"What's so darned funny?"
"Are we such a bunch of clowns?"
"Not clowns, Janet. Just funny."
"All right, genius. Explain that."
"A woman is a lovely creature who sends a man away so that he can't do what she wants him to do most of all."
"She feeds him full of rare steak until he wants to crawl off in a corner like the family mutt and go to sleep. Once she gets him in a somnolent state, she drapes herself tastefully on his shoulder and gets soft and warm and willing."
Mrs. Bagley laughed throatily. "Just start getting active," she warned, "and you'll see how fast I can beat a hasty retreat."
"Janet, what is with you?"
"What do you mean?"
"What are you hiding?"
"Yes, confound it, hiding!" he said, his voice turning hard. "Just who is this Charles Maxwell character, anyway?"
His voice lowered again. "Janet," he said softly, "you're asking me to trust you, and at the same time you're not trusting me."
"But I've nothing to hide."
"Oh, stop it. I'm no schoolboy, Janet. If you have nothing to hide, why are you acting as if you were sitting on the lid?"
"I still don't know what you're talking about."
"Your words say so, but your tone is the icy haughtiness that dares me, mere male that I am, to call your lie. I've a half-notion to stomp upstairs and confront your mysterious Maxwell--if he indeed exists."
"You mustn't. He'd--"
"He'd what? I've been in this house for hours day and night and now all evening. I've never heard a sound, not the creak of a floorboard, the slam of a door, the opening of a window, nor the distant gurgle of cool, clear water, gushing into plumbing. So you've been married. This I know. You have a daughter. This I accept. Your husband is dead. This happens to people every day; nice people, bad people, bright people, dull people. There was a young boy here last summer. Him I do not know, but you and your daughter I do know about. I've checked--"
"How dare you check--?"
"I damn well dare check anything and anybody I happen to be personally interested in," he stormed. "As a potential bed partner I wouldn't give a hoot who you were or what you were. But before I go to the point of dividing the rest of my life on an exclusive contract, I have the right to know what I'm splitting it with."
"You have no right--"
"Balderdash! I have as much right as anybody to look at the record. I grant you the same right to look up my family and my friends and the status of my bank account and my credit rating and my service record. Grant it? Hell, I couldn't stop you. Now, what's going on? Where is your daughter and where is that little boy? And where--if he exists--is this Charles Maxwell?"
James had heard enough. No matter which way this was going, it would end up wrong. He was proud of Mrs. Bagley's loyalty, but he knew that it was an increasing strain and could very well lead to complications that could not be explained away without the whole truth. He decided that the only thing to do was to put in his own oar and relieve Mrs. Bagley.
He walked in, yawning. He stood between them, facing Tim Fisher. Behind him, Mrs. Bagley cried, "Now see--you've awakened him!"
In a dry-throated voice, Tim said, "I thought he was away at school. Now, what's the story?"
"It isn't her story to tell," said James. "It's mine."
"Now see here--"
"Mr. Fisher, you can't learn anything by talking incessantly."
Tim Fisher took a step forward, his face dark, his intention to shake the truth out of somebody. James held up a hand. "Sit down a moment and listen," he ordered.
The sight of James and the words that this child was uttering stopped Tim Fisher. Puzzled, he nodded dumbly, found a chair, and sat on the front edge of it, poised.
"The whereabouts of Mr. Maxwell is his own business and none of yours. Your criticism is unfounded and your suspicions unworthy. But since you take the attitude that this is some of your business, we don't mind telling you that Mr. Maxwell is in New York on business."
Tim Fisher eyed the youngster. "I thought you were away at school," he repeated.
"I heard you the first time," said James. "Obviously, I am not. Why I am not is Mr. Maxwell's business, not yours. And by insisting that something is wrong here and demanding the truth, you have placed Mrs. Bagley in the awkward position of having to make a decision that divides her loyalties. She has had the complete trust of Mr. Maxwell for almost a year and a half. Now, tell me, Mr. Fisher, to whom shall she remain loyal?"
"That isn't the point--"
"Yes, it is the point, Mr. Fisher. It is exactly the point. You're asking Mrs. Bagley to tell you the details of her employer's business, which is unethical."
"How much have you heard?" demanded Fisher crossly.
"Enough, at least to know what you've been hammering at."
"Then you know that I've as much as said that there was some suspicion attached."
"Suspicion of what?"
"Well, why aren't you in school?"
"That's Mr. Maxwell's business."
"Let me tell you, youngster, it is more than your Mr. Maxwell's business. There are laws about education and he's breaking them."
James said patiently: "The law states that every child shall receive an adequate education. The precise wording I do not know, but it does provide for schooling outside of the state school system if the parent or guardian so prefers, and providing that such extraschool education is deemed adequate by the state. Can you say that I am not properly educated, Mr. Fisher?"
"Well, you'd hardly expect me to be an expert on the subject."
"Then I'd hardly expect you to pass judgment, either," said James pointedly.
"You're pretty--" Tim Fisher caught his tongue at the right moment. He felt his neck getting hot. It is hard enough to be told that you are off-base and that your behavior has been bad when an adult says the damning words. To hear the same words from a ten-year-old is unbearable. Right or wrong, the adult's position is to turn aside or shut the child up either by pulling rank or cuffing the young offender with an open hand. To have this upstart defend Mrs. Bagley, in whose presence he could hardly lash back, put Mr. Fisher in a very unhappy state of mind. He swallowed and then asked, lamely, "Why does he have to be so furtive?"
"What is your definition of 'furtive'?" asked James calmly. "Do you employ the same term to describe the operations of that combination College-A.E.C. installation on the other side of town?"
"Implying that atomic energy is secretly above-board, legal, and honorable, whereas Mr. Maxwell's--"
"But we know about atomic energy."
"Sure we do," jeered James, and the sound of his immature near-treble voice made the jeer very close to an insult. "We know all about atomic energy. Was the Manhattan Project called 'furtive' until Hiroshima gave the story away?"
"You're trying to put words in my mouth," objected Tim.
"No, I'm not. I'm merely trying to make you understand something important to everybody. You come in here and claim by the right of personal interest that we should be most willing to tell you our business. Then in the next breath you defend the installation over on the other side of town for their attitude in giving the bum's rush to people who try to ask questions about their business. Go read your Constitution, Mr. Fisher. It says there that I have as much right to defend my home against intruders as the A.E.C. has to defend their home against spies."
"But I'm not intruding."
James nodded his head gently. "Not," he said, "until you make the grave error of equating personal privacy with culpable guilt."
"I didn't mean that."
"You should learn to say what you mean," said James, "instead of trying to pry information out of someone who happens to be fond of you."
"Now see here," said Tim Fisher, "I happen to be fond of her too, you know. Doesn't that give me some rights?"
"Would you expect to know all of her business if she were your wife?"
"Suppose she were working in the A.E.C.-College?"
"Would be different?"
"I talked this right around in its circle for a purpose," said James. "Stop and think for a moment. Let's discuss me. Mr. Fisher, where would you place me in school?"
"Er--how old are you?"
"Nine," said James. "In April."
"Well, I'm not sure--"
"Exactly. Do you suppose that I could sit in a classroom among my nine-year-old contemporaries very long without being found out?"
"Er--no--I suppose not."
"Mr. Fisher, how long do you think I could remain a secret if I attended high school, sitting at a specially installed desk in a class among teenagers twice my size?"
"Not very long."
"Then remember that some secrets are so big that you have to have armed guards to keep them secret, and others are so easy to conceal that all you need is a rambling old house and a plausible facade."
"Why have you told me all this?"
"Because you have penetrated this far by your own effort, justified by your own personal emotions, and driven by an urge that is all-powerful if I am to believe the books I've read on the subject. You are told this much of the truth so that you won't go off half-cocked with a fine collection of rather dangerous untruths. Understand?"
"I'm beginning to."
"Well, whether Mrs. Bagley accepts your offer of marriage or not, remember one thing: If she were working for the A.E.C. you'd be proud of her, and you'd also be quite careful not to ask questions that would cause her embarrassment."
Tim Fisher looked at Mrs. Bagley. "Well?" he asked.
Mrs. Bagley looked bleak. "Please don't ask me until I've had a chance to discuss all of the angles with Mr. Maxwell, Tim."
"Tim," she said in a quiet voice, "remember--he's an employer, not an emotional involvement."
James Holden looked at Tim Fisher. "And if you'll promise to keep this thing as close a secret as you would some information about atomic energy, I'll go to bed and let you settle your personal problems in private. Good night!"
He left, reasonably satisfied that Tim Fisher would probably keep their secret for a time, at least. The hinted suggestion that this was as important a government project as the Atomic Energy Commission's works would prevent casual talk. There was also the slim likelihood that Tim Fisher might enjoy the position of being on the inside of a big secret, although this sort of inner superiority lacks true satisfaction. There was a more solid chance that Tim Fisher, being the ambitious man that he was, would keep their secret in the hope of acquiring for himself some of the superior knowledge and the advanced ability that went with it.
But James was certain that the program that had worked so well with Mrs. Bagley would fail with Tim Fisher. James had nothing material to offer Tim. Tim was the kind of man who would insist upon his wife being a full-time wife, physically, emotionally, and intellectually.
And James suddenly realized that Tim Fisher's own ambition and character would insist that Mrs. Bagley, with Martha, leave James Holden to take up residence in a home furnished by Tim Fisher upon the date and at time she became Mrs. Timothy Fisher.
He was still thinking about the complications this would cause when he heard Tim leave. His clock said three-thirty.
James Holden's mechanical educator was a wonderful machine, but there were some aspects of knowledge that it was not equipped to impart. The glandular comprehension of love was one such; there were others. In all of his hours under the machine James had not learned how personalities change and grow.
And yet there was a textbook case right before his eyes.
In a few months, Janet Bagley had changed from a frightened and belligerent mother-animal to a cheerful young prospective wife. The importance of the change lay in the fact that it was not polar, nothing reversed; it was only that the emphasis passed gradually from the protection of the young to the development of Janet Bagley herself.
James could not very well understand, though he tried, but he couldn't miss seeing it happen. It was worrisome. It threatened complications.
There was quite a change that came with Tim Fisher's elevation in status from steady date to affianced husband, heightened by Tim Fisher's partial understanding of the situation at Martin's Hill.
Then, having assumed the right to drop in as he pleased, he went on to assume more "rights" as Mrs. Bagley's fiance. He brought in his friends from time to time. Not without warning, of course, for he understood the need for secrecy. When he brought friends it was after warning, and very frequently after he had helped them to remove the traces of juvenile occupancy from the lower part of the house.
In one way, this took some of the pressure off. The opening of the "hermit's" house to the friends of the "hermit's" housekeeper's fiance and friends was a pleasant evidence of good will; people stopped wondering, a little.