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It is odd, how one's ideas can change. A month ago I never wanted to see the island again, or this old house. But it is quiet now. When the sheriff drops in his visits are purely social. He inspects me with a critical eye and scowls.
"Still looking kind of peaked, young woman," he says disapprovingly.
"What would you expect?" I inquire, "If you enjoyed this summer, I certainly did not."
He is likely to grin and, taking out his old pipe, gaze out over the bay.
"Always did say this was the best view anywhere about," he observes, and smokes contentedly.
It was he who finally solved our mystery for us, although toward the end a small army of deputies, detectives, constables and even two New York detectives were working on it.
He worked practically alone, rattling about in his disreputable old car, and once even rather nervously taking to the air.
"Never knew I had a stomach until then," he said.
Then one morning he walked quietly into the District Attorney's office in Clinton. Bullard, the District Attorney, was there, and others, including the New York men.
"Just dropped in," he said quietly, "to say it's all over."
They had thought he was crazy at first. The New York men had smiled, and Bullard was furious. But when he told them the situation changed. All but Bullard crowded around him, applauding him, clapping him on the back. One of the New York detectives even asked him if he didn't want a job with them.
But he only grinned at them.
"Need some brains in this part of the country, too," he said. "Never can tell when these summer folks will break out again."
I was waiting for him in his office when he came back from that conference, and he took off his battered old soft hat, sat down and lit his pipe before he spoke to me at all. Then he said:
"Well, Marcia, I guess we've got to the bottom of it at last."
It had been a long and weary road. He looked tired that day. His eyes were red from lack of sleep. But I can still see him sitting at his desk, in his cluttered office, with Mamie—his stenographer—typing in the next room; and hear him saying:
"Maybe we'd better get at it from the start. It's not a pretty story; but as a matter of human interest and—well, human motives, it's a humdinger."
Which I still consider a pretty good word for it.
So I am still here. The season is over, the summer colony dispersed. Even the bay is empty of pleasure craft. The yachts have gone, the white sloops and schooners, the fast motorboats which always remind me of comets with foamy tails. And the seals have commenced to come back. Only yesterday one lifted his head and looked up at me. Then, as curious as a dog, he came closer to inspect me.
He seemed reassured, for he played about in the water for some time.
It is all familiar and friendly again, this rambling old house, built by my grandfather in the easy money days of the nineties, and called Sunset House, generally corrupted to Sunset. It has been a part of my life, with its garden, its stable now rebuilt into a garage, and with the ravine close by and the pond there, deep at the sea end where long years ago somebody had dammed Stony Creek. My brother Arthur and I had always believed there were fish in the pond, which may have been true, since we certainly never got any out of it.
Even this upper porch where I am sitting with a pencil and pad on my knee is a part of our tradition; for when my father as a young man followed Teddy Roosevelt to Cuba, and was rewarded by a grateful government with one of the worst cases of typhoid on record, he spent his convalescence on it.
According to the story, he would sit there, damning everything from the sea gulls to William McKinley, and Arthur's first lisping words learned at his knee were the secret delight of the servants.
Good heavens, that makes Arthur thirty-nine. It was more than ten years before I came along, and the surprise I caused must have amounted to a profound shock.
But, although the house is friendly, it will never be the same again. I have only to lift my head to see the windows of Juliette's room, now closed and locked, and beyond it the room from which Helen Jordan went out one day, never to come back.
Below me is the rocky beach, uncovered at low water, where the tide once played me so deadly a trick. And each evening, as the fishing boats go out, their decks piled high with nets, I wonder if among them is the one which returned one morning trailing that bit of flotsam which had once been a living creature.
The fisherman landing matter-of-factly at the town dock and calling up:
"Get somebody to call the police station. I've got a body here."
It is hard to think back past all this to the normal life that preceded it. Yet it was normal. Mother had died some years ago, soon after Father, leaving behind her a depressed world she could not understand, a house in New York nobody would buy, this summer place on a New England island, and a modest trust fund; the usual assets of her generation.
"You will always have a home, Marcia," she said, rather pitifully.
"Of course I'll have a home, darling," I told her.
And somehow I had managed. I could not dismiss the servants. Old William had been in the family for forty years, and Lizzie the cook for thirty. Even Maggie, my maid and general factotum, had been originally my nurse, and since both houses were large, I had to have a housemaid as well.
But the money problem was always with both Arthur and me, especially after his divorce and remarriage. It worried me to see his handsome head growing gray at thirty- nine, and the alimony to Juliette every month was often a desperate matter.
It would have helped if we could have united forces in the Park Avenue house. But Mary Lou, his second wife, would not do it. Not that she disliked me; but she is like so many small women, jealous of her big husband and highly possessive. In the end we compromised. She brought Junior to Sunset in the summer, and Arthur joined us when he could.
That was the situation early in June of this year when Mary Lou called me up to say that Junior, their boy, had had the measles, and could I open Sunset earlier than usual.
"He always does so well there," she said, in her slightly querulous voice. "Wouldn't you know this would happen? Measles, of all things."
I observed that measles in a child of four was not unusual, but of course I agreed. The result was that we reached here early in June, the servants by train, and I driving my old but still useful coupe and taking three comfortable days to do it.
All normal. All as it should be. A few seals still about, the island hills beautiful, the village street empty of all but local cars. And to add to my contentment that last morning of the trip, as I crossed the bridge to the island a boy fishing from its rail lifted a hand and yelled.
"Hi ya, kid," he said.
It was extremely comforting, at twenty-nine!
There was always a thrill on getting back to Sunset. Even the servants were excited. And nothing had changed. I remember coming out onto this porch, roofless and open to the sun, with its ancient steamer chairs and the small iron table which holds on occasion my books and cigarettes, and gazing out at the bay below with a sort of thankfulness. For the peace it offered, its quiet and coolness, and the childish memories it evoked.
It was all there. The old stake where Arthur used to tie up a boat and fish for flounders; the broken little pier, relic of more prosperous days, with the float where Arthur—and a pair of water wings—taught me to swim. The shore where we searched for starfish and other loot, to place them in the nursery bathtub and frantically annoy the governess of the moment, the little pools when the tide was out where Arthur made me paper boats and I sailed them. Once I remember we caught an eel, and Father found it in our bathtub. He looked at it and at us with the same extreme distaste.
"You put it there," he said. "Now get it out, and out of the house."
We tried, but it was a desperate business. It ended by the eel slithering slimily down the hardwood stairs, and by Father slipping and following it down, bumping from step to step with an august majesty which sent Arthur and me into hiding in the stables and into nervous jitters for a week.
It was all the same that morning. Even the gulls were there, raucous and shrill at high tide, but at low water settling down to the business of hunting clams. There was only one change, and Maggie commented on it at once.
"I don't like those crows," she said. "They're bad luck, and no mistake."
I saw them then. There were three of them, strutting impudently about among the gulls, and none too welcome, apparently. But I remember that I laughed.
"Why, Maggie!" I said. "At your age!"
"What's my age got to do with it?" she demanded sourly, and retired with dignity into the house.
But I have wondered since. I shall always believe that it was one of them that retrieved the bright gilt initial from Arthur's hat, and hid it where the sheriff found it, above high water mark.CHAPTER 2
That day I went over the house with Mrs. Curtis, the wife of the caretaker. Spring and fall she opens and closes it, but this time she had a report to make.
She stood uneasily in her neat print dress and looked distressed.
"It's about the bells, Miss Lloyd," she said. "Curtis has gone over them, but he can't find anything wrong."
"What do they do? Whistle?" I asked.
She looked almost shocked.
"They ring," she said, in a portentous voice. "They ring when nobody pushes them."
"Probably a crossed wire," I told her. "If they keep on I'll have them looked over."
She let it go at that, although she seemed uneasy. And I may say here and now that the bells still remain a mystery. They rang all summer, in season and out. They cost me a sprained ankle, and they almost drove the household crazy. Then they stopped, as suddenly as they had begun.
Ridiculous? Perhaps. I have a strong conviction that whatever another and better world may be, it is too busy to lift furniture or push bell buttons.
Nevertheless, the fact remains. They rang.
But that day I dismissed them lightly. I went over the house dutifully in Mrs. Curtis's small starchy wake; and since it enters considerably into this narrative perhaps I should describe it here.
As I have already said, it is a big house, sprawled so close to the waterfront that at high tide it seems to be at sea. A long drive from the main road leads in to it, and entering from it to the right are the dining room, pantries, servants' hall and kitchen.
To the left are the family rooms, the library and beyond it overlooking the garden what used to be Mother's morning room, both of them connecting by doors with the long drawing room which overlooks the bay and takes the entire front of that side of the house.
Upstairs are the bedrooms, almost a dozen of them, with bathrooms scattered hither and yon. Both Mother's and Father's rooms are locked off and never used, Mother's room overlooking the garden and Father's next to it. Then comes Junior's nursery and the suite used by Mary Lou and Arthur. My own is in the center, with a sitting room adjoining and this upper porch outside them both.
In other words, with one exception the house and property bear a sort of family resemblance to nine out of ten of the summer estates on the island, built by and for large families, the children eventually marrying or going away and the houses remaining, mute reminders of simpler and livelier days.
That one exception, however, is noteworthy. Mother had always maintained that we children invariably chose the summer holidays to be ill, and after a sequence of chickenpox, measles and whooping cough she fitted up what she called the hospital suite. The one we used was the quarantine room to us always, and the other in those early days was the pesthouse.
"Why the pesthouse?" I asked Arthur.
"Trained nurses are pests, aren't they?" he answered.
Which seemed entirely adequate to me then.
They lay, those rooms, on the third floor of the house, and were accessible only by a steep narrow staircase from the main hallway on the second floor. The day and night nurseries lay beneath them, and how we hated being exiled to them! Mother looking at a thermometer and saying resignedly: "Well, you have some fever. You'd better go upstairs until the doctor comes, just to be safe." And Arthur—or I myself—catching up some books and a nightgown, and then dragging up the steep staircase.
"I tell you I feel all right, mother. What's a fever, anyhow?"
"Go up when you're told. I'll send Fräulein in a minute."
"But listen! I feel fine. I—"
There would be a bang of a door above, followed by a sulky silence; and later on Doctor Jamieson would climb the stairs and tell us to put out our tongues.
But—and this, too, is important—we did not always stay there. Arthur was not long in finding a way out. We were convalescing from scarlet fever when he discovered it, lying side by side in the twin beds, with a screen between us at necessary intervals.
He was frightfully bored, and so one night he simply slid down the drain pipe to the drawing room roof, and from there he climbed a trellis to the garden below. He gathered up a starfish or two from the beach, made a triumphant re-entry and put one of the things on me!
I must have yelled, for the nurse came in, and I can still remember Arthur's virtuous face.
"I think she's delirious again," he said, looking concerned. "She thinks she's seeing things."
"What things?" said the nurse suspiciously.
"Oh, fish and that kind of stuff," he said, and crawled into bed, taking his trophies with him.
I had not been there for years when Mrs. Curtis took me up that day. In some ways it had changed. The outer or nurse's room still contained a cot bed, but it had become a depository of everything else, from old window screens to long-forgotten toys, from broken china, chests and trunks to ancient discarded furniture.
Mrs. Curtis eyed it apologetically.
"There's no place else to put the stuff," she said. "I don't know what to do with it."
The other room, the sickroom proper, gave me almost a shock. It was as though no years had passed at all, and I was there once again, an unwilling child being sent to Coventry.
There were the two beds, neatly and freshly made. There was the worn rug, and the bookcase with some of our ancient books in it. Even the small bathroom was ready, with soap and towels. I suppose Mrs. Curtis had kept it like that for years, and I felt distinctly guilty.
But it smelled a little musty, and I went over and opened a window.
"My brother and I used to get out this way," I said. "By the drain pipe."
"It's a wonder you didn't break a leg," said Mrs. Curtis severely.
I went downstairs then, leaving the window open; but some of the gaiety had gone out of the day. It was hard to compare the lighthearted Arthur of his teens with the Arthur of today. I had adored him, but I had seen him go through the hell that only a woman can make of a man's life. And even his freedom had cost him too much. He had been willing to pay any price to be free, however.
"Twelve thousand a year!" I said, when he told me. "But that's ridiculous, Arthur."
"That's Juliette's price, and she sticks to it," he said grimly.
"It isn't as though you'd done anything. After all, you are letting her divorce you, when it ought to be the other way."
"Oh, for God's sake, Marcia!" he groaned. "It doesn't matter where the fault lies. I haven't been perfect, and I'm not hiding behind her skirts. I want to get out of it, and I'll have to pay."
Even at that it had not been easy, for Juliette quite plainly did not want the divorce. Things suited her as they were. She was well if not lavishly supported. Her apartment was large and usually filled with people, and while Arthur worked in his law office and often brought work home at night, her time was pretty much her own. There were stories about her, but I doubt if he ever heard them, and I resolutely shut my ears.
Excerpted from The Wall by Mary Roberts Rinehart. Copyright © 1938 Mary Roberts Rinehart. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted November 4, 2014