"Quite a lot of words, Cummings; but it doesn't mean anything," Worth said casually. "You know where that bank stock is and who put it there."
"Officially, I do not know. Officially, I demand to be told."
"Unofficially, answer it for yourself." Worth turned his back on the lawyer to get a match from the mantel.
"Very well. My answer is that I intend to find out how and when that bank stock which formed a part of your payment to the Van Ness Avenue bank disappeared from this house."
I admit I was scared. Here was the first gun of the coming battle; and I was sure this enemy, who stood now looking through half closed eyes at the lad's back, would have poisoned gas among his weapons. He had emphasized the "when." He believed that the stories of Worth's night visit to his father were true; that the implied denial by Barbara and myself in my office, was false; that Worth had either received the stock from his father that Saturday night or taken it unlawfully. I was sure that it was the stock certificates which I had seen Worth take from the safe-compartment of the sideboard in the small hours of Monday morning; a breach of legal form which it would be possible for a friendly executor to pass over.
"Cummings, Worth inherits everything under his father's will; what's the difference about a small irregularity in taking possession? He—"
"Never explain, Jerry," Worth shut me up. "Your friends don't need it, and your enemies won't believe it."
Cummings had stood where he was since the first of the interview. His face went strangely livid. There was more in this than a legal fight.
"Yes, Boyne's a fool to try to help your case with explanations, Gilbert," he choked out. "I'll see that both of you get a chance to answer questions elsewhere—under oath. Good evening." He turned and left.
He had the best of it all around. I endeavored for some time to get before Worth the dangers of his high-handed defiance of law, order, probate judges, and the court's officers, in the person of Allen G. Cummings, attorney and his father's executor. He listened, yawned—and suggested that it must be nearly bedtime. I gave it up, and we went—I, at least, with a sense of danger ahead upon me—to our rooms.
Along in the middle of the night I waked to the knowledge that a casement window was pounding somewhere in the house. For a while I lay and listened in that helpless, exaggerated resentment one feels at such a time. I'd drop off, get nearly to sleep, only to be jerked broad awake again by the thudding. Listening carefully I decided that the bothersome window was in Worth's room, and finally I got up sense and spunk enough to roll out of bed, stick my feet into slippers, and sneak over with the intention of locking it.
The room was dimly lighted from the street lamps, far away as they were; I made my way across it. Worth's deep, regular breathing was quite undisturbed. I had trouble with the catch, went and felt over the bureau and found his flashlight, fixed the window by its help, and returning it, remembering how near I came to knocking it off the bureau top, thought to put it in a drawer which stood half open.
As I aimed it downward, its circle of illumination showed something projecting a corner from beneath the swirl of ties and sheaf of collars—a book—a red morocco-bound book. Mechanically I nudged the stuff away with the torch itself. What lay there turned me cold. It was the 1920 diary!
My fingers relaxed; the flashlight fell with a thump, as I let out an exclamation of dismay. A sleepy voice inquired from the bed,
"Hi, you Jerry! What you up to in here?"
For answer, I dragged out the book, went over to the bed, and switched on the reading lamp there. Worth scowled in the glare, and flung his arms up back of his head for a pillow to raise it a bit.
"Yeah," blinking amiably at the volume. "Meant to tell you. Found it to-day when I was down in the repair pit at the garage. It had been stuck in the drainpipe there."
"And I suppose," I said savagely, "that if I hadn't come onto it now, you'd have burned this, too."
"Don't get sore, Jerry," he said. "I saved it," and he yawned.
I had an uncontrollable impulse to have a look at that last entry, which would record the bitter final quarrel between this boy and his father. No difficulty about finding the spot; as I raised the book in my hands it fell open of itself at the place. I looked and what I saw choked me—got cross-wise in my throat for a moment so no words could come out. I stuck the book under his nose, and held it there till I could whisper.
"Worth, did you do this?"
The last written page was numbered 49; on it was recorded the date, March sixth; the weather, cloudy, clearing late in the afternoon; the fact that the sun had set red in a cloudless sky; and it ended abruptly in the middle of a phrase. The leaf that carried page 50 had been torn out; not cut away carefully as were those leaves in the earlier book, but ripped loose, grabbed with clutching fingers that scarred and twisted the leaf below!
He shoved my hand away and stared at me. For a moment I thought everything was over. Certainly I could not be a very appealing sight, standing there sweating with fear, my hair all stuck up on my head where I'd clawed it, shivering in my nightclothes more from miserable nervousness than from cold; but somehow those eyes of his softened; he gave me one of the looks that people who care for Worth will go far to get, and said quietly,
"You see what you're doing? I told you I didn't steal the book, so that clears me in your mind of being the murderer. Now you're after me about this torn-out page. If I'd torn it out and stolen it—you and I would know what it would mean."
"But, boy—," I began, when he suffered a change of heart.
"Get out of here! Take that damn book and leave."
He heaved himself over in the bed, hunching the covers about his ears, turning his back on me. As I crept away, I heard him finish in a sort of mutter—as though to himself—
"I'm sorry for you, Jerry Boyne."
ON THE HILL-TOP
Morning dawned on the good ship Jerry Boyne not so dismasted and rudderless as you might have thought. I'd carried that 1920 diary to my room and, before I slept, read the whole of it. This was the last word we had from the dead man; here if anywhere would be found support for the suggestions of a weakening mind and suicide.
Nothing of that sort here; on the contrary, Thomas Gilbert was very much his clear-headed, unpleasant, tyrannical self to the last stroke of the pen. But I came on something to build up a case against Eddie Hughes, the chauffeur.
I didn't get much sleep. As soon as I heard Chung moving around, I went down, had him give me a cup of coffee, then stationed him on the back porch, and walked to the study, shut myself in, and discharged my heavy police revolver into a corner of the fireplace; then with the front door open, fired again.
"How many shots?" I called to Chung.
"One time shoot."
Worth's head poked from his upstairs window as he shouted,
"What's the excitement down there?"
"Trying my gun. How many times did I fire?"
"Once, you crazy Indian!" and the question of sound-proof walls was settled. Nobody heard the shot that killed Gilbert twenty feet away from the study if the door was closed. Mrs. Thornhill's ravings, as described in Skeet's letter to Barbara, were merely delirium.
I walked out around the driveway to the early morning streets of Santa Ysobel. The little town looked as peaceful and innocent as a pan of milk. In an hour or so, its ways would be full of people rushing about getting ready for the carnival, a curious contrast to my own business, sinister, tragic. It seemed to me that two currents moved almost as one, the hidden, dark part under—for there must be those in the town who knew the crime was murder; the murderer himself must still be here—and the foam of noisy gayety and blossoms riding atop. A Blossom Festival; the boyhood of the year; and I was in the midst of it, hunting a murderer!
An hour later I talked to Barbara in the stuffy little front room at Capehart's, brow-beaten by the noise of Sarah getting breakfast on the other side of the thin board partition; more disconcerted by the girl's manner of receiving the information of how I had found the 1920 diary hidden in Worth's bureau drawer. There was a swift, very personal anger at me. I had to clear myself instantly and thoroughly of any suspicion of believing for a moment that Worth himself had stolen or mutilated the book, protesting,
"I don't—I don't! Listen, Barbara—be reasonable!"
"That means 'Barbara, be scared!' And I won't. When they're scared, people make mistakes."
"You might see differently if you'd been there last night when Cummings made his charge against Worth. That seventy two thousand dollars Worth carried up to the city Monday morning, he had taken from his father's safe the night before."
For a minute she just looked at me, and not even Worth Gilbert's dare-devil eyes ever held a more inclusively defiant light than those big, soft, dark ones of hers.
"Well—wasn't it his?"
"All right," I said shortly. "I'm not here to talk of Worth's financial methods; they're scheduled to get him into trouble; but let that pass. Look through this book and you'll see who it is I'm after."
She had already opened the volume, and began to glance along the pages. She made a motion for me to wait. I leaned back in my chair, and it was only a few moments later that she looked up to say,
"Don't make the arrest, Mr. Boyne. You have nothing here against Eddie—for murder."
Because I doubted myself, I began to scold, winding up,
"All the same, if that gink hasn't jumped town, I'll arrest him."
"It would be a good deal more logical to arrest him if he had jumped the town," Barbara reminded me. "If you really want to see him, Mr. Boyne, you'll find him at the garage around on the highway. He's working for Bill."
That was a set-back. A fleeing Eddie Hughes might have been hopeful; an Eddie Hughes who gave his employer back-talk, got himself fired, and then settled down within hand-reach, was not so good a bet. Barbara saw how it hit me, and offered a suggestion.
"Mr. Boyne, Worth and I are taking a hike out to San Leandro canyon this afternoon to get ferns for the decorating committee. Suppose you come along—anyhow, a part of the way—and have a quiet talk, all alone with us. Don't do anything until you have consulted Worth."
"All right—I'll go you," I assented, and half past two saw the three of us, Worth in corduroys and puttees, Barbara with high boots and short, dust-brown skirt, tramping out past the homes of people toward the open country. At the Vandeman place Skeet's truck was out in front, piled with folding chairs, frames, light lumber, and a lot of decorative stuff. The tall Chinaman came from the house with another load.
"You Barbie Wallace!" the flapper howled. "Aren't you ashamed to be walking off with Worth and Mr. Boyne both, and good men scarce as hen's teeth in Santa Ysobel to-day!"
"I'm not walking off with them—they're walking off with me," Barbara laughed at her.
"Shameless one!" Skeet drawled. "I see you let Mr. Cummings have a day off—aren't you the kind little boss to 'em!"
I just raised my brows at Barbara, and she explained a bit hastily,
"Skeet thinks she has to be silly over the fact that Mr. Cummings has gone up to town, I suppose." She added with fine indifference, "He'll be back in the morning."
"You bet he'll be back in the morning," Worth assured the world.
"Now what does he mean by that, Mr. Boyne?"
"He means Cummings is out after him."
"I don't," Worth contradicted me personally. "I mean he's after Bobs. She knows it. Look at her."
She glanced up at me from under her hat-brim, all the stars out in those shadowy pools that were her eyes. The walk had brought sumptuous color to her cheeks, where the two extra deep dimples began to show.
"You both may think," she began with a sobriety that belied the dimples and shining eyes, "looking on from the outside, that Mr. Cummings has an idea of, as Skeet would say, 'rushing' me; but when we're alone together, about all he talks of is Worth."
"Bad sign," Worth flung over a shoulder that he pushed a little in advance of us. "Takes the old fellows that way. Their notion of falling for a girl is to fight all the other Johnnies in sight. Guess you've got him going, Bobs."
I walked along, chewing over the matter. She'd estimated Cummings fairly, as she did most things that she turned that clear mind of hers on; but her lack of vanity kept her from realizing, as I did, that he was in the way to become a dangerous personal enemy to Worth. His self-interest, she thought, would eventually swing him to Worth's side. She didn't as yet perceive that a motive more powerful than self-interest had hold of him now.
"Why, Mr. Boyne," she answered as though I'd been speaking my thoughts aloud, "I've known Mr. Cummings for years and years. He never—"
"You said a mouthful there, Bobs." Worth halted, grinning, to interrupt her. "He never—none whatever. But he has now."
"Leave it to Jerry. Jerry saw him that first night in at Tait's; then afterward, in the office."
"Oh, come on!" Barbara started ahead impatiently. "What difference would it make."
They went on ahead of me, scrapping briskly, as a boy and girl do who have grown up together. I stumped along after and reflected on the folly of mankind in general, and that of Allen G. Cummings in particular. That careful, mature bachelor had seen this lustrous young creature blossom to her present perfection; he'd no doubt offered her safe and sane attention, when she came to live in San Francisco where they had friends in common. But it had needed Worth Gilbert's appearance on the scene to wake him up to his own real feeling. Forty-five on the chase of nimble sweet and twenty; Cummings was in for sore feet and humiliating tumbles—and we were in for the worst he could do to us. I sighed. Worth had more than one way of making enemies, it seemed.
At last we came in sight of the country club upon its rise of ground overlooking the golf links. The low, brown clubhouse, built bungalow fashion, with a long front gallery and gravel sweep, was swarming with people—the decorators. Motors came and went. The grounds were being strung with paper lanterns. We skirted these, and the links itself where there were two or three players, obstinate, defiant old men who would have their game in spite of forty blossom festivals—climbed a fence, and crossed the grass up to the crest of a little round hill, halting there for the view. It wasn't high, but standing free as it did, it commanded pretty nearly the entire Santa Ysobel district. Massed acres of pink and white, the great orchards ran one into the other without break for miles. The lanes between the trunks, diamonded like a harlequin's robe in mathematical primness, were newly turned furrows of rich, black soil, against which the gray or, sometimes, whitewashed trunks of apricot, peach and plum trees gave contrast. Then the cap of glorious blossoms, meeting overhead in the older orchards, with a warm blue sky above and puffs of clouds that matched the pure white of the plum trees' bloom.
The spot suited me well; we had left the town behind us; here neither Dykeman's spotter nor any one he hired to help him could get within listening distance, I dropped down on a bank; Worth and Barbara disposed themselves, he sprawling his length, she sitting cross-legged, just below him.
It wasn't easy to make a beginning. I knew it wouldn't do me any particular good with Worth to dwell on his danger. But I finally managed to lay fairly before them my case against Eddie Hughes, and I must say that, as I told it, it sounded pretty strong.
I didn't want to put too much stress on having found my evidence in the diaries; I knew Worth was as obstinate as a mule, and having said that he would not stand for any one being prosecuted on their evidence, he'd stick to it till the skies fell. I called on my memory of those pages, now unfortunately ashes and not get-atable, and explained that Worth's father hired Hughes directly after a jail-break at San Jose had roused the whole country. Three of the four escapes were rounded up in the course of a few days, but the fourth—known to us as Eddie Hughes—was safe in Thomas Gilbert's garage, working there as chauffeur, having been employed without recommendation on the strength of what he could do.
"And the low wages he was willing to take," Worth put in drily. "Old stuff, Jerry. I wasn't sure till you spilled it just now that my father was wise to it. But I knew. What you getting at?"
"Just this. When I talked to Hughes that first night I came down here with you, while we all supposed the death a suicide, he couldn't keep his resentment against your father, his hatred of him, from boiling over every time he was mentioned."
"Get on," said Worth wearily. "Father hired a jail-bird that came cheap. Probably put it to himself that he was giving the man a chance to go straight."
I glanced up. This was just about what I remembered Thomas Gilbert to have said in the entry that told of the hiring of Eddie. Worth nodded grimly at my startled face.
"Eddie's gone straight since then," he filled in. "That is, he's kept out of jail, which is going straight for Eddie. He'd certainly hate the man who held him as he's been held for five years. Not motive enough for murder though."
"There's more. The 1920 diary you gave me last night tells when and why the extra bolts were put on the study doors. Your father had been missing liquor and cigars and believed Hughes was taking them."
"Pilfering!" with an expression of distaste. "That doesn't—"
"Hold on!" I stopped him. "On February twelfth your father left money, marked coin and paper money, as if by accident, on the top of the liquor cabinet; not exposed, but dropped in under the edge of the big ash tray so it might look as though it were forgotten—in a sense, lost there."
"How much?" came the quick question.
"Fifty one dollars." He looked around at me.
"Just one dollar above the limit of petty larceny; a hundred cents added to put it in the felony class that meant state's prison. So he could have sent Eddie to the pen,—eh? I guess you've got a motive there, Boyne."
"Well—er—" I squirmed over my statement, blurting out finally. "Hughes didn't take the money."
"Knew it was a trap," Worth's laugh was bitter. "And hated the man who cold-bloodedly set it to catch him. If he didn't take it, don't you think he counted it?"
"Worth," I said sharply. "Your father put those bolts on—and continued to find that he was being robbed. He was mad about it. Any man would be. Say what you will, no one likes to find that persons in his employ are stealing from him. The aggravating thing was that he couldn't bring it home to Hughes, though he was sure of the fact."
"So he went back to what he had known of Eddie when he hired him? After profiting by it for five years, he was going to rake that up?"
"He was,"—a bit nettled—"and well within his rights to do so. Three weeks before he was shot, he wrote that he'd started the inquiry. There was no further mention of the matter in the book as it stands, but don't you see that the result of the inquiry must have been on that torn-out last page? Eddie's Saturday night alibi won't hold water. His cannery girl, of course, will swear he was with her; but there's no corroborating testimony. No one saw them together from nine till twelve."
Dead silence dropped on us, with the white clouds standing like witnesses in the blue above, the wind bringing now and again on its scented wings little faint echoes of the noise down at the clubhouse.
"What more do you want?" Both young faces were set against me, cold and hostile. "Here was motive, opportunity, a suspect capable of the deed. My theory is that Mr. Gilbert came in on Hughes, caught him in the act of stealing from the cabinet. Hughes jumped for the pistol over the fireplace, got it, fired the fatal shot, and placed the dead man's fingers about the butt of the gun. Then he picked up the diary lying on the table, tore out the leaf about himself, and poked the rest of the book down the drain pipe."
"And the shot?" Worth resisted me. "Why didn't the shot bring Chung on the run?"
"Because he couldn't hear it. Nobody'd hear it ten paces away. That's what I was trying out this morning. You told me I'd fired once. Well, I fired twice; once with the door shut, and neither you nor Chung heard it; afterward, with the door open—the report you registered."
"The blotter—and it had been used on that last page—showed no words to strengthen this theory of yours," said Barbara as confidently as though the little blue square had been clear print, instead of broken blurring. Perhaps it was clear to her. I was glad I'd given it a thorough reexamination the night before.
"I think it does," I struggled against the tide, manfully, buoying myself up with the tracing of the blotter. "Here's the word 'demanded,' reasonably connected with the affair. The letters 'ller' may be the last end of 'caller,' or possibly 'fuller'; I noticed Gilbert spoke in a former entry of the bottle in the cabinet and Hughes snitching from it, and used the word 'fuller.' Here's the word 'Avenue,' complete, and Lizzie Watkins, Hughes' girl, lives on Myrtle Avenue."
The silence after that was fairly derisive. Worth broke it with an impatient,
"And the fact of the bolted doors throws all that stuff out."
"Well," I grunted, "Barbara deduced the slipping of some bolts to please you once—why can't she again?"
"Mr. Boyne," the girl spoke quickly, "it wouldn't help you a bit to be assured that Eddie Hughes could enter the study and leave it bolted behind him when he went out—help you to the truth, I mean. These facts you've gathered are all wabbly; they'll never in the world fit in trim and true. They're hardly facts at all. They're partial facts."
"Wouldn't help me?" I ejaculated. "It would cinch a case against him. We've got to have some one in jail, and that shortly. We're forced to."
"Forced?" Worth had sat up a little and reached far forward for a stone that lay among the weeds down there. He spoke to me sidewise with a challenging flicker of the eye. Barbara kept her lips tight shut.
"I need a prisoner," trying to correct my error; then burst out, "My Lord, children! An arrest isn't going to hurt a man like Hughes,—even if he proves to be innocent. It's an old story to him. Barbara, you said yourself that the man who stole the 1920 diary was the murderer."
"But I didn't say Eddie Hughes stole it." Her tone was significant, and it checked me. I couldn't remember what the deuce she had said that night. There recurred to me her mimicry of a woman's voice—Laura Bowman's as I believed—to determine through Chung who Thomas Gilbert's feminine visitor had been. Should that clue have been followed up before I moved on Eddie Hughes? Even as I got to this point, I heard Worth, punctuating his remarks with the whang of his rock on the bit of twig he was pounding to pieces,
"Boyne, I won't stand for any arrest being made except in all sincerity—the person you honestly believe to be the criminal."
"Does that mean you forbid me, in so many words, to proceed against Hughes on what I've got?"
"It does," Worth said. "You're not convinced yourself. Leave it alone."
"'Nough said!" I jumped to my feet. If he wouldn't let me lay hands on Hughes—there was nothing to do but go after the next one. "You two run along. Get your ferns. There's a man at the club here I have to see."
Barbara was afoot instantly; Worth lay looking at her for a moment, then heaved himself up, shook his shoulders, and stood beside her.
"Race you to the foot of the hill," she flashed up at him.
"You're on," he chuckled. "I'll give you a running start—to the tree down there—and beat you."
They were off. She ran like a deer. Worth got away as though he was in earnest. He caught her up just at the finish; I couldn't see which won; but they walked a few rods hand in hand.
Something swelled in my throat as I watched them away: life's springtime—and the year's; boy and girl running, like kids that had never known a fear or a mortal burden, over an earth greener than any other, because its time of verdure is brief, dreaming already of the golden-tan of California midsummer, under boughs where tree blooms made all the air sweet.
For sake of the boy and the girl who didn't know enough to take care of their own happiness, I wheeled and galloped in the direction of the country club.
There is an institution known—and respected—in police circles as the Holy Scare. I was determined to make use of it. I'd throw a holy scare into a man I knew, and see what came out.
AT THE COUNTRY CLUB
The country club, when I walked up its lawn, was noisy with the hammering and jawing of its decoration committee. Out in the glass belvedere, like superior goods on display, taking it easy while every one else worked, I saw a group of young matrons of the smart set, Ina Vandeman among them, drinking tea. The open play she was making at Worth troubled me a little. He was the silent kind that keeps you guessing. She'd landed him once; what was to hinder her being successful with the same tactics—whatever they'd been—a second time?
Then I saw Edwards' car was still out in the big, crescent driveway, showing by the drift of twigs and petals on its running board that it had been used to bring in tree blooms from his ranch; the man himself crossed the veranda, and I hailed,
"Any place inside where you and I could have a private word together?"
"I—I think so, Boyne," he hesitated. "Come on back here."
He led me straight across the big assembly room which was being trimmed for the ball. From the top of a stepladder, Skeet Thornhill yelled to us,
"Where you two going? Come back here, and get on the job."
She had a dozen noisy assistants. I waved at her from the further door as we ducked. Strange that honest, sound little thing should be own sister to the doll-faced vamp out there in the showcase.
Edwards made for a little writing room at the end of a corridor. I followed his long, nervous stride. If the man had been goaded to the shooting of Thomas Gilbert, it would have been an act of passion, and by passion he would betray himself. When I had him alone, the door shut, I went to it, told him we knew the death was murder, not suicide, and that the crime had been committed early Saturday night. Before I could connect him with it, he broke in on me,
"Is Worth suspected?"
"Not by me," I said. "And by God, not by you, Edwards! You know better than that."
I held his eye, but read nothing beyond what might have been the flare of quick anger for the boy's sake.
"Who then?" he said. "Who's dared to lisp a word like that? That hound Cummings—chasing around Santa Ysobel with Bowman—is that where it comes from? I told Worth the fellow was knifing him in the back." He began to stride up and down the room. "The boy's got other friends—that'll go their length for him. I'm with him till hell freezes over. You can count on me—"
"Exactly what I wanted to find out," I cut in, so significantly that he whirled at the end of his beat and stared.
"Meaning you are the one man who could clear Worth Gilbert of all suspicion."
"What do you know?"
The big voice had come down to a mere whisper. Plenty of passion now—a passion of terror. I spoke quickly.
"We know you were in the study that night, with a companion," and I piled out the worst of his affair, as I'd read it in the diaries, winding up,
"Plain what brought you there. Quarrel? Motive? Don't need to look any further."
Before I was done Jim Edwards had groped over to a chair and slumped into it. A queer, toneless voice asked,
"Worth sent you to me—a detective—with this?"
"No," I said. "I'm acting on my own."
"And against his will," it came back instantly.
"What of it?" I demanded. "Are you the coward to take advantage of his sense of honor?—to let his generosity cost him his life?"
"His life." That landed. Watching, I saw the struggle that tore him. He jumped up and started toward me; I hadn't much doubt that I was now going to hear a plea for mercy—a confession, of sorts—as he stopped, dropped his head, and stood scowling at the floor.
"Talk," I said. "Spill it. Now's your time."
He raised his eyes to mine and spoke suddenly.
"Boyne—I have nothing to say."
"And Worth Gilbert can hang and be damned to him—is that it?" I took another step toward him. "No, Edwards, that 'nothing to say' stuff won't go in a court of law. It won't get you anywhere."
"They'll never in the world—try Worth for—that killing."
"I'm expecting his arrest any hour."
"A trial! Those cursed diaries of Tom's brought into court—My God! I believe if I'd known he'd written things like that, I could have killed him for it!"
I stared. He had forgotten me. But at this speech I mentally dropped him for the moment, and fastened my suspicions on the woman who went with him to the study.
"All right," I said brutally. "You didn't kill Thomas Gilbert. But you took Mrs. Bowman to the study that night to have it out with him, and get six pages from the 1916 book. She got 'em—and you know what she had to do to get 'em."
"Hold on, Boyne!" he said sternly. "Don't you talk like that to me."
"Well," I said, "Mrs. Bowman was there—after those diary leaves. I heard Barbara Wallace imitate her voice—and Chung recognized the imitation. You know—that night at the study—the first night."
He took a bewildered moment or two for thought, then broke out,
"It wasn't Laura's voice Barbara imitated. Did she say so?"
"No, but she imitated the voice of a woman who came weeping to get those pages from the diary; and who else would that be? Who else would want them?"
"You're off the track, Boyne," he drew a great, shuddering sigh of relief. "Tom was always playing the tyrant to those about him; no doubt some woman did come crying for that stuff—but it wasn't Laura."
"By Heaven!" I exclaimed as I looked at him. "You know who it was! You recognized the voice that night—but the woman isn't one you're interested in."
"I'm interested in all women, so far as their getting a decent show in the world is concerned," he maintained sturdily. "I'd go as far as any man to defend the good name of a woman—whether I thought much of her or not."
"This other woman," I argued, not any too keen on such a job myself, "hasn't she got some man to speak for her?"
Edwards looked at me innocently.
"She didn't have, then—" he began, and I finished for him,
"But she has now. I've got it!" As I jumped up and hurried to the door, his eyes followed me in wonder. There I turned with, "Stay right where you are. I'll be back in a minute," ducked out into the hall and signaled a passing messenger, then stepped quickly back into the writing room and said, "I've sent for Bronson Vandeman."
He settled deeper in his chair with,
"I'll stay and see it out. If you get anything from Vandeman, I miss my guess."
A MATTER OF TASTE
Upon our few moments of strained waiting, Vandeman breezed in, full of apologies for his shirtsleeves. I remember noticing the monogram worked on the left silken arm, the fit and swing of immaculate trousers, as smoothly modeled to the hip as a girl's gown; his ever smiling face; the slightly exaggerated way he wiped fingers already clean on a handkerchief pulled from a rear pocket. He was the only unconstrained person in the room; he hardly looked surprised; his glance was merely inquiring. Edwards apparently couldn't stand it. He jumped up and began his characteristic pacing of one end of the constricted place, jerking out as he walked,
"Bronse, it's my fault that Boyne sent for you. He's working on this trouble of Worth's, you know. He's had me in here, grilling me, shaking me over hell; and something I said—God knows why—sent him after you."
"Trouble of Worth's!" Vandeman had been about to sit; his half bent knees straightened out again; he stood beside the chair and spoke irritably. "Told you, Boyne, if you meddled with that coroner's verdict you'd get your employer in the devil of a tight place. Nobody had any reason for wanting Worth's father out of the way—except Worth, himself. Frankly, I think you're wrong. But everything that I can do—of course—"
"All right," I said, letting it fly at him. "Where was your wife from seven to half past nine on the evening of Gilbert's murder?"
Back went his head; out flashed all the fine teeth; the man laughed in my face.
"Excuse me, Mr. Boyne. I understand that this is serious—nothing funny about it—but really, you know, recalling the date, what you've said is amusing. My dear man," he went on as I stared at him, "please remember, yourself, where Ina was on that particular evening."
"The wedding and reception were done with by seven o'clock," I objected. This ground was familiar with me. I'd been over it in considering what opportunity Laura Bowman would have had for a call on Thomas Gilbert at the required hour. If she could slip away for it, why not Ina Vandeman? As though he read my thoughts and answered them, Vandeman filled in,
"A bride, you know, is dead certain to have at least half a dozen persons with her every minute of the time until she leaves the house on her wedding trip. Ina did, I'm sure. We'll just call her in, and she'll give you their names."
He was up and starting to bring her; I stopped him.
"We'll not bother with those names just now. I'd rather have you—or Mrs. Vandeman—tell me what you suppose would be the entry in Thomas Gilbert's diary for May 31 and June 1, 1916. I have already identified it as the date on which the Bowmans first moved into the Wallace house. I think Mr. Edwards knows something more, but he's not so communicative as you promise to be."
He looked as if he wished he hadn't been so liberal with his assurances. I saw him glance half sulkily at Edwards, as he exclaimed,
"But those diaries are burned—they're burned. Worth told us the other night that he burned them without reading."
At the words, Edwards stopped stock-still, something almost humorous at the back of the suffering gaze he fastened on my face. I met it steadily, then answered Vandeman,
"Doesn't make any difference to anybody that those books are burned. I'd read them; I know what was in them; and I know that three leaves—six pages—covering the entries of May 31 and June 1, 1916, were cut out."
"But what the deuce, Boyne?" Vandeman wrinkled a smooth brow. "What would some leaves gone from Mr. Gilbert's diary four years ago have to do with us here to-day—or even with his recent death?"
"Pardon me," I said shortly. "The matter's not as old as that. True, the stuff was written four years ago; it recorded happenings on those dates; but the ink that was used in marking out a run-over on the next following page was fresh. Anyhow, Mr. Vandeman, we know that a woman came weeping to Mr. Gilbert on the very night of his death, only a short time before his death—as nearly as medical science can determine that—and we believe that she came after those leaves out of the diary, and got them—whatever she had to do to secure them."
I was struck with the difference in the way these two men took inquiry. Edwards had writhed, changed color, started to speak and caught himself back, showed all the agony of a clumsy criminal who dreads the probing that may give him away: temperament; the rotten spot in his affairs. Vandeman, younger, not entangled with an unhappy married woman, sat looking me in the eye, still smiling. The blow I had to deal him would be harder. It concerned his bride; but he'd take punishment well. I proceeded to let him have it.
"I can see that Mr. Edwards has an idea what the entries on those pages covered. He has inadvertently shown me that your wife was the woman who came and got them from Thomas Gilbert on the night he was murdered."
At that he turned on Edwards, and Edwards answered the look with,
"I didn't. On my honor, Bronse, I never mentioned your name or Ina's. The Chinaman told him that—about some woman coming that evening—"
"Mr. Vandeman," I broke in, "there's no use beating about the bush. Chung recognized your wife's voice. She was the woman who came weeping to get those diary leaves."
He took that with astonishing quietness, and,
"Suppose you were shown that she wasn't out of her mother's house?"
"Wouldn't stop me. Allow that her alibi's perfect. Yet you men have something. There's something here I ought to know."
"Something you'll never find out from me," Jim Edwards' deep voice was full of defiance. "Bronse, I owe you an apology; but you can depend on me to keep my mouth shut."
After a minute's consideration Vandeman said,
"I don't know why we should any of us keep our mouths shut."
Jim Edwards looked utterly bewildered as the man sat there, thinking the thing over, glanced up pleasantly at me and suggested,
"Edwards has a little different slant on this from me. I don't know why I shouldn't state to you exactly what happened—right there in Gilbert's study on the date you mentioned."
"Oh, there did something unusual happen; and you've just remembered it."
"There did something unusual happen, and I've just remembered it, aided thereto by your questions and Edwards' queer looks. Cheer up, old man; we haven't all got your southern chivalry. From a plain, commonsense point of view, what I have to tell is not in the least to my wife's discredit. In fact, I'm proud of her all the way through."
Jim Edwards came suddenly and nervously to his feet, strode to the further corner of the room and sat down at as great a distance from Vandeman as its dimensions would permit. He turned his face to the small window there, and through all that Vandeman said, kept up a steady, maddening tattoo with his fingernails on the sill.
"This has to do with what I told you the first night I ever talked with you, Boyne. You threw doubt on Thomas Gilbert's death being suicide. I gave as a reason for my belief that it was, a knowledge and conviction that the man's mind was unhinged."
Edwards' tattoo at the window ceased for a minute. He stared, startled, at the speaker, then went back to it, and Vandeman proceeded,
"I'm not telling Jim Edwards anything he doesn't know, and what I say to you, Boyne, that's discreditable to the dead, I can't avoid. Here it is: on the evening of June first, 1916, I had dinner alone at home. You'll find, if you look at an old calendar, that it falls on a Sunday. Jim Edwards had dined informally at the Thornhills'. As he told it to me later, they were all sitting out on the side porch after dinner, and nobody noticed that Ina wasn't with them until they heard cries coming from somewhere over in the direction of the Gilbert place. At my house, I'd heard it, and we both ran for the garage, where the screams were repeated again and again. We got there about the same time, found the disturbance was in the study, and Edwards who was ahead of me rushed up and hammered on its door."
Again Jim Edwards stopped the nervous drumming of his fingers on the window-sill while he stared at the younger man as at some prodigy of nature. Finally he seemed unable to hold in any longer.
"Hammered on the door!" he repeated. "If you're going to turn out the whole damn' thing to Boyne, tell it straight; door was open; we couldn't have heard a yip out of Ina if it hadn't been. Tom there in full sight, sitting in his desk chair, cool as a cucumber, letting her scream."
"I'm telling this," Vandeman snapped. "Gilbert looked to me like an insane man. Jim, you're crazy as he was, to say anything else. Never supposed for a minute you thought otherwise—that poor girl there, dazed with fright, backed as far away from him as she could get, hair flying, eyes wild."
I looked from one to the other. What Edwards had said of the cold, contemptuous old man; what Vandeman told of the screaming girl; no answer to such a proposition of course but an attempted frame-up. To let the bridegroom get by would best serve my purpose.
"All right, gentlemen," I said. "And now could you tell me what action you took, on this state of affairs?"
"Action?" Vandeman gave me an uneasy look. "What was there to do? Told you I thought the man was crazy."
"And you, Edwards?"
"Let it go as Bronse says. I cut back to Mrs. Thornhill's, scouting to see what the chance was for getting Ina in without the family knowing anything."
"That's right," Vandeman said. "I stayed to fetch her. She was fine. To the last, she let Gilbert save his face—actually send her home as though she were the one to blame. Right then I knew I loved her—wanted her for my wife. On the way home, I asked her and was accepted."
"In spite of the fact that she was engaged to Worth Gilbert?"
"Boyne," he said impatiently, "what's the matter with you? Haven't I made you understand what happened there at the study? She had to break off with the son of a man like that. Ina Thornhill couldn't marry into such a breed."
"Slow up, Vandeman!" Edwards' tone was soft, but when I looked at him, I saw a tawny spark in his black eyes. Vandeman fronted him with the flamboyant embroidered monogram on his shirt sleeve, the carefully careless tie, the utterly good clothes, and, most of all, at the moment, the smug satisfaction in his face of social and human security. I thought of what that Frenchman says about there being nothing so enjoyable to us as the troubles of our friends. "Needn't think you can put it all over the boy when he's not here to defend himself—jump on him because he's down! Tell that your wife discarded him—cast him off—for disgraceful reasons! Damnitall! You and I both heard Tom giving her her orders to break with his son, she sniffling and hunting hairpins over the floor and promising that she would."
"Cut it out!" yelled Vandeman, as though some one had pinched him. "I saw nothing of the sort. I heard nothing of the sort. Neither did you."
I think they had forgotten me, and that they remembered at about the same instant that they were talking before a detective. They both turned, mum and startled looking, Edwards to his window, Vandeman to a nervous brushing of his trouser edges, from which he looked up, inquiring doubtfully,
"What next, Boyne? Jim's excited; but you understand that there's no animus; and my wife and I are entirely at your disposal in this matter."
"Thank you," I said.
"Would you like to talk to her?"
"Here—or let the lady say."
Vandeman gave me a queer look and went out. When he was gone, I found Jim Edwards scrabbling for his hat where it had dropped over behind the desk. I put my back against the door and asked,
"Is Bronson Vandeman a fatuous fool; or does he take me for one?"
"Some men defend their women one way, and some another. Let me out of this, Boyne, before that girl gets here."
"She won't come in a hurry," I smiled. "Her husband's pretty free with his promises; but more than likely I'll have to go after her if I want her."
"Well?" he looked at me uncomfortably.
"Blackmail's a crime, you know, Edwards. A woman capable of it, might be capable of murder."
"You've got the wrong word there, Boyne. This wasn't exactly blackmail."
"The girl—I never liked her—never thought she was good enough for Worth—but she was engaged to him, and—in this I think she was fighting for her hand."
He searched my face and went on cautiously,
"You read the diaries. They must have had complaints of her."
"They had," I assented.
"Anything about money?"
I shook my head.
"You said there were two entries gone; the first would have told you, I suppose—Before we go further, Boyne, let me make a little explanation to you—for the girl's sake."
"Shoot," I said.
"It was this way," he sighed. "Thornhill, Ina's father, made fifteen or twenty thousand a year I would say, and the family lived it up. He had a stroke and died in a week's time. Left Mrs. Thornhill with her daughters, her big house, her fine social position—and mighty little to keep it up on. Ina is the eldest. She got the worst of it, because at the first of her being a young lady she was used to having all the money she wanted to spend. The twins were right on her heels; the thing for her to do was to make a good marriage, and make it quick. But she got engaged to Worth; then he went to France. There you were. He might never come back. Tom always hated her; watched her like a hawk; got onto something she—about—"
"Out with it," I said. "What? Come down to cases."
"Money." He uttered the one word and stood silent.
I made a long shot, with,
"Mr. Gilbert found she'd been getting money from other men—"
"Borrowing, Boyne—they used the word 'borrowed,'" Edwards put in. "It was always Tom's way to summon people as though he had a little private judgment bar, haul them up and lecture them; I suppose he thought he had a special license in her case."
"And she went prepared to frame him and bluff him to a standoff. Is that the way you saw it?"
"My opinion—what I might think," said Mr. James Edwards of Sunnyvale ranch, "wouldn't be testimony in a court of law. You don't want it, Boyne."
"Maybe not," I grunted. "Perhaps I could make as good a guess as you could at what young Mrs. Vandeman's capable of; a dolly face, and behind it the courage of hell."
"Boyne," he said, as I left the door free to him, "quit making war on women."
"Can't," I grinned and waved him on out. "The detective business would be a total loss without 'em."
A DINNER INVITATION
"Look what's after you, man," Skeet warned me from her lofty perch as I went out through the big room in quest of Ina Vandeman. "Better you stay here. I gif you a yob. Lots safer—only run the risk of getting your neck broken."
I grinned up into her jolly, freckled face, and waited for the woman who came toward me with that elastic, swinging movement of hers, the well-opened eyes studying me, keeping all their secrets behind them.
"Mr. Boyne," a hand on my arm guided me to a side door; we stepped together out on to a small balcony that led to the lawn. "My husband brought me your message. Nobody over by the tennis court; let's go and walk up and down there."
Her fingers remained on my sleeve as we moved off; she emphasized her points from time to time by a slight pressure.
"Such a relief to have a man like you in charge of this investigation." She gave me an intimate smile; tall as she was, her face was almost on a level with my own, yet I still found her eyes unreadable, none of those quick tremors under the skin that register the emotions of excitable humanity. She remained a handsome, perfectly groomed, and entirely unruffled young woman.
"Thank you," was all I said.
"Mr. Vandeman and I understand how very, very serious this is. Of course, now, neighbors and intimates of Mr. Gilbert are under inspection. Everybody's private affairs are liable to be turned out. We've all got to take our medicine. No use feeling personal resentment."
Fine; but she'd have done better to keep her hands off me. An old police detective knows too much of the class of women who use that lever. I looked at them now, white, delicate, many-ringed, much more expressive than her face, and I thought them capable of anything.
"Here are the names you'll want," she fumbled in the girdle of her gown, brought out a paper and passed it over. "These are the ones who stayed after the reception, went up to my room with me, and helped me change—or rather, hindered me."
"The ones," I didn't open the paper yet, just looked at her across it, "who were with you all the time from the reception till you left the house for San Francisco?"
"It's like this," again she smiled at me, "the five whose names are on that paper might any one of them have been in and out of my room during the time. I can't say as to that. But they can swear that I wasn't out of the room—because I wasn't dressed. As soon as I changed from my wedding gown to my traveling suit, I went down stairs and we were all together till we drove to San Francisco and supper at Tait's, where I had the pleasure of meeting you, Mr. Boyne."
"I understand," I said. "They could all speak for you—but you couldn't speak for them." Then I opened and looked. Some list! The social and financial elect of Santa Ysobel: bankers' ladies; prune kings' daughters; persons you couldn't doubt, or buy. But at the top of all was Laura Bowman's name.
We had halted for the turn at the end of the court. I held the paper before her.
"How about this one? Do you think she was in the room all the time? Or have you any recollection?"
The bride moved a little closer and spoke low.
"Laura and the doctor were in the middle of one of their grand rows. She's a bunch of temperament. Mamma was ill; the girls were having to start out with only Laura for chaperone; she said something about going somewhere, and it wouldn't take her long—she'd be back in plenty of time. But whether she went or not—Mr. Boyne, you don't want us to tell you our speculations and guesses? That wouldn't be fair, would it?"
"It wouldn't hurt anything," I countered. "I'll only make use of what can be proven. Anything you say is safe with me."
"Well, then, of course you know all about the situation between Laura and Jim Edwards. Laura was determined she wouldn't go up to San Francisco with her husband—or if she did, he must drive her back the same night. She wouldn't even leave our house to get her things from home; the doctor, poor man, packed some sort of bag for her and brought it over. When he came back with it, she wasn't to be found; and she never did appear until we were getting into the machine."
I listened, glancing anxiously toward the skyline of that little hill over which Worth and Barbara might be expected to appear almost any moment now. Then we made the turn at the end of the court, and my view of it was cut off.
"Laura and Jim—they're the ones this is going to be hard on. I do feel sorry for them. She's always been a problem to her family and friends. A great deal's been overlooked. Everybody likes Jim; but—he's a southerner; intrigue comes natural to them."
Five minutes before I had been listening to Edwards' pitiful defense of this girl; I recalled his "scouting" for a chance to get her home unseen and save her standing with her family. That could be classed as intrigue, too, I suppose. We were strolling slowly toward the clubhouse.
"I don't give Dr. Bowman much," I said deliberately. A quick look came my way, and,
"Mr. Gilbert was greatly attached to him. Everybody's always believed that only Mr. Gilbert's influence held that match together. Now he's dead, and Laura's freed from some sort of control he seemed to have over her, of course she hopes and expects she'll be able to divorce the doctor in peace and marry Jim."
"No movement of the sort yet?"
She stopped and faced round toward me.
"Dr. Bowman—he's our family physician, you know—is trying for a very fine position away from here, in an exclusive sanitarium. Divorce proceedings coming now would ruin his chances. But I don't know how long he can persuade Laura to hold off. She's in a strange mood; I can't make her out, myself. She disliked Gilbert; yet his death seems to have upset her frightfully."
"You say she didn't like Mr. Gilbert?"
"They hated each other. But—he was so peculiar—of course that wasn't strange. Many people detested him. Bron never did. He always forgave him everything because he said he was insane. Bron told you my experience—the one that made me break with Worth?"
She looked at me, a level look; no shifting of color, no flutter of eyelid or throat. We were at the clubhouse steps.
"Here comes the boy himself," I warned as Worth and Barbara, their arms full of ferns, rounded the turn from the little dip at the side of the grounds where the stream went through. We stood and waited for them.
"You two," Ina spoke quickly to them. "Mr. Boyne's just promised to come over to dinner to-morrow night." Her glance asked me to accept the fib and the invitation. "I want both of you."
"I'm going to be at your house anyhow, Ina," Barbara said, "working with Skeet painting those big banners they've tacked up out in your court. You'll have to feed us; but we'll be pretty messy. I don't know about a dinner party."
"It isn't," Ina protested, smiling. "It's just what you said—feeding you. Nobody there besides yourself and Skeet but Mr. Boyne and Worth—if he'll come."
"I have to go up to San Francisco to-morrow," said Worth.
"But you'll be back by dinner time?" Ina added quickly.
"If I make it at all."
"Well, you can come just as you are, if you get in at the last minute," she said, and he and Barbara went on to carry their ferns in. When they were out of hearing, she turned and floored me with,
"Mr. Vandeman has forbidden me to say this to you, but I'm going to speak. If Worth doesn't have to be told about me—and his father—I'd be glad."
"If the missing leaves of the diary are ever found," I came up slowly, "he'd probably know then." I watched her as I said it. What a strange look of satisfaction in the little curves about her mouth as she spoke next:
"Those leaves will never be found, Mr. Boyne. I burned them. Mr. Gilbert presented them to me as a wedding gift. He was insane, but, intending to take his own life, I think even his strangely warped conscience refused to let a lying record stand against an innocent girl who had never done him any harm."
We stood silent a moment, then she looked round at me brightly with,
"You're coming to dinner to-morrow night? So glad to have you. At seven o'clock. Well—if this is all, then?" and at my nod, she went up the steps, turning at the side door to smile and wave at me.
What a woman! I could but admire her nerve. If her alibi proved copper-fastened, as something told me it would, I had no more hope of bringing home the murder of Thomas Gilbert to Mrs. Bronson Vandeman of Santa Ysobel than I had of readjusting the stars in their courses!
A BIT OF SILK
I must admit that when Worth and Barbara walked up and found me talking to Ina Vandeman, I felt caught dead to rights. The girl gave me one long, steady look. I was afraid of Barbara Wallace's eyes. Then and there I relinquished all idea of having her help in this inquiry. She could have done it much better than I, attracted less attention—but no matter. The awkward moment went by, however; I heaved a sigh of relief as they carried their ferns on into the clubhouse, and Mrs. Vandeman left me with gracious good-bys.
I had the luck to cover my first inquiry by getting a lift into town from Mrs. Ormsby, young wife of the president of the First National. Alone with me in her little electric, she answered every question I cared to put, and said she would be careful to speak to no one of the matter. Three others I caught on the wing, as it were, busy at blossom festival affairs; the fete only one day off now, things were moving fast. I glimpsed Dr. Bowman down town and thought he rather carefully avoided seeing me. His wife was taking no part; the word went that she was not able; but when I called at what had been the Wallace and was now the Bowman home, I found the front door open and two ladies in the hall.
One of them, Laura Bowman herself, came flying out to meet me—or rather, it seemed, to stop me, with a face of dismay.
"My mother's here, Mr. Boyne!" Her hand was clammy cold; she'd been warned of me and my errand. "I don't want to take you through that way."
I stood passive, and let her do the saying.
"Around here," she faltered. "We can go in at the side door."
We skirted the house by a narrow walk; she was leading the way by this other entrance, when, spread out over its low step, blocking our progress, I saw a small Japanese woman ripping up a satin dress.
"Let us pass, Oomie."
"Wait. We can talk as well here," I checked her. We moved on a few paces, out of earshot of the girl; but before I could put my questions, she began with a sort of shattered vehemence to protest that Thomas Gilbert's death was suicide.
"It was, Mr. Boyne. Anybody who knew the scourge Thomas had been to those he must have loved in his queer, distorted way, and any one who loved them, could believe he might take his own life."
"You speak freely, Mrs. Bowman," I said. "Then you hated the man?"
"Oh, I did! For years past I've never heard of a death without wondering that God took other human beings and let him live. Now that he's killed himself, it seems dreadful to me that suspicion should be cast on—"
"Mrs. Bowman," I interrupted. "Thomas Gilbert's death was murder. All persons who could have had motive or might have had opportunity to kill him will be under suspicion till the investigation clears them of it. I'm now ascertaining the whereabouts of Ina Vandeman that evening."
A shudder went through her; she looked at me feelingly, twisting her hands together in the way I remembered. Despite her distress, she was very simple and accessible. She gave me no resistance, admitted her absence from the Thornhill house at about the time the party was ready to start for San Francisco—Edwards, of course. I got nothing new here. She seemed thankful enough to go into the house when I released her.
I lingered a moment to have a word with the little Japanese woman on the step.
"How long you work this place?"
"Two hours af-noon, every day," ducking and giggling like a mechanical toy.
Just a piece-worker, not a regular servant.
"Pretty dress," I touched the satin on the step. "Whose?"
"Mine." Grinning, she spread a breadth out over her knees. "Lady no like any more. Mine." It was a peculiar shade of peacock blue; unless I was mistaken, the one Mrs. Bowman had worn that night at Tait's.
"Hello—what's this?" I bent to examine a small hole in the hem of that breadth Oomie was so delightedly smoothing.
"O-o-o-o! I think may-may burn'm. Not like any more."
There was a small round hole. Just so a cigarette might have seared—or a bullet.
"Not can use," I said to Oomie, indicating the injured bit. "Cut that off. Give me." And I laid a silver dollar on the step.
Giggling, the little brown woman snipped out the bit of hem and handed it to me. I glanced up from tucking it into my pocket, and saw Laura Bowman's white face staring at me through the glass of that side entry door.
A suggestive lead, certainly; but it's my way to follow one lead at a time: I went on to the Thornhill place.
Everybody there would know my errand; for though, with taste I could but admire, Ina had put no name of any member of the family on her list, she of course expected me to call on them, and would never have let her sisters leave the country club without a warning.
The three were just taking their hats off in the hall when I arrived. I did my questioning there, not troubling to take them separately. Cora and Ernestine, a well bred pair of Inas, without her pep, perhaps a shade less good looking, made their replies with none of the usual flutter of feminine curiosity and excitement, then went on in the living room. Skeet of course was as practical and brief as a sensible boy.
"I don't know whether she's fit to see you," she said when I spoke of her mother. And on the instant, Ina Vandeman's clear, high voice called down the stair,
"Bring Mr. Boyne up—now."
Skeet stepped aside for me to pass. I suppose I looked as startled as I felt, for on my way to the house, I had seen Mrs. Vandeman drive past toward town. I stood there at a loss, and finally said aimlessly,
"Your sister thinks it's all right?"
"My sister?" Skeet wrinkled her brows at me, and glanced to where the twins were in sight in the living room. "That was mother herself who called you."
All the way up the stairs, Skeet following, I was trying to swing my rather heavy wits around to take advantage of this new development. So far, Ina Vandeman's voice, imitated by Barbara Wallace, and recognized by Chung and Jim Edwards, possibly by Worth, had been my lead in this direction. If more than one woman spoke in that voice—where would it take me?
I'd got no adjustment before I was ushered into a large dim room, and confronted by a figure in a reclining chair by the window. Here, in spite of years and illness, were the same good looks and thoroughbred courage that seemed to characterize the women of this family. Mrs. Thornhill greeted me in Ina Vandeman's very tones, a little high-pitched for real sweetness, full of a dominating quality, and she showed a composure I had not expected. To Skeet, standing by, watching to see that her mother didn't overdo in talking to me, she said,
"Dear, go down stairs. Jane's left her dinner on the range and gone to the grocery. You look after it while she's away."
When we were alone, she lay back in her chair, eyes closed, or seemingly so, and made her statement. She'd been in her daughter's room only twice between the reception and that daughter's going away.
"But the room was full of other people," a glimmer between lashes. "I could give you the names of those others."
"Thank you," I said. "Mrs. Vandeman has already done that. I've seen them all."
"You've seen them—all?" a long, furtively drawn breath. Then her eyes flashed open and fixed themselves on me. Relief was there, yet something stricken, as they traveled over me from my gray thatch to my big feet.
"Now, Mrs. Thornhill," I said, "aside from those two visits to your daughter's room, where were you that evening?"
A slow flush crept into her thin cheeks. The unreadable eyes that were traveling over Jerry Boyne stopped suddenly and held him with a quiet stare.
"I understood it was my daughter's movements on that evening you wished to trace, Mr. Boyne," she said slowly. "It would be difficult to trace mine. Really, I had so much on my hands with the reception and inefficient help—" She broke off, her eyes never leaving my own, even as she added smoothly, "It would be very, very difficult."
There is an effect in class almost like the distinction of race. These women spoke a baffling language; their psychology was hard for me. If there was something hid up amongst them that ought to be uncovered by diplomacy and delicate indirection, it would take a smarter man than the one who stood in my number tens to do it.
"Mrs. Thornhill," I said, "you did leave the house. You went to Mr. Gilbert's study. The shot that killed him left you a nervous wreck, so that you can't hear a tire blow-out without reenacting in your mind the scene of that murder. You'll talk now."
"You think I will? Talk to you?" very low and quiet, eyes once more closed.
"Why not? It's got to come; here in your own home, with me—or I'll have to put you where you'll be forced to answer questions."
"Oh, you threaten me, do you?" Her eyes flashed open, and looked at me, hard as flint. "Very well. I'll answer no questions as to what happened on the evening of Thomas Gilbert's death, except in the presence of Worth Gilbert, his son."
My retirement down the Thornhill stairs, made with such dignity as I could muster, was in fact, a panic flight. Halfway, Cora Thornhill all but finished me by looking out from the living room, and calling in Ina Vandeman's voice,
"Erne, show Mr. Boyne out, won't you?"
Ernestine completed the job when she answered—in Ina Vandeman's voice, also—
"Yes, dear; I will." It was only the scraps of me that she swept out through the front door.
I stood on the porch and mopped my brow. Across, there at the Gilbert place was Worth himself, charging around the grounds with Vandeman and a lot of other decorators, pruning shears in hand, going for a thicket of bamboos that shut off the vegetable garden. At one side Barbara stood alone, looking, it seemed to me, rather depressed. I made for her. She met me with,
"I know what you've been doing. Skeet came to me about it while Ina was phoning home from the country club."
"Well—she should worry! I've just finished with her list. Got an unbreakable alibi."
"She would have," Barbara said listlessly. "She wasn't at the study that evening."
"Huh! I worked on your tip that she was."
Barbara had pulled off the little stitched hat she wore; yet the deep flush on her cheeks was neither from sun nor an afternoon's hard work. It, and the quick straightening of her figure, the lift of her chin, had to do with me and my activities.
"Mr. Boyne," the black eyes came around to me with a flash, "do you suspect me of trying to pay off a spite on Ina Vandeman?"
"Good Lord—no!" I exploded. "And anyhow, I've just found that what you imitated and Chung recognized, might as well have been the mother's voice as the daughter's."
"Yes," she assented. "Any one of the family—under stress of emotion." Then suddenly, "And why do I tell you that? You'll not get from it what I do. I ought never to have mixed up my kind of mental work with other people's. I'd promised my own soul that I would never make another deduction. Then Worth came and asked me—that night at Tait's. I might say now that I never will any more...." She broke off, storm in her eyes and in her voice as she finished, "But I suppose if he wanted me to again—I'd make a little fool of myself for his amusement just as I did this time and have done all these other times!"
"I'll not ask anything more of you, Barbara," I said to her hastily, confused and abashed before the glimpse she'd given me of her heart. "Except that I beg you to stay good friends with Cummings. That man hates Worth. If you turned him down now—say, for the ball, or anything like that—he'd be twice as hard for us to handle. Keep him a passive enemy instead of an active one, as long as he seems to find it necessary to hang around Santa Ysobel."
"You know what's holding Mr. Cummings here, don't you?" She glanced somberly past the bamboo gatherers to where we saw a gray corner of the study with its pink ivy geranium blossoms atop. "Mr. Cummings is held here by two steel bolts—the bolts on those study doors. Until he finds how they can be moved through an inch of planking—he'll not leave Santa Ysobel."
She'd put it in a nutshell. And I couldn't let him beat me to it. I'd got to get the jump on him.
I had all set for next morning: my roadster at Capehart's for repair, old Bill tipped off that I didn't want any one but Eddie Hughes to work on it; and to add to my satisfaction, there arrived in my daily grist from the office, the report that they had Skeels in jail at Tiajuana.
"Well, Jerry, old socks," Worth hailed my news as I followed out to his car where he was starting for San Francisco, and going to drop me at the Capehart garage, "Some luck! If Skeels is in jail at Tiajuana, and what I'm after to-day turns out right, we may have both ends of the string."
Pink-and-white were the miles of orchards surrounding Santa Ysobel, pink-and-white nearly all the dooryards, every tree its own little carnival of bloom with bees for guests. Already the streets were full of life, double the usual traffic. As we neared the Capehart cottage, on its quiet side street about half a block from the garage, there was Barbara under the apple boughs at the gate, talking to some man whose back was to us. She bowed; I answered with a wave toward the garage; but Worth scooted us past without, I thought, once glancing her way, sent the roadster across Main where he should have stopped and let me out, went on and into the highway at a clip which rocked us.
"Was that Cummings?" holding my hat on. No answer that I could hear, while we made speed toward San Francisco. And still no word was spoken until we had outraged the sensibilities of all whose bad luck it was to meet us, those whom we passed going at a more reasonable pace, scared a team of work horses into the ditch, and settled down to a steady whiz.
We were getting away from Santa Ysobel a good deal further and a good deal faster than I felt I could afford. I took a chance and remarked, to nobody in particular, and in a loud voice,
"I asked Barbara not to make a break with Cummings; it would be awkward for us now if she did."
"Break?" Worth gave me back one of my words.
"Yes. I was afraid she might throw him down for the carnival ball."
Without comment or reply, he slowed gently for the big turn where the Medlow road comes in, swept a handsome circle and headed back. Then he remarked,
"Thought I'd show you what the little boat could do under my management. Eddie had her in fair shape, but I've tuned her up a notch or two since."
I responded with proper enthusiasm, and would have been perfectly willing to be let out at Main Street. But he turned the corner there, ran on to the garage, jumped out and followed me in. Bill, selling some used tires to a customer in the office, nodded and let us go past to where my machine stood. We heard voices back in the repair shop and a hum of swift whirring shafts and pulleys. Worth kept with me. It embarrassed me—made me nervous. It was as though he had some notion of my purpose there. Hughes, at his lathe, caught sight of us and growled over his shoulder,
"Yer machine's ready."
This wouldn't do. I stepped to the door, with,
"Fixed the radiator, did you?"
"Sure. Whaddye think?" Hughes was at work on something for a girl; she perched at one end of his bench, swinging her feet. Worth, behind me, touched my shoulder, and I saw that the girl over there was Barbara Wallace.
She looked up at us and smiled. The sun slanting through dirt covered windows, made color effects on her silken black hair. Eddie gave us another scowl and went on with his work.
"Hello, Bobs," Worth's greeting was casual. "Thought I'd stop and tell you I was on my way—you know." A glance of understanding passed between them. "Better come along?"
"I'd like to," she smiled. "You'll be back by dinner time. If it wasn't the last day, and I hadn't promised—"
Neither of them in any hurry.
"Hughes," I said, "there's another thing needs doing on that car of mine—"
"Can't do nothing at all till I finish her job," he shrugged me off.
"All right," and I stepped through into the grassy back yard, put a smoke in my face, and began walking up and down, my glance, each time I turned, encountering that queer bunch inside: Worth, hands in pockets; the chauffeur he had discharged—and that I was waiting to get for murder—bending at his vise; Barbara's shining dark head close to the tousled unkemptness of his poll, as she explained to him the pulley arrangement needed to raise and anchor the banner she and Skeet were painting.
Suddenly, at the far end of my beat, I was brought up by a little outcry and stir. As I wheeled toward the door, I saw Bobs and Worth in it, apparently wrestling over something. Laughing, crying, she hung to his wrist with one hand, the other covering one of her eyes.
"Let me look!" he demanded. "I won't touch it, if you don't want me to. You have got something in there, Bobs."
But when she reluctantly gave him his chance, he treacherously went for her with a corner of his handkerchief in the traditional way, and she backed off, uttering a cry that fetched Hughes around from the lathe, roaring at Worth, above the noise of the machinery,
"What's the matter with her?"
"Steel splinter—in her eye," Worth shouted.
With a quick oath, the belt pole was thrown to stop the lathe; down the length of the shop to the scrap heap of odds and ends at the rear Hughes raced, returning with a bit of metal in his hand. Barbara was backed against the bench, her eyes shut, and tears had begun to flow from under the lids.
"Now, Miss Barbie," Hughes remonstrated. "You let me at that thing. This'll pull it out and never touch you." I saw it was a horse-shoe magnet he carried.
"Do you think it will?"
"Sure," and Eddie approached the magnet to her face. "It won't hurt you a-tall. She'll begin to pull before she even touches. Now, steady. Want to come as near contact as I can. Don't jump.... Hell!"
Barbara had sprung away from him. But for Worth's quick arm, she would have been into the machines.
"No!" she said between locked teeth, tears on her cheeks, "I can't let him."
"Why, Barbara!" I said, astonished; and poor Eddie almost blubbered as he begged,
"Aw, come on, Miss Barbie. It was my fault in the first place—leavin' that damned lathe run. Yuh got to let me—"
"But if it doesn't work?"
"Sure it'll work. Would I offer to use it for you if I hadn't tried it out lots o' times—to pull splinters and—"
"Give me that magnet," Worth reached the long arm of authority, got what he wanted, shouldered Hughes aside, and took hold of the girl with, "Quit being a little fool, Barbara. That thing's only caught in your lashes now. Let it get in against the eyeball and you'll have trouble. Hold still."
The command was not needed. Without a word, Barbara raised her face, put her hands behind her and waited.
Delicately, Worth caught the dark fringe of the closed eye, turned back the lid so that he could see just what he was at, brought the horse-shoe almost in touch, then drew it away—and there was the tiny steel splinter that could have cost her sight, clinging to the magnet's edge.
"Here you are," he smiled. "Wasn't that enough to call you names for?"
"You didn't call me names," dabbing away with a small handkerchief. "You told me to quit being a little fool. Maybe I will. How would you like that?"
Apparently Hughes did not resent Barbara's refusing his help and accepting Worth's. He went back to his vise; the two others strolled together through the doorway into the garage, talking there for a moment in quick, low tones; then Barbara returned to perch on the end of Eddie's bench, play with the magnet and watch him at work. I lit up again and stepped out.
I could see Barbara gather some nails, screws and loose pieces of iron, hold a bit of board over them, and trail the magnet back and forth along its top. Though a half inch of wood intervened, the metal trash on the bench followed the magnet to and fro. I got nothing out of that except that Barbara was still a child, playing like a child, till I looked up suddenly to find that she had ceased the play, brought her feet up to curl them under her in the familiar Buddha pose, while the busy hands were dropped and folded before her. Her rebellion of yesterday evening—and now her taking up the concentration unasked—she wouldn't want me to notice what she was doing; I ducked out of sight. I had walked up and down that yard a half dozen times more, when over me with a rush came the significance of those moving bits of iron, trailing a magnet on the other side of a board. Three long steps took me to the door.
"Hughes," I shouted, "I'm taking my machine now. Be back directly."
The man grunted without turning around. I had forgotten Barbara, but as I was climbing into the roadster, I heard her jump to the floor and start after me.
"Mr. Boyne! Wait! Mr. Boyne!"
I checked and sat grinning as she came up, the magnet in her hand. I reached for it.
"Give me that," I whispered. "Want to go along and see me use it?"
"No—no—" in hushed protest. "You're making a mistake, Mr. Boyne."
"Mistake? I saw what you did in there. Said you never would again—then went right to it! You sure got something this time! Girl—girl! You've turned the trick!"
"Oh, no! You mustn't take it like that, Mr. Boyne. This is nothing—as it stands. Just a single unrelated fact that I used with others to concentrate on. Wait. Do wait—till Worth comes back, anyhow."
"All right." I felt that our voices were getting loud, that we'd talked here too long. No use of flushing the game before I was loaded. "First thing to do is to verify this." I felt good all over.
"Yes, of course," she smiled faintly. "You would want to do that." And she climbed in beside me.
I drove so fast that Barbara had no chance to question me, though she did find openings for remonstrating at my speed. I dashed into the driveway of the Gilbert place and came to an abrupt stop at the doors of the garage. And right away I bumped up against my first check. I gripped the magnet, raced to the study door with it, she following more slowly to watch while I passed it along the wooden panel where the bolt ran on the other side; and nothing doing!
Again she followed as I ran around to the outside door, opened up and tried it on the bare bolt itself; no stir. While she sat in the desk chair at that central table, her elbows on its top, her hands lightly clasped, the chin dropped in interlaced fingers, following my movements with very little interest, I puffed and worked, opened a door and tried to move the bolt when it wasn't in the socket, and felt like cursing in disappointment.
"A little oil—" I grumbled, more to myself than to her, and hurried to the garage workbench for the can that would certainly be there. It was, but I didn't touch it. What I did lean over and clutch from where they lay tossed in carelessly among rubbish and old spare parts, were three more magnets exactly the same as the one we had brought from Capehart's. I sprinted back with them.
"Barbara," I called in an undertone. "Come here. Look."
Held side by side, the four, working as one, moved the bolts as well as fingers could have done, and through more than an inch of hard wood.
"Yes," she looked at it; "but that doesn't prove Eddie Hughes the murderer."
"No?" her opposition began to get on my nerves. "I'm afraid that'll be a matter for twelve good men and true to settle." She stood silent, and I added, "I know now whose shadow I saw on the broken panel of that door there, the first Sunday night."
"Oh, it was Eddie's," she agreed rather unexpectedly.
"And he came to steal the 1920 diary," I supplied.
"He came to get a drink from the cellaret, and a cigar from the case. That's the use he made of his power to move these bolts."
"Until the Saturday night when he killed his employer, the man he hated, and left things so the crime would pass as suicide. Barbara, are you just plain perverse?"
Instead of answering, she went back to the table, got the contraption Hughes had made for her, and started as if to leave me. On the threshold, she hesitated.
"I don't suppose there's anything I can say or do to change your mind," her tone was inert, drained. "I know that Eddie is innocent of this. But you don't want to listen to deductions."
"Later," I said to her, briskly. "It'll keep. I've something to do now."
"What? You promised Worth to make no move against Eddie Hughes until you had his permission." She seemed to think that settled it. I let her keep the idea.
"Run along, Barbara," I said, "get to your paint daubing. I'll forgive you everything for deducing—well, discovering, if you like that better—about these bolts and magnets."
Skeet burst from the kitchen door of the Thornhill house, caught sight of us, shouted something unintelligible, and came racing through the grounds toward Vandeman's.
"Been waiting for me long, angel?" she called, as Barbara moved up with a lagging step, then, waving two pairs of overalls, "Got pants for both of us, honey. The paints and brushes are over there. We'll make short work of that old banner, now."
Promised Worth, had I? But the situation was changed since then. No man of sense could object to my moving on what I had now. I locked the study door, went back to my roadster, and headed her uptown.
It was a thankful if not a joyous Jerry Boyne who crossed the front pergola of the Vandeman bungalow that evening in the wake of Worth Gilbert, bound for an informal dinner. The tall, unconscious lad who stepped ahead of me had been made safe in spite of himself. This weight off my mind, I felt kindly to the whole world, to the man under whose dining table we were to stretch our legs, whose embarrassing private affairs I had uncovered. He'd taken it well—seconding his wife's dinner invitation, meeting my eye frankly whenever we encountered. My mood was expansive. When Vandeman himself opened the door to us, explaining that he was his own butler for the day, I saw him quite other than he had ever appeared to me.
For one thing, here in his own house—and this was the first time I had ever been in it—you got the man with his proper background, his suitable atmosphere. The handsome living room into which he took us, showed many old pieces of mahogany, and some of the finest oriental stuff I ever saw; books in cases, sets of standard writers, such as people of culture bought thirty or forty years ago, some family pictures about. This was Vandeman; a lot behind such a fellow, after all, if he did seem rather a lightweight.
Ina joined us, very beautifully dressed. She also showed the ability to sink unpleasant considerations in the present moment of hospitality. We lingered a moment chatting, then,
"Shall we go and look at the artists working?" she suggested, and led the way. We followed out onto a flagged terrace at the rear. A dozen great muslin strips were tacked over the walls there, and two small figures, desperate, smudged, wearing the blue overalls Skeet Thornhill had waved at us, toiled manfully smearing the blossom festival colors on in lettering and ornamental designs.
"Ina!" Skeet yawped at her sister, "Another dirty, low Irish trick! Get yourself all dressed up like a sore thumb, and then show us off in this fix!"
Mutely Barbara revolved on the box she occupied. There was fire in her soft eyes; her color was high as her glance came to rest on Worth.
"Fong Ling's nearly ready to serve dinner," said Ina calmly. "Stop fussing, and go wash up."
"Hello, Mr. Boyne." As Skeet passed me, she wiped a paw on a paint rag and offered it to me without another word. I got a grip and a look that told me there was no hang-over with her from that scene yesterday in her mother's sick-room. Vandeman was commenting on his depleted bamboo clumps.
"Mine suffered worse than yours, Worth. Fong Ling kicked like a bay steer about our taking so much. He's nursed the stuff for years like a fond mother. But we had to have it for that effect up around the orchestra stand."
"Then he's been with you a long time?" I caught at the chance for information on this chink—information that I'd found it impossible to get from the chink himself.
"Ever since I came in here. Chinamen, you know—not like Japs. Some loyalty. You can keep a good one for half a lifetime."
We strolled back to the living room; the girls were there before us, Skeet picking out bits of plum-blossoms and bunches of cherry bloom from a great bowl on the mantel, and sticking them in Barbara's dark hair, wreath fashion.
"Best we could do at a splurge," she greeted us, "was to turn in our blouses at the neck."
"And what in the world are you doing to Barbara?" Mrs. Vandeman said sharply. "Let her alone, Skeet. You'll make her look ridiculous."
Skeet stuck out her tongue at her sister, and went calmly on, mumbling as she worked,
"Hold 'till 'ittle Barbie child. Yook up at pretty mans and hold 'till."
Over the mantel, in front of Barbara as she stood, her back to us all, hung an oil painting—one of those family groups—same old popper; same old mommer, and a fat baby in a white dress and blue sash. At that, it was good enough to show that the man had some resemblance to Vandeman as he leaned there on the mantel below it, rather encouraging Skeet's enterprise. From the other side, I could see Barbara's glance go from man to picture.