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Illustrator: Frances Rogers
I. THE VAN NORMANS
II. MISS MORTON ARRIVES
III. A CRY IN THE NIGHT
IV. SUICIDE OR ——?
V. A CASE FOR THE CORONER
VI. FESSENDEN COMES
VII. MR. BENSON’S QUESTIONS
VIII. A SOFT LEAD PENCIL
IX. THE WILL
X. SOME TESTIMONY
XI. “I DECLINE TO SAY”
XII. DOROTHY BURT
XIII. AN INTERVIEW WITH CICELY
XIV. THE CARLETON HOUSEHOLD
XV. FESSENDEN’S DETECTIVE WORK
XVI. SEARCHING FOR CLUES
XVII. MISS MORTON’S STATEMENTS
XVIII. CARLETON IS FRANK
XIX. THE TRUTH ABOUT MISS BURT
XX. CICELY’S FLIGHT
XXI. A SUCCESSFUL PURSUIT
XXII. A TALK WITH MISS MORTON
XXIII. FLEMING STONE
XXIV. A CONFESSION
The Man pointed toward the Table.
The old Van Norman mansion was the finest house in Mapleton. Well back from the road, it sat proudly among its finely kept lawns and gardens, as if with a dignified sense of its own importance, and its white, Colonial columns gleamed through the trees, like sentinels guarding the entrance to the stately hall.
All Mapleton was proud of the picturesque old place, and it was shown to visiting strangers with the same pride that the native villagers pointed out the Memorial Library and the new church.
More than a half-century old, the patrician white house seemed to glance coldly on the upstart cottages, whose inadequate pillars supported beetling second stories, and whose spacious, filigreed verandas left wofully small area for rooms inside the house.
The Van Norman mansion was not like that. It was a long rectangle, and each of its four stories was a series of commodious, well-shaped apartments.
And its owner, the beautiful Madeleine Van Norman, was the most envied as well as the most admired young woman in the town.
Magnificent Madeleine, as she was sometimes called, was of the haughty, imperious type which inspires admiration and respect rather than love. An orphan and an heiress, she had lived all of her twenty-two years of life in the old house, and since the death of her uncle, two years before, had continued as mistress of the place, ably assisted by a pleasant, motherly chaperon, a clever social secretary, and a corps of capable servants.
The mansion itself and an income amply sufficient to maintain it were already legally her own, but by the terms of her uncle’s will she was soon to come into possession of the bulk of the great fortune he had left.
Madeleine was the only living descendant of old Richard Van Norman, save for one distant cousin, a young man of a scapegrace and ne’er-do-weel sort, who of late years had lived abroad.
This young man’s early life had been spent in Mapleton, but, his fiery temper having brought about a serious quarrel with his uncle, he had wisely concluded to take himself out of the way.
And yet Tom Willard was not of a quarrelsome disposition. His bad temper was of the impulsive sort, roused suddenly, and as quickly suppressed. Nor was it often in evidence. Good-natured, easy-going Tom would put up with his uncle’s criticism and fault-finding for weeks at a time, and then, perhaps goaded beyond endurance, he would fly into a rage and express himself in fluent if rather vigorous English.
For Richard Van Norman had been by no means an easy man to live with. And it was Tom’s general amiability that had made him the usual scapegoat for his uncle’s ill temper. Miss Madeleine would have none of it. Quite as dictatorial as the old man himself she allowed no interference with her own plans and no criticism of her own actions.
This had proved the right way to manage Mr. Van Norman, and he had always acceded to Madeleine’s requests or submitted to her decrees without objection, though there had never been any demonstration of affection between the two.
But demonstration was quite foreign to the nature of both uncle and niece, and in truth they were really fond of each other in their quiet, reserved way. Tom Willard was different. His affection was of the honest and outspoken sort, and he made friends easily, though he often lost them with equal rapidity.
On account, then, of his devotion to Madeleine, and his enmity toward young Tom Willard, Richard Van Norman had willed the old place to his niece, and had further directed that the whole of his large fortune should be unrestrictedly bestowed upon her on her wedding-day, or on her twenty-third birthday, should she reach that age unmarried. In event of her death before her marriage, and also before her twenty-third birthday, the whole estate would go to Tom Willard.
It was with the greatest reluctance that Richard Van Norman decreed this, but a provision had to be made in case of Madeleine’s early death, and Willard was the only other natural heir. And now, at twenty-two, Madeleine was on the eve of marriage to Schuyler Carleton, a member of one of the oldest and best families of Mapleton.
The village gossips were pleased to commend this union, as Mr. Carleton was a man of irreproachable habits, and handsome enough to appear well beside the magnificent Madeleine.
He was not a rich man, but, as her marriage would bring her inheritance, they could rank among the millionaires of the day. Yet there were those who feared for the future happiness of this apparently ideal couple.
Mrs. Markham, who was both housekeeper and chaperon to her young charge, mourned in secret over the attitude of the betrothed pair.
“He adores her, I’m sure,” she said to herself, “but he is too courtly and polished in his manner. I’d rather he would impulsively caress her, or involuntarily call her by some endearing name than to be always so exquisitely deferential and polite. And Madeleine must love him, or why should she marry him? Yet she is so haughty and formal, she might be a very duchess instead of a young American girl. But that’s Madeleine all over. I’ve never seen her exhibit any real emotion over anything. Ah, well, I’m an old-fashioned fool. Doubtless, they’re cooing doves when alone together, but their high-bred notions won’t allow any sentiment shown before other people. But I almost wish she were going to marry Tom. He has sentiment and enthusiasm enough for two, and the relationship is so distant it’s not worth thinking about. Dear old Tom! He’s the only one who ever stirs Madeleine out of that dignified calm of hers.”
And that was true enough. Madeleine had inherited the Van Norman traits of dignity and reserve to such an extent that it was difficult for any one to be a really close friend.
She had, too, a strange little air of preoccupation, and even when interested in a conversation would appear to look through or beyond her companion in a way that was discouraging to the average caller.
So Miss Van Norman was by no means a favorite with the Mapleton young people in a personal sense, but socially she was their leader, and to be on her invitation list was the highest aspiration of the village “climbers.”
And now that she was about to marry Schuyler Carleton, the event of the wedding was the only thing talked of, thought of, or dreamed of by Mapleton society.
Madeleine, who always kept in touch with Tom Willard by correspondence, had written him of her approaching marriage, and he had responded by coming at once to America to attend the ceremony.
Relieved from the embarrassment of his uncle’s presence, Tom was his jovial self, and showed forth all the reprehensible attractiveness which so often belongs to the scapegrace nature. He sometimes quarreled with Madeleine over trifles, then, making up the next minute, he would caress and pet her with the privileged air of a relative.
He was glad to be back among the familiar scenes of Mapleton, and he went about the town renewing old acquaintances and making new ones, and charming all by his winning personality.
In less than a week he had more friends in the village than Schuyler Carleton had ever made.
Carleton, though handsome and distinguished-looking, was absolutely without personal magnetism or charm, which traits were found in abundance in Tom Willard.
The friends of Schuyler Carleton attributed his reserved, almost repellent demeanor to shyness, and this was partly true. His acquaintances said it was indifference, and this again, was partly true. Then his enemies, of whom he had some, vowed that his cold, curt manner of speech was merely snobbishness, and this was not true at all.
His manner toward his fiancée was all that the most exacting could require in the matter of courtesy and punctilious politeness. He was markedly undemonstrative in public, and if this were true of his behavior when the two were alone, it was probably because Madeleine herself neither inspired nor desired terms or acts of endearment.
Tom’s attitude toward Madeleine angered Carleton extremely, but when he spoke to her on the subject he was gaily informed that the matter of cousinly affection was outside the jurisdiction of a fiancée.
Tom, on his part, was desperately in love with Madeleine, and had been for years. Repeatedly he had begged her to marry him, and she knew in her heart that his plea was prompted by his love for herself and not by any consideration of her fortune.
And yet, should she marry another, all hope of his uncle’s money would be forever lost to Tom Willard.
But prodigal and spendthrift that he was, if Tom felt any regret at his vanishing fortunes, he showed no sign of it. Save for sudden and often easily provoked bursts of temper, he was infectiously gay and merry, and was the life of the house party already gathered under Madeleine’s roof.
The fact that Tom was staying at the Van Norman house, which of course Carleton could not do, gave Willard an advantage over the prospective bridegroom, of which he was by no means unconscious. Partly to tease the imperturbable but jealous Carleton, and partly because of his own affection for his cousin, Tom devoted himself assiduously to Madeleine, especially when Carleton was present.
“You see, Maddy,” Tom would say, “there are only a few days left of our boy and girl chumminess. I fancy that after you are married, Schuyler won’t let me speak to you, save in most formal terms, so I must see all I can of you now.”
Then he would tuck her arm through his own, and take her for a stroll in the grounds, and Carleton, coming to search for her, would find them cosily chatting in a secluded arbor, or drifting lazily in a canoe on the tiny, lily-padded lake.
These things greatly annoyed Schuyler Carleton, but remonstrance was never an easy task for him, nor did it ever affect Madeleine pleasantly.
“I wish, Madeleine,” he had said one day, when he had waited two hours for her to return from a drive with Tom, “that you would have a little regard for appearances, if you have none for my wishes. It is not seemly for my betrothed wife to be driving all over the country with another man.”
Magnificent Madeleine looked straight at him, tilting her head back slightly to look beneath her half-closed lids.
“It is not seemly,” she said, “for my betrothed husband to imply that I could be at fault in a matter of propriety or punctilio. That is not possible.”
“You are right,” he said, and his eyes gleamed with admiration of her glorious beauty and imperious manner. “Forgive me,—you are indeed right.”
Though Schuyler Carleton may not have been lavish of affection, he begrudged no admiration to the splendid woman he had won.
And yet, had he but known it, the apparently scornful and haughty girl was craving a more tender and gentle love, and would gladly have foregone his admiration to have received more affection.
“But it will come,” Madeleine thought to herself. “I am not of the ‘clinging vine’ type, I know; but after we are married, surely Schuyler will be less formally polite, and more,—well,—chummy.”
Yet Madeleine herself was chummy with nobody save Tom.
They two were always chatting and laughing together, and though they differed sometimes, and even quarrelled, it was quickly made up, and forgotten in a new subject of merry discussion.
But, after all, they rarely quarrelled except regarding Madeleine’s approaching marriage.
“Don’t throw yourself away on that iceberg, Maddy,” Tom would plead. “He’s a truly fine man, I know, but he can’t make you happy.”
“How absurd you are, Tom! Give me credit, please, for knowing my own mind, at least. I love Schuyler Carleton, and I am proud that he is to be my husband. He is the finest man I have ever known in every way, and I am a fortunate girl to be chosen by such a man.”
“Oho, Maddy! Don’t do the humble; it doesn’t suit you at all. You are the type who ought to have ‘kings and crown princes at your feet.’ And Carleton is princely enough in his effects, but he’s by no means at your feet.”
“What do you mean?” exclaimed Madeleine angrily.
“Just what I say. Schuyler Carleton admires you greatly, but he doesn’t love you—at least, not as I do!”
“Don’t be foolish, Tom. Naturally you know nothing about Mr. Carleton’s affection for me—he does not proclaim it from the housetops. And I desire you not to speak of it again.”
“Why should I speak of what doesn’t exist? Forgive me, Maddy, but I love you so myself, it drives me frantic to see that man treating you so coolly.”
“He doesn’t treat me coolly. Or, if he does, it’s because I don’t wish for tender demonstrations before other people. I’m fond of you, Tom, as you know, but I won’t allow even you to criticise the man I am about to marry.”
“Oh, very well, marry him, then, and a precious unhappy life you’ll lead with him,—and I know why.”
Madeleine turned on him, her eyes blazing with anger.
“What do you mean? Explain that last remark of yours.”
“Small need! You know why as well as I do;” and Tom pushed his hands into his pockets and strode away, whistling, well knowing that he had roused his cousin’s even temper at last.
In addition to some of her Mapleton friends, Madeleine had invited two girls from New York to be her bridesmaids. Kitty French and Molly Gardner had already come and were staying at the Van Norman house the few days that would intervene before the wedding.
Knowing Madeleine well, as they did, they had not expected confidence from her, nor did they look forward to cosy, romantic boudoir chats, such as many girls would enjoy.
But neither had they expected the peculiar constraint that seemed to hang over all the members of the household.
Mrs. Markham had been so long housekeeper, and even companion, for Madeleine that she was not looked upon as a servant, and to her Kitty French put a few discreet questions regarding the exceeding reserve of Mr. Carleton.
“I don’t know, Miss French,” said the good woman, looking sadly disturbed. “I love Madeleine as I would my own child. I know she adores Mr. Carleton,—and—yes, I know he greatly admires her,—and yet there is something wrong. I can’t express it—it’s merely a feeling,—an intuition, but there is something wrong.”
“You know Mr. Willard is in love with Maddy,” suggested Miss French.
“Oh, it isn’t that. They’ve always had a cousinly affection for each other, and,—yes, Tom is in love with her,—but what I mean is aside from all that. The real reason that Madeleine flirts with Tom—for she does flirt with him—is to pique Mr. Carleton. There! I’ve said more than I meant to, but you’re too good a friend to let it make any trouble, and, any way, in a few days they will be married, and then I’m sure it will be all right,—I’m sure of it.”
Like many people, Mrs. Markham emphasized by repetition a statement of whose truth she was far from sure.
The day before the wedding the old house was a pleasant scene of bustle and confusion.
Professional decorators were in charge of the great drawing-room, building a canopy of green vines and flowers, beneath which the bridal pair should stand the next day at high noon.
This work was greatly hindered by a bevy of young people who thought they were helping.
At last, noting a look of dumb exasperation on the face of one of the florist’s men, Molly Gardner exclaimed, “I don’t believe our help is needed here; come on, Kitty, let’s go in the library and wait for tea-time.”
It was nearly five o’clock, and the girls found most of the house guests already assembled in the library, awaiting the arrival of the tea-tray.
Several other young people were there also, most of them being those who were to be of the wedding cortège next day.
Robert Fessenden, who was to be best man, had just come from New York, and had dropped in to see Miss Van Norman.
Although he was an old friend of Carleton’s, Madeleine did not know him very well, and though she made him welcome, it was with that coldly formal air that did not greatly attract the young man, but he could not fail to be impressed by her great beauty.
“Lucky fellow, Carleton,” he said to Tom Willard. “Why, that woman would create a sensation in any great city in the world.”
“Yes, she is too handsome to live all her life in a small village,” agreed Tom. “I think they intend to travel a great deal.”
“An heiress, too, I believe.”
“Yes, she has all the desirable traits a woman can possess.”
“All?” Fessenden’s tone was quizzical.
“What do you mean?” asked Tom sharply.
“Nothing; only, if I were to marry, I should prefer a little more softness of nature.”
“Oh, that’s only her manner. My cousin is most sweet and womanly, I assure you.”
“I’m sure she is,” returned Fessenden, who was a bit ashamed of his outspokenness; “and she’s getting a sterling good fellow for a husband.”
“She is so,” said Tom, heartily, which was kind of him, considering his own opinion of Carleton.
And then both men strolled over to where Madeleine sat at the tea-table. She was reading a telegram that had just been brought to her, and she laughingly explained to Tom that it meant a bother for him.
“Miss Morton has concluded to come to the wedding, after all,” she said. “She wrote me that she wouldn’t come, but she has changed her mind, it seems. Now, it does sound ridiculous, I know, but in this big house there isn’t a room left for her but the one you have, Tom. You see, one bedroom is used for a ‘present room,’ one is reserved for Schuyler to-morrow, the bridesmaids have another, and except for our own rooms, and those already occupied by guests, there are no more. I hate to ask you, Tom, but could you go to the Inn?”
“Sure, Maddy dear; anything to oblige. But it does seem too bad to turn me out of your house the very last day that your hospitality is all your own to offer. To-morrow the grand Seigneur will be master here, and my timid little Madeleine can no longer call her soul her own.”
This reference to the tall and stately mistress of the house raised a general laugh, but Madeleine did not join in it.
“I’m so sorry, Tom,” she said earnestly, as she looked again at the telegram she was holding, “but Miss Morton was an old friend of Uncle Richard’s, and as she wants to come here I can’t turn her away. And unless you give her your room, there is no other——”
“Nonsense, Madeleine! I’m only joking. Of course I’ll go to the hotel. Only too glad to accommodate Miss Morton. Forget it, girl; I assure you I don’t mind a bit. I’ll pack up a few traps after dinner and skip down to the picturesque, if rather ostentatious, Mapleton Inn.”
As Tom spoke he put his arm carelessly round Madeleine’s shoulders, and though scarcely more than a cousinly caress, it was unfortunate that Schuyler Carleton should enter the room at that moment. A lightning glance flashed between the two men, and as Tom moved away from Madeleine with a slightly embarrassed shrug of his shoulders, Carleton’s face grew so stern that an uncomfortable silence fell upon the guests.
However, the arrival of the tea-tray saved the situation, and Madeleine at once busied herself in the pretty occupation of serving tea to her guests.
With an air of jealous proprietorship, Carleton moved toward her and, looking handsome, though sulky, stood by Willard with folded arms, as if on guard.
Urged on by a daredevil spirit of mischief, and perhaps remembering that Madeleine would soon be beyond his reach as Carleton’s wife, Tom also moved toward her from the other side. Endeavoring to treat the situation lightly, Madeleine held up a newly-filled teacup.
“Who will have this?” she asked gaily.
“I will!” declared Carleton and Tom at the same time, and each held out a hand.
Madeleine looked at them both smilingly.
Carleton’s face was white and set; he was evidently making a serious matter of the trifling episode.
Tom, on the contrary, was smiling broadly, and was quite evidently enjoying his rival’s discomfiture.
“I shall give it to you, because you look so pleasant,” declared Madeleine, handing the cup to Tom. “Now, Schuyler, smile prettily and you may have one, too.”
But Carleton would not fall in with her light mood.
Bending a little, he said in a tense voice, “I will leave you to your cousin now. To-morrow I shall assert my claim.”
Though not rude in themselves, the words were accompanied by a harsh and disdainful glance that made several of the onlookers wonder what sort of a life the haughty Madeleine would lead with such a coldly tyrannical husband.
“The brute!” said Tom, under his breath, as Carleton left the room. “Never mind, Maddy, the old Turk has left you to me for this evening, and we’ll take him at his word.”
Suddenly Madeleine’s mood changed to one of utter gaiety. She smiled impartially on all, she jested with the girls, she bewitched the young men with her merry banter, and she almost seemed to be flirting with Tom Willard. But he was her cousin, after all, and much is forgiven a bride-to-be on her wedding eve.
Robert Fessenden looked at Miss Van Norman with a puzzled air. He couldn’t seem to understand her, and was glad when by chance the two were left comparatively alone for a few moments’ conversation.
“A great responsibility devolves on the best man, Miss Van Norman,” he said, in response to a chaffing remark of hers. “I suppose that to-morrow I shall be general director-in-chief, and if anything should go wrong, I shall be blamed.”
“But nothing will go wrong,” said Madeleine, gaily, “and then, think how you’ll be praised!”
“Ah, but you won’t be here to hear the praise heaped upon me, so what’s the use?”
“No, I shall be gone forever,” said Madeleine, putting on one of her faraway looks. “I never want to come back to Mapleton. I hate it!”
“Why, Miss Van Norman! You want to desert this beautiful old house? Schuyler can never find you a home so comfortable and attractive in every way.”
“I don’t care. I want to go far away from Mapleton to live. We’re going to travel for a year, any way, but when we do settle down, it will be abroad, I hope.”
“You surprise me. Schuyler didn’t tell me this. We’ve been chums so long, that I usually know of his plans. But, of course, getting married changes all that.”
“You’re a very intimate friend of Mr. Carleton’s, aren’t you?” said Madeleine, with a strange note of wistfulness in her voice.
“Yes, I am. Why?”
“Oh, nothing; I only thought—I mean, do you think——”
Rob Fessenden was thrilled by the plaintive expression on the beautiful face, and suddenly felt a great desire to help this girl, who was seemingly so far above and beyond all need of help, and yet was surely about to ask his aid, or at least his sympathy.
“Don’t hesitate,” he said gently; “what is it, Miss Van Norman? I want to be as firm a friend of yours as I am of Schuyler’s, so please say what you wish to.”
“I can’t—I can’t,” Madeleine whispered, and her voice was almost a moan.
“Please,” again urged Fessenden.
“Do you know Dorothy Burt?” Madeleine then broke out, as if the words were fairly forced from her.
“No,” said Fessenden, amazed; “I never heard the name before. Who is she?”
“Hush! She’s nobody—less than nobody. Don’t mention her to me ever again—nor to any one else. Ah, here comes Miss Morton.”
As Fessenden watched Madeleine, she changed swiftly from a perturbed, troubled girl to a courteous, polished hostess.
“My dear Miss Morton,” she said, advancing to meet her newest guest, “how kind of you to come to me at this time.”
“I didn’t come exactly out of kindness,” said Miss Morton, “but because I desired to come. I hope you are quite well. Will you give me some tea?”
Miss Morton was a tall, angular lady, with gray hair and sharp, black eyes. She seemed to bite off her words at the ends of her short sentences, and had a brisk, alert manner that was, in a way, aggressive.
“An eccentric,” Rob Fessenden thought, as he looked at her, and wondered why she was there at all.
“An old sweetheart of Mr. Richard Van Norman, I believe,” said Kitty French, when he questioned her. “They were once engaged and then quarrelled and broke it off, and neither of them lived happily ever after.”
“As the Carletons will,” said Fessenden, smiling.
“Yes,” said Kitty slowly, “as the Carletons will—I hope. You know Mr. Carleton awfully well, don’t you? Are you sure he will make our Maddy happy, Mr. Fessenden?”
“I think so;” and Fessenden tried to speak casually. “He is not an emotional man, or one greatly given to sentiment, but I judge she is not that sort either.”
“Oh, yes, she is! Maddy is apparently cold and cynical, but she isn’t really so a bit. But she perfectly adores him, and if they’re not happy, it won’t be her fault.”
“Nor will it be his,” said Fessenden, warmly defending his absent friend. “Carleton’s an old trump. There’s no finer man in the world, and any woman ought to be happy with him.”
“I’m glad to hear you say that,” said Kitty, with a little sigh of relief. “Do look at that funny Miss Morton! She seems to be scolding Madeleine. I’m sorry she came. She doesn’t seem very attractive. But perhaps it’s because she was crossed in love and it made her queer.”
“Or she was queered in love and it made her cross,” laughed Fessenden. “Well, I must go, now, and look up Carleton. Poor old boy, he was a little miffed when he went away.”
After tea all the callers departed, and those who were house guests went to their rooms to dress for dinner.
Tom Willard, with great show of burlesque regret and tearful farewells, went to the hotel, that Miss Morton might have the room he had been occupying.
He promised to return for dinner, and gaily blew kisses to Madeleine as with his traps he was driven down the avenue.
At dinner, Schuyler Carleton’s place was vacant. It had been arranged next to Madeleine’s, and when fifteen minutes after the dinner hour he had not arrived, she haughtily accepted Tom Willard’s arm and led the way to the dining-room.
But having reached the table, she directed Tom to take his rightful seat, at some distance from her own, and Carleton’s chair remained empty at Madeleine’s side.
At first this was uncomfortably evident, but Madeleine was in gay spirits, and soon the whole party followed her lead, and the conversation was general and in a merry key.
The young hostess had never looked more regally beautiful. Her dark hair, piled high on her head, was adorned with a dainty ornament which, though only a twisted ribbon, was shaped like a crown, and gave her the effect of an imperious queen. Her low-cut gown of pale yellow satin was severe of line and accented her stately bearing, while her exquisitely modelled neck and shoulders were as white and pure as those of a marble statue. Save for a double row of pearls around her throat, she wore no ornaments, but on the morrow Carleton’s gift of magnificent diamonds would grace her bridal costume. The combination of haughty imperial beauty and a dazzling witchery of mood was irresistible, and the men and girls alike realized that never before had Madeleine seemed so wonderful.
After the dessert was placed on the table, Willard could stand it no longer, and, leaving his own place, he calmly appropriated Carleton’s vacant chair.
Madeleine did not reprove him, and Kitty French took occasion to whisper to her neighbor:
“‘’Twere better by far to have matched our fair cousin to brave Lochinvar.’”
Mrs. Markham overheard the quotation, and a look of pain came into her eyes. But it was all too late now, and to-morrow Madeleine would be irrevocably Schuyler Carleton’s wife.
After dinner coffee was served in the cozy library. Madeleine preferred this room to the more elaborately furnished drawing-room, and to-night her word was law.
But suddenly her mood changed. For no apparent reason her gay spirits vanished, her smile faded away, and a pathetic droop curved the corners of her beautiful mouth.
At about ten o’clock she said abruptly, though gently, “I wish you’d all go to bed. Unless you girls get some beauty sleep, you won’t look pretty at my wedding to-morrow.”
“I’m quite ready to go,” declared Kitty French with some tact, for she saw that Madeleine was nervous and strung up to a high tension.
“I, too,” exclaimed Molly Gardner, and the two girls said good-night and went upstairs.
Two or three young men who had been dinner guests also made their adieux, and Tom Willard said, “Well, I may as well toddle to my comforts of home, as understood by a country innkeeper.”
Madeleine said good-night to him kindly enough, but without jest or gaiety. Tom looked at her curiously for a moment, and then, gently kissing her hand, he went away.
Mrs. Markham, having seen Miss Morton comfortably installed in what had been Tom’s room, returned to the library to offer her services to Madeleine.
But the girl only thanked her, saying, “There is nothing you can do to-night. I want to be alone for an hour or two. I will stay here in the library for a time, and I’d like to have you send Cicely to me.”
A few moments later Cicely Dupuy came in, bringing some letters and papers. She was Miss Van Norman’s private secretary, and admirably did she fill the post. Quick-witted, clever, deft of hand and brain, she answered notes, kept accounts, and in many ways made herself invaluable to her employer.
Moreover, Madeleine liked her. Cicely was of a charming personality. Small, fair, with big, childish blue eyes and a rose-leaf skin, she was a pretty picture to look at.
“Sit down,” said Madeleine, “and make a little list of some final matters I want you to attend to to-morrow.”
Cicely sat down, and, taking pencil and tablet from the library table, made the lists as Madeleine directed. This occupied but a short time, and then Miss Van Norman said wearily:
“You may go now, Cicely. Go to bed at once, dear. You will have much to do to-morrow. And please tell Marie I shall not need her services to-night. She may go to her room. I shall sit here for an hour or more, and I will answer these notes. I wish to be alone.”
“Very well, Miss Van Norman,” said Cicely, and, taking the lists she had made, she went softly from the room.
The loud cry of a single word was not repeated, but repetition was unnecessary, for the sound rang through the old Van Norman house, and carried its message of fear and horror to all, awake or sleeping, within its walls.
It was about half-past eleven that same night, and Cicely Dupuy, still fully dressed, flew from her bedroom out into the hall.
Seeing a light downstairs, and hearing the servants’ bells, one after another, as if rung by a frantic hand, she hesitated a moment only, and then ran downstairs.
In the lower hall Schuyler Carleton, with a dazed expression on his white, drawn face, was uncertainly pushing various electric buttons which, in turn, flashed lights on or off, or rang bells in distant parts of the house.
For a moment Cicely stared straight at the man. Their eyes met, their gaze seemed to concentrate, and they stood motionless, as if spellbound.
This crisis was broken in upon by Marie, Madeleine’s French maid, who came running downstairs in a hastily donned negligée.
“Mon Dieu!” she cried. “Ou est Mademoiselle?”
With a start, Carleton turned from Cicely, and still with that dazed look on his face, he motioned Marie toward the wide doorway of the library. The girl took a step toward the threshold, and then, with a shriek, paused, and ventured no further.
Cicely, as if impelled by an unseen force, slowly turned and followed Marie’s movements, and as the girl screamed, Cicely grasped her tightly by the arm, and the two stood staring in at the library door.
What they saw was Madeleine Van Norman, seated in a chair at the library table. Her right arm was on the table, and her head, which had fallen to one side, was supported by her right shoulder. Her eyes were partly closed, and her lips were parted, and the position of the rigid figure left no need for further evidence that this was not a natural sleep.
But further evidence there was. Miss Van Norman still wore her yellow satin gown, but the beautiful embroidered bodice was stained a dull red, and a crimson stream was even then spreading its way down the shimmering breadths of the trailing skirt.
On the table, near the outstretched white hand, lay a Venetian dagger. This dagger was well known to the onlookers. It had lain on the library table for many years, and though ostensibly for the purpose of a paper-cutter, it was rarely used as such. Its edges were too sharp to cut paper satisfactorily, and, moreover, it was a wicked-looking affair, and many people had shuddered as they touched it. It had a history, too, and Richard Van Norman used to tell his guests of dark deeds in which the dagger had taken part while it was still in Italy.
Madeleine herself had had a horror of the weapon, though she had often admitted the fascination of its marvellous workmanship, and had said upon several occasions that the thing fairly hypnotized her, and some day she should kill herself or somebody else with it.
From an instinctive sense of duty, Marie started forward, as if to help her mistress, then with a convulsive shudder she screamed again and clasped her hands before her eyes to shut out the awful sight.
Cicely, too, moved slowly toward the silent figure, then turned and again gazed steadfastly at Schuyler Carleton.
There must have been interrogation in her eyes, for the man pointed toward the table, and Cicely looked again, to notice there a bit of paper with writing on it.
She made no motion toward it, but the expression on her face changed to one of bewildered surprise. Before she had time to speak, however, the other people of the house all at once began to gather in the hall.
Mrs. Markham came first, and though when she saw Madeleine she turned very white and seemed about to faint, she bravely went at once toward the girl, and gently tried to raise the fallen head.
She felt a firm grasp on her shoulder, and turned to see Miss Morton, with a stern, set face, at her side.
“Don’t touch her,” said Miss Morton, in a whisper. “Telephone for a doctor quickly.”
“But she’s dead,” declared Mrs. Markham, at the same time bursting into violent sobs.
“We do not know; we hope not,” went on Miss Morton, and without another word she led Mrs. Markham to a sofa, and sat her down rather suddenly, and then went herself straight to the telephone.
As she reached it she paused only to inquire the name of the family physician.
Harris, the butler, with difficulty articulated the name of Doctor Hills and his telephone number, and without further inquiry Miss Morton called for him.
“Is this Doctor Hills?” she said when her call was answered. “Yes; this is the Van Norman house. Come here at once. . . . No matter; you must come at once—it is very important—a matter of life and death. . . . I am Miss Morton. I am in charge here. Yes, come immediately! Good-by.”
Miss Morton hung up the receiver and turned to the frightened group of servants.
“You can do nothing,” she said, “and you may as well return to your rooms. Harris may stay, and one of the parlor maids.”