LADY LARKSPUR BY MEREDITH NICHOLSON
NEW YORK CHARLES SCRIBNER'S SONS 1919
COPYRIGHT, 1919, BY CHARLES SCRIBNER'S SONS
Published March, 1919
COPYRIGHT, 1918, BY P. F. COLLIER & SONS, INC.
TO BENNETT AND PEGGY GATES
I. THE "TROOPS" 1 II. THE AMAZING WIDOW 38 III. A FAN 79 IV. PURSUING KNIGHTS 112 V. ALICE 138
"It was hard luck," said Searles, "that I should spend a year writing a play for a woman only to find that she had vanished—jumped off the earth into nowhere. This was my highest flight, Singleton, the best writing I ever did, and after the vast pains I took with the thing, the only woman I ever saw who could possibly act it is unavailable; worse than that, absolutely undiscoverable! Nobody knows I have this script; I've kept quiet about it simply because I'm not going to be forced into accepting a star I don't want. I have a feeling about this play that I never had about my other things. That girl was its inspiration. The public has been so kind to my small offerings that I'm trying to lead 'em on to the best I can do; something a little finer and more imaginative, with a touch of poetry, if you please. And now——"
He rose from his broad work-table (he scorned the familiar type of desk) and glared at me as though I were responsible for his troubles. As he knew I had been flying in the French Aviation Corps for two years and had just been invalided home, I didn't think it necessary to establish an alibi. But I hastened to express my sympathy for his predicament. Fate had been kind to Dick Searles. In college he had written a play or two that demonstrated his talent, and after a rigid apprenticeship as scene-shifter and assistant producer he had made a killing with "Let George Do It," a farce that earned enough to put him at ease and make possible an upward step into straight comedy. Even as we talked a capacity house was laughing at his skit, "Who Killed Cock Robin?" just around the corner from his lodgings. So his story was not the invention of a rejected playwright to cover the non-appearance of a play which nobody would produce.
"Isn't it always a mistake to write a play for a particular star?" I suggested. "Seems to me I've read somewhere that that is among the besetting sins of you playwrights."
"Old stuff, my boy; but this isn't one of those cases. The person I had in mind for this play wasn't a star, but a beginner, quite unknown. It was when I was in London putting on 'Fairy Gold' that I saw her; she had a small part in a pantomime, and pantomime is the severest test of an actor's powers, you know. A little later she appeared in 'Honourable Women,' a capital play that died early, but there again I felt her peculiar charm—it was just that. Her part was a minor one, but she wore it as she might wear a glove; she was exquisite! No one ever captured my imagination as she did. I watched her night after night. I was afraid that when I heard her voice it would break the spell, and I actually shook like a man with an ague when she tripped out on the stage as the ingenue in 'Honourable Women.' And her laughter! You know how hollow the usual stage mirth is, but that girl's laugh had the joy of the lark ascending!"
"By Jove!" I ejaculated, "there's more here than appears. You're in love with the girl!"
"Rubbish," he cried impatiently. "You'll think I'm talking rot, but this girl was the visualization of a character I had dreamed of and groped after for years. That's all; but it's a whole lot, I can tell you!"
"Of course, you established lines of communication and gave her a hint that you meant to write a play for her?"
"Certainly not! That would have spoiled the whole thing. It was her art, not the woman, that interested me. I didn't want to take the chance of being disillusioned. I have been through that experience, and I prefer not to meet the people who act in my pieces. I want their art, not their views on human destiny or the best place to get lobster a la Newburg."
"Let us be practical for a moment, Searles," I urged. "Emperors, presidents, and popular murderers are not more conspicuous than the people of the stage. No girl talented enough to get two engagements, even for small parts, in a first-class London theatre could vanish. With your acquaintance in the profession you'd be able to trace her anywhere on earth. By the way, what did the paragon call herself?"
"Violet Dewing was her stage name and the only name the managers knew her by. I assumed that, of course, all I had to do was to finish my play and then have Dalton, who represents me over there, make an appointment to read it to her; but Dalton worked for three months trying to find her, without success. She clearly wasn't the product of the provincial theatres—hadn't any of the marks. I wasn't the only person who was interested in her. Dalton said half a dozen managers had their eye on her, but after 'Honourable Women' closed she stepped into the void. I know what you're thinking—that the other members of the two companies she appeared with must have had some inkling of her identity, but I tell you Dalton and I exhausted the possibilities. It was by accident that she got her chance in the pantomime—some one wouldn't do at the last minute, and they gave Miss Dewing a trial. She was well liked by her associates in spite of the fact that she was a bit offish and vanished from their world the minute the curtain fell."
"A clever governess out of a job, satisfying a craving for excitement and playing the mysterious role as part of the adventure. Am I to assume that you've burned your play and that the incident is closed?"
"Oh, I didn't burn it; I have a copy locked in a safety vault, and Dalton left one heavily sealed at a small exclusive London hotel where, he found after much difficulty, the girl had lodged during her two engagements."
"You're morbid," I said. "Show me her photograph."
He laughed ironically. "Never a chance, Singleton! You haven't yet got the idea that this young woman is out of the ordinary. She refused to be photographed—wrote it into her two contracts that this was not to be asked. I never saw her off the stage, and I can't give you a description of her that would be of the slightest assistance to the keenest detective alive. As I've tried to convey to your practical mind, it's the spirit of the girl—the spirit of comedy, that I've dramatized—not a girl you take out to supper only to find that she has no wit, no charm, no anything but a monstrous appetite for indigestible food and a silly ambition to play roles the gods never intended her to play. In that pantomime she was a frolic, the clown's daughter, and, though nobody saw it, she was the whole piece, the elusive sprite that could evoke laughter and tears by a gesture, a lifting of the brows, a grimace. By utterly different methods in 'Honourable Women' she proved her wide range of appeal. The chap who produced 'Honourable Women' told me that after the first rehearsal Bayley, the author, begged him for God's sake to let the girl do it her own way, so as not to lose her freshness and spontaneity. Hers was the one true characterization in the piece. When Terry was in her prime you remember how we used to say that only one bird sang like that, and from paradise it flew? Well, this bird sings on the same branch! Her voice was her charm made audible! She's the most natural being I ever saw on the stage, and she can look more comedy than anybody else I ever saw act!"
"Rave some more!" I pleaded. "You never talked better in your life."
"Don't be an ass," he said sourly. "Let's forget her and take a squint at your affairs. Just what do you mean to do with yourself?"
"My shoulder still creaks a little, and the doctors advise me to sit around for a while. They offered me some jobs in Washington, but desk work and inspection duty are too tame after a couple of years spent in star climbing. The doctors tell me to cultivate repose for a few months and maybe they'll pass me into our flying corps, but they don't promise anything. I'm going up to Barton-on-the-Sound and I'll camp in the garage on my uncle's place. You remember that I built the thing myself, and the quarters are good enough for a busted veteran."
"Your uncle played you a nasty trick," interrupted Searles; "getting married and then adding to the crime by dying. You couldn't beat that for general spitefulness."
"Do you remember the immortal lines:
"'Oh, skip your dear uncle!' The Bellman exclaimed As he angrily tingled his bell"?
"Oh, I'm not knocking the dead!" he protested. "Mr. Bashford always struck me as a pretty decent, square sort of chap, and not at all the familiar grouchy uncle of fiction and the drama. I made notes on him from time to time with a view to building a play around him—the perfect uncle, unobtrusive, never blustering at his nephew; translating the avuncular relationship into something remote and chaste like a distant view of Mount Washington in winter. As I recall, there were only two great passions in your uncle's life—Japanese art and green-turtle soup. It was just like him to retire from business on his sixtieth birthday and depart for the Orient, there to commit the shameless indiscretion of matrimony."
"Like him! It was the greatest shock of my life. To the best of my knowledge he never knew any women except the widow of his partner in the importing house. He used to dine with her now and then, and I caught him once sending her flowers at Easter—probably an annual stunt. She was about eighty and perfectly safe. He spent twenty years in the Tyringham, the dullest and most respectable hotel in the world, and his chief recreation was a leisurely walk in the park before going to bed. You could set your clock by him. Pretty thin picking for a dramatist, I should think. He used to take me to the theatre regularly every other Thursday—it was a date—and his favorite entertainment was vaudeville with black-face embellishment preferred. You should add that to Japanese pottery and potage a la tortue. He joined the yacht club just because the green turtle at that joint is the best in New York. Yachts! He never sailed in anything but the biggest steamers, and got no fun out of that. I crossed with him twice, and he never left his bunk. But in his shy fashion he was kind and generous and mighty good to me."
"If you hadn't gone to war, but had kept right at his elbow, the marriage might have been averted," suggested Searles. "He did leave you something, didn't he?"
"Fifty thousand cash and the right to use the garage at the Barton farm. Calling it a farm is a joke; it's rocks mostly. He bought the house to have a place to store his prints and ceramics. He hated motoring except in taxis up and down town, and when I urged him to set up a machine, he told me to go ahead and buy one and build the garage. He rather sniffed at the writing I do, but told me I'd better fix up a studio in the garage and have it as a place to work in. His will provides that I may lodge in the garage for life."
"The estate footed a million, as I remember, so I can't praise his generosity. But the widow, your unknown auntie, the body-snatcher who annexed the old boy—what of her?"
"I've asked the trust company people whether she's in sight anywhere, and they assure me that she is not on these shores. Torrence, the third vice-president—you know Torry; he was in the class ahead of us at college, the man who never smiles—Torry seemed anxious to learn about her from me, which is certainly droll. He said she acknowledged her last remittance three months ago from Bangkok—wherever that is. Torry couldn't see that Bangkok is so absurdly remote that the idea of a widow's strolling off there is funny. I suppose the old girl's resumed her tour of the world looking for another retired merchant to add to her list."
"Very likely. To what nation, tribe, or human group does this predatory person belong?"
"I'll tell you all I know. Just as I was sailing for France I got a letter from Uncle Bash stating in the most businesslike fashion that he was about to be married to a lady he had met on his trip out to Japan. The dire event was to occur at the American Embassy the following day. From which I judged that my presence at the ceremony was neither expected nor desired. Oddly enough, months afterward, I picked up an English paper in a French inn that contained an announcement of the marriage in the usual advertisement form. The lady was succinctly described as Mrs. Alice Wellington Cornford, widow of the late Archibald Reynolds Cornford, Pepperharrow Road, Hants. All Torrence knows of the subsequent proceedings is what he got in official reports of Uncle Bash's death from the consul-general at Tokyo. He was buried over there and the life-insurance companies were rather fussy about the legal proof, Torry says. Whether the widow expects to come to America ultimately or will keep moving through the Orient marrying husbands and burying them is a dark mystery. If she should turn up, the house at Barton is hers, of course, but with her roving disposition I fancy my aunt Alice wouldn't like the place. The Jap stuff is worth a bit of money, and if the lady is keen for such things and not a mere adventuress she may take it into her head one of these days to come over and inspect the loot."
"I can see the vampire," said Searles musingly, "landing at the Grand Central with enough hand-luggage to fill a freight-car; a big, raw-boned creature, with a horse face and a horrible mess as to clothes. You will be there to meet her, deferential, anxious to please. You will pilot her up the coast to Barton, tip the servants heavily to keep them from murdering her, and twiddle your thumbs in your garage as you await her further pleasure. By the way, are those ancient freaks still on the place—those broken-down hotel employees who were your uncle's sole experiment in philanthropy?"
"Torrence assures me that they are all very much there."
Searles yielded himself to laughter. "An Englishwoman with lofty ideas of domestic service would certainly enjoy a romp with that crew. I supposed the trust company had brushed them into the Sound before this."
"Oh, they are in the same class with me," I explained. "The place can't be sold till I die, and while I live they're to be harbored—about thirty of them—clothed and victualled."
"I think there's a farce in the idea, and I may try it one of these days," he said, scribbling in his note-book. "A refuge for broken-down chambermaids, venerable bell-hops grown gray in the service, and the head waiter who amassed a fortune in tips and then toyed with the market once too often and lost his ill-gotten gains. What was the head waiter's name who presided with so much stateliness in the dining-room of the Tyringham? I mean the white-haired chap who was so particular about the foot-cushions for the nice old ladies in caps and lavender ribbons and India shawls—I think I can work him in somewhere."
"That's Antoine, who married the assistant housekeeper at the Tyringham. He's the butler and has charge of the place—a sort of commander-in-chief of the outfit. When I get settled I'll ask you up and you can study the bunch at leisure."
"Splendid! Reserve one room for me on the sunny side of the garage and I'll be up in a couple of weeks. I'm going to Ohio to-morrow for a family reunion and a look at the loved spots my infancy knew."
"You're lucky to have home-folks even in Ohio," I remarked enviously.
"Well, there's always your distant auntie, cruising the seven seas in pursuit of husbands. Nobody with an aunt to his credit can pretend to be alone in the world. There is something about an aunt, Singleton! Aunts must rank just a little below mothers in the heavenly kingdom. When I was a boy out in Ohio there were two great occasions every year in my life—one when I went to visit a grand old aunt I had in the country, the other when she visited us, arriving with a wagon-load of jam, jelly, salt-rising bread, pound-cake, and other unpurchasable manna."
"Stop! or I'll call the food censor," I pleaded, picking up my hat. "Send me your copy of 'Lady Geranium,' and I'll tell you whether it's a classic or not."
"'Lady Larkspur,'" he corrected with a shudder. "You shall have it by trusted messenger to-morrow."
I wired Antoine that I would reach Barton-on-the-Sound the following day. This was September, 1917. The former servants of the Tyringham were established on the place by my uncle the year before he dropped business cares and departed for the Japan of his dreams, and as I had been often at the hotel where he spent so many of the years of his life, I knew most of the old retainers. They were deeply appreciative of his kindness, and when I had gone to the farm for an uninterrupted month in finishing some piece of writing they had shown me the greatest consideration.
As the train rolled along the familiar shore toward Barton I shook off the depression occasioned by my enforced retirement from the great struggle overseas. I had done under the French flag all that it was possible for me to do; and there was some consolation in the fact that by reason of my two years on the battle-line I was just so much ahead of the friends I met in New York who were answering the call to the colors and had their experience of war all before them. The tranquil life that had been recommended by the doctors was not only possible at Barton, but it was the only life that could be lived there. Plenty of exercise in the open and regular habits would, I had been assured, set me up again, and my leisure I meant to employ in beginning a novel that had been teasing me ever since I sailed for home.
Of my uncle Bash I had only the happiest and most grateful memories. Quite naturally it had occurred to me at times, and my friends had encouraged the idea, that my uncle would die some day and leave me his money. There was no particular reason why he should do so, as he had never manifested any unusual affection for me and I had certainly never done anything for him.
Antoine was at the Barton station with the touring-car Uncle Bash had bought to establish communication with the village. Flynn, the big Irishman who had been the doorman at the Tyringham for years and retired because of rheumatism acquired from long exposure to the elements at the hostelry's portals, was at the wheel.
Antoine greeted me with that air of lofty condescension tempered with a sincere kindliness that had made him a prince among head waiters. As I shook hands with him his lips quivered and tears came to his eyes. Flynn, standing beside the car, saluted with a welcoming grin.
"Very glad to see you, sorr. The trunk came this mornin' all right, sorr, and we put it in your room."
I bade Antoine join me in the back seat that he might the more easily bring me up to date as to affairs on the estate.
"It must be a little slow up here after the years you lived in town," I suggested, "but of course you're all old friends."
"Well, yes; all friends," he acquiesced, but with so little enthusiasm that I glanced at him quickly. He pretended to be absorbed in the flying landscape at the moment. Flynn, I noticed, was giving ear to our conversation from the wheel.
"It was sad, very sad, Mr. Bashford passing away so far from home, sir. It was a great shock. And he had looked forward for years to a quiet life abroad. It must have been ten years ago he first mentioned his hope of retiring to Japan."
Uncle Bash had given me no such forecast of his intentions, and I felt humble before this proof of Antoine's greater intimacy. Once at the beginning of our acquaintance, when I had complimented Antoine on his English, he explained that he was born in England of French parents. His father had been chef and his mother housekeeper for an American banker who lived for many years in London. Antoine's speech was that of a well-trained English upper servant, and I imagined that in his youth he had taken some English butler as his model. He used to pretend that he knew French very imperfectly, and I was surprised when he now addressed me quite fluently in that language.
"You have been with the armies of dear France," he remarked. "The war is very dreadful. My parents were of Verdun; it grieves me to know of the suffering in the land of my people."
As I replied sympathetically in French I saw Flynn straighten himself at the wheel with an impatient fling of his head. Antoine indicated him with a contemptuous nod: "Married Elsie, the German woman who worked in the linen-room at the Tyringham! This has caused some trouble, and there is a pantry girl, Gretchen, who was ill a long time before the master left, and he sent her here for the country air. She is a little devil with her dear Fatherland."
I laughed at the old fellow's gravity and earnestness. That the war should be making itself felt on the quiet acres at Barton-on-the-Sound was absurd.
"But there can be no trouble; everything is peaceful, of course, save for a little foolish talk——"
The Gaul asserted itself in a shrug, a form of expression rare in him. I was pondering the recrudescence of race hatreds due to the upheaval in Europe when he startled me by a statement uttered close to my ear:
"There have been inquiries for the widow; these have caused me much anxiety."
"Widow! Whose widow?"
"Madame, the widow of the dear master. It seems that there are persons anxious to see her. There have been inquiries, one—two—three times."
"Probably some of her American friends anxious to pay their respects, or some of the neighbors making calls of courtesy," I suggested.
"A foreign gentleman who acts very queerly," Antoine persisted.
My uncle's widow was a vague, unknown being whom I had never expected to cross my horizons. If she meditated a descent upon Barton-on-the-Sound, the trust company would certainly have had some hint of her approach, but Torrence clearly had had no tidings of her beyond her last communication from Bangkok. Still, it was wholly possible that a globe-trotting widow would have friends in many parts of the world, and I could see nothing disturbing in the fact that inquiries had been made for her. I said as much. Antoine's answer was another shrug and a jerk of his head toward Flynn, as though even the employment of an alien tongue might not conceal our conversation from the big Irishman. Antoine was manifestly impatient at my refusal to be aroused by his hints of discord among his associates and my lack of interest in the inquiries for Mrs. Bashford. When we had reached the farm and were running through the grounds Antoine spoke again:
"We thought we would put you up at the house, Mr. Singleton, and not in the garage," he said inquiringly.
"Not at all, Antoine," I answered quickly. "We must stick close to the law in such matters."
"Very good, sir. Stop at the garage, Flynn."
To the casual observer the garage was a charming two-story house following the general lines of the plaster and timber residence, from which it was separated by a strip of woodland and a formal garden. The garage and quarters for the chauffeur were at one end and at the other were a down-stairs living-room, with a broad fireplace, and three chambers above so planned as to afford a charming view of the Sound, whose shore curved in deeply at this point. On the chauffeur's side was a small kitchen from which I had been served with my meals when I lodged there. This thoroughly convenient establishment was the only place I could call home, and I experienced a pleasurable sense of comfort as I opened the door into the snug living-room.
"The house is in order. You will have your meals at the residence, I suppose, sir," Antoine suggested.
I debated this a moment, and when he hinted that dinner could be more conveniently served there than in my own quarters, I said that for the present the Flynns might give me breakfast and luncheon at the garage, but that I would dine at the house. The original owner of the property, from whose executor my uncle had purchased it with all its belongings, had accumulated a remarkable library, rich in the Elizabethan stuff for which I have a weakness, and it occurred to me that it would be pleasant to eat my solitary dinner at the residence and loaf in the library for an hour afterward. Like most slaves of the inkpot, I habitually postpone actual labor as long as possible, and if I were to dine at the garage I should have no excuse for not plunging at once into my novel. The Tyringham people were domiciled in cottages scattered over the estate, though a full staff of house servants was established in the residence.
It was five o'clock when I reached the garage, and Antoine left me after opening my bags with the suggestion that I could summon Zimmerman, a former valet of the Tyringham, for any service I might require. I knew Zimmerman very well and said I would call him when occasion required.
"He is of that race," said Antoine plaintively in the French which now seemed to come readily enough to his lips.
"Race? Botheration! You mustn't trouble yourself about race questions out here, Antoine. Zimmerman is a good old chap, who's probably forgotten the very name of the German town he was born in."
"They do not forget," Antoine replied with emphasis. "There has been much discussion—much——"
"Forget it, Antoine! I supposed you were all living here like a happy family. You've been sticking too close to the farm, and it would do you good to run into town for a week. Please tell them at the residence that I'll dine at seven."
"Very good, sir," he said in his pompous Tyringham manner, but I saw that he was miffed by my indifference.
Flynn, having disposed of the car, came to ask if there was anything he could do for me. When I had explained my arrangement with Antoine he still lingered.
"Tony's against the wife and me," he said mournfully. "It's the war, sorr, and she and me that lile, sorr, the American flag floats from the garage every day. And if a heart can be lile, Elsie's as true to America as though she was born in Boston State-house."
"I believe you, Flynn," I said, touched by his earnestness. "Don't you worry about Antoine and the rest of them; they're just a little nervous; I'll see what I can do to straighten things out."
As I went about my unpacking I was sorry that I had discouraged Antoine's confidences. That these old hotel servants, flung upon a farm with little to do, should fall to quarrelling was not surprising, but what he had said as to the inquiries for Mrs. Bashford had roused my curiosity. In spite of my legal right to live on the farm, I had no intention of remaining if my uncle's widow turned up. Alone on the estate I could lodge in the garage without any loss of dignity, but with an aunt on the premises my status would be decidedly uncomfortable. She could hardly fail to regard me as an intruding poor relation, no matter how strictly I kept to my own quarters. It was possible that she might even confuse me with the veterans of the Tyringham, and, while I am no snob, I did not relish the idea of being classed by a strange aunt with a crowd of broken-down hotel employees.
I whistled myself into good humor as I dressed and started for the house along the driveway, which followed the shore, veering off for a look at the sunken garden, one of the few features of the place that had ever interested my uncle.
As I paused on the steps I caught sight of a man sitting dejectedly on a stone bench near a fountain whose jet tossed and caught a ball with languid iteration. I had identified him as an old Tyringham bell-hop, known familiarly as Dutch, before he heard my step and sprang to his feet, grabbing a pitchfork whose prongs he presented threateningly.
"Oh, it's you, sir," he faltered, dropping the implement. "Excuse me, sir!"
"What's your trouble, Dutch? You're not expecting burglars, are you?"
"Well, no, sir, but things on the place ain't what they wuz. It's my name, which ain't my name, not reg'lar, that's caused feelin'. They've drove me out, an' I'm campin' in the tool-house. An' me born right there in New York an' American clean through. My grandpap came across when he wuz a kid, but it ain't my fault he wuz Goiman. I'd 'a' made 'im a Frenchy or a Dago or somethin' else if I could 'a' done it. Mr. Singleton, I don't know no Goiman except pretzel, sauerkraut, wiener wurst, and them kind o' woids."
"Those belong to the universal language, Dutch," I answered consolingly. "What is your name, anyhow?"
"Augustus Schortemeier, and I say it ain't no worse'n Longfellow," he protested.
The point was delicate and not one that I felt myself qualified to discuss. To cover my confusion I suggested that poets enjoy a certain license, but I was honestly sorry for Dutch. If he was not the oldest living bell-hop, he was at least entitled to honorable mention among the most ancient veterans of the calling, vocation, or avocation of the bell-hopper. I bade him cheer up and passed on.
As I reached the house I heard a sharp command in an authoritative voice and saw at a curve of the driveway a number of men in military formation performing evolutions in the most sprightly manner. They carried broomsticks, and at sight of me the commander brought his company to a very ragged "Present arms!" Their uniform was that of the Tyringham bell-hops and waiters, and it dawned upon me that this was an army of protest representing the Allied armies on the shores of Connecticut. There was a dozen of them, and the captain I recognized as Scotty, a hop who had long worn the Tyringham livery. I waved my hand to them and turned to find Antoine awaiting me at the door.
"It's the troops, sir," he explained. "It's to keep Dutch and Gretchen and Elsie—she's the wife of that Flynn—in proper order, sir."
"Troops" was a large term for the awkward squad of retired waiters and bell-hops, and it was with difficulty that I kept my face straight.
"It's most unfortunate, but we was forced to it. Dinner is served, sir."
From the table in the long dining-room I caught glimpses through the gathering dusk of Scotty's battalion at its evolutions.
"They keep a guard all night, sir," Antoine explained, not without pride. "The goings on has been most peculiar."
"Antoine!" I said sharply, "what do you mean by these hints of trouble on the place? You're not silly enough to imagine that Dutch and a couple of women can do anything out here to aid America's enemies! The rest of you ought to be ashamed of yourselves for annoying them. And as for these inquiries about Mrs. Bashford, they couldn't possibly have anything to do with the war. Specifically, who are the persons who've asked for her?"
"There's the party I told you about, most persistent, who's motored here three times, and another person who seems to be looking for him, sir. It's most singular."
"It's singularly ridiculous; that's all. They're probably piano-tuners or rival agents for a rug house or something of that sort who don't know that Mrs. Bashford isn't here or at all likely to be."
"They may be agents, but not that kind, sir." His lips quivered, either from fear or vexation at my refusal to take his story seriously.
"If anything tangible happens, Antoine," I said kindly, "anything we can really put our hands on, we'll certainly deal with it. But you mustn't get nervous or allow yourself to suspect everybody who turns up here of evil designs against the Republic. I've come here for quiet, you know, and we can't have every passing stranger throwing the place into a panic."
I had no sooner reached the library, where he gave me coffee, than I heard a slow, measured tread on the broad brick terrace that ran along the house on the side toward the Sound. The windows were open and the guard was in plain view. I glanced at Antoine, whose attitude toward me was that of one benevolently tolerant of stupidity. He meant to save me in spite of my obtuseness. "Tell the picket to remove himself where I won't hear him, if you please, Antoine."
He disappeared through one of the French windows and in a moment I saw the guard patrolling a walk some distance from the house. I now made myself comfortable with a book and a cigar, but I had hardly settled myself for a quiet hour before I heard a commotion from the direction of the gate, followed a few minutes later by a shout and a noisy colloquy, after which a roadster arrived in haste at the front door.
"Mr. Torrence, sir," announced Antoine. "I'm sorry, sir, but he ran by the guard at the gate, and our man below the house stopped him. It's a precaution we've been taking, sir."
Torrence's sense of humor was always a little feeble, and I hastened into the hall to reassure him as to his welcome. He was wiping the perspiration from his face and swearing under his breath.
"For God's sake, Singleton, what's happened here? A band of pirates jumped on my running-board, and after I'd knocked them off a road-agent stopped me right there in sight of the house and poked the muzzle of a shotgun in my face."
"Mighty sorry you were annoyed, but there have been some queer characters about, tramps and that sort of thing, and the people on the place are merely a little anxious. Have a cigar?"
"All I can say is that you'd better send your friends the password! That fool out there with the gun——"
"Only a bell-hop, nothing more," I interrupted.
"—That fool, I say, is likely to kill somebody. Antoine"—he turned to the butler, who was drawing the curtains at the windows—"if the property's been threatened, you should have informed me immediately."
"Yes, sir; but it's only been quite recent, and, knowing Mr. Singleton was coming, we didn't like to bother you."
"We can only apologize, Torry," I interposed. "The employees have been alarmed, but we're bound to commend their zeal."
"Humph!" he ejaculated, the wounds to his dignity still rankling.
I forced a cigar upon him and talked of the weather to cover Antoine's retreat. I resolved not to tell him the real cause of the servant's apprehensions, knowing his disposition to magnify trifles and fearing he might send the police to investigate. He lived only five miles from Barton, a fact to which he now referred.
"Hadn't heard of any tramps over my way," he said, frowning. "These old lunatics your uncle left here are simply hipped; that's all. Mr. Bashford made a mistake in turning the place over to them; it was silly, downright silly. It's a wonder you didn't think of upsetting his will on the ground of mental unsoundness. It's not up to me to suggest such a thing, but I believe you could knock it out!"
"Oh, chuck it! They're well-meaning helpless people, and it's bully that Uncle Bash provided a home for them. There's nobody else to use the place."
His cigar had proved soothing, but my last remark caused him to sit up straight in his chair.
"By George! my hold-up almost made me forget what I came for. I have news for you, Singleton; good or bad, as you may take it; Mrs. Bashford is in America."
"Mrs. Bashford," I repeated faintly, "where do you get these pleasant tidings?"
"This," he answered, producing a telegram, "is all I know about it. Got it just as I was leaving the office this afternoon, and thought I'd motor over and give you a pleasant surprise."
He seemed to enjoy my discomfiture. The message read:
PITTSFIELD, MASS., Sept. 20.
J. B. TORRENCE, Bainbridge Trust Co., New York.
Landed at Seattle a week ago, and have been motoring east from Chicago to see the country. Will reach Barton in four or five days. Please wire me at the Washington Inn, Lenox, whether house is in order for occupancy.
"Well, what do you say to that?" he demanded.
"I say it's taking unfair advantage," I answered savagely. "I've got to clear out; that's the first thing."
"Not necessarily. Your right to the garage is settled; she couldn't oust you if she wanted to. You've got to stay here anyhow till she comes; there's no ducking that. The widow of an uncle who did a lot for you, a stranger to the country; it's up to you to see her established. There are many little courtesies she would naturally expect from you."
"I'm delighted that you see my duty so clearly! If you hadn't assured me that she was safe at the end of the world I wouldn't have set foot here."
"The house is in order, I judge," he remarked, glancing about the room. "I've got to wire her that we're ready for her."
"You most certainly have! Your duty is as plain as a smoke-stack. You might add that she's causing serious inconvenience to her late husband's only nephew."
"You really don't mean that?" he inquired anxiously.
"Oh, thunder, no!"
I had forgotten how trying Torrence could be. He now suggested that we summon Antoine and take a look at the house. Torrence is a conscientious fellow with an exact and orderly mind, and there was no corner of the place from cellar to garret that we didn't explore. It was highly creditable to the old Tyringham servants that the house was thoroughly habitable. All that need be done before Mrs. Bashford arrived was to lay linen on the beds and take the jackets from the furniture; a couple of hours would suffice, Antoine said.
As we were on our way down-stairs the old fellow detained me a moment.
"Have you told him about the parties? Pardon me, sir," he whispered, "but him and the trust company is responsible. I thought likely you'd tell him."
I shook my head in angry rejection of the idea that I should tell Torrence about "the parties," and dismissed him as soon as we reached the hall.
"I suggest," said Torrence, "that when she comes you have flowers in all the rooms; the conservatory will supply enough. And it occurs to me that the more inconspicuous you make this bunch of lazy dependents the more agreeable it will be for Mrs. Bashford."
"You don't expect much of me! It was never in the contract that I should become the patriarch of these venerable relics. But I'll warn them to conceal themselves as much as possible. I fully expect to leave the reservation for good just one hour after the lady arrives."
"That's your affair, of course. As she's motoring, we can't just time her arrival, but when I get a wire that she's on the way I'll telephone you. And, of course, after she gets here I'll come at once to pay my respects."
"You can't come too soon!" I answered spitefully.
THE AMAZING WIDOW
As soon as Torrence left I returned to the garage, feeling that with Mrs. Bashford on American soil my use of the residence even as a loafing-place was unbecoming. Mrs. Bashford was not only in America, but with a motor at her command she might reach Barton at any hour. And the vigorous, dominating woman who had captured my uncle Bash, buried him in a far country, and then effected a hop, skip, and jump from Bangkok to Seattle, was likely to be a prodigal spender of gasoline. Her propensity for travelling encouraged the hope that she would quickly weary of Barton and pine for lands where the elephant and jinrickisha flourish.
I had brought with me the manuscript of Searles's play, and I fell upon it irritably and began reading the first act. The dialogue moved briskly, and I read on as though enfolded in the air of a crisp spring morning. It was Searles's whimsical stroke, only with a better vehicle than he had ever before found for it. My grouch over the upsetting of my plans yielded under the spell of his humor.
"Lady Larkspur" was the name assumed by the daughter of a recluse naturalist in the valley of Virginia. She had known no life but that of the open country, where she ran wild all summer, aiding her father in collecting plants and butterflies. At twenty she had never seen a city, and her social contacts had been limited to the country folk, who viewed her with commiseration as the prisoner of her misanthrope father, who in the fifteen years of his exile had maintained a hostile attitude toward his neighbors. He had, however, educated the girl in such manner that only the cheer and joy of life were known to her. Hating mankind, he had encouraged her in nature-worship. She knew no literature except the classics; all history, even the history of the storied valley in which she lived, was a sealed book to her.
The girl's curiosity is roused by the sudden appearance of strangers from the unknown world beyond, whom she mystifies by her quaint old-worldishness. Searles had taken an old theme and given a novel twist to it. The solution of the mystery of the father's exile and an amusing complication of lovers afforded a suspensive interest well sustained to the end. There were innumerable charming scenes, as where the girl in the outlandish costume in which she roamed the hills perches on a boulder and recites the "Iliad" to her suitors. In the last act she appears at a ball at a country house in sophisticated raiment, and the story ends in the key of mirth in which it began.
It was a delightful blending and modernization of Diana, Atalanta, Cinderella, and Rosalind; but even in the typewritten page it was amazingly alive and well calculated to evoke tears and laughter. That a play so enthralling should be buried in a safety-vault was not to be thought of, and I sat down and wrote Searles a long letter demanding that he at once forget the lost star for whom he had written the piece, suggesting the names of several well-known actresses I thought worth considering for the difficult leading role. Not satisfied with this, I telephoned a telegram to the agent at Barton for transmission to Searles at the Ohio address he had given me.
The next day passed without incident, and on the second, hearing nothing from Torrence, I began to doubt Mrs. Bashford's proximity. On the third, still hearing nothing, I harkened to an invitation from friends at New London and drove over in the runabout for dinner. It was midnight when I got back, and when I reached the gates several men dashed out of the lodge and halted me.
"She's come, sir," announced Antoine, emerging from the darkness, and speaking under stress of deep emotion; "madame the widow has arrived, sir!"
"Why not Cleopatra or the Queen of Sheba?" I exclaimed testily to cover my annoyance that my aunt had effected her descent in my absence. "Well, she was expected; the house is hers; what do you want me to do about it?" I ended with affected jocularity.
"We received her the best we could; but it was most unfortunate, your not being here, sir."
"Is that your idea, Antoine, or do you reflect the lady's sentiments? I'm properly humiliated either way. Tell me just what she said."
"Well, sir, she just laughed when I took the liberty of apologizing."
"The sneering laughter of outraged dignity! Go ahead and give me the rest of it."
"It was at ten she came, sir, and the guard held her up, not recognizing her, here at the gate, and when the car didn't stop the boys chased her and fired at the tires of her machine. It was very dreadful, sir. And at the house—at the door, sir—the guard was very harsh with her, sir, most regrettable."
"You certainly made a mess of it!" I ejaculated. "But you did let her in—into her own house, we must remember—you did grant her the courtesy of a lodging for the night?" I inquired ironically.
"She's retired, sir. There was a lady with her; maybe a maid; I can't exactly say; and we did everything, sir, to make her comfortable. She was not what you might say fussy, sir, but quite human-like. We was all relieved, sir, the way she took everything. I hope you'll pardon us, sir, which was due to not being warned."
"Oh, it's all right with me, but in the morning she'll probably bounce the whole lot of us. An old lady fatigued from a journey cross country and shot at on her own premises—it's a very pretty story."
They were a picturesque lot, the ancient waiters and bell-hops grouped about Antoine with their lanterns and garden implements and firearms. Antoine was swallowing hard in his effort to continue his recital.
"You say an old lady, sir; the mistress is not really what you would call so old—not exactly, sir."
"Really a youngish party, I should say," volunteered Graves, the gardener.
Just what these veterans would call old was a matter of conjecture. "Um," I murmured, and considered the situation.
"Young or old, she would hardly relish her reception. There was a maid, and they came in a machine? Did you put up the chauffeur or did you shoot him on the spot?"
"It was a hired machine, sir; and madame sent it away. The driver was a good deal upset over the shooting. One of the rear tires was quite blown away."
"You're in luck if he doesn't have you all arrested to-morrow," I remarked consolingly.
"Mrs. Bashford seemed quite amused by the occurrence," Antoine continued. "'Wonderful America!' she kept saying after we'd got her inside. We gave her tea, which was all she asked for. She takes her tea with cream, sir. We did our best to make her comfortable. And there was a dog, sir. I recall that the master was not fond of dogs. There was never one on the place."
Antoine spoke truly; if there was anything my Uncle Bash detested it was a dog, but I reflected that a world-skipping widow who could corral so difficult a subject as my uncle would be quite capable of inspiring him with delight in the canine species. My respect for the woman's powers of persuasion was intensified by this disclosure.
She had failed to wire Torrence as she promised or he had neglected to warn me of her coming; either way it was a pretty kettle of fish, and I shuddered at the thought of facing her wholly pardonable indignation.
To make sure that nothing was required of me until morning, I drove past the house with the army hanging to the footboard. The lower rooms were dark, but lights twinkled through the second-story shutters. My aunt was established on the premises, and her coming and the circumstances of her advent constituted a good joke of which I and not she was the victim. When I reached my quarters in the garage I sat down and laughed until Flynn appeared, frightened by my noisy mirth that had penetrated to his quarters. I got rid of him and smoked a pipe and began the packing I meant to finish early in the morning.
I wakened early, rang a bell connecting my rooms with the chauffeur's end of the garage as a warning to the Flynns to prepare breakfast, and was dressed when the Irishman came in with the tray. In the absence of a morning paper I clung to him for company.
"I trust you will not be leaving, sorr," he remarked, eyeing my half-packed trunk.
"Very soon, Flynn."
"Then Elsie and I will be going too, sorr. It's most uncomfortable they're making us—Dutch and the rest. That Antoine and his army keep pesterin' us and callin' us Huns."
"You raise a very interesting question, Flynn, a very delicate question of fact and propriety. Satisfied as you and Elsie are of your entire loyalty to the United States and the associated Powers, I think you should remain, a martyr, if need be, to the great cause of world democracy."
"It's most disagreeable we find it, the wife and me," he said mournfully.
"Suffer and be strong—that's the watchword! We will hope that Mrs. Bashford is a woman of sound sense and tact who will exert herself to restore peace on her property. When I call to pay my respects and make my adieus I shall speak to her of the situation and vouch for your loyalty. You may count on me. You haven't, I suppose, seen the widow yet—she's probably sleeping late."
"Quite the contrary, sorr. She's been up and around for an hour an' more. She's been all over the place and stopped for a squint at the garage, her and the pup."
"She's been here, inspecting the garage?" I asked, glancing at my watch. It was not yet eight o'clock. The banter died out of me; clearly it had been my duty to be on hand to pilot her over the estate, or at least to receive her at the garage. "Just what was the lady's frame of mind—as to things generally. Peeved, was she, over the row last night?"
"Oh, no, sorr; quite cheerful an' friendly. She's ordered a big car from New York and told me it would be coming up to-day and to make a place for it."
Here was news indeed, destroying all my hopes that she meditated only a brief sojourn. The purchase of a machine meant definitely that she would remain for some time, perhaps for the winter. I poured a second cup of coffee, swallowed it, grabbed my hat and stick, and asked enlightment as to the course taken by Mrs. Bashford when she left the garage.
"She took the lower road, sorr, toward the Sound and stepped off quite brisk-like."
It was the serenest of September mornings, and I hurried away, thinking the cloudless blue arch, the twinkling sea, and the crisp air might serve to soften my aunt's displeasure at her hostile reception. From the conservatories I caught a glimpse of a woman on the beach—a slender, agile woman throwing a ball for the amusement of a fox-terrier. She threw the ball with a boy's free swing, occasionally varying a hot one down the shore with a toss high in air which she caught up herself before the terrier could reach it. The two were having no end of a good time. She laughed joyfully when the ball fell into her hands and the terrier barked his discomfiture and eagerness for a chance to redeem himself.
Antoine's equivocal statement as to Mrs. Bashford's age was ridiculous. Instead of the middle-aged woman whom I was prepared to meet, here was beyond question a vigorous, healthy being whose every movement spoke for youth and the joy of life. It might, after all, be the maid of whom Antoine had spoken; I advanced slowly, anxious not to break in upon her romp with the terrier—they made a charming picture—and trying to formulate an introduction. I reached a low stone wall that separated the lawn from the beach just as she effected a running pick-up of the ball. She turned swiftly and flung it straight at my head. Involuntarily I put up my hand and caught it just as she saw me and cried out—a cry of warning and contrition. I tossed the ball to the dog.
"What must you think of me!" she exclaimed. "I was blinded by the sunlight and I didn't see you—really I did not!"
"I had no business being in the way," I laughed, noting first her glowing color, her violet eyes—amazingly fine eyes they were—her fair hair with its golden glint, her plain black gown with lawn collar and wristbands. It was her age, however, that roused me to instant speculation. Twenty-five, I decided, was a maximum; more likely she was not more than twenty-two, and if I had been told that eighteen was the total of her years I shouldn't have had the heart to dispute it.
"Bob Singleton," I said and stupidly added, "and you are Mrs. Bashford?" unable for the life of me to avoid turning the statement into an inquiry.
"I am your aunt Alice," she said with a smile, putting out her hand. "Down, Rex!" she commanded the dancing terrier; "lie down; school's over now"; whereupon Rex obediently sprawled in the sand and began trying to swallow the ball.
"Wasn't that silly of me to try to kill you the first time we met!" Her eyes danced with merriment. "I didn't know, of course, that any one was about. But you made a very nice catch of it! I had expected to receive you most formally in the drawing-room, but this really serves very well. That tree down yonder is inviting; suppose we stay out here and talk a bit."
This struck me as the pleasantest thing imaginable, though I was still dazed and my tongue seemed to have died in my mouth. This girl, this wholly charming and delightful young woman, was the monstrous being I had conjectured as the globe-trotting widow who had kidnapped and married my uncle! Not only had she married my uncle Bash and in due course buried him; she had been a widow when she married him! I furtively studied her face—a face that invited scrutiny—and her candid eyes that met my gaze of wonder and frank admiration easily and without a trace of self-consciousness. On the third finger of her left hand was a slender band of gold. The thing was staggering, bewildering. She was clearly anxious to be friendly, but nothing that I had thought of saying to her fitted the situation.
"In the first place," I finally began, "I must apologize most humbly for the earnest efforts of the servants to murder you last night. Mr. Torrence had promised to let me know when you would reach here, but he must have forgotten it. I had motored to a friend's house to dine and didn't get back until the mischief was done. I'm very sorry. You must have thought you had driven into a camp of savages!"
"Not for worlds would I have missed that," she exclaimed with a merry laugh. "It was perfectly delicious! And it was all my fault. I meant to remain a day at Hartford, you know, and send a message to Mr. Torrence from there, but I found that by pushing on I could reach here yesterday. Then the machine I hired showed every weakness that motors are subject to and we were hours later than the Hartford garage man promised. And you know we English always expect strange things to happen in America. I don't understand yet why those people at the gates were so jolly anxious to kill us; but it doesn't matter; you would only spoil the joke by explaining it."
However, I did my best—it was a weak attempt—to explain the nervousness of the veteran servants and their display of violence. Her arrival made it likely that we should soon know more about the "parties" whose visits and inquiries had so alarmed Antoine and his comrades. Now that I saw Mrs. Bashford the idea that any one could entertain malevolent designs upon her was more preposterous than ever, and I resolved that she must be shielded from annoyances of every kind. I told her with all the humor I could throw into the recital of the drilling of the bell-hops and of the uncomfortable relations between the Allied forces and the Teutonic minority on the estate.
"It was dear of Mr. Bashford to provide a home for these people; wasn't he really the kindest soul that ever lived?" she said softly.
She gazed wistfully seaward, and I saw the gleam of tears on her long lashes. My uncle had, then, meant something to her! No one, in speech or manner, could have suggested the adventuress less; Uncle Bash was a gentleman, a man of aesthetic tastes, and the girl was adorable. More remarkable things had happened in the history of love and marriage than that two such persons, meeting in a far corner of the world, would honestly care for each other. My respect for Uncle Bash grew; he had married the most attractive girl in the world, and here she was with the bloom of her girlhood upon her, tripping alone through a world that might have been created merely that she might confer light and cheer upon it.
"You stopped at Hartford," I began, breaking a long silence. "You have friends there——?"
"Not one! I had made a pious pilgrimage to Mark Twain's last home at Redding, and, hearing that he had lived at Hartford, I came through there to render my fullest homage. He has always been one of my heroes, you know." She laughingly lifted her hands and counted upon her fingers—"'The Jumping Frog,' Tom and Huck, and 'Mulberry Sellers,' 'The Prince and the Pauper,' and 'Pudd'nhead Wilson'! I know them all by heart!"
"Our introduction is complete," I said reverently. "Let's consider ourselves old friends."
"I rather thought we'd understand each other," she said in her even, mellow tones. "You know, we had your photograph out East—a very good one, it seems—so I had an idea of what you looked like."
"The photograph gave you an unfair advantage! And I didn't know Uncle Bash carried one away with him."
"He was very fond of you," she said gravely. "He was very proud that you had gone into the war."
"I am glad to hear that; I thought he disapproved of me for refusing to go into business. He offered me a substantial interest before he sold out."
"I know that; but I think he liked you rather better for refusing it. Business with him was merely a means to an end. And it was doubly sad that he should die just when he was free to enjoy the beautiful things he loved."
It was at the tip of my tongue to say that the loss of her companionship was even more grievous; but nothing in her manner invited such a comment. Her grave moods were to be respected, and she talked for some time of Uncle Bash's life in the East, of his short illness and quite unexpected death.
"But I'm keeping you," she exclaimed suddenly, jumping down from the wall. "And I must finish my unpacking."
As we walked to the house I answered her questions about the neighborhood, and promised to telephone Torrence immediately of her arrival.
"You will have luncheon with us—or maybe dinner would be better—or both? Antoine told me of your bachelor establishment, but eating alone is bad for the digestion. I shall think you resent my coming if you don't dine at the house every day. Mrs. Farnsworth—my friend and companion—is a very interesting woman. I am sure you will like her."
The information that she was protected in her youthful widowhood by a companion was imparted neatly.
"It was really much nicer, meeting this way," she said, giving me her hand. "We shall expect you at seven."
I found them on the veranda, which had been transformed since my last glimpse of it. Rugs, wicker furniture, wall-pockets of flowers, and paper lanterns dropped over the electric lights gave it the appearance of a prettily set scene. She came toward me, a slender figure in white. She seemed taller in white; as she took a few steps toward me, I was aware of a stateliness I had missed at the shore. A queenly young person, but as unaffectedly cordial and friendly as in the bright morning sunlight.
"Mrs. Farnsworth, Mr. Singleton."
Mrs. Farnsworth was a pleasant-faced, white-haired woman with remarkably fine, dark eyes. If the positions had been changed—if Mrs. Farnsworth had been my uncle's choice of a wife, the situation would have been much more real. I instantly liked Mrs. Farnsworth. She uttered a few commonplaces in an uncommonplace tone without pausing in her knitting. Mrs. Bashford had been knitting too, and as she sat down she took up her yarn and needles. It was a sweater, I think; it doesn't matter. What matters is that her hands moved swiftly and deftly. Her manner of knitting was charming. She knew that I was watching her hands and remarked with a graceful turn of the head:
"For an English boy somewhere! I began by knitting for my brother and cousins, but"—her head bent lower—"that isn't for me to do any more." Her eyes, turned upon me for a moment, were bright with tears.
I was speaking of the splendid valor of Englishmen I had known in France when Antoine announced dinner.
It had been years since the house had known a woman's hand, and it was astonishing how humanized it had become in a few hours. The long dining-room, always a bare, forbidding place, had been reduced to cosey proportions by screens, and a small round table replaced the massive, oblong affair that always looked as though it had been built into the house by the carpenters.
"I found those lovely screens in the garret and thought we might as well enjoy them, and that Lang Yao jar you see on the sideboard oughtn't to be hidden in the vault."
"I am sure Uncle Bash would be happy to know you care for these things so much," I said, noting that the white roses she had chosen for the jar—I knew the choice was hers—served to emphasize the deep red of its exquisite glaze.
"I am among the unelect," remarked Mrs. Farnsworth. "When I am told that such things are beautiful I am immediately convinced. I say they are beautiful, and that is enough."
"That has always been enough for me," I replied. "My uncle used to try to interest me, and I wore out a good many pairs of shoes following him through museums and salesrooms, but he gave me up when he found that my pagan soul was aroused by nothing but pottery idols. It wasn't the pottery that interested me even there, but only the ugliest designs. I am a heathen!"
"I am gratified that you make the admission so frankly," said Mrs. Farnsworth. "I have always been a great admirer of the heathen."
"I like them when they are nice," said Mrs. Bashford.
"Yes; I have found you very discriminating in your choice of the species, Alice. But, you know, Mr. Singleton, Alice and I never can agree as to just what a heathen is. All our squabbles have been about that. The old hymn pictured the heathen in his blindness bowing down to wood and stone; but I'm disposed to broaden my definition to include all who believe in fairies good or bad, and persons who honestly believe in signs, omens, and lucky stones and all who have the receipt of fern-seed and walk invisible—there's Shakespeare for that. Some very good Christians are also very nice heathens: we mustn't be narrow and bigoted about such things."
"I think," said Mrs. Bashford soberly, "that I have always believed in witches; and if I keep on believing I shall see one some day. We shall find anything in this world that we believe in hard enough. Now a witch—the kind of witch I have always expected to wake up and find flourishing a broom at me from the foot of my bed——"
She was talking very gravely, as though witches were the commonest topic of conversation, but finding my eyes turned upon her in frank wonder, she laughed at my amazement.
"Let us be honest with you, Mr. Singleton," Mrs. Farnsworth explained, "and tell you that we are just testing you. It may be a breach of hospitality, and you are all but a stranger, but we are curious to know whether you are of that small company of the favored of heaven who can play at being foolish without becoming idiotic. Alice is sometimes very near idiocy. You admit that, Alice!"
"I not only admit it, but I might even boast of it!" my aunt replied.
At the mention of witches I had caught Antoine crossing himself as he turned to the sideboard. I confess that I myself had been startled by the drift of the talk. Mrs. Farnsworth was far from being the grim duenna I had feared might be my aunt's chaperon, and there was certainly nothing in her appearance to suggest that she was a believer in witches. She and my aunt treated each other as though they were contemporaries, and it was Alice and Constance between them. As the talk ran exhaustively through the lore of witches and goblins I had hoped that one or the other would drop some clew as to the previous history of my amazing aunt. It was as plain as day that she and Mrs. Farnsworth indulged in whims for the joy of it, and her zest in the discussion of witches, carried on while Antoine served the table, lips tightly compressed, and with an exaggeration of his stately tread, was the more startling from the fact that my aunt's companion was a woman of years, a handsome woman with a high-bred air who did not look at all like a person who would discuss witches as though they had been made the topic of the day by the afternoon newspapers. And when the shape of a witch's chin became the immediate point of discussion I knew it was in Antoine's mind that such conversation was unbecoming, an offense to the memory of Raymond Bashford. Mrs. Farnsworth's brown eyes sparkled, and the color deepened in my aunt's cheeks as we discoursed upon witches and the chins thereof. I had a friend in college who used to indulge in the same sort of piffling, but that my uncle's widow and her elderly companion should delight in such absurdities bewildered me. I had been addressing my aunt as Mrs. Bashford—it seemed ridiculous to call her Aunt Alice—and in the heat of our argument as to whether witches are necessarily naughty and malign beings I had just uttered the "Mrs." when she bent toward me and said gravely and with no hint of archness: "Can't we make it Alice and Bob? I think that would be a lot friendlier."
I experienced a curious flutter of the heart the first time I tried it, but after that it came very easily. I found it impossible to think of her in terms of auntship, and it was a relief to have the relationship waived. She was simply the jolliest, prettiest girl that had ever crossed my horizon, and to be talking to her across the table gave me thrills compared with which sliding out of clouds in an airplane is only a rocking-chair pastime for old men.
The veteran chef of the Tyringham had produced an excellent dinner, though the witch talk made Antoine a trifle nervous in serving it.
We had coffee on the veranda (Alice thought it would be nicer there), and as Antoine gave me my cup he edged close to my chair to whisper:
"That party, sir. If he should come——"
"Tell the troops not to attack any visitors," I said, loud enough for the others to hear. "Mr. Torrence will be here shortly, and it would be annoying to have him ushered in on a shutter. We must establish a rule that callers are not to be fired upon at the gate."
"I know why this is the land of the free and the home of the brave," laughed Alice. "One has to be brave to live here."
Antoine departed with a resentful twist of the shoulders, and I decided to meet squarely the matter of the visitors who had so troubled him.
"Please don't be frightened," I said as lightly as possible, "but these old fellows haven't enough to do, and they are full of apprehensions. With nobody here to keep them busy it's remarkable they haven't found a ghost."
"If they only would!" murmured Mrs. Farnsworth.
"No such luck! They have been alarmed by an agent of some sort who wants to welcome you to America by selling you a piano on easy payments."
Antoine had been hovering inside, and my remark brought him to the door.
"Beg pardon, Mr. Singleton, but that party is not an agent, but quite different, sir. He came to the house, quite like a gentleman, several times, and asked if Mrs. Bashford had arrived. He came in a big car, and seemed disappointed, madame, that you were not here and not expected. The second time he said he was just passing on his way to the city and thought he would stop again. A very well-spoken gentleman, and we'd have thought nothing of it except that a few days later I caught a man I was sure was the same party, but dressed in rough clothes, sneaking across the veranda right there where you're sitting. When I called to him he ran as hard as he could, and Graves—he's the vegetable-gardener—saw him leaving the property by the back way."
"It's hardly possible that a man who impressed you as a gentleman when you saw him at the door should have returned in disguise and tried to break into the house. The two things don't hang together, Antoine."
"Oh," exclaimed Mrs. Farnsworth, "it would be so much more delightful if that were true! Any one in disguise is bound to be interesting. A disguise suggests most beautiful possibilities. And to be sought, asked for by a stranger!"
I could not be sure in the dim light of the veranda, but I thought I detected a white slipper cautiously reach out and touch a black one. At any rate, Mrs. Farnsworth lapsed into silence.
"Thank you very much, Antoine," said Alice. "It is very proper for you to tell me anything of any stranger on the property, but I see nothing here to be alarmed about. If the same gentleman calls again, let me know instantly."
"Very good, madame." And then, turning as though conferring upon me a part of his responsibility for the security of the premises: "It's a party with a limp; just a trifling limp, sir; you'd hardly notice it. It was worse the last time as he ran away. A smallish man, rather dark, with a little mustache turned up at the ends."
"I have noted all these details, Antoine," I replied; and again I thought there was a telegraphic exchange between the ladies, though this time a black slipper was the means of communication.
Torrence arrived in a moment, and nothing has ever given me keener joy than his shock of surprise at beholding Mrs. Bashford. As I introduced the ladies he was so overcome that he greeted Mrs. Farnsworth as Mrs. Bashford—a not unnatural mistake—and there was an embarrassing moment as I set him right. Having done this, I seated myself beside Mrs. Farnsworth that Torrence might be free to talk business with my aunt. I was devoutly grateful that he had not been present at the dinner-table, for my own efforts to interest Torrence in anything but the most practical matters had always been highly unsuccessful, and the discussion of ghosts and witches would hardly have amused him. As Mrs. Farnsworth and I took up the recent movements on the western front I overheard Torrence putting all the machinery of the trust company at Mrs. Bashford's disposal. It seemed almost a blasphemy to be talking of income and like matters to a woman like Alice Bashford!
They continued their conference for some time, but I got nothing out of Mrs. Farnsworth that shed any light on my aunt's history beyond what she had told me herself, which was precious little. Mrs. Farnsworth's talk was that of a cultivated woman. Her voice interested me unaccountably; the tones had all manner of shadings and inflections; it was curiously musical, but in speaking of the great war a passionate note crept into it that stirred me deeply.
"This has been a dark year for Alice," she remarked. "Mr. Bashford's death, followed quickly by that of her brother—an only son—piled a cruel burden of grief upon the dear child. She wants to go back to England to nurse the wounded, to do anything for our dear country, but I want to keep her here a little while until she can readjust herself. You must not think, Mr. Singleton, that she has no feeling; you have no idea of the depths of that child's nature; they are unfathomable! It is my task to encourage her in frivolity and the make-believe she loves—hence our absurdities at the table. She's the drollest child, but with wonderful understanding. And at times it's not easy to keep the divine spark of play alive in her heart."
The light of one of the porch lamps fell upon Alice's face as she patiently gave heed to Torrence's account of his stewardship. One of her hands gently stroked the terrier that lay quietly in a chair beside her. I was sure that his painstaking description of assets and market values was boring her. Once her voice rose in expostulation. Torrence, I judged, was suggesting that legal means could be found to expel the old Tyringham employees from the Barton property.
"Oh, never in the world! It was quite like Mr. Bashford to want to care for these people in their old age. And"—she laughed and turned toward me—"they can't be dislodged while Bob lives; and we don't want to part with him just yet."
I was glad to have him hear her address me in this intimate fashion. Torry always inspired in me a desire to shock him. He was trying to assure Alice that his only concern was to make her comfortable; he wished to save her from every annoyance and that sort of thing.
"I shall help Alice to break them in, Torry," I said, lingering upon her name for his special edification.
"Of course, Singleton," he replied. "I wasn't sure you meant to stay on. Pardon me, but I didn't——"
"Oh, it isn't that Bob hasn't a right to stay," said Alice quickly; "Mrs. Farnsworth and I are hoping that he will like us well enough to share our exile on other accounts. We are so unfamiliar with everything American that it would be most unkind for him to desert us."
"I am engaging Mr. Singleton to explain American jokes to me," announced Mrs. Farnsworth. "Alice seems to get them, but I'm never sure."
It is a part of Torrence's business to counsel widows, which he does like the honorable man he is, but as he rose to go presently, remarking that his wife would motor down to call shortly, I caught a glimpse of his face that indicated deep perplexity. I wanted to warn him that Alice Bashford was not an ordinary widow, who vexes officers of trust companies with foolish questions and is prone to overdraw her account, so I left when he did.
"I want to talk to you," he said nervously when we were outside. "I'll send the car ahead to the gate."
When the shrubbery cut us off from the house he stopped abruptly and seized my arm. "What do you make of it?" he demanded.
"Make of what?" I asked.
"That girl!" he exclaimed testily.
"If you insist, I must avow that she's adorable, nothing else."
"Don't be a fool! You knew Raymond Bashford much better than I did, and you know perfectly well he never married a young girl of that sort! Those women are playing a trick, and I'm surprised that you don't see through it."
"My uncle was a man of taste and a gentleman," I answered deliberately. "There's nothing in the least improbable in his being infatuated with a young woman of charm and wit like this girl. And it is hardly profitable or decent to speculate as to her interest in him. You mustn't forget that Uncle Bash was an unusual man, a man with whom a young girl might easily fall in love without reference to his age or money or anything else."
"I tell you it won't do," he insisted. "If either of those women at the house is Raymond Bashford's widow, it's the one who calls herself Farnsworth."
"You did your best to convict them of fraud the first jump out of the box," I said, laughing at the recollection of his confusion when I introduced him.
"My mistake was a natural one," he said defensively. "They're playing a game of some kind and it's no laughing matter, but it won't take long to find out what they're up to."
"You'll hardly go the length of having them arrested as imposters, Torrence—not without some data to work on!"
"Certainly not. You seem to be hitting it off with both of them, but I advise you to be on guard. Are you sure your uncle never sent you his wife's photograph? That would have been a perfectly natural thing to do."
"If I'd got a photograph, I should have headed for Japan, not for France." I laughed, but I was thinking deeply. His line of reasoning as to the incongruity of the marriage was not so different from my own that I could sneer at his suspicions. Very convincingly, as became a practical-minded man, he expanded his views as to the unlikelihood of my uncle's marrying a girl but little beyond school age. I shrank from telling him that I didn't care a hang whether the widow was a fraud or not. If the two women who had settled themselves on the Barton estate were imposters, they were extraordinarily daring and clever. My attitude toward them was wholly defensive. If women of their quality were perpetrating a fraud, I was for giving them every chance, and I had no intention of allowing Torrence to spoil the unfolding of the conspiracy.
We were nearing a gateway where his car waited, and I saw several of the guard hanging about at a discreet distance. "Look here, Singleton," he said angrily, "you don't seem to take this business very seriously. You don't want to make the mistake of letting a pretty girl pull the wool over your eyes. If we're not careful, we're all of us likely to get into trouble." He lowered his voice and added tensely: "Those women are under suspicion of something more serious than an attempt to rob an estate. An agent of the American State Department called on me yesterday and asked embarrassing questions about Mrs. Bashford. Not a Secret Service man, you understand, or anything of that kind, but an important man in the State Department."
"Of course you knew nothing to tell," I suggested as he beat the walk impatiently with his stick.
"I took a chance at lying to him about her expected arrival. I thought it only decent to have a look at the woman first. He told me nothing except that the British Embassy had made inquiries and that the matter was delicate and must be handled carefully."
"Was this inquirer lame—a small dark man with a black mustache?" I asked, suddenly interested. "Such a person has been hanging about here, so the boys tell me?"
"Not at all! I may as well tell you it was Raynor—you probably remember him. He's a specialist in international law, and they took him into the State Department just after the Lusitania business. He's a gentleman and a good fellow—I've played golf with him a good deal—and I hated to lie to him. Of course, with the whole United States back of him he can pursue his inquiries without my help; but I thought I'd see this woman before telling him she had reached America."
I confess that I was a trifle dismayed by this. Raynor I knew slightly. Professionally and socially he stood high, and even without the prestige of his official position he was not a chap to sneeze at; but I didn't want Torrence to know I had any doubts as to the perfect authenticity of my uncle's widow.
"Oh, every transcontinental pilgrim is probably scrutinized closely these days," I remarked carelessly. "Mrs. Bashford has lost a brother in the war, and I haven't heard any one talk more bitterly against Germany. And her companion certainly has no illusions about the Kaiser. You'd have to show me the proof to make me believe we're harboring spies."
"I don't like the business," he declared stubbornly.
"Let's do nothing foolish," I insisted. "If Raynor has reason to suspect either or both of these women, we'll hear further from him."
"I've put myself in a hole," he said angrily. "Of course I've got to advise him immediately that Mrs. Bashford is here. I promised to let him know as soon as I heard from her."
"Just wait a few days; I undertake to keep them under surveillance; you can put the whole responsibility on me. If they attempt to leave, I'll warn you and Raynor instantly, but they have settled themselves as though they expected to spend the rest of their lives here. Remembering your visit the other night, you ought to be satisfied with the policing of the place!"
I told him of Mrs. Bashford's adventures in reaching the house without convincing him that there was anything funny in her experiences, and he left on my promise to report to him daily at a given hour and instantly if anything unusual occurred. I waited for the guards to lock the gates and bade them keep watch every night until further orders, and was on my way back through the grounds when Antoine arrested me.
"Pardon me, but I'd like to ask what you think of it, sir?" he asked hoarsely, falling into step.
"If you mean what do I think of Mrs. Bashford," I replied sharply, "I think she's quite charming and delightful and all any one could ask in every way."
"It's her manner of speaking of spookish things, Mr. Singleton. It doesn't seem fitting in a widow and her so lately bereaved. And the older lady's quite as bad, sir. The maids tell me they keep talking all day about fairies and pretending they're queens and such like, and talking poetry to each other."
"Quoting poetry is a harmless amusement, Antoine, and believing in fairies and goblins is no crime. Such pastimes argue for sweetness and innocence of character."
"But the late master never indulged in such things, sir."
"He would have lived longer if he had! It was probably the poetry and fairies that attracted him to Mrs. Bashford."
"Yes, sir," he acquiesced with a gulp. "I suppose you're right, sir."
"You should be grateful to Mrs. Bashford for not bouncing you all for the row you made last night. It could be done; in fact, Mr. Torrence has suggested that legal means could be found for getting rid of you."
"That would be very sad, sir," he said humbly.
"Isn't Mrs. Bashford kind to you? Hasn't she taken pains to make you all feel at home?"
"Well, yes, sir. But she's taken Elsie back into the house, and there's no work for her, there being two women in the laundry already; and she's told me Dutch must be given his old place in charge of the poultry; and both being Germans, you will recall."
"It's just her kind heart, you idiot! You've all been spoiled; that's what's the matter with you. Elsie and Dutch are as law-abiding and honest as the best of you."
"It causes feeling; that's all, sir."
"It needn't cause it if you brace up and act like a man," I retorted. Then, sorry I had been so harsh, I added: "We must take good care of Mrs. Bashford, Antoine. It would be your old master's wish. It will do no harm to keep a guard at the house for the present in case your mysterious stranger turns up again."
He couldn't have failed to note my change of tone about the unknown visitor, but he made no comment.
"The guard's set, sir; front and rear."
"While there's no danger whatever it's just as well to take no chances. Please tell the boys to send for me immediately at any hour of the night if they see any prowlers about."
"Very good, sir. But if you please, sir"—he had reached the garage and he lingered, fingering his hat nervously—"if it wasn't for the ladies talking about spirits, we'd all feel better, sir. It's creepy, sir, all the talk about witches and ghosts, no matter what names you call 'em by."
"You're far from being a fool, Antoine. Those ladies just play at believing in such rubbish. If they really believed in ghosts, you may be sure they wouldn't talk about it at table before strangers like you and me."
Though this seemed to impress him, a moment later, as I was drawing down the shades in my bedroom, I saw him running across the lawn like a frightened rabbit.
The morning mail brought a letter from Searles acknowledging my congratulations on his play. While my enthusiastic praise pleased him, he was very scornful of my suggestions about available stars, and seemed even more depressed than when he talked to me.
"It's impossible for me to plan other work. 'Lady Larkspur' ate the soul out of me. I'm done; finished, clean out of the running. There's only this to report. I had a letter from Dalton saying that some time ago he asked at the hotel where he sent the script of 'Lady Larkspur' to know whether Miss Dewing had sent a forwarding address. He had to see the manager before he got any satisfaction, but he did learn that her accumulated mail had been called for by some one whose identity was not disclosed. Of course this isn't much to hang a hope on, but if that play is what I think it is and Miss Violet Dewing ever reads it she's going to jump for the telegraph office the moment she finishes the last act. I have no plans for returning East; the folks at home let me do as I please, and it's a relief to be in seclusion where I hear nothing of the doings of Broadway. I hope your ancient globe-trotting aunt still lingers in the Far East! Keep the ink flowing, son. That novel ought to be well under way when I get back."
The tale I had begun seemed utter trash in comparison with the story of Alice Bashford, in which, much against my will, I had become a minor character. I had rather prided myself on my ability to see through a plot in the first chapter of the most complicated mystery story, but there were points in this unwritten tale that baffled me.
I kept away from the house until dinnertime, when I was received quite as an old friend by Alice and Mrs. Farnsworth. The table talk was of Celtic poetry, and proved less disturbing to Antoine than the previous night's discussion of ghosts.
Their day had been spent, they explained, in a further examination of my uncle's Japanese loot, and they had taken a long walk beyond the estate's boundaries and were enthusiastic about the landscape.
"It's so beautifully peaceful all about here," Alice murmured. "I feel that I never want to move again."
"That's a real tribute to America," Mrs. Farnsworth remarked; "for Alice dearly loves new scenes. She inherited a taste for travel from her father, who put some new places on the maps, you know."
I didn't know and I wanted to ask questions about Alice's father, but as though anxious to frustrate such inquiries my aunt asked how close we were to the place made famous by Israel Putnam's spectacular escape from the British. She had read the story and would motor to the scene, she declared. It was quite clear that there were chapters in her life that were not to be opened for my perusal. No sooner had I caught a glimpse of a promising page than the book was politely closed. A curtain hung between the immediate present at Barton-on-the-Sound and other scenes and incidents of the girl's life; and Mrs. Farnsworth was equally detached from any tangible background. It seemed that I might meet them daily for the rest of my life in this same friendly fashion without adding a particle to my knowledge of them.
I became alert immediately when, as we rose from the table, Alice said, with the air of asking an unimportant favor:
"We were speaking last night of a man who has been asking for us here. His visits have alarmed the servants, but there is nothing to fear from him. You know"—she smiled at Mrs. Farnsworth—"it's rather he who seems to fear us; that, at least, is our impression, though we have no idea why he should do so. Still, it's rather good fun to find yourself an object of special attention and to be followed, even pursued. We've even led him on a little, haven't we, Constance?"
Mrs. Farnsworth laughingly admitted that they had led the gentleman on a trifle, "but with all circumspection," she protested.
"We met him here and there in Tokyo, and later were surprised to find him crossing on our steamer. We threw him off in the Canadian Rockies, where we stopped for a day, and eluded him in Chicago, where he was evidently lying in wait for us."
"Delightful!" I exclaimed.
"But please don't get the idea that the man annoys us," interposed Mrs. Farnsworth.
"Far from it!" cried Alice.
"You've seen enough of us perhaps to understand that we enjoy little adventures," said Mrs. Farnsworth. "The man pretends to be interested in Mr. Bashford's art treasures. Antoine's story about the disguise is rather against that; but we will give him the benefit of the doubt. What we are hoping is that something really amusing may come of his persistent pursuit. With you and the army of servants here we feel perfectly safe; so we're for giving him every chance to show his hand."
"He is the Count Giuseppe Montani," said my aunt, "who represents himself as a connoisseur—a lover of the beautiful."
"The mystery is solved! It is easy to understand why he has haunted the place."
"Yes; quite easy. Count Montani is very anxious to see the porcelains."
"I wasn't referring to the pottery; but I shan't press the matter."
"I advise you not to; your remark was highly improper from a nephew to an aunt! I have told you about all I know of this Italian gentleman. I am going to ask a favor. He telephoned from Stamford this afternoon to know whether we had arrived, and I bade him call to-night. I should be glad if you would remain until he leaves. I should like to know what you make of him."
"Certainly," I assented, pleased that she had taken me into her confidence and deeply curious as to the Italian connoisseur. What she had told so frankly and plausibly did not, however, touch upon the matter of the interest shown by the American State Department in my aunt's arrival at Barton, which troubled me much more than the antics of the Italian who had followed the women across the Pacific.
Count Montani arrived shortly and was received in the drawing-room. The ladies greeted him with the greatest cordiality. As he crossed the room I verified the limp and other points of Antoine's description. His bearing was that of a gentleman; and in his very correct evening dress he hardly looked like a man who would disguise himself and attempt to rob a house. He spoke English all but perfectly and proceeded at once to talk a great deal.