When Hunter had finally gone at six o'clock, summoned to town on urgent business, we were very nearly where we had been before he came. He could only give us theories, and after all, what we wanted was fact—and Miss Jane. Many things, however, that he had unearthed puzzled me.
Why had Wardrop lied about so small a matter as his fountain pen? The closet was empty: what object could he have had in saying he had not been in it for years? I found that my belief in his sincerity of the night before was going. If he had been lying then, I owed him something for a lump on my head that made it difficult for me to wear my hat.
It would have been easy enough for him to rob himself, and, if he had an eye for the theatrical, to work out just some such plot. It was even possible that he had hidden for a few hours in the secret closet the contents of the Russia leather bag. But, whatever Wardrop might or might not be, he gave me little chance to find out, for he left the house before Hunter did that afternoon, and it was later, and under strange circumstances, that I met him again.
Hunter had not told me what was on the paper he had picked out of the basket in Miss Jane's room, and I knew he was as much puzzled as I at the scrap in the little cupboard, with eleven twenty-two on it. It occurred to me that it might mean the twenty-second day of the eleventh month, perhaps something that had happened on some momentous, long-buried twenty-second of November. But this was May, and the finding of two slips bearing the same number was too unusual.
After Hunter left I went back to the closet under the upper stairs, and with some difficulty got the panel open again. The space inside, perhaps eight feet high at one end and four at the other, was empty. There was a row of hooks, as if at some time clothing had been hung there, and a flat shelf at one end, gray with dust.
I struck another match and examined the shelf. On its surface were numerous scratchings in the dust layer, but at one end, marked out as if drawn on a blackboard, was a rectangular outline, apparently that of a smallish box, and fresh.
My match burned my fingers and I dropped it to the floor, where it expired in a sickly blue flame. At the last, however, it died heroically—like an old man to whom his last hours bring back some of the glory of his prime, burning brightly for a second and then fading into darkness. The last flash showed me, on the floor of the closet and wedged between two boards, a small white globule. It did not need another match to tell me it was a pearl.
I dug it out carefully and took it to my room. In the daylight there I recognized it as an unstrung pearl of fair size and considerable value. There could hardly be a doubt that I had stumbled on one of the stolen gems; but a pearl was only a pearl to me, after all. I didn't feel any of the inspirations which fiction detectives experience when they happen on an important clue.
I lit a cigar and put the pearl on the table in front of me. But no explanation formed itself in the tobacco smoke. If Wardrop took the pearls, I kept repeating over and over, if Wardrop took the pearls, who took Miss Jane?
I tried to forget the pearls, and to fathom the connection between Miss Maitland's disappearance and the absence of her brother-in-law. The scrap of paper, eleven twenty-two, must connect them, but how? A family scandal? Dismissed on the instant. There could be nothing that would touch the virginal remoteness of that little old lady. Insanity? Well, Miss Jane might have had a sudden aberration and wandered away, but that would leave Fleming out, and the paper dragged him in. A common enemy?
I smoked and considered for some time over this. An especially malignant foe might rob, or even murder, but it was almost ludicrous to think of his carrying away by force Miss Jane's ninety pounds of austere flesh. The solution, had it not been for the blood-stains, might have been a peaceful one, leaving out the pearls, altogether, but later developments showed that the pearls refused to be omitted. To my mind, however, at that time, the issue seemed a double one. I believed that some one, perhaps Harry Wardrop, had stolen the pearls, hidden them in the secret closet, and disposed of them later. I made a note to try to follow up the missing pearls.
Then—I clung to the theory that Miss Maitland had been abducted and was being held for ransom. If I could have found traces of a vehicle of any sort near the house, I would almost have considered my contention proved. That any one could have entered the house, intimidated and even slightly injured the old lady, and taken her quietly out the front door, while I sat smoking in my room with the window open, and Wardrop trying the shutters at the side of the house, seemed impossible. Yet there were the stains, the confusion, the open front door to prove it.
But—and I stuck here—the abductor who would steal an old woman, and take her out into the May night without any covering—not even shoes—clad only in her night-clothes, would run an almost certain risk of losing his prize by pneumonia. For a second search had shown not an article of wearing apparel missing from the house. Even the cedar chests were undisturbed; not a blanket was gone.
Just before dinner I made a second round of the grounds, this time looking for traces of wheels. I found none near-by, and it occurred to me that the boldest highwayman would hardly drive up to the door for his booty. When I had extended my search to cover the unpaved lane that separated the back of the Maitland place from its nearest neighbor, I was more fortunate.
The morning delivery wagons had made fresh trails, and at first I despaired. I sauntered up the lane to the right, however, and about a hundred feet beyond the boundary hedge I found circular tracks, broad and deep, where an automobile had backed and turned. The lane was separated by high hedges of osage orange from the properties on either side, and each house in that neighborhood had a drive of its own, which entered from the main street, circled the house and went out as it came.
There was no reason, or, so far as I could see, no legitimate reason, why a car should have stopped there, yet it had stopped and for some time. Deeper tracks in the sand at the side of the lane showed that.
I felt that I had made some progress: I had found where the pearls had been hidden after the theft, and this put Bella out of the question. And I had found—or thought I had—the way in which Miss Jane had been taken away from Bellwood.
I came back past the long rear wing of the house which contained, I presumed, the kitchen and the other mysterious regions which only women and architects comprehend. A long porch ran the length of the wing, and as I passed I heard my name called.
"In here in the old laundry," Margery's voice repeated, and I retraced my steps and went up on the porch. At the very end of the wing, dismantled, piled at the sides with firewood and broken furniture, was an old laundry. Its tubs were rusty, its walls mildewed and streaked, and it exhaled the musty odor of empty houses. On the floor in the middle of the room, undeniably dirty and dishevelled, sat Margery Fleming.
"I thought you were never coming," she said petulantly. "I have been here alone for an hour."
"I'm sure I never guessed it," I apologized. "I should have been only too glad to come and sit with you."
She was fumbling with her hair, which threatened to come down any minute, and which hung, loosely knotted, over one small ear.
"I hate to look ridiculous," she said sharply, "and I detest being laughed at. I've been crying, and I haven't any handkerchief."
I proffered mine gravely, and she took it. She wiped the dusty streaks off her cheeks and pinned her hair in a funny knob on top of her head that would have made any other woman look like a caricature. But still she sat on the floor.
"Now," she said, when she had jabbed the last hair-pin into place and tucked my handkerchief into her belt, "if you have been sufficiently amused, perhaps you will help me out of here."
"Out of where?"
"Do you suppose I'm sitting here because I like it?"
"You have sprained your ankle," I said, with sudden alarm.
In reply she brushed aside her gown, and for the first time I saw what had occurred. She was sitting half over a trap-door in the floor, which had closed on her skirts and held her fast.
"The wretched thing!" she wailed. "And I have called until I am hoarse. I could shake Heppie! Then I tried to call you mentally. I fixed my mind on you and said over and over, 'Come, please come.' Didn't you feel anything at all?"
"Good old trap-door!" I said. "I know I was thinking about you, but I never suspected the reason. And then to have walked past here twenty minutes ago! Why didn't you call me then?" I was tugging at the door, but it was fast, with the skirts to hold it tight.
"I looked such a fright," she explained. "Can't you pry it up with something?"
I tried several things without success, while Margery explained her plight.
"I was sure Robert had not looked carefully in the old wine cellar," she said, "and then I remembered this trap-door opened into it. It was the only place we hadn't explored thoroughly. I put a ladder down and looked around. Ugh!"
"What did you find?" I asked, as my third broomstick lever snapped.
"Nothing—only I know now where Aunt Letitia's Edwin Booth went to. He was a cat," she explained, "and Aunt Letitia made the railroad pay for killing him."
I gave up finally and stood back.
"Couldn't you—er—get out of your garments, and—I could go out and close the door," I suggested delicately. "You see you are sitting on the trap-door, and—"
But Margery scouted the suggestion with the proper scorn, and demanded a pair of scissors. She cut herself loose with vicious snips, while I paraphrased the old nursery rhyme, "She cut her petticoats all around about." Then she gathered up her outraged garments and fled precipitately.
She was unusually dignified at dinner. Neither of us cared to eat, and the empty places—Wardrop's and Miss Letitia's—Miss Jane's had not been set—were like skeletons at the board.
It was Margery who, after our pretense of a meal, voiced the suspicion I think we both felt.
"It is a strange time for Harry to go away," she said quietly, from the library window.
"He probably has a reason."
"Why don't you say it?" she said suddenly, turning on me. "I know what you think. You believe he only pretended he was robbed!"
"I should be sorry to think anything of the kind," I began. But she did not allow me to finish.
"I saw what you thought," she burst out bitterly. "The detective almost laughed in his face. Oh, you needn't think I don't know: I saw him last night, and the woman too. He brought her right to the gate. You treat me like a child, all of you!"
In sheer amazement I was silent. So a new character had been introduced into the play—a woman, too!
"You were not the only person, Mr. Knox, who could not sleep last night," she went on. "Oh, I know a great many things. I know about the pearls, and what you think about them, and I know more than that, I—"
She stopped then. She had said more than she intended to, and all at once her bravado left her, and she looked like a frightened child. I went over to her and took one trembling hand.
"I wish you didn't know all those things," I said. "But since you do, won't you let me share the burden? The only reason I am still here is—on your account."
I had a sort of crazy desire to take her in my arms and comfort her, Wardrop or no Wardrop. But at that moment, luckily for me, perhaps, Miss Letitia's shrill old voice came from the stairway.
"Get out of my way, Heppie," she was saying tartly. "I'm not on my death-bed yet, not if I know it. Where's Knox?"
Whereupon I obediently went out and helped Miss Letitia into the room.
"I think I know where Jane is," she said, putting down her cane with a jerk. "I don't know why I didn't think about it before. She's gone to get her new teeth; she's been talkin' of it for a month. Not but what her old teeth would have done well enough."
"She would hardly go in the middle of the night," I returned. "She was a very timid woman, wasn't she?"
"She wasn't raised right," Miss Letitia said with a shake of her head. "She's the baby, and the youngest's always spoiled."
"Have you thought that this might be more than it appears to be?" I was feeling my way: she was a very old woman. "It—for instance, it might be abduction, kidnapping—for a ransom."
"Ransom!" Miss Letitia snapped. "Mr. Knox, my father made his money by working hard for it: I haven't wasted it—not that I know of. And if Jane Maitland was fool enough to be abducted, she'll stay a while before I pay anything for her. It looks to me as if this detective business was going to be expensive, anyhow."
My excuse for dwelling with such attention to detail on the preliminary story, the disappearance of Miss Jane Maitland and the peculiar circumstances surrounding it, will have to find its justification in the events that followed it. Miss Jane herself, and the solution of that mystery, solved the even more tragic one in which we were about to be involved. I say we, because it was borne in on me at about that time, that the things that concerned Margery Fleming must concern me henceforth, whether I willed it so or otherwise. For the first time in my life a woman's step on the stair was like no other sound in the world.