"Thomas Preston!" cried the Judge.
"Yes, the man that forged those Jefferson letters you bought."
Mr. Pyecroft saw the puzzled semi-recognition that he had observed in the Judge's face the night before flash into amazed, full recognition. Quickly but without appearance of haste, he stepped forward diverting attention from the Judge's face, and made himself the center of the party's eyes.
"You see, lieutenant and officers," he said easily, filling in time to give Judge Harvey opportunity to recover and think—and still aiming his meaning at the Judge, "you see, I have here summoned before you the best possible witness to my identity. You threaten to arrest and expose me and two other persons in this house. Judge Harvey knows, as well as I know, how unfortunate it would be for these parties, and how displeasing to Mrs. De Peyster, if you should make the very great blunder of arresting me as Thomas Preston. Now, Judge Harvey,"—with a joking smile,—"you know who I am. Will you please inform the lieutenant whether I am the man you wish to have arrested?"
Judge Harvey stared, silent, his face twitching.
"Is what he says O.K., Judge?" queried Lieutenant Sullivan. "He ain't the man you want arrested?"
"He is not," the Judge managed to get out.
"From the way you hesitated—"
"The Judge's hesitation, Lieutenant," Mr. Pyecroft interrupted in his pleasant tone, "was due to his amazement at the utter grotesqueness of the situation. He was for a moment utterly taken aback. That's it, isn't it, Judge?"
"Yes," said Judge Harvey.
The lieutenant twisted his derby in chagrined, ireful hands.
"Some of my men have been damned fools again!" he exploded. He got himself back under control. "Judge Harvey, I hope you'll excuse our buttin' in like this—and—and won't find it necessary to mention it to the heads of the department."
"It's—it's all right," said the Judge.
"And you, Mr.—Mr.—"
"Simpson—Archibald Simpson," supplied Mr. Pyecroft.
"Mr. Simpson, I hope you don't mind this too much?"
"No ill feeling at all, Lieutenant," Mr. Pyecroft said graciously. "Such little mistakes must occasionally occur in the most careful police work."
"And—and—there's another thing," said Lieutenant Sullivan with a note of gruff pleading. "You know how the papers are roasting the department just now. For every little slip, we get the harpoon or the laugh. I'll be obliged to you if you don't say anything that'll let this thing get into the papers."
"Believe me, Lieutenant, I shall do everything in my power to protect you," Mr. Pyecroft assured him. "And now, since the matter is settled," he added pleasantly, "perhaps you'd like to have Matilda show you the way out. These upper hallways are really very confusing. Matilda, my dear,—if you don't mind."
Wordlessly, Matilda obeyed, and four sets of policemen's feet went heavily down the stairs. Beneath her bedclothes Mrs. De Peyster began faintly, ever so faintly, to return to life. Judge Harvey glared at Mr. Pyecroft, hands spasmodically clutching and unclutching; his look grew darker and darker. Respectful, regretful, Mr. Pyecroft stood waiting.
His left forefinger had not lost the place in "Wormwood."
THE THIRD FLIGHT
The storm broke.
"You are a scoundrel, sir!" thundered the Judge.
"I fear, sir, you are right," respectfully assented Mr. Pyecroft.
"And what's more, you've made me lie to the police!"
"Not exactly, sir," Mr. Pyecroft corrected mildly. "I was careful about that. I did not ask you to deny that I was Thomas Preston. I merely asked you if I was the man you wished arrested. You answered that you did not want me arrested; under the circumstances I am certain you spoke the truth. And in explaining your hesitation to the lieutenant, when you said it was due to your utter amazement at the grotesqueness of the situation, I am certain you there also spoke the truth."
"You are a quibbler!" fumed the outraged Judge. "You made me lie to the police!"
"Well, even if I did," returned Mr. Pyecroft in his same mild tone, "is there any one else you would rather lie to?"
The Judge glared, almost choking. "Have you no respect, man, for common decency—for order—for the law?"
"For order and decency, yes,—but as for ordinary law, I fear I have no more respect than your honor has," Mr. Pyecroft admitted gravely. "And I acquired my irreverence toward law just as your honor did—from studying it."
Judge Harvey stared.
"What! You're a lawyer?"
"I have been admitted to the bar, and have been a law clerk, but have never practiced for myself."
"But last night you said you were a clergyman!"
"I have gone no deeper into theology, sir, than the price of a clerical suit. And that was for its moral effect on the police."
"Sir," exploded the Judge, "you are utterly incorrigible!"
"I trust that I am not, sir," submitted Mr. Pyecroft gravely, hopefully.
At that moment Jack and Mary appeared on tiptoe in the doorway, alive with curiosity; and directly behind them came Matilda. Upon the latter Judge Harvey turned.
"Well, Matilda, I certainly want to compliment you on your brother!" he exclaimed with irate sarcasm.
"My bro—bro—yes, sir, thank you," weakly returned poor Matilda.
"No wonder, Mr. Simpson," the outraged Judge continued, "that your family disowned you!"
"They were justified, certainly, as I told you at the very first," soberly conceded Mr. Pyecroft.
Jack and Mary demanded enlightenment. To them Judge Harvey told of the visit of the four police officers, scathingly expounded the character of Matilda's brother, and explained how he, Judge Harvey, had been forced to protect the outrageous scape-grace. Through this recital, Mr. Pyecroft, though unbowed by shame, continued to wear his respectful, regretful look.
"Perhaps you will not believe me, Judge Harvey," he returned courteously, and with the ring of sincerity, when the indictment was ended, "and even if you do believe me, perhaps my statement will mean nothing to you; but I desire none the less to state that I am sorry that you were the person to be deceived by those Jefferson letters. Of course, I had no idea to whom they were to be sold. I did them for the autograph dealer, so much for the job—and did them partly as a lark, though, of course, I do not expect you to appreciate the humor of the affair. It may be some consolation to you, however, to know that I profited very little from the transaction; the dealer got over ninety per cent of the price you paid."
The Judge snorted, and stalked incredulously and wrathfully out, Jack and Mary behind him; and Mrs. De Peyster was left alone in the bosom of her family. Mr. Pyecroft sat silent on the foot of the bed for a space, grave but composed, gazing at a particular scale of the flaking kalsomine. Then he remarked something about its having been a somewhat trying day and that he believed that he'd be off to bed.
When he was gone Mrs. De Peyster lay wordless, limp, all a-shiver. Beside her sat the limp and voiceless Matilda, gasping and staring wildly. How long Mrs. De Peyster lay in that condition she never knew. All her faculties were reeling. These crowding events seemed the wildest series of unrealities; seemed the frenzied, feverish phantasms of a nightmare. They never, never could possibly-have happened!
But then ... they had happened! And this hard, narrow bed was real. And this low, narrow room was real. And Mr. Pyecroft was real. And so were Jack, and Mary, and Judge Harvey.
These things could never have happened. But, then, they had. And would they ever, ever stop happening?
This was only the eighth day since her promulgated sailing. Three more months, ninety days of twenty-four hours each, before Olivetta—
"Matilda," she burst out in a despairing whisper, "I can't stand this another minute!"
"Oh, ma'am!" wailed Matilda.
"That Mr. Pyecroft—" Words failed her. "I've simply got to get out of this somehow!"
"Of course, ma'am. But—but our changes haven't helped us much yet. If we tried to leave the house, that Mr. Pyecroft might follow and we might find ourselves even in a worse way than we are, ma'am."
"Nothing can be worse than this!"
"I'm not so sure, ma'am," tremulously doubted Matilda. "We never dreamed anything could be so bad as this, but here this is."
There was a vague logic in what Matilda said; but logic none the less. Unbelievable, and yet so horribly actual as this was,—was what had thus far happened only the legato and pianissimo passages of their adventure, with crescendo and fortissimo still ahead? Mrs. De Peyster closed her eyes, and did not speak. She strove to regain some command over her routed faculties.
Presently Mrs. De Peyster's eyes opened. "It would be some relief"—weak hope was in her voice—"if only I could manage to get down into my own suite."
"But, ma'am, with that Mr. Pyecroft—"
"He's a risk we've got to run," Mrs. De Peyster cried desperately. "We've somehow got to manage to get me there without his knowing it."
Suddenly she sat up. The hope that a moment before had shone faintly in her face began to become a more confident glow. Matilda saw that her mistress was thinking; therefore she remained silent, expectant.
"Matilda, I think there's a chance!" Mrs. De Peyster exclaimed after a moment. "I'll get into my suite—I'll live there quiet as death. Since they believe the suite empty, since they know it is locked, they may never suspect any one is in it. Matilda, it's the only way!"
"Yes—but, ma'am, how am I to explain your sudden disappearance?"
"Say that your sister became homesick," said Mrs. De Peyster with mounting hope, "and decided suddenly, in the middle of the night, to return at once to her home in Syracuse."
"That may satisfy all but Mr. Pyecroft, ma'am. But Mr. Pyecroft won't believe it."
"Mr. Pyecroft will have to believe whatever he likes. It's the only way, and we're going to do it. And do it at once! Matilda, go down and see if they're all asleep yet, particularly Mr. Pyecroft."
Matilda took off her shoes and in her stocking-feet went scouting forth; and stocking-footed presently returned, with the news that all seemed asleep, particularly Mr. Pyecroft.
Five minutes later, in Matilda's dress, and likewise in stocking-feet, Mrs. De Peyster stepped out of her second maid's room. Breathless, she listened. Not a sound. Then, Matilda at her heels, she began to creep down the stairway—slowly—slowly—putting each foot down with the softness of a closing lip—pausing with straining ears on every tread. With up-pressing feet she glided by the door within which Mr. Pyecroft lay in untroubled sleep, then started by the room that homed Jack and Mary, creeping with the footsteps of a disembodied spirit, fearful every second lest some door might spring open and wild alarms ring out.
But she got safely by. Then, more rapidly, yet still as noiseless as a shadow's shadow, she crept on down—down—until she came to her own door. Here the attending Matilda silently vanished. With velvet touch Mrs. De Peyster slipped her key into the lock, stepped inside, noiselessly closed and locked the door behind her.
Then she sank into a chair, and breathed. Just breathed ... back once more in the spacious suite wherein nine days ago—or was it nine thousand years?—inspiration had flowered within her and her great idea had been born.
A PLEASANT HERMITAGE
When she awoke, it was with a sweet, languorous sense of perfect comfort. Heavy-lidded, she glanced about her. Ah! Once more she was in her own wide, gracious bed—of a different caste, of an entirely different race, from the second maid's paving-stone pallet, from that folding, punitive contrivance from whose output of anguish Mrs. Gilbert managed to extract a profit. Also she was in sweet, ingratiating linen—the first fresh personal linen that had touched her in nine days.
It was all as though she were enfolded deep in the embrace of a not too fervent benediction.
About her were the large, dignified spaces of her bedroom, and beyond were the yet greater spaces of her sitting-room; and from where she lay she could see the gleaming white of her large tiled bathroom. And there were drawers and drawers of fresh lingerie; and there were her closets filled with comfortable gowns that would be a thousand times more grateful after a week of Matilda's unchanged and oppressive black. And there on her dressing-table were the multitudinous implements of silver that had to do with her toilet.
After what she had been through, this, indeed, was comfort.
But as consciousness grew clearer, her forgotten troubles and her dangers returned to her. For a brief period alarm possessed her. Then reason began to assert itself; and the hope which the night before had been hardly more than desperation began to take on the character of confidence. She saw possibilities. And the longer she considered, the more and greater the possibilities were. Her original plan began to re-present itself to her; modified, of course, to meet the altered conditions. If she could only remain here, undiscovered, then months hence, when it was announced that Mrs. De Peyster (she sent up a warm prayer for Olivetta!) was homeward bound, Jack and Mary and that unthinkable Mr. Pyecroft would decamp, if they had not gone before, and leave the way clear for the easy interchange by Olivetta and herself of their several personalities.
As she lay there in the gentle Sabbath calm, in the extra-curled hair of her ultra-superior mattress, this revised version of her plan, in the first glow of its conception, seemed alluringly plausible. She had to be more careful, to be sure, but aside from this the new plan seemed quite as good as the original. In fact, in her reaction from the alarms of yesterday, it somehow seemed even better.
Twelve hours before there had seemed no possible solution to her predicament. And here it was—come unexpectedly to her aid, as was the way with things in life; and a very simple solution, too. Lazily, hazily, a poet's line teased and evaded her memory. What was it?—something about "a pleasant hermitage." That was just what this was: a pleasant hermitage.
But presently, as she lay comforting herself, and the morning wore on, she became increasingly conscious of an indefinable uncomfortable sensation. And presently the sensation became more definite; became localized; and she was aware that she was growing hungry. And in the same moment came the dismaying realization that, in their haste of the night before, she had not thought to plan with Matilda for the somewhat essential item of food!
She sat up. What was she ever to do? Three months of solitary confinement, with no arrangements for food! Would Matilda have the sense to think of this, and if so would she have the adroitness to smuggle edibles in to her unnoticed? Or was she to be starved out?
The revised plan had lost its first rose-tint.
She got up, and noiselessly foraged throughout her quarters. The total of her gleaning was a box of forgotten chocolate bon-bons and a box of half-length tallow candles. She had read that Esquimaux ate tallow, or its equivalent, and prospered famously upon it; but she deferred the candles in favor of the bon-bons, and breakfasted on half the box.
Then she went back to bed and read. In the afternoon she ate the second half of the bon-bons.
Also in the afternoon she discovered that the bliss of lying abed, which she had thought would be exhaustless, had inexplicably become transmitted into boredom. And yet she dared not move about, save with a caution that amounted almost to pain; for she had heard Jack and Mary and Mr. Pyecroft pass and re-pass her door, and she knew that any slight noise on her part might result in disastrous betrayal.
Evening drew on. Bed, and sitting noiseless in one spot, grew more wearisome. And her stomach began to complain bitterly, for as has been remarked it was a pampered creature and had been long accustomed to being served sumptuously and with deferential promptitude. But she realized that Matilda would not dare come, if she remembered to come at all, until the household was fast asleep.
Eight o'clock came. She lit one of the candles and placed it, cautiously shaded, in a corner of her sitting-room....
Ten o'clock came.
She looked meditatively at the box of candles. Perhaps the Esquimaux ate them with a kind of sauce. They might not be so bad that way....
Midnight came. Shortly thereafter a faint, ever so faint, knocking sent her tiptoeing—for months she would dare move only on breathless tiptoe!—to the door of her sitting-room, where she stood and listened.
Again the faint knocking sounded.
"Mrs. De Peyster, it's Matilda," whispered an agitated voice.
Mrs. De Peyster quickly unlocked and opened the door. Matilda slipped in and the door was softly closed upon her back.
"Here's some food—just what I could grab in a second—I didn't dare take time to choose." Matilda held out a bundle wrapped in a newspaper. "Take it, ma'am. I don't dare stay here a second."
But Mrs. De Peyster caught her arm.
"How did they take my going?"
"Mr. Jack thought home was really the best place for my sister, if she was sick, ma'am. And Mary was awfully kind and asked me all sorts of questions—which—which I found it awfully hard to answer, ma'am,—and she is going to send you the book you didn't finish. And Mr. Pyecroft got me off into a corner and said, so we'd tried to give him the slip again."
"What is he going to do?"
"He said he was safe here, under Judge Harvey's protection. Outside some detective might insist on arresting him, and perhaps things might take such a turn that even Judge Harvey might not be able to help him. So he said he was going to stay on here till things blew over. Oh, please, ma'am, let me go, for if they were to hear me—"
A minute later the chattering Matilda was out of the room, the door was locked, and Mrs. De Peyster was sitting in a chair with the bundle of provisions on her exquisitely lacquered tea-table. In the newspaper was a small loaf of bread, a tin of salmon, and a kitchen knife. That was all. Not even butter! And, of course, no coffee—she who liked coffee, strong, three times a day. But when was she ever again to know the taste of coffee!
Never before had she sat face to face with such an uninteresting menu. But she devoured it—opening the tin of salmon after great effort with the knife—devoured it every bit. Then she noticed the newspaper in which the provisions had been wrapped. It was part of that day's, Sunday's, "Record," and it was the illustrated supplement. This she unfolded, and before her eyes stood a big-lettered title, "Annual Exodus of Society Leaders," and in the queenly place in the center of the page was her own portrait by M. Dubois.
Her eyes wandered up to the original, which was dimly illumined by the rays of her one candle. What poise, what breeding, what calm, imperturbable dignity! Then her gaze came back to her be-crumbed tea-table, with the kitchen knife and the raggedly gaping can. She slipped rather limply down in her chair and covered her eyes.
A day passed—and another—and another. Outside Mrs. De Peyster's suite these days flew by with honeymoon rapidity; within, they lingered, and clung on, and seemed determined never to go, as is time's malevolent practice with those imprisoned. Mrs. De Peyster could hear Mary practicing, and practicing hard—and, yes, brilliantly. As for Jack, Matilda told her on her later visits—and her later bundles contained a larger and more palatable supply of food than had the first package—Matilda said that Jack, too, was working hard. Furthermore, Matilda admitted, the pair were having the jolliest of honeymoons.
And a further thing Matilda told on her third furtive, after-midnight visit. This concerned Mr. Pyecroft. Mr. Pyecroft, it seemed, was becoming an even greater favorite with Jack and Mary—particularly with Mary. He had confided to them that he was weary of his escapades, and wanted to settle down; in fact, there was a girl—the nicest girl in the world, begging Mary's pardon—who had promised to marry him as soon as he had become launched in honorable work. The trouble was, he knew that no business man would employ him in a responsible capacity, and so his last departures from strict rectitude had been for the purpose of securing the capital to set himself up in some small but independent way.
His story, Matilda admitted, had captured Mary's heart.
Judge Harvey, however, still smarting under his indignity, would on his evening calls scarcely speak to Mr. Pyecroft. Nonetheless, Mr. Pyecroft had continued regretful and polite. Once or twice, Judge Harvey, forgetting his resentment, had been drawn into discussions of points of law with Mr. Pyecroft. To Matilda, who, of course, knew nothing about law, it had seemed that Mr. Pyecroft talked almost as well as the Judge himself. But the Judge, the instant he remembered himself, resumed his ire toward Mr. Pyecroft.
Thus three days, in which it seemed to Mrs. De Peyster that Time stood still and taunted her,—each day exactly like the day before, a day of half starvation, of tiptoed, breathless routine,—days in which she spoke not a word save a whisper or two at midnight at the food-bearing visit of the sad-visaged Matilda,—three dull, diabolic days dragged by their interminable length of hours. Such days!—such awful, awful days!
On Matilda's fourth visit with her usual bundle of pilferings from the pantry, Mrs. De Peyster observed in the manner of that disconsolate pirate a great deal of suppressed agitation—of a sort hardly ascribable to the danger of their situation: an agitation quite different from mere nervous fear. There were traces of recent crying in Matilda's face, and now and then she had difficulty in holding down a sob. Mrs. De Peyster pressed her as to the trouble; Matilda chokingly replied that there was nothing. Mrs. De Peyster persisted, and soon Matilda was weeping openly.
"Oh, my heart's broke, ma'am!" she sobbed. "My heart's broke!"
"Your heart broken! How?"
"Before I can tell you, ma'am," cried the miserable Matilda, "I've got to make a confession. I've done—something awful! I've disobeyed you, ma'am! I've disobeyed and deceived you!"
"What, Matilda," said Mrs. De Peyster severely, "after the way I've trusted you for twenty years!"
"Yes, ma'am. But, I couldn't help it, ma'am! There's feelings one can't—"
"But what have you done?"
"I've—I've fallen in love, ma'am. For over a year I've been the same as engaged to William."
"William!" cried Mrs. De Peyster, sinking back from her erect, reproving posture, and recalling an unforgettable episode.
"Yes, ma'am,—to William. I'm sorry I disobeyed you, ma'am,—very sorry,—but I can't think about that now. For now," sobbed Matilda, "for now it's all off—and my heart is broke!"
"All off? Why?" breathed Mrs. De Peyster.
"That's what I can't understand, ma'am," wailed Matilda. "It's all a mystery to me. I've hardly seen William, and haven't spoken to him, since we came back, and he's acted awfully queer to me. I—I couldn't stand it any longer, and this evening I went out to the stable to see him. He was as stiff, and as polite, and as mad as—oh, William was never like that to me before, ma'am! I asked him what was the matter. 'All right, if you want to break off, I'm willing!' he said in, oh, such a hard voice. 'But, William,' I said, beginning to cry, 'but, William, what have I ever done to you?' 'You know what you've done!' he said."
"Oh!" breathed Mrs. De Peyster.
"I begged him to explain, but he just turned his back on me and walked away! And now, ma'am," wept Matilda, "I know he'll never explain, he's such a proud, obstinate, stiff-necked man! And I love him so, Mrs. De Peyster,—I love him so! Oh, my heart is broke!"
Mrs. De Peyster gazed at her sobbing serving-woman in chilled dismay. She was for a moment impelled to explain to Matilda; but she quickly realized it would never, never do for her housekeeper to know that her coachman had made love to her, and had—had even kissed her. Every drop of De Peyster blood revolted against such a degradation.
"I hope it will come out all right, Matilda," she said in a shaking voice.
"Oh, it never can!" Matilda had already started for the door. She paused, hesitant, with the knob in her hand. "But you, ma'am," she faltered, "can you ever forgive me for the way I deceived you?"
Mrs. De Peyster tried to look severe, yet relenting.
"I'll try to overlook it, Matilda."
"Thank you, ma'am," snuffled Matilda; and very humbly she went out.
MATILDA BREAKS IT GENTLY
At two o'clock of the fifth night Matilda stole into Mrs. De Peyster with a face that would have been an apt cover for the Book of Lamentations. She opened her pages. That day she had had a telegram that her sister Angelica—the really and truly Angelica, who really and truly lived near Syracuse—that Angelica was seriously ill. She was sorry, but she felt that she must go.
"Of course, you must go, Matilda!" exclaimed Mrs. De Peyster. Then the significance to her of Matilda's absence flashed upon her. "But what will I do without any company at all?" she cried. "And without any food?"
"I've seen to the food, ma'am." And Matilda explained that during the evening, in preparation for her going, she had been smuggling into the house from Sixth Avenue delicatessen stores boxes of crackers, cold meats, all varieties of canned goods—"enough to last you for a month, ma'am, and by that time I'll be back."
Her explanation made, Matilda proceeded, with extremest caution, to carry the provisions up and stack them in one corner of Mrs. De Peyster's large, white-tiled bathroom. When the freightage was over, the bathroom, with its supply of crackers and zweibach, its bottles of olives and pickles, its cold tongue, cold roast beef, cold chicken, its cans of salmon, sardines, deviled ham, California peaches, and condensed milk—the bathroom was itself a delicatessen shop that many an ambitious young German would have regarded as a proud start in life.
"But what about food for the others while you're gone?" inquired Mrs. De Peyster—with a sudden hope that the others would be starved into leaving.
"I've attended to them, ma'am. I've bought a lot of things that will keep. And then I told the tradespeople that my niece was going to be here in my place, and they are to deliver milk and other fresh things for her every day in care of William."
Matilda broke down at the last moment.
"If it wasn't for you, ma'am, I wouldn't care if it was me that was sick, instead of my sister, and if I never got well. For with William—"
She could say no more, and departed adrip with tears.
Matilda's nightly visits were a loss; but Mrs. De Peyster had come to take her situation more and more philosophically. The life was unspeakably tedious, to be sure, and rather dangerous, too; but she had accepted the predicament—it had to be endured and could not be helped; and such a state of mind made her circumstances much easier to support. All in all, there was no reason, though, of course, it was most uncomfortable—there was no good reason, she kept assuring herself, why she might not safely withstand the siege and come out of the affair with none but her two confidants being the wiser.
In this philosophic mood three more days passed—passed slowly and tediously, to be sure, but yet they did get by. There were relaxations, of course,—things to occupy her mind. She read a little each day; she listened to Mary's concert in the drawing-room below her—for Mary dared to continue playing despite Matilda's absence, since it was known that Matilda's niece was in the house, though Mary never showed her face; she listened for snatches of the conversation of Jack and Mary and Mr. Pyecroft when they passed her door; at times she stood upon a chair at one of her windows and cautiously peered through the little panes in her shutters, like the lens of a camera, down into the sunny green of Washington Square.
Also, of evenings, she found herself straining to hear the voice of Judge Harvey. When she surprised herself at this, she would flush slightly, and again raise her book close to her shaded candle.
Then, of course, her meals were a diversion. She became quite expert with the can-opener and the corkscrew. The empty cans, since there was no way to get them out of her suite, she stacked on the side of the bathroom opposite her provisions; and daily the stack grew higher.
The nearest approach to an incident during this solitary period came to pass on the third night after Matilda's departure. On that evening Mrs. De Peyster became aware of a new voice in the house—a voice with a French accent. It seemed familiar, yet for a time she was puzzled as to the identity of the voice's owner. Then suddenly she knew: the man below was M. Dubois, whom Olivetta, at her desire, had with unwilling but obedient frostiness sent about his business. She had known that Jack had taken up with M. Dubois at the time the artist was doing her portrait; but she had not known that Jack was so intimate as the artist's being admitted to Jack's secret seemed to indicate.
Within herself, some formless, incomprehensible thing seemed about to happen. During these days of solitude—and this, too, even before Matilda had gone—a queer new something had begun to stir within her, almost as though threatening an eruption. It seemed a force, or spirit, rising darkly from hitherto unknown spaces of her being. It frightened her, with its amorphous, menacing strangeness. She tried to keep it down. She tried to keep her mental eyes away from it. And so, during all these days, she had no idea what the fearsome thing might be....
And then something did happen. On the fifth day after Matilda's departure, and the eighteenth after the sailing of the Plutonia, Mrs. De Peyster observed a sudden change in the atmosphere of the house. Within an hour, from being filled with honeymoon hilarity, the house became filled with gloom. There was no more laughter—no more running up and down the stairs and through the hallways—the piano's song was silent. Mrs. De Peyster sought to gain some clue to this mysterious change by listening for the talk of Mary and Jack and Mr. Pyecroft as they passed her door. But whereas the trio had heretofore spoken freely and often in liveliest tones, they now were either wordless or their voices were solemnly hushed.
What did it mean? Days passed—the solemn gloom continued unabated—and this question grew an ever more puzzling mystery to Mrs. De Peyster. What could it possibly, possibly, mean?
But there was no way in which she could find out. Her only source of information was Matilda, and Matilda was gone for a month; and even if Matilda, by any chance, should know what was the matter, she would not dare write; and even if she wrote, the letter, of course, would never be delivered, but would doubtless be forwarded to the pretended Mrs. De Peyster in Europe. Mrs. De Peyster could only wonder—and read—and gaze furtively out of the little peep-holes of her prison—and eat—and stack the empty cans yet higher in her bathroom—and wait, impatiently wait, while the mystery grew daily and hourly in magnitude.
Among the details that added to the mystery's bulk was the sound of another new but familiar voice—the voice of the competent Miss Gardner, her discharged secretary. And Miss Gardner's voice was not heard for an hour and then heard no more—but was heard day after day, and her tone was the tone of a person who is acquainted with the management of an establishment and who is giving necessary orders. And another detail was that William no longer kept to the stable, but seemed now constantly busy within the house. And another detail was that she became aware that Jack and Mary no longer tried to keep their presence in the house a secret, but went openly forth into the streets together. And Judge Harvey every day came openly to see them.
But the most bewildering, and yet most clarifying, detail of all was one she observed on the twelfth day since Matilda's going, the twenty-fifth of her own official absence.
On that afternoon she was standing on a chair entertaining herself by gazing through one of her shutters, when she saw Jack crossing Washington Square. He was walking very soberly, and about the left sleeve of a quiet gray summer suit was a band of crape.
Mrs. De Peyster stepped down from her chair. The mystery was lifting. Somebody was dead! But who? Who?
Early the next morning, while the inmates of the house were occupied in the serving or the eating of breakfast, Mrs. De Peyster was startled by a soft knocking at her door. But instantly she was reassured by the tremulous accents without.
"It's me, ma'am,—Matilda. Let me in—quick!"
The next instant the door opened and Matilda half staggered, half fell, into the room. But such a Matilda! Shivering all over, eyes wildly staring.
"What is it?" cried Mrs. De Peyster, seizing her housekeeper's arm.
"Oh, ma—ma—ma'am," chattered Matilda. "It's—it's awful!"
"But what is it?" demanded Mrs. De Peyster, beginning to tremble with an unknown terror.
"Oh, it's—it's awful! I couldn't get you word before—for I didn't dare write, and my sister wasn't well enough for me to leave her till last night."
Mrs. De Peyster shook the shaking Matilda.
"Will you please tell me what's happened!"
"Yes, ma—ma'am. Here's a copy of the first paper that had anything about it. The paper's over a week old. I brought it along to—to break the thing to you gently."
Mrs. De Peyster seized the newspaper. In the center of its first page was a reproduction of M. Dubois's painting of herself, and across the paper's top ran the giant headline:—
MRS. DE PEYSTER FOUND DEAD IN THE SEINE
Face Disfigured by Water, but Friends in Paris Identify Social Leader by Clothes upon the Body
Mrs. De Peyster sank without a word into a chair, and her face duplicated the ashen hue of Matilda's.
Matilda likewise collapsed into a chair. "Oh, isn't it awful, ma'am," she moaned.
"So—so it's I—that's—that's dead!" mumbled Mrs. De Peyster.
"Yes, ma'am. But that isn't all. I—I thought I'd break it to you gently. That was over a week ago. Since then—"
"You mean," breathed the marble lips of Mrs. De Peyster, "that there's something more?"
"Yes, ma'am. Oh, the papers have been full of it. It's been a tremendous sensation!"
"Oh!" gasped Mrs. De Peyster.
"And Mr. Jack, since you died without a will, is your heir. And, since he is now the head of the De Peyster family, the first thing he did on hearing the news was to arrange by cable to have your body sent here."
Mrs. De Peyster, as though galvanized, half rose from her chair.
"You mean—my body—is coming here?"
"I said I was trying to break it to you gently," moaned Matilda. "It's—it's already here. The ship that brought it is now docking. Your funeral—"
"It takes place in the drawing-room, this morning. Oh, isn't it awful! But, perhaps, ma'am, if you could see what beautiful flowers your friends have sent—"
But Mrs. De Peyster had very softly sunk back into her chair.
THE VEILED LADY
As soon as that huddled mass of womanhood that was Mrs. De Peyster had become sufficiently reanimated to be able to think, its first thought came in the form of an unuttered wail.
She was dead! She was to be buried! She could never come home again!
Or if she did come home, what a scandal! A scandal out-scandalizing anything of which she had ever dreamed! A scandal worse ten times than the very grave itself!
With loose face and glazed eyes she stared at Matilda while the latter stammered out disjointed details of the past week's happenings. As for Mr. Jack's lark in dwelling surreptitiously with his wife in his mother's house, not a breath of that had reached the public. With Mr. Pyecroft's aid, and Judge Harvey's, he had managed this well. He had told the reporters that he had been quietly married over three weeks before, that he and his wife had been living in seclusion, and that on learning of his mother's demise they had come to the house to direct the obsequies.... Those Paris police were trying to solve the mystery of what had become of Mrs. De Peyster's trunks.... If Mrs. De Peyster could only see the beautiful floral tributes that were arriving, particularly the large wreath sent by Mrs. Allistair—
But Mrs. De Peyster heard none of this. She was dead! She was to be buried! She could never come home again!
At length her lips moved—slowly, stiffly, as might the lips of a dead person.
"What are we going to do?"
"I've been saying that same question to myself for days, ma'am," quavered Matilda. "And I—I don't see any answer."
No, there was nothing she could do. Mrs. De Peyster continued her glazed stare at her faithful serving-woman. In the first few minutes her mind had been able to take in the significance only to herself of this culminating disaster. But now its significance to another person shivered through that her being.
For Olivetta, of course, it was. Mrs. De Peyster knew what was due the De Peyster corpuscles that moved in stately procession along the avenues of her blood, and was not neglectful to see that that due was properly observed; but the heart from which those corpuscles derived their impulse was, as Judge Harvey had once said, in its way the kindest sort of heart. And now, for a few minutes, all that her heart could feel was felt for Olivetta.
But for a few minutes only. Then Olivetta, and all concerns beyond the immediate moment, were suddenly forgotten. For in the hall without soft footsteps were heard, and the instant after, upon her door, there sounded an ominous scratching—a sound like a key in an agitated hand searching for its appointed hole.
Mrs. De Peyster rose up and clutched Matilda's arm, and stood in rigid terror.
"Tha—that key?" chattered Matilda. "Can—can it fit?"
"There were only two keys," breathed Mrs. De Peyster. "Mine here, and the one I gave to Olivetta."
"Then it can't fit, since Miss Olivetta's—"
But the key gave Matilda the lie direct by slipping into the lock. The two women clung to one another, knowing that the end had come, wondering who was to be their exposer. The bolt clicked back, the door swung open, and—
And into the dusky room there tottered a rather tall, heavily veiled, feminine figure. It did not gaze at the shrinking couple in astoundment. It did not launch into exclamation at its discovery. Instead, it sank weakly down into the nearest chair.
"Oh!" it moaned. "Oh! Oh! Oh!"
"Who—who are you?" huskily demanded Mrs. De Peyster.
"Oh! Oh!" moaned the figure. "Isn't it terrible! Isn't it terrible! But I didn't mean to do it—I didn't mean to do it, Caroline!"
"It's not—not Olivetta?" gasped Mrs. De Peyster.
"It was an accident!" the figure wailed on. "I couldn't help myself. And if you knew what I've gone through to get here, I know you'd forgive me."
Mrs. De Peyster had lifted the veil up over the hat.
"Olivetta! Then—after all—you're not dead!"
"No—if I only were!" sobbed Olivetta.
"Then who is that—that person who's coming here this morning?"
"I don't know!" Then Olivetta's quavering voice grew hard with indignation. "It's somebody who's trying to get a good funeral under false pretenses!"
"But the papers said the body had on my clothes."
"Yes—I suppose it must have had."
"But how—" Mrs. De Peyster recalled their precarious position. "Matilda, lock the door. But, Olivetta, how could it ever, ever have happened?"
"I followed your directions—and got to Paris all right—and everything was going splendid—and I was beginning to enjoy myself—when—when—Oh, Caroline, I—I—"
"You what?" demanded Mrs. De Peyster.
"I lost my purse!" sobbed Olivetta.
"Lost your purse?"
"I left it in a cab when I went to the Louvre. And in it was all my money—my letter of credit—everything!"
"And I didn't dare cable you for more. For if I had sent a cable to you here, it might have betrayed you."
"And what did you do?"
"There was nothing for me to do but to—to—sell some of your gowns."
"Oh!" Mrs. De Peyster was beginning dimly to see the drift of things.
Olivetta's mind wandered to another phase of her tribulations.
"And the price I got for them was a swindle, Caroline. It was—it was a tragedy! For your black chiffon, and your silver satin, and your spangled net—"
"But this person they took for me?" interrupted Mrs. De Peyster.
"Oh, whoever she is, she must have bought one of them. She could have bought it for nothing—and that Frenchman who cheated me—would have doubled his money. And after she bought it—she—she"—Olivetta's voice rang out with hysterical resentment—"she got us all into this trouble by walking into the Seine. It's the most popular pastime in Paris, to walk into the Seine. But why," ended Olivetta with a spiteful burst,—"why couldn't she have amused herself in her own clothes? That's what I want to know!"
"And then? What did you do?" breathed Mrs. De Peyster.
"When it came out three days later that it was you, I was so—so frightened that I didn't know what to do. I didn't dare deny the report, for that would have been to expose you. And I didn't dare cable to you that it was all a mistake and that I was all right, for that would have been just as bad. Perhaps I might have acted differently, but I—well, I ran away. I crossed to London with your trunks. There I learned that—that they were sending your remains home. I realized I had to get you word somehow, and I realized the only way was for me to come and tell you. So I sold some more of your gowns, and just caught the Mauretania, and here I am."
So ending, Olivetta, as though her bones had melted, subsided into a gelatinous heap of dejection, dabbing her crimson eyes with a handkerchief already saturated with liquid woe.
"It's a relief to know it wasn't you," said Mrs. De Peyster.
"I'm sure—it's kind of you—to say so," snuffled Olivetta gratefully.
"But, aside from your being safe, our situation is unchanged," said Mrs. De Peyster in tremulous, awe-stricken tone. "For that—that person is coming here just the same!"
"I know. The horrid interloper!"
"She may be here any minute," said Mrs. De Peyster. "What are we going to do?"
"We must think of something quick," spoke up Matilda nervously. "For it's almost time for your funeral, ma'am, and after that—"
"I've been thinking all the voyage over," broke in Olivetta. "And I could think of only one plan."
"And that?" Mrs. De Peyster eagerly inquired.
There was an excited, desperate light in Olivetta's flooding eyes.
"Couldn't you manage, in some way, while nobody is looking, to slip into that Frenchwoman's place; and then, before the ceremony was over, you could sit up and say you'd been in a cataleptic fit. Such things have happened. I've read about them."
"Absurd, Olivetta! Quite absurd!" quavered Mrs. De Peyster.
"I dare say it is," agreed Olivetta, subsiding again into her limp misery. "Oh, why did I ever go to Paris! I hate the place!"
"Don't give way; think!" commanded Mrs. De Peyster, who was in a condition not far removed from Olivetta's. "Think, Matilda!"
"Yes, ma'am," said Matilda obediently.
"You think, Caroline," whimpered Olivetta. "You always had such a superior intellect, and were always so equal to every emergency."
Mrs. De Peyster thus reminded of what was expected of her life-long leadership, tried to collect her scattered forces, and sat with pale, drawn, twitching face, staring at her predicament—and her two faithful subjects sat staring at her, waiting the inspired idea for escape that would fall from her never-failing lips. Moment after moment of deepest silence followed.
At length Mrs. De Peyster spoke.
"There are only two ways. First, for me to go down and disclose myself—"
"But the scandal! The humiliation!" cried Olivetta.
"Yes, that first way will never do," said Mrs. De Peyster. "The second way is not a solution; it is only a means to a possible solution. But before I state the way, I must ask you, Olivetta, if any one saw you come in?"
"There were a number of people coming and going, people preparing for the funeral—but I watched my chance, and used my latch-key, and I'm sure no one connected with the house saw me."
"That is good. If any outsiders saw you, they will merely believe that you also were some person concerned in the funeral. As for my plan, it is simple. You must both slip out of here unseen; you, Olivetta, will, of course, say that you have returned to the city to attend my funeral. From the outside you both must help me."
"Yes. But you, Caroline?" said Olivetta.
"As for me, I must stay here, quietly, just as I have done for the last three weeks. I still have some supplies left. After everything has quieted down, I shall watch my chance, and steal out of the house late some night. That's as far as I have planned, but once away I can work out some explanation for the terrible mistake and then come home. That seems the only way; that seems the only chance."
"You always were a wonder!" cried Olivetta admiringly.
"Then you agree to the plan?"
"And you, Matilda?"
"Of course, ma'am."
Thus praised and seconded, Mrs. De Peyster resumed some faint shadow of her accustomed dignity.
"Very well, then. You must both leave here this instant."
Olivetta threw her arms about her cousin's neck.
"Good-bye, Caroline," she quavered. "You really have no hard feelings against me?"
"No, none. You must go!" said Mrs. De Peyster.
"I'm sure, with you in charge, it's all going to come out right!" said the clinging Olivetta hopefully.
"You must really go!" And Mrs. De Peyster pressed her and Matilda toward the door.
But midway to the door the trio halted suddenly. Coming up the stairway was the sound of hurried feet—of many pairs of feet. The footsteps came through the hall. The trio did not breathe. The footsteps paused before the sitting-room door. The confederates gripped each others' arms.
"Are you sure you saw that person come in here?" they heard a voice ask—Jack's voice.
"I'm certain." The voice that answered was Mary's.
"I'll bet it was a sneak thief," said a third voice—Mr. Pyecroft's. "To slip into a house at a funeral, or a wedding, when a lot of people are coming and going—that's one of their oldest tricks." He turned the knob, and finding the door locked, shook it violently. "Open up, in there!" he called.
The three clung to one another for support.
"Better open up!" called a fourth voice—Judge Harvey's. "For we know you're in there!"
Breathless, the trembling conspirators clung yet more desperately.
"But how could she get in?" queried the excited voice of Mary. "I understood that Mrs. De Peyster locked the door before she went away."
"Skeleton key," was Mr. Pyecroft's brief explanation. "Mrs. De Peyster, we three will watch the door to see she doesn't get out—there may have been more than one of her. You go and telephone for a locksmith and the police."
"All right," said Mary.
"It's—it's all over!" breathed Mrs. De Peyster.
"Oh, oh! What shall we ever do?" wailed Olivetta, collapsing into a chair.
"The police!—she mustn't go!" gasped Mrs. De Peyster. "Open the door, Matilda, quick!" Then in a weak, quavering voice she called to her besiegers:—
After which she wilted away into the nearest chair—which chanced to be directly beneath the awesome, unbending, blue-blue-blooded Mrs. De Peyster of the golden frame, whose proud composure it was beyond things mortal to disturb.
A FAMILY REUNION
Matilda's shaking hand unlocked the door. Jack lunged in, behind him Mr. Pyecroft and Judge Harvey, and behind them Mary. On Jack's face was a look of menacing justice. But at sight of the trembling turnkey the invading party suddenly halted, and Jack's stern jaw relaxed and almost dropped from its sockets.
"Matilda!" he exclaimed. And from behind him, like a triplicate echo, sounded the others' "Matilda!"
"Good—good-morning, Mr. Jack," quavered Matilda, locking the door again.
Then the four sighted Olivetta.
"What, you, Olivetta!" Jack and Judge Harvey cried in unison.
"Yes, it's I, Jack," she said with an hysterical laugh. "I just thought I'd call in to express—it's no more than is proper, my being her cousin, you know,—to express my sympathy to your mother."
"Your sympathy to my mother?"
"Yes. To—to tell her how—how sorry I am that she's dead," elucidated Olivetta.
A little hand gripped Jack's arm.
He turned his head and his eyes followed Mary's pointing finger.
"Mother!" He walked amazedly up before Mrs. De Peyster's palsied figure. "Mother!"
In the same instant Judge Harvey was beside her.
"Caroline!" he breathed, like one seeing a ghost.
"Ye-yes," she mumbled.
"Then you're not dead?"
"N-no," she mumbled.
The Judge and Jack and Mary gazed down at her in uttermost astoundment. To them was added Mr. Pyecroft. His bewilderment, for the moment, was the greatest of the group; for the likeness between the black-garbed, fled Angelica, and this real Mrs. De Peyster in lavender dressing-gown, was more remarkable than he had ever dreamed.
"Thank God!" quavered Judge Harvey. And then, voicing the general amazement: "But—but—I don't understand! What has happened? How do you come here?"
Mrs. De Peyster, with a shivering glance at them all, and one of particular terror at her recent confederate, Mr. Pyecroft, made a last rally to save herself.
"My explanation—that is, all I know about this affair—is really very simple. I—you see—I very unexpectedly returned home—and—and discovered this—this situation. That is all." She gathered a little more courage. "I do not need to inform you that I have been away."
"Of course, we know you've been away!" said Jack. "But that Mrs. De Peyster at the pier—who is she?"
"She's nothing—but a base—impostor!" cried Olivetta indignantly, lifting her face for a moment from her woe-soaked handkerchief. "Don't you believe a word she says!"
"But we're all ready for the ceremony!" exclaimed Jack. "There are a dozen reporters downstairs, and no end of friends are coming from out of town to be present. And that person, whoever she is, will be here—"
"I tell you she's an impostor!" cried Olivetta frantically. "Don't you let her in!"
"Caroline, I can't tell you how—" Judge Harvey's voice, tremulous with relief at this unbelievably averted tragedy, broke off. "But what are we going to do?" he cried.
"Yes, what are we going to do?" echoed Mary.
Concern over this new, swiftly approaching crisis for a moment took precedence of all other emotions. Judge Harvey and Mary and Jack gazed at each other, bewildered, helpless. Something had to be done, quick—but what?
"I tell you, don't let that impostor in!" repeated the frantic Olivetta.
The three continued their interchange of helpless gaze.
"Pardon me if I seem to intrude," spoke up the even voice of Mr. Pyecroft.
Swiftly, but without appearing to hurry, he stepped to Mrs. De Peyster's writing-desk, and began running through the pages of the telephone book. With terrified apprehension, Mrs. De Peyster watched him: what—what was that terrible man going to do?
The telephone was now in his hand, the receiver at his ear.
"Central, give me Broad 4900.... Is this the French Line? Then connect me with the manager.... This the manager of the French Line?... I am speaking for Mr. Jack De Peyster, son of Mrs. De Peyster,—you know. Please give orders to the proper authorities to have Mrs. De Peyster held at the dock. Or if she has left, stop her at all cost. There must be no mistake! Further orders will follow. Understand?... Thank you very much. Good-bye."
He turned about.
"It will be all right," he said quietly.
With a wild stare at him, Mrs. De Peyster sank back in her chair and closed her eyes.
"She's fainted!" cried Mary. "Her smelling-salts!"
"A glass of water!" exclaimed Jack.
"No, no," breathed Mrs. De Peyster.
But the pair had darted away, Mary into the bedroom, Jack into the bathroom. From the bathroom came a sudden, jangling din like the sheet-iron thunder of the stage.
Mary reappeared, fresh amazement on her face.
"Somebody's been using the bedroom! The bed's not made, and your clothes are all about!"
The next moment Jack rushed in behind her.
"What a stack of empty tin cans I kicked into in the bathroom! What the deuce has been going on here?"
Mrs. De Peyster looked weakly, hopelessly, at Olivetta.
"There's no use trying to keep it up any longer. We—we might as well confess. You tell them, Olivetta."
But Olivetta protested into her dripping handkerchief that she never, never could. So it fell to Mrs. De Peyster herself to be the historian of her plans and misadventures—and she was so far reduced that even the presence of Mr. Pyecroft made no difference to her; and as for Mr. Pyecroft, when the truth of the affair flashed upon him, that wide, flexible mouth twisted upward into its whimsicalest smile—but the next instant his face was gravity itself. With every word she grew less and less like the Mrs. De Peyster of M. Dubois's masterpiece. At the close of the long narrative, made longer by frequent outbursts of misery, she could have posed for a masterpiece of humiliation.
"It's all been bad enough," she moaned at the end; "what's happened is all bad enough, but think what's yet to come! It's all coming out! Everybody will be laughing at me—oh!—oh!—oh!—"
Mrs. De Peyster was drifting away into inarticulate lamentations, when there came a tramping sound upon the stairway. She drew herself up.
There was a loud rap upon the door.
"I say, Judge Harvey, Mr. De Peyster," called out a voice. "What's all this delay about?"
"Who is it?" breathed Mrs. De Peyster.
"That infernal Mayfair, and the whole gang of reporters!" exclaimed Jack.
"Oh, Jack,—Judge Harvey! Save me! Save me!"
"The hour set for the funeral is passed," Mayfair continued to call, "the drawing-room is packed with people, and the body hasn't arrived yet. We don't want to make ourselves obnoxious, but it's almost press-time for the next edition, and we've got to know what's doing. You know what a big story this is. Understand—we've simply got to know!"
"Judge—what the devil are we going to do?" breathed Jack.
"My God, Caroline, Jack,—this is awful!" Judge Harvey whispered desperately. "We simply can't keep this out of the papers, and when it does get out—"
"Oh! Oh!" moaned Mrs. De Peyster.
"Judge Harvey," called the impatient Mr. Mayfair, "you really must tell us what's up!"
Judge Harvey and Jack and Mary regarded each other in blank desperation; Mrs. De Peyster and Olivetta and Matilda were merely different varieties of jellied helplessness.
"Judge Harvey," Mr. Mayfair called again, "we simply must insist!"
"Caroline," falteringly whispered Judge Harvey, "I don't see what we—"
"Pardon me," whispered Mr. Pyecroft, gently stepping forward among them. Then he raised his voice: "Wait just one minute, gentlemen! You shall know everything!"
"Oh, Mr. Pyecroft, don't, don't!" moaned Mrs. De Peyster. "Judge Harvey—Jack—don't let him! Send them away! Put it off! I can't stand it!"
But Mr. Pyecroft, without heeding her protest, and unhampered by the others, stepped to Olivetta's side.
"Miss Harmon," he whispered rapidly, "did you obey Mrs. De Peyster's instructions on your voyage home? About keeping to your stateroom—about keeping yourself veiled, and all the rest?"
"Yes," said Olivetta.
"And Mrs. De Peyster's trunks, where are they?"
"At the Cunard pier,"
"What name did you sail under?"
In the same instant Mr. Pyecroft had lifted Olivetta to her feet, had drawn from her boneless figure the long traveling-coat of pongee silk, and had drawn the pins from her traveling-hat. Released from his support, Olivetta re-collapsed. In the next instant Mr. Pyecroft had Mrs. De Peyster upon her feet, with firm, deft, resistless hands had slipped the long coat upon her, had put the hat upon her head and pushed in the pins, had drawn the thick veil down over her face—and had thrust her again down into her chair.
"Matilda, not a word!" he ordered, in a quick, authoritative whisper. "Miss Harmon, not a word! Mrs. De Peyster, call up your nerve; you'll need it, for you know that Mayfair is the cleverest reporter in Park Row. And now, Mrs. Jack De Peyster,"—for Mary stood nearest the door,—"let them in."
Mrs. De Peyster half-rose in ultimate consternation.
"Oh, please—please—you're not going to let them in!"
"We don't dare keep them out!" Mr. Pyecroft pressed Mrs. De Peyster firmly back into her chair. "Keep your nerve!" he repeated sharply. "Open the door, please,—quick!"
Mary cast a questioning glance at Jack, who, bewildered, nodded his consent. She unlocked the door.
MR. PYECROFT TAKES CHARGE
The next moment a dozen reporters crowded into the room, the redoubtable Mr. Mayfair at their head; and behind them could be seen the pale, curious faces of William, Miss Gardner, and M. Dubois. Mrs. De Peyster, Olivetta, and Matilda sat in limp despair. Judge Harvey, Jack, and Mary gazed in breathless suspense and wonderment at Mr. Pyecroft. As for Mr. Pyecroft, he stood before Mrs. De Peyster, obscuring her, looking like one who has suffered a severe shock, yet withal grave and composed.
"What's up?" demanded the keen-faced Mayfair.
"Before I answer that," said Mr. Pyecroft, "permit me to preface what I have to say by touching upon two necessary personal details. First, I believe, at least, you, Mr. Mayfair, have known me as Mr. Simpson, brother of Mrs. De Peyster's housekeeper. I am not her brother. This harmless deception was undertaken, for reasons not necessary to give, at the request of Judge Harvey; he wished me to remain in the house to arrange, and make abstracts of, certain private papers. The second detail is, that I am speaking at the request of Judge Harvey, as his associate and as the representative of the De Peyster family."
Judge Harvey felt his collar; Jack stared. But fortunately the room was dim, and the reporters' eyes were all on the grave, candid face of Mr. Pyecroft.
"Yes—yes," said the impatient Mayfair. "But out with the story! What's doing?"
"Something that I think will surprise you," said Mr. Pyecroft. "Something that has completely astounded all of us—particularly this lady who is Mrs. De Peyster's housekeeper, and Miss Harmon, here, who has just returned from a quiet summer in Maine to attend her cousin's funeral. The fact is, gentlemen, to come right to the point, there is to be no funeral."
"No funeral!" cried Mr. Mayfair.
"No funeral!" ran through the crowd.
"No funeral," repeated Mr. Pyecroft. "The reason, gentlemen, is that a great mistake has been made. Mrs. De Peyster is not dead."
"Not dead!" exclaimed the reporters.
"If you desire proof, here it is." Mr. Pyecroft, stepping aside, revealed the figure of Mrs. De Peyster. He put his right hand upon her shoulder, gripping it tightly and holding her in her chair, and with his left he lifted the thick veil above her face. "I believe that most of you know Mrs. De Peyster, at least from her pictures."
"Mrs. De Peyster!" cried the staggered crowd. "Mrs. De Peyster herself!"
"Mrs. De Peyster herself," repeated Mr. Pyecroft in his grave voice. "You are surprised, but not more so than the rest of us."
"But that other Mrs. De Peyster—the one the funeral is for?" asked Mr. Mayfair. "Who is she?"
"That, gentlemen, is as great a mystery to us as to any of you," said Mr. Pyecroft.
"But how the—but how did it all happen?" ejaculated Mr. Mayfair.
"That is what I am going to tell you," Mr. Pyecroft answered.
Mrs. De Peyster struggled up.
"Don't—don't!" she besought him wildly.
Mr. Pyecroft pressed her back into her chair, and held her there with an arm that was like a brace of steel.
"You see, gentlemen," he remarked sympathetically, "how this business has upset her."
"Yes! But the explanation?"
"Immediately—word for word, as Mrs. De Peyster has just now told us," said he.
"Oh!" moaned Mrs. De Peyster.
Olivetta and Matilda gazed at Mr. Pyecroft with ghastly, loose-lipped faces; Judge Harvey and Jack and Mary stared at him with an amazed suspense which they could hardly mask; and Miss Gardner, with whom he had not yet made his peace, breathlessly awaited the next move of this incomprehensible husband of hers. Mr. Pyecroft kept his eyes, for the most part, upon the shrewd, fraud-penetrating features of the unfoilable Mr. Mayfair—his own countenance the most truthful that son of Adam ever wore.
"What Mrs. De Peyster has said is really very simple. As you know, she left Paris two or three weeks ago on a long motor trip. During her brief stay in Paris, one of her trunks was either lost or stolen, she is not certain which. As she pays no personal attention to her baggage, she was not aware of her loss for several days. So much is fact. Now we come to mere conjecture. A plausible conjecture seems to be that the gowns in the trunk were sold to a second-hand dealer, and these gowns, being attractive, the dealer must have immediately resold to various purchasers, and one of these purchasers must have—"
"Yes, yes! Plain as day!" exclaimed Mr. Mayfair.
"The face was unrecognizable," continued Mr. Pyecroft, "but since the gown had sewn into it Mrs. De Peyster's name, of course—"
"Of course! The most natural mistake in the world!" cried Mr. Mayfair excitedly. "Go on! Go on!"
Mrs. De Peyster had slowly turned a dazed countenance upward and was gazing at the sober, plausible face of her young man of the sea.
"Mrs. De Peyster did not learn of what had happened till the day the supposed Mrs. De Peyster was started homeward. The most sensible thing for her to have done would have been to declare the mistake, and saved her family and friends a great deal of grief. But the shock completely unbalanced her. I will not attempt to describe her psychological processes or explain her actions. You may call her course illogical, hysterical, what you like; I do not seek to defend it; I am only trying to give you the facts. She was so completely unnerved—But a mere look at Mrs. De Peyster will show you how the shock unnerved her."
The group gazed at Mrs. De Peyster's face. A murmur of sympathy and understanding ran among them.
"In her hysterical condition," continued Mr. Pyecroft, "she had but one thought, and that was to get home as quickly as she could. She crossed to England, sailed on the Mauretania, kept to her stateroom, and arrived here at the house heavily veiled about an hour ago. I may add the details that she sailed under the name of Miss Harriman and that her trunks are now at the Cunard pier. There you have the entire story, gentlemen."
He looked down at Mrs. De Peyster. "I believe I have stated the matter just as you outlined it to us?"
"Ye—yes," breathed Mrs. De Peyster.
"There is no detail you would like to add?"
"N—none," breathed Mrs. De Peyster.
"Then, gentlemen," said Mr. Pyecroft, turning to the reporters, "since you have all the facts, and since Mrs. De Peyster is in a state bordering on collapse, we would take it as a favor if—"
"No need to dismiss us," put in Mr. Mayfair. "We're in a bigger hurry to leave than you are to have us go. God, boys," he ejaculated to his fellows, "what a peach of a story!"
In a twinkling Mr. Mayfair and his fellows of the press had vanished, each in the direction of a telephone over which he could hurry this super-sensation into his office.
Within the room, all were staring at Mr. Pyecroft, as though in each a whirling chaos were striving to shape itself into speech. But before they could become articulate, that sober young gentleman had stepped from out of their midst and, his back to them, was discreetly engrossing himself in the examination of the first object that came to his hands: which chanced to be something lying on top of the exquisite safe—a slender platinum chain with a pendant pearl.
With him gone, all eyes fixed themselves upon Mrs. De Peyster, and there was a profound and motionless silence in the room, save at first for some very sincere and vigorous snuffling into the handkerchiefs of Olivetta and Matilda. As for Mrs. De Peyster, she sat below the awesome, imperturbable Mrs. De Peyster of the portrait, and oh, what a change was there in the one beneath!—huddled, shaking, not a duchess-like line to her person, her face dropped forward in her hands.
"Mother—" Jack breathed at length.
"Caroline!" breathed Judge Harvey. Then added: "I'm sure it—it'll never become known."
"Oh, to think it's all over—and we're out of it!" Olivetta cried hysterically. "Oh! Oh!" And she limply pitched sidewise in her chair.
"Mees Harmon—Olivetta!" exclaimed M. Dubois. He sprang forward, knelt at her side and supported her wilted figure against his bosom. Upon this poultice to her troubles Olivetta relaxed and sobbed unrestrainedly. And no one, particularly Mrs. De Peyster, paid the least heed to this little episode.
William, the coachman, the irreproachable, irreplaceable, unbendable William, his clean-shaven mask of a face now somewhat pale—William took a few respectful paces toward his resurrected mistress.
"If you will not regard it as a liberty," said he, with his cadence of a prime minister, "I should like to express my relief and happiness at your restoration among us."
"Thank you—William," whispered Mrs. De Peyster.
William, having delivered his felicitations, bowed slightly, and started to turn away. But Matilda had stepped forward behind him, an imploring look upon her face.
"Please, ma'am,—please, ma'am!" said she, in a tone that left no doubt as to her meaning.
"Wait, William," weakly commanded Mrs. De Peyster.
Mrs. De Peyster did not yet know what she was doing; her words spoke themselves.
"William, Matilda has—has just confessed your engagement. She has also confessed how, during my—my absence—one night, after driving with you, she—she lost control of herself and seriously offended you. She asks me to apologize to you and tell you how very, very sorry she is."
"Indeed, I am, William!" put in Matilda fervently.
"It is my wish, William," continued Mrs. De Peyster, "that you should forgive her—and make up things between you—and never speak of that incident again—and be happy and stay with me forever."
Matilda timidly slipped an arm through William's.
"Forgive me, William!" said she appealingly.
William's graven face exhibited a strange phenomenon—it twitched slightly.
"Thank you, Mrs. De Peyster," said he. And bowing respectfully, with Matilda upon his arm, he went out.
"Well, Mary, I guess we'd better be going, too," said Jack, taking his wife's hand. "Mother,"—respectfully, yet a little defiantly,—"I'm sorry that Mary and I have by our trespassing caused you so much inconvenience. But Mary and I and our things will be out of the house within an hour. Good-bye."
"Wait, Jack!" Mrs. De Peyster reached up a trembling hand and caught his sleeve. "Olivetta," said she, "perhaps you and your—your fiance could find—another place for your confidences."
"Oh!" exclaimed Olivetta, starting up with a flush.
"Cousin Caroline, do you mean—"
Mrs. De Peyster lifted an interrupting hand.
"Do as you like, but tell me about it later."
As the pair went out, Mrs. De Peyster slowly raised herself up and stood gazing for a moment at her son. And that strange new force which had menaced her with eruption during all the days of her hiding, and which these last few minutes had been pulsing upward toward orgasm, was now become resistless. It was as though a crust, a shell, were being burst and being violently shed. She thrilled with an amazing, undreamed-of, expanding warmth.
"Do you really—want to—leave me, Jack?" she whispered.
"I have been invited to leave," said he, "but I have never been invited to come back."
With a timidity, shot through with tingling daring, she slipped an arm about his shoulders.
"Then I invite you," she said tremulously. "Won't you stay, Jack?"
"And Mary?" said he.
She looked about at her dark-eyed daughter-in-law.
"If Mary will stay, too, I'll—I'll try not to act like my petrified family tree."
"What! Was that you that day?" gasped the horrified Mary.
Mrs. De Peyster slipped her other arm about Mary, and daringly she kissed Mary's fresh young cheek, and she drew the two tightly, almost convulsively, to her. "Mother!" cried Jack; and the next instant the two pairs of arms were about her. And thus they stood for several moments; until—
"Caroline," broke in the unsteady but determined voice of Judge Harvey, "I told you I was going to propose to you again. And I'm going to do it right now. Please consider yourself proposed to."
She looked up—shamefaced, flushing.
"What, after the foolish woman I've—"
"If you were ever foolish, you were never less a fool than now!"
"I don't know about that," she quavered, "but anyhow I want you to straighten out my affairs—and—and Allistair, for all I care, can have—can have—for I'm all through—"
The next moment Judge Harvey's arms had usurped complete possession of her. And she wilted away upon his shoulder, and sobbed there. And thus for several moments....
They were aroused by a polite cough. Both looked up. Halfway to the door stood Mr. Pyecroft; and beside him was Miss Gardner, gazing at him, tremulously bewildered.
"Pardon me," said he, in his grave manner; nothing was ever seen less suggestive of having ever smiled than his face—"pardon me, Judge Harvey, but I believe you failed to mention at what time your office opens."
"What time my office opens?" Judge Harvey repeated blankly. "Why?"
"Naturally," said Mr. Pyecroft, "I wish to know at what hour I am supposed to report for work."
But for a moment Judge Harvey could get out no more. He just stared.
Then in a voice of dryest sarcasm: "Would you consider it impudent on my part—I wouldn't be impudent for the world, you know—to inquire what might be your real name? I have heard you variously called Mr. Simpson, Mr. Preston, Mr. Pyecroft. Perhaps you have a few other aliases."
"I have had—yes. My real name is Eliot Endicott Bradford. That name has the advantage of never having appeared in any complaint or police report. For that matter, I may add that under none of my names have I ever been arrested. Eliot Bradford is a man against whom no legal fault can be found."
"A testimonial from you," exclaimed the Judge—"what could possibly be better!"
"But the hour?" gently insisted the other.
Judge Harvey stared; his eyes narrowed. Then, suddenly—
"Nine-thirty," said he.
"Thank you, sir," said Mr. Bradford; and slipped a hand through Miss Gardner's arm.
But before he could turn to go, Mrs. De Peyster, from over the shoulder against which she leaned—Mrs. De Peyster, she couldn't help it ... smiled at him.
And, suddenly, Judge Harvey—he couldn't help it, either ... was smiling, too.