CHAPTER XXV

MEASURE FOR MEASURE

Miss Jane Maitland had been missing for ten days. In that time not one word had come from her. The reporter from the Eagle had located her in a dozen places, and was growing thin and haggard following little old ladies along the street—and being sent about his business tartly when he tried to make inquiries.

Some things puzzled me more than ever in the light of Wardrop's story. For the third time I asked myself why Miss Letitia denied the loss of the pearls. There was nothing in what we had learned, either, to tell why Miss Jane had gone away—to ascribe a motive.

How she had gone, in view of Wardrop's story of the cab, was clear. She had gone by street-car, walking the three miles to Wynton alone at two o'clock in the morning, although she had never stirred around the house at night without a candle, and was privately known to sleep with a light when Miss Letitia went to bed first, and could not see it through the transom.

The theory I had formed seemed absurd at first, but as I thought it over, its probabilities grew on me. I took dinner at Bellwood and started for town almost immediately after.

Margery had gone to Miss Letitia's room, and Wardrop was pacing up and down the veranda, smoking. He looked dejected and anxious, and he welcomed my suggestion that he walk down to the station with me. As we went, a man emerged from the trees across and came slowly after us.

"You see, I am only nominally a free agent," he said morosely. "They'll poison me yet; I know too much."

We said little on the way to the train. Just before it came thundering along, however, he spoke again.

"I am going away, Knox. There isn't anything in this political game for me, and the law is too long. I have a chum in Mexico, and he wants me to go down there."

"Permanently?"

"Yes. There's nothing to hold me here now," he said.

I turned and faced him in the glare of the station lights.

"What do you mean?" I demanded.

"I mean that there isn't any longer a reason why one part of the earth is better than another. Mexico or Alaska, it's all the same to me."

He turned on his heel and left me. I watched him swing up the path, with his head down; I saw the shadowy figure of the other man fall into line behind him. Then I caught the platform of the last car as it passed, and that short ride into town was a triumphal procession with the wheels beating time and singing: "It's all the same—the same—to me—to me."

I called Burton by telephone, and was lucky enough to find him at the office. He said he had just got in, and, as usual, he wanted something to eat. We arranged to meet at a little Chinese restaurant, where at that hour, nine o'clock, we would be almost alone. Later on, after the theater, I knew that the place would be full of people, and conversation impossible.

Burton knew the place well, as he did every restaurant in the city.

"Hello, Mike," he said to the unctuous Chinaman who admitted us. And "Mike" smiled a slant-eyed welcome. The room was empty; it was an unpretentious affair, with lace curtains at the windows and small, very clean tables. At one corner a cable and slide communicated through a hole in the ceiling with the floor above, and through the aperture, Burton's order for chicken and rice, and the inevitable tea, was barked.

Burton listened attentively to Wardrop's story, as I repeated it.

"So Schwartz did it, after all!" he said regretfully, when I finished. "It's a tame ending. It had all the elements of the unusual, and it resolves itself into an ordinary, every-day, man-to-man feud. I'm disappointed; we can't touch Schwartz."

"I thought the Times-Post was hot after him."

"Schwartz bought the Times-Post at three o'clock this afternoon," Burton said, with repressed rage. "I'm called off. To-morrow we run a photograph of Schwartzwold, his place at Plattsburg, and the next day we eulogize the administration. I'm going down the river on an excursion boat, and write up the pig-killing contest at the union butchers' picnic."

"How is Mrs. Butler?" I asked, as his rage subsided to mere rumbling in his throat.

"Delirious"—shortly. "She's going to croak, Wardrop's going to Mexico, Schwartz will be next governor, and Miss Maitland's body will be found in a cistern. The whole thing has petered out. What's the use of finding the murderer if he's coated with asbestos and lined with money? Mike, I want some more tea to drown my troubles."

We called up the hospital about ten-thirty, and learned that Mrs. Butler was sinking. Fred was there, and without much hope of getting anything, we went over. I took Burton in as a nephew of the dying woman, and I was glad I had done it. She was quite conscious, but very weak. She told the story to Fred and myself, and in a corner Burton took it down in shorthand. We got her to sign it about daylight sometime, and she died very quietly shortly after Edith arrived at eight.

To give her story as she gave it would be impossible; the ramblings of a sick mind, the terrible pathos of it all, is impossible to repeat. She lay there, her long, thin body practically dead, fighting the death rattle in her throat. There were pauses when for five minutes she would lie in a stupor, only to rouse and go forward from the very word where she had stopped.

She began with her married life, and to understand the beauty of it is to understand the things that came after. She was perfectly, ideally, illogically happy. Then one day Henry Butler accepted the nomination for state treasurer, and with that things changed. During his term in office he altered greatly; his wife could only guess that things were wrong, for he refused to talk.

The crash came, after all, with terrible suddenness. There had been an all-night conference at the Butler home, and Mr. Butler, in a frenzy at finding himself a dupe, had called the butler from bed and forcibly ejected Fleming and Schwartz from the house. Ellen Butler had been horrified, sickened by what she regarded as the vulgarity of the occurrence. But her loyalty to her husband never wavered.

Butler was one honest man against a complete organization of unscrupulous ones. His disgrace, imprisonment and suicide at the White Cat had followed in rapid succession. With his death, all that was worth while in his wife died. Her health was destroyed; she became one of the wretched army of neurasthenics, with only one idea: to retaliate, to pay back in measure full and running over, her wrecked life, her dead husband, her grief and her shame.

She laid her plans with the caution and absolute recklessness of a diseased mentality. Normally a shrinking, nervous woman, she became cold, passionless, deliberate in her revenge. To disgrace Schwartz and Fleming was her original intention. But she could not get the papers.

She resorted to hounding Fleming, meaning to drive him to suicide. And she chose a method that had more nearly driven him to madness. Wherever he turned he found the figures eleven twenty-two C. Sometimes just the number, without the letter. It had been Henry Butler's cell number during his imprisonment, and if they were graven on his wife's soul, they burned themselves in lines of fire on Fleming's brain. For over a year she pursued this course—sometimes through the mail, at other times in the most unexpected places, wherever she could bribe a messenger to carry the paper. Sane? No, hardly sane, but inevitable as fate.

The time came when other things went badly with Fleming, as I had already heard from Wardrop. He fled to the White Cat, and for a week Ellen Butler hunted him vainly. She had decided to kill him, and on the night Margery Fleming had found the paper on the pillow, she had been in the house. She was not the only intruder in the house that night. Some one—presumably Fleming himself—had been there before her. She found a ladies' desk broken open and a small drawer empty. Evidently Fleming, unable to draw a check while in hiding, had needed ready money. As to the jewels that had been disturbed in Margery's boudoir I could only surmise the impulse that, after prompting him to take them, had failed at the sight of his dead wife's jewels. Surprised by the girl's appearance, she had crept to the upper floor and concealed herself in an empty bedroom. It had been almost dawn before she got out. No doubt this was the room belonging to the butler, Carter, which Margery had reported as locked that night.

She took a key from the door of a side entrance, and locked the door behind her when she left. Within a couple of nights she had learned that Wardrop was coming home from Plattsburg, and she met him at Bellwood. We already knew the nature of that meeting. She drove back to town, half maddened by her failure to secure the letters that would have cleared her husband's memory, but the wiser by one thing: Wardrop had inadvertently told her where Fleming was hiding.

The next night she went to the White Cat and tried to get in. She knew from her husband of the secret staircase, for many a political meeting of the deepest significance had been possible by its use. But the door was locked, and she had no key.

Above her the warehouse raised its empty height, and it was not long before she decided to see what she could learn from its upper windows. She went in at the gate and felt her way, through the rain, to the windows. At that moment the gate opened suddenly, and a man muttered something in the darkness. The shock was terrible.

I had no idea, that night, of what my innocent stumbling into the warehouse yard had meant to a half-crazed woman just beyond my range of vision. After a little she got her courage again, and she pried up an unlocked window.

The rest of her progress must have been much as ours had been, a few nights later. She found a window that commanded the club, and with three possibilities that she would lose, and would see the wrong room, she won the fourth. The room lay directly before her, distinct in every outline, with Fleming seated at the table, facing her and sorting some papers.

She rested her revolver on the sill and took absolutely deliberate aim. Her hands were cold, and she even rubbed them together, to make them steady. Then she fired, and a crash of thunder at the very instant covered the sound.

Fleming sat for a moment before he swayed forward. On that instant she realized that there was some one else in the room—a man who took an uncertain step or two forward into view, threw up his hands and disappeared as silently as he had come. It was Schwartz. Then she saw the door into the hall open, saw Wardrop come slowly in and close it, watched his sickening realization of what had occurred; then a sudden panic seized her. Arms seemed to stretch out from the darkness behind her, to draw her into it. She tried to get away, to run, even to scream—then she fainted. It was gray dawn when she recovered her senses and got back to the hotel room she had taken under an assumed name.

By night she was quieter. She read the news of Fleming's death in the papers, and she gloated over it. But there was more to be done; she was only beginning. She meant to ruin Schwartz, to kill his credit, to fell him with the club of public disfavor. Wardrop had told her that her husband's letters were with other papers at the Monmouth Avenue house, where he could not get them.

Fleming's body was taken home that day, Saturday, but she had gone too far to stop. She wanted the papers before Lightfoot could get at them and destroy the incriminating ones. That night she got into the Fleming house, using the key she had taken. She ransacked the library, finding, not the letters that Wardrop had said were there, but others, equally or more incriminating, canceled notes, private accounts, that would have ruined Schwartz for ever.

It was then that I saw the light and went down-stairs. My unlucky stumble gave her warning enough to turn out the light. For the rest, the chase through the back hall, the dining-room and the pantry, had culminated in her escape up the back stairs, while I had fallen down the dumb-waiter shaft. She had run into Bella on the upper floor, Bella, who had almost fainted, and who knew her and kept her until morning, petting her and soothing her, and finally getting her into a troubled sleep.

That day she realized that she was being followed. When Edith's invitation came she accepted it at once, for the sake of losing herself and her papers, until she was ready to use them. It had disconcerted her to find Margery there, but she managed to get along. For several days everything had gone well: she was getting stronger again, ready for the second act of the play, prepared to blackmail Schwartz, and then expose him. She would have killed him later, probably; she wanted her measure full and running over, and so she would disgrace him first.

Then—Schwartz must have learned of the loss of the papers from the Fleming house, and guessed the rest. She felt sure he had known from the first who had killed Fleming. However that might be, he had had her room entered, Margery chloroformed in the connecting room, and her papers were taken from under her pillow while she was pretending anesthesia. She had followed the two men through the house and out the kitchen door, where she had fainted on the grass.

The next night, when she had retired early, leaving Margery and me down-stairs, it had been an excuse to slip out of the house. How she found that Schwartz was at the White Cat, how she got through the side entrance, we never knew. He had burned the papers before she got there, and when she tried to kill him, he had struck her hand aside.

When we were out in the cheerful light of day again, Burton turned his shrewd, blue eyes on me.

"Awful story, isn't it?" he said. "Those are primitive emotions, if you like. Do you know, Knox, there is only one explanation we haven't worked on for the rest of this mystery—I believe in my soul you carried off the old lady and the Russia leather bag yourself!"

Last | Next | Contents