Home again! Her own home! Odorless of pot-roasts and frying batter-cakes. The phrase was rather common and sentimental—but, in truth, this was "home, sweet home."
And free of that unthinkable Mr. Pyecroft!
While Mrs. De Peyster leaned there in the blackness, gathering strength, her mind mounted in sweet expectancy to her suite. Only a few minutes of soft treading of stairways—certainly they could avoid arousing Jack—and she would be locked in her comfortable rooms. A cautious bath! Clean clothes! Her own bed! All of the luxuries she had been so long denied!
Cautiously they crept through the basement hallway; cautiously crept up the butler's stairs and turned off through the door into the great hall of the first floor; cautiously they crept up to the drawing-room floor and trod ever so softly over woven treasures of the Orient, through the spacious ducal gloom. One more flight, then peace, security. With unbreathing care, Mrs. De Peyster set foot upon the first step of her journey's end.
And then, suddenly, the servants' bell burst into ringing. And there was a terrific hammering against the servants' door and also against the door in the boarding.
"Matilda—what's that?" breathed Mrs. De Peyster.
"M—maybe the police saw us come in," breathed Matilda.
They did not pause for discussion. Discarding caution, they plunged frantically and noisily up the stairs; until from out of the overhead blackness descended a voice:—
"Stop! Or I'll shoot!"
It was Jack's voice.
"Who are you?" the voice demanded.
They clung to each other, wordless.
"Who are you?" repeated Jack.
Their voices were still palsied. They heard his feet begin determinedly to descend. Mrs. De Peyster loosed her grip on Matilda's arm and vanished noiselessly downward.
"Speak up there," commanded Jack, "or I'll fire on the chance of getting you in the dark."
"It's only me, Mr. Jack," trembled Matilda.
"What, Matilda!" cried Jack; and from above, like an echo transposed an octave higher, sounded another, "What, Matilda!"
"Yes, Mr. Jack. Yes, ma'a—yes, Mary."
"But where the devil have you been?" exclaimed Jack, coming to her side.
Mary had also hurried down to her. "Matilda, the way you ran away from us!"
"I got a—er—sudden message. There was no time—"
"Never mind about explaining now," interrupted Jack. "Go down and stop that racket before they break in the doors. And thank God you're here just in time, Matilda! You're just the person to do it: housekeeper, caretaker. But be careful if they're reporters. Now, hurry."
Jack and Mary scuttled back to the haven of upstairs, and Matilda shivered down through the blackness. As she passed through the lower hall, a hand reached out of the dark and touched her. She managed not to cry out.
"Don't let them know about me!" implored Mrs. De Peyster.
"I'll—I'll do my best, ma'am," quavered Matilda, and glided weakly on.
When she opened the servants' door, a dripping policeman caught her arm. "Down here, Bill," he called to the man battering at the door above; and a minute later two officers were inside, and the door was closed, and a light was flashing in Matilda's face.
"Now, old girl," said the first officer, tightly gripping her arm and giving it that twist which if a policeman does not give an arm he is no policeman, "what's your little game, eh?"
"I—I live here, sir. I'm the housekeeper."
"Now don't try to put that over on us. You know you ain't."
"You must be new policemen, in this neighborhood," trembled Matilda, "or you'd know I am."
"We may be new cops, but we don't fall for old stuff like that. I was talkin' to Mrs. De Peyster's coachman only yesterday. He told me the housekeeper wasn't here no more. So better change your line o' dope. Where's the other one?"
"Wha—what other one?"
"The one what come in here with you."
"I'm the only person in the house," Matilda tried to declare valiantly.
"Drop it!" said the officer. "Didn't the boss tell us to keep our eyes on these here millionaires' closed houses; all kinds o' slick crooks likely to clean 'em out. An' didn't we see two women come in this house,—hey, Bill?"
"Sure—I was a block off, but I seen 'em plain as day," said Bill.
"So I guess," again the twist that proved him a policeman, "you'd better lead us to your pal."
He pushed her before him, lighting the way with his flash-lantern, up stairways and back into the dining-room, where she turned on the one shaded electric bulb that had been left connected. In Matilda all hope was gone; resistance was useless; fate had conquered. And when the officer again demanded that she bring forth her accomplice, she dumbly and obediently made search; and finally brought Mrs. De Peyster forth from the china closet.
The officer pulled up Mrs. De Peyster's veil, and closely scanned her features; which, to be just to the officer, were so distorted that they bore little semblance to the Mrs. De Peyster of her portraits.
"Recognize her, Bill?" he queried.
"Looks a bit like the pictures of Chicago Sal," said Bill. "But I ain't ever handled her. I guess she ain't worked none around New York."
"Well, now," said the officer, with policial jocularity, "since you two ladies already got your hats on, I guess we'll just offer you our arms to the station."
Mrs. De Peyster gave Matilda a look of frenzied appeal. But Matilda needed not the spur of another's desperation. For herself she saw a prison cell agape.
"But I tell you I'm Matilda Simpson, Mrs. De Peyster's housekeeper!"
"If so, who's the other mourner?" inquired the humorous policeman. "And what's she doin' here?"
"She's—she's"—and then Matilda plunged blindly at a lie—"she's my sister." And having started, she went on: "My sister Angelica, who lives in Syracuse. She's come to visit me awhile."
The officer grinned. "Well, Matilda and Angelica, we'll give you a chance to tell that to the lieutenant. Come on."
"But I tell you I'm Matilda Simpson!" cried Matilda. She was now thinking solely of her own imminent disgrace. Inspiration came to her. "You say you talked to William, the coachman. He'll tell you who I am. There's the bell—ring for him!"
The officer scratched his chin. Then he eyed his co-laborer meditatively.
"Not a bad idea, Bill. There's a chance she may be on the level, and there'd be hell to pay at headquarters if we got in bad with any of these swells. No harm tryin'."
He pressed a big thumb against the bell Matilda had indicated.
They all sat down, the two officers' oilskins guttering water all over Mrs. De Peyster's Kirmanshah rug and parquet floor. But Mrs. De Peyster was unconscious of this deluge. She gave Matilda a glance of reproachful dismay; then she edged into the dimmest corner of the dusky room and turned her chair away from the door through which this new disaster was about to stalk in upon her, and unnoticed drew down her veil.
There was a long, sickening wait. Plainly William had gone to bed, and had to dress before he could answer the bell.
At length, however, William appeared. He started at sight of the four figures; then his gaze fastened on Matilda and grew hard. Mrs. De Peyster tried to collapse within herself.
"Friend," said the officer, "here's a lady as says she's Matilda Simpson, Mrs. De Peyster's housekeeper. How about it?"
"She is," William affirmed coldly.
"The devil!" said the officer; and then in a low voice apart to the other: "Lucky we didn't go no further—hey, Bill?" And again to William: "Miss Simpson says this other lady is her sister, visitin' her from Syracuse. Can you identify her?"
William did not alter a line in his face.
"Miss Simpson has a sister living near Syracuse. I have never seen her. I cannot identify her."
"H'm," said the officer.
"Is that all?" asked William.
"Yes, that'll do. Thanks."
With a cold blighting glare at Matilda, William withdrew.
"Well, ladies," said the officer with ingratiating pleasantness, "I'm mighty glad it's all right. If you have occasion, Miss Simpson, to speak o' this here little incident to Mrs. De Peyster when she gets back from Europe, just explain it as due to over-zealousness, if you don't mind—desire to safeguard her interests. D'you get me? Headquarters is awful sensitive to kicks from you rich people; and the boss comes down on you like a ton o' bricks. It'll be mighty kind o' you. Good-night. Don't bother to come down with us. I noticed it was a spring lock. We can let ourselves out."
When the two policemen were out of the room, Mrs. De Peyster and Matilda collapsed into each others' arms and their bodies sank limply forward from their chairs upon the dining-table. "Matilda, what an escape!" shivered Mrs. De Peyster; and she lay there, gathering breath, regathering strength, regathering poise, while the officers' steps grew dimmer and more dim. She was palpitant, yet able to think. Certainly it had been a narrow escape. But that danger was now over. There now remained only the feat of getting into her room, unnoticed by Jack. This they could manage when they were certain that Jack and Mary were asleep.
Relief, hope, courage once more began to rise within her.
Then suddenly she sat upright. Footsteps were sounding below—growing nearer—heavy footsteps—what sounded like more than two pairs of footsteps. She sat as one palsied; and before she could recover strength or faculties, there in the doorway were the two policemen. And with them was a gentleman in a cap and tan summer overcoat buttoned to the chin.
The gentleman was the Reverend Mr. Pyecroft; and the Mr. Pyecroft they had first seen: bland, oh, so bland, with that odd, elderish look of his.
"Met him goin' down the servants' steps as we were goin' out, and he asked us—" the officer was beginning.
But Mr. Pyecroft was already crossing toward Matilda, smiling affectionately.
"My dear Matilda!" He kissed her upon the cheek. "I arrived in New York very unexpectedly less than half an hour ago, and could not delay coming to see you. How are you, sister?"
"Wha—what?" stammered Matilda.
Mr. Pyecroft with his bland affectionate smile crossed to Mrs. De Peyster, slipped an arm across her shoulders and kissed her veil somewhere about the forehead. "And how are you, dear sister?" he inquired with deep concern.
Mrs. De Peyster gasped and stiffened.
"You ladies don't seem very glad to see him," put in the officer. "When we told him about you two bein' sisters, he said he was your brother. Is he?"
"Of course I am," Mr. Pyecroft answered pleasantly. "They weren't expecting me; therefore this very natural surprise which you observe. Of course, I am your brother, am I not?"—patting Mrs. De Peyster's arm with the appearance of affection, and then closing on it warningly.
Mrs. De Peyster nodded her head.
"Matilda," turning to her, in frank fraternal fashion, "you might tell these officers that I am not only your brother, but in fact the only brother you have. That is true, isn't it, sister?"
"Yes," gulped Matilda.
"Well," said the officer, "since everything is all right, we'll be leavin' you. But, believe me, this is certainly some sudden family reunion."
When they had gone Mr. Pyecroft calmly removed cap and overcoat and stood forth in his clericals. Again he wore the youngish face of their interview of an hour before. Mrs. De Peyster watched him in sickening fear. What was he going to do? Surely he must now know her identity!
He smiled at them amiably.
"Well, my dears, so you tried to give me the slip. I rather thought you'd bear watching, so I followed you. And when I saw the officers come out without you I knew you had successfully entertained them with some sort of plausible explanation."
His gaze fixed on Matilda. "So, my dear sister, you're really the housekeeper here." He shook his head chidingly. "And the usual crook of a housekeeper, eh—trying to make a safe clean-up while her mistress is away. You're deeper than I thought, Matilda. I understand the whole affair now. You and our sister Angelica had already been planning some kind of a game similar to the one I suggested. I just happened to think of the same thing. I don't blame you a lot for not wanting to take me into the game; it was quite natural for you to want all there is in it for yourselves. Not the least hard feeling in the world, my dears. But, of course,"—apologetically,—"you could hardly expect me to give up a rich thing like this, could you?"
His easy, familiar, ironic talk had brought Mrs. De Peyster one large item of relief. Evidently he didn't suspect who she was—yet.
"What are you going to do?" she managed to ask.
"Stay right here with you, my sisters, and in due time we'll go ahead with our game as per previous specifications." He surveyed the high, paneled dining-room, sumptuous, distinguished even in the semi-dusk. "Cozy little flat, eh, my dears?"
Suddenly that wide mouth of his slipped up to one side, and he laughed in exultant, impish glee.
"Say, isn't this the funniest ever! Beats my plan a mile. We'll make ourselves at home—hang out together for the summer in Mrs. De Peyster's own house,—her own house,—and when we hear she's coming back we vacate and then do our little act of buying out the stores in Lady De Peyster's name. Was there ever such a lark!" For a moment his low laugh of wild glee cut off his speech. "What's more, it's the safest place in the world for us. Nobody'd ever think of our being here!"
Mrs. De Peyster stared at Matilda, Matilda stared at Mrs. De Peyster.
"And it's just what I needed," continued Mr. Pyecroft in amicable confidence. "I just had a tip that the police were closing in on me, and I had to disappear quick. An hour ago, I'd never have dreamed of falling into such a safe little retreat as this. Luck favors the deserving."
Mrs. De Peyster gazed at him, faint.
"And of course, Matilda," he went on, "if, say, any of the neighbors happen to drop in for a cup of tea and see me, or if the police should manage to trail me here,—and they may, you know,—of course, Matilda, you'll speak right up and say I'm your dear brother."
At that moment it was beyond either of them to speak right up.
"Remember, my dears, that we're all crooks together," he prompted in a soft voice, that had a steely suggestion beneath it. "And in case you fail to stand by me it would give me very great pain—very great pain, I assure you—to have to blow on you."
Matilda gulped, blinked her eyes, and looked helplessly at Mrs. De Peyster. Mr. Pyecroft turned to the latter.
"Of course, Angelica, dear, you're going to stand by me?"
Mrs. De Peyster hesitated, then breathed a barely audible "Yes."
"And you, Matilda, who were always my favorite sister, you, too, will stand by me?"
"Yes," breathed Matilda.
"Ah," said Mr. Pyecroft, in a moved tone, "such family loyalty is truly touching. I foresee a most pleasant summer."
THE HAPPY FAMILY
He nodded at the two with an air of deep fraternal affection. And again he gazed with satisfaction about the spacious apartment, indicative of numberless other rooms of corresponding comfort.
His eyes came back to them.
"And now, Matilda, my dear," he resumed, with his pleasant smile, "in the event we spoke of,—neighbors or police dropping in, you know,—in such a case I suppose I ought to be prepared with a correct history of myself. To begin with, might I inquire what our name is?—our family name, I mean."
"Simpson. Ah, yes; very good. Matilda Simpson—Angelica Simpson—and, let us say, Archibald Simpson. And where was I born, Matilda?"
"You weren't ever born," protested Matilda with frightened indignation.
"Now don't be facetious or superfluous, sister dear," he said soothingly. "Granted for the sake of argument I wasn't ever born. But where might I have been born?"
"I was born near Albany."
"Near Albany is perfectly agreeable to me," said Mr. Pyecroft. "And how many are there in our family?"
"Just Angelica and me."
"Then there really is an authentical Angelica?"
"Excellent. And our parents?"
"They died when I was a child."
"I'm grieved, indeed, to learn of it," said Mr. Pyecroft. "But I'll admit it simplifies matters; there's less to remember. Angelica, our sister here, who is also visiting you, lives near Syracuse I understood some one to say. Married or single?"
"Married," Matilda choked out.
"Her married name?"
"Angelica Simpson Jones. Good. Very euphonious. And how many little nieces and nephews am I the happy uncle of?"
"She—she has no children."
"That's too bad, for I have a particular fondness for children," sorrowed Mr. Pyecroft. "Still, that also simplifies matters, lessening considerably the percentage of chances for regrettable lapses of memory."
He pursued his genealogical inquiries into all possibly useful details. And then he sat meditative for a while, gazing amiably about his family circle. And it was while they were all thus sitting silent, in what in the dim light of the one shaded electric bulb might have seemed to an observer the silence of intimacy, that Jack, who had slipped cautiously downstairs, walked in, behind him Mary.
"Matilda, what's this mean?" he demanded, with a bewildered look. "We've been wondering why you didn't come upstairs."
Mrs. De Peyster turned in her chair, and held her breath, like one beneath the guillotine. Matilda arose, shaking.
"Who's this man, Matilda?" Jack continued.
"And, pray, Matilda, who is this?" politely inquired the arisen Mr. Pyecroft, blandly assuming command of the situation.
"Who am I? Well, you certainly have nerve—" the astounded Jack was beginning.
"He's Mr. Jack," Matilda put in. "Jack De Peyster."
"Ah, young Mr. De Peyster!" Mr. Pyecroft's eyebrows went up slightly and a shrewd light flashed into his rounded eyes and was at once gone, and again his face was blandly clerical. "It is, indeed, a pleasure to meet you, Mr. De Peyster. And, pray, who is this?" with a suave gesture toward Mary.
"That, sir, is my wife!" Jack announced, stiff with anger.
Again Mr. Pyecroft's eyes flashed shrewdly, and again were clerically rounded.
"My dear sir, that is, indeed, surprising. I have seen no public notice of your marriage. And I watch the marriage announcements quite closely—which is rather natural, for, if I may be permitted to mention it, I myself am frequently called upon to perform the holy rites." His face clouded with what seemed a painful suspicion. "I trust, sir, that you are really married?"
"Why, damn you—"
"Sir, you must not thus address the cloth!" sternly interposed Mr. Pyecroft. "It is our duty to speak frankly, and to make due inquiry into the propriety of such relations. However, since you say so, I am sure the affair is strictly correct." His voice softened, became nobly apologetic. "No harm has been meant, and if any offense has been felt, I assure you of my deepest regrets."
"See here, who the devil are you?" demanded Jack.
Mr. Pyecroft turned to Matilda.
"Matilda, my dear, will you kindly tell young Mr. De Peyster who I am."
Matilda seemed about to choke. "He's—he's my—my brother."
"Your brother!" exclaimed Jack, "I didn't know you had a brother. You never spoke of one."
"Which was entirely natural," said Mr. Pyecroft, with an air of pious remorse. "Matilda has been ashamed to speak of me. To be utterly frank—and it is meet that one who has been what I have been should be humble and ready to confess—for many years I was the black sheep of the family, my name unmentioned. But sometime since I was snatched a brand from the burning; I have remained silent about myself until I could give to my family, which had properly disowned me, a long record to prove my reformation. I am now striving by my devotion to make some amends for my previous shortcomings."
Jack stared incomprehensibly at this unexpected clerical brother of Matilda's, with his unquenchable volubility. Mr. Pyecroft gazed back with appropriate humility, yet with a lofty self-respect.
Jack turned away with a shrug, and pointed at the dark figure of Mrs. De Peyster.
"And who is that, Matilda?"
"That, sir," put in Mr. Pyecroft quickly, easily, to forestall any blunder by the hapless Matilda—and deftly interposing himself between Jack and Mrs. De Peyster, "that is our sister."
"The one who lives in Syracuse?"
"Yes; and she is indisposed," said Mr. Pyecroft. "Our sister Angelica Simpson Jones," he elaborated. "Matilda is the eldest, I am the youngest; there are just us three children."
"And might I ask, Matilda, without intending discourtesy," said Jack, eyeing Mr. Pyecroft with disfavor, "how long your brother and sister intend to remain?"
"Matilda invited us for the summer," said Mr. Pyecroft apologetically.
"For the summer!" repeated Jack in dismay. Then he spoke to Matilda, caustically: "I suppose it's all right, Matilda, but has it been your fixed custom, when we've been away for the summer, to fill the house with your family?"
"Please, Mr. Jack, please," imploringly began Matilda, and could utter nothing further.
"Great God!" Jack burst out in exasperation. "Not that I'd object ordinarily to your relatives being here, Matilda. But running this place just now as a hotel, who knows but it may let out the fact that we're here!"
Mr. Pyecroft's eyebrows went up—ever so little.
"Ah, I understand. You wish your presence in the house to be a secret."
"Of course! Hasn't Matilda told you?"
"I only just arrived. She hasn't had time. But of course she would have done so. You are—ah"—his tone was delicate—"evading the police?"
"The police! We don't care a hang about the police, though, of course, we don't want them to know. It's the infernal reporters we care about."
"The reporters?" softly pursued Mr. Pyecroft.
"Yes, but one reporter in particular—a beast by the name of Mayfair, I've had a tip that he suspects something; already he's tried to get into the house as a gas-meter inspector."
At the mention of that indomitable, remorseless, undeceivable newsgatherer, Mayfair, and the possibility of his gaining entrance into the house, Mrs. De Peyster experienced a new shudder.
"What would be the harm if Mr. Mayfair did get in?" Imperceptibly prodded Mr. Pyecroft. "He would merely write a piece about you for his paper."
"And his confounded piece, or the main facts in it, would be cabled to Europe!"
"Ah, I think I see," said Mr. Pyecroft. "Mrs. De Peyster would read about your marriage in the Paris 'Herald' or some other European paper. You do not wish your mother to know of your marriage—yet."
"I supposed Matilda had already told you that," said Jack.
"Ah, so that is why you are here in hiding," said Mr. Pyecroft, very softly, chiefly to himself; and his eyes had another momentary flash, only brighter than any heretofore, and his mouth twitched upward, and he pleasantly rubbed his hands.
At that moment, from the stairway, came the sound of descending steps. Jack and Mary appeared undisturbed. Mr. Pyecroft became taut, though no one could have observed a change, Mrs. De Peyster quivered with yet deeper apprehension. Would the trials and tribulations and Pharaonic plagues never cease descending on her!
Matilda gazed wildly at Jack. "Who's that?" she quavered.
"Only Uncle Bob," Jack answered carelessly.
Only Uncle Bob! Mrs. De Peyster, in her dim corner, tried to shrivel up into yet darker obscurity. Breathlessly she felt herself upon the precipitous edge of ultimate horror. For Judge Harvey—Judge Harvey of all persons—to be the one to discover her amid her humiliating circumstances!
Dimly she heard Jack talk on, explaining in casual tone: "You know, Matilda, Uncle Bob has always had the general oversight of the house when it's been closed during summers; and he's always made it his business to drop in occasionally to see that everything's all right. I got him word we were here, and he dropped in this evening to call on us—and along came this awful rain and we coaxed him to stay the night. Uncle Bob and you are lucky, Matilda, you can both come and go without arousing any suspicion."
Only the Judge!... Yet, for all her horror, a new phase of the general predicament filtered into such consciousness as she now possessed. Judge Harvey, irate purchaser of autograph letters, and Mr. Pyecroft, alias Thomas Preston, profuse producer of the same, were under the same roof and were about to meet. What would happen when they came face to face?—for she remembered now that a bad likeness of Thomas Preston had several times appeared in the papers. She turned her head toward the doorway and peered through her veil, waiting.
When Judge Harvey entered, Mr. Pyecroft started. Upon the instant he had recognized Judge Harvey. But the next moment Mr. Pyecroft was himself. Jack gave the necessary introductions, the one to Angelica Simpson Jones at long distance, and gave a brief explanation of the presence of the two guests. During this while Judge Harvey repeatedly glanced at Mr. Pyecroft, a puzzled look on his countenance.
"Excuse me, Mr. Simpson," he remarked presently, "but your face seems elusively familiar to me. I seem to know it, yet I cannot place it. Haven't I met you somewhere?"
"Perhaps you were a lay delegate to the recent Episcopal Convention in New York?" politely suggested Mr. Pyecroft.
"No. I did not even attend any of the sessions."
"Then, of course, it could not have been there that you saw me," said Mr. Pyecroft.
"Perhaps it will come to me," said Judge Harvey.
"Perhaps," said Mr. Pyecroft.
Mrs. De Peyster, for all her personal apprehension, could but marvel at this young man of the sea who had fastened himself upon her back. Most amazing of all, he seemed to like the taste of his danger.
"Judge Harvey, Mr. De Peyster was remarking when you came in," Mr. Pyecroft continued without permitting a lull, "that he wished his presence in this house to remain unknown. Also I had just told him and his young wife that my earlier years were given over to a life for which I have been trying to atone by good works. Now I have a very humiliating further confession to make to you all. Recently there has been—may I call it a recrudescence?—an uncontrollable recrudescence of my former regrettable self. For a disastrous moment the Mr. Hyde element in me, which I thought I had stifled and cast out, arose and possessed me. In brief, I have been guilty of an error which the police consider serious; in fact, the police are this moment searching for me. So you see, I am in the same situation as Mr. De Peyster: I prefer my whereabouts to remain unknown. Since we are in each other's hands, and it is in our power each to betray the other, shall we not all, as a quid pro quo, agree to preserve Mr. De Peyster's and my presence in this house a secret? For my part, I promise."
"I'm willing," said Jack.
"And I," said Mary. "Anyhow, I never get a chance to tell, for I haven't been out of this house once."
"And you, Judge Harvey? You will—ah—protect me?"
Judge Harvey bit the end of his mustache. "I don't like this bargaining over a matter of justice. But—for Jack's sake, yes."
"Thank you, Judge Harvey," Mr. Pyecroft said in a soft, grateful voice, and with a slight, dignified bow.
Mrs. De Peyster drew a deep breath. He certainly was a cool one.
"There's something that's just been occurring to me," spoke up Jack. "It's along of that infernal reporter Mayfair who's snooping around here. He's likely to get in here any time. If he were to find me here alone, there'd be nothing for him to write about. It's finding me here, married, that will give him one of his yellow stories, and that will put mother next. Matilda, since you already have so large a family visiting you, I suppose you wouldn't mind taking on one more and saying that Mary here was something or other of yours—say a niece?"
"Oh, that would be delicious" laughed Mary.
"Why, Mr. Jack,—I! I—" The flustered Matilda could get out no more.
"Mr. Simpson, couldn't you say she was your daughter?" queried Jack.
"I would be only too delighted to own her as such," said Mr. Pyecroft. "But I am not married and I am obviously too young. However,"—moving closer to Mrs. De Peyster,—"our sister Angelica is married, and I am sure it will be a great pleasure to her to claim Mrs. De Peyster as her daughter. Angelica, my dear, of course you'll do it?"
Mrs. De Peyster sat rigid, voiceless.
"What's the matter?" asked Mary, in deep concern.
"Our sister probably did not hear, she is slightly deaf," Mr. Pyecroft explained. He bent over Mrs. De Peyster, made a trumpet of one hand, and raised his voice. "Angelica, if any other person comes into the house, you are to say that young Mrs. De Peyster is your daughter. You understand?"
Mrs. De Peyster nodded.
"And of course you'll say it?"
For a moment Mrs. De Peyster was again rigid. Then slowly she nodded.
The spirit of the masquerade seized upon Mary. "Oh, mother dear,—what a comfort to have you!" she cried with mischievous glee; and arms wide as if for a daughterly embrace she swept toward Mrs. De Peyster.
Mrs. De Peyster shriveled back. She stopped living. In another moment—
But the Reverend Mr. Pyecroft, alias Archibald Simpson, alias Thomas Preston, alias God knows what else, stepped quickly between her and the on-coming Mary, and with an air of brotherly concern held out an intercepting hand.
"No excitement, please. The doctor's orders."
"Is it anything serious?" Mary asked anxiously.
"We hope not," in a grave voice. "It is chiefly nervous exhaustion due to a period of worry over a trying domestic situation."
"That's too bad!" Very genuine sympathy was in Mary's soft contralto. "But if she's unwell, she ought to have more air. Why don't you draw up that heavy veil?"
"S-s-h! Not so loud, I beg you. If she heard you speak of her veil, it would pain her greatly. You see," Mr. Pyecroft unhesitatingly went on in a low, compassionate tone, "our sister, while trying to light a gasoline stove—It was a gasoline stove, was it not, Matilda?"
"Ah—er—ye-yes," corroborated Matilda.
"A gasoline stove, yes," continued the grave voice of Mr. Pyecroft. "It was during the very first year after her marriage. The explosion that followed disfigured her face frightfully. She is extremely sensitive; so much so that she invariably wears a heavy veil when she goes out of her own house."
"Why, how terrible!" cried Mary.
"Yes, isn't it! All of our family have felt for poor Angelica most deeply. And furthermore, she is sensitive about her deafness—which, I may add, was caused by the same accident. And her various misfortunes have made her extremely shy, so the less attention that is paid to her, the happier the poor creature is."
Mary withdrew among the others. Slowly Mrs. De Peyster returned once more to life. She hardly knew how she had escaped, save that it had been through some miracle of that awful Mr. Pyecroft's amazing tongue.
"By the way, Matilda," she heard Mary remark, "did you read in to-night's papers about Mrs. De Peyster's voyage? You know she landed to-day."
"No, ma'—Mary," said Matilda.
"The paper said she was so ill all the way across that she wasn't able to leave her stateroom once." Mary's voice was very sympathetic. "Why, she was so ill she couldn't leave the boat until after dark, hours after all the other passengers had gone."
"I never knew mother to be seasick before," said Jack, in deep concern.
Judge Harvey said nothing, but his fine, handsome face was disturbed. Jack noted the look, and, suddenly catching the Judge's hand, said with a burst of boyish frankness:—
"Uncle Bob, you're worried more than any of us! You know I've always liked you like a father—and—and here's hoping some day mother'll change her mind—and you'll be my father in reality!"
"Thank you, Jack!" the Judge said huskily, gripping Jack's hand.
Over in her corner, beneath her veil, Mrs. De Peyster flushed hotly.
They talked on about the distant Mrs. De Peyster, and she listened with keenest ears. They were all so sympathetic about her—sick—alone—in far-off Europe. So sympathetic—so very, very sympathetic!
As for Mr. Pyecroft, standing on guard beside her, he looked appropriately grave. But inside his gravity he was smiling. These people had no guess that in a way he was connected with the great Mrs. De Peyster of whom they talked—that "Miss Gardner" who was the companion to the ailing social leader in France was something more than just Miss Gardner. And he felt no reason for revealing his little secret.... Clara, the dear little Puritan, would be scandalized by this his wildest escapade—by his having used, after all and despite her prohibition, Mrs. De Peyster's closed house as a retreat; but when she came back from Europe, and he made her see in its proper light this gorgeous and profitable lark, she would relent and forgive him. Why, of course, she would forgive him.
He was very optimistic, was Mr. Pyecroft; and the founder of his family must have been a certain pagan gentleman by the name of Pan.
THE ATTIC ROOM
Mrs. De Peyster gave thanks when at last, toward one o'clock Jack and Mary and Judge Harvey went back to bed, leaving Matilda, Mr. Pyecroft, and herself. It had previously been settled that Mr. Pyecroft was to have Jack's old room, Matilda was, of course, to have her usual quarters, and Mrs. De Peyster was to have the room adjoining Matilda's, that formerly was occupied by Mrs. De Peyster's second maid.
"Say, that was certainly one close shave," Mr. Pyecroft whispered at the door of her room. "Perhaps we'd better beat it from here. If that Judge ever places me! And you, if those people ever get a fair look at your face, they'll see your likeness to Mrs. De Peyster and they'll guess what our game is—sure! You'll promise to be careful?"
Mrs. De Peyster promised.
Fifteen minutes later, having been undressed by Matilda, she was lying in the dark on a narrow bed, hard, very hard, as hard as Mrs. Gilbert's folding contrivance—and once more, after this her second move, she was studying the items of her situation.
She had daily to mix with, strive to avoid, Jack and Mary. And Jack had casually remarked that Judge Harvey would be frequently dropping in.
And there was that bland, incorrigible Pyecroft, whom she seemed to have become hopelessly tied to; Pyecroft, irresistibly insisting that she should swindle herself, and whom she saw no way of denying.
Suppose Pyecroft should find out? He might.
Suppose Jack and Mary should find out? They might.
Suppose Judge Harvey should find out? He might.
And suppose all this business of her not going to Europe, but staying in her shuttered house—her flight from home—her humiliating experiences in an ordinary boarding-house where she passed as a housekeeper—her being forced into a plan to rob herself—suppose Mrs. Allistair should find out? And Mrs. Allistair, she well knew, might somehow stumble upon all this; for she remembered how Mrs. Allistair had tried, and perhaps was still trying, to get some piquant bit of evidence against her in that Duke de Crecy affair. And if Mrs. Allistair did find out—
What a scandal!
And since her fate had become so inextricably tied up with the fates of others, and since the exposure of others might involve the exposure of her, there were yet further sources of danger. For—
There was that awful reporter watching the house, after Jack!
There were the police, after Pyecroft!
She shuddered. This was only the seventh day since her inspired idea had been born within her. And it was only that very day that she had landed at Cherbourg. Three months must pass before Olivetta, in the role of Mrs. De Peyster, would return, and she could be herself again—if they could ever, ever manage their expected re-exchange of personalities in this awful mess.
Only seven days thus far. Three more months of this!
Three ... more ... months!...
But at length she slept; slept deeply, for she had the gift of sleep in its perfection; slept a complete and flawless oblivion. So that when she awoke Saturday, refreshed, and glanced blinking about from her thin pillow she did not at first remember where she was. This low room, four by seven feet, with a narrow bed penitentially hard, a stationary wash-basin, a row of iron clothes-hooks, a foot-high oblong window above her head—what was it? How had she come here? And had any one ever before lived in such a cell?
Then memory came flooding back. This was her second maid's room. She was Angelica Simpson Jones, sister of Matilda, a poor, diffident creature with defective hearing and pitifully disfigured face. And in the house were Mr. Pyecroft, and Jack and Mary, and Judge Harvey was a frequent visitor. And besides these, there were all the other sources of danger!
She was now poignantly awake.
While she was still in this process of realization, there was a soft knock at her door and a whispered, "It's Matilda, ma'am," at her keyhole. She unlocked the door, admitted Matilda, and crept back into her second maid's bed. They gazed at each other a moment without speaking. Matilda's face was gray with awe and helpless woe.
They whispered about their predicament. What should they do? Should they flee again?—and how?—and where?—and what good would flight do them, especially since Mr. Pyecroft might once more follow? Twice they had leaped from the frying-pan, and each time had landed in a fire hotter than the one preceding. A third flight might drop them into a fire worse even than this in which they now sizzled.
And as for the specific plan which had brought them back—for Mrs. De Peyster to steal unnoticed into her suite and hide there—that seemed impossible of achievement with all these people circulating about the house, especially that all-observing Mr. Pyecroft. If Mr. Pyecroft should catch her in one suspicious move, then his quick mind would deduce the rest, and everything would be up—everything!
There was, of course, yet another way—to give up and disclose her identity herself. But she was now far, far too deeply involved: to confess and thus by her own act bring limitless and appalling humiliation on herself, this was unthinkable! She must go on, on, blindly on—with the desperate hope that in some manner now unseen she might in the end disentangle herself and come out of the affair undiscovered and with dignity untarnished. The two were still whispering over their predicament, when at the door sounded another knock, loud and confident. They caught at each other. The knocking was repeated.
"Who's that?" Matilda asked, at Mrs. De Peyster's prompting.
"It's Archibald," answered a bland voice.
"Ma'am, shall I let him in?" breathed Matilda.
"We don't dare keep him out," breathed Mrs. De Peyster.
Matilda admitted him. Even in the semi-darkness of the room, due to the green shutters being closed, Mrs. De Peyster could see that he was admirably transformed from the raven Mr. Pyecroft of the night before. He had on a gray modish suit, with lavender tie and socks to match; and looked natty and young and spirited and quite prepared for anything.
"Good morning, sisters," he greeted them pleasantly. "I see you are admiring my new spring outfit. Not at all bad, is it?" He turned slowly about, for their better observation; then grinned and lowered his voice: "It's young De Peyster's; found it in his room, and helped myself. Burned my clergyman's outfit in the kitchen range before any one was up; best to leave no clues lying around."
He, too, had come to talk plans, and quickly Mr. Pyecroft settled them. This was a dangerous place for him, with Judge Harvey coming and going; but to stay here was a safer risk than to venture forth until the hue and cry of the police had quieted. It was a dangerous place also for his dear sister Angelica, but if on the plea of indisposition she would stay in this dusky room and would keep her disfigured face hidden when any member of the household chanced to come in (they would all understand, and sympathize with, her painful diffidence), why, there was an excellent chance of her pulling through without discovery. It was obvious that they dared not keep out Jack and Mary, and perhaps Judge Harvey, should these be inspired to make friendly calls. To forbid their visits would arouse suspicion. And if it were said Angelica was too ill to see any one, then they would demand that a doctor be called in—and a doctor would mean exposure. Their visits must be permitted; no doubt of that; but if dear Angelica were only careful, extremely careful, and kept her head, all would go well.
Yes, summarized Mr. Pyecroft, the best plan for them was to remain here for the present. Then when the safe and appropriate moment arrived, they could make their get-away.
From quite other reasons, Mrs. De Peyster accepted this plan. After the strain of the past week, particularly after the wild emotional oscillations of the preceding night, she wished just to lie there in the dusk, and breathe—and breathe—and breathe some more—and recover life.
Matilda suggested that she bring up breakfast for Mrs. De Peyster, and Mr. Pyecroft begged her to discover and set out something below for him, for his stomach was a torturing vacuum. Matilda went down, leaving Mr. Pyecroft behind in the room, discussing further details of their immediate campaign; and presently she returned, trembling, with a tray, Jack and Mary just behind her. Mrs. De Peyster did not need to be prompted to turn her face toward the wall, and into the deeper shadow that there prevailed. Mr. Pyecroft casually sat down upon the bed near its head, making an excellent further screen.
Mr. Pyecroft noted that Jack was observing his raiment. "I trust, Mr. De Peyster, you will pardon the liberty I have taken with your clothes. My own were still wet from last night."
"That's all right," said Jack. "But, say, Matilda, have your sister eat her breakfast. What we've come to talk about can wait."
But Matilda's sister, after all, wished no breakfast. And solicitation could not rouse in her an appetite.
"Very well," said Jack. "Then to the point. I thought we'd better all get together on the matter at once. It's about food."
"Food?" queried Mr. Pyecroft, a bit blankly.
"Yes, and it's some problem, you bet. Here's a house that is supposed to be empty. And within this empty house are five adults. Do you get me?"
"Isn't it terrible!" cried Mary.
"Five adults," repeated Jack. "How are we going to get food in here for them without exciting suspicion?"
"As you say," mused Mr. Pyecroft with a wry face, "that is certainly some problem. My own appetite is already one magnitudinous toothache."
Jack enlarged upon their situation.
"Since Judge Harvey tipped me off to the fact that the newspapers smelled a story, and since that reporter Mayfair and other reporters began to watch this house, I've had to give up going out. We two would have starved but for what Judge Harvey and William managed to slip in to us. Even with that, we've almost starved. In fact, we've been driven by hunger about to the point of giving in, going out, acknowledging our marriage and taking the consequences."
Mrs. De Peyster, face buried in the shadow, thrilled with a sudden rush of hope. If Jack and Mary should leave the house, then half her danger would be ended!
"But, you see, since that news yesterday about mother being so sick in Europe," Jack continued solicitously, "I feel that, in her weakened condition, the news of our marriage might be a very severe shock for her. So for her sake we're going to keep the thing secret for a while yet, and stick it out here."
Mrs. De Peyster could hardly keep back a groan.
"So, now," Jack again propounded, "what the dickens are the five of us going to do?"
Mr. Pyecroft rubbed his wide mouth for a meditative moment. Then he smiled upon Matilda.
"It seems to me, sister dear, that we'll have to put it up to you."
"Up to me?" cried Matilda.
"Yes, Matilda. You belong here; you can come and go as a matter of course. You have a sister visiting you; also a brother, but as I have requested, the less said about his being here the better. But you can go out and openly order provisions for yourself and our sister. And you can give a good large order for nourishing canned goods, casually mentioning that you are laying in a supply so that you will not have to bother again soon with staples. That, with what Judge Harvey and William can smuggle in, should keep us provided for."
Mr. Pyecroft's suggestion was approved by the majority. As an addendum to his proposal Matilda was ordered to answer the bell whenever rung; if she did not, with the knowledge abroad that she was in the house, a dangerous suspicion might be aroused. But she should be careful when she went to the door, very careful.
Matilda was driven forth to make the purchases; Mr. Pyecroft, under Jack's guidance, went below to forage for the anaesthetic of immediate crumbs; and Mary, tender-heartedly, remained behind to relieve the tedium of and give comfort to the invalid. She straightened up the room a bit; urged the patient to eat, to no avail; then went out of the room for a minute, and reappeared with a book.
"I'm going to read to you, Angelica," she announced, in a loud yet nursey voice. "I suppose your taste in books is about the same as your sister's. Here's a story I found in Matilda's room. It's called 'Wormwood.' I'm sure you'll like it."
So placed that she could get all of the dim light that slanted through the tiny shuttered window, Mary began, her voice raised to meet the need of Mrs. De Peyster's aural handicap. Now Marie Corelli may have been the favorite novelist of a certain amiable queen, who somehow managed to continue to the age of eighty-two despite her preference. But Mrs. De Peyster liked no fiction; and the noble platitudes, the resounding moralizings, the prodigious melodrama, the vast caverns of words of the queen's favorite made Mrs. De Peyster writhe upon her second maid's undentable bed. If only she actually did possess the divine gift of defective hearing with which Mr. Pyecroft had afflicted her! But in the same loud voice, trying to conceal her own boredom, Mary read on, on, on—patiently on.
At length Matilda returned. Mary closed the book with a sigh of relief, which on the instant she repressed.
"I'll read to you for a while two or three times a day," she promised. "I know what a comfort it is to a sick person to hear a story she likes."
Mrs. De Peyster did not even thank her.
The provisions arrived; Mr. Pyecroft proved himself agreeably competent and willing in the matter of their preparation; and such as had appetites gorged themselves. Also Mr. Pyecroft proved himself agreeably competent and willing to do his full share, and more, in the matter of cleaning up.
Later in the forenoon, Mary again called on Mrs. De Peyster. "I hope you don't mind a little praise directed at your family, Angelica," she said, in the loud voice she had adopted for that unfortunate. "At first Jack and I thought your brother Archibald was—well—too pompous. You know, clergymen are often that way. But the more we see of him, the better we like him. He's so pleasant, so helpful. I hope the little trouble he spoke of being in with the police isn't serious, for Jack and I think he's simply splendid!"
Archibald's sister seemed indifferent to this praise of her brother. At least she said nothing. So Mary took up "Wormwood" and half-shouted another installment.
The spirits of Jack and Mary, which during the previous evening and the earlier part of this morning had been subdued by concern over the illness of the distant Mrs. De Peyster, had, an hour before Mary's second visit, become suddenly hilarious. While Mary read, Mrs. De Peyster wondered over this change. When the book was closed upon the installment, she hesitatingly asked concerning this mystery.
"It's news about Mrs. De Peyster," answered Mary. "But of course it could hardly interest you much, for you've never met her—at least I supposed not, Angelica."
"I've—seen her," corrected Angelica. "What—what news?"
"Why," cried Mary in her soft, happy contralto, "Judge Harvey just telephoned that the latest papers contain cables saying that Mrs. De Peyster has just left Paris on that long motor trip of hers to the Balkans. That means that Jack's mother must be quite well again. We all feel so relieved—so very, very relieved!"
Mrs. De Peyster also felt relief—and some badly needed courage flowed into her. Olivetta's part of the plan, at least, was working out as per schedule.
Finally Mary went, Matilda brought in her lunch, and the afternoon began to wear itself away, Mrs. De Peyster keeping most of the time to the hard, narrow bed of the second maid. Twice, however, she got up while Matilda guarded her door, stood at her high, cell-like window, and peered through the slats of the closed shutter, past the purple-and-lavender plumes of the wistaria that climbed on up to the roof, and out upon the soft, green, sunny spaces of Washington Square. The Square, which she had been proud to live upon but rarely walked in,—only children and nursemaids and the commoner people actually walked in it,—the Square looked so expansive, so free, so inviting. And this tiny cell—these days of early May were unseasonably, hot—seemed to grow more narrow and more stifling every moment. How had any one ever, ever voluntarily endured it!
Mrs. De Peyster learned that Jack was studying at home, and studying hard. With the return of Matilda to the house, Jack repeated his instruction concerning the piano: Matilda was to tell any inquisitive folk that Mrs. De Peyster had bought a player-piano shortly before she sailed, and that she, Matilda, was operating it to while away the tedious hours. This device made it possible for Mary to begin her neglected practice.
With the certainty of being bored, yet with an irrepressible curiosity, Mrs. De Peyster, piano-lover, awaited during the morning and early forenoon Mary's first assault upon the instrument. She would be crude, no doubt of it; no technique, no poetic suavity of touch, no sense of interpretation.
When from the rear drawing-room the grand piano sent upwards to Mrs. De Peyster its first strains, they were rapid, careless scales and runs. Quite as she'd expected. Then the player began Chopin's Ballade in G Minor. Mrs. De Peyster listened contemptuously; then with rebellious interest; then with complete absorption. That person below could certainly play the piano—brilliantly, feelingly, with the touch and insight of an artist. Mrs. De Peyster's soul rose and fell with the soul of the song, and when the piano, after its uprushing, almost human closing cry, fell sharply into silence, she was for the moment that piano's vassal.
Then she remembered who was the player. Instinctively her emotions chilled; and she lay stiffly in bed, hostile, on guard, defying the charm of the further music.
Suddenly the piano broke off in the very middle of Liszt's Rhapsodic Number Twelve. The way the music snapped off startled her. There was something inexplicably ominous about it. Intuitively she felt that something was happening below. She wondered what it could be.
An hour passed; she continued wondering; then Matilda entered the attic room, behind her Mr. Pyecroft and Mary.
"Sister"—such familiarity was difficult to Matilda, even though she knew this familiarity was necessary to maintain the roles circumstances and Mr. Pyecroft had forced upon them—"sister," she quavered, "I thought you might be interested to know that the bell rang awhile ago, and I went down, and there was a man—with a note to me from—from Mrs. De Peyster."
"What!" exclaimed Mrs. De Peyster, in an almost natural tone.
"It—it's disturbed us all so much that I thought you might like to look at it. Here it is."
Shakingly, Matilda held out a sheet of paper. Shakingly, but without turning to face her visitors, Mrs. De Peyster took it. There was enough light to see that the letter was written on heavy paper embossed at the top with a flag and "S.S. Plutonia," and was dated the evening she had supposedly gone on board. The note read:—
Just at this late moment I recall something which, in the hurry of getting off, I forgot to tell you about. This is that I left instructions with Mr. Howard, an expert cabinet-maker, who has previously done things for me under the supervision of the Tiffany Studios, to go over all my furniture while I am abroad and touch up and repair such pieces as may be out of order. I am sending this letter to Mr. Howard for him or his representative to present for identification to you when he is ready to undertake the work. See that he has every facility.
Mrs. De Peyster lay dizzily still. Such an order she had never given. But the writing was amazingly similar to her own.
"Well, Matilda?" she managed to inquire, in a voice she tried to make like the sickly Angelica's.
"When the man showed me the note, I tried to put him off; but he simply wouldn't go and he followed me in. His orders, he said. I showed the letter to Mary and Mr. Pyecroft. The man saw them. They said call up Judge Harvey and ask him what to do. I did and Judge Harvey came down and he examined the letter and said it was undoubtedly written by Mrs. De Peyster. And he called up the Tiffany Studios, and they said they'd had such a telephone order from Mrs. De Peyster."
"Jack and I never dreamed that his mother might have left orders to have people in here to renovate the house!" cried Mary in dismay.
"Then—then Judge Harvey asked the man to put off the work," Matilda went on. "The man was very polite, but he said his orders from Mrs. De Peyster had been strict, and if he wasn't allowed to go on with the work, he said, in order to protect himself, he'd have to cable Mrs. De Peyster that the people occupying her house wouldn't let him. Judge Harvey didn't want Mrs. De Peyster to find out about Mr. and Mrs. Jack, so he told the man to go ahead."
"And the man?" breathed Mrs. De Peyster. "Where is he?"
"He's down in the drawing-room, beginning on the tables."
"It seems to me," suggested Mr. Pyecroft, "that since this summer hotel is filling so rapidly, we might as well withdraw our advertisements from the papers."
"I wonder, ma'—" Matilda checked herself just in time. "I wonder, Angelica," she exclaimed desperately, "who it'll be next?"
"Isn't it simply awful!" cried Mary. "But Jack's gone into hiding and isn't going to stir—and the man didn't see him—and I'm your niece, you know. So Jack and I are in no danger. Anyhow, Judge Harvey gave the man a—a large fee not to mention any one being in the house besides Matilda, and the man promised. So I guess all of us are safe."
But no such sentiment of security comforted Mrs. De Peyster.
Who was the man?
What was he here for?
One thing was certain: he and those behind him had made clever and adequate preparations for his admission. And she dared not expose him, and order him out—for only that very morning she had left Paris on her motor trip! She could only lie on the second maid's narrow bed and await developments.
Matilda went out to attend to her domestic duties below; Mr. Pyecroft withdrew; and Mary, the sympathetic Mary,—Mary who had no worry, for the cabinet-maker below would in due time complete his routine work and take himself away,—Mary remained behind to apply to the invalid the soothing mental poultice of "Wormwood." But "Wormwood" did not torment Mrs. De Peyster as it had done in the forenoon. She did not hear it. She was thinking of the cabinet-maker below. But Mary faithfully continued; she did not cease when Mr. Pyecroft reentered. There was a slightly amused look in that gentleman's face, but he said nothing, and seated himself on the foot of the bed and gazed thoughtfully at the wall of scaling kalsomine—and Mary's loudly pitched voice went on, and on, and on.
They were thus engaged when Matilda returned. She was all a-tremble. Behind her, holding her arm, was a smallish, sharp-faced young man.
"He—he came in with the roast," Matilda stammered wildly.
Mr. Pyecroft had sprung up from the bed.
"And who is he?"
"Mr. Mayfair, of the 'Record,'" answered the young man, loosing Matilda and stepping forward.
Mrs. De Peyster shivered frantically down beneath the bedclothes, her see-sawing hopes once more at the bottom. Mary leaned limply back in the shadow and hid her face.
"He tried to question me—and he made me bring him—" Matilda was chattering.
"May I inquire what it is you wish, Mr. Mayfair?" requested Mr. Pyecroft—and Matilda fled.
"You may," rapidly said the undeceivable Mr. Mayfair. Mr. Mayfair had learned and made his own one of the main tricks of that method of police inquisition known as the "third degree": to hurl a fact, or a suspicion with all the air of its being the truth, with bomb-like suddenness into the face of the unprepared suspect. "I know Jack De Peyster has made a runaway marriage! I know he and his wife are living secretly in this house!"
"Why, this news is simply astounding!" exclaimed Mr. Pyecroft.
"Come, now. Bluffing won't work with me. You see, I'm on to it all!"
"I presume it's a newspaper story you're after?" Mr. Pyecroft inquired politely.
"Then"—in the same polite tone—"if you know it all, why don't you print it?"
"I want the heart-story of the runaway lovers," declared Mr. Mayfair.
"I'm afraid, Mr. Mayfair," Mr. Pyecroft suggested gently, "that you are the one who is only bluffing. You have a suspicion, and are trying to find evidence to support it."
"I know, I tell you!"
"Then may I inquire to whom young Mr. De Peyster is married?"
"I know all right!"
"Ah, then, you don't really know," said Mr. Pyecroft mildly.
"I know, I tell you!" Mr. Mayfair repeated in his sharp, third-degree manner.
"Then why trouble us? Why not, as I have already suggested, print it?"
"I'm here to see them!" Mr. Mayfair said peremptorily. Then his tone became soft, diplomatic. "The housekeeper spoke about referring me to her brother. You are her brother, I suppose?"
Mr. Mayfair smiled persuasively. "If you would tell me what you know about them, and lead me to where they are, my paper would be quite willing to be liberal. Say twenty dollars."
"I'd accept it gladly," said Mr. Pyecroft, "but I know nothing of the matter."
"One hundred," bid Mr. Mayfair.
"I would have done it for twenty, if I could. But I couldn't do it for a thousand. They are not here."
"I know better!" snapped Mr. Mayfair, his manner sharp again. "Who's that?" he demanded suspiciously, pointing at Mary's shadow-veiled figure.
"That? That is my niece. The daughter of my sister Angelica here."
"Is she your mother?" demanded Mr. Mayfair of Mary.
"Yes, sir," breathed Mary from her corner.
"Madam, is she your daughter?"
Mrs. De Peyster did not reply.
"Pardon me, my sister is ill, and somewhat deaf," put in Mr. Pyecroft. "Angelica, dear," he half shouted, "the gentleman wishes to know if this is your daughter."
"Yes," from Mrs. De Peyster in smothered voice.
"Well, I know they're here," doggedly insisted Mr. Mayfair, "and I'm going to see them! I have witnesses who saw them enter."
"Indeed!" Mr. Pyecroft looked surprised and puzzled. "The witnesses can swear to seeing young Mr. De Peyster come in?"
"They can swear to seeing a young man and woman come in. And I know they were Mr. De Peyster and his wife."
"That's strange." Suddenly Mr. Pyecroft's face cleared. "I think I begin to understand! It was at night, wasn't it, when the witnesses saw them come in?"
"At night, yes."
"I'm sorry you have been caused all this trouble, Mr. Mayfair,"—in a tone of very genuine regret. "But there has been a blunder—a perfectly natural one, I now see. Undoubtedly the young couple your witnesses saw were my niece and myself."
"What!" cried Mr. Mayfair. For a moment the undeflectable star reporter was all chagrin. Then he was all suspicion. "But why," he snapped out, "should you and your niece slip in at night? And why should you live here in hiding?"
"You force me into a disagreeable and humiliating admission. The fact is, our family is in severe financial straits. We simply had no money to live on, and no prospects in sight. To help us out temporarily, my sister Matilda invited us to stay here while Mrs. De Peyster is in Europe. But for Mrs. De Peyster to know of our being here might cost my sister Matilda her position, which accounts for our attempt to get in unseen and to live here secretly. We had to protect Matilda against the facts leaking out."
Mr. Mayfair stared searchingly at Mr. Pyecroft's face. It was confused, as was quite natural after the confession of a not very honorable, and certainly not very dignified, procedure. But it was candor itself.
"Hell!" he burst out irefully. "Some one has certainly given me a bum steer. But I'll get that young couple yet, you see!"
"I'm sorry about the story," said Mr. Pyecroft. And then with a slight smile, apologetic, as of one who knows he is taking liberties: "Perhaps, as compensation for the story you missed, you could write a society story about Mrs. De Peyster's housekeeper entertaining for the summer her brother, sister, and niece."
Mr. Mayfair grinned, ever so little. "You've got some sense of humor, old top," he approved dryly.
"Thank you," said Mr. Pyecroft, with a gratified air.
He led Mr. Mayfair past the room within which Jack was hidden, down to the servants' door and courteously let him out. Two minutes later Mr. Pyecroft was again in the second maid's room. Mary eagerly sprang forward and caught his hand.
"I waited to thank you—you were simply superb!" she cried enthusiastically. "I've been telling your sister how wonderful you are. She's got to forgive you—I'll make her! And Jack will die laughing when I tell him." She herself burst into excited merriment that half-choked her. "Just think of it—all the while he was looking—looking a big story straight in the face!"
She was off to tell Jack.
"One might add, looking two big stories straight in the face, eh, Angelica, my dear?" chuckled Mr. Pyecroft, alias Mr. Preston.
One might add, three big stories, shivered Mrs. De Peyster.
But she did not add this aloud.
THE MAN IN THE CELLULOID COLLAR
The amused smile which Mr. Pyecroft had worn when he had entered, and which he had subdued to thoughtful sobriety while "Wormwood" was assuaging the invalid's tribulations, began now to reappear. It grew. Mrs. De Peyster could but notice it, for he was smiling straight at her—that queer, whimsical, twisted smile of his.
"What is it?" she felt forced to ask.
"We three are not the only ones, my dear Angelica," he replied, "who are trying to slip one across on Mrs. De Peyster. Our friend the cabinet-maker is on the same job. I might remark, that he's about as much a cabinet-maker as yourself."
"What is he?"
"A detective, my dear."
"The variety known as 'private,'" enlarged Mr. Pyecroft.
"What—what makes you think so?"
"Well, I felt it my duty to keep an eye on our new guest—unobtrusively, of course. When I slipped out a little while ago it was to watch him. He was working in the library; entirely by accident, my dear Angelica, my eye chanced to be at the keyhole. He was examining the drawers of the big writing-table; and not paying so much attention to the drawers as to the letters in them. And from the rapidity with which he was examining the letters it was plain the cabinet-maker knew exactly what he was after."
"What—do you think—it means?" breathed Mrs. De Peyster.
"Some person is trying to get something on Mrs. De Peyster," returned Mr. Pyecroft. "What, I don't know. But the detective party, I've got sized up. He's one of those gracious and indispensable noblest-works-of-God who dig up evidence for divorce trials—lay traps for the so-called 'guilty-parties,' ransack waste-paper baskets for incriminating scraps of letters, bribe servants—and if they find anything, willing to blackmail either side; remarkably impartial and above prejudice in this respect, one must admit. Altogether a most delectable breed of gentlemen. What would our best society do without them? And then again, what would they do without our best society?"
Mrs. De Peyster did not attempt an answer to this conjectural dilemma.
"Twin and interdependent pillars of America's shining morality," continued Mr. Pyecroft. "Now, like you, Angelica," he mused, "I wonder what the detective party is after; what the lofty Lady De Peyster can have been doing that is spicy? However," smiling at her, "Angelica, my dear, in the words of the great and good poet, 'We should worry.'"
It was only a moment later that Matilda burst into the room and closed the door behind her. She was almost breathless.
"He asked me for the key to"—"your" almost escaped Matilda—"to Mrs. De Peyster's suite. He'd been particularly ordered to touch up Mrs. De Peyster's private desk, he said."
"And you gave him the key?" inquired Mr. Pyecroft, asking the very question that was struggling at Mrs. De Peyster's lips.
"I told him I didn't have a key," said Matilda.
"Oh!" breathed Mrs. De Peyster.
"But," continued Matilda, "he said it didn't matter, for he said he'd been brought up a locksmith. And he picked the lock right before my eyes."
"That's one accomplishment of gentlemanliness I was never properly instructed in," said Mr. Pyecroft regretfully, almost plaintively. "I never could pick a lock."
"And where—is he now?" inquired Mrs. De Peyster.
"In Mrs. De Peyster's sitting-room, retouching her desk."
"He's certainly after something, and after it hot—and probably something big," mused Mr. Pyecroft. "Any idea what it can be, Matilda?"
Matilda had none.
"Any idea, Angelica?"
Mrs. De Peyster was beginning to have an idea, and a terrified idea; but she likewise said she had none.
Mrs. De Peyster wished Mr. Pyecroft would go, so she could give way to her feelings, talk with Matilda. But Mr. Pyecroft stretched out his legs, settled back, clasped his hands behind his head, and looked thoughtfully at the ceiling. He had an intellectual interest in some imaginary escapade of the far-distant Mrs. De Peyster; but no more; and he was obviously comfortable where he was.
Matilda started out, but was recalled by a glance of imperative appeal from Mrs. De Peyster. And so the three sat on in silence for a time, Mrs. De Peyster and Matilda taut with expectant fear, Mr. Pyecroft loungingly unconcerned.
And thus they were still sitting when there was a knock, which Mr. Pyecroft answered. The cabinet-maker entered. He wore a slouching, ready-made suit and a celluloid collar with ready-made bow tie snapped by an elastic over his collar-button—the conventional garb of the artisan who aspires for the air of gentlemanliness while at work. His face, though fresh-shaven, was dark with the sub-cutaneous stubble of a heavy beard; his eyes were furtive, with that masked gleam of Olympian all-confidence which a detective can never entirely mask.
"How are you, Miss Simpson?" he said to Matilda. "Your niece told me I'd find you here, so I came right up. Could I have a word with you outside?"
"Couldn't you have it here just as well," suggested Mr. Pyecroft—who somehow had imperceptibly taken on an air of mediocrity. "We're all in the family, you know."
"Mebbe it'd be better to have it here," agreed the cabinet-maker. "You other two are living in the house, so I understand, because you're hard up; so your needing money may help what I'm after." He suddenly and visibly expanded with importance. "When the time comes to put my cards on the table, I don't waste a minute in showing my hand. That cabinet-maker business was all con. I'm an officer of the law."
"You don't say!" cried Mr. Pyecroft with a startled air.
"A detective. Brown's my name. I'm here hunting for something. I got part of what I wanted, but not all. What I want isn't here, or I'd have found it; there's only three or four places it'd have been locked up. I know," he ended, with driving confidence, "that a letter was written to Mrs. De Peyster by the Duke de Crecy saying he couldn't marry her. That letter is what I'm after."
"Oh!" breathed Mr. Pyecroft. And then with his wide-eyed mediocrity, "I wonder whom you represent."
"Mrs. Allistair!" exclaimed Matilda.
Mrs. De Peyster long since had been silently exclaiming the same.
"Why, what could Mrs. Allistair want it for?" queried the futile-looking brother.
"Never mind who I represent, or the reasons of the party," said Mr. Brown. "That letter is what I'm after, and I'm willing to pay for it. That's what ought to concern you folks."
"But if there ever was such a letter," commented Mr. Pyecroft with his simple-minded manner, "perhaps Mrs. de Peyster destroyed it."
"Perhaps she did. But I found two others he wrote her. And if she didn't tear it up or burn it, I'm going to have it!"
He directed himself at Matilda, and spoke slowly, suggestively, impressively. "Confidential servants, who think a bit of number one, should be on the lookout for documents and letters that may be of future value to themselves. I guess you get me. For the original of the letter I'm willing to come across with five hundred dollars."
"But I have no such letter!" cried Matilda.
"I might make it a thousand," conceded the detective. "And," he added, "the money might come in very handy for your sick sister there."
"But I tell you I have no such letter!"
"Say fifteen hundred, then."
"But I haven't got it!" cried Matilda.
"Perhaps you may have it without knowing what it is. Some of his letters he signed only with an initial. Here is a sample of the Duke's handwriting—one of his letters I found."
"I tell you I have—"
"Pardon me, Mr. Brown," interrupted the ineffectual-looking Mr. Pyecroft. "May I see the handwriting, please?"
Firmly holding it in his own hands, the detective displayed the letter to Mr. Pyecroft—an odd, foreign hand, the paper of superfine quality, but without crest or any other embossing. Mr. Pyecroft studied it closely; his look grew puzzled; then he turned to Matilda.
"I don't exactly remember, Matilda, but it seems to me that there was handwriting like this among the letters you sent to me to keep for you."
Matilda gaped at Mr. Pyecroft. Mrs. De Peyster, half-rising on an elbow, peered in amazed stupefaction at her incalculable young man of the sea.
"Why, of course, she'd have turned it over to some one else for safe-keeping!" the detective cried triumphantly. "Where is it?" he demanded of Mr. Pyecroft.
"I'm not so sure I have it," said the shallow Mr. Pyecroft apologetically. "It just seems to me that I saw writing like this. If I have, it's over in a little room I keep. But if I really do have it"—with the shrewd look of a small mind—"we couldn't sell it for fifteen hundred."
"How much d'you want?"
"Well"—Mr. Pyecroft hesitated—"say—say three thousand."
"Good God, that's plain blackmail!"
"It may be, but poor people like us don't often get a chance like this."
"I won't pay it!"
"Perhaps, then,"—apologetically,—"we'd better deal with Mrs. Allistair direct."
"Oh, well,—if you've got the letter, we won't scrap about the price. I'll come across."
"Cash?" shrewdly queried the doltish brother.
"Sure. I don't run no risks with checks."
"I—we—wouldn't let the letter go out of our hands until it's paid for. And we won't go to any office. You yourself can say whether it's what you want or not? And you can pay right here?"
"Sure. I'm the judge of what I want. And when I go for a big thing, I go prepared." Mr. Brown opened his coat, and significantly patted a bulge on the right side of his vest.
"Well, then, I'll go to my room and see if I have it. But you'll have to wait here, for"—again with the shrewd look of the ineffectual man—"you might follow me, and with some more detectives you might take the letter from me."
"Soon wait here as anywhere else. Anyhow, I'll want your sister's word," nodding at Matilda, "that the letter is the same. But don't worry—nobody's going to take anything from you."
Mr. Pyecroft started out, then paused.
"I just happened to remember; you said the letter might not be signed. Hadn't you better let me have one of the Duke de Crecy's letters, so I can verify the handwriting?"
"I don't mind; these don't tell much." And the detective handed over one letter.
"It may be an hour or two before I can get back; the letters are packed away and I've got to go through them and compare them."
He slipped out. Mr. Brown, as he watched him, could hardly conceal his contempt.
The detective sat heavily down. Mrs. De Peyster was sick with apprehension as to what that incomprehensible Mr. Pyecroft was about to do. She wanted to talk to Matilda. But the two dared not speak with this confident, omniscient, detectorial presence between them. Mr. Brown condescendingly tried to make conversation by complimenting Matilda on her shrewdness; he'd helped a lot of clever servants like her to snug little fortunes.
But Matilda proved a poor conversationalist.
Close upon two hours passed before Mr. Pyecroft returned. He drew a letter from his pocket, firmly gripped its edges with both hands, and held it out to Mr. Brown.
"Is this the one?"
"Didn't I tell you not to be afraid; no one's going to steal it from you."
He took the letter from Mr. Pyecroft's unwilling and untrustful hands and glanced it through. The next moment it was as though an arc light of excitement had been switched on within his ample person. With swift, expert fingers he compared the texture of the paper of the new letter and the earlier ones.
"Great God!" he exulted. "Same paper—same handwriting—and it says just what I expected—and signed 'De Crecy'!"
He held out the letter to Matilda.
"Of course, you identify this as the letter you found?"
But Matilda shrank away as though the letter was deadly poison.
"I never saw the thing before!"
"What's that?" cried the detective.
"She's trying to hold out for more money," explained Mr. Pyecroft. From behind the detective's broad back he gave Matilda a warning look; then said softly: "Of course, it's the letter, isn't it, sister?"
Matilda thought only of saving the hour. The day would have to save itself.
"Yes," she said.
"Might—might I see it?" huskily inquired Mrs. De Peyster.
"Sure. The more that corroborates it the better."
Her face to the wall, the faint light slanting across her shoulder, she glanced at the letter. The Duke's own handwriting! And a jilting letter!—politely worded—but a jilting letter!... Mrs. De Peyster jilted!... If that were ever to come out—
For a moment she lay enfeebled and overwhelmed with horror. Then convulsively she crushed the letter in her hands.
"See here—wha' d' you mean?" cried the startled detective, springing forward; in a moment his powerful hands rescued the document.
"Both of my sisters think we ought to stand out for more money," apologized Mr. Pyecroft. "And I'm not so sure they're not right."
"We've made our bargain already," quickly returned Mr. Brown. "And that's just how we'll settle."
He started to slip the letter into a pocket. But Mr. Pyecroft caught hold of it.
"How about the money?"
"You mean you don't trust me?"
"I'm not saying that," apologized Mr. Pyecroft. "But this means a lot to us. We can't afford to run any risks."
"All right, then."
Mr. Brown released the letter, drew a leather wallet from inside his vest, counted off six five-hundred-dollar bills, returned the wallet and held out the bills. The exchange was made. The detective carefully put the letter into a thick manila envelope, which he licked and sealed and put inside his vest to keep company with the wallet.
Mr. Pyecroft counted the bills, slowly, three or four times; then looked up.
"I bet my sisters were right; you would have paid more," he said regretfully, greedily.
"Never you mind what I would have paid!" retorted the detective, buttoning his coat over the letter.
"You'd have paid twice that!" Mr. Pyecroft exclaimed disappointedly.
The detective, triumphant, could not resist grinning confirmingly.
"We've been outwitted!" cried Mr. Pyecroft. He turned to the two woman contritely. "If I'd only heeded you—let you have managed the affair!"
"You people got a mighty good price," commented Detective Brown.
"Well—perhaps so," sighed Mr. Pyecroft. Chagrin gave way to curiosity in his face. "I wonder, now, how Mrs. Allistair is going to use the letter?"
"That's none of my business."
"She must think she can do a lot with it," mused Mr. Pyecroft. "If the letter, or its substance, were printed, say in 'Town Gossip,' I suppose it would mean the end of Mrs. De Peyster's social leadership, and Mrs. Allistair would then have things her own way."
"Can't say," said the detective. But he winked knowingly.
When he had gone Mr. Pyecroft stood listening until the descending tread had thinned into silence. Then he turned about to Mrs. De Peyster and Matilda, and his wide mouth twisted up and rightward into that pagan, delighted smile of his. He laughed without noise; but every cell of him was laughing.
"Well, sisters dear, we're cleaning up—eh! I had the devil's own time matching that letter-paper at Brentanos', and I ran a pretty big risk leaving the house—but, say, it was worth it!" For a moment he could only laugh. "First, let's split the pile. I told you I was always square with my pals. Here's a thousand for you, Angelica,"—slipping two bills under Mrs. De Peyster's pillow,—"and a thousand for you, Matilda,"—thrusting the amount into her hands,—"and a thousand for your dear brother Archibald,"—slipping his share into a vest pocket.
Neither of the two women dared refuse the money.
"But—but," Mrs. De Peyster gasped thickly, "it's an outrageous forgery!"
"A forgery, I grant you, my dear Angelica," Mr. Pyecroft said good-humoredly. "But if by outrageous you mean crude or obvious, I beg to correct you. Even if I must say it myself, that forgery was strictly first-class."
"But it's a forgery!" repeated Mrs. De Peyster.
"My dears, don't you worry about that," he reassured them soothingly. "There'll be no comeback. That detective and his agency, and Mrs. Allistair behind them, first tried robbery, then tried bribery. They're all in bad themselves. So stop worrying; you're in no danger at all from arrest for forgery or fraud. There'll never be a peep from any of them."
This seemed sound reasoning, but Mrs. De Peyster did not acknowledge herself comforted.
"Besides," Mr. Pyecroft went on, with a sudden flash of wrathful contempt, "if there's anybody under God's sun I like to slip something over on it's those damned vermin of private detectives! And the swells that employ them! I hope that Mrs. Allistair gets stung good and plenty!"
"But Mrs. De Peyster!" wailed that lady—she couldn't help it, though she tried to keep inarticulate her sense of complete annihilation. "When they publish that letter the damage will have been done. It's a forgery, but nobody will believe her when she says so, and she can't prove it! She'll be ruined!"
"Well," Mr. Pyecroft commented casually, "I don't see where that bothers us. She's pretty much of a stiff, too, and I wouldn't mind handing her one while we're at it. But, Lord, this won't hurt her a bit."
Mrs. De Peyster sat suddenly upright.
"Not hurt her?"
"Didn't I tell you?" chortled Mr. Pyecroft. "Why, when our excellent friend, Mr. Brown, presents the Duke's letter to-morrow morning to his chief, or to Mrs. Allistair's agent,—if he ever gets that far,—he will turn triumphantly over one sheet of Brentanos' very best notepaper—blank."
"Blank?" cried Mrs. De Peyster.
Mr. Pyecroft's right eyelid drooped in its remarkable wink; his mouth again tilted high to starboard in its impish smile.
"You see," he remarked, "the Duke's letter was written in an ink of my own invention. One trifling idiosyncracy of that ink is that it fades completely and permanently in exactly twelve hours."
A QUESTION OF IDENTITY
Mr. Pyecroft's grin grew by degrees more delighted: became the smile of a whimsical genius of devil-may-care, of an exultantly mischievous Pan. But he offered not a word of comment upon his work. He was an artist who was, in the main, content to achieve his masterpieces and leave comment and blame and praise to his public and his critics.
He stood up.
"I believe I promised to peel the potatoes and put on the roast," he remarked, and went out.
"Matilda," breathed Mrs. De Peyster, numbed and awed, still aghast, "did you ever dream there could be such a man?"
"Oh, ma'am,—never!"—tragically, wildly.
"Whatever is he going to do next?"
"I'm sure I don't know, ma'am. Almost anything."
"And whatever is going to happen to us next?"
"Oh, ma'am, it's terrible to think about! I'm sure I can't even guess! Mr. Pyecroft, and all the others, and all these things happening—I'm sure they'll be the death of me, ma'am!"
Mrs. De Peyster sprang from her bed. Despite Matilda's cheap dressing-gown which she wore as appropriate to her station, she made a splendid figure of raging majesty, hands clenched, eyes blazing, furiously erect.
"That man is outrageous!" she stormed. "I cannot, and shall not, stand him any longer! We must, and shall, get rid of him!" Her voice rang with its accustomed tone of all-conquering determination. "Matilda, we are going to do it! I say we are going to do it!"
Matilda gazed admiringly at her magnificently aroused mistress. "Of course, you'll do it, ma'am," she said with conviction.
"I cannot endure him another minute!" Mrs. De Peyster raged on. "At once, he goes out of this house! Or we do!"
"Of course, ma'am," repeated Matilda in her adoring voice. And then after a moment, she added quaveringly: "But please, ma'am,—how are we going to do it?"
The outraged and annihilatory Mrs. De Peyster gazed at Matilda, utterer of practical common-places. As she gazed the splendid flames within her seemed slowly to flicker out, and she sank back upon her bed. Yes, how were they going to do it?
In cooler mood they discussed that question, without discovering a solution; discussed it until it was time for Matilda to go downstairs to perform her share of the preparation of the communal dinner. Left alone, her fury now sunk to sober ashes, Mrs. De Peyster continued the exploration of possibilities, with the same negative result.
Matilda brought up her dinner on a tray, then returned to the kitchen; for though the others were all doing fair tasks, to Matilda of twenty years' experience fell the oversight of the thousand details of the house. Presently Mary appeared, on one of her visits of mercy—full of relief that the cabinet-maker had ended his work so soon, thus setting Jack free.
But before beginning the anodynous "Wormwood," she launched into another high-voltage eulogy of Angelica's brother. Even more than they had at first thought was he willing and competent and agreeable in the matter of their common household labor; he was not intrusive; he was rich with clever and well-informed talk when they all laid aside work to be sociable. In fact, as she had said before, he was simply splendid!
"Now, I do hope, Angelica, that you are going to forgive your brother," Mary insisted. "He really means well. I think he's what he is because he has never had a fair chance." And then more boldly: "I think the fault is largely yours and Matilda's. Matilda says your parents died when you were all young; and he admitted that he does not even remember them. And he also admitted, when I pressed him, that you and Matilda had not given him very much attention during his boyhood. You and Matilda are older; you should have brought him up more carefully; you are both seriously to blame for what he is. So I hope," she concluded, "that both of you will forgive him and help him."
Once more Mrs. De Peyster did not feel called upon to make response.
"I have noted particularly that Matilda does not seem cordial and forgiving," Mary was continuing, when the prodigal brother himself dropped in. With her pretty, determined manner, Mary renewed her efforts at reconciliation in the estranged family. Mr. Pyecroft was penitent without being humble, and whenever a question was put directly to Mrs. De Peyster his was the tongue that answered; he was quite certain his sister Angelica would relent and receive him back into her respect and love once he had fully proved his worthiness.
"I must say, Mr. Simpson, that I think you have an admirably forgiving nature," declared Mary. It was clear, though she was silent on the matter, that she considered his sisters to have cold, hard, New England hearts.
Mr. Pyecroft withdrew; and Mary, in the high-pitched voice required by the invalid's misfortune, read "Wormwood" for an hour—until Jack came to the door and announced that Judge Harvey had again called on them. Alone, Mrs. De Peyster pondered her poignant problem, What should she do?—wishful that Matilda were present to talk the affair over with her. But Matilda was still busy in the kitchen with the odd jobs of night-end.
Toward ten o'clock Mr. Pyecroft came in again. He stood and gazed silently down upon her. The one electric light showed her an odd, dry smile on Mr. Pyecroft's face.
"What is it?" Mrs. De Peyster asked in fear.
"Really, Angelica, you're not half so clever as I believed you."
"What is it?" she repeated huskily.
"This pearl." And from a pocket he drew out the pendant he had appropriated the night before in Mrs. Gilbert's boarding-house. "I thought we ought to be prepared with more cash in hand for our get-away when we decide to make it. So an hour ago I slipped out the back way, and made for a safe pawnbroker I know of. Angelica, you're easy. This pearl is nothing but imitation. And you fell for it!" He shook his head sorrowingly, chidingly. "Here's one case where remorse might be highly proper—and safest; better just mail it back to the party you lifted it from."
With good-humored contempt he tossed the pendant upon the bed. Mrs. De Peyster clutched it and thrust it beneath her pillow.
"I believe, Angelica, my dear," he commented, "that in view of the capacity this pearl incident has revealed, it is strictly up to me to assume charge of every detail of our plan."
He sat down and in his fluent manner discussed the day's developments and their preparations for the future; and he was still talking when, fifteen minutes later, the door opened and Matilda entered. Her face, of late so often ashen, was ashen as though almost from habit.
"Oh, oh," she quavered, "the servants' bell rang—and I answered it, like I'd been told to do—and in stepped four men—two of them the policemen we let in last night, and two men I never saw before—and they asked if they might speak to my brother who was visiting me. And I—I promised to call him down. Oh, ma'—Angelica—"
"Mr. Pyecroft, what does this mean?" cried Mrs. De Peyster.
Mr. Pyecroft's usual perfect composure was gone. His face was gleamingly alert; sharp as a razor's edge.
"God knows how they've done it," he snapped out. "But it means they've tracked me here!"
"As—as Thomas Preston?"
"As Thomas Preston."
"And if they take you—they—they may find me, and—"
"Nothing more likely," grimly responded Mr. Pyecroft.
"Then escape!" Mrs. De Peyster cried with frantic energy. "Run! For heaven's sake, run! You still have time!"
"Running from the police is the surest way to get caught when they've got you trapped," he answered in quick, staccato tones. "They've got every door watched—sure. Anyhow—Listen! Hear those steps? They haven't trusted you, Matilda; they've followed. Angelica, down with your face to the wall, and be sick! And while you're at it, be damned sick!"
Mrs. De Peyster obeyed. Mr. Pyecroft drew the room's one chair up beside the bed, sat down, picked up "Wormwood," and again, with the most natural manner in the world, he began to read in a loud voice. The next moment the two policemen of the previous night came in.
Mr. Pyecroft arose.
"I must beg your pardon, officers," he said pleasantly and with a slight tincture of his clerical manner. "My sister Matilda just told me you wished to see me, but I was almost at the end of a very interesting chapter which I was reading aloud to my other sister, who is ill, and so I thought I would conclude the scene before I came down. In what way can I serve you?"
Neither of the officers replied. One closed the doorway with his bulk, and the other thumped heavily down a flight or two of stairs, from whence his shout ascended:—
"We've got him up here, Lieutenant! Come on up!"
Within the tiny room of the second maid no one spoke. Presently heavy footfalls mounted; the second policeman entered, and presently two solid men in civilian dress pushed through the door. The foremost, a dark-visaged man with heavy jaw, and a black derby which he did not remove, fixed on Mr. Pyecroft a triumphant, domineering gaze.
"Well, Preston," he said, "so we've landed you at last."
Mr. Pyecroft, his left forefinger still keeping the place in "Wormwood," stared at the speaker in bewilderment.
"Pardon me, sir, but I completely fail to understand what you are talking about."
"Don't try that con stuff on us; we won't fall for it," advised the lieutenant. He smiled with satiric satisfaction; he was something of a wit in the department. "But if you ain't sure who you are, I'll put you wise: Mr. Thomas Preston, forger of the Jefferson letters, it gives me great pleasure to introduce you to yourself. Shake hands, gents."
Mr. Pyecroft continued his puzzled stare. Then a smile began to break through his bewilderment. Then he laughed.
"So that's it, is it! You take me for that Thomas Preston. I've read about him. He must be a clever fellow, in his own way."
He sobered. "But, gentlemen, if I had the clever qualities attributed to Mr. Preston, I am sure I could apply those qualities to some more useful, and even more profitable, occupation."
"You don't do it bad at all, Preston," observed the lieutenant. "Only, you see, it don't go down."
"I trust," Mr. Pyecroft said good-humoredly, "that it isn't going to be necessary to explain to you that I am not Thomas Preston."
"No, that won't be necessary at all," replied the waggish lieutenant. "Not necessary at all. For you can't."
Mr. Pyecroft raised his eyebrows.
"Gentlemen, you really seem to be taking this matter seriously! Why, you two officers in uniform saw me only last night here with my two sisters, and any one in the neighborhood can tell you my sister Matilda has been housekeeper in this house for twenty years."
That tone was most plausible. The two uniformed policemen looked at their superior dubiously.
"Never you mind what they seen last night," the lieutenant commented dryly. "And never you mind about Matilda."
"But you are forgetting that I am Matilda's brother," said Mr. Pyecroft. "Matilda, I am your brother, am I not?"
"Y—yes," testified Matilda, who by the corpulent pressure of four crowded officers was almost being bisected against the edge of the stationary wash-bowl.
"And you, Angelica; I'm your brother, am I not?"
"Yes," breathed Mrs. De Peyster from beneath the bedclothes.
Mr. Pyecroft turned in polite triumph to the lieutenant.
"There, now, you see."
"But, I don't see," returned that officer. "I know you're Thomas Preston. Jim, just slip the nippers on him. And there's something queer about these women. Just slip the bracelets on Matilda, too, and carry downstairs the party in bed. We'll call the police ambulance for her, and take the whole bunch over to the station."
The party in bed suddenly stiffened as if from a stroke of some kind, and Matilda fairly wilted away. Mr. Pyecroft alone did not change by so much as a hair.
"One moment, gentlemen," he interposed in his even voice, "before you go to regrettable extremes. I believe that an even better witness to my identity can easily be secured."
"And who's that, Tommie?"
"I refer to Judge Harvey."
"Judge Harvey!" The lieutenant was startled out of his ironic exultation. "You mean the guy that was stung by them forged letters—the complainant who's making it so damned hot for Preston?"
"The same," said Mr. Pyecroft. "Judge Harvey is at this moment in this house."
"In this house!"
"I believe he is downstairs some place going over some bills Mrs. De Peyster asked him to examine. Matilda, you doubtless know in what room the Judge is working. Will you kindly knock at his door and ask him to step up here for a moment?"
The lieutenant frowned doubtfully at Mr. Pyecroft, hesitated, then nodded to Matilda. The latter, relieved of the pressure of much policial avoirdupois, slipped from the room. The lieutenant turned and silently held a penetrating gaze upon the empty clothes-hooks. Mr. Pyecroft continued to look imperturbably and pleasantly upon the four officers. And under the bedclothes Mrs. De Peyster saw wild visions of Mr. Pyecroft being the next moment exposed, and herself dragged forth to shame.
Thus for a minute or two. Then Judge Harvey appeared in the doorway.
"Lieutenant Sullivan! See here, what's the meaning of this?" he demanded sternly.
"'Evening, Judge Harvey," began the lieutenant, for the first time since his entrance removing his derby. "It's like this—"
"Pardon me," interrupted Mr. Pyecroft. "Judge Harvey, these gentlemen here have been upon the point of making a blunder that would be ludicrous did it not have its serious side. That's why I had you called. The fact is, they desire to arrest me."
"Arrest you!" exclaimed the Judge.
"Yes, arrest me," Mr. Pyecroft went on, easily, yet under his easy words trying to suggest certain definite contingencies. "That would be bad enough in itself. But, as you know, Judge Harvey, my arrest would unfortunately but necessarily involve the arrest of several other quite innocent persons—bring about a great public scandal—and create a situation that would be deplorable in every particular. You see that, Judge?"
Judge Harvey got the covered meaning.
"I see. But what do they want to arrest you for?"
"On a most absurd charge," answered Mr. Pyecroft, smiling,—but eyes straight into Judge Harvey's eyes. "They seem to think I am Thomas Preston."