"Are you a reporter?"
"I am, but also I want to be something more than that. And in this case I want to write up these things for a special article, and a personal interview would help a lot."
"Well, my boy, you impress me pleasantly, and, as I like nothing better than to talk on my favorite subject, I'll give you a fifteen-minute chat. More than that I cannot spare time for."
"Then let's confine our talk to the phase that interests me most. I can get your beliefs and experiences from your book, you know. And your personality," Douglas gave him a humorously appraising glance, "I am gathering as we go along. First, will you tell me your attitude, mental and spiritual, regarding the loss of your son? I mean, though I fear I put it crudely, are you entirely reconciled to his death because of the comfort you receive from his—er—communications and all that?"
"A difficult question to answer," Crane paused a moment, "but I think I may say yes. I bow to the will of a Higher Power in the death of my son, and I am grateful to that same Higher Power for the comfort that is mine in the communion I have with my boy."
"Then you do not really grieve over his loss?"
"Not now—no. At first, of course, both his mother and I were crushed, but when he came to us, in the spirit, we took heart, and now we are perfectly satisfied—more than satisfied to accept our life conditions just as they are."
"You have frequent communication with the spirit of your departed son?"
"With the same medium always?"
"Nowadays, yes. I tried various ones, but I rely on Madame Parlato. She has had the greatest success, and now can readily get into communication with my son at almost any time."
"Excuse me, Mr. Crane, if I am indiscreet, but have you never felt that she might be—not entirely—honest?"
Benjamin Crane smiled benignly. "Don't hesitate to put your doubt into words. I am quite ready to answer that question. I have no doubts of any sort concerning the medium's honesty, sincerity and genuineness. I have no doubt that the communications she obtains are really from my son Peter. That his spirit speaks to me through her. This has been proved to me in many ways, but a far greater proof is the conviction in my soul of the reality of it all. My wife believes as implicitly as I do, and no amount of scoffing from outsiders can in any way shake our faith."
"You have had material proofs?"
"Yes; here is a letter from my son himself. Here is a tobacco pouch that I know was his. Here is his handkerchief."
With a calm pride Benjamin Crane took these articles from a table drawer and showed them.
Douglas was deeply impressed, examined the articles and watched Crane as he returned them to the drawer.
"You see," said Crane, "it is not only difficult but impossible to account for those things except by supernatural explanation, so why refuse the logical truth?"
"That's so. And, I understand now, why you are so happy in your beliefs, for it all gives your life a continual and absorbing interest. You are writing another book, are you not?"
"Yes; it contains the detailed account of my seances, and will, I trust, prove an additional source of information and education on the great subject of survival."
"And your daughter? Does she, too, subscribe to all your theories?"
"Almost entirely. She is not so absorbed in the subject as Mrs. Crane and myself, but she has become persuaded of many truths."
"And now, my time is nearly up, may I ask you a word regarding the Blair case. Do you think McClellan Thorpe is the guilty man?"
"No! a thousand times no! I am trying by every means in my power to prove that he isn't. I hope to succeed, too. But we mustn't go into that subject, as I have an important appointment to keep. Come to see me again, Mr. Douglas, if you like. I'm not unaccustomed to such calls, and I'll be glad to see you again. By appointment, though, for I'm a busy man."
Tom Douglas went back, over to Brooklyn, and, going to a hotel, asked for one John Harrison.
In a short time Peter Boots was eagerly listening to the report of the messenger he had sent to his father.
"I learned a lot, Mr. Harrison," the visitor began. "I think I can give you quite a bit of the local color you need for your novel."
"Not so much local color as mental attitude," Peter returned. "You see, in writing a psychological novel the author has to be careful of shades of feeling in his delineation of the characters. And as this Mr. Crane seemed to be just the type I want to study, I'm glad to have you tell me all the things he said, as nearly as you can recollect his own language."
"Yes, I know. And I was mighty interested on my own account, too."
"He was willing you should write an article about him?"
"Oh, yes, and asked me to come again."
"Go on, tell me all he said—how he looked and acted and everything that happened."
And so the young reporter and free-lance writer told Peter Boots all about his father, under the impression that he was talking to one who had never seen Benjamin Crane.
"He's a wonderful man, Mr. Harrison," the other said, enthusiastically. "He must be fifty-five at least, maybe more, but he's so alert and quick-witted, and so full of his subject, that he seems a much younger man."
"And he seems happy?"
"Happy! I should say so! Perfectly reconciled to his son's death, because of these communications he gets from him! I say, Mr. Harrison, I can't stand for it! It gets me to see how that man is gulled, and he such a clear-headed, sane sort! Had proofs, too—all sorts of things. Do you believe it, Mr. Harrison? Do you believe that the spirit of Mr. Crane's dead son talks to him through a medium?"
"I do not," said Peter Crane, endeavoring not to speak too emphatically. "I didn't want you to get that interview in the interests of Spiritism at all, but to tell me of the condition, mentally and physically, of Mr. Crane."
"Yes, I know. Well, the old guy is O.K. physically, fit as a fiddle. And sound mentally, you bet, except that he's nutty on the supernatural. Why, he showed me the tobacco pouch—you know he tells about that in his book——"
"Showed me, too, a handkerchief of his dead son's——"
"That's not so remarkable."
"Yes, it is; 'cause it's one of a set that the chap took away with him, embroidered by his best girl, I believe."
Peter started. One of those handkerchiefs Carly gave him! Where in the world could that fool medium have got hold of that?
"Also a note from son, in his own handwriting," Douglas went on.
"Did you see it?"
"Yep. Commonplace looking note, advising his sister to drop acquaintance with Thorpe—he's the man they arrested in the Blair case."
"Where did the note come from?"
"Materialized—out of thin air."
"At a seance?"
"No; the brother kindly left it on sister's bureau, I believe."
Peter Crane was bewildered indeed. What sort of performances were going on, anyhow. And who was at the bottom of all this?
Clearly, he must look into things a little more before he did his final disappearance!
"Well, Mr. Douglas, you've helped me a whole lot. Now, as I say, I want mental impressions. Tell me everything you can think of about the atmosphere of the whole house, the—did you see Mrs. Crane?"
"No, only the old man. There seemed to be quite a lot of people about, coming and going. We had our interview in Mr. Crane's study, or library——"
"I know, the small room at the back of the house——"
"Been there?" Douglas looked up quickly.
"Read of it in the book," said Peter, quietly, annoyed at himself for the slip.
"Yes. Well, there's a table in the middle of the room, and in the drawer of that table Mr. Crane keeps all the things' materialized by the medium. I think he expects to get a big collection."
"Oh, Lord!" groaned Peter, "what a mess!"
"Yes, isn't it?" Douglas assumed that the whole subject of Spiritism was thus referred to.
"Suppose anything happened to shake Mr. Crane's faith?"
"I don't think anything could do that. He's absolutely gullible. He'd swallow anything. I say, how do you explain it? Why is it that big-brained, well-balanced men fall for this rot?"
"They can't be really well-balanced,—and then, too, it's largely the eagerness to believe, the desire for the comfort it brings them that makes them think they do believe. And a clever medium can do much."
"Sure. But those materializations! Where'd she get the goods?"
"Give it up. Tell me more about Mr. Crane."
So Douglas patiently recounted and repeated all the words of Peter's father and told of his appearance and manner, under the impression that he was helping an author with data for a psychological story.
Peter had found Douglas by merely making inquiry for a bright young reporter, and had made an agreement, satisfactory to both, for him to try to get the interview with Benjamin Crane, and they would both profit by it.
He was delighted that Crane had asked the young man to call again, and when they parted it was with the understanding that there should be another interview arranged.
Peter Boots had much food for thought.
He sat thinking for hours after the food had been given to him.
What was the explanation? What could be the explanation?
How could communications from a dead man be received when the man was not dead?
How he longed to go home, disclose himself, and run to earth that fearful fraud! How gladly he would do so, except that it would ruin his father's reputation. What would the public think of a man who had been so taken in by fraud, and had blazoned it to the world.
To be sure it was no reflection on Benjamin Crane's sincerity, yet he would be the butt of derision for the whole country, and his discredited head would be bowed for the rest of his life.
Peter couldn't bring himself to do that, especially now that he had discovered that his loss was not a source of hopeless grief to his parents.
"I'm not wanted in this world," he told himself, sadly, "I'm a superfluous man. I've got to dispose of myself somehow," and he gave a very realizing sigh.
And the thought of Carly,—that tried to obtrude itself, he put resolutely from him.
"She's probably forgotten me," he assured himself, "and anyway I must do the right thing by Mother and Dad first. If I decide that I can't demolish their air castle, so carefully built up, I must light out,—that's all."
Trying hard to be cheerful, but feeling very blue and desolate he ate a solitary dinner and went again to the theater to see "Labrador Luck."
Douglas' graphic description of his home and his father had given him a great longing to go there, to see the dear old place, the dear old man,—and his mother, and Julie.
He felt he must go. Then, he knew he couldn't go, without breaking his father's heart and life.
"I broke his heart when I didn't go home," he thought whimsically, "now, I mustn't break it again by going home!"
He sat through the moving picture performance again, and marveled anew at the beauty of the production. It was far above the rank and file of moving pictures, it was adjudged by all critics the very greatest production ever put upon the screen.
Shelby's name had become famous, his work was applauded everywhere, and Peter yearned to see him and renew their friendship.
But he knew he mustn't think of those things. First of all he had to decide whether or not he was to come back to life, and if not,—and he had a conviction that that would be his decision,—he must not dally with tempting thoughts and hopes of any sort.
But it was hard! Blair dead, Shelby famous, and he, Peter, unable to talk things over with any relative, chum or friend.
He must talk to somebody, and on his way out of the theater he spoke to the box office man.
"Wonderful show," he said, smiling at him. "Who's this Shelby?"
"He's the big push of to-day," was the enthusiastic reply. "He's a marvel of efficiency and generalship. And a big author, too."
"He wrote the play as well as produced it, I see."
"Yes. Oh, he can do anything."
"No; but I've heard he's engaged to a girl,—a Miss Harper, I believe."
Peter choked. The last straw! But he might have known,—he, himself, supposed dead, Blair dead, what more natural than that Carly should turn to old Kit?
With a mere nod to the man who had unwittingly dealt him this final blow, Peter walked out into the night.
And he walked and walked. Up Broadway to the Circle, on up and into Riverside Drive, and along the Hudson as far as he could go.
Thinking deeply, planning desperately, only to be confronted with the awful picture of his father's consternation at the shattering of his beliefs and the collapse of his celebrity.
At times he would tell himself he was absurdly apprehensive, that any parents would rather have their lost son restored than to have the applause and notoriety of public fame. And, then, he would realize that while that might be generally true, yet this was a peculiar case. His father was a proud, sensitive nature. Perhaps—Peter shuddered,—perhaps he wouldn't love a son who by his return made him the most laughed at man in the whole world!
Peter longed to go to some one for advice. Shelby, now,—his big efficient mind would know at once what was best to do.
But he couldn't disclose himself to Kit and not to any one else. Kit couldn't keep that a secret, even if he wanted to do so.
And— Kit was engaged to Carly! He never wanted to see either of them again!
Poor, lonely, troubled Peter. Only one plain, sure truth abided. He must do his duty, and he felt pretty sure he knew what that duty was. It was to stay out of the life he had lost.
There was no other possible course.
He turned and retraced his steps southward, and finally went across town, drawn as by a magnet to his own home.
Home! What a mockery the word was!
It was two o'clock in the morning now; he had been walking or sitting on a Drive bench for hours.
He was not conscious of fatigue, he only wanted to see his old home and then go away forever. He didn't plan his future. He was sure he could make a living easily enough, he felt he could build up a new life for himself over a new name. But oh, how he longed for the old life!
He stood in front of the house and stared at it.
He walked round and round the block it was on, pausing each time he passed the front door, and walking on, if there chanced to be a passer-by.
At last, he concluded to give up the painful pleasure of gazing at the closed windows and go back to Brooklyn.
His gaze traveled over the windows at the various rooms,—how well he knew what they all were,—and at last he found himself looking at the front door. How often he had let himself in with his latchkey.
Involuntarily his hand went to his pocket, where that latchkey even now was,—and hardly knowing what he was doing, he had the key in his hand and was mounting the steps of his old home.
Still as one in a daze, and with no intention of making his presence known, but with an uncontrollable desire to see for the last time those dear rooms, he silently fitted the key into place.
Noiselessly he turned it and pushed the door open.
The house was still, there were no lights on, save a low glimmer in the front hall.
He remembered that had always been left on.
But the street lights faintly illumined the living-room, and he went in. With a wave of desperate homesickness he threw himself on the big davenport and buried his face into a pile of cushions.
He couldn't go away,—he couldn't.
And so, he forced himself to put aside his emotion, he bravely fought down his nostalgia, and promising himself one look into his father's study he vowed to go directly after.
He stepped into the little room where Douglas had been received. He couldn't resist the temptation to look about it, and, cautiously he snapped on the desk light.
There was the table with the drawer in it.
Carefully, Peter opened the drawer and saw for himself the tobacco pouch, the handkerchief, and the letter, signed "Peter."
He stared at it, amazed at the similarity to his own penmanship.
"I'd like to stay, if only to ferret out the mystery of this rascally fake!" he thought "But—oh, hang it! this rascally fake is the very breath of life to Dad and Mother. No, Peter Boots, it can't be done! You're out of it all and out of it all you must stay. Clear out of here now, before you get in any deeper."
He fingered the old tobacco pouch.
"Heavens and earth!" he exclaimed to himself, as a sudden thought struck him. "That's so!"
Again he took up the letter, looking closely at the formation of the words, studying the tenor of the message, and then, with a sigh, laid all back in the drawer and gently closed it.
"That way madness lies," he told himself, and turned to leave the room and the house.
As he reached for the light switch, a small hand laid on his own detained him.
Startled, he looked up and saw a witch-like, eerie face smiling at him.
"Must you go?" whispered a mocking voice, and Peter Boots, for once in his life was absolutely stricken dumb.
Who or what was this sprite, this Brownie? What was she doing in his father's house? Were materialized spirits really inhabiting the place?
"Hush!" Zizi warned him, "don't speak above a whisper. Are you a burglar?"
Peter shook his head, unable to repress a smile, and his smile made the same impression on Zizi that it had always made on everybody,—that of absolute pleasure.
"Who are you?" she asked, scarce breathing the words.
"John Harrison," he returned, still smiling. "I'll go now, please."
"Without further explanation?"
"All right, I'll let you out. I know all about you. You sent a chap here to interview Mr. Crane,—and you're getting follow-up literature."
"Right! Good night."
And with a swiftness and silence born of the dire necessity of the moment, Peter went to the front door, out of it and down the street in record time.
He turned the first corner, and walked rapidly many blocks, before turning to see if he were followed.
He was not, and he went on his way to Brooklyn, his life tragedy still ahead of him, but relieved by the touch of comedy added by that mysterious and wonderfully attractive girl.
The Blair case had come to a standstill. Although the police were still making investigations, they were fairly well satisfied that Thorpe was the guilty man and since he was jailed and awaiting trial, they rested on their laurels.
Pennington Wise was by no means sure of Thorpe's guilt, and Zizi was certain of his innocence, but though these two were working hard, as yet they had found no other definite suspect.
"But you must, Zizi," wailed Julie. "You know as well as I do that Mac never killed Gilbert. Now, find out who did!"
Wise confessed himself baffled, but asked for a little more time before admitting himself vanquished.
"You see, Ziz," he said to his astute young helper, "there are so many interesting side issues, that we get off the main track. I own up I'm quite as much absorbed in this Spiritism racket as I am in the murder case."
"That's the trouble, Penny," Zizi returned, gravely. "You're scattering your energies. And it won't do. You've got to concentrate on the Blair murder. And you've got to get at it from a different angle. Suppose you take a run out West and see that mother and sister. They may give you a line on things."
"I've been thinking I'd do that. There must be something in Blair's past that can be unearthed and may prove enlightening. I could do it in a week, and it might be time well spent."
"Of course it would. And, truly, there's no way to look, here. I've thought and thought but we've no hint or clew pointing to any one but Thorpe,—and, it wasn't Thorpe."
Then Zizi told him of the strange man she had seen in the Crane library the night before.
"And you let him get away! Why, Zizi?"
"He was no burglar. I saw that. There was no use in alarming the house. He was——"
"Oh, I knew at once who he was. He was the John Harrison who sent that Douglas person here to interview Mr. Crane."
"Well, is he to be allowed to walk in and out as he chooses! How did he get in?"
"I don't know, but I hope he'll come again. I like him. Why, Penny, he's a gentleman."
"But who is he? What's he up to?"
"He didn't confide in me, but I know. He's the medium's agent. He comes here and gets data and information and tells her and she works it off on the Cranes. I saw through that at once. He must have a key and he just walks in and helps himself, you see."
"Maybe; but that's what he does, all the same."
"And he told you his name!"
"Yes; but that's nothing. He'll have another name and another home before night. These mediums resort to the strangest tricks to get their stuff! Why, Penny, he was prowling in that drawer where the tobacco pouch is, and I think he meant to take it away so they could 'materialize' it over again. I'm going to watch for him nights. He'll come again."
But Zizi was mistaken. John Harrison did not come again, though the girl was alert to welcome him.
Pennington Wise went West, to see the relatives of Blair, for it had frequently been his experience that such inquiries into a man's early life brought about useful knowledge.
This left Zizi in a position of responsibility, to keep watch of developments and to learn what she could from them.
She was not so sure as Julie of Thorpe's innocence, but she meant to find another suspect if one could be found, and she redoubled her efforts.
Zizi had become a welcome guest in the Thorpe household, and they all admired and loved her. A most adaptable little piece, she fitted into the family as if she belonged there, and she and Julie were warm friends.
She said nothing of the midnight intruder, being determined in her own mind, that he was an emissary from the medium, Madame Parlato, whom Zizi regarded as an absolute fake. To prove this was a desire of Zizi's mind as well as to solve the mystery of the Blair murder.
But her fondness for the Cranes was such, that she was not sure she should expose the medium's trickery, even if she discovered it herself. So she went on with her secret investigations, and at present they included an inquiry into the matter of that reporter's visit and John Harrison's appearance on the scene.
Zizi had, of course, read Benjamin Crane's book, and in it had seen the picture of Peter, but the portrait was so different in effect from the bearded man whom she saw but indistinctly by the dim light in the library that she never connected the two in her thoughts.
But she thoroughly believed that the man in the library had come there for the purpose of acquiring either information or materials for further manifestations of the medium. She was sure that the tobacco pouch and the handkerchief which had been "materialized" had been obtained in this way and, she argued, the best way to find out, was to remain silent as to John Harrison's call.
When told by Mr. Crane of the visit of Douglas, the reporter, Zizi had suspected something beneath the surface,—it did not seem plausible to her, that the case was just as it was stated.
And somehow, in the back of her astute little brain, she had a notion that the Blair murder and the supernatural manifestations were in some way connected, at least, indirectly.
So she was merely receptive, and put herself in the way of learning all she could of the medium's affairs without showing her own hand. She obtained a detailed account of the seances from the elder Cranes, and each time she became not only more convinced of the medium's fraud, but sure that the faker, more and more secure in her clients' credulity, was growing both daring and careless.
This, Zizi concluded, was her opportunity, and she hoped to profit by her knowledge of the visit of John Harrison.
* * * * *
And meantime, the so-called John Harrison, whom Zizi had sized up so mistakenly, was puzzling his head over the identity of the girl who had seen him.
He was not alarmed by fear of discovery, for he could change his name and address at will, but he was piqued by the saucy announcement that she knew all about him, and amazed at her knowledge that he had sent Douglas to see Benjamin Crane.
Moreover, the sight of that familiar old tobacco pouch of his own had stirred him, and some logical deductions that followed in its train caused him to reconsider his decision to disappear at once.
"But I got to have some money," he reasoned, "and I think I know how to get it!"
As a matter of fact, he did. He had in his mind a plot for a moving picture, which he had long cherished and thought over, but which he had never put on paper. The success of Shelby's great picture put it in his mind to try to sell his own. He was tempted to take it to the Shelby corporation but knowing it wiser, he went to a rival company.
As his plot was new, original and decidedly meritorious, he had no trouble in finding a market. He learned that he could sell merely his plot, that the "continuity" work would be done by their own people; and delighted to receive a most satisfactory lump sum, John Harrison gave his name as Louis Bartram, and removed to another hotel, where he registered under his new name.
For Peter Crane had resolved to do a little investigating on his own hook, and he realized that since the girl at his home knew his present cognomen it must be changed.
Louis Bartram, therefore, sent for Douglas, and took that mystified young man into his confidence to a degree.
"It's this way, Douglas," he said, "I give you my word I'm straight and all right, but I'm unraveling a mystery, and I'm incog for the present."
Now nobody could look into Peter Crane's blue eyes and doubt his veracity, and Douglas believed exactly what was told him.
"Can I help?" he said, simply, and Louis Bartram told him he could.
Wherefore, Bartram expeditiously acquired such information as he needed, and the first item was the name and address of the medium who was responsible for the seances detailed in Benjamin Crane's famous book.
And then to the house of Madame Parlato, Louis Bartram went, having made an appointment through the useful Douglas.
The madame's quick glance of inquiry was satisfied and her ever-ready suspicions lulled by her first glance into Peter's eyes. It was impossible to distrust that frank gaze, and though Peter was an unbeliever in her and all her works, yet his cause was honest and sincere and he met her on her own ground.
"You want a seance?" the occult lady inquired.
"No, Madame Parlato," Peter returned, quietly, "I want to bribe you to undertake a commission for me."
"Wh—what!" she cried, turning white and quite losing her poise at his astonishing remark.
"Now, let's cut out all that," Peter went on, practically, "let's assume that we've thrashed it all out, and agreed that you're one of the cleverest of your sort and can fool the gullible ones very neatly. But, let's also assume that when one who knows comes along that you will meet him halfway, and at least, listen to his proposition."
"But, this,—this is outrageous——"
"Not at all. You see, I know of the faking you have done,—and are doing,—in the Crane matter."
"Oh,—ah——" Madame cautiously awaited further speech from her attractive but unusual caller.
"Yes,—and," here Peter made a bold stroke, "I know who is giving you things to 'materialize,' and why, and I want to know how much you are being paid, in order that I may offer you more to follow my directions."
"I do not acknowledge that you are right——" she began, but Peter interrupted:
"You needn't; your expression, your countenance tells me all I want of acknowledgment. Now, listen to reason. I only want one seance, conducted according to my orders, and I'll pay you what you demand. Your other patron needn't know anything about my hand in the matter."
"I refuse your requests, sir. I resent your accusations, and unless you leave here at once, I shall call——"
"Oh, no, you won't call the police, or any one else. You would greatly object to an investigation of your place here, and you and I know why. You'll do much better, madame, to listen to my proposition, and accept it. You see,— I know!"
The mysterious tone Peter used seemed to carry conviction, and with a little shudder, Madame Parlato gave in.
"What do you want?" she asked, tremulously; "what do you intend to do?"
"I intend to do a great many things," Peter replied, gravely, "but I want very little. Only that you shall conduct a seance, at the time I set and entirely in accordance with my orders."
"And if I refuse?"
"Then I shall feel it my duty to expose you as a fraud and a charlatan."
The woman winced at these words, but meeting Peter's steely gaze and realizing his power over her, she said:
"First, tell me who you are."
"I am Louis Bartram," he said, "you know that already. For the rest, I am an investigator of psychic conditions and a student of the occult, along certain definite lines. You will find it to your best advantage, Madame, to be perfectly frank and truthful with me. Any other course you will find most disastrous."
"Are you—are you of the——"
"Of the police? No, this is not an official investigation. And, moreover, it all depends on yourself whether the results of our work together are ever made public or not. Now, answer my questions. How did you come to give these seances to the Cranes?"
"Mr. Crane came and asked me to."
"Where had he heard of you?"
"I was recommended to him by some friends of his."
"Did you ever know his son, Peter?"
"No; I never heard of him until Mr. Crane came here."
"And then you immediately got into spiritual communication with the dead man?"
"Yes; that is my business."
She spoke a little defiantly, and Peter smiled. "I know. I accept that. Now, I'm a friend of the Cranes, because of having read that book. A man who is so absolutely positive of his beliefs is too good and dear a man to be disturbed in his enjoyment of them."
"Oh, Mr. Bartram, I'm glad you see it that way, too! Truly, I've come to love the Cranes, and if—if I help along a little, it is largely for the comfort and happiness it gives them."
"I know,— I see; and I realize what an awful thing it would be if the world were to learn that all the matter in his book is really false——"
"Oh, it would kill him! If you knew Mr. Crane, if you knew how his very life is bound up in this matter, you would be even more assured what a disaster it would be to have him in any way discredited!"
Peter's heart fell at this, for he had a half hope that he could yet bring himself to demolish his father's air castle.
"Well, then," he said, slowly, "I'll not discredit him, nor you, for, of course, one involves the other. But this, on condition that you obey my commands implicitly in this matter of a seance. If you fail me in one particular, if you disobey one tiny detail, or, if you so much as hint a word to your—your other employer,—I mean the one who has bribed you to certain frauds,—then, I shall show you up, even if it does distress Mr. and Mrs. Crane."
Madame Parlato thought in silence for a moment. Then she said, astutely, "I don't know who you are, Mr. Bartram, but I am quite certain you are something more than you wish to tell. I mean a bigger factor in the Crane affair than you admit. I ask no questions, I agree to your terms, and I will do exactly as you direct, relying on your promise that if I do so, you will not tell of any—any insincerity you may notice."
"Wait a moment,—that promise may lead to complications. If the result of my proposed procedure is to reveal your—er,—insincerity—I cannot be responsible for the consequences. Those you will have to bear. But I will admit that my interests are those of Benjamin Crane, and I shall do all in my power to preserve his secrets and, thereby, yours."
"I think, then, you may go ahead and tell me your plans that you wish me to carry out."
"I've revised them,'" Peter said, thoughtfully, "they may, as I now see it, call for more than one seance. But here's for a starter. When do you expect Mr. Crane again?"
"All right. Merely give him a further materialization. And let the object be this,"—he laid a small paper parcel before her, which he had taken from his pocket,—"yes,—and this," and he produced a second parcel.
She opened the papers, and found the first to be a handkerchief, the duplicate of the one already "materialized" and bearing the monogram Carly had so painstakingly embroidered.
The other parcel contained a silver quarter of a dollar, one side of which had been smoothed off and engraved with the entwined letters P. C.
"These belonged to the son?" Madame exclaimed, excitedly. "Where did you get them?"
"From the son," replied Louis Bartram; "but remember you are under oath of secrecy. You are merely to produce these things as materializations at your next session with Mr. Crane, and also,—I want to be present,—unseen. Can it be managed?"
"Of course, that's easy enough."
Further arrangements were made, terms were agreed on, and Louis Bartram went away from the house of the medium in New York and returned to his hotel in Brooklyn.
And as he came down the steps of the Parlato residence, a small, dark girl, who was walking by, quickly scuttled around a corner, and out of his line of vision.
"I knew it!" Zizi said to herself, exultantly, "he's in cahoots with the spook woman! He's been there to give her things to materialize and soon I'll hear of them! He came to the house and stole something which she will use to fool poor old Mr. Crane. You'll see!"
Zizi talked enthusiastically to herself, resolving to learn more of this attractive young man's identity.
"Clever, wasn't he?" she asked of herself, "to send that reporter around first,—probably he stole a key to the house,—oh, it's a whole big organization, I suppose, and they cover their tracks so completely they're not even suspected."
Acting on an impulse, she turned and went back to the house of the medium. By strategy, she succeeded in getting an interview, although she had no appointment.
"I have come to warn you," she said, without preamble, looking into the woman's eyes, "I am a detective, and I am onto your game. I know that man who just left here, he is your tool, your accomplice. Also, I know that he stole some things from the Crane house that you intend to use in your so-called materializations. Now, I warn you that if you do that, I shall see to it that your deceit is shown up, your fraud exposed!"
"My Lord," cried the puzzled Madame, "who are you? Why do you think that man is my accomplice? It is not so! I never laid eyes on him until this morning!"
"That is not true," Zizi said, sure of her ground, and wondering why the medium looked so unfeignedly puzzled. "He works for you——"
"He does not! He is a client. Now you leave, or I'll have you put out."
"I am going to leave," and Zizi rose, "but you remember what I said. If you show up any more materialized belongings of Mr. Crane's dead son, I'll have you exposed and arrested!"
It is doubtful which of the two was more perplexed by this conversation.
Zizi, with her quick reading of human nature, saw that Madame Parlato was truly surprised at the girl's accusation of an accomplice, therefore, she decided, he could not be an accomplice, after all. And if not, what was he, and what was he doing at the medium's house?
That he was a client, she did not believe, for had she not seen him, rummaging in the Crane library and in that table drawer? It was all most mysterious and Zizi determined to stick to this new mystery in hopes it would shed some light on the old ones.
Meanwhile Madame Parlato was absolutely bewildered. Who was this strange girl who had come flying in with an incredible tale about the new client being an accomplice of her own?
Nor did that question trouble her so much as the consideration of what she should do next? She had arranged to have Mr. Crane at a seance the next evening, and to have Mr. Louis Bartram concealed in an adjoining room, where he could see and hear without being discovered.
Now, if she failed to use the objects he had directed her to use she feared his ire and vengeance, while if she did use them, this awful child, who called herself a detective, threatened exposure!
To be sure, she told herself, that little scrap of humanity couldn't be a detective, the thought was impossible. Yet the child's words and tones had carried conviction. Indeed, she was no child, though small enough to be one. She was either a detective, the Madame finally decided, or, she was a fake medium herself, and had some unknown ax to grind.
In any case, the way of the transgressor was hard, and the occult lady thought a long time before she came to a decision.
But the conclusion she reached was to obey the orders of Louis Bartram. He was a far more formidable antagonist, there must be more real danger in disobeying him than that chit of a girl.
So Madame laid her plans, prepared her properties, and, with fear in her heart, arranged for the forthcoming seance.
And Zizi, worried and uncertain, in Wise's absence, as to just what she should do, laid her plans to be present also at Benjamin Crane's next session with the medium.
And Peter Boots, communing with himself, and rapidly getting more and more excited at his discoveries and the developments of his theories, impatiently awaited the hour when he should see his father and perhaps his mother.
The Heart Helper
Never during her association with Wise, had Zizi wanted him so much as she did at present. The situation, she felt, was too big for her to handle, and the contradictory conclusions forced upon her bewildered her.
Public interest in the Blair murder had waned, or at least it was waiting for the trial of McClellan Thorpe, and while the police were ready to listen to any new evidence or theories, none seemed to be forthcoming.
Julie was in despair, feeling that the great Pennington Wise was making no headway in his endeavors to free Thorpe, and Benjamin Crane too was beginning to doubt Wise's ability.
Zizi, therefore, felt the brunt of upholding her colleague's reputation for cleverness and success, and now that things were getting so complicated, and Penny Wise so far away, the girl felt her responsibility almost greater than she could bear.
But, she concluded, after deep thought, the first and most important thing to be done was to locate that John Harrison.
From Benjamin Crane she obtained the address of young Douglas, the reporter, and went to see him.
Douglas was greatly pleased with the appearance and manner of his visitor, for Zizi was at her sparkling best, and that was very good indeed.
"You see, Mr. Douglas," she confided with a captivating smile, "I'm a Heart Helper."
"Yes. I help people's hearts,—people who are sad or in trouble. Now, I'm working in the interests of a dear friend, a lovely girl, whose sweetheart is being most unjustly treated, and only I can set things straight. Think of that!"
The great dark eyes flashed an appealing glance at him, and Zizi's red mouth took a sorrowful droop at the corners.
Instinctively he yearned to bring back the smile and he said, promptly, "Can I help you? Is that why you come to me?"
"Exactly," and Zizi beamed at him, quite completing his undoing.
"And what I want," she went on quickly, lest she lose her suddenly-acquired power over him, "is only the address of Mr. John Harrison."
Douglas's face fell, and he plainly showed his embarrassment and chagrin.
"That I can't tell you," he began,—but paused at the look of despair that came to Zizi's expressive face.
"Oh, please," she begged. "It's so necessary,—so important. I won't make any wrong use of the information. Please tell me."
"But I can't, Miss Zizi. You see, Mr.—Harrison isn't where he was. He—he isn't anywhere."
Clearly, Douglas thought, he was making a mess of things. But what could he say?
"Are you making game of me?" Zizi's tone was wistful, and with her head cocked to one side like an alert bird, she waited breathlessly for his answer.
"No, not a bit of it!"
"But—you say—he isn't anywhere! What do you mean?"
Still under the spell of her smile, her fascinating manner, and her sweet, piquant little face, Douglas hesitated,—and was lost.
"Well, you see, he,—he was somebody else. I mean he isn't,—that is, he isn't himself."
"Are you sure you are?" Zizi laughed outright, so infectiously, that Douglas joined in.
"No, I'm not!" he admitted. "Now, if you're not, either, we're all in the same boat."
But Zizi was not to be put off with foolery.
"Mr. Douglas," she said, seriously, "truly, I'm on an important errand, and one involving grave consequences. You can help greatly by giving me that man's address, and help not only the girl of whom I spoke, but help the cause of right and justice, even, perhaps, in a matter of life and death. Don't refuse——"
"But if I don't refuse, I must at least inquire. And, suppose I tell you that Mr. Harrison does not want his address known?"
"I assumed that. But, suppose I tell you that it may help to clear up one of the greatest mysteries of the day if you will just give me a hint where I can find that man. And, even though he has forbidden you to tell, I think I can assure you that he won't mind my knowing the secret, and if he does mind I'll persuade him to exonerate you."
Zizi had meant to take quite a different tack,—use hints of legal authority or suggest his duty to humanity, but intuition told her that this man was best persuaded by coaxing,—and Zizi could coax!
She succeeded only partly. After she convinced Douglas of the wisdom of such a course he told her that John Harrison had been at the Hotel Consul in Brooklyn, but had left there, and had left no further address.
Moreover, he declared he had no knowledge whatever of the whereabouts of John Harrison at the present time.
"No!" and Zizi flashed a quizzical smile, "because he has changed his name! I know that from your emphatic declaration! But I'll find him. Good-by."
Zizi betook herself forthwith to the Hotel Consul.
A polite clerk informed her that Mr. Harrison had checked out, leaving no address.
Determinedly she interviewed the cab drivers ranked in front of the hotel, and by a lucky chance found the one who had driven Mr. Harrison away. A proper bribe brought the knowledge that he had been driven to the Wilfer, a much smaller hotel nearby.
To the Hotel Wilfer Zizi went, and learned there was no John Harrison there, but a very few inquiries proved to her astute intellect that the Louis Bartram, who was the only guest registered at that time on that afternoon, was in all probability the man she sought. At any rate there was no harm in trying.
She asked for an interview, and was connected with Mr. Bartram's rooms by telephone.
"I want to see you again," she said, in response to his Hello,—"Let me come up, Mr. Midnight Visitor, please."
Partly the pleading voice, partly the fact that Peter was eager for new developments in his devious course, and partly a sudden recollection of the girl he had seen in his father's library, brought about a cordial invitation to "come along."
And Zizi exultantly went, hoping against hope that she was on her way to learn something of real importance.
For so many hopeful openings had proved blind alleys, so many bright prospects of success had dimmed on nearer view, that Zizi had begun to lose heart, and this seemed to her perhaps a last chance.
Peter received her in his sitting room, and as the big dark eyes looked deep into the chicory blue ones, and both smiled, it was impossible to be formal.
"Why are you a burglar, Mr. Bartram," Zizi said, as she seated herself sociably in the depths of a big armchair. "You don't look the part a bit."
"What is your calling?" he countered; "for unless it is that of a witch or Brownie, I'm sure you don't look it."
"I am all of those things," she announced, calmly, crossing her dainty feet and gazing guilelessly at him. "I'm a witch, a Brownie, a sprite, an elf, a kobold, a pixie——"
"That's enough. They're all tarred with the same brush. And why am I favored with this angel visit?"
"So you may answer my question, which you so rudely ignored. Why are you a burglar?"
"But I'm not. Can your ingenuity suggest no explanation of a man's presence in another man's house at midnight save a burglarious motive? I took no jewels nor plate away with me."
"So you didn't. But, I admit motives seem scarce. You were not intending a social call, were you? You didn't come to read the meter or repair the plumbing? You were not seeking a lodging for the night?"
"None of those, Miss Brownie. But, why am I obliged to tell?"
"Because I ask it," and Zizi's pretty powers of coaxing were put to the utmost test.
"I admit that constitutes an obligation, but, I am not going to meet it," and the big man settled back comfortably in his chair and smiled benignly but a trifle exasperatingly.
"Then,—" and the little brown face became serious, the merry light went out of the dark eyes, and Zizi said, coldly, "Then I will tell you. You are a burglar,—you did take valuables from Mr. Crane's house,—at least they were valuable to you, though perhaps of small intrinsic worth."
"Whatever do you mean?"
"I mean that you are the accomplice of that woman who calls herself a medium,—that woman who is a fraud, a fake, a miserable charlatan! You came to the house to get some more belongings of Mr. Crane's dead son's,—in order to take them to the Parlato woman and let her trade further on an old man's credulity! That's what you were there for!"
Zizi's nerves were at high tension. She thoroughly believed every word she said, and she felt that perhaps the best way to make this man own up was to put the case thus straightforwardly.
Peter Boots looked at her, his expression changing from amazement to amusement and then to sympathy.
"No," he said gently, "I didn't do that. I swear I didn't."
"Then why were you there?"
Uncertain what to say, Peter just sat and looked at her.
And somehow,—by some subtle intelligence or telepathic flash—all of a sudden,—Zizi knew!
"Oh," she breathed, her eyes like stars, "oh,—you're Peter Boots!"
Slowly, Peter nodded his head.
"Yes," he said, "I am. Now, what are we going to do about it?"
"Do about it? Why, everything! Oh,—wait a minute,—let me take it in,—let me think what it will mean——"
"To father? Yes, I know."
These two, so lately strangers, were immediately at one. Zizi, with her instantaneous understanding and quick appreciation saw the whole situation at once, and realized fully its tragedy.
"It can't be, you know," she cried out; "it mustn't be! Think of the——"
"I know," returned Peter, "I've thought."
Instead of being appalled at the knowledge that his secret was out, Peter felt a positive relief, a sudden let-down of his strained nerves, and a queer sensation of confidence in this strange girl's powers to set things right.
Peter's intuitions were quick and true; Zizi was not only charming, but gave an effect of capability and efficiency that were as balm and comfort to poor, harassed Peter.
He was willing to nail his colors to her mast; to give his affairs and perplexities into her hands; to abide by her decisions.
And Zizi accepted the tremendous responsibility gravely.
"But it is all too wonderful," she said. "What happened? Where have you been?"
"Two broken legs,—compound fractures,—frozen feet,—gangrene—ugh!—fierce—cut it out!"
"The gangrene!" cried Zizi, horrified.
"Yes, but I didn't mean that. I meant can the description of my sufferings! They'd put the early Christian martyrs to the blush. They would indeed! But let's take up the tale from the present moment."
"Oh, wait a minute,—do! Who rescued you? Why haven't you——"
"Lumbermen,—camp, miles from any sort of a lemon. Couldn't get into communication. Fiercest winter ever known,—everything cut off from everything else. Came home the minute I could,—and,—oh, thunder! how I want to know things! Tell me heaps, do! And who are you, anyway?"
"Heavens, what a tale! Yes, I'll tell you everything, but what shall I fly at first? And—oh, I can't stand the responsibility of your secret! I can't! Why are you keeping it secret? On account of your father?"
"Yes, that's the sole reason. How can I come forward,—the son who is supposed dead,—who is supposed to come back as a spook,—the son who has had a book written about him——"
"Oh, what a situation! And your father so wrapped up in the whole business,—so positive in his beliefs——"
"And that rascally medium!"
"And those wicked materializations!"
"And the fool Ouija Board!"
"And that letter from you to Julie—oh, I say!"
"And I say! But, tell me, what can I do? Do you see it as I do? That I must go away again, disappear forever,—or——"
"Or break your father's heart,— I mean,—oh, I don't know what I mean! Mr. Peter, I think I'll lose my mind!"
"I've almost lost mine, puzzling over the thing. But I've put the kibosh on that Parlato!"
"Oh, that's why you were there! I got things all wrong, didn't I? And you came to your own home——"
"Only because of a terrible attack of homesickness. You see, I still have my latch key, and if you hadn't seen me, I should have merely had a good look around, and then silently steal away, without, however, stealing anything else!"
Zizi smiled at her accusation of his burglarious intent, and then sat musing.
"I can't grapple with it," she said, at last. "It's too big. I shall telegraph for Mr. Wise. He must come back at once and help us."
"Now, look here, Miss Zizi, I'm not lying down on this job myself. I'm not asking you to carry my burdens or fight my battles. I am very much able to hoe my own row,—only I fear it's going to be a hard one. I'm going to depend on you for help, if I may, but I'll take the helm; Peter Boots leads, he doesn't follow."
Zizi gazed at him, her eyes moist with emotional admiration. This man, this splendid, fine man,—to efface himself to save his father's reputation,—it was too bad! She couldn't stand it.
"Now, wait," she began; "wouldn't your father,—your mother,—rather have you back with them in the flesh,—than to have their pride spared?"
"Answer that yourself," he returned. "I admit that if that question were put to them, they would doubtless say yes. But that's not the thing. The point is, they're reconciled to my loss, happy in the experiences they're having,—delusions though they are,—and contented, even exultant, in things as they are. Why disturb that happiness, for my selfish reasons? Why not leave them to their Fools' Paradise,—for that's what it is,—and not take the chance of what might easily be a distressing disillusion?"
"It would indeed be that," Zizi spoke gravely; "I know it would. But what will you do?"
"Go 'way off somewhere,—start fresh,—make a new name and fame for myself and forget——"
"Sacrifice your own identity to your father's reputation?"
"Exactly that,—and, simply, it is my duty."
"And Carlotta Harper?"
"Tell me about Carly," he said, speaking thickly. "Is she engaged to Shelby?"
"No, she isn't!"
"I heard she was."
"Probably he hinted it, and the report started. He's eternally after her, but, to my certain knowledge she hasn't yet said yes."
"Oh, my God! Dear little Carly! What can I do?"
"She would go with you,—into a new life——"
"No; don't be absurd! This secret must be kept inviolably. Nor could I marry her under an assumed name, even if she were willing. Also, she may have forgotten me."
"No, she has not. Oh, Mr. Peter, you must come home."
"I can't. But tell me more,—tell me of mother, of Julie,—why, I sent a reporter to the house just to get a line on home life,—on present conditions,—oh, little girl, you don't know what I suffered; it's all so foolish,—so absurd,—the spook stuff, I mean,—yet, as I've learned, it's the very breath of life to my Dad."
"It is; but, look at the thing from another angle. Couldn't you help unravel the Blair mystery. Here's Mr. Thorpe held for a crime I don't think he committed; here's Julie crying her eyes out because of it——"
"Julie! She and Thorpe!"
"Yes, didn't you know that?"
"No; are they engaged?"
"In a way. If Thorpe should be freed Mr. Crane will give his consent. If Thorpe is convicted——"
"He shan't be convicted! He never killed Blair! I'll find out who killed Blair, and then I'll go away after that. I'll help Julie,—why, Thorpe wouldn't kill Gilbert, why should he?"
"You've read the case?"
"Yes, and thought how little evidence there was against Thorpe. But, I'm ashamed to say, my own affairs rather blotted the matter out. But if Julie's concerned, that's another matter. I'll free Thorpe,—and I can do it, too!"
"Then it's most certainly your duty, for many reasons. Look here, Mr. Peter, don't let your ideas of duty get over-sentimental regarding your father."
"Oh, I don't!" Peter waxed impatient. "But I've mulled over the thing to the very end, and I know, I know father would be happier left to his delusions. Yes, and mother, too. You see, I've read the book, and knowing Dad as I do, I read between the lines, and I see how it would be like stabbing his heart and draining his life blood to stultify that book. No, Zizi, don't tempt me,—indeed, you can't."
"Well, then, come back to the murder case. Have you any suspect other than Thorpe?"
"Why, sometimes, I think I have. But it's a serious thing to accuse, without evidence. Now, I think I can get evidence, but mainly from Madame Parlato. You see, she has been bribed by a powerful influence,—she is absolutely under orders from some one, and it is because of that she is so frightened for fear of exposure. I think in the ordinary seance with my father, where my spirit—ugh!—appears and talks guff and rubbish, the medium is more fool than knave. But when the spirit gives information concerning the murderer,—and wrong information,—it's criminal work itself, and ought to be shown up."
"Showing up the medium would expose the falsity of your father's book, even without your reappearance."
"I've thought of that, but there's duty there, too. If I can free Mac Thorpe from unjust accusations, and incidentally, I'm thinking of Julie,—it's in all ways my duty to do so,—even if——"
"Even if it makes your father a butt for ridicule."
"Yes, even that. All things are matters of comparison. Thorpe's life, or even Thorpe's name mustn't be sacrificed to father's feelings. I may sacrifice my own future, even my own life if I choose, but not that of another."
"Are you sure Mr. Thorpe is innocent?"
"As sure as shooting! But you must tell me all the details of your investigations. I've studied the newspaper reports, but I want your accounts, too. When can you get Wise back here? Send for him at once, will you? He can't get anything on Blair out there. Blair's life was blameless. I know it as I know my own. Why, Zizi, you don't realize,— I've lived with my family and my friends for a whole long lot of years. I'm no newcomer, except regarding the last six months. You can't tell me of Blair's character, or Thorpe's either. Now, what I want to puzzle out is whether I can do my part in producing the real murderer, without revealing my presence here and without even showing my hand in the matter."
"You might appear as your own spook."
"I've thought of that, and it offers wide possibilities. But it isn't fair to mother and Dad. Let the medium fool them, if she will, it's not for their own son to fool them, too! No, I can't do that."
"You might appear to the—the criminal."
"And give him the scare of his life! Yes, I might do that. But I'm not yet sure he is the criminal,—I'm basing my suspicion on generalities, not any specific evidence."
"Tell me his name."
"Not yet. Let's plan a little first. You see, I've arranged a fake seance with Madame Parlato. If I rearrange it a bit, it may serve our purpose. I'll postpone it until Mr. Wise can get back, and then we'll see what we shall see!"
Peter Boots arranged and rearranged his plans for the seance many times.
Though still living under the name of Louis Bartram, he had cast aside fear of having his real identity discovered, pretty sure, now, that it must come sooner or later.
His present concern was with the discovery of Blair's murderer, and thereby the freeing of his sister's fiance. These accomplished he would consider the case of his own restored identity, if it were not by that time a foregone conclusion.
Pennington Wise came back from the West, and was let into the secret.
His amazement was beyond all bounds when Zizi took him over to the Brooklyn hotel and he met Peter Crane.
"This thing has never been equaled in my experience," he declared. "And no one but Zizi could have found you out, unless you chose to make yourself known. Now, we must move warily,—your quarry may get away."
"You know whom I suspect?" asked Peter in astonishment.
"Of course I do, and I've had the same suspect from the beginning. But I couldn't get a shred of evidence,—haven't any yet,— I say, Mr. Crane, suppose you confide in me fully. You'll have no cause to regret it."
So Peter Boots and Pennington Wise and Zizi had a long confab, in which all cards were laid on the table, and all details of the plan settled.
Wise agreed that it would be a fearful blow to Benjamin Crane's pride, but he held that the author of the book about Peter would receive no blame and the fame of the affair would be world-wide, which would make up for the blow to the author's vanity.
Peter was not convinced of this, but agreed to go ahead as Wise suggested. Indeed, he had no choice, for it now rested on his statements whether an innocent man was tried for crime or not.
The medium was completely suborned. She was instructed that if she obeyed orders implicitly and succeeded in fulfilling the desires of her new employers, she would be paid a large sum of money, and enabled to leave the country secretly and safety.
For, after all, she was doing no more than the great army of "mediums" all over the world, and if she achieved good at last, they wished no harm to come to her.
"Moreover," as Peter said, "she was a great comfort to my parents in my absence, and when they know of my presence, they'll have no further use for Madame!"
The seance was staged in the Crane home.
It was a simple matter for Madame Parlato to persuade Benjamin Crane to allow her to hold a session there, promising him a probable materialization of his son, if allowed to attempt it in the scenes familiar to Peter Boots.
It was pathetic to see the hope and joy on the faces of Peter's father and mother as they were offered this experience. Gladly they accepted the proposition, and when the medium further advised them to invite a few friends, they willingly did so.
It was not announced that materialization was expected,—Madame Parlato preferred it should not be, she said; so the friends were merely asked to a seance.
After all, Zizi, who had charge of the invitations informed them, interest must be falling off, for no one was coming except Miss Harper, who would also bring Mr. Shelby.
However, with the Crane household, that made quite a group, and as Detective Weston had heard about it, and asked to be present he also had a seat, in the rear of the room.
There was no air of secrecy, the waiting audience were receptive, hopeful or skeptical as their natures prompted.
Shelby and Carlotta whispered to each other that they were glad to see a specimen of the genius that had hoaxed so able a mind as Benjamin Crane's. Julie was out of sorts and sad, for she disliked the whole subject, and pitied her father and mother for their absorption in it.
At last Madame Parlato appeared.
She was an impressive looking woman, tall, slender, and with the traditional long green eyes and red hair. Her face was very white, but she was calm and well-poised, and seemed to feel a great sense of responsibility.
She had not been informed of Peter's identity, but she knew him to be acquainted with the man whom she still considered dead, and she knew that Mr. Bartram was to impersonate Peter Crane.
She asked the eight people present to sit in a circle and join hands, allowing herself to make one of them.
Weston flatly refused to do this, saying he preferred to sit alone at the back of the room. He did so, and took his place near the door of the small library of Mr. Crane's, the session being held in the large living room.
The medium requested that the lights be shut entirely off, saying that sufficient illumination would come in from the street to prevent total darkness.
This proved to be true, and the dim light was just enough for them to distinguish one another's forms but not faces.
"Poppycock," whispered Shelby to Carlotta, as he held her hand.
Zizi, who sat on Shelby's other side, heard it and answered, "Absolutely."
Then the usual things happened. The medium went into a trance state, and the regular proceedings took place.
She gave messages to Mr. Crane, purporting to be from his dead son. She gave messages to Julie and to Peter's mother, all vapid and meaningless and mentally scoffed at by all present, except the two elderly listeners.
At last the medium said, "I am weary,—weary,—I would sleep. The spirit of Peter Crane himself would speak to you."
"Will you?" eagerly asked Benjamin Crane, "will you speak yourself, Peter?"
"Yes, father," came a reply, and everybody started.
Surely that was Peter's own voice! Not loud, almost a whisper, but with the unmistakable cadence and tone of Peter, himself.
"That's Peter!" cried Julie, excitedly, "oh, father, is it?"
"Hush, dear," her father said, himself greatly agitated. "One must be very calm and quiet on these occasions. Peter Boots, will you talk with us?"
"Gladly, Dad," came the voice again,—seeming to emanate from behind Detective Western's chair,—as indeed it did.
"Then tell us of yourself, my boy."
Mrs. Crane said no word, but sat, her hand in that of her husband, full of faith in the genuineness of it all, and ready to listen and believe.
"I am very happy here, father," Peter's voice declared,—and Zizi bit her lip to keep from smiling at the hackneyed phrase uttered by mortal tongue!
"You sound so real, Peter," Julie said, bluntly. "Is it always like this?"
For Julie had never attended a seance before.
"No, sister," the voice said, speaking more clearly with every word; "this is an unusual occasion. Perhaps,—perhaps the medium can bring about materialization to-night."
"Oh, don't," Julie cried out, "I'm scared!"
"Don't be frightened, Julie," Peter said, his voice faint again, "I won't hurt you."
The well-remembered gentleness reassured Julie, and she held tight to her parents' hands and listened.
"I have a message for each of you," the voice went on; "or you may each ask me a question, as you prefer."
"I'll ask," Julie exclaimed; "Peter, dear Peter Boots, tell me that Mac never killed Gilbert. I know it, yet I want you to say so. They told me you didn't know, and that you were misinformed and all that. You do know, don't you, Peter?"
"Yes, Julie, I know. And Mac didn't kill Gilbert at all. But I know who did. Shall I tell?"
"Yes," cried out several in chorus.
And then, from out the dark shadows behind Weston's chair, there slowly appeared a dark, cloaked form. A black-draped, hooded figure, that moved slowly toward them. A tall, big figure that seemed to loom out of the darkness, and then the hood fell back a little, a white ghostly face appeared dimly and a slowly raised hand pointed to Kit Shelby.
"Thou art the man!" came in low, accusing tones, and they were unmistakably Peter's.
Julie shrieked, and the accused man gave a strange, guttural sound, expressive of abject fear, and as the tall figure drew nearer, he rose to flee from its avenging shape.
Shelby didn't go far, for his progress was stopped by the burly form of Detective Weston, who advised him to sit down.
"Confess!" went on the figure that seemed to be Peter, and with wild eyes, fairly starting from their sockets at the sight, Shelby cried out, "I did, oh, Peter, I did!" and then he fell in a convulsion of fright and terror.
And then, Peter Boots himself switched on the lights, threw off his long cloak, and turned to take his mother in his arms.
"My boy, my boy!" she said, knowing intuitively and instantaneously that it was her son, alive and found.
Benjamin Crane was a picture of utter perplexity. Unable to accept the obvious, he tried for a moment to believe in a marvelous "materialization," but Peter came to him, smiling and holding out an eager hand.
"Welcome me home, Dad," he said, a quiver in his strong voice. "I know what a shock it is, but brace up and meet it,— I'm here, and very much alive. In fact, I never have been dead at all."
"Peter,—Peter," his father muttered, and fearing ill effects, Zizi came quickly to his side.
"Yes, Mr. Crane," she said in her brisk little way. "Peter Boots, home again. Never mind the spook stuff now. Cut it out,—forget it,—let him tell us of his adventures."
And now Carly came toward Peter.
One glance passed between them, and she was in his arms, a smiling, sweet Carly, who kissed him right before everybody, and said triumphantly, "I knew you'd come back!"
"Of course," said Peter, happily holding her to him. "I had to, the gypsies prophesied it, you know. They didn't mean come back as a silly old spirit, they meant come back in the flesh, and here I am. Kit, old man, I'm sorry."
And there was infinite sorrow and pity in the face that Peter turned on Shelby, who was still trembling and mouthing in a vain effort to speak.
"Get his confession," said Wise, lest when the shock wore off Shelby might dare deny it all.
But he couldn't speak, and out of very pity, Peter said, "I'll tell the details, and Shelby can nod assent."
"Go ahead," said Weston, his eye on his prisoner.
"I'll not tell of my experiences now, only to say there is no blame to be attached to Shelby or to Blair or to the guide for my accident. I fell in the snow, and somehow so managed to double my half-frozen legs under me that the silly things both broke. I floundered in the drifts but couldn't get up, nor could I make the boys hear my shouts, for the wind was against me. Well, I was picked up—after many hours—by some lumbermen and my tale of woe thereafter would fill a set of books. But never mind that now, I got home just as soon as I possibly could, having been absolutely unable to get a letter here any sooner than I could come myself. I came back to find that Dad, supposing me dead, had written a book,—oh, my eye! Dad, how you did butter me! Well, then I was up a stump to know whether to make my joyous presence known and spill the beans entirely or whether to sneak off, disappear forever and leave Dad to his laurel and bay."
"Peter! how could you dream of such a thing!" Benjamin Crane was himself now. "I'd a million times rather have you back than to have written all the books in the world!"
"But, father, think what people will say! I understand your book is read and discussed from pole to pole——"
"And it may be hooted at from pole to pole for all I care! Oh, Peter! Peter Boots! Good old chap!"
Peter's blue eyes beamed. The thing that had worried him most had turned out all right. Moreover, Carly seemed still kindly disposed toward him.
Remained only the dreadful business of Shelby and that must be put through.
"Then," Peter resumed, "I came home, and found old Gilbert Blair was dead. Murdered. And Mac Thorpe arrested for the crime.
"I know Thorpe, and I know he never did it. And I wondered. Then I read in father's book about that old tobacco pouch of mine being 'materialized.' So I knew there was trickery afoot. For I had handed that pouch to Kit only a short time before I fell down. And he hadn't handed it back. So, that accounted for its presence in the possession of the medium, though it didn't necessarily incriminate Shelby. He might have lost it or had it stolen from him.
"But, next I went to the Picture Show of 'Labrador Luck.' That, or at least the plot, the backbone of it, was Blair's and mine. Together we doped it out, sitting by our camp fire up there in the wilds, old Kit dozing near by. He talked with us about it now and then, but his plans were different from ours. All for a monster, spectacular production which he has achieved, while Blair and I planned a little light comedy affair. But the plot, the great theme of the thing, was Blair's,—and I denounce Kit Shelby as the murderer of Gilbert Blair for the purpose of using that plot alone and in his own way! Another motive lay in the fact of his admiration for Carlotta Harper, whom, he thought, Blair was about to marry.
"And, if these do not seem to you, Mr. Weston and Mr. Wise, sufficient motive for murder, I will inform you that Blair had discovered Shelby's visits to the medium, Parlato, and had learned that it was he who was responsible for the tobacco pouch, the handkerchief and that forged letter. Blair discovered or suspected all this, and went to the medium and forced her to admit he was correct.
"Wherefore, Shelby had to be exposed and ruined, or—had to close Blair's lips forever. He chose the latter course. The method was by a poisoned soda mint, as has been suspected, and this I know, because Shelby and I talked over methods of murder, when we were discussing detective stories, and he detailed to me the very plan that I am sure he used himself, that of putting one poisoned pellet in a bottle of plain ones, and letting the result happen when it might. His argument was, that the murderer would be far from the scene at the time death took place. These statements I submit, and if Christopher Shelby can deny or refute them, none will be more glad than I."
Shelly maintained a sullen silence, refusing to look at Peter at all.
But Weston adjured him to reply to the accusations with either confession or denial, and he muttered: "Of course it's all true. I got in deeper and deeper and there was no way out but to do for Blair. I began giving the medium things just for fun,—the whole matter seemed to me such rubbish, and I never dreamed Mr. Crane would take it so seriously. Then when he did, and when Blair found out I had primed the medium, and when I wanted his play and he wouldn't let me have it, and when I wanted his girl,—and when he declared he would expose the medium business,—I fell for the temptation. That's all."
He lapsed again into utter dejection and Weston led him away before he should collapse utterly.
"Now, Julie, you can have your Mac," Peter went on, smiling at his sister. "It's too late to-night——"
"Not a bit of it," declared Penny Wise, "come along, Miss Crane, I'll take you to him, and let you tell him yourself, and I shouldn't be surprised if he came back with you."
The two went off joyfully, leaving Peter to be lionized and petted by his adoring people.
Madame Parlato had long since disappeared, being allowed to get away unmolested because of the help she had been.
Then Peter and his parents had a talk, while Carlotta just sat and looked at the group, knowing her turn would come. Zizi, too, like a little dea ex machina, sat, gloating over the outcome of it all.
Benjamin Crane utterly refused to listen to a word of regret at his discredited book,—he only laughed happily and declared it was a joke on himself, and he didn't care what the result might be or what loss he might suffer in reputation or in pocketbook.
Mrs. Crane said little but she held tight to the hand of her boy, and lost herself in an oblivion of happiness.
And then, turning to Carlotta, Peter said, "And you thought I'd never come back?"
"Peter," Carly said, "I'm an expert Ouija Boarder. I have the reputation of making the Board say whatever I want it to. But my own theory is, that the little pointer always goes straight to the message that the performer wants. And whenever I tried it alone, and asked it if you'd come back to me,—it said you would."
Peter smiled at her, a little quizzically.
"I don't know, Carly, whether you're making that up or whether you mean it, but it doesn't matter, I did come back,—and I came back to you,—and for you. Which, being interpreted, means, that when you're ready to go home, I'll walk along with you. I'll have time to see the family here to-morrow."
Whereupon Carly smiled happily, and they two "walked along."