"Can you explain its presence there?"
"I cannot, unless it dropped from my wrist when I stooped to raise Miss Vaughan."
Goldberger looked at the witness for a moment, then he glanced at Sylvester, who nodded almost imperceptibly.
"That is all for the present, Mr. Swain," the coroner said, and Swain sat down again beside me, very pale, but holding himself well in hand.
Then Simmonds took the stand. His story developed nothing new, but he told of the finding of the body and of its appearance and manner of death in a way which brought back the scene to me very vividly. I suspected that he made his story deliberately impressive in order to efface the good impression made by the previous witness.
Finally, the coroner dipped once more into the suit-case, brought out another bundle and unrolled it. It proved to be a white robe with red stains about the top. He handed it to Simmonds.
"Can you identify this?" he asked.
"Yes," said Simmonds; "it is the garment worn by Mr. Vaughan at the time of his murder."
"How do you identify it?"
"By my initials in indelible ink, on the right sleeve, where I placed them."
"There are stains on the collar of the robe. What are they?"
"How do you know?"
"I have had them tested."
"Did any blood come from the corpse?"
"No, sir; the skin of the neck was not broken."
"Where, then, in your opinion, did this blood come from?"
"From the murderer," answered Simmonds, quietly.
There was a sudden gasp from the reporters, as they saw whither this testimony was tending. I glanced at Swain. He was a little paler, but was smiling confidently.
Goldberger, his face hawklike, stooped again to the suit-case, produced a third bundle, and, unrolling it, disclosed another robe, also of white silk. This, too, he handed to Simmonds.
"Can you identify that?" he asked.
"Yes," said Simmonds. "It is the robe worn by Miss Vaughan on the night of the tragedy. My initials are on the left sleeve."
"That also has blood-marks on it, I believe?"
"Yes, sir;" and, indeed, we could all perceive the marks.
"Yes, sir. I had it tested, too."
"That is all," said Goldberger, quickly, and placed on the stand the head of the Identification Bureau.
"Mr. Sylvester," he began, "you have examined the marks on these garments?"
"What did you make of them?"
"They are all unquestionably finger-marks, but most of them are mere smudges. However, the fabric of which these robes are made is a very hard and finely-meshed silk, with an unusually smooth surface, and I succeeded in discovering a few marks on which the lines were sufficiently distinct for purposes of identification. These I have photographed. The lines are much plainer in the photographs than on the cloth."
"Have you the photographs with you?"
"I have," and Sylvester produced them from a pocket. "These are the prints on the robe belonging to the murdered man," he added, passing four cards to the coroner. "You will notice that two of them show the right thumb, though one is not very distinct; another shows the right fore-finger, and the fourth the right middle-finger."
"You consider these plain enough for purposes of identification?"
"Undoubtedly. Any one of them would be enough."
Goldberger passed the photographs to the foreman of the jury, who looked at them vacantly.
"And the other photographs?" he asked.
"I got only two prints from the other robe," said Sylvester. "All but these were hopelessly smudged, as though the hand had moved while touching the garment."
"You mean they were all made by one hand?" asked Goldberger.
"Yes, sir; by the right hand. Again I have a print of the thumb and one of the third finger."
He passed the photographs over, and again Goldberger handed them on to the jury.
"Mr. Sylvester," said the coroner, "you consider the finger-print method of identification a positive one, do you not?"
"Even with a single finger?"
"Perhaps with a single finger there may be some doubt, if there is no other evidence. Somebody has computed that the chance of two prints being exactly the same is one in sixty-four millions."
"And where there is other evidence?"
"I should say that a single finger was enough."
"Suppose you have two fingers?"
"Then it is absolutely certain."
"And three fingers?"
Sylvester shrugged his shoulders to indicate that proof could go no further. Goldberger took back the photographs from the foreman of the jury and ranged them before him on the table.
"Now, Mr. Sylvester," he said, "did you notice any correspondence between these prints?"
"Yes," answered the witness, in a low voice; "the thumb-prints on both robes were made by the same hand."
The audience sat spell-bound, staring, scarce breathing. I dared not glance at Swain. I could not take my eyes from that pale-faced man on the witness-stand, who knew that with every word he was riveting an awful crime to a living fellow-being.
"One question more," said Goldberger. "Have you any way of telling by whom these prints were made?"
"Yes," said Sylvester again, and his voice was so low I could scarcely hear it. "They were made by Frederic Swain. The prints he made just now correspond with them in every detail!"
THE CHAIN TIGHTENS
An instant's silence followed Sylvester's words, and then a little murmur of interest and excitement, as the reporters bent closer above their work. I heard a quick, deep intaking of the breath from the man who sat beside me, and then I was on my feet.
"Your Honour," I said to Goldberger, "it seems that an effort is to be made to incriminate Mr. Swain in this affair, and he should therefore be represented by counsel. I myself intend to represent him, and I ask for an hour's adjournment in order to consult with my client."
Goldberger glanced at his watch.
"I intended to adjourn for lunch," he said, "as soon as I had finished with Mr. Sylvester. We will adjourn now, if you wish—until one-thirty," he added.
The battery of cameras was clicking at Swain, and two or three artists were making sketches of his head; there was a great bustle as the reporters gathered up their papers and hurried to their cars to search for the nearest telephone; the jury walked heavily away in charge of an officer to get their lunch at some near-by road-house; Sylvester was gathering up his prints and photographs and putting them carefully in his pocket; Simmonds was replacing the blood-stained clothing in the suit-case, to be held as evidence for the trial; but Swain sat there, with arms folded, staring straight before him, apparently unconscious of all this.
Goldberger looked at him closely, as he came down to speak to me, but Swain did not glance up.
"I can parole him in your custody, I suppose, Mr. Lester?" the coroner asked.
"Yes; certainly," I assented.
"Sylvester's evidence makes it look bad for him."
"Will you introduce me to Sylvester? I should like to go over the prints with him."
"Certainly;" and, a moment later, with the prints spread out before us, Sylvester was showing me their points of similarity.
Godfrey came forward while he was talking and stood looking over his shoulder.
I had heard of finger-print identification, of course, many times, but had made no study of the subject, and, I confess, the blurred photographs which Sylvester offered for my inspection seemed to me mighty poor evidence upon which to accuse a man of murder. The photographs showed the prints considerably larger than life-size, but this enlargement had also exaggerated the threads of the cloth, so that the prints seemed half-concealed by a heavy mesh. To the naked eye, the lines were almost indistinguishable, but under Sylvester's powerful glass they came out more clearly.
"The thumb," said Sylvester, following the lines first to the right and then to the left with the point of a pencil, "is what we call a double whorl. It consists of fourteen lines, or ridges. With the micrometer," and he raised the lid of a little leather box which stood on the table, took out an instrument of polished steel and applied it to one of the photographs, "we get the angle of these ridges. See how I adjust it," and I watched him, as, with a delicate thumbscrew, he made the needle-like points of the finder coincide with the outside lines of the whorl. "Now here is a photograph from the other robe, also showing the thumb," and he applied the machine carefully to it. "It also is a double whorl of fourteen lines, and you see the angles are the same. And here is the print of the right thumb which your client made for me." He applied the micrometer and drew back that I might see for myself.
"But these photographs are enlarged," I objected.
"That makes no difference. Enlargement does not alter the angles. Here are the other prints."
He compared them one by one, in the same manner. When he had finished, there was no escaping the conviction that they had been made by the same hand—that is, unless one denied the theory of finger-print identification altogether, and that, I knew, would be absurd. As he finished his demonstration, Sylvester glanced over my shoulder with a little deprecating smile, as of a man apologising for doing an unpleasant duty, and I turned to find Swain standing there, his face lined with perplexity.
"You heard?" I asked.
"Yes; and I believe Mr. Sylvester is right. I can't understand it."
"Well," I said, "suppose we go and have some lunch, and then we can talk it over," and thanking Sylvester for his courtesy, I led Swain away. Godfrey fell into step beside us, and for some moments we walked on in silence.
"There is only one explanation that I can see," said Godfrey, at last. "Swain, you remember, got to the library about a minute ahead of us, and when we reached the door he was lifting Miss Vaughan to the couch. In that minute, he must have touched the dead man."
Swain shook his head doubtfully.
"I don't see why I should have done that," he said.
"It isn't a question of why you did it," Godfrey pointed out. "It's a question of whether you did it. Go over the scene in your mind, recalling as many details as you can, and then we'll go over it together, step by step, after lunch."
It was a silent meal, and when it was over, Godfrey led the way into his study.
"Now," he began, when we were seated, "where was Miss Vaughan at the moment you sprang through the door?"
"She was lying on the floor by the table, in front of her father's chair," Swain replied.
"You are sure of that?"
"Yes; I didn't see her until I ran around the table."
"I was hoping," said Godfrey, "that she had fainted with her arms clasped about her father's neck, and that, in freeing them, you made those marks on his robe."
But Swain shook his head.
"No," he said; "I'm positive I didn't touch him."
"Then how did the marks get there?"
"I don't know," said Swain helplessly.
"Now, see here, Swain," said Godfrey, a little sternly, "there is only one way in which those finger-prints could have got on that garment, and that is from your fingers. If you didn't put them there consciously, you must have done so unconsciously. If they aren't explained in some way, the jury will very probably hold you responsible for the crime."
"I understand that," Swain answered thickly; "but how can they be explained? I don't see why I should put my hands on Mr. Vaughan's throat, even unconsciously. And then there's the fact that at no time during the evening was I really unconscious—I was only confused and dazed."
"Goldberger's theory is plain enough," said Godfrey, turning to me; "and I must say that it's a good one. He realises that there wasn't provocation enough to cause a man like Swain to commit murder, with all his senses about him; but his presumption is that the crime was committed while Swain was in a dazed condition and not wholly self-controlled. Such a thing is possible."
"No, it isn't!" cried Swain, his face livid. "It isn't possible! I'm not a murderer. I remember everything else—do you think I wouldn't remember a thing like that!"
"I don't know what to think," Godfrey admitted, a straight line between his brows. "Besides, there's the handkerchief."
"I don't see any mystery about that," said Swain. "There's only one way that could have come there. It dropped from my wrist when I stooped over Miss Vaughan."
Godfrey looked at me, and I nodded. Swain might as well know the worst.
"That would be an explanation, sure enough," said Godfrey, slowly, "but for one fact—you didn't have any bandage on your wrist when you came back over the wall. Both Lester and I saw your wrist and the cut on it distinctly. Therefore, if you dropped the handkerchief there, it must have been before that."
The blood had run from Swain's cheeks, as though drained by an open artery, and for a moment he sat silent, staring at the speaker. Then he raised his trembling right hand and looked at it, as though it might bear some mark to tell him whether it were indeed guilty.
"But—but I don't understand!" he cried thickly. "You—you don't mean to intimate—you don't believe—but I wasn't unconscious, I tell you! I wasn't near the house until after we heard the screams! I'm sure of it! I'd stake my soul on it!"
"Get a grip of yourself, Swain," said Godfrey, soothingly. "Don't let yourself go like that. No, I don't believe you killed Worthington Vaughan, consciously or unconsciously. I said Goldberger's theory was a good one, and it is; but I don't believe it. My belief is that the murder was done by the Thug; but there's nothing to support it, except the fact that he was on the ground and that a noose was used. There's not a bit of direct evidence to connect him with the crime, and there's a lot of direct evidence to connect you with it. It's up to us to explain it away. Now, think carefully before you answer my questions: Have you any recollection, however faint, of having seen Mahbub before this morning?"
Swain sat for quite a minute searching his consciousness. Then, to my great disappointment, he shook his head.
"No," he said; "I am sure I never saw him before."
"No, nor Silva—except, of course, the time, three or four months ago, when he gave me Mr. Vaughan's message."
"Have you a distinct recollection that the library was empty when you sprang into it?"
"Yes; very distinct. I remember looking about it, and then running past the table and discovering Miss Vaughan."
"You saw her father also?"
"Yes; but I merely glanced at him. I realised that he was dead."
"And you also have a distinct recollection that you did not approach him or touch him?"
"I am quite certain of that," answered Swain, positively.
"Then I give it up," said Godfrey, and lay back in his chair.
There was a queer boiling of ideas in my mind; ideas difficult to clothe with words, and composed of I know not what farrago of occultism, mysticism, and Oriental magic; but at last I managed to simmer them down to a timid question:
"I know it sounds foolish, but wouldn't it be possible, Godfrey, to explain all this by hypnosis, or occult influence, or something of that sort?"
Godfrey turned and looked at me.
"Silva seems to have impressed you," he said.
"He has. But isn't such an explanation possible?"
"I don't think so. I don't deny that the Orientals have gone farther along certain paths of psychology than we have, but as to their possessing any occult power, it is, in my opinion, all bosh. As for hypnosis, the best authorities agree that no man can be hypnotised to do a thing which, in his normal condition, would be profoundly repugnant to him. Indeed, few men can be hypnotised against their will. To be hypnotised, you have to yield yourself. Of course, the more you yield yourself, the weaker you grow, but that doesn't apply to Swain. I shouldn't advise you to use that line of argument to a jury," he added, with a smile. "You'd better just leave the whole thing up in the air."
"Well," I said, "I'll make the best fight I can. I was hoping Swain could help me; since he can't, we'll have to trust to luck."
Godfrey left us to get his story of the morning hearing into shape, and I fell into a gloomy revery. I could see no way out of the maze; either Swain had touched Vaughan's body, or it had been touched by another man with the same finger-markings. I sat suddenly upright, for if there was such a man, he must be one of two....
"What is it?" Swain asked, looking at me.
"A long shot," I said. "An exceedingly long shot—a three-hundred-million to one shot. How many people are there in the world, Swain?"
"I'm sure I don't know," and he stared at me in bewilderment.
"I think it's something like a billion and a half. If that is true, then it's possible that there are four people in the world, beside yourself, with the thumb and two fingers of the right hand marked exactly as yours are."
"We must have a reunion, some day," Swain remarked, with irony.
But I refused to be diverted.
"Allowing for imperceptible differences," I went on, "I think it is safe to assume that there are ten such people."
"Well," said Swain, bitterly, "I know one thing that it isn't safe to assume, and that is that either of those Hindus is one of those ten. I suppose that is the assumption you will make next?"
"It's an assumption I intend to put to the proof, anyway," I answered, somewhat testily, "and if it fails, I'm afraid you'll have to go to jail till I can dig up some more evidence."
He turned toward me quickly, his face working.
"See here, Mr. Lester," he said, "don't misunderstand me. I'm awfully grateful for all you're doing for me; but I don't mind going to jail—not on my own account. I'm innocent, and I'll be able to prove it in time. But Marjorie mustn't be left alone. I'd be ready to face anything if I knew that she was safe. She mustn't be left in that house—not a single night. Promise me that you'll take her with you as soon as the inquest's over!"
"I'll promise that, Swain, gladly," I said, "provided, of course, the doctor consents."
"We must get him," and Swain sprang to his feet. "We must explain to him how important it is."
"Perhaps I can get him on the 'phone," I said; but the person who answered told me that he had already started for the inquest. And, a moment later, Mrs. Hargis tapped at the door of the study and said that the doctor was outside. I told her to show him in at once.
"The truth is," said Hinman, shaking hands with both of us, "I thought I'd drop in to find out if there was anything I could do. No reasonable person," he went on, turning to Swain, "believes you killed that defenceless old man; but those finger-prints certainly do puzzle me."
"They puzzle me, too," said Swain; "but I'll prove my innocence—though it will take time."
"It looks to me," said the doctor, slowly, "that about the only way you can prove your innocence is to catch the real murderer."
"That's exactly what we're going to try to do," I assented.
"And meanwhile Mr. Swain will be in jail?" asked the doctor.
"I'm afraid there's no help for it," I admitted ruefully.
"I was just telling Mr. Lester that I didn't mind that," said Swain earnestly, "that I could stand anything, if I was only sure that Miss Vaughan was safe. She isn't safe in that house. Mr. Lester has arranged to place her with the family of his partner, Mr. Royce, where she will be properly taken care of. Is there any reason why she can't be taken there to-day?"
The doctor considered for a moment.
"Ordinarily," he said, at last, "I would advise that she be left where she is for a few days; but, under the circumstances, perhaps she would better be moved. You can get an easy-riding carriage—or a car will do, if you drive carefully. The nurses, will, of course, go along. The only thing is, she will probably wish to attend her father's funeral, which takes place to-morrow."
Swain bit his lips nervously.
"I have a horror of her staying in that house another night," he said; "but I hadn't thought of the funeral. There is one nurse on duty all the time, isn't there, doctor?"
"All right, then; we'll risk one night more. But you promise me that she shall be taken away immediately after the funeral?"
"Yes," I said, "I promise."
"And I," said the doctor. Then he looked at his watch. "It's time we were getting back," he added.
He took us over in his car, and we found the jury, under the guidance of Simmonds, just coming out of the house, each member smoking a fat black cigar at the expense of the State. They had been viewing the body and the scene of the crime, but as they filed back into their seats, I noted that they seemed anything but depressed. The lunch had evidently been a good one.
Sylvester was recalled to finish his testimony. He explained the system of curves and angles by which finger-prints are grouped and classified, and the various points of resemblance by which two prints could be proved to have been made by the same finger. There was, first of all, the general convolution, whether a flexure, a stria, a sinus, a spiral, a circle, or a whorl; there was, secondly, the number of ridges in the convolution; and there was, thirdly, the angles which these ridges made. If two prints agreed in all these details, their identity was certain. He then proceeded to show that the prints made that morning by Swain did so agree with the photographs of the prints on the garments. Finally the witness was turned over to me for cross-examination.
"Mr. Sylvester," I began, "are you willing to assert that those finger-prints could have been made by no man in the world except Mr. Swain?"
Sylvester hesitated, just as I hoped he would do.
"No," he answered, at last, "I can't assert that, Mr. Lester. There may be three or four other men in the world with finger-prints like these. But the probabilities against any of these men having made these prints are very great. Besides, it is a thing easily proved—the number of persons who might have committed the crime is limited, and it is an easy thing to secure prints of their fingers."
"That is what I was about to propose," I agreed. "I should like the finger-prints taken of every one who was in the house Thursday night."
"Do I understand that your case stands or falls upon this point?" asked the coroner.
"Your Honor," I answered, "my client cannot explain how the prints of his fingers, if they are his, came to be upon that robe. The one thing he is certain of is that they were not placed there by him. Not once, during the entire evening, was my client near enough to Mr. Vaughan to touch him; not once did he so far lose consciousness as to be unable to remember what occurred. We have racked our brains for an explanation, and the only possible one seems to be that the prints of the real murderer resemble those of my client. And when I say the real murderer," I added, "I do not necessarily mean one of the persons whom we know to have been in the house. Outside of these finger-prints, there has been absolutely no evidence introduced here to prove that the crime might not have been committed by some person unknown to us."
"You can scarcely expect the jury to believe, however," Goldberger pointed out, "that this supposititious person had finger-tips like your client's."
"No," I agreed, "I make no such assertion; my hope is that we shall soon have the prints of the real murderer; and when I say the real murderer," I added, looking at the jury, "I believe every one present understands who I mean."
The coroner rapped sharply; but I had said what I wished to say, and sat down. The witnesses of the morning were ordered to be brought out. Sylvester arranged his ink-pad and sheets of paper.
"It seems to me," remarked the coroner, with a smile, "that you and Mr. Godfrey would better register, too. You were within striking distance."
"That is right," I agreed, and was the first to register; but Sylvester, after a glance at my prints, shook his head.
"Your thumb is a left sinus," he said. "You're cleared, Mr. Lester."
Godfrey came forward and registered, too, and after him the three servants. In each case, a shake of Sylvester's head told the result.
Then Simmonds came from the house, with Silva and Mahbub after him, and the coroner explained to Silva what was wanted. I fancied that the yogi's brow contracted a little.
"The registration of the fingers," he said, "of the foot or of the palm, is with us a religious ceremony, not to be lightly performed. By some, it is also held that the touch of ink, unless compounded by a priest of the temple according to a certain formula, is defiling; and, above all, it is impossible for a believer to permit such relics of himself to remain in the hands of an infidel."
"The relics, as you call them," Goldberger explained, "won't need to remain in our hands. My expert here can tell in a minute whether your prints resemble those of his photographs. If they do not, they will be returned to you."
"And if they do?"
"Well, you can have them back, anyway. In that case, I guess we can persuade you, later on, to make another set."
The yogi flushed angrily, but controlled himself.
"I rely upon your promise, sir," he said, and laid his fingers first upon the pad and then upon the paper.
He stood with closed eyes and moving lips, his inked fingers held carefully away from him, during the breathless moment that Sylvester bent above the prints. Then the expert looked up and shook his head.
"No resemblance at all," he said, and held out the sheet of paper on which the prints were.
Silva accepted it silently, and rolled it into a ball in the palm of his hand.
"Now for the other fellow," said Goldberger.
Silva glanced at his follower doubtfully.
"I am not sure that I can make him understand," he said, and for some moments talked energetically to Mahbub in a language which I suppose was Hindu. Mahbub listened, scowling fiercely, speaking a brief sentence now and then. "He would know," Silva asked, at last, turning to the coroner, "whether blood is a constituent of that ink."
"It is a purely chemical compound," Sylvester explained. "There is no blood in it, nor any other animal matter."
This was repeated to Mahbub, and, after some further hesitation, he advanced to the table.
A moment later, Sylvester was bending above the prints. Then he looked up, his face red with astonishment, and motioned me to approach.
"Look at that!" he said, and laid the prints before me.
My heart was leaping with the hope that the incredible had happened; that here lay the clue to the mystery. But the first glance told me that such was not the case. The prints resembled Swain's not at all. And then, when I looked at them again, I perceived that they resembled no other prints which I had ever seen.
For the prints of all ten fingers were exactly alike, and consisted, not of whorls and spirals, but of straight lines running right across the finger. Sylvester was staring at them in bewilderment.
"These," he said, when he could find his voice, "are the most remarkable prints I ever saw."
"Do they resemble those on the robe?" asked the coroner.
"Not in the least."
"Then that settles that point," said Goldberger, with what seemed to me a sigh of relief.
"There is one thing, though," said Sylvester, eyeing Mahbub curiously; "I wish I knew the secret of these extraordinary prints."
"I can tell it to you," said Silva, with a little smile. "It is not at all extraordinary. The system of finger-print identification has been in use among the Hindus for many centuries, and was adopted by the English courts in India nearly a hundred years ago, after every other method had failed. The caste of Thuggee, which was at war with all other castes, and especially at war with the English, evaded it by stimulating on the fingers of their male children the formation of these artificial ridges. It became a sacred rite, performed by the priests, and has been maintained by the more devout members of the caste, although the need for it has ceased."
Sylvester looked at the prints again.
"I should like to keep these," he said. "They would be a great addition to my collection."
"Mahbub will have no objection," he said. "To him, they are of no importance, since there are many hundreds of men in the world with finger-tips identical with his. That is all?"
Goldberger nodded, and the two strange figures walked slowly away toward the house.
MISS VAUGHAN'S STORY
Sylvester was still bending in ecstasy over those strange finger-prints—the absorbed ecstasy of the collector who has come unexpectedly upon a specimen wonderful and precious.
"Well," he said, looking up, at last, "I've learned something new to-day. These prints shall have the place of honour. They might not be a means of identification among the Thugs, but I'll wager there's no collection in America has a set like them! They're unique!"
"But not in the least like the photographs," put in Goldberger, drily.
"No," and Sylvester flushed a little as he felt himself jerked from his hobby. "None of the prints we have taken this afternoon resemble the photographs in any way."
"But those made by Mr. Swain do resemble them?"
"It is more than a resemblance. They are identical with them."
"What inference do you draw from that?"
"It is more than an inference," Sylvester retorted. "It is a certainty. I am willing to swear that the finger-prints on the robe worn by the murdered man were made by Frederic Swain."
"You realise the serious nature of this assertion?" asked the coroner, slowly.
"I realise it fully."
"And that realisation does not cause you to modify it in any way?"
"It cannot be modified," said Sylvester, firmly, "however serious it may be, however reluctant I may be to make it—it cannot be modified because it is the truth."
There was a moment's silence, then Goldberger turned to me.
"Have you any questions to ask the witness, Mr. Lester?"
"No," I answered; "I have none."
Sylvester bent again above his prints, while the coroner and the prosecutor held a brief consultation. Then Goldberger turned back to me.
"Have you anything further, Mr. Lester?" he asked. "Our evidence is all in, I believe."
I was driven to my last entrenchment.
"I should like to call Miss Vaughan," I said, "if Dr. Hinman thinks she is strong enough."
Swain's chair creaked as he swung toward me.
"No, no!" he whispered, angrily. "Don't do that! Spare her that!"
But I waved him away, for it was his honour and welfare I had to consider, not Miss Vaughan's convenience, and turned to Dr. Hinman, who was evidently struggling between two duties. One was his duty to his patient; the other his duty to a man cruelly threatened, whom his patient's testimony might save.
"Well, what do you say, doctor?" asked the coroner.
"Miss Vaughan is no doubt able to testify," said the doctor, slowly, "but I should like to spare her as much as possible. Couldn't her deposition be taken privately? I think you mentioned something of the sort."
Goldberger looked at me.
"I shall be satisfied," I said, "to question her in the presence of Mr. Goldberger, reserving the right to put her on the stand, should I deem it necessary to do so."
"Very well," agreed the doctor. "I will prepare her," and he hurried away toward the house.
Swain was gripping my arm savagely.
"See here, Mr. Lester," he said in my ear, his voice shaking with anger, "I'm in deadly earnest about this. Take Miss Vaughan's deposition if you wish, but under no circumstances shall she be hauled before this crowd, in her present condition, and compelled to testify."
"Why not?" I asked, surprised at his vehemence.
"Because, in the first place, her testimony can't help me; and, in the second place, I won't have her tortured."
"She wouldn't be tortured."
"Look around at these reporters and these photographers, and then tell me she wouldn't be tortured!"
"How do you know her evidence won't help you?"
"How can it?"
"It will confirm your story."
"Can it explain away the finger-prints?"
At the words, I suddenly realised that there was one person within striking distance of the murdered man whose prints we had not taken—his daughter. Not that they were necessary ...
Dr. Hinman appeared at the edge of the lawn and beckoned. As I arose from my chair, Swain gave my arm a last savage grip.
"Remember!" he said.
But I kept my lips closed. If Miss Vaughan really loved him, and could help him, I would not need to urge her to the stand!
Goldberger joined me and together we followed Hinman into the house and up the stairs. He opened the door at the stair-head, waited for us to precede him, followed us into the room, and closed the door gently.
Miss Vaughan was half-sitting, half-reclining in a large chair. The blinds were drawn and the room in semi-darkness, but even in that light I could see how changed she was from the girl of whom I had caught a glimpse two days before. Her face was dead white, as though every drop of blood had been drained from it; her eyes were heavy and puffed, as from much weeping, and it seemed to me that there still lingered in their depths a shadow of horror and shrinking fear.
"This is Mr. Goldberger," said the doctor, "and this is Mr. Lester."
She inclined her head to each of us, as we took the chairs the doctor drew up, and I fancied that her cheeks flushed a little as her eyes met mine.
"I have explained to Miss Vaughan," the doctor continued, "that an inquiry is in progress, as the law requires, to determine the manner of her father's death, and that her story of what happened that night is essential to it."
"It will, at least, be a great help to us," said Goldberger gently, and I saw how deeply the girl's delicate beauty appealed to him. It was a beauty which no pallor could disguise, and Goldberger's temperament was an impressionable one.
"I shall be glad to tell you all I know," said Miss Vaughan, "but I fear it will not help you much."
"Will you tell us something, first, of your father's mental state?" I suggested.
"For many years," she began, "father had been a student of mysticism, and until quite recently he remained merely a student. I mean by that that he approached the subject with a detached mind and with no interest in it except a scientific interest."
"I understand," I said. "And that has changed recently?"
"It has changed completely in the last few months. He became a disciple, a convert anxious to win other converts."
"A convert to what?"
"To Hinduism—to the worship of Siva."
"That is the cult to which Francisco Silva belongs?"
"Yes; he is a White Priest of Siva."
"And this change in your father has been since the coming of this man?"
"Do you know anything of him?"
"Only that he is a very wonderful man."
"You know nothing of his past?"
"Did your father wish you to become a convert?"
"Yes, he desired it deeply."
"A priestess of Siva, I believe it is called?"
"And the yogi also desired it?"
"He believed it would be a great destiny. But he urged it only for my father's sake."
"So you determined to appeal to Mr. Swain?"
The colour deepened in her cheeks again.
"I decided to ask his advice," she said.
"Please tell us what happened that evening."
"Mr. Swain met me at the arbour in the corner of the grounds, as I had asked him to, and convinced me that my father's mind had given way under his long study of the occult. We decided that he should be placed in a sanitarium where he could have proper attention, and Mr. Swain was to make the necessary arrangements. All I would have to do would be to sign some papers. We were just saying good-night, when my father appeared at the entrance of the arbour."
"This was about midnight, was it not?"
"Why did you choose that hour for the meeting?"
"Because at that hour my father and the yogi were always engaged in invoking an astral benediction."
Even I, who knew the significance of the words, paused a little at them. The doctor and Goldberger were hopelessly at sea. After all, the words were a very good description of the weird ceremony.
"Well," I said, "and after your father appeared, what happened?"
"He was very excited and spoke to Mr. Swain in a most violent manner. Mr. Swain attempted to take me away from him, not knowing, at first, who it was had seized me; but I pushed him back and led my father away toward the house."
"Did Mr. Swain touch your father?"
"No; I was between them all the time. I was determined that they should not touch each other. I was afraid, if they came together, that something terrible would happen."
Goldberger glanced at me.
"Something terrible to your father?" he asked.
"Oh, no," she answered, quickly; "Mr. Swain would not have harmed my father, but father did not know what he was doing and might have harmed Mr. Swain."
It was my turn to look at Goldberger.
"After you left the arbour," I asked, "did you see Mr. Swain again?"
"No, I did not see him again."
"You went straight to the house?"
"Yes; father was still very violent. He had forbidden me to see Mr. Swain or to write to him. He had taken a violent dislike to him."
"Do you know why?"
"Yes," and she flushed a little, but went on bravely. "He believed that Mr. Swain wished to marry me."
"As, in fact, he did," I commented.
"Yes; or, at least, he did before his financial troubles came. After that, he wished to give me up."
"But you refused to be given up?"
"Yes," she said, and looked at me with eyes beautifully radiant. "I refused to be given up."
I felt that I was rushing in where angels would hesitate to enter, and beat a hasty retreat.
"Was your father always opposed to your marriage?" I asked.
"No; he has wanted me to wait until I was of age; but he never absolutely forbade it until a few months ago. It was at the time he first tried to persuade me to become a convert to Hinduism."
"What occurred after you and your father reached the house?"
"Father was very angry, and demanded that I promise never to see Mr. Swain again. When I refused to promise, he sent me to my room, forbidding me to leave it without his permission. I came up at once, more than ever convinced that father needed medical attention. I was very nervous and over-wrought, and I sat down by the window to control myself before going to bed. And then, suddenly, I remembered something the yogi had told me—that father was not strong, and that a fit of anger might be very serious. I knew the servants had gone to bed, and that he must be downstairs alone, since I had heard no one come up."
"You had heard no one in the hall at all?" I asked.
"No, I had heard no one. But I remember, as I started down the stairs, a curious feeling of dread seized me. It was so strong that I stood for some moments on the top step before I could muster courage to go down. At last, I did go down and—and found my father!"
She stopped, her hands over her eyes, as though to shut away the remembrance of that dreadful sight.
"Have you strength to tell me just what happened, Miss Vaughan?" I asked gently.
She controlled herself with an effort and took her hands from her face.
"Yes," she said; "I can tell you. I remember that I stood for a moment at the door, looking about the room, for at the first glance I thought there was no one there. I thought, for an instant, that father had gone into the grounds, for the curtain at the other door was trembling a little, as though someone had just passed."
"Ah!" I said, and looked at Goldberger.
"It might have been merely the breeze, might it not?" he asked.
"I suppose so. The next instant I saw my father huddled forward in his chair. I was sure he had had a seizure of some sort; I ran to him, and raised his head...."
Again she stopped, her eyes covered, and a slow shudder shook her from head to foot. I could guess what a shock the sight of that horrible face had been!
"I do not remember anything more," she added, in a whisper.
For a moment, we all sat silent. The only portion of her evidence which could in any way help Swain was her discovery of the swaying curtain, and even that, as Goldberger had pointed out, might easily mean nothing.
"Miss Vaughan," I said, at last, "how long a time elapsed from the moment you left your father in the library until you found him?"
"I don't know. Perhaps fifteen minutes."
"Was he quite dead when you found him?"
"Yes, I—I think so."
"Then," I said to Goldberger, "the murder must have been committed very soon after Miss Vaughan came upstairs."
"Yes," agreed Goldberger, in a low tone, "and by somebody who came in from the grounds, since she met no one in the hall and heard no one."
Miss Vaughan leaned toward him, her hands clasping and unclasping.
"Do you know who it was?" she gasped. "Have you found out who it was?"
"We suspect who it was," answered Goldberger gravely.
"Tell me," she began.
"Wait a minute, Miss Vaughan," I broke in. "Tell me, first—did you hear anyone following you across the garden?"
"Yes," she answered thoughtfully; "once or twice I fancied that someone was following us. It seemed to me I heard a step, but when I looked back I saw no one."
"Did that fact make you uneasy?"
"No," she said, with a little smile. "I thought it was Mr. Swain."
I saw Goldberger's sudden movement. I myself could not repress a little shudder.
"You thought that would be the natural thing for Mr. Swain to do, did you not?" the coroner inquired.
"Yes—I thought he might wish to see me safe." Then she stopped, leaning forward in her chair and staring first at Goldberger and then at me. "What is it?" she whispered, her hands against her heart. "Oh, what is it? You don't mean—you can't mean—oh, tell me! It isn't Fred you suspect! It can't be Fred!"
It was Dr. Hinman who laid a gentle and quieting hand upon her shoulder, and it was his grave voice which answered her.
"Yes," he said, "there are some things which seem to implicate Mr. Swain; but both Mr. Lester and I are certain he isn't guilty. We're going to prove it!"
She looked up at him with a grateful smile.
"Thank you!" she gasped. "I—wait a moment—I was silly to give way so. Of course you will prove it! It's absurd!" And then she stopped and looked at Goldberger. "Do you believe it?" she demanded.
Goldberger flushed a little under her gaze.
"I don't know what to believe, Miss Vaughan," he said. "I'm searching for the truth."
"So are we all," I said. "I am counsel for Mr. Swain, Miss Vaughan, and I have come to you, hoping that your story would help to clear him."
"Oh, I wish it might!" she cried.
"You know Mr. Swain cut his wrist as he came over the wall that night?"
"Yes, he told me. He didn't know it was bleeding, at first; then he felt the blood on his hand, and I wrapped his wrist in my handkerchief."
"Was it this handkerchief?" asked Goldberger, and took from his pocket the blood-stained square and handed it to her.
She took it with a little shiver, looked at it, and passed it back to him.
"Yes," she said; "that is it."
Then she sat upright, her clenched hands against her breast, staring at us with starting eyes.
"I remember now!" she gasped. "I remember now! I saw it—a blotch of red—lying on the floor beside my father's chair! How did it get there, Mr. Lester? Had he been there? Did he follow us?" She stopped again, as she saw the look in Goldberger's eyes, and then the look in mine. With a long, indrawn breath of horror, she cowered back into the chair, shaking from head to foot. "Oh, what have I done!" she moaned. "What have I done?"
There could be no question as to what she had done, I told myself, bitterly: she had added another link to the chain of evidence about her lover. I could see the same thought in the sardonic gaze which Goldberger turned upon me; but before either of us could say a word, the doctor, with a peremptory gesture, had driven us from the room.
Goldberger paused at the stair-head and looked at me, an ironical light in his eyes. I knew he suspected that Miss Vaughan's story of the handkerchief was no great surprise to me.
"Well," he asked, "will you wish to put her on the stand?"
I shook my head and started down the stairs, for I was far from desiring an argument just then, but he stopped me with a hand upon the sleeve.
"You realise, Mr. Lester," he said, more seriously, "that it is plainly my duty to cause Swain's arrest?"
"Yes," I assented. "I realise that. Under the circumstances, you can do nothing else."
He nodded, and we went downstairs together. I saw Swain's eager eyes upon us as we came out upon the lawn, and his lips were at my ear the instant I had taken my seat.
"Well?" he whispered.
"She cannot help you," I said. I did not think it necessary to say how deeply she would hurt him when her testimony was called for in open court, as, of course, it would be.
"And you won't put her on the stand?"
"No," I answered, and he sank back with a sigh of relief. Then something in my face seemed to catch his eye, for he leaned forward again. "You don't mean that she believes I did it!" he demanded hoarsely.
"Oh, no," I hastened to assure him; "she says such an accusation is absurd; she was greatly overcome when she learned that you were even suspected; she said...."
But the coroner rapped for order.
"Have you any other evidence to introduce, Mr. Lester?" he asked.
"No, Your Honour," I answered, and I saw the cloud of disappointment which fell upon the faces of reporters and photographers. To have been able to feature Miss Vaughan would have meant an extra column. I could also see, from the expression on the faces of the jury, that my failure to put her on the stand made an unfavourable impression. There was, indeed, only one inference to draw from it.
Goldberger turned aside for a few words with the prosecutor, and I suspected that he was telling him of Miss Vaughan's discovery of the blood-stained handkerchief; but there was no way to get the story before the jury without calling her. They seemed to agree, at last, that they had evidence enough, for the jury was instructed to prepare its verdict. Its members withdrew a little distance under the trees, and gathered into a group to talk it over.
I watched them for a moment, and then I turned to Swain.
"I suppose you know," I said, "that they're certain to find against you? Even if they don't, the district attorney will cause your arrest right away."
"I'm not worrying about that. I'm worrying about Miss Vaughan. You won't forget your promise?"
"She'll have no one but you," he went on rapidly. "Neither will I! You mustn't fail us!"
"I shan't," I promised. "But you'd better think about yourself a little, Swain."
"Plenty of time for that when I'm sure that Marjorie's safe. The minute you tell me she's at the Royces', I'll begin to think about myself. I'm not afraid. I didn't kill that man. No jury would convict me."
I might have told him that convictions are founded on evidence, and that the evidence in this case was certainly against him, but I thought it better to hold my peace. The more confident he was, the less irksome he would find imprisonment. So I sat silent until the members of the jury filed back into their places.
"Have you reached a verdict, gentlemen?" the coroner asked, after his clerk had polled them.
"Yes, Your Honour," the foreman answered.
"What is the verdict?"
The foreman held out a folded paper to the clerk, who took it, opened it, and read:
"We, the jury in the inquest held this thirteenth day of June, 1908, into the death of one Worthington Vaughan, residing in the Borough of the Bronx, City of New York, do find that the deceased came to his death by strangulation at the hands of one Frederic Swain."
There was an instant's silence, and then Goldberger turned to the jury.
"Is this your verdict, gentlemen?" he asked quietly; and each juryman replied in the affirmative as his name was called. "I thank you for your services," Goldberger added, directed his clerk to give them their vouchers on the city treasurer, and dismissed them.
Simmonds and the assistant district attorney came toward us, and I arose to meet them. Swain got up, also, and when I glanced at him I saw that he was smiling.
"I don't know whether you have met Mr. Blake, Mr. Lester," said Simmonds, and the prosecutor and I shook hands. I introduced him to Swain, but Swain did not offer his hand.
"I suppose you've come to take me along?" he said, the smile still on his lips.
"I'm afraid we'll have to."
"Would bail be considered?" I asked.
"I'm afraid not," and Blake shook his head. "It isn't a bailable offence."
I knew, of course, that he was right and that it was of no use to argue or protest. Swain turned to me and held out his hand.
"Then I'll say good-bye, Mr. Lester," he said. "I'll hope to see you Monday."
"You shall," I promised.
"And with good news," he added.
"Yes—and with good news."
"Can we give you a lift?" Blake asked.
"No," I said, "thank you; but I'm staying out here for the present."
I watched them as they climbed into a car—Goldberger, Blake, Simmonds and Swain; I saw the latter take one last look at the house; then he waved to me, as the car turned into the highroad—at least, he was taking it bravely! The coroner's assistants climbed into a second car, and the four or five policemen into a third. Then the reporters and photographers piled into the others, the few stragglers who had straggled in straggled on again, and in five minutes the place was deserted. As I looked around, I was surprised to see that even Godfrey had departed. There was something depressing about the jumble of chairs and tables, the litter of paper on the grass—something sordid, as of a banquet-hall deserted by the diners.
I turned away and started for the gate; and then, suddenly, I wondered who was in charge of the house. Who would give orders to clear away this litter? Who would arrange for the funeral on the morrow? How could Miss Vaughan do it, ill as she was? With quick resolution, I turned back toward the house. As I did so, I was surprised to see a man appear at the edge of the lawn and run toward me. It was Hinman.
"I was afraid I'd missed you," he said. "Miss Vaughan wishes to see you. She's all alone here and needs some help."
"I'd thought of that," I said. "I was just coming to offer it. Is she better?"
"Yes, much better. I think she has realised the necessity of conquering her nerves. Of course, we must still be careful."
I nodded, and followed him into the house. Then I stopped in astonishment, for Miss Vaughan was sitting in a chair in the library. She rose as I entered, came a step toward me and held out her hand.
"You must not think too badly of me, Mr. Lester," she said. "I won't give way again, I promise you."
"You have had a great deal to bear," I protested, taking her hand in mine. "I think you have been very brave. I only hope that I can be of some service to you."
"Thank you. I am sure you can. Let us all sit down, for we must have quite a talk. Dr. Hinman tells me that I shall need a lawyer."
"Undoubtedly," I assented. "Your father's estate will have to be settled, and that can only be done in the courts. Besides, in the eyes of the law, you are still a minor."
"Will you be my lawyer, Mr. Lester?"
"It will be a great privilege," I answered.
"Then we will consider that settled?"
"Yes," I agreed, "we will consider that settled."
"But it is not business I wish to discuss to-day," she went on, quickly. "There are other things more urgent. First, I wish to get acquainted with you. Have you not wondered, Mr. Lester, why it was that I chose you to deliver my letter?"
"I suppose it was because there was no one else," I answered, looking at her in some astonishment for the way she was rattling on. The colour was coming and going in her cheeks and her eyes were very bright. I wondered if she had escaped brain fever, after all.
"No," she said, smiling audaciously, "it was because I liked your face—I knew you could be trusted. Of course, for a moment I was startled at seeing you looking down at me from a tree. I wondered afterwards how you came to be there."
"Just idle curiosity," I managed to stammer, my face very hot. "I am sorry if I annoyed you."
"Oh, but it was most fortunate," she protested; "and a great coincidence, too, that you should be Mr. Swain's employer, and able to get hold of him at once."
"It didn't do much good," I said, gloomily; "and it has ended in putting Swain in jail."
I happened to glance at her hands, folded in her lap, and saw that they were fairly biting into each other.
"In jail!" she whispered, and now there was no colour in her face.
"Forgive me, Miss Vaughan," I said, hastily. "That was brutal. I forgot you didn't know."
"Tell me!" she panted. "Tell me! I can stand it! Oh, you foolish man, didn't you see—I was trying to nerve myself—I was trying to find out...."
I caught the hands that were bruising themselves against each other and held them fast.
"Miss Vaughan," I said, "listen to me and believe that I am telling you the whole truth. The coroner's jury returned a verdict that Swain was guilty of your father's death. As the result of that verdict, he has been taken to the Tombs. But the last words he said to me before the officers took him away were that he was innocent, and that he had no fear."
"Surely," she assented, eagerly, "he should have no fear. But to think of him in prison—it tears my heart!"
"Don't think of it that way!" I protested. "He is bearing it bravely—when I saw him last, he was smiling."
"But the stain—the disgrace."
"There will be none; he shall be freed without stain—I will see to that."
"But I cannot understand," she said, "how the officers of the law could blunder so."
"All of the evidence against him," I said, "was purely circumstantial, except in one particular. He was in the grounds at the time the murder was committed; your father had quarrelled with him, and it was possible that he had followed you and your father to the house, perhaps not knowing clearly what he was doing, and that another quarrel had occurred. But that amounted to nothing. Young men like Swain, even when half-unconscious, don't murder old men by strangling them with a piece of curtain-cord. To suppose that Swain did so would be absurd, but for one thing—no, for two things."
"What are they?" she demanded.
"One is that the handkerchief which you had tied about his wrist was found beside your father's chair—but it was not upon that the jury made its finding."
"What was it, then?"
"It was this: Swain swore positively that at no time during the evening had he touched your father."
"Yes, yes; and that was true. He could not have touched him."
"And yet," I went on slowly, "prints of Swain's blood-stained fingers were found on your father's robe."
"But," she gasped, pulling her hands away from me and wringing them together, "how could that be? That is impossible!"
"I should think so, too," I agreed, "if I had not seen the prints with my own eyes."
"You are sure they were his—you are sure?"
"I am afraid there can be no doubt of it," and I told her how Sylvester had proved it.
She listened motionless, mute, scarce-breathing, searching my face with distended eyes. Then, suddenly, her face changed, she rose from her chair, flew across the room, opened a book-case and pulled out a bulky volume bound in vellum. She turned the pages rapidly, giving each of them only a glance. Suddenly she stopped, and stared at a page, her face livid.
"What is it?" I asked, and hastened to her.
"It is the book of finger-prints," she gasped. "A great many—oh, a great many—my father collected and studied them for years. He believed—I do not know what he believed."
She paused, struggling for breath.
"Well," I said; "what then?"
"Mr. Swain's was among them," she went on, in the merest whisper. "They were here—page two hundred and thirty—see, there is an index—'Swain, F., page two hundred and thirty.'"
She pointed at the entry with a shaking finger.
"Well," I said again, striving to understand, "what of it?"
"Look!" she whispered, holding the book toward me, "that page is no longer there! It has been torn out!"
Then, with a convulsive shudder, she closed the book, thrust it back into its place, and ran noiselessly to the door leading to the hall. She swept back the curtain and looked out.
"Oh, is it you, Annie?" she said, and I saw the Irish maid standing just outside. "I was about to call you. Please tell Henry to bring those tables and chairs in from the lawn."
"Yes, ma'am," said the girl, and turned away.
Miss Vaughan stood looking after her for a moment, then dropped the curtain and turned back again into the room. I saw that she had mastered her emotion, but her face was still dead white.
As for me, my brain was whirling. What if Swain's finger-prints were missing from the book? What connection could that have with the blood-stains on the robe? What was the meaning of Miss Vaughan's emotion? Who was it she had expected to find listening at the door? I could only stare at her, and she smiled slightly as she saw my look.
"But what is it you suspect?" I stammered. "I don't see...."
"Neither do I," she broke in. "But I am trying to see—I am trying to see!" and she wrung her hands together.
"The disappearance of the prints seems plain enough to me," said Hinman, coming forward. "Mr. Vaughan no doubt tore them out himself, when he took his violent dislike to Swain. The act would be characteristic of a certain form of mania. Nobody else would have any motive for destroying them; in fact, no one else would dare mutilate a book he prized so highly."
Miss Vaughan seemed to breathe more freely, but her intent inward look did not relax.
"At least that is an explanation," I agreed.
"It is the true explanation," said Hinman, confidently. "Can you suggest any other, Miss Vaughan?"
"No," she said, slowly; "no," and walked once or twice up and down the room. Then she seemed to put the subject away from her. "At any rate, it is of no importance. I wish to speak to you about my father's funeral, Dr. Hinman," she went on, in another tone. "It is to be to-morrow?"
"Yes—at eleven o'clock. I have made such arrangements as I could without consulting you. But there are some things you will have to tell me."
"What are they?"
"Do you desire a minister?"
"No. He would not have wished it. If there is any priest, it will be his own."
"You mean the yogi?"
"Are there any relatives to inform?"
"Where shall the body be buried?"
"It must not be buried. It must be given to the flames. That was his wish."
"Very well. I will arrange for cremation. Will you wish to accompany it?"
"No, no!" she cried, with a gesture of repugnance.
"That is all, then, I believe," said Hinman slowly. "And now I must be going. I beg you not to overtax yourself."
"I shall not," she promised, and he bowed and left us.
The afternoon was fading into evening, and the shadows were deepening in the room. I glanced about me with a little feeling of apprehension.
"The nurses are still here, are they not?" I asked.
"Yes; but I shall dismiss them to-morrow."
I hesitated a moment. I did not wish to alarm her, and yet....
"After they are gone, it will be rather lonesome for you here," I ventured.
"I am used to being lonesome."
"My partner's wife, Mrs. Royce, would be very glad if you would come to her," I said. "I have a letter from her," and I gave it to her.
She stood considering it with a little pucker of perplexity between her brows. She did not attempt to open it.
"She is very kind," she murmured, and her tone surprised and disappointed me.
"May I see you to-morrow?"
"If you wish."
"I shall come some time during the afternoon," I said, and took up my hat. "There is nothing else I can do for you?"
"No, I believe not."
She was plainly preoccupied and answered almost at random, with a coldness in sharp contrast to the warmth of her previous manner.
"Then I will say good-bye."
"Good-bye, Mr. Lester; and thank you."
She went with me to the door, and stood for a moment looking after me; then she turned back into the house. And I went on down the avenue with a chill at my heart.
BUILDING A THEORY
I was surprised, when I came down for dinner an hour later, to find Godfrey awaiting me.
"I always try to make it, Saturday night," he explained. "The chief throws the work on the other fellows, if he can. That's the reason I hustled away after the inquest. The story's all in, and now we'll have a good dinner—if I do say it myself—and then a good talk. I feel the need of a talk, Lester."
"So do I," I said; "though I'm afraid talking won't help us much."
"The funny thing about this case is," mused Godfrey, "that the farther we get into it the thicker it grows."
"Yes," I agreed, "and the more one thinks about it, the less one understands."
"Well, suppose we get away from it for a while," said Godfrey, and turned the talk to other things. No man could talk more delightfully of music, of art, of letters. How he managed it I could never guess, but he seemed to have read everything, to have seen everything, to have heard everything. Marryat, for instance; who reads Marryat nowadays? And yet he had read the "Phantom Ship," and so knew something of Goa. An hour passed very quickly, but at last he rose and led the way into his study.
"A friend of mine dropped in to see me to-day at the office," he remarked, "a Cuban planter who comes up to New York occasionally, and whom I happened to help out of a rather serious difficulty a few years ago. Perhaps some day I'll tell you about it. He always brings me a bundle of his own special cigars. I didn't see him to-day, but he left the cigars, and I want you to try one. Perhaps it will give you an inspiration."
He went to his desk, opened a tin-foiled package that lay there, and carefully extracted two long cigars of a rich and glowing brown.
"Perhaps you've heard of the special cigars that are made for Pierpont Morgan," he went on, as he handed one to me, after carefully replacing the wrappings of the bundle. "Well, I smoked one of Morgan's cigars once—it was good, mighty good; but it wasn't in the same class with these. Light up."
I did. Never before had I drawn between my lips a breath so satisfying—so rich, so smooth, so full of flavour. I exhaled the fragrant smoke slowly.
"Godfrey," I said, "I never knew what tobacco was before. Are these cigars purchasable? I'm only a poor lawyer, but even one a month would be a thing to look forward to and dream about."
But Godfrey shook his head.
"I've felt like that," he said; "but they're not to be had for money. And now about Swain."
"Let's postpone it a little longer," I begged. "I don't want my mind distracted."
Godfrey laughed, but fell silent; and for the next half hour, no sound was heard.
"Now," I said, at last, "I'm ready to listen, so fire ahead whenever you want to."
"I haven't much to tell," he began; "nothing new about the case. But I stopped at the Tombs, before I started back, to make sure that Swain had everything he wanted. They'd given him an upper cell, and sent over to the Marathon and got him his things, and I arranged to have his meals sent in to him from Moquin's."
"I ought to have thought of that," I said, contritely. "I'm much obliged to you, Godfrey. Did you see him?"
"Only for a minute. He seemed fairly cheerful. He'd had them bring some of his law books to him, and remarked that he'd have plenty of time to study. I like the way he's taking it. He gave me a message for you."
"What was it?"
"That you are not to forget your promise."
I smoked on for a few moments in silence.
"I promised him I'd get Miss Vaughan away from that house," I said at last. "I had Mrs. Royce write her a note, inviting her to stay with her. I gave it to her this afternoon."
"What did she say?"
"She didn't say anything, but I could see the idea didn't impress her. And I had thought all along that she would jump at it."
Godfrey gave a little grunt, whether of surprise or satisfaction I could not tell.
"Why didn't you put her on the stand to-day, Lester?" he asked. "Afraid of upsetting her?"
"I wouldn't have stopped for that, if her evidence would have helped Swain. But it would only have put him deeper in the hole."
"In what way?"
"Well, in the first place, she says that as she and her father returned to the house, she heard footsteps behind them and thought it was Swain following them, because that would be a natural thing for him to do; and, in the second place, she saw that blood-stained handkerchief on the floor beside her father's chair when she came into the room and found him dead."
"So," said Godfrey slowly, "it couldn't have been dropped there by Swain when he stooped to pick her up."
"No; besides, we know perfectly well that it wasn't about his wrist when he came back over the wall. Goldberger knows it, too, and we'll be asked about it, next time."
"It might have been pushed up his sleeve—we weren't absolutely certain. But this new evidence settles it."
I assented miserably and Godfrey smoked on thoughtfully. But my cigar had lost some of its flavour.
"How did Miss Vaughan come to find the body?" he asked at last, and I told him the story as she had told it to me. He thought it over for some moments; then he leaned forward and laid his hand on my knee.
"Now, Lester," he said, "let's review this thing. It can't be as dark as it seems—there's light somewhere. Here is the case, bared of all inessentials: Swain crosses the wall about eleven o'clock, cutting his wrist as he does so; Miss Vaughan meets him about eleven-thirty, and after a time, finds that his wrist is bleeding and ties her handkerchief about it; they agree to have her father examined for lunacy, arrange a meeting for the next night, and are about to separate, when her father rushes in upon them, savagely berates Swain and takes his daughter away. That must have been about twelve o'clock.
"Swain, according to his story, sits there for ten or fifteen minutes, finally sees the cobra, or thinks he does, and makes a dash for safety, striking his head sharply against a tree. He tumbles over the wall in a half-dazed condition. The handkerchief is no longer about his wrist. That, you will remember, was about twelve-twenty.
"Almost at once we heard Miss Vaughan's screams. After that, Swain isn't out of our sight for more than a minute—too short a time, anyway, for anything to have happened we don't know about.
"Meanwhile, Miss Vaughan has returned with her father to the house, hearing steps behind her and taking it for granted that it is Swain following at a distance. She goes to her room, stays there fifteen minutes or so, and comes downstairs again to find her father dead.
"Now let us see what had happened. You were right in saying that her father must have been strangled immediately after she left him. Otherwise he would still have been twitching in such a way that she must have noticed it. No doubt he dropped into the chair exhausted by his fit of rage; the murderer entered through the garden door, stopped to cut off the end of the curtain-cord and make a noose of it—that would have taken at least a minute—and then strangled his victim. Then he heard her coming down the stairs, and escaped through the garden-door again just as she entered at the other. She saw the curtain still shaking. Then she fainted.
"Now, what are the clues to the murderer? A string tied with a peculiar knot, the blood-stained handkerchief, and the finger-prints on the dead man's robe."
Godfrey paused for a moment. Freed of its inessentials, in this way, the case was beautifully clear—and beautifully baffling. It was a paved way, smooth and wide and without obstruction of any kind; but it ended in a cul-de-sac!
"One thing is certain," Godfrey went on, at last; "the murder was committed by somebody—either by Swain, or by one of the Hindus, or by some unknown. Let us weigh the evidence for and against each of them.
"Against Swain it may be urged that he was on the ground, that he had time to do it, and some provocation, though the provocation, as we know it, seems to be inadequate, provided Swain was in his right mind; a handkerchief which was tied about his wrist is found beside the body, and his finger-prints are found upon it. Miss Vaughan believed he was following them; he admits that he thought of doing so.
"In his favour, it may be urged that a man like Swain doesn't commit murder—though, as a matter of fact, this is a dangerous generalisation, for all sorts of men commit murder; but if he should do so, it would be only under great provocation and in the heat of anger, certainly not in cold blood with a noose; and, finally, if the motion of the curtain Miss Vaughan noticed was made by the murderer, it couldn't possibly have been Swain, because he was with us at that moment. You will see that there is a mass of evidence against him, and practically the whole defence is that such a crime would be impossible to one of his temperament. You know yourself how flimsy such a defence is.
"Against the Hindus, on the other hand, practically the only basis for suspicion is that such a crime might be temperamentally possible to them. They may have been on the ground, and the method of the murder savours strongly of Thuggee—though don't forget that Swain admitted he could have tied that knot. Besides, if it was the Thug who followed them, he wouldn't have made any noise, and most certainly he couldn't have left the prints of Swain's fingers on the body. But if Swain is right in his assertion that he saw the snake in the arbour, it is probable that the Thug wasn't far away.
"Against an unknown it may be urged that neither Swain nor the Hindus could have committed the crime; but I don't see how an unknown could either, unless he happened to be one of the three or four people in the world with finger-tips like Swain's. And that is too far-fetched to be believable.
"But this I am sure of, Lester," and Godfrey leaned forward again: "the murder was committed either by Swain or by someone anxious to implicate Swain. We agree that it wasn't Swain. Very well, then: the person who committed the murder made a noise in following Miss Vaughan and her father so that she should think it was Swain who was following them; he picked up the blood-stained handkerchief, which Swain had dropped perhaps when he fled from the arbour, and placed it beside the body; and in some way inconceivable to me he pressed the prints of Swain's fingers on the dead man's robe. Now, to do that, he must have known that Swain was injured—the blood-stained handkerchief would tell him that; but he must also have known that it was his right hand that was injured. There was no blood on Swain's left hand."
Again Godfrey paused. I was following his reasoning with such absorbed attention that I could feel my brain crinkle with the effort.
"Now, listen," said Godfrey, and I could have smiled at the uselessness of the admonition—as if I were not already listening with all my faculties! "There is only one way in which the murderer could have known that it was Swain's right hand, and that was by overhearing the conversation in the arbour. But if he overheard that much, he overheard it all, and he knew therefore what it was Swain proposed to do. He knew that Vaughan's sanity was to be questioned; he knew that he would probably be placed in a sanitarium; he knew that Miss Vaughan would probably marry Swain. Presuming that it was Silva, he knew that, unless something was done to stop it, a very few days would place both Vaughan and his daughter beyond his reach."
"That is true," I admitted; "but Vaughan was beyond his reach a good deal more certainly dead than he would have been in a sanitarium. Besides, it isn't at all certain that he would have been sent to a sanitarium."
"That's an objection, surely," Godfrey agreed; "but I must find out if Vaughan is really beyond his reach dead."
I stared at him.
"You don't mean...."
"I don't know what I mean, Lester. I can feel a sort of dim meaning at the back of my mind, but I can't get it out into the light."
"Besides," I went on, "if the yogi did it, how did he get back into the house before we got there?"
"He peeped in at the door, saw the coast was clear, and went back through the library. Remember, Miss Vaughan was unconscious. That doesn't bother me. And another thing, Lester. How did Miss Vaughan's father come to burst in on her and Swain like that? How did he know they were in the arbour? It was dark and he couldn't have seen either of them."
"He might have been walking about the grounds and overheard them."
"I don't believe it. I believe somebody told him they were there. And only one person could have told him—that is Silva. No—there's only one point I can't get past—that's the finger-prints."
And then I remembered.
"Godfrey," I cried, "there's one thing—I forgot to tell you. You heard Swain remark that Vaughan was a collector of finger-prints?"
"And that he had a set of Swain's?"
"Well, when I told Miss Vaughan about the prints on her father's robe, she ran to a book-case and got out a book. It had Vaughan's collection in it, all bound together. But the page on which Swain's were had been torn out."
Godfrey sat for a moment, staring at me spell-bound. Then he began pacing up and down the study, like a tiger in its cage; up and down, up and down.
"I'm bound to add," I went on finally, "that Hinman suggested a very plausible reason for their disappearance."
"What was it?"
"He said they were probably destroyed by Vaughan himself, because of his dislike of Swain. He said that would be characteristic of Vaughan's form of insanity."
Godfrey took another turn up and down, then he stopped in front of my chair.
"What did Miss Vaughan think of that explanation?" he asked.
"It didn't seem to impress her, but I don't remember that she made any comment."
He stood a moment longer staring down at me, and I could feel the intense concentration of his mind; then he ran his fingers impatiently through his hair.
"I can't get it, Lester!" he said. "I can't get it. But I will get it! It's there! It's there, just out of reach." He shrugged his shoulders and glanced at his watch. "I'm getting dippy," he added, in another tone. "Let's go out and get a breath of air."
I followed him out into the yard—I knew where he was going—among the trees and up the ladder. Silently we took our places on the limb; silently we stared out into the darkness.
And there, presently, the strange star glowed and burned steel-blue, and floated slowly down, and burst above a white-robed figure, standing as though carved in marble, its arms extended, its head thrown back.
"That fellow is certainly an artist," Godfrey muttered, as he led the way back to the house.
THE YOGI CONQUERS
The events of the day that followed—Sunday—I shall pass over as briefly as may be. It was for me a day of disappointment, culminating in despair, and, looking back at it, I remember it as a grey day, windy, and with gusts of rain.
Dr. Hinman stopped for us, and Godfrey and I accompanied him to the service over the body of the murdered man. We were the only outsiders there, besides the undertaker and his assistants, and they were not admitted to the ceremony. This was witnessed only by Miss Vaughan, Mahbub and us three. The servants were not there, and neither were Miss Vaughan's nurses.
I have never seen a more impressive figure than Silva made that morning. His robes were dead black, and in contrast to them and to his hair and beard, his face looked white as marble. But, after the first moments, the ceremony failed to interest me; for Silva spoke a language which I supposed to be Hindustani, and there was a monotony about it and about his gestures which ended in getting on my nerves. It lasted half an hour, and the moment it was over, Miss Vaughan slipped away. The yogi and Mahbub followed her, and then we three stepped forward for a last look at the body.
It was robed all in white. The undertaker had managed to compose the features, and the high stock concealed the ugly marks upon the neck. So there was nothing to tell of the manner of his death, and there was a certain majesty about him as he lay with hands crossed and eyes closed.
We left the room in silence, and Hinman signed to the undertaker that the service was ended.
"I am going with the body to the crematory," he said, and presently drove away with the undertaker, ahead of the hearse. Godfrey and I stood gazing after it until it passed from sight, then, in silence, we walked down the drive to the entrance. The gardener was standing there, and regarded us with eyes which seemed to me distinctly unfriendly. He made no sign of recognition, and, the moment we were outside, he closed the gates and locked them carefully, as though obeying precise instructions.
"So," said Godfrey, in a low tone, as we went on together, "the lock has been repaired. I wonder who ordered that done?"
"Miss Vaughan, no doubt," I answered. "She wouldn't want those gates gaping open."
"Perhaps not," Godfrey assented; "but would she want the barrier intact? Remember, Lester, it's as much a barrier from one side as from the other."
"Well, she won't be inside it much longer," I assured him. "I'm going to get her out this afternoon."
The words were uttered with a confidence I was far from feeling, and I rather expected Godfrey to challenge it, but he walked on without replying, his head bent in thought, and did not again speak of Miss Vaughan or her affairs.
He drove into the city shortly after lunch, and it was about the middle of the afternoon when I presented myself again at the gates of Elmhurst and rang the bell. I waited five minutes and rang again. Finally the gardener came shuffling down the drive and asked me what I wanted. I told him I had an appointment with his mistress; but, instead of admitting me, he took my card and shuffled away with it.
I confess that I grew angry, as I stood there kicking my heels at the roadside, for he was gone a long time, and all these precautions and delays were incomprehensible to me. But he came back at last, unlocked the gate without a word, and motioned me to enter. Then he locked it again, and led the way up the drive to the house. The housemaid met us at the door of the library, as though she had been stationed there.
"If you will wait here, sir," she said, "Miss Vaughan will see you."
"I hope she is well," I ventured, thinking the girl might furnish me with some clue to all this mystery, but she was already at the door.
"Quite well, sir," she said, and the next instant had disappeared.
Another ten minutes elapsed, and then, just as I was thinking seriously of putting on my hat and leaving the house, I heard a step coming down the stair. A moment later Miss Vaughan stood on the threshold.
I had taken it for granted that, relieved of her father's presence, she would return to the clothing of every day; but she still wore the flowing white semi-Grecian garb in which I had first seen her. I could not but admit that it added grace and beauty to her figure, as well as a certain impressiveness impossible to petticoats; and yet I felt a sense of disappointment. For her retention of the costume could only mean that her father's influence was still dominant.
"You wished to see me?" she asked; and again I was surprised, for I had supposed she would apologise for the delay to which I had been subjected. Instead, she spoke almost as to a stranger.
"I had an appointment for this afternoon," I reminded her, striving to keep my vexation from my voice.
"Oh, yes," and she came a few steps into the room, but her face lost none of its coldness. "I had forgotten. It is not to speak of business?"
"No," I said; "it is to speak of your going to friends of Mr. Swain and me—for a time, at least."
"You will thank your friends for me," she answered, calmly; "but I have decided to remain here."
"But—but," I stammered, taken aback at the finality of her tone, "do you think it wise?"
"Yes—far wiser than going to people I do not know and who do not know me."
"And safe," I persisted; "do you think it safe?"
"Safe?" she echoed, looking at me in astonishment. "Certainly. What have I to fear?"
I had to confess that I myself did not know very clearly what she had to fear, so I temporised.
"Are you keeping the nurses?"
"No; I do not need them. They left an hour ago."
"But the servants," I said, in a panic, "they are here? They are going to stay?"
Again she looked at me.
"Your questions seem most extraordinary to me, Mr. Lester. Of course the servants will stay."
"And—and the Hindus?" I blurted out.
"Yes, and the Hindus, as you call them. This is their home. It was my father's wish."
I gave it up; her manner indicated that all this was no concern of mine, and that my interference was a mere impertinence. But I tried one parting shot.
"Mr. Swain is very anxious you should not stay here," I said. "He will be deeply grieved when he learns your decision."
To this she made no answer, and, finding nothing more to say, sore at heart, and not a little angry and resentful, I started to leave the room.
"There is one thing more," I said, turning back at the threshold. "I shall have to go in to the city to-morrow, but I shall come out again in the evening. Would it be convenient to have our business conference after dinner?"
"Yes," she agreed; "that will do very well."
"At eight o'clock, then?"
"I shall expect you at that time," she assented; and with that I took my leave.
It was in a most depressed state of mind that I made my way back to Godfrey's; and I sat down on the porch and smoked a pipe of bitter meditation. For I felt that, somehow, Miss Vaughan was slipping away from me. There had been a barrier between us to-day which had not been there before, a barrier of coldness and reserve which I could not penetrate. Some hostile influence had been at work; in death, even more than in life, perhaps, her father's will weighed upon her. I could imagine how a feeling of remorse might grow and deepen, and urge her toward foolish and useless sacrifice.
And just then Mrs. Hargis came out and told me that someone wanted me on the 'phone. It was Swain.
"They let me come out here to the office to 'phone to you," he said, as he heard my exclamation of surprise. "Simmonds happened in and told them it would be all right. He's here now."
"And they're treating you all right?"
"They're treating me like the star boarder," he laughed. And then his voice grew suddenly serious. "Have you seen Miss Vaughan?"
"Yes," I answered; for I knew of course that the question was coming.
"Miss Vaughan refuses to go to the Royces', Swain."
There was a moment's silence.
"Then where will she go?"
"She won't go anywhere."
"You don't mean," he cried, panic in his voice, "that she's going to stay out there?"
"Yes; she laughed when I mentioned danger. There's one consolation—the servants will stay."
"Did you tell her how anxious I was for her?"
"Yes; I did my best, Swain."
"And it made no difference?"
"No; it made no difference. The fact is, Swain, I fancy she's a little remorseful about her father—his death has unnerved her—and there was the funeral to-day—and, as a sort of atonement, she's trying to do what she imagines he would wish her to do."
"He wished her to become a priestess," said Swain, his voice ghastly.
"Oh, well, she won't go that far," I assured him cheerfully; "and no doubt in a few days, when the first impression of the tragedy has worn off, she will be ready to go to the Royces'. I'll keep suggesting it, and I'm going to have Mrs. Royce call on her."