CHAPTER XXIV

WARDROP'S STORY

"I have to go back to the night Miss Jane disappeared—and that's another thing that has driven me desperate. Will you tell me why I should be suspected of having a hand in that, when she had been a mother to me? If she is dead, she can't exonerate me; if she is living, and we find her, she will tell you what I tell you—that I know nothing of the whole terrible business."

"I am quite certain of that, Wardrop," I interposed. "Besides, I think I have got to the bottom of that mystery."

Margery looked at me quickly, but I shook my head. It was too early to tell my suspicions.

"The things that looked black against me were bad enough, but they had nothing to do with Miss Jane. I will have to go back to before the night she—went away, back to the time Mr. Butler was the state treasurer, and your father, Margery, was his cashier.

"Butler was not a business man. He let too much responsibility lie with his subordinates—and then, according to the story, he couldn't do much anyhow, against Schwartz. The cashier was entirely under machine control, and Butler was neglectful. You remember, Knox, the crash, when three banks, rotten to the core, went under, and it was found a large amount of state money had gone too. It was Fleming who did it—I am sorry, Margery, but this is no time to mince words. It was Fleming who deposited the money in the wrecked banks, knowing what would happen. When the crash came, Butler's sureties, to save themselves, confiscated every dollar he had in the world. Butler went to the penitentiary for six months, on some minor count, and when he got out, after writing to Fleming and Schwartz, protesting his innocence, and asking for enough out of the fortune they had robbed him of to support his wife, he killed himself, at the White Cat."

Margery was very pale, but quiet. She sat with her fingers locked in her lap, and her eyes on Wardrop.

"It was a bad business," Wardrop went on wearily. "Fleming moved into Butler's place as treasurer, and took Lightfoot as his cashier. That kept the lid on. Once or twice, when there was an unexpected call for funds, the treasury was almost empty, and Schwartz carried things over himself. I went to Plattsburg as Mr. Fleming's private secretary when he became treasurer, and from the first I knew things were even worse than the average state government.

"Schwartz and Fleming had to hold together; they hated each other, and the feeling was trebled when Fleming married Schwartz's divorced wife."

Margery looked at me with startled, incredulous eyes. What she must have seen confirmed Wardrop's words, and she leaned back in her chair, limp and unnerved. But she heard and comprehended every word Wardrop was saying.

"The woman was a very ordinary person, but it seems Schwartz cared for her, and he tried to stab Mr. Fleming shortly after the marriage. About a year ago Mr. Fleming said another attempt had been made on his life, with poison; he was very much alarmed, and I noticed a change in him from that time on. Things were not going well at the treasury; Schwartz and his crowd were making demands that were hard to supply, and behind all that, Fleming was afraid to go out alone at night.

"He employed a man to protect him, a man named Carter, who had been a bartender in Plattsburg. When things began to happen here in Manchester, he took Carter to the home as a butler.

"Then the Borough Bank got shaky. If it went down there would be an ugly scandal, and Fleming would go too. His notes for half a million were there, without security, and he dared not show the canceled notes he had, with Schwartz's indorsement.

"I'm not proud of the rest of the story, Margery." He stopped his nervous pacing and stood looking down at her. "I was engaged to marry a girl who was everything on earth to me, and—I was private secretary to the state treasurer, with the princely salary of such a position!

"Mr. Fleming came back here when the Borough Bank threatened failure, and tried to get money enough to tide over the trouble. A half million would have done it, but he couldn't get it. He was in Butler's position exactly, only he was guilty and Butler was innocent. He raised a little money here, and I went to Plattsburg with securities and letters. It isn't necessary to go over the things I suffered there; I brought back one hundred and ten thousand dollars, in a package in my Russia leather bag. And—I had something else."

He wavered for the first time in his recital. He went on more rapidly, and without looking at either of us.

"I carried, not in the valise, a bundle of letters, five in all, which had been written by Henry Butler to Mr. Fleming, letters that showed what a dupe Butler had been, that he had been negligent, but not criminal; accusing Fleming of having ruined him, and demanding certain notes that would have proved it. If Butler could have produced the letters at the time of his trial, things would have been different."

"Were you going to sell the letters?" Margery demanded, with quick scorn.

"I intended to, but—I didn't. It was a little bit too dirty, after all. I met Mrs. Butler for the second time in my life, at the gate down there, as I came up from the train the night I got here from Plattsburg. She had offered to buy the letters, and I had brought them to sell to her. And then, at the last minute, I lied. I said I couldn't get them—that they were locked in the Monmouth Avenue house. I put her in a taxicab that she had waiting, and she went back to town. I felt like a cad; she wanted to clear her husband's memory, and I—well, Mr. Fleming was your father, Margery, I couldn't hurt you like that."

"Do you think Mrs. Butler took your leather bag?" I asked.

"I do not think so. It seems to be the only explanation, but I did not let it out of my hand one moment while we were talking. My hand was cramped from holding it, when she gave up in despair at last, and went back to the city."

"What did you do with the letters she wanted?"

"I kept them with me that night, and the next morning hid them in the secret closet. That was when I dropped my fountain pen!"

"And the pearls?" Margery asked suddenly. "When did you get them, Harry?"

To my surprise his face did not change. He appeared to be thinking.

"Two days before I left," he said. "We were using every method to get money, and your father said to sacrifice them, if necessary."

"My father!"

He wheeled on us both.

"Did you think I stole them?" he demanded. And I confess that I was ashamed to say I had thought precisely that.

"Your father gave me nine unmounted pearls to sell," he reiterated. "I got about a thousand dollars for them—eleven hundred and something, I believe."

Margery looked at me. I think she was fairly stunned. To learn that her father had married again, that he had been the keystone in an arch of villainy that, with him gone, was now about to fall, and to associate him with so small and mean a thing as the theft of a handful of pearls—she was fairly stunned.

"Then," I said, to bring Wardrop back to his story, "you found you had been robbed of the money, and you went in to tell Mr. Fleming. You had some words, didn't you?"

"He thought what you all thought," Wardrop said bitterly. "He accused me of stealing the money. I felt worse than a thief. He was desperate, and I took his revolver from him."

Margery had put her hands over her eyes. It was a terrible strain for her, but when I suggested that she wait for the rest of the story she refused vehemently.

"I came back here to Bellwood, and the first thing I learned was about Miss Jane. When I saw the blood print on the stair rail, I thought she was murdered, and I had more than I could stand. I took the letters out of the secret closet, before I could show it to you and Hunter, and later I put them in the leather bag I gave you, and locked it. You have it, haven't you, Knox?"

I nodded.

"As for that night at the club, I told the truth then, but not all the truth. I suppose I am a coward, but I was afraid to. If you knew Schwartz, you would understand."

With the memory of his huge figure and the heavy under-shot face that I had seen the night before, I could understand very well, knowing Wardrop.

"I went to that room at the White Cat that night, because I was afraid not to go. Fleming might kill himself or some one else. I went up the stairs, slowly, and I heard no shot. At the door I hesitated, then opened it quietly. The door into the built-in staircase was just closing. It must have taken me only an instant to realize what had happened. Fleming was swaying forward as I caught him. I jumped to the staircase and looked down, but I was too late. The door below had closed. I knew in another minute who had been there, and escaped. It was raining, you remember, and Schwartz had forgotten to take his umbrella with his name on the handle!"

"Schwartz!"

"Now do you understand why I was being followed?" he demanded. "I have been under surveillance every minute since that night. There's probably some one hanging around the gate now. Anyhow, I was frantic. I saw how it looked for me, and if I had brought Schwartz into it, I would have been knifed in forty-eight hours. I hardly remember what I did. I know I ran for a doctor, and I took the umbrella with me and left it in the vestibule of the first house I saw with a doctor's sign. I rang the bell like a crazy man, and then Hunter came along and said to go back; Doctor Gray was at the club.

"That is all I know. I'm not proud of it, Margery, but it might have been worse, and it's the truth. It clears up something, but not all. It doesn't tell where Aunt Jane is, or who has the hundred thousand. But it does show who killed your father. And if you know what is good for you, Knox, you will let it go at that. You can't fight the police and the courts single-handed. Look how the whole thing was dropped, and the most cold-blooded kind of murder turned into suicide. Suicide without a weapon! Bah!"

"I am not so sure about Schwartz," I said thoughtfully. "We haven't yet learned about eleven twenty-two C."

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