CHAPTER XXI

A PROSCENIUM BOX

I was very late for dinner. Fred and Edith were getting ready for a concert, and the two semi-invalids were playing pinochle in Fred's den. Neither one looked much the worse for her previous night's experience; Mrs. Butler was always pale, and Margery had been so since her father's death.

The game was over when I went into the den. As usual, Mrs. Butler left the room almost immediately, and went to the piano across the hall. I had grown to accept her avoidance of me without question. Fred said it was because my overwhelming vitality oppressed her. Personally, I think it was because the neurasthenic type of woman is repulsive to me. No doubt Mrs. Butler deserved sympathy, but her open demand for it found me cold and unresponsive.

I told Margery briefly of my visit to Bellwood that morning. She was as puzzled as I was about the things Heppie had found in the chest. She was relieved, too.

"I am just as sure, now, that she is living, as I was a week ago that she was dead," she said, leaning back in her big chair. "But what terrible thing took her away? Unless—"

"Unless what?"

"She had loaned my father a great deal of money," Margery said, with heightened color. "She had not dared to tell Aunt Letitia, and the money was to be returned before she found it out. Then—things went wrong with the Borough Bank, and—the money did not come back. If you know Aunt Jane, and how afraid she is of Aunt Letitia, you will understand how terrible it was for her. I have wondered if she would go—to Plattsburg, and try to find father there."

"The Eagle man is working on that theory now," I replied. "Margery, if there was a letter 'C' added to eleven twenty-two, would you know what it meant?"

She shook her head in the negative.

"Will you answer two more questions?" I asked.

"Yes, if I can."

"Do you know why you were chloroformed last night, and who did it?"

"I think I know who did it, but I don't understand. I have been trying all day to think it out. I'm afraid to go to sleep to-night."

"You need not be," I assured her. "If necessary, we will have the city police in a ring around the house. If you know and don't tell, Margery, you are running a risk, and more than that, you are protecting a person who ought to be in jail."

"I'm not sure," she persisted. "Don't ask me about it, please."

"What does Mrs. Butler say?"

"Just what she said this morning. And she says valuable papers were taken from under her pillow. She was very ill—hysterical, all afternoon."

The gloom and smouldering fire of the Sonata Apassionata came to us from across the hall. I leaned over and took Margery's small hand between my two big ones.

"Why don't you tell me?" I urged. "Or—you needn't tell me, I know what you think. But there isn't any motive that I can see, and why would she chloroform you?"

"I don't know," Margery shuddered. "Sometimes—I wonder—do you think she is altogether sane?"

The music ended with the crash of a minor chord. Fred and Edith came down the stairs, and the next moment we were all together, and the chance for a quiet conversation was gone. At the door Fred turned and came back.

"Watch the house," he said. "And by the way, I guess"—he lowered his voice—"the lady's story was probably straight. I looked around again this afternoon, and there are fresh scratches on the porch roof under her window. It looks queer, doesn't it?"

It was a relief to know that, after all, Mrs. Butler was an enemy and a dangerous person to nobody but herself. She retired to her room almost as soon as Fred and Edith had gone. I was wondering whether or not to tell Margery about the experiment that afternoon; debating how to ask her what letters she had got from the postmaster at Bellwood addressed to Miss Jane, and what she knew of Bella. At the same time—bear with me, oh masculine reader, the gentle reader will, for she cares a great deal more for the love story than for all the crime and mystery put together—bear with me, I say, if I hold back the account of the terrible events that came that night, to tell how beautiful Margery looked as the lamplight fell on her brown hair and pure profile, and how the impulse came over me to kiss her as she sat there; and how I didn't, after all—poor gentle reader!—and only stooped over and kissed the pink palm of her hand.

She didn't mind it; speaking as nearly as possible from an impersonal standpoint, I doubt if she was even surprised. You see, the ring was gone and—it had only been an engagement ring anyhow, and everybody knows how binding they are!

And then an angel with a burning sword came and scourged me out of my Eden. And the angel was Burton, and the sword was a dripping umbrella.

"I hate to take you out," he said. "The bottom's dropped out of the sky; but I want you to make a little experiment with me." He caught sight of Margery through the portières, and the imp of mischief in him prompted his next speech. "She said she must see you," he said, very distinctly, and leered at me.

"Don't be an ass," I said angrily. "I don't know that I care to go out to-night."

He changed his manner then.

"Let's go and take a look at the staircase you fellows have been talking about," he said. "I don't believe there is a staircase there, except the main one. I have hounded every politician in the city into or out of that joint, and I have never heard of it."

I felt some hesitation about leaving the house—and Margery—after the events of the previous night. But Margery had caught enough of the conversation to be anxious to have me to go, and when I went in to consult her she laughed at my fears.

"Lightning never strikes twice in the same place," she said bravely. "I will ask Katie to come down with me if I am nervous, and I shall wait up for the family."

I went without enthusiasm. Margery's departure had been delayed for a day only, and I had counted on the evening with her. In fact, I had sent the concert tickets to Edith with an eye single to that idea. But Burton's plan was right. It was, in view of what we knew, to go over the ground at the White Cat again, and Saturday night, with the place full of men, would be a good time to look around, unnoticed.

"I don't hang so much to this staircase idea," Burton said, "and I have a good reason for it. I think we will find it is the warehouse, yet."

"You can depend on it, Burton," I maintained, "that the staircase is the place to look. If you had seen Wardrop's face to-day, and his agony of mind when he knew he had associated 'staircase' with 'shot,' you would think just as I do. A man like Schwartz, who knew the ropes, could go quietly up the stairs, unbolt the door into the room, shoot Fleming and get out. Wardrop suspects Schwartz, and he's afraid of him. If he opened the door just in time to see Schwartz, we will say, backing out the door and going down the stairs, or to see the door closing and suspect who had just gone, we would have the whole situation, as I see it, including the two motives of deadly hate and jealousy."

"Suppose the stairs open into the back of the room? He was sitting facing the window. Do you think Schwartz would go in, walk around the table and shoot him from in front? Pooh! Fudge!"

"He had a neck," I retorted. "I suppose he might have turned his head to look around."

We had been walking through the rain. The White Cat, as far off as the poles socially, was only a half-dozen blocks actually from the best residence portion of the city. At the corner of the warehouse, Burton stopped and looked up at it.

"I always get mad when I look at this building," he said. "My great grandfather had a truck garden on this exact spot seventy years ago, and the old idiot sold out for three hundred dollars and a pair of mules! How do you get in?"

"What are you going in for?" I asked.

"I was wondering if I had a grudge—I have, for that matter—against the mayor, and I wanted to shoot him, how I would go about it. I think I should find a point of vantage, like an overlooking window in an empty building like this, and I would wait for a muggy night, also like this, when the windows were up and the lights going. I could pot him with a thirty-eight at a dozen yards, with my eyes crossed."

We had stopped near the arched gate where I had stood and waited for Hunter, a week before. Suddenly Burton darted away from me and tried the gate. It opened easily, and I heard him splashing through a puddle in the gloomy yard.

"Come in," he called softly. "The water's fine."

The gate swung to behind me, and I could not see six inches from my nose. Burton caught my elbow and steered me, by touching the fence, toward the building.

"If it isn't locked too tight," he was saying, "we can get in, perhaps through a window, and get up-stairs. From there we ought to be able to see down into the club. What the devil's that?"

It was a rat, I think, and it scrambled away among the loose boards in a frenzy of excitement. Burton struck a match; it burned faintly in the dampness, and in a moment went out, having shown us only the approximate location of the heavy, arched double doors. A second match showed us a bar and a rusty padlock; there was no entrance to be gained in that way.

The windows were of the eight-paned variety, and in better repair than the ones on the upper floors. By good luck, we found one unlocked and not entirely closed; it shrieked hideously as we pried it up, but an opportune clap of thunder covered the sound.

By this time I was ready for anything that came; I was wet to my knees, muddy, disreputable. While Burton held the window I crawled into the warehouse, and turned to perform the same service for him. At first I could not see him, outside. Then I heard his voice, a whisper, from beyond the sill.

"Duck," he said. "Cop!"

I dropped below the window, and above the rain I could hear the squash of the watchman's boots in the mud. He flashed a night lamp in at the window next to ours, but he was not very near, and the open window escaped his notice. I felt all the nervous dread of a real malefactor, and when I heard the gate close behind him, and saw Burton put a leg over the sill, I was almost as relieved as I would have been had somebody's family plate, tied up in a tablecloth, been reposing at my feet.

Burton had an instinct for getting around in the dark. I lighted another match as soon as he had closed the window, and we made out our general direction toward where the stairs ought to be. When the match went out, we felt our way in the dark; I had only one box of wax matches, and Burton had dropped his in a puddle.

We got to the second floor, finally, and without any worse mishap than Burton banging his arm against a wheel of some sort. Unlike the first floor, the second was subdivided into rooms; it took a dozen precious matches to find our way to the side of the building overlooking the club, and another dozen to find the window we wanted. When we were there at last, Burton leaned his elbows on the sill, and looked down and across.

"Could anything be better!" he said. "There's our theater, and we've got a proscenium box. That room over there stands out like a spot-light."

He was right. Not more than fifteen feet away, and perhaps a foot lower than our window, was the window of the room where Fleming had been killed. It was empty, as far as we could see; the table, neat enough now, was where it had been before, directly under the light. Any one who sat there would be an illuminated target from our window. Not only that, but an arm could be steadied on the sill, allowing for an almost perfect aim.

"Now, where's your staircase?" Burton jeered.

The club was evidently full of men, as he had prophesied. Above the rattle of the rain came the thump—thump of the piano, and a half-dozen male voices. The shutters below were closed; we could see nothing.

I think it was then that Burton had his inspiration.

"I'll bet you a five-dollar bill," he said, "that if I fire off my revolver here, now, not one of those fellows down there would pay the slightest attention."

"I'll take that bet," I returned. "I'll wager that every time anybody drops a poker, since Fleming was shot, the entire club turns out to investigate."

In reply Burton got out his revolver, and examined it by holding it against the light from across the way.

"I'll tell you what I'll do," he said. "Everybody down there knows me; I'll drop in for a bottle of beer, and you fire a shot into the floor here, or into somebody across, if you happen to see any one you don't care for. I suggest that you stay and fire the shot, because if you went, my friend, and nobody heard it, you would accuse me of shooting from the back of the building somewhere."

He gave me the revolver and left me with a final injunction.

"Wait for ten minutes," he said. "It will take five for me to get out of here, and five more to get into the club-house. Perhaps you'd better make it fifteen."

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