Mrs. Jessup came to the rescue. Apparently deciding that her duty to a guest outweighed her annoyance at being bullied into opening her parlor, she said, “What’s your name, dear? And would you like some hot chocolate? It’s a nasty night out there.”
“I’m Mary,” our visitor said hesitantly, as if she was afraid of being contradicted (although my employer had already addressed her by name). “From the college. Claremont College. And we really should go right away…” She gestured at the door, but she obviously knew that her suggestion wasn’t going to be accepted.
“I’ll make the hot chocolate,” Mrs. Jessup said as we all went into the parlor. She continued through to the kitchen as I took Mary’s raincoat and scarf and hung them up in the hall.
We sat with her at the small breakfast table, and my employer sighed as she realized that our right to use the parlor would be rescinded, immediately, if she lit a cigarette.
“So, Mary,” I said, “what brings you out on this very unpleasant evening? I’m Marshall, by the way.”
“I…” she began. She made a face, and I remember thinking, perhaps unkindly, that, after all this buildup, this had better turn out to be interesting.
“I was Diana’s roommate, as you said, but I don’t live in the dorm anymore. It’s…” She shrugged.
“The dorms are not ideal,” my employer said. “I know that from experience. Where are you living now?”
“It’s an island, near the college. There’s a road, but it’s underwater at high tide, and sometimes during storms–”
“Heron Island. I’m familiar with it. So, your urgency a few moments ago was because it’s nearing the cutoff time, when access to the island will no longer be possible until tomorrow morning?”
Mary nodded. “And the phone lines are down, and the electricity is out. Because of the storm.”
My employer got to her feet and limped to the tide table which was posted on the wall, as if she doubted our visitor’s assessment of the situation.
“Is the house haunted?” my employer asked over her shoulder. “That’s what I’ve heard.”
Mary seemed surprised by the question — I guessed she’d been ready to bring this up herself and fight for the possibility against opposition from the notoriously atheistic detective.
My employer came back to the table and continued as if Mary had actually responded.
“Why do people think that it’s haunted, and why is the situation suddenly so urgent that you have come out on this brutal evening to seek my assistance?”
“The house is supposed to be haunted–”
My employer shook her head. “If you want me to investigate a haunting–“
“No, but I need to explain the situation at the house.”
My employer waved a hand.
“Heron House — that’s the name of the house — was the first house built on the island. It’s very old. Back then, when the entire island was owned by the Loomis family, there wasn’t a road — the only way on or off the island was by boat. The family owned a fishing fleet, and the house overlooks the harbor, so they could see their ships coming and going. Then, during the Depression (I think this is the history — I haven’t really researched it, so it’s mostly just what people have told me) the family lost all their money and they had to sell most of the land on the island, other than their house and the property right around it. That’s when the town built the road, so the island would be at least somewhat accessible by car.
“Then, some time after that, the surviving son of the family died suddenly, and some distant relatives inherited the property. They live on the West Coast, or somewhere, and they decided that it would make a nice summer place for them, but they wanted to make some money from it, too, so they hired a local realtor to rent out rooms to college students during the fall and spring semesters, and then they’d use it themselves in the summer.”
“From what I’ve heard, this was not popular with the other residents of the island,” my employer put in.
Mary laughed, which surprised me, since she’d looked alternately worried and morose every minute since her arrival. “I’ll say. They’re a very snooty bunch, as far as I can tell. (Of course, they never actually talk to any of us unless they have to.)”
“But if looks could kill..”
“Yeah. Now the house is all girls, which may be a compromise or something–“
“Is that an official policy?”
She shook her head. “Not as far as I know. Guys do apply, but they’re always turned down — last semester and this. Everybody kind of knows at this point.”
My employer smiled. “Girls being more ladylike and demure, of course, and much less inclined toward riotous misbehavior. My friends at the school have told me about the house. As I’m sure you know, it’s a pretty regular routine at this point: Girls get sick of the dorms, move to the house when there’s an open room, which there often is, then they get scared by all the goings-on, or they discover that they don’t actually want to live in such a… libidinous environment after all, and then they move quickly back to the dorms, leaving an open room for the next girl to move in.”