"I've already done that." She seemed embarrassed. "Father asked me to 'phone Mr. Southard, Mr. Jeremy Southard, his lawyer, about it. I know I told you I wanted your advice about everything. I would have waited to ask you. But you were late. I had to take Mr. Southard's advice."
"That's perfectly all right," he reassured her. "Mr. Southard advised you wisely.—Now, I'm going to ask your help. The guest-rooms upstairs—have the servants straightened them up this morning?"
They had not, she told him. Excitement had quite destroyed their efficiency for the time being; they were at the parlour windows, listening, or waiting to be examined by the coroner.
"That's what I hoped," he said. "Won't you see that those rooms are left exactly as they are until I can have a look at them?" She nodded assent. "And say nothing about my speaking of it—absolutely nothing to anybody? It's vitally important."
The door was opened by Sloane's man, Jarvis, who had in queer combination, Hastings thought, the salient aspects of an undertaker and an experienced pick-pocket. He was dismal of countenance and alert in movement, an efficient ghost, admirably appropriate to the twilit gloom of the room with its heavily shaded windows.
Mr. Sloane was in bed, in the darkest corner.
"Father," Lucille addressed him from the door-sill, "I've asked Mr. Hastings to talk to you about things. He's just back from Washington."
"Shuddering saints!" said Mr. Sloane, not lifting his head from the pillows.
Lucille departed. The ghostly Jarvis closed the door without so much as a click of the latch. Hastings advanced slowly toward the bed, his eyes not yet accustomed to the darkness.
"Shuddering, shivering, shaking saints!" Mr. Sloane exclaimed again, the words coming in a slow, shrill tenor from his lips, as if with great exertion he reached up with something and pushed each one out of his mouth. "Sit down, Mr. Hastings, if I can control my nerves, and stand it. What is it?"
His hostility to the caller was obvious. The evident and grateful interest with which the night before he had heard the detective's stories of crimes and criminals had changed now to annoyance at the very sight of him. As a raconteur, Mr. Hastings was quite the thing; as protector of the Sloane family's privacy and seclusion, he was a nuisance. Such was the impression Mr. Hastings received.
At a loss to understand his host's frame of mind, he took a chair near the bed.
Mr. Sloane stirred jerkily under his thin summer coverings.
"A little light, Jarvis," he said peevishly. "Now, Mr. Hastings, what can I do for—tell you?"
Jarvis put back a curtain.
"Quivering and crucified martyrs!" the prostrate man burst forth. "I said a little, Jarvis! You drown my optic nerves in ink and, without a moment's warning, flood them with the glaring brilliancy of the noonday sun!" Jarvis half-drew the curtain. "Ah, that's better. Never more than an inch at a time, Jarvis. How many times have I told you that? Never give me a shock like that again; never more than an inch of light at a time. Frantic fiends! From cimmerian, abysmal darkness to Sahara-desert glare!"
"Yes, sir," said Jarvis, as if on the point of digging a grave—for himself. "Beg pardon, sir."
He effaced himself, in shadows, somewhere behind Hastings, who seized the opportunity to speak.
"Miss Sloane suggested that you wanted certain information. In fact, she asked me to see you."
"My daughter? Oh, yes!" The prone body became semi-upright, leaned on an elbow. "Yes! What I want to know is, why—why, in the name of all the jumping angels, everybody seems to think there's a lot of mystery connected with this brutal, vulgar, dastardly crime! It passes my comprehension, utterly!—Jarvis, stop clicking your finger-nails together!" This with a note of exaggerated pleading. "You know I'm a nervous wreck, a total loss physically, and yet you stand there in the corner and indulge yourself wickedly, wickedly, in that infernal habit of yours of clicking your finger-nails! Mute and mutilated Christian martyrs!"
He fell back among the pillows, breathing heavily, the perfect picture of exhaustion. Jarvis came near on soundless feet and applied a wet cloth to his master's temples.
The old man regarded them both with unconcealed amazement.
"You'll have to excuse me, Mr. Hastings, really, I can't be annoyed!" the wreck, somewhat revived, announced feebly. "All I said to my daughter, Miss Sloane, is what I say to you now: I see no reason why we should employ you, or indeed why you should be connected with this affair. You were my guest, here, at Sloanehurst. Unfortunately, some ruffian of whom we never heard, whose existence we never suspected—Jarvis, take off this counterpane; you're boiling me, parboiling me; my nerves are seething, simmering, stewing! Athletic devils! Have you no discrimination, Jarvis?—as I was saying, Mr. Hastings, somebody stabbed somebody else to death on my lawn, unfortunately marring your visit. But that's all. I can't see that we need you—thank you, nevertheless."
The dismissal was unequivocal. Hastings got to his feet, his indignation all the greater through realization that he had been sent for merely to be flouted. And yet, this man's daughter had come to him literally with tears in her eyes, had begged him to help her, had said that money was the smallest of considerations. Moreover, he had accepted her employment, had made the definite agreement and promise. Apparently, Sloane was in no condition to act independently, and his daughter had known it, had hoped that he, Hastings, might soothe his silly mind, do away with his objections to assistance which she knew he needed.
There was, also, the fact that Lucille believed her father unaccountably interested, if not implicated, in the crime. He could not get away from that impression. He was sure he had interpreted correctly the girl's anxiety the night before. She was working to save her father—from something. And she believed Berne Webster innocent.
These were some of the considerations which, flashing through his mind, prevented his giving way to righteous wrath. He most certainly would not allow Arthur Sloane to eliminate him from the situation. He sat down again.
The nervous wreck made himself more understandable.
"Perhaps, Jarvis," he said, shrinking to one side like a man in sudden pain, "the gentleman can't see how to reach that large door. A little more light, half an inch-not a fraction more!"
"Don't bother," Hastings told Jarvis. "I'm not going quite yet."
"Leaping crime!" moaned Mr. Sloane, digging deeper into the pillows, "Frantic imps!"
"I hope I won't distress you too much," the detective apologized grimly, "if I ask you a few questions. Fact is, I must. I'm investigating the circumstances surrounding what may turn out to be a baffling crime, and, irrespective of your personal wishes, Mr. Sloane, I can't let go of it. This is a serious business——"
The sick man sat up in bed with surprising abruptness.
"Serious business! Serious saints!—Jarvis, the eau de cologne!—You think I don't know it? They make a slaughter-house of my lawn. They make a morgue of my house. They hold a coroner's inquest in my parlour. They're in there now—live people like ravens, and one dead one. They cheat the undertaker to plague me. They wreck me all over again. They give me a new exhaustion of the nerves. They frighten my daughter to death.—Jarvis, the smelling salts. Shattered saints, Jarvis! Hurry! Thanks.—They rig up lies which, Tom Wilton, my old and trusted friend, tells me, will incriminate Berne Webster. They sit around a corpse in my house and chatter by the hour. You come in here and make Jarvis nearly blind me.
"And, then, then, by the holy, agile angels! you think you have to persuade me it's a serious business! Never fear! I know it!—Jarvis, the bromide, quick! Before I know it, they'll drive me to opiates.—Serious business! Shrivelled and shrinking saints!"
Arms clasped around his legs, knees pressed against his chin, Mr. Sloane trembled and shook until Jarvis, more agile than the angels of whom his employer had spoken, gave him the dose of bromides.
Still, Mr. Hastings did not retire.
"I was going to say," he resumed, in a tone devoid of compassion, "I couldn't drop this thing now. I may be able to find the murderer; and you may be able to help me."
"Isn't it Russell? He's among the ravens now, in my parlour. Wilton told me the sheriff was certain Russell was the man. Murdered martyrs! Sacrificed saints! Can't you let a guilty man hang when he comes forward and puts the rope around his own worthless neck?"
"If Russell's guilty," Hastings said, glad of the information that the accused man was then at Sloanehurst, "I hope we can develop the necessary evidence against him. But——"
"Let me finish, Mr. Sloane, if you please!" The old man was determined to disregard the other's signs of suffering. He did not believe that they were anything but assumed, the exaggerated camouflage which he usually employed as an excuse for idleness. "But, if Russell isn't guilty, there are facts which may help me to find the murderer. And you may have valuable information concerning them."
"Sobbing, sorrowing saints!" lamented Mr. Sloane, but his trembling ceased; he was closely attentive. "A cigarette, Jarvis, a cigarette! Nerves will be served.—I suppose the easiest way is to submit. Go on."
"I shall ask you only two or three questions," Hastings said.
The jackknife-like figure in the bed shuddered its repugnance.
"I've been told, Mr. Sloane, that Mr. Webster has been in great need of money, as much as sixty-five thousand dollars. In fact, according to my information, he needs it now."
"Well, did he kill the woman, expecting to find it in her stocking?"
"The significance of his being hard-pressed, for so large an amount," the old man went on, ignoring the sarcasm, "is in the further charge that Miss Brace was trying to make him marry her, that he should have married her, that he killed her in order to be free to marry your daughter—for money."
"My daughter! For money!" shrilled Sloane, neck elongated, head thrust forward, eyes bulging. "Leaping and whistling cherubim!" For all his outward agitation, he seemed to Hastings in thorough command of his logical faculties; it was more than possible, the detective thought, that the expletives were time-killers, until he could decide what to say. "It's ridiculous, absurd! Why, sir, you reason as loosely as you dress! Are you trying to prostrate me further with impossible theories? Webster marry my daughter for money, for sixty-five thousand dollars? He knows I'd let him have any amount he wanted. I'd give him the money if it meant his peace of mind and Lucille's happiness.—Dumb and dancing devils! Jarvis, a little whiskey! I'm worn out, worn out!"
"Did you ever tell Mr. Webster of the extent of your generous feeling toward him, Mr. Sloane—in dollars and cents?"
"No; it wasn't necessary. He knows how fond of him I am."
"And you would let him have sixty-five thousand dollars—if he had to have it?"
"I would, sir!—today, this morning."
"Now, one other thing, Mr. Sloane, and I'm through. It's barely possible that there was some connection between this murder and a letter which came to Sloanehurst yesterday afternoon, a letter in an oblong grey envelope. Did——"
The nervous man went to pieces again, beat with his open palms on the bed covering.
"Starved and stoned evangels, Jarvis! Quit balling your feet! You stand there and see me harassed to the point of extinction by a lot of crazy queries, and you indulge yourself in that infernal weakness of yours of balling your feet! Leaping angels! You know how acute my hearing is; you know the noise of your sock against the sole of your shoe when you ball your feet is the most exquisite torture to me! A little whiskey, Jarvis! Quick!" He spoke now in a weak, almost inaudible voice to Hastings: "No; I got no such letter. I saw no such letter." He sank slowly back to a prone posture.
"I was going to remind you," the detective continued, "that I brought the five o'clock mail in. Getting off the car, I met the rural carrier; he asked me to bring in the mail, saving him the few steps to your box. All there was consisted of a newspaper and one letter. I recall the shape and colour of the envelope—oblong, grey. I did not, of course, look at the address. I handed the mail to you when you met me on the porch."
Mr. Sloane, raising himself on one elbow to take the restoring drink from Jarvis, looked across the glass at his cross-examiner.
"I put the mail in the basket on the hall table," he said in high-keyed endeavour to express withering contempt. "If it had been for me, Jarvis would have brought it to me later. I seldom carry my reading glasses about the house with me."
Hastings, subjecting the pallid Jarvis to severe scrutiny, asked him:
"Was that grey letter addressed to—whom?"
"I didn't see it," replied Jarvis, scarcely polite.
"And yet, it's your business to inspect and deliver the household's mail?"
"What became of it, then—the grey envelope?"
"I'm sure I can't say, sir, unless some one got it before I reached the mail basket."
Hastings stood up. Interrogation of both master and man had given him nothing save the inescapable conviction that both of them resented his questioning and would do nothing to help him. The reason for this opposition he could not grasp, but it was a fact, challenging his analysis. Arthur Sloane rejected his proffered help in the pursuit of the man who had brought murder to the doors of Sloanehurst. Why? Was this his method of hiding facts in his possession?
Hastings questioned him again:
"Your waking up at that unusual hour last night—was it because of a noise outside?"
The neurasthenic, once more recumbent, succeeded in voicing faint denial of having heard any noises, outside or inside. Nor had he been aware of the murder until called by Judge Wilton. He had turned on his light to find the smelling-salts which, for the first time in six years, Jarvis had failed to leave on his bed-table,—terrible and ill-trained apes! Couldn't he be left in peace?
The hall door opened, admitting Judge Wilton. The newcomer, with a word of greeting to Hastings, sat down on the bedside and put a hand on Sloane's shoulder.
Hastings turned to leave the room.
"Any news?" the judge asked him.
"I've just been asking Mr. Sloane that," Hastings said, in a tone that made Wilton look swiftly at his friend's face.
"I told Arthur this morning," he said, "how lucky he was that you'd promised Lucille to go into this thing."
"Apparently," Hastings retorted drily, "he's unconvinced of the extent of his good fortune."
Mr. Sloane, quivering from head to foot, mourned softly: "Unfathomable fate!"
Wilton, his rugged features softening to frank amusement, stared a moment in silence at Sloane's thin face, at the deeply lined forehead topped by stringy grey hair.
"See here, Arthur," he protested, nodding Hastings an invitation to remain; "you know as much about crime as Hastings and I. If you've thought about this murder at all, you must see what it is. If Russell isn't guilty—if he's not the man, that crime was committed shrewdly, with forethought. And it was a devilish thing—devilish!"
"Well, what of it?" Sloane protested shrilly, not opening his eyes.
"Take my advice. Quit antagonizing Mr. Hastings. Be thankful that he's here, that he's promised to run down the guilty man."
Mr. Sloane turned his face to the wall.
"A little whiskey, Jarvis," he said softly. "I'm exhausted, Tom. Leave me alone."
Wilton waved his hand, indicative of the futility of further argument.
"Judge," announced Hastings, at the door, "I'll ask you a question I put to Mr. Sloane. Did you receive, or see, a letter in an oblong, grey envelope in yesterday afternoon's mail?"
"No. I never get any mail while I'm here for a week-end."
Wilton followed the detective into the hall.
"I hope you're not going to give up the case, Hastings. You won't pay any attention to Arthur's unreasonable attitude, will you?"
"I don't know," Hastings said, still indignant. "I made my bargain with his daughter. I'll see her."
"If you can't manage any other way, I—or she—will get any information you want from Arthur."
"I hope to keep on. It's a big thing, I think." The old man was again intent on solving the problem. "Tell me, judge; do you think Berne Webster's guilty?" Seeing the judge's hesitance, he supplemented: "I mean, did you notice anything last night, in his conduct, that would indicate guilt—or fear?"
Later, when other developments gave this scene immense importance, Hastings, in reviewing it, remembered the curious little flicker of the judge's eyelids preceding his reply.
"Absolutely not," he declared, with emphasis. "Are you working on that"—he hesitated hardly perceptibly—"idea?"
THE MAN WHO RAN AWAY
Ancestors of the old family from whom Arthur Sloane had purchased this colonial mansion eight years ago still looked out of their gilded frames on the parlour walls, their high-bred calm undisturbed, their aristocratic eyes unwidened, by the chatter and clatter of the strangers within their gates. Hastings noticed that even the mob and mouthing of a coroner's inquest failed to destroy the ancient atmosphere and charm of the great room. He smiled. The pictured grandeur of a bygone age, the brocaded mahogany chairs, the tall French mirrors—all these made an incongruous setting for the harsh machinery of crime-inquiry.
The detective had completed his second and more detailed search of the guest-rooms in time to hear the words and study the face of the last witness on Dr. Garnet's list. That was Eugene Russell.
"One of life's persimmons—long before frost!" Hastings thought, making swift appraisal. "A boneless spine—chin like a sheep—brave as a lamb."
Russell could not conceal his agitation. In fact, he referred to it. Fear, he explained in a low, husky voice to the coroner and the jury, was not a part of his emotions. His only feeling was sorrow, varied now and then by the embarrassment he felt as a result of the purely personal and very intimate facts which he had to reveal.
His one desire was to be frank, he declared, his pale blue eyes roving from place to place, his nervous fingers incessantly playing with his thin, uncertain lips. This mania for truthfulness, he asserted, was natural, in that it offered him the one sure path to freedom and the establishment of his innocence of all connection with the murder of the woman he had loved.
He was, he testified, thirty-one years old, a clerk in a real-estate dealer's office and a native of Washington. Mildred Brace had been employed for a few weeks by the same firm for which he worked, and it was there that he had met her. Although she had refused to marry him on the ground that his salary was inadequate for the needs of two people, she had encouraged his attentions. Sometimes, they had quarrelled.
"Speak up, Mr. Russell!" Dr. Garnet directed. "And take your time. Let the jury hear every word you utter."
After that, the witness abandoned his attempt to exclude the family portraits from his confidence, but his voice shook.
"Conductor Barton is right," he said, responding to the coroner's interrogation. "I did come out on his car, the car that gets to the Sloanehurst stop at ten-thirty, and I did leave the car at the Ridgecrest stop, a quarter of a mile from here. I was following Mil—Miss Brace. I saw her leave her apartment house, the Walman. I followed her to the transfer station at the bridge, and I saw her take the car there. I followed on the next car. I knew where she was going, knew she was going to Sloanehurst."
"How did you know that, Mr. Russell?"
"I mean I was certain of it. She'd told me Mr. Berne Webster, the lawyer she'd been working for, was out here spending the week-end; and I knew she was coming out to meet him."
"Why did she do that?"
Mr. Russell displayed pathetic embarrassment and confusion before he answered that. He plucked at his lower lip with spasmodic fingers. His eyes were downcast. He attempted a self-deprecatory smile which ended in an unpleasant grimace.
"She wouldn't say. But it was because she was in love with him."
"And you were jealous of Mr. Webster?"
"We-ell—yes, sir; that's about it, I guess."
"Did Miss Brace tell you she was coming to Sloanehurst?"
"No, sir. I suspected it."
"And watched her movements?"
"And followed her?"
"Why did you think she was in love with Mr. Webster, Mr. Russell? And please give us a direct answer. You can understand the importance of what you're about to say."
"I do. I thought so because she had told me that he was in love with her, and because of her grief and anger when he dismissed her from his office. And she did everything to make me think so, except declaring it outright. She did that because she knew I hated to think she was in love with him."
"All right, Mr. Russell. Now, tell us what happened during your—ah—shadowing Miss Brace the night she was killed."
"I got off the car at Ridgecrest and walked toward Sloanehurst. It was raining then, pretty hard. I thought she had made an appointment to meet Mr. Webster somewhere in the grounds here. It was a quarter to eleven when I got to the little side-gate that opens on the lawn out there on the north side of the house."
"How did you know that?"
"I looked at my watch then. It's got a luminous dial."
"You were then at the gate near where she was found, dead?"
"Yes. And she was at the gate."
"Oh! So you saw her?"
"I saw her. When I lifted the latch of the gate, she came toward me. There was a heavy drizzle then. I thought she had been leaning on the fence a few feet away. She whispered, sharp and quick, 'Who's that?' I knew who she was, right off. I said, 'Gene.'
"She caught hold of my arm and shook it. She told me, still whispering, if I didn't get away from there, if I didn't go back to town, she'd raise an alarm, accuse me of trying to kill her—or she'd kill me. She pressed something against my cheek. It felt like a knife, although I couldn't see, for the darkness."
The witness paused and licked his dry lips. He was breathing fast, and his restless eyes had a hunted look. The people in the room leaned farther toward him, some believing, some doubting him.
Hastings thought: "He's scared stiff, but telling the truth—so far."
"All right; what next?" asked Dr. Garnet, involuntarily lowering his voice to Russell's tone.
"I accused her of having an appointment to meet Webster there. I got mad. I hate to have to tell all this, gentlemen; but I want to tell the truth. I told her she was a fool to run after a man who'd thrown her over.
"'It's none of your look-out what I do!' she told me. 'You get away from here, now—this minute! You'll be sorry if you don't!' There was something about her that frightened me, mad as I was. I'd never seen her like that before."
"What do you mean?" Garnet urged him.
"I thought she would kill me, or somebody else would, and she knew it. I got the idea that she was like a crazy woman, out of her head about Webster, ready to do anything desperate, anything wild. I can't explain it any better than that."
"And did you leave her?"
"Practically. A sort of panic got hold of me. I can't explain it, really."
Russell, seeking an illuminative phrase, gave vent to a long-drawn, anxious sigh. He appeared to feel no shame for his flight. His fear was that he would not be believed.
"Just as she told me a second time to leave her, I thought I heard somebody coming toward us, a slushy, dull sound, like heavy footsteps on the wet grass. Mildred's manner, her voice, had already scared me.
"When I heard those footsteps, I turned and ran. My heart was in my mouth. I ran out to the road and back toward Washington. I ran as fast as I could. Twice I fell on my hands and knees. I can't tell you exactly how it was, why it was. I just knew something terrible would happen if I stayed there. I never had a feeling like that before. I was more afraid of her than I was of the man coming toward us."
Members of the jury pushed back their chairs, were audible with subdued exclamations and long breaths, relieved of the nervous tension to which Russell's story of the encounter at the gate had lifted them. They were, however, prejudiced against him, a fact which he grasped.
One of them asked him:
"Can you tell us why you followed her out here?"
"Why?" Russell echoed, like a man seeking time for deliberation.
"Yes. What did you think you'd do after you'd overtaken her?"
"Persuade her to go back home with me. I wanted to save her from doing anything foolish—anything like that, you know."
"But, from what you've told us here this morning, it seems you never had much influence on her behaviour. Isn't that true?"
"I suppose it is.—But," Russell added eagerly, "I can prove I had no idea of hurting her, if that's what you're hinting at. I can prove I never struck her. At twenty minutes past eleven last night I was four miles from here. Mr. Otis, a Washington commission merchant, picked me up in his automobile, six miles outside of Washington and took me into town. I couldn't have made that four miles on foot, no matter how I ran, in approximately fifteen or twenty minutes.
"It's been proved that she was struck down after eleven anyway.—You said the condition of the body showed that, doctor.—You see, I would have had to make the four miles in less than twenty minutes—an impossibility. You see?"
His eagerness to win their confidence put a disagreeable note, almost a whimper, into his voice. It grated on Dr. Garnet.
It affected Hastings more definitely.
"Now," he decided, "he's lying—about something. But what?" He noted a change in Russell's face, a suggestion of craftiness, the merest shadow of slyness over his general attitude of anxiety. And yet, this part of his story seemed straight enough.
Dr. Garnet's next question brought out the fact that it would be corroborated.
"This Mr. Otis, Mr. Russell; where is he?"
"Right there, by the window," the witness answered, with a smug smile which gave him a still more unprepossessing look.
Jury and spectators turned toward the man at the window. They saw a clean-shaven, alert-looking person of middle age, who nodded slightly in Russell's direction as if endorsing his testimony. There seemed no possible grounds for doubting whatever Otis might say. Hastings at once accepted him as genuine, an opinion which, it was obvious, was shared by the rest of the assemblage.
Russell sensed the change of sentiment toward himself. Until now, it had been a certainty that he would be held for the murder. But his producing an outsider, incontestably a trustworthy man, to establish the truth of his statement that he had been four miles away from the scene of the crime a quarter of an hour after it had been committed—that was something in his favour which could not be gainsaid.
Granting even that he had had an automobile at his disposal—a supposition for which there was no foundation—his alibi would still have been good, in view of the rain and the fact that one of the four miles in question was "dirt road."
With the realization of this, the jury swung back to the animus it had felt against Webster, the incredulity with which it had received his statement that there had been between him and the dead woman no closer relationship than that of employer and employe.
Webster, seated near the wall furthest from the jury, felt the inquiry of many eyes upon him, but he was unmoved, kept his gaze on Russell.
Dr. Garnet, announcing that he would ask Mr. Otis to testify a little later, handed Russell the weapon with which Mildred Brace had been murdered.
"Have you ever seen that dagger before?" he asked.
Russell said he had not. Reminded that Sheriff Crown had testified to searching the witness's room and had discovered that a nail file was missing from his dressing case, a file which, judging by other articles in the case, must have been the same size as the one used in making the amateur dagger, Russell declared that his file had been lost for three years. He had left it in a hotel room on the only trip he had ever taken to New York.
He gave way to Mr. Otis, who described himself as a commission merchant of Washington. Returning from a tour to Lynchburg, Virginia, he said, he had been hailed last night by a man in the road and had agreed to take him into town, a ride of six miles. Reaching Washington shortly before midnight, he had dropped his passenger at Eleventh and F streets.
"Who was this passenger?" inquired Garnet.
"He told me," said Otis, "his name was Eugene Russell. I gave him my name. That explains how he was able to find me this morning. When he told me how he was situated, I agreed to come over here and give you gentlemen the facts."
"Notice anything peculiar about Mr. Russell last night?"
"No; I think not."
"Was he agitated, disturbed?"
"He was out of breath. And he commented on that himself, said he'd been walking fast. Oh, yes! He was bareheaded; and he explained that—said the rain had ruined a cheap straw hat he had been wearing; the glue had run out of the straw and down his neck, he had thrown the hat away."
"And the time? When did you pick him up?"
"It was twenty minutes past eleven o'clock. When I stopped, I glanced at my machine clock; I carry a clock just above my speedometer."
Mr. Otis was positive in his statements. He realized, he said, that his words might relieve one man of suspicion and bring it upon another. Unless he had been absolutely certain of his facts, he would not have stated them. He was sure, beyond the possibility of doubt, that he had made no mistake when he looked at his automobile clock; it was running when he stopped and when he reached Washington; yes, it was an accurate timepiece.
Russell's alibi was established. His defence appealed to the jurymen as unassailable. When, after a conference of less than half an hour, they brought in a verdict that Mildred Brace had been murdered by a thrust of the "nail-file dagger" in the hands of a person unknown, nobody in the room was surprised.
And nobody was blind to the fact that the freeing of Eugene Russell seriously questioned the innocence of Berne Webster.
THE BREAKING DOWN OF WEBSTER
Hastings, sprawling comfortably in a low chair by the south window in the music room, stopped his whittling when Berne Webster came in with Judge Wilton. "Meddlesome Mike!" thought the detective. "I sent for Webster."
"Berne asked me to come with him," the judge explained his presence at once. "We've talked things over; he thought I might help him bring out every detail—jog his memory, if necessary."
Hastings did not protest the arrangement. He saw, almost immediately, that Webster had come with no intention of giving him hearty cooperation. The motive for this lack of frankness he could not determine. It was enough that he felt the younger man's veiled antagonism and appreciated the fact that Wilton accompanied him in the role of protector.
"If I'm to get anything worth while out of this talk," he decided, "I've got to mix up my delivery, shuffle the cards, spring first one thing and then another at him—bewilder him."
He proceeded with that definite design: at an opportune time, he would guide the narrative, take it out of Webster's hands, and find out what he wanted to know, not merely what the young lawyer wanted to tell. He recognized the necessity of breaking down the shell of self-control that overlaid the suspected man's uneasiness.
That it was only a shell, he felt sure. Webster, leaning an elbow lightly on the piano, looked down at him out of anxious eyes, and continually passed his right hand over his smooth, dark-brown hair from forehead to crown, a mechanical gesture of his when perplexed.
His smile, too, was forced, hardly more than a slight, fixed twist of the lips, as if he strove to advertise his ability to laugh at danger. His customary dash, a pleasing levity of manner, was gone, giving place to a suggestion of strain, so that he seemed always on the alert against himself, determined to edit in advance his answer to every question.
Wilton had chosen a chair which placed him directly opposite Hastings and at the same time enabled him to watch Webster. He was smoking a cigar, and, through the haze that floated up just then from his lips, he gave the detective a long, searching look, to which Hastings paid no attention.
Webster talked nearly twenty minutes, explaining his eagerness to be "thoroughly frank as to every detail," reviewing the evidence brought out by the inquest, and criticising the action of the jury, but producing nothing new. Occasionally he left the piano and paced the floor, smoking interminably, lighting the fresh cigarette from the stub of the old, obviously strung to the limit of his nervous strength. Hastings detected a little twitching of the muscles at the corners of his mouth, and the too frequent winking of his eyes.
Judge Wilton had told him, Webster continued, of Mrs. Brace's charge that he wanted to marry Miss Sloane because of financial pressure; there was not a word of truth in it; he had already arranged for a loan to make that payment when it fell due. He was, however, aware of his unenviable position, and he wanted to give the detective every assistance possible, in that way assuring his own prompt relief from embarrassment.
By this time, Hastings had mapped out his line of questioning, his assault on Webster's reticence.
"That's the right idea!" he said, getting to his feet. "Let's go to work."
They saw the change in him. Instead of the genial, drawling, slow-moving old fellow who had seemed thankful for anything he might chance to hear, they were confronted now by an aroused, quick-thinking man whose words came from him with a sharp, clipped-off effect, and whose questions scouted the whole field of their possible and probable information. He stood leaning his elbows on the other end of the piano, facing Webster across the polished length of its broad top. His dominance of the night before, in the library, had returned.
"Now, Mr. Webster," he began, innocent of threat, "as things stack up at present, only two people had the semblance of a motive for killing Mildred Brace—either Eugene Russell killed her out of jealousy of you; or you killed her to silence her demands. Do you see that?"
He had put back his head a little and was peering at Webster under his spectacle-rims, down the line of his nose. He saw how the other fought down the impulse to deny, hesitating before answering, with a laugh on a high note, like derision:
"I suppose that's what a lot of people will say."
"Precisely. Now, I've just had a talk with this Russell—caught him after the inquest. I believe there's something rotten about that alibi of his; but I couldn't shake him; and the Otis testimony's sound. So we'll have to quit counting on Russell's proving his own guilt. We've got that little job on our hands, and the best way to handle it is to prove your innocence. See that?"
The bow with which Webster acknowledged this statement was a curious mingling of grace and mockery. The detective ignored it.
"And," he continued, "there's only one way for you to come whole out of this muddle—frankness. I'm working for you; you know that. Tell me everything you know, and we've got a chance to win. The innocent man who tries to twist black into white is an innocent fool." He looked swiftly to Wilton, who was leaning far back in his chair, head lolling slowly from side to side, the picture of indifference. "Isn't that so, judge?"
"Quite," Wilton agreed, pausing to remove his cigar from his mouth.
"Of course, it's so," Webster said curtly. "I've just told you so. That's why I've decided—the judge and I have talked it over—to give you something in confidence."
"One moment!" Hastings warned him. "Maybe, I won't take it in confidence—if it's something incriminating you."
"Yes; you've phrased that unfortunately, Berne," the judge put in, tilting his head on the chair-back to meet the detective's look.
Webster was nonplussed. Apparently, his surprise came from the judge's remark rather than from the detective's refusal to assume the role of confidant. Hastings inferred that Wilton, agreeing beforehand to the proposal being advanced, had changed his mind after entering the room.
"Hastings is right," the judge concluded; "even if he's on your side, you can't expect him to be tied up blind that way by a suspected man—and you're just that, Berne."
Seeing Webster's uncertainty, Hastings took another course.
"I think I know what you're talking about, Mr. Webster," he said, matter-of-fact. "Your nail-file's missing from your dressing case—disappeared since yesterday morning."
"You know that!" Berne flashed, suddenly angry. "And you're holding it over me!"
Open hostility was in every feature of his face; his lips twitched to the sharp intake of his breath.
"Why don't you look at it another way?" the old man countered quickly. "If I'd told the coroner about it—if I'd told him also that the size of that nail-file, judging from the rest of the dressing case, matched that of the one used for the blade of the dagger, matched it as well as Russell's—what then?"
"He's right, Berne," Wilton cautioned again. "He's taken the friendly course."
"I understand that, judge," Berne said; and, without answering Hastings, turned squarely to Wilton: "But it's a thin clue. He admits Russell lost a nail-file, too."
"Several years ago," Hastings goaded, so that Webster pivoted on his heel to face him; "you lost yours when?—last night?—this morning?"
"I don't know! I noticed its absence this morning."
"There you are!—But," Hastings qualified, to avoid the quarrel, "the nail-file isn't much of a clue if unsupported." He approached cordiality. "And I appreciate your intending to tell me. That was what you intended to give me in confidence, wasn't it?"
"Yes," Webster answered, half-sullen.
Hastings changed the subject again.
"Did you know Mildred Brace intended to clear out, leave Washington, today?"
"Why, no!" Webster shot that out in genuine surprise.
"I got it from Russell," Hastings informed, and went at once to another topic.
"And that brings us to the letter. Judge Wilton tell you about that?"
Webster was lighting a cigarette, with difficulty holding the fire of the old one to the end of the new. The operation seemed to entail hard labour for him.
"In the grey envelope?" he responded, drawing on the cigarette. "Yes. I didn't get it."
He took off his coat. The heat oppressed him. At frequent intervals he passed his handkerchief around the inside of his collar, which was wilting. Now, more than ever, he gave the impression of exaggerated watchfulness, as if he attempted prevision of the detective's questions.
"Nobody got it, so far as I can learn," Hastings said, a note of sternness breaking through the surface of his tone. "It vanished into thin air. That's the most mysterious thing about this mysterious murder."
He, in his turn, began pacing the floor, a short distance to and fro in front of Judge Wilton's chair, his hands behind him, flopping the baggy tail of his coat from side to side.
"You doubtless see the gravity of the facts: that letter was mailed to Sloanehurst. Russell has just told me so. She waved it in his face, to taunt him about you, before she dropped it into the mail-box. He swears"—Hastings stopped, at the far end of his pacing, and looked hard at Webster—"it was addressed to you."
Webster, again with his queer, high-pitched laugh, like derision, threw back his head and took two long strides toward the centre of the room. There he stood a moment, hands in his pockets, while he stared at the toe of his right shoe, which he was carefully adjusting to a crack in the flooring.
Judge Wilton made his chair crackle as he moved to look at Webster. It was the weight of the detective's gaze, however, that drew the lawyer's attention; when he looked up, his eyes were half-closed, as if the light had suddenly become painful to them.
"That would be Russell's game, wouldn't it?" he retorted, at last.
"Mrs. Brace told me the same thing," Hastings said quietly, flashing a look at Wilton and back to the other.
"Damn her!" Webster broke forth with such vehemence that Wilton stared at him in amazement. "Damn her! And that's the first time I ever said that of a woman. It's as I suspected, as I expected. She's begun some sort of a crooked game!"
He trembled like a man with a chill. Hastings gave him no time to recover himself.
"You know Mrs. Brace, then? Know her well?" he pressed.
"Well enough!" Webster retorted with hot repugnance. "Well enough, although I never had but one conversation with her—if you may call that bedlam wildness a conversation. She came to my office the second day after I'd dismissed her daughter. She made a scene. She charged me with ruining her daughter's life, threatened suit for breach of promise. She said she'd 'get even' with me if it took her the rest of her life. I don't as a rule pay much attention to violent women, Mr. Hastings; but there was something about her that affected me strongly, she's implacable, and like stone, not like a woman. You saw her—understand what I mean?"
"Perfectly," agreed Hastings.
There flashed across his mind a picture of that incomprehensible woman's face, the black line of her eyebrows lifted half-way to her hair, the abnormal wetness of her lips thickened by a sneer. "If she's been after this man for two weeks," he thought, "I can understand his trembles!"
But he hurried the inquiry.
"So you think she lied about that letter?"
"Of course!" Webster laughed on a high note. "Next, I suppose, she'll produce the letter."
"She can't very well do that."
Something in his voice alarmed the suspected man.
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"What do you mean?" Webster asked again, his voice lowered, and came a step nearer to the detective.
Hastings took a piece of paper from his pocket.
"Here's the flap of the grey envelope," he said, as if that was all the information he meant to impart.
Webster urged him, with eyes and voice:
"And on the back of it is some of Mildred Brace's handwriting."
The old man examined the piece of paper with every show of absorption. He could hear Webster's hurried breathing, and the gulp when he swallowed the lump in his throat.
The scene had got hold of Wilton also. Leaning forward in his chair, his lips half-parted, the thumb and forefinger of his right hand mechanically fubbing out his cigar, so that a little stream of fire trickled to the floor, he gazed unwinking at the envelope flap.
Webster went a step nearer to Hastings, and stood, passing his hand across the top of his head and staring again out of his half-closed eyes, as if the light had hurt them.
"And," the old man said, regarding Webster keenly but keeping any hint of accusation out of his voice, "I found it last night in the fireplace, behind the screen, in your room upstairs."
He paused, looking toward the door, his attention caught by a noise in the hall.
Webster laughed, on the high, derisive note. He was noticeably pale.
"Come, man!" Judge Wilton said, harsh and imperious. "Can't you see the boy's suffering? What's written on it?"
"What difference does it make—the writing?" Webster objected, with a movement of his shoulders that looked like a great effort to pull himself together. "If there's any at all, it's faked. Faked! That's what it is. People don't write on the inside of envelope flaps."
His face did not express the assurance he tried to put into his voice. He went back to the piano and leaned on it, his posture such that it might have indicated a nonchalant ease or, equally well, might have betrayed his desperate need of support.
"This letter incident can't be waved away," Hastings, without handing over the scrap of envelope, proceeded in even, measured tones—using his sentences as if they were hammers with which he assailed the young lawyer's remnants of self-control. "You're not trifling with a jury, Mr. Webster. I believe I know as much about the value of facts, this kind of facts, as you do. Consider what you're up against. You——"
Webster put up a hand in protest, the fingers so unsteady that they dropped the cigarette which he had been on the point of lighting.
"Just a moment!" the old man commanded him. "This Mildred Brace claimed she had suffered injury at your hands. You fired her out of your office. She and her mother afterwards pursued you. She came out here in the middle of the night, where she knew you were. She was murdered, and by a weapon whose blade may have been fashioned from an article you possessed, an article which is now missing, missing since you came to Sloanehurst this time. You were found bending over the dead body.
"Her mother and her closest friend, her would-be fiance, say she wrote to you Friday night, addressing her letter to Sloanehurst. The flap of an envelope, identified by her mother and friend, and bearing the impression in ink of her handwriting, is found in the fireplace of your room here. The man who followed her out here, who might have been suspected of the murder, has proved an alibi.
"Now, I ask you, as a lawyer and a sensible man, who's going to believe that she came out here without having notified you of her coming? Who, as facts stand now, is going to believe anything but that you, desperate with the fear that she would make revelations which would prevent your marriage to Miss Sloane and keep you from access to an immense amount of money which you needed—who's going to believe you didn't kill her, didn't strike her down, there in the night, according to a premeditated plan, with a dagger which, for better protection of yourself, you had manufactured in a way which you hoped would make it beyond identification? Who's——"
Wilton intervened again.
"What's your object, Hastings?" he demanded, springing from his chair. "You're treating Berne as if he'd killed the woman and you could prove it!"
Webster was swaying on his feet, falling a little away from the piano and reeling against it again, his elbows sliding back and forth on its top. He was extremely pale; even his lips, still stiff and twisted to what he thought was a belittling smile, were white. He looked at the detective as a man might gaze at an advancing terror which he could neither resist nor flee. His going to pieces was so complete, so absolute, that it astonished Hastings.
"And you, both of you," the old man retorted to Wilton's protest; "you're treating me as if I were a meddlesome outsider intent on 'framing up' a case, instead of the representative of the Sloane family—at least, of Miss Lucille Sloane! Why's that?"
"Tell me what's on that paper," Webster said hoarsely, as if he had not heard the colloquy of the other two.
He held up a trembling hand, but without taking a step. He still swayed, like a man dangled on strings, against the piano.
"Yes; tell him!" urged Wilton.
Hastings handed Webster the envelope flap. Instead of looking at it, Webster let it drop on the piano.
"One of the words," Hastings said, "is 'pursuit.' The other two are uncompleted."
"And it's her handwriting, the daughter's?" Wilton said.
"Beyond a doubt."
Webster kept his unwinking eyes on the detective, apparently unable to break the spell that held him. For a long moment, he had said nothing. When he did speak, it was with manifest difficulty. His words came in a screaming whisper:
"Then, I'm in desperate shape!"
"Nonsense, man!" Judge Wilton protested, his voice raised, and, going to his side, struck him sharply between the shoulders. "Get yourself together, Berne! Brace up!"
The effect on the collapsing man was, in a way, magical. He stood erect in response to the blow, his elbows no longer seeking support on the piano. He got his eyes away from Hastings and looked at the judge as a man coming out of a sound sleep might have done. For a few seconds, he had one hand over his mouth, as if, by actual manipulation, he would gain control of the muscles of his lips.
"I feel better," he said at last, dropping the hand from before his face and squaring his shoulders. "I don't know what hit me. If I'd—you know," he hesitated, frowning, "if I'd killed the woman, I couldn't have acted the coward more thoroughly."
Hastings went through with what he wanted to say:
"About that letter, Mr. Webster: have you any idea, can you advance any theory, as to how that piece of the envelope got into your room?"
Webster was passing his hand across his hair now, and breathing in a deep, gusty fashion.
"Not the faintest," he replied, hoarsely.
"That's all, then, gentlemen!" Hastings said, so abruptly that both of them started. "We don't seem to have gone very far ahead with this business. We won't, until you—particularly you, Webster—tell me what you know. It's your own affair——"
"My dear sir——" Judge Wilton began.
"Let me finish!" Hastings spoke indignantly. "I'm no fool; I know when I'm trifled with. Understand me: I don't say you got that letter, Mr. Webster; I don't say you ever saw it; I don't know the truth of it—yet. I do say you've deliberately refused to respond to my requests for cooperation. I do say you'd prefer to have me out of this case altogether. I know it, although I'm not clear as to your motives—or yours, judge. You were anxious enough, you said when we talked at Sloane's door, for me to go on with it. If you're still of that opinion, I advise you to advise your friend here to be more outspoken with me. I'll give you this straight: if I can't be corn, I won't be shucks. But I intend to be corn. I'm going to conduct this investigation as I see fit. I won't be turned aside; I won't play second to your lead!"
He was fine in his intensity. Astounded by his vehemence, the two men he addressed were silent, meeting his keen and steady scrutiny.
He smiled, and, as he did so, they were aware, with an emotion like shock, that his whole face mirrored forth a genuine and warm self-satisfaction. The thing was as plain as if he had spoken it aloud: he had gotten out of the interview what he wanted. Their recognition of this fact increased their blankness.
"You know my position now," he added, no longer denunciatory. "If you change your minds, that will be great! I want all the help I can get. And, take it from me, young man, you can't afford to throw away any you can get."
Webster had shot out the one word with cool insolence before the judge could begin a conciliatory remark. The change in the lawyer's manner was so unpleasant, the insult so palpably deliberate, that Hastings could not mistake the purpose back of it. Webster regarded him out of burning eyes.
"No; not threats," Hastings answered him in a voice that was cold as ice. "I think you understand what I mean. I know too little, and I suspect too much, to drop my search for the murderer of that woman."
Judge Wilton tried to placate him:
"I don't see what your complaint is, Hastings. We——"
A smothered, half-articulate cry from Webster interrupted him. Hastings, first to spring forward, caught the falling man by his arm, breaking the force of the fall. He had clutched the edge of the piano as his legs gave under him. That, and the quickness of the detective, made the fall more like a gentle sliding to the floor.
Save for the one, gurgling outcry, no word came from him. He was unconscious, his colourless lips again twisted to that poor semblance of smiling defiance which Hastings had noticed at the beginning of the interview.
THE WHISPERED CONFERENCE
Dr. Garnet, reaching Sloanehurst half an hour later, found Webster in complete collapse. He declared that for at least several days the sick man must be kept quiet. He could not be moved to his apartment in Washington, nor could he be subjected to questioning about anything.
"That is," he explained, "for three or four days—possibly longer. He's critically ill. But for my knowledge of the terrific shock he's sustained as a result of the murder, I'd be inclined to say he'd broken down after a long, steady nervous strain.
"I'll have a nurse out to look after him. Miss Sloane has volunteered, but she has troubles of her own."
Judge Wilton took the news to Hastings, who was on the front porch, whittling, waiting to see Lucille before returning to Washington.
"I think Garnet's right," Wilton added. "I thought, even before last night, Berne acted as if he'd been worn out. And you handled him rather roughly. That sort of questioning, tantalizing, keeping a man on tenterhooks, knocks the metal out of a high-strung temperament like his. I don't mind telling you it had me pretty well worked up."
"I'm sorry it knocked him out," Hastings said. "All I wanted was the facts. He wasn't frank with me."
"I came out here to talk about that," Wilton retorted, brusquely. "You're all wrong there, Hastings! The boy's broken all to pieces. He sees clearly, too clearly, the weight of suspicion against him. You've mistaken his panic for hostility toward yourself."
The old man was unconvinced, and showed it.
"Suspicion doesn't usually knock a man into a cocked hat—unless there's something to base it on," he contended.
"All right; I give up," Wilton said, with a short laugh. "All I know is, he came to me before we saw you in the music room, and told me he wanted me to be there, to see that he omitted not even a detail of what he knew."
Hastings, looking up from the intricate pattern he was carving, challenged the judge:
"Has it occurred to you that, if he's not guilty, he might suspect somebody else in this house, might be trying to shield that person?"
In the inconsiderable pause that followed, Wilton's lips, parting for an incredulous smile, showed the top of his tongue against his teeth, as if set for pronunciation of the letter "S." Hastings, in a mental flash, saw him on the point of exclaiming: "Sloane!" But, if that was in his mind, he put it down, elaborating the smile to a laughing protest:
"That's going far afield, isn't it?"
Hastings smiled in return: "Maybe so, but it's a possibility—and possibilities have to be dealt with."
"Which reminds me," the judge said, now all amiability; "don't forget I'm always at your service in this affair. I see now that you might have preferred to question Webster alone, in the music room; but my confidence in his innocence blinded me to the fact that you could regard him as actually guilty. I expected nothing but a friendly conference, not a fierce cross-examination."
"It didn't matter at all," Hastings matched Wilton's cordial tone; "and I appreciate your offer, judge. Suppose you tell me anything that occurs to you, anything that will throw light on this case any time; and I'll act as go-between for you with the authorities—if necessary."
"I'd like to do the talking for this family and its friends. I can work better if I can handle things myself. The half of my job is to save the Sloanes from as many wild rumours as I can."
Wilton nodded approval.
"How about Arthur? You want me to take any questions to him for you?"
"No; thanks.—But," Hastings added, "you might make him see the necessity of telling me what he saw last night. If he doesn't come out with it, he'll make it all the harder on Webster."
"I don't think he saw anything."
"Didn't he? Why'd he refuse to testify before the coroner, then?"
Sheriff Crown's car came whirling up the driveway; and Hastings spoke hurriedly:
"You know he's not as sick as he makes out. He's got to tell me what he knows, judge! He's holding back something. That's why he wants to make me so mad I'll quit the case. Who's he shielding? That's what people will want to know."
Wilton pondered that.
"I'll see what I can do," he finally agreed. "According to you, it may appear—people may suspect—that Webster's guilty or shielding somebody else; and Arthur's guilty or shielding Webster!"
When Mr. Crown reached the porch, they were discussing Webster's condition, and Hastings, with the aid of the judge's penknife, was tightening a screw in his big barlowesque blade. They were careful to say nothing that might arouse the sheriff's suspicion of their compact—an agreement whereby a private detective, and not the law's representative, was to have the benefit of all the judge's information bearing on the murder.
Mr. Crown, however, was dissatisfied.
"I'm tied up!" he complained, nursing with forefinger and thumb his knuckle-like chin. "The only place I can get information is at the wrong end—Russell!"
"What's the matter with me?" the detective asked amiably. "I'll be glad to help—if you think I can."
"What good's that to me?" He wore his best politician's smile, but there was resentment in his voice. "Your job is keeping things quiet—for Sloanehurst. Mr. Sloane's ill, too ill to see me without endangering his life, so his funeral-faced valet tells me. Miss Lucille says, politely enough, she's told all she knows, told it on the stand, and I'm to go to you if I want anything more from her. The judge here knows nothing about the inside relationships of the family and Webster, or of Webster and the Brace girl. And Webster's down and out, thoroughly and conveniently! If all that don't catch your uncle Robert where the hair's short, I'll quit!"
"What do you want to know?" Hastings countered. "You've had access to everything, far as I can see."
Reply to that was delayed by the appearance of Jarvis, summoning the judge to Arthur Sloane's room.
"I want to get at Webster," Crown told Hastings. "And here's why: if Russell didn't kill her, Webster did."
"Why, you've weakened!" the old man guyed head bent over his whittling. "You had Russell's goose cooked this morning—roasted to a rich, dark brown!"
"Yes; and if I could break down his alibi, I'd still have him cooked!"
"You accept the alibi, then?"
"Sure, I accept it."
"Why don't you?" objected Crown. "He didn't have an aeroplane in his hip pocket, did he? That's the only way he could have covered those four miles in fifteen minutes.—Or does his alibi have to fall in order to save Miss Sloane's fiance?"
He slapped his thigh and thrust out his bristly moustache. "You're paid to fasten the thing on Russell," he said, clearly pugnacious. "I don't expect you to help me work against Webster! I'm not that simple!"
The old man, with a gesture no more arresting than to point at the sheriff with the piece of wood in his left hand, made the official jaw drop almost to the official chest.
"Mr. Crown," he said, "get this, once and for all: a man ain't necessarily a crook because he's once worked for the government. I'm as anxious to find the guilty man now, every time, as when I was in the Department of Justice. And I intend to. From now on, you'll give me credit for that!—Won't you, Mr. Sheriff?"
Crown apologized. "I'm worried; that's what. I'm up a gum stump and can't get down."
"All right, but don't try to make a ladder out of me! Why don't you look into that alibi?"
Crown was irritated again. "What do you stick to that for?"
"Because," Hastings declared, "I'm ready to swear-and-cross-my-heart he lied when he said he ran that four miles. I'm ready to swear he was here when the murder was done. When a man's got as good an alibi as he said he had, his adam's-apple don't play 'Yankee Doodle' on his windpipe."
"Is that so!"
"It is—and here's another thing: when's Mrs. Brace going to break loose?"
"Now, you're talking!" agreed Crown, with momentary enthusiasm. "She told me this morning she'd help me show up Webster—she wouldn't have it that Russell killed the girl. Foxy business! Mixed up in it herself, she runs to the rescue of the man she——"
The sheriff paused, unable to bring that reasoning to its logical conclusion.
"No," he said, dejected; "I can't believe she put him up to murdering her daughter."
"That woman," Hastings said, "is capable of anything—anything! We're going to find she's terrible, I tell you, Crown. She's mixed up in the murder somehow—and, if you don't find out how, I will!"
"How can we get her?" Crown argued. "She was in her flat when the killing was done. We've searched these grounds, and found nothing to incriminate anybody. All we've got is a strong suspicion against two men. She's out and away."
"Not if we watch her. She's promised to make trouble—she'll be lucky if she makes none for herself. Let's keep after her."
"I'm on! But," the sheriff reminded, again half-hearted, "that won't get us anything soon. She won't leave her flat before the funeral."
"That won't keep her quiet very long," Hastings contended. "She told me the funeral would be at nine o'clock tomorrow morning—from an undertaker's.—Anyway, I've instructed one of my assistants to keep track of her. I'm not counting on her grief absorbing her, even for today."
But he saw that Crown was not greatly impressed with the possibility of finding the murderer through Mrs. Brace. The sheriff was engrossed in mental precautions against being misled by "the Sloanehurst detective."
He was still in that mood when Miss Sloane sent for Hastings.
The detective found her in the music room. She had taken the chair which Judge Wilton had occupied an hour before, and was leaning one elbow on an arm of it, her chin resting in the cup of her hand. Her dress—a filmy lavender so light that it shaded almost to pink, and magically made to bring out the grace of her figure—drew his attention to the slight sag of her shoulders, suggestive of great weariness.
But he was captivated anew by her grave loveliness, and by her fortitude. She betrayed her agitation only in the fine tremour in her hands and a certain slowness in her words.
On the porch, talking to Judge Wilton, he had wondered, in a moment of irritation, why he continued on the case against so much apparent opposition in the very household which he sought to help. He knew now that neither his sense of duty nor his fee was the deciding influence. He stayed because this girl needed him, because he had seen in her eyes last night the haggard look of an unspeakable suspicion.
"You wanted to see me—is there anything special?" she asked him, immediately alert.
"Yes; there is, Miss Sloane," he said, careful to put into his voice all the sympathy he felt for her.
"Yes?" She was looking at him with steady eyes.
"It's this, and I want you to bear in mind that I wouldn't bring it up but for my desire to put an end to your uncertainty: I'm afraid you haven't told me everything you know, everything you saw last night in——"
When she would have spoken, he put up a warning hand.
"Let me explain, please. Don't commit yourself until you see what I mean. Judge Wilton and Mr. Webster seem to think I'm not needed here. It may be a natural attitude—for them. They're both lawyers, and to lawyers a mere detective doesn't amount to much."
"Oh, I'm sure it isn't that," she flashed out, apologizing.
"Oh, I don't mind, personally," he said, with a smile for which she felt grateful. "As I say, it's natural for them to think that way, perhaps. Your father, however, is not a lawyer; and, when I went into his room at your request, he took pains to offend me, insult me, several times." That brought a faint flush to her face. "So, that leaves only you to give me facts which I must have—if they exist."
He became more urgent.
"And you employed me, Miss Sloane; you appealed to me when you were at a loss where to turn. I'm only fair to myself as well as to you when I tell you that your distress, far more than financial considerations, persuaded me to undertake this work without first consulting your father."
She leaned toward him, bending from the waist, her eyes slightly widened, so that their effect was to give her a startled air.
"You don't mean you'll give it up!" she said, plainly entreating. "You won't give it up!"
"Are you quite sure you don't want me to give it up? Judge Wilton has asked me twice, out of politeness, not to give it up. Are you merely being polite?"
She smiled, looking tired, and shook her head.
"Really, Mr. Hastings, if you were to desert us now, I should be desperate—altogether. Desperate! Just that."
"I can't desert you," he said gently. "As I told Mr. Webster, I know too little and I suspect too much to do that."
Before she spoke again, she looked at him intently, drawing in her under lip a little against her teeth.
"What, Mr. Hastings?" she asked, then. "What do you suspect?"
"Let me answer that with a question," he suggested. "Last night, your one idea was that I could protect you and your father, everybody in the house here, by acting as your spokesman. I think you wanted to set me up as a buffer between all of you on the one side and the authorities and the reporters on the other. You wanted things kept down, nothing to get out beyond that which was unavoidable. Wasn't that it?"
"Yes; it was," she admitted, not seeing where his question led.
"You were afraid, then, that something incriminating might be divulged, weren't you?"
"Oh, no!" she denied instantly.
"I mean something which might seem incriminating. You trusted the person whom it would seem to incriminate; and you wanted time for the murderer to be found without, in the meantime, having the adverse circumstance made public. Isn't that it, Miss Sloane?"
"Let's be clear on that. Your fear was that too much questioning of you or the other person might result in a slip-up—might make you or him mention the apparently damaging incident, with disastrous effect. Wasn't that it?"
"Yes; that was it."
"Now, what was that apparently incriminating incident?"
She started. He had brought her so directly to the confession that she saw now the impossibility of withholding what he sought.
"It may be," he tried to lighten her responsibility, "the very thing that Webster and the judge have concealed—for I'm sure they're keeping something back. Perhaps, if I knew it, things would be easier. People closely affected by a crime are the last to judge such things accurately."
She gave a long breath of relief, looking at him with perplexity nevertheless.
"Yes—I know. That was why I came to you—last night—in the beginning."
"And it was about them, Webster and Wilton," he drew the conclusion for her, still encouraging her with his smile, regarding her over the rims of his spectacles with a fatherly kindness.
She turned from him and looked out of the window. It was the middle of a hot, still day, no breeze stirring, and wonderfully quiet. For the moment, there was no sound, in the house or outside.
"Oh!" she cried, her voice a revelation of the extent to which her doubts had oppressed her. "It was like that, out there—quiet, still! If you could only understand!"
"My dear child," he said, "rely on me. The sheriff is bound to assert himself, to keep in the front of things; he's that kind of a man. He'll make an arrest any time, or announce that he will. Don't you see the danger?" He leaned forward and took her hand, a move to which she seemed oblivious. "Don't you see I must have facts to go on—if I'm to help you?"
At that, she disengaged her hand, and sat very straight, her face again a little turned from him. A twitch, like a shudder cut short, moved her whole body, so that the heel of her slipper rapped smartly on the floor.
"I wish," she whispered dully, "I wish I knew what to do!"
"Tell me," he urged, as if he spoke to a child.
She showed him her face, very white, with sudden shadows under the eyes.
"I must, I think; I must tell you," she said, not much louder than the previous whisper. "You were right. I didn't tell the whole story of what I saw. Believe me, I didn't think it mattered. I thought, really, things would right themselves and explanations be unnecessary. But you knew—didn't you?"
"Yes. I knew." He realized her ordeal, helping her through it. "What were they doing?"
She held her chin high.
"It was all true, what I told you in the library, my being waked up by father's moving about, my going to the window, my seeing Berne and the judge facing each other across—her—there at the end of the awful yellow arm of light. But that wasn't all. The moment the light flashed on, the judge threw back his head a little, like a man about to cry out, shout for help. I am sure that was it.
"But Berne was too quick for that. Berne put out his hand; his arm shot across her; and his hand closed the judge's mouth. The judge made no noise whatever, but he shook his head from side to side two or three times—I'm not certain how many—while Berne leant over the body and whispered to him. It seemed to me I could almost hear the words, but I didn't.
"Then Berne took his hand from the judge's mouth. I think, before that, the judge made a sign, tried to nod his head up and down, to show he would do as Berne said. Then, when they saw she was dead, they both hurried around the corner to the front of the house, and I heard them come in; I heard the judge call to father and run up to your room."
She was alarmed then by the amazement and disapproval in his face.
"Oh!" she said, and this time she took his hand. "You see! You see! You don't understand! You think Berne killed her!"
"I don't know," he said, wondering. "I must think." For the moment, indignation swept him. "Wilton! A judge, a judge!—keeping quiet on a thing like that! I must think."
She let go his hand and, still leaning toward him, waited for him to speak. A confusion of misgivings assailed her—she regretted having confided in him. If his anger embraced Berne as well as Judge Wilton, she had done nothing but harm!
Seeing her dismay, he tried again to reassure her.
"But no matter!" he minimized his own sense of shock. "I'm sure I'll understand if you'll tell me more—your explanation."
Obviously, the only inference he could draw from her story as she had told it was that Webster had killed the woman and, found bending over her body, had sprung forward to silence the man who had discovered him. Nevertheless, it was equally evident that she was sincere in attributing to Webster a different motive for preventing the judge's outcry. Consideration of that persuaded Hastings that she could give him facts which would change the whole aspect of the crime.
Her hesitance now made him uneasy; he recognized the necessity of increasing her reliance upon him. If she told him only a part of what she knew, he would be scarcely in a better position than before.
"Naturally," he added, "you can throw light on the whole incident—light by which I must be guided, to a great degree."
"If Berne were not ill," she responded to that, "I wouldn't tell.—It's because he's lying up there, his lips closed, unable to keep a look-out for developments, at the mercy of what the sheriff may do or say!—That's why I feel so dreadfully the need of help, Mr. Hastings!"
She slid back in her chair, moving farther from him, as if his kindly gaze disconcerted her.
"If he hadn't suffered this collapse, I should have left the matter to him, I think. But now—now I can't!" She straightened again, her chin up, the signal with her of final decision. "He acted on his impulsive desire to prevent my being shocked by that discovery—that horror out there on the lawn. Things had happened to convince him that such a thing, shouted through the night, would be a terrific blow to me. I'm sure that that was the only idea he had when he put his hand over Judge Wilton's mouth."
"I can believe that," he said. "Tell me why you believe it."
"Oh!" she protested, hands clenched on her knees; "if it affected only him and me!"
Her suspicion of her father recurred to him. It was, he thought, back of the terror he saw in her eyes now.
"But it does affect only him and me, after all!" she continued fiercely, as much to strengthen herself in what she wanted to believe as to force him to that belief. "Let me tell you the whole affair, from beginning to end."
She proceeded in a low tone, the words slower, as if she laboured for precision and clarity.
"I must go back to Friday—the night before last—it seems months ago! I had heard that Berne had become involved in some sort of relationship with his stenographer—that she had been dismissed from his office and refused to accept the dismissal as final. I mean, of course, I heard she was in love with him, and he'd been in love with her—or should have been.
"It was told me by a friend of mine in Washington, Lucy Carnly. It seems another stenographer overheard the conversation between Berne and Miss—Miss Brace. It got out that way. It was very circumstantial; I couldn't help believing it, some of it; Lucy wouldn't have brought me idle gossip—I thought."
She drew in her under lip, to hide its momentary tremour, and shook her head from side to side once.
"All that, Mr. Hastings, came up, as a matter of course, when Berne reached here evening before last for the week-end. I'd just heard it that day. He denied it, said there had been nothing remotely resembling a love affair.—He was indignant, and very hurt!—He said she'd misconstrued some of his kindnesses to her. He couldn't explain how she had misconstrued them. At any rate, the result was that I broke our engagement. I——"
"Friday night!" Hastings exclaimed involuntarily.
He grasped on the instant how grossly Webster, by withholding all this, had deceived him, left him in the dark.
"Yes; and I told father about it," she hurried her words here, the effect of her manner being the impression that she hoped this fact would not bulk too large in the detective's thoughts. "The three of us had a talk about it Friday night. Father's wonderfully fond of Berne and tried to persuade me I was foolishly ruining my life. I refused to change my mind. When I went upstairs, they stayed a long time in the library, talking.
"I think they decided the best thing for Berne was to stay on here, through yesterday and today, in the hope that he and father might change my mind. Father tried to, yesterday morning. He was awfully upset. That's one reason he's so worn out and sick today.—I love my father so, Mr. Hastings!" She held her lips tight-shut a moment, a sob struggling in her throat. "But my distress, my own hurt pride——"
"What did your father say about Mildred Brace?" Hastings asked, when she did not finish that sentence.
She looked at him, again with widened eyes, a startled air, putting both her hands to her throat.
"There!" she said, voice falling to a whisper.
Then, turning her face half from him, she whispered so low that he heard her with difficulty: "I wish I were dead!"
Her words frightened him, they had so clearly the ring of truth, as if she would in sober fact have preferred death to the thought which was breaking her heart—suspicion of her father.
"That was why Berne stopped the judge's outcry," she said at last, turning her white face to him; "he had the sudden wild idea that I'm afraid you have—that father might have killed her. And Berne did not want that awful fact screamed through the night at me. Oh, can't you see—can't you see that, Mr. Hastings?"
"It's entirely possible; Mr. Webster may have thought that.—But let's keep the story straight. What had your father said about Mildred Brace—to arouse any such suspicion?"
"He was angry, terribly indignant. You know I made no secret to you of his high temper. His rages are fierce.—Once, when he was that way, I saw him kill a dog. If it had—but I think all men who're unstrung nervously, as he is, have high tempers. He felt so indignant because she had come between Berne and myself. He blamed neither Berne nor me. He seemed to concentrate all his anger upon her.
"He said—you see, Mr. Hastings, I tell you everything!—he threatened to go to her and—— He had, of course, no definite idea what he would do. Finally, he did say he would buy her off, pay her to leave this part of the country. After that, he said, he knew I would 'see things clearly,' and Berne and I would be reconciled."
Hastings remembered Russell's assertion that Mildred had her ticket to Chicago.
"Did he buy her off?" he asked quickly.
"Oh, no; he was merely wishing that he could, I think."
"But he made no attempt to get in touch with her yesterday? You're sure?"
"Quite," she said. "But don't you see. Mr. Hastings? Father was so intense in his hatred of her that Berne thought of him the moment he found that body—out there. He thought father must have encountered her on the lawn in some way, or she must have come after him, and he, in a fit of rage, struck her down."
"Has Webster told you this?"
"No—but it's true; it is!"
"But, if your supposition is to hold good, how did your father happen to be in possession of that dagger, which evidently was made with malice aforethought, as the lawyers say?"
"Exactly," she said, her lips quivering, hands gripping spasmodically at her knees. "He didn't do it! He didn't do it! Berne's idea was a mistake!"
"Who, then?" he pressed her, realizing now that she was so unstrung she would give him her thoughts unguarded.
"Why, that man Russell," she said, her voice so low and the words so slow that he thought her at the limit of her endurance. "But I've said all this to show you why Berne put his hand over the judge's mouth. I want to make it very clear that he feared father—think of it, Mr. Hastings!—had killed her! At first, I thought——"
She bowed her face in both her hands and wept unrestrainedly, without sobs, the tears streaming between her fingers and down her wrists.
The old man put one hand on her hair, and with the other brought forth his handkerchief, being bothered by the sudden mistiness of his spectacles.
"A brave girl," he said, his own voice insecure. "What a woman! I know what you mean. At first, you feared your father might have been concerned in the murder. I saw it in your eyes last night. You had the same thought that young Webster had—rather, that you say he had."
Her weeping ceased as suddenly as it had begun. She looked at him through tears.
"And I've only injured Berne in your eyes; I think, irreparably! This morning I thought you heard me when I asked him not to let it be known that our engagement was broken? Don't you remember? You were on the porch as we came around the corner."
For the first time since its utterance, he recalled her statement then, "We'll have to leave it as it was," and Webster's significant rejoinder. He despised his own stupidity. Had he magnified Webster's desire to keep that promise into guilty knowledge of the crime itself? And had not the mistake driven him into false and valueless interpretations of his entire interview with Webster?
"He promised," Lucille pursued, "for the same reason I had in asking it—to prevent discovery of the fact that father might have had a motive for wishing her dead! It was a mistake, I see now, a terrible mistake!"
"Can you tell me why you didn't have the same thoughts about Berne?" He was sorry he had to make that inquiry. If he could, he would have spared her further distress. "Why wouldn't he have had the same motive, hatred of Mildred Brace, a thousand times stronger?"
"I don't know," she said. "I simply never thought of it—not once."
Fine psychologist that he was, Hastings knew why that view had not occurred to her. Her love for Webster was an idealizing sentiment, putting him beyond even the possibility of wrong-doing. Her love for her father, unusual in its devotion as it was, recognized his weaknesses nevertheless.
And, while seeking to protect the two, she had told a story which, so far as bald facts went, incriminated the lover far more than the father. She had attributed to Sloane, in her uneasiness, the motive which would have been most natural to the discarded Webster. Even now, she could not suspect Berne; her only fear was that others, not understanding him as she did, might suspect him! Although she had broken with him, she still loved him. More than that: his illness and consequent helplessness increased her devotion for him, brought to the surface the maternal phase of it.
"If she had to choose between the two," Hastings thought, "she'd save Webster—every time!"
"I know—I tell you, Mr. Hastings, I know neither Berne nor father is at all responsible for this crime. I tell you," she repeated, rising to her feet, as if by mere physical height she hoped to impress her knowledge upon him, "I know they're innocent.—Don't you know it?"
She stood looking down at him, her whole body tense, arms held close against her sides, the knuckles of her fingers white as ivory. Her eyes now were dry, and brilliant.
He evaded the flat statement to which she pressed him.
"But your knowledge, Miss Sloane, and what we must prove," he said, also standing, "are two different things just now. The authorities will demand proofs."
"I know. That's why I've told you these things." Somehow, her manner reproached him. "You said you had to have them in order to handle this—this situation properly. Now that you know them, I'm sure you'll feel safe in devoting all your time to proving Russell's guilt." She moved her head forward, to study him more closely. "You know he's guilty, don't you?"
"I'm certain Mrs. Brace figured in her daughter's murder," he said. "She was concerned in it somehow. If that's true, and if your father approached neither her nor her daughter yesterday, it does seem highly possible that Russell's guilty."
He turned from her and stood at the window, his back to her a few long moments. When he faced her again, he looked old.
"But the facts—if we could only break down Russell's alibi!"
"Oh!" she whispered, in new alarm. "I'd forgotten that!"
All the tenseness went out of her limbs. She sank into her chair, and sat there, looking up to him, her eyes frankly confessing a panic fear.
"I think I'm sorry I told you," she said, desperately. "I can't make you understand!" Another consideration forced itself upon her. "You won't have to tell anybody—anybody at all—about this, will you—now?"
He was prepared for that.
"I'll have to ask Judge Wilton why he acted on Mr. Webster's advice—and what that advice was, what they whispered to each other when you saw them."
"Why, that's perfectly fair," she assented, relieved. "That will stop all the secrecy between them and me. It's the very thing I want. If that's assured, everything else will work itself out."
Her faith surprised him. He had not realized how unqualified it was.
"Did you ask the judge about it?" he inquired.
"Yes; just before I came in here—after Berne's collapse. I felt so helpless! But he tried to persuade me my imagination had deceived me; he said they had had no such scene. You know how gruff and hard Judge Wilton can be at times. I shouldn't choose him for a confidant."
"No; I reckon not. But we'll ask him now—if you don't mind."
Willis, the butler, answered the bell, and gave information: Judge Wilton had left Sloanehurst half an hour ago and had gone to the Randalls'. He had asked for Miss Sloane, but, learning that she was engaged, had left his regrets, saying he would come in tomorrow, after the adjournment of court.
"He's on the bench tomorrow at the county-seat," Lucille explained the message. "He always divides his time between us and the Randalls when he comes down from Fairfax for his court terms. He told me this morning he'd come back to us later in the week."
"On second thought," Hastings said, "that's better. I'll talk to him alone tomorrow—about this thing, this inexplicable thing: a judge taking it upon himself to deceive the sheriff even! But," he softened the sternness of his tone, "he must have a reason, a better one than I can think of now." He smiled. "And I'll report to you, when he's told me."
"I'm glad it's tomorrow," she said wearily. "I—I'm tired out."
On his way back to Washington, the old man reflected: "Now, she'll persuade Sloane to do the sensible thing—talk." Then, to bolster that hope, he added a stern truth: "He's got to. He can't gag himself with a pretended illness forever!"
At the same time the girl he had left in the music room wept again, saying over and over to herself, in a despair of doubt: "Not that! Not that! I couldn't tell him that. I told him enough. I know I did. He wouldn't have understood!"
In his book-lined, "loosely furnished" apartment Sunday afternoon Hastings whittled prodigiously, staring frequently at the flap of the grey envelope with the intensity of a crystal-gazer. Once or twice he pronounced aloud possible meanings of the symbols imprinted on the scrap of paper.
"'—edly de—,'" he worried. "That might stand for 'repeatedly demanded' or 'repeatedly denied' or 'undoubtedly denoted' or a hundred—— But that 'Pursuit!' is the core of the trouble. They put the pursuit on him, sure as you're knee-high to a hope of heaven!"
The belief grew in him that out of those pieces of words would come solution of his problem. The idea was born of his remarkable instinct. Its positiveness partook of superstition—almost. He could not shake it off. Once he chuckled, appreciating the apparent absurdity of trying to guess the criminal meaning, the criminal intent, back of that writing. But he kept to his conjecturing.
He had many interruptions. Newspaper reporters, instantly impressed by the dramatic possibilities, the inherent sensationalism, of the murder, flocked to him. Referred to him by the people at Sloanehurst, they asked for not only his narration of what had occurred but also for his opinion as to the probability of running down the guilty man.
He would make no predictions, he told them, confining himself to a simple statement of facts. When one young sleuth suggested that both Sloane and Webster feared arrest on the charge of murder and had relied on his reputation to prevent prompt action against them by the sheriff, the old man laughed. He knew the futility of trying to prevent publication of intimations of that sort.
But he took advantage of the opportunity to put a different interpretation on his employment by the Sloanes.
"Seems to me," he contributed, "it's more logical to say that their calling in a detective goes a long way to show their innocence of all connection with the crime. They wouldn't pay out real money to have themselves hunted, if they were guilty, would they?"
Afterwards, he was glad he had emphasized this point. In the light of subsequent events, it looked like actual foresight of Mrs. Brace's tactics.
Soon after five Hendricks came in, to report. He was a young man, stockily built, with eyes that were always on the verge of laughter and lips that sloped inward as if biting down on the threatened mirth. The shape of his lips was symbolical of his habit of discourse; he was of few words.
"Webster," he said, standing across the table from his employer and shooting out his words like a memorized speech, "been overplaying his hand financially. That's the rumour; nothing tangible yet. Gone into real estate and building projects; associated with a crowd that has the name of operating on a shoestring. Nobody'd be surprised if they all blew up."
"As a real-estate man, I take it," Hastings commented, slowly shaving off thin slivers of chips from his piece of pine, "he's a brilliant young lawyer. That's it?"
"Yes, sir," Hendricks agreed, the slope of his lips accentuated.
"Keep after that, tomorrow.—What about Mrs. Brace?"
"Destitute, practically; in debt; threatened with eviction; no resources."
"So money, lack of it, is bothering her as well as Webster!—How much is she in debt?"
"Enough to be denied all credit by the stores; between five and seven hundred, I should say. That's about the top mark for that class of trade."
"All right, Hendricks; thanks," the old man commended warmly. "That's great work, for Sunday.—Now, Russell's room?"
"Yes, sir; I went over it."
"Find any steel on the floor?"
Hendricks took from his pocket a little paper parcel about the size of a man's thumb.
"Not sure, sir. Here's what I got."
He unfolded the paper and put it down on the table, displaying a small mass of what looked like dust and lint.
"Wonderful what a magnet will pick up, ain't it?" mused his employer: "I got the same sort of stuff at Sloanehurst this morning.—I'll go over this, look for the steel particles, right away."
"Anything else, sir—special?"
The assistant was already half-way to the door. He knew that a floor an inch deep in chips from his employer's whittling indicated laborious mental gropings by the old man. It was no time for superfluous words.
"After dinner," Hastings instructed, "relieve Gore—at the Walman. Thanks."
As Hendricks went out, there was another telephone call, this time from Crown, to make amends for coolness he had shown Hastings at Sloanehurst.
"I was wrong, and you were right," he conceded, handsomely; "I mean about that Brace woman. Better keep your man on her trail."
"What's up?" Hastings asked amicably.
"That's what I want to know! I've seen her again. I couldn't get anything more from her except threats. She's going on the warpath. She told me: 'Tomorrow I'll look into things for myself. I'll not sit here idle and leave everything to a sheriff who wants campaign contributions and a detective who's paid to hush things up!' You can see her saying that, can't you? Wow!"