|Publisher:||Open Road Integrated Media LLC|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.50(d)|
|Age Range:||11 - 14 Years|
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"Do sit over here, my dear," urged Madame Despau-Davy. "Those poufs are for the cats. I'm afraid you might find them a bit hairy."
Corin Johansen raised one eyebrow slightly. "Four cats?"
"Of course," bubbled her new landlady. "Each kitty has his own, you see." She patted one of the big velveteen hassocks drawn up in a semicircle around the fireplace. "I shut the sweeties out in the hall before I let you in. Some people find them rather off-putting."
The tall girl shrugged. "I don't mind cats."
"That's splendid." The old woman's carefully rouged cheeks crinkled into a million amiable wrinkles. She rose and swept over to the door, the sequins on her bodice flashing tiny red sparks.
Corin watched, her face a polite mask as usual; but her artist's eye was captivated by the long taffeta skirt, the hennaed hair set in a bird's nest of curls, the enormous imitation diamonds, rubies, and emeralds that glittered on the woman's arms, fingers, neck, ears, and bosom. Probably a retired actress, she decided.
With a dramatic gesture, Madame Despau-Davy turned the knob. "Here they are. Houp!"
For once, Corin's composure left her. She stared unbelieving as four enormous, spotted animals glided noiselessly into the room and sprang for the hassocks.
"Are they leopards?" she gasped.
"Oh, mercy, no. After Selim, those silly policemen told me absolutely no more leopards. They're just ocelots, my dear. Harmless as babies. Sheba. Simba. Sheeta. Betty Lou."
As she named each cat, the huge feline ducked its handsome head, then lay down, tucking its dangerous-looking paws under its chin.
The elderly woman resettled herself in her armchair, smoothed her ruffled skirt carefully, and snapped her fingers. Sheeta sailed through the air, landed in her lap, and curled up like a giant kitten.
"You mustn't mind if they don't take to you just at first," she smiled, scratching her fantastic pet behind the ears. "Pretend you don't notice them, and they'll come around fast enough. I never could understand why people say cats have female personalities. They act like men, if you ask me. Now as to terms, my dear. I always think it's nice to get the nasty part over with right away so that we can relax and enjoy one another. As I told you in my letter, I charge eighteen dollars a week, unless you want kitchen privileges. Then it's only fourteen, of course."
"Isn't that rather unusual? I should have thought it would be the other way around."
"Oh, dear me, no. A nice, quiet girl who stays in and gets her own meals is much less apt to give me trouble than the kind who runs about to restaurants and coffee houses. But if you agree to take the kitchen, you must use it."
"I'll use it," said Corin. Four dollars a week out of her rent, plus what she would save on food, would mean all the difference between scrimping along and living in reasonable comfort. "If you're sure I won't be in your way," she added, out of politeness.
"Not at all," replied the old woman briskly. "I'm the kind who runs out to restaurants, myself. Nobody ever sets foot in it, except when I feed the pusses, and then it's just raw meat. It would be such fun if somebody really cooked again."
"Perhaps I'd better just have a look before I decide." This was a little too good to be true. There must be a catch in it somewhere.
"Of course, my dear. Very wise." Madame Despau-Davy slung the ocelot around her neck like a fur scarf and led the way down a long passage. "It's in the basement. All these lovely old Boston houses had their kitchens below stairs. Made it more difficult for the help. Mind the steps. Here we are."
Corin, expecting something fairly dismal, got another shock. The room was delightful. A tremendous china cabinet displayed a complete dinner service in exquisite old pink Staffordshire. The original black iron range, polished to the luster of jet, loomed seven feet tall in the center of the far wall. Beside it stood a fairly competent-looking gas range. An intriguing collection of copper pans and old-fashioned cooking implements made fascinating patterns on the white-painted walls. Everything was scrubbed spotless.
"I'll take it," said Corin.
"I'm so glad. It seemed such a dreadful pity. Get down, Sheeta, you're too heavy." Her landlady unslung the ocelot and set it on the floor with a loving pat. "Now, my dear, I expect you'd like to see your room."
"I keep my girls on the second floor, boys on the third. If you want to visit, do it downstairs in the living room, please." She trotted up the stairs, chatting all the way, with her four ocelots frisking in front of her.
"You'll like the other young people, I'm sure. Alex Bodmin's an art student like yourself. I daresay you'll get used to him in no time at all. John Banks is a nice boy. Steve Koliawski is extremely intelligent. He won a scholarship to Tech, you know."
Corin neither knew nor cared.
"Let me see, where was I? Oh, yes, Will McDermott. He's at Northeastern, on their work-and-learn program. Such a splendid idea, and such a credit to a young person, I always think. And then there's Angela Beauchamp." The old woman's voice took on a slightly acid tone. "Angela's a model. And in the big room on the end I have Jeanie and Jennie Farrick. They're studying music at the conservatory. Piano duets. Don't be surprised if you find yourself seeing double."
Her newest boarder deduced from this that the Farrick girls must be identical twins; but the information did not interest her. She had no intention of getting involved with any of the other roomers. The last thing she wanted was a pack of girls flopping on her bed while she was trying to work. That was what she was running away from.
"You'll be in here." The landlady flung open the door of a fairly good-sized bedroom. "I put you on the end because it has a north light. That's so important for a painter, isn't it? Alex has the room just above you."
"This will do," said the girl coolly. Actually, it would more than do. The room was comfortably furnished with a single bed, a capacious white-painted dresser, a lounge chair with a neat print slipcover on it and a good reading lamp behind it, and a flat wooden desk and straight chair that could be used for drawing. A pretty night light hung over the bed and entirely too many old-fashioned lithographs on the walls. Once she took down those awful chromos and hung some of her own drawings, and spent a few of those extra dollars on a more attractive spread and maybe a couple of bright pillows, and did something about that ghastly lampshade, the room would be rather charming.
The bedroom was as clean as the kitchen. Its two big windows sparkled. The ceiling had been freshly whitened and the walls newly painted a pleasant light green. The floor, bare except for a gay rag rug in front of the bed, looked as though it had been sanded and varnished that very day.
"You do keep the place beautifully," she admitted.
"Not I," chuckled her landlady. "I never lift a finger. The pusses keep me busy, you know." She scratched the whiskers of a passing ocelot, perilously close to its glistening fangs. "Bathroom's two doors down. You'll have to be firm with Angela. Oh, and I forgot to mention Leo. You won't see him, of course; but you might hear him sometime when you're down in the kitchen. He has the basement room. There's nothing to be alarmed about. Nothing at all. Don't pay any — stop that, Betty Lou!"
She snatched away a cushion the big cat was tossing around and plumped it back on the bed. "Betty Lou's my baby," she half apologized, scooping up the youngest ocelot and draping it over her shoulder with its steel-hooked front paws hanging down her sequined back.
"You know, my dear, I like you. Most girls either scream when they see the pussies, or say, 'How can you tell them apart?'"
"I'm not most girls," shrugged the tall art student. "It's perfectly obvious that they're all different. That one you're holding is the littlest. This one here —"
"Sheeta," supplied the older woman.
"Is longer and skinnier than any of the others, and that one over by the door is the fattest, and the one on my bed is the spottiest." And the most likely to get clobbered if he doesn't get off pretty fast, she added mentally.
"Now, aren't you observing! Oh, we're going to be great friends, my dear."
Corin smiled back politely, but without warmth. If her landlady thought she had found a new buddy, she could think again. Corin hadn't spent the past two years wrangling with her family over coming to Boston for the pleasure of sipping tea and listening to some old freak's tiresome gossip. She'd be nice to her, of course. Corin was always nice to everybody. You got along faster that way.
Sheeta rubbed against her legs. Just to show that the big cat didn't frighten her, she bent and tickled him behind the ears. His sudden rumble made her draw back her hand in alarm. Then she realized the huge animal was purring.
"Isn't that sweet," beamed his owner. "I knew they'd take to you. But I expect you're dying to unpack and get settled. Fresh towels on the rack behind the closet door. Plenty of hangers, unless you're like Angela. Call me if you need anything. Come, pusses."
She and her spotted troupe swept out the door and down the stairs, leaving Corin Johansen alone in the room that would be her home for the next eight months.CHAPTER 2
Corin spent a busy hour or so unpacking the suitcases which unseen hands had carried to her room, evidently while she had been in the kitchen with Madame Despau-Davy. She worked efficiently, without hurrying, placing each precisely folded garment in its assigned drawer; stacking her art materials tidily on the closet shelves; shoving the wire hangers her landlady had provided disdainfully aside and placing her coats and dresses, each in a neat plastic bag, on their own padded and scented hangers. Her wardrobe was not large, but it was impeccably coordinated and immaculately kept. She had tailored most of her things herself; but there was nothing homemade about them. A small ironing board and traveling steam iron were as vital to her as her toothbrush.
"There, that's done. Now I'd better go out and get some groceries if I'm to have any dinner tonight. How odd nobody else uses that attractive kitchen. Too lazy, I expect. Well, it's a break for me, not having to share."
She ran a comb through her long flame-colored hair, took a fresh cake of perfumed soap from a little hand-painted dish on her bureau, and reached for a towel and washcloth. "They would have to be pink," she thought. "Oh, well."
She was quite prepared to be firm with Angela, whatever that might entail; but the bathroom was free. Like every other part of the house she had seen so far, it was almost incredibly clean. The round marble sink, the huge porcelain bathtub that sat up on clawed cast iron feet, the tiny tiles set in intricate patterns all over the floor and walls showed not so much as a water spot. Even the tangle of brass pipes that popped out in unexpected places was polished to glittering gold.
"She certainly must have the jewel of all cleaning women."
Corin knew all about what was involved in keeping a place this size in perfect order. She had spent far too many of her precious Saturdays scrubbing paint and polishing furniture under her mother's exacting eye. Well, that was behind her now. She had got out of Proctor's Crossing, and she was never going back. She was going to be a successful designer. Nobody or nothing was going to stop her; and that included her new fellow- boarders.
Of course, she would have to meet them. By the time she got back from exploring the neighborhood supermarkets, the big house two blocks down from Kenmore Square was buzzing with life.
"Hi, come on in," called a pleasant male voice from the living room.
"In a minute," she replied. "I've got to dump my groceries."
An odd silence followed. As she went through the swinging door at the end of the long hall, she heard a girl say, "Doesn't she know?" and somebody else answer, "Sh-h!"
"Know what?" Corin wondered irritably. Groping her way down the dim staircase, she felt uneasy. What, after all, did she know about this place? After she had finally won her long battle to attend a famous Boston art school, her mother had insisted on her staying in the same rooming house a neighbor's daughter had lived in ten years before on the grounds that the Swensons were Nice People and wouldn't have let Marian stay in a place that wasn't decent. She had got the address from Mrs. Swenson and written a letter of application. The answer had come a few days later, explaining that the former proprietress was dead, but that the student hostel was being maintained according to the excellent standards which the late Miss Rose Garside had set. The letter had been signed "Dina Despau-Davy." Mrs. Johansen had remarked that she sounded respectable enough.
Corin wondered just how respectable her mother would find the new landlady in person, with her painted face and her artificial diamonds and her four ocelots. Well, what her mother didn't know wasn't going to hurt her. She herself was satisfied, and that was all that mattered.
She found plenty of room in the vast refrigerator for the milk, butter, eggs, and cheese she had bought, and ample space in the cabinets for her canned and packaged provisions. Except for vast quantities of frozen and canned horsemeat, Madame Despau-Davy did not keep one solitary thing to eat in the house.
It seemed odd. One would have expected the landlady to have at least a few tea bags and a box of crackers on hand. Corin could not picture a woman that age running out to a coffee shop every time she wanted a snack. Not that it was any concern of hers, of course. She folded the paper bags neatly and laid them in an empty drawer, then went upstairs to get the introductions over with.
Every eye in the room was on her as she entered the room; but she was not in the least self-conscious. Corin was used to being looked at. She knew perfectly well what an arresting figure she made with her red-gold hair hanging halfway down her back. Her dress would have looked arty on another girl; but it was exactly right for her. It was one of her own creations, cut as simply as a paper doll's from a heavily textured material in vibrant blues and greens, hand-blocked with a design she had cut from linoleum. Her low-heeled pumps were a deep grape color that should have clashed, but did not. With her clear, pale skin, exquisite bone structure, and deep turquoise eyes, she came close to being a great beauty.
Madame Despau-Davy was presiding like a queen at court, her four pets grouped around her like the palace guards.
"This is Corin Johansen, everybody," she said with a regal wave of her bejeweled hand. "Corin, those two on the sofa are Jeanie and Jennie Farrick. You'll get them sorted out eventually. Jennie's the one who giggles."
Jennie obligingly giggled. Corin gave the twins one of her cool, polite smiles. They were about her own age, which was not quite twenty, or possibly a little younger; attractive girls with soft brown hair and peaches-and-cream complexions. They were so exactly alike that it would be next to impossible to tell them apart, even if one intended to make the effort.
Madame Despau-Davy went on to the boy who was sitting beside Jeanie, or possibly Jennie. "Steve Koli-awski."
Steve was not too bad. The new girl approved of his dark good looks and his intelligent eyes behind shell-rimmed glasses. He had one finger stuck between the pages of a formidable-looking book on analytic chemistry. Good. He had his own interests and she had hers, and they could pleasantly ignore each other.
Will McDermott was next, a towering stringbean with hair as red as Corin's own and more freckles than her brother Sven. He grinned. "Hey, now I've got a twin."
"Don't flatter yourself, Will," drawled the voice she had heard before on her way to the kitchen.
This, beyond doubt, was the nice Banks boy. "Nice but dull," was Corin's private appraisal. Probably played football and insisted on explaining the team's newest secret formation to the girl he was dancing with. Not bad- looking, though, with her blond hair cropped short, the remains of a handsome summer tan, and a smile that showed two rows of perfect, extremely white teeth. He was smiling now, as though he liked what he saw. The new boarder put a little extra warmth into her greeting to John Banks.
"And this is your next-door neighbor, Angela Beauchamp."
"'Lo." A stunning brunette fluttered one exquisitely manicured hand from the most comfortable chair. Angela had the carefully tended beauty of the professional model. She deliberately looked the new girl over from head to toe, apparently satisfied herself that Corin was neither prettier nor better dressed than herself: then settled back and assumed a different but equally studied pose.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Fat Lady's Ghost"
Copyright © 1968 Estate of Charlotte MacLeod.
Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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