"Senor Silva repeated the experiment with another set of prints and then with another. I think there were six altogether, and every one of them was successful."
"Was Swain's one of them?" asked Godfrey.
"No; but when Mr. Lester told me that Fred was suspected because of those finger-prints, the thought flashed into my mind that if Senor Silva and Mahbub could imitate those of other people, they could imitate Fred's, too; and when I looked at the album and found that sheet torn out, I was sure that was what had happened."
"And so you decided to stay in the house, to win Senor Silva's confidence by pretending to become a convert, and to search for evidence against him," I said. "That was a brave thing to do, Miss Vaughan."
"Not so brave as you think," she objected, shaking her head. "I did not believe that there would be any real danger, with the three servants in the house. Only at the last did I realise the desperate nature of the man...."
She stopped and shivered slightly.
"Tell us what happened," I said.
"It was on Sunday afternoon," she continued, "that I went to Senor Silva and told him that I had decided to carry out my father's wish, renounce the world, and become a priestess of Siva. I shall never forget the fire in his eyes as he listened—they fairly burned into me."
"Ah!" said Godfrey. "So that was it!"
She looked at him inquiringly.
"Except upon one hypothesis," he explained, "that action on your part would have embarrassed Silva, and he would have tried to dissuade you. He had left him by your father's will this valuable place and a million dollars. If money had been all he sought, that would have satisfied him, and he would have tried to get rid of you. That he did not—that his eyes burned with eagerness when you told him of your decision—proves that he loved you and wanted you also."
A brighter colour swept into Miss Vaughan's cheeks, but she returned his gaze bravely.
"I think that is true," she assented, in a low voice. "It was my suspicion of that which made me hesitate—but finally I decided that there was no reason why I should spare him and let an innocent man suffer for him."
"Especially when you loved the innocent man," I added to myself, but managed to keep the words from my lips.
"As soon as I told him of my decision," Miss Vaughan continued, "he led me to the room where the crystal sphere is, placed me on the divan, sat down opposite me, and began to explain to me the beliefs of his religion. Meditation, it seems, is essential to it, and it was by gazing at the crystal that one could separate one's soul from one's body and so attain pure and profound meditation."
"Was that your first experience of crystal-gazing?" Godfrey asked.
"Yes; both he and my father had often tried to persuade me to join them. They often spent whole nights there. But it seemed to me that the breaking down of father's will was due to it in some way; I grew to have a fear and horror of it, and so I always refused."
"The change in your father was undoubtedly directly traceable to it," Godfrey agreed. "During those periods of crystal-gazing, he was really in a state of hypnosis, induced by Silva, with his mind bare to Silva's suggestions; and as these were repeated, he became more and more a mere echo of Silva's personality. That was what Silva desired for you, also."
"I felt something of the sort, though I never really understood it," said Miss Vaughan; "and as I sat there on the divan that Sunday afternoon, with his burning eyes upon me, I was terribly afraid. His will was so much stronger than mine, and besides, I could not keep my eyes from the crystal. In the end, I had a vision—a dreadful vision."
She pressed her hands to her eyes, as though it was still before her.
"The vision of your father's death?" I questioned.
"With Swain as the murderer?"
"How did you know?" she asked, astonished.
"Because he induced the same vision in me the next evening. But don't let me interrupt."
"I don't know how long the seance lasted," she continued; "some hours, I suppose, for it was dark when I again realised where I was. And after dinner, there was another; and then at midnight he led me to the roof and invoked what he called an astral benediction—a wonderful, wonderful thing...."
Godfrey smiled drily.
"You were over-wrought, Miss Vaughan," he said, "and straight from a spell of crystal-gazing. No wonder it impressed you. But it was really only a clever trick."
"I realise, now, that it must have been a trick," she agreed; "but at the time it seemed an unquestionable proof of his divine power. When it was over, I had just sufficient strength of will remaining to tear myself away from him and gain my own room and lock the door."
"You mean he tried to detain you?"
"Not with his hands. But I could feel his will striving to conquer mine. Even after I was in my room, I could feel him calling me. In the morning, I was stronger. I lay in bed until nearly noon, trying to form some plan; but I began to fear that I must give it up. I realised that, after a few more nights like the night before, I should no longer have a will of my own—that what I was pretending would became reality. I decided that I could risk one more day—perhaps two; but I felt very weak and discouraged. You see, I did not know what to look for, or where to look. I wanted evidence against him, but I had no idea what the evidence would be. I wanted to search his room, but I had not been able to, because he was scarcely ever out of it, except when he was with me; and, besides, Mahbub was always squatting in the little closet next to it.
"I got up, at last, and after breakfast he met me here in the library. He suggested another seance, but I pleaded a headache, and he walked with me about the grounds. I remembered that you were to come in the evening, Mr. Lester, and I determined to leave you with him, on some pretext, and search his room then. I told him you were coming, that I had asked you to take charge of my affairs; and it was then he told me of the legacy he believed my father had left him, adding that whether the legacy should stand or not was entirely in my hands. Then I began to feel his influence again, and managed to excuse myself and go indoors.
"You know what happened in the evening, Mr. Lester. As soon as I left you, I flew to his room, determined to search it at any cost. But I was scarcely inside, when I heard the outer door open, and I had just time to get behind the curtains in one corner, when someone entered. Peering out, I saw that it was Mahbub. He looked about for a moment, and then sat down on the divan, folded his feet under him, and fell into a contemplation of the sphere. I scarcely dared to breathe. I was always afraid of Mahbub," she added; "far more so than of Senor Silva. About Senor Silva there was at least something warm and human; but Mahbub impressed me somehow as a brother to the snake, he seemed so cold and venomous."
"You knew he was dead?" I asked, as she paused.
"Yes; Annie told me," and she shuddered slightly.
"The cobra, too, is dead," added Godfrey. "I agree with you, Miss Vaughan. There was a kinship between them—though the cobra turned against him in the end. How long did he sit there?"
"I do not know—but it seemed an age to me. Finally, in despair, I had made up my mind to try to steal away, when I heard steps in the entry. Mahbub slipped from the divan and disappeared behind the curtains, and then the door opened and Senor Silva and Mr. Lester entered. I saw, at once, that there was to be another seance, and that I could not escape, for Senor Silva sat down facing the corner where I was. I could only brace myself against the wall and wait. It was a dreadful ordeal. But it had its reward," she added, with a smile.
"And that was?" I asked.
"The discovery of the glove. Senor Silva suddenly switched on the lights, and I knew that the seance was over; but he had some difficulty in arousing you—the trance must have been a very deep one—and finally, leaving you lying on the divan, he went to the wall, drew aside the hangings, and pressed his hand against a panel. A little door flew open, and I saw that there was a cupboard in the wall. He filled a glass with some liquid, pulled the hangings into place, and went back to you and made you drink it. It seemed to do you good."
"Yes," I said; "it brought me around at once. And then?"
"And then, as soon as you went out together, I ran to the cupboard and looked into it. But for a moment I was confused—I saw nothing which seemed of any importance—some bottles and decanters and glasses, a glass tray or two, a pile of rubber gloves. I couldn't understand. I picked up one of the gloves and looked at it, but it was just an ordinary glove. Then farther back, I saw some others—their finger-tips were stained with ink—and then another, lying by itself. I looked at it, I saw the patches on the finger-tips—I saw the stains—and then I understood. I do not know how I understood, or why—it was like a flash of lightning, revealing everything. And then, as I stood there, with the glove in my hand, I heard Senor Silva returning."
She paused a moment, and I could see the shiver which ran through her at the recollection.
"It was not that I was afraid," she said; "it was that I seemed to be lost. I let the draperies fall, ran to the divan and sat down before the sphere. I could think of nothing else to do. I can still see his astonished face when he entered and found me sitting there.
"'I was waiting for you,' I said, trying to smile. 'You remember I was to have another lesson to-night.'
"'Yes,' he said, and looked at me, his eyes kindling.
"I was trembling inwardly, for suddenly I began to fear him; I knew that I must keep my head, that I must not yield to his will, or I would be swept away.
"'I thought Mr. Lester would never go,' I said.
"He came to the divan and sat down close beside me, and looked into my eyes.
"'Did the time really seem so long?' he asked.
"'It seemed very long,' I said.
"He gazed at me for another moment, then rose quickly and turned on the light.
"'Sit where you are,' he said, 'and I will sit here. Fix your eyes upon the sphere and your mind upon the Infinite Mind—so shall great wisdom come to you.'
"I felt my will crumbling to pieces; I closed my eyes and crushed the glove within my hand, and thought of this man's villainy and of the part I must play, if I were to defeat him. His voice went on and on, but gradually I ceased to hear it—I was thinking of the glove, of escape, of Fred...."
Yea, love is strong, I told myself, and it giveth to the dove the wisdom of the serpent, else how had this child come victorious from such an ordeal!
"I do not know how long I sat there," Miss Vaughan continued, "but Senor Silva rose suddenly with an exclamation of impatience and switched on the light.
"'There is something wrong,' he said, coming back and standing over me. 'Some hostile influence is at work. What is it?'
"'I do not know,' I said. 'I cannot lose myself as I did last night.'
"'Something holds you to earth—some chain. Perhaps it is your own wish.'
"'No, no!' I protested. 'Let us try again.'
"He switched off the light and sat down facing me, and again I felt his will trying to enter and conquer me. And again I clasped the glove, and kept my mind upon it, thinking only of escape."
You can guess how we were leaning forward, listening breathless to this narrative. I fancied I could see her sitting there in the darkness, with Silva's evil influence visibly about her, but held at bay by her resolute innocence, as Christian's shield of Faith turned aside the darts of Apollyon. It was, indeed, a battle of good and evil, the more terrible because it was fought, not with bodily weapons, but with spiritual ones.
"At last, Senor Silva rose again," Miss Vaughan continued, "and turned on the lights, and I shivered when I met his gaze.
"'You are defying me,' he said, very low. 'But I will break you yet,' and he clapped his hands softly together.
"Mahbub appeared at the inner door, received a sharp order, and disappeared again. A moment later, there was a little swirl of smoke from the door of his room, and a sharp, over-powering odour, which turned me faint.
"And then Senor Silva, who had been pacing, up and down the room, stopped suddenly and looked at me, his face distorted.
"'Is it that?' he muttered. 'Can it be that?'
"And he strode to the curtain which hung before his secret cupboard and swept it back.
"I knew that I was lost. I sprang for the outer door, managed to get it open and set a foot in the hall, before he seized me. I remember that I screamed, and then his hand was at my throat—and I suppose I must have fainted," she added, with a little smile, "for the next thing I remember is looking up and seeing Dr. Hinman."
I sat back in my chair with a long breath of relief. My tension during the telling of the story had been almost painful; and it was not until it was ended that I saw two other men had entered while Miss Vaughan was speaking. I was on my feet as soon as I saw them, for I recognised Goldberger and Sylvester.
"Simmonds telephoned me this morning that I was needed out here again," Goldberger explained. "But first I want to shake hands with Miss Vaughan."
"You have met Mr. Goldberger, Miss Vaughan," I said, as he came forward, "but Dr. Hinman didn't tell you that he's the cleverest coroner in greater New York."
"He doesn't really think so, Miss Vaughan," Goldberger laughed. "You ought to read some of the things he's written about me! But I want to say that I heard most of your story, and it's a wonder. About that glove, now, Simmonds," he added, turning to the detective. "I'd like to see it—and Sylvester here is nearly dying to."
"Here it is," said Simmonds, and took it from his pocket and passed it over.
Goldberger looked at it, then handed it to Sylvester, who fairly seized it, carried it to the door, and examined it with gleaming eyes. Then, without a word, he took an ink-pad from his pocket, slipped the glove upon his right hand, inked the tips of the fingers and pressed them carefully upon a sheet of paper. From an inner pocket, he produced a sheaf of photographs, laid them beside the prints, and carefully compared them. Finally he straightened up and looked at us, his face working.
"Do you know what this does, gentlemen?" he asked, in a voice husky with emotion. "It strikes at the foundation of the whole system of finger-print identification! It renders forever uncertain a method we thought absolutely safe! It's the worst blow that has ever been struck at the police!"
"You mean the prints agree with the photographs?" asked Godfrey, going to his side.
"Absolutely!" said Sylvester, and mopped his face with a shaking hand.
THE END OF THE CASE
To Sylvester, head of the Identification Bureau, it seemed that the world was tottering to its fall; but the rest of us, who had not really at the bottom of our hearts, perhaps, believed in the infallibility of the finger-print system, took it more calmly. And presently we went upstairs to take a look at the contents of Silva's secret cupboard. When he had first come to the house, Miss Vaughan explained, he had been given carte-blanche in this suite of rooms. He had them remodelled, installed the circular divan and crystal sphere, selected the hangings, and had at the same time, no doubt, caused the secret cupboard to be built.
Its contents were most interesting. There was a box of aerial bombs, which Godfrey turned over to Simmonds with the injunction to go and amuse himself. For Sylvester's contemplation and further confusion were the gloves with which Silva had managed his parlour mystification scheme, six pairs of them; and there was also the very simple apparatus with which the finger-print reproductions had been made—an apparatus, as Godfrey had suggested, similar in every way to that used for making rubber stamps. There, too, were the plates of zinc upon which the impressions of the prints had been etched with acid. And, finally, there were various odds and ends of a juggler's outfit, as well as various bottles of perfumes, essences, and liquids whose properties we could not guess.
Godfrey looked at the gloves carefully, as though in search of something, and at last selected one of them with a little exclamation of satisfaction.
"I thought so!" he said, and held it up. "Look at this glove, Sylvester. You see it has never been used—there is no ink on it. Do you know what it is? It's the print of Swain's left hand."
Sylvester took it and looked at it.
"It's a left hand all right," he said. "But what makes you think it is Swain's?"
"Because Silva expected to use both hands, till he learned that Swain had injured one of his. But for that, the blood needed to make the prints would have come from the victim, and Silva would have worn this glove, too; but Swain's injury gave Silva a happy inspiration! Wonderful man!" he added, half to himself.
Goldberger and Simmonds went on into the inner room to arrange for the disposition of the body of Mahbub; but Godfrey and Miss Vaughan and I turned back together, for we did not wish to see the Thug. At her boudoir door Godfrey paused.
"The case is clear," he said, "from first to last, provided you can supply us with a final detail, Miss Vaughan."
"What is that?" she asked.
"Did you write that note to Swain in your own room?"
"And will you show me the table at which you wrote it?"
"Certainly," and she opened the door. "Come in. I wrote it at that little desk by the window."
Godfrey walked to it, picked up a blotting-book which lay upon it, and turned over the leaves.
"Ah!" he said, after a moment. "I was sure of it. Here is the final link. Have you a small hand-mirror, Miss Vaughan?"
She brought one from her toilet-table and handed it to him in evident astonishment.
"What do you see in the mirror?" he asked, and held a page of the blotting-book at an angle in front of it.
Miss Vaughan uttered an exclamation of surprise, as she read the words reflected there:
MR. FREDERIC SWAIN, 1010 Fifth Avenue, New York City.
If not at this address, please try the Calumet Club.
"'Tall oaks from little acorns grow,'" quoted Godfrey, tossing the book back upon the desk. "But for the fact that you blotted the envelope, Miss Vaughan, young Swain would never have been accused of murder."
"I do not understand," she murmured.
"Don't you see," he pointed out, "the one question which we have been unable to answer up to this moment has been this: how did Silva know you were going to meet Swain? He had to know it, and know it several hours before the meeting, in order to have those finger-prints ready. I concluded, at last, that there must be a blotting-book—and there it is."
Miss Vaughan stared at him.
"You seem to be a very wonderful man!" she said.
"It is my every-day business to reconstruct mysteries," he said. "Shall I reconstruct this one?"
"Please do!" she begged, and motioned us to be seated.
Godfrey's face was glowing with the sort of creative fire which, I imagine, illumines the poet's brow at the moment of inspiration.
"Where did you first meet Silva?" he asked.
"What was he doing there?"
"He was practising mysticism. My father went to consult him; he was much impressed by him, and they became very intimate."
"And Silva, of course, at once saw the possibilities of exploiting an immensely rich old man, whose mind was failing. So he comes here as his instructor in Orientalism; he does some very marvellous things; by continued hypnosis, he gets your father completely under his control. He secures a promise of this estate and a great endowment; he causes your father to make a will in which these bequests are specifically stated. Then he hesitates, for during his residence in this house, a new desire has been added to the old ones. It had not often been his fortune to be thrown in daily contact with an innocent and beautiful girl, and he ends by falling in love with you. He knows of your love for Swain. He has caused Swain to be forbidden the house; but he finds you still indifferent. At last, by means of his own entreaties and your father's, he secures your consent to become his disciple. He knows that, if once you consent to sit with him, he will, in the end, dominate your will, also.
"But you ask for three days' delay, and this he grants. During every moment of those three days, he will keep you under surveillance. Almost at once, he guesses at your plan, for you return to the house, you write a letter, and, the moment you leave your room, he enters it and sees the impression on the blotter. He follows you into the grounds, he sees you throw the letter over the wall, and suspects that you are calling Swain to your aid. More than that, Lester," he added, turning to me, "he saw you in the tree, and so kept up his midnight fire-works, on the off-chance that you might be watching!"
"Yes; that explains that, too," I agreed thoughtfully.
"When he realises that you are asking your lover's aid," Godfrey continued to Miss Vaughan, "a fiendish idea springs into his mind. If Swain answers the call, if he enters the grounds, he will separate him from you once for all by causing him to be found guilty of killing your father. He hastens back to the house, tears the leaf from the album of finger-prints and prepares the rubber gloves. That night, he follows you when you leave the house; he overhears your talk in the arbour; and he finds that there is another reason than that of jealousy why he must act at once. If your father is found to be insane, the will drawn up only three days before will be invalid. Silva will lose everything—not only you, but the fortune already within his grasp.
"He hurries to the house and tells your father of the rendezvous. Your father rushes out and brings you back, after a bitter quarrel with Swain, which Silva has, of course, foreseen. You come up to your room; your father flings himself into his chair again. It is Silva who has followed you—who has purposely made a noise in order that you might think it was Swain. And he carries in his hand the blood-soaked handkerchief which Swain dropped when he fled from the arbour.
"Up to this point," Godfrey went on, more slowly, "everything is clear—every detail fits every other detail perfectly. But, in the next step of the tragedy, one detail is uncertain—whose hand was it drew the cord around your father's throat? I am inclined to think it was Mahbub's. If Silva had done the deed, he would probably have chosen a method less Oriental; but Mahbub, even under hypnotic suggestion, would kill only in the way to which he was accustomed—with a noose. Pardon me," he added, quickly, as she shrank into her chair, "I have forgotten how repellent this must be to you. I have spoken brutally."
"Please go on," she murmured. "It is right that I should hear it. I can bear it."
"There is not much more to tell," said Godfrey, gently. "Whoever it was that drew the cord, it was Silva who moistened the glove from the blood-soaked handkerchief, made the marks upon your father's robe, and then dropped the handkerchief beside his chair. Then he returned softly to his room, closed the door, put away the glove, cleansed his hands, made sure that Mahbub was in his closet, took his place upon the divan, and waited. I think we know the rest. And now, Lester," he added, turning to me, "we would better be getting to town. Remember, Swain is still in the Tombs."
"You are right," I said, and rose to take my leave, but Miss Vaughan, her eyes shining, stopped me with a hand upon the sleeve.
"I should like to go with you, Mr. Lester," she said. "May I?"
The colour deepened in her cheeks as she met my gaze, and I understood what was in her heart. So did Godfrey.
"I'll have my car around in ten minutes," he said, and hastened away.
"I have only to put on my hat," said Miss Vaughan; and I found her waiting for me in the library, when I entered it after arranging with Simmonds and Goldberger to appear with me in the Tombs court and join me in asking for Swain's release.
Godfrey's car came up the drive a moment later, and we were off.
The hour that followed was a silent one. Godfrey was soon sufficiently occupied in guiding the car through the tangle of traffic. Miss Vaughan leaned back in a corner of the tonneau lost in thought. It was just six days since I had seen her first; but those six days had left their mark upon her. Perhaps, in time, happiness would banish that shadow from her eyes, and that tremulousness from her lips. Every battle leaves its mark, even on the victor; and the battle she had fought had been a desperate one. But, as I looked at her, she seemed more complete, more desirable than she had ever been; I could only hope that Swain would measure up to her.
At last, we drew up before the grey stone building, whose barred windows and high wall marked the prison.
"Here we are," I said, and helped her to alight.
Godfrey greeted the door-keeper as an old friend, and, after a whispered word, we were allowed to pass. A guard showed us into a bare waiting-room, and Godfrey hastened away to explain our errand to the warden.
"Won't you sit down?" I asked, but my companion shook her head, with a frightened little smile, and paced nervously up and down, her hands against her heart. How riotously it was beating I could guess—with what hope, what fear....
There was a quick step in the corridor, and she stood as if turned to stone.
Then the door was flung open, and, with radiant face, she walked straight into the outstretched arms of the man who stood there. I heard her muffled sob, as the arms closed about her and she hid her face against his shoulder; then a hand was laid upon my sleeve.
"Come along, Lester," said Godfrey softly. "This case is ended!"