"Good heavens!" Ramon exclaimed. "What brings him here now? I thought he had disappeared utterly. Do you think it could have been he in the library that night, come to take revenge for that fancied wrong, at last?"
"That is what I'm going to find out," the detective responded, with a touch of grimness in his tones.
"But you don't mean—it isn't possible that Mr. Lawton was murdered! That he didn't die of heart-disease, after all!"
"I traced Armstrong to the town where he was living in obscurity, and followed his movements." Blaine's reply seemed to be purposely irrelevant. "I could not, however, find where he had been on the night of Mr. Lawton's death. Now that he has come to me voluntarily, we shall discover if the voice Miss Lawton overheard in that moment when she listened on the stairs, was his or not.... Come back this afternoon, Mr. Hamilton, and I will give you full information and instructions about that Long Bay errand. In the meantime, guard yourself well from a possible attack, although I do not think another attempt upon your life will be made so soon. Take this, and if you have need of it, do not hesitate to use it. We can afford no half-measures now. Shoot, and shoot to kill!"
He opened a lower drawer in his massive desk and, drawing from it a business-like looking revolver of large caliber, presented it to the lawyer. With a warm hand-clasp he dismissed him, and, going to the telephone, called up Anita Lawton's home.
"I want you to attend carefully, Miss Lawton. I am speaking from my office. A man will be here with me in a few minutes, and I shall seat him close to the transmitter of my 'phone, leaving the receiver off the hook. Please listen carefully to his voice. I only wish you to hear a phrase or two, when I will hang up the receiver, and call you up later. Try to concentrate with all your powers, and tell me afterward if you have ever heard that voice until now; if it is the voice of the man you did not see, who was in the library with your father just before he died."
He heard her give a quick gasp, and then her voice came to him, low and sweet and steady.
"I will listen carefully, Mr. Blaine, and do my best to tell you the truth."
The detective pulled a large leather chair close to the telephone, and Herbert Armstrong was ushered in.
The man was pitiful in appearance, but scarcely demented, as the operative had described him. He was tall and shabbily clothed, gaunt almost to the point of emaciation, but with no sign of dissipation. His eyes, though sunken, were clear, and they gazed levelly with those of the detective.
"Come in, Mr. Armstrong." Blaine waved genially toward the arm-chair. "What can I do for you?"
The man did not offer to shake hands, but sank wearily into the chair assigned him.
"Do? You can stop hounding me, Henry Blaine! You and Pennington Lawton brought my tragedy upon me as surely as I brought it upon myself, and now you will not leave me alone with my grief and ruin, to drag my miserable life out to the end, but you or your men must dog my every foot-step, spy upon me, hunt me down like a pack of wolves! And why? Why?"
The man's voice had run its gamut, in the emotion which consumed him, and from a menacing growl of protest, it had risen to a shrill wail of weakness and despair.
Henry Blaine was satisfied.
"Excuse me, Mr. Armstrong," he said gently. "The receiver is off my telephone, here at your elbow. It would be unfortunate if we were overheard. If you will allow me—"
But he got no further. Quick as he was, the other man was quicker. He sprang up furiously, and dashed the telephone off the desk.
"Is this another of your d—d tricks?" he shouted. "If it is, whoever was listening may hear the rest. You and Pennington Lawton between you, drove my wife to suicide, but you'll not drive me there! I'm ruined, and broken, and hopeless, but I'll live on, live till I'm even, do you hear? Live till I'm square with the game!"
His violence died out as swiftly as it had arisen, and he sank down in the chair, his face buried in his bony hands, his thin shoulders shaken with sobs.
Blaine quietly replaced the telephone and receiver, and seated himself.
"Come, man, pull yourself together!" he said, not unkindly. "I'm not hounding you; Lawton never harmed you, and now he is dead. He was my client and I was bound to protect his interests, but as man to man, the fault was yours and you know it. I tried to keep you from making a fool of yourself and wrecking three lives, but I only succeeded in saving one."
"But your men are hounding me, following me, shadowing me! I have come to find out why!"
"And I would like to find out where you were on a certain night last month—the ninth, to be exact," responded Blaine quietly.
"What affair is it of yours?" the other man asked wearily, adding: "How should I know, now? One night is like another, to me."
"If you hate Pennington Lawton's memory as you seem to, the ninth of November should stand out in your thoughts in letters of fire," the detective went on, in even, quiet tone. "That was the night on which Lawton died."
"Lawton?" Herbert Armstrong raised his haggard face. The meaning of Blaine's remark utterly failed to pierce his consciousness. "The date doesn't mean anything to me, but I remember the night, if that's what you want to know about, although I'm hanged if I can see what it's got to do with me! I'll never forget that night, because of the news which reached me in the morning, that my worst enemy on earth had passed away."
"Were you in Illington the evening before?" asked Blaine.
"I was not. I was in New Harbor, where I live, playing pinochle all night long with two other down-and-outs like myself, in a cheap hall bed-room—I, Herbert Armstrong, who used to play for thousands a game, in the best clubs in Illington! And I never knew that the man who had brought me to that pass was gasping his life away! Think of it! We played until dawn, when the extras, cried in the street below, gave us the news!"
"If you will give me the address of this boarding-house you mention, and the names of your two friends, I can promise that you will be under no further espionage, Mr. Armstrong."
"I don't care whether you know it or not, if that's all you want!" The gaunt man shrugged wearily. "I'm tired of being hounded, and I'm too weak and too tired to oppose you, even if it did matter."
He gave the required names and addresses, and slouched away, his animosity gone, and only a dull, miserable lethargy sagging upon his worn body.
When the outer door of the offices had closed upon him, Henry Blaine again called up Anita Lawton. This time her voice came to him sharpened by acute distress.
"I did not recognize the tones of the person's voice, Mr. Blaine, only I am quite, quite sure that he was not the man in the library with my father the night of his death. But oh, what did he mean by the terrible things he said? It could not be that my father brought ruin and tragedy upon any one, much less drove them to suicide. Won't you tell me, Mr. Blaine? Ramon won't, although I am convinced he knows all about it. I must know."
"You shall, Miss Lawton. I think the time has come when you should no longer be left in the dark. I will tell Mr. Hamilton when he comes to me this afternoon for the interview we have arranged that you must know the whole story."
But Ramon Hamilton failed to appear for the promised interview. Henry Blaine called up his office and his home, but was unable to locate him. Then Miss Lawton began making anxious inquiries, and finally the mother of the young lawyer appealed to the detective, but in vain. Late that night the truth was established beyond peradventure of a doubt. Ramon Hamilton had disappeared as if the earth had opened and engulfed him.
MARGARET HEFFERMAN'S FAILURE
The disappearance of Ramon Hamilton, coming so soon after the sudden death of his prospective father-in-law, caused a profound sensation. In the small hours of the night, before the press had been apprised of the event and when every probable or possible place where the young lawyer might be had been communicated with in vain, Henry Blaine set the perfect machinery of his forces at work to trace him.
It was dawn before he could spare a precious moment to go to Anita Lawton. On his arrival he found her pacing the floor, wringing her slim hands in anguish.
"He is dead." She spoke with the dull hopelessness of utter conviction. "I shall never see him again. I feel it! I know it!"
"My dear child!" Blaine put his hands upon her shoulders in fatherly compassion. "You must put all such morbid fancies from your mind. He is not dead and we shall find him. It may be all a mistake—perhaps some important matter concerning a client made it necessary for him to leave the city over night."
She shook her head despairingly.
"No, Mr. Blaine. You know as well as I that Ramon is just starting in his profession. He has no clients of any prominence, and my father's influence was really all that his rising reputation was being built upon. Besides, nothing but a serious accident or—or death would keep him from me!"
"If he had met with any accident his identity would have been discovered and we would be notified, unless, as in the case when he was run down by that motor-car, he did not wish them to let you know for fear of worrying you."
Blaine watched the young girl narrowly as he spoke. Was she aware of the two additional attempts only the day before on the life of the man she loved?
"He merely followed a dear, unselfish impulse because he knew that in a few hours at most he would be with me; but now it is morning! The dawn of a new day, and no word from him! Those terrible people who tried to kill him that other time to keep him from coming to me in my trouble have made away with him. I am sure of it now."
The detective breathed more freely. Evidently Ramon Hamilton had had the good sense to keep from her his recent danger.
"You can be sure of nothing, Miss Lawton, save the fact that Mr. Hamilton is not dead," Henry Blaine said earnestly. "You do not realize, perhaps, the one salient fact that criminal experts who deal with cases of disappearance have long since recognized—the most difficult of all things to conceal or do away with in a large city is a dead body."
Anita shivered and clasped her hands convulsively, but she did not speak, and after a scarcely perceptible pause, the detective went on:
"You must not let your mind dwell on the possibilities; it will only entail useless, needless suffering on your part. My experiences have been many and varied in just such cases as this, and in not one in fifty does serious harm come to the subject of the investigation. In fact, in this instance, I think it quite probable that Mr. Hamilton has left the city of his own accord, and in your interests."
"In my interests?" Anita repeated, roused from her lethargy of sorrow by his words, as he had intended that she should be. "Left the city? But why?"
"When he called upon me yesterday morning I told him of a commission which I wished him to execute for me in connection with your investigation. I gave him some preliminary instructions and he was to return to me in the afternoon for a letter of introduction and to learn some minor details of the matter involved. He did not appear at the hour of our appointment and I concluded that he had taken the affair into his own hands and had gone immediately upon leaving my office to fulfill his mission."
"Oh, perhaps he did!" The young girl started from her chair, her dull, tearless eyes suddenly bright with hope. "That would be like Ramon; he is so impulsive, so anxious to help me in every way! Where did you send him, Mr. Blaine? Can't we telephone, or wire and find out if he really has gone to this place? Please, please do! I cannot endure this agony of uncertainty, of suspense, much longer!"
"Unfortunately, we cannot do that!" Blaine responded, gravely. "To attempt to communicate with him where I have sent him would be to show our hand irretrievably to the men we are fighting and undo much of the work which has been accomplished. He may communicate with you or possibly with me, if he finds that he can contrive to accomplish it safely."
"Safely? Then if he has gone to this place, wherever it is, he is in danger?" Anita faltered, tremblingly.
"By no means. The only danger is that his identity and purpose may be disclosed and our plans jeopardized," the detective reassured her smoothly. "I know it is hard to wait for news, but one must school oneself to patience under circumstances such as this. It may be several days before you hear from Mr. Hamilton and you must try not to distress yourself with idle fears in the meantime."
"But it is not certain—we have no assurance that he really did go upon that mission." The light of hope died in her eyes as she spoke, and a little sob rose in her throat. "Oh, Mr. Blaine, promise me that you will leave no stone unturned to find him!"
"My dear child, you must trust in me and have faith in my long years of experience. I have already, as a precautionary measure, started a thorough investigation into Mr. Hamilton's movements yesterday, and in the event that he has not gone on the errand I spoke of, it can only be a question of hours before he will be located. You did not see him yesterday?"
"No. He promised to lunch with me, but he never came nor did he telephone or send me any word. Surely, if he had meant to leave town he would have let me know!"
"Not necessarily, Miss Lawton." Blaine's voice deepened persuasively. "He was very much excited when he left my office, interested heart and soul in the mission I had entrusted to him. Remember, too, that it was all for you, for your sake alone."
"And I may not know where he has gone?" Anita asked, wistfully.
"I think, perhaps, that is why Mr. Hamilton did not communicate with you before leaving town," the detective replied, significantly. "He agreed with me that it would be best for you not to know, in your own interests, where he was going. You must try to believe that I am doing all in my power to help you, and that my judgment is in such matters better than yours."
"I do, Mr. Blaine. Indeed I do trust you absolutely; you must believe that." She reached out an impulsive hand toward him, and his own closed over it paternally for a moment. Then he gently released it.
Anita sighed and sank back resignedly in her chair. There was a moment's pause before she added:
"It is hard to be quiescent when one is so hedged in on all sides by falsehood and deceit and the very air breathes conspiracy and intrigue. I have no tangible reason to fear for my own life, of course, but sometimes I cannot help wondering why it has not been imperiled. Surely it would be easier for my father's enemies to do away with me altogether than to have conceived and carried out such an elaborate scheme to rob me and defame my father's memory. But I will try not to entertain such thoughts. I am nervous and overwrought, but I will regain my self-control. In the meantime, I shall do my best to be patient and wait for Ramon's return."
Henry Blaine felt a glow of pardonable elation, but his usually expressive face did not betray by a single flicker of an eyelash that he had gained his point. He knew that Ramon Hamilton had never started on that mission to Long Bay, but if the young girl's health and reason were to be spared, her anxiety must be allayed. Courageous and self-controlled as she had been through all the grief and added trouble which besieged her on every hand, the keen insight of the detective warned him that she was nearing the breaking-point. If she fully realized the blow which threatened her in the sudden disappearance of her lover, together with the sinister events which had immediately preceded it, she would be crushed to the earth.
"You must try to rest." Blaine rose and motioned toward the window through which the cold rays of the wintry sun were stealing and putting the orange glow of the electric lights to shame. "See. It is morning and you have had no sleep."
"But you must not go just yet, Mr. Blaine! I cannot rest until I know who that man was whose voice I heard over your telephone this morning. What did he mean? He said that his wife committed suicide; that he himself had been ruined! And all through my father and you! It cannot be true, of course; but I must know to what he referred!"
"I will tell you. It is best that you should know the truth. Your father was absolutely innocent in the matter, but his enemies and yours might find it expedient to spread fake reports which would only add to your sorrow. You know, you must remember since your earliest childhood, how every one came to your father with their perplexities and troubles and how benevolently they were received, how wisely advised, how generously aided. Not only bankers and financiers in the throes of a panic, but men and women in all walks of life came to him for counsel and relief."
"I know. I know!" Anita whispered with bowed head, the quick tears of tender memory starting in her eyes.
"Such a one who came to him for advice in her distress was the wife of Herbert Armstrong. She was a good woman, but through sheer ignorance of evil she had committed a slight indiscretion, nothing more than the best of women might be led into at any time. We need not go into details. It is enough to tell you that certain unscrupulous persons had her in their power and were blackmailing her. She fell their victim through the terror of being misunderstood, and when she could no longer accede to their demands she came to your father, her husband's friend, for advice. Herbert Armstrong was insanely jealous of his wife, and in your father's efforts to help her he unfortunately incurred the unjust suspicions of the man. Armstrong brought suit for divorce, intending to name Mr. Lawton as corespondent."
"Oh, how could he!" Anita cried, indignantly. "The man must have been mad! My father was the soul of honor. Every one—the whole world—knows that! Besides, his heart was buried, all that he did not give to me, deep, deep in the sea where Mother and my little brother and sister are lying! He never even looked at another woman, save perhaps in kindness, to help and comfort those who were in trouble. But when did you come into the case, Mr. Blaine? That man whose voice I heard to-day must have been Herbert Armstrong himself, of course. Why did he say that you, as well as my father, were responsible for his tragedy?"
"Because when Mr. Lawton became aware of Armstrong's ungovernable jealousy and the terrible length to which he meant to go in his effort to revenge himself, he—your father—came to me to establish Mrs. Armstrong's innocence, and his, in the eyes of the world. Armstrong's case, although totally wrong from every standpoint, was a very strong one, but fortunately I was able to verify the truth and was fully prepared to prove it. Just on the eve of the date set for the trial, however, a tragedy occurred which brought the affair to an abrupt and pathetic end."
"A tragedy? Mrs. Armstrong's suicide, you mean?" asked Anita, in hushed tones. "How awful!"
"She was deeply in love with her husband. His unjust accusations and the public shame he was so undeservedly bringing upon her broke her heart. I assured her that she would be vindicated, that Armstrong would be on his knees to her at the trial's end. Your father tried to infuse her with courage, to gird her for the coming struggle to defend her own good name, but it was all of no use. She was too broken in spirit. Life held nothing more for her. On the night before the case was to have been called, she shot herself."
"Poor thing!" Anita murmured, with a sob running through her soft voice. "Poor, persecuted woman. Why did she not wait! Knowing her own innocence and loving her husband as she did, she could have forgiven him for his cruel suspicion when it was all over! But surely Herbert Armstrong knows the truth now. How can he blame you and my father for the wreck which he made of his own life?"
"Because his mind has become unhinged. He was always excitable and erratic, and his weeks of jealous wrath, culminating in the shock of the sudden tragedy, and the realization that he had brought it all on himself, were too much for him. He was a broker and one of the most prominent financiers in the city, but with the divorce fiasco and the death of Mrs. Armstrong, he began to brood. He shunned the friends who were left to him, neglected his business and ultimately failed. Sinking lower and lower in the scale of things, he finally disappeared from Illington. You can understand now why I thought it best when you told me of the conversation you had overheard in the library here a few hours before your father's death, and of the mention of Herbert Armstrong's name, to trace him and find out if it was he who had come in the heart of the night and attempted to blackmail Mr. Lawton."
"I understand. That was why you wanted me to hear his voice yesterday and see if I recognized it. But it was not at all like that of the man in the library on the night of my father's death. And do you know, Mr. Blaine"—she leaned forward and spoke in still lower tones—"when I recall that voice, it seems to me, sometimes, that I have heard it before. There was a certain timbre in it which was oddly familiar. It is as if some one I knew had spoken, but in tones disguised by rage and passion. I shall recognize that voice when I hear it again, if it holds that same note; and when I do—"
Blaine darted a swift glance at her from under narrowed brows. "But why attribute so much importance to it?" he asked. "To be sure, it may have some bearing upon our investigation, although at present I can see no connecting link. You feel, perhaps, that the violent emotions superinduced by that secret interview, added to your father's heart-trouble, indirectly caused his death?"
Anita again sank back in her chair.
"I don't know, Mr. Blaine. I cannot explain it, even to myself, but I feel instinctively that that interview was of greater significance than any one has considered, as yet."
"That we must leave to the future." The detective took her hand, and this time Anita rose and walked slowly with him toward the door. "There are matters of greater moment to be investigated now. Remember my advice. Try to be patient. Yours is the hardest task of all, to sit idly by and wait for events to shape themselves, or for me to shape them, but it must be. If you can calm your nerves and obtain a few hours' sleep you will feel your own brave self again when I report to you, as I shall do, later to-day."
Despite his night of ceaseless work, Henry Blaine, clear-eyed and alert of brain, was seated at his desk at the stroke of nine when Suraci was ushered in—the young detective who had trailed Walter Pennold from Brooklyn to the quiet backwater where Jimmy Brunell had sought in vain for disassociation from his past shadowy environment.
"It has become necessary, through an incident which occurred yesterday, for me to change my plans," Blaine announced. "I had intended to put you on the trail of a young crook, a relative of Pennold, but I find I must send you instead to Long Bay to look up a hotel register for me and obtain some writing paper with the engraved letter-head from that hotel. You can get a train in an hour, if you look sharp. Try to get back to-night or to-morrow morning at the latest. Find out anything you can regarding the visit there two years ago last August of Pennington Lawton and his daughter and of other guests who arrived during their stay. Here are your instructions."
Twenty minutes' low-voiced conversation ensued, and Suraci took his departure. He was followed almost immediately by Guy Morrow.
"What is the dope, sir?" the latter asked eagerly, as he entered. "There's an extra out about the Hamilton disappearance. Do you think Paddington's had a hand in that?"
"I want you to tail him," Blaine replied, non-committally. "Find out anything you can of his movements for the past few weeks, but don't lose sight of him for a minute until to-morrow morning. He's supposed to be working up the evidence now for the Snedecker divorce, so it won't be difficult for you to locate him. You know what he looks like."
"Yes, sir. I know the man himself—if you call such a little rat a man. We had a run-in once, and it isn't likely I'd forget him."
"Then be careful to keep out of his sight. He may be a rat, but he's as keen-eyed as a ferret. I'd rather put some one on him whom he didn't know, but we'll have to chance it. I wouldn't trust this to anyone but you, Guy."
The young operative flushed with pride at this tribute from his chief, and after a few more instructions he went upon his way with alacrity.
Once more alone, Henry Blaine sat for a long time lost in thought. An idea had come to him, engendered by a few vague words uttered by Anita Lawton in the early hours of that morning: an idea so startling, so tremendous in its import, that even he scarcely dared give it credence. To put it to the test, to prove or disprove it, would be irretrievably to show his hand in the game, and that would be suicidal to his investigation should his swift suspicion chance to be groundless.
The sharp ring of the telephone put an end to his cogitations. He put the receiver to his ear with a preoccupied frown, but at the first words which came to him over the wire his expression changed to one of keenest concentration.
"Am I speaking to the gentleman who talked with me at the working girls' club?" a clear, fresh young voice asked. "This is Margaret Hefferman, Mr. Rockamore's stenographer—that is, I was until ten minutes ago, but I have been discharged."
"Discharged!" Blaine's voice was eager and crisp as he reiterated her last word. "On what pretext?"
"It was not exactly a pretext," the girl replied. "The office boy accused me of taking shorthand notes of a private conversation between my employer and a visitor, and I could not convince Mr. Rockamore of my innocence. I—I must have been clumsy, I'm afraid."
"You have the notes with you?"
"The visitor's name was Paddington?"
Blaine considered for a moment; then, his decision made, he spoke rapidly in a clear undertone.
"You know the department store of Mead & Rathbun? Meet me there in the ladies' writing-room in half an hour. Where are you now?"
"In a booth in the drug-store just around the corner from the building where Mr. Rockamore's offices are located."
"Very good. Take as round-about a route as you can to reach Mead & Rathbun's, and see if you are followed. If you are and you find it impossible to shake off your shadow, do not try to meet me, but go directly to the club and I will communicate with you there later."
"Oh, I don't think I've been followed, but I'll be very careful. If everything is all right, I will meet you at the place you named in half an hour. Good-by."
Henry Blaine paced the floor for a time in undisguised perturbation. His move in placing inexperienced girls from Anita Lawton's club in responsible positions, instead of using his own trained operatives, had been based not upon impulse but on mature reflection. The girls were unknown, whereas his operatives would assuredly have been recognized, sooner or later, especially in the offices of Carlis and Rockamore. Moreover, the ruse adopted to obtain positions for Miss Lawton's protegees had appeared on the surface to be a flawlessly legitimate one. He had counted upon their loyalty and zeal to outweigh their possible incompetence and lack of discretion, but the stolid German girl had apparently been so clumsy at her task as to bring failure upon his plan.
"So much for amateurs!" he murmured to himself, disgustedly. "The other three will be discharged as soon as excuses for their dismissal can be manufactured now. My only hope from any of them is that French governess. If she will only land Paddington I don't care what suspicions the other three arouse."
Margaret Hefferman's placid face was a little pale when she greeted him in the ladies' room of the department store a short time later.
"I'm so sorry, Mr. Blaine!" she exclaimed, but in carefully lowered tones. "I could have cut my right hand off before I would hurt Miss Lawton after all she has done for me, and already the first thing she asks, I must fail to do!"
"You are sure you were not followed?" asked the detective, disregarding her lamentations with purposeful brusqueness, for the tears stood in her soft, bovine eyes, and he feared an emotional outburst which would draw down upon them the attention of the whole room.
"Oh, no! I made sure of that. I rode uptown and half-way down again to be certain, and then changed to the east-side line."
"Very well." He drew her to a secluded window-seat where, themselves almost unseen, they could obtain an unobstructed view of the entrance door and of their immediate neighbors.
"Now tell me all about it, Miss Hefferman."
"It was that office boy, Billy," she began. "Such sharp eyes and soft walk, like a cat! Always he is yawning and sleepy—who would think he was a spy?"
Her tone was filled with such contempt that involuntarily the detective's mobile lips twitched. The girl had evidently quite lost sight of the fact that she herself had occupied the very position in the pseudo employ of Bertrand Rockamore which she derided in his office boy.
He did not attempt to guide her in her narrative of the morning's events, observing that she was too much agitated to give him a coherent account. Instead, he waited patiently for her to vent her indignation and tell him in her own way the substance of what had occurred.
"I had no thought of being watched, else I should have been more careful," she went on, resentfully. "This morning, only, he was late—that Billy—and I did not report him. I was busy, too, for there was more correspondence than usual to attend to, and Mr. Rockamore was irritable and short-tempered. In the midst of his dictation Mr. Paddington came, and I was bundled out of the room with the letters and my shorthand book. They talked together behind the closed door for several minutes and I had no opportunity to hear a word, but presently Mr. Rockamore called Billy and sent him out on an errand. Billy left the door of the inner office open just a little and that was my chance. I seated myself at a desk close beside it and took down in shorthand every word which reached my ears. I was so much occupied with the notes that I did not hear Billy's footsteps until he stopped just behind me and whistled right in my ear. I jumped and he laughed at me and went in to Mr. Rockamore. When he came out he shut the door tight behind him and grinned as if he knew just what I had been up to. I did not dare open the door again, and so I heard no more of the conversation, but I have enough, Mr. Blaine, to interest you, I think."
She fumbled with her bag, but the detective laid a detaining hand on her arm.
"Never mind the notes now. Go on with your story. What happened after the interview was over?"
"That boy Billy went to Mr. Rockamore and told him. Already I have said he was irritable this morning. He had seemed nervous and excited, as if he were angry or worried about something, but when he sent for me to discharge me he was white-hot with rage. Never have I been so insulted or abused, but that would be nothing if only I had not failed Miss Lawton. For her sake I tried to lie, to deny, but it was of no use. My people were good Lutherans, but that does not help one in a business career; it is much more a nuisance. He could read in my face that I was guilty, and he demanded my shorthand note-book. I had to give it to him; there was nothing else to be done."
"But I understood that you had the notes with you," Blaine commented, then paused as a faint smile broke over her face and a demure dimple appeared in either cheek.
"I gave to him a note-book," she explained naively. "He was quite pleased, I think, to get possession of it. No one can read my shorthand but me, anyway, so one book did him as much good as another. He tried to make me tell him why I had done that—why I had taken down the words of a private conference of his with a visitor. I could not think what I should say, so I kept silent. For an hour he bullied and questioned me, but he could find out nothing and so at last he let me go. If now I could get my hands on that Billy—"
"Never mind him," Blaine interrupted. "Rockamore didn't threaten you, did he?"
"He said he would fix it so that I obtained no more positions in Illington," the girl responded, sullenly. "He will tell Miss Lawton that I am deceitful and treacherous and I should no longer be welcome at the club! He said—but I will not take up your so valuable time by repeating his stupid threats. Miss Lawton will understand. Shall not I read the notes to you? I have had no opportunity to transcribe them and indeed they are safer as they are."
"Yes. Read them by all means, Miss Hefferman, if you have nothing more to tell me. I do not think we are being overheard by anyone, but remember to keep your voice lowered."
"I will, Mr. Blaine."
The girl produced the note-book from her bag and swept a practised eye down its cryptic pages.
"Here it is. These are the first words I heard through the opened door. They were spoken by Mr. Rockamore, and the other, Paddington, replied. This is what I heard:
"'I don't know what the devil you're driving at, I tell you.'
"'Oh, don't you, Rockamore? Want me to explain? I'll go into details if you like.'
"'I'm hanged if I'm interested. My share in our little business deal with you was concluded some time ago. There's an end of that. You're a clever enough man to know the people you're doing business with, Paddington. You can't put anything over on us.'
"'I'm not trying to. The deal you spoke of is over and done with and I guess nobody'll squeal. We're all tarred with the same brush. But this is something quite different. We were pretty good pals, Rockamore, so naturally, when I heard something about you which might take a lot of explaining to smooth over, if it got about, I kept my mouth shut. I think a good turn deserves another, at least among friends, and when I got in a hole I remembered what I did for you, and I thought you'd be glad of a chance to give me a leg up.'
"'In other words you come here with a vague threat and try to blackmail me. That's it, isn't it?'
"'Blackmail is not a very pleasant term, Rockamore, and yet it is something which even you might attempt. Get me? Of course the others would be glad to help me out, but I thought I'd come to you first, since I—well, I know you better.'
"'How much do you want?'
"'Only ten thousand. I've got a tip on the market and if I can raise the coin before the stock soars and buy on margin, I'll make a fine little coup. Want to come in on it, Rockamore?'
"'Go to the devil! Here's your check—you can get it certified at the bank. Now get out and don't bother me again or you'll find out I'm not the weak-minded fool you take me for. Stick to the small fry, Paddington. They're your game, but don't fish for salmon with a trout-fly.'
"'Thanks, old man. I always knew I could call on you in an emergency. I only hope my tip is a straight one and I don't go short on the market. If I do—'
"'Don't come to me! I tell you, Paddington, you can't play me for a sucker. That's the last cent you'll ever get out of me. It suits me now to pay for your silence because, as you very well know, I don't care to inform my colleagues or have them informed that I acted independently of them; but I've paid all that your knowledge is worth, and more.'
"'It might have been worth even more to others than to you or your colleagues. For instance—'
"Then Billy came up behind me and whistled," concluded Miss Hefferman, as she closed her note-book. "Shall I transcribe this for you, Mr. Blaine? We have a typewriter at the club."
"No, I will take the note-book with me as it is and lock it in my safe at the office. Please hold yourself in readiness to come down and transcribe it whenever it may be necessary for me to send for you. You have done splendidly, Miss Hefferman. You must not feel badly over having been discovered and dismissed. You have rendered Miss Lawton a valuable service for which she will be the first to thank you. Telephone me if anyone attempts to approach you about this affair, or if anything unusual should occur."
Scarcely an hour later, when Henry Blaine placed the receiver at his ear in response to the insistent summons of the 'phone, her voice came to him again over the wire.
"Mr. Blaine, I am at the club, but I thought you should know that after all, I was—what is that you say—shadowed this morning. Just a little way from Mead & Rathbun's my hand-bag was cut from my arm. It was lucky, hein, that you took the note-book with you? As for me, I go out no more for any positions. I go back soon as ever I can, by Germany."
THE CONFIDENCE OF EMILY
All during that day and the night which followed it, the search for Ramon Hamilton continued, but without result. With the announcement of his disappearance, in the press, the police had started a spectacular investigation, but had been as unsuccessful as Henry Blaine's own operatives, who had been working unostentatiously but tirelessly since the news of the young lawyer's evanescence had come.
No one could be found who had seen him. When he left the offices of the great detective on the previous morning he seemed to have vanished into thin air. It was to Blaine the most baffling incident of all that had occurred since this most complex case had come into his hands.
He kept his word and called to see Anita in the late afternoon. He found that she had slept for some hours and was calmer and more hopeful, which was fortunate, for he had scant comfort to offer her beyond his vague but forceful reassurances that all would be well.
Early on the following morning Suraci returned from Long Bay and presented himself at the office of his chief to report.
"Here are the tracings from the register of 'The Breakers' which you desired, sir," he began, spreading some large thin sheets of paper upon the desk. "The Lawtons spent three weeks there at the time you designated, and Mr. Hamilton went out each week-end, from Friday to Monday, as you can see here, and here. They had no other visitors and kept much to themselves."
Blaine scanned the papers rapidly, pausing here and there to scrutinize more closely a signature which appeared to interest him. At length he pushed them aside with a dissatisfied frown, as if he had been looking for something which he had failed to find.
"Anything suspicious about the guests who arrived during the Lawtons' stay?" he asked. "Was there any incident in connection with them worthy of note which the proprietor could recall?"
"No, sir, but I found some of the employees and talked to them. The hotel is closed now for the winter, of course, but two or three of the waiters and bell-boys live in the neighborhood. A summer resort is a hot-bed of gossip, as you know, sir, and since Mr. Lawton's sudden death the servants have been comparing notes of his visit there two years ago. I found the waiter who served them, and two bell-boys, and they each had a curious incident to tell me in connection with the Lawtons. The stories would have held no significance if it weren't for the fact that they all happened to concern one person—a man who arrived on the eighth of August. This man here."
Suraci ran his finger down the register page until he came to one name, where he stopped abruptly.
"Albert Addison, Baltimore, Maryland," read Blaine. Then, with a sudden exclamation he bent closer over the paper. A prolonged scrutiny ensued while Suraci watched him curiously. Reaching into a drawer, the Master Detective drew out a powerful magnifying glass and examined each stroke of the pen with minute care. At length he swung about in his chair and pressed the electric button on the corner of the desk. When his secretary appeared in response to the summons, Blaine said:
"Ask the filing clerk to look in the drawer marked 'P. 1904,' and bring me the check drawn on the First National Bank signed Paddington."
While the secretary was fulfilling his task the two waited in silence, but with the check before him Henry Blaine gave it one keen, comparing glance, then turned to the operative.
"Well, Suraci, what did you learn from the hotel employees?"
"One of the bell-boys told me that this man, Addison, arrived with only a bag, announcing that his luggage would be along later and that he anticipated remaining a week or more. This boy noticed him particularly because he scanned the hotel register before writing his own name, and insisted upon having one of two special suites; number seventy-two or seventy-six. Seventy-four the suite between, was occupied by Mr. Lawton. They were both engaged, so he was forced to be content with number seventy-three, just across the hall. The boy noticed that although the new arrival did not approach Mr. Lawton or his daughter, he hung about in their immediate vicinity all day and appeared to be watching them furtively.
"Late in the afternoon, Mr. Lawton went into the writing-room to attend to some correspondence. The boy, passing through the room on an errand, saw him stop in the middle of a page, frown, and tearing the paper across, throw it in the waste-basket. Glancing about inadvertently, the bell-boy saw Addison seated near by, staring at Mr. Lawton from behind a newspaper which he held in front of his face as if pretending to read. The boy's curiosity was aroused by the eager, hungry, expectant look on the stranger's face, and he made up his mind to hang around, too, and see what was doing.
"He attended to his errand and returned just in time to see Mr. Lawton seal the flap of his last envelope, rise, and stroll from the room. Instantly Addison slipped into the seat just vacated, wrote a page, crumpled it, and threw it in the same waste-basket the other man had used. Then he started another page, hesitated and finally stopped and began rummaging in the basket, as if searching for the paper he himself had just dropped there. The boy made up his mind—he's a sharp one, sir, he'd be good for this business—that the stranger wasn't after his own letter, at all, but the one Mr. Lawton had torn across, and in a spirit of mischief, he walked up to the man and offered to help.
"'This is your letter, sir. I saw you crumple it up just now. That torn sheet of paper belongs to one of the other guests.'
"According to his story, he forced Addison's own letter on him, and walked off with the waste-basket to empty it, and if looks could kill, he'd have been a dead boy after one glance from the stranger. That was all he had to tell, and he wouldn't have remembered such a trifling incident for a matter of two years and more, if it hadn't been for something which happened late that night. He didn't see it, being off duty, but another boy did, and the next day they compared notes. They were undecided as to whether they should go to the manager of the hotel and make a report, or not, but being only kids, they were afraid of getting into trouble themselves, so they waited. Addison departed suddenly that morning, however, and as Mr. Lawton never gave any sign of being aware of what had taken place, they kept silent. I located the second boy, and got his story at first hand. His name is Johnnie Bradley and he's as stupid as the other one is sharp.
"Johnnie was on all night, and about one o'clock he was sent out to the casino on the pier just in front of the hotel, with a message. When he was returning, he noticed a tiny, bright light darting quickly about in Mr. Lawton's rooms, as if some one were carrying a candle through the suite and moving rapidly. He remembered that Mr. Lawton and his daughter had motored off somewhere just after dinner to be gone overnight, so he went upstairs to investigate, without mentioning the matter to the clerk who was dozing behind the desk in the office. There was a chambermaid on night duty at the end of the hall, but she was asleep, and as he reached the head of the stairs, Johnnie observed that some one had, contrary to the rules, extinguished the lights near Mr. Lawton's rooms. He went softly down the hall, until he came to the door of number seventy-four. A man was stooping before it, fumbling with a key, but whether he was locking or unlocking the door, it did not occur to Johnnie to question in his own mind until later. As he approached, the man turned, saw him, and reeled against the door as if he had been drinking.
"'Sa-ay, boy!' he drawled. 'Wha's matter with lock? Can't open m' door.'
"He put the key in his pocket as he spoke, but that, too, Johnnie did not think of until afterward.
"'That isn't your door, sir. Those are Mr. Pennington Lawton's rooms,' Johnnie told him. 'What is the number on your key?'
"The man produced a key from his pocket and gave it to Johnnie in a stupid, dazed sort of way. The key was numbered seventy-three.
"'That's your suite, just across the hall, sir,' Johnnie said. He unlocked the door for the newcomer, who muttered thickly about the hall being d——d confusing to a stranger, and gave him a dollar. Johnnie waited until the man had lurched into his rooms, then asked if he wanted ice-water. Receiving no reply but a mumbled curse, he withdrew, but not before he had seen the light switched on, and the man cross to the door and shut it. The stranger no longer lurched about, but walked erectly and his face had lost the sagged, vapid, drunken look and was surprisingly sober and keen and alert.
"The two boys decided the next day that Addison had come to 'The Breakers' with the idea of robbing Mr. Lawton, but, as I said, nothing came of the incident, so they kept it to themselves and in all probability it had quite passed from their minds until the news of Mr. Lawton's death recalled it to them."
Suraci paused, and after a moment Blaine suggested tentatively:
"You spoke of a waiter, also, Suraci. Had he anything to add to what the bell-boys had told you, of this man Addison's peculiar behavior?"
"Yes, sir. It isn't very important, but it sort of confirms what the first boy said, about the stranger trying to watch the Lawtons, without being noticed himself, by them. The waiter, Tim Donohue, says that on the day of his arrival, Addison was seated by the head waiter at the next table to that occupied by Mr. Lawton, and directly facing him. Addison entered the dining-room first, ordered a big luncheon, and was half-way through it when the Lawtons entered. No sooner were they seated, than he got up precipitately and left the room. That night, at dinner, he refused the table he had occupied at the first meal, and insisted upon being seated at one somewhere back of Mr. Lawton.
"This Donohue is a genial, kind-hearted soul, and he was a favorite with the bell-hops because he used to save sweets and tid-bits for them from his trays. Johnnie and the other boy told him of their dilemma concerning number seventy-three, as they designated Addison, and he in turn related the incident of the dining-room. The boys told me about him and where he could be found. He's not a waiter any longer, but married to one of the hotel chamber-maids, and lives in Long Bay, running a bus service to the depot for a string of the cheaper boarding houses. He corroborated the bell-hops' story in every detail, and even gave me a hazy sort of description of Addison. He was small and thin and dark; clean shaven, with a face like an actor, narrow shoulders and a sort of caved-in chest. He walked with a slight limp, and was a little over-dressed for the exclusive, conservative, high-society crowd that flock to 'The Breakers.'"
"That's our man, Suraci—that's Paddington, to the life!" Blaine exclaimed. "I knew it as soon as I compared his signature on this check with the one in the register, although he has tried to disguise his hand, as you can see. I'm glad to have it verified, though, by witnesses on whom we can lay our hands at any time, should it become necessary. He left the day after his arrival, you say? The morning after this boy, Johnnie, caught him in front of Mr. Lawton's door?"
"Yes, sir. The bell-hops don't think he came back, either. They don't remember seeing him again."
"Very well. You've done splendidly, Suraci. I couldn't have conducted the investigation better myself. Do you need any rest, now?"
"Oh, no, sir! I'm quite ready for another job!" The young operative's eyes sparkled eagerly as he spoke, and his long, slim, nervous fingers clasped and unclasped the arms of his chair spasmodically. "What is it? Something new come up?"
"Only that disappearance, two days ago, of the young lawyer to whom Miss Lawton is engaged, Ramon Hamilton. I want you to go out on that at once, and see what you can do. I've got half a dozen of the best men on it already, but they haven't accomplished anything. I can't give you a single clue to go upon, except that when he walked out of this office at eleven o'clock in the morning, he wore a black suit, black shoes, black tie, a black derby and a gray overcoat with a mourning band on the sleeve—for Mr. Lawton, of course. Outside the door there, he vanished as if a trap had opened and dropped him through into space. No one has seen him; no one knows where he went. That's all the help I can offer you. He's not in jail or the morgue or any of the hospitals, as yet. That isn't much, but it's something. Here's a personal description of him which the police issued yesterday. It's as good as any I could give you, and here are two photographs of him which I got from his mother yesterday afternoon. Take a good look at him, Suraci, fix his face in your mind, and then if you should manage, or happen, to locate him, you can't go wrong. I know your memory for faces."
The "shadow" departed eagerly upon his quest, and Blaine settled down to an hour's deep reflection. He held the threads of the major conspiracy in his hands, but as yet he could not connect them, at least in any tangible way to present at a court of so-called justice, where everyone, from the judge to the policeman at the door could, and inevitably would, be bought over, in advance, to the side of the criminals. It was a one-man fight, backed only with the slender means provided by a young girl's insignificant financial ventures, against the press, the public, a corrupt political machine of great power, the desperate ingenuity of three clever, unscrupulous minds brought to bay, and the overwhelming influence of colossal wealth. Henry Blaine felt that the supreme struggle of his whole career was confronting him.
The unheard-of intrepidity of conception, the very daring of the conspiracy, combined with the prominence of the men involved, would brand any accusation, even from a man of Henry Blaine's celebrated international reputation, as totally preposterous, unless substantiated. And what actual proof had he of their criminal connection with the alleged bankruptcy of Pennington Lawton?
He had established, to his own satisfaction, at least, that the mortgage on the family home on Belleair Avenue had been forged, and by Jimmy Brunell. The signature on the note held by Moore, the banker, and the entire letter asking Mallowe to negotiate the loan had been also fraudulent, and manufactured by the same hand. Paddington, the private detective with perhaps the most unsavory record of any operating in the city, was in close and constant communication with the three men Blaine held under suspicion, and probably also with Jimmy Brunell. Lastly, Brunell himself was known to be still in possession of his paraphernalia for the pursuit of his old nefarious calling. Paddington, on Margaret Hefferman's testimony, had assuredly succeeded in mulcting the promoter, Rockamore, of a large sum in a clear case of blackmail, but on the face of it there was no proof that it was connected with the matter of Pennington Lawton's insolvency.
The mysterious nocturnal visitor, on the night the magnate met his death, was still to be accounted for, as was the disappearance of Ramon Hamilton; and in spite of his utmost efforts, Henry Blaine was forced to admit to himself that he was scarcely nearer a solution, or rather, a confirmation of his steadfast convictions, than when he started upon his investigation.
Unquestionably, the man Paddington held the key to the situation. But how could Paddington be approached? How could he be made to speak? Bribery had sealed his lips, and only greed would open them. He was shrewd enough to realize that the man who had purchased his services would pay him far more to remain silent than any client of Blaine's could, to betray them. Moreover, he was in the same boat, and must of necessity sink or swim with his confederates.
Fear might induce him to squeal, where cupidity would fail, but the one sure means of loosening his tongue was through passion.
"If only that French girl, Fifine Dechaussee, would lead him on, if she had less of the saint and more of the coquette in her make-up, we might land him," the detective murmured to himself. "It's dirty work, but we've got to use the weapons in our hands. I must have another talk with her, before she considers herself affronted by his attentions, and throws him down hard—that is, if he's making any attempt to follow up his flirtation with her."
Blaine's soliloquy was interrupted by the entrance of Guy Morrow, whose face bore the disgusted look of one sent to fish with a bent pin for a salmon.
"I found Paddington, all right, sir," he announced. "I tailed him until a half-hour ago, but I might as well have been asleep for all I learned, except one fact."
"Which is—" the detective asked quickly.
"That he went to Rockamore's office yesterday morning, remained an hour and came away with a check for ten thousand dollars. He proceeded to the bank, had it certified, and deposited it at once to his own account in the Merchants' and Traders'. He evidently split it up, then, for he went to three other banks and opened accounts under three different names. Here's the list. I tailed him all the way."
He handed the Master Detective a slip of paper, which the latter put carefully aside after a casual glance.
"Then what did he do?"
"Wasted his own time and mine," the operative responded in immeasurable contempt. "Ate and drank and gambled and loafed and philandered."
"Philandered?" Blaine repeated, sharply.
"In the park," returned the other. "Spooning with a girl! Rotten cold it was, too, and me tailing on like a blamed chaperon! After he made his last deposit at the third bank, he went to lunch at Duyon's. Ate his head off, and paid from a thick wad of yellowbacks. Then he dropped in at Wiley's, and played roulette for a couple of hours—played in luck, too. He drank quite a little, but it only seemed to heighten his good spirits, without fuddling him to any extent. When he left Wiley's, about five o'clock, he sauntered along Court Street, until he came to Fraser's, the jeweler's. He stopped, looked at the display window for a few minutes, and then, as if on a sudden impulse, turned and entered the shop. I tailed him inside, and went to the men's counter, where I bought a tie-clasp, keeping my eye on him all the time. What do you think he got? A gold locket and chain—a heart-shaped locket, with a chip diamond in the center!"
"The eternal feminine!" Blaine commented; and then he added half under his breath: "Fifine Dechaussee's on the job!"
"What, sir?" asked the operative curiously.
"Nothing, Guy. Merely an idle observation. Go on with your story."
"Paddington went straight from the jeweler's to the Democratic Club for an hour, then dined alone at Rossi's. I was on the look-out for the woman, but none appeared, and he didn't act as if he expected anybody. After dinner he strolled down Belleair Avenue, past the Lawton residence, and out to Fairlawn Park. Once inside the gates, he stopped for a minute near a lamp-post and looked at his watch, then hurried straight on to Hydrangea Path, as if he had an appointment to keep. I dropped back in the shadow, but tailed along. She must have been late, that girl, for he cooled his heels on a bench for twenty minutes, growing more impatient all the time. Finally she came—a slender wisp of a girl, but some queen! Plainly dressed, dark hair and eyes, small hands and feet and a face like a stained-glass window!
"They walked slowly up and down, talking very confidentially, and once he started to put his arm about her, but she moved away. I walked up quickly, and passed them, close enough to hear what she was saying: 'Of course it is lonely for a girl in a strange country, where she has no friends.' That was all I got, but I noticed that she spoke with a decidedly foreign accent, French or Spanish, I should say.
"Around a bend in the path I hid behind a clump of bushes and waited until they had passed, then tailed them again. I saw him produce the locket and chain at last, and offer them to her. She protested and took a lot of persuading; but he prevailed upon her and she let him clasp it about her neck and kiss her. After that—Good Lord! They spooned for about two hours and never even noticed the snow which had begun to fall, while I shivered along behind. About half-past ten they made a break-away and he left her at the park gates and went on down to his rooms. I put up for the night at the Hotel Gaythorne, just across the way, and kept a look-out, but there were no further developments until early this morning. At a little after seven he left his apartment house and started up State Street as if he meant business. Of course I was after him on the jump.
"He evidently didn't think he was watched, for he never looked around once, but made straight for a little shop near the corner of Tarleton Place. It was a stationery and tobacco store, and I was right at his heels when he entered. He leaned over the counter, and asked in a low, meaning tone for a box of Cairo cigarettes. The man gave him a long, searching glance, then turned, and reaching back of a pile of boxes on the first shelf, drew out a flat one—the size which holds twenty cigarettes. He passed it quickly over to Paddington, but not before I observed that it had been opened and rather clumsily resealed.
"Paddington handed over a quarter and left the shop without another word. He went directly to a cheap restaurant across the street, and, ordering a cup of coffee, he tore open the cigarette box. It contained only a sheet of paper, folded twice. I was at the next table, too far away to read what was written upon it, but whatever it was, it seemed to give him immense satisfaction. He finished his coffee, returned to his rooms, changed his clothes, and went directly to the office of Snedecker, the man whose divorce case he is trying to trump up. Evidently he's good for a day's work on that, so I thought I could safely leave him at it, and report to you."
"Humph! I'd like to have a glimpse of that communication in the cigarette box, but it isn't of sufficient importance, on the face of it, to show our hand by having him waylaid, or searching his rooms," Blaine cogitated aloud. "I'll put another man on to-morrow morning. Leave the address of the tobacconist with my secretary on your way out, and if there is another message to-morrow, he'll get it first. You needn't do anything more on this Paddington matter; I think the other end needs your services more; and since you've already broken ground up there, you'll be able to do better than anyone else. I want you to return to the Bronx, get back your old room, if you can, and stick close to the Brunells."
Back in his old rooms at Mrs. Quinlan's, Guy sat in the window-seat at dusk, impatiently awaiting the appearance of a slender, well-known figure. The rain, which had set in early in the afternoon, had turned to sleet, and as the darkness deepened, the rays from a solitary street lamp gleamed sharply upon the pavement as upon an unbroken sheet of ice.
Presently the spare, long-limbed form of James Brunell emerged from the gloom and disappeared within the door of this little house opposite. Morrow observed that the man's step lacked its accustomed jauntiness and spring, and he plodded along wearily, as if utterly preoccupied with some depressing meditation. A light sprang up in the front room on the ground floor, but after a few moments it was suddenly extinguished, and Brunell appeared again on the porch. He closed the door softly behind him, and strode quickly down the street. There was a marked change in his bearing, a furtiveness and eager haste which ill accorded with his manner of a short time before.
Scarcely had Brunell vanished into the encroaching gloom, when his daughter appeared. She, too, approached wearily, and on reaching the little sagging gate she paused in surprised dismay at the air of detached emptiness the house seemed to exude. Then a little furry object scurried around the porch corner and precipitated itself upon her. She stooped swiftly, gathered up the kitten in her arms and went slowly into the house.
Morrow ate his supper in absent-minded haste, and as soon as he decently could, he made his way across the street.
Emily opened the door in response to his ring and greeted him with such undisguised pleasure and surprise that his honest heart quickened a beat or two, and it was with difficulty that he voiced the plausible falsehood concerning his loss of position, and return to his former abode.
Under the light in the little drawing-room, he noticed that she looked pale and careworn, and her limpid, childlike eyes were veiled pathetically with deep, blue shadows. As he looked at her, however, a warm tint dyed her cheeks and her head drooped, while the little smile still lingered about her lips.
"You are tired?" he found himself asking solicitously, after she had expressed her sympathy for his supposed ill fortune. "You found your work difficult to-day at the club?"
"Oh, no,"—she shook her head slowly. "My position is a mere sinecure, thanks to Miss Lawton's wonderful consideration. I have been a little depressed—a little worried, that is all."
"Worried?" Morrow paused, then added in a lower tone, the words coming swiftly, "Can't you tell me, Emily? Isn't there some way in which I can help you? What is it that is troubling you?"
"I—I don't know." A deeper, painful flush spread for a moment over her face, then ebbed, leaving her paler even than before. "You are very kind, Mr. Morrow, but I do not think that I should speak of it to anyone. And indeed, my fears are so intangible, so vague, that when I try to formulate my thoughts into words, even to myself, they are unconvincing, almost meaningless. Yet I feel instinctively that something is wrong."
"Won't you trust me?" Morrow's hand closed gently but firmly over the girl's slender one, in a clasp of compelling sympathy, and unconsciously she responded to it. "I know that I am comparatively a new friend. You and your father have been kind enough to extend your hospitality to me, to accept me as a friend. You know very little about me, yet I want you to believe that I am worthy of trust—that I want to help you. I do, Emily, more than you realize, more than I can express to you now!"
Morrow had forgotten the reason for his presence there, forgotten his profession, his avowed purpose, everything but the girl beside him. But her next words brought him swiftly back to a realization of the present—so swiftly that for a moment he felt as if stunned by an unexpected blow.
"Oh, I do believe that you are a friend! I do trust you!" Emily's voice thrilled with deep sincerity, and in an impetuous outburst of confidence she added: "It is about my father that I am troubled. Something has happened which I do not understand; there is something he is keeping from me, which has changed him. He seems like a different man, a stranger!"
"You are sure of it?" Morrow asked, slowly. "You are sure that it isn't just a nervous fancy? Your father really has changed toward you lately?"
"Not only toward me, but to all the world beside!" she responded. "Now that I look back, I can see that his present state of mind has been coming on gradually for several months, but it was only a short time ago that something occurred which seemed to bring the matter, whatever it is, to a turning-point. I remember that it was just a few days before you came—I mean, before I happened to see you over at Mrs. Quinlan's."
She stopped abruptly, as if an arresting finger had been laid across her lips, and after waiting a moment for her to continue, Morrow asked quietly:
"What was it that occurred?"
"Father received a letter. It came one afternoon when I had returned from the club earlier than usual. I took it from the postman myself, and as father had not come home yet from the shop, I placed it beside his plate at the supper table. I noticed the postmark—'Brooklyn'—but it didn't make any particular impression upon me; it was only later, when I saw how it affected my father, that I remembered, and wondered. He had scarcely opened the envelope, when he rose, trembling so that he could hardly stand, and coming into this room, he shut the door after him. I waited as long as I could, but he did not return, and the supper was getting cold, so I came to the door here. It was locked! For the first time in his life, my father had locked himself in, from me! He would not answer me at first, as I called to him, and I was nearly frightened to death before he spoke. When he did, his voice sounded so harsh and strained that I scarcely recognized it. He told me that he didn't want anything to eat; he had some private business to attend to, and I was not to wait up for him, but to go to bed when I wished.
"I crept away, and went to my room at last, but I could not sleep. It was nearly morning when Father went to bed, and his step was heavy and dragging as he passed my door. His room is next to mine, and I heard him tossing restlessly about—and once or twice I fancied that he groaned as if in pain. He was up in the morning at his usual time, but he looked ill and worn, as if he had aged years in that one night. Neither of us mentioned the letter, then or at any subsequent time, but he has never been the same man since."
"And the letter—you never saw it?" Morrow asked eagerly, his detective instinct now thoroughly aroused. "You don't know what that envelope postmarked 'Brooklyn' contained?"
"Oh, but I do!" Emily exclaimed. "Father had thrust it in the stove, but the fire had gone out, without his noticing it. I found it the next morning, when I raked down the ashes."
"You—read it?" Morrow carefully steadied his voice.
"No," she shook her head, with a faint smile. "That's the queer part of it all. No one could have read it—no one who did not hold the key to it, I mean. It was written in some secret code or cipher, with oddly shaped figures instead of letters; dots and cubes and triangles. I never saw anything like it before. I couldn't understand why anyone should send such a funny message to my father, instead of writing it out properly."
"What did you do with the letter—did you destroy it?" This time the detective made no effort to control the eagerness in his tones, but the girl was so absorbed in her problem that she was oblivious to all else.
"I suppose I should have, but I didn't. I knew that it was what my father had intended, yet somehow I felt that it might prove useful in the future—that I might even be helping Father by keeping it, against his own judgment. The envelope was partially scorched by the hot ashes, but the inside sheet remained untouched. I hid the letter behind the mirror on my dresser, and sometimes, when I have been quite alone, I took it out and tried to solve it, but I couldn't. I never was good at puzzles when I was little, and I suppose I lack that deductive quality now. I was ashamed, too: it seemed so like prying into things which didn't concern me, which my father didn't wish me to know; still, I was only doing it to try to help him."
Morrow winced, and drew a long breath. Then resolutely he plunged into the task before him.
"Emily, don't think that I want to pry, either, but if I am to help you I must see that letter. If you trust me and believe in my friendship, let me see it. Perhaps I may be able to discover the key in the first word or two, and then you can decipher it for yourself. You understand, I don't wish you to show it to me unless you really have confidence in me, unless you are sure that there is nothing in it which one who has your welfare and peace of mind at heart should not see."
He waited for her reply with a suffocating feeling as if a hand were clutching at his throat. A hot wave of shame, of fierce repugnance and self-contempt at the role he was forced to play, surged up within him, but he could not go back now. The die was cast.
She looked at him—a long, searching look, her childlike eyes dark with troubled indecision. At length they cleared slowly and she smiled, a faint, pathetic smile, which wrung his heart. Then she rose without a word, and left the room.
It seemed to him that an interminable period of time passed before he heard her light, returning footsteps descending the stairs. A wild desire to flee assailed him—to efface himself before her innocent confidence was betrayed.
Emily Brunell came straight to him, and placed the letter in his hands.
"There can be nothing in this letter which could harm my father, if all the world read it," she said simply. "He is good and true; he has not an enemy on earth. It can be only a private business communication, at the most. My father's life is an open book; no discredit could come to him. Yet if there was anything in the cryptic message written here which others, not knowing him as I do, might misjudge, I am not afraid that you will. You see, I do believe in your friendship, Mr. Morrow; I am proving my faith in you."
It was a haggard, heavy-eyed young man who presented himself at Henry Blaine's office, early the next morning, with his report. The detective made no comment upon his subordinate's changed appearance and manner, but eyed him keenly as with dogged determination Guy Morrow told his story through to the end.
"The letter—the cipher letter!" Blaine demanded, curtly, when the operative paused at length. "You have it with you?"
Morrow drew a deep breath and unconsciously he squared his shoulders.
"No, sir," he responded, his voice significantly steady and controlled.
"Where is it?"
"I gave it back to her—to Miss Brunell."
"What! Then you solved it?" the detective leaned forward suddenly, the level gaze from beneath his close-drawn brows seeming to pierce the younger man's impassivity.
"No, sir. It was a cryptogram, of course—an arrangement of cabalistic signs instead of letters, but I could make nothing of it. The message, whatever it is, would take hours of careful study to decipher; and even then, without the key, one might fail. I have seen nothing quite like it, in all my experience."
"And you gave it back to her!" Blaine exclaimed, with well-simulated incredulity. "You actually had the letter in your hands, and relinquished it? In heaven's name, why?"
"Miss Brunell had shown it to me in confidence. It was her property, and she trusted me. Since I was unable to aid her in solving it, I returned it to her. The chances are that it is, as she said, a matter of private business between her father and another man, and it is probably entirely dissociated from this investigation."
"You're not paid, Morrow, to form opinions of your own, or decide the ethics, social or moral, of a case you're put on; you're paid to obey instructions, collect data and obtain whatever evidence there may be. Remember that. Confidence or no confidence, girl or no girl, you go back and get that letter! I don't care what means you use, short of actual murder; that cipher's got to be in my hands before midnight. Understand?"
"Yes, sir, I understand." Morrow rose slowly, and faced his chief. "I'm sorry, but I cannot do it."
"You can't? That's the first time I ever heard that word from your lips, Guy." Henry Blaine shook his head sadly, affecting not to notice his operative's rising emotion.
"I mean that I won't, sir. I'm sorry to appear insubordinate, but I've got to refuse—I simply must. I've never shirked a duty before, as I think you will admit, Mr. Blaine. I have always carried out the missions you entrusted to me to the best of my ability, no matter what the odds against me, and in this case I have gone ahead conscientiously up to the present moment, but I won't proceed with it any further."
"What are you afraid of—Jimmy Brunell?" asked the detective, significantly.
The insult brought a deep flush to Morrow's cheek, but he controlled himself.
"No, sir," he responded, quietly. "I'm not going to betray the trust that girl has reposed in me."
"How about the trust another girl has placed in me—and through me, in you?" Henry Blaine rose also, and gazed levelly into his operative's eyes. "What of Anita Lawton? Have you considered her? I ought to dismiss you, Guy, at this moment, and I would if it were anyone else, but I can't allow you to fly off at a tangent, and ruin your whole career. Why should you put this girl, Emily Brunell, before everything in the world—your duty to Miss Lawton, to me, to yourself?"
"She trusted me," returned Morrow, with grim persistence.
"So did Henrietta Goodwin, in the case of Mrs. Derwenter's diamonds; so did the little manicure, in the Verdun blackmail affair; so did Anne Richardson, in the Balazzi kidnaping mystery. You made love to all of them, and got their confessions, and if your scruples and remorse kept you awake nights afterward, you certainly didn't show any effect of it. What difference does it make in this case?"
"Just this difference, Mr. Blaine"—Morrow's words came with a rush, as if he was glad, now that the issue had been raised, to meet it squarely—"I love Emily Brunell. Whatever her father is, or has done, she is guiltless of any complicity, and I can't stand by and see her suffer, much less be the one to precipitate her grief by bringing her father to justice. I told you the truth when I said that the cipher letter was an enigma to me. I could not solve the cryptogram, nor will I be the means of bringing it to the hands of those who might solve it. I don't want any further connection with the case; in fact, sir, I want to get out of the sleuth game altogether. It's a dirty business, at best, and it leaves a bad taste in one's mouth, and many a black spot in one's memory. I realize how petty and sordid and treacherous and generally despicable the whole game is, and I'm through!"
"Through?" Henry Blaine smiled his quiet, slow, illuminating smile, and walking around the table, laid his hand on Morrow's shoulder. "Why, boy, you haven't even commenced. Detective work is 'petty,' you said? 'Petty' because we take every case, no matter how insignificant, if it can right a wrong? You call our profession 'sordid,' because we accept pay for the work of our brains and bodies! Why should we not? Are we treacherous, because we meet malefactors, and fight them with their own weapons? And what is there that is 'generally despicable' about a calling which betters mankind, which protects the innocent, and brings the guilty to justice?"
Morrow shook his head slowly, as if incapable of speech, but it was evident that he was listening, and Blaine, after a moment's pause, followed up his advantage.
"You say that you love Miss Brunell, Guy, and because of that, you will have nothing further to do with an investigation which points primarily to her father as an accomplice in the crime. Do you realize that if you throw over the case now, I shall be compelled to put another operative on the trail, with all the information at his disposal which you have detailed to me? You may be sure the man I have in mind will have no sentimental scruples against pushing the matter to the end, without regard for the cost to either Jimmy Brunell or his daughter. Naturally, being in love with the girl, her interests are paramount with you. I, too, desire heartily to do nothing to cause her anxiety or grief. Remember that I have daughters of my own. As I have told you, I firmly believe that the old forger is merely a helpless tool in this affair, but my duty demands that I obtain the whole truth. If you repudiate the case now, give up your career, and go to work single-handed to attempt to protect her and her father by thwarting my investigation, you will be doing her the greatest injury in your power. The only way to help them both is to do all that you can to discover the real facts in the case. When we have succeeded in that, we shall undoubtedly find a way to shield old Jimmy from the brunt of the blame.
"Don't forget the big interests, political and municipal, at work in this conspiracy. They would not hesitate to try to make the old offender a scape-goat, and you know what sort of treatment he would receive in the hands of the police. Play the game, Guy; stick to the job. I'm not asking this of you for my own investigation. I have a dozen, a score of operatives who could each handle the branch you are working up just as well as you. I ask it for the sake of your career, for the girl herself, and her father. I tell you that instead of incriminating old Jimmy, you may be the means of ultimately saving him.—Go back to Emily Brunell now, get that letter from her by hook or crook, and bring it to me."
The detective paused at length and waited for his answer. It was long in coming. Guy Morrow stood leaning against his desk, his brows drawn down in a troubled frown. Blaine watched the outward signs of his mental struggle warily, but made no further plea. At last the young operative raised his head, his eyes clear and resolute, and held out his hand.
"I will, sir! Thank you for giving me another chance. I do love the girl, and I want to help her more than anything else in the world, but I'll play the game fairly. You are right, of course. I can be of more assistance to her on the inside than working in the dark, and it would be better for everyone concerned if the truth could be brought to light. I'll get the letter, and bring it to you to-night."
Morrow was waiting at the foot of the subway stairs that evening when Emily appeared. The crisp, cold air had brought a brilliant flush to her usually pale cheeks, and her sparkling eyes softened with tender surprise and happiness when they rested on him. He thought that she had never appeared more lovely, and as they started homeward his hand tightened upon her arm with an air of unconscious possession and pride which she did not resent.
"May I come over after supper?" he asked, softly, as they paused at her gate. "I have something to tell you—to ask you."
"Won't you come in and have supper with me?" she suggested shyly. "Caliban and I will be all alone. My father will not be home until late to-night. He telephoned to me at the club and told me that he had closed the shop for the day and gone down-town on business."
A shadow crossed her face as she spoke, the faint shadow of hidden trouble which he had noticed before. It was an auspicious moment, and Morrow seized upon it.
"I will, gladly, if you will let me wash the dishes," he replied, with alacrity.
"We will do them together." The brightness which but an instant before had been blotted from her face returned in a warm glow, and side by side they entered the door.
With Caliban, the black kitten, upon his knees, Morrow watched as she moved deftly about the cheerful, spotless kitchen preparing the simple meal. He made no mention of the subject which lay nearest his heart and mind, and they chattered as gaily and irresponsibly as children. But when supper was over, and they settled themselves in the little sitting-room, a curious constraint fell upon them both. She sat stroking the kitten, which had curled up beside her, while he gazed absently at the rosy gleam of the glowing coals behind the isinglass door of the little stove, and for a long time there was silence between them.
At length he turned to her and spoke. "Emily," he began, "I told you out there by your gate to-night that I had something to ask of you, something to tell you. I want to tell you now, but I don't know how to begin. It's something I've never told any girl before."
Her hands paused, resting with sudden tenseness upon Caliban's soft fur, and slowly she averted her face from him. He swallowed hard, and then the words came in a swift, tender rush.
"Dear, I love you! I've loved you from the moment I first saw you coming down the street! You—you know nothing of me, save the little I have told you, and I came here a stranger. Some day I will tell you everything, and you will understand. You and your father admitted me to your friendship, made me welcome in your home, and I shall never forget it. It may be that some time I shall be able to be of service to you, but remember that whatever happens, no matter how you reply to me now, I shall never forget your goodness to me, and I shall try to repay it. I love you with all my heart and soul; I want you to be my wife, dear! I never knew before that such love could exist in the world! You have your father, I know, but, oh, I want to protect you and care for you, and keep all harm from you forever."
"Guy!" Her voice was a mere breathless whisper, and her eyes blurred with sudden tears, but he slipped his arm about her, and drew her close.
"Emily, won't you look at me, dear? Won't you tell me that you care, too? That at least there is a chance for me? If I have spoken too soon, I will await patiently and serve you as Jacob served for Rebecca of old. Only tell me that you will try to care, and there is nothing on this earth I cannot do for you, nothing I will not do! Oh, my darling, say that you care just a little!"
There was a pause and then very softly a warm arm stole about his neck, and a strand of rippling brown hair brushed his cheek lightly as her gentle head drooped against his shoulder.
"I—I do care—now," she whispered. "I knew that I cared when you—went away!"
The minutes lengthened into an hour or more while Morrow in the thrall of his exalted mood forgot for the second time in the girl's sweet presence his battle between love and duty: forgot the reason for his coming, the mission he was bound to fulfill—the letter he had promised his employer to obtain.
For many minutes Guy Morrow and Emily forgot all else but the new-found happiness of the love they had just confessed for each other. Morrow had even forgotten that most-important letter which, after many misgivings, he had solemnly promised his employer to obtain from Emily. It was a phrase which fell from her own lips that recalled him to the stern reality of the situation.
"My father!" she exclaimed, starting from Morrow's arms in sudden confusion. "What do you suppose Father will say?"
"We will tell him when he returns." Morrow spoke with reassuring confidence, but a swift feeling of apprehension came over him. What indeed would Jimmy Brunell say? The thought of lying to Emily's father was repugnant beyond expression, and yet what account could he give of himself, of his profession and earlier career? What credentials, what proof of his integrity and clean, honest life could he present to the man whose daughter he sought to marry? At the first hint of "detective" the old forger would inevitably suspect his motive and turn him from the house, forbidding Emily to speak to or even look upon him again. There was an alternative, and although he shrank from it as unworthy of her faith and trust in him, Morrow was forced to accept it as the only practicable solution to the problem confronting him.
"Oh, no, don't let us tell him—yet!" Unconsciously Emily smoothed the way for him. "I don't mean to deceive him, of course, or keep anything from him which it is really necessary that he know at once, but it seems too wonderful to discuss, even with Father, just now. It is like a fairy promise, like moonshine, which would be dispelled if we breathed a word of it to anyone."
"Of course, dearest, if it is your wish, we will say nothing now," he returned slowly. In his heart a fierce wave of self-contempt at his own hypocrisy surged up once more, but he forced it doggedly down. He had promised his chief to play the game, and after all it was for the sake of the girl beside him, that he might be able, when the inevitable moment of disclosure came, to be of real service to her and her unfortunate father, and to shield her from the brunt of the blow. "I should not like your father to think that we deceived him, but perhaps it would be as well if we kept our secret for a little time. Later, when I have succeeded in landing a good, permanent position with a prospect of advancement, I can go to him with greater assurance, and ask him for you."
"Poor Father!" sighed Emily, with a wistful, tremulous little smile. "We have been inseparable ever since I can remember. He has lived only for me, and I cannot bear to think of leaving him—especially now, when he seems weighed down with some secret anxiety, which he will share with no one, not even me. I feel that he needs me, more than ever before. It wrings my heart, Guy, to see him age before my very eyes, and to know that he will not confide in me, I may not help him! He seems to lean upon me, upon my presence near him, as if somehow I gave him strength. Although he maintains a steadfast silence, his eyes never leave me, and such a sad, hungry expression comes into them sometimes, almost as if he were going away from me forever, as if he were trying to say farewell to me, that I have to turn away to hide my tears from him."
"Poor little girl! It must make you terribly unhappy." Morrow paused, and then added, as if in afterthought: "Perhaps when we tell your father that we care for each other, that when I have proved myself you are going to be my wife, he may confide in me—that is, if he is willing to give you to me. You know, dear, it is easier sometimes for a man to talk to another of his private worries, than to a woman, even the one nearest and dearest to him in all the world. I may possibly be of assistance to him. You told me last night that the change in him had been coming on gradually for several months. When did it first occur to you that he was in trouble?"
"I don't know. I can't remember. You see, I didn't realize it until that letter came, and then I began to think back, and the significance of little things which I had not noticed particularly when they occurred, was borne in upon me. Although I have no reason for connecting the two happenings beyond the fact that they coincided, I cannot help feeling that Mr. Pennold—the young man whom you have observed when he called to see my father—has something to do with the state of things, for it was with his very first appearance, more than two years ago, that my father became a changed man."
"Tell me about it," Morrow urged, gently. "Can you remember, dear, when he first came?"
"Oh, yes. We have so few visitors—Father doesn't, as a rule, encourage new acquaintances, you know, Guy, although he did seem to like you from the very beginning—that the reception of a perfect stranger into our home as a constant caller puzzled me. It occurred on a Sunday afternoon in summer. I was sitting out on the porch reading, when a strange young man came up the path from the gate, and asked to see my father. I called to him—he was weeding the flowerbed around the corner of the house—and when he came, I went up to my room, leaving them alone together. I didn't go, though, until I had seen their meeting, and one thing about it seemed strange to me, even then. The stranger, Mr. Pennold, evidently did not know my father, had never even seen him before, from the way he greeted him, but when Father first caught sight of his face, his own went deathly white and he gripped the porch railing for a moment, as if for support.
"'You wished to see me?' he said, and his voice sounded queer and hollow and dazed, like a person awaking from sleep. 'What can I do for you?'
"'This is Mr. James Brunell?' the young man asked. 'You are a map-maker, I understand. I have come to ask for your estimate on a large contract for wall-maps for suburban schools. If you can spare a half-hour, we can talk it over now, sir, in private. I have a letter of introduction to you from an old acquaintance. My name is Pennold.'
"'I know.' My father smiled as he spoke, an odd, slow smile which somehow held no mirth or welcome. 'I noted the family resemblance at once. A relative of yours was at one time associated with me in business.'
"The young man laughed shortly.
"You mean my uncle, I guess. He's retired now. Well, Mr. Brunell, shall we get to business?'
"I left them then, and when I came downstairs from my room, the young man had gone. Father was standing in the window over there, with a letter crushed in his hand. He turned when I spoke to him, and, oh, Guy, if you had seen his face at that moment! I almost cried out in fear! It was like one of the terrible, despairing faces in Dante's description of the Inferno. He looked at me blankly as if he scarcely recognized me; then gradually that awful expression was blotted out, and his old sweet, sunny smile took its place.
"'Well, little girl!' he said. 'Our Sunday together was spoiled, wasn't it, by that young fellow's intrusion?'
"'Not spoiled,' I replied, 'if he brought you work.'
"The smile faded from Father's face, and he responded very gravely, with a curious, halting pause between the words:
"'Yes. He has brought me—work.'
"I forgot all about that episode, in the weeks and months which followed. Charley Pennold called irregularly. Sometimes he would come three or four times a week, then again we would not see him for two or three months. Father was busier than ever in the shop, and, Charley Pennold's orders must have been very profitable, for we've had more money in the last two years than ever before, that I can remember. And yet Father has been melancholy and morose at times, as if he were brooding over something, and his disposition has changed steadily for the worse, although in the last few months the difference in his moods has become more marked. Then, when that letter came he seemed to give himself wholly up to whatever it is which has obsessed him."
"Emily, will you let me see the letter again?" Morrow asked suddenly. "If you really care for me, and will be my wife some day, your troubles and vexations are mine. I want you to let me take the letter home with me to-night. I feel that if I can study it for a few hours undisturbed, I shall be able to read the cipher. I'll promise, dear, to bring it back the very first thing in the morning."
"Of course, you may have it, Guy!" The young girl rose impulsively, and went to the little desk in the corner. "I hid it last night after you had gone, among some old receipts; here it is. You need not return it to-morrow. Keep it for several days, if you like, until you have studied it thoroughly. I don't see how you or any one could solve it without possessing the key, but I should feel as if a load were taken off my shoulders if you will try."
She gave him the letter, and after a long, tender farewell, he took his departure. Going straight to his room at Mrs. Quinlan's, he lighted the lamp, so that if Emily chanced to look over the way, she would fancy him at work upon the cryptogram. Morrow waited until the little house opposite was plunged in darkness; then very stealthily he crept down the stairs and let himself out, the precious letter carefully tucked into an inside pocket.