“And this is all you mean to tell me?”
“I think you will find it quite enough, Miss Strange.”
“Just the address —”
“And this advice: that your call be speedy. Distracted nerves cannot wait.”
Violet, across whose wonted piquancy there lay an indefinable shadow, eyed her employer with a doubtful air before turning away toward the door. She had asked him for a case to investigate (something she had never done before), and she had even gone so far as to particularize the sort of case she desired: “It must be an interesting one,” she had stipulated, “but different, quite different from the last one. It must not involve death or any kind of horror. If you have a case of subtlety without crime, one to engage my powers without depressing my spirits, I beg you to let me have it. I— I have not felt quite like myself since I came from Massachusetts.” Whereupon, without further comment, but with a smile she did not understand, he had handed her a small slip of paper on which he had scribbled an address. She should have felt satisfied, but for some reason she did not. She regarded him as capable of plunging her into an affair quite the reverse of what she felt herself in a condition to undertake.
“I should like to know a little more,” she pursued, making a move to unfold the slip he had given her.
But he stopped her with a gesture.
“Read it in your limousine,” said he. “If you are disappointed then, let me know. But I think you will find yourself quite ready for your task.”
“And my father?”
“Would approve if he could be got to approve the business at all. You do not even need to take your brother with you.”
“Oh, then, it’s with women only I have to deal?”
“Read the address after you are headed up Fifth Avenue.”
But when, with her doubts not yet entirely removed, she opened the small slip he had given her, the number inside suggested nothing but the fact that her destination lay somewhere near Eightieth Street. It was therefore with the keenest surprise she beheld her motor stop before the conspicuous house of the great financier whose late death had so affected the money-market. She had not had any acquaintance with this man herself, but she knew his house. Everyone knew that. It was one of the most princely in the whole city. C. Dudley Brooks had known how to spend his millions. Indeed, he had known how to do this so well that it was of him her father, also a financier of some note, had once said he was the only successful American he envied.
She was expected; that she saw the instant the door was opened. This made her entrance easy — an entrance further brightened by the delightful glimpse of a child’s cherubic face looking at her from a distant doorway. It was an instantaneous vision, gone as soon as seen; but its effect was to rob the pillared spaces of the wonderful hallway of some of their chill, and to modify in some slight degree the formality of a service which demanded three men to usher her into a small reception-room not twenty feet from the door of entrance.
Left in this secluded spot, she had time to ask herself what member of the household she would be called upon to meet, and was surprised to find that she did not even know of whom the household consisted. She was sure of the fact that Mr. Brooks had been a widower for many years before his death, but beyond that she knew nothing of his domestic life. His son — but was there a son? She had never heard any mention made of a younger Mr. Brooks, yet there was certainly some one of his connection who enjoyed the rights of an heir. Him she must be prepared to meet with a due composure, whatever astonishment he might show at the sight of a slip of a girl instead of the experienced detective he had every right to expect.
But when the door opened to admit the person she was awaiting, the surprise was hers. It was a woman who stood before her, a woman and an oddity. Yet, in just what her oddity lay, Violet found it difficult to decide. Was it in the smoothness of her white locks drawn carefully down over her ears, or in the contrast afforded by her eager eyes and her weak and tremulous mouth? She was dressed in the heaviest of mourning and very expensively, but there was that in her bearing and expression which made it impossible to believe that she took any interest in her garments or even knew in which of her dresses she had been attired.
“I am the person you have come here to see,” she said. “Your name is not unfamiliar to me, but you may not know mine. It is Quintard; Mrs. Quintard. I am in difficulty. I need assistance — secret assistance. I did not know where to go for it except to a detective agency; so I telephoned to the first one I saw advertised; and — and I was told to expect Miss Strange. But I didn’t think it would be you though I suppose it’s all right. You have come here for this purpose, haven’t you, though it does seem a little queer?”
“Certainly, Mrs. Quintard; and if you will tell me —”
“My dear, it’s just this — yes, I will sit down. Last week my brother died. You have heard of him no doubt, C. Dudley Brooks?”
“Oh, yes; my father knew him — we all knew him by reputation. Do not hurry, Mrs. Quintard. I have sent my car away. You can take all the time you wish.”
“No, no, I cannot. I’m in desperate haste. He — but let me go on with my story. My brother was a widower, with no children to inherit. That everybody knows. But his wife left behind her a son by a former husband, and this son of hers my brother had in a measure adopted, and even made his sole heir in a will he drew up during the lifetime of his wife. But when he found, as he very soon did, that this young man was not developing in a way to meet such great responsibilities, he made a new will — though unhappily without the knowledge of the family, or even of his most intimate friends — in which he gave the bulk of his great estate to his nephew Clement, who has bettered the promise of his youth and who besides has children of great beauty whom my brother had learned to love. And this will — this hoarded scrap of paper which means so much to us all, is lost! lost! and I—” here her voice which had risen almost to a scream, sank to a horrified whisper, “am the one who lost it.”
“But there’s a copy of it somewhere — there is always a copy —”
“Oh, but you haven’t heard all. My nephew is an invalid; has been an invalid for years — that’s why so little is known about him. He’s dying of consumption. The doctors hold out no hope for him, and now, with the fear preying upon him of leaving his wife and children penniless, he is wearing away so fast that any hour may see his end. And I have to meet his eyes — such pitiful eyes — and the look in them is killing me. Yet, I was not to blame. I could not help — Oh, Miss Strange,” she suddenly broke in with the inconsequence of extreme feeling, “the will is in the house! I never carried it off the floor where I sleep. Find it; find it, I pray, or —”
The moment had come for Violet’s soft touch, for Violet’s encouraging word.
“I will try,” she answered her.
Mrs. Quintard grew calmer.
“But, first,” the young girl continued, “I must know more about the conditions. Where is this nephew of yours — the man who is ill?”
“In this house, where he has been for the last eight months.”
“Was the child his of whom I caught a glimpse in the hall as I came in?”
“Yes, and —”
“I will fight for that child!” Violet cried out impulsively. “I am sure his father’s cause is good. Where is the other claimant — the one you designate as Carlos?”
“Oh, there’s where the trouble is! Carlos is on the Mauretania, and she is due here in a couple of days. He comes from the East where he has been touring with his wife. Miss Strange, the lost will must be found before then, or the other will be opened and read and Carlos made master of this house, which would mean our quick departure and Clement’s certain death.”
“Move a sick man? — a relative as low as you say he is? Oh no, Mrs. Quintard; no one would do that, were the house a cabin and its owners paupers.”
“You do not know Carlos; you do not know his wife. We should not be given a week in which to pack. They have no children and they envy Clement who has. Our only hope lies in discovering the paper which gives us the right to remain here in face of all opposition. That or penury. Now you know my trouble.”
“And it is trouble; one from which I shall make every effort to relieve you. But first let me ask if you are not worrying unnecessarily about this missing document? If it was drawn up by Mr. Brooks’s lawyer —”
“But it was not,” that lady impetuously interrupted. “His lawyer is Carlos’s near relative, and has never been told of the change in my brother’s intentions. Clement (I am speaking now of my brother and not of my nephew) was a great money-getter, but when it came to standing up for his rights in domestic matters, he was more timid than a child. He was subject to his wife while she lived, and when she was gone, to her relatives, who are all of a dominating character. When he finally made up his mind to do us justice and eliminate Carlos, he went out of town — I wish I could remember where — and had this will drawn up by a stranger, whose name I cannot recall.”
Her shaking tones, her nervous manner betrayed a weakness equalling, if not surpassing, that of the brother who dared in secret what he had not strength to acknowledge openly, and it was with some hesitation Violet prepared to ask those definite questions which would elucidate the cause and manner of a loss seemingly so important. She dreaded to hear some commonplace tale of inexcusable carelessness. Something subtler than this — the presence of some unsuspected agency opposed to young Clement’s interest; some partisan of Carlos; some secret undermining force in a house full of servants and dependants, seemed necessary for the development of so ordinary a situation into a drama justifying the exercise of her special powers.
“I think I understand now your exact position in the house, as well as the value of the paper which you say you have lost. The next thing for me to hear is how you came to have charge of this paper, and under what circumstances you were led to mislay it. Do you not feel quite ready to tell me?”
“Is — is that necessary?” Mrs. Quintard faltered.
“Very,” replied Violet, watching her curiously.
“I didn’t expect — that is, I hoped you would be able to point out, by some power we cannot of course explain, just the spot where the paper lies, without having to tell all that. Some people can, you know.”
“Ah, I understand. You regarded me as unfit for practical work, and so credited me with occult powers. But that is where you made a mistake, Mrs. Quintard; I’m nothing if not practical. And let me add, that I’m as secret as the grave concerning what my clients tell me. If I am to be of any help to you, I must be made acquainted with every fact involved in the loss of this valuable paper. Relate the whole circumstance or dismiss me from the case. You can have done nothing more foolish or wrong than many —”
“Oh, don’t say things like that!” broke in the poor woman in a tone of great indignation. “I have done nothing anyone could call either foolish or wicked. I am simply very unfortunate, and being sensitive — But this isn’t telling the story. I’ll try to make it all clear; but if I do not, and show any confusion, stop me and help me out with questions. I— I— oh, where shall I begin?”
“With your first knowledge of this second will.”
“Thank you, thank you; now I can go on. One night, shortly after my brother had been given up by the physicians, I was called to his bedside for a confidential talk. As he had received that day a very large amount of money from the bank, I thought he was going to hand it over to me for Clement, but it was for something much more serious than this he had summoned me. When he was quite sure that we were alone and nobody anywhere within hearing, he told me that he had changed his mind as to the disposal of his property and that it was to Clement and his children, and not to Carlos, he was going to leave this house and the bulk of his money. That he had had a new will drawn up which he showed me —”
“Yes; he made me bring it to him from the safe where he kept it; and, feeble as he was, he was so interested in pointing out certain portions of it that he lifted himself in bed and was so strong and animated that I thought he was getting better. But it was a false strength due to the excitement of the moment, as I saw next day when he suddenly died.”
“You were saying that you brought the will to him from his safe. Where was the safe?”
“In the wall over his head. He gave me the key to open it. This key he took from under his pillow. I had no trouble in fitting it or in turning the lock.”
“And what happened after you looked at the will?”
“I put it back. He told me to. But the key I kept. He said I was not to part with it again till the time came for me to produce the will.”
“And when was that to be?”
“Immediately after the funeral, if it so happened that Carlos had arrived in time to attend it. But if for any reason he failed to be here, I was to let it lie till within three days of his return, when I was to take it out in the presence of a Mr. Delahunt who was to have full charge of it from that time. Oh, I remember all that well enough! and I meant most earnestly to carry out his wishes, but —”
“Go on, Mrs. Quintard, pray go on. What happened? Why couldn’t you do what he asked?”
“Because the will was gone when I went to take it out. There was nothing to show Mr. Delahunt but the empty shelf.”
“Oh, a theft! just a common theft! Someone overheard the talk you had with your brother. But how about the key? You had that?”
“Yes, I had that.”
“Then it was taken from you and returned? You must have been careless as to where you kept it —”
“No, I wore it on a chain about my neck. Though I had no reason to mistrust any one in the house, I felt that I could not guard this key too carefully. I even kept it on at night. In fact it never left me. It was still on my person when I went into the room with Mr. Delahunt. But the safe had been opened for all that.”
“There were two keys to it, then?”
“No; in giving me the key, my brother had strictly warned me not to lose it, as it had no duplicate.”
“Mrs. Quintard, have you a special confidant or maid?”
“Yes, my Hetty.”
“How much did she know about this key?”
“Nothing, but that it didn’t help the fit of my dress. Hetty has cared for me for years. There’s no more devoted woman in all New York, nor one who can be more relied upon to tell the truth. She is so honest with her tongue that I am bound to believe her even when she says —”
“That it was I and nobody else who took the will out of the safe last night. That she saw me come from my brother’s room with a folded paper in my hand, pass with it into the library, and come out again without it. If this is so, then that will is somewhere in that great room. But we’ve looked in every conceivable place except the shelves, where it is useless to search. It would take days to go through them all, and meanwhile Carlos —”
“We will not wait for Carlos. We will begin work at once. But just one other question. How came Hetty to see you in your walk through the rooms? Did she follow you?”
“Yes. It’s — it’s not the first time I have walked in my sleep. Last night — but she will tell you. It’s a painful subject to me. I will send for her to meet us in the library.”
“Where you believe this document to lie hidden?”
“I am anxious to see the room. It is upstairs, I believe.”
She had risen and was moving rapidly toward the door. Violet eagerly followed her.
Let us accompany her in her passage up the palatial stairway, and realize the effect upon her of a splendour whose future ownership possibly depended entirely upon herself.
It was a cold splendour. The merry voices of children were lacking in these great halls. Death past and to come infused the air with solemnity and mocked the pomp which yet appeared so much a part of the life here that one could hardly imagine the huge pillared spaces without it.
To Violet, more or less accustomed to fine interiors, the chief interest of this one lay in its connection with the mystery then occupying her. Stopping for a moment on the stair, she inquired of Mrs. Quintard if the loss she so deplored had been made known to the servants, and was much relieved to find that, with the exception of Mr. Delahunt, she had not spoken of it to any one but Clement. “And he will never mention it,” she declared, “not even to his wife. She has troubles enough to bear without knowing how near she stood to a fortune.”
“Oh, she will have her fortune!” Violet confidently replied. “In time, the lawyer who drew up the will will appear. But what you want is an immediate triumph over the cold Carlos, and I hope you may have it. Ah!”
This expletive was a sigh of sheer surprise.
Mrs. Quintard had unlocked the library door and Violet had been given her first glimpse of this, the finest room in New York.
She remembered now that she had often heard it so characterized, and, indeed, had it been taken bodily from some historic abbey of the old world, it could not have expressed more fully, in structure and ornamentation, the Gothic idea at its best. All that it lacked were the associations of vanished centuries, and these, in a measure, were supplied to the imagination by the studied mellowness of its tints and the suggestion of age in its carvings.
So much for the room itself, which was but a shell for holding the great treasure of valuable books ranged along every shelf. As Violet’s eyes sped over their ranks and thence to the five windows of deeply stained glass which faced her from the southern end, Mrs. Quintard indignantly exclaimed:
“And Carlos would turn this into a billiard room!”
“I do not like Carlos,” Violet returned hotly; then remembering herself, hastened to ask whether Mrs. Quintard was quite positive as to this room being the one in which she had hidden the precious document.
“You had better talk to Hetty,” said that lady, as a stout woman of most prepossessing appearance entered their presence and paused respectfully just inside the doorway. “Hetty, you will answer any questions this young lady may put. If anyone can help us, she can. But first, what news from the sick-room?”
“Nothing good. The doctor has just come for the third time today. Mrs. Brooks is crying and even the children are dumb with fear.”
“I will go. I must see the doctor. I must tell him to keep Clement alive by any means till —”
She did not wait to say what; but Violet understood and felt her heart grow heavy. Could it be that her employer considered this the gay and easy task she had asked for?
The next minute she was putting her first question:
“Hetty, what did you see in Mrs. Quintard’s action last night, to make you infer that she left the missing document in this room?”
The woman’s eyes, which had been respectfully studying her face, brightened with a relief which made her communicative. With the self-possession of a perfectly candid nature, she inquiringly remarked:
“My mistress has spoken of her infirmity?”
“Yes, and very frankly.”
“She walks in her sleep.”
“So she said.”
“And sometimes when others are asleep, and she is not.”
“She did not tell me that.”
“She is a very nervous woman and cannot always keep still when she rouses up at night. When I hear her rise, I get up too; but, never being quite sure whether she is sleeping or not, I am careful to follow her at a certain distance. Last night I was so far behind her that she had been to her brother’s room and left it before I saw her face.”
“Where is his room and where is hers?”
“Hers is in front on this same floor. Mr. Brooks’s is in the rear, and can be reached either by the hall or by passing through this room into a small one beyond, which we called his den..”
“Describe your encounter. Where were you standing when you saw her first?”
“In the den I have just mentioned. There was a bright light in the hall behind me and I could see her figure quite plainly. She was holding a folded paper clenched against her breast, and her movement was so mechanical that I was sure she was asleep. She was coming this way, and in another moment she entered this room. The door, which had been open, remained so, and in my anxiety I crept to it and looked in after her. There was no light burning here at that hour, but the moon was shining in in long rays of variously coloured light. If I had followed her — but I did not. I just stood and watched her long enough to see her pass through a blue ray, then through a green one, and then into, if not through, a red one. Expecting her to walk straight on, and having some fears of the staircase once she got into the hall, I hurried around to the door behind you there to head her off. But she had not yet left this room. I waited and waited and still she did not come. Fearing some accident, I finally ventured to approach the door and try it. It was locked. This alarmed me. She had never locked herself in anywhere before and I did not know what to make of it. Some persons would have shouted her name, but I had been warned against doing that, so I simply stood where I was, and eventually I heard the key turn in the lock and saw her come out. She was still walking stiffly, but her hands were empty and hanging at her side.”
“She went straight to her room and I after her. I was sure she was dead asleep by this time.”
“And she was?”
“Yes, Miss; but still full of what was on her mind. I know this because she stopped when she reached the bedside and began fumbling with the waist of her wrapper. It was for the key she was searching, and when her fingers encountered it hanging on the outside, she opened her wrapper and thrust it in on her bare skin.”
“You saw her do all that?”
“As plainly as I see you now. The light in her room was burning brightly.”
“And after that?”
“She got into bed. It was I who turned off the light.”
“Has that wrapper of hers a pocket?”
“Nor her gown?”
“So she could not have brought the paper into her room concealed about her person?”
“No, Miss; she left it here. It never passed beyond this doorway.”
“But might she not have carried it back to some place of concealment in the rooms she had left?”
The woman’s face changed and a slight flush showed through the natural brown of her cheeks.
“No,” she disclaimed; “she could not have done that. I was careful to lock the library door behind her before I ran out into the hall.”
“Then,” concluded Violet, with all the emphasis of conviction, “it is here, and nowhere else we must look for that document till we find it.”
Thus assured of the first step in the task she had before her, Miss Strange settled down to business.
The room, which towered to the height of two stories, was in the shape of a huge oval. This oval, separated into narrow divisions for the purpose of accommodating the shelves with which it was lined, narrowed as it rose above the great Gothic chimney-piece and the five gorgeous windows looking towards the south, till it met and was lost in the tracery of the ceiling, which was of that exquisite and soul-satisfying order which we see in the Henry VII chapel in Westminster Abbey. What break otherwise occurred in the circling round of books reaching thus thirty feet or more above the head was made by the two doors already spoken of and a narrow strip of wall at either end of the space occupied by the windows. No furniture was to be seen there except a couple of stalls taken from some old cathedral, which stood in the two bare places just mentioned.
But within, on the extensive floor-space, several articles were grouped, and Violet, recognizing the possibilities which any one of them afforded for the concealment of so small an object as a folded document, decided to use method in her search, and to that end, mentally divided the space before her into four segments.
The first took in the door, communicating with the suite ending in Mr. Brooks’s bedroom. A diagram of this segment will show that the only article of furniture in it was a cabinet.
It was at this cabinet Miss Strange made her first stop.
“You have looked this well through?” she asked as she bent over the glass case on top to examine the row of mediaeval missals displayed within in a manner to show their wonderful illuminations.
“Not the case,” explained Hetty. “It is locked you see and no one has as yet succeeded in finding the key. But we searched the drawers underneath with the greatest care. Had we sifted the whole contents through our fingers, I could not be more certain that the paper is not there.”
Violet stepped into the next segment.
This was the one dominated by the huge fire-place. A rug lay before the hearth. To this Violet pointed.
Quickly the woman answered: “We not only lifted it, but turned it over.”
“And that box at the right?”
“Is full of wood and wood only.”
“Did you take out this wood?”
“And those ashes in the fire-place? Something has been burned there.”
“Yes; but not lately. Besides, those ashes are all wood ashes. If the least bit of charred paper had been mixed with them, we should have considered the matter settled. But you can see for yourself that no such particle can be found.” While saying this, she had put the poker into Violet’s hand. “Rake them about, Miss, and make sure.”
Violet did so, with the result that the poker was soon put back into place, and she herself down on her knees looking up the chimney.
“Had she thrust it up there,” Hetty made haste to remark, “there would have been some signs of soot on her sleeves. They are white and very long and are always getting in her way when she tries to do anything.”
Violet left the fire-place after a glance at the mantel-shelf on which nothing stood but a casket of open fretwork, and two coloured photographs mounted on small easels. The casket was too open to conceal anything and the photographs lifted too high above the shelf for even the smallest paper, let alone a document of any size, to hide behind them.
The chairs, of which there were several in this part of the room, she passed with just an inquiring look. They were all of solid oak, without any attempt at upholstery, and although carved to match the stalls on the other side of the room, offered no place for search.
Her delay in the third segment was brief. Here there was absolutely nothing but the door by which she had entered, and the books. As she flitted on, following the oval of the wall, a small frown appeared on her usually smooth forehead. She felt the oppression of the books — the countless books. If indeed, she should find herself obliged to go through them. What a hopeless outlook!
But she had still a segment to consider, and after that the immense table occupying the centre of the room, a table which in its double capacity (for it was as much desk as table) gave more promise of holding the solution of the mystery than anything to which she had hitherto given her attention.
The quarter in which she now stood was the most beautiful, and, possibly, the most precious of them all. In it blazed the five great windows which were the glory of the room; but there are no hiding-places in windows, and much as she revelled in colour, she dared not waste a moment on them. There was more hope for her in the towering stalls, with their possible drawers for books.
But Hetty was before her in the attempt she made to lift the lids of the two great seats.
“Nothing in either,” said she; and Violet, with a sigh, turned towards the table.
This was an immense affair, made to accommodate itself to the shape of the room, but with a hollowed-out space on the window-side large enough to hold a chair for the sitter who would use its top as a desk. On it were various articles suitable to its double use. Without being crowded, it displayed a pile of magazines and pamphlets, boxes for stationery, a writing pad with its accompaniments, a lamp, and some few ornaments, among which was a large box, richly inlaid with pearl and ivory, the lid of which stood wide open.
“Don’t touch,” admonished Violet, as Hetty stretched out her hand to move some little object aside. “You have already worked here busily in the search you made this morning.”
“We handled everything.”
“Did you go through these pamphlets?”
“We shook open each one. We were especially particular here, since it was at this table I saw Mrs. Quintard stop.”
“With head level or drooped?”
“Like one looking down, rather than up, or around?”
“Yes. A ray of red light shone on her sleeve. It seemed to me the sleeve moved as though she were reaching out.”
“Will you try to stand as she did and as nearly in the same place as possible?”
Hetty glanced down at the table edge, marked where the gules dominated the blue and green, and moved to that spot, and paused with her head sinking slowly towards her breast.
“Very good,” exclaimed Violet. “But the moon was probably in a very different position from what the sun is now.”
“You are right; it was higher up; I chanced to notice it.”
“Let me come,” said Violet.
Hetty moved, and Violet took her place but in a spot a step or two farther front. This brought her very near to the centre of the table. Hanging her head, just as Hetty had done, she reached out her right hand.
“Have you looked under this blotter?” she asked, pointing towards the pad she touched. “I mean, between the blotter and the frame which holds it?”
“I certainly did,” answered Hetty, with some pride.
Violet remained staring down. “Then you took off everything that was lying on it?”
Violet continued to stare down at the blotter. Then impetuously:
“Put them back in their accustomed places.”
Violet continued to look at them, then slowly stretched out her hand, but soon let it fall again with an air of discouragement. Certainly the missing document was not in the ink-pot or the mucilage bottle. Yet something made her stoop again over the pad and subject it to the closest scrutiny.
“If only nothing had been touched!” she inwardly sighed. But she let no sign of her discontent escape her lips, simply exclaiming as she glanced up at the towering spaces overhead: “The books! the books! Nothing remains but for you to call up all the servants, or get men from the outside and, beginning at one end — I should say the upper one — take down every book standing within reach of a woman of Mrs. Quintard’s height.”
“Hear first what Mrs. Quintard has to say about that,” interrupted the woman as that lady entered in a flutter of emotion springing from more than one cause.
“The young lady thinks that we should remove the books,” Hetty observed, as her mistress’s eye wandered to hers from Violet’s abstracted countenance.
“Useless. If we were to undertake to do that, Carlos would be here before half the job was finished. Besides, Hetty must have told you my extreme aversion to nicely bound books. I will not say that when awake I never place my hand on one, but once in a state of somnambulism, when every natural whim has full control, I am sure that I never would. There is a reason for my prejudice. I was not always rich. I once was very poor. It was when I was first married and long before Clement had begun to make his fortune. I was so poor then that frequently I went hungry, and what was worse saw my little daughter cry for food. And why? Because my husband was a bibliomaniac. He would spend on fine editions what would have kept the family comfortable. It is hard to believe, isn’t it? I have seen him bring home a Grolier when the larder was as empty as that box; and it made me hate books so, especially those of extra fine binding, that I have to tear the covers off before I can find courage to read them.”
O life! life! how fast Violet was learning it!
“I can understand your idea, Mrs. Quintard, but as everything else has failed, I should make a mistake not to examine these shelves. It is just possible that we may be able to shorten the task very materially; that we may not have to call in help, even. To what extent have they been approached, or the books handled, since you discovered the loss of the paper we are looking for?”
“Not at all. Neither of us went near them.” This from Hetty.
“Nor any one else?”
“No one else has been admitted to the room. We locked both doors the moment we felt satisfied that the will had been left here.”
“That’s a relief. Now I may be able to do something. Hetty, you look like a very strong woman, and I, as you see, am very little. Would you mind lifting me up to these shelves? I want to look at them. Not at the books, but at the shelves themselves.”
The wondering woman stooped and raised her to the level of the shelf she had pointed out. Violet peered closely at it and then at the ones just beneath.
“Am I heavy?” she asked; “if not, let me see those on the other side of the door.”
Hetty carried her over.
Violet inspected each shelf as high as a woman of Mrs. Quintard’s stature could reach, and when on her feet again, knelt to inspect the ones below.
“No one has touched or drawn anything from these shelves in twenty-four hours,” she declared. “The small accumulation of dust along their edges has not been disturbed at any point. It was very different with the table-top. That shows very plainly where you had moved things and where you had not.”
“Was that what you were looking for? Well, I never!”
Violet paid no heed; she was thinking and thinking very deeply.
Hetty turned towards her mistress, then quickly back to Violet, whom she seized by the arm.
“What’s the matter with Mrs. Quintard?” she hurriedly asked. “If it were night, I should think that she was in one of her spells.”
Violet started and glanced where Hetty pointed. Mrs. Quintard was within a few feet of them, but as oblivious of their presence as though she stood alone in the room. Possibly, she thought she did. With fixed eyes and mechanical step she began to move straight towards the table, her whole appearance of a nature to make Hetty’s blood run cold, but to cause that of Violet’s to bound through her veins with renewed hope.
“The one thing I could have wished!” she murmured under her breath. “She has fallen into a trance. She is again under the dominion of her idea. If we watch and do not disturb her she may repeat her action of last night, and herself show where she has put this precious document.”
Meanwhile Mrs. Quintard continued to advance. A moment more, and her smooth white locks caught the ruddy glow centred upon the chair standing in the hollow of the table. Words were leaving her lips, and her hand, reaching out over the blotter, groped among the articles scattered there till it settled on a large pair of shears.
“Listen,” muttered Violet to the woman pressing close to her side. “You are acquainted with her voice; catch what she says if you can.”
Hetty could not; an undistinguishable murmur was all that came to her ears.
Violet took a step nearer. Mrs. Quintard’s hand had left the shears and was hovering uncertainly in the air. Her distress was evident. Her head, no longer steady on her shoulders, was turning this way and that, and her tones becoming inarticulate.
“Paper! I want paper” burst from her lips in a shrill unnatural cry.
But when they listened for more and watched to see the uncertain hand settle somewhere, she suddenly came to herself and turned upon them a startled glance, which speedily changed into one of the utmost perplexity.
“What am I doing here?” she asked. “I have a feeling as if I had almost seen — almost touched — oh, it’s gone! and all is blank again. Why couldn’t I keep it till I knew —” Then she came wholly to herself and, forgetting even the doubts of a moment since, remarked to Violet in her old tremulous fashion:
“You asked us to pull down the books? But you’ve evidently thought better of it.”
“Yes, I have thought better of it.” Then, with a last desperate hope of re-arousing the visions lying somewhere back in Mrs. Quintard’s troubled brain, Violet ventured to observe: “This is likely to resolve itself into a psychological problem, Mrs. Quintard. Do you suppose that if you fell again into the condition of last night, you would repeat your action and so lead us yourself to where the will lies hidden?”
“Possibly; but it may be weeks before I walk again in my sleep, and meanwhile Carlos will have arrived, and Clement, possibly, died. My nephew is so low that the doctor is coming back at midnight. Miss Strange, Clement is a man in a thousand. He says he wants to see you. Would you be willing to accompany me to his room for a moment? He will not make many more requests and I will take care that the interview is not prolonged.”
“I will go willingly. But would it not be better to wait —”
“Then you may never see him at all.”
“Very well; but I wish I had some better news to give.”
“That will come later. This house was never meant for Carlos. Hetty, you will stay here. Miss Strange, let us go now.”
“You need not speak; just let him see you.”
Violet nodded and followed Mrs. Quintard into the sick-room.
The sight which met her eyes tried her young emotions deeply. Staring at her from the bed, she saw two piercing eyes over whose brilliance death as yet had gained no control. Clements’s soul was in that gaze; Clement halting at the brink of dissolution to sound the depths behind him for the hope which would make departure easy. Would he see in her, a mere slip of a girl dressed in fashionable clothes and bearing about her all the marks of social distinction, the sort of person needed for the task upon the success of which depended his darlings’ future? She could hardly expect it. Yet as she continued to meet his gaze with all the seriousness the moment demanded, she beheld those burning orbs lose some of their demand and the fingers, which had lain inert upon the bedspread, flutter gently and move as if to draw attention to his wife and the three beautiful children clustered at the foot-board.
He had not spoken nor could she speak, but the solemnity with which she raised her right hand as to a listening Heaven called forth upon his lips what was possibly his last smile, and with the memory of this faint expression of confidence on his part, she left the room, to make her final attempt to solve the mystery of the missing document.
Facing the elderly lady in the hall, she addressed her with the force and soberness of one leading a forlorn hope:
“I want you to concentrate your mind upon what I have to say to you. Do you think you can do this?”
“I will try,” replied the poor woman with a backward glance at the door which had just been closed upon her.
“What we want,” said she, “is, as I stated before, an insight into the workings of your brain at the time you took the will from the safe. Try and follow what I have to say, Mrs. Quintard. Dreams are no longer regarded by scientists as prophecies of the future or even as spontaneous and irrelevant conditions of thought, but as reflections of a near past, which can almost without exception be traced back to the occurrences which caused them. Your action with the will had its birth in some previous line of thought afterwards forgotten. Let us try and find that thought. Recall, if you can, just what you did or read yesterday.”
Mrs. Quintard looked frightened.
“But, I have no memory,” she objected. “I forget quickly, so quickly that in order to fulfill my engagements I have to keep a memorandum of every day’s events. Yesterday? yesterday? What did I do yesterday? I went downtown for one thing, but I hardly know where.”
“Perhaps your memorandum of yesterday’s doings will help you.”
“I will get it. But it won’t give you the least help. I keep it only for my own eye, and —”
“Never mind; let me see it.”
And she waited impatiently for it to be put in her hands.
But when she came to read the record of the last two days, this was all she found:
Saturday: Mauretania nearly due. I must let Mr. Delahunt know today that he’s wanted here to-morrow. Hetty will try on my dresses. Says she has to alter them. Mrs. Peabody came to lunch, and we in such trouble! Had to go down street. Errand for Clement. The will, the will! I think of nothing else. Is it safe where it is? No peace of mind till to-morrow. Clement better this afternoon. Says he must live till Carlos gets back; not to triumph over him, but to do what he can to lessen his disappointment. My good Clement!
So nervous, I went to pasting photographs, and was forgetting all my troubles when Hetty brought in another dress to try on.
Quiet in the great house, during which the clock on the staircase sent forth seven musical peals. To Violet waiting alone in the library, they acted as a summons. She was just leaving the room, when the sound of hubbub in the hall below held her motionless in the doorway. An automobile had stopped in front, and several persons were entering the house, in a gay and unseemly fashion. As she stood listening, uncertain of her duty, she perceived the frenzied figure of Mrs. Quintard approaching. As she passed by, she dropped one word: “Carlos!” Then she went staggering on, to disappear a moment later down the stairway.
This vision lost, another came. This time it was that of Clements’s wife leaning from the marble balustrade above, the shadow of approaching grief battling with the present terror in her perfect features. Then she too withdrew from view and Violet, left for the moment alone in the great hall, stepped back into the library and began to put on her hat.
The lights had been turned up in the grand salon and it was in this scene of gorgeous colour that Mrs. Quintard came face to face with Carlos Pelacios. Those who were witness to her entrance say that she presented a noble appearance, as with the resolution of extreme desperation she stood waiting for his first angry attack.
He, a short, thick-set, dark man, showing both in features and expression the Spanish blood of his paternal ancestors, started to address her in tones of violence, but changed his note, as he met her eye, to one simply sardonic.
“You here!” he began. “I assure you, madame, that it is a pleasure which is not without its inconveniences. Did you not receive my cablegram requesting this house to be made ready for my occupancy?”
“Then why do I find guests here? They do not usually precede the arrival of their host.”
“Clement is very ill —”
“So much the greater reason that he should have been removed —”
“You were not expected for two days yet. You cabled that you were coming on the Mauretania.”
“Yes, I cabled that. Elisabetta,”— this to his wife standing silently in the background —“we will go to the Plaza for tonight. At three o’clock tomorrow we shall expect to find this house in readiness for our return. Later, if Mrs. Quintard desires to visit us we shall be pleased to receive her. But”— this to Mrs. Quintard herself —“you must come without Clement and the kids.”
Mrs. Quintard’s rigid hand stole up to her throat.
“Clement is dying. He is failing hourly,” she murmured. “He may not live till morning.”
Even Carlos was taken aback by this. “Oh, well!” said he, “we will give you two days.”
Mrs. Quintard gasped, then she walked straight up to him. “You will give us all the time his condition requires and more, much more. He is the real owner of this house, not you. My brother left a will bequeathing it to him. You are my nephew’s guests, and not he yours. As his representative I entreat you and your wife to remain here until you can find a home to your mind.”
The silence seethed. Carlos had a temper of fire and so had his wife. But neither spoke, till he had gained sufficient control over himself to remark without undue rancour:
“I did not think you had the wit to influence your brother to this extent; otherwise, I should have cut my travels short.” Then harshly: “Where is this will?”
“It will be produced.” But the words faltered.
Carlos glanced at the man standing behind his wife; then back at Mrs. Quintard.
“Wills are not scribbled off on deathbeds; or if they are, it needs something more than a signature to legalize them. I don’t believe in this trick of a later will. Mr. Cavanagh”— here he indicated the gentleman accompanying them —“has done my father’s business for years, and he assured me that the paper he holds in his pocket is the first, last, and only expression of your brother’s wishes. If you are in a position to deny this, show us the document you mention; show us it at once, or inform us where and in whose hands it can be found.”
“That, for — for reasons I cannot give, I must refuse to do at present. But I am ready to swear —”
A mocking laugh cut her short. Did it issue from his lips or from those of his highstrung and unfeeling wife? It might have come from either; there was cause enough.
“Oh!” she faltered, “may God have mercy!” and was sinking before their eyes, when she heard her name, called from the threshold, and, looking that way, saw Hetty beaming upon her, backed by a little figure with a face so radiant that instinctively her hand went out to grasp the folded sheet of paper Hetty was seeking to thrust upon her.
“Ah!” she cried, in a great voice, “you will not have to wait, nor Clement either. Here is the will! The children have come into their own.” And she fell at their feet in a dead faint.
“Where did you find it? Oh! where did you find it? I have waited a week to know. When, after Carlos’s sudden departure, I stood beside Clement’s death-bed and saw from the look he gave me that he could still feel and understand, I told him that you had succeeded in your task and that all was well with us. But I was not able to tell him how you had succeeded or in what place the will had been found; and he died, unknowing. But we may know, may we not, now that he is laid away and there is no more talk of our leaving this house?”
Violet smiled, but very tenderly, and in a way not to offend the mourner. They were sitting in the library — the great library which was to remain in Clement’s family after all — and it amused her to follow the dreaming lady’s glances as they ran in irrepressible curiosity over the walls. Had Violet wished, she could have kept her secret forever. These eyes would never have discovered it.
But she was of a sympathetic temperament, our Violet, so after a moment’s delay, during which she satisfied herself that little, if anything, had been touched in the room since her departure from it a week before, she quietly observed:
“You were right in persisting that you hid it in this room. It was here I found it. Do you notice that photograph on the mantel which does not stand exactly straight on its easel?”
“Supposing you take it down. You can reach it, can you not?”
“Oh, yes. But what —”
“Lift it down, dear Mrs. Quintard; and then turn it round and look at its back.”
Agitated and questioning, the lady did as she was bid, and at the first glance gave a cry of surprise, if not of understanding. The square of brown paper, acting as a backing to the picture, was slit across, disclosing a similar one behind it which was still intact.
“Oh! was it hidden in here?” she asked.
“Very completely,” assented Violet. “Pasted in out of sight by a lady who amuses herself with mounting and framing photographs. Usually, she is conscious of her work, but this time she performed her task in a dream.”
Mrs. Quintard was all amazement.
“I don’t remember touching these pictures,” she declared. “I never should have remembered. You are a wonderful person, Miss Strange. How came you to think these photographs might have two backings? There was nothing to show that this was so.”
“I will tell you, Mrs. Quintard. You helped me.”
“I helped you?”
“Yes. You remember the memorandum you gave me? In it you mentioned pasting photographs. But this was not enough in itself to lead me to examine those on the mantel, if you had not given me another suggestion a little while before. We did not tell you this, Mrs. Quintard, at the time, but during the search we were making here that day, you had a lapse into that peculiar state which induces you to walk in your sleep. It was a short one, lasting but a moment, but in a moment one can speak, and, this you did —”
“Spoke? I spoke?”
“Yes, you uttered the word ‘paper!’ not the paper, but ‘paper!’ and reached out towards the shears. Though I had not much time to think of it then, afterwards upon reading your memorandum I recalled your words, and asked myself if it was not paper to cut, rather than to hide, you wanted. If it was to cut, and you were but repeating the experience of the night before, then the room should contain some remnants of cut paper. Had we seen any? Yes, in the basket, under the desk we had taken out and thrown back again a strip or so of wrapping paper, which, if my memory did not fail me, showed a clean-cut edge. To pull this strip out again and spread it flat upon the desk was the work of a minute, and what I saw led me to look all over the room, not now for the folded document, but for a square of brown paper, such as had been taken out of this larger sheet. Was I successful? Not for a long while, but when I came to the photographs on the mantel and saw how nearly they corresponded in shape and size to what I was looking for, I recalled again your fancy for mounting photographs and felt that the mystery was solved.
“A glance at the back of one of them brought disappointment, but when I turned about its mate — You know what I found underneath the outer paper. You had laid the will against the original backing and simply pasted another one over it.
“That the discovery came in time to cut short a very painful interview has made me joyful for a week.
“And now may I see the children?”
End of Problem V
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55