CHAPTER III

NINETY-EIGHT PEARLS

After such a night I slept late. Edith still kept her honeymoon promise of no breakfast hour and she had gone out with Fred when I came down-stairs.

I have a great admiration for Edith, for her tolerance with my uncertain hours, for her cheery breakfast-room, and the smiling good nature of the servants she engages. I have a theory that, show me a sullen servant and I will show you a sullen mistress, although Edith herself disclaims all responsibility and lays credit for the smile with which Katie brings in my eggs and coffee, to largess on my part. Be that as it may, Katie is a smiling and personable young woman, and I am convinced that had she picked up the alligator on the back-stairs and lost part of the end of her thumb, she would have told Edith that she cut it off with the bread knife, and thus have saved to us Bessie the Beloved and her fascinating trick of taking the end of her tail in her mouth and spinning.

On that particular morning, Katie also brought me a letter, and I recognized the cramped and rather uncertain writing of Miss Jane Maitland.

"Dear Mr. Knox:

"Sister Letitia wishes me to ask you if you can dine with us to-night, informally. She has changed her mind in regard to the Colored Orphans' Home, and would like to consult you about it.

"Very truly yours,
"Susan Jane Maitland."

It was a very commonplace note: I had had one like it after every board-meeting of the orphans' home, Miss Maitland being on principle an aggressive minority. Also, having considerable mind, changing it became almost as ponderous an operation as moving a barn, although not nearly so stable.

(Fred accuses me here of a very bad pun, and reminds me, quite undeservedly, that the pun is the lowest form of humor.)

I came across Miss Jane's letter the other day, when I was gathering the material for this narrative, and I sat for a time with it in my hand thinking over again the chain of events in which it had been the first link, a series of strange happenings that began with my acceptance of the invitation, and that led through ways as dark and tricks as vain as Bret Harte's Heathen Chinee ever dreamed of, to the final scene at the White Cat. With the letter I had filed away a half dozen articles and I ranged them all on the desk in front of me: the letter, the bit of paper with eleven twenty-two on it, that Margery gave me the first time I saw her; a note-book filled with jerky characters that looked like Arabic and were newspaper shorthand; a railroad schedule; a bullet, the latter slightly flattened; a cube-shaped piece of chalk which I put back in its box with a shudder, and labeled 'poison,' and a small gold buckle from a slipper, which I—at which I did not shudder.

I did not need to make the climaxes of my story. They lay before me.

I walked to the office that morning, and on the way I found and interviewed the corner-man at Chestnut and Union. But he was of small assistance. He remembered the incident, but the gentleman in the taxicab had not been hurt and refused to give his name, saying he was merely passing through the city from one railroad station to another, and did not wish any notoriety.

At eleven o'clock Hunter called up; he said he was going after the affair himself, but that it was hard to stick a dip net into the political puddle without pulling out a lot more than you went after, or than it was healthy to get. He was inclined to be facetious, and wanted to know if I had come across any more k. v's. Whereupon I put away the notes I had made about Delia and Mamie Brennan and I heard him chuckle as I rang off.

I went to Bellwood that evening. It was a suburban town a dozen miles from the city, with a picturesque station, surrounded by lawns and cement walks. Street-cars had so far failed to spoil its tree-bordered streets, and it was exclusive to the point of stagnation. The Maitland place was at the head of the main street, which had at one time been its drive. Miss Letitia, who was seventy, had had sufficient commercial instinct, some years before, to cut her ancestral acres—their ancestral acres, although Miss Jane hardly counted—into building lots, except perhaps an acre which surrounded the house. Thus, the Maitland ladies were reputed to be extremely wealthy. And as they never spent any money, no doubt they were.

The homestead as I knew it, was one of impeccable housekeeping and unmitigated gloom. There was a chill that rushed from the old-fashioned center hall to greet the new-comer on the porch, and that seemed to freeze up whatever in him was spontaneous and cheerful.

I had taken dinner at Bellwood before, and the memory was not hilarious. Miss Letitia was deaf, but chose to ignore the fact. With superb indifference she would break into the conversation with some wholly alien remark that necessitated a reassembling of one's ideas, making the meal a series of mental gymnastics. Miss Jane, through long practice, and because she only skimmed the surface of conversation, took her cerebral flights easily, but I am more unwieldy of mind.

Nor was Miss Letitia's dominance wholly conversational. Her sister Jane was her creature, alternately snubbed and bullied. To Miss Letitia, Jane, in spite of her sixty-five years, was still a child, and sometimes a bad one. Indeed, many a child of ten is more sophisticated. Miss Letitia gave her expurgated books to read, and forbade her to read divorce court proceedings in the newspapers. Once, a recreant housemaid presenting the establishment with a healthy male infant, Jane was sent to the country for a month, and was only brought back when the house had been fumigated throughout.

Poor Miss Jane! She met me with fluttering cordiality in the hall that night, safe in being herself for once, with the knowledge that Miss Letitia always received me from a throne-like horsehair sofa in the back parlor. She wore a new lace cap, and was twitteringly excited.

"Our niece is here," she explained, as I took off my coat—everything was "ours" with Jane; "mine" with Letitia—"and we are having an ice at dinner. Please say that ices are not injurious, Mr. Knox. My sister is so opposed to them and I had to beg for this."

"On the contrary, the doctors have ordered ices for my young nephews," I said gravely, "and I dote on them myself."

Miss Jane beamed. Indeed, there was something almost unnaturally gay about the little old lady all that evening. Perhaps it was the new lace cap. Later, I tried to analyze her manner, to recall exactly what she had said, to remember anything that could possibly help. But I could find no clue to what followed.

Miss Letitia received me as usual, in the back parlor. Miss Fleming was there also, sewing by a window, and in her straight white dress with her hair drawn back and braided around her head, she looked even younger than before. There was no time for conversation. Miss Letitia launched at once into the extravagance of both molasses and butter on the colored orphans' bread and after a glance at me, and a quick comprehension from my face that I had no news for her, the girl at the window bent over her sewing again.

"Molasses breeds worms," Miss Letitia said decisively. "So does pork. And yet those children think Heaven means ham and molasses three times a day."

"You have had no news at all?" Miss Fleming said cautiously, her head bent over her work.

"None," I returned, under cover of the table linen to which Miss Letitia's mind had veered. "I have a good man working on it." As she glanced at me questioningly, "It needed a detective, Miss Fleming." Evidently another day without news had lessened her distrust of the police, for she nodded acquiescence and went on with her sewing. Miss Letitia's monotonous monologue went on, and I gave it such attention as I might. For the lamps had been lighted, and with every movement of the girl across, I could see the gleaming of a diamond on her engagement finger.

"If I didn't watch her, Jane would ruin them," said Miss Letitia. "She gives 'em apples when they keep their faces clean, and the bills for soap have gone up double. Soap once a day's enough for a colored child. Do you smell anything burning, Knox?"

I sniffed and lied, whereupon Miss Letitia swept her black silk, her colored orphans and her majestic presence out of the room. As the door closed, Miss Fleming put down her sewing and rose. For the first time I saw how weary she looked.

"I do not dare to tell them, Mr. Knox," she said. "They are old, and they hate him anyhow. I couldn't sleep last night. Suppose he should have gone back, and found the house closed!"

"He would telephone here at once, wouldn't he?" I suggested.

"I suppose so, yes." She took up her sewing from the chair with a sigh. "But I'm afraid he won't come—not soon. I have hemmed tea towels for Aunt Letitia to-day until I am frantic, and all day I have been wondering over something you said yesterday. You said, you remember, that you were not a detective, that some men could take nineteen from thirty-five and leave nothing. What did you mean?"

I was speechless for a moment.

"The fact is—I—you see," I blundered, "it was a—merely a figure of speech, a—speech of figures is more accurate,—" And then dinner was announced and I was saved. But although she said little or nothing during the meal, I caught her looking across at me once or twice in a bewildered, puzzled fashion. I could fairly see her revolving my detestable figures in her mind.

Miss Letitia presided over the table in garrulous majesty. The two old ladies picked at their food, and Miss Jane had a spot of pink in each withered cheek. Margery Fleming made a brave pretense, but left her plate almost untouched. As for me, I ate a substantial masculine meal and half apologized for my appetite, but Letitia did not hear. She tore the board of managers to shreds with the roast, and denounced them with the salad. But Jane was all anxious hospitality.

"Please do eat your dinner," she whispered. "I made the salad myself. And I know what it takes to keep a big man going. Harry eats more than Letitia and I together. Doesn't he, Margery?"

"Harry?" I asked.

"Mrs. Stevens is an unmitigated fool. I said if they elected her president I'd not leave a penny to the home. That's why I sent for you, Knox." And to the maid, "Tell Heppie to wash those cups in luke-warm water. They're the best ones. And not to drink her coffee out of them. She let her teeth slip and bit a piece out of one the last time."

Miss Jane leaned forward to me after a smiling glance at her niece across.

"Harry Wardrop, a cousin's son, and—" she patted Margery's hand with its ring—"soon to be something closer."

The girl's face colored, but she returned Miss Jane's gentle pressure.

"They put up an iron fence," Miss Letitia reverted somberly to her grievance, "when a wooden one would have done. It was extravagance, ruinous extravagance."

"Harry stays with us when he is in Manchester," Miss Jane went on, nodding brightly across at Letitia as if she, too, were damning the executive board. "Lately, he has been almost all the time in Plattsburg. He is secretary to Margery's father. It is a position of considerable responsibility, and we are very proud of him."

I had expected something of the sort, but the remainder of the meal had somehow lost its savor. There was a lull in the conversation while dessert was being brought in. Miss Jane sat quivering, watching her sister's face for signs of trouble; the latter had subsided into muttered grumbling, and Miss Fleming sat, one hand on the table, staring absently at her engagement ring.

"You look like a fool in that cap, Jane," volunteered Letitia, while the plates were being brought in. "What's for dessert?"

"Ice-cream," called Miss Jane, over the table.

"Well, you needn't," snapped Letitia, "I can hear you well enough. You told me it was junket."

"I said ice-cream, and you said it would be all right," poor Jane shrieked. "If you drink a cup of hot water after it, it won't hurt you."

"Fiddle," Letitia snapped unpleasantly. "I'm not going to freeze my stomach and then thaw it out like a drain pipe. Tell Heppie to put my ice-cream on the stove."

So we waited until Miss Letitia's had been heated, and was brought in, sicklied over with pale hues, not of thought, but of confectioners' dyes. Miss Letitia ate it resignedly. "Like as not I'll break out, I did the last time," she said gloomily. "I only hope I don't break out in colors."

The meal was over finally, but if I had hoped for another word alone with Margery Fleming that evening, I was foredoomed to disappointment. Letitia sent the girl, not ungently, to bed, and ordered Jane out of the room with a single curt gesture toward the door.

"You'd better wash those cups yourself, Jane," she said. "I don't see any sense anyhow in getting out the best china unless there's real company. Besides, I'm going to talk business."

Poor, meek, spiritless Miss Jane! The situation was absurd in spite of its pathos. She confided to me once that never in her sixty-five years of life had she bought herself a gown, or chosen the dinner. She was snubbed with painstaking perseverance, and sent out of the room when subjects requiring frank handling were under discussion. She was as unsophisticated as a child of ten, as unworldly as a baby, as—well, poor Miss Jane, again.

When the door had closed behind her, Miss Letitia listened for a moment, got up suddenly and crossing the room with amazing swiftness for her years, pounced on the knob and threw it open again. But the passage was empty; Miss Jane's slim little figure was disappearing into the kitchen. The older sister watched her out of sight, and then returned to her sofa without deigning explanation.

"I didn't want to see you about the will, Mr. Knox," she began without prelude. "The will can wait. I ain't going to die just yet—not if I know anything. But although I think you'd look a heap better and more responsible if you wore some hair on your face, still in most things I think you're a man of sense. And you're not too young. That's why I didn't send for Harry Wardrop; he's too young."

I winced at that. Miss Letitia leaned forward and put her bony hand on my knee.

"I've been robbed," she announced in a half whisper, and straightened to watch the effect of her words.

"Indeed!" I said, properly thunderstruck. I was surprised. I had always believed that only the use of the fourth dimension in space would enable any one, not desired, to gain access to the Maitland house. "Of money?"

"Not money, although I had a good bit in the house." This also I knew. It was said of Miss Letitia that when money came into her possession it went out of circulation.

"Not—the pearls?" I asked.

She answered my question with another.

"When you had those pearls appraised for me at the jewelers last year, how many were there?"

"Not quite one hundred. I think—yes, ninety-eight."

"Exactly," she corroborated, in triumph. "They belonged to my mother. Margery's mother got some of them. That's a good many years ago, young man. They are worth more than they were then—a great deal more."

"Twenty-two thousand dollars," I repeated. "You remember, Miss Letitia, that I protested vigorously at the time against your keeping them in the house."

Miss Letitia ignored this, but before she went on she repeated again her cat-like pouncing at the door, only to find the hall empty as before. This time when she sat down it was knee to knee with me.

"Yesterday morning," she said gravely, "I got down the box; they have always been kept in the small safe in the top of my closet. When Jane found a picture of my niece, Margery Fleming, in Harry's room, I thought it likely there was some truth in the gossip Jane heard about the two, and—if there was going to be a wedding—why, the pearls were to go to Margery anyhow. But—I found the door of the safe unlocked and a little bit open—and ten of the pearls were gone!"

"Gone!" I echoed. "Ten of them! Why, it's ridiculous! If ten, why not the whole ninety-eight?"

"How do I know?" she replied with asperity. "That's what I keep a lawyer for: that's why I sent for you."

For the second time in two days I protested the same thing.

"But you need a detective," I cried. "If you can find the thief I will be glad to send him where he ought to be, but I couldn't find him."

"I will not have the police," she persisted inflexibly. "They will come around asking impertinent questions, and telling the newspapers that a foolish old woman had got what she deserved."

"Then you are going to send them to a bank?"

"You have less sense than I thought," she snapped. "I am going to leave them where they are, and watch. Whoever took the ten will be back for more, mark my words."

"I don't advise it," I said decidedly. "You have most of them now, and you might easily lose them all; not only that, but it is not safe for you or your sister."

"Stuff and nonsense!" the old lady said, with spirit. "As for Jane, she doesn't even know they are gone. I know who did it. It was the new housemaid, Bella MacKenzie. Nobody else could get in. I lock up the house myself at night, and I'm in the habit of doing a pretty thorough job of it. They went in the last three weeks, for I counted them Saturday three weeks ago myself. The only persons in the house in that time, except ourselves, were Harry, Bella and Hepsibah, who's been here for forty years and wouldn't know a pearl from a pickled onion."

"Then—what do you want me to do?" I asked. "Have Bella arrested and her trunk searched?"

I felt myself shrinking in the old lady's esteem every minute.

"Her trunk!" she said scornfully. "I turned it inside out this morning, pretending I thought she was stealing the laundry soap. Like as not she has them buried in the vegetable garden. What I want you to do is to stay here for three or four nights, to be on hand. When I catch the thief, I want my lawyer right by."

It ended by my consenting, of course. Miss Letitia was seldom refused. I telephoned to Fred that I would not be home, listened for voices and decided Margery Fleming had gone to bed. Miss Jane lighted me to the door of the guest room, and saw that everything was comfortable. Her thin gray curls bobbed as she examined the water pitcher, saw to the towels, and felt the bed linen for dampness. At the door she stopped and turned around timidly.

"Has—has anything happened to disturb my sister?" she asked. "She—has been almost irritable all day."

Almost!

"She is worried about her colored orphans," I evaded. "She does not approve of fireworks for them on the fourth of July."

Miss Jane was satisfied. I watched her little, old, black-robed figure go lightly down the hall. Then I bolted the door, opened all the windows, and proceeded to a surreptitious smoke.

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