Elizabeth Bell runs a quiet household, with no family and no more than the usual number of servants. She passes her time thinking about crime and working on her biography of a relative. When a young cousin comes to stay, life in the house becomes uncharacteristically lively. First, cousin Judy burns a hole in Miss Bell’s desk. Next, they spy a burglar on the staircase—a shadowy figure who vanishes without a trace. And finally, Sarah, the nurse, takes the dogs for a walk and never returns.
She is found savagely murdered, and she will not be the last to die. At first, Miss Bell stays calm, but when the police determine that the killer was one of her household, she begins to panic. If one of her servants is the killer, what is an old woman to do?
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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.
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By Mary Roberts Rinehart
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1958 Mary Roberts Rinehart
All rights reserved.
I have wrenched my knee, and for the past two weeks my days have consisted of three trays, two of them here in the library, a nurse at ten o'clock each morning with a device of infernal origin which is supposed to bake the pain out of my leg, and my thoughts for company.
But my thinking is cloudy and chaotic. The house is too quiet. I miss Judy, busy now with affairs of her own, and perhaps I miss the excitement of the past few months. It is difficult to take an interest in beef croquettes for luncheon out of last night's roast when one's mind is definitely turned on crime. For that is what I am thinking about, crime; and major crime at that.
I am thinking about murder. What is the ultimate impulse which drives the murderer to his kill? Not the motives. One can understand motives. It is at least conceivable that a man may kill out of violent passion, or out of fear, or jealousy or revenge. Then too there are the murders by abnormals, drug addicts or mental deficients; they have their motives too, of course, although they may lie hidden in distorted minds. And as in our case, a series of crimes where the motive was hidden but perfectly real, and where extraordinary precautions had been taken against discovery.
But I am thinking of something more fundamental than motivation.
What is it that lies behind the final gesture of the killer?
Until then he has been of the race of men. In an instant he will have forfeited his brotherhood, become one of a group apart, a group of those who have destroyed human life.
Is there a profound contempt for life itself, for its value or its importance? Or is the instinct to kill stronger than thought, an atavistic memory from long past ages when laws had not induced suppressions? Is the murder impulse a natural one and are all of us potential killers, so that to save extinction men have devised the theory of the sanctity of human life? And at that last moment does this hereditary buried instinct surge triumphantly to the surface, steel the hand which holds the knife, steady the revolver, put the smile on the face of the poisoner?
There must be a something of the sort. One thing we do know; once a man has killed, his inhibitions are destroyed. He has joined the alien clan, of which no member knows the other, and has set his face against the world.
Thereafter he is alone.
But I have found no answer. In our case I have looked back, searching for some variation from the normal, or some instinct of weakening or remorse. But I have found none. We know now that there were moments of terrific danger, when the whole murderous structure was about to collapse. But if there was panic then we have no evidence of it. Each such emergency was met with diabolical ingenuity and cunning, and that cunning went even further. It provided in advance against every possible contingency of discovery.
What long hours went into that planning, that covering of every possible clue, we can only surmise; the meticulous surveying of this and that, the searching for any looseness in the whole criminal plan, the deliberate attempts to throw suspicion elsewhere.
There must have been a real satisfaction toward the end, however, a false feeling of security, a rubbing of the hands and a certain complacency.
And then suddenly the whole carefully woven fabric was destroyed. Strange and mysterious and bitter that must have been. Everything provided against, and then at the last to be destroyed by a door, a thing of wood and paint with an ordinary tarnished brass knob. Months had passed. Hundreds of hands had touched that knob in the interval; the door itself had been painted. And yet it solved our mystery and brought destruction to as diabolical and cunning a murderer as the records of crime will show.
As I have already intimated, I live alone, in the usual sense of the word. That is, I am more or less without family. A secretary, usually a young woman, and the customary servants form my household. And as the first crime occurred in this household it will be as well to outline it at once.
Outside of my secretary, Mary Martin, a young and very pretty girl, the establishment at the time of the disappearance of Sarah Gittings consisted of four servants: my butler, Joseph Holmes, who had been in my employ for many years, a respectable looking man of uncertain age, very quiet; my chauffeur, Robert White, who was not white, but a negro; the cook, Norah Moriarity, and Clara Jenkins, the housemaid. A laundress, a white woman, came in by the day, and from spring until fall a gardener named Abner Jones took care of the lawns and shrubbery.
And as my property, both houses and grounds, plays an important part in this narrative, I would better describe them also.
The house, then, sits some hundred feet back from the street. Two stone gate posts, from which the gates have been removed, mark the entrance, and the drive circles around a grass oval before the front door. Heavy old shrubbery, which I have not had the heart to thin out, shields me from the street and is spread in clumps over the grounds.
Thus the garage at the rear is partly screened from sight, although as was shown later, there is a clear view from it of the pantry window.
At the rear behind the garage, lies a deep ravine which has been recently incorporated into the city park system; and at one side of me lies an acre or two of undeveloped property known as the Larimer lot.
Through this, from the street and extending sharply down the hill into the park, runs a foot-path, an unpaved cut-off. In winter when the leaves are off the trees I can see a portion of this path. Not all, for both the lot and the path are heavily bordered with old cedars.
Our first crime took place on the Larimer lot, not far from this path.
I have no near neighbors. This part of the city was country when the house was built, and the property on the other side is very large, ten acres or so. It was recently bought by a retired bootlegger and has no part in this narrative.
The house itself—my house—is old fashioned but very comfortable. But as I sit here in the library, one leg out before me and my pad on the other while I endeavor to think on paper, I realize that the house requires more description than that. Like the path, it too played its part.
I am writing in the library. Beside me on a table is the small bell which I ring to attract attention, since I cannot get to the speaking tube—I have said we are old fashioned—and a row of soft pencils like the one which later on we found on the skylight over the lavatory. There is a desk, an old Queen Anne walnut one, an open fire, chairs and books. From the side windows one commands the Larimer lot, from the front the entrance drive.
So the library has not only comfort, but a certain strategic place in the house. I can not only see my callers in advance; I can sit there and survey a large portion of my lower floor domain. It lies to the right of the front door and the hall.
Across the long center hall with its white staircase and its rear door to the service portion of the house, lies the drawing room. I can see now the forward end of it, with its ormolu cabinet, its French sofa done in old rose damask, and that painting of my father which does the Bell nose so grave an injustice.
And although I cannot see it, I know that at the end of that drawing room, opening onto a black brick wall which I have screened with arbor vitae and rhododendrons, there is a French door with steps leading out onto the grass. Also I know, by actual measurement, that it is precisely fifty feet and around a corner to the kitchen porch.
From the rear of the library double doors open into a music room, not often used nowadays, and behind that is the dining room.
This is my domain, and today in the winter sun it is very peaceful. There has been a little snow, and the cedars at the top of the path down the hill are quite beautiful. I have a wood fire, and the dogs, Jock and Isabel—named by Judy because she had never heard of a dog called Isabel—are asleep before it.
Jock is a terrier, Isabel a corpulent and defeminized French bull. As they too played a small and not too meritorious part in our débâcle, it is necessary to name them.
I have listed my household as it was on the eighteenth of April of this year. Usually my secretaries do not live in the house, but come in daily for such notes, checks, bills and what not as clutter the desk of a woman who, because she has no family of her own, is supposed to expend her maternal instinct in charity.
But Mary Martin was living in the house, and due to a reason directly connected with this narrative.
During the housecleaning the previous autumn Norah had unearthed an old cane belonging to my grandfather, that Captain Bell who played so brave if unsung a part in the Mexican War.
She brought it downstairs to me, and I told her to have Joseph polish the handle. When Joseph came back with it he was smiling, an unusual thing for Joseph.
"That's a very interesting old cane, madam," he said. "It has a knife in it."
"A knife? What for?"
But Joseph did not know. It appeared that he had been polishing the knob when a blade suddenly shot out of the end. He had been greatly startled and had almost dropped the thing.
Later on I showed it to Jim Blake, my cousin, and he made the suggestion which brought Mary Martin into the house.
"Why not write the old boy's life?" he suggested. "You must have a trunkful of letters, and this sword-stick, or sword-cane or whatever it is, is a good starting point. And by the way, if ever you want to give it away, give it to me."
"I may do that," I said. "I don't like deadly weapons around the place."
In March I gave it to him. "The Life," as Judy called it, was going on well, and Mary Martin efficient enough, although I was never fond of her.CHAPTER 2
This then was my household and my house on the day Sarah Gittings disappeared. The servants lived on the third floor at the rear, their portion of the floor cut off from the front by a door. A back staircase reached this upper rear hall, allowing them to come and go as they required.
Mary had the third floor front room above the library, and Sarah the one behind it and over the blue spare room. Mary's door stood open most of the time, Sarah's closed and often locked. For all her good qualities there was a suspicious streak in Sarah.
"I don't like people meddling with my things," she would say.
But Sarah was not a permanent member of the household. She was a middle-aged, rather heavy and silent woman, a graduate nurse of the old régime who had been in the family for years. In serious illness we sometimes brought in brisk young women, starchy and efficient, but in trouble we turned to Sarah.
We passed her around. My sister Laura would wire from Kansas City, "Children have measles. Please send Sarah if possible." And Sarah would pack her bag, cash one of her neat small checks and slip off. A good bit of her time was spent with my cousin Katherine Somers in New York. Katherine was devoted to her, although just why it is difficult to say. She was a taciturn woman, giving no confidences but probably receiving a great many.
Poor Sarah! I can still see her in her starched white uniform, with its skirts which just cleared the ground, moving among our various households, with us but not entirely of us; watching nervously over the stair rail while Judy, Katherine's daughter, made her début; slapping Laura's newest baby between the shoulders to make it breathe, or bending over me to give me a daily massage, her heavy body clumsy enough but her hands light and gentle.
She was not a clever woman. Or maybe I am wrong. Perhaps in a family which prides itself on a sort of superficial cleverness, she was merely silenced.
It was Wallie Somers, Katherine's stepson, who claimed that when he told her Hoover was nominated, she said:
"Really! That ought to be good business for the vacuum cleaner."
Not a romantic figure, Sarah, or a mysterious one. All of us thought of her as a fixture, growing older but more or less always to be with us. I remember Howard Somers, Katherine's husband, telling her one day that he had remembered her in his will.
"Not a lot, Sarah," he said. "But you'll never have to go to the Old Ladies' Home!"
I don't know why we were so astonished to see her burst into tears. I dare say she had been worried about the future; about getting old, and the children growing up and forgetting her. Anyhow she cried, and Howard was greatly embarrassed.
She had her peculiarities, of course. In Katherine's house, what with guests in and out all the time, she had developed the habit of taking her meals in her room on a tray, and this habit persisted.
"I like to read while I eat," she said. "And I'm up early, and I don't like late dinners."
She had some sort of stomach trouble, poor thing.
But in my simpler household she ate with me unless there was some one there. Then, to Joseph's secret fury, she retired to her room and had her tray there.
She had come down from Katherine's a month or so before, not so much because I needed her as that Katherine thought she needed a change. Howard had had a bad heart for some time, and Sarah had been nursing him.
"Just let her putter around," Katherine wrote. "She'll want to work, being Sarah, so if you can stand a daily massage—"
And of course I could, and did.
I have drawn Sarah as well as I can, and the family rather sketchily; Howard and Katherine in their handsome duplex apartment in New York on Park Avenue, bringing out Judy at nineteen; Laura in Kansas City, raising a noisy young family; and myself in my old-fashioned house with its grounds and shrubbery, its loneliness and its memories. Dependent on a few friends, a small dinner party now and then, a little bridge; and on my servants, on Joseph and Norah and Clara and Robert, and on the Mary Martins who came and went, intelligent young women who used me as a stop-gap in their progress toward marriage or a career. A staid household, dependent for its youth on Judy's occasional visits, on secretaries whose minds were elsewhere, and on Wallie Somers, Howard's son by his first wife, whose ostensible business was bonds and whose relaxation, when he could not find some one to play with, was old furniture. Than which, as Judy once said, I have nothing else but.
As it happened, Judy was with me when Sarah disappeared that night in April of last year. She was staging her annual revolt.
"I get a trifle fed up with Katherine now and then," she would say, arriving without notice. "She's too intense. Now you are restful. You're really a frivolous person, you know, Elizabeth Jane, for all your clothes and airs."
"Frivolity is all I have left," I would say meekly. Judy has a habit of first names. Katherine had carefully taught her to call me Cousin Elizabeth, but Judy had discarded that with her stockings, which now she wore as seldom as possible and under protest. Although I doubt if she ever called her mother Katherine to her face.
Katherine was a good mother but a repressed one. Also she was still passionately in love with Howard; one of those profound absorbing loves which one finds sometimes in women who are apparently cold, and which makes them better wives than mothers. I rather think that she was even a little jealous of Judy, and that Judy knew it.
Judy would arrive, and as if by a miracle the telephone would commence to ring and shining sports cars would be parked for hours in front of the house. Joseph would assume a resigned expression, empty cigarette trays by the dozen, and report to me in his melancholy voice.
"Some one has burned a hole on the top of your Queen Anne desk, madam."
I was never anything to him but "madam." It got on my nerves sometimes.
"Never mind, Joseph. We have to pay a price for youth."
He would go out again, depressed but dignified. In his own way he was as unsocial as Sarah, as mysterious and self-obliterating as are all good servants.
So on that last night of Sarah's life, Judy was with me. She had just arrived, looking a trifle defiant, and at dinner she stated her grievance. Mary Martin was out for the evening, and the two of us were alone at the table.
Excerpted from The Door by Mary Roberts Rinehart. Copyright © 1958 Mary Roberts Rinehart. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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