"I'll try to," was all I said. Worth cut in with,
"Do you consider the roof another fact, Bobs?"
"I hope to find facts there," she answered promptly.
"Remember," I said, "your theory means another man up there, and you haven't yet—"
"Please, Mr. Boyne, don't take two and two and make five of them at this stage of the game," she checked me hastily, and I left them together while I made a hurried survey of the hall ceilings, looking for the scuttle. There was no hatchway in view, so I started down to the clerk to make inquiry. As I passed Clayte's open door, Miss Wallace seemed to be adjusting her turban before the dresser mirror, while Worth waited impatiently.
"Just a minute," I called. "I'll be right back," and I ducked into the elevator.
ON THE ROOF
When I returned with a key and the information that the way to the roof ran through the janitor's tool-room at the far end of the hall, I found my young people already out there. Worth was trying the tool-room door.
"Got the key?" he called. "It's locked."
"Yes." I took my time fitting and turning it. "How did you know this was the room?"
"I didn't," briefly. "Bobs walked out here, and I followed her. She said we'd want into this one."
She'd guessed right again! I wheeled on her, ejaculating,
"For the love of Mike! Tell a mere man how you deduced this stairway. Feminine intuition, I suppose."
I hadn't meant to be offensive with that last, but her firm little chin was in the air as she countered,
"Is it a stairway? It might be a ladder, you know."
It was a ladder, an iron ladder, as I found when I ushered them in. My eyes snapped inquiry at her.
"Very simple," she said. Worth was pushing aside pails and boxes to make a better way for her to the ladder's foot. "There wouldn't be a roof scuttle in the rented rooms, so I knew when you called in to tell us there was none in the halls."
"I didn't. I said nothing of the sort." Where was the girl's fine memory that she couldn't recollect a man's words for the little time I'd been gone! "All I said was, 'Just a minute and I'll be back.'"
"Yes, that's all you said to Worth." She glanced at the boy serenely as he waited for her at the ladder's foot. "He's not a trained observer; he doesn't deduce even from what he does observe." There were twinkling lights in her black eyes. "But what your hurried trip to the office said to me was that you'd gone for the key of the room that led to the roof scuttle."
Well, that was reasonable—simple enough, too; but,
"This room? How did you find it?"
She stepped to the open door and placed the tip of a gloved finger on the nickeled naught that marked the panels.
"The significant zero again, Mr. Boyne," she laughed. "Here it means the room is not a tenanted one, and is therefore the way to the roof. Shall we go there?"
"Well, young lady," I said as I led her along the trail Worth had cleared, "it must be almost as bad to see everything that way—in minute detail—as to be blind."
"Carry on!" Worth called from the top of the ladder, reaching down to aid the girl. She laughed back at me as she started the short climb.
"Not at all bad! You others seem to me only half awake to what is about you—only half living," and she placed her hand in the strong one held down to her. As Worth passed her through the scuttle to the roof, I saw her glance carelessly at the hooks and staples, the clumsy but adequate arrangement for locking the hatch, and, following her, gave them more careful attention, wondering what she had seen—plenty that I did not, no doubt. They had no tale to tell my eyes.
Once outside, she stopped a minute with Worth to adjust herself to the sharp wind which swept across from the north. Here was a rectangular space surrounded by walls which ran around its four sides to form the coping, unbroken in any spot; a gravel-and-tar roof, almost flat, with the scuttle and a few small, dust covered skylights its only openings, four chimney-tops its sole projections. It was bare of any hiding-place, almost as clear as a tennis court.
We made a solemn tour of inspection; I wasn't greatly interested—how could I be, knowing that between this roof and my fugitive there had been locked windows, and a locked door under reliable human eyes? Still, the lifelong training of the detective kept me estimating the possibilities of a getaway from the roof—if Clayte could have reached it. Worth crossed to where the St. Dunstan fire escape came up from the ground to end below us at a top floor window. I joined him, explaining as we looked down,
"Couldn't have made it that way; not by daylight. In open view all around."
"Think he stayed up here till dark?" Worth suggested, quite as though the possibility of Clayte's coming here at all was settled.
"My men were all over this building—roof to cellar—within the hour. They'd not have overlooked a crack big enough for him to hide in. Put yourself in Clayte's place. Time was the most valuable thing in the world with him right then. If ever he got up to this roof, he'd not waste a minute longer on it than he had to."
"Let's see what's beyond, then," and Worth led the way to the farther end.
The girl didn't come with us. Having been once around the roof coping, looking, it seemed to me, as much at the view as anything else, she now seemed content to settle herself on a little square of planking, a disused scuttle top or something of the sort, in against one of the chimneys where she was sheltered from the wind. Rather to my surprise, I saw her thoughtfully pulling off her gloves, removing her turban, all the time with a curiously disinterested air. I was reminded of what Worth had said the night before about the way her father trained her. Probably she regarded the facts I'd furnished her, or that she'd picked up for herself, much as she used to the problems in concentration her father spread in the high chair tray of her infancy. I turned and left her with them, for Worth was calling me to announce a fact I already knew, that the adjoining building had a roof some fifteen feet below where we stood, and that the man, admitting good gymnastic ability, might have reached it.
"Sure," I said. "But come on. We're wasting time here."
We turned to go, and then stopped, both of us checked instantly by what we saw. The girl was sitting in a strange pose, her feet drawn in to cross beneath her body, slender hands at the length of the arms meeting with interlaced finger-tips before her, the thumbs just touching; shoulders back, chin up, eyes—big enough at any time, now dilated to look twice their size—velvet circles in a white face. Like a Buddha; I'd seen her sit so, years before, an undersized girl doing stunts for her father in a public hall; and even then she'd been in a way impressive. But now, in the fullness of young beauty, her fine head relieved against the empty blue of the sky, the free winds whipping loose flying ends of her dark hair, she held the eye like a miracle.
Sitting here so immovably, she looked to me as though life had slid away from her for the moment, the mechanical action of lungs and heart temporarily suspended, so that mind might work unhindered in that beautiful shell. No, I was wrong. She was breathing; her bosom rose and fell in slow but deep, placid inhalations and exhalations. And the pale face might be from the slower heart-beat, or only because the surface blood had receded to give more of strength to the brain.
The position of head of a Bankers' Security Agency carries with it a certain amount of dignity—a dignity which, since Richardson's death, I have maintained better than I have handled other requirements of the business he left with me. I stood now feeling like a fool. I'd grown gray in the work, and here in my prosperous middle life, a boy's whim and a girl's pretty face had put me in the position of consulting a clairvoyant. Worse, for this was a wild-cat affair, without even the professional standing of establishments to which I knew some of the weak brothers in my line sometimes sneaked for ghostly counsel. If it should leak out, I was done for.
I suppose I sort of groaned, for I felt Worth put a restraining hand on my arm, and heard his soft,
The two of us stood, how long I can't say, something besides the beauty of the young creature, even the dignity of her in this outre situation getting hold of me, so that I was almost reverent when at last the rigidity of her image-like figure began to relax, the pretty feet in their silk stockings and smart pumps appeared where they belonged, side by side on the edge of the planking, and she looked at us with eyes that slowly gathered their normal expression, and a smile of rare human sweetness.
"It is horrid to see—and I loathe doing it!" She shook her curly dark head like a punished child, and stayed a minute longer, eyes downcast, groping after gloves and hat. "I thought maybe I'd get the answer before you saw me—sitting up like a trained seal!"
"Like a mighty pretty little heathen idol, Bobs," Worth amended.
"Well, it's the only way I can really concentrate—effectively. But this is the first time I've done it since—since father died."
"And never again for me, if that's the way you feel about it." Worth crossed quickly and stood beside her, looking down. She reached a hand to him; her eyes thanked him; but as he helped her to her feet I was struck by a something poised and confident that she seemed to have brought with her out of that strange state in which she had just been.
"Doesn't either of you want to hear the answer?" she asked. Then, without waiting for reply, she started for the scuttle and the ladder, bare headed, carrying her hat. We found her once more adjusting turban and veil before the mirror of Clayte's dresser. She faced around, and announced, smiling steadily across at me,
"Your man Clayte left this room while Mrs. Griggsby was kneeling almost on its threshold—left it by that window over there. He got to the roof by means of a rope and grappling hook. He tied the suitcase to the lower end of the rope, swung it out of the window, went up hand over hand, and pulled the suitcase up after him. That's the answer I got."
It was? Well, it was a beaut! Only Worth Gilbert, standing there giving the proceeding respectability by careful attention and a grave face, brought me down to asking with mild jocularity,
"He did? He did all that? Well, please ma'am, who locked the window after him?"
"He locked the window after himself."
"Oh, say!" I began in exasperation—hadn't I just shown the impractical little creature that those locks couldn't be manipulated from outside?
"Wait. Examine carefully the wooden part of the upper sash, at the lock—again," she urged, but without making any movement to help. "You'll find what we overlooked before; the way he locked the sash from the outside."
I turned to the window and looked where she had said; nothing. I ran my fingers over the painted surface of the wood, outside, opposite the latch, and a queer, chilly feeling went down my spine. I jerked out my knife, opened it and scraped at a tiny inequality.
"There is—is something—" I was beginning, when Worth crowded in at my side and pushed his broad shoulders out the window to get a better view of my operations, then commanded,
"Let me have that knife." He took it from my fingers, dug with its blade, and suddenly from the inside I saw a tiny hole appear in the frame of the sash beside the lock hasp. "Here we are!" He brought his upper half back into the room and held up a wooden plug, painted—dipped in paint—the exact color of the sash. It had concealed a hole; pierced the wood from out to in.
"And she saw that in her trance," I murmured, gaping in amazement at the plug.
I heard her catch her breath, and Worth scowled at me,
"Trance? What do you mean, Boyne? She doesn't go into a trance."
"That—that—whatever she does," I corrected rather helplessly.
"Never mind, Mr. Boyne," said the girl. "It isn't clairvoyance or anything like that, however it looks."
"But I wouldn't have believed any human eyes could have found that thing. I discovered it only by sense of touch—and that after you told me to hunt for it. You saw it when I was showing you the latch, did you?"
"Oh, I didn't see it." She shook her head. "I found it when I was sitting up there on the roof."
"Guessed at it?"
"I never guess." Indignantly. "When I'd cleared my mind of everything else—had concentrated on just the facts that bore on what I wanted to know—how that man with the suitcase got out of the room and left it locked behind him—I deduced the hole in the sash by elimination."
"By elimination?" I echoed. "Show me."
"Simple as two and two," she assented. "Out of the door? No; Mrs. Griggsby; so out of the window. Down? No; you told why; he would be seen; so, up. Ladder? No; too big for one man to handle or to hide; so a rope."
"But the hole in the sash?"
"You showed me the only way to close that lock from the outside. There was no hole in the glass, so there must be in the sash. It was not visible—you had been all over it, and a man of your profession isn't a totally untrained observer—so the hole was plugged. I hadn't seen the plug, so it was concealed by paint—"
I was trying to work a toothpick through the plughole. She offered me a wire hairpin, straightened out, and with it I pushed the hasp into place from outside, saw the lever snap in to hold it fast. I had worked the catch as Clayte had worked it—from outside.
"How did you know it was this window?" I asked, forced to agree that she had guessed right as to the sash lock. "There are two more here, either of which—"
"No, please, Mr. Boyne. Look at the angle of the roof that cuts from view any one climbing from this window—not from the others."
We were all leaning in the window now, sticking our heads out, looking down, looking up.
"I can't yet see how you get the rope and hook," I said. "Still seems to me that an outside man posted on the roof to help in the getaway is more likely."
"Maybe. I can't deal with things that are merely likely. It has to be a fact—or nothing—for my use. I know that there wasn't any second man because of the nicks Clayte's grappling hook has left in the cornice up there."
"Nicks!" I said, and stood like a bound boy at a husking, without a word to say for myself. Of course, in this impasse of the locked windows, my men and I had had some excuse for our superficial examination of the roof. Yet that she should have seen what we had passed over—seen it out of the corner of her eye, and be laughing at me—was rather a dose to swallow. She'd got her hair and her hat and veil to her liking, and she prompted us,
"So now you want to get right down stairs—don't you—and go up through that other building to its roof?"
I stared. She had my plan almost before I had made it.
At the St. Dunstan desk where I returned the keys, little Miss Wallace had a question of her own to put to the clerk.
"How long ago was this building reroofed?" she asked with one of her dark, softly glowing smiles.
"Reroofed?" repeated the puzzled clerk, much more civil to her than he had been to me. "I don't know that it ever was. Certainly not in my time, and I've been here all of four years."
"Not in four years? You're sure?"
"Sure of that, yes, miss. But I can find exactly." The fellow behind the desk was rising with an eagerness to be of service to her, when she cut him short with,
"Thank you. Four years would be exact enough for my purpose." And she followed a puzzled detective and, if I may guess, an equally wondering Worth Gilbert out into the street.
THE GOLD NUGGET
The neighbor to the south of the St. Dunstan was the Gold Nugget Hotel, a five story brick building and not at all pretentious as a hostelry. I knew the place mildly, and my police training, even better than such acquaintance as I had with this particular dump, told me what it was. Through the windows we could see guests, Sunday papers littered about them, half smoked cigars in their faces, and hats which had a general tendency to tilt over the right eye. And here suddenly I realized the difference between Miss Barbara Wallace, a scientist's daughter, and some feminine sleuth we might have had with us.
"Take her back to the St. Dunstan, Worth," I suggested. Then, as I saw they were both going to resist, "She can't go in here. I'll wait for you if you like."
"Don't know why we shouldn't let Bobs in on the fun, same as you and me, Jerry." That was the way Worth put it. I took a side glance at his attitude in this affair—that he'd bought and was enjoying an eight hundred thousand dollar frolic, offering to share it with a friend; and saying no more, I wheeled and swung open the door for them. The man at the desk looked at me, calling a quick,
"Hello, Jerry—what's up?"
"Hello, Kite. How'd you come here?"
The Kite as a hotelman was a new one on me. Last I knew of him, he was in the business of making book at the Emeryville track; and I supposed—if I ever thought of him—that he'd followed the ponies south across the border. As I stepped close to the counter, he spoke low, his look one of puzzled and somewhat anxious inquiry.
"Running straight, Jerry. You may ask the Chief. What can I do for you?"
Rather glad of the luck that gave me an old acquaintance to deal with, I told him, described Clayte, Worth and Miss Wallace standing by listening; then asked if Kite had seen him pass through the hotel going out the previous day at some time around one o'clock, carrying a brown, sole leather suitcase.
The readers of the Sunday papers who had been lured from their known standards of good manners into the sending of sundry interested glances in the direction of our sparkling girl, took the cue from the Kite's scowl to bury themselves for good in the voluminous sheets they held, each attending strictly to his own business, as is the etiquette of places like the Gold Nugget.
"About one o'clock, you say?" Kite muttered, frowning, twisted his head around and called down a back passage, "Louie—Oh, Louie!" and when an overalled porter, rather messy, shuffled to the desk, put the low toned query, "D'you see any stranger guy gripping a sole leather shirt-box snoop by out yestiddy, after one, thereabouts?" And I added the information,
"Medium height and weight, blue eyes, light brown hair, smooth face."
Louie looked at me dubiously.
"How big a guy?" he asked.
"Five feet seven or eight; weighs about hundred and forty."
"Blue eyes you say?"
"Light blue—gray blue."
"How was he tucked up?"
"Blue serge suit, black shoes, black derby. Neat, quiet dresser."
Louie's eyes wandered over the guests in the office questioningly. I began to feel impatient. If there was any place in the city where my description of Clayte would differentiate him, make him noticeable by comparison, it was here. Neat, quiet dressers were not dotting this lobby.
"Might be Tim Foley?" he appealed to the Kite, who nodded gravely and chewed his short mustache. "Would he have a big scar on his left cheek?"
"He would not," I said shortly. "He wasn't a guest here, and you don't know him. Get this straight now: a stranger, going through here, out; about one o'clock; carried a suitcase."
"Bulls after him?" Louie asked, and I turned away from him wearily.
"Kite," I said, "let me up to your roof."
"Sure, Jerry." Released, the porter went on to gather up a pile of discarded papers.
"Could he—the man I've described—come through here—through this office and neither you nor Louie see him?" I asked. The Kite brought a box of cigars from under the counter with,
"My treat, gentlemen. Naw, Jerry; sure not—not that kind of a guy. Louie'd 'a' spotted him. Most observing cuss I ever seen."
Miss Wallace, taking all this in, seemed amused. As I turned to lead to the elevator I found that again she wanted a question of her own answered.
"Mr. Kite," she began and I grinned; Kite wasn't the Kite's surname or any part of his name; "Who is the guest here with the upstairs room—on the top floor—has had the same room right along—for five or six years—but doesn't—"
"Go easy, ma'am, please!" Kite's little eyes were popping; he dragged out a handkerchief and fumbled it around his forehead. "I've not been here for any five or six years—no, nor half that time. Since I've been here most of our custom is transient. Nobody don't keep no room five or six years in the Gold Nugget."
"Back up," I smiled at his excitement. "To my certain knowledge Steve Skeels has had a room here longer than that. Hasn't he been with you ever since the place was rebuilt after the earthquake?"
"Steve?" the Kite repeated. "I forgot him. Yeah—he keeps a little room up under the roof."
"Has he had it for as long as four years?" the young lady asked.
"Search me," the Kite shook his head.
But Louie the overalled, piloting us the first stage of our journey in a racketty old elevator that he seemed to pull up by a cable, so slow it was, grumbled an assent to the same question when it was put to him, and confirmed my belief that Skeels came into the hotel as soon as it was rebuilt, and had kept the same room ever since.
Miss Wallace seemed interested in this; but all the time we were making the last lap, by an iron stairway, to that roof-house we had seen from the top of the St. Dunstan; all the time Louie was unlocking the door there to let us out, instructing us to be sure to relock it and bring him the key, and to yell for him down the elevator shaft because the bell was busted, the quiet smile of Miss Barbara Wallace disturbed me. She followed where I led, but I had the irritating impression that she looked on at my movements, and Worth's as well, with the indulgent eye of a grown-up observing children at play.
On the roof of the Gold Nugget we picked up the possible trail easily; Clayte hadn't needed to go through the building, or have a confederate staked out in a room here, to make a downward getaway. For here the fire escape came all the way up, curving over the coping to anchor into the wall, and it was a good iron stairway, with landings at each floor, and a handrail the entire length, its lower end in the alley between Powell and Mason Streets. Looking at it I didn't doubt that it was used by the guests of the Gold Nugget at least half as much as the easier but more conspicuous front entrance. Therefore a man seen on it would be no more likely to attract attention than he would in the elevator. I explained this to the others, but Worth had attacked a rack of old truck piled in the corner of the roof-house, and paid little attention to me, while Miss Wallace nodded with her provoking smile and said,
"Once—yes; no doubt you are exactly right. I wasn't looking for a way that a man might take once, under pressure of great necessity."
"Why not?" I countered. "If Clayte got away by this means yesterday—that'll do me."
"It might," she nodded, "if you could see it as a fact, without seeing a lot more. Such a man as Clayte was—a really wonderful man, you know—" the dimples were deep in the pink of her cheeks as she flashed a laughing look at me with this clawful—"a really wonderful man like Clayte," she repeated, "wouldn't have trusted to a route he hadn't known and proved for a long time."
"That's theory," I smiled. "I take my hat off to you, Miss Wallace, when it comes to observing and deducing, but I'm afraid your theorizing is weak."
"I never theorize," she reminded me. "All I deal with is facts."
She had perched herself on an overturned box, and was watching Worth sort junk. I leaned against the roof-house, pushed Kite's donated cigar unlighted into a corner of my mouth and stared at her.
"Miss Wallace," I said sharply, "what's this Steve Skeels stuff? What's this reroofing stuff? What's the dope you think you have, and you think I haven't? Tell us, and we'll not waste time. Tell us, and we'll get ahead on this case. Worth, let that rubbish alone. Nothing there for us. Come here and listen."
For all answer he straightened up, looked at us without a word—and went to it again. I turned to the girl.
"Worth doesn't need to listen to me, Mr. Boyne," she said serenely. "He already has full faith in me and my methods."
"Methods be—be blowed!" I exploded. "It's results that count, and you've produced. I'm willing to hand it to you. All we know now, we got from you. Beside you I'm a thick-headed blunderer. Let me in on how you get things and I won't be so hard to convince."
"Indeed, you aren't a blunderer," she said warmly. "You do a lot better than most people at observing." (High praise that, for a detective more than twenty years in the business; but she meant to be complimentary.) "I'm glad to tell you my processes. How much time do you want to give to it?"
"Not a minute longer than will get what you know." And she began with a rush.
"Those dents in the coping at the St. Dunstan, above Clayte's window—I asked the clerk there how long since the building had been reroofed, because there were nicks made by that hook and half filled with tar that had been slushed up against the coping and into the lowest dents. You see what that means?"
"That Clayte—or some accomplice of his—had been using the route more than four years ago. Yes."
"And the other scars were made at varying times, showing me that coming over here from there was quite a regular thing."
"At that rate he would have nicked the coping until it would have looked like a huck towel," I objected.
"A huck towel," she gravely adopted my word. "But he was a man that did everything he did several different ways. That was his habit—a sort of disguise. That's why he was shadowy and hard to describe. Sometimes he came up to the St. Dunstan roof just as we did; and once, a good while ago, there were cleats on that wall there so he could climb down here without the rope. They have been taken away some time, and the places where they were are weathered over so you would hardly notice them."
"Right you are," I said feelingly. "I'd hardly notice them. If I could notice things as you do—fame and fortune for me!" I thought the matter over for a minute. "That lodger on the top floor, Steve Skeels," I debated. "A poor bet. Yet—after all, he might have been a member of the gang, though somehow I don't get the hunch—"
"What sort of looking person was this man Skeels?" she asked.
"Quiet fellow. Dressed like a church deacon. 'Silent Steve' they call him. I'll send for him down stairs and let you give him the once-over if you like."
"Oh, that's not the kind of man I'm looking for." She shook her head. "My man would be more like those down there in the easy chairs—so he wasn't noticed in the elevator or when he passed out through the office."
"Wasn't it cute of him?" I grinned. "But you see we've just heard that he didn't take the elevator and go through the office—Saturday anyhow, which is the only time that really counts for us, the time when he carried that suitcase with a fortune in it."
"But he did," she persisted. "He went that way. He walked out the front door and carried away the suitcase—"
"He didn't!" Worth shouted, and began throwing things behind him like a terrier in a wood-rat's burrow.
Derelict stuff of all sorts; empty boxes, pasteboard cartons, part of an old trunk, he hurtled them into a heap, and dragged out a square something in a gunny sack. As he jerked to clear it from the sacking, I glanced at little Miss Wallace. She wasn't getting any pleasureable kick out of the situation. Her eyes seemed to go wider open with a sort of horror, her face paled as she drooped in on herself, sitting there on the box. Then Worth held up his find in triumph, assuming a famous attitude.
"The world is mine!" he cried.
"Maybe 'tis, maybe 'tisn't," I said as I ran across to look at the thing close. Sure enough, he'd dug up a respectable brown, sole leather suitcase with brass trimmings such as a bank clerk might have carried, suspiciously much too good to have been thrown out here. Could it be that the thieves had indeed met in one of the Gold Nugget's rooms or in the roof-house up here, made their divvy, split the swag, and thus clumsily disposed of the container? At the moment, Worth tore buckles and latches free, yanked the thing open, reversed it in air—and out fell a coiled rope that curved itself like a snake—a three-headed snake; the triple grappling iron at its end standing up as though to hiss.
We all stood staring; I was too stunned to be triumphant. What a pat confirmation of Miss Wallace's deductions! I turned to congratulate her and at the same instant Worth cried,
"What's the matter, Bobs?" for the girl was sitting, staring dejectedly, her chin cupped in her palms, her lips quivering. Nonplussed, I stooped over the suitcase and rope, coiling up the one, putting it in the other—this first bit of tangible, palpable evidence we'd lighted on.
"Let's get out of this," I said quickly. "We've done all we can here—and good and plenty it is, too."
Worth took the suitcase out of my hands and carried it, so that I had to help Miss Wallace down the ladder. She still looked as though she'd lost her last friend. I couldn't make her out. Never a word from her while we were getting down, or while they waited and I shouted for Louie. It was in the elevator, with the porter looking at everything on earth but this suitcase we hadn't brought in and we were taking out, that she said, hardly above her breath,
"Shall you ask at the desk if this ever belonged to any one in the house?"
"Find out here—right now," and I turned to the man in overalls with, "How about it?"
"Not that your answer will make any difference," Worth cut in joyously. "Nobody need get the idea that they can take this suitcase away from me—'cause they can't. It's mine. I paid eight hundred thousand dollars for this box; and I've got a use for it." He chuckled. Louie regarded him with uncomprehending toleration—queer doings were the order of the day at the Gold Nugget—and allowed negligently.
"You'll get to keep it. It don't belong here." Then, as a coin changed hands, "Thank you."
"But didn't it ever belong here?" our girl persisted forlornly, and when Louie failed her, jingling Worth's tip in his calloused palm, she wanted the women asked, and we had a frowsy chambermaid called who denied any acquaintance with our sole leather discovery, insisting, upon definite inquiry, that she had never seen it in Skeels' room, or any other room of her domain. Little Miss Wallace sighed and dropped the subject.
As we stepped out of the elevator, I behind the others, Kite caught my attention with a low whistle, and in response to a furtive, beckoning, backward jerk of his head, I moved over to the desk. The reading gentlemen in the easy chairs, most consciously unconscious of us, sent blue smoke circles above their papers. Kite leaned far over to get his mustache closer to my ear.
"You ast me about Steve," he whispered.
"Yeah," I agreed, and looked around for Barbara, to tell her here was her chance to meet the gentleman she had so cleverly deduced. But she and Worth were already getting through the door, he still clinging to the suitcase, she trailing along with that expression of defeat. "I'm sort of looking up Steve. And you don't want to tip him off—see?"
"Couldn't if I wanted to, Jerry," the Kite came down on his heels, but continued to whisper hoarsely. "Steve's bolted."
"Bolted," the Kite repeated. "Hopped the twig. Jumped the town."
"You mean he's not in his room?" I reached for a match in the metal holder, scratched it, and lit my cigar.
"I mean he's jumped the town," Kite repeated. "You got me nervous asking for him that way. While you was on the roof, I took a squint around and found he was gone—with his hand baggage. That means he's gone outa town."
"Not if the suitcase you squinted for was a brown sole leather—" I was beginning, but the Kite cut in on me.
"I seen that one you had. That wasn't it. His was a brand new one, black and shiny."
Suddenly I couldn't taste my cigar at all.
"Know what time to-day he left here?" I asked.
"It wasn't to-day. 'Twas yestiddy. About one o'clock."
As I plunged for the door I was conscious of his hoarse whisper following me,
"What's Steve done, Jerry? What d'ye want him for?"
I catapulted across the sidewalk and into the machine.
"Get me to my office as fast as you can, Worth," I exclaimed. "Hit Bush Street—and rush it."
A TIN-HORN GAMBLER
After we were in the machine, my head was so full of the matter in hand that Worth had driven some little distance before I realized that the young people were debating across me as to which place we went first, Barbara complaining that she was hungry, while Worth ungallantly eager to give his own affairs immediate attention, argued,
"You said the dining-room out at your diggings would be closed by this time. Why not let me take you down to the Palace, along with Jerry, have this suitcase safely locked up, and we can all lunch together and get ahead with our talk."
"Drive to the office, Worth," I cut in ahead of Barbara's objections to this plan. "I ought to be there this minute. We'll have a tray in from a little joint that feeds me when I'm too busy to go out for grub."
I took them straight into my private office at the end of the suite.
"Make yourself comfortable," I said to Miss Wallace. "Better let me lock up that suitcase, Worth; stick it in the vault. That's evidence."
"I'll hang on to it." He grinned. "You can keep the rope and hook. This has got another use before it can be evidence."
Not even delaying to remove my coat, I laid a heavy finger on the buzzer button for Roberts, my secretary; then as nothing resulted, I played music on the other signal tips beneath the desk lid. It was Sunday, also luncheon hour, but there must be some one about the place. It never was left entirely empty.
My fugue work brought little Pete, and Murray, one of the men from the operatives' room.
"Where's Roberts?" I asked the latter.
"He went to lunch, Mr. Boyne."
"Where's Foster?" Foster was chief operative.
"He telephoned in from Redwood City half an hour ago. Chasing a Clayte clue down the peninsula."
"If he calls up again, tell him to report in at once. Is there a stenographer about?"
"Not a one; Sunday, you know."
"Can you take dictation?"
"Me? Why, no, sir."
"Then dig me somebody who can. And rush it. I've—"
"Perhaps I might help." It was little Miss Wallace who spoke; about the first cheerful word I'd heard out of her since we found that suitcase on the roof of the Gold Nugget. "I can take on the machine fairly."
"Fine!" I tossed my coat on the big center table. "Murray, send Roberts to me as soon as he comes in. You take number two trunk line, and find two of the staff—quick; any two. Shoot them to the Gold Nugget Hotel." I explained the situation in a word. Then, as he was closing the door, "Keep off Number One trunk, Murray; I'll be using that line," and I turned to little Pete.
"Get lunch for three," I said, handing him a bill. From his first glance at Barbara one could have seen that the monkey was hers truly, as they say at the end of letters. I knew as he bolted out that he felt something very special ought to be dug up for such a visitor.
The girl had shed coat and hat and was already fingering the keys of the typewriter, trying their touch. I saw at once she knew her business, and I turned to the work at hand with satisfaction.
"You'll find telegram blanks there somewhere," I instructed. "Get as many in for manifold copies as you can make readable. The long form. Worth—"
I looked around to find that my other amateur assistant was following my advice, stowing his precious suitcase in the vault; and it struck me that he couldn't have been more tickled with the find if the thing had contained all the money and securities instead of that rope and hook. He had made the latter into a separate package, and now looked up at me with,
"Want this in here, too, Jerry?"
"I do. Lock them both up, and come take the telephone at the table there. Press down Number One button. Then call every taxi stand in the city (find their numbers at the back of the telephone directory) and ask if they picked up Silent Steve at or near the Gold Nugget yesterday afternoon about one; Steve Skeels—or any other man. If so, where'd they take him? Get me?"
"All hunk, Jerry." He came briskly to the job. I returned to Miss Wallace, with,
"Yes, Mr. Boyne."
"'We offer five hundred dollars—' You authorize that, Worth?"
"Sure. What's it for?"
"Never mind. You keep at your job. 'Five hundred dollars for the arrest of Silent Steve Skeels—' Wait. Make that 'arrest or detention,' Got it?"
"All right, Mr. Boyne."
—"'Skeels, gambler, who left San Francisco about one in the afternoon yesterday March sixth. Presumed he went by train; maybe by auto. He is man thirty-eight to forty; five feet seven or eight; weighs about one hundred forty. Hair, light brown; eyes light blue—' Make it gray-blue, Barbara."
Worth glanced up from where he was jotting down telephone numbers to drawl,
"You know who you're describing there?"
I saw Miss Wallace give him a quick look, a little shake of her head, as she said to me.
"Go on—please, Mr. Boyne."
"'Hair parted high, smoothed down; appears of slight build but is well muscled. Neat dresser, quiet, usually wears blue serge suit, black derby hat, black shoes.'"
"By Golly—you see it now yourself, don't you, Jerry?"
"I see that you're holding up work," I said impatiently. And now it was the quiet girl who came in with.
"Who gave you this description of Steve Skeels? I mean, how many people's observation of the man does this represent?"
"One. My own," I jerked out. "I know Skeels; have known him for years."
"Years? How many?" It was still the girl asking.
"Since 1907—or thereabouts."
"Was he always a gambler?" she wanted to know.
"Always. Ran a joint on Fillmore Street after the big earthquake, and before San Francisco came back down-town."
"A gambler," she spoke the word just above her breath, as though trying it out with herself. "A man who took big chances—risks."
"Not Steve," I smiled at her earnestness. "Steve was a piker always—a tin-horn gambler. Hid away from the police instead of doing business with them. Take a chance? Not Steve."
Worth had left the telephone and was leaning over her shoulder to read what she had typed.
"Exactly and precisely," he said, "the same words you had in that other fool description of him."
Worth let me have the one word straight between the eyes, and I leaned back in my chair, the breath almost knocked out of me by it. By an effort I pulled myself together and turned to the girl:
"Take dictation, please: Skeel's eyes are wide apart, rather small but keen—"
And for the next few minutes I was making words mean something, drawing a picture of the Skeels I knew, so that others could visualize him. And it brought me a word of commendation from Miss Wallace, and made Worth exclaim,
"Sounds more like Clayte than Clayte himself. You've put flesh on those bones, Jerry."
"You keep busy at that phone and help land him," I growled. "Finish, please: 'Wire information to me. I hold warrant. Jeremiah Boyne, Bankers' Security Agency,' That's all."
The girl pulled the sheets from the machine and sorted them while I was stabbing the buzzer. Roberts answered, breezing in with an apology which I nipped.
"Never mind that. Get this telegram on the wires to each of our corresponding agencies as far east as Spokane, Ogden and Denver. Has Murray got in touch with Foster?"
"Not yet. Young and Stroud are outside."
"Send them to bring in Steve Skeels," I ordered. "Description on the telegram there. Any word, Worth?"
"Nothing yet." Worth was calling one after another of the taxi offices. Little Pete came in with a tray.
"All right, Worth," I said. "Turn that job over to Roberts. Here's where we eat."
The kid's idea of catering for Barbara was club sandwiches and pie a la mode. It wouldn't have been mine; but I was glad to note that he'd guessed right. The youngsters fell to with appetite. For myself, I ate, the receiver at my ear, talking between bites. San Jose, Stockton, Santa Rosa—in all the nearby towns of size, I placed the drag-net out for Silent Steve, tin-horn gambler.
They talked as they lunched. I didn't pay any attention to what they said now; my mind was racing at the new idea Worth had given me. So far, I had been running Skeels down as one of the same gang with Clayte; the man on the roof; the go-between for the getaway. My supposition was that when the suitcase was emptied for division, Skeels, being left to dispose of the container, had stuck it where we found it. But what if the thing worked another way? What if all the money—almost a round million—which came to the Gold Nugget roof in the brown sole-leather case, walked out of its front door in the new black shiny carrier of Skeels the gambler?
Could that be worked? A gambler at night, a bank employee by day? Why not? Improbable. But not impossible.
"I believe you said a mouthful, Worth," I broke in on the two at their lunch. "And tell me, girl, how did you get the idea of walking up to the desk at the Gold Nugget and demanding Steve Skeels from the Kite?"
"I didn't demand Steve Skeels," she reminded me rather plaintively. "I didn't want—him."
"What did you want?"
"A room that had been lived in."
She didn't need to add a word to that. I got her in the instant. That examination of hers in Clayte's room at the St. Dunstan; the crisp, new-looking bedding, the unworn velvet of the chair cushions; the faded nap of the carpet, quite perfect, while that in the hall had just been renewed. Even had the room been done over recently—and I knew it had not—there was no getting around the total absence of photographs, pictures, books, magazines, newspapers, old letters, the lack of all the half worn stuff that collects about an occupied apartment. No pinholes or defacements on the walls, none of the litter that accumulates. The girl was right; that room hadn't been lived in.
"Beautiful," I said in honest admiration. "It's a pleasure to see a mind like yours, and such powers of observation, in action, clicking out results like a perfectly adjusted machine. Clayte didn't live in his room because he lived with the gang all his glorious outside hours. There was where the poor rabbit of a bank clerk got his fling."
"Oh, yes, it works logically. He held himself down to Clayte at the St. Dunstan and in the bank, and he let himself go to—what?—outside of it, beyond it, where he really lived."
"He let himself go to Steve Skeels—won't that do you?"
"No," she said so positively that it was annoying. "That won't do me at all."
"But it's what you got," I reminded her rather unkindly, and then was sorry I'd done it. "It's what you got for me—and I thank you for it."
"You needn't," she came back at me—spunky little thing. "It isn't worth thanking anybody for. It's only a partial fact."
"And you think half truths are dangerous?" I smiled at her.
"There isn't any such thing," she instructed me. "Even facts can hardly be split into fractions; while the truth is always whole and complete."
"As far as you see it," I amended. "For instance, you insist on keeping the gang all under Clayte's hat—or you did at first. Now you're refusing to believe, as both Worth and I believe, that Steve Skeels is Clayte himself. I should think you'd jump at the idea. Here's your Wonder Man."
She leaned back in her chair and laughed. I was glad to hear the sound again, see the dimples flicker in her cheeks, even if she was laughing at me.
"A wonderful Wonder Man, Mr. Boyne," she said. "One who does things so bunglingly that you can follow him right up and put your hand on him."
"Not so I could," I reminded her gaily. "So you could. Quite a different matter." She took my compliment sweetly, but she said with smiling reluctance,
"I'm not in this, of course, except that your kindness allowed me to be for this day only. But if I were, I shouldn't be following Skeels as you are. I'd still be after Clayte."
"It foots up to the same thing," I said rather tartly.
"Oh, does it?" she laughed at me. "Two and two are making about three and a half this afternoon, are they?"
"What we've got to-day ought to land something," I maintained. "You've been fine help, Barbara—" and I broke off suddenly with the knowledge that I'd been calling her that all through the rush of the work.
"Thank you." She smiled inclusively. I knew she meant my use of her name as well as my commendation. I began clearing my desk preparatory to leaving. Worth was going to take her home and as he brought her coat, he spoke again of the suitcase.
"Hey, there!" I remonstrated, "You don't want to be lugging that thing with you everywhere, like a three-year-old kid that's found a dead cat. Leave it where it is."
"Give me an order for it then," he said. And when I looked surprised, "Might need that box, and you not be in the office."
"Need it?" I grumbled. "I'd like to know what for."
But I scribbled the order. Over by the window the young people were talking together earnestly; they made a picture against the light, standing close, the girl's vivid dark face raised, the lad's tall head bent, attentive.
"But, Bobs, you must get some time to play about," I heard Worth say.
"Awfully little," Her look up at him was like that of a wistful child.
"You said you were in the accounting department," he urged impatiently. "A lightning calculator like you could put that stuff through in about one tenth of the usual time."
"I use an adding machine," she half whispered, and it made me chuckle.
"An adding machine!" Worth exploded in a peal of laughter. "For Barbara Wallace! What's their idea?"
"It isn't their idea; it's mine," with dignity. "They don't know that I used to be a freak mathematician. I don't want them to. Father used to say that all children could be trained to do all that I did—if you took them young enough. But till they are, I'd rather not be. It's horrid to be different; and I'm keeping it to myself—in the office anyhow—and living my past down the best I can."
As though her words had suggested it, Worth spoke again,
"Where did you meet Cummings? Seems you find time to go out with him."
"I've known Mr. Cummings for years," Barbara spoke quietly, but she looked self-conscious. "I knew he was with those friends of mine at the Orpheum last night, but I didn't expect him to call for me at Tait's—or rather I thought they'd all come in after me. There wasn't anything special about it—no special appointment with him, I mean."
I had forgotten them for a minute or two, closing my desk, finding my coat, when I heard some one come into the outer office, a visitor, for little Pete's voice went up to a shrill yap with the information that I was busy. Then the knob turned, the door opened, and there stood Cummings. At first he saw only me at the desk.
"Your friend calling for you again, Bobs—by appointment?" Worth's question drew the lawyer's glance, and he stared at them apparently a good deal taken aback, while Worth added, "Seems to keep pretty close tab on your movements." The low tone might have been considered joking, but there was war in the boy's eye.
It was as though Cummings answered the challenge, rather than opened with what he had intended.
"My business is with you, Gilbert." He came in and shut the door behind him, leaving his hand on the knob. "And I've been some time finding you." He stopped there, and was so long about getting anything else out that Worth finally suggested,
"The money?" And when there was no reply but a surprised look, "How do you stand now?"
"Still seventy-two thousand to raise." Cummings spoke vaguely. This was not what had brought him to the office. He finished with the abrupt question, "Were you at Santa Ysobel last night?"
"Hold on, Cummings," I broke in. "What you got? Let us—"
I was shut off there by Worth's,
"It's Sunday afternoon. I want that money to-morrow morning. You've not come through? You've not dug up what I sent you after?"
I could see that the lawyer was absolutely nonplussed. Again he gave Worth one of those queer, probing looks before he said doggedly,
"The question of that money can wait."
"It can't wait." Worth's eyes began to light up. "What you talking, Cummings—an extension?" And when the lawyer made no answer to this, "I'll not crawl in with a broken leg asking favors of that bank crowd. Are you quitting on me? If so, say it—and I'll find a way to raise the sum, myself."
"I've raised all but seventy-two thousand of the necessary amount," said Cummings slowly. "What I want to know is—how much have you raised?"
"See here, Cummings," again I mixed in. "I was present when that arrangement was made. Nothing was said about Worth raising any money."
Cummings barely glanced around at me as he said, "I made a suggestion to him; in your presence, as you say, Boyne. I want to know if he carried it out." Then, giving his full attention to Worth, "Did you see your father last night?"
On instinct I blurted,
"For heaven's sake, keep your mouth shut, Worth!"
For a detective that certainly was an incautious speech. Cummings' eye flared suspicion at me, and his voice was a menace.
"You keep out of this, Boyne."
"You tell what's up your sleeve, Cummings," I countered. "This is no witness-stand cross-examination. What you got?"
But Worth answered for him, hotly,
"If Cummings hasn't seventy-two thousand dollars I commissioned him to raise for me, I don't care what he's got."
"And you didn't go to your father for it last night?" Cummings returned to his question. He had moved close to the boy. Barbara stood just where she was when the door opened. Neither paid any attention to her. But she looked at the two men, drawn up with glances clinched, and spoke out suddenly in her clear young voice, as though there was no row on hand,
"Worth was with me last night, you know, Mr. Cummings."
"I seem to have noticed something of the sort," Cummings said with labored sarcasm. "And he'd been with that wedding party earlier in the evening, I suppose."
"With me till Miss Wallace came in." Worth's natural disposition to disoblige the lawyer could be depended on to keep from Cummings whatever information he wanted before giving us his own news. "What you got, Cummings?" I prompted again, impatiently. "Come through."
His eyes never shifted an instant from Worth Gilbert's face.
"A telegram—from Santa Ysobel," he said slowly.
Worth shrugged and half turned away.
"I'm not interested in your telegram, Cummings."
Instantly I saw what the boy thought: that the other had taken it on himself to apply for the money to Thomas Gilbert, and had been turned down.
"Not interested?" Cummings repeated in that dry, lawyer voice that speaks from the teeth out; on the mere tone, I braced for something nasty. "I think you are. My telegram's from the coroner."
Silence after that; Worth obstinately mute; Barbara and I afraid to ask. There was a little tremor of Cummings' nostril, he couldn't keep the flicker out of his eye, as he said, staring straight at Worth,
"It states that your father shot himself last night. The body wasn't discovered till late this morning, in his study."
Of all unexpected things. I went down to Santa Ysobel with Worth Gilbert. It happened this way: Cummings, one of those individuals on whose tombstone may truthfully be put, "Born a man—and died a lawyer," seemed rather taken aback at the effect of the blow he'd launched. If he was after information, I can't think he learned much in the moment while Worth stood regarding him with an unreadable eye.
There was only a little grimmer tightening of the jaw muscle, something bleak and robbed in the glance of the eye; the face of one, it seemed to me, who grieved the more because he was denied real sorrow for his loss, and Worth had tramped to the window and stood with his back to us, putting the thing over in his silent, fighting fashion, speaking to none of us. It was when Barbara followed, took hold of his sleeve and began half whispering up into his face that Cummings jerked his hat from the table where he had thrown it, and snapped,
"Boyne—can I have a few minutes of your time?"
"Jerry," Worth's voice halted me at the door, "Leave that card—an order—for me. For the suitcase."
Cummings was ahead of me, and he turned back to listen, but I crowded him along and was pretty hot when I faced him in the outer office to demand,
"What kind of a deal do you call this—ripping in here to throw this thing at the boy in such a way? What is your idea? What you trying to put over?"
"Go easy, Boyne." Cummings chewed his words a little before he let them out. "There's something queer in this business. I intend to know what it is."
"Queer," I repeated his word. "If the lawyers and the detectives get to running down all the queer things—that don't concern them a little bit—the world won't have any more peace."
"All right, if you say it doesn't concern you," Cummings threw me overboard with relief I thought. "It does concern me. When I couldn't get—him"—a jerk of the head indicated that the pronoun stood for Worth—"at the Palace, found he'd been out all day and left no word at the desk when he expected to be in, I took my telegram to Knapp, and then to Whipple. They were flabbergasted."
"The bank crowd," I said. "Now why did you run to them? On account of Worth's engagement with them to-morrow morning? Wasn't that exceeding your orders? You saw that he intends to meet it, in spite of this."
"Why not because of this?" Cummings demanded sharply. "He's in better shape to meet it now his father's dead. He's the only heir. That's the first thing Knapp and Whipple spoke of—and I saw them separately."
"Can that stuff. What do you think you're hinting at?"
"Something queer," he repeated his phrase. "Wake up, Boyne. Knapp and Whipple both saw Thomas Gilbert a little before noon yesterday. He was in the bank for the final transfer of the Hanford interests. They'd as soon have thought of my committing suicide that night—or you doing it. They swear there was nothing in his manner or bearing to suggest such a state of mind, and everything in the business he was engaged on to suggest that he expected to live out his days like any man."
I thought very little of this; it is common in cases of suicide for family, friends or business associates to talk in exactly this way, to believe it, and yet for the deep-seated moving cause to be easily discovered by an unprejudiced outsider. I said as much to Cummings. And while I spoke, we could hear a murmur of young voices from the inner room.
"Damn it all," the lawyer's irritation spurted out suddenly, "With a cub like that for a son, I'd say the reason wasn't far to seek. Better keep your eye peeled round that young man, Boyne."
"I will," I agreed, and he took his departure. I turned back into the private room.
"Worth"—I put it quietly—"what say I go to Santa Ysobel with you? You could bring me back Monday morning."
He agreed at once, silently, but thankfully I thought.
Barbara, listening, proposed half timidly to go with us, staying the night at the Thornhill place, being brought back before work time Monday, and was accepted simply. So it came that when we had a blow-out as the crown of a dozen other petty disasters which had delayed our progress toward Santa Ysobel, and found our spare tire flat, Barbara jumped down beside Worth where he stood dragging out the pump, and stopped him, suggesting that we save time by running the last few miles on the rim and getting fixed up at Capehart's garage. He climbed in without a word, and drove on toward where Santa Ysobel lies at the head of its broad valley, surrounded by the apricot, peach and prune orchards that are its wealth.
We came into the fringes of the town in the obscurity of approaching night; a thick tulle fog had blown down on the north wind. The little foot-hill city was all drowned in it; tree-tops, roofs, the gable ends of houses, the illuminated dial of the town clock on the city hall, sticking up from the blur like things seen in a dream. As we headed for a garage with the name Capehart on it, we heard, soft, muffled, seven strokes from the tower.
"Getting in late," Worth said absently. "Bill still keeps the old place?"
"Yes. Just the same," Barbara said. "He married our Sarah, you know—was that before you went away? Of course not," and added for my enlightenment, "Sarah Gibbs was father's housekeeper for years. She brought me up."
We drove into the big, dimly lighted building; there came to us from its corner office what might have been described as a wide man, not especially imposing in breadth, but with a sort of loose-jointed effectiveness to his movements, and a pair of roving, yellowish-hazel eyes in his broad, good-humored face, mighty observing I'd say, in spite of the lazy roll of his glance.
"Been stepping on tacks, Mister?" he hailed, having looked at the tires before he took stock of the human freight.
"Hello, Bill," Worth was singing out. "Give me another machine—or get our spare filled and on—whichever's quickest. I want to make it to the house as soon as I can."
"Lord, boy!" The wide man began wiping a big paw before offering it. "I'm glad to see you."
They shook hands. Worth repeated his request, but the garage man was already unbuckling the spare, going to the work with a brisk efficiency that contradicted his appearance.
Barbara sitting quietly beside me, we heard them talking at the back of the machine, as the jack quickly lifted us and Worth went to it with Capehart to unbolt the rim; a low-toned steady stream from the wide man, punctuated now and then by a word from Worth.
"Yeh," Capehart grunted, prying off the tire. "Heard it m'self 'bout noon—or a little after. Yeh, Ward's Undertaking Parlors."
"Undertaking parlors!" Worth echoed. Capehart, hammering on the spare, agreed.
"Nobody in town that knowed what to do about it; so the coroner took a-holt, I guess, and kinda fixed it to suit hisself. Did you phone ahead to see how things was out to the house?"
"Tried to," Worth said. "The operator couldn't raise it."
"Course not." Capehart was coupling on the air. "Your chink's off every Sunday—has the whole day—and the Devil only could guess where a Chinaman'd go when he ain't working. Eddie Hughes ought to be on the job out there—but would he?"
"Father still kept Eddie?"
"Yeh." The click of the jack and the car was lowering. "Eddie's lasted longer than I looked to see him. Due to be fired any time this past year. Been chasing over 'crost the tracks. Got him a girl there, one of these cannery girls. Well, she's sort of married, I guess, but that don't stop Eddie. 'F I see him, I'll tell him you want him."
They came to the front of the machine; Worth thrust his hand in his pocket. Capehart checked him with,
"Let it go on the bill." Then, as Worth swung into his seat, Barbara bent forward from behind my shoulder, the careless yellowish eyes that saw everything got a fair view of her, and with a sort of subdued crow, "Look who's here!" Capehart took hold of the upright to lean his square form in and say earnestly, "While you're in Santa Ysobel, don't forget that we got a spare room at our house."
"Next time," Barbara raised her voice to top the hum of the engine. "I'm only here for over night, now, and I'm going down to Mrs. Thornhill's."
We were out in the street once more, leaving the cannery district on our right, tucked away to itself across the railroad tracks, running on Main Street to City Hall Square, where we struck into Broad, followed it out past the churches and to that length of it that held the fine homes in their beautiful grounds, getting close at last to where town melts again into orchards. The road between its rows of fernlike pepper trees was a wet gleam before us, all black and silver; the arc lights made big misty blurs without much illumination as we came to the Thornhill place. Worth got down and, though she told him he needn't bother, took her in to the gate. For a minute I waited, getting the bulk of the big frame house back among the trees, with a single light twinkling from an upper story window; then Worth flung into the car and we speeded on, skirting a long frontage of lawns, beautifully kept, pearly with the fog, set off with artfully grouped shrubbery and winding walks. There was no barrier but a low stone coping; the drive to the Gilbert place went in on the side farthest from the Thornhill's. We ran in under a carriage porch. The house was black.
"See if I can raise anybody," said Worth as he jumped to the ground. "Let you in, and then I'll run the roadster around to the garage."
But the house was so tightly locked up that he had finally to break in through a pantry window. I was out in front when he made it, and saw the lights begin to flash up, the porch lamp flooding me with a sudden glare before he threw the door open.
"Cold as a vault in here."
He twisted his broad shoulders in a shudder, and I looked about me. It was a big entrance hall, with a wide stairway. There on the hat tree hung a man's light overcoat, a gray fedora hat; a stick leaned below. When the master of the house went out of it this time, he hadn't needed these. Abruptly Worth turned and led the way into what I knew was the living room, with a big open fireplace in it.
"Make yourself as comfortable as you can, Jerry. I'll get a blaze here in two shakes. I suppose you're hungry as a wolf—I am. This is a hell of a place I've brought you into."
"Forget it," I returned. "I can look after myself. I'm used to rustling. Let me make that fire."
"All right." He gave up his place on the hearth to me, straightened himself and stood a minute, saying, "I'll raid the kitchen. Chung's sure to have plenty of food cooked. He may not be back here before midnight."
"Midnight?" I echoed. "Is that usual?"
"Used to be. Chung's been with father a long time. Good chink. Always given his whole Sunday, and if he was on hand to get Monday's breakfast—no questions."
"Left last night, you think?"
Worth shot me a glance of understanding.
"Sometimes he would—after cleaning up from dinner. But he wouldn't have heard the shot, if that's what you're driving at."
He left me, going out through the hall. My fire burned. I thawed out the kinks the long, chill ride had put in me. Then Worth hailed; I went out and found him with a coffee-pot boiling on the gas range, a loaf and a cold roast set out. He had sand, that boy; in this wretched home-coming, his manner was neither stricken nor defiant. He seemed only a little graver than usual as he waited on me, hunting up stuff in places he knew of to put some variety into our supper.
Where I sat I faced a back window, and my eye was caught by the appearance of a strange light, quite a little distance from the house, apparently in another building, but showing as a vague glow on the fog.
"What's down there?" I asked. Worth answered without taking the trouble to lean forward and look,
"The garage—and the study."
"Huh? The study's separate from the house?" I had been thinking of the suicide as a thing of this dwelling, an affair in some room within its walls. Of course Chung would not hear the shot. "Who's down there?"
"Eddie Hughes has a room off the garage."
"He's in it now."
"How do you know?" he asked quickly.
"There's a light—or there was. It's gone now."
"That wouldn't have been Eddie," Worth said. "His room's on the other side, toward the back street. What you saw was the light from these windows shining on the fog. Makes queer effects sometimes."
I knew that wasn't it, but I didn't argue with him, only remarked,
"I'd like to have a look at that place, Worth, if you don't mind."
A SHADOW IN THE FOG
Again I saw that glow from the Gilbert garage, hanging on the fog; a luminosity of the fog; saw it disappear as the mist deepened and shrouded it. But Worth was answering me, and somehow his words seemed forced;
"Sit tight a minute, Jerry. Have another cup of coffee while I telephone, then I'll put the roadster in and open up down there. I'll call you—or you can see my lights."
He left me. I heard him at the instrument in the hall get his number, talk to some one in a low voice, and then go out the front door; next thing was the sound of the motor, the glare of its lamps as it rounded into the driveway and started down back, illuminating everything. In the general glare thrown on the fog, the fainter light was invisible, but across a plot of kitchen garden I saw where it had been; a square, squat building of concrete, flat roofed, vining plants in boxes drooping over its cornice; the typical garage of such an establishment, but nearly double the usual size. The light had come from there, but how? In the short time that the lamps of the machine were showing it up to me, there seemed no windows on this side; only the double doors for the car's entrance—closed now—and a single door which was crossed by two heavy, barricading planks nailed in the form of a great X.
Worth ran the machine close up against the doors, jumped down, and I could see his tall form, blurred by the mist, moving about to slide them open. The lamps of the roadster made little showing now as he rolled it in. Then these were switched off and everything down there was dark as a pocket. For a time I sat and waited for him to light up and call me, then started down. The fog was making the kind of dimness that has a curious, illusory character. I suppose I had gone half the distance of the garden walk, when, thrown up startlingly on the obscurity, I saw a square of white, and across that shining screen, moved the silhouette of a human head. The whole thing danced before my eyes for a bare second, then blackness.
With Cummings' queer hints in my mind, I started running across the garden toward it. About the first thing I did was step into a cold frame, plunging my foot through the glass, all but going to my knees in it; and when I got up, swearing, I was turned around, ran into bushes, tripped over obstructions, and traveled, I think, in a circle.
Then I began to go more cautiously. No use getting excited. That was only Worth I had seen. And still I was unwilling to call, ask him to show a light. I groped along until my outstretched fingers came across the corner of a building, rough, stonelike—the concrete garage and study. I felt along, seeing a bit now, and was soon passing my hands over the barricading planks of that door.
I might have lit a match, but I preferred to find out what I could by feeling around, and that cautiously. I discovered that the door had been broken in, the top panels shattered to kindling wood, the force of the assault having burst a hinge, so that the whole thing sagged drunkenly behind the heavy planks that propped it, while a strong bolt, quite useless, was still clamped into a socket which had been torn, screws and all, from the inside casing.
Sliding my hands over the broken top panel I found that it had been covered on its inner side by a piece of canvas; the screen on which that shadow had been thrown—from within the room. There was no light there now; there was no sound of motion within. The drip of the fog from the eaves was the only break in the stillness.
"Worth?" I shouted, at last, and he answered me instantly, hallooing from behind me, and to one side of the house. I could hear him running and when he spoke it was close to my shoulder.
"Where are you, Jerry?"
"Where are you," I countered. "Or rather, where have you been?"
"Getting a bar to pry off these boards."
"A bar?" I echoed stupidly.
"A crowbar from the shed. These planks will have to come off to let us in."
"The devil you say!" I was exasperated. "There's some one in here now—or was a minute back. Show me the other way in."
I heard the ring of the steel bar as its end hit the hard graveled path.
"Some one in there? Jerry, you're seeing things."
"Sure I am," I agreed drily. "But you get me to that other door quick!"
"The only other door is locked. I tried it from the garage. You're dreaming."
For reply, I ran up to the door and thrust my fist through the canvas, ripping it away from its clumsy tacking.
"Who's in there?" I cried. "Answer me!"
Dead silence; then a click as Worth snapped on a flood of light from his pocket torch, saying tolerantly, tiredly,
"I told you there was no one. There couldn't be."
"I tell you, Worth, there was. I saw the shadow on the square of that canvas. Give me the torch."
I pushed the flashlight through the opening and played the light cone about the room in a quick survey; then brought the circle of white glow to rest upon one of the side walls; and my hand went down and back to grip fingers about the butt of my revolver. There was, as Worth had said, but one other door to this room; but more, there was apparently no other exit; no windows, no breaks in the walls. My circle of light was on this second door; and the very heart of that circle was a heavy steel bolt on the door, the bar of which was firmly shot into the socket on the frame. The only exit from that room, other than the door through which I now leaned with pistol raised, was locked—bolted from the inside!
Worth was crowding his big frame into the opening beside me.
"Keep back," I growled. "Some one's inside," and I sent the light shaft into corners to drive out the shadows, to cut in under the desk and chairs. Worth's reply was a laugh, and his arm went by me to reach inside the door. Then, as his fingers found the button, a light sprang out from a lamp upon the center desk.
"You're letting your nerves play the deuce with you, Jerry," he said lightly. "Make way for my crowbar and we'll get in out of the wet."
I made no answer, but for a long moment more I searched that room with my eyes; but it was the kind you see all over at a glance. Big, square, plain, it hadn't a window in it; the walls, lined with book shelves, floor to ceiling; a fireplace; a library table with drawers; a few chairs. No chance for a hideout. I glanced at the ceiling and confirmed the evidence of my eyes. There was a skylight, and through it had come that curious glow that first attracted my attention to the place.
Then I gave Worth room to wield his tools on the barred door, while I ran quickly back to the house, into the kitchen, and plumped down in the chair where I had sat before. The light showed on the fog, brightened and dimmed as the mist drifted past. There was no possibility of a mistake: some one had been in the study, had turned on the table lamp, had projected his shadow against the patched panel of the door, and had somehow left the room, one door bolted, the only other exit barred and nailed.
I went back and rejoined Worth who was standing where a brownish stain on the rug marked a spot a little nearer the corner of the table than it was to the outer door. A curious place for a suicide to fall. Behind the table was the library chair in which Thomas Gilbert worked when at his desk; beside it a small cabinet with a humidor on its top and the open door below revealing several decanters and bottles, whisky and wine glasses, a tray; between the desk and the fireplace were two other chairs, large and comfortable; but in front of the table—between it and the door—was barren floor.
It is a fact that most men who shoot themselves do so while sitting; some lying in a bed; few standing. The psychology of this I must leave to others, but experience has taught me to question the suicide of one who has seemingly placed the muzzle of a revolver against him while on his feet. Thomas Gilbert had stood; had chosen to take his life as he was walking from door to desk, or from desk to door.
"Worth," I said. "There was somebody in here just now."
"Couldn't have been, Jerry," he answered absently; then added, his eyes on that stain, "I never could calculate what my father would do. But when I talked to him last night, right here in this room, he didn't seem to me a man ready to take his own life."
"We always quarreled, whenever we met."
"But this quarrel was more bitter than usual?"
"The last quarrel would seem the bitterest, wouldn't it, Jerry?" he asked. Then, after a moment, "Poor Jim Edwards!"
I caught my tongue to hold back the question. Worth went on,
"When I phoned him just now, he hadn't heard a word about it. Seemed terribly upset."
"Hadn't heard?" I echoed. "How was that?"
"You know we saw him at Tait's last night. He took the Pacheco Pass road from San Francisco; drove straight to his ranch without hitting Santa Ysobel."
I wanted another look at that man Edwards. I was to have it. Worth went on absently,
"He'll be along presently to stay here while I'm away Monday. Told me it would be the first time he'd put foot in the house for four years. As boys up in Sonoma county, he and father always disagreed, but sometime these last years there was a big split over something. They were barely on speaking terms—and good old Jim took my news harder than as though I'd been telling him the death of a near friend."
"Works like that with us humans," I nodded. "Let some one die that you've disagreed with, and you remember every row you ever had with them; remember it and regret it—which is foolish."
"Which is foolish," Worth repeated, and seemed for the first time able to get away from the spot at which he had stopped.
He went over to the empty, fireless hearth and stood there, his back to the room, elbows on the mantel propping his head, face bent, oblivious to anything that I might do. It oughtn't to be hard to find the way this place could be entered and left by a man solid enough to cast a shadow, with quick fingers to snap the light on and off. But when I made a painstaking examination of a corner grate with a flue too small for anything but a chimney swallow to go up and down, a ceiling solidly beamed and paneled, the glass that formed the skylight set in firmly as part of the roof, when I'd turned up rugs and inspected an unbroken floor, even tried the corners of book cases to see if they masked a false entrance, I owned myself, for the moment, beaten there.
"Give me your torch—or go with me, Worth," I said. "I'd like to take a scoot around outside."
He didn't speak, only indicated the flashlight by a motion, where it lay on the shelf beside his hand. I took it, unbolted the door, and stepped into the garage.
Everything all right here. My roadster; a much handsomer small machine beyond it; a bench, portable forge and drill made a repair shop of one corner, and as my light flashed over these, I checked and stared. Why had Worth gone to the shed hunting a crowbar to open the door? Here were tools that would have served as well. I put from me the hateful thought, and damned Cummings and his suspicions. The shadow didn't have to be Worth. Certainly he had not first lit that lamp, for I had seen it from the kitchen with him beside me. Some one other than Worth had been in there when Worth put up the roadster. I'd find the man it really was. But even as I crossed to Eddie Hughes's door, something at the back of my head was saying to me that Worth could have been in that room—that there was time for it to be, if he had taken the crowbar from the garage and not from the shed as he said he did.
At this I took myself in hand. The lie would have been so clumsy a one that there was no way but to accept this statement for the truth; and some one else had made that shadow on the canvas.
I tried the chauffeur's door and found it locked; called, shook it, and had set my shoulder against it to burst it in, when the rolling door on the street side moved a little, and a voice said,
"H-y-ah! What you doin' there?"
I turned and flashed my light on the six-inch crack of the sliding door. It gave me a strip of man, a long drab face at top, solid, meaty looking, yet somehow slightly cadaverous, a half shut eye, a crooked mouth—if I'd met that mug in San Francisco, I'd have labeled it "tough," and located it South of Market Street.
Slowly, it seemed rather reluctantly, Eddie Hughes worked the six-inch crack wider by working himself through it.
"What the hell do you want in my room for?" he demanded. The form of the words was truculent, but the words themselves slid in a sort of spiritless fashion from the corner of that crooked mouth of his, and he added in the next breath, "I'll open up for you, when I've lit the blinks."
There was a central lamp that made the whole place as bright as day. Eddie fumbled a key out of his pocket, threw the door of his room open, and stepped back to let me pass him.
"Capehart tells me Worth's here," he said as we went in.
"When?" I gave him a sharp look. He seemed not to notice it.
"Just now. I came straight from there."
He came straight from there? Did he supply an alibi so neatly because of that shadowy head on the door panel? For a long minute we each took measure of the other, but Eddie's nerves were less reliable than mine; he spoke first.
"Well?" he grunted, scarcely above his breath. And when I continued to stare silently at him, he writhed a shoulder with, "What's doing? What d'yuh want of me?"
Still silently, I pulled out with my thumb through the armhole of my vest the police badge pinned to the suspender. His ill-colored face went a shade nearer the yellow white of tallow.
"What for?" he asked huskily. "You haven't got nothin' on me. It was suicide—cor'ner's jury says so. Lord! It has to be, him layin' there, all hunched up on the floor, his gun so tight in his mitt that they had to pry the fingers off it!"
"So you found the body?"
He nodded and gulped.
"I told all I knowed at the inquest," he said doggedly.
"Tell it again," I commanded.
Standing there, working his hands together as though he held some small, accustomed tool that he was turning, shifting from foot to foot, with long breaks in his speech, the chauffeur finally put me into possession of what he knew—or what he wished me to know. He had been out all night. That was usual with him Saturdays. Where? Over around the canneries. Had friends that lived there. He got into this place about dawn, and went straight to bed.
"Hold on, Hughes," I stopped him there. "You never went to bed—that night, or any other night—until you'd had a jolt from the bottle inside."
He gave me a surly, half frightened glance, then said quickly,
"Not a chance. Bolts on the doors, locks everywhere; all tight as a jail. Take it from me, he wasn't the kind you want to have a run-in with—any time. Always just as cool as ice himself; try to make you believe he could tell what you were up to, clear across town. Hold it over you as if he was God almighty that stuck folks together and set 'em walkin' around and thinkin' things."
He broke off and looked over his shoulder in the direction of the study. The walls were thick—concrete; the door heavy. No sound of Worth's moving in there could be heard in this room. Apparently it was the old terror of his employer, or the new terror of the employer's death, that spoke when he said,
"I got up this morning late with a throat like the back of a chimney. Lord! I never wanted a drink so bad in my life—had to have one. The chink leaves my breakfast for me Sundays; but I knew I couldn't eat till I'd had one. So I—so I—"
It was as though some recollection fairly choked off his voice. I finished for him.
"So you went in there—" I pointed at the study door, "and found the body."
"Naw! How the hell could I? I told you—locked. I crawled up on the roof, though; huntin' a way in, and I looked through the skylight. There he was. On the floor. His eyes weren't open much, but they was watchin' me—sort of sneerin'. I come down off that roof like a bat outa hell, and scuttled over to Vandeman's where his chink was on the porch, I bellerin' at him. I telephoned from there. For the bulls; and the cor'ner; and everybody. Gawd! I was all in."
I caught one point in the tale.
"So the way into the study is through the skylight, Hughes?" and he shook his head vaguely, fumbling his lips with a trembling hand as he replied,
"Honest to God, Cap'n, I don't know. I never tried. I gave just one look through it, and—" He broke off with a shudder.
"Get a ladder," I commanded. "I want to see that skylight."
While he was gone on his errand to the shed, I investigated the outer walls of the study with the torch, hunting some break in their solidity. They were concrete; a hair-crack would have been visible in the electric glow; there was no break. Then, as he placed the ladder against the coping, I climbed to the roof and stepped across its firmness to the skylight. I looked down.
Worth, kneeling on the hearth, was laying a fire in the corner grate. As he did not glance up, I knew he had not heard me. Evidently the study had been built to resist the disturbance of sound from without. That meant that the report of the revolver inside had not been heard by any one outside the walls.
Directly below me was the library table and upon its top a blue desk blotter; a silver filagreed inkstand stood open; penholders, pencils, paper knife were on a tray beside it, one pen lying separate from the others with a ruler, upon the blotting pad; books and a magazine neatly in a pile. The walls, as I circled them with my eyes, were book-lined everywhere except for the grate and the two doors.
Then I inspected the skylight, frame and glass, feeling it over with my hands. There was no entrance here. Even should a pane of glass be removable—all seemingly solid and tight—the frame between and the sash were of steel, and the panes were too small for the passage of a man. I crept back to the ladder as Worth was striking a match to light the pitch-pine kindling.
"What about this Vandeman chink?" I asked of Hughes as I rejoined him at the foot of the ladder. "Does he hang around here much?"
"Him and Chung visit back and forth a bit. I hear 'em talkin' hy-lee hy-lo sometimes when I go by the kitchen."
"Take me over there," I said.
The fog was beginning to blow away in threads; moonlight somewhere back of it made a queer, gray, glimmering world around us. We circled the garden by the path, passing a sort of gardener's tool shed where Hughes left the ladder, and from which I judged Worth had brought the bar he pried the door planks off with, to find a gap in a hedge between this place and the next.
There was a light in the rear of the house over there, and a well-trodden path leading from the hedge gap made what I took to be a servants' highway.
Vandeman's house proved to be, as nearly as one could see it in the darkness, a sprawling bungalow, with courts, pergolas and terraces bursting out on all sides of it. I could fairly see it of a fine afternoon, with its showy master sitting on one of the showy porches, serving afternoon tea in his best manner to the best people of Santa Ysobel. Just the husband for that doll-faced girl, if she only thought so. What could she have done with a young outlaw like Worth?
When I looked at the Chinaman in charge there, I gave up my idea of questioning him. Civilly enough, with a precise and educated usage of the English language, he confirmed what Eddie Hughes had already told me about the telephoning from that place this morning; and I went no further. I know the Chinese—if anybody not Mongolian can say they know the race—and I have also a suitable respect for the value of time. A week of steady questioning of Vandeman's yellow man would have brought me nowhere. He was that kind of a chink; grave, respectful, placid and impervious.
On the way back I asked Eddie about the Thornhill servants at the house on the other side of Gilbert's, and found they kept but one, "a sort of old lady," Eddie called her, and I guessed easily at the decayed gentlewoman kind of person. It seemed that Mrs. Thornhill was a widow, and there wasn't much money now to keep up the handsome place.
I left Eddie slipping eel-like through the big doors, and went into the study to find Worth sitting before the blazing hearth. He looked up as I entered to remark quietly,
"Bobs said she'd be over later, and I told her to come on down here."
THE MISSING DIARY
My experience as a detective has convinced me that the evident is usually true; that in a great majority of cases crime leaves a straight trail, and ambiguities are more often due to the inability of the trailer than to the cunning of the trailed. Such reputation as I have established is due to acceptance of and earnest adherence to the obvious.
In this affair of Thomas Gilbert's death, everything so far pointed one way. The body had been found in a bolted room, revolver in hand; on the wall over the mantel hung the empty holster; Worth assured me the gun was kept always loaded; and there might be motive enough for suicide in the quarrel last night between father and son.
Because of that flitting shadow I had seen, I knew this place was not impervious. Some one person, at least, could enter and leave the room easily, quickly, while its doors were locked. But that might be Hughes—or even Worth—with some reason for doing so not willingly explained, and some means not readily seen. It probably had nothing to do with Thomas Gilbert's sudden death, could not offset in my mind the conviction of Thomas Gilbert's stiffened fingers about the pistol's butt. That I made a second thorough investigation of the study interior was not because I questioned the manner of the death.
I began taking down books from the shelves at regular intervals, sounding the thick dead-wall, in search of a secreted entrance. I came on a row of volumes whose red morocco backs carried nothing but dates.
"Account books?" I asked.
Worth turned his head to look, and the bleakest thing that could be called a smile twisted his lips a little, as he said,
"My father's diaries."
"Quite a lot of them."
"Yes. He'd kept diaries for thirty years."
"But he seems to have dropped the habit. There is no 1920 book."
"Oh, yes there is," very definitely. "He never gave up setting down the sins of his family and neighbors while his eyes had sight to see them, and his hand the cunning to write." He spoke with extraordinary bitterness, finishing, "He would have had it on the desk there. The current book was always kept convenient to his hand."
An idea occurred to me.
"Worth," I asked, "did you see that 1920 volume when you were here last night?"
He looked a little startled, and I prompted,
"Were you too excited to have noticed a detail like that?"
"I wasn't excited; not in the sense of being confused," he spoke slowly. "The book was there; he'd been writing in it. I remember looking at it and thinking that as soon as I was gone, he'd sit down in his chair and put every damn' word of our row into it. That was his way. The seamy side of Santa Ysobel life's recorded in those books. I always understood they amounted to a pack of neighborhood dynamite."
"Got to find that last book," I said.
He nodded listlessly. I went to it, giving that room such a searching as would have turned out a bent pin, had one been mislaid in it. I even took down from the shelves books of similar size to see if the lost volume had been slipped into a camouflaging cover—all to no good. It wasn't there. And when I had finished I was positive of two things; the study had no other entrance than the apparent ones, and the diary of 1920 had been removed from the room since Worth saw it there the night before. I reached for one of the other volumes. Worth spoke again in a sort of dragging voice,
"What do you want to look at them for, Jerry?"
"It's not idle curiosity," I told him, a bit pricked.
"I know it's not that." The old, affectionate tone went right to my heart. "But if you're thinking you'll find in them any explanation of my father's taking his own life, I'm here to tell you you're mistaken. Plenty there, no doubt, to have driven a tender hearted man off the earth.... He was different." Eyeing the book in my hand, the boy blurted with sudden heat, "Those damn' diaries have been wife and child and meat and drink to him. They were his reason for living—not dying!"
"Start me right in regard to your father, Worth," I urged anxiously. "It's important."
The boy gave me his shoulder and continued to stare down into the fire, as he said at last, slowly,
"I would rather leave him alone, Jerry."
I knew it would be useless to insist. Never then or thereafter did I hear him say more of his father's character. At that, he could hardly have told more in an hour's talk.
At random, I took the volume that covered the year in which, as I remembered, Thomas Gilbert's wife had secured her divorce from him. Neatly and carefully written in a script as readable as type, the books, if I am a judge, had literary style. They were much more than mere diaries. True, each entry began with a note of the day's weather, and certain small records of the writer's personal affairs; but these went oddly enough with what followed; a biting analysis of the inner life, the estimated intentions and emotions, of the beings nearest to him. It was inhuman stuff. But Worth was right; there was no soil for suicide in this matter written by a hand guided by a harsh, censorious mind; too much egotism here to willingly give over the role of conscience for his friends. Friends?—could a man have friends who regarded humanity through such unkindly, wide open, all-seeing eyes?
Worth, seated across from me on the other side of the fire, stared straight into the leaping blaze; but I doubted if that was what he saw. On his face was the look which I had come to know, of the dignified householder who had gone in and shut the door on whatever of dismay and confusion might be in his private affairs. I began to read his father's version of the separation from his mother, with its ironic references to her most intimate friend.
"Marion would like to see Laura Bowman ship Tony and marry Jim Edwards. I swear the modern woman has played bridge so long that her idea of the most serious obligation in life—the marriage vow—is, 'Never mind. If you don't like the hand you have got, shuffle, cut, and deal again!'"
I dropped the book to my knee and looked over at Worth, asking,
"This Mrs. Dr. Bowman that we met last night at Tait's—she was a special friend of your mother's?"
"They were like sisters—in more than one way." I knew without his telling it that he alluded to their common misfortune of being both unhappily married. His mother, a woman of more force than the other, had gained her freedom.
"Femina Priores." I came on an entry standing oddly alone. "Marion is to secure the divorce—at my suggestion. I have demanded that our son share his time between us."
Again I let the book down on my knee and looked across at the silent fellow there. And I had heard him compassionate Barbara Wallace for having painful memories of her childhood! I believe he was at that moment more at peace with his father than he had ever been in his life—and that he grieved that this was so. I knew, too, that the forgiveness and forgetting would not extend to these pitiless records. Without disturbing him, I laid the book I held down and scouted forward for things more recent.
"Laura Bowman"—through one entry after another Gilbert kicked that poor woman's name like a football. Very fine and righteous and high-minded in what he said, but writing it out in full and calling her painful difficulties—the writhing of a sensitive, high-strung woman, mismated with a tyrant—an example notably stupid and unoriginal, of the eternal matrimonial triangle. Bowman evidently kept his sympathy, so far as such a nature can be said to entertain that gentle emotion.
I ran through other volumes, merciless recitals, now and again, of the shortcomings of his associates or servants; a cold blooded misrepresentation of his son; a sneer for the affair with Ina Thornhill, with the dictum, sound enough no doubt, that the girl herself did the courting, and that she had no conscience—"The extreme society type of parasite," he put it. And then the account of his break with Edwards.
Dr. Bowman, it seems, had come to Gilbert in confidence for help, saying that his wife had left his house in the small hours the previous night, nothing but an evening wrap pulled over her night wear, and that he guessed where she could be found, since she hadn't gone to her mother's. He asked Gilbert to be his ambassador with messages of pardon. Didn't want to go himself, because that would mean a row, and he was determined, if possible, to keep the thing private, giving a generous reason: that he wasn't willing to disgrace the woman. All of which, after he'd written it down, the diarist discredited with his brief comment to the effect that Tony Bowman shunned publicity because scandal of the sort would hurt his practice, and his pride as well, and that he didn't go out to Jim Edwards's ranch because, under these circumstances, he would be afraid of Jim.
Thomas Gilbert did the doctor's errand for him. The entry concerning it occupied the next day. I read between the lines how much he enjoyed his position of god from the machine, swooping down on the two he found out there, estimating their situation and behavior in his usual hair-splitting fashion, sitting as a court of last appeal. It was of no use for Edwards to explain to him that Laura Bowman was practically crazy when she walked out of her husband's house as the culmination of a miserable scene—the sort that had been more and more frequent there of late—carrying black-and-blue marks where he had grabbed and shaken her. The statement that it was by mere chance she encountered Jim seemed to have made Gilbert smile, and Jim's taking of her out to the ranch, the assertion that it was the only thing to do, that she was sick and delirious, had inspired Gilbert to say to him, quite neatly, "You weren't delirious, I take it—not more than usual."
Then he demanded that Laura go with him, at once, back to her husband, or out to her mother's. She considered the matter and chose to go back to Bowman, saying bitterly that her mother made the match in the first place, and stood always against her daughter and with her son-in-law whatever he did. Plainly it took all of Laura's persuasions to prevent actual blows between Gilbert and Edwards. Also, she would only promise to go back and live under Bowman's roof, but not as his wife—and the whole situation was much aggravated.
I followed Mr. Thomas Gilbert's observation of this affair: his amused understanding of how much Jim Edwards and Laura hated him; his private contempt for Bowman, to whom he continued to give countenance and moral support; his setting down of the quarrels, intimate, disastrous, between Bowman and his wife, as the doctor retailed them to him, the woman dragging herself on her knees to beg for her freedom, and his callous refusals; backed by threat of the wide publicity of a scandalous divorce suit, with Thomas Gilbert as main witness. I turned to Worth and asked,
"When will Edwards be here?"
"Any minute now." Worth looked at me queerly, but I went on,
"You said he phoned from the ranch. Did he answer you in person—from out there?"
"That's what I told you, Jerry."
My searching gaze made nothing of the boy's impassive face; I plunged again into the diaries, running down a page, getting the heading of a sentence, not delaying to go further unless I struck something which seemed to me important, and each minute thinking of the strangeness of a man like this killing himself. It was in the 1916 volume, that I made a discovery which surprised an exclamation from me.
"What would you call this, Worth? Your father's way of making corrections?"
"Corrections?" Worth spoke without looking around. "My father never made corrections—in anything." It was said without animus—a simple statement of fact.
"But look here." I held toward him the book. There were three leaves gone; that meant six pages, and the entries covered May 31 and June 1. I had verified that before I spoke to him, noticing that the statement of the weather for May 31 remained at the foot of the last page left, while a run-over on the page beyond the missing ones had been marked out. It had nothing to do with the weather. As nearly as I could make out with the reading glass I held over it, the words were, "take the woman for no other than she appears."
"Worth," I urged, "give me your attention for a minute here. You say your father did not make corrections, but one of the diaries is cut. The records of two days are gone. Were those pages stolen?"
"How should I know?" said Worth, and added, helpfully, "Pity they didn't steal the whole lot. That would have been a relief."
There were voices and the sound of steps outside. I shoved the diary back into its place on the shelf, and turned to see Barbara at the broken door with Jim Edwards. She came in, her clear eyes a little wide, but the whole young personality of her quite composed. Edwards halted at the door, a haggard eye roving over the room, until it encountered the blood-stain on the rug, when it sheered abruptly, and fixed itself on Worth, who crossed to shake hands, with a quiet,
"Come in, won't you, Jim? Or would you rather go up to the house?"
Keenly I watched the man as he stood there struggling for words. There was color on his thin cheeks, high under the dark eyes; it made him look wild. The chill of the drive, or pure nervousness, had him shaking.
"Thank you—the house, I think," he said rather incoherently. Yet he lingered. "Barbara's been telling me," he said in that deep voice of his with the air of one who utters at random. "Worth,—had you thought that it might have been happening down here, right at the time we all sat at Tait's together?"
He was in a condition to spill anything. A moment more and we should have heard what it was that had him in such a grip of horror. But as I glanced at Worth, I saw him reply to the older man's question with a very slight but very perceptible shake of the head. It had nothing to do with what had been asked him; to any eye it said more plainly than words, "Don't talk; pull yourself together." I whirled to see how Edwards responded to this, and found our group had a new member. In the door stood a decent looking, round faced Chinaman. Edwards had drawn a little inside the threshold for him, but very little, and waited, still shaken, perturbed, hat in hand, apparently ready to leave as soon as the Oriental got out of his way.