Mary Roberts Rinehart.

The Circular Staircase online

. (page 1 of 16)
Online LibraryMary Roberts RinehartThe Circular Staircase → online text (page 1 of 16)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook









This is the story of how a middle-aged spinster lost her mind, deserted
her domestic gods in the city, took a furnished house for the summer
out of town, and found herself involved in one of those mysterious
crimes that keep our newspapers and detective agencies happy and
prosperous. For twenty years I had been perfectly comfortable; for
twenty years I had had the window-boxes filled in the spring, the
carpets lifted, the awnings put up and the furniture covered with brown
linen; for as many summers I had said good-by to my friends, and, after
watching their perspiring hegira, had settled down to a delicious quiet
in town, where the mail comes three times a day, and the water supply
does not depend on a tank on the roof.

And then - the madness seized me. When I look back over the months I
spent at Sunnyside, I wonder that I survived at all. As it is, I show
the wear and tear of my harrowing experiences. I have turned very
gray - Liddy reminded me of it, only yesterday, by saying that a little
bluing in the rinse-water would make my hair silvery, instead of a
yellowish white. I hate to be reminded of unpleasant things and I
snapped her off.

"No," I said sharply, "I'm not going to use bluing at my time of life,
or starch, either."

Liddy's nerves are gone, she says, since that awful summer, but she has
enough left, goodness knows! And when she begins to go around with a
lump in her throat, all I have to do is to threaten to return to
Sunnyside, and she is frightened into a semblance of
cheerfulness, - from which you may judge that the summer there was
anything but a success.

The newspaper accounts have been so garbled and incomplete - one of them
mentioned me but once, and then only as the tenant at the time the
thing happened - that I feel it my due to tell what I know. Mr.
Jamieson, the detective, said himself he could never have done without
me, although he gave me little enough credit, in print.

I shall have to go back several years - thirteen, to be exact - to start
my story. At that time my brother died, leaving me his two children.
Halsey was eleven then, and Gertrude was seven. All the
responsibilities of maternity were thrust upon me suddenly; to perfect
the profession of motherhood requires precisely as many years as the
child has lived, like the man who started to carry the calf and ended
by walking along with the bull on his shoulders. However, I did the
best I could. When Gertrude got past the hair-ribbon age, and Halsey
asked for a scarf-pin and put on long trousers - and a wonderful help
that was to the darning. - I sent them away to good schools. After
that, my responsibility was chiefly postal, with three months every
summer in which to replenish their wardrobes, look over their lists of
acquaintances, and generally to take my foster-motherhood out of its
nine months' retirement in camphor.

I missed the summers with them when, somewhat later, at boarding-school
and college, the children spent much of their vacations with friends.
Gradually I found that my name signed to a check was even more welcome
than when signed to a letter, though I wrote them at stated intervals.
But when Halsey had finished his electrical course and Gertrude her
boarding-school, and both came home to stay, things were suddenly
changed. The winter Gertrude came out was nothing but a succession of
sitting up late at night to bring her home from things, taking her to
the dressmakers between naps the next day, and discouraging ineligible
youths with either more money than brains, or more brains than money.
Also, I acquired a great many things: to say lingerie for
under-garments, "frocks" and "gowns" instead of dresses, and that
beardless sophomores are not college boys, but college men. Halsey
required less personal supervision, and as they both got their mother's
fortune that winter, my responsibility became purely moral. Halsey
bought a car, of course, and I learned how to tie over my bonnet a gray
baize veil, and, after a time, never to stop to look at the dogs one
has run down. People are apt to be so unpleasant about their dogs.

The additions to my education made me a properly equipped maiden aunt,
and by spring I was quite tractable. So when Halsey suggested camping
in the Adirondacks and Gertrude wanted Bar Harbor, we compromised on a
good country house with links near, within motor distance of town and
telephone distance of the doctor. That was how we went to Sunnyside.

We went out to inspect the property, and it seemed to deserve its name.
Its cheerful appearance gave no indication whatever of anything out of
the ordinary. Only one thing seemed unusual to me: the housekeeper,
who had been left in charge, had moved from the house to the gardener's
lodge, a few days before. As the lodge was far enough away from the
house, it seemed to me that either fire or thieves could complete their
work of destruction undisturbed. The property was an extensive one:
the house on the top of a hill, which sloped away in great stretches of
green lawn and clipped hedges, to the road; and across the valley,
perhaps a couple of miles away, was the Greenwood Club House. Gertrude
and Halsey were infatuated.

"Why, it's everything you want," Halsey said "View, air, good water and
good roads. As for the house, it's big enough for a hospital, if it
has a Queen Anne front and a Mary Anne back," which was ridiculous: it
was pure Elizabethan.

Of course we took the place; it was not my idea of comfort, being much
too large and sufficiently isolated to make the servant question
serious. But I give myself credit for this: whatever has happened
since, I never blamed Halsey and Gertrude for taking me there. And
another thing: if the series of catastrophes there did nothing else, it
taught me one thing - that somehow, somewhere, from perhaps a
half-civilized ancestor who wore a sheepskin garment and trailed his
food or his prey, I have in me the instinct of the chase. Were I a man
I should be a trapper of criminals, trailing them as relentlessly as no
doubt my sheepskin ancestor did his wild boar. But being an unmarried
woman, with the handicap of my sex, my first acquaintance with crime
will probably be my last. Indeed, it came near enough to being my last
acquaintance with anything.

The property was owned by Paul Armstrong, the president of the Traders'
Bank, who at the time we took the house was in the west with his wife
and daughter, and a Doctor Walker, the Armstrong family physician.
Halsey knew Louise Armstrong, - had been rather attentive to her the
winter before, but as Halsey was always attentive to somebody, I had
not thought of it seriously, although she was a charming girl. I knew
of Mr. Armstrong only through his connection with the bank, where the
children's money was largely invested, and through an ugly story about
the son, Arnold Armstrong, who was reported to have forged his father's
name, for a considerable amount, to some bank paper. However, the
story had had no interest for me.

I cleared Halsey and Gertrude away to a house party, and moved out to
Sunnyside the first of May. The roads were bad, but the trees were in
leaf, and there were still tulips in the borders around the house. The
arbutus was fragrant in the woods under the dead leaves, and on the way
from the station, a short mile, while the car stuck in the mud, I found
a bank showered with tiny forget-me-nots. The birds - don't ask me what
kind; they all look alike to me, unless they have a hall mark of some
bright color - the birds were chirping in the hedges, and everything
breathed of peace. Liddy, who was born and bred on a brick pavement,
got a little bit down-spirited when the crickets began to chirp, or
scrape their legs together, or whatever it is they do, at twilight.

The first night passed quietly enough. I have always been grateful for
that one night's peace; it shows what the country might be, under
favorable circumstances. Never after that night did I put my head on
my pillow with any assurance how long it would be there; or on my
shoulders, for that matter.

On the following morning Liddy and Mrs. Ralston, my own housekeeper,
had a difference of opinion, and Mrs. Ralston left on the eleven train.
Just after luncheon, Burke, the butler, was taken unexpectedly with a
pain in his right side, much worse when I was within hearing distance,
and by afternoon he was started cityward. That night the cook's sister
had a baby - the cook, seeing indecision in my face, made it twins on
second thought - and, to be short, by noon the next day the household
staff was down to Liddy and myself. And this in a house with
twenty-two rooms and five baths!

Liddy wanted to go back to the city at once, but the milk-boy said that
Thomas Johnson, the Armstrongs' colored butler, was working as a waiter
at the Greenwood Club, and might come back. I have the usual scruples
about coercing people's servants away, but few of us have any
conscience regarding institutions or corporations - witness the way we
beat railroads and street-car companies when we can - so I called up the
club, and about eight o'clock Thomas Johnson came to see me. Poor

Well, it ended by my engaging Thomas on the spot, at outrageous wages,
and with permission to sleep in the gardener's lodge, empty since the
house was rented. The old man - he was white-haired and a little
stooped, but with an immense idea of his personal dignity - gave me his
reasons hesitatingly.

"I ain't sayin' nothin', Mis' Innes," he said, with his hand on the
door-knob, "but there's been goin's-on here this las' few months as
ain't natchal. 'Tain't one thing an' 'tain't another - it's jest a door
squealin' here, an' a winder closin' there, but when doors an' winders
gets to cuttin' up capers and there's nobody nigh 'em, it's time Thomas
Johnson sleeps somewhar's else."

Liddy, who seemed to be never more than ten feet away from me that
night, and was afraid of her shadow in that great barn of a place,
screamed a little, and turned a yellow-green. But I am not easily

It was entirely in vain; I represented to Thomas that we were alone,
and that he would have to stay in the house that night. He was politely
firm, but he would come over early the next morning, and if I gave him
a key, he would come in time to get some sort of breakfast. I stood on
the huge veranda and watched him shuffle along down the shadowy drive,
with mingled feelings - irritation at his cowardice and thankfulness at
getting him at all. I am not ashamed to say that I double-locked the
hall door when I went in.

"You can lock up the rest of the house and go to bed, Liddy," I said
severely. "You give me the creeps standing there. A woman of your age
ought to have better sense." It usually braces Liddy to mention her
age: she owns to forty - which is absurd. Her mother cooked for my
grandfather, and Liddy must be at least as old as I. But that night
she refused to brace.

"You're not going to ask me to lock up, Miss Rachel!" she quavered.
"Why, there's a dozen French windows in the drawing-room and the
billiard-room wing, and every one opens on a porch. And Mary Anne said
that last night there was a man standing by the stable when she locked
the kitchen door."

"Mary Anne was a fool," I said sternly. "If there had been a man
there, she would have had him in the kitchen and been feeding him what
was left from dinner, inside of an hour, from force of habit. Now
don't be ridiculous. Lock up the house and go to bed. I am going to

But Liddy set her lips tight and stood still.

"I'm not going to bed," she said. "I am going to pack up, and
to-morrow I am going to leave."

"You'll do nothing of the sort," I snapped. Liddy and I often desire
to part company, but never at the same time. "If you are afraid, I
will go with you, but for goodness' sake don't try to hide behind me."

The house was a typical summer residence on an extensive scale.
Wherever possible, on the first floor, the architect had done away with
partitions, using arches and columns instead. The effect was cool and
spacious, but scarcely cozy. As Liddy and I went from one window to
another, our voices echoed back at us uncomfortably. There was plenty
of light - the electric plant down in the village supplied us - but there
were long vistas of polished floor, and mirrors which reflected us from
unexpected corners, until I felt some of Liddy's foolishness
communicate itself to me.

The house was very long, a rectangle in general form, with the main
entrance in the center of the long side. The brick-paved entry opened
into a short hall to the right of which, separated only by a row of
pillars, was a huge living-room. Beyond that was the drawing-room, and
in the end, the billiard-room. Off the billiard-room, in the extreme
right wing, was a den, or card-room, with a small hall opening on the
east veranda, and from there went up a narrow circular staircase.
Halsey had pointed it out with delight.

"Just look, Aunt Rachel," he said with a flourish. "The architect that
put up this joint was wise to a few things. Arnold Armstrong and his
friends could sit here and play cards all night and stumble up to bed
in the early morning, without having the family send in a police call."

Liddy and I got as far as the card-room and turned on all the lights.
I tried the small entry door there, which opened on the veranda, and
examined the windows. Everything was secure, and Liddy, a little less
nervous now, had just pointed out to me the disgracefully dusty
condition of the hard-wood floor, when suddenly the lights went out.
We waited a moment; I think Liddy was stunned with fright, or she would
have screamed. And then I clutched her by the arm and pointed to one
of the windows opening on the porch. The sudden change threw the
window into relief, an oblong of grayish light, and showed us a figure
standing close, peering in. As I looked it darted across the veranda
and out of sight in the darkness.



Liddy's knees seemed to give away under her. Without a sound she sank
down, leaving me staring at the window in petrified amazement. Liddy
began to moan under her breath, and in my excitement I reached down and
shook her.

"Stop it," I whispered. "It's only a woman - maybe a maid of the
Armstrongs'. Get up and help me find the door." She groaned again.
"Very well," I said, "then I'll have to leave you here. I'm going."

She moved at that, and, holding to my sleeve, we felt our way, with
numerous collisions, to the billiard-room, and from there to the
drawing-room. The lights came on then, and, with the long French
windows unshuttered, I had a creepy feeling that each one sheltered a
peering face. In fact, in the light of what happened afterward, I am
pretty certain we were under surveillance during the entire ghostly
evening. We hurried over the rest of the locking-up and got upstairs
as quickly as we could. I left the lights all on, and our footsteps
echoed cavernously. Liddy had a stiff neck the next morning, from
looking back over her shoulder, and she refused to go to bed.

"Let me stay in your dressing-room, Miss Rachel," she begged. "If you
don't, I'll sit in the hall outside the door. I'm not going to be
murdered with my eyes shut."

"If you're going to be murdered," I retorted, "it won't make any
difference whether they are shut or open. But you may stay in the
dressing-room, if you will lie on the couch: when you sleep in a chair
you snore."

She was too far gone to be indignant, but after a while she came to the
door and looked in to where I was composing myself for sleep with
Drummond's Spiritual Life.

"That wasn't a woman, Miss Rachel," she said, with her shoes in her
hand. "It was a man in a long coat."

"What woman was a man?" I discouraged her without looking up, and she
went back to the couch.

It was eleven o'clock when I finally prepared for bed. In spite of my
assumption of indifference, I locked the door into the hall, and
finding the transom did not catch, I put a chair cautiously before the
door - it was not necessary to rouse Liddy - and climbing up put on the
ledge of the transom a small dressing-mirror, so that any movement of
the frame would send it crashing down. Then, secure in my precautions,
I went to bed.

I did not go to sleep at once. Liddy disturbed me just as I was
growing drowsy, by coming in and peering under the bed. She was afraid
to speak, however, because of her previous snubbing, and went back,
stopping in the doorway to sigh dismally.

Somewhere down-stairs a clock with a chime sang away the
hours - eleven-thirty, forty-five, twelve. And then the lights went out
to stay. The Casanova Electric Company shuts up shop and goes home to
bed at midnight: when one has a party, I believe it is customary to fee
the company, which will drink hot coffee and keep awake a couple of
hours longer. But the lights were gone for good that night. Liddy had
gone to sleep, as I knew she would. She was a very unreliable person:
always awake and ready to talk when she wasn't wanted and dozing off to
sleep when she was. I called her once or twice, the only result being
an explosive snore that threatened her very windpipe - then I got up and
lighted a bedroom candle.

My bedroom and dressing room were above the big living-room on the
first floor. On the second floor a long corridor ran the length of the
house, with rooms opening from both sides. In the wings were small
corridors crossing the main one - the plan was simplicity itself. And
just as I got back into bed, I heard a sound from the east wing,
apparently, that made me stop, frozen, with one bedroom slipper half
off, and listen. It was a rattling metallic sound, and it reverberated
along the empty halls like the crash of doom. It was for all the world
as if something heavy, perhaps a piece of steel, had rolled clattering
and jangling down the hard-wood stairs leading to the card-room.

In the silence that followed Liddy stirred and snored again. I was
exasperated: first she kept me awake by silly alarms, then when she was
needed she slept like Joe Jefferson, or Rip, - they are always the same
to me. I went in and aroused her, and I give her credit for being wide
awake the minute I spoke.

"Get up," I said, "if you don't want to be murdered in your bed."

"Where? How?" she yelled vociferously, and jumped up.

"There's somebody in the house," I said. "Get up. We'll have to get
to the telephone."

"Not out in the hall!" she gasped; "Oh, Miss Rachel, not out in the
hall!" trying to hold me back. But I am a large woman and Liddy is
small. We got to the door, somehow, and Liddy held a brass andiron,
which it was all she could do to lift, let alone brain anybody with. I
listened, and, hearing nothing, opened the door a little and peered
into the hall. It was a black void, full of terrible suggestion, and
my candle only emphasized the gloom. Liddy squealed and drew me back
again, and as the door slammed, the mirror I had put on the transom
came down and hit her on the head. That completed our demoralization.
It was some time before I could persuade her she had not been attacked
from behind by a burglar, and when she found the mirror smashed on the
floor she wasn't much better.

"There's going to be a death!" she wailed. "Oh, Miss Rachel, there's
going to be a death!"

"There will be," I said grimly, "if you don't keep quiet, Liddy Allen."

And so we sat there until morning, wondering if the candle would last
until dawn, and arranging what trains we could take back to town. If
we had only stuck to that decision and gone back before it was too late!

The sun came finally, and from my window I watched the trees along the
drive take shadowy form, gradually lose their ghostlike appearance,
become gray and then green. The Greenwood Club showed itself a dab of
white against the hill across the valley, and an early robin or two
hopped around in the dew. Not until the milk-boy and the sun came,
about the same time, did I dare to open the door into the hall and look
around. Everything was as we had left it. Trunks were heaped here and
there, ready for the trunk-room, and through an end window of stained
glass came a streak of red and yellow daylight that was eminently
cheerful. The milk-boy was pounding somewhere below, and the day had

Thomas Johnson came ambling up the drive about half-past six, and we
could hear him clattering around on the lower floor, opening shutters.
I had to take Liddy to her room up-stairs, however, - she was quite sure
she would find something uncanny. In fact, when she did not, having now
the courage of daylight, she was actually disappointed.

Well, we did not go back to town that day.

The discovery of a small picture fallen from the wall of the
drawing-room was quite sufficient to satisfy Liddy that the alarm had
been a false one, but I was anything but convinced. Allowing for my
nerves and the fact that small noises magnify themselves at night,
there was still no possibility that the picture had made the series of
sounds I heard. To prove it, however, I dropped it again. It fell
with a single muffled crash of its wooden frame, and incidentally
ruined itself beyond repair. I justified myself by reflecting that if
the Armstrongs chose to leave pictures in unsafe positions, and to rent
a house with a family ghost, the destruction of property was their
responsibility, not mine.

I warned Liddy not to mention what had happened to anybody, and
telephoned to town for servants. Then after a breakfast which did more
credit to Thomas' heart than his head, I went on a short tour of
investigation. The sounds had come from the east wing, and not without
some qualms I began there. At first I found nothing. Since then I
have developed my powers of observation, but at that time I was a
novice. The small card-room seemed undisturbed. I looked for
footprints, which is, I believe, the conventional thing to do, although
my experience has been that as clues both footprints and thumb-marks
are more useful in fiction than in fact. But the stairs in that wing
offered something.

At the top of the flight had been placed a tall wicker hamper, packed,
with linen that had come from town. It stood at the edge of the top
step, almost barring passage, and on the step below it was a long fresh
scratch. For three steps the scratch was repeated, gradually
diminishing, as if some object had fallen, striking each one. Then for
four steps nothing. On the fifth step below was a round dent in the
hard wood. That was all, and it seemed little enough, except that I
was positive the marks had not been there the day before.

It bore out my theory of the sound, which had been for all the world
like the bumping of a metallic object down a flight of steps. The four
steps had been skipped. I reasoned that an iron bar, for instance,
would do something of the sort, - strike two or three steps, end down,
then turn over, jumping a few stairs, and landing with a thud.

Iron bars, however, do not fall down-stairs in the middle of the night
alone. Coupled with the figure on the veranda the agency by which it
climbed might be assumed. But - and here was the thing that puzzled me
most - the doors were all fastened that morning, the windows unmolested,

1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16

Online LibraryMary Roberts RinehartThe Circular Staircase → online text (page 1 of 16)