A QUESTION OF IDENTITY
Mr. Pyecroft’s grin grew by
degrees more delighted: became the smile of a
whimsical genius of devil-may-care, of an exultantly
mischievous Pan. But he offered not a word of
comment upon his work. He was an artist who was,
in the main, content to achieve his masterpieces and
leave comment and blame and praise to his public and
He stood up.
“I believe I promised to peel
the potatoes and put on the roast,” he remarked,
and went out.
“Matilda,” breathed Mrs.
De Peyster, numbed and awed, still aghast, “did
you ever dream there could be such a man?”
“Oh, ma’am, never!” tragically,
“Whatever is he going to do next?”
“I’m sure I don’t know, ma’am.
“And whatever is going to happen to us next?”
“Oh, ma’am, it’s
terrible to think about! I’m sure I can’t
even guess! Mr. Pyecroft, and all the others,
and all these things happening I’m
sure they’ll be the death of me, ma’am!”
Mrs. De Peyster sprang from her bed.
Despite Matilda’s cheap dressing-gown which
she wore as appropriate to her station, she made a
splendid figure of raging majesty, hands clenched,
eyes blazing, furiously erect.
“That man is outrageous!”
she stormed. “I cannot, and shall not, stand
him any longer! We must, and shall, get rid of
him!” Her voice rang with its accustomed tone
of all-conquering determination. “Matilda,
we are going to do it! I say we are going to
Matilda gazed admiringly at her magnificently
aroused mistress. “Of course, you’ll
do it, ma’am,” she said with conviction.
“I cannot endure him another
minute!” Mrs. De Peyster raged on. “At
once, he goes out of this house! Or we do!”
“Of course, ma’am,”
repeated Matilda in her adoring voice. And then
after a moment, she added quaveringly: “But
please, ma’am, how are we going to
The outraged and annihilatory Mrs.
De Peyster gazed at Matilda, utterer of practical
common-places. As she gazed the splendid flames
within her seemed slowly to flicker out, and she sank
back upon her bed. Yes, how were they going to
In cooler mood they discussed that
question, without discovering a solution; discussed
it until it was time for Matilda to go downstairs
to perform her share of the preparation of the communal
dinner. Left alone, her fury now sunk to sober
ashes, Mrs. De Peyster continued the exploration of
possibilities, with the same negative result.
Matilda brought up her dinner on a
tray, then returned to the kitchen; for though the
others were all doing fair tasks, to Matilda of twenty
years’ experience fell the oversight of the thousand
details of the house. Presently Mary appeared,
on one of her visits of mercy full of relief
that the cabinet-maker had ended his work so soon,
thus setting Jack free.
But before beginning the anodynous
“Wormwood,” she launched into another
high-voltage eulogy of Angelica’s brother.
Even more than they had at first thought was he willing
and competent and agreeable in the matter of their
common household labor; he was not intrusive; he was
rich with clever and well-informed talk when they all
laid aside work to be sociable. In fact, as she
had said before, he was simply splendid!
“Now, I do hope, Angelica, that
you are going to forgive your brother,” Mary
insisted. “He really means well. I
think he’s what he is because he has never had
a fair chance.” And then more boldly:
“I think the fault is largely yours and Matilda’s.
Matilda says your parents died when you were all young;
and he admitted that he does not even remember them.
And he also admitted, when I pressed him, that you
and Matilda had not given him very much attention during
his boyhood. You and Matilda are older; you should
have brought him up more carefully; you are both seriously
to blame for what he is. So I hope,” she
concluded, “that both of you will forgive him
and help him.”
Once more Mrs. De Peyster did not
feel called upon to make response.
“I have noted particularly that
Matilda does not seem cordial and forgiving,”
Mary was continuing, when the prodigal brother himself
dropped in. With her pretty, determined manner,
Mary renewed her efforts at reconciliation in the
estranged family. Mr. Pyecroft was penitent without
being humble, and whenever a question was put directly
to Mrs. De Peyster his was the tongue that answered;
he was quite certain his sister Angelica would relent
and receive him back into her respect and love once
he had fully proved his worthiness.
“I must say, Mr. Simpson, that
I think you have an admirably forgiving nature,”
declared Mary. It was clear, though she was silent
on the matter, that she considered his sisters to
have cold, hard, New England hearts.
Mr. Pyecroft withdrew; and Mary, in
the high-pitched voice required by the invalid’s
misfortune, read “Wormwood” for an hour until
Jack came to the door and announced that Judge Harvey
had again called on them. Alone, Mrs. De Peyster
pondered her poignant problem, What should she do? wishful
that Matilda were present to talk the affair over with
her. But Matilda was still busy in the kitchen
with the odd jobs of night-end.
Toward ten o’clock Mr. Pyecroft
came in again. He stood and gazed silently down
upon her. The one electric light showed her an
odd, dry smile on Mr. Pyecroft’s face.
“What is it?” Mrs. De Peyster asked in
“Really, Angelica, you’re not half so
clever as I believed you.”
“What is it?” she repeated huskily.
“This pearl.” And
from a pocket he drew out the pendant he had appropriated
the night before in Mrs. Gilbert’s boarding-house.
“I thought we ought to be prepared with more
cash in hand for our get-away when we decide to make
it. So an hour ago I slipped out the back way,
and made for a safe pawnbroker I know of. Angelica,
you’re easy. This pearl is nothing but
imitation. And you fell for it!” He shook
his head sorrowingly, chidingly. “Here’s
one case where remorse might be highly proper and
safest; better just mail it back to the party you
lifted it from.”
With good-humored contempt he tossed
the pendant upon the bed. Mrs. De Peyster clutched
it and thrust it beneath her pillow.
“I believe, Angelica, my dear,”
he commented, “that in view of the capacity
this pearl incident has revealed, it is strictly up
to me to assume charge of every detail of our plan.”
He sat down and in his fluent manner
discussed the day’s developments and their preparations
for the future; and he was still talking when, fifteen
minutes later, the door opened and Matilda entered.
Her face, of late so often ashen, was ashen as though
almost from habit.
“Oh, oh,” she quavered,
“the servants’ bell rang and
I answered it, like I’d been told to do and
in stepped four men two of them the policemen
we let in last night, and two men I never saw before and
they asked if they might speak to my brother who was
visiting me. And I I promised to call
him down. Oh, ma’ Angelica
“Mr. Pyecroft, what does this
mean?” cried Mrs. De Peyster.
Mr. Pyecroft’s usual perfect
composure was gone. His face was gleamingly alert;
sharp as a razor’s edge.
“God knows how they’ve
done it,” he snapped out. “But it
means they’ve tracked me here!”
“As as Thomas Preston?”
“As Thomas Preston.”
“And if they take you they they
may find me, and
“Nothing more likely,” grimly responded
“Then escape!” Mrs. De
Peyster cried with frantic energy. “Run!
For heaven’s sake, run! You still have
“Running from the police is
the surest way to get caught when they’ve got
you trapped,” he answered in quick, staccato
tones. “They’ve got every door watched sure.
Anyhow Listen! Hear those steps?
They haven’t trusted you, Matilda; they’ve
followed. Angelica, down with your face to the
wall, and be sick! And while you’re at it,
be damned sick!”
Mrs. De Peyster obeyed. Mr. Pyecroft
drew the room’s one chair up beside the bed,
sat down, picked up “Wormwood,” and again,
with the most natural manner in the world, he began
to read in a loud voice. The next moment the
two policemen of the previous night came in.
Mr. Pyecroft arose.
“I must beg your pardon, officers,”
he said pleasantly and with a slight tincture of his
clerical manner. “My sister Matilda just
told me you wished to see me, but I was almost at the
end of a very interesting chapter which I was reading
aloud to my other sister, who is ill, and so I thought
I would conclude the scene before I came down.
In what way can I serve you?”
Neither of the officers replied. One closed the doorway
with his bulk, and the other thumped heavily down a flight or two of stairs,
from whence his shout ascended:
“We’ve got him up here, Lieutenant!
Come on up!”
Within the tiny room of the second
maid no one spoke. Presently heavy footfalls
mounted; the second policeman entered, and presently
two solid men in civilian dress pushed through the
door. The foremost, a dark-visaged man with heavy
jaw, and a black derby which he did not remove, fixed
on Mr. Pyecroft a triumphant, domineering gaze.
“Well, Preston,” he said,
“so we’ve landed you at last.”
Mr. Pyecroft, his left forefinger
still keeping the place in “Wormwood,”
stared at the speaker in bewilderment.
“Pardon me, sir, but I completely
fail to understand what you are talking about.”
“Don’t try that con stuff
on us; we won’t fall for it,” advised the
lieutenant. He smiled with satiric satisfaction;
he was something of a wit in the department.
“But if you ain’t sure who you are, I’ll
put you wise: Mr. Thomas Preston, forger of the
Jefferson letters, it gives me great pleasure to introduce
you to yourself. Shake hands, gents.”
Mr. Pyecroft continued his puzzled
stare. Then a smile began to break through his
bewilderment. Then he laughed.
“So that’s it, is it!
You take me for that Thomas Preston. I’ve
read about him. He must be a clever fellow, in
his own way.”
He sobered. “But, gentlemen,
if I had the clever qualities attributed to Mr. Preston,
I am sure I could apply those qualities to some more
useful, and even more profitable, occupation.”
“You don’t do it bad at
all, Preston,” observed the lieutenant.
“Only, you see, it don’t go down.”
“I trust,” Mr. Pyecroft
said good-humoredly, “that it isn’t going
to be necessary to explain to you that I am not Thomas
“No, that won’t be necessary
at all,” replied the waggish lieutenant.
“Not necessary at all. For you can’t.”
Mr. Pyecroft raised his eyebrows.
“Gentlemen, you really seem
to be taking this matter seriously! Why, you
two officers in uniform saw me only last night here
with my two sisters, and any one in the neighborhood
can tell you my sister Matilda has been housekeeper
in this house for twenty years.”
That tone was most plausible.
The two uniformed policemen looked at their superior
“Never you mind what they seen
last night,” the lieutenant commented dryly.
“And never you mind about Matilda.”
“But you are forgetting that
I am Matilda’s brother,” said Mr. Pyecroft.
“Matilda, I am your brother, am I not?”
“Y yes,” testified
Matilda, who by the corpulent pressure of four crowded
officers was almost being bisected against the edge
of the stationary wash-bowl.
“And you, Angelica; I’m your brother,
am I not?”
“Yes,” breathed Mrs. De Peyster from beneath
Mr. Pyecroft turned in polite triumph to the lieutenant.
“There, now, you see.”
“But, I don’t see,”
returned that officer. “I know you’re
Thomas Preston. Jim, just slip the nippers on
him. And there’s something queer about
these women. Just slip the bracelets on Matilda,
too, and carry downstairs the party in bed. We’ll
call the police ambulance for her, and take the whole
bunch over to the station.”
The party in bed suddenly stiffened
as if from a stroke of some kind, and Matilda fairly
wilted away. Mr. Pyecroft alone did not change
by so much as a hair.
“One moment, gentlemen,”
he interposed in his even voice, “before you
go to regrettable extremes. I believe that an
even better witness to my identity can easily be secured.”
“And who’s that, Tommie?”
“I refer to Judge Harvey.”
“Judge Harvey!” The lieutenant
was startled out of his ironic exultation. “You
mean the guy that was stung by them forged letters the
complainant who’s making it so damned hot for
“The same,” said Mr. Pyecroft.
“Judge Harvey is at this moment in this house.”
“In this house!”
“I believe he is downstairs
some place going over some bills Mrs. De Peyster asked
him to examine. Matilda, you doubtless know in
what room the Judge is working. Will you kindly
knock at his door and ask him to step up here for
The lieutenant frowned doubtfully
at Mr. Pyecroft, hesitated, then nodded to Matilda.
The latter, relieved of the pressure of much policial
avoirdupois, slipped from the room. The lieutenant
turned and silently held a penetrating gaze upon the
empty clothes-hooks. Mr. Pyecroft continued to
look imperturbably and pleasantly upon the four officers.
And under the bedclothes Mrs. De Peyster saw wild visions
of Mr. Pyecroft being the next moment exposed, and
herself dragged forth to shame.
Thus for a minute or two. Then
Judge Harvey appeared in the doorway.
“Lieutenant Sullivan! See
here, what’s the meaning of this?” he
“’Evening, Judge Harvey,”
began the lieutenant, for the first time since his
entrance removing his derby. “It’s
“Pardon me,” interrupted
Mr. Pyecroft. “Judge Harvey, these gentlemen
here have been upon the point of making a blunder that
would be ludicrous did it not have its serious side.
That’s why I had you called. The fact is,
they desire to arrest me.”
“Arrest you!” exclaimed the Judge.
“Yes, arrest me,” Mr.
Pyecroft went on, easily, yet under his easy words
trying to suggest certain definite contingencies.
“That would be bad enough in itself. But,
as you know, Judge Harvey, my arrest would unfortunately
but necessarily involve the arrest of several other
quite innocent persons bring about a great
public scandal and create a situation that
would be deplorable in every particular. You see
Judge Harvey got the covered meaning.
“I see. But what do they want to arrest
“On a most absurd charge,”
answered Mr. Pyecroft, smiling, but eyes
straight into Judge Harvey’s eyes. “They
seem to think I am Thomas Preston.”
“Thomas Preston!” cried the Judge.
“Yes, the man that forged those Jefferson letters
Mr. Pyecroft saw the puzzled semi-recognition
that he had observed in the Judge’s face the
night before flash into amazed, full recognition.
Quickly but without appearance of haste, he stepped
forward diverting attention from the Judge’s
face, and made himself the center of the party’s
“You see, lieutenant and officers,”
he said easily, filling in time to give Judge Harvey
opportunity to recover and think and still
aiming his meaning at the Judge, “you see, I
have here summoned before you the best possible witness
to my identity. You threaten to arrest and expose
me and two other persons in this house. Judge
Harvey knows, as well as I know, how unfortunate it
would be for these parties, and how displeasing to
Mrs. De Peyster, if you should make the very great
blunder of arresting me as Thomas Preston. Now,
Judge Harvey,” with a joking smile, “you
know who I am. Will you please inform the lieutenant
whether I am the man you wish to have arrested?”
Judge Harvey stared, silent, his face twitching.
“Is what he says O.K., Judge?”
queried Lieutenant Sullivan. “He ain’t
the man you want arrested?”
“He is not,” the Judge managed to get
“From the way you hesitated
“The Judge’s hesitation,
Lieutenant,” Mr. Pyecroft interrupted in his
pleasant tone, “was due to his amazement at the
utter grotesqueness of the situation. He was
for a moment utterly taken aback. That’s
it, isn’t it, Judge?”
“Yes,” said Judge Harvey.
The lieutenant twisted his derby in chagrined, ireful
“Some of my men have been damned
fools again!” he exploded. He got himself
back under control. “Judge Harvey, I hope
you’ll excuse our buttin’ in like this and and
won’t find it necessary to mention it to the
heads of the department.”
“It’s it’s all right,”
said the Judge.
“And you, Mr. Mr.
“Simpson Archibald Simpson,”
supplied Mr. Pyecroft.
“Mr. Simpson, I hope you don’t mind this
“No ill feeling at all, Lieutenant,”
Mr. Pyecroft said graciously. “Such little
mistakes must occasionally occur in the most careful
“And and there’s
another thing,” said Lieutenant Sullivan with
a note of gruff pleading. “You know how
the papers are roasting the department just now.
For every little slip, we get the harpoon or the laugh.
I’ll be obliged to you if you don’t say
anything that’ll let this thing get into the
“Believe me, Lieutenant, I shall
do everything in my power to protect you,” Mr.
Pyecroft assured him. “And now, since the
matter is settled,” he added pleasantly, “perhaps
you’d like to have Matilda show you the way
out. These upper hallways are really very confusing.
Matilda, my dear, if you don’t mind.”
Wordlessly, Matilda obeyed, and four
sets of policemen’s feet went heavily down the
stairs. Beneath her bedclothes Mrs. De Peyster
began faintly, ever so faintly, to return to life.
Judge Harvey glared at Mr. Pyecroft, hands spasmodically
clutching and unclutching; his look grew darker and
darker. Respectful, regretful, Mr. Pyecroft stood
His left forefinger had not lost the
place in “Wormwood.”