THE HOLLOW OF HER HAND
By GEORGE BARR McCUTCHEON
I MARCH COMES IN LIKE THE LION
II THE PASSING OF A NIGHT
III HETTY CASTLETON
IV WHILE THE MOB WAITED
V DISCUSSING A SISTER-IN-LAW
VII A FAITHFUL CRAYON-POINT
VIII IN WHICH HETTY IS WEIGHED
IX HAWKRIGHT'S MODEL
X THE GHOST AT THE FEAST
XI MAN PROPOSES
XII THE APPROACH OF A MAN NAMED SMITH
XIII MR. WRANDALL PERJURES HIMSELF
XIV IN THE SHADOW OF THE MILL
XV SARA WRANDALL FINDS THE TRUTH
XVI THE SECOND ENCOUNTER
XVII CROSSING THE CHANNEL
XVIII RATTLING OLD BONES
XIX VIVIAN AIRS HER OPINIONS
XX ONCE MORE AT BURTON'S INN
XXI DISTURBING NEWS
XXII THE HOLLOW OF HER HAND
XXIII SARA WRANDALL'S DECISION
XXIV THE JURY OF FOUR
MARCH COMES IN LIKE THE LION
The train, which had roared through a withering gale of sleet all the way up from New York, came to a standstill, with many an ear-splitting sigh, alongside the little station, and a reluctant porter opened his vestibule door to descend to the snow-swept platform: a solitary passenger had reached the journey's end. The swirl of snow and sleet screaming out of the blackness at the end of the station-building enveloped the porter in an instant, and cut his ears and neck with stinging force as he turned his back against the gale. A pair of lonely, half-obscured platform lights gleamed fatuously at the top of their icy posts at each end of the station; two or three frost-encrusted windows glowed dully in the side of the building, while one shone brightly where the operator sat waiting for the passing of No. 33.
The train itself was dark. Frosty windows, pelted for miles by the furious gale, white outside but black within, protected the snug travellers who slept the sleep of the hurried and thought not of the storm that beat about their ears nor wondered at the stopping of the fast express at a place where it had never stopped before. Far ahead the panting engine shed from its open fire-box an aureole of glaring red as the stoker fed coal into its rapacious maw. The unblinking head-light threw its rays into the thick of the blinding snow storm, fruitlessly searching for the rails through drifts denser than fog and filled with strange, half-visible shapes.
An order had been issued for the stopping of the fast express at B—, a noteworthy concession in these days of premeditated haste. Not in the previous career of flying 33 had it even so much as slowed down for the insignificant little station, through which it swooped at midnight the whole year round. Just before pulling out of New York on this eventful night the conductor received a command to stop 33 at B—— and let down a single passenger, a circumstance which meant trouble for every despatcher along the line.
The woman who got down at B—— in the wake of the shivering but deferential porter, and who passed by the conductors without lifting her face, was without hand luggage of any description. She was heavily veiled, and warmly clad in furs. At eleven o'clock that night she had entered the compartment in New York. Throughout the thirty miles or more, she had sat alone and inert beside the snow-clogged window, peering through veil and frost into the night that whizzed past the pane, seeing nothing yet apparently intent on all that stretched beyond. As still, as immobile as death itself she had held herself from the moment of departure to the instant that brought the porter with the word that they were whistling for B—-. Without a word she arose and followed him to the vestibule, where she watched him as he unfastened the outer door and lifted the trap. A single word escaped her lips and he held out his hand to receive the crumpled bill she clutched in her gloved fingers. He did not look at it. He knew that it would amply reward him for the brief exposure he endured on the lonely, wind-swept platform of a station, the name of which he did not know.
She took several uncertain steps in the direction of the station windows and stopped, as if bewildered. Already the engine was pounding the air with quick, vicious snorts in the effort to get under way; the vestibule trap and door closed with a bang; the wheels were creaking. A bitter wind smote her in the face; the wet, hurtling sleet crashed against the thin veil, blinding her.
The door of the waiting-room across the platform opened and a man rushed toward her.
"Mrs. Wrandall?" he called above the roar of the wind.
She advanced quickly.
"What a night!" he said, as much to himself as to her. "I'm sorry you would insist on coming to-night. To-morrow morning would have satisfied the—"
"Is this Mr. Drake?"
They were being blown through the door into the waiting-room as she put the question. Her voice was muffled. The man in the great fur coat put his weight against the door to close it.
"Yes, Mrs. Wrandall. I have done all that could be done under the circumstances. I am sorry to tell you that we still have two miles to go by motor before we reach the inn. My car is open,—I don't possess a limousine,—but if you will lie down in the tonneau you will find some protection from—"
She broke in sharply, impatiently. "Pray do not consider me, Mr. Drake. I am not afraid of the blizzard."
"Then we'd better be off," said he, a note of anxiety in his voice,—a certain touch of nervousness. "I drive my own car. The road is good, but I shall drive cautiously. Ten minutes, perhaps. I—I am sorry you thought best to brave this wretched—"
"I am not sorry for myself, Mr. Drake, but for you. You have been most kind. I did not expect you to meet me."
"I took the liberty of telephoning to you. It was well that I did it early in the evening. The wires are down now, I fear." He hesitated for a moment, staring at her as if trying to penetrate the thick, wet veil. "I may have brought you on a fool's errand. You see, I—I have seen Mr. Wrandall but once, in town somewhere, and I may be wrong. Still, the coroner,—and the sheriff,—seemed to think you should be notified,—I might say questioned. That is why I called you up. I trust, madam, that I am mistaken."
"Yes," she said shrilly, betraying the intensity of her emotion. It was as if she lacked the power to utter more than a single word, which signified neither acquiescence nor approval.
He was ill-at-ease, distressed. "I have engaged a room for you at the inn, Mrs. Wrandall. You did not bring a maid, I see. My wife will come over from our place to stay with you if you—"
She shook her head. "Thank you, Mr. Drake. It will not be necessary. I came alone by choice. I shall return to New York to-night."
"But you—why, you can't do that," he cried, holding back as they started toward the door. "No trains stop here after ten o'clock. The locals begin running at seven in the morning. Besides—"
She interrupted him. "May we not start now, Mr. Drake? I am—well, you must see that I am suffering. I must see, I must know. The suspense—" She did not complete the sentence, but hurried past him to the door, throwing it open and bending her body to the gust that burst in upon them.
He sprang after her, grasping her arm to lead her across the icy platform to the automobile that stood in the lee of the building.
Disdaining his command to enter the tonneau, she stood beside the car and waited until he cranked it and took his place at the wheel. Then she took her seat beside him and permitted him to tuck the great buffalo robe about her. No word was spoken. The man was a stranger to her. She forgot his presence in the car.
Into the thick of the storm the motor chugged. Grim and silent, the man at the wheel, ungoggled and tense, sent the whirring thing swiftly over the trackless village street and out upon the open country road. The woman closed her eyes and waited.
You would know the month was March. He said: "It comes in like a lion," but apparently the storm swallowed the words for she made no response to them.
They crossed the valley and crept up the tree-covered hill, where the force of the gale was broken. If she heard him say: "Fierce, wasn't it?" she gave no sign, but sat hunched forward, peering ahead through the snow at the blurred lights that seemed so far away and yet were close at hand.
"Is that the inn?" she asked as he swerved from the road a few moments later.
"Yes, Mrs. Wrandall. We're here."
"Is—is he in there?"
"Where you see that lighted window upstairs." He tooted the horn vigorously as he drew up to the long, low porch. Two men dashed out from the doorway and clumsily assisted her from the car.
"Go right in, Mrs. Wrandall," said Drake. "I join you in a jiffy."
She walked between the two men into the feebly lighted office of the inn. The keeper of the place, a dreary looking person with dread in his eyes, hurried forward. She stopped stock-still. Some one was brushing the stubborn, thickly caked snow from her long chinchilla coat.
"You must let me get you something hot to drink, madam," the landlord was saying dolorously.
She struggled with her veil, finally tearing it away from her face. Then she took in the rather bare, cheerless room with a slow, puzzled sweep of her eyes.
"No, thank you," she replied.
"It won't be any trouble, madam," urged the other. "It's right here. The sheriff says it's all right to serve it, although it is after hours. I run a respectable, law-abiding house. I wouldn't think of offering it to anyone if it was in violation—"
"Never mind, Burton," interposed a big man, approaching. "Let the lady choose for herself. If she wants it, she'll say so. I am the sheriff, madam. This gentleman is the coroner, Dr. Sheef. We waited up for you after Mr. Drake said you'd got the fast train to stop for you. To-morrow morning would have done quite as well. I'm sorry you came to-night in all this blizzard."
He was staring as if fascinated at the white, colourless face of the woman who with nervous fingers unfastened the heavy coat that enveloped her slender figure. She was young and strikingly beautiful, despite the intense pallor that overspread her face. Her dark, questioning, dreading eyes looked up into his with an expression he was never to forget. It combined dread, horror, doubt and a smouldering anger that seemed to overcast all other emotions that lay revealed to him.
"This is a—what is commonly called a 'road-house'?" she asked dully, her eyes narrowing suddenly as if in pain.
The inn-keeper made haste to resent the implied criticism.
"My place is a respectable, law-abiding—"
The sheriff waved him aside.
"It is an inn during the winter, Mrs. Wrandall, and a road-house in the summer, if that makes it plain to you. I will say, however, that Burton has always kept well within the law. This is the first—er—real bit of trouble he's had, and I won't say it's his fault. Keep quiet, Burton. No one is accusing you of anything wrong. Don't whine about it."
"But my place is ruined," groaned the doleful one. "It's got a black eye now. Not that I blame you, madam, but you can see how—"
He quailed before the steady look in her eyes, and turned away mumbling.
There were half a dozen men in the room, besides the speakers, sober-faced fellows who conversed in undertones and studiously kept their backs to the woman who had just come among them. They were grouped about the roaring fireplace in the lower end of the room. Steam arose from their heavy winters garments. Their caps were still drawn far down over their ears. These were men who had been out in the night.
"There is a fire in the reception-room, madam," said the coroner; "and the proprietor's wife to look out for you if you should require anything. Will you go in there and compose yourself before going upstairs? Or, if you would prefer waiting until morning, I shall not insist on the—er—ordeal to-night."
"I prefer going up there to-night," said she steadily.
The men looked at each other, and the sheriff spoke. "Mr. Drake is quite confident the—the man is your husband. It's an ugly affair, Mrs. Wrandall. We had no means of identifying him until Drake came in this evening, out of curiosity you might say. For your sake, I hope he is mistaken."
"Would you mind telling me something about it before I go upstairs? I am quite calm. I am prepared for anything. You need not hesitate."
"As you wish, madam. You will go into the reception-room, if you please. Burton, is Mrs. Wrandall's room quite ready for her?"
"I shall not stay here to-night," interposed Mrs. Wrandall. "You need not keep the room for me."
"But, my dear Mrs. Wrandall—"
"I shall wait in the railway station until morning if necessary. But not here."
The coroner led the way to the cosy little room off the office. She followed with the sheriff. The men looked worn and haggard in the bright light that met them, as if they had not known sleep or rest for many hours.
"The assistant district attorney was here until eleven, but went home to get a little rest. It's been a hard case for all of us—a nasty one," explained the sheriff, as he placed a chair in front of the fire for her. She sank into it limply.
"Go on, please," she murmured, and shook her head at the nervous little woman who bustled up and inquired if she could do anything to make her more comfortable.
The sheriff cleared his throat. "Well, it happened last night. All day long we've been trying to find out who he is, and ever since eight o'clock this morning we've been searching for the woman who came here with him. She has disappeared as completely as if swallowed by the earth. Not a sign of a clew—-not a shred. There's nothing to show when she left the inn or by what means. All we know is that the door to that room up there was standing half open when Burton passed by it at seven o'clock this morning—-that is to say, yesterday morning, for this is now Wednesday. It is quite clear, from this, that she neglected to close the door tightly when she came out, probably through haste or fear, and the draft in the hall blew it wider open during the night. Burton says the inn was closed for the night at half-past ten. He went to bed. She must have slipped out after every one was sound asleep. There were no other guests on that floor. Burton and his wife sleep on this floor, and the servants are at the top of the house and in a wing. No one heard a sound. We have not the remotest idea when the thing happened, or when she left the place. Dr. Sheef says the man had been dead for six or eight hours when he first saw him, and that was very soon after Burton's discovery. Burton, on finding the door open, naturally suspected that his guests had skipped out during the night to avoid paying the bill, and lost no time in entering the room.
"He found the man lying on the bed, sprawled out, face upward and as dead as a mack—I should say, quite dead. He was partly dressed. His coat and vest hung over the back of a chair. A small service carving knife, belonging to the inn, had been driven squarely into his heart and was found sticking there. Burton says that the man, on their arrival at the inn, about nine o'clock at night, ordered supper sent up to the room. The tray of dishes, with most of the food untouched, and an empty champagne bottle, was found on the service table near the hed. One of the chairs was overturned. The servant who took the meal to the room says that the woman was sitting at the window with her wraps on, motor veil and all, just as she was when she came into the place. The man gave all the directions, the woman apparently paying no attention to what was going on. The waitress left the room without seeing her face. She had instructions not to come for the tray until morning.
"That was the last time the man was seen alive. No one has seen the woman since the door closed after the servant, who distinctly remembers hearing the key turn in the lock as she went down the hall. It seems pretty clear that the man ate and drank but not the woman. Her food remained untouched on the plate and her glass was full. 'Gad, it must have been a merry feast! I beg your pardon, Mrs. Wrandall!"
"Go on, please," said she levelly.
"That's all there is to say so far as the actual crime is concerned. There were signs of a struggle,—but it isn't necessary to go into that. Now, as to their arrival at the inn. The blizzard had not set in. Last night was dark, of course, as there is no moon, but it was clear and rather warm for the time of year. The couple came here about nine o'clock in a high power runabout machine, which the man drove. They had no hand-baggage and apparently had run out from New York. Burton says he was on the point of refusing them accommodations when the man handed him a hundred dollar bill. It was more than Burton's cupidity could withstand. They did not register. The state license numbers had been removed from the automobile, which was of foreign make. Of course, it was only a question of time until we could have found out who the car belonged to. It is perfectly obvious why he removed the numbers."
At this juncture Drake entered the room. Mrs. Wrandall did not at first recognise him.
"It has stopped snowing," announced the new-comer.
"Oh, it is Mr. Drake," she murmured. "We have a little French car, painted red," she announced to the sheriff without giving Drake another thought.
"And this one is red, madam," said the sheriff, with a glance at the coroner. Drake nodded his head. Mrs. Wrandall's body stiffened perceptibly, as if deflecting a blow. "It is still standing in the garage, where he left it on his arrival."
"Did no one see the face of—of the woman?" asked Mrs. Wrandall, rather querulously. "It seems odd that no one should have seen her face," she went on without waiting for an answer.
"It's not strange, madam, when you consider ALL the circumstances. She was very careful not to remove her veil or her coat until the door was locked. That proves that she was not the sort of woman we usually find gallavanting around with men regardless of—ahem, I beg your pardon. This must be very distressing to you."
"I am not sure, Mr. Sheriff, that it IS my husband who lies up there. Please remember that," she said steadily. "It is easier to hear the details now, before I KNOW, than it will be afterward if it should turn out to be as Mr. Drake declares."
"I see," said the sheriff, marvelling.
"Besides, Mr. Drake is not POSITIVE," put in the coroner hopefully.
"I am reasonably certain," said Drake.
"Then all the more reason why I should have the story first," said she, with a shiver that no one failed to observe.
The sheriff resumed his conclusions. "Women of the kind I referred to a moment ago don't care whether they're seen or not. In fact, they're rather brazen about it. But this one was different. She was as far from that as it was possible for her to be. We haven't been able to find any one who saw her face or who can give the least idea as to what she looks like, excepting a general description of her figure, her carriage, and the out-door garments she wore. We have reason to believe she was young. She was modestly dressed. Her coat was one of those heavy ulster affairs, such as a woman uses in motoring or on a sea-voyage. There was a small sable stole about her neck. The skirt was short, and she wore high black shoes of the thick walking type. Judging from Burton's description she must have been about your size and figure, Mrs. Wrandall. Isn't that so, Mrs. Burton?"
The inn-keeper's wife spoke. "Yes, Mr. Harben, I'd say so myself. About five feet six, I'd judge; rather slim and graceful-like, in spite of the big coat."
Mrs. Wrandall was watching the woman's face. "I am five feet six," she said, as if answering a question.
The sheriff cleared his throat somewhat needlessly.
"Burton says she acted as if she were a lady," he went on. "Not the kind that usually comes out here on such expeditions, he admits. She did not speak to any one, except once in very low tones to the man she was with, and then she was standing by the fireplace out in the main office, quite a distance from the desk. She went upstairs alone, and he gave some orders to Burton before following her. That was the last time Burton saw her. The waitress went up with a specially prepared supper about half an hour later."
"It seems quite clear, Mrs. Wrandall, that she robbed the man after stabbing him," said the coroner.
Mrs. Wrandall started. "Then she was NOT a lady, after all," she said quickly. There was a note of relief in her voice. It was as if she had put aside a half-formed conclusion.
"His pockets were empty. Not a penny had been left. Watch, cuff-links, scarf pin, cigarette case, purse and bill folder,—all gone. Burton had seen most of these articles in the office."
"Isn't it—but no! Why should I be the one to offer a suggestion that might be construed as a defence for this woman?"
"You were about to suggest, madam, that some one else might have taken the valuables—is that it?" cried the sheriff.
"Had you thought of it, Mr. Sheriff?"
"I had not. It isn't reasonable. No one about this place is suspected. We have thought of this, however: the murderess may have taken all of these things away with her in order to prevent immediate identification of her victim. She may have been clever enough for that. It would give her a start."
"Not an unreasonable conclusion, when you stop to consider, Mr. Sheriff, that the man took the initiative in that very particular," said Mrs. Wrandall in such a self-contained way that the three men looked at her in wonder. Then she came abruptly to her feet. "It is very late, gentlemen. I am ready to go upstairs, Mr. Sheriff."
"I must warn you, madam, that Mr. Drake is reasonably certain that it is your husband," said the coroner uncomfortably. "You may not be prepared for the shock that—"
"I shall not faint, Dr. Sheef. If it IS my husband I shall ask you to leave me alone in the room with him for a little while." The final word trailed out into a long, tremulous wail, showing how near she was to the breaking point in her wonderful effort at self-control. The men looked away hastily. They heard her draw two or three deep, quavering breaths; they could almost feel the tension that she was exercising over herself.
The doctor turned after a moment and spoke very gently, but with professional firmness. "You must not think of venturing out in this wretched night, madam. It would be the worst kind of folly. Surely you will be guided by me—by your own common sense. Mrs. Burton will be with you—"
"Thank you, Dr. Sheef," she interposed calmly. "If what we all fear should turn out to be the truth, I could not stay here. I could not breathe. I could not live. If, on the other hand, Mr. Drake is mistaken, I shall stay. But if it is my husband, I cannot remain under the same roof with him, even though he be dead. I do not expect you to understand my feelings. It would be asking too much of men,—too much."
"I think I understand," murmured Drake.
"Come," said the sheriff, arousing himself with an effort.
She moved swiftly after him. Drake and the coroner, following close behind with Mrs. Burton, could not take their eyes from the slender, graceful figure. She was a revelation to them. Feeling as they did that she was about to be confronted by the most appalling crisis imaginable, they could not but marvel at her composure. Drake's mind dwelt on the stories of the guillotine and the heroines who went up to it in those bloody days without so much as a quiver of dread. Somehow, to him, this woman was a heroine.
They passed into the hall and mounted the stairs. At the far end of the corridor, a man was seated in front of a closed door. He arose as the party approached. The sheriff signed for him to open the door he guarded. As he did so, a chilly blast of air blew upon the faces of those in the hall. The curtains in the window of the room were flapping and whipping in the wind. Mrs. Wrandall caught her breath. For the briefest instant, it seemed as though she was on the point of faltering. She dropped farther behind the sheriff, her limbs suddenly stiff, her hand going out to the wall as if for support. The next moment she was moving forward resolutely into the icy, dimly lighted room.
A single electric light gleamed in the corner beside the bureau. Near the window stood the bed. She went swiftly toward it, her eyes fastened upon the ridge that ran through the centre of it: a still, white ridge that seemed without beginning or end.
With nervous fingers, the attendant lifted the sheet at the head of the bed and turned it back. As he let it fall across the chest of the dead man, he drew back and turned his face away.
She bent forward and then straightened her figure to its full height, without for an instant removing her gaze from the face of the man who lay before her: a dark-haired man grey in death, who must have been beautiful to look upon in the flush of life.
For a long time she stood there looking, as motionless as the object on which she gazed. Behind her were the tense, keen-eyed men, not one of whom seemed to breathe during the grim minutes that passed. The wind howled about the corners of the inn, but no one heard it. They heard the beating of their hearts, even the ticking of their watches, but not the wail of the wind.
At last her hands, claw-like in their tenseness, went slowly to her temples. Her head drooped slightly forward, and a great shudder ran through her body. The coroner started forward, expecting her to collapse.
"Please go away," she was saying in an absolutely emotionless voice. "Let me stay here alone for a little while."
That was all. The men relaxed. They looked at each other with a single question in their eyes. Was it quite safe to leave her alone with her dead? They hesitated.
She turned on them suddenly, spreading her arms in a wide gesture of self-absolution. Her sombre eyes swept the group.
"I can do no harm. This man is mine. I want to look at him for the last time—alone. Will you go?"
"Do you mean, madam, that you intend to—" began the coroner in alarm.
She clasped her hands. "I mean that I shall take my last look at him now—and here. Then you may do what you like with him. He is your dead—not mine. I do not want him. Can you understand? I DO NOT WANT THIS DEAD THING. But there is something I would say to him, something that I must say. Something that no one must hear but the good God who knows how much he has hurt me. I want to say it close to those grey, horrid ears. Who knows? He may hear me!"
Wondering, the others backed from the room. She watched them until they closed the door.
Listening, they heard her lower the window. It squealed like a thing in fear.
Ten minutes passed. The group in the hall conversed in whispers.
"Why did she put the window down?" asked the wife of the inn-keeper, crossing herself.
Drake shook his head. "I wonder what she is saying to him," he muttered.
"A wonderful nerve," said Dr. Sheef. "Positively wonderful. I've never seen anything like it."
"Her own husband, too," said Mrs. Burton. "Why, I—I should have said she'd go into hysterics. Such a handsome man he was."
"I guess, from what I've heard of this fellow, Wrandall, he's not been an angel," volunteered the sheriff.
Drake shook his head once more.
"He ain't one now, I'll bet on that," said the man who stood guard. "He's in hell if ever a man—"
"Sh!" whispered the woman in horror. "God forgive you for uttering words like that!"
"Every one in the city knows what sort of a man he's been," said Drake.
He comes of a fine family," said the coroner. "One of the best in New York. I guess he's never been much of a credit to it, however."
"They say he ran after chorus girls," said Mrs. Burton. The men grinned.
"I've an idea she's had the devil's own time with him," mused the sheriff, with a jerk of his head in the direction of the door.
"Poor thing," said the inn-keeper's wife.
"Well," said Drake, taking a deep breath, "she won't have to worry any more about his not coming home nights. I say, this business will create a fearful sensation, sheriff. The Four Hundred will have a conniption fit."
"We've got to land that girl, whoever she is," grated the official. "Now that we know who he is, it shouldn't be hard to pick out the women he's been trailing with lately. Then we can sift 'em down until the right one is left. It ought to be easy."
"I'm not so sure of it," said the coroner, shaking his head. "I have a feeling that she isn't one of the ordinary type. It wouldn't surprise me if she belongs to—well, you might say, the upper ten. Somebody's wife, don't you see. That will make it rather difficult, especially as her tracks have been pretty well covered."
"It beats me, how she got away without leaving a single sign behind her," acknowledged the sheriff. "She's a wonder, that's all I've got to say."
At that instant the door opened and Mrs. Wrandall appeared. She stopped short, confronting the huddled group, dry-eyed but as pallid as a ghost. Her eyes were wide, apparently unseeing; her colourless lips were parted in the drawn rigidity that suggested but one thing to the professional man who looks: the RISIS SARDONICUS of the strychnae victim. With a low cry, the doctor started forward, fully convinced that she had swallowed the deadly drug.
"For God's sake, madam," he began. But as he spoke, her expression changed; she seemed to be aware of their presence for the first time. Her eyes narrowed in a curious manner, and the rigid lips seemed to surge with blood, presenting the effect of a queer, swift-fading smile that lingered long after her face was set and serious.
"I neglected to raise the window, Dr. Sheef," she said in a low voice. "It was very cold in there." She shivered slightly. "Will you be so kind as to tell me what I am to do now? What formalities remain for me—"
The coroner was at her side. "Time enough for that, Mrs. Wrandall. The first thing you are to do is to take something warm to drink, and pull yourself together a bit—"
She drew herself up coldly. "I am quite myself, Dr. Sheef. Pray do not alarm yourself on my account. I shall be obliged to you, however, if you will tell me what I am to do as speedily as possible, and let me do it so that I may leave this—this unhappy place without delay. No! I mean it, sir. I am going to-night—unless, of course," she said, with a quick look at the sheriff, "the law stands in the way."
"You are at liberty to come and go as you please, Mrs. Wrandall," said the sheriff, "but it is most fool-hardy to think of—"
"Thank you, Mr. Sheriff," she said, "for letting me go. I thought perhaps there might be legal restraint." She sent a swift glance over her shoulder, and then spoke in a high, shrill voice, indicative of extreme dread and uneasiness:
"Close the door to that room!"
The door was standing wide open, just as she had left it. Startled, the coroner's deputy sprang forward to close it. Involuntarily, all of her listeners looked in the direction of the room, as if expecting to see the form of the murdered man advancing upon them. The feeling, swiftly gone, was most uncanny.
"Close it from the INSIDE," commanded the coroner, with unmistakable emphasis. The man hesitated, and then did as he was ordered, but not without a curious look at the wife of the dead man, whose back was toward him.
"He will not find anything disturbed, doctor," said she, divining his thought. "I had the feeling that something was creeping toward us out of that room."
"You have every reason to be nervous, madam. The situation has been most extraordinary,—most trying," said the coroner. "I beg of you to come downstairs, where we may attend to a few necessary details without delay. It has been a most fatiguing matter for all of us. Hours without sleep, and such wretched weather."
They descended to the warm little reception-room. She sent at once for the inn-keeper, who came in and glowered at her as if she were wholly responsible for the blight that had been put upon his place.
"Will you be good enough to send some one to the station with me in your depot wagon?" she demanded without hesitation.
He stared. "We don't run a 'bus in the winter time," he said gruffly.
She opened the little chatelaine bag that hung from her wrist and abstracted a card which she submitted to the coroner.
"You will find, Dr. Sheef, that the car my husband came up here in belongs to me. This is the card issued by the State. It is in my name. The factory number is there. You may compare it with the one on the car. My husband took the car without obtaining my consent."
"Joy riding," said Burton, with an ugly laugh. Then he quailed before the look she gave him.
"If no other means is offered, Dr. Sheef, I shall ask you to let me take the car. I am perfectly capable of driving. I have driven it in the country for two seasons. All I ask is that some one be directed to go with me to the station. No! Better than that, if there is some one here who is willing to accompany me to the city, he shall be handsomely paid for going. It is but little more than thirty miles. I refuse to spend the night in this house. That is final."
They drew apart to confer, leaving her sitting before the fire, a stark figure that seemed to detach itself entirely from its surroundings and their companionship. At last, the coroner came to her side and touched her arm.
"I don't know what the district attorney and the police will say to it, Mrs. Wrandall, but I shall take it upon myself to deliver the car to you. The sheriff has gone out to compare the numbers. If he finds that the car is yours, he will see to it, with Mr. Drake, that it is made ready for you. I take it that we will have no difficulty in—" He hesitated, at a loss for words.
"In finding it again in case you need it for evidence?" she supplied. He nodded. "I shall make it a point, Dr. Sheef, to present the car to the State after it has served my purpose to-night. I shall not ride in it again."
"The sheriff has a man who will ride with you to the station or the city, whichever you may elect. Now, may I trouble you to make answer to certain questions I shall write out for you at once? The man is Challis Wrandall, your husband? You are positive?"
"I am positive. He is—or was—Challis Wrandall."
Half an hour later, she was ready for the trip to New York City. The clock in the office marked the hour as one. A toddied individual in a great buffalo coat waited for her outside, hiccoughing and bandying jest with the half-frozen men who had spent the night with him in the forlorn hope of finding THE GIRL.
Mrs. Wrandall gave final instructions to the coroner and his deputy, who happened to be the undertaker's assistant. She had answered all the questions that had been put to her, and had signed the document with a firm, untrembling hand. Her veil had been lowered since the beginning of the examination. They did not see her face; they only heard the calm, low voice, sweet with fatigue and dread.
"I shall notify my brother-in-law as soon as I reach the city," she said. "He will attend to everything. Mr. Leslie Wrandall, I mean. My husband's only brother. He will be here in the morning, Dr. Sheef. My own apartment is not open. I have been staying in a hotel since my return from Europe two days ago. But I shall attend to the opening of the place to-morrow. You will find me there."
The coroner hesitated a moment before putting the question that had come to his mind as she spoke.
"Two days ago, madam? May I inquire where your husband has been living during your absence abroad? When did you last see him alive?"
She did not reply for many seconds, and then it was with a perceptible effort.
"I have not seen him since my return until—to-night," she replied, a hoarse note creeping into her voice. "He did not meet me on my return. His brother Leslie came to the dock. He—he said that Challis, who came back from Europe two weeks ahead of me, had been called to St. Louis on very important, business. My husband had been living at his club, I understand. That is all I can tell you, sir."
"I see," said the coroner gently.
He opened the door for her and she passed out. A number of men were grouped about the throbbing motor-car. They fell away as she approached, silently fading into the shadows like so many vast, unwholesome ghosts. The sheriff and Drake came forward.
"This man will go with you, madam," said the sheriff, pointing to an unsteady figure beside the machine. "He is the only one who will undertake it. They're all played out, you see. He has been drinking, but only on account of the hardships he has undergone to-night. You will be quite safe with Morley."
No snow was falling, but a bleak wind blew meanly. The air was free from particles of sleet; wetly the fall of the night clung to the earth where it had fallen.
"If he will guide me to the Post-road, that is all I ask," said she hurriedly. Involuntarily she glanced upward. The curtains in an upstairs window were blowing inward and a dim light shone out upon the roof of the porch. She shuddered and then climbed up to the seat and took her place at the wheel.
A few moments later, the three men standing in the middle of the road watched the car as it rushed away.
"By George, she's a wonder!" said the sheriff.
THE PASSING OF A NIGHT
The sheriff was right. Sara Wrandall was an extraordinary woman, if I may be permitted to modify his rather crude estimate of her. It is difficult to understand, much less to describe a nature like hers. Fine-minded, gently bred women who can go through an ordeal such as she experienced without breaking under the strain are rare indeed. They must be wonderful. It is hard to imagine a more heart-breaking crisis in life than the one which confronted her on this dreadful night, and yet she had faced it with a fortitude that seems almost unholy.
She had loved her handsome, wayward husband. He had hurt her deeply more times than she chose to remember during the six years of their married life, but she had loved him in spite of the wounds up to the instant when she stood beside his dead body in the cold little room at Burton's Inn. She went there loving him as he had lived, yet prepared, almost foresworn, to loathe him as he had died, and she left him lying there alone in that dreary room without a spark of the old affection in her soul. Her love for him died in giving birth to the hatred that now possessed her. While he lived it was not in her power to control the unreasoning resistless thing that stands for love in woman: he WAS her love, the master of her impulses. Dead, he was an unwholesome, unlovely clod, a pallid thing to be scorned, a hulk of worthless clay. His blood was cold. He could no longer warm her with it; it could no longer kill the chill that his misdeeds cast about her tender sensitiveness; his lips and eyes never more could smile and conquer. He was a dead thing. Her love was a dead thing. They lay separate and apart. The tie was broken. With love died the final spark of respect she had left for him in her tired, loyal, betrayed heart. He was at last a thing to be despised, even by her. She despised him.
She sent the car down the slope and across the moonless valley with small regard for her own or her companion's safety. It swerved from side to side, skidded and leaped with terrifying suddenness, but held its way as straight as the bird that flies, driven by a steady hand and a mind that had no thought for peril. A sober man at her side would have been afraid; this man swayed mildly to and fro and chuckled with drunken glee.
Her bitter thoughts were not of the dead man back there, but of the live years that she was to bury with him: years that would never pass beyond her ken, that would never die. He had loved her in his wild, ruthless way. He had left her times without number in the years gone by, but he had always come back, gaily unchastened, to remould the love that waited with dog-like fidelity for the touch of his cunning hand. But he had taken his last flight. He would not come back again. It was all over. Once too often he had tried his reckless wings. She would not have to forgive him again. Uppermost in her mind was the curiously restful thought that his troubles were over, and with them her own. A hand less forgiving than hers had struck him dead.
Somehow, she envied the woman to whom that hand belonged. It had been her divine right to kill, and yet another took it from her.
Back there at the inn she had said to the astonished sheriff:
"Poor thing, if she can escape punishment for this, let it be so. I shall not help the law to kill her simply because she took it in her own hands to pay that man what she owed him. I shall not be the one to say that he did not deserve death at her hands, whoever she may be. No, I shall offer no reward. If you catch her, I shall be sorry for her, Mr. Sheriff. Believe me, I bear her no grudge."
"But she robbed him," the sheriff had cried.
"From my point of view, Mr. Sheriff, that hasn't anything to do with the case," was her significant reply.
"Of course, I am not defending HIM."
"Nor am I defending her," she had retorted. "It would appear that she is able to defend herself."
Now, on the cold, trackless road, she was saying to herself that she did have a grudge against the woman who had destroyed the life that belonged to her, who had killed the thing that was hers to kill. She could not mourn for him. She could only wonder what the poor, hunted terrified creature would do when taken and made to pay for the thing she had done.
Once, in the course of her bitter reflections, she spoke aloud in a shrill, tense voice, forgetful of the presence of the man beside her:
"Thank God, they will see him now as I have seen him all these years. They will know him as they have never known him. Thank God for that!"
The man looked at her stupidly and muttered something under his breath. She heard him, and recalling her wits, asked which turn she was to take for the station. The fellow lopped back in the seat, too drunk to reply.
For a moment she was dismayed, frightened. Then she resolutely reached out and shook him by the shoulder. She had brought the car to a full stop.
"Arouse yourself, man!" she cried. "Do you want to freeze to death? Where is the station?"
He straightened up with an effort, and, after vainly seeking light in the darkness, fell back again with a grunt, but managed to wave his hand toward the left. She took the chance. In five minutes she brought the car to a standstill beside the station. Through the window she saw a man with his feet cocked high, reading. He leaped to his feet in amazement as she entered the waiting-room.
"Are you the agent?" she demanded.
"No, ma'am. I'm simply stayin' here for the sheriff. We're lookin' for a woman—Say!" He stopped short and stared at the veiled face with wide, excited eyes. "Gee whiz! Maybe you—"
"No, I am not the woman you want. Do you know anything about the trains?"
"I guess I'll telephone to the sheriff before I—"
"If you will step outside you will find one of the sheriff's deputies in my automobile, helplessly intoxicated. I am Mrs. Wrandall."
"Oh," he gasped. "I heard 'em say you were coming up to-night. Well, say! What do you think of—"
"Is there a train in before morning?"
"No ma'am. Seven-forty is the first."
She waited a moment. "Then I shall have to ask you to come out and get your fellow-deputy. He is useless to me. I mean to go on in the machine. The sheriff understands."
The fellow hesitated.
"I cannot take him with me, and he will freeze to death if I leave him in the road. Will you come?"
The man stared at her.
"Say, IS it your husband?" he asked agape.
She nodded her head.
"Well, I'll go out and have a look at the fellow you've got with you," said he, still doubtful.
She stood in the door while he crossed over to the car and peered at the face of the sleeper.
"Steve Morley," he said. "Fuller'n a goat."
"Please remove him from the car," she directed.
Later on, as he stood looking down at the inert figure in the big rocking chair, and panting from his labours, he heard her say patiently:
"And now will you be so good as to direct me to the Post-road."
He scratched his head. "This is mighty queer, the whole business," he declared, assailed by doubts. "Suppose you are NOT Mrs. Wrandall, but—the other one. What then?"
As if in answer to his question, the man Morley opened his blear-eyes and tried to get to his feet.
"Wha—what are we doin' here, Mis' Wran'all? Wha's up?"
"Stay where you are, Steve," said the other. "It's all right." Then he went forth and pointed the way to her. "It's a long ways to Columbus Circle," he said. "I don't envy you the trip. Keep straight ahead after you hit the Post-road." He stood there listening until the whir of the motor was lost in the distance. "She'll never make it," he said to himself. "It's more than a strong man could do on roads like these. She must be crazy."
Coming to the Post-road, she increased the speed of the car, with the sharp wind behind her, her eyes intent on the white stretch that leaped up in front of the lamps like a blank wall beyond which there was nothing but dense oblivion. But for the fact that she knew that this road ran straight and unobstructed into the outskirts of New York, she might have lost courage and decision. The natural confidence of an experienced driver was hers. She had the daring of one who has never met with an accident, and who trusts to the instincts rather than to an actual understanding of conditions. With her, it was not a question of her own capacity and strength, but a belief in the fidelity of the engine that carried her forward. It had not occurred to her that the task of guiding that heavy, swerving thing through the unbroken road was something beyond her powers of endurance. She often had driven it a hundred miles and more without resting, or without losing zest in the enterprise: then why should she fear the small matter of thirty miles, even under the most trying of conditions?
The restless, driving desire to be as far as possible from that horrid sight at the inn, with all that went to make it repellant, put strength into her arms. The car swung from one side of the road to the other, picking its way through the opaque desert, reeling from rut to rut past hideous shadows and deeper into the black abyss that lay ahead. No friendly light gleamed by the wayside; the world was black and cold and dead. She alone was on the highway, the only human creature who defied the night. Off there on either side people lived, and slept, and were in darkness just as she was, but not in dreadful darkness. They were not pursued by ghosts; they were not running away from a Thing! They slept and were at peace, and their lights were out for they were not afraid in the dark. She thought of it: she was alone! No other creature was abroad—not one!
Sharply there came to her mind the question: was she the only one abroad in this black little world? What of the other woman? The one who was being hunted? Where was she? And what of the ghost at HER heels?
The car bounded over a railroad crossing. She recalled the directions given by the man at the station and hastily applied the brake. There was another and more dangerous crossing a hundred yards ahead. She had been warned particularly to take it carefully, as there was a sharp curve in the road beyond.
Suddenly she jammed down the emergency brake, a startled exclamation falling from her lips. Not twenty feet ahead, in the middle of the road and directly in line with the light of the lamps, stood a black, motionless figure—the figure of a woman whose head was lowered and whose arms hung limply at her sides.
The woman in the car bent forward over the wheel, staring hard. Many seconds passed. At last the forlorn object in the roadway lifted her face and looked vacantly into the glare of the lamps. Her eyes were wide-open, her face a ghastly white.
"God in heaven!" struggled from the stiffening lips of Sara Wrandall. Her fingers tightened on the wheel.
She knew. This was the woman!
The long brown ulster; the limp, fluttering veil! "A woman about your size and figure," the sheriff had said.
The figure swayed and then moved a few steps forward. Blinded by the lights, she bent her head and shielded her eyes with her hand the better to glimpse the occupant of the car.
"Are you looking for me?" she cried out shrilly, at the same time spreading her arms as if in surrender. It was almost a wail.
Mrs. Wrandall caught her breath. Her heart began to beat once more.
"Who are you? What do you want?" she cried out, without knowing what she said.
The girl started. She had not expected to hear the voice of a woman. She staggered to the side of the road, out of the line of light.
"I—I beg your pardon," she cried,—it was like a wail of disappointment,—"I am sorry to have stopped you."
"Come here," commanded the other, still staring.
The unsteady figure advanced. Halting beside the car, she leaned across the spare tires and gazed into the eyes of the driver. Their faces were not more than a foot apart, their eyes were narrowed in tense scrutiny.
"What do you want?" repeated Mrs. Wrandall, her voice hoarse and tremulous.
"I am looking for an inn. It must be near by. I do—"
"An inn?" with a start.
"I do not recall the name. It is not far from a village, in the hills."
"Do you mean Burton's?"
"Yes. That's it. Can you direct me?" The voice of the girl was faint; she seemed about to fall.
"It is six or eight miles from here," said Mrs. Wrandall, still looking in wonder at the miserable nightfarer.
The girl's head sank; a moan of despair came through her lips, ending in a sob.
"So far as that?" she murmured. Then she drew herself up with a fine show of resolution. "But I must not stop here. Thank you."
"Wait!" cried the other. The girl turned to her once more. "Is—is it a matter of life or death?"
There was a long silence. "Yes. I must find my way there. It is—death."
Sara Wrandall laid her heavily gloved hand on the slim fingers that touched the tire.
"Listen to me," she said, a shrill note of resolve ringing in her voice. "I am going to New York. Won't you let me take you with me?"
The girl drew back, wonder and apprehension struggling for the mastery of her eyes.
"But I am bound the other way. To the inn. I must go on."
"Come with me," said Sara Wrandall firmly. "You must not go back there. I know what has happened there. Come! I will take care of you. You must not go to the inn."
"You know?" faltered the girl.
"Yes. You poor thing!" There was infinite pity in her voice.
The girl laid her head on her arms.
Mrs. Wrandall sat above her, looking down, held mute by warring emotions. The impossible had come to pass. The girl for whom the whole world would be searching in a day or two, had stepped out of the unknown and, by the most whimsical jest of fate, into the custody of the one person most interested of all in that self-same world. It was unbelievable. She wondered if it were not a dream, or the hallucination of an overwrought mind. Spurred by the sudden doubt as to the reality of the object before her, she stretched out her hand and touched the girl's shoulder.
Instantly she looked up. Her fingers sought the friendly hand and clasped it tightly.
"Oh, if you will only take me to the city with you! If you only give me the chance," she cried hoarsely. "I don't know what impulse was driving me back there. I only know I could not help myself. You really mean it? You WILL take me with you?"
"Yes. Don't be afraid. Come! Get in," said the woman in the car rapidly. "You—you are real?"
The girl did not hear the strange question. She was hurrying around to the opposite side of the car. As she crossed before the lamps, Mrs. Wrandall noticed with dulled interest that her garments were covered with mud; her small, comely hat was in sad disorder; loose wisps of hair fluttered with the unsightly veil. Her hands, she recalled, were clad in thin suede gloves. She would be half-frozen. She had been out in all this terrible weather,—perhaps since the hour of her flight from the inn.
The odd feeling of pity grew stronger within her. She made no effort to analyse it, nor to account for it. Why should she pity the slayer of her husband? It was a question unasked, unconsidered. Afterwards she was to recall this hour and its strange impulses, and to realise that it was not pity, but mercy that moved her to do the extraordinary thing that followed.
Trembling all over, her teeth chattering, her breath coming in short little moans, the girl struggled up beside her and fell back in the seat. Without a word, Sara Wrandall drew the great buffalo robe over her and tucked it in about her feet and legs and far up about her body, which had slumped down in the seat.
"You are very, very good," chattered the girl, almost inaudibly. "I shall never forget—" She did not complete the sentence, but sat upright and fixed her gaze on her companion's face. "You—you are not doing this just to turn me over to—to the police? They must be searching for me. You are not going to give me up to them, are you? There will be a reward I—"
"There is no reward," said Sara Wrandall sharply. "I do not mean to give you up. I am simply giving you a chance to get away. I have always felt sorry for the fox when the time for the kill drew near. That's the way I feel."
"Oh, thank you! Thank you! But what am I saying? Why should I permit you to do this for me? I meant to go back there and have it over with. I know I can't escape. It will have to come, it is bound to come. Why put it off? Let them take me, let them do what they will with me. I—"
"Hush! We'll see. First of all, understand me: I shall not turn you over to the police. I will give you the chance. I will help you. I can do no more than that."
"But why should you help me? I—I—Oh, I can't let you do it! You do not understand. I—have—committed—a—terrible—" she broke off with a groan.
"I understand," said the other, something like grimness in her level tones. "I have been tempted more than once myself." The enigmatic remark made no impression on the listener.
"I wonder how long ago it was that it all happened," muttered the girl, as if to herself. "It seems ages,—oh, such ages."
"Where have you been hiding since last night?" asked Mrs. Wrandall, throwing in the clutch. The car started forward with a jerk, kicking up the snow behind it.
"Was it only last night? Oh, I've been—" The thought of her sufferings from exposure and dread was too much for the wretched creature. She broke out in a soft wail.
"You've been out in all this weather?" demanded the other.
"I lost my way. In the hills back there. I don't know where I was."
"Had you no place of shelter?"
"Where could I seek shelter? I spent the day in the cellar of a farmer's house. He didn't know I was there. I have had no food."
"Why did you kill that man?"
"There was nothing left for me to do but that."
"And why did you rob him?"
"Ah, I had ample time to think of all that. You may tell the officers they will find everything hidden in that farmhouse cellar. God knows I did not want them. I am not a thief. I'm not so bad as that."
Mrs. Wrandall marvelled. "Not so bad as that!" And she was a murderess, a wanton!
"You are hungry? You must be famished."
"No, I am not hungry. I have not thought of food." She said it in such a way that the other knew what her whole mind had been given over to since the night before.
A fresh impulse seized her. "You shall have food and a place where you can sleep—and rest," she said. "Now please don't say anything more. I do not want to know too much. The least you say to-night, the better for—for both of us."
With that she devoted all of her attention to the car, increasing the speed considerably. Far ahead she could see twinkling, will-o'-the-wisp lights, the first signs of thickly populated districts. They were still eight or ten miles from the outskirts of the city and the way was arduous. She was conscious of a sudden feeling of fatigue. The chill of the night seemed to have made itself felt with abrupt, almost stupefying force. She wondered if she could keep her strength, her courage,—her nerves.
The girl was English. Mrs. Wrandall was convinced of the fact almost immediately. Unmistakably English and apparently of the cultivated type. In fact, the peculiarities of speech that determines the London show-girl or music-hall character were wholly lacking. Her voice, her manner, even under such trying conditions, were characteristic of the English woman of cultivation. Despite the dreadful strain under which she laboured, there were evidences of that curious serenity which marks the English woman of the better classes: an inborn composure, a calm orderliness of the emotions. Mrs. Wrandall was conscious of a sense of surprise, of a wonder that increased as her thoughts resolved themselves into something less chaotic than they were at the time of contact with this visible condition.
For a mile or more, she sent the car along with reckless disregard for comfort or safety. Her mind was groping for something tangible in the way of intentions. What was she to do with this creature? What was to become of her? At what street corner should she turn her adrift? The idea of handing her over to the police did not enter her thoughts for an instant. Somehow she felt that the girl was a stranger to the city. She could not explain the feeling, yet it was with her and very persistent. Of course, there was a home of some sort, or lodgings, or friends, but would the girl dare show herself in familiar haunts?
She had said to the sheriff that she hoped the slayer of her husband would never be caught. She recalled her words, and she remembered how sincere she had been in uttering them. But she had not figured on herself as an instrument in furthering the hope to the point of actual realisation. What could be more incongruous, more theatric,—yes, more bizarre, than her attitude at this moment? It seemed impossible that this shrinking, inert heap at her side was a living thing; a woman who had slain a fellow creature, and that creature the man who had been her husband for six years. It seemed utterly beyond sense or reason that she should be helping this murderess to escape, that she should be showing her the slightest sign of mercy. And yet, it was all true. She was helping her, she was befriending her.
She found herself wondering why the poor wretch had not made way with herself. Escape seemed out of the question. That must have been clear to her from the beginning, else why was she going back there to give herself up? What better way out of it all than self-destruction? Sara Wrandall reached a sudden conclusion. She would advise the girl to leave the car when they reached the centre of a certain bridge that spanned the river! No one would find her...
Even as the thought took shape in her mind, she experienced a great sense of awe, so overwhelming that she cried out with the horror of it. She turned her head for a quick glance at the mute, wretched face showing white above the robe, and her heart ached with sudden pity for her. The thought of that slender, alive thing going down to the icy waters—her soul turned sick with the dread of it!
In that instant, Sara Wrandall—no philanthropist, no sentimentalist—made up her mind to give this erring one more than an even chance for salvation. She would see her safely across THAT bridge and many others. God had directed the footsteps of this girl so that she should fall in with the one best qualified to pass judgment on her. It was in that person's power to save her or destroy her. The commandment, "Thou shalt not kill," took on a broader meaning as she considered the power that was hers: the power to kill.
Back of all these finely human impulses was the mysterious arbiter that makes great decisions for all of us, from which there can be no appeal, and which brooks no argument: Self. Self it was that put a single question to her and answered it as well: what personal grievance had she against this unhappy girl? None whatever. Self it was therefore that slyly thanked her for an unspeakable blessing: she had brought to an end not only the life of her husband but the false position she herself had been obliged to maintain through a mistaken sense of duty and self-respect. And who was to say, outside the law, that this frail girl had not just cause to slay?
A great relaxation came over Sara Wrandall. It was as if every nerve, every muscle in her body had reached the snapping point and suddenly had given way. For a moment her hands were weak and powerless; her head fell forward. In an instant she conquered,—but only partially,—the strange feeling of lassitude. Then she realised how tired she was, how fiercely the strain had told on her body and brain, how much she had really suffered.
Her blurred eyes turned once more for a look at the girl, who sat there, just as she had been sitting for miles, her white face standing out with almost unnatural clearness, and as rigid as that of the sphinx.
The girl spoke. "Do they hang women in this country?"
Mrs. Wrandall started. "In some of the States," she replied, and was unable to account for the swift impulse to evade.
"But in this State?" persisted the other, almost without a movement of the lips.
"They send them to the electric chair—sometimes," said Mrs. Wrandall.
There was a long silence between them, broken finally by the girl.
"You have been very kind to me, madam. I have no means of expressing my gratitude. I can only say that I shall bless you to my dying hour. May I trouble you to set me down at the bridge? I remember crossing one. I shall be able to—"
"No!" cried Mrs. Wrandall shrilly, divining the other's intention at once. "You shall not do that. I too thought of that as a way out of it for you, but—no, it must not be that. Give me a few minutes to think. I will find a way."
The girl turned toward her. Her eyes were burning.
"Do you mean that you will help me to get away?" she cried, slowly, incredulously.
"Let me think!"
"You will lay yourself liable—"
"Let me think, I say."
"But I mean to surrender myself to—"
"An hour ago you meant to do it, but what were you thinking of ten minutes ago? Not surrender. You were thinking of the bridge. Listen to me now: I am sure that I can save you. I do not know all the—all the circumstances connected with your association with—with that man back there at the inn. Twenty-four hours passed before they were able to identify him. It is not unlikely that to-morrow may put them in possession of the name of the woman who went with him to that place. They do not know it to-night, of that I am positive. You covered your trail too well. But you must have been seen with him during the day or the night—"
The other broke in eagerly: "I don't believe any one knows that I—that I went out there with him. He arranged it very—carefully. Oh, what a beast he was!" The bitterness of that wail caused the woman beside her to cry out as if hurt by a sharp, almost unbearable pain. For an instant she seemed about to lose control of herself. The car swerved and came dangerously near to leaving the road.
A full minute passed before she could trust herself to speak. Then it was with a deep hoarseness in her voice.
"You can tell me about it later on, not now. I don't want to hear it. Tell me, where do you live?"
The girl's manner changed so absolutely that there could be but one inference: she was acutely suspicious. Her lips tightened and her figure seemed to stiffen in in the seat.
"Where do you live?" repeated the other sharply.
"Why should I tell you that? I do not know you. You—"
"You are afraid of me?"
"Oh, I don't know what to say, or what to do," came from the lips of the hunted one. "I have no friends, no one to turn to, no one to help me. You—you can't be so heartless as to lead me on and then give me up to—God help me, I—I should not be made to suffer for what I have done. If you only knew the circumstances. If you only knew—"
"Stop!" cried the other, in agony.
The girl was bewildered. "You are so strange. I don't understand—"
"We have but two or three miles to go," interrupted Mrs. Wrandall. "We must think hard and—rapidly. Are you willing to come with me to my hotel? You will be safe there for the present. To-morrow we can plan something for the future."
"If I can only find a place to rest for a little while," began the other.
"I shall be busy all day, you will not be disturbed. But leave the rest to me. I shall find a way."
It was nearly three o'clock when she brought the car to a stop in front of a small, exclusive hotel not far from Central Park. The street was dark and the vestibule was but dimly lighted. No attendant was in sight.
"Slip into this," commanded Mrs. Wrandall, beginning to divest herself of her own fur coat. "It will cover your muddy garments. I am quite warmly dressed. Don't worry. Be quick. For the time being you are my guest here. You will not be questioned. No one need know who you are. It will not matter if you look distressed. You have just heard of the dreadful thing that has happened to me. You—"
"Happened to you?" cried the girl, drawing the coat about her.
"A member of my family has died. They know it in the hotel by this time. I was called to the death bed—to-night. That is all you will have to know."
"Oh, I am sorry—"
"Come, let us go in. When we reach my rooms, you may order food and drink. You must do it, not I. Please try to remember that it is I who am suffering, not you."
A sleepy night watchman took them up in the elevator. He was not even interested. Mrs. Wrandall did not speak, but leaned rather heavily on the arm of her companion. The door had no sooner closed behind them when the girl collapsed. She sank to the floor in a heap.
"Get up!" commanded her hostess sharply. This was not the time for soft, persuasive words. "Get up at once. You are young and strong. You must show the stuff you are made of now if you ever mean to show it. I cannot help you if you quail."
The girl looked up piteously, and then struggled to her feet. She stood before her protectress, weaving like a frail reed in the wind, pallid to the lips.
"I beg your pardon," she murmured. "I will not give way like that again. I dare say I'm faint. I have had no food, no rest—but never mind that now. Tell me what I am to do. I will try to obey."
"First of all, get out of those muddy, frozen things you have on."
Mrs. Wrandall herself moved stiffly and with unsteady limbs as she began to remove her own outer garments. The girl mechanically followed her example. She was a pitiable object in the strong light of the electrolier. Muddy from head to foot, water-stained and bedraggled, her face streaked with dirt, she was the most unattractive creature one could well imagine.
These women, so strangely thrown together by Fate, maintained an unbroken silence during the long, fumbling process of partial disrobing. They scarcely looked at one another, and yet they were acutely conscious of the interest each felt in the other. The grateful warmth of the room, the abrupt transition from gloom and cheerlessness to comfortable obscurity, had a more pronounced effect on the stranger than on her hostess.
"It is good to feel warm once more," she said, an odd timidness in her manner. "You are very good to me."
They were in Mrs. Wrandall's bed-chamber, just off the little sitting-room. Three or four trunks stood against the walls.
"I dismissed my maid on landing. She robbed me," said Mrs. Wrandall, voicing the relief that was uppermost in her mind. She opened a closet door and took out a thick eider-down robe, which she tossed across a chair. "Now call up the office and say that you are speaking for me. Say to them that I must have something to eat, no matter what the hour may be. I will get out some clean underwear for you, and—Oh, yes; if they ask about me, say that I am cold and ill. That is sufficient. Here is the bath. Please be as quick about it as possible."
Moving as if in a dream, the girl did as she was told. Twenty minutes later there was a knock at the door. A waiter appeared with a tray and service table. He found Mrs. Wrandall lying back in a chair, attended by a slender young woman in a pink eiderdown dressing-gown, who gave hesitating directions to him. Then he was dismissed with a handsome tip, produced by the same young woman.
"You are not to return for these things," she said as he went out.
In silence she ate and drank, her hostess looking on with gloomy interest. It was no shock to Mrs. Wrandall to find that the girl, who was no more than twenty-two or three, possessed unusual beauty. Her great eyes were blue,—the lovely Irish blue,—her skin was fair and smooth, her features regular and of the delicate mould that defines the well-bred gentlewoman at a glance. Her hair, now in order, was dark and thick and lay softly about her small ears and neck. She was not surprised, I repeat, for she had never known Challis Wrandall to show interest in any but the most attractive of her sex. She found herself smiling bitterly as she looked.
To herself she was saying: "It isn't so hard to bear when I realise that he betrayed me for one who is so much more beautiful than I. He loved me because I am beautiful. His every defection proves it. The others have all been beautiful. And to think that this gentle, slender creature should have been the one to give him his death-blow. It seems incredible. If it had been struck by some outraged husband, strong of arm and fierce with vengeance, I could understand. But—but this young, pretty, soft-eyed thing!"
But who may know the thoughts of the other occupant of that little sitting-room? Who can put herself in the place of that despairing, hunted creature who knew that blood was on the hands with which she ate, and whose eyes were filled with visions of the death-chair?
So great was her fatigue that long before she finished the meal her tired lids began to droop, her head to nod in spasmodic surrenders to an overpowering desire for sleep. Suddenly she dropped the fork from her fingers and sank back in the comfortable chair, her head resting against the soft, upholstered back. Her lids fell, her hands dropped to the arms of the chair. A fine line appeared between her dark eyebrows,—indicative of pain.
For many minutes Sara Wrandall watched the haggardness deepen in the face of the unconscious sleeper. Then, even as she wondered at the act, she went over and took up one of the slim hands in her own. The hand of an aristocrat! It lay limp in hers, and helpless. Long, tapering fingers and delicately pink with the return of warmth.
Rousing herself from the mute contemplation of her charge, she shook the girl's shoulder. Instantly she was awake and staring, alarm in her dazed, bewildered eyes.
"You must go to bed," said Mrs. Wrandall quietly. "Don't be afraid. No one will think of coming here."
The girl arose. As she stood before her benefactress, she heard her murmur as if from afar-off: "Just about your size and figure," and wondered not a little.
"You may sleep late. I have many things to do and you will not be disturbed. Come, take off your clothes and get into my bed. To-morrow we will plan further—"
"But, madam," cried the girl, "I cannot take your bed. Where are you to—"
"If I feel like lying down, I shall lie there beside you."
The girl stared. "Lie beside ME?"
"Yes. Oh, I am not afraid of you, child. You are not a monster. You are just a poor, tired—"
"Oh, please don't! Please!" cried the other, tears rushing to her eyes. She raised Mrs. Wrandall's hand to her lips and covered it with kisses.
Long after she went to sleep, Sara Wrandall stood beside the bed, looking down at the pain-stricken face, and tried to solve the problem that suddenly had become a part of her very existence.
"It is not friendship," she argued fiercely. "It is not charity, it is not humanity. It's the debt I owe, that's all. She did the thing for me that I could not have done myself because I loved him. I owe her something for that."
Later on she turned her attention to the trunks. Her decision was made. With ruthless hands she dragged gown after gown from the "innovations" and cast them over chairs, on the floor, across the foot of the bed: smart things from Paris and Vienna; ball gowns, street gowns, tea gowns, lingerie, blouses, hats, gloves and all of the countless things that a woman of fashion and means indulges herself in when she goes abroad for that purpose and no other to speak of. From the closets she drew forth New York "tailor-suits" and other garments.
Until long after six o'clock she busied herself over this huge pile of costly raiment, portions of which she had worn but once or twice, some not at all, selecting certain dresses, hats, stockings, etc., each of which she laid carelessly aside: an imposing pile of many hues, all bright and gay and glittering. In another heap she laid the sombre things of black: a meagre assortment as compared to the other.
Then she stood back and surveyed the two heaps with tired eyes, a curious, almost scornful smile on her lips. "There!" she said with a sigh. "The black pile is mine, the gay pile is yours," she went on, turning toward the sleeping girl. "What a travesty!"
Then she gathered up the soiled garments her charge had worn and cast them into the bottom of a trunk, which she locked. Laying out a carefully selected assortment of her own garments for the girl's use when she arose, Mrs. Wrandall sat down beside the bed and waited, knowing that sleep would not come to her.
At half-past six she went to the telephone and called for the morning newspapers. At the same time she asked that a couple of district messenger boys be sent to her room with the least possible delay. The hushed, scared voice of the telephone girl downstairs convinced her that news of the tragedy was abroad; she could imagine the girl looking at the headlines with awed eyes even as she responded to the call from room 416, and her shudder as she realised that it was the wife of the dead man speaking.
One of the night clerks, pale and agitated, came up with the papers. He inquired if there was anything he could do. He tried to tell her that it was a dreadful, sickening thing, but the words stuck in his throat. She stood before him, holding the door open; the light in the hall fell upon her white, haggard face. He began to tremble all over, as if with the ague.
"Will you be good enough to come in?" she inquired, quite steadily. "The newspapers—have they printed the—the details?"
He entered and she closed the door.
"Just the—just the news that it was Mr. Wrandall," he replied jerkily. "Later on they'll have—"
She interrupted him. "Let me have them, please." Without so much as a glance at the headlines, she tossed the papers on the table. "I have sent for two messenger boys. It is too early to accomplish much by telephone, I fear. Will you be so kind as to telephone at seven o'clock or a little after to my apartment?—You will find the number under Mr. Wrandall's name. Please inform the butler or his wife that they may expect me by ten o'clock, and that I shall bring a friend with me—a young lady. Kindly have my motor sent to Haffner's garage, and looked after. When the reporters come, as they will, please say to them that I will see them at my own home at eleven o'clock."
"Can't I—we—I should say, don't you want us to send word to your—your friends, Mrs. Wrandall,—the family, I mean? No trouble to do it, and—"
"Thank you, no. The messengers will attend to all that is necessary. When my lawyer arrives, please send him here to me. Mr. Carroll. Thank you."
The clerk, considerably relieved, took his departure in some haste, and she was left with the morning papers, each of which she scanned rapidly. The details, of course, were meagre. There was a double-leaded account of her visit to the inn and her extraordinary return to the city. Her chief interest, however, did not rest in these particulars, but in the speculations of the authorities as to the identity of the mysterious woman—and her whereabouts. There was the likelihood that she was not the only one who had encountered the girl on the highway or in the neighbourhood of the inn. So far as she could glean from the reports, however, no one had seen the girl, nor was there the slightest hint offered as to her identity. The papers of the previous afternoon had published lurid accounts of the murder, with all of the known details, the name of the victim at that time still being a mystery. She remembered reading the story with no little interest. The only new feature in the case, therefore, was the identification of Challis Wrandall by his "beautiful wife," and the sensational manner in which it had been brought about. With considerable interest she noted the hour that these despatches had been received from "special correspondents," and wondered where the shrewd, lynx-eyed reporters napped while she was at the inn. All of the despatches were timed three o'clock and each paper characterised its issue as an "Extra," with Challis Wrandall's name in huge type across as many columns as the dignity of the sheet permitted.
Not one word of the girl! Absolute mystery!
Mrs. Wrandall returned to her post beside the bed of the sleeper in the adjoining room. Deliberately she placed the newspapers on a chair near the girl's pillow, and then raised the window shades to let in the hard grey light of early morn.
It was not her present intention to arouse the wan stranger, who slept as one dead. So gentle was her breathing that the watcher stared in some fear at the fair, smooth breast that seemed scarcely to rise and fall. For a long time she stood beside the bed, looking down at the face of the sleeper, a troubled expression in her eyes.
"I wonder how many times you were seen with him, and where, and by whom," were the questions that ran in a single strain through her mind. "Where do you come from? Where did you meet him? Who is there that knows of your acquaintance with him?"
There was no kindly light in her eyes, nor was there the faintest sign of animosity. Merely the look of one who calculates in the interest of a well-shaped purpose. She was estimating the difficulties that were likely to attend the carrying out of a design as yet half-formed and quixotic. There were many things to be considered. At present she was working in utter darkness. What would the light bring forth?
Her lawyer came in great haste and perturbation at eight o'clock, in response to the letter delivered by one of the messengers. A second letter had gone by like means to her husband's brother, Leslie Wrandall, instructing him to break the news to his father and mother and to come to her apartment after he had attended to the removal of the body to the family home near Washington Square. She made it quite plain that she did not want Challis Wrandall's body to lie under the roof that sheltered her.
His family had resented their marriage. Father, mother and sister had objected to her from the beginning, not because she was unworthy, but because her tradespeople ancestry was not so remote as his. She found a curious sense of pleasure in returning to them the thing they prized so highly and surrendered to her with such bitterness of heart. She had not been good enough for him: that was their attitude. Now she was returning him to them, as one would return an article that had been tested and found to be worthless. She would have no more of him!
Leslie, three years younger than Challis, did not hold to the views that actuated the remaining members of the family in opposing her as an addition to the rather close corporation known far and wide as "the Wrandalls." He had stood out for her in a rather mild but none-the-less steadfast manner, blandly informing his mother on mere than one occasion that Sara was quite too good for Challis, any way you looked at it: an attitude which provoked sundry caustic references to his own lamentable shortcomings in the matter of family pride and—intelligence.
He and Sara had been good friends after a fashion. He was a bit of a snob but not much of a prig. She had the feeling about him that if he could be weaned away from the family he might stand for something fine in the way of character. But he was an adept at straddling fences, so that he was never fully on one side or the other, no matter which way he leaned.
He had not been deeply attached to his brother. Their ways were wide apart. All his life he had known Challis for what he was; his heart if not his hand was against him. From the first, he had regarded Sara's marriage as a bad bargain for her, and toward the last bluntly told her so. Not once but many times had he taken it upon himself to inform her that she was a fool to put up with all the beastly things Challis was doing. He characterised as infatuation the emotion she was prone to call love when they met to discuss the escapades of the careless Challis, for she always went to him with her troubles. In direct opposition to his counselling, she invariably forgave the erring lover who was her husband. Once Leslie had said to her, in considerable heat: "You act as if you were his mistress, instead of his wife. Mistresses have to forgive; wives don't." And she had replied: "Yes, but I'd much rather have him a lover than a husband." A remark which Leslie never quite fathomed, being somewhat literal himself.
Carroll, her lawyer, an elderly man of vast experience, was not surprised to find her quite calm and reasonable. He had come to know her very well in the past few years. He had been her father's lawyer up to the time of that excellent tradesman's demise, and he had settled the estate with such unusual despatch that the heirs,—there were many of them,—regarded him as an admirable person and—kept him busy ever afterward straightening out their own affairs. Which goes to prove that policy is often better than honesty.
"I quite understand, my dear, that while it is a dreadful shock to you, you are perfectly reconciled to the—er—to the—well, I might say the culmination of his troubles," said Mr. Carroll tactfully, after she had related for his benefit the story of the night's adventure, with reservation concerning the girl who slumbered in the room beyond.
"Hardly that, Mr. Carroll. Resigned, perhaps. I can't say that I am reconciled. All my life I shall feel that I have been cheated," she said.
He looked up sharply. Something in her tone puzzled him. "Cheated, my dear? Oh, I see. Cheated out of years and years of happiness. I see."
She bowed her head. Neither spoke for a full minute.
"It's a horrible thing to say, Sara, but this tragedy does away with another and perhaps more unpleasant alternative: the divorce I have been urging you to consider for so long."
"Yes, we are spared all that," she said. Then she met his gaze with a sudden flash of anger in her eyes. "But I would not have divorced him—never. You understood that, didn't you?"
"You couldn't have gone on for ever, my dear child, enduring the—"
She stopped him with a sharp exclamation. "Why discuss it now? Let the past take care of itself, Mr. Carroll. The past came to an end night before last, so far as I am concerned. I want advice for the future, not for the past."
He drew back, hurt by her manner. She was quick to see that she had offended him,
"I beg your pardon, my best of friends," she cried earnestly.
He smiled. "If you will take PRESENT advice, Sara, you will let go of yourself for a spell and see if tears won't relieve the tension under—"
"Tears!" she cried. "Why should I give way to tears? What have I to weep for? That man up there in the country? The cold, dead thing that spent its last living moments without a thought of love for me? Ah, no, my friend; I shed all my tears while he was alive. There are none left to be shed for him now. He exacted his full share of them. It was his pleasure to wring them from me because he knew I loved him." She leaned forward and spoke slowly, distinctly, so that he would never forget the words. "But listen to me, Mr. Carroll. You also know that I loved him. Can you believe me when I say to you that I hate that dead thing up there in Burton's Inn as no one ever hated before? Can you understand what I mean? I hate that dead body, Mr. Carroll. I loved the life that was in it. It was the life of him that I loved, the warm, appealing life of him. It has gone out. Some one less amiable than I suffered at his hands and—well, that is enough. I hate the dead body she left behind her, Mr. Carroll."
The lawyer wiped the cool moisture from his brow.
"I think I understand," he said, but he was filled with wonder. "Extraordinary! Ahem! I should say—Ahem! Dear me! Yes, yes—I've never really thought of it in that light."
"I dare say you haven't," she said, lying back in the chair as if suddenly exhausted.
"By the way, my dear, have you breakfasted?"
"No. I hadn't given it a thought. Perhaps it would be better if I had some coffee—"
"I will ring for a waiter," he said, springing to his feet.
"Not now, please. I have a young friend in the other room—a guest who arrived last night. She will attend to it when she awakes. Poor thing, it has been dreadfully trying for her."
"Good heaven, I should think so," said he, with a glance at the closed door, "Is she asleep?"
"Yes. I shall not call her until you have gone."
"May I enquire—"
"A girl I met recently—an English girl," said she succinctly, and forthwith changed the subject. "There are a few necessary details that must be attended to, Mr. Carroll. That is why I sent for you at this early hour. Mr. Leslie Wrandall will take charge—Ah!" she straightened up suddenly. "What a farce it is going to be!"
Half an hour later he departed, to rejoin her at eleven o'clock, when the reporters were to be expected. He was to do the talking for her. While he was there, Leslie Wrandall called her up on the telephone. Hearing but one side of the rather prolonged conversation, he was filled with wonder at the tactful way in which she met and parried the inevitable questions and suggestions coming from her horror-struck brother-in-law. Without the slightest trace of offensiveness in her manner, she gave Leslie to understand that the final obsequies must be conducted in the home of his parents, to whom once more her husband belonged, and that she would abide by all arrangements his family elected to make. Mr. Carroll surmised from the trend of conversation that young Wrandall was about to leave for the scene of the tragedy, and that the house was in a state of unspeakable distress. The lawyer smiled rather grimly to himself as he turned to look out of the window. He did not have to be told that Challis was the idol of the family, and that, so far as they were concerned, he could do no wrong!
After his departure, Mrs. Wrandall gently opened the bedroom door and was surprised to find the girl wide-awake, resting on one elbow, her staring eyes fastened on the newspaper that topped the pile on the chair.
Catching sight of Mrs. Wrandall she pointed to the paper with a trembling hand and cried out, in a voice full of horror:
"Did you place them there for me to read? Who was with you in the other room just now? Was it some one about the—some one looking for me? Speak! Please tell me. I heard a man's voice—"
The other crossed quickly to her side.
"Don't be alarmed. It was my lawyer. There is nothing to fear—at present. Yes, I left the papers there for you to see. You can see what a sensation it has caused. Challis Wrandall was one of the most widely known men in New York. But I suppose you know that without my telling you."
The girl sank back with a groan. "My God, what have I done? What will come of it all?"
"I wish I could answer that question," said the other, taking the girl's hand in hers. Both were trembling. After an instant's hesitation, she laid her other hand on the dark, dishevelled hair of the wild-eyed creature, who still continued to stare at the headlines. "I am quite sure they will not look for you here, or in my home."
"In your home?"
"You are to go with me. I have thought it all over. It is the only way. Come, I must ask you to pull yourself together. Get up at once, and dress. Here are the things you are to wear." She indicated the orderly pile of garments with a wave of her hand.
Slowly the girl crept out of bed, confused, bewildered, stunned.
"Where are my own things? I—I cannot accept these. Pray give me my own—"
Mrs. Wrandall checked her.
"You must obey me, if you expect me to help you. Don't you understand that I have had a—a bereavement? I cannot wear these things now. They are useless to me. But we will speak of all that later on. Come, be quick; I will help you to dress. First, go to the telephone and ask them to send a waiter to—these rooms. We must have something to eat. Please do as I tell you."
Standing before her benefactress, her fingers fumbling impotently at the neck of the night-dress, the girl still continued to stare dumbly into the calm, dark eyes before her.
"You are so good. I—I—"
"Let me help you," interrupted the other, deliberately setting about to remove the night-dress. The girl caught it up as it slipped from her shoulders, a warm flush suffusing her face, a shamed look springing into her eyes.
"Thank you, I can—get on very well. I only wanted to ask you a question. It has been on my mind, waking and sleeping. Can you tell me anything about—do you know his wife?"
The question was so abrupt, so startling that Mrs. Wrandall uttered a sharp little cry. For a moment she could not reply.
"I am so sorry, so desperately sorry for her," added the girl plaintively.
"I know her," the other managed to say with an effort.
"If I had only known that he had a wife—" began the girl bitterly, almost angrily.
Mrs. Wrandall grasped her by the arm. "You did not know that he had a wife?" she cried.
The girl's eyes flashed with a sudden, fierce fire in their depths.
"God in heaven, no! I did not know it until—Oh, I can't speak of it! Why should I tell you about it? Why should you be interested in hearing it?"
Mrs. Wrandall drew back and regarded the girl's set, unhappy face. There was a curious light in her eyes that escaped the other's notice,—a light that would have puzzled her not a little.
"But you WILL tell me—EVERYTHING—a little later," she said, strangely calm. "Not now, but,—before many hours have passed. First of all, you must tell me who you are, where you live,—everything except what happened in Burton's Inn. I don't want to hear that at present—perhaps never. Yes, on second thoughts, I will say NEVER! You are never to tell me just what happened up there, or just what led up to it. Do you understand? Never!"
The girl stared at her in amazement. "But I—I must tell some one," she cried vehemently. "I have a right to defend myself—"
"I am not asking you to defend yourself," said Mrs. Wrandall shortly. Then, as if afraid to remain longer, she rushed from the room. In the doorway, she turned for an instant to say: "Do as I told you. Telephone. Dress as quickly as you can." She closed the door swiftly.
Standing in the centre of the room, her hands clenched until the nails cut the flesh, she said over and over again to herself: "I don't want to know! I don't want to KNOW!"
A few minutes later she was critically inspecting the young woman who came from the bedroom attired in a street dress that neither of them had ever donned before. The girl, looking fresher, prettier and even younger than when she had seen her last, was in no way abashed. She seemed to have accepted the garments and the situation in the same spirit of resignation and hope: as if she had decided to make the most of her slim chance to profit by these amazing circumstances.
They sat opposite each other at the little breakfast table.
"Please pour the coffee," said Mrs. Wrandall. The waiter had left the room at her command. The girl's hand shook, but she complied without a word.
"Now you may tell me who you are and—but wait! You are not to say anything about what happened at the inn. Guard your words carefully. I am not asking for a confession. I do not care to know what happened there. It will make it easier for me to protect you. You may call it conscience. Keep your big secret to yourself. NOT ONE WORD TO ME. Do you understand?"
"You mean that I am not to reveal, even to you, the causes which led up to—"
"Nothing—absolutely nothing," said Mrs. Wrandall firmly.
"But I cannot permit you to judge me, to—well, you might say to acquit me,—without hearing the story. It is so vital to me."
"I can judge you without hearing all of the—the evidence, if that's what you mean. Simply answer the questions I shall ask, and nothing more. There are certain facts I must have from you if I am to shield you. You must tell me the truth. I take it you are an English girl. Where do you live? Who are your friends? Where is your family?"
The girl's face flushed for an instant and then grew pale again.
"I will tell you the truth," she said. "My name is Hetty Castleton. My father is Col. Braid Castleton, of—of the British army. My mother is dead. She was Kitty Glynn, at one time a popular music-hall performer in London. She was Irish. She died two years ago. My father was a gentleman. I do not say he IS a gentleman, for his treatment of my mother relieves him from that distinction. He is in the Far East, China, I think. I have not seen him in more than five years. He deserted my mother. That's all there is to that side of my story. I appeared in two or three of the musical pieces produced in London two seasons ago, in the chorus. I never got beyond that, for very good reasons. I was known as Hetty Glynn. Three weeks ago I started for New York, sailing from Liverpool. Previously I had served in the capacity of governess in the family of John Budlong, a brewer. They had a son, a young man of twenty. Two months ago I was dismissed. A California lady, Mrs. Holcombe, offered me a situation as governess to her two little girls soon afterward. I was to go to her home in San Francisco. She provided the money necessary for the voyage and for other expenses. She is still in Europe. I landed in New York a fortnight ago and, following her directions, presented myself at a certain bank,—I have the name somewhere—where my railroad tickets were to be in readiness for me, with further instructions. They were to give me twenty-five pounds on the presentation of my letter from Mrs. Holcombe. They gave me the money and then handed me a cable-gram from Mrs. Holcombe, notifying me that my services would not be required. There was no explanation. Just that.
"On the steamer I met—HIM. His deck chair was next to mine. I noticed that his name was Wrandall—'C. Wrandall' the card on the chair informed me. I—"
"You crossed on the steamer with him?" interrupted Mrs. Wrandall quickly.
"Had—had you seen him before? In London?"
"Never. Well, we became acquainted, as people do. He—he was very handsome and agreeable." She paused for a moment to collect herself.
"Very handsome and agreeable," said the other slowly.
"We got to be very good friends. There were not many people on board, and apparently he knew none of them. It was too cold to stay on deck much of the time, and it was very rough. He had one of the splendid suites on the—"
"Pray omit unnecessary details. You landed and went—where?"
"He advised me to go to an hotel—I can't recall the name. It was rather an unpleasant place. Then I went to the bank, as I have stated. After that I did not know what to do. I was stunned, bewildered. I called him up on the telephone and—he asked me to meet him for dinner at a queer little cafe, far down town. We—"
"And you had no friends, no acquaintances here?"
"No. He suggested that I go into one of the musical shows, saying he thought he could arrange it with a manager who was a friend. Anything to tide me over, he said. But I would not consider it, not for an instant. I had had enough of the stage. I—I am really not fitted for it. Besides, I AM qualified—well qualified—to be governess—but that is neither here nor there. I had some money—perhaps forty pounds. I found lodgings with some people in Nineteenth street. He never came there to see me. I can see plainly now why he argued it would not be—well, he used the word 'wise.' But we went occasionally to dine together. We went about in a motor—a little red one. He—he told me he loved me. That was one night about a week ago. I—"