I stopped at the head of the stairs, with a delicious, guilty feeling.
“Have they ever heard of her?” Cousin Bertha asked.
“It is thought they went to Spain,” replied Mrs. McAlery, solemnly, yet not without a certain zest. “Mr. Jules Hollister will not have her name mentioned in his presence, you know. And Whitcomb chased them as far as New York with a horse-pistol in his pocket. The report is that he got to the dock just as the ship sailed. And then, you know, he went to live somewhere out West,—in Iowa, I believe.”
“Did he ever get a divorce?” Cousin Bertha inquired.
“He was too good a church member, my dear,” my mother reminded her.
“Well, I’d have got one quick enough, church member or no church member,” declared Cousin Bertha, who had in her elements of daring.
“Not that I mean for a moment to excuse her,” Mrs. McAlery put in, “but Edward Whitcomb did have a frightful temper, and he was awfully strict with her, and he was old enough, anyhow, to be her father. Grace Hollister was the last woman in the world I should have suspected of doing so hideous a thing. She was so sweet and simple.”
“Jennings was very attractive,” said my Cousin Bertha. “I don’t think I ever saw a handsomer man. Now, if he had looked at me—”
The sentence was never finished, for at this crucial moment I dropped a grammar....
I had heard enough, however, to excite my curiosity to the highest pitch. And that evening, when I came in at five o’clock to study, I asked my mother what had become of Gene Hollister’s aunt.
“She went away, Hugh,” replied my mother, looking greatly troubled.
“Why?” I persisted.
“It is something you are too young to understand.”
Of course I started an investigation, and the next day at school I asked the question of Gene Hollister himself, only to discover that he believed his aunt to be dead! And that night he asked his mother if his Aunt Grace were really alive, after all? Whereupon complications and explanations ensued between our parents, of which we saw only the surface signs.... My father accused me of eavesdropping (which I denied), and sentenced me to an afternoon of solitary confinement for repeating something which I had heard in private. I have reason to believe that my mother was also reprimanded.
It must not be supposed that I permitted the matter to rest. In addition to Grits Jarvis, there was another contraband among my acquaintances, namely, Alec Pound, the scrape-grace son of the Reverend Doctor Pound. Alec had an encyclopaedic mind, especially well stocked with the kind of knowledge I now desired; first and last he taught me much, which I would better have got in another way. To him I appealed and got the story, my worst suspicions being confirmed. Mrs. Whitcomb’s house had been across the alley from that of Mr. Jennings, but no one knew that anything was “going on,” though there had been signals from the windows—the neighbours afterwards remembered....