- part: A DEAD MAN'S STEP
- CHAPTER XLI. "RATS."
|<< chapter 40||< chapter 34||chapter 42 >||chapter 63 >>|
THEY were seated around the late breakfast-table next morning, all save "Uncle Holly," when that usually prompt and genial personage entered the morning-room; and it was plain to all—as he dropped into his high-backed chair and began to unfold his napkin with fidgety fingers—that something was amiss; and when, having said good-morning to the assembled group, he began to sugar his coffee, and butter his toast carelessly, and with evident preoccupation, there was a quick exchange of glances, and Brook Deering, sitting opposite him, spoke for them all.
"Mr. Holly, is it possible that you have been robbed of your sleep, or been visited with unpleasant dreams? You hardly seem yourself this morning, and we have grown to look to you for the one reliable cheerful morning face."| | 266
"Uncle Holly" started, lifted his eyes from his plate, and caught at this straw of sympathy with avidity.
"Young man," he said severely, and laying down his fork that he might give his full energies to the story of his trouble, "young man, if you ever become the head of this house, which I trust may not be for a long time," inclining his head toward Brenda; "when you do, in heaven's name make a raid upon the rats! Give them a vent, for there must be millions within these walls, and let them all escape to the stables, or elsewhere; anywhere out of doors!"
There was a properly subdued smile of amusement upon the face of Brook Deering, who was, or believed himself to have been, responsible for this unexpected tirade; and a little questioning half-smile rested for a moment upon the lips of Valentine Rodney; while Bruce, whose eye the speaker had caught, and was holding with his own, as he hurried on, looked simply a polite listener.
But Doctor Ware and his hostess looked up with serious faces, and this thought came into the mind of each: "He is setting a trap for someone."
"I have often, I know," went on the speaker, "been the subject of good-natured smiles, and sometimes ill-natured ridicule, because of this `foible,' as some would call it. But it is a fact that I have, always, since my earliest recollections, been possessed of a loathing and horror of those ugly rodents. That, I am persuaded, after long experience and much thought, is an inheritance! Yes, miss," turning sharply upon Valentine, "you may smile, but—the hours I have spent in childhood, yes, and ever since, lying in torment listening to the gnaw, gnaw, gnawing of those creatures, sometimes far away, and again so near, that often I have been almost convulsed with fear lest the loathsome creatures should force their way through wainscot, or lath and plaster, and leap upon me!Ugh!"
He stopped an instant to clutch at his vanishing napkin, and the small gap was at once filled in by a chorus of sympathetic voices in comment, question, exclamation, during which Uncle Holly sugared his coffee for the second time, and made a wild effort to reply to them all in a sentence.
"Yes, Mrs. Deering, it was in my room. Near?—Yes! and very distinct. Got up?-CERTAINLY! Sat up!and STAYED up! All night?—I should think they did! Yes, Miss Valentine, that is the reason. It's enough to make one pale. No, sir," this to Brook, "it was not a nightmare! it was night rats, in the mansard."
The subject outlasted the breakfast hour, and probably was never more thoroughly discussed, or longer listened to, by lips and ears polite. When they came out from the morning-room, which they did one at a time, or each according to his pleasure, Brenda and Doctor Ware chanced to be the last to rise; and, after a few careless words, she went over to the broad French window and stepped out upon a little balcony, which could be approached only from the morning-room, and which was just beneath the balcony which was her own exclusive haunt, opening as it did from her boudoir above.
She stood for a moment looking out over the lawn, and Doctor Ware, after hesitating a moment at the door, through which he was about to | | 267 pass, turned and crossed the room with quick steps, coming out upon the balcony beside her, and standing there silent, for a moment, after making some allusion to the charming view, and the success of her landscape gardener.
As he was about to re-open his lips to give utterance to another polite platitude, she looked up at him, and moved a step nearer, saying:
"Doctor, do you think he was in earnest?"
He did not affect to misunderstand, but met her half way, and with a little quick glad thrill. He had not dared hope for so much from her reticence.
"About the rats, you mean?"
"I think he was very much in earnest—that is—" He hesitated.
"You mean, he is leading up to something?" she affirmed.
"That—yes. To be frank, I have had no hint of this new departure; but I fancy there is something he wishes to do, or to find out, and this is his way of beginning."
"I think you must be right; though, like yourself, I have been told nothing. It's a queer way—" She stopped short. "I wonder—" she began again, and then she smiled slightly. "It may be an absurd fancy, but, did you hear him ask me if he might look for signs of rats in the mansard?"
"Ah!" he ejaculated, and then glanced back into the morning-room.
"There is no one there," she said, calmly.
"Then," he resumed, "I will venture to say that, so far from being an absurd fancy, I believe you have hit it. For some reason he wants to rummage in the mansard. It was clever in him not to attempt a secret search, to take this open course. I do not mean to disregard your wish to have no discussions of your business, Mrs. Deering. But, pray, allow me to say now, that I have strong faith in this man. And—I thank you for permitting me to—to know, and to help, if I am able."
It was not an ardent speech, but his dark face flushed, and her cheek was rosy, as she turned it away.
"Don't!" she said, gently. "The gratitude—all must come from me! And I can see how he values your aid. I trust—" her voice broke, but was steadied in an instant—"I trust that the time may come when I can thank you with a heart at ease just now—" she made a little deprecating gesture.
"Just now," he said, gravely, "you have little to thank me for; and yet—I am well rewarded by your confidence."
Someone opened the door of the morning-room, and Brenda stepped to the window.
"What is it, Sarita?" she asked, seeing the new comer.
"Mrs. Deering—madam, may I speak with you just a word, if you please?"
Meantime Valentine had left the morning-room with Bruce Deering at her side. She was an enthusiastic horse-woman, and was going out to the paddock to look at a handsome chestnut mare which was the property of Bruce, and which had been lately brought in from | | 268 the big pasture on the northern boundary of the Beechwood estate by his orders, to be placed at her service.
"Diana will need a bit of handling, I fancy," Bruce was saying as they came out into the wide hall. "And you may not find her to your liking if she is—"
"She will be to my liking!" Valentine hastened to say. "I saw her, you know, when she passed through on her way to the north meadow, the day she came home. But you—do you not propose to ride her? She must surely be far superior to uncle's old Max?"
He shook his head gravely. "I do not ride," he said, "except with Brook, and Uncle Lys left Max to my care, you know. It would please me if you would use Di, and you won't be too proud to accept such a small favour?"
"No, indeed!"—a touch of indignation in her voice. "I—" She stopped short, and the tiniest of frowns flitted across her face, and was barely caught by Bruce, as Brook, who had been loitering in the hall, came toward them smiling, and said:
"You are going to see that dangerous steed, of course; may I join you, Cousin Valentine? My advice may prove of value, you know; it will be disinterested, while Bruce's—"
"May wish to discourage me, do you think?" she broke in.
"Come, by all means, Cousin Brook; a fine horse is always a thing worth seeing." But no smile accompanied her invitation.
As they passed the niche near the eastern, or rear, door of exit, from which the back stair was curved upward, they passed—evidently to Brook's amusement—the woman Sarita and "Uncle Holly" in earnest conversation. Sarita stood at the foot of the stairs, and Mr. Holly, standing a couple of steps above her, seemed to be arguing of explaining some point volubly, and with much earnestness.
"That's a queer old gentleman!" Brook broke out, as they passed down the steps and beyond hearing. "Talking there to Sarita, just as he would to one of us, hat in hand, and with all his ten fingers flying. I wonder if there is a servant upon the place that he does not take an interest in?"
"His interest seems very harmless," said Bruce, carelessly.
"And exceedingly amiable," added Valentine, demurely.
"Oh, exceedingly!" agreed Brook, laughingly. "A good talkative soul, with a touch—just a surplus, you know, of inquisitiveness."
"Inquisitiveness?" It was Bruce who took up the word. "Is that the right word? I have never found him so."
Brook smiled languidly. "Perhaps you are not an object of interest to our Uncle Holly," he drawled. "Now I am. He has said as much—"
"Really?" Valentine looked up with sudden interest. "Do you mean it?"
"I do, indeed! Some of you good people must have given him a vivid description of our railway accident, for he evidently thinks me a fine example of hero and victim! I had to tell him all about it, and much personal history besides; indeed, my 'life and adventures' seem to interest him greatly! I wonder, now, if he takes an equal | | 269 interest in—yourself, for instance?" And he turned a mock, serious gaze down upon Miss Rodney.
There was just the briefest interval of silence, and then she responded in the same half-jesting manner
"Don't flatter yourself that you are the sole object of interest! I'll venture to say that Mr. Holly could tell you several thins about me that you don't know." Then, with a quick side glance in the direction of Bruce, she added: "You can't say, at least, that he is not a perfectly good-natured questioner?"
Oh, not at all. His amiability is, beyond question. Has he made you an object of interest, eh, Bruce?" and Brook laid a hand upon his cousin's arm in a gesture which was almost caressing, and quite characteristic.
But Bruce Deering neither turned his head nor smiled. "In my observations of Mr. Holly," he said, almost coldly, "I have never discovered him wanting in tact. Besides," he added, with a touch of bitterness, "information concerning me is plentiful now, at second hand."
"Not at Beechwood, I trust!" the words flashed from Val Rodney's lips involuntarily, and then a hot wave of colour dyed her cheeks, and, when Bruce Deering's dark eyes sought hers across his cousin', shoulder, she turned her own away. But he had seen, for just one instant, the real Valentine looking out from the lovely, earnest, protesting eyes, and there was a throb at his heart half pain, half pleasure, as, seeing black Diana in the paddock just ahead, he went quickly forward, and to relieve the embarrassment, called to the groom who held her by the long halter strap.
"Bring her forward, Hall; let us try her with the blankets and sidesaddle."
As he moved away, Brook came closer, and said almost in a whisper:
"Ah, my Cousin Val, you area loyal friend, and a strong partisan!"
And again the words leaped from her lips:
"I wonder, can anyone say the same of you?"
And then they were at the paddock fence, and Bruce was introducing her to Diana. But not until, as before, eye had challenged eye, and Brook's were startled and reproachful, hers defiant, and—something more.
When Uncle Holly and Sarita had finished their brief talk, he came down the steps and walked along one of the garden paths until he came upon Doctor Ware, who sat smoking upon a rustic bench. Across the garden they could see Valentine and the two young men watching Diana's paces at the paddock fence, and, beyond them, in the opposite direction, one of the maids was gathering flowers for the dining-room, just out of hearing.
Nothing could have seemed more aimless than the detective's slow approach and easy halt beside the doctor's seat, where, for a moment, he stood as if in indecision, finally seating himself slowly, and slowly beginning to roll a cigarette; as he shaped the little paper between his fingers and thumb and began to sift the fine tobacco into it, he | | 270 seemed engrossed in the act, but what he was saying in a low undertone was:
"What do you think that woman was saying to me?"
"Sarita?" Doctor Ware had witnessed the brief interview from his seat in the shade, and was by no means surprised at the question. "I can't imagine!"
"Umph! she has heard already that I am purposing a rat hunt. And she stopped me to assure me that she 'feared she had disturbed me,' that she had heard through Mrs. Merton how I had been annoyed in the night by strange sounds, which I attributed to the rats;—the truth was, she said, that she had been very restless, and had been moving about in her room. In fact she must have made more noise than she supposed. She had lost some little things in her room, and being really in a fidget, had tried to work it off by moving her furniture about and opening and shutting drawers in an effort to find the lost little things."
He had rolled his cigarette, and he now stopped to light it.
"What do you think of that?" he said, when he had taken one or two pulls at his little weed.
The doctor smiled.
"Don't ask me," he said, "I haven't the key."
"Of course," resumed the other, waiving this, "she didn't tell me this as I have told it—all in one breath; one or two questions from me drew it all out. Her object in addressing me," she said, "was simply to assure me that she did not think there was a rat in the whole house; certainly not in the mansard, where she was sure a rat would starve, there being nothing there to draw the creatures. If it had been the cellars now—" He stopped short and laughed.
"I see," said the doctor, quietly, "that you find a meaning in all this. Am I to he enlightened?"
"Surely! it's plain enough: Madam Sarita does not want me to go into the attic."
"In proof of which, hear this; when we parted, and I thanked her as one naturally would for being relieved from the fear of the near proximity of rats, she said very ingeniously that she was very glad that she had saved me the task of hunting among the dust and cobwebs of the attic for what could not possibly be there."
"A*** the doctor turned and faced him, taking the half-consumed cigar from between his lips, "I see! You think the woman has some reason for not wishing you to explore the attic?"
"I am sure of it!"
"Then, if it were not like carrying my coals to Newcastle, I would say, better explore the attic at once. How do you know she is not there now?"
Murtagh pointed to the rear of the big house, where the ground sloped downward and the windows of a half basement, which jutted out beneath a portico, faced them.
"Do you see those basement windows?" he asked.
"Well, just as we separated, and Sarita was about to enter the | | 271 house—in which case I should have re-entered also, of course—Mrs. Merton, good soul, threw up one of those sashes and called to Madam Sarita something was amiss in the laundry. I have not lost sight of the place, and Sarita is there still." He was silent a moment, then he said, "I wish I could get into that mansard for half an hour and be sure that neither Mrs. Deering nor Madam Santa would be the wiser."
"Why Mrs. Deering?" asked the doctor, quickly.
"Merely to save her an additional uneasiness, since I cannot explain my reasons for this exploration just yet—at least, to her."
He mused a moment, and then arose.
"Come," he said, with a gesture which Ware had already learned to recognise as one of impatience and sudden resolution, "in some way I must keep an eye upon that rear stairway; when I think of it, it's too conveniently near Madam Sarita's door. Let's go in. We can set your door open, and take possession, if we can do no more. She can't reach the mansard unseen, if we occupy these, at any rate. Eh! by Jove!"
It was Mrs. Deering's pony carriage, coming rapidly from stableward, that had called forth this exclamation, and, as it drew up at the library entrance, Murtagh hastened his steps.
"I wonder—" he began, and stopped suddenly at sight of Brenda Deering emerging bonneted, gloved, and alone. She saw them at once and waited their approach, standing beside the carriage.
"Gentlemen," she said, as they neared her, "I am going into town, and shall be pleased to offer one of you a seat in the phaeton. I leave you to decide which—if either—will honour me."
There was just an instant of hesitation, and then "Uncle Holly" laid a caressing hand upon the doctor's arm. "My friend, this is surely your chance!" At this point the caressing hand gave the doctor's arm a quick pressure as it withdrew itself, and the speaker came closer to the carriage. "You see," he said to Brenda, "having heard this voting man express a desire, or was it an intention, to visit town to-day, I cannot but yield the prerogative of age under the circumstances; besides," lifting his eyes in a momentary meaning glance toward Brenda," I feel that I would be better off indoors for a little while; there seems to be a—a little westerly wind," he turned again toward Ware, and his lips plainly shaped the word "go," which his eyes quite as plainly confirmed and emphasised.
Thus assured, and wondering much, though more than willing, Doctor Ware took his place beside Brenda, and the lively ponies, suddenly released by the groom, dashed around the curving drive and away toward Pomfret.
When they were out of the gate, "Uncle Holly," who still stood under the porte-cochère, threw a quick glance about him, and sat down upon the nearest step. Taking out his packet of cigarette papers, as if about to resume his smoke, he toyed with it for a moment, and then, loosing a tiny pencil which hung pendent from his old-fashioned watch-guard, he wrote a few words upon one of the little papers, and, still holding the packet, but replacing the little pencil, he remained for some moments sitting as at first, and seeming to keep his attention equally divided between the windows of the laundry, somewhat to his | | 272 right, and that portion of the paddock—straight ahead of him almost—where Val Rodney, and Brook, and Bruce Deering still lingered.
Black Diana had been put through her paces, and the groom had thrown a bright blanket across the saddle, allowing it to "flap and swing," so Valentine declared, "as no riding dress of the period possibly could or did outside of a circus;" and then the question of riding had been broached by Brook.
"She's a splendid animal!" he declared with enthusiasm; "and only a little is needed to make her a superb lady's horse. Were you thinking of trying her, Cousin Val?" turning toward her with one of his slow, gentle smiles.
Val seemed to hesitate, and then said, very mildly—for Val, "A little."
"Good! Then she shall be set aside for your own exclusive use! Meantime I must find a mount as good. When will you take your first ride, coz? You will let me be your groom? Eh?"
He was standing close beside her, and between her and Bruce, who stood with face coldly set and half-averted. Val looked at him, and a flush mounted to her forehead, but she kept her eyes upon his stern profile, and spoke out bravely:
"I don't think you would make a good groom, Brook; as for my first ride upon Diana, whether I ever take it or not, will depend upon Diana's master!"
And now, Bruce Deering's face was first red, then pale, but he turned quickly.
"Thank you!" he said, with his eyes upon her face; but he did not utter the "Cousin Valentine" which fell so easily from Brook's lips. "Diana is always at your service, as you must know. Brook, you are so much a stranger yet, you did not know that the horse is mine. That need not prevent your accompanying Valentine, however; as for me, I can hardly presume to offer myself as a lady's escort, now." And his eyes sought Val's with a look of pleading. "Not even as her groom," he added, and again turned away.
In the moment of silence following these words, the groom having thrown aside the blanket, led the horse nearer the paddock fence, and Brook going close to the handsome animal, leaned across to fondle its head, and peer into the champing mouth. Then Bruce came a step nearer, and, trying to speak in his usual tone, asked:
"When shall I have her saddled for you, Valentine? Brook, I think, is quite able to do escort duty now."
But the girl's self-restraint was at an end. And she turned upon him with flashing eyes.
"Not at all!" she said in low tones that trembled in spite of her effort for self-control. "Since there must be a substitute for the master, there must be a substitute for the horse!"
When Brook, after a few words with the groom, turned back to the others with a comment upon his lips, he found Bruce standing alone, watching, with a curious look in his eyes, the figure of Valentine, already half-way to the steps, where Uncle Holly, seeing her advance, was just rising to meet her.| | 273
While they yet stood gazing after her, they saw, as she approached him, that "Uncle Holly's" packet of cigarette papers slipped from his hands to the ground; they saw him stoop slowly and awkwardly, while Valentine, bending with a quick darting movement, caught the papers, which were almost at her feet, and, holding them out to him, seemed to claim one as her reward, holding it in her hand and carelessly twisting it, as she exchanged what seemed to be a few light words with the "old man," as Brook was fond of calling him. But they heard nothing; and this is what really happened.
When Valentine saw "Uncle Holly" rise from the steps of the porte-cochère, as she came down the gravelled walk, she was in no mood for conversation of the ordinary sort; but, between herself and the detective was already established a system of signals, not voluminous, but sufficient; and when he got up with his amiable smile, and his cheery "Ah, Miss Rodney!" and took his first step toward her, she knew it for an order to halt; and she did not need his swift glance downward at the papers, held so carelessly in his hand, to tell her, when they came the next instant flying to her feet, that they contained a message for her. They were too near the windows of the dining-room and laundry, and the open door, just behind them, beyond the portiere, to risk conversation; but she found it easy enough to untwist the bit of paper in her fingers, and to decipher its contents, while they spoke carelessly of the beauty of the morning, and the charms of June, and this is what she read:
"Sarita in laundry. Can you manage to keep her downstairs, or outside for half an hour?
"Can you send away your maid to-morrow?"
They had chatted for perhaps five minutes, and "Uncle Holly" had seated himself again upon the lower step, and gallantly offered her a place beside him, while he rolled a second cigarette, when she said:
"It is too pleasant for anything but loitering; but I must find Madam Sarita, I have a favour to beg of her. Besides," turning toward the laundry as the cousins came toward them from the paddock, "my maid is going away this evening quite unexpectedly."
It had not taken Valentine Rodney long to discover that, for some reason, Sarita was anxious to find favour in her eyes, and she did not doubt her ability to manage the woman; as for her maid, she had spoken only the truth. Upon her return from that first drive with "Uncle Holly," Valentine had sent for her maid, who was a faithful, sensible woman of thirty, and had said to her, in the seclusion of her own dressing-room:
"Lotty, I am going to give you that little holiday we have several times talked of, but never quite agreed upon."
"I am sure that was my own fault, Miss Valentine," Lotty had replied.
"Perhaps; but now we are going to agree. Now, Lotty, I am going to be quite frank with you. And what I say must not be spoken of about the house. Oh, yes, I know I can trust you, Lotty! The truth is I want to take a woman in your place who is not—not exactly an expert, you know. It is to oblige a—a friend, and is really something that I feel I ought to do! You know a woman can't get a good | | 274 place without a character from someone. And I will take this woman and keep her long enough to enable me to recommend her; for I am assured that she can fill the place acceptably. I sha'n't stop your wages, and you are to come back soon. The woman is most deserving, and I feel quite interested in her, on my friend's account. You can go to-morrow if you like, Lotty. And you may have that grey china silk, and the bonnet that goes with it, to travel in. My friend says the woman is ready to come, and is most anxious for me to try her."
And Lotty, who would never have left her mistress without a maid for the gayest of holidays, prepared to set out with pleasurable anticipations, and only now and then a tiny jealous twinge as she thought how, perhaps, this unseen new maid might usurp her place in the affections of her pretty mistress.
And while Lotty was hastily letting out the seams of the grey gown to suit her own plump figure, and Valentine, in the work-room next the laundry, was claiming the time and attention of Sarita, Murtagh was rummaging in the mansard to some purpose.
|<< chapter 40||< chapter 34||chapter 42 >||chapter 63 >>|