From the outside, it seems like the three women of the Bayne house are frozen in time. There is Mrs. Bayne, an aging widow obsessed with propriety; her sister, Margaret, a spinster whose desperate loneliness is eating her from the inside out; and young Holly, a beautiful creature with a vibrancy that fades a little each day. Her only hope is Furness Brooks, a playboy with an idea that he might like to marry Holly, but each day that he doesn’t propose, she becomes more frightened that she will die an old maid.
Into this steps Howard Warrington, a bond salesman who answers an advertisement to rent the Baynes’ extra room. He finds the house to be full of old secrets and quiet grudges, and he soon grows to hate his life there. But when Margaret attempts to kill herself, he realizes how dark life is for the women Bayne—and how difficult it might be for him to escape.
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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
Two Flights Up
By Mary Roberts Rinehart
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1928 Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Answering the front door at the Bayne house was a lengthy matter. The postman had learned this long ago, and now he merely laid the mail in the vestibule and went away.
First, Mrs. Bayne would look in the old reflecting mirror which still hung from her bedroom window and take note of the ringer. Then she would whisper cautiously over the stair rail:
"It's the milk bill. I'm not in." Or, as had been happening more and more frequently for the last six months: "It's Furness, Holly. Come right up, and I'll send down your Aunt Margaret to receive him."
And Margaret, who was Mrs. Bayne's sister, would put down the napkins she was hemming by hand for a department store and sulkily take off her apron and smooth her hair. The forefinger of her left hand was roughened with the needle, although she kept a piece of pumice stone on her washstand to smooth it. Mrs. Bayne thought no lady should have a roughened forefinger, and so Margaret had formed the habit of keeping that hand shut with the finger tucked away, so to speak. As a result she rather gave the appearance of meeting the world with one hand clenched.
On the staircase perhaps she would pass Holly running up, escaping, one might say, from the kitchen. The bell would ring again, and without haste but with an air of slight impatience at some invisible servant, Aunt Margaret would open the door.
"Oh, it's you, Mr. Brooks! I thought I heard the bell. Really, these days ..."
But by that time Mr. Brooks would be inside, putting his hat on the old table, with his gloves beside it, and his stick leaning against a chair.
"Anybody at home?" he would ask.
And Margaret would say archly: "Well, I'm at home, and I dare say we can locate Holly somewhere."
He would wander into the long parlour, which Mrs. Bayne always called the drawing room: a faded chamber, with overstuffed furniture neatly mended, for the Bayne house had been furnished before the vogue for old things came in; and to cover the sounds of stealthy movements overhead Margaret would make conversation. For instance:
"I saw Mrs. Rodney White downtown the other day. She's growing very stout, isn't she?"
"Eats too much," Mr. Brooks would say calmly. "By the way, I heard a good story about him last night. The other day at the Rossiters' dinner, he ..." And so on.
Margaret would listen absorbedly. Mr. Brooks had an endless fund of gossip which Margaret would absorb as eagerly as perhaps Eve may have listened to whispers about her lost Paradise. Every evening he dined somewhere, but always with the Right People, of course, and until the last six months he had been accustomed to wander, after business hours, from one tea table to another.
Not that he cared for tea. As a matter of fact, he loathed tea. But there was always talk and sometimes whisky and soda, and he managed to pick up quite a little of both. He was a tall, rather thin young man; as Mrs. Bayne said, he was not handsome, but he was distinguished. As a matter of fact, he was neither.
For the last six months, however, he had been calling at Kelsey Street instead. There was no whisky and soda there, only tea. However, there was Holly. Her full name was Hollister, which had been her mother's; after Mrs. Bayne's—well, what you might term widowhood, she had been strongly tempted to call herself Mrs. Hollister Bayne, but Margaret had been so absurd about it that she had not.
In the drawing room the tea table would be ready. Mrs. Bayne always laid it after luncheon, before she went upstairs for what she termed her siesta. It was only necessary in case of a caller to light the spirit kettle, and "not bother to ring." Furness Brooks had been coming twice a week for months, and he had not yet discovered that the Baynes kept no servant. Margaret Hollister would put a match to the lamp under the kettle, and then ooze out.
"If you don't mind, I have some notes to write. And I'll tell Holly you're here."
But on the October day this story opens, the routine had been changed. Mrs. Bayne, dressed in black silk, had sat all morning in the drawing room and most of the afternoon, and in the third-story front room Holly was working like a young fury. Only Margaret continued grimly to hem napkins, holding them close to her eyes; she needed glasses, but specialists were expensive.
It was one of Mrs. Bayne's pet fictions that if dear Margaret did not do so much "fancy work" she would have fewer headaches.
When at last the doorbell rang, the sounds on the third floor ceased, and the hush of gentility descended on the house. It rang a second time before Mrs. Bayne moved. Then, picking up a book and inserting a finger in it, she went to the front door and opened it. A burly young man was standing outside.
"I thought I heard the bell," said Mrs. Bayne graciously, looking back over her shoulder for an imaginary servant. "Really, these days ..."
She looked again at the young man. He seemed respectable but not particularly affluent. Not that he was shabby, of course, but compared with the spick-and-span-ness of Furness Brooks—of course, Furness Brooks had his own bodyservant. A Filipino. And then the man on the doorstep was young; she had not considered that possibility.
It took only a second, all this. She appraised the young man, and he looked at her. Then he coughed apologetically.
"I believe—but perhaps I have made a mistake. There was an advertisement of a room for rent, and it gave this number."
"Ah," breathed Mrs. Bayne, as if she had just remembered. "Yes. Of course. Come in, please."
But she did not show him the room at once. She led the way into the drawing room, and the elegance of that apartment plus the tea table quite overcame him. He had none of Mr. Brooks's savoir faire, and he had not seen a tea table in a private house for a long time. Not since he left home, in fact.
"Please sit down," said Mrs. Bayne graciously, and sat herself. "You see, we are three women alone here—do sit down!—and we really should have a man in the house. A gentleman, of course."
"I should try to qualify," said the applicant, smiling. He had rather a nice smile. "I can only give my business references. I sell bonds—that is, when I can sell them."
A sudden recollection broadened his smile. He had gone back to his class reunion the year after he came back from the war, and one of the banners they had carried read: "99 per cent of us are selling bonds." It had seemed funny then. Maybe it was not quite so humorous now.
But Mrs. Bayne was looking pained.
"By a gentleman," she said, "I mean birth and breeding. Those are what count, don't you think? May I give you a cup of tea?"
The young man glanced at the tea table with its silver and old china, and it occurred to him that one of the tests of a gentleman might be the way he drank his tea! So he took a cup and managed it successfully. By and large he had rented a number of furnished rooms, but never before had the acid test of tea been offered.
It was not until tea had been drunk and Mrs. Bayne established as a hostess rather than a landlady that he was allowed to see the room. He was in a slightly dazed condition as she rustled up the stairs ahead of him, and so delicate was her manner of showing it that he did not like to ask the location of the bathroom—the result being that the evening he came, searching for it, he walked into Margaret in her nightgown; her room was across the hall from his.
For in the end he was accepted, Mrs. Bayne not thinking to ask him if the room suited him. Still in the slightly dazed condition he went down the stairs and out the front door, and it was only on the pavement that he sufficiently recovered to mutter that he'd be damned, or words to that effect.
In such fashion did one Howard Rush Warrington, late of Elkhart, Indiana, become a part of the establishment at Ninety-one Kelsey Street, to become gradually a part of its life. Names that meant nothing to him then were to fill his thoughts and alter his life, but he had never even heard them; Margaret and James Cox and Mr. Steinfeldt, Furness Brooks and the McCook woman, Tom Bayne and Holly, even Phelps, the District Attorney.
Do we exist? Or are we only registered in the sensorium of the beholder? If this last is true, none of them existed then at all. But by this act of his, of walking up the steps at Ninety-one Kelsey Street, Warrington had called them into his life.
And they were to do their best to wreck it.CHAPTER 2
Holly Bayne could not remember when she had not been told that there were some things no lady did. In the old days at Grandmother Hollister's it had been rather awful. Once—only she did not remember this—the milkman had stopped her nurse on the street, and little Holly had held out her hand to him.
"Just as if she knew he brought her her milk!" reported the nursemaid fondly.
"And you let her shake hands with the milkman?" demanded Grandmother Hollister.
"Well, I'm sure, if he's clean enough to bring the milk, he's—"
"That will do," thundered Grandmother Hollister. And shortly after the girl was dismissed, although, of course, this may not have been the reason. Later on she married the milkman, too. But that is neither here nor there.
When Holly was eight—that was before the trouble came—they took her out of the dancing class because the Mayor's son had been admitted to it. Grandma was dead then, and Aunt Margaret was living with them. And Aunt Margaret had said it was absurd; the boy was a nice child. Mrs. Bayne, however, was adamant.
"Once the bars are down, all sorts of common people will be let in," she said. "I have told Mrs. Finch exactly what I think of her."
But those days were rather dreamlike to Holly now, although they had made their impression on her character. Mostly what she remembered was of movement, of people coming and going and of parcels arriving to be piled between the fireplace and the wardrobe until they were opened. Sometimes she was even allowed to see them opened, and all sorts of beautiful things would be spread out on her mother's bed, lace shawls and fans and bright shiny slippers.
But mostly, after Mademoiselle had gone, she had stayed with Aunt Margaret. She saw comparatively little of her parents. They were almost always either out, or dressing to go out. Almost every day Otto, the butler, would press her father's dinner or dress clothes and carry them upstairs, and the limousine would come around at a quarter to eight o'clock. The other evenings there would be a party at the house; at six o'clock two or three strange men would take off their coats in the pantry and begin laying out china and silver. Aunt Margaret, who did not always dine downstairs on these nights, would carry down the long banquet cloth, bought very probably from Mr. Cox; gilt chairs would come in the back door from the caterer's; and as if by magic the dining room would begin to bloom.
At each place there would be a tiny glass for sherry, a taller one for sauterne, and, crowning glory of all to Holly's childish eyes, a champagne glass with a queer hollow stem and a flat bowl.
"I should think they would spill," she said once to Aunt Margaret.
"It's a pity they don't," said Aunt Margaret tartly.
She had a diagram in her hand and was putting down funny little cards at each place, each with a name on it.
At five minutes to eight Mother would come down the stairs and Father would follow her, and then, like the dining table, the staircase would begin to bloom. Ladies in evening dress would come up, give their wraps to the housemaid, all in black with a neat white apron, and wait for gentlemen who were laying off shiny high hats and overcoats somewhere else. From the third-floor landing Holly, looking down on them, had a curious impression of nakedness. Everything was lost to her from above but their bare shoulders, backs and bosoms.
On the hall table Otto had carefully laid out tiny envelopes, each with a tinier card inside it, and as each gentleman went down he received one, looked at the name on the card and tucked it into his waistcoat pocket. It was the name of the lady he was to "take in."
Up to the top landing would come a strange medley of odours, perfume and soup and tobacco smoke, and through it came Otto's voice, announcing sonorously, "Mr. and Mrs. Wrigley," "Miss Van Dusen," "Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby-Jones," and so on, and then there would be a procession of queer, foreshortened figures past the newel post below toward the dining room, and it would be all over.
She would crawl back into bed in the third-floor front room, to which she had been temporarily moved for the party, and the street lights would make strange shadows on the walls....
On the day Warrington was to move in Holly stood in that same room and remembered those things. She had, curiously enough, no recollection of her father's going away. He had not entered her daily life sufficiently for her even to notice his absence immediately. He might have been gone three days or a month before she asked her Aunt Margaret where he was. And Margaret had said:
"He's gone away, dear."
"He's gone abroad," said Margaret, after a moment's thought. "I wouldn't talk to your mother about it. She isn't very well."
For some years Holly really thought he had gone abroad. She was thirteen when they told her; they had to, then, because at the public school somebody had said something. Oh, yes, she had gone to the public school. When her mother had objected Aunt Margaret had insisted on that.
"You don't want her an ignoramus, do you?" she had demanded.
So she knew. It did not greatly hurt her. She had been a quiet child, softly pretty, and as she was never allowed to play with the other children anyhow, she felt no ostracism. And then she had found a way to assert herself which puzzled them and left them at a loss.
"Holly, Holly, oh, my golly!" they would call after her.
And she would answer them in French.
"I despise you, and you cannot injure me," she would say. It left them uncomfortable and thwarted.
She had, as she grew up, no world outside of the schoolroom and the quiet house where now her mother and Margaret lived and slowly "rotted," as Margaret put it. Once a year the Parker car stopped at the door, and Sally Parker, Mrs. Bayne's cousin, got out and came in. Sam, her husband, was making them a small allowance and had secured them the house. Occasionally, too, the chauffeur would leave a box, and after that for a while Mrs. Bayne or Margaret or Holly, as the case might be, would blossom out in fresh garments and maybe go to church.
Mrs. McCook, who kept boarders across the street, was not blind to these coincidences.
"I haven't seen that before, Clara," she would say to her maid of all work. "Come here and look. Did you notice that car here last week?"
And Clara would answer yes or no, as the case might be.
It was, as a matter of fact, due to one of Sally Parker's madeover velvet suits that Holly had met Furness Brooks again. She had gone to St. Andrews, sitting well to the back, for the one-time despised mayor had taken the Bayne pew and become a vestryman. And Furness had seen her and asked who she was.
"Holly Bayne!" he said. "Why, I used to know her at dancing school!"
He had spoken to her afterward, and walked home with her. (Perhaps, to that list of names which were to alter Howard Warrington's life and nearly wreck it, it would be well to add Sally Parker's.)
A certain amount of all this went through Holly's head that afternoon. The room was ready; it was swept and scoured and dusted. The big chair which had been moved up there when her father went away was by the hearth, although just why was problematical. They had not arranged to supply the roomer with a fire, so she had not laid one.
"If he wants a fire he will have to pay extra," Mrs. Bayne had replied sharply to her suggestion. "When it's cold enough, we'll light the furnace."
"I thought just as a sort of welcome ..."
"If you start it you'll have to keep it up. And what do you mean by welcome? He's not entering the family!"
"No," said Holly. "I suppose not. Still, he's to be in our house. He'll be a part of us, whether we like it or not."
"Why? He's not getting his food here. He'll be in and out, that's all, and mostly out."
Margaret—this was in the drawing room at tea; they mostly had tea there and then no supper, or some bread and jam before going to bed—Margaret had smiled faintly over her sewing. But Mrs. Bayne had not noticed her; she seldom did.
The result of all this was that Holly was puzzled, as she surveyed the room.
She had never seen this young stranger, but soon he would be there. How did one treat people like that, who were in one's house but not of it? She was still uncertain when she went downstairs to dress for Furness Brooks's afternoon call, and later on that gentleman found her detached and unapproachable, and it rather fanned the ardour of his new flame.
"Seems to me somebody's very quiet to-day," he remarked, with an attempt at joviality.
"I feel quiet," she said.
Excerpted from Two Flights Up by Mary Roberts Rinehart. Copyright © 1928 Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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