George Bradshaw wrote romances and mysteries for the Post and other popular magazines during his career that spanned more than 40 years. His last short story for this magazine, “The Privileged Class,” follows a curious mix of guests at a remote Mexican Inn and a romantic triangle that exposes the harsh truth about class differences and love.
Published on December 3, 1966
Civilization at the Hacienda Lucknow depended upon a gasoline engine. The gasoline engine made electricity, the electricity made ice, and the ice chilled the drinks which the guests at the hacienda so seriously needed.
The gasoline came by boat from Guaymas, a hundred miles across the gulf, and Doña Lucia, dubious of the winds and tides, always kept an excess supply at hand in drums sunk in the ground. Oh, there were occasional rumors of ice in the town of Las Rosas, but that was ten back-breaking miles around Santa Rosa Bay, and the rumors usually proved unfounded. As for ice beyond that — well, a road supposedly went west over the mountains to join the highway to La Paz, but no one had ever been found who soberly, truthfully, would say he had driven it. “Have more ice,” Doña Lucia would say. “There is plenty of gasoline.” On your first day at the Hacienda Lucknow you were not accustomed yet to think of ice as a triumph. But such it was.
I found Doña Lucia’s hotel by chance. You are not likely to hear of it, for it has only nineteen rooms, is never advertised, and can be reached only by plane or boat. I was staying in Guaymas when somebody told me about it. A young Mexican, Luis something, who had a converted C-47 which he used as a tramp, was flying over in a couple of days, and he agreed to take me. If I liked it, I could stay; if not, he would bring me back.
The trip was comfortable. Luis had equipped his plane with two ancient, overstuffed velvet chairs behind the cockpit. I had one of them; a young American girl, Helen Adams, had the other.
Miss Adams knew where she was going and why. In the forty-five minutes it took us to fly the Gulf of California, I learned something about this pretty girl.
Her room was reserved at the Hacienda Lucknow. She would stay a month. “I’m on a field trip,” she said. “I’m with the Hedges Oceanographic Institute. I’m a conchologist.”
I told her that was interesting.
“Of course, all this coastline has been hunted for shells,” she said, “but I still may be able to come up with something wonderful.”
“A golden cowrie?” I said.
She smiled tolerantly. “Golden cowries,” she said, “are found only in the South Pacific.”
I must be careful what I say about Hellie Adams. I could easily make her sound unattractive. She was not; she was only young. We often forget how learned the young are — certainly when I was twenty-two I knew five times what I know now. Hellie was a sharp reminder that knowledge can be pure, and opinions unshakable, and that to answer yes-and-no is a sure sign of age.
I never resented her; it was touching, rather, to see someone who had such faith in facts. And she was so pretty. That first day she had on a dark gray silk dress, an elegant cowhide pouch hung over her shoulder, and she carried a pair of smart, pale-blue sunglasses. Everything was right for her dark-brown hair and golden face; the figure hid the conchologist perfectly. Only her manner was scientific.
She said to me. “What do you do?” and when I explained, she seemed disappointed.
“I hoped, if you wrote, that you did articles,” she said. “I only like articles.”
I said to her, “Articles deal in truth, and truth is so subject to fashion that I find it unrewarding.”
She said, “You’re quite wrong.”
Suddenly Santa Rosa Bay and Baja California were beneath us, and we circled in for a landing.
Doña Lucia was Lucille Corbin, once of Urbana, Illinois. Almost sixty now, she had been for thirty years a self-satisfied exile from the rainy north. She had come in the beginning, I suppose, as a tourist, but then, falling in love with the country and needing to make a living, she had become an innkeeper, first in Taxco, then Acapulco, then Jalisco, and now on the far and inconvenient shores of Santa Rosa Bay.
She is a familiar figure. If you tramp around the world, you will see her in Bermuda, in Peru, in Mexico — the elderly American Bohemian, white hair bobbed, endless cigarettes dangling from her lips, native jewelry clanking. She has a Midwest prejudice against dirt, a merry disposition, and a fluent and incompetent command of the native language. She could have stayed at home and run a tearoom, but that would not have satisfied her wandering urge; she wanted the tearoom, all right, but it must have a romantic view, and a little foreign music in the air.
Doña Lucia had tiny, pretty feet, and she showed them vainly as she padded, barefoot, around her hotel. The Hacienda had been built by a German more than fifty years ago — there were stories of funny business with submarines during World War I — but Doña Lucia had so altered it and added to it that probably very little remained of the original structure. Now it was a cool maze of patios and loggias and fountains and pleasant views; flowers and shiny leaves exerted themselves in any possible corner, and everywhere there was a comfortable place to sit down.
I meant to work, but it is hard to start right away when you arrive in a new place. So for several days I explored the coves and beaches of Santa Rosa.
I either started out with or met Hellie. She was always up early, for like everything in nature, shells are idiosyncratic — some like dawn, some like dusk, some sun, some shade — and Hellie aimed to please them all. She collected basketfuls of beautiful, foul-smelling creatures. She told me their bothersome Latin names, and taught me to distinguish one from the other.
So Hellie and I became friends, but I am afraid nothing more. I won’t say she tolerated me — that is too strong a word. Rather, she treated me with the kindness one might use toward a bright child. I believe that she divided people into two categories: those engaged in the holy rites of science, and others. “Others” were often acceptable, but fundamentally they were unimportant. Of course, I am exaggerating this attitude slightly, but it was nevertheless sometimes strong enough to nettle Doña Lucia.
The three of us had our meals together. (There were other guests at the hotel, but they were waiting for the marlin to show up, and they don’t come into this story.) One day at lunch Doña Lucia said, “And what will you do, my dear, when earth’s last shell is catalogued? Get married?”
Hellie said, “Before that, maybe.”
“Well, then,” Doña Lucia said, “find a placid man, with plenty of money.”
“The money won’t matter.”
“Oh, come,” Doña Lucia said, “be sensible.”
“Or the placid either. I’m afraid I’ll have to have a man with a brain I can respect.” She looked at me. “One who isn’t afraid of the truth.”
“Ouch,” I said.
“Men are in various ways useful,” Doña Lucia said, “but whether they have brains or not is unimportant.”
So we might have gone on talking for a month, except that just then a waiter called and pointed, and as we looked out through the long windows, we saw a yacht slowly coming in to anchor off the hotel.
“It’s Foxie Benham!” Doña Lucia said.
Yes, it was Foxie Benham. With her yacht, her captain, her guests. and her husband, in that order.
Let’s take Foxie. The first thing to remember about her is that she was rich. Not new rich. Old rich: rich with the accumulation of four generations; rich to the point of quixotic stinginess; even rich enough to be a public benefactor. She must certainly have been in her forties, but when you saw her — which was never before noon, after she had been pounded and scrubbed and brushed — she looked a good twenty-eight. Her pale shining hair, her small, tanned face, her miraculous figure — all stood the test of the brightest sun. She swam and danced and drank and ate and laughed endlessly. I think one of the things we are apt to forget about rich people is what a good time they have. They take advantage of their advantages and enjoy themselves. Foxie had an energy that may have been compulsive but was certainly real. She talked in a quick, surprising way that passed for wit, and she had the appearance of constantly being busy. She was not busy, of course; she was simply making sure that she wouldn’t be bored.
Her guests on the boat were two other couples of her world — not so rich as she, and the women not quite so handsome — but gay and pleasant people who made every show of having a good time.
It’s hard to know what to say about Jerry Benham, her husband. He was her third. He had been married to her for nine years, and it was clear that he was not going to last much longer.
Poor Jerry. If things had been different — if he had never met Foxie, that is — he might have been a successful second-rate actor. He had been a moderately successful one, and had been on his way to a small notoriety when Foxie picked him up. It was still obvious that he had been a good-looking fellow ten years ago, but the ten years of idleness and alcohol had taken their toll: Jerry, at thirty-five, looked done for.
He was not a drunk; in fact, he drank rather less than the average, but alcohol went to his tongue. He didn’t stutter; there was simply a lag in his speech. He had to force the words out. Talking to him, you found yourself helping him, finishing sentences, nodding violent agreement with half-finished ones. It was tiring to talk to him, but also unrewarding, for Jerry really had little more to talk about than ten-year-old movie news.
Possibly it is condescension on my part to say I felt sorry for Jerry. He had made his bargain in marrying Foxie, yet somehow I believed he had expected something more.
Foxie was carrying on with the captain.
Oh, the captain.
Hellie gave the best description of him at dinner that first night after they all arrived. “He’s a beautiful specimen,” she said, and gave a frantic little laugh.
Doña Lucia looked at her coldly. “No need for hysteria,” she said. “Men have been handsome before this.”
“Not like the captain,” Hellie said.
“I thought that you wanted a man with brains.”
“I do. But as an example of what the race can produce … ”
“Hands off, now,” Doña Lucia said, “if you know what’s good for you.”
“I’m a scientist. I can appreciate a specimen, can’t I?”
“If you keep a scientific view, yes. But let me tell you, Foxie has the teeth of a wolf.”
“You don’t understand.” Hellie said.
“Yes, I do,” Doña Lucia said.
He was actually a very nice fellow, Bill Daniels. The Navy had given him a good education, and he loved boats, so this present job was a perfect one. And if Foxie went with it, he wasn’t averse.
I have found that extraordinarily handsome people are usually quite nice. They have no reason not to be. Everyone likes them on sight, they go everywhere, they are either given money or given a chance to earn it easily, they have none of those problems of making a place in the world for themselves, which seem to beset the rest of us. Enjoying life, they make life enjoyable for those around them.
At least, that is what Bill Daniels did for Hellie. Perhaps it would be more exact to say that is what he did in the morning; for the rest of the day, and the night, he was a hired hand. Hellie accepted this as natural.
They met early one morning by chance in a cove where Bill was swimming and she had gone to hunt for shells. They talked and swam and looked for shells until noon, when he had to leave. But they met the next morning. Then the next, and the next. When, however, they met at other times, they only smiled and nodded. Hellie said one day, “Don’t be silly. Bill’s told me all about it. Foxie’s husband is around every minute, isn’t he? It’s just that Foxie treats everyone like a servant, especially servants. She wants Bill on call.”
“Oh,” I said, “so that’s it.”
I’m sure it all started innocently enough. From Bill’s point of view, it was certainly more fun to go swimming with a pretty girl than not, and from Hellie’s — well, it was good to have a happy fellow dive to get shells for you.
Foxie either did not know about the meetings or had proof they meant nothing. Anyway, she took a liking to Hellie when she found out about her work.
“My word, shells,” she said one evening when all the yacht people were on shore for cocktails. “I know something about shells, you know. When I was a little girl my father used to bring me down here. He was very interested in the Hedges Institute. You know the collection there from Magdalena Bay?”
“Of course I do.” Hellie said. “They’re beautiful specimens.”
With a kind of childish pride, Foxie pointed to herself. “I collected a great many of them. They were my special thing.” She leaned toward Hellie, a string of sapphires rattling on her wrist. “Look here, you and I have a lot to talk about.”
And they did, for a good twenty minutes. “Oh,” Foxie said finally, “I’d love to go hunting again.”
“Why don’t you come?” Hellie said. “Some afternoon?”
“Tomorrow,” Foxie said. “I’ll do it.”
Jerry, who had been listening carefully to all this, looked at me and smiled. I smiled back at him and nodded wisely, hoping I told him I understood everything he was thinking.
I did not, of course. I did not know one thing Jerry was thinking. I spent too much time watching the situation as it developed.
For Hellie, despite all her talk and disclaimers, fell in love with Bill. It was one of those quick and awful things, groundless, and, so far as I could see, without hope, but hard and inescapable. It happens, I suppose, to everyone at least once in his life, and this was Hellie’s time.
In her eyes there was a new, distinguishable glow; she lost the thread of conversation, she walked differently, she seemed afraid that everyone was looking at her. I felt sorry for Hellie Adams.
For let’s be blunt about it: I could see, and I was also told quite plainly by one of Foxie’s guests, what was going on. Foxie had marked Bill for her next husband, and no sweet little girl who went around picking up seashells was going to upset the plan.
It was a recent thing with Foxie too, I was told. Bill had been hired as captain innocently enough — which would explain Jerry’s presence — and the change had taken place in the six weeks since the yacht had left Santa Barbara. As Hellie said, Bill Daniels was a healthy specimen.
There you have it — but with one thing to be added which might possibly be forgotten. I mean the intimacy of all concerned.
You remember what it was like in the old days when people traveled by ship instead of plane. At the end of six days going to Europe you felt that the people you had met the first day were old, old friends, that you had known them and everything about them for months or years. The same thing happened in the isolation of the Hacienda Lucknow. By the end of two weeks we had all been in each other’s pockets long enough to know the contents, and yet not be bored. We were all delighted new friends, in the happy way of a resort, which demands no responsibility. If some of us looked apprehensively at the spectacle of Foxie and Hellie and Captain Daniels, we were all very civilized, and did not talk about it — in public. We danced and drank and had suppers on the beach and swam in the moonlight. Everything was fine, and might have remained so.
But then the whales came. Of course, it is silly to suppose the whales had anything to do with it, but they marked the day.
Foxie had invited us all out fishing. We went in one of Doña Lucia’s powerful fishing boats. There had been rumors that marlin had been killed out of Guaymas, and since marlin were one of the main reasons Foxie was at Santa Rosa, off we went. By “we” I mean the yacht people and Hellie and me; Doña Lucia was invited, of course, but she had caught enough fish in her life.
It was one of those sharp blue days with an occasional flat-bottomed cloud to turn the pale water to ink. We went fast out into the Gulf and south. José, who ran the boat, was famous for knowing where fish liked to swim.
We had been gone three hours, the lines were out, and we were possibly twelve miles offshore when we saw the first whale. He was, José said, a couple of miles away when we saw him come up and blow.
I was standing next to José. He turned to me and shrugged. “There will be no marlin,” he said. “When the whales come, the marlin go.”
I said, “Whales don’t eat marlin?”
José made a face. “The marlin don’t take a chance.”
In a little while we saw another whale, or maybe it was the first one again. But then we saw three together.
There is no way to prepare yourself for the sight. Whales are monsters of an impossible size, awkwardly playful in a way that never seems quite under control. To me they are frightening. I watched dry-mouthed and helpless when one surfaced not two hundred yards from us, water streaming from his back; he eyed us incuriously, and dived again. José said they never attack small boats; but like the marlin. I did not want to take chances. I wanted to go home. We did, but it took us almost four hours. We saw twenty-one whales.
It was not a good day. Whatever spirits we had were sobered; for the most part, we watched silently. Foxie became irritable, and insisted to José he could drive the boat faster. We all had drinks, and left our lunch untouched.
I was sitting beside Jerry Benham. Poor Jerry, I think he hated the whales worse than any of us. At the time the nearest one surfaced, he let out a little strangled cry; the blood drained from his sunburned face and turned it yellow. His hand was like a claw clutching his whiskey and soda. When it was over, he said to me, in his halting way, “It’s the worst thing I ever saw. I-I — ”
“I know,” I said. Beside him I felt brave, and I was not brave. But Jerry was in pain.
I must add, here, that two of us were undisturbed: Bill and Hellie. They sat forward, over the cabin, fascinated, calling and pointing. Maybe they knew enough about whales to be confident. Anyway, they seemed to enjoy themselves. And it is just possible that it was their enjoyment, and not the speed of the boat, that made Foxie irritable.
Whales were not the only thing that happened that day. When we got home, tired and out of humor, Doña Lucia met us at the dock and said, “A tragedy has happened. The gasoline engine has broken. We have no ice.”
We had dinner on the yacht. We all had a swim first, and after it Foxie said, “Come have dinner with us. Maybe we can cheer up a little. We need to.” Doña Lucia came along, eagerly deserting her other guests. “Let them rough it,” she said.
On the rear deck of Foxie’s boat the chairs were long and low and comfortable. I sank into one and barely moved all evening. The wind was down and the sea was silent except for the occasional gentle slap of a wave against the hull. From somewhere, softly, came piano music on a phonograph. There was a sizable slice of moon, and the air was cool.
An ideal spot for a dinner, would you not think? — with the Mexican mountains rearing up gray and wild for a backdrop. Perhaps it was the drinks; everybody drank in the hope he would feel happy, but nobody did. Blame the whales, or the fear of them. It was an uneasy night.
Jerry drank too much — out of shame, maybe — and Hellie who wasn’t used to drinking at all, drank because her heart was broken.
For that was the night Foxie went out of her way to show whom Bill Daniels belonged to. It was no vulgar display, but by her tone, her requests, her intimacy, she left no doubt in Hellie’s mind about how things stood. Once — when Jerry was away for a moment, somewhere — Bill bent down to light her cigarette. She ran her hands through his hair and said, “O captain, my captain, you’re the most beautiful captain on the seven seas.” I will say for Bill that he seemed a little embarrassed, but also I will say he made no move to do anything that would displease Foxie.
I have no good way to describe the tension that mounted as the night went on. There was no overt act, but the whole atmosphere just turned nasty. Doña Lucia caught my eye once and made a face of disdain and disgust. I nodded. Rich people, I said to myself, are only good for poor people when they are happy. It seemed a bright thought at the time.
I saw Hellie get up and go forward, out of sight. I don’t know why she went — maybe because she couldn’t watch Foxie anymore, or maybe because she thought Bill would come to her. In any case, after a little while Jerry got up and went after her. It was about five minutes after that, I think, when I heard her scream.
It was a scream of rage, and it was followed by another, and then by some high, choked words we could not understand. Just as we turned our heads, Hellie came running along the deck to us. She was pulling at the shoulder of her dress with one hand, and running the other through her hair. “Doña Lucia,” she cried, “please get the boat. Please get me out of here.”
The old lady, shocked and I think frightened, half rose from her chair.
But Foxie said only, “What’s got into you?”
She had Bill sitting beside her, and one of her arms was draped over his bare shoulder.
“You know,” Hellie said, her breath coming almost as if she were crying. “You know very well what happened.”
“Relax,” Foxie said.
Hellie was holding her head with both hands now. “Relax!” she said. “Get me out of here!” And then she sobbed. “It was you!” she screamed at Foxie. “You put him up to it.”
“The girl’s drunk,” Foxie said, and leaned back. Hellie’s words were dangerous, for Jerry had come aft now and was standing listening.
“You belong under a microscope,” Hellie said. “You put your husband up to it to keep him quiet, to keep him satisfied while you and the captain … ”
Bill said, “Take it easy.”
Foxie said, “Shut up.”
“That’s what I said,” Hellie screamed, “while you and the captain … ”
Doña Lucia had her by one arm and I by the other, and together we got her down the side and into the little boat. She sobbed quietly all the way in to the dock. Doña Lucia led her to her room and put her to bed.
Later, when everyone else was asleep, the old lady and I had a rather shaky nightcap. We sat on the loggia looking out over the sea. The moon still shone too brightly; the water was motionless, and the night soundless, peaceful.
“The truth,” Doña Lucia said, “how dangerous it is. How it is to be avoided. Look at those people. Everyone knew the situation, but they managed to live together, and there could have been a solution. But not now. The truth has been said out loud. Now no one can look at anyone else.”
I said, “What morality!”
“No,” Doña Lucia said. “That’s not morality. Just a feeling for etiquette.”
When I finally got to bed that night, I slept like a rock till six, when Doña Lucia came into my room and shook me awake. “Get up, please,” she said. “Maybe you can help.”
In the night, Jerry Benham had got a gun, shot Foxie in the shoulder, Bill Daniels in the leg, and then, turning the gun on himself, had grazed an ear.
Poor, innocent Jerry. He had aimed for tragedy, but had only made a mess.
“A mess,” Doña Lucia said, sitting on my bed, and with trembling fingers, trying to light a cigarette. “A bloody mess.”
Luis’s plane. which brought the piece of machinery to repair the gasoline engine (which made the electricity which made the ice), took away Foxie and Jerry and, on a stretcher, Captain Bill Daniels. One of the men who had been Foxie’s guest went along. The other man and the two women flew off a couple of days later. The yacht stayed for a week, then somebody sent for it.
But the Hacienda Lucknow was, after all, a hotel. New people came, purposefully bent on enjoying themselves, unconcerned with the past. Some of them were quite amusing people, actually, whom I came to like very well. It wasn’t too long till nobody spoke of the yacht people and what happened to them.
I did not approve of this — this cutting off of a situation as with a pair of scissors. I like a little continuity to my days, even on vacation, but I didn’t see what I could do about it.
So you can imagine my pleasure when, three weeks after the Event, Hellie got a letter from Bill Daniels.
“This is more like it,” I said.
Doña Lucia was short with me. “You,” she said. “Always trying to dream up a happy ending.”
“What’s the matter with happy endings?”
“They only lead to trouble later.”
It was a newsy letter. Bill was out of the hospital, but had to walk with a cane. Foxie had fired him, and flown to New York — with Jerry, of all people. Finally, he hoped that when Hellie got back to Santa Barbara, she would let him know.
Hellie was bitter. “What kind of an insensitive creature can he be … ”
“Most unsuitable,” Doña Lucia said. “Most unsuitable.”
“Come off it,” I said. “Love isn’t suitable or unsuitable. Love is the curve of a neck or the sound of a step on the stairs.”
“God Almighty,” Doña Lucia said. She leaned back and closed her eyes. “You are an incorrigible nitwit.”
“Maybe,” I said, just to fill in the silence. I looked at Hellie. She was sitting quite still, with the letter in her hand, gazing out over the water. But she was not, it was plain, looking at that Mexican sea. Oh, no.
“Well,” I said, “let’s all keep in touch.”
Featured image: Illustrated by Neil Boyle.
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