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"Thaddeus," said Bessie to her husband as they sat at breakfast one morning, shortly after the royal banquet over which "Grimmins" had presided, "did you hear anything strange in the house last night? Something like a footstep in the hall?"
"No," said Thaddeus. "I slept like a top last night. I didn't hear anything. Did you?"
"I thought so," said Bessie. "About two o'clock I waked up with a start, and while it may have been a sort of waking dream, I was almost certain I heard a rustling sound out in the hall, and immediately after a creaking on the stairs, as though there was somebody there."
"Well, why on earth didn't you wake me, Bess?" returned Thaddeus. "I could easily have decided the matter by getting up and investigating."
"That was why I didn't wake you, Teddy. I'd a great deal rather lose the silver or anything else in the house a burglar might want than have you hit on the head with a sand-club," said Bessie. "You men are too brave."
"Thank you," said Thaddeus, with a smile, as he thought of a certain discussion he had had not long before at the club, in which he and several other brave men had reached the unanimous conclusion that the best thing to do at dead of night, with burglars in the house, was to crawl down under the bedclothes and snore as loudly as possible. "Nevertheless, my dear, you should have told me."
"I will next time," said Bessie.
"Was anything in the house disturbed?" Thaddeus asked.
"No," said Bessie. "Not a thing, as far as I can find out. Mary says that everything was all right when she came down, and the cook apparently found things straight, because she hasn't said anything."
So Thaddeus and Bessie made up their minds that the latter had been dreaming, and that nothing was wrong. Two or three days later, however, they changed their minds on the subject. There was something decidedly wrong, but what it was they could not discover. They were both awakened by a rustling sound in the hallway, outside of their room, and this time there was a creak on the stairs that was unmistakable.
"Don't move, Thaddeus," said Bessie, in a terrified whisper, as Thaddeus made a brave effort to get up and personally investigate. "I wouldn't have you hurt for all the world, and there isn't a thing down-stairs they can take that we can't afford to lose."
Thaddeus felt very much as Bessie did, and it would have pleased him much better to lie quietly where he was than run the risk of an encounter with thieves. He had been brave enough in the company of men to advocate cowardice in an emergency of just this sort, but now that this same course was advocated by his wife, he saw it in a different light. Prudence was possible, cowardice was not. He must get up, and get up he did; but before going out of his room he secured his revolver, which had lain untouched and unloaded in his bureau-drawer for two years, and then advanced cautiously to the head of the stairs and listened--Bessie meanwhile having buried her face in her pillow as a possible means of assuaging her fears. It is singular what a soothing effect a soft feather pillow sometimes has upon the agitated nerves if the nose of the agitated person is thrust far enough into its yielding surface.
"Who is there?" cried Thaddeus, standing at the head of the stairs, his knees all of a shake, but whether from fear or from cold, as an admirer of Thaddeus I prefer not to state.
Apparently the stage-whisper in which this challenge to a possible burglar was uttered rendered it unavailing, for there was no reply; but that there was some one below who could reply Thaddeus was now convinced, for there were sounds in the library--sounds, however, suggestive of undue attention to domestic duties rather than of that which fate has mapped out for house-breakers. The library floor was apparently being swept.
"That's the biggest idiot of a burglar I've ever heard of," said Thaddeus, returning to his room.
"Wh-wha-what, d-dud-dear?" mumbled Mrs. Perkins, burying her ear in the pillow for comfort now that she was compelled to take her nose away so that she might talk intelligibly.
"I say that burglar must be an idiot," repeated Thaddeus. "What do you suppose he is doing now?"
"Wh-wha-what, d-dud-dear?" asked Bessie, apparently unable to think of any formula other than this in speaking, since this was the second time she had used it.
"He is sweeping the library."
"Then you must not go down," cried Bessie, sitting up, and losing her fear for a moment in her anxiety for her husband's safety. "A burglar you might manage, but a maniac--"
"I must go, Bess," said Thaddeus, firmly.
"Then I'm going with you," said Mrs. Perkins, with equal firmness.
"Now, Bess, don't be foolish," returned Thaddeus, his face assuming a graver expression than his wife had ever seen there. "This is my work, and it is none of yours. I positively forbid you to stir out of this room. I shall be very careful, and you need have no concern for me. I shall go down the backstairs and around by the porch, and peep in through the library window first. The moonlight will be sufficient to enable me to see all that is necessary."
"Very well," acquiesced Bessie, "only do be careful."
Thaddeus donned his long bath-robe, put on his slippers, and started to descend. The stairs were so dark that he could with difficulty proceed--and perhaps it was just as well for Thaddeus that they were. If there had been light enough for him to see two great glaring eyes that stared at him through that darkness out from the passageway at the foot of the stairs, upon which he turned his back when he went out upon the porch, it is not unlikely that a very serious climax to his strange experience would have been reached then and there. As it was, he saw nothing, but kept straight ahead, stepped noiselessly out upon the piazza, crept stealthily along in the soft light of the moon, until he reached the library window. There he stopped and listened. All was still within--so still that the beating of his heart seemed like the hammering of a sledge upon an anvil by contrast. Then, raising himself cautiously upon his toes, he peered through the window into the room, the greater part of which was made visible by the wealth of the moon's light streaming into it.
"Humph!" said Thaddeus, after he had directed his searching gaze into every corner. "There isn't anybody there at all. Most incomprehensible thing I ever heard of."
Rising, he walked back to the piazza door, and went thence boldly into the library and lit the gas. His piazza observations were then verified, for the room was devoid of life, save for Thaddeus's own presence; but upon the floor before the hearth was a broom, and there were evidences also that the sweeping sounds he had heard had been caused by no less an instrument than this, for in the corner of the fireplace was a heap of dust, cigar ashes, and scraps of paper, which Thaddeus remembered had been upon the hearth in greater or less quantity when he had turned out the gas to retire a few hours before.
"This is a serious matter," he said to himself. "Something is wrong, and I doubt if there have been burglars in the house; but I can ascertain that without trouble. If the doors and windows are all secure the trouble is internal."
Every accessible door and window on the basement and first floor was examined, and, with the exception of the piazza door, which Thaddeus remembered to have unlocked himself a few minutes before, every lock was fastened. The disturbance had come from within.
"And Bess must never know it," said he; "it would worry her to death." And then came a thought to Thaddeus's mind that almost stopped the beating of his heart. "Unless she has discovered it in my absence," he gasped. In an instant he was mounting the stairs to hasten to Bessie's side, as though some terrible thing were pursuing him.
"Well, what was it, Ted?" she asked, as he entered the room.
Perkins gave a sigh of relief. All was safe enough above-stairs at least.
"Nothing much," said Thaddeus, in a moment. "There is no one below."
"But what could it have been?"
"I haven't the slightest idea," said Thaddeus, "unless it was a stray cat in the house. The sweeping sound may have been caused by a cat scratching its collar--or purring--or--or--something. At any rate, things appear to be all right, my dear, so let's go to sleep."
Thaddeus's assumed confidence in the rightness of everything, rather than his explanations, was convincing to Mrs. Perkins, and in a very short while she was sleeping the sleep of the just and serene; but to Thaddeus's eye there came no more sleep that night, and when morning came he rose unrefreshed. There were two problems confronting him. The first was to solve the mystery of the swept library floor; the second was to do this without arousing his wife's suspicions that anything was wrong. To do the first he deemed it necessary to remain at home that day, which was easy, for Thaddeus was more or less independent of office-work.
"I'm glad you're not going down," said Mrs. Perkins, when he announced his intention of remaining at home. "You will be able to make up for your loss of sleep last night."
"Yes," said Thaddeus. "It's the only thing I can do, I'm so played out."
Breakfast passed off pleasantly in spite of a great drawback--the steak was burned almost to a crisp, and the fried potatoes were like chips of wood.
"Margaret seems to be unfamiliar with the art of cooking this morning," said Thaddeus.
"So it would seem," said Bessie. "This steak is horrible."
"The worst part of it is," said Thaddeus, "she has erred on the wrong side. If the steak were underdone it wouldn't be so bad. Isn't it a pity Edison can't invent a machine to rarefy an overdone steak?"
"That would be a fine idea," smiled Bessie. "And to take a Saratoga chip and make it less like a chip off a granite block."
"I don't mind the potatoes so much," said Thaddeus. "I can break them up in a bowl of milk and secure a gastronomic novelty that, suitably seasoned, isn't at all bad, but the steak is hopeless."
"Maybe she heard that cat last night, and thought it was a burglar, just as we did," Bessie suggested. "I can't account for a breakfast like this in any other way, can you?"
"No," said Thaddeus, shortly, and then he had an idea; and when Thaddeus had an idea he was apt to become extremely reticent.
"Poor Thad!" thought Bessie, as she noted his sudden change of demeanor. "He can't stand loss of sleep."
The morning was spent by Thaddeus in the "noble pastime of snooping," as he called it. The house was searched by him in a casual sort of way from top to bottom for a clew to the mystery, but without avail. Several times he went below to the cellar, ostensibly to inspect his coal supply, really to observe the demeanor of Margaret, the cook. Barring an unusual pallor upon her cheek, she appeared to be as she always had been; but with the waitress it was different. Mary was evidently excited over something, but over what Thaddeus could not, of course, determine at that time. Later in the day, however, the cause of her perturbation came out, and Thaddeus's effort to keep Bessie from anxiety over the occurrence of the night before was rendered unavailing. It was at luncheon. The table was set in a most peculiar fashion. The only china upon it was from an old set which had been discarded a year previous to the time of this story, and Bessie naturally wanted to know why, and the waitress broke down.
"It's--it's all we have, ma'am," said she, her eyes filling with tears.
"All we have?" echoed Mrs. Perkins in surprise. "Why, what do you mean? Where is the other set?"
"I don't know," protested the waitress.
"You don't know?" said Thaddeus, taking the matter in hand. "Why don't you know? Isn't the china a part of your care?"
"Yes, sir," replied the maid, "but--it's gone, sir, and I don't know where."
"When did you miss it?" asked Thaddeus.
"Not until I came to set the table for lunch."
"Was it in its proper place at breakfast-time?"
"I didn't notice, sir. The breakfast dishes were all there, but I don't remember seeing the other plates. I didn't think to look."
"Then it wasn't a cat," said Bessie, sinking back into her chair; "we have been robbed."
"Well, it's the first time on record, I guess, that thieves have ever robbed a man of his china," said Thaddeus, calmly. "Have you looked for the plates?" he added, addressing the waitress.
"No, sir," she replied, simply. "Where could I look?"
"That's so--where?" said Bessie. "There isn't much use looking for dishes when they disappear like that. They aren't like whisk-brooms or button-hooks to be mislaid easily. We have been robbed; that's all there is about that."
"Oh, well," said Thaddeus, "let's eat lunch, and see about it afterwards."
This was quite easy to say, but to eat under the circumstances was too much for either of the young householders. The luncheon left the table practically untouched; and when it was over Thaddeus called his man into the house, wrote a note to the police-station, asking for an officer in citizen's clothes at once, and despatched it by him, with the injunction to let very little grass grow under his feet on the way down to headquarters. He then summoned the waitress into the library.
"Have you said anything to Margaret about the china?" he asked.
"Yes, sir," she replied.
"What did you say?"
"I told her as how wasn't it funny the way it had went, sir."
"And what did she say?"
"Nothing, sir. Only she seemed to think it was funny, because she laughed."
"And what did you say then?"
"Nothing, Mr. Perkins. Margaret and me have very little conversation, because she don't fancy me, and prefers talkin' to herself like."
"H'm!" said Thaddeus. "Talks to herself, does she?"
"All the time, sir," returned the waitress, "and she seems very fond of it, sir. She laughs, and says things, and then laughs again. She does it by the hour."
"How long has this been going on?"
"About a week, sir. I noticed it first last time I had my day out. I didn't get in until nearly eleven o'clock, and I found her sitting at the table havin' supper and talkin' and laughin' like as though there was folks around."
"She was entirely alone, was she?" asked Thaddeus.
"What did you do when you came in?"
"I said 'Hello' to her and sat down opposite to her at the table, where there was a place set, and I told her I was glad she had something to eat and a place set for me, because I hadn't had any supper and I was hungry, sir."
"Did she make any reply?"
"No, sir. She looked at me kind of indignant, and turned out the gas and went up to bed, leaving me in the dark."
Thaddeus's brow grew thoughtful again. It wrinkled into a half- dozen lines as he asked:
"Why didn't you speak of this before?"
"It ain't for me to be telling tales, Mr. Perkins," she said. "All cooks as I've lived with is queer like, and I didn't think any more about it."
"All right," said Thaddeus. "You may go. Only, Mary, don't speak of the plates again to Margaret. Say as little to her as you can, in fact, about anything. If you notice anything queer, report to me at once."
The waitress left the room, and Thaddeus turned to his desk. It was plain from his appearance that light was beginning to be let in on places that up to this point had been more or less dark to him, although, as a matter of fact, he could not in any way account for the mystery of the vanished plates any more than he could for the sweeping of the library in the still hours of the night. He had an idea as to who the culprit was, and what that idea was is plain enough to us, but the question of motive was the great puzzle to him now.
"If she did take them, why should she?" was the problem he was trying to solve; and then, as if his trials were not already great enough for one day, Bessie broke excitedly into the room.
"Thaddeus!" she cried, "there's something wrong in this house; my best table-cloth is missing, our dessert-spoons are gone, and what do you suppose has happened?"
"I don't know--a volcano has developed in the cellar, I suppose," said Thaddeus.
"No," said Bessie, "it isn't as bad as that; but the ice-cream man has telephoned up to know whether we want the cream for dinner or for eleven o'clock, according to the order as he understands it."
"Well," said Thaddeus, "I don't see anything very unusual in an ice- cream man's needing to be told three or four times what is expected of him."
"But I never ordered any cream at all," said Bessie.
"Ah," said Thaddeus, "that's different. Did you tell Partinelli so?"
"I did, and he said he was sure he wasn't mistaken, because he had taken the order himself."
"No, from Margaret."
"Then it's all right," said Thaddeus; "it's a clew that fits very nicely into my theory of our recent household disturbances. If you will wait, I think things will begin to develop very shortly, and then we shall be able to dismiss this indictment against the cat we thought we heard last night."
"Do you think Margaret is dishonest?"
"I don't know," said Thaddeus. "I shouldn't be surprised if she had friends with taking ways; in other words, my dear, I suspect that Margaret is in league with people outside of this house who profit by her mistaken notions as to how to be generous; but I can't prove it yet."
"But what are you going to do?"
"Set a watch. I have sent for a detective," said Thaddeus.
This was too much for Bessie. She was simply overcome, and she sat squarely down upon the arm-chair, which fortunately was immediately behind her. I think that if it had not been, she would have plumped down upon the floor.
"Detective!" she gasped.
"Exactly," said Thaddeus, "and here he comes," he added, as a carriage was driven up to the door and one of the citizen police descended therefrom.
"You would better leave us to talk over this matter together," said Thaddeus, as he hastened to the door. "We shall be able to manage it entirely, and the details might make you nervous."
"I couldn't be more nervous than I am," said Bessie; "but I'll leave you just the same."
Whereupon she went to her room, and Thaddeus, for an hour, was closeted with the detective, to which he detailed the whole story.
"It's one of the two," said the latter, when Thaddeus had finished, "and I agree with you it is more likely to be the cook than the waitress. If it was the waitress, she couldn't have stood your examination as well as you say she did. Perhaps I'd better see her, though, and talk to her myself."
"No, I shouldn't," said Thaddeus "we'll pass you off as a business acquaintance of mine up from town, and you can stay all night and watch developments."
So it was arranged. The detective was introduced into the family as a correspondent of Thaddeus's firm, and he settled down to watch the household. Afternoon and evening went by without developments, and at about eleven o'clock every light in the house was extinguished, and the whole family, from the head of the house to the cook, had apparently retired.
At half-past eleven, however, there were decided signs of life within the walls of Thaddeus's home. The clew was working satisfactorily, and the complete revelation of the mystery was close at hand.
The remainder of the narrative can best be told in the words of the detective:
"When Mr. Perkins sent for me," he said, "and told me all that had happened, I made up my mind that he had a servant in his house for whom the police had been on the lookout for some time. I thought she was a certain Helen Malony, alias Bridget O'Shaughnessy, alias many other names, who was nothing more nor less than the agent of a clever band of thieves who had lifted thousands of dollars of swag in the line of household silver, valuable books, diamonds, and other things from private houses, where she had been employed in various capacities. I could not understand why she should have made 'way with the dishes and Mrs. Perkins's table-cloth, but there's no accounting for tastes of people in that line of business, so I didn't bother much trying to reason that matter out.
"After we'd had dinner and spent the evening in Mr. Perkins's library, the family went to bed, and I pretended to do the same. Instead of really going to bed, I waited my chance and slipped down the stairs into the dining-room, and got under the table. At eleven o'clock the maidservants went up to their rooms, and at quarter-past there wasn't a light burning in the house. I sat there in the dining-room waiting, and just as the clock struck half-past eleven I heard a noise out on the stairs, and in less than half a minute a sulphur match was struck almost over my head under the table, and there stood the cook, her face livid as that of a dead person, and in her hand she held a candle, which she lit with the match. From where I was I could see everything she did, which was not much. She simply gathered up all the table fixings she could, and started down-stairs into the kitchen with 'em. Then I went up to Mr. Perkins's room and called him. He put on his clothes and got out his revolver, when we stole down-stairs together, leaving Mrs. Perkins up-stairs, with her boy's nurse and the waitress to keep her company.
"In a second we were in the laundry, which was as dark as the ace of spades, except where the light from four gas-jets in the kitchen streamed in through the half-open door. Mr. Perkins was for pouncing in on the cook at once, but I was after the rest of the gang as much as I was for the cook, and I persuaded him to wait; and, by thunder, we were paid for waiting. It was the queerest case I ever had.
"That woman--looking for all the world like a creature from some other part of the universe than this earth, her eyes burning like two huge coals, her checks as yellow and clear as so much wax, and her lips blue-white, with a great flaming red tongue sort of laid between them--worked like a slave cleaning the floor, polishing the range, and scrubbing the table. Then she dusted all the chairs, and, producing the missing table-cloth, she laid it snow-white upon the table. In two minutes more the lost china was brought to light out of the flour-barrel, polished off, and set upon the table-- enough for twenty people. The dining-room things I had seen her take she arranged as tastefully as any one could want, and then the finest lay-out in the way of salads, cakes, fruits, and other good things I ever saw was brought in from the cellar. To do all this took a marvellously short time. It was five minutes of midnight went she got through, and then she devoted three minutes to looking after herself. She whisked out a small hand-glass and touched up her hair a bit. Then she washed her hands and pinned some roses on her dress, smiled a smile I can never forget in my life, and opened the kitchen door and went out.
"'She's going to give a supper!' whispered Mr. Perkins.
"'It looks like it,' said I. 'And a mighty fine one at that.'
"In a minute she came back with a pail, in which were four bottles of champagne, in her hand. This she took into the cellar, returning to the kitchen as the clock struck twelve.
"Then the queerest part began," said the detective. "For ten minutes by the clock people were apparently arriving, though, as far as Mr. Perkins or I could see, there wasn't a soul in the kitchen besides Margaret. She was talking away like one possessed. Every once in a while she'd stop in the middle of a sentence and rush to the door and shake hands with some, to us invisible, arrival. Then she'd walk in with them chatting and laughing. Several times she went through the motion of taking people's hats, and finally, if we could judge from her actions, she had 'em all seated at the table. She passed salads all around, helping each guest herself. She sent them fruit and cakes, and then she brought out the wine, which she distributed in the same fashion. She also apologized because some ice-cream she had ordered hadn't come.
"When the invisible guests appeared to have had all they could eat, she began the chatty part again, and never seemed to be disturbed but once, when she requested some one not to sing so loud for fear of disturbing the family.
"Altogether it was the weirdest and rummest thing I'd ever seen in my life. We watched it for one full hour, and then we quit because she did. At one o'clock she apparently bade her guests good-night, after which she gathered up and put away all the eatables there were left--and, of course, everything but what she had eaten herself still remained--cleaned all the dishes, restored them to their proper places in the dining-room pantry, and went back up-stairs to her room.
"Mr. Perkins and I didn't know what to make of it. There wasn't a thing stolen, and it was clear to my mind that I'd done the woman an injustice in connecting her with thieves. She was honest, except in so far as she had ordered all those salads and creams and things from time to time on Mr. Perkins's account, which was easy enough for her to do, since Mrs. Perkins let her do the ordering. There was only one explanation of the matter. She was crazy, and I said so.
"'I fancy you are right,' said Mr. Perkins. 'We'll have to send her to an asylum!'
"'That's the thing,' said I, 'and we'd better do it the first thing in the morning. I wouldn't tackle her to-night, because she's probably excited, and like as not would make a great deal of trouble.'
"And that," said the detective, "was where Mr. Perkins and I made our mistake. Next morning she wasn't to be found, and to this day I haven't heard a word of her. She disappeared just like that," he said, snapping his fingers. "Of course, I don't mean to say that anything supernatural occurred. She simply must have slipped down and out while we were asleep. The front door was wide open in the morning, and a woman answering to her description was seen to leave the Park station, five miles from the Perkins house, on the six- thirty train that morning."
"And you have no idea where she is now?" I asked of the detective, when he had finished.
"No," he answered, "not the slightest. For all I know she may be cooking for you at this very minute."
With which comforting remark he left me.
For my part, I hope the detective was wrong. If I thought there was a possibility of Margaret's ever being queen of my culinary department, I should either give up house-keeping at once and join some simple community where every man is his own chef, or dine forevermore on canned goods.
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