The Works of Sydney Fowler Wright 1874 - 1965

S. Fowler Wright's Short Stories

The Temperature of Gehenna Sue


        Dr. Portland V. Asherton was a surprised man. He sat at his office table turning over the letter, and wondering vainly what possible business or other reason there could be that would lead Miss Vandergraft to desire an interview with him.

        It was only a fortnight before that he had become famous as the man upon whom a certain government had bestowed an annual pension of fifty thousand dollars for "improvements in the compositions and methods of distribution of poison gases." Rumour said that he had supplied a formula which would desolate half a continent in three days, and at a cost in manufacture of not more than twenty thousand dollars for the entire supply. It would eliminate all manner of plant and animal life, so that, after allowing a reasonable period for rotting, there would be the opportunity for an absolutely fresh start. . . . It was a fascinating idea. Applied (for instance) to Mexico, it seemed almost worth the risk that any little error in distribution might spread to eliminate one or two of the southern states. Perhaps even Hollywood . . .

        There was no doubt that Dr. Asherton was the greatest chemist of his day. He knew that himself. But that was a very different thing from being on the Social Register of the elite of American Society. One upon whom Miss Vandergraft would ask to call. It would be difficult for an Englishman to understand the feelings with which he read the letter, because there is nothing in that democratic country to correspond with the social gulf which divided them. . . . There was the possibility of hoax, but that anyone would dare to attempt it was an improbable blasphemy, such as would only be conceived, if at all, by some recently-landed alien who knew not that which he did.

        Still, explanation there must be, and Dr. Asherton was not the man to leave a problem unsolved. He considered first that there might probably be a connection between this approach and the subject of his recent publicity. From that deduction it was easy to conclude that Miss Vandergraft's mind had been disturbed by the possibilities of the wholesale warfare rendered possible by such inventions. Probably she required an assurance from the Fellowship of International Scientists that Bailey's Beach would be protected under every possible circumstance. He saw nothing unreasonable in that. It was another point on which his mental process would be difficult to an English mind, but a citizen of the United States will understand very easily.

        He was reminded of a letter he had had from Dr. Liebstein of Prague a few days before, suggesting that there should be a secret convention among the scientists of all nations protecting certain areas in which they could reside securely, or undertaking to communicate among themselves the antidote of any gases that might be invented. Such an arrangement would make the use of these wholesale agents of destruction unimportant, if not actually beneficial in their operations, especially as the politicians would not be included in the protective treaties. . . . There was no doubt that he would see Miss Vandergraft. The audacity of refusal did not invade his mind.

        Miss Vandergraft was somewhat shabbily dressed in black. She leaned on an ebony stick. She came up in the elevator with a younger lady in attendance, whom she told to wait in the outer room when she was shown into Dr. Asherton's office.

        But Dr. Asherton did not see a dowdy elderly woman with an awkwardly shapeless body, surmounted by a shapeless face. He saw the one remaining arrogance of aristocracy that the world holds. He saw the royalty of the United States. He saw Miss Vandergraft.

        The lady appeared to be puzzled a moment by the conventional idiom, and then accepted it with a nod. She plunged into her subject without further fencing, and Dr. Asherton quickly realised that he had not guessed the subject of her visit correctly. Indeed, as she sat opposite him, he could see its absurdity. It would never cross her mind that her country could be so negligent or incompetent as to fail to provide for her security, and, had she done so, she would not have come to him. She would have sent a note to the President to have the matter put right at once. What are Presidents for?

        "I suppose, Dr. Asherton," she began, "you've heard about Harry, and Gehenna Sue?"

        Dr. Asherton had not. But he felt that a simple negative would be ill received. He collected what information he had in an orderly mind. He knew that Miss Vandergraft's nephew, the young multimillionaire, was named Harry. He knew that Gehenna Sue was a Broadway star. He believed (accurately) that Gehenna was not of the nature of a descriptive adjective, but merely indicated the Colorado mining-town from which she came. Yet no one would be likely to think it unfitting. Gehenna Sue did not go upon the stage with any calculated vulgarities. There was no need to instruct her in the measure of indecency which a Broadway audience expects to get for its money. She would be just herself, and if there were a call for more, it would not be because they were dissatisfied with what they had received already.

        "You don't approve?" he asked tentatively.

        Miss Vandergraft's reply was explosive, but indicated that he had guessed the nature of the trouble with sufficient accuracy. Yet why on earth should she come to him? Was he to be asked to gas this bare-limbed female for the recovery of Miss Vandergraft's peace of mind?

        So he wondered, while that lady blew off steam in a final arraignment of Gehenna Sue's character, which ended in an inarticulate snort.

        "By which you mean," Dr. Asherton asked, with the scientist's preference for precision of statement, "that she is not strictly celibate?"

        Miss Vandergraft did.

        "I am extremely sorry," he went on, with a suitable gravity, "to hear of this unfortunate entanglement. Yet I scarcely see what I can do to help you. Unfortunately, I am not acquainted with either of the young - the parties concerned. If the matter be serious, might it not be better to buy her off?"

        Miss Vandergraft said grimly that it couldn't be done. She remembered the derision with which Harry had told her that the young woman was earning four thousand bucks a week. (Harry would use those vulgar words, say what you might.)

        Dr. Asherton feebly suggested that even marriage might not be a permanent evil, the young woman's character being what it was. Divorce is easy to get.

        Miss Vandergraft snorted again. Divorce is easy for the rich, but it is not cheap. There would be the question of alimony. The Courts of the United States are inclined to be liberal to the young women that millionaires discard periodically, from whatever cause - liberal with money which is not theirs.

        Dr. Asherton agreed. He withdrew his suggestion. But what could he do?

        "I thought," Miss Vandergraft answered, coming to her point at last, "that you might give me something."

        "I'm afraid," he answered, after one moment of startled silence, "that I don't quite understand." Did she think him a vendor of poisons for private use? The inventor of poison gases was shocked by such a suggestion, even from her.

        Miss Vandergraft answered at length, making herself clear. She understood that the scientists of the middle ages were a poor lot. Yet in Mediaeval Italy, the love-potion, either of attraction or repulsion, had been a regularly manufactured article. People wouldn't have gone on buying things that were no good. Were the scientists of God's own country to be outdone by back numbers like that? She wanted something that would make Harry feel so that the next time the young woman came fawning round him, he'd kick her off like a dog.

        Dr. Asherton answered with deliberation. He did not deny that there was probably something more than imposture in the potions of the old alchemists. They were certainly experts in poisons. We had had to regain much of their knowledge, which we had first regarded as superstition. But - and just then a thought came to him. There was a recent discovery of his that he had not had an opportunity of trying upon any members of the human race. He had not considered it in such a connection as this, and yet - what effect would it have? . . . Yes, he saw his way to the experiment without difficulty or detection, and to being paid instead of having to pay.

        "I don't say it couldn't be done," he said, "but it would mean a huge fee."

        "I would give five thousand dollars when I had seen it act," the old lady said, with a tone of benevolent liberality.

        "I should require fifty thousand paid in advance."

        "I couldn't possibly think of that," Miss Vandergraft replied, in a tone of finality.

        "I should require an undertaking of secrecy, with a penalty of the same amount if it should be broken," he went on in a tone of equal firmness.

        She changed her ground weakly. "Could you guarantee that it would succeed?"

        "There would be absolute certainty."

        "There wouldn't be anything criminal? It isn't vitriol?" she asked fatuously.

        "It will have no more result than a change in temperature."

        Miss Vandergraft was not impressed. If Dr. Asherton thought that Gehenna Sue was suffering from a genuine passion for Harry - fancy Harry inspiring a - well, he had another guess coming.

        "You won't do any good that way," she said. "She's as cold as a fish."

        "That," Dr. Asherton answered confidently, "is just the idea."

        Gehenna Sue had an expensive flat. She had an expensive maid. She had expensive clothes. She had very expensive cosmetics. She had bought all these with a pair of active legs and an exceptionally pert vivacity.

        But this expenditure was not exhausted. They had still to buy her a husband suitable for the first lady in the land, which she did not doubt herself to be. Harry Vandergraft had the bucks, and he had the name. But for the frequent refilling of the flask in his hip-pocket, he might have been quite a nice boy. She was not unreasonable. She knew that it was absurd to look for great wealth without its natural results. To inherit millions is a test which few characters can endure. In Harry's case it might have been much worse.

        She was in good spirits when he came this afternoon having had an amazingly improbable call from his aunt half an hour before, at which the old lady had been almost affable, and had responded at once to the suggestion that they should have a drink together. She had been afraid that she had offered her guest a poor bottle of wine, for it had seemed somewhat bitter to her, but Miss Vandergraft had appeared quite satisfied, so she had taken another glass for herself, which had certainly tasted better. When the drinks were over, her visitor had left somewhat unceremoniously, but without actual rudeness. Look at it how you would, it meant a great deal! It was parley, if not surrender. She told Harry about it at once.

        But Harry was at the gloomy stage of inebriation. He remarked sombrely that if the old tabby had come to poison her, it would be the most likely thing. Gehenna Sue, who knew from film and stage (from which, and the bar of a Gehenna saloon, all her knowledge of life came), that ladies are quite liable to poison those upon whom they call, had a moment's panic as she thought of that bitter taste, and then put the silly idea out of her head with a natural optimism, and the consciousness that she was feeling quite well. Yet it recurred to her later, and was largely responsible for the events which followed.

        . . . She was not conscious of any change in herself. The room had become uncomfortably, inexplicably warm. Harry was strangely hot to touch. But she still felt her vigorous, tireless self, and she proceeded to his wooing with her philosophy of the gutter, which consisted mainly in offering him the freedom of nine-tenths of her person, and provoking a continual consciousness of the remaining fraction.

        She found him puzzlingly unresponsive, even considering the stage of drunkenness through which he was passing, and when he threw himself down on the couch, and she perched herself on its head, and put her legs round his neck in a way which he ought to have appreciated, he pushed them roughly away, with an irritable enquiry why she was so damned clammy this afternoon?

        "The fact is, Harry," she said at that, "you're just ill, and you'd better make a streak for home before you get worse. I won't have you falling ill here. There'll be no scandal in this flat. Not for this baby. You're too hot to touch."

        Harry Vandergraft went, a rather frightened man.

        But Harry Vandergraft was not so frightened as Sue became when she returned to the flat in the early morning from her usual performance. She had had experiences which might have puzzled a much wiser girl than she was ever likely to be.

        She had one turn, the humour of which consisted in her audacious wooing of a sanctimonious young man, who shrank from her advances with all the evidences of acute shock. It was always a winner, but never before had he acted with such convincing realism as tonight, when he had untwisted her clinging arms as though they were actual reptiles about his neck. Only at last had he gone wrong. At that moment, when he was expected to be overcome by her seductions, he failed to rise to the required occasion. He had submitted, indeed; but it had been with the expression not of one in Paradise, but rather as enduring a reluctant Purgatory.

        And then the stage manager, when he had slapped her shoulder, as we all know that managers may, had had a sudden look on his face as one who touches an unexpected worm. And - there had been other things.

        Gehenna Sue, lying awake in the night, and kicking off bedclothes for which she felt no necessity, was vaguely conscious of a change in herself which she found inexplicable. It was then that she remembered what Harry had said. It is a curious reflection that the truth seemed more probable to her than it might have done to a more sophisticated mind. Miss Vandergraft had done something to her. Something sinister. The suspicion grew to conviction. Something to make her unattractive to men. . . . Well, she would return the call.

        Having formed this resolution, she felt better, in spite of the oppression of the overheated room. She got out of bed to turn off the heat. The polished floor was not as hot as the central rug. Under the window it was almost normal. It was there that she went to sleep.

        Miss Vandergraft was no coward, or she might have declined the interview, as her servants expected her to do. But she had a great curiosity. Also, she was a business woman. She had paid fifty thousand dollars for the half-spoonful of powder which she had dropped into the glass of Gehenna Sue. Was she not to see its effects? She said: "Show her up."

        The two ladies shook hands, and though Miss Vandergraft had less excuse than most for any surprise at what she felt, she controlled her repulsion with difficulty. It was like handling a fish.

        "Do I feel cold to you?" Sue enquired sweetly, and then added, without waiting for a reply: "You'll be quite as cold half an hour after you've been plugged."

        We know that Miss Vandergraft rejected slang from her vocabulary, but she had no difficulty in following Gehenna Sue's meaning of this occasion, assisted as it was by the sight of a small silver-mounted revolver which lay placidly in her visitor's hand. She began to feel an anticipatory chill which was most uncomfortable.

        "How about putting things right before you go where you belong?" Gehenna Sue asked.

        "I don't know what you mean," Miss Vandergraft replied, shaking like a dignified jelly.

        "That's rough on you. It was the one chance you had not to cash in. . . . See here, old woman, I'm not going on living like this, with everyone round me as hot as pie, and just drawing away at the first touch like a snail's horns. If you know how to get this right, you can put me wise, and I'll let you go on till I've tried it out, and then we can finish our talk. But if you don't know, or won't say, it's a good-sized box and 'this our sister' for you."

        "If I give you the man's name - " gasped the desperate woman, who saw no mercy in the fish-like eyes that were fixed upon her.

        "So there's a man in it? I might have guessed that. You haven't the brains to . . . Well, spit it out."

        "Dr. Asherton gave it to me. He lives at - "

        "Yes, I know. Overlooks Central Park. He's that stinking poisoner who lives near where the real doctors are. Harry showed me his house, when we were by that way last Sunday. I suppose this is about his size. Well, if he puts it right, it'll be luck for you. Like a good feel before I go? You'll be plugged if you squeal."

        Miss Vandergraft felt the muzzle of the revolver against her chest. It was cold enough, but not so cold as the arm that was round her neck; not nearly so cold as the corpselike face that was laid against her own. But she was too frightened to scream.

        Dr. Asherton was distinctly uncomfortable. He had been awakened from the afternoon doze which had become the habit of his obese and prosperous days, to find a young woman regarding him with an expression which made it evident that her attractions were not for him. He had scarcely put his hands up, which is an uncomfortable thing to do when you are lying on your side on a couch in your own room, and rather stiff and heavy from an interrupted doze, before he guessed who his visitor was, and found no satisfaction in the thought. Her words quickly confirmed his suspicion.

        "So you're the guy that gives folk the chills? Folk that have done you no harm. . . . What did she pay you for that?"

        The question brought the terms of the bargain to the scientist's mind. Miss Vandergraft had actually paid fifty thousand dollars down, and had left a further cheque for the same amount in his hands to be used as a penalty should she bring his name, by whatever indiscretion, into the foreground of the event. He considered, not unreasonably, and with a coolness that did him credit under the circumstances, that that cheque was now his. Under the persuasive influence of that confronting muzzle, he narrated these circumstances.

        "You can give me that cheque," was the cool comment of his unwelcome visitor, "and what you picked up before. That'll let you out, if you put it right in about two ticks. I suppose you can?" There was a note of not unnatural anxiety in the concluding question.

        Dr. Asherton admitted that he could. He went further, saying that he was prepared to do so. But he had now recognised the strength of his position. She was in his hands, as he in hers. If he restored her to her former temperature, he would not also surrender the money which was his only recompense for the trouble he had undertaken, and the annoyance he now sustained. But he found her as hard at a bargain as he could be. In the end, it was agreed that he should keep the money he already had, and that the second cheque should be handed over to Gehenna Sue, as it was through her energy that it had become due for collection.

        "I will, in fact," said the inventor of poison gases, when this treaty had been reached, and he was allowed to assume a more natural posture, "do more for you than I have undertaken. The loss of temperature which you have sustained can only be restored by an injection which will have the further effect of giving you the complexion of a child of ten. Not," he added, "of a Colorado child, but of one who has been born to a more salubrious climate."

        At these words, the fish-like face of his visitor assumed, for the first time, an uncontrollable excitement. It had been the one point on which she had ever allowed to her own mind that she was something less than perfect. Prior to the catastrophe of yesterday, she had had a somewhat yellow skin.

        "Poppa," she said, almost affectionately, "if you can do that, you'll have a real hug from this baby."

        They went into the laboratory together.

        Looking at a completed incident, we may observe that there was no cause for tears. Dr. Asherton was a richer man by fifty thousand dollars, at the cost of an hour's work, and a minute's fright. Miss Vandergraft, at the cost of a hundred thousand dollars, which she would never miss, had gained the object at which she aimed; for Gehenna Sue. considering her augmented bank account, and her miraculously improved complexion, decided that she was too good for anyone but an English duke. She is the present Duchess of Towchester. Even Harry - well, when a man is already absorbing all the liquor of which he is physically capable, is it possible for him to take to drink, however much he may desire to do so? It did no harm - even to him.

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