Gard had not been mistaken when he surmised that Brencherly must inevitably connect the murder with the sequence of events. But the conclusion reached with relentless finality by that astute young man was far from being what Gard had feared. To the detective's mind the answer was plain—his employer was guilty.
The motive obviously concerned Mrs. Marteen. It was evident, from Mahr's efforts to gain access to that lady's safe, that she possessed something of which Mahr stood in fear or desired to possess. It was possible that she had obtained proof against Mahr. Perhaps she opposed young Teddy's attentions to her daughter. Perhaps Mahr was responsible for the disappearance. At any rate, Gard had been the last person to see Mahr as far as anyone knew; and a bitter feud existed, which no one guessed. Brencherly did not place great reliance in the woman theory. Doubtless one had called, but she had probably left. That she had gone out unseen was no astonishing matter. A servant delinquent in his hall duty was by no means a novelty even in the best regulated mansions. The robbery in that case could have been only a blind for an act of anger or revenge. The search for papers might have a deeper significance.
He intended to "stand by the boss," Brencherly told himself. Gard was a great man and a decent sort; Mahr was an unworthy specimen. Brencherly decided that at all Costs Marcus Gard must be protected. He cursed the promise that kept him at his post. He longed to get into personal touch with every tangible piece of evidence, every clew, noted and unnoted. His men were on the spot and reporting to him; but that could not make up for personal investigation. In view of these new developments, what would be Mrs. Marteen's next move? Some secret bond connected the three—Mahr, Gard and Mrs. Marteen.
Brencherly, alone in Gard's library, rose and paced the room, glancing at the desk clock every time his line of march took him past the table. His employer was coming home fast as steam could bring him. He longed for his arrival and the council of war that must ensue; longed to be relieved of the tedium of room-tied waiting. He no longer looked for any communication from Mrs. Marteen. She had her reasons for concealment, no doubt, and he felt assured that neither hospital nor morgue would yield her up. It was with genuine delight that he at last heard the familiar voice on the telephone, though it was but a hurried inquiry for news.
Half an hour later, haggard and worn beyond belief, Gard hurried into the library and held out his hand.
The young man looked at his face in astonishment as Gard threw himself into the chair and turned toward him.
"You'll pardon me," he faltered. "There's nothing that can't wait, and you need rest, sir."
"Not till I can get it without nightmares," he snapped. "Now give me this Mahr affair—all of it. I've seen the papers, of course, but I imagine you have the inside; then I want to hear what you think."
The detective gave a start and colored to the roots of his hair. No doubt about it, Gard was a great man, if he could meet such a situation in such a manner and get away with it.
"Well, sir, the papers have it straight enough this time, as it happens. There's nothing different."
"What was the weapon?"
"A stiletto paper cutter, that he always had on his table. It had a top like a fencing foil; in fact, that's what it was in miniature, except that it was edged. It was that top, flattened close down, that stopped any flow of blood, so that everyone thought at first it was the blow on the temple that killed him. There's this about it, though: I'm told they say he was stunned first and stabbed afterward. That doesn't look like the work of a common thief, does it?"
His hearer could not control a shudder. "Why not?" he parried. "He may have known the knockout was only temporary, and he was afraid he'd come to; or the man might have been known to Mahr, and he'd recognized him."
Brencherly shook his head incredulously.
"And the woman? What description did the servants give?" There was a perceptible pause before he asked the question.
"The woman? The description is pretty vague—dressed in black, a heavy veil, black gloves; nothing extraordinary. The servant did say he thought her hair was gray, or it might have been light. He caught a glimpse of the back of her head when he showed her into the room. She sent in a note first; just a plain envelope; it wasn't directed."
"Did they find any letter or enclosure that might explain why she was admitted?"
"No, sir, nothing."
The two men eyed each other in silence. Each felt the other's reticence.
"And what do you advise now?" Gard inquired.
Brencherly's gaze shifted to the bronze inkwells.
"If I knew just how this event affected you, sir, I might be able to advise."
It was his employer's turn to look away.
"I know absolutely nothing about the cause of Mahr's death. I do know that there was no love lost between us; also that I was the last person known to have been with him. Isn't that enough to show you how I am affected?"
"And the motive of your quarrel?" The detective felt his heart thump and wondered at his own daring.
"We were rival competitors for the Heim Vandyke—he got it away from me."
"Does that answer my question, sir?" Again Brencherly gasped at his own temerity.
"Young man," bellowed Gard, half rising from his chair, "what are you trying to infer?"
Brencherly stood up. "Please, Mr. Gard, be frank with me. I want to help you; I want to see you through. It can be done—I'm sure of it. No one knows about your trouble with Mahr. What he wanted with the combination of that safe I can't guess, but it was for no good; and you told me yourself that he had secured it. But everything may work out all right if you let me help you. I'm used to this cross-examination business, and I can coach you so they won't get a thing. I don't pretend to be in a class with you, sir; don't think I'm so conceited. I'm just specialized, that's all. I want to help, and I can if you'll let me."
Gard's face underwent a kaleidoscopic series of changes; then astonishment and relief finally triumphed, and were followed by hysterical laughter. Brencherly was disconcerted.
"Oh, so you think I did it!" he said at last. "I wish I had!" he added. "That wouldn't worry me in the least."
"Mrs. Marteen!" Brencherly exclaimed, and stood aghast and silent.
"No!" thundered Gard, and then leaned forward brokenly with his head in his hand.
Slowly the detective's mind readjusted itself, and the look in his eyes fixed upon Gard's bowed figure was all pitying understanding. Then he shook his head.
"No, she didn't do it," he said—"never! I don't believe it!"
The stricken man looked up gratefully, but his head sank forward again. "He had done a horrible thing to her," he said. "You're right; you must have my confidence if you are to help—us. He had tried to estrange Dorothy from her mother. I—happened to be able to stop that. I used what you told me to quiet him. I threatened to tell his son the whole story. It was bluffing, for we knew nothing positive. But the story is all true. He was putty in my hand when I held that threat over him—putty. I went to him that night to dictate what he was to do in case he obtained any clew of Mrs. Marteen. I thought she might try to see him—to—reproach him. We knew she was very ill, had been when she went away, and then—nerve shock. I went to him—and found him already dead. You understand—Mrs. Marteen—I couldn't but believe—so I set the stage for robbery. I bluffed it off with everyone. I gave the message to lock up and leave Mahr undisturbed. I wanted an alibi for her—or at least to gain time."
Brencherly remained silent. A man's devotion to another commands awed respect, however it may manifest itself. But he was thinking rapidly.
"You know District Attorney Field, don't you?" he asked at length.
Gard nodded. "An old personal friend; but I can't go to him with that story. I'd rather a thousand times he suspected me than give one clew that would lead to her. I'll stick to my story. Field wouldn't cover up a thing like that—he couldn't."
"I know," returned Brencherly; "there's got to be a victim for justice first, or else prove that nothing, not even the ends of justice, can be gained before you can get the wires pulled. But that's what I'm setting out to do. I don't believe, Mr. Gard, that Mrs. Marteen committed that murder—not that there may not have been plenty of reason for it, but the way of it—no! I've got an idea. I don't want to say too much or raise any hopes that I can't make good; but there's just this: when I leave the house it will be to start on another trail. In the meantime, everything is being done that is humanly possible to find Mrs. Marteen. There's only one other way, and that, for the present, won't do—it's newspaper publicity, photographic reproductions and a reward. I think she is somewhere under an assumed name. But there are two lodestones that will draw her if she is able to move. One is the house of Victor Mahr, and the other her own home. There is love and hate to count on, and sooner or later one will draw her within reach. I'll have the closest watch put about that I can devise. There's nothing you can do, sir—now. If you'll rest to-night, you'll be better able to stand to-morrow, and if I can verify my idea in the least I'll tell you. Let your secretary watch here; and good night, Mr. Gard."
* * * * *
The woman in the narrow bed tossed in a heavy, unnatural sleep. Her lips were swollen and cracked with fever, her cheeks scarlet and dry. She was alone in a narrow, plain room, sparsely but newly furnished. On a dressing table an expensive gold-fitted traveling bag stood open. Over a bent-wood chair hung a costly dark blue traveling suit, and the garments scattered about the room were of the finest make and material. On the floor lay a diamond-encrusted watch, ticking faintly, and a gold mesh bag, evidently flung from under the pillow by the movements of the sleeper. This much the landlady noticed as she softly opened the unlocked door and stood upon the threshold.
"Dear, dear!" she murmured, and, habit strong upon her, she gathered up the scattered garments, folded them neatly, and hung up the gown in the scanty closet, having first examined the tailor's mark on the collar. "Dear, dear!" she said again. "It's noon; now whatever can be the matter? Is she sick? Looks like fever." Again she hesitated and paused to pick up a sheer handkerchief-linen blouse, upon the Irish lace collar of which a circle of pinhead diamonds held a monogram of the same material. "H'm," ruminated the landlady. "Martin! Yes, there's an 'M,' and a 'Y' and a 'J'—h'm! She said she's a friend of Mrs. Bell's, but Mrs. Bell has been in Europe six months. Wonder who her friends are, if she's going to be sick?"
She moved toward the bed to examine her guest more closely, but her attention was distracted by the luxuriousness of the objects in the dressing case. She fingered them with awe and observed the marking. She stooped for the purse and watch, which she examined with equal attention. Once more her eyes turned to the flushed face on the tumbled pillow. The sleeper had not awakened. The woman leaned over and took one of the restless hands in hers. "It's fever, sure," she said. At the touch and sound of her voice the other opened her eyes, wide with sudden astonishment. "I beg your pardon, Mrs. Martin," said the visitor, "but it's after twelve o'clock, and I began to get anxious—you a stranger and all. I think, ma'am, you've a fever. Better let me call the doctor; there's one on the block."
The woman sat up in bed. "Mrs. Martin?" she said faintly. "Yes—I've—My head hurts—and my eyes—" She stared about her with a puzzled expression that convinced her observer that delirium had set in. "A doctor? Do I need a doctor? Why? What was it the doctor said? That my nerves were in—in—what was it? And I must travel and rest—yes, that was it; I remember now."
"Well," the other woman commented, "he doesn't seem to have done you a world of good, and you better try another."
"No," said Mrs. Marteen with decision, "no, I don't want one—not now, anyway. It's a headache. May I have some tea? Then I'll lie quiet, if you'll lower that blind, please."
"I'm sorry Mrs. Bell's away, or I'd send for her," ventured the landlady.
"Mrs. Bell?" the sick woman echoed with the same tone of puzzled surprise. "Why, she's away—yes—she's away." She sank back among the pillows and waved a dismissing hand.
Still the landlady waited. She deemed it most unwise not to call a doctor, but feared to make herself responsible for the bill if her guest refused. But she had seen enough to convince her that the lady's visible possessions were ample to cover any bill she might run up through illness, provided, of course, it were not contagious. She turned reluctantly and descended to the kitchen to brew the desired tea.
Left alone, the patient sat up and looked about her with strained and frightened eyes. Then she began to wring her hands, slowly, as if such a gesture of torment was foreign to her habit. Her wide, clear brow knitted with puzzled fear. Her lips were distorted as one who would cry out and was held dumb. Presently she spoke.
"Where am I?" There was a long pause of nerve-racking effort as she strove to remember. "Who am I?" she cried hysterically. She sprang out of bed and ran to the mirror over the dressing table. The face that looked back at her was familiar, but she could not give it its name. A muffled scream escaped her lips, and she held her clenched fists to her temples as if she feared her brain would burst. "Martin!" she said at last. "Martin—she called me Mrs. Martin. Who is she? When did I come here?"
She seized her dressing case and went through its contents. Each article was familiar; they were hers; she knew their faults and advantages. The letter case had a spot on the back; she turned it over and found it there. Letter case—the thought was an aspiration. With trembling eagerness she clutched at the papers in the side pocket. Yes, there were letters. She read the address, "Mrs. Martin Marteen"—yes, that was herself. How strange! She had forgotten. The address was a steamer—that seemed possible. There was a journey, a long journey—she vaguely recalled that. But why? Where? She read the notes eagerly; casual bon voyage and good wishes; letters referring to books, flowers or bonbons. The signatures were all familiar, but no corresponding image rose in her brain. The last she read gave her a distinct feeling of affection, of admiration, though the signature "M.G." meant nothing. She reread the few scrawled sentences with a longing that frightened her. Who was M.G.—that her bound and gagged mentality cried out for? She felt if she could only reach that mysterious identity all would be well. M.G. would bring everything right.
Suddenly the idea of insanity crossed her mind. She sat down abruptly. The room began to sway; her head ached as if the blows of a hammer were descending on her brow. She clutched the iron foottrail to keep from being tossed from the heaving, rocking bed. The ceiling seemed to lower and crush her. Then an enormous hand and arm entered at the window and turned off the sun which was burning at the end of a gas jet in the room. All was dark.
She recovered consciousness slowly, aware of immeasurable weakness. She lay very still, lying, as it were, within her body. She felt that should she require that weary body to do anything it must refuse. Through her half-closed lids she saw the woman who had first aroused her enter the room with a tray.
"Dear, dear!" she heard her say. "You must cover up. Don't lie on the outside of the bed; get under the covers."
To Mrs. Marteen's intense inner surprise, the weary body obeyed, crawling feebly beneath the sheets. She had not realized that she had lain where she had fainted, at the foot of the bed.
"Now take some tea," the controlling will ordered; "you'll feel better; and a bit of dry toast. Sick headaches are awful, I know, and tea's the best thing."
Once more the body obeyed, and sat up and drank the steaming cup to the great comfort of the inner being. So reviving was its influence that Mrs. Marteen decided to try her own will and speak.
"Thank you—" her lips spoke, and she felt elated. She made another effort. "Thank you very much; it's most refreshing. No—no toast now—but is there some more tea?"
She drank it greedily and lay back upon the pillows with a sigh. Images were forming; memories were coming back now—scraps of things. There was a young girl whom she loved dearly. She had brown hair, very blue eyes and a delicious profile. She was tall and slender. She wore a blue serge suit. Her name—was—was Dorothy. She spread her palms upon the sheet and felt it cool and refreshing.
"I'm afraid I've had a fever," she said slowly. "I think I have it still. I—I have such nightmares when I sleep—such nightmares." She shuddered.
"Well," said the landlady cheerfully, "you'll feel better now. Take it from me, tea's the thing." She gathered up the napkin, cup and saucer and placed them on the tray. "Well, I'll let you be quiet, and I'll drop in again about five."
Now another memory came, a conscious thought connection. She remembered that Mrs. Bell had told her of her faithful landlady, Mrs. Mellen, with whom she always stopped when she came North; she remembered calling there many times for Mary, her smart motor waking the quiet, unpretentious street. Now she remembered recalling the boarding house and seeking shelter there in her fear and pain. Fear and pain—why, what was it? There was something cataclysmic, overpowering, that had happened. What could it be? Something was hanging over her head, some dreadful punishment. Her struggle to clear the mists from her brain rendered her more wildly feverish, then stupefied her to heavy sleep.
When she awoke again it was to see the kindly fat face of Mrs. Mellen beaming at her from the foot of the bed.
"That's it," she nodded approvingly; "you've had a nice nap. Head's better, I'm sure. Here's another cup of tea, and I brought you up the evening paper; thought you might want to look it over. And if you'll give me your trunk checks, I'll send the expressman after your baggage."
"My trunk checks—what did I do with them? Why, of course, I gave them to my maid."
A sudden instinct that she did not wish to see her maid, or be followed by her baggage, made her stop short in her speech.
"Oh, your maid!" said Mrs. Mellen. "I'm glad you told me—I'll have to hold a room. You didn't say anything about her last night, so I hadn't made any provision. Dear, dear! And when do you calculate she's liable to get here?"
Mrs. Marteen took refuge in her headache. "I don't know," she said wearily; "perhaps not to-day."
"Oh, well, never mind. I dare say I can manage," Mrs. Mellen assured her. "If you've got everything you want, I'll have to go. Do you think you'll be able to get down to dinner—seven, you know; or would you rather have a plate of nice hot soup up here? Here, I guess. Well, it's no trouble at all, and you're right to starve your head; it's what I always do."
She backed smiling out of the door, which she closed gently.
Mrs. Marteen lay back with closed eyes for a moment, then restlessness seizing her, she sat bolt upright and firmly held her own pulse. "I'm certainly ill," she said aloud. "I wonder where Marie is? Of course I left her at the station, and told her to bring the baggage on. But that was long ago; what has kept her? But this isn't my home," she argued to herself. She was too weak to trouble with further questioning. Instinctively she put out her hand and drew the newspaper toward her. She raised it idly.
"Murder of Victor Mahr"—the big headlines met her eyes.
She felt a shock as if a blinding flash of lightning had enveloped her; she remembered.
She sat as if turned to stone, staring at the ominous words. Her nerves tingled from head to foot; her very life seemed a strained and vibrating string that might snap with any breath. Slowly, as if the Fates had decided not as yet to break that attenuated thread, the tingling, stinging shock passed. She found strength to read the whole article, almost intelligently, though at times her mind would wander to inconsequent things, and the beat of her own heart seemed to deaden her understanding. She remembered now everything, nearly everything, till she turned from her own door, a desperate, homeless outcast. She recalled a cab going somewhere, and then after what appeared to be an interval of unconsciousness, she was walking, walking, instinctively seeking the darkened streets, a satchel in her hand. Somewhere, footsore and exhausted, she had sat upon a bench. Then came the inspiration to go to the quiet house where her friend had stayed. The friend was far away; she could remain there and not be found—stay until she had courage to do the thing that had suggested itself as the only issue—to end it all.
But who had killed Victor Mahr? She gave a gasp of horror and held up her hands—was there blood upon them? But how—how? Try as she would, no answering picture of horror rose from her darkened mind. There was a long, long period she could not account for—not yet; perhaps it would come back, as these other terrible memories had returned to assail her. She rolled over, hiding her face in the pillow, and groaned. The twilight deepened; the shadows thickened in the room.
Suddenly she rose and began dressing in frenzied haste, overcoming her bodily weakness with set purpose. Habit came to her rescue, for she was hardly conscious of her movements. Her toilet completed, she began hastily packing her traveling case, the impulse of flight urging her to trembling speed. But when she lifted the bag its weight discouraged her. Setting it down again upon the dressing table, she lowered her veil and staggered into the dark hallway. Economy dictated delayed illumination in the Mellen household. All was quiet. Somewhat reassured, she descended the stairs, leaning heavily on the rail. The fever which had relaxed for a brief interval renewed its grip, and filled with vague, indescribable fears, she fled blindly. Something in her subconscious brain suggested Victor Mahr, and it was toward Washington Square that she bent her hurried steps.
She entered the park, forcing her failing strength to one supreme effort, and sank, gasping, upon a bench. It faced toward the darkened residence of the murdered man. A few stragglers stood grouped on the pavement before the house, of asked questions of the policeman stationed near by. The electric lights threw lace patterns that wavered over the unfrequented paths. She leaned back, staring at the dark bulk of the mansion with the darker streak at the doorway, which one divined to be the sinister mark of death. Suddenly she sat erect, her aching weariness forgotten. She knew, past peradventure, that she had sat there upon that very seat the night before. The memory was but a flash. Already delirium was returning. She was powerless to move. Hours passed, and still she sat staring, unseeing, straight before her. Once a policeman passed and turned to look at her, but her evident refinement quieted his suspicions, and he moved on.
She was roused at last by a movement of the bench as someone took a place beside her. She looked up and vaguely realized that it was a woman, darkly dressed and heavily veiled like herself. She, too, leaned back and seemed lost in contemplation of the house opposite. Presently she raised the veil, as if it obstructed her vision too greatly, revealing a withered face, narrow and long, with a singularly white skin. She had the look of a respectable working woman, and her black-gloved hands were folded over a neat paper package. Her curious glance turned toward the lady beside her, and seemed to find satisfaction in the elegance that even the darkness could not quite conceal. She moved nearer, and with a birdlike twist of the head, leaned forward and frankly gazed in her companion's face. The other did not resent the action.
The woman slowly nodded her head. "Don't know what she's doin', not she. She's one of the silly kind." She put out a hand like a claw, and touched Mrs. Marteen's shoulder. Mrs. Marteen turned her flushed and troubled face toward the woman with something akin to intelligence in her eyes. "What are you settin' here fur, lady?" asked the woman harshly. "Watchin' his house? Well, it's no use; he won't come out again for you or your likes—never again, never again," and she chuckled.
"I was here last night. I sat here last night," said Mrs. Marteen, her mind reverting to its last conscious moment.
The woman peered at her closely, striving to see through the meshes of the veil where the electric light touched her cheek.
"You did? What fur? Was he comin' out to ye, or did ye want to be let inside?"
The insult was lost on the sufferer.
The woman shifted her position, and changed her tone to one of cunning ingratiation.
"Goin' to the funeral?" she inquired, and without waiting for an answer, continued to talk. "I am. I won't be asked, of course—they don't know I'm here; but I'm goin'. I wouldn't miss it—no, not for—nothing. I ought to have some crape, I know, but I don't see's I can. It would be the right thing, though. I'll ride in a carriage," she boasted. "I suppose they'll have black horses. I haven't seen anything back where I come from, so's I'd know just what is the fashionable thing. It'll be a fashionable funeral, won't it? He's a great big man, he is. Everybody knows him—and everybody don't know him; but I do—he's a devil I And women love him, always did love him, the fools! Why, I used to love him. You wouldn't think that now, would you? Well, I did." She laughed a broken cackle, and seemed surprised that her listener remained mute. "Did you love him?" demanded the crone sneeringly.
"Love him—love him?" exclaimed Mrs. Marteen, her emotions responding where her mind was unreceptive. "I hated him—I hated him!"
"Of course you hated him. How could a lady help hating him?" murmured the questioner. "But would you have the courage to kill him—that's what I want to know!"
Under the inquisition Mrs. Marteen half roused to consciousness. She was in the semi-lucid state of a sleepwalker.
"Kill him!" She held up her hands and looked at them as she had done after reading the account of the murder. "I'm not sure I didn't kill him; perhaps I did—I can't remember—I can't remember," she moaned more and more faintly.
"Don't you take the credit of that!" shouted the woman, so loudly that a young man who had been aimlessly walking up and down as if intent upon some rendezvous, stopped short to gaze at them keenly.
The older woman, with a movement so rapid that it seemed almost prestidigitation, lifted and threw back her companion's veil. The young man gave a start and approached hastily, amazement in every feature. But the two women were unaware of his presence, and what he next heard made him pause, turn, and by a slight detour come up close behind the bench.
"Keep your hands off. Don't you say you killed him. What right have you to take his life, I'd like to know! Don't let me hear you say that again—don't you dare! Just remember that killing him is my business. You sha'n't try to rob me—it's my right!" She leaned forward threateningly.
A hand closed over her wrist. The woman screamed.
"Hold on, Mother, none of that." The young man, still retaining his hold, came from behind the seat and stood over her.
She began to whimper and tremble. "Don't hit me," she begged pitifully. "Don't hit me, and I'll be good, indeed, I will."
Mrs. Marteen had taken no notice of her providential protector. Her head was sunk upon her breast and her hands hung limp in her lap.
The young man whistled twice, never relaxing his hold. A moment later a form detached itself from the group before the door of the house opposite, crossed the street and joined them quickly, yet with no impression of hurry.
"What's up?" the newcomer asked quietly.
"Here, take hold. Don't let her get away from you." With a glance round, he took a hypodermic needle from hi" pocket, and a quick prick in the wrist instantly quieted the struggling, captive. "Get a cab," he ordered, "and bring her over to my rooms. The utmost importance—not a sound to anybody. I've got my job cut out for me—no police in this, mind."
He turned, his manner all gentleness. "Mrs. Marteen—Mrs. Marteen," he repeated. She raised her head slightly. "Will you come with me? My name is Brencherly, and Mr. Gard sent me for you. Come."
She rose obediently. The name he had spoken seemed to inspire confidence, trust and peace, like a word of power; but her limbs refused to move, and she sank back again. Brencherly took her unresisting hand in his, felt her pulse and shook his head.
"Long!" he called. "Get a cab. I'll take Mrs. Marteen; stop somewhere and send a taxi back for you; it might look queer to see two of us with unconscious patients."
When his subordinate turned to go, Brencherly leaned toward the drugged woman, took the bundle from her listless hands and rapidly examined its contents. A coarse nightdress, a black waist and a worn and ragged empty wallet rewarded his search. He tied them up again, put the package in its place and turned once more to Mrs. Marteen. "She's a mighty sick woman," he murmured. "Well, it's home for hers, and then me for the old man."
A taxi drove up, and his assistant descended. With his help Brencherly half supported, half carried his charge to the curb.
Directing the chauffeur to stop at a nearby hotel before proceeding to Mrs. Marteen's apartment, he climbed in beside the patient, and as the machine gathered headway, murmured a fervent "Thank God!"
Mrs. Marteen lay back upon the cushioned seat inert and passive. In the flash of each passing street-light her face showed waxen pale, a cameo against the dark background; so drawn and pinched were her features, that Brencherly, in panic, seized her pulse, in order to assure himself that life had not already fled. Obedient to his orders the cab ran up to an hotel entrance, and Brencherly, leaning out, called the starter.
"Here!" he snapped, "send a taxi over to the park—the bench opposite No. —, and pick up a man with an old lady. She's unconscious."
For an instant the light glinted on his metal badge as he threw back his coat. The starter nodded. Brencherly settled back again in his place with a sigh of relief. It was only a matter of moments now, and he would have brought to an unexpectedly successful close the task he had set himself. He began to build air castles; to construct for himself a little niche in his own selected temple of Fame. He was aroused from his revery by a voice at his side. Mrs. Marteen was speaking, at first indistinctly, then with insistent repetition.
"I can't remember—I can't remember."
He turned to her with gentle questioning, but she did not heed him. Slowly, with infinite effort, as if her slender hands were weighted down, she lifted them before her face. She stared at them with growing horror depicted on her face. He was suddenly reminded of an electrifying performance of Macbeth he had once witnessed. A red glare from a ruby lamp at a fire-street corner splashed her frail fingers with vivid color as they passed it by. She gave a scream that ended in a moan, and mechanically wiped her hands back and forth, back and forth, upon her coat. Brencherly's heart ached for her. Over and over he repeated reassuring words in her deafened ears, striving to lay the awful ghost that had fastened like a vampire on her heart. But to no avail. She was as beyond his reach as if she were a creature of another planet. Never in his active, efficient life had he felt so helpless. It was with thanksgiving that at last he saw the ornate entrance of Mrs. Marteen's home.
"Watch her!" he ordered the chauffeur, as he leaped up the steps and into the vestibule to prepare for her reception.
A message to her apartment brought the maid and butler in haste. With many exclamations of alarm and sympathy they bore her to her own room once more, and laid her upon the bed. She lay limp and still, while they hurried about her with restoratives.
Brencherly was at the telephone. Almost at once, in answer to his ring, Doctor Balys' voice sounded over the wire in hasty congratulations and promises of immediate assistance. Hanging up the receiver, he turned again to his patient.
Through the silent apartment the sound of the doorbell buzzed with sudden shock. The butler stood as if transfixed.
"It's Miss Dorothy!" he exclaimed in consternation. "She went out to walk a little, with young Mr. Mahr. She was nervous and couldn't rest, and telephoned for him to come—in spite of—in spite of—" He hesitated. "Anyway, Mr. Mahr—young Mr. Mahr—came for her, sir. Mr.—Mr.—I think you'd better break it to her, sir. She mustn't see her mother like this—without warning!"
Brencherly ran down the hall, the servant preceding him. As the door swung wide, Dorothy, followed by Teddy Mahr, entered the hallway. She stopped suddenly, face to face with a stranger.
"Who are you? What do you want?" she asked, sudden fear and suspicion in her eyes.
Brencherly explained quickly.
"Mr. Gard employed me, Miss Marteen, to find your mother, if possible—and—she is here. Don't be alarmed."
Dorothy sank into a chair, weak with relief. Teddy put forth his hand to help her. Instinctively she remained clasping his arm as if his presence gave her strength.
"And she's all right—she isn't hurt—or—or anything?" she implored breathlessly.
"She's very ill, I'm afraid," said Brencherly. "I think you—had better not go to her till the doctor comes. I've sent for him."
"Oh! but I must—I must!" she cried, tears in her voice.
In the rush of happenings no one had thought of Mrs. Mellows. Hers was not a personality to commend itself in moments of stress. Now she suddenly appeared, her eyes swollen with sleep, her ample form swathed in a dressing gown.
"What is the matter?" she complained. "I told you, Dorothy, that I thought it very bad form, indeed, for you and Mr. Mahr to go out. In bereavements, such as yours, sir, it's not the proper thing for you to be making exhibitions of yourself. Like as not the reporters have been taking pictures. And at any time they may find out that my poor dear sister is ill and wandering. I don't know what to say! The papers will be full of it. And you!" she exclaimed, having for the first time become aware of the detective's presence. "Who are you. How did you get in? I hope and pray you're not a reporter!—Dorothy, don't tell me you've brought a reporter in here—or I shall leave this house at once!"
"No, Aunt, no!" cried Dorothy. "This—this gentleman, has brought my mother home. She's in her room now—she's—"
Mrs. Mellows turned and made a rush down the corridor. Four pairs of hands stayed her in her flight.
"No—no!" begged Dorothy. "This gentleman says she is very ill. We mustn't disturb her—Aunt—please—the doctor is coming."
As if the name had conjured him, a ring announced Doctor Balys' arrival. He entered hastily, his emergency bag in his hand.
"Mr. Brencherly, come with me, please," he ordered. "You can tell me the details as I work. Miss Marteen and Mrs. Mellows, wait for me, and I'll come and tell you the facts just as soon as I know them myself." He nodded unceremoniously and followed Brencherly.
As they neared Mrs. Marteen's room the silence was suddenly broken by a cry. Balys strode past his guide and threw open the door.
Mrs. Marteen, sitting erect in the bed, held out rigid arms as if in desperate appeal. The terrified maid stood by, wringing her hands.
"Gard!" she called. "Marcus Gard! help me! Tell me—I'll believe you—I'll believe you—will you tell me the truth!" Her strength left her suddenly, and as the physician placed a supporting arm about her, she sank back, her eyes closed wearily. As he laid her gently back upon the pillows, she sighed softly, her heavy lids unclosed a moment. "I knew you'd come," she murmured. "You'll take care of—of Dorothy—you will—" Her voice trailed off into nothingness; then "Marcus"—she whispered.
The two men turned away. Brencherly coughed. "Is there any hope?" he asked, breaking the tense silence that seemed suddenly to have entered the room like an actual presence.
The doctor nodded without speaking. "Yes—hope," he said at length, as he opened his leather satchel.
* * * * *
It was well into the small hours of the morning when Brencherly sought his own rooms in an inconspicuous apartment hotel, where he, his activities and, at times, strange companions, were not only tolerated, but welcomed. He was weary, but too excited and elated to desire sleep. He nodded to the friendly night clerk, and received a favorable response to his request, even at that unwholesome hour, for coffee and scrambled eggs to be served in his rooms.
He found Long, his assistant, slumbering sonorously in an armchair in the living-room of his modest suite. The open door to the chamber beyond, sufficiently indicated where his charge had been placed.
Long awoke, and stretched himself with a yawn.
"Three o'clock," he observed, with a glance at the mantel clock. "Made a good haul, hey? Well, your kidnapped beauty is in there, dead to the world. I tied her feet together before I went to sleep. You can't tell when they're going to come to, you know, and I thought it would be safer. Now, tell a feller, what's the dope?"
Brencherly entered the adjoining apartment without deigning an answer, switched on the lights and approached the bed. The wizen little woman, with her disheveled white hair and tumbled garments looked pitifully weak and helpless; her thin, claw-like hands clutching at the pillow in a childish pose. Her captor stared at her intently, his brain crowded with strange thoughts. Who was she? What was her history? He had his suspicions, but they all remained to be verified.
He took one of the emaciated wrists in his hand. How frail and small it was, and yet, perhaps, an instrument in the hands of Fate. She moved uneasily, and, glancing down, he noticed how securely she was bound. Leaning over, he loosened the curtain cord with which she had been secured. She sighed as if relieved, and, turning, he left her, as a discreet tapping at his door announced the coming of the meal he had ordered.
A night watchman in shirt sleeves brought in the tray softly and set it upon the table, with a glance of curiosity at the adjoining room. There was usually an interesting story to be gleaned from the guests that the detective brought.
"Come on," said the host eagerly, "fall on it, I'm starved."
"Anything I can do?" inquired the night watchman hopefully.
But Brencherly was still uncommunicative. "Nope, thanks."
"Yes. Good-night—or good-morning. Tell 'em down stairs I'm much obliged, as usual."
The two men ate heartily and in silence. It was not till the plates were scraped that either spoke. With the last sip of the soothing beverage Brencherly closed his eyes peacefully.
"Old man," he said, "this night's work is the best luck I've ever had. Now, tell me, did the lady say anything at any time? or did she remain as she is?"
"She didn't say much. Grumbled a little at being moved around; in fact, I thought she was coming out of it for a minute when we first got her in here. Then she straightened out for another lap of sleep. Here's her kit."
He rose as he spoke, and took from the mantel the package she had clung to during all her enforced journey. He untied the parcel, and both men bent over its meager contents. Though Brencherly had seen them under the wavering arc lights of Washington Square, he now gave each article the closest scrutiny. Nothing offered any clew, except the wallet. That, worn as it was, showed its costly texture, and the marks of careful mountings. It was unmistakably a man's wallet, and its flexibility denoted constant use. Brencherly set it on one side.
"Anything else?" he asked.
The other nodded. He had the most important find in reserve.
"These," he said, and drew from his pocket a bunch of newspaper clippings. He laid each one on the table. "Now, what do you think of that?" His lean, cadaverous face took on a look of satisfied cunning. If his colleague had not chosen to take him into his confidence, he could show him that he was quite capable of drawing his own inferences and making his own conclusions. He sat back and nonchalantly lit a cigarette.
There were at least twenty cuttings, of all sizes, from a half page from a Sunday supplement to a couple of lines from a financial column. But all bore the name of Victor Mahr more or less conspicuously displayed. Two scraps showed conclusively that they had been cherished and handled more than all the others. One was a sketch of the millionaire's country estate; the other, a reproduction from a photograph of his old-fashioned and imposing city residence.
"H'm!" said Brencherly. "It's pretty clear that she had a reason for occupying that park bench, hey? And she certainly has patronized the news bureau, or been a patient collector herself. See that?" He pushed forward the largest of the clippings. "That's three years old. I remember when that came out. It was after Teddy's sensational playing at the Yale-Harvard game. They had the limelight well turned on then, you remember. And that"—he smoothed another slip—"that announcement of his purchase of 'Allanbrae' is at least five years old. She's been treasuring all this for a long time. Where did you find them?"
"When I put her on the bed," Long replied, "her collar seemed to be choking her, so I loosened it, and a button or two. There was a pink string around her throat and a little old chamois bag—like you might put a turnip-watch in. I took it in here and found—that stuff—what do you think?"
"I think that we're getting near the answer to something we all want to know," said Brencherly. "But it means a lot to a lot of people to keep the police off—for the present. I want to be sure."
"How do you suppose she got in?" said Long, insinuatingly.
"Don't know yet—but we'll find that out. Meantime, don't use the telephone for anything you have to say to anybody. And the other woman, let me tell you, has nothing to do with this case. I'll tell you now, before your curiosity makes you make a fool of yourself—she's been hunted for high and low, because she's had aphasia—forgets who she is, and all that, every once in a while, and her people have been offering a reward. Just happened to make a double haul, that's all. But you don't get in on the first one. Now are you satisfied?" Brencherly looked at his companion quizzically.
Long grunted. He was rather annoyed at having the occurrence so simply explained.
"Oh, well," he yawned, "you're on this case, and I'm only your lobbygow; so I suppose I've got to let it go at that. But, say, I'm tired. Let's turn in, or, if you don't want me in your joint, I'll go down stairs and get them to bunk me somewhere in the dump." He rose. "I suppose they'll fix me up?"
Brencherly went to the telephone and spoke for a moment. "All right," he said; "they'll give you number seventy-three on this floor. I want you to do something for me to-morrow, so set the bellboy for eight o'clock, will you?" A moment later he turned his assistant over to the hotel roundsman, and turned to his own well earned rest. Making a neat packet of the clippings, he stowed them away once more in their worn receptacle—he hesitated, then nodded to himself, having decided to replace them. He must gain this woman's confidence. She must not be made suspicious. Above all, her anger must not be roused. She might become stubborn and uncommunicative. He stepped into the adjoining room and turned on the electrics. The quick flash of the light made him shut his eyes. When he opened them he gave a cry of dismay. The tumbled bed was empty—the window stood wide open. It flashed into his mind, that as he had talked with Long over the incriminating bits of paper, he had felt a draft of air; but his knowledge that his captive was securely tied had eliminated from his mind any idea of the possibility of an attempt at escape. Then, cursing himself, he recalled how he had loosened the cords about her ankles. With a bound he was at the window, looking down at the spidery threads of fire escape ladders, leading down to the utter dark of the service alley.
"My God!" he exclaimed aloud. "My God!" He feared to find a crushed and broken little body at the foot of those steep iron ladders. It seemed impossible for such a frail and aged woman to have, unaided, made her way down the sides of that inky precipice. "Good Lord!" he exclaimed again, "if only she isn't killed!" He stood looking out, leaning as far over the iron railing as he dared, waiting till his eyes should become accustomed to the darkness. Gradually the details of the structure became clear to his vision. No ominous dark mass took shape on the pavement, far beneath. He could vaguely make out the contours of an ash can or two and an abandoned wheelbarrow. But the alley from end to end held no human form. She had succeeded in making her escape! Then at all costs he must find her; and the police must not get hold of her. The evidence of the clippings, her angry words as she prepared to attack Mrs. Marteen—all outlined a possible solution to the tragedy in Washington Square.
He hesitated a moment. His first impulse was to descend the fire escapes in turn and look below for further trace of her going. But he realized that he could reach the alley quicker by going through the house. He cursed himself for a careless fool. How could he have allowed this to happen!
He turned quickly, intent on losing no further moments, when he was frozen into immobility by a sound, the most curiously unexpected of all sounds—a laugh, a faint treble chuckle! It seemed to come from the outer air, from nowhere, to hang suspended in the damp air of the shaft. It was eerie, ghostly. Was the spirit of the dead man laughing at his folly? The detective stepped back on the grating, flattening himself against the outer sill of his window. Again the chuckler—now an unmistakable laugh floated to his ears. With a smothered exclamation he stepped forward again, and looked upward. There, against the violet-gray of the star-sprinkled sky, bulked a crouching shape, cuddled on the landing above.
Brencherly held his breath. It seemed that the woman must fall from her perch, so insecure it seemed. He controlled himself, thinking rapidly. Then he laughed in return.
"That was a good joke you played on me," he said. "How did you ever think of it?"
"Oh," came the answer, punctuated by smothered peals of laughter. "That's the way I got away from the Sanatorium. I just went up instead of down, and stayed there, till they'd hunted all the place over. Then when I saw where they weren't, I just went down and walked out."
"That was clever," he exclaimed. "But you can't be comfortable up there. Won't you come down, and I'll get something for you to eat. You must be hungry, and cold, too."
"No," came the response. "I sort of like it here. It reminds me of the way I fooled them all back there; and they thinking themselves that sharp, too. It's sort of nice, too, looking at the stars—sort of feels like a bird in a nest, don't it?"
"I hope to goodness, she don't take it into her head she can fly," thought Brencherly. Aloud he said: "Say, do you mind if I come up there and sit with you a while? I'm sort of lonesome here myself." He had already moved silently forward, and was slowly mounting the iron ladder—very slowly, a rung at a time, talking all the while in a cordial, friendly voice. He feared she might take fright and precipitate herself to the stones below. But her mood was otherwise.
"I don't mind," she said. "I don't seem to know just how I got here, and perhaps you can tell me. I just woke up and found myself sleepin' on somebody's bed. I thought at first that I was back in the ward, when I found my feet was tied up. Then when I got loose and had time to feel around, I saw 'twas some strange place. Then the fire escapes sort of looked nice and cool, so I came out."
By this time her visitor had climbed beside her and had seated himself on the landing in such fashion that no move of hers could dislodge either of the strange couple. He noted with relief that they were outside of a door instead of a window, as was the case on all the floors below. The drying roof of the hotel only was above them. He did not wish this extraordinary interview to be interrupted. His airy nest-mate seemed amenable to conversation.
"Well, well!" he resumed, "so that was the way you worked it. Wouldn't that make the doctor mad, though—what was the old duffer's name, anyway? You did tell me, but I've got such a poor memory—now, yours is good, I'll bet a hat."
"Well," she said, "'tain't what it used to be, but I'll never forget old Malbey's name as long as I live, nor what he looks like, either. He looks like a potato with sprouts for eyes."
Brencherly laughed. He had a very clear, if unflattering, picture of the learned physician.
"But, say," she cried suddenly, "you're not trying to get me, are you?"
"Oh, I'm no friend of the doctor's," he said easily. "Why, I brought you up here to hide you away safely. That was one of my rooms you woke up in. You see, I found you on a bench in the park out there, and you went to sleep so suddenly right while I was talking to you, that I thought you must be tired out."
She leaned forward, peering at him through the dusk. Her white pinched face looked skull-like in the faint light.
"Yes," she said slowly, "seems to me that I remember some woman saying she killed Victor Mahr, and me getting angry about it—and then I don't seem to know just what happened. Well, young man, I'm much obliged to you, I'm sure. 'Tain't often an old woman like me gets so well taken care of."
"But why," he questioned softly, "were you so annoyed with the other lady? She had just as much right as you had, I suppose, to kill the gentleman?"
"She had not!" she shrilled. "She had not!" Then lowering her voice to a whisper, she murmured confidentially: "My name ain't Welles!"
"Why, Mrs. Welles," he exclaimed, "how can you say so? If you aren't Mrs. Welles, who are you?"
"Just as if you didn't know!" she retorted scornfully.
"Well, perhaps," he admitted. "But never mind that now. Do you know that you lost your bag of clippings?"
Her hand flew to her breast. "Now, gracious me! How could I?"
"Oh, don't worry about them," he soothed. "I've got them all in my room. You shall have them again. Don't you want to come down and get them?" He was cramped and chilled to the bone; moreover, the stars had paled, and a misty fog of floating, impalpable crystal was slowly crossing the oblong of sky left visible by the edifices on both sides of the alley. He waited anxiously for her to reply, but she seemed lost in thought. He looked at her closely. She was asleep, her head resting against the blistered paneling of the door. He shifted his position slightly, and gazed at the coming of the dawn. Gradually the crystal white gave place to faintest violet, then flushed to rose color. The details of the coping above them became sharply distinct. Below them the canyon was full of blue shadow, but already the depths were becoming translucent. He looked at his strange companion. Should he wake her, he wondered. Softly he tried the door. It was locked from within. If he allowed her to slumber in peace, she might, on awakening, be terrified at the visible depths below. Now, all was vague in the blue canyon.
Very gently he pressed her hand and called her. "Mrs. Welles."
She awoke with such a violent start that for an agonized instant he felt his hold slipping. He held her firmly, however, and steadied her with voice and hand.
"Let's go indoors," he said quite casually. "You see if we sit here much longer, it's growing light, and people will see us. Then it won't be easy for me to keep you hidden. Now, if you'll just turn about and let me go first, I'll get you down quite easily and nobody the wiser for our outing."
She looked at him for a moment as if puzzled, then her brow cleared. "Very well, young man," she said. "I must have had a nap. Now, how do you want me to turn?"
He showed her, and with his arms on the outside of the ladder, her body next the rungs—as he had often seen the firemen make their rescues, he slowly steadied her to the landing below and assisted her in at the window.
With a sigh of relief he closed the window behind them and drew down the blinds.
"Now! that's all right, Mrs. Mahr. You're quite safe."
She turned on him her beady eyes and laughed her shrill chuckle. "There, didn't I tell you, you knew all the time? I guess you'll own up that it's the wife who's got the right to kill a husband, won't you?"
"Sure," he said. "I'll see that nobody else gets the credit, believe me!"
* * * * *
With Dorothy clinging to his hand, Marcus Gard watched the door of Mrs. Marteen's library with an ever-growing anxiety. Only the presence of the child, who clasped his hand in such fear and grief, kept him from giving way. The long reign of terror that had dragged his heart and mind to the very edge of martyrdom had worn thin his already exhausted nerves, and now—now that the lost was found again, it was to learn by what a slender thread of life they held her with them.
Every moment he could spare from the demands of his responsibilities was spent in close companionship with Dorothy in the house where only the sound of soft-footed nurses, the clink of a spoon in a medicine glass or the tread of the doctor mounting the stairs broke the waiting silence. For many days she had not known them. Now came intervals of consciousness and coherence, but weakness so great that the two anxious watchers, unused to illness, were appalled by the change it wrought. Now for the twentieth time they sat longing for and yet fearing the moment when Dr. Balys, with his friendly eyes and grim mouth, would enter to them with the tale of his last visit and his hopes or fears for the next.
The lamps were lighted, the shades drawn; the fire crackled quietly on the hearth. The room was filled with the familiar perfume of violets, for Dorothy, true to her mother's custom, kept every vase filled with them.
Silently Gard patted the little cold hand in his, as the sound of approaching footsteps warned them of the doctor's coming. In silence they saw the door open, and welcomed with a throb of relief the smile on the physician's face.
"A great, a very great improvement," he said quickly, in answer to Dorothy's supplicating eyes. "Quite wonderful. She is a woman of such extraordinary character that, once conscious, we can count on her own great will to save the day for us—and to-morrow you shall both see her. To-night, little girl, you may go in and kiss her, very quietly—not a word, you know. Just a kiss and go."
"Now?" whispered Dorothy, as if she were already in the sick room. "May I go now?"
"Yes. No tears, you know, and no huggings—just one little kiss—and then come back here."
Dorothy flew from the room, light and soundless as blown thistledown. The doctor turned to his friend.
"There is something troubling her," he said gravely, "something that is eating at her heart. Ordinarily I wouldn't consent to anyone seeing her so soon; but she called for you in her delirium; and now that she is conscious, she whispers that she must consult you. Perhaps you can relieve her trouble, whatever it is. I'm going to chance it; after Dorothy has seen her, you may. I don't know exactly what to say, but—well, answer the question in her eyes, if you can—but only a moment—only give her relief. She must have no excitement."
"I think I know," he said slowly.
The doctor nodded in understanding, as the girl appeared, her face drawn by emotion.
"Oh, poor mother!" she gasped. "She seemed—so—I don't know why—grateful—to me—thanked me for coming to her—thanked me, Dr. Balys, as if I wasn't longing every minute to be with her! She is not quite over her delirium yet, do you think?"
Balys smiled. "Of course she is grateful to see you. Your mother has been very close to the Great Divide, and she, more than any of us, realizes it. Now," he said, turning to Gard, "go in and make your little speech; and, mind you, say your word and go. No conversation with my patient."
Gard stood up, excitement gripping him. He was to see her eyes again, open and understanding. He was to hear her voice in coherent tones once more! The realization of this wonder thrilled him. He went to her presence as some saint of old went to the altar, where, in a dream, the vision of miracle had been promised him. All the pain and torture of the past seemed nothing in the light of this one thing—that she was herself again, to meet him hand to hand and eye to eye. He entered the quiet room and crossed its dimly lighted spaciousness to the bed. The nurse rose tactfully and busied herself among the bottles on the distant dresser.
At last, after the ordeal that they had gone through, in the lonely, hollow torture chamber of the heart, they met, and knew. With a sigh of understanding, she moved her waxen fingers, and, comprehending her gesture, he took her hand and held it, striving to impart to her weakness something of his own vigor. For a moment they remained thus. Then into her eyes, where at first great repose had shone, there came a gleam of questioning. He leaned close above her to catch her whispered words.
"She doesn't know?"
"No," he answered. "Dorothy came to me with his letter. I got everything from the safe, and I sent her away so no further messages might reach her. Now do you see?"
She looked up at him.
Again he took her hand in his and strove to give it life, as a transfusion of blood is given through the veins.
There was silence for a moment. Then her white lips framed a request.
"Bring them—all the things from the inner safe—bring them to-morrow to me." Her eyes turned toward the fire that glowed on the hearth.
He comprehended her intention.
"To-morrow," he murmured, and, turning, softly left the room. With a few words to Dorothy he hurried from the house.
Instinctively he turned to seek the sanctuary of his library, but paused ere he gave the order to his chauffeur. No, before he could call the day complete, there was something else to do. He gave the address of the house on Washington Square. The mansion, as the limousine drew up before it, looked dark, almost deserted. He mounted the steps slowly, his mind crowded with memories—with what burning hatred in his heart he had come to face the owner of that house, to disarm Victor Mahr of his revengeful power. With what primeval elation he had stood upon that topmost step and drawn long breaths of satisfaction at the thought of the encounter in which, with his own hands he had laid his enemy low! Its thrill came to him anew. Again he recalled the hurried purposeful visit that had ended with his finding the enemy passed forever beyond his reach. Vividly he saw before him the silent room—soft lighted, remotely quiet; the waxen hand of a man contrasting with the scarlet damask of a huge winged chair, that hid the face of its owner. And more distinct than all else, staring from the surrounding darkness of the walls, the glorious, palpitating semblance of a warrior of long ago. The strangely living lips, the dusky hollows where thoughtful eyes gleamed darkling. The glint of armor half covered by velvet and fur. A gloved hand that seemed to caress a sword hilt, that caught one crashing ruby light upon its pommel—the matchless Heim Vandyke—the silent, attentive watcher who had seen his sacking of the dead; who seemed, with those deep eyes of understanding, to realize and know it all—the futile clash of human wills, the little day of love and hate, the infinite mercy, and the inexorable law.
Gard paused, his hand upon the bell. Now at last he could enter this house, and wish it peace. His errand, even the all-comprehending eyes of the dead and gone warrior could look upon without their half-cynic sadness.
As he entered the great silent hall, where the footfalls of the servant were hushed, as if overawed by tragedy, he seemed to leave behind him, as distinctly as he discarded the garment he gave into the lackey's hands, the bitterness of the past. He was ushered into a small and elaborate waiting room to the right. And a moment later Teddy Mahr entered to him, with extended hands.
The boy had aged. His face was white and drawn, but the eyes that looked into Gard's face were courageous and clear.
"Thank you for coming," he said frankly. "Shall we sit here, or—in Father's room?" His mouth twitched slightly. "It really must be part of the house, you know. It was his workshop—and I want it to be mine in the future. I haven't been in there since, and, somehow, if you don't mind, sir, I'd like you to come with me—to be with me, when I first go back."
Gard nodded and smiled rather grimly. "Yes, boy—I'd like to myself. I would have asked it of you, but I feared to awaken memories that were too painful for you. Let us go in. What I have to talk over with you concerns him, too."
They crossed the hall, and Teddy unlocked the heavy door and paused to find the switch. The anteroom sprung into light. In silence they crossed the intervening space to the inner door, which was in turn unlocked.
As the soft lights were once more renewed, Gard started, so vividly had he reconstructed the scene as he had last looked upon it, with that hasty yet detailed scrutiny of the stage manager. He was almost surprised to find the great damask-covered easy chair untenanted, and order restored to the length and breadth of the library table. Involuntarily his eyes sought the wall behind the desk, where the panoply of ancient arms glinted somberly, then scanned the polished surface of the wood in search of what?—of the stiletto that was a foil in miniature. Somehow, though he knew that it, along with other relics of that dreadful passing, were in charge of the officials of the law, he had expected to see it there. Something of the impermanence of life and the indifferent, soulless permanence of things, flashed through his mind. "Art and art alone, enduring, stays to us," he quoted the words aloud unconsciously. "The bust outlasts the throne, the coin—Tiberius." His eyes were fixed upon the picture, which, though thrown in no relief by the unlighted globes above it, yet in its very obscurity, dominated the room with its all but unseen presence.
"Oh, no, not that alone," Teddy Mahr objected. "Don't you think we live on, in what we have done, in what we have been, in what we desire to do?"
Gard was silent. The words seemed irony. "I believe," he said slowly, "that the end is not yet. I believe that we are each accountable for our individual being. I believe that every one of us is his brother's keeper." He was silent. His own short, newly evolved credo, surprised him.
Teddy crossed to the great armchair, and laid his hand on it reverently.
"It was here his Fate found him," he said with quiet self-control. "Where will Fate find me—or you—I wonder?"
"Fate has found me," said Gard. "Death isn't the only thing that Fate means, but Life also; and it's of Life I came to speak to you—as well as the Past, that we must realize is—the Past. Of course, you know what has been learned—something about what happened here. Now, I want to tell you of my plans. I want, if possible, to keep things quiet—Oh, it's only comparatively speaking—but we can avoid a great deal of publicity, if you will let me handle the matter. It's for your sake, and I'm sure your father would desire it—and—pardon me, if I presume on grounds I'm not supposed to know anything of—but for Dorothy's, too. Dorothy may have to face bereavement too. Publicity, details, the nine days' wonder—it's all unpleasant, distressing. I have arranged to see the District Attorney to-morrow night. He can, if he will, materially aid us. This poor insane woman has delusions that it would be painful for you to even know. It would certainly be most unfortunate if she were tried or examined in public. I'd rather you didn't come—did not even see her at any time. Will you trust me? You have a perfect right to do otherwise, I know—but—will you believe me when I say I've given this my best thought, and I believe I am giving you the best advice?"
He stood very erect, speaking with formality, with a certainly stilted, "learned by rote" manner, very different from his usual fiery utterances.
Teddy respected his mood and bowed with courtly deference. "You were my father's friend," he said. "You were the last to be with him. I know you are giving me the wisest advice a wise man can give, and I accept it gratefully, Mr. Gard—for myself, and father and for Dorothy, too."
The older man held out his hand. Their clasp was strong and responsive. There were tears in Teddy's eyes, and he turned his head away quickly.
"Then," said Gard briskly, "it is understood. You also know and realize why I have kept the whole matter under seal. Why I have secreted this poor demented creature, have kept even you in ignorance of her whereabouts. Oh, I know I have had your consent all along; I know you have given me your complete trust long before this; but to-night I wanted your final cooperation in the hardest task of all—to acquiesce, while in ignorance, to permit matters that concern you, and you alone most truly and deeply, to be placed in the hands of others. I thank you for your faith, boy. God bless you."
Teddy saw his guest to the door, stood in the entry watching him descend to the street and his car, and turned away with a sigh. He reentered the room they had left, and stood for a moment in grave thought. He sighed again as he plunged the apartment in darkness and, leaving, locked the doors one after the other. Something, some very vital part of his existence was shut behind him forever. There were questions that he might not ask himself—there were veils he must not lift—there was a door in his heart, the door to the shrine of a dead man—it must be locked forever, if he would keep it a sanctuary.
In the hall once more, he turned toward the entrance; his thoughts again with the strong, kindly presence of the man who had just left him. He wondered why he had never realized the vast, unselfish human force in Gard. "What an indomitable soul," he said softly. "I must have been very blind."
* * * * *
The following day found Marcus Gard at the usual morning hour in conference with Dorothy. The girl was radiant. The nurses had reported a splendid sleep and a calm awakening. She had been allowed a moment with her mother, whose voice was no longer faint, but was regaining its old vibrant quality.
The doctor entered smiling and grasped Gard's extended hand.
"You said it," he laughed. "Whatever it was, you said it, all right. Mrs. Marteen slept like a child, and there's color in her face to-day. See if you can do as well again. I'll give you five minutes—no, ten."
Preceded by the doctor, he once more found his way through the velvet-hushed corridors to the softly lighted bedroom, where lay the woman who had absorbed his every thought. Her eyes, as they met his, were bright with anxiety, and her glance at the doctor was almost resentful. But it was not part of the physician's plan to interfere with any confidence that might relieve the patient's mind. With a casual nod to Mrs. Marteen, he called to the nurse and led her from the room, his finger rapidly tapping the sick-room chart, as if medical directions were first in his mind.
Left alone, Gard approached the bed, and in answer to the unspoken question in her eyes, fumbled in his pocket and brought forth the thin packets of letters and the folded yellow cheques. One by one he laid them where her hands could touch them. He dared not look at her. He felt that her newly awakened soul was staring from her eyes at the mute evidence of a degrading past.
A moment passed in silence that seemed a year of pain; then, without a sob, without a sigh, she slowly handed him a bundle of papers, withholding them only a moment as she verified the count; then, with a slight movement she indicated the fireplace. He crossed to it and placed the papers on the coals, where they flared a moment, casting wavering shadows about the silent room, and died to black wisps. Again and again he made the short journey from the bed to the grate; each time she verified the contents of the envelopes before delivering them to his hand.
Last of all the two yellow cheques crisped to ashes. He stood looking down upon them as they dropped and collapsed into cinders, and from their ashes rose the phoenix of happiness. A glow of joyful relief lighted his spirit. There, in those dead ashes, lay a dead past—a past that might have been the black future, but was now relinquished forever, voluntarily—gone—gone! He realized a supreme moment, a turning point. Fate looked him in the eyes.
He turned, and saw a face transfigured. There was a light in Mrs. Marteen's eyes that matched the glow in his own heart. Very reverently he raised her hand and kissed it; two sudden tears fell hot upon her cheeks and her lips quivered.
He had never seen her show emotion, and it went to his heart. He saw her gaze at her hands with dilating eyes, and divined before she spoke the question she whispered:
"Who killed Victor Mahr?"
He bent above her gravely. "His wife. The wife he had cruelly wronged—his wife, who escaped at last from an asylum. She is quite mad—now. She is in our hands, and to-night, at eleven o'clock, the district attorney will be at my house to see her and have the evidence laid before him—to save Teddy," he added quickly.
She looked at him wildly. "His wife—the wife that I—"
He took her hand quickly. He feared to hear the words that he knew she was about to say.
"Yes," he nodded. "Yes—she killed him."
Mrs. Marteen sank slowly back upon her pillows and lay with closed eyes. A heavy pulse beat in the arteries at her throat, and a scarlet spot burned on either cheek.
"Nemesis," she murmured. "Nemesis." She lay still for a moment. "Thank God!" she said at length, and let her hands fall relaxed upon the counterpane. She seemed as if asleep but for the quick intake of her breath.
Gard gazed upon her with infinite tenderness, yet with sudden bitter consciousness of the isolation of each individual soul. She was remote, withdrawn. Even his eager sympathy could not reach the depths of her self-tortured heart. But now at last he knew her, a completed being. The soul was there, palpitant, awake. The something he had so sorely missed was the living and real presence of spirit. It came over him in a wave of realization that he, too, had been unconscious of his own higher self until his love had made him feel the need of it in her. They two, from the depths of self-satisfied power, had gone blindly in their paths of self-seeking—till each had awakened the other. A strange, retarded spiritual birth.
He looked back over his long career of remorseless success with something of the self-horror he had read in her eyes as he had placed the incriminating papers in her frail hands. And as she had cast contamination from her, so he promised himself he would thrust predatory greed from his own life. They were both born anew. They would both be true to their own souls.
* * * * *
The softened electric light suffused a glamour of glowing color over the rich brocade of the walls of Marcus Gard's library, catching a glint here and there on iridescent plaques, or a mellow high light on the luscious patine of an antique bronze. The stillness, so characteristic of the place, seemed to isolate it from the whole world, save when a distant bell musically announced the hour.
Brencherly sat facing his employer, respecting his anxious silence, while they waited the coming of the district attorney, to whose clemency they must appeal—surely common humanity would counsel protective measures, secrecy, in the proceeding of the law. The links in the chain of evidence were now complete, but more than diplomacy would be required in order to bring about the legal closing of the affair without precipitating a scandal. Gard's own hasty actions led back to his fear for Mrs. Marteen, that in turn involved the cause of that suspicion. To convince the newsmongers that the crime was one of an almost accidental nature, he felt would be easy. An escaped lunatic had committed the murder. That revenge lay behind the insane act would be hidden. If necessary, the authorities of the asylum could be silenced with a golden gag—but the law?
Neither of the two men, waiting in the silent house, underestimated the importance of the coming interview.
The night was already far spent, and the expected visitor still delayed. At length the pale secretary appeared at the door to announce his coming.
Gard rose from his seat, and extended a welcoming hand to gray-haired, sharp-featured District Attorney Field.
Brencherly bowed with awkward diffidence.
Gard's manner was ease and cordiality itself, but his heart misgave him. So much depended upon the outcome of this meeting. He would not let himself dwell upon its possibilities, but faced the situation with grim determination.
"Well, Field," he said genially, "let me thank you for coming. You are tired, I know. I'm greatly indebted to you, but I'm coming straight to the point. The fact is, we," and he swept an including gesture toward his companion, "have the whole story of Victor Mahr's death. Brencherly is a detective in my personal employ." Field bowed and turned again to his host. "The person of the murderer is in our care," Gard continued. "But before we make this public—before we draw in the authorities, there are things to be considered."
He paused a moment. The district attorney's eyes had snapped with surprise.
"You don't mean to tell me," he said slowly, "that you have the key to that mystery! Have you turned detective, Mr. Gard? Well, nothing surprises me any more. What was the motive? You've learned that, too, I suppose?"
"Insanity," said Gard shortly.
"Revenge," said the detective.
"Suppose," said Gard, "a crime were committed by a totally irresponsible person, would it be possible, once that fact was thoroughly established, to keep investigation from that person; to conduct the matter so quietly that publicity, which would crush the happiness of innocent persons, might be avoided?"
"It might," said the lawyer, "but there would have to be very good and sufficient reasons. Let's have the facts, Mr. Gard. An insane person, I take it, killed Mahr. Who?"
"His wife." Gard had risen and stood towering above the others, his face set and hard as if carved in flint.
Field instinctively recoiled. "His wife!" he exclaimed. "Why, man alive, you are the madman. His wife died years ago."
"No," said Gard. "Teddy Mahr's mother died. His wife is living, and is in that next room."
"What's the meaning of this?" Field demanded.
"A pretty plain meaning," Gard rejoined. "The woman escaped from the asylum where she was confined. According to her own story, she had kept track of her husband from the newspapers. Mahr couldn't divorce her, but he married again, secure in his belief that his first marriage would never be discovered. Mad as she was, she knew the situation, and she planned revenge. Dr. Malky, of the Ottawa Asylum, is here. We sent for him. The woman has been recognized by Mahr's butler as the one he admitted. There is no possible doubt. And her own confession, while it is incomplete in some respects, is nevertheless undoubtedly true.
"But, Field, this woman is hopelessly demented. There is nothing that can be done for her. She must be returned to the institution. I want to keep the knowledge of her identity from Mahr's son. Why poison the whole of his young life; why wreck his trust in his father? Convince yourself in every way, Mr. Field, but the part of mercy is a conspiracy of silence. Let it be known that an escaped lunatic did the killing—a certain unknown Mrs. Welles—and let Brencherly give the reporters all they want. For them it's a good story, anyway—such facts as these, for instance: he happened by in time to see an attack upon another woman on a bench opposite Mahr's house, and to hear her boast of her acts. But I ask as a personal favor that the scandal be avoided. Brencherly, tell what happened."
The detective looked up. "There was an old story—our office had had it—that Mahr was a bigamist. In searching for a motive for the crime, I hit on that. I had all our data on the subject sent up to me. I found that our informant stated that Mahr had a wife in an asylum somewhere. That gave me a suspicion. I found from headquarters that there were two escapes reported, and one was a woman. She had broken out of a private institution in Ottawa. I got word from there that her bills had been paid by a lawyer here—Twickenbaur. I already knew that he was Mr. Mahr's confidential lawyer. But all this I looked up later, after I'd found the woman. You see, Mr. Gard is employing me on another matter, and after he returned from Washington, I gave my report to him here.
"Then I went over to Mahr's house. I had a curiosity to go over the ground. It was quite late at night, and I was standing in the dark, looking over the location of the windows, when I saw a woman acting strangely. She was threatening and talking loudly, crying out that she had a right to kill him. I sneaked up behind just in time to stop her attack on another woman who was seated on the same bench, and who seemed too ill to defend herself. Well, sir, I had to give her three hypos before I could take her along. Then I got her to my rooms, and when she came around, she told me the story. Of course, sir, you mustn't expect any coherent narrative, though she is circumstantial enough. Then I brought over the butler, and he identified her at once. Mr. Gard advised me not to notify the police until he had seen you. We got the doctor from the asylum here as quickly as possible. He's with her in there now."
The attorney sat silent a moment, nodding his head slowly. "I'll see her, Gard," he said at length. "This is a strange story," he added, as Brencherly disappeared into the anteroom.
Field's eyes rested on Gard's face with keen questioning, but he said nothing, for the door opened, admitting the black-clad figure of a middle-aged woman, escorted by a trained nurse and a heavily built man of professional aspect.
"This is—" Field asked, as his glance took in every detail of the woman's appearance.
"Mrs. Welles, as she is known to us," the doctor answered; "but she used to tell us that that was her maiden name, and she married a man named Mahr. We didn't pay much attention to what she said, of course, but she was forever begging old newspapers and pointing out any paragraphs about Mr. Victor Mahr, saying she was his wife."
Field gazed at the ghastly pallor of the woman's face, the maze of wrinkles and the twinkling brightness of her shifting eyes, as she stood staring about her unconcernedly. Her glance happened upon Brencherly. Her lips began to twitch and her hands to make signals, as if anxious to attract his attention. She writhed toward him.
"Young man," she whispered audibly, "they've got me—I knew they would. Even you could not keep me so hidden they couldn't find me." She jerked an accusing thumb over her shoulder at the corpulent bulk of her erstwhile jailer. "They've been trying to make me tell how I got out; but I won't tell. I may want to do it again, you see, and you won't tell."
"But," said Brencherly soothingly, "you don't want to get out now, you know. You've no reason to want to get out."
She nodded, as if considering his statement seriously.
"Of course, since I've got Victor out of the way, I don't much care. And I had awful trouble to steal enough money to get about with. Why, I had to pick ever so many pockets, and I do hate touching people; you never can tell what germs they may have." She shook out her rusty black skirt as if to detach any possible contagion.
"But, why," the incisive voice of the attorney inquired, "did you want to kill Victor Mahr?"
"Why?" she screamed, her body suddenly stiffening. "Suppose you were his wife, and he locked you up in places, and made people call you Mrs. Welles, while he went swelling around everywhere, and making millions! What'd you do? And besides, it wasn't only that, you see. I knew, being his wife, that he was a devil—oh, yes, he was; you needn't look as if you didn't believe it. But I soon learned that when I said I was 'Mrs. Victor Mahr' in the places he put me into, they laughed at me, the way they do at my roommate, who says she's a sideboard and wants to hold a tea-set."
"Tell these gentlemen how cleverly you traced him," suggested Brencherly.
"Oh, I knew where he lived and what he was doing well enough." She bridled with conscious conceit; "I read the papers and I had it all written down. So when I got out and stole the money, I knew just where to go. But he's foxy, too. I knew I'd have to make him see me. So I stole some of the doctor's letterhead paper, and I wrote on it, 'Important news from the Institution'—that's what he likes to call his boarding house—an institution." She laughed. "It worked!" she went on as she regained her breath. "I just sent that message, and they let me go right in. 'Well, what is it—what is it?' Victor said, just like that." Her tones of mimicry were ghastly. She paused a moment, then broke out:
"Now you won't believe it, but I hadn't the slightest idea what I was going to kill him with when I went in there—I really didn't. The doctor will tell you himself that I'm awfully forgetful. But there, spread out before him, he had a whole collection of weapons, just as if he should say, 'Mamie, which'll you have?' I couldn't believe my eyes; so I said first thing, 'Why, you were expecting me!' He heard my voice, and his eyes opened wide; and I thought: 'If I don't do it now, he'll raise the house.' So I grabbed the big pistol and hit him! I'm telling you gentlemen all this, because I don't want anyone else to get the credit. There was a woman I met on a bench, and I just was sure she was going to take all the credit, but I told her that was my business. I hate people who think they can do everything. There's a woman across my hall who says she can make stars—" She broke off abruptly as for the first time she became aware of Gard's presence in the room. "Why, there you are!" she exclaimed delightedly. "Now, that's good! You can tell these people what you found."
"But Mr. Mahr was stabbed, Mrs. Welles," Gard interrupted. "You said you struck him with a pistol."
"Oh, I did that afterward." She took up the thread of her narrative. "I selected the place very carefully, and pushed the knife way in tight. I hate the sight of blood, and I sort of thought that'd stop it, and it did. Then, dear me, I had a scare. There's a picture in that room as live as life, and I looked up, and saw it looking at me. So I started to run out, but somebody was coming, so in the little room off the big one I got behind a curtain. Then this gentleman went through the room where I was, and into the room where he was. But he shut the door, and I couldn't see what he thought of it. After a while he came out and said 'good-night' to me, though how he knew I was there I can't guess. So I waited a very long time, till everything was quiet, and then I went back and sat with him. It did me good just to sit and look at him; and every little while I'd lift his coat to see if the little sword was still there. The room was awful messy, and I tidied it up a bit. Then when dawn about came, I got up and walked out. I had a sort of idea of getting back to the institution without saying anything, because I was afraid they'd punish me."
"Why did you rob Mr. Mahr?" asked Mr. Field.
"Rob nothing!" she retorted.
"But his jewels, his watch," the attorney continued, his eyes riveted on her face with compelling earnestness. The woman gave an inarticulate growl. "But," interposed Brencherly, "I found his wallet in your package." He took from his pocket a worn and battered leather pocketbook and held it toward her.
"Oh," she answered indifferently, "I just took it for a souvenir. In fact, I came back for it—last thing."
Brencherly shrugged his shoulders expressively. Gard sat far back in his chair, his face in shadow.
"How long has it been, Mrs. Welles, since you—accomplished your purpose?" he asked slowly.
"You know as well as I do," she cried angrily.
"You were there. It was yesterday—no, the day before."
"It was just a week ago we found her," Brencherly said in a low voice. "I had to look up everything and verify everything."
"You don't think I did it?" she burst out angrily. "Well, I'll prove it. I tell you I did, and I thought it all out carefully, although the doctor says I can't think connectedly. I'll show him." She fumbled in the breast of her dress for a moment, and brought out her cherished handful of newspaper clippings, which she cast triumphantly upon the table. "There's all about him from the papers, and a picture of the house. Why, I'd 'a' been a fool not to find him, and I had to. Oh, yes, I suppose, as the doctor says, I'm queer; but I wasn't when he first began sending me away—no, indeed. I wasn't good enough for him, that was all; and I was far from home, and hadn't a friend, and he had money. Oh, he was clever—but he's the devil. He used to file his horns off so people wouldn't see, but I know. So, I'll tell you everything, except how I got away. There's somebody else I may want to find." She glanced with infinite cunning at Brencherly, and began her finger signals as if practicing a dumb alphabet of which he alone knew the key.
"Where did you receive her from, Doctor?" Field asked.
"From Ogdensburg, sir. Before that they told me she was found wandering, and put under observation in Troy. All I knew was that somebody wanted her kept in a private institution. She'd always been in one, I fancy."
There was a pause as Field seemed lost in thought. Then he turned to Gard.
"May I ask you to clear one point?" he asked "You gave evidence that he was alive when you entered the room. According to her story—"
"I lied," said Gard, his pale face suffused with color. "I had to—I was most urgently needed in Washington. I would have been detained, perhaps prevented altogether from leaving. Who knows—I might even have been accused. I plead guilty of suppressing the facts."
There was silence in the room. The attorney's eyes were turned upon the self-confessed perjurer. In them was a question. Gard met their gaze gravely, without flinching. Field nodded slowly.
"You're right; publicity can only harm," he said at last. "We will see what can be done. I'll take the proper steps. It can be done legally and verified by the other witnesses. The butler identifies her, you say. It's a curious case of retribution. I can't help imagining Mahr's feelings when he recognized her voice. Is your patient at all dangerous otherwise?" He addressed himself to the nurse.