Returning from his trip Sunday morning, the detective, after a brief conference with Hendricks, had gone immediately to Mrs. Brace's apartment. She sat now, still and watchful, on the armless rocker by the window, waiting for him to disclose the object of his visit. Except the lifted, faintly interrogating eyebrows, there was nothing in her face indicative of what she thought.
He caught himself comparing her to a statue, forever seated on the low-backed, uncomfortable chair, awaiting without emotion or alteration of feature the outcome of her evil scheming. Her hardness gave him the impression of something hammered on, beaten into an ugly pattern.
Having that imperturbability to overcome, he struck his first blow with surprising directness.
"I'm just back from Pursuit," he said.
That was the first speech by either of them since the monosyllabic greeting at the door. He saw that she had prepared herself for such an announcement; but the way she took it reminded him of a door shaken by the impact of a terrific blow. A little shiver, for all her force of repression, moved her from head to foot.
"You are?" she responded, her voice controlled, the hard face untouched by the shock to which her body had responded.
"Yes; I got back half an hour ago, and, except for one of my assistants, you're the first person I've seen." When that drew no comment from her, he added: "I want you to remember that—later on."
He began to whittle.
"Why?" she asked with genuine curiosity, after a pause.
"Because it may be well for you to know that I'm dealing with you alone, and fairly.—I got all the facts concerning you."
"Concerning me?" Her tone intimated doubt.
"Now, Mrs. Brace!" he exclaimed, disapproving her apparent intention. "You're surely not going to pretend ignorance—or innocence!"
She crossed her knees, and, putting her left forearm across her body, rested her right elbow in that hand. She began to rock very gently, her posture causing her to lean forward and giving her a look of continual but polite questioning.
"If you want to talk to me," she said, her voice free of all feeling, "you'll have to tell me what it's about."
"All right; I will," he returned. "You'll remember, I take it, my asking you to tell me the meaning of the marks on the flap of the grey envelope. I'll admit I was slow, criminally slow, in coming to the conclusion that 'Pursuit!' referred to a place rather than an act. But I got it finally—and I found Pursuit—not much left of it now; it's not even a postoffice.
"But it's discoverable," he continued on a sterner note, and began to shave long, slender chips from his block of wood. "I'll give you the high lights: young Dalton was killed—his murderer made a run for it—but you, a young widow then, in whose presence the thing was done, smoothed matters out. You swore it was a matter of self-defence. The result was that, after a few half-hearted attempts to locate the fugitive, the pursuit was given up."
"Very well. But why bring that story here—now? What's its significance?"
He stared at her in amazement. Her thin, sensitive lips were drawn back at the corners, enough to make her mouth look a trifle wider—and enough to suggest dimly that their motion was the start of a vindictive grimace. Otherwise, she was unmoved, unresponsive to the open threat of what he had said.
"Let me finish," he retorted. "An unfortunate feature, for you, was that you seemed to have made money out of the tragedy. In straitened circumstances previously, you began to spend freely—comparatively speaking—a few days after the murderer's disappearance. In fact, bribery was hinted; you had to leave the village. See any significance in that?" he concluded, with irony.
"Suppose you explain it," she said, still cool.
"The significance is in the strengthening of the theory I've had throughout the whole week that's passed since your daughter was killed at Sloanehurst."
She stopped rocking; her eyes played a fiery tattoo on every feature of his face.
"Your daughter's death was the unexpected result of your attempts to blackmail young Dalton's murderer. You, being afraid of him, and not confessing that timidity to Mildred, persuaded her to approach him—in person."
"I! Afraid of him!" she objected, aroused at last.
Her brows were lowered, a heavy line above her furtive, swift eyes; her nostrils fluttered nervously.
"Granting your absurd theory," she continued, "why should I have feared him? What had he done—except strike to save his own life?"
"You forget, Mrs. Brace," he corrected. "That body showed twenty-nine wounds, twenty-eight of them unnecessary—if the first was inflicted in mere self-defence. It was horrible mutilation."
"So!" she ridiculed, with obvious effort. "You picture him as a butcher."
"Precisely. And you, having seen to what lengths his murderous fury could take him, were afraid to face him—even after your long, long search had located him again. Let's be sensible, Mrs. Brace. Let's give the facts of this business a hearing.
"You had come to Washington and located him at last. But, after receiving several demands from you, he'd stopped reading your letters—sent them back unopened. Consequently, in order for you to make an appointment with him, he had to be communicated with in a handwriting he didn't know. Hence, your daughter had to write the letter making that appointment a week ago last night. Then, however——"
"What makes you think——"
"Then, however," he concluded, overbearing her with his voice, "you hadn't the courage to face him—out there, in the dark, alone. You persuaded Mildred to go—in your place. And he killed her."
"Ha!" The mocking exclamation sounded as though it had been pounded out of her by a blow upon her back. "What makes you say that? Where do you get that? Who put that into your head?"
She volleyed those questions at him with indescribable rapidity, her lips drawn back from her teeth, her brows straining far up toward the line of her hair. The profound disgust with which he viewed her did not affect her. She darted to and fro in her mind, running about in the waste and tumult of her momentary confusion, seeking the best thing to say, the best policy to adopt, for her own ends.
He had had time to determine that much when her gift of self-possession reasserted itself. She forced her lips back to their thin line, and steadied herself. He could see the vibrant tautness of her whole body, exemplified in the rigidity with which she held her crossed knees, one crushed upon the other.
"I know, I think, what misled you," she answered her own question. "You've talked to Gene Russell, of course. He may have heard—I think he did hear—Mildred and me discussing the mailing of a letter that Friday night."
"He did," Hastings said, firmly.
"But he couldn't have heard anything to warrant your theory, Mr. Hastings. I merely made fun of her wavering after she'd once said she'd confront Berne Webster again with her appeal for fair play."
He inspected her with an emotion that was a mingling of incredulity and repugnant wonder.
"It's no use, Mrs. Brace," he told her. "Russell didn't see the name of the man to whom the letter was addressed. I saw him last Sunday afternoon. He told me he took the name for granted, because Mildred had taunted him, saying it went to Webster. As a matter of fact, he wanted to see if Webster was at Sloanehurst and fastened his eyes for a fleeting glimpse on that word—and on that alone. Besides, there are facts to prove that the letter did not go to Webster.—Do you see how your fancied security falls away?"
"Let me think," she said, her tone flat and impersonal.
She was silent, her restless eyes gazing at the wall over his head. He watched her, and glanced only at intervals at the wood he was aimlessly shaving.
"Of course," she said, after a while, looking at him with a speculative, deliberating air, "you've deduced and pieced this together. You've a woman's intuition—comprehension of motives, feelings."
She was silent again.
"Pieced what together?" he asked.
"It's plain enough, isn't it? You began with your suspicion that my need of money was heavier in my mind than grief at Mildred's death. On that, you built up—well, all you've just said."
"It was more than a suspicion," he corrected. "It was knowledge—that everything you did, after her death, was intended to help along your scheme to—we'll say, to get money."
"Still," she persisted shrewdly, "you felt the necessity of proving I'd blackmail—if that's the word you want to use."
"How?" he put in quickly. "Prove it, how?"
"That's why you sent that girl here with the five hundred. I see it now; although, at the time, I didn't." She laughed, a short, bitter note. "Perhaps, the money, or my need of it, kept me from thinking straight."
"Of course," she made the admission calmly, "as soon as I took the hush money, your theory seemed sound—the whole of it: my motives and identity of the murderer."
She was thinking with a concentration so intense that the signs of it resembled physical exertion. Moisture beaded the upper part of her forehead. He could see the muscles of her face respond to the locking of her jaws.
"But there's nothing against me," she began again, and, moved by his expression, qualified: "nothing that I can be held for, in the courts."
"You've decided that, have you?"
"You'll admit it," she said. "There's nothing—there can be nothing—to disprove my statement that Dalton's death was provoked. I hold the key to that—I alone. That being true, I couldn't be prosecuted in Pursuit as 'accessory after the fact.'"
"Yes," he agreed. "That's true."
"And here," she concluded, without a hint of triumph, even without a special show of interest, "I can't be proceeded against for blackmail. That money, from both of them, was a gift. I hadn't asked for it, much less demanded it. I," she said with an assured arrogance, "hadn't got that far.—So, you see, Mr. Hastings, I'm far from frightened."
He found nothing to say to that shameless but unassailable declaration. Also, he was aware that she entertained, and sought solution of, a problem, the question of how best to satisfy her implacable determination to make the man pay. That purpose occupied all her mind, now that her money greed was frustrated.
It was on this that he had calculated. It explained his going to her before confronting the murderer. He had felt certain that her perverted desire to "get even" would force her into the strange position of helping him.
He broke the silence with a careful attempt to guide her thoughts:
"But don't fool yourself, Mrs. Brace. You've got out of this all you'll ever get, financially—every cent. And you're in an unpleasant situation—an outcast, perhaps. People don't stand for your line of stuff, your behaviour."
She did not resent that. Making a desperate mental search for the best way to serve her hard self-interest, he thought, she was impervious to insult.
"I know," she said, to his immense relief. "I've been considering the only remaining point."
"The sure way to make him suffer as horribly as possible."
He pretended absorption in his carving.
"Why shouldn't he have provided me with money when I asked it?" she demanded, at last.
The new quality of her speech brought his head up with a jerk. Instead of colourless harshness, it had a warm fury. It was not that she spoke loudly or on a high key; but it had an unbridled, self-indulgent sound. He got the impression that she put off all censorship from either her feeling or her expression.
"That wasn't much to ask—as long as he continued his life of ease, of luxury, of safety—as long as I left out of consideration the debt he couldn't pay, the debt that was impossible of payment."
Alien as the thing seemed in connection with her, he grasped it. She thought that she had once loved the man.
"The matter of personal feeling?" he asked.
"Yes. When he left Pursuit, he destroyed the better part of me—what you would call the good part."
She said that without sentimentalism, without making it a plea for sympathy; she had better sense, he saw, than to imagine that she could arouse sympathy on that ground.
"And," she continued, with intense malignity, "what was so monstrous in my asking him for money? I asked him for no payment of what he really owes me. That's a debt he can't pay! My beauty, destroyed, withered and covered over with the hard mask of the features you see now; my capacity for happiness, dead, swallowed up in my long, long devotion to my purpose to find him again—those things, man as you are, you realize are beyond the scope of payment or repayment!"
Without rising to a standing position, she leaned so far forward that her weight was all on her feet, and, although her figure retained the posture of one seated on a chair, she was in fact independent of support from it, and held herself crouching in front of him, taut, a tremor in her limbs because of the strain.
Her hands were held out toward him, the tips of her stiffened, half-closed fingers less than a foot from his face. Her brows were drawn so high that the skin of her forehead twitched, as if pulled upward by another's hand. It was with difficulty that he compelled himself to witness the climax of her rage. Only his need of what she knew kept him still.
"Money!" she said, her lean arms in continual motion before him. "You're right, there. I wanted money. I made up my mind I'd have it. It was such a purpose of mine, so strongly grown into my whole being, that even Mildred's death couldn't lessen or dislodge it. And there was more than the want of money in my never letting loose of my intention to find him. He couldn't strip me bare and get away! You've understood me pretty well. You know it was written, on the books, that he and I should come together again—no matter how far he went, or how cleverly!
"And I see now!" she gave him her decision, and, as she did so, rose to an upright position, her hands at her sides going half-shut and open, half-shut and open, as if she made mental pictures of the closing in of her long pursuit. "I'll say what you want me to say. Confront him; put me face to face with him, and I'll say the letter went to him. Oh, never fear! I'll say the appropriate thing, and the convincing thing—appropriately convincing!"
Her eyes glittered, countering his searching glance, as she stood over him, her body flung a little forward from the waist, her arms busy with their quick, angular gesticulation.
"When?" he asked. "When will you do that?"
"Now," she answered instantly. "Now!—Now!—Oh, don't look surprised. I've thought of this possibility. My God!" she said with a bitterness that startled him. "I've thought of every possibility, every possible crook and quirk of this business."
She was struck by his slowness in responding to her offer.
"But you," she asked; "are you sure—have you the proof?"
"Thanks," he said drily. "You needn't be uneasy about that.—Now, if I may do a little telephoning, we'll start."
He went a step from her and turned back.
"By the way," he stipulated, "that little matter of the five hundred—you needn't refer to it. I mean it will have to be left out. It's not necessary."
"No; it isn't," she agreed, with perfect indifference. "And it's spent."
When he had telephoned to Sloanehurst and the sheriff's office, he found her with her hat on, ready to accompany him.
As they stepped out of the Walman, she saw the automobile waiting for them. She stopped, a new rage darting from her eyes. He thought she would go back. After a brief hesitation, however, she gave a short, ugly laugh.
"You were as sure as that, were you!" she belittled herself. "Had the car wait—to take me there!"
"By no means," he denied. "I hoped you'd go—that's all."
"That's better," she said, determined to assert her individuality of action. "You're not forcing me into this, you know. I'm doing it, after thinking it out to the last detail—for my own satisfaction."
DENIAL OF THE CHARGE
Hastings, fully appreciating the value of surprise, had instructed Mrs. Brace to communicate none of the new developments to anybody until he asked for them. Reaching Sloanehurst, he went alone to the library, leaving her in the parlour to battle as best she might with the sheriff's anxious curiosity.
Arthur Sloane and Judge Wilton gave him cool welcome, parading for his benefit an obvious and insolent boredom. Although uninvited to sit down, he caught up a chair and swung it lightly into such position that, when he seated himself, he faced them across the table. He was smiling, enough to indicate a general satisfaction with the world.
There was in his bearing, however, that which carried them back to their midnight session with him immediately following the discovery of Mildred Brace's body. The smile did not lessen his look of unquestionable power; his words were sharp, clipped-off.
"I take it," he said briskly, untouched by their demeanour of indifference, "you gentlemen will be interested in the fact that I've cleared up this mystery."
"Ah-h-h!" drawled Sloane. "Again?"
"What do you mean by 'again'?" he asked, good-naturedly.
"Crown, the sheriff, accomplished it four days ago, I'm credibly informed."
"He made a mistake."
"Ah?" Sloane ridiculed.
"Yes. 'Ah!'" Hastings took him up curtly, and, with a quick turn of his head, addressed himself to Wilton: "Judge, I've been to Pursuit."
When he said that, his head was thrown back so that he squinted at Wilton down the line of his nose, under the rims of his spectacles.
Wilton's echo of the word was explosive. He had been leaning back in his chair, eying the detective from under lowered lids, and drawing deep, prolonged puffs from his cigar. But, with the response to Hastings' announcement, he sat up and leaned forward, putting his elbows on the rim of the table. It was an awkward attitude, compelling him to extend his neck and turn his face upward in order to meet the other's glance.
"Yes," Hastings said, after a measurable pause. "Interested in that?"
"Not at all," Wilton replied, plainly alarmed, and fubbed out his cigar with forefinger and thumb, oblivious to the fact that he dropped a little shower of fire on the table cover.
"I'll trouble you to observe, Mr. Sloane," Hastings put in, "that, being excited, the judge's first impulse is to extinguish his cigar: it's a habit of his.—Now, judge, in Pursuit I heard a lot about you—a lot."
He made the inquiry reluctantly, as if under compulsion of the detective's glance.
"The Dalton case—and your part in it."
"You know about that, do you?"
"All about it," Hastings said, in a way that made doubt impossible; Sloane, even, bewildered as he was, got the impression of his ruthless certainty.
Wilton did not contest it.
"I struck in self-defence," he excused himself wearily, like a man taking up a task against his will. "It would be ridiculous to call that murder. No jury would have convicted me—none would now, if given the truth."
"But the body showed twenty-nine wounds," Hastings pressed him, "the marks of twenty-nine separate thrusts of that knife."
"Yes; that's true.—Yes, I'll tell you about that, you and Arthur—if you'd care to hear?"
"That's what I'm here for," Hastings said, settling in his chair. He was thinking: "He didn't expect this. He's unprepared!"
Sloane, who had been on the point of resenting this unbelievable attack on his friend, was struck dumb by Wilton's calm acknowledgment of the charge. From long habit, he took the cap off the smelling-salts with which he had been toying when Hastings came in, but his shaking hand could not lift the bottle to his nose. Wilton guilty of a murder, years ago! He drew a long, shuddering breath and huddled in his chair.
Wilton rose clumsily and walked heavily to the door opening into the hall. He put his hand on the knob but did not turn it. He repeated the performance at the door opening into Sloane's room. In all this he was unconscionably slow, moving in the manner of a blind man, feeling his way about and fumbling both knobs.
When he came back to the table, his shoulders were hunched to the front and downward, crowding his chest. His face looked larger, each separate feature of it throbbing coarsely to the pumping of his heart. Pink threads stood out on the white of his eyeballs. When the back of his neck pressed against his collar, the effect was to give the lower half of the back of his head an odd appearance of inflation or puffiness.
Hastings had never seen a man struggle so to contain himself.
"Suffering angels!" Sloane sympathized shrilly. "What's the matter, Tom?"
"All right—it's all right," he assured, his voice still low, but so resonant and harsh that it sounded like the thrumming of a viol string.
He seated himself, moving his chair several times, adjusting it to a proper angle to the table. In the end, he sat close to the table rim, hunched heavily on his elbows, and looked straight at Hastings.
"But, since you've been to Pursuit, what do you imply, or say?" he asked, the words scraping, as though his throat had been roughened with a file.
"That you killed Mildred Brace," Hastings answered, also leaning forward, to give the accusation weight.
"I! I killed her!" Wilton's teeth went together with a sharp click; the table sagged under his weight. "I deny it. I deny it!" He ripped out an oath. "This man's crazy, Arthur! He's dragged up a mistake, a tragedy, of my youth, and now has the effrontery to use it as a reason for suspecting me of murder!"
"Exactly!" chimed Sloane, in tremulous relief. "Shivering saints! Why haven't you said so long ago, Tom?"
"I didn't give him credit for the wild insanity he's showing," said Wilton thickly.
Whatever had been his first impulse, however near he had been to trying to explain away all blame in the Dalton murder, it was clear to Hastings now that he intended to rely on flat denial of his connection with the death of Mildred Brace. He had, perhaps, decided that explanation was too difficult.
Seeing his indecision, Hastings turned on Sloane.
"You've been exceedingly offensive to me on several occasions, Mr. Sloane. And I've had enough of it. Now, I've got the facts to show that you're as foolish in the selection of your friends as in making enemies. I'm about to charge this man Wilton with murder. He killed Mildred Brace, and I can prove it. If you want to hear the facts back of this mystery; if you want the stuff that will enable you to decide whether you'll stand by him or against him, you can have it!"
Before Sloane could recover from his surprise at the old man's hot resentment, Wilton said, with an air of careless contempt:
"Oh, we've got to deal with what he says, Arthur. I'd rather answer it here than with an audience."
"The reading public, for instance?" Hastings retorted, and added: "It may interest you, Mr. Sloane, to know that you gave me my first suspicion of him. When you stepped back from the handkerchief I held out to you—remember, as I was kneeling over the body, and the servant laughed at you?—I jammed it into Wilton's right-hand coat-pocket.
"Later, when I got it back from him, I saw clinging to it a few cigar ashes and two small particles of wet tobacco. He had had in that pocket a cigar stump wet from his saliva.
"When he began then his story of finding the body, he said, 'I'd been smoking my good-night cigar; this is what's left of it.' As he said that, he pointed to the unlit—remember that, unlit—cigar stump between his teeth. He made it a point to emphasize the fact that so little time had elapsed between his finding the body and his giving the alarm that he hadn't smoked up the cigar, and also he hadn't taken time to put his hand to his mouth, take out the cigar and throw it away.
"It was one of the over-fine little touches that a guilty man tries to pile on his scheme for appearing innocent. But what are the facts?
"Just now, as soon as he got excited, he mechanically fubbed out his cigar. It's a habit of his—whenever he's in a close corner. He did it during the interview I had with him and Webster in the music room last Sunday morning—when, in fact, something dangerous to him came up. He did it again when I was talking to him in his office, following a visit from Mrs. Brace.
"There you have the beginning of my suspicion. Why had he gone out of his way to put a cigar stump into his pocket that night, and to explain that he had had it in his mouth all the time? When he came into my room, to wake me up, he had no cigar in his mouth. But, when you and I rounded the corner of the porch and first saw him kneeling over the body, he had one hand in his right-hand coat-pocket. And, when we stood beside him, he had put a half-smoked, unlit cigar into his mouth.
"You see my point, clearly? Instead of having had the cigar in his mouth and having kept it there while he found the body and reported the discovery to us, the truth is this: he had fubbed out the cigar when he met Mildred Brace on the lawn, and it had occurred to his calculating mind that it would be well, when he chose to give the alarm, to use the cigar stunt as evidence that he hadn't been engaged in quarrelling with and murdering a woman.
"He was right in his opinion that the average man doesn't go on calmly smoking while engaged in such activities. He was wrong in letting us discover where he'd carried the stump until he needed it.
"He had put it into that pocket, but, after committing the murder, he wasn't quite as calm as he'd expected to be—something had gone wrong; Webster had appeared on the scene—and the cigar wasn't restored to his mouth until you and I first reached the body.
"Here's my handkerchief, showing the ashes and the pieces of cigar tobacco on it, just as it was when he handed it back to me."
He took from one of his pockets a tissue-paper parcel, and, unwrapping it, handed it to Sloane.
"Ah-h-h-that's what it shows," Sloane admitted, bending over the handkerchief.
Wilton welcomed that with a laugh which he meant to be lightly contemptuous.
"See here, Arthur!" he objected. "I'm perfectly willing to listen to any sane statement this man may make, but——"
"You said you wanted to hear this!" Hasting stopped him. "I'm fair about it. I've told you why I began to watch you. I've got more."
"You need it," Sloane complained. "If it's all that thin——"
"Don't shout too soon," Hastings interrupted again. "Mr. Sloane, this man's been working against me from the start. Think a moment, and you'll realize it. While he was telling your daughter and a whole lot of other people that I was the only man to handle the case, he was slipping you the quiet instruction to avoid me, not to confide in me, not to tell me a single thing. Isn't that true?"
"We-ell, he did say the best way for me to avoid all possibility of being involved in the thing was not to talk to anybody."
"I knew it!" Hastings declared, giving his contempt full play. "And he persuaded you that you might have seen—might, mind you—and he gave you the suggestion skilfully, more by indirection than by flat statement—that you might have seen Berne Webster out there on the lawn that night, when you were uncertain, when you feared it yourself—a little. Isn't that true?"
Sloane looked at him with widening eyes, his lips trembling.
"Come, Mr. Sloane! Let's play fair, didn't he?"
"And," Hastings continued, thumping the table with a heavy hand to drive home the points of his statement, "he persuaded you to offer that money to Mrs. Brace—last Tuesday night.—Didn't he?—And that matches his slippery cunning in pretending he was saving Webster by hiding the fact that Webster's hand had gagged him when they found the body. He figured his willingness to help somebody else would keep suspicion away from him. I——"
"Rot! All rot!" Wilton broke in. "Where do you think you are, Arthur, on the witness stand? He'll have you saying white's black in a minute."
"Mr. Sloane," the detective said, getting to his feet, "he induced you to pay money to Mrs. Brace—while it's the colour of blackmail, it won't be a matter for prosecution; you gave it to her, in a sense, unsolicited—but he induced you to do that because he knew she was out for blackmail. He hoped that, if you bought her off, she wouldn't pursue him farther."
"Farther!" echoed Sloane. "What do you mean by that?"
"Why, man! Don't you see? Money was back of all that tragedy. He murdered the girl because she had come here to renew her mother's attempts at blackmail on him! Not content with duping you, with handling you as if you'd been a baby, he put you up to buying off the woman who was after him—and he did it by fooling you into thinking that you were saving the name, if not the very life, of your daughter's fiance! He——"
"Lies! Wild lie!" thundered Wilton, pushing back from the table. "I'm through with——"
"No! No!" shrilled Sloane. "Wait! Prove that, Hastings! Prove it—if you can! Shuddering saints! Have I——?"
He looked once at Wilton's contorted face, and recoiled, the movement confessing at last his lack of faith in the man.
"I will," Hastings answered him, and moved toward the door; "I'll prove it—by the girl's mother."
He threw open the door, and, sure now of holding Sloane's attention, went in search of Mrs. Brace and the sheriff.
The two men in the library waited a long time for his return. Wilton, elbows on the table, stared straight in front of him, giving no sign of knowledge of the other's presence. Sloane fidgeted with the smelling-salts, emitting now and then long-drawn, tremulous sighs that were his own special vocabulary of dissatisfaction. He spoke once.
"Mute and cringing martyrs!" he said, in suspicious remonstrance. "If he'd say something we could deny! So far, Tom, you're mixed up in——"
"Why can't you wait until he's through?" Wilton objected roughly.
They heard people coming down the hall. Lucille, following Mrs. Brace into the room, went to her father. They could see, from her look of grieved wonder, that Hastings had told her of the charge against Wilton. The sheriff's expression confirmed the supposition. His mouth hung open, so that the unsteady fingers with which he plucked at his knuckle like chin appeared also to support his fallen jaw. He made a weak-kneed progress from the door to a chair near the screened fireplace.
For a full half-minute Hastings was silent, as if to let the doubts and suspense of each member of the group emphasize his dominance of the situation. He reviewed swiftly some of the little things he had used to build up in his own mind the certainty of Wilton's guilt: the man's agitation in the music room at the discovery, not that a part of the grey envelope had been found, but that it contained some of the words of the letter—his obvious alarm when found quarrelling with Mrs. Brace in his office—his hardly controlled impulses: once, outside Sloane's bedroom, to accuse Berne Webster without proof, and, on the Sloanehurst porch last Sunday, to suggest that Sloane was guilty.
The detective observed now that he absolutely ignored Mrs. Brace, not even looking in her direction. He perceived also how she reacted to that assumed indifference. The tightening of her lips, the flutter of her mobile nostrils, left him no longer any doubt that she was in the mood to give him the cooperation she had so bitterly promised.
"To be dragged down by such a woman!" he thought.
"Mrs. Brace," he said, "I've charged Judge Wilton with the murder of your daughter. I say now he killed her, with premeditation, having planned it after receiving a letter from her."
"Yes?" she responded, a certain tenseness in her voice.
She had gone to a chair by the window; and, like the sheriff, she faced the trio at the table: Wilton, Sloane, and Lucille, who stood behind her father, a hand on his shoulder.
Hastings slowly paced the floor as he talked, his hands clasped behind him and now and then moving the tail of his coat up and down. He glanced at Mrs. Brace over the rims of his spectacles, his eyes shrewd and keen. He showed an unmistakable self-satisfaction, like the elation Wilton had detected in his bearing on two former occasions.
"Now," he asked her, "what can you tell us about that letter?"
Wilton, his chest pressed so hard against the edge of the table that his breathing moved his body, turned his swollen face upon her at last, his eyes flaming under the thatch of his down-drawn brows.
Mrs. Brace, her high-shouldered, lean frame silhouetted against the window, began, in a colourless, unemotioned tone:
"As you know, Mr. Hastings, I thought this man Wilton owed me money, more than money. I'd looked for him for twenty-six years. Less than a year ago I located him here in Virginia, and I came to Washington. He refused my requests. Then, he stopped reading my letters—sent them back unopened at first; later, he destroyed them unread, I suppose."
She cleared her throat lightly, and spoke more rapidly. The intensity of her hate, in spite of her power of suppression, held them in a disagreeable fascination.
"I was afraid of him, afraid to confront him alone. I'd seen him kill a man. But I was in desperate need. I thought, if my daughter could talk to him, he would be brought to do the right thing. I suppose," she said with a wintry smile, "you'd call it an attempt to blackmail—if he had let it go far enough.
"She wrote him a letter, on grey paper, and sent it, in an oblong, grey envelope, to him here at Sloanehurst last Friday night. He got it Saturday afternoon. If he hadn't received it, he'd never have been out on the lawn—with a dagger he'd made for the occasion—at eleven or eleven-fifteen, which was the time Mildred said in her letter she'd see him there. She had added that, if he did not keep the appointment, she'd expose him—his crime in Pursuit."
"I see," Hastings said, on the end of her cold, metallic utterance, and took from his pocket the flap of grey envelope. "Is this the flap of that envelope; or, better still, are these fragments of words and the word 'Pursuit' in your daughter's handwriting?"
"I've examined them already," she said. "They are my daughter's writing."
Her lips were suddenly thick, taking on that appearance of abnormal wetness which had so revolted him before.
"And I say what you've just said!" she supplemented, her eyebrows high upon her forehead. "Tom Wilton killed my daughter. And, when I went to his office—I was sure then that he'd be afraid to harm me so soon after Mildred's death—I accused him of the murder. He took it with a laugh. He said I could look at it as a warning that——"
The interruption came from Wilton.
"I'm going to make a statement about this thing!" he ground out, his voice coarse and rasping.
Hastings hung upon him with relentless gaze.
"What have you got to say?"
"Much!" returned Wilton. "I'm not going to let myself be ruined on this charge because of a mistake of my youth—mistake, I say! I'm about to tell you the story of such suffering, such misfortune, as no man has ever had to endure. It explains that tragedy in Pursuit; it explains my life; it explains everything. I didn't murder that boy Dalton. I struck in self-defence. But the twenty-nine wounds on his body——"
He paused, preoccupied; he was thinking less of his hearers than of himself. It was at that point, Hastings thought afterwards, that he began to lose himself in the ugly enjoyment of describing his cruelty. It was as if the horrors to which he gave voice subjected him to a specious and irresistible charm, equipped him with a spurious courage, a sincere indifference to common opinion.
"There is," he said, "a shadow on my soul. My greatest enemy is hidden in my own mind.
"But I've fought it, fought it all my life. You may say the makeshifts I've adopted, the strategy of my resistance, my tactics to outwit this thing, do me little credit. I shall leave it to you to decide. Results speak for themselves. I have broken no law; there is against me nothing that would bring upon me the penalty of man's laws."
He wedged himself more closely against the edge of the table, and struck his left palm with his clenched right hand.
"I tell you, Hastings, to have fought this thing, in whatever way, has been a task that called for every ounce of strength I had. I've lived in hell and walked with devils, against my will. Not a day, not a night, have I been free of this curse, or my fear of it. There have been times when, every night for months, my slumbers were broken or impossible! The devilish thing reached down into the depths of sleep and with its foul and muddy grasp poisoned even those clear, white pools—clear and white for other men! But no matter——
"You've heard of obsessions—of men seized every six months with an irresistible desire to drink—of kleptomaniacs who, having all they need or wish, must steal or go mad—of others driven by inexplicable impulse, mania, to set fire to buildings, for the thrill they get out of seeing the flames burst forth. Well, from my earliest childhood until that moment when Roy Dalton attacked me, I had fought an impulse even more terrible than those. God, what a tyranny! It drove me, drove me, that obsession, at times amounting to mental compulsion, to strike, to stab, to make the blood flow!"
He rose, getting to his feet slowly, so that his burly bulk gained in size, like the slow upheaval of a hillside. Swollen as his face had been, it expanded now a trifle more. His nostrils coarsened more perceptibly. The puffiness that had been in the back of his neck extended entirely around his throat. He hung forward over the table, giving all his attention to Hastings, who was unmoved, incredulous.
"The Brace woman will tell you I had to kill him," he proceeded more swiftly, displaying a questionable ardour, like a man foreseeing defeat. "The mistake I made was in running away—a bitter mistake! But those unnecessary wounds, twenty-eight that need not have been made! The obsession to see the blood flow drove me to acts which a jury, I thought, would not understand. And, if you don't see the force of my explanation, Hastings, if you don't understand, I shall be in little better plight—after all these years!"
He put, there, a sorrowful appeal into his voice; but a sly contradiction of it showed faintly in his face, a hint that he took a crafty pleasure in dragging into the light the depravity he had kept in darkness for a lifetime.
"I got away. I drifted to Virginia, working hard, studying much. I became a lawyer. But always I had that affliction to combat; all my life, man!—always! There were periods months long when devils came up from the ugly corners of my soul to torture and tempt me.
"It wasn't the ordinary temptation, not a weak, pale idea of 'I'd like to kill and see the blood!'—but an uproar, an imperial voice, an endless command: 'Kill! Draw blood! Kill!'—What it did to me——
"But to this day I've beaten it! I've been a good citizen. I've observed the law. I've refused to let that involuntary lust for blood ruin me or cast me out.
"Let me tell you how. I decided that, if I had a hand in awarding just punishments, my affliction would be abated enough for me to live in some measure of security. There you have the explanation of my being on the bench. I cheated the obsession to murder by helping to imprison or execute those who did murder!
"That's why I can tell you of my innocence of the Brace murder. Do you think I'd tell it unless I knew there could be not even an excuse for suspecting me? On the other hand, if I had kept silent as to the true motive that drove my hand to those unnecessary mutilations of young Dalton—the only time, remember, that my weakness ever got the better, or the worse, of me!—if I had kept silent on that, you would have had ground for suspecting me of a barbarous murder then, and, arguing from that, of the Brace murder now.
"Do I make myself clear?—Do you want me to go into further detail?"
He sank slowly back to his chair, spent by the strain of supreme effort. His breathing was laboured, stertorous.
"That, Crown," Hastings denounced, "is a confession! Knowing he's caught, he's got the insolence to whine for mercy because of his 'sufferings'! Think of it! The thing of which he boasts is the thing for which he deserves death—since death is supposed to be the supreme punishment. He tells us, in self-congratulatory terms, that he curbed his inhuman longings, satisfied his lust for blood, by going on the bench and helping to 'punish those who did murder!'
"Too cowardly to strike a blow, he skulked behind the protection of his position. He made of the judicial robe an assassin's disguise. On the bench, he was free to sate his thirst for others' sufferings—adding to a sentence five undeserved years here, ten there; slipping into his instructions to juries a phrase that would mean the death penalty!
"He revelled in judicial murders. He gloated over the helpless people who, looking to him for justice, were merely the victims of his abhorrent cruelty. He loved the look of sick surprise in their starting eyes. He got a filthy joy out of seeing a man turn pale. He rubbed his hands in glee when a woman swooned. He——"
"I can't stand that—can't stand it!" Sloane protested, hands over his eyes.
"What more do you want, to prove his guilt, his abominable guilt?" Hastings swept on. "You have the motive, hatred of this woman here and her daughter—you have the proof of the letter sent to him making the compulsory appointment—you have his own crazy explanation of his homicidal impulse, from which, by the way, he never sought relief, a queer 'impulse' since it gave him time, hours, to plan the crime and manufacture the weapon with which he killed!"
"I said at the start," Wilton put in hoarsely, "this man Hastings was only theorizing. If he had anything to connect me with——"
"I have!" Hastings told him, and came to a standstill in front of the sheriff, bending over him, as if to drive each statement into Crown's reluctant mind.
"He got that letter a little after five in the afternoon. He left me here, in this room, with Sloane and Webster, and was gone three-quarters of an hour. That was just before dinner. He had the second floor, on that side of the house, entirely to himself. He took a nail-file from Webster's dressing case, and in Webster's room put a sharper point on it by filing it roughly with the file-blade of his own pen knife.
"That's doubly proved: first, my magnet, with which I went over the floor in Webster's room, picked up small particles of steel. Here they are."
He produced a small packet and, without unwrapping it, handed it to Crown.
"Again: you'll find that the file-blade of his knife retained particles of the steel in the little furrows of its corrugated surface. I know, because last Sunday, as your car came up the driveway, I borrowed his knife, on the pretext of tightening a screw in the blade of mine. And I examined it."
He put up a silencing hand as Wilton forced a jeering laugh.
"But there's more to prove his manufacture and ownership of the weapon that killed the woman. He made the handle from the end of a slat on the bed in the room which I occupied that night. The inference is obvious: he didn't care to risk going outside the house to hunt for the wood he needed; he wouldn't take it from an easily visible place; and, having stolen something from one room, he paid his attention to mine. All this is the supercaution of the so-called 'smart criminal.' It matches the risk he took in returning to the body to hunt for the weapon. That was why he was there when Webster found the body.
"The handle of the dagger matches the wood of the slat I've just mentioned. You won't find that particular slat upstairs now. It was taken out of the house the next day, broken into sections and packed in his bag of golf-sticks. But there is proof in this room of the fact that he and he only made the dagger.
"You'll find in the edge of the large blade of his penknife a nick, triangular in shape, which left an unmistakable groove in the wood every time he cut into it. That little groove shows, to the naked eye, on the end of the shortened slat and on the handle of the dagger. If you doubt it——"
"Thunder!" Crown interrupted, in an awed tone. "You're right!"
He had taken the dagger from his pocket and given it minute scrutiny. He handed it now to Sloane.
Wilton, watching the scene with flaming eyes, sat motionless, his chin thrust down hard upon his collar, his face shining as if it had been polished with a cloth.
Sloane gave the dagger back to Crown before he spoke, in a wheezy, shrill key: "They're there, the marks, the grooves!"
He did not look at Wilton.
Hastings straightened to his full stature, and looked toward Wilton.
"Now, Judge Wilton," he challenged, "you said you preferred to answer the accusation here and now. Do you, still?"
Wilton, slowly raising the heavy lids of his eyes, like a man coming out of a trance, presented to him and to the others a face which, in spite of its flushed and swollen aspect, looked singularly bleak.
"It's not an accusation," he said in his roughened, grating voice. "It's a network of suppositions, of theories, of impossibilities—a crazy structure, all built on the rotten foundation of a previous misfortune."
"Arrest him, Crown!" Hastings commanded sharply.
Wilton tried to laugh, but his heavy lips merely worked in a crazy barrenness of sound. With a vague, clumsy idea of covering up his confusion, he started to light a cigar.
He stopped, hands in mid-air, when Crown, shambling to his feet, said:
"Judge, I've got to act. He's proved his case."
"Proved it!" Wilton made weak protest.
"If he hasn't, let's see your penknife."
Wilton put his hand into his trousers pocket, began the motion that would have drawn out the knife, checked it, and withdrew his hand empty. He managed a mirthless, dreary laugh, a rattling sound that fell, dead of any feeling, from his grimacing lips.
"No, by God!" he refused. "I'll give it to neither of you. I don't have to!"
In that moment, he fell to pieces. With his thick shoulders dropping forward, he became an inert mass bundled against the table edge. The blood went out of his face, so that his cheeks hollowed, and shadows formed under his eyes. He was like the victim of a quick consumption.
Crown's eyes were on Hastings.
"That's enough," the old man said shortly.
"Too much," agreed Crown. "Judge, there's no bail—on a murder charge."
"I'm very glad," Mrs. Brace commented, a terrible satisfaction in her voice. "He pays me—at last."
In the music room Dr. Garnet had just given Lucille and Hastings a favourable report on Berne Webster's condition.
"I should so like to tell him," she said, her glance entreating; "if you'll let me! Wouldn't he get well much faster if he knew it—knew the suspense was all over—that neither he nor father's suspected any more?"
"I think," the doctor gave his opinion with exaggerated deliberation, "it might—in fact, it really will be his best medicine."
She thanked him, stars swimming in her eyes.