[Transcriber's notes: Extensive research found no evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.
THE MONK OF HAMBLETON
RAE D. HENKLE CO. Inc. Publishers
By RAE D. HENKLE Co. INC.
Manufactured in the United States
Armstrong Livingston was born in New York City and was educated at St. George's School, Newport, R. I; and in Europe. He began a writing career in 1918. He has traveled extensively and for the past two years he and Mrs. Livingston have made their home in Algiers with occasional trips to Paris and London. He is the author of the following books—all mystery stories:
THE MONK OF HAMBLETON THE MYSTERY OF THE TWIN RUBIES THE JU-JU MAN ON THE RIGHT WRISTS LIGHT-FINGERED LADIES THE GUILTY ACCUSER
I. SAYING IT WITH FRUIT II. THE HEAD OF THE TRAIL III. A WARNING IV. THE LEGEND OF THE MONK V. MISS LUCY'S MAN VI. AN AUNT IN NEED VII. OUT OF THE PAST VIII. TWO VICTIMS OF THEFT IX. SIMON SEEKS ADVICE X. CREIGHTON TAKES THE CASE XI. CHECKERS AND CHICANE XII. STARLIGHT ON STEEL XIII. A DEDUCTION OR TWO XIV. LUCY VARR XV. TREASURE TROVE XVI. A WOMAN OF NOTE XVII. AN ARREST Is MADE XVIII. SOME OLD MEN ARE OUT XIX. AMONG THOSE PRESENT XX. H. ANTEUS KRECH XXI. TWILIGHT XXII. A CRY IN THE NIGHT XXIII. THE DARKEST HOUR XXIV. BEYOND THE STARS
THE MONK OF HAMBLETON
I: Saying It With Fruit
The weather-beaten buildings that comprised the plant of the Varr and Bolt tannery occupied a scant five acres of ground a short half-mile from the eastern edge of the village of Hambleton. They were of old-type brick construction, dingy without and gloomy within, and no one unacquainted with the facts could have guessed from their dilapidated and defected exteriors that they represented a sound and thriving business. It was typical of Simon Varr, that outward air of shabbiness and neglect; it was said of him that he knew how to exact the last ounce of efficiency from men and material without the expenditure of a single superfluous penny.
An eight-foot board fence surrounded the property on three sides, the fourth being bounded by a sluggish, disreputable creek whose fetid waters seemed to crawl onward even more slowly after receiving the noisome waste liquor from the tan-pits. At only one point, that nearest the village, did any of the buildings touch the encircling fence. There its sweep was broken by the facade of a squat two-story structure of yellow brick which contained the offices of the concern and the big bare room in which a few decrepit clerks pursued their uninspiring labors. Admission to this building, and through it to the yard, was by way of a stout oaken door on which the word Private was stencilled in white paint. Just above the lettering, at the height of a man's eyes, a small Judas had been cut—a comparatively recent innovation to judge from the freshness of its chiselled edges.
On the afternoon of a warm, late-summer day a number of men—twenty-five or thirty—were loitering outside this door in various attitudes of leisure and repose. They were a sorry, unkempt lot, poorly clothed and unshaven, sullen of face and weary-eyed. When they moved it was languidly, when they spoke it was with brevity, in tired, toneless voices. All of them looked hungry and many of them were, for it was the end of the third week of their strike.
The faintest flicker of animation stirred them as they were presently joined by a roughly-dressed man who sauntered up from the direction of the village, though it is safe to suppose that some of them were moved to interest less by the newcomer himself than by the fact that he was carrying a huge ripe tomato in one hand. He nodded a greeting that was returned by them in kind, and it was some moments before the most energetic of their number crystallized their listless curiosity in a single question.
"Any news, Charlie?"
"Nothin' to git excited about."
"I seen you talkin' to Graham a while ago."
"Uh-huh. Graham's a good sport even if he is standin' in with th' bosses."
"He's only lookin' out for himself," said the spokesman judicially, and tightened his belt by one hole. There was a murmur of assent from the others. "A man has to in this world."
"Uh-huh. And that's why we're strikin' now for a livin' wage and decent workin' conditions. We're just lookin' out for ourselves because no one else will."
"Don't see as we're gettin' 'em," ventured a pessimist mournfully. "Graham say anythin'?"
"Said we'd oughter give in. That's what we'd expect him to say, ain't it? But I was talkin' to one of the clerks, feller named Stevens, and he says that there's a lot of big orders on th' books that ain't goin' to be filled if we don't go back to work. Reckon that'll give old Varr somethin' to think about!"
They contemplated this hopeful scrap of information in a silence broken finally by the pessimist, who contributed a morsel of personal history by no means as irrelevant to the subject as it sounded.
"Wimpelheimer just shook his head when I went to him this noon for a bit of meat. He was nice enough about it, but he says three or four fellers left town last week owin' him money an' he can't figure noways how we're goin' to win this strike. He's lookin' out for himself, too!"
"Uh-huh." Charlie's favorite expression of agreement was slightly blurred by a mouthful of tomato. "Varr owns Wimpelheimer's store. If he catches Wimpy bein' too accommodatin' to us chaps he's fixed to make trouble for him." He nodded portentously. "Get it?"
"Seems as if Varr owns th' hull blame village of Hambleton, barrin' a few things he's only got a mortgage on," drawled another speaker. He went on musingly to quote a local aphorism. "What Varr says, goes!"
"That's right," concurred the pessimist glumly. "I reckon we took on a pretty big contract when we started to buck Simon Varr!" He wagged his head despondently. "Why—a man might as well try to buck Gawd!"
Charlie's face came out from behind the tomato and his eyes swept the other with fiery scorn. "Gettin' cold feet, huh? Mebbe you'd like to git down on your knees an' crawl back to th' old skinflint? The rest of us started out to do somethin' an' I guess we'll stick. Ain't that so, boys?" There was a low murmur of assent. "We'll win, too—cry-baby!"
"You'd better hope so, Charlie Maxon!" flashed the object of his derision. "You talked us into this strike in the beginnin', more than any one else did, an' if we have to go back to work on th' old terms your name is goin' to be mud!"
"Talked you into it, did I? All right, then—I did! What of it? Afraid I'm goin' to quit on you, huh? Well, I'm not. If I talked you into it, I'll get you out of it—with more pay an' better conditions." His voice hardened to a threatening note. "What's more, we ain't goin' back on th' old terms or th' old conditions, neither. You heard tell of th' fire that started in C buildin' t'other night, didn't you? Said it was an accident, didn't they? Well, mebbe it was an' mebbe it wasn't. Mebbe there's others who wouldn't be sorry to see th' tannery go up in smoke! An' as for Simon Varr, before I'd go back to work for him at the old scale I'd catch him by himself some night an'—"
"Here he comes now!" broke in somebody abruptly.
Maxon, his harangue cut short, followed the gaze of all of them. Coming toward them some fifty yards away, not from the direction of the village but from a short-cut through the woods that led from the tannery to his house on the hill, was the familiar, thickset, gray figure of the man they had been discussing. They watched him draw near for a moment, then quietly broke up into groups of two and three and drifted silently away. Maxon lingered to the last from a spirit of sullen bravado, but he had no wish to encounter his late employer face to face and he, in turn, followed his comrades in retreat.
Simon Varr watched them go from beneath his shaggy, scowling eyebrows, and his thin lips relaxed their usual tightness to curve in a contemptuous sneer. Jackals!
He marched steadily to his objective, the door of the offices, and was raising his hand to knock when there was the sound of an iron bar sliding back and the door opened. Since the fire to which Maxon had referred, it had been deemed advisable to employ a watchman by night and a guard by day to protect the property from either accident or sabotage. It was the day-man who had recognized his employer through the Judas and drew the bar.
"Good afternoon, sir," he ventured politely.
Simon Varr was not accustomed to respect any amenity of social intercourse and he paid no more attention now to the greeting than if it had never been uttered. He merely glanced sharply at the man and snapped a curt question.
"Well, Nelson—any trouble?"
"No, sir. There's been a bunch of them loungin' around outside and talkin' a lot, I was listenin' to them when you came along."
"Talking, eh? Who seemed to be doing the most of it?"
"Well, sir, I'd say that—"
He was not destined to say it at that moment, however, for his remarks were interrupted by an incident as annoying as it was unexpected. He and Varr were confronting each other in the open doorway while they spoke, and at this point some missile hurtled past their faces and thudded heavily against the planking of the door, where it burst with all the enthusiasm of a hand-grenade. Startled, they sprang back; then, recovering from the shock, they discovered themselves quite uninjured in body if somewhat damaged in raiment. They were liberally bespattered from head to foot with the lifeblood of an overripe tomato.
Nelson vented his indignation in a mild oath, Varr relieved his feelings in an angry snarl. The tanner wheeled swiftly in an effort to detect the author of the outrage, but his eyes showed him only a small knot of men, their hands thrust ostentatiously in their pockets, whose snickers died away as he gazed at them grimly. He grunted disdainfully, motioned the guard to precede him, and closed the door behind them as they entered the building. They busied themselves briefly with handkerchiefs.
"I'd like to have the tannin' of their ugly hides!" muttered Nelson.
"Charlie Maxon was eating a tomato as I came across from the path," commented Varr, more to himself than to his companion. "He put his hands behind his back to hide it from me, but he was too slow. Umph! He'll wish he'd never seen that tomato, let alone thrown it at me, before I'm through with him!"
"Maxon, sir?" The mention of the name reminded Nelson of his unfinished report. "Why, it was him that was doin' all the talkin'!"
"It was, eh? Umph."
"More than that, sir, he was makin' threats."
"Threats! What sort of threats?"
"Nothing very definite, sir, but it sounded to me as if he'd be glad enough to set fire to this place if he got a good chance—and he said he wouldn't come back to work at the old wages, not if he had to catch you by yourself some night."
"Catch me by myself—! And then what?"
"That was as far as he got, sir. They saw you comin' then and he didn't say anything more."
"Ah!" There was derision in the monosyllable, but a thoughtful expression in the hard gray eyes indicated that Varr had found food for reflection in Nelson's story. What direction his thoughts were taking he did not choose to reveal at the moment, but shot another question at the watchman instead. "Doesn't Maxon wear a dark-blue flannel shirt?"
"Usually, sir; he had on a gray one to-day."
"Ah!" It was a note of triumph this time. "Have you seen Steiner this afternoon?"
"Steiner, sir? The Chief of Police?"
"The Chief of Police—certainly! Not the Sultan of Turkey!"
"No, sir, I haven't. But this is about the time he turns up every day to see that things are quiet."
"Watch out for him. Tell him I want to speak to him. I'll be upstairs in my office."
They parted with no further remarks. Nelson made a cautious preliminary survey of the outer world to satisfy himself that no more tomatoes were to be apprehended, then opened the door, placed a chair upon the threshold, and settled to the enjoyment of a freshly-filled pipe while waiting for Steiner to put in an appearance. Varr strode to the farther end of the hallway and climbed the flight of narrow, rickety stairs which led to the upper floor.
This was normally the scene of quiet and orderly activity, where the day's work was done to the clicking of typewriters and the hum of subdued voices, but now the rooms were empty and the only sound to be heard was the heavy tread of Varr himself as he walked through the main office to the small room where his own desk was located. He frowned at the difference, and sniffed discontentedly at the stale air which seemed already to have taken on the peculiar flat mustiness appropriate to closed and deserted habitations. He frowned again when he drew his finger along a desk and noted the depth of the furrow it had made in the dust.
A reasonable man—Simon emphatically was not—would have allocated to himself some share of the blame while scowling at the empty chairs and dusty furnishings of the office. It was he who was primarily responsible. It was he who had decreed that the clerical force should be laid off without pay for the duration of the strike.
"They'll have nothing to do—why should we pay 'em to do it?"
Jason Bolt, a minor partner in the business by virtue of some money he had put into it at a critical period in its early development, had protested mildly and ineffectually.
"It wasn't their fault, this strike. If we do that it's going to make them mighty sore."
"Sore at us—but it'll make 'em hate the strikers!"
"It will work a hardship on them—they need their salaries."
"If they don't like it let them find other jobs."
"They can't, Simon—there aren't any in Hambleton."
"Then let 'em move to another village—there isn't one of them who'd be a real loss to the community."
"They can't do that, either, they're all family men and they can't pull up stakes and shift at a minute's notice."
"Then they'll stay here and do the best they can until we're ready to whistle 'em to heel again. So much the better. Nothing breaks a strike quicker than adverse public opinion—and those clerks are going to provide a lot of that when they begin to feel the pinch. I'm giving you a lesson, Jason, not only in economy, but in strategy!"
"Just the same—I don't like it."
Simon Varr's eyebrows had gone up a full inch and dropped again.
"You don't like it?" he retorted ironically. "Well, I do—and what I say, goes!"
Which had ended the debate, since he spoke the simple truth.
He blew the dust from the finger that he had trailed along the desk and entered the small office that was his sanctum. Seated at his ancient roll-top, he opened and read a handful of letters that had come in the afternoon mail—and his ready frown was active again as he noted the tone of some of them. The clerk, Stevens, when he told Maxon that several orders were shortly due to be filled, had in nowise exaggerated the case. Two or three were already overdue, and irate gentlemen in distant cities were beginning to make inquiries more pertinent than polite. Varr threw the letters on his desk and swore at the writers.
The light in the office suddenly became dim; Simon rose irritably and went to the single window, where he raised the green shade to its greatest height. Storm-clouds rolling up from the west had obscured the descending sun so that the countryside, with its rolling fields of grain and patches of thick woodland, which a moment since had been laved in a golden flood, now looked grim and gray beneath the deepening shadows. The tanner studied the gloomy prospect with angry eyes, finding in it some reflection of his own situation, and the face which he raised to the heavens was as black as the clouds themselves.
His was the startled, half-uncomprehending fury of the bull at the first stinging dart of the picador. Domineering and ever dominant, he had been accustomed throughout his life to impose his will upon others. Shrewd and capable in his chosen business, successful in the limited area of his activities, he had come perilously close to believing himself omnipotent, not only in all that pertained to his own destiny, but in the destinies of those about him. Never until the last few weeks had either men or events dared to march contrary to his wish, whereas now they appeared to have entered deliberately into a conspiracy to defy their master and defeat his plans.
Well—conspiracies can be crushed! His jaw set, his thin lips tightened and his powerful hands clenched until the nails on his stubby fingers sank deep into the flesh of his palms. Let 'em match their wits and their wills against his—he would show 'em!
He was so rapt in thought that he did not hear a heavy step in the outer office and was unaware that he had a visitor until a voice spoke respectfully from the threshold of his room.
"Mr. Varr—Nelson said you wished to see me."
The tanner started and turned from the window. "Oh—it's you, Steiner." He walked to his desk and seated himself solidly in his swivel chair. "Come in."
The Chief of Police—Chief by virtue of two subordinate constables—obeyed a command, rather than accepted an invitation. He was a tall man, slender of build but wiry, a little past middle-age, with hair beginning to gray at the temples, pale blue eyes and lantern jaws. As a policeman he was a singularly unconvincing figure, yet he had served creditably enough for five years in the peaceful village of Hambleton, where an occasional speeding motorist or some native exalted by too much home-brew constituted the whole criminal calendar for a year. A quiet job for a quiet man.
Varr did not offer him a chair, so he stood patiently waiting, twirling in his hands the uniform cap that he had removed in deference to his surroundings.
"Last night," began the tanner abruptly, "some one trespassed on my property and committed material damage—or to put it more plainly, some one entered my kitchen garden, picked a considerable quantity of my best tomatoes, helped himself to a couple of dozen ears of sweet corn, and incidentally trampled down and destroyed quite a number of plants in the process. I strongly suspect that he did the last intentionally, out of pure malice."
"Why, sir, that's a singular thing to have happen," commented Steiner as the other seemed to pause. "I don't expect it was any one in Hambleton, sir. It might have been a tramp."
"It might have been, but it wasn't. It was Charlie Maxon, who used to work for me and never shall again. I want you to take the necessary steps to effect his arrest. I intend to prosecute him and hope he will be punished to the full extent of the law. It's time Charlie Maxon and a few of his friends were taught that I'm a bad man to play tricks on!"
"Maxon, sir?" Steiner seemed more thoughtful than surprised. "I think he has been one of the more active men in agitating this strike of yours. A bright enough chap with a queer streak running through him."
"Umph. Well, I'm going to put him where his queer streak can't get loose and run amuck in my garden." He caught an expression of hesitancy in the policeman's eyes. "Eh? What's the matter?"
"I was just thinking, sir—are we sure of proving it against him? Mebbe we'd better go slow. If I arrest him, like you say, and the case falls down, he'd have a cause for action—"
"Idiot!" snapped Varr. "Don't you suppose I know that?" He thrust his hand into his breast-pocket. "Of course I have plenty of proof."
He produced a heavy wallet and opened it. From one of its compartments he took a small, triangular bit of blue cloth and, with the habitual impatience that marked his every speech and gesture, he threw it at Steiner, who caught it deftly in his cap.
"The man who looted my garden was afraid to use the gate for fear he'd be seen from the house. He came and went through the barbed-wire fence and left that as a souvenir. It's a piece of a flannel shirt, like the one Maxon usually wears. Get his shirt and match this to the hole you'll find in it—see? Then take his everyday shoes and fit 'em to the footprints he left in my tomato patch—I've had two of 'em covered with glass bells so they won't be washed away if it rains. That will be all the evidence you need. Understand?"
"Well—what is it now?"
"It's this, sir—I guess I ought to tell you that there's a lot of feeling in the village over this strike, and most of it favors the strikers. Maxon would get a bunch of sympathy. S'pose he comes out and says he took those tomatoes because he was hungry? It may be wrong to steal, but there's people who will say you're persecuting him and they'll set him up as a martyr. I—I'm looking at it from your interest, sir—"
"Indeed! Thank you, Steiner—thank you very much!" Varr was never more disagreeable than on the rare occasions when he chose to be studiously polite. "In return, let me suggest something that has to do with your own best interests. You are employed here to preserve law and order and this is decidedly a matter for your official attention—unless, indeed, you are thinking of resigning from the force on the chance that I may offer you a position as confidential adviser to myself. Eh?"
Cold gray eyes held and mastered pale blue ones. There was a brief silence—a silence that lasted just long enough for Steiner to reflect that he owed his job to the Board of Selectmen and that the Selectmen pretty much owed theirs to Simon Varr. Then he cleared his throat nervously.
"Of course, you know best, sir. I'll act at once."
"Let me know when I'm to appear in the police court."
"Yes, sir. Is that all you want of me, sir?"
Varr did not answer, but there was dismissal in the abrupt way that he swivelled around to his desk and bent his head over his neglected correspondence.
II: The Head of the Trail
The sound of the chief's subdued steps—in departing even his feet contrived to appear deferential—had barely died away when it was replaced by the noise of other and more determined ones ascending the stairs. The creaking of the ancient floor-boards heralded the approach of Jason Bolt, the junior partner, who passed by his own private office and entered Varr's.
He was a short, rotund little man of forty-five, smooth-shaven, somewhat sandy in complexion, with twinkling eyes that were friendly, and a light thatch of pinkish hair which was noticeably thinning on the top of his head. There was a general air of cheerfulness and content about him and his mouth, that was inclined to twitch at the corners, seemed continually on the point of smiling. In truth, the fairy godmother of Jason had presented him at birth with one of her choicest gifts, a sense of humor, and it had seldom failed him since. Beyond any possible doubt—as he had more than once pointed out to his wife Mary—he owed to this fine characteristic the fact that he had preserved his sanity of mind and body despite the twenty years of intimate association with his grim, self-centered partner.
He plopped down on a chair with a puffing sound of relief. He was panting a bit from the stairs, and his forehead was beaded with a moist tribute to the sultriness of the weather. He fanned himself gently with a stiff straw hat.
"Hello, Simon," he said presently, when returning breath permitted him to speak. He did not expect any reply and continued without waiting for one. "Gosh, I've just had quite a shock!"
"Did, eh? What was it?"
"The sight of our usually immaculate, if unpainted front door. I saw that rich crimson stain, then observed Steiner coming out looking very businesslike, and I made sure that some one had brained my noble partner against his own building."
"The shock coming when you stepped in here and discovered your mistake. Is that it?
"No, Simon; Nelson told me that it was only Charlie Maxon saying it with catsup." His light voice grew more serious. "Just the same, a man who throws tomatoes to-day may throw bricks to-morrow."
"Not Maxon," cut in Varr. "Steiner has my orders to arrest him."
"Arrest him! On charges of assault with a tomato? It's hardly a deadly weapon unless it's green, and this one very obviously was not. A slap on the wrist and a reprimand is about all he will get for that."
Varr's chair revolved until he was facing his partner, at whom he directed a glance of angry impatience. "If you'd listen to me instead of chattering so much—! I'm charging him with trespass, theft and property damage." Curtly but clearly, he described the overnight raid on his garden and his reasons for believing Maxon the culprit. He noted the changing expression of Bolt's face as the story progressed, and when it was finished he asked, as he had asked the Chief of Police: "Well—what is it?"
"I'm thinking of the effect on public sentiment," answered the other gravely, his thoughts turning in the same direction that Steiner's had taken. "But of course that doesn't cut any ice with you—I know that. You'll do as you please regardless of consequences."
"I certainly will!"
"Do you know, Simon, that about twenty of our best men have left town in the last two weeks? I was talking to Billy Graham this afternoon and he'd been checking up."
"And making the worst of the situation, you may be sure!" Varr's face darkened as his heavy brows came together in one of his ready scowls. "If Graham has been watching the men, I've been watching him. I'm not so certain that his sympathy isn't with them, instead of with us, where it ought to be. Yesterday, I met that lanky daughter of his coming from the direction of Brett's house with an empty basket in her hand. I don't need three guesses to tell me what she'd been doing!" His lip curled. "Nice bit of business, eh? We're trying to break a strike, while our own manager rushes food to the strikers!"
"Brett's wife has been sick and there are two kids to be looked after. Sheila Graham probably remembered that and forgot everything else. Billy may not have known anything about it—or have been able to stop her if he did. Sheila is just as clever as she is pretty and generally gets her own way in everything; since her mother died three years ago she has been able to twist her father around her little finger. Smart girl."
"Entirely too smart!"
The words were uttered with so much passion that Jason Bolt moved uncomfortably on his chair, reproaching himself with having been wanting in tact. There were good and sufficient reasons why Varr should react to the mention of the girl's name like a bull to a red rag, and here he had been stupid enough actually to praise the young woman whom the tanner had referred to contemptuously as Graham's lanky daughter. He opened his mouth with intent to change the subject, but an outburst from Varr forestalled him.
"You say she has her own way with her father. Exactly! Let me tell you, Jason, I've no use at all for a man who can't command obedience from his own children. That is something for my boy, Copley, to consider before he involves himself any more deeply with Sheila Graham—the daughter of one of my workmen of whose loyalty even I can't be certain!" Under his sense of irritation, as his resentment against those who were defying his wishes steadily increased, his voice grew louder and more harsh. "If that girl wants to do her father a bad turn, just let her continue to encourage that young fool! I was a wise man never to give Graham a contract! He's only on salary, and for two cents I'd give him a month's pay and throw him out!"
"Well, I hope you won't," ventured Jason cautiously. He seemed to spend most of his time debating whether the moment were propitious to reason with Varr or whether he were best left alone! "It would be awfully hard to replace Billy. You wouldn't have the satisfaction of knowing that you had hurt him much, either. He told me recently that the Thibault Tanneries have made him a very good offer to go to them. He'd better himself considerably."
"He would, eh? Why hasn't he accepted?"
"You know as well as I do, Simon. He has been with us for years, saved a fair bit of money, and he is hoping that some day we will see our way to giving him an interest in the business. A laudable ambition for any employee who wants to get on in the world. Even you can't criticize that!"
"Umph." Varr did not seem to think it necessary to express his views on ambition, but appeared to be reflecting on the news Jason had just given him. "The Thibault people, eh? In Rochester!" He raised one hand and caressed his chin softly. "So if I throw him out of here he will go to Rochester—taking that girl with him! Have you ever noticed—" He broke off abruptly, leaned forward and threw his voice into the outer office. "Hello! Is that you, Langhorn? What do you want?"
They had failed to hear the approach of a thin, middle-aged man who had come halfway across the main room from the head of the stairs before Varr had chanced to see him. He came the rest of the way now, and the fact that he stooped a little when walking lent him an odd air of furtiveness, which was somehow borne out by his narrow face, weak, irresolute chin and restless eyes. He was one of the clerks whom Varr had summarily suspended from the payroll, and there was anxiety in the gaze that shifted from one partner to another as he paused respectfully in the doorway.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Varr! Good afternoon, Mr. Bolt!"
"What do you want?" demanded Varr curtly, though a cruel light in his eye made it apparent that he knew the answer.
"Things are very hard, sir—"
"And you come to me for help? The more fool you! I have made it plain that not a single employee of this concern shall draw a dollar of salary until those ungrateful pups who have struck come back to work on my terms. Go tell them your troubles! Tell 'em for me, too, that their time is getting short. I'm making inquiries already with a view to getting men to take their places."
"I wasn't just thinking of work in the office, sir. If you had something for me on the outside—something up at your house, perhaps—"
"I have nothing. Good day!"
The man waited a fraction of a second, his eyes mutely questioning Jason Bolt, who negatived their appeal by an almost imperceptible shake of his head. Slowly, the man withdrew.
"A sneaking hound!" Varr did not lower his voice, indifferent to whether the retreating clerk learned his opinion of him or not. "I have never liked him."
"He must have heard what you said about Graham," reflected Jason. "I'm rather sorry for that. He's quite capable of carrying tales to Billy that might lead him to misconstrue your attitude."
"Let him! I guess it won't be such an awful misconstruction at that! Graham was never farther in his life than this minute from his partnership."
"Well—of course—a partnership wouldn't quite march with my idea!" Jason Bolt lighted a cigar rather nervously as he broached a subject dear to his heart. "Not a partnership—no. But if we were to incorporate and borrow the capital we ought to have, he might reasonably expect a good block of stock on the most advantageous terms——"
"We—are—not—going—to—incorporate!" Varr's slow words carried the emphasis of sheer exasperation. "I have told you before that I do not intend to do so."
"Still, Simon, our position warrants it—our increased business almost demands it—"
"I have said I won't!"
"Yes—yes, I heard you. I would not have brought up the subject now except that we will have an opportunity during the next week to get some dope on the possibilities. Judge Taylor can tell us all about the legal end of it, but Herman Krech can give us pointers on the practical side—"
"Who are you talking about?"
"Oh—didn't I tell you?" Artful Mr. Bolt's surprise was well simulated. "Why, he's a New York stockbroker who has made barrels of money. He married a girl named Jean Graham, an old friend of my wife's. Mary has tried two or three times to get them for a visit, and they are finally coming to-morrow for a week."
"He can stay a year for all of me." Varr brought his open hand down with a loud smack on the arm of his chair. "Once and for all, Jason, we are not going to incorporate!"
"We could expand and make a lot more money."
"We'll make more money without expanding!"
When a youngster at school, some one had told Jason Bolt that the constant dropping of water will in time wear away the hardest rock. He had never forgotten this valuable piece of knowledge, possibly because he had so frequently demonstrated its truth on the person of his unsuspecting partner. No one could argue Varr into doing anything, much less drive him, but Jason had more than once succeeded in overcoming that granite obstinacy by a species of gentle, persistent nagging. So adept had he become in this delicate accomplishment that Simon Varr would have sworn at the end of a campaign that he had never deviated from the original purpose that had been his in the beginning.
"Well, anyway," tapped the drop of water, "it can't do a bit of harm to listen to what he has to say."
Varr shrugged his shoulders. The conversation had ceased to interest him. So, evidently, had his letters, for he thrust them from him with an air of finality as he rose to his feet and glanced at his watch. It was not yet very late, but with the waning of summer the days were growing perceptibly shorter and the light in the office where the two men were talking was already failing.
"I didn't see your car outside, Simon. Shall I give you a lift home? or would you rather walk?"
"I'll walk." Varr crossed the room and knelt before an old iron safe in the corner near the window, peering closely at the figures on the dial as he slowly turned the knob. In a moment the combination Was complete and he pulled open the heavy door. "It occurred to me to-day that this was a poor place to leave my memorandum book. If some one succeeded in burning the building—as some one apparently wants to—it would be none too secure even in this safe."
Jason whistled softly. "Has that got the notes of your new formula in it, Simon?" He stared at the small red leather notebook which Varr took from a pigeonhole. "You're dead right to take that out of here! By the way, did you see that letter from the Larscom Leather Company? They say that the last order we shipped them—the batch we tanned by your new process—is the best looking lot of leather they've ever had in their shops."
"I guess it was," acknowledged Varr calmly. He balanced the leather memorandum book on his hand, his expression softening for a moment as he regarded it and remembered the days and nights of toil represented in its closely filled pages. A metal nameplate on the cover caught his eye by reason of its dinginess. He breathed on it and rubbed it with the cuff of his suit. "Yes, Jason, here is proof enough that my brains in no way resemble a tomato. If you were capable of inventing the processes that I have noted here, you would be running a business of your own quite independent of me!"
"That's very true, Simon." To this particular type of jeer Bolt had grown accustomed, and if his eyes narrowed a trifle it was the only hint of resentment that he showed. "As a matter of fact, it's just because you've got such a good thing in this new formula that I'm anxious for more elbow room." He glanced about him with an air of dissatisfaction. "The business we're doing warrants something better than this peanut stand!"
"I'm ready to buy your interest for ten times what you put in!" offered his partner dryly. "Will you accept?"
"I will not." Jason stood up and clapped on his hat. "I must be off. Sure you won't let me drive you home?" A shake of Varr's head answered him. "Good night, then."
He left the office and was halfway to the stairs when a sudden thought occurred to him and he retraced his steps.
[Transcriber's note: page 31 missing from source book]
[Transcriber's note: page 32 missing from source book]
ence of something important underlying the surface of this inquisition and he paused a moment to reflect before continuing. "It was Langhorn who left first. Mr. Graham stood still a while, lookin' in this direction as if he still meant to come over, then he turned and headed for town." A shrewd gleam lit the watchman's eye. "While he was facin' this way it struck me that he was lookin' red and sort of angry."
The monosyllable served at once to express Varr's perfect apprehension of what had passed between the two men and to bring the present conversation to a close. He took his leave, ignoring Nelson's polite "good evening" after his usual custom, and strode swiftly off along the short-cut by which he had come an hour or two earlier. Irritation quickened his step no less than the threat of rain from the banking clouds in the western sky.
So Jason had been right. Langhorn had overheard that portion of their talk which concerned Graham and had promptly reported it to the man most interested. Malicious, mischief-making little sneak! And of course he had to walk smack into Graham just when he was in a mood to make trouble and blow the consequences! With any luck he wouldn't have encountered the other until resentment at the rebuff he had received had cooled, and caution succeeded anger!
Varr was in the humor these days to find in this trivial contretemps yet another example of the annoyances, large and small, to which he had been subjected lately—so persistently indeed that he was coming to believe himself the chosen target at which some malefic Providence had elected to discharge every arrow of misfortune in its quiver.
Nothing seemed to go right any more; on the contrary, everything appeared to take a fiendish delight in going wrong—which in Simon's case meant largely that they were going in opposition to his wishes. He briefly recapitulated a few of his major troubles as he hurried along on his homeward way.
First, there was dissension in his household, where his son was in almost open rebellion against the paternal authority in the matter of Sheila Graham, supported, Varr guessed, by the mild approval of his mother. Second, there was the situation at the tannery, where a bunch of incipient lunatics had gone completely mad and struck against conditions that had previously been satisfactory to them and their fathers before them. Last, but by no means least, was the discontent in the office itself, what with a partner who had been bitten by the bug of ambition—! A much-abused, sorely-tried man raised angry eyes to Heaven and demanded of it, "What next?"
And as he literally lifted his gaze from the trail, seeking an answer in the sky, he saw something that halted him abruptly. He stood rooted in his tracks, his head thrust slightly forward, very much as a keen pointer freezes at the sight of game.
The path he was following was one that ascended by gentle gradients from the tannery to his big house on the crest of the low hill. A narrow strip of meadowland on the edge of the town was crossed, then the path, as it reached the rising ground, plunged into a deep belt of heavy woods that stretched away on each side for the distance of a mile or more; at the end, the trail crested a rather sharp acclivity before emerging from the trees and linking up with a graveled path that circled a kitchen garden in the rear of the house.
Varr had just reached the foot of this last ascent at the moment he looked up. Twenty yards ahead of him he could see the end of the path, marked by a pale oblong of sky set in a dark frame of foliage, but it was not that familiar sight which held him spellbound, started his pulse to beating quickly and momentarily stopped his breath on a painful gasp mingled of astonishment and fear.
Silhouetted against the sky was a tall figure dressed from head to foot in a black garment such as a monk might wear, but almost instantly Varr recognized that there was something in this costume that was out of keeping with the orthodox monastic habit. What the discrepancy might be he could not determine in those seconds of bewilderment, but he knew it existed. The outline against the light was clearcut; there were the flowing line of the robe, and the conical shape of the hood, plain to be seen and unmistakable.
There were several reasons why the apparition—although he was habitually unimaginative outside the field of barks and chemicals it did not occur to Simon Varr in that first moment to doubt that this was truly a specter from another world—should startle him to the verge of sheer fright. To begin with, there was something suggestive of Death in that somber, motionless figure, and of death he had a horror. Then it had come so pat on his bitter question of "What next?" that it seemed indubitably an answer from some Power not of earth. Finally—there was something about the figure that wasn't right—!
It spoke well for his spiritual courage that he was able to control his nerves and conquer the trembling of his limbs within a few seconds, and at the same time determine a course of immediate action. If this were a human being it should be challenged; if it were a ghost, it should be laid! He kept his eye fixed on the figure and deliberately took a step toward it.
Instantly, the immobility of the being ceased. A long black arm was flung up and outward in his direction, a silent command to him to stay his steps.
His obedience was prompt, for now he knew what was wrong with the apparition. Instinct had told him that the monk was confronting him, regarding him closely, and the quick response to his attempted advance was evidence enough that his instinct had not lied.
His mouth went dry, his brow exuded beads of perspiration. The monk was facing him sure enough—and that was queer, for the monk had no face!
III: A Warning
From the shock of that gruesome discovery, Simon Varr reeled back both mentally and physically. Involuntarily, he threw up a hand to shield his eyes, then got the best of his terror and fell to rubbing them, pretending to himself that this had been the intention behind the gesture; doubtless their vision was blurred and had deceived him into thinking the unthinkable—
He dropped his hand presently, blinked once or twice and prepared to make a more careful scrutiny of the monk's appearance. He was balked in this courageous essay. The apparition, if such it were, had acted in accordance with tradition and had vanished. While his eyes were covered it had departed, whether to left or right or merely into thin air he could not tell. He did not debate the question, either—he simply thanked his stars it was gone!
It was with considerable reluctance that he resumed his way up the path, but the daylight at the end of the trail looked inviting and reassuring compared to the twilight in the woods and he covered the distance to the spot where the monk had stood in a sort of a dogtrot.
It was here that he made a fresh discovery as he collided rather heavily with some obstruction in the path, an obstruction that gave way as his body impinged upon it, but that nearly tripped him as it fell between his legs.
He picked it up, but did not pause to examine it. The light ahead still lured and he continued his flight toward it, bearing his find with him.
He drew a deep breath of thankfulness as he finally emerged from the woods into the comforting aura of the kitchen garden; his eyes rested upon and were wonderfully soothed by a row of peaceful cabbages. Never before had he noticed how beautiful a cabbage can be, but to a man fresh from dalliance with a ghost there is something very steadying and sustaining in a glimpse of that most stolid and solid of vegetables.
There was a granite bowlder near-by on which he dropped gratefully for a minute's rest. It was while reaching for a handkerchief to pat his moist forehead that he was reminded of the object he had picked up and still carried. He looked at it now, and found that it was a heavy stick which must have been thrust firmly into the center of the path in the woods; one end of it was split, and into the cleft had been thrust a bit of folded paper—brown paper, he noted, of cheap quality, but what really took his eye as he drew it free was his own name in typewritten letters on the outside.
Evidently this was intended for him, and he was about to open it to see what message it might contain when the sound of hurrying steps from the direction of the path diverted him from his purpose. Whatever the contents of the paper might be, they were for him alone. Prompted by an instinct for secrecy which was part of his psychological cosmos, he thrust the missive into the breast-pocket of his coat and turned—with a little tremor from his nerves—to see who was coming.
It was a woman who burst from the shelter of the trees—a woman in some haste and quite obviously in some alarm. She was panting from her exertions, for she ceased running only when she reached the open, as Varr had done before her. A close-fitting felt hat was slightly askew on her head, and a once jaunty red feather that thrust up from it was now hanging limp and dejected, broken perhaps by some low-hanging branch she had failed to duck. She was dressed in a two-piece outing costume of knitted wool, and she looked just now as if those garments were too warm for comfort.
Her face brightened as she observed Varr seated on the rock, and she came toward him promptly. He brightened, too, welcoming any human being of tangible flesh and blood at that moment, although there was no living person whom he habitually detested more than he did his wife's sister, Miss October Copley. Her evident perturbation, however, gave him an uneasy premonition that he was about to hear more of his monk. But he left it to her to introduce the subject.
"Not much!" answered the lady briefly. "Scared!"
She did not seat herself beside him on the bowlder, but chose instead to drop at full length on a patch of green turf at his feet. With such breath as remained to her she expelled a sigh of relief.
"Scared, eh? I didn't suppose there was anything on earth that could scare you!"
She pounced instantly on his phraseology. "Perhaps not—on earth!" In a smaller voice than she was wont to employ, she added timidly, "Simon, d-do you believe in ghosts?"
"Ghosts!" He fortified himself by a glance at the cabbages. "Talk sense, Ocky!"
"Who says it isn't sense?" snapped Miss Copley. "Anyway, I just got the shock of my long and exciting life. See here, Simon—didn't you come up that path a few minutes ago?"
"I did. What of it?"
"I was sure it was you ahead of me as we crossed the meadow. Tell me, did you meet anything—I mean, any one?"
"What do you mean? Did you?"
"Y-yes. A figure in black—dressed something like a monk. I didn't meet him, exactly—he dodged into the woods as I came along. That is, I suppose he did—he just seemed to vanish!"
"Oh—he seemed to vanish, did he?" Varr shifted nervously on his granite throne. "You say he was dressed like a monk? Did—did you see his face?"
"No, I couldn't see that—"
"Ah! You couldn't, eh?" He rubbed the palms of his hands on his handkerchief as he probed a little deeper. "Too far away, I suppose."
"No. He had on a mask."
"A mask!" Comprehension came to him at once, and he inwardly cursed himself for an imaginative fool before continuing. "Well, Ocky, to tell you the truth, I did see him—right here at the head of the trail. He had his back to the light so I couldn't make out any mask. Er—what made you think of ghosts?"
"Because I had such a creepy feeling when I saw him. Didn't you?"
"Humph. For a moment, perhaps."
"Did you pass each other after you met?"
"Why—why— Confound it—no! He just disappeared!"
"Gosh!" said Miss Copley fervently. "Simon, it was a spook! I know it was! Have you ever seen or heard of a monk around here before?"
"N-no. But that doesn't mean anything. There's no law that says they can't travel if they want to."
"But what would a monk be doing on a private path through this property? Why should he disappear from people? Why should he wear a mask? Monks don't wear masks." She reflected a moment. "Come to think of it, he wasn't dressed exactly like a monk—Simon! did you ever see a picture of those creatures of the Spanish Inquisition? 'Familiars' I think they used to call them. They dressed that way and wore masks!"
"Humph." Despite that skeptic snort, Varr was conscious of a nervous chill. "You've been drinking too much coffee, Ocky! Indigestion!"
"Oh!" cried Miss Copley suddenly. She raised herself on an elbow and looked all about her on the ground. "Oh—pshaw!"
"Eh? What is it?"
"Coffee! Your mentioning it just reminded me! I was coming back from a walk and I stopped at Wimpelheimer's to get a pound of it—I knew it was needed at the house. Now it's gone! I must have dropped it when that creature frightened me." She looked woebegone. "It's not very far back, but I'm so tired!"
"Are you?" repeated Varr restlessly.
"You'll get it for me, won't you, Simon?" She regarded him appealingly. "Oh—please!"
He got up from the rock and glanced at her with marked distaste. His gaze traveled to the dark entrance of the trail, came back to rest briefly on the consoling cabbages, went again to the trail. He took an irresolute, halting step—and then was struck by an inspiration that cleared his brow as if by magic.
"What do I keep a houseful of idle servants for?" he demanded crisply. "Let Bates hunt it up—he'd better take a torch."
"Don't be ridiculous. Anyway, it's going to storm. I felt a drop of rain a moment ago. Come along to the house and stop your nonsense about monks and familiars and—and ghosts!"
Perhaps the last word came out a little uncertainly, but as he strode through the kitchen garden and around to the front door, followed closely by Miss Copley, he decided with pardonable pride that he had extricated himself from an embarrassing position with his accustomed masterful dexterity. The thought comforted him, for he vaguely realized that he had come close to experiencing a nervous panic during those minutes in the woods.
A white-haired man, still lithe, erect and agile despite his years, opened the door for them as their steps sounded on the planking of the veranda. This was Bates, the butler, a faithful retainer who had served the father of Lucy Varr and her sister a full decade before passing with the house and land into the keeping of the younger daughter and her husband. At the time of Mr. Copley's death, Varr had tentatively suggested letting the man go, but his wife had protested against that idea and had gained her point by shrewdly convincing her husband that good servants were becoming increasingly difficult to find and that Bates could never be replaced for less than twice his wages. It was one of the very rare occasions when Simon had credited the gentle, self-effacing lady with showing sound sense.
The butler had just lighted the big lamp in the hall—electricity had not yet found its way into the old house—and the warm cheerfulness of the homely scene went far to rehabilitating Simon's convalescent nerve. Ghosts did not fit into this atmosphere. Bates did—Bates was almost as satisfying as a cabbage. Of course, Ocky would promptly do her best to spoil it—! He could have dispensed willingly with the examination to which she immediately subjected the servant.
"Bates, has any one called?"
"No, Miss Ocky."
"No one at all?"
"No, Miss Ocky." His wrinkled face showed his surprise at the repetition.
"How about the back door? Any one come there?"
"No one, Miss Ocky."
"Well, have you seen any one around the grounds? A man dressed like a monk? Wearing a mask?"
"A monk? In a mask?" The old man smiled indulgently at this quaint whimsy, which might have come more suitably from the little girl with flying pigtails whom he used to chase out of his pantry than from this sensible, middle-aged woman who was waiting with apparent seriousness for his answer. "A monk in a mask? Good gracious, no, Miss Ocky!"
"All right." Miss Copley sent a significant glance at Varr, which he acknowledged by wrinkling his nose disdainfully. "By the way, Bates—I left a pound of coffee a little ways down the short-cut, you might step out and get it before dinner."
"Yes, Miss Ocky."
"You ought to find it right in the middle of the path."
"Yes, Miss Ocky."
Bates waited, and when nothing further appeared to be forthcoming he betook himself wonderingly to his usual habitat in the rear quarter of the house. Monks in masks, indeed! And why did any one want to leave a pound of coffee down a trail with rain commencing to fall? He shook his head despondently over a Miss Ocky returned from foreign parts so changed from the Miss Ocky of the old days.
She seemed inclined to renew the ghostly topic of conversation when left alone with her brother-in-law, but Simon gave her no chance. He stalked off down the hall and entered his study, a small room that opened off the comfortable, old-fashioned parlor. He closed the door from the hall behind him, and also, for the sake of greater privacy, the door that communicated with the living-room. Then he seated himself at a roll-top desk and turned up the wick of the lamp that was burning dimly in a wall bracket, close at hand.
He had remembered, as he left Miss Ocky to her eerie fancies, the note which he had retrieved from the cleft stick. She had driven the recollection of it from his mind by her idle chatter about ghosts! He took the slip of paper from his pocket and unfolded it.
A few typewritten lines jumped to his eye, and he nodded as if that were as he had expected. Before reading the text, however, he leaned back in his chair and strove to recall the exact circumstances under which he had discovered the missive. He had been hurrying—no, blast it, he had been scuttling like a scared rabbit!—along the trail and had run into the stick, which had been jabbed into the ground where he could not fail to notice it—and at the very spot where the figure in black had been standing! Apparition—pooh! If there was one thing certain about the whole silly business it was that the note had been put there by that—that creature. Simon did not profess to be versed in the lore of spooks, but he could not vision an ambassador from another world leaving behind him a tangible message composed on an earthly typewriter—! Pooh, and again, pooh!
He paused at this stage of his reflections to grin at the thought of Ocky, denied the knowledge of this consolatory bit of evidence. He hadn't mentioned it to her, and he wouldn't. Let her go on believing in ghosts! He was hugely pleased to think that there really existed one thing that could get under the skin of that hard-boiled human!
He was still smiling grimly as he finally began to read the message—but the smile had faded away before he finished.
"Woe unto thee, stiff-necked son of Belial! Woe unto thee, oppresor of the defensless! Woe unto thee, who hast ground the faces of the poor, who hast turned the hopes of thy neighbers to ashes! Woe! Woe! Woe! Take heed to thy ways and mend them, lest thou be destroyed by the thunderbolts of wrath!"
A hand-written signature in a sprawling fist concluded the communication; heavy, labored characters, inscribed in a crimson fluid by a blunt pen, formed two words: "The Monk."
Simon Varr read the thing through twice. He laid it on the desk before him and stared at it as though it had some power to hypnotize him. A pulse of anger beat in his temple, but it was a more subdued anger than his quick temper usually produced. His mental processes had ceased to function normally as they sank beneath a wave of bewilderment such as had submerged them in the woods. Feebly, they came again to the surface.
This message was an event entirely outside the range of his previous experience. He had heard of anonymous letters, naturally, and he knew that the correct and courageous thing to do was to ignore them as if they did not exist. But anonymous letters, as he understood them, were brought by the postman and placed on the breakfast table with the morning mail; they weren't planted in the middle of a lonely copse by gentlemen attired as Spanish Inquisitioners!
The letter on his desk seemed to leer at its recipient and challenge him to ignore it.
What did it mean? Who had sent it? Was it a genuine warning and threat, or was it merely an elaborate hoax? He pondered the latter possibility quite at length—and thanked his stars that he had not told Ocky about it. Simon Varr was not the man to relish a jest against himself, and if Ocky ever heard about it and it subsequently proved to be the work of a practical joker—well, she would never let him forget that he hadn't gone after the pound of coffee!
But the theory that it might be a hoax grew more and more implausible as he contemplated it. He was positive he knew no one capable of such a prank, and to suppose that any stranger had gone to so much trouble to play a trick on him was absurd.
He had no lack of enemies—he knew that. Had one of them chosen this fantastic method of declaring war on him? In that case he could certainly afford to ignore the letter as coming from a source unworthy of serious consideration. A worth-while enemy does not give a warning; he strikes. The cheapest thing about a rattlesnake is its rattle. Varr started to run over a list of recognized foemen who might have done this ill-natured deed, but presently desisted; their name was legion.
He did not overlook a third, quite reasonable theory. The whole business might have sprung from the unbalanced mind of a lunatic—some person who believed himself appointed to right the wrongs of the world—the victim of religious mania. That would account for the choice of a monastic costume in which to masquerade—and it would also account for the queer language of the letter, savoring as it did of the Bible. Again, the type of person most likely to suffer from that form of mental affliction would be a poorly educated person—and Simon entertained grave doubts as to the orthography of some of the words in the letter.
He reached into a pigeonhole of the desk and took out a small dictionary that he always kept at hand. He selected the dubious spellings that had caught his attention and ran them down one by one. "Oppresor" was wrong. "Defensless" was fearful. "Neighbor" started out brilliantly but came a cropper at the end. And that curious phrase, "Who hast"; what about that? Simon was a trifle hazy over this, so he gave the writer the benefit of the doubt. It sounded queer, though. Anyway, he had established to his satisfaction that the fellow was illiterate—naively passing by the fact that he had himself resorted to a dictionary to confirm his belief.
He congratulated himself frankly on one score—he had laid the ghost! He could admit now—though with a blush of shame—that he had been badly shaken for just a few minutes, what with his own nerves and Ocky's confounded chattering! A man without a face! A "familiar" from the Spanish Inquisition! What rot a man's imagination can trick him into crediting. But that was over and done with now; he was back on solid ground, self-confident, secure—
He jumped quite half a foot in his chair at a muffled tap on the door—and swore at Bates for announcing dinner.
IV: The Legend of the Monk
Four people sat down to dinner that evening in the big dining-room across the hall from the parlor and Varr's study. The walls of the dining-room were plentifully equipped with sconces bearing lamps, but Simon, in some moment of petty economy, had once decreed that these should be lighted only on formal occasions. The only illumination this evening came from the candles on the table, which stood in the center of the room, and beyond the area reached by their rays the shadows deepened into impenetrability. At one end of the room a narrow slit of light at top and bottom marked the position of the swinging door which gave access to the pantry.
From this point to the sideboard, and thence to the table, and back again, moved Bates on noiseless feet as he busied himself with the service of the meal. In his black clothes, the instant he slipped out of the magic lighted circle he was swallowed completely by the shadows, to reappear presently with spectral abruptness in another segment of activity. Several times he startled Simon by silently materializing from the void at his elbow, and on each occasion the tanner found some excuse to vent his anger in a curt rebuke to the servant.
The four who dined were of diametrically opposed temperaments. Across the table from Varr sat his wife, Lucy, a pale, gentle soul who under happier circumstances might have retained more of her youthful freshness and beauty than she had. She appeared washed-out and bloodless, so that her sister had remarked to herself that living with Simon Varr must be not unlike associating permanently with a vampire. His own abundant vitality sapped the life-juice from those about him, leaving the desiccated bodies an easy prey to his appetite for dominance.
At Varr's left was his son, Copley, a young man who had come of age that summer. He was tall and straight, aquiline of feature, brown-eyed and with dark chestnut hair that persisted, to his annoyance, in a tendency to curl. He was a likable chap, popular with young and old of both sexes. His good looks came from his mother, together with the equable disposition that promised to be his as he grew older and learned better to control his emotions. When a youngster he had been willful at times and prone to flashes of fiery temper, a heritage, beyond doubt, from his father's chronic irascibility, but the discipline of boarding-school and college had taught him to restrain at least its outward manifestations. From Simon, too, he had inherited a flair for business—an invaluable asset, thought Miss Ocky, for a man sentenced for life to this twentieth century America.
She was studying him now as she sat across the table from him, just as she studied the other two when opportunity served. They were all three practically strangers to her. The boy had not even been expected when she went to China with the Oriental Languages committee from her college, and in the twenty-three years that had elapsed before her return two months ago, time had worked changes. She would never have recognized her bright, joyous sister in this tired woman of the listless air. As for her brother-in-law—well, perhaps it was not quite accurate to say that he was a stranger to her; she had known Simon Varr at the period of his courtship and marriage and he was still Simon Varr, only a little more so! Detestable creature. She held him accountable, quite justly, for the blight that lay upon Lucy.
And upon Bates, too, for that matter. Miss Ocky had always had a warm place in her heart for the faithful old man, reposing in him the trust and confidence that her father had shown in the same quarter. Bates was something more than the ordinary servant, he came close to being a throw-back to the feudal retainer type of other days in his loyalty and devotion to his house, just as his former master, Sylvester Copley, had approximated in his time the character of a country gentleman. Bates was getting on in years, of course, which would account for much of his increased graveness and passivity, but not all. Unless Miss Ocky's suspicions were wide of the mark, he, too, had come under the deadening influence of Varr's dominance—ah! but had he entirely? At the very moment she was thinking about it, Simon had uttered a terse comment, as biting as acid, upon some negligible feature of the dinner-service. No faintest flicker of his facial muscles gave any hint that Bates had heard the remark, but his eyes revealed that he had, and for the fraction of a second they glinted oddly red in the candlelight. Was there a spark of manhood in his breast that still glowed when breathed upon?
They dined in silence for the most part. Simon was never a brilliant conversationalist, and to-night his thoughts were busy with matters far afield. Young Copley was taciturn and moody, preoccupied by reflections of no very agreeable nature, to judge by his glum manner. Lucy Varr, helping herself but scantily from the dishes passed, preserved her customary pose of nervous diffidence. Only Miss Ocky tried to dispel the settled atmosphere of depression by occasionally shooting point-blank questions at one or another of her companions—and toward the end of the meal she did manage to stir up a little excitement.
"Copley," she addressed the quiet young man across the table. "You've been out in the great world for several days, what's going on in New York? Haven't you brought back any news to us country folk?"
"New York?" He roused himself by a palpable effort. "No, Aunt Ocky, I didn't pick up anything in New York that would interest you. Nothing much good at the theaters just now. But if you want a piece of local news I may have one for you. It would be more interesting to you three than to me. When I got off the train this afternoon there was another chap who swung off just ahead of me, and I noticed him particularly because he was so different from anything you'd expect to drop off the four-sixteen. Tall and well-set-up, dressed like the mirror of fashion, smooth and polished—and followed by a valet, if you please, carrying his grips and a bag of golf clubs! Imagine a sight like that in Hambleton! I thought he'd made a mistake in his station, until I saw him walk right across the platform to where Adams, the baggage-master, was standing. He said something and held out his hand, and old Adams grabbed it and shook it as if he was greeting a prodigal son. I thought the valet looked a bit shocked! Then this chap tucked himself and his man and his baggage into one of Brown's jitneys and drove off like a lord!"
"Who in the world could it have been?" wondered his mother, awakened to a mild interest at the account of such grandeur in Hambleton. "Did you ask, Copley?"
"I have my share of vulgar curiosity, mother; I did. As soon as he disappeared I pounced on old Adams and asked him the name of his swell friend. He told me that it was Leslie Sherwood, the son of the man who died last winter—hullo!"
He broke off short and looked into the darkness behind him, whence had come the crash of china as Bates dropped a tray of coffee cups. Silence succeeded the tragedy, during which they could hear the butler's muttered ejaculations of horror and distress as he bent to retrieve the debris.
"Confound you, Bates! You get clumsier every day you live!"
Varr's outburst was swift, but not swift enough to deceive his sister-in-law. Her quick eye had detected several little items of interest, although they had occurred simultaneously and in opposite directions.
At the mention of Leslie Sherwood's name, Lucy Varr had straightened in her chair and turned to her son with parted lips as if eager for more news, while a delicate flush—the first touch of color Ocky had seen there in two months—sprang into her pale cheeks. This was fair enough. In the old days, Leslie Sherwood had been attentive to Lucy Copley in such degree that their circle confidently stood by for a formal announcement. Then he had rather abruptly departed toward a "business career in New York," making it plain that Hambleton would see him no more for some while to come. His departure left clear the way to the lady's hand for a colder, less attractive, but more determined suitor. Lucy married Simon Varr.
She was entitled, then, to display some faint emotion at the mention of a recreant knight, and Simon, with propriety, might have shown a husbandly twinge of jealousy or contempt or dislike—any of a dozen different sentiments other than the one he did reveal. At the bit of news so casually dropped by his son, his head had jerked up sharply and a look of fear had flashed into his eyes and out again. He had cleverly seized upon the butler's mishap to cover his confusion, but the ruse was too late to be effective as far as Miss Ocky was concerned.
So Simon was afraid of Leslie Sherwood, or else he had something to fear from the sudden reappearance of that gentleman. Which was it? and why? Miss Ocky determined to find out eventually. In the meantime she would accept the curious circumstance and store it in that corner of her brain where she was collecting odds and ends of data relating to her brother-in-law.
"When did old Mr. Sherwood die?" she asked promptly.
"Last February," answered her sister. "He had been very ill for several months—a general breakdown."
"Leslie was here at the time, I suppose."
"N-no; he wasn't. You're not posted on local topics, Ocky! This is the first time Leslie has been back in Hambleton since he left to go into business in New York. No one ever knew anything definite, but we have always assumed that father and son quarreled over something so bitterly that reconcilement was impossible. Still, when the old man died he left everything to Leslie—and he has turned up, now. I wonder if he will sell the place or—or live here?"
That was an unusually long speech for Lucy Varr, and it betrayed her lively interest in the subject under discussion. Simon must have noted that and perhaps resented it, for his face darkened. He made no comment, however, but celebrated the end of dinner in his usual manner by pushing back his chair a little, crossing his legs comfortably, and beginning a series of excavating operations with a quill toothpick which he drew from his vest pocket. Miss Ocky winced. This was the postprandial habit of his that annoyed her excessively.
She had not changed for dinner. Now she took a cigarette case from a side pocket of her coat, extracted a cigarette and lighted it from one of the candles. Simon did not smoke himself, and he disliked intensely the sight of a woman using tobacco. He glanced at Ocky, and to her deep satisfaction made a wry face at the cloud of smoke she contentedly exhaled. Winces were easy.
The little circle broke up after dinner. Varr went off to his study and shut himself in, his wife pleaded a headache, and with a word of apology to her sister departed for her bedroom. Ocky, amiably anxious to distract her nephew's thoughts from whatever he was glooming over, suggested a game of chess. Finding this had not been included in his college curriculum, she announced that she would settle herself in the living-room with some new books that had come.
She went upstairs for one of these, and returned bearing it and a small sheathed dagger with a highly ornamented handle. She found Copley in the living-room, attired in a raincoat, standing and looking at the closed door leading to Simon's study. Miss Ocky settled herself in a chair by the lamp on the center table, drew the dagger from its worn leather sheath and proceeded to cut the pages of Henner's "Through Asia." She glanced up whimsically at her nephew.
"Well, Copley, are you posing for a statue of indecision?"
"Something like that, Aunt Ocky." He smiled ruefully. "I was going for a tramp, then I thought I'd drop in for a chat with father—and now I think I won't have a chat with him, but will go for a walk."
"It's pouring, isn't it?"
"I don't care."
"Of course, you don't. I know that mood—and a good sloshing hike in the rain is a splendid cure for it. I know what's the matter with you, too." She shot a look at the closed door and lowered her voice. "Why don't you cut the Gordian knot and be done with it?" she added quietly.
"I—I don't get you."
"Elope, idiot child! You and she are both of age. Consider the late Mr. Ajax of Greece—he defied the lightning and got away with it! They can't do more than excommunicate you with bell and book and candle."
"But that's plenty, Aunt Ocky." A smile that had greeted her suggestion faded away, leaving him gloomier than ever. "If I only had to think about myself—! But I can't let Sheila in for a lot of hardship. It costs money, these days, to live in even the most moderate comfort, and all I could bring into the family treasury would be just what I could earn with my two hands—supposing I was lucky enough to find a job! It wouldn't be fair to Sheila—that's the long and short of it."
"Have you given her a chance to speak for herself?" His aunt sniffed contemptuously. "Gracious goodness, Copley, isn't there something more in life than money? Don't people think of anything else in America?"
"Oh, yes. It's a free country and a man has a perfect right to be a visionary and starve to death if he wants to. It just happens I don't!" He grinned as some of her disgust went into a savage slashing of uncut edges. "As things are, I don't believe I'll ask Sheila to share my crust of bread."
"Then I'll ask her for you—blessed if I don't! I intended to run over and see her in the morning, anyway. Did it ever strike you that matchmaking is the proper business of old maids? They atone for celibacy through vicarious marriage!"
"So that is the explanation of their favorite indoor sport, is it? But I can't regard you as a confirmed old maid, Aunt Ocky." He moved to her side and dropped a hand affectionately on her shoulder. "If you won't think me awfully fresh for saying it—you're about the youngest looking woman for your age that I've ever laid eyes on."
"Oh, thank you, Copley; thank you very much. Really, I must remember you in my will for them kind words! But about to-morrow—may I represent myself as being your plenipotentiary?"
"Sure thing. Go as far as you like, Aunt Ocky. Anything you start, I'll finish." The sound of a chair being pushed back in the study caught his ear and indicated a discreet change of subject. He stooped to retrieve the dagger that had slipped from her lap and examined it a moment. For all its exquisite beauty of design and workmanship, it was a wicked little weapon. "You have a bloodthirsty taste in paper cutters, Aunt Ocky. Where did you get this? Has it a history?"
"Very likely, but I don't know it. It is certainly old enough to have a lurid past. I picked it up in the bazaar at Teheran. That inscription on the blade is Persian."
"What does it mean? They taught me Persian when they taught me chess."
"It reads, 'I bring Peace!'"
"Oh. The Oriental point of view, I suppose! We would be more apt to think of a dagger as bringing war."
"We think backwards at times," commented Miss Ocky. She reclaimed her colorful souvenir of the East, then glanced up as the study door opened. "Hello, Simon. I expect you will sleep easier to-night; no fear of fire bugs in a rain like this!"
He grunted something unintelligible, and stared at Copley standing there in the parlor in his raincoat. The young man returned the stare with expressionless face. Neither he nor his father spoke, and in a moment the tanner left the room.
Miss Ocky was as good as her word the following morning. She marched cross-country to the Graham house, some half-mile distant, and had a long and enlightening conversation with Sheila. She had met the girl several times and approved of her highly, and when she left her finally to return home her good opinion of Miss Graham was in nowise diminished. The young woman, if she were not mistaken, had just the qualities needed to make a useful citizen out of a husband like Copley whose chief defect was clearly a lack of decision. He wanted starching, that was it.
She bore homeward a book that she had borrowed from Sheila, and though it only wanted twenty minutes to lunch time, she neither went to her room to freshen up nor sought her nephew to make a hasty report on the result of her embassy. She betook herself instead to the study, and there was a malicious twinkle in her eye as she tapped on the closed door. She obeyed a gruff command to enter.
Varr had made the best of his period of enforced idleness by working on a batch of order-books that he had brought from his office. He was busy with them now, and he looked as displeased as he was surprised by Ocky's interruption.
"What do you want?" he snapped irritably.
"I've picked up some information that I thought you'd like to hear, Simon. How is your nerve this morning? I've just been to call on Sheila Graham and she fairly made my blood curdle."
"Serves you right. Mine curdles when I even think of her." He frowned. "Why did you go to see her?"
"I promised to take her a recipe for a cous-cous I described to her the other day. Anyway, I like her, even if you don't. But that has nothing to do with our muttons! While I was chatting with her I happened to mention our experience yesterday with the monk—"
"You did! What in the world for?"
"Well, Simon, when I go to call on any one I like to talk about something—I can't sit like a dummy—"
"And that was certainly the most interesting bit of news that I had. It quite woke her up. She's something of a blue-stocking, you know, and has read a lot about the early history of this country. When I spoke of the monk she looked very queer and went straight to a shelf of books and took out this one—" Miss Ocky held up the one she was carrying, and Varr saw that she was keeping a place in it with one forefinger. "When she showed me a certain passage in it, I put it right under my arm and brought it—"
"You needn't have," he told her abruptly. "I recognize the thing, though I've never bothered to read it; Jennison's 'History of Wayne County,' isn't it? There's a copy among your father's books in the library."
"Is there? I wish I'd known it!" She opened the book at her place, steadied the heavy volume on her knees and cleared her throat. "I am going to read this to you, Simon—it isn't long."
"Go ahead." He had tried overnight to put the disagreeable subject out of his mind but had not succeeded very well. He was consumed by curiosity now to learn what she had discovered, though nothing would have induced him to admit it. "What's it all about?"
She began to read in a soft, well-modulated voice.
"'Wayne County is not without its share of legends and quaint scraps of folklore, some of them nicely calculated to chill the blood o' nights. One fable, at least, has risen from a base of fact; I refer to the famous Monk of Hambleton. Ancient chronicles of this town record the arrival—in pre-Revolutionary times—of an unfortunate individual whose face had been shockingly mutilated by accident or disease. He drifted to Hambleton from the outer world and apparently quartered himself on the countryside, living the life of a hermit in a small dry cave that still shows traces of his presence. He habitually wore the garb of a friar—a penance, perhaps, for former sins—and his disfigured face was always concealed from curious eyes by a mask of black cloth.
"'After his death—a lonely demise in his humble cave—a story sprang up about him to the effect that his spirit still lingered in the neighborhood of its passing. Several credible persons claimed at different times to have met the Monk, and since by some unhappy chance these victims of an optical delusion were all subsequently visited by misfortune in greater or less degree, it soon began to be whispered about that to encounter the specter was a sure augury of impending calamity. A local poet, long since forgotten, was inevitably inspired to preserve the legend in his rustic doggerel. I append a few couplets:
"'Who meets the monk at crack o' dawn Shall rue the day that he was born.
"'Who meets the monk in light of day, Woe goes with him on his way.'"
"Cheery little thing," grunted Simon Varr as she paused an instant. "Is that all of it?"
"No, there's one more verse." Miss Ocky deepened her tones a note or two as she solemnly read it.
"'Who meets the monk when dusk is nigh Within the fortnight he shall die.'"
She closed the book and regarded her brother-in-law with eyes half-mocking, half-pitying.
"Of course you wouldn't dream of treating such nonsense seriously, Simon; I know that. But it's curious, and rather interesting, don't you think? Jennison had his tongue in his cheek when he wrote his account of it, but even he relates as a matter of fact the coincidence that those persons who saw the vision were subsequently badly out of luck." Ocky shook her head gently and glanced at him commiseratingly. "If it should come true in your case, Simon, I suppose this is an opportune moment to offer you my condolences!"
"Thank you," he managed to reply dryly.
He felt very squeamish inside, though most of that was due to his innate abhorrence of anything that brought up the subject of death. As far as the Monk was concerned, he had found in the letter thrust into the cleft stick and now reposing in a pigeonhole of his desk the reason back of that masquerade—though he had to admit that the writer of the anonymous note had certainly hit upon a sufficiently gruesome method of transmitting it.
"Thank you, Ocky, for your condolences," he continued after an interval. "The same to you and many of them! We'll go together, no doubt. Don't forget you saw the Monk at the same time I did!"
The monosyllable was almost a gasp of pain. Simon stared at her, rather startled by the effectiveness of his sardonic reminder. The book she was holding had dropped to the floor with a crash, her cheeks had gone white to the lips, and now she was staring straight ahead of her with a fixed expression of horror in her eyes as though they were truly visioning the sure approach of Death.
V: Miss Lucy's Man
It did not take Simon Varr and Miss Copley very long to recover from the perturbation they had shown when she finished reading him the bit of folklore relating to the Monk. Both of them were highly efficient in the art of self-repression, or failing that, knew how to mask an inner emotion behind their normal outward semblance. When they presently left the study for the luncheon table, Simon wore his usual frown above knitted brows, while Miss Ocky displayed her accustomed placidity of countenance with its high-lights of humor about her lips and sharp gray eyes.
A dish of French chops annoyed the lord and master of the house. He pointed out to his patient helpmeet that times were ripe for economy and that French chops are economical only in respect to their nutritive content. With the tannery closed down, an era of corned beef and cabbage was strongly indicated—especially, she would understand, as there now appeared to be four mouths to feed in the family instead of the customary three. He hoped she would heed his words and exercise greater prudence in the management of her household—and the courteous inflection of his tones as he voiced his hope was a masterpiece of sarcasm. It left his wife pale and resigned, his son red and embarrassed.
"If corned beef and cabbage ever shows up in this dining-room," remarked the one member of his audience still undaunted, "my father will turn in his grave."
"Your father thought entirely too much of his stomach," said her host coldly.
"Yes? Well, it repaid him for all the affection he lavished on it. His digestion was wonderful to the very end. How is yours?"
"I could say that that is purely my own business, but if you insist on knowing, my digestion is excellent."
"I shouldn't have thought it. I don't agree with you as to the essential privacy of the subject, either. It concerns all of us since we have to live with you."
"Ah!" A touch of color in her cheeks suggested that flint was at last beginning to spark beneath the steel. "Apropos of that and your earlier remark, Simon—would it ease your financial straits at all if I were to contribute something for my board and lodging? It would be a novel experience for me in this house, but I've always been able to adapt myself to altered circumstances."
She did not expect a hurried and polite disclaimer from her brother-in-law. Disclaimers of any sort were not in Simon's line. He merely sent her a chill look as he thrust back from the table and rose to his feet.
"That is something you can settle with Lucy," he said coldly. "I'm sorry I can't stay and chat with you a little longer, but I am due to spend the afternoon at the tannery."
"It's nice to know that you can spend something," she threw after him sweetly. "Why don't you bring back a hide or two from the vats, Simon? We might boil them down for soup!"
He glared back at her over his shoulder as he stalked from the room. Miss Ocky glanced at the faces of the two who remained with her and gave a contented little chuckle.
"Now, that scene was a bit of honest, downright vulgarity!" she said cheerfully. "Refreshing once in a while, don't you think?"
"Ocky! I wish you wouldn't poke him up like that."
"Well! Suppose he stops poking me first! I haven't got the patience of a saint like you, Lucy—and gracious only knows where you get it from, my poor child! Twenty years ago you'd have taken that plate of chops and shoved it down his throat." A fleeting recollection corollary to this thought impelled her to shoot a discontented glance at her nephew across the table. "What in the world has become of the Copley spirit?" she demanded bitterly.
"You don't really understand Simon," murmured her sister.
"No," said Miss Ocky grimly, "but I'm beginning to."
They left it at that and withdrew from the dining-room. From his inconspicuous post near the sideboard, Bates followed the retreating figure of Miss Ocky with admiring and grateful eyes. Here, he told himself, was the old Miss Ocky coming to life again, and his heart rejoiced to think that Simon was in a fair way to get back as good as he gave. The spirit of the Copleys—aye, they had it, every one of them, if only they would show it now and then!
Lucy Varr departed for the kitchen, possibly to caution the cook against undue ostentation at dinner, and Copley, obeying an imperious glance from a pair of gray eyes, followed his aunt to the veranda. She led the way to one end of it, and there turned the corner into an ell that had been screened and glassed against the mosquitoes of summer and the frosts of winter. With comfortable wicker chairs and quantities of soft cushions, it was a cosy nook that had become Miss Ocky's favorite haunt for reading or writing.
She ousted a magnificent, smoky-blue Angora who, catlike, had decided the best was none too good for him, seated herself and waved Copley to another chair.
"I had a talk with Sheila this morning," she announced.
The young man's face had been flushed and dark, but now, at the mention of Sheila's name, it lighted quickly. He had been acutely embarrassed during the exchange of courtesies between his father and his aunt, and he had felt a quick resentment at the innuendo she had flung at him and which he had by no means missed, but these passing moods vanished in favor of happier emotions.
"I wondered if you really would! But, say, Aunt Ocky—you surely didn't have the nerve to mention your elopement scheme, did you?"
"I certainly did. My nerve is a very superior article. I wish to goodness I could graft a piece of it onto your backbone."
"Oh. Can't a fellow be sensible, Aunt Ocky, without being accused of spinelessness? However, for the love of Mike, tell me what she said! She turned it down hard, of course."
"She did not, though it was obvious that she would have preferred to hear it from your own lips. Naturally. At any rate, when I first got there I broached the subject tactfully—"
"You couldn't do it any other way, Aunt Ocky."
"Don't be impertinent. She soon made it plain that she was willing to talk frankly and openly—was glad of the rare opportunity to discuss matters with a person of some intelligence. She has been having a little unpleasantness of her own; did you know that? It appears her father has been fearfully stirred up over something yesterday and to-day, and this morning when she spoke of you in some connection he was quite savage. He was never keen on the idea of a match between you two, was he?"
"No. I'm afraid he has sense, too!"
"Well, his daughter has a mind of her own, and she has made it up. She has wisely concluded that a lot of our happiness in this life has to be snatched from the Fates who dangle it before our eyes, just out of our reach. She feels that the most practical way for you and her to grab yours is to marry first and let the fireworks follow. Opposition to the marriage will be curiously ineffective if the marriage has already taken place. I thought she showed a good deal of fine logic, there."
"You mean, she agreed with everything you suggested!" Copley made a despairing gesture. "Aunt Ocky, come down to brass tacks. It's true that I'm crazy about Sheila and that she cares more for me that I could hope to deserve—"
"Ever so much more!"
"—but Sheila is a human being who has to eat! She has to have clothes to wear. She probably has a preference for a roof over her head. And I—I'm bust!"
"Nothing saved from your allowance, I suppose?"
"It was never magnificent. Now, it is discontinued. Father has always put it to my credit at the bank punctually on the first of the month. Last Tuesday I dropped in to get my balance and—found an overdraft! He was never careless in his life, so I don't need to ask him if he forgot to make the deposit. He has simply decided to bring it sharply to my attention that I am in no situation to marry, so he has cut out my allowance."
"Humph. I expect you're right." She frowned at this new manifestation of Simon's ruthless determination always to have his own way in everything, then shifted a portion of her severity toward her nephew. "In a sense, Copley, I'm rather glad that he did. If there's one thing you need, it's a touch of adversity. Stiffen up, boy! I've done everything this morning that I propose to do for you; now go to Sheila and talk things over with her, as you ought to, instead of with me. She's waiting for you!"
He rose with decision, a new alertness in his face and manner.
"Aunt Ocky, you're a brick." Impulsively, he took a step toward her, thrust forth a sinewy hand and gripped the one she raised. "It makes me feel like a new man just to listen to you—and the only thing I can't understand is why you think me worth the trouble you take."
"There is no mystery about that. I have always loved your mother tenderly, and some of that affection you have inherited. Sheila is a lovely girl who I believe will make you happy—and do you good. As for my desire to have the business settled—well, I've my own reasons for that which will be made clear to you in time. Have you anything else on your infant mind? No? Then, go—for goodness' sake, go!"
Miss Ocky sank back in her chair and for a space stared out at the peaceful countryside that rose and fell in gentle undulations which finally faded away into the blue distance. The forgiving Angora leaped to her lap and she caressed him absently, her mind centered upon her thoughts, which were not always as cheerful as they might have been.
So rapt was she in meditation that she was not aware of Bates' presence until he had stood near her for a full minute. His house-shoes enabled him to move on noiseless feet and he had never stooped to that common subterfuge of butlers, the nervous cough. He stood patiently, in silence, and Miss Ocky, when she noticed him at length, was stirred to remembrance by something in his attitude. It was just so he had used to come upon her in the old days when he was wont to bring his difficulties to her, apparently deriving comfort from her half-mocking, half-sympathetic comments.
"Well, Bates—you want to speak to me?"
"Yes, Miss Ocky, I do—and I don't."
"I understand perfectly, thanks to my exceptional cleverness and my vast knowledge of human nature. What you want to do is blow off steam—as you used to—but you are not certain that it's quite the right thing to do. Isn't that it?"
"Yes, Miss Ocky."
"Well, I can set your doubts at rest. It isn't right; and now that we've settled that," added the lady comfortably, "go ahead and blow. After a long and very virtuous life I'm beginning to think there is much to be said for crime! I can guess your secret sorrow, too."
"I'm sure you can, Miss Ocky." A faint amusement that had lighted his tired eyes at her philosophy vanished again. "You've been here two months or more, and you've seen how it is for yourself."
"Yes—I have. I tell you candidly, Bates, if I had dreamed how things were going here I would never have stayed away twenty years. I was shocked when I saw my sister—"
"That's it, Miss Ocky, that's it!" In his eagerness he was oblivious to his breach of good form in interrupting. "It's not myself I'm blowing off steam about. It's Miss Lucy. You can guess how I've felt through these years, watching her change into what she is. It has hurt me, Miss Ocky, for when all is said and done, I'm Miss Lucy's man as I was her father's before her—not Simon Varr's! You remember what she was like before you went away—always bright and happy and full of fun and singing around the house. We used to call her the Queen of Fairyland—"
"My memory is excellent, Bates. You needn't harrow me further."
"And look at her now," continued the old man relentlessly. "A poor meek woman that never dares to call her soul her own, faded and lifeless as the flowers I throw out of the vases, looking twice her age—"
"I hope she's well out of earshot, Bates."
"And it's all the fault of that man!" said the butler passionately, his eyes shining with anger and indignation and his usual careful diction sacrificed to the greater need of plain speech. "It's him that has done it with his sneerin' mockin' ways that would bring an angel to tears—his penny-savin', snivelin' meanness that grudges her every cent she spends, just as though he'd had a dollar to call his own before she lifted him out of the gutter where he belongs. 'Twould have been kinder if he had up in the beginning and struck her over the head and been done with it instead of wearin' her down to skin and bones by his naggin' and growlin' and snarlin'. And how do you think I've felt, Miss Ocky, while I stood by all these years and watched it goin' on unable to lift a finger to her help? 'Tis only once and again, when he has her near to tears at the table, that I'm able to drop a plate or joggle his elbow and him drinkin' coffee the while, and so distract his attention."
He paused for breath. Ordinarily Miss Ocky would have been vastly entertained by this sketch of Simon's attention being distracted, but she was in no mood for amusement at the moment. Her eyes were hard, and if she deliberately kept her comments pitched on a semi-humorous note, it was more to pacify and soothe the old butler than anything else.
"I gather you don't care for Mr. Varr," she said.
"Does any one, Miss Ocky?" he retorted more calmly.
"You used a curious expression a moment since," she said, ignoring a question she deemed purely rhetorical. "You spoke of yourself as 'Miss Lucy's man.' Just what did you mean, Bates? I know you don't use words just because you like the sound of them."
"You don't miss anything, do you, Miss Ocky?"
His set face softened as he regarded her with a look almost of affection. "No, you were never one to miss anything! I'll tell you what I meant, though I've never breathed a word of it even to Miss Lucy, bless her!"
"There are a lot of things you could tell me," said Miss Ocky, "and I hope some day you will. Go ahead with this one, first."
"It dates back. I could make a long story of it, but I won't. You might say it goes back to the time I took service with your father and mother. I was in trouble, mortal trouble, when they took me in, Miss Ocky, and they gave me a home and comfort and—and security. That last is a great thing in a hard world, as I guess you know. The only way I could repay them was by being a 'good and faithful servant,' as the Bible puts it, and I had reason to believe that they both came to be glad of the day they showed kindness to a less fortunate human."
"What was your trouble?" she asked quietly, for this was her first intimation that his advent to the household had been marked by anything out of the ordinary. "My father never mentioned it."
"He wouldn't—and it doesn't belong with what I've started to tell you now, Miss Ocky." He glanced at her apologetically. "I'm telling you how I know they were glad to have me. When your mother was dying, Miss Ocky, she had me called in for a word with her. She thanked me for the service I'd given and said she hoped I would always stay with your father as long as he needed me—'which will be to the day of his death,' she said.
"The same thing happened when his time came. I was in and out of his room a dozen times a day while he was ill, and once he stopped me and told me a few things he had on his mind.
"'It's a queer thing, Bates,' he said. 'Here I am dying with scarce a relative to my name, and I'm leaving two daughters to face the world alone. They'll have money, but they won't have an older person to help them over the rough places.' I could see he was worried. 'Of course,' he said, 'Miss Lucy is going to marry that young fellow, Varr. I'm not so fond of him as she is, though I've nothing against him that would stop the match. It's her I'm thinking about. She will have this house when I'm gone and she is married—and I want her to have you.' Well, Miss Ocky, to tell you the truth I started to say something about hoping that you would set up housekeeping and find a place for me, but he wouldn't listen to me for a minute. You know how quick he was. 'I'm competent to judge my own children!' he snapped at me. 'Ocky can stand on her own two legs as long as she has 'em and will get along nicely on crutches after that. It's Lucy that may need help.' He looked at me very sharp—you have his eyes, Miss Ocky. 'I'm a dying man and this is the last thing I'll ever ask of you,' he said. 'I don't pretend that you owe me anything, but I'll ask you as a favor to promise me you'll always stand by Miss Lucy.'