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The Curved Blades
I | MISS LUCY CARRINGTON
II | A CLASH OF TONGUES
III | THE TRAGEDY
IV | A PAPER SNAKE
V | A MAN’S GLOVE
VI | A NEIGHBOR’S CALL
VII | THE INQUEST
VIII | ANITA’S STORY
IX | FURTHER TESTIMONY
X | BIZARRE CLUES
XI | FLEMING STONE
XII | ESTELLE’S STORY
XIII | BATES, THE BURGLAR
XIV | WHO GAVE THE POISON?
XV | PAULINE’S PURCHASE
XVI | THE TWO GIRLS
XVII | THE OVERHEARD CONVERSATION
XVIII | FLED!
XIX | LETTERS FROM THE FUGITIVE
XX | IN THE BOUDOIR
XXI | FLEMING STONE’S THEORY
XXII | PAULINE IN CAIRO
XXIII | TWO WILLS
XXIV | CONFESSION
Further Reading: The White Alley
The Curved Blades – A Fleming Stone Mystery by Carolyn Wells. First published in 1915. This edition published 2017 by Mystery Mavens. All rights reserved.
GARDEN STEPS was one of the show-places of Merivale Park, Long Island. In summer it was an enchanting spot, and the dazzling white marble steps which led to the sunken gardens justified their right to give the place its name. Other stone steps gave on terraces and flower banks, others still led to the Italian landscape gardens, and a few rustic steps of a wooden stile transported one to an old-fashioned garden, whose larkspur and Canterbury bells were the finest of their sort.
The house seemed an integral part of this setting. Its wide verandahs, or more often loggias, were so lavishly furnished with flowering plants, its windows so boxed with them, that the whole effect was that of a marvelously well-planned horticultural exhibition.
But all this was of the summer. In winter—for it was an all-round-the-year home—only the varied and extraordinary collection of evergreens shared with the steps the honor of making picturesque and beautiful the view from the house windows.
And now, in January, one of the all too seldom enjoyed white snow storms had glorified the whole estate. Wind-swept drifts half hid, half disclosed the curving marble balustrades, and turned the steps to snowy fairyland flights.
And, for it was night, a cold, dear, perfect winter night, a supercilious moon looked down, a little haughtily and condescended to illumine the scene in stunning, if a bit theatric, fashion.
“Ripping picture, eh?” said Gray Haviland, as he held back the heavy curtain for the golden-haired young woman at his side to look out.
“Oh, isn’t it a wonderful sight!” And as Anita Frayne took a step forward, toward the casement, Haviland let the curtain fall behind him and the two were alone in the deep embrasure of the wide bay-window.
“Not nearly such a wonderful sight as you are!” Haviland swung her round to face him, and stood gazing at the pretty, doll-like face that half laughed, half frowned into his own.
“Me! I’m not like a moonlit landscape!”
“No, you’re just a golden morsel of summer sunshine ...” Haviland’s eulogy was interrupted by a petulant voice calling shrilly:
“Where are you two? I hear you talking; come on. I’m waiting.”
“Oh, Lord! come on,” and, holding the curtain aside, he let Anita pass and then followed her.
“Here we are, Cousin Lucy, all ready for the fray. Good evening, Count.”
Count Charlier bowed Frenchily, and Anita gave him the bright, flashing smile that she kept on hand for mankind in general, and which was quite different from that she used on special occasions or for special friends.
Annoyed at the duration of this delaying smile, Miss Lucy Carrington tapped impatiently on the bridge table, and looked her impatience most unmistakably.
Mistress of Garden Steps, wealthy, well-born, of assured social position, capable and efficient, Miss Carrington lacked the one gift of Fate for which she would have bartered all else. She was not beautiful, and had not even enough pretension to good looks to think herself beautiful. Plain features, graying hair—dyed red—big, prominent light-blue eyes and a pasty, pudgy complexion left no hope for the miracles worked by beauty doctors to avail in her case. Her figure was short and dumpy; the despair of her stay-makers, and her taste in dress ran to the extremes in coloring and fashion.
Passionately fond of all beauty, Miss Carrington felt keenly her own lack of it, and to this lack she attributed the fact that she was a spinster. Those who knew her felt there might be other reasons why her suitors had been few, but, as a matter of fact, the acidity of her disposition was a direct result of her disappointed, loveless life, and even yet, though nearing fifty, Miss Lucy Carrington had by no means laid aside all thoughts of matrimonial adventure.
Heiress to immense wealth, there had been fortune-seekers who asked her hand, but Lucy Carrington would none of these. Aristocratic and high-minded, she had unerring perception of motives, and the men who had been willing to marry her face as well as her fortune had been of such unworth that the lady scorned them.
But now, looming on her hopes’ horizon was a welcome possibility. Count Henri Charlier, a visitor of a neighbor, seemingly admired the mistress of Garden Steps and had fallen into the habit of frequent calling. Courteous and polished of manner, he flattered Miss Carrington in such wise that his attitude was acceptable if not indubitably sincere. Her closest scrutiny and most challenging provocation failed to surprise any admission of her lack of perfection in his eyes, and his splendid physique and brilliant mind commanded her complete approval and admiration. There had been hints that his title could not be read entirely clear, but this was not sufficient to condemn him in Miss Carrington’s eyes.
To be sure, the Count had as yet said no word that could be construed as of definite intention, but there had been certain signs, deemed portentous by the willing mind of the lady in question.
Bridge was Miss Carrington’s favorite diversion, and, as the Count also enjoyed it, frequent evenings were devoted to the game.
It was, perhaps, a mistake that Miss Carrington should have allowed this, for her temper, always uncertain, lost all restraint when she suffered ill-luck at cards. A poor hand always brought down violent objurgation on the head of her partner and sarcastic comment or criticism on her adversaries. These exhibitions of wrath were not good policy if she wished to charm the French visitor, but as he invariably kept his own temper, his irate hostess made little effort to curb hers.
“What are you doing, Anita?” cried Miss Carrington, petulantly, as they settled themselves at the table. “You know I always play with the blue cards, and you are dealing them!”
“Sure enough! Pardon me, Lady Lucy, I will take the red ones.”
“Then, pray, wait till I make them up. There. No, let the Count cut them! Have you no notion of bridge rules? You are quite the most inattentive player! Will you kindly concentrate on the game?”
“Yes, indeed,” and Anita Frayne smiled as she deftly dealt the red cards. “I hope you have a good hand.”
“You hope I have a good hand! A strange idea for an adversary!”
“But I know you like to win,” and Miss Frayne hastily gathered up her own cards.
“I do not like to have you want me to win! That’s babyish. I like to win by superior skill, not merely by lucky cards!”
This was an awful whopper, and all at the table knew it, but it was ignored and the game began.
Miss Carrington—Lady Lucy, as she liked to be called—did not hold good hands. On the contrary, she had a run of bad luck that made her more and more irate with each hand dealt. Miss Frayne, who was her protégée and social secretary, watched with growing apprehension the red spots that appeared in Miss Carrington’s cheeks, infallible danger signals of an impending outbreak.
“Another handful of blanks!” Miss Carrington exclaimed, angrily, and flung the offending thirteen cards across the wide room.
“There now, Cousin Lucy,” said Gray Haviland, determined to keep the peace if possible, “that was a clever idea! It will certainly change your luck! I’ll collect the pasteboards, and we’ll start fresh.”
Easily, the big, good-looking young chap sauntered across the room and gathered up the cards, chatting meanwhile. “You don’t lose your deal, you know; so try again, Cousin Lucy, and good luck to you!”
In angry silence Miss Carrington dealt again, and examined her hand. “Nothing above a nine spot!” she declared, throwing them, backs up, on the table.
“Too bad!” murmured Miss Frayne, carelessly picking up the hand. “Why, you didn’t look closely! Here’s an ace and two queens and——”
“They’re nothing! How dare you dispute my word? I say the hand is worthless!” She fairly snatched the cards from the girl and turned them face down again.
“But mademoiselle,” began the Count, “if you have an ace and two queens, I could have played a no-trump hand grand,—ah, splendid!”
“Yes, you could have played it! You want to play all the open hands! You want me to sit here a dummy, a figure-head, every time!”
“Now, now, Lady Lucy——” and Anita Frayne laughed pleasantly.
“Be quiet! You’re worse yet! You want to deal me good hands to humor me! I believe you would cheat to do it! I don’t want good cards that way!”
“Ah,” begged the Count, seeing Anita flush, “do not tell the young lady she cheats! Do not do that!”
“I’ll tell her what I choose! Gray, say something! You sit there like a mummy, while these people are insulting me right and left! Tell Anita that I am right in not wishing her to deal me good cards purposely.”
“But she didn’t,” declared Haviland; “you know she didn’t. Why, she couldn’t, even if she wanted to!”
“Oh, yes, she could!” and Miss Carrington gave a disagreeable sneer. “She’s quite clever enough for any deceit or treachery.”
“Stop, Cousin Lucy! I can’t let you talk so about Miss Frayne in my presence!”
“Oh, you can’t, can’t you? And, pray, what right have you to defend her? Go away, both of you! I’ll play with you no longer. Go away and send Pauline and Mr. Illsley in here. They, at least, will play fair.”
Anita Frayne rose without a word. Haviland rose too, but talking volubly. “Let up, Cousin Lucy,” he said sternly. “You’ve no right to treat Miss Frayne so. You ought to apologize to her for such rudeness.”
“Apologize!” Miss Carrington fairly shrieked; “she’ll do the apologizing, and you, too, my foolish young cousin. You little know what’s going to happen to me! Tomorrow you may sing another song!”
Haviland looked at her in astonishment; the Count, thoughtfully. The same idea was in both their minds. Could she mean that she was expecting the Count to propose to her that evening?
“Nothing nice can happen to you unless you learn to control that temper of yours,” and Haviland swung away after Anita.
He found her in the next room, nestled in the corner of a big davenport, weeping into a sympathetic sofa-cushion.
“Go and find the others,” she whispered, as he came near her. “Make them go and play with her!”
Obediently, Haviland went. In the glassed sun-parlor he found Pauline Stuart, Miss Carrington’s niece, and Stephen Illsley, one of the most favored of Pauline’s many suitors.
“For goodness’ sake, people,” he began, “do go and play bridge with the Lady of the Manor! She’s in a peach of a fury, and you’ll have to take your life in your hands, but go!”
“I won’t,” said Pauline, bluntly; “It’s Anita’s turn tonight. She said she’d do it.”
“She did! But she came off second best, and she’s weeping buckets on the best Empire embroidery sofa-cushions! I’m going to comfort her, but you must go and keep the gentle Lucy from pulling the house down about our ears! She’s sure queering herself with his nibs! He can’t admire her sweet, flower-like soul after this night’s exhibition.”
“I don’t want to go a bit, but I suppose we’ll have to,” and Pauline smiled at her guest.
“Oh, go on,” said Haviland, as he turned to leave them; “and, for Heaven’s sake, give her all the good cards. Can you manage that, Illsley?”
“I am afraid not. Her eyes are too sharp.”
“Well, if her luck stays bad, get her to play mumble-peg or something, instead of bridge.”
Haviland disappeared and Pauline rose unwillingly. “I do so hate to play with Aunt Lucy,” she said, “but it must be done. Are you willing to sacrifice yourself?”
“For you? Always!” And the two went to the cardroom.
Pauline Stuart, tall, dark, graceful, was a striking-looking girl. Only twenty-four, she carried herself with the dignity and poise of a duchess, and her heavy, dark brows gave her face an expression of strength and will-power that contrasted forcibly with the delicate Dresden china beauty of Anita Frayne. The two girls were not especially friendly, though never definitely at odds. Anita was envious of the more fortunate Pauline. The latter, Miss Carrington’s niece, would inherit a goodly part of her aunt’s large fortune, while the humble position of the secretary commanded only a liberal, not munificent, salary.
The girls, however, were at one in their dread of Miss Lucy’s ebullitions of temper and their resentment of the biting sarcasms and angry diatribes she flung at them in her frequent spasms of fury.
Illsley, a well-set-up chap of good address, followed Pauline into her aunt’s presence.
“You waited long enough,” grumbled Miss Carrington. “Sit down. It’s your deal now, Pauline.”
Matters went well for a time. Miss Lucy held good cards, and once or twice she triumphed through a mistake of her adversaries, which she fortunately did not discover was made on purpose.
Count Charlier’s little bright black eyes darted inquiringly from aunt to niece, but he made no comment. All four played well, and when at last Miss Carrington made a grand slam her joy was effervescent.
“Good play,” she flattered herself. “You must admit, Count, that it was clever of me to take that difficult finesse just at that critical point.”
“Clever indeed, mademoiselle. You have the analytical mind; you should have been a diplomat. Also, Fortune favors you. You are beloved of the fickle goddess.”
“Let us hope so,” and for a moment Miss Carrington looked grave.
And then, with the perversity of that same goddess, the card luck changed. Pauline and Illsley held all the high cards, Miss Lucy and the Count only the low ones.
Storm signals showed. Whiter grew the stern, set face; tighter drew the thin, wide lips; and rigid muscles set themselves in the angry, swelling throat. Then, as she scanned a hand of cards, all below the ten, again they went in a shower across the room, and she cried, angrily: “A Yarborough!” reverting to the old-fashioned term.
“Never mind, Aunt Lucy,” and Pauline tried to laugh it off; “this is not your lucky night. Let’s give up bridge for tonight. Let’s have some music.”
“Yes! Because you love music and hate bridge! It makes no difference what I want. My wishes are never considered. You and Anita are just alike! Selfish, ungrateful, caring for nothing but your own pleasure. Mr. Illsley, don’t you think young girls should pay some slight attention to the wishes of one who does everything for them? Where would either of them be but for me? Are you not sorry for me?”
“Why,—I—you must excuse me, I am not sure I understand——”
“Yes, you understand, perfectly well. You know the girls slight me and snub me every chance they get. But it will not always be thus. Tomorrow——”
“Come, Aunt Lucy,” pleaded Pauline, “let us have some music. You know there are some new records, just arrived today. Let us hear them.”
“Are there new records? Did you get the ones I wanted?”
“Some of them. We couldn’t get them all.”
“Oh, no, of course not! But if you had wanted certain records they would have been found!”
“But, Auntie Lucy, we couldn’t get them if they aren’t made, could we? Gray tried his best.”
“Oh, tried his best! He forgot to ask for them, so he says he ‘tried his best,’ to excuse his carelessness. If Anita had wanted them——”
The starting of the music drowned further flow of the lady’s grievances.
TRUE to its reputation for calming the impulses of the turbulent spirit, the music soothed Miss Carrington’s ruffled temper, and she waxed amiable and even gay. Enthroned on her favorite red velvet chair, resplendent in an elaborately decorated gown of sapphire blue satin, with her bright auburn locks piled high and topped by an enormous comb of carved tortoise-shell, she dominated the little group and gave orders that must be obeyed.
She wore, among other jewels, a magnificent rope of pearls. So remarkable were these that the Count, who had never seen them before, ventured to refer to them.
“Yes,” agreed Miss Carrington, “they are wonderful. Practically priceless, I assure you. It took my agent years to collect them.”
“And you grace an informal home evening with these regal gems?”
“Not usually, no. But you know, Count Charlier, pearls must be worn frequently to preserve their luster. Laid away a long time, they grow dead and dull-looking.”
“You keep them here? Is it safe, think you?”
“I don’t keep them here all the time. Indeed, I got these from the Safe Deposit only this morning. I shall return them there in a few days. While here, I shall wear them all I can to liven them up.”
“You brought a lot of your other jewels, didn’t you, Aunt Lucy?” said Pauline, casually; “why did you? Are you going to a ball?”
“No: I wish to—to look them over and plan to have some reset.”
“But are they safe?” inquired the Count again; “do you not fear thieves?”
“No, we never have such things as robbery in Merivale Park. It is a quiet, well-behaved neighborhood.”
“But you have a safe?” went on the Count; “you take at least that precaution?”
“Oh, yes, I have a safe in my boudoir. There is really no danger. Count Charlier, would you like to hear me sing? Find one of my records, Gray.”
Miss Carrington’s singing voice had been a fine one and was still fair. She sometimes amused herself by making records for her phonograph, and Gray Haviland managed the mechanical part of it.
“Which one, Lady Lucy?” he asked, as he rummaged in the record cabinet.
“Any of those pretty love songs,” and Miss Carrington glanced coyly at the Count.
“Here’s a fine one,” and Haviland placed a disk in the machine.
“Listen,” he said, smiling; “don’t miss the introduction.”
The needle touched the record, and Miss Lucy’s laugh rang out, so clear and true, it was difficult to believe it was a recorded laugh and not a sound from the lady herself. Then the recorded voice said: “This song is one of Carr’s favorites; I’ll sing it for him.” And then, with only a few seconds’ interval, Miss Carrington’s voice sang, “Believe me, if all those endearing young charms.”
It was well sung, and a perfect record, so that the incident of the singer listening to her own voice was interesting in itself.
“Capital!” applauded the Count, as it was finished. “It is indeed pleasant to preserve one’s songs thus. May I not some time record my own amateur attempt?”
“Delighted to have you, Count,” said Haviland, cordially. “Come over some morning, and we’ll do up a lot of records.”
“Since when have you been master here, Gray?” said Miss Lucy, with fine scorn. “I will give the invitations to my own house, if you please! Count Charlier, if you will come tomorrow afternoon I will instruct Mr. Haviland to make the records.”
It was not so much the words as the manner of their utterance that was offensive, and Haviland set his lips in stifled anger. It was not at all unusual, this sort of rebuff, but he could not endure it as patiently as the two girls did. Haviland was a second cousin of Miss Carrington, and, while he lived with her in the capacity of a business secretary and general man of affairs, the post was a sinecure, for the services of her lawyer and of her social secretary left little for Haviland to do. His salary was a generous one and he was substantially remembered in her will, but he sometimes thought the annoying and irritating fleers he had to accept smilingly, were worth more than he was receiving. He was continually made to feel himself a dependent and an inferior.
These trials also fell to the lot of the two girls. Pauline, although her aunt’s heiress to the extent of half the fortune, the other half to go to an absent cousin, was by no means treated as an equal of Miss Carrington herself. It seemed to give the elder lady delight to domineer over her niece and in every possible way make her life uneasy and uncomfortable. As to the social secretary, Miss Frayne, she was scolded for everything she did, right or wrong.
Often had the three young people declared intentions of leaving Garden Steps, but so far none of them had made good the threat.
Vanity was the key-note of Lucy Carrington’s nature, and, knowing this, they could, if they chose, keep her fairly sweet-tempered by inordinate flattery often administered. This proceeding hurt their self-respect, jarred their tempers, and galled their very souls, but it was that or dismissal, and thus far they had stayed. Matters were nearing a crisis, however, and Haviland’s patience was so sorely strained that he was secretly looking for another position. Anita Frayne, whose pretty blonde doll-face belied a very fiery disposition, was on the verge of a serious break with her employer, and Pauline Stuart continually assured herself that she could not go on this way.
Pauline was the orphaned daughter of Lucy’s sister, and had lived with her aunt for many years. Carrington Loria, the son of another sister, was engaged in antiquarian research in Egypt, where he had been since his graduation as an engineer. He, too, was an orphan and had lived with Lucy in his younger days, and he and Pauline were equal heirs to their aunt’s wealth.
The father of the three Carrington sisters, having become angered at his two daughters who married against his wishes, had left his entire fortune to Lucy, his only remaining child. Thus her niece and nephew were her only direct heirs, and, save for some comparatively small bequests, the Carrington estate would eventually be theirs.
Pauline well knew that if she left her aunt’s roof it meant complete disinheritance, for Lucy Carrington was proud of her beautiful niece, and, too, was fond of her in her own way. But the ungovernable temper of the lady made her home an almost unbearable abiding-place.
Since childhood years Carrington Loria had lived there only during his college vacations; but had been back occasionally for short visits from his now permanent Egyptian occupation. He had always come laden with gifts of Oriental products, and the rooms at Garden Steps showed many rare specimens of cunning handiwork and rich fabrics and embroideries.
To break the awkward pause that followed Miss Carrington’s rude speech to Gray Haviland, Pauline picked up an antique scarab from a side table and drew the Count’s attention to its inscription.
He expressed a polite interest, but cast furtive glances at his hostess, as if afraid of a further outbreak.
Nor were his fears unjustified. Miss Carrington administered a scathing reproach to Pauline for intruding herself upon the Count’s attention, and bade her put aside the scarab and hold her tongue.
“Don’t speak to me like that, Aunt Lucy; I am not a child!” And Pauline, unable to control herself longer, faced her angry aunt with an air of righteous wrath.
“I’ll speak to you as I choose, miss! It is for you to mend your tone in addressing me! If you don’t, you may have cause to regret it. Count Charlier came here to see me, and I refuse to countenance your clumsy attempts to engage his interest in your silly babble!”
“But—I insist—” stammered the greatly embarrassed Count, “allow me, Madame, let me say, I call on you all—all——”
“Nothing of the sort!” declared Miss Lucy; “you came, Count, to play bridge with us. Our opponents behaved so rudely and played so badly it was impossible for us to continue the game. Nor can we enjoy music in this inharmonious atmosphere. Let us stroll in the conservatory, you and I.”
She rose, trailing her heavy silks and flashing her sparkling jewels, and the Count, a little hesitatingly, followed her. They crossed the great hall, and, going through a reception room and the delightful sun-parlor, came to the warm, heavily-scented conservatory.
“Poor old Charlier!” said Haviland, as the pair disappeared; “he’s in for it now! Do you suppose the palms and orchids will bring him up to the scratch? ‘Nita, I’ll bet you a box of gloves against a box of simple little cigarettes that he doesn’t propose to the lady tonight?”
“Done!” cried Miss Frayne, who was sparkling again, now that the dread presence was removed. “I doubt he can help himself. She has him at her mercy. And he’s too good-mannered to disappoint her wish.”
“He’ll propose,” said Pauline, with an air of conviction. “He’s a typical fortune-hunter, that man. Indeed, I am not sure he’s a Count at all. Do you know, Mr. Illsley?”
“I know almost nothing of the man, save that he’s a guest of the Frothinghams. That’s not entirely in his favor, I think.”
“Right you are!” agreed Haviland. “Those people are,—well, they’re to be queried. But I say, Polly, if the two do hit it off, it’s grinding poverty for us, eh?”
“It may be a blessed relief, Gray. She’ll give us something, of course, and send us away from here. I, for one, shouldn’t be sorry to go. She is getting too impossible!”
“She is!” put in Anita; “every day she pounds us worse! I’d like to kill her!”
The fierce words and would-be menacing glance of the little blonde beauty were about as convincing as a kitten declaring himself a war lord, and even the stately Pauline smiled at the picture.
“She ought to be killed,” declared Haviland, “and I say this dispassionately. I wouldn’t do it, because killing is not in my line, but the eternal fitness of things requires her removal to another sphere of usefulness. She makes life a burden to three perfectly good people, and some several servants. Not one would mourn her, and——”
“Oh, stop, Gray!” cried Pauline; “don’t talk in that strain! Don’t listen to him, Mr. Illsley. He often says such things, but he doesn’t mean them. Mr. Haviland loves to talk at random, to make a sensational hearing.”
“Nothing of the sort, Polly. I do mean it. Lucy Carrington is a misery dispenser, and such are not wanted in this nice little old world.”
“But perhaps,” Pauline looked thoughtful, “the fault is in us. We don’t like her, and so we see nothing good in what she does. Now, Carrington Loria adores her. She had a letter from him today——”
“Yes, Loria adores her!” interrupted Haviland, “because he doesn’t live with her! She sends him love-letters and money, and he doesn’t know the everlasting torture of living under her roof, year in and year out! But he caught on a little the last time he was here. He said,—well, in his quaint Oriental fashion, he said, ‘Gee! she’s the limit!’ that’s what he said.”
“Well, she is,” pouted Anita. “I can’t do a thing to suit her. Today I wrote a letter over six times before she was satisfied. And every change she wanted made was so foolish she wanted it changed back again. She nearly drove me crazy!”
“But I have to put up with her morning, noon, and night,” sighed Pauline. “You have your hours off, Anita, but I never do. She even wakens me in the night to read to her, or to help her plan her new gowns.”
“It is awfully hard for you,” began Mr. Illsley, and then all stopped short, for the object of their discussion returned to the room.
It was plain to be seen Miss Carrington was in a state of suppressed excitement. She giggled almost hysterically, and tapped the Count playfully on the arm with her fan, as she bade him say good-night and go.
The interested ones watching her could not learn whether the Count had declared himself or not. The presumption was negative, for, had he done so, surely Miss Carrington would have told the good news.
Charlier himself was distinctly non-committal. Debonair as always, he made his adieux, no more demonstrative to his hostess than to the others, and went away. Illsley followed, and the household dispersed. The clock struck midnight as the ladies went upstairs.
Following custom, they all three went to Miss Lucy’s boudoir. It was by way of reporting for tomorrow’s orders, and was a duty never neglected.
The exquisite apartment, from which opened the bedroom and bath, was softly lighted and fragrant with flowers.
“How do you like Count Henri Charlier?” Miss Carrington quickly demanded of her satellites.
“Charming,” said the voluble Anita. “Just a typical French nobleman, isn’t he? And how he adores our Lady Lucy!”
The whole speech rang false, but the vanity of the lady addressed swallowed it as truest sincerity. “Yes,” she returned, “he is infatuated, I have reason to think. But—we shall see what we shall see! Curb your impatience, girls! You shall know all in due time.”
“Can I do anything for you, Auntie, tonight or tomorrow?” asked Pauline, and, though she tried to speak with enthusiasm, her tone did sound perfunctory.
“Not if you offer in that manner,” and Miss Carrington looked at her niece coldly. “One would think, Pauline, that it must be an irksome task to do the smallest favor for your aunt and benefactor! Do you feel no pleasure in doing what trifles you can for one who does everything for you?”
“I would feel a pleasure, Aunt Lucy, if you were kinder to me. But——”
“Kinder!” shrieked her aunt; “kinder! Girl, have you taken leave of your senses? I give you a home, fine dresses, money, everything you can want, and you ask me to be kinder to you! Go! never let me see you again, after that speech!”
“Oh, auntie, don’t! I didn’t mean——”
“You didn’t mean to exasperate me beyond endurance? No, of course you meant to stop short of that! But you have done it. I mean this, Pauline: tomorrow you go elsewhere to live. No longer will I give a home to such a monster of ingratitude!”
“But, Miss Carrington”—and Anita Frayne’s soft voice implored gently——“don’t be hasty. Pauline didn’t mean——”
“What!” and Lucy Carrington turned on her, “you take her part? Then you go, too! I want no ingrates here. Leave me, both of you. This night is your last beneath this roof! You are two unworthy girls, to scorn and slight the hand that has fed and clothed you and given you luxury and comfort such as you will never see again! Go, I’ve done with you! Send me Estelle. She, at least, has some small affection for me.”
The two girls left the room. The scene was not without precedent. Before this they had been ordered to leave the house forever, but always forgiveness and reinstatement had followed. This time, however, the Lady Lucy had been rather more in earnest, and the girls looked at each other uncertainly as they turned toward their rooms.
Anita summoned Estelle, the French maid, and then told her to hasten immediately to Miss Carrington.
“Don’t undress me,” said the mistress as the maid appeared; “I’m not retiring at once. Get me out of this gown and give me a negligée and slippers.”
“Yes, mademoiselle,” and Estelle deftly obeyed orders and brought a white boudoir gown edged with swans-down.
“Not that!” cried Miss Carrington. “Bring the gold-embroidered one,—the Oriental.”
“Ah, the green one, from Monsieur Loria?”
“Yes, the one my nephew sent me at Christmas time. My, but it’s handsome, isn’t it, Estelle?”
“Gorgeous!” declared the maid, and she spoke truly. Young Loria knew his aunt’s taste, and he had sent her a typical Egyptian robe, of pale green silk, heavy with gold embroideries. In it Miss Carrington looked like one attired for a masquerade.
“Shall I take down mademoiselle’s hair?” asked Estelle, lingering.
“No. I want to be alone. I will read awhile. You need not return. I will do for myself.”
“There is your glass of milk, ma’mzelle, on the bed-table.”
“Silly! I suppose I can see it for myself.”
“Yes, ma’am. And you will have your tea at eight in the morning?”
“Of course, my tea at eight. As always. You might remember that much yourself. But nobody remembers things for my comfort.”
“Pardon, but sometimes it is eight, and, again, it must be half-past.”
“Eight! Now, will you go? You are most exasperating! Why do you stand there like a gibbering idiot?”
“The jewels, mademoiselle; the pearls? Shall I not put them in safety?”
“No! I will put them in the safe myself. Where is the key?”
“There, mademoiselle, on your dresser. But if I might——”
“You mayn’t do anything except to get out and stay out! Do you hear? Shall I never be obeyed?”
“Yes, mademoiselle; good-night.”
The soft tone was fully belied by the evil glare of the French girl’s eyes, but that was not seen by Miss Lucy Carrington.
THE house faced the east, and, built on an English model, was far wider than deep. A broad hall ran through the center from front to back, and on either side there were successive rooms whose windows looked out on equally beautiful scenes, both front and back. On the right of the hall, as one entered, was the long living room, and beyond it, the library and music room. The other side of the hall was a reception room, opening into the sun parlor, and on to the conservatory, and back of these, the dining room and smaller breakfast room.
Breakfast was served at nine, and the members of the family were usually all present. Miss Carrington, herself, made a point of being on time partly from habit, and also because it gave her opportunity to chide those who were late.
When she was not in her place, on the morning after the stormy bridge game, Pauline expressed surprise, and Haviland echoed her words.
But Anita said scornfully, “She went to bed in an awful tantrum and probably didn’t sleep well.”
Miss Frayne was looking her prettiest, and her roseleaf face with its fluffy golden halo, was like a Greuze picture. She wore a frivolous little house gown of blue crêpe de chine that just matched her forget-me-not eyes. Not especially appropriate garb for a secretary, but Miss Carrington preferred her household to be well-dressed, and really commanded pretty tints and fabrics for the two girls. Pauline was in white serge, of rather severe cut, but which suited her as no frills and flounces could. Her black hair was smoothly parted and coiled low over her ears, and her clear ivory-tinted skin was flushed faintly pink from the glow of the big, crackling wood fire.
“It’s most unusual,” went on Pauline, after a few moments more had passed, and the Lady Lucy had not appeared. “I’m going up to see if she is ill,—or——”
“Or merely in a tantrum extraordinary!” said Anita, her blue eyes full of laughing disrespect for her employer.
“’Nita,” said Haviland, as Pauline disappeared, “hold your breakfast napkin up in front of your face, quick!”
“Why?” said the girl, wonderingly, as she did his bidding.
“Because, if you hadn’t, I should have flown at you and kissed you! And I mustn’t now, for Haskins is approaching with muffins.”
Down came the shielding napkin and only the arrival of the muffin-laden Haskins saved the lovely laughing face from Haviland’s impetuous caress.
The old butler fussed about, and several minutes passed, when Pauline called from above stairs, “Gray! Come here, at once!”
“Desperate case!” and Haviland rose, and unhurriedly left the room, pinching Anita’s little ear as he passed her.
Another moment and Miss Frayne heard an exclamation from Haviland that made her rise from the table and go flying upstairs herself.
The door of Miss Lucy’s boudoir was open, and entering, she saw Pauline and Haviland with horror-stricken faces, gazing at a terrible sight.
Miss Lucy Carrington, seated before her dressing-table, her face white and ghastly, her large eyes staring wide—staring horribly,—but, without doubt, unseeing. Nor was this all of the strangeness of the sight. She was robed in an embroidered Oriental-looking gown, and wore many jewels. Her red-dyed hair, dressed elaborately, as she had worn it the night before, was still crowned with the enormous comb of carved tortoise-shell, but the comb was broken to bits. One portion, still standing upright, rose above the disordered coiffure, but the rest, in broken scraps, lay scattered over the puffs of hair,—over the white hands clasped in her lap,—and on the floor at her feet.
“What does it mean?” whispered Anita, shuddering, “is she—is she dead?”
“Yes,” answered Haviland, briefly. He stood, hands in pockets, gazing at the startling figure.
“Who?—What?——” Anita’s eyes riveted themselves on something else.
Around the neck of Miss Lucy was,—yes, it was—a snake!
With a low scream, Anita flung herself into Haviland’s arms, but he put her gently away from him.
Aghast at this repulse, Anita put her hand across her eyes and turned to leave the room.
“Mind where you go, ’Nita!” called out Haviland, and the girl stopped just in time to save herself from stepping into a mass of debris.
“Why!” she cried, “why, it’s Miss Lucy’s tray!”
It was. The silver tray that had held the breakfast tea was on the floor, and near it a jumbled heap of silver and broken china that had once been a costly Sevres set. Dainty white serviettes were stained with the spilled tea and a huge wet spot was near the overturned silver teapot.
Hastily Anita ran from the room, but she sank down on a couch in the hall just outside the door, utterly unable to go further.
Fascinated by the beady eyes of the green snake, Pauline stared at it, with clenched hands. Haviland stepped nearer and lightly touched it.
“Is it—is it alive?” gasped Pauline.
“It’s paper,” replied Haviland quietly. “A paper snake, a toy,—you know.”
“But who put it there? Aunt Lucy is deathly afraid of snakes! Did fright kill her? Gray, is she—murdered?”
“Yes, Pauline, she has been killed. But could it be—fright? Impossible!”
“Not for her! You don’t know her horror of snakes. Why, going through the Japanese department of a shop, I’ve seen her turn white and fairly fly from the counter where those paper things were displayed.”
“But what else killed her? There is no wound, no shot, no blood.”