He discharged the driver and in a moment was standing in a big living-room that exhaled an atmosphere of comfort and good taste. On every hand were the evidences of a hasty abandonment of the house by its recent occupants. A waste-paper basket by a writing table in one corner overflowed with scraps of discarded letters; the family had evidently snatched a hasty luncheon before leaving and the dining table had not been cleared. A doll lay sprawled on the landing as he made his way upstairs, and in the bed chambers empty chiffonier drawers gaped as though from surprise at their hasty evacuation. He made a survey of the whole premises and then went through again from cellar to garret checking off his sister's queries. There was something disconcerting in the intense silence of the place broken only by the periodic thump of the sea at the base of the cliff.
The house would serve the Featherstones admirably. There was even the sleeping porch opening from the nursery that his sister had expressly stipulated and a tiny retreat back of the living-room with desk and shelves that would meet the requirements of his congressman brother-in-law at such times as he might find it possible to join his family.
Fully satisfied with his investigations, Archie picked up a book with a paper- cutter thrust through it to mark the place of its last reader, became absorbed and read until he, was roused by a clap of thunder that seemed to shake the world. Hurrying to the window he found that the storm had already broken.
There was a greenish light over the sea and the waves had begun to smite the rocks with dismaying ferocity. To catch the five eleven he would have to leave at once, and he seized his belongings and opened the door, but upon stepping out upon the veranda the walk he had contemplated along the shore path to the village seemed a foolhardy thing to undertake. An unearthly darkness had fallen upon the world and a misstep in the rough path over the rocks might pitch him headlong into the sea. He had marked the presence of a telephone in the house and decided to summon a taxi, but as he clapped the receiver to his ear he was startled by a blinding glare and the crack of a mighty whip overhead. He snatched the instrument again and bawled into it, but it was buzzing queerly and he sprang away from it as another glare lit up the room.
He turned on the lights and sat down to think. He might return by the highway over which he had reached the house, but the driver had told him it was the longer way. The roof and walls rang under the downpour and he decided that after all to spend the night in an abandoned house would be fully as heroic as to subject himself to the ruthless fury of the hurricane. It would be a lark to camp in the Congdon villa, a break in the deadly routine of his days which Isabel Perry had pointed out as a possible cause of his invalidism. He made himself comfortable and studied the sheaf of time tables he had brought with him, methodically formulating the messages he would be obliged to despatch in the morning to change his westward passage.
The storm showed no sign of abating and as nightfall deepened the gloom he set the broad fireplace in the living-room glowing, drew the shades, and feeling twinges of hunger explored the kitchen pantry. The Congdons had left a well- stocked larder and, finding bacon, eggs and bread, he decided that the cooking of a supper would be a jolly incident of the adventure. He laid aside his coat and rolling up his sleeves soon had a fire going in the range, which smoked hideously until he mastered the dampers. He removed the dishes that had been left on the dining-room table and carefully laid a cover for one. The roses in a bowl that served as a centerpiece were still fresh and were a pathetic reminder of the mistress of the house. In rearranging the table he found a telegram under a plate at what he assumed to be Mrs. Congdon's place. To read a message not intended for his eyes was decidedly against his strict code, but his curiosity overcame his scruples and these words met his eyes:
New York, June 10, 1917.
Mrs. Alice B. Congdon, Bailey Harbor, Maine.
Your letter has your characteristic touch of cruelty. We may as well part now and be done with it. But the children you cannot have. Remember that I relinquish none of my rights on this point. I demand that you surrender Edith at once and I will communicate with you later about the custody of Harold until such time as he is old enough to come to me.
The cautious hint of the taxi driver that domestic difficulties were responsible for the breaking up of the Congdon household found here a painful corroboration. He chivalrously took sides at once with the unhappy Alice; no matter how shrewish the absconding wife might be, only a brute of a husband would fling such a message at her head. Archie hated discord; the very thought of it was abhorrent. He had never had a care in his life beyond his health, and quarrels of every sort he left to underbred people with evil tempers. Here was a furious lunatic telegraphing his wife of the severance of the most sacred of ties and demanding the immediate transfer of one child to his possession and relinquishing only temporarily the custody of the other, presumably younger and the lawful owner of the doll he had picked up on the stair landing.
He now visualized the whole scene that followed upon the receipt of the telegram; the hurried, tearful packing, the bewildered children, the panic- struck servants rushing about obeying the orders of a hysterical mistress. The more he thought of it the warmer became his defensive attitude toward the unknown Alice. She had met the situation like a woman of quick decisions,—perhaps she was a little too unyielding and this had caused the rupture; but no man worthy to be called a gentleman would commit to the wires so heartless a message directed at the mother of his children.
His attention had been arrested several times by a photograph of a young girl, of eleven or twelve, set in a silver frame on the living-room table, whom he assumed to be the Edith mentioned in the telegram. She was a lovely child, with a wealth of hair falling about her shoulders, and roguish eyes that looked at him teasingly. It was a thoroughly feminine face with an unusual perfection of line. Very likely the child was the reëmbodiment of her mother who must, he thought, be a very handsome woman indeed. His resentment hardened against the husband and father, the author of the brutal message that disposed of his marital obligations as coolly as though he had been canceling an order for a carload of merchandise, as he held up the picture for the joy of meeting the gaze of the merry eyes.
Though the breaking of eggs into the skillet had proved a fearsome matter and the bacon sizzled strangely, the cooking had proved much simpler than he had believed possible. He burnt his fingers handling the toaster, but after ruining a considerable quantity of bread he produced three slices of toast that were the equal of any offered by his favorite club. As usual when frustrated in his plans (something that had rarely happened in his whole life) he made the most of the situation, eating slowly while the rain poured in an unbroken sheet down the windows. He wished Isabel could see him and know that for once the routine of his life had been interrupted only to find him resourceful and the easy master of his fate.
He made a point of washing the dishes and cooking utensils and putting them carefully away. These matters attended to, he roamed over the house which now had a new interest for him since the Congdon family skeleton had come out of its closet and danced round the dinner table. In one way and another he found it possible to make a fair acquaintance with the late inmates of the house. In a bedroom adjoining the nursery there were books in abundance, and very good books they were—essays, poetry, a few of those novels that appeal only to sophisticated readers, and children's books, including a volume of Bible stories retold for the young. He could readily imagine Mrs. Congdon reading aloud from these volumes to her youngsters as they stood beside the wicker rocker in the bay-window. Only a few hours earlier the house had rung with the happy laughter of children; he fancied he could hear them calling to their mother up the stair. Mrs. Congdon was a blonde, he decided, from the presence in a closet of a blue peignoir overlooked in her flight and a bolt of blue ribbon that had rolled under the bed as though seeking refuge from the general confusion.
In the adjoining room he sought traces of the hard-hearted husband, but in his departure, presumably sometime earlier, Congdon had made a clean sweep; there was nothing to afford a clue to his character beyond a four-in-hand tie whose colors struck Archie as execrable. Below in the snuggery fitted up for masculine use was a table, containing a humidor half filled with dried-up cigars, and an ill-smelling pipe—Archie hated pipes—and a box of cigarettes. A number of scientific magazines lay about and a forbidding array of books on mechanics and chemistry overflowed the shelves. He threw open a cabinet filled with blue prints illustrating queer mechanical contrivances. They struck him as very silly and he slammed the thing shut in disgust, convinced that Congdon was a crank, or he wouldn't have indulged in such foolishness. In a drawer of the desk was an automatic pistol and a box of cartridges. At a country house where he once week-ended a burglar scare had inspired feverish intensive pistol practice among the guests and Archie had learned to load and fire and even developed some skill as a marksman. There were three cartridges in the magazine and Archie thrust it into his pocket thinking it not a bad idea to be prepared for invasion.
He was oppressed with a fleeting sense of his isolation as he drew back a shade and pressed his face to the pane. The house stood at the edge of the summer colony and a considerable distance from its nearest neighbor. The landward horizon still brightened at intervals with a languid mockery of lightning, dimmed by the fog that was dragging in from the sea. The siren in the harbor had begun its mournful iterations, and he caught the occasional flash of the revolving light that gleamed now and then through breaks in the fog.
He switched off the lights in the lower rooms and established himself in the guest chamber. The bed had been dismantled but he found blankets and linen and addressed himself to the novel task of making a couch for himself. If he had consulted his pleasure in advance he would have shrunk from camping in a lonely seaside house for a night; but now that the experience was forced upon him he was surprised to find that he was not afraid. The revelation was an agreeable one. He, Archibald Bennett, was a perfectly normal being, capable of rising to emergencies; and when he saw Isabel Perry again, as he had every intention of doing at the end of the summer, this little trip to Bailey Harbor would make a very pretty story which could not fail to convince her of his fortitude and courage.
Sleeping in his underwear was distasteful but this was only another small item that proved his resolute fiber and ability to accept conditions as he found them. He opened the windows and performed his usual before-retiring calisthenics, tested the reading lamp beside the bed, placed the pistol within easy reach and became absorbed in a volume of short stories.
He read the book through, put out the light and was half asleep when he was roused by footsteps on the veranda below.