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Title: Midnight House Author: Ethel Lina White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1700141h.html Language: English Date first posted: Mar 2017 Most recent update: Mar 2017 This eBook was produced by Colin Choat and Roy Glashan. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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THE house had been barred, locked and shuttered for over eleven years. Thousands of days had dawned without a ray of sunlight striking through its windows. Thousands of nights had fallen with no flicker of a match within its walls.
Lying awake in the next house, Elizabeth Featherstonhaugh—aged nineteen and possessed of a fertile imagination—used to shudder at the thought of black emptiness pressing on the other side of her room. Herself a child of loneliness and twilight—she believed that the darkness must be in absolute possession of the deserted mansion. She imagined it clotted to material strength and shredded with solid cores of density—so that if an intruder dared to force a passage through it, he would be drawn in and crushed between rollers of atmospheric pressure.
Occasionally, as she listened, she thought she heard strange noises in the empty house. There were sounds of tapping, creaking, rumbling. Footsteps walked where there were no feet. Drawers seemed to be pulled open where there were no hands. When the furniture appeared to thud from spot to spot, she knew that it was time to switch on her bed-light.
The reassurance of her own cheerful room, with its comfort and fine proportions, reminded her that she was in charge of Captain Pewter's two children and that it was more than a job.
"This family belongs to my caste," she told herself. "The Captain comes from my wonderful India. I like Geraldine. I'm fond of dear little Philippa. And I love Barnaby... I won't be frightened."
When she was small, she had been so terrified of the dread "Black Man in the cellar" that she petitioned the angels to protect her. Now, as she sat up in bed, with her short fair hair ruffled from the pillow and her white pyjama-jacket open to reveal a thin neck, she looked almost a child again.
Her eyes were wide with fear as she stared at her bedroom wall, as though she were actually threatened by the crowding darkness. At such moments she pictured a sudden burst and bulge of masonry displaced by the encroachment of the evil force which had choked the light.
"There's someone—or something—in the empty house," she whispered before, once again, she prayed for protection.
"Deliver me from the Powers of Darkness."
The empty house was listed in the postal directory as No. 11 India Crescent, Rivermead, but it was a dead address. Its absentee owner and his wife were reported to be living abroad; but it was so long since they had been seen in the town that few people remembered them. During the years there had grown up a new generation who were too accustomed to the blinded building to be curious.
Occasionally strangers asked questions about it, only to be told that it was just another of those deserted homes sprinkled about every country—shrines to memory. Only a few residents remembered its tragic story of domestic tyranny, ill-starred love and early death.
Mr. Spree, the lawyer, knew more than any outsider, but as representative of legal caution his lips were sealed. He used to walk to his office and had been accustomed to pass No. 11 four times daily without giving it a thought. Towards the middle of November, 1938, his interest in it was revived by the calendar.
He was a healthy, well-preserved man of sixty, wearing the conventional clothes of his profession while resembling the traditional farmer. Doomed by inheritance to a sedentary life, he spent his leisure in chopping wood and cutting lawns. He was also a keen gardener and specialised in yellow tomatoes.
It gave him a pang to remember that he was still in the forties when he had been responsible for sealing up No. 11 India Crescent. This house had been the property of General Tygarth, who lived there for many years with his wife and two children. Mrs. Tygarth was a silly, snobbish woman, who got the sort of husband she deserved, for the General—irritable, eccentric and tradition-bound—pushed her about remorselessly.
The children were gentle, listless and apparently of poor stamina. The daughter, Madeline, married a local doctor who—in spite of his youth—was considered destined for the first flight. Her parents were glad to be rid of her, for they concentrated on their son—Clement.
In spite of their devotion they were deeply disappointed in his character. He was delicate, dreamy and devoid of the requisite lethal instincts. The sporting community had a name for him. Yet during the War of 1914-1918 he ran away from Oxford and enlisted as a private. He became a prisoner of war in Germany—escaped, only to be recaptured—and finally, after the Armistice, returned to his family as a total disability.
Three years later, the next-door house, No. 10, was bought by a retired sanitary-engineer. He was an excellent plumber and his drains remained after him as a valuable legacy to future tenants; but the other residents resented his connection with trade.
As leader of the opposition, the General did his utmost to freeze out the newcomer. However, he met his match in the plumber, for Alexander Brown had dug in his heels.
"I'll live to see you move out first," he prophesied to the General. "Then I'll clear out—and glad to leave the stinking place."
While their parents raged like bulls in combat, the General's son and the plumber's daughter fell deeply in love. Marion Brown was sweet, simple, and a perfect type of natural blonde beauty, but as far as the Tygarth family was concerned, she was mud. From the first kiss, the romance was doomed to follow the tragic tradition of Romeo and Juliet, for the worthy Browns—smarting from wounded pride—turned their daughter into a virtual prisoner, to keep her from meeting her lover.
For two years she never went out alone. Clement was powerless, since he was dependent on his father for every shilling and on his mother for the care which kept him alive. Forbidden to write to his beloved, he used to stand at his window, to watch her come and go on her daily walk.
Although it was so long ago, Mr. Spree, the lawyer, felt slightly choky at the memory of that white fading face behind the glass. Thwarted of love, the young War-hero's health grew steadily worse, and he died from collapse during an attack of influenza.
His parents were broken-hearted and possibly conscience-stricken. As No. 11 had become a place of hateful memories, the General decided to shut up the house and go abroad.
Thus was the plumber's prophecy fulfilled...
On that misty November morning, nearly twelve years later, the lawyer recalled the General's letter of instructions. No. 11 was to be sealed up and remain unopened, pending further orders or the owner's return. Upon a specified date, he was to assume the death of his client and open up the property.
"I wish you to be personally responsible for locking up the house" [wrote the General]. "We are leaving nothing of value behind and there are no animals. It is intolerable to contemplate some inquisitive bounder from an Estate Office prying into details of our private life. We are moving out early tomorrow morning, and hope our departure will be secret. We have suffered too deeply to endure further painful publicity."
Although his instructions were definite, the lawyer could not resist ringing up the General, to urge the sale of the property. He was nearly blasted over the wire by his client's rage.
"My letter stands," he roared. "No sale. Haven't you the gumption to realise the last thing I want is a pack of strangers let loose in my house, making a catalogue and passing remarks on my furniture? I regard the place as dead money."
Mr. Spree could congratulate himself that he had acted with none of the traditional Law's delay. That same afternoon, he unlocked the door of No. 11 with the key enclosed in the General's letter and went inside, to carry out his instructions. The house was dark, as many of the windows were already latched and shuttered. With meticulous care to avoid taking notice of his suroundings, he went from room to room, to make sure that every fastening was secure. While he waited in the hall for the Corporation employees to cut off the water and check the electric-light meter, he read his newspaper, to prove his lack of curiosity.
Later, when he was alone again, he locked the back door, which opened on to the area. Then, with a sense of drama, he walked out of the front door—reflecting that his would be the last foot to cross the threshold for many years.
The next morning, the windows were boarded up from the ouside, and both locked doors were double-chained. Even the chimneys were blocked, to prevent daws from building inside the pots. When all was finished, the lawyer remarked that the house would need a Houdini quality to wriggle itself free from its bolts and bars...
And now—within a fortnight—it would be opened again.
Still held captive by the past, the lawyer stood in the road to gaze along the fine sweep of India Crescent. The tall Regency houses of buff stucco were too spacious for wholesale private ownership. Only a few nabobs had the means to install modern improvements and provide the essential domestic labour. Many of the mansions were converted into luxury flats. There was also an expensive private hotel and a very exclusive social club.
No. 10—at one time the property of the plumber—had been bought by Captain Nigel Pewter. Recently returned from India, he converted it from an ice-box into a conservatory, besides transforming its appearance. Glancing up at the unveiled glass, the lawyer recalled the windows when they were muffled with Nottingham lace and shrouded with peacock-blue velvet.
He remembered too the spell-binding beauty of the girl who used to stand there, waiting in hope of one glimpse of her beloved. Her long hair flowed loose over her shoulders in a golden cloud—her cheeks were petal-pink—and her eyes shone deeply blue as his own love-in-a-mist.
Where was that beauty now?... He had heard nothing of the family for years. The plumber sold the house—after the General had made the first move—and left the neighbourhood. With the passage of time the tragic Marion had become misty and remote as a legendary figure.
Feeling romantic, the lawyer quoted Shelley.
"For love, and beauty, and delight
There is no death nor change—...
He sprang on to the pavement to avoid a car which shot round the bend. As the driver stopped, the lawyer recognised Dr. Evan Evans, who had married the General's daughter—Madeline.
The doctor's figure was boyish and his fair hair thick, so that at first glance he could be mistaken for a medical student. Even at close range he looked surprisingly young for a man in the forties. He had calm blue eyes and a sensitive, intelligent face. His voice was flexibly sympathetic and his social feelers so delicate that he was as popular in a slum as in the Bishop's Palace.
Yet he was no fashionable woman's doctor in spite of a perfect bedside manner. His skill recommended him equally to men. All his patients recognised the force of character beneath his mild exterior. On occasion, his eyes could harden to disconcerting penetration and his voice cut like broken glass.
"If you slaughter me, Evans," remarked the lawyer, "how can I defend you at your trial?"
The doctor laughed as he explained.
"Sorry. Short on time. I have to operate—and once a body is laid out on the table it becomes a sacred charge. I could run over the best citizen if I were on my way to operate on a blackguard."
"If you're hinting I'm safe from injury so long as I'm your patient, it sounds suspiciously like advertising."
The doctor's bleak smile was proof that he did not appreciate other people's humour. Then interest flickered into his eyes at the sight of a woman who came out of the Crescent Hotel. She was a thin, smartly-dressed brunette of middle-age, with horn-rimmed glasses and a natural high colour.
"That's Mrs. Davis," he said in a low rapid voice. "Daughter of old Evans the draper. She's married to a Manchester chemist... Now she illustrates what I was saying just now. During a crisis in my life, I was interrupted to do a rush-operation on her, just before her marriage. I moved Heaven and Hell to save that woman. But when it was over and I realised the price I had to pay for yanking out her appendix, I could have murdered her ruthlessly."
He broke off to greet the lady with his graded professional manner.
"Back on your yearly visit, May? You're very faithful to us."
Mrs. Davis's colour grew higher with pleasure.
"I've not missed a year yet," she said. "I'm not staying with the family this time. They're crowded out with relations from Canada. So I'm at the 'Crescent.'... I'm so glad to see you, doctor." She turned to the lawyer and added, "If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be here now."
"I claim to be responsible for all her children," said the doctor. "Four now, isn't it, May?"
"You should know. But don't let my husband hear you. He likes some of the credit for these little jobs."
As Mrs. Davis giggled and blushed, the lawyer reflected acidly that Evans knew the brand of humour which appealed to the lady. His bow was frigid when she walked on again.
"That sort of thing rather jars," he remarked. "I was just recalling the girl who used to stand at that window. You don't see beauty like that nowadays. I suppose she's dead."
The doctor's smile was bitter as he shook his head.
"No, she's alive and back in the town. A tragic survival. She looks older than her actual age."
"Dear me. Pity. Hope I shan't meet her. It would be painful when I remember—What's brought her back after all these years?"
"I can guess. A woman naturally returns to the scene of her romance. Probably she wants to be here when No. 11 is reopened."
The lawyer tried to make another joke.
"My operation, this time, Evans. In less than a fortnight, I shall explore an interior... I suppose no recent news of the General, or his wife, has leaked through to you?"
"No," replied the doctor, shaking his head, "I only saw them once after they left. I went to San Remo to break the news of their daughter's death personally. The General blamed me, although I advised them not to go abroad while Madeline's condition was critical. At first my mother-in-law sent me an occasional post-card, but I've heard nothing from them for years. I think they must both be dead."
Not long afterwards, as he drove to the hospital, Evan Evans's thoughts returned to the night before No. 11 was shut up. It was not good preparation for dealing with a mastoid, but he knew that his professional zeal would return directly he entered the operating-theatre.
He remembered the funereal house, which was furnished in what he considered criminal taste. Again he sat in the library with its dead smell and its books which were never read. Confronting him—as judge and jury—sat the General and his wife.
The General's face was grim and snarling as a tiger's mask which looked over his shoulder, from the wall. His eyes were pitted to relentless points of light. His wife—with her dyed hair showing white at the roots—was like a feather whirling between opposing gales. Sometimes she defended her son-in-law, but more often she supported her husband in his monstrous charge.
The doctor defended himself, but in the end had been defeated by shock-tactics. They forced him to sign a paper. He warned them that it was blackmail, while he determined to get it back and destroy it... And then—as he told the lawyer—the telephone-bell rang in the hall.
Before he left his house—when he expected his visit to the General to be one merely of farewell—he told his secretary to ring him in case of emergency. He expected a rush-operation, for he had been called in, as a second opinion, to diagnose May Evans's pain, when it was dangerously late.
Even in his peril, he could not remain deaf to the call upon his service. Resolving to return when it was safe, he slipped down to the area and unlocked the back-door in readiness for a return visit to the house.
On his way to the hospital and throughout the operation, the paper he had signed remained at the back of his mind. It was dangerous as dynamite with its threat of professional exposure and ruin. He was in a fever of impatience to handle it—to shred it and see it blaze into ash.
Presumably his sub-conscious urgency communicated itself to his fingers, for he performed a brilliant feat of surgery. Actually his audacious speed saved the patient's life as her appendix was rotten.
When all was over, he broke away from congratulations in order to return to No. 11. He was driving at his usual furious speed when he overshot the red lamps which warned motorists of road excavation.
Several days later he recovered consciousness in hospital, only to hear bitter news. His wife—who was ill with gastric ulceration—was dead and buried. She had died from heart-failure, presumably caused by the shock of his accident. And No. 11 was permanently locked up.
He inherited his wife's money, bequeathed to her by her godmother, and he moved ino No 2 India Crescent; but throughout the years of growing prosperity there remained the torturing knowledge of the sealed house—and what it contained. His appeal to the lawyer to enter met with flat refusal. Mr. Spree would not violate his client's instructions.
As time passed, his sense of danger remained. He was haunted by a recurring dream of finding a secret entrance into No. 11. Recently, as though a rattlesnake had been sleeping upon a pile of dried leaves, he heard the rustle of his rising dread.
Whenever he looked at the house, he cursed its solidity and prayed for a fire or a stick of dynamite to blast it into rubble... Could he have waited another two years, his desire would have been gratified—when two clean gaps in the curve of the Crescent made it resemble a jaw with missing teeth.
But the War was still a future event and he was beaten by the time element.
During the afternoon, the scene was visited by another person who was present at the "Last House" of the drama of No. 11. A woman turned into the Crescent and stood in the road, in order to look up at the boarded windows. She was middle-aged, spare and shrivelled. Her faded dark-blue eyes were the only remainder of the beauty of Marion Brown.
She was twenty-eight when she came to live at India Crescent but she looked a girl in her teens. This was partly due to the fact that—owing to its weight—she always wore her hair loose when she was indoors. There was a further factor of arrested development, although her inarticulation was probably the salvation of romance.
After Clement Tygarth's death, Nature adjusted the time-lag cruelly by parching her dew of youth prematurely. The change was unnoticed by Marion, since she was free from vanity. She had given her love with all the force of a simple and ardent nature to the General's son. In her eyes, he was passionate as Byron—beautiful as Shelley—and she cherished her beauty only for his sake.
Otherwise it had proved a complication and a curse, attracting a wave of passion before which she bent like a reed, so that it could not scorch her. Now—when she was left to stand in buses—it was strange to remember that men had actually cried, in the hunger of their unsatisfied longing...
She looked up at No. 10—whose bare windows suggested cleaning to her—and thought of the hours she had paced its rooms as a prisoner. She knew every creaking board, every worn patch on the carpets, every detail in the pictures which covered the staircase wall... It seemed to her that No. 10 must be haunted by an unhappy golden-haired girl in a white wrapper—the ghost of her dead youth.
While she was recalling the dark and muffled house, its door was suddenly flung open. To her surprise, the heavy curtains—which formerly shut off the lobby from the hall—had been removed and the light streamed through the large window at the back, revealing a bright and shining interior.
A very young girl—a silver-blonde—ran down the steps. She wore a suit of black knitwear, relieved by white gloves, scarf and cap. With her were two children—a girl with fat golden curls, in a white fur coat—and a skinny boy in cornflower-blue jodhpurs.
She looked at him with a faint pang, for his white peaked face and large mournful eyes reminded her of Clement... The next second, both children broke loose from the girl.
"Barnaby. Philippa," she called.
She had no control over them and was forced to chase them the length of the Crescent. Marion Brown watched them disappear round the corner. When they had gone, the relief of the interlude was merged in tragic memories.
She had been drawn back to this house by an instinct stronger than her resistance. There was a whisper which warned her that it was not safe to stay. She knew too much of what had happened inside No. 11 just before its long darkness.
While Clement lived, she had not been allowed to cross its threshold, as though it were a sacred spot and she—a defiling cur; but on the last night, the servants had been sent away, so that she was able to slip inside, unseen. While she was hiding, she had been a witness of two fateful interviews.
The General was like an ancient tiger with a broken fang, goaded by the pain to sadistic cruelty. He was old and had lost his son; but he still had power to wreck the promise of the lives of two young men who dared to be alive.
From behind the plaited-grass curtain, Marion Brown watched each of these young men. She saw them enter and she saw them go. She heard all that was said and witnessed what was done... For herself she feared nothing. The General had done his worst to her. Since that terrible minute when she watched the hearse carry her lover to the grave, she had survived only as a creature cut in two.
She was inside that house to take her revenge.
As she turned away, she saw May Davis coming out of the Crescent Hotel for the second time. In the interval, the lady had enjoyed a good lunch and a nap. Consequently she felt well pleased with life.
Hers had been a consistently comfortable existence. As the daughter of a flourishing draper and the wife of a prosperous manufacturing chemist, she had never known money shortage. Unlike Marion Brown, there had been no hint of the "femme fatale" about her life history. She had been sent to an exclusive school but she remained true to type. The chief result of an expensive education was the loss of her local burr, which made it easier for her to acquire a Lancashire accent, after her marriage.
She stopped for a minute to chat to a resident guest who was about to enter the hotel. His profile—which he turned towards Marion Brown—was so striking that she remembered it after a lapse of nearly twelve years. His name was Hartley Gull and he was the second young man who had been inside No. 11 on the last night.
He was now a man of poise and compelling appearance, but she noticed that he looked up at the shuttered house with dark defiance. It was evidence that he too had not forgotten...
Mrs. Davis left him and walked briskly towards Marion Brown. As she glanced at the woman without recognition, she was surprised to hear her maiden name.
"Isn't it May Evans?"
Fortunately the stranger gave the clue to her own identity in her next sentence.
"I wanted to see our old home again."
"Why, Marion," exclaimed Mrs. Davis. "Fancy meeting you. After all this time."
"Yes, years. I knew you although you've changed. You used to be so pretty, with a straight dark fringe. You've grown so thin."
"Anno Domini," explained May Davis. "I've a daughter who knows all the answers. I wouldn't put it past the little faggot to make me a grandmother one day."
Compassionately she hid the shock of her surprise as she remembered the breath-taking beauty of Marion Brown. It was almost mesmeric, for she used to find it difficult to remove her eyes from that flawless face. While she stared, she envied the other girl such perfection of feature and colour.
And now—this. Time was a champion leveller.
"I'm staying at Vine Cottage," Marion Brown told her. "Won't you come back and have tea wih me?"
Had May Davis' horoscope been cast at her birth, she might have been warned against that minute... But she was feeling responsive to the past. Every visit back to her home-town found more gaps in her circle, so that it was refreshing to meet a contemporary.
"I'd like to come," she said.
"That's nice. Do you mind if we go the back ways? I don't want to meet people I used to know. There was always so much talk about me."
They walked together through the quiet grey outskirts of the old town while the twilight veiled the end of each ancient street with a purple-blue curtain and withered chestnut leaves rustled over the cobbled road.
May Davis enjoyed her visit. The tea was good and she ate her cake with keener relish because Vine Cottage was a guesthouse patronised by bank-clerks and teachers, while she was staying at an exclusive luxury hotel. It was true that it was rather a shock to discover that Marion Brown cherished the pathetic illusion that she was still beautiful.
As though to prove that she had remained unself-conscious about her looks, she actually invited May Davis upstairs, to display her wardrobe. The consequence of thus adhering to feminine tradition was that it was nearly dark when Mrs. Davis went out of the garden-gate of Vine Cottage.
"Dear me, I'll be too late to dress for dinner," she insisted.
"You'd better take the short-cut," said Marion Brown.
Mrs. Davis took her advice... But the short-cut proved longer than the longest way back.
For she never returned.
THREE days later, on his way back to his office, after lunch, Mr. Spree, the lawyer, again paused outside No. 11 India Crescent. He was joined by Hartley Gull, who was smoking on the steps of the private hotel.
"What's the opening date of your show?" he asked nonchalantly.
"The twenty-fifth instant," replied the lawyer.
"Take my tip and wear your gardening clothes. If you don't dig up any mummies, there'll be the dust of ages."
"Yes, I expect a dirty job. But it will be a satisfaction to open the windows and let the light in upon dark places... Who's that girl?"
Mr. Spree lowered his voice as Elizabeth Featherstonhaugh came out of No. 10, accompanied by Captain Pewter's two children.
"Apparently the nursery governess," remarked Gull.
"She looks rather juvenile. But she's an improvement on the last."
"Maxine?" Gull's voice was indulgent. "Oh, she was all right. Of course she wasn't cut out to wipe the noses of other people's kids. But she had to eat."
The lawyer reflected that he had spoken unguardedly, since Captain Pewter's late governess had a large local following which would inevitably include Hartley Gull. As his own taste was fastidious, he had been repelled by her attraction. To his mind, her beauty had the unwholesome charm of the traditional orchid reared upon a swamp.
But Hartley Gull was the type of seasoned bachelor against whom modern girls warn their mothers. In spite of his suavity and sophistication, he could have gone to a masquerade as a Roman Emperor—and got away with it—on the score of his dark carven features and arrogant carriage. A Puritan himself—the lawyer credited him with a torrid reputation, but he liked him. In his capacity as honorary secretary and treasurer of the local branches of Dr. Barnardo's Homes and the S.P.C.A., he had proved Gull kind-hearted and generous in the cause of charity.
While the men discussed her, Elizabeth hurried her charges towards the water-meadows which gave its name to the town. Although the pale molten gold of the November sunshine flooded the fields, she knew that she had begun her usual race with the darkness.
She was not fond of exercise, but she used to enjoy the afternoon walk, as she had fallen under the spell of Rivermead. To her it was a dim enchanted place of echoes and memories—murmurous with the cooing of doves, the chiming of antique clocks, and the sound of imprisoned waters. In addition to the river which flowed through it, there was a partially built-over tributary which refused to be suppressed. It seemed to Elizabeth that it was continually breaking out in fresh places, as it stole from its underground channel and gushed through arches and gratings—back to the light.
In spite of its age, the town was not a museum of extinct industry, for under the dead layers of the past there pulsed a live core. Although it appeared to have dreamed through the centuries, there were flourishing factories, in proof that it kicked vigorously in its sleep.
Elizabeth always took the children home by way of High Street and the Promenade, to avoid going through the slums. The end of summer, however, had brought the complication of seasonal fog. It arose from the river punctually after sunset and covered it with a thick white layer of vapour which looked like cotton-wool. Miss Pewter had warned the new governess that Phil was chesty and must not be out after dark; but the modern part of the town was in a vulnerable position on the river bank and a wide bridge had to be crossed to reach the Promenade, which also lay low.
That afternoon Elizabeth had a special reason for returning home in good time. There was something she dreaded more than fear of losing her job—something which quivered under the surface of her mind, like the dread shadow beneath the foul green water of a tropical port...
Soon the walk became an incessant pull between her authority and the opposition of the children. Knowing what she might expect, she tried to turn them back almost before they had started. But they were engrossed in a pastime of which they never seemed to tire—that of throwing twigs into the river and rushing across the bridge to see them emerge on the other side.
Barney, aged eight, was the active mutineer, but Phil was his passive partner. She egged him on, not through malice, but because she had a keen sense of humour and enjoyed the Human Comedy. Although her long golden curls and big solemn blue eyes gave her the appearance of an expensive doll, she had a good brain and a remorseless memory. Popular with every one, her tastes were domestic and she preferred the society in the kitchen.
Elizabeth used to imagine she saw—hovering over her—the shadow of a future prosperous matron—either wearing a fur coat and pricing joints in Brixton, or adorned with a tiara, queening it in a box at the Opera. And she was certain that, whatever Phil's hip-measurement, men would always call her "a little woman."
She always felt vaguely guilty because she had given her heart to Barney. He was a clever, highly-strung shrimp, with the sad eyes of a stranded angel, and a private code which exacted one evil deed per day. Although he was definitely hostile to her, he had only to smile—in serving his ends—to make her his slave.
All the afternoon he had been mulish in resistance to her efforts to goad him on, and it was growing late when she succeeded in prodding him up the lane from the river towards the fringe of the modern town. They had only to go through the dark tunnel of an old archway and down several flights of uneven steps to reach the main shopping street beside the river.
The sun was beginning to set and every pane in the windows of the chocolate factory reflected a red ball. But there was still time to reach the Crescent, by way of the Promenade, before it was dark.
"I want to see the meccano shop," announced Barney.
"No, you can't stop anywhere," Elizabeth told him, glancing at her watch. "We've got to hurry. Come on."
Instead of obeying her, he scampered across the road and tried to clutch the coping of a wall which was greened with damp. He was too small to look over it, but he could hear the sound of water churning through an outlet on the other side.
"I want to see the little lost river," he said imperiously. "Help me up—you."
Elizabeth wanted to humour him, for she could understand the fascination of that dark current rushing underground; but she dared not risk a small active boy astride a slippery parapet.
"No," she said firmly.
"Maxine let him," explained Phil.
As she mentioned the name, the change which swept over Barney's face was revealing as it was piteous. He set his small mouth in a tight line, but the tremble of his chin betrayed him. It made Elizabeth realise that he was fretting for the governess whose place she had usurped.
"I'm the miserablest boy in the whole world," he said gloomily. "I'm going to make a hole in the water."
His white peaked face glimmered through the gloom like a small mask of Tragedy, while Phil explained the situation.
"He says he's going to frighten you away, then Maxine will come back."
"He won't find me so easy to frighten."
As Elizabeth made her boast, she noticed that the children exchanged glances of understanding. It was evidence of a secret alliance, rendered ominous by the time and place.
"He's partial to Maxine," went on Phil, who borrowed expressions from the kitchen.
Looking at the boy's sullen face, Elizabeth felt an absurd pang of jealousy.
"Tell me something about this wonderful Maxine," she urged.
"She'll come to want," prophesied Phil. "She wasted her plates."
"Perhaps she wasn't hungry," said Elizabeth in an effort to placate Barney.
As he remained obstinately silent, she asked Phil another question.
"Were you very sorry when she left, Philippa?"
"No, I like my darling Miss Feathers best of all."
Phil hooked her weight on to Elizabeth's arm and looked up at her with the adoring smile which was for wholesale distribution, before she added: "But Maxine used to sing and dance to us. I liked that."
Elizabeth was reflecting bleakly that Maxine possessed the valuable quality of entertainment value, when Barney spoke defiantly.
"I'm going to run away from you. I'm going to find Maxine."
Elizabeth was terrified by the threat. If he carried it out, she was doubtful whether she could overtake him, since he dodged and twisted like an electric-eel. To complicate the situation, she dared not leave Phil alone in a twilit slum-quarter while she chased him.
She had horrible visions of returning to the Crescent with the news that one child was lost and the other was choking with bronchitis. It would mean dismissal—and she had lost too many jobs during the short time she had been on the labour market. But even the gravity of the economic position did not compare with the threat of parting with Barney.
Suddenly she felt that the situation was slipping from her control. While Barney was wasting precious time, the light was fading. Already the reflections on the factory windows had died to faint red gleams. There was a smear of twilight over the grey buildings, while a perceptible mist clouded the air and slimed the cobbled road.
As though responsive to the raw chill, Phil began to cough in short, sharp barks.
"Don't yap—you," commanded her brother.
She obligingly changed her key to a sepulchral lower register. Although Elizabeth could not decide whether it were a genuine spasm, she dared not risk any neglect. Yet she could not rid her mind of a suspicion that Phil was working in collusion with Barney. She gave the impression of playing for time as she stared up at her governess with eyes like blue full-moons.
"Barney says there's a black man in our cellar," she said.
Elizabeth forgot her suspicions in a rush of indignation, for she too had been terrorised by that bogey created by nursery-maids. She had been brought up by her grandmother in a tall, dark Victorian house, educated by the governess who taught her mother—and left to the care of servants.
One of these had instilled into her mind terror of the black man who would come up from the cellar, if she cried. She had known the horror of lying under the bedclothes, listening to the creaking of the stairs, while her heart beat like a broken clock...
That black shape which never came was a symbol to her of blind insensate Fear...
"Who told you that?" she asked sharply.
"Barney," repeated Phil.
"It's a wicked lie. There's nothing in the cellar but coals."
"I've seen him," broke in Barney. "He's all black and he's got no face, only glarey eyes. He lives in the empty house."
The sound of a clock striking the quarter-past four told Elizabeth that she had lost her race against time. It would be impossible now to get the children home before the darkness came creeping through the streets. Her only hope was to escape the menace of the river fog. The threat of losing her job—combined with worry about Phil's chest—committed her to a desperate course.
She was forced to take the short-cut home.
She shuddered as she thought of it—a long walled passage with two bends, dimly lit by an occasional lamp. It had an echo, so after she walked a few yards, she heard footsteps coming to meet her from the other end... And recently she had seen a photograph of it in the local paper, with a cross marked upon its pavement...
Feeling desperate, she gripped the boy by the collar and tried to drag him on, but he wriggled free, as though he were oiled.
"All right," she cried—goaded to the ultimate insult—"we are going home without you—you Untouchable."
Instantly Barney changed from a mysterious menace to a normal small boy. He slipped his cold hand within hers and walked beside her.
"I'm not really that, am I?" he asked in an awed voice. "You are touching me, aren't you, darling?"
Elizabeth expected opposition when she steered the children down the lane leading to Monk Street and away from the shops. She was vaguely disconcerted when they asked no questions. It seemed to suggest that they had been pushing her into a position which suited their secret plans.
This hint of alliance supplied a furtive element which was a disagreeable accompaniment to a twilight walk through the slums. In the thickening darkness, the Old Town appeared sinister and hideously ancient with its decrepit hair-powder mill, its cottage-gardens—sodden with dead plants—and its dark waters stealing along paved ditches. The gutters were choked with dead leaves and over all hung a heavy smell of garbage and decay.
Visitors to Rivermead were always attracted to the picturesque ruins of this quarter. Artists painted its hump-backed inns and pig-sties whose rose-red tiled roofs were ridged like a choppy sea. It had charmed Elizabeth too during the sunny days of the Indian summer which had shortened the autumn. But that evening as she passed a disused factory it only stirred unhappy memories of prematurely-old children—doomed to slavery—hammering the heads of pins upon their points.
The morbid streak which was the legacy of her unnatural childhood made her think of small dead hands, stiff as frozen petals, as she clasped Barney's fingers tighter. In his relief at finding himself still within the sphere of contact, he returned her squeeze. Feeling pledged to his protection, her courage returned as they reached Monk Street.
It was a dingy region, given up to offices and apartment-houses with blistered paint and wire blinds. The road was cobbled and there were neither pavements nor lamp-posts. It was lit by naked gas-jets enclosed in hanging iron-lanterns. On one side of the street arose the hoary pile of St. John's, magnified by the mist. This was the oldest church in the district, and the clock in its tower had stopped at eight-twenty-nine, on the second of April, 1789.
From force of habit, Elizabeth strained her eyes to see the time. As they drew nearer to Maundy Passage, her imagination began to flare up again. She felt that their footsteps must attract the attention of the residents and that every blind had its hole for a spying eye. It was an inquisitive street—a hostile street—a chilly street—where their breath issued in spurts of vapour on the raw air.
"Look at me," cried Phil. "I'm smoking."
It was second-nature for Barney to try and steal her thunder.
"I'm smoking like a steam-injun," he bragged, blowing out his cheeks.
He soon grew tired of puffing and stopped to introduce some light relief into the competition.
"Phil, can you see the graves?" he asked, pointing to the churchyard across the narrow road.
In the faint light, the slanting ivy-draped tombstones were barely visible through beaded iron railings, while mist—rising from the damp ground—shrouded the neglected mounds.
Barney ghoulishly explained the vapour to his sister.
"The dead people are breathing. That's their breath coming up."
"You're frightening me," protested Phil mechanically.
"Silly. Dead people are just bones. Bones can't hurt you. You give bones to dogs. I know, 'cos I've seen dead people. They didn't frighten me."
He made the statement casually, so that if it had not been so monstrously fantastic, Elizabeth might have believed that he was speaking the truth... But before them was the open mouth of Maundy Passage. As she was wondering how to make them run through it, without arousing their suspicions, she overheard Barney's whisper to his sister.
"I told you I'd make her take us down Murder Lane."
Murder. At the word, the horror which had been lurking under the surface of her mind suddenly flashed upwards with the snap of a shark.
Three days before, a woman had been murdered in Maundy Passage. The victim was a Mrs. Davis, the daughter of a local draper who was visiting her home-town. On the afternoon of the crime, she had gone to tea with an old friend at Vine Cottage. An hour later, her body had been found by a postman in the passage.
Except that there was no evidence of blood-lust or frenzy, the lack of motive suggested the attack of a lunatic; but there was no sign of a struggle—no bruises, no torn clothing, no superfluous blows. One scientific crack had felled her. Afterwards, her scarf had been knotted around her throat, so that she was strangled while unconscious.
She had not been killed for money, as her bag contained several notes. A gold watch and several good rings had not been removed. There was no hint of scandal or romance in her history—no lover or jealous husband.
The worst that could be said of her was that she regulated her life by the Gold Standard. She had always chosen her friends from among those who lived in a certain type of house and kept a requisite number of servants—but snobbery was hardly a sufficient cause for slaughter... Yet someone had slain a worthy wife and mother, leaving behind a murder mystery in the shape of a well-tended body in a grey squirrel coat.
It was this wanton element which terrified Elizabeth. To her, the murder seemed the impulse of a dislocated mind—a maniac chuckle materialised into an act.
As she looked at the excited children she wondered how they knew about the crime. The Pewters—brother and sister—had discussed it only when the door was shut. Geraldine had ordered all local newspapers to be burned. But since they knew, it was useless to perjure herself. The best she could do was to try and keep their adventure on a light level.
"There's an echo in this passage," she said. "If we race through it, we'll sound like galloping horses."
"No," objected Barney, with the importance of a courier. "We've got to find the cross. It was in the paper. And perhaps, if we are very creepy-quiet, we may see the murderer doing his stuff."
"I want to see the bloody-stains," chimed in Phil.
"Do you like being frightened, Philippa?" asked Elizabeth.
"Yes," admitted the child. "It's fun when you are safe with big people."
Although Elizabeth could not claim bulk, she realised that her adult status kept Phil in a zone of safety. Furthermore, she had to admit that she resembled the child to a certain extent, for she had thrilled over the newspaper account of the crime, when she read it in the warm, well-lit drawing-room.
Then it was so far away. And now she was actually entering Maundy Passage.
After the municipal lighting of Monk Street—economical though it was—they seemed to plunge into darkness, but after they had walked a few yards they could see light around the bend, glistening on high walls—weeping with moisture. The passage ran between the back-gardens of two rows of large houses and was broken, at intervals, by wooden doors. Although these looked too swollen by damp to be opened, some were stuck ajar, in evidence of the coalman's visit.
Everywhere was a confusion of shadows, shifting and racing over the walls in the flickering beam of lamplight.
Suddenly Elizabeth saw one of these detach itself from the darkness of a doorway. It assumed substance and shape as it swooped around the bend, disappearing like a quiver of dark lightning.
Gone almost before she could realise it, she was dismissing it as a trick of her imagination, when Barney started and made an instinctive effort to free his hand. Subduing her panic for his sake, she managed to speak to him in a natural voice.
"Barney, did you see that funny shadow?"
"No," he said quickly. "I didn't see it. I didn't see the black man. I didn't see anything. There's nothing there."
His denial shocked her severely. It helped to give solidity to a shadow, turning a monstrous illusion into a perilous reality. But what terrified her more was the change in the boy. While it was ridiculous to be afraid of a child, it seemed to her that he was her enemy.
His whole personality appeared changed from that of the adorable young tryrant, and even his appearance. His eyes were smaller as he looked up at her through narrowed lids while his expression was furtive.
He kept repeating his lie in a shrill unconvincing voice.
"You didn't see it. You are making it up. And Phil didn't see it; did you, Phil?"
"No," agreed Phil stolidly. "Nobody can see in the dark, except cats."
Suddenly the memory of Maxine's influence stirred in Elizabeth's mind, puncturing it like the fangs of a poison-snake. It made her fear the underground evil of a conspiracy which had ensnared Barney into some remote alliance with a murder.
She thought of the body in the grey fur coat which had lain in the passage three days before. At that moment, they might be standing on the spot marked with a cross...
Smitten with panic, she gripped an arm of each child and rushed down the passage—not stopping until they had reached the safety of their own doorstep.
TOO upset to notice that Barney's thumb was already pressed on the electric bell-button, Elizabeth hammered at the door. To her embarrassment, it was opened by the master of the house.
By virtue of his personality and also the glamour of his Indian background, she had placed Captain Pewter upon a pedestal. After he was elevated, he contrived to keep his footing without a stagger, owing to a calm and supreme confidence in his own qualities. Yet in spite of this inherent superiority, he never gave the impression that he considered others inferior to himself. There was only amusement in his eyes as he spoke gravely:
"Sorry to keep modom waiting. Tea is ready. Come in."
Although Elizabeth knew that their meal was laid in the nursery, she could not resist the temptation to follow the children into the drawing-room. It had the temperature of a hothouse and was fragrant from the bowls of forced yellow and white narcissi. There was an Indian carpet and a carved red lacquer cabinet, but otherwise there was no note of the Orient. In defiance of period, the woodwork and walls were painted a glossy cream, while the lighting and tubular metal furniture were modern.
The Captain's youngest sister—Geraldine, aged twenty-nine—was smoking a cigarette in front of the superfluous fire. Her face was reddened from raw air, for she had just returned from the golf links and she still wore trousers and a yellow pullover.
There was a strong family resemblance between her brother, her niece, and herself. They had the same fine build, the same blond colouring—although the East had put some hot stuff over the Captain—and the same solemn blue eyes.
Elizabeth was afraid that she might resent the invasion, but she merely grinned a welcome. Fortified with hot tea and muffin, the girl looked around her with a feeling of gratitude. She was responsive to the contrast between her surroundings and the menace of the twilit streets. Inside—with light, warmth, and company—it was impossible to believe in a fugitive shape torn from the sheet of surrounding darkness.
Phil demonstrated her devotion to her family by climbing to the lap of her father and aunt in turn, to their personal inconvenience. While she anchored herself, Barney was a floater, eating as he roamed about the room, pawing objects with sticky fingers. As she was not the supreme authority, Elizabeth was glad that she need not reprove him.
"Bit of a changeling," remarked Geraldine. "Do you see any resemblance to our family?"
"I can believe that the Captain is his father," replied Elizabeth gravely.
She had noticed points in common—the same clever forehand and fingers as well as the same nervous mannerisms. At that moment, Barney was picking almonds off an uncut cake and eating them. As that was going too far, she was about to scold him when—in time to stop herself—she discovered that his father was absently doing the same.
At first the Pewters were rather under the impression that Elizabeth's grandmother had come to tea, owing to the girl's faithful reproduction of that rigid Victorian's opinions: but gradually her standard was lowered by the attraction of the tea. There were sandwiches besides cakes, and she displayed an appetite of the first magnitude.
In the midst of her enjoyment, Phil—who was a natural news collector—began to broadcast.
"Barney ran away from Miss Feathers. Miss Feathers can't run. Barney's going to frighten her away and then Maxine will come back."
"I'll take a strap to him," threatened the Captain.
Although his voice lacked conviction, Elizabeth gasped with horror.
"Oh, no. He's too small. I'm here, so it's up to me... Where has he gone?"
As she looked around the room, Phil released some more exclusive information.
"He's in the basement, ringing up Maxine on the extension."
"Tell him to stop, this instant," commanded her father.
As Phil tramped from the room with the importance of a young policewoman, Geraldine spoke to Elizabeth confidentially.
"The fact is, Miss Feathers, I never took up Maxine's refs. Dashed careless. But I've a service-flat and I'm not used to this domestic stunt. I thought she was vouched for by Dr. Evans. When I interviewed her, I was sorry for her. She looked ill and down on her luck. She wore a black coat and felt hat, just a bit too big for her. You know the effect... I had the shock of my life the first time I saw her all tight and made-up."
"Was she attractive?" asked Elizabeth jealously.
"Highly attractive to anything in trousers—but that didn't include me." Geraldine glanced down at her legs. "She was always fussing the boy and neglecting the girl. I had to cut Phil's toenails. And I loathe toenails."
"Why did she leave?"
"I sacked her when I discovered she had never been a nursery governess before. She used to do some sort of unclothed act in a low music-hall. My brother first told me to give her the push. Men always know. I can't think why she wanted to come here... The odd part is she is trying to come back again."
The news was a shock to Elizabeth, but she forgot it in astonishment at the Captain's anger. His pleasant face set in a rigid mould as he spoke in a low furious voice.
"If that woman comes here again and tries to see the boy, throw her out."
"Isn't that a job for the man of the house?" asked Geraldine, winking at Elizabeth.
Suddenly, and to her own surprise, Elizabeth heard a voice which sounded like her own, amplified by a loud-speaker.
"Let me do it. It takes another woman to deal with her type."
The Pewters looked at her—nineteen and fly-weight—before they burst into a shout of laughter. It was so hearty and friendly that, for the first time in her life, she did not resent a joke at her expense. She was even on the point of joining in when she started at the sound of the front-door bell.
"Don't run away, Miss Feathers," said Geraldine. "It's only the little doctor. He'd said he might drop in for tea."
"I hope you aren't potty on the doctor, Miss Feathers, like all the women," remarked Captain Pewter.
Aware that Geraldine was the magnet which drew two eligible men—Dr. Evans and Hartley Gull—to No. 10, Elizabeth tried to please both brother and sister.
"He's very pleasant," she said. "But I feel uncomfortable when he stares."
"Unconscious diagnosis," explained Geraldine proudly.
"But I'm a very private person. I object to his seeing my organs all over my face."
As the Captain coughed over his smoke, Geraldine looked suddenly thoughtful. She was tired of being a temporary housekeeper and wanted the freedom of her old life again, but a sense of duty made her sacrifice her personal wishes... For the first time, she wondered whether Elizabeth was the solution of her problem. She discounted the difference in age, because she was devoted to her brother and believed him an ideal husband for any woman.
Since his enforced retirement, he suffered from boredom and depression. Besides the faculty to amuse him, Elizabeth evidently possessed affection for the children.
"Barney's not every one's cup of tea," she thought. "Besides, girls who earn their living are always realists."
She looked up self-consciously as Dr. Evans entered.
"I wonder you dare show up," she said a trifle too nonchalantly. "You let me down over your precious Maxine."
"I did not," declared the doctor. "I only vouched for Maxine's mother. She was housekeeper to the Browns and better educated than her employers. She took the job to educate her child and she was kind to poor tragic Marion. So when her daughter called at my surgery and told me she wanted work, I mentioned to you that I knew of the family."
"Oh, all right, all right. Seen her lately?"
"Maxine? Only as a patient. But I've seen her with Gull at the cocktail-bar, South-Western Hotel... And here's my best girl."
Phil charged across the room, bounced upon his knee and threw her arms around his neck.
"What's the latest news?" he asked, pandering to her weakness.
"We went down Murder Lane," announced Phil. "Miss Feathers wanted us to see a black man. But we couldn't see him. She ran all the way home. She's a very frightened lady."
The exposure dissolved Elizabeth's film of happiness. For the first time in months, she had felt inside a family circle. Geraldine gossiped to her while she was aware of the Captain's dawning interest.
She tried to explain the incident—only to find it impossible. How could she convey a threat of mental domination which seemed to link Barney with something evil, when her own emotions were merely groping in the dark? She stammered, contradicted herself and finally dried up, while they seemed to accuse her with their gaze.
In the silence which followed, she was aware of Phil's big blue eyes staring at her like a personified conscience. Then Dr. Evans spoke quietly.
"I've advised my secretary and staff not to go through Maundy Passage after dark."
"Dangerous?" asked Geraldine.
"I should imagine the special danger is past. But it has morbid associations." He turned to Elizabeth. "Do you mind if I remind you that Barney is neurotic? If you have any more—fanciful—suggestions to make to him, you might confine them to fairies."
Elizabeth felt his hostility but she managed to return his stare while she collected her scarf and gloves. She reached the door, where she paused to ask the Captain a question.
"Have you a cellar?"
"Naturally," he replied. "All old houses have them. Want to see it?"
Elizabeth shuddered as she shook her head.
"Oh, no. Only—Barney had told Philippa about a black man in the cellar. So, you see, there is a bad influence and it was here before I came. It's wrong and dangerous to frighten Philippa."
"She's not an expectant mother," remarked Geraldine callously. "She's a healthy kid and she likes a thrill. Don't you, Baby Bunting?"
Elizabeth turned to the door again, when she was arrested by the Captain's challenge.
"I dare you to go into the cellar, Miss Feathers."
Although Captain Pewter honestly believed that what Captain Pewter thought to-day, posterity would think tomorrow, there was one respect in which he was sensitive to public opinion. He shrank from humour at the expense of Anglo-Indians.
"They get you both ways," he complained. "If you mention any experience to some nitwit who's lived in a cheese all his life, then you are a garrulous bore. Say nothing and you're a strong silent Empire builder... I'll have no J. M. Bateman comic-colonel stuff about this house. I forbid anyone to talk of 'tiffin' or 'pegs.' All Indian words are taboo."
This complex dictated his scheme of decoration. At first, Elizabeth regretted the lack of tiger-skins, elephant-tusks and carved teak, which reminded her of the one happy period of her life. That evening, however, as she crossed the gleaming cream hall and contrasted it with her grandmother's mausoleum, she realised the tonic transformation effected by gallons of paint.
The original baize-covered door which led to the basement-stairs had been replaced by one which matched the prevailing hue. As she walked down to the lower hall, it was brilliantly lit by a large pendant electric-bowl. Floor and stairs were all covered with apple-green rubber instead of carpet.
When she reached the cellar door she lingered to stare at it. Memory flashed back to the cellars in her grandmother's house. They were gruesome caverns, without any artificial light, and reached by a narrow stone stair. She had paid them one visit only, but she never forgot her experience.
The cook had been her guide to the underworld. When she unlocked the door at the top, there was an upward rush of cold air which smelt like a dungeon. She held the candle high, to light the steps, and Elizabeth looked down on cobweb-draped walls, glistening with slimy smears.
Then suddenly—as she stared—the whole floor moved and disappeared, as though drawn by suction, through the cracks of the walls.
"Cockroaches," explained the woman indifferently...
As Elizabeth revived the horror, cold fingers seemed to touch her heart. The cellar was remotely allied with the threat of being sent away from Barney. She knew that Dr. Evans's will was inflexible and that—if he considered her a hurtful influence—he would make it his business to eject her.
Her consolation was the knowledge that she would get fair treatment from the Pewter family. But she had a shrewd idea that the Captain would test her nerves, before he made a decision.
"Pray it won't be the cellar," she pleaded...
As she pushed open the folding-doors which led into the kitchen, she heard a child's mutter. Barney was speaking into the wall-telephone. It was too high for his comfort, while it was obvious that his ear was unaccustomed to take a message.
"I can't hear you," he cried impatiently. "You must say it all again—"
"Say it to me," cut in Elizabeth.
She swung the boy aside and took his place, as though she had tapped some secret source of strength.
Instantly the telephone became dead.
"Your friend has rung off," she told the boy. "Upstairs, old man."
Instead of resisting, he surprised her by an imperious demand.
"Carry me up—you."
The nursery was on the second-floor, so she had to toil up several flights of stairs which wound around a central well. Although Barney was a featherweight, she soon staggered under her burden, but she was repaid by the feeling of his arms clasping her neck.
When they entered the nursery, she was shocked to discover Geraldine kneeling on the floor, while she decorated a Snow-White on the wallpaper with a military moustache—to her niece's excited admiration.
"Copped," she remarked to Phil. "We're for the doghouse, baby... Oh, Miss Feathers, do you play bridge?"
"No," confessed Elizabeth. "My grandmother taught me bézique and picquet. I was a terrible failure with other children."
"You should say those other kids were a terrible failure with you," corrected Geraldine. "But about this bridge. You must learn just enough to carry on when the doctor's called out. Come down to-night and watch us."
Miss Pewter rose, dusted the knees of her trousers and sauntered to the door.
"Here's the book of words," she said. "Catch."
By luck, Elizabeth managed to stop a slim volume entitled Bridge in Twenty Minutes.
She timed herself conscientiously, but she only got negative results. She was too excited to concentrate on the print because, once again, she was going to wear a dinner-gown.
Since Dr. Evans and Hartley Gull had become regular visitors to No. 10, the evening bridge was a standing engagement, but Elizabeth never came into contact with the card players, and had her supper in the nursery. This arrangement was due to the fact that the Pewters had no rigid time-table and ate all around the clock.
That evening she was distracted by the need to get the children to bed in good time. Unfortunately Phil had listened at the drawing-room door to her aunt's remarks about Maxine. She insisted virtuously on having her toenails cut before she remembered another neglected duty.
"That Maxine was too bone-lazy to make my Temple curls," she said solemnly.
Elizabeth grasped the fact that she referred to a film star style of hairdressing—"Early Shirley Temple." Instead of being content with six thick curls, she insisted on numerous screws of soft paper.
While his sister nearly drove Elizabeth crazy, Barney tried to break her heart by giving her no trouble. He undressed listlessly, mooning like a sleep-walker—his small face rigid with such misery that it explained his father's anger with Maxine. The telephone conversation seemed to have drained him, as though she were a leech preying on his youth.
The cook always left Elizabeth a meal in the kitchen, either in the frigidaire or the oven. She was about to run downstairs to get her tray when she was horrified to hear Gull's voice booming up from the hall.
His ultra-early arrival forced her to go without her meal and to dress in a hurry. Her black gown was a model and plain for its high price. When she looked at her reflection in the glass, she was so dissatisfied that she wished she could wear the dress inside-out—to display the maker's tab. Yet when she entered the drawing-room, from the moment he glanced at it, Hartley Gull seemed to accept her as official successor to Maxine.
He looked his best in a dinner-jacket and was aware of the fact. His broad shoulders and handsome face compelled the girl's admiration as he towered above her, while his polished black hair shone like ebony under the light. As he shook hands with her, his lips moved almost imperceptibly.
"White, next time," he whispered, as though he were a benevolent butler telling a slum-guest which fork to use.
She knew that his advice was sound and smiled her thanks as he turned to Geraldine.
"Is Miss Featherstonhaugh going to make a fourth?"
As Geraldine looked around vaguely, as though searching for a pompous stranger, Elizabeth seized the opportunity to explain. She resented the fact that the household had adopted the children's undignified title.
"He means me. Thank you, Mr. Gull, for remembering my name."
"Too slack of us—" began Geraldine. "Here's Evan."
Wearing a dark lounge-suit, the doctor looked deceptively young and unimpressive—almost like a youth not yet promoted to a dinner-jacket; but Elizabeth noticed the sudden light in Geraldine's eyes. Gull too evidently thought something should be done about it, for he crossed the room and stood beside his rival—looking down on him from his superior height.
The Captain—who used obvious phrases—commented on the contrast in a whisper to Elizabeth.
"The long and short of it. Both strong characters. Which would you back for a winner?"
"I'm not sure," she replied. "Both would force you to take your medicine. But Mr. Gull would give it in jam and the doctor would only pinch your nose."
The Captain grinned and then frowned.
"Well, I hope she'll pull in the right man. My kid sister is one of the very best."
Elizabeth nodded as she looked at the elder woman. Geraldine wore a maize velvet gown which matched her blonde colouring. She was stimulated by the rivalry of the men to a glow of conquest which animated her face and deepened her blue eyes to violet.
It seemed strange and rather sad to Elizabeth that—at the age of nineteen—she was a spectator of a middle-aged romance. She realised a further disappointment when the doctor made his apologies.
"Sorry. My secretary has fixed me up. I can only stay for a few minutes."
Then he turned to the Captain with a question.
"What do the police think about the murder, Pewter? I saw you talking to the Chief Constable yesterday."
"I think we might find a pleasanter topic," cut in Gull with a significant glance at Elizabeth.
"Nervous?" the doctor asked her casually.
"Of course not," she replied quickly.
"Well, I am," said Gull. "I'm afraid I might be mistaken for a fine girl and scragged."
"We are not likely to forget your fine physique, Gull," remarked the doctor. "After all these interruptions, Pewter, do you remember my original question?"
"About the murder?" asked the Captain who had been twinkling over the sparring-match. "Oh, yes. I think it is general knowledge that the police are up against lack of motive."
"Unless they can establish that," said the doctor, speaking with authority, "the inference is that the crime was committed by some irresponsible person. In that case, they'll never get their man."
"Why not?" asked Geraldine. "Haven't they a tab on all the local mental and border-line cases?"
"I can assure you they've been thorough. I'm one of their victims. But they've drawn a blank. So unless they can establish a motive, we are threatened with a split-personality... That means that any one—from the Bishop downward—could have committed the crime."
"No, not my idea of night-life," murmured Gull, grinning at Geraldine.
He sat down at the neglected card table and began to play patience. But he attracted no notice as every one was engrossed by the murder.
"I read the victim was a local woman," said Geraldine. "Did you know her, Evan?"
"As a patient," replied the doctor. "She was about my own age and I used to dance with her at the public balls. Rather pretty but uninteresting. No one could want to murder her."
"Then it's elementary," said Geraldine impatiently. "It was mistaken identity. The police should check up on the local women who have grey squirrel coats. There can't be many of them in a smallish town."
The Captain laughed at his sister.
"The police also had a touch of womanly intuition," he said. "They've established the fact that no local squirrel lady could be mistaken for Mrs. Davis—back view. They are all the wrong build. Besides, there could be no motive for bumping off any of them either."
As she listened, Elizabeth began to feel chilly, in spite of the torrid temperature. This loose chatter was reconstructing the crime and establishing it definitely as a mystery-murder. It gave horrible significance to a racing black shadow which Barney also had seen—and repudiated.
Why? Had he recognised it?
As she asked herself the question, she noticed that the doctor was staring at her as though his will could expose her thoughts on her face.
"I'm responsible for a touching episode in connection with that coat," he told them. "It appears Mrs. Davis had a collection of fur coats—the token of successful married life. Lately she'd been yearning for a squirrel. Her husband shelled out the money for her to get one in London, on her way down to Rivermead... When he came to identify the body, I suggested she should be buried in the coat—or rather cremated. The poor fellow was in a highly emotional state. He cried and said how glad he was she had her last wish gratified."
Evans's smile hardened as he went on to explain his motive.
"Commonsense, although it sounded like sentiment. He couldn't give it to any of his girls. And he couldn't sell it. What woman would wear a coat in which another woman had been murdered?"
While the doctor was talking, Gull appeared interested only in his cards. It was evident he resented being an outsider when he assumed a commanding position before the fire.
"Did the police know that?" he asked.
"I believe not," replied the doctor.
"Well, your advice probably destroyed valuable evidence. But did I hear you say the lady's husband was cut up?"
"Very cut up."
"In fact—minced... As I guessed. Now I'll give you the name of the murderer. Pewter, tell your copper friend to check the alibi of the worthy Mr. Davis. It is sound policy to distrust these broken-hearted widowers."
It was a moment of intense social discomfort, since every one realised that an outsize in bricks had been dropped. Yet as Gull glared at the doctor, Elizabeth felt instinctively that their hatred had old and twisted roots.
The flash of the doctor's anger blew off like the head of a match, and he spoke in his usual modulated voice.
"You are lucky, Gull, because your experience is incomplete. As Pewter and I both know only too well, the average man is liable to feel grief when his wife dies."
"Oh, my dear fellows—Not for a moment—I never meant—"
"That's all right, Gull. In my case, your suspicions could be doubled, as I inherited my wife's money."
The doctor glanced at his watch—compared it with the clock—and sauntered to the door.
"I'll see you off the premises," offered Geraldine.
When the pair went out of the room, it was significant that the remaining three waited in silence for the slam of the front door. As the minutes passed, Gull accepted the implication of a protracted parting in the hall. Turning to Elizabeth, he shot out a question.
"What do you think of the mighty atom?"
As he puffed at his cigar, Gull looked important and a trifle larger than life-size—rather like a financial magnate who was reading his future by the tape. Yet, for some inexplicable reason, his angry face suggested Barney to Elizabeth. Things were wrong with some small boy—and he wanted reassurance.
"My grandmother would say, 'Still waters run deep,'" she said.
"And your grandfather would say, 'Still waters stink and should be dredged,'" remarked Gull.
As he spoke, Geraldine returned. Her face was flushed and she smoothed back her hair self-consciously.
"Well, bridge is off," she said. "What, Hartley?"
"We can't leave Miss Feathers alone."
"Why not? No servants?"
"Yes, but they're dailies and won't sleep in. I sacked the other lot because I thought they must be in with Maxine."
"But why the dickens should Miss Feathers be afraid to stay here alone?" asked the Captain.
"She's not," declared Elizabeth.
Her ears were sharp, for—after the others had gone into the hall, she heard Gull's comment, through the closed door.
"She's a change from your last lovely. All she needs is a nice motherly governess to tell her as much as a nice girl need know. You can certainly pick them, Geraldine."
"Rot," said Geraldine. "She's a sensible kid for her age."
"But will you keep her? Isn't she scared of this murder?"
"If she is,"—the Captain's voice was loud and determined—"out she goes. I can't risk the boy's nerves."
"And now I know," murmured Elizabeth to herself.
After the others had left the house, she lingered in the drawing-room, trying to imagine herself its mistress, instead of an intruder. She settled several minor alterations but shied at any major changes with carved ivory and peacock-feathers, even while she longed to recall the glamorous past. Presently commonsense prevailed and she went upstairs to the nursery—where she belonged.
She was crossing the hall when her heart leaped at the sound of muffled screams.
It sounded like Phil's voice raised in terror. In the ordinary way a nightmare might account for the cries; but because she was responsible for the children, her thoughts flew to disaster.
Rushing to the staircase, she raced up to the nursery floor. When she paused on the first landing, to recover her breath, she noticed that the screams were fainter. In a fresh panic, she burst into her large room, which she shared with Phil. It was lit by a night-light glimmering through the green eyes of a china owl's head.
Switching on the light, she saw that the child's bed was empty.
"Barney," she called. "Where's Philippa? Barnaby."
As no reply came from the small adjoining room, she dashed inside. A huddle of bed-clothes lay upon the floor but the boy had disappeared.
Faced with double desertion, she felt on the point of collapse, as though to prove the truth of the doctor's diagnosis. She knew that she was letting her nerves control her, just as she realised the cause for her exaggerated alarm.
It was a black flicker over a lighted wall.
At the moment, she was incapable of sustained thought and was animated solely by the need to find the children. Dashing down the stairs at a dangerous speed, she reached the hall just as the door leading to the basement was burst open. Screaming like a steam-siren, Phil rushed through and butted Elizabeth, nearly throwing her backwards before her weight.
"The Black Man," she shrieked.
For a moment, the infection of her fear leaped to Elizabeth, like the tongue of a prairie-fire. She remembered that she was the only adult in the house. Fortunately, as Phil continued to yell, her commonsense reminded her that the scene was the logical sequel to Barney's bogey-stories.
"Stop making that horrible noise," she commanded. "I want to know why you are downstairs."
Phil's response to treatment was speedy, for she stopped in the middle of a high note, to explain.
"I came down to find Barney."
"Why weren't you asleep?"
"That Barney would come into my room and wake me up. He wanted to see the clock. And he ran water in his basin, to keep him awake. You see, he mustn't go to sleep. She won't let him."
"Who won't let him?"
"Maxine... Then I woke up and he wasn't in his bed. I came down to the kitchen, cos I thought he'd be having supper. And then the Black Man—"
As the child started to cry again, Elizabeth changed her tactics.
"It's all right, darling," she said. "You're only half-awake and you've been fancying things. You didn't really see any one, did you?"
"No," admitted Phil. "But the Black Man left his hand. It's on the cellar door."
"Nonsense. Suppose we go and find Barnaby."
Phil's excited laughter as she hung heavily on to Elizabeth's arm made the governess suspect that she had stage-managed the adventure. Instead of protesting, she dragged Elizabeth down the stairs to the half-way landing.
"Look," she squealed, pointing down to the basement hall.
High up on the cream-painted door were black smudges, ominously like finger-prints. They were so realistic and sinister that Elizabeth felt a sudden weakening of her knees. She was about to rush Phil from the danger zone, when she remembered Chester—the man who always stoked the furnace to last during the night.
Although she had not explored the lower regions, she knew that the heating-apparatus must be near the cellars. Then she frowned with unwelcome recollection. Chester had paid his second visit, extra early, during the afternoon. He had come—and gone—when she stood looking at the door, before she caught Barney at the kitchen telephone.
Then—there were no black marks upon the paint.
Once again she was on the point of cracking, when Barney came out of the kitchen, in time to save her prestige. As he glanced at the finger-prints, his eyes were filled with such guilt that it gave her the clue to their origin. Instantly her mind leaped back to the incident in the nursery, when Geraldine had used black lead on the wallpaper.
She decided to try the effect of ridicule.
"Such silly children," she said. "Only babies play with coals. I'd be ashamed to let the cook see that. Let me get a duster."
As she went into the kitchen, she had a vague sense of discomfiture which she connected with a shelved responsibilty. Then she found a cloth and kicked the cook's foot-stool before her, into the hall.
By standing upon it, she was able to reach the marks. They were light and were soon rubbed out, while the children watched her in silence. After testing the locked back door, she turned the key of the cellar stairs, as an extra precaution.
"Back to bed," she commanded the children.
They obeyed her meekly until they reached the top of the stairs. As she switched off the light, plunging the basement into darkness, Barney made a lightning duck down the first flight. She dived after him and managed to clutch the collar of his sleeping-suit before he reached the bend.
"I've got to go down," he panted, as he fought and kicked. "I won't stay. I promise."
"Yes, I know all about it," she told him. "You are not going to that telephone, my lord."
The fight went out of him and he collapsed like a deflated balloon. A few minutes later, Elizabeth tucked into bed two angelic children who spoke in tones of ultra-refinement.
She went to bed early but she could not sleep. After a while, she got up to assure herself that the children were safe. Phil was curled up in a tight ball inside a blanket bag. Her chest was padded with cotton wool and she was breathing evenly. Satisfied that there was no threat of bronchitis, Elizabeth walked softly into Barney's room.
The light was turned on and the bed-clothes were still lying on the floor, while Barney lay stretched on a stripped bed. His posture was rigid and he blinked up at the ceiling although his eyes looked heavy. He was palpably dead-tired, yet for some reason he was resisting sleep.
"He mustn't go to sleep. She won't let him."
Phil's voice rang in her head as she picked up a blanket and tried to cover Barney. He resisted her so fiercely—kicking off the bed-clothes after she had tucked him in—that she gave up the attempt.
"Why don't you go to sleep first?" he asked, glaring at her with accusing eyes.
As he spoke, she heard the sound of voices in the hall.
"Daddy's come home and Aunt Jerry," she said joyfully.
"Now we'll all go to sleep. Good-night and sleep tight."
As she lay in bed, she listened to Geraldine's movements in the adjoining room, forgetting the darkness pressing against the other wall. Then she fell asleep—to wake with a start. She had the feeling that her door which led out to the corridor—had been stealthily opened and shut.
It was some time before she could arouse herself sufficiently to see if either of the children had got out of bed. When, at last, she made the effort, she found that Phil, apparently, had not stirred, while Barney—relaxed and warm—was asleep under the blankets.
During the night, Elizabeth awoke again, when she suddenly remembered the cause of her conscience-prick in the kitchen.
She was worried by its untidiness. Just before the daily maids had left, a large consignment of goods arrived from the stores. In their haste to go, the women had piled the parcels and tins on every available chair. She had noticed these, when she surprised Barney at the telephone—and she resolved to put them away before she went to bed.
She had forgotten—but it was not her neglect which kept her awake. What perplexed her was the fact that the cartons and bottles had been heaped in such perilous pyramids that the removal of a single article would be sufficient to bring the whole erection crashing to the floor.
A question stirred in her mind. Since none of the chairs were clear, how did Barney manage to fabricate the fingermarks so near the top of the door?
Suddenly she saw the prints again—life-size and corresponding to the impressions left by the hand of a man.
NEXT morning, Elizabeth awoke with the feeling of a weight pressing down upon the roof. Her first thought—"Something unpleasant happened yesterday," was followed by a presentiment—"Something unpleasant is going to happen to-day." Then she glanced at the clock and saw that it was past eight.
Jumping out of bed, she began to dress in a hurry. It was on such occasions that she paid the penalty of her grandmother's training. She had been too used to personal service to make a quick toilet, besides being heavy in the morning. There was also the complication of a sore finger which had begun to fester. When she heard the ringing of the front-door bell, she was grateful that Miss Pewter let in the supply maids.
No matter how late she returned from the club, Geraldine always rose early, in excellent spirits and full of energy. It cheered Elizabeth to hear her whistling as she made morning tea for herself and her brother.
"One couldn't feel nervous with her in the house," she thought. "I'm lucky to have her here."
It was an unusually dark morning with a sealed leaden sky, which accounted for some of her depression. Afterwards the business of prodding the children awake and pulling them into their clothes left her no time for morbid fancies. When at last they were dressed, she went upstairs to the nursery and rang for breakfast.
To her surprise, the housemaid who brought up the tray wore no livery and had not removed her hat. She wanted to ignore the lapse but loyalty to her grandmother's code made her protest.
"Are you afraid of catching cold in your head, Lily?" she asked.
The girl laughed as she touched her brim.
"Well I never," she said. "That shows. We were all in the kitchen. Cook, Miss Pewter and me, and you know how it is with a lot of talking. I heard your ring and reached for the tray in a trance."
Elizabeth thought it was a thin excuse, since Geraldine was the last person to go into a huddle with the maids. She had proved her inexperience during the Maxine episode, by her wholesale dismissal of the staff. Since then she had discovered that good domestics did not grow on brambles; but in spite of the shortage, she remained critical and distrustful.
Lily seemed to be in a state of suppressed excitement, for she slammed down the meal and hurried away, as though eager to return to the kitchen.
Like their aunt, the children were fresh in the morning. When Elizabeth began to listen to their chatter, Barney was spinning a yarn to petrify his sister.
"I know what's inside the empty house. I've been there. It's full of lions and unicorns and tigers and a big elephant's head and bones and spiders—"
"That will do," broke in Elizabeth. "You're not funny."
"He's telling lies to frighten me into my grave," remarked Phil, happily munching bread and honey.
"'Tisn't lies," insisted Barney. "I've seen the Black Man too. He lives in the empty house. I'm not frightened of him. He's got no face. And he gives me money."
"Get on with your breakfast," ordered Elizabeth. "There's one comfort, you won't be able to romance about the empty house much longer... Philippa, won't it be a thrill when they take away the shutters?"
"Shall we see all the dark coming out of the windows?" asked Phil.
"No, but the people inside the house will see the lovely light coming in."
"Lovely light like this?" asked Barney, glancing cynically at the sky which was now darkish-yellow. "I can't see to drink my tomato-juice. If there's a frog in it, I'll swallow it."
Phil gave an exaggerated shudder as she slid from her chair.
"I've got to see if the poor new cook is lonely," she explained.
After she had gone downstairs to her spiritual home—the kitchen—and Barney had slipped away on some mysterious journey, Elizabeth made a makeshift attempt to tidy the nursery and then carried the tray downstairs. On her way through the hall, she had a glimpse of the morning-room, through the half-open door.
Geraldine stood on the rug, smoking as she read a cheap local paper—evidently the property of the cook.
"Heard the news?" she shouted to Elizabeth. "Another murder."
"Another?" echoed Elizabeth, hurrying inside the morning-room. "Who? When? Where?"
"Early this morning. Some wretched woman found strangled outside a pub."
To Elizabeth's dismay, a shrill treble voice supplied further details.
"Cook's paper says the victim was an importunate," said Barney. "Her bag was busted and all the money fell out. There was a fortune lying in the gutter. That's how they know where the murderer did his stuff. These detectives are smart."
Elizabeth chased Barney away and then returned to get a second instalment of horrors.
"Any connection between the two murders?" asked Geraldine.
The Captain shrugged and frowned over his cereal.
"You could hardly find two more opposite types than a respectable matron and a street-woman," he remarked. "I'm afraid Evans is right. It seems a split-personality criminal."
Suddenly Elizabeth found herself thinking of a black swooping shape, while a flock of questions crowded her mind.
Had she seen murder? Where did it go when it disappeared? Had it been hiding, hooked to the wall like a bat, waiting for its minute? Did it pick its victim and then stalk it—or was it a fatal chance that drove the wretched girl across its path?
"Gosh, you do look green," remarked Geraldine.
Elizabeth explained quickly that her finger was shooting, and changed the subject with a tactful tribute to Dr. Evans.
"The doctor said he didn't expect a second murder in Maundy Passage."
"The little wizard has the knack of being right," said Geraldine with a pleased smile. "All the same, Miss Feathers, please get the kids back before dark—and don't try any more short cuts."
As she spoke, she crossed to one of the windows which reached down to the floor, and peered out into the yellow murk. According to time-table, Dr. Evans's car was parked outside No. 2, while the doctor paced the terrace briskly, smoking a cigarette.
Geraldine beckoned to him to come inside. When he entered the morning-room, Elizabeth noticed that he looked worn, while his first words were a protest.
"Spare me the murder. I've already been putting in some work on the wretched woman. I've two 'ops' and I have to clear my plate first."
"Same trade-mark?" asked the Captain, calmly ignoring the request.
"Yes. Nice neat bit of work. Someone who knows his way about the human frame. Could be a butcher or a surgeon."
Suddenly Elizabeth felt compelled to mention a possibility.
"Could the murderer be hiding inside the empty house?... I hear noises there at night."
"You bet you do," said the Captain. "When it's opened up, we'll have a plague of rats. But you can bank on this, Miss Feathers." He prodded the table-cloth with his finger for emphasis. "No one can go inside that house. And no one could get out."
"Oh, only rats," cried Elizabeth. "I hate all that darkness on the other side of my bedroom wall when I'm waiting for Miss Pewter to come home."
"Waiting for me? Why?" asked Geraldine.
Elizabeth felt her face scorch as they all looked at her in surprise.
"A silly habit I got, when I was young," she explained. "The nursemaid left me alone and I couldn't sleep until I heard her come back. But Miss Pewter is so quiet, I can't be sure whether I've imagined her and I keep on staying awake."
Geraldine grimaced at the thought of her wasted precaution not to awaken the girl when she returned home especially late.
"Well, you'll be spared listening-in for a bit," she said. "I'm going away for a few days."
Elizabeth stared at her in dismay. The blow was the heavier because it was unexpected. She could not imagine the house without Geraldine. In addition to her sense of loss was a warning of future responsibility when she would be called upon to act as housekeeper.
Looking up, she met Captain Pewter's eyes.
"I'll sleep in my sister's room while she is away," he promised. "Directly I'm in, I'll give three knocks on the wall, so you won't have to strain your ears."
"Thank you," said Elizabeth gravely. "Of course, it's only a habit."
Dr. Evans's smile was bleak as he spoke to Geraldine.
"Going on a holiday?" he asked.
"A busman's holiday. I'm going to play in a golf tournament. The semi-final seems as far as I shall ever get. Another case of 'always a bridesmaid, never a bride.'"
"You could change that." The doctor's tone held meaning. "What is the matter with Miss Feathers's finger?"
"Suppose you prick it for her," suggested Geraldine. "I'll get a darning needle. It's only a splinter."
He shook his head as he glanced at Elizabeth's hand.
"I can't wait now, but drop in at my surgery at twelve. There's some pus to come out."
"Is this a 'Citadel' racket?" asked Geraldine, whose humour was Pewter brand.
"I'll do it for love," promised the doctor.
"That all? You ought to pay her for the practice you'll get."
Elizabeth tried to laugh dutifully, but she felt too depressed.
"Do they know who the murdered woman is?" she asked.
"Yes," replied the doctor. "She's been identified as an ex-barmaid. Sunk very low. First drink, then drugs."
As Elizabeth was going out of the room, on her way to find the children, the Captain called out to her a question.
"Been to the cellar yet?"
It seemed to her that the Pewters were in a jocular mood, that morning. Knowing the Captain's schoolboy sense of humour, she shrank from the prospect of a practical joke staged in the gruesome locality of a cellar—with a floor that moved.
While she gave the children their lessons, she kept thinking of her appointment with the doctor. She was sure that he made it merely as a sop to Geraldine.
"I shan't go," she decided. "He doesn't like me and he knows I don't like him. He'll hurt me, just to pay me off."
As the morning wore on, however, she began to realise the threat which clouded her future. If she crashed momentarily, she would be parted from the boy she loved, on the charge of lack of self-control. She was wondering whether she could count upon herself—in the fatal unguarded moment—when she remembered an early book of Robert Hichens.
Her grandmother bought no modern fiction, so that she had read and re-read "Bella Donna." As she thought of the woman who had sealed a hostile doctor's lips through the trick of a professional visit, it seemed to her that the situation was her own. If she consulted Dr. Evans about her nerves, she, too, could claim the privilege of the confessional.
At twelve o'clock, Geraldine entered the surgery. Her interest in Dr. Evans had reached a stage when she wanted to preserve contact with a sort of shuttle-service between their two houses.
"You've a date with the doctor," she said. "Don't keep him waiting. He's an important man."
Hatless and without a coat, Elizabeth rushed along the Crescent until she reached the steps of No. 2. Although she was still undecided about the wisdom of a confidence, she enjoyed the importance of giving her impressive name to the man who answered her ring.
As she followed him across the hall, she lingered in order to admire it. The dim splendour of the Regency period had been preserved in antique furniture and mellowed gilding, while its walls were hung with the original crimson brocade, faded to a crushed-strawberry tint. Then the doctor came to meet her and steered her to his surgery, which was a consulting-room and nothing more—except that it was furnished in the same grand manner as the rest of the house.
"I believe I'm the only tenant who had not violated the tradition of this fine old Crescent," the doctor told her. "Our mutual friend—the Nabob—makes people guess the number of gallons used in Number Ten."
Elizabeth forgot Dr. Evans's connection with the Tygarth family, as she defended Captain Pewter.
"It's a happy house now. It has a wretched history—and it takes a lot of paint to cover that... Are you going to hurt me?"
"You'll soon find out."
Elizabeth remembered her deduction about the doctor's ruthless method of giving medicine, as he took hold of her hand. To her relief, he handled her as though she were precious porcelain while he lanced and cleaned out the abscess. At the end of the small operation he patted her shoulder with the conventional praise—"Good girl."
In that moment, she fell under his spell.
"I only felt the first jab," she said.
"I would have spared you even mat, if it were possible," he told her. "Pain is only useful as a pointer. Once its function is fulfilled, it must be destroyed... Keep the finger clean. Good-morning."
When she reached the door, she turned back impulsively.
"Thank you for my free treatment," she said. "Now I want to consult you professionally about—my nerves. I think I need some sort of psycho-analysis, because it goes back to the way I was brought up. I was frightened and lonely."
"Lonely?" repeated the doctor, pressing her down in a deep chair. "Did you talk to yourself?"
"No, I used to talk to companions. I invented them. But they were real to me. I wasn't normal and I was quite unlike other children. Once I overheard my great-uncle say to my grandmother, 'We are antiques, but that child is prehistoric.'"
"Did you feel there was a gulf dividing you from other people?"
"How did you guess?... But is it true that what is said in a doctor's consulting-room is private and confidential?"
"Then I can tell you. I really thought I was a ghost. I was sure I didn't belong to this world. We lived near the Victoria and Albert Museum. I used to go there when it was getting dusk and stare into the old mirrors. I was always hoping I might see some familiar face from the past and that I would remember."
Once she began to talk, Elizabeth did not want to stop. The doctor sat opposite her—his face in shadow and his slight form curled up in the chair. As the light from the window fell upon his thick hair revealing its fair colour, she felt as though she were confiding in a twin brother.
"Looking back," she said, "I can only remember darkness and cold. But it must have been hot in the summer."
"Typical of a twilight mind," commented the doctor. "But you seem to understand your own psychology. Why have you come to me?"
Elizabeth hesitated before she took the plunge. She was going to give the doctor proof that she was too nervous to control Barney.
"Because yesterday I had a sort of relapse," she said. "Things happened that couldn't happen. Outside and in the house."
After she had told the doctor of a leaping black shadow in Maundy Passage and of black finger-prints on the cellar door, there was a short silence. Presently his smile reassured her.
"There's nothing to worry about," he said. "You've heard of pöltergeister? Mischievous elemental spirits that wreck houses. But apart from the supernatural element, these manifestations are often proved due to some young person who has developed marvellous cunning and timing to produce the phenomena... Never mind how he did it, but assure yourself that the finger-prints were due to some trickery on the part of Barney."
As he spoke, he rose, but Elizabeth was insistent.
"Barney didn't fake the shadow."
"The shadow," repeated the doctor. "Leave it at that. Shadows cannot hurt you, so long as they remain shadows. But don't mention them to other people. Then they become dangerous."
"Need you ask? You're a clever young woman to muzzle me as you have. You know that Barney is a problem-child and that his father is wrapped up in him. As a friend of the family, I ought to advise him to find another governess. Say nothing to him... There is something else."
The doctor glanced up at a marble bust of a tight-lipped Roman senator. Disregarding its hint, he asked a question.
"I suppose you look on the Nabob as an average sporting Empire builder?"
"No. He's nervy and sensitive. There's a lot of Barney in him."
"Still, you don't know everything. Now it is my turn to tell you something in confidence."
"I won't breathe a word... But please—nothing bad."
"It is not good—but it is past. The truth is, Pewter had a mental breakdown in India. If you want to stay with the boy, never mention shadows to his father. And don't talk about them to any one."
Taking her arm, the doctor hurried her across the gracious old hall. His parting words conveyed both warning and encouragement.
"Don't look for any more shadows. With your history, you can't afford to take liberties with your nerves. But you'll lose those nerves when your grandmother dies."
"Granny is dead."
"Not yet. Every time you quote her, you are keeping her alive. When you think the thoughts of an old woman, you are living in the past. Good-morning."
As she ran down the Crescent, Elizabeth asked herself what she had gained from her interview. While she might have procured protection—provided that Dr. Evans played fair—he had removed her fears to make room for worse.
She was oppressed by his hint of a split-personality in connection with Captain Pewter.
Still under the doctor's spell, Elizabeth was eager to discuss his understanding and his kindness with Geraldine; but when she burst into the dining-room, only the children were seated at the table. Captain Pewter was rarely present at lunch—when the nursery-party had dinner—but Geraldine seldom missed the midday meal. The sight of her empty chair not only chilled Elizabeth with disappointment, but reminded her of future loneliness.
"Where's Aunt Jerry?" she asked.
"Gone to golf," replied Barney. He looked around the table, as though to detect any medium of leakage, before he added in a whisper, "Poor gal. She'll never make it, this side Jordan. Tries too hard."
As he was a shameless plagiarist of adult conversation, Elizabeth knew that he had overheard his father's opinion of Geraldine's chance of winning the tournament. The boy was in excellent spirits and pleased with his imitation of a big business man as he rattled coins in his pocket.
"Guess how much money I've got," he said.
"Pennies make the most noise," she remarked, knowing that he despised stupidity. "I guess threepence."
"Right and wrong. I've got a fortune here to spend. I'm going to buy you a present."
"You can't," broke in Phil in a pleased voice. "Miss Feathers is your enemy."
Elizabeth was cheered by his disappointment at the reminder. It was also good news that she would be spared taking the children to the river meadows with their lure of running water.
Although it was not dark enough to justify artificial light, the lowering sky made the dining-room very gloomy. Even the cream point was powerless to raise her spirits. It seemed to her that the ghosts of the past had returned to eat their midday dinner. She imagined the room dressed in a patterned wallpaper and thick window drapery, holding the smell of steak-and-onions—a stuffy overfurnished prison for a beautiful golden-haired girl.
"She sat here day after day," she thought. "Starved of love—and watching her parents eat big hot meals. Hating them. Hating life."
Elizabeth was startled by the sound of a chuckle from Phil, because—in spite of the frequent twinkle in her eyes—she rarely even smiled.
"What's the joke, Philippa?" she asked.
"We're going to have fun when Aunt Jerry is gone. We are all going to let down our back hair."
"Did Lily say that?" asked Elizabeth, forewarned that the housemaid intended to slack.
As she expected, Phil became deaf, while Elizabeth sank into deeper gloom at the knowledge of a mutiny brewing against her authority.
Instead of the usual race against time, the afternoon walk was a soothing experience. A wind had sprung up, so that alternate spasms of light and darkness shook across the sky. The children walked primly along the Promenade, lined with leafless Spanish chestnuts. They never lingered on the ornamental bridge across the river, in order to watch the ducks.
But when they reached the meccano shop, Elizabeth had a surprise which was unpleasant because she suspected a poisoned undertow. Knowing that Barney had optimistic ideas on the purchasing power of his pocket-money, she told him to show her the coins he was rattling. With a cunning smile, he produced threepence.
"You were right," he told her, "and you were wrong. Look at this."
Elizabeth stared at the half-crown upon the counter.
"Where did that come from?" she asked sharply.
The boy started and then appealed to the salesman in a frightened whisper.
"It's not black money, is it?"
When the man assured him that it was a genuine coin of the realm, he recovered his self-possession.
"Who gave it to you?" demanded Elizabeth.
"Nobody," he replied.
"Barney... You didn't steal it?"
"'Course not. I earned it. It's my wages."
"Who paid you wages?"
He set his lips and refused to reply.
Elizabeth worried over the incident during the homeward walk. It was a poignant reminder of her suspicion that Barney was tainted by a bad influence. The boy whom she idolised seemed to be developing into a liar and a thief. Directly they reached No. 10, she rushed into the Captain's study.
He was smoking and reading before the fire. Removing his feet from the mantelpiece, he hastily slipped his novel behind him, as though it were an indiscreet choice of literature. Apparently he had reached a hectic stage, for he was impatient at Elizabeth's inquiries about half-a-crown—although he tried to disguise it with heavy Pewter humour.
"No, I didn't give him half-a-dollar. If only I'd known he was in the money, I'd have cadged it off him."
"He said it was 'wages,'" persisted Elizabeth.
"Then my bet is Gull. Generous chap and interested in my kid-sister. In these cases, it's an old English custom to bribe small boy relatives... Anything more of national importance, Miss Feathers?"
"No. I'm sorry I troubled you."
"Tr-r-roubled," corrected the Captain.
Feeling that she had blundered, Elizabeth went from the room. As Geraldine had not returned, she opened the front door and looked down the misty semi-circle of houses in the hope of seeing her car. On the other side of the left-hand area were the dirty steps and shuttered windows of No. 11, now doubly black and sinister in the twilight. As she stared at it, an unpleasant thought slid into her mind. Only that morning, Barney had boasted of being on friendly terms with the Black Man.
"He gives me money."
The words jangled in her memory as she questioned. Why was Barney afraid that his half-crown might be black and therefore useless for circulation? Had his alarm been prompted by special knowledge? Didn't her grandmother remark—when a maid found a missing spoon—"Those who hide know where to find"?
She tried to sweep out her suspicions, but some of the poison remained. Barney knew something which it was not good for him to know—something which robbed him of sleep and threatened to draw him into an evil conspiracy. She had seen the proof—a new coin—which in spite of its silver face was tainted with the blood of the Black Market.
And—only a few yards distant—peering at her through solid shutters as though through a transparency—there might stand the black shape of Murder. She had seen him once—and she knew she would see him again...
Suddenly she heard a bang, followed by the thud of footsteps, while someone muttered in an unfamiliar voice:
"Barney's not bad. And they shan't make him bad."
The next second, she realised that she had slammed the front door in a panic and was talking to herself as she rushed upstairs. Bitterly ashamed of her lapse, she remembered Dr. Evans's warning.
"He really is a wizard," she thought. "He knows me better than I know myself. I'm quoting Granny again, like another old woman."
Soon afterwards, new life surged into the house with the arrival of Geraldine and Hartley Gull. Since the servant problem had grown acute, the nursery party had tea daily in the drawing-room. That afternoon it was a lively meal, although Geraldine talked of nothing but golf. Apparently Gull had usurped the doctor's place in her interest, for she referred to him as though he were an Oracle.
"Hartley's playing round with me every day," she told her brother.
"I'll make a champion of her," vowed Gull, rearing his head as though it were already crowned with laurel.
Elizabeth thought they made a perfect pair. Each had similar qualities—good-looks, perfect physical development, and energy. It was also true that both had loud voices. The noise was nerve-shattering and the Captain frowned in protest; but Elizabeth was grateful for every laugh and shout.
The Pewters went to the Club that evening, so there was no bridge after dinner. In spite of their absence, Elizabeth did not lie awake as usual. Her sleep was the result of aspirin, and it lasted for nearly three hours, when she was awakened by the sound of a door being closed. Slipping out of bed, she peered out into the corridor.
It was in darkness—a sign that the Captain and his sister had returned. Although the Captain was generous—and even lavish—he was stingy over electric light. After installing an extravagant system, he grudged the essential current. Elizabeth often thought he would welcome a patriotic excuse to send his family to bed in the dark.
In spite of her relief to know that Geraldine had returned from the Club, Elizabeth could not get to sleep again. Every sound seemed to be magnified as she lay listening to Phil breathing out of time with the ticking of the clock. Presently she realised that she was hungry. She had scarcely eaten any supper and the cold fowl had gone down to the frigidaire intact.
She turned and tossed in bed, trying vainly to subdue her pangs, but, in the end, the fowl won.
"It really is my supper," she reasoned as she zipped on her white Angora dressing-gown.
She had been so starved of youthful adventure that she felt the belated guilt of stealing apples when she crept out into the corridor. Lighted by the beam of a small torch, she went down the stairs and crossed the hall, which appeared magnified to the proportions of a museum by the gloom.
When the basement door was closed behind her, she stood in the darkness, groping for the switch. Thrilled by the welcome gleam of the cream walls in the light, she hurried into the kitchen. The original cavern had been completely transformed by white tiles, stainless metal, and labour-saving devices into a cheerful modernised room.
Humming a tune from "The Gondoliers," Elizabeth laid a corner of the table and then opened the frigidaire. Just as she was taking out the fowl, she was startled by a low rumbling sound.
"Earthquake," she cried, with a flash-back to an Indian experience.
The next second she realised that she was in England and that the noise was dying down to the mutter of faint thunder.
"It's under the floor," she thought. "Someone's in the cellar."
She waited in tense expectancy, but the silence remained unbroken. After some time had passed, she remembered an explanation of the mystery movements from the empty house.
"Rats," she reasoned. "Besides, all sounds are magnified at night."
In spite of the consolation of logic, she made no attempt to finish getting her supper. Her limbs seemed too rigid to move and her palms were clammy because she knew she must force a decision.
"I must control my nerves, or I'll be no good to Barney... I must go down to the cellar."
She walked shakily out to the basement hall and lingered before the door leading down to the cellar. It took all her resolution even to open it and peer down into the darkness. To her surprise, there was no uprush of chill stale air from the depths. Slightly reassured by the absence of dungeon atmosphere, she flashed her torch downwards.
She was repaid for her courage by the discovery that the cellar had been wired. As she switched on the light, it gleamed on yellow-washed walls and a clean wooden stair with a halfway bend. Stamping in order to frighten any rats back to their holes, she stood, listening. After waiting for a few seconds, she walked down the first flight of steps with growing confidence.
From the landing, she had a sectional view of the cellar, which had been illumined by the controlling switch at the top of the stairs. She saw a slice of wall—painted butter-yellow—and an enormous stove. At that moment, she understood the schoolboy gleam in the Captain's eye when he challenged her. In his dated slang, he was "pulling her leg"—since the cellar was in reality a furnace-room.
She laughed in her relief... Then suddenly she shied—like a racehorse at a flash of lightning—and bolted back up the stairs...
When she was back in the basement hall, she questioned whether she had actually seen it—a shadow, like the flicker of a gigantic bat's wing, ripping swiftly across the yellow wall...
Presently she became ashamed of her cowardice. The steady ticking of the grandfather's clock inside the kitchen reproached the fluttering beat of her heart. Her surroundings were so comfortable and homely that her commonsense returned, reminding her that she might have cast the shadow herself.
For the second time, she opened the door leading to the cellar. Without pausing—lest her courage should cool—she rushed down both flights of stairs into the furnace-room.
Judged by its size, two or three vaults had been knocked into one vast area. An unshaded pendant bulb shone directly down on the central stove, but the corners were obscured with shadows. Most of the floor space was covered by stacked sacks of fuel, while some of it was used to store superfluous furniture.
The air was dry and very warm. As her palms were still clammy from her fright, Elizabeth took out her handkerchief. She was mopping them dry when she noticed that a sack had fallen down, spilling coals from its open mouth.
"My earthquake," she said, bowing to the bag.
Once again she felt the pangs of hunger. She ran up to the kitchen and made a hearty meal of cold chicken and fruit salad. Afterwards she made tea and smoked cigarettes until her conscience quailed before the accusing face of the grandfather's clock.
On her way through the basement hall, she noticed that she had lost her handkerchief.
"I must have dropped it in the cellar," she thought. "Well, it can stay there."
She was beginning to mount the stairs when she remembered that Chester—the man who stoked the furnace—would find it in the morning. In order to keep her midnight feast a secret, she went down to the cellar for the third time. Her handkerchief was where she expected to find it—screwed into a ball and lying on the floor. She snatched it up and then stood staring at a sack.
When she left the cellar it had been upset and some of its contents spilt upon the flags. During the interval, while she was having supper, it had been restored to its original upright position and the coals had been collected and put back inside the bag.
Through the confusion of Elizabeth's senses emerged a disturbing conclusion.
"Things can't move by themselves. Someone—someone—"
She fled up the stairs as though pursued by a rushing black shape. Although she snapped off the basement lights by instinct, when she reached the hall she pressed down the main switch. The glow of illumination from rod and panel reminded her of the Captain. As she recollected his challenge, she began to wonder whether he were responsible for the mystery events of the evening.
"Perhaps he is testing my nerves," she thought.
Slipping back through the basement door, she closed it tightly, so that no crack of light from the hall could betray her, and stood at the top of the stairs, listening. After she had waited for some time, she heard the sound of muffled footsteps mounting the cellar steps. Although they were so faint, she followed their passage across the hall.
"He's going to slip out through the back door," she thought. "Then he will come in through the front."
Suddenly her lost childhood bubbled up in an absurd impulse to lay a joke upon him.
"I'll creep down and switch on the lower light suddenly," she thought. "That should make him start."
As she stole down the stairs, moving a few inches at a time, she could see no one, but somehow she received the impression that some of the darkness was moving. When she reached the lowest tread, she thought she could hear the sound of breathing. She was close to someone...
Her finger was on the switch when she was overcome by shyness. If she revealed her presence to the Captain, she would have to explain about her midnight feast. It was such a childish escapade for a governess that she shrank from confession.
Creeping back upstairs, she slid into the hall. As she was crossing it, she heard the click of the key turning in the lock of the front door. It opened and Geraldine walked inside. She was wearing her evening fur coat and appeared to have come from the Club.
"You?" gasped Elizabeth. "I thought you came home ages ago."
As the girl stared at her, Geraldine spoke with justified irritation.
"Thanks, Miss Feathers. Thanks a lot. But in future, please don't wait up for me. I have a key."
Remembering the darkened corridor and the mysterious sounds, Elizabeth asked a question.
"Is your brother home?"
"No." Geraldine stifled a yawn. "I left him at the Club, taking the Bank. He's been having a run of luck all the evening and he is staying put."
"He's not left the Club at all?" persisted Elizabeth.
"No," replied Geraldine sharply. "But you need not wait up to see him in, Miss Feathers... Good-night."
THE next day, Elizabeth quoted her grandmother in a worthy phrase which reflected attendance at Evensong, rather than Capitalist prejudice against Labour:
"When God shuts a door. He opens a window."
She had a glimmer of hope that it might prove an instance of her casement to Geraldine's door. Events occurred that day which seemed to demonstrate that it would be difficult for Geraldine to leave India Crescent.
When Captain Pewter bought No. 10, he satisfied his demand for space without a thought of the domestic problem. He was rewarded by beginner's luck, for he started in residence with a good staff; but these had gone, and their successors evidently realised that while high wages provided silk stockings for toiling legs they could not remove a single tread of the numerous stairs.
It was unusually dark again when Elizabeth gave the children morning lessons in the nursery—called "schoolroom" during hours. Just before the break for milk and biscuits, Barney announced that he was going to the bathroom.
"Must," he said grimly, when asked to wait until eleven.
He returned almost directly in a state of excitement.
"A terrible flood," he cried importantly. "I've never seen one like it in the whole of my life... Look at my shoes."
As he pointed to his soaked Plimsolls, Elizabeth started up from the table.
"Barney, what's happened?" she asked.
"Someone left the taps running in the bathroom."
"Did you turn them off?"
"What a question."
Eager to share the thrill, Elizabeth raced the children to the landing, to find that Geraldine was already mopping the bathroom floor.
"I have it under control," she shouted. "Don't come nearer. You'll only tread it about... Send Lily."
Feeling cheated out of her share of excitement, Elizabeth went down to the kitchen. She was filling the glasses with milk when Mrs. Norris—the daily woman—took the jug from her.
"I'll finish," she said. "Miss Pewter wants to speak to you in the drawing-room."
When the governess entered the room, Geraldine was kicking the curb of the grate. She had destroyed the formal arrangement of her short fair curls by raking it with her fingers, so that her hair stood out in a golden halo. Dressed in green slacks and a pale-yellow pullover, she reminded Elizabeth of a mature outsize "Bubbles" rather than the mistress of the house.
"A hell of a mess," she said. "Lily gave notice directly I turned on the heat."
"What a calamity," commented Elizabeth. "She's quite good."
"Good? She's damn' careless leaving those taps to run. Of course, she swore she didn't... Miss Feathers, were you brought up to be domestic?"
"No," confessed Elizabeth. "Granny never let me do a thing. She said ladies left everything to servants and the servants liked it that way. The odd part was, ours really did. But I found it difficult later on. The first time I was told to clean a nursery, I felt degraded to a Bazaar-sweeper."
"Snob. I've done worse things—and liked them. That was when I was training to be a hospital nurse. I loved it, but the red-take did things to me—and I told-off the Sister... But was I snubbed and pushed around? That's why doctors have a morbid fascination for me. It gives me a kick to feel I could take our little doctor across my knee and spank him."
Elizabeth smiled with her grandmother's irony, for she knew that Geraldine was a simple creature—capable of being thrilled by the elemental fact that the doctor's will was stronger than her own.
"I like Mr. Gull too," she said.
Geraldine refused to be drawn by her feeler.
"Hartley? Oh, he's tremendous—terrific—stupendous—colossal—amazing. Nothing like him before and nothing after, unless he has kids... Well, Miss Feathers, I'm sorry you can't take control. It looks like my dropping the Tournament."
Elizabeth was ashamed of her unworthy surge of relief, especially as her mind had begun to cloud with doubts. Geraldine's reference to the doctor had reminded her of his remark about Pöltergeister.
"Could Barney have done it?" she asked, hating herself for the treachery of her question, yet nobly resolved on justice for Lily.
"How could he?" argued Geraldine. "Wasn't he in the schoolroom with you?"
"Except when he discovered the overflow."
"How long was he out of the room?"
"About a minute."
"Then he couldn't have flooded it in that time."
"No. But suppose he turned on the taps just enough to make them drip before lessons. The bath would be filling all the time."
Geraldine shook her head.
"You can wash that out," she said. "I happened to be in the bathroom about ten minutes before the flood. I wondered if Lily had wiped out the bath. It was too dark to see properly, so I ran my hand over the bottom. It was bone-dry then."
Although Barney was officially cleared, Elizabeth was not convinced. The boy's intelligence was above the normal, and he was being semi-educated at home for a period, to rest his brain. He was also clever with his fingers, so that she believed he could contrive some simple gadget of wire and string, in order to turn the taps on from a distance.
She remembered that it was not long since Captain Pewter told his family about his youthful escapades one day during lunch. One concerned knocking at a front door by means of a long black tape attached to its knocker.
"It was a dark, quiet street," he explained, "and we hid on the opposite side. We'd tug the string—bang, bang—and the servant would open the door and look down the street. Directly she shut it—bang, bang again—and back she'd come."
In spite of boring repetition, the story got a fine reception from the children, who enjoyed it nearly as much as their father.
"It could be worked that way," thought Elizabeth. "It's so dark to-day that a string wouldn't show up on the buff carpet. He's so good at figures, too, that he could work out exactly how long the bath would take to fill—and that would tell him when to pull the string under the table while he was having lessons."
As she could not prove her suspicions, she tried to console Geraldine.
"Perhaps Lily would take back her notice," she said. "Do you mind if I asked her?"
Geraldine stopped kicking the curb and lit a cigarette in sign of a normal morale.
"Go to it," she said. "Grovel. Crawl into the kitchen on all fours, if it will help. But I'm not hopeful. I'm for the Registry Office."
Elizabeth hurried down to the kitchen, where the temporary cook and Mrs. Norris were drinking tea. The cook was a sharp, good-looking young woman, with a dark curled fringe. In spite of a bad temper, her services were in demand, since she had been trained by an excellent chef.
Stares and sudden silence told Elizabeth that the women resented interruption.
"Where's Lily?" she asked.
"Gone," replied the cook.
Elizabeth heard the news with a sense of personal relief and the feeling that she had done her best—or, rather, had been prepared to do so. She could not know then that a certain time-table exacted the removal of temporary obstacles and that Lily's clearance had proceeded according to plan.
"Has she gone without her money?" she asked incredulously.
"Her gentleman-friend will collect when he calls for her suitcase," explained Mrs. Norris. "It's not likely she'd stay after Miss Pewter giving her the works for something she never done."
Beaten by the hostile atmosphere, Elizabeth was leaving the kitchen when the cook spoke to her.
"Will you tell Miss Pewter I'll leave something to be warmed up at night, but I can't stay and cook a dinner in the evening any longer. From to-day, I must leave before it gets dark."
"That goes for me too," said Mrs. Norris. "I know I'm no glamour-girl—not at my time of life—but I won't chance my luck of getting off with the Black Man."
Elizabeth thought she must be hearing incorrectly.
"What black man?" she asked fearfully.
"A black bloke that runs about naked at night, murdering people and racing faster than a greyhound. Lots of people have seen him—and always in select roads like this."
The cook nodded as she confirmed the tale.
"The housemaid at No. 9 Alderney Road—a very refined girl—told me she was saying good-night to her fiancé at the garden gate, when they saw him passing in the road. They got a glimpse of his head and shoulders above the hedge, shooting by. And the next morning they read about the poor tart being done in."
"They say he looks like some devil," broke in Mrs. Norris. "No face—only glaring eyes."
Elizabeth had a vague feeling that the description was familiar. Without realising her action, she sat down and mechanically poured out a cup of tea from the brown pot.
"I saw him, the day before yesterday, in Maundy Passage," she said.
"Go on," said the cook.
Accepting the spirit of the invitation, Elizabeth stayed.
Miss Pewter was represented at lunch again by an empty chair. The meal was so badly laid that Elizabeth suspected a kitchen conspiracy to prove the value of the maligned housemaid. Mrs. Norris acted as substitute with gloom suggestive of a death in the house, while Phil also wore a pensive expression.
"Poor Lily's lost," she said mournfully. "I've looked and looked for her. I shan't be able to touch a morsel."
Having paid her tribute, she ate her usual hearty meal. On the other hand, Barney was smug as he threw out a nonchalant suggestion.
"I suppose you'll have to send for Maxine."
When she heard the front door open, Elizabeth ran to meet Geraldine, but she was minus her usual spring.
"No chance even of a supply," she said, peeling off her gloves and flinging them on the floor. "I'm told my name is mud. Just because I've had to sack incompetents. The woman at the office had the cheek to explain that the girls tell her I'm never at home... It looks as if I shall have to give the Simpson dame a w.o. for the Tournament."
Although she was genuinely sorry for Geraldine's disappointment, Elizabeth was too human not to rejoice secretly.
"Well, we ought to feel ashamed of ourselves—a pair of ornaments," said Geraldine bluntly. "It's in order for me to employ labour, as I have a private income—although I am not proud of myself. But I do think your old grandmother should have faced the facts of life... What happened? Bank bust? Don't tell me if you'd rather not."
It was so long since any one had expressed interest in her private life, that Elizabeth spoke eagerly.
"It was a tragic mistake. My grandmother brought me up till I joined my parents in India. Both were killed in an air-crash, so Granny cabled for me to return. I found her dying from a stroke, as my father was her only son. And then it came out that she considered me my parents' responsibility and had sunk her money in an annuity. But they had taken it for granted that she would provide for me, as she always had."
She added impulsively: "That's why I'm such a failure. I've always wanted to thank you for taking me without a character."
"Oh, I'd a character with you," Geraldine told her with a short laugh. "The last bitch you worked for said you were arrogant, bone-lazy, stupid, and all the rest."
"Oh." Elizabeth bit her lip. "Why did you take me?"
"Because you spoke my language. Cheer up. We shan't starve. I can cook with a can-opener and there's a ton of iron-rations."
Mention of the larder reminded Elizabeth of the cook's message. Geraldine grimaced, but gave it a sporting reception.
"That's all right. Nigel and I can always dine at the Club or hotel. I was rather expecting something of an ultimatum, what with murders and rumours."
"Have you heard about a—a black man?" asked Elizabeth.
"The dusky gentleman who runs about in the buff? He shows a nice modest disposition, not to linger when he's lost his clothes."
Elizabeth was grateful for her laughter. This was the level at which to keep such stories—at low-tide mark, like the ring of scum around the pillars of the bridge which spanned the river. Let it rise above that circle and it could swamp common-sense in a flood of fear.
"I'll tell cook you have no objection to her leaving early," she said.
When she reached the kitchen the telephone bell of the extension was ringing.
"She's at it again," grumbled the cook. "She's got a nerve, wasting my time like this."
"Who is it?" asked Elizabeth.
"Someone called 'Maxy.' Wants to speak to Barney. I told her I wouldn't toil up stairs for any one. But she keeps on ringing."
"I'll speak to her."
Crossing to the telephone, Elizabeth spoke curtly.
"Who's speaking? Is it Maxine?"
There was a pause, suggestive of a hand placed over the mouthpiece to deaden a whispered consultation. Then a high-pitched voice—strident in its defiance—accepted the challenge.
"What if I am? I'm not poison. I don't know who you think you are, but I'll be obliged if you tell Barney I'm here. It's important."
"Have you forgotten I've spoken to you before? Listen. Please don't ring Barney up again. His father has forbidden it."
The telephone went dead, but Elizabeth felt she could sense its fury. The cook, who was preparing a meal in readiness for the chafing-dish, looked up curiously when Elizabeth rang off. When the governess obligingly explained the identity of the mysterious "Maxy," the cook's comment lacked tact.
"Only the governess. There's sauce—expecting me to run her errands."
In spite of her aversion to stairs, not long afterwards she rushed up to the ground-floor, crying out in excitement:
"Madame. Miss Pewter. Miss."
It seemed to Elizabeth that the family collected in the hall within the space of seconds. The Captain came from his study and Geraldine from the morning-room. The children, who were dressed ready for their walk, scampered down the stairs.
"What's the matter, cook?" asked Geraldine.
"Scullery's under water," replied the woman.
"Coo, another flood," shouted Barney, rushing towards the basement door.
When they reached the kitchen they saw that an area of thick green linoleum near the scullery was puddled. Some of the water had already seeped through the divisions and was drawing a stagnant smell from the ancient boards.
"Did you leave the tap running?" Geraldine asked the cook.
"Me? No, miss."
"Who was last in the scullery?"
Noticing the lack of the customary "Madam," Elizabeth scented trouble.
"It's very mysterious," she said hurriedly. "No one was in the scullery when I was here talking to cook. Really, it sounds like Pöltergeister."
The word fired the Captain, who—up to that point—had been a bored spectator.
"Pöltergeister?" he repeated. "I've had experience in dealing with those gentry in India... Now, I want to ask a few questions."
Although accustomed to the swift and silent administration of the East, he had outgrown his first pathetic belief that he could summon service by clapping his hands. He had further schooled himself to reasonable patience at restaurants, after a few regrettable exhibitions. But in spite of his acquired self-control, he was far from understanding the delicacy of the situation.
"The first thing is to establish where every one was," he said. "We'll start with the children."
"Barney was upstairs," broke in Elizabeth. "Cook will bear me out. She had a telephone message for him but she could not leave her work to go upstairs to him."
As the Captain warmed to his investigation, answer succeeded answer briskly, but without solving the mystery. Every one seemed to have an alibi. Then Cook tossed her head as a prelude to a sneer.
"Well, we know who it wasn't," she said, "and that's poor Lily."
The light which leaped into the Captain's eye reminded Elizabeth of Barney's special crafty gleam; yet while she felt a maternal pleasure to know that he was enjoying himself, she also recognised danger.
"Aha," said the Captain gleefully, "I begin to see daylight. This looks like a trick to whitewash Lily."
The cook's dark eyes glittered with temper. It had been a concession to come regularly to any family, as she was accustomed to accept only engagements for dinner parties. Therefore she was on top of the situation.
The crisis was postponed by Geraldine's voice, shouting from the top of the basement stairs.
"Come up here. There's another flood."
Enjoying the excitement, Elizabeth led the field up to the hall, where Geraldine pointed to the soaked carpet around the door of the lavatory.
"Really," said Phil, hopping from one dry patch to another. "Our house is like the bottom of the sea."
"Did I turn on the lavatory taps too?" asked the cook, her voice dangerously low.
"No," admitted the Captain handsomely, "you were in the kitchen. We alibi each other. But I want to talk to your confederate—Mrs. Whosit. What d'you call her?"
Hearing her voice shouted up the wall of the staircase, Mrs. Norris came down to the hall. Her apron was wet and her face flushed from exertion as she smoothed back damp strands of hair.
"The nursery bath's broke out again," she explained. "Worse than ever. You'd think the devil was in it."
"I'll come and see, Mrs. Norris. Thank you for mopping up. That will be all, Cook, thank you."
Geraldine's efforts to avert catastrophe were wasted, for the Captain spoke gravely to Mrs. Norris.
"Now, confess you've worked this between you, out of mistaken loyalty to Lily. The whole thing bears every mark of collusion. But if you'll own up to turning on the taps, I'll overlook it this time."
"I'll take my oath it wasn't me," declared Mrs. Norris. "I was raised in a village with no water supply and a drought every summer. I couldn't waste water. It's against Nature."
"I believe you," the Captain told her. "I've lived in India and know what drought really is, so I can appreciate your point of view. It bears the stamp of truth."
Turning to the cook, he spoke jocularly.
"Well, Cook, you seem left to hold the baby. What do you say?"
"I'll trouble you for my wages," said the woman. "That's all I have to say."
"Pay her," snapped the Captain, tramping off to his study and leaving his sister to finish the job.
Elizabeth hurried the children out for their walk with the feeling that the sooner they left the house, the sooner they would return. In spite of the early hour, it was not inviting weather for exercise. The darkness and sealed sky seemed persistent, also the mists which hung like wraiths over water—wan forerunners of the evening blanket-fog.
"I'd give a lot for an open sky and a good rousing wind," she thought.
She was worried about the accidents at No. 10. To admit that they were victimised by elemental spirits was to slip back to a dim era of superstition and deny themselves the protection of four walls and a roof—since the evil was inside. At the same time as she scoffed, she believed that the Psychical Research Society could testify to authentic cases.
On the other hand, if the mischief were due to human agency, Barney was the first suspect. He was small, silent and swift, while Dr. Evans had assured her that unusual ingenuity and sense of timing could be developed.
"Geraldine is always talking about taking your eye off the ball," she reflected. "This is much the same thing. There was so much confusion that we didn't notice him all the time. He's so thin he could have squeezed through the scullery window from the outside area and then sneaked up to the bathroom. And when we were all running down to the kitchen, he could have dashed back to turn on the lavatory tap and slipped past, so as to be first down in the scullery. That boy can twist like an eel."
At that moment, he was challenging Phil to touch him as the children ran over the heavy tufts of darkish grass in the river meadows. Elizabeth noticed how he waited until his sister nearly reached him and then dodged under her outstretched arm, so that she passed him in a rush.
"But why?" she questioned—only to flinch from any conclusion which might link him with dimly-sensed devilry. A galloping black shape—Murder—was abroad, taking its toll by night...
"No wonder Mrs. Norris wants to leave early," she thought. "I wouldn't be out after dark, for all the money in the world. Nothing could make me go out. Nothing and nobody."
Suddenly a horrible possibility slid into her mind.
"Yes, Barney could. If he were out in the dark, I would have to go after him. Phil too. But Phil wouldn't. Only Barney."
As though to disprove her morbid fancies, Barney was reasonable that afternoon. He turned away from the river directly she suggested they should go home. It was not until they reached the select Alderney Road that he realised an opportunity for mischief. Dashing up a flight of immaculate steps, he rang the front-door bell, and then took her arm as he walked on.
"Don't run," he said in a superior voice. "Running gives the show away."
"They'll see us if we don't run," argued Elizabeth, quickening her pace. "And then we'll have a summons and have to go to court and pay a fine. No pocket-money for you."
"Pooh. I earn money... I'll chance my arm."
He dashed up another flight of steps but Elizabeth managed to pull him back before he could reach the bell. Apparently he had been working for this result and his antics were an "Invitation to the chase." She grew hot and breathless from capturing and re-capturing a small boy and was half-sobbing from exertion when Phil spoke to her brother in an accusing voice.
"Now you've made my devoted Miss Feathers cry."
"She's your enemy," muttered Barney, quoting her own remark to justify himself.
"She's not my enemy. She's my lover."
"Well, I'll make a bargain." Barney smiled up at the governess with engaging confidence. "I'll stop now, if you promise to let me ring the bell of the empty house."
Elizabeth promised readily, grateful that he had chosen a place where they could be sure of escaping pursuit. When they reached the deserted stretch of pavement outside the park railings, she forgot her age and began to sing. She had a good voice and led the children in "Roll out the barrel." Just as her notes were rising to a pitch of indiscretion, they turned the corner and got a clear view of India Crescent.
From where they stood, it seemed to be perched upon a shelf, while lights gleamed from a long sweep of windows. Almost in the middle was a black cut dividing the semi-circle—a wedge of heathen darkness amid the buildings of civilization.
As she looked at it, Elizabeth repented her promise. She remembered a Kipling story about a "Token" which inhabited an empty house. No. 11 had been deserted for nearly twelve years—long enough to qualify for such a tenant.
As they drew nearer to it, Barney began to gloat.
"The Black Man lives in the black house. He's so very black you can't see him in the daytime. That's how he got into our house to-day and turned on the taps."
He watched in vain for Elizabeth's reaction to his explanation. Her thoughts were inside No. 11, groping amid the dust and darkness... Then suddenly, she smiled as she realised that it would be impossible to ring the bell without any electric current.
Barney made the discovery also, when he pressed the button and found it dumb. Not to be beaten, he gripped the dangling iron chain on the original bell, which probably had been retained from sentiment. It was too stiff for him to jerk down the wire and presently he appealed to Elizabeth.
"You help me," he said, placing the pronoun in its correct position and melting her by his confidence.
She pulled the chain and jumped back—alarmed by a loud discordant jangling. It grew fainter as the sound penetrated farther into the interior, awakening the echoes. Deeper and deeper it rang while its note weakened until the last thready vibration died into silence.
It affected Elizabeth with the sense of an irrevocable action, as though she had started something and was powerless to stop its results.
"Hush," said Barney, holding up his finger. "I can hear the Black Man coming to answer the door."
As she listened, Elizabeth imagined that she, too, could trace the progress of heavy footsteps dragging through the dust. Gripping the children, she leaped down the steps. Fortunately they credited her with putting on a good show, for they rushed back to their own house. As Mrs. Norris opened the door, Barney looked back to No. 11.
"Will the Black Man know you again?"
Elizabeth shrank from the question, because it suggested a sequel. But, even then, a pleasant surprise was on its way.
The door of Captain Pewter's study was opened and Hartley Gull met her in the hall.
"Come and have tea at my dump," he invited. "The Captain agrees the change will buck you up."
Elizabeth was flattered by the invitation. Reared in her grandmother's ethics to be careful, his reputation as an unregenerate male of many conquests proved an irresistible lure. With a flash-back to her brief period of happiness in India, she remembered that the first man she met had proposed to her. It was true that his skin was yellow and that he was older than her father; but he was kind and generous and afterwards—during her unemployment era—she was sorry she had been too critical.
When they entered the hotel, the manageress was crossing the modernised lounge. She was a smartly-dressed massive woman who looked capable of bawling hot numbers on a stage. Her smile was a brazen and painted grin of understanding when Gull made a meek request.
"Please, ma, may I take my sister up to my room?"
"Sorry," she said. "You've had your quota of 'sisters' for the week."
Gull smiled with gratified vanity as he spoke to Elizabeth.
"She doesn't think you look respectable. We have to be good boys here... What about this corner?"
Elizabeth did not enjoy her tea although it was excellent and the service nearly up to the Captain's standard. There were not many guests, but the muted strains of a violin solo on the radio kept conversation private. What worried the girl was the ultra-deep and soft upholstery of her seat which combined with the overwhelming proximity of her host to make her feel nearly suffocated.
Sitting sideways, with crossed legs, he crowded her into a corner, so that she had a close-up of his face. His eyes appeared magnified and his lips hard as granite.
"If he tried to murder me now," she thought, "I couldn't get out a squeak."
Following the usual formula, he began to draw her out to talk about herself, only to meet with failure.
"You know, of course, why I wanted to see you alone," he said suddenly. "Geraldine."
"Of course," she replied with affected nonchalance.
"Good." His eyes approved her. "I've no use for fools. It is going to be a knock for Geraldine if she has to scratch in this tournament. She's only giving it up because you can't make the grade... Now what are you going to do about it?"
"Make her see you want her to go. Chuck your weight about."
"But do you know about the—the domestic complications?"
"Do I? If you talk to Barney, you talk to every one in Number Ten. That kid is a human phonograph... That reminds me of something. You're stuck on the kid and Geraldine is stuck with a ready-made family. My solution is—you marry the Captain. It will release Geraldine and you will get his problem-child for keeps."
As Elizabeth stared at him—bludgeoned to silence by his audacity, he went on speaking forcefully.
"This golf practice is my chance of getting her to myself and out of the clutches of the damned doctor. But I want to rope you in. You can help in fixing details and so on. Are you on?"
Suddenly Elizabeth thought of Dr. Evans with the light falling on his fair, thick hair.
"Why shouldn't Miss Pewter prefer the doctor?" she asked. "He is very clever and very kind."
"Oh, you're like all the women," sneered Gull. "Easily bought. I expected something better from those fastidious lips... I see I must tell you some ancient history."
Suddenly he too seemed to feel the heat of the lounge for he mopped his brow.
"In a few days, Number Eleven will be opened," he said. "When it is, there's bound to be some sort of stink. Things may come out that won't look good for me. It will be Evans's chance to liquidate me. So I've got to work fast—and I want your help."
Already the pace had grown too rapid for Elizabeth to follow. She felt herself rushed into alliance with an unknown quantity, while her instinct clamoured for caution. Although she admired Geraldine, the ten years' difference in their ages made her appear definitely mature, so that the matrimonial competition for her seemed sinister.
It recalled the "Brides in the bath" and similar classic cases of the fatal lure. Elizabeth could understand the reason for the Pewters' popularity in Rivermead, because they had the essential social backing and were usually available for golf and bridge. At the same time, she could understand even better the attraction of Geraldine's private income.
"It's so hot here," she murmured. "I feel stifled."
Gull receded a few inches, but continued to press his question.
"Well? Is it an alliance?"
Suddenly Elizabeth felt a pang of natural jealousy which spurred her to attack.
"I don't feel too flattered," she told him. "You only asked me to tea, to make use of me. You found Maxine useful too, didn't you?"
She could tell by his momentary hesitation that she had scored a bull.
"Maxine?" he repeated. "Yes... We were good friends until she tried to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. But she found me definitely helpful up to the time I met her coming out of Number Two."
"Perhaps it was a professional visit?"
"She could have changed her doctor... No, she was with Evans—and that finished me... Well—yes or no?"
After a struggle, Elizabeth managed to rise up from the billows of faded-rose silk tapestry.
"I'll try to persuade Miss Pewter to compete in the tournament," she promised. "But I'm doing it for her. I'm not on your side. Miss Pewter's affairs are her own concern."
As he walked with her through the lounge, Hartley Gull was silent until they reached the open front door.
"Have you met Maxine?" he asked abruptly.
"No," replied Elizabeth.
"Then you should. You have something in common. It will be instructive for you to study her career—and its end. Remember, I am a good friend but a bad enemy."
As he looked down at her, his face was darkly menacing, as though he brooded over an abyss.
His parting words were not a good preparation for a lonely evening. She had no chance to speak to Geraldine about the tournament, as the elder Pewters stayed in the morning-room, apparently in conference about the domestic situation. They dined on the warmed-up dish provided by the cook, and directly afterwards went to the Club.
When the children were in bed, Elizabeth went down to the basement and foraged for her own supper. To save herself trouble, she ate it in the cheerful kitchen, after first trying the back-door, to make certain that it was locked. For double security, she turned the key in the door which led down to the cellar.
There was no further incident or sound of a synthetic earthquake rumbling down below. As she thought about it, she refused to admit a lack of official explanation.
"Of course, it was one of them," she told herself. "But I'm not the Captain. I can't go about asking people where they were."
When she had finished her supper, she went upstairs and—after a long soaking in a hot bath—wasted as much time as possible in getting to bed. At last, she tucked up Phil again and then stole into Barney's room.
His bed-light was on and he was still awake, sitting bolt-upright on his mattress and nodding like a little mechanical toy. He presented such a pathetic picture of a small boy who was dead-tired that Elizabeth crept behind him and began to croon a soft lullaby. As though in proof that he was starving for sleep, he surrendered to treatment almost immediately. Burrowing his head into her shoulder, he dropped into deep slumber.
Soon she laid him gently down and after covering him up well, she crept back to her own bed. But it was a long time before she could sleep. Her brain kept reviewing the events of the day—the silly Pöltergeister mischief and the implied menace of Gull's parting words—which was not so silly... And, once again, she pulled the bell-handle of No. 11 and heard the metallic tongue awaken the dusty echoes.
Suddenly she felt a chill of presentiment, as though her dead grandmother's voice admonished her to fulfil a social obligation from which there was no escape. It told her that she must accept the consequence of an ill-bred action, for which she could blame no one but herself.
As she lay awake in the dark, she knew that she had pledged herself to pay a future visit to the Tenant of the empty-house.
THE next morning, Barney returned Elizabeth's smile with a scowl. As apparently he had forgotten their truce of the night, she tried to remind him of it.
"Did you have a good night, Barney?"
"No," he replied vehemently. "I never closed my eyes."
"Barney. You were sleeping tight when I left you."
He turned on her in a passion, stamping his foot.
"You're not to. You're not to come into my room. You're not to sing me to sleep. I'm not a baby."
Conscious that Phil was listening, Elizabeth ignored him as she sat down at the table. She was in a glum mood, for the prospect had grown still bleaker. While she was pledged to the altruistic course of cutting away her prop, she had no real hope of influencing Geraldine. Since failure—according to the splendid Hartley Gull—would be a stigma on her character, she dreaded it even more than success.
That morning, it was still twilight, while the pressure on the house seemed to have increased, as though a metal dome had been screwed over the roof. The fog had changed to a very fine rain; yet, in spite of a wind which drove it against the windows in slanting sheets, the sky was still sealed with clouds. Visibility was poor and the stripped trees in the Park tossed against a confused background of shaking greyness.
It was characteristic of Elizabeth to forget the lack of servants, since—thanks to Mrs. Norris—breakfast was served much as usual. Half-way through the meal Geraldine entered to give notice of a state of emergency. Elizabeth remarked with envious admiration that her character stood the strain of personal disappointment, for she spoke cheerfully.
"This is the nine o'clock News and Geraldine Pewter reading it. The situation has improved in one aspect. We've hopes of a cook. She is leaving Dr. Evans's aunt in Devonshire, next week."
"Shan't we have anything to eat until she comes?" asked Phil anxiously.
"Well, I expect even Mrs. Norris can cook an egg—and we must eat out as much as possible. But this is the lowdown. Until the sensitive Registry Office can find us another daily maid, we'll have to carry on ourselves."
Turning to Elizabeth, she added, "No lessons to-day, Miss Feathers, but can you trifle with a spot of light dusting and fancy washing-up? I bag the heavies and Phil will be my buddy. That's all."
She was hurrying out of the room when Elizabeth stopped her.
"Miss Pewter, please don't give up the tournament. I can manage perfectly. I—"
"Thank you a lot," cut in Geraldine, "but I'm not going. The forceful Hartley hinted that my problem would be settled over a cup of tea. But it's not so easy. Thanks again."
Elizabeth was ashamed of her own relief. She was also guiltily aware of her difference from the average girl because she did not welcome a change of programme. Her natural streak of indolence—due to delicacy—had been fostered by her grandmother, and housework did not appeal to her. Besides, lessons were usually restful, as Barney's share had to be rationed. He had a photographic memory and had only to read a page to retain it. His own work finished, he helped to teach Phil, who was also intelligent.
After Elizabeth had enchanted Phil by tying a scarf over her curls, she covered her own hair with a handkerchief and went downstairs to hunt for dusters. She reached the hall just as Dr. Evans entered it.
"How are you?" he asked her significantly.
"The finger's nearly healed," she replied.
"Good. See no dirt gets into it. Where's Geraldine... My dear, I've just had Sidmouth on the phone. I've fixed up about the cook. Early next week, for certain."
He might have been her husband—who had coped successfully with a domestic crisis, as he explained the details to Miss Pewter.
"You can drop everything with a free mind," he assured her. "Of course, you'll need someone to sleep here, as a chaperon for Miss Feathers."
"I'm not going," said Geraldine. "It's not fair to pass the buck to Miss Feathers."
"But any girl would jump at a chance to run the show. My sisters did... Pewter, don't you agree?"
"Definitely," agreed the Captain.
Elizabeth listened with stunned amazement. While Gull's dynamite had failed to make Geraldine budge an inch, the doctor had blasted the opposition with a few quiet words. Two key-points were established; the first, that Geraldine wanted to play in the tournament, and the second, that Elizabeth wanted to act as her deputy.
Geraldine's deepened colour and the brilliance of her blue eyes testified to her pleasure as she spoke in a high, excited voice.
"I'm glad I needn't scratch. Such a feeble way of passing-out. Have you any one in mind for a chaperon, Evan?"
"Yes," replied the doctor. "Miss Brown."
"You'll be able to remember that name," muttered Elizabeth.
In spite of her low voice, the Captain overheard the thrust and grinned appreciatively.
"Who is this lovely you're wishing on me, Evans?" he asked.
"She's respectable," replied the doctor. "And she knows the house. She lived here when she was the heroine of the famous love-tragedy."
"You mean—the girl who was in love with the boy next door?"
"Yes. And as her parents turned her into a virtual prisoner, solely to protect her name against any hint of scandal, you'll agree she fills the bill."
"But she won't do her stuff here, will she?"
"She won't expect you to make love to her, Pewter." The doctor's voice was cold. "Well, Geraldine, what am I to do?"
"Fix it—and I'll never be able to thank you, Evan."
"You will. I always send in a bill for my services."
Elizabeth followed the doctor to the front door.
"Why must the Captain have a chaperon?" she asked indignantly. "I'm not Maxine. He's safe with me."
"But are you safe with him?" The doctor spoke in a quick whisper. "Have you forgotten what I told you? He is practically a well man again. But I couldn't risk you."
As he smiled at her, Elizabeth felt her former attraction flare up again.
She acquitted herself well at her new domestic duties, but most of the credit was due to Phil, who told her what to put upon the table and where to find cutlery and glass. Mrs. Norris served an eatable lunch of chops and milk pudding—while the Pöltergeister obligingly took a morning off. Elizabeth was eating her meal with unusual appetite, when Geraldine unloaded her bomb.
"Oh, Miss Feathers, you might help me chuck a few things in my case, after lunch. Then I'll tell you my last wishes."
"But you're not going to-day?" protested Elizabeth.
"I am—just as soon as I can make it. It was Hartley's idea for me to get in a spot of practice, actually on the spot. He's going to drive me over... No objection, I suppose? Everything seems under control."
Elizabeth managed to subdue her rising panic as she shook her head. She had thought of Geraldine's departure as a distant event because the night divided it from the actual date.
When they were in the bedroom and Elizabeth—with the aid of numerous sheets of tissue-paper—was demonstrating her grandmother's idea of packing as one of the arts, Geraldine grew confidential.
"I'll be thirty next birthday. Grim age. If I marry while I'm still in the twenties, I can feel I'm wanted for myself. But next year I might wonder if it's for my stocking."
"Any one would want to marry you," declared Elizabeth, forgetful of her own foreboding. "I always feel safe when you are here."
"But a man wouldn't marry me for protection, unless it was the little doctor."
"I like him," said Elizabeth quickly.
"Him, yes, but I distrust doctors on principle. Evan's wife died of gastric complaint. He gave me her symptoms—to prepare me for the worst, I suppose. He's just the cut of a gentle, smiling poisoner. Now Hartley can do decent things. He had his new car out on a filthy night and drove miles because he heard of a dog left behind in an empty house... But he mightn't be so decent to a dame... Isn't it all a blooming mess? I don't know which."
Geraldine's candour made Elizabeth ask the question she had never found courage to put. She often thought about the Captain's wife. As Barney was supposed to inherit his frailty from his mother, she imagined a fairy with starry eyes and an elfin charm which could hold a man captive even from the grave.
"What was Mrs. Pewter like?" she asked.
"Poor Edna?" Geraldine frowned. "Oh, a little thing, but wiry and very practical. She nursed Nigel through an illness and married him when he was weak as a kitten. No romance on either side, but she looked after him very well. Of course, she was too old to have children. Even Phil was the size of a rat—but she's a Pewter, and she's made up for it since."
In spite of the open suitcase, Elizabeth smiled with relief. So the enchantress-wife was just another shadow on whom she'd been wasting her jealousy.
"Do the children take after her in disposition?" she asked.
"Phil does in spots. She's a sensible kid. But Barney takes after his dad."
"Then I'll have to cultivate him, to understand Barney."
"Why not? That sounds like Hartley's bus."
As the impatient honking arose from the road, it seemed to Elizabeth that the sky grew perceptibly darker. Yet in spite of the pentrating rain, Geraldine was flushed and excited as a bride when she started out on her adventure. The house was stirred with the bustle of her departure as she shouted last directions.
Phil sobbed and clung to her aunt when she wished her goodbye; but, directly the front door was shut, she trotted up to the nursery and happily repeated the episode in a harrowing farewell scene with her dolls. The parting had merely suggested a new game to her.
It seemed to Elizabeth the signal for the poisoned undertow to steal again from its drain. Although nothing definite happened at first, an uncomfortable incident began to take on the shape of future trouble.
For several days she had noticed that the children's clothes lacked occasional buttons and had thought vaguely, "Someone ought to sew them on." That day, she realised for the first time that she was the responsible person. As Phil was engrossed with her sob-drama, she spoke first to Barney.
"Go and get your green jersey-suit."
His guilty start made her realise that she had been tactless.
"Why?" he asked, obviously playing for time.
"To sew some buttons on."
"It's got all its buttons."
"I'll get it," volunteered Phil, who always forestalled any call to service.
Instead of letting her wait upon him as usual, to Elizabeth's surprise, Barney dashed to the door.
"No, me," he shouted. "It's my suit. Nobody's to get it but me."
Phil caught Elizabeth's eye and shook her head indulgently in imitation of her aunt. A little later, Barney returned to the nursery—his face flushed and his hands dusty.
"It's gone," he announced in a dramatic voice. "I expect Lily took it. She has a boy my size."
Instead of reproving the slander, Elizabeth resorted to craft.
"If it's Lily," she said, "we must ring up the Police Station and have her put in prison."
As she hoped, the conflict which was visible in his face ended in victory for his better nature.
"No," he declared, "I'm not a mean boy. I was only pulling your leg... I gave it away to a poor beggar boy. He hadn't a stitch to his back and you could count every bone."
Satisfied with his new story, he stuck to it—leaving Elizabeth worried by another mystery. She guessed that during his absence from the nursery he had been hiding the suit, but she could not guess his reason. The worst feature of the episode was more evidence that he was becoming a hardened little liar.
Presently she plucked up courage to visit the Captain's study. Directly she entered, she noticed the comfort and even the luxury of the room. Apparently the Captain connected current only with illumination, for while there was only a dim reading-lamp, a brilliant electric fire supplemented the central heating.
Again the Captain's feet reposed on the mantelpiece while he read a lurid novel; but either he had become shock-proof, or "Time had been marching on" where she was concerned, for he welcomed her with a smile.
"I've come to ask a curious question," she said. "Will you tell me truthfully and impersonally, what you dislike in me?"
"Fishing?" he asked.
"Yes. I want to find out why Barney dislikes me—and Miss Pewter says he is exactly like you."
"He is. Like his father, he's especially susceptible to women. He would make himself Phil's slave, but he is afraid of being a cissy. All this tough guy stuff is only pabulum. So I can assure you, Miss Feathers, that—like his old man—he likes you very much."
"I wish I could be sure. One minute I think he does, but the next I know he doesn't."
The Captain looked worried.
"I'm afraid Maxine rather blocks the way. She seems to have a sort of strangle-hold influence over him. I don't like it... Has she rung up again?"
"Did you tell her to get?"
"She got," Elizabeth assured him grimly. "But I've been too busy to watch him to-day. He could have rung her up when Mrs. Norris was out of the kitchen."
"Well, if she comes here and tries to see him, throw her out."
"Trust me... But I'd like to meet her. It might help me to understand."
The Captain, who went regularly to the pictures, thought he recognised the classic inquiry of "What has she that I haven't got?" and he grinned when the door was shut.
"That jealousy's wasted over a kid," he thought. Then his smile broadened. "But she seems to have him mixed up with me."
When Elizabeth gazed around the hall, in spite of the cream paint, it seemed gloomy and twilit. The rahi had grown heavier and large drops were rolling down the hall windows. Through the misted panes she could see dimly the shapes of tormented trees bending before the wind.
Suddenly she noticed a squelching sound and looked down at a soaked carpet. Leaping across it, she opened the door of the lavatory to find its floor again under water. The tap of the basin was at half-cock before she turned it off, and ran down to the kitchen.
Mrs. Norris's face wore a disillusioned expression.
"What d'you want?" she asked sourly. "If it's more work, remember I've only two hands. I've left my spares at home."
At that moment, Elizabeth realised that Geraldine had lightly saddled her with the responsibility of managing an overdriven woman.
"It's the cloakroom lavatory again," she faltered.
"Another flood?" asked Mrs. Norris. "That's fine. I've just finished mopping out the scullery and I've not a dry clout left."
"Not again?" wailed Elizabeth. "Mrs. Norris, who can be doing it?"
"Not cook, nor Lily, nor Miss Pewter. But I tell you this. If it's someone playing a trick, then it's more than flesh-and-blood can stand—so I'm not staying; and if it's not flesh-and-blood, I'm not staying here either. Work it out."
Elizabeth's face grew paler.
"Do you mean ghosts?" she whispered.
"I wouldn't know. But these old houses have a bad name in the town. Bells ring and doors open. Number Sixteen was empty for years. Couldn't keep a tenant. They all saw an old man in his nightshirt, with a candlestick in his hand. He used to walk about at night."
"Is he still walking?"
"I wouldn't be surprised. Number Sixteen's been turned into the hotel. My niece was chambermaid there and she told me of the goings-on there. She said no matter who went into a bedroom at night, someone else came out in the morning. So no one would notice poor old Daddy in his nighty with all the comings and goings."
Elizabeth gave the tale her grandmother's reception of scandal.
"It sounds a restless community. You seem rather overdone, Mrs. Norris. Suppose you rest while I go up to the nursery and check up on the children."
She climbed the stairs with a feeling of compassion for all the aching legs which had toiled up before her. Barney and Phil were both engaged with legitimate amusements, so she ran back to the kitchen. As it was empty, she concluded Mrs. Norris was in the ground-floor lavatory, on salvage work. Relieved on that point, she began to get the tea.
She was cutting bread and butter, when Phil entered the kitchen and stood watching her critically.
"Too thick," she said. "And none for Mrs. Norris. She's gone."
"Not gone for good?" asked Elizabeth.
"Yes, her things and her shopping bag's gone off the peg. We have lost her too." She added, quoting the cook, "She was a hasty wife but a good mother."
Elizabeth felt crushed by the disaster. Only the knowledge that Phil was watching her prevented her from breaking down. Since she had an audience, she managed to play up to it.
"Can you tell me where the cloths and buckets are kept, Philippa?"
She was on her knees in the hall, squeezing her soaked cloth into her pail, when the front door bell rang. With desperate dignity, and feeling that nothing could hurt her more, she opened it, to see Dr. Evans.
"Been sitting out in the rain?" he asked, looking at her soaked skirt.
When she explained the circumstances, he was both sympathetic and helpful.
"Poor child. It's as well I came in. Miss Pewter rang me up, on her journey, to ask me to produce Miss Brown at once and out of the bag. That is impossible. She forgets I'm in general practice, and do not run a Registry Office."
"Of course," agreed Elizabeth. "It's not your trouble."
"And it should not be yours, so I will make it mine. When I'm seeing my panel patients this evening. I'll inquire about a respectable woman to start to-morrow morning. I know these people well and have some influence with them." Cutting short her thanks, he added: "Better not let the Nabob know Miss Brown won't turn up to-night. What time does the man stoke the furnace?"
"Not later than eight."
"Then remember to lock the back door after him... Are you nervous?"
"No, but I'm worried." Elizabeth's voice quivered. "Doctor, who turns on the water? Barney had a perfect alibi for the first flood."
"I'd put nothing past that imp. Keep it from his father. He may feel it his Public School duty to thrash him. As he's Harrow, he would probably call it a harrowing experience; but, joking apart, it would be harmful to both of them... Good-bye."
Confident of his power to control the situation, Elizabeth sang in competition with the kettle, which got even by whistling. A little later, afternoon tea in the drawing-room seemed a domestic episode. For the first time she appreciated her privileged position. There was an illusion of married life when she and the Captain competed for Geraldine's "cockcrow" function of arousing the family. She forgot he was her employer and he forgot that she was a nice girl as each attacked the other's capacity to waken early.
"When I see you in the morning," said the Captain, "you are blinking, as if you'd just come out of a 'blind.'"
"And I never see you in the morning," she retorted, "because you're sleeping off the night before."
The Captain won the contest because he knew the best words, while Elizabeth was handicapped by her grandmother's inhibitions. Having gained his point, he gave her another sample of a husband's behaviour by sneaking away from the family circle.
"I'm going to the Club for dinner," he said guiltily. "I suppose you'll find a bone to pick here. But I won't forget to knock."
As he was leaving the house, he made a request.
"Oh, Miss Feathers, when you go out of a room, please remember to turn off the lights."
She giggled over the absurdity of his economy when he was going to spend quite an expensive evening. Geraldine had often declared that he was one of the Club's regular sources of income. It was not until the slam of the door reminded her that she was the only adult in the house and responsible for two children, that a doubt stirred in her mind.
Since the Captain was generous to extravagance, was there anything behind his one meanness? she questioned. His sight was strong and could sustain a glare. Was there any back history which made him dislike the light?... Or did he fear it—because darkened rooms and corridors could shield him from prying eyes, if he wandered at night?
She thrust away her suspicion and forgot it in a rush of extra work. Mrs. Norris had gone away without clearing-up the kitchen or preparing for nursery requirements. After the children were bathed and put to bed, Elizabeth admitted Chester—to stoke the furnace—and then locked the back door when he had finished his job.
With the knowledge that the premises were secure, she went into the kitchen to collect her own supper. As her grandmother forbade the cook to serve any re-warmed joint or made-up dish, Elizabeth had a passion for anything that was tinned. She raided the frigidaire for a sporting assortment of canned salmon, a chocolate-shape, some stale Viennese pastries, and a bottle of olives. Then she made tea—chancing its amalgamation with vinegar—and carefully carried her tray upstairs.
At the top of the flight, she was fumbling to open the door with one hand, when she heard a child's voice, speaking in a spluttering undertone as though in a hurry to escape interruption. She guessed his identity before her eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, and she recognised Barney. The street-lamp shining through the transom revealed his skinny form in a white sleeping-suit, kneeling on a chair to reach the telephone.
Although she disliked the necessity, she closed the door and strained her ears to listen-in. She could only hear fragments, but she guessed that he was talking to Maxine. Apparently he was defending himself, for his voice had a familiar petulant note.
"I did... I didn't... It wasn't my fault. I never closed my eyes all the night... I couldn't, 'cos she wakes up and hears me She's my enemy and you're my lover... Yes, I do want it. I'll do it. Cross my heart."
He rang off and Elizabeth saw his white shape lolloping up the stairs like a queer little Walt Disney animal running to cover.
Suddenly she felt on the point of collapse. Worry over Geraldine, loss of sleep, and the strain of unaccustomed duties—all made her feel unequal to cope with mysteries. What she wanted most was supper and a night's rest. After allowing Barney sufficient time to get back to bed, she carried her tray up to the nursery.
She made a heavy meal and lingered afterwards to smoke a cigarette. The tea and vinegar united in a stimulating alliance, for she felt a gush of energy instead of collywobbles. Only one task remained—the job of removing the Captain's things into Geraldine's room. First, she visited the children, to find all was well. Phil was asleep and snoring, and Barney was curled up in a nest of blankets. When she switched on his light, he smiled up at her drowsily.
"Good-night, sweet repose,
Half the bed and half the clothes,"
Reassured, she went into the Captain's room and collected necessities for the night from his wardrobe and drawers. Her mind was concentrated on details, so that it was not until she began to make up the bed that her brain began to work.
She found herself trying to piece together bits of a puzzle. Assuming that Barney was an active agent, it seemed obvious that he merely followed Maxine's instructions, which she gave him by telephone. Apparently he had to stay awake in order to do something for which he was bribed heavily, according to his standard. And the money was paid by someone whom he called "the Black Man."
After that point, there came a gap...
But to her the Black Man stood for the symbol of Murder. She shuddered at the suggestion of Barney's connection with a crime which was baffling the police also, because of the lack of motive and the difference in the status of the victims.
"What could a child do?" she asked herself as she crossed to the window. "It's impossible."
Before she drew the curtains, she stood looking out into the soaking darkness. Between the road and the park was a barrier of trees and evergreen shrubs. Beyond was a wide central path, stretching to a gravelled area which surrounded a large pond and fountain. It was close to the bandstand and lit by electric clusters, revealing a ring of statues—white against a background of wet laurels.
Although it was a popular meeting-place, it was deserted because of the rain... Yet, as she gazed at it, suddenly Elizabeth saw a shape, like a huge black granite statue—endowed with malignant life—shoot across the lighted space and disappear in the shadows, as though if had dived into deep water...
At first, she was dazed by the shock of the evidence. She had been clinging to the belief that the apparition in Maundy Passage was a trick of fancy, because it was too monstrous for reality. Barney's start of recognition and the kitchen gossip had faded into imagination or rumour.
"It's true," she whispered with stiff lips.
It was then that her mind—in shying from the present—leaped over the gap in the past. In that moment of terror, she knew why Barney had tried to stay awake at night.
It was to creep downstairs in order to admit—someone—into the house.
He had to wait until she was asleep before he could steal through her room. She remembered being awakened by hearing a door open, but at the time she had been too heavy to locate the sound. There was another nearly forgotten incident, when she was half-asleep, of seeing something white crawling over her carpet, but she had dismissed it as a dream.
She knew now that it was Barney, and she shivered at the thought that, while they slept, the house had been open to Murder.
"He's not shamming," she told herself. "He really is sleepy. He won't play any tricks to-night."
She comforted herself with the picture of him lying warm and relaxed, and she contrasted it with his former rigid pose upon a stripped bed.
"He was trying to keep awake then," she thought. "He's not trying to-night. I wonder why."
Suddenly a suspicion flashed across her mind.
"Has he cheated me again? Did he slip downstairs while I was having supper in the nursery? Has he opened the door?"
She dashed from the room in a frantic race to reach the back area door before the black shape of Murder. He had the start of her. Moments at least had passed since she saw him vanish amid the bushes. Even then he might be travelling at his abnormal speed down the sidepaths, between soaked laurels, to the side entrance of the Park. When he was outside, only half the length of the Crescent divided him from his goal.
Feeling as though she were in a nightmare, she rushed along the passage towards the circular staircase. One long flight curved down to the hall and a second led down to the basement. Kicking off her shoes to save her feet from slipping, she hurled herself downwards into the well, clutching the rail and leaping several treads at each bound.
It was like a dream of frustration when she was trying to fly but could not rise in the air. The wonder was that she did not pitch headlong to the bottom, to break a limb, if she were lucky enough to save her neck. Almost miraculously she reached the hall, intact and in safety.
Her lungs felt punctured and she staggered with giddiness after her rapid revolutions down the spiral stair. For a moment, she wondered whether she could make the effort to cross the hall. Her knees shook under her weight as she forced herself into a sprint towards the basement door. As she pushed it open and switched on the light, she expected and dreaded to see a black figure crouching below—waiting for her—in token that the race was lost.
Some instinct warned her of movements she could not see and sounds she could not hear. Even then she and Murder were running neck-to-neck in the final spurt. Only a stupendous effort could save her... Dashing down the stairs, she threw herself forward to reach the door. Her fingers found the key...
Barney had done his work and earned his black money. She locked the door again before she collapsed on the mat, sobbing from exhaustion and lack of breath. Then she heard a metallic click and saw the handle turn.
Someone was trying to open the door from outside.
ELIZABETH was awakened the next morning by the sound of persistent knocking. Feeling drugged with sleep, she dragged on her dressing-gown and staggered to the door. When she managed to unlock it, she was awed by the spectacle of Captain Nigel Pewter—unshaven and with tufted hair—but arrayed in all the glory of the East. His gorgeous Oriental robe suggested "Chu Chin Chow" to her, and she giggled helplessly as she accepted a cup of steaming tea.
"Good show I took on this job," he remarked complacently. "Your eyes are still gummed up. You look as if you'd chipped your shell. Drink this—and dry out. It takes a man to make proper tea. The secret is to pour it into a saucepan after it's made and boil it well."
Hoping the secret would die with him, she managed to swallow a token-sip, while she decided to pour away the rest in private.
"I went round to Evans's late last night," went on the Captain. "Gull was there and we had some bridge. The doctor has put on definitely a good show. When I went down to let Chester in, this morning, I found a present for you on the mat, with love and kisses."
"What do you mean?"
"The doctor has found us a woman. A Mrs. Seaman, and she'd make rings round Ma Norris. She's cooking a real breakfast—bacon and eggs... I knew what I was doing when I cleared out the old gang."
His crow reminded Elizabeth of Barney, so that it was difficult to refrain from tweaking his nose. While she was smiling up at him, the full force of his news broke upon her.
"Did you say a woman?" she cried. "I must interview her at once."
He grinned as he watched her scamper away. In her short white Angora dressing-gown, and with her hair roughened into golden feathers, she looked more like a pupil than a teacher.
As she wound around the spirals of the staircase, she was suddenly reminded of the night's panic flight. Heavy sleep had jammed her memory of the experience; but as she jogged downwards, her brain began to click out the lost sequence.
She recalled tense moments of terror when she crouched on the mat, listening for sounds from outside... Then, as the silence remained unbroken, she had sprinted upstairs—torn off her clothes—and practically dropped into bed.
Although she had been severely shaken, there was an element of relief in the proof that the Black Man—in spite of his abnormal speed—was not endowed with supernatural powers. He had to depend on a confederate to let him into the house.
"Does he want to murder someone here?" she wondered fearfully. "Which of us is it? And why?"
At that moment, she was glad that her grandmother had instructed her always to lock her door, when in a strange house. She had obeyed faithfully, bolting her cabin, during tropical heat on the voyage to India. Even when she slept in the jungle in a woven hut which was semi-transparent, she always secured the entrance, for the sake of morale.
Since then, the habit was so engrained that she turned the key in her lock mechanically whenever she obtained a new situation. But now caution was not enough, when treachery was inside the house.
"I'll sleep with the key under my pillow to-night," she decided. "That will stop him, in case I don't wake up."
She did not know that Barney would not need to creep through her room again, or that it was one more example of bolting the stable-door after the steed was stolen.
When she reached the basement-hall, she checked her run and made a dignified entrance into the kitchen. Mrs. Seaman—a stout, pleasant-faced woman, who could move fast in spite of her weight—was bending over the stove, fork in hand.
"Good-morning, miss," she said. "Can I speak to your governess?"
"You are she?"
The correction was unconscious, since Mrs. Seaman had been a village schoolmistress in her youth. Her husband's death had thrown her again on the Labour market. She was on a visit to her daughter in Rivermead, and had taken a grandchild to Dr. Evans's surgery. As the family had a very high opinion of him, she was willing to oblige him in an emergency.
Elizabeth was favourably impressed by the few words she used to tell her life history, as well as by the economy of her movements.
"I hope you'll stay," she said, sniffing the smell of fried bacon.
"I mustn't raise your hopes," Mrs. Seaman told her. "At my age I won't be able to manage unless you get me a girl to help."
"I'll do my best," promised Elizabeth.
Feeling that the need to find fresh domestic labour was urgent, she went up to the nursery, to thrill Phil with the news of the new arrival. Directly the child was dressed she dashed down to the kitchen to make friends with Mrs. Seaman. Although she returned to the nursery—with the breakfast—within a few minutes, she had gleaned some information.
"Her name's 'Edith Louisa' and she's Baptist, and she's never spoken to her neighbours. Her birthday's next Tuesday. What will you give her, Miss Feathers?"
"I'll wait and see if she is still here," remarked Elizabeth.
She was feeling acid on the subject of the Pewter family. The Captain had alienated the staff with his officious inquiries, and Geraldine had soured the pitch for her at the Registry Office. As she was tying a pale-blue scarf over her hair, as her badge of service and also with an eye to its effect on the Captain, Barney asked a question.
"When is Maxine coming? You've got nobody. And if you don't get her, Mrs. Seaman won't stay. Better hurry."
His casual voice reminded her of the Captain's lordly manner in a domestic crisis.
"Listen to me," she said sternly. "Maxine will never set foot in this house again."
A little later, when she was in the hall, trying to subdue a rebellious vacuum-cleaner, Mrs. Seaman toiled up from the basement.
"A young person from the Registry, miss. She came to the back door and she's in the kitchen. Her name's Max."
Elizabeth was dismayed by the shock of her anger. Her fingers shook as she unwound the scarf from her head. In the hope of cooling off, she walked slowly downstairs. Cutting speeches of dismissal jostled each other in her mind; yet when she entered the kitchen she disliked the part she had to play.
"I'm a fussy, well-fed house-dog yelping at some poor stray," she told herself.
The next moment she realised that the girl had come, not as a suppliant, but to control the situation. There was an ironic glint in her long greenish eyes and an air of assurance as she removed her cigarette from her lips—which was her sole concession to the etiquette of engaging a new maid.
Elizabeth was also unpleasantly conscious that her rival in Barney's affection was as charmingly tinted as a film-star in Technicolour. Although apparently some of it had come from bottles, there was no doubt about the attraction of her red waved hair and vivid lipstick. She wore a short fur coat, gauze stockings over slim and beautiful legs, and a fuchsia chiffon scarf twisted around her head.
Elizabeth remembered Geraldine's description of Maxine when she had engaged her as a governess. On that occasion she had posed as a girl down on her luck. It seemed to explain this appearance as herself—insolent and triumphant.
"She knew she couldn't pull that one twice," she thought.
In spite of her original intention to eject Maxine immediately, she found herself tongue-tied by her visitor's fascination.
"Are you Maxine?" she asked after a pause.
"That's right," replied the girl, with the strident defiance she had noticed before in her voice. "We got introduced over the phone."
"Yes." Elizabeth spoke with her grandmother's dignity. "I asked you then to stay away. Have you forgotten?"
"Why the hell can't I come back?"
"The Captain has his reasons. I'm merely his mouthpiece. You must know it's hopeless. This isn't pleasant for either of us. Why did you come?"
"Because of you."
Elizabeth stared at her in surprise.
"Me?" she asked.
"Yes. I knew I hadn't an earthly with that sourpuss Pewter dame. But when Ma Norris told me you were left flat, I thought you'd jump at the chance to get someone who knows the house and isn't afraid. I said to myself: 'She's a girl too, and got her living to earn. She might give a break to another girl who's got to eat.'... Sorry. My mistake."
Staring at Elizabeth through attractively supplemented lashes, her scarlet lips twisted in a scornful smile.
"I can see now I'm wrong. You're little Miss Dignity, on the up-and-up. You're on top and I'm in the gutter, so you're showing me the exit. But it's all luck, and you might be where I am. Then you might understand. You don't know what it is to be pushed round."
Suddenly Elizabeth's dignity forsook her in a wave of sympathy.
"I do know," she said impulsively. "I've been out of work for ages. I lost job after job. This is my first bit of luck."
"Why, you sound actually human. I got you wrong... Say, how are you fixed now? If you had to pop the jolly old wardrobe, let me know the bad news. I've a boy-friend for my banker."
She was unzipping her bag with a flash of crimson-pointed nails when Elizabeth stopped her. Although she did not know whether she were refusing a bribe or an offer of generosity, she felt a lump rising in her throat.
"No, thank you," she said. "But it's wonderful of you."
"Forget it... Did they tell you why they ran me out of this joint?"
Elizabeth hesitated. The interview was not proceeding according to plan, but she was beaten by the other girl's offer to lend her money. In addition, she admitted a false impression of Maxine. She had been thinking of her as a dangerous underground influence, only to experience disarming frankness.
"Miss Pewter thought you deceived her," she said uneasily. "You came as a teacher—"
"But I was a show-girl—and the kids had to teach me. Gosh, my education was coming on fine. I can speak Spanish and Russian, but I never knew England had fifty counties. I only know the towns I've worked."
Elizabeth joined in her laughter.
"Why did you leave the stage?" she asked curiously.
"It left me. I did a fan-dance—a very refined act—but there was a fuss and some of the Council came to O.K. it. Well, these old purity-swine found their eyesight not quite good enough, so—out of spite—they turned it down. It did me a lot of harm with agents. And while I was waiting for another break, a boy-friend told me of this job."
"I wouldn't know. They never tell their real names... Hulloa!"
She broke off as the kitchen door burst open and Barney rushed into the room.
"Maxine," he shouted.
Elizabeth looked away as the boy dashed to the scented lady and threw his arms around her neck. She did not turn round until the girl pushed him from her knee.
"Lay off, sonny boy," she urged. "You're eating my lipstick. Run and see where Pop is. He mustn't catch me here."
To Elizabeth's relief, Barney obeyed instantly. She had feared a harrowing scene of parting, but instead he seemed to recognise and accept the inevitable. It was so typical of the short memory of childhood that she began to assure Maxine of his affection.
"He's very fond of you."
"Sure. He reminds me of my kid brother. That boy knows his way about the Juvenile Court backwards. But I make it my rule to like Daddy best."
The girl got up, wrapped her fur coat closer around her thin figure, and sauntered to the door.
"You've been swell," she said, holding out her hand.
"Honestly, I'm sorry," Elizabeth assured her. "I wish you the best of luck."
When the area door was closed Mrs. Seaman returned to the kitchen.
"No good," she said, shaking her head and making faces. "A young lady like you wouldn't know her sort. I hope you sent her packing, Miss?"
"Yes." Elizabeth's voice was dry as her grandmother's. "I did the correct thing. I pushed her round. You needn't hold your nose, Mrs. Seaman. White lilac is a sweet perfume."
Her colour was high with indignation when she entered the morning-room where the Captain was reading his paper.
"Maxine has been here," she said. She added quickly: "I sent her away—with emphasis."
"Good." The frown smoothed from the Captain's brow even as it formed. "Did she see the boy?"
"Only for a minute. I'm glad she did. I learned something. I know now Barney isn't really fretting for Maxine. She happened along and made a fuss of him. No other woman in the house did... You must face the fact, Captain Pewter. Barney is missing his mother."
From his height of six feet he looked down on her accusing face.
"What am I to do about it?" he asked.
"You must marry again."
"No woman would be fool enough to marry a man with a family."
"But any one would take you just to get Barney."
"That's a flattering angle. You can always make me laugh."
"I'm always laughed at," said Elizabeth with bleak dignity. "So what's a little more?"
When she was out of the room she was pleased with her intervention. It had taken courage to make her appeal for Barney. After an idle and pampered childhood, she felt she was developing character in making decisions and accepting responsibility. As she dusted and mopped the hall, she remembered her grandmother's formula for matchmaking.
Juxtaposition. If two people were brought into constant contact the woman who knew her business could always get her man. As it struck her that she was ideally placed for experiment, she determined to exploit her opportunities.
"It's all the little things," she thought. "Being together. Seeing each other before we've brushed our hair. Finding out how he likes the joint cooked... But he must lose his 'Sahib' angle. Maxine may be more worth-while than us."
Hartley Gull made a shrewd remark when he charged her with being easily bought. She had fallen a complete captive to Maxine's glamour.
Presently she heard a ring at the front door. Running to answer it, she found that her haste was justified, for a girl from the Registry Office stood on the doorstep. She was neatly dressed and wore spectacles, while her lips were unusually pale; yet in spite of her contrast with the Technicolour lady, apparently her line was the same. Directly she had been steered into the dining-room, for an interview, she staggered Elizabeth by asking whether there was a gentleman in the house.
When she heard about the Captain, she walked towards the door.
Elizabeth hung on to her, seeking an explanation. Presently she learned that the girl—who gave the name of 'Mary Merton'—had a stammer, which became acute when she was nervous. As her late employer was a gentleman—Service—he reduced her to positive dumbness by swearing at her... And Mary was not going to repeat the experience.
Elizabeth promised that she should not wait at table, or answer doors, or be brought into the Captain's objectionable orbit. Not long afterwards she had the satisfaction of seeing Mary crawling on the floor, finishing her interrupted work, while she—restored to biped status—stood and watched.
Flushed with triumph, she went into the morning-room and told the Captain that she was trying out a new maid.
"You'd better look at her," she said.
He agreed to inspect Mary, and rose from his chair. A minute later he returned, shaking his head.
"Seems dopey," he remarked. "When I spoke to her, she ducked."
"She's used to gentlemen who swear at her," said Elizabeth coldly.
After she had explained the situation, the Captain grinned.
"You had better assure her I don't want her for a toy," he said. "No lunch for me, thanks. I'm going to the Races, to save you trouble. I may be late getting back."
When Elizabeth and the children were ready to go out, Mrs. Seaman appeared in the hall.
"Mary says she will tell them at the Registry that she's staying. She's going to fetch her case and she'll sleep in. It will be a bit of company for you. Miss, just to know someone is here."
The thought was a consolation to Elizabeth, and she left the house in good spirits. In spite of the raw air and streaming flagstones, Rivermead appeared a delectable place that morning. There was no distracting need to hurry or to cajole the children, since the shops provided them with entertainment. Taking her grandmother as model, Elizabeth ordered the household stores with the dignity of an octogenarian and on the principle that the best was cheapest.
When they reached the River Promenade, Phil tugged her arm.
"Daddy's waving," she said.
Elizabeth had already remarked that Rivermead not only played every game seriously but also dressed the part. One glance at the four festive and sporting gentlemen seated inside the car would have told her they were going to the Races. They were like schoolboys on a spree. The Captain wore a white carnation in his buttonhole, and his hat was slightly tilted as he shouted to her.
"Good show meeting you. It'll save us going back to the house, Trevors... Now listen, Miss Feathers. I've left an important letter in my study. I can't tell you precisely where, but you'll find it. It's addressed to Williams & White—my stockbrokers. It's got to go off to-day... You won't forget, will you?"
"Only the boss may forget," cut in one of the men as the car drove off.
Although Mrs. Seaman served an excellent lunch, the afternoon dragged without either lessons or a walk. Presently Elizabeth offered to entertain the children with an impromptu concert. She enjoyed singing and welcomed a chance to dress up in character to dance an Irish jig. It was evident that her performance fell below Maxine's standard by the children's entreaties to "Swing it"; but they applauded and joined in the choruses.
The afternoon was marred by an unlucky incident. Wishing to dress up as a doll, Elizabeth mounted to the attic, where summer clothes were stored, and hunted in a chest for one of Phil's organdie dresses.
As she was burrowing under layers of tissue-paper and moth-balls her fingers scraped something unpleasantly stiff and rough with dirt. It was doubled up in a ball and wedged in a corner. Pulling it out, she discovered Barney's missing jersey-suit, but it was in such a filthy condition that she brought it downstairs.
"Barney," she asked, "do you remember giving away this suit to a beggar-boy?"
"Yes," he said glibly. "He brought it back. It didn't fit him. He was so thin he fell through it."
"Why is it so dirty?"
"He was a very dirty beggar-boy."
Whenever he padded a lie with details, Elizabeth knew that he felt an artist's pride in creation and that he would stick to the story. But the incident was unpleasant, and she was feeling depressed when Mrs. Seaman came to tell her she was going home.
"I've left the suppers in the ice-box and everything set for tea. Mary can wet the pot. I feel easier leaving you now she's here. I've locked the back door, as I can go out of the front."
Elizabeth walked with the woman to the door and stood watching her. She felt forlorn and deserted when her comfortable bulk faded from sight into the shadows beyond the second lamp. The Crescent looked especially dreary in the twilight, with yellowed chestnut leaves sticking to its damp pavements. Across the road the belt of laurels, ringing the Park, dripped with moisture.
She closed the door with a feeling of gratitude that she was inside. Yet, in spite of light and shelter, the evening seemed unusually long. She thought continually of the Captain as she wondered whether he had been lucky and what he was having for dinner. Geraldine, too, was having a social holiday, while Mrs. Seaman was back in a crowded house with two lively generations of family.
After the children were in bed, she went down to the kitchen and tried to talk to Mary. The girl, however, was overcome with shyness and stammered so badly that Elizabeth gave her some old magazines and left her alone.
The maid went to bed early, leaving the governess alone in the lower portion of the house. She went downstairs, merely to assure herself that Mary had locked the back door after Chester's visit, and then drifted into the Captain's study. Her object was to find out whether the Captain's literature justified its concealment.
After dipping into a couple of novels without registering any shock, she decided she would write for Mary's reference. Opening the roll-desk, to find stationery, the first thing she saw was a stamped envelope, addressed to "Messrs. White & Williams."
It was the letter which contained the Captain's instructions to his stockbrokers.
As she stared at it, her face paled and her heart shook unevenly. Ignorant of finance, she wondered if she had lost the Captain a fortune. Then, as she glanced at the clock, she realised that there was still time to post it, as the last collection was made at half-past ten. It would take only a few minutes to reach the pillar-box at the end of the Crescent. Even that short rush would test her courage, but it would soon be over.
Consoling herself with the thought, she ran into the hall. She could hear the rain beating against the window and resigned herself to get wet. An umbrella would impede progress, and she dared not waste time in going upstairs for a coat. She opened the front door and then glanced at the tall clock.
"I'll be back inside two minutes," she told herself.
The next second, she was arrested on the threshold, by a sudden doubt, as she remembered that the Captain did not consider the Crescent pillar-box to be reliable.
On an occasion when an important paper had been late in delivery, he declared that the postman sometimes neglected to clear it. It was probably a slander, but in the circumstances she dared not entrust the precious letter to it. If, however, she ran at top speed, all the way, she might have time to reach the small branch office on the other side of the Park.
Her face quivered with indecision as she looked out into the night. The opposite trees seemed nearer as they stretched their stripped branches half-way across the road, like elongated fingers groping for prey. The belt of glistening laurels which swayed in the wind was an ambush where a black shape might hide. Outside was risk and insecurity, while she had vowed not to leave her fireside sanctuary.
She rejected the idea of taking Mary with her, as there was no time to waste while the girl dressed. In any case, it would be a gross neglect of duty to leave the children alone in the house. Barney had a genius for dangerous scrapes and might take advantage of the absence of adults to experiment with fire. In less spectacular vein, he could tinker with the mechanism of the front door lock and be unable to undo his mischief.
It would be harrowing to wait outside a locked door, tortured with doubts and wondering what tragedy was being enacted within the walls of No. 10, when her course of action was clear. She must go alone...
Suddenly the thing was done as she slammed the door behind her. Clutching Geraldine's latchkey, she jumped down the wet steps.
At first she was almost blinded by the whirling rain and the darkness. In the rays of light from the nearest lamp, she saw a curtain of drizzle, shredded by conflicting gusts of wind. It beaded her lashes and beat against her face like a swarm of infinitesimal moths.
Opposite No. 10 was an entrance into the Park which was used almost exclusively by the Crescent residents. It was a small iron gate which opened out to a beaten earthen foot-track, winding through the shrubbery, to join the broad central path. Elizabeth remembered her view of the fountain by the bandstand, as she stood in the Captain's window. Although it would have cut off two-thirds of the distance, she shrank from venturing near the ring of statues.
As she rushed down the Crescent it seemed to have turned into an unfamiliar place, stretching out beyond its usual length and utterly deserted by humanity. She heard an occasional gust of wireless music from the houses and mechanically charted the hotel by the shafts of light shooting through the glass of its lobby. Just as she ran past the pillar-box, a figure—blurred and magnified as a liner in an ocean fog—loomed out of the rainy smother.
She recognised the streaming mackintosh cape of the policeman and waved her letter to explain her flight.
"Got to catch the post," she cried.
She heard him bellow after her, but she pretended not to hear.
A broad expanse of asphalte had to be crossed at the end of the Crescent—a union of several ways and fraught with danger from traffic. Fortunately no car was passing when she dashed across, for she was too overwrought to notice signal-lights. Arrived safely on the other side, she began to hug the wall—topped with iron railings—which encircled the Park.
Opposite were houses withdrawn in gardens which seemed incredibly remote. For the first time she realised the loneliness of a select residential district. If she screamed, it was doubtful whether any one would hear.
"It's happened," she told herself. "I said only Barney could bring me out after dark. And here I am, risking my life for a stupid letter. At any moment—"
As the thought leaped into her mind, she was sure that she heard footsteps behind her. Turning her head, she saw nothing but an empty stretch of wet pavement gleaming in the light thrown by an overhead electric globe.
The central gates of the park were still open when she reached them, which encouraged her to hope she had won her race. Not much later she saw the branch post office, on the other side of the road. Through its windows she got a view of the clock upon the green distempered wall.
The official time was twenty-four minutes past ten.
She had caught the evening mail by a good margin. Slipping her letter into the box, she turned to go back. Her pace was now reduced to a jog-trot, but in spite of lack of breath she had a great sense of relief. She had accomplished her object and was more than half-way through her ordeal. With the consciousness that every step was bringing her nearer No. 10, the homeward distance would seem shorter.
She had not only lost her fear, but was feeling ashamed of it. She remembered the local girls and women who were breadwinners and therefore forced to brave the darkness every night, in spite of the scare of the Black Man. With her head lowered to meet the brunt of the driving rain, she plodded along, chiefly concerned with the fact of her soaked frock.
"I had time to put on a coat," she thought. "I lost my head... What's that?"
As she rounded the curve of the Park wall, she saw in the distance a shape—like a naked black man—shooting forward to meet her. She recognised it with a pang of premonition—accepting her fate. She had seen it twice, so there was no escape from the fatal third time.
At the knowledge she was caught up in the clutch of elemental fear. It wiped out the years and turned her again into a child, shivering in bed, as she listened to the footsteps of the Black Man coming up from the cellar. But here there was no comforting cover—no screen of blankets between herself and the ultimate horror. She was out in the open—alone.
Although she had no hope of outdistancing him, when she realised the pace at which he was travelling, she dashed instinctively through the main entrance of the Park and rushed towards the central fountain. But for the abnormal speed of her pursuer, she had a chance of reaching the house by the short cut.
As she forced a spurt, she tripped on something and nearly fell. Her stocking had been rolling down her leg and now was curling over her shoe. Forced to stop, she was dragging it up, when she became conscious of a curious rushing sound.
It grew louder, and she saw a black shape darting to meet her from the broad central path. It was only dimly visible through the gloom—blocked solidly as an iron man, propelled by mechanism.
Within a minute he had travelled half a mile, covering the distance back to the Crescent and the small gate in the wall. It was he who had used the short cut, as though in mockery of her vain attempt to escape—and in proof that this force of Murder was outside all laws of motion and of space.
She had never fainted, and although her heart galloped and her temples grew cold, she did not lose consciousness. With an instinctive recoil, she turned from the path and dropped on her knees behind a bush, waiting for the grip of fingers around her throat.
AS the moments passed, Elizabeth was too stunned by shock for her brain to register emotion. She became first conscious of returning sensation in a feeling of discomfort. The mud on which she knelt had penetrated her stockings, and her knees felt damp. Even as she realised the fact that she was still alive and unharmed, she grew aware that the strange noise had ceased.
The silence was unbroken save for the dripping of trees overhead. Opening her eyes, she forced herself to look around. She saw an expanse of wet gravel and lights gleaming on the rain-drilled surface of the pond. Then, as her sight grew less blurred, she recognised a bulky form in uniform, walking towards her. She listened thankfully to the crunch of the footsteps of the park superintendent, and smiled at him when he spoke.
"Good-night, miss. Dirty weather. I'll be closing the Park at eleven. Don't get locked in."
"Oh, I'll be home long before then," said Elizabeth confidently. She added impulsively: "I must be mistaken—but I thought I saw a black man running through the Park."
"I wouldn't be surprised," remarked the official calmly. "There are two of them about."
This was the solution of her supernatural problem and explained how the Black Man had the ability to appear almost simultaneously in two places.
"Roller-skaters," the superintendent told her. "That's why they wear black tights. The town is sending a team to compete in the London-Brighton Race. They aren't allowed to practise till after dark, for fear of scaring women. Fair look like devils, don't they, miss?"
"They are rather startling," agreed Elizabeth. "I heard someone talking about a naked black man. I suppose the rumour started with the roller-skaters?"
The man rubbed his chin doubtfully.
"Maybe," he said, "but there is a murderer running loose. You can't blame girls being scared to go out late... Don't wait about for your young man, miss. Better get home quick."
"I will. Good-night."
Although Elizabeth ran all the way back, her haste was not panic flight. When she reached the shrubbery, she followed the path which wound between the bushes with no thought of a lurking form, other than a lover. Two minutes later she was safely inside the hall of No. 10.
She had barely changed into a dressing-gown when the Captain came home. Unlike Geraldine, he seemed gratified to find someone to welcome him in. He repaid the attention by giving her a conscientiously detailed account of his day, including the amounts of his bets, the odds, and exactly what he had for dinner; but Elizabeth treasured each word, chiefly because they were sitting together over the fire.
When she told him about her meeting with the roller-skaters she was surprised at his concern.
"I can't think what possessed you," he said. "Never go out alone after dark again."
"Do you mean—because of the murders?" she asked. "Is there anything new?"
"There's this. The police suspect that a roller-skater bumped off those women."
"Then it's someone in the team?"
"No, it's a sure bet it's none of them. It's someone who's using them as cover. It's given an unpleasant twist to the affair, because it proves it's not a wretched lunatic. On the contrary, it's a person with the wits to take advantage of his local knowledge. He knew about the race and made it serve his purpose."
"It certainly gives him a perfect disguise," agreed Elizabeth. "They look so much alike, I mistook two of them for one."
"Definitely. You can tell a man by his walk or some trick of carriage. Put him on skates and you won't recognise him unless you are a student of form. He can travel quickly and he can hide easily in that black rig. Besides, most of the team wear Balaclava helmets. If he had a black eye-shade—pushed back over his head—he could pull it down and get a complete disguise."
Again a sentence jolted through Elizabeth's mind.
"No face—only glarey eyes."
Unable to remember its context, she spoke quickly, hoping to forget it.
"If the police are looking out for the extra member of the team they are bound to get him soon."
"No, it's not so simple," the Captain told her. "A number of local sports join in these practice runs, for the sake of exercise. They pace their pals and join in and drop out indiscriminately. Both Gull and the doctor have been out. So you see."
Elizabeth nodded in appreciation of the difficulty—one lethal member shuffled into a pack of harmless "blackmen."
"The murderer wears a skating-suit," she remarked diffidently. "Would that be a clue to him?"
"You may be sure the police have checked on all recent sales. Probably he had one already. That would seem to indicate the sort of person we know. Sporting society here is pre-Polytechnic; they go to a place before it becomes popular and then find a new one. You bet they were skating during the Glacial Age."
Elizabeth grinned as she remembered the four residents whose car needed no label—"To the Races." But her face grew grave as she listened to the Captain.
"There's another pointer that it might be someone who is of local importance. It's been taken for granted that the two murders are unrelated, because of the different status of the victims. I'm told the police hold a different theory. They believe the second victim witnessed the first crime and had to be suppressed. And, of course, the higher-placed the criminal the more vulnerable he is to blackmail, to save his face."
Elizabeth gave a cry of protest.
"No. I won't believe it. He can't be an ordinary person like you."
"Ordinary?" queried the Captain, as though the term were a reproach. "And why not like me?"
"You couldn't be sinister."
"As a matter of fact," began the Captain, "I am not ordinary." He paused and then plunged into his confidence. "When I was in India I had a breakdown and went clean off my head... You have no idea of the mental torture of being split into two men and not knowing what the other half of you might be doing... I used to visit such hideous places at night. They seemed real. Yet Edna swore I never left my bed."
His face was contorted with the memory—his voice low and loaded with strong emotion. As she watched him, Elizabeth felt such intense sympathy that she seemed to be bearing some of his burden.
"It doesn't matter," she whispered. "It doesn't matter where you went. You came back."
His face suddenly cleared.
"Yes," he said, "I always come back." To her relief he added in characteristic humour, "like a bad penny."
Once again the atmosphere of the room was normal—while the accusing face of the clock reproached Elizabeth for a missing chaperon.
"I wonder why Miss Brown hasn't turned up," she said.
"I tipped Evans off she was just eyewash for Geraldine," confessed the Captain. "I don't want that charmer here. Her record is a spot too hectic for a quiet chap like me."
"But she's old."
"That's it. Ancient history. She's an influence—and she is coming home to roost. You don't know what she might attract."
"No. I shouldn't object to that... Good-night, Liz."
The name echoed in her ears as she ran upstairs to her room. Before she got into bed, she locked the door as usual, but she placed the key under her pillow, where it would be safe from Barney. As a consequence, she slept soundly.
Yet her peace was based on false security... All was not well in the house that night.
The following morning she was awakened by the Captain's knock. Once again he shone with the glory of a Japanese sunrise, but fortunately Mrs. Seaman had made the tea.
"Communal breakfast in the moming-room," he told her. "Ma Seaman says it will save carrying, it up to the nursery. There's a card from Geraldine. She's survived the first round, but says she's been merely slaughtering rabbits."
The news evidently aroused Barney's bloodthirsty instincts, for when Elizabeth came downstairs she found him squinting down a stick—potting imaginary game. On the other hand, the tender-hearted Phil was really distressed, until she learned that her aunt's victims were merely golfers.
"Children are cruel little devils," remarked the Captain as he smoked his after-breakfast pipe. "Have you noticed how my brats have reacted to the wretched Mary? Phil won't go near her, and Barney follows her everywhere, to gloat."
"Phil is too thrilled by Mrs. Seaman," explained Elizabeth.
"Not Phil. She'd find time for the two of them, only that girl repulses her. She can't stick her because of her physical infirmities. Now they intrigue Barney. Soon he'll be trying out her stammer."
"Ought I to keep her?" asked Elizabeth.
"I should say she could do with a spot of feeding up. Those white lips are probably due to malnutrition. And she carries her left shoulder higher than her fight. Lop-sided."
"Right shoulder, please," corrected Elizabeth. "I used to play the 'Kim' game with Granny."
The Captain laughed as he opened the door and looked into the hall.
"She was mopping the floor, but she's scuttled," he said. "But look for yourself. Barney is mocking her."
Elizabeth stood by the Captain's side to watch an unpleasant comedy. Directly Barney discovered his audience, he raised his left shoulder and shuffled along awkwardly—turning to grin at his father.
"I'll take a strap to him," threatened the Captain. "What's the matter, Liz? Don't you like being wrong?"
His thrust was correct, and Elizabeth made no reply, as she buttered toast for Phil, who was still at the table. What worried her more was the child's lack of appetite. She ate as much as usual, but her meal was merely routine—when cereal came before bacon and marmalade was the official end of breakfast.
Elizabeth waited for the Captain to leave the room before she asked her pupil whether she had a pain. After such prompting, naturally Phil discovered that she had one, but, luckily, chose the wrong side for appendicitis. Somewhat reassured, Elizabeth tried to cheer her.
"You shall choose the biscuits when we shop, Phil. The grocer will let you taste them. What a fat girl you'll grow."
Phil's face grew paler, and she looked around her nervously.
"I don't want to get fat," she whispered. "I want to be thin like Barney."
"The Black Man eats fat girls. But he doesn't like skinny boys."
"Now, Philippa, I told you there wasn't a Black Man. Who's been frightening you? You must tell me."
To Elizabeth's distress, the child grew hysterical.
"No," she sobbed, "I mustn't tell you. I know something—but you mustn't know something. The Black Man will eat me if I tell you."
After she had soothed Phil, Elizabeth found Barney, since he seemed indicated as the culprit. Unfortunately the recital of his crimes only made him snigger with pride.
"I'm a bad boy and I'm going to hell," he said complacently. "I know all about hell. I've been there. It's damp and dark and squashy and smells like cold pudding."
His tone was so casual that Elizabeth was puzzled. He could not be accused of actual deceit when he told his outrageous stories, since it was plain that he considered they had entertainment value and he did not want them to be accepted as truth. Suddenly she wondered whether the solution to her mystery lay with his father.
Excited by her idea, she rushed into the Captain's study.
"Did you marry while you were still ill?" she asked abruptly.
"Why are you grilling me?" he asked.
"Because I believe you gave Barney your dreams of evil places. It can happen. I don't think he invents everything. He seems to know... He described a smell."
"You can cut out the pre-natal stuff," said the Captain. "Barney's an ordinary mischievous kid."
Elizabeth was not satisfied. As she walked down to the basement, she remembered how her grandmother's cook had allowed some Christmas puddings to become mouldy through damp storage. And again she asked herself how Barney could know that distinctive cellar odour of soul mildew.
When she reached the kitchen, Mrs. Seaman lodged a complaint against Mary.
"Don't trouble to take up her references, miss. You can't keep her. She's a slut. It's not her fault, for the poor girl is half blind. I tried her glasses when she left them on the table, for a second. They were so strong, I couldn't see. Everything was blurred."
"What am I to do?"
As she asked the question, Elizabeth noticed that Phil was listening with eager interest.
"Leave it for Miss Pewter to decide," advised Mrs. Seaman. "There's no sense in throwing away your dirty water before you've got clean. She's better than no one."
Phil's eyes clouded with such obvious disappointment that Elizabeth spoke to her.
"Don't you want Mary to stay, Philippa?"
"Yes, I do," replied the child glibly. "I like Mary. She's kind and good."
The speech was made so obviously for effect that Elizabeth turned swiftly and surprised Mary standing at the door, listening. When she met Elizabeth's eye, she bolted like one of Geraldine's rabbits.
Elizabeth walked upstairs, feeling worried and puzzled. She was not only concerned with the fear on Phil's face but also by her own observation as she watched Mary's flight.
"I'm right," she thought. "It is her right shoulder."
When she reached the hall, the Captain was standing beside the telephone. He rang off and snapped out some local news.
"The doctor's house was broken into last night. He'll try and drop in this evening, so you'll learn details then."
She realised that he was in one of his moods—caused by the flare-up of an old pain and the knowledge that he had to deal with a sticky mail. As she knew that he would shut himself up in his study and resent interruption, her spirits sank.
It was another rainy day of streaming pavements and spattered windows when she went out to the shops. As she opened the front door she saw the lawyer—Mr. Spree—standing in the road to look up at the empty house. He smiled at her, for she reminded him of those almost legendary dance partners of his youth.
"Dark morning," he remarked.
"Yes," agreed Elizabeth. "I'll be glad when you open that house. I have a feeling that it won't be so dark after the blackness is let out. Silly, isn't it?"
"I rather like a woman to be silly, my dear. My intellectual daughters consider me silly; but my intelligent wife assures me that I'm clever enough to earn the essential income."
When Elizabeth returned, the Captain had already gone out to lunch. His absence made the rest of the afternoon appear long and dreary. Super-sensitive to atmosphere, it seemed to Elizabeth that old, unhappy influences kept weeping through the layers of cream paint. Nothing could keep them back, while the house reverted to its stuffy muffled past.
Once again it was a prison for a beautiful golden-haired girl. Elizabeth was acutely conscious of her, as though such love and sorrow could not die. When she walked about, she felt she must knock against invisible furniture, still overcrowding every space. She smelt meals which were eaten long ago to the accompaniment of a father's shouts and a mother's scolding voice.
That day she imagined No. 10 was haunted by the ghost of Marion Brown's youth.
She was specially glad to see Dr. Evans when he came in, after they had finished tea. In spite of his illusion of youth, he looked harassed. As he was beginning to tell her about the burglary, the Captain returned, accompanied by Hartley Gull.
Once again Gull was forced into the unwelcome rôle of listener.
"So far as I know, nothing is missing," said the doctor. "My visitor merely went through my papers. That is ominous to me. It is well known that I collect—in a small way—and I don't accumulate trash. Every object in my consulting-room is of definite value."
"Since you've kept your junk," remarked Gull pleasantly, "I fail to see what you are kicking about?"
"Isn't it obvious? Secrecy and confidence are essential in my profession. It is intolerable to suspect that someone has looked at my case-book and private papers."
"Now I get it. Someone might find out which Babies' Home Miss Blank's 'indigestion' was sent to."
"I should be the last person in the town to hear of such a case."
Although the Pewter humour appreciated a clash between the rivals, the Captain intervened.
"How did your burglar get in, Evans?" he asked.
"Through the window of my consulting-room, and probably left the same way. A pane of glass was broken and the catch forced back."
"When we were playing bridge in the library?"
"No. Later. I was in there after you and Spree had gone."
"So—as I was first to leave—that lets me out," said Gull. He turned to the Captain and added: "Geraldine rings me up every night. I am not too happy about her chances. Wish I were there to steady her."
The doctor laughed to show he was not amused.
"I'm afraid Rivermead has never grown up," he remarked. "Adults here discuss games as though they were matters of life or death."
The Captain saved another clinch by presenting Elizabeth to their notice.
"Here's one adult who has never learned to play," he said. "What about teaching her darts?"
Elizabeth welcomed the suggestion, as she was feeling oppressed by the hostile atmosphere; and she was pleased with her own performance, as she had beginners' luck. The Captain and the doctor played well, but Gull was the star performer. After putting on horn-rimmed glasses—which made him resemble a stockbroker with a string of children—he gave an exhibition of accurate aim.
Watching him with fascinated eyes, Elizabeth presented the doctor with an unfortunate opening.
"You are marvellous," she told Gull. "You can't miss. You'd always get your man."
"I second that," said Dr. Evans.
Gull grew red before the doctor's stare.
"Thank you for the compliment, Miss Featherstonhaugh," he said. "I think I should get my man—provided I knew where to aim. You want specialised knowledge to get the vital spot."
He glared at the doctor as he moved towards the door.
"Sorry I can't stay," he said. "Finish the game. I'll let myself out."
When he had gone, the interest oozed out of the play and soon afterwards the doctor glanced at his wrist.
"Having dinner at the Club, Pewter?" he asked.
"As per usual," replied the Captain. "I'll come with you."
When they had left her, Elizabeth wandered through the house. She felt restless and unable to concentrate. A friendly visit to the kitchen was not a success as she merely disturbed Mary's legitimate rest. The girl had kicked off her shoes and was smoking a cigarette. She threw it away, while her stammer grew progressively worse when Elizabeth tried to chat to her.
Leaving her alone to recover her shattered composure, Elizabeth toiled up to the nursery, where she was further discouraged by lack of welcome. The children were playing "Snakes and Ladders"—and Barney plainly disliked being surprised amusing his sister.
"Crooked Mary won't have us in the kitchen," he complained.
Phil broke off in her counting.
"I don't want to go downstairs," she said calmly. "There's a robber in the house."
In her turn, Elizabeth heard movements from below—footsteps and the sound of an opening door.
"Your father's come home," she said.
"No, it's not Daddy," Phil told her. "I looked down into the hall and I saw the top of his head. Daddy shines under the light, but the robber was all black."
At the word, Elizabeth's heart seemed to drop a beat. Even as she asked herself how any one could enter a locked house, she remembered the extra black skater. Fortunately, however, the children were not alarmed.
"Robbers are nothing," Barney assured her. "Our doctor had one. Go down and tell him to go away."
Elizabeth looked down at his small face and pensive eyes with a surge of protective instinct.
"I will," she said.
The hall was in deep shadow, since the main lighting was turned off, in deference to the Captain's economy-complex. Only the glow from a hanging lamp, half-way up the well of the staircase, was thrown downwards. When Elizabeth peered over the balustrade, she could see no one moving below. Reassured by the silence, she went downstairs, with the intention of going to Mary.
"She's not deaf, too," she reminded herself. "If I scream, she will hear me. The two of us ought to put up a fight."
She was crossing the hall, on her way to the basement, when a door opened behind her and she saw—towering above her—Hartley Gull. Although it was not the dread Black Man, she screamed instinctively.
"Stop it," he warned her in a fierce whisper. "The kids will hear."
Although he made no effort to attack her, she backed away.
"You frightened me," she said. "What are you doing here? I thought you had gone."
"Nothing so pure and simple. I've been hiding in the cloakroom. It's one of my playful habits to spring a surprise on a pretty girl. Maxine put me on to it when she was here. In fact, she got me used to having the run of the house."
He was so near to her that, once again, he seemed magnified to unhuman stature, as he pressed her back against the wall.
"I'm not Maxine," she warned him. "I always scream."
"So do I. I kick, too."
His joking voice made her realise that this was not a familiar film-situation. To recover her dignity, she tried to appear nonchalant.
"Sorry, Mr. Gull. I'm still not on your side."
"Then you've got off on the wrong foot. Can't you realise that our interests hang together? You want to marry the Captain and I mean to have Geraldine. You must help me."
She twisted under his arm as he penned her into a corner.
"I've met Maxine," she told him defiantly. "I like her."
"You couldn't," said Gull incredulously. "She's a slithering cold-blooded vamp."
"I can judge character too. She may be hard, but she's honest and generous to her friends."
"Her what? She wouldn't know the word. Better go slow with her. Ever hear of warming a frozen snake in your bosom?"
"Yes. I also remember Kipling's Adam-Zad—the bear that walks like a man. I don't trust you, Mr. Gull."
Hartley threw back his head to laugh.
"Talking of bears," he said unexpectedly, "where are the kids?"
His whistle brought the children rushing downstairs. Like most small girls, Phil was susceptible to men and made shameless love to Gull. Both were eager for a game and insisted on "Gangsters," which evidently they had played with him, during Maxine's reign.
"Will the ransom be paid in real money?" asked Barney.
Elizabeth saw the sparkle in his spiritual eyes when Gull nodded, and she wondered whether she had discovered the source of his "black money." Yet while Barney seemed revealed as any mercenary small boy, the remark increased her distrust of Hartley Gull. She could not decide whether to dislike him or be friendly. He dominated their romp like a master of the ceremonies; one minute, he seemed a genial uncle—brother to the spectacled stockbroker—and the next, he was a relentless ringmaster, cracking his whip.
They were all of them subject to his will. Yet, in spite of her chaotic emotions, the game was a new experience to Elizabeth after a childhood of cards and chess. Each took it in turn to be victim, gangster, and G-man. Gull shone in every character; but Elizabeth never lost her impression that he wore a grinning mask.
She knew that it was past the children's bedtime, but she did not want to be left again in the silent house. Her guilty conscience forced her to say, "Last game," only because she wanted to rest. For the same reason, she offered herself for the unpopular part of "Victim."
She allowed Gull to capture her after a parody of a chase around the drawing-room. As she sank into a comfortable chair, she whispered to him:
"Make them search the attics first."
He nodded as he fastened the scarves around her arms and ankles, before he stole out into the hall. The G-men—who were not allowed to know the scene of the crime—were waiting in the cloakroom. Evidently they relied on Gull's advice, for Elizabeth heard them rush upstairs, while with every flight they climbed, their voices gradually faded, until there was silence.
It was very warm in the dimly-lit drawing-room. The only sounds were the ticking of the clock and the beating of the rain against the windows. Elizabeth took advantage of the quiet to plan the morrow's meals, only to find that she was thinking about the Captain.
"It's all been different since Geraldine went away. When she comes back, he'll have to bring things to a head or treat me differently. He can't call me 'Liz' before her. Granny would ask him his 'intentions,' but that would be humiliating. I remember... "
But she remembered nothing. Her head fell sideways on the cushion and her lids closed...
Presently she jerked herself awake and stared stupidly at the clock. At first she could not believe that more than twenty minutes had slipped away while she dozed. She strained her ears but could not hear any movement or the sound of the children's voices. The G-men had basely deserted her and gone off the job.
She started to shake off the scarves and kick her feet free—only to find herself a prisoner. Hitherto, Gull had tied her bonds so loosely that they could be easily removed. As they were merely formal, the victim respected the convention and did not try to escape.
But now they were wound tightly and with cunning. Although her hands were free, her fingers could not reach the knots of the large handkerchief which secured her arms. She was tied to her chair, and in spite of her struggles she strained and twisted in vain. Every passing minute increased her sense of panic at her helplessness as she grew hot and distressed, while wasting her strength.
Her first reaction of anger was swiftly merged into fear. She tried to believe that the others were playing a trick upon her—or had forgotten her—but terrible slides of memory began to slip through her mind. She thought of the two murdered women who were stunned before they were strangled. In her case, she was a gift for any killer and entirely at his mercy.
"The black skater is not here," she reasoned desperately. "He doesn't know I'm bound... Or does he know? Who is he? Hartley Gull? But that's absurd... Only why did he tie me up? Why did he hide and stay behind? Why does he bribe the children?"
It was useless to scream, because Mary could not hear her in the kitchen. Too limp and lifeless to fight further for freedom, she fixed her eyes upon the door.
"If it opens, I think I shall die of fear," she thought.
Suddenly the silence was blurred by the sound of unfamiliar voices in the hall. Strangers were in the house on some unlawful business, to which she was an obstacle. One speaker was a woman with a husky voice. She spoke thickly and passionately as though from a corked throat. As she listened, Elizabeth received the impression that she was quarrelling, with Hartley Gull, but she could distinguish no words.
Presently the sounds died into silence. A minute later, Elizabeth heard the opening of the front door. Footsteps crossed the hall and halted before the drawing-room door. The handle was turned and it began to open slowly.
Dr. Evans stood in the entrance.
"What are you doing there?" he asked.
"Playing a game," she replied shakily. "Mr. Gull tied me up and I can't get loose."
He knelt down and unknotted the scarves.
"Quite an expert job," he remarked dryly. Then he looked at her pale face and the damp jags of hair on her forehead and asked a question. "Are you frightened?"
"No," she declared. "Dr. Evans, who let you in?"
"The maid, of course."
"Did you see a woman in the hall?"
"Nothing... What a relief to be free."
She was kicking and stretching, to relieve her muscles, when Hartley Gull burst into the room. His face was deeply flushed and his upper-lip was beaded.
"I'm desperately sorry," he panted. "I carried Phil up to her room and forgot all about you. Why on earth didn't you shout?"
"You might have left her the option of releasing herself," said the doctor coldly.
Suddenly Elizabeth felt she could not endure the strain of a repetition of J'accuse. She was too tired of suspicion and charges. Her knees shook when she stood up, and she had difficulty in controlling her voice.
"I'm going up to the children. Dr. Evans, will you see that Mr. Gull really leaves, this time."
When she reached the nursery, the children were not there. They were already undressed and in the big bedroom. Barney crouched on his sister's bed and Elizabeth heard the clink of coins before Phil thrust her doubled fist under her pillow.
The governess asked no further questions in the face of evident bribery. She contented herself with a statement of fact.
"I see Mr. Gull paid you to go to bed."
ONLY two days more.
Elizabeth instinctively thought of the empty house when she measured the duration of her ordeal, as though she knew that when light was shed upon its dark places her own twilight would fade away. The morning after she had played "Victim" so realistically, her awakening thoughts were too murky to stir because she realised that, whatever was planned originally, it had not proceeded according to schedule, owing to Dr. Evans's arrival.
The question which tormented her was Hartley Gull's motive. She felt responsible because of her affection and loyalty to the family. If Geraldine were indeed bait for a fortune-hunter, it followed that she was indirectly threatened; yet Elizabeth found it difficult to believe that Gull was a murderer, for the unconvincing reason that he wore a dinner-jacket with distinction.
But whatever his ulterior aim, he had deliberately bound her to a chair and bribed the children to go upstairs. The inference was that he wanted to meet a strange woman. The idea that he had used the Captain's house for an assignation was so repulsive that she rejected it. It was obvious that it was no sentimental episode, for their voices—although muted—held the blasting quality of an amplifier, in proof that tempers were lost.
Standing before her mirror, she dragged on a tight white pullover. As her head emerged from the blinding wool, she saw large strained eyes staring at her under roughened hair. She looked afraid—because she felt afraid. Thoughts which she had suppressed came crowding up to the surface. There were unexplained incidents; a shadow on a furnace-room wall—a prone sack of coals which had righted itself—footsteps mounting the cellar-steps.
At the time, she felt that these mysteries could be explained by the presence of a mischievous boy and a mischievous man in the house. Where work was concerned, Captain Pewter held a distinguished record. He could read technical matter in German as easily as he gulped down his outrageous novels; but he possessed the Pewter humour—and the Pewter humour was a very crude brand.
Nodding encouragement to the pale face in the mirror, Elizabeth went down to breakfast. Awaiting her was further proof of the time-factor with reference to the empty house. Instead of the usual post card, Geraldine had written a letter, explaining that she would return upon the date No. 11 was opened. Of course, she did not phrase it in those words, but stated the date together with the reason.
Contrary to the course of Nature, and probably on the strength of its long legs, a rabbit had started to box like a kangaroo. In other words, a schoolgirl had knocked the seasoned player out of the Tournament.
"I felt so big and silly playing with a kid, that it put me off," wrote Geraldine. "I'm staying on for a couple of days, just to save my face, although the blooming Tournament can go to blazes for all I care about it. And when I say 'blooming,' I do not mean blooming. Still, I suppose England still stands where she did. Break the bad news to Hartley."
"Only two days more," was Elizabeth's mental comment, although her jubilation was marred by concern with Phil's lack of appetite. The child grew hopelessly bogged in her cereal and had to be lifted right into the egg course, contrary to the ruling of Elizabeth's grandmother.
The weather had not improved although the rain had stopped. The entire landscape appeared to drip and the area-railings were festooned with pendant drops. Inside the house, every surface was sticky to the touch, and out-of-doors, all the trees wept. There were also companies of daylight ghosts, as the river-fog—unable to rise solidly to the elevation of the Crescent—sent out detached spectres of drifting mist, to haunt the bushes and undergrowth of the Park.
When she went out to shop, Elizabeth left the children at home, in the hope that later the pavements might dry. She had barely sprung down the front steps when she saw the lawyer, Mr. Spree.
"I hoped I might meet you," he said. "I want to give you a word in season. Don't leave your ground-floor windows open in the evening. That sounds stuffy, but the precaution is only for a few days. The fact is, the dark gentleman has been making a nuisance of himself again."
"Another murder?" gasped Elizabeth.
"Bless my soul, no. I didn't mean to alarm you. Do you know Vine Cottage?"
Elizabeth nodded, with a recollection of a low white creeper-bound house, where the boarders were called "guests."
"There's a porch over the front door, and on top a passage-window," explained the lawyer. "The window is usually open so any one could get in. Fortunately the Games Mistress from the High School was restless last night. When she was in the corridor, she saw what she described as a black shape, climbing up the porch. She was prepared to take him on, but he streaked off. Probably he's a lunatic and they'll soon get him."
To divert her attention, he nodded at the empty house.
"The Crescent will look more cheerful when those shutters are taken down," he remarked.
"I can't tell you how glad I shall be," confided Elizabeth. "I always feel there must be something horrible inside—like unburied bodies."
After Mr. Spree had turned down Maundy Passage, to reach his office in Monk Street, Elizabeth walked to the River Promenade. It was the fashionable shopping-quarter, but some exclusive shops were tucked away in narrow tributary streets. On her way to a Viennese baker's, in Fisher Lane, she had to pass a pawnshop.
Staring into its window was a red-haired girl, wearing a fur-coat, spiked with rain-drops. She carried no umbrella and her legs were mauve under drenched sheer stockings; but although her high-heeled sandals were soaked, her face looked pinched with hunger rather than cold. Defiantly red-and-white, its expression was grim.
"Maxine," cried Elizabeth.
The girl turned from the window and stared at her blankly.
"Don't you remember me?" asked Elizabeth. "Captain Pewter's governess."
"That guy could use a teacher," snapped the girl.
"I don't wonder you are bitter." Elizabeth tried not to blink under the stare of hard greenish eyes. "I feel there must have been some misunderstanding. Really, I am sorry."
"'Sorrow without relief Is mustard without beef.'"
"Oh, that's one of Granny's. Fancy you knowing it too."
"Why? I've a grandmother too. Mine's class. She drinks brandy. Tootle-oo."
As the girl sauntered defiantly to the doorway of the pawnbroker's, Elizabeth spoke desperately.
"Maxine, don't be offended. But you offered me a loan and—Won't you?"
She awkwardly scooped up a pound-note from the housekeeping purse. The other girl accepted it with a casual nod for thanks.
"I can use it," she said. "I'm superstitious about eating. Always found it lucky. Good-bye, sucker. Breakfast is calling."
"Good-bye, Maxine. You know my address, if you run short again."
The girl stopped, stared at her, opened her scarlet lips as though to protest and then closed them again.
"I believe you mean it," she said, after a pause. "You're a decent kid... I never thought to go back on a pal. But someone who used me, kicked me in the pants when I asked for a loan. So that lets me out. I could tell you something."
As she hesitated, Elizabeth thought of Hartley Gull's association with Maxine.
"Please tell me if it's anything to do with the Pewters," she urged.
"I'll say it is... But it's no good, I'll have to keep you guessing. I sort of get lockjaw when it comes to splitting. Still... " She glanced at the note in her hand and added rapidly, "Watch out. Your house isn't healthy. You've poison-ivy in it."
Turning abruptly, she walked swiftly away, her short skirt swinging and her red hair gleaming in the gloom of Fisher Lane.
"Poison-ivy," repeated Elizabeth, staring after her with bewildered eyes. "Who is it? Not Mrs. Seaman. It must be Mary."
She went the round of the shops mechanically, for her mind was tar from her purchases. She kept thinking of a purblind, inarticulate girl with anaemic lips. Hitherto, she had been an object of pity, but now she was revealed as a sinister personality—the more repulsive because of her unwholesome appearance.
Maxine's hint seemed scarcely credible, but Elizabeth could not disregard it because of the change in Phil. It coincided with Mary's arrival at No. 10. Elizabeth began to wonder whether Mary was mentally malformed, to correspond with her physical blemishes. It was possible that she was a pervert and that she terrified the child by making hideous grimaces whenever they met in secret, while she kept her in mental bondage.
She felt she could not get home soon enough, and directly she reached the house she tried to surprise Mary. Although she disliked the necessity to spy, she closed the front door silently and crept up the stairs to the nursery.
Contrary to her forebodings, Phil was alone, playing with her dolls. When she saw Elizabeth, she clapped her hand to her stomach.
"My poor heart," she said dramatically. "I never heard you walking. I nearly died." Waving a fat hand over the dolls, she added: "I'm playing Aunty Jerry killing bunnies. Not dear little rabbits. It's just those golfers."
"That's fine," said Elizabeth mechanically. "Where's Mary?"
"In the nursery bathroom with Barney."
Elizabeth stole across the thickly-carpeted landing and listened outside the bathroom door. Someone was speaking in a rich husky voice. Although it was no longer roughened and distorted with anger, she had heard it before.
In that moment, she knew Mary's identity.
Opening the door suddenly, she surprised her curled bonelessly on the floor, smoking a cigarette and blowing rings, while Barney watched her with adoring eyes.
Although her heart was hammering with excitement, Elizabeth forced the situation.
"Go back to the nursery, Barney. I wish to speak to Maxine alone."
As she heard her name, the girl looked up swiftly, her head lowered, in horrible suggestion of a snake about to strike. The next second she laughed as she rose to her feet with the effortless grace of an acrobatic dancer.
"Phil?" she asked nonchalantly.
"No," replied Elizabeth indignantly. "Poor little Phil was too frightened to tell me."
"It wasn't me," broke in Barney. Clinging to Maxine, he defied Elizabeth. "I want Maxine. You're my enemy. I don't want you."
Maxine flicked his cheek before she pushed him through the door.
"Run away, you little bastard," she said in a light caressing voice, before she took off her glasses to stare at Elizabeth.
"First time I've seen you," she remarked arrogantly. "You've only been a blur. But you're much what I expected. And now it's your turn to see me."
As she rubbed her face vigorously with a wet sponge, Elizabeth watched the transformation with fascinated eyes. It was like seeing a beautiful canvas emerge from its coating of grime. Although some of the pigment still clung to her lashes, Elizabeth could trace the perfect sweep of her brows and the golden tan of her skin.
As she shook her dark waving hair loose over her shoulders, Maxine's triumphant smile was a challenge to the younger girl. It made Elizabeth acutely nervous of the interview. She knew that she was susceptible to beauty, and she distrusted her powers of resistance, although she had the power to control the situation.
"Granny never had to tackle any one like Maxine," she thought. "The nearest was the housemaid who stole."
She remembered that her grandmother had made the girl gratify her curiosity before she pressed the charge. In her turn, there was so much she wanted to know. If she concealed her own ignorance, it was possible she might trap some admission for her guidance. While she hesitated, Maxine asked the first question.
"How did I give myself away? Those cursed glasses made me squint naturally. Was it the shoulder?"
"Yes. Sometimes you forgot which."
Even as she spoke, Elizabeth realised that Maxine had not betrayed herself. Actually, she had been given away. Although she had been helped by the gloomy weather and the darkness of the house, her disguise had proved a triumph.
The question reminded her that she had mechanically accepted a cigarette from Maxine's carton. Too late to reject it, she allowed Maxine to strike a match and to light a second cigarette. Yet although the fact that both were smoking placed them on the same footing, it also helped her to speak casually.
"Who was the red-haired girl?"
"A dancer of sorts," replied Maxine indifferently. "I roomed with her. Calls herself 'Ginger.' Too obvious, but her intelligence is limited."
"She was useful to you."
"You mean, I was able to use her. She took my telephone-call by chance. That gave me the idea of getting her to alibi me, as you knew her voice."
"Obvious again. I wanted to come back to this house. I guessed you would call in the Nabob to identify me—in case of a double-cross—before you engaged me. But if you told him that Maxine had come and gone, there was no reason for him to suspect Mary."
The contemptuous explanation made Elizabeth realise that she had blundered in staging the interview within easy reach of water. It would have been easier to convict a pallid-lipped Mary than this arrogant beauty. But although she felt the pull of her attraction, she fought against it.
"Did you tell Barney to pretend Ginger was Maxine?" she asked.
"Did you make him work those water-tricks?"
"Definitely. I had to clear out the old gang who would recognise me, in spite of my disguise. The Nabob was left, of course, but he doesn't chase the maids—so he doesn't count."
Elizabeth noticed the contemptuous choice of Dr. Evans's name for the Captain. It made her flare up with fury.
"He'll count when he hears what you've done to his children. You've turned one into a liar and you've terrorised the other. I hope you are proud of your work."
"And who will tell him?"
"You won't dare. I had to quiet that wretched child—to protect her brother. I've come back to this house from a decent motive—probably the most decent action of my life."
In spite of the throb in Maxine's voice and the magnetism of her lustrous eyes, Elizabeth was not convinced.
"I don't believe you," she said. "I know you are hard and selfish. You refused a loan to Ginger after she had helped you."
"All right then." Maxine's laugh was defiant. "You shall have the low-down. I'm here on a racket of my own and I don't care two hoots in hell for the boy. I'm playing a dangerous game, but there's real money in it, if I can take control. I don't know enough to press and I've got to know more... But get this. As long as I'm here, Barney is safe. When I go, his life won't be worth that."
Elizabeth clasped her fingers desperately. She was forced to make a fateful decision without knowledge of the truth. Her instinct told her that Maxine might be speaking honestly, because of the significant change in her voice. At first she spoke with the consciously cultured accent of a girl who had gone to an expensive school, but now her diction had grown slurred and careless.
"How does this concern Barney?" asked Elizabeth fearfully.
"Don't ask too many questions. They won't be answered and it isn't wise. I'll tell you this. There's dirty work going on and I'm somebody's stooge. If I go, the party who's using me will have to use Barney, although he's not reliable... That means, Barney will know—or suspect—too much. This person can't risk leaving any loose ends."
"I understand... I must think it over."
"Don't think. Just remember this. As long as I'm in this house, Barney is safe."
As she spoke, Maxine opened the door stealthily, and after peering through the slit, slipped out on to the landing. When Elizabeth next saw her, she had resumed her disguise of "Mary," and was on her knees, polishing the treads of the staircase. As usual, she did not look up from her work, but she greeted Elizabeth from the corner of her pallid mouth.
Elizabeth felt the name was wretchedly descriptive for her mind was fogged with conflicting arguments. While she longed to throw the responsibility of decision upon the Captain, she shrank from the consequences of such an action. As the afternoon wore on, she felt suddenly that she could endure the strain no longer. Opening the front door noiselessly, she slipped out into a shrouded, weeping twilight.
When she rang the bell of No. 2, she felt ashamed of her impulse. The grave manservant who admitted her, as well as the austere beauty of the Regency interior, reproached her with unprofessional conduct. Without the excuse of illness, she was claiming the services of a busy man.
While the man was announcing her, she stood vaguely looking into the clouded greyish depths of an old mirror. Unseen and unheard, Dr. Evans crossed the hall and spoke to her.
"Do you recognise any one you know in a previous existence?"
Her face lit up at the sympathetic voice.
"I see you," she said, "and I'm glad you don't belong to the past. I want you here—in the present."
"That sounds like trouble. What is it? Have you come to tell me all about the—Houdini game?"
"No, that doesn't matter now. This is worse." Elizabeth stopped speaking until they were inside the consulting-room. "I'm claiming the confessional again," she said. "No one must know."
"No one will know. Know what?"
"Maxine has come back to our house."
Dr. Evans listened intently to her story of the impersonation and Maxine's threat, while his expression remained impassive.
"What am I to do?" she appealed.
"Tell the Nabob, of course," said the doctor firmly.
"But I'm afraid for Barney. Do you think he's really in danger?"
"I think 'danger' is rather a pompous word to use in connection with a small boy. What use could he be to any one beside playing some monkey-tricks? I should chance him."
"No, no. I daren't."
The doctor rose from his chair and opened the door.
"I'm sorry I can spare you no more time," he said. "I'm sorry, too, not to come up to your expectations. I'm not an astrologist in the Sunday Press... You've asked me for advice and I've given you the only advice a man in my position can give. You know the straight thing. Do it."
Elizabeth ran back to No. 10—defiance in her heart and upon her lips.
"I won't—I won't," she muttered. "I'll save Barney."
The fog had thickened, so that she could not see the ends of the Crescent, but she was too overwrought to think of a swooping black shape. When she reached the house, the lights in the hall were not yet turned on—a sure sign that Captain Pewter was in residence. The gloom induced such a sense of desolation that she rushed up the circular staircase to the nursery.
Phil ran to meet her and clasped her hand tightly.
"I want company," she said.
"Where's Barney?" asked Elizabeth, feeling remorse for her desertion.
"I mustn't say."
Phil's scared blue eyes indicated the forbidden subject. Her brother was elsewhere, haunting Maxine. Filled with compassion, Elizabeth resolved to try to drive out the child's fear. She took her on her lap and spoke persuasively—not knowing that she started a chain of circumstances, heavy with fate.
"Why are you so frightened of the Black Man?" she asked. "You used to think him a joke when Barney made up silly tales about him. Are you frightened because of a secret?"
Phil nodded—her lips pursed as a sign that she was officially dumb.
"But if someone else knows it, it's not a secret any more," went on Elizabeth. "I know that Mary is really Maxine. And I told her that you didn't tell me. So you won't have to be afraid any more."
As Elizabeth watched Phil's beaming face, she was grateful that she had chased away the shadows from her mind. She first doubted her wisdom when the child jumped down to the floor with a bump.
"Won't daddy laugh?" she chuckled.
"You mustn't tell him," cried Elizabeth in a panic. "It's a joke and we must keep it as our funny secret. You must promise."
Three discreet taps on the gong in the hall told them that Mrs. Seaman was going home and tea was ready. On their way downstairs, Elizabeth tried to impress on Phil's mind the humour of keeping their secret. They were barely in the drawing-room, however, before Captain Pewter commented on his daughter's suppressed excitement.
"What's made you so perky all of a sudden?" he asked.
"Aha, that's a secret," chuckled Phil.
Barney stopped stealing sugar to glare at Elizabeth.
"You've been telling," he said. "But Daddy won't believe you. It's all lies."
As she glanced from one child to the other, Elizabeth realised that Barney was the actual source of danger. He was prepared to lie in defence of his beloved Maxine—and to lie was the worst service he could render any cause. Shaking her head vehemently, she put her finger to her lip.
Unfortunately she forgot a mirror on the wall which reflected her pantomime.
"What's going on?" asked the Captain suspiciously.
When no one enlightened him, he tried to play upon Phil's feelings.
"Aren't you going to let your poor old dad in on the joke?"
"No," she said callously, choosing the largest slice of cake, "want must be your master... What a mercy I can eat again. It doesn't matter no more if I get fat."
Apparently she was under the delusion that she had been on starvation-diet. Following her example, Barney piled his own plate.
"I'm going to have tea in the kitchen with poor crooked Mary," he announced.
"Mary," mocked Phil—her eyes shining with laughter. "Mary."
"She is Mary. She is, is, is. She's not Maxine."
The Captain slammed down his cup and walked to the door.
"It strikes me I'm due for a good look at this mysterious Mary," he said grimly.
Elizabeth did not attempt to stop him, for she knew that she was beaten. Sitting back limply, she stared around her, while Phil went on munching cake noisily. She noticed trifles—the darkish stain of the Captain's hair-cream on a parchment silk cushion and the gap which showed that Phil was losing her milk teeth. Then she heard Barney rushing upstairs, howling with anger and grief.
When the Captain returned, his expression was grim.
"I've given her fifteen minutes to pack and clear out," he said. He added in a low voice: "You've let me down. You told me you had booted her out."
"That was another girl," explained Elizabeth. "That was Ginger."
She told her story badly, making no effort to justify herself.
"I only found out the truth this morning," she said. "I was afraid to tell you. I'm still afraid—for Barney?"
The Captain tried not only to reassure her—but also to justify his own action.
"Afraid? Never heard such nonsense. Who could use my house for dirty work? Who would want to? No, she put a fast one over you. I'll tell you her real racket. Blackmail."
Elizabeth gasped with horror as the Captain went on speaking.
"I recognised her type the first time she made an excuse to come into my room. I cleared her out on the spot. Any man-of-the-world would protect himself. The next step would be accusations—and if I didn't consent to be bled—a Court case. She could put on a good show in the Box, and her beauty might sway a Jury. Even if I won, mud always sticks. I had my family to consider... Do you blame me, Liz?"
"No. Why didn't you tell Miss Pewter? She would have warned me."
The Captain looked sheepish as he ran his finger inside his collar.
"Jerry was in school uniform when I went to India," he said, "and I still look on her as my kid sister. I thought she would jeer at me for thinking every woman wanted to make a pass at me."
He stopped at the sound of movements in the hall.
"We must pay her," he said. "It's your job, Liz."
Elizabeth reluctantly accompanied him to the hall. Maxine was coming down the stairs, followed by Barney, who was bent nearly double as he lugged her suitcase with both hands. She was leaving No. 10 as herself—graceful, beautiful—in spite of her shabby suit—and with masculine escort.
"Miss Feathers will pay you for your services," said the Captain stiffly.
Maxine accepted the money with a faint smile.
"I'm sorry I couldn't clean up your house better," she said.
As she spoke in a low voice, Elizabeth realised that the Captain had correctly estimated her value as a witness. Her oval face was pale, and her large dark eyes shadowed by the brim of her black felt hat. Appealing in her frailty, she looked a girl of education and refinement.
The Captain, however, seemed to see her on an astral plane where she was endowed with suckers in place of limbs.
"My house will be cleaner when you are gone," he told her. "I could call in the police and charge you with false pretences."
"I know. I'm grateful to you. Won't you let me stay just another night? Only one. You are practically throwing me out. And it is so dark outside."
Elizabeth shivered with sympathy, but the Captain merely walked to the front door and opened it wide. As he did so, the fog which was pressing outside the lobby glass invaded the hall in yellowish swirls. Conscious of sentimental weakness, Elizabeth went back to the drawing-room, as she did not wish to witness the parting between Barney and Maxine. Half a minute later, the Captain entered, in excellent spirits.
Elizabeth was also cheered by a recollection which removed Maxine from the perils of the streets.
"She'll go to Ginger," she said. "They roomed together."
"Ginger sounds a regular girl," remarked the Captain. "Luckily my eyesight is good enough for her sort of show. I'm sorry she's down on her luck and that stinker turned her down. I—I'd like to make her a small present."
"You have," Elizabeth assured him. "I've been wondering how to account for the money being gone."
"Bless my soul, can't you cook an account?"
Laughing at her guilty face, the Captain professed to give her a demonstration. His arm was thrown around the back of her chair and her hair touched his cheek as they bent over the housekeeping-book. Elizabeth forgot the outside twilight and surrendered herself to the present; but unfortunately, the Captain seemed to know when it was time for dinner without the aid of his watch.
"I'll be back early," he promised. "I am only going to the Crescent Hotel... You may be glad to know that Barney was quite nonchalant when he said good-bye to Maxine. Probbably putting over a show for my benefit."
Directly she was alone, all Elizabeth's doubts and fears returned.
"I'm sure we shouldn't have let Maxine go," she thought. "I believe she was really a buffer between Barney and someone. Nigel was just being masculine, like the doctor. 'Chance him.' Barney's too precious to be risked... I wish I could see Maxine again. I might bribe her to talk."
She went to the front door and opened it, but could see nothing in the fog. There was no sound of voice, only the monotonous drip from the trees. Shivering more from foreboding than cold, she went upstairs, to put the children to bed. Phil greeted her with news which was already cold.
"Maxine's gone for ever and ever."
"No. She's coming back," said Barney confidently.
His calm was the more surprising when she remembered his cries of anguish at the first threat of parting. There seemed no doubt that Maxine had given him some privileged information for his comfort.
When the children were in bed, Elizabeth went down to the basement, to fetch her tray from the frigidaire. She waited to admit Chester and remained while he was stoking, in order to lock the back door after he had gone. Feeling satisfied that the premises were secure, she carried her tray to the bedroom, so as to be near her charges.
After her meal was eaten, she pottered about, doing nothing of importance and too restless to concentrate. Once she opened a book, but soon discovered that she had no idea of what she was reading. At the back of her mind, like a siren sounding through the fog, was a warning instinct, urging her to find Maxine and induce her to return.
She knew that the course entailed flat disobedience to the Captain's orders, and also that she was taking a terrible risk of opening the door only to admit the real peril. At the moment, the children were safe and sleeping soundly. But although her knowledge of locked doors was reassurance that no harm could befall Barney, the frantic whirl of her impulses beat against her shield of logic.
Presently she ran downstairs and opened the front door, to peep out into the fog. It was so thick that she could not see the Park trees across the road. As she stood, listening, she thought she could hear the faint sound of voices. They sounded somewhere in the distance, but it was impossible to locate them.
As she strained her ears, the fog seemed endowed with the qualities of a receiving-set, magnifying the slightest sound and turning the Crescent into a whispering gallery. Raindrops dripped with the splash of a waterfall and twigs fell from the trees with the crash of boughs in a gale. She knew that she was being cheated by her senses, but still she lingered on the damp steps, trying to catch a lower note beneath the undercurrent of rustling leaves.
Suddenly a back-wash of memory swept over her, blotting out her surroundings. She sat again in a warm room, bound hand and foot to her chair, listening to voices outside the door... Then the foggy terrace returned, but she thought she heard still the distorting note of anger, followed by a laugh of defiance. It broke off abruptly and was silent, as though an electric current had been cut off.
"It's Maxine," she thought. "I must find her."
As she listened she was baffled by the total loss of direction. The voices were so faint that they sounded underground. Afraid to venture in the fog, she returned to the hall, to wait for further guidance. After a while she grew desperate at the realisation of wasted time which might save Barney. Without pausing for reflection, she snatched her key from the drawer and slammed the front door behind her.
At first she was blinded by the fog, but as she ran over the greasy flags she approached a dim circle of light thrown downwards by an overhead electric standard. It told her that she was near Dr. Evans's house. She could distinguish his red lamp—like the end of a charred match—before she noticed something sparkling in the gutter. Stooping over it, she saw that it was a blue bead.
Almost in the same moment she stumbled over the body of a girl which sprawled partly on the pavement and partly on the doorstep of No. 2. With a pang of terrible premonition, she knelt beside it and ventured to raise its head.
Then she screamed. She heard the door open and Dr. Evans appeared at the top of the steps. Following him closely was his dispenser-secretary—an attractive grey-haired woman from North Britain. She wore a prune velvet fireside-gown, instead of uniform, as a sign that she was off duty.
"It's Maxine," cried Elizabeth hysterically. "She's dead. Her face is all black. It's horrible—"
Dr. Evans slapped her cheek.
"Stop that," he commanded. "Where's Pewter?"
"At the hotel," she gasped. "Having dinner."
"Fetch him. Go with her, Miss Macdonald. Neither of you must be alone... I want help. There's a chance I may bring her round."
"Can't I stay?" asked Miss Macdonald.
"No. Go at once."
Although Elizabeth was supported by Miss Macdonald's muscular arm, she felt she was in a bad dream as they went from the fog into the brilliantly lit lounge of the hotel—also hazed, but with tobacco smoke. She looked so white and shaken that Captain Pewter's first reaction to the news was to order drinks.
"We'll run Miss Feathers home first and then we'll go back to the doctor," he said. "No, Miss Macdonald, you must wait for me. You are not to go out alone."
For the first time Elizabeth realised that Maxine had been murdered by a black shape—which might still be lingering near the scene of his kill. Suddenly she remembered Hartley Gull's warning about the dead girl, uttered within those walls.
"It will be instructive for you to study her career—and its end."
THE following day Marion Brown returned to her old home.
That morning Elizabeth did not want to wake up. She clung to sleep as though it were a corner of a kindly country into which she had crept for sanctuary. Without—was the horror of memory. It crawled back to her as she heard the children's voices.
She remembered how Captain Pewter had returned with the news. All Dr. Evans's efforts to revive Maxine were in vain.
"Evans heard a loud ring at his front door when he was in his laboratory," explained the Captain. "The maids were all out at the pictures, as he won't let them go out alone. So he went to the door himself. But he did not go immediately because of his experiment. His secretary also heard the ring and ran downstairs, to save him being disturbed. Actually they reached the door together."
"Yes, I saw them," said Elizabeth.
"At first Evans thought that Maxine had run to bun for shelter and that his delay had cost her her life. But the police found a broken string of blue beads lying in the gutter, just outside the hotel. That could indicate that the murder was committed there, and afterwards the body was lugged off and deposited on the doctor's doorstep."
"Was someone trying to incriminate him?"
"Not my investigation," remarked the Captain, shaking his head. "I said 'could indicate.' Actually some beads are missing from the string. It was knotted so they didn't all go flying... All I know is we heard nothing inside the hotel lounge. Of course the curtains were drawn to keep out the fog and there was the usual babel." He added: "I'm going back now to No. 2. I'll knock to let you know when I'm home."
Elizabeth was worn out, but she could not sleep until she heard the reassuring signal. To her sleep-drowsed senses, it sounded like three taps on the top of a mountain-peak, towering above her head.
Maxine was dead. She was murdered... That was yesterday. And now Elizabeth had reached the last day of her ordeal. In twenty-four hours' time, Geraldine would be back and the empty house would be no longer a mystery. She heard the Captain's tap upon her door and unlocked it thankfully.
"Tea's a glorious sight," she cried, almost snatching the cup. "Isn't everything terrible?"
"Meaning Maxine?" The Captain twisted his lip. "It may sound callous, but my view is that if somebody had to be bumped off it wasn't too bad a choice. She was a social disease like a malignant growth. Society is better and cleaner for having her cut out."
"Well, I suppose Granny would accept that as common sense. But it's so dark. It's like night outside."
"The hangover from yesterday," agreed the Captain, looking out through the landing window at the soot-laden sky. "Well, we'd better get a move on for breakfast."
"Wait. What about Barney?"
"He's not to know. Tell him she's gone away. Anything. I'll go down now and tell Mrs. Seaman to burn the papers. Hiding them is no good."
When Elizabeth returned to her room she noticed gratefully that Phil was in high spirits, since she regarded herself no longer as a choice morsel for the Black Man's larder. Barney, too, was in a briskly cheerful mood.
"Lots of business to do to-day," he boasted. "I'm going to earn lots of money."
"He's terribly transparent, poor lamb," thought Elizabeth compassionately.
The lights were turned on throughout the house, to the children's delight.
"This isn't breakfast," crowed Barney. "It's late dinner. It's to-night, but we won't go to bed. We'll stay up all night."
"All the lamps are burning in the street," shouted Phil, who was peering through the shrouded windows.
The Captain frowned as he joined his daughter.
"Hope it lifts soon," he said. "I've a goodish distance to drive, and I don't want to be unduly late getting back."
Elizabeth's face grew pinched with anxiety. She told herself that his desertion was bound to happen that day, just because there was no daylight and Maxine was dead.
"Where are you going?" she asked.
"Bristol." The Captain beamed like a schoolboy on holiday. "It's our reunion dinner. We hold them every three months. A bunch of homesick Anglo-Indians."
"I'm starving to go back too," said Elizabeth. "I was such a short time in India. But it gripped me, and it's never let me go."
"I'll take you back one day."
Elizabeth knew that it was a promise which would be kept faithfully, and that its fulfilment covered something she was beginning to accept before it was offered. Without actual words, she was certain that the Captain intended to marry her—since she was determined to marry him. Two wills were striving for the same purpose... She smiled at the Captain, who nodded solemnly in response.
"I was talking about you to Evans last night," he went on. "When I mentioned my reunion dinner he suggested you had company. So he's going to dig out Miss Brown and bring her over some time this morning. Better stay in for her."
"All right," agreed Elizabeth rebelliously.
"There's something else. We decided not to tell the police that you discovered the body. As the doctor and his secretary were only seconds later, we are not conspiring to defeat the course of justice."
Elizabeth's feelings were mixed. She accepted her grandmother's code that a woman should be shielded from unpleasantness, even while she regretted being cheated out of a bracing experience.
The morning had a nightmare quality because of the persistent darkness, after the Captain had made the round of the house, turning off unessential lights. Elizabeth laid down things and could not find them again in a distracting game of "hide-and-seek" with her possessions. Shortly before lunch Dr. Evans arrived, accompanied by a lady whom he introduced as "Miss Brown."
Elizabeth accepted her rather than noticed her. She had been trained to regard every unmarried woman of twenty-five as a permanent spinster. While an artist or sculptor might have appreciated what was left of Marion Brown's beauty in the perfect moulding of her face and the shape and colour of her eyes, to Elizabeth she was merely a faded middle-aged woman.
In contrast with her, the doctor looked almost a boy, as the discreet lighting shone down on his thick fair hair, but hid the lines around his eyes and lips.
"Home again," he said to Miss Brown, in so low a voice that only she could hear him. "Would you recognise it—after all the years?"
She stared around her with bewildered eyes.
"No," she replied, "but I'm beginning to see it again. It's all here" She tapped her forehead. "We had such a lot of curtains. There—and there. And over every door."
"Well, I must leave you to your reconstruction. Good-morning, Miss Brown—and thank you. Salaams, Miss Featherstonhaugh."
When the doctor had gone, Elizabeth invited Miss Brown to come up to her room.
"It must be sad to come back to your old home as a stranger," she said.
"I was a stranger to it. It didn't know me." Miss Brown smiled as she stopped on the landing. "It's very changed—but it's still the same place... I'm trying to put it all back. There used to be a bamboo-stand, just there. It had pockets filled with artificial flowers and dried grasses. They grew so dusty. I used to stand and look at them. I was indoors most of the time."
Elizabeth found it difficult to connect the beautiful, pathetic victim to class distinction with this fashionably dressed ultra-correct woman; but she continued to ask questions, to make conversation. She soon discovered that while Miss Brown did not express herself much better than Barney, she managed to convey a clear picture of the retired plumber and his wife.
"Father shouted," said Miss Brown. "There were wool rugs on every landing, and they annoyed him. Mother was short of breath. She wouldn't keep on her diet."
Then, as she gazed down the staircase well, into the hall, she laughed suddenly. It was a disconcerting sound—devoid of mirth.
"It's funny because it is so bare. The pains mother took to cover it. It was her ambition to live in one of these big houses. But we had to keep all our old stuff, as well as buy new furniture. She thought it poverty-stricken to see any bare space."
"It must seem bare," agreed Elizabeth. "Even Rivermead thinks us extreme."
"But it doesn't matter for you, because every one knows the Pewters are rich. When I lived here the town was worm-eaten with snobbery. I can understand the big difference between a plumber and a General. But I can't excuse money-snobbery... May Evans was the worst. She snubbed poor people and worshipped some wholesale clothiers, although they made their money in sweating-dens."
"Who is May Evans?" asked Elizabeth.
"Mrs. Davis. The woman that was murdered. She told me she had five fur coats. But she was always purse-proud. When I remember that, I don't feel guilty about her death."
As Elizabeth stood and stared at her, Miss Brown seemed to feel that some explanation was due.
"I feel responsible for it because I advised her to take the short cut through Maundy Passage. There was something else too. The fact is, I'm unlucky for others and myself. Wherever I go I bring tragedy."
On a sunny morning Elizabeth would have laughed at the claim, but in the circumstances it deepened her depression. She was glad to shift her responsibility of hostess to Phil when the children ran down the stairs, still carrying on an argument.
"We'll never see Maxine no more," declared Phil. "She's lost for ever and ever."
"Yes, we will," shouted Barney. "She's coming back. She told me so. Maxine's clever. You can't keep her away."
Remembering her last view of Maxine, Elizabeth shuddered at the thought of her return. The morning was creeping remorselessly away and still the darkness did not lift. Soon the Captain would be on his way to Bristol, leaving her responsible for his children.
As a concession to his guest, he had his lunch at home with the family. He was evidently prepared to do his duty manfully, but his efforts to draw Miss Brown into conversation were vain. She ate scarcely anything as she stared around the room. Sometimes she started, as though in recognition of a familiar object.
"It's all coming back," she announced suddenly. "I couldn't remember what stood in that dark corner. Now I know. It was father's spittoon."
"What's a spittoon?" asked Phil.
"Something for gentlemen," explained Miss Brown.
"That's right," said Barney. "The longest spit wins."
In spite of intermittent comic relief provided by the children, Elizabeth had never struggled to eat in more unpleasant circumstances. Once again she was in her twilight mood, when the atmosphere affected her more than her surroundings. Captain Pewter—with a flash of kindred imagination—had spoken of Miss Brown as an "influence."
"You don't know what she might attract."
It seemed to Elizabeth that she had brought back her family—punctual to meal-time. Yesterday, they were merely uninvited guests; but to-day she had a sense of hostile pressure, while the air seemed hot and crowded with smells and heavy breathing.
As Phil was eager to entertain Miss Brown in the drawing-room, Elizabeth followed the Captain to his study.
"Please make some excuse to send Miss Brown away," she pleaded.
"No," said the Captain firmly. "She's some sort of company and protection."
"Oh, no. She's not safe. I cannot stand her."
The Captain was unimpressed by her arguments and refused to discuss the subject. He was in excellent spirits at the prospect of escaping from domestic shackles and of meeting his friends.
"See me off?" he asked her.
The garages were in a lane at the bottom of the narrow gardens, so that he had to bring the car around the entire sweep of the Crescent. As Elizabeth shivered on the front steps, she felt plunged into a nightmare landscape. The sky reminded her of a bruised black plum, and the naked trees of the Park were only dimly visible—like a semi-obliterated etching.
When the car appeared at the end of one horn it was already on its way. The Captain did not stop before his door, but saluted and drove past, disappearing in a curtain of fog. Like Barney, he had only wanted to show off.
Elizabeth felt a sharp pang of desolation as she stood looking out at the vista of unnatural street lamps. She blinked back tears when Phil joined her and pulled her inside the hall. The child was excited, for she loved new faces and had been cultivating Miss Brown.
"Her name's 'Marion Ethel,'" she said. "She's brought all her photos. She's a beautiful pure young girl and she's got a boy-friend. And—do you know—her hair is even longer than mine?"
Phil's curls barely reached her shoulders, but they were distinctive in a town of bobbed heads, and she had an exaggerated idea of their length.
"I'll come presently and see them," Elizabeth promised.
Her voice was choked, but she managed to restrain her sobs until she reached her room, where she threw herself down on the bed. Ashamed of her hysteria—but unable to conquer it—she did not know why she cried. While the ugly spectacle of a girl's blackened face was taking its belated revenge on her former calm, she felt heartbroken at separation from the Captain. Although it was only for the duration of hours, it seemed the break of a lifetime.
"This place is changed ever since she came," she told herself. "She's brought her miserable thoughts—and they're like extra people in the house."
Miss Brown had suggested her family too vividly—and the fog did the rest with stage-properties of spectral draperies. In the dimness, Elizabeth persuaded herself that she actually saw the former tenants of No. 10. A man who shouted as he kicked wool mats which slipped under his feet. A red-faced woman anchored over her dinner-plate. A beautiful ghost of Youth—mourning in an eternal twilight.
There was something far worse than these imaginary intruders. She could not dislodge a horrible suspicion that—somehow—Miss Brown was a link which connected them with the menace of the empty house.
The tap of the gong told her that Mrs. Seaman had prepared tea earlier than usual, as a preliminary to getting home. She was dressed and ready to go when Elizabeth ran down to the kitchen.
"I promised my daughter to get back in the afternoon," she told Elizabeth. "There's no sense to it, as it's been dark all day. Besides, every one goes by the clock—especially murderers. You never get one before ten, when they're chronic, like these."
"Oh, don't," pleaded Elizabeth.
"There, there," said Mrs. Seaman, patting her shoulder. "You do look dicky. Now Mary's bunked on us, I wouldn't worry you about getting extra help, because of the murder and the fog. I'm waiting for Miss Pewter."
Elizabeth was acutely miserable when Mrs. Seaman left. She locked the back door and made the round of the lower windows, to be sure they were all shuttered.
"I'll lock the door at the top of the basement stairs when I go to bed," she decided. "Then we shall be shut off from below."
When she entered the drawing-room, her spirits revived. With the official end of daylight, the lights appeared normal and cheerful. Mrs. Seaman had provided a lavish meal, which Miss Brown appeared to enjoy. There was a pleasant odour—a compound of tea, muffin and narcissus—prevailing against the faint smell of fog.
The children did not stop eating until they had cleared every plate—when they presented themselves with well-greased faces.
"We're going upstairs to murder the dolls," said Barney. "Like that 'importunate.'"
"It was sad for her, 'cos she lost her money in the gutter," explained Phil.
As they ran from the room, Miss Brown looked distressed.
"Ought they to play such a horrible game?" she protested.
"I'm hoping they'll connect it with a game and get it out of their systems," said Elizabeth. "I know the harm of repression, because I was a repressed child."
Miss Brown expressed no interest in psychology. She looked around her, trying to find something she could praise, merely to make conversation.
"Nice carpet," she said at last.
"Hand-made," explained Elizabeth.
"Is it? Mother made our wool rugs. Father used to kick them about."
Again the silence fell. Presently, in order to break it, Elizabeth took up a limp leather case which lay on top of Miss Brown's bag.
"Are these your photographs?" she asked. "May I see them?"
"Please do." Miss Brown opened the case. "This is me. It misses my colouring. I had pale golden hair, deep blue eyes and cheeks like apple-blossom. Not even a dust of powder."
Although the photograph was faded, Elizabeth cried out with admiration at the rare beauty which it portrayed.
"It's enchanting. How marvellous to be as beautiful as that. Were you proud?"
"No, I was too used to it. It was just part of me... Now—this is my boy, Clement. General Tygarth's son."
Elizabeth gazed at the portrait of a youth with a narrow oval face and dreamy eyes. Although she considered it a weak face, she felt a rush of compassion.
"What a darling!" she exclaimed.
"He was wonderful," said Marion Brown. "A lovely mind and a lovely body. There was nothing he could not do."
"I'm sure of it. You must have had a glorious time when you were a girl."
A guarded expression settled down over Miss Brown's face.
"You would call it dull," she said. "I never went out alone. Ladies were supposed to behave like ladies then. My family had to be extra careful because of the talk about Clem and me. Have you heard the story?"
"How they kept you a prisoner? Yes."
"Remember, it was to protect me from scandal. My parents left me provided for. But they left me something more precious. My good name."
Again the silence fell. Elizabeth's thoughts travelled far—struggling through sheeted meadows, over slippery tarred roads, and against dimmed traffic lights. She wondered whether the Captain had arrived in Bristol and whether he were safe at his hotel, enjoying a drink. Then, as she glanced at Miss Brown, who was gazing dreamily into the core of the fire, curiosity began to stir.
"Your history sounds like part of a romantic novel," she said. "It's thrilling to think that to-morrow the empty house will be opened again. Those black windows make me creep. I can't imagine that house had furniture and people. Were you often there?"
"Oh, no." Miss Brown's voice was shocked. "How could I? The General's wife never called on mother... I was there once only."
"What was it like?"
"The hall was very strange. They had an upstairs drawing-room, and the real drawing-room—like this room—was thrown into the hall. It was very big. On one wall was the Family Tree. It was carved of wood, not solid, but standing out a bit."
"I expect so. All the names were printed on sort of bread-trenchers on the branches. I hated it, because Clem was a blood sacrifice to the Tree."
Elizabeth wondered why she was feeling vaguely apprehensive. She was conscious of a sense of familiarity which made her dread stirring up the past, yet she was compelled to remain silent.
"It was a horrible place," said Miss Brown. "All the poor animals the General had killed. They were stuffed or mounted. There was a gigantic elephant's head on one wall, and his trunk stretched out, like a black snake... What's the matter? You look pale."
"The room's so hot," muttered Elizabeth.
In spite of the heat, she felt curiously cold as she remembered Barney's description about the empty house. "Lions, tigers and a tree." But while she was asking herself how the boy could guess at the interior, she was reminded that others possessed specialised knowledge. As the General's son-in-law, Dr. Evans was familiar with No. 11. Barney must have overheard him talking of the hall.
Her relief did not endure. She had somewhat the sensation of gazing incredulously at the end of a fabulous serpent—stretching for miles into the distance—only to be conscious of a sudden snap and find herself menaced with its open jaws.
Before her eyes was a picture of Barney's green jersey suit, covered with dust and black cobwebs. He had hidden it in the chest because he did not want her to see its condition and press him to explain it. That fact was ominous, as he was callous about damage to his clothes.
"Miss Brown," she asked shakily, "is there a connecting door between our house and No. 11?"
Miss Brown started as she stared at her.
"A door?" she repeated blankly. "You should know. It's years since I lived here."
"I know. It does sound silly. I'm going up to the nursery, but I'll soon be back."
Elizabeth's sense of security was so shattered that on her way upstairs she found herself looking fearfully at blank cream walls, as though expecting to see the outline of an opening door etch itself in thin black lines—prelude to the appearance of a Black Man, without a face.
The atmosphere of the play-room was pleasantly normal, in proof that the gruesome murder-game was short-lived and innocuous. The children had grown tired of it, and Phil was watching Barney with admiration as he took an old clock to bits. Knowing the boy's love of being distinctive, the governess sent Phil down to her room, to find chocolate for her brother and herself.
"Barney," she said, after the door was closed, "I don't think that there's another boy in all the world who's loved so much as you are. I would do any big thing for you. Will you do a little thing for me? You're not a mean boy."
He looked so horrified by the suggestion that she tried to play upon his generous instincts.
"Just tell me how you got your green jersey suit so dirty."
His lips parted eagerly to prove his nobility, when suddenly his face grew dull and heavy, in demonstration of his galling loyalty to Maxine.
"I gave it to a dirty beggar-boy," he began.
Elizabeth did not wait to hear the rest. With a heavy heart and lagging steps, she went back to the drawing-room and tried to make dutiful conversation with Miss Brown. They exhausted the weather, the Royal Family, India—which Miss Brown had not visited, so knew more about it than Elizabeth—and fashions. The time passed so slowly that Elizabeth felt relieved when she was able to plead domestic duties.
"What would you like for supper?" she asked.
"I usually have cocoa and biscuits," replied Miss Brown. "But I'm going to beg for a little very weak whisky-and-water, to make me sleep. We had a fright at Vine Cottage the night before last. Are both your doors locked?"
To reassure her, Elizabeth explained the nightly routine. In the middle she was startled by the sound of screams from above. As she ran out to the hall, she heard the thud of feet, rushing down the circular staircase. Crashing down together on the landing at the same time that she reached it, the children flung their arms around her neck and hung on to her with all their weight.
"The Black Man," they yelled. "The Black Man has come up from the cellar."
Elizabeth's heart was racing when she remembered a former scare. Filled with suspicion, she looked closely at them. She got the impression that their faces were excited rather than afraid. Consequently she was prepared for a phenomenon when they had dragged her up the stairs until they could see the nursery door.
"Look," cried Barney, pointing to a cream panel. "His bloody hand."
As a matter of fact, the hand was not gory, but dark, according to precedent. It was an unpleasant print—a tiny palm with over-long twig-like fingers. But—contrary to their hopes—their governess was not impressed. She pounced upon Barney and—before he could guess her intention—had forced open his incriminating blackened fingers.
"You babies," she said, laughing at their disappointed faces. "The same old game. Turn on the bath and get ready for bed—both of you. I'm going down to make your Ovaltine."
They obeyed her, after exchanging sheepish grins. Then Barney caught his sister's eye and began a series of panto-mimic gestures, accompanied by mysterious grimaces, winks and nods. As Elizabeth interpreted them as a promise of a repeat performance, she spoke sternly to the children.
"Listen. Don't try anything more to-night. The next time I hear you scream I shan't come."
"Suppose the house was on fire?" argued Barney.
"Then it can just put itself out again," said Elizabeth.
When she reached the basement she felt grateful to Miss Brown for her refusal of supper. She did not want to linger downstairs a minute longer than was necessary.
As long as the mystery of Barney's grimed suit remained unsolved, she was forced to a monstrous conclusion that there was a connecting point between the two houses and that Barney had explored the gruesome darkness of No. 11. She remembered his matter-of-fact statement that he had seen other horrors, besides the stuffed beasts from the jungle. He had mentioned bones—and a Black Man with no face.
"If Barney could get through to Him," she thought wildly, "he can get through to us."
She did not know to whom she referred nor could she visualise any mysterious visitor. Her flare of elemental terror was homage paid to a legend—the Tenant of an empty house.
She was so delighted to admit Chester that she did not pretend to save her dignity. Frankly admitting that she was nervous, she asked him to be as long as possible over his stoking.
"I shall feel I've company while I'm getting the supper," she exclaimed as she relocked the door. "If I brought you a bottle of beer, perhaps you'd be longer."
Chester grinned acceptance of her bribe and promised to wait until she was ready to leave the kitchen. Yet even while she heard him scraping and rumbling below, she could not control her nerves. A rustle or a tap made her start and look around quickly, to trace the sound to its source, while she rushed through her duties.
Presently, the Ovaltine was made and Miss Brown's grog mixed. Instead of warming up coffee for herself, she poured out a glass of milk, while the rest of her supper came from the frigidaire. Then she piled everything on a tray which Chester carried up to the hall.
She locked the back door after him and carried Miss Brown's meagre meal into the drawing-room.
"I'll bring my own supper in here, as soon as I've put the children to bed," she promised.
Miss Brown politely begged her not to treat her as a visitor. Certainly her own behaviour was that of a privileged person rather than a guest. It was peculiar, stealthy and perilous.
She waited until Elizabeth had carried the Ovaltine and biscuits upstairs before she opened the drawing-room door. After listening for movements from above, she tip-toed across the hall, ran lightly down the basement stairs and unlocked the back door.
As she peered outside, part of the darkness seemed to move.
"Come in," she invited it. "The coast is clear."
WHEN Elizabeth reached the second floor, Barney was splashing in the bath and Phil was saying her prayers. She said a loud "Amen" as her governess approached.
"All my sins are forgiven," she said firmly, as a hint against mundane punishment.
Elizabeth was glad to ignore the past in her relief to get back to the healthy atmosphere of youth and high spirits. There was some quality about Miss Brown which chilled her, making it difficult to accept her on her face value of a negligible spinster. Although she knew it involved mopping the bathroom floor afterwards, she began to splash water over Barney.
When he retaliated joyously by kicking up a soapy smother, she noticed that his feet and knees were grimed with black dirt.
Her pleasure was swept away by a rush of suspicion as she walked over to the chair on which Barney had flung his clothes. True to her forecast, the pale-yellow pullover he was wearing at tea-time had been replaced by a white jersey.
She had not noticed the change in the excitement of the children's screams about the Black Man; but it was proof that the murder-game was merely an excuse and that—after leaving the drawing-room—he had slipped away on another mysterious journey.
It was useless to question him, since he would only lie, but her silence told the children that she was not deceived. She would not ask Phil to betray her brother, but both children were subdued when she left them in bed, spooning up their Ovaltine.
"Don't scream for me," she warned them. "I shan't come."
The drawing-room looked cheerful when she returned to it, with its brilliant lights and her supper-tray on a table before the superfluous fire. When she contrasted her sandwiches, cake and milk with the dry biscuit Miss Brown was nibbling, she felt ashamed of her appetite, but her visitor refused to share her meal.
"No, thank you. The whisky has made my head bubble. I'm not used to it."
Her reaction to the drop of stimulant was certainly surprising. Her eyes were bright and her cheeks deeply flushed, as though she were on the verge of a triumphant revelation. She seemed to have grown so vital that Elizabeth summed up the situation after the fashion of her grandmother.
"She's not done it on what I mixed her. I suppose there's a flask in her bag."
Oddly enough, she found herself regarding her guest in a more convivial spirit.
"I can't believe you knew the local people ages ago," she said, hoping to urge Miss Brown to gossip. "What was Dr. Evans like then? Did he wear an Eton suit, or was he still in rompers? He keeps so absurdly young."
"Nothing young about him," Miss Brown told her ominously. "He worshipped beauty. Everything of his had to be perfect."
"Was his wife perfect?"
"Madeline Tygarth?" Miss Brown shook her head vehemently. "No, she was insipid and false. He only married her to get money to buy beautiful things. But she worshipped him and she tried to keep him by tricks, like making him jealous... There was young Hartley Gull. A handsome boy and very fast. He thought it clever to run after married women in a safe way. Madeline was ill, at the time, and she played on his feelings to trap him. He wrote her shocking letters... I'll tell you a secret about them."
As Miss Brown lowered her voice to a hoarse whisper, Elizabeth was conscious of sudden distrust.
"The General's wife got hold of his letters to her daughter when Madeline was ill. Their last night here, the General threatened young Gull with them. He swore he'd give them to the doctor. A Court case would have ruined him just when he was starting in the Government."
"Well—what happened then?"
"Nobody knows. But Hartley Gull wants to get hold of those letters again. That's why he made up to Maxine. She told me Gull thinks the doctor's got them and he is trying to get them back from him."
"But it's all so long ago," objected Elizabeth. "Why should Mr. Gull worry?"
"Because he's terribly in love with your Miss Pewter, and he knows it's touch and go between him and the doctor. He is afraid those letters will turn her against him. The last straw, you know."
Miss Brown stopped talking and stared into the fire, but Elizabeth did not notice her silence. Her own brain was alight with will-o'-the-wisp fancies... She remembered how Gull had tied her to her chair, and she wondered whether it was a trick to get her out of the way while he searched through the Captain's desk. He might suspect that the doctor had already handed the letters over to Geraldine Pewter's brother.
If her suspicions were correct, they solved the mystery of the doctor's own burglary. By following the same method of hiding in the lavatory, Gull could have hunted through the doctor's records, after faking an entrance through the window.
It was then she saw the flaw.
"Why should he imagine that Dr. Evans has got his letters?" she asked. "They were locked up with No. 11—and nobody can get inside the empty house."
Miss Brown's smile was mysterious.
"He was friendly with Maxine," she said. "Maxine swore to her mother she wouldn't tell. But she talked—for money. She talked to the doctor and to Hartley Gull."
"How do you know so much?" asked Elizabeth.
"Maxine told me everything. I've been giving her money too. You see, Maxine is my dear Minnie's daughter."
"And who is Minnie?"
"She was our housekeeper—but she was my companion and my only friend... Is that the telephone? Isn't it nice to hear it ring?"
Hoping to hear the Captain's voice, Elizabeth went into the hall. On her way, the novels of M. E. Braddon and Mrs. Henry Wood supplied a Victorian explanation of the imprisonment of the lovers.
As she remembered the Worst Episode which could happen in any family, she wondered whether Maxine were actually the daughter of Marion Brown.
When she lifted the receiver, she had a disappointment, for the call was from Miss Macdonald—Dr. Evans's secretary. As she listened to the pleasant Scottish voice, she almost had the impression that someone had been listening-in to the conversation in the drawing-room.
"The doctor asked me to ring you," said Miss Macdonald. "He thought Miss Brown was a wee bit queer and rambling in her talk this morning. She's quite safe, of course, but if she makes any wild statement he thinks you'd better agree with her... You're not nervous?"
"Of course not," said Elizabeth. "I'm only sorry for her."
"Fine. The fog's too thick to turn her out; but you're to ring this number if you should get—worried. Good-bye."
When Elizabeth returned to the drawing-room, her sceptical mood appeared to be justified by the transformation in Miss Brown. Whatever its source, her excitement had darkened her violet eyes, while her voice had grown strong and vibrant.
"I've been waiting for you to come back," she cried. "I've kept silent, all these years, but now I must talk to someone. I've got to justify Clem to one person in the world. Listen. Clem was a Great Lover. He came to me at nights. I lived my secret life—my real life—and nobody knew... I wasn't a lady. I was in love. I was shut up—but I lived in Heaven."
Elizabeth felt acutely uncomfortable as she failed to meet the glowing eyes of her guest, lest they should recognise her incredulity. Since any contradiction was forbidden, her best policy seemed to be to ask for further details.
"How did he get in?" she asked. "Did you get duplicate keys made?"
"No," replied Miss Brown. "We were both locked in at night and the back and front doors were chained. It was too great a physical strain for him to come through the skylight. So he made a hole between our two cellars."
"The small very damp cellar which nobody uses. There's a cupboard at one end, and he tunnelled through the back of the cupboard into the back of the cupboard in the same cellar in No. 10. He made a sliding-panel between the two cupboards. You see, he dug his way out of a prison camp in Germany, so he knew how to do it... When he was ill, I used to go to him. At the end he boarded it up again, to keep our secret."
"It seems to me a miracle that you were never caught," said Elizabeth.
"Minnie used to watch for me and the Indian butler watched for Clem. It was a terrible risk—but love casts out fear."
As she spoke, Miss Brown yawned. To Elizabeth's relief, the spirit of the whisky had stopped stirring her imagination to a blaze and was blowing upon it, to cool it. The woman's purplish lids fell and her thick lashes hid the hollows below her eyes.
"I can see she's been beautiful," reflected Elizabeth. "She was starved of love when she could attract it, and now she can't she imagines these terrible things. I expect she had a crush on the doctor. They say love turns to hate. That could explain everything. I wish she would wake up. I could ask her a leading question."
Miss Brown's awakening was decidedly nerve-shaking, for she suddenly gave a loud mirthless laugh.
"To-morrow," she said, "they will open Number Eleven. I know what they will find. Bones."
"Bones?" repeated Elizabeth sharply.
"Bones. All that's left of the General and his wife. They never went abroad."
"How could you know?"
"I was there, the last night, and I saw Evan Evans kill them. He wanted me, because he was mad for my beauty, so he gave his wife arsenic. She told her parents he was poisoning her, but she was so madly in love she refused to leave him... They didn't want a scandal. They made him sign a confession that he was poisoning her, and they told him that if she didn't get well he'd be tried for murder... But he murdered them. Then he was called out to a case. Of course, he meant to come back and make it look like a break-in murder. Nobody would believe it was him, for the town worshipped him. He got knocked down. Then the house was locked up—so he couldn't get in."
Forewarned by Miss Macdonald, Elizabeth accepted the tale as fiction. She believed that—while Miss Brown had managed to fabricate a coherent story, its details were the result of hours of brooding. But her grandmother had encouraged her tendency towards post-mortems, and she began to criticise its accuracy.
"How could the General and his wife lie dead in that house, all these years, and no one know it?" she asked. "The Bank would know if he wasn't drawing any money."
"I don't know. But Clement told me he was funny over his money. He had a lot of separate accounts, and each bank only knew a bit. He told Mr. Spree he had arranged for credits abroad, as he would be moving on all the time."
"She's got it all worked out," reflected Elizabeth cynically.
"What's that noise in the hall?" asked Miss Brown suddenly.
Elizabeth listened to the sound of stealthy movements—padded footsteps and the shuffle of a rug as it slipped on the polished parquet. Darting towards the door, she was in time to surprise the children as they crept towards the basement door. Directly they realised they were discovered, they tried to cover their escapade by the usual screams.
"The Black Man from the cellar," roared Barney. "He came right into our room, so we ran down to find you."
"It wasn't right for us to stay there alone," said Phil virtuously. "We're only little children."
Elizabeth guessed that they were on their way to a larder-raid. Weary of their rebellion, she lost her patience.
"I'm going to put a stop to this nonsense once and for all," she said. "I've told you there is no Black Man, because we haven't a real cellar. We are all three of us going down there, and you'll see that it is light and yellow—"
"It isn't," yelled Barney. "The real cellar's all black and bad and sluggy. I won't go."
He put up a strong resistance, kicking and struggling all the way down the basement stairs. When they reached the cellar door, she discovered that it was locked in proof of Chester's caution. It was also useful evidence to convince the boy.
"Look, Barney," she said, "the key is turned on the outside. How could any one come out of the cellar through a locked door?"
"All right, you win," said Barney, accepting the logic nonchalantly. "I want to put on the light."
He knew where to find the switch—a fact which was scarcely surprising, since the children naturally would be familiar with the furnace-room. When it was too late to withdraw, Elizabeth realised that she had committed them to a welcome adventure which kept them out of bed. Phil squealed with delight as she manufactured thrills during their descent, and when she was actually inside the place she overdid her praise.
"What a beautiful clean cellar. Really, it ought to be a drawing-room. You could eat your dinner on the floor."
"It isn't the cellar," scoffed Barney. "It's only the stokehold. The real cellar's bad and black... I want to go back."
"All right," agreed Elizabeth, "but take a good look before you go. I won't take you down here—or anywhere alse—again. I'm tired of your nonsense. Come along."
She was turning towards the stairs when Phil clutched her arm.
"I saw a sack move," she whispered.
"Which sack?" asked Elizabeth, controlling her temper with an effort.
She noticed that Phil looked over the piled-up sacks as though making a deliberate choice. Presently she pointed to a bag which was wedged in an apparently inaccessible corner.
"That one," she said. "It keeps moving."
"I saw it move too," declared Barney. "Cross my heart and may I die... There's a man inside."
"Is it the Black Man?" asked Phil.
The quiver in her voice appealed to Elizabeth's sympathy. While a sham demonstration of nerves made her angry, her instinct was to drive away Phil's fear.
"There's only coal in that bag," she said. "I'm going to open it. Seeing is believing."
Suddenly Barney threw his arms around her waist and tried to tug her back.
"You mustn't," he roared. "That's the 'Danger' place. Don't go near it... Come back."
His opposition made her the more determined to reach the sack. It was stored in a shadowed end of the room and was surrounded with a solid pack of bags. As there was no space to squeeze a way through, she was forced to crawl on the top of the bulging canvas.
It was a slow and dirty process—ruinous to her stockings and painful to her knees—but she managed to reach the indicated sack. Opening its ears, she scooped out a handful of coals.
"Look, Philippa," she called. "Coals."
"Not that one," screamed Phil. "Another. It's moving again."
Although her patience was wearing thin, Elizabeth located the bag at which Phil was pointing. It was blocked by two heavy sacks, but there was a little space between them, so that she could stand and relieve her aching back.
As she scrambled down upon the floor, she felt a faint movement against her leg, as though a ripple were running through the canvas. Although it was too slight, a jet of icy water seemed to be running down her back.
It was too dark to see distinctly, but instinctively she thought of rats. Without wish to explore further, she climbed up again on to the pile of bags and crawled towards the children. As though they were infected by her panic, both of them screamed to her to come back. Before she could regain the floor, they made a dash for her and pulled her towards the stairs.
"Come back quick," urged Barney, grabbing her string of blue beads.
It snapped under the strain, but the silk was knotted, so that only a few beads fell to the ground. Fortunately the accident sobered the children, especially as Elizabeth exaggerated the value of the necklace. They dropped on their knees to hunt for the alleged "sapphires" and found some of them in a crack between the stones.
Elizabeth stuffed them, together with the broken string, into the breast-pocket of her jumper, before she drove the children upstairs. They made no further excuses to return to the kitchen, but scampered before her, leading the way to their rooms. When they were in bed again she looked back with a faint pang.
"They're perfectly safe up here," she told herself. "The house is like a fortress. But I wish I could stay with them."
When she looked at the clock in the drawing-room she was surprised to see that it was past ten. The household routine had been so disorganised that they had been late all day. She wondered whether the Captain had started on his homeward drive as she walked to the fire.
Miss Brown shook herself awake.
"I don't sleep in a sitting-room as a rule," she apologised. "It must be the whisky. And feeling so safe."
"I'm glad you know that. You must have had a shock when that terrible black man tried to climb in through the window."
"It made me realise that Vine Cottage was not safe... Of course, he was after me."
Elizabeth remembered Miss Macdonald's warning in time to suppress her laugh.
"Who's after you?" she asked. Already she had deduced the origin of Miss Brown's persecution complex.
"The doctor, of course. He was so mad for me, he wouldn't let Clem have me. Clem was his patient—and he died... I made a mistake when I told him I was in Number Eleven that last night and saw everything. It wasn't wise to come back at all. But when I looked at the date on my calendar, coming so near, I was drawn back. I wrote to Evan and asked him to find me lodgings. He met me in London and he bought me that grey squirrel coat."
Elizabeth managed to refrain from any comment, since she wished to conceal her disbelief. Miss Brown seemed to be fluent only when she saw herself as the heroine of drama. She went on talking rapidly and eagerly.
"I couldn't get out of taking it—but I never meant to wear it. When May Evans came to tea she saw it and made me an offer for it. It was a shameful bargain, but I let her have it. When she was murdered, I knew he'd mistaken her back for mine. He gave me the coat only to get an easy mark in the dark."
"It wasn't a cheap coat for her," remarked Elizabeth, in a soothing voice.
"No, indeed. A street woman saw him murder May. She was waiting for a man at the bottom of one of those long gardens in the lane. When she tried to blackmail him, he murdered her."
"Do you like music?" asked Elizabeth, rising from her chair.
"Passionately... Then he wrote and asked me to meet him in Maundy Passage, but I was on my guard and I didn't go. When he called at Vine Cottage this morning I kept the sitting-room door open all the time, so that the maid could see us while she washed out the hall... I know how quick he is."
Elizabeth sat down on the music-stool and opened the piano-lid.
"I'm afraid my songs are old-fashioned," she said, "as I used Granny's music, to please her."
She knew that the guest—once restored to form—would be too polite to protest. When she finished singing "I dreamt I dwelt," Miss Brown conventionally asked for another song. As she began "In happy moments," Elizabeth was proud of her diplomacy—not knowing that while she was reviving old memories in the classic favourites of grand opera she was wasting precious minutes.
"I've given you quite a recital," she said when her throat was tired. "Music is supposed to suggest images. I hope I've given you some pleasant thoughts. What have you been thinking of?"
"Cremation," replied Miss Brown unexpectedly. "Evan wanted Madeline cremated, but while he was senseless in hospital her uncle had her buried in the family vault in Devon. She had a lot of arsenic in her body and they say it preserves it, besides being in the soil... He was cleverer with May Davis, for he persuaded her husband to bury her in the coat and have her cremated. He couldn't risk the sale of the coat being traced to him."
Flying back to her original thought, she added: "Now you see why he's got to get hold of that confession. It would start them poking in his wife's grave. Ever since he heard how he could get into Number Eleven he's been hunting for it."
"If he has," argued Elizabeth, "he's bound to have found it by now."
"No, he'll never find it. It's a big house, all heavily furnished, and he daren't use a strong light, for fear the shutters may be warped and a chink of light be seen in the street. The window curtains have rotted with damp, so they are not reliable. He can only use a thin pencil-torch."
Elizabeth listened with growing uneasiness, as she asked herself how this woman could know so much. Imagination could not account for some of her statements. She noticed how Miss Brown watched the clock with a half-smile, as though she were waiting eagerly for some welcome development.
"I'm not sure she's only cracked," she thought. "She may be more dangerous. She's a stronger character than she was this morning. She seems different in every way... I wonder if I could startle her to betray herself."
While she was selecting her test question, Miss Brown took her unawares.
"Are you good at games?"
"I never played them," said Elizabeth.
"Oh... You are small, but perhaps you are wiry."
"I'm afraid I am not."
As Elizabeth made the confession, she glimpsed an idea.
"If Maxine is her daughter, she might give herself away."
Turning to Miss Brown, she asked her question.
"Did you hear of Maxine's murder?"
Miss Brown showed no sign of emotion.
"I'm afraid she deserved her terrible end," she said calmly. "Minnie was a wonderful mother, and she only went out as a servant to educate Maxine. Before she died, she told Maxine the secret of our romance, but she made her promise not to tell. The girl confessed that to me. Maxine knew the doctor was connected with the General, so she went to him and told him she could stir up a lot of mud and asked him what it was worth. Of course, directly he heard about the hole between the two cellars, he knew it was his chance. He got Maxine a job at Number Ten and paid her to open the back door to him. When they sent her away, she got the boy to carry on, but he let them down, so she plotted to come back."
Elizabeth listened with her former apprehension, because the name of Maxine was a focus for adhesive facts. Miss Brown had brought her incredible history up to date, so that she could attempt to check it with local events.
"Maxine guessed there was something fishy," continued Miss Brown, "and she began to blackmail the doctor. She came to see me a lot, to get money, and she told me all. I saw her directly after the Captain sent her away for the second time. She told me that the boy was opening the back door for her and she'd be in the house, hiding and waiting for the doctor. She boasted that she was going to put him on the spot, as he was in her power... I don't know what happened, except that she was murdered."
Elizabeth looked around her with strained eyes. She had evidence that Maxine had conspired with Barney to return to Number Ten, and that—somewhere in the background—was a sinister mystery-figure, directing their services. At that moment she was grateful for the security of a solid house with good locks on its doors. This was no ramshackle Vine Cottage, but a fortress which merited Miss Brown's testimonial, when she said "she felt safe."
Her heart leaped suddenly when Miss Brown broke the silence.
"I think he murdered her in the furnace-room. The fog was so thick that she would wait for him inside when she was going to blackmail him. She didn't weigh heavy, so he could carry her to his own step without much risk in the thick fog. He could ring his own bell and be inside, ready for his secretary. That was his alibi. Of course, he put the string of beads outside the hotel on the chance of the police suspecting Gull."
"No," cried Elizabeth. "I won't believe it."
"Well, I am only guessing. If he murdered her inside this house, the missing beads will show where."
Suddenly Elizabeth remembered how she had stood on the doorstep and tried to locate Maxine's voice in the outside mist. At the time it had seemed too impossible to consider—but she had an impression that the sound came from somewhere underneath.
Thrusting her shaking hand inside her pocket she drew out her broken string and four beads. Three of them matched her own necklace—but the fourth was larger and lighter in colour.
"Look," she said to Miss Brown. "Here's a missing bead. It came from the furnace-room floor."
Miss Brown remained calm.
"That proves it," she remarked. "When will the Captain come back?"
"I don't know."
"Then we needn't get excited—yet. I have everything planned. Evans told me a wonderful story, this morning, about the General being his enemy and mine and that we must help each other. So I promised to open the back door to-night."
"You mean—you pretended, just to put him off?"
"No. I knew he wanted to kill me, so I planned to get him. When he went down into the cellar, I meant to lock the door and wait for the Captain. The Captain would send for the police and all of them would hide. When I unlocked the door, he would go for me—and that would be their chance to get him—red-handed."
Miss Brown stopped, as though awaiting for applause.
"It sounds gloriously simple," said Elizabeth, "but please don't try it. Something might go wrong and then it would be terribly dangerous."
"But I have done it."
"When?" gasped Elizabeth.
"When you were upstairs, putting the children to bed."
At that moment, Elizabeth thought her vocal cords were paralysed. She opened her lips and moved them in desperate efforts to speak—but no words came. Pictures kept flashing before her eyes. Again she heard the children's excited cries that a sack had moved. Again she felt a quiver stirring the canvas against which she leaned.
She had stood beside Murder. She conceived him not as an anonymous human being, but as an entity of evil—a black man with no face, cruel and silent as a beast of the jungle, mania flaring in his eyes.
Then suddenly she heard a strange voice issue through her lips in a kind of whistling rush.
"I thought Chester had locked the door. When I took the children down to the cellar, I opened it again."
"You opened it?" repeated Miss Brown. "Oh, my Heavenly Father, let me think."
ELIZABETH heard the words faintly, as though someone were speaking from the end of a long corridor. The shock was so unexpected that she broke down in a mental and physical collapse. She could neither move nor think as she stared blankly before her. Her only emotion was annoyance when she noticed that the silver frame of a mirror was browned by fog.
Miss Brown began to speak slowly and deliberately, as though she were thinking aloud.
"He's bound to kill me, to stop me accusing him when they open Number Eleven. He can't trust the boy, for he doesn't know what Maxine might have let out to him... I'm terribly afraid he'll kill you and the girl too—for you might wake up and find out about the boy. He can't take chances. Everything will have to be quiet and tidy by the time the Captain comes home. They won't find out till the morning."
Elizabeth found herself listening to what appeared to be a chain of reasoning which was purely of academic value. What pleased her was the reference to Nigel Pewter. She agreed that he was both a gentleman and a responsible head of a household. When he came home late, he made as little noise as possible for the sake of others.
"I'll clean that frame to-morrow morning," she decided, before her brain suddenly awoke from the narcotic of shock. Alive in every nerve and muscle, she sprang from her chair, like a small fury.
"I'll kill him myself," she cried. "I'll kill him. He shan't touch the children."
Marion Brown thrust her back in her chair.
"Don't be silly," she said sharply. "I saw him murder Mrs. Tygarth. It was all over in a second... An aunt of mine was murdered by a servant, and the girl hit her again and again... But he knew where to hit—and he was so quick... Don't talk. I must think."
Although she strained with impatience, Elizabeth dared not speak, lest she confuse the elder woman's thoughts. Crisis had found Miss Brown level-headed and of resolute courage. For the first time Elizabeth believed in the story of a secret life. She realised then the desperate risks taken by the girl and the force of a passion which could blast its way through the barrier of bricks and mortar.
"We must get back to the children at once," said Miss Brown suddenly. "Then we must lock ourselves in our rooms. I noticed the key in my door turned easily. If we get there before him we have a chance."
They crept to the drawing-room door and paused for Miss Brown to open it an inch. She peered through the chink and then whispered to Elizabeth.
"He may be anywhere. Turn on all the lights. If he's hiding and waiting for us to go up to bed we shall see him."
Even in that tense minute Elizabeth felt guilty as she touched the controlling switch and saw every rod and panel gleaming with light. Marion Brown's hand clutching her arm, they rushed across the hall to the staircase. As they paused for a hasty glance behind them, Miss Brown whispered again to the girl.
"Lucky you sang. Shows you weren't afraid. He'll think I've told you nothing. You've a chance."
"So've you," said Elizabeth. "We stick together."
"No, we must split up. We mustn't frighten the children."
Elizabeth was first to reach the landing, but she waited in the passage outside her own door until Miss Brown had gone inside her room. She saw the light shine out—and then Miss Brown rushed outside, her face ghastly as though pursued by a Black Death.
"My key," she gasped. "He's taken it. It was there after lunch."
"Mine's gone too," said Elizabeth, opening her door in a panic. "Look. There's not one anywhere in the passage."
The next second her face grew shrunken with terror.
"He's been up here," she whispered. "The children... "
As she switched on her light she stifled her scream. Upon her bed lay a humped form, covered entirely with a sheet. Unable to speak, she pointed to it and saw her own dreadful suspicion leap into Miss Brown's eyes.
Even as she questioned "Which?" she forced herself to look at Phil's corner. The child was in bed and awake, for she stared at them with wide blue eyes.
"What has she seen?" wondered Elizabeth, as Phil watched the bed in silence. She was crossing to it, when there was an upheaval of the bedclothes and Barney started up, crowing with triumph.
"Did you find the keys?" he asked, with his usual transparency.
Elizabeth pounced on him eagerly.
"Barney, where have you put them?"
"Aha," he chuckled, "that's my secret. I'm going to make a bargain. I'll get them back if you promise—may I die—to get Maxine back."
Once again Elizabeth felt as though her vocal cords were cut, but Marion Brown spoke for her.
"Of course," she said. "I promise that Maxine shall come back."
Although Elizabeth knew that she was fighting to save the boy's life, she was overcome with reluctance and horror.
"Barney," she said quietly, "Maxine can't come back. But I'll pay you lots of money if you'll tell me where you've hidden the keys."
"It's my very secret place," he objected.
"Then you shall get them. We won't watch you. We'll all shut our eyes."
"But it's a very difficult place. I don't want to go there now." He put his head on one side—to consider the bribe—and then shook it vehemently.
"No," he declared. "I want Maxine."
Phil broke the silence with a calm statement of fact.
Two years later, when—as the ground rocked with the thud of an explosion and Elizabeth waited for the fall of bricks, which never came—she realised that she had lived that moment before. There was the same blasting shock, followed by the swift dread of worse to come, after Phil had spoken. When she remembered the boy's super-sensitive disposition and his extraordinary passion for Maxine, the governess was appalled at the threat to his nervous system. Not daring to look at him, she clenched her hands and held her breath.
"Not dead?" asked Barney in an interested voice.
Unable to believe her ears, she raised her eyes and saw that Barney's face matched his tone. When Phil nodded twice, a spasm of grief contorted his features, but it passed immediately.
"Maxine called me 'Little bustard,'" he remarked. "I thought it was a proud name—but Mrs. Seaman says it's a bad name. Is it bad?"
"It's not very polite," explained Elizabeth.
To her amazement, she saw indignation glow in his eyes as—suddenly and gratefully—he cast off his galling allegiance to his "Belle Dame Sans Merci." Turning to Elizabeth in his old lordly manner, he bestowed on her his favour.
"I like you best—now. You are kind. I'll tell you... I hid the keys in the Black House."
As the forgotten peril of the Black Man swept over Elizabeth, she heard the tinny tinkle of a bell ringing deeper and deeper within an empty house. She had called upon the Tenant and run away. To atone for such discourtesy, she was pledged to pay a formal call.
"I will get them," she said.
Miss Brown gripped her arm and swung her round to the window.
"We mustn't talk before the children," she said. "We might frighten them. But I must make this clear. It's sheer madness to go into that house. He's there. It's like going into a tiger's den."
"What shall we do then?" asked Elizabeth.
Although her relief did not last, she was thankful for a reprieve when Marion Brown drew her inside the bay of the window.
"We may have a chance if we all keep together," she whispered. "We could barricade the door and scream out of the window."
Elizabeth pulled aside the maize taffeta curtains and looked out at a wall of dense dun vapour.
"Not much chance of any one being out to-night," she said hopelessly. "I'll try and ring up the police."
"It's terribly risky. He might hear. Voices rise up the well of the staircase. But if you could—Aren't you afraid?"
"I'm more afraid of waiting—for him."
Knowing the solvent quality of her courage, Elizabeth kncked off her shoes, for the sake of silence, before she rushed from the room. Almost before she realised it, she had plunged and was again on a too-familiar race—dashing recklessly down the spirals of the staircase. The restaurant-note of the brilliant lighting and the cream walls were so cheerful that it was difficult to connect her flight with a perilous adventure. She was a girl—any girl—running down to meet her lover.
Yet, with every step, fear was mounting. It perched on her shoulder, like an ill-omened bird, and whispered into her ear to "Look behind you." It clawed at her to hurry, while croaking that it was already too late. It pecked out her heart, leaving a demoralising emptiness when she knew that disaster was inevitable.
"If only the door would open and Nigel walk in," she thought.
The door opened... Hope flamed up, and she rushed across the hall in welcome... But no one entered. When she reached it, she discovered that the wood had stuck on the rug and there was only a narrow gap, through which wisps of fog were drifting inside.
As she peered out into the night, trying to pierce the obscurity, she paid for the beauty of her eyes. They were lustrous and dark-blue, a colour which—according to some physiognomists—is not supposed to denote the strongest vision or the keenest intellect.
Her special case supported the authorities, and beauty had to be their justification, for her eyes were particularly sensitive. They smarted from the fog and began to water as she stood to listen. She could distinguish no shadowy form and heard no sound of voice or footsteps, so she shut the door again.
"Barney," she thought. His name was the explanation of most mysteries. He liked to open the front door when it was dark and peer down the Crescent on the chance of surprising some nocturnal marvel. As he was both careless and impatient, he rarely troubled to find out whether he had latched it properly afterwards.
As she remembered the telephone, Elizabeth realised that she had been wasting time over the door. She wished intensely that she had clear-cut opinions, so that she had not always to make a choice of alternatives. At this crisis she was perplexed by the problem of which number to ring—the doctor's surgery or the police station? Miss Macdonald was nearer—so could come sooner—but her aid would not be so effective.
She need not have wearied her brain with comparisons. When she took up the telephone she discovered in one shattering moment that it was dead.
She had experienced blocked communication, when she heard a storm of mild explosives, while she waited in vain for the intervention of "Exchange." But never before had she met anything so complete as the silence of the cut wire. It was so menacing in its finality that she was plunged into panic.
Apparently it was not unexpected action on the part of the enemy, for she remembered Miss Brown's relieved comment when she took Miss Macdonald's call. Here—in her hand—was proof that while she had been carefree and unconscious—eating cake and singing operatic airs—the Black Death had been actually in the hall. He could have burst into the room and attacked them; and she knew that he had refrained not from mercy. Probably he worked murder on a schedule.
As she looked desperately at the door, she decided that she might reach outside help, provided that she were not intercepted at the fifty-ninth second. Her success depended on her speed. Wasting no more time in searching for a latchkey in the crowded drawer, she opened the front door and doubled a corner of the rug between it and the lintel—so that it could not be closed by a sudden draught.
When she was outside she was nearly blinded by the fog. The Crescent houses were not subject to the heavy ground-rents of London, so they were double-fronted instead of being tall and narrow. Consequently she had to pass a stretch of area railings to reach the next house—No. 9—since No. 11 was empty.
In her haste—and hindered by myopia—she stepped off the kerb which she could not see, slipped on a pad of damp leaves and lay sprawling in the gutter. For a few seconds she was too shaken to stir, but after she had scrambled to her knees she limped along the shrouded terrace until she reached the first flight of steps.
She rang the bell and hammered the door with the knocker, but no one came. The bell was in order, for she heard it ring when she pressed the push. Careless of convention, she followed Barney's example and kept her finger pressed upon the button. At last, her growing sense of urgency—added to her realisation of the shrinkage of precious moments—made her give up the attempt to rouse the household.
"No use going back now," she thought. "Better go on to No. 2."
As she made the decision she glanced behind her to chart the crack of light which indicated the open door of No. 10. To her horror, she saw only foggy darkness. Someone had closed the door and locked her out.
Instantly a flare of suspicion leaped up in her mind, followed by a stab of self-accusation.
"I've left the children. I've left them with her."
At the time she honestly believed she was risking her own life in an attempt to link them with safety; but at that moment she saw her rush into the night only as an act of criminal folly. It was so plainly her duty to stay with the children. The charge "Easily-bought" stirred again in her mind. Although warned by the doctor's secretary, and by the woman herself, she had accepted Marion Brown at her face value and had even swallowed some of her amazing statements.
"Everything's happened since she came into the house," she thought.
Too distraught to reason, she began to run blindly. It seemed to her that the enveloping density was growing lighter in patches—but before she could realise the cause she rushed against a lamp-post where lamp-post there was none. As she stood to recover her breath after the impact she understood her error of locality.
When she fell into the gutter, she had crawled on to the pavement and turned in the opposite direction. Consequently she had been ringing the bell of No. 12—the residence of two maiden ladies who were on their annual visit to Italy.
She felt the frustrated confusion of one trying to imitate movements seen in a mirror as she turned round and began to run. She was obsessed by the conviction that she was on a wrong course. She was going against the clock—against the traffic—against the circulation of the port—against the revolutions of the Stellar System.
At any moment she was due for some monstrous collision. Even as she flinched in anticipation of the Big Bump, she saw a dull gleam of light struggling through an aperture. Staggering up the steps, she pushed open the door.
When she was back again in the cream-walled hall of No. 10 she felt only the safety of a port—until she remembered that the still water was shark-infested and that they were floating on a leaking hulk. Her heart was heavy with dread as she hurried upstairs.
To her surprise, nothing appeared to be changed for the worse when she reached her room. Phil was eating biscuits in bed and seemed unconcerned, while Marion Brown ran to meet her and draw her inside. When she looked into the woman's eyes and heard her voice, Elizabeth's fears and suspicions melted away.
"What an age you've been. I've been so worried. Couldn't you get through?"
"No, the wire was cut. So I went to get help. But I—couldn't."
As she realised the futility of wasted time, Elizabeth felt sick at heart. A respite had been granted to them, and she had merely run around in circles.
Miss Brown did not reproach her.
"If you got through," she said, "why shouldn't all of us? We'll each take a child and steal out of the house. The hotel is not far, and there are bound to be people still up."
Joy flooded Elizabeth's heart at the prospect of action. The plan was so simple that it might succeed, provided that they had luck. It hung on the Black Death's movements during the space of a few minutes.
"Where's Barney?" she asked.
"I saw him go into his room," replied Miss Brown.
Elizabeth went into the adjoining dressing-room—which was his bedroom—to find it empty. No one was lying in the bed. Knowing the boy's love of trickery, she looked underneath it and pulled the wardrobe door open. Then she rushed back, her face stiff with fright.
"He's not there," she said. "Philippa, do you know where he is?"
"Yes," chuckled the child. "He went away when you were whispering in the window. I saw him go—but you didn't see him."
"Where is he?" asked Elizabeth.
"I mustn't tell you. It's a secret to surprise you, 'cos you aren't his enemy."
The child looked with surprise at her governess's quivering lips.
"He's gone to the empty house to get the keys," she replied.
Good Victorians never die. From that moment Elizabeth's grandmother controlled the situation with the courage and simplicity of her limitations, which refused to admit other than her own point of view. The girl's confusion of mind and conflict of emotions blew up the chimney like smoke as she responded to her early training.
At last she knew exactly what she had to do. Although her grandmother would have been horrified to know that her grandchild had sunk so low as to earn her living in a menial capacity, her prejudices were on the side of Capital and the Employer. Elizabeth could almost hear her voice admonish her.
"You must do your duty to your pupils, Elizabeth, at any cost to yourself. You are paid to keep a contract."
Elizabeth did not need the advice, for even before her grandmother spoke she was on her way to the door.
"Where are you going?" asked Miss Brown.
"To get Barney," she replied.
As Miss Brown stared at her, she acknowledged the change in the girl. Instead of her usual impulsive rush, she stopped beside Phil's bed.
"Tell me the way into the empty house," she said.
As she hoped, the child did not attempt to hide her knowledge of forbidden things.
"In the cellar cupboard," she replied, while Elizabeth noted dully—amid her agony—that the child was well aware of the difference between a furnace-room and a cellar.
"Where's the cellar door?" she asked.
"By the 'danger' sack. We didn't want you to see it, 'cos it's Barney's secret hidey-place."
Elizabeth kissed the child passionately, as though saying good-bye, but emotion did not let her forget a torch. Her grandmother's common sense assured her that it was useless to try to find a way blindfold through the darkness of the empty house. The Black Death would hear her movements and locate her. Further—it was futile to use a feeble light, since the least flicker would betray her.
She took the Captain's strongest torch, tested the battery, and began her journey down the circular staircase. Round and round, without a thought of giddiness—across the hall—down the basement flight and lower still, down to the furnace-room. Again she crawled on top of the stacked sacks until she reached the bag which moved.
As she squeezed past it, the recollection of a ripple of movement made her recoil, but she passed the children's "Danger" point and reached the end of the furnace-room. Set in its wall—and beyond the radius of the light—was a door. In spite of dingy yellow paint, its swollen wood and rusted metal gave the impression of complete disuse; but the handle turned easily. Holding her breath with suspense, Elizabeth entered a cellar. It was dark and smelt damp, but it was not repulsive, and, although unused, its stone flags were apparently swept at intervals.
In one corner was a cupboard... She felt the sudden unlocking of her knee-joints as she forced herself to walk towards it. She told herself that the point of communication between the houses marked the end of civilisation. Beyond was blackness and chaos—a region of terror—outside the amenities of the Services and without water, gas or electricity.
The cupboard was open, in proof that the secret route was in use. Flashing her torch inside, she saw broken boards at its back which, at one time, must have formed the sliding panel. There were also empty bottles and blacking-tins, now pushed carelessly aside, which evidently had been stacked there originally to discourage exploration by some morbidly conscientious spirit.
As she hesitated to crawl inside, she remembered one of her grandmother's fairy stories, where the children—hard pressed by pursuing enemies—were told to leap into a well of vinegar. When she read the book, she could not understand their stupid reluctance, since the safety of their own world awaited them on the other side.
But this was different. While she shuddered at the prospect of a plunge into the unknown, she knew that she was advancing to real and terrifying danger.
"Barney," she whispered as she forced her way through the gap.
It involved a painful struggle, for her knitted suit was spiked by fragments of wood which held her back. At last she heard the rip of her skirt upon a nail—freezing her—and she scrambled inside.
She was in the cellar of the empty house—a gruesome cavern, with the trail of slugs marked in glistening streaks over walls and floor. Here the damp was unchecked by proximity to a furnace and was manifest in unpleasant fungoid growths, covered with the black dust she had noticed on Barney's suit.
Before she started her perilous journey, she tried to get the plan of No 11 clear in her mind.
"The furnace-room comes next, then the stairs, then the basement hall, then the basement stairs and then the hall... Oh, pray I haven't to go farther. I can't search all through—only I must. Oh, pray I'll find him soon."
The farther door was pushed half open and she hurried towards it—stepping gingerly even in her haste—only to find, on the other side, another dark, damp interior.
Her nerves were quivering so violently that she experienced the same sense of confusion and frustration which had baffled her in the fog—a nightmare sensation of going backwards. Landmarks moved from their rightful direction, while she was hampered by seeing only a section instead of the whole. A cellar which was behind her was now in front.
She was on the point of panic when her grandmother took control.
"Of course, there isn't any furnace-room here," she reasoned. "Ours was made of several cellars knocked into one."
She knew there must be a nest of them, and as some opened into others she was afraid she might lose her way, or miss Barney while she was groping in a cellar without an exit. In the hope of picking up a trail, she turned the light of her torch down to the floor. Here, although the dust was so thick that it had the sifting quality of desert sand, she traced some semi-obliterated marks which resembled the pads of an animal—yet might have been original footsteps.
While she followed the faint smear across the length of three cellars, every muscle and every fibre in her body protested. She remembered a cellar floor which moved—and she wondered whether she would feel the sudden backward pull of its withdrawal under her feet. Here, too, were dimly glimpsed horrors—the lowest form of life, manifest only in movement—where cells had combined to form an organism which crept and crawled.
The walls sweated with damp, and in the last cellar the flagstones were slimy underfoot. In one corner, trickles had collected to form a patch of stagnant water. When she flashed her torch over it, she saw something dark and misshapen hop across it and disappear. As she shuddered with repulsion, an icy drop from the ceiling fell on the top of her head.
At the foot of the cellar stairs she stopped to look behind her with feelings of dismay. She reminded herself that while she was forced to return the way she came, in case of flight or pursuit, there would not be time to pick up the trail. Already the dust appeared to be settling over her own footprints.
"I've come in a straight line," she told herself.
But she could not be certain even of that, as her vision had been restricted by the limitation of her torch. Its light showed her that the cellar stairs were festooned with dusty draperies of spiders' webs, like monstrous tangles of old-man's-beard in autumnal hedges. Many of the boards were rotten and there was a heavy smell of decay. When she reached the basement hall, she felt that she must be groping in some centenarian's nightmare. Everything seemed unutterably ancient, so that it was impossible to realise that the darkness on her left had been a kitchen and that a kettle had sung upon its stove.
By this time she was beginning to hear sounds other than drips. There were faint rustles and scuffling noises which might have been made by rodents or a small boy. She realised then how she was handicapped by the love of trickery which was one of Barney's characteristics. Whether he resented her presence as interference, or merely wished to prolong her surprise, she knew that he was capable of hiding from her.
It was too dangerous to call his name. Although she betrayed herself by her light, it could not be seen by the Tenant—were he in an upper room; but the sound of her voice would travel up to him.
As long as she remained underground she felt in comparative safety, but every step she took up the basement stairs brought her nearer to the threat of extinction. Although it was impossible to believe in her own death, the peril was real and very close. She remembered Maxine's face as she saw it yesterday—beautiful and arrogant—and she remembered Maxine's face as she had seen it twelve hours later.
"Barney," she whispered.
Instead of steeling her nerve, his name further demoralised it by arousing a dormant question. Why had he been so long absent? If it were true that he crept from the room during the conference in the bay window, there was time for him to find the keys and return, unless— Unless he had been intercepted.
"No," she cried, beating at a moth which encircled her head, as though it were an evil thought. But the cold dread remained with her after she reminded herself that the boy was fearless and had a love of adventure. With the virtuous excuse of obedience to his governess, he could prolong his thrill without fear of consequences. This was his last chance to explore No. 11 while it was still mysterious and disguised. To-morrow its black mask would be off and it would be merely the dirtiest house in India Crescent.
She snapped off her torch before she opened the hall door. Scarcely daring to breathe, she stood, straining her eyes to sec a faint ray of light which was all the Black Death could show. As she stared at what appeared to be absolute darkness, she was distressed physically by the atmosphere. It was so dead as to be almost mephitic, and gave her the impression of being imprisoned in a charnel-house.
All around her was a mutter of intermittent sounds. The house was talking to itself—not in the friendly, confidential whisper of an old house at night—but drooling and cursing, like some blind drunken beldam. Unable to bear her suspense longer, she snapped on her light again.
Her first reaction was the instinctive recoil of terror. Above her towered the head of a gigantic elephant. Her flame picked out the glitter of small, infuriated eyes and the ivory of long, curved tusks. It looked maddened from an orgy of slaughter as it reared itself with trunk outstretched, as though to grip her, and an enormous foot raised to trample her to pulp.
The illusion of imminent attack was so strong that she was unable to stir, but stood staring as though hypnotised. When it began to dawn on her that it was stationary, she realised that it was a realistic reproduction of the head and front part of an elephant, carved from a block of black wood.
As she ranked elephants equal with horses as friends of men, she resented this malignant monster, until she discovered the source of its inspiration in a picture on the wall, depicting executioner-elephants at work. This painting was similar to one she had seen in the Indian Museum, but it was larger and more lurid, with victims' bodies severed with the neatness of bits of a jigsaw puzzle amid tiny fountains of spouting blood.
"What a horrible place," she shuddered. "What a horrible man."
The General's sporting trophies were covered so thickly with dust that she got the impression of an Ice Age melting in greyish slush. She saw nothing as a whole—only fragments of open fanged jaws, gleaming fiery eyes, and the grin of a tiger's mask. Then the sweep of her torch picked out the Family Tree as further evidence of the General's extraordinary taste in mural decoration.
It covered one wall, and was designed to endow the name of "Tygarth" with immortality. Only the male line was honoured, for the distaff side was fobbed off with small plaques, stating abbreviated details of birth, marriage, issue and death, after the fashion of Who's Who. Even in that tense moment, Elizabeth remarked that Madeline's tablet was crowded into a corner while a bough was reserved for Clement, in readiness for the record of his male heirs.
Time, labour and money had been lavished on this monument of the General's homage to his family... And now the Tree was dead—withered from the roots up.
Meantime there was young life in the house which it was her own function to preserve. She had no clear plan to save Barney, only a vague resolve to be his substitute. If two were attacked, surely one might escape.
"I'm old," she reasoned. "Soon I'll be out of my teens. But Barney has hardly lived five minutes."
Since there seemed no sign of his presence in the hall, she had to search farther. With the ground-floor plan of No. 10 to guide her, she knew that the library was in front of the house; but, now that the drawing-room and hall were merged, it was not easy to locate it. She stumbled across what appeared to be a vast area of space as she picked a way between a confusion of dust-shrouded objects. It was a nerve-racking experience, as a slip amid so many trophies and weapons might result in the clash of fallen metal. At last, however, she reached the library, where she cut off her light, lest any one should be inside.
The room was in darkness, relieved by a crack of light at the top of one long window. The thin yellow line was sensational because it was so unexpected. It seemed a miracle until it was explained by the fact that a lamp in the Crescent was shining through a chink in the shutter.
It was welcome proof that the fog had lifted and that the Captain would make better time on his homeward drive. She smiled at the prospect before she followed up her thought. He would give three taps on the bedroom wall—and would conclude she was asleep when she did not signal in return. No one would disturb him, and the house would be very quiet. In the morning, when he brought her tea, he would know why he had slept so peacefully.
Wrenching her mind back to the present—which, at least, was not final—she looked around her to see whether Barney were hiding. She noticed that the room showed signs of recent disturbance; the dust on the floor was ploughed up by footprints—drawers were open—books removed from the shelves. Some of the volumes were stacked in piles, but others were thrown about, as though a systematic search had been followed by a sack.
This evidence of haste aroused in her a corresponding sense of urgency. Time was passing, and she had not found Barney. It seemed a hopeless quest—with so many rooms to explore and such a number of hiding-places—but she had to go through with it. She returned to the hall, where suddenly she was startled by a speck of light which danced over the floor.
Looking up, she saw a feeble gleam from above, as though someone were standing on the first landing and looking down at her.
Her first instinct was to snap off her torch—her second to hide before the beam picked her out. There was a decaying curtain of woven grass on the wall which she managed to locate in the dark. It smelt and felt corrupt, but she was too grateful for its shelter to be sensitive as she watched the progress of the light.
It was dim as the flicker of a glowworm—erratic as a will-o'-the-wisp; but while it kept on weaving thready luminous lassoes in the air, it seemed to be dropping continuously. Someone who was invisible to her was coming down the stairs. Her terror increased until she realised that the torch had reached the level and was near the ground, as though carried by someone small. In the same moment she caught a glimpse of a shadowy white figure behind it.
"Barney," she gasped.
Her relief was almost overpowering. She told herself that if they could steal silently from the hall they could rush through the underground—where the sound of their flight would not betray them—and make a dash for the safety of the hotel.
She waited for the boy to approach her before she dared to whisper.
"Barney, don't make a noise. We must come back at once."
To her dismay, the boy greeted her in his high flute-like voice.
"Hallo, Feathers. I saw you."
"Hush," she entreated.
"Don't shush. There's only the Black Man up there. I followed him—but he didn't see me. I'm not afraid of him."
Elizabeth looked up the dark well of the staircase, but could discern no movement amid the shadows. When she tried to clutch Barney he wriggled from her grasp.
"I've got the keys," he said. "Now I'll bargain. Listen. You mustn't tell Daddy it was me."
"No, I won't. Come, Barney. Quick."
As she listened, she thought she could hear faint heavy sounds, as though someone were beating a carpet in the distance.
"But you don't know," persisted Barney. "She told me to take the tin of petrol out of Daddy's car. She told me to fill an empty tin with water, to fool him. If Daddy's car conks out and there's no filling station, he'll be late. She wants him to be late... Oh, gosh, there go the keys."
They fell with what sounded an appalling clatter on the floor. As the boy dropped on his knees and began to scrabble in the dust, Elizabeth distinctly heard the sound of footsteps padded by sediment. She knew it was not imagination. Someone was running down the top flight of stairs. Barney's torch had betrayed them already, so concealment was useless. Their only hope of escape was in immediate flight.
"Barney," she cried desperately, "I'm frightened."
She knew that she had appealed to his inhibited masculine chivalry when he clasped her hand.
"I'll save you," he said grandly. "Give me your torch."
He flashed the light around as he tested its power, which was so much stronger than his own battery. Then, to her dismay, he stopped dead and directed the glow to the floor.
"I've lost the cellar key," he said. "I had to take it, 'cos people might lock me in."
"Hurry," she cried as the footsteps drew nearer. Barney, too, was arrested in his search by the dull plodding sounds, like a runner training on a dirt-track. He tugged her arm and screamed with excitement.
"Come on. Run."
He seemed to be on familiar ground, for, in spite of erratic beams of light, as he whirled the torch, he steered her with uncanny exactitude across the hall, guiding her amid the collection of shrouded obstacles, without a stumble. When they were racing down the basement stairs, she had a momentary sense of safety, which increased when they reached the first cellar.
She knew, however, that there was no justification for her optimism. Although they could not hear his racing footsteps, they were being pursued by a relentless hunter. She was nearly winded, but she forced their pace into a sprint.
"Hurry, Barney," she panted.
"'Barnaby,'" he corrected.
Even in that moment she was pleased by his implied approval of her name for him. In spite of the family derision, she had refused to shorten the children's names, partly as a protest against the mutilation of "Featherstonhaugh" and partly because they suggested godparents and solid christening presents.
Blissfully unaware of danger, Barney shrieked with laughter. Although it was the shrill scream of excitement, rather than genuine amusement, it proved that he was enjoying the thrill of the adventure and that he was not afraid. She, too, was indifferent to subterranean horrors. Her stockinged soles were damp, but she was callous to any viscous contacts. At times she felt the delirium of a temperature, when shadows fled with her and the white faces of clocks—with racing hands—floated before her like moons.
As they were rushing through the largest cellar, Barney suddenly reverted to form and began to display temperament. Apparently swayed by a whim, he swerved off the track and ran towards the door set in a corner.
"Wrong way," she gasped, while she tried to pull him back.
It was contrary to his nature to admit failure, and he resisted her fiercely.
"'Tisn't. I know all the ways. Come on. Run."
Unable to control him, she was forced to give way, even while she believed that his freak would speed up the inevitable catastrophe. Her fears seemed justified when the door opened into a small damp cell which ended in a blank wall. They seemed to be trapped in a cul-de-sac, until Barney turned sharply at right angles and dragged her after him into a passage. It was so narrow that she had to follow his lead, but it was only a few yards in length.
It led into a cellar which seemed vaguely familiar, even before Barney flashed his torch over the cupboard. She realised then that he had taken a short cut to the connecting-point between the two houses.
"I'll go first," he said. "You follow me."
He dived through the open door and she shot after him, like figures in a French farce. She felt almost safe when they emerged on the other side, inside their own cellar. Hope began to flutter strongly in her heart when she saw Barney scrambling over the piled-up sacks of fuel in the furnace-room. She leaped after him, stubbing her toes and turning her ankles, but she felt no pain.
For the first time she knew there was a real chance of reaching the basement hall with a margin of time sufficient to turn the key and imprison their pursuer. Although she dared not turn to look behind, she heard footsteps rushing up the cellar stairs as she and Barney burst through the door and pulled it to. Then she stared—her eyes wide with horror—at the empty lock.
"The key is in the empty house," said Barney in an accusing voice.
TOO late she remembered his search for a missing key, even as she realised why he had snatched it, on his way to the empty house. It was she who put the idea in his head when she explained how the Black Man was trapped.
While she and the boy raced up the basement stairs she heard the relentless footsteps close behind her and she knew that she would never outdistance them. They would follow her wherever she went—up flight after flight of stairs—to the roof, the stars, and beyond...
As she dashed into the hall she felt the wind of some black object which swung in the air. It missed her when she stopped dead so suddenly that her pursuer rushed past her. In that moment she could not believe what she saw—a policeman standing on the mat, while a second entered the door—held open by Marion Brown.
Their uniform represented the power of the Law and stood for protection against all danger. They seemed to have the situation in hand, for—as he caught sight of the black figure—the younger man began to run across the hall.
"After him," he shouted.
It was then that the panic of the coursed creature leaped from Elizabeth to her pursuer. As he raced down the cellar stairs he, too, knew that he was cornered. The police would only drive him deeper and deeper into a locked house, from which there was no door to safety.
He took a tiny box from his breast pocket and put a tablet inside his mouth. When the police reached the furnace-room he was kneeling on the floor, supported by a sack. They stared at him with amazement and concern when he spoke.
"You haven't got me, officer. Too bad."
"We weren't after you, sir," said the man. "We came for the Captain's permission to go on his roof. A chink of light's been showing in the empty house and both doors are locked."
The doctor strove desperately to retrieve the tablet at the back of his throat; but even as he struggled he felt the gelatine dissolve and knew that he was too late.
The house in the Crescent had been dark and empty for over eleven years. Thousands of days had dawned without a ray of sunlight striking through its windows. Cocks had crowed—awakening no sleeper... But on a morning in early December its shutters were removed and every window was opened wide. Blowing through it, the wind swept and purified it—driving out its bitter memories of hatred and frustrated love.
In defiance of the calendar, winter masqueraded as spring with milky sunshine and a pale-blue sky, partially veiled with a filigree of white clouds. The weather was so unseasonably mild that Mr. Spree, the lawyer, on his way to his office, stopped before No. 11 to remove his hat, more than from force of habit.
The events of the past month were already fading into civic history. The drama of the empty house was played out, and some of the characters had made their last appearance on any scene. Dr. Evans had committed suicide—cheating him out of the Trial about which they had joked. Dead, too, was Maxine—beautiful and damned—also the worthy Mrs. Davis, indirectly a victim to her passion for possessions.
Even as Mr. Spree sighed, the door of No. 10 was burst open and Hartley Gull and Geraldine charged down the steps like a pair of new planets projected into space. Supercharged with physical energy and high spirits, they appeared to the elderly lawyer as a vision of triumphant life—making a football of his reflections on mortality.
They shouted with laughter as Hartley chased Geraldine, and the lawyer smiled too, although he disapproved of horseplay. He could not help liking the graceless but generous Gull, and he congratulated him on his engagement; but because he loved gossip he could not resist the temptation to introduce his rival's name.
"You had such a large following," he remarked to Geraldine, "that you must forgive me if I confess we were all interested in your choice. At one time I thought it was the late doctor. I'm glad it was not. This chap of yours is a public scandal, but you need not be afraid of a dose of poison."
"No, I say it with darts," said Gull. "By the way, Spree, have you heard my brother-in-law is going to marry the nursery-governess?"
The lawyer looked rather grave as he reflected on the difference in their age.
"Yes, I agree with you," said Geraldine shrewdly. "It does look like cradle-snatching. But she seems older than him in lots of ways, and she's potty on the kids."
"She's a terrible girl," put in Gull. "We're betting she will take the family on her honeymoon and wreck poor old Nigel's reputation by telling every one they are her children."
As though to illustrate his remark, the door of No. 10 was opened again and Elizabeth glanced down either horn of the Crescent. She had been neglecting her visits to the hairdressing salon and her fair hair hung over her shoulders; but in spite of her juvenile appearance her outlook was already matronly.
"Have you seen my children?" she asked anxiously.
The lawyer congratulated her in warning vein.
"I hope you will be happy. You've taken on a heavy responsibility."
"But it's my own," she reminded him. "That makes all the difference. My grandmother used to say that if all the troubles in the world could be laid down in one big heap, and every one was allowed to choose his trouble, we should end up by picking up our old trouble again."
Confounded by octogenarian wisdom, the lawyer walked away in a chastened mood. After all, he was only in the sixties. But while he was on his way to his office, his thoughts still dwelt on the late Dr. Evan Evans. He reflected that the General's death would have made him a wealthy man.
"No shadow of doubt that the parents died first," he thought. "Evans would have inherited through his wife. He could have used the money. At his rate of expenditure, he was nearly in the red... I wonder what made him throw up the sponge. There was no real case for the Crown. We'd have cooked up some explanation of his presence on the premises. I'd lay heavy odds I'd have got him off—although I'm glad I hadn't to do it... But I wonder. I wonder."
Had he lingered a few minutes longer and been able to overhear a conversation he would have learned the final ironic detail of the tragedy. For, as Elizabeth stood in the Crescent, watching the retreating forms of Hartley and Geraldine, she noticed that Marion Brown was coming out of No. 11.
"I got a key from the agent," explained Miss Brown. "I've been saying good-bye to Clem. I was alone in the empty rooms. I did not see him, or hear him—but perhaps he was there."
She locked the door and then looked up at the house. The sun shone down upon her, revealing the evidence of her age in every flaw of her skin; but in spite of her lines Elizabeth received an impression of beauty, as though she were looking at a marble statue which had lain for ages on the ocean bed—eroded by tide and tempest, which could not destroy its dignity and calm.
When Miss Brown spoke, the illusion faded, and Elizabeth realised her merely as a middle-aged woman who had shared her worst hour.
"Eleven years is a long time. And all that time he was thinking of his confession. It would hang him. He was ambitious, but he couldn't plan any future... Of course I could have told him—but I wouldn't. I never forgave him, because of Clem."
"What could you have told him?" asked Elizabeth.
"That he was perfectly safe. No one could have touched him."
"But the confession?"
"There was no confession. I saw all that happened that last night. I was behind a curtain. After they made him sign, the General went out of the room and Evan followed him. He killed him outside and then came back and killed her... But Mrs. Tygarth always liked Evan. I saw her put the paper on the fire. But he killed her before she could tell him that she had burnt his confession."
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