Liberty, November 27, 1926
“HOW about a sand—” Hunstanton suggested.
“You were present at that appalling scene this afternoon,” said Mrs. Waddington, “so there is no need to describe it to you. You will not have forgotten how that girl came into the room and denounced George Finch. You recall all she said.”
“I do indeed. It was the real ginger.”
“But, unfortunately, untrue.”
“It was a ruse. She was a thief. She did it in order to steal a pearl necklace belonging to my stepdaughter, which was among the wedding presents.”
“No, really? I say! Fancy that!”
“Unfortunately, there seems to be no doubt of it. And so, instead of being appalled at George Finch’s moral turpitude, my stepdaughter looks upon him as a much injured man and wishes the marriage to take place as arranged. Are you listening?”
Lord Hunstanton started. There had come frolicking toward him from the dining-room the smell of good food, and his attention had wandered.
“Sorry,” he said. “Thinking of something else for the moment. You were saying that Miss Waddington was appalled at George Finch’s moral turpitude.”
“I was saying precisely the reverse. She is not appalled.”
“No? Very broad-minded, these modern girls,” said Lord Hunstanton, turning away and trying not to inhale.
“But,” proceeded Mrs. Waddington, “I am convinced that, although in this particular matter this Finch may be blameless, his morals, if we only knew it, are as degraded as those of all other artists. I feel as certain as I am that I am sitting here that George Finch is a loose fish.”
“Fish!” moaned Lord Hunstanton.
“And I have made up my mind that there is only one thing to do if I am to expose the man in his true colors, and that is to go to the den which he maintains near Washington Square and question his manservant as to his private life. We will start at once.”
“But, I say, you don’t need me?”
“Certainly I need you. Do you imagine that I propose to call at this man’s lair alone?”
Across the landing at the top of the stairs there passed a waiter bearing a tray with a smoking dish upon it.
Lord Hunstanton followed him with haggard eyes, and, having watched him enter the restaurant, wished he had not done so; for there by one of the tables stood another waiter, carving for a party of four what looked like the roast chicken of a lifetime—one of those roast chickens you tell your grandchildren about. His lordship uttered a faint, whinnying sound and clenched his hands.
“Come!” said Mrs. Waddington. “Let us go.”
The thought of defying this overpowering woman did not enter Lord Hunstanton’s mind. Nobody ever defied Mrs. Waddington. And so, some little time later, a cab drew up outside the Sheridan Apartment House and two figures proceeded to climb the stairs—for it was one of the pleasing features of the Sheridan that the elevator was practically always out of order.
ARRIVED at the top floor, Lord Hunstanton rang the bell. The sound echoed faintly within.
“Seems to be out,” said his lordship, having tried again.
“We will wait.”
“On the roof.”
“Until this Finch’s manservant returns.”
“But he may be hours.”
“Then we will wait hours.”
Lord Hunstanton’s aching interior urged him to protest. “Be brave!” it gurgled. And, while still not sufficiently courageous to defy, he nerved himself to make a suggestion.
“How would it be,” he said, “if I just pushed round the corner somewhere and snatched a bite? I mean to say, you never know whether this manservant fellow won’t turn nasty. Sticking up for the young master, I mean to say. In which case, I should be twice the man with a bit of food inside me. With a dish of beans or something nicely poised within, I could do my bit.”
Mrs. Waddington regarded him scornfully.
“Very well. But kindly return as soon as possible.”
“Oh, I will, by Jove! Just want to pack away a hasty prune. I’ll be back before you know I’ve gone.”
“You will find me on the roof.”
“On the roof. Right! Well, tinkerty-tonk for the moment,” said his lordship, and pattered off down the stairs.
Mrs. Waddington mounted another flight, and came out under the broad canopy of heaven.
She found herself with a choice of views—the glittering city that stretched away below and the dark windows of the Finch lair. She chose the windows and watched them narrowly.
She had been watching them for some considerable time when suddenly the middle ones, the French windows, lit up. And, as she stepped forward, her rosiest dreams were realized.
Across the yellow blind there passed a shadow which was plainly that of a young female person—no doubt of a grade of morality so low that in any other place but Washington Square it would have provoked the raised eyebrow and the sharp intake of the breath.
Mrs. Waddington advanced to the window and tapped upon it imperiously.
There was a startled exclamation from within. The blind shot up, revealing a stoutish man in sober black. The next moment the window was opened, and the stoutish man popped his head out.
“Who’s there?” he asked.
“I am,” said Mrs. Waddington.
“Jiminy Christmas!” said the stoutish man.
* * *
FREDERICK MULLETT had been in a nervous frame of mind all the afternoon—more nervous even than that of the ordinary bridegroom on his wedding day. For he had been deeply exercised for many hours past by the problem of what his bride had been up to that afternoon.
Any bridegroom would be upset if his newly made wife left him immediately after the ceremony, on the plea that she had important business to attend to and would see him later. It was not so much the fact that he had planned a golden afternoon of revelry, including a visit to Coney Island, and had had to forgo it, that disturbed him. That the delightful program should have been canceled was, of course, a disappointment; but what really caused him mental anguish was the speculation as to what from the viewpoint of a girl like Fanny constituted important business. Her reticence on this vital question had spoiled his whole day.
He was, in short, in exactly the frame of mind when a man who has married a pickpocket and has watched her go off on important business does not want to hear people tapping sharply on windows. If a mouse had crossed the floor at that moment, Frederick Mullett would have suspected it of being a detective in disguise.
He peered at Mrs. Waddington with cold horror.
“What do you want?”
“I wish to see and question the young woman who is in this apartment.”
Mullett’s mouth felt dry. A shiver ran down his spine.
“What young woman?”
“There isn’t any young woman here.”
“There isn’t, I tell you.”
Mrs. Waddington’s direct mind was impatient of this attempt to deceive.
“I will make it worth your while to tell the truth,” she said.
Mullett recoiled. The thought that he was being asked to sell his bride on the very day of their wedding revolted him. Not that he would have sold her at any time, of course, but being asked to do so on this day of all days made the thing seem, as Officer Garroway would have said, so peculiarly stark and poignant.
With a frenzied gesture of abhorrence, he slammed the window. He switched off the light, and with agonized bounds reached the kitchen, where Mrs. Mullett was standing at the range, stirring a Welsh rabbit.
“Hello, sweetie!” cooed his bride, looking up. “I’m just fixing the rabbit. The soup’s ready.”
“And we’re in it,” said Mullett hollowly.
“Why, whatever do you mean?”
“Fanny, where did you go this afternoon?”
“Just down into the country, dearie. I told you.”
“Yes, but you didn’t tell me what you did there.”
“It’s a secret for the present, darling. I want to keep it as a surprise. It’s something to do with some money that’s coming to us.”
Mullett eyed her wanly.
“Fanny, were you doing a job this afternoon down there in the country?”
“Why, Freddy Mullett! What an idea!”
“Then what are the bulls here for?”
“There’s a female dick out on the roof right now. And she’s asking for you.”
Fanny stared, round-eyed.
“Asking for me? You’re crazy.”
“She said, ‘I wish to see and question the young woman who is in this apartment.’ Those were her very words.”
“I’ll take a peek at her.”
“Don’t let her see you,” begged Mullett, alarmed.
“Is it likely!”
Fanny walked composedly to the sitting-room. She felt no concern. The most comforting possession in the world is, of course, a quiet conscience; but almost as good is the knowledge that you have left no tracks behind you. Fanny was positive that, on taking her departure from the Waddington home at Hempstead that afternoon, she had made a nice, clean getaway and could not possibly have been followed to this place by even the most astute of female dicks. Mullett, she was convinced, must have misunderstood this woman, whoever she might be.
She drew the blind aside an inch and looked cautiously out. The intruder was standing so close to the window that it was possible, even in the uncertain light, to get an adequate view of her; and what she saw reassured Fanny. She returned to her anxious husband with words of cheer.
“That’s no dick,” she said. “I can tell ’em a mile off.”
“Then who is she?”
“You’d better ask her. Listen; you go and kid her along and I’ll sneak out. Then we can meet somewhere when you’re through. It’s a shame having to waste this nice supper, but we’ll go to a restaurant. Listen; I’ll be waiting for you at the Astor.”
“But if she’s not a dick, why not stay where we are?”
“YOU don’t want people knowing that I’m here, do you? Suppose your boss heard it, what would he say?”
“That’s true. All right, then. Wait for me at the Astor. Though it’s kind of a swell place, isn’t it?”
“Well, don’t you want a swell place to dine at on your wedding night?”
“I’m always right,” said Fanny, giving her husband’s cheek a loving pinch. “That’s the first thing you’ve got to get into your head, now you’re a married man.”
Mullett returned to the sitting-room and switched on the light again. He felt fortified. He opened the window with something of an air.
“You were saying, ma’am?”
Mrs. Waddington was annoyed.
“What do you mean by going away and slamming the window in my face?”
“Had to see to something in the kitchen, ma’am. Is there anything I can do for you?”
“There is. I wish to know who the young woman is who is in the apartment.”
“No young woman in this apartment, ma’am.”
Mrs. Waddington began to feel that she was approaching this matter from the wrong angle. She dipped in her bag.
“Here is a ten-dollar bill.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
“I should like to ask you a few questions.”
“Very good, ma’am.”
“And I shall be obliged if you will answer me truthfully. How long have you been in Mr. Finch’s employment?”
“About a couple of months, ma’am.”
“And what is your opinion of Mr. Finch’s morals?”
“Nonsense. Don’t attempt to deceive me. Is it not a fact that during your term of employment you have frequently admitted female visitors to this apartment?‘
“Only models, ma’am.”
“Mr. Finch is an artist.”
“I am aware of it,” said Mrs. Waddington, with a shiver. “So you persist in your statement that Mr. Finch’s mode of life is not irregular?”
“Then,” said Mrs. Waddington, twitching the ten-dollar bill neatly from his grasp, “it may interest you to know that I do not believe you.”
“Here, hey!” cried Mullett, deeply moved. “You gave me that!”
“And I have taken it back,” said Mrs. Waddington, replacing the bill in her bag. “You do not deserve it.”
Mullett slammed the window, outraged in his finest feelings.
For some moments he stood, fermenting. Then, seething with justifiable indignation, he switched off the light once more and went out.
He had reached the foot of the stairs when he heard his name spoken, and, turning, was aware of a long policeman regarding him with a mild friendliness.
“Surely it is Mr. Mullett?” said the policeman.
“Hullo?” said Mullett, somewhat embarrassed. Habit is not easily overcome, and there had been a time when the mere sight of a policeman had made him tremble.
“You remember me? My name is Garroway. We met some weeks ago.”
“Why, sure,” said Mullett, relieved. “You’re the poet.”
“It is very nice of you to say so,” said Officer Garroway, simpering a little. “I am about to call at Mr. Beamish’s apartment now with my latest effort. And how has the world been using you, Mr. Mullett?”
“All right. Everything hunky-dory with you?”
“Completely. Well, I must not detain you. No doubt you are on your way to some important appointment.”
“That’s right. Say!” said Mullett, suddenly inspired. “Are you on duty?”
“Not for the moment.”
“But you wouldn’t object to making a cop?”
“By no means. I am always willing—and, indeed, anxious—to make a cop.”
“Well, there was a suspicious character on our roof just now. A woman. I didn’t like the look of her.”
“Indeed? This is extremely interesting.”
“She was snooping around, looking in at our windows, and I don’t think she’s up to any good.”
“I will attend to the matter immediately.”
“If I was you, I’d pinch her on suspicion. So long.”
“Good night, Mr. Mullett.”
Mullett, with the elation that comes from a good deed done, moved buoyantly off to his tryst. Officer Garroway, swinging his night stick, climbed thoughtfully up the stairs.
* * *
MRS. WADDINGTON, meanwhile, had not been content with a policy of watchful waiting. She was convinced that the shadow she had seen on the blind had been that of a young woman; and instinct told her that, in an apartment near Washington Square, where there was a young woman present, events were not likely to remain static for any considerable length of time.
No doubt the man she had questioned would have warned the young woman of her visit, and by now she had probably gone away. But she would return. And George Finch would return. It was simply a question of exercising patience.
But she must leave the roof. The roof was the first place the guilty pair would examine. If they found it empty their fears would be lulled. The strategic move indicated was to go downstairs and patrol the street. There she could stay until things began to happen again.
She was about to move away, and had already taken a step toward the door that led to the stairs, when a slight creaking noise attracted her attention, and she was surprised to observe the window swinging open.
It opened some six inches; then, caught by a gust of wind, it closed again. A moment later there was another creak and it moved outward once more. Apparently, in the agony of losing his ten dollars, the man had omitted to fasten the catch.
Mrs. Waddington stopped. She drew a step nearer. She grasped the handle and, pulling the window wide open, peered into the dark room. It seemed to be empty; but Mrs. Waddington was a cautious woman.
“My man!” she called.
“I wish to speak to you.”
More silence. Mrs. Waddington applied the supreme test:
“I want to return that ten-dollar bill to you.”
STILL silence. Mrs. Waddington was convinced. She crossed the threshold and started to feel around the walls for the switch. And, as she did so, something came to her through the throbbing darkness.
It was the smell of soup.
Mrs. Waddington stiffened like a pointing dog. Although when sitting in the vestibule of the Ritz-Carlton with Lord Hunstanton she had apparently been impervious to the fragrant scents that had so deeply affected his lordship, she was human. It was long past the hour at which she usually dined, and in the matter of sustenance she was a woman of regular habits. Already, while standing on the roof, she had been aware of certain pangs, and now she realized beyond all possibility of doubt that she was hungry. She quivered from head to foot. The smell of that soup seemed to call to the depths of her being like the voice of an old, old love.
Moving forward like one in a trance, she groped along the wall, and found herself in a doorway that appeared to lead into a passage. Here, away from the window, the darkness was blacker than ever; but, if she could not see, she could smell, and she needed no other guide than her nose.
She walked along the passage, sniffing, and, coming to another open door, found the scent so powerful that she almost reeled. It had become a composite odor now, with a strong Welsh rabbit motif playing through it. Mrs. Waddington felt for the switch, pressed it, and saw that she was in a kitchen. And there, simmering on the range, was a saucepan.
There are moments when even the most single-minded of women will allow herself to be distracted from the main object of her thoughts. Mrs. Waddington had reached the stage where soup seemed to her the most important thing in life. She removed the lid from the saucepan, and a meaty steaminess touched her like a kiss.
She drew a deep breath. She poured some of the soup into a plate. She found a spoon. She found bread. She found salt. She found pepper.
And it was while she was lovingly sprinkling the pepper that a voice spoke behind her.
“You’re pinched!” said the voice.
* * *
THERE were not many things that could have diverted Mrs. Waddington’s attention at that moment from the plate before her. An earthquake might have done it. So might the explosion of a bomb. This voice accomplished it instantaneously. She spun round with a sharp scream, her heart feeling as if it were performing one of those eccentric South Seas dances whose popularity she had always deplored.
A policeman was standing in the doorway.
“Arrested, I should have said,” added the policeman, with a touch of apology. He seemed distressed because in the first excitement of this encounter, he had failed to achieve the Word Beautiful.
Mrs. Waddington was not often at a loss for speech, but she could find none now. She stood still, breathing quickly.
“I must ask you, if you will be so good,” said the policeman courteously, “to come along with me. And it will avoid a great deal of unpleasantness if you come quietly.”
The torpor consequent upon the disintegrating shock of this meeting began to leave Mrs. Waddington.
“I can explain!” she cried.
“You will have every opportunity of doing so at the station house,” said the policeman. “In your own interests, I should advise you, until then, to say as little as possible. For I must warn you that, in pursuance of my duty, I shall take a memorandum of any statement which you may make. See—I have my notebook and pencil here in readiness.”
“I was doing no harm.”
“That is for the judge to decide. I need scarcely point out that your presence in this apartment is, to say the least, equivocal. You came in through the window—an action which constitutes breaking and entering; and, furthermore, I find you in the act of purloining the property of the owner of the apartment—to wit, soup. I am afraid I must ask you to accompany me.”
Mrs. Waddington started to clasp her hands in a desperate appeal; and became aware that some obstacle prevented this gesture.
It was suddenly borne in upon her that she was still holding the pepper pot. And a sudden thought came like a full-blown rose, flushing her brow.
“Ha!” she exclaimed.
“I beg your pardon?” said the policeman.
Everything in this world, every little experience that we undergo or even merely read about, is intended, philosophers tell us, to teach us something, to help to equip us for the battle of life.
IT was not, according to this theory, mere accident, therefore, that a few days before had caused Mrs. Waddington to read and subconsciously memorize the report that had appeared in an evening paper of a burglary at the residence of a prominent citizen of West Orange, New Jersey. The story had been sent to help her.
Of the less important details of this affair she retained no recollection; but the one salient point in connection with it came back to her now with all the force of an inspiration from above. Cornered by an indignant householder, she recalled, the West Orange burglar had made his escape by the simple means of throwing about two ounces of pepper in the householder’s face.
What this humble, probably uneducated, man had been able to achieve was surely not beyond the powers of a woman like herself—the honorary president of twenty-three charitable societies, and a well known lecturer on the upbringing of infants. Turning coyly sideways, she began to unscrew the top of the pot.
“You will understand,” said the policeman deprecatingly, “that this is extremely unpleasant for me——”
He was perfectly right. Unpleasant, he realized a moment later, was the exact adjective that the most punctilious stylist would have chosen. For suddenly the universe seemed to dissolve in one great cloudburst of pepper. Pepper tickled his mouth; pepper filled his nose; pepper strayed into his eyes; pepper caressed his Adam’s apple. For an instant he writhed blindly; then, clutching at the table for support, he began to sneeze.
With the sound of those Titanic sneezes ringing in her ears, Mrs. Waddington bumped her way through the darkness till she came to the open window; then, galloping across the roof, she hurled herself down the fire escape.
* * *
THE only thing in the nature of a policy or plan of action that Mrs. Waddington had had when making for the fire escape had been a general desire to be as far away as possible from the representative of the law when he stopped sneezing and opened his eyes and began to look around for his assailant. But, as her feet touched the first rungs, more definite schemes began to shape themselves.
Fire escapes, she knew, led, if followed far enough, to the ground; and she decided to climb to safety down this one. It was only when she had descended as far as the ninth floor that, glancing below, she discovered this particular fire escape terminated, not, as she had supposed, in some back alley, but in the gayly lighted outdoor premises of a restaurant, half the tables of which were already filled.
This sight gave her pause. In fact, to be accurate, it froze her stiff. Nor was her agitation without reason. Those of the readers of this chronicle who have ever thrown pepper in a policeman’s face and skimmed away down a fire escape, are aware that fire escapes, considered as a refuge, have the defect of being uncomfortably exposed to view.
At any moment, felt Mrs. Waddington, the policeman might come to the edge of the roof and look down; and to deceive him into supposing that she was merely an ash can or a milk bottle was, she knew, beyond her histrionic powers.
THE instinct for self-preservation not only sharpens the wits, but at the same time dulls the moral sensibility. It was so with Mrs. Waddington now. Her quickened intelligence perceived in a flash that if she climbed in through the window outside which she was now standing, she would be safe from scrutiny; and her blunted moral sense refused to consider the fact that such an action—amounting as it did to what her policeman playmate had called breaking and entering—would be most reprehensible. Besides, she had broken and entered one apartment already that night, and the appetite grows by what it feeds on.
Some ten seconds later, therefore, Mrs. Waddington was once more groping through the darkness of somebody else’s dwelling place.
A well defined scent of grease, damp towels, and old cabbages told her that the room through which she was creeping was a kitchen; but the blackness was so uniform that she could see nothing of her surroundings. The only thing she was able to say definitely of this kitchen at the moment was that it contained a broom. This she knew because she had just stepped on the end of it and the handle had shot up and struck her very painfully on the forehead.
“Ouch!” cried Mrs. Waddington.
She had not intended to express any verbal comment on the incident, for those who creep at night through other people’s kitchens must be silent and wary; but the sudden agony was so keen that she could not refrain from comment. And, to her horror, she found that the cry had been heard. There came through the darkness a curious noise like the drawing of a cork, and then somebody spoke.
“WHO are you?” asked an unpleasant, guttural voice.
Mrs. Waddington stopped, paralyzed. She would not, in the circumstances, have heard with any real pleasure the most musical of speech; but a soft, sympathetic utterance would undoubtedly have afflicted her with a shade less of anguish and alarm. This voice was the voice of one without human pity; a grating, malevolent voice; a voice that set Mrs. Waddington thinking quiveringly in headlines:
SOCIETY LEADER FOUND SLAIN IN KITCHEN
“Who are you?”
BODY DISMEMBERED BENEATH SINK
“Who are you?”
SEVERED HEAD LEADS TRACKERS TO DEATH SPOT
“Who are you?”
Mrs. Waddington gulped.
“I am Mrs. Sigsbee H. Waddington,” she faltered. And it would have amazed Sigsbee H., had he heard her, to discover that it was possible for her to speak with such a winning meekness.
“Who are you?”
“Mrs. Sigsbee H. Waddington, of East Seventy-ninth Street and Hempstead, Long Island. I must apologize for the apparent strangeness of my conduct in——”
“Who are you?”
Annoyance began to compete with Mrs. Waddington’s terror. She raised her voice and answered with a certain stiffness:
“I have already informed you that I am Mrs. Sigsbee H. Waddington——”
“Have a nut,” said the voice, changing the subject.
Mrs. Waddington’s teeth came together with a sharp click. All the other emotions that had been afflicting her passed abruptly away, to be succeeded by a cold fury. Few things are more mortifying to a proud woman than the discovery that she has been wasting her time being respectful to a parrot; and only her inability to locate the bird in the surrounding blackness prevented a rather unpleasant brawl.
“Brrh!” she exclaimed, expressing her indignation as effectively as was possible by mere speech; and, ignoring the other’s request—in the circumstances, ill timed and tasteless—that she should stop and scratch its head, she pushed forward in search of the door.
Reaction had left Mrs. Waddington almost calm. The trepidation of a few minutes earlier had gone, and she advanced now in a brisk and businesslike way.
She found the door and opened it.
THERE was more darkness beyond, but an uncurtained window gave sufficient light for her to see that she was in a sitting-room.
Across one corner of this room was a high-backed chesterfield. In another corner stood a pedestal desk.
And about the soft carpet there were distributed easy chairs in any one of which Mrs. Waddington, had the conditions been different, would have been delighted to sit and rest.
But, though she had been on her feet some considerable time now, and was not a woman who enjoyed standing, prudence warned her that the temptation to relax must be resisted.
She turned to the door that presumably led into the front hall and thence to the stairs and safety, and had just opened it when there came the click of a turning key.
Climax follows upon climax in the next screaming installment of the funniest serial of the year. Before Mrs. Waddington finishes her sleuthing task, she is likely to learn more of the perils of Greenwich Village than she ever dreamed of in her sheltered home.
Crooked work is abroad on this eventful night, and some of it will soon come to a head. Watch for next week’s LIBERTY.
Editorial error corrected above:
Magazine added a comma after “what” in “what, from the viewpoint of a girl like Fanny constituted important business.” No other version has this, and without a balancing comma after “Fanny” it is ungrammatical, so it has been removed here.