By H. P. Oliver
2017 HPO Productions
All Rights Reserved
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Pulling through the gates onto Estelle Abernathy's estate, we could see the long drive was already lined with cars. An attendant at the gate, however, told us to continue on to the house and someone there would take care of the car for us.
Driving past a long line of Cadillacs, Packards, and even two sporty Duesenbergs, it occurred to me that, if automobiles had feelings, my humble, but loyal little Chevrolet was probably feeling quite out of place among such automotive luminaries. For that matter, I was having some of the same feelings about myself, so I gave it a pat on the dashboard and Eliza gave me a strange look, but didn't ask.
We pulled up in front of the mansion's entrance where valets in black and gray striped vests opened the car doors for us. The fellow on my side of the car handed me a small ticket stub with which he said I could reclaim my automobile when we were ready to leave.
The festive illumination for the party was almost garish. There were large, colorful bulbs strung overhead and carefully placed spotlights lit up the house, itself, making the mansion appear to float like Xanadu against the dark hillside. We could hear music, too, and it was definitely not Victrola music. It sounded as if a small orchestra had taken up residence in the backyard. They were playing Mountain Greenery.
Eliza's eyes were wide. "Heavens, look at this place! My parents took me to the Venice amusement pier when I was ten years old and it had nothing on this."
We were met at the mansion's entrance by Miss Abernathy's Latin butler. "Good evening Senorita Hamm and Señor Kinney. Welcome to Miss Abernathy's reception. Dinner is to be served in the grand hall at eight o'clock. Libations and hors d'oeuvres are available in the garden by the swimming pool. If you should desire anything else, feel free to ask any member of the staff. Please enjoy yourselves."
As we walked inside, Eliza leaned toward me and said softly, "Wow, they know you by name around here. You must be special."
"Not that special. I was just here Wednesday. I will admit, though, his attitude toward me seems much friendlier than it did last time."
Eliza lit up her smile. "How could anyone not be friendly to such a charming and witty fellow?"
"I can't imagine. This way."
Wondering how it was that Estelle's butler also knew Eliza at a glance, I led her into the library where I had interviewed Miss Abernathy. From there we went out the door to the side garden with the fountain. Outside, we walked around toward the crowd in the backyard. This maneuver allowed us to see the party in full swing without being in the middle of it.
"Gee, you sure know your way around this place. You sure you were only here once before?"
Looking the crowd over, I said, "Positive. Tell me, who is that dark-haired woman in the red gown over there dancing with the bald fellow?"
Trying to sound indignant, Eliza said, "Well, that beats all! We haven't been here five minutes and you're already looking at another woman."
"She's not my type. I just saw her with Miss Abernathy this morning and I thought it might be a good idea to know her role in this spectacle."
"If you must know, that is Aurora Abernathy, Estelle Abernathy's daughter."
"Daughter? I thought Miss Abernathy never married."
Eliza gave me a pitying look. "Just so it doesn't come as a big surprise to you someday, darling, one does not have to married to have a child. In this case, however, Aurora is Estelle Abernathy's adopted daughter. Miss Abernathy adopted her from Saint Andria's a while back. Maybe five years ago."
My arm was around Eliza's waist and I gave her a squeeze. "Thank you, and thanks for the biology lesson. I'll be sure to keep it in mind."
Giving me a nudge with her hip, she said, "See that you do."
"Would you care for a libation, Miss Hamm?"
"I would. Just a Coca-Cola, please."
Grinning, I said, "What? No booze?"
She gave me a stern look. "That would be a violation of the Volstead Act. Lips that touch liquor shall not touch mine!"
I look heavenward and muttered, "Oh brother," as I walked off to the bar.
Returning with two Coca-Colas over ice, I handed one to Eliza. "Thank you, darling. While you were gone I did some celebrity spotting. Would you like a rundown on the Who's Who of who's here?"
"That would be most helpful."
"All right, the most recognizable celebrities I've spotted are Gloria Swanson and Harold Lloyd. He's here with his wife, Mildred. As for local bigwigs, Mayor Finley is here, as is Laselle Thornburgh, the esteemed president of the City Council."
"Very useful, but you missed one of the biggest names here."
Surprised, Eliza said, "I did? Who did I miss?"
I had succeeded in surprising her. "He's here?"
"Right over there, the fellow talking with the redheaded woman in the green dress."
"That's Chaplin? I didn't recognize him without his moustache and derby. Goodness, he's quite a handsome fellow without his tramp makeup."
Giving Eliza a small dose of her own medicine, I said, "He's a louse."
"Darling! How can you say such a thing about the poor little tramp?"
"Poor? Chaplin is one of the richest men in the world. And he's still a louse."
Looking coy, Eliza said, "Don't worry darling, I will remember who brought me to the ball."
At dinner Eliza and I were seated next to one another about halfway down one side of the table. The menu included baked ham, goose, and more than a sufficient number of side dishes to make the sideboards sag under their weight, including a heaping lump of pate de' foie gras.
The conversation at our end of the table, however, was less abundant. I got the idea the people around us were there for a command performance and they were none too happy about it. Despite her "grand dame" stature, Estelle Abernathy was not loved by all.
After dinner we returned to the back garden. The little orchestra was playing again, so Eliza and I took advantage of that fact to have our first dance together. I'm no Vernon Castle, but Eliza's grace on the dancefloor made me look quite accomplished. I was just commenting on that fact when Estelle Abernathy's Latin butler approached us.
"Please excuse my interruption, Señor Kinney, but Miss Abernathy requests a moment of your time."
I glanced at Eliza. She said, "Don't worry, darling, I'll enjoy the music and the view while you are gone."
Nodding and wondering what this turn of events was all about, I followed the butler into the house and to the library. He held the door open as I walked in, and then closed it behind me. Estelle Abernathy was seated behind the massive desk.
"Mister Kinney, are you and Miss Hamm enjoying yourselves at our little party?"
A little surprised that Estelle Abernathy also knew Eliza, I said, "Well, Miss Abernathy, your hospitality is most gracious, but to be honest, I'm feeling a little out of place."
Estelle Abernathy surprised me again by laughing out loud. "Don't let that concern you, Mister Kinney. You are no more out of place here than I. Most of these folks would not give me the time of day if I were not rich enough to buy and sell every one of them."
Her laugh was contagious and I couldn't help smiling. "Oh, I doubt that."
"Believe me, Mister Kinney, it's the gospel truth. That, however, has nothing to do with why I asked to see you. The last time we were in this room together you asked some thoughtful questions, and then you turned my answers into a well-written and precise article. I was quite impressed, so I decided to make myself available in case you had any other particular questions on your mind tonight."
Damn! She knew! I don't know how she knew what Frederick Hamm wanted me to do, but that had to be behind the unusual offer she was making. Maybe she was simply intuitive enough to make a good guess, but however she figured it out, I had only a moment to make a choice. I went with my sense of what was right.
"No, Miss Abernathy, I have no questions at the moment. Of course, I'm interested in hearing more about your life and experiences, but nothing of an urgent nature."
Estelle Abernathy looked into my eyes. Her face was totally without expression, and she just stared at me for several long moments. Finally, she asked, "Are you quite sure of that, Mister Kinney?"
Without hesitation, I said, "Quite sure, Miss Abernathy."
She smiled. "In that case, Mister Kinney, you may call me Estelle from now on, assuming of course, you don't mind me calling you Lester."
Thinking this was the second time in a few hours my name had been the topic of conversation. I said, "Of course you may call me Lester. I'm honored that you choose to do so."
Still smiling, Estelle said, "I know you must be curious about what just happened here, and you will figure it out in time. For now, however, it is only necessary that you understand I consider you a friend, an important friend.
"Also, there is a good deal more I wish to discuss with you, but that can wait a while. I imagine you will be quite busy tomorrow. Perhaps we can meet Monday evening for a time. Say here around eight o'clock?"
My mind was literally spinning as I tried to figure out what Estelle Abernathy was up to. Cautiously, I said, "I think Monday evening will fit my schedule, Estelle."
"Thank you, Lester, and for now, it might be prudent to keep our discussions between ourselves. You will see why I suggest that on Monday. Now, just one more thing before you go back to the party."
"I just want you to know I think you made an excellent choice in selecting your date for this evening. Eliza is charming and intelligent, to say nothing of her being a very beautiful woman. I hope your appreciation of her is more than just skin-deep."
Not sure that my feelings for Eliza were any of Estelle's concern, I said, "I assure you it is."
I left the library by the side door again and walked toward the back garden, still wondering what in heaven's name had just happened. I spotted Eliza almost immediately. She was standing with her back to me not far from where we stood when we first arrived. She was, however, not alone.
As I approached, I heard her say, "Mister Chaplin . . ."
"Charlie, call me Charlie."
"Mister Chaplin, I have already explained to you that I am waiting for someone and I have no desire whatsoever to dance with you."
Chaplin sounded almost desperate. Apparently he was not used to being turned down and his ego was bruised. "Why not? There isn't another woman here who wouldn’t love to dance with me."
"Then go dance with one of them and leave me alone."
"But . . ."
"Mister Chaplin, I have it on good authority that you are a louse. I do not dance with lice. Now leave me alone or I will make a scene."
Chaplin looked ready to take one more try at Eliza when he saw me approaching. He gave me a smirk and beat a hasty retreat.
To Eliza I said, "How about dancing with me instead?"
Without turning, she said, "That is the offer I have been waiting for, Mister Kinney."