Crescent Place was once a peaceful country green surrounded by five tasteful suburban houses and populated by polite, responsible citizens. But as the city enveloped it, the residents built a gate to keep the world out. With each passing year, the subdivision grew stranger and stranger—until it began to look like a time capsule of the 1890s. In these houses are a husband and wife who fight constantly, and another couple who hasn’t spoken to each other in two decades. There is a widow in permanent mourning and a daughter whom the newspapers call psychotic. And there is a bedridden old woman who is about to be killed with an axe.
When her murder shatters the quiet of the little enclave, the tabloids delight in trumpeting the neighborhood’s peculiarities. But as the search for the killer intensifies, the area’s strangest secrets have yet to be revealed.
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About the Author
Among her dozens of novels are The Amazing Adventures of Letitia Carberry (1911), which began a six-book series, and The Bat (originally published in 1920 as a play), which was among the inspirations for Bob Kane’s Batman. Credited with inventing the phrase “The butler did it,” Rinehart is often called an American Agatha Christie, even though she began writing much earlier than Christie, and was much more popular during her heyday.
Read an Excerpt
By Mary Roberts Rinehart
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1961 Stanley M. Rinehart Jr., Frederick R. Rinehart and Alan G. Rinehart
All rights reserved.
We had lived together so long, the five families in Crescent Place, that it never occurred to any of us that in our own way we were rather unique. Certainly the older people among us did not realize it; and I myself was rather shocked when Helen Wellington, after she married Jim and came there to live, observed that we all looked as though we had walked out of an album of the nineties.
"Including that iron clamp the photographers used to use to hold the hands steady," she said. "You're a stiff-necked lot, if ever I saw any."
I dare say she was right. Not long ago I was looking over the old red plush album which played such an important part in solving the crimes of which I am about to tell, and I found something or other of most of us there, especially of the women: Mrs. Talbot's faint mustache, Miss Lydia's spit curls, Emily Lancaster's enormous pompadour, Mother's pinned-on braids and Mrs. Dalton's square-cut Lillie Langtry bangs.
Even the hats were not unlike the ones which most of the Crescent still wears; those substantial hats, pinned high on their wearers' heads, by which at St. Mark's on a Sunday morning it was as easy to pick out our pews as to discover a palm oasis in a desert.
Just how unique we were, however, none of us, including Helen Wellington herself, probably realized until after our first murder. Then, what with police and newspaper men digging about our intermingled roots, it began to dawn on me that we were indeed a strange and perhaps not very healthy human garden.
Long ago Crescent Place was merely a collection of fine old semi-country houses, each set in its own grounds, and all roughly connected by a semicircular dirt road. Then the city grew in that direction, the dirt road was paved, and to protect themselves the owners built a gate at the entrance and marked it "private." The gate was never closed, of course; it was a gesture of dignified privacy and nothing more. The piece of empty ground which the road enclosed, and on which our houses faced, was common property, and in the course of time was planted like a small park at our mutual expense. Long ago it had been a part of a large empty area on which we had grazed our cows, and so now this glorified fragment was still called the Common.
The five houses face toward the Common, and were originally some considerable distance apart. Here and there additions have rather lessened this distance, but each house still retains that which it values above all price, its privacy and seclusion. When by the additions I have mentioned or for other reasons this in the past has been found threatened, a campaign of tree and shrubbery planting has at once been instituted; so that for more than half the year, save for certain weak spots in our defenses, we resemble nothing so much as five green-embattled fortresses.
We have these weak spots, however. One window of my own bedroom, for example, still commands an excellent view of certain parts of the house on our right, and from the end of our guest wing we have more than a glimpse of the one on the left. Both of which outlook posts, as well as the ones upstairs which command our own garage, were to play their own part in our tragedies. But in the main, until Thursday August the eighteenth of last year at four-o'clock in the afternoon, each of the five houses had successfully for forty years or more preserved its seclusion and its slightly arrogant detachment from the others and from the world; had been neighborly without being intimate, had fought innovation to the last ditch—Helen Wellington maintaining that the last hatpin in the world with a butterfly top was the one Lydia Talbot still wore—and was still placidly unaware of much more of the living world than it could see through the gate onto Liberty Avenue.
My mother and I live in the center house, and thus almost directly face the little Common and the gate beyond it. Mother is still in deep mourning for my father, who has been dead for twenty years, and later on, when things began to happen, I was shocked to hear her described as the eternal widow draped in crêpe, and myself as a youngish spinster—at twenty-eight!—who had been abnormally repressed and was therefore by intimation more or less psychopathic as a result.
This was the same tabloid which as our murders went on discovered that there were exactly thirteen people living on the Crescent, not counting the servants, and under the title The Unlucky Number ran an article a day for thirteen days on one or the other of us.
Yet the fact remains that of all the five houses along the Crescent ours was later proved to be the most normal, although we were to have our fair share of trouble and even horror. And that the next in normality and the first in peaceful and ordered living was the Lancaster house next door to us; until on that August afternoon last year old Mrs. Lancaster was murdered in such hideous fashion.
The Lancaster house lay to the right of us. The family consisted of old Mr. Lancaster, his wife, a bedridden invalid, and his two stepdaughters, Emily and Margaret. But so long ago had this second marriage taken place that no one seemed to remember the fact; not even the stepdaughters themselves, now staid middle-aged women. They were devoted to their stepfather, whose name they had taken, and the entire life in the house centered on the small, rather dominant and not too agreeable elderly invalid in her wide bed on the second floor.
Beyond the Lancaster house and nearest the gate on its side was the Talbots', and we had known them so long that Mrs. Talbot's eccentricity was as much a part of her as her fall collection of dahlias or her ancient faded sables. Her mania, if one may call it that, was in locking everything up and keeping the keys. Miss Mamie, our local visiting dressmaker, said that she sat all day crocheting with these keys in her lap, and so she was constantly having new fronts put in her dresses! She was a big woman with a faint mustache and a booming voice, all of which made her peculiarity more marked. But as I say, habit had accustomed us to it, and the only time we ever remembered it was when she went asleep on her good ear and so could not admit her son George when she was out late at night.
Then it was necessary for her sister-in-law, Lydia, to rouse her and get a key. She would come down, her spit curls stiffly set and tied with a bandage, and admit him. Or if she too did not waken George would try the rest of us. There was hardly a house in the Crescent which had not given him a bed on one night or another when she was unable to awaken his mother, or when he had decided not to let him in at all.
The fact remains, however. The moment George Talbot left his bedroom its door was locked and the key taken to the old lady; and the same thing was done by Lydia Talbot, a perfect specimen of the dependent female of the nineties. Even the servants on their way downstairs left their keys in a basket outside her door, and a very good housemaid was dismissed once for forgetting to do so.
There was no Mr. Talbot. There had been, for one day when I was a little girl I found in the loft of the old stable on their lot a dreadful staring crayon portrait of a man with black hair mostly roached and a heavy black mustache; and George had said it was his father. Being utterly unable to associate it with a living man, after that I always felt that Mrs. Talbot had been married to a crayon enlargement, and when ultimately it disappeared entirely I had a strange feeling that George was suddenly fatherless!
On our left were the Daltons, a middle-aged couple who had not spoken directly to each other for twenty years. Nobody knew what the trouble was, and we accepted them as calmly as the others. Twice a year they asked us all in for tea, and it was quite usual to have Mr. Dalton go to his wife's tea table and say politely to whoever stood by:
"Will you ask Mrs. Dalton for a second cup for me, please?"
Or to have Mrs. Dalton perhaps reply:
"I'm sorry. Will you tell him I have just sent out for some fresh tea?"
He was a big man, and still handsome in a florid fashion. The money was hers, and like many rich wives she was supposed to be niggardly with him, and it was said that that was at the root of their trouble. He had given up even the pretense of business since the depression, and spent a good bit of time tinkering with his car in their garage. But he was often lonely, I know. I used to see him talking to the butler now and then, out of sheer necessity for speech.
Mrs. Dalton was small, pretty, birdlike, and always slightly overdressed. Of the older women on the Crescent she was the only one who pretended to any sort of fashion, and I well remember the day she appeared at our house in her first short skirt! Mother gave one shocked look at her legs and from that moment on never glanced lower than her chin. But not one of us ever guessed, until our lives were thrown into chaos by the strange occurrences of last August, that Laura Dalton was still wildly and jealously in love with her husband.
The last house, nearest the gate on our left, was the Wellingtons', and they provided us with our only gaiety and with plenty of excitement. They were younger, for one thing; Jim Wellington had inherited the place on his mother's death. But they were always threatening divorce. One day Mary, our elderly cook, would report to us for the morning orders with the statement:
"She left last night. Called a taxicab and took her trunk."
And by "she" we always knew who was meant. Or again:
"Mr. Wellington, he lit out this morning. Gone to his club to live."
They would effect a reconciliation, of course, and celebrate it with a party. Pretty lively parties, they were, too. Sometimes after mother had gone to bed I would slip out and listen to the noise, or look in at a window. Sometimes I would see Helen Wellington on the dark porch with some man or other, in a dress which, as Miss Mamie would say, was cut clear down to nature. But Mother never let me go to these parties. She considered Helen a bad influence and a hussy, and she deplored both her morals and her housekeeping.
These were the five houses on the Crescent, and the people who occupied them on that appalling August afternoon of last year. People and houses, we were united by the old road in front of us which was now a street, by the grapevine path at the rear, and by a sort of mutual seclusion which more and more shut away the outside world.
To this world we made few concessions. Mrs. Talbot's basques and cameo jewelry were taken for granted as much as Mother's crêpe or Emily Lancaster's high pompadour built over a cushion of net and wire. The suspicious bulges on Lydia Talbot's thin figure we accepted as the curves of nature and not of art, and on Monday, which was of course the Crescent washing day, our clothes lines at the rear showed row on row of self-respecting but hardly exotic undergarments.
I remember meeting Helen Wellington on the back path shortly after her marriage, and seeing her stare at the Lancaster washing. She caught me by the arm.
"Listen!" she said, in her quick staccato voice. "Do they all wear things like that?"
"Most of them. You see, they always have."
"Not always. But I wash them myself."
She gave me a sharp glance.
"Pretty well buried alive, aren't you?" she said. "Nothing ever has happened and so nothing ever will! Why don't you get out? Beat it? You're still young. You're not bad looking."
"Beat it? Where to? I couldn't even sell mothballs!"
"You would think of mothballs!" She cast a quick appraising glance about her. "Well, you never can tell. The older the house the better it burns! You may all go up like a tinder box some day. It isn't natural."
"What isn't natural?"
"This peace; this smug damnable peace. It's degenerating."
Whereupon she lit the first cigarette ever smoked by a woman in that vicinity, and moved along the path. The last I saw of her she was standing in fascinated awe, gazing unabashed at a row of long-sleeved nightdresses and Mr. Lancaster's long cotton underdrawers.
She was right in her prophecy, of course. But it was six years before it came true. Six years almost to a day until the match was applied to our tinder box and old Mrs. Lancaster, alone in her bed in the big front room of the white Colonial house, was brutally and savagely done to death with an axe.CHAPTER 2
As I have said, one of the windows in my bedroom on the second floor commands a view of a part of the Lancaster house. That is, I can see from it all of the roof, a part of the second story and a small side-entrance door which opens onto the wide strip of lawn with flower borders which separates the two houses. This area belongs, half to the Lancasters and half to us, and a row of young Lombardy poplars forms the dividing line.
At four o'clock that Thursday afternoon, then, I was sitting at this window sewing. Mother had just started for a drive, and old Eben, the gardener for all the five properties, was running his lawn mower over the lawn, the cut tips of the grass marking a small green cascade just ahead of it. When the sound ceased I glanced up, to find Eben mopping his face with a bandanna handkerchief, and in the sudden silence to hear a distant shriek.
Eben heard it too, and I can still see him standing there, the handkerchief held to his neck, staring over it at the Lancaster house and holding tight to the handle of his mower. How long he stood I do not know, for now the shriek was repeated, but nearer at hand; and the next moment Emily Lancaster, the elder of the old lady's two daughters, stumbled out of the side door, screamed again, ran across the lawn toward Eben and then collapsed in a dead faint almost at his feet.
So rapidly had all this happened that Eben was still holding to the mower and to his handkerchief. When I got to them, however, he was stooping over her and trying to raise her.
"Let her alone, Eben," I said impatiently. "Leave her flat. And see what has happened."
"I reckon the old lady has passed on," he said, and moved rather deliberately toward the side door. But before he reached it a sort of pandemonium seemed to break loose in the house itself. There were squeals from the women servants, and hysterical crying, distinct because of the open windows; and above all this I could hear Margaret Lancaster's voice, high pitched and shrill.
Even then I believed as Eben did, that the old lady had died; and I remember thinking that there was an unusual amount of excitement for what had been expected for years anyhow. My immediate problem, however, was Miss Emily, lying in her spotless white on the path, her high pompadour slipped to one side and her face as white as her dress.
Eben had disappeared into the house by the side door, and there was nothing I could do until help came. I had expected him to send that help, but after perhaps two or three minutes I heard someone run across the front porch and out into the street, and I saw that it was Eben. He had apparently forgotten us, for he stood there for a second staring right and left and then set off, running again, toward the gate to the Crescent.
I knew then that there was something terribly wrong, and I tried to rouse Emily.
"Miss Emily!" I said. "Listen, Miss Emily, can't you sit up?"
But she did not move, and I stared around helplessly for someone to assist me. It was then that I saw Jim Wellington. It looked as though he had come out of the Lancasters' side door, although I had not heard the screen slam; and I have not lived all my life beside that door without knowing that it can slam.
At first I thought he had not noticed us. He was moving rapidly toward the back of the property, where a path connected the rears of all the houses. Our grapevine telegraph line, Bryan Dalton called it, because the servants used it to go from one house to another and to carry all the news. Then I felt that he must have seen us, for I in my pale dress and Miss Emily in white must have stood out like two sore thumbs.
"Jim!" I called. "Jim Wellington! Come here."
He turned then and came toward us. Like the screen door, I have known him all my life and been fond of him; too fond once, for that matter. But never have I seen him look as he looked then. His face was gray, and he seemed slightly dazed.
"I need help, Jim. She's fainted."
"Who is it? Emily?"
He hesitated, then came closer and leaned over her.
"You're sure she's not hurt?"
Excerpted from The Album by Mary Roberts Rinehart. Copyright © 1961 Stanley M. Rinehart Jr., Frederick R. Rinehart and Alan G. Rinehart. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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