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We have just had another flood, bad enough, but only a foot or two of water on the first floor. Yesterday we got the mud shoveled out of the cellar and found Peter, the spaniel Mr. Ladley left when he "went away." The flood, and the fact that it was Mr. Ladley's dog whose body was found half buried in the basement fruit closet, brought back to me the strange events of the other flood five years ago, when the water reached more than halfway to the second story and brought with it to some, mystery and sudden death, and to me the worst case of "shingles" I have ever seen.
My name is Pitman in this narrative. It is not really Pitman, but that does well enough. I belong to an old Pittsburgh family. I was born on Penn Avenue, when that was the best part of town, and I lived until I was fifteen very close to what is now the Pittsburgh Club. It was a dwelling then. I have forgotten who lived there.
I was a girl in 'seventy-seven during the railroad riots, and I recall our driving in the family carriage over to one of the Allegheny hills, and seeing the yards burning and the sound of shooting from across the river. It was the next year that I ran away from school to marry Mr. Pitman, and I have not known my family since. We were never reconciled, although I came back to Pittsburgh after twenty years of wandering. Mr. Pitman was dead. The old city called me, and I came. I had a hundred dollars or so, and I took a house in lower Allegheny where, because they are partly inundated every spring rents are cheap, and I kept boarders. My house was always orderly and clean, and although the neighborhood had a bad name a good many theatrical people stopped with me. Five minutes across the bridge and they were in the theater district. Allegheny at that time was still an independent city. But since then it has allied itself with Pittsburgh. It is now the North Side.
I was glad to get back. I worked hard, but I made my rent and my living, and a little over. Now and then on summer evenings I went to one of the parks and sitting on a bench watched the children playing around, and looked at my sister's house, closed for the summer. It is a very large house; her butler once had his wife boarding with me — a nice little woman.
It is curious to recall that at that time five years ago I had never seen my niece, Lida Harvey, and then to think that only the day before yesterday she came in her car as far as she dared, and then sat there waving to me, while the police patrol brought across in a skiff a basket of provisions she had sent me.
I wonder what she would have thought had she known that the elderly woman in a calico wrapper with an old overcoat over it and wearing a pair of rubber boots was her full aunt!
The flood and the sight of Lida both brought back the case of Jennie Brice. For even then Lida and Mr. Howell were interested in each other.
This is April. The flood I am writing about five years ago was earlier, in March. It had been a long hard winter, with ice gorges in all the upper valley. Then in early March there came a thaw. The gorges broke up and began to come down, filling the rivers with crushing grinding ice.
There are three rivers at Pittsburgh, the Allegheny and the Monongahela uniting there at the Point to form the Ohio. And all three were covered with broken ice, logs, and all sorts of debris from the upper valleys.
A warning was sent out from the weather bureau, and I got my carpets ready to lift that morning. That was on the fourth of March, a Sunday. Mr. Ladley and his wife, Jennie Brice, had the parlor bedroom and the room behind it. Mrs. Ladley, or Miss Brice as she preferred to be known, had a small part at a local theater which kept a permanent stock company. Her husband was in the same business, but he was not working that season. It was the wife who paid the bills, and a lot of quarreling they did about it.
I knocked at the door at ten o'clock, and Mr. Ladley opened it. He was a short man, rather stout and getting bald, and he always had a cigarette in his mouth. Even yet, the parlor smells of them in damp weather.
"What do you want?" he asked sharply, holding the door open about an inch.
"The water's coming up very fast, Mr. Ladley," I said. "It's up to the swinging shelf in the cellar now. I'd like to take up the carpet and move the piano."
"Come back in an hour or so," he snapped, and tried to close the door. But I had got my toe in the crack.
"I'll have to have the piano moved, Mr. Ladley," I said. "You'd better put off what you're doing."
I thought he was probably writing. He spent most of the day writing, using the washstand as a desk, and it kept me busy with oxalic acid taking ink spots out of the splasher and the towels. He was writing a play, and talked a lot about the Shuberts having promised to star him in it when it was finished.
"Hell!" he said, and turning spoke to somebody in the room.
"We can go into the back room," I heard him say, and he closed the door. When he opened it again the room was empty. I called in Terry, the Irishman who does odd jobs for me now and then, and we both got to work at the tacks in the carpet, Terry working by the window and I by the door into the back parlor, which the Ladleys used as a bedroom.
That was how I happened to hear what I afterward told the police.
Someone, a man but not Mr. Ladley, was talking. Mrs. Ladley broke in. "I won't do it!" she said flatly. "Why should I help him? He doesn't help me. He loafs here all day, smoking and sleeping, and sits up all night drinking and keeping me awake."
The voice went on again, as if in reply to this, and I heard a rattle of glasses as if they were pouring drinks. They always had whisky, even when they were behind with their board.
"That's all very well," Mrs. Ladley said. I could always hear her, since she had the theatrical sort of voice which carries. "But what about the prying she-devil that runs the house?"
"Hush, for God's sake!" broke in Mr. Ladley, and after that they spoke in whispers. Even with my ear against the panel I could not catch a word.
The men came just then to move the piano, and by the time we had taken it and the furniture upstairs the water was over the kitchen floor, and creeping forward into the hall. I had never seen the river come up so fast. By noon the yard was full of floating ice, and at three that afternoon the police skiff was on the front street, and I was wading around in rubber boots, taking the pictures off the walls.
I was too busy to see who the Ladleys' visitor was, and he had gone when I remembered him again. The Ladleys took the second-story front, which was empty, and Mr. Reynolds who was in the silk department in a store across the river had the room just behind.
I put up a coal stove in a back room next the bathroom, and managed to cook the dinner there. I was washing up the dishes when Mr. Reynolds came in. As it was Sunday he was in his slippers, and he had the colored supplement of a morning paper in his hand.
"What's the matter with the Ladleys?" he asked. "I can't read for their quarreling."
"Booze, probably," I said. "When you've lived in the flood district as long as I have, Mr. Reynolds, you'll know that the rising of the river is a signal for every man in the vicinity to stop work and get tight. The fuller the river, the fuller the male population."
"Then this flood will likely make 'em drink themselves to death!" he said. "It's a lulu."
"It's the neighborhood's annual debauch. The women are busy keeping the babies from getting drowned in the cellars, or they'd get full too. Since it's come this far I hope it will come farther, so the landlord will have to paper the parlor."
That was at three o'clock. At four Mr. Ladley went down the stairs, and I heard him getting into a skiff in the lower hall. There were boats going back and forth all the time, carrying crowds of curious people, and taking the flood sufferers to the corner grocery, where they were lowering groceries in a basket on a rope from an upper window.
I had been making tea when I heard Mr. Ladley go out. I fixed a tray with a cup of it and some crackers and took it to their door. I had never liked Mrs. Ladley, but it was chilly in the house with the gas shut off and the lower floor full of ice water. And it is hard enough to keep boarders in the flood district.
She did not answer to my knock, so I opened the door and went in. She was at the window, looking after him, and the brown valise which figured in the case later was open on the floor. Over the foot of the bed was the black and white dress with the red collar.
When I spoke to her she turned around quickly. She was a tall woman, about twenty-eight, with very white teeth and yellow hair, which she parted a little to one side and drew down over her ears. She had a sullen face and large well-shaped hands, with her nails long and very pointed.
"The she-devil has brought you some tea," I said. "Where shall she put it?"
"She-devil!" she repeated, raising her eyebrows. "It's a very thoughtful she-devil. Who called you that?"
But what with the sight of the valise and the fear that they might be leaving, I thought it best not to quarrel. She had left the window, and going to her dressing table had picked up her nail file.
"Never mind," I said. "I hope you are not going away. These floods don't last, and they're really a benefit. Plenty of the people around here rely on them every year to wash out their cellars."
"No, I'm not going away," she replied lazily. "I'm taking that dress to Miss Hope at the theater. She is going to wear it in Charlie's Aunt next week. She hasn't half enough of a wardrobe to play leads in stock. Look at this thumbnail, broken to the quick!"
If I had only looked to see which thumb it was! But I was putting the tea tray on the washstand and moving Mr. Ladley's papers to find room for it. Peter, the spaniel, begged for a lump of sugar and I gave it to him.
"Where is Mr. Ladley?" I asked.
"Gone out to see the river."
"I hope he'll be careful. There's a drowning or two every year in these floods."
"Then I hope he won't," she said calmly. "Do you know what I was doing when you came in? I was looking after his boat and hoping it had a hole in it."
"You won't feel that way tomorrow, Mrs. Ladley," I protested, shocked. "You're just nervous and worn out. Most men have their ugly times. Many a time I wished Mr. Pitman was gone — until he went. Then I'd have given a good bit to have him back again."
She was standing in front of the dresser fixing her hair. She turned and looked at me over her shoulder.
"Probably Mr. Pitman was a man," she said. "My husband is a fiend, a devil."
Well, a good many women have said that to me at different times. But just let me say such a thing to them, or repeat their own words to them the next day, and they would fly at me in a fury. So I said nothing, and put the cream into her tea.
I never saw her again.
There is not much sleeping done in the flood district during a spring flood. The gas and electric lights were shut off, and I gave Mr. Reynolds and the Ladleys each a lamp. I sat in the back room I had made into a temporary kitchen, with a candle and with a bedquilt around my shoulders. The water rose fast in the lower hall, but by midnight at the seventh step it stopped rising and stood still. I always have a skiff during the flood season, and as the water rose I tied it to one spindle of the staircase after another.
I made myself a cup of tea, and at one o'clock I stretched out on a sofa for a few hours' sleep. I think I had been sleeping only an hour or so when someone touched me on the shoulder and I started up. It was Mr. Reynolds, partly dressed.
"Someone has been in the house, Mrs. Pitman," he said. "They went away just now in the boat."
"Perhaps it was Peter," I suggested drowsily. "That dog is always wandering around at night."
"Not unless Peter can row a boat," said Mr. Reynolds dryly.
I got up, being already fully dressed, and taking the candle we went to the staircase. I noticed it was a minute or so after two o'clock as we left the room. The boat was gone, not untied, but cut loose. The end of the rope was still fastened to the stair rail. I sat down on the stairs and looked at Mr. Reynolds.
"It's gone!" I said. "If the house catches fire we'll have to drown."
"It's rather curious, when you consider it." We both spoke softly, not to disturb the Ladleys. "I've been awake, and I heard no boat come in. Yet, if no one came in a boat, and came from the street, they would have had to swim in."
I felt queer and creepy. The street door was open, of course, and there was some light outside. It gave me a strange feeling to sit there in the darkness on the stairs, with the arch of the front door like the entrance to a cavern, and see now and then a chunk of ice slide into view, turn around in the eddy, and pass on. It was bitter cold too, and the wind was rising.
"I'll go through the house," said Mr. Reynolds. "There's likely nothing worse the matter than some drunken mill hand on a vacation while the mills are underwater. But I'd better look."
He left me, and I sat there alone in the darkness. I had a presentiment of something wrong, but I tried to think it was only discomfort and the cold. The water, driven in by the wind, swirled at my feet. And something dark floated in and lodged on the step below. I reached down and touched it. It was a dead kitten. I had never known a dead cat to bring me anything but bad luck, and here was one washed in at my very feet.
Mr. Reynolds came back soon, and reported the house quiet and in order.
"But I found Peter shut up in one of the third-floor rooms," he said, "and let him out. Did you put him there?"
I had not, and said so; but as the dog went everywhere, and the door might have blown shut, we did not attach much importance to that at the time.
Well, the skiff was gone, and there was no use worrying about it until morning. I went back to the sofa to keep warm, but I left my candle lighted and my door open. I did not sleep. The dead cat was on my mind, and as if it were not bad enough to have it washed in at my feet, about four in the morning Peter, prowling uneasily, discovered it and brought it in and put it on my couch, wet and stiff, poor little thing!
I looked at the clock. It was a quarter after four, and except for the occasional crunch of one ice cake hitting another in the yard everything was quiet. And then I heard the stealthy sound of oars in the lower hall.
I am not a brave woman. I lay there, hoping Mr. Reynolds would hear and open his door. But he was sleeping soundly. Peter snarled and ran out into the hall, and the next moment I heard Mr. Ladley speaking. "Down, Peter," he said. "Down. Go and lie down."
I took my candle and went out into the hall. Mr. Ladley was stooping over the boat, trying to tie it to the staircase. The rope was short, having been cut, and he was having trouble. Perhaps it was the candlelight, but he looked ghost-white and haggard.
"I borrowed your boat, Mrs. Pitman," he said, civilly enough. "Mrs. Ladley was not well, and I went to the drugstore."
"You've been more than two hours going to the drugstore," I said.
He muttered something about not finding any open at first, and went into his room. He closed and locked the door behind him, and although Peter whined and scratched he did not let him in.
He looked so agitated that I thought I had been harsh, and that perhaps she was really ill. I knocked at the door and asked if I could do anything. But he only called "No" curtly through the door, and asked me to take that infernal dog away.
I went back to the sofa and tried to sleep, for the water had dropped an inch or so on the stairs and I knew the danger was over. Peter came shivering at dawn and got on the sofa with me. I put an end of the quilt over him, and he stopped shivering after a time and went to sleep.
The dog was company. I lay there, wide awake, thinking about Mr. Pitman's death; and how I had come, by degrees, to be keeping a cheap boardinghouse in the flood district, and to having to take impudence from everybody who chose to rent a room from me, and to being called a she-devil. From that I got to thinking again about the Ladleys, and how she had said he was a fiend, and to doubting about his having gone out for medicine for her. I dozed off again at daylight, and being worn out I slept heavily.
At seven o'clock Mr. Reynolds came to the door, dressed for the store. He was a tall man of about fifty, neat and orderly in his habits, and he always remembered that I had seen better days, and treated me as a lady.
"Never mind about breakfast for me this morning, Mrs. Pitman," he said. "I'll get a cup of coffee at the other end of the bridge. I'll take the boat and send it back with Terry."
Excerpted from "The Case of Jennie Brice"
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A classic read from Mary Roberts Rinehart about a flood, a murder, and even a little romance. And I love the old-time cover, illustrations, and mapback.
I enjoyed this little mystery. Plot twists were good. Will read more by this author.
Not readable in many places. Didn't bother to try and finish. Will delete from my library.
Nice, short, interesting story of a disappearance that might be a murder--- or perhaps it's a frame-up? Lots of twists to keep you engaged, with a touch of romance to help balance the suspense.
A really good, old fashioned book. The flood setting and the way people take it in stride are more interesting than the cas ofJennie Brice. (You'll almost figure it out, but it will still surprise you.) But it's still the flood and the different time that make it worth reading. No complaining about government not doing anything to stop the flooding, just move upstairs and get on with life!
Engaging period piece with a tricky mystery and vivid setting.
Great to read this book again. MRR is the best.
the text is jumbled and not clear. It can not be read in many places.
Story was hard to follow. Spelling bad