Locked Doors/Part 1
By MARY ROBERTS RINEHART
ILLUSTRATED BY MAY WILSON PRESTON
Mr. Patton dispatched One of the Men for the Nearest Doctor
YOU promised,” I reminded Mr. Patton, “to play with cards on the table.”
“My dear young lady,” he replied, “I have no cards! I suspect a game, that's all.”
“Then—do you need me?”
The detective bent forward, his arms on his desk, and looked me over carefully.
“What sort of shape are you in? Tired?”
“Not enough to hurt.”
“I want you to take another case, following a nurse who has gone to pieces,” he said, selecting his words carefully. “I don't want to tell you a lot—I want you to go in with a fresh mind. It promises to be an extraordinary case.”
“How long was the other nurse there?”
“She went to pieces in four days!”
“Well, she's pretty much unstrung. The worst is, she hasn't any real reason. A family chooses to live in an unusual manner, because they like it, or perhaps they're afraid of something. The girl was, that's sure. I had never seen her until this morning, a big, healthy-looking young woman; but she came in looking back over her shoulder as if she expected a knife in her back. She said she was a nurse from St. Luke's and that she'd been on a case for four days. She'd left that morning after about three hours' sleep in that entire period, being locked in a room most of the time, and having little but crackers and milk for food. She thought it was a case for the police.”
“Who is ill in the house? Who was her patient?”
“There is no illness, I believe. The French governess had gone, and they wished the children competently cared for until they replaced her. That was the reason given her when she went. Afterward she—well, she was puzzled.”
“How are you going to get me there?”
He gathered acquiescence from my question and smiled approval.
“Good girl!” he said. “Never mind how I'll get you there. You are the most dependable woman I know.”
“The most curious, perhaps?” I retorted. “Four days on the case, three hours' sleep, locked in and yelling 'Police!' Is it out of town?”
“No, in the heart of the city, on Beauregard Square. Can you get some St. Luke's uniforms? They want another St. Luke's nurse.”
I said I could get the uniforms, and he wrote the address on a card.
“Better arrive early in the evening,” he said.
“But—if they are not expecting me?”
“They will be expecting you,” he replied enigmatically.
“The doctor, if he's a St. Luke's man——”
“There is no doctor.”
It was six months since I had solved, or helped to solve, the mystery of the buckled bag for Mr. Patton. I had had other cases for him in the interval, cases in which the police could not get close enough. As I said when I began this record of my crusade against crime and the criminal, a trained nurse gets under the very skin of the soul. She finds motives that have fired the funs of life revealed in their pitifulness.
Gradually I had come to see that Mr. Patton's point of view was right: that if the criminal uses every means against society, why not society against the criminal? At first I had used this as a flag of truce to my nurse's ethical training; now I flaunted it, a mental and moral banner. The criminal against society, and I against the criminal! And, more than that, against misery, healing pain by augmenting it sometimes, but working like a surgeon, for good.
Second floor Plan of the Reed House
I had had six cases in six months. Only in one had I failed to land my criminal, and that without any suspicion of my white uniform and rubber-soled shoes. Although I played a double game, no patient of mine had suffered. I was a nurse first and a police agent second. If it was a question between turpentine compresses—stupes, professionally—and seeing what letters came in or went out of the house, the compress went on first, and cracking hot, too. I am not boasting. That is my method, the only way I can work, and it speaks well for it that, as I say, only one man escaped arrest—an arson case in which the factory owner hanged himself in the bathroom needle shower in the house he had bought with the insurance money, while I was fixing his breakfast tray. And even he might have been saved for justice had the cook not burned the toast and been obliged to make it fresh.
I was no longer staying at a nurses' home. I had taken a bachelor suite of three rooms and bath, comfortably downtown. I cooked my own breakfasts when I was off-duty and I dined at a restaurant nearby. Luncheon I did not bother much about. Now and then Mr. Patton telephoned me and we lunched together in remote places where we would not be known. He would tell me of his cases and sometimes he asked my advice.
I bought my uniforms that day and took them home in a taxicab. The dresses were blue, and over them for the street the St. Luke's girls wore long cloaks, English fashion, of navy blue serge, and a blue bonnet with a white ruching and white lawn ties. I felt curious in it, but it was becoming and convenient. Certainly I looked professional.
At three o'clock that afternoon a messenger brought a small box, registered. It contained a St. Luke's badge of gold and blue enamel.
At four o'clock my telephone rang. I was packing my suitcase according to the list I keep pasted in the lid. Under the list, which was of uniforms, aprons, thermometer, instruments, a nurse's simple set of probe, forceps and bandage scissors, was the word “box.” This always went in first—a wooden box with a lock, the key of which was round my neck. It contained skeleton keys, a small black revolver of which I was in deadly fear, a pair of handcuffs, a pocket flashlight, and my badge from the chief of police. I was examining the revolver nervously when the telephone rang, and I came within an ace of sending a bullet into the flat below.
Did you ever notice how much you get out of a telephone voice? We can dissemble with our faces, but under stress the vocal cords seem to draw up tight and the voice comes thin and colorless. There's a little woman in the flat beneath—the one I nearly bombarded—who sings like a bird at her piano half the day, scaling vocal heights that make me dizzy. Now and then she has a visitor, a nice young man, and she disgraces herself, flats F, fogs E even, finally takes cowardly refuge in a wretched mezzo-soprano and doubtless cries herself to sleep later on.
The man who called me had the thin-drawn voice of extreme strain—a youngish voice.
“Miss Adams,” he said, “this is Francis Reed speaking. I have called St. Luke's and they referred me to you. Are you free to take a case this afternoon?”
I fenced. I was trying to read the voice.
“Well, before night anyhow; as—as early this evening as possible.”
The voice was strained and tired, desperately tired. It was not peevish. It was even rather pleasant.
“What is the case, Mr. Reed?”
He hesitated. “It is not illness. It is merely—the governess has gone and there are two small children. We want some one to give her undivided attention to the children.”
“Are you a heavy sleeper, Miss Adams?”
“A very light one.” I fancied he breathed freer.
“I hope you are not tired from a previous case?” I was beginning to like the voice.
“I'm quite fresh,” I replied almost gayly. “Even if I were not, I like children, especially well ones. I shan't find looking after them very wearying, I'm sure.”
Again the odd little pause. Then he gave me the address on Beauregard Square, and asked me to be sure not to be late.
“I must warn you,” he added, “we are living in a sort of casual way. Our servants left us without warning. Mrs. Reed has been getting along as best she could. Most of our meals are being sent in.”
I was thinking fast. No servants! A good many people think a trained nurse is a sort of upper servant. I've been in houses where they were amazed to discover that I was a college woman and, finding the two things irreconcilable, have openly accused me of having been driven to such a desperate course as a hospital training by an unfortunate love affair.
“Of course you understand that I will look after the children to the best of my ability, but that I will not replace the servants.”
I fancied he smiled grimly.
“That, of course. Will you ring twice when you come?”
“The doorbell,” he replied impatiently.
I said I would ring the doorbell twice.
The young woman below was caroling gayly, ignorant of the six-barreled menace over her head. I knelt again by my suitcase, but packed little and thought a great deal. I was to arrive before dusk at a house where there were no servants and to ring the doorbell twice. I was to be a light sleeper, although I was to look after two healthy children. It was not much in itself, but, in connection with the previous nurse's appeal to the police, it took on new possibilities.
At six I started out to dinner. It was early spring and cold, but quite light. At the first corner I saw Mr. Patton waiting for a street car, and at his quick nod I saw I was to get in also. He did not pay my fare or speak to me. It was a part of the game that we were never seen together except at the remote restaurant I mentioned before. The car thinned out and I could watch him easily. Far down town he alighted and so did I. The restaurant was near. I went in alone and sat down at a table in a recess, and very soon he joined me. We were in the main dining room but not of it, a sop at once to the conventions and to the necessity, where he was so well known, for caution.
“I got a little information—on—the affair we were talking of,” he said as he sat down. “I'm not so sure I want you to take the case after all.”
“Certainly I shall take it,” I retorted with some sharpness. “I've promised to go.”
“Tut! I'm not going to send you into danger unnecessarily.”
“I am not afraid.”
“Exactly. A lot of generals were lost in the Civil War because they were not afraid and wanted to lead their troops instead of saving themselves and their expensive West Point training by sitting back in a safe spot and directing the fight. Any fool can run into danger. It takes intelligence to keep out.”
I felt my color rising indignantly.
“Then you brought me here to tell me I am not to go?”
“Will you let me read you two reports?”
“You could have told me that at the corner!”
“Will you let me read you two reports?”
“If you don't mind, I'll first order something to eat. I'm to be there before dark.”
“Will you let me——”
“I'm going, and you know I'm going. If you don't want me to represent you, I'll go on my own. They want a nurse, and they're in trouble.”
I think he was really angry. I know I was. If there is anything that takes the very soul out of a woman, it is to be kept from doing a thing she has set her heart on, because some man thinks it dangerous. If she has any spirit, that rouses it.
Mr. Patton quietly replaced the reports in his wallet, and his wallet in the inside pocket of his coat, and fell to a judicial survey of the menu. But although he barely glanced at me, he must have seen the determination in my face, for he ordered things that were quickly prepared and told the waiter to hurry.
“I have wondered lately,” he said slowly, “whether the mildness of your manner at the hospital was acting, or the chastening effect of three years under an order book.”
“A man always likes a woman to be a sheep.”
“I Thought You Nurses Had No Nerves” “Not at all. But it is rather disconcerting to have a pet lamb turn round and take a bite out of one.”
“Will you read the reports now?”
“I think,” he said quietly, “they had better wait until we have eaten. We will probably both feel calmer. Suppose we arrange that nothing said before the oysters counts?”
I agreed, rather sulkily, and the meal went off well enough. I was rather anxious to hurry but he ate deliberately, drank his demitasse, paid the waiter, and at last met my impatient eyes and smiled.
“After all,” he said, “since you are determined to go anyhow, what's the use of reading the reports? Inside of an hour you'll know all you need to know.” But he saw that I did not take his teasing well, and drew out his pocketbook.
There were two typewritten papers clamped together.
They are on my desk before me now. The first one is endorsed:
- Statement by Laura J. Bosworth, nurse, of St. Luke's Home for Graduate Nurses.
- Miss Bosworth says:
- I do not know just why I came here. But I know I'm frightened. That's the fact. I think there is something terribly wrong in the house of Francis M. Reed, 71 Beauregard Square. I think a crime of some sort has been committed. There are four people in the family, Mr. and Mrs. Reed and two children. I was to look after the children.
- I was there four days and the children were never allowed out of the room. At night we were locked in. I kept wondering what I would do if there was a fire. The telephone wires are cut so no one can call the house, and I believe the doorbell is disconnected too. But that's fixed now. Mrs. Reed went round all the time with a face like chalk and her eyes staring. At all hours of the night she'd unlock the bedroom door and come in and look at the children.
- Almost all the doors through the house were locked. If I wanted to get to the kitchen to boil eggs for the children's breakfast—for there were no servants, and Mrs. Reed is young and doesn't know anything about cooking—Mr. Reed had to unlock about four doors for me.
- If Mrs. Reed looked bad, he was dreadful—sunken eyed and white and wouldn't eat. I think he has killed some one and is making away with the body.
- Last night I said I had to have air, and they let me go out. I called up a friend from a pay-station, another nurse. This morning she sent me a special-delivery letter that I was needed on another case, and I got away. That's all; it sounds foolish, but try it and see if it doesn't get on your nerves.
Mr. Patton looked up at me as he finished reading.
“Now you see what I mean,” he said. “That woman was there four days, and she is as temperamental as a cow, but in those four days her nervous system went to smash.”
“Doors locked!” I reflected. “Servants gone; state of fear—it looks like a siege!”
“But why a trained nurse? Why not a policeman, if there is danger? Why any one at all, if there is something that the police are not to know?”
“That is what I intend to find out,” I replied. He shrugged his shoulders and read the other paper:
- Report of Detective Bennett on Francis M. Reed, April 5.
- Francis M. Reed is thirty-six years of age, married, a chemist at the Olympic Paint Works. He has two children, both boys. Has a small independent income and owns the house on Beauregard Square, which was built by his grandfather, General F. R. Reed. Is supposed to be living beyond his means. House is usually full of servants, and grocer in the neighborhood has had to wait for money several times.
- On March twenty-ninth he dismissed all servants without warning. No reason given, but a week's wages instead of notice.
- On March thirtieth he applied to the owners of the paint factory for two weeks' vacation. Gave as his reason nervousness and insomnia. He said he was “going to lay off and get some sleep.” Has not been back at the works since. House under surveillance this afternoon. No visitors. Mr. Reed telephoned for a nurse at four o'clock from a store on Eleventh Street. Explained that his telephone was out of order.
Mr. Patton folded up the papers and thrust them back into his pocket. Evidently he saw I was determined, for he only said:
“Have you got your revolver?”
“Do you know anything about telephones? Could you repair that one in an emergency?”
“In an emergency,” I retorted, “there is no time to repair a telephone. But I've got a voice and there are windows. If I really put my mind to it, you will hear me yell at headquarters.”
He smiled grimly.
THE Reed house is on Beauregard Square. It is a small, exclusive community, the Beauregard Neighborhood; a dozen or more solid citizens built their homes there in the early 70's, occupying large lots, the houses flush with the streets and with gardens behind. Six on one street, six on another, back to back with the gardens in the center, they occupied the whole block. And the gardens are not fenced off, but make a sort of small park, unsuspected from the streets. Here and there bits of flowering shrubbery sketchily outline a property, but the general impression is of lawn and trees, free of access to all the owners. Thus, with the square in front and the gardens in the rear, the Reed house faces in two directions on the early spring green.
In the gardens the old tar walks are still there, and a fountain which no longer plays, but on whose stone coping I believe the young Beauregard Squarites made their first climbing ventures.
The gardens are always alive with birds, and later on from my windows I learned the reason. It seems to have been a custom sanctified by years, that the crumbs from the twelve tables should be thrown into the dry basin of the fountain for the birds. It is a common sight to see stately butlers and chic little waitresses in black and white coming out after luncheon or dinner with silver trays of crumbs. Many a scrap of gossip, as well as scrap of food, has been passed along at the old stone fountain, I believe. I know that it was there that I heard of the “basement ghost” of Beauregard Square—a whisper at first, a panic later.
I arrived at eight o'clock and rang the doorbell twice. The door was opened at once by Mr. Reed, a tall, blond young man, carefully dressed. He threw away his cigarette when he saw me and shook hands. The hall was brightly lighted and most cheerful; in fact the whole house was ablaze with light. Certainly nothing could be less mysterious than the house, or than the debonair young man who motioned me into the library.
“I told Mrs. Reed I would talk to you before you go upstairs,” he said. “Will you sit down?”
I sat down. The library was even brighter than the hall, and now I saw that, although he smiled as cheerfully as ever, his face was almost colorless, and his eyes, which looked frankly enough into mine for a moment, went wandering off round the room. I had the impression somehow that Mr. Patton had had of the nurse at headquarters that morning—that he looked as if he expected a knife in his back. It seemed to me that he wanted to look over his shoulder and by sheer will power did not.
“You know the rule, Miss Adams,” he said. “When there's an emergency, get a trained nurse. I told you our emergency—no servants and two small children.”
“This should be a good time to secure servants,” I said briskly. “City houses are being deserted for country places, and a percentage of servants won't leave town.”
He hesitated. “We've been doing very nicely, although of course it's hardly more than just living. Our meals are sent in from a hotel, and—well, we thought, since we are going away so soon, that perhaps we could manage.”
The impulse was too strong for him at that moment. He wheeled and looked behind him, not a hasty glance, but a deliberate inspection that took in every part of that end of the room. It was so unexpected that it left me gasping.
The next moment he was himself again.
“When I say that there is no illness,” he said, “I am hardly exact. There is no illness, but there has been an epidemic of children's diseases among the Beauregard Square children and we are keeping the youngsters indoors.”
“Don't you think they could be safeguarded without being shut up in the house?”
He responded eagerly.
“If I only thought——” He checked himself. “No,” he said decidedly; “for a time, at least, I believe it is not wise.”
I did not argue with him. There was nothing to be gained by antagonizing him. And as Mrs. Reed came in just then, the subject was dropped. She was hardly more than a girl, almost as blonde as her husband, very pretty, and with the weariest eyes I have ever seen, unless perhaps the eyes of a man who has waited a long time for death.
I liked her at once. She did not attempt to smile. She rather clung to my hand when I held it out.
“I am glad St. Luke's still trusts us,” she said. “I was afraid the other nurse—— Frank, will you take Miss Adams's suitcase upstairs?”
She held out a key. He took it, but he turned at the door.
“I wish you wouldn't wear those things, Anne. You gave me your promise yesterday, you remember.”
“I can't work round the children in anything else,” she protested.
“Those things” were charming. She wore a rose silk negligee trimmed with soft bands of lace and blue satin flowers, a petticoat to match that garment, and a lace cap.
He hesitated in the doorway and looked at her—a curious glance, I thought, full of tenderness, reproof—and perhaps apprehension.
“I'll take them off, dear,” she replied to the glance. “I wanted Miss Adams to know that, even if we haven't a servant in the house, we are at least civilized. I—I haven't taken cold.” This last was clearly an afterthought.
He went out then and left us together.
She came over to me swiftly. “What did the other nurse say?” she demanded.
“I do not know her at all. I have not seen her.”
“Didn't she report at the hospital that we were—queer?”
I smiled. “That's hardly likely, is it?”
Unexpectedly she went to the door opening into the hall and closed it, coming back swiftly.
“Mr. Reed thinks it is not necessary, but—there are some things that will puzzle you. Perhaps I should have spoken to the other nurse. If—if anything strikes you as unusual, Miss Adams, just please don't see it! It is all right, everything is all right. But something has occurred—not very much, but disturbing—and we are all of us doing the very best we can.”
She was quivering with nervousness.
I was not the police agent then, I'm afraid.
“Nurses are accustomed to disturbing things. Perhaps I can help.”
“You can, by watching the children. That's the only thing that matters to me—the children. I don't want them left alone. If you have to leave them, call me.”
“Don't you think I will be able to watch them more intelligently if I know just what the danger is?”
I think she very nearly told me. She was so tired, evidently so anxious to shift her burden to fresh shoulders.
“Mr. Reed said,” I prompted her, “that there was an epidemic of children's diseases. But from what you say——”
But I was not to learn, after all, for her husband opened the hall door.
“Yes, children's diseases,” she said vaguely. “So many children are down. Shall we go up, Frank?”
“Do You Think We Can Play in the fountain To-day?”
The extraordinary bareness of the house had been dawning on me for some time. It was well lighted and well furnished. But the floors were innocent of rugs, the handsome furniture was without arrangement and, in the library at least, stood huddled in the center of the room. The hall and stairs were also uncarpeted, but there were marks where carpets had recently lain and had been jerked up.
The progress up the staircase was not calculated to soothe my nerves. The thought of my little revolver, locked in my suitcase, was poor comfort. For with every four steps or so Mr. Reed, who led the way, turned automatically and peered into the hallway below; he was listening, too, his head bent slightly forward. And each time that he turned, his wife, behind me, turned also. Cold terror suddenly got me by the spine, and yet the hall was bright with light.
(Note: Surely fear is a contagion. Could one isolate the germ of it and find an antitoxin? Or is it merely a form of nervous activity run amuck, like a runaway locomotive, colliding with other nervous activities and causing catastrophe? Take this up with Mr. Patton. But would he know? He, I am almost sure, has never been really afraid.)
“We Gave the Little Fishes the Bread for Breakfast” I had a vision of my oxlike predecessor making this head-over-shoulder journey up the staircase, and in spite of my nervousness I smiled. But at that moment Mrs. Reed put a hand on my arm, and I screamed. I remember yet the way she dropped back against the wall and turned white.
Mr. Reed whirled on me instantly.
“What did you see?” he demanded.
“Nothing at all.” I was horribly ashamed. “Your wife touched my arm unexpectedly. I dare say I am nervous.”
“It's all right, Anne,” he reassured her. And to me, almost irritably, “I thought you nurses had no nerves.”
“Under ordinary circumstances I have none.”
It was all ridiculous. We were still on the staircase.
“Just what do you mean by that?”
“If you will stop looking down into that hall, I'll be calm enough. You make me jumpy.”
He muttered something about being sorry and went on quickly. But at the top he went through an inward struggle, evidently succumbed, and took a final furtive survey of the hallway below. I was so wrought up that had a door slammed anywhere just then, I think I should have dropped where I stood.
The absolute silence of the house added to the strangeness of the situation. Beauregard Square is not close to a trolley line, and quiet is the neighborhood tradition. The first rubber-tired vehicles in the city drew up before Beauregard Square houses. Beauregard Square children speak in low voices and never bang their spoons on their plates. Beauregard Square servants wear felt-soled shoes. And such outside noises as venture to intrude themselves must filter through double brick walls and doors built when lumber was selling by the thousand acres instead of the square foot.
Through this silence our feet echoed along the bare floor of the upper hall, as well lighted as belowstairs and as dismantled, to the door of the day nursery. The door was locked—double locked, in fact. For the key had been turned in the old-fashioned lock, and in addition an ordinary bolt had been newly fastened on the outside of the door. On the outside! Was that to keep me in? It was certainly not to keep any one or anything out. The feeblest touch moved the bolt.
We were all three outside the door. We seemed to keep our compactness by common consent. No one of us left the group willingly; or, leaving it, we slid back again quickly. That was my impression, at least. But the bolt rather alarmed me.
“This is your room,” Mrs. Reed said. “It is generally the day nursery, but we have put a bed and some other things in it. I hope you will be comfortable.”
I touched the bolt with my finger and smiled into Mr. Reeds eyes.
“I hope I am not to be fastened in!” I said.
He looked back squarely enough, but somehow I knew he lied.
“Certainly not,” he replied, and opened the door.
If there had been mystery outside, and bareness, the nursery was charming—a corner room with many windows, hung with the simplest of nursery papers and full of glass-doored closets filled with orderly rows of toys. In one corner a small single bed had been added without spoiling the room. The window-sills were full of flowering plants. There was a bowl of goldfish on a stand, and a tiny dwarf parrot in a cage was covered against the night air by a bright afghan. A white-tiled bathroom connected with this room and also with the night nursery beyond.
I Lifted Myself by sheer Force of Muscle and Looked Out
Mr. Reed did not come in. I had an uneasy feeling, however, that he was just beyond the door. The children were not asleep. Mrs. Reed left me so that I could put on my uniform. When she came back her face was troubled.
“They are not sleeping well,” she complained. “I suppose it comes from having no exercise. They are always excited.”
“I'll take their temperatures,” I said. “Sometimes a tepid bath and a cup of hot milk will make them sleep.”
The two little boys were wide awake. They sat up to look at me and both spoke at once.
“Can you tell fairy tales out of your head?”
“Did you see Chang?”
They were small, sleek-headed, fair-skinned youngsters, adorably clean and rumpled.
“Chang is their dog, a Pekingese,” explained the mother. “He has been lost for several days.”
“But he isn't lost, Mother. I can hear him crying every now and then. You'll look again, Mother, won't you?”
“We heard him through the furnace pipe,” shrilled the smaller of the two. “You said you would look.”
“I did look, darlings. He isn't there. And you promised not to cry about him, Freddie.”
Freddie, thus put on his honor, protested he was not crying for the dog.
“I want to go out and take a walk, that's why I'm crying,” he wailed. “And I want Mademoiselle, and my buttons are all off. And my ear aches when I lie on it.”
The room was close. I threw up the windows, and turned to find Mrs. Reed at my elbow. She was glancing out apprehensively.
“I suppose the air is necessary,” she said, “and these windows are all right. But—I have a reason for asking it—please do not open the others.”
She went very soon, and I listened as she went out. I had promised to lock the door behind her, and I did so. The bolt outside was not shot.
After I had quieted the children with my mildest fairy story, I made an inventory of my new quarters. I drew a diagram of the second floor s the one I gave Mr. Patton later. That night, of course, I investigated only the two nurseries. But, so strangely had the fear that hung over the house infected me, I confess that I made my little tour of bathroom and clothes-closet with my revolver in my hand!
I found nothing, of course. The disorder of the house had not extended itself here. The bathroom was spotless with white tile; the large clothes-closet which opened off the passage between the two rooms was full of neatly folded clothing for the children. The closet was to play its part later, a darkish little room faintly lighted during the day by a ground-glass transom opening into the center hall, but dependent mostly on electric light.
Outside the windows Mrs. Reed had asked me not to open was a porte-cochère roof almost level with the sills. Then was it an outside intruder she feared? And in that case, why the bolts on the outside of the two nursery doors? For the night nursery, I found, must have one also. I turned the key, but the door would not open.
I decided not to try to sleep that night, but to keep on watch. So powerfully had the mother's anxiety about her children and their mysterious danger impressed me that I made frequent excursions into the back room. Up to midnight there was nothing whatever to alarm me. I darkened both rooms and sat, waiting for I know not what; for some sound to show that the house stirred, perhaps. At a few minutes after twelve, faint noises penetrated to my room from the hall, Mr. Reed's nervous voice and a piece of furniture scraping over the floor. Then silence again for half an hour or so.
Then—I was quite certain that the bolt on my door had been shot. I do not think I heard it. Perhaps I felt it. Perhaps I only feared it. I unlocked the door; it was fastened outside.
There is a hideous feeling of helplessness about being locked in. I pretended to myself at first that I was only interested and curious. But I was frightened; I know that now. I sat there in the dark and wondered what I would do if the house took fire, or if some hideous tragedy enacted itself outside that locked door and I were helpless.
By two o'clock I had worked myself into a panic. The house was no longer silent. some one was moving about downstairs, and not stealthily. The sounds came up through the heavy joists and flooring of the old house.
I determined to make at least a struggle to free myself. There was no way to get at the bolts, of course. The porte-cochère roof remained, and the transom in the clothes-closet. True, I might have raised an alarm and been freed at once, but naturally I rejected this method. The roof of the porte-cochère proved impracticable. The tin bent and cracked under my first step. The transom then.
I carried a chair into the closet and found the transom easy to lower. But it threatened to creak. I put liquid soap on the hinges—it was all I had, and it worked very well—and lowered the transom inch by inch. Even then I could not see over it. I had worked so far without a sound, but in climbing to a shelf my foot slipped and I thought I heard a sharp movement outside. It was five minutes before I stirred. I hung there, every muscle cramped, listening and waiting. Then I lifted myself by sheer force of muscle and looked out. The upper landing of the staircase, brilliantly lighted, was to my right. Across the head of the stairs had been pushed a cotbed, made up for the night, but it was unoccupied.
Mrs. Reed, in a long, dark ulster, was standing beside it, staring with fixed and glassy eyes at something in the lower hall.
SOME time after four o'clock my door was unlocked from without; the bolt slipped as noiselessly as it had been shot. I got a little sleep until seven, when the boys trotted into my room in their bathrobes and slippers and perched on my bed.
“It's a nice day,” observed Harry, the elder. “Is that bump your feet?”
I wriggled my toes and assured him he had surmised correctly.
“You're pretty long, aren't you? Do you think we can play in the fountain to-day?”
“We'll make a try for it, son. It will do us all good to get out into the sunshine.”
“We always took Chang for a walk every day, Mademoiselle and Chang and Freddie and I.”
Freddie had found my cap on the dressing table and had put it on his yellow head. But now, on hearing the beloved name of his pet, he burst into loud grief-stricken howls.
“Want Mam'selle,” he cried. “Want Chang, too. Poor Freddie!”
The children were adorable. I bathed and dressed them and, mindful of my predecessor's story of crackers and milk, prepared for an excursion kitchenward. The nights might be full of mystery, murder might romp from room to room, but I intended to see that the youngsters breakfasted. But before I was ready to go down breakfast arrived.
Perhaps the other nurse had told the Reeds a few plain truths before she left; perhaps, and this I think was the case, the cloud had lifted just a little. Whatever it may have been, two rather flushed and blistered young people tapped at the door that morning and were admitted, Mr. Reed first, with a tray, Mrs. Reed following with a coffeepot and cream.
The little nursery table was small for five, but we made room somehow. What if the eggs were underdone and the toast dry? The children munched blissfully. What if Mr. Reed's face was still drawn and haggard and his wife a limp little huddle on the floor? She sat with her head against his knee and her eyes on the little boys, and drank her pale coffee slowly. She was very tired, poor thing. She dropped asleep sitting there, and he sat for a long time, not liking to disturb her.
It made me feel homesick for the home I didn't have. I've had the same feeling before, of being a rank outsider, a sort of defrauded feeling. I've had it when I've seen the look in a man's eyes when his wife comes to after an operation. And I've had it, for that matter, when I've put a new baby in its mother's arms for the first time. I had it for sure that morning, while she slept there and he stroked her pretty hair.
I put in my plea for the children then.
“It's bright and sunny,” I argued. “And if you are nervous, I'll keep them away from other children. But if you want to keep them well, you must give them exercise.”
It was the argument about keeping them well that influenced him, I think. He sat silent for a long time. His wife was still asleep, her lips parted.
“Very well,” he said finally, “from two to three, Miss Adams. But not in the garden back of the house. Take them on the street.”
I agreed to that.
“I shall want a short walk every evening myself,” I added. “That is a rule of mine. I am a more useful person and a more agreeable one if I have it.”
I think he would have demurred if he dared. But one does not easily deny so sane a request. He yielded grudgingly.
That first day was calm and quiet enough. Had it not been for the strange condition of the house and the necessity for keeping the children locked in, I would have smiled at my terror of the night. Luncheon was sent in; so was dinner. The children and I lunched and supped alone. As far as I could see, Mrs. Reed made no attempt at housework; but the cot at the head of the stairs disappeared in the early morning and the dog did not howl again.
I took the boys out for an hour in the early afternoon. Two incidents occurred, both of them significant. I bought myself a screw driver—that was one. The other was our meeting with a slender young woman in black who knew the boys and stopped them. She proved to be one of the dismissed servants—the waitress, she said.
“Why, Freddie!” she cried. “And Harry, too! Aren't you going to speak to Nora?”
“'I Had No Idea it would be Like This. I'm Dying of Fear!'” After a moment or two she turned to me, and I felt she wanted to say something, but hardly dared.
“How is Mrs. Reed?” she asked. “Not sick, I hope?”
She glanced at my St. Luke's cloak and bonnet.
“No, she is quite well.”
“And Mr. Reed?”
“Quite well also.”
“Is Mademoiselle still there?”
“No, there is no one there but the family. There are no maids in the house.”
She stared at me curiously.
“Mademoiselle has gone? Are you cer—— Excuse me, miss. But I thought she would never go. The children were like her own.”
“She is not there, Nora.”
She stood for a moment, debating, I thought. Then she burst out, “Mr. Reed made a mistake, miss. You can't take a houseful of first-class servants and dismiss them the way he did—not even half an hour to get out bag and baggage—without making talk. And there's talk enough all through the neighborhood.”
“What sort of talk?”
“Different people say different things. They say Mademoiselle is still there, locked in her room on the third floor. There's a light there sometimes, but nobody sees her. And other folks say Mr. Reed is crazy. And there is worse being said than that.”
But she refused to tell me any more—evidently concluded she had said too much and got away as quickly as she could, looking rather worried.
I was a trifle over my hour getting back, but nothing was said. To leave the clean and tidy street for the disordered house was not pleasant. But once in the children's suite, with the goldfish in the aquarium darting like tongues of flame in the sunlight, with the tulips and hyacinths of the window-boxes glowing and the orderly toys on their white shelves, I felt comforted. After all, disorder and dust did not imply crime.
But one thing I did that afternoon—did it with firmness and no attempt at secrecy, and after asking permission of no one. I took the new screw driver and unfastened the bolt from the outside of my door.
I was prepared, if necessary, to make a stand on that issue. But although it was noticed, I knew, no mention of it was made to me.
Mrs. Reed pleaded a headache that evening, and I believe her husband ate alone in the dismantled dining room. For every room on the lower floor, I had discovered, was in the same curious disorder.
“Folks Say Mr. Reed is Crazy. And There is worse Being Said Than That” At seven Mr. Reed relieved me to could go out. The children were in bed. He did not go into the day nursery, but placed a straight chair outside the door of the back room and sat there, bent over, elbows on knees, chin cupped in his palm, staring at the staircase. He roused enough to ask me to bring an evening paper when I returned.
When I am on a department case, I always take my off-duty in the evening by arrangement and walk round the block. Sometime in my walk I am sure to see Mr. Patton himself if the case is big enough, or one of his agents if he cannot come. If I have nothing to communicate, it resolves itself into a bow and nothing more.
I was nervous on this particular jaunt. For one thing, my St. Luke's cloak and bonnet marked me at once, made me conspicuous; for another, I was afraid Mr. Patton would think the Reed house no place for a woman and order me home.
It was a quarter to eight and quite dark before he fell into step beside me.
“Well,” I told him rather shakily; “I'm still alive, as you see.”
“Then it is pretty bad?”
“It's exceedingly queer,” I admitted, and told my story. I had meant to conceal the bolt on the outside of my door, and one or two other things, but I blurted them all out right then and there, and felt a lot better at once.
He listened intently.
“It's fear of the deadliest sort,” I finished.
“Fear of the police?”
“I—I think not. It is fear of something in the house. They are always listening and watching at the top of the front stairs. They have lifted all the carpets, so that every footstep echoes through the whole house. Mrs. Reed goes down to the first floor, but never alone. to-day I found that the back staircase is locked off at top and bottom. There are doors.”
I gave him my rough diagram of the house. It was too dark to see it.
“It is only tentative,” I explained. “So much of the house is locked up, and every movement of mine is under surveillance. Without baths there are about twelve large rooms, counting the third floor. I've not been able to get there, but I thought that to-night I'd try to look about.”
“You had no sleep last night?”
“Three hours—from four to seven this morning.”
We had crossed into the public square and were walking slowly under the trees. Now he stopped and faced me.
“I don't like the look of it, Miss Adams,” he said. “Ordinary panic goes and hides. But here's a fear that knows what it's afraid of and takes methodical steps for protection. I didn't want you to take the case, you know that; but now I'm not going to insult you by asking you to give it up. But I'm going to see that you are protected. There will be some one across the street every night as long as you are in the house.”
“Have you any theory?” I asked him. He is not strong for theories generally. He is very practical. “That is, do you think the other nurse was right and there is some sort of crime being concealed?”
“Well, think about it,” he prompted me. “If a murder has been committed, what are they afraid of? The police? Then why a trained nurse and all this caution about the children? A ghost? Would they lift the carpets so that they could hear the specter tramping about?”
“If there is no crime, but something—a lunatic perhaps?” I asked.
“Possibly. But then why this secrecy and keeping out the police? It is, of course, possible that your respected employers have both gone off mentally, and the whole thing is a nightmare delusion. On my word, it sounds like it. But it's too much for credulity to believe they've both gone crazy with the same form of delusion.”
“Perhaps I'm the lunatic,” I said despairingly. “When you reduce it to an absurdity like that, I wonder if I didn't imagine it all, the lights burning everywhere and the carpets up, and Mrs. Reed staring down the staircase, and me locked in a room and hanging on by my nails to peer out through a closet transom.”
“Perhaps. But how about the deadly sane young woman who preceded you? She had no imagination. Now about Reed and his wife—how do they strike you? They get along all right and that sort of thing, I suppose?”
“They are nice people,” I said emphatically. “He's a gentleman and they're devoted. He just looks like a big boy who's got into an awful mess and doesn't know how to get out. And she's backing him up. She's a dear.”
“Humph!” said Mr. Patton. “Don't suppress any evidence because she's a dear and he's a handsome big boy!”
“I didn't say he was handsome,” I snapped.
“Did you ever see a ghost or think you saw one?” he inquired suddenly.
“No, but one of my aunts has. Hers always carry their heads. She asked one a question once and the head nodded.”
“Then you believe in things of that sort?”
“Not a particle—but I'm afraid of them.”
He smiled, and shortly after that I went back to the house. I think he was sorry about the ghost question, for he explained that he had been trying me out, and that I looked well in my cloak and bonnet.
“I'm afraid of your chin generally,” he said; “but the white lawn ties have a softening effect. In view of the ties I almost have the courage——”
“I think not, after all,” he decided. “The chin is there, ties or no ties. Good-night, and—for heaven's sake don't run any unnecessary risks.”
The change from his facetious tone to earnestness was so unexpected that I was still standing there on the pavement when he plunged into the darkness of the square and disappeared.
TO BE CONCLUDED