“However much I may be needed at home, I I cannot reconcile it with my sense of duty to leave just yet,” I confided to the reporter, with what I meant to be a proper show of reason and self-restraint; “Mr. Van Burnam may wish to ask me some questions.”
“Of course, of course,” acquiesced the other. “You are very right; always are very right, I should judge.”
As I did not know what he meant by this, I frowned, always a wise thing to do in an uncertainty; that is — if one wishes to maintain an air of independence and aversion to flattery.
“Will you not sit down?” he suggested. “There is a chair at the end of the hall.”
But I had no need to sit. The front door-bell again rang, and simultaneously with its opening, the parlor door unclosed and Mr. Franklin Van Burnam appeared in the hall, just as Mr. Silas Van Burnam, his father, stepped into the vestibule.
“Father!” he remonstrated, with a troubled air; “could you not wait?”
The elder gentleman, who had evidently just been driven up from the steamer, wiped his forehead with an irascible air, that I will say I had noticed in him before and on much less provocation.
“Wait, with a yelling crowd screaming murder in my ear, and Isabella on one side of me calling for salts, and Caroline on the opposite seat getting that blue look about the mouth we have learned to dread so in a hot day like this? No, sir, when there is anything wrong going on I want to know it, and evidently there is something wrong going on here. What is it? Some of Howard’s ——”
But the son, seizing me by the hand and drawing me forward, put a quick stop to the old gentleman’s sentence. “Miss Butterworth, father! Our next-door neighbor, you know.”
“Ah! hum! ha! Miss Butterworth. How do you do, ma’am? What the —— is she doing here?” he grumbled, not so low but that I heard both the profanity and the none too complimentary allusion to myself.
“If you will come into the parlor, I will tell you,” urged the son. “But what have you done with Isabella and Caroline? Left them in the carriage with that hooting mob about them?”
“I told the coachman to drive on. They are probably half-way around the block by this time.”
“Then come in here. But don’t allow yourself to be too much affected by what you will see. A sad accident has occurred here, and you must expect the sight of blood.”
“Blood! Oh, I can stand that, if Howard ——”
The rest was lost in the sound of the closing door.
And now, you will say, I ought to have gone. And you are right, but would you have gone yourself, especially as the hall was full of people who did not belong there?
If you would, then condemn me for lingering just a few minutes longer.
The voices in the parlor were loud, but they presently subsided; and when the owner of the house came out again, he had a subdued look which was as great a contrast to his angry aspect on entering, as was the change I had observed in his son. He was so absorbed indeed that he did not notice me, though I stood directly in his way.
“Don’t let Howard come,” he was saying in a thick, low voice to his son. “Keep Howard away till we are sure ——”
I am confident that his son pressed his arm at this point, for he stopped short and looked about him in a blind and dazed way.
“Oh!” he ejaculated, in a tone of great displeasure. “This is the woman who saw ——”
“Miss Butterworth, father,” the anxious voice of his son broke in. “Don’t try to talk; such a sight is enough to unnerve any man.”
“Yes, yes,” blustered the old gentleman, evidently taking some hint from the other’s tone or manner. “But where are the girls? They will be dead with terror, if we don’t relieve their minds. They got the idea it was their brother Howard who was hurt; and so did I, but it’s only some wandering waif — some ——”
It seemed as if he was not to be allowed to finish any of his sentences, for Franklin interrupted him at this point to ask him what he was going to do with the girls. Certainly he could not bring them in here.
“No,” answered the father, but in the dreamy, inconsequential way of one whose thoughts were elsewhere. “I suppose I shall have to take them to some hotel.”
Ah, an idea! I flushed as I realized the opportunity which had come to me and had to wait a moment not to speak with too much eagerness.
“Let me play the part of a neighbor,” I prayed, “and accommodate the young ladies for the night. My house is near and quiet.”
“But the trouble it will involve,” protested Mr. Franklin.
“Is just what I need to allay my excitement,” I responded. “I shall be glad to offer them rooms for the night. If they are equally glad to accept them ——”
“They must be!” the old gentleman declared. “I can’t go running round with them hunting up rooms to-night. Miss Butterworth is very good; go find the girls, Franklin; let me have them off my mind, at least.”
The young man bowed. I bowed, and was slipping at last from my place by the stairs when, for the third time, I felt my dress twitched.
“Are you going to keep to that story?” a voice whispered in my ear. “About the young man and woman coming in the night, you know.”
“Keep to it!” I whispered back, recognizing the scrub-woman, who had sidled up to me from some unknown quarter in the semi-darkness. “Why, it’s true. Why shouldn’t I keep to it.”
A chuckle, difficult to describe but full of meaning, shook the arm of the woman as she pressed close to my side.
“Oh, you are a good one,” she said. “I didn’t know they made ’em so good!” And with another chuckle full of satisfaction and an odd sort of admiration I had certainly not earned, she slid away again into the darkness.
Certainly there was something in this woman’s attitude towards this affair which merited attention.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55