"Miss Murfree is quite right," Blaine interposed. "You must be very careful, Miss Lawton, not to allow Mr. Carlis to discover that you know anything whatever of that conversation—at least just yet."
"I'll try, but it will be difficult, I am afraid," Anita murmured. "I am not accustomed to—to accepting insults. Ah! if Ramon were only here!"
Wilkes, the butler, appeared at the door just then, with a card, and Anita read it aloud.
"Oh, gracious, let me go, Miss Lawton!" exclaimed Loretta. "I've told you everything that I can think of, and if he sees me, it will spoil Mr. Blaine's plans, maybe?"
"Yes, he must not find you here!" the detective agreed hurriedly. "I'll communicate with you at the club if I need you again, Miss Murfree. You have been of great service to both Miss Lawton and myself."
When they were alone for the moment before the street-railway president appeared, Blaine turned to Anita.
"You will try to be very courageous, and follow whatever lead I give you?" he asked. "This interview may prove trying for you."
Anita had only time to nod before Mr. Mallowe stood before them. He paused for a moment, glanced inquiringly at Blaine and then advanced to Anita with outstretched hand. If he had ever seen the detective before, he gave no sign.
"My dear child!" he murmured, unctuously. "I trust you are feeling a little stronger this afternoon—a little brighter and more hopeful?"
"Very much more hopeful, thank you, Mr. Mallowe," returned the young girl, steadily. "I have enlisted in my cause the greatest of all investigators. Allow me to present Mr. Henry Blaine."
"Mr. Blaine," Mallowe repeated, bowing with supercilious urbanity. "Do I understand that this is the private detective of whom I have heard so much?"
Blaine returned his salutation coolly, but did not speak, and Anita replied for him.
"Yes, Mr. Mallowe, Mr. Blaine is going to find Ramon for me!"
Mallowe shook his head slowly, with a mournful smile.
"Ah! my dear!" he sighed. "I do not want to dampen your hopes, heaven knows, but I very much fear that that will be an impossible task, even for one of Mr. Blaine's unquestioned renown."
"Still, it is always possible to try," the detective returned, looking levelly into Mallowe's eyes. "Personally, I am very sanguine of success."
"Everything is being done that can be of any use now," the other man observed hurriedly. "Do I understand, Mr. Blaine, that Miss Lawton has definitely retained you on this case?"
Blaine nodded, and Mallowe turned to Anita.
"Really, my dear, you should have consulted me, or some other of your father's old friends, before taking such a step!" he expostulated. "It will only bring added notoriety and trouble to you. I do not mean to underestimate Mr. Blaine's marvelous ability, which is recognized everywhere, but even he can scarcely succeed in locating Mr. Hamilton where we, with all the resources at our command, have failed. Mark my words, my dear Anita; if Ramon Hamilton returns, it will be voluntarily, of his own free will. Until—unless he so decides, you will never see him. It is too bad to have summoned Mr. Blaine here on a useless errand, but I am sure he quite understands the situation now."
"I do," responded the detective quietly. "I have accepted the case."
"But surely you will withdraw?" The older man's voice rose cholerically. "Miss Lawton is a mere girl, a minor, in fact—"
"I am over eighteen, Mr. Mallowe," interposed Anita quietly.
"Until your proper guardian is appointed by the courts," Mallowe cried, "you are nominally under my care, mine and others of your father's closest associates. This is a delicate matter to discuss now, Mr. Blaine," he added, in calmer tones, turning to the detective, "but since this seems to be a business interview, we must touch upon the question of finances. I know that the fee you naturally require must be a large one, and I am in duty bound to tell you that Miss Lawton has absolutely no funds at her disposal to reimburse you for your time and trouble. Whatever fortune she may be possessed of, she cannot touch now."
"Miss Lawton has already fully reimbursed me—in advance," returned Henry Blaine calmly. "That question need cause you no further concern, Mr. Mallowe, nor need you have any doubt as to my position in this matter. I'm on this case, and I'm on it to stay! I'm going to find Ramon Hamilton!"
THE LIBRARY CHAIR
"Paddington's on the run!" Ross, the operative, announced to Henry Blaine the next morning, jubilantly. "He left his rooms about an hour after I got back on the job, and went to Carlis' office. He only stayed a short time, and came out looking as black as a thunder-cloud—I guess the interview, whatever it was, didn't go his way. He went straight from there to Rockamore, the promoter. I pretended an errand with Rockamore, too, and so got into the outer office. The heavy glass door was closed between, and I couldn't hear anything but a muffled growling from within, but they were both angry enough, all right. Once the stenographer went in and came out again almost immediately. When the door opened to admit her, I heard Paddington fairly shout:
"'It's your own skin you're saving, you fool, as well as mine! If I'm caught, you all go! Carlis thinks he can bluff it, and Mallowe's a superannuated, pig-headed old goat. He'll try to stand on his reputation, and cave in like a pricked balloon when the crash comes. I know his kind; I've hounded too many of 'em to the finish. But you're a man of sense, Rockamore, and you know you've got to help me out of this for your own sake. I tell you, some one's on to the whole game, and they're just sitting back and waiting for the right moment to nab us. They not only learn every move we make—they anticipate them! It's every man for himself, now, and I warn you that if I'm cornered in this—'
"'Hold your tongue!' Rockamore ordered. 'Can't you see—'
"Then the door closed, and I couldn't hear any more. The voices calmed down to a rumble, and in about twenty minutes I could hear them approaching the door. I decided I couldn't wait any longer, and got outside just in time to give Paddington a chance to pass me. He seemed in good humor, and I guess he got what he was after—money, probably, for he went to his bank and put through a check. Then he returned to his rooms, and didn't show up again until late afternoon, when he went away up Belleair Avenue, to the rectory of the Church of St. James. He didn't go in—just talked with the sexton in the vestibule, and when he came down the steps he looked dazed, as if he'd received a hard jolt of some sort. He couldn't have been trying to blackmail the minister, too, could he?"
"Hardly, Ross. Go on," Blaine responded. "What did he do next?"
"Nothing. Just went back to his rooms and stayed there. It seemed as if he was afraid to leave—not so much afraid to be found, but as if he might miss something, if he left. He even had his dinner sent in from a restaurant near there. Knowing him, I might have known what it was he was waiting for—he's always chasing after some girl or other."
"There was a woman in it, then?" asked the detective, quietly.
"You can bet there was—very much in it, sir!" the operative chuckled. "She came along while I watched—a tall, slim girl, plainly dressed in dark clothes, but with an air to her that would make you look at her twice, anywhere. She hesitated and looked uncertainly about her, as if she were unfamiliar with the place and a little scary of her errand, but at last she made up her mind, and plunged in the vestibule, as if she was afraid she would lose her courage if she stopped to think.
"For a few minutes her shadow showed on the window-shades, beside Paddington's. They stood close together, and from their gestures, he seemed to be arguing or pleading, while she was drawing back and refusing, or at least, holding out against him. At last they fell into a regular third-act clinch—it was as good as a movie! After a moment she drew herself out of his arms and they moved away from the window. In a minute or two they came out of the house together, and I tailed them. They walked slowly, with their heads very close, and I didn't dare get near enough to try to hear what they were discussing so earnestly. But where do you suppose he took her? To the Anita Lawton Club for Working Girls! He left her at the entrance and went back to his own rooms, and he seemed to be in a queer mood all the way—happy and up in the air one minute, and down in the dumps the next.
"He didn't stir out again last night, but early this morning he went down to the office of the Holland-American line, and purchased two tickets, first-class to Rotterdam, on the Brunnhilde, sailing next Saturday, so I think we have the straight dope on him now. He means to skip with the girl."
"Saturday—two days off!" mused Blaine. "I think it's safe to give him his head until then, but keep a close watch on him, Ross. The purchase of those tickets may have been just a subterfuge on his part to throw any possible shadow off the trail. Did you ascertain what name he took them under?"
"J. Padelford and wife."
"Clever of him, that!" Blaine commented. "If he really intends to fool this girl with a fake marriage and sail with her for the other side, he can explain the change of names on the steamer to her by telling her it was a mistake on the printed sailing-list. Once at sea, without a chance of escape from him, he can tell her the truth, or as much of it as he cares to, and she'll have to stick; that type of woman always does. She might even come in time to take up his line, and become a cleverer crook than he is, but we're not going to let that happen. We'll stop him, right enough, before he goes too far with her. What's he doing now?"
"Walking in the park with her. She met him at the gates, and Vanner took the job there of tailing them, while I came on down to report to you."
"Good work, Ross. But go back and take up the trail now yourself, if you're fit. And here, you'd better take this warrant with you; I swore it out against him several days ago, in case he attempted to bolt. If he tries to get the girl into a compromising situation, arrest him. Let me know if anything of importance occurs meanwhile."
As Ross went out, the secretary, Marsh, appeared.
"There's an elderly gentleman outside waiting to see you, sir," he announced. "He does not wish to give his name, but says that he is a physician, and is here in answer to a letter which he received from you."
"Good! They pulled it off, then! We were only just in time with those letters we sent out yesterday, Marsh. Show him in at once."
In a few moments a tall, spare figure appeared in the doorway, and paused an instant before entering. He had a keen, smooth-shaven, ascetic face, topped with a mass of snow-white hair.
"Come in, Doctor," invited the detective. "I am Henry Blaine. It was good of you to come in response to my letter. I take it that you have something interesting to tell me."
The doctor entered and seated himself in the chair indicated by Blaine. He carried with him a worn, old-fashioned black leather instrument case.
"I do not know whether what I have to tell you will prove to have any connection with the matter you referred to in your letter or not, Mr. Blaine. Indeed, I hesitated about divulging my experience of last night to you. The ethics of my profession—"
"My profession has ethics, too, Doctor, although you may not have conceived it," the detective reminded him, quietly. "Even more than doctor or priest, a professional investigator must preserve inviolate the secrets which are imparted to him, whether they take the form of a light under a bushel or a skeleton in a closet. In the cause of justice, only, may he open his lips. I hold safely locked away in my mind the keys to mysteries which, were they laid bare, would disrupt society, drag great statesmen from their pedestals, provoke international complications, even bring on wars. If you know anything pertaining to the matter of which I wrote you, justice and the ethics of your profession require you to speak."
"I agree with you, sir. As I said, I am not certain that my adventure—for it was quite an adventure for a retired man like myself, I assure you—has anything to do with the case you are investigating, but we can soon establish that. Do you recognize the subject of this photograph?"
The doctor drew from his pocket a small square bit of cardboard, and Blaine took it eagerly from him. One glance at it was sufficient, and it was with difficulty that the detective restrained the exclamation of triumph which rose to his lips. Upon the card was mounted a tiny, thumbnail photograph of a face—the face of Ramon Hamilton! It was more like a death-mask than a living countenance, with its rigid features and closed eyes, but the likeness was indisputable.
"I recognize it, indeed, Doctor. That is the man for whom I am searching. How did it come into your possession?"
"I took it myself, last night." The spare figure of the elderly physician straightened proudly in his chair. "When your communication arrived, I did not attach much importance to it because it did not occur to me for a moment that I should have been selected, from among all the physicians and surgeons of this city, for such a case. When the summons came, however, I remembered your warning—but I anticipate. Since my patient of last night is your subject, I may as well tell you my experiences from the beginning. My name is Alwyn—Doctor Horatius Alwyn—and I live at Number Twenty-six Maple Avenue. Until my retirement seven years ago I was a regular practising physician and surgeon, but since my break-down—I suffered a slight stroke—I have devoted myself to my books and my camera—always a hobby with me.
"Well—late last night, the front door-bell rang. It was a little after eleven, and my wife and the maid had retired, but I was developing some plates in the dark-room, and opened the door myself. Three men stood there, but I could see scarcely anything of their faces, for the collars of their shaggy motor coats were turned up, their caps pulled low over their eyes, and all three wore goggles.
"'Doctor Alwyn?' asked one of the men, the burliest of the three, advancing into the hall. 'I want you to come out into the country with me on a hurry call. It's a matter of life and death, and there's five thousand dollars in it for you, but the conditions attached to it are somewhat unusual. May we come into your office, and talk it over?'
"I led the way, and listened to their proposition. Briefly, it was this: a young man had fallen and injured his head, and was lying unconscious in a sanitarium in the suburbs. There were reasons which could not be explained to me, why the utmost secrecy must be maintained, not only concerning the young man's identity, but the location of the retreat where he was in seclusion. They feared that he had suffered a concussion of the brain, possibly a fractured skull, and my diagnosis was required. Also, should I deem an operation necessary, I must be prepared to perform it at once. They would take me to the patient in the car, but when we reached our destination, I was to be blindfolded, and led to the sickroom, where the bandage would be removed from my eyes. I was to return in the same manner. For this service, and of course my secrecy, they offered me five thousand dollars.
"Although that would not have been an exorbitant sum for me to obtain for such an operation in the days of my activities, it looked very large to me now, especially since some South American securities in which I invested had declined, but I did not feel that it would be compatible with my dignity and standing to accept the conditions which were imposed. I was, therefore, upon the point of indignantly declining, when I suddenly remembered your letter, and resolved to see the affair through.
"It occurred to me, while I was selecting the instruments to take with me, that it would not be a bad idea to take also my latest camera, and if possible obtain a photograph of the patient to show you. I managed to slip it into my vest pocket, unobserved by my visitors. Here it is."
Dr. Alwyn took the instrument case upon his knee and opening it, produced what looked like a large old-fashioned nickel-plated watch of the turnip variety. The doctor extended it almost apologetically.
"You see," he observed, "it is really more a toy than a real camera, although it served admirably last night. I have had a great deal of amusement with it, pretending to feel people's pulses, but in reality snapping their photographs. It takes very small, imperfect pictures, of course, as you can see from the print there on your desk, and only one to each loading, but it can be carried in the palm of one's hand, and it uses a peculiarly sensitive plate that will register a snap-shot even by electric light. It had fortunately just been reloaded before the advent of my mysterious visitors, and I resolved to make use of it if an opportunity offered.
"The curtains were tightly drawn in the car, and as the interior lights had been extinguished, we sat in total darkness. I could not, of course, tell in what direction we were going, although the car had been pointed south when we left my door. We appeared to be travelling at a terrific rate of speed and swung around a confusing number of curves.
"I tried at first to remember the turns, and their direction, but there were so many that I very soon lost count. I think they took me in a round-about way purposely, to confuse me. I have no idea how long we drove, but it must have been well over two hours. At last we struck a long up-grade, and one of my companions announced that we were almost there.
"They bound my eyes with a dark silk handkerchief, and a moment later the car swerved and turned abruptly in, evidently at a gateway, for we curved about up a graveled driveway—I could hear it crunching beneath the wheels—and came to a grinding stop before the door. They helped me out of the car, up some shallow stone steps and across the threshold.
"I was led down a thickly carpeted hall and up a single long flight of stairs, to a door just at its head. We entered; the door closed softly behind us; and the bandage was whipped from my eyes. There was only a low night-light burning in the room, but I made out the outlines of the furniture. There was a great bed over in the corner, with a motionless figure lying upon it.
"'There's your patient, Doc; go ahead,' my burly friend said, and accordingly I approached the bed, asking at the same time for more light. The young man was unconscious, and in answer to a question of mine the attendant who had sat at the head of the bed as we entered informed me that he had been in a complete state of coma since he had been brought there, several days before.
"I remembered the description in your letter of the subject for whom you were searching, and I fancied, in spite of the bandages which swathed his head, that I recognized him in the young man before me. The lights flashed on full in answer to my request, and on a sudden decision I drew the watch camera from my pocket, took the patient's wrist between my thumb and finger as if to ascertain his pulse, and snapped his picture. The result was a fortunate chance, for I did not dare focus deliberately, with the eyes of the attendant and the three men who had accompanied me, all directed at my movements.
"Then I gave the patient a thorough examination. I found a fracture at the base of the brain—not necessarily fatal, unless cerebral meningitis sets in, but quite serious enough. He was still bleeding a little from the nose and ears. I washed them out, and packed the ears with sterile gauze, leaving instructions that a specially prepared ice cap be placed at once upon his head and kept there. That was all which could be done at that time, but the patient should have constant, watchful attention. He must either have suffered a severe backward fall, or received a violent blow at the base of the skull, to have sustained such an injury.
"When I had finished, they blindfolded me again, led me from the room, and conveyed me home in the same manner in which I had come, with the possible exception that the car in returning seemed to take a different and more direct route; the journey appeared to be a much shorter one, with fewer twists and turns. The same three men came back to the house with me, and entered my office, where the burly one turned over to me ten five-hundred-dollar bills. They left almost immediately, and although it was close on to dawn, I went into my dark room, and developed the negative of the thumbnail photograph I had taken.
"The events of the night had been so extraordinary that when I did retire, it was long before I could sleep. In the morning, I made a couple of prints from the negative, then took the five thousand dollars down and deposited it to my account in the bank."
"When I decided to come here, I ran over in my mind every moment of the previous night's adventure, to catalogue my impressions. The habit of years has made me methodical in all things, and I jotted them down in the order in which they occurred to me, that I might not forget to relate them to you. Memory plays one sad tricks, sometimes, when one reaches my age. These notes may be of no assistance to you, sir, but they are entirely at your service."
"I am eager to hear them, Doctor. I only wish all witnesses were like you—my tasks would be lightened by half," Blaine said, heartily.
The elderly physician drew from his pocket a paper, at which he peered, painstakingly.
"I have numbered them. Let me see—oh, yes. First, the burly man walks with a slight limp in the right leg. Second, of the two men with him, all I could note was that one spoke with a decided French accent and had a hollow cough, tuberculous, I think; the other, who scarcely uttered a word, was short and stocky, and of enormous strength. He fairly lifted me into and out of the car when I was blindfolded at the entrance of the place they called a sanitarium. Third, the car had a peculiar horn; I have never heard one like it before. Its blast was sharp and wailing, not like a siren, but more like the howl of a wounded animal. I would know it again, anywhere. Fourth, there is a railroad bridge very near the house to which I was taken—I distinctly heard two trains thunder over the trestles while I was attending my patient. Fifth, I should judge the place to be more of a retreat for alcoholics or the insane, than for those suffering from accident, or any form of physical injury. A patient in some remote part of the house was undoubtedly a maniac or in the throes of an attack of delirium tremens. I heard his cries at intervals as I worked, until he quieted down finally.
"Sixth, the bedroom where my patient is lying is on the second floor, the windows facing south and east; there was a moon last night, and one of the curtains was partly raised. His door is just at the head of the stairs on your right as you go up, and the stairs are on a straight line with the front door—therefore the house faces south. Seventh, when we returned to my home, and were in my office, the burly man had to pull the glove off his right hand to get the wallet from his pocket in order to pay me my fee, and I saw that two fingers were missing—they had both been amputated at the middle joint. Also, when they were leaving, I heard the man who spoke with an accent address him as 'Mac.'"
"Mac! It's three-fingered Mac Alarney, by the Lord!" Blaine started from his chair. "Why did I not think of him before! Doctor, you have rendered to me and to my client an invaluable service, which shall not be forgotten. Mac Alarney is a retired prize-fighter, in close touch with all the political crooks and grafters in the city. He runs a sort of retreat for alcoholics up near Green Valley, and bears a generally shady reputation. Are you game to go back with me to-night for another call on your patient? You will be well guarded and in no possible danger, now or for the future. I give you my word for that. I may need you to verify some facts."
The doctor hesitated visibly.
"I am not afraid," he replied, at last, "but I scarcely feel that it is conformable with the ethics of my calling. I was called in, in my professional capacity—"
"My dear Doctor," the detective interrupted him with a trace of impatience in his tones, "your patient is one of the most widely known young men of this city. He was kidnaped, and the police have been searching for him for days. The press of the entire country has rung with the story of his mysterious disappearance. He is Ramon Hamilton."
"Good heavens! Can it be possible!" the physician exclaimed. "I assure you, sir, I had no idea of his identity. He was to have married Pennington Lawton's daughter, was he not? I have read of his disappearance, of course; the newspapers have been full of it. And he was kidnaped, you say? No wonder those ruffians maintained such secrecy in regard to their destination last night! Mr. Blaine, I will accompany you, sir, and give you any aid in my power, in rescuing Mr. Hamilton!"
"Good! I'll make all the necessary arrangements and call for you to-night at eight o'clock. Meanwhile, keep a strict guard upon your tongue, and say nothing to anyone of what has occurred. Have you told your wife of your adventure?"
"No, Mr. Blaine; I merely told her I was out on a sudden night call. I decided to wait until I had seen you before mentioning the extraordinary features of the case."
"You are a man of discretion, Doctor! Until eight o'clock, then. You may expect me, without fail."
Doctor Alwyn left, and Blaine spent a busy half-hour making his arrangements for the night's raid. Scarcely had he completed them when the telephone shrilled. The detective did not at first recognize the voice which came to him over the wire, so changed was it, so fraught with horror and a menace of tragedy.
"It is you, Miss Lawton?" he asked, half unbelievingly. "What is the matter? What has happened?"
"I must see you at once, at once, Mr. Blaine! I have made a discovery so unexpected, so terrible, that I am afraid to be alone; I am afraid of my own thoughts. Please, please come immediately!"
"I will be with you as soon as my car can reach your door," he replied.
What could the young girl have discovered, shut up there in that great lonely house? What new developments could have arisen, in the case which until this moment had seemed plain to him to the end?
He found her awaiting him in the hall, with ashen face and trembling limbs. She clutched his hand with her small icy one, and whispered:
"Come into the library, Mr. Blaine. I have something to tell you—to show you!"
He followed her into the huge, somber, silent room where only a few short weeks ago her father had met with his death. Coming from the brilliant sunshine without, it was a moment or two before his eyes could penetrate the gloom. When they did so, he saw the great leather chair by the hearth, which had played so important a part in the tragedy, had been overturned.
"Mr. Blaine,"—the girl faced him, her voice steadied and deepened portentously,—"my father died of heart-disease, did he not?"
The detective felt a sudden thrill, almost of premonition, at her unexpected question, but he controlled himself, and replied quietly:
"That was the diagnosis of the physician, and the coroner's findings corroborated him."
"Did it ever occur to you that there might be another and more terrible explanation of his sudden death?"
"A detective must consider and analyze a case from every standpoint, you know, Miss Lawton," he answered. "It did occur to me that perhaps your father met with foul play, but I put the theory from me for lack of evidence."
"Mr. Blaine, my father was murdered!"
"Murdered! How do you know? What have you discovered?"
"He was given poison! I have found the bottle which contained it, hidden deep in the folds of his chair there. It was no morbid fancy of mine after all; my instinct was right! No wonder that chair has exerted such a horrible fascination for me ever since my poor father died in it. See!"
With indescribable loathing, she extended her left hand, which until now she had held clenched behind her. Upon the palm lay a tiny flat vial, with a pale, amber-colored substance dried in the bottom of it. Blaine took it and drew the cork. Before he had time to place it at his nostrils, a faint but unmistakable odor of bitter almonds floated out upon the air and pervaded the room.
"Prussic acid!" he exclaimed. "It has the same outward effect as an attack of heart-disease would produce, to a superficial examination. Miss Lawton, how did you discover this?"
"By the merest accident. I have a habit of creeping in here, when I am more deeply despondent than usual, and sitting for a while in my father's chair. It calms and comforts me, almost as if he were with me once more. I was sitting there just before I telephoned you, thinking over all that had occurred in these last weeks, when I broke down and cried. I felt for my handkerchief, but could not find it, and thinking that I might perhaps have dropped it in the chair, I ran my hand down deep in the leather fold between the seat and the side and back. My fingers encountered something flat and hard which had been jammed away down inside, and I dug it out. It was this bottle! Mr. Blaine, does it mean that my father was murdered by that man whose voice I heard—that man who came to him in the night and threatened him?"
"I'm afraid it does, Miss Lawton." Henry Blaine said slowly. "When you hear that voice again and recognize it, we shall be able to lay our hands upon the murderer of your father."
Precisely at the hour of eight that night, a huge six-cylinder limousine drew up at the gate of Number Twenty-six Maple Avenue. Half-way down the block, well in the shadow of the trees which gave to the avenue its name, two more cars and a motor ambulance had halted.
Doctor Alwyn, who had been excitedly awaiting the arrival of the detective, was out of his door and down the path almost before the car had pulled up at his gate. Within it were three men—Blaine himself and two others whom the Doctor did not know. Henry Blaine greeted him, introduced his operatives, Ross and Suraci, and they started swiftly upon their journey.
The doctor was plainly nervous, but something in the grim, silent, determined air of his companions imparted itself to him. The lights in the interior of the car had not been turned on, nor the shades lowered, and after a few tentative remarks which were not encouraged, Doctor Alwyn turned to the window and watched the brightly lighted cross streets dart by with ever-increasing speed. Once he glanced back, and started, casting a perturbed glance at the immovable face of the detective, as he remarked:
"Mr. Blaine, are you aware that we are being followed?"
"Oh, yes. Give yourself no uneasiness on that score, Doctor. They are two of my machines, filled with my men, and a Walton ambulance for Mr. Hamilton. We will reach Mac Alarney's retreat in an hour, now. There will be a show of trouble, of course, and we may have to use force, but I do not anticipate any very strenuous opposition to our removal of your patient, when Mac is convinced that the game is up. No harm will come to you, at any rate; you will be well guarded."
The Doctor drew himself up with simple dignity, quite free from bombast or arrogance.
"I am not afraid," he replied, quietly. "I am armed, and am fully prepared to help protect my patient."
"Armed?" the detective asked, sharply.
For answer, Doctor Alwyn drew from his capacious coat pocket a huge, old-fashioned pistol, and held it out to Blaine. The latter took it from him without ceremony.
"A grave mistake, Doctor. I am glad you told me, in time. Fire-arms are unnecessary for your own protection, and would be a positive menace to our plans for getting your patient safely away. Gun-play is the last thing we must think of; my men will attend to all that, if it comes to a show-down."
The Doctor watched him in silence as he slipped the pistol under one of the side seats. If his confidence in the great man beside him faltered for the moment, he gave no sign, but turned his attention again to the window. They were now rapidly traversing the suburbs, where the houses were widely separated by stretches of vacant lots, and the streets deserted and but dimly lighted. Soon they rattled over a narrow railroad bridge, and Doctor Alwyn exclaimed:
"By George! This is the way we went last night! With all my careful thought, I forgot about that bridge until this moment!"
Minutes passed, long minutes which seemed like hours to the overstrained nerves of the Doctor, while they speeded through the open country.
All at once, from just behind them came a hideous, wailing cry, which swelled in volume to a screech and ended abruptly.
Doctor Alwyn grasped Blaine's arm.
"The motor-horn!" he gasped. "The car I was in last night!"
The detective nodded shortly, without speaking, and leaning forward, stared fixedly out of the window. A long, low-bodied limousine appeared, creeping slowly up, inch by inch, until it was fairly abreast of them. The curtain at the window was lowered, and the chauffeur sat immovable, with his face turned from them, as the two cars whirled side by side along the hard, glistening road. Blaine leaned forward, and pressed the electric bell rapidly twice, and there began a curious game. The other car put on extra speed and darted ahead—their own shot forward and kept abreast of it. It slowed suddenly, and made as if to swerve in behind; Blaine's driver slowed also, until both cars almost came to a grinding halt. Three times these maneuvers were repeated, and then there occurred what the detective had evidently anticipated.
The curtain in the other car shot up; the window descended with a bang and a huge, burly figure leaned half-way out. Henry Blaine noiselessly lowered their own window, and suddenly flashed an electric pocket light full in the heavy-jowled face, empurpled with inarticulate rage.
"Is that your man?" he asked, quickly.
"The one with the three fingers! Yes! That's the man!" whispered the Doctor, hoarsely.
"That's Mac Alarney." Blaine pressed the electric bell again, and their own car lunged forward in a spurt of speed which left the other hopelessly behind, although it was manifestly making desperate efforts to overtake and pass them.
"Do you suppose he suspected our errand?" the Doctor asked.
"Suspected? Lord bless you, man, he knows! He had already passed the two open cars full of my men, and the ambulance. He'd give ten years of his life to beat us out and reach his place ahead of us to-night, but he hasn't a chance in the world unless we blow out a tire, and if we do we'll all go back in the ambulance together, what's left of us!"
Even as he spoke, there came a swift change in the even drone of their engine,—a jarring, discordant note, slight but unmistakable, and a series of irregular thudding knocks.
"One of the cylinder's missing, sir." Ross turned to the detective, and spoke with eager anxiety.
"We'll make it on five." The quiet confidence in Blaine's voice, with its underlying note of grim, indomitable determination, seemed to communicate itself to the other men, and no further word was said, although they all heard the thunder of the approaching car behind.
The Doctor restrained with difficulty the impulse to look backward, and instead kept his eyes sternly fixed upon the trees and hedge-rows flying past, more sharply defined shadows in the lesser dark.
Then, all at once, the shriek of a locomotive burst upon his ears, and the roar and rattle of a train going over a trestle.
"The railroad bridge!" he cried, excitedly. "We're there, Mr. Blaine!"
The noise of the passing train had scarcely died away, when from just behind them the hideous shriek of Mac Alarney's motor-horn rose blastingly three times upon the night air, the last fainter than the others, as if the pursuing car had dropped back.
"He's beaten! He couldn't keep up the pace, much less better it," Blaine remarked. "Those three blasts sounded a warning to the guards of the retreat. It was probably a signal agreed upon in case of danger. We're in for it now!"
They swerved abruptly, between two high stone gateposts, and up a broad sweep of graveled driveway. Lights gleamed suddenly in the windows of the hitherto darkened house, which loomed up gaunt and squarely defined against the sullen sky.
"Your men, in the other cars—" Doctor Alwyn stammered, as they came to a crunching stop before the door. "Will they arrive in time to be of service? Mac Alarney will reach here first—"
"My men will be at his heels," returned Blaine, shortly. "They held back purposely, acting under my instructions. Come on now."
He sprang from the car and up the steps, and the Doctor found himself following, with Ross and Suraci on either side. The driver turned their car around and ran it upon the lawn, its searchlight trained on the circling drive, its engine throbbing like the throat of an impatient horse.
In response to the detective's vigorous ring, the door was opened by a short, stocky man, at sight of whom the Doctor gave a start of surprise, but did not falter. The man was clad in the white coat of a hospital attendant, beneath which the great, bunchy muscles of his shoulders and upper arms were plainly visible.
"Hello, Al!" exclaimed Blaine, briskly.
The veins on the thick bull neck seemed to swell, but there was no sign of recognition in the stolid jaw. Only the lower lip protruded as the man set his jaw, and the little, close-set, porcine eyes narrowed.
"You were a rubber at the Hoffmeister Baths the last time I saw you," went on the detective, smoothly, as he deftly inserted his foot between the door and jamb. "You remember me, of course. I'm Henry Blaine. My friends and I have come here to-night on a confidential errand, and I'd like a word in private with you."
The man he called "Al" muttered something which sounded like a disclaimer. Then he caught sight of the Doctor's face over Blaine's shoulder, and a spasm of black rage seized him.
"Oh, it's you, is it? You've snitched, d—n you! I'll do for you, for this!"
He lunged forward, but Blaine, with a strength of which the Doctor would not a moment before have thought him possessed, grasped the ex-rubber and flung him backward, advancing into the hall at the same time, while his two operatives and the Doctor crowded in behind him.
"Al" staggered, regained his balance, and came on in a blind rush, bull neck lowered, long, monkey-like arms taut and rigid for the first blow. Blaine set himself to meet it, but it was never delivered. At that instant the whirring roar of a high-powered car, unmuffled, sounded in all their ears, and a second machine drew up at the steps.
Its single passenger flung himself out and bounded up to the door.
"What in h—l does this mean?" he bellowed. "Didn't you hear my horn?"
He stopped abruptly in sheer amazement, for Blaine had turned, with beaming face and outstretched hand.
"Mac Alarney!" he exclaimed. "Thank the Lord you've come! This thick-skulled boob wouldn't give me time for a word, and every minute is precious! Come where I can talk to you, quick!"
Then, as if catching sight of the car in which Mac Alarney had come, for the first time his eyes widened and he seemed struggling to suppress an outburst of mirth.
"Great guns! Is that your car, yours? Do you mean to tell me it was you I was playing with, back there on the road? When I flashed the light in your face I was sure you were Donnelley!"
As he uttered the name of the Chief of Police, Mac Alarney involuntarily stepped backward, and a wave of startled apprehension swept the amazement from his face, to be succeeded in turn by the primitive craftiness of the brute instinct on guard.
"And what may you be wanting here, Mr. Blaine?" he demanded, warily.
"To beat the police to it!" Blaine replied in a gruff whisper, adding as he jerked his thumb in the direction of the waiting Al. "Get rid of him! We haven't got a minute, I tell you!"
"The police!" repeated the other man, sharply. "Sure, I passed two cars full of plain-clothes bulls, with an ambulance trailing them!—You can go now, Al."
Without giving the burly proprietor of the retreat time to discover him for himself, Blaine pulled the astonished Doctor forward.
"Here's Doctor Alwyn, whom you brought here last night. The police trailed you, and got his number, but fortunately when they began to question him, he smelled a rat in the whole business and came to me. They told him a man named Paddington had double-crossed you, but of course I knew that was all rot, the minute I'd doped it out. You've got a fortune under your roof this minute, and you don't know it, Mac! That's the best joke of all! You're entertaining an angel unawares!"
"Say, what're you gettin' at, Mr. Blaine?" Mac Alarney's brows drew close together, and he stared levelly from beneath them at the detective's exultant face.
"That young man with the fractured skull in the corner room upstairs—the one you brought Doctor Alwyn to attend last night—when you know who he is you're going up in the air! I don't know who brought him here, or what flim-flam line of talk they gave you, but it's a wonder you haven't guessed from the start who he was, with the papers full of it for days! Of course they must have given you a lot of money to get him well, and hush it all up, when you were able to pay the Doctor, here, five thousand dollars, but whatever they paid, it's a drop in the bucket compared to the reward they expected to get. Mac, it's Ramon Hamilton you've got upstairs!"
Blaine stepped back himself, as if the better to observe the effect of what he manifestly seemed to believe would be astounding news, and clumsily and cautiously the other tried to play up to his lead.
"Ramon Hamilton!" he echoed. "You're crazy, Blaine! You don't know what you're talking about!"
"You'd better believe I do! See this photograph?" He held the tiny thumbnail picture before Mac Alarney's amazed eyes. "The Doctor took it last night, at the bedside of the young man upstairs, when you thought he was feeling his pulse. That watch of his was in reality a camera."
With a roar, the burly man turned upon the erect, unshrinking figure of the gray-haired doctor, but Blaine halted him.
"Not so fast, Mac. If it hadn't been for him, you'd be in the hands of the police now, remember, and they've only been waiting to get something on you, as you know. You can't blame Doctor Alwyn for being suspicious, after all the mysterious fuss you made bringing him here. I know Ramon Hamilton well, and I recognized his face the instant it was handed to me! I'm on the case, myself—Miss Lawton, the girl he's going to marry, engaged me. I might have come and tried to take him away from you, so as to cop all the reward myself, but as it is, we'll split fifty-fifty—unless the police get here while we're wasting time talking! Man, don't you see how you've been done?"
"You can bet your life I do—that is, if the young man I've got upstairs is the guy you think he is," he added, in an afterthought of cautious self-protection. The acid of the hint that Paddington had betrayed him to the police had burned deep, however, as Blaine had anticipated, and he walked blindly into the snare laid for him. "I'll tell you all about how he come to be here, later, and I'll fix them that tried to pull the wool over my eyes! Now, for the love of Heaven, Mr. Blaine, tell me what to do with him before the bulls come! Thank God, they can search the rest of the place, and welcome—I've got nothin' here but a half-dozen souses, and two light-weights, training."
"That's all right! You're safe if we can get him away without loss of time. That ambulance you saw don't belong to the police; it's mine. I saw them first, away back in the outskirts of the city, and I ordered it to drop behind and take the short cut up through Wheelbarrow Lane. It's waiting now under the clump of elms by the brook, up the road a little—you know the spot! Bring him down and we'll take him there in my car. You come too, of course, and Al, and help load him into the ambulance. Then Al can come back, if you don't want to trust him, and you go on with us, back to the city."
"Where you goin' to take him?" asked Mac Alarney, warily. "You can't hide him from them in town."
"Who's talking about hiding him!" Blaine demanded, with contemptuous impatience. "Your brain must be taking a rest cure, Mac! We'll go straight to Miss Lawton, deliver the goods and get the reward, before they beat us to it! It'll be easy to explain matters to her; she won't care much about the story as long as she's got him again alive, and at that you've only got to stick to the truth, and I'm right there to back you up in it. Any fool could realize that you'd have produced him and claimed the reward, if you had known who he actually was. Whoever brought him here gave you the wrong dope and you fell for it, that's all—For the Lord's sake, hurry!"
"You're right, Mr. Blaine. It's the only thing to do now. I fell for their dope, all right, but they'll fall harder before I'm through with them! Lend me your two men, here. There's no use having any of mine except Al get wise. You and the Doctor wait in the car, and we'll bring him out."
Henry Blaine motioned to his operatives, with a curt wave of his hand, to follow Mac Alarney, and turning, he went out of the door and down the steps to his car, with the Doctor at his heels.
"You don't suppose that he saw through your story, do you, Mr. Blaine?" the latter queried in an anxious whisper, as they settled themselves to wait with what patience they could muster. "Could that suggestion of his have been merely a ruse to separate your assistants from you?"
The detective smiled.
"Hardly, Doctor. It's part of my profession to have made a study of human nature, and Mac Alarney's type is an open book to me. Added to that, I've known the man himself for years, in an offhand way. I've got his confidence, and now that he realizes he is in a hole, he's a child in my hands, even if he thinks for the moment that as a detective I'm about the poorest specimen in captivity. Steady now, here they come!"
The large double doors had been thrown wide open and Mac Alarney, the burly Al, and the two operatives appeared, bearing between them a limp, unconscious, blanket-swathed form. As they eased it into the back seat of the limousine, Blaine flashed his electric pocket light upon the sleeping face.
"I knew I wasn't mistaken!" he whispered exultantly to Mac Alarney and the Doctor. "It's young Hamilton, all right. Now, let's be off!"
The others crowded in, and they whirled down the drive and out once more upon the wide State road, in the opposite direction to that in which they had come. A bare half-mile away, and they came abruptly upon the ambulance, screened by the clump of naked elms at the side of the road.
"You get in first, Doctor," ordered Blaine, significantly. "You've got to look after your patient now."
As the Doctor obeyed, Mac Alarney, with a shrewd gleam in his eyes, turned to the detective.
"I think I'd better ride with him, too, Mr. Blaine," he observed. "You don't know who you can trust these days. Your ambulance driver may give you the slip."
"All right, Mac!" Blaine assented, with bluff heartiness. "We'll both ride with him! Did you think I'd try to double-cross you, too? I can't blame you, after the rotten deal that's been handed to you, but we won't waste time arguing. Here's the stretcher. Come on, shove him in!"
The Doctor had been wondering when the denouement of this adventure would be. Now it came without warning, with a startling suddenness which left him dazed and agape.
The inert body of his patient was laid carefully beside him, and he glanced out of the ambulance door in time to see Mac Alarney dismiss his burly assistant, and turn to enter the vehicle. His foot was already upon the lowest step, when the Doctor saw Blaine raise his hand to his lips. A short, sharp blast of a whistle pierced the air, and in an instant a dozen men had sprung out of the darkness and leaped upon the two surprised miscreants. Then ensued a struggle, brief but awful to the onlooker in its silent, grim ferocity, as the two separate knots of men battled each about their central orbit. The scuffle of many feet on the hard-packed road, the mutter of curses, the dull thud of blows, the hoarse, strangulated breathing of men fighting against odds to the last ounce of their strength, came to the Doctor's startled ears in a confused babel of half-suppressed sound, with the purring drone of the two engines as an undertone.
A minute, and it was all over. The thick-set Al went down like a felled ox, and Mac Alarney wavered under an avalanche of blows and crumpled to his knees. Handcuffed and securely bound, the two were bundled into Blaine's waiting car.
"Paddington never double-crossed me!" groaned Mac Alarney, before the door closed upon him. "But you did, Blaine! Just as I meant to get him, I'll get you! I fell for your d—d scheme, and since you've got the goods on me, I suppose I'll go up, but God help you when I come out! I can wait—it'll be the better when it comes!"
"But the others—" queried the Doctor, as he and Blaine, with the injured man between them, settled down in the ambulance for the slow, careful journey back to the city. "That third man who came for me last night—the one with the French accent and the cough—and the rest who are in this kidnaping plot? Will you get them, too?"
"Ross and Suraci are enough to guard Mac Alarney and Al on their way to the lock-up," the detective responded quietly. "The others will go on up to the sanitarium and clean the place out. They'll get French Louis, all right. And as for the rest who are concerned in this, Doctor Alwyn, be sure that I intend to see that they get their just deserts."
"And it is said that you have never lost a case!" the Doctor remarked.
"I shall not lose this one." Blaine spoke with quiet confidence, unmixed with any boastfulness. "I cannot lose; there is too much at stake."
Late that night, Anita Lawton was awakened from a tortured, feverish dream by the violent ringing of the telephone bell at her bedside. The voice of Henry Blaine, fraught with a latent tension of suppressed elation, came to her over the wire.
"Miss Lawton, I shall come to you in twenty minutes. Please be prepared to go out with me in my car. No, don't ask me any questions now. I will explain when I reach you."
His arrival found her dressed and restlessly pacing the floor of the reception-room, in a fever of mingled hope and anxiety.
"What is it, Mr. Blaine?" she cried, seizing his hand and pressing it convulsively in both of hers. "You have news for me! I can read it in your face! Ramon—"
"Is safe!" he responded. "Can you bear a sudden shock now, Miss Lawton? After all that has gone before, can you withstand one more blow?"
"Oh, tell me! Tell me quickly! I can endure everything, if only Ramon is safe!"
"I found him to-night, and brought him back to the city. I have come to take you to him."
"But why—why did he not come with you? Does he not realize what I have suffered—that every moment of suspense, of waiting for him, is an added torture?"
"He realizes nothing." Blaine hesitated, and then went on: "It is best for you to know the truth at once. Mr. Hamilton has suffered a severe injury. He is lying almost at the point of death, but the physicians say he has a chance, a good chance, for recovery, now that he is where he can receive expert care and attention. How he came by his shattered skull—he has a fracture at the base of the brain—we shall not know until he recovers sufficient consciousness to tell us. At present, he is in a state of coma, recognizing no one, nothing that goes on about him. He will not rouse to hear your voice; he will not know of your presence; but I thought that it would comfort you to see him, to feel that everything is being done for him that can be done."
"Ah, yes!" she sobbed. "Take me to him, Mr. Blaine! Thank God, thank God that you have found him! Just to look upon his dear face again, to touch him, to know that at least he still lives! He must not die, now; he cannot die! The God who has permitted you to restore him to me, would not allow that! Take me to him!"
So it was that a few short minutes later, Henry Blaine tasted the first real fruit of his victory, as he stood aside in the quiet hospital room, and with dimmed eyes beheld the scene before him. The wide, white bed, the silent, motionless, bandage-swathed figure upon it, the slender, dark-robed, kneeling girl—only that, and the echo of her low-breathed sob of love and gratitude. His own great, fatherly heart swelled with the joy of work well done, of the happiness he had brought to a spirit all but broken, and a sure, triumphant premonition that the struggle still before him would be crowned with victory.
"You are ready, Miss Lawton? Nerves steady enough for the ordeal?" asked Blaine the following morning.
"I am ready." Anita's voice was firm and controlled, and there was the glint of a challenge in her eyes. A wondrous change had come over her since the previous day. With the rescue of the man she loved, and the certainty that he would recover, all the latent, indomitable courage and fighting spirit which had come to her as an heritage from her father, and which had made of him the ruler of men and arbiter of events which he had been, arose again within her. The most crushing weight upon her heart had been lifted; hope and love had revivified her; and she was indeed ready to face the world again, to meet her enemies, the murderers and traducers of her father, and to give battle to them on their own ground.
"In a few moments, a man will enter this library—a man whom you know well. You will be stationed behind the curtains at this window here, and you must summon all your self-control to restrain yourself from giving any start or uttering a sound of surprise which would betray your presence. While I talk to him, I want you to try with all your might to put from your mind the fact that you know him. Do not let his personality influence you in any way, or his speech. Only listen to the tones of his voice—listen and try to recall that other voice which you heard here on the night of your father's death. If in his tones you recognize that voice, step from behind those curtains and face him. If not—and you must be absolutely sure that you do recognize the voice, that you could swear to it under oath in a court of justice, realizing that it will probably mean swearing away a man's life—if you are not sure, remain silent."
"I understand, Mr. Blaine. I will not fail you. I could not be mistaken; the voice which I heard here that night rings still in my ears; its echo seems yet to linger in the room." Her gaze wandered to the great leather chair, which had been replaced in its usual position. "Now that you have restored Ramon to me, I want only to avenge my father, and I shall be content. To be murdered, in his own home! Poisoned like a rat in a trap! I shall not rest until the coward who killed him has been brought to justice!"
"He will be, Miss Lawton! The trap has been baited again, and unless I am greatly mistaken, the murderer will walk straight into it.—There is the bell! I gave orders that you were to be at home to no one except the man I expect and that he was to be ushered in here immediately upon his arrival, without being announced—so take your place, now, please, behind the curtains. Do not try to watch the man—only listen with all your ears; and above all do not betray yourself until the proper moment comes for disclosing your presence."
Without a word Anita disappeared into the window-seat, and the curtains fell into place behind her. The detective had only time to step in the shadow of a dark corner beside one of the tall bookcases, when the door was thrown open. A man stood upon the threshold—a tall, fair man of middle age, with a small blond mustache, and a monocle dangling from a narrow black ribbon about his neck. From the very correct gardenia in his buttonhole to the very immaculate spats upon his feet, he was a careful prototype of the Piccadilly exquisite—a little faded, perhaps, slightly effete, but perfect in detail. He halted for a moment, as if he, too, were blinded by the swift change from sunshine to gloom. Then, advancing slowly, his pale, protruding eyes wandered to the great chair by the fireplace, and lingered as if fascinated. He approached it, magnetized by some spell of his own thoughts' weaving, until he could have stretched out his hand and touched it. A pause, and with a sudden swift revulsion of feeling, he turned from it in a sort of horror and went to the center-table. There he stood for a moment, glanced back at the chair, then quickly about the room, his eyes passing unseeingly over the shadowy figure by the bookcase. Then he darted back to the chair and thrust his hand deep into the fold between the back and seat. For a minute he felt about with frenzied haste, until his fingers touched the object he sought, and with a profound sigh of relief he drew it forth—a tiny flat vial.
He glanced at it casually, his hand already raised toward his breast-pocket; then he recoiled with a low, involuntary cry. The vial was filled with a sinister blood-red fluid.
At that moment Blaine stepped from behind the bookcase and confronted him.
"You have succeeded in regaining your bottle, haven't you, Mr. Rockamore?" he asked, significantly. "Are you surprised to find within it the blood of an innocent man?"
Rockamore turned to him slowly, his dazed, horror-stricken eyes protruding more than ever.
"Blood?" he repeated, thickly, as if scarcely understanding. Then a realization of the situation dawned upon him, and he demanded, hoarsely: "Who are you? What are you doing here?"
"My name is Blaine, and I am here to arrest the murderer of Pennington Lawton," the detective replied, his dominant tones ringing through the room.
"Blaine—Henry Blaine!" Rockamore stepped back a pace or two, and a sneer curled his thin lips, although his face had suddenly paled. "I've heard of you, of course—the international meddler! What sort of sensation are you trying to work up now, my man, by such a ridiculous assertion? Pennington Lawton—murdered! Why, all the world knows that he died of heart-disease!"
"All the world seldom knows the truth, but it shall, in this instance," returned Blaine, trenchantly. "Pennington Lawton was murdered—poisoned by a draught of prussic acid."
"You're mad!" Rockamore retorted, insolently. He tossed the incriminating little vial carelessly on the blotter of the writing-desk, and when he turned again to the detective his face, with its high, thin, hooked nose and close-drawn brows, was vulture-like in its malevolent intensity. "You don't deserve serious consideration! If you make public such a ridiculous statement, you'll only be laughed at for your pains."
"I shall prove it. The murderer's midnight visit, his secret conference with his victim, did not proceed unwitnessed. His motive is known, but his act was futile. It came too late."
"This is all very interesting, no doubt, or would be if it could be credited. However, I cannot understand why you have elected to take me into your confidence." Rockamore was livid, but he controlled himself sufficiently to speak with a simulation of contemptuous boredom. "I came here to see Miss Lawton, in response to an urgent call from her; I don't know by what authority you are here, but I do know that I do not propose to be further annoyed by you!"
"I am afraid that you will find yourself very seriously annoyed before this affair comes to an end, Mr. Rockamore," said Blaine. "Miss Lawton's butler summoned you this afternoon by my instructions, and with gratifying promptness you came and did just what I expected you would do—betrayed yourself irretrievably in your haste to recover the evidence which now will hang you!"
The other man laughed harshly, a discordant, jarring laugh which jangled on the tense air.
"Your accusation is too absurd to be resented. I knew that Miss Lawton herself could not have been a party to this melodramatic hoax!"
Blaine walked to the desk before replying, and taking up the crimson-tinged vial, weighed it in his hand.
"You did not find the poison bottle which you yourself thrust in that chair the night Pennington Lawton died, Mr. Rockamore, because his daughter discovered it and communicated with me," he said. "She anticipated you by less than twenty-four hours. We have known from the beginning of your nocturnal visit to this room; every word of your conversation was overheard. It's no use trying to bluff it; we've got a clear case against you."
"You and your 'clear case' be d—d!" the other man cried, his tones shaking with anger. "You're trying to bluff me, my man, but it won't work! I don't know what the devil you mean about a midnight visit to Lawton; the last I saw of him was at a directors' meeting the afternoon before his death."
"Then why has that chair—the chair in which he died—exerted such a peculiar, sinister influence over you? Why is it that every time you have entered this room since, you have been unable to keep away from it? Why, this very hour, when you thought yourself unobserved, did you walk straight to this chair and place your hand deliberately upon the place where the poison bottle was concealed? Why did you recoil? Why did that cry rise from your lips when you saw what it contained?"
"I touched the chair inadvertently, while I waited for Miss Lawton's appearance, and my hand coming accidentally in contact with a hard substance, mere idle curiosity impelled me to draw it out. Naturally, I was startled for the moment, when I saw what it was." The man's voice deepened hoarsely, and he gave vent to another sneering, vicious laugh. As its echo died in the room, Blaine could have sworn that he heard a quick gasp from behind the curtains of the window-seat, but it did not reach the ears of Rockamore.
The latter continued, his voice breaking suddenly, with a rage at last uncontrolled:
"I could not, of course, know that that bottle of red ink was a cheap, theatrical trick of a mountebank, a creature who is the laughing-stock of the press and the public, in his idiotic attempts to draw sensational notoriety upon himself. But I do know that this effort has failed! You have dared to plant this outrageous, puerile trap to attempt to ensnare me! You have dared to strike blindly, in your mad thirst for publicity, at a man infinitely beyond your reach. Your insolence ceases to be amusing! If you try to push this ridiculous accusation, I shall ruin you, Henry Blaine!"
"No man is beyond my reach who has broken the law." The detective's voice was quietly controlled, yet each word pierced the silence like a sword-thrust. "I have been threatened with ruin, with death, many times by criminals of all classes, from defaulting financiers to petty thieves, but I still live, and my fortunes have not been materially impaired. I do not court publicity, but I cannot shirk my duty because it entails that. And in this case my duty is plain. You, Bertrand Rockamore, came here, secretly, by night, to try to persuade Mr. Lawton to go in with you on a crooked scheme—to force him to, by blackmail, if necessary, on an old score. Failing in that, you killed him, to prevent the nefarious operations of yourself and your companions from being brought to light!"
"You're mad, I tell you!" roared Rockamore. "Whoever stuffed you with such idiotic rot as that is making gammon of you! That conversation is a chimera of some disordered mind, if it isn't merely part of a deliberate conspiracy of yours against me! You'll suffer for this, my man! I'll break you if it is the last act of my life! Such a conference never took place, and you know it!"
"'Come, Lawton, be sensible; half a loaf is better than no bread,'" Blaine quoted slowly. "'There is no blackmail about this—it is an ordinary business proposition.'
"'It's a damnable crooked scheme, and I shall have nothing to do with it. This is final! My hands are clean, and I can look every man in the face and tell him to go where you can go now!'
"You remember that, don't you, Rockamore?" Blaine interrupted himself to ask sharply. "Do you also recall your reply?—'How about poor Herbert Armstrong? His wife—'"
"It's a lie! A d—d lie!" cried Rockamore. "I was not in this room that night! Such a conversation never occurred! Who told you of this? Who dares accuse me?"
"I do!" A clear, flute-like voice, resonant in its firmness, rang out from behind him as he spoke, and he wheeled abruptly, to find Anita standing with her slender form outlined against the dark, rich velvet of the curtains. Her head was thrown back, her eyes blazing; and as she faced him, she slowly raised her arm and pointed a steady finger at the recoiling figure. "I accuse you, Bertrand Rockamore, of the murder of my father! It was I who heard your conversation here in this room; it was I who found the vial which contained the poison you used when your arguments and threats failed! I am not mistaken—I knew that I could never be mistaken if I heard that voice again, shaken, as it was that night, with rage and defiance—and fear! I knew that I should hear it again some time, and all these weeks I have listened for it, until this moment. Mr. Blaine, this is the man!"
"Anita, you have lost your mind!" With the shock of the girl's appearance, a steely calm had come to the Englishman, and although a tremor ran through his tones, he held them well in leash. "My poor child, you do not know what you are saying.
"As for you,"—he turned and looked levelly into Blaine's eyes,—"I am amazed that a man of your perception and experience should for a moment entertain the idea that he could make out a case of capital crime against a person of my standing, solely upon the hysterical pseudo-testimony of a girl whose brain is overwrought. This midnight conference, which you so glibly quote, is a figment of her distraught mind—or, if it actually occurred (a fact of which you have no proof), Miss Lawton admits, by the words she has just uttered, that she did not see the mysterious visitor, but is attempting to identify me as that person merely by the tones of my voice. She has made no accusation against me until this moment, yet since her father's death she has heard my voice almost daily for several weeks. Come, Blaine, listen to reason! Your case has tumbled about your ears! You can only avoid serious trouble for both Miss Lawton and yourself by dropping this absurd matter here and now."
"It is true that I did not recognize your voice before, but I have not until now heard it raised in anger as it was that night—" began Anita, but Blaine silenced her with a gesture.
"And the bottle of prussic acid which was found yesterday hidden in the chair where just now you searched for it?" he demanded, sternly. "The incontrovertible evidence, proved late last night by an autopsy upon the body of Pennington Lawton, which shows that he came to his death by means of that poison—how do you account for these facts, Rockamore?"
"I do not propose to account for them, whether they are facts or not," returned the other man, coolly. "Since I know nothing whatever about them, they are beyond my province. Unless you wish to bring ruin upon yourself, and unwelcome notoriety and possibly an official inquiry into her sanity upon Miss Lawton, you will not repeat this incredible accusation. Only my very real sympathy for her has enabled me to listen with what patience I have to the unparalleled insolence of this charge, but you are going too far. I see no necessity for further prolonging this interview, and with your permission I will withdraw—unless, of course," he added, sneeringly, "you have a warrant for my arrest?"
To Anita's astonishment, Henry Blaine stepped back with a slight shrug and Rockamore, still with that sarcastic leer upon his lips, bowed low to her and strode from the room.
"You—you let him go, Mr. Blaine?" she gasped, incredulously. "You let him escape!"
"He cannot escape." Blaine smiled a trifle grimly. "I'm giving him just a little more rope, that is all, to see if he will help us secure the others. His every move is under strict surveillance—for him there is no way out, save one."
"And that way?" asked Anita.
The detective made no reply. In a few minutes he took leave of her and proceeded to his office, where he spent a busy day, sending cables in cipher, detailing operatives to many new assignments and receiving reports.
Late in the afternoon replies began to come in to his cablegrams of the morning. Whatever their import, they quite evidently afforded him immense satisfaction, and as the early dusk settled down, his eyes began to glow with the light of battle, which those closest to him in his marvelous work had learned to recognize when victory was in sight.
Suraci noted it when he entered to make his report, and the glint of enthusiasm in his own eyes brightened like burnished steel.
"I relieved Ross at noon, as you instructed me, sir," he began, "in the vestibule of Mr. Rockamore's apartment house. It was a good thing that I had the six-cylinder car handy, for he surely led me a chase! Ten minutes after I went on duty, Rockamore came out, jumped into his automobile, and after circling the park, he turned south, zig-zagging through side streets as if to cut off pursuit. He reached South-end Ferry, but hovered about until the gates were on the point of closing. Then his chauffeur shot the car forward, but before I could reach him, Creghan stepped up with your warrant.
"'I'm sorry, sir,' I heard him say as I came up. 'I'm to use this only in case you insist on attempting to leave the city, sir. Mr. Blaine's orders.'
"Rockamore turned on him in a fury, but thought better of it, and after a minute he leaned forward with a shrug, and directed the chauffeur north again. This time he tried the Great Western Station, but Liebler was there, waiting for him; then the North Illington branch depot—Schmidt was on hand. As a forlorn hope he tried the Tropic and Oriental steamship line,—one of their ships goes out to-night,—but Norris intercepted him; at last he speeded down the boulevard and out on the eastern post-road, but Kearney was on the job at the toll-gate.
"He gave it up then, and went back to his rooms, and Ross relieved me there, just now. The lights are flaring in the windows of his rooms, and you can see his shadow—he's pacing up and down like a caged animal!"
"All right, Suraci. Go back and tell Ross to have one of his men telephone to me at once if Rockamore leaves his rooms before nine. That will be all for you to-night. I've got to do the rest of the work myself."
At nine o'clock precisely, Henry Blaine presented himself at Rockamore's door. As he had anticipated he was admitted at once and ushered into the Englishman's presence as if his coming had been expected.
"I say, Blaine, what the devil do you mean by this game you're playing?" Rockamore demanded, as he stood erect and perfectly poised upon the hearth, and faced the detective. A faint, sarcastic smile curved his lips, and in his pale eyes there was no hint of trouble or fear—merely a look of tolerant, half-contemptuous amusement. Immaculate in his dinner-coat and fresh boutonniere, his bearing superb in his ease and condescension, he presented a picture of elegance. Blaine glanced about the rich, somber den before he replied.
"I'm not playing any game, Mr. Rockamore. Why did you try so desperately to leave the city?"
The Englishman shrugged.
"A sudden whim, I suppose. Would it be divulging a secret of your profession if you informed me why one of your men did not arrest me, since all had warrants on the ridiculous charge you brought against me this morning, of murdering my oldest and closest friend?"
"I merely wanted to assure myself that you would not leave the city until I had obtained sufficient data with which to approach you," the detective responded, imperturbably. "I have come to-night for a little talk with you, Mr. Rockamore. I trust I am not intruding?"
"Not at all. As a matter of fact, after to-day's incidents I was rather expecting you." Rockamore waved his unbidden guest to a chair, and produced a gold cigarette-case. "Smoke? You perhaps prefer cigars—no? A brandy and soda?"
"Thank you, no. With your permission, I will get right down to business. It will simplify matters for both of us if you are willing to answer some questions I wish to put to you; but, of course, there is no compulsion about it. On the other hand, it is my duty to warn you that anything you say may be used against you."
"Fire away, Mr. Blaine!" Rockamore seated himself and stretched out his legs luxuriously to the open wood-fire. "I don't fancy that anything I shall say will militate against me. I was an idiot to lose my temper this morning, but I hate being made game of. Now the whole situation merely amuses me, but it may become tiresome. Let's get it over."
"Mr. Rockamore, you were born in Staffordshire, England, were you not? Near a place called Handsworth?"
The unexpected question brought a meditative frown to the other man's brow, but he replied readily enough:
"Yes, at Handsworth Castle, to be exact. But I can't quite gather what bearing that insignificant fact has upon your amazing charge this morning."
"You are the only son of Gerald Cecil Rockamore, third son of the Earl of Stafford?" The detective did not appear to have heard the protest of the man he was interrogating.
"Precisely. But what—"
"There were, then, four lives between you and the title," Blaine interrupted, tersely. "But two remain, your father and grandfather. Your uncles died, both of sudden attacks of heart-disease, and curiously enough, both deaths occurred while they were visiting at Handsworth Castle."
"That is quite true." The cynical banter was gone from Rockamore's tones, and he spoke with a peculiar, hushed evenness, as if he waited, on guard, for the next thrust.
"Lord Ashfrith, your father's oldest brother, and next in line to the old Earl, was seated in the gun-room of the castle, sipping a brandy and soda, and carving a peach-stone. Twenty minutes before, you had brought the peaches in from the garden, and eaten them with him. He was showing you how, in his boyhood, he had carved a watch-charm from a peach-stone, and you were close at his side when he suddenly fell over dead. Two years later, your Uncle Alaric, heir to the earldom since his older brother was out of the way, dropped dead at a hunt breakfast. You were seated next him."
"Are you trying to insinuate that I had anything to do with these deaths?" Rockamore still spoke quietly, but there was a slight tremor in his tones, and his face looked suddenly gray and leaden in the glow of the leaping flames.
"I am recalling certain facts in your family history. When your Uncle Alaric died, he had just set down his cordial glass, which had contained peach brandy. An odd coincidence, wasn't it, that both of these men died with the odor of peaches about them, an odor which incidentally you had provided in both cases, for it was you who suggested the peach brandy as a cordial at the hunt breakfast, and induced your uncle to partake of it."
"It was a coincidence, as you say. I had not thought of it before." The Englishman moistened his lips nervously, as if they suddenly felt dry. "Uncle Alaric was a heavy, full-blooded man, and he had ridden hard that morning, contrary to the doctor's orders. I suggested the brandy as a bracer, I remember."
"An unfortunate suggestion, wasn't it?" Blaine asked, significantly. The other man made no reply.
"There was another coincidence." The detective pursued relentlessly. "The brandy-and-soda, which Lord Ashfrith was drinking at the moment of his death, was naturally a pale amber color. So was the brandy which your Uncle Alaric drank as he died. And prussic acid is amber-colored, too, Mr. Rockamore! Lord Ashfrith was carving a peach-stone when the end came, and the odor of peaches clung to his body. Your Uncle Alaric partook of peach brandy, and the same odor hovered about him in death. Prussic acid is redolent of the odor of peaches!"
Rockamore started from his chair.
"I understand what you are attempting to establish by the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence!" he sneered. "But you are away beyond your depth, my man! May I ask where you obtained this interesting but scarcely valuable information?"
"From Scotland Yard, by cable, to-day." Blaine rose also and faced the other man. "An investigation was started into the second death, upon the Earl's request, but it was dropped for lack of evidence. About that time, Mr. Rockamore, you decided rather suddenly, and for no apparent reason, to come to America, where you have remained ever since."
"Mr. Blaine, if I were in the mood to be facetious, I might employ your American vernacular and ask that you tell me something I don't know! Come to the point, man; you try my patience."
"In view of recent developments, I am under the impression that Scotland Yard would welcome your reappearance on British soil, but I fear that will be forever impossible," Blaine said slowly. "Just as you were beside your uncles when each met with his end, so you were beside Pennington Lawton when death came to him! That has been proved. Just as brandy and soda, and peach brandy, are amber-colored, so are Scotch high-balls, which you and Pennington Lawton were drinking. No odor of peaches lingered about the room, for Miss Lawton had lighted a handful of joss-sticks in a vase upon the mantel earlier in the evening, and their pungent perfume filled the air. But the odor of peaches permeated the room when the tiny bottle which you hid in the folds of the chair was uncorked—the odor of peaches rose above the stench of mortifying flesh, when the body of your victim was exhumed late last night for a belated autopsy! The heart would have revealed the truth, had there been no corroborative evidence, for it was filled with arterial blood—incontrovertible proof of death by prussic-acid poisoning."
There was a tense pause, and then Rockamore spoke sharply, his voice strained to the breaking point.
"If you are so certain of my guilt, Blaine, why have you come to me secretly here and now? What is your price?"
"I have no price," the great detective answered, simply.
"Then why did you not arrest me at once? Why this purposeless interview?"
"Because—" Blaine paused, and when he spoke again, a solemn hush, almost of pity, had crept into his tones. "You come of a fine old line, Mr. Rockamore, of a splendid race. Your grandfather, the aged Earl, is living only in the past, proud of the record of his forebears. Your father is a soldier and statesman, valuable to the nation; his younger brother, Cedric, has achieved deserved fame and glory in the Boer War. There remains only you. For the sake of the innocent who must suffer with you, I have come to you to-night, that you may have an opportunity to—prepare yourself. In the morning I must arrest you. My duty is plain."
As he uttered the words, the craven fear which had struggled through the malicious sneer on the other man's face faded as if an obliterating hand had passed across his brow, and a look of indomitable courage and resignation took its place. There was something akin to nobility in his expression as he turned to the detective with head proudly erect and shoulders squared.
"I thank you, Mr. Blaine," he said, simply. "I understand. I shall not fail them—the others! You have been far more generous to me than I deserve. And now—good-night. You will find me here when you come in the morning."
But in the morning Henry Blaine did not carry out his expressed intention. Instead, he sat at his desk, staring at the headlines in a paper spread out before him. The Honorable Bertrand Rockamore had been found dead on the floor of his den, with a bullet through his head. He would never allow his man to touch his guns, and had been engaged in cleaning one of them, as was his custom, in preparation for his annual shooting trip to Florida, when in some fashion it had been accidentally discharged.
"I wonder if I did the right thing!" mused Blaine. "He had the courage to do it, after all. Blood will tell, in the end."
THE UNSEEN LISTENER
"There's a man outside who wishes to speak to you, sir. Says his name is Hicks, but won't tell his business."
Blaine looked up from the paper.
"Never heard of him. What sort of a man, Marsh?"
"Old, white-haired, carries himself like an old family servant of some sort. Looks as if he'd been crying. He's trembling so he can scarcely stand, and seems deeply affected by something. Says he has a message for you, and must see you personally."
"Very well. Show him in."
"Thank you for receiving me, sir." A quavering old voice sounded from the doorway a moment later, and Blaine turned in his chair to face the aged, erect, black-clad figure which stood there.
"Come in, Hicks." The detective's voice was kindly. "Sit down here, and tell me what I can do for you."
"I bring you a message, sir." The man tottered to the chair and sank into it. "A message from the dead."
Blaine leaned forward suddenly.
"Mr. Rockamore's valet, sir, and his father's before him. I loved him as if he were my own son, if you will pardon the liberty I take in saying so, and when he came to this country I accompanied him. He was always good to me, sir, a kind young master and a real friend. It was I who found him this morning—"
His voice broke, and he bowed his head upon his wrinkled hands. No tears came—but the thin shoulders shook, and a dry sob tore its way from the gaunt throat.
Blaine waited until the paroxysm had ceased, and then urged, gently:
"Go on, Hicks. You have something to tell me?"
"Yes, sir. The coroner and the press call it accidental death, but I—may God forgive me for saying it—I know better! He left word where none could find it but me, that you knew the truth, and he bade me give you—this!"
He produced a large, square envelope from an inner pocket, and extended it in his trembling hand to the detective. Without glancing at it, Blaine laid it on the desk before him.
"Where did you discover this?"
"There is a flat, oblong casket of old silver, shaped somewhat like a humidor—a family relic, sir—which stands upon the center-table in the den. Whenever Mr. Rockamore had any message to leave for me in writing, concerning his confidential business, which he did not wish the other servants to have access to, he always slipped it into the casket. After the coroner had come and gone this morning, and some of the excitement had died down, I went back to the den, to straighten it. I don't know why, but somehow I half suspected the truth. Perhaps it was the expression of his face—so peaceful and resigned, with all the hard, sneering lines the years had brought gone from it, so that he looked almost like a boy again, the bonny boy who used to ride helter-skelter on his pony through the lanes of Staffordshire, long ago."
The aged man spoke half to himself and seemed to have fallen into a reverie, which Blaine made no attempt to break in upon. At length he roused himself with a little start, and went on.
"At any rate, when I had the room in order, and was standing by the table taking a last look about, my hand rested on the casket, and quite without thinking, sir, I raised the lid. There within it lay a sealed envelope with my name on it! Inside was a certified check for two thousand pounds made out to me—he didn't forget me, even at the last—and that letter for you, together with a little note asking me to—to take him home. Is it true, sir, that you do know the whole truth?"