That was to be Margery's last evening at Fred's. Edith had kept her as long as she could, but the girl felt that her place was with Miss Letitia. Edith was desolate.
"I don't know what I am going to do without you," she said that night when we were all together in the library, with a wood fire, for light and coziness more than heat. Margery was sitting before the fire, and while the others talked she sat mostly silent, looking into the blaze.
The May night was cold and rainy, and Fred had been reading us a poem he had just finished, receiving with indifference my comment on it, and basking in Edith's rapture.
"Do you know yourself what it is about?" I inquired caustically.
"If it's about anything, it isn't poetry," he replied. "Poetry appeals to the ear: it is primarily sensuous. If it is more than that it ceases to be poetry and becomes verse."
"I'm afraid I'm getting old," she said, "I'm getting the nap habit after dinner. Fred, run up, will you, and see if Katie put blankets over the boys?"
Fred stuffed his poem in his pocket and went resignedly up-stairs. Edith yawned again, and prepared to retire to the den for forty winks.
"If Ellen decides to come down-stairs," she called back over her shoulder, "please come and wake me. She said she felt better and might come down."
At the door she turned, behind Margery's back, and made me a sweeping and comprehensive signal. She finished it off with a double wink, Edith having never been able to wink one eye alone, and crossing the hall, closed the door of the den with an obtrusive bang.
Margery and I were alone. The girl looked at me, smiled a little, and drew a long breath.
"It's queer about Edith," I said; "I never before knew her to get drowsy after dinner. If she were not beyond suspicion, I would think it a deep-laid scheme, and she and Fred sitting and holding hands in a corner somewhere."
"But why—a scheme?" She had folded her hands in her lap, and the eternal ring sparkled malignantly.
"They might think I wanted to talk to you," I suggested.
"To you—The fact is, I do."
Perhaps I was morbid about the ring: it seemed to me she lifted her hand and looked at it.
"It's drafty in here: don't you think so?" she asked suddenly, looking back of her. Probably she had not meant it, but I got up and closed the door into the hall. When I came back I took the chair next to her, and for a moment we said nothing. The log threw out tiny red devil sparks, and the clock chimed eight, very slowly.
"Harry Wardrop was here last night," I said, poking down the log with my heel.
"Yes. I suppose I was wrong, but I did not say you were here."
She turned and looked at me closely, out of the most beautiful eyes I ever saw.
"I'm not afraid to see him," she said proudly, "and he ought not to be afraid to see me."
"I want to tell you something before you see him. Last night, before he came, I thought that—well, that at least he knew something of—the things we want to know."
"In justice to him, and because I want to fight fair, I tell you to-night that I don't believe he knows anything about your father's death, and that I believe he was robbed that night at Bellwood."
"What about the pearls he sold at Plattsburg?" she asked suddenly.
"I think when the proper time comes, he will tell about that too, Margery." I did not notice my use of her name until too late. If she heard, she failed to resent it. "After all, if you love him, hardly anything else matters, does it? How do we know but that he was in trouble, and that Aunt Jane herself gave them to him?"
She looked at me with a little perplexity.
"You plead his cause very well," she said. "Did he ask you to speak to me?"
"I won't run a race with a man who is lame," I said quietly. "Ethically, I ought to go away and leave you to your dreams, but I am not going to do it. If you love Wardrop as a woman ought to love the man she marries, then marry him and I hope you will be happy. If you don't—no, let me finish. I have made up my mind to clear him if I can: to bring him to you with a clear slate. Then, I know it is audacious, but I am going to come, too, and—I'm going to plead for myself then, unless you send me away."
She sat with her head bent, her color coming and going nervously. Now she looked up at me with what was the ghost of a smile.
"It sounds like a threat," she said in a low voice. "And you—I wonder if you always get what you want?"
Then, of course, Fred came in, and fell over a hassock looking for matches. Edith opened the door of the den and called him to her irritably, but Fred declined to leave the wood fire, and settled down in his easy chair. After a while Edith came over and joined us, but she snubbed Fred the entire evening, to his bewilderment. And when conversation lagged, during the evening that followed, I tried to remember what I had said, and knew I had done very badly. Only one thing cheered me: she had not been angry, and she had understood. Blessed be the woman that understands!
We broke up for the night about eleven. Mrs. Butler had come down for a while, and had even played a little, something of Tschaikovsky's, a singing, plaintive theme that brought sadness back into Margery's face, and made me think, for no reason, of a wet country road and a plodding, back-burdened peasant.
Fred and I sat in the library for a while after the rest had gone, and I told him a little of what I had learned that afternoon.
"A second wife!" he said, "and a primitive type, eh? Well, did she shoot him, or did Schwartz? The Lady or the Democratic Tiger?"
"The Tiger," I said firmly.
"The Lady," Fred, with equal assurance.
Fred closed the house with his usual care. It required the combined efforts of the maids followed up by Fred, to lock the windows, it being his confident assertion that in seven years of keeping house, he had never failed to find at least one unlocked window.
On that night, I remember, he went around with his usual scrupulous care. Then we went up to bed, leaving a small light at the telephone in the lower hall: nothing else.
The house was a double one, built around a square hall below, which served the purpose of a general sitting-room. From the front door a short, narrow hall led back to this, with a room on either side, and from it doors led into the rest of the lower floor. At one side the stairs took the ascent easily, with two stops for landings, and up-stairs the bedrooms opened from a similar, slightly smaller square hall. The staircase to the third floor went up from somewhere back in the nursery wing.
My bedroom was over the library, and Mrs. Butler and Margery Fleming had connecting rooms, across the hall. Fred and Edith slept in the nursery wing, so they would be near the children. In the square upper hall there was a big reading table, a lamp, and some comfortable chairs. Here, when they were alone, Fred read aloud the evening paper, or his latest short story, and Edith's sewing basket showed how she put in what women miscall their leisure.
I did not go to sleep at once: naturally the rather vital step I had taken in the library insisted on being considered and almost regretted. I tried reading myself to sleep, and when that failed, I tried the soothing combination of a cigarette and a book. That worked like a charm; the last thing I remember is of holding the cigarette in a death grip as I lay with my pillows propped back of me, my head to the light, and a delightful languor creeping over me.
I was wakened by the pungent acrid smell of smoke, and I sat up and blinked my eyes open. The side of the bed was sending up a steady column of gray smoke, and there was a smart crackle of fire under me somewhere. I jumped out of bed and saw the trouble instantly. My cigarette had dropped from my hand, still lighted, and as is the way with cigarettes, determined to burn to the end. In so doing it had fired my bed, the rug under the bed and pretty nearly the man on the bed.
It took some sharp work to get it all out without rousing the house. Then I stood amid the wreckage and looked ruefully at Edith's pretty room. I could see, mentally, the spot of water on the library ceiling the next morning, and I could hear Fred's strictures on the heedlessness and indifference to property of bachelors in general and me in particular.
Three pitchers of water on the bed had made it an impossible couch. I put on a dressing-gown, and, with a blanket over my arm, I went out to hunt some sort of place to sleep. I decided on the davenport in the hall just outside, and as quietly as I could, I put a screen around it and settled down for the night.
I was wakened by the touch of a hand on my face. I started, I think, and the hand was jerked away—I am not sure: I was still drowsy. I lay very quiet, listening for footsteps, but none came. With the feeling that there was some one behind the screen, I jumped up. The hall was dark and quiet. When I found no one I concluded it had been only a vivid dream, and I sat down on the edge of the davenport and yawned.
I heard Edith moving back in the nursery: she has an uncomfortable habit of wandering around in the night, covering the children, closing windows, and sniffing for fire. I was afraid some of the smoke from my conflagration had reached her suspicious nose, but she did not come into the front hall. I was wide-awake by that time, and it was then, I think, that I noticed a heavy, sweetish odor in the air. At first I thought one of the children might be ill, and that Edith was dosing him with one of the choice concoctions that she kept in the bath-room medicine closet. When she closed her door, however, and went back to bed, I knew I had been mistaken.
The sweetish smell was almost nauseating. For some reason or other—association of certain odors with certain events—I found myself recalling the time I had a wisdom tooth taken out, and that when I came around I was being sat on by the dentist and his assistant, and the latter had a black eye. Then, suddenly, I knew. The sickly odor was chloroform!
I had the light on in a moment, and was rapping at Margery's door. It was locked, and I got no answer. A pale light shone over the transom, but everything was ominously quiet, beyond the door. I went to Mrs. Butler's door, next; it was unlocked and partly open. One glance at the empty bed and the confusion of the place, and I rushed without ceremony through the connecting door into Margery's room.
The atmosphere was reeking with chloroform. The girl was in bed, apparently sleeping quietly. One arm was thrown up over her head, and the other lay relaxed on the white cover. A folded towel had been laid across her face, and when I jerked it away I saw she was breathing very slowly, stertorously, with her eyes partly open and fixed.
I threw up all the windows, before I roused the family, and as soon as Edith was in the room I telephoned for the doctor. I hardly remember what I did until he came: I know we tried to rouse Margery and failed, and I know that Fred went down-stairs and said the silver was intact and the back kitchen door open. And then the doctor came, and I was put out in the hall, and for an eternity, I walked up and down, eight steps one way, eight steps back, unable to think, unable even to hope.
Not until the doctor came out to me, and said she was better, and would I call a maid to make some strong black coffee, did I come out of my stupor. The chance of doing something, anything, made me determine to make the coffee myself. They still speak of that coffee at Fred's.
It was Edith who brought Mrs. Butler to my mind. Fred had maintained that she had fled before the intruders, and was probably in some closet or corner of the upper floor. I am afraid our solicitude was long in coming. It was almost an hour before we organized a searching party to look for her. Fred went up-stairs, and I took the lower floor.
It was I who found her, after all, lying full length on the grass in the little square yard back of the house. She was in a dead faint, and she was a much more difficult patient than Margery.
We could get no story from either of them that night. The two rooms had been ransacked, but apparently nothing had been stolen. Fred vowed he had locked and bolted the kitchen door, and that it had been opened from within.
It was a strange experience, that night intrusion into the house, without robbery as a motive. If Margery knew or suspected the reason for the outrage, she refused to say. As for Mrs. Butler, to mention the occurrence put her into hysteria. It was Fred who put forth the most startling theory of the lot.
"By George," he said the next morning when we had failed to find tracks in the yard, and Edith had reported every silver spoon in its place, "by George, it wouldn't surprise me if the lady in the grave clothes did it herself. There isn't anything a hysterical woman won't do to rouse your interest in her, if it begins to flag. How did any one get in through that kitchen door, when it was locked inside and bolted? I tell you, she opened it herself."
I did not like to force Margery's confidence, but I believed that the outrage was directly for the purpose of searching her room, perhaps for papers that had been her father's. Mrs. Butler came around enough by morning, to tell a semi-connected story in which she claimed that two men had come in from a veranda roof, and tried to chloroform her. That she had pretended to be asleep and had taken the first opportunity, while they were in the other room, to run down-stairs and into the yard. Edith thought it likely enough, being a credulous person.
As it turned out, Edith's intuition was more reliable than my skepticism,—or Fred's.