- CHAPTER XXII THE FRAGRANCE OF FRESIAS
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THE FRAGRANCE OF FRESIAS
WINIFRED CHILD had been in this house, or else she had sold or given the Moon dress to another girl who had been here. Thoughts were flashing through Peter's brain with the sharp quickness of motion pictures following one another to a far conclusion. Of the girl he could not be sure. The lost dryad, needing money more than she needed a smart evening gown, might well have disposed of Ena's gift. And yet Petro had—strangely enough it had seemed to him then—thought of Winifred and the mysterious "dryad door" on the Monarchic the moment he came into this place.
The perfume of the mirror room was here—the perfume which made Nadine's model dresses delicately fragrant of spring flowers; fresias, the youngest dryad had said the Moon dress flowers were; and since then Peter had asked for fresias at the florist's, requested the Scottish head gardener to plant fresias in the garden, and had kept fresias in his room to call back old dreams. If the dryad had sold her dress, would the fresia fragrance haunt it still? Petro thought not. The other woman would have given it her own special perfume. Only in the possession of a dryad would it have retained this scent.
Winifred Child had been here, then—in Logan's dining-room near Logan's table laid so alluringly for a supper en tête-à-tête!
This idea, passing through several phases, had shaped | | 244 itself clearly in Peter Rolls's mind by the time the policeman's round black head had come up from under the table. And it was because of the idea that he sat down deliberately on the film of chiffon. He did not want questions to be asked, or Winifred Child's name to be mentioned in this business, at all events, until he had made up his mind what to do.
There was still time to make it up, and speak if necessary, while the detectives were on the spot, for Logan had offered them champagne and they had accepted now they were sure that all parties had been victimized by a practical joker. "Girls' drink" was not for the guardians of New York, and Sims was opening two frosty-looking bottles of the "real thing" just produced from some household iceberg. The men would not go for several moments yet.
Winifred Child had listened to Ena Rolls's warnings and had taken them deeply to heart. It had seemed to her impossible that a sister could, for any motive whatever, calumniate a brother whom she loved. And then, Win had reminded herself that her own ignorance of men was profound. They were said to be "all alike" in some dreadful ways, even those who seemed the noblest, the most chivalrous—or more especially those. So she had believed Ena's words, against her own instinct, and had not told herself that she lacked her favourite virtue—loyalty.
But with Peter it was exactly the opposite. He trusted his instinct before everything, and though he thought that his lost dryad had been in this shut-up house with Jim Logan, he knew that she had come innocently.
Somehow Logan had met her, admired her (that went without saying), and tricked her into the place. When she had understood the trick she had, of course, tried to get away. (Why, if proof were needed, was | | 245 not the torn wisp of chiffon enough?) Her quick intelligence had suggested the telephone, and somehow she had contrived to call the police before she could be stopped by Logan.
Yes, that was like her! Then Logan had been scared and let her go, lest she should be found and he should get into disgrace. This was the natural thing for such a man to do in the circumstances, and equally natural that he should dash out to find a supper companion—some accommodating fellow whose presence would account for the table with its two places.
But that he—he, of all men in New York, should be the accommodating fellow found to screen the beast from punishment! This was the astounding thing—the terrible thing—and yet, the providential thing. Through Logan and the coincidence which had brought them together at a certain moment in the hall of the New Cosmopolitan Club Petro told himself that he would by and by reach Winifred Child. It was a hateful combination of circumstances; but finding her thus would be no worse than discovering a rare jewel in a toad's head.
While the two detectives tossed off their champagne Peter Rolls sat still, his thoughts flashing on behind a face deprived of all expression, as a screen of motionless dark trees can hide the white rush and sparkle of a cataract. His vague contempt for Jim Logan had turned in the last few minutes to active loathing, even to hatred. He wanted the fellow punished, as he would have wanted a rattlesnake to have its poison-fangs drawn. He wished to speak out and tell the now laughing policemen the brief story of Logan's hurried visit to the club.
Down would go the half-full champagne glasses on the table. The cheerful grins would be wiped from the two strong faces as by an artist who, with a stroke, | | 246 changes the expression of a portrait. Peter Rolls's word was at least as good as Jim Logan's. Questions would be asked. Jottings would be made in note-books. Perhaps they would both have to go to the police station. The girl's name would be demanded; Logan might be forced to tell it. That would be one way of finding Winifred—but it would be a way intolerable.
If only Peter were certain—as certain as he was of her innocence—that she wasn't hidden in the house, he would let the detectives go quietly and get the truth out of Logan himself afterwards. But—could he be certain? Had he a right to take such chances when the girl's safety might depend on police knowledge of her whereabouts?
It was reasonable to suppose that Logan had put her into the street after the giving of the alarm and before he ran to the club. Yet he might not have done so. She might be fainting, or even dead. The most terrible, melodramatic things happened every day in New York. One saw them in the papers and felt they could never come into one's own life. Supposing there were some hiding-place?
The fishlike flopping of Peter's heart slowed down as if the fish were losing strength. The thought was too hideous to finish. Yet he would not dismiss it until he had played his hand in the game
So far he had hardly spoken since the sight of the blue smoke wreath on the chair had set his brain whirling. But when Logan suddenly challenged him to drink a health to the New York police he took the glass of champagne Sims offered.
"Here's to you!" he said. "I never had such a good chance to appreciate the thoroughness of your methods! By Jove! think of looking even under the table! Now that would never have occurred to me."
"I guess it would," one of the men encouraged him, | | 247 "if you had our experience. It gets to be second nature to be thorough. We never, so to speak, leave a stone unturned."
"Well, it's mighty" smart of you, that's all I can say!" young Mr. Rolls went on. "What do you call being thorough—not 'leaving a stone unturned'? Here, for instance, how can you be sure you've looked in every hole and cranny where Mr. Logan might have stowed a young woman in a dead faint, if he wanted to fool you?"
Both men laughed. "You ought to bin with us when we went on our trip around the house!"
"I wish I had! It would have been a sort of experience," said Peter. "I sometimes read detective stories and wonder if they're like the real thing. When you were out of the room I was thinking if we'd had a girl hidden in here—behind the curtains, for instance—we might have sneaked her away when you were upstairs or down in the basement."
They laughed again, patronizing the amateur. "You must take us for Uncle Ezras from Wayback!" genially sneered he who claimed leadership. "We didn't' both ' go upstairs—or in the basement. While I waited in the hall my mate slipped down and locked the door that lets into the area and brought away the key on him. What's more, he did something to the key hole—a little secret we know—that would have told us if anyone had used another key while we were gone. But no one did. Good guard was kept, and if a mouse had tried to slip by we'd 'a' caught it."
"But what if a mouse had tried to hide?" suggested Peter Rolls.
"We'd 'a' found it. There ain't a closet or a pair o' curtains or a shower-bath or bookcase or a screen or bureau or table or bed that's had a chance to keep a secret from us——"| | 248
"Did you ever hear the song of 'The Mistletoe Bough'?" inquired the doubter.
"You bet we did. You don't have to show us! We snooped all around the trunk room and rummaged in every box big enough to hold a dwarf. None of 'em was locked, but if they had been—why, we go prepared."
"You don't look as if you'd done much prowling in the coal cellar, anyhow!" laughed Peter.
"That's because there ain't enough coal in it to dirty a dove," explained the policeman. "Why, we even had a squint into the wine-bins and the kitchen pantries and under the sink and into a laundry basket. There ain't a fly on the wall in this house but we wouldn't know its face if we met it again!"
They all laughed once more, and none more loudly than Logan, though he had given Peter Rolls a puzzled glance for each new and apparently aimless question.
"If I wrote those detective stories, I'd use this for a plot," Petro went on; "but it wouldn't be much good to the magazines the way it's turned out. I think I'd have a girl hidden behind a sliding panel or a picture that came out of its frame or something, and the hero find her."
"Then you mustn't lay your plot in this house," retorted the officer. "There ain't any pictures a full-sized cat could crawl through, and as for Mr. Logan's panels, they look real nice, but I guess they're the kind you buy by the yard. And there ain't a room with a wall that could open to hide anything thicker than a paper doll."
He earned a laugh again on that climax. Peter said that he would have to go to some old country on the other side to write the kind of story he meant. The men finished their champagne and had more. Then they finished that with a gay health (proposed by their host) | | 249 to Freddy Fortescue. And at last there was no doubt that the time had come to go.
Logan shook hands with both and pressed gifts of cigars and cigarettes upon them. If Peter intended to give Logan away, now was the latest, the very latest moment. But he said not a word. Satisfied that the girl could not possibly be concealed in the house, her name must not be risked. While Logan accompanied the guardians of the law to the front door, opened by Sims for their benefit, Peter annexed the blue smoke wreath. A splinter of wood (the furniture was only imitation Jacobean) had impaled the rag of chiffon, and almost tenderly releasing it, Rolls folded the trophy away in a breast-pocket.
His imagination had not tricked him. The stuff did smell of fresias—which he proved by holding it to his lips for an instant. The very scent that had stolen out to him whenever the dryad door opened, in reality and memory, the scent he had grown intimate with while the Moon dress hung in his wardrobe during those days when he had awaited a chance to present his offering to Ena!
When Logan came back he turned to tell Sims at the door that he would not be needed again, at any rate, for the present. Then he shut himself and Peter into the rosy glow of the dining-room.
"At last!" he exclaimed, sinking weakly into the chair opposite Rolls. "I feel as if I'd earned a whole bottle of drink. But all's well that ends well."
"It hasn't quite ended yet, has it?" remarked Peter. "No, thank you, no champagne!"
"Not ended?" repeated Logan, bottle in hand. "Oh, I see what you're at!" and he began filling his own glass, already emptied half a dozen times during the visit of the detectives. "You mean you want an explanation of this hanky-panky. Well, I promised it | | 250 to you, didn't I? I said you must give me the benefit of the doubt till those chaps were out of the house. I hope you have. But I thought once or twice you looked a bit thick, as if you weren't sure what I'd let you in for. But I'm not the kind of chap to get a pal in a fix to save my own face. I'm going to explain all right. Only first I want to thank you again for——"
"You needn't," said Peter.
"Sure you won't change your mind and take a little fizz? We've been through some hot work for this weather."
"You have. No—not any!"
"One go at mine, then, and I'm yours. A-ah! that was pretty good. Well—there was a girl, of course. But she came because she wanted to come. Then the trouble began. There was a little misunderstanding about a pearl dog-collar she admired in a jeweller's window. She seemed disappointed to find that this wasn't the night of the presentation. Said I'd promised. I hadn't! I never do promise beforehand to give girls things. Girls would love to have the same effect on your money the sun has on ice. Not that this one's like all the others. She's worth a little expenditure. A real stunner! Any fellow'd be wild over her. An English girl, tall and slim, but gorgeous figure: long legs and throat, and dark eyes as big as saucers. You'd turn and look after her anywhere! A lady, and thinks herself the queen, though she works in a New York department-store. I've been running after her since one night we made acquaintance in the park—great chums—called each other Jim and Winnie and held hands from the first.
"But to-night, just because I said I'd never promised a dog-collar or anything like one, she went mad as a tiger-cat and took revenge by ringing up the police with a beast of a story that I'd kidnapped her. She | | 251 got it out before I could make her stop, and for just a minute I was in a blue funk. New York's rampagin' just now on the subject of kidnappers. But I had wit enough to chuck her into the street and run to the club for help. I thought of Freddy Fortescue (by the way, I must get him to stand by me with a story in case he's questioned. I can count on him every time!) but he wasn't in. I tried another man or two, same result, and just then I saw you trailin' downstairs—ram caught in the bushes."
"For the sacrifice," Peter finished.
"Well, not too much of a sacrifice, I hope," Logan temporized. "You don't regret standing by?"
"No, I don't regret it."
"Yet your tone sounds sort of odd, as if you were keeping something back. I don't see why, either. I've kept my promise. I've explained—put the whole story in a nutshell, not to bore you too much with my love-affairs gone bad. And what I've told you is the Gospel's own truth, old man, whether you believe it or not."
"I don't believe it," said Peter. "I know it to be the devil's own lie."
As he spoke he rose, and Logan jumped up, hot and red in the face.
"By Jove!" he sputtered. "I don't know what you mean."
"You know very well," Rolls insisted. "I mean—that you're a liar. A damn liar. That girl didn't come here because she wanted to come. And she wouldn't take a pearl collar or a paper collar from you if you went on your knees."
"You must be crazy!" Logan stared at him, paler now. "if you weren't my guest, in my house, I—I'd knock you down."
"Try it," Peter invited him. "This is your father's | | 252 house, I believe, not yours. And I don't call myself your guest. Neither need you. I'm a sort of out-of-season April Fool. At least, I was. I'm not now."
"I tell you—you're bughouse!" stammered Logan. "You stand up for a girl you don't know a damn thing about——"
"I'd stand up for any girl against you," he was cut short again. "But I do know this girl. I won't say how. I know you're the dirt under her feet, and if I hadn't made sure every way that she was out of the house, I'd have set the police onto you as—as I wouldn't set terriers onto a rat."
"You—you can't tell me her name—or anything about her—I'll bet!"
"You won't bet with me. And neither of us is going to speak her name here. Shut your mouth on it if you don't want it stuffed down your throat and your teeth after it. You've been a villain. That's the one thing that stands out in this business. God! do you think you could make me believe anything wrong about that girl—you? Why, if an angel looped the loop down from heaven to do it I wouldn't. Tell me what store she's working in. That's what I want to hear about her from you, and nothing else."
Logan was not red in the face now. He had grown very pale. In truth, he was frightened. But he was angry enough to hide his fear for the present. He determined that Rolls should not get a word out of him.
"That's all you want to hear, is it?" he mimicked. "If you know so much about her, you can jolly well find out the rest for yourself or keep off the grass. I don't intend——"
The sentence ended in an absurd gurgle, for the hand of Peter Rolls was twisting his high collar. It was horribly uncomfortable and made him feel ridiculous, because he was taller and bigger and older than Rolls. | | 253 He tried to hit Peter in the face with his fist, but suddenly all strength went out of him. The hated face vanished behind a shower of sparks.
"You're murdering—me!" he gasped. "I've—got—a weak heart."
Peter let go and flung him across the room. He tottered toward the door. And his servant, who had been breathlessly listening outside, opened it opportunely on the instant. Logan saw his chance, as Sims meant him to do, half fell, half staggered out, and the door slammed in Peter's face.
It took the latter no more than thirty seconds to wrench it open again and drag Sims, who was holding desperately on to the knob, into the dining-room. "Don't hurt me, sir!" the man pleaded. "I only did my duty."
"Hurt you!" repeated Rolls with a laugh. "Don't be afraid. Where's the other coward?"
"If you are referring to Mr. Logan, sir," Sims replied politely, "he is gone. If you look for him, I think you will find he has quite gone. I had the front door open, all ready, in case it should be needed."
Peter reflected for an instant, and then shrugged his shoulders.
"Let him go!" he said. "I'd as soon step twice on a toad that was hopping away as touch him again. Br-r! This place is sickening. I'll go, too—but not after him."
"Yes, sir, certainly," returned Sims with alacrity, slinking along the hall to the vestibule. "I'll open the front door for you. This," he added with a certain emphasis, "will be the fourth time I've done so to-night. Once to let Mr. Logan in, once when the young ladies came, and——"
"Ah, there were two of them!" Rolls caught him up.
"Yes, sir. And though I did my duty just now | | 254 helping Mr. Logan—if I may say it, sir, without offence—helping him out of danger, I am ready to assist you, sir, by answering any questions you may wish to ask. I do not consider my doing so disloyal to my employer. My statements won't hurt him, I assure you. And if you would—er——"
"Would 'make it worth your while,' I suppose you're trying to get out," Peter disgustedly prompted him.
"I have a wife to support, sir, and a child. I keep them in the country, and it comes expensive."
"Give me ten dollars' worth of talk," ordered Peter, "and I'll believe as much as I choose."
He was half ashamed of himself for stooping to bribe the fellow who perhaps, after all, was only trying to delay him. Yet he might hear something worth hearing. He could not afford to lose a chance.
"Two young ladies came as far as the door, sir," said Sims, pocketing the green-back, "but only one came into the house—a tall, handsome young lady, different looking from most, with a thin yellowish silk cloak over a blue dress. She walked right in, but when she found her friend was gone she seemed surprised, and the next thing she was in the boudoir telephoning. Mr. Logan went in and she came out. They had a little dispute, I think, and though he'd been expecting her to supper, he told me to get her out of the house as quick as I could. I showed her through the basement, and she walked, rather briskly I should say, sir, down the street, while Mr. Logan went in the other direction—toward the corner, where the club is. As for the young ladies themselves, I can give you no information, except that the one who didn't come in to-night has been here before on several occasions. The one who came in and—er—used the telephone I have never previously seen. That's all I know which you don't | | 255 know yourself. But I hope I've been of some assistance to make up for doing my disagreeable duty, sir?"
"I've had ten dollars' worth, thank you," said Peter. "And now for the fourth time of opening that door."
He went out, satisfied that he was carrying with him the only tangible trace of Winifred Child from the shut-up house. To-morrow he would begin with the opening of the shops and look through every department-store until he found her.
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