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Trial by Combat

When Emily Johnson came home one evening to her furnished room and found three of her best handkerchiefs missing from the dresser drawer, she was sure who had taken them and what to do. She had lived in the furnished room for about six weeks and for the past two weeks she had been missing small things occasionally. There had been several handkerchiefs gone, and an initial pin which Emily rarely wore and which had come from the five-and-ten. And once she had missed a small bottle of perfume and one of a set of china dogs. Emily had known for some time who was taking the things, but it was only tonight that she had decided what to do. She had hesitated about complaining to the landlady because her losses were trivial and because she had felt certain that sooner or later she would know how to deal with the situation herself. It had seemed logical to her from the beginning that the one person in the rooming-house who was home all day was the most likely suspect, and then, one Sunday morning, coming downstairs from the roof, where she had been sitting in the sun, Emily had seen someone come out of her room and go down the stairs, and had recognized the visitor. Tonight, she felt, she knew just what to do. She took off her coat and hat, put her packages down, and, while a can of tamales was heating on her electric plate, she went over what she intended to say.

After her dinner, she closed and locked her door and went downstairs. She tapped softly on the door of the room directly below her own, and when she thought she heard someone say, “Come in,” she said, “Mrs. Allen?,” then opened the door carefully and stepped inside.

The room, Emily noticed immediately, was almost like her own—the same narrow bed with the tan cover, the same maple dresser and armchair; the closet was on the opposite side of the room, but the window was in the same relative position. Mrs. Allen was sitting in the armchair. She was about sixty. More than twice as old as I am, Emily thought, while she stood in the doorway, and a lady still. She hesitated for a few seconds, looking at Mrs. Allen’s clean white hair and her neat, darkblue house coat, before speaking. “Mrs. Allen,” she said, “I’m Emily Johnson.”

Mrs. Allen put down the Woman’s Home Companion she had been reading and stood up slowly. “I’m very happy to meet you,” she said graciously. “I’ve seen you, of course, several times, and thought how pleasant you looked. It’s so seldom one meets anyone really”—Mrs. Allen hesitated—“really nice,” she went on, “in a place like this.”

“I’ve wanted to meet you, too,” Emily said.

Mrs. Allen indicated the chair she had been sitting in. “Won’t you sit down?”

“Thank you,” Emily said. “You stay there. I’ll sit on the bed.” She smiled. “I feel as if I know the furniture so well. Mine’s just the same.”

“It’s a shame,” Mrs. Allen said, sitting down in her chair again. “I’ve told the landlady over and over, you can’t make people feel at home if you put all the same furniture in the rooms. But she maintains that this maple furniture is cleanlooking and cheap.”

“It’s better than most,” Emily said. “You’ve made yours look much nicer than mine.”

“I’ve been here for three years,” Mrs. Allen said. “You’ve only been here a month or so, haven’t you?”

“Six weeks,” Emily said.

“The landlady’s told me about you. Your husband’s in the Army.”

“Yes. I have a job here in New York.”

“My husband was in the Army,” Mrs. Allen said. She gestured at a group of pictures on her maple dresser. “That was a long time ago, of course. He’s been dead for nearly five years.” Emily got up and went over to the pictures. One of them was of a tall, dignified-looking man in Army uniform. Several were of children.

“He was a very distinguished-looking man,” Emily said. “Are those your children?”

“I had no children, to my sorrow,” the old lady said. “Those are nephews and nieces of my husband’s.”

Emily stood in front of the dresser, looking around the room. “I see you have flowers, too,” she said. She walked to the window and looked at the row of potted plants. “I love flowers,” she said. “I bought myself a big bunch of asters tonight to brighten up my room. But they fade so quickly.”

“I prefer plants just for that reason,” Mrs. Allen said. “But why don’t you put an aspirin in the water with your flowers? They’ll last much longer.”

“I’m afraid I don’t know much about flowers,” Emily said. “I didn’t know about putting an aspirin in the water, for instance.”

“I always do, with cut flowers,” Mrs. Allen said. “I think flowers make a room look so friendly.”

Emily stood by the window for a minute, looking out on Mrs. Allen’s daily view: the fire escape opposite, an oblique slice of the street below. Then she took a deep breath and turned around. “Actually, Mrs. Allen,” she said, “I had a reason for dropping in.”

“Other than to make my acquaintance?” Mrs. Allen said, smiling.

“I don’t know quite what to do,” Emily said. “I don’t like to say anything to the landlady.”

“The landlady isn’t much help in an emergency,” Mrs. Allen said.

Emily came back and sat on the bed, looking earnestly at Mrs. Allen, seeing a nice old lady. “It’s so slight,” she said, “but someone has been coming into my room.”

Mrs. Allen looked up.

“I’ve been missing things,” Emily went on, “like handkerchiefs and little inexpensive jewelry. Nothing important. But someone’s been coming into my room and helping themselves.”

“I’m sorry to hear it,” Mrs. Allen said.

“You see, I don’t like to make trouble,” Emily said. “It’s just that someone’s coming into my room. I haven’t missed anything of value.”

“I see,” Mrs. Allen said.

“I just noticed it a few days ago. And then last Sunday I was coming down from the roof and I saw someone coming out of my room.”

“Do you have any idea who it was?” Mrs. Allen asked. “I believe I do,” Emily said.

Mrs. Allen was quiet for a minute. “I can see where you wouldn’t like to speak to the landlady,” she said finally.

“Of course not,” Emily said. “I just want it to stop.” “I don’t blame you,” Mrs. Allen said.

“You see, it means someone has a key to my door,” Emily said pleadingly.

“All the keys in this house open all the doors,” Mrs. Allen said. “They’re all old-fashioned locks.”

“It has to stop,” Emily said. “If it doesn’t, I’ll have to do something about it.”

“I can see that,” Mrs. Allen said. “The whole thing is very unfortunate.” She rose. “You’ll have to excuse me,” she went on. “I tire very easily and I must be in bed early. I’m so happy you came down to see me.”

“I’m so glad to have met you at last,” Emily said. She went to the door. “I hope I won’t be bothered again,” she said. “Good night.”

“Good night,” Mrs. Allen said.

The following evening, when Emily came home from work, a pair of cheap earrings was gone, along with two packages of cigarettes which had been in her dresser drawer. That evening she sat alone in her room for a long time, thinking. Then she wrote a letter to her husband and went to bed. The next morning she got up and dressed and went to the corner drugstore, where she called her office from a phone booth and said that she was sick and would not be in that day. Then she went back to her room. She sat for almost an hour with the door slightly ajar before she heard Mrs. Allen’s door open and Mrs. Allen come out and go slowly down the stairs. When Mrs. Allen had had time to get out onto the street, Emily locked her door and, carrying her key in her hand, went down to Mrs. Allen’s room.

She was thinking, I just want to pretend it’s my own room, so that if anyone comes I can say I was mistaken about the floor. For a minute, after she had opened the door, it seemed as though she were in her own room. The bed was neatly made and the shade drawn down over the window. Emily left the door unlocked and went over and pulled up the shade. Now that the room was light, she looked around. She had a sudden sense of unbearable intimacy with Mrs. Allen, and thought,

This is the way she must feel in my room. Everything was neat and plain. She looked in the closet first, but there was nothing in there but Mrs. Allen’s blue house coat and one or two plain dresses. Emily went to the dresser. She looked for a moment at the picture of Mrs. Allen’s husband, and then opened the top drawer and looked in. Her handkerchiefs were there, in a neat, small pile, and next to them the cigarettes and the earrings. In one corner the little china dog was sitting. Everything is here, Emily thought, all put away and very orderly. She closed the drawer and opened the next two. Both were empty. She opened the top one again. Besides her things, the drawer held a pair of black cotton gloves, and under the little pile of her handkerchiefs were two plain white ones. There was a box of Kleenex and a small tin of aspirin. For her plants, Emily thought.

Emily was counting the handkerchiefs when a noise behind her made her turn around. Mrs. Allen was standing in the doorway watching her quietly. Emily dropped the handkerchiefs she was holding and stepped back. She felt herself blushing and knew her hands were trembling. Now, she was thinking, now turn around and tell her. “Listen, Mrs. Allen,” she began, and stopped.

“Yes?” Mrs. Allen said gently.

Emily found that she was staring at the picture of Mrs. Allen’s husband; such a thoughtful-looking man, she was thinking. They must have had such a pleasant life together, and now she has a room like mine, with only two handkerchiefs of her own in the drawer.

“Yes?” Mrs. Allen said again.

What does she want me to say, Emily thought. What could she be waiting for with such a ladylike manner? “I came down,” Emily said, and hesitated. My voice is almost ladylike, too, she thought. “I had a terrible headache and I came down to borrow some aspirin,” she said quickly. “I had this awful headache and when I found you were out I thought surely you wouldn’t mind if I just borrowed some aspirin.”

“I’m so sorry,” Mrs. Allen said. “But I’m glad you felt you knew me well enough.”

“I never would have dreamed of coming in,” Emily said, “except for such a bad headache.”

“Of course,” Mrs. Allen said. “Let’s not say any more about it.” She went over to the dresser and opened the drawer. Emily, standing next to her, watched her hand pass over the handkerchiefs and pick up the aspirin. “You just take two of these and go to bed for an hour,” Mrs. Allen said.

“Thank you.” Emily began to move toward the door. “You’ve been very kind.”

“Let me know if there’s anything more I can do.”

“Thank you,” Emily said again, opening the door. She waited for a minute and then turned toward the stairs to her room.

“I’ll run up later today,” Mrs. Allen said, “just to see how you feel.”

Masterful writer known for 'The Lottery' and 'The Haunting of Hill House', who carved a niche in horror and mystery.