ASSOCIATION OF IDEAS
I ate a light lunch at Bellwood, alone, with Bella to look after me in the dining-room. She was very solicitous, and when she had brought my tea, I thought she wanted to say something. She stood awkwardly near the door, and watched me.
"You needn't wait, Bella," I said.
"I beg your pardon, sir, but—I wanted to ask you—is Miss Fleming well?"
"She was not very well this morning, but I don't think it is serious, Bella," I replied. She turned to go, but I fancied she hesitated.
"Oh, Bella," I called, as she was going out, "I want to ask you something. The night at the Fleming home, when you and I watched the house, didn't you hear some person running along the hall outside your door? About two o'clock, I think?"
She looked at me stolidly.
"No, sir, I slept all night."
"That's strange. And you didn't hear me when I fell down the dumb-waiter shaft?"
"Holy saints!" she ejaculated. "Was that where you fell!"
She stopped herself abruptly.
"You heard that?" I asked gently, "and yet you slept all night? Bella, there's a hitch somewhere. You didn't sleep that night, at all; you told Miss Fleming I had been up all night. How did you know that? If I didn't know that you couldn't possibly get around as fast as the—person in the house that night, I would say you had been in Mr. Fleming's desk, looking for—let us say, postage stamps. May I have another cup of coffee?"
She turned a sickly yellow white, and gathered up my cup and saucer with trembling hands. When the coffee finally came back it was brought grumblingly by old Heppie. "She says she's turned her ankle," she sniffed. "Turned it on a lathe, like a table leg, I should say, from the shape of it." Before I left the dining-room I put another line in my note-book:
"What does Bella know?"
I got back to the city somewhat late for my appointment with Burton. I found Wardrop waiting for me at the office, and if I had been astonished at the change in him two nights before, I was shocked now. He seemed to have shrunk in his clothes; his eyeballs were bloodshot from drinking, and his fair hair had dropped, neglected, over his forehead. He was sitting in his familiar attitude, his elbows on his knees, his chin on his palms.
He looked at me with dull eyes, when I went in. I did not see Burton at first. He was sitting on my desk, holding a flat can in his hand, and digging out with a wooden toothpick one sardine after another and bolting them whole.
"Your good health," he said, poising one in the air, where it threatened oily tears over the carpet. "As an appetite-quencher and thirst-producer, give me the festive sardine. How lovely it would be if we could eat 'em without smelling 'em!"
"Don't you do anything but eat?" Wardrop asked, without enthusiasm.
Burton eyed him reproachfully. "Is that what I get for doing without lunch, in order to prove to you that you are not crazy?" He appealed to me. "He says he's crazy—lost his think works. Now, I ask you, Knox, when I go to the trouble to find out for him that he's got as many convolutions as anybody, and that they've only got a little convolved, is it fair, I ask you, for him to reproach me about my food?"
"I didn't know you knew each other," I put in, while Burton took another sardine.
"He says we do," Wardrop said wearily; "says he used to knock me around at college."
Burton winked at me solemnly.
"He doesn't remember me, but he will," he said. "It's his nerves that are gone, and we'll have him restrung with new wires, like an old piano, in a week."
Wardrop had that after-debauch suspicion of all men, but I think he grasped at me as a dependability.
"He wants me to go to a doctor," he said. "I'm not sick; it's only—" He was trying to light a cigarette, but the match dropped from his shaking fingers.
"Better see one, Wardrop," I urged—and I felt mean enough about doing it. "You need something to brace you up."
Burton gave him a very small drink, for he could scarcely stand, and we went down in the elevator. My contempt for the victim between us was as great as my contempt for myself. That Wardrop was in a bad position there could be no doubt; there might be more men than Fleming who had known about the money in the leather bag, and who thought he had taken it and probably killed Fleming to hide the theft.
It seemed incredible that an innocent man would collapse as he had done, and yet—at this minute I can name a dozen men who, under the club of public disapproval, have fallen into paresis, insanity and the grave. We are all indifferent to our fellow-men until they are against us.
Burton knew the specialist very well—in fact, there seemed to be few people he did not know. And considering the way he had got hold of Miss Letitia and Wardrop, it was not surprising. He had evidently arranged with the doctor, for the waiting-room was empty and we were after hours.
The doctor was a large man, his size emphasized by the clothes he wore, very light in color, and unprofessional in cut. He was sandy-haired, inclined to be bald, and with shrewd, light blue eyes behind his glasses. Not particularly impressive, except as to size, on first acquaintance; a good fellow, with a brisk voice, and an amazingly light tread.
He began by sending Wardrop into a sort of examining room in the rear of the suite somewhere, to take off his coat and collar. When he had gone the doctor looked at a slip of paper in his hand.
"I think I've got it all from Mr. Burton," he said. "Of course, Mr. Knox, this is a little out of my line; a nerve specialist has as much business with psychotherapy as a piano tuner has with musical technique. But the idea is Munsterburg's, and I've had some good results. I'll give him a short physical examination, and when I ring the bell one of you may come in. Are you a newspaper man, Mr. Knox?"
"An attorney," I said briefly.
"Press man, lawyer, or doctor," Burton broke in, "we all fatten on the other fellow's troubles, don't we?"
"We don't fatten very much," I corrected "We live."
The doctor blinked behind his glasses.
"I never saw a lawyer yet who would admit he was making money," he said. "Look at the way a doctor grinds for a pittance! He's just as capable as the lawyer; he works a damn sight harder, and he makes a tenth the income. A man will pay his lawyer ten thousand dollars for keeping him out of jail for six months, and he'll kick like a steer if his doctor charges him a hundred to keep him out of hell for life! Which of you will come in? I'm afraid two would distract him."
"I guess it is Knox's butt-in," Burton conceded, "but I get it later, Doctor; you promised."
The physical examination was very brief; when I was called in Wardrop was standing at the window looking down into the street below, and the doctor was writing at his desk. Behind Wardrop's back he gave me the slip he had written.
"Now, Mr. Wardrop," he said, "will you sit here, please?"
He drew a chair to the center-table for Wardrop, and another, just across for himself. I sat back and to one side of the patient, where I could see Wardrop's haggard profile and every movement of the specialist.
On the table was an electric instrument like a small clock, and the doctor's first action was to attach to it two wires with small, black rubber mouthpieces.
"Now, Mr. Wardrop," he said, "we will go on with the test. Your other condition is fair, as I told you; I think you can dismiss the idea of insanity without a second thought, but there is something more than brain and body to be considered; in other words, you have been through a storm, and some of your nervous wires are down. Put the mouthpiece between your lips, please; you see, I do the same with mine. And when I give you a word, speak as quickly as possible the association it brings to your mind. For instance, I say 'noise.' Your first association might be 'street,' 'band,' 'drum,' almost anything associated with the word. As quickly as possible, please."
The first few words went simply enough. Wardrop's replies came almost instantly. To "light" he replied "lamp;" "touch" brought the response "hand;" "eat" brought "Burton," and both the doctor and I smiled. Wardrop was intensely serious. Then—
"Taxicab," said the doctor, and, after an almost imperceptible pause, "road" came the association. All at once I began to see the possibilities.
"Head." After a perceptible pause the answer came uncertainly. "Hair." But the association of ideas would not be denied, for in answer to the next word, which was "ice," he gave "blood," evidently following up the previous word "head."
I found myself gripping the arms of my chair. The dial on the doctor's clock-like instrument was measuring the interval; I could see that now. The doctor took a record of every word and its response. Wardrop's eyes were shifting nervously.
"Whisky." "Glass," all in less than a second.
"Pearls." A little hesitation, then "box."
"Taxicab" again. "Night."
"Shot." After a pause, "revolver."
"Traveling-bag." He brought out the word "train" after an evident struggle, but in answer to the next word "lost," instead of the obvious "found," he said "woman." He had not had sufficient mental agility to get away from the association with "bag." The "woman" belonged there.
"Murder" brought "dead," but "shot," following immediately after, brought "staircase."
I think Wardrop was on his guard by that time, but the conscious effort to hide truths that might be damaging made the intervals longer, from that time on. Already I felt sure that Allan Fleming's widow had been right; he had been shot from the locked back staircase. But by whom?
"Blow" brought "chair."
"Gone." "Bag" came like a flash.
In quick succession, without pause, came the words—
"Money." "Letters," without any apparent connection.
Wardrop was going to the bad. When, to the next word, "staircase," again, he said "scar," his demoralization was almost complete. As for me, the scene in Wardrop's mind was already in mine—Schwartz, with the scar across his ugly forehead, and the bolted door to the staircase open!
On again with the test.
"Flour," after perhaps two seconds, from the preceding shock, brought "bread."
"Gate." He stopped here so long, I thought he was not going to answer at all. Presently, with am effort, he said "wood," but as before, the association idea came out in the next word; for "electric light" he gave "letters."
"Attic" brought "trunks" at once.
"Closet." After perhaps a second and a half came "dust," showing what closet was in his mind, and immediately after, to "match" he gave "pen."
A long list of words followed which told nothing, to my mind, although the doctor's eyes were snapping with excitement. Then "traveling-bag" again, and instead of his previous association, "woman," this time he gave "yellow." But, to the next word, "house," he gave "guest." It came to me that in his mental processes I was the guest, the substitute bag was in his mind, as being in my possession. Quick as a flash the doctor followed up—
"Guest." And Wardrop fell. "Letters," he said.
To a great many words, as I said before, I could attach no significance. Here and there I got a ray.
"Elderly" brought "black."
"Warehouse." "Yard," for no apparent reason.
"Eleven twenty-two." "C" was the answer, given without a second's hesitation.
Eleven twenty-two C! He gave no evidence of having noticed any peculiarity in what he said; I doubt if he realized his answer. To me, he gave the impression of repeating something he had apparently forgotten. As if a number and its association had been subconscious, and brought to the surface by the psychologist; as if, for instance, some one prompted a—b, and the corollary "c" came without summoning.
The psychologist took the small mouthpiece from his lips, and motioned Wardrop to do the same. The test was over.
"I don't call that bad condition, Mr.—Wardrop," the doctor said. "You are nervous, and you need a little more care in your habits. You want to exercise, regularly, and you will have to cut out everything in the way of stimulants for a while. Oh, yes, a couple of drinks a day at first, then one a day, and then none. And you are to stop worrying—when trouble comes round, and stares at you, don't ask it in to have a drink. Take it out in the air and kill it; oxygen is as fatal to anxiety as it is to tuberculosis."
"How would Bellwood do?" I asked. "Or should it be the country?"
"Bellwood, of course," the doctor responded heartily. "Ten miles a day, four cigarettes, and three meals—which is more than you have been taking, Mr. Wardrop, by two."
I put him on the train for Bellwood myself, and late that afternoon the three of us—the doctor, Burton and myself—met in my office and went over the doctor's record.
"When the answer comes in four-fifths of a second," he said, before we began, "it is hardly worth comment. There is no time in such an interval for any mental reservation. Only those words that showed noticeable hesitation need be considered."
We worked until almost seven. At the end of that time the doctor leaned back in his chair, and thrust his hands deep in his trousers pockets.
"I got the story from Burton," he said, after a deep breath. "I had no conclusion formed, and of course I am not a detective. Things looked black for Mr. Wardrop, in view of the money lost, the quarrel with Fleming that morning at the White Cat, and the circumstance of his leaving the club and hunting a doctor outside, instead of raising the alarm. Still, no two men ever act alike in an emergency. Psychology is as exact a science as mathematics; it gets information from the source, and a man can not lie in four-fifths of a second. 'Head,' you noticed, brought 'hair' in a second and three quarters, and the next word, 'ice,' brought the 'blood' that he had held back before. That doesn't show anything. He tried to avoid what was horrible to him.
"But I gave him 'traveling-bag;' after a pause, he responded with 'train.' The next word, 'lost,' showed what was in his mind; instead of 'found,' he said 'woman.' Now then, I believe he was either robbed by a woman, or he thinks he was. After all, we can only get what he believes himself.
"'Shot—staircase'—where are the stairs at the White Cat?"
"I learned yesterday of a back staircase that leads into one of the upper rooms," I said. "It opens on a side entrance, and is used in emergency."
The doctor smiled confidently.
"We look there for our criminal," he said. "Nothing hides from the chronoscope. Now then, 'staircase—scar.' Isn't that significant? The association is clear: a scar that is vivid enough, disfiguring enough, to be the first thing that enters his mind."
"Schwartz!" Burton said with awe. "Doctor, what on earth does 'eleven twenty-two C' mean?"
"I think that is up to you, gentlemen. The C belongs there, without doubt. Briefly, looking over these slips, I make it something like this: Wardrop thinks a woman took his traveling-bag. Three times he gave the word 'letters,' in response to 'gate,' 'guest' and 'money.' Did he have a guest at the time all this happened at Bellwood?"
"I was a guest in the house at the time."
"Did you offer him money for letters?"
"Did he give you any letters to keep for him?"
"He gave me the bag that was substituted for his."
"Yes. By Jove, I wonder if there is anything in it? I have reason to know that he came into my room that night at least once after I went asleep."
"I think it very likely," he said dryly. "One thing we have not touched on, and I believe Mr. Wardrop knows nothing of it. That is, the disappearance of the old lady. There is a psychological study for you! My conclusion? Well, I should say that Mr. Wardrop is not guilty of the murder. He knows, or thinks he knows, who is. He has a theory of his own, about some one with a scar: it may be only a theory. He does not necessarily know, but he hopes. He is in a state of abject fear. Also, he is hiding something concerning letters, and from the word 'money' in that connection, I believe he either sold or bought some damaging papers. He is not a criminal, but he is what is almost worse."
The doctor rose and picked up his hat. "He is a weakling," he said, from the doorway.
Burton looked at his watch. "By George!" he said. "Seven-twenty, and I've had nothing since lunch but a box of sardines. I'm off to chase the festive mutton chop. Oh, by the way, Knox, where is that locked bag?"
"In my office safe."
"I'll drop around in the morning and assist you to compound a felony," he said easily. But as it happened, he did not.