The next morning Mark East sat before the library fire, an empty breakfast tray at his elbow. On the other side of the fire, hiding his shaking hands under a shawl, sat Joseph Stoneman. Stoneman’s bloodshot eyes measured the younger man’s length and breadth and he smiled as if his calculations pleased him.
“You’ll do,” he said. “I read your credentials very carefully. They are really—splendid.”
“They should be,” Mark smiled back. “I wrote them myself. I’m my own boss.”
“Oh!” Stoneman looked startled. “I didn’t know. This business of engaging people through correspondence has its surprises. However, in this case I am singularly fortunate.” He looked as if he were begging for a pretty speech in return, but none came. He tried again. “So you yourself are the Wood Agency? That is splendid, splendid. So many fine opportunities these days. But aren’t you rather young to have a business of your own?”
“My looks are deceptive,” Mark said. “I’m very old, very mean, and suspicious.”
He let that sink in while his eyes moved about the room. He looked as if he were taking an admiring inventory but actually he was straining his ears for the sound of voices or footsteps. He knew there were other people in the house, but except for Stoneman and Perrin he’d seen nobody.
Stoneman coughed. “You found your room quite comfortable?” heasked. “I think it’s a dreadful room myself and we shall change it as soon as possible. Perrin didn’t know. You surprised us by arriving so—suddenly.”
“Don’t bother,” Mark said amiably.
The old man stirred uneasily. He gave up all pretence of hiding his shaking hands. He held them in his lap, tightly, until the knuckles showed white.
Mark thought he looked like a worn little curate with a bad conscience, so he gave him a reassuring smile. He’d used that smile with the difficult ones before and it always lulled them into saying more than they meant to.
“I’m—I’m sorry I couldn’t welcome you personally last night,” Stoneman said. “You must have thought it extremely odd. But the truth is—I was the victim of one of my—attacks.”
In bottle formation, Mark thought. Out loud he said, “Oh that’s all right.”
“And I was most distressed to hear that you walked up from the station. You did walk, didn’t you? . . . If you’d only telegraphed— we’re not savages here—you’d have been properly met. As it happens, the car did go down. For one of the maids. But no one remembers seeing you.”
“Forget it,” Mark said carelessly. “I like to walk. I always walk when I come into a strange town on a strange job. I like to know where I am. In my work we always prepare for two exits, one proper and one unorthodox.”
“What an extraordinary remark! And how unkind!” Stoneman looked ready to cry. “Surely, Mr. East, there’s nothing strange about this! I wrote you most explicitly. I gave you all the details. It’s really very simple.”
“Yes. That’s why I came. The simplicity got me.” Mark used the reassuring smile again. Look,” he said. “You’re spending the winter here with some very old friends named Morey. These Moreys rent the house from somebody. They have two children, girls, and judging from the looks of the place they have plenty of money also.”
“S-s-sh, not so loud, my boy.” Stoneman twisted around in his chair to get a better look at the portières that covered the door to the hall.
“Money—you know it’s not quite nice to speak of money in connection with—possessions. Much better to say that my friends have good taste. But—you’re very observing.”
“Yes. I just observed you looking anxiously in the direction of the door. There’s nobody out there now. I’ve been watching.”
Stoneman looked hurt. “I only—I thought I felt a draught Really, you are disconcertingly abrupt. But I like it, I like it. Frankness is a fine thing. Now—you were saying?”“You’re offering me too much money for the work you want done, Mr. Stoneman. It worries me, it’s too easy.”
“I was saying something in bad taste about money and I might as well go on. You’re offering me too much money for the work you want done, Mr. Stoneman. It worries me, it’s too easy. My frankness again. I’m to live here with you and eat in the dining room like one of the family, and all I have to do is take a little shorthand in the morning and do a little typing in the afternoon. And get seventy-five a week. Does that sound simple to you?”
“My dear boy, it does indeed!” He beamed. “I shall keep you very busy, too! You won’t be able to call your soul your own! And after you’ve met the Moreys you’ll be perfectly happy, I know.”
Mark’s eyes were moving about the room again. He seemed not to hear.
“That’s a nice portrait,” he said casually. “I mean the one over the table. Who is it?”
Stoneman didn’t turn to look; he kept his eyes on Mark’s face. “That’s Laura—Mrs. Morey,” he said. “You’ll like her, you’ll like her very much.” He wagged his head as if it were a finger. “And she’ll like you! You’ll be great friends, great friends. You cheer her up and then we’ll all be happy. I fear she finds country life depressing, poor child.”
“She wasn’t depressed when that picture was painted,” Mark said. “She looks as happy as all get out. A Ducroix, done about three years ago, wasn’t it? I know his style pretty well. Funny place to find a Ducroix, on top of an American mountain.”
“And what’s the story behind the Renoir over the mantel? That’s a new one on me. I thought I could place every Renoir in the country, but I never even saw that in a catalogue. Who owns it? You?”
“I?” Stoneman looked pleased. “My dear fellow, I wish I did. But all these beautiful things belong to Laura. She paints a little herself and she loves pictures.”
“It takes more than love to own that one,” Mark sighed. He looked at his watch and compared it with the marble clock. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Stoneman’s hands begin to shake again. He decided to cut it short. He couldn’t afford to waste any more time. Either this was what he wanted or it wasn’t.
“The bed and breakfast were fine,” he said, “and I loved my little talk on art. My suitcase is only half unpacked and I can get down the mountain in thirty minutes. That’ll put me in Crestwood in time to catch a train or bus for Bear River. And in Bear River I can find a train to take me back to New York, where nobody tries to fool me any more. Do I take it, or not?”
“But, Mr. East!” The old man’s face was piteous. The blood crept under his parchment skin and stained it to an ugly mottled red. One hand moved unconsciously to his temple, as if he were in pain, and Mark saw for the first time that the skin over one eye was bruised and broken. “Mr. East, I don’t understand! You have already agreed to help me out. I have your letter!”
“What did you hire me for?” asked Mark.
“My dear young man—you quite frighten me!” He fumbled for a handkerchief and wiped his brow before he went on. “You are so emphatic! And all without reason, I assure you.” A little mincing gaiety crept into his voice. “I want a secretary, an ordinary secretary, but capable and wise—if possible. I made that all so clear in the letter I sent you. Didn’t I? You see, I’ve been assembling the notes I made on various digging expeditions—with the idea of adding one small volume to the already rich fund of archaeological lore—and some of them were made in pencil, on wretched scraps of paper. I want them typed, while I can still decipher them myself. Isn’t that—clear?”
“No,” said Mark. “Are you afraid of being overheard? I know there was someone out in the hall a few minutes ago, but he went away when I launched my lecture on art. Don’t ask me who it was—I didn’t see him. But it’s safe for you to talk now.”
“That’s it. And begin with the reason why a man who wants a private secretary hires a private detective.”
“That’s it. And begin with the reason why a man who wants a private secretary hires a private detective.”
Stoneman sat up in his chair. The curate look came back to his face, but this time it was the look of a foolish little curate—confronted with a shortage of communion wine, the bishop, and a theory on evaporation.
“Detective!” he said, in a shocked whisper. “But this is fantastic! I wrote you my requirements in good faith and you agreed to accept. You said you could do the work. I mean, the Wood Agency agreed. Mr. East, you are confusing me again!”
“I’m the confused character, Mr. Stoneman,” Mark said. “I told you before—I am the Wood Agency. I bought it and kept the name. And everything I said about myself is on the level. I do know two languages, other than English, and I’ve even seen a few Egyptian mummies on their native heath. Now let me ask you a question. Why did you write to me in the first place? How did you find me? Don’t tell me you thought the Wood Agency was an employment bureau?”
“I must have. I fear that sounds ridiculous, but I must have. Why, of course I did! I remember now! Really, I must order my thoughts! I remember now that I checked through the New York Telephone Book, such a very large book, looking for the number of a friend. And I found you on the same page. My friend is Wood also. That was shortly before I came up here. And I remember thinking, when I saw your name, that I might be wise to make a note of it. To have, you understand, in case I should ever need anyone. Then I did need someone, and I wrote you.” He was out of breath by this time, and a little pathetic. “Do you believe any of that?” he asked simply. “If a man told it to me, I fear I should think him a liar.”
Mark smiled in spite of himself. “Didn’t it occur to you to investigate the agency first?”
Stoneman looked humble. “No. I—I’m afraid I’m not very worldly. But I should call it a natural mistake, Mr. East, really I should. If I were you I would print the word ‘Detective’ after my name. Why, you don’t even have it on your stationery! I know—I have your letters right here!” He reached for the upper pocket of his jacket and the fringe of his shawl drew back the cuff. His wrist was bound with adhesive tape. He drew the letters from their envelopes and held them out. “You see,” he said triumphantly. “The Wood Agency, nothing more!”
“I get my clients from lawyers,” Mark said. “They know who I am.”
“I see.” Stoneman hesitated. He looked downcast. “Really, I’m ashamed. Here you’ve had this cold, long trip for nothing. . . . Haven’t you? And all because of a foolish old man’s mistake.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“What? Do you mean—?”
“I mean I haven’t had the trip for nothing. I mean I was interested, that’s all. Also, I was curious to see this country again. I did some hunting in the next county several years ago. . . . You’d like me to stay under any conditions, wouldn’t you?”
“Oh, Mr. East! If you would! Your background is so splendid—you are so exactly the type of man I need. If you feel that your other clients—if you have no more pressing affairs—”
“I haven’t. . . . How long will this business take?”
“A few weeks only. I’m sure we can finish in a few weeks. Perhaps before Christmas. If you can put up with me that long.” He smiled archly. “I’m afraid I’ve made a very poor first impression—and after all, you know nothing about me.”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” Mark said lightly. “Maybe you didn’t check on me, but I went after you. You’ve taught ancient history at small colleges, been curator at two museums—Indiana and Delaware— and you’ve done some digging on your own, mostly hampered by lack of funds. A few years ago you dropped out of sight.” Stoneman looked humble. “I hardly know what to say,” he murmured.
“I’m tremendously impressed. But you must put that sordid, prying life behind you now, my boy. This is vacation time; we’ll make it so. You’ll—you’ll stay?”
“Yes,” Mark said. “I’ll stay.”
From BLOOD UPON THE SNOW, by Hilda Lawrence. Used with the permission of the publisher, DOVER. Reissue copyright © 1944, 1971 by Hilda Lawrence.