That Affair at Elizabeth - Burton Stevenson - ebook
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When a bride mysteriously disappears just hours before she is to be wed, questions are raised and searches are made. An unofficial inquiry is made by friends that lead the reader down an unexpected path of intrigue...

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THAT AFFAIR AT ELIZABETH

Burton Stevenson

JOVIAN PRESS

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All rights reserved. Aside from brief quotations for media coverage and reviews, no part of this book may be reproduced or distributed in any form without the author’s permission. Thank you for supporting authors and a diverse, creative culture by purchasing this book and complying with copyright laws.

Copyright © 2016 by Burton Stevenson

Published by Jovian Press

Interior design by Pronoun

Distribution by Pronoun

ISBN: 9781537807386

TABLE OF CONTENTS

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VII

CHAPTER VIII

CHAPTER IX

CHAPTER X

CHAPTER XI

CHAPTER XII

CHAPTER XIII

CHAPTER XIV

CHAPTER XV

CHAPTER XVI

CHAPTER XVII

CHAPTER XVIII

CHAPTER XIX

CHAPTER XX

CHAPTER XXI

CHAPTER XXII

CHAPTER XXIII

CHAPTER XXIV

CHAPTER XXV

CHAPTER XXVI

CHAPTER XXVII

CHAPTER I

~

An Urgent Summons

“THAT SEEMS TO BE ALL right, Lester,” said Mr. Royce, and handed the papers back to me. “I’ll be mighty glad when we get that off our hands.”

So, I knew, would the whole force of the office, for the case had been an unusually irritating one, tangling itself up in the most unexpected ways, until, with petitions and counter-petitions and answers and demurrers and what not, we were all heartily tired of it. I slipped the papers into an envelope and shot them into a pigeon-hole with a sigh of relief.

“I think that’ll end it,” I said. “I don’t see how there can be any further delay.”

“No,” agreed our junior, “neither do I. Are the papers in the Griffin case ready?”

“Not yet; I doubt if they will be ready before this afternoon.”

“Well, they can wait,” he said, and glanced at his watch. “I want to catch the ten-ten for Elizabeth.”

“For Elizabeth?”

“Yes. I know it’s a mighty awkward time for me to leave, but it’s an engagement I’ve got to keep. You’ve heard me speak of Burr Curtiss?”

“Yes,” I said; “I seem to remember the name.”

“He’s been one of my best friends for the past ten years. I met him first at Yale, and a liking sprang up between us, which grew stronger as time went on. I played a sort of second fiddle to him, then, for he was president of the class in his senior year and was voted the most popular man in it. He came to New York, as soon as he was graduated, and got a place on the construction staff of the Pennsylvania road. He was assigned to one of the western divisions, and I didn’t see anything of him for two or three years, but finally he was recalled, and we used to hobnob at the University Club. Since my marriage, he comes around to smoke a pipe with me occasionally and talk over old times. He’s a social fellow, likes companionship, and, my wife says, is just the man to make a woman happy; so when he wrote me a note, two months ago, announcing his engagement, we were naturally curious concerning the woman in the case—for his ideals were high—too high, I always told him.”

Mr. Royce paused and sat for a moment smiling out the window at the grey wall of the building opposite.

“I remember it was one evening early last winter,” he went on at last, “that Curtiss happened in and, as we sat smoking together, our talk somehow turned to women. It was then I learned what an idealist he was. The woman to win his heart must be accomplished, of course; witty, knowing the world, and yet unsoiled by it, capable of original thought, of being her husband’s intellectual companion—so much for the mental side. Physically—well, physically he wanted a Venus de Milo or Helen of Troy, nothing less. I laughed at him. I pointed out that beautiful women are seldom intellectual. But he was obdurate. He protested that he would capitulate on no other terms. I retorted that, in that case, he would probably remain a bachelor.”

“But,” I remarked, “it seems to me that this friend of yours is a trifle egotistical. What has he to offer in exchange for such perfection?”

“Well,” said Mr. Royce slowly, “it would be a good bargain on both sides. Given such a woman, I could fancy her longing for such a man as Curtiss, just as he would long for her. I’ve told you something of his mental calibre—physically, he’s the handsomest man I ever saw. And it seems to me he gets handsomer every year. In our college days, he was rather too stout, too girlish-looking, but hard work and contact with the world have rubbed all that away. George!” he added, “the children of such a pair would be fit for Olympus!”

“And did he find her?” I asked, curious for the rest of the story.

“After I got his note,” said my companion, “I hunted him up at his apartments as soon as I could. He let me in himself, got out his cigars, and sat down opposite me fairly beaming. I looked him over—I had never before seen a man who seemed so supremely happy.

“‘So,’ I asked at last, ‘you’ve found her?’

“‘Yes,’ he said; ‘yes.’

“‘The woman you were looking for?’

“‘The very woman.’

“‘That impossible ideal?’

“‘An ideal, yes; but not impossible, since she exists in the flesh and I have found her.’

“‘Well, you’re a lucky dog,’ I said. ‘Tell me about her.’

“So he told me—quite a Laura Jean Libbey story. She was everything, it seemed, that could be desired in a woman.

“‘And beautiful?’ I asked him.

“For reply, he brought out a photograph from his desk. I tell you, Lester, it fairly took my breath away. I felt as though I were looking at a masterpiece—say Andrea del Sarto’s Madonna. And I would as soon have thought of marrying the one as the other. It was like snatching a star down out of heaven.

“Curtiss was leaning back in his chair watching me, and he smiled as I looked up.

“‘Well?’ he asked.

“I went over and shook hands with him—I couldn’t find words to tell him what I felt.

“‘But where has she been?’ I demanded. ‘How does it happen she was left for you?’

“‘She’s been abroad for five or six years,’ he explained.

“‘That’s no answer,’ I said. ‘Why isn’t she a queen, then; or a duchess, at least?’

“‘She’s had chances enough, I dare say,’ and he smiled at my enthusiasm. ‘I agree with you that she’s worthy to wear a crown; but then, you see, she has ideals, too. Perhaps none of the kings she met measured up to them.’

“‘And you did?’

“‘She’s good enough to think so.’

“I had been idling over the photograph, and my eyes happened to fall upon some lines written across the back—I didn’t know them, then, but I’ve looked them up, since:—

‘My days were sunless and my nights were moonless,Parched the pleasant April herbage and the lark’s heart’s outbreak tuneless,If you loved me not!’

“I tell you, Lester,” and there was a little break in our junior’s voice, “I was overwhelmed. You know, love—passion—the real thing the poets write about—has grown mighty rare in this world. We’re too commercial for it, I suppose; too much given to calculating chances. But here I was, face to face with it. Well, I was unequal to the situation—I didn’t know what to say, but he helped me.

“‘The date hasn’t been set, yet,’ he said, ‘but it will be some time in June; and the reason I’m telling you all this is that I’m going to ask a favour of you. It’s to be a church wedding and I want you to be best man. I hope you won’t refuse.’

“I was glad of the chance to be of service and told him so,” concluded Mr. Royce, glancing again at his watch and rising hastily. “The wedding’s to be at noon to-day. You see I’m cutting it rather fine. I’d intended to go down yesterday afternoon, but that Barnaby petition upset my plans. I’ll be back to-night or in the morning at the latest. In the meantime, if anything imperative turns up, a telegram to the Sheridan House at Elizabeth will catch me.”

“Very well,” I replied and made a note of the address. “But don’t worry about the work here. I’ll get along all right.”

“Of course you will,” he agreed, and an instant later, the door closed behind him.

But more than once in the course of the morning, I was inclined to think that I had spoken too confidently. Mr. Graham, our senior partner, had broken down about a month before, under a stress of work which had been unusual, even for our office, and had been ordered away for a long vacation; one or two members of the office force had resigned to accept other positions, and the task of filling their places was one which required thought and care; so for the time being, we were extremely short-handed.

That morning, perversely enough, it seemed to me that the work piled up even more rapidly than usual, and it was not until the mellow chimes of Trinity, marking the noon hour, floated through the open window, that I succeeded in clearing away the most pressing portion of the morning’s business, and leaned back in my chair with a sigh of satisfaction. That Marjoribanks case was now ours; Mr. Royce would approve....

No doubt, at this very moment, he was before the altar of the Elizabeth church, listening to the low responses. I had only to close my eyes to picture the scene—the dim, flower-decked interior; the handsomely-gowned, sympathetically-expectant audience; the bride, supremely beautiful in her veil and orange blossoms, her eyes downcast, the warm colour coming and going in her cheeks....

“Telegram, sir,” said a voice, and I swung around to find the office-boy at my elbow. “For you, sir,” he added.

I took the yellow envelope and tore it open absently, my mind still on the vision my fancy had conjured up. Then, as my eyes caught the words of the message, I sat bolt upright with a start. It read:

“Come to Elizabeth by first train. Don’t fail us.”

“Royce.“

CHAPTER II

~

A Bride’s Vagary

TWO MINUTES LATER, I WAS speeding downward in the elevator, having paused only long enough to give a word of instruction to the head clerk. A glance at my watch showed me that if I would catch the 12.38, I had no time to lose; but luckily a cab was passing at the moment, and I jumped aboard the boat for Jersey City just as the gates were closing.

Not until I was safely aboard the train did I give myself time to conjecture what this imperative summons meant, but during the half-hour run to the little New Jersey city, I had ample time to try to puzzle it out.

One thing was quite certain—it was no ordinary emergency which had moved Mr. Royce to summon me from the office at a time when I was so badly needed there. I got out the telegram again, and read it, word by word. It affected me as a wild cry for help would have done, at midnight, in some lonely place—and it was just that—a wild cry for help! But why had he needed aid, when he himself was so clear-sighted, so ready-witted, so fertile of resource? What was this astounding occurrence which confronted him, this crisis so urgent and over-whelming that it had shaken and startled him out of his self-control? The message itself was proof of his deep excitement. Apparently he had wired for me instinctively, finding himself suddenly in the toils of some dilemma, which left him dazed and nerveless.

Ever since the time when I had succeeded, more by luck than anything else, in discovering the whereabouts of Frances Holladay, and solving the mystery of her father’s death, our junior partner had conceived a tremendously exalted opinion of my abilities as an untangler of abstruse problems, and never lost an opportunity of referring to me such as came in his way. Every firm of practising lawyers knows how frequently a case hinges upon some puzzling point of evidence—how witnesses have a way of disappearing—and Graham & Royce had their full share of such perplexing tangles. It had come to be one of the unwritten rules of the office that such points should be referred to me, and while I was by no means uniformly successful in solving them, I always took a lively pleasure in the work. It was no doubt that habit which had caused our junior to turn to me in this emergency. I could guess how terrifying it must have been to overwhelm so completely a man so well-balanced and self-controlled—I could almost see the trembling hand with which he had penned the message.

So it was with a certain quickening of the pulse that I stepped from the train at the triangular Elizabeth station, and an instant later, Mr. Royce had me by the hand.

“I’ve a carriage over here, Lester,” he said, drawing me toward it, and I noticed that he was fairly quivering with excitement. “I thought you could make this train,” he added, as we took our seats and the driver whipped up smartly. “I knew you wouldn’t lose any time, and I can’t tell you how glad I am to have you here. Curtiss is all broken up—doesn’t know which way to turn. Neither do I. I had just sense enough to send you that wire.”

“I thought it was a mystery of some sort,” I said, beginning to tingle in sympathy with him. “What has happened?”

“The bride-to-be has disappeared,” answered Mr. Royce simply; “vanished—skipped out!”

For a moment, I scarcely understood. It seemed preposterous to suppose that I had heard aright.

“Disappeared!” I echoed helplessly. “Skipped out!”

“Yes, skipped out!” and Mr. Royce crushed his unlighted cigar savagely in his fingers and hurled it through the carriage window. “I haven’t the slightest doubt that she deliberately ran away.”

The sight of his emotion calmed me a little.

“At the last moment?” I questioned.

“Practically at the last moment—less than an hour before the time set for the ceremony. She was getting ready for it—was in her wedding-dress, in fact. I tell you, Lester——”

“Wait,” I said, putting out a restraining hand. “Begin at the beginning. What’s her name?”

“Marcia Lawrence.”

“And she’s the ‘ideal’ Curtiss imagined he’d found?”

“Yes,” said Mr. Royce slowly, “and so far as I can judge from what I’ve seen and heard, she really was as nearly perfect as any woman can be.”

“Yet she ‘skipped out’!”

“That’s why I’m so upset—she was the last woman in the world to do such a thing!”

“Tell me about her,” I said.

“I don’t know very much; but I do know that she wasn’t a mere empty-headed chit. She was an accomplished and cultured woman. I’ve already told you how her beauty affected me.”

I paused a moment to consider it—I was fairly nonplussed. It seemed incredible that such a woman should, under any conceivable circumstances, deliberately desert her lover at the altar!

“And in her wedding-gown!” I murmured, half to myself.

“Yes, in her wedding-gown!” repeated our junior, passing his hand feverishly across his eyes. “It’s unbelievable! It’s—I can’t find any word to describe it. I can scarcely believe I’m awake.”

“Perhaps she found she didn’t love him,” I suggested.

“At the last moment?”

“Stranger things have happened.”

“I don’t believe it!’ A woman like Marcia Lawrence knows her own heart before she goes that far!”

“Suppose we say sudden insanity?”

“Well-balanced women don’t go mad merely because they’re going to get married.”

“Then she didn’t run away,” I said.

Mr. Royce looked at me quickly.

“You mean——”

But the carriage stopped with a jolt and the driver jerked open the door.

CHAPTER III

~

The Lover’s Story

I PAUSED, AS SOON AS we reached the pavement, for a look about me. We were evidently in the fashionable quarter of the town. The street was wide, well-kept, and shaded by stately elms. The houses which stretched away on either hand had that spaciousness, that air of dignity and quiet, which bespeaks wealth and leisure. Here was no gaudy architecture, no flamboyant flourish of the newly-rich; rather the evidence of families long-settled in their present surroundings and long-accustomed to the luxuries of a cultured and generous existence.

But it was to the house directly before us that I gave the closest scrutiny. It was a large one, two-storied, with a wide veranda running across the entire front. It stood well back from the street, and was sheltered on each side by magnificent trees. The grounds seemed to be very extensive and were beautifully kept. Along the pavement, a curious crowd was loitering, kept in motion by a policeman, but staring at the house as though they expected to read the solution of the mystery in its inexpressive front.

Mr. Royce nodded to the officer, and we passed through the gate. As we went up the walk, I noticed that the blinds were closely drawn, as though it were a house of mourning—and, indeed, dead hopes enough lay there!

A maid admitted us, and when my companion inquired for Mr. Curtiss, led the way silently along the hall. In the dim light, I could see the decorations of palms and wreaths of smilax, relieved here and there by a mass of gorgeous bloom, and through a door to the right I caught a glimpse of many tables, set ready for the luncheon which was never to be eaten. There was something ghostly about the deserted rooms—something chilling in the thought of this arrested gaiety, these hopes for happiness so rudely shattered. It recalled that vision which had so astonished poor Pip—the vision of Miss Havisham, decked in her yellow wedding finery, sitting at her gilded dressing-table in the darkened room, with the bride-cake cobwebbed and mouldy, and the chairs set ready for the guests who were never to arrive. Only here, I reflected, the clocks should be stopped at noon, not at twenty minutes to nine!

We turned into a room which I saw to be the library, and a man sprang up as we entered.

“Royce!” he cried, and there was in his tone such an agony of entreaty that I knew instantly who he was.

“No; no news, Burr,” said our junior; “but here’s Mr. Lester, and if any one can suggest a solution of this mystery, I’m sure he can. Lester, this is Burr Curtiss.”

As I shook hands with him, I told myself that Mr. Royce’s description had been well within the truth. I could join with him in saying that I had never seen a handsomer man or a more attractive one, though in his eyes, as I met them, misery and anxiety were only too apparent.

“It was very kind of you to come, Mr. Lester,” he said.

“Not at all,” I protested. “I only hope I can be of some service.”

“Royce has told you——”

“Only the bare facts,” I said. “I’d like to have all the details of the story, if you’ll be so kind as to give me them.”

“Certainly,” he assented instantly, as we sat down. “That’s what I wish to do—I know how important details are.”

He paused for a moment, to be sure of his self-control, and I had the chance to look at him more closely. His face was not only comely, it was strong, magnetic. The black hair and eyes bespoke a vigorous temperament; the full beard, closely cropped, served rather to accentuate the fine lines of mouth and chin. There was no superfluous flesh about the face—no puffiness; it was thin with the healthy thinness which tells of a busy life, and browned by exposure to wind and sun. It was, altogether, a manly face, not the merely handsome one which I had rather expected. My eyes were drawn especially to his hand as he passed it hastily across his forehead—a hand firm, white, with slightly tapering fingers—an artist’s hand which one would scarcely connect with an engineer of construction.

“There’s really very little I can tell you,” he said, at last. “When I saw Marcia this morning——”

His voice choked, and he paused, unable, for the moment, to go on.

“Let us begin farther back than that, Mr. Curtiss,” I suggested, knowing that the beginning was the hardest part. “Mr. Royce tells me you were classmates. When did you graduate from college?”

“Seven years ago.”

“And you came at once to New York?”

“Yes, to take the examination for the Pennsylvania road.”

“You were given a place on the road at once?”

“Yes—not a very important place, but one with a chance for promotion, which was all I asked. I was stationed at Pittsburg for three years and then called east to work on the division between New York and Philadelphia. A year ago, I was made assistant at the headquarters office.”

“Rather a remarkable career,” I commented, smiling.

“Not at all,” he protested quickly. “I liked the work, and I was well equipped.”

I saw that I should have to revise my opinion of him—certainly he was not conceited.

“When did you meet Miss Lawrence?” I asked.

“Last December—the tenth, to be quite accurate—just six months ago to-day——”

Again his voice trailed away into a sort of hoarse whisper, though he tried desperately to control it.

“Won’t you tell me about it?”

“Is it necessary?” he questioned miserably. “I—I don’t want to talk.”

“I know you don’t, and I don’t want to make you. But if I’m to help, I must know the whole story.”

“Pardon me, Mr. Lester,” he said, pulling himself together by a mighty effort. “Of course you must. Only give me time. I’m—I’m——”

“All the time in the world,” I assured him, and settled back in my chair to listen.

“We had a bad grade-crossing just east of Elizabeth,” he began, after a moment, in a steadier tone. “It was an ugly place, with the driveway coming down a stiff hill and meeting our tracks at an angle which prevented a clear view of them. We kept a flagman there, of course, but nevertheless accidents happened right along. A skittish horse, once started down the hill and frightened perhaps by the whistle and rumble of the approaching train, would be pretty hard to stop.”

I nodded. I had seen just such murderous crossings.

“So the company determined to build a viaduct there, and last December sent me out to look over the ground. I reached there about nine o’clock in the morning, and by noon had all my data and was ready to come back to the city.

“‘Can you flag this train for me, John?’ I asked the flagman, as I heard a whistle down the line.

“‘No, sir,’ he answered; ‘can’t do it, sir. That’s the limited, but there’ll be a local along ten minutes after it.’

“‘All right,’ I said, and went up the bank a bit to sit down and wait for it.

“The limited whistled again, just around the curve, and then I heard the flagman give a yell and start up the hill, waving his flag like mad. I jumped up and saw that a buggy containing two women had just started down and that the horse was beyond control. It didn’t take me above a minute to run over, get the horse by the bridle, and stop him. I held the track record for everything up to the half-mile while I was at Sheff,” he added, with a little apologetic smile.

I nodded again; only, I thought, I should like to hear the flagman tell the story.

“The horse had knocked me about a bit,” he went on, “and kicked me on the legs once or twice, so when I let go the bridle I was a little wobbly—made a fool of myself, I suppose. Anyway, I was bundled into the buggy and taken back to Elizabeth, where the women lived.”

“Yes,” I encouraged him, for he seemed to have come to a full stop; “and then?”

“Well, they took me home with them and fixed me up as though I were a plaster baby. The elder woman introduced herself as Mrs. Lawrence and the younger as her daughter Marcia. They made me stay for tea——”

He stopped again.

“I don’t know how to tell the rest, Mr. Lester,” he blurted out. “Only Marcia Lawrence was the divinest woman I ever met. Royce used to laugh at me for having an ideal.”

“Yes, he told me,” I said.

“Well, I knew instantly that I’d found her. And she was very good to me—better than I knew how to deserve. Three months ago, she promised to be my wife—we were to have been married at noon to-day——”

He sat with bowed head and working face, unable to go on.

“We were happy—she was happy, I know it!” he cried fiercely, after a moment. “There wasn’t a cloud—not a single cloud! It was too perfect, I suppose—too perfect for this world. I’ve heard that perfect things don’t last. But I don’t understand—I can’t understand!”

“Mr. Royce told me she’d disappeared,” I said gently.

“Disappeared utterly!” He was on his feet now and striding madly up and down the room, his self-control gone from him. “There wasn’t a cloud, I tell you; not the slightest breath of suspicion or distrust or unhappiness. Last night, some of her friends here gave a little reception for her, and she was the gayest of the gay. This morning, about ten o’clock, I called to see her; she seemed very happy—kissed me good-bye until we should meet at the church.”

A convulsive shudder shook him. I saw how near he was to breaking down.

“Let me tell the rest, Burr,” said a low voice from the door, and I turned to see a woman standing there—a woman dressed in black, with a face of unusual sweetness, but shadowed by a great sorrow.

CHAPTER IV

~

A Strange Message

I GUESSED IN A BREATH who she was, and my heart went out to her in instant pity. Yet a second glance told me that it was not the shadow of this recent sorrow which lay across her face. Time alone could grave those lines of calm endurance, could give to the eyes that look of quiet resignation, to the mouth that curve of patient suffering; and only a deep spiritual faith could preserve and heighten the sweetness and gentleness of a countenance so marked.

“This is Mr. Lester, Mrs. Lawrence,” said our junior, quickly, and placed a chair for her. “We’ve asked Mr. Lester to help us,” he added.

She closed the door behind her and came forward as we rose, acknowledging the introduction with the faintest of bows.

“Thank you,” she said. “Lucy told me you had returned, Mr. Royce,” she went on, a little tremulously, “and I was anxious to know if you had any news.”

“Not yet. Mr. Curtiss was just telling Mr. Lester——”

“Yes,” she interrupted, “I saw how he was suffering and I wished to spare him, if I could.”

“My dear Mrs. Lawrence,” broke in Curtiss, “you must think only of sparing yourself.”

“Still,” I suggested, “it’s possible that Mrs. Lawrence can help us a great deal, if she will.”

She was holding herself admirably in hand, and I thought her in much less danger of breaking down than Curtiss himself. Perhaps the old sorrow had taught her how to bear the new one.

“I shall be glad to help you all I can,” she said, and smiled a faint encouragement.

It seemed brutal to question her at such a time, but I saw it must be done and I nerved myself to do it.

“Mrs. Lawrence,” I began, “has any possible explanation of your daughter’s flight occurred to you?”

“No,” she answered quickly, and with an emphasis that rather startled me. “It seems to me utterly unexplainable. Even yet, I can scarcely believe it!”

“She left no message for you?”

“Not a word; she simply disappeared.”

“And you had no warning?”

“Warning?” she repeated, facing around upon me. “No!”

“Nor suspected that there was anything amiss?”

“Not for an instant.”

“Since there was something amiss, why did your daughter not confide in you?”

“I have asked myself the same question. I am utterly unable to answer it.”

“She was in the habit of coming to you with her troubles?”

“Always. There was the most perfect confidence between us.”

“And yet she concealed this?”

“She did not conceal it!” she protested. “She could not have concealed it from my eyes, even had she wished to. There was nothing to conceal. There was absolutely nothing wrong the last time I saw her.”

“And that was?”

“Only a few minutes before she disappeared.”

“Will you tell me just what happened?” I suggested, as gently as I could. “Every detail you can remember.”

She sat for a moment with compressed lips, steadying herself.

“There’s very little to tell,” she began. “She was quite her usual self this morning, so far as I could see, and very happy. Two or three of her girl friends came in to see her for a moment, to talk over the final arrangements, and she was giving some directions about the decorations when Mr. Curtiss called. After he had gone, she made a last trip through the house to see that all was right, and then started upstairs to dress. Half an hour later, she came to my room in her wedding-gown to ask how she looked, and I had never seen her looking more beautiful. Only perfect happiness can give such beauty to a woman. I remember thinking what a joy it was to me that she had found a man whom she could love as she loved——”

A half-stifled, choking sob from Curtiss interrupted her. She turned and stretched out her hand to him, with a gesture of infinite affection.

“I finished dressing,” she continued, “and then went to Marcia’s room, but she wasn’t there. Her maid said she’d been called downstairs for a moment. I came down, and found that the decorator had wanted her opinion of the final touches. She had left him, to go upstairs again, as he supposed. It was then nearly half-past eleven, and the bridesmaids began to arrive. I supposed Marcia was in the grounds somewhere, and sent two of the servants to look for her and to tell her it was time to start for the church. They came back saying she was not to be found. Then I began to be alarmed, thinking that she had perhaps been taken suddenly ill, and we searched the house and grounds systematically, but found no trace of her. At last, it seemed just possible that she had gone on to the church, and the bridesmaids hurried into the carriages and drove away—but she wasn’t there—only Burr waiting for her——”

She stopped with a sudden tremulousness.

“Thank you,” I said. “There’s one question I must ask, Mrs. Lawrence, before I can go to work intelligently. You will pardon it. Had your daughter ever had any attachment previous to this one?”

I saw Curtiss glance at her quickly. That solution of the problem had occurred to him, then, too!

“Not the shadow of one,” answered Mrs. Lawrence instantly, and perhaps it was only my fancy that the accent of sincerity was a trifle forced. “I have been Marcia’s companion and confidante all her life, and I am sure that no man ever distinctly interested her until she met Mr. Curtiss.”

“But she no doubt interested many men,” I suggested.

“Yes, but never with intention.”

“That only makes the case more desperate sometimes.”

“I don’t believe there were any desperate cases. You will remember,” she added, “that we lived much abroad, and so had few intimate acquaintances. Besides, Marcia was—well—extremely patriotic. She often said that she would marry only an American—and an American who lived at home and was proud of his country. One doesn’t meet many of that kind in Europe.”

“No,” I agreed. Whatever my doubts might be, it was clearly impossible at present to proceed any further along that line of inquiry.

And what other line lay open? It seemed to me that I had come to an impasse—a closed way—which barred further progress.

I sat silent a moment, pondering the problem. Perhaps Mrs. Lawrence held the key to it, and I turned to look at her. She was seemingly sunk in reverie, and her lips moved from time to time, as though she were repeating to herself some fragmentary words. She seemed more self-possessed in the presence of this catastrophe than one would have expected. Perhaps she knew where her daughter was; perhaps Miss Lawrence had not really fled. There was nothing to show that she had left the house. It seemed impossible that a woman clad as she had been could have fled, in broad day, without attracting some one’s notice. But whether she had fled or not, I reflected, the mystery remained the same. Certainly, she had not appeared at the altar to keep her promise to Burr Curtiss.

“Mrs. Lawrence,” I asked, “what reason have you to believe that your daughter left the house?”

She started from her reverie, and sat staring at me as though scarce understanding.

“Why,” she said at last, “what else could she have done? She has disappeared——”

“You’re sure she isn’t concealed somewhere about the place?”

“Concealed?” and she paled a little under my eyes. “Oh, no; that’s impossible! We’ve searched everywhere!”

“And you think she went of her own free will?”

“She could scarcely have been abducted,” she retorted. “Marcia is a strong girl, and a single scream would have alarmed the house.”

“That’s true,” I agreed. “Your room is near hers?”

“Just across the hall.”

The wish flashed into my brain to look through the house; perhaps I should be able to arrange it.

“There’s no pit or hole or trap or anything of that sort into which she could have fallen?”

“Oh, no; nothing of the sort.”

“Nor closet nor chest into which she could have accidentally locked herself?” I went on, remembering the fate of the bride in the old song.

“No; besides, we’ve looked in them all. We’ve searched everywhere—every corner. She’s not in the house—I’m quite sure of that.”

“And yet you say she loved Mr. Curtiss?”

“Loved him devotedly.”

“Then what possible reason could she have for deserting him? Why should she——”

A knock at the door interrupted me. Mrs. Lawrence, who was sitting nearest it, rose quickly and opened it. I caught a glimpse, in the semi-darkness of the hall, of a woman in a maid’s cap and apron. She gave her mistress a letter, whispering, as she did so, a swift sentence in her ear.

I heard Mrs. Lawrence’s low exclamation of surprise, as she held the letter up to the light and read the superscription. Then she turned swiftly toward us, her face pale with emotion.

“It’s a note!” she cried. “A note from Marcia! It will explain!” and she handed the envelope to Curtiss.

“A note?” he stammered. “Addressed to me?”

“In Marcia’s writing. Read it. It will explain,” she repeated.