From the shadows which hold the Gaunt household in thraldom to a nameless fear, Death strikes another terrifying blow
The Story: Near the town of Montfort, John Gaunt, mill owner, lives in a wall-enclosed country home with his beautiful wife, Lisa. Francis O’Neill, an explorer, guest of the Gaunts, wants a secretary to help him write a book. Marcia Stafford is engaged.
Other members of the household are Gordon Curran, Gaunt's cousin, who manages the mills; Mrs. Carver, Lisa’s mother ; Hobby, the young Gaunt heir; Sarah Ives, an elderly English nurse; Reeves, the butler; Mrs. Harris, the housekeeper ; and a Japanese chauffeur.
Walking atone on the estate near a lake one evening, Marcia is astonished to find John Gaunt clutching the chauffeur by the throat and demanding, “Tell me where she got it. If you gave it to her. I’ll kill you.” The chauffeur refuses to answer, and Gaunt orders him to leave the estate.
At the edge of the take, Marcia receives a still greater shock when she finds the nurse lying partly in the water. She calls Gaunt, who tries to resuscitate the woman, but she is dead.
Marcia offers to spend the night in Bobby’s room to guard him. There is a door leading to a balcony. She is awakened by the. baying of dogs, then a dark figure, sinister and faceless, glides through the door into the room. She pulls a bell rope to summon help, screams and faints.
THE ROOM was no longer in darkness. 1 was aware of light and movement beyond my closed eyes. There was a sound of splashing and I heard John Gaunt say. “This will do it.” Water stung my face with sudden shock. I uttered a cry and opened my eyes.
There were four men in the room. Reeves, the butler— stout and pontifical, gorgeous in Paisley-patterned pyjamas and scarlet rol>e; John Gaunt, still in dinner jacket, his face imjierturbable; Francis O’Neill, in pyjama trousers, reaching swiftly for a sheet to throw across his shoulders when he saw that I had regained consciousness. At the foot of the bed Gordon Curran stared soberly at me, with his hands deep in his dressing-gown pockets.
John Gaunt held a water carafe and a towel with which he had been wetting my face.
“All right?” he asked quietly. “Good girl.”
My eyes flashed swiftly toward Bobby’s bed.
It was empty. The child had disappeared. But John Gaunt quieted my unspoken fear.
“Bob’s all right. He’s been taken to my room.
Your scream woke him up.”
My eyes then went to the balcony doors. They were closed.
“Did he get away?” I asked.
“Did who get away?”
"Someone was on the balcony. He opened the door; he was coming in —”
They exchanged glances. “Tell us about it.”
John Gaunt said.
I told them what I had seen. They listened, frowning. When I was done there was a silence.
John Gaunt said: "Reeves and Frank and I got here at almost the same time. Gordon’s room is at the end of this hall. He heard the lamp go over. He was standing in his doorway trying to liH-ate the noise when we raced along. So we all came in together, the four of us. The lamp was on the fkx>r, you were on the bed in a dead faint,
Bob was awake and the balcony doors were closed. We tried them. They were locked.”
There was another silence while l took this in.
"But 1 saw them open," 1 protested feebly.
No one sjx)ke. They sUxxl there like silent images.
“I didn’t make it up,” I said again. “It was real. It happened.”
That was where Gordon Curran came into it. Abruptly he walked over to the doors and pulled on them and then swung around on me.
“My dear girl." he said, “be sensible. These doors are locked on the inside. How could anyone have opened
“On the inside?” I repeated.
“The key is here.”
He threw it into the air, caught it in one hand and then laid it on the dressing table. His glance at me was triumphant.
“Then you don’t believe me,” I said. “None of you?”
They were polite—oh. very polite. Once more they kept silence.
I tried to keep a tight hold on myself, to make my voice even, without feeling,
“Then what do you think did happen—in here?”
Francis O’Neill evidently felt that this was his question. He shifted the sheet a little.
“Look here. Miss Stafford, you’ve had a shock. More than one of them tonight. They’ve been too much for you. Fact is, they’d been too much for most men. An experience like yours down by the lake—”
“I see.” I interrupted slowly. “You think that I was dreaming, that my nerves have been playing tricks on me. Is that it?”
He nodded. He seemed relieved.
“Is that what the rest of you think? You, Mr. Curran?”
“Well, there was the key, y’know.”
I’d put the |xx>r butler on the spot. He crimsoned until his face almost matched the violence of his robe. He looked at John Gaunt for guidance, but found no help there.
“It sounds likely, miss,” he managed at last.
“And you. Mr. Gaunt? Do you think I was dreaming?” He was standing behind the others. For the tiniest fraction of a second his linger touched his lip, a gesture of caution, it seemed to me. Then he stepped forward.
“The evidence seems conclusive, doesn’t it?” he said in a colorless voice.
Evidence ! \\ hat evidence? Conclusive of what? I
“Very well.” I said slowly. “Perhaps I did dream it. But, even if I did. would any of you gentlemen object to looking out on the balcony to see if there is anyone there?” “I think we owe Miss Stafford that,” John Gaunt said and took up the key.
T SHIVERED. It seemed to me to be the bravest thing I had ever seen a man do—to go out there on that porch. He fitted the key into the lock.
“Don’t you—aren’t you going to take a gun?”
Curran gave a short laugh.
"Gad, she still thinks someone was there!”
“If anyone were there,” Francis O’Neill said slowly, “it would be a senseless risk. Here, Johnny, take this.”
“This” was as murderous-looking a revolver as I ever expect to see. John Gaunt laughed a little, boyishly, and took it. It nestled comfortably into his palm.
There was a tense moment, for me at least, while he opened the door. O’Neill, who would have resembled a Roman senator draped in his toga were it not for those ridiculous purpleand white-striped pyjama legs, strolled over to stand beside his friend. John Gaunt touched a switch. Light glowed behind the glass doors.
Of course there was no one there. In spite of themselves, I think everyone was very' much relieved to find there was not. Masculine judgment being thus vindicated, the room rapidly took on a “stuff and nonsense; nothing but nerves, my good woman” sort of atmosphere. I found it trying.
Nobody was quite certain what should be done next. They stood around awkwardly and eyed one another and me like a bunch of schoolchildren. Reeves, with the wellknown ability' of butlers to efface themselves, had already melted into the background.
1 had made up my mind to one thing; I would not stay any longer in that room. I sat up in bed and reached for my dressing gown.
“I don’t care whether there’s anyone on that balcony now or not. I won’t stay in this room. Can’t I—” The expression on John Gaunt’s face interrupted me. “No one expects you to stay here, Marcia. I’m keeping Bobby in my own room for the rest of the night. Reeves.” “Yes, sir?”
“You’ll remain here until I come back.”
The butler came forward. I saw the glance that passed between master and man, and something else that I think none of the others did. As Curran and O’Neill crossed to the door I saw something pass from John Gaunt’s hand to that of his servant. It was O’Neill’s revolver.
My dressing gown was a dull velvet. Its blackness clothed me from head to foot. There was even a hood that went over my head and ended in a peak with a silver tassel. I could see John Gaunt approving it as I moved about collecting my things.
“Let me ring for a maid,” he suggested.
“At three in the morning? No. thank you, I have a profound sympathy for those who can sleep.”
He watched me soberly for a moment, then crossed the room and once more unlocked the balcony doors and went out. Reeves and I, equally anxious I should judge, watched the opening through which he had disappeared. When he reappeared, scowling a little, hands in his pockets, I know that I for one drew a long breath of relief.
Meticulously he saw that the doors were locked again before he looked at me. I was ready.
The halls were dim and silent. From the room at the far end, Gordon Curran’s room, there came voices and the faint smell of tobacco where Curran and O’Neill were presumably enjoying cigarettes and a rehash of the late excitement.
' I 'IIE ROOM which had been mine for that brief interval between tea and dinner was quiet and friendly. It seemed like heaven to me. I paused at the door to say good night, but John Gaunt pushed past me.
“I’ll have a look around,” he said quietly.
He did, quickly opening and closing the doors, glancing behind curtains, even peering under the bed.
“There’s nothing here,” he said, coming back to me. “You won’t be afraid?”
“Not here,” I said. “But, Mr. Gaunt, that was no dream tonight. You must believe me. There was someone on that balcony.”
“Yes,” he said.
Prepared as I was for his disbelief, I was taken off my feet.
“You believed me?”
He shrugged a little, impatiently.
“Surely. Why not?”
“But—you let the others—you—”
“It’s best that the others think it was a dream.”
“I see,” I said slowly, but I didn’t. It was a worse mystery than ever. What difference if the others did know?
“We’ve been able to keep things quiet so far,” he said. “I mean about Bobby’s notion that someone visits that room at night. Only Reeves and 1 knew. And Nurse, of course.” “And I,” 1 said.
“And you.” Head bent, he stared at the floor for a moment in silence. When lie spoke again, the tone of his voice chilled me. It was so cold, so menacing. “Anyone who could harm a child deliberately plan a campaign to that end with who knows what sort of a motive back in his twisted mind when a baby isn’t safe—”
He broke off. It was as if he did not trust himself to go further. And, after all, there was little more for him to say. “You could have protection,” I said slowly.
“From the police?” He made an impatient gesture. “Advertise to the world that he needs protection? That he might lx? worth the interest of any yegg who could use a little easy money? Hardly. Not while I’ve my two hands and guns, and men of my own choice to serve me.”
He had the arrogance of some ancient duke prepared if need be to defend his castle and possessions against the assault of any enemy.
“Is it kidnapping you fear?”
His look was strange.
“Perhaps. I don’t know.”
I became impatient.
“You must know something. You must be afraid of something. It’s not all indefinite. It can’t lx*. It doesn’t make sense. Tonight—
“Tonight there was a man on that balcony.”
“Or a woman. He—or she— left these behind.”
He took a pair of gloves from his jxx'ket. White cotton gloves, the kind used for all sorts of rough work, gloves that could be bought in any hardware store.
“Useful,” he said dryly, “as a precaution against leaving fingerprints.”
“Then why were they left?”
“Panic, perhaps. You screamed. Tie had to get out of there at once. 1 le dropped the gloves in his hurry.”
“But he remembered to lock tin* door on the inside.” John Gaunt Ux>ked at me soberly.
"That,” he said, “is what doesn’t make sense.”
r I 'HF breakfast room was bright and sunny at seven o’clock next morning, as I sat there with John Gaunt and Bobby.
John Gaunt had sent a maid up to request my presence. 'Hiere was a long mirror oposite. I caught a glimpse of my reflection over the massed flowers that centred the table. 1 looked terrible. Haunted eyes, dark-circled, that seemed to hold all the unspent terror of the night before. John Gaunt regarded me thoughtfully.
“I have to drive to the city with O’Neill. When I come back I’ll bring a man with me to look after Bobby.” 1 le put one hand on the child’s curly head.
Bobby looked up from his oatmeal.
“I’d druther have Nanna,” he said.
“Nanna has gone away,” John Gaunt answered. “For a long time. Somelxxly has to see that you brush your teeth and comb your hair. And I’m beginning to think that it’s a man’s job. Miss Stafford will look after you today ” “What’s a man’s job?” demanded Francis O'Neill boisterously, as he came into the room and took the chair next to me. “Gcxxl morning, Miss Stafford. How are the boogey men? What’s a man's job, Johnny?”
“Getting you up early enough so we’ll be able to get off by eight,” John Gaunt told him, looking at his watch. He strxxl up. “Through, Bobs? Want to come along? We’ll be at the garage, Frank.”
“Fifteen minutes,” O’Neill said and watched him go. I Ie turned to me then. "What does Johnny think of that affair last night?”
“There doesn’t seem to be any need of thinking anything, does there? Since the key was in the lock and on the inside of the dcx>r . . ”
“H’mn,” he said noncommittally.
“Is there anything you’d like me to do this morning?” I asked after a moment. Surely a secretary must earn her salary.
“Things did get a bit beyond us last night, didn’t they? Well—the chapters that are done are in the top desk drawer. You might look them over. The outline for the book is there, too. I work from my diary. That’s in the ebony box on the desk. If you care to run through that . . . Know anything about the Mayans?”
“Vague things.” I said. “Something about their religion.” “Yes. There’s a couple of shelves of books in there if you’d like to read up, get familiar with names and places. You’ll find maps. We probably shan’t be able to do anything more now until Monday.”
I thought rebelliously that I might as well have stayed in my own apartment and missed all the horror of the past night, but I didn’t say so. I simply sat there waiting until he should finish his breakfast and it would be time to go and get the little boy.
The garages were large, some little distance from the house and adroitly out of sight because of skilful landscaping. Their wide doors were open. The cream-colored foreign car stood on the driveway, its long bonnet pointed toward the gate. Inside I had a confused impression of space, of cement floors, of cars lined against the wall. Bobby, buttoned into miniature coveralls, was rolling a tire in a circle, and John Gaunt and a blond young man were doing things to the engine of a light truck.
AS WE came in, John Gaunt wiped his hands upon a grimy rag.
"If that’s not right, take it down to the Mill garage; let Galway look to it.”
“Okay,” the blond young man said, grinning. He had a nice grin, I thought.
John Gaunt now turned his attention to us.
“All right, Miss Stafford, here’s your heavy duty. Oh, by the way, this is Bill Griggs who’ll be driving for us from now on. He’ll take you where you want to go, or see that you have a car to drive yourself. Let Reeves know. Frank, I think you know Bill.”
“I’ve been wondering if I didn’t,” O’Neill said. He put out his hand, and it wras done so simply, so decently, that my heart warmed to him.
“Last spring, fishing, wasn’t it? And we put up at your camp in the storm? And you gave us buckwheat cakes and maple syrup for breakfast? Jove! I shan’t forget them in a hurry. I don’t suppose cooking will come within your duties here?” he finished wistfully.
Griggs’ grin beatme more engaging.
“I expect that’ll lx; up to Johnny,” he said. The painful color rost*. “To Mr. Gaunt,” he amended.
“Johnny’ll do,” said that gentleman. “Bill and I went to school together,” he said as if in explanation. “This isn’t his usual line. He’s a draftsman, but things have been a bit dull lately.”
“You don’t need to be so careful of my feelings,” Griggs interrupted. "He means I was busted and darn glad to get the job.”
“But it any way you like so long as we understand each other,” John Gaunt said agreeably. “But let’s keep it Bill and Johnny.”
Griggs shook his head.
“You won’t want your chauffeur calling you by your first name when you’ve got friends with you,” he objected reasonably.
"I drive for myself mostly,” John Gaunt said. “I don’t trust many jx*ople with that baby.” He indicated the car.
"I suppose I should 1M* honored,” O’Neill observed. He was gazing affectionately at the briar pijx* which he held cradled in his left hand. "What happened to the Jap?”
"Oh, I had to get rid of him,” John Gaunt answered vaguely. “You'll probably have to snap into it with Mrs. Gaunt.” he said, turning back to Griggs.
“Click your heels and touch your cap and all that. Think you can get away with it?”
“Me?” Bill Griggs stuffed his hands deep into the pockets of his trousers. “Sure. I’ve seen lots of movies. Like this?” He illustrated, opening a limousine d(x>r deftly, his face the wooden mask of the jx-rfect servant.
He grinned at his employer. “Ilow’m I doing?”
A line had faded from John Gaunt’s brow.
“You’ll get by.”
Bill Griggs said simply, “I’ll have to.”
ON THE face of it. it was a statement of fact, the desire of a man to make good at a job badly needed, but to ears like mine, made aware by the events of the preceding night, it was more. It was a pledge, a promise, given as such and so taken. And I thought; this is no accident. This is deliberate. Planned. This is another one of his men. He’s filling the gaps. He’s getting ready for something. What? I shivered. I was afraid. Worse than that. I did not know why I was afraid or what 1 was afraid of.
The consciousness of this fear made me draw the boy a little closer. John Gaunt saw the move, involuntary as it was, and once again the thread of a frown drew between lus brows.
I íe glanced at his wrist watch.
“We ought to be off,” he murmured. “Well Look here, Bob.” Careless of
the effect of the gravel drive upon his wellpressed trousers, he knelt and drew the boy within the circle of his arms. “You’ll do just what Miss Marcia says today. won’t you? Be a gcxxl boy—stay with her— no running away or being a nuisance?”
It must have been old familiar ritual. Bobby’s chubby hand made some sort of a salute.
“Okay, chief,” he said in his high treble.
John Gaunt’s gaze upon him was stem.
“No fooling? Word of honor and all that?”
“An’ aw that,” Bobby echoed.
The sternness relaxed. John Gaunt’s eyes meeting mine, held a glint of mischief as he released him. rose to his feet.
“Miss Stafford, I wish you every success. If anything comes up— I trust nothing will—Reeves or Griggs here will handle it for you.”
“I’ll do my best,” I said.
“I am sure you will,” he said quietly.
The car roared and was off. Bobby ran after it a yard or two, waving wildly at its wake. I remained where I was, just within the shelter of the garage doors, against one of which Bill Griggs lounged. His gaze, speculative rather, was on the boy.
“That’s a swell guy,” he said, and I knew he didn’t mean Bobby.
For myself, I was once more beneath John Gaunt’s spell. I said, “Yes.”
Griggs’ next question startled me a little. He still lounged there, carelessly, but something about his voice had tightened.
“What’s he afraid of? It’s got something to do with the kid, I know that—but what?”
“I don’t know,” I said honestly. “Kidnapping, perhaps.”
“Yeah; that’d fit in. I guess. A man’d be scared all right if it was a question of his kid, where he wouldn’t about himself. You can’t be with a kid all the time; you’ve got to trust someone.”
“He’s trusting you and me Uxiay,” I said.
“Yeah,” Griggs said. “Maybe we’d better shake on it.”
So we did and his clasp crushed my hand. I wriggled the freed fingers surreptitiously and wondered if they’d ever be the same again.
He was still staring at Bobby, who had begun to romp with Rory.
“He’s a swell kid,” he said. “I don’t blame Johnny—look here !” He pulled a gun from his hip pocket. It was a little thing, dull, bluish. “Johnny gave me this this morning. Told me if I saw anybody sneaking around the place to shoot first and ask questions afterward. What’d you think of that?”
I didn’t know, but, as I shepherded Bobby toward the house, I couldn’t help wishing, as long as John Gaunt seemed to fear some danger very real and concrete, that he also had felt it desirable to provide me with a gun. A little piece of bluish steel such as Griggs was carrying would do a good deal in helping to bolster upa wavering self-confidence and instill a disregard of danger, real or fancied.
VJL/E SPENT a quiet morning in the library. While I
* * read, Bobby amused himself with a variety of toys brought down from the nursery. The time w’ent by so rapidly that it wras hard to believe, when Reeves came to
summon us, that the time had already arrived for lunch.
Luncheon was served in the breakfast room. We were alone save for Mrs. Carver, for Lisa Gaunt did not appear.
Mrs. Carver was garrulous. I had the feeling that it was a long time since she’d had anyone willing to listen to her. and that she was making the most of the opportunity.
I learned a great deal that noon about the Gaunts. Supplementäre' information for the most part. Lisa Gaunt had been a show girl, one of the beautiful nonentities who parade gorgeously down brilliant staircases, glorified for and by her beauty rather than for her brain or ability. John Gaunt had seen her first on a week-end trip made to celebrate a Varsity victory. The show was new, so was Lisa Carver. Only she had been Lisa Carvierre then.
“It sounded foreign—sort of,” Mrs. Carver said naively.
He had fallen head over heels in love with the most beautiful face and body he had ever seen. They had married immediately upon his graduation in spite of his father’s opix>sition, and had at once sailed for Europe to get away from the notoriety imposed upon them by the newspapers, which spread such headlines as “Millionaire Playboy Weds Follies Beauty.” and “Lisa Carvierre, Picked by Eric Janson as the Klost Beautiful Follies Girl, Marries Wealthy Mill Owner,” across their front pages. They spent one year in Eurojie and then Randolph Gaunt died, and his son came home to take up the task of running the Gaunt Mills. Perforce Lisa came with him.
“She didn’t want to come,” Mrs. Carver said. “Lisa liked Europe. Travelling and buying clothes, and she met dukes and lords and princes, and Mr. Gaunt bought her a string of pearls that a India rajah had collected. She didn't want to come home, but Mr. Gaunt put his foot down. He’s a determined man when he wants to be. for all he seems easygoing, and she had to come back. Back !” Mrs. Carver looked around witheringly. “Here! To this!”
“But I think it’s lovely here, Mrs. Carver,” I said. Something wras evidently expected of me.
“Out in the country like this? For a girl that was used to the city. Huh ! He might as well have locked her up in a jail. I told him so. I even said to him once, ‘Mr. Gaunt, supposing you’re busy and can’t get away, what’s the matter with Lisa and me going?’ but he wouldn’t hear of it. He won’t let Lisa out of his sight.” She dropped her voice. “He’s that jealous—you wouldn’t believe it.”
“She’s so beautiful,” I said. “I suppose any man would be.”
She shook her head commiseratingly.
“Not every man. But he is. Well, she can’t say I didn’t warn her. I told her, ‘Don’t be in such a hurry. Don’t marry the first man with money who turns up. There’ll be others.’ But she wouldn’t listen to me. She thought she was in love, and he wanted to marry her. and that was that. I bet she’d wait now if she had it to do over again. This place nearly drives her crazy. He wasn’t the only one she could have married—maybe a prince’d turned up, or a duke. Men go mad about Lisa.”
She sighed, shaking her head. I thought luncheon would never end. But it did, eventually. Mrs. Carver went toward the staircase murmuring something about a nap, and Bobby and I were left alone in the great hall.
“What’ll we do now?” asked Bobby.
It was after two o’clock.
“We could go for a walk,” I suggested, whereupon Bobby caught at my hand and eagerly dragged me toward the door.
WE DESCENDED the terraces slowly, for Bobby had to inspect numerous ununderstandable things. We idled along the lake shore, skipping stones. We walked past the cabanas. Behind them a gentle rise of land tempted us. Beyond the peak of the rise the land sloped sharply. We ran downhill, the bushes catching at our clothes.
The trees grew thickly here. They had not been landscaped into ordered trimness. Their interlaced branches made the sky seem gloomy. The ground was dark with pine needles. Rory, the big collie, had come with us. He bustled about, sniffing.
A squirrel chattered on a low-lying branch, and Bobby ran squalling with delight in that direction. Rory followed with a few deep-toned barks.
Gratefully, now, I sank down upon a huge stone boulder to rest.
The squirrel interested Bobby for some time. It was almost four o’clock on my wrist watch when he came to sit beside me on the boulder. I was beginning to think of tea. "Tired?” I asked.
He shook his head and kicked at the ground with a sturdy sandal.
“It’s nice here.” he said. “Can we come tomorrow again?”
“I don’t know,” I said, amused. “Perhaps.” “Nanna never let us go here,” he volunteer«! after a minute.
Just a half a dozen words, but I felt a shiver run down my spine.
“Haven’t you ever been here before?” I said sharply.
“Nanna wouldn’t let me,” he said, his lower lip thrust out a little. “She said we had to stay where we could always see the house—”
I whirled about. Behind us, the gentle slope of the hill cut us off from lake shore and the friendliness of the house. In front of us and all about us there was nothing but trees and undergrowth. All at once the trees seemed to be growing more thickly, the gloom deeper. We were alone —Bobby and I and Rory.
“Well,” I said, trying to keep my voice casual, “don’t you think we’d better be getting back?”
Because, after all, it wasn’t too late. Nothing had happened yet.
Bobby reached out a dirty little hand. Holding it, I paused to whistle to Rory, who had halted, rulf bristling, to growl a little.
“He sees som’pin,” Bobby said.
“A squirrel,” I said. “Come on, Rory.”
And then, I saw what Rory had seen. And I knew it was too late.
A man was coming toward us between the trees.
GATHERED Bobby’s hand closer in mine.
“Come on,” I said, “Let’s go and see if tea is ready.”
But Bobby’s curiosity was piqued. He hung back.
“Who's that?” he asked, pointing with his free hand.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Come on, let’s run up the hill.”
It was sheer bravado. Testing my luck. I knew that it wouldn’t work, that my luck had proved bad, that I wouldn’t be allowed to get away. I was not. therefore, surprised when the man behind me spoke.
He said, “Just a minute, sister,” and thus did for me what I had not been able to do for myself. Sheer anger shook me from the cold terror in which I had been held.
With anger, reason returned to me. I told myself; this is the time to be cool, calm. This man is not dangerous; he is a stranger who is lost and wants to enquire the way out of the estate. And then I saw that he was not alone, that he came well attended.' Between the trees, walking back and forth or wring with lolling tongues, were the great Alsatian dogs, the guardians of Treeholme House.
The sight of them did nothing to allay my fears. I remembered their baying in the night and the memory was not reassuring. I distrust«! dogs of this bre«l at their friendliest. They terrified me.
Fear, then, took ascension over anger and even reason. 1 said inanely, “Be careful; those dogs are dangerous.”
In my turn, I had surprised him. lie looked around at the dogs, and then threw back his head and laughed.
“Those dogs? Lord love you, sister, those dogs wouldn’t hurt me; not if you told them to.”
As if in support of his words, the biggest
of them......the one they called Satan-
came forward and thrust its nose beneath his hand, seeking attention. He closed his lingers in a rough caress.
“I could set these dogs on you first.”
I had no doubt that this was true, and all of a sudden I was afraid again.
“What do you want?” 1 asked.
His bold eyes swept over me and then rested on Bobby, who had remained perfectly quiet beside me, his hand tight in mine.
“That Gaunt’s kid?” he asked.
I did not answer. I gripped Bobby’s
hand tighter and began to walk toward the lake shore. He followed.
“Listen,” he said. “I got a right to know. I’m the kid’s uncle. I’m Nick Carver.”
We had crossed the high point of the hill by this time. The house was in sight and I relaxed a little.
“Don’t you believe me?” he persisted. I stopped.
“Bobby,” I said, “who is this man?” Bobby did not answer. He shrank closer to me, that was all. I looked at the man. “You see?”
“That don’t mean nothing,” heobjected, “I never saw the kid before. He never saw me. And I’m his uncle all right.”
He was keeping pace with me, and behind him the dogs trailed peacefully. We had reached the first line of steps and had begun to climb when, ahead of us, I saw the polished glare of puttees.
“Oh, Griggs!” I called.
He turned. “Yes, Miss Stafford?” “Bobby is tired. Will you carry him up to the house, please?”
“Certainly, miss.” Griggs came back, swung Bobby to his shoulder and went on ahead. The dogs followed.
“What was the idea of that?” growled Nicholas Carver.
I did not answer him. He was a singularly unwholesome-looking man, and just now he looked viciously angry. I hurried ahead. I could hear his footsteps as he trailed along behind me.
I crossed the lawn toward the house. Nicholas Carver followed. Griggs was waiting by the door with Bobby. Griggs glanced at me enquiringly, then touched his cap and walked away, puzzled. Nicholas Carver followed me up the steps.
Reeves opened the door. His glance, impassive, impersonal, flickered over Nicholas Carver, then came to rest somewhere above my head. I saw, however, that Reeves recognized the man.
“Is Mrs. Gaunt here?” I asked him as I stepped into the hall.
“Mrs. Gaunt is in the library, miss.” “This gentleman says he is Mr. Carver. Is that true?”
“I believe so, miss,” replied Reeves, and departed.
“Well,” Carver said triumphantly, “satisfied?”
“Quite,” I said. “Your sister is in the library.”
“Fine. Is the old lady staying here too?” “Your mother? Yes.”
“Lead the way, then. Surprise!” chuckled Nicholas Carver.
I CAN’T honestly say that I thought Lisa Gaunt was glad to see her brother. It was old Mrs. Carver who welcomed him. Lisa contented herself with, “Well, Nick, so you're back.”
“Yeah. I’m here. What about it?” “Nothing at all, my dear. Wait until Johnny hears. He’ll be so—pleased.” Her tone was feline. “How’d you come?”
“John Gaunt can go to blazes for all me,” Carver assured her. “I suppose this is half your house, too, ain’t it?”
Lisa surveyed her fingernails.
“I really don’t know. I haven’t been interested. Does it matter? Planning to stay, are you?”
“And if I am,” he said angrily, “what about it? Ain’t you my sister? It’s a funny kind of a sister who can’t put her own brother up for the night—”
Lisa’s voice cut across his softly. “If it were only for a night.”
“You wouldn’t have me staying at the hotel when you got beds up here.”
Lisa’s tones were sleepily malicious. “Are you broke, Nick? Be honest, now.”
He stared at her.
“Lisa, you’re hard. I never even saw the kid till today.” “I’ve only been married six years,” she reminded him, “and it was the better part of the first two years before Johnny packed you off. I’m telling you, don’t blame me if your welcome isn’t as warm as you’d like it. Blame yourself. Now, Nick, let’s understand each other before Johnny gets here. You’re broke, aren’t you? And you’ve turned up here again, hoping Johnny’ll be willing to pay to get rid of you.”
Here Mrs. Carver broke in querulously. “Now, Lisa.”
But Lisa paid no attention. She was leaning forward, her eyes on her brother. Her voice had softened. “Or that, perhaps if he doesn’t, I will.” She finished with a gesture.
Nick Carver was staring at her with unfriendly eyes.
“There’s something devilishly crude about you, Lisa.”
“What made you think you could stay here?”
Her voice fell quietly, deadly as a lash. Unexpectedly, it was Mrs. Carver who was moved to protest.
“My goodness, Lisa. Why shouldn’t Nick come here?”
“Be quiet, mamma.”
“I won’t be quiet. I’m going to say what I think. Lisa Carver, even if it is just for this once. Of course, Nick’s going to stay here until he finds some place he wants to go to. I’m surprised at you! Your own brother and him without a cent in his pocket for all you know, sending him away—-”
“Johnny doesn’t like Nick, mamma,” Lisa protested sullenly.
“I guess Mr. Gaunt wouldn’t send him away with no place to go.”
“Mr. Gaunt wouldn’t do what?” asked John Gaunt from the doorway.
We all turned. Behind him, I saw O’Neill and a strange young man.
Lisa smiled enigmatically.
“We have a guest. Nick’s here, Johnny.” “I see,” said John Gaunt slowly. “How are you, Carver?”
Carver slouched forward then to shake hands, his manner an amusing blend of servility and insolence.
“I ain’t complaining, Johnny. How’s yourself?”
John Gaunt’s hand was on his son’s curly head and his eyes were grave, but he said evenly, “The years alter many things, Carver. Perhaps I alone remain unchanged. O’Neill, do you know my brother-in-law?”
Carver was once more all anxiety to please.
“I’ve heard of you, sir,” he told O’Neill. “I read about you in the papers.”
“Oh—thanks,” O’Neill said vaguely. John Gaunt, who had been conferring with the butler, now swung about, a cocktail shaker in his hands.
“Oh, and by the way,” he said in an almost exaggeratedly offhand manner, “this is Pete Devaney who’s to be Bobby’s new guide, philosopher and friend.”
Lisa Gaunt made a little face but she looked at the newcomer with interest. We all did, except for O’Neill who had ridden in with them. He leaned against the mantel and poked at his beloved pipe while the introductions went round.
“My wife — Mrs. Carver — Miss Stafford—”
Peter Devaney was tall and dark and not too good-looking. He had a nice smile, white teeth, and the long slender hands that you associate with artists. That was all I had time to notice because the clatter of John Gaunt’s cocktail shaker forestalled concentration.
“And Mr. Carver. Anybody want a drink?”
I had already decided that “tea” was only a name in Treeholme House. I seemed to be the one who took tea. For the rest, it marked a convenient hour at which cocktails could be served.
UNDER their influence, the room quieted down. Lisa Gaunt and O’Neill murmured together. Mrs. Carver had disappeared. John Gaunt sat before
the fireplace, the little boy on his knee, and Nicholas Carver stood before him. a glass of whisky and soda cradled in his hand. The ugly lines had smoothed out of his face.
Peter Devaney crossed to my comer and drew up a chair.
“Mind if I talk to you? Gaunt said you knew more about what happened here last night than anyone else.”
So I told him, as quietly and simply as I could. He was a good listener.
“Well,” Devaney said when I had finished, “at least I’ve got some idea what to look out for. You say the dcxirs were locked on the porch when vou went to bed?”
“No, I don’t know that. They were dosed. But the key was on the inside of the door and the door was locked when—” “Queer. Well.” He drew a long breath. “We’ll see how it comes out. By the way, what’s my future pupil up to?”
Bobby had wriggled out of his father’s amis and was on his way across the room. “He’s a cute youngster,” Devaney said. “He’s a darling!”
He gave me a quick sober glance and leaned forward.
“Tell me, Miss Stafford,” he said confidentially, “does everyone in this house carrv a gun?”
“Please don’t get upset. I thought you knew.”
“I’m sorry but I didn’t,” I said. “Who does?”
“Well, Gaunt, for one. At least he had a gun in the pocket of his car. The chauffeur, for another.”
“Is that all?”
“No-o.” His tone was deliberate. “The butler—what’s his name?—Reeves. And Mrs. Gaunt’s brother, Carver.”
“Is that all?” I asked.
“Everyone I’m certain of. Oh, of course, there could have been a gun in Mrs. Carver’s knitting bag. We’ll leave out Mrs. Gaunt for the present.”
“Hers is hidden in the cushions of the chair she’s sitting in,” I said helpfully. “Mr. O’Neill’s is disguised as a pipe. Mine—”
“You don’t believe me?” he interrupted. “I’m afraid I do,” I said. “That’s why I’m talking like this. I do but I don’t want to.”
He sat back frowning.
“Don’t let it get you. It probably means nothing.”
1 thought: Oh, no. It doesn’t mean anything. A walking arsenal usually doesn’t mean anything. Nor does a pack of watchdogs that can be tamed by any casual stranger. Nor people walking into a bedroom at night. Nor a little boy terrified by an unknown visitor. Nor a house fortified like a castle. Nor an old nurse dead of fright upon a lake shore. Nor burglar alarms.
“Pete,” said John Gaunt, “you’re tired, aren’t you? Want to go to your room?” “If I could get a wash,” Devaney suggested.
“Yes. I’m wondering—Bobs!” His voice had all the enthusiasm attending a new and brilliant idea. “You could take Pete upstairs, couldn’t you? To your room—he’ll have to sleep there tonight. And show him about things?”
Bobby nodded soberly. Obediently he came over to Devaney and held out his hand.
“Come on, Mr. Pete,” he said.
“All right, Mr. Bob.”
The soberness vanished. The little boy giggled.
“That’s funny,” he said. “Mr. Pete, Mr. Bob.”
Their departure was on that note.
I’VE SEEN that guy before,” Carver said suddenly.
The match, halfway to John Gaunt’s cigarette, was held. “Where?”
“I don’t know. Somewhere. I can’t place him. What’s he going to do—teach the kid? If you just wanted a bodyguard, I’d ’a’ done it for you.” “You think.” said John Gaunt slowly, "that I need a bodyguard?”
“Why not?” Carver returned airily. “Lots of rich men have had to come to it for their kids. It pays to be careful these days. Better than ransom, huh. Lissy?”
“Don’t ask me." Lisa said carelessly. “I’m only the child’s mother. I have nothing to say about him. John attends to all that.”
There was a silence. Then John Gaunt si*>ke to no one in particular.
“It is true that Bobby’s been more or less under my care. It has seemed —necessary. I suppose Lisa has been cheated out of her baby. She has been very gracious, very generous, about it.” He paused, then added slowly: “I try to make it up to her in other ways.”
“Such as?” Lisa’s tone was icy.
"Such as this.”
From his pocket, he drew a narrow dark case. He opened it and from it took an object whose frosty shimmer matched the cold of Lisa’s voice. It was a bracelet, diamonds and emeralds strung in fairy lace work.
“Johnny!” said Lisa and her voice was not cold. It was all warmth and sweetness. “You darling!”
He surrendered the bracelet with a little bow, and she held it up to the light. Her eyes were bright and greedy.
“Beautiful,” O’Neill agreed. “Good taste, Johnny. Emeralds belong to you. Lisa—no doubt of that.”
I said something appropriate. Gordon Curran, who had just come in, crossed over to examine the bracelet.
“Put it on,” he suggested.
“I’m not dressed,” Lisa objected.
But she slipped up her sleeve and let him clasp the bracelet around her arm. Against its rounded whiteness, the stones t(x>k on a new brilliance.
"It must be swell to have money,” Carver said enviously.
From the hearth, John Gaunt smiled politely.
For my owa part, I went from the room in a cold rageI told myself that John Gaunt was a fool. To add to the present danger—whatever it was he had brought into the hou« the constant menace of a fortune in jewels. I assumed that the bracelet would remain at Treeholme. I also assumed tiiat it was not the only piece of that value present. I myself had seen Lisa Gaunt ablaze with diamonds. They must be somewhere. In a two-|x*nny side, in all probability.
I shrugged my shoulders. Oh, well, what matter?
IF I READ mystery into the death of Sarah Ives, the English nurse, apparently no one else did.
The doctor certified that death had been caused by a heart attack. There was no inquest. The body was shipped to the home of a sister. The whole affair was smoothed over. That was the impression I got. Smoothed over.
And no one neither John Gaunt nor Francis O’Neill nor Gordon Curran nor Reeves referred directly or indirectly to my experience in Bobby’s room. It was as if that incident had never hapjrened. By next morning Treeholme House was like a l*x>l after a stoim. Smooth, unruffled.
THE DAY was hot. I sjxnit all morning taking dictation from Francis O’Neill. I lunched alone after spending my noontime struggling with a refractory typewriter. At three o’clock I gave it up. put in a call for the Mont fort repair man and went down to the lake for a swim.
The beach, half shaded, half sunny, was deserted, 1 swam for a while and then spread a bath towel on the little pier and began to rub my hair dry. I had not progressed far when a door slammed and Peter Devaney appeared. He looked sober and stern.
"Come out to the raft, will you?” he said. “I want to talk to you.”
‘Talk to me here.”
“It’s safer at the raft.”
Wondering. I swam with him to the raft, moored about a hundred feet out. When we got there he smiled disarmingly.
"There’s no place so safe as a place like this. Don’t trust rooms. Or telephones with extensions. Or shrubbery. Or darkness. Tell your secrets in the light of day. The brighter the light the better.” “I haven’t any secrets.”
I liked Peter Devaney. There seemed to be a comradeship between us because we were both new to Treeholme House.
“I have a secret,” he said. “I am going to tell you. First of all, I’m not here simply to look out for Bobby. I’m a private investigator from the Holgate Agency. My name is Peter Devaney Holgate. But that isn’t the secret.”
“Why confide in me?” I asked him.
“I wonder. You arrive at Treeholme House, and on your first evening here a nurse is murdered and an attempt is made to kidnap Bobby —”
I straightened up, shocked.
“Murder! Kidnapping !”
Peter Devaney was watching me closely. “Yes.”
“How do you know?”
“John Gaunt has had warnings. I’m telling you this so you’ll know what we’re up against. He’s had at least three written warnings within the month.”
“What sort of warnings?”
“To the effect that if Bobby disappears, he is to sit tight and do nothing. It hooks up with the fact that the nurse, Sarah Ives, was murdered. However, don’t worry. I’m not suspecting you of any complicity, Miss Stafford—Marcia.”
“But how—why are you so sure Sarah Ives was murdered?”
Peter Devaney stared out over the water.
“I’ve made a thorough search of the nursery. A few minutes ago I found a letter, or rather a sheet from a letter. One that Sarah Ives was writing to her sister on the day she died. Apparently she put it there and planned to finish it later on. Perhaps after her rendezvous on the lake shore.”
"What did it say?”
“Not enough. You see. someone had visited Bobby’s room. On a kidnapping attempt, maybe. Or perhaps just a visit to get the lay of the land. At any rate, a suspicious visitor. And Sarah Ives had recognized this visitor. In her letter she said she was worried because of that mysterious visit to the nursery. More than worried. Afraid. Her letter was short, jerky, indignant. She finished on this line, ‘To be frank, I am not altogether surprised. I have always distrusted—’ ” “Whom?”
“She didn’t write the name,” Devaney said.
I looked at him.
“Why are you telling me this?" "Sometimes unscrupulous detectives have been known to fake evidence. I want you to come with me and see this letter. I left it where I found it. Then I want you to come with me while I ask Reeves a few questions."
“Yes. The nurse’s letter indicated that she had discussed her suspicions with the butler. I want to confront Reeves with this letter, and I want to have a witness when I do it. I’m asking you to be the witness."
“I’ll be glad to help, if I can,” I told him. But Peter Devaney did not seem to lx? listening. He was watching a patch of shrubbery near the beach, and as I looked I saw a man emerge from beyond the bushes and go on up toward the house. The man was Nicholas Carver.
“That,” said Devaney, “is one reason why it is safer to go out onto a raft when you want to tell secrets.”
“He’s a horrible man,” I said. “I don’t trust him.”
“I told Devaney how Nicholas Carver had frightened me when I was walking with Bobby. “I was positive he was a kidnapper,” I said. “It never once occurred to me that he might be a relative.” Devaney smiled thinly.
“Nicholas and I are old enemies, you know. He’s just out of penitentiary for embezzlement, and it was the Holgate Agency sent him there.”
This revelation, made so calmly and in a matter-of-fact tone, left me breathless.
“He was released a couple of days ago,” said Devaney. Then he added: “But I don’t think we’ll get anywhere by suspecting Nick. He couldn’t have been the man Sarah Ives saw in the nursery because he was in the penitentiary at the time. Sarah Ives had never heard of Nicholas Carver and he had never heard of her. Now come up to the house with me and we’ll go look for Reeves. It’s darned hot out here in the sun.”
"yOU SEE, Reeves, it’s like this,” Petér Devaney said when we reached the nursery.
“Like what, Mr. Devaney?” Reeves asked, bending forward to see.
“Wait till I find the darn spring.” Peter chewed his lip as he thought. “There !” There was a click and a drawer of the desk sprang out at us. It was empty.
“There’s nothing there, sir,” said Reeves after a moment’s inspection.
“I know,” Peter said. “You have to fumble around a bit to find it.”
He pulled out a crumpled sheet of paper and handed it to Reeves.
“Is that Sarah Ives’ handwriting?” Reeves nodded slowly.
“I believe so, Mr. Devaney.”
Reeves obeyed, while I wandered over toward the window and Peter Devaney sat with his chin upon his folded arms. Reeves put the paper down.
“Do you understand what she means when she says she talked it over with you?” “I do, sir.”
“Did she tell you whom she suspected?” Reeves looked troubled.
“She did, Mr. Devaney.”
“Did you in turn tell Mr. Gaunt?”
“No, sir, I didn’t.”
Devaney’s eyes were keen and cold. “Why not?”
“Sarah Ives was a peculiar woman, Mr. Devaney. She may have been right— where the child was concerned she went a bit beyond herself, if you understand what I mean. I wanted something more than suspicion to go on.”
“She says you agreed with her.”
“I did in the main, sir. I thought it possible, even probable; but as to suggesting it to Mr. Gaunt, I did not feel I had the grounds. Suspicion alone is an unfair thing.”
“Did Sarah Ives speak to Mr. Gaunt herself, Reeves?”
The butler shook his head.
“I do not know. sir. It was the morning of her death.”
Peter—I was already beginning to think of him as Peter—had picked up a pencil and was balancing it along his finger.
“Do you think Sarah Ives was murdered, Reeves?”
The butler looked straightly at him.
“I do, Mr. Devaney. God help me.” “Yes.” Peter was obviously thinking fast. “Why do you carry a gun. Reeves?” The butler looked surprised.
“Mr. John’s orders, sir.”
“Not afraid for yourself, are you, Reeves?”
"I can take care of myself, sir.”
“Then, please do so. Because, if Sarah Ives was correct in her guess, or if anyone
besides myself has seen this letter, you may be in danger.”
“I understand, Mr. Devaney. I am not afraid.”
Peter turned now, speaking softly. “Whom did Sarah Ives suspect. Reeves?” The butler wet his lips. As he opened them to speak, a bell shrilled somewhere. He seemed to hear it with relief.
“That’s madam’s bell, Mr. Devaney. I must answer it.”
Peter dropped the pencil for good and all.
“All right. We’ll wait here for you.” “Yes, sir.”
REEVES was gone. We heard his ponderous footsteps moving without haste down the hall. The bell rang again. Peter looked at me.
“That man knows something,” he said slowly. “He’s scared to death, and I’m not sure he hasn’t reason to be.”
He crossed to the desk and picked up the letter.
“What’ll you do with that?” I asked curiously.
He gave me a queer little smile. “Watch,” he said.
As he spoke he tore the letter into fragments, laid them upon an ash tray and struck a match.
“You’re burning it,” I gasped.
“Right.” He stood watching until the flame died. Then he took the ash tray out on the balcony and let the wind whirl the sooty fragments away. “A thing like that is dynamite, and no particular good to anyone. Its use is done. The smart thing is to get rid of it.”
“Well, you did,” I said.
He leaned on the balcony railing. “Come out here.”
We stood side by side looking down upon the fresh green of the wide lawn where sprinklers stirred.
“Mr. Gaunt must be back,” I said idly. “There’s Bobby.”
“Alone?” Peter craned his neck.
“No, with Griggs.”
“I’d better be getting down,” he said, but he made no attempt to move. Downstairs a door slammed. He glanced at his wrist. “Wouldn’t you think Reeves would be getting back here? He’s had time to answer a dozen bells.”
I had been thinking.
“You didn’t tell Reeves who you were.” “I didn’t have to. Gaunt told him.”
For some reason I felt as if a cold breeze had touched me.
“You don’t think anything could have happened to him?”
“I’m not thinking.” His eyes were on the hands of his watch. “How long ago was it that Reeves left to answer that bell? Twenty minutes?”
“I don’t know,” I said fretfully. “If John Gaunt’s back, probably the others are too, and if they are they may be keeping Reeves busy.”
“That’s true,” Peter agreed. He lounged on the balcony rail but his eyes were alert and he seemed to be listening for something.
I was listening on my own account and I was hearing something. It came again, intermittently.
“Peter!” I said. “There’s a bell ringing and ringing downstairs.”
He left me abruptly and went to the door that led into the hall. He stood there listening.
“What does it mean?” I asked. “You don’t suppose Reeves—”
“I hope nothing’s happened to him. Come on; let’s go and see.”
We didn’t have to look far. Just around the first turn in the hall and then we knew why the bell had been ringing. It was because Reeves didn’t hear it. He would never hear anything again.
Peter saw it first because he was a little ahead, and he swung about with a look of horror.
“Go back, Marcia!” he commanded. “Don’t look. Go on back to the nursery!” To be Continued