"Oh, don't think for a minute I feel you were in the least derelict! I know you weren't. It merely chanced that Peter's heart gave out—or whatever it was that did happen—while he was the last one of the procession."
"And not only that. If, say, I'd fallen, a man behind might not have seen me go down. If we swerved ever so little from a straight line, and, of course, we did,—couldn't help it,—we lost sight for a moment of the man in front. And as we all went along, eyes down or closed much of the time, we might have lost a man who wasn't walking last. I wish I could make you see it, Mac! See the traveling, I mean. I've never progressed against such difficulties."
"I know, old chap. Do get out of your head that anybody blames any of you in the least. And if they did, the blame would fall on the guide, not on you fellows."
"Joshua was not a bit to blame either. Surely you see that. It was every man for himself,—and—fate took the hindmost! Oh, I hate to think about it! It's even worse to me now than when it happened. The more I think about it the more I grieve for dear old Peter. We were good pals, you know."
"I know it; we all were. Mighty few chaps like Peter Boots!"
"Old man Crane's gone nutty," Shelby remarked.
"Been going for some time," agreed Blair, and McClellan Thorpe nodded his head decidedly.
The three sat in the studio apartment occupied by Blair and Thorpe, who had just returned from dining at their club.
Shelby had come home with them, but was soon to leave to keep an engagement.
"You'll scarcely believe what I'm up to to-night," Shelby went on, "I'm going to a seance with Mr. Crane."
"I say, Kit," remonstrated Thorpe, "I don't think you ought to encourage him. He's daft enough on the subject now, and your approval makes him worse."
"I'm trying to stop him," Shelby said, quietly. "I think if I go to the fool thing I can see how she works it and tell Mr. Crane, and he'll be convinced of her trickery."
"Are you convinced of it?" asked Thorpe.
"I've never seen this one, but it's my opinion all professional mediums are fakes," Shelby replied, seriously; "it may not be so, but I believe I can tell after one investigation. I shall pretend to be greatly impressed and all that, but I'll keep my eyes open. And I'm not going to upset Mr. Crane unnecessarily. But if I think she's just fooling him along for the money that's in it, I'm going to tell him so."
"Even at that," Blair put in, "maybe it's worth the money to him to be fooled. He's rich enough."
"Maybe. But I hate to see a man swindled. However, I've agreed to go with him once, and I'm glad to go. Good-by, I'll report results later."
"You see," Blair said to Thorpe after Shelby had gone, "Kit and I can't help feeling a sort of responsibility for this fad of Mr. Crane's. It may be foolish and sentimental, but we feel an interest in Peter's father, and we watch over him as if Peter had asked us to do so, which, of course, he never did."
"But the medium business is such awful rubbish," objected Thorpe.
"It is and it isn't," Blair said, musingly. "It's six weeks now since we came home, and all that time Mr. Crane has been receiving messages from Peter, and every one of them that I've heard are sane and believable. Moreover, Carlotta Harper has almost convinced me there's something in it. That girl is a sort of medium herself. She denies it, says she only uses her common sense, but I think she's clairvoyant."
"There's a heap of difference between being clairvoyant, in a common sense way, and being a fake medium! I don't care what Miss Harper does with a foolish Ouija Board, but I'm like Kit Shelby, I hate to see Benjamin Crane stung by a wily faker!"
* * * * *
Meantime Mr. Benjamin Crane was altogether enjoying the process that Thorpe called stinging.
Shelby, deeply interested, and looking innocently credulous, sat by while the medium conducted the seance.
Madame Parlato was, as Crane had asserted, a quiet-mannered, refined looking woman, of a gracious and pleasant personality. She was tall and fair, rather English in type, and spoke with a noticeable English accent. She frequently ended sentences of simple statement with a rising inflection and was addicted to the use of the word very, which she pronounced virry.
"You are a bit skeptical?" she said, with a careless glance at Shelby.
"Only by reason of lack of occasions for belief," he returned. "I am, however, open-minded and fair-minded enough to be willingly convinced. You may or may not know, this son of Mr. Crane's was one of my closest friends, and——"
"Don't advance information, please," she remonstrated, "lest I be thought to make use of it. I will ask you both to be quiet, whilst I compose myself."
"Hush up, Shelby," growled Crane, and Shelby did.
The medium closed her eyes and leaned back in her armchair.
She did not seem to be asleep, but she breathed heavily and a trifle irregularly, and now and then gave a slight convulsive shudder.
At last she spoke, very slowly, and in a voice decidedly different from her own. Shelby couldn't quite make up his mind whether it seemed to him like Peter's voice or not.
The voice said, "I am here, father," and, after a moment's pause, repeated the words.
"Yes, yes," breathed Benjamin Crane, enthralled, as always, by the sound; "talk to me, Peter, tell me things."
"I can't talk much this time, father, it is hard to get through. There is some obstacle."
These words did not follow each other in natural succession, but came haltingly, with waits between. Madame Parlato seemed unconscious of the delays, and merely acted as a mouthpiece for the revelations.
"What sort of an obstacle?" asked Crane.
"An unbeliever is near," the voice hesitatingly asserted.
"Oh, I say!" exclaimed Shelby, "tell him who I am!"
"It's only Shelby," Mr. Crane said, "Kit Shelby. He's not really an unbeliever, only inexperienced."
"May I speak to him?" asked Shelby, as if permission were necessary.
"Go ahead," consented Mr. Crane.
"It's old Kit, Peter—Kit Shelby, who went on the trip with you."
"Oh, Kit—all right—all right, old fellow—can't say much to-night—something wrong——"
"Well, but Peter," Shelby begged, "give me some sort of a sign—a test, you know. I can't help wanting that."
"All right," very slowly, "what test."
"Let me see—well, tell me whose picture you carried in your watch case."
"Why, it was—Caroline—Caroline Harper."
Shelby looked dazed. True, they had never called Carly Caroline, but the Harper was undeniable, and the test quite near enough to the truth.
The medium sat still, save for frequent slight shivers. Suddenly she opened her eyes:
"Who is talking?" she said.
"I am," Shelby told her. "Please let me say a few more things."
Madame Parlato's eyes closed, and she was motionless.
"Are you still there, Peter?" asked his father, who was not at all pleased with the presence of Shelby. It seemed to interfere with the continuous talk he had hitherto enjoyed at the seances.
"Yes, father. Is Kit there?"
"Can't you see me, Peter?"
"Not—not clearly. There's a haze in the room."
There was no haze visible to the mortals present, but Shelby went eagerly on.
"Never mind seeing me, Peter, but do tell me this: What happened to you?"
"When?" asked the voice, with a far-away, fading sound.
"When—when you died, you know. Oh, Peter, don't go away until you tell us!"
"Tell you—tell you—what?"
"What killed you? How was it? Did you fall down?"
"I—I fell down, yes."
"In the snowdrifts?"
"Yes, the snow was so cold—"
"But why couldn't you get up? What happened to you? Did any attack——"
"Yes, I was attacked. Attacked by a——"
"By a wild animal of some sort."
"Oh, Peter! What was it? Are you sure?"
"No, not sure—but attack by——"
The voice grew fainter and more incoherent, and in a moment the medium sat up straight and shook her head.
"He was troubled," she said, "I could see him though you couldn't, and he was sad and worried."
"What about?" asked Shelby, abruptly.
"I'm not sure, but I think because he didn't want to tell the awful details of his death."
"What were they? Could you see them?"
"Yes," she pushed her loose hair back from her brow, as if exhausted. "Yes, I saw it like a picture, but like a clouded, indistinct picture. The poor chap was fighting a wild beast! Oh, it was fearful!" she shut her eyes and shook her head violently. "That's the worst of it, I see too clearly."
"Tell us more, then," begged Shelby. "How did Peter look?"
"Glorious, transfigured! His face was shining and his eyes sparkling."
"H'm—queer to look like that when he was so worried."
"Oh, that was before the anxious look came. It is, I fear, difficult for you to understand the conditions. The discarnate spirit has a sort of secondary personality, not unlike a hypnotic state, and sometimes this is jarred by any untoward influence and develops into a delirium, and the statements cannot then be relied on. A novice always expects a clear, definite style of speech from a spirit communicating through a medium. This is not always the case. And the medium must merely take what comes and repeat it without change or addition. If, therefore, you are disappointed, I cannot help it. Surely you would not wish me to embroider the messages I receive."
"Surely not," returned Shelby, "indeed, I think it wonderful that you succeeded in getting as much coherence and information as you did. It is something to know that Peter was attacked by a wild beast, for, horrible as is the news, it does explain why he couldn't proceed on the journey."
"Yes," agreed Mr. Crane. "And I am so avid for word from my boy, that even if the messages are disturbing and harrowing, I want them all. I have always told Madame Parlato not to spare me. I prefer to know the worst. For my boy is happy now. We have had several sittings; my wife has attended some, and they are always comforting because of Peter's assertions that he is now happy and contented."
At Shelby's urgent request, the medium endeavored to induce Peter's spirit to return for a further word.
Her success was only partial, but they did hear a message to Shelby direct.
"Persevere, Kit," Peter said, "you're doing right in that matter. Go ahead, Kit."
"Your voice sounds queer, Peter," Shelby said, frowning a little. "It used to be pitched in a higher key."
"It's the medium," came a reply, and the pitch was higher. "I don't mean the human medium, but the medium through which I must talk—the ether, I suppose it is. Good-by, Kit."
Madame Parlato then came out of her trance, or whatever term she used to designate her half-conscious state.
"The session is over," she said, pleasantly. "I fear, Mr. Crane, you did not get your usual degree of satisfaction from it, but that was because of a third party here. I don't think Mr. Shelby's antagonistic exactly, but he's—well, uncertain whether to believe what he hears or not."
"That's quite true, Madame," said Shelby, with due respect, "but you are doubtless accustomed to people in my frame of mind."
"Oh, yes," and the lady smiled a little, "but I trust, Mr. Shelby, you will come some time by yourself and let me see what I can do to help you make up your mind."
"I shall be glad to do that. You have a strange power, at any rate."
"Strange, yes; but by no means unique. There are minds tuned by nature to receive spirit messages, as wireless stations are tuned. I cannot explain my strange power, I marvel at it myself, but I recognize it, and I use it humbly and gratefully as a God-given treasure."
"And that's what it is!" declared Benjamin Crane. "I'm glad you came to-night, Shelby, but, after this, I admit I prefer to come alone, or with only my wife. The messages from Peter to his father are naturally more of a loving and domestic nature, and I revel in them."
"I don't wonder at that, Mr. Crane. And I congratulate you on having found such a capable and skillful medium."
Madame Parlato gave Shelby a quick glance, almost as if doubting his sincerity. But his frank, honest face reassured her, and she said:
"And, I'm proud to say, I'm not only a medium, but I am possessed of the power that is called impersonation or transfiguration. This is comparatively rare, and it enables me to perform what really seem like miracles. I am taken possession of by the departed subject, and I speak and act so perfectly with that other personality that sometimes I even resemble the person who is talking through me."
"It is indeed wonderful," Shelby said, and Benjamin Crane looked happily contemplative of the seances in the future when Madame would utilize this miraculous gift of hers in his behalf.
* * * * *
Shelby did go alone to see the medium, and it happened also that, about a week later, going again, he chanced to meet Mr. Crane there. The younger man offered to leave, but Crane said, "No, come along. Madame is going to try to-night to materialize Peter's face, and I want you here to see it."
And so the strange seance began.
Materialization, of course, called for a darkened room, and Shelby's naturally suspicious mind was alert for possible fraud.
But he could discover no chance for such. There was no cabinet, no tambourine, bell or trumpet, and no curtain was drawn or screen set up.
After they had sat in darkness and silence for a time, a face seemed to form in mid-air. It was a misty, vague countenance, and was wrapped about with a soft, floating drapery or veil, which exposed only the features.
"Peter!" exclaimed Benjamin Crane in a half-gasping voice. "My boy himself!"
"Peter Boots!" cried Shelby, and slowly the face vanished.
Not another word was spoken, and in a moment the lights were turned on. This was done by Madame Parlato, at whose elbow the light switch was.
"Did you see anything?" she asked, in an exhausted, harassed way, yet with an air of eagerness.
"Yes," cried out Crane. "I saw Peter, my own son!"
"I couldn't be sure," she went on, speaking wearily. "It always exhausts me utterly to induce a materialization, and I doubt if I can achieve anything more to-night."
"Nor do you need to," declared Mr. Crane. "That's enough for one seance. Some time you may do that again, and also get speech from him."
"May be," she rejoined, with a gentle politeness, "and now I should be glad to say good-night."
The two men walked off, Crane in a tumult of delight, Shelby wondering at it all.
"You accept marvels very easily, Mr. Crane," the latter said.
"Because they are marvels," said the older man simply. "If they were fraud it would be no marvel. But being genuine, it is a marvel, it is a miracle, and I am glad, rejoiced to accept it!"
* * * * *
It was soon after this that Shelby, calling on Carlotta Harper, asked her what she thought of it all.
"Rubbish," she replied flatly.
Shelby looked at her. "But," he said, "I've been told that you can work the Ouija Board wonderfully!"
"Work the Ouija Board! What sort of talk is that? Do you mean push it, to spell what I want it to?"
"No; I spoke carelessly. I mean use the Board with results that are surprising."
"Who can't do that?"
"Lots of people—myself, for one. Let's try it now, Carly. Will you?"
"Certainly, if you like. And, if you'll give me your word of honor that you won't voluntarily or purposely urge the thing in any direction or toward any letter."
"Of course I promise that! Where'd be the fun if we cheated? You promise, too?"
"Yes, indeed. Like you, I've no interest if either pushes the least mite."
They placed themselves with the board between them on their knees.
It was but a short time before the little heart-shaped block began to move.
Carly, who was no novice, said in a sing-song way: "Is there a spirit present?"
The board slid quickly to the corner marked "yes."
"Will you spell out your name?" Carly went on in a very matter-of-fact voice.
The pointer went from letter to letter, now hurriedly and now making wide circling sweeps, but it spelled correctly "Peter Boots."
Shelby kept most careful watch on Carly's finger-tips. He could see that there was no apparent muscle movement, no surreptitious pushing and no motion of any sort save to follow the moving board. Her hands were quite evidently resting as lightly as his own on the wood, and the board without doubt moved without the voluntary help of either.
"Shall we go on?" asked Carly, in a half whisper.
"Go on? Of course!" returned the other.
"Peter, have you a message for us?" Carly asked, again using that calm, uninflected tone.
"Yes," pointed the board, and then, as they settled down to receive it, the wooden heart spelled rapidly: "Do not grieve for me— I am happy."
Carlotta looked disappointed. "Oh, dear," she said, "I'm so tired of that message! I thought Peter would do better than that! Let's try again."
Again the board moved, and the message came, "Tell mother not to grieve——"
"Oh, Peter," Carlotta said, in real impatience, "do say something beside those stereotyped phrases! Tell us something we don't know, something about yourself."
"Tell us how you died," said Shelby, suddenly.
"Yes, tell us that," Carly repeated.
The board moved more slowly.
"I was," it spelled, and "Go on!" the girl urged "I was—in the snow——"
"Yes, yes—go on."
"And I fell down, and I—I—couldn't get up."
"Why not?" this sharply from Carly.
"H——" the board stopped; then went on, "Heart failure."
"I thought so!" exclaimed Shelby; "there aren't any wild animals up there in——"
"Hush—it's moving again," said Carly.
"Heart gave out," the board spelled, moving rapidly now. "Couldn't make the boys hear. Could only gurgle in my throat. Couldn't shout. So I died."
"Do you believe it?" asked Carly, her big, brown eyes solemn and serious.
"Yes, I do," said Shelby. "It's highly probable, anyway. Go on, Peter, tell us something else."
Whether Shelby "believed" or not, he was deeply interested, and his breath came faster as he saw the revealing letters spell various messages.
Both performers watched the four hands as the board moved under them. And, the most intense scrutiny could discover no voluntary movement or assistance to the uncanny instrument.
Many messages were of slight importance, and then came a sudden, "I say, Shelby, why don't you marry Carly?"
The girl gasped, then smiled, but Shelby looked up, dumbfounded.
"Oh, Carly," he said, "if you only would!"
"Hush!" she reproved him. "I'll put the board away if you do such things! You know you pushed it that time!"
"I didn't, Carly, truly—word of honor, I didn't! I'd no idea what was coming! Oh, Carly, darling, I love you, and—dear, whether Peter sent that message or not—won't you—can't you——"
They had risen, casting aside the board, and Shelby took her hands in his. "Dearest," he said, "I wanted to tell you, but I was waiting—for—for Peter's sake. Now—he wants it! So, dear heart—my little girl—won't you——"
"No," said Carlotta.
The Tobacco Pouch
It was doubtless owing to Benjamin Crane's attitude regarding his son's death that the home did not present more the aspect of a house of mourning. Both Crane and his wife were not only resigned to Peter's fate, but they seemed positively happy in what they believed to be continued communion with his spirit.
As Mrs. Crane said, "When Peter was a child the gypsies said he would go away and be lost, but he would return to us. He has done so, he is doing so—why should we grieve? He tells us he is happy and contented in his new sphere of existence, therefore, we are, too."
"That's all very well," Carlotta Harper would respond, "but I don't look at it that way at all. I want my Peter Boots back again in the flesh. I'm not contented at all with a lot of spirit talk communicated through a paid medium!"
"Don't say paid medium, as if the paying detracted from her worth," Benjamin Crane chid the girl. "Of course, we pay Madame Parlato for her time—why should we not? It's the best money I ever spent! And you're a medium yourself, Carlotta. You hate to acknowledge it, but you are. Your work with the Ouija Board is perfectly marvelous, and I have proved to my own satisfaction that you never use the least fraud."
"Indeed, I don't," said Carlotta, earnestly, "but what's the use? What do I care to have Peter talk on that wooden board—if it is Peter—I want him, himself!"
Carlotta was passing through strange moods. Living alone with her mother, their home seemed far more a house of mourning than the Cranes'.
The girl grieved deeply for Peter. Though not definitely engaged, she knew their betrothal would have been sealed on his return. And not having the comfort that the Cranes so gladly accepted, she sorrowed for her lost love.
Her success with the Ouija Board was a matter of mystery to her mother and to all who knew of it. It seemed that she must be a medium, or possess some occult power, for whenever she placed her finger-tips on the little board it immediately began to move, and told such remarkable things that there was occasion for surprise. Nor did Carlotta move the board of her own volition. It was easily seen that she did not "push" or urge it in any direction. The most careful scrutiny could not only discern no effort of hers, but could not fail to be convinced that she made none. Her friends came often to beg her to give them a session. Her fame spread until it began to annoy her.
Gilbert Blair talked to her about it.
"You know, Carly," he said, "it's not really a message from a spirit you get, it's——"
"It's what, Gilbert?" she asked, smiling. "Don't you tell me it's fraud on my part, because it isn't."
"No, I don't think it's conscious fraud, but——"
"But you don't know what it is, do you?" the girl smiled at him, and Blair, looking deep in her eyes, said: "No, I don't know what it is, and I don't care. But I care about you. Carly, dear, can't you learn to love me? I'm not as good a chap as Peter—dear old Peter. But I love you—oh, girl, how I love you!"
"The Ouija Board said that Peter wanted me to turn my affections toward Kit Shelby."
"It didn't! did it? Then that proves that it was no real message from Peter! He would rather you'd turn toward me."
"How do you know?"
"Oh, we used to talk about you up in the snows of Labrador. And Peter loved you lots, but he knew I did, too, and we agreed that the best man should win. I don't mean the best man, but the one who stood best in your heart. And now—oh, Carly, if you only would——"
"Not yet, Gilbert—don't let's talk about it yet."
"But Peter's been dead nearly six months, and you weren't actually engaged, you know——"
"How do you know that?"
"Peter told me, oh, we were confidential up there. And, now, Peter's gone, and try, won't you, Carly, try to love me. Shelby isn't in my way, is he?"
"I don't know—he wants to be."
"Of course he does! But I won't give up to him! Peter was different. He was a wonder, that chap!"
"Indeed, he was. And I care too much for his memory to think about any one else—yet."
"But some day, Carly—dear, some day?"
"Some day we'll see about it. Gilbert, what do you think of that medium the Cranes go to all the time?"
"I think that, too. But she's doing queer stunts. She's begun materializing things."
"What sort of things?"
"I don't know exactly. Flowers, I believe, and hands and faces."
"You know all the legerdemain people do that."
"That's no argument, Gilbert, and you know it. The charlatans can do all the things that the real mediums do. The question is not whether the fakers can do them, but whether the real mediums can."
"Meaning whether the real mediums are real or not?"
"Yes, that's what I mean. If ever there was a real one. I think Madame Parlato is one. But I'm not sure. She does the Cranes a lot of good. They believe——"
"Oh, no, Julie hates the whole business. I think she'd be convinced, though, except for Mr. Thorpe. He's such a skeptic that he influences Julie."
"I thought Thorpe was rather interested in that direction."
"Well, rather! Why, they've been exclusively interested in each other all winter."
"Thorpe's a close-mouthed chap. We live together, but we seldom exchange confidences. I like him pretty well, but——"
"I oughtn't to say it, but I don't altogether trust him. We're working for a prize, you know, the Callender medal, and sometimes I've imagined that he——"
"I know, he steals your ideas."
"Well, I wouldn't put it so bluntly, but he is an unconscious kleptomaniac, I think. He watches my drawing—I go astray sometimes to mislead him—and next thing I know he incorporates the same motive in his own sketches. I wouldn't say this to any one else, but I'm a little worried about it. Not so much about his taking my stuff as the fear that some one will think I've taken his."
"How's your work progressing?"
"Well—if Thorpe lets me alone."
"Can't you lock yourself in?"
"Oh, no; we use the same studio, and if I seemed fearful he would be angry at once. He's a strange nature, Thorpe. Morbid and secretive, yet a good friend and a first-rate living companion. You see, we've separate bedrooms, of course, but we've only the one big room that's studio and sitting-room combined. We have to use it together, but as our friends are pretty much the same bunch, we get along all right. We have lockers and all that, but I hate to lock up my sketches when I go out. It looks as if I didn't trust him."
"Well, you don't."
"No; but I can't tell him so. Nor do I want to hint it—at least not until I find some definite proof. Get out your Ouija Board, Carly, and see if it will tell us anything."
"Oho, you believe in it fast enough when you want to use it?"
But a trial of the occult only brought Blair the advice to beware of a friend who might be at heart an enemy. To be careful of his plans and sketches, for there was some one near who might be guilty of deceit.
All of which Blair knew before.
* * * * *
The sessions which the Cranes held with Madame Parlato increased in importance and interest.
She had succeeded in materializing the face and form of their son to their satisfaction of his identity. They told remarkable tales of seeing and hearing Peter Boots, until Julie ran out of the room lest she voice her disapproval too strongly. For Julie Crane, though an absolute unbeliever in Madame Parlato and all her works, was a devoted daughter, and would do nothing to disturb the happiness her parents felt in the seances with the medium.
But one performance fairly staggered the group of listeners to whom the Cranes recounted it.
They returned from the medium's to find the young people sitting round the hospitable Crane fireside. It was mid March and the weather still allowed of the cheerful open fire.
Carlotta was there and Shelby, and Blair and Thorpe, with Julie, of course, made up the little party.
"The most marvelous yet!" Benjamin Crane exclaimed, as he drew near the fire. "Julie, dear, if you don't want to hear, run away, for I must tell about it."
But Julie stayed, and her parents told the story.
It seemed the medium had promised them something very definite by way of proof, and she had certainly kept her promise.
The materialization of Peter had taken place, and, as the spirit form slowly dissolved and faded from their view, there was left behind, lying on the table, an object that had not been there before.
It was a tobacco pouch, old and worn, and bearing Peter's initials.
Julie looked at it with horror-stricken eyes, as her father produced it from his pocket.
"Why," she gasped, "it's the one I gave him on his birthday."
"Not really!" cried Shelby, and both he and Blair leaned eagerly forward to look.
"It's the one he always carried with him in Labrador," Blair said, with an expression of blank wonderment. "How did it get down here?"
"I offer no explanation, save the true one," Benjamin Crane said, seriously. "That is, as you see, a real object. It is Peter's property. You, Blair, recognize it. Do you, Shelby?"
"I do," Shelby replied, his eyes staring at the thing.
"Julie recognized it at once," went on Crane. "So there's no doubt of its identity. Now, I submit that it would be impossible for Madame Parlato to have come by this in any natural way, therefore it is supernatural."
"Supernatural!" McClellan Thorpe exclaimed, with utter scorn in his voice. "How could that be, sir?"
"It was materialized by my son, Peter," Crane returned, looking at Thorpe, calmly. "That may seem incredible to you, but it is not so incredible as any other explanation you may offer. You cannot think my wife or I would misstate what happened, can you? You cannot assume that Madame Parlato obtained this in any underhanded way, for you cannot conceive of any way in which she could do so. Then, what do you suggest?"
"Anything, but that Peter brought it!" Thorpe cried.
"Ah, yes; anything but the truth. You glibly say 'anything,' but I ask you to suggest what you mean in that 'anything,' and you fail to reply."
"There is nothing to suggest," Blair said; "I confess myself utterly at a loss to suggest anything. To my certain knowledge Peter had that on his person when he died! Why, that morning he had given me a pipeful out of it, and had then returned it to his pocket! My explanation is that Peter is alive!"
"I wish that were the true one," said Benjamin Crane, fervently, "but if you'll think a minute, Gilbert, you'll realize that if Peter were alive he would come to us in the flesh, and not send his tobacco pouch by a medium."
"Indeed, he would!" agreed Carlotta, "much as I'd love to believe Peter alive, this episode contradicts such a belief, not proves it!"
"That's right," said Shelby, thoughtfully; "I, too, can believe anything rather than that the medium caused the materialization of this thing, but——"
"The medium didn't cause it, exactly," broke in Mrs. Crane's gentle voice; "you see, we had begged Peter so hard for a material proof that he promised to try to give it to us. And at last he succeeded. It is miraculous, of course, but no more miraculous than the strange things recorded in the Bible. You see, I hold that the day of miracles is not past."
Shelby said gravely, "You must be right, for there's surely no other explanation. I, too, saw this in Peter's hand that last day we were together. I can't believe he's alive——"
"Of course not!" interrupted Blair, "if he were, he'd have no use for mediums! Whatever is the truth, it's not that Peter's alive! I only wish it might be, but as Carlotta says, this thing contradicts such a theory. I'm beaten. I see no light at all."
Benjamin Crane smiled. "You boys admit you see no explanation yet you refuse to accept the obvious and only one possible. But I'm not going to try to persuade you, I've no reason to do so. It all means little to you, but it is as the breath of life to me and to Peter's mother. I trust that some day Julie will be convinced of these truths, but that is for her to decide. I shall add this revelation to my book, by way of an appendix. It's too late to incorporate it in the body of the work."
Benjamin Crane's book had been a work of absorbing interest to him if not to his friends. He was entirely obsessed by the whole matter of Spiritism, and his book, following the style of a celebrated work of a similar nature in England, was even now in the publisher's hands.
The book was a memorial to Peter and an account of the experiences of his parents during the sessions with the medium. Crane possessed a pleasant, convincing style, and the book was well written and of a real interest quite apart from the question of the reader's belief in its matter.
* * * * *
When the volume was published, and that was early in April, it became an immediate success. Not the least of the reasons for this was the astounding account of the materialization of the tobacco pouch, detailed exactly as Benjamin Crane had told the story the night of the occurrence.
The book went like wildfire. Edition after edition was sold, and Benjamin Crane found himself famous. The benign old gentleman took his notoriety calmly, and refused to see the people who thronged to his door unless they were personal acquaintances. He had to engage secretaries and other assistants, but his methodical and efficient mind easily coped with all such matters. Mrs. Crane, too, was serenely indifferent to the publicity of it all, and pursued her simple ways of life undisturbed.
But Julie was angry at it all. Her life, she said, was spoiled by being known as the daughter of a demented monomaniac.
Her father smiled at her and told her she would change her views some day, and her mother scolded her now and then, but mostly ignored the subject when talking with her.
Julie found sympathy in the views of McClellan Thorpe.
Neither of these two would believe in the materialization of the tobacco pouch, yet neither of them could arrive at any satisfactory explanation of the incident.
"Of course, it's Peter's pouch," Julie would say; "but it came to that woman by some natural means. Maybe, somebody found it up there in Labrador and brought it home——"
"No," Thorpe would object, "in that case it would be weather-worn and defaced, and, too, nobody would have any reason to find it, bring it home, and give it to Madame Parlato! No, Carly, that won't do."
"Maybe he had two—duplicates," Carly suggested once. But inquiries of the Crane family proved that was not so. It was the very one Julie had given her brother, she was sure of that.
And so that mystery remained unexplained, save by the acceptance of a miracle.
A very material result of the success of Crane's book was a large amount of money that came to him from its royalties. Some of this he decided to use in fitting out an expedition to recover his son's body.
This, he decreed, was to be under the direction of Shelby and Blair, who knew just how it should be conducted. With his usual efficiency, Crane made all the arrangements and then told the young men about what he had done.
They agreed to go, but Shelby advised first that he write to Joshua, their old guide, as to their reception.
This was done, but the reply received caused a halt in the preparations.
For the letter, which Shelby brought over for Crane to read, ran thus:
"DEAR MISTER SHELBY:
"I think youd better not try to take back the boddy of Mister Peter. We berried it verry deep and it better remain here. Anny way, you cant mannage it till late summer. Say about August or so."
"However, Mr. Crane," Shelby said, "if you say so, we can go ahead in spite of Joshua's letter. He's a good guide, but he always was a bit dictatorial."
"No," Benjamin Crane said, "I believe in taking advice from one who is undoubtedly good authority. We'll postpone the plan until August."
When Blair was told of it he was rather relieved, for he was busy with his prize drawings and he didn't want to leave town.
"Let's see the letter," he said to Shelby.
"I haven't it, Blair. I left it with Mr. Crane. But I've told you the gist of it."
"All right, Kit," and Blair went on with his work.
It was the next night at the Crane house that Mr. Crane again spoke of his disappointment at not putting through his hoped-for expedition.
"You see, Kit," he said to Shelby, "I want to write another book, and I want it to be about the recovery of Peter's body."
"Oh, don't do that, Mr. Crane," Shelby said, impulsively; "it would be anti-climax. You've done a big thing, and scored a success. Another book would spoil it all."
"I don't think so," said Crane, not at all annoyed at Shelby's attitude. "Anyway, I hate to give up my plan. See here, Shelby, are you sure that man Joshua wrote the letter you got?"
"Why, yes. What makes you ask that?"
"Only because it's in a big sprawly hand, and once Blair showed me a letter from Joshua, which he's kept as a memento, and it was in a small cramped hand."
"That's queer. But I expect Joshua might have got somebody to write for him. Those half-breeds are not very scholarly, you know. However, if there's any doubt about it, the matter must be looked into. Do you mean that maybe we can go now, after all? But I can't help thinking that Joshua wrote that. I know he's not very strong on spelling!"
"Well, Blair will know. You ask him for that letter he has of Joshua's."
"All right, Mr. Crane, I will. I'll see him to-night. There's a dinner on at the Club, and he'll be there. You know he's in a fair way, I think, to get that Callender prize."
"I hope so, I'm sure. A rising young architect, Blair is, and I hope he wins it. I suppose he wouldn't want to go to Labrador until that matter is settled?"
"No, probably not. But the award will be made this month."
"And he's in a fair way to get it?"
"Looks that way to me. His sketches are fine, though I haven't seen his finished work. Thorpe's a close second, I imagine."
"I suppose I'd rather see Thorpe get it, but don't tell Blair that. A man is naturally interested in his future son-in-law."
"Oh, it's gone as far as that, has it?"
"Yes, but it's not announced yet. So say nothing till Julie tells you to. She's a dear girl, but as hard as adamant where belief in the occult is concerned."
"She and Thorpe are at one there."
"Yes, that helped the affair along, I fancy. But it's all right. Julie can think what she likes. Peter used to hate the subject, too."
"I know it. We touched on it now and then, but he usually veered off to something else at once."
"What do you think about the pouch, Shelby? I'm not sure I ever asked you."
"I don't think, Mr. Crane. I mean I can't explain the thing by natural means, and I'm unable to believe in the supernatural. What more can I say?"
"Nothing. I suppose most people are like that. Thank heaven. I'm made so that I can believe!"
Gilbert Blair was a lovable sort of chap, one of those fine, gentle natures that will put up with annoyance rather than annoy another. Although he would have preferred to live alone, yet it was greatly to his pecuniary advantage to have Thorpe share his place, and, on the whole, they got on fairly well. But, being of different habits and temperaments, the details of their home life were not always harmonious.
Blair was methodical, liked his drawing implements and sketches kept in order, and the rooms tidy. Thorpe was not particular in these respects, and his belongings were always scattered about not only on his own tables or desk, but on Blair's. Moreover, he did not hesitate to use his chum's materials if his own were not immediately available.
So it happened that when Shelby stopped in on his way home from the Cranes' he found a mild war of words in progress.
"You know, old dear," Thorpe was saying, "you'd be quite welcome to use my drawing paper, and I call it rough of you to kick because I took a couple of sheets of yours."
"Couple of sheets!" exclaimed Blair, "you took six or eight, and I had only about enough to complete this series of sketches. You know how I hate to use paper that doesn't match——"
"At it again?" said Shelby, coming in. "You two never have an out and out row, but you're always bickering. Thorpe, you ought to mend your ways—it is a confounded nuisance to have other people using your things."
"Oh, Blair's an old granny. It does him good to get stirred up once in a while. That paper of his——"
"I know," said Shelby, quietly, "it's a special paper that he bought for his prize drawings—it's not only expensive, but he wants the sheets uniform. You knew this, Thorpe, and yet you grab it and use it for your trial sketches."
"Now, now, Kit," and Blair smiled good-naturedly, "you needn't take up my quarrel. I'm jumping on Thorpe myself."
"You jumping! You'd lie down and let him walk over you!"
"Not much, he wouldn't!" Thorpe growled; "he's been ballyragging me for half an hour! Not only about the paper, but he——"
"Let up, Thorpe," Blair spoke angrily, "at least let's keep our skeletons in our closet!"
"Oh, is there a real row on?" Shelby inquired.
"No, no," Blair declared, but Thorpe jumped up, and, going into his bedroom, closed the door behind him.
"Drop it," commanded Blair, quietly, and Shelby changed the subject.
"Mr. Crane says you had an old letter from Joshua," he began, "let's see it, will you?"
"Sure, if I can find it," and Blair began rummaging in his desk. "Confound it, Kit, if Thorpe hasn't been poking in here among my letters!"
"I wouldn't stand for it, Gilbert. What would he do that for?"
"Hush," with a glance toward Thorpe's closed door, "never mind now. But, anyway, I can't find that letter. What do you want it for?"
"Mr. Crane thinks the one I received from Joshua looks so different that I wanted to compare them."
"Let me see yours. I can tell at once. Joshua wrote a small cramped hand——"
"This one was rather large and of loosely formed letters, but, of course, some one may have written it for him."
"Yes, Joshua hated to write——"
"Well, never mind, don't hunt for it any more. Pretty queer thing about that tobacco pouch of Peter's, don't you think?"
Blair looked up quickly. "No, I don't. I know, or at least I think I know, the explanation of that."
"You do! Well, out with it!"
"No, not now," and Blair gave a significant glance toward Thorpe's door. "But I've had my suspicions roused, and I'm going to verify them, and then I'm going to expose somebody. I can't stand any more of this sort of thing. I tell you, Kit, I know!"
Shelby looked at him in amazement.
"Well, if you won't talk now, we'll whoop it up some other time. See you to-night at the dinner?"
"Yes; get along now, and we'll meet there later."
Blair looked anxious and preoccupied. As he went toward the door with Shelby he said suddenly, "I say, Kit, will you drop Carlotta Harper?"
"Yes; stop calling on her or paying her any attention."
"I will not! Just why——"
"All right." Blair's voice was cold and sharp. "Good night."
"Good night, Gil. You're queer to-night. See you later."
* * * * *
While dressing for the dinner Kit Shelby thought long and earnestly of Blair's strange words and his peculiar mental attitude. He thought Blair was like a man who had reached the end of his rope. A sort of exasperation had showed in his face and manner, and Shelby wondered what it meant.
He went over every word of the conversation they had had, including Blair's demand that Shelby desist from future acquaintance with Carly Harper! That was some demand, Shelby decided. And one to which he had no intention of acceding.
His ruminations resulted in his calling again at Blair's on the way to the dinner.
He found Blair nearly ready, and Thorpe, too, waiting to start.
Shelby scrutinized the faces of both men, and concluded they were still at odds. He went into Blair's bedroom, where that correct young man was carefully tying his immaculate evening tie.
"There, you made me spoil it," Blair exclaimed, as Shelby's sudden entrance caused a nervous gesture and a resultant wrinkle of the strip of lawn.
"Fiddle-de-dee! Don't be a fuss! Only men, you know. That's good enough."
But Blair selected another tie, and, while he manipulated it, Shelby fussed around the room. He could say no word in confidence to Blair, for Thorpe was impatiently tailing them to hurry, and shortly the three started off, gay of manner on the surface, whatever they might be thinking about.
They carefully avoided all mention of the Cranes, and also avoided the coming prize competition as a subject of discussion.
This, itself, proved the rift in the lute was still recognized in the souls of Blair and Thorpe at least. The two had enough artistic temperament to feel the inevitable jealousy of each other's designs, and if Blair suspected Thorpe of appropriating his ideas, whether consciously or unintentionally, it would have the effect of making him unusually quiet, even morose, rather than to result in so much as a spoken hint of his thoughts.
Moreover, habit is strong, and the three walked off to keep their engagement with much the same gay laughter and chatter as usual.
Shelby, especially, was purposely talkative and jocular, for he wanted to get the other two in complete good humor before the feast began.
In a general way he succeeded, and though Blair was a bit quiet, Thorpe regained his ordinary temper, and the men met and mingled with their fellows, their attitude properly in the key of the occasion.
It was a merry little dinner, and at last the talk drifted to Mr. Crane's book about Peter. Everybody present had known and loved Peter Boots, and various were the opinions regarding Benjamin Crane's extraordinary work.
"All rubbish," declared one man. "Strange, how sensible men can fall for that stuff! Makes me sick!"
"Oh, come now," another urged, "there must be something in it. Benjamin Crane never made up all that."
"No, he didn't make it up, but he was fooled, gulled, taken in."
"By the medium?" asked some one.
"Partly," answered somebody else. "But I think there's been underhand work going on."
"Such as what?"
"Oh, some of Peter's people or friends helping the medium along. I've read that book with the greatest care, studied it, and I get a lot between the lines. And I think——"
"Don't say it," put in Blair, quietly. "Unless you know something, Knight, better keep still."
"But why, Blair? We're all friends of Peter here, why not discuss the thing freely and frankly?"
"Better let it alone," insisted Blair, and then the talk drifted to the coming competition, which was even more dangerous.
"Of course nobody has a look-in but Blair and Thorpe," declared the talkative Knight. "They're sure to get the prize, separately or together."
"What do you mean by that?"
"Heard you were working on a big scheme on which you had joined forces."
"Nothing of the sort," declared Blair, shortly, and Thorpe added, "And if we were, we wouldn't say so."
Then the more peaceable minded of the group introduced other subjects, and art and spiritism were left out of it.
* * * * *
On the way home, as several were walking together, Shelby turned off at his home street and refused all invitations to go on with the others.
"Can't do it," he said. "I've got a piece of work to finish, and I've got to go home. See you all to-morrow night. By-by."
"I'm going along with you," Knight said to Blair. "I want to see your sketches, you said I might."
"All right," Gilbert returned, and, Thorpe with them, they went on to the studio.
Knight acted as a peacemaker, though not knowing it. He was a jolly, good-natured man, and he guyed the work of both his friends until they joined forces to contradict him.
Late they sat, smoking and talking over general matters. Also they discussed the Crane book, and agreed that, whether true or not, it was a great document and wonderfully popular.
"People are crazy over it, who always hooted at that sort of thing," Knight asserted. "It's partly the charm of Mr. Crane's manner, for the book is delightfully written, and somehow it does carry conviction."
"Thought you didn't believe in it!"
"Me? Oh, I don't," and Knight winked; "I mean it carries conviction to those who like that sort of thing. No, I don't believe a word of it is truth."
"Yet you have confidence in Mr. Crane's sincerity?"
"Oh, yes; he's merely fooled by a medium and——"
"And somebody who's telling her things."
"Who'd do that?"
"I don't know, but it's too palpable. Look at that tobacco pouch affair. You know somebody must have given her that. Who did?"
"Hush up," said Blair, determinedly. "If you want to discuss that, do it somewhere else."
"You're all on edge to-night, Blairsy. What's the matter?"
"Nothing, and I'm not."
"Oh, yes, you are," Knight went on. "But, of course, it's nervousness about the competition. What'll either of you boys do if the other gets the prize?"
"Congratulate him," said Thorpe, but there was not much ring of earnestness in his tone.
Blair looked at him moodily, and Knight rose to go.
"You chaps are out of sorts, and I'll not see you again till the prize business is settled. Then I hope you'll be your own sweet sunny selves once more. Good night."
He went off, and the other two began a desultory conversation. It lagged, however, and soon they separated for the night.
* * * * *
Nobody in the Leonardo Studio apartments was an early riser. For that reason it was nearly eleven o'clock when Thorpe, his face very white, telephoned downstairs and asked the doorman to come up at once.
When Hastings appeared he found Thorpe sitting on the edge of a chair in the studio in a state of agitation.
"Blair——" Thorpe said, speaking with difficulty. "Mr. Blair,—you know,—he's—he's very ill——"
"Ill, sir? Where is he?"
"In bed—in his room—go in, Hastings."
The man went in, and it needed only a glance to tell him that Blair's illness, whatever it had been, was fatal.
"He's dead," Hastings said, in an awe-stricken voice. "He's surely dead."
"Well, do something," Thorpe said; "what's the thing to do? Get a doctor?"
"A doctor couldn't help him, but yes, we ought to send for one. Who, sir?"
"I don't know. I've never had a doctor. This unnerves me, Hastings. I wish you'd do what's necessary."
"Ain't you a friend of his, sir? Can't you show a little heart?"
Hastings had never liked Thorpe, but had always been an admirer of Gilbert Blair. There was no special reason for this, unless that Blair was of a kindlier nature, and rarely found fault with Hastings, while Thorpe was sometimes irascible and even unreasonable.
Moreover, if Thorpe was nervously upset, Hastings was, too, and neither man knew exactly what to do.
"Well, you must get a doctor," Thorpe went on, a little peevishly. "You're responsible in cases of emergency——"
"Me responsible, sir? What do you mean, Mr. Thorpe?"
"Nothing to make you look like that. But you're in a position of responsibility, and it's up to you to do something. Now, do it."
"Yes, sir." The tone of authority brought Hastings to his senses. He was responsible in a case like this, and he went to the telephone. He called the superintendent, who did not live in the building, and asked him to come at once, and to bring a doctor. Then, his work done, he left the room, and Thorpe was alone with his dead comrade.
But McClellan Thorpe made no move. He sat still on the edge of the chair, his face turned away from Blair's bedroom and toward the outer door.
At last Somers, the superintendent, arrived, and with him was Doctor Frost.
They went straight to Blair's bedroom, scarcely speaking to Thorpe.
"Hastings tells me he's dead," Somers merely said, as he passed Thorpe's chair.
With practiced experience, the doctor examined the body.
"The man has been dead about eight or nine hours," he said, "it's impossible to fix the time of his death exactly,—but I place it at about three o'clock this morning. Though it may have taken place an hour sooner or later."
"What caused it?" Somers, asked, "a stroke?"
"Can't tell without an autopsy. There is positively no indication of any reason for it."
"A natural death, of course?" Thorpe asked, jerkily.
The doctor gave him a quick glance. "Looks so," he returned. "Maybe a stroke,—though he's young for that. Maybe acute indigestion, is he troubled that way?"
"With indigestion? Yes," Thorpe said; "he has it most of the time. But not acute,—merely a little discomfort when he overeats,—which he often does."
"Does he take anything for it?"
"I don't know,—yes, I've seen him take remedies now and then. I've not paid it much attention."
"Queer case," the doctor mused. "If it had been that, he would have cried out, I think. Did you hear no disturbance?"
"Not a bit," said Thorpe. "Are you sure it's not a stroke?"
"He's too young for a stroke. Where are his people?"
"'Way out West. And he hasn't many. An invalid mother, and a young sister,— I think that's all."
"Well,—who should be notified? Those relatives? Where are they? Will you take charge?"
"Oh, I can't!" Thorpe spoke shrinkingly. "I'm— I'm no relation,—you know,—merely a fellow lodger in his apartment. I'd—rather get out, any way."
"You and he chums?"
"Yes; both architects. Of course, I know all about Mr. Blair's work and that,—but I know nothing of his private affairs. Can't you get somebody to—to settle up his estate?"
"If he has an estate to settle. But somebody ought to look after things. Who are his friends?"
"Mr. Crane is one,—Benjamin Crane. And Christopher Shelby,—he's an intimate chum."
"Crane, the man who wrote the book about his son's spirit?"
"Yes, that one. Shall I telephone him?"
"Yes; you'd better do so. And I think it necessary to have an autopsy. This death is mysterious, to say the least. It's unusual, too, in some of its aspects."
"Do what you like," said Thorpe, "but—but I'd rather not be present. I think I'll go down to the Cranes' and tell them,—while you—you go on with your work."
"All right," said Doctor Frost, "I'd just as lief have you out of the way. Leave me the telephone call that will reach you."
* * * * *
As Thorpe went off, he realized that he'd had no breakfast. He felt little like eating, but dropped into a restaurant for a cup of coffee.
He found himself totally unable to drink it, and leaving it untasted he went on to the Crane house.
He told the story to Benjamin Crane, who was shocked indeed.
"But I'm not greatly surprised," Mr. Crane said; "I've been thinking for some time that Blair didn't look well. A sort of pallor, you know, and he was thin. I don't think the Labrador trip agreed with him at all. And Peter's death affected him deeply. No; Blair hasn't been well for months."
"What are you doing here at this time in the morning, McClellan?" asked a laughing voice, as Julie Crane came into the room.
But her laughter was hushed as she was told the news.
"Oh, Mac, what an awful ordeal for you," she exclaimed, her sorrow at Blair's death apparently lost sight of in sympathy for Thorpe.
"It was, Julie," he returned, earnestly; "I'm—I'm positively foolish about such things,—death, I mean. I,—I almost went all to pieces."
"Of course you did! Had you had your breakfast?"
"No; I tried to take some coffee, but I couldn't."
"You will now," said the girl, decidedly. "You come with me, to the dining room, and I'll make you some coffee myself, on the electric percolator, and some toast, too, and if you don't enjoy them, I'll be mad at you."
He followed her in a sort of daze, turning back to say:
"Are you going up to the studio, Mr. Crane?"
"Yes, at once. You go along with Julie, and let her look after you. And, Julie, you must tell your mother. It will be a shock,—she loves all Peter's friends."
The two went to the dining-room, where Julie, housewifely girl that she was, brewed golden coffee and made toast with no aid from the servants.
Mrs. Crane joined them, and Julie told her mother the sad news.
"Poor Gilbert," she said, wiping her tears away. "Peter loved him. Have you told Kit Shelby?"
"Not yet," Thorpe said; "I'm so broken up myself——"
"Of course you are," Julie said; "I suppose father will send him word. Don't think about that, Mac, father will attend to everything."
"I know it," said Thorpe, "and I'm so relieved. Don't think me a weakling, but death always unnerves me,—I can't help it,—and when I found Gilbert,—like that——"
"There, there," Julie soothed him, "you did all you could. Now let me make you one little piece more of brown toast——"
But Thorpe declined. To please the girl he had managed to eat one tiny crisp bit, but another he could not accept. Nor could he take more than a small part of the cup of coffee she gave him.
"I'm a fool," he said, "but—I'm all in!"
Nor did Thorpe's nerves grow calmer. Both Mrs. Crane and Julie tried to soothe him, but he was jumpy and his mouth twitched spasmodically.
The women endeavored to change the subject and talked of other things, whereupon Thorpe sat, brooding,—his dark, handsome face strained and despairful.
"Now, McClellan," Julie said, at last, decidedly, "it's awful enough, goodness knows, but I'll go crazy if you sit there like that any longer! Let's think what's to be done. In the first place, there's Carly to be considered. She's worse hit than you are. Oh, I know you and Gilbert were great friends and all that,—but I think he and Carly were more than friends."
"Julie," said her mother, "don't assume more than you know. Carly hasn't forgotten Peter,—of that I'm sure."
"No; and I don't say there was anything definite between her and Gil Blair, but I think it would have come in time. Gilbert was crazy over her, even before they all went on that trip, and when Peter didn't come back, I think Gilbert felt he had a right to win Carly if he could."
"Oh, he had right enough," Mrs. Crane conceded, "but—I suppose I'm a bit jealous of my son's memory. However, I'm sorry for poor little Carly, if she did care for Gilbert in that way."
And then Carlotta came in. Shelby was with her; he had heard the news and had gone straight to Carlotta's home, and they had come over to the Cranes' together.
Carlotta's eyes were red with weeping, but she was even more indignant than sad.
"Who could have killed Gilbert?" she cried, "and why should any one do so?"
"Killed him!" cried Julie, "what do you mean?"
"Why, yes,—haven't you heard? Gilbert was poisoned."
"Oh, Carlotta! Who said so?"
"Kit told me;—tell them about it,—I can't."
So Shelby told them.
"Mr. Crane telephoned me," he said, "only about half an hour ago. He said the doctor found that Gilbert was poisoned, either by himself——"
"Oh, he never did it himself!" Carlotta cried out. "Why should he? He was just on the eve of the great competition,—and he was so excited about it, and so hopeful,—it's absurd to say he killed himself!"
"Of course it is," agreed Julie. "But are they sure it was poison? Mac thought it was acute indigestion,—or a stroke, or something like that."
"No," Shelby said. "Mr. Crane said there was no doubt about it, I mean about the poisoning. But don't be too sure that Gilbert didn't take it himself. It might have been by mistake, you know. And anyway it's a mistake to theorize much until we know more of the details. I'm going up to Blair's place. Coming along, Thorpe?"
"No,—no,—I don't believe I will,—I'll stay here a while, if Mrs. Crane will let me."
"Of course," said Mrs. Crane, in her kind, motherly way, "Mac is all broken up. And no wonder! The shock of finding Gilbert dead——"
"Oh, Mr. Thorpe, did you make the discovery?" exclaimed Carlotta. "How awful! I don't wonder you're upset. Yes, Kit, you go up to Gilbert's. There may be something you can do."
Shelby went away, and when he reached the studio the first one to greet him was Mr. Crane.
"Hello, Shelby, I'm glad you came. This is a bad business."
"Tell me all about it,—I know only the main fact,—of Gilbert's death."
"Yes, that's the main fact, and the next one in importance is that the boy was poisoned. It's not known whether he took the poison himself or whether——"
"But how? I mean, what are the circumstances?"
"Come on in,—the police are here and the doctor. Listen to them."
The two went into the familiar studio, the big room where Blair and his friends had so often forgathered with jests and laughter.
There were two doctors there and two or three men from the Police Department.
The Medical Examiner was talking.
"It's one of those cases," he said, "where there seem to be no clews at all. The autopsy revealed the mere fact that Mr. Blair was poisoned by prussic acid, taken into the stomach. But there is no evidence in the way of a glass or container of any sort, there is no odor of prussic acid about his lips, no real reason to suspect foul play, and yet no apparent reason to think he killed himself. It may have been an accident, yet I can see no real evidence of that. It's mysterious from the very lack of anything suspicious."
"Was he—was he in bed?" asked Shelby, who had heard no detail of Thorpe's finding the body.
"Yes," said Doctor Middleton, the Examiner. "It seems his room-mate found him, in bed, in his night-wear, and immediately called the doorman of the house."
"And then Thorpe lit out," remarked Detective Weston. "I want to see him."
"Oh, Thorpe's all right," said Mr. Crane. "He's down at my house. I'll vouch for him. You needn't look that way for the criminal,—if there is a criminal."
"I should say not!" declared Shelby. "McClellan Thorpe and Mr. Blair were the greatest friends."
"But I can't think Gilbert was killed," Mr. Crane went on. "Seems to me if that were the case, there'd be some evidence of an intruder. And as Gilbert has no friends,—I mean no relatives or family in the city, I'll take up the matter myself. I'd like a thorough investigation, not so much to prove there was a criminal as to prove there wasn't one. I don't think there was, but I'd like a search made for any light that can be thrown on the matter."
"Oh, we'll investigate all right," said Weston; "I think somebody bumped the man off. I don't see any possibility for an accident, but it's more like suicide to me."
"Let's look around a bit," said Shelby. "I'm with you, Mr. Crane, in assuming responsibility. Why, who is there to take charge of Gilbert's things,—his estate?"
"It's hardly a big enough matter to call an estate," Crane said; "of course, I know more or less of Blair's affairs, and he wasn't by any means affluent. Indeed, his hopes of the prize in the coming competition represented his chief asset."
"Thought he'd get a prize, did he?" said Weston, "for what?"
"For his architectural design," Crane answered. "He was working hard, and was hopeful. That's why I feel sure he never killed himself."
"Here are his designs," said Shelby, as he opened a big portfolio. "Why don't you take these, Mr. Crane, and take them home with you. They're really valuable."
"Of course they are,—I'll do that," agreed the older man. "Blair has a sister, somewhere out West. If anything comes of the drawings, it will be hers."
"Can you get in touch with his family?" asked Middleton.
"Don't know anything about them," Crane returned. "I suppose there must be letters or an address book or some such matters in Blair's desk. Thorpe may know more about it than I do."
"Thorpe may know a lot of things," suggested Weston. "Better get him up here, I say."
"All right," Benjamin Crane said, after a moment's pause. "He's down at my house,—I'll telephone him to come up here now."
But when connection was made it transpired that Thorpe had left the Crane house and nobody knew where he was.
"Looks bad," said Weston, shortly. "Why'd he run away?"
"See here, Mr. Weston," Crane said, "if you've any suspicion against McClellan Thorpe just put it out of your mind. He had no hand in Mr. Blair's death——"
"I didn't say he had."
"I know you didn't, but you implied it, and I want to quash any such suggestion at once."
"It's absurd," Shelby agreed. "You don't know the friendship that existed between the two men. Why, they were fellow architects and have lived here together for over two years. They were like brothers."
"That's all right, but why did Thorpe run away?"
"He hasn't run away!" Crane said, "what a ridiculous charge! Merely because he left my house, you say he's run away! He's probably on his way up here. This is his home."
"Well, until he gets here, I'll look around his room a bit," Weston remarked, and as he went into Thorpe's bedroom, Crane followed.
There was nothing sinister there. Merely the usual appointments, and rather plain ones, for the young architects were not of luxurious tastes or means.
With a practiced eye and deft hand, Weston went through dresser drawers, and cupboard shelves. Looked into the books on the night table, and in a short time had satisfied himself that there was no evidence apparent, so far.
Into the bathroom next, they all went. This the two men shared, and the detective scrutinized the glasses and brushes that were on shelves, either side of the wash stand. They were of tidy appearance and presented merely the array that might be expected.
Weston sniffed hard at the glasses, but could detect no untoward odors, nor any sign of poison or drugs of any sort.
The small white cupboard on the wall showed only a few bottles containing toilet appurtenances and simple medicines.
"Witch Hazel, Peroxide, Talcum powder, Cholera mixture and soda mints," he said, from the various labels,—"hello, here's laudanum! How about that?"
"No," Doctor Middleton declared, "it wasn't laudanum poisoning. It was prussic acid. The effects are quite different, and there's no mistaking them. I don't know what the young men were doing with laudanum, but it wasn't that that killed Mr. Blair."
"Curious, to have poison around at all," said Shelby, musingly.
"Gives a hint of intended suicide," suggested Weston. "Though not necessarily——"
"I should say not!" broke in Benjamin Crane. "Gilbert Blair wasn't coward enough to take his own life for any reason. Why, he was my son's friend. It was an accident,—and the fact of finding that other poison about, points toward accident, to my mind."
"Just how do you make that out, Mr. Crane?" asked Weston, with a slight smile.
"Why"—began Crane, a little lamely—"I'm not sure that I can explain, but it appeared to me that if Blair had one poison in his possession, he might have had the other, and——"
"How do you know this laudanum was Mr. Blair's possession?" asked Weston. "Might it not have been Mr. Thorpe's?"
"How you hark back to Thorpe!" exclaimed Crane, with real petulance. "I wish you'd stop it, Weston. If you've a definite suspicion that he killed Gilbert Blair, say so, but don't throw out these silly hints."
"Nothing especially silly about them, Mr. Crane," the detective was quite unruffled, "only I hold that the poison we've just found is quite as likely to be Mr. Thorpe's as Mr. Blair's. That's all."
"Of course it is," Shelby said, placatingly, "but that's neither here nor there. If you have reason to think Mr. Blair was murdered, you've reason to look for the criminal. But I don't think you've proved it was not an accident, and until you do, it's well to be careful how you throw suspicion about."
"It's not so easy to prove an accident,—or a murder, either,—when there's practically no clew to be found. Therefore, it's our duty to question any one who can give any material evidence, especially one who was presumably the last one to see Mr. Blair alive."
"Except the murderer,—if there was one," said Shelby.
"Yes, and if he was not the murderer himself," grunted Weston.
"Send for that doorman," said Middleton, a bit curtly. "Let's get somewhere."
Hastings, being summoned, appeared, and told all he knew, which was little, and all he surmised, which was more.
"Yes," he said, "Mr. Thorpe called me, this morning, and when I came, he was all of a shiver. He sat on the edge of that chair there, and his teeth chattered and his voice shook——"
"Small wonder!" said Crane. "Mac is a very nervous man, and a shock such as he must have had——"
"Go on, Hastings," ordered Doctor Middleton.
"Well, Mr. Thorpe said Mr. Blair was ill, and told me to go in and see him. Now, of course, Mr. Thorpe knew Mr. Blair was dead, but he said he was ill. Why did he do that?"
"Tell your story," said Crane, scowling at him. "Don't ask fool questions as you go along!"
"Yes, sir. Well, I went in and I saw Mr. Blair was dead. And I told Mr. Thorpe so, and he didn't seem surprised, but he was all of a blue funk, and he said, 'Well,—get a doctor—or whatever is the thing to do.' Just like that. He didn't show any grief or any sorrow,—only just seemed scared to death."
"And he didn't show any surprise?" This from Middleton.
"Of course he didn't!" Crane cried; "of course he knew Blair was dead when he called Hastings. I know Thorpe, and he's a most nervous temperament. And when he called for help, as of course he had to do, it was the most natural thing in the world for him to say that Mr. Blair was ill. Nor would he be apt to show his grief then and there. He was stunned, and moreover, he's not the man to talk over his sorrow with the janitor! I say Thorpe acted as any of us would do in the same circumstances. Now, I for one, object to having him misjudged."
"You're a good champion, Mr. Crane," said Doctor Middleton, "and I don't blame you for standing up for your friend. But he'll have to speak for himself,—Mr. Thorpe will,—and the sooner we get hold of him the better."
"I agree to all that," Crane replied, "all I ask is that he shall not be condemned unheard."
"That's reasonable enough," granted Middleton, "but we must get hold of him soon."
"He'll come back here," Mr. Crane assured them. "He hasn't run away, as you seem to think, but he has a natural aversion to this place, and I shouldn't be surprised if he stayed away for a few days."
"A few days! Where would he stay?" asked the Examiner.
"Probably at his Club."
"Which Club? I'll call it up and see if he's there now," Weston said, briskly.
"The Artists' Club. Call it, and they'll tell you something about him, I'm sure."
Weston called the Club and received word that Thorpe was there.
"Ask him to speak to me," he ordered, and in a moment he was talking to Thorpe himself.
"Yes, I'll come home right away," Thorpe agreed, when urgently invited to do so.
"I told you so," said Crane, triumphantly; "that man had no thought of running away, but he dreads this place just now. He's of a sensitive, nervous nature, and I hope, Mr. Weston, you'll be decent to him. No third degree manners,—that won't help with McClellan Thorpe."
They all remained awaiting Thorpe's return. Shelby busied himself looking over some of Blair's books and papers, while Benjamin Crane talked to Dr. Middleton.
He rather liked the Medical Examiner, but he did not at all admire detective Weston or his ways. So he endeavored to give Doctor Middleton a mental picture of Thorpe, and prepare him for an interview that should temper justice with mercy, or at least, consideration.
Weston spent the time prowling round Blair's bedroom in search of clews. But his keen glances could find no single thing that gave any hint of means or reason for suicide, nor any that suggested an accident.
"Wherefore," he concluded to himself, "it's a murder. No clew, means a careful removal of any clew,—and a mighty clever criminal at that. Maybe it wasn't friend Thorpe, but a few words with him will convince me one way or the other."
Thorpe came, and though his expression was inscrutable and his face set and stern, it seemed to those who knew him best that he was trying to hold himself together and not give way to his nervousness.
"Take a seat, Mr. Thorpe," Doctor Middleton said, courteously, after Crane had introduced them; "we expect from you a straightforward account of all you can tell us of your experiences this morning."
"Why should my account be other than straightforward?" Thorpe said, breathing hard, and making an evident effort at self-control. "I have nothing to conceal, and if I seem distraught, it is, I dare say, not astonishing."
"Now, Mac," Mr. Crane said, kindly, "don't bristle. We're all your friends, and we only want you——"
"Good heavens, Mr. Crane, why do you take that conciliatory attitude? I've no confession to make,— I— I didn't kill Blair——"
"Why do you say that?" cried Weston. "Who even hinted that you killed Mr. Blair? Why do you think anybody killed him?"
"Why do you?" countered Thorpe, turning an angry glance at the detective.
"I haven't said I did."
"Not in so many words,—but you imply it. I tell you I didn't kill him! I didn't!"
Thorpe was not excited of manner, he was very calm, but his blazing eyes and quivering mouth, and his intensity, rather than force of speech gave him the effect of intense excitement.
"Don't deny or assert, Mr. Thorpe," said Middleton, coldly. "Just tell your story. At what time did you rise?"
"About ten o'clock," was the short reply.
"Then I bathed, shaved and dressed just as usual. I generally dress before Mr. Blair, and I thought nothing of his silence."
"His bedroom door was closed?"
"Yes; then, after I was dressed and about to go out to my breakfast, I called to him through the door."
"What did you say?"
"I can't repeat the exact words, but it was only to the effect of 'good-by, old chap,' or maybe, 'I'm off, Blair,' or something of the sort."
"And you went on?"
"I didn't hear him reply,—he usually says, 'All right, Mac,' so I repeated my call. Then, when he didn't respond that time, I knocked at his door."
"Fearing something was wrong?"
"N-no,—not wrong,— I think I just wanted him to say something——"
"Why were you so anxious he should say something?" This last from Weston, with a direct glance.
"Why, good Lord, man," Thorpe's eyes blazed, "because I am accustomed to a reply, and when it didn't come, I naturally wondered why."
"Didn't you think he might merely be asleep?"
"I didn't think anything about that. I acted on impulse. I didn't hear him, and I wanted to see him."
"And you did? You opened the door?"
"Yes, after I knocked twice,—then I— I opened his door."
"It was not locked?"
"No; we never lock our bedroom doors."
"Go on,—and then?"
"Then"—Thorpe spoke slowly, as if choosing his words—"then, I saw him lying in the bed,—still,—as if asleep. I went closer, and I saw by the look on his face that he was dead."
"You knew that at once?" asked Middleton. "You didn't think he was only asleep——"
"No,—the pallor was unmistakable——"
"Have you often looked upon death?"
"Never before,—except at a funeral."
"And yet you knew at once it was death you saw,—not sleep. That is remarkable, Mr. Thorpe."
Thorpe met Middleton's eyes, and then his own fell.
"I can't help that, Doctor," he said; "I was sure,—that is,—almost sure Mr. Blair was dead."
"Yet you called Hastings and told him Mr. Blair was ill."
"Yes,—I couldn't seem to say the—the other——"
"Why did you kill him, Mr. Thorpe?"
"I— I kill him! Oh, I didn't!— I told you I didn't!"
"Yes; but we can't believe you."
The few days following Gilbert Blair's death were like a nightmare to his friends. A search of his papers had revealed a probable address of his mother, but a telegram sent there had as yet brought no reply and though a letter was despatched, no answer could be expected to that for a week or more.
Meantime, by general consent, Benjamin Crane took charge of Blair's affairs. The funeral took place in an undertaker's establishment and the body was placed in a receiving vault, until Blair's people could be heard from. His immediate possessions remained in the studio rooms, for the lease had still six months to run, and the police objected to any removal of the dead man's effects. It was practically impossible to seal them up as Thorpe occupied the same rooms, but a strict surveillance was kept, and Weston doggedly asserted he would yet track down the murderer.
For no one could doubt Blair had been murdered. On the eve of the prize competition, in which he was so deeply interested,—on the eve, as he hoped, of being engaged to Carlotta Harper, whom he loved, full of life and energy, why should he kill himself? It was impossible to accept the theory of suicide, and the detectives were hard at work on the case.
McClellan Thorpe was suspected, but as there was no evidence against him, save his indubitable and exclusive opportunity, he had not as yet been arrested.
"His opportunity was not exclusive," Mr. Crane contended. "Those studio apartments are not burglar proof! Anybody might have got in during the night and administered the poison."
"No," Weston objected. "It would be practically impossible for any one to go into those rooms, force or persuade Blair to swallow poison and get away without being heard by Mr. Thorpe or without leaving any trace of his presence."
"Well, look here, Weston," Mr. Crane spoke very seriously, "you know me well enough to know I've no notion of evading justice for anybody. But knowing McClellan Thorpe as I do, and knowing his peculiar temperament, I wish you'd let him alone,—at least, until you have a bit of indisputable evidence."
"I've got it, Mr. Crane."
The two were sitting in Benjamin Crane's library, where they often met to talk over the case. Julie was present, for she wanted to know every detail of any discovery that might be made.
"I don't believe it!" she flared out at the detective's statement.
"Yes, Miss Crane," Weston said, "I found a pretty suspicious circumstance to-day. Nothing less than a very small bottle, without cork or label, but smelling unmistakably of prussic acid."
"Where was it?" demanded Crane.
"Hidden in an old and unused paint-box of McClellan Thorpe's."
"Where was the paint-box?"
"'Way back, on a cupboard shelf. Pushed back, behind a pile of old books."
"Planted evidence," suggested Crane. "The real criminal put it there to incriminate Mr. Thorpe."
"Not a chance!" said Weston, smiling. "I've had that place watched too closely for that, sir! Nobody could get in to plant evidence, or to do anything else without being seen by my men. No, sir, that bottle in Mr. Thorpe's paint-box was put there by his own hand, and it will prove his undoing."
"But it's absurd!" flashed Julie. "Mr. Thorpe never killed his friend,—but if he had done so, he wouldn't be fool enough to leave such evidence around!"
"He couldn't help himself, Miss Crane. When he used the bottle that night, he had to secrete it somewhere, and since then he has been too closely watched to dare to take it from its hiding-place and dispose of it."
"But I don't see how he could have done it," Crane objected. "How could he persuade Blair to take a dose of poison?"
"Oh, in lots of ways. Say, they had a highball or that,—all he had to do was to drop the tiniest speck from the little vial into the drink. He could easily do that unobserved. Anyway, he did do it. Then, of course, afterward, he had ample chance to clean the glasses and remove every trace of crime, except that he had to conceal the bottle. This he did in the most obvious way. Exactly the way any one would try to secrete such a thing. The bottle had been emptied and washed, but that poison has such an enduring odor that it is practically impossible to eliminate it entirely. But there's the fact, Mr. Crane, now, unless another suspect can be found, it's all up with Mr. Thorpe."
"Then we'll find another suspect!" exclaimed Julie.
"Go ahead, Miss. I'll investigate your new man, as soon as you name him. That's the important part of this affair, there's no chance of another suspect. No one has been so much as thought of——"
"That doorman?" said Julie.
"Nixy! He had no motive, no opportunity,—and there's not the slightest reason to suspect him."
"Some outsider, then," went on Julie, desperately, "some fellow artist, who feared Gilbert would win that prize——"
"Miss Crane, you must know that's the motive attributed to Mr. Thorpe. You must know that he and Mr. Blair were rivals in that competition and——"
Julie's eyes flashed fire. "And you mean to say that he killed his friend,—his chum,—in order to be sure of winning the prize!"
"That's the motive we're assuming. But there was doubtless a scrap,—a row about the pictures or drawings,—in fact,— I hate to tell you these things, but we have learned that there was bad blood between the two men, for each thought the other had imitated his own ideas. This brought about more or less dissension, and—well, probably both men lost their temper, and real hatred ensued."
Weston tried to adapt his language so as to spare Julie's feelings as much as possible, for the girl was highly wrought up, and he was genuinely sorry for her. He knew of the state of things between her and Thorpe, knew, too, that it explained Benjamin Crane's determination to free Thorpe from suspicion, if it could be done.
But Crane was staggered by the disclosure of the hidden vial.
"It's a clew," he said, but he spoke slowly and thoughtfully.
"Yes, it's a clew," agreed Weston, "and it will convict the criminal. The label,—if it ever had one,—has been washed off. The cork is missing,—and, by the way, if that cork could be found it would help a lot! But all the same, I've a notion I can trace that bottle to its source."
"How?" asked Crane. "Is it of a peculiar shape or style?"
"No; just a common, ordinary two-ounce bottle, such as most druggists use all the time. But there's no name blown in it,—that's important, for many dealers have their names on their glassware, and a blank bottle is conspicuous of itself."
"Conspicuous by its rarity,—but not therefore traceable," said Mr. Crane.
"Perhaps so,—by elimination——"
"Nonsense!" Julie cried; "you can't trace it, and you know it! You're just making believe,—you're what do you call it? framing a case! you're railroading McClellan Thorpe to prison! I won't have it! Father, surely you can do something! You must!"
Stifling her sobs, Julie ran out of the room.
There was an uncomfortable silence and then Benjamin Crane said:
"You see what a hard position I'm in, Weston."
"But of course," Crane sighed deeply, "justice must be done,—only I beg of you, Weston, use every effort to find another suspect,—a logical one,—now, don't misunderstand me! I mean, if there can possibly be a doubt of Thorpe's guilt, and a chance of another man's guilt,—for Heaven's sake find that other man!"
"Not a chance."
"But, at least, keep an open mind. And spare no expense. Get a special detective,—a big one,—there now, don't bristle! I don't suppose you think yourself the cleverest in the world, do you? Don't you admit any superior? If so, get him; if not, then prove your own worth. I repeat, I want no undue favor shown to McClellan Thorpe, but if he is not the guilty man, then I want you to move heaven and earth to find the real criminal. Can't you conceive, Weston, of a murderer so clever as to have committed the crime, planted the vial as evidence against Thorpe and made his escape leaving no clew?"
"I can conceive of such a thing, sir, as I can conceive of a ghost,—but there is no evidence for either conception."
"Evidence enough for ghosts, Weston! Haven't you read my book?"
"Oh, I clean forgot that book you wrote, Mr. Crane. No, I haven't read it, but my folks have, and I dare say you do believe in spooks. But, come, now, you don't believe a spook killed Mr. Blair, do you, sir?"
"No,—and yet, it is within the bounds of possibility——"
"Not as the police count possibility! There's small chance of any human agency other than Mr. Thorpe, but far less chance of a supernatural agent! I'll be getting along, Mr. Crane, if you're going off on that track."