CHAPTER XXIII

A BOX OF CROWN DERBY

We got her into the room and on the couch before I knew her. Her fair hair had fallen loose over her face, and one long, thin hand clutched still at the bosom of her gown. It was Ellen Butler!

She was living, but not much more. We gathered around and stood looking down at her in helpless pity. A current of cold night air came up the staircase from an open door below, and set the hanging light to swaying, throwing our shadows in a sort of ghastly dance over her quiet face.

I was too much shocked to be surprised. Burton had picked up her hat, and put it beside her.

"She's got about an hour, I should say," said one of the newspaper men. "See if Gray is around, will you, Jim? He's mostly here Saturday night."

"Is it—Miss Maitland?" Burton asked, in a strangely subdued voice.

"No; it is Henry Butler's widow," I returned, and the three men were reporters again, at once.

Gray was there and came immediately. Whatever surprise he may have felt at seeing a woman there, and dying, he made no comment. He said she might live six hours, but the end was certain. We got a hospital ambulance, and with the clang of its bell as it turned the corner and hurried away, the White Cat drops out of this story, so far as action is concerned.

Three detectives and as many reporters hunted Schwartz all of that night and the next day, to get his story. But he remained in hiding. He had a start of over an hour, from the time he switched off the light and escaped down the built-in staircase. Even in her agony, Ellen Butler's hate had carried her through the doorway after him, to collapse on the stairs.

I got home just as the cab, with Fred and Edith, stopped at the door. I did not let them get out; a half dozen words, without comment or explanation, and they were driving madly to the hospital.

Katie let me in, and I gave her some money to stay up and watch the place while we were away. Then, not finding a cab, I took a car and rode to the hospital.

The building was appallingly quiet. The elevator cage, without a light, crept spectrally up and down; my footsteps on the tiled floor echoed and re√ęchoed above my head. A night watchman, in felt shoes, admitted me, and took me up-stairs.

There was another long wait while the surgeon finished his examination, and a nurse with a basin of water and some towels came out of the room, and another one with dressings went in. And then the surgeon came out, in a white coat with the sleeves rolled above his elbows, and said I might go in.

The cover was drawn up to the injured woman's chin, where it was folded neatly back. Her face was bloodless, and her fair hair had been gathered up in a shaggy knot. She was breathing slowly, but regularly, and her expression was relaxed—more restful than I had ever seen it. As I stood at the foot of the bed and looked down at her, I knew that as surely as death was coming, it would be welcome.

Edith had been calm, before, but when she saw me she lost her self-control. She put her head on my shoulder, and sobbed out the shock and the horror of the thing. As for Fred, his imaginative temperament made him particularly sensitive to suffering in others. As he sat there beside the bed I knew by his face that he was repeating and repenting every unkind word he had said about Ellen Butler.

She was conscious; we realized that after a time. Once she asked for water, without opening her eyes, and Fred slipped a bit of ice between her white lips. Later in the night she looked up for an instant, at me.

"He—struck my—hand," she said with difficulty, and closed her eyes again.

During the long night hours I told the story, as I knew it, in an undertone, and there was a new kindliness in Fred's face as he looked at her.

She was still living by morning, and was rallying a little from the shock. I got Fred to take Edith home, and I took her place by the bed. Some one brought me coffee about eight, and at nine o'clock I was asked to leave the room, while four surgeons held a consultation there. The decision to operate was made shortly after.

"There is only a chance," a gray-haired surgeon told me in brisk, short-clipped words. "The bullet went down, and has penetrated the abdomen. Sometimes, taken early enough, we can repair the damage, to a certain extent, and nature does the rest. The family is willing, I suppose?"

I knew of no family but Edith, and over the telephone she said, with something of her natural tone, to do what the surgeons considered best.

I hoped to get some sort of statement before the injured woman was taken to the operating-room, but she lay in a stupor, and I had to give up the idea. It was two days before I got her deposition, and in that time I had learned many things.

On Monday I took Margery to Bellwood. She had received the news about Mrs. Butler more calmly than I had expected.

"I do not think she was quite sane, poor woman," she said with a shudder. "She had had a great deal of trouble. But how strange—a murder and an attempt at murder—at that little club in a week!"

She did not connect the two, and I let the thing rest at that. Once, on the train, she turned to me suddenly, after she had been plunged in thought for several minutes.

"Don't you think," she asked, "that she had a sort of homicidal mania, and that she tried to kill me with chloroform?"

"I hardly think so," I returned evasively. "I am inclined to think some one actually got in over the porch roof."

"I am afraid," she said, pressing her gloved hands tight together. "Wherever I go, something happens that I can not understand. I never wilfully hurt any one, and yet—these terrible things follow me. I am afraid—to go back to Bellwood, with Aunt Jane still gone, and you—in the city."

"A lot of help I have been to you," I retorted bitterly. "Can you think of a single instance where I have been able to save you trouble or anxiety? Why, I allowed you to be chloroformed within an inch of eternity, before I found you."

"But you did find me," she cheered me. "And just to know that you are doing all you can—"

"My poor best," I supplemented.

"It is very comforting to have a friend one can rely on," she finished, and the little bit of kindness went to my head. If she had not got a cinder in her eye at that psychological moment, I'm afraid I would figuratively have trampled Wardrop underfoot, right there. As it was, I got the cinder, after a great deal of looking into one beautiful eye—which is not as satisfactory by half as looking into two—and then we were at Bellwood.

We found Miss Letitia in the lower hall, and Heppie on her knees with a hatchet. Between them sat a packing box, and they were having a spirited discussion as to how it should be opened.

"Here, give it to me," Miss Letitia demanded, as we stopped in the doorway. "You've got stove lengths there for two days if you don't chop 'em up into splinters."

With the hatchet poised in mid air she saw us, but she let it descend with considerable accuracy nevertheless, and our greeting was made between thumps.

"Come in"—thump—"like as not it's a mistake"—bang—"but the expressage was prepaid. If it's mineral water—" crash. Something broke inside.

"If it's mineral water," I said, "you'd better let me open it. Mineral water is meant for internal use, and not for hall carpets." I got the hatchet from her gradually. "I knew a case once where a bottle of hair tonic was spilled on a rag carpet, and in a year they had it dyed with spots over it and called it a tiger skin."

She watched me suspiciously while I straightened the nails she had bent, and lifted the boards. In the matter of curiosity, Miss Letitia was truly feminine; great handfuls of excelsior she dragged out herself, and heaped on Heppie's blue apron, stretched out on the floor.

The article that had smashed under the vigor of Miss Letitia's seventy years lay on the top. It had been a tea-pot, of some very beautiful ware. I have called just now from my study, to ask what sort of ware it was, and the lady who sets me right says it was Crown Derby. Then there were rows of cups and saucers, and heterogeneous articles in the same material that the women folk seemed to understand. At the last, when the excitement seemed over, they found a toast rack in a lower corner of the box and the "Ohs" and "Ahs" had to be done all over again.

Not until Miss Letitia had arranged it all on the dining-room table, and Margery had taken off her wraps and admired from all four corners, did Miss Letitia begin to ask where they had come from. And by that time Heppie had the crate in the wood-box, and the excelsior was a black and smoking mass at the kitchen end of the grounds.

There was not the slightest clue to the sender, but while Miss Letitia rated Heppie loudly in the kitchen, and Bella swept up the hall, Margery voiced the same idea that had occurred to me.

"If—if Aunt Jane were—all right," she said tremulously, "it would be just the sort of thing she loves to do."

I had intended to go back to the city at once, but Miss Letitia's box had put her in an almost cheerful humor, and she insisted that I go with her to Miss Jane's room, and see how it was prepared for its owner's return.

"I'm not pretending to know what took Jane Maitland away from this house in the middle of the night," she said. "She was a good bit of a fool, Jane was; she never grew up. But if I know Jane Maitland, she will come back and be buried with her people, if it's only to put Mary's husband out of the end of the lot.

"And another thing, Knox," she went on, and I saw her old hands were shaking. "I told you the last time you were here that I hadn't been robbed of any of the pearls, after all. Half of those pearls were Jane's and—she had a perfect right to take forty-nine of them if she wanted. She—she told me she was going to take some, and it—slipped my mind."

I believe it was the first lie she had ever told in her hard, conscientious old life. Was she right? I wondered. Had Miss Jane taken the pearls, and if she had, why?

Wardrop had been taking a long walk; he got back about five, and as Miss Letitia was in the middle of a diatribe against white undergarments for colored children, Margery and he had a half-hour alone together. I had known, of course, that it must come, but under the circumstances, with my whole future existence at stake, I was vague as to whether it was colored undergarments on white orphans or the other way round.

When I got away at last, I found Bella waiting for me in the hall. Her eyes were red with crying, and she had a crumpled newspaper in her hand. She broke down when she tried to speak, but I got the newspaper from her, and she pointed with one work-hardened finger to a column on the first page. It was the announcement of Mrs. Butler's tragic accident, and the mystery that surrounded it. There was no mention of Schwartz.

"Is she—dead?" Bella choked out at last.

"Not yet, but there is very little hope."

Amid fresh tears and shakings of her heavy shoulders, as she sat in her favorite place, on the stairs, Bella told me, briefly, that she had lived with Mrs. Butler since she was sixteen, and had only left when the husband's suicide had broken up the home. I could get nothing else out of her, but gradually Bella's share in the mystery was coming to light.

Slowly, too—it was a new business for me—I was forming a theory of my own. It was a strange one, but it seemed to fit the facts as I knew them. With the story Wardrop told that afternoon came my first glimmer of light.

He was looking better than he had when I saw him before, but the news of Mrs. Butler's approaching death and the manner of her injury affected him strangely. He had seen the paper, like Bella, and he turned on me almost fiercely when I entered the library. Margery was in her old position at the window, looking out, and I knew the despondent droop of her shoulders.

"Is she conscious?" Wardrop asked eagerly, indicating the article in the paper.

"No, not now—at least, it is not likely."

He looked relieved at that, but only for a moment. Then he began to pace the room nervously, evidently debating some move. His next action showed the development of a resolution, for he pushed forward two chairs for Margery and myself.

"Sit down, both of you," he directed. "I've got a lot to say, and I want you both to listen. When Margery has heard the whole story, she will probably despise me for the rest of her life. I can't help it. I've got to tell all I know, and it isn't so much after all. You didn't fool me yesterday, Knox; I knew what that doctor was after. But he couldn't make me tell who killed Mr. Fleming, because, before God, I didn't know."

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