- CHAPTER XX THE CLOSED HOUSE
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THE CLOSED HOUSE
"IT'S all right," said Lily. "Don't you remember I told you the house was lent to my artist friend by the folks who own it and who've gone away for the summer to the seashore? The front door and windows were boarded up, I guess, like they always are, before the house was lent. My friend lives in the back part, and the caretaker looks after everything, but it's awful nice. You needn't be afraid you're goin' to waste your grand dress. Say, it's some swell street, ain't it?"
Lil talked fast and slid an arm through Win's in the thin silk kimono cloak, encouraging her to mount the steps. But Win objected to being hustled. She paused to look up at the house front which—like all its neighbours except a big, lighted building at the corner, that had the air of being a club—had apparently been put to sleep for the summer months.
The dark-brown facades were expressionless as the faces of mummies. Smooth boards had been neatly fitted into the window-frames and made to cover front doors. There seemed at first glance to be no way in, but as Winifred slowly ascended the steps of the fourth house from the corner she made out the lines of a little door cut in the boards which protected the big one. There was no handle to break the smooth, unpainted surface of wood—old, well-seasoned wood which had evidently served the same purpose year after year—but there was a small, inconspicuous keyhole, and into | | 223 this Miss Leavitt deftly fixed a key which she took from her hand-bag.
"My friend sent me this," she explained, "to save us waiting, 'cause there's only one servant, and he might be busy. Say, this is real fun, ain't it?"
"It's—it's quite like a sort of adventure," Win answered. "I had no idea the house would be shut up, or——"
"It'll make it all the cooler," said Lily. She had got the little door open, and the space between it and the house door it protected could be seen in the street lights, like a miniature vestibule. "Squeeze in and feel around till you find the electric bell," she went on. "Some one'll open the real door, and I can lock up behind us."
"Why lock up?" argued Win, hesitating. "Aren't there others coming?'
"My, yes, unless they're all here. But it wouldn't do to leave a cover-up door like this standing open. If the police happened along and saw, they'd think there was something wrong and make my friend a whole lot of bother."
Win saw the force of this explanation, and stooping to pass through the low aperture, found herself close to a pretentiously carved portal. The electric bell revealed itself to groping fingers, and to her surprise, a few seconds after she had touched it without hearing a sound, the door opened.
In the dimness of a hall or large vestibule the figure of a man loomed black against dark grey. Win could see of him only that he was tall and straight and prim, like a well-trained servant, and his voice was a servant's voice as he said: "Please be a little careful, miss, not to trip. We have to keep it rather dark here, but there's plenty of light inside. Let me show you through the hall."| | 224
Win thanked him, but turned inside the door to ask: "Aren't you coming, Miss Leavitt?" (They had never been upon Christian-name terms.)
"Yes, I'm just turning the key," replied Lily. "Go along. I'll follow."
Win went on through the dusk, dimly seeing panelled walls. She heard the door shut sharply behind her and supposed that Lily had come in, but at the same instant another door opened ahead and a soft wave of rosy light flowed out.
"Walk in, if you please, miss," requested the tall servant, standing attentive, and mechanically Win obeyed.
Lily Leavitt had not exaggerated—this was a "swell house," and "cool as snow." The room into which she had been ushered was a dining-room, and at first glance was all one rosy glow—walls, drawn curtains, thick, mossy carpet, brocade-upholstered furniture, lamp and candle shades. The table was a shining bunch of lilies in a garden of deep-red roses seen at sunset, and the glitter of silver and gleam of glass was a bright sprinkle of dewdrops catching the red western light.
It was so long since Win had been in a pretty room or had seen a charmingly decorated table that for a few seconds she lost herself in the sheer joy of beauty. The sunset-garden simile flashed into her mind and pleased her. She was glad that she had come. The guests might be uninteresting, of the Lily Leavitt sort, and the artists might be so called only by themselves. The room might be over-gorgeous by daylight, but it was beautiful thus lighted, with a rosy radiance from above bringing out the whiteness of damask, the snow-purity of camellias crowding a crystal bowl, and the ruby splendour of strawberries piled on their own leaves.
What a wonderful sight after months of the Hands restaurant and free lunches with five-cent chocolate | | 225 in busy drug-stores! Oh, yes, she was glad she had come, and she must look, look, look at this beautiful picture, so that she might remember its details and hold it before her eyes, like a delicately painted transparency, in front of future realities.
But it was in carrying out this intention, in taking in the details, that Win's heart suddenly bounded and then missed a beat. The table had two chairs drawn up to it. It was small and round, and on it only two places were laid.
Win turned her head and looked for Lily Leavitt. Lily was not there, neither was the tall, respectable servant. But a smiling man in evening dress was just coming into the room with the ingratiating air of one who is a little late for an appointment.
"How do you do, Miss Child?" Jim Logan cordially inquired, holding out his hand. "This is mighty good of you!"
A thousand thoughts whirled after each other through the girl's head, like the mechanical horses on a circular toy race-course, such as she had often sold at Peter Rolls's. Round and round they wildly turned for an instant, then began to slow down.
This house was closed for the summer. The front was boarded up, and perhaps the back windows also. No lights could be seen, and probably no sounds heard. Two places only were laid for supper. Lily, then, had gone—had always meant to go and leave her here, had been bribed to bring her and go. Oh, but it must have been a big bribe this time, for surely Lily Leavitt would never dare look her in the face again! One of them would have to disappear from the Mantle department of the Hands. Was Logan giving Lily enough money to make up for a sacrifice of all those commissions, or—did Lily think that after to-night she—Winifred Child—would never come back to Peter Rolls's?| | 226
As that question asked itself loud bells jangled in Win's head. She felt as if she were losing her senses. But no, she must not—must not do that. Never in her life had she so much need to keep them all as now, in this locked house, where she had no help to hope for save what her own wits might give and no one could hear or see what happened to her except this smiling man and his well-trained servant. For all outside this was an empty house.
She steadied herself, the more readily because something in the narrow eyes twinkling into hers said that Jim Logan had expected her to scream and make a scene. Never until now had she imagined it possible to be afraid of him. In the park, when he had stopped his car to follow and speak to her, she had been a little startled, a good deal annoyed. Then, when Ursus had opportunely arrived to frighten him away as easily as the Spider frightened Miss Muffet, she had been impishly amused.
In Toys at Peter Rolls's she had been vexed, irritated, but never hotly angry. The young man's persistence had not seemed serious enough to call "persecution." She had rather enjoyed "shunting" him off upon Lily Leavitt and thwarting him through Cupid and Earl Usher. It had never occurred to her that behind the unfailing smile and the twinkling grey eyes the brutal ferocity of the animal might lurk.
She had thought that he had forgotten her long ago and turned his attentions elsewhere. What girl, unless silly and Victorian, would be afraid of a creature who lived for the sleekness of his hair and the spick-and-spanness of his clothes? Yet now Win was afraid, and she did not think it was because she had suddenly become silly or Victorian. This aquiline-faced young man with the prominent jaw was looking at her as the primitive brute looks at the prey under his paws, and if he smiled | | 227 and twinkled it was but as the primitive brute might purr.
Winifred thought of this, and she thought, too, that when the prey had presence of mind to feign sleep or death the brute was said not to kill, after all.
She did not put her hand into the hand that Logan held out, but neither did she turn to run from him. "This is quite a surprise," she remarked quietly.
"A pleasant surprise, I hope?" he suggested.
"A sort of practical joke, I suppose," the girl said.
"Well, yes, that's just what it is," Logan smiled, evidently wondering at her calmness and not sure whether to take it as a good or bad omen. "It seemed to be the only way I could get you to accept any invitation of mine."
"Rather a high-handed way!" said Win, shrugging her shoulders. "Still—here I am. This seems to be a nice house. Is it yours?"
"It's my father's. We're all supposed to be somewhere else for the summer. But I run in sometimes. My servant looks after me. He's as devoted as the servants in books. I pay him to be. There's nothing I want done that he wouldn't do."
"He appears to have made you a very nice supper." Win's eyes rested on the table.
"Nothing could be too good for you. If I've got you here—well, sort of under false pretences, there'll be no false pretences about anything else now I have got you. There's a little surprise in those flowers by your plate. I hope you'll like it."
"A peace offering?" suggested Win lightly.
"Yes. And a love token. You know I've been in love with you, you bewitching thing, just madly in love, since that night in the park. I never rested till I saw you again at Peter Rolls's. And then I knew I couldn't rest until——"| | 228
"Wait!" exclaimed Win, putting out both hands to hold him off as he came close. "Wait—please!" She still spoke lightly. "I'm your guest. I quite understand that 'might makes right'! But there's another law—the law of hospitality, isn't there? This is—a great adventure. Let me get into the spirit of it before you say or do any more. Give me time—to breathe. Where may I put my cloak? Perhaps you've a long mirror somewhere? I want to see if I'm beautiful enough for my background."
Logan yielded to the hands which pushed him away. It charmed him that this tall, spirited creature was taking things in a debonair way. He thought it splendid that she should talk of an adventure and of entering into the spirit of it. If she had made a fuss and tried to escape and refused to eat supper with him there would have been some pleasure in conquering, but not the same pleasure there would be in a jolly little supper with a pretty girl who gaily acknowledged that the "joke was on her" and then making love to her afterwards.
Not that he quite trusted the strange creature yet. She might be like a kitten that submits to be petted while lying in wait for its chance to spring. But this kitten might lie in wait as long as it liked. The chance to spring wouldn't come. By and by the kitten would discover that fact if the hope were in its mind, for he meant business this time.
"There's a room next door my mother and sister use for their boudoir," he said graciously. "It's full of long mirrors, and you can have all the electric light you want, but the furniture's covered up. The dining-room and my den are the only places that are ship-shape, I'm afraid."
Logan walked out into the hall and threw open one of the doors that opened into it. "Here you are!" | | 229 he announced, switching on a blaze of electric light that showed a small room shrouded in white covers. "The first thing you see is a life-size picture of yourself. I guess that's what you want."
"You have guessed right. You deserve a prize," Win answered.
In the lighted boudoir a mirror faced the door.
"Will you give me a few minutes to myself?" she asked. "I may just as well confess that this surprise of yours has—gone to my head a little, as your champagne probably will—when I drink it. The hot weather has been taking it out of me horribly, and I'm not very strong. If I may sit still for five minutes and shut my eyes and think, why—I'm sure I shall be a more amusing guest at supper."
Logan, who had touched the electric-light switch inside the door, stood on the threshold, barring the way. Win did not try to push past him, nor did she show any impatience, nor even eagerness. He stared her in the eyes as if to ask: "What trick do you hope to play, I wonder? Do you think I'm such a blamed idiot as to leave a way out open after all the trouble and expense I've put myself to on your account?"
But being perfectly sure that there was no way out, no trick in her power seemed worth worrying about—unless she had some melodramatic little bottle of poison concealed about her which she would drain and die, like the heroine of an old-fashioned play. He was certain that the brave, vital young creature who had seized his fancy would do nothing of the kind, however, and he felt that it was safe to humour her.
"You can even go to sleep on the sofa, if you like, provided you'll promise to dream of me," he said, "and if you'll let me come and wake you up. Oh, I've caught you looking at the keyhole! There's no key in it, you see, for me to lock you in—or for you to lock me out."| | 230
"Neither of us would be so medieval, would we?" she laughed. "That would be a silly way to begin the evening. Now that I am here I am going to make the very, very best of it, I promise you!"
"That's right! You're the girl of my heart!" said Logan, and, stepping away from the door, let her walk into the lighted boudoir.
Gently and slowly, almost coquettishly, she shut him out, smiling into his face until the oak panels had closed between him and her.
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