The jade-colored curtains on the first houseboat’s riverside windows snapped back. The dark face of a young man appeared at the window, scowling out at the morning sunlight. Without turning his head, he spoke to the slim blonde woman seated at the kitchen table behind him.

“It was your crazy idea in the first place!”

The woman turned her narrow, sensitive features toward the man’s back, drawing her brows down.

“Roger Corot, you stop acting like that! I’m not a child. I just said it for a joke, and you took it up and made everybody believe it.”

The man half turned from the window, raised his palms up, and looked toward the ceiling.

“That’s right,” he said. “It’s all my fault. When I’m fired and we’re reduced to begging on the street, you can tell your friends, ‘Roger did this to me!’”

“Now you’re going to be dramatic,” she said. “You know you’re the one who wants to keep up this Bohemian atmosphere.” She gestured around her at the houseboat, an array of bamboo furniture in pastel greens and oranges, a grass mat rug.

Roger hurled himself into a chair opposite the woman, buried his head in his hands. He raised his head, looked across the table. His dark eyes were opened wide; his black hair was disarrayed, curled slightly at the forehead; his voice was deep.

“Pepina!” he said. “Don’t destroy me! You know I can’t create in a flat. I have to have the soothing atmosphere of life—like the great current of a river around me. Don’t do this to me.”

“Very poetic,” she said. “Now, what about—”

He raised a restraining hand. “Please. If you’d only explain to me why you told everyone we’re not married … Well, perhaps I could understand. If you could only explain it to me.”

The woman brought her hands from her lap—long, thin hands on thin wrists. She put her hands over her face, lowered them. In the depths of her green eyes there was a bemused twinkle.

“Roger, for the nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-ninth time, I was just making a joke. If I had suspected for a moment that you would take me up and make it a great dramatic production—we artists together—I’d have kept my big trap shut, as my father used to say.”

She stood up, an emerald housecoat falling gently into place around her. “Now be a good boy and get off to the college. You’ll have a whole class full of French students wondering where their instructor is.”

Roger stood up, took an English tweed topcoat from the back of an adjacent chair, and draped it over his left arm.

“Yes. And as soon as this story gets back to President Coleman, they’ll know where I am—fired!” He leaned across the table. “Why didn’t you think of that? You knew the president of the college was the chairman of the Wallan County Anti-Vice League.”

Her voice was flat as she replied: “So did you, Roger; so did you.”

He shook his head. “Why? Why? Why?”

“Roger!” Pepina stamped her foot. “I’ve got a why for you. You’ve had two whole years to scotch this story. But no! You have to keep adding to it. You have to brag about it! You haven’t explained that to my satisfaction.”

Roger slumped back into the chair he had vacated, draped the coat over his knees. “I’ve told you. It’s this play.”

“Oh, Roger. You know that doesn’t make sense.”

“Yes, it does. You don’t understand this authoress. I will explain it in words of one syllable. This is Mrs. Abelarde Gruntey. She is the widow of Amos Gruntey, who endowed Gruntey Hall. She has written this play. She calls it Rhythm of Life. That should tell you enough about it.”

Pepina sighed and sat down in her chair. She took an electric coffee pot from the corner of the table, poured herself a fresh cup.

“I’ve read the play. I know. But I don’t understand what all this has to do with your sudden attack of respectability.”

“Pepina,” he said, drawing out the syllables, “President Coleman wants a new gymnasium from this woman. He ordered me to produce her play. I have to do it. And when we get into production, this female behemoth will be at mine elbow.”

He raised his voice. “And sure as fate, one of those dunderhead dramatics students of mine will let it slip to her that we’re a pair of sinners, and she’ll take it straight to Coleman. I tell you, the jig is up!”

Pepina shrugged her shoulders. “So take him our marriage license and make a fool out of her.”

Roger’s voice became low and charged with feeling. “But Pepina! I’d never be able to face them again. Never! The … the shine would be all gone off our relationship. This way it’s dramatic. It inspires them. When I tell them how to act, they leap to obey. They know I’m right. I have the … the Continental touch.”

“Yes,” Pepina said, “and a couple of these starry-eyed students will try to follow our supposed example one of these days, and then the fat will really be in the fire.”

“Everywhere I turn I see a blank wall,” Roger said. “It’s fate creeping up on me. I feel like one of those psychological cats in a puzzle box. There’s no door out.”

“We’ll talk about it tonight,” Pepina said. She looked up at the Bavarian cuckoo clock above Roger’s head. “You’re already five minutes late. I love you. All is lost. Scram!”

Roger leaped to his feet. “You have no soul. I love you anyway. Here, kiss me.”

He bent down, kissed her lips. As he pulled away, Pepina patted his cheek. “Life is but a series of excursions and alarms,” she said. “Now hurry.”

Roger stood up, shrugged. “C’est la vie!” He turned, hurried from the houseboat.

Pepina walked after him, stopped at the door, watching. A soft look filled her eyes.

Roger strode briskly up the boardwalk, shrugging into his topcoat.

Under her breath, Pepina said, “You ham!”

From the reeds at the riverbank there came the rumbling basso of a bullfrog.

“Mr. Amonto,” Pepina said. “I haven’t fed you this morning.”

She went into the houseboat, returned in a moment with a handful of bacon scraps. She tossed a piece of bacon toward the muddy bank. There was a splash. A wide green shape with two up-bulging eyes swam majestically out, engulfed the bacon. The frog floated upward until only the eyes protruded from the water. Pepina tossed the rest of the bacon in front of the frog. Mr. Amonto gave a brief kick with his hind legs, caught the first piece, moved on to another.

Pepina returned to the houseboat.


At east Comity College, President Clinton Coleman was having an early morning conference with Mrs. Gruntey. He sat at his wide mahogany desk in a leather-upholstered swivel chair, now and then turning it from side to side.

On the wall behind the president, a linen sampler hung in a dark oak frame: a little red-and-green house with smoke curling from a chimney. Doves and ivy crowded each other in the top corners. Worked in blue cross-stitch across the center was a motto: “If one ferrets out sin wherever it appears, this will be a better world in which to live.”

The remarkable thing about the motto was that President Coleman did resemble a ferret. He had beady eyes set close above a long, hooked nose. A thin mouth poised over a long, outjutting chin, ready to pour out vitriol.

Mrs. Gruntey, a contrast in fat, sat clothed in satins and silks, a sable stole over her shoulders. She looked the German housefrau suddenly come into money. Her face was oval. The eyes had avoided the pinch of fat cheeks and now stared out with a round blue clarity at the world. Mrs. Gruntey was telling President Coleman how she had come to write Rhythm of Life.

President Coleman, his mind adding up the cost of gymnasium flooring, bleachers, and equipment, nodded from time to time as words buzzed somnolently around him.

“I was in Portland,” Mrs. Gruntey said, her voice taking on a dreamy, distant note. “A woman friend just insisted I go with her to see the road show performance of an Italian movie. I didn’t want to go. When I think how close I came to not going, I just shudder. I had Lincoln drive me right home afterward. I was so excited I couldn’t sleep. Finally, I got up and took out Amos’s old typewriter and began my play.”

Her voice took on a flat, explanatory tone. “It’s an Oliver, you know,” she said. “The typewriter. Very old.”

The dreamy note crept back into her voice. “I had the title in my mind before I wrote the first word. The Rhythm of Life.” Her voice lilted over the words; she repeated them. “The Rhythm of Life. It has …” She looked down at her fleshy hands clasped in her lap, brought her hands to her mounded bosom. “It has such vibrations.”

President Coleman nodded. “Indeed it has. I never dreamed you were so talented.” He kept his eyes raised to the level of Mrs. Gruntey’s dyed hair. (“Just a little chestnut tint to bring out the highlights.”)

“Your Mr. Corot is so talented,” Mrs. Gruntey said. “He knows exactly how it should be staged. I’m certain it’s going to be the hit of the Fall Fiesta. The vibrations of my play so fit the mood of the Fiesta.”

President Coleman pursed his lips. “It is a proper play, of course.”

“It’s life,” Mrs. Gruntey said. “It has reality; it vibrates with living. You know that place in the third set where …”

President Coleman coughed. “Well, I’ve not read that far yet. The responsibilities of my position … seeing the architects … You know how it is.”

“You really are such a busy man, Mr. Coleman. It’s unkind of me to take up so much of your time. I must be running along.”

She stood up.

President Coleman arose with her. “Oh, my dear Mrs. Gruntey. Every minute with you is a pleasure. Really. We must get together for tea sometime this week. I want to talk about the new gymnasium.”

“I’ll check my calendar and call you,” Mrs. Gruntey said. “Au revoir!” She raised one fleshy hand. The jeweled fingers flashed and twinkled. The reflected beam from a large diamond flickered into President Coleman’s eyes and seemed to lodge there.

Mrs. Gruntey went out the door.

President Coleman sank back into his chair, opened the bottom right-hand drawer of his desk. He extracted Mrs. Gruntey’s manuscript from where he had placed it, unopened, the day she had presented it to him. He put the manuscript neatly in the center of the green desk blotter, opened to the first page, made a crease down the fold where he had opened it. He began to read:

“Melissa Corday is a beautiful girl of twenty-two whose mother came over from the old country and has raised her daughter by doing housework for the rich. Melissa is actually the illegitimate daughter of a famous count, but her mother has kept this fact hidden from her daughter for fear it would taint the young mind. For a year before our play opens …”

“Mustn’t taint young minds,” he thought.

President Coleman’s telephone rang. He put down the play, picked up the telephone. It was the architect for the new gymnasium. The architect wanted to see President Coleman at the gymnasium. President Coleman said he would be there. He stood up, took the manuscript, and carried it out to his secretary.

“Miss James,” he said to the spinsterish woman in the outer office. “Read this through and write me a two-page report giving the highlights of it.” He put the manuscript on the corner of her desk.

“Yes, Mr. Coleman.”

Mr. Coleman turned, marched out of his office, going over in his mind sample ways of presenting to Mrs. Gruntey the fact that there was a twenty-eight thousand dollar deficiency in the gymnasium building fund.


For Roger, the day passed in a frenzy of French, a dollop of drama, and a stale slab of meat loaf he ate in the Commons for lunch. The meat loaf sat undigested in his stomach all afternoon.

“Mother would have known what to do,” he thought. “Pepina is being unreasonable.”

Roger’s mother had been the wife of a diplomatic attaché. She had guided her son’s life toward a career in the ballet. When he was two years old, she had enrolled him with special instructors in Paris. She had nurtured his tantrums, clothed his ego, guarded him from the world and, when he was fifteen, had died. This act of maternal desertion had thrown Roger into his first real contact with a father who was a stranger. The father had solved the problem with a Swiss boarding school. The headmaster’s daughter, Pepina, a girl two years Roger’s junior, turned out to have such a close physical resemblance to Roger’s mother that Roger had substituted love for his grief and resentment.

A result of Roger’s ballet training was that he was a graceful man. He walked with the balance of a panther.

As he joined the evening crowds on East Comity’s Center Street in his walk toward the houseboat, Roger added an unconscious dance rhythm to the flow of pedestrian traffic. He deposited a coin in a newsboy’s hand, accepted a paper without pausing more than a half beat, danced aside to avoid a hurrying woman whose arms were loaded with packages. In the same rhythm, he stepped off the curb, crossed toward Lyttle Street. On the opposite walk, he opened his copy of Mrs. Gruntey’s manuscript to the second act, began to read as he walked:

“Melissa takes the baby home to …”

With a thump which sent the manuscript fluttering to the street, Roger collided with a short man who was reading a newspaper.

“So sorry,” Roger muttered. “Wasn’t looking.” He stooped, collected the manuscript.

“Hrrrrmph,” the short man said, and walked around Roger.

Roger folded the manuscript under his arm, stood up.

“Boors,” he muttered, and strode toward the houseboat.

Pepina, wearing a red peasant skirt and halter and tan ballet slippers, was improvising a ballet to the music of “Death and Transfiguration” when Roger burst into the living room. A tall girl, she reflected the Swiss-Italian beauty of her mother and the blondness of her American father. Her eyes were large, nose slightly overlong, lips full, chin gently rounded.

Seeing Roger, she whirled once, did a deep curtsey.

Roger threw his papers and the play onto a couch, leaped into the center of the room. As Pepina picked up her cue, they executed a pas de deux to the closing strains of the music. The record ended. Roger completed the steps of the dance in such a fashion as to bend over the record player, lift the needle, and shut off the machine all in one fluid motion.

“I perish of hunger,” he said, collapsing onto the couch. “Give me your lips and then sweetbreads, perhaps.”

Pepina rose to her tiptoes, bent low over Roger, and brushed his lips with hers. Pulling back, she said, “Fish, m’love.”

“Fish!” Roger made a face, slid farther down on the couch. “You caught it yourself?”

“At Mulganey’s Market,” Pepina said.

Roger’s outstretched hand touched the manuscript of Mrs. Gruntey’s play. He picked it up and leafed through it.

“Don’t try to change the subject. We both know there never has been and never will be a person named Mulganey. That is the name of a stew which is fed to starving peasants.”

Pepina folded her arms on her breast, lowered her head, said, “My lord knows best.”

Without warning she leaped at him, landed in his lap, knocking the copy of the play behind the couch. Their mood dissolved in laughter.

“Was that Mrs. Gruntey’s play you were reading?” Pepina rested her head in the curve of Roger’s neck.

Roger pushed her away, shuddered.

“Don’t mention it before I’ve eaten. It’s hideous. That woman has more money than brains. Unfortunately, her money and the deficiency in the gymnasium building fund appear to have come to some blinding focus in Coleman’s pinhead.”

Pepina blinked her eyes at him. “You’re just tired and hungry.”

“And I have to produce the abominable thing.”

“The deficiency?” Pepina asked.

“Cease, woman; I shall bite you. President Coleman’s command performance must go on!”

Pepina’s voice took on a pensive tone. “You know, Roger, I’ve read the play and …”

“Food!” Roger pushed her off his lap onto the floor. “Come, naiad! Produce the finny brothers you have bewitched from the depths.”

“Mulganey’s,” Pepina said. She stood up.


After dinner, Roger put on swimming trunks, took a swim in the river from the front porch, and returned to the living room. He sat down, making a damp spot on the straw carpet, and wrapped a towel around his shoulders.

Pepina was on the couch with the play in her hands. Tears of laughter rolled down her cheeks. When she could control herself, she turned to Roger.

“Darling, I’m just reading over some of this thing. This is the most wonderful farce since Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

Uncle Tom’s Cabin wasn’t a farce; it was a serious play.”

Pepina nodded, a blonde curl falling across her forehead. She puffed out her lower lip and blew it back. “I know. But sometimes seriousness is the most farcical thing in the world, and you must admit Uncle Tom is now a delightful farce.”

Roger ran a hand through his wet hair and shook the water at Pepina.

“Stop that!” she said.

“If we lampooned that play, the Lady Gruntey would dissolve in the smoke from a burning deficiency.” Roger stretched out on the carpet. “Besides, I’m too lazy.”

“What’re you going to do?” Pepina asked.

“Produce the play. All the time I shall be quaking in my slippers that some egghead doesn’t convey your little joke to her. Pah!”

“Ro-ger …” Pepina’s voice drew out the name with an ominous tone.

Roger ignored her. “After I have produced this disaster, I shall drink a glass of Chablis and walk quietly off the end of the dock.”

“Reciting Shakespeare in a hoarse whisper,” Pepina said. “Besides, you couldn’t walk quietly off the end of the dock. You’d splash.” She leaned toward Roger. “Dear Heart, have you thought of the fact that if you produce this play at all, it’ll get nothing but guffaws? It’s a caricature of life.”

“Mrs. Gruntey is a caricature of life,” Roger said. “You remember her. You saw her at last year’s faculty tea.” He sat upright in a graceful arc. “She speaks of vibrations, and most appropriately. Her whole front vibrates like two bowls of jelly.” Again he reclined on the floor.

Pepina slid off the couch, stretched out beside him.

“You’ll get wet,” Roger said.

“Mmmmmmm,” Pepina nibbled at his ear. “Does my own Machiavelli wish a word of advice?” She slid a hand along his cheek and jaw line.


“When the audience laughs, watch your authoress and join her. She may want credit for having produced a hit … intentionally.”

Roger jerked to a sitting position. “That thing? A hit?”

He leaned across Pepina and retrieved the play from the couch. “This needs another look.”


The casting of Rhythm of Life began the following Friday in an English Department classroom. A temporary stage was created at the end of the room by stretching a length of clothesline across at the level of the window tops and hanging drop cloths at each end.

Roger, Pepina and Mrs. Gruntey—each with a copy of the play—sat in three adjoining chairs about ten feet from the improvised stage. The room lights were turned off. A spotlight set on a table illuminated a junior coed reading Melissa’s part.

Mrs. Gruntey leaned her wide bosom across Pepina toward Roger. “She doesn’t have the correct rhythms for the part.”

“I’m inclined to agree with you,” Roger said. “She’s too skinny. No chest.”

“That dark girl over in the corner,” Mrs. Gruntey said. “I like her emanations.”

Roger’s gaze followed her direction. “Yes, she does have excellent … uh, emanations. She was a supporting player in last year’s play. Not quite so nubile then.” Roger stood up. “Okay. Okay.” He waved the girl into the wings. He turned to the girl in the corner. “Shirley. Take it from where she says, ‘Mother, daaaarling.’ Skip the stage directions. Just read the part.”

The dark girl walked to the stage, taking a copy of the play from the wings.

“Well-developed wench,” Pepina said.

“Good emanations,” Roger said.

The dark girl began reading in a husky contralto.

Mrs. Gruntey leaned toward the stage. “Excellent! Oh, perfect!”

Roger whispered out of the corner of his mouth to Pepina: “Our methods of selection are different, but we are in surprising accord.” He turned to the girl on the stage. “That’s it, Shirley. Start learning the part.” Turning back to Pepina, he said, “Now we’ll pick Leopold. I like Carl Boler, that tall fellow who was talking to Shirley. Remember him from Macbeth?” Roger lowered his voice. “Let’s hope his rhythms are right.”

To the tall, blond student leaning against a wall by a side window, Roger said: “Carl, turn to page nine. Take Leopold from where he says, ‘Suppose the brat is mine?’”

Mrs. Gruntey turned to Roger, a look of exaltation on her face. “He doesn’t have to say a word. I could have chosen him for the part from a crowd of ten thousand. His emanations are positively indecent.”

Pepina leaned close to Roger’s ear. “Your authoress has an observing eye. Carl must be in a rut.”

Carl began reading the part, walking forward of the curtain line.

Mrs. Gruntey again leaned across to Roger. “I know just the costuming he needs,” she whispered. “Black tights and a frock coat. A gold chain around his neck to signify that he’s rich, and right in the middle of his chest, hanging from the chain, a big gold starburst. I have just the thing on an evening gown.”

“A sort of stallion medallion,” Roger said. “Good idea.”

Pepina giggled.

“For the girl—a red, floor-length gown,” Mrs. Gruntey persisted. “And over the bosom, two hands painted on the gown the color of ashes. At the bottom of the gown a rough edge of gray to signify more ashes. A soul burning …”

Again Pepina whispered in Roger’s ear: “Mrs. G. is past her prime, but she has advanced ideas. Me, I’m beginning to think you’ve misjudged her. I like her.”

“Going over to the enemy,” Roger whispered.

“I’ll see my dressmaker tomorrow,” Mrs. Gruntey said. “I believe I have a red gown that could be made over to fit that girl.”

“I hope her feelings won’t be hurt when they laugh at her play,” Pepina whispered. “Invite her down to the houseboat when this is over. I wish to know more of the Lady Gruntey.”


It was past ten o’clock when the chosen cast of Rhythm of Life, accompanied by the authoress and Roger and Pepina, descended the steps to the houseboat. At the top of the steps, Mrs. Gruntey’s Cadillac and Chinese chauffeur waited in a darkness broken only by a single unshaded streetlight on a telephone pole. Two more unshaded lights strung on thin uprights illuminated the steps.

Mrs. Gruntey held carefully to the handrail as she descended.

“You live in one of those lovely houseboats,” she said. “I’ve seen them so often … from the bridge. So Bohemian looking.”

The bottom step creaked in protest as she eased her weight onto it.

At the houseboat, Pepina switched on the lights, swung open the door, stood aside. Mrs. Gruntey stopped in the doorway, halting the procession behind her.

“Just as I had imagined it,” she murmured. “Oh, you people don’t know how lucky you are. Young … married to someone you love …”

In the background, a member of the cast giggled.

“Married yet!”

Roger drew in a breath sharply, glanced at Pepina. She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek.

“Courage,” Pepina whispered.

Mrs. Gruntey moved forward into the houseboat. The others followed.

“Where’s some chow?” someone asked. “Pepina, make some sandwiches. We brought the beer.”

Roger pulled back a corner of the straw carpet and lifted a trapdoor, which exposed a screened box sunken in the river. “Put the beer in here. There’s some down there already cold. We can drink that.”

In a corner of the room, a girl put a record on the player. The music of Ravel’s “Sacred and Profane Dances” filled the room.

From the kitchen, Pepina shouted, “Turn that thing down. It would wake the dead.”

“They should be awake,” Roger said. “This is their hour.”

Mrs. Gruntey had carefully seated herself on the brilliant orange couch. She looked from one person to another, smiling.

Suddenly, she turned to Roger. “I’ve never really lived before. I know you …”

The front door of the houseboat burst open. Three of the four independent college students who occupied the next houseboat walked in. They wore bathrobes, slippers, and swimming trunks.

“Sounds like a party,” the one in the lead said. “Where’s the beer?”

An opened bottle of beer was thrust into his hand. He took a deep drink, wandered over, and sat down beside Mrs. Gruntey.

Mrs. Gruntey beamed upon him. “This is a celebration. We’ve just completed casting my play.”

“You wrote a play?” the student asked. “What’s it about?”

“The vibrations of life,” Mrs. Gruntey said.

The student looked at her out of the corners of his eyes. “You kidding me?”

Roger had seated himself on the floor beside the couch. He leaned across to Mrs. Gruntey. “It’s bad luck to talk about a play to outsiders before it’s had its first rehearsal.” He turned to the student. “Clam up, weasel!”

Pepina entered with a platter of sandwiches, dodged two students dancing past the kitchen doorway, and in a graceful sweeping motion, put the plate on the floor in the middle of the room.

Roger stretched out on the floor, took two sandwiches from the plate, and handed one to Mrs. Gruntey. Carl, an expression of disdain on his narrow face, came from the corner where he had been talking to two coeds. He sat down beside the trapdoor and began lifting bottles of beer from the box, opening them with an opener tied to a string on the trapdoor. The student beside Mrs. Gruntey took one of the bottles, handed it to her. He clinked bottles with her, spilling foam on her bosom.

“Here’s to the success of your vibrations.”

“Oh, I know it will be,” Mrs. Gruntey said. She tipped up the bottle and drained it in a single swallow.

Roger’s eyes bulged. He watched the beer pour down Mrs. Gruntey’s throat. Mrs. Gruntey blinked her eyes, held the bottle away from her, and stared at the label, pursing her lips. “Oh, you shouldn’t be drinking this,” she said. She turned toward the young people in the center of the room. “Would one of you lovely children run up to the top of the steps and tell my chauffeur to get a case of beer from my cellar and bring it down to us?”

One of the students in bathrobe and swimming trunks stood up. “I’ll go.” He ran out the door.

Mrs. Gruntey turned to Roger. “I like American beer,” she said. “Amos had his beer imported from Munich like yours there. But I can’t stomach German beer. I was raised in the Midwest. Amos was my husband, God rest him. May I have another sandwich?”

“We learned to drink German beer in Switzerland,” Roger said. He found another sandwich, handed it to Mrs. Gruntey. He stood up, excused himself, and went into the kitchen, where Pepina was making more sandwiches and talking to Shirley. The dark girl had a knife in her tanned hand and was slicing French bread.

“This is terrible,” Roger said. “She’s turning out to be a human being. And I sneered at her. I feel like the lowest heel of creation.”

“Darling, you’re drunk,” Pepina said.

“Swacked,” Shirley said. “Excuse me while I get some more bread.”

“No.” Roger shook his head. “I’ve had only one beer.” He frowned in concern. “I think I should tell her about her play.”

Pepina whirled on him. “And destroy her happiness? I wouldn’t let you.”

“But …”

“No!” Pepina stamped her foot.

Roger shook his head from side to side. “There’s another thing. She’s drinking beer. What if she asks to go to the bathroom?”


“Your murals.”

Pepina grinned at him. “So they’re reminiscent of the walls of Pompeii. There are people in this town we don’t even know who have bragged about using that bathroom!”

“The test of fame,” Roger said. “But she’s bound to have some kind of a bad reaction. She couldn’t be a pal of old Cold-man’s without being an anti-vicer.”

“Roger, will you stop figuring out things to worry about? You’re beginning to make me nervous.”

Roger shrugged his shoulders. “One lives; one must expect problems, eh?”

“That’s the spirit,” Pepina said. “Now go back in there and entertain our guest.”

Roger walked back into the living room. The record player blared Boris Godunov. Alexander Kipnis’ baritone voice filled the room.

Mrs. Gruntey raised herself from the couch, avoided a dancing couple, and walked over to Roger.

“Pardon me, Mr. Corot,” she said. “Where is your washroom?”

Roger stiffened.

A student near the kitchen door heard Mrs. Gruntey. “Whoops!” he said. “Prepare for christening!”

Roger glared at the speaker.

Mrs. Gruntey took no notice. “Your washroom?”

Roger swiveled slowly to the left, pointed. “Down that hallway. First door on your left.”

“Thank you.”

Mrs. Gruntey entered the shadows of the hall and disappeared from sight, humming “Once Upon a Time in the City of Kazan.”

Without looking down, Roger reached out with his left hand, found the arm of an unoccupied chair, and slumped into it. He put his head in his hands.

“Ohhhhhhh,” he moaned.

It seemed less than a minute before Mrs. Gruntey reappeared. As she emerged from the hallway, a student took a yellow paper lei from a hook beside the door and looped it over her neck.

“Welcome, oh fellow explorer into the depths of Pepina’s washroom,” he said. “You win the lei of success for surviving the ordeal.”

Everyone in the room except Roger laughed. Roger kept his face in his hands. Pepina appeared in the kitchen doorway, remained silent.

Mrs. Gruntey blushed. She turned to Roger, her eyes wide.

“Who did those magnificent murals?”

“Huh?” Roger raised his head.

“Those murals?” Mrs. Gruntey asked.

“Mrs. Gruntey, I …”

Her words penetrated his consciousness. He fell silent.

“I did them,” Pepina said. “They’re copies of a Pompeian frieze.”

Mrs. Gruntey descended to the chair opposite Roger. “They’re so primitive. When Amos and I were on our honeymoon, we visited India. There’s a palace ruin beside the Mogul desert. Perhaps you’ve heard of it—the carvings on its walls … fertility symbols.”

Roger continued to stare at Mrs. Gruntey, his eyes large, his face expressionless.

Pepina sat down on the arm of Roger’s chair. “Oh, I’ve seen them. I visited India with my father. It was the funniest thing. He tried to leave me behind. I was only twelve. I hired my own guide, and he explained everything in great detail. Poor daddy. He was so disturbed when I started asking questions.”

“Well, some people call them indecent,” Mrs. Gruntey said. She smiled at Pepina. “Somehow I couldn’t quite accept that. After all, what is art?”

Pepina nodded.

“I took photographs of the Mogul carvings,” Mrs. Gruntey said. “Perhaps you’d like to see them sometime.” A reminiscent smile touched her lips. “I had to hide the photographs from Amos. He was a little prudish about some things.” Again she looked at Pepina. “But you have such surpassing talent,” she said. “Those …”

She was interrupted by the entrance of the Chinese chauffeur, who was carrying a large box.

As he came through the door, the chauffeur filled it from side to side. He was a squarish man with a face set in the same pattern, broken only by the upslanted eyes. He paused inside the door; his eyes swept around, fastened on Mrs. Gruntey.

“Ah, Lincoln, put it right there in the floor,” she said. “Is it cold?”

“Right out of the cellar, madam.”

“This is my chauffeur, Abraham Lincoln Li,” Mrs. Gruntey said. “I call him Lincoln. He’s a great practical humanitarian.” She smiled. “Open the case, will you, Lincoln?”

The front door of the houseboat banged open. The student who had taken Mrs. Gruntey’s message to the chauffeur entered. He carried a cardboard box.

“Whooof!” he said, putting it down on the floor.

“What in heaven’s name is that?” Mrs. Gruntey asked.

“I went along for the ride,” the student said. “I noticed a load of grub in your cupboard, so I brought it back. Beer’s no good without something to eat.”

“You are absolutely right,” Mrs. Gruntey said. “Take it out in the kitchen.”

Pepina stood up from the arm of the chair. “Here, I’ll clear a place for it.” She went into the kitchen.

Carl Boler, a copy of Mrs. Gruntey’s play in his hands, slouched over beside Roger, taking Pepina’s place on the arm.

“Roger, this business in the second act where …”

“No more shop tonight,” Roger said. “Learn the part first.” He slumped into the chair.

Mrs. Gruntey turned to Roger. “Your wife has real talent as an artist. How long have you been married?”

Carl laughed. “They’re not married. They’ve got an open agreement, subject to change if either ever wants it. Wonderful thing.”

Roger’s indrawn breath was like a gasp of shock. He sat, unmoving, in the chair.

Lincoln, having opened the case of beer, stood up and walked to the door. “Will that be all, madam?” he asked.

“Uh …” Mrs. Gruntey’s gaze remained on Roger. “Oh, yes, Lincoln. That will be all for now.”

Lincoln gave a silent bow. “Thank you, madam.” He reached for the door knob.

The student who had accompanied Lincoln stood up from the beer case with a bottle in his hand. “Hey!” he shouted. “You’re not sending him away from the party?”

Mrs. Gruntey tore her gaze away from Roger. A look of agitation crossed her face, was quickly erased. “Of course not. This is a celebration.” She looked at Lincoln. “But mind you, Lincoln; you stay sober enough to drive us all home.”

Lincoln nodded his dark head toward her. “Of a certainty, madam,” he said. “Chung lun yu tai hyung oh yau hoy. It is written that a good wheel may do evil.”

“Lincoln is a philosopher, too,” Mrs. Gruntey said.

Lincoln turned to the student who was holding the bottle of beer. “Here. You have to be careful how you open these. They open like champagne.” He put both thumbs to the cap, flipped it off with a loud pop. Foam surged over the top of the bottle. “Shaken up a bit bringing it over,” he said. He put the bottle in his mouth and upended it.

“Hey!” the student said. “That’s quite a trick. How do you do that with just your fingers?”

Lincoln lowered the bottle and displayed a thumb. “Calluses,” he said, and put the bottle back in his mouth.

Mrs. Gruntey looked at Roger.

“You’re not married? I could have sworn you were married.”

Roger nodded his head.

Pepina returned from the kitchen, slipped an arm under Roger’s. “Marriage is for people who aren’t in love. We don’t need a contract.”

Mrs. Gruntey nodded. Her eyes were large, expressionless. “Not married.” She looked around at the room full of students.

“They’re all over twenty-one,” Pepina said.

Mrs. Gruntey looked back at Pepina. “Of course.”

From the darkness outside the houseboat, Mr. Amonto, the bullfrog, gave one basso rumble and subsided.

“Good heavens, what was that?” Mrs. Gruntey asked.

“That was Mr. Amonto, our pet bullfrog,” Pepina said.

“A pet bullfrog,” Mrs. Gruntey murmured. “How delightful.” Her voice lacked vitality.

A speedboat roared past in the river close to the houseboats. The houseboat rocked gently. Mrs. Gruntey stood up, walked over to the far side of the room. She stood there, watching the lights of the speedboat as it rushed under the bridge.

Roger looked at Pepina. “Now you’ve done it,” he muttered.

“What’s wrong?” Carl asked.

“If she doesn’t take that story straight to Coleman, then I’m a monkey’s uncle,” Roger said. He lowered his head to his hands. “Get me the want ads. Gotta start looking for a job.”

Mrs. Gruntey turned from the window, came back to Roger. “It’s getting late,” she said.

“Is it?” Roger asked.

Pepina walked to the couch and sat down. “Party’s over,” she said. “Roger, ring the bell.”

Roger stood up and disappeared into the back of the house. Soon, a ship’s bell echoed over the dark waters. “Lincoln, we’ll take anyone home who needs a ride,” Mrs. Gruntey said. “See that they’re all in the car.” She turned to Pepina. “It’s been a lovely evening. Thank you so much.”

Pepina stood up, shook hands with Mrs. Gruntey. “Certainly.”

When all the guests were gone, Pepina wandered back to the couch and sank into it. She stretched out, stared up at the ceiling.

Roger came into the room, sat in a chair near her. Pepina turned her face away. One tear rolled down her cheek. She tasted salt in her mouth. She didn’t hear Roger stand up and walk over to the couch.

“Pepina! You’re crying! What’s wrong?”

Pepina rubbed her eyes dry. “I am not.”

He sat down on the couch and put his arm around her. “What’s wrong?” he demanded.

“I-I-I l-like that lady.”

Roger stared at her. “And that’s why you’re crying?”

“I’m sorry, Roger. I’m just being silly. But I feel sort of dirty … oh … I don’t know, not quite respectable or something.”

“Oh, darling.” Roger kissed her on the ear. “I did it. I made you cry.” He tried to hug her, but she pulled away. “And now I’ve made you hate me.” His voice was melodramatic.

She took his hand. “It’s just that, well … There’s something else you don’t know …”

He was alarmed. “What?”

“Oh, never mind. It’s just that I’m worried about Coleman and I do like Mrs. Gruntey. I hate to have her feel that way about us.”

Roger looked away from her, studied the toe of one shoe. Neither spoke.

Suddenly Roger stood up and hit one fist into the palm of the other hand. “I’ve had enough of it,” he said. “I’m going to tell them all we’re married. I’ll take our marriage license and frame it and hang it on the door.”

Pepina sat up on the couch and looked at him. “I won’t let you.”

Roger started pacing up and down on the straw carpet. “I won’t have them talking about my wife,” he muttered. “I’ll tell all.”

Pepina stamped her foot. “You will not! You’re just doing it for me; and all you’ll do is prove yourself pretty silly. I absolutely won’t allow it.”

Roger raised himself to his full height. “Nothing you say will stop me!”

Pepina glared back at him. “I won’t be married to a fool. If you dare tell … I’ll leave you.”

Roger’s face crumpled. “Darling, you wouldn’t!”

“I would. I won’t have you showing yourself up like that and ruining everything for yourself. You will not tell anyone.”

Roger turned away from her. He shrugged. “If you put it that way, what can I say?”

Pepina persisted. “Do you promise you won’t tell?”

Roger’s voice was low and unhappy. “I promise.”


It was the fifth week of rehearsals for Rhythm of Life. Life had settled into an uneasy equilibrium. Roger wondered when Mrs. Gruntey was going to President Coleman with the scandal. He decided she was waiting until her play had been produced.

“She’s using me,” he thought. “I wish I could hate her.”

Roger, Pepina, and Mrs. Gruntey were in the first section seats of the campus’s Little Theater, where the rehearsals had been moved to give the cast the feel of the stage. It was a musty structure; the seats were hard. If one listened, one could hear the floorboards on the stage creak as the actors walked across them.

The theater was darkened. On stage, the dark-haired Shirley, playing Melissa, and Carl Boler, doing Leopold, were going through a scene for the ninth time. There was a wooden uncertainty about their motions, as though they were afraid to move in a way that had previously aroused Roger’s scorn. The actual lighting of the finished scene was being used, although the actors were not in costume. Shirley was wearing slacks and a white blouse. Carl wore dungarees and a blue shirt. The footlights were red, and a purple spotlight was on Shirley. The resultant blend gave a Faustian cast to the setting.

The scene was a boudoir. Props consisted of a settee, dressing table, and chair. Melissa sat at the dressing table. Carl reclined on the settee, jangling his chain and medallion.

In the middle of the scene, Roger leaped to his feet. “Break it!” he screamed.

Shirley stopped in mid-sentence.

Roger sat down, held his head in his hands. After a long pause, he looked up at the silent stage. “The trouble with you, Shirley, is you don’t know how to be a bitch.”

The dark girl flushed. She jumped up from the chair, upsetting it with a clatter, stalked to the front of the stage. Putting both hands, fists clenched, on her hips, she glared down at Roger. “The trouble with you, Roger Corot, is that you do know how to be a bitch!”

Roger leaned back, sighed. “Exactly. That is the tone I want in this scene.” He leaned forward. “Shirley, does Melissa get the necklace?”

The girl on the stage thought a moment. “No. Of course not.”

Roger nodded. “And in this scene she knows she’s not going to get it. But she tries anyway. She is angry but tries to hide it.” Roger pivoted his head toward Carl, who still reclined on the settee. “And you, you big lump of clay. You’re not supposed to be bored. You’re amused. You don’t want this woman anymore. You’re playing with her—cat with mouse.” Roger leaned back. “Now roll through it once more, and this time wrap it up. Take it from where Melissa says, ‘My neck looks so bare.’”

On stage, the scene began to unfold anew. Roger leaned back, closed his eyes. Suddenly, he sighed, relaxed.

Pepina leaned close to him, whispered in his ear. “All right, darling. I give up.”

Roger opened his left eye and looked at her. “Yes?”

“I have been trying for five weeks to figure out something,” Pepina said. “You work on a scene and then you seem to listen; but you don’t listen to the actors. I can tell. I want to know what it is you hear.”

Roger glanced at Mrs. Gruntey, who was bent forward, staring at the stage. He put his mouth close to Pepina’s ear, whispered so low, Pepina had to strain to hear. “It’s Lincoln. He hasn’t missed a rehearsal. He’s back there in the rear. I listen for his laugh. When he laughs, the scene’s ready.”

“How do you know?”

“He’s my sample audience.”

Pepina listened. From the darkened rear of the theater there came a barely suppressed snicker. Pepina nodded her head, smiled, and slid farther down in her seat.

“You are a faker, my only.”

“A successful one,” Roger whispered.

Pepina’s eyes glistened. She looked at Roger, sighed, and put her head on his shoulder. Roger put a hand up, smoothed her hair.

On stage, the scene ended. Mrs. Gruntey sat back in her seat.

“At last. Roger, you are a genius. I thought that scene would never come right. And it was the last one we really had to work on.”

“A matter of finding the correct tone,” Roger said.

“Yes, vibrations,” Mrs. Gruntey said.

“All we need now are the bumps and grinds,” Pepina whispered.

“Did you say something, my dear?” Mrs. Gruntey asked.

Pepina took her head from Roger’s shoulder and sat up. “I said we’ve ground through all the bumps in this one.”

“Yes, haven’t we?” Mrs. Gruntey said. “Roger, we have only four more nights until we open. I’m so excited I can’t sleep at night.”

Roger slapped his palms against his knees. “That’s it. I think we’re all too finely pitched. I’m going to give the cast a two-day rest. We’ll have dress rehearsal Thursday and open Friday.” He stood up, cupped both hands beside his mouth. “Everybody on stage!”

The cast trouped onto the stage. A switch clicked backstage; the theater lights came to life.

“Well, you’re not perfect, but I think you’ll do. This is all we’re going to do until Thursday-night dress rehearsal. I don’t want you going stale before we open. We’ll start the final run at six thirty. Be here on time.”

Mrs. Gruntey arose, resting her fleshy hands on the back of the seat ahead of her. “I want to have a party Thursday after the rehearsal.” She turned to Roger. “May we use the houseboat?”

Roger hesitated. Through his mind raced a cloud of questions: Why does she want to come to the houseboat? Last time she walked out on us. What is that woman going to do to us now that the play is ready to go?

On the tip of Roger’s tongue was an excuse to avoid the party. Pepina forestalled him.

“Certainly,” Pepina said. “The houseboat is the perfect place.”

In Roger’s mind was the question: “Place for what?”

“I’ll phone my caterer in the morning,” Mrs. Gruntey said. “Don’t you worry about a thing. Leave all the arrangements to me.”

Roger shuddered.

A student on stage blew Mrs. Gruntey a kiss.

Pepina tugged at Roger’s sleeve. Roger whirled and looked down. Pepina was half turned around in her seat, staring at the rear of the theater.

“Who was that?”

Roger looked toward the exit, saw the back of a woman who was walking through the curtained arch at the end of the aisle.

“She was writing in a notebook when I saw her,” Pepina said. “She was sitting back there by the end of the aisle. When she looked up, she glared at me and then got up and left.”

“It was a rather broad derriere,” Roger said. “But I confess it was unfamiliar.”

Pepina put a hand to her breast. “I have a premonition.” Her voice quavered.

Mrs. Gruntey moved up beside Roger. “Nonsense!”

Roger’s face was set in tense lines, nostrils quivering, eyes large. “You don’t know Pepina’s premonitions. The last time she had a premonition we packed up and left Vienna in exactly twenty-seven minutes. The next day, the Anschluss, and Hitler’s stormtroopers were rounding up all our friends. We were in Switzerland by that time.” Roger shivered. He looked down at Pepina. “It isn’t a very big premonition, is it, darling?”

Pepina’s eyes were wide and fearful. “Yes. Worse than Vienna.”

Roger gasped. “I shall buy some cyanide immediately! They say it is quick.”

“Good heavens!” Mrs. Gruntey said.

“I’m fey,” Pepina said. “All of the women of my family have been fey.”

Mrs. Gruntey’s nose quivered. She appeared to be smelling the air around her.

“The vibrations do feel a bit uneasy. I shall call my astrologer immediately when I get home. These things always leave me fluttery until I find out what’s going to happen.”

“We could make a pact—go out together,” Roger said.

“You know, I’ve seen her face before,” Pepina said. She brought the tips of the fingers of her left hand to her forehead and closed her eyes, thinking.

“Off the bridge into the river,” Roger said. “A quick death in the depths. Whose face?”

“That woman’s face,” Pepina said. “They are painting the bridge.”

Mrs. Gruntey looked from Roger to Pepina and back to Roger. “Must we give up hope?” she asked.

“You don’t know Pepina’s premonitions,” Roger said. “She had her first when she was thirteen. She kept her father from going to the village of Apari in Switzerland. The next day, an avalanche. Sixty killed. The village destroyed.”

“My word!” Mrs. Gruntey stared at Pepina. Suddenly, she squared her shoulders. “Whatever happens, don’t give up. That’s what Amos always said. If you’re at the bottom, there’s no place to go but up.”

“Like on a roller coaster,” Pepina said, brightening.

“Exactly,” Mrs. Gruntey said.

“I had a friend killed on a roller coaster once,” Roger muttered. “Come, Pepina, let us go home and prepare for the end.”

“I can’t let you go like this,” Mrs. Gruntey said.

Roger turned away from her, walked out to the aisle. Pepina followed. Mrs. Gruntey brought up the rear, wringing her hands. Several of the students, seeing the discussion, had come down from the stage.

“What’s wrong?” one asked.

“Pepina just had a premonition.”


They had heard about Pepina’s premonitions.

“Please, Roger,” Mrs. Gruntey said. “At least wait until I’ve consulted my astrologer.”

Roger turned back and stared at her, his eyes seeming to look through her. Mrs. Gruntey shivered.

“Please,” she repeated.

“If you must,” Roger said. He turned and strode up the aisle, followed by Pepina and Mrs. Gruntey. Several students trailed behind.

At the curtains, Roger turned. The procession behind him stopped.

“Life is but a walking shadow,” Roger said. He turned and strode through the curtains, and they fell in place behind him.


A listless crescent moon dangled over the hills east of the river at eleven o’clock that night. Below the bridge, the lights along the boardwalk illuminated the houseboats. The lapping of water against the float logs, the occasional splash of a jumping fish, and the despondent croaking of Mr. Amonto the bullfrog dominated the night.

The lights of a car came up Lyttle Street above the houseboat. They illuminated the trees on the far bank of the river. The car stopped; its motor was turned off, its lights extinguished. A car door slammed. The wooden clatter of feet hurried down the steps to the houseboats. A rapping sounded at the Corot’s door.

Inside the houseboat, a man screamed.

“They’ve come for us! Run! Hide!” The voice was Roger’s.

“Hush, darling,” Pepina said. “You’re having a nightmare. It’s only somebody at the door.”

“Storm troopers!” Roger screamed.

“We’re in East Comity,” Pepina said. “There are no storm troopers. Now be quiet while I answer the door.”

Bedsprings creaked. A light came on; feet pattered across the floor. Pepina opened the front door with one hand as she finished buttoning her housecoat with the other. Mrs. Gruntey stood on the porch, Lincoln a dark shadow behind her.

“The worst has happened,” Mrs. Gruntey said, and shouldered her way through the door.

Pepina stepped aside, one slender hand at her mouth, her eyes wide.

Lincoln followed, his visored hat held in his hand. “Juh bun shoo shiah yooi swei bin. It is in the book that rain follows its own convenience.”

“Lincoln is so comforting at times like this,” Mrs. Gruntey said.

“Now, perhaps, we can have a little action,” Lincoln said.

Roger appeared in the hallway, belting a cerise bathrobe around him. “What is it?”

“The worst has happened,” Pepina said. “I knew it. My premonition.”

Roger looked at Mrs. Gruntey, who was seating herself in a chair. She looked suddenly old and sad. He thought, She has found out that her play is a farce. She has come to tell us that Coleman knows all.

“We are the outcasts of East Comity,” Roger said.

Mrs. Gruntey nodded, looked up at Pepina. “It’s uncanny … your premonition. They were waiting on my front porch when I arrived home after the rehearsal.”

Pepina’s mind swayed back to Roger’s nightmare.

“Did they have guns?” she asked, leaning forward.

Roger nodded.

Mrs. Gruntey opened her mouth, but no words came out. She looked at Lincoln. “Wau yeh-shur juh-mah shiahng,” he said. “My thought follows your thought.”

Mrs. Gruntey looked at Roger. Again he nodded. She looked at Pepina. “Guns?” she asked.

“The storm troo …” Pepina said. “Oh, goodness! What am I thinking of?”

“It was a deputation from the Anti-Vice League,” Mrs. Gruntey said, drawing down the corners of her mouth with each succeeding word.

Roger staggered, clutched at the door.

Pepina gasped. “That woman! Now I know where I saw her. She’s the one who made the college buy the expurgated edition of Spenser’s Faerie Queene.”

“Mrs. Ellis Trelawney, president of the Women’s Puritan League,” Mrs. Gruntey said. “Her husband is vice-chairman of the Anti-Vice League. They were both on my porch.” Her lips quivered.

“What did they say?” Pepina asked.

“They had an outline of my play. They said they got it from President Coleman. They said such nasty things: ‘illegitimacy, sin, children of the devil.’ Ohhhhh … they called it indecent.”

“I feel faint,” Pepina said. “Roger, get me some water.” She slumped onto the couch.

Roger slowly turned his head toward Pepina, looked down his nose at her. “With the cyanide?”

“Of course not,” Pepina said. She fanned at her face with one hand. “It’s so warm.”

Roger vanished into the kitchen, then reappeared in a moment with a glass of water, which he held to Pepina’s lips. He supported the back of her head with his hand. Pepina looked up at him, a question in her eyes.

“It’s just water,” Roger said.

Pepina took several sips and relaxed on the couch.

Mrs. Gruntey stood up. Her mouth was drawn into a thin line. Her face was flushed.

“I have ordered President Coleman to meet me here.” She stamped her foot. “After all, I do have some influence in this community. We are going to produce my play.”

Roger looked forlornly at the glass of water in his hand. “It’s just water,” he said.

Lincoln, standing by the door, turned and opened it. “I hear somebody coming. Sounds like two people.”

Roger walked to the door, looked over Lincoln’s shoulder. Into the light of the open door came President Coleman, his thin ferret face grim. He was followed by a wide-bodied, wide-faced man with sagging jowls. They stomped onto the houseboat’s porch.

“Good evening,” Roger said.

The two paused. They did not answer.

“Won’t you come in?” Roger asked.

He stepped aside. Lincoln opened the door wider.

The two men entered the living room. Lincoln glanced around the room, said, “Excuse me.” He stepped through the door, closed it behind him. Mrs. Gruntey strode to the center of the room. She nodded to the wide-faced man beside President Coleman.

“Good evening, Mr. Trelawney. We meet again.”

“Hrrrrmmmph!” the man said.

From the darkness outside came an echoing rumble by Mr. Amonto.

Pepina stifled a laugh.

“What’s wrong with you?” Roger whispered.

Pepina indicated Mr. Trelawney with her eyes. “He sounds just like Mr. Amonto, our bullfrog,” she whispered.

Mr. Trelawney’s face crimsoned. “Hrrrrmmmmph! What are you two whispering about?”

Again Mr. Amonto echoed his “Hrrrrmmmmph!”

Pepina rolled over on the couch, no longer able to suppress the laughter. The motion dislodged the corner of her robe, revealing a long expanse of tan thigh. The two men in the middle of the room quickly averted their gaze.

“Well, President Coleman,” Mrs. Gruntey said.

President Coleman cleared his throat.

Pepina’s laughter subsided. She straightened her robe and sat up.

“Mr. Trelawney tells me I can’t put on my play,” Mrs. Gruntey said.

President Coleman raised a placating hand. “Perhaps with a few revisions.”

“The other day, when we had tea, you assured me you’d read my play and thought it was wonderful.”

President Coleman blushed. “Yes, yes. But perhaps I was a bit hasty. I was so concerned with the problems of the new gymnasium.”

“For which I kicked in twenty-eight thousand dollars,” Mrs. Gruntey said. “I’ve a notion to stop the check.”

“Just minor revisions,” President Coleman said, his voice pleading.

“Not so much as a word!” Mrs. Gruntey said.

Pepina clapped her hands.

Mr. Trelawney placed a hand on President Coleman’s arm.

“Clinton, I’m afraid you don’t know all of the facts. I’ve been saving something to show you just how depraved these people are.” He looked gloatingly at Mrs. Gruntey. “As for the deficiency in the gymnasium building fund … I’m sure the League could raise it easily.”

President Coleman looked from Mrs. Gruntey to Mr. Trelawney. “What have you been saving?”

Mr. Trelawney pointed at Roger and then at Pepina.

“These … defiers of the commandments—they’re not married. They’re living together in sin!”

Mrs. Gruntey raised a hand, started to speak, then hesitated.

President Coleman paled, swayed. “My French teacher, not … Oh, no!” He shook his head. “Ellis, are you sure?”

“As sure as sure! My wife overheard two students talking. They’ve known it for years. They’ve been hiding it from you.”

President Coleman put a hand to his chest. His face flushed, then became pale. “My heart! I must take my medicine.” He looked around him, eyes darting. “Where … where’s the bathroom?”

Mrs. Gruntey stepped forward, took his arm. “Be calm. The bathroom is right down here.” She led him across the room, steered him into the hallway. “First door on your left. Will you be all right?”

Mr. Trelawney stepped between them. “I’ll help him. Here, Clinton, old man. Calm’s the word. Right down here.” They went down the hallway.

Mrs. Gruntey turned around, started back toward Roger and Pepina. Both were standing in the middle of the room. Suddenly, Mrs. Gruntey remembered the murals in Pepina’s bathroom. She stopped, put a hand to her mouth, started to turn back, then thought better of it. She looked at Roger.

Roger shrugged his shoulders. “C’est le guerre. Some use guns, some use knives, some use words, and some use copies of the walls of Pompeii.” Again he shrugged. “If they …”

He was interrupted by a bellow from the rear of the houseboat. President Coleman charged out of the hallway, his face crimson. He was followed by Mr. Trelawney, jowls jiggling as he walked. Roger, who had stepped to the hallway entrance at the first bellow, caught up the yellow paper lei from its hook beside the door. He looped it around President Coleman’s neck as the latter emerged.

“Must maintain tradition,” he said.

President Coleman glared at Roger, wrenched the lei from his neck and flung it to the floor.

“You!” He pointed a finger at Roger. “You’re fired. I’ll see that the board of trustees acts on it tomorrow.”

Mr. Trelawney, already at the door, opened it and stepped outside. “Come, Clinton. We’re not too soon shut of this sinkhole.” President Coleman thrust his head forward and strode through the door, slammed it after him.

The slam of the door was followed almost immediately by a splashing noise from outside. This was accompanied by howls and screams. Roger, Pepina, and Mrs. Gruntey wrenched open the door, dashed onto the porch. President Coleman and Mr. Trelawney were floundering in the water at the end of the houseboat.

“Good heavens!” Mrs. Gruntey screamed. “They’ll drown.”

“Not if they put their feet on the bottom,” Roger said. “It’s only about four feet deep there.”

Their attention was attracted by a motion on the boardwalk. In the shadows, they could make out Lincoln’s square form leaning against the rail. Lincoln waved at them.

“Somebody took away the plank that goes up to this boardwalk,” he said. “These gentlemen did not watch where they walked.” He paused. “Sheng yo yen shau cho loo chun chun choo yooi, oh yen ming kwahn ten. It was once said that the great unwashed pray much for rain, but a man’s life is in the care of heaven.”

“You!” President Coleman screamed, shaking spray at Lincoln.

“You there,” Lincoln said. He pointed to his left with his left hand. “If you will but walk over there between the houseboats, you will find the ladder meant for swimmers.”

“I’ll sue,” President Coleman shouted.

“I’ll sue,” Mr. Trelawney shouted.

The two men splashed to the ladder, clambered up to the boardwalk.

Behind them, they left the tumultuous sound of laughter.

When Roger could find his voice, he turned to Pepina. “Oh, that was …” he stopped; his face sobered. “I’ve been fired!” He shrugged. “Darling, have we hit the bottom of the roller coaster yet?”

Pepina shook her head negatively. “No. I still have the premonition. In fact, I feel very faint.”

Roger’s face blanched. “If it’s worse than this, there’s no hope for us.”

“You mustn’t …” Pepina began and stopped. “Ooooh,” she moaned, and collapsed into Roger’s arms.

Roger looked around wildly at Mrs. Gruntey. “I knew it!” He lowered Pepina to the floor. “Oh, Pepina, my darling. What’s wrong?”

There was no answer from the motionless Pepina.

Roger looked at Mrs. Gruntey. “The worst is here. She’s dead.”

Mrs. Gruntey squared her shoulders. “Take her inside. Put her on the couch.” She whirled toward Lincoln. “Lincoln, get a doctor! And put that fool plank back.”

Lincoln dropped the board in place, then dashed off toward the steps, pushing aside the dripping forms of Mr. Trelawney and President Coleman.

“We’ll sue,” they shouted after him.

Roger picked up Pepina’s limp form, took her inside, and stretched her on the couch. There was a look of deepest concern on his face.

“My dear,” he murmured, bending over her.

Mrs. Gruntey shouldered him aside, began rubbing Pepina’s wrists. “Get a damp cloth,” Mrs. Gruntey said. “Do you have any spirits of ammonia?”

“I don’t know,” Roger went into the kitchen, returned with a damp cloth.

Mrs. Gruntey applied the cloth to Pepina’s forehead. Pepina moaned. Immediately, Roger was at her side. “What is it, my darling?”

“Ooooooooh,” Pepina moaned.

Tears came to Roger’s eyes. Mrs. Gruntey sniffled.

“Can I get you anything?” Roger asked.

Pepina opened her eyes. “No gardenias. No flowers.”

She closed her eyes and became silent.

“Ooooooooh,” Roger said. He bowed his head.

Several minutes passed, broken only by the gentle rising and falling of Pepina’s breast. Footsteps sounded on the boardwalk. Roger leaped to his feet, dashed to the door and flung it open.

“Hurry!” he shouted. “She’s dying!”

The footsteps came faster. Lights popped on in the next houseboat. Into the light of Roger’s doorway came a small, fat man carrying a black bag. He was followed by Lincoln. The small man had his trousers pulled on over pajamas and was wearing shoes without stockings.

“I’m Doctor Steffens. Where’s the patient?”

“There.” Roger pointed toward the couch, averted his face.

The doctor walked over to the couch, gently eased Mrs. Gruntey aside, and bent over Pepina. He placed the black bag on the floor, opened it, and extracted a stethoscope. He put the stethoscope to his ears, began examining Pepina.

“Hmmmmmmm,” he said. “Hmmmmmmm.”

He rolled back an eyelid, looked at Pepina’s eye. Pepina opened both eyes.

“Ouch,” she said. “That hurts.”

“Dizzy spell?” the doctor asked.

Pepina nodded.

“How long have you been feeling these dizzy spells?”

“Several weeks now.” Her voice was faint.

The doctor leaned over and whispered in Pepina’s ear.

Pepina nodded.

He whispered another question.

Again she nodded.

“What is it?” Roger screamed.

The doctor stood up and smiled. He folded his stethoscope in one hand, looked at Roger out of the corners of his eyes.

“Well, I wouldn’t be surprised, but you’re going to be a father.”

Roger’s mouth made a small “O.” Without a sound, he toppled backward. Mrs. Gruntey caught him.

Pepina sat up.

“I suspected it, but I was afraid to tell him. I knew this would happen.”


One day passed. Sunset gilded the river. Mr. Amonto croaked a tired soliloquy from his lodgings in the reeds.

The cast of Rhythm of Life sprawled in random positions on the couch, chairs, and straw carpet of the Corots’ houseboat. In a new rocking chair by the kitchen door sat Pepina. Roger bent over her, attempting to tuck a blanket around her feet.

Pepina kicked at the blanket.

“Roger, will you take away that fool blanket? It’s the middle of summer.”

“But darling, you have to be careful.”

Carl, lounging in the corner by the record player, looked up from an album of records. “When’s the little illegitimate going to be born?”

Roger’s face darkened. He turned around. “The baby will be born in about six months. I will thank you to—”

The front door of the houseboat banged open, and Mrs. Gruntey entered. Lincoln followed, carrying a case of beer.

“There’s food up in the car,” Mrs. Gruntey said. “A couple of you young men make yourselves useful.” She looked around at the long faces. “Let’s liven up this wake.”

The students by the door stood up, went outside.

Carl looked at Roger. “What’re you going to call the little illegitimate?” he persisted.

Mrs. Gruntey glanced at Carl. “Young man, you …” She paused, turning back to Roger. “Don’t you think this has gone far enough?”

“What do you mean?”

Mrs. Gruntey fumbled in her handbag and produced a yellow cablegram, handed it to Roger. Roger opened the paper. It crackled under his fingers. It was from Paris, addressed to Mrs. Gruntey.

He read:

“Roger Corot and Pepina Lawrence married at City Hall, Lausanne, Switzerland, August 29, 1938. Father gave away the bride. Eugene Dessereux, European director Ballet Russe, best man. Amelie Basat, daughter of Swiss president, maid of honor.”

The cablegram was signed: “Emile Vudon, Investigations Discrete.”

Roger handed the cablegram to Pepina. She read it and smiled. “I’ll never forget that day as long as I live. You forgot all of your dress shirts at Basel and had to wear one of Papa’s.” She giggled.

“The neck was too small.”

“What is this?” Carl asked.

Roger took the cablegram from Pepina, handed it Carl.

“The joke’s gone on long enough,” he said.

Carl read the cablegram. “Well, I’ll be a double-dyed dog.” He passed the cablegram along. Students clustered around, reading it.

“It was just a joke,” Roger said. “We hated to hurt your feelings. You all seemed so … so dependent upon us.”

Mrs. Gruntey suppressed a grin. “This calls for a celebration.”

Roger started to smile, then stopped. His shoulders sagged. “Sure. Big celebration. Pepina’s going to have a baby. I’ve been fired. Your play won’t go on. Trelawney and Coleman are going to sue me.” Roger curled his lip. “Sure. Big celebration.”

Mrs. Gruntey looked up at the ceiling. “About the play. You remember that old barn of a movie theater out on Center Street that went broke during the depression?”

Pepina showed signs of interest.

“The one where the East Comity Players put on their show last year?” Roger asked.

Mrs. Gruntey nodded.

“What about it?” Roger asked.

Mrs. Gruntey looked at Pepina. “Your charming wife”—she put the sound of doves around the word— “telephoned me last night and suggested I rent it for the play.”

“I’m the brazen one,” Pepina said.

“I’ve bought the theater,” Mrs. Gruntey said. “I detest fooling with leases. There’s an army of workmen in there right now, cleaning up the place. The tickets for our play went on sale at one o’clock today.”

Everyone in the room began to show interest.

“Tickets?” Roger asked.

“I had them printed this morning,” Mrs. Gruntey said.

“How’re they going?” Pepina asked.

“Like hotcakes,” Mrs. Gruntey said. “I once heard there was nothing like being banned in Boston to make a bestseller out of a poor book.” She looked around the room, smiling. “Well, the word is around town that the Anti-Vice League pushed us off the campus.”

“But I’ve been fired,” Roger said.

“And I’ve hired you,” Mrs. Gruntey said. “I can afford it.”

Roger shook his head from side to side. “And every cent I make, those two vultures, Trelawney and Coleman, will take away from me. You heard them say they were going to sue.”

“Oh, now,” Mrs. Gruntey said. “About that. I forgot to mention that I went up to Coleman’s office with my attorney this morning. It seems those two vultures, as you call them, went around telling everybody you and Pepina weren’t married. My attorney asked them how they’d like a slander suit.”

Mrs. Gruntey thrust her head forward belligerently.

“One peep out of the League or Coleman, and I said you’d sue them until they’d have to mortgage the college to pay you off. President Coleman even went so far as to offer you back your job. I said you might consider it, if the salary was right. The president and Mr. Trelawney weren’t speaking to each other when we left.”

Roger frowned and looked down at the floor. “Mrs. Gruntey …” He blushed. “You’ve been wonderful to us, and we don’t deserve it.” He looked up. “I have a confession to make. It’s about your play. You see …”

Mrs. Gruntey raised a hand. “You mean about its being so funny?

Roger nodded. “Yes … and …” He paused.

How I’ve misjudged this woman, he thought.

“I know,” Mrs. Gruntey said. “Lincoln told me. I guess it hurt my feelings for a while; then I remembered something Amos always said. He said the best thing in the world a person could do is to make other people laugh.”

Mrs. Gruntey smiled around at the room.

Pepina stood up from her rocking chair.

“Roger, my premonition is gone.”

“How can it be?” Roger asked. “Nothing has happened. I mean, the baby hasn’t …”

“Silly,” Pepina said. “It wasn’t a real premonition. It was just the baby. I’ve never been pregnant before. I didn’t know how it felt to be an expectant mother.” She smiled. “It’s just like a premonition.”

Mrs. Gruntey walked over and put an arm around Pepina’s shoulder. “This really calls for a celebration. Lincoln, what is a good saying for this moment?”

Lincoln, who had been opening the case of beer, stood up. He cocked his head on one side, thought for a moment.

“Toi hoy nun lei hoi.” He flashed white teeth in a grin. “Sin is a difficult thing with which to part.”

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