CHAPTER VI

A FOUNTAIN PEN

Harry Wardrop came back from the city at four o'clock, while Hunter was in the midst of his investigation. I met him in the hall and told him what had happened, and with this new apprehension added to the shock of the night before, he looked as though his nerves were ready to snap.

Wardrop was a man of perhaps twenty-seven, as tall as I, although not so heavy, with direct blue eyes and fair hair; altogether a manly and prepossessing sort of fellow. I was not surprised that Margery Fleming had found him attractive—he had the blond hair and off-hand manner that women seem to like. I am dark, myself.

He seemed surprised to find Hunter there, and not particularly pleased, but he followed us to the upper floor and watched silently while Hunter went over the two rooms. Beside the large chest of drawers in the main attic Hunter found perhaps half a dozen drops of blood, and on the edge of the open drawer there were traces of more. In the inner room two trunks had been moved out nearly a foot, as he found by the faint dust that had been under them. With the stain on the stair rail, that was all he discovered, and it was little enough. Then he took out his note-book and there among the trunks we had a little seance of our own, in which Hunter asked questions, and whoever could do so answered them.

"Have you a pencil or pen, Mr. Knox?" he asked me, but I had none. Wardrop felt his pockets, with no better success.

"I have lost my fountain pen somewhere around the house to-day," he said irritably. "Here's a pencil—not much of one."

Hunter began his interrogations.

"How old was Miss Maitland—Miss Jane, I mean?"

"Sixty-five," from Margery.

"She had always seemed rational? Not eccentric, or childish?"

"Not at all; the sanest woman I ever knew." This from Wardrop.

"Has she ever, to your knowledge, received any threatening letters?"

"Never in all her life," from both of them promptly.

"You heard sounds, you say, Miss Fleming. At what time?"

"About half-past one or perhaps a few minutes later. The clock struck two while I was still awake and nervous."

"This person who was walking through the attics here—would you say it was a heavy person? A man, I mean?"

Margery stopped to think.

"Yes," she said finally. "It was very stealthy, but I think it was a man's step."

"You heard no sound of a struggle? No voices? No screams?"

"None at all," she said positively. And I added my quota.

"There could have been no such sounds," I said. "I sat in my room and smoked until a quarter to two. I heard nothing until then, when I heard Mr. Wardrop trying to get into the house. I went down to admit him, and—I found the front door open about an inch."

Hunter wheeled on Wardrop.

"A quarter to two?" he asked. "You were coming home from—the city?"

"Yes, from the station."

Hunter watched him closely.

"The last train gets in here at twelve-thirty," he said slowly. "Does it always take you an hour and a quarter to walk the three squares to the house?"

Wardrop flushed uneasily, and I could see Margery's eyes dilate with amazement. As for me, I could only stare.

"I did not come directly home," he said, almost defiantly.

Hunter's voice was as smooth as silk.

"Then—will you be good enough to tell me where you did go?" he asked. "I have reasons for wanting to know."

"Damn your reasons—I beg your pardon, Margery. Look here, Mr. Hunter, do you think I would hurt a hair of that old lady's head? Do you think I came here last night and killed her, or whatever it is that has happened to her? And then went out and tried to get in again through the window?"

"Not necessarily," Hunter said, unruffled. "It merely occurred to me that we have at least an hour of your time last night, while this thing was going on, to account for. However, we can speak of that later. I am practically certain of one thing, Miss Maitland is not dead, or was not dead when she was taken away from this house."

"Taken away!" Margery repeated. "Then you think she was kidnapped?"

"Well, it is possible. It's a puzzling affair all through. You are certain there are no closets or unused rooms where, if there had been a murder, the body could be concealed."

"I never heard of any," Margery said, but I saw Wardrop's face change on the instant. He said nothing, however, but stood frowning at the floor, with his hands deep in his coat pockets.

Margery was beginning to show the effect of the long day's strain; she began to cry a little, and with an air of proprietorship that I resented, somehow, Wardrop went over to her.

"You are going to lie down, Margery," he said, holding out his hand to help her up. "Mrs. Mellon will come over to Aunt Letitia, and you must get some sleep."

"Sleep!" she said with scorn, as he helped her to her feet. "Sleep, when things like this are occurring! Father first, and now dear old Aunt Jane! Harry, do you know where my father is?"

He faced her, as if he had known the question must come and was prepared for it.

"I know that he is all right, Margery. He has been—out of town. If it had not been for something unforeseen that—happened within the last few hours, he would have been home to-day."

She drew a long breath of relief.

"And Aunt Jane?" she asked Hunter, from the head of the attic stairs, "you do not think she is dead?"

"Not until we have found something more," he answered tactlessly. "It's like where there's smoke there's fire; where there's murder there's a body."

When they had both gone, Hunter sat down on a trunk and drew out a cigar that looked like a bomb.

"What do you think of it?" I asked, when he showed no disposition to talk.

"I'll be damned if I know," he responded, looking around for some place to expectorate and finding none.

"The window," I suggested, and he went over to it. When he came back he had a rather peculiar expression. He sat down and puffed for a moment.

"In the first place," he began, "we can take it for granted that, unless she was crazy or sleep-walking, she didn't go out in her night-clothes, and there's nothing of hers missing. She wasn't taken in a carriage, providing she was taken at all. There's not a mark of wheels on that drive newer than a week, and besides, you say you heard nothing."

"Nothing," I said positively.

"Then, unless she went away in a balloon, where it wouldn't matter what she had on, she is still around the premises. It depends on how badly she was hurt."

"Are you sure it was she who was hurt?" I asked. "That print of a hand—that is not Miss Jane's."

In reply Hunter led the way down the stairs to the place where the stain on the stair rail stood out, ugly and distinct. He put his own heavy hand on the rail just below it.

"Suppose," he said, "suppose you grip something very hard, what happens to your hand?"

"It spreads," I acknowledged, seeing what he meant.

"Now, look at that stain. Look at the short fingers—why, it's a child's hand beside mine. The breadth is from pressure. It might be figured out this way. The fingers, you notice, point down the stairs. In some way, let us say, the burglar, for want of a better name, gets into the house. He used a ladder resting against that window by the chest of drawers."

"Ladder!" I exclaimed.

"Yes, there is a pruning ladder there. Now then—he comes down these stairs, and he has a definite object. He knows of something valuable in that cubby hole over the mantel in Miss Jane's room. How does he get in? The door into the upper hall is closed and bolted, but the door into the bath-room is open. From there another door leads into the bedroom, and it has no bolt—only a key. That kind of a lock is only a three-minutes delay, or less. Now then, Miss Maitland was a light sleeper. When she wakened she was too alarmed to scream; she tried to get to the door and was intercepted. Finally she got out the way the intruder got in, and ran along the hall. Every door was locked. In a frenzy she ran up the attic stairs and was captured up there. Which bears out Miss Margery's story of the footsteps back and forward."

"Good heavens, what an awful thing!" I gasped. "And I was sitting smoking just across the hall."

"He brings her down the stairs again, probably half dragging her. Once, she catches hold of the stair rail, and holds desperately to it, leaving the stain here."

"But why did he bring her down?" I asked bewildered. "Why wouldn't he take what he was after and get away?"

Hunter smoked and meditated.

"She probably had to get the key of the iron door," he suggested. "It was hidden, and time was valuable. If there was a scapegrace member of the family, for instance, who knew where the old lady kept money, and who needed it badly; who knew all about the house, and who—"

"Fleming!" I exclaimed, aghast.

"Or even our young friend, Wardrop," Hunter said quietly. "He has an hour to account for. The trying to get in may have been a blind, and how do you know that what he says was stolen out of his satchel was not what he had just got from the iron box over the mantel in Miss Maitland's room?"

I was dizzy with trying to follow Hunter's facile imagination. The thing we were trying to do was to find the old lady, and, after all, here we brought up against the same impasse.

"Then where is she now?" I asked. He meditated. He had sat down on the narrow stairs, and was rubbing his chin with a thoughtful forefinger. "One-thirty, Miss Margery says, when she heard the noise. One-forty-five when you heard Wardrop at the shutters. I tell you, Knox, it is one of two things: either that woman is dead somewhere in this house, or she ran out of the hall door just before you went down-stairs, and in that case the Lord only knows where she is. If there is a room anywhere that we have not explored—"

"I am inclined to think there is," I broke in, thinking of Wardrop's face a few minutes before. And just then Wardrop himself joined us. He closed the door at the foot of the boxed-in staircase, and came quietly up.

"You spoke about an unused room or a secret closet, Mr. Hunter," he said, without any resentment in his tone. "We have nothing so sensational as that, but the old house is full of queer nooks and crannies, and perhaps, in one of them, we might find—" he stopped and gulped. Whatever Hunter might think, whatever I might have against Harry Wardrop, I determined then that he had had absolutely nothing to do with little Miss Maitland's strange disappearance.

The first place we explored was a closed and walled-in wine-cellar, long unused, and to which access was gained by a small window in the stone foundation of the house. The cobwebs over the window made it practically an impossible place, but we put Robert, the gardener, through it, in spite of his protests.

"There's nothin' there, I tell you," he protested, with one leg over the coping. "God only knows what's down there, after all these years. I've been livin' here with the Miss Maitlands for twenty year, and I ain't never been put to goin' down into cellars on the end of a rope."

He went, because we were three to his one, but he was up again in sixty seconds, with the announcement that the place was as bare as the top of his head.

We moved every trunk in the store-room, although it would have been a moral impossibility for any one to have done it the night before without rousing the entire family, and were thus able to get to and open a large closet, which proved to contain neatly tied and labeled packages of religious weeklies, beginning in the sixties.

The grounds had been gone over inch by inch, without affording any clue, and now the three of us faced one another. The day was almost gone, and we were exactly where we started. Hunter had sent men through the town and the adjacent countryside, but no word had come from them. Miss Letitia had at last succumbed to the suspense and had gone to bed, where she lay quietly enough, as is the way with the old, but so mild that she was alarming.

At five o'clock Hawes called me up from the office and almost tearfully implored me to come back and attend to my business. When I said it was impossible, I could hear him groan as he hung up the receiver. Hawes is of the opinion that by keeping fresh magazines in my waiting-room and by persuading me to the extravagance of Turkish rugs, that he has built my practice to its present flourishing state. When I left the telephone, Hunter was preparing to go back to town and Wardrop was walking up and down the hall. Suddenly Wardrop stopped his uneasy promenade and hailed the detective on his way to the door.

"By George," he exclaimed, "I forgot to show you the closet under the attic stairs!"

We hurried up and Wardrop showed us the panel in the hall, which slid to one side when he pushed a bolt under the carpet. The blackness of the closet was horrible in its suggestion to me. I stepped back while Hunter struck a match and looked in.

The closet was empty.

"Better not go in," Wardrop said. "It hasn't been used for years and it's black with dust. I found it myself and showed it to Miss Jane. I don't believe Miss Letitia knows it is here."

"It hasn't been used for years!" reflected Hunter, looking around him curiously. "I suppose it has been some time since you were in here, Mr. Wardrop?"

"Several years," Wardrop replied carelessly. "I used to keep contraband here in my college days, cigarettes and that sort of thing. I haven't been in it since then."

Hunter took his foot off a small object that lay on the floor, and picking it up, held it out to Wardrop, with a grim smile.

"Here is the fountain pen you lost this morning, Mr. Wardrop," he said quietly.

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