Although grief-stricken by the memory of that long-ago tragedy, Jacob Matherly did not seem in danger of becoming overexcited by it as he had earlier in the day. She felt there was little chance that he would aggravate his angina, and she decided to let him go on with it, in his good time, until she had-at last, at last! -heard the story of Christmas Eve, the story which seemed to bind this entire household under a black and unbreakable spell.
Just when he was beginning to find an end to the store of tears in himself, just when Elaine thought that he might now continue and unburden himself, thereby enlightening her, a knock came at the door. She answered it, reluctantly, and found Jerry standing there, like a bird in human clothes, sharp and frail, quivering slightly.
What is it? she asked.
The police, Jerry said.
She supposed they had had to be called, though she had never given it a thought until now.
They would like to talk with you, downstairs, Jerry said.
I don't know anything about it, she said.
They're talking to everyone.
She sighed. Very well. I'll put Mr. Matherly back to bed and be down in a few moments.
Jerry nodded and hurried down the corridor towards the stairs, his spindly legs like the legs of a crab or insect
I guess you heard, she said, closing the door and turning back to old Jacob Matherly.
The tears were gone altogether, and his stony composure had taken over once more. He said, If they want to talk to me, they'll have to come up here.
We'll fix it so that you don't have to talk to them, she said. She got another sedative from the medicine chest, poured a glass of cold water from the ice-filled pitcher next to his bed, and watched him take the tablet.
Thank you, he said. I had enough of policemen the last time, enough of their snide remarks, their brutal questioning. I think, sometimes, that the police can be nastier with the rich than with the poor. They let their envy push them a little further than it should.
You sleep now, she said.
He closed his eyes and folded his hands across his chest as she turned out the lights. She looked quickly away from him, for he had looked, in that instant, like a corpse in the casket, ready for the funeral.
In the hall, she found that someone had turned the light out. A blanket of shadows had been thrown over the length of the corridor until, by the head of the stairs, thin light filtered up from below. And voices. Voices wafted to her as well, distant and rumbling, the words they spoke indistinguishable. They could have been ghosts, moaning in the walls as easily as people engaged in normal conversation.
She went down the steps, making a conscious effort to slow the beat of her heart. Foolish fears. Childish fears. Elaine, she chided herself, you're becoming as rococo as this house, as silly as Dennis Matherly.
Nevertheless, when she reached the bottom of the stairs and old Jerry stepped out of an alcove to escort her to the police, she was so startled that she leaped and gave a tiny yelp of fear. He took her hand and patted it and told her he knew how she felt and that he was sorry to have frightened her.
She followed him to the den, through the door into a bright pool of yellow light, blinking as her eyes adjusted to the change. She saw that they were all there: Lee, Dennis and Gordon, Paul Honneker. There were also two policemen, a tall, broad-shouldered man about forty years old who was introduced as Captain Rand-and a shorter, darker, quicker detective named Holcombe who looked-if one were used to old movies on television-more like a villain than the upholder of justice.
Please sit down, Miss Sherred, Captain Rand said. He smiled, showing perfect white teeth. Elaine recognized it as a professional, not a genuine smile, a relative of the smile she learned to produce when she needed it in her job. She supposed there were times that a policeman, just like a nurse, had absolutely nothing to smile about but was forced to for the benefit of those around him. It was difficult to smile and be cheerful to a man dying of cancer when he was ignorant of his deterioration, but it was necessary. For Captain Rand, it must have been unpleasant to smile in the face of blood and a badly wounded girl and knives and darkness and unexplained madness. But it was expected of him, and he smiled.
She sat on the couch, next to Gordon Matherly. It was an unconscious move that she could not have explained. There were other chairs available. She just felt safer beside Gordon.
Miss Sherred, Captain Rand said, we've heard everyone's account of what happened this evening, except yours. We'd like you to tell us what you remember of the-uh, the incident.
There's really little to tell, she said.
Nevertheless, we'd like to hear, he said. He smiled again. Smiled with his lips. His eyes were hard, perhaps hardened by too many years of this sort of thing. It's always possible that one witness will have noticed something none of the others did, some bit of a thing which will make all the pieces fit together. But his tone of voice, the infinite weariness behind that smile, said he didn't hope for any such miracle.
She told him the story, up to the point where she left the scene to check on Jacob Matherly. She did not feel it was her place to add Jacob's story of family madness, partly because she was not of the family and did not have the right to talk about them and partly because she did not yet know how much of the old man's tales to believe.
When she finished, Rand said, When you heard the scream, did you think there were words to it?
It was just a scream, she replied.
Think hard, Miss Sherred.
Just a scream, she repeated.
Often, Rand said, pacing back and forth before the assembled witnesses, a victim will pronounce the name of his attacker at the last moment. Could the scream have been a drawn out name, a Christian name or perhaps a surname?
She thought about it for a moment. No. Definitely not.
Rand seemed disappointed. For a moment, his calm expression and the gentle, professional smile slipped away.
In the pause, she asked, Is Celia still alive?
She's comatose, Rand said. She lost a great deal of blood and suffered severe shock. The lining of her stomach has been twice punctured, though no other organs received the blade. A vein in her thigh was severed. They've already begun work on that and on the abdominal wounds. She's still in surgery and will be, I'd say, for some time yet.
In the easy chair next to the desk, Lee Matherly leaned forward and cupped his face in his hands. He did not say anything.
Did you see a knife anywhere near the body, Miss Sherred? Captain Rand asked.
Not that I remember.
Anything like a knife-a letter opener, a gardening tool?
I believe you were the one who elevated the girl's legs and tried to staunch the blood flow from her abdomen.
I'm a nurse.
He nodded, aware of that. Did she, while you were attending her, ever regain consciousness?
She was too weak, Elaine said.
She did not speak even a word?
You would have noticed if she had opened her eyes? You were not too distraught to fail to notice a moment of sensibility in her?
I'm a nurse, she said. I do not become distraught over illness or injury or death. She was beginning to dislike the way Captain Rand was questioning her, forcing each point again and again, as if she were a child who could not be expected to remember properly, except with prodding. She supposed that it was necessary for him to be this way and that he was only doing his job, but she didn't like it and wanted to tell him so.
Fortunately, her reference to her professionalism seemed to appeal to him, and he nodded what she took for apology and respect. He said, I am sorry that I forgot to consider that, Miss Sherred.
She smiled her acceptance of his apology.
Then, abruptly, she discovered that her hand was enclosed by Gordon's hand. His warm, dry fingers enfolded her own and held them with a gentle pressure. She was surprised, because she could not remember having reached for him-or feeling him reach for her. But, sometime during the questioning, they had sought comfort and had found it together.
Elaine blushed, but she did not withdraw her hand. It was nice having her hand held, being accepted by Gordon as something more than the family's latest domestic servant.
Well, Rand said, let's look into some other aspects of this thing. He withdrew a notebook from his hip pocket and thumbed it open. Pages rustled abnormally loud in that silent room. Celia Tamlin was an interior decorator looking over your house prior to making suggestions for renovation. Is that correct, Mr. Matherly?
Lee lifted his face from his hands and looked down at his palms, as if he felt he had left his soul in them. Yes, he said. She was such an enthusiastic girl, so pretty and quick
Rand turned away from Lee Matherly and faced Dennis. And you, I believe, were the only member of the family to know Celia Tamlin before tonight. Is this correct.
Yes, Dennis said.
How did you meet the young lady?
Dennis said, I am a painter. Originally, I met Celia at an art show at Kauffman's. She had come to scout for paintings that she might want to purchase for her company's gallery. For use in interior decoration.
Did she purchase any of your work.
As a matter of fact, yes. That's how we became friends.
Did you date Celia Tamlin?
Dennis looked worried, for he could see where the questioning might lead if the detective wished to take it that route. I did, he said. Half a dozen times, perhaps.
What kind of girl was she?
Dennis licked his lips and looked around the room for support. Elaine looked away from him, suddenly frightened. Of what? Did she suspect he had some hand in the night's events? She gripped Gordon's hand more tightly.
Dennis said, She was a fine girl. Always interested in things, very bright, a good conversationalist, sensitive. I can't think of an enemy for Celia. She was friends with everyone!
Dennis looked suddenly stricken. Elaine thought he was about to burst into tears. She disliked such emotions in men, except for old men like Jacob who had earned the right to cry. She distrusted emotional men.
And you were upstairs, in the attic, painting at the time of the stabbing? Rand was perched on the edge of the desk now, tapping the open notebook against his knee.
I had been, earlier, Dennis said. But when the scream came, I was in the kitchen, having a glass of milk.
Elaine expected Rand to pursue it further, but he did not. Instead, he turned to Gordon. And where were you, again?
In my room, reading, Gordon said.
What were you reading?
A suspense novel.
Rand turned to Paul Honneker. You?
Paul was as disheveled as he had been at supper, perhaps more so. The clothes hung on him as if he were nothing more than a chair they had been thrown across. His collar was open an extra button. His beard had darkened and prickled his face like black wire. There were bags under his eyes and a drawn look to his normally jolly face.
I was sleeping, Honneker said.
You slept through the entire incident, Rand said. Through the scream as well?
I didn't hear any scream, Paul said.
When was the first you knew what had happened?
When Lee came to tell me. Just before you arrived.
You must be a heavy sleeper.
Hesitantly, sadly, Paul Honneker said, I'd had a drink or two.
Maybe a few more, he said.
Rand looked at him a while, abruptly dismissed him. He saw the same, sorry lack of initiative and aimlessness in Paul which everyone else came to see eventually.
The probing questions continued, with little else of interest developing. The only moment when Rand seemed intrigued was when Dennis mentioned the fact that Celia often picked up hitchhikers. She trusted everyone, he had told Rand. Often, she lent money to the most untrustworthy borrowers and never saw it again. That never dissuaded her. She continued to lend money like a bank. At last, sometime after one in the morning, they were excused. Rand, apparently, was going to push a search for any hitchhiker who may have been seen in the area before or after the murder.
Before she went to bed, Elaine stopped by to see how Jacob was reacting. She found him as she had left him, in the funeral pose, breathing lightly, sound asleep.
Jacob would not believe the hitchhiker story.
But then Jacob was old and ill.
For something to do, she took his pulse.
It was normal.
Ought to go to bed, she thought.
She opened the medicine cabinet and took out one of Jacob's sedatives. It was the first time in her life she had ever had need of such a thing.
She went to her room, and she locked the door this time.
Her second floor window was a good distance above the ground, but she locked that as well.
She did not feel the least bit foolish. There was something quite concrete to fear now. This was no longer a fantasy of a dear but doddering old man. One must take precautions.
She said a prayer for Celia Tamlin, then took the sedative. She did not sleep entirely in the dark, but let one bedside lamp burn throughout the long, uneasy night.