THE CIRCULAR STAIRCASE by MARY ROBERTS RINEHART
THE CIRCULAR STAIRCASE
I TAKE A COUNTRY HOUSE:
This is the story of how a middle-aged spinster lost her mind, deserted her domestic gods in the city, took a furnished house for the summer out of town, and found herself involved in one of those mysterious crimes that keep our newspapers and detective agencies happy and prosperous. For twenty years I had been perfectly comfortable; for twenty years I had had the window- boxes filled in the spring, the carpets lifted, the awnings put up and the furniture covered with brown linen; for as many summers I had said good-by to my friends, and, after watching their perspiring hegira, had settled down to a delicious quiet in town, where the mail comes three times a day, and the water supply does not depend on a tank on the roof.
And then–the madness seized me. When I look back over the months I spent at Sunnyside, I wonder that I survived at all. As it is, I show the wear and tear of my harrowing experiences. I have turned very gray–Liddy reminded me of it, only yesterday, by saying that a little bluing in the rinse-water would make my hair silvery, instead of a yellowish white. I hate to be reminded of unpleasant things and I snapped her off.
“No,” I said sharply, “I’m not going to use bluing at my time of life, or starch, either.”
Liddy’s nerves are gone, she says, since that awful summer, but she has enough left, goodness knows! And when she begins to go around with a lump in her throat, all I have to do is to threaten to return to Sunnyside, and she is frightened into a semblance of cheerfulness,–from which you may judge that the summer there was anything but a success.
The newspaper accounts have been so garbled and incomplete–one of them mentioned me but once, and then only as the tenant at the time the thing happened–that I feel it my due to tell what I know. Mr. Jamieson, the detective, said himself he could never have done without me, although he gave me little enough credit, in print.
I shall have to go back several years–thirteen, to be exact–to start my story. At that time my brother died, leaving me his two children. Halsey was eleven then, and Gertrude was seven. All the responsibilities of maternity were thrust upon me suddenly; to perfect the profession of motherhood requires precisely as many years as the child has lived, like the man who started to carry the calf and ended by walking along with the bull on his shoulders. However, I did the best I could. When Gertrude got past the hair-ribbon age, and Halsey asked for a scarf-pin and put on long trousers–and a wonderful help that was to the darning.–I sent them away to good schools. After that, my responsibility was chiefly postal, with three months every summer in which to replenish their wardrobes, look over their lists of acquaintances, and generally to take my foster-motherhood out of its nine months’ retirement in camphor.
I missed the summers with them when, somewhat later, at boarding- school and college, the children spent much of their vacations with friends. Gradually I found that my name signed to a check was even more welcome than when signed to a letter, though I wrote them at stated intervals. But when Halsey had finished his electrical course and Gertrude her boarding-school, and both came home to stay, things were suddenly changed. The winter Gertrude came out was nothing but a succession of sitting up late at night to bring her home from things, taking her to the dressmakers between naps the next day, and discouraging ineligible youths with either more money than brains, or more brains than money. Also, I acquired a great many things: to say lingerie for under-garments, “frocks” and “gowns” instead of dresses, and that beardless sophomores are not college boys, but college men. Halsey required less personal supervision, and as they both got their mother’s fortune that winter, my responsibility became purely moral. Halsey bought a car, of course, and I learned how to tie over my bonnet a gray baize veil, and, after a time, never to stop to look at the dogs one has run down. People are apt to be so unpleasant about their dogs.
The additions to my education made me a properly equipped maiden aunt, and by spring I was quite tractable. So when Halsey suggested camping in the Adirondacks and Gertrude wanted Bar Harbor, we compromised on a good country house with links near, within motor distance of town and telephone distance of the doctor. That was how we went to Sunnyside.
We went out to inspect the property, and it seemed to deserve its name. Its cheerful appearance gave no indication whatever of anything out of the ordinary. Only one thing seemed unusual to me: the housekeeper, who had been left in charge, had moved from the house to the gardener’s lodge, a few days before. As the lodge was far enough away from the house, it seemed to me that either fire or thieves could complete their work of destruction undisturbed. The property was an extensive one: the house on the top of a hill, which sloped away in great stretches of green lawn and clipped hedges, to the road; and across the valley, perhaps a couple of miles away, was the Greenwood Club House. Gertrude and Halsey were infatuated.
“Why, it’s everything you want,” Halsey said “View, air, good water and good roads. As for the house, it’s big enough for a hospital, if it has a Queen Anne front and a Mary Anne back,” which was ridiculous: it was pure Elizabethan.
Of course we took the place; it was not my idea of comfort, being much too large and sufficiently isolated to make the servant question serious. But I give myself credit for this: whatever has happened since, I never blamed Halsey and Gertrude for taking me there. And another thing: if the series of catastrophes there did nothing else, it taught me one thing–that somehow, somewhere, from perhaps a half-civilized ancestor who wore a sheepskin garment and trailed his food or his prey, I have in me the instinct of the chase. Were I a man I should be a trapper of criminals, trailing them as relentlessly as no doubt my sheepskin ancestor did his wild boar. But being an unmarried woman, with the handicap of my sex, my first acquaintance with crime will probably be my last. Indeed, it came near enough to being my last acquaintance with anything.
The property was owned by Paul Armstrong, the president of the Traders’ Bank, who at the time we took the house was in the west with his wife and daughter, and a Doctor Walker, the Armstrong family physician. Halsey knew Louise Armstrong,–had been rather attentive to her the winter before, but as Halsey was always attentive to somebody, I had not thought of it seriously, although she was a charming girl. I knew of Mr. Armstrong only through his connection with the bank, where the children’s money was largely invested, and through an ugly story about the son, Arnold Armstrong, who was reported to have forged his father’s name, for a considerable amount, to some bank paper. However, the story had had no interest for me.
I cleared Halsey and Gertrude away to a house party, and moved out to Sunnyside the first of May. The roads were bad, but the trees were in leaf, and there were still tulips in the borders around the house. The arbutus was fragrant in the woods under the dead leaves, and on the way from the station, a short mile, while the car stuck in the mud, I found a bank showered with tiny forget-me-nots. The birds–don’t ask me what kind; they all look alike to me, unless they have a hall mark of some bright color– the birds were chirping in the hedges, and everything breathed of peace. Liddy, who was born and bred on a brick pavement, got a little bit down-spirited when the crickets began to chirp, or scrape their legs together, or whatever it is they do, at twilight.
The first night passed quietly enough. I have always been grateful for that one night’s peace; it shows what the country might be, under favorable circumstances. Never after that night did I put my head on my pillow with any assurance how long it would be there; or on my shoulders, for that matter.
On the following morning Liddy and Mrs. Ralston, my own housekeeper, had a difference of opinion, and Mrs. Ralston left on the eleven train. Just after luncheon, Burke, the butler, was taken unexpectedly with a pain in his right side, much worse when I was within hearing distance, and by afternoon he was started cityward. That night the cook’s sister had a baby–the cook, seeing indecision in my face, made it twins on second thought– and, to be short, by noon the next day the household staff was down to Liddy and myself. And this in a house with twenty-two rooms and five baths!
Liddy wanted to go back to the city at once, but the milk-boy said that Thomas Johnson, the Armstrongs’ colored butler, was working as a waiter at the Greenwood Club, and might come back. I have the usual scruples about coercing people’s servants away, but few of us have any conscience regarding institutions or corporations–witness the way we beat railroads and street-car companies when we can–so I called up the club, and about eight o’clock Thomas Johnson came to see me. Poor Thomas!
Well, it ended by my engaging Thomas on the spot, at outrageous wages, and with permission to sleep in the gardener’s lodge, empty since the house was rented. The old man–he was white- haired and a little stooped, but with an immense idea of his personal dignity–gave me his reasons hesitatingly.
“I ain’t sayin’ nothin’, Mis’ Innes,” he said, with his hand on the door-knob, “but there’s been goin’s-on here this las’ few months as ain’t natchal. ‘Tain’t one thing an’ ’tain’t another– it’s jest a door squealin’ here, an’ a winder closin’ there, but when doors an’ winders gets to cuttin’ up capers and there’s nobody nigh ’em, it’s time Thomas Johnson sleeps somewhar’s else.”
Liddy, who seemed to be never more than ten feet away from me that night, and was afraid of her shadow in that great barn of a place, screamed a little, and turned a yellow-green. But I am not easily alarmed.
It was entirely in vain; I represented to Thomas that we were alone, and that he would have to stay in the house that night. He was politely firm, but he would come over early the next morning, and if I gave him a key, he would come in time to get some sort of breakfast. I stood on the huge veranda and watched him shuffle along down the shadowy drive, with mingled feelings–irritation at his cowardice and thankfulness at getting him at all. I am not ashamed to say that I double-locked the hall door when I went in.
“You can lock up the rest of the house and go to bed, Liddy,” I said severely. “You give me the creeps standing there. A woman of your age ought to have better sense.” It usually braces Liddy to mention her age: she owns to forty–which is absurd. Her mother cooked for my grandfather, and Liddy must be at least as old as I. But that night she refused to brace.
“You’re not going to ask me to lock up, Miss Rachel!” she quavered. “Why, there’s a dozen French windows in the drawing- room and the billiard-room wing, and every one opens on a porch. And Mary Anne said that last night there was a man standing by the stable when she locked the kitchen door.”
“Mary Anne was a fool,” I said sternly. “If there had been a man there, she would have had him in the kitchen and been feeding him what was left from dinner, inside of an hour, from force of habit. Now don’t be ridiculous. Lock up the house and go to bed. I am going to read.”
But Liddy set her lips tight and stood still.
“I’m not going to bed,” she said. “I am going to pack up, and to-morrow I am going to leave.”
“You’ll do nothing of the sort,” I snapped. Liddy and I often desire to part company, but never at the same time. “If you are afraid, I will go with you, but for goodness’ sake don’t try to hide behind me.”
The house was a typical summer residence on an extensive scale. Wherever possible, on the first floor, the architect had done away with partitions, using arches and columns instead. The effect was cool and spacious, but scarcely cozy. As Liddy and I went from one window to another, our voices echoed back at us uncomfortably. There was plenty of light–the electric plant down in the village supplied us–but there were long vistas of polished floor, and mirrors which reflected us from unexpected corners, until I felt some of Liddy’s foolishness communicate itself to me.
The house was very long, a rectangle in general form, with the main entrance in the center of the long side. The brick-paved entry opened into a short hall to the right of which, separated only by a row of pillars, was a huge living-room. Beyond that was the drawing-room, and in the end, the billiard-room. Off the billiard-room, in the extreme right wing, was a den, or card-room, with a small hall opening on the east veranda, and from there went up a narrow circular staircase. Halsey had pointed it out with delight.
“Just look, Aunt Rachel,” he said with a flourish. “The architect that put up this joint was wise to a few things. Arnold Armstrong and his friends could sit here and play cards all night and stumble up to bed in the early morning, without having the family send in a police call.”
Liddy and I got as far as the card-room and turned on all the lights. I tried the small entry door there, which opened on the veranda, and examined the windows. Everything was secure, and Liddy, a little less nervous now, had just pointed out to me the disgracefully dusty condition of the hard-wood floor, when suddenly the lights went out. We waited a moment; I think Liddy was stunned with fright, or she would have screamed. And then I clutched her by the arm and pointed to one of the windows opening on the porch. The sudden change threw the window into relief, an oblong of grayish light, and showed us a figure standing close, peering in. As I looked it darted across the veranda and out of sight in the darkness.
A LINK CUFF-BUTTON
Liddy’s knees seemed to give away under her. Without a sound she sank down, leaving me staring at the window in petrified amazement. Liddy began to moan under her breath, and in my excitement I reached down and shook her.
“Stop it,” I whispered. “It’s only a woman–maybe a maid of the Armstrongs’. Get up and help me find the door.” She groaned again. “Very well,” I said, “then I’ll have to leave you here. I’m going.”
She moved at that, and, holding to my sleeve, we felt our way, with numerous collisions, to the billiard-room, and from there to the drawing-room. The lights came on then. and, with the long French windows unshuttered, I had a creepy feeling that each one sheltered a peering face. In fact, in the light of what happened afterward, I am pretty certain we were under surveillance during the entire ghostly evening. We hurried over the rest of the locking-up and got upstairs as quickly as we could. I left the lights all on, and our footsteps echoed cavernously. Liddy had a stiff neck the next morning, from looking back over her shoulder, and she refused to go to bed.
“Let me stay in your dressing-room, Miss Rachel,” she begged. “If you don’t, I’ll sit in the hall outside the door. I’m not going to be murdered with my eyes shut.”
“If you’re going to be murdered,” I retorted, “it won’t make any difference whether they are shut or open. But you may stay in the dressing-room, if you will lie on the couch: when you sleep in a chair you snore.”
She was too far gone to be indignant, but after a while she came to the door and looked in to where I was composing myself for sleep with Drummond’s Spiritual Life.
“That wasn’t a woman, Miss Rachel,” she said, with her shoes in her hand. “It was a man in a long coat.”
“What woman was a man?” I discouraged her without looking up, and she went back to the couch.
It was eleven o’clock when I finally prepared for bed. In spite of my assumption of indifference, I locked the door into the hall, and finding the transom did not catch, I put a chair cautiously before the door–it was not necessary to rouse Liddy– and climbing up put on the ledge of the transom a small dressing- mirror, so that any movement of the frame would send it crashing down. Then, secure in my precautions, I went to bed.
I did not go to sleep at once. Liddy disturbed me just as I was growing drowsy, by coming in and peering under the bed. She was afraid to speak, however, because of her previous snubbing, and went back, stopping in the doorway to sigh dismally.
Somewhere down-stairs a clock with a chime sang away the hours– eleven-thirty, forty-five, twelve. And then the lights went out to stay. The Casanova Electric Company shuts up shop and goes home to bed at midnight: when one has a party, I believe it is customary to fee the company, which will drink hot coffee and keep awake a couple of hours longer. But the lights were gone for good that night. Liddy had gone to sleep, as I knew she would. She was a very unreliable person: always awake and ready to talk when she wasn’t wanted and dozing off to sleep when she was. I called her once or twice, the only result being an explosive snore that threatened her very windpipe–then I got up and lighted a bedroom candle.
My bedroom and dressing room were above the big living-room on the first floor. On the second floor a long corridor ran the length of the house, with rooms opening from both sides. In the wings were small corridors crossing the main one–the plan was simplicity itself. And just as I got back into bed, I heard a sound from the east wing, apparently, that made me stop, frozen, with one bedroom slipper half off, and listen. It was a rattling metallic sound, and it reverberated along the empty halls like the crash of doom. It was for all the world as if something heavy, perhaps a piece of steel, had rolled clattering and jangling down the hard-wood stairs leading to the card-room.
In the silence that followed Liddy stirred and snored again. I was exasperated: first she kept me awake by silly alarms, then when she was needed she slept like Joe Jefferson, or Rip,–they are always the same to me. I went in and aroused her, and I give her credit for being wide awake the minute I spoke.
“Get up,” I said, “if you don’t want to be murdered in your bed.”
“Where? How?” she yelled vociferously, and jumped up.
“There’s somebody in the house,” I said. “Get up. We’ll have to get to the telephone.”
“Not out in the hall!” she gasped; “Oh, Miss Rachel, not out in the hall!” trying to hold me back. But I am a large woman and Liddy is small. We got to the door, somehow, and Liddy held a brass andiron, which it was all she could do to lift, let alone brain anybody with. I listened, and, hearing nothing, opened the door a little and peered into the hall. It was a black void, full of terrible suggestion, and my candle only emphasized the gloom. Liddy squealed and drew me back again, and as the door slammed, the mirror I had put on the transom came down and hit her on the head. That completed our demoralization. It was some time before I could persuade her she had not been attacked from behind by a burglar, and when she found the mirror smashed on the floor she wasn’t much better.
“There’s going to be a death!” she wailed. “Oh, Miss Rachel, there’s going to be a death!”
“There will be,” I said grimly, “if you don’t keep quiet, Liddy Allen.”
And so we sat there until morning, wondering if the candle would last until dawn, and arranging what trains we could take back to town. If we had only stuck to that decision and gone back before it was too late!
The sun came finally, and from my window I watched the trees along the drive take shadowy form, gradually lose their ghostlike appearance, become gray and then green. The Greenwood Club showed itself a dab of white against the hill across the valley, and an early robin or two hopped around in the dew. Not until the milk-boy and the sun came, about the same time, did I dare to open the door into the hall and look around. Everything was as we had left it. Trunks were heaped here and there, ready for the trunk-room, and through an end window of stained glass came a streak of red and yellow daylight that was eminently cheerful. The milk-boy was pounding somewhere below, and the day had begun.
Thomas Johnson came ambling up the drive about half-past six, and we could hear him clattering around on the lower floor, opening shutters. I had to take Liddy to her room up-stairs, however,–she was quite sure she would find something uncanny. In fact, when she did not, having now the courage of daylight, she was actually disappointed.
Well, we did not go back to town that day.
The discovery of a small picture fallen from the wall of the drawing-room was quite sufficient to satisfy Liddy that the alarm had been a false one, but I was anything but convinced. Allowing for my nerves and the fact that small noises magnify themselves at night, there was still no possibility that the picture had made the series of sounds I heard. To prove it, however, I dropped it again. It fell with a single muffled crash of its wooden frame, and incidentally ruined itself beyond repair. I justified myself by reflecting that if the Armstrongs chose to leave pictures in unsafe positions, and to rent a house with a family ghost, the destruction of property was their responsibility, not mine.
I warned Liddy not to mention what had happened to anybody, and telephoned to town for servants. Then after a breakfast which did more credit to Thomas’ heart than his head, I went on a short tour of investigation. The sounds had come from the east wing, and not without some qualms I began there. At first I found nothing. Since then I have developed my powers of observation, but at that time I was a novice. The small card- room seemed undisturbed. I looked for footprints, which is, I believe, the conventional thing to do, although my experience has been that as clues both footprints and thumb-marks are more useful in fiction than in fact. But the stairs in that wing offered something.
At the top of the flight had been placed a tall wicker hamper, packed, with linen that had come from town. It stood at the edge of the top step, almost barring passage, and on the step below it was a long fresh scratch. For three steps the scratch was repeated, gradually diminishing, as if some object had fallen, striking each one. Then for four steps nothing. On the fifth step below was a round dent in the hard wood. That was all, and it seemed little enough, except that I was positive the marks had not been there the day before.
It bore out my theory of the sound, which had been for all the world like the bumping of a metallic object down a flight of steps. The four steps had been skipped. I reasoned that an iron bar, for instance, would do something of the sort,–strike two or three steps, end down, then turn over, jumping a few stairs, and landing with a thud.
Iron bars, however, do not fall down-stairs in the middle of the night alone. Coupled with the figure on the veranda the agency by which it climbed might be assumed. But–and here was the thing that puzzled me most–the doors were all fastened that morning, the windows unmolested, and the particular door from the card-room to the veranda had a combination lock of which I held the key, and which had not been tampered with.
I fixed on an attempt at burglary, as the most natural explanation–an attempt frustrated by the falling of the object, whatever it was, that had roused me. Two things I could not understand: how the intruder had escaped with everything locked, and why he had left the small silver, which, in the absence of a butler, had remained down-stairs over night.
Under pretext of learning more about the place, Thomas Johnson led me through the house and the cellars, without result. Everything was in good order and repair; money had been spent lavishly on construction and plumbing. The house was full of conveniences, and I had no reason to repent my bargain, save the fact that, in the nature of things, night must come again. And other nights must follow–and we were a long way from a police-station.
In the afternoon a hack came up from Casanova, with a fresh relay of servants. The driver took them with a flourish to the servants’ entrance, and drove around to the front of the house, where I was awaiting him.
“Two dollars,” he said in reply to my question. “I don’t charge full rates, because, bringin’ ’em up all summer as I do, it pays to make a special price. When they got off the train, I sez, sez I, `There’s another bunch for Sunnyside, cook, parlor maid and all.’ Yes’m–six summers, and a new lot never less than once a month. They won’t stand for the country and the lonesomeness, I reckon.”
But with the presence of the “bunch” of servants my courage revived, and late in the afternoon came a message from Gertrude that she and Halsey would arrive that night at about eleven o’clock, coming in the car from Richfield. Things were looking up; and when Beulah, my cat, a most intelligent animal, found some early catnip on a bank near the house and rolled in it in a feline ecstasy, I decided that getting back to nature was the thing to do.
While I was dressing for dinner, Liddy rapped at the door. She was hardly herself yet, but privately I think she was worrying about the broken mirror and its augury, more than anything else. When she came in she was holding something in her hand, and she laid it on the dressing-table carefully.
“I found it in the linen hamper,” she said. “It must be Mr. Halsey’s, but it seems queer how it got there.”
It was the half of a link cuff-button of unique design, and I looked at it carefully.
“Where was it? In the bottom of the hamper?” I asked.
“On the very top,” she replied. “It’s a mercy it didn’t fall out on the way.”
When Liddy had gone I examined the fragment attentively. I had never seen it before, and I was certain it was not Halsey’s. It was of Italian workmanship, and consisted of a mother-of-pearl foundation, encrusted with tiny seed-pearls, strung on horsehair to hold them. In the center was a small ruby. The trinket was odd enough, but not intrinsically of great value. Its interest for me lay in this: Liddy had found it lying in the top of the hamper which had blocked the east-wing stairs.
That afternoon the Armstrongs’ housekeeper, a youngish good- looking woman, applied for Mrs. Ralston’s place, and I was glad enough to take her. She looked as though she might be equal to a dozen of Liddy, with her snapping black eyes and heavy jaw. Her name was Anne Watson, and I dined that evening for the first time in three days.
MR. JOHN BAILEY APPEARS
I had dinner served in the breakfast-room. Somehow the huge dining-room depressed me, and Thomas, cheerful enough all day, allowed his spirits to go down with the sun. He had a habit of watching the corners of the room, left shadowy by the candles on the table, and altogether it was not a festive meal.
Dinner over I went into the living-room. I had three hours before the children could possibly arrive, and I got out my knitting. I had brought along two dozen pairs of slipper soles in assorted sizes–I always send knitted slippers to the Old Ladies’ Home at Christmas–and now I sorted over the wools with a grim determination not to think about the night before. But my mind was not on my work: at the end of a half-hour I found I had put a row of blue scallops on Eliza Klinefelter’s lavender slippers, and I put them away.
I got out the cuff-link and went with it to the pantry. Thomas was wiping silver and the air was heavy with tobacco smoke. I sniffed and looked around, but there was no pipe to be seen.
“Thomas,” I said, “you have been smoking.”
“No, ma’m.” He was injured innocence itself. “It’s on my coat, ma’m. Over at the club the gentlemen–“
But Thomas did not finish. The pantry was suddenly filled with the odor of singeing cloth. Thomas gave a clutch at his coat, whirled to the sink, filled a tumbler with water and poured it into his right pocket with the celerity of practice.
“Thomas,” I said, when he was sheepishly mopping the floor, “smoking is a filthy and injurious habit. If you must smoke, you must; but don’t stick a lighted pipe in your pocket again. Your skin’s your own: you can blister it if you like. But this house is not mine, and I don’t want a conflagration. Did you ever see this cuff-link before?”
No, he never had, he said, but he looked at it oddly.
“I picked it up in the hall,” I added indifferently. The old man’s eyes were shrewd under his bushy eyebrows.
“There’s strange goin’s-on here, Mis’ Innes,” he said, shaking his head. “Somethin’s goin’ to happen, sure. You ain’t took notice that the big clock in the hall is stopped, I reckon?”
“Nonsense,” I said. “Clocks have to stop, don’t they, if they’re not wound?”
“It’s wound up, all right, and it stopped at three o’clock last night,” he answered solemnly. “More’n that, that there clock ain’t stopped for fifteen years, not since Mr. Armstrong’s first wife died. And that ain’t all,–no MA’M. Last three nights I slep’ in this place, after the electrics went out I had a token. My oil lamp was full of oil, but it kep’ goin’ out, do what I would. Minute I shet my eyes, out that lamp ‘d go. There ain’t no surer token of death. The Bible sez, LET YER LIGHT SHINE! When a hand you can’t see puts yer light out, it means death, sure.”
The old man’s voice was full of conviction. In spite of myself I had a chilly sensation in the small of my back, and I left him mumbling over his dishes. Later on I heard a crash from the pantry, and Liddy reported that Beulah, who is coal black, had darted in front of Thomas just as he picked up a tray of dishes; that the bad omen had been too much for him, and he had dropped the tray.
The chug of the automobile as it climbed the hill was the most welcome sound I had heard for a long time, and with Gertrude and Halsey actually before me, my troubles seemed over for good. Gertrude stood smiling in the hall, with her hat quite over one ear, and her hair in every direction under her pink veil. Gertrude is a very pretty girl, no matter how her hat is, and I was not surprised when Halsey presented a good-looking young man, who bowed at me and looked at Trude–that is the ridiculous nickname Gertrude brought from school.
“I have brought a guest, Aunt Ray,” Halsey said. “I want you to adopt him into your affections and your Saturday-to-Monday list. Let me present John Bailey, only you must call him Jack. In twelve hours he’ll be calling you `Aunt’: I know him.”
We shook hands, and I got a chance to look at Mr. Bailey; he was a tall fellow, perhaps thirty, and he wore a small mustache. I remember wondering why: he seemed to have a good mouth and when he smiled his teeth were above the average. One never knows why certain men cling to a messy upper lip that must get into things, any more than one understands some women building up their hair on wire atrocities. Otherwise, he was very good to look at, stalwart and tanned, with the direct gaze that I like. I am particular about Mr. Bailey, because he was a prominent figure in what happened later.
Gertrude was tired with the trip and went up to bed very soon. I made up my mind to tell them nothing; until the next day, and then to make as light of our excitement as possible. After all, what had I to tell? An inquisitive face peering in at a window; a crash in the night; a scratch or two on the stairs, and half a cuff-button! As for Thomas and his forebodings, it was always my belief that a negro is one part thief, one part pigment, and the rest superstition.
It was Saturday night. The two men went to the billiard-room, and I could hear them talking as I went up-stairs. It seemed that Halsey had stopped at the Greenwood Club for gasolene and found Jack Bailey there, with the Sunday golf crowd. Mr. Bailey had not been hard to persuade–probably Gertrude knew why–and they had carried him off triumphantly. I roused Liddy to get them something to eat–Thomas was beyond reach in the lodge–and paid no attention to her evident terror of the kitchen regions. Then I went to bed. The men were still in the billiard-room when I finally dozed off, and the last thing I remember was the howl of a dog in front of the house. It wailed a crescendo of woe that trailed off hopefully, only to break out afresh from a new point of the compass.
At three o’clock in the morning I was roused by a revolver shot. The sound seemed to come from just outside my door. For a moment I could not move. Then–I heard Gertrude stirring in her room, and the next moment she had thrown open the connecting door.
“O Aunt Ray! Aunt Ray!” she cried hysterically. “Some one has been killed, killed!”
“Thieves,” I said shortly. “Thank goodness, there are some men in the house to-night.” I was getting into my slippers and a bath-robe, and Gertrude with shaking hands was lighting a lamp. Then we opened the door into the hall, where, crowded on the upper landing of the stairs, the maids, white-faced and trembling, were peering down, headed by Liddy. I was greeted by a series of low screams and questions, and I tried to quiet them.
Gertrude had dropped on a chair and sat there limp and shivering.
I went at once across the hall to Halsey’s room and knocked; then I pushed the door open. It was empty; the bed had not been occupied!
“He must be in Mr. Bailey’s room,” I said excitedly, and followed by Liddy, we went there. Like Halsey’s, it had not been occupied! Gertrude was on her feet now, but she leaned against the door for support.
“They have been killed!” she gasped. Then she caught me by the arm and dragged me toward the stairs. “They may only be hurt, and we must find them,” she said, her eyes dilated with excitement.
I don’t remember how we got down the stairs: I do remember expecting every moment to be killed. The cook was at the telephone up-stairs, calling the Greenwood Club, and Liddy was behind me, afraid to come and not daring to stay behind. We found the living-room and the drawing-room undisturbed. Somehow I felt that whatever we found would be in the card-room or on the staircase, and nothing but the fear that Halsey was in danger drove me on; with every step my knees seemed to give way under me. Gertrude was ahead and in the card-room she stopped, holding her candle high. Then she pointed silently to the doorway into the hall beyond. Huddled there on the floor, face down, with his arms extended, was a man.
Gertrude ran forward with a gasping sob. “Jack,” she cried, “oh, Jack!”
Liddy had run, screaming, and the two of us were there alone. It was Gertrude who turned him over, finally, until we could see his white face, and then she drew a deep breath and dropped limply to her knees. It was the body of a man, a gentleman, in a dinner coat and white waistcoat, stained now with blood–the body of a man I had never seen before.
WHERE IS HALSEY?
Gertrude gazed at the face in a kind of g fascination. Then she put out her hands blindly, and I thought she was going to faint.
“He has killed him!” she muttered almost inarticulately; and at that, because my nerves were going, I gave her a good shake.
“What do you mean?” I said frantically. There was a depth of grief and conviction in her tone that was worse than anything she could have said. The shake braced her, anyhow, and she seemed to pull herself together. But not another word would she say: she stood gazing down at that gruesome figure on the floor, while Liddy, ashamed of her flight and afraid to come back alone, drove before her three terrified women-servants into the drawing-room, which was as near as any of them would venture.
Once in the drawing-room, Gertrude collapsed and went from one fainting spell into another. I had all I could do to keep Liddy from drowning her with cold water, and the maids huddled in a corner, as much use as so many sheep. In a short time, although it seemed hours, a car came rushing up, and Anne Watson, who had waited to dress, opened the door. Three men from the Greenwood Club, in all kinds of costumes, hurried in. I recognized a Mr. Jarvis, but the others were strangers.
“What’s wrong?” the Jarvis man asked–and we made a strange picture, no doubt. “Nobody hurt, is there?” He was looking at Gertrude.
“Worse than that, Mr. Jarvis,” I said. “I think it is murder.”
At the word there was a commotion. The cook began to cry, and Mrs. Watson knocked over a chair. The men were visibly impressed.
“Not any member of the family?” Mr. Jarvis asked, when he had got his breath.
“No,” I said; and motioning Liddy to look after Gertrude, I led the way with a lamp to the card-room door. One of the men gave an exclamation, and they all hurried across the room. Mr. Jarvis took the lamp from me–I remember that–and then, feeling myself getting dizzy and light-headed, I closed my eyes. When I opened them their brief examination was over, and Mr. Jarvis was trying to put me in a chair.
“You must get up-stairs,” he said firmly, “you and Miss Gertrude, too. This has been a terrible shock. In his own home, too.”
I stared at him without comprehension. “Who is it?” I asked with difficulty. There was a band drawn tight around my throat.
“It is Arnold Armstrong,” he said, looking at me oddly, “and he has been murdered in his father’s house.”
After a minute I gathered myself together and Mr. Jarvis helped me into the living-room. Liddy had got Gertrude up-stairs, and the two strange men from the club stayed with the body. The reaction from the shock and strain was tremendous: I was collapsed–and then Mr. Jarvis asked me a question that brought back my wandering faculties.
“Where is Halsey?” he asked.
“Halsey!” Suddenly Gertrude’s stricken face rose before me the empty rooms up-stairs. Where was Halsey?
“He was here, wasn’t he?” Mr. Jarvis persisted. “He stopped at the club on his way over.”
“I–don’t know where he is,” I said feebly.
One of the men from the club came in, asked for the telephone, and I could hear him excitedly talking, saying something about coroners and detectives. Mr. Jarvis leaned over to me.
“Why don’t you trust me, Miss Innes?” he said. “If I can do anything I will. But tell me the whole thing.”
I did, finally, from the beginning, and when I told of Jack Bailey’s being in the house that night, he gave a long whistle.
“I wish they were both here,” he said when I finished. “Whatever mad prank took them away, it would look better if they were here.
“Especially since Jack Bailey and Arnold Armstrong were notoriously bad friends. It was Bailey who got Arnold into trouble last spring–something about the bank. And then, too–“
“Go on,” I said. “If there is anything more, I ought to know.”
“There’s nothing more,” he said evasively. “There’s just one thing we may bank on, Miss Innes. Any court in the country will acquit a man who kills an intruder in his house, at night. If Halsey–“
“Why, you don’t think Halsey did it!” I exclaimed. There was a queer feeling of physical nausea coming over me.
“No, no, not at all,” he said with forced cheerfulness. “Come, Miss Innes, you’re a ghost of yourself and I am going to help you up-stairs and call your maid. This has been too much for you.”
Liddy helped me back to bed, and under the impression that I was in danger of freezing to death, put a hot-water bottle over my heart and another at my feet. Then she left me. It was early dawn now, and from voices under my window I surmised that Mr. Jarvis and his companions were searching the grounds. As for me, I lay in bed, with every faculty awake. Where had Halsey gone? How had he gone, and when? Before the murder, no doubt, but who would believe that? If either he or Jack Bailey had heard an intruder in the house and shot him–as they might have been justified in doing–why had they run away? The whole thing was unheard of, outrageous, and–impossible to ignore.
About six o’clock Gertrude came in. She was fully dressed, and I sat up nervously.
“Poor Aunty!” she said. “What a shocking night you have had!” She came over and sat down on the bed, and I saw she looked very tired and worn.
“Is there anything new?” I asked anxiously.
“Nothing. The car is gone, but Warner”–he is the chauffeur– “Warner is at the lodge and knows nothing about it.”
“Well,” I said, “if I ever get my hands on Halsey Innes, I shall not let go until I have told him a few things. When we get this cleared up, I am going back to the city to be quiet. One more night like the last two will end me. The peace of the country– fiddle sticks!”
Whereupon I told Gertrude of the noises the night before, and the figure on the veranda in the east wing. As an afterthought I brought out the pearl cuff-link.
“I have no doubt now,” I said, “that it was Arnold Armstrong the night before last, too. He had a key, no doubt, but why he should steal into his father’s house I can not imagine. He could have come with my permission, easily enough. Anyhow, whoever it was that night, left this little souvenir.”
Gertrude took one look at the cuff-link, and went as white as the pearls in it; she clutched at the foot of the bed, and stood staring. As for me, I was quite as astonished as she was.
“Where did–you–find it?” she asked finally, with a desperate effort at calm. And while I told her she stood looking out of the window with a look I could not fathom on her face. It was a relief when Mrs. Watson tapped at the door and brought me some tea and toast. The cook was in bed, completely demoralized, she reported, and Liddy, brave with the daylight, was looking for footprints around the house. Mrs. Watson herself was a wreck; she was blue-white around the lips, and she had one hand tied up.
She said she had fallen down-stairs in her excitement. It was natural, of course, that the thing would shock her, having been the Armstrongs’ housekeeper for several years, and knowing Mr. Arnold well.
Gertrude had slipped out during my talk with Mrs. Watson, and I dressed and went down-stairs. The billiard and card-rooms were locked until the coroner and the detectives got there, and the men from the club had gone back for more conventional clothing.
I could hear Thomas in the pantry, alternately wailing for Mr. Arnold, as he called him, and citing the tokens that had precursed the murder. The house seemed to choke me, and, slipping a shawl around me, I went out on the drive. At the corner by the east wing I met Liddy. Her skirts were draggled with dew to her knees, and her hair was still in crimps.
“Go right in and change your clothes,” I said sharply. “You’re a sight, and at your age!”
She had a golf-stick in her hand, and she said she had found it on the lawn. There was nothing unusual about it, but it occurred to me that a golf-stick with a metal end might have been the object that had scratched the stairs near the card-room. I took it from her, and sent her up for dry garments. Her daylight courage and self-importance, and her shuddering delight in the mystery, irritated me beyond words. After I left her I made a circuit of the building. Nothing seemed to be disturbed: the house looked as calm and peaceful in the morning sun as it had the day I had been coerced into taking it. There was nothing to show that inside had been mystery and violence and sudden death.
In one of the tulip beds back of the house an early blackbird was pecking viciously at something that glittered in the light. I picked my way gingerly over through the dew and stooped down: almost buried in the soft ground was a revolver! I scraped the earth off it with the tip of my shoe, and, picking it up, slipped it into my pocket. Not until I had got into my bedroom and double-locked the door did I venture to take it out and examine it. One look was all I needed. It was Halsey’s revolver. I had unpacked it the day before and put it on his shaving-stand, and there could be no mistake. His name was on a small silver plate on the handle.
I seemed to see a network closing around my boy, innocent as I knew he was. The revolver–I am afraid of them, but anxiety gave me courage to look through the barrel–the revolver had still two bullets in it. I could only breathe a prayer of thankfulness that I had found the revolver before any sharp-eyed detective had come around.
I decided to keep what clues I had, the cuff-link, the golf-stick and the revolver, in a secure place until I could see some reason for displaying them. The cuff-link had been dropped into a little filigree box on my toilet table. I opened the box and felt around for it. The box was empty–the cuff-link had disappeared!
At ten o’clock the Casanova hack brought up three men. They introduced themselves as the coroner of the county and two detectives from the city. The coroner led the way at once to the locked wing, and with the aid of one of the detectives examined the rooms and the body. The other detective, after a short scrutiny of the dead man, busied himself with the outside of the house. It was only after they had got a fair idea of things as they were that they sent for me.
I received them in the living-room, and I had made up my mind exactly what to tell. I had taken the house for the summer, I said, while the Armstrongs were in California. In spite of a rumor among the servants about strange noises–I cited Thomas– nothing had occurred the first two nights. On the third night I believed that some one had been m the house: I had heard a crashing sound, but being alone with one maid had not investigated. The house had been locked in the morning and apparently undisturbed.
Then, as clearly as I could, I related how, the night before, a shot had roused us; that my niece and I had investigated and found a body; that I did not know who the murdered man was until Mr. Jarvis from the club informed me, and that I knew of no reason why Mr. Arnold Armstrong should steal into his father’s house at night. I should have been glad to allow him entree there at any time.
“Have you reason to believe, Miss Innes,” the coroner asked, “that any member of your household, imagining Mr. Armstrong was a burglar, shot him in self-defense?”
“I have no reason for thinking so,” I said quietly.
“Your theory is that Mr. Armstrong was followed here by some enemy, and shot as he entered the house?”
“I don’t think I have a theory,” I said. “The thing that has puzzled me is why Mr. Armstrong should enter his father’s house two nights in succession, stealing in like a thief, when he needed only to ask entrance to be admitted.”
The coroner was a very silent man: he took some notes after this, but he seemed anxious to make the next train back to town. He set the inquest for the following Saturday, gave Mr. Jamieson, the younger of the two detectives, and the more intelligent looking, a few instructions, and, after gravely shaking hands with me and regretting the unfortunate affair, took his departure, accompanied by the other detective.
I was just beginning to breathe freely when Mr. Jamieson, who had been standing by the window, came over to me.
“The family consists of yourself alone, Miss Innes?”
“My niece is here,” I said.
“There is no one but yourself and your niece?”
“My nephew.” I had to moisten my lips.
“Oh, a nephew. I should like to see him, if he is here.”
“He is not here just now,” I said as quietly as I could. “I expect him–at any time.”
“He was here yesterday evening, I believe?”
“Didn’t he have a guest with him? Another man?”
“He brought a friend with him to stay over Sunday, Mr. Bailey.”
“Mr. John Bailey, the cashier of the Traders’ Bank I believe.” And I knew that some one at the Greenwood Club had told. “When did they leave?”
“Very early–I don’t know at just what time.”
Mr. Jamieson turned suddenly and looked at me.
“Please try to be more explicit,” he said. “You say your nephew and Mr. Bailey were in the house last night, and yet you and your niece, with some women-servants, found the body. Where was your nephew?”
I was entirely desperate by that time.
“I do not know,” I cried, “but be sure of this: Halsey knows nothing of this thing, and no amount of circumstantial evidence can make an innocent man guilty.”
“Sit down,” he said, pushing forward a chair. “There are some things I have to tell you, and, in return, please tell me all you know. Believe me, things always come out. In the first place, Mr. Armstrong was shot from above. The bullet was fired at close range, entered below the shoulder and came out, after passing through the heart, well down the back. In other words, I believe the murderer stood on the stairs and fired down. In the second place, I found on the edge of the billiard-table a charred cigar which had burned itself partly out, and a cigarette which had consumed itself to the cork tip. Neither one had been more than lighted, then put down and forgotten. Have you any idea what it was that made your nephew and Mr. Bailey leave their cigars and their game, take out the automobile without calling the chauffeur, and all this at–let me see certainly before three o’clock in the morning?”
“I don’t know,” I said; “but depend on it, Mr. Jamieson, Halsey will be back himself to explain everything.”
“I sincerely hope so,” he said. “Miss Innes, has it occurred to you that Mr. Bailey might know something of this?”
Gertrude had come down-stairs and just as he spoke she came in. I saw her stop suddenly, as if she had been struck.
“He does not,” she said in a tone that was not her own. “Mr. Bailey and my brother know nothing of this. The murder was committed at three. They left the house at a quarter before three.”
“How do you know that?” Mr. Jamieson asked oddly. “Do you KNOW at what time they left?”
“I do,” Gertrude answered firmly. “At a quarter before three my brother and Mr. Bailey left the house, by the main entrance. I– was–there.”
“Gertrude,” I said excitedly, “you are dreaming! Why, at a quarter to three–“
“Listen,” she said. “At half-past two the downstairs telephone rang. I had not gone to sleep, and I heard it. Then I heard Halsey answer it, and in a few minutes he came up-stairs and knocked at my door. We–we talked for a minute, then I put on my dressing-gown and slippers, and went down-stairs with him. Mr. Bailey was in the billiard-room. We–we all talked together for perhaps ten minutes. Then it was decided that–that they should both go away–“
“Can’t you be more explicit?” Mr. Jamieson asked. “WHY did they go away?”
“I am only telling you what happened, not why it happened,” she said evenly. “Halsey went for the car, and instead of bringing it to the house and rousing people, he went by the lower road from the stable. Mr. Bailey was to meet him at the foot of the lawn. Mr. Bailey left–“
“Which way?” Mr. Jamieson asked sharply.
“By the main entrance. He left–it was a quarter to three. I know exactly.”
“The clock in the hall is stopped, Miss Innes,” said Jamieson. Nothing seemed to escape him.
“He looked at his watch,” she replied, and I could see Mr. Jamieson’s snap, as if he had made a discovery. As for myself, during the whole recital I had been plunged into the deepest amazement.
“Will you pardon me for a personal question?” The detective was a youngish man, and I thought he was somewhat embarrassed. “What are your–your relations with Mr. Bailey?”
Gertrude hesitated. Then she came over and put her hand lovingly in mine.
“I am engaged to marry him,” she said simply.
I had grown so accustomed to surprises that I could only gasp again, and as for Gertrude, the hand that lay in mine was burning with fever.
“And–after that,” Mr. Jamieson went on, “you went directly to bed?”
“No,” she said finally. “I–I am not nervous, and after I had extinguished the light, I remembered something I had left in the billiard-room, and I felt my way back there through the darkness.”
“Will you tell me what it was you had forgotten?”
“I can not tell you,” she said slowly. “I–I did not leave the billiard-room at once–“
“Why?” The detective’s tone was imperative. “This is very important, Miss Innes.”
“I was crying,” Gertrude said in a low tone. “When the French clock in the drawing-room struck three, I got up, and then–I heard a step on the east porch, just outside the card-room. Some one with a key was working with the latch, and I thought, of course, of Halsey. When we took the house he called that his entrance, and he had carried a key for it ever since. The door opened and I was about to ask what he had forgotten, when there was a flash and a report. Some heavy body dropped, and, half crazed with terror and shock, I ran through the drawing-room and got up-stairs–I scarcely remember how.”
She dropped into a chair, and I thought Mr. Jamieson must have finished. But he was not through.
“You certainly clear your brother and Mr. Bailey admirably,” he said. “The testimony is invaluable, especially in view of the fact that your brother and Mr. Armstrong had, I believe, quarreled rather seriously some time ago.”
“Nonsense,” I broke in. “Things are bad enough, Mr. Jamieson, without inventing bad feeling where it doesn’t exist. Gertrude, I don’t think Halsey knew the–the murdered man, did he?”
But Mr. Jamieson was sure of his ground.
“The quarrel, I believe,” he persisted, “was about Mr. Armstrong’s conduct to you, Miss Gertrude. He had been paying you unwelcome attentions.”
And I had never seen the man!
When she nodded a “yes” I saw the tremendous possibilities involved. If this detective could prove that Gertrude feared and disliked the murdered man, and that Mr. Armstrong had been annoying and possibly pursuing her with hateful attentions, all that, added to Gertrude’s confession of her presence in the billiard-room at the time of the crime, looked strange, to say the least. The prominence of the family assured a strenuous effort to find the murderer, and if we had nothing worse to look forward to, we were sure of a distasteful publicity.
Mr. Jamieson shut his note-book with a snap, and thanked us.
“I have an idea,” he said, apropos of nothing at all, “that at any rate the ghost is laid here. Whatever the rappings have been–and the colored man says they began when the family went west three months ago–they are likely to stop now.”
Which shows how much he knew about it. The ghost was not laid: with the murder of Arnold Armstrong he, or it, only seemed to take on fresh vigor.
Mr. Jamieson left then, and when Gertrude had gone up-stairs, as she did at once, I sat and thought over what I had just heard. Her engagement, once so engrossing a matter, paled now beside the significance of her story. If Halsey and Jack Bailey had left before the crime, how came Halsey’s revolver in the tulip bed? What was the mysterious cause of their sudden flight? What had Gertrude left in the billiard-room? What was the significance of the cuff-link, and where was it?
IN THE EAST CORRIDOR
When the detective left he enjoined absolute secrecy on everybody in the household. The Greenwood Club promised the same thing, and as there are no Sunday afternoon papers, the murder was not publicly known until Monday. The coroner himself notified the Armstrong family lawyer, and early in the afternoon he came out. I had not seen Mr. Jamieson since morning, but I knew he had been interrogating the servants. Gertrude was locked in her room with a headache, and I had luncheon alone.
Mr. Harton, the lawyer, was a little, thin man, and he looked as if he did not relish his business that day.
“This is very unfortunate, Miss Innes,” he said, after we had shaken hands. “Most unfortunate–and mysterious. With the father and mother in the west, I find everything devolves on me; and, as you can understand, it is an unpleasant duty.”
“No doubt,” I said absently. “Mr. Harton, I am going to ask you some questions, and I hope you will answer them. I feel that I am entitled to some knowledge, because I and my family are just now in a most ambiguous position.”
I don’t know whether he understood me or not: he took of his glasses and wiped them.
“I shall be very happy,” he said with old-fashioned courtesy.
“Thank you. Mr. Harton, did Mr. Arnold Armstrong know that Sunnyside had been rented?”
“I think–yes, he did. In fact, I myself told him about it.”
“And he knew who the tenants were?”
“He had not been living with the family for some years, I believe?”
“No. Unfortunately, there had been trouble between Arnold and his father. For two years he had lived in town.”
“Then it would be unlikely that he came here last night to get possession of anything belonging to him?”
“I should think it hardly possible,” he admitted.
“To be perfectly frank, Miss Innes, I can not think of any reason whatever for his coming here as he did. He had been staying at the club-house across the valley for the last week, Jarvis tells me, but that only explains how he came here, not why. It is a most unfortunate family.”
He shook his head despondently, and I felt that this dried-up little man was the repository of much that he had not told me. I gave up trying to elicit any information from him, and we went together to view the body before it was taken to the city. It had been lifted on to the billiard-table and a sheet thrown over it; otherwise nothing had been touched. A soft hat lay beside it, and the collar of the dinner-coat was still turned up. The handsome, dissipated face of Arnold Armstrong, purged of its ugly lines, was now only pathetic. As we went in Mrs. Watson appeared at the card-room door.
“Come in, Mrs. Watson,” the lawyer said. But she shook her head and withdrew: she was the only one in the house who seemed to regret the dead man, and even she seemed rather shocked than sorry.
I went to the door at the foot of the circular staircase and opened it. If I could only have seen Halsey coming at his usual hare-brained clip up the drive, if I could have heard the throb of the motor, I would have felt that my troubles were over.
But there was nothing to be seen. The countryside lay sunny and quiet in its peaceful Sunday afternoon calm, and far down the drive Mr. Jamieson was walking slowly, stooping now and then, as if to examine the road. When I went back, Mr. Harton was furtively wiping his eyes.
“The prodigal has come home, Miss Innes,” he said. “How often the sins of the fathers are visited on the children!” Which left me pondering.
Before Mr. Harton left, he told me something of the Armstrong family. Paul Armstrong, the father, had been married twice. Arnold was a son by the first marriage. The second Mrs. Armstrong had been a widow, with a child, a little girl. This child, now perhaps twenty, was Louise Armstrong, having taken her stepfather’s name, and was at present in California with the family.
“They will probably return at once,” he concluded “sad part of my errand here to-day is to see if you will relinquish your lease here in their favor.”
“We would better wait and see if they wish to come,” I said. “It seems unlikely, and my town house is being remodeled.” At that he let the matter drop, but it came up unpleasantly enough, later.
At six o’clock the body was taken away, and at seven-thirty, after an early dinner, Mr. Harton went. Gertrude had not come down, and there was no news of Halsey. Mr. Jamieson had taken a lodging in the village, and I had not seen him since mid- afternoon. It was about nine o’clock, I think, when the bell rang and he was ushered into the living-room.
“Sit down,” I said grimly. “Have you found a clue that will incriminate me, Mr. Jamieson?”
He had the grace to look uncomfortable. “No,” he said. “If you had killed Mr. Armstrong, you would have left no clues. You would have had too much intelligence.”
After that we got along better. He was fishing in his pocket, and after a minute he brought out two scraps of paper. “I have been to the club-house,” he said, “and among Mr. Armstrong’s effects, I found these. One is curious; the other is puzzling.”
The first was a sheet of club note-paper, on which was written, over and over, the name “Halsey B. Innes.” It was Halsey’s flowing signature to a dot, but it lacked Halsey’s ease. The ones toward the bottom of the sheet were much better than the top ones. Mr. Jamieson smiled at my face.
“His old tricks,” he said. “That one is merely curious; this one, as I said before, is puzzling.”
The second scrap, folded and refolded into a compass so tiny that the writing had been partly obliterated, was part of a letter– the lower half of a sheet, not typed, but written in a cramped hand.
“—-by altering the plans for—-rooms, may be possible. The best way, in my opinion, would be to—-the plan for—-in one of the—-rooms—-chimney.”
That was all.
“Well?” I said, looking up. “There is nothing in that, is there?
A man ought to be able to change the plan of his house without becoming an object of suspicion.”
“There is little in the paper itself,” he admitted; “but why should Arnold Armstrong carry that around, unless it meant something? He never built a house, you may be sure of that. If it is this house, it may mean anything, from a secret room–“
“To an extra bath-room,” I said scornfully. “Haven’t you a thumb-print, too?”
“I have,” he said with a smile, “and the print of a foot in a tulip bed, and a number of other things. The oddest part is, Miss Innes, that the thumb-mark is probably yours and the footprint certainly.”
His audacity was the only thing that saved me: his amused smile put me on my mettle, and I ripped out a perfectly good scallop before I answered.
“Why did I step into the tulip bed?” I asked with interest.
“You picked up something,” he said good-humoredly, “which you are going to tell me about later.”
“Am I, indeed?” I was politely curious. “With this remarkable insight of yours, I wish you would tell me where I shall find my four-thousand-dollar motor car.”
“I was just coming to that,” he said. “You will find it about thirty miles away, at Andrews Station, in a blacksmith shop, where it is being repaired.”
I laid down my knitting then and looked at him.
“And Halsey?” I managed to say.
“We are going to exchange information,” he said “I am going to tell you that, when you tell me what you picked up in the tulip bed.”
We looked steadily at each other: it was not an unfriendly stare; we were only measuring weapons. Then he smiled a little and got up.
“With your permission,” he said, “I am going to examine the card- room and the staircase again. You might think over my offer in the meantime.”
He went on through the drawing-room, and I listened to his footsteps growing gradually fainter. I dropped my pretense at knitting and, leaning back, I thought over the last forty-eight hours. Here was I, Rachel Innes, spinster, a granddaughter of old John Innes of Revolutionary days, a D. A. R., a Colonial Dame, mixed up with a vulgar and revolting crime, and even attempting to hoodwink the law! Certainly I had left the straight and narrow way.
I was roused by hearing Mr. Jamieson coming rapidly back through the drawing-room. He stopped at the door.
“Miss Innes,” he said quickly, “will you come with me and light the east corridor? I have fastened somebody in the small room at the head of the card-room stairs.”
I jumped! up at once.
“You mean–the murderer?” I gasped.
“Possibly,” he said quietly, as we hurried together up the stairs. “Some one was lurking on the staircase when I went back.
I spoke; instead of an answer, whoever it was turned and ran up. I followed–it was dark–but as I turned the corner at the top a figure darted through this door and closed it. The bolt was on my side, and I pushed it forward. It is a closet, I think.” We were in the upper hall now. “If you will show me the electric switch, Miss Innes, you would better wait in your own room.”
Trembling as I was, I was determined to see that door opened. I hardly knew what I feared, but so many terrible and inexplicable things had happened that suspense was worse than certainty.
“I am perfectly cool,” I said, “and I am going to remain here.”
The lights flashed up along that end of the corridor, throwing the doors into relief. At the intersection of the small hallway with the larger, the circular staircase wound its way up, as if it had been an afterthought of the architect. And just around the corner, in the small corridor, was the door Mr. Jamieson had indicated. I was still unfamiliar with the house, and I did not remember the door. My heart was thumping wildly in my ears, but I nodded to him to go ahead. I was perhaps eight or ten feet away–and then he threw the bolt back.
“Come out,” he said quietly. There was no response. “Come– out,” he repeated. Then–I think he had a revolver, but I am not sure–he stepped aside and threw the door open.
From where I stood I could not see beyond the door, but I saw Mr. Jamieson’s face change and heard him mutter something, then he bolted down the stairs, three at a time. When my knees had stopped shaking, I moved forward, slowly, nervously, until I had a partial view of what was beyond the door. It seemed at first to be a closet, empty. Then I went close and examined it, to stop with a shudder. Where the floor should have been was black void and darkness, from which came the indescribable, damp smell of the cellars.
Mr, Jamieson had locked somebody in the clothes chute. As I leaned over I fancied I heard a groan–or was it the wind?
A SPRAINED ANKLE
I was panic-stricken. As I ran along the corridor I was confident that the mysterious intruder and probable murderer had been found, and that he lay dead or dying at the foot of the chute. I got down the staircase somehow, and through the kitchen to the basement stairs. Mr. Jamieson had been before me, and the door stood open. Liddy was standing in the middle of the kitchen, holding a frying-pan by the handle as a weapon.
“Don’t go down there,” she yelled, when she saw me moving toward the basement stairs. “Don’t you do it, Miss Rachel. That Jamieson’s down there now. There’s only trouble comes of hunting ghosts; they lead you into bottomless pits and things like that. Oh, Miss Rachel, don’t–” as I tried to get past her.
She was interrupted by Mr. Jamieson’s reappearance. He ran up the stairs two at a time, and his face was flushed and furious.
“The whole place is locked,” he said angrily. where’s the laundry key kept?”
“It’s kept in the door,” Liddy snapped. “That whole end of the cellar is kept locked, so nobody can get at the clothes, and then the key’s left in the door? so that unless a thief was as blind as–as some detectives, he could walk right in.”
“Liddy,” I said sharply, “come down with us and turn on all the lights.”
She offered her resignation, as usual, on the spot, but I took her by the arm, and she came along finally. She switched on all the lights and pointed to a door just ahead.
“That’s the door,” she said sulkily. “The key’s in it.”
But the key was not in it. Mr. Jamieson shook it, but it was a heavy door, well locked. And then he stooped and began punching around the keyhole with the end of a lead-pencil. When he stood up his face was exultant.
“It’s locked on the inside,” he said in a low tone. “There is somebody in there.”
“Lord have mercy!” gasped Liddy, and turned to run.
“Liddy,” I called, “go through the house at once and see who is missing, or if any one is. We’ll have to clear this thing at once. Mr. Jamieson, if you will watch here I will go to the lodge and find Warner. Thomas would be of no use. Together you may be able to force the door.”
“A good idea,” he assented. “But–there are windows, of course, and there is nothing to prevent whoever is in there from getting out that way.”
“Then lock the door at the top of the basement stairs,” I suggested, “and patrol the house from the outside.”
We agreed to this, and I had a feeling that the mystery of Sunnyside was about to be solved. I ran down the steps and along the drive. Just at the corner I ran full tilt into somebody who seemed to be as much alarmed as I was. It was not until I had recoiled a step or two that I recognized Gertrude, and she me.
“Good gracious, Aunt Ray,” she exclaimed, “what is the matter?”
“There’s somebody locked in the laundry,” I panted. “That is– unless–you didn’t see any one crossing the lawn or skulking around the house, did you?”
“I think we have mystery on the brain,” Gertrude said wearily. “No, I haven’t seen any one, except old Thomas, who looked for all the world as if he had been ransacking the pantry. What have you locked in the laundry?”
“I can’t wait to explain,” I replied. “I must get Warner from the lodge. If you came out for air, you’d better put on your overshoes.” And then I noticed that Gertrude was limping–not much, but sufficiently to make her progress very slow, and seemingly painful.
“You have hurt yourself,” I said sharply.
“I fell over the carriage block,” she explained. “I thought perhaps I might see Halsey coming home. He–he ought to be here.”
I hurried on down the drive. The lodge was some distance from the house, in a grove of trees where the drive met the county road. There were two white stone pillars to mark the entrance, but the iron gates, once closed and tended by the lodge-keeper, now stood permanently open. The day of the motor-car had come; no one had time for closed gates and lodge-keepers. The lodge at Sunnyside was merely a sort of supplementary servants’ quarters: it was as convenient in its appointments as the big house and infinitely more cozy.
As I went down the drive, my thoughts were busy. Who would it be that Mr. Jamieson had trapped in the cellar? Would we find a body or some one badly injured? Scarcely either. Whoever had fallen had been able to lock the laundry door on the inside. If the fugitive had come from outside the house, how did he get in? If it was some member of the household, who could it have been? And then–a feeling of horror almost overwhelmed me. Gertrude! Gertrude and her injured ankle! Gertrude found limping slowly up the drive when I had thought she was in bed!
I tried to put the thought away, but it would not go. If Gertrude had been on the circular staircase that night, why had she fled from Mr. Jamieson? The idea, puzzling as it was, seemed borne out by this circumstance. Whoever had taken refuge at the head of the stairs could scarcely have been familiar with the house, or with the location of the chute. The mystery seemed to deepen constantly. What possible connection could there be between Halsey and Gertrude, and the murder of Arnold Armstrong? And yet, every way I turned I seemed to find something that pointed to such a connection.
At the foot of the drive the road described a long, sloping, horseshoe-shaped curve around the lodge. There were lights there, streaming cheerfully out on to the trees, and from an upper room came wavering shadows, as if some one with a lamp was moving around. I had come almost silently in my evening slippers, and I had my second collision of the evening on the road just above the house. I ran full into a man in a long coat, who was standing in the shadow beside the drive, with his back to me, watching the lighted windows.
“What the hell!” he ejaculated furiously, and turned around. When he saw me, however, he did not wait for any retort on my part. He faded away–this is not slang; he did–he absolutely disappeared in the dusk without my getting more than a glimpse of his face. I had a vague impression of unfamiliar features and of a sort of cap with a visor. Then he was gone.
I went to the lodge and rapped. It required two or three poundings to bring Thomas to the door, and he opened it only an inch or so.
“Where is Warner?” I asked.
“I–I think he’s in bed, ma’m.”
“Get him up,” I said, “and for goodness’ sake open the door, Thomas. I’ll wait for Warner.”
“It’s kind o’ close in here, ma’m,” he said, obeying gingerly, and disclosing a cool and comfortable looking interior. “Perhaps you’d keer to set on the porch an’ rest yo’self.”
It was so evident that Thomas did not want me inside that I went in.
“Tell Warner he is needed in a hurry,” I repeated, and turned into the little sitting-room. I could hear Thomas going up the stairs, could hear him rouse Warner, and the steps of the chauffeur as he hurriedly dressed. But my attention was busy with the room below.
On the center-table, open, was a sealskin traveling bag. It was filled with gold-topped bottles and brushes, and it breathed opulence, luxury, femininity from every inch of surface. How did it get there? I was still asking myself the question when Warner came running down the stairs and into the room. He was completely but somewhat incongruously dressed, and his open, boyish face looked abashed. He was a country boy, absolutely frank and reliable, of fair education and intelligence–one of the small army of American youths who turn a natural aptitude for mechanics into the special field of the automobile, and earn good salaries in a congenial occupation.
“What is it, Miss Innes?” he asked anxiously.
“There is some one locked in the laundry,” I replied. “Mr. Jamieson wants you to help him break the lock. Warner, whose bag is this?”
He was in the doorway by this time, and he pretended not to hear.
“Warner,” I called, “come back here. Whose bag is this?”
He stopped then, but he did not turn around.
“It’s–it belongs to Thomas,” he said, and fled up the drive.
To Thomas! A London bag with mirrors and cosmetic jars of which Thomas could not even have guessed the use! However, I put the bag in the back of my mind, which was fast becoming stored with anomalous and apparently irreconcilable facts, and followed Warner to the house.
Liddy had come back to the kitchen: the door to the basement stairs was double-barred, and had a table pushed against it; and beside her on the table was most of the kitchen paraphernalia.
“Did you see if there was any one missing in the house?” I asked, ignoring the array of sauce-pans rolling-pins, and the poker of the range.
“Rosie is missing,” Liddy said with unction. She had objected to Rosie, the parlor maid, from the start. “Mrs. Watson went into her room, and found she had gone without her hat. People that trust themselves a dozen miles from the city, in strange houses, with servants they don’t know, needn’t be surprised if they wake up some morning and find their throats cut.”
After which carefully veiled sarcasm Liddy relapsed into gloom. Warner came in then with a handful of small tools, and Mr. Jamieson went with him to the basement. Oddly enough, I was not alarmed. With all my heart I wished for Halsey, but I was not frightened. At the door he was to force, Warner put down his tools and looked at it. Then he turned the handle. Without the slightest difficulty the door opened, revealing the blackness of the drying-room beyond!
Mr. Jamieson gave an exclamation of disgust.
“Gone!” he said. “Confound such careless work! I might have known.”
It was true enough. We got the lights on finally and looked all through the three rooms that constituted this wing of the basement. Everything was quiet and empty. An explanation of how the fugitive had escaped injury was found in a heaped-up basket of clothes under the chute. The basket had been overturned, but that was all. Mr. Jamieson examined the windows: one was unlocked, and offered an easy escape. The window or the door? Which way had the fugitive escaped? The door seemed most probable, and I hoped it had been so. I could not have borne, just then, to think that it was my poor Gertrude we had been hounding through the darkness, and yet–I had met Gertrude not far from that very window.
I went up-stairs at last, tired and depressed. Mrs. Watson and Liddy were making tea in the kitchen. In certain walks of life the tea-pot is the refuge in times of stress, trouble or sickness: they give tea to the dying and they put it in the baby’s nursing bottle. Mrs. Watson was fixing a tray to be sent in to me, and when I asked her about Rosie she confirmed her absence.
“She’s not here,” she said; “but I would not think much of that, Miss Innes. Rosie is a pretty young girl, and perhaps she has a sweetheart. It will be a good thing if she has. The maids stay much better when they have something like that to hold them here.”
Gertrude had gone back to her room, and while I was drinking my cup of hot tea, Mr. Jamieson came in.
“We might take up the conversation where we left off an hour and a half ago,” he said. “But before we go on, I want to say this: The person who escaped from the laundry was a woman with a foot of moderate size and well arched. She wore nothing but a stocking on her right foot, and, in spite of the unlocked door, she escaped by the window.”
And again I thought of Gertrude’s sprained ankle. was it the right or the left?
THE OTHER HALF OF THE LINE
“Miss Innes,” the detective began, “what is your opinion of the figure you saw on the east veranda the night you and your maid were in the house alone?”
“It was a woman,” I said positively.
“And yet your maid affirms with equal positiveness that it was a man.”
“Nonsense,” I broke in. “Liddy had her eyes shut–she always shuts them when she’s frightened.”
“And you never thought then that the intruder who came later that night might be a woman–the woman, in fact, whom you saw on the veranda?”
“I had reasons for thinking it was a man,” I said remembering the pearl cuff-link.
“Now we are getting down to business. WHAT were your reasons for thinking that?”
“If you have any reason for believing that your midnight guest was Mr. Armstrong, other than his visit here the next night, you ought to tell me, Miss Innes. We can take nothing for granted. If, for instance, the intruder who dropped the bar and scratched the staircase–you see, I know about that–if this visitor was a woman, why should not the same woman have come back the following night, met Mr. Armstrong on the circular staircase, and in alarm shot him?”
“It was a man,” I reiterated. And then, because I could think of no other reason for my statement, I told him about the pearl cuff-link. He was intensely interested.
“Will you give me the link,” he said, when I finished, “or, at least, let me see it? I consider it a most important clue.”
“Won’t the description do?”
“Not as well as the original.”
“Well, I’m very sorry,” I said, as calmly as I could, “I–the thing is lost. It–it must have fallen out of a box on my dressing-table.”
Whatever he thought of my explanation, and I knew he doubted it, he made no sign. He asked me to describe the link accurately, and I did so, while he glanced at a list he took from his pocket.
“One set monogram cuff-links,” he read, “one set plain pearl links, one set cuff-links, woman’s head set with diamonds and emeralds. There is no mention of such a link as you describe, and yet, if your theory is right, Mr. Armstrong must have taken back in his cuffs one complete cuff-link, and a half, perhaps, of the other.”
The idea was new to me. If it had not been the murdered man who had entered the house that night, who had it been?
“There are a number of strange things connected with this case,” the detective went on. “Miss Gertrude Innes testified that she heard some one fumbling with the lock, that the door opened, and that almost immediately the shot was fired. Now, Miss Innes, here is the strange part of that. Mr. Armstrong had no key with him. There was no key in the lock, or on the floor. In other words, the evidence points absolutely to this: Mr. Armstrong was admitted to the house from within.”
“It is impossible,” I broke in. “Mr. Jamieson, do you know what your words imply? Do you know that you are practically accusing Gertrude Innes of admitting that man?”
“Not quite that,” he said, with his friendly smile. “In fact, Miss Innes, I am quite certain she did not. But as long as I learn only parts of the truth, from both you and her, what can I do? I know you picked up something in the flower bed: you refuse to tell me what it was. I know Miss Gertrude went back to the billiard-room to get something, she refuses to say what. You suspect what happened to the cuff-link, but you won’t tell me. So far, all I am sure of is this: I do not believe Arnold Armstrong was the midnight visitor who so alarmed you by dropping–shall we say, a golf-stick? And I believe that when he did come he was admitted by some one in the house. Who knows–it may have been–Liddy!”
I stirred my tea angrily.
“I have always heard,” I said dryly, “that undertakers’ assistants are jovial young men. A man’s sense of humor seems to be in inverse proportion to the gravity of his profession.”
“A man’s sense of humor is a barbarous and a cruel thing, Miss Innes,” he admitted. “It is to the feminine as the hug of a bear is to the scratch of–well;– anything with claws. Is that you, Thomas? Come in.”
Thomas Johnson stood in the doorway. He looked alarmed and apprehensive, and suddenly I remembered the sealskin dressing-bag in the lodge. Thomas came just inside the door and stood with his head drooping, his eyes, under their shaggy gray brows, fixed on Mr. Jamieson.
“Thomas,” said the detective, not unkindly, “I sent for you to tell us what you told Sam Bohannon at the club, the day before Mr. Arnold was found here, dead. Let me see. You came here Friday night to see Miss Innes, didn’t you? And came to work here Saturday morning?”
For some unexplained reason Thomas looked relieved.
“Yas, sah,” he said. “You see it were like this: When Mistah Armstrong and the fam’ly went away, Mis’ Watson an’ me, we was lef’ in charge till the place was rented. Mis’ Watson, she’ve bin here a good while, an’ she warn’ skeery. So she slep’ in the house. I’d bin havin’ tokens–I tol’ Mis’ Innes some of ’em–an’ I slep’ in the lodge. Then one day Mis’ Watson, she came to me an’ she sez, sez she, ‘Thomas, you’ll hev to sleep up in the big house. I’m too nervous to do it any more.’ But I jes’ reckon to myself that ef it’s too skeery fer her, it’s too skeery fer me. We had it, then, sho’ nuff, and it ended up with Mis’ Watson stayin’ in the lodge nights an’ me lookin’ fer work at de club.”
“Did Mrs. Watson say that anything had happened to alarm her?”
“No, sah. She was jes’ natchally skeered. Well, that was all, far’s I know, until the night I come over to see Mis’ Innes. I come across the valley, along the path from the club-house, and I goes home that way. Down in the creek bottom I almost run into a man. He wuz standin’ with his back to me, an’ he was workin’ with one of these yere electric light things that fit in yer pocket. He was havin’ trouble–one minute it’d flash out, an’ the nex’ it’d be gone. I hed a view of ‘is white dress shirt an’ tie, as I passed. I didn’t see his face. But I know it warn’t Mr. Arnold. It was a taller man than Mr. Arnold. Beside that, Mr. Arnold was playin’ cards when I got to the club-house, same’s he’d been doin’ all day.”
“And the next morning you came back along the path,” pursued Mr. Jamieson relentlessly.
“The nex’ mornin’ I come back along the path an’ down where I dun see the man night befoh, I picked up this here.” The old man held out a tiny object and Mr. Jamieson took it. Then he held it on his extended palm for me to see. It was the other half of the pearl cuff-link!
But Mr. Jamieson was not quite through questioning him.
“And so you showed it to Sam, at the club, and asked him if he knew any one who owned such a link, and Sam said–what?”
“Wal, Sam, he ‘lowed he’d seen such a pair of cuff-buttons in a shirt belongin’ to Mr. Bailey–Mr. Jack Bailey, sah.”
“I’ll keep this link, Thomas, for a while,” the detective said. “That’s all I wanted to know. Good night.”
As Thomas shuffled out, Mr. Jamieson watched me sharply.
“You see, Miss Innes,” he said, “Mr. Bailey insists on mixing himself with this thing. If Mr. Bailey came here that Friday night expecting to meet Arnold Armstrong, and missed him–if, as I say, he had done this, might he not, seeing him enter the following night, have struck him down, as he had intended before?”
“But the motive?” I gasped.
“There could be motive proved, I think. Arnold Armstrong and John Bailey have been enemies since the latter, as cashier of the Traders’ Bank, brought Arnold almost into the clutches of the law. Also, you forget that both men have been paying attention to Miss Gertrude. Bailey’s flight looks bad, too.”
“And you think Halsey helped him to escape?”
“Undoubtedly. Why, what could it be but flight? Miss Innes, let me reconstruct that evening, as I see it. Bailey and Armstrong had quarreled at the club. I learned this to-day. Your nephew brought Bailey over. Prompted by jealous, insane fury, Armstrong followed, coming across by the path. He entered the billiard- room wing–perhaps rapping, and being admitted by your nephew. Just inside he was shot, by some one on the circular staircase. The shot fired, your nephew and Bailey left the house at once, going toward the automobile house. They left by the lower road, which prevented them being heard, and when you and Miss Gertrude got down-stairs everything was quiet.”
“But–Gertrude’s story,” I stammered.
“Miss Gertrude only brought forward her explanation the following morning. I do not believe it, Miss Innes. It is the story of a loving and ingenious woman.”
“And–this thing to-night?”
“May upset my whole view of the case. We must give the benefit of every doubt, after all. We may, for instance, come back to the figure on the porch: if it was a woman you saw that night through the window, we might start with other premises. Or Mr. Innes’ explanation may turn us in a new direction. It is possible that he shot Arnold Armstrong as a burglar and then fled, frightened at what he had done. In any case, however, I feel confident that the body was here when he left. Mr. Armstrong left the club ostensibly for a moonlight saunter, about half after eleven o’clock. It was three when the shot was fired.”
I leaned back bewildered. It seemed to me that the evening had been full of significant happenings, had I only held the key. Had Gertrude been the fugitive in the clothes chute? Who was the man on the drive near the lodge, and whose gold-mounted dressing- bag had I seen in the lodge sitting-room?
It was late when Mr. Jamieson finally got up to go. I went with him to the door, and together we stood looking out over the valley. Below lay the village of Casanova, with its Old World houses, its blossoming trees and its peace. Above on the hill across the valley were the lights of the Greenwood Club. It was even possible to see the curving row of parallel lights that marked the carriage road. Rumors that I had heard about the club came back–of drinking, of high play, and once, a year ago, of a suicide under those very lights.
Mr. Jamieson left, taking a short cut to the village, and I still stood there. It must have been after eleven, and the monotonous tick of the big clock on the stairs behind me was the only sound.
Then I was conscious that some one was running up the drive. In a minute a woman darted into the area of light made by the open door, and caught me by the arm. It was Rosie–Rosie in a state of collapse from terror, and, not the least important, clutching one of my Coalport plates and a silver spoon.
She stood staring into the darkness behind, still holding the plate. I got her into the house and secured the plate; then I stood and looked down at her where she crouched tremblingly against the doorway.
“Well,” I asked, “didn’t your young man enjoy his meal?”
She couldn’t speak. She looked at the spoon she still held–I wasn’t so anxious about it: thank Heaven, it wouldn’t chip–and then she stared at me.