Chapter Two. The Indomitable Miss Van Gorder
Miss Cornelis Van Gorder, indomitable spinster, last bearer of a name which had been great in New York when New York was a red-roofed Nieuw Amsterdam and Peter Stuyvesant a parvenu, sat propped up in bed in the green room of her newly rented country house reading the morning newspaper. Thus seen, with an old soft Paisley shawl tucked in about her thin shoulders and without the stately gray transformation that adorned her on less intimate occasions, - she looked much less formidable and more innocently placid than those could ever have imagined who had only felt the bite of her tart wit at such functions as the state Van Gorder dinners. Patrician to her finger tips, independent to the roots of her hair, she preserved, at sixty-five, a humorous and quenchless curiosity in regard to every side of life, which even the full and crowded years that already lay behind her had not entirely satisfied. She was an Age and an Attitude, but she was more than that; she had grown old without growing dull or losing touch with youth - her face had the delicate strength of a fine cameo and her mild and youthful heart preserved an innocent zest for adventure.
Wide travel, social leadership, the world of art and books, a dozen charities, an existence rich with diverse experience - all these she had enjoyed energetically and to the full - but she felt, with ingenious vanity, that there were still sides to her character which even these had not brought to light. As a little girl she had hesitated between wishing to be a locomotive engineer or a famous bandit - and when she had found, at seven, that the accident of sex would probably debar her from either occupation, she had resolved fiercely that some time before she died she would show the world in general and the Van Gorder clan in particular that a woman was quite as capable of dangerous exploits as a man. So far her life, while exciting enough at moments, had never actually been dangerous and time was slipping away without giving her an opportunity to prove her hardiness of heart. Whenever she thought of this the fact annoyed her extremely - and she thought of it now.
She threw down the morning paper disgustedly. Here she was at 65 - rich, safe, settled for the summer in a delightful country place with a good cook, excellent servants, beautiful gardens and grounds - everything as respectable and comfortable as - as a limousine! And out in the world people were murdering and robbing each other, floating over Niagara Falls in barrels, rescuing children from burning houses, taming tigers, going to Africa to hunt gorillas, doing all sorts of exciting things! She could not float over Niagara Falls in a barrel; Lizzie Allen, her faithful old maid, would never let her! She could not go to Africa to hunt gorillas; Sally Ogden, her sister, would never let her hear the last of it. She could not even, as she certainly would if the were a man, try and track down this terrible creature, the Bat!
She sniffed disgruntledly. Things came to her much too easily. Take this very house she was living in. Ten days ago she had decided on the spur of the moment - a decision suddenly crystallized by a weariness of charitable committees and the noise and heat of New York - to take a place in the country for the summer. It was late in the renting season - even the ordinary difficulties of finding a suitable spot would have added some spice to the quest - but this ideal place had practically fallen into her lap, with no trouble or search at all. Courtleigh Fleming, president of the Union Bank, who had built the house on a scale of comfortable magnificence - Courtleigh Fleming had died suddenly in the West when Miss Van Gorder was beginning her house hunting. The day after his death her agent had called her up. Richard Fleming, Courtleigh Fleming's nephew and heir, was anxious to rent the Fleming house at once. If she made a quick decision it was hers for the summer, at a bargain. Miss Van Gorder had decided at once; she took an innocent pleasure in bargains. The next day the keys were hers - the servants engaged to stay on - within a week she had moved. All very pleasant and easy no doubt - adventure - pooh!
And yet she could not really say that her move to the country had brought her no adventures at all. There had been - things. Last night the lights had gone off unexpectedly and Billy, the Japanese butler and handy man, had said that he had seen a face at one of the kitchen windows - a face that vanished when he went to the window. Servants' nonsense, probably, but the servants seemed unusually nervous for people who were used to the country. And Lizzie, of course, had sworn that she had seen a man trying to get up the stairs but Lizzie could grow hysterical over a creaking door. Still - it was queer! And what had that affable Doctor Wells said to her - "I respect your courage, Miss Van Gorder - moving out into the Bat's home country, you know!" She picked up the paper again. There was a map of the scene of the Bat's most recent exploits and, yes, three of his recent crimes had been within a twenty-mile radius of this very spot. She thought it over and gave a little shudder of pleasurable fear. Then she dismissed the thought with a shrug. No chance! She might live in a lonely house, two miles from the railroad station, all summer long - and the Bat would never disturb her. Nothing ever did.
She had skimmed through the paper hurriedly; now a headline caught her eye. Failure of Union Bank - wasn't that the bank of which Courtleigh Fleming had been president? She settled down to read the article but it was disappointingly brief. The Union Bank had closed its doors; the cashier, a young man named Bailey, was apparently under suspicion; the article mentioned Courtleigh Fleming's recent and tragic death in the best vein of newspaperese. She laid down the paper and thought - Bailey - Bailey - she seemed to have a vague recollection of hearing about a young man named Bailey who worked in a bank - but she could not remember where or by whom his name had been mentioned.
Well - it didn't matter. She had other things to think about. She must ring for Lizzie - get up and dress. The bright morning sun, streaming in through the long window, made lying in bed an old woman's luxury and she refused to be an old woman.
"Though the worst old woman I ever knew was a man!" she thought with a satiric twinkle. She was glad Sally's daughter - young Dale Ogden - was here in the house with her. The companionship of Dale's bright youth would keep her from getting old-womanish if anything could.
She smiled, thinking of Dale. Dale was a nice child - her favorite niece. Sally didn't understand her, of course - but Sally wouldn't. Sally read magazine articles on the younger generation and its wild ways. "Sally doesn't remember when she was a younger generation herself," thought Miss Cornelia. "But I do - and if we didn't have automobiles, we had buggies - and youth doesn't change its ways just because it has cut its hair. Before Mr. and Mrs. Ogden left for Europe, Sally had talked to her sister Cornelia ... long and weightily, on the problem of Dale. "Problem of Dale, indeed!" thought Miss Cornelia scornfully. "Dale's the nicest thing I've seen in some time. She'd be ten times happier if Sally wasn't always trying to marry her off to some young snip with more of what fools call 'eligibility' than brains! But there, Cornelia Van Gorder - Sally's given you your innings by rampaging off to Europe and leaving Dale with you all summer and you've a lot less sense than I flatter myself you have, if you can't give your favorite niece a happy vacation from all her immediate family - and maybe find her someone who'll make her happy for good and all in the bargain." Miss Cornelia was an incorrigible matchmaker.
Nevertheless, she was more concerned with "the problem of Dale" than she would have admitted. Dale, at her age, with her charm and beauty - why, she ought to behave as if she were walking on air, thought her aunt worriedly. "And instead she acts more as if she were walking on pins and needles. She seems to like being here - I know she likes me - I'm pretty sure she's just as pleased to get a little holiday from Sally and Harry - she amuses herself - she falls in with any plan I want to make, and yet - " And yet Dale was not happy - Miss Cornelia felt sure of it. "It isn't natural for a girl to seem so lackluster and - and quiet - at her age and she's nervous, too - as if something were preying on her mind - particularly these last few days. If she were in love with somebody - somebody Sally didn't approve of particularly - well, that would account for it, of course - but Sally didn't say anything that would make me think that - or Dale either - though I don't suppose Dale would, yet, even to me. I haven't seen so much of her in these last two years - "
Then Miss Cornelia's mind seized upon a sentence in a hurried flow of her sister's last instructions - a sentence that had passed almost unnoticed at the time - something about Dale and "an unfortunate attachment - but of course, Cornelia, dear, she's so young - and I'm sure it will come to nothing now her father and I have made our attitude plain!"
"Pshaw - I bet that's it," thought Miss Cornelia shrewdly. Dale's fallen in love, or thinks she has, with some decent young man without a penny or an 'eligibility' to his name - and now she's unhappy because her parents don't approve - or because she's trying to give him up and finds she can't. Well - " and Miss Cornelia's tight little gray curls trembled with the vehemence of her decision, if the young thing ever comes to me for advice I'll give her a piece of my mind that will surprise her and scandalize Sally Van Gorder Ogden out of her seven senses. Sally thinks nobody's worth looking at if they didn't come over to America when our family did - she hasn't gumption enough to realize that if some people hadn't come over later, we'd all still be living on crullers and Dutch punch!"
She was just stretching out her hand to ring for Lizzie when a knock came at the door. She gathered her Paisley shawl more tightly about her shoulders. "Who is it - oh, it's only you, Lizzie," as a pleasant Irish face, crowned by an old-fashioned pompadour of graying hair, peeped in at the door. "Good morning, Lizzie - I was just going to ring for you. Has Miss Dale had breakfast - I know it's shamefully late."
"Good morning, Miss Neily," said Lizzie, "and a lovely morning it is, too - if that was all of it," she added somewhat tartly as she came into the room with a little silver tray whereupon the morning mail reposed.
We have not yet described Lizzie Allen - and she deserves description. A fixture in the Van Gorder household since her sixteenth year, she had long ere now attained the dignity of a Tradition. The slip of a colleen fresh from Kerry had grown old with her mistress, until the casual bond between mistress and servant had changed into something deeper; more in keeping with a better-mannered age than ours. One could not imagine Miss Cornelia without a Lizzie to grumble at and cherish - or Lizzie without a Miss Cornelia to baby and scold with the privileged frankness of such old family servitors. The two were at once a contrast and a complement. Fifty years of American ways had not shaken Lizzie's firm belief in banshees and leprechauns or tamed her wild Irish tongue; fifty years of Lizzie had not altered Miss Cornelia's attitude of fond exasperation with some of Lizzie's more startling eccentricities. Together they may have been, as one of the younger Van Gorder cousins had, irreverently put it, "a scream," but apart each would have felt lost without the other.
"Now what do you mean - if that were all of it, Lizzie?" queried Miss Cornelia sharply as she took her letters from the tray.
Lizzie's face assumed an expression of doleful reticence.
"It's not my place to speak," she said with a grim shake of her head, "but I saw my grandmother last night, God rest her - plain as life she was, the way she looked when they waked her - and if it was my doing we'd be leaving this house this hour!"
"Cheese-pudding for supper - of course you saw your grandmother!" said Miss Cornelia crisply, slitting open the first of her letters with a paper knife. "Nonsense, Lizzie, I'm not going to be scared away from an ideal country place because you happen to have a bad dream!"
"Was it a bad dream I saw on the stairs last night when the lights went out and I was looking for the candles?" said Lizzie heatedly. "Was it a bad dream that ran away from me and out the back door, as fast as Paddy's pig? No, Miss Neily, it was a man - Seven feet tall he was, and eyes that shone in the dark and - "
"Well, it's true for all that," insisted Lizzie stubbornly. "And why did the lights go out - tell me that, Miss Neily? They never go out in the city."
"Well, this isn't -the city," said Miss Cornelia decisively. "It's the country, and very nice it is, and we're staying here all summer. I suppose I may be thankful," she went on ironically, "that it was only your grandmother you saw last night. It might have been the Bat - and then where would you be this morning?"
"I'd be stiff and stark with candles at me head and feet," said Lizzie gloomily. "Oh, Miss Neily, don't talk of that terrible creature, the Bat!" She came nearer to her mistress. "There's bats in this house, too - real bats," she whispered impressively. "I saw one yesterday in the trunk room - the creature! It flew in the window and nearly had the switch off me before I could get away!"
Miss Cornelia chuckled. "Of course there are bats," she said. "There are always bats in the country. They're perfectly harmless, - except to switches."
"And the Bat ye were talking of just then - he's harmless too, I suppose?" said Lizzie with mournful satire. "Oh, Miss Neily, Miss Neily - do let's go back to the city before he flies away with us all!"
"Nonsense, Lizzie," said Miss Cornelia again, but this time less firmly. Her face grew serious. "If I thought for an instant that there was any real possibility of our being in danger here - " she said slowly. "But - oh, look at the map, Lizzie! The Bat has been flying in this district - that's true enough - but he hasn't come within ten miles of us yet!"
"What's ten miles to the Bat?" the obdurate Lizzie sighed. "And what of the letter ye had when ye first moved in here? 'The Fleming house is unhealthy for strangers,' it said. Leave it while ye can."
"Some silly boy or some crank." Miss Cornelia's voice was firm. "I never pay any attention to anonymous letters."
"And there's a funny-lookin' letter this mornin', down at the bottom of the pile - " persisted Lizzie. "It looked like the other one. I'd half a mind to throw it away before you saw it!"
"Now, Lizzie, that's quite enough!" Miss Cornelia had the Van Gorder manner on now. "I don't care to discuss your ridiculous fears any further. Where is Miss Dale?"
Lizzie assumed an attitude of prim rebuff, "Miss Dale's gone into the city, ma'am."
"Gone into the city?"
"Yes, ma'am. She got a telephone call this morning, early - long distance it was. I don't know who it was called her."
"Lizzie! You didn't listen?"
"Of course not, Miss Neily." Lizzie's face was a study in injured virtue. "Miss Dale took the call in her own room and shut the door."
"And you were outside the door?"
"Where else would I be dustin' that time in the mornin'?" said Lizzie fiercely. "But it's yourself knows well enough the doors in this house is thick and not a sound goes past them."
"I should hope not," said Miss Cornelia rebukingly. "But - tell me, Lizzie, did Miss Dale seem - well - this morning?"
"That she did not," said Lizzie promptly. "When she came down to breakfast, after the call, she looked like a ghost. I made her the eggs she likes, too - but she wouldn't eat 'em."
"H'm," Miss Cornelia pondered. "I'm sorry if - well, Lizzie, we mustn't meddle in Miss Dale's affairs."
"But - did she say when she would be back?"
"Yes, Miss Neily. On the two o'clock train. Oh, and I was almost forgettin' - she told me to tell you, particular - she said while he was in the city she'd be after engagin' the gardener you spoke of."
"The gardener? Oh, yes - I spoke to her about that the other night. The place is beginning to look run down - so many flowers to attend to. Well - that's very kind of Miss Dale."
"Yes, Miss Neily." Lizzie hesitated, obviously with some weighty news on her mind which she wished to impart. Finally she took the plunge. "I might have told Miss Dale she could have been lookin' for a cook as well - and a housemaid - " she muttered at last, "but they hadn't spoken to me then."
Miss Cornelia sat bolt upright in bed. "A cook - and a housemaid? But we have a cook and a housemaid, Lizzie! You don't mean to tell me - "
Lizzie nodded her head. "Yes'm. They're leaving. Both of 'em. Today."
"But good heav- Lizzie, why on earth didn't you tell me before?"
Lizzie spoke soothingly, all the blarney of Kerry in her voice. "Now, Miss Neily, as if I'd wake you first thing in the morning with bad news like that! And thinks I, well, maybe 'tis all for the best after all - for when Miss Neily hears they're leavin' - and her so particular - maybe she'll go back to the city for just a little and leave this house to its haunts and its bats and - "
"Go back to the city? I shall do nothing of the sort. I rented this house to live in and live in it I will, with servants or without them. You should have told me at once, Lizzie. I'm really very much annoyed with you because you didn't. I shall get up immediately - I want to give those two a piece of my mind. Is Billy leaving too?"
"Not that I know of - the heathern Japanese!"" said Lizzie sorrowfully. "And yet he'd be better riddance than cook or housemaid."
"Now, Lizzie, how many times have I told you that you must conquer your prejudices? Billy is an excellent butler - he'd been with Mr. Fleming ten years and has the very highest recommendations. I am very glad that he is staying, if he is. With you to help him, we shall do very well until I can get other servants." Miss Cornelia had risen now and Lizzie was helping her with the intricacies of her toilet. "But it's too annoying," she went on, in the pauses of Lizzie's deft ministrations. "What did they say to you, Lizzie - did they give any reason? It isn't as if they were new to the country like you. They'd been with Mr. Fleming for some time, though not as long as Billy."
"Oh, yes, Miss Neily - they had reasons you could choke a goat with," said Lizzie viciously as she arranged Miss Cornelia's transformation. "Cook was the first of them - she was up late - I think they'd been talking it over together. She comes into the kitchen with her hat on and her bag in her hand. 'Good morning,' says I, pleasant enough, 'you've got your hat on,' says I. 'I'm leaving,' says she. 'Leaving, are you?' says I. 'Leaving,' says she. 'My sister has twins,' says she. 'I just got word - I must go to her right away.' 'What?' says I, all struck in a heap. 'Twins,' says she, 'you've heard of such things as twins.' 'That I have,' says I, 'and I know a lie on a face when I see it, too.'"
"Well, it made me sick at heart, Miss Neily. Her with her hat and her bag and her talk about twins - and no consideration for you. Well, I'll go on. 'You're a clever woman, aren't you?' says she - the impudence! 'I can see through a millstone as far as most,' says I - I wouldn't put up with her sauce. 'Well!' says she, 'you can see that Annie the housemaid's leaving, too.' 'Has her sister got twins as well?' says I and looked at her. 'No,' says she as bold as brass, 'but Annie's got a pain in her side and she's feared it's appendycitis - so she's leaving to go back to her family.' 'Oh,' says I, 'and what about Miss Van Gorder?' 'I'm sorry for Miss Van Gorder,' says she - the falseness of her! - 'But she'll have to do the best she can for twins and appendycitis is acts of God and not to be put aside for even the best of wages.' 'Is that so?' says I and with that I left her, for I knew if I listened to her a minute longer I'd be giving her bonnet a shake and that wouldn't be respectable. So there you are, Miss Neily, and that's the gist of the matter."
Miss Cornelia laughed. "Lizzie - you're unique," she said. "But I'm glad you didn't give her bonnet a shake - though I've no doubt you could."
"Humph!" said Lizzie snorting, the fire of battle in her eye. "And is it any Black Irish from Ulster would play impudence to a Kerrywoman without getting the flat of a hand in - but that's neither here nor there. The truth of it is, Miss Neily," her voice grew solemn, "it's my belief they're scared - both of them - by the haunts and the banshees here - and that's all."
"If they are they're very silly," said Miss Cornelia practically. "No, they may have heard of a better place, though it would seem as if when one pays the present extortionate wages and asks as little as we do here - but it doesn't matter. If they want to go, they may. Am I ready, Lizzie?"
"You look like an angel, ma'am," said Lizzie, clasping her hands.
"Well, I feel very little like one," said Miss Cornelia, rising. "As cook and housemaid may discover before I'm through with them. Send them into the livingroom, Lizzie, when I've gone down. I'll talk to them there."
An hour or so later, Miss Cornelia sat in a deep chintz chair in the comfortable living-room of the Fleming house going through the pile of letters which Lizzie's news of domestic revolt had prevented her reading earlier. Cook and housemaid had come and gone - civil enough, but so obviously determined upon leaving the house at once that Miss Cornelia had sighed and let them go, though not without caustic comment. Since then, she had devoted herself to calling up various employment agencies without entirely satisfactory results. A new cook and housemaid were promised for the end of the week - but for the next three days the Japanese butler, Billy, and Lizzie between them would have to bear the brunt of the service. Oh, yes - and then there's Dale's gardener, if she gets one, thought Miss, Cornelia. "I wish he could cook - but I don't suppose gardeners can - and Billy's a treasure. Still, its inconvenient - now, stop - Cornelia Van Gorder - you were asking for an adventure only this morning and the moment the littlest sort of one comes along, you want to crawl out of it."
She had reached the bottom of her pile of letters - these to be thrown away, these to be answered - ah, here was one she had overlooked somehow. She took it up. It must be the one Lizzie had wanted to throw away - she smiled at Lizzie's fears. The address was badly typed, on cheap paper - she tore the envelope open and drew out a single unsigned sheet.
If you stay in this house any longer - death. Go back to the city at once and save your life.
Her fingers trembled a little as she turned the missive over but her face remained calm. She looked at the envelope - at the postmark- while her heart thudded uncomfortably for a moment and then resumed its normal beat. It had come at last - the adventure - and she was not afraid!