"That's all, right now. But I've got a suspicion she knows more than we think. When she makes up her mind to talk, she'll say something!—Mr. Hastings," Crown added, as if he imparted a tremendous fact, "that woman's smart! I tell you, she's got brains, a head full of 'em!"
"So I judged," the detective agreed, drily. "By the way, have you seen Russell again?"
"Yes. There's another thing. I don't see where you get that stuff about his weak alibi. It's copper-riveted!"
"He says so, you mean."
"Yes; and the way he says it. But I followed your advice. I've advertised, through the police here and up and down the Atlantic coast, for any automobile party or parties who went along that Sloanehurst road last night between ten-thirty and eleven-thirty."
"Fine!" Hastings congratulated. "But get me straight on that: I don't say any of them saw him; I say there's a chance that he was seen."
The old man went back, not to examination of Hendricks' parcel, but to further consideration of the possible contents of the letter that had been in the grey envelope. Russell, he reflected, had been present when Mildred Brace mailed it, and, what was more important, when Mildred started out of the apartment with it.
He made sudden decision: he would question Russell again. Carefully placing Hendricks' package of dust and lint in a drawer of the table, he set out for the Eleventh street boarding house.
It was, however, not Russell who figured most prominently in the accounts of the murder published by the Monday morning newspapers. The reporters, resenting the reticence they had encountered at Sloanehurst, and making much of Mrs. Brace's threats, put in the forefront of their stories an appealing picture of a bereaved mother's one-sided fight for justice against the baffling combination of the Sloanehurst secretiveness and indifference and the mysterious circumstances of the daughter's death. Not one of them questioned the validity of Russell's alibi.
"With the innocence of the dead girl's fiance established," said one account, "Sheriff Crown last night made no secret of his chagrin that Berne Webster had collapsed at the very moment when the sheriff was on the point of putting him through a rigid cross-examination. The young lawyer's retirement from the scene, coupled with the Sloane family's retaining the celebrated detective, Jefferson Hastings, as a buffer against any questioning of the Sloanehurst people, has given Society, here and in Virginia, a topic for discussion of more than ordinary interest."
Another paragraph that caught Hastings' attention, as he read between mouthfuls of his breakfast, was this:
"Mrs. Brace, discussing the tragedy with a reporter last night, showed a surprising knowledge of all its incidents. Although she had not left her apartment in the Walman all day, she had been questioned by both Sheriff Crown and Mr. Hastings, not to mention the unusually large number of newspaper writers who besieged her for interviews.
"And it seemed that, in addition to answering the queries put to her by the investigators, she had accomplished a vast amount of keen inquiry on her own account. When talking to her, it is impossible for one to escape the impression that this extraordinarily intelligent woman believes she can prove the guilt of the man who struck down her daughter."
"Just what I was afraid of," thought the detective. "Nearly every paper siding with her!"
His face brightened.
"All the better," he consoled himself. "More chance of her overreaching herself—as long as she don't know what I suspect. I'll get the meaning of that grey letter yet!"
But he was worried. Berne Webster's collapse, he knew, was too convenient for Webster—it looked like pretence. Ninety-nine out of every hundred newspaper readers would consider his illness a fake, the obvious trick to escape the work of explaining what seemed to be inexplicable circumstances.
To Hastings the situation was particularly annoying because he had brought it about; his own questioning had turned out to be the straw that broke the suspected man's endurance.
"Always blundering!" he upbraided himself. "Trying to be so all-shot smart, I overplayed my hand."
He got Dr. Garnet on the wire.
"Doctor," he said, in a tone that implored, "I'm obliged to see Webster today."
"Sorry, Mr. Hastings," came the instant refusal; "but it can't be done."
"For one question," qualified Hastings; "less than a minute's talk—one word, 'yes' or 'no'? It's almost a matter of life and death."
"If that man's excited about anything," Garnet retorted, "it will be entirely a matter of death. Frankly, I couldn't see my way clear to letting you question him if his escaping arrest depended on it. I called in Dr. Welles last night; and I'm giving you his opinion as well as my own."
"When can I see him, then?"
"I can't answer that. It may be a week; it may be a month. All I can tell you today is that you can't question him now."
With that information, Hastings decided to interview Judge Wilton.
"He's the next best," he thought. "That whispering across the woman's body—it's got to be explained, and explained right!"
As a matter of fact, he had refrained from this inquiry the day before, so that his mind might not be clouded by anger. His deception by the judge had greatly provoked him.
MRS. BRACE BEGINS
Court had recessed for lunch when Hastings, going down a second-story corridor of the Alexandria county courthouse, entered Judge Wilton's anteroom. His hand was raised to knock on the door of the inner office when he heard the murmur of voices on the other side. He took off his hat and sat down, welcoming the breeze that swept through the room, a refreshing contrast to the forenoon's heat and smother downstairs.
He reached for his knife and piece of pine, checked the motion and glanced swiftly toward the closed door. A high note of a woman's voice touched his memory, for a moment confusing him. But it was for a moment only. While the sound was still in his ears, he remembered where he had heard it before—from Mrs. Brace when, toward the close of his interview with her, she had shrilly denounced Berne Webster.
Mrs. Brace, her daughter's funeral barely three hours old, had started to make her threats good.
While he was considering that, the door of the private office swung inward, Judge Wilton's hand on the knob. It opened on the middle of a sentence spoken by Mrs. Brace:
"—tell you, you're a fool if you think you can put me off with that!"
Her gleaming eyes were so furtive and so quick that they traversed the whole of Wilton's countenance many times, a fiery probe of each separate feature. The inflections of her voice invested her words with ugliness; but she did not shriek.
"You bully everybody else, but not me! They don't call you 'Hard Tom Wilton' for nothing, do they? I know you! I know you, I tell you! I was down there in the courtroom when you sentenced that man! You had cruelty in your mind, cruelty on your face. Ugh! And you're cruel to me—and taking an ungodly pleasure in it! Well, let me tell you, I won't be broken by it. I want fair dealing, and I'll have it!"
At that moment, facing full toward Hastings, she caught sight of him. But his presence seemed a matter of no importance to her; it did not break the stream of her fierce invective. She did not even pause.
He saw at once that her anger of yesterday was as nothing to the storming rage which shook her now. Every line of her face revealed malignity. The eyebrows were drawn higher on her forehead, nearer to the wave of white hair that showed under her black hat. The nostrils dilated and contracted with indescribable rapidity. The lips, thickened and rolling back at intervals from her teeth, revealed more distinctly that animal, exaggerated wetness which had so repelled him.
"You were out there on that lawn!" she pursued, her glance flashing back to the judge. "You were out there when she was killed! If you try to tell me you——"
"Stop it! Stop it!" Wilton commanded, and, as he did so, turned his head to an angle that put Hastings within his field of vision.
The judge, with one hand on the doorknob, had been pressing with the other against the woman's shoulders, trying to thrust her out of the room—a move which she resisted by a hanging-back posture that threw her weight on his arm. He put more strength now into his effort and succeeded in forcing her clear of the threshold. His eyes were blazing under the shadow of his heavy, overhanging brows; but there was about him no suggestion of a loss of self-control.
"I'm glad to see you!" he told Hastings, speaking over Mrs. Brace's head, and smiling a deprecatory recognition of the hopelessness of contending with an infuriated woman.
She addressed them both.
"Smile all you please, now!" she threatened. "But the accounts aren't balanced yet! Wait for what I choose to tell—what I intend to do!"
Suddenly she got herself in hand. It was as unexpected and thorough a transformation as the one Hastings had seen twenty-four hours before during her declaration of Webster's guilt. She had the same appearance now as then, the same tautness of body, the same flat, constrained tone.
She turned to Wilton:
"I ask you again, will you help me as I asked you? Are you going to deny me fair play?"
He looked at her in amazement, scowling.
"What fair play?" he exclaimed, and, without waiting for her reply, said to Hastings: "She insists that I know young Webster killed her daughter, that I can produce the evidence to prove it. Can you disabuse her mind?"
She surprised them by going, slowly and with apparent composure, toward the corridor door. There she paused, looking at first one and then the other with an evil smile so openly contemptuous that it affected them strongly. There was something in it that made it flagrantly insulting. Hastings turned away from her. Judge Wilton gave her look for look, but his already flushed face coloured more darkly.
"Very well, Judge Wilton!" she gave him insolent good-bye, in which there was also unmistakable threat. "You'll do the right thing sooner or later—and as I tell you. You're—get this straight—you're not through with me yet!"
She laughed, one low note, and, impossible as it seemed, proclaimed with the harsh sound an absolute confidence in what she said.
"Nor you, Mr. Hastings!" she continued, taking her time with her words, and waiting until the detective faced her again, before she concluded: "You'll sing a different tune when you find I've got this affair in my hands—tight!"
Still smiling her contempt, as if she enjoyed a feeling of superiority, she left the room. When her footsteps died down the corridor, the two men drew long breaths of relief.
Wilton broke the ensuing silence.
"Is she sane?"
"Yes," Hastings said, "so far as sanity can be said to exist in a mind consecrated to evil."
The judge was surprised by the solemnity of the other's manner. "Why do you say that?" he asked. "Do you know that much about her?"
"Who wouldn't?" Hastings retorted. "It's written all over her."
Wilton led the way into his private office and closed the door.
"I'm glad it happened at just this time," he said, "when everybody's out of the building." He struck the desk with his fist. "By God!" he ground out through gritted teeth. "How I hate these wild, unbridled women!"
"Yes," agreed Hastings, taking the chair Wilton rolled forward for him. "She worries me. Wonder if she's going to Sloanehurst."
"That would be the logical sequel to this visit," Wilton said. "But pardon my show of temper. You came to see me?"
"Yes; and, like her, for information. But," the detective said, smiling, "not for rough-house purposes."
The judge had not entirely regained his equanimity; his face still wore a heightened colour; his whole bearing was that of a man mentally reviewing the results of an unpleasant incident. Instead of replying promptly to Hastings, he sat looking out of the window, obviously troubled.
"Her game is blackmail," he declared at last.
"On whom?" the detective queried.
"Arthur Sloane, of course. She calculates that he'll play to have her cease annoying his daughter's fiance. And she'll impress Arthur, if Jarvis ever lets her get to him. Somehow, she strangely compels credence."
"Not for me," Hastings objected, and did not point out that Wilton's words might be taken as an admission of Webster's guilt.
The judge himself might have seen that.
"I mean," he qualified, "she seems too smart a woman to put herself in a position where ridicule will be sure to overtake her. And yet, that's what she's doing—isn't she?"
The detective was whittling, dropping the chips into the waste-basket. He spoke with a deliberateness unusual even in him, framing each sentence in his mind before giving it utterance.
"I reckon, judge, you and I have had some four or five talks—that is, not counting Saturday evening and yesterday at Sloanehurst. That's about the extent of our acquaintance. That right?"
"Why, yes," Wilton said, surprised by the change of topic.
"I mention it," Hastings explained, "to show how I've felt toward you—you interested me. Excuse me if I speak plainly—you'll see why later on—but you struck me as worth studying, deep. And I thought you must have sized me up, catalogued me one way or the other. You're like me: waste no time with men who bore you. I felt certain, if you'd been asked, you'd have checked me off as reliable. Would you?"
"And, if I was reliable then, I'm reliable now. That's a fair assumption, ain't it?"
"Certainly." The judge laughed shortly, a little embarrassed.
"That brings me to my point. You'll believe me when I tell you my only interest in this murder is to find the murderer, and, while I'm doing it, to save the Sloanes as much as possible from annoyance. You'll believe me, also, when I say I've got to have all the facts if I'm to work surely and fast. You recognize the force of that, don't you?"
"Why, yes, Hastings." Wilton spoke impatiently this time.
"Fine!" The old man shot him a genial glance over the steel-rimmed spectacles. "That's the introduction. Here's the real thing: I've an idea you could tell me more about what happened on the lawn Saturday night."
After his involuntary, immediate start of surprise, Wilton tilted his head, slowly blowing the cigar smoke from his pursed lips. He had a fine air of reflection, careful thought.
"I can elaborate what I've already told you," he said, finally, "if that's what you mean—go into greater detail."
He watched closely the edge of the detective's face unhidden by his bending over the wood he was cutting.
"I don't think elaboration could do much good," Hastings objected. "I referred to new stuff—some fact or facts you might have omitted, unconsciously."
"Unconsciously?" Wilton echoed the word, as a man does when his mind is overtaxed.
Hastings took it up.
"Or consciously, even," he said quickly, meeting the other's eyes.
The judge moved sharply, bracing himself against the back of the chair.
"What do you mean by that?"
"Skilled in the law yourself, thoroughly familiar, with the rules of evidence, it's more than possible that you might have reviewed matters and decided that there were things which, if they were known, would do harm instead of good—obscure the truth, perhaps; or hinder the hunt for the guilty man instead of helping it on. That's clear enough, isn't it? You might have thought that?"
The look of sullen resentment in the judge's face was unmistakable.
"Oh, say what you mean!" he retorted warmly. "What you're insinuating is that I've lied!"
"It don't have to be called that."
"Well, then, that I, a judge, sworn to uphold the law and punish crime, have elected to thwart the law and to cheat its officials of the facts they should have. Is that what you mean?"
"I'll be honest with you," Hastings admitted, unmoved by the other's grand manner. "I've wondered about that—whether you thought a judge had a right to do a thing of that sort."
Wilton's hand, clenched on the edge of the desk, shook perceptibly.
"Did you think that, judge?" the detective persisted.
The judge hesitated.
"It's a point I've never gone into," he said finally, with intentional sarcasm.
Hastings snapped his knife-blade shut and thrust the piece of wood into his pocket.
"Let's get away from this beating about the bush," he suggested, voice on a sterner note. "I don't want to irritate you unnecessarily, judge. I came here for information—stuff I'm more than anxious to get. And I go back to that now: won't you tell me anything more about the discovery of the woman's body by the two of you—you and Webster?"
"No; I won't! I've covered the whole thing—several times."
"Is there anything that you haven't told—anything you've decided to suppress?"
Wilton got up from his chair and struck the desk with his fist.
"See here, Hastings! You're getting beside yourself. Representing Miss Sloane doesn't warrant your insulting her friends. Suppose we consider this interview at an end. Some other time, perhaps——"
Hastings also had risen.
"Just a minute, judge!" he interrupted, all at once assuming the authoritative air that had so amazed Wilton the night of the murder. "You're suppressing something—and I know it!"
"That's a lie!" Wilton retorted, the flush deepening to crimson on his face.
"It ain't a lie," Hastings contradicted, holding his self-control. "And you watch yourself! Don't you call me a liar again—not as long as you live! You can't afford the insult."
"Then, don't provoke it. Don't——"
"What did Webster whisper to you, across that corpse?" Hastings demanded, going nearer to Wilton.
"What's this?" Wilton's tone was one of consternation; the words might have been spoken by a man stumbling on an unsuspected horror in a dark room.
They stared at each other for several dragging seconds. The detective waved a hand toward the judge's chair.
"Sit down," he said, resuming his own seat.
There followed another pause, longer than the first. The judge's breathing was laboured, audible. He lowered his eyes and passed his hand across their thick lids. When he looked up again, Hastings commanded him with unwavering, expectant gaze.
"I've made a mistake," Wilton began huskily, and stopped.
"Yes?" Hastings said, unbending. "How?"
"I see it now. It was a matter of no importance, in itself. I've exaggerated it, by my silence, into disproportionate significance." His tone changed to curiosity. "Who told you about—the whispering?"
The detective was implacable, emphasizing his dominance.
"First, what was it?" When Wilton still hesitated, he repeated: "What did Webster say when he put his hand over your mouth—to prevent your outcry?"
The judge threw up his head, as if in sudden resolve to be frank. He spoke more readily, with a clumsy semblance of amiability.
"He said, 'Don't do that! You'll frighten Lucille!' I tried to nod my head, agreeing. But he misunderstood the movement, I think. He thought I meant to shout anyway; he tightened his grip. 'Keep quiet! Will you keep quiet?' he repeated two or three times. When I made my meaning clear, he took his hand away. He explained later what had occurred to him the moment Arthur's light flashed on. He said it came to him before he clearly realized who I was. It——
"I swear, Hastings, I hate to tell you this. It suggests unjust suspicions. Of what value are the wild ideas of a nervous man, all to pieces anyway, when he stumbles on a dead woman in the middle of the night?"
"They were valuable enough," Hastings flicked him, "for you to cover them up—for some reason. What were they?"
Wilton was puzzled by the detective's tone, its abstruse insinuation. But he answered the question.
"He said his first idea, the one that made him think of Lucille, was that Arthur might have had something to do with the murder."
"Why? Why did he think Sloane had killed Mildred Brace?"
"Because she had been the cause of Lucille's breaking her engagement with Berne—and Arthur knew that. Arthur had been in a rage——"
"All right!" Hastings checked him suddenly, and, getting to his feet, fell to pacing the room, his eyes, always on Wilton. "I'm acquainted with that part of it."
He paid no attention to Wilton's evident surprise at that statement. He had a surprise of his own to deal with: the unexpected similarity of the judge's story with Lucille Sloane's theorizing as to what Webster had whispered across the body in the moment of its discovery. The two statements were identical—a coincidence that defied credulity.
He caught himself doubting Lucille. Had she been theorizing, after all? Or had she relayed to him words that Wilton had put into her mouth? Then, remembering her grief, her desperate appeals to him for aid, he dismissed the suspicion.
"I'd stake my life on her honesty," he decided. "Her intuition gave her the correct solution—if Wilton's not lying now!"
He put the obvious question: "Judge, am I the first one to hear this—from you?" and received the obvious answer: "You are. I didn't volunteer it to you, did I?"
"All right. Now, did you believe Webster? Wait a minute! Did you believe his fear wasn't for himself when he gagged you that way?"
"Yes; I did," replied Wilton, in a tone that lacked sincerity.
"Do you believe it now?"
"If I didn't, do you think I'd have tried for a moment to conceal what he said to me?"
"Why did you conceal it?"
"Because Arthur Sloane was my friend, and his daughter's happiness would have been ruined if I'd thrown further suspicion on him. Besides, what I did conceal could have been of no value to any detective or sheriff on earth. It meant nothing, so long as I knew the boy's sincerity—and his innocence as well as Arthur's."
"But," Hastings persisted, "why all this concern for Webster, after his engagement had been broken?"
"How's that?" Wilton countered. "Oh, I see! The break wasn't permanent. Arthur and I had decided on that. We knew they'd get together again."
Hastings halted in front of the judge's chair.
"Have you kept back anything else?" he demanded.
"Nothing," Wilton said, with a return of his former sullenness. "And," he forced himself to the avowal, "I'm sorry I kept that back. It's nothing."
Hastings' manner changed on the instant. He was once more cordial.
"All right, judge!" he said heartily, consulting his ponderous watch. "This is all between us. I take it, you wouldn't want it known by the sheriff, even now?" Wilton shook his head in quick negation. "All right! He needn't—if things go well. And the person I got it from won't spread it around.—That satisfactory?"
The judge's smile, in spite of his best effort, was devoid of friendliness. The dark flush that persisted in his countenance told how hardly he kept down his anger.
Hastings put on his hat and ambled toward the door.
"By the way," he proclaimed an afterthought, "I've got to ask one more favour, judge. If Mrs. Brace troubles you again, will you let me know about it, at the earliest possible moment?"
He went out, chuckling.
But the judge was as mystified as he was resentful. He had detected in Hastings' manner, he thought, the same self-satisfaction, the same quiet elation, which he and Berne had observed at the close of the music-room interview. Going to the window, he addressed the summer sky:
"Who the devil does the old fool suspect—Arthur or Berne?"
MR. CROWN FORMS AN ALLIANCE
"If you've as much as five hundred dollars at your disposal—pin-money savings, perhaps—anything you can check on without the knowledge of others, you can do it," Hastings urged, ending a long argument.
"I! Take it to her myself?" Lucille still protested, although she could not refute his reasonings.
"It's the only way that would be effective—and it wouldn't be so difficult. I had counted on your courage—your unusual courage."
"But what will it accomplish? If I could only see that, clearly!"
She was beginning to yield to his insistence.
They were in the rose garden, in the shade of a little arbor from whose roof the great red flowers drooped almost to the girl's hair. He was acutely aware of the pathetic contrast between her white, ravaged face and the surrounding scene, the fragrance, the roses of every colour swaying to the slow breeze of late afternoon, the long, cool shadows. He found it hard to force her to the plan, and would have abandoned it but for the possibilities it presented to his mind.
"I've already touched on that," he applied himself to her doubts. "I want you to trust me there, to accept my solemn assurance that, if Mrs. Brace accepts this money from you on our terms, it will hasten my capture of the murderer. I'll say more than that: you are my only possible help in the matter. Won't you believe me?"
She sat quite still, a long time, looking steadily at him with unseeing eyes.
"I shall have to go to that dreadful woman's apartment, be alone with her, make a secret bargain," she enumerated the various parts of her task, wonder and repugnance mingling in her voice. "That horrible woman! You say, yourself, Mr. Hastings, she's horrible."
"Still," he repeated, "you can do it."
A little while ago she had cried out, both hands clenched on the arm of the rustic bench, her eyes opening wide in the startled look he had come to know: "If I could do something, anything, for Berne! Dr. Welles said only an hour ago he had no more than an even chance for his life. Half the time he can't speak! And I'm responsible. I am! I know it. I try to think I'm not. But I am!"
He recurred to that.
"Dr. Welles said the ending of Mr. Webster's suspense would be the best medicine for him. And I think Webster would see that nobody but you could do this—in the very nature of things. The absolute secrecy required, the fact that you buy her silence, pay her to cease her accusations against Berne—don't you see? He'd want you to do it."
That finished her resistance. She made him repeat all his directions, precautions for secrecy.
"I wish I could tell you how important it is," he said. "And keep this in mind always: I rely on your paying her the money without even a suspicion of it getting abroad. If accidents happen and you're seen entering the Walman, what more natural than that you want to ask this woman the meaning of her vague threats against—against Sloanehurst?—But of money, your real object, not a word! Nobody's to have a hint of it."
"Oh, yes; I see the necessity of that." But she was distressed. "Suppose she refuses?"
Her altered frame of mind, an eagerness now to succeed with the plan she had at first refused, brought him again his thought of yesterday: "If she were put to it—if she could save only one and had to choose between father and fiance, her choice would be for the fiance."
He answered her question. "She won't refuse," he declared, with a confidence she could not doubt. "If I thought she would, I'd almost be willing to say we'd never find the man who killed her daughter."
"When I think of Russell's alibi——"
"Have we mentioned Russell?" he protested, laughing away her fears. "Anyway, his old alibi's no good—if that's what's troubling you. Wait and see!"
He was in high good humour.
In that same hour the woman for whom he had planned this trap was busy with a scheme of her own. Her object was to form an alliance with Sheriff Crown. That gentleman, to use his expressive phrase, had been "putting her over the jumps" for the past forty minutes, bringing to the work of cross-questioning her all the intelligence, craftiness and logic at his command. The net result of his fusillade of interrogatories, however, was exceedingly meagre.
As he sat, caressing his chin and thrusting forward his bristly moustache, Mrs. Brace perceived in his eyes a confession of failure. Although he was far from suspecting it, he presented to her keen scrutiny an amusing figure. She observed that his shoulders drooped, and that, as he slowly produced a handkerchief and mopped his forehead, his movements were eloquent of gloom.
In fact, Mr. Crown felt himself at a loss. He had come to the end of his resourcefulness in the art of probing for facts. He was about to take his departure, with the secret realization that he had learned nothing new—unless an increased admiration of Mrs. Brace's sharpness of wit might be catalogued as knowledge.
She put his thought into language.
"You see, Mr. Crown, you're wasting your time shouting at me, bullying me, accusing me of protecting the murderer of my own daughter."
There was a new note in her voice, a hint, ever so slight, of a willingness to be friendly. He was not insensible to it. Hearing it, he put himself on guard, wondering what it portended.
"I didn't say that," he contradicted, far from graciousness. "I said you knew a whole lot more about the murder than you'd tell—tell me anyway."
"But why should I want to conceal anything that might bring the man to justice?"
"Blessed if I know!" he conceded, not without signs of irritation.
So far as he could see, not a feature of her face changed. The lifted eyebrows were still high upon her forehead, interrogative and mocking; the restless, gleaming eyes still drilled into various parts of his person and attire; the thin lips continued their moving pictures of contempt. And yet, he saw, too, that she presented to him now another countenance.
The change was no more than a shadow; and the shadow was so light that he could not be sure of its meaning. He thought it was friendliness, but that opinion was dulled by recurrence of his admiration of her "smartness." He feared some imposition.
"You've adopted Mr. Hastings' absurd theory," she said, as if she wondered. "You've subscribed to it without question."
"That I know who the guilty man is."
"Well?" He was still on guard.
"It surprises me—that's all—a man of your intellect, your originality."
She sighed, marvelling at this addition to life's conundrums.
"Why?" he asked, bluntly.
"I should never have thought you'd put yourself in that position before the public. I mean, letting him lead you around by the nose—figuratively."
Mr. Crown started forward in his chair, eyes popped. He was indignant and surprised.
"Is that what they're saying?" he demanded.
"Naturally," she said, and with the one word laid it down as an impossibility that "they" could have said anything else. "That's what the reporters tell me."
"Well, I'll be—dog-goned!" The knuckle-like chin dropped. "They're saying that, are they?"
Disturbed as he was, he noticed that she regarded him with apparently genuine interest—that, perhaps, she added to her interest a regret that he had displayed no originality in the investigation, a man of his intellect!
"They couldn't understand why you were playing Hastings' game," she proceeded, "playing it to his smallest instructions."
"Hastings' game! What the thunder are they talking about? What do they mean, his game?"
"His desire to keep suspicion away from the Sloanes and Mr. Webster. That's what they hired him for—isn't it?"
"I guess it is—by gravy!" Mr. Crown's long-drawn sigh was distinctly tremulous.
"That old man pockets his fee when he throws Gene Russell into jail. Why, then, isn't it his game to convince you of Gene's guilt? Why isn't it his game to persuade you of my secret knowledge of Gene's guilt? Why——"
"Let me say what I started," she in turn interrupted him. "As one of the reporters pointed out, why isn't it his game to try to make a fool of you?"
The smile with which she recommended that rumour to his attention incensed him further. It patronized him. It said, as openly as if she had spoken the words: "I'm really very sorry for you."
He dropped his hands to his widespread knees, slid forward to the edge of his chair, thrust his face closer to hers, peered into her hard face for her meaning.
"Making a fool of me, is he?" he said in the brutal key of unrepressed rage.
A quick motion of her lifted brows, a curve of her lower lip—indubitably, a new significance of expression—stopped his outburst.
"By George!" he said, taken aback. "By George!" he repeated, this time in a coarse exultation. He thrust himself still closer to her, certain now of her meaning.
"What do you know?" He lowered his voice and asked again: "Mrs. Brace, what do you know?"
She moved back, farther from him. She was not to be rushed into—anything. She made him appreciate the difficulty of "getting next" to her. He no longer felt fear of her imposing on him—she had just exposed, for his benefit, how Hastings had played on his credulity! He felt grateful to her for that. His only anxiety now was that she might change her mind, might refuse him the assistance which that new and subtle expression had promised a moment ago.
"If I thought you'd use——" she began, broke off, and looked past his shoulder at the opposite wall, the pupils of her eyes sharp points of light, lips drawn to a line almost invisible.
Her evident prudence fired his eagerness.
"If I'd do what?" he asked. "If you thought I'd—what?"
"Let me think," she requested.
He changed his posture, with a great show of watching the sunset sky, and stole little glances at her smooth, untroubled face. He believed now that she could put him on the trail of the murderer. He confessed to himself, unreservedly, that Hastings had tricked him, held him up to ridicule—to the ridicule of a nation, for this crime held the interest of the entire country. But here was his chance for revenge! With this "smart" woman's help, he would outwit Hastings!
"If you'd use my ideas confidentially," she said at last, eying him as if she speculated on his honesty; "if I were sure that——"
"Why can't you be sure of it?" he broke in. "My job is to catch the man who killed your daughter. I've got two jobs. The other is to show up old Hastings! Why wouldn't I do as you ask—exactly as you ask?"
She tantalized him.
"And remember that what I say is ideas only, not knowledge?"
"Sure! Certainly, Mrs. Brace."
"And, even when you arrest the right man, say nothing of what you owe me for my suggestions? You're the kind of man to want to do that sort of thing—give me credit for helping you."
Even that pleased him.
"If you specify silence, I give you my word on it," he said, with a fragment of the pompous manner he had brought into the apartment more than an hour ago.
"You'll take my ideas, my theory, work on it and never bring me into it—in any way? If you make that promise, I'll tell you what I think, what I'm certain is the answer to this puzzle."
"Win or lose, right or wrong idea, you have my oath on it."
"Very well!" She said that with the air of one embarking on a tremendous venture and scorning all its possibilities of harm. "I shall trust you fully.—First, let me sketch all the known facts, everything connected with the tragedy, and everything I know concerning the conduct of the affected individuals since."
He was leaning far toward her once more, a child-like impatience stamped on his face. As she proceeded, his admiration grew.
For this, there was ample ground. The newspaper paragraph Hastings had read that morning commenting on her mastery of all the details of the crime had scarcely done her justice. Before she concluded, Crown had heard from her lips little incidents that had gone over his head. She put new and accurate meaning into facts time and time again, speaking with the particularity and vividness of an eye-witness.
"Now," she said, having reconstructed the crime and described the subsequent behaviour of the tragedy's principal actors; "now who's guilty?"
"Exactly," echoed Crown, with a click in his throat. "Who's guilty? What's your theory?"
She was silent, eyes downcast, her hands smoothing the black, much-worn skirt over her lean knees. Recital of the gruesome story, the death of her only child, had left her unmoved, had not quickened her breathing.
"In telling you that," she resumed, her restless eyes striking his at rapid intervals, "I think I'll put you in a position to get the right man—if you'll act."
"Oh, I'll act!" he declared, largely. "Don't bother your head about that!"
"Of course, it's only a theory——"
"Yes; I know! And I'll keep it to myself."
"Very well. Arthur Sloane is prostrated, can't be interviewed. He can't be interviewed, for the simple reason that he's afraid he'll tell what he knows. Why is he afraid of that? Because he knows too much, for his own comfort, and too much for his daughter's comfort. How does he know it? Because he saw enough night before last to leave him sure of the murderer's identity.
"He was the man who turned on the light, showing Webster and Judge Wilton bending over Mildred's body. It occurred at a time when usually he is in his first sound sleep—from bromides. Something must have happened to awake him, an outcry, something. And yet, he says he didn't see them—Wilton and Webster."
"By gravy!" exclaimed the sheriff, awe-struck.
"Either," she continued, "Arthur Sloane saw the murder done, or he looked out in time to see who the murderer was. The facts substantiate that. They are corroborated by his subsequent behaviour. Immediately after the murder he was in a condition that couldn't be explained by the mere fact that he's a sufferer from chronic nervousness. When Hastings asked him to take a handkerchief, he would have fallen to the ground but for the judge's help. He couldn't hold an electric torch. And, ever since, he's been in bed, afraid to talk. Why, he even refused to talk to Hastings, the man he's retained for the family's protection!"
"He did, did he! How do you know that, Mrs. Brace?"
"Isn't it enough that I know it—or advance it as a theory?"
"Did—I thought, possibly, Jarvis, the valet, told you."
She ignored that.
"Now, as to the daughter of the house. There was only one possible reason for Lucille Sloane's hiring Hastings: she was afraid somebody in the house, Webster, of course, would be arrested. Being in love with him, she never would have suspected him unless there had been concrete, undeniable evidence of his guilt. Do you grasp that reasoning?"
"Sure, I do!" Mr. Crown condemned himself. "What I'm wondering is why I didn't see it long ago."
"She, too, you recall, was looking out of a window—on that side of the house—scarcely fifteen yards from where the crime was done. It's not hard to believe that she saw what her father saw: the murder or the murderer.
"Mr. Crown, if you can make her or her father talk, you'll get the truth of this thing, the truth and the murderer.
"And look at Judge Wilton's part. You asked me why I went to his office this morning. I went because I'm sure he knows the truth. Didn't he stay right at Webster's side when old Hastings interviewed Webster yesterday? Why? To keep Webster from letting out, in his panic, a secret which both of them knew."
The sheriff's admiration by this time was boundless. He felt driven to give it expression.
"Mrs. Brace, you're a loo-loo! A loo-loo, by gravy! Sure, that was his reason. He couldn't have had any other!"
"As for Webster himself," she carried on her exposition, without emotion, without the slightest recognition of her pupil's praise, "he proves the correctness of everything we've said, so far. That secret which the judge feared he would reveal, that secret which old Hastings was blundering after—that secret, Mr. Crown, was such a danger to him that, to escape the questioning of even stupid old Hastings, he could do nothing but crumple up on the floor and feign illness, prostration. Why, don't you see, he was afraid to talk!"
"Everything you say hits the mark!" agreed Crown, smiling happily. "Centre-shots! Centre-shots! You've been right from the very beginning. You tried to tell me all this yesterday morning, and, fool that I was—fool that Hastings was!" He switched to a summary of what she had put into his mind: "It's right! Webster killed her, and Sloane and his daughter saw him at it. Even Wilton knows it—and he a judge! It seems impossible. By gravy! he ought to be impeached."
A new idea struck him. Mrs. Brace, imperturbable, exhibiting no elation, was watching him closely. She saw his sudden change of countenance. He had thought: "She didn't reason this out. Russell saw the murder—the coward—and he's told her. He ran away from——"
Another suspicion attacked him: "But that was Jarvis' night off. Has she seen Jarvis?"
Impelled to put this fresh bewilderment into words, he was stayed by the restless, brilliant eyes with which she seemed to penetrate his lumbering mind. He was afraid of losing her cooperation. She was too valuable an ally to affront. He kept quiet.
She brought him back to her purpose.
"Then, you agree with me? You think Webster's guilty?"
"Think!" He almost shouted his contempt of the inadequate word. "Think! I know! Guilty? The man's black with guilt."
"I'm sure of it," she said, curiously skilful in surrendering to him all credit for that vital discovery. "What are you going to do—now that you know?"
"Make him talk, turn him inside out! Playing sick, is he! I'm going back to Sloanehurst this evening. I'm going to start something. You can take this from me: Webster'll loosen that tongue of his before another sun rises!"
But that was not her design.
"You can't do it," she objected, her voice heavy with disappointment. "Dr. Garnet, your own coroner, says questioning will kill him. Dr. Garnet's as thoroughly fooled as Hastings, and," she prodded him with suddenly sharp tone, "you."
"That's right." He was crestfallen, plucking at his chin. "That's hard to get around. But I've got to get around it! I've got to show results, Mrs. Brace. People, some of the papers even, are already hinting that I'm too easy on a rich man and his friend."
"Yes," she said, evenly. "And you told—I understood you'd act, on our theory."
"I've got to! I've got to act!"
His confusion was manifest. He did not know what to do, and he was silent, hoping for a suggestion from her. She let him wait. The pause added to his embarrassment.
"What would—that is," he forced himself to the appeal, "I was wondering—anything occur to you? See any way out of it?"
"Of course, I know nothing about such procedure," she replied to that, slowly, as if she groped for a new idea. "But, if you got the proof from somewhere else, enough to warrant the arrest of Webster——" Her smile deprecated her probable ineptness. "If Arthur Sloane——"
He fairly fell upon the idea.
"Right!" he said, clapping his hands together. "Sloane's no dying man, is he? And he knows the whole story. Right you are, Mrs. Brace! He can shake and tremble and whine all he pleases, but tonight he's my meat—my meat, right! Talk? You bet he'll talk!"
She considered, looking at the opposite wall. He was convinced that she examined the project, viewing it from the standpoint of his interest, seeking possible dangers of failure. Nevertheless, he hurried her decision.
"It's the thing to do, isn't it?"
"I should think so," she said at last. "You, with your mental forcefulness, your ability as a questioner—why, I don't see how you can fail to get at what he knows. Beside, you have the element of surprise on your side. That will go far toward sweeping him off his feet."
He was again conscious of his debt of gratitude to this woman, and tried to voice it.
"This is the first time," he declared, big with confidence, "I've felt that I had the right end of this case."
When she had closed the door on him, she went back to the living room and set back in its customary place the chair he had occupied. Her own was where it always belonged. From there she went into the bathroom and, as Hastings had seen her do before, drew a glass of water which she drank slowly.
Then, examining her hard, smooth face in the bedroom mirror, she said aloud:
"Pretty soon, now, somebody will talk business—with me."
There was no elation in her voice. But her lips were, for a moment, thick and wet, changing her countenance into a picture of inordinate greed.
IN ARTHUR SLOANE'S ROOM
Hastings went back to Sloanehurst that evening for another and more forceful attempt to argue Arthur Sloane into frankness. Like Mrs. Brace, he could not get away from the definite conclusion that Lucille's father was silent from fear of telling what he knew. Moreover, he realized that, without a closer connection with Sloane, his own handling of the case was seriously impeded.
Lucille was on the front porch, evidently waiting for him, although he had not notified her in advance of his visit. She went hurriedly down the steps and met him on the walk. When he began an apology for having to annoy her so frequently, she cut short his excuses.
"Oh, but I'm glad you're here—so glad! We need your help. The sheriff's here."
She put her hand on his coat sleeve; he could feel the tremour of it as she pulled, unconsciously, on the cloth. She turned toward the verandah steps.
"What's he doing?" he asked, detaining her.
"He's in father's room," she said in feverish haste, "asking him all sorts of questions, saying ridiculous things. Really, I'm afraid—for father's health! Can't you go in now?"
"Couldn't Judge Wilton manage him? Isn't the judge here?"
"No. He came over at dinner time; but he went back to the Randalls'. Father didn't feel up to talking to him."
Crown, she explained, had literally forced his way into the bedroom, disregarding her protests and paying no attention to the pretence of physical resistance displayed by Jarvis.
"The man seems insane!" she said. "I want you to make him leave father's room—please!"
She halted near the library door, leaving the matter in Hastings' hands. Since entering the house he had heard Crown's voice, raised to the key of altercation; and now, when he stepped into Sloane's room, the rush of words continued.
The sheriff, unaware of the newcomer, stood near the bed, emphasizing his speech with restless arms and violent motions of his head, as if to galvanize into response the still and prostrate form before him. On the opposite side of the bed stood the sepulchral Jarvis, flashing malign looks at Crown, but chiefly busy, with unshaking hands, preparing a beverage of some sort for the sick man.
Sloane lay on his back, eyes closed, face under the full glare of the reading light. His expression indicated both boredom and physical suffering.
"—have to make an arrest!" Crown was saying. "You're making me take that action—ain't you? I come in here, considerate as I know how to be, and I ask you for a few facts. Do you give 'em to me? Not by a long shot! You lie there in that bed, and talk about leaping angels, and say I bore you! Well, Mr. Sloane, that won't get you a thing! You're where I said you were: it's either Webster that will be arrested—or yourself! Now, I'm giving you another chance. I'm asking you what you saw; and you can tell me—or take the consequences!"
Hastings thought: "He's up that gum stump of his again, and don't know how to quit talking."
Sloane made no answer.
"Well," thundered Crown. "I'm asking you!"
"Moaning martyrs!" Sloane protested in a thin, querulous tone. "Jarvis, the bromide."
"All right!" the sheriff delivered his ultimatum. "I'll stick to what I said. Webster may be too sick to talk, but not too sick to have a warrant served on him. He'll be arrested because you won't tell me——"
Hastings spoke then.
"Gentlemen!" he greeted pleasantly. "Mr. Sloane, good evening. Mr. Sheriff—am I interrupting a private conference?"
"Fiery fiends!" wailed Sloane. "Another!"
Hastings gave his attention to Crown. He was certain that the man, balked by Sloane's refusal to "talk," would welcome an excuse for leaving the room.
"Let me see you a moment, will you?" He put a hand on the sheriff's shoulder, persuading: "It's important, right now."
"But I want to know what Mr. Sloane's going to say," Crown blustered. "If he'll tell——"
Hastings stopped him with a whisper: "That's exactly what he'll do—soon!"
He led the sheriff into the hall. They went into the parlour.
"Now," Hastings began, in genial tone; "did you get anything from him?"
"Not a dad-blamed thing!" Crown was still blustery. "But he'll talk before I'm through! You can put your little bets down on that!"
"All right. You've had your chance at him. Better let me see him."
Crown looked his distrust. He was thinking of Mrs. Brace's warning that this man had made a fool of him.
"I'm not trying to put anything over on you," the detective assured him. "Fact is, I'm out here for the newspaper men. They've had nothing from him; they've asked me to get his story. I'll give it to you before I see them. What do you say?"
Crown still hesitated.
"If, after you've heard it," Hastings added, "you want to question him further, you can do it, of course. But this way we take two shots at it."
To that, the other finally agreed.
Hastings found Sloane smoking a cigarette, his eyes still closed. Jarvis was behind a screen near the door, now and then clinking glass against glass as he worked.
The old man took a chair near the bed and waited for Sloane to speak. He waited a long time. Finally, the invalid looked at him from under lowered lids, slyly, like a child peeping. Hastings returned the look with a pleasant smile, his shrewd eyes sparkling over the rims of his spectacles.
"Well!" Sloane said at last, in a whiney tone. "What do you want?"
"First," Hastings apologized, "I want to say how sorry I am I didn't make myself clearly understood night before last when I told Miss Sloane I'd act as mouthpiece for this household. I didn't mean I could invent a statement for each of you, or for any of you. What I did mean amounts to this: if you, for instance, would tell me what you know—all you know—about this murder, I could relay it to the reporters—and to the sheriff, who's been annoying you so this evening. As——"
"Flat-headed fiends!" Sloane cut in, writhing under the light coverlet. "Another harangue!"
Hastings kept his temper.
"No harangue about it. But it's to come to this, Mr. Sloane: you're handicapping me, and the reporters and the sheriff don't trust you."
"Why? Why don't they trust me?" shrilled Sloane, writhing again.
"Ill tell you in a very few words: because you refused to testify at the inquest yesterday, giving illness as an excuse. That's one reason. The——"
"Howling helions! Wasn't I ill? Didn't I have enough to make me ill?—Jarvis, a little whiskey!"
"Dr. Garnet hasn't told them so—the reporters. He won't tell them so. In fact," Hastings said, with less show of cordiality, "from all he said to me, I gather he doesn't think you an ill man—that is, dangerously ill."
"And because of that, they say what, these reporters, this sheriff? What?"
"They're in ugly mood, Mr. Sloane. They're saying you're trying to protect—somebody—by keeping still about a thing which you should be the first to haul into daylight. That's it—in a nutshell."
Sloane had stopped trembling. He sat up in the bed and stared at the detective out of steady, hard eyes. He waved away the whiskey Jarvis held toward him.
"And you want what, Mr. Hastings?" he inquired, a curiously effective sarcasm in his voice.
"A statement covering every second from the time you waked up Saturday night until you saw the body."
"A statement!—Reporters!" He was snarling on that. "What's got into you, anyway? What are you trying to do—make people suspect me of the murder-make 'em suspect Berne?"
He threw away the cigarette and shook his fist at Hastings. He gulped twice before he could speak again; he seemed on the point of choking.
"In an ugly mood, are they? Well, they can stay in an ugly mood. You, too! And that hydrophobiac sheriff! Quivering and crucified saints! I've had enough of all of you—all of you, understand! Get out of here! Get out!"
Although his voice was shrill, there was no sound of weakness in it. The trembling that attacked him was the result of anger, not of nervousness.
Hastings rose, astounded by the outbreak.
"I'm afraid you don't realize the seriousness of——"
"Oh, get out of here!" Sloane interrupted again. "You've imposed on my daughter with your talk of being helpful, and all that rot, but you can't hoodwink me. What the devil do you mean by letting that sheriff come in here and subject me to all this annoyance and shock? You'd save us from unpleasantness!"
He spoke more slowly now, as if he cudgelled his brain for the most biting sarcasm, the most unbearable insolence.
"Don't realize the seriousness!—Flat-headed fiends!—Are you any nearer the truth now than you were at the start?—Try to understand this, Mr. Hastings: you're discharged, fired! From now on, I'm in charge of what goes on in this house. If there's any trouble to be avoided, I'll attend to it. Get that!—and get out!"
Hastings, opening his mouth for angry retort, checked himself. He stood a moment silent, shaken by the effort it cost him to maintain his self-control.
"Humph!" Sloane's nasal, twangy exclamation was clearly intended to provoke him further.
But, without a word, he turned and left the room. Passing the screen near the door, he heard Jarvis snicker, a discreet echo of Sloane's goading ridicule.
On his way back to the parlour, the old man made up his mind to discount Sloane's behaviour.
"I've got to take a chance," he counselled himself, "but I know I'm right in doing it. A big responsibility—but I'm right!"
Then he submitted this report:
"He says nothing new, Crown. Far as I can make out, nothing unusual waked him up that night—except chronic nervousness; he turned on that light to find some medicine; he knew nothing of the murder until Judge Wilton called him."
"Humph!" growled Crown. "And you fall for that!"
Hastings eyed him sternly. "It's the statement I'm going to give to the reporters."
The sheriff was silent, irresolute. Hastings congratulated himself on his earlier deduction: that Crown, unable to frighten Sloane into communicativeness, was thankful for an excuse to withdraw.
Hendricks had reported the two-hour conference between Crown and Mrs. Brace late that afternoon. Hastings decided now: "The man's in cahoots with her. His ally! And he won't act until he's had another session with her.—And she won't advise an arrest for a day or two anyway. Her game is to make him play on Sloane's nerves for a while. She advises threats, not arrests—which suits me, to a T!"
He fought down a chuckle, thinking of that alliance.
Crown corroborated his reasoning.
"All right, Hastings," he said doggedly. "I'm not going back to his room. I gave him his chance. He can take the consequences."
"I'd hardly describe 'em to his personal representative, would I? But you can take this from me: they'll come soon enough—and rough enough!"
Hastings made no reference to having been dismissed by Sloane. He was glad when Crown changed the subject.
"Hastings, you saw the reporters this afternoon—I've been wondering—they asked me—did they ask you whether you suspected the valet—Jarvis?"
"No; they didn't ask me."
"Funny," said Crown, ill at ease. "They asked me."
"So you said," Hastings reminded, looking hard at him.
"Well!" Crown blurted it out. "Do you suspect him? Are you working on that line—at all?"
Hastings paused. He had no desire to mislead him. And yet, there was no reason for confiding in him—and delay was at present the Hastings plan.
"I'll tell you, Crown," he said, finally; "I'll work on any line that can lead to the guilty man.—What do you know?"
"Who? Me?" Crown's tone indicated the absurdity of suspecting Jarvis. "Not a thing."
But it gave Hastings food for thought. Was Mrs. Brace in communication with Jarvis? And did Crown know that? Was it possible that Crown wanted to find out whether Hastings was having Jarvis shadowed? How much of a fool was the woman making of the sheriff, anyway?
Another thing puzzled him: why did Mrs. Brace suspect Arthur Sloane of withholding the true story of what he had seen the night of the murder? Hastings' suspicion, amounting to certainty, came from his knowledge that the man's own daughter thought him deeply involved in the crime. But Mrs. Brace—was she clever enough to make that deduction from the known facts? Or did she have more direct information from Sloanehurst than he had thought possible?
He decided not to leave the sheriff entirely subject to her schemes and suggestions. He would give Mr. Crown something along another line—a brake, as it were, on impulsive action.
"You talk about arresting Webster right away—or Sloane," he began, suddenly confiding. "You wouldn't want to make a mistake—would you?"
Crown rose to that. "Why? What do you know—specially?"
"Well, not so much, maybe. But it's worth thinking about. I'll give you the facts—confidentially, of course.—Hub Hill's about a hundred yards from this house, on the road to Washington. When automobiles sink into it hub-deep, they come out with a lot of mud on their wheels—black, loamy mud. Ain't any other mud like that Hub Hill mud anywhere near here. It's just special and peculiar to Hub Hill. That so?"
"Yes," agreed Crown, absorbed.
"All right. How, then, did Eugene Russell keep black, Hub Hill mud on his shoes that night if he went the four miles on foot to where Otis picked him up?"
"Eh?" said Crown, chin fallen.
"By the time he'd run four miles, his shoes would have been covered with the red mud of that mile of 'dirt road' or the thin, grey mud of the three miles of pike—wouldn't they? They'd have thrown off that Hub Hill mud pretty quick, wouldn't they?"
"Thunder!" marvelled Crown. "That's right! And those shoes were in his room; I saw 'em." He gurgled, far back in his throat. "Say! How did he get from Hub Hill to where Otis picked him up?"
"That's what I say," declared Hastings, very bland. "How?"
To Lucille, after Crown's departure, the detective declared his intention to "stand by" her, to stay on the case. He repeated his statement of yesterday: he suspected too much, and knew too little, to give it up.
He told her of the responsibility he had assumed in giving the sheriff the fictitious Sloane statement. "That is, it's not fictitious, in itself; it's what your father has been saying. But I told Crown, and I'm going to tell the newspaper men, that he says it's all he knows, really. And I hate to do it—because, honestly, Miss Sloane, I don't think it is all. I'm afraid he's deceiving us."
She did not contradict that; it was her own opinion.
"However," the old man made excuse, "I had to do it—in view of things as they are. And he's got to stick to it, now that I've made it 'official,' so to speak. Do you think he will?"
She did not see why not. She would explain to him the importance, the necessity, of that course.
"He's so mistaken in what he's doing!" she said. "I don't understand him—really. You know how devoted to me he is. He called me into his room again an hour or two ago and tried to comfort me. He said he had reason to know everything would come out as it should. But he looked so—so uncertain!—Oh, Mr. Hastings, who did kill that woman?"
"I think I'll be able to prove who did it—let's see," he spoke with a light cheerfulness, and at the same time with sincerity; "I'll be able to prove it in less than a week after Mrs. Brace takes that money from you."
She said nothing to that, and he leaned forward sharply, peering at her face, illegible to him in the darkness of the verandah.
"So much depends on that, on you," he added. "You won't fail me—tomorrow?"
"I'll do my best," she said, earnestly, struggling against depression.
"She must take that money," he declared with great emphasis. "She must!"
"And you think she will?"
"Miss Sloane, I know she will," he said, a fatherly encouragement in his voice. "I'm seldom mistaken in people; and I know I've judged this woman correctly. Money's her weakness. Love of it has destroyed her already. Offering this bribe to anybody else situated as she is would be ridiculous—but she—she'll take it."
Lucille sat a long time on the verandah after Hastings had gone. She was far more depressed than he had suspected; she had to endure so much, she thought—the suspense, which grew heavier as time went by; the notoriety; Berne Webster still in danger of his life; her father's inexplicable pose of indifference toward everything; the suspicions of the newspapers and the public of both her father and Berne; and the waiting, waiting, waiting—for what?
A little moan escaped her.
What if Mrs. Brace did take the marked money? What would that show? That she was acting with criminal intent, Hastings had said. But he had another and more definite object in urging her to this undertaking; he expected from it a vital development which he had not explained—she was sure. She worried with that idea.
Her confidence in Hastings had been without qualification. But what was he doing? Anything? Judge Wilton was forever saying, "Trust Hastings; he's the man for this case." And that was his reputation; people declared that, if anybody could get to the bottom of all this mystery, he could. Yet, two whole days had passed since the murder, and he had just said another week might be required to work out his plan of detection—whatever that plan was.
Another week of this! She put her hot palms to her hotter temples, striving for clarity of thought. But she was dazed by her terror—her isolated terror, for some of her thoughts were such that she could share them with nobody—not even Hastings.
"If the sheriff makes no arrest within the next few days, I'll be out of the woods," he had told her. "Delay is what I want."
There, again, was discouragement, for here was the sheriff threatening to serve a warrant on Berne within the next twenty-four hours! She had heard Crown make the threat, and to her it had seemed absolutely final: unless her father revealed something which Crown wanted, whether her father knew it or not, Berne was to be subjected to this humiliation, this added blow to his chance for recovery!
She sprang up, throwing her hands wide and staring blindly at the stars.
The woman whom she was to bribe cast a deep shadow on her imagination. Sharing the feeling of many others, she had reached the reluctant conclusion that Mrs. Brace in some way knew more than anybody else about the murder and its motives. It was, she told herself, a horrid feeling, and without reason. But she could not shake it off. To her, Mrs. Brace was a figure of sinister power, an agent of ugliness, waiting to do evil—waiting for what?
By a great effort, she steadied her jangled nerves. Hastings was counting on her. And work—even work in the dark—was preferable to this idleness, this everlasting summing-up of frightful possibilities without a ray of hope. She would do her best to make that woman take the money!
Tomorrow she would be of real service to Berne Webster—she would atone, in some small measure, for the sorrow she had brought upon him, discarding him because of empty gossip!—Would he continue to love her?—Perhaps, if she had not discarded him, Mildred Brace would not have been murdered.
A groan escaped her. She fled into the house, away from her thoughts.
It was nine o'clock the following evening when Lucille Sloane, sure that she had entered the Walman unobserved, rang the bell of Mrs. Brace's apartment. Her body felt remarkably light and facile, as if she moved in a tenuous, half-real atmosphere. There were moments when she had the sensation of floating. Her brain worked with extraordinary rapidity. She was conscious of an unusually resourceful intelligence, and performed a series of mental gymnastics, framing in advance the sentences she would use in the interview confronting her.
The constant thought at the back of her brain was that she would succeed; she would speak and act in such a way that Mrs. Brace would take the money. She was buoyed by a fierce determination to be repaid for all the suspense, all the agony of heart, that had weighed her down throughout this long, leaden-footed day—the past twenty-four hours unproductive of a single enlightening incident.
Mrs. Brace opened the door and, with a scarcely perceptible nod of the head, motioned her into the living room. Neither of them spoke until they had seated themselves on the chairs by the window. Even then, the silence was prolonged, until Lucille realized that her tongue was dry and uncomfortably large for her mouth. An access of trembling shook her. She tried to smile and knew that her lips were twisting in a ghastly grin.
Mrs. Brace moved slowly to and fro on the armless rocker, her swift, appraising eyes taking in her visitor's distress. The smooth face wore its customary, inexpressive calm. Lucille, striving desperately to arrive at some opinion of what the woman thought, saw that she might as well try to find emotion in a statue.
"I—I," the girl finally attained a quick, flurried utterance, "want to thank you for—for having this—this talk with me."
"What do you want to talk about, Miss Sloane?"
The low, metallic voice was neither friendly nor hostile. It expressed, more than anything else, a sardonic, bullying self-sufficiency.
It both angered and encouraged Lucille. She perceived the futility of polite, introductory phrases here; she could go straight to her purpose, be brutally frank. She gave Mrs. Brace a brilliant, disarming smile, a proclamation of fellowship. Her confidence was restored.
"I'm sure we can talk sensibly together, Mrs. Brace," she explained, dissembling her indignation. "We can get down to business, at once."
"What business?" inquired the older woman, with some of the manner Hastings had seen, an air of lying in wait.
"I said, on the 'phone, it was something of advantage to you—didn't I?"
"Yes; you said that."
"And, of course, I want something from you."
"I'll tell you what it is." Lucille spoke now with cool precision, as yet untouched by the horror she had expected to feel. "It's a matter of money."
Mrs. Brace's tongue came out to the edge of the thin line of her lips. Her nostrils quivered, once, to the sharply indrawn breath. Her eyes were more furtive.
"Money?" she echoed. "For what?"
"There's no good of my making long explanations, Mrs. Brace," Lucille said. "I've read the newspapers, every line of them, about—our trouble. And I saw the references to your finances, your lack of money."
"Yes?" Mrs. Brace's right hand lay on her lap; the thumb of it began to move against the forefinger rapidly, the motion a woman makes in feeling the texture of cloth—or the trick of a bank clerk separating paper money.
"Yes. I read, also, what you said about the tragedy. Today I noticed that the only note of newness in the articles in the papers came from you—from your saying that 'in a few days, three or four at the outside'—that was your language, I'm quite sure—you'd produce evidence on which an arrest would be made. I've intelligence enough to see that the public's interest in you is so great, the sympathy for you is so great, that your threats—I mean, predictions, or opinions—colour everything that's written by the reporters. You see?"
"Do I see what?"
Despite her excellent pose of waiting with nothing more than a polite interest, Lucille saw in her a pronounced alteration. That was not so much in her face as in her body. Her limbs had a look of rigidity.
"Don't you see what I mean?" Lucille insisted. "I see that you can make endless trouble for us—for all of us at Sloanehurst. You can make people believe Mr. Webster guilty, and that father and I are shielding him. People listen to what you say. They seem to be on your side."
"I wondered if you wouldn't stop your interviews—your accusations?"
The younger woman's eagerness, evident now in the variety of her gestures and the rapid procession of pallour and flush across her cheeks, persuaded Mrs. Brace that Lucille was acting on an impulse of her own, not as an agent to carry out another's well designed scheme. The older woman, at that idea, felt safe. She asked:
"And you want—what?"
"I've come here to ask you to tell me all you know, or to be quiet altogether."
"I'm afraid I don't understand—fully," returned Mrs. Brace, with an exaggerated bewilderment. "Tell all I know?"
"That is, if you do know anything you haven't told!" Lucille urged her. "Oh, don't you see? I'm saying to you that I want to put an end to this dreadful suspense!"
Mrs. Brace laughed disagreeably; her face was harder, less human. "You mean I'm amusing myself, exerting myself needlessly, as a matter of spite? Do you mean to tell me that?"
"No! No!" Lucille denied, impatient with herself for lack of clearness. "I mean I'm sure you're attacking an innocent man. And I'm willing, I'm anxious—oh, I hope so much, Mrs. Brace—to make an agreement with you—a financial arrangement——" She paused the fractional part of a second on that; and, seeing that the other did not resent the term, she added: "to pay you to stop it. Isn't that clear?"
"Yes; that's clear."
"Understand me, please. What I ask is that you say nothing more to the reporters, the sheriff or the Washington police, that will have the effect of hounding them on against Mr. Webster. I want to eliminate from the situation all the influence you've exerted to make Mr. Crown believe Mr. Webster's guilty and my father's protecting him."
"Let me think," Mrs. Brace said, coolly.
Lucille exulted inwardly, "She'll do it! She'll do it!" The hard eyes dissected her eager face. The girl drew back in her chair, thinking now: "She suspects who sent me!"
At last, the older woman spoke:
"The detective, Hastings, would never have allowed you to come here, Miss Sloane.—Excuse my frankness," she interjected, with a smile she meant to be friendly; "but you're frank with me; we're not mincing matters; and I have to be careful.—He'd have warned you that your errand's practical confession of your knowledge of something incriminating Berne Webster. If you didn't suspect the man even more strongly than I do, you'd never have been driven to—this."
She leaned the rocker back and crossed her knees, the movement throwing into high relief the hard lankness of her figure. She gazed at the wall, over Lucille's head, as she dealt with the possibilities that presented themselves to her analysis. Her manner was that of a certain gloating enjoyment, a thinly covered, semi-orderly greediness.
"She's not even thinking of her daughter," Lucille thought, and went pale a moment. "She's as bad as Mr. Hastings said—worse!"
"Then, too," Mrs. Brace continued, "your father discharged him last night."
Lucille remembered the detective's misgivings about Jarvis; how else had this woman found that out?
"And you've taken matters into your own hands.—Did your father send you here—to me?"
The other smiled slyly, the tip of her tongue again visible, her eyebrows high in interrogation. "Of course," she said; "you wouldn't tell me if he had. He would have warned you against that admission."
"It's Mr. Webster about whom I am most concerned," Lucille reminded, sharpness in her vibrant young voice. "My father's being annoyed is merely incidental."
"Oh, of course! Of course," Mrs. Brace grinned, with broad sarcasm.
Lucille started. The meaning of that could not be misunderstood; she charged that the money was offered at Arthur Sloane's instigation and that the concern for Berne Webster was merely pretence.
Mrs. Brace saw her anger, and placated it:
"Don't mind me, Miss Sloane. A woman who's had to endure what I have—well, she doesn't always think clearly."
"Perhaps not," Lucille assented; but she was aware of a sudden longing to be done with the degrading work. "Now that we understand each other, Mrs. Brace, what do you say?"
Mrs. Brace thought again.
"How much?" she asked at last, her lips thickening. "How much, Miss Sloane, do you think my silence is worth?"
Lucille took a roll of bills from her handbag. The woman's chair slid forward, answering to the forward—leaning weight of her new posture. She was lightly rubbing her palms together, as, with head a little bowed, she stared at the money in the younger woman's hand.
"I have here five hundred dollars," Lucille began.
Mrs. Brace said that roughly; and, in violent anger, drew back, the legs of her chair grating on the floor.
For a moment Lucille gazed at her, uncomprehending.
"Oh!" she said, uncertainly. "You mean—it isn't enough?"
"Enough!" Mrs. Brace's rage and disappointment grew, her lowered brows a straight line close down to her eyes.
"But I could get more!" Lucille exclaimed, struggling with disgust. "This," she added, with ready invention, "can serve as a part payment, a promise of——"
"Ah-h!" the older woman exclaimed. "That's different. I misunderstood."
She put down the signals of her wrath, succeeding in that readjustment so promptly that Lucille stared at her in undisguised amazement.
"You must pardon me, Miss Sloane. I thought you were making me the victim of your ridicule, some heartless joke."
"Then, we can come to an agreement? That is, if this money is the first——"
She broke the sentence. Mrs. Brace had put up her hand, and now held her head to one side, listening.
There was a step clearly audible outside, in the main hall. The next moment the doorbell rang. They sat motionless. When the bell rang again, Mrs. Brace informed her with a look that she would not answer it.
But the ringing continued, became a prolonged jangle. It got on Lucille's already strained nerves.
"Suppose you slip into the bedroom," Mrs. Brace whispered.
"Oh, no!" Lucille whispered back.
She was weighed down by black premonition; she hoped Mrs. Brace would not open the door.
The bell rang again.
"You'll have to!" Mrs. Brace said at last. "I won't let anybody in. I have to answer it!"
"You'll send them away—whoever it is—at once?"
"At once. I don't want you seen here, any more than you want to be seen!"
Lucille started toward the bedroom. At the first step she took, Mrs. Brace put a hand on her arm.
"That money!" she demanded, in a low whisper. "I'll take it."
"And do what I asked—stop attacking us?"
Lucille gave her the money.
There were no lights in the bedroom. Lucille, for fear of stumbling or making a noise, stood to one side of the door-frame, close to the wall.
Mrs. Brace's footsteps stopped. There was the click of the opening door. Then, there came to Lucille the high-pitched, querulous voice which she had been afraid she would hear.
It was her father's.
"THE WHOLE TRUTH"
"Mrs. Brace, good evening.—May I come in?"
Then followed the sound of footsteps, and the closing of the door.
"I shan't detain you long, Mrs. Brace." They were still in the hall. "May I come in?"
"Certainly." The tardy assent was the perfection of indifference.
They entered the living room. Lucille, without using her eyes, knew that her father was standing just within the doorway, glancing around with his slight squint, working his lips nervously, his head thrust forward.
"Ah-h!" his shrill drawl, although he kept it low, carried back to Lucille. "All alone—may I ask?" He went toward the chairs by the window. "That is, I hope to have—well—rather a confidential little talk with you."
Mrs. Brace resumed her place on the armless rocker after she had moved a chair forward for him. Lucille heard it grate on the floor. Certain that he had taken it, she looked into the room. Her intuition was correct; Mrs. Brace had placed it so that his back was turned to both the bedroom door and the door into the entry. This made her escape possible.
The relief she got from the thought was of a violent nature. It came to her like a blow, almost forcing a gasp from her constricted throat. If she could tiptoe without sound a distance of eighteen feet, a matter of six or seven steps, she could leave the apartment without his knowledge.
To that she was doubly urged. In the first place, Hastings' warning drummed upon her brain; he had specified the importance of keeping even her father in ignorance of her errand.
Upon that came another reason for flight, her fear of hearing what her father would say. A wave of nausea weakened her. She bowed down, there in the dark, under the burden of her suspicion: he had come to do, for quite a different reason, what she had done! She kept away from definite analysis of his motive. Fear for Berne, or fear for himself, it was equally horrible to her consideration.
"I admire your spirit, Mrs. Brace," he was saying, in ingratiating tone; "and your shrewdness. I've followed all you said, in the papers. And I'm in hopes that we may——"
He stopped, and Lucille, judging from the thin edges of sounds that she caught, had a mental picture of his peering over his shoulder. He resumed:
"I must apologize, I'm sure. But you'll realize my concern for secrecy—after I've explained. May I—ah-h-h—do you mind if I look about, for possible hearers?"
"It's unnecessary," came the calm, metallic assurance. "I've no objection to your searching my apartment, if you insist." She laughed, a mirthless deprecation of his timidity, and coolly put herself at his disposal in another sentence: "I've sense enough to form an idea of what you'll propose; and I'd scarcely want others to hear it—would I?"
"Ah-h-h!" he drawled, expressing a grudging disposition to accept her assurance. "Certainly not.—Well, that's very reasonable—and obliging, I'm sure."
Again by the thin fringes of sound, Lucille got information of his settling into his chair.
"Why," he began; "why, in the name of all the unfathomable, inscrutable angels——"
"First, Mr. Sloane," Mrs. Brace interrupted him—and Lucille heard the rattle of a newspaper; "as a preface to our—shall we say conference?—our conference, then, let me read you this summary of my position.—That is, if you care to understand my position thoroughly."
She was far from her habitual quietness, rattling the newspaper incessantly. The noise, Lucille realized, would hang as a curtain between her father's ears and the possible sounds of her progress from the bedroom door to the entry.
Stealing a glance into the living room, she saw his back and, over his stooped shoulders, Mrs. Brace's calm face. In that instant, the newspaper shook more violently—enough, she thought, to signal cooperation.
She sickened again at sight of that woman about to dispense bought favours to her father. The impulse to step forth and proclaim her presence rose strongly within her; but she was turned from it by fear that her interruption might produce disastrous results. After all, she was not certain of his intention.
She knew, however, that at any moment he might insist on satisfying himself, by a tour of inspection, that he was safe from being overheard. She hesitated no longer. She would try to get away.
"Look at this, Mr. Sloane, if you please," Mrs. Brace was saying; "notice how the items are made to stand out, each in a paragraph of large type."
She held the paper so that Sloane bent forward, and, against his will, was held to joint perusal while she read aloud. The curtain of protecting noise thus was thickened.
"'That Mrs. Brace has knowledge of the following facts,'" the harsh, colourless voice was reading.
Lucille began her escape. She moved with an agony of precaution, taking steps only a few inches long, her arms held out from her sides to avoid unnecessary rustling of her clothing. She went on the balls of her feet, keeping the heels of her shoes always free of the floor, each step a slow torture.
Her breathing stopped—a hysterical contraction of her chest prevented breathing. Her face burned like fire. Her head felt crowded, as if the blood tried to ooze through the confining scalp. There was a great roaring in her ears. The pulse in her temples was like the blows of sledges.
Once, midway of the distance, as she stood lightly balanced, with arms outstretched, something went wrong with her equilibrium. She started forward as she had often done when a child, with the sensation of falling on her face. Her skirt billowed out in front of her. If she had had any breath in her, she would have cried out.
But the automatisms of her body worked better than her overtaxed brain. Her right foot went out easily and softly—she marvelled at that independent motion of her leg—and, taking up the falling weight of her body, restored her balance.
Mrs. Brace's voice had not faltered, although she must have seen the misstep. Arthur Sloane's bowed shoulders had not stirred. Mrs. Brace continued the printed enumeration of her stores of knowledge.
Lucille took another step. She was safe!—almost. There remained but a yard of her painful progress. One more step, she comforted herself, would put her on the threshold of the entry door, and from there to the corridor door, shielded by the entry wall from possible observation by her father, would be an easy business.
She completed that last step. On the threshold, she had to turn her body through an arc of ninety degrees, unless she backed out of the door. This she was afraid to do; her heel might meet an obstruction; a raised plank of the flooring, even, would mean an alarming noise.
She began to turn. The reading continued. The whole journey from door to door, in spite of the anguished care of every step, had consumed scarcely a minute. She was turning, the balancing arms outstretched. Deep down in her chest there was the beginning of a sensation, muscles relaxing, the promise of a long breath of relief.
Her left hand—or, perhaps, her elbow; in the blinding, benumbing flash of consternation, she did not know which—touched the pile of magazines on the table that was set against the door-frame. The magazines did not fall to the floor, but the fluttering of the loose cover of the one on top made a noise.
She fled, taking with her the flashing memory of the first stirring of her father's figure and the crackle of the paper in Mrs. Brace's hand. In two light steps she was at the corridor door. Her hands found the latch and turned it. She ran down the stairs with rapid, skimming steps, the door clicking softly shut as she made the turn on the next landing.
Her exit had been wonderfully quiet. She knew this, in spite of the fact that her straining senses had exaggerated the flutter of the magazine cover and the click of the door into a terrifying volume of sound. It was entirely possible that Mrs. Brace had been able to persuade her father that he had heard nothing more than some outside noise. She was certain that he had not seen her.
She crossed the dim, narrow lobby of the Walman so quickly, and so quietly, that the girl at the telephone board did not look in her direction.
Once in the street, she was seized by desire to confide to Hastings the story of her experience. She decided to act on the impulse.
He was at first more concerned with her physical condition than with what she had to tell. He saw how near she was to the breaking point.
"My dear child!" he said, in the tone of fatherly solicitude which she had learned to like. "Comfort before conference! Here, this chair by the window—so—and this wreck of a fan, can you use it? Fine! Now, cool your flushed face in this thin, very thin stream of a breeze—feel it? A glass of water?—just for the tinkling of ice? That's better, isn't it?"
The only light in the room was the reading lamp, under a dark-green shade, and from this little island of illumination there ran out a chaotic sea of shadows, huge waves of them, mounting the height of the book-shelves and breaking irregularly on the ceiling.
In the dimness, as he walked back and forth hunting for the fan or bringing her the water, he looked weirdly large—like, she thought dully, a fairy giant curiously draped. But the serenity of his expression touched her. She was glad she had come.
While she told her story, he stood in front of her, encouraging her with a smile or a nod now and then, or ambled with soft step among the shadows, always keeping his eyes upon her. For the moment, her tired spirit was freshened by his lavish praise of the manner in which she had accomplished her undertaking. Following that, his ready sympathy made it easier for her to discuss her fear that her father had planned to bribe Mrs. Brace.
Nevertheless, the effort taxed her severely. At the end of it, she leaned back and closed her eyes, only to open them with a start of fright at the resultant dizziness. The sensation of bodily lightness had left her. Her limbs felt sheathed in metal. An acute, throbbing pain racked her head. She was too weary to combat the depression which was like a cold, freezing hand at her heart.
"You don't say anything!" she complained weakly.
He stood near her chair, gazing thoughtfully before him.
"I'm trying to understand it," he said; "why your father did that. You're right, of course. He went there to pay her to keep quiet. But why?"
He looked at her closely.
"Could it be possible," he put the inquiry at last, "that he knew her before the murder?"
"I've asked him," she said. "No; he never had heard of her—neither he nor Judge Wilton. I even persuaded him to question Jarvis about that. It was the same; Jarvis never had—until last Sunday morning."
"You think of everything!" he congratulated her.
"No! Oh, no!"
Some quick and overmastering emotion broke down the last of her endurance. Whether it was a new and finer appreciation of his persistent, untiring search for the guilty man, or the realization of how sincerely he liked her, giving her credit for a frankness she had not exercised—whatever the pivotal consideration was, she felt that she could no longer deceive him.
She closed her lips tightly, to keep back the rising sobs, and regarded him with questioning, fearful eyes.
"What is it?" he asked gently, reading her appealing look.
"I've a confession to make," she said miserably.
He refused to treat it as a tragedy.
"But it can't be very bad!" he exclaimed pleasantly. "When we're overwrought, imagination's like a lantern swinging in the wind, changing the size of everything every second."
"But it is bad!" she insisted. "I haven't been fair. I couldn't bring myself to tell you this. I tried to think you'd get along without it!"
She answered him with an outward calmness which was, in reality, emotional dullness. She had suffered so much that to feel vividly was beyond her strength.
"You have the right to know it," she said, looking at him out of brilliant, unwinking eyes. "It's about father. He was out there—on the lawn—before he turned on the light in his room. I heard him come in, a minute before Berne went down the back stairs and out to the lawn. And I heard him go to his window and stand there, looking out, at least five long minutes before he flashed on his light."
He waited, thinking she might have more to tell. Construing his silence as reproof, she said, without changing either her expression or her voice:
"I know—it's awful. I should have told you. Perhaps, I've done great harm."
"You've been very brave," he consoled her, with infinite tenderness. "But it happens that I'd already satisfied myself on that point. I knew he'd been out there."
She was dumb, incapable of reacting to his words. Even the fact that he was smiling, with genuine amusement, did not affect her.
"Here comes the grotesque element, the comical, that's involved in so many tragedies," he explained. "Your father's weakness for 'cure' of nervousness, and his shrinking from the ridicule he's suffered because of it—there's the explanation of why he was out there that night."
She could not see significance in that, but neither could she summon energy to say so. She wondered vaguely why he thought it funny.
"That night—rather, the early morning hours following—while the rest of you were in the library, I looked through his room, and I found a pair of straw sandals in the closet—such as a man could slip on and off without having to bend down to adjust them. And they were wet, inside and out.
"Sunday morning, when Judge Wilton and I were at his bedside, I saw on the table a 'quack' pamphlet on the 'dew' treatment for nervousness, the benefit of the 'wet, cooling grass' upon the feet at night. You know the kind of thing. So——"
"Oh-h-h!" she breathed, tremulous and weak. "So that's why he was out there! Why didn't I think? Oh, how I've suspected him of——"
"But remember," he warned; "that's why he went out. We still don't know what he—what happened after he got out there—or why he's refused to say that he ever was out there. When we think of this, and other things, and, too, his call tonight on Mrs. Brace, for bribery—leaving what we thought was a sickbed—"
"But he's been up all day!" she corrected.
"And yet," he said, and stopped, reflecting.
"Tell me," she implored; "tell me, Mr. Hastings, do you suspect my father—or not—of the——?"
He answered her unfinished question with a solemn, painstaking care:
"Miss Sloane, you're not one who would want to be misled. You can bear the truth. I'd be foolish to say that he's not under suspicion. He is. Any one of the men there that night may have committed the murder. Webster, your father, Wilton—only there, suspicion seems totally gratuitous—Eugene Russell, Jarvis—I've heard things about him—any one of them may have struck that blow—may have."
"And father," she said, in a grieved bewilderment, "has paid Mrs. Brace to stop saying she suspects Berne," she shuddered, facing the alternative, "or himself!"
"You see," he framed the conclusion for her, "how hard he makes it for us to keep him out of trouble—if that gets out. He's put his hand on the live wire of circumstantial evidence, a wire that too often thrashes about, striking the wrong man."
"And Berne?" she cried out. "I think I could stand anything if only I knew——"
But this time the mutinous sobs came crowding past her lips. She could not finish the inquiry she had begun.
THE MAN WHO RODE AWAY
It was early in the afternoon of Wednesday when Mr. Hastings, responding to the prolonged ringing of his telephone, took the receiver off the hook and found himself in communication with the sheriff of Alexandria county. This was not the vacillating, veering sheriff who had spent nearly four days accepting the hints of a detective or sitting, chameleon-minded, at the feet of a designing woman. Here was an impressive and self-appreciative gentleman, one who delighted in his own deductive powers and relished their results.
He said so. His confidence fairly rattled the wire. His words annihilated space grandly and leaped into the old man's receptive ear with sizzling and electric effect. Mr. Crown, triumphant, was glad to inform others that he was making a hit with himself.
"Hello! That you, Hastings? Well, old fellow, I don't like to annoy you with an up-to-date rendition of 'I told you so!'—but it's come out, to the last syllable, exactly as I said it would—from the very first!"
Ensued a pause, for dramatic effect. The detective did not break it.
"Waiting, are you? Well, here she goes; Russell's alibi's been knocked into a thousand pieces! It's blown up! It's gone glimmering!—What do you think of that?"
Hastings refrained from replying that he had regarded such an event as highly probable. Instead, he inquired:
"And that simplifies things?"
"Does it!" exploded Mr. Crown. "I'm getting to you a few minutes ahead of the afternoon papers. You'll see it all there." An apologetic laugh came over the wire. "You'll excuse me, I know; I had to do this thing up right, put on the finishing touches before you even guessed what was going on. I've wound up the whole business. The Washington police nabbed Russell an hour ago, on my orders.
"'Simplifies things?' I should say so! I guess you can call 'em 'simplified' when a murder's been committed and the murderer's waiting to step into my little ring-tum-fi-diddle-dee of a country jail! 'No clue to this mystery,' the papers have been saying! What's the use of a clue when you know a guy's guilty? That's what I've been whistling all along!"
"But the alibi?" Hastings prompted. "You say it's blown up?"
"Blown! Gone! Result of my sending out those circulars asking if any automobile parties passed along the Sloanehurst road the murder night. Remember?"
"Yes." The old man recalled having made that suggestion, but did not say so.
"This morning the chief of police of York—York, Pennsylvania—wired me. I got him by long-distance right away. He gave me the story, details absolutely right and straight, all verified—and everything. A York man, named Stevens, saw a newspaper account, for the first time this morning, of the murder. He and four other fellows were in a car that went up Hub Hill that night a little after eleven—a few minutes after.—Hear that?"
"Yes. Go on."
"Stevens was on the back seat. They went up the hill on low—terrible piece of road, he calls it—they were no more than crawling. He says he was the only sober man in the crowd—been out on a jollification tour of ten days. He saw a man slide on to the running board on his side of the car as they were creeping up the hill. The rest of the party was singing, having a high old time.
"Stevens said he never said a word, just watched the guy on the running board, and planned to crack him on the head with an empty beer bottle when they got on the straight road and were hitting up a good clip—just playing, you understand.
"After he'd watched the guy a while and was trying to fish up a beer bottle from the bottom of the car, the chauffeur slowed down and hollered back to him on the back seat that he wanted to stop and look at his radiator—it was about to blow up, too hot. He'd been burning the dust on that stretch of good road.
"When he slowed down, the guy on the running board slipped off. Stevens says he rolled down a bank."
The jubilant Mr. Crown stopped, for breath.
"That's all right, far as it goes," Hastings said; "but does he identify that man as Russell?"
"To the last hair on his head!" replied the sheriff. "Stevens' description of the fellow is Russell all over—all over! Just to show you how good it is, take this: Stevens describe the clothes Russell wore, and says what Otis said: he'd lost his hat."
"Stevens got a good look at him?"
"Says the headlights were full on him as he stood on one side of the road, there on Hub Hill, waiting to slide on the running board.—And this Stevens is a shrewd guy, the York chief says. I guess his story plugs Russell's lies, shoots that alibi so full of holes it makes a sifter look like a piece of sheet-iron!
"That car went up Hub Hill at seven minutes past eleven—that means Russell had plenty of time to kill the girl after the rain stopped and to get out on the road and slip on to that running board. And the car slowed up, where he rolled off the running board, at eighteen minutes past eleven.
"Time's right, location's right, identification's right!—Pretty sweet, ain't it, old fellow? Congratulate me, don't you? Congratulate me, even if it does step on all those mysterious theories of yours—that right?"
Hastings bestowed the desired felicitations upon the exuberant conqueror of crime.
Turning from the telephone, he gazed a long time at the piece of grey envelope on the table before him. He had clung to his belief that, in those fragments of words, was to be found a clue to the solution of the mystery. He picked up his knife and fell to whittling.
Outside in the street a newsboy set up an abrupt, blaring din, shouting sensational headlines:
"SLOANEHURST MYSTERY SOLVED!—RUSSELL THE MURDERER!—ALIBI A FAKE!"
The old man considered grimly, the various effects of this development in the case—Lucille Sloane's unbounded relief mingled with censure of him for having added to her fears, and especially for having subjected her to the ordeal of last night's experience with Mrs. Brace—the adverse criticism from both press and public because of his refusal to join in the first attacks upon Russell, Arthur Sloane's complacency at never having treated him with common courtesy.
His thoughts went to Mrs. Brace and her blackmail schemes, as he had interpreted or suspected them.
"If I'd had a little more time," he reflected, "I might have put my hand on——"
His eyes rested on the envelope flap. His mind flashed to another and new idea. His muscles stiffened; he put his hands on the arms of his chair and slowly lifted himself up, the knife dropping from his fingers and clattering on the floor. He stood erect and held both hands aloft, a gesture of wide and growing wonder.
"Cripes!" he said aloud.
He picked up the grey paper with a hand that trembled. His pendent cheeks puffed out like those of a man blowing a horn. He stared at the paper again, before restoring it to its envelope, which he put back into one of his pockets.
"Cripes!" he said again. "It's a place! Pursuit! That's where the——"
He became a whirlwind of action, covered the floor with springy step. Taking a book of colossal size from a shelf, he whirled the pages, running his finger down a column while he murmured, "Pursuit—P-u-r—P-u—P-u——"
But there was no such name in the postal directory. He went back to older directories. He began to worry. Was there no such postoffice as Pursuit? He went to other books, whirling the pages, running down column after column. And at last he got the information he sought.
Consulting a railroad folder, he found a train schedule that caused him to look at his watch.
"Twenty-five minutes," he figured. "I'm going!"
He telephoned for a cab.
Then, seating himself at the table, he tore a sheet from a scratch-pad and wrote:
"Don't lose sight of Mrs. Brace. Disregard Russell's arrest.
"Hendricks: the Sloanehurst people are members of the Arlington Golf Club. Get a look at golf bags there. Did one, or two, contain piece or pieces of a bed-slat?
"Gore: check up on Mrs. B.'s use of money.
"I'll be back Sunday."
He sealed the envelope into which he put that, and, addressing it to Hendricks, left it lying on the table.
At the station he bought the afternoon newspapers and turned to Eugene Russell's statement, made to the reporters immediately after his arrest. It ran:
"I repeat that I'm innocent of the murder. Of course, I made a mistake in omitting all mention of my having ridden the first four miles from Sloanehurst. But, being innocent and knowing the weight of the circumstantial evidence against me, I could not resist the temptation to make my alibi good. I neither committed that murder nor witnessed it. The story I told at the inquest of what happened to me and what I did at Sloanehurst stands. It is the truth."