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Authors: Mignon G. Eberhart

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BOOK: Postmark Murder
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Why had she let him leave, like that?

How could she have stopped him!

And when after some time she turned back into the hall again, Jonny also had disappeared and with her the kitten.

Jonny had not gone far. There was nowhere to go in Laura’s small apartment. She found the child back in her own small bedroom, bending over a book of drawings to be filled in with colored crayons. The kitten sat on the low play table beside the book, watching with deep concentration, for sometimes a crayon could be transformed into a moving object; Suki greatly interfered with the accuracy of Jonny’s drawing. But the child was apparently in engrossed study over the book of pictures. So that was all right, Laura thought, and returned to the living room.

For a long time she walked up and down the room, pausing to stare at nothing out the window, thinking of the curious affair of Conrad Stanislowski’s appearance. She had entirely mismanaged the interview.

Intending to do what she thought was right, she had only wounded him—and perhaps Jonny—by interfering with their reunion. And then she had let him go, not only with very few facts in her possession but with a tacit promise on her part to keep his arrival a secret.

Yes, she had mismanaged that curious but important interview. She had failed in her duty as trustee. Certainly she should not have allowed him to leave believing that she would keep his arrival a secret. Her obvious duty was to go straight to the telephone—tell Matt, tell Charlie, tell Doris of Conrad Stanislowski’s amazing appearance and of his still more amazing request to keep his arrival a secret.

Yet there was the pleading in his eyes, in his voice. There was something intangible, indescribable that touched her heart, and made her believe at least for the moment in him and in the validity of his request. Whatever the reasons for it were, just there and just then she had believed that there were reasons.

She thought unexpectedly, he doesn’t look like Conrad Stanley; there ought to be some family resemblance.

There was none. Conrad Stanley had been a stocky, strongly built man with a fresh color, wide cheekbones and a broad forehead, a firm and determined nose and chin, massive and blunt. He had had light, Slav blue eyes, but they were intelligent and determined, clear and sparkling—never a bleak and faded blue.

And Conrad had never been nervous, uncertain, desperate; he had always known exactly where he was going, and why, and how he was going to get there.

Laura had known Conrad Stanley and loved him since she was a very small child. She could not remember when Conrad Stanley had not been a part of her life.

THREE

C
ONRAD STANLEY’S STORY HAD
been the success story of many Americans. He, too, was born in Cracow. Laura had often heard the details of his early life, for Conrad as he grew older, like many self-made men, liked to talk. He did not boast; there was only a kind of candid surprise and pleasure about him when he talked of his life, which was almost naïve except that Conrad was in no sense naïve; he was instead remarkably worldly-wise, understanding of human frailties as well as human strength, and deeply compassionate about the whole.

“Rags to riches,” he would say and chuckle. “I came up the hard way. I was younger than you are now, Laura, when my mother brought me to America.”

There had been then a brother, Paul, older than Conrad. A still older brother, Stefan, remained in Poland. Conrad, his mother and Paul had landed in America with only a few dollars. Laura had felt dimly that their reason for emigrating to America was not only poverty and a desire to better themselves—but that there might have been some distant but then operative political reason for their departure. In any event, they had landed in New York among its teeming emigrants from other shores and had tried to make for themselves a new life. When Conrad was twelve he got a job in a machine shop.

He had native ingenuity and, as became increasingly evident, great intelligence. He also had the drive of a pressing need for money. Nothing was too hard for him to do; no hours were too long. His brother Paul, working in a steel mill in Pittsburgh where so many Polish laborers drifted about that time, was killed in an accident. Conrad worked harder, in order to care for his mother.

Somehow he found time to go to a trade school at night. But necessity was the forcing house for the quality of genius he possessed. After his mother’s rather early death, when he was relieved of the pressing need for money, he turned that quality of genius toward invention. In the end he went to Chicago in the hope of buying a small manufacturing plant with the small savings he had by then accumulated. At the same time he was working nights with various ideas for inventions. It was about that time that he became acquainted with Laura’s father. He also, by then, had legally changed his name from Stanislowski to Stanley; long ago he had become an American citizen.

Laura’s father was an assistant vice-president in a small suburban bank near Chicago. Conrad, needing more money to buy his factory and money to promote the invention he was then working on, had gone to the bank in the hope of negotiating a loan. Laura’s father had believed in him. He had advised the loan.

The factory Conrad bought prospered; he both manufactured and sold the invention which then engrossed his attention. This first project was a kind of slide fastener with a mechanical clip and bolt. It was a gadget in the beginning; it blossomed into a sizable business. Conrad then extended his patents to cover all sorts of by-products and variations; in the end he developed a very big business and accumulated a very large fortune.

It was from the beginning a one-man business; it remained so to the end, with Conrad not only keeping his own hands on the helm but a close and minute observation upon every detail.

It was like Conrad to look upon Peter March’s belief in him not as an impersonal matter of sheer business intelligence but as a personal favor. So Conrad himself pursued and made a friendship of the business relationship. Laura as a child became accustomed to the regular appearance of this dynamic, sturdy, strong-featured man with his Polish accent, his keen mind and his never-failing kindness to her. Perhaps Conrad’s warm heart rejoiced in the taste of family life his friendship with Peter March gave him. In those days Conrad was too busy and too engrossed to think of marriage—that or he did not meet the kind of woman he wished to marry. But he liked Peter March and showed it, and he was always devoted to Laura’s mother, a quiet, slim, lovely young woman whom Laura only dimly remembered.

Peter March was a hard-working, imaginative and contradictory man. He liked books, he liked music; he had no gift for money-making and very little interest in it as such, yet he was efficient in his work at the bank. He looked upon Conrad Stanley, this rock of a man who had so determinedly and resolutely become his close and intimate friend, with a kind of amused awe. But Peter was idealistic, too.

When World War II began and the Germans marched into Poland, Peter had already seen the handwriting on the wall and had quietly made his plans. Probably to the surprise of everyone except Laura’s mother and Conrad, Peter March gave up his job at the bank, said good-bye to his wife and small daughter and Conrad Stanley and went to England to enlist.

He knew, or at least believed, that America would sooner or later get into the war but he would not wait for that. He was overage; he would never have been drafted. He had only a strong feeling of individual duty and he was idealistic. Somewhere he had learned the rudiments of flying; probably it was one of his unexpectedly adventurous, out-of-the-ordinary diversions. In any event, fliers or men who knew anything at all about flying were then desperately needed. And in a bombing run over Germany during the first days of spring, when the Germans made their seemingly irresistible sweep down through Belgium and into France, Peter March was in a plane which never returned.

Laura, even now that she was older, still had very little idea of how her mother felt about Peter’s enlistment. She did remember that after the cable came to the effect that Peter had not returned, all her mother’s interest in life seemed to fade; she died scarcely a year later and Laura, at very nearly Jonny’s age, was alone in the world.

There were of course distant relatives, none of whom showed any particular interest in taking care of Peter March’s orphaned child; probably they felt that Peter March would have done better to stay at home’ and see to his own family. There were a few rather cold and tentative offers but they were not needed for Conrad Stanley stepped firmly and promptly into the situation.

There was very little money; an assistant vice-president of a suburban bank does not have a salary which permits of much saving or investment. Laura’s mother’s small annuity died with her. Conrad Stanley saw to all the small business affairs resulting from Peter March’s and then Margaret March’s death. What money could be saved he put in a savings account in Laura’s name. He then found a school for Laura.

He did not touch any of the modest savings account. Laura knew later that it would not have been adequate in any event to see to her education, but mainly Conrad wished her to keep the small fund intact. He paid, himself, for all her school expenses. And even more important, in a definite way, it was Conrad who arranged little treats for Laura; it was Conrad who came to see her; it was Conrad who took her with him on carefully planned trips during her vacations. It was Conrad in fact who tried and in many ways succeeded in taking the place of a father and mother whose images gradually retreated into the past. Conrad had been more than a father to her; he had been a guardian, a teacher and a bulwark against the world.

As she grew older, she began to realize the great debt of her gratitude to Conrad. She could not pay him back in any way for the generosity and affection his great warm heart had so willingly given her, but she could, sometime, pay him for her school expenses; when she was seventeen she made a stand: she wished to go to a school which would teach her a profession. Then when she could work, she would pay back to Conrad, at least in money, some of the debt she owed him.

It was like Conrad to agree to this. He didn’t want the money, that was clear, but it was equally clear that he liked and wished to encourage her sense of independence. He agreed; when Laura could work she could pay him; he had kept an account of all the money he had spent on her.

So she went to a secretarial school. She worked hard, driven by her deep affection and her sense of gratitude for Conrad and also by that growing independence which perhaps Conrad himself had taught her. When she emerged from the secretarial school, Conrad had taken her into his own office; she was to be his secretary.

Spurred by her deep affection for Conrad, she learned at least some of the ins-and-outs of his business, and Conrad not only helped her in her new task, he taught her many general but sensible and forceful business precepts.

When Conrad died he made her a trustee for the Stanislowski fund for his will.

There were reasons for this. He trusted Laura, perhaps that was the first reason, another reason was the training he had given her. He knew that he had taught her the fundamentals of business; he knew that he had inculcated in her certain character traits. He also knew that she loved him and would be loyal to his wishes no matter how unusual they seemed to be.

And, of course, the Stanislowski fund was unusual, yet it was exactly like Conrad.

Laura had finished school, and was at work in Conrad’s office, when he met Doris and married her.

He was old to marry by then and Doris was young; she was, in fact, only a few years older than Laura.

It was a shipboard romance; Conrad was making one of his more and more frequent trips to Europe in connection with his increasing European markets. Doris, then Doris Fitz-Green and engaged to marry Matt Cosden, and her mother were on their way to Paris.

Doris, in a frank yet perhaps purposeful moment, had been candid about that. “We couldn’t afford the trip. We didn’t have a bean. But my mother wanted to get me away from Matt. He didn’t have a bean either.” That was after Conrad’s death, when Doris had begun to see Matt often. She had given Laura a thoughtful look, and then smiled sweetly. “Of course, Matt was in Chicago then, starting a practice. We were going to be married as soon as he made enough money. But I met Conrad—”

Conrad was by then a very important man and obviously a very rich man. Perhaps Mrs. Fitz-Green, Doris’ mother, had encouraged their acquaintance. In any event by the time the short voyage was over the three of them were close friends. They saw each other in Paris, in Rome, and then in Madrid. Six weeks later when they returned to New York Doris and Conrad were married. They came to live in Chicago, in the vast apartment Doris wanted. What Matt’s feelings were when his one-time fiancée turned up in the same city where he had chosen to live, married to another and a very rich man, no one, certainly not Laura, knew. She saw him once or twice at dinner; he was friendly and polite with Doris; he was also friendly and polite with Conrad— and, Laura thought, began to like and respect the older man.

Laura had been prepared to find in Conrad’s wife a close and intimate friend; she had been certainly prepared to welcome her. Doris astonished her. She was too young, too beautiful, too glamorous; she was not at all the sensible, settled and matured kind of woman whom Laura would automatically have expected Conrad to marry. Conrad, however, was obviously and indulgently in love with her.

He had spent all his life in business amassing a fortune; he knew, he must have known, that he had not many years yet to live. He took what the gods gave him and was very happy with his young wife. Whether or not Doris was happy was not certain. But certainly she enjoyed her life as the rich, young Mrs. Stanley.

By unspoken but probably mutual agreement, Doris and Laura achieved a cordial relation; they were never intimate friends. Perhaps the closeness of their ages in contrast to their very different relationships to Conrad forbade an intimate friendship. Laura was like a daughter, a dearly loved ward of Conrad’s. Doris was his wife, a lovely and cherished gift life had brought him for which, indulgently yet philosophically, he paid generously; Doris was from the beginning recklessly extravagant.

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