C. N. (Charles Norris) Williamson.

The second latchkey online

. (page 4 of 21)
Online LibraryC. N. (Charles Norris) WilliamsonThe second latchkey → online text (page 4 of 21)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

dressing gown and call 'Police!' She's old, but her
ears are sharp as a cat's. She can almost hear one
thinking. But I'm glad she can't quite. How fright-
ful if she could !"

"Nothing about her need be frightful to you any
more," said the man. "You have saved me. Soon
it will be my turn to rescue you."


" I haven't saved you yet," the girl reminded him.
" They are sure to be waiting to see whether you come
out. But I've thought of one more thing to make
them believe that you live here. I can steal softly
upstairs to the front room on the second floor, above
the drawing room the one we call 'Mr. Smith's' to
turn on the lights, and then those hateful creatures

will think " She hesitated, and the colour sprang

to her cheeks.

"That Mr. and Mrs. Nelson Smith have gone to
their room," the man finished her sentence. His
eyes beamed love and gratitude, a glorious reward.
"You're wonderful! You forget nothing that can
help. Do you know, your trust, your faith in me, in
spite of appearances, are the best things that have
come into my life? You call those fellows 'hateful
creatures,' because they're my enemies. Yet, for all
you know, they may be injured innocents and I the
'hateful* one. This may be my way of getting into a
rich old woman's house to steal her jewels and money
making you a cat's paw."

"Don't!" Annesley cut him short. "I can't bear
to hear you say such things. I trust you because
surely a woman can tell by instinct which men to
trust. I don't need proof."

"By Jove!" he exclaimed, his eyes fixed upon her
face. "You are the kind of girl whose faith could
turn Lucifer back from devil into archangel. I
you're a million times too good for me. I didn't even
want to meet a white saint like you. But now I
have met you, nothing on earth is going to make me


give you up, if you'll stand by me. I'm unworthy,
and I don't expect to be much better. But there's
one thing: I can give you a gayer life than here. Per-
haps I can even make you happy, if you don't ask for
a saint to match yourself. You shall have my love
and worship, and I'll be true as steel

"Oh, listen!" Annesley broke in. "Don't you
hear a sound?"

"Yes," he said. "A door creaked somewhere."

"Mrs. Ellsworth's bedroom door. What shall we
do? There's just the short passage at the back, and
then she'll be at the baize door that opens into the
front corridor. Quick! You, not I, must go up-
stairs to that second-floor front room I spoke of.
Hurry ! Before she gets to the swing door

Without a word he obeyed, remembering his hat,
which he had laid on the table. One step took him
out of the lighted dining room into the dimness be-
yond. Another step and he was on the staijjs. There,
for the moment at least, he was safe from detection;
for the staircase faced the front door, and Mrs. Ells-
worth must approach from the back. She would
come to the door of the dining room, and, expecting
only the girl, would not think of spying at the foot of
the stairs.

Besides, there was no light in the corridor except
that which streamed through the reddish globes of the
chandelier above the dining table. If only the man
did not stumble on his way up, the situation might
be saved.

He was alert, deft, quick-witted, and light of foot


as a panther. Who but he would have remembered
at such a moment to snatch up a compromising hat
and take it with him?

Annesley stood still, rigid in every muscle, fighting
to control her heart-throbs, that she might be ready
to answer a flood of questions. She dared not even
let her thoughts rush ahead. It was all she could do
to face the present. The rest must take care of itself.

He had said that she would "make a good actress."
Now was the moment to prove that he had judged
her truly! She began to unfasten one of her long
gray gloves. A button was loose. She must give it
a few stitches to-morrow. Strange that there should
be room for such a thought in her mind. But she
caught at it gladly.

It calmed her as she heard a shuffling tread of
slippered feet along the corridor; and she forced her-
self not to look up until she was conscious that a
shapeless figure in a dressing gown filled the doorway,
like a badly painted portrait too large for its frame.

"A nice time of night for you to be back!" barked
the bronchitic voice hoarsened by years of shut
windows. "Give you an inch and you take an ell!
I told you half -past ten. Here it is eleven!"

Annesley looked up as if surprised. "Oh, Mrs.
Ellsworth, you frightened me!" she exclaimed. "I
was delayed. But it won't be eleven for ten minutes.
This dining-room clock keeps such good time, you
know. And I've been in the house for a few mo-
ments. I thought I came so softly! I'm sorry I
waked you up."


"Waked me up!" repeated Mrs. Ellsworth. "I
have not been to sleep. I never can close my eyes
when I know anybody is out and has got to come
back, especially a careless creature as likely as not
to leave the front door unlatched. That's why I
said half -past ten at latest/ If I don't fall asleep
before eleven I get nervous and lose my night's rest.
You've heard me say that twenty times, yet you have
no consideration!"

"This is the first time I've been out late," Annes-
ley defended herself. As she spoke she looked at
Mrs. Ellsworth as she might have looked at a

This fat old woman, with hard eyes, low, unintel-
ligent forehead, and sneering yet self-indulgent
mouth, had been for five years the mistress of her fate.
The slave had feared to speak lest she should say the
wrong thing, had hesitated before taking the most
insignificant step, knowing that Mrs. ^Ellsworth's
sharp tongue would accuse her of foolishness or
worse. But now Annesley wondered at her bondage.
If only the man upstairs could escape, never again
would she be afraid of this old tyrant.

"You don't need to tell me how long you have
been in," said Mrs. Ellsworth, blissfully ignorant
that the iron chain was broken, and enjoying her
power to wound. "I've been sitting up watching
the clock. My fire's nearly out, and no more coals
in the scuttle, the servants all three snoring while
I am kept up. If I'm in bed with a cold to-morrow I
shall have you to thank, Miss Grayle."


"I'll get you some more coal if you want it," said
Annesley. "Hadn't you better go to bed now I am

"Not till I've made you understand that this
must never occur again," insisted the old woman.
(Annesley was shocked at herself for daring to think
that the unwieldy bulk in the gray flannel dressing
gown looked like a hippopotamus.) " You don't seem
to realize that you've done anything out of the way.
You're as calm as if it was eight o'clock. Not a word
of regret! Not a question as to my evening, you're
so taken up with yourself and your smart clothes
clothes I gave you."

" I haven't had much chance to ask questions, have
I?" Annesley ventured to remind her mistress.
"Won't you tell me about your evening when you
are in bed and I have made up your fire? You say
it is bad for you to stand."

"I say so because it is the truth, and doctor's
orders," rapped out Mrs. Ellsworth. "I thought
I had been upset enough for one evening, but this
last straw had to be added to my burden."

"Why, what can have upset you?" Annesley
inquired, more for the sake of appearing interested
than because she was so. But the look on her mis-
tress's face told her that something really had hap-

"I don't care to be kept out of my bed, to be
catechized by you," returned Mrs. Ellsworth, pleased
that she had aroused curiosity and determined not to
gratify it. "Turn on the light in the corridor and


give me your arm. My rheumatism is very bad,
owing to the chill I have caught, and if I stumble I
may be laid up for a week."

The girl proffered a slender arm, hoping that the
pounding of her heart might not be detected by Mrs.
Ellsworth's hand. She wished that she could have
slipped it under her right arm instead of the left, but
owing to Mrs. Ellsworth's position in the doorway it
was impossible to do so, except by pushing her aside.

She rejoiced, however, in the order to put on the
light in the corridor, for this meant that after settling
her mistress in bed and transferring the dining-room
coal scuttle to the bedroom she must return to
switch the electricity off. Then, with Mrs. Ellsworth
out of the way, she could help the man upstairs to
escape, if the watchers had abandoned the game.

The tyrant, shuffling along in heelless woollen slip-
pers, made the most of her infirmity, *and hung on
the arm of her tall companion. In silence they
passed through the baize door at the end of the corri-
dor, so into the addition at the back of the house,
which contained Mrs. Ellsworth's room and bath,
with another small room suitable for a maid, and
occupied by Annesley. This addition had been built
a year or two before Annesley's arrival, and saved
Mrs. Ellsworth the necessity of mounting and de-
scending the stairs, as she used the dining room to sit
in and seldom went into the drawing room on the
floor above. Annesley was not surprised to see that
the fire in her mistress's room was still a bank of
glowing coals, for one of Mrs. Ellsworth's pleasures


was to represent herself in the light of a martyr. The
girl made no remark, however: she was far too experi-
enced for such mistakes in tact.

Still in silence, she peeled the stout figure of its
dressing gown and helped it into a short, knitted bed-

"When you get the dining-room scuttle, put out
the light there and in the corridor," Mrs. Ellsworth
said. "If you leave this door open you can see your
way with the coals. No use your creaking back
and forth just as I've settled down to rest. Besides,
there's somebody else to think of. I hope he hasn't
been disturbed already!"

"Somebody else?" echoed the girl with a gasp.
There was no longer any fear that her curiesity had
not caught fire. Mrs. Ellsworth was satisfied.

"Yes, somebody else," she condescended to repeat.
"A certain person has come since you went out. I
suppose, in the circumstances, you do not need to be
told who."

"I I don't know what you mean by 'in the cir-
cumstances'," Annesley stammered.

"That's not intelligent of you, considering where
you have spent the evening," sneered Mrs. Ells-

Annesley's ears tingled as if they had been boxed.
Could it be that Mrs. Ellsworth knew of the trick
played on her knew that her companion had nof
been to the Smiths'?

"I'm afraid I don't understand," she deprecated.

Mrs. Ellsworth sat in bed staring up at her.


"Either you are a fool," she said, "or else I have
caught you or him in a lie. I don't know which yet.
But I soon shall. Perhaps you were not the only
person in this house who went out to-night with a
latchkey. Now do you guess?"

"No, I don't," the girl had to answer, though a
dreadful idea was whirring an alarm in her brain.

"I dare say he is back before this, being more
considerate of my feelings than you, and less noisy,"
went on the old woman, anxious to prove that Annes-
ley Grayle and nobody else was responsible for keep-
ing her from rest. "Anyhow, what a man does is not
my business. What you do, is. Now, did or did
not a certain person walk in and surprise you at the
Archdeacon's? Don't stand there blinking like an
owl. Speak out. Yes or no?"

"No," Annesley breathed.

"Then you haven't been to the Smiths'. I can
more easily believe you are lying than he. Hark!
There he comes. Isn't that a latchkey hi the front

"It sounds like it. But perhaps it's a mouse in
the wall. Mice make such strange noises."

"They're not making this one. He never could
manage that key properly. Nobody with ears
could mistake the sound, with both my door and the
baize door open between, as they are now.

"No! You aren't to run and let him in. I don't
want him to think we spy on him. He's free to come
and go as he pleases, but I wish he wasn't so fond of
surprises. It's not fair to me, at my time of life.


As I was sitting down to dinner he walked in. Of
course I had to ask him to dine, though there wasn't
enough food for two. However, he refused, saying
he would drop in at the Archdeacon's

" Mr. Smith has come ! " Annesley cried out, wildly,
interrupting her mistress for the first time in all their
years together. "Oh, he will go upstairs! I must
stop him I mean, speak to him ! I

"You will do nothing of the kind!" Mrs. Ells-
worth leaned out of bed and seized the girl's dress.
Careless of any consequence save one, Annesley
struggled to free herself. But the old hand with its
lumpy knuckles was strong in spite of fat and rheuma-
tism. It clung leechlike to chiffon of cloak and
gown, and though Annesley tore at the yellow fingers,
she could not loosen them.

Desperate, she cried out in a choked voice, "Mr.
Smith! Mr. Smith!" then checked herself lest the
wrong Mr. Smith should answer.

But her voice was like the voice of one who tries to
scream in a nightmare. It was muffled; and though
the two intervening doors were ajar the door of
Mrs. Ellsworth's bedroom and the baize door divid-
ing the corridors old and new her call did not reach
even the real Mr. Smith. To be sure, he was slightly
deaf, and had to use an electric apparatus if he went
to the theatre or opera; still, Annesley hoped that
her choked cry might arrest him, that he might stop
and listen for it to come again, thus giving time for
the man upstairs to change his quarters after the
grating of the latchkey in its lock.


"Wicked, wicked girl!'* Mrs. Ellsworth was shrill-
ing. "How dare you hurt my hand? Have you
lost your senses? Out of my house you go to-

But Annesley did not hear. Her mind, her whole
self, had escaped from her body and rushed out into
the hall to intercept Mr. Ruthven Smith. It seemed
that he must feel the influence and stop. If he did
not, some terrible thing would happen unless, in-
deed, the other man had heard and heeded the warn-
ing sound at the front door. What if those two
met on the stairs, or in the room on the second floor?
Her lover would believe that she had betrayed him!

"Mrs. Ellsworth," she said in a fierce, low voice
utterly unlike her own, "you must let me go, or you
will regret it. I don't want to hurt you, but
there's only one thing that matters. If

The words seemed to be beaten back against her
lips with a blow. From somewhere above a sharp,
dry explosion struck the girl's brain and shattered
her thoughts like breaking glass.

Mrs. Ellsworth let go the chiffon cloak and dress
so suddenly that Annesley almost lost her balance.
The noise had dazed the girl. The world seemed full
and echoing with it. She did not know what it was
until she heard Mrs. Ellsworth gasp, "A pistol shot!
In my house ! Thieves I Murder ! ' '


FOR one confused instant the girl stood statue-
still, then, realizing that she was free, without a
thought for Mrs. Ellsworth she ran out of the room.
In the front corridor and in the dining room the
electric light was still on; and as she reached the
stairs Annesley saw Ruthven Smith standing near the
top with a small pistol in his hand.

She feared that he would fire a second shot, and
there was no time to reach him. Somehow, he must
be stopped with a word but what word? Every-
thing depended on that. Sheer desperation inspired

"Stop! He's my lover!" she cried. "Don't

Ruthven Smith a tall, lanky figure in a long over-
coat kept his weapon aimed at someone out of the
girl's sight, but he jerked his head aside for a glance
down at her. It was a brief glance, for the man who
dreaded burglars would not be caught napping. He
turned again instantly to face a possible antagonist,
eyes as well as weapon ready.

But the light from below had lit up his features
for a second; and Annesley realized that disgust and



astonishment were the emotions her "confession"
had inspired.

The fact that he was inclined to believe her state-
ment showed how low was his opinion of women.
Annesley knew that he did not think highly of her
sex, but he had liked her and she had liked him de-
spite his eccentricities. His look said: "So you are
the same as the rest! But in case you're lying, I
sha'n't be thrown off guard."

The girl felt physically sick as she understood the
irrevocability of what she had just said, and the way
in which her words were construed. If she could
have waited, "Nelson Smith" might have saved him-
self without compromising her, for he was above all
things resourceful. In announcing that he was her
" lover," she had committed him as well as herself.
He would have to make the best of a situation she
had recklessly created.

This she realized, but had no time to wonder how
he would do it before he spoke.

"Mr. Ruthven Smith, what Miss Grayle says is the
truth. We're engaged to be married. All I want is a
chance to explain why you find me where I am. I'm
not armed, so you can safely give me that chance."

"You know my name?" exclaimed Ruthven
Smith, suspiciously. He still covered the other with
his pistol, as Annesley could see now, because "Nel-
son Smith " had coolly advanced within a yard of the
Browning's small black muzzle, and, finding the
electric switch, had flooded the upper corridor with


"I've heard your name from Miss Grayle," said
the younger man. "I know it must be you, because
no other person has a right to make himself at home
in this house as you are doing. I certainly haven't.
But bringing her home a few minutes ago, after
dining out, we saw a light in what she said was your
room. She was afraid some thief had got in, and I
proposed to her that I should take a quiet look round
while she went to see if Mrs. Ellsworth was safe. No
doubt she was all right, because I heard them talking
together while I examined your premises. The next
thing I knew, as I was coming down with the news
that everything was quiet, you blazed away. It was
quite a surprise."

"I fired in the air, not at you," Ruthven Smith
excused himself, more or less convinced. Annesley
clutched the banisters in the sudden weakness of a
great revulsion from panic to relief. She might have
known that he would somehow rescue her, even from
her own blundering.

The shamed red which had stained Annesley's
cheeks at Ruthven Smith's contempt died away.
Her "lover" he was openly that now had miracu-
lously made his presence in the other Smith's
room, after eleven o'clock at night in this early bed-
going household, the most natural thing in the world.
At least, Ruthven Smith's almost apologetic tone in
answering proved that he had been persuaded to
think it so.

With Mrs. Ellsworth, however, it would be differ-
ent. There would lie the stumbling-block; but with


all danger trom the Browning ended, the girl was in
no mood to borrow trouble for the future, even a
future already rushing into the arms of the present.

"I should always fire the first shot in the air,"
Ruthven Smith went on, "unless directly threat-

"Lucky for me," replied the other. "I don't
want to die yet. And it would have been hard lines,
as I was trying to do you a good turn: rid you
of a thief if there were one. But I suppose you
or some servant must have left the light on in your

"I'm pretty sure I didn't," said Ruthven Smith,
still speaking with the nervousness of a suspicious
man, yet at the same time slowly, half reluctantly,
pocketing his pistol. "We must find out how this
happened. Perhaps there has been a thief

"No sign of anything being disturbed in your
room," the younger man assured him. "However,
you'd best have a look round. If you like" and he
laughed a frank-sounding laugh "I'm quite willing
to be searched before I leave the house, so you can
make sure I'm not going off with any booty."

"Certainly not! Nothing of the kind! I accept
your explanation," protested Ruthven Smith. He
laughed also, though stiffly and with an effort. "I
have no valuables in my luggage I have brought
none with me. It's not worth my while to open
the boxes in my room, as there's nothing there to
tempt a thief. Still, one gets a start coming to a
quiet house, at this time of night, finding a light in


one's windows that ought to be dark, and then seeing
a man walk out of one's room. My nerves aren't
over-strong. I confess I have a horror of night
alarms. I travel a good deal, and have got in the
habit of carrying a pistol. However, all's well that
ends well. I apologize to you, and to Miss Grayle.
When I know you better, I hope you'll allow me to
make up by congratulating you both on your engage-

As he spoke, in his prim, old-fashioned way, he
began to descend the stairs, taking off his hat, as if
to join the girl whom in thought he had wronged for
an instant. "Nelson Smith" followed, smiling at
Annesley over the elder man's high, narrow head
sparsely covered with lank hair of fading brown.

It was at this moment Mrs. Ellsworth chose to
appear, habited once more in a hurriedly donned
dressing gown, a white silk scarf substituted in
haste for a discarded nightcap. Panting with anger,
and fierce with curiosity, she had forgotten her
rheumatism and abandoned her martyred hobble for
a waddling run.

Thus she pounced out at the foot of the stairway,
and was upon the girl before the three absorbed
actors in the scene had heard the shuffling feet in
woollen slippers.

"What does tkis mean?" she quavered, so close to
Annesley's ear that the girl wheeled with a start of
renewed alarm. "Who's this strange man in my
house? What's this talk about 'engagements'?"

"A strange man!" echoed Ruthven Smith, prick-


ling with suspicion again. "Haven't you met him,
Miss Grayle's fiance?"

"Miss Grayle's fiddlesticks!" shrilled the old
woman. " The girl's a baggage, a worthless baggage !
In my room just now she struck me beat my poor
rheumatic knuckles! For five years I've sheltered
her, given her the best of everything, even to the
clothes she has on her back. This is the way she
repays me with insults and cruelty, and smuggles
strange men secretly into my house at night, and
pretends to be engaged to them!"

The dark young man in evening dress passed the
lean figure in travelling clothes without a word and,
putting Annesley gently aside, stepped between her
and Mrs. Ellsworth.

"There is no question of 'pretending'," he said,
sternly. "Miss Grayle has promised to marry me.
If our engagement has been kept a secret, it's only
because the right moment hadn't come for announc-
ing it. I entered your house for a few moments to-
night, for the first time, on an errand which seemed
important, as Mr. Ruthven Smith will explain. I
don't feel called upon to apologize for my presence
in the face of your attitude to Miss Grayle. It
was our intention that you should have plenty of
notice before she left you, time to find someone for
her place; but after what has happened, it's your
own fault,madame,if we marry with a special licence,
and I take her out of this house to-morrow. I only
wish it might be now

"It shall be now!" Mrs. Ellsworth screamed him


down. "The girl doesn't darken my doors another
hour. I don't know who you are, and I don't want
to know. But with or without you, Annesley Grayle
leaves my house to-night."

"Mrs. Ellsworth, surely you haven't stopped to
think what you're saying!" protested Ruthven
Smith. "You can't turn a girl into the street in
the middle of the night with a young man you don't
know, even if she is engaged to him."

"I won't have her here, after the way she's treated
me after the way she's acted altogether," Mrs.
Ellsworth insisted. "Let her go to your cousins'
if you think they'd approve of her conduct. As for
me, I doubt it. And I'm sure she lied when she said
they'd asked her to dine with them to-night. I don't
believe she went near them."

Ruthven Smith, who had made a surprise visit at
the Archdeacon's and dined there, had heard no
mention of Annesley Grayle being expected. For
an instant he was silenced, but the girl did not lack a

"She will not need to beg for Archdeacon Smith's
hospitality," said the young man. "And even if
Mrs. Ellsworth implored her to stay, I couldn't allow

1 2 4 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21

Online LibraryC. N. (Charles Norris) WilliamsonThe second latchkey → online text (page 4 of 21)