CHAPTER XIX

BACK TO BELLWOOD

The inability of Margery Fleming to tell who had chloroformed her, and Mrs. Butler's white face and brooding eyes made a very respectable mystery out of the affair. Only Fred, Edith and I came down to breakfast that morning. Fred's expression was half amused, half puzzled. Edith fluttered uneasily over the coffee machine, her cheeks as red as the bow of ribbon at her throat. I was preoccupied, and, like Fred, I propped the morning paper in front of me and proceeded to think in its shelter.

"Did you find anything, Fred?" Edith asked. Fred did not reply, so she repeated the question with some emphasis.

"Eh—what?" Fred inquired, peering around the corner of the paper.

"Did—you—find—any—clue?"

"Yes, dear—that is, no. Nothing to amount to anything. Upon my soul, Jack, if I wrote the editorials of this paper, I'd say something." He subsided into inarticulate growls behind the paper, and everything was quiet. Then I heard a sniffle, distinctly. I looked up. Edith was crying—pouring cream into a coffee cup, and feeling blindly for the sugar, with her pretty face twisted and her pretty eyes obscured. In a second I was up, had crumpled the newspapers, including Fred's, into a ball, and had lifted him bodily out of his chair.

"When I am married," I said fiercely, jerking him around to Edith and pushing him into a chair beside her, "if I ever read the paper at breakfast when my wife is bursting for conversation, may I have some good and faithful friend who will bring me back to a sense of my duty." I drew a chair to Edith's other side. "Now, let's talk," I said.

She wiped her eyes shamelessly with her table napkin. "There isn't a soul in this house I can talk to," she wailed. "All kinds of awful things happening—and we had to send for coffee this morning, Jack. You must have used four pounds last night—and nobody will tell me a thing. There's no use asking Margery—she's sick at her stomach from the chloroform—and Ellen never talks except about herself, and she's horribly—uninteresting. And Fred and you make a ba—barricade out of newspapers, and fire 'yes' at me when you mean 'no.'"

"I put the coffee back where I got it, Edith," I protested stoutly. "I know we're barbarians, but I'll swear to that." And then I stopped, for I had a sudden recollection of going up-stairs with something fat and tinny in my arms, of finding it in my way, and of hastily thrusting it into the boys' boot closet under the nursery stair.

Fred had said nothing. He had taken her hand and was patting it gently, the while his eye sought the head-lines on the wad of morning paper.

"You burned that blue rug," she said to me disconsolately, with a threat of fresh tears. "It took me ages to find the right shade of blue."

"I will buy you that Shirvan you wanted," I hastened to assure her.

"Yes, to take away when you get married." There is a hint of the shrew in all good women.

"I will buy the Shirvan and not get married."

Here, I regret to say, Edith suddenly laughed. She threw her head back and jeered at me.

"You!" she chortled, and pointed one slim finger at me mockingly. "You, who are so mad about one girl that you love all women for her sake! You, who go white instead of red when she comes into the room! You, who have let your practice go to the dogs to be near her, and then never speak to her when she's around, but sit with your mouth open like a puppy begging for candy, ready to snap up every word she throws you and wiggle with joy!"

I was terrified.

"Honestly, Edith, do I do that?" I gasped. But she did not answer; she only leaned over and kissed Fred.

"Women like men to be awful fools about them," she said. "That's why I'm so crazy about Freddie." He writhed.

"If I tell you something nice, Jack, will you make it a room-size rug?"

"Room size it is."

"Then—Margery's engagement ring was stolen last night and when I commiserated her she said—dear me, the lamp's out and the coffee is cold!"

"Remarkable speech, under the circumstances," said Fred.

Edith rang the bell and seemed to be thinking. "Perhaps we'd better make it four small rugs instead of one large one," she said.

"Not a rug until you have told me what Margery said," firmly.

"Oh, that! Why, she said it really didn't matter about the ring. She had never cared much about it anyway."

"But that's only a matter of taste," I protested, somewhat disappointed. But Edith got up and patted me on the top of my head.

"Silly," she said. "If the right man came along and gave her a rubber teething ring, she'd be crazy about it for his sake."

"Edith!" Fred said, shocked. But Edith had gone.

She took me up-stairs before I left for the office to measure for the Shirvan, Edith being a person who believes in obtaining a thing while the desire for it is in its first bloom. Across the hall Fred was talking to Margery through the transom.

"Mustard leaves are mighty helpful," he was saying. "I always take 'em on shipboard. And cheer up: land's in sight."

I would have given much for Fred's ease of manner when, a few minutes later, Edith having decided on four Shirvans and a hall runner, she took me to the door of Margery's room.

She was lying very still and pale in the center of the white bed, and she tried bravely to smile at us.

"I hope you are better," I said. "Don't let Edith convince you that my coffee has poisoned you."

She said she was a little better, and that she didn't know she had had any coffee. That was the extent of the conversation. I, who have a local reputation of a sort before a jury, I could not think of another word to say. I stood there for a minute uneasily, with Edith poking me with her finger to go inside the door and speak and act like an intelligent human being. But I only muttered something about a busy day before me and fled. It was a singular thing, but as I stood in the doorway, I had a vivid mental picture of Edith's description of me, sitting up puppy-like to beg for a kind word, and wiggling with delight when I got it. If I slunk into my office that morning like a dog scourged to his kennel, Edith was responsible.

At the office I found a note from Miss Letitia, and after a glance at it I looked for the first train, in my railroad schedule. The note was brief; unlike the similar epistle I had received from Miss Jane the day she disappeared, this one was very formal.

"Mr. John Knox:

"Dear Sir—Kindly oblige me by coming to see me as soon as you get this. Some things have happened, not that I think they are worth a row of pins, but Hepsibah is an old fool, and she says she did not put the note in the milk bottle.

"Yours very respectfully,
"Letitia Ann Maitland."

I had an appointment with Burton for the afternoon, to take Wardrop, if we could get him on some pretext, to Doctor Anderson. That day, also, I had two cases on the trial list. I got Humphreys, across the hall, to take them over, and evading Hawes' resentful blink, I went on my way to Bellwood. It was nine days since Miss Jane had disappeared. On my way out in the train I jotted down the things that had happened in that time: Allan Fleming had died and been buried; the Borough Bank had failed; some one had got into the Fleming house and gone through the papers there; Clarkson had killed himself; we had found that Wardrop had sold the pearls; the leather bag had been returned; Fleming's second wife had appeared, and some one had broken into my own house and, intentionally or not, had almost sent Margery Fleming over the borderland.

It seemed to me everything pointed in one direction, to a malignity against Fleming that extended itself to the daughter. I thought of what the woman who claimed to be the dead man's second wife had said the day before. If the staircase she had spoken of opened into the room where Fleming was shot, and if Schwartz was in town at the time, then, in view of her story that he had already tried once to kill him, the likelihood was that Schwartz was at least implicated.

If Wardrop knew that, why had he not denounced him? Was I to believe that, after all the mystery, the number eleven twenty-two was to resolve itself into the number of a house? Would it be typical of the Schwartz I knew to pin bits of paper to a man's pillow? On the other hand, if he had reason to think that Fleming had papers that would incriminate him, it would be like Schwartz to hire some one to search for them, and he would be equal to having Wardrop robbed of the money he was taking to Fleming.

Granting that Schwartz had killed Fleming—then who was the woman with Wardrop the night he was robbed? Why did he take the pearls and sell them? How did the number eleven twenty-two come into Aunt Jane's possession? How did the leather bag get to Boston? Who had chloroformed Margery? Who had been using the Fleming house while it was closed? Most important of all now—where was Aunt Jane?

The house at Bellwood looked almost cheerful in the May sunshine, as I went up the walk. Nothing ever changed the straight folds of the old-fashioned lace curtains; no dog ever tracked the porch, or buried sacrilegious and odorous bones on the level lawn; the birds were nesting in the trees, well above the reach of Robert's ladder, but they were decorous, well-behaved birds, whose prim courting never partook of the exuberance of their neighbors', bursting their little throats in an elm above the baby perambulator in the next yard.

When Bella had let me in, and I stood once more in the straight hall, with the green rep chairs and the Japanese umbrella stand, involuntarily I listened for the tap of Miss Jane's small feet on the stairs. Instead came Bella's heavy tread, and a request from Miss Letitia that I go up-stairs.

The old lady was sitting by a window of her bedroom, in a chintz upholstered chair. She did not appear to be feeble; the only change I noticed was a relaxation in the severe tidiness of her dress. I guessed that Miss Jane's exquisite neatness had been responsible for the white ruchings, the soft caps, and the spotless shoulder shawls which had made lovely their latter years.

"You've taken your own time about coming, haven't you?" Miss Letitia asked sourly. "If it hadn't been for that cousin of yours you sent here, Burton, I'd have been driven to sending for Amelia Miles, and when I send for Amelia Miles for company, I'm in a bad way."

"I have had a great deal to attend to," I said as loud as I could. "I came some days ago to tell you Mr. Fleming was dead; after that we had to bury him, and close the house. It's been a very sad—"

"Did he leave anything?" she interrupted. "It isn't sad at all unless he didn't leave anything."

"He left very little. The house, perhaps, and I regret to have to tell you that a woman came to me yesterday who claims to be a second wife."

She took off her glasses, wiped them and put them on again.

"Then," she said with a snap, "there's one other woman in the world as big a fool as my sister Martha was. I didn't know there were two of 'em. What do you hear about Jane?"

"The last time I was here," I shouted, "you thought she was dead; have you changed your mind?"

"The last time you were here," she said with dignity, "I thought a good many things that were wrong. I thought I had lost some of the pearls, but I hadn't."

"What!" I exclaimed incredulously. She put her hands on the arms of her chair, and leaning forward, shot the words at me viciously.

"I—said—I—had—lost—some—of—the—pearls—well—I—haven't."

She didn't expect me to believe her, any more than she believed it herself. But why on earth she had changed her attitude about the pearls was beyond me. I merely nodded comprehensively.

"Very well," I said, "I'm glad to know it was a mistake. Now, the next thing is to find Miss Jane."

"We have found her," she said tartly. "That's what I sent for you about."

"Found her!" This time I did get out of my chair. "What on earth do you mean, Miss Letitia? Why, we've been scouring the country for her."

She opened a religious monthly on the table beside her, and took out a folded paper. I had to control my impatience while she changed her glasses and read it slowly.

"Heppie found it on the back porch, under a milk bottle," she prefaced. Then she read it to me. I do not remember the wording, and Miss Letitia refused, both then and later, to let it out of her hands. As a result, unlike the other manuscripts in the case, I have not even a copy. The substance, shorn of its bad spelling and grammar, was this:

The writer knew where Miss Jane was; the inference being that he was responsible. She was well and happy, but she had happened to read a newspaper with an account of her disappearance, and it had worried her. The payment of the small sum of five thousand dollars would send her back as well as the day she left. The amount, left in a tin can on the base of the Maitland shaft in the cemetery, would bring the missing lady back within twenty-four hours. On the contrary, if the recipient of the letter notified the police, it would go hard with Miss Jane.

"What do you think of it?" she asked, looking at me over her glasses. "If she was fool enough to be carried away by a man that spells cemetery with one m, she deserves what she's got. And I won't pay five thousand, anyhow, it's entirely too much."

"It doesn't sound quite genuine to me," I said, reading it over. "I should certainly not leave any money until we had tried to find who left this."

"I'm not so sure but what she'd better stay a while anyhow," Miss Letitia pursued. "Now that we know she's living, I ain't so particular when she gets back. She's been notionate lately anyhow."

I had been reading the note again. "There's one thing here that makes me doubt the whole story," I said. "What's this about her reading the papers? I thought her reading glasses were found in the library."

Miss Letitia snatched the paper from me and read it again.

"Reading the paper!" she sniffed. "You've got more sense than I've been giving you credit for, Knox. Her glasses are here this minute; without them she can't see to scratch her nose."

It was a disappointment to me, although the explanation was simple enough. It was surprising that we had not had more attempts to play on our fears. But the really important thing bearing on Miss Jane's departure was when Heppie came into the room, with her apron turned up like a pocket and her dust cap pushed down over her eyes like the slouch hat of a bowery tough.

When she got to the middle of the room she stopped and abruptly dropped the corners of her apron. There rolled out a heterogeneous collection of things: a white muslin garment which proved to be a nightgown, with long sleeves and high collar; a half-dozen hair curlers—I knew those; Edith had been seen, in midnight emergencies, with her hair twisted around just such instruments of torture—a shoe buttoner; a railroad map, and one new and unworn black kid glove.

Miss Letitia changed her glasses deliberately, and took a comprehensive survey of the things on the floor.

"Where did you get 'em?" she said, fixing Heppie with an awful eye.

"I found 'em stuffed under the blankets in the chest of drawers in the attic," Heppie shouted at her. "If we'd washed blankets last week, as I wanted to—"

"Shut up!" Miss Letitia said shortly, and Heppie's thin lips closed with a snap. "Now then, Knox, what do you make of that?"

"If that's the nightgown she was wearing the night she disappeared, I think it shows one thing very clearly, Miss Maitland. She was not abducted, and she knew perfectly well what she was about. None of her clothes was missing, and that threw us off the track; but look at this new glove! She may have had new things to put on and left the old. The map—well, she was going somewhere, with a definite purpose. When we find out what took her away, we will find her."

"Humph!"

"She didn't go unexpectedly—that is, she was prepared for whatever it was."

"I don't believe a word of it," the old lady burst out. "She didn't have a secret; she was the kind that couldn't keep a secret. She wasn't responsible, I tell you; she was extravagant. Look at that glove! And she had three pairs half worn in her bureau."

"Miss Maitland," I asked suddenly, "did you ever hear of eleven twenty-two?"

"Eleven twenty-two what?"

"Just the number, eleven twenty-two," I repeated. "Does it mean anything to you? Has it any significance?"

"I should say it has," she retorted. "In the last ten years the Colored Orphans' Home has cared for, fed, clothed, and pampered exactly eleven hundred and twenty-two colored children, of every condition of shape and misshape, brains and no brains."

"It has no other connection?"

"Eleven twenty-two? Twice eleven is twenty-two, if that's any help. No, I can't think of anything. I loaned Allan Fleming a thousand dollars once; I guess my mind was failing. It would be about eleven twenty-two by this time."

Neither of which explanations sufficed for the little scrap found in Miss Jane's room. What connection, if any, had it with her flight? Where was she now. What was eleven twenty-two? And why did Miss Letitia deny that she had lost the pearls, when I already knew that nine of the ten had been sold, who had bought them, and approximately how much he had paid?

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