There were two or three tables still disengaged, but the one with the best view of the stage was the one nearest Clo. The girl in pink tripped to it, without hesitation, stood for a minute staring at the singer, and sat down. Clo watched her. She could not be certain, but she thought the girl had caught the eye of the singer and had made him a sign.
Not only had he a good voice, but he was good to look at, dark and rather "dashing," "almost like a second-hand gentleman," as Clo said to herself. His song pleased the audience, who clapped violently, demanding another. But the young man smiled, threw out his hands, shrugged, touched his throat, and bowed himself off the stage. By this time the girl in pink had ordered a bottle of wine which, to judge by the loving care of the waiter, must have been rare and expensive.
The singer sat down with his back to Clo, his companion at his side. Thus they were able to draw close, and talk without much fear of being overheard.
"Good Lord, Churn, I thought I'd missed you," were the first words Clo caught. As the girl spoke she flung a quick glance toward her little neighbour at the next table, but Clo had never looked so child-like. "I went to the Riche, and you'd gone," Kit continued. "To the Western; too late. Gosh! how I hiked for this place! I don't know what I'd done if I'd lost you!"
"Vot's de row?" Churn asked cheerfully, speaking with a slight and rather agreeable foreign accent. He poured himself a tumblerful of the deep-coloured red wine, and drank as if it were water.
"Say, Churn, a big thing's happened. I can't tell you here."
"You want I take you to de hotel?"
"No! I'm never goin' back there. And I can't go to my own digs either. I'll explain by and by. Could you take me home with you?"
"No, Jake'll be comin' in."
"Well, let's go to Chuff's. We must be somewhere! I've got a thing to show you, Churn. If there's two rooms free in the house we'll take 'em—or, no, better take one. You'll see why we must be together when you know. Say, here's money to pay the wine—looks better for you than me. Then we'll be off."
Clo gazed at the door. No O'Reilly yet. But if this pair went she would have to go, too. She mustn't lose them!
Churn beckoned a waiter with a ten-dollar bill thrust into his hand by Kit. The waiter came; but he had to get change. In Clo's lap, hidden under her napkin, was the bag she had found in Kit's room. Stealthily she opened it and took out a stub of pencil she had noticed among the contents. On the table lay a programme of the evening's entertainment. Neither she nor O'Reilly had glanced at it; but now the girl eagerly examined the list. Among the names was that of "Lorenz Czerny, Tenor"; and Clo underlined it with the pencil. Beneath, on the margin, she scrawled: "Kit's come and has been talking to him. They're going away. I must follow. I leave you all materials for the search—except the pearl. I keep that. Don't worry about me. I'll take care of myself."
Clo had plenty of money, supplied by Beverley, so a five-dollar bill was laid conspicuously on the crumbs of rusk.
Kit and Churn were on their feet. The waiter had given change, and Churn was counting it out. Both stood with their backs to Clo. Clo slipped the programme into the bead bag and the bead bag into a pocket of Beverley's brown silk coat, on which she had been sitting. She then whisked the folded garment from her own chair on to O'Reilly's, and covered it with his napkin.
"I hope to goodness I'll meet him on the way up," she thought, "or before I get out of the restaurant above. I daren't take the cloak where she might see it. Besides, he must have the bag and memorandum."
Churn gave the waiter a fifty-cent piece, and followed Kit, who had started. Neither looked back; and Clo beckoned the waiter. "I've an engagement," she said, "and can't wait longer for the gentleman I came with. He's upstairs telephoning. You tell him I've paid. Never mind the change. I'm leaving my coat for the gentleman to bring home. Can I trust you to be sure and give it to him?"
"You can, miss," said the man. "I'll take charge of it myself."
He looked trustworthy as well as grateful. Kit and Churn were winding their way among the tables. Clo pushed after them. O'Reilly was not on the stairs, nor was he visible in the dull restaurant above. He had the all-important envelope, it was true, and she could not guess who had returned it in a way to make him suppose it came from her. O'Reilly was, however, an honourable man, and he had promised to be "on Mrs. Sands' side." In the circumstances she saw only one course, and regretfully, even fearfully, took it. When Kit and Churn walked out into the street she walked after them, a few paces behind.
Clo had been gone precisely four minutes when O'Reilly tore downstairs burning to apologize and explain. Mrs. Denham had said that her husband was out, but she knew where he was, and would 'phone; if he—O'Reilly—would hold the line she'd have an answer "in no time." Presently he had been rewarded by "getting" Denham, who, on hearing that he was urgently wanted, promised to cut short some work he was doing late at the office, and taxi to Krantz's. This was good news, and O'Reilly was sure Clo would think it had been worth waiting for. He could not believe his eyes when he saw the deserted table. What could have happened to the girl?
He stood forlornly for a moment, staring round the room. As his eyes searched vainly, the waiter who had served him came hurrying up.
"The young lady's gone, sare. She had to go—very sorry. She left me dis to give you when you come back. She pay de bill, sare, but I keep de table for you. You not finish your supper."
O'Reilly had a stab of violent resentment against Clo. But the thought had only to pass through his brain to be rejected. The girl was a strange girl, audacious and unscrupulous in her loyalty to Mrs. Sands; but she could not have told her story in a way to impress its truth upon him unless she had been sincere.
"The young lady didn't give you any other message?" he asked.
"No, sare. She was in much hurry. But I see her mark on a piece of paper," the waiter replied. "Maybe she write you a note."
O'Reilly reflected. Which should he do, look for a message in the pocket of the coat Clo had left, or dash upstairs and find out which way she had gone? It was almost certain that he would now gain nothing by the latter course.
O'Reilly sat down at the table, in the chair where he had sat before. He found the one pocket in the brown coat, and in that pocket Kit's jet and steel bag. There was nothing else there, so he opened the bag cautiously in case some of Kit's friends had arrived. As he did so, the folded programme dropped out.
WHEN BEVERLEY CAME HOME
When Clo had shut the taxi door almost in Beverley's face, and had given the chauffeur orders to drive on, she had said to herself, "Angel will be so surprised she won't know what to do for a minute. And by the time she pulls herself together, she'll realize it's too late to stop me."
The girl had judged well. Beverley shrank back from the slammed door with a jump of the nerves. Then she guessed what Clo meant to do. She was in the act of tapping to stop the chauffeur, and tell him to turn, when the question seemed to ask itself aloud in her brain, "What good will it do for you to go back?"
Before she could reach Clo, if she returned to the hotel now, the girl would have learned the secret of Peterson's room. When she saw what Beverley had seen, she would know that there was nothing to be done with a dead man. She would slip away to avoid being mixed up in the business of the murder. She would not risk being caught. The girl was too sensible, and she had plenty of money as well as brains. She had shown herself equal to desperate emergencies. She would be equal to this. She was so quick-witted that she would know what to do, and how to do it. Beverley let the chauffeur drive on. He went to the corner where he had been hailed by his two passengers. There he stopped, and Beverley got out. She paid him; and making a pretence of examining her change in the light of a street lamp, stood still until the taxi had turned and shot out of sight. Then, with the bag of jewels which Clo had tossed into her lap, she walked home. Her latch-key opened the door of the flat, she entered her boudoir, and fell into a chair, sitting as still as the dead Peterson had sat. It was not much past ten o'clock.
Five minutes later she took off hat and cloak, and peeped into her bedroom to see if her maid were there. But the room was empty, and she put away the gray mantle and toque where she had found them. She did not forget to toss carelessly upon her bed the hat she had worn in the afternoon, and a pair of white gloves; then she rang for her maid who came almost at once. She had gone out, Beverley explained quietly, to help Miss Riley transact a little matter of business.
It was eleven-thirty when Leontine bade her mistress good-night and softly closed the bedroom door. She had noticed nothing strange in the manner of Madame, except an unusual lack of vitality.
Left alone, Beverley opened the door of the big, bare room. "Clo," she called softly.
No answer. She switched on the light. No one was there, and Beverley hurried on to the little room beyond, which had been Sister Lake's. It, too, was empty. Something grave, perhaps terrible, had detained the girl.
"She won't come—she won't come at all." Beverley said aloud. "What shall I do?" She could not abandon the fragile child who loved her, who had stood by her with wonderful strength and courage throughout this dreadful day. Yet what was there she could do?
Roger returned about one o'clock. He moved quietly, as if in order not to disturb his wife, but she heard the cautious closing of his door. She did not try or wish to sleep, but lay on her bed, waiting for day.
After six o'clock Beverley could lie still no longer. She stole into her bathroom, and bathed in cold water. But she felt as utterly spent after her bath as before.
This morning she did penance by putting on a tailor-made, white linen suit, of a slightly severe cut, and made her toilet without ringing for Leontine. She decided to breakfast at the customary hour and in the customary place, but she did not expect to be joined by Roger. She was still in her bedroom, fastening a brooch, when he tapped at her door.
"Come in!" she cried, eager for the meeting, yet sick with fear. Roger came in, fully dressed, looking cool and well groomed. To Beverley's sad heart it seemed that he had never been so handsome—or so hard.
"Good morning," he said, as he might have spoken to any friend. "I heard you stirring about, so I thought I might knock. Are you going out early?" as his eyes wandered over her dress.
"You mean because I'm dressed? No, I didn't think of it. I couldn't sleep. The night was hot, and the heat was on my nerves, I suppose, so I got up at six. I hope I didn't disturb you, Roger?"
"Not at all," he politely replied. "I've some business which will take me out half an hour sooner than usual. I suppose they can give us breakfast in time for that? Coffee and toast and grape fruit can't take long to make ready?"
"I'll ring for breakfast. I didn't know if——"
"Didn't know—what?" he caught up her sentence as it broke.
"Oh, nothing—important," she excused herself. Yet she was sure he knew what had stopped her short of saying that she didn't know if he would breakfast with her in the boudoir.
"Well, I daresay Johnson has put the newspapers in their place by this time," Roger said, ignoring her embarrassment. "I'll have a look, to save time. You'll come when you're ready? I've a suggestion to make that I think you'll like."
He spoke pleasantly, not at all as if he had a grudge against his wife. Many women would have been satisfied with such a manner; but Beverley was not of the "many women," and Roger had never been like other, ordinary husbands. For the first morning since that day in Chicago when he had asked her to be his wife, they had not kissed.
"It will always be like this from now on," she told herself. "I hope I shall die. I can't live without his love, and go on seeing him every day!"
Roger had not mentioned Clo, and Beverley held her peace. She thought it would be best to wait and see what the newspapers said. At the end of ten minutes, as the breakfast tray was being placed on the lace table cover, she strolled into the boudoir. Roger hardly looked up, feigning to be deeply interested in his paper. On other mornings—the servant being out of the room—he would have sprung from his chair to place hers, and perhaps to kiss the long braid of her golden brown hair, or the back of her white neck as it showed under her fetching little cap.
"Any exciting news?" she asked in a casual tone, as she sat down—the sort of tone which other wives perhaps use to other husbands.
"Nothing that interests us specially," Roger answered. "A rather sordid murder, at a third-rate hotel; there's a mystery, of course."
"What hotel?" Beverley ventured to ask, pouring coffee with a hand that would shake.
"One I never heard of before. Let me see, what's the name? Oh, the 'Westmorland.' You'll not be interested. Let's get to the thing I want to talk about. Can you guess what it is?"
Beverley shook her head. "I am a bad guesser."
"It's partly about your pearls. By the by, was the pearl-stringer satisfactory?"
"Oh, quite," Beverley murmured, sipping her coffee.
"I'm glad she made a good job. The rope looks as fine as if no accident had happened, I suppose?"
"It's a—wonderful rope," his wife managed to reply.
"I imagined you'd be wearing your gewgaws for breakfast this morning just to show they were all right!" Roger's eyes smiled coolly into hers. It was a cruel smile.
"A rope of pearls at breakfast—on a tailor gown of linen—and a queen's pearls at that! What bad taste! I shall wear these splendours only on the greatest occasions."
"Well, I've arranged a great occasion," said Roger. "That's principally what I want to talk about. I'd like you to send out invitations for a house party and a big dinner and dance directly after we're settled in the Newport cottage. And I'd like to move there sooner than we meant. I've decided to take a few weeks' holiday. We'll both be better out of the city."
"Oh, yes!" Beverley agreed.
"And I want you to do a thing to please me. Wear the queen's pearls—your pearls—on the night of the dinner and dance."
MR. JONES OF PEORIA
O'Reilly had only just finished reading Clo's note, had folded it up, and put it in his pocket when he was joined by a man at whom, for a second, he stared as at a stranger. Then a slight contraction of the newcomer's eyelid and a twinkle in his eye enlightened Justin.
"Well, this is good, meeting you!" exploded a jolly voice. "I hoped you hadn't forgotten poor old Dick Jones, though it's a long time since you blew out our way to Peoria. I'm here in little old New York, seeing the sights."
"Why, of course, I remember you very well, Mr. Jones," said O'Reilly. "Sit down at my table, do. What'll you have, in memory of old times?"
As he spoke, he took in the extraordinary changes Mr. William J. Denham had made in his personal appearance. Denham was a slender, youngish man, neat and dapper, with light brown hair, a smooth face, and pale skin. Jones had reddish, rumpled eye-brows, puffy pink lids, and large, roving eyes behind convex glasses. His hair was also red and rumpled, and though he was not enormously stout, he was clumsily built, with a decided paunch.
When he had sat down at O'Reilly's table, the absence of near neighbours and the momentary inattention of waiters gave the two men a chance to speak freely. "You sent a hurry call. Something up at Krantz's this peaceful Sabbath?"
"There's more up than I want to come out," said O'Reilly. "Things have changed since I 'phoned, but there's more need of you than ever. The girl I wanted to help was with me. While I talked to you, she disappeared...."
"Yes. I couldn't follow, because when I knew what had happened it was too late to get on her track; otherwise you'd have found me flown. I'd have sacrificed you for her, if there'd been even a sporting chance. But I didn't see one. Maybe you will, when I put you wise: or somebody may show up whose face will give you a tip. I'll tell you what I know—except the name of a lady which mustn't come into the business even with discretion incarnate like you."
"Reservations often spoil jobs," said Denham.
The coming of a waiter broke the conversation.
"Anybody interesting here?" asked Justin, when the waiter had gone.
"No familiar faces. But there may be, later."
O'Reilly shook his head. "It's a quarter to twelve. The man or men who made an appointment—not with me; with the girl who's gone—should have turned up at eleven-thirty."
"If they're sure of themselves—sure their faces aren't known—they're probably here," remarked Denham. "But out with your story. A lot may hang on that."
"A lot does," said O'Reilly; and told it. He omitted no detail given by Clo except such as led too close to Mrs. Sands. O'Reilly hardly disguised the fact that the crime and its punishment were of slight importance to him compared with the finding of Clo Riley. "I don't want her mixed up in this murder business," he finished, "and she doesn't want to be mixed up in it, not for her own sake, but because of the woman she's protecting. You could get the name of that woman, but I ask you not to concern yourself with it."
"Right you are," Denham reassured him. "I've got enough to do without meddling in other folks' business. The lady outside the case doesn't exist. But as for 'Churn' being Lorenz Czerny, it doesn't go without saying that we shall spot Chuff and Jake, and the rest of the gang through him. That will depend on himself, and his Moll—Kit. I wouldn't mind offering your young lady a good place and good pay when this mix-up comes to an end."
"I do not believe she'll be looking for work," said O'Reilly.
"This Kit must be pretty sharp, too. It looks as if Churn was her 'steady.' If she did the job at the Westmorland, it was to set him and her up in housekeeping, later on, well away from Chuff and Co. Looks as if Kit had been used for a catspaw, and maybe hadn't got enough out of the job for herself. Suddenly she saw a whole dazzling lot. I can't get on to who this Kit is yet. But maybe I will. Your little friend does shoot quick—and low."
"She does," said O'Reilly. "But she doesn't hit below the belt."
"Folks like Kit and Churn and Chuff haven't got belts," said Denham.
O'Reilly laughed again. But he wanted Clo. She was made for him—the demon, the darling, the only girl he had ever seriously desired. He hadn't known that she existed till to-night, when she'd begun their acquaintance by tricking and stealing from him. Though he might laugh, he wouldn't know a happy moment till she was safe. For an instant he forgot Denham and the business in hand. "I think she likes me," he told himself. "I'll make her like me a lot more when I get half a chance."
"That couple will hide," Denham was saying. "Churn may send word to Krantz that he can't sing; he'll say he's sick. But I shan't do any such thing as put Krantz wise that his tenor is wanted. Krantz is a fox. Our hope is in Miss Riley."
"You'll come to the Dietz, won't you?" asked O'Reilly.
"Yes," said the detective, finishing his cool beer. "I'll come. But I haven't got much hope from what may be in that bead bag. People who have things to hide, hide 'em better than in bags. However, we'll see." When Justin had paid for Denham's drink, they went, with the bead bag in the pocket of Clo's brown cloak hanging over O'Reilly's arm. It was after midnight.
ACCORDING TO THE MORNING PAPERS
Roger had talked of nothing but his plan for the Newport house-warming, after starting the subject; and he had told Beverley that they ought to be able to move in a week. She must make everything right about the servants: he would see to outside arrangements. And this "big party" could take place in a fortnight. It was ostentatious sending out invitations longer in advance. They must make a "splash"—worthy of the house—and the pearls. Beverley must think up something original in the way of entertainment—a surprise. And as he talked it seemed to the girl that his eyes never left her face. Beverley promised to move to Newport when Roger wished. She promised to write the invitations, and—she promised to wear the queen's pearls.
At last Roger went, without having alluded to Clodagh Riley. Whether this were deliberate, or careless, Beverley could not guess. But she was thankful.
The instant Roger had gone Beverley seized the paper he had dropped, and found what she wanted. "Mysterious Murder at Hotel Westmorland" was the heading at the top of a column on the first page. She sat down and read the whole report.
That day was among the most terrible of Beverley's chequered life. She had had several engagements, but she telephoned to put them off. Not for anything would she have left the house, for she hoped to have a message from Clo. She feared to hear also from one whom Peterson served, but it was best that she should be at home if such a message arrived.
"Have they kept their word? Have they killed Stephen because I didn't send back the papers?" she constantly asked herself. "What will they do next? Will they advertise again in the newspapers? Will they telephone? Will they send another man, now Peterson is dead? Or if not, how will they reach me? Surely they won't leave me in peace for long!"
The day passed with outward monotony. It was only within herself that each moment was different from every other.
When evening came at last, nothing had happened, yet Beverley's nerves were jarred as if by a succession of shocks. As Leontine dressed her for dinner, a sharp tap at the door made her jump and cry out. "A special-delivery letter for me, Madame," announced the Frenchwoman. "Have I Madame's permission? It is strange I do not know the hand. It is but a common yellow envelope, addressed in pencil, to Mademoiselle Leontine Rossignol—perhaps from someone who begs. Never have I received a letter by special delivery!"
"You'd better open it," said Beverley, relieved that the letter was not for her.
"Rossignol is so odd a name, Madame, that everyone remembers, because it means nightingale," said Leontine, gingerly tearing off an end of the flimsy yellow envelope.
Then, suddenly she cried out. "But Madame, the letter is from Mademoiselle Riley! I do not see why she writes to me. I understand nothing of what she says. Will Madame read?"
Hiding eagerness, Beverley took the half sheet of commercial paper.
The letter began:
I am safe in my new home, and there's no need to worry. I am picking up all that I have lost. I hope to call on you before long and show what good progress I have made. With grateful messages for Madame, from her devoted little servant, and kind remembrance to you—I am, faithfully yours,
P.S.—If possible I should like Mr. O'R. to hear that I am doing well. He has been kind since you saw me last.
There was no date and no address on this letter, which filled only one page.
Beverley's bewilderment passed as she studied the letter. Clo's underlying motives came to the surface with a flash.
"I suppose," she explained quietly, "that Mademoiselle fancied it would be a liberty to write to me. I'm glad to hear from her so soon. As the letter is really for me, perhaps I'd better keep it."
"Please do, madame," Leontine urged, again attacking the tiny hooks which fastened her mistress's dinner dress. "I noticed that Mademoiselle did not put the number of the house or street where she is staying. But, of course, Madame will know both."
"Of course," echoed Beverley. She guessed that Leontine must be consumed with curiosity as to Clo's disappearance and the departure of Sister Lake.
When Leontine had hooked the last hook Beverley went to the boudoir. There she sat down with Clo's cryptic message, praying that Roger might not come till she had unravelled it.
But, after all, the meaning of one sentence after another sprang quickly to her eyes. She had realized at once that Clo wrote to Leontine because she dared not use the name of Mrs. Sands. This suggested that she was in a house where the name of Sands was not unknown. Now, concentrating upon the queer letter, Beverley understood each veiled hint. Clo wished her not to "worry." Clo was "picking up all she had lost." Clo "hoped to call before long, and show what good progress" she had made. All this could have only one meaning. And how like Clo, to have treasured in some brain-cell Leontine's queer name of "Rossignol"!
She had written nothing to waken suspicion; and as no house, no street, was mentioned, there need be no dread of discovery for guilty consciences. Beverley judged that O'Reilly's name as well as Roger's might be known to someone near to Clo. Evidently she was afraid to send a letter to Justin O'Reilly. But the end of the postscript was amazing. O'Reilly had been kind to Clo!
"She went to see him again!" was the thought in Beverley's mind. "Then, perhaps, she didn't go back to the Westmorland. What can 'kind' mean, unless he's promised to help instead of hurt us?"
But she must find out what had happened last between O'Reilly and Clo. How should she communicate with him? Should she send a note by district messenger to the Dietz? Or—should she telephone, before Roger came, and learn all that she wished to know without delay? Quickly she decided upon this bolder course. She called up O'Reilly's hotel, and soon heard his "Hello!"
"I'm Mrs. Sands," she explained. "I've a letter from Clo. She sends you a message."
The voice from the Dietz had sounded indifferent. It was so no longer.
"What news?" O'Reilly asked. "Tell me everything."
She told him, and read Clo's letter to Leontine distinctly, that he might miss no word. "I understand why it might be dangerous to put an address, or to write to you or me," Beverley added. "But it's frightful not to know where she is. Explain what you can quickly, because—I'm expecting someone."
"Peterson stole your pearls," O'Reilly answered. "He 'phoned Heron and offered to sell them. He must have been hiding in your room and overheard our talk. Later, I answered him for Heron. Miss Riley was in Peterson's room then, and she and I got in touch. She asked through the 'phone if I'd help. I said 'Yes,' and she told me to come with a taxi. I picked her up outside the hotel, and took her where she wanted to go: a restaurant, Krantz's Keller. When I'd heard what she had to say I proposed to employ a private detective. Don't worry; he's absolutely loyal, and I'm on your side, after all, Mrs. Sands—I may as well confess it's for Miss Riley's sake. She repented stealing the papers from me, you know, and sent them back in the envelope just as they were——"
"Clo sent you the papers! You're mistaken. I know she didn't send them," Beverley cried. She had forgotten her fear of being overheard, forgotten everything, but the sound of a door closing caused her to start. It was a strange sound just then, because both doors had already been shut when she went to the telephone, the door leading into her bedroom, the door into the hall, and she had heard neither open since. Yet she could not be mistaken. Somebody had closed one of those doors and must previously have opened it.
Sick with fear, Beverley dropped the receiver and ran to look into the hall. No one was there. She flew to the door of her bedroom and peeped in. The room was empty. She rang for Johnson, who appeared at once.
"Has Mr. Sands come in?" she asked.
"I think not, Madam," the butler replied.
"Go and see. Search everywhere."
She did not move while the man was away.
"Mr. Sands is not in the house, Madam," Johnson solemnly announced.
"Thank you!" Beverley said. Yet she was not relieved. Something told her that it was Roger who had shut the door.
WHAT CLO DID WITH A KNIFE
When Kit and Churn left Krantz's Keller they walked fast along Fourteenth Street till they came to Sixth Avenue. There they appeared to hesitate, as if they could not decide whether to go up or down town. Clo, as close behind them as she dared to venture, guessed instantly that, until now, they had not entirely made up their minds which of several hiding-places it would be safest for them to seek.
Judging by their linked arms, and the nearness of the two heads, their conversation was absorbing. They stopped at the corner, and Clo stopped also. Presently the pair resolved on going down toward Thirteenth Street. Clo went after them. They walked for several blocks; and the girl following always glanced at the number of each street she passed. There had been an accident to a taxi, however, in the neighbourhood of Eleventh Street, and a crowd had collected. In this crowd Clo nearly lost the quarry. She had a moment of despair, then saw the skirt of Kit in the distance. No longer was she wearing a pink cloak, but a white one. She must have had a chance to turn it wrong side out!
So excited was Clo that she forgot to notice the streets. Whether the couple turned off the Avenue into Tenth, or Ninth, or Eighth, she was not sure. She was certain only that she was on their track. Then followed a chase across town. In this, the girl finally lost her head a little, but when it seemed that she could drag herself no further, Kit and Churn stopped in front of a house, and rang the bell.
"Neither of them lives there, or there'd be a latch-key!" Clo thought, hovering on the other side of the street.
It was some time before the two were let in; but after a delay of four or five minutes a woman opened the door. A dim gas light shone from the hall or lobby, and Clo's impression was of a dark brown face, the face of a negress. There was a short discussion; then the woman nodded, stepping aside to let Kit and Churn pass. An instant later the door shut them in.
Clo stood gazing at the house. It was one in a row of old-fashioned, shabby brick buildings, four storeys in height. A light showed in the basement, but other windows were black. Suddenly, as Clo watched, a yellow gleam flashed in a fourth-storey room but at the same moment a man stepped to the window and pulled down a dark blind. Clo thought that this man was Churn.
"They're going to stay," she argued; and crossing the street at a distance from the house, the girl looked at it with interest. There was no street lamp near, and she could not see the number; but there was a small plaque at the side of the door, and Clo tripped up the steps to read it. Joy, the place was a boarding house!
The pair having mounted to the fourth storey, Clo thought she might venture to ring. She pulled an old-fashioned bell, and her heart thumped in her breast as the shrill sound jingled through the house.
"I must have some tale to tell—why I'm here so late, wanting a room," she reflected.
The door was opened by the woman who had admitted Kit and Churn. Not only was she black, but she was fat and slovenly. Staring at the new-comer, she exclaimed with a mouth full of gum:
"Say, is you another fren' o' Mr. Cheffinsky?"
"Chuff!" was the password that flashed through Clo's brain. "This is where he lives!" She was triumphant.
"I don't know anything about Mr. Cheffinsky," she replied, "but I'm in a scrape, and a friend of mine once recommended me to this house. I saw some people come in, and a light. It's still a boarding-house, isn't it?"
"It ain't no foundlin' orphant asylum."
"I don't ask for charity. I've got money to pay my board. But I don't want an expensive room. One at the top of the house will do."
"Say, it's a real funny time o' night for a young girl like you to go lookin' foh a home to lay her haid," remarked the negress. "But you can step in the hall. I'll call Mis' MacMahon. She's the lady o' the house. We've got a room upstahs, but I don't know whethah she'll let you have it."
She allowed Clo to enter, and left the girl standing as she descended the basement stairs.
"'MacMahon' sounds hopeful!" Clo thought. The girl had lodged drearily in New York, but she had never been in a house as dreary as this.
Mrs. MacMahon's look was less inspiring than her name. She was of the big-jowled type; a grim woman of middle age; and her manner suggested suspicion. But Clo began to speak first, with her best brogue, which she could use, when needed, with great effect.
"I beg your pardon, ma'am, for intruding on ye at this time of the night," said the girl in her creamiest voice, with a child-like smile, "but the lady I'm maid for and me had a quarrel about a young man, and rather than give him up, I just walked away from the house, without waitin' to pack my things. I've walked till I'm played out! I tould yer maid a friend o' mine had spoken o' Mrs. MacMahon's place and I didn't forget. I'll pay a week in advance if you'll take me in."
Whether Mrs. MacMahon believed these out-pourings was an open question, but her face softened slightly at sound of the brogue.
"Irish, are you!" she said.
"Yes, County Cork, and not over since very long," returned the girl.
"I'm from County Cork, me and me dead husband both," volunteered the woman. "I've been in New York these twelve years. Violet says you ast for a top-floor room?"
"I did that," said Clo.
"Well, a top-floor room is the only wan I've got vacant. How long would ye be wanting it for?"
"Oh, a few days, and maybe more."
"You can come and have a look. I don't boast of the room. It's last choice. I charge seven dollars with board."
"I don't mind seven dollars," said Clo, and followed her hostess up flight after flight of dimly lighted stairs. They were covered with oilcloth, and the hall smelled of escaping gas, but the girl was almost happy. The place was not attractive, but it seemed decent enough.
"It's a hall room, but a front one," explained Mrs. MacMahon, panting, as they reached the top of the house. Clo was enchanted to hear this, for it meant that the room must adjoin the one where Churn had pulled down the blind. She wondered if Churn were married to Kit. Perhaps she would find out by and by.
"There's a husband and wife come into the double room next," Mrs. MacMahon went on, when she had shown Clo her proposed quarters. "The wall's kind of thin, for this room was part of the other once, but they're a quiet couple, I guess: and if you're quiet, too, you won't trouble each other. They're friends of a gentleman boarder we've had for some time, and they've been here to call on him, though they've never stayed before. I want 'em to be comfortable, so stir around as little as you can in the morning. I guess they're the kind that lies late in bed."
"I feel more as if I'd like to lie in bed all day!" sighed Clo.
"Well, sleep as much as you like. But don't be scared if ye hear folks movin' later on to-night. The friend of this couple is out, but he may come home and want to see 'em."
Clo paid seven dollars in advance for the room, and took pains to show that she had plenty of money. She begged also to buy or borrow a clean nightgown, and suggested that, if there were a new toothbrush in the house, she would be glad to have it. Mrs. MacMahon laughed. A nightgown she could lend, but as for a toothbrush, there wouldn't be one this side of the nearest drugstore. Miss Ryan (the name Clo gave) must wait till next day.
"Well, anyhow, maybe you've a bit you'll give me to eat!" the new boarder pleaded. "I'm that hungry I could bite off the door-knob! I'll pay extra, of course—this time of night. And your coloured woman—Violet, isn't she?—shall have a couple of dimes for bringing up the food."
Mrs. MacMahon softened and asked what food her guest desired. Clo desired nothing so much as a knife, and made a bid to secure one by asking for meat. "Any old kind!—and some bread and milk. I'll give fifty cents—" (she watched the woman's eye)—"I mean, a dollar for my supper."
When Mrs. MacMahon had gone the girl held her breath to listen. Yes, the wall was thin! She could hear Kit and Churn talking in an ordinary tone, but she could catch few words, even when she laid her ear against the dusty paper. When the voices sank low, they reached her only in an indistinct rumble.
She guessed that the tiny room was separated from the larger one by a partition of laths and plaster, covered on each side with flimsy wall paper. She could feel as well as hear someone walking up and down, up and down, in the next room! No doubt it was Churn. Now and then he would pause. A piece of furniture would creak; then he would jump up, to begin walking again.
Presently Violet appeared, a coarse nightgown hanging over her arm, a plate of bread and ham on a napkinless tray, and glass of bluish milk. Clo gave the woman twenty cents, and promised the same sum if her breakfast were brought upstairs. Violet agreed to this bargain, which was well for the girl. She would have starved rather than desert her room long enough to eat while Churn and Kit remained in their quarters. She surmised that they would not often go out.
Clo had told the truth in pleading hunger, but when she was alone and had locked her door, she took from the tray only the steel knife and fork which lay beside the plate. Having pushed the cot bed away from the wall, she sat down on the floor, Turk fashion. Choosing a spot which would be invisible with the bed in place, she waited till Churn was inclined to walk. Then she began delicately to dig at the plaster with her extemporized tools. Whenever Churn stopped, she stopped also, lest the rat-like noise should reach alert ears in the next room. For a long time she toiled, cautiously, slowly, gathering up bits of paper and plaster that fell, and collecting them in her lap. It was a tedious task, but not difficult. In less than an hour she had made—practically without noise—a hole the size of a silver dollar. It went through to the lathes; beyond that barrier her tools were of no avail. She needed a thin, sharp instrument like a hat-pin, to push between the slats of wood. A tiny hole would suffice. But she had no hat-pin in the close-fitting toque lent by Beverley. Her own was now a souvenir in O'Reilly's possession.
She tried hair-pins, but they bent, one after another. Then she searched for a nail, and found one at last, stuck in the wall, supporting a small mirror. Carefully she deposited this upon the bed (it wouldn't do to break a looking glass!) and set to work once more. At the end of twenty minutes' scratching, she felt resistance cease before the nail-point. Hastily she withdrew it, lest it should pierce too far; and stretched on the floor she listened with her ear to the aperture on her side of the wall.
THE NINE DAYS
"I wish Chuff would come, and get it over!" she heard Churn sigh aloud, in his sweet, foreign-sounding voice.
"I wonder why he went out?" said Kit. "He ought to have been home all evening. He was expecting Pete on business, you know."
"Can he have got onto de reason dat fellah Pete didn't come?"
"No, no," Kit answered. "I've told you a dozen times no! He wouldn't have gone to the Westmorland. Pete had to call on him. But there must have been something important to take Chuff out."
"Vat vas de plan?"
"Oh, what does it matter? To-night's changed everything for me, and you, too. You are goin' to stand by me, aren't you, Churn, through thick and thin?"
"You bettcha life! For de whole of vot I'm vorth!"
Kit's tone changed. She chuckled. "You may be worth a lot. You've married a rich heiress. See?"
"Sh, girl! If Chuff comes spyin' on us we don't vant him to hear dat word 'married.' He'd only laugh—or vorse."
"All right! But he ain't our master any more. We can do without him."
"Maybe he von't tink he can do vidout us."
"He'll have to, when we get something good on the pearls. And say, I never thought you could kill any one and feel no more than I do now. Churn, if you'd been there, you'd 'a' settled his hash long before I did. The things he said to me—and me your wife! It makes me sick to think o' them—and of him, the low beast!"
"Don't tink, den. Tink of me."
"I do. I love you, Boy! The minute I lamped the pearls—when I sensed they was real—I meant to get 'em, for you and me to set up house far away somewheres on our own. We can go to Buenos Aires or some place south, where they love a nice voice like yours, so you won't feel wasted. If Chuff knew what we've got here in this table drawer!"
"Better tie 'em up in your handkerchief again. If Chuff——"
"Oh, Chuff nothing! I feel in my bones, now he's so late, he won't come home to-night. I don't care what happens to Chuff. Let's go to bed."
"No—not yet. I vait."
"Peterson thought he could say what he liked to me, the pig!" Kit went on. "Well, he's paid. His blood's on his own head. Oh, Churn, it was on his head, every sense o' the word! I didn't like the look of it—turned me sick! Lucky my long cloak was in the room. See—on my dress, two stains! Boy, that trunk stunt was awful. You've got to let me go to bed and sleep, or I believe I'll have hysterics and yell the house down. I thought I was all right since I found you, but it's comin' on again, that tremblin'!"
"Go to bed, den, girl. I vait. Dat's easy."
"I will. Just one more look at the pearls—our pearls! But I lost one. I heard it roll. It was so close to him I—I couldn't——"
"Don't you care. Dere's a lot for us. We'll count 'em first ting to-morra', ven ve both feel like ourselves."
"They ought to fetch a king's ransom, Boy."
"Dey vill not, den. Dere'll be all de bulls in N'York after em. Joke on us, dough, if Chuff was in de deal mit Pete!"
"I'm sure he wasn't—dead sure."
Silence fell. When the pair spoke again it was of other things. At last Clo fell suddenly fast asleep, on the floor. She knew that Beverley's pearls were in the next room. That had to be enough for the night.
* * * * *
The girl slept till dawn. Waking, she was astonished to find herself on the floor, and for an instant could not remember what had happened. But in a flash it all came back. Quickly she got up and quietly undressed, putting on Mrs. MacMahon's immense nightgown before she dropped thankfully upon the cot bed. Clo did not sleep again, but lay until eight o'clock, when her neighbours began to stir. Then she listened once more at the hole in the wall until she feared that Violet might come with breakfast. The woman had suggested bringing it at nine, and lest she should wonder why the hungry girl hadn't supped, the milk had to be hastily poured away and the bread and ham hidden. The bed had also to be lifted into place covering the hole in the wall.
Nothing of special interest had been said by Kit and her husband since their waking, but soon the young woman began to concern herself with the subject of clothes.
"I told Mrs. MacMahon we expected our baggage this morning from Brooklyn. If it doesn't come it's been stolen—see? The old party won't think wrong of Chuff's pals. He's a real family friend. Gee, all sorts of things happen in a house like this! Before long we'll 'phone Isaacs to come along and look at the pearls. Chuff's got a 'phone in his room, you know."
Clo knew also. She had good reason to know, and that Chuff had lent his telephone book to "Jake."
As Violet kicked on the door (her hands being occupied with the tray) Clo hastily stuffed a handkerchief into the hole she had made in the wall. She feared that the pair in the next room might take alarm at the sound of voices, and therefore she cautiously subdued her own. She hadn't slept well, she answered Violet's question. Her head ached, and perhaps she might lie in bed the rest of the day. The promised reward was given, and more offered if Violet would find time to buy toilet articles, and a few clothes. She was begged to bring writing paper also; there might be a letter to send by express delivery.
The coffee, though weak, was hot, and Clo felt revived after drinking it. Once more she placed the bed across the door, pulled out the handkerchief "gag" from the hole in the wall, and thus, on sentinel duty, finished her breakfast.
Later in the day the couple next door resigned themselves to the indefinite absence of Chuff. "Mrs. Mac" herself came up to see her guests, who called themselves Mr. and Mrs. Stahl. The landlady talked of Mr. Cheffinsky as her "star boarder," and said that she was used to his "queer ways." Often he stopped away from home a day or two, but she never worried. He always came back. The "Stahls" were voluble over the non-arrival of their luggage, which seemed to vex them more than the appearance of Cheffinsky, their old friend. Whether or not Mrs. MacMahon believed the story, at all events she agreed to supply the needs of Mr. and Mrs. Stahl, ordering a list of things for their selection. This arrangement raised Clo's hopes. Maybe Churn and Kit intended to venture out! If they went for a short airing, they would probably leave the pearls at home. In their absence Clo would somehow get into the room next door. With Beverley's jewels recaptured, her mission in this house would be accomplished.
But she was doomed to disappointment. After writing her hopeful letter to Leontine, Clo's expectations of quick success were dashed. Kit and Churn received the clothes they wanted, but did not go out; nor did they audibly plan to go. Their intention was to eat downstairs, but they would take turns. One would always keep guard over the pearls. Newspaper mention of the "girl in pink" had scared them. After a heated argument they decided that, till they "saw how the wind blew," they would not risk sending for Isaacs. This was a sacrifice, because they wished to dispose of the pearls before Cheffinsky came "nosing around"; but they were not sure of Isaac's loyalty. Who could tell what he might do, if tempted by big bribes to "frame" his pals? They must wait; and so must Clo.
Days passed. The girl still posed as an invalid taking a rest-cure, and her tips to Violet were generous. Once she heard Kit inquiring who lived in the next room; but Mrs. Mac's answer was satisfactory. A poor little mite of a thing, out of a job as lady's maid, was their neighbour; Irish, and recommended by an old client.
Nine days lagged on, and then at last Clo came upon a "personal" in the newspaper she took in. Instantly she realized that it was meant for her, and put in by Justin O'Reilly. It was so worded that no "outsider" could guess its meaning. "C.R. from her cousin who is just in," was the heading which caught her eye. He knew that she knew his name was Justin; and she had first introduced herself as his cousin! "Working out Sunday's problem with expert help," she read, "Message received insufficient. Won't you let me know where you are?"
The girl dared not answer by letter or newspaper. Violet would undertake any errand, but she could not be trusted for a mission of such importance. O'Reilly must be content with the message passed on by Mrs. Sands.
On the ninth day Kit and Churn had a serious quarrel. The man insisted on going out. He could stand his imprisonment no longer; not for Kit, not for the pearls!
Clo was not on sentinel duty when the explosion came. The hole in the wall was open (she stuffed it up only when someone knocked, lest the pair should take alarm at the clearness of sounds), but it was late in the afternoon of a blazing hot day, and the girl lay on her narrow bed, disgusted with life. She had now paid for a second week in advance. There wasn't money to go on with for long, at the present rate, and she knew not how to get more, but it was too hot to trouble about the future. The quarrel next door was so sordid that Clo had ceased to listen, when suddenly the names "Olga and Stephen," spoken loudly by Kit, waked her from a half doze. With the light swiftness of a cat she sprang off the bed, and went to her post.
"I thought you'd sure know the whole story," Kit was saying.
"I on'y knowed about Stephen. That I had to know," said Churn.
"But you knew why Pete came to New York, instead of going West, when he got out of stir in Chicago?"
"I know he come to kill Heron——"
"Hully gee! Not so loud!"
"Well, I know 'oo he came for den, if you like dat better."
"But that wasn't the whole reason."
"I knowed he was goin' to get hold o' some papers for Chuff; papers dat was mixed all up mit our business."
"H'm! That's what Chuff wanted us to think—that they concerned us. But if you know about those papers, you must know the rest, about Olga."
"I know vat Olga and Stephen vas to each other, if dat's vat you mean."
"And who Olga is?"
"Greenhorn! You never got further than that?"
"No. Vat for I get furder? I never see 'er. She's a name to me, dat's all. Nevaire vould I heard even dat name if I didn't take care o' Stephen, when Jake vas off on a bust or doin' a job for Chuff."
"Funny we never got on to this line o' talk before," mused Kit.
"I don't see vy 'funny.' You and me always haf something better to talk about, Katchen. And till dese nine days in dis hole, we never 'ad too much time together."
"If Pete had been found dead and I hadn't done it, I'd say it was 'Olga!' She was the woman who had to give up the papers to him. He told me he was waitin' for the papers to come. He said he wasn't sure whether she'd bring 'em herself, or this girl you've seen about in the newspapers; the one who called on him Sunday afternoon. I've told you about the women's voices in the hall, and someone sittin' plump on the trunk when I was inside. Well, if I could o' peeped, I bet I'd seen Olga. She was one of the women dressed for the automobile they're tryin' to trace an' can't."
"Would you knowed Olga if you 'ad seen her?"
"Would I? Say, did you never hear of Roger Sands?"
"He was de guy who worked for Heron las' year, and got de gang goin' after him."
"Well, it was Olga he married, but not with her own name. She'd took another so as to get away with the papers. She's had the papers from then till now. The thing that interests me, and maybe will you, is something else. It popped into my nut to-day that the pearls are hers! I bet something went wrong with the papers, and she gave Pete the pearls instead. I bet he was studyin' how to double-cross Chuff, and square himself when—when my act comes on."
"What 'old would Chuff 'ave on a woman married mit a big fellah like Sands?" Churn wanted to know. "Vy she let herself be skinned like dat, for Stephen's dead an' stiff dese tree weeks or more?"
"Yes," Kit repeated. "Stephen's been dead 'most a month. That's one reason they couldn't let things slide, so the minute Pete was free they put him on the job. He was keen, because of Heron. And John Heron blew into New York just the right time, for the plan. Pete was to get the papers first, and then—you know what."
"Yes, I know dat. But Stephen—Stephen gone, what 'old 'ad Chuff on Olga?"
"Booby, dear, Olga doesn't know Stephen's dead."
Clo's blood rushed to her brain. She felt faint. Had she been on her feet she would have fallen. This was the one thing of all for Beverley. Clo felt that she hated this cruel Cheffinsky with an almost murderous hatred. How could she let Beverley know, and make her understand that "Stephen" was dead. Ought she to go back with her news to Park Avenue, and abandon the pearls? The police could never be asked to take a hand in this business, and before she could even ask help from O'Reilly and Denham, Churn might have disappeared. With herself as sentinel off duty, nothing was sure, for a dangerous restlessness possessed the pair. Still, Beverley would sacrifice the pearls for the knowledge that her enemies had no longer any hold upon her.
"If I dared telegraph!" the girl thought. For she wanted Beverley to have both the knowledge and the pearls.
About this hour Violet was in the habit of toiling up with beer for Kit and Churn, and water or lemonade for their neighbour. The woman was due in a few minutes and Clo spent the interval in concocting a message for Leontine Rossignol.
"Tell your mistress I've had news since I last saw her that Stephen is dead," were the words she decided on, before Violet's arrival was advertised by a tinkle of ice.
The telegram was delivered that night at the flat in Park Avenue, but Mr. and Mrs. Sands and their household had left for Newport. Only a parlour maid remained. She detested Leontine, being Bohemian by birth, while Leontine was French. Anna Schultz decided to forget indefinitely the telegram for Leontine Rossignol.
When she had sent the message, Clo's thoughts went back to the pearls. She would be driven to leave the house soon for lack of money. If she had to go without the pearls, she would feel herself a failure. The net was proving tough for the tiny teeth of a mouse! But the mouse was ready to do anything rather than give up.
That evening Churn again announced his intention to go out at any cost. Whither he was bound, Clo did not know, for she had missed scraps of talk in the next room. Kit cried, and in the midst of hysterical sobs, the door slammed. Churn had gone! Kit continued to sob.
Clo's blood took fire. She flamed with courage. Having fixed upon her plan of action she darted into the passage and knocked on Kit's door.
"Who's that?" came the sharp answer.
"It's only me. The little girl from the next room," Clo explained in a small voice like a child's. Her hair hung over her shoulders, and she wore a cheap blue muslin dressing gown chosen by Violet.
Kit threw open the door so suddenly, and stared so keenly through the dusk that Clo shrank back a little. "What do you want?" snapped Kit.
"Oh, maybe I oughtn't to have come!" Clo apologized. "I heard you crying. And I'm so homesick and miserable myself! Don't be angry."
Kit opened the door wide. Her bleached yellow hair bristled round her face.
"I didn't know I was howling so loud. Say, can you hear us talkin', me and my husband? I hope we don't keep you awake nights."
"You haven't kept me awake once," Clo assured her with truth. "Crying's easier to hear than talking. You see, I'm in trouble and I'm awfully lonely."
"I haven't got any real trouble," said Kit. "Me and my husband sometimes have a spat, like all married folks, and I'm fool enough to bawl. He's out now. Would you like me to come in and visit with you a while?"
"I'd love it!" gasped Clo. She would have preferred an invitation to her neighbour's room, but she hoped for that later. Kit locked her door carefully and slipped the key down the neck of her dress. She accepted Clo's suggestion to sit on the bed, which was more comfortable than the one broken-backed chair. Question after question she put, which cost her hostess tiresome flights of imagination to answer. Clo was far from regretting her move, however. If Churn were absent long, or if he went out again, Kit said that she would return as an escape from boredom.
It was eleven o'clock when once more Clo heard the two voices, and from their conversation Clo gathered that they did not expect Chuff back till the day after to-morrow.
"Day after to-morrow!" echoed Kit. "Then we must get Isaacs here to-morrow."
"I t'ought of dat," said Churn. "I went up dere after I see Jake. Isaacs 'as started for Chicago on business, and won't be back till the same day as Chuff, day after to-morrah."
Clo drank in each word, and focussed her mind on its meaning. To-morrow, or the day after, her hour would come; then, or never.
THE PATCH ON THE PILLOW
Churn's excursion had justified itself, and the morning after his first absence he went out again. Toward noon Kit, in a "ready-to-wear" looking costume, knocked at Clo's door. "Thought you might want some candy," she said. "Shall I come in?"
Clo was cordial, and tried to be entertaining. "If I can make her like me, perhaps she'll go down to a meal with Churn, and leave me on guard," she reflected. Kit feared to stop long with her new friend lest Churn should arrive while she was "gadding." She dodged back and forth from room to room, and was at home to receive her husband in the afternoon.
Next morning early Clo heard Churn announce that he would meet Isaacs' train at the Grand Central; the "old lady" had told him the time. Kit objected. "You might miss him. Best wait at his place," she advised. But Churn would not be persuaded. He had seen Jake again, who prophesied that Chuff would not arrive before the afternoon. They had the whole morning to see Isaacs and bargain with him, but it would be a waste of time to hang about at "Isaacs' place." Churn would catch Isaacs at the train, and bring him round to Kit. She must clear up the room, and have everything ship-shape in an hour. But Kit's anger grew as Churn insisted. "I know why you're mad to get to the Grand Central," she flung at him. "Didn't you s'pose I noticed the name on the candy box. Bah! I ain't a fool. You said you was sick of bein' boxed up with me. That put me wise."
Churn protested innocence, and went off jauntily, but Clo looked for developments. "Kit's mum, to put Churn off the track," she thought. "But she means to follow him. She's bought no handbag. She can't very well take the pearls."
Clo had read a paragraph concerning Mr. and Mrs. Roger Sands. It referred to the "house-warming party" they were giving at their "lately acquired cottage in Newport." Apparently the affair had been mentioned before in the column devoted to "Society" news, but Clo had missed it. The allusion to the "house-warming," and dinner dance set Clo's brain whirling. Angel would be expected by her husband to wear the queen's pearls. If he already guessed the secret, this might be a plan to force his wife's hand. Beverley feared him. Clo had seen that. Angel must have the pearls for to-morrow night. And they must be strung, ready to wear, or they would be useless to her, arriving at the last moment. The girl would have been at her wits' end, but for that quarrel next door. If Kit did go spying on Churn...!
The door slammed after Churn. A second later Kit was knocking, calling her new friend by her new nickname: "Kid-Kid! Let me in, quick!"
Clo let her in. Kit was pinning on a wide-brimmed hat, and had her hands full with a veil, gloves, and parasol. "Tie this veil for me, there's a good kid!" she panted. "I'm mad at my husband. He's off to flirt with a beast of a girl in a candy store. They had a mash before we married. You're goin' to be in all mornin', ain't you?"
"I thought of running out to 'phone a friend of mine," said Clo, cleverly.
"Don't! There's a 'phone in the house, the room under mine—room of a pal away till this afternoon. He left his key with Mrs. Mac, and she lent it to my husband last night so he could borrow some novels for me; our pal has lots. We've not given the key back, so when I come home I'll take you down. I want you to stay in while I'm gone. All you need do is to sit with your door open, and see if any one knocks at mine. And I've got the key. But it's the same as every old key; 'tain't a special one like Ch——like our pal's. If a stranger calls look close, so you can describe the person."
"I undertake watchdogging in all its branches," said Clo. "Ta, ta!"
"I count on you!" were Kit's last words at the top of the steps.
"Bet your life you can!" the "kid" called after her. But as Kit ran downstairs, without stopping to look round, Clo dashed to her own open window. In a moment Kit's parasol went bobbing along the street. The coast was clear. Kit's manner made it certain that she had left the pearls behind.
Violet would not come up for the two breakfast trays for a long time yet. Kit's opinion of the key was the same as that already formed by Clo, and the girl was wild to test it. She snatched her own key from its lock, to try it in Kit's door. It went in, but stopped at the critical turn. There were two more rooms on this floor; a small one opposite Clo's, tenanted by a young man who went to work at seven o'clock; and another still smaller, used as a storeroom—a refuge for trunks, dust-pans, and brooms. The early bird never locked his door, but his key fell short of success.
The storeroom key remained. It did not fail. It turned all the way round in the lock, and Kit's door opened.
Clo's was shut and locked, in case Violet should break her rule and come too soon.
Not only did the girl expect to find the pearls, but Chuff's key, and she hoped to telephone if necessary, before making her "bolt." Wonderful that both these chances should fall together!
Clo knew that the pearls were kept in a drawer; but Kit would not go out and leave them in so obvious a place. Nevertheless, Clo began by looking through the drawers, of which there were six.
Churn's evening clothes hung from a hook on the wall; there was nothing in the pockets; nothing in the shoes which stood underneath except a pair of socks. Other hiding-place there was none, save the bed; and it was there that Clo expected to find the pearls.
Kit had made the bed, and neatly patted the two ill-matched pillows into shape. Clo stripped off the unbleached covers of these pillows and looked for some sign that the ticking had been ripped open. There was a patch on the larger pillow. One end of this patch was unsewn and held in place with a pin. Underneath it something hard could be felt with the hand. Clo undid the pin, and thrusting in her hand pulled out a packet made of a red silk handkerchief tied round with gold string from a confectioner's. Clo squeezed the tight folds of silk. They held the pearls.
It seemed a waste of time to open the handkerchief. She longed to run out of the house with her treasure, without a second's delay. Why search for Chuff's key? As she had found the pearls she did not need to 'phone. The girl was at the door, with her hand on the key, before she realized how mad it would be not to make certain of her find.
Yes, the pearls were really there, the darlings! She re-wrapped the parcel, and again was at the door when another thought struck her. Better make the bed look as it had looked before. She returned, put the pillows back into their covers, stood them up in place, and during the process decided that she would spare a moment to search for Chuff's key. It might come in handy. Kit had let drop that the key was a special key. Clo guessed that at times there were things to hide, and then Chuff would forget to leave that key for his friends! "It might be useful to Mr. O'Reilly's Denham," she thought. "If I can find it quick——"
And flitting about the room she pounced upon a key which answered Kit's description. It was on the mantelpiece—a small, flat key, of a "special" kind, because it was made for a Yale lock.
She shut the door softly behind her, and locked it as she went out. The borrowed key she replaced in the storeroom. Then she unlocked her own door, and tearing off the blue wrapper, put on the tan-coloured linen suit Violet had bought in a sale, for five dollars. There was a tan straw hat, too (Clo dared not appear in the brown toque and coat described by the newspapers), and a cheap handbag purchased for the pearls in case she should get them. It was a tight fit for the red silk bundle, but she squeezed it in, and added the big pearl found in Peterson's room. She would also have tucked in the Yale key, but the bag refused to shut, and she kept the key in her hand. What money she had left, she slipped inside her blouse; everything else she abandoned. Kit would rage in vain when she looked for the red handkerchief parcel.
"I can't have been half an hour," she thought, as she tripped past the breakfast trays and started downstairs. "Kit and Churn may be out a long while yet. I'd hate to come face to face with 'em in the street!"
Less than half way down, she heard Violet's voice, and her nerves jumped. "On my way up for them trays o'yourn," the woman said.
To whom was she speaking? Kit back already? Yes, Kit was answering her: "I'll run up ahead. I'm in a hurry."
The voices sounded near. Clo felt that her blood was turning to water. Should she fly back and lock herself into her room? No, for Kit would discover her loss, and would guess what had happened. A fight for the pearls would be too uncertain, and Kit would call Mrs. Mac and Vi to the rescue, or Churn might come——But could she hope to pass safely if she went on? No, she had promised to guard the door. Kit would accuse and stop her if they met.
In her anguish Clo's fingers closed upon Chuff's key. If only she could hide in Chuff's room before Kit reached his floor! She stumbled down the last few steps, and paused at the room under Kit's. Would the key fit? It went deep into the small keyhole, and turned. Kit must be close to the top of the stairs now.
Trembling the girl locked herself into Chuff's room and went straight to the telephone. If O'Reilly were at home he would make a dash to the rescue. Her hand was on the receiver when she remembered that she was marooned. She was ignorant of the 'phone number and had never dared inquire the number of the house or street. Now, when it was too late, she wished with all her heart that she had slipped out late at night, while Kit and Churn slept, and thus found her bearings. She had not gone, because the pair always talked till after midnight, and the later the hour the more important their confidences. But surely she could not fall over this small stumbling block! The girl ran to a writing table and opened the blotting-book. It was old, thickly patterned with stains, but it contained not a single sheet of paper. She pulled out a drawer. There was writing paper in it, but unstamped. While she fumbled, hoping for an old envelope addressed to Chuff, the girl could hear the patter of feet overhead. Kit was in her own room walking about. Suddenly the boards ceased to creak. Kit had stopped. Was it at the bedside? Was she pulling the cover off the patched pillow?
Clo had turned to a shelf crowded with books and magazines when a new idea came to her. She snatched up the blotter and held it open, in front of a mirror, over the mantelpiece. "Dear Peterson," she read, "Churn will take you this, and——"
The line beneath mingled with others, and could not be disentangled, but the address of the house had been written above, and could be clearly read.
With a sigh of thanksgiving Clo ran to the telephone, called up Central, and asked for the Dietz Hotel. Her voice could no doubt be heard in the hall outside, and might even reach Kit's ears upstairs. But the door must be broken before she could be torn from the 'phone, and at this hour, when all the men boarders were out there was no strong arm for such work. Meantime, O'Reilly might come. The girl longed for him with a new and desperate longing.
The Dietz answered quickly. Mr. Justin O'Reilly was still staying in the hotel, but he had gone out. Tears started to Clo's eyes. She was trapped now, and must summon Beverley to get the pearls. She had not the Sands' 'phone number, and must ask Central to call the Park Avenue apartment. When she had done this, silence fell. But it was only for a moment. Clo stood, with her ear at the receiver still, when a loud bang on the door made her jump as though she had been shot. The door knob turned.
"You little devil!" shrilled Kit's voice. "You—thief! I know you're there. Wait till I catch you!"
"Hello!" spoke a foreign-sounding voice through the 'phone—the voice of a woman. "Hello! Yes, this is Mrs. Sands' flat. Mr. and Mrs. Sands are not at home."
"When will they be back?" asked Clo.
"I don't know that," answered the cold voice of Anna Schultz. "It may be a long time."
The girl had an instant of despair, but she was not yet beaten. As Kit pounded furiously on the door, Clo called up the jeweller where Ellen Blackburne was employed. Ellen had been in but gone out again; but, oh, she had just returned. She would step to the 'phone.
A moment later Ellen's calm "Hello" seemed to travel to her from a far-distant, peaceful world.
"This is Clo," replied the girl, conscious that voices outside the door ceased their clamour in order that ears might hear her message. "Yes, I said Clo! For God's sake get into a taxi and rush to the number and street I'm going to give you. Listen! Don't stop to ask questions. When you get here, you don't need to come in. I'll drop something out of the window. You can guess what. I'll expect you quick. Good-bye!"
"I heard you!" shrieked Kit. "I can guess, too! You've stolen my pearls, and you think you'll pass 'em on to some other thief. But you won't, you devil! We'll have this door down in five minutes."
Clo went to the window, rolled up the blind, and raised the sash.
"Why won't you let me call the police?" she heard Mrs. Mac asking. "I tell you it's the only thing. I——"
"She won't let you do it because she stole the pearls herself," cried Clo, darting across the room to put her lips to the keyhole. "And that's not all she's afraid of."
"I'll kill you when I get my hands round your throat," Kit screamed her down.
"I won't be the first you've killed. Take care!" Clo retorted, and was then stung with regret for her boldness. There would be no mercy for her now from Kit or Churn when the door gave way. They would know that she'd been the woman at the telephone masquerading as Kit.
But, if only Miss Blackburne came first, before they broke in, she didn't much care. With the pearls safe, she could fight for herself.
"Hurrah, by all that's good, here's my Boy!" crowed Kit outside the door. "Churn! you've come! Mr. Isaacs, too! I was never so glad in my life to see any one as you both! There's a thief in Mr. Cheffinsky's room—the girl that's been living next door to us. She's stole my poor little string o' beads."
Men's voices spoke. Churn and Isaacs were indeed there! The girl put her ear to the keyhole once more, and listened.
"What did I tell you about dat key?" Churn caught her up. "You're ten kinds of a fool, girl. But de tief's dere all right, you say?"
"Yes, she's there all right. She must have took Chuff's key off our mantelpiece. You left it there! The little brute's been 'phonin' some pal to come in a taxi so she can drop my pearls out the window."
"Let me go down and talk things over with the pal when he comes," said another voice that was very smooth, and had a lisp. Clo deduced that it was the voice of Isaacs.
"Yes, do go down!" The girl jeered him through the keyhole. "I'll call from the window what you are, a fence; that's your nickname. You're a receiver of stolen goods."
For a few breathless moments there was no sound. Clo wondered if Ellen had started, and how soon the taxi might arrive. She went again to the window and looked out. There was no taxi in sight, no vehicle of any sort, but children playing, women chatting together. Clo wished that she might shriek at the top of her voice "Help!" "Thieves!" "Murder!" A policeman would surely come, and she and the pearls would be saved. But Beverley would be lost. The story of the pearls would come out somehow. As she gazed like Sister Anne from the tower, two things happened. In the house, a blow from a hammer made the door quiver; in the street a taxi came swinging into sight.
"They'll have the door down!" Clo gasped. "But if only that's Ellen she'll be just in time."
The bag containing the pearls in their red wrapping was in the girl's hand. She stood, prepared to throw it if Ellen appeared. The taxi was slowing down. Yes, it was stopping in front of the house. It must be Ellen—but no! A man stepped out, and glanced quickly in all directions. He did not look up at the window, where Clo had shrunk back as far as she could, not to lose sight of what went on below. He was furtively intent upon a gray limousine car, with several men in it, which had followed the taxi along the street. The motor passed on, however, and its occupants (there were four or five, Clo fancied) were busily talking. They did not look out, or interest themselves in the stopping of the taxi. The man who had come in the latter had the air of hiding behind it, as he paid the chauffeur and carefully counted his change; but the instant the limousine had slid ahead, regardless of him, he ran up the steps. Clo, at the window, could see him no more.
"What if it's Chuff?" she thought, "and he finds them breaking down his door?"
Somehow she had the impression that Cheffinsky was even more wicked than Churn, a man without scruples, a man who would stop at nothing for his own advantage.
"Crack!" went one of the panels, and Clo, flying to the door, snatched the key from the keyhole. She knew the panel could not last many minutes, and a picture rose before her mind of a hand pushing through a hole, to turn the key in the lock. Anyhow, that should not happen!
Back she fled to the window again, and stared anxiously out.
Another taxi appeared. The gray limousine had turned, and was coming back, also. But Clo cared only for the taxi. It was slowing down. A woman thrust her head out and looked up—a neat little head in a black toque. "Miss Blackburne!" The girl cried shrilly. The taxi stopped. But the door stuck. Oh, why didn't the silly chauffeur jump off his seat and help?
Crash! The panel broke with a loud shriek of rending wood. The hammer came through, and was jerked quickly out again. A man's hand seized a jagged piece of the panel and tore it away. An eye peered through the aperture, but Clo was at the window.
"Quick—quick!" she implored, and brandished the bag far over the sill.
The eye disappeared from the panel, and the muzzle of a revolver took its place.
Miss Blackburne had jumped down on to the pavement.
"If you throw out that bag, I fire," a voice warned Clo—a new voice, not Churn's.
The girl glanced round involuntarily, and saw the small black object imbedded in the smashed door panel. Her nerves jerked, but she turned back to the window, with a sensation of ice in her spine.
"String these and get them to her, if you have to take them to Newport!" she cried.
There was a queer muffled explosion, not unlike the breaking of wood, yet somehow different. Clo felt a blow on the shoulder, and then a strange, heart-rending pain. She staggered, fell forward on to her knees, hanging over the window sill. But she threw the bag. A red light flamed in her eyes, not like the light of the summer day. Through the redness she thought she saw a little woman in black catch the bag and stand still, looking up. Clo tried to wave her hand, motioning "Go on—hurry!" and her lips formed the words. She was not sure whether the woman went, or whether she had been stopped at the taxi door by some men getting out of that gray limousine; the cloud of red had grown so thick. But there were noises behind her. The men in the hall had burst the door open. She could not look round again. Her head rested upon her arm, lying on the window sill. Then someone was dragging her away. It was all over for her in this world! But Beverley's pearls were saved.
THE TIME LIMIT OF HOPE
A big, blond man had hustled Mrs. Mac and Violet downstairs before the shot was fired. It was bewildering to them that Mr. Cheffinsky should come home after his strange absence with his beautiful golden beard and moustache shaved off.
Cheffinsky was like an officer directing a defence. He took command instantly he entered the house, seeming to understand the situation without a question. "If any one rings, let Violet be a long time opening the door," he said. "But it must be opened. Don't act as if there was something to hide. Keep 'em talking, no matter who, or about what as long as you can. There's been a theft from a lady boarder, and a little excitement; you've only to tell the truth—see?"
All this in a second; but it got the two women out of the way. The spy must be muzzled at any cost, for Cheffinsky guessed at a word from Kit that this was the mysterious girl of the telephone.
"Pick her up," he said to Kit, when they had got the locked door open. "If any eyes are on that window, it won't look too queer for one girl to pull another back into the room."
As the other two women had done, Kit obeyed. She was used to obeying Chuff in the past. She dragged Clo to the back of the room, out of sight from the window, and awaited further commands.
"Now," Chuff said, "if we're spotted, this is a suicide—see? She stole your pearls, and when she was caught she killed herself."
"But the shot's in her shoulder—and she ain't dead. She's opening her eyes," Kit objected.
"She's got to be dead," Chuff decreed. "I know how to fix the bullet business. It'll have to be done now, because if trouble comes it will come quick. Look here; this is the thing to do, if there's questions to answer. You caught her stealing. She ran down to this room from yours, threw the stuff out of the window to a pal, and then grabbed my Browning from the mantelpiece. She'd have shot you, but seeing the men, knew the game was up, and did for herself instead. Shut the window, Kit. I'm going to put another ball into her, in the chest, just opposite the spot of blood on her back. Carry her into the closet, to cover the sound. I mustn't touch her myself. There's spots on you already. Account for them by saying you picked her up to see if she was alive."
"But if she's in the closet——"
"She ran there, and shot at you from inside the door, after we'd all broken into the room to get at her. Is that clear to you both? We must stick to the same story. Into the closet with her, Kit."
Clo felt a strange sensation, as if her soul had left the body that hung limp in Kit's strong arms, and was gazing at it with impersonal pity. "The worst will be ended for me in a minute," she thought. Then, suddenly, she remembered Justin O'Reilly. A great desolation of loneliness swept over her. He would be sorry. But he was far away.
* * * * *
When Clo telephoned, Ellen Blackburne did not even know that the Sands were out of New York. The message, however, instantly awoke her sleeping interest. She guessed that Clo had tracked the thief, and that what she called the "weird address" given was the "lair." Miss Blackburne was no coward, and the astonishing request that came over the telephone wires did not frighten her. She prepared to follow instructions at once, taking only one precaution. Before starting, she left word that if she did not 'phone or return within an hour, inquiries were to be made at the house and in the street whose number she wrote down.
The pearl-stringer did, therefore, precisely what she had been asked to do. She abandoned the work laid out for the morning, and dashed off in a taxi on a moment's notice. Clo's little face at the window of a tenth-rate boarding-house told her nothing new. Clo was always pale. When the girl dropped to her knees it looked to Ellen as if that attitude were more convenient for throwing down the bag. No sound of a pistol shot reached Ellen's ears over the noises of the street. She heard only the "teuf-teuf" of her own taxi, and the snort of a big gray car which had at that instant come to a stop close by. Miss Blackburne was used to odd adventures, and prided herself on "keeping cool," but she could not help giving an undignified jump as a man sprang out of the gray limousine and laid a hand on her arm.
"What is in that bag and where are you taking it? I've a right to know," he said sharply. "I'm a friend of Miss Riley."
Ellen grabbed at the door of her taxi. The man was about thirty or thirty-two, she thought, certainly a gentleman and rather handsome. "I'm acting for Miss Riley," she returned as sharply. "My name's Blackburne. Clo's in a hurry for me to do an errand. If you're really her friend, you'd better let me get away while you look after her."
The two eyed each other for an instant. "You are Miss Ellen Blackburne, the pearl-stringer?" the man inquired.
"The same," she answered.
"Then go on her errand!" he exclaimed. And while Ellen stared, he ran up the steps of the house where a companion had already rung the bell. Neither of the men looked again at her. Ellen waited for no more. To save delay and further suspense for Mrs. Sands she drove straight to the Park Avenue house, in order to string the pearls there: for she had hastily collected her materials before starting. It was a blow to hear from the hall porter that the Sands had already left New York; she decided on going up to get further information. She even thought of sending a long-distance message to Beverley from her own flat; but the grim personality of Anna Schultz banished this idea at a glance. Ellen realized that if she asked to enter the apartment she would be regarded as a suspicious character. Important business with Mrs. Sands would take her to Newport immediately, she told Miss Schultz. If there were any letter or parcel to be sent she would carry it.
Anna's reply to this offer was a stiff refusal, but Miss Blackburne had not reached the lift when the woman came after her. "I've just remembered, there's a telegram for Mrs. Sands' French maid, you might give her by hand, if you're going to Newport to-day," she said, with a grudging air. "It will be quicker than posting." Anna Schultz slipped the envelope into Ellen's hand, and turned away without waiting for an answer.
Having telephoned to the jewellers where she was employed, Ellen decided to string the pearls at home. She dared not dash off to Newport without seeing her mother, and arranging with a neighbour to stop in the house while she was gone. On second thoughts, she told herself that, for Mrs. Sands' own sake, it might be best not to risk a reassuring message of any sort in advance. Someone else might happen to receive it! She determined simply to work as fast as possible, and take the first train she could catch for Newport, with the restrung rope of pearls.
* * * * *
Beverley dreaded the night of the dance more even than she had dreaded her mission, nearly a year ago, in Albuquerque.
It seemed very long since she had been radiantly happy in the thought of this glorified cottage at Newport—"Gulls' Rest"—Roger's present to her. She hated it now, and everything associated with it; the fuss of settling into the place, in a foolish hurry, though the Newport season had not yet begun: Roger's determination to begin with a house-party and a dance; his civil, quiet coldness to her; the strange look she caught in his eyes at times; the mystery of Clo's silence, which deepened day by day; fear of reprisals for loss of the papers; these things seemed harder to bear in Newport than at home in New York. Often Beverley wondered how long she would be sane.
The Sands had brought with them a couple of friends: two others had joined them the day after, and half a dozen more had come since. Roger had engaged all the rooms in a small but delightful hotel for extra guests who would arrive for the dance and stay the night; and, in advance of the season as the house-warming was, word had gone out that the entertainment would be worth a long journey. The favours for the cotillon were said to have cost ten thousand dollars; and there was to be a "surprise" of some sort. Perhaps this was the reason why Mrs. Heron changed her mind, and John Heron wired to Roger that he and his wife would be pleased to come on from Narragansett, where they were spending a weekend for Heron's health.
The invitation had been sent to the Herons by Roger's firmly expressed wish, but Beverley had not dreamed that it would be accepted. And, after all, they were both coming to the dance! This seemed ominous. It gave her one more fear for the dreaded night.
Through the morning she still wildly hoped for news from Clo. Even as the afternoon wore on she did not utterly despair; but at six o'clock, when Roger advised her and the other women staying in the house to rest till dressing-time, she definitely gave up. For the first time since that Sunday night which marked the end of happiness, Roger slipped his hand under her arm in a friendly, familiar way.
"Come along," he said. "I'll trot you up to your room and see that you lie down. I want you to look your best to-night; and you know dinner's at eight. You won't have more than an hour's nap. I suppose it'll take you at least an hour to dress?"
"Just about," Beverley answered, dully. She knew that she could not sleep, but she was worn out with the effort of "keeping up" before her guests. She expected Roger to leave her at the door of her room, which he had entered only when the house was being shown to friends; but to her surprise, almost alarm, he followed her in. She said that she would not ring yet for Leontine. She would unfasten her own frock and find her own dressing-gown.
"I'll draw the curtains for you," Roger suggested, in the coolly kind manner to which she had grown accustomed during the black fortnight. "One rests one's brain best in twilight, I think. I'm sure you need rest. I never saw you so pale. I hope you're not worried about to-night?"
"Worried? Why should I be worried?" she echoed. "I'm sure everything will go well, aren't you?"
"I hope so," he said, gravely. "You haven't shown me your new dress. I suppose it's come?"
"Oh, yes," Beverley replied, convinced that it was not about the dress he thought or cared. "It came the day after we arrived."
"Good! Then you'll be able to do full justice to the pearls!"
Beverley had the impulse to throw herself into her husband's arms and upon his mercy; but she would not, or could not—she hardly knew which. It seemed to her that he was being purposely cruel, and was deliberately testing, torturing her, to see how much she could bear and not break. "Let him find out when the time comes," she thought, in sullen despair. Instead of confessing her trouble she asked if he would like to see her new gown.