Chapter XXIII. Coming
 

The second floor was empty. A table lay overturned at the top of the stairs, and a broken flower vase was weltering in its own ooze. Part way down Betty stepped on something sharp, that proved to be the Japanese paper knife from the den. I left her on the stairs examining her foot and hurried to the lower floor.

Here everything was in the utmost confusion. Aunt Selina had fainted, and was sitting in a hall chair with her head rolled over sidewise and the poker from the library fireplace across her knees. No one was paying any attention to her. And Jim was holding the front door open, while three of the guards hesitated in the vestibule. The noises continued from the back of the house, and as I stood on the lowest stair Bella came out from the dining room, with her face streaked with soot, and carrying a kettle of hot water.

"Jim," she called wildly. "While Max and Dal are below, you can pour this down from the top. It's boiling."

Jim glanced back over his shoulder. Carry out your own murderous designs," he said. And then, as she started back with it, "Bella, for Heaven's sake," he called, "have you gone stark mad? Put that kettle down."

She did it sulkily and Jim turned to the policeman.

"Yes, I know it was a false alarm before," he explained patiently, "but this is genuine. It is just as I tell you. Yes, Flannigan is in the house somewhere, but he's hiding, I guess. We could manage the thing very well ourselves, but we have no cartridges for our revolvers." Then as the noise from the rear redoubled, "If you don't come in and help, I will telephone for the fire department," he concluded emphatically.

I ran to Aunt Selina and tried to straighten her head. In a moment she opened her eyes, sat up and stared around her. She saw the kettle at once.

"What are you doing with boiling water on the floor?" she said to me, with her returning voice. "Don't you know you will spoil the floor?" The ruling passion was strong with Aunt Selina, as usual.

I could not find out the trouble from any one; people appeared and disappeared, carrying strange articles. Anne with a rope, Dal with his hatchet, Bella and the kettle, but I could get a coherent explanation from no one. When the guards finally decided that Jim was in earnest, and that the rest of us were not crawling out a rear window while he held them at the door, they came in, three of them and two reporters, and Jim led them to the butler's pantry.

Here we found Anne, very white and shaky, with the pantry table and two chairs piled against the door of the kitchen slide, and clutching the chamois-skin bag that held her jewels. She had a bottle of burgundy open beside her, and was pouring herself a glass with shaking hands when we appeared. She was furious at Jim.

"I very nearly fainted," she said hysterically. "I might have been murdered, and no one would have cared. I wish they would stop that chopping, I'm so nervous I could scream."

Jim took the Burgundy from her with one hand and pointed the police to the barricaded door with the other.

"That is the door to the dumb-waiter shaft," he said. "The lower one is fastened on the inside, in some manner. The noises commenced about eleven o'clock, while Mr. Brown was on guard. There were scraping sounds first, and later the sound of a falling body. He roused Mr. Reed and myself, but when we examined the shaft everything was quiet, and dark. We tried lowering a candle on a string, but--it was extinguished from below."

The reporters were busily removing the table and chairs from the door.

"If you have a rope handy," one of them said, "I will go down the shaft."

(Dal says that all reporters should have been policemen, and that all policemen are natural newsgatherers.)

"The cage appears to be stuck, half-way between the floors," Jim said. "They are cutting through the door in the kitchen below."

They opened the door then and cautiously peered down, but there was nothing to be seen. I touched Jim gingerly on the arm.

"Is it--is it Flannigan,:" I asked, "shut in there?"

"No--yes--I don't know," he returned absently. "Run along and don't bother, Kit. He may take to shooting any minute."

Anne and I went out then and shut the door, and went into the dining room and sat on our feet, for of course the bullets might come up through the floor. Aunt Selina joined us there, and Bella, and the Mercer girls, and we sat around and talked in whispers, and Leila Mercer told of the time her grandfather had had a struggle with an escaped lunatic.

In the midst of the excitement Tom appeared in a bathrobe, looking very pale, with a bandage around his head, and the nurse at his heels threatening to leave and carrying a bottle of medicine and a spoon. He went immediately to the pantry, and soon we could hear him giving orders and the rest hurrying around to obey them. The hammering ceased, and the silence was even worse. It was more suggestive.

In about fifteen minutes there was a thud, as if the cage had fallen, and the sound of feet rushing down the cellar stairs. Then there were groans and loud oaths, and everybody talking at once, below, and the sound of a struggle. In the dining room we all sat bent forward, with straining ears and quickened breath, until we distinctly heard someone laugh. Then we knew that, whatever it was, it was over, and nobody was killed.

The sounds came closer, were coming up the stairs and into the pantry. Then the door swung open, and Tom and a policeman appeared in the doorway, with the others crowding behind. Between them they supported a grimy, unshaven object, covered with whitewash from the wall of the shaft, an object that had its hands fastened together with handcuffs, and that leered at us with a pair of the most villainously crossed eyes I have ever seen.

None of us had ever seen him before,

"Mr. Lawrence McGuirk, better known as Tubby,'" Tom said cheerfully. "A celebrity in his particular line, which is second-story man and all-round rascal. A victim of the quarantine, like ourselves."

"We've missed him for a week," one of the guards said with a grin. "We've been real anxious about you, Tubby. Ain't a week goes by, when you're in health, that we don't hear something of you."

Mr. McGuirk muttered something under his breath, and the men chuckled.

"It seems," Tom said, interpreting, "that he doesn't like us much. He doesn't like the food, and he doesn't like the beds. He says just when he got a good place fixed up in the coal cellar, Flannigan found it, and is asleep there now, this minute."

Aunt Selina rose suddenly and cleared her throat.

"Am I to understand," she asked severely, "that from now on we will have to add two newspaper reporters, three policemen and a burglar to the occupants of this quarantined house? Because, if that is the case, I absolutely refuse to feed them."

But one of the reporters stepped forward and bowed ceremoniously.

"Madam," he said, "I thank you for your kind invitation, but--it will be impossible for us to accept. I had intended to break the good news earlier, but this little game of burglar-in-a-corner prevented me. The fact is, your Jap has been discovered to have nothing more serious than chicken-pox, and--if you will forgive a poultry yard joke, there is no longer any necessity for your being cooped up."

Then he retired, quite pleased with himself.

One would have thought we had exhausted our capacity for emotion, but Jim said a joyful emotion was so new that we hardly knew how to receive it. Every one shook hands with every one else, and even the nurse shared in the excitement and gave Jim the medicine she had prepared for Tom.

Then we all sat down and had some champagne, and while they were waiting for the police wagon, they gave some to poor McGuirk. He was still quite shaken from his experience when the dumb-waiter stuck. The wine cheered him a little, and he told his story, in a voice that was creaky from disuse, while Tom held my hand under the table.

He had had a dreadful week, he said; he spent his days in a closet in one of the maids' rooms--the one where we had put Jim. It was Jim waking out of a nap and declaring that the closet door had moved by itself and that something had crawled under his bed and out of the door, that had roused the suspicions of the men in the house--and he slept at night on the coal in the cellar. He was actually tearful when he rubbed his hand over his scrubby chin, and said he hadn't had a shave for a week. He took somebody's razor, he said, but he couldn't get hold of a portable mirror, and every time he lathered up and stood in front of the glass in the dining room sideboard, some one came and he had had to run and hide. He told, too, of his attempts to escape, of the board on the roof, of the home-made rope, and the hole in the cellar, and he spoke feelingly of the pearl collar and the struggle he had made to hide it. He said that for three days it was concealed in the pocket of Jim's old smoking coat in the studio.

We were all rather sorry for him, but if we had made him uncomfortable, think of what he had done to us. And for him to tell, as he did later in court, that if that was high society he would rather be a burglar, and that we starved him, and that the women had to dress each other because they had no lady's maids, and that the whole lot of us were in love with one man, it was downright malicious.

The wagon came for him just as he finished his story, and we all went to the door. In the vestibule Aunt Selina suddenly remembered something, and she stepped forward and caught the poor fellow by the arm.

"Young man," she said grimly. "I'll thank you to return what you took from me last Tuesday night."

McGuirk stared, then shuddered and turned suddenly pale.

"Good Lord!" he ejaculated. "On the stairs to the roof! You?"

They led him away then, quite broken, with Aunt Selina staring after him. She never did understand. I could have explained, but it was too awful.

On the steps McGuirk turned and took a farewell glance at us. Then he waved his hand to the policemen and reporters who had gathered around.

"Goodby, fellows," he called feebly. "I ain't sorry, I ain't. Jail'll be a paradise after this."

And then we went to pack our trunks.

Note from Max which came the next day with its enclosure.

My Dear Kit--The enclosed trunk tag was used on my trunk, evidently by mistake. Higgins discovered it when he was unpacking and returned it to me under the misapprehension that I had written it. I wish I had. I suppose there must be something attractive about a fellow who has the courage to write a love letter on the back of a trunk tag, and who doesn't give a tinker's damn who finds it. But for my peace of mind, ask him not to leave another one around where I will come across it. Max.

Written on the back of the trunk tag.

Don't you know that I won't see you until tomorrow? For Heaven's sake, get away from this crowd and come into the den. If you don't I will kiss you before everybody. Are you coming? T.

Written below.

No indeed. K.

This was scratched out and beneath.

Coming.