Locked Doors/Part 2
By MARY ROBERTS RINEHART
AT TEN minutes after eight I was back in the house. Mr. Reed admitted me, going through the tedious process of unlocking outer and inner vestibule doors and fastening them again behind me. He inquired politely if I had had a pleasant walk, and without waiting for my reply, fell to reading the evening paper. He seemed to have forgotten me absolutely. First he scanned the headlines; then he turned feverishly to something farther on and ran his fingers down along a column. His lips were twitching, but evidently he did not find what he expected—or feared—for he threw the paper away and did not glance at it again. I watched him from the angle of the stairs.
Even for that short interval, Mrs. Reed had taken his place at the children's door.
She wore a black dress, long sleeved and high at the throat, instead of the silk negligee of the previous evening, and she held a book. But she was not reading. She smiled rather wistfully when she saw me.
“How fresh you always look!” she said. “And so self-reliant. I wish I had your courage.”
“I am perfectly well. I dare say that explains a lot. Kiddies asleep?”
“Freddie isn't. He's been crying for Chang. I hate night, Miss Adams. I'm like Freddie. All my troubles come up about this time. I'm horribly depressed.”
Her blue eyes filled with tears.
“I haven't been sleeping well,” she confessed.
I should think not!
Without taking off my things I went down to Mr. Reed in the lower hall.
“I'm going to insist on something,” I said. “Mrs. Reed is highly nervous. She says she has not been sleeping. I think if I give her a sedative and she gets an entire night's sleep, it may save her a breakdown.”
I looked straight in his eyes, and for once he did not evade me.
“I'm afraid I've been very selfish,” he said. “Of course she must have sleep. I'll give you a powder, unless you have something you prefer to use.”
I remembered then that he was a chemist, and said I would gladly use whatever he gave me.
“There is another thing I wanted to speak about, Mr. Reed,” I said. “The children are mourning their dog. Don't you think he may have been accidentally shut up somewhere in the house, on one of the upper floors?”
“Why do you say that?” he demanded sharply.
“They say they have heard him howling.”
He hesitated for barely a moment. Then: “Possibly. But they will not hear him again. The little chap has been sick, and he—died to-day. Of course the boys are not to know.”
No one watched the staircase that night. I gave Mrs. Reed the powder and saw her comfortably into bed. When I went back fifteen minutes later, she was resting, but not asleep. Sedatives sometimes make people garrulous for a little while—sheer comfort, perhaps, and relaxed tension. I've had stockbrokers and bankers in the hospital give me tips, after a hypodermic of morphia, that would have made me wealthy had I not been limited to my training allowance of twelve dollars a month.
“I was just wondering,” she said as I tucked her up, “where a woman owes the most allegiance—to her husband or to her children?”
“Why not split it up,” I said cheerfully, “and try doing what seems best for both?”
“But that's only a compromise!” she complained, and was asleep almost immediately. I lowered the light and closed the door, and shortly after, I heard Mr. Reed locking it from the outside.
With the bolt off my door and Mrs. Reed asleep, my plan for the night was easily carried out. I went to bed for a couple of hours and slept calmly. I awakened once with the feeling that some one was looking at me from the passage into the night nursery, but there was no one there. However, so strong had been the feeling that I got up and went into the back room. The children were asleep, and all doors opening into the hall were locked. But the window onto the porte-cochère roof was open and the curtain blowing. There was no one on the roof, however, and I closed and locked the window.
It was not twelve o'clock and I went back to bed for an hour.
At one I prepared to make a thorough search of the house. Looking from one of my windows, I thought I saw the shadowy figure of a man across the street, and I was comforted. Help was always close, I felt. And yet, as I stood inside my door in my rubber-soled shoes, with my ulster over my uniform, my revolver, flashlight and skeleton keys in my pockets, my heart was going very fast. The stupid story of the ghost came back and made me shudder, and the next instant I was remembering Mrs. Reed the night before, staring down into the lower hall with fixed glassy eyes.
My plan was to begin at the top of the house and work down. The thing was the more hazardous, of course, because Mr. Reed was most certainly somewhere about. I had no excuse for being on the third floor. Down below I could say I wanted tea, or hot water—anything. But I did not expect to find Mr. Reed up above. The terror, whatever it was, seemed to lie below.
Access to the third floor was not easy. The main staircase did not go up. To get there I was obliged to unlock the door at the rear of the hall with my own keys. I was working in bright light, trying my keys one after another, and watching over my shoulder as I did so. When the door finally gave, it was a relief to slip into the darkness beyond, ghosts or no ghosts.
I am always a silent worker. Caution about closing doors and squeaking hinges is second nature to me. One learns to be cautious when one's only chance to sleep is not to rouse a peevish patient and have to give a body massage, as like as not, or listen to domestic troubles—“I said” and “he said”—until one is almost crazy.
So I made no noise. I closed the door behind me and stood blinking in the darkness. I listened. There was no sound above or below. Now houses at night have no terror for me. Every nurse is obliged to do more or less going about in the dark. But I was not easy. Suppose Mr. Reed should call me? True, I had locked my door and had the key in my pocket. But a dozen emergencies flew through my mind as I felt for the stair rail.
There was a curious odor through all the back staircase, a pungent, aromatic scent that, with all my familiarity with drugs, was strange to me. As I slowly climbed the stairs it grew more powerful. The air was heavy with it, as though no windows had been opened in that part of the house. There was no door at the top of this staircase, as there was on the second floor. It opened into an upper hall, and across from the head of the stairs was a door leading into a room. This door was closed. On this staircase, as on all the others, the carpet had been newly lifted. My electric flash showed the white boards and painted borders, the carpet tacks, many of them still in place. One, lying loose, penetrated my rubber sole and went into my foot.
I sat down in the dark and took off the shoe. As I did so my flash, on the step beside me, rolled over and down with a crash. I caught it on the next step, but the noise had been like a pistol shot.
Almost immediately a voice spoke above me sharply. At first I thought it was out in the upper hall. Then I realized that the closed door was between it and me.
“Ees that you, Meester Reed?”
“Meester Reed!” plaintively. “Eet comes up again, Meester Reed! I die! to-morrow I die!”
She listened. When no reply came, she began to groan rhythmically, to a curious accompaniment of creaking. When I had gathered up my nerves again, I realized that she must be sitting in a rocking chair. The groans were really little plaintive grunts.
By the time I had got my shoe on, she was up again, and I could hear her pacing the room, the heavy step of a woman well fleshed and not young. Now and then she stopped inside the door and listened; once she shook the knob and mumbled querulously to herself.
I recovered the flash, and with infinite caution worked my way to the top of the stairs. Mademoiselle was locked in, doubly bolted in. Two strong bolts, above and below, supplemented the door lock.
Her ears must have been very quick, or else she felt my softly padding feet on the boards outside, for suddenly she flung herself against the door and begged for a priest, begged piteously, in jumbled French and English. She wanted food; she was dying of hunger. She wanted a priest.
And all the while I stood outside the door and wondered what I should do. Should I release the woman? Should I go down to the lower floor and get the detective across the street to come in and open the door? Was this the terror that held the house in thrall—this babbling old Frenchwoman calling for food and a priest in one breath?
Surely not. This was a part of the mystery, but not all. The real terror lay below. It was not Mademoiselle, locked in her room on the upper floor, that the Reeds waited for at the top of the stairs. But why was Mademoiselle locked in her room? Why were the children locked in? What was this thing that had turned a home into a jail, a barracks, that had sent away the servants, imprisoned and probably killed the dog, sapped the joy of life from two young people? What was it that Mademoiselle cried “comes up again”?
I looked toward the staircase. Was it coming up the staircase?
I am not afraid of the thing I can see, but it seemed to me, all at once, that if anything was going to come up the staircase, I might as well get down first. A staircase is no place to meet anything, especially if one doesn't know what it is.
I listened again. Mademoiselle was quiet. I flashed my light down the narrow stairs. They were quite empty. I shut off the flash and went down. I tried to go slowly, to retreat with dignity, and by the time I had reached the landing below, I was heartily ashamed of myself. Was this shivering girl the young woman Mr. Patton called his right hand?
I dare say I should have stopped there, for that night at least. My nerves were frayed. But I forced myself on. The mystery lay below. Well, then, I was going down. It could not be so terrible. At least it was nothing supernatural. There must be a natural explanation. And then that silly story about the headless things must pop into my mind and start me down trembling.
The lower rear staircase was black dark, like the upper, but just at the foot a light came in through a barred window. I could see it plainly, and the shadows of the iron grating on the bare floor. I stood there listening. There was not a sound.
It was not easy to tell exactly what followed. I stood there with my hand on the rail. I'd been very silent; my rubber shoes attended to that. And one moment the staircase was clear, with a patch of light at the bottom. The next, something was there, halfway down—a head, it seemed to be, with a pointed hood like a monk's cowl. There was no body. It seemed to lie at my feet. But it was living. It moved. I could tell the moment when the eyes lifted and saw my feet, the slow back-tilting of the head as they looked up my body. All the air was squeezed out of my lungs; a heavy hand seemed to press on my chest. I remember raising a shaking hand and flinging my flashlight at the head. The flash clattered on the stair tread, harmless. Then the head was gone and something living slid over my foot.
I stumbled back to my room and locked the door. It was two hours before I had strength enough to get my aromatic ammonia bottle.
IT seemed to me that I had hardly dropped asleep before the children were in the room, clamoring.
“The goldfish are dead!” Harry said, standing soberly by the bed. “They are all dead with their stummicks turned up.”
I sat up. My head ached violently.
“They can't be dead, old chap.” I was feeling about for my kimono, but I remembered that, when I had found my way back to the nursery after my fright on the back stairs, I had lain down in my uniform. I crawled out, hardly able to stand. “We gave them fresh water yesterday, and——”
I had got to the aquarium. Harry was right. The little darting flames of pink and gold were still. They floated about, rolling gently as Freddie prodded them with a forefinger, dull-eyed, pale bellies upturned. In his cage above, the little parrot watched out of a crooked eye.
I ran to the medicine closet in the bathroom. Freddie had a weakness for administering medicine. I had only just rescued the parrot from the result of his curiosity—a headache tablet—the day before.
“What did you give them?” I demanded.
“Bread,” said Freddie stoutly.
“Dirty bread,” Harry put in. “I told him it was dirty.”
“Where did you get it?”
“On the roof of the porte-cochère!”
Shades of Montessori! The rascals had been out on that sloping tin roof. It turned me rather sick to think of it.
Accused, they admitted it frankly.
“I unlocked the window,” Harry said, “and Freddie got the bread. It was out in the gutter. He slipped once.”
“Almost went over and made a squash on the pavement,” added Freddie. “We gave the little fishes the bread for breakfast, and now they're gone to God.”
The bread had contained poison, of course. Even the two little snails that crawled over the sand in the aquarium were motionless. I sniffed the water. It had a slightly foreign odor. I did not recognize it.
Panic seized me then. I wanted to get away and take the children with me. The situation was too hideous. But it was still early. I could only wait until the family roused. In the meantime, however, I made a nerve-racking excursion out onto the tin roof and down to the gutter. There was no more of the bread there. The porte-cochère was at the side of the house. As I stood balancing myself perilously on the edge, summoning my courage to climb back to the window above, I suddenly remembered the guard Mr. Patton had promised and glanced toward the square.
The guard was still there. More than that, he was running across the street toward me. It was Mr. Patton himself. He brought up between the two houses with absolute fury in his face.
“Go back!” he waved. “What are you doing out there anyhow? That roof's as slippery as the devil!”
I turned meekly and crawled back with as much dignity as I could. I did not say anything. There was nothing I could bawl from the roof. I could only close and lock the window and hope that the people in the next house still slept. Mr. Patton must have gone shortly after, for I did not see him again. I wondered if he had relieved the night watch, or if he could possibly have been on guard himself all that chilly April night.
Mr. Reed did not breakfast with us. I made a point of being cheerful before the children, and their mother was rested and brighter than I had seen her. But more than once I found her staring at me in a puzzled way. She asked me if I had slept.
“I wakened only once,” she said. “I thought I heard a crash of some sort. Did you hear it?”
“What sort of crash?” I evaded.
The children had forgotten the goldfish for a time. Now they remembered and clamored their news to her.
“Dead?” she said, and looked at me.
“Poisoned,” I explained. “I shall nail the windows over the porte-cochère shut, Mrs. Reed. The boys got out there early this morning and picked up something—bread, I believe. They fed it to the fish and—they are dead.”
All the light went out of her face. She looked tired and harassed as she got up.
“I wanted to nail the window,” she said vaguely, “but Mr. Reed—— Suppose they had eaten that bread, Miss Adams, instead of giving it to the fish!”
The same thought had chilled me with horror. We gazed at each other over the unconscious heads of the children and my heart ached for her. I made a sudden resolution.
“When I first came,” I said to her, “I told you I wanted to help. That's what I'm here for. But how am I to help either you or the children when I do not know what danger it is that threatens? It isn't fair to you, or to them, or even to me.”
She was much shaken by the poison incident. I thought she wavered.
“Are you afraid the children will be stolen?”
“Or hurt in any way?” I was thinking of the bread on the roof.
“But you are afraid of something?”
Harry looked up suddenly. “Mother's never afraid,” he said stoutly.
I sent them both in to see if the fish were still dead.
“There is something in the house downstairs that you are afraid of?” I persisted.
She took a step forward and caught my arm.
“I had no idea it would be like this, Miss Adams. I'm dying of fear!”
I had a quick vision of the swathed head on the back staircase, and some of my night's terror came back to me. I believe we stared at each other with dilated pupils for a moment. Then I asked, “Is it a real thing?—surely you can tell me this. Are you afraid of a reality, or—is it something supernatural?” I was ashamed of the question. It sounded so absurd in the broad light of that April morning.
“It is a real danger,” she replied. Then I think she decided that she had gone as far as she dared, and I went through the ceremony of letting her out and of locking the door behind her.
The day was warm. I threw up some of the windows and the boys and I played ball, using a rolled handkerchief. My part, being to sit on the floor with a newspaper folded into a bat and to bang at the handkerchief as it flew past me, became automatic after a time.
As I look back, I see a pair of disordered young rascals with Russian blouses and bare round knees doing a great deal of yelling and some very crooked throwing; a nurse sitting tailor fashion on the floor, alternately ducking to save her cap and making vigorous but ineffectual passes at the ball with her newspaper bat. And I see sunshine in the room and the dwarf parrot eating sugar out of his claw. And below, the fish floating in the aquarium, belly up and dull-eyed.
Mr. Reed brought up our luncheon tray. He looked tired and depressed and avoided my eyes. I watched him while I spread the bread and butter for the children. He nailed shut the windows that opened on to the porte-cochère roof, and when he thought I was not looking, he examined the registers in the wall to see if the gratings were closed. The boys put the dead fish in a box and made him promise a decent interment in the garden. They called on me for an epitaph, and I scrawled on top of the box:
These fish are dead
Because a boy called Fred
Went out on a porch roof when he should
Have been in bed.
I was much pleased with it. It seemed to me that an epitaph, which can do no good to the departed, should at least convey a moral. But to my horror Freddie broke into loud wails and would not be comforted.
It was three o'clock, therefore, before they were both settled for their afternoon naps and I was free. I had determined to do one thing, and to do it in daylight—to examine the back staircase inch by inch. I knew I would be courting discovery, but the thing had to be done, and no power on earth would have made me essay such an investigation after dark.
It was all well enough for me to say to myself that there was a natural explanation; that this had been a human head, of a certainty; that something living and not spectral had slid over my foot in the darkness. I would not have gone back there again at night for youth, love or money. But I did not investigate the staircase that day, after all.
I made a curious discovery after the boys had settled down in their small white beds. A venturesome fly had sailed in through an open window, and I was immediately in pursuit of it with my paper bat. Driven from the cornice to the chandelier, harried here, swatted there, finally he took refuge inside the furnace register.
Perhaps it is my training—I used to know how many million germs a fly packed about with it, and the generous benevolence with which it distributed them; I've forgotten—but the sight of a single fly maddens me. I said that to Mr. Patton once, and he asked what the sight of a married one would do. So I sat down by the register and waited. It was then that I made the curious discovery that the furnace belowstairs was burning, and burning hard. A fierce heat assailed me as I opened the grating. I drove the fly out of cover, but I had no time for him. The furnace going full on a warm spring day! It was strange.
Perhaps I was stupid. Perhaps the whole thing should have been clear to me. But it was not. I sat there bewildered and tried to figure it out. I went over it point by point:
The carpets up all over the house, lights going full all night and doors locked.
The cot at the top of the stairs and Mrs. Reed staring down.
The bolt that had been outside my door to lock me in.
The death of Chang.
Mademoiselle locked in her room upstairs and begging for a priest.
The poison on the porch roof.
The head without a body on the staircase and the thing that slid over my foot.
The furnace going, and the thing I recognized as I sat there beside the register—the unmistakable odor of burning cloth.
Should I have known? I wonder. It looks so clear to me now.
I did not investigate the staircase, for the simple reason that my skeleton key, which, the night before, had unfastened the lock of the door at the rear of the second-floor hall, did not open it now. I did not understand at once and stood stupidly working with the lock. The door was bolted on the other side. I wandered as aimlessly as I could down the main staircase and tried the corresponding door on the lower floor. It, too, was locked. Here was an impasse for sure. As far as I could discover, the only other entrance to the back staircase was through the window with the iron grating.
As I turned to go back, I saw my electric flash, badly broken, lying on a table in the hall. I did not claim it.
The lower floor seemed entirely deserted. The drawing room and library were in their usual disorder, undusted and bare of floor. The air everywhere was close and heavy; there was not a window open. I sauntered through the various rooms, picked up a book in the library as an excuse and tried the door of the room behind. It was locked. I thought at first that something moved behind it, but if anything lived there, it did not stir again. And yet I had a vivid impression that just on the other side of the door ears as keen as mine were listening. It was broad day, but I backed away from the door and out into the wide hall. My nerves were still raw, no doubt, from the night before.
I was to meet Mr. Patton at half after seven that night, and when Mrs. Reed relieved me at seven, I had half an hour to myself. I spent it in Beauregard Gardens, with the dry fountain in the center. The place itself was charming, the trees still black but lightly fringed with new green, early spring flowers in the borders, neat paths and, surrounding it all, the solid, dignified backs of the Beauregard houses. I sat down on the coping of the fountain and surveyed the Reed house. Those windows above were Mademoiselle's. The shades were drawn, but no light came through or round them. The prisoner—for prisoner she was by every rule of bolt and lock—must be sitting in the dark. Was she still begging for her priest? Had she had any food? Was she still listening inside her door for whatever it was that was “coming up”?
In all the other houses, windows were open; curtains waved gently in the spring air; the cheerful signs of the dinner hour were evident nearby—moving servants, a gleam of stately shirt bosom as a butler mixed a salad, a warm radiance of candlelight from dining room tables and the reflected glow of flowers. Only the Reed house stood gloomy, unlighted, almost sinister.
Beauregard Square dined early. It was one of the traditions, I believe. It liked to get to the theater or the opera early, and it believed in allowing the servants a little time in the evenings. So, although it was only something after seven, the evening rite of the table crumbs began to be observed. Came a colored butler, bowed to me with a word of apology, and dumped the contents of a silver tray into the basin; came a pretty mulatto, flung her crumbs gracefully and smiled with a flash of teeth at the butler. Then for five minutes I was alone.
It was Nora, the girl we had met on the street, who came next. She saw me and came round to me with a little air of triumph.
“Well, I'm back in the square again, after all, miss,” she said. “And a better place than the Reeds'. I don't have the doilies to do.”
“I'm very glad you are settled again, Nora.”
She lowered her voice.
“I'm just trying it out,” she observed. “The girl that left said I wouldn't stay. She was scared off. There have been some queer doings—not that I believe in ghosts or anything like that. But my mother in the old country had the second sight, and if there's anything going on, I'll be right sure to see it.”
It took encouragement to get her story, and it was secondhand at that, of course. But it appeared that a state of panic had seized the Beauregard servants. The alarm was all belowstairs and had been started by a cook who, coming in late and going to the basement to prepare herself a cup of tea, had found her kitchen door locked and a light going beyond. Suspecting another maid of violating the tea canister, she had gone soft-footed to the outside of the house and had distinctly seen a gray figure crouching in a corner of the room. She had called the butler, and they had made an examination of the entire basement without result. Nothing was missing from the house.
“And that figure has been seen again and again, miss,” Nora finished. “McKennas' butler Joseph saw it in this very spot, walking without a sound and the street light beyond there shining straight through it. Over in the Smythe house the laundress, coming in late and going down to the basement to soak her clothes for the morning, met the thing on the basement staircase and fainted dead away.”
I had listened intently.
“What do they think it is?” I asked.
She shrugged her shoulders and picked up her tray.
“I'm not trying to say and I guess nobody is. But if there's been a murder it's pretty well known that the ghost walks about until the service is read and it's properly buried.”
She glanced at the Reed house.
“For instance,” she demanded, “where is Mademoiselle?”
“She is alive,” I said rather sharply. “And even if what you say were true, what in the world would make her wander about the basements? It seems so silly, Nora, a ghost haunting damp cellars and laundries with stationary tubs and all that.”
“Well,” she contended, “it seems silly for them to sit on cold tombstones—and yet that's where they generally sit, isn't it?”
Mr. Patton listened gravely to my story that night.
“I don't like it,” he said when I had finished. “Of course the head on the staircase is nonsense. Your nerves were ragged and our eyes play tricks on all of us. But as for the Frenchwoman——”
“If you accept her, you must accept the head,” I snapped. “It was there—it was a head without a body and it looked up at me.”
We were walking through a quiet street, and he bent over and caught my wrist.
“Pulse racing,” he commented. “I'm going to take you away, that's certain. I can't afford to lose my best assistant. You're too close, Miss Adams; you've lost your perspective.”
“I've lost my temper!” I retorted, “I shall not leave until I know what this thing is, unless you choose to ring the doorbell and tell them I'm a spy.”
He gave in when he saw that I was firm, but not without a final protest.
“I'm directly responsible for you to your friends,” he said. “There's probably a young man somewhere who will come gunning for me if anything happens to you. And I don't care to be gunned for. I get enough of that in my regular line.”
“There is no young man,” I said shortly.
“Have you been able to see the cellars?”
“No, everything is locked off.”
“Do you think the rear staircase goes all the way down?”
“I haven't the slightest idea.”
“You are in the house. Have you any suggestions as to the best method of getting into the house? Is Reed on guard all night?”
“I think he is.”
“It may interest you to know,” he said finally, “that I sent a reliable man to break in there last night, quietly, and that he—couldn't do it. He got a leg through a cellar window, and came near not getting it out again. Reed was just inside in the dark.” He laughed a little, but I guessed that the thing galled him.
“I do not believe that he would have found anything if he had succeeded in getting in. There has been no crime, Mr. Patton, I am sure of that. But there is a menace of some sort in the house.”
“Then why does Mrs. Reed stay and keep the children if there is danger?”
“I believe she is afraid to leave him. There are times when I think that he is desperate.”
“Does he ever leave the house?”
“I think not, unless——”
“Unless he is the basement ghost of the other houses.”
He stopped in his slow walk and considered it.
“It's possible. In that case I could have him waylaid to-night in the gardens and left there, tied. It would be a holdup, you understand. The police have no excuse for coming in yet. Or, if we found him breaking into one of the other houses, we could get him there. He'd be released, of course, but it would give us time. I want to clean the thing up. I'm not easy while you are in that house.”
We agreed that I was to wait inside one of my windows that night, and that on a given signal I should go down and open the front door. The whole thing, of course, was contingent on Mr. Reed's leaving the house sometime that night. It was only a chance.
“The house is barred like a fortress,” Mr. Patton said as he left me. “The window with the grating is hopeless. That's the one we tried last night.”
- - -
I FIND that my notes on that last night in the house on Beauregard Square are rather confused, some written at the time, some just before. For instance, on the edge of a newspaper clipping I find this:
- “Evidently this is the item. R—— went pale on reading it. Did not allow wife to see paper.”
The clipping is an account of the sudden death of an elderly gentleman named Smythe, one of the Beauregard families.
The next note is less hasty and is on a yellow symptom record. It has been much folded—I believe I tucked it in my apron belt:
- “If the rear staircase is bolted everywhere from the inside, how did the person who locked it, either Mr. or Mrs. Reed, get back into the body of the house again? Or did Mademoiselle do it? In that case she is no longer a prisoner and the bolts outside her room are not fastened.
- “At eleven o'clock to-night Harry wakened with earache. I went to the kitchen to heat some mullein oil and laudanum. Mrs. Reed was with the boy and Mr. Reed was not in sight. I slipped into the library and used my skeleton keys on the locked door to the rear room. It is empty even of furniture, but there is a huge box there, with a lid that fastens down with steel hooks. The lid is full of small airholes. I had no time to examine further.
- “It is one o'clock. Harry is asleep and his mother is dozing across the foot of his bed. I have found the way to get to the rear staircase. There are outside steps from the basement to the garden. Evidently the staircase goes all the way down to the cellar. Then the lower door in the cellar must be only locked, not bolted from the inside. I shall try to get to the cellar.”
The next is a scrawl:
- “Cannot get to the outside basement steps. Mr. Reed is wandering round lower floor. I reported Harry's condition and came up again. I must get to the back staircase.”
I wonder if I have been able to convey, even faintly, the situation in that highly respectable old house that night: the fear that hung over it, a fear so great that even I, an outsider and stout of nerve, felt it and grew cold; the unnatural brilliancy of light that bespoke dread of the dark; the hushed voices, the locked doors and staring, peering eyes; the babbling Frenchwoman on an upper floor, the dead fish, the dead dog. And, always in my mind, that vision of dread on the back staircase and the thing that slid over my foot.
At two o'clock I saw Mr. Patton, or whoever was on guard in the park across the street, walk quickly toward the house and disappear round the corner toward the gardens in the rear. There had been no signal, but I felt sure that Mr. Reed had left the house. His wife was still asleep across Harry's bed. As I went out, I locked the door behind me, and I also took the key to the night nursery. I thought that something disagreeable, to say the least, was inevitable, and why let her in for it?
The lower hall was lighted, as usual, and empty. I listened, but there were no restless footsteps. I did not like the lower hall. Only a thin wooden door stood between me and the rear staircase, and any one who thinks about the matter will realize that a door is no barrier to a head that can move about without a body. I am afraid I looked over my shoulder while I unlocked the front door, and I know I breathed better when I was out in the air.
I wore my dark ulster over my uniform, and I had my revolver and keys. My flash, of course, was useless. I missed it horribly. But to get to the staircase was an obsession by that time in spite of my fear of it, to find what it guarded, to solve its mystery. I worked round the house, keeping close to the wall, until I reached the garden. The night was the city night, never absolutely dark. As I hesitated at the top of the basement steps, it seemed to me that figures were moving about among the trees.
The basement door was unlocked and open. I was not prepared for that, and it made me, if anything, more uneasy. I had a box of matches with me, and I wanted light as a starving man wants food. But I dared not light them. I could only keep a tight grip on my courage and go on. A small passage first, with whitewashed stone walls, cold and scaly under my hand; then a large room, and still darkness. Worse than darkness, something crawling and scratching round the floor.
I struck my match then, and it seemed to me that something white flashed into a corner and disappeared. My hands were shaking, but I managed to light a gas jet and to see that I was in the laundry. The staircase came down here, narrower than above, and closed off with a door. The door was closed and there was a heavy bolt on it but no lock.
And now, with the staircase accessible and a gaslight to keep up my courage, I grew brave, almost reckless. I would tell Mr. Patton all about this cellar, which his best men had not been able to enter. I would make a sketch for him—coalbins, laundry tubs, everything. Foolish, of course, but hold the gas jet responsible—the reckless bravery of light after hideous darkness.
So I went on, forward. The glow from the laundry followed me. I struck matches, found potatoes and cases of mineral water, bruised my knees on a discarded bicycle, stumbled over a box of soap. Twice, out of the corner of my eye, and never there when I looked, I caught the white flash that had frightened me before. Then at last I brought up before a door and stopped. It was a curiously barricaded door, nailed against disturbance by a plank fastened across, and, as if to make intrusion without discovery impossible, pasted round every crack and over the keyhole with strips of strong yellow paper. It was an ominous door. I wanted to run away from it, and I also wanted desperately to stand and look at it and imagine what might lie beyond. Here again was the strange, spicy odor that I had noticed on the back staircase.
I think it is indicative of my state of mind that I backed away from the door. I did not turn and run. Nothing in the world would have made me turn my back to it.
Somehow or other I got back into the laundry and jerked myself together. It was ten minutes after two. I had been less than ten minutes in the basement!
The staircase daunted me in my shaken condition. I made excuses for delaying my venture, looked for another box of matches, listened at the end of the passage, finally slid the bolt and opened the door. The silence was impressive. In the laundry there were small, familiar sounds—the dripping of water from a faucet, the muffled measure of a gas meter, the ticking of a clock on the shelf. To leave it all, to climb into that silence——
Lying on the lower step was a curious instrument. It was a sort of tongs made of steel, about two feet long, and fastened together like a pair of scissors, the joint about five inches from the flattened ends. I carried it to the light and examined it. One end was smeared with blood and short, brownish hairs. It made me shudder, but—from that time on I think I knew. Not the whole story, of course, but somewhere in the back of my head, as I climbed in that hideous quiet, the explanation was developing itself. I did not think it out. It worked itself out as, step after step, match after match, I climbed the staircase.
Up to the first floor there was nothing. The landing was bare of carpet. I was on the first floor now. On each side, doors, carefully bolted, led into the house. I opened the one into the hall and listened. I had been gone from the children fifteen minutes and they were on my mind. But everything was quiet.
The sight of the lights and the familiar hall gave me courage. After all, if I was right, what could the head on the staircase have been but an optical illusion? And I was right. The evidence—the tongs—was in my hand. I closed and bolted the door and felt my way back to the stairs. I lighted no matches this time. I had only a few, and on this landing there was a little light from the grated window, although the staircase above was in black shadow.
I had one foot on the lowest stair, when suddenly overhead came the thudding of hands on a closed door. It broke the silence like an explosion. It sent chills up and down my spine. I could not move for a moment. It was the Frenchwoman!
I believe I thought of fire. The idea had obsessed me in that house of locked doors. I remember a strangling weight of fright on my chest and my effort to breathe. Then I started up the staircase, running as fast as I could lift my weighted feet—I remember that—and getting up perhaps a third of the way. Then there came a plunging forward into space, my hands out, a shriek frozen on my lips, and——quiet.
I do not think I fainted. I know I was always conscious of my arm doubled under me, a pain and darkness. I could hear myself moaning, but almost as if it were some one else. There were other sounds, but they did not concern me much. I was not even curious about my location. I seemed to be a very small consciousness surrounded by a great deal of pain.
Several centuries later a light came and leaned over me from somewhere above. Then the light said:
“Here she is!”
“Alive?” I knew that voice, but I could not think whose it was.
“I'm not—— Yes, she's moaning.”
They got me out somewhere and I believe I still clung to the tongs. I had fallen on them and had a cut on my chin. I could stand, I found, although I swayed. There was plenty of light now in the back hallway, and a man I had never seen was investigating the staircase.
“Four steps off,” he said. “Risers and treads gone and the supports sawed away. It's a trap of some sort.”
Mr. Patton was examining my broken arm and paid no attention. The man let himself down into the pit under the staircase. When he straightened, only his head rose above the steps. Although I was white with pain to the very lips, I laughed hysterically. “The head!” I cried.
Mr. Patton swore under his breath.
They half led, half carried me into the library. Mr. Reed was there, with a detective on guard over him. He was sitting in his old position, bent forward, chin in palms. In the blaze of light he was a pitiable figure, smeared with dust, disheveled from what had evidently been a struggle. Mr. Patton put me in a chair and dispatched another man for the nearest doctor.
“This young lady,” he said curtly to Mr. Reed, “fell into that damnable trap you made in the rear staircase.”
“I locked off the staircase—but I am sorry she is hurt. My—my wife will be shocked. Only I wish you'd tell me what all this is about. You can't arrest me for going into a friend's house.”
“If I send for some member of the Smythe family, will they acquit you?”
“Certainly they will,” he said. “I—I've been raised with the Smythes. You can send for any one you like.” But his tone lacked conviction.
Mr. Patton made me as comfortable as possible, and then, sending the remaining detective out into the hall, he turned to his prisoner.
“Now, Mr. Reed,” he said. “I want you to be sensible. For some days a figure has been seen in the basements of the various Beauregard houses. Your friends, the Smythes, reported it. to-night we are on watch, and we see you breaking into the basement of the Smythe house. We already know some curious things about you, such as your dismissal of all the servants on half an hour's notice and the disappearance of the French governess.”
“Mademoiselle! Why, she——” He checked himself.
“When we bring you here to-night, and you ask to be allowed to go upstairs and prepare your wife, she is locked in. The nurse is missing. We find her at last, also locked away, and badly hurt, lying in a staircase trap, where some one, probably yourself, has removed the steps. I do not want to arrest you, but now I've started, I'm going to get to the bottom of all this.”
Mr. Reed was ghastly, but he straightened in his chair.
“The Smythes reported this thing, did they?” he asked. “Well, tell me one thing. What killed the old gentleman—old Smythe?”
“I don't know.”
“Well, go a little further.” His cunning was boyish, pitiful. “How did he die? Or don't you know that either?”
Up to this point I had been rather a detached part of the scene, but now my eyes fell on the tongs beside me.
“Mr. Reed,” I said, “isn't this thing too big for you to handle by yourself?”
“You know what I mean. You've protected yourself well enough, but even if the—the thing you know of did not kill old Mr. Smythe, you cannot tell what will happen next.”
“I've got almost all of them,” he muttered sullenly. “Another night or two and I'd have had the lot.”
“But even then the mischief may go on. It means a crusade; it means rousing the city. Isn't it the square thing now to spread the alarm?”
Mr. Patton could stand the suspense no longer. “Perhaps, Miss Adams,” he said, “you will be good enough to let me know what you are talking about.”
Mr. Reed looked up at him with heavy eyes.
“Rats,” he said. “They got away, twenty of them, and some are loaded with bubonic plague.”
I went to the hospital the next morning. Mr. Patton thought it best. There was no one in my little flat to look after me, and although the pain in my arm subsided after the fracture was set, I was still shaken.
He came the next afternoon to see me. I was propped up in bed, with my hair braided down in two pigtails and great hollows under my eyes.
“I'm comfortable enough,” I said, in response to his inquiry; “but I'm feeling all of my years. This is my birthday. I am thirty to-day.”
“I wonder,” he said reflectively, “if I ever reach the mature age of one hundred, if I will carry in my head as many odds and ends of information as you have at thirty!”
“I? What do you mean?” I said rather weakly.
“You. How in the world did you know, for instance, about those tongs?”
“It was quite simple. I'd seen something like them in the laboratory here. Of course I didn't know what animals he'd used, but the grayish brown hair looked like rats. The laboratory must be the cellar room. I knew it had been fumigated—it was sealed with paper, even over the keyhole.”
So, sitting there beside me, Mr. Patton told me the story as he had got it from Mr. Reed—a tale of the offer in an English scientific journal of a large reward from some plague-ridden country of the East for an anti-plague serum. Mr. Reed had been working along bacteriological lines in his basement laboratory, mostly with guinea pigs and tuberculosis. He was in debt; the offer loomed large.
“He seems to think he was on the right track,” Mr. Patton said. “He had twenty of the creatures in deep zinc cans with perforated lids. He says the disease is spread by fleas that infest the rats. So he had muslin over the lids as well. One can had infected rats, six of them. Then one day the Frenchwoman tried to give the dog a bath in a laundry tub and the dog bolted. The laboratory door was open in some way and he ran between the cans, upsetting them. Every rat was out in an instant. The Frenchwoman was frantic. She shut the door and tried to drive the things back. One bit her on the foot. The dog was not bitten, but there was the question of fleas.
“Well, the rats got away, and Mademoiselle retired to her room to die of plague. She was a loyal old soul; she wouldn't let them call a doctor. It would mean exposure, and after all, what could the doctors do? Reed used his serum and she's alive.
“Reed was frantic. His wife would not leave. There was the Frenchwoman to look after, and I think Mrs. Reed was afraid he would do something desperate. They did the best they could, under the circumstances, for the children. They burned most of the carpets for fear of fleas, and put poison everywhere. Of course he had traps, too.
“He had brass tags on the necks of the rats, and he got back a few—the uninfected ones. The other ones were probably dead. But he couldn't stop at that. He had to be sure that the trouble had not spread. And to add to their horror, the sewer along the street was being relaid, and they had an influx of rats into the house. They found them everywhere on the lower floor. They even climbed the stairs. He says that the night you came he caught a big fellow on the front staircase. There was always the danger that the fleas that carry the trouble had deserted the dead creatures for new fields. They took up all the rest of the carpets and burned them. To add to the general misery, the dog, Chang, developed unmistakable symptoms and had to be killed.”
“But the broken staircase?” I asked. “And what was it that Mademoiselle said was coming up?”
“The steps were up for two reasons: The rats could not climb up, and beneath the steps Reed says he caught two of the tagged ones in a trap. As for Mademoiselle, the thing that was coming up was her temperature—pure fright. The head you saw was poor Reed himself, wrapped in gauze against trouble and baiting his traps. He caught a lot in the neighbors' cellars and some in the garden.”
“But why,” I demanded, “why didn't he make it all known?”
Mr. Patton laughed and shrugged his shoulders.
“A man hardly cares to announce that he has menaced the health of a city.”
“But that night when I fell—was it only last night?—some one was pounding above. I thought there was a fire.”
“The Frenchwoman had seen us waylay Reed from her window. She was crazy.”
“And the trouble is over now?”
“Not at all,” he replied cheerfully. “The trouble may be only beginning. We're keeping Reed's name out, but the Board of Health has issued a general warning. Personally I think his six pets died without passing anything along.”
“But there was a big box with a lid——”
“Ferrets,” he assured me. “Nice white ferrets with pink eyes and a taste for rats.” He held out a thumb, carefully bandaged. “Reed had a couple under his coat when we took him in the garden. Probably one ran over your foot that night when you surprised him on the back staircase.”
I went pale. “But if they are infected!” I cried, “and you are bitten——”
“The first thing a nurse should learn”—he bent forward, smiling—“is not to alarm her patient.”
“But you don't understand the danger,” I said despairingly. “Oh, if only men had a little bit of sense!”
“I must do something desperate, then? Have the thumb cut off, perhaps?”
I did not answer. I lay back on my pillows with my eyes shut. I had given him the plague, had seen him die and be buried, before he spoke again.
“The chin,” he said, “is not so firm as I had thought. The outlines are savage, but the dimple—— You poor little thing; are you really frightened?”
“I don't like you,” I said furiously. “But I'd hate to see any one with—with that trouble.”
“Then I'll confess. I was trying to take your mind off your troubles. The bite is there, but harmless. Those were new ferrets; had never been out.”
I did not speak to him again. I was seething with indignation. He stood for a time looking down at me; then, unexpectedly, he bent over and touched his lips to my bandaged arm.
“Poor arm!” he said. “Poor, brave little arm!” Then he tiptoed out of the room. His very back was sheepish.