BREAKING THE NEWS
Wardrop looked so wretched that I asked him into my room, and mixed him some whisky and water. When I had given him a cigar he began to look a little less hopeless.
"You've been a darned sight better to me than I would have been to you, under the circumstances," he said gratefully.
"I thought we would better arrange about Miss Margery before we try to settle down," I replied. "What she has gone through in the last twenty-four hours is nothing to what is coming to-morrow. Will you tell her about her father?"
He took a turn about the room.
"I believe it would come better from you," he said finally. "I am in the peculiar position of having been suspected by her father of robbing him, by you of carrying away her aunt, and now by the police and everybody else of murdering her father."
"I do not suspect you of anything," I justified myself. "I don't think you are entirely open, that is all, Wardrop. I think you are damaging yourself to shield some one else."
His expressive face was on its guard in a moment. He ceased his restless pacing, pausing impressively before me.
"I give you my word as a gentleman—I do not know who killed Mr. Fleming, and that when I first saw him dead, my only thought was that he had killed himself. He had threatened to, that day. Why, if you think I killed him, you would have to think I robbed him, too, in order to find a motive."
I did not tell him that that was precisely what Hunter did think. I evaded the issue.
"Mr. Wardrop, did you ever hear of the figures eleven twenty-two?" I inquired.
"Eleven twenty-two?" he repeated. "No, never in any unusual connection."
"You never heard Mr. Fleming use them?" I persisted.
He looked puzzled.
"Probably," he said. "In the very nature of Mr. Fleming's position, we used figures all the time. Eleven twenty-two. That's the time the theater train leaves the city for Bellwood. Not what you want, eh?"
"Not quite," I answered non-committally and began to wind my watch. He took the hint and prepared to leave.
"I'll not keep you up any longer," he said, picking up his raincoat. He opened the door and stared ruefully down at the detective in the hall below. "The old place is queer without Miss Jane," he said irrelevantly. "Well, good night, and thanks."
He went heavily along the hall and I closed my door, I heard him pass Margery's room and then go back and rap lightly. She was evidently awake.
"It's Harry," he called. "I thought you wouldn't worry if you knew I was in the house to-night."
She asked him something, for—
"Yes, he is here," he said. He stood there for a moment, hesitating over something, but whatever it was, he decided against it.
"Good night, dear," he said gently and went away.
The little familiarity made me wince. Every unattached man has the same pang now and then. I have it sometimes when Edith sits on the arm of Fred's chair, or one of the youngsters leaves me to run to "daddy." And one of the sanest men I ever met went to his office and proposed to his stenographer in sheer craving for domesticity, after watching the wife of one of his friends run her hand over her husband's chin and give him a reproving slap for not having shaved!
I pulled myself up sharply and after taking off my dripping coat, I went to the window and looked out into the May night. It seemed incredible that almost the same hour the previous night little Miss Jane had disappeared, had been taken bodily away through the peace of the warm spring darkness, and that I, as wide-awake as I was at that moment, acute enough of hearing to detect Wardrop's careful steps on the gravel walk below, had heard no struggle, had permitted this thing to happen without raising a finger in the old lady's defense. And she was gone as completely as if she had stepped over some psychic barrier into the fourth dimension!
I found myself avoiding the more recent occurrence at the White Cat. I was still too close to it to have gained any perspective. On that subject I was able to think clearly of only one thing: that I would have to tell Margery in the morning, and that I would have given anything I possessed for a little of Edith's diplomacy with which to break the bad news. It was Edith who broke the news to me that the moths had got into my evening clothes while I was hunting in the Rockies, by telling me that my dress-coat made me look narrow across the shoulders and persuading me to buy a new one and give the old one to Fred. Then she broke the news of the moths to Fred!
I was ready for bed when Wardrop came back and rapped at my door. He was still dressed, and he had the leather bag in his hand.
"Look here," he said excitedly, when I had closed the door, "this is not my bag at all. Fool that I was. I never examined it carefully."
He held it out to me, and I carried it to the light. It was an ordinary eighteen-inch Russia leather traveling-bag, tan in color, and with gold-plated mountings. It was empty, save for the railroad schedule that still rested in one side pocket. Wardrop pointed to the empty pocket on the other side.
"In my bag," he explained rapidly, "my name was written inside that pocket, in ink. I did it myself—my name and address."
I looked inside the pockets on both sides: nothing had been written in.
"Don't you see?" he asked excitedly. "Whoever stole my bag had this one to substitute for it. If we can succeed in tracing the bag here to the shop it came from, and from there to the purchaser, we have the thief."
"There's no maker's name in it," I said, after a casual examination. Wardrop's face fell, and he took the bag from me despondently.
"No matter which way I turn," he said, "I run into a blind alley. If I were worth a damn, I suppose I could find a way out. But I'm not. Well, I'll let you sleep this time."
At the door, however, he turned around and put the bag on the floor, just inside.
"If you don't mind, I'll leave it here," he said. "They'll be searching my room, I suppose, and I'd like to have the bag for future reference."
He went for good that time, and I put out the light. As an afterthought I opened my door perhaps six inches, and secured it with one of the pink conch-shells which flanked either end of the stone hearth. I had failed the night before: I meant to be on hand that night.
I went to sleep immediately, I believe. I have no idea how much later it was that I roused. I wakened suddenly and sat up in bed. There had been a crash of some kind, for the shock was still vibrating along my nerves. Dawn was close; the window showed gray against the darkness inside, and I could make out dimly the larger objects in the room. I listened intently, but the house seemed quiet. Still I was not satisfied. I got up and, lighting the candle, got into my raincoat in lieu of a dressing-gown, and prepared to investigate.
With the fatality that seemed to pursue my feet in that house, with my first step I trod squarely on top of the conch-shell, and I fell back on to the edge of the bed swearing softly and holding the injured member. Only when the pain began to subside did I realize that I had left the shell on the door-sill, and that it had moved at least eight feet while I slept!
When I could walk I put it on the mantel, its mate from the other end of the hearth beside it. Then I took my candle and went out into the hall. My door, which I had left open, I found closed; nothing else was disturbed. The leather bag sat just inside, as Wardrop had left it. Through Miss Maitland's transom were coming certain strangled and irregular sounds, now falsetto, now deep bass, that showed that worthy lady to be asleep. A glance down the staircase revealed Davidson, stretching in his chair and looking up at me.
"I'm frozen," he called up cautiously. "Throw me down a blanket or two, will you?"
I got a couple of blankets from my bed and took them down. He was examining his chair ruefully.
"There isn't any grip to this horsehair stuff," he complained. "Every time I doze off I dream I'm coasting down the old hill back on the farm, and when I wake up I'm sitting on the floor, with the end of my back bone bent like a hook."
He wrapped himself in the blankets and sat down again, taking the precaution this time to put his legs on another chair and thus anchor himself. Then he produced a couple of apples and a penknife and proceeded to pare and offer me one.
"Found 'em in the pantry," he said, biting into one. "I belong to the apple society. Eat one apple every day and keep healthy!" He stopped and stared intently at the apple. "I reckon I got a worm that time," he said, with less ardor.
"I'll get something to wash him down," I offered, rising, but he waved me back to my stair.
"Not on your life," he said with dignity. "Let him walk. How are things going up-stairs?"
"You didn't happen to be up there a little while ago, did you?" I questioned in turn.
"No. I've been kept busy trying to sit tight where I am. Why?"
"Some one came into my room and wakened me," I explained. "I heard a racket and when I got up I found a shell that I had put on the door-sill to keep the door open, in the middle of the room. I stepped on it."
He examined a piece of apple before putting it in his mouth. Then he turned a pair of shrewd eyes on me.
"That's funny," he said. "Anything in the room disturbed?"
"Where's the shell now?"
"On the mantel. I didn't want to step on it again."
He thought for a minute, but his next remark was wholly facetious.
"No. I guess you won't step on it up there. Like the old woman: she says, 'Motorman, if I put my foot on the rail will I be electrocuted?' And he says, 'No, madam, not unless you put your other foot on the trolley wire.'"
I got up impatiently. There was no humor in the situation that night for me.
"Some one had been in the room," I reiterated. "The door was closed, although I had left it open."
He finished his apple and proceeded with great gravity to drop the parings down the immaculate register in the floor beside his chair. Then—
"I've only got one business here, Mr. Knox," he said in an undertone, "and you know what that is. But if it will relieve your mind of the thought that there was anything supernatural about your visitor, I'll tell you that it was Mr. Wardrop, and that to the best of my belief he was in your room, not once, but twice, in the last hour and a half. As far as that shell goes, it was I that kicked it, having gone up without my shoes."
I stared at him blankly.
"What could he have wanted?" I exclaimed. But with his revelation, Davidson's interest ceased; he drew the blanket up around his shoulders and shivered.
"Search me," he said and yawned.
I went back to bed, but not to sleep. I deliberately left the door wide open, but no intrusion occurred. Once I got up and glanced down the stairs. For all his apparent drowsiness, Davidson heard my cautious movements, and saluted me in a husky whisper.
"Have you got any quinine?" he said. "I'm sneezing my head off."
But I had none. I gave him a box of cigarettes, and after partially dressing, I threw myself across the bed to wait for daylight. I was roused by the sun beating on my face, to hear Miss Letitia's tones from her room across.
"Nonsense," she was saying querulously. "Don't you suppose I can smell? Do you think because I'm a little hard of hearing that I've lost my other senses? Somebody's been smoking."
"It's me," Heppie shouted. "I—"
"You?" Miss Letitia snarled. "What are you smoking for? That ain't my shirt; it's my—"
"I ain't smokin'," yelled Heppie. "You won't let me tell you. I spilled vinegar on the stove; that's what you smell."
Miss Letitia's sardonic chuckle came through the door.
"Vinegar," she said with scorn. "Next thing you'll be telling me it's vinegar that Harry and Mr. Knox carry around in little boxes in their pockets. You've pinned my cap to my scalp."
I hurried down-stairs to find Davidson gone. My blanket lay neatly folded, on the lower step, and the horsehair chairs were ranged along the wall as before. I looked around anxiously for telltale ashes, but there was none, save, at the edge of the spotless register, a trace. Evidently they had followed the apple parings. It grew cold a day or so later, and Miss Letitia had the furnace fired, and although it does not belong to my story, she and Heppie searched the house over to account for the odor of baking apples—a mystery that was never explained.
Wardrop did not appear at breakfast. Margery came down-stairs as Bella was bringing me my coffee, and dropped languidly into her chair. She looked tired and white.
"Another day!" she said wearily. "Did you ever live through such an eternity as the last thirty-six hours?"
I responded absently; the duty I had assumed hung heavy over me. I had a frantic impulse to shirk the whole thing: to go to Wardrop and tell him it was his responsibility, not mine, to make this sad-eyed girl sadder still. That as I had not his privilege of comforting her, neither should I shoulder his responsibility of telling her. But the issue was forced on me sooner than I had expected, for at that moment I saw the glaring head-lines of the morning paper, laid open at Wardrop's plate.
She must have followed my eyes, for we reached for it simultaneously. She was nearer than I, and her quick eye caught the name. Then I put my hand over the heading and she flushed with indignation.
"You are not to read it now," I said, meeting her astonished gaze as best I could. "Please let me have it. I promise you I will give it to you—almost immediately."
"You are very rude," she said without relinquishing the paper. "I saw a part of that; it is about my father!"
"Drink your coffee, please," I pleaded. "I will let you read it then. On my honor."
She looked at me; then she withdrew her hand and sat erect.
"How can you be so childish!" she exclaimed. "If there is anything in that paper that it—will hurt me to learn, is a cup of coffee going to make it any easier?"
I gave up then. I had always thought that people heard bad news better when they had been fortified with something to eat, and I had a very distinct recollection that Fred had made Edith drink something—tea probably—before he told her that Billy had fallen off the back fence and would have to have a stitch taken in his lip. Perhaps I should have offered Margery tea instead of coffee. But as it was, she sat, stonily erect, staring at the paper, and feeling that evasion would be useless, I told her what had happened, breaking the news as gently as I could.
I stood by her helplessly through the tearless agony that followed, and cursed myself for a blundering ass. I had said that he had been accidentally shot, and I said it with the paper behind me, but she put the evasion aside bitterly.
"Accidentally!" she repeated. The first storm of grief over, she lifted her head from where it had rested on her arms and looked at me, scorning my subterfuge. "He was murdered. That's the word I didn't have time to read! Murdered! And you sat back and let it happen. I went to you in time and you didn't do anything. No one did anything!"
I did not try to defend myself. How could I? And afterward when she sat up and pushed back the damp strands of hair from her eyes, she was more reasonable.
"I did not mean what I said about your not having done anything," she said, almost childishly. "No one could have done more. It was to happen, that's all."
But even then I knew she had trouble in store that she did not suspect. What would she do when she heard that Wardrop was under grave suspicion? Between her dead father and her lover, what? It was to be days before I knew and in all that time, I, who would have died, not cheerfully but at least stoically, for her, had to stand back and watch the struggle, not daring to hold out my hand to help, lest by the very gesture she divine my wild longing to hold her for myself.
She recovered bravely that morning from the shock, and refusing to go to her room and lie down—a suggestion, like the coffee, culled from my vicarious domestic life—she went out to the veranda and sat there in the morning sun, gazing across the lawn. I left her there finally, and broke the news of her brother-in-law's death to Miss Letitia. After the first surprise, the old lady took the news with what was nearer complacency than resignation.
"Shot!" she said, sitting up in bed, while Heppie shook her pillows. "It's a queer death for Allan Fleming; I always said he would be hanged."
After that, she apparently dismissed him from her mind, and we talked of her sister. Her mood had changed and it was depressing to find that she spoke of Jane always in the past tense. She could speak of her quite calmly—I suppose the sharpness of our emotions is in inverse ratio to our length of years, and she regretted that, under the circumstances, Jane would not rest in the family lot.
"We are all there," she said, "eleven of us, counting my sister Mary's husband, although he don't properly belong, and I always said we would take him out if we were crowded. It is the best lot in the Hopedale Cemetery; you can see the shaft for two miles in any direction."
We held a family council that morning around Miss Letitia's bed: Wardrop, who took little part in the proceedings, and who stood at a window looking out most of the time, Margery on the bed, her arm around Miss Letitia's shriveled neck, and Heppie, who acted as interpreter and shouted into the old lady's ear such parts of the conversation as she considered essential.
"I have talked with Miss Fleming," I said, as clearly as I could, "and she seems to shrink from seeing people. The only friends she cares about are in Europe, and she tells me there are no other relatives."
Heppie condensed this into a vocal capsule, and thrust it into Miss Letitia's ear. The old lady nodded.
"No other relatives," she corroborated. "God be praised for that, anyhow."
"And yet," I went on, "there are things to look after, certain necessary duties that no one else can attend to. I don't want to insist, but she ought, if she is able, to go to the city house, for a few hours, at least."
"City house!" Heppie yelled in her ear.
"It ought to be cleaned," Miss Letitia acquiesced, "and fresh curtains put up. Jane would have been in her element; she was always handy at a funeral. And don't let them get one of those let-down-at-the-side coffins. They're leaky."
Luckily Margery did not notice this.
"I was going to suggest," I put in hurriedly, "that my brother's wife would be only too glad to help, and if Miss Fleming will go into town with me, I am sure Edith would know just what to do. She isn't curious and she's very capable."
Margery threw me a grateful glance, grateful, I think, that I could understand how, under the circumstances, a stranger was more acceptable than curious friends could be.
"Mr. Knox's sister-in-law!" interpreted Heppie.
"When you have to say the letter 's,' turn your head away," Miss Letitia rebuked her. "Well, I don't object, if Knox's sister-in-law don't." She had an uncanny way of expanding Heppie's tabloid speeches. "You can take my white silk shawl to lay over the body, but be sure to bring it back. We may need it for Jane."
If the old lady's chin quivered a bit, while Margery threw her arms around her, she was mightily ashamed of it. But Heppie was made of weaker stuff. She broke into a sudden storm of sobs and left the room, to stick her head in the door a moment after.
"Kidneys or chops?" she shouted almost belligerently.
"Kidneys," Miss Letitia replied in kind.
Wardrop went with us to the station at noon, but he left us there, with a brief remark that he would be up that night. After I had put Margery in a seat, I went back to have a word with him alone. He was standing beside the train, trying to light a cigarette, but his hands shook almost beyond control, and after the fourth match he gave it up. My minute for speech was gone. As the train moved out I saw him walking back along the platform, paying no attention to anything around him. Also, I had a fleeting glimpse of a man loafing on a baggage truck, his hat over his eyes. He was paring an apple with a penknife, and dropping the peelings with careful accuracy through a crack in the floor of the platform.
I had arranged over the telephone that Edith should meet the train, and it was a relief to see that she and Margery took to each other at once. We drove to the house immediately, and after a few tears when she saw the familiar things around her, Margery rose to the situation bravely. Miss Letitia had sent Bella to put the house in order, and it was evident that the idea of clean curtains for the funeral had been drilled into her until it had become an obsession. Not until Edith had concealed the step-ladder were the hangings safe, and late in the afternoon we heard a crash from the library, and found Bella twisted on the floor, the result of putting a teakwood tabouret on a table and from thence attacking the lace curtains of the library windows.
Edith gave her a good scolding and sent her off to soak her sprained ankle. Then she righted the tabouret, sat down on it and began on me.
"Do you know that you have not been to the office for two days?" she said severely. "And do you know that Hawes had hysterics in our front hall last night? You had a case in court yesterday, didn't you?"
"Nothing very much," I said, looking over her head. "Anyhow, I'm tired. I don't know when I'm going back. I need a vacation."
She reached behind her and pulling the cord, sent the window shade to the top of the window. At the sight of my face thus revealed, she drew a long sigh.
"The biggest case you ever had, Jack! The biggest retainer you ever had—"
"I've spent that," I protested feebly.
"A vacation, and you only back from Pinehurst!"
"The girl was in trouble—is in trouble, Edith," I burst out. "Any one would have done the same thing. Even Fred would hardly have deserted that household. It's stricken, positively stricken."
My remark about Fred did not draw her from cover.
"Of course it's your own affair," she said, not looking at me, "and goodness knows I'm disinterested about it, you ruin the boys, both stomachs and dispositions, and I could use your room splendidly as a sewing-room—"
"Edith! You abominable little liar!"
She dabbed at her eyes furiously with her handkerchief, and walked with great dignity to the door. Then she came back and put her hand on my arm.
"Oh, Jack, if we could only have saved you this!" she said, and a minute later, when I did not speak: "Who is the man, dear?"
"A distant relative, Harry Wardrop," I replied, with what I think was very nearly my natural tone. "Don't worry, Edith. It's all right. I've known it right along."
"Pooh!" Edith returned sagely. "So do I know I've got to die and be buried some day. Its being inevitable doesn't make it any more cheerful." She went out, but she came back in a moment and stuck her head through the door.
"That's the only inevitable thing there is," she said, taking up the conversation—an old habit of hers—where she had left off.
"I don't know what you are talking about," I retorted, turning my back on her. "And anyhow, I regard your suggestion as immoral." But when I turned again, she had gone.
That Saturday afternoon at four o'clock the body of Allan Fleming was brought home, and placed in state in the music-room of the house.
Miss Jane had been missing since Thursday night. I called Hunter by telephone, and he had nothing to report.