When other young women left the little town of Campbell’s Cove to acquire culture, see the world, fall in love, and marry, Hannah Blake stayed at home, taking a job at the bank and fighting for control of the library board. Overshadowed by the more stylish and popular women in town who seem to block every attempt she makes to improve her life, Hannah remains alone—an increasingly bitter woman whose frustration threatens to erupt into violence when something wonderful happens: One of her rivals is strangled to death.
Now Hannah finally has an opportunity to soar. But as the townspeople’s suspicions tighten around her, Hannah finds that life in the spotlight is not as glorious as she had imagined.
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About the Author
Born in Chicago in 1916, she grew up on farms in Wisconsin and Illinois and graduated from college into the Great Depression. She found employment as a magic-show promoter, which took her to small towns all over the country, and subsequently worked on the WPA Writers Project in advertising and industrial relations. During World War II, she directed the benefits program of a major meatpacking company for its more than eighty thousand employees in military service. She was married for forty-seven years to the late Harry Davis, an actor, with whom she traveled abroad extensively. She currently lives in Palisades, New York.
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A Town of Masks
By Dorothy Salisbury Davis
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1952 Dorothy Salisbury Davis
All rights reserved.
HANNAH BLAKE PICKED UP the telephone as it rang a second time. Once it would have amused her secretary to get the few odd words of added dictation "out of left field" as she called it—the sentence Miss Blake was always in the midst of when her phone rang. Now she was merely bored by it, and doodled Ho-hum, ho-hum, in shorthand. Invariably, hanging up, Miss Blake would say, "Let's take it from—" and pick up the letter from the very last word before the phone's ringing.
Hannah, however, was aware only of the words she improvised and the impression she calculated them to make on her caller.
Elizabeth Merritt, the Campbell's Cove librarian, was on the phone to remind her of the meeting of the library board that night. Miss Blake was very grateful. It might have slipped her mind, she was so busy these days, what with her civil defense work, the increased volume of business at the bank, and all. While she spoke, she circled the notation of the meeting already on her calendar pad.
"It's election of officers," Miss Merritt concluded.
"So it is. I shall be there at nine. Thank you, Elizabeth."
She told her secretary to let the rest of the day's correspondence go, and wished presently that she had not been so precipitant. It was as important to Hannah to be busy, as it was to create the impression of it. Her work as cashier of the Campbell's Cove Loan and Savings Bank was not adequate to her need. Nor did all her numerous outside activities satisfy her. But now she wanted a few moments to contemplate the significance of the call. She could not remember getting such a reminder of other meeting nights, and it might very well be that Elizabeth had been instructed to call her by the nominating committee. She might be up for president of the library board.
Easy, she told herself, her mind taking nasty little darts into the past for similar occasions. In fact, she was on the library board in the first place because Franklin Wilks, president of the bank, had delegated her to take his seat. But she had served well. No one could question that. Any job she had ever put her mind to had been well done, and no one knew it better than Franklin Wilks. The trouble was that no one in the Cove except Wilks seemed to know it. And certainly he had learned it in spite of himself.
Hannah's father had been president of the bank until his death, and when he knew that to be imminent, he had seen to Hannah's appointment as cashier. Wilks, in time, had the grace to say that the old man knew what he was about. Before she had savored the compliment, however, Wilks had added, "Your father always wanted a son, didn't he, Hannah?"
"Well, he had to be satisfied with what he got," she had replied, to her immediate chagrin.
Wilks had smiled, something sly about the corners of his mouth. "We all do in this world, my dear, and we rarely know when it's best for us."
Meaning, she had decided immediately, that she was foisted upon him and the bank, and had turned out better than they might have expected. To this day, the whole atmosphere of that moment came back to her with a sickening vividness. And it was fifteen years past.
"Dead leaves," she said aloud. "Dead leaves rattle."
Her secretary looked up from the typewriter. "Were you talking to me, Miss Blake?"
"I think we may have time to finish the correspondence after all, Nancy."CHAPTER 2
THERE WAS NO COLLEGE or university in Campbell's Cove. Nevertheless this town of fifteen thousand population on the coast of Lake Michigan attracted a fair number of scholars each year. For one reason, it was a quiet, clean place, with most of its manufacturing devoted to wood products: furniture, box-making and boat-building. But the scholars came primarily because the town boasted one of the finest municipally owned libraries in the country. Some of the volumes in its religious collection were an inheritance from the town's founders, a colony of Campbellites who had chosen the site that there they might better emulate Christ's disciples, most of them becoming fisherfolk.
Until midway in the history of Campbell's Cove, fishing had been its most prosperous industry. To it had come a good many emigrants from the west coast of Ireland, gradually taking it over from the diminishing disciples. The remains of the industry now were more romantic than prosperous, and the high-born of the town usually credited this to the mismanagement and stubbornness of the Irish. Whatever the cause of the industry's decline, the Irish clung doggedly to the ruin, and though their houses on Front Street were ramshackle, they held their boats in high pride. It was a lovely sight to see the small, flat-bottomed craft glide out of the Cove at daybreak and in at sundown heavy with the day's catch.
The Front Streeters had a staunch defender uptown—Maria Adams Verlaine. Nor was Front Street her only interest. She was active in all civic enterprises, and one of the main benefactors of the library.
Maria Adams had been sent to France to finish her education in the early twenties. There she had met Georges Verlaine and married him. He died soon thereafter, and she returned to Campbell's Cove and her father's comfortable house on Cherry Street. She had acquired some "foreign" ways and her late husband's library. She cherished both. She never read anything in English, according to Hannah Blake; certainly nothing by an American until it reached her in French translation. On occasion, some of the community, wishing to ingratiate themselves, would bring her books in French. She passed them all along, from primers to James Joyce, to the Verlaine Collection in the public library. The inaccuracy of Hannah's comment on her reading habits was evident in the absence of French titles in Maria's personal library. But Hannah enjoyed her prejudices.
It was strange that she could like Maria at all, she often thought. Their interests were so different, and probably no one in Campbell's Cove hurt her so deeply and so frequently. It was not a deliberate hurt on Maria's part, which was the crux of the matter, although Hannah seldom faced it as such. They were contemporaries. But when Maria Adams went to France, Hannah enrolled in the state university. She had not married. These many years hence she could count an opportunity or two. Opportunities, she had decided, were rarely recognizable at their occurrence. She was not likely to have missed hers, seeing it, where Maria was unlikely, especially as Hannah remembered her in those days, to have known an opportunity from a calamity. And she had always been a little suspect of Maria's French husband. Still, it would seem now that there really had been one. After years of wrangling through the French courts, the estate was settled, and a fair share of it upon his American wife, by all accounts.
How had she managed the library in the first place, Hannah wondered. No doubt she had packed the books and shipped them out without a by-your-leave to anyone. Which was making opportunity, not taking advantage of it. And no more than the husband's family deserved, marrying the Adams money. That was certainly all of America Frenchmen wanted. But Maria would not hear a word against them. The most irksome thing about Maria was her Gallicism. Galloping Gallicism.
Hannah was pleased with the phrase she had turned up, and driving home that afternoon went over in her mind those to whom she might tell it. Then she weighed its effect on Maria, getting word of it through a good carrier. It was a pleasant speculation.
Hannah left the car under the portico of the big, sprawling house. She stopped a moment in the kitchen to give Sophie, her "country girl," instructions for dinner. Something light as there would be supper at Mrs. Verlaine's after the board meeting. The lighter the better where Sophie was concerned, Hannah thought. She would be out of her apron before the coffee was poured, and tapping boogie woogie on the doorstep to be off. Hannah paused at the back door.
"You won't have to wait after serving tonight, Sophie. I'll stack the dishes and you may do them in the morning."
"Thanks, Miss Blake." Sophie's eyes were dancing. "You're a honey."
Well. She was not "a honey," whatever that might be, Hannah thought, outdoors again. "A honey" should be something light and blond and frivolous. Sweet, surely. She was neither blond nor light—although she was but ten pounds more than she had weighed at forty, and large-boned. All the Blakes had been large-boned, a fine hardy stock to have dwindled down to her in one generation. Pioneers. Nine generations American, five in Campbell's Cove. All that to be called "a honey" by Sophie. Not especially gratifying. Still it was important to be liked by those working for you, however distasteful their manner of expressing it.
She paused on the path and breathed deeply. The roses were beginning to bloom. Soon great jagged clumps of them would be groping over the white trellises. Lovely. And in the vegetable garden the green peas were already climbing. Never had the grounds looked better. She had done well by the "Blake Place." Never was it so rich in growth—if so poor in inheritors.
"Denny's gone, Miss Blake," Sophie called from the kitchen doorway.
Hannah nodded. Obviously Denny was gone. He wasn't there. It need not be shouted to the world, telling everyone in effect that the boy suffered her and her garden the amount of time he chose, and at his convenience. On his terms or hers, however, she had done well in hiring Dennis Keogh that spring. He was a born gardener. Everything he touched seemed to smile for him, which was more of cheer than he gave in return.
She frowned and moved on to the cucumber mounds, the toes of her shoes sinking into the soft eddies of soil. She stepped back and tried to smooth out the imprints with her fingers. Sophie must have no end of excitement these days, she thought, which accounted for the improvement in her housekeeping. When Sophie did her work in a hurry it was well done. When she dreamed over it, it was slipshod. And her face was alive with freckles. Plenty of sunshine.
Dennis tolerated the girl, no doubt, throwing her a word now and then, which would be enough for a silly thing like Sophie—and earn him the delicacies of the house in return. She probably cleaned his room for him, too. Something more than Hannah had expected, offering him the room over the garage as part of his salary.
She went along to the tool shed for a trowel, having thoroughly trampled the mounds in trying to repair them. If he had many words in him, she thought, he spared precious few of them. None of the little nonsensities that were the stock and trade of most boys. Nor was he a boy any longer. He was twenty-two or three at least, and a vagrant, really. Winters in Florida, sailing boats for the idle by what she had heard, and summers in Campbell's Cove doing the odd jobs at the wharves, and now in her garden. By no kindness, a responsible citizen. Unfortunate in days like these when every young man with gumption had the chance for a career. But typical of the times. It all came too easy, she thought, education for signing your name, a job for whistling "My Country, 'Tis of Thee." It was spoiling the young and giving the politicians a stranglehold on the nation.
The tool shed was damp and cool, the smell of earth and fertilizer pungent. Dennis was neat. Not a trowel in sight. He had quite taken over. It was very well to have a place for everything, but no need of its being a hiding-place. Even the workbench drawers were locked. The keys, however, hung in their usual place, the ring hooked on a nail at the side of the window. She took them down and turned the key in one drawer after another, deliberately leaving them unlocked.
In the bottom drawer she found a notebook which looked as though it should contain an account of expenditures. Organization beyond what she expected of Dennis Keogh. She flipped the pages, not intending to look closely at any of them, although undoubtedly it was her business. But the notebook contained writing, not numbers, neat, half-printed words with one here and there among them meticulously scratched out and another inserted above it. Poetry.
Hannah sucked in her breath and blew it out again. The wondrous, secret ways of humans, she thought. She read one phrase:
Tell me you are waiting the long night through
She glanced out the window and saw Sophie's white apron as the girl moved to and fro in the kitchen. Her heart was pounding ridiculously. She put a hand to it, her fingers slipping down the softness of her breast, and in the other held the book to the late afternoon light.
Tell me you are waiting the long night through
And I will come at daybreak.
With the first bird's singing I shall tread the dew
And whisper you awake,
She read no more, thrusting the book back where she had found it and locking all the drawers she had opened. The key was moist in her hand. Only with great effort did she leave the shed at what she took to be her usual step. She rounded the house and went in the front door that she might not meet Sophie until she was dressed and ready for dinner.
It was ridiculous to be upset in discovering that Dennis Keogh wrote poetry, she told herself, and that was all, really, she had discovered. Most young men wrote verse—too many of them merely scratching it on public walls. What a miserable association! Oh, bother all of it. Things were at a fine pass when she was denied the peace of roaming her own property—when secrets got locked in her tool shed. Perhaps he had left them there intending her to find them—to read them—
Enough. She began to sing while she drew her bath, catching at the words of a song popular in the twenties. It turned her thoughts to Maria Verlaine again. Tonight Maria couldn't hurt her. She felt it in her heart. Tonight would be Hannah Blake's night. And, getting up from her dressing-table clad in her foundation garment, she smiled and nodded in the mirror, rehearsing the humble self-assurance with which she would accept the nomination.CHAPTER 3
HANNAH HELD HER WATCH TO the dashboard as she drove up to the library. It was five minutes after nine. She peered into the parking area. Mrs. Verlaine's car was there and so was Edward Baker's. Satisfied, she drove in. She liked to be early as little as she liked to be late.
She was taken by surprise on the library steps to find Dennis Keogh standing there with an armful of books. Very handsome he looked, she thought, with the open-collared sport shirt: a young Byron or Keats. Or better Poe, with that sober mien. She wondered if it weren't an affectation, one of youth's many poses. Still, he didn't need to practice it on her. Even with that thought she realized it had worked very well in getting her attention. And she was curious as to why he was lingering now on the library steps.
"You work like a Brownie, Dennis," she said after greeting him.
"How's that, Miss Blake?"
"Brownies, I'm afraid, are out of date," she said. "I meant that I rarely catch you working, and yet the garden looks as though you were at it night and day."
"Thank you," he murmured.
"And time to read besides," she said, laying a finger on his books. "I've always maintained that the busier a person is the more time he has. Well. I have a library board meeting."
"I know." He nodded. "Good night, Miss Blake."
She watched him go down the walk in great, long strides that took him soon beyond her vision. Either he had planned that she should meet him there or she had startled him away from another meeting. As she moved to the door, she wondered if he would return after she was gone. Unlikely with the distance he had already put between him and the library. He was not dawdling.
One of the library assistants almost collided with her as she opened the door, the Clennan girl. She certainly didn't waste time getting away after closing time, Hannah thought. She wondered if she knew anything at all about books. Probably not. Most librarians didn't. Elizabeth Merritt was the exception. They had been fortunate to get a Campbell's Cove girl with her ability. And a girl with her origins on Front Street no more than a generation back! Elizabeth was indeed exceptional. The happy recollection came to her that Elizabeth had given her name for reference in applying for the post. Just out of school, she had the courage to go after a big job, and the luck to get it. Hannah could still remember her words of recommendation as she had written them: Modest, pleasant, and intelligent beyond her years. Six years were not so long ago. She wondered if Elizabeth had a voice in the nominations.
Excerpted from A Town of Masks by Dorothy Salisbury Davis. Copyright © 1952 Dorothy Salisbury Davis. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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