Charlie Horst has returned with his new bride, Bedelia, to his family home in Connecticut. Indulgently infatuated, Charlie is the luckiest man alive. What’s not to love about Bedelia? She’s gorgeous and complacent. She’s also a gracious and ideal party host—luscious and decorative in blue velvet. And in public, she plays the part of worshipful wife to perfection. In private, even more so. Who can blame Charlie for overlooking her little deceptions? Or for not paying any mind to her contradictory claims about her past? When Charlie falls ill due to a freak poisoning, Charlie knows that Bedelia will be right his side, watching him closely. But who’s watching Bedelia?
“Vera Caspary wrote thrillers—but not like any other author of her time, male or female. Her specialty was a specific type that she pioneered—the psycho thriller” (Huffington Post) and this “sinister entertainment” (The New Yorker), is Caspary at “her most chilling” (SistersinCrime.com). Filmed in 1946, and starring Margaret Lockwood, it’s “a tour de force of psychological suspense . . . Desperate Housewives meets Double Indemnity in Bedelia” (Liahna Armstrong, President Emeritus, Popular Culture Association).
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HIS WIFE CAME INTO THE ROOM AND CHARLIE turned to watch her. She wore a dark-blue velvet dress whose sheath skirt was slit to show her pretty ankles and high-heeled bronze pumps.
The Yule log caught fire. Flames licked the crusty bark. This was a great moment for Charlie. He had cut the log himself and had had it drying in the shed for a whole year. Bedelia, perceiving his pleasure, flashed him a smile and skipped across the Orientals to the love-seat, perched beside him, and rested her head against his shoulder. He took her hand. The Yule log cast its ruddy glow upon them. At this moment, ten minutes after five on December twenty-fifth, 1913, Charlie Horst believed himself the luckiest man in the world.
This was to be his wife's first Christmas in Charlie's house. They had been married in August. She was a tiny creature, lovable as a kitten. Her eyes were lively, dark, and always slightly moist. In contrast with her brunette radiance, Charlie seemed all the more pallid, angular, and restrained.
In the bow window from which the love-seat had been removed stood a tree whose boughs were festooned with tinsel, hung with colored globes and spirals, flannel angels, paper-maché reindeer, gingerbread Santa Clauses, cardboard houses, and peppermint canes. Underneath it, instead of the usual glaring white cotton sheet, was an arrangement of fir boughs upon green paper, simulating the floor of the forest. On the dining-room table was another of Bedelia's clever arrangements. The centerpiece of white narcissus seemed actually to be growing out of a bank of holly and laurel leaves.
She had been working for days on the preparations for the party. Platters and trays were heaped with a variety of cakes, and Charlie's grandmother's silver shell dishes were simply loaded with home-made fondant, marzipan, and salted nuts. On the buffet a dozen eggnog cups waited in line, and for those who liked stronger drinks there were the pewter mugs to be filled with Charlie's special hot rum toddy. And besides there was a profusion of salted and spiced delicacies, canapés of fois gras, smoked oysters, sardellen butter, anchovies, and thin crackers spread with a delicious paste that Bedelia had made of a combination of cheeses.
Charlie's Christmas present to his wife had been an antique gold ring twisted into a bow knot and set with garnets. She wore it on the fourth finger of her right hand and at intervals held it at arm's length and cocked her head to study the effect. Her hands were plump and dimpled, the fingers tapered to the tips of pointed nails which were polished until they shone like pink gems.
"How my little jackdaw loves finery!" Charlie said. The metaphor was literary. Charlie had never seen a jackdaw. Brought up on English literature, he preferred such allusions to the commoner symbols of his own experience. When he was a small boy his mother had sung:
"Things are seldom what they seem, Skim milk masquerades as cream, Jackdaws strut in peacock feathers, Highlows pass as patent leathers."
His wife accepted the criticism with her usual grace, curving her red lips and showing her dimples.
"You do really like it?" he asked anxiously.
"Better than platinum and diamonds."
"That was your reason for giving me this, wasn't it?" Bedelia spoke shyly.
"Looks like snow," Charlie said.
To the west of the house, below the terrace, the river tumbled over great rocks, chattering ceaselessly. Their house was only a little way out of a big manufacturing town, but the country around was too rocky to be worth cultivating, and the woods and stone-strewn fields were as wild as when the first white settlers had come to Connecticut.
The doorbell rang. Straightening her new apron, Mary ran through the hall. At the door she stiffened, arranged her ruffles and, as she let the guests in, cried, "Hello, Mr. Johnson. Merry Christmas, Mrs. Johnson."
Bedelia hurried to greet them. As usual Wells Johnson became awkward in her presence, mumbled a greeting and shifted the gold-sealed, tissue-paper package from one mittened hand to the other. Lucy Johnson took the box from him and handed it to Bedelia.
"Oh, you shouldn't have."
"Wait till you see it before you say anything. You may think I'm crazy."
"I love presents," Bedelia said.
"How are you, Charlie-Horse?" said Wells Johnson.
"Never felt better in my life. Let me take your coat."
Gravely Bedelia studied the size and shape of the package, the neat wrappings and elaborate seals. "We're not opening anything until all the guests are here." She placed the Johnsons' gift in a bare space under the tree.
The bell kept on ringing, guests pouring in: greetings and laughter growing louder, the air thickening with the smells of rice powder, toilet water, rum, and spices. The heat of the house and the exertion of making and passing drinks made Charlie sweat. Bedelia's ivory-tinted skin continued to look as fresh and cool as the white rose she had pinned in her sash.
The rose had been one of a dozen brought by their new friend and neighbor, Ben Chaney.
"You're too kind," Bedelia had said, offering Ben both hands and smiling to show her dimples. "You'll spoil me with all your attentions."
"Spoil you? Impossible!" Ben said.
Charlie and Ben shook hands.
"Oh, Charlie," Bedelia said, "you know about Ben and cider brandy."
Both men laughed. Bedelia had made it sound as if Ben and cider brandy were immortal lovers. As Charlie poured Ben's drink, Bedelia offered a tray of canapés. He selected one spread with the cheese paste.
"You've got Gorgonzola in it," he said with an air of smugness. "Now I know you were thinking of me."
"She thinks of everyone," Charlie boasted.
At six o'clock the guests had had enough of everything, of food and drink, of greetings, gossip, and examination by the women of holiday garments. Bedelia proposed that they open the gifts. For her this was the party's climax, the moment she had been awaiting like a gay and nervous child.
"Everyone's here but Ellen, and if she can't manage to get here on time, I don't see why everyone else should wait."
"She's probably been kept at the office."
"Newspapers are printed on Christmas, you know."
Bedelia looked around the room anxiously, measuring the temper of her guests. "All right, dear, we'll wait a little longer."
Doctor Meyers had overheard. "If there's a gift for me under the tree, I'd better collect it now. I'm due at the hospital in a little while and I'll have to take Mama home first."
"Now, Papa," his wife said, "what makes you think anybody's giving Christmas presents to an old man like you?"
Bedelia sought Charlie's approval. He saw how much she wanted to open the packages, and gave in like an indulgent father.
"Open yours first, Bedelia."
"It wouldn't be fair. I'm the hostess, mine should come last."
Judge Bennett suggested that they alternate. First a guest would open a package, then Bedelia, then another guest. They voted that Charlie play Santa Claus, read the labels, hand out the packages. This made him self-conscious. There was nothing of the actor about Charlie. But as he saw that his friends were more interested in the gifts than in his playing of the role, he became comfortable and even jocose.
Bedelia's prodigality astonished them all. These people were not accustomed to lavish giving. Even the richest, those whose safe-deposit boxes were crammed with New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad Stock, had been taught to be grateful on Christmas morning for an orange, a pair of mittens, a sock filled with hard candy, a copy of the Bible or Emerson's Essays. They had all, of course, brought something to the hostess whose Christmas hospitality demanded some return. But nothing to compare with the gifts she had for them. She had packages for the men as well as for their wives. And such luxurious trifles! All from New York stores! Silk tobacco pouches, monogrammed cigar cases, copper ashtrays, inkstands and blotters mounted in hammered brass, and drinking cups in leather cases.
Mrs. Bennett, who had brought her hostess three gingham potholders bought in August at a church fair and put away for just such an occasion, computed the cost of Bedelia's generosity. "We've none of us measured up to your wife's extravagance, Charlie. It's not our habit to be so ostentatious as Westerners."
"Ostentatious" was not the right word for describing Bedelia's pleasure. She found it as blessed to receive as to give. Ordinarily the tidiest of women, she tore off wrappings recklessly and threw papers and ribbons on the floor. Every present seemed splendid to her, every giver prodigal. Charlie saw pathos in her extraordinary pleasure: the orphan made welcome in the warm-hearted family, the little match girl finally admitted to the toy store.
Lucy Johnson's eyes glittered as Charlie handed Bedelia the parcel with gold seals. Under the tissue paper there was a box painted with Japanese characters.
"Vantine's," whispered Mrs. Bennett loudly.
Several women nodded. They also recognized the box and were wondering why Lucy had gone to New York for the Horsts' Christmas present.
Bedelia held up the gift for everyone to see. On an ebony board sat three monkeys. One held his paws before his eyes, one sealed his ears, the third his lips. The Judge glanced over his spectacles at Wells Johnson.
"Oh, thank you. They're just what I wanted." Bedelia kissed Lucy Johnson.
Mrs. Bennett whispered to her husband. The Judge glanced over his spectacles at Wells Johnson. The Danbury Express whistled as it rounded the curve. Several men took out their watches to check the time.
Lucy chattered on. She had bought the three ivory monkeys because they reminded her of Charlie.
"See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. Isn't that Charlie all over? His character. I tell Wells that Charlie has the strongest character of any man I know."
Wells Johnson moved close to Judge Bennett. From behind his cupped hand he whispered, "Wanted to show my appreciation. Charlie's given me a lot of business this year."
"Naturally, with the improvements on his property," said the Judge, who held the mortgage on the Johnsons' house and felt that he deserved an explanation of their extravagance.
"More than that," Wells hinted.
Curiosity shone through the Judge's gold-mounted spectacles. But Wells cherished his secret like money in the bank. When the Judge had begun to fidget, Wells said, "Can't talk about it now. Charlie doesn't like it mentioned with his wife around. She's sensitive."
The Judge sniffed. "If he didn't carry insurance, she'd have reason to be sensitive."
Bedelia turned her smile upon them and both men grinned self-consciously. She was different from the other women in the room, like an actress or a foreigner. Not that she was common. For all of her vivacity, she was more gentle and refined than any of her guests. She talked less, smiled more, sought friendliness, but fled intimacy.
Charlie was restless. When the doorbell rang, he could not wait for Mary, but rushed off to answer it himself.
TWO WOMEN STOOD on the porch. One held out her hand and said, "Merry Christmas, Charlie." The other shrieked and threw her arms around him.
Charlie had swung his hand toward Ellen Walker, but the greeting was interrupted by the exuberance of Ellen's companion. Ellen's hand fell limply. She followed Charlie and Abbie Hoffman into the hall.
"This is a surprise," Charlie told Abbie.
"You old hypocrite, you knew I was coming."
"Of course he knew," said Ellen. "I told him weeks ago that you were spending the holidays with me."
"I remember," Charlie said.
"You forgot all about me, you fibber," and Abbie pecked at Charlie's cheek.
He led them to the first-floor bedroom. Ellen Walker took off her hat without bothering to look in the mirror. She had bought herself a new coat that fall and no one liked it. Too mannish, they said. Ellen was a tall girl, but small of bone, delicately proportioned. Thirty years before she would have been called a beauty, but fashions in women change as drastically as in clothes. The Burne-Jones virgin had given way to the Gibson girl, and nowadays Ellen's face was considered too long, her head too narrow, the pale brown coronet of braids absurdly out of style. There was nothing memorable nor distinctive about her looks. A stranger would have remarked that she seemed calm and honest.
Abbie, on the other hand, wore a costume so striking that her face seemed merely an accessory. Charlie thought she looked like a drawing in a fashion magazine, dashing but one dimensional. Her lynx muff was as large as a suitcase and her hat burdened with such a wealth of feathers that just to look at it made his neck ache. On a black net guimpe she wore a brooch so extravagant that it was obviously set with rhinestones.
"Come along when you've made yourself beautiful," Charlie said and went off in search of his wife.
Bedelia was waiting in the hall. "We forgot about Abbie," she whispered.
"It's my fault. I should have reminded you that she was coming."
"No, dear, you mustn't blame yourself. You've got more important things on your mind. But we can't neglect Abbie. After our wedding present and the way she entertained us in New York."
Charlie and Abbie Hoffman were first cousins. She had been a Miss Philbrick, his mother's niece. As representative of his people, she had welcomed his bride when Charlie brought Bedelia from Colorado, waiting on the platform for their train and treating them to an expensive lunch at the Waldorf-Astoria.
"You might explain that you ordered a gift and it hasn't been delivered," Charlie suggested.
"That wouldn't do at all. There ought to be a package under the tree. Abbie mustn't feel neglected."
The two girls came out of the guest room. Abbie kissed Bedelia and Ellen offered Charlie's wife her hand. As if this were a reception in a New York mansion, Abbie kept on her hat.
"Affected puss," muttered Charlie, remembering his mother's phrase for Abbie. He stamped off to the kitchen to make some fresh drinks while Bedelia led the newcomers into the living-room. Most of the guests knew Abbie, who had been born a mile down the road and had lived in town until she married. That was the reason why Charlie could not forgive her for carrying her plumes into the living-room.
From the kitchen he heard laughter and shrieks of greeting. Charlie listened and shuddered. As he shook nutmeg into the eggnog, he rejoiced because his wife was without affectation.
The door swung open. "You'd better fill the bowl, Charlie. Most of the men are ready for more. And two hot grogs," Ben Chaney said. "Need any help?"
Mary turned from her dishpan to stare at Ben. He was not tall, but he was muscular and compactly built. Against the gray paint of the kitchen walls, his skin seemed almost swarthy, and his abundant hair, curling like a poet's, was shot with red lights. His eyes were pinpoints of curiosity. All at once, irrelevantly it seemed at the moment, Charlie had a solution to the problem of Abbie's Christmas gift.
"Take this in, will you?" He handed Ben the tray. "And tell my wife I want to see her. I'll be upstairs."
Mary sighed as Ben left, carrying the tray as if the punchbowl were the head of a vanquished enemy. Charlie rushed upstairs to wait in the front bedroom for Bedelia.
She did not come at once and he passed the time by looking at himself in the pier glass. It was tilted in a way that distorted his image, making his head seem too large, his torso too long, his legs stunted. This was absurd. Charlie was one of those lank, stork-legged men who could never put enough weight on his bones. His features were neat but thin, and he was too blandly tinted to be handsome. He compared his amiable pallor with Ben Chaney's rugged darkness and ran his hand regretfully through his thinning hair.
Bedelia had come into the room softly. She stood beside Charlie, the top of her head just reaching his nostrils. They had not grown bored with marriage and still enjoyed seeing themselves as a couple. Bedelia's expression changed suddenly, a look of pain crossed her face and she hurried to straighten the pier glass.
"You looked horrid, Charlie. Your lovely long legs, I couldn't bear to see them so short and queer."
Charlie caught hold of her and held her close, breathing heavily. His eyes clouded. Bedelia slapped his cheek with light fingers. "We've got guests downstairs, we'll have to get back to them."
The twilight had thickened. Bedelia went to the window. Her eyes were fixed on some distant point in the dusk. "Last Christmas," she murmured. On the flowered drapes her hands tightened. "Last Christmas," she repeated in a blurry voice.
Excerpted from "Bedelia"
Copyright © 1945 Vera Caspary.
Excerpted by permission of Feminist Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book, published in the forties by a popular author and screenwriter, epitomizes pulp fiction to me. Like Tarantino's movie, one of my favorites, it is hard for me to figure out just why I enjoyed it so much. The prose is simplistic, intentionally so; the characters lack depth; there were not deep insights into human nature, but I couldn't put it down. The characters, especially the title one, are vivid; and the suspense builds, so there are two reasons. Maybe it is also that it is set in 1913 and and I found the actions and words of the characters anachronous from that context, though surely Caspary would've known better than I, having grown up at that time. The parts don't add up to the sum, but what can I say: I liked it, a lot.
Charlie and Bedelia, an American couple living in the early 1900s, have a seemingly perfect life. After a whirlwind romance and marriage they have settled down into Charlie's large family home. He works hard to provide his gorgeous new wife with all the comforts she needs. Bedelia plays her part by keeping a beautiful, tasteful home.However it's not long before dark shadows start to inflitrate this idyll. Bedelia gets caught out in telling some white lies. Then Charlie is struck down with what appears to be food poisoning but could be something more sinister......as this is a thriller I won't give any more away. Caspary's writing is engaging and I had trouble putting the book down. She gives the story a bit of a twist by introducing the character of Ellen, a journalist who is in love with but was rejected by Charlie. Ellen enables Caspary to consider other ways of living for women beyond marriage and motherhood which I think takes Bedelia beyond other femme fatale thrillers.Bedelia is the second book I've read from the Feminist Press's Femmes Fatales series of re-issued pulp fiction written by women. I'll definitely be buying more in the series.