The notification of Ardie's death that Philo sent to Michael Foley in Baltimore was carefully composed at Livadia and relayed by the Tsar to the American ambassador in Petersburg who, in turn, cabled it to the American Secretary of State in Washington.
Secretary Olney passed it over to the Secretary of the Navy with the request that he send someone from the Department to Baltimore to deliver it personally.
Secretary Herbert complied.
As acting head of Duncan Cargo during Ardie's absence, Michael was a very busy man. When Secretary Herbert's representative called at his office that day, he was engaged in a contractual dispute with local longshoremen who were demanding what Michael considered an excessive increase in lading fees.
Having been an ordinary working man for most of his life before gaining Ardie's confidence and moving up in the world, Michael prided himself on knowing how to deal with such matters. On this occasion, an afternoon cruise on Chesapeake Bay, featuring all the cracked crab they could eat and all the cold beer they could drink, seemed the quickest way to a solution with the disputants.
The entire staff at Duncan Cargo joined the cruising party at Michael's request: "I'd like fer you folks to circulate amongst the boys an' let 'em know we're all in the same boat, you might say, just workin' people tryin' to make a livin'."
So it was that only a lower-echelon shipping clerk was on the premises when the man from the Navy Department arrived with Philo's message. Upon being told that the office was closed for the day, he asked for the home address, arriving at the mansion in late morning.
He just missed Bridget who had gone off on a shopping jaunt with the cook and the butler, leaving thirteen-year-old Brad in charge of the nine-year-old girls, Romelle and Kathy. The three were playing together in the back yard, on holiday from school.
Irene sat in the study off the front hallway, poring over the Duncan Cargo payroll and expense accounts, as well as counting petty cash. This was a task she had taken on in recent years despite Ardie's insistence that she should not concern herself with such pedestrian matters.
"It makes her feel important to her husband's work," Michael had once said to Bridget reprovingly when his wife expressed a negative opinion of Irene's interest.
"Ha!" Bridget had retorted. "It gives her control of the money! She wants to make sure yer not embezzlin' from her the way her father stole from the good cap'n! Do you think it was love led her to marry into the family she blames fer her mother's death an' her father's suicide, not to mention the misery o' her own sick soul? Ah! You men are such children!"
The maid, Dora, was busy upstairs when the Navy Secretary's man used the brass knocker at the front door. He knocked once, waited, then knocked again.
In a fit of pique manifestly typical of her, Irene charged out of the study with a malevolent glance up the stairs. She heard the faint squeak of a carpet sweeper, but the maid was not in sight. Primly erect, she marched to the door and flung it open.
"Well?" she intoned haughtily, mistaking the bewhiskered gentleman with a briefcase in his hand for a door-to-door salesman.
Nonplused by the glacial reception, the representative smiled uncertainly, pulling uncomfortably at the knot of his necktie.
Irene leaned out to tap a well-manicured nail sharply against a small brass plaque attached to the wall beside the door.
"Can't you read?" she said caustically. "'Tradesmen and vendors to the rear'! However, no one is there to receive you now, so I suggest you get along!"
She slammed the door in his face.
"Whew!" he muttered under his breath, wondering if he had come to the right house. He checked the number, and knocked again.
This time, Dora, having heard the strident voice of her mistress, scurried down the stairs with a feather duster still in hand. She yanked open the door, breathless. Relieved to see anyone other than Irene, the man extracted Philo's cable from his briefcase, handed it to her, bowed, and withdrew quickly to the taxi waiting at the curb.
The maid turned to find Irene standing with arms akimbo, tapping her foot furiously in the study doorway.
"Give that to me, Dora!" she snapped, snatching the envelope away from her.
"Where were you when he came the first time?" Irene asked rhetorically, having already whirled about and started back into the study.
She kicked the door shut with her heel.
The wretched maid sighed and hastened upstairs.
Irene seated herself at the desk. Without so much as a twinge of conscience, she unsheathed a Japanese ceremonial dagger used as a letter opener and slashed the sealed envelope addressed to Michael Foley.
The first sentence of the cable brought a sudden fire to her black, usually lackluster, eyes and a steely set to her thin, unpainted lips: "The information hereafter given must be parceled out carefully to Irene as I have been warned by Annie and Bridget , and now even by Ardie himself, that the lady's behavior suggests a mental disorder reminiscent of her mother's."
Irene dropped the paper, bringing all her strength to bear on the small, bony hands she clenched in tight fists on the desktop. A low, soft moan hinting at a growl escaped from the depths of her breast. After a moment with her eyes closed, she seemed to regain control.
Picking up the cable, she read on: "I do not for a moment think there may be danger to the child, but in view of the news this message brings you, it might be kinder if Romelle were not present, perhaps not even in the house, when Irene is told. The fact that she is Bart's daughter will not be helpful. Irene's father once gave me to understand that Irene's mother, Jane, was deeply resentful of Bart for his role in the tragic events leading to my wife's death in the Baltimore house, although not for any sane reason you could imagine. God willing, Irene has been spared her mother's vicious malady. But during Ardie's visit with me this time, he spoke of his fears for his wife's mental health. I have been told that the new sciences of the mind are addressing the 'triggers' that set off uncontrollable behavior in such people."
Taking a deep breath, Irene lay the paper on the desk again. With long, slim fingers, she probed behind the jabot of white lace at the collar of her high-necked gray dress. She pulled out a cameo locket suspended from a thick chain and snapped it open.
The locket contained two pictures: one of her son, Bradley, and the other of her mother, Jane. She studied both, then closed the locket, replacing it in her neckline.
Picking up the cable, she continued reading as Philo explained the events aboard the Thistle that had cost Ardie his life. His description was painfully graphic. He spoke of Ardie's final, heroic gesture of love for his brother when he jumped into the path of the bullet intended for Bart and was struck dead.
Having read to the end, where Philo wrote that he was bringing Ardie's body home for burial in the family plot next to his mother, Nelle, Irene tossed the cable aside and commenced tapping the nails of her hands on the desktop.
Her bland expression betrayed none of the emotions, if any, that may have motivated the unremitting tapping of fingernails. Anyone watching her would have remarked the peculiarly rapid movement of the digits in contrast to the utter rigidity of the rest of her person: the upright torso planted firmly forward in the chair, the arched shoulders perfectly squared above elbows pressed firmly to her sides, the chin tilted high, the eyes staring unblinkingly into space.
Incessantly, the nails rapped on.
Directly, there came a knock at the study door.
"Who is it?" Irene's lips moved woodenly, like a ventriloquist's dummy's.
The maid peered timidly around the door. "It's Dora, Madam. May I get you somethin'? A cup o' coffee? It's gettin' on fer lunchtime soon, if you please."
Irene might have been carved in granite, but for the sharp rap-a-tap-tap of her nails.
"No coffee," she replied, "but fetch me Romelle."
The words were spoken coldly.
Dora closed the door softly.
Romelle was summoned in from the yard.
"An' you two," the maid said to Kathy and Brad, "trot upstairs an' wash yer face and hands good an' proper, and you oughta change yer clothes! Lunch will be set when yer ma comes back from the shops, Miss Kathy. She'll be wantin' you children ready!"
Dora stooped to Romelle with a cloth dampened at the kitchen sink.
"Your Aunt Irene wants to see you, Romy," she said, wiping the girl's face and hands briskly with the cloth. "I'm tellin' you the lady's not in the best o' moods, so you'd do well to remember that children should be seen an' not heard. Now, here's a spot o' dirt big as yer fist! An' I put this dress out fresh this mornin'! There, you scrub at it with this rag whilst I smooth down yer braids. Remember, love, to speak when spoken to, and not afore. A little curtsy at the door might help, an' a smile! Always a smile, no matter what she says. No poutin', mind you. A pouty face infuriates her so!"
Despite the admonition, Romelle's little bow lips turned down at the edges and puffed out. "When will Auntie Bridget be home, Dora?"
The maid looked at her with sympathetic eyes. "Darlin', she'll be back soon, but don't you fret. Dora will be standin' right outside the door."
The maid took her by the hand. Reluctantly, the child followed, but as she entered the wide hallway and saw the closed study door looming large before her, she balked.
"I don't want to, Dora," she whimpered softly. "Please don't make me. Tell her you couldn't find me."
Dora knelt in front of her, speaking in a low voice. "Has yer Aunt Irene ever laid a finger on you?"
"An' she never will! Not while yer Dora is in this house, and yer Auntie Bridget. We're both good Irishers! She has a loud bark, that Irene....."
Dora stuck her fingers behind her ears and waggled them while she shook her head from side to side, simulating a barking dog. "Yap, yap, yap! Bow-wow, bow-wow! That's all she is, Romy. She's a noisy dog what never bites!"
Romelle grinned nervously in spite of herself, collected her courage, and proceeded to the study door. Raising her hand, she glanced back at Dora for reassurance. The maid silently mouthed, Bow-wow-woW.
"Come in, Romelle," Irene responded to the knock.
Romelle entered the room.
"Close the door behind you, as you have been taught, and come here."
Irene still sat rigidly in the high-backed swivel chair behind the desk. Her fingernails still drummed their monotonous tune.
The black, snakelike eyes followed Romelle's apprehensive progress across the wide expanse of thick Belgian carpet to the desk's outer side.
Confronted by her nemesis, Romelle had forgotten to curtsy, her lips settling spontaneously into the forbidden pout.
Irene's stern visage had never inspired Romelle willingly to smile. Although angled toward her, it seemed blind to her presence. It lacked only the ominous flickering of a serpent's tongue.
Added to the somber atmosphere of the study, which also served as a library with its tome-lined shelves of dark mahogany, Irene's severe presence contributed immeasurably to the austerity of the room. She sat behind the stack of ledgers and piles of cash with which she had been working. A pair of pince-nez dangled from a string on her bosom. Behind her, the wall safe gaped open like an accusing eye aimed at Romelle.
"Come around here to me," Irene ordered curtly, her tone brooking no refusal.
Only her lips moved in the otherwise immobile face. Her nails did not lose a tap.
Meekly, Romelle obeyed. When she reached Irene, she paused.
Irene's prolonged drumming stopped abruptly. Her hand shot out with the lethal swiftness of an attacking viper, the nails closing down hard on Romelle's tiny wrist, penetrating it like fangs.
Tears of pain erupted from the girl, but she did not utter a sound. Irene jerked her closer to the chair, then dropped the wounded wrist. Romelle rubbed it gingerly, eyes wide with fright.
Reaching into her jabot, Irene brought forth the locket again. She opened it, a long nail coming to rest on Jane's image.
Forthwith, her mood became honeyed, her voice mellow and sweet.
"My mother was a beauty, wasn't she, Romy?"
Irene spoke as if no violence had occurred, nor had she ever addressed Romelle as Romy. She lifted the locket and let it drop gently around the girl's throat, giving her a peck on the cheek.
Petrified with fear, Romelle could not back away. Her first kiss from Irene after a lifetime of chilling indifference burnt like a spot of fire.
"That is the way my mother gave it to me, many, many years ago, Romy - just slipped it over my head. At that time, of course, my father's picture was beside hers, instead of Brad's. This was the last thing she gave me, on one of the few occasions I was allowed to see her. Do you know that she died trying to come to me?"
Irene's face took on a greater sadness, than Romelle had never dreamed she could feel.
"Yes, she escaped from her captors on Squirrel Island, and found a rowboat in the cove below the house, and she put out to sea," Irene continued, her fingers toying distractedly with the locket's thick chain of solid silver links. "All alone in a rowboat, my mother put out to sea! How she loved me! I never fully understood until I became a mother myself. She would have done anything to be with me, but I never saw her again."
The uncharacteristically soft, melancholy eyes took on a steely gleam. Romelle sensed instantly that the real Irene was coming back.
"I did not see her again because they killed her!" Irene's voice suddenly rasped. "My own father, and your father, they killed her! But it all began with your father, Barton Creel! It was here, in this very house, that he commenced the long, slow murder of my mother, when he accused her of thievery! He was about your age then."
Irene's eyes narrowed to ugly slits. Twisting the chain, she pulled Romelle closer. He was only pretending to be a child. He was a devil! And you...you are just like him. I see it in your eyes. You are not a child at all. You are a devil's whelp! Now, he has killed my husband, and you will find a way to separate me from my son. After all, didn't your father manage to separate me from my mother even though he appeared to be just a little boy? You have no right to this house, nor to Duncan Cargo, nor to the captain's millions! Everything belongs to Ardie's son. My Bradley is the captain's only true grandchild, the only rightful heir!".....!"
Irene dragged the girl to the center of the room by the chain around her neck. The sharp edges of its links cut into her tender flesh. Strangling, Romelle clawed desperately at the chain binding her throat.
"Nothing belongs to you or your father," Irene raged. "Usurpers! Swindlers! Murderers!"
Irene hauled Romelle off her feet, raising her aloft. Frantically, the child flailed her arms and legs in empty air. Then, the chain broke, and she crashed to the floor.
As the girl fell, Dora burst into the room. With a ferocious cry, the maid bounded across the carpet and threw herself on Irene like a tigress defending her cub.
The two women tumbled to the floor in an uncanny reprise of the day Annie had flung herself at Jane in the hallway outside, more than thirty years before. With a madwoman's frenzy, Irene wriggled out of Dora's clutches, ripping the maid's blouse.
Dora recovered and renewed the attack, determined to save Romelle even at the cost of her own life. She realized now that Irene would kill anyone who stood between her and the child. The maid went at Irene wailing like a banshee, ready to do murder herself. She tore at her mistress in a fury. Irene retaliated, both of them ripping and trearing at each other's hair and clothing until they were in tatters. Finally, Irene secured an advantage and delivered a prizefighter's punch to Dora's jaw, knocking her flat. Irene sprang toward the desk to snatch up the Japanese dagger.
Still conscious, Romelle saw the flash of the razor-sharp blade as Irene lifted it over the maid. The child summoned all her remaining strength and rose from the floor, catapulting herself headlong at Irene. Irene raised a knee to stave off the attack, striking Romelle in the stomach. The child flew backward under the impact and struck her head on the massive desk. She reared up in a daze, moaned, and slid to the floor. Blood spurted from her nose. She lay as motionless as death.
Reaching out to her, Dora attempted to rise, but Irene proved too quick.
Lifting the dagger to her arm's full length, she thrust it downward. It entered Dora's breast with a loud crack.
Panting and bedraggled, Irene picked herself up from the floor, leaving the dagger protruding from Dora's body. Hearing a noise, she looked toward the door. Brad stood there gawking, hardly daring to comprehend the violence he had just witnessed.
"Oh, no, Momma!" he cried in panic. "You've killed Romelle and Dora! Why, Momma, why?"
Behind him, Bridget's daughter, Kathy, screamed, and fled from the house.