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   Chapter 12 MR. BERDENSTEIN’S SISTER

The Yellow House By E. Phillips Oppenheim Characters: 14275

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Three days after that memorable conversation with my father a fly drove up to the door, and from where I was sitting in our little drawing room I heard a woman's anxious voice inquiring for Mr. Ffolliot. A moment or two later the maid knocked at my door.

"There is a young lady here, miss, inquiring for the Vicar. I told her that Mr. Ffolliot would not be in for an hour or two, and she asked if she could speak to any other member of the family."

"Do you know what she wants, Mary?" I asked.

The girl shook her head.

"No, miss. She would not say what her business was. She just wants to see one of you, she said."

"You had better tell her that I am at home, and show her in here if she wishes to see me," I directed.

She ushered in a young lady, short, dark, and thin. Her eyes were swollen as though with weeping, and her whole appearance seemed to indicate that she was in trouble. She sank into the chair to which I motioned her, and burst into tears.

"You must please forgive me," she exclaimed, in a voice broken with sobs. "I have just come from abroad, and I have had a terrible shock."

Some instinct seemed to tell me the truth.

My heart stood still.

"Are you any relation of the gentleman who was-who died here last week?" I asked, quickly.

She nodded.

"I have just been to the police station," she said. "It is his watch-the one I gave him-and his pocket book, with a half-written letter to me in it. They have shown me his photograph. It is my brother, Stephen Berdenstein. He was the only relative I had left in the world."

I was really shocked, and I looked at her pitifully. "I am so sorry," I said. "It must be terrible for you."

She commenced to sob again, and I feared she would have hysterics. She was evidently very nervous, and very much overwrought. I was never particularly good at administering consolation, and I could think of nothing better to do than to ring the bell and order some tea.

"He was to have joined me in Paris on Saturday," she continued after a minute or two. "He did not come and he sent a message. When Monday morning came and there was no letter from him, I felt sure that something had happened. I bought the English papers, and by chance I read about the murder. It seemed absurd to connect it with Stephen, especially as he told me he was going to be in London, but the description was so like him that I could not rest. I telegraphed to his bankers, and they replied that he had gone down into the country, but had left no address. So I crossed at once, and when I found that he had not been heard of at his club in London or anywhere else for more than ten days, I came down here. I went straight to the police station, and-and--"

She burst into tears again. I came over to her side and tried my best to be sympathetic. I am afraid that it was not a very successful attempt, for my thoughts were wholly engrossed in another direction. However, I murmured a few platitudes, and presently she became more coherent. She even accepted some tea, and bathed her face with some eau de Cologne, which I fetched from my room.

"Have you any idea," I asked her presently, "why your brother came to this part of the country at all. He was staying at Lady Naselton's, was he not? Was she an old friend?"

She shook her head.

"I never heard him speak of her in my life. He wrote me of a young Mr. Naselton who had visited him in Rio, but even in his last letter from Southampton he did not say a word about visiting them. He would have come straight to me, he said, but for a little urgent business in London."

"And yet he seems to have accepted a casual invitation, and came down here within a day or two of his arrival in England," I remarked.

"I cannot understand it!" she exclaimed, passionately. "Stephen and I have not met for many years-he has been living in South America, and I have been in Paris-but he wrote to me constantly, and in every letter he repeated how eagerly he was looking forward to seeing me again. I cannot think that he would have come down here just as an ordinary visit of civility before coming to me, or sending for me to come to him. There must be something behind it-something of which I do not know."

"You know, of course, that Naselton Hall is shut up and that the Naseltons have gone to Italy?" I asked her.

"They told me so at the police station," she answered. "I have sent Lady Naselton a telegram. It is a long time since I saw Stephen, and one does not tell everything in letters. He may have formed great friendships of which I have never heard."

"Or great enmities," I suggested, softly.

"Or enmities," she repeated, thoughtfully. "Yes; he may have made enemies. That is possible. He was passionate, and he was wilful. He was the sort of a man who made enemies."

She was quite calm now, and I had a good look at her. She was certainly plain. Her face was sharp and thin, and her eyes were a dull, dark color. She was undersized and ungraceful, in addition to which she was dressed much too richly for traveling, and in questionable taste. So far as I could recollect there was not the slightest resemblance between her and the dead man.

She surprised me in the middle of my scrutiny, but she did not seem to notice it. She had evidently been thinking something out.

"You have not lived here very long, Miss Ffolliot?" she asked, "have you?"

I shook my head.

"Only a month or so."

"I suppose," she continued, "you know the names of most of the principal families round here. A good many of them would call upon you, no doubt?"

"I believe I know most of them, by name at any rate," I told her.

"Do you know any family of the name of Maltabar?" she asked-"particularly a man called Philip Maltabar?"

I shook my head at once with a sense of relief which I could not altogether conceal.

"No, I never heard it in my life," I answered. "I am quite sure that there is no family of that name of any consequence around here. I must have heard it, and it is too uncommon a one to be overlooked."

The brief light died out of her face. She was evidently disappointed.

"You are quite sure?"

"Absolutely certain."

She sighed.

"I am sorry," she said. "Philip Maltabar is the one man I know who hated my brother. There has been a terrible and lifelong enmity between them. It has lasted since they were boys. I believe that it was to avoid him that my brother first went to South America. If there had been a Maltabar living anywhere around here I should have known where to go for vengeance."

"Is it well to think of that, and so soon?" I asked, quietly. The girl's aspect had changed. I looked away from her with a little shudder.

"What else is there for me to think of?" she demanded. "Supposing it were you, it would be different. You have other relatives. I have none. I am left alone in the world. My brother may have had his faults, but to me he was everything. Can you wonder that I hate the person who has deprived me of him?"

"You are not sure-it is not certain that there was not an accident-that he did not kill himself," I suggested.

She dismissed the idea with scorn.

"Accident! What accident could there have been? It is not possible. As to taking his own life, it is ridiculous! Why should he? He was too fond of it. Other men might have done that, but Stephen-never! No. He was murdered in that little plantation. I know the exact spot. I have been there. There was a struggle, and some one, better prepared than he, killed him. Perhaps he was followed here from London. It may be so. And yet, what was he doing here at all? That visit to Naselton Hall was not without some special purpose. I am sure of it. It was in connection with that purpose that he met with his death. He must have come to see some one. I want to know who it was. That is what I am going to find out-whom he came to see. You can blame me if you like. It may be unchristian, and you are a parson's daughter. I do not care. I am going to find out."

I was silent. In a measure I was sorry for her, but down in my heart there lurked the seeds of a fear-nameless, but terribly potent-which put me out of all real sympathy with her. I began to wish that she would go away. I had answered her questions, and I had done all-more-than common courtesy demanded. Yet she sat there without any signs of moving.

"I suppose," she said at last, finding that I kept silent, "that it would not be of any use waiting to see your father. He has not been here any longer than you have. He would not be any more likely to know anything of the man Maltabar?"

I shook my head decidedly.

"He would be far less likely to know of him than I should," I assured her. "He knows a good deal less of the people around here. His interests are altogether amongst the poorer classes. And he has left my sister and me to receive and pay all the calls. He is not at all fond of society."

"Philip Maltabar may be poor-now," she said musingly. "He was never rich."

"If he were poor, he would not be living here," I said. "The poor of whom I speak are the peasantry. It is not like a town, you know. Any man such as the Mr. Maltabar you speak of would be more than ever a marked figure living out of his class amongst villagers. In any case he would not be the sort of man whom my father would be likely to visit."

"I suppose you are right," she answered, doubtfully. "At any rate-since I am here-there would be no harm in asking your father, would there?"

"Certainly not," I answered. "I daresay he will be here in a few moments."

Almost as I spoke he passed the window, and I heard his key in the front door. The girl, who had seen his shadow, looked up quickly.

"Is that he?" she asked.

I nodded.

"Yes. You can ask him for yourself now."

"I should like to," she answered. "I am so glad I stayed."

Some instinct prompted me to rise and leave the room. I went out and met my father in the hall.

"Father," I said, "there is a girl here who says she has identified that man. She is his sister. She is waiting to see you."

My father had evidently come in tired out; he leaned against the wall for support. He was out of breath, too, and pale.

"What does she want with me?" he asked, sharply.

"She came to ask if we knew of any family of the name of Maltabar. Philip Maltabar, it seems, is the name of a man who has been her brother's enemy. She thinks that this thing must have been his doing. She cannot think of any one else with whom he has ever been on bad terms. I have told her that there is no one of that name in these parts."

He cleared his throat. He was very hoarse and ghastly pale.

"Quite right, Kate," he said. "There is no one of that name around here. What more does she want? What does she want of me?"

"I told her that I knew of no one, but she came to see you in the first place. She does not seem quite satisfied. She wants to ask you herself."

He drew back a step.

"No! no! I cannot see her. I am tired-ill. I have walked too far. Tell her from me that there is no one of that name living in these parts. I am absolutely sure of it. She can take it for granted from me."

"Hadn't you better see her just for one moment, as she has waited for so long?" I said. "She will be better satisfied."

He ground his heel down into the floor.

"No! I will not! I have had too much worry and trouble in connection with this affair already. My nerves are all unstrung. I cannot discuss it again with any one. Please let her understand that from me as kindly as possible, but firmly. I am going to my study. Don't come to see me again until she has gone."

He crossed the hall and entered his own room. I heard the key turn in the lock after him. It was useless to say anything more. I went back to my visitor.

I entered noiselessly, as I was wearing house shoes, and was surprised to find her with the contents of my card-plate spread out before her. She flushed up to the temples when she saw me standing on the threshold, yet she was not particularly apologetic.

"I am very rude," she said, brusquely. "I had no right, of course, to take such a liberty, but I thought-it might be barely possible-that you had forgotten the name, that some one might have called when you were not at home, or that, perhaps, your sister might have met them."

"Oh, pray satisfy yourself," I said, icily. "You are quite welcome to look them through."

She put the card-plate down.

"I have looked at all of them," she said. "There is no name anything like it there. Is your father coming in?"

"He is not very well," I told her, "and is quite tired out. He has walked a long way this afternoon. He wishes you to excuse him, and to say that he is quite sure that there is no one of that name, rich or poor, living anywhere in this neighborhood."

She seemed by no means satisfied.

"But shall I not be able to see him at all, then?" she exclaimed. "I had hoped that as he was the clergyman here, and was one of those who were with my brother when he died, that he would be certain to help me."

I shook my head.

"I am afraid that you will think it very selfish," I said, "but my father would rather not see you at all. He is in very delicate health, and this affair has already been a terrible shock to him. He does not want to have anything more to do with it directly or indirectly. He wants to forget it if he can. He desires me to offer you his most sincere sympathy. But you must really excuse him."

She rose slowly to her feet; her manner was obviously ungracious.

"Oh, very well!" she said. "Of course if he has made up his mind not to see me, I cannot insist. At the same time, I think it very strange. Good afternoon."

I rang the bell, and walked with her to the door.

"Is there anything else which I can do for you?" I asked.

"No, thank you. I think I shall telegraph to London for a detective. I shall see what they say at the police station. Good afternoon."

She did not offer to shake hands, nor did I. I think of all the women I had ever met, I detested her the most.

I watched her walk down the drive with short, mincing steps and get into a fly. Then I went to the door of my father's room and knocked.

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