Chapter II: Corpus Delicti
The cat was pure white and plumy, and Persian. Out of its wonderful sky-blue eyes it looked serenely at Edgerton; and the young man gazed back, astonished. Then, suddenly, he caught a glimpse of the bedroom beyond, and froze to a statue.
The object that appeared to petrify him lay flung across his bed—a trailing garment of cobweb lace touched here and there with rose-tinted ribbons.
For a moment he stared at it hypnotized; then his eyes shifted wildly to his dresser, which seemed to be covered with somebody else's toilet silver and crystal, and—what was that row of cunning little commercial curls!—that chair heaped with fluffy stuffs, lacy, intimate things, faintly fragrant!
With a violent shiver he turned his startled eyes toward the parted tapestry gently stirring in the unfelt summer wind.
From where he stood he could see into the great studio beyond. A small, flowered silk slipper lay near the threshold, high of heel, impertinent, fascinating; beyond, on the corner of a table stood a bowl full of peonies, ivory, pink, and salmon-tinted; and their perfume filled the place.
Somebody had rolled up the studio shades. Sunshine turned the great square window to a sheet of dazzling glory, and against it, picked out in delicate silhouette, a magic shadow was moving—a dainty, unreal shape, exquisite as a tinted phantom stealing through a fairy tale of Old Japan.
Suddenly the figure turned its head and saw him, and stood motionless against the flare of light—a young girl, very slim in her shimmering vestments of blossom-sprayed silk.
The next moment he walked straight into the studio.
Neither spoke. She examined him out of wide and prettily shaped eyes; he inspected her with amazed intentness. Everything about her seemed so unreal, so subtly fragrant—the pink peonies like fluffy powder-puffs above each little close-set ear, the rose-tinted silhouette of her, the flushed cheeks, soft bare arms, the silk-sheathed feet shod in tiny straw sandals tied with vermilion cords.
"Who are you?" she asked; and her voice seemed to him as charmingly unreal as the rest of the Japanese fairy tale that held him enthralled.
"Will you please go out again at once!" she said, and he woke up partly.
"This—this is perfectly incredible," he said slowly.
"It is, indeed," she said, placing a snowy finger upon an electric button and retaining it there.
He regarded her without comprehension, muttering:
"I—I simply cannot realize it—that cat—those g-garments—you——"
"There is another thing you don't realize," she said with heightened color, "that I am steadily ringing the janitor's bell—and the janitor is large and violent and Irish, and he is probably halfway upstairs by this time——"
"Do you take me for a malefactor?" he asked, astounded.
"I am not afraid of you in the least," she retorted, still keeping her finger on the bell.
"Afraid of me? Of course you are not."
"I am not! Although your two suit cases are probably packed with the silver from my dressing stand."
"Then—then—what have you put into your suit cases? What are you doing in this apartment? And will you please leave your suit cases and escape immediately?"
Her voice betrayed a little unsteadiness now, and Edgerton said:
"Please don't be frightened if I seem to remain——"
"You are remaining!"
"Of course, I am." He forced an embarrassed smile. "I've got to; I haven't any other place to go. There are all kinds of complications here, and I think you had better listen to me and stop ringing. The janitor is out anyway."
"He is not!" she retorted, now really frightened; "I can hear him coming up the stairway—probably with a p-pistol——"
Edgerton turned red. "When I next set eyes on that janitor," he said, "I'll probably knock his head off.... Don't be frightened! I only meant it humorously. Really, you must listen to me, because you and I have some rather important matters to settle within the next few minutes."
In his growing perplexity and earnestness he placed his suit cases on the rug and advanced a step toward her, and she shrank away, her hands flat against the wall behind her, the beautiful, frightened eyes fixed on his—and he halted.
"I haven't the slightest notion who you are," he said, bewildered; "but I'm pretty sure that I'm James Edgerton, and that this is my apartment. But how you happen to be inhabiting it I can't guess, unless that rascally janitor sublet it to you supposing that I'd be away for another year and never know it."
"You!—James Edgerton!" she exclaimed.
"My steamer docked yesterday."
"You are James Edgerton?—of Edgerton, Tennant & Co.?"
He began to laugh.
"I was James Edgerton, of Edgerton, Tennant & Co.; I am now only a silent partner in Fate, Destiny & Co.... If you don't mind—if you please—who are you?"
"Why, I'm Diana Tennant!"
"Diana Tennant! Haven't you ever heard of my sister and me?"
"You mean you're those two San Francisco nieces?" he asked, astonished.
"I'm one of them. Silvette is sitting on the roof."
"Yes; we have a roof garden—some geraniums and things, and a hammock. It's just a makeshift until we secure employment.... Is it possible that you are really James Edgerton? And didn't you know that we had rented your apartment by the month?"
He passed an uncertain hand over his eyes.
"Will you let me sit down a moment and talk to you?" he said.
"Please—of course. I do beg your pardon, Mr. Edgerton.... You must understand how startling it was to look up and see a man standing there with two suit cases."
He began to laugh; and after a moment she ventured to smile in an uncertain, bewildered way, and seated herself in a big velvet chair against the light.
They sat looking at each other, lost in thought: he evidently absorbed in the problem before him; she, unquiet, waiting, the reflex of unhappy little perplexities setting her sensitive lips aquiver at moments.
"You did rent this apartment from the janitor?" he said at length.
"My sister and I—yes. Didn't he have your permission?"
"No.... But don't worry.... I'll fix it up somehow; we'll arrange——"
"It is perfectly horrid!" she exclaimed. "What in the world can you think of us? ... But we were quite innocent—it was merely chance. Isn't it strange, Mr. Edgerton!—Silvette and I had walked and walked and walked, looking for some furnished apartment within our means which we might take by the month; and in Fifty-sixth Street we saw the sign, 'Apartment and Studio to let for the summer,' and we inquired, and he let us have it for almost nothing.... And we never even knew that it belonged to you!"
"To whom did you draw your checks for the rent?"
"We were to pay the janitor."
"Have you done so?" he asked sharply.
"N-no. We arranged—not to pay—until we could afford it——"
"I'm glad of that! Don't you pay that scoundrel one penny. As for me, of course I couldn't think of accepting——"
"Oh, dear! oh, dear!" she said in pretty despair; "I've got to tell you everything now! Several humiliating things—circumstances—very tragic, Mr. Edgerton."
"No; you need not tell me a single thing that is likely to distress you."
"But I've got to! You don't understand. That wretched janitor has put us in a position from which there is absolutely no escape. Because I—we ought to go away instantly—b-but we—can't!"
"Not at all, Miss Tennant. I ought to leave you in possession, and I—I'm trying to think out how to—to do it."
"How can we ask you to do such a——"
"You don't ask; I've got to find some means—ways—expedients——"
"But we can't turn you out of your own place!"
"No; but I've got to turn myself out. If you'll just let me think——"
"I will—oh, I will, Mr. Edgerton; but please, please let me explain the dreadful and humiliating conditions first, so that you won't consider me absolutely shameless."
"You will unless I tell you—unless I find courage to tell you how it is with my sister and me."
"I'd like to know, but you must not feel obliged to tell me."
"I do feel obliged! I must! We're poor. We've spent all our money, and we can't go anywhere else very well!"
Edgerton glanced at the luxury in the next room, astonished; then his gaze reverted to the silk-clad figure before him.
"You don't understand, of course," she said, flushing. "How could you suppose us to be almost penniless living here in such a beautiful place with all those new trunks and gowns and pretty things! But that is exactly why we are doing it!"
She leaned forward in her chair, the tint of excitement in her cheeks.
"After the failure, Silvette and I hadn't anything very much!—you know how everything of uncle's went—" She stopped abruptly. "Why—why, probably everything of yours went, too! Did it?"
He laughed: "Pretty nearly everything."
"Oh! oh!" she cried; "what a perfectly atrocious complication! Perhaps—perhaps you haven't money enough to—to go somewhere else for a while. Have you?"
"Well, I'll fix it somehow."
"Mr. Edgerton!" she said excitedly, "Silvette and I have got to go!"
"No," he said laughing, "you've only got to go on with your story, Miss Tennant. I am a very interested and sympathetic listener."
"Yes," she said desperately, "I must go on with that, too. Listen, Mr. Edgerton; we thought a long while and discussed everything, and we concluded to stake everything on an idea that came to Silvette. So we drew out all the money we had and we paid all our just debts, and we parted with our chaperone—who was a perfect d-darling—I'll tell you about her sometime—and we took Argent, our cat, and came straight to New York, and we hunted and hunted for an apartment until we found this! And then—do you know what we did?" she demanded excitedly.
"I couldn't guess!" said Edgerton, smiling.
"We bought clothes—beautiful clothes! And everything luxurious that we didn't have we bought—almost frightened to death while we were doing it—and then we advertised!"
"From here! Can you ever forgive us?"
"Of course," he said, mystified; "but what did you advertise?"
"Certainly; and we've had replies, but we haven't liked the people so far. Indeed, we advertised in the most respectable daily, weekly and monthly papers—" She sprang to her feet, trotted over to the sofa, picked up an illustrated periodical devoted to country life, and searching hastily through the advertising pages, found and read aloud to him, still standing there, the following advertisement:
"Two ladies of gentle birth and breeding, cultivated linguists, musicians, thoroughly conversant with contemporary events, efficient at auction bridge, competent to arrange dinners and superintend decorations, desire employment in helping to entertain house parties, week-ends, or unwelcome but financially important relatives and other visitations, at country houses, camps, bungalows, or shooting boxes.
"For terms write to or call at Apartment Five——"
She turned her flushed face toward him.
"Your address in full follows," she said. "Can you ever bring yourself to forgive us?"
His astonished gaze met hers. "That doesn't worry me," he said.
"It is generous and—splendid of you to say so," she faltered. "You understand now, don't you? We had to spend all our money on clothes; and we thought ourselves so fortunate in this beautiful apartment because it was certain to impress people, and nobody could possibly suspect us of poverty with that great picture by Goya over the mantel and priceless tapestries and rugs and porcelains in every direction—and our cat to make it look as though we really belonged here." Her voice trembled a moment on the verge of breaking and her eyes grew brilliant as freshly washed stars, but she lifted her resolute little head and caught the tremulous lower lip in her teeth. Then, the crisis over, she dropped the illustrated paper, came slowly back to her chair and sank down, extending her arms along the velvet upholstery in silence.
Between them, on the floor, a sapphire rug stretched its ancient Persian folds. He looked at it gravely, thinking that its hue matched her eyes. Then he considered more important matters, plunging blindly into profound abstraction; and found nothing in the depths except that he had no money to go anywhere, but that he must go nevertheless.
He looked up after a moment.
"Would you and your sister think it inhospitable of me if I ask when you—I mean—if I——"
"I know what you mean, Mr. Edgerton. Silvette and I are going at once.
"You can't. Do you think I'd permit it? Please remember, too, that you've advertised from here, and you've simply got to remain here. All I meant to ask was whether you think it might be for a week or two yet, but, of course, you can't tell—and forgive me for asking—but I was merely trying to adjust several matters in my mind to conditions——"
"Mr. Edgerton, we cannot remain. There is not in my mind the slightest doubt concerning your financial condition. If you could let us stay until we secured employment, I'd ask it of you—because you are James Edgerton; but you can't"—she rose with decision—"and I'm going up to the roof to tell Silvette."
"If you stir I'll take those suit cases and depart for good."
"You are very generous—the Edgertons always were, I have heard, but we cannot accept——"
He interrupted, smiling: "I think the Tennants never needed instruction concerning the finer points of obligation." ... He stood a moment thoughtfully, turning over and over the two dollars in his pocket; then with a laugh he walked across the studio and picked up his suit cases.
"Don't do that!" she said in a grave voice.
"There is nothing else to do, Miss Tennant."
"There's another bedroom."
They stood, not regarding one another, considering there in the sunshine.
"Will you wait until I return?" she asked, looking up. "I want to talk to Silvette.... I'd like to have Silvette see you. Will you wait? Because I've come to one of my quick conclusions—I'm celebrated for them, Mr. Edgerton. Will you wait?"
"Yes," he said, smiling.
So she trotted away in her little straw sandals and flowery vestments and butterfly sash; and he began to pace the studio, hands clasped behind him, trying to think out matters and ways and means—trying to see a way clear which offered an exit from this complication without forcing him to do that one thing of which he had a steadfast horror—borrow money from a friend.
Mingled, too, with his worried cogitations was the thought of Henry Tennant's nieces—these young California girls of whom he had vaguely heard without any particular interest. New Yorkers are never interested in relatives they never saw; seldom in any relatives at all. And, long ago, there had been marriage between Tennant and Edgerton—in colonial days, if he remembered correctly; and, to his own slight surprise, he felt it now as an added obligation. It was not enough that he efface himself until they found employment; more than that was due them from an Edgerton. And, as he had nothing to do it with, he wondered how he was to do anything at all for these distant cousins.
Standing there in the sunshine he cast an ironical glance around him at the Beauvais tapestries, the old masters, the carved furniture of Charles II's time, rugs dyed with the ancient splendor of the East, made during the great epoch when carpets of Ispahan, Damascus—and those matchless hues woven with gold and silver which are called Polish—decorated the palaces of Emperor and Sultan.
Not one thing could he sell under the will of Peter Edgerton to save his body from starvation or his soul from anything else; and he jingled the two dollars in his pocket and thought of his talents, and wondered what market there might be for any of them in a city where bricklayers were paid higher wages than school teachers, and where the wealthy employed others to furnish their new and gorgeous houses with everything from pictures and books to the ancient plate from which they ate.
And, thinking of these things, his ears caught a slight rustle of silk; and he lifted his head as Diana Tennant and her sister Silvette came toward him through the farther room.