The Window at the White Cat

by Mary Roberts Rinehart

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Chapter XIV - A Walk in the Park

The funeral occurred on Monday. It was an ostentatious affair, with a long list of honorary pall-bearers, a picked corps of city firemen in uniform ranged around the casket, and enough money wasted in floral pillows and sheaves of wheat tied with purple ribbon, to have given all the hungry children in town a square meal.

Amid all this state Margery moved, stricken and isolated. She went to the cemetery with Edith, Miss Letitia having sent a message that, having never broken her neck to see the man living, she wasn't going to do it to see him dead. The music was very fine, and the eulogy spoke of this patriot who had served his country so long and so well. "Following the flag," Fred commented under his breath, "as long as there was an appropriation attached to it."

And when it was all over, we went back to Fred's until the Fleming house could be put into order again. It was the best place in the world for Margery, for, with the children demanding her attention and applause every minute, she had no time to be blue.

Mrs. Butler arrived that day, which made Fred suspicious that Edith's plan to bring her, far antedated his consent. But she was there when we got home from the funeral, and after one glimpse at her thin face and hollow eyes, I begged Edith to keep her away from Margery, for that day at least.

Fortunately, Mrs. Butler was exhausted by her journey, and retired to her room almost immediately. I watched her slender figure go up the stairs, and, with her black trailing gown and colorless face, she was an embodiment of all that is lonely and helpless. Fred closed the door behind her and stood looking at Edith and me.

"I tell you, honey," he declared, "that brought into a cheerful home is sufficient cause for divorce. Isn't it, Jack?"

"She is ill," Edith maintained valiantly. "She is my cousin, too, which gives her some claim on me, and my guest, which gives her more."

"Lady-love," Fred said solemnly, "if you do not give me the key to the cellarette, I shall have a chill. And let me beg this of you: if I ever get tired of this life, and shuffle off my mortality in a lumber yard, or a political club, and you go around like that, I shall haunt you. I swear it."

"Shuffle off," I dared him. "I will see that Edith is cheerful and happy."

From somewhere above, there came a sudden crash, followed by the announcement, made by a scared housemaid, that Mrs. Butler had fainted. Fred sniffed as Edith scurried up-stairs.

"Hipped," he said shortly. "For two cents I'd go up and give her a good whiff of ammonia—not this aromatic stuff, but the genuine article. That would make her sit up and take notice. Upon my word, I can't think what possessed Edith; these spineless, soft-spoken, timid women are leeches on one's sympathies."

But Mrs. Butler was really ill, and Margery insisted on looking after her. It was an odd coincidence, the widow of one state treasurer and the orphaned daughter of his successor; both men had died violent deaths, in each case when a boiling under the political lid had threatened to blow it off.

The boys were allowed to have their dinner with the family that evening, in honor of Mrs. Butler's arrival, and it was a riotous meal. Margery got back a little of her color. As I sat across from her, and watched her expressions change, from sadness to resignation, and even gradually to amusement at the boys' antics, I wondered just how much she knew, or suspected, that she refused to tell me.

I remembered a woman—a client of mine—who said that whenever she sat near a railroad track and watched an engine thundering toward her, she tortured herself by picturing a child on the track, and wondering whether, under such circumstances, she would risk her life to save the child.

I felt a good bit that way; I was firmly embarked on the case now, and I tortured myself with one idea. Suppose I should find Wardrop guilty, and I should find extenuating circumstances—what would I do? Publish the truth, see him hanged or imprisoned, and break Margery's heart? Or keep back the truth, let her marry him, and try to forget that I had had a hand in the whole wretched business?

After all, I decided to try to stop my imaginary train. Prove Wardrop innocent, I reasoned with myself, get to the bottom of this thing, and then—it would be man and man. A fair field and no favor. I suppose my proper attitude, romantically taken, was to consider Margery's engagement ring an indissoluble barrier. But this was not romance; I was fighting for my life happiness, and as to the ring—well, I am of the opinion that if a man really loves a woman, and thinks he can make her happy, he will tell her so if she is strung with engagement rings to the ends of her fingers. Dangerous doctrine? Well, this is not propaganda.

Tuesday found us all more normal. Mrs. Butler had slept some, and very commendably allowed herself to be tea'd and toasted in bed. The boys were started to kindergarten, after ten minutes of frenzied cap-hunting. Margery went with me along the hall when I started for the office.

"You have not learned anything?" she asked cautiously, glancing back to Edith, at the telephone calling the grocer frantically for the Monday morning supply of soap and starch.

"Not much," I evaded. "Nothing definite, anyhow. Margery, you are not going back to the Monmouth Avenue house again, are you?"

"Not just yet; I don't think I could. I suppose, later, it will have to be sold, but not at once. I shall go to Aunt Letitia's first."

"Very well," I said. "Then you are going to take a walk with me this afternoon in the park. I won't take no; you need the exercise, and I need—to talk to you," I finished lamely.

When she had agreed I went to the office. It was not much after nine, but, to my surprise, Burton was already there. He had struck up an acquaintance with Miss Grant, the stenographer, and that usually frigid person had melted under the warmth of his red hair and his smile. She was telling him about her sister's baby having the whooping-cough, when I went in.

"I wish I had studied law," he threw at me. "'What shall it profit a man to become a lawyer and lose his own soul?' as the psalmist says. I like this ten-to-four business."

When we had gone into the inner office, and shut out Miss Grant and the whooping-cough, he was serious instantly.

"Well," he said, sitting on the radiator and dangling his foot, "I guess we've got Wardrop for theft, anyhow."

"Theft?" I inquired.

"Well, larceny, if you prefer legal terms. I found where he sold the pearls—in Plattsburg, to a wholesale jeweler named, suggestively, Cashdollar."

"Then," I said conclusively, "if he took the pearls and sold them, as sure as I sit here, he took the money out of that Russia leather bag."

Burton swung his foot rhythmically against the pipes.

"I'm not so darned sure of it," he said calmly.

If he had any reason, he refused to give it. I told him, in my turn, of Carter's escape, aided by the police, and he smiled. "For a suicide it's causing a lot of excitement," he remarked. When I told him the little incident of the post-office, he was much interested.

"The old lady's in it, somehow," he maintained. "She may have been lending Fleming money, for one thing. How do you know it wasn't her hundred thousand that was stolen?"

"I don't think she ever had the uncontrolled disposal of a dollar in her life."

"There's only one thing to do," Burton said finally, "and that is, find Miss Jane. If she's alive, she can tell something. I'll stake my fountain pen on that—and it's my dearest possession on earth, next to my mother. If Miss Jane is dead—well, somebody killed her, and it's time it was being found out."

"It's easy enough to say find her."

"It's easy enough to find her," he exploded. "Make a noise about it; send up rockets. Put a half-column ad in every paper in town, or—better still—give the story to the reporters and let them find her for you. I'd do it, if I wasn't tied up with this Fleming case. Describe her, how she walked, what she liked to eat, what she wore—in this case what she didn't wear. Lord, I wish I had that assignment! In forty-eight hours she will have been seen in a hundred different places, and one of them will be right. It will be a question of selection—that is, if she is alive."

In spite of his airy tone, I knew he was serious, and I felt he was right. The publicity part of it I left to him, and I sent a special delivery that morning to Bellwood, asking Miss Letitia to say nothing and to refer reporters to me. I had already been besieged with them, since my connection with the Fleming case, and a few more made no difference.

Burton attended to the matter thoroughly. The one o'clock edition of an afternoon paper contained a short and vivid scarlet account of Miss Jane's disappearance. The evening editions were full, and while vague as to the manner of her leaving, were minute as regarded her personal appearance and characteristics.

To escape the threatened inundation of the morning paper men, I left the office early, and at four o'clock Margery and I stepped from a hill car into the park. She had been wearing a short, crepe-edged veil, but once away from the gaze of the curious, she took it off. I was glad to see she had lost the air of detachment she had worn for the last three days.

"Hold your shoulders well back," I directed, when we had found an isolated path, "and take long breaths. Try breathing in while I count ten."

She was very tractable—unusually so, I imagined, for her. We swung along together for almost a half-hour, hardly talking. I was content merely to be with her, and the sheer joy of the exercise after her enforced confinement kept her silent. When she began to flag a little I found a bench, and we sat down together. The bench had been lately painted, and although it seemed dry enough, I spread my handkerchief for her to sit on. Whereupon she called me "Sir Walter," and at the familiar jest we laughed like a pair of children.

I had made the stipulation that, for this one time, her father's death and her other troubles should be taboo, and we adhered to it religiously. A robin in the path was industriously digging out a worm; he had tackled a long one, and it was all he could manage. He took the available end in his beak and hopped back with the expression of one who sets his jaws and determines that this which should be, is to be. The worm stretched into a pinkish and attenuated line, but it neither broke nor gave.

"Horrid thing!" Margery said. "That is a disgraceful, heartless exhibition."

"The robin is a parent," I reminded her. "It is precisely the same as Fred, who twists, jerks, distorts and attenuates the English language in his magazine work, in order to have bread and ice-cream and jelly cake for his two blooming youngsters."

She had taken off her gloves, and sat with her hands loosely clasped in her lap.

"I wish some one depended on me," she said pensively. "It's a terrible thing to feel that it doesn't matter to any one—not vitally, anyhow—whether one is around or not. To have all my responsibilities taken away at once, and just to drift around, like this—oh, it's dreadful."

"You were going to be good," I reminded her.

"I didn't promise to be cheerful," she returned. "Besides my father, there was only one person in the world who cared about me, and I don't know where she is. Dear Aunt Jane!"

The sunlight caught the ring on her engagement finger, and she flushed suddenly as she saw me looking at it. We sat there for a while saying nothing; the long May afternoon was coming to a close. The paths began to fill with long lines of hurrying home-seekers, their day in office or factory at an end.

Margery got up at last and buttoned her coat. Then impulsively she held out her hand to me.

"You have been more than kind to me," she said hurriedly. "You have taken me into your home—and helped me through these dreadful days—and I will never forget it; never."

"I am not virtuous," I replied, looking down at her. "I couldn't help it. You walked into my life when you came to my office—was it only last week? The evil days are coming, I suppose, but just now nothing matters at all, save that you are you, and I am I."

She dropped her veil quickly, and we went back to the car. The prosaic world wrapped us around again; there was a heavy odor of restaurant coffee in the air; people bumped and jolted past us. To me they were only shadows; the real world was a girl in black and myself, and the girl wore a betrothal ring which was not mine.

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