It was not a big hotel and it had a clean well-kept air. It would probably do, Ralph Curtis thought. He walked in and turned towards the reception desk. Behind it a dark, good-looking girl smiled at him in welcome, but he hardly noticed. His mind was ruminating on the walk he had just done from the railway station. The dazzle of shop-lights, the swish of car wheels through the wet streets, the incipient cold in his head, had combined to bemuse him a little. He stared about him momentarily, almost as if to establish his surroundings more clearly in his mind. He was vaguely conscious of the girl's expectant attitude.
"A single room, please." he said absently and with such diffidence that he noticed it himself. "Just for one night. And I should like some dinner, please."
"Yes sir. Dinner is being served now. Sign the register, please." He had not wished to be discourteous, but it was clear that his remoteness had displeased her. All he wanted was a quiet evening, with his thoughts undisturbed, in readiness for the heavy day that lay ahead tomorrow.
His hand wrote rapidly and he looked down to see with a start that he had written as his name "Rudolph Curwen." It was quite an easy mistake to make, really, for Ralph Curtis was a similar looking name, and a familiar one too. As he had walked from the station his eye had been caught by a display in a bookseller's window. The name Rudolph Curwen was monotonously repeated on the cleverly stacked copies of a newly published novel. The appearance of the display remained clearly in his mind, and above all the name of the author seemed to dominate his thoughts.
He looked down at the entry in the register. You could hardly cross out one name and write in another. Altogether too peculiar, it would create suspicion. The seconds were passing by and still he stood staring at it. The receptionist was looking at him, frowning in a puzzled way. It would not do if she thought she recognised the name, though probably she was of the thousands who never read a book. Meanwhile, the time had passed when he might have changed it. Someone less shy, he was thinking, would just have laughed it off, altered the name and made some remark about being run in for impersonation.
The receptionist handed him a key. "Room 107, Mr Curwen." There was a new note of awe in her voice. "Excuse my mentioning it, sir," she went on, in the breathless manner of one taking the plunge. "But I saw in the bookshop that you are going to be there tomorrow to autograph books people buy. She was as shy and apprehensive as Ralph Curtis himself.
He began to protest. "You must not think that my business here tomorrow..." but she went on "I've just read The Heart's True Fancy. Such a lovely story. Would you sign it for me please, sir?"
He suddenly felt foolish, with a thumping, sinking feeling in his stomach. He turned his face away to hide his blush. He could not start writing "Rudolph Curwen" inside books. There was no telling where that would lead before the evening ended.
"Later, perhaps," he said, annoyed with himself for again sounding curt and remote in his confusion. "I must get settled in my room first."
He had not protested his identity as Ralph Curtis. He seized the key, turned and almost ran towards the stairs.
When he came down a little later for his dinner he sat at an unoccupied table for two, and noticed with pleasure that few people were in the dining-room. After a dinner in peaceful solitude he would take a short walk to look at this town of Stavebury which he had never before visited.
As he started on his soup he became aware of a man approaching him. A loud, hearty voice said. "Don't mind if I join you, do you?" and at once a florid man in a brown tweed suit sat facing him, his square, red face beaming below his glossy, black hair. "Always lonely, first night in a hotel, so I've come to keep you company. Habit of mine. Bit of friendliness among strangers always welcome, eh?"
He gave a little laugh, while Ralph Curtis moved his lips, not knowing himself the significance of the meaningless sound which emerged. Conversation with this insensitive type would be impossible. But he looked the sort who might be content to chatter away without getting any response.
"My name's George Peacock," the man was saying. "Lived in this hotel for ten years. Must have chatted to thousands of birds of passage, as you might say, in that time. Extraordinary what a lot of remarkable people there are about. That's something really in your line, eh?" He gave his little chuckle again and looked across the table knowingly.
Ralph Curtis gave him a blank, cold look. He could be obstinate with these aggresive bone-heads. It was pleasant people who made him shy and self-conscious, because there was an obligation to be pleasant himself.
"What do you mean, my line?" He tried to sound aloof.
"Well you know, all these books. Never read any of them myself, I must admit. Westerns are more to my taste."
"What books?" said Curtis, unsmiling and without interest.
Peacock laughed. "Oh, come off it, now, Mr. Curwen. I've had a look at your name in the hotel register."
Ralph Curtis turned to look wildly round the dining-room. It was still nearly empty, but at least one curious eye was upon him. This man Peacock had such a loud voice.
"You mustn't take me for the novelist," he said desperately. "After all, 'Curwen' is not such a terribly uncommon name."
Pecock laughed still more louldly. "That's a good one, Mr Curwen." He put his soup spoon down and began to tick off the items on his fingers. "One: Rudolph Curwen will be autographing books at Hawkins and Hudson tomorrow. Two: you arrive today. Three: your Christian name's Rudolph. Then you say you're not the novelist. That kind of coincidence might get by in one of your books, Mr. Curwen, but give old George Peacock credit for a little common. End of sermon." He laughed again and resumed eating his soup.
"As I say, I've not read any of your books," Peacock went on, "but I like the titles in the shop window. Awake and Dream, for instance; how did you think of that one?"
Curtis could stand no more. He got up from the table, feeling the blood in his cheeks, mumbled something about being back shortly, and rushed out, carefully avoiding the eyes of diners and waiters. He almost ran to the foot of the stairs, where he found the way blocked by a smiling young man. "Mr. Curwen? I am a reporter from the Stavebury Echo. Would you favour me with a short interview?"
"No, no, impossible." He tried to run upstairs but three people were coming down, filling the whole width. He was trapped.
"Do you take your characters from real life? Have you anything I may quote about your next book?"
Curtis was desperate. "Can't tell you. Leave me alone," he stammered out incoherently. "Got a headache. Heavy day tomorrow."
He pushed his way past, ran to his room and shut the door. He sank trembling and exhausted into an armchair.
Next morning he had his breakfast in his room, the slipped rapidly out into the street. He walked down to Hawkins and Hudsons, entered and said to an assistant, "Mr. Curtis to see Mr. Hudson."
He was shown into an office at the back. Mr. Hudson rose beaming from his desk, one hand extended in greeting.
You are very prompt, Mr. Curtis. I trust you enjoyed your quiet evening in Stavebury yesterday?"
"It was terrible," said Curtis. "Like a fool, I absentmindedly signed my pen name in the hotel register."