"Doesn't it look like Van, Barbie?" Skeet kept up the conversation. "Got the same ring, and all. But it ain't Van. Him's the tootsie in there with the blue ribbon round his tummy."
"I say, Skeeter, lay off!" Vandeman looked selfconsciously from the painted ring in the picture to the real ring on his own well kept hand there on the mantel edge. "People aren't interested in family histories."
"I am," said Barbara, unexpectedly. As the gong sounded and we all began to move toward the dining room, they were still on the subject and kept it up after we were seated.
Fong Ling served us. The bride had Worth on her right, and talked to him in lowered tones. Barbara, between Vandeman and myself, continued to show an almost feverish attention to Vandeman. It was plain enough from where I sat that nothing Ina Vandeman could say gave the lad any less interest in his plate. But I suppose with a girl, the mere fact of some other girl being allowed to show intentions counts. Did the flapper get what was going on, as she looked proudly across at her handiwork, and demanded of me,
"Say, Mr. Boyne, you saw how Ina tried to do us dirt? And now, honest to goodness, hasn't Barbie with the plum-blossoms got Ina and her artificial flowers skun a mile?"
I didn't wonder that young Mrs. Vandeman saved me the necessity of answering, by taking her up.
"Skeet, you're too outrageous!"
There she sat, quite a beauty in a very superior fashion; and Worth at her side, was having his attention called to this dark young creature across the table, whose wonderful still fire, the white blossoms crowning her hair, might well have made even a lovelier than Ina Vandeman look insipid. And Worth did take his time admiring her; I saw that; but all he found to say was,
"Bobs, I suppose Jerry's told you that he's treed Clayte at Tiajuana?"
"No," said Barbara, "he hasn't said a word. But I'm just as much surprised at Clayte's being caught as I was at Skeels escaping capture."
"Say that over and say it slow," Vandeman was good natured. "Or rather, put it in plain American, so we all can understand."
"Mr. Boyne knows what I mean." Barbara gave me a faint smile. "Mr. Boyne and I add up Skeels and Clayte, and get a different result. That's all."
"Bobs doesn't think that Skeels is Clayte, caught or uncaught," Worth said briefly and went on eating his dinner. Apparently he didn't give a hang which way the fact turned out to be.
"Why don't you?" Vandeman gave passing attention. She shook her head and put it.
"Skeels, at liberty, was quite possibly Clayte; Skeels captured cannot be Clayte. Mr. Boyne, do you call that a paradox?"
"No—an unkind slam at a poor old man's ability in his profession. I started out to find a gang; but Clayte and Skeels are so exactly one, mentally, morally and physically, that I don't see why we should seek further."
"Back up, Jerry," Worth tossed it over at me. "Let Barbara"—he didn't often use the girl's full name that way—"give you a description of Clayte before you're so sure."
"How could I?" The girl's tone was defensive. "I never saw him."
"I want you," Worth paid no attention to her objections, "to describe the man you thought you were asking for that day at the Gold Nugget, when Jerry butted in, and your ideas got lost in the excitement about Skeels. Deduce the description, I mean."
"Deduce it?" Barbara spoke stiffly, incredulously, her glance going from Worth to the well-gowned, well-groomed woman beside him. I remembered her moment of rebellion yesterday evening on the lawn, when she said so bitterly that if he asked it again, she'd do it again, as she finished, "Deduce—here?"
"Here and now." Worth's laconic answer sent the blood of healthy anger into her face, made her eyes shine. And it brought from Ina Vandeman a petulant,
"Oh, Worth, please don't turn my dinner table into a side-show."
"Ina, dear." Vandeman raised his eyes at her, then quite the cordial host urging a guest to display talent, "They say you're wonderful at that sort of thing, and I've never seen it."
Barbara was mad for fair.
"Oh, very well," she spoke pointedly to Vandeman, and left Worth out of it. "If you think you'd really enjoy seeing me make a side-show of Ina's dinner table—"
She stopped and waited. Vandeman played up to the situation as he saw it, with one of his ready smiles. Worth threw no life-line. Ina didn't think it worth while to apologize for her rudeness. Skeet was openly in a twitter of anticipation. There was nothing for me to do. A little commotion of skirts told us that she was drawing up her feet to sit cross-legged in her chair.
"She's going to! Oh, golly!" Skeet chortled. "Haven't seen Bobsy do one of those stunts since I was a che-ild!"
Arms down, hands clasped, eyes growing bigger, face paling into snow, we watched her. To all but Vandeman, this was a more or less familiar performance. They took it rather as a matter of course. It was the Chinaman, coming in with the coffee tray, who seemed most strangely affected by it. He stopped where he was in the doorway, rigid, staring at our girl, though with a changeful light in his eye that seemed to me to shift between an unreasonable admiration and an unreasonable fear. Orientals are superstitious; but what could the fellow be afraid of in the beautiful young thing, Buddha posed, blossoms in her hair? The girl had gone into her stunt with a sort of angry energy. He seemed to clutch himself to stillness for the brief time that it held. Only in the moment that she relaxed, and we knew that Barbara had concentrated, Barbara was Barbara again, did he move quietly forward, a decent, competent servant, stepping around the table, placing our cups.
"Just two facts to go on," she said coldly. "My results will be pretty general."
"Nothing to go on in the way of a description of Clayte," I tried to help her out. "I'd call that one we had of him as near nothing as it well could be."
"Yes, the nothingness of it was one of my facts," she said, and stopped.
"Let's hear what you did get, Bobs," Worth prompted; and Skeet giggled, half under her breath,
"At the Gold Nugget—whatever he called himself there—Edward Clayte was ten years younger than he had seemed at the bank; he appeared to weigh a dozen pounds more; threw out his chest, walked with his head up, and therefore would have been estimated quite a bit taller. This personality was an opposite of the other. Bank clerk Clayte was demure, unobtrusive; this man wore loud patterns. The bank clerk was silent; this man talked to every one around him, tilted his hat over one eye, smoked cigars just as those men were doing that day in the lobby; acted like them, was one of them. In the Gold Nugget, Clayte was a very average Gold Nugget guest—don't you see? Commonplace there, just as the other Clayte had been commonplace in a bank or an office."
Her voice ceased. On the silence it left, Worth spoke up quietly.
"Bull's eye as usual, Bobs. Every word you say is true. And at the Gold Nugget, his name was Henry J. Brundage. He had room thirty on the top floor."
Skeet clapped her hands, jumped up and came around the table to kiss Barbara on the ear, and tell her she was the most wonderfullest girl in the world.
"Heh!" I flared at Worth. "Find that all out to-day in San Francisco?"
"Oh, it was the Brundage clew that took you south?"
"Yep. Left Louie on the job at the hotel while I was away. To-day, I went after Brundage's automobile. Found he'd kept one in a garage on Jackson Street."
"It's gone, of course—and no trace," Barbara murmured.
"Gone since the day of the bank theft," Worth nodded. "He and the money went in it."
"Say," I leaned over toward him, "wouldn't it have saved wear and tear if you'd told me at the first that you knew Skeels couldn't be Clayte?"
"Oh, but, Jerry, you were so sure! And Skeels wasn't possible for a minute—never in his little, piking, tin-horn life!"
I don't believe I had seen Worth so happy since he was a boy, playing detective. I glanced around and pulled myself up; we certainly weren't making ourselves very entertaining for the Vandemans. There they sat, at their own table, like handsome figureheads, smiling politely, pretending a decent interest.
"All this must be a bore to you people," I apologized.
"Not at all—not at all," Vandeman assured us.
"Well then if you don't mind—Worth, I'll go and use Vandeman's phone—put my office wise to these Brundage clews of yours."
Worth nodded. No social scruples were his. I had by no means given up the belief that Skeels in jail at Tiajuana, would still turn out to be one of the gang.
I had just got back to the table from my phoning when the doorbell rang; we saw the big Chinese slip noiselessly through the rear into the hall to answer it, coming back a moment later, announcing in his weighty, correct English,
"Two gentlemen calling—to see Captain Gilbert."
"Ask for me?" Worth came to his feet in surprise. "Who told them I was here?"
"I do not know," the Chinaman spoke unnecessarily as Worth was crossing to the door. "I did not ask them that."
"Use the living room, Worth," Vandeman called after him. "We'll wait here."
With the closing of the door, conversation languished. Even Skeet was quiet and seemed depressed. My ears were straining for any sound from in there. As I sat, hand dropped at my side, I suddenly felt under shelter of the screening tablecloth, cold, nervous fingers slipped into mine. Barbara wasn't looking at me, but I gave her a quick glance as I pressed her gripping small hand encouragingly.
She was turned toward Vandeman. Pale to the lips, her great eyes fixed on the eyes of our host, I saw with wonder how he slowly stirred a spoon about in his emptied coffee cup, and stared back at her with a face almost as colorless as her own. The bride glanced from one to the other of them, and spoke sharply,
"What's the matter with you two? You're not uneasy about Worth's callers, are you?"
"No-no-no—" Vandeman was the first to come out of it, responding to her voice a good deal as if she dashed cold water in his face, his eyes breaking away from Barbara's, his lips parted in a nervous smile. He ran a hand through his hair—an inelegant gesture for him at table—and laughed a little.
"We ought to be in there," Barbara said to me, a curious stress in her voice.
"How funny you talk, Barbie," Skeet quavered. "What do you think's wrong?" And Ina spoke decidedly,
"Worth is one person in the world who can certainly take care of himself, and would rather be let alone."
"If you think there is anything we should do—?" Vandeman began anxiously, and Skeet took a look around at our faces and fairly wailed,
"What is it? What's the matter? What do you think they're doing to Worth in there, Barbie?"
"I'd think they were arresting him," Barbara said in a low, choked tone, "Only they don't know—"
"Arresting him!" I broke in on her, startled, getting halfway to my feet; then as remembrance came to me, sinking back with, "Certainly not. The murderer of Thomas Gilbert is already in the county jail. I arrested Eddie Hughes this morning."
"You arrested—Eddie Hughes!" It was a cry from Barbara. The cold little hand was jerked from mine. Twisting around in her chair, she stared at me with a look that made me cold. "Then you've moved those two steel bolts for Cummings."
I jumped to my feet. On the instant the door opened, and in it stood Worth, steady enough, but his brown tanned face was strangely bleached.
"Jerry," he spoke briefly. "I want you. The sheriff's come for me."
MRS. BOWMAN SPEAKS
Midnight in the sheriff's office at San Jose. And I had to telephone Barbara. She'd be waiting up for my message. The minute I heard her voice on the wire, I plunged in:
"Yes, yes, yes; done all I could. A horse can do no more. They've got Worth. I—" The words stuck in my throat; but they had to come out—"I left him in a cell."
A sound came over the wire; whether speech or not, it was something I couldn't get.
"He's taking it like a man and a soldier, girl," I hurried. "Not a word out of him about my having gone counter to his express orders, arrested Hughes, and pulled this thing over on us."
"Oh, Mr. Boyne! Of course he wouldn't blame you. Neither would I. You acted for what you thought was his good. The others—"
"Vandeman's already gone home. Tell you he stood by well, Barbara—that tailor's dummy! Surprised me. No, no. Didn't let Jim Edwards come with us; so broken up I didn't want him along—only hurt our case over here, the way he is now."
"Your case?" she spoke out clearly. "What is the situation?"
"A murder charge against Worth on the secret files. Hughes is out—Cummings got him—took him, don't know where. Can't locate him."
"Do you need to?"
"Perhaps not, Barbara. What I do need is some one who saw Thomas Gilbert alive that night after Worth left to go back to San Francisco."
"And if you had that—some one?"
"If we could produce before Cummings one credible witness to that, it would mean an alibi. I'd have Worth out before morning."
"Then, Mr. Boyne, get to the Fremont House here as quickly as you can. Mr. Cummings is there. Get him out of bed if you have to. I'll bring the proof you need."
"But, child!" I began.
"Don't—waste—time—talking! How long will it take you to get here?"
"Half an hour."
"Oh! You may have to wait for me a little. But I'll surely come. Wait in Mr. Cummings' room."
Half past twelve when I reached the Fremont House, to find it all alight, its lobby and corridors surging with the crowd of blossom festival guests. Nobody much in the bar; soft drinks held little interest; but in the upper halls, getting to Cummings' room, I passed more than one open door where the hip-pocket cargoes were unloading, and was even hailed by name, with invitations to come in and partake. Cummings was still up. The first word he gave me was,
"Glad of it," I said. "Bring him in. I want you both."
It took a good deal of argument before he brought the Western Cereal man from the adjoining room where he had evidently been just getting ready for bed. He came to the conference resentful as a soreheaded old bear.
"Maybe you think Worth Gilbert will sleep well to-night—in jail?" I stopped him, and instantly differentiated the two men before me. Cummings took it, with an ugly little half smile; Dykeman rumpled his hair, and bolstered his anger by shouting at me,
"This country'll go to the dogs if we make an exempt class of our returned soldiers. Break the laws—they'll have to take the consequences, just as a man that was too old or too sickly to fight would have to take 'em. If I'd done what Captain Gilbert's done—I wouldn't expect mercy."
"You mean, if you'd done what you say he's done," I countered. "Nothing proved yet."
"Nothing proved?" Dykeman huddled in his chair and shivered. Cummings shook out an overcoat and helped him into it. He settled back with a protesting air of being about to leave us, and finished squeakily, "Didn't need to prove that he had Clayte's suitcase."
"Good Lord, Mr. Dykeman! You're not lending yourself to accuse a man like Worth Gilbert of so grave a crime as murder, just because you found his ideas irregular—maybe reckless—in a matter of money?"
"Don't answer, Dykeman!" Cummings jumped in. "Boyne's trying to get you to talk."
The old chap stared at me doubtfully, then broke loose with a snort,
"See here, Boyne, you can't get away from it; your man Gilbert has embarked on a criminal career: mixed up in the robbery of our bank, with Clayte to rob us; had our own attorney go through the form of raising money to buy us off from the pursuit of Clayte—"
"How about me?" I stuck in the question as he paused for breath. "Do you think Worth Gilbert would put me on the track of a man he didn't want found?"
Cummings cut in ahead to answer for him,
"Just the point. You've not done any good at the inquiry; never will, so long as you stand with Worth Gilbert. He needed a detective who would believe in him through thick and thin. And he found such a man in you."
I could not deny it when Dykeman yipped at me,
"Ain't that true? If it was anybody else, wouldn't you see the connection? Captain Gilbert came here to Santa Ysobel that Saturday night—as we've got witnesses to testify—had a row with his father—we've got witnesses for that, too—the word money passed between them again and again in that quarrel—and then the young man had the nerve to walk into our bank next morning with his father's entire holdings of our stock in Clayte's suitcase—Boyne, you're crazy!"
"Maybe not," I said, reckoning on something human in Dykeman to appeal to. "You see I know where Worth got that suitcase. It came out of my office vault—evidence we'd gathered in the Clayte hunt. Getting it and using it that way was his idea of humor, I suppose."
"Sounds fishy." Dykeman made an uncomfortable shift in his chair. But Cummings came close, and standing, hands rammed down in the pockets of his coat, let me have it savagely.
"Evidence, Boyne, is the only thing that would give you a license to rout men out at this time of night—new evidence. Have you got it? If not—"
"Wait." I preferred to stop him before he told me to get out. "Wait." I looked at my watch. In the silence we could hear the words of a yawp from one of the noisy rooms when a passerby was hailed:
"There she goes! There—look at the chickens!"
A minute later, a tap sounded on the door. Cummings stood by while I opened it to Barbara, and a slender, veiled woman, taller by half a head in spite of bent shoulders and the droop of weakness which made the girl's supporting arm apparently necessary.
At sight of them, Dykeman had come to his feet, biting off an exclamation, looking vainly around the bare room for chairs, then suggesting,
"Get some from my room, Boyne."
I went through the connecting door to fetch a couple. When I came back, Barbara was still standing, but her companion had sunk into the seat the shivering, uncomfortable old man offered, and Cummings was bringing a glass of water for her. She sipped it, still under the shield of her veil. This was never Ina Vandeman. Could it be that Barbara had dragged Mrs. Thornhill from her bed? I saw Barbara bend and whisper reassuringly. Then the veil was swept back, it caught and carried the hat with it from Laura Bowman's shining, copper colored hair, and the doctor's wife sat there ghastly pale, evidently very weak, but more composed than I had ever seen her.
"I'm all right now," she spoke very low.
"Miss Wallace," Dykeman demanded harshly. "Who is this—lady?"
"Mrs. Bowman," Barbara looked her employer very straight in the eye.
"Heh?" he barked. "Any relation to Dr. Bowman—any connection with him?"
"His wife." Cummings bent and mumbled to the older man for a moment.
"Laura," Barbara said gently, "this is Mr. Dykeman. You're to tell him and Mr. Cummings."
"Yes," breathed Mrs. Bowman. "I'll tell them. I'm ready to tell anybody. There's nothing in dodging, and hiding, and being afraid. I'm done with it. Now—what is it you want to know?"
Cummings' expression said plainer than words that they didn't want to know anything. They had their case fixed up and their man arrested, and they didn't wish to be disturbed. She went on quickly, of herself,
"I believe I was the last person who saw Mr. Gilbert alive. I must have been. I'd rushed over there, just as Ina told you, Mr. Boyne, between the reception and our getting off for San Francisco."
"All this concerns the early part of the evening," put in Cummings.
"Yes—but it concerns Worth, too. He was there when I came in.... It was very painful."
"The quarrel between Captain Gilbert and his father d'ye mean?" Dykeman asked his first question. Mrs. Bowman nodded assent.
"Thomas went right on, before me, just as though I hadn't been there. Then, when it came my turn, he would have spoken out before Worth of—of my private affairs. That was his way. But I couldn't stand it. I went with Worth out to his machine. He had it in the back road. We talked there a little while, and Worth drove away, going fast, headed for San Francisco."
"And that was the last time you saw Thomas Gilbert alive?" Cummings summed up for her.
"I hadn't finished," she objected mildly. "After Worth was gone, I went back into the study and pleaded with Thomas for a long time. I pointed out to him that if I'd sinned, I'd certainly suffered, and what I asked was no more than the right any human being has, even if they may be so unfortunate as to be born a woman."
Dykeman looked exquisitely miserable; but Cummings was only the lawyer getting rid of an unwanted witness, as he warned her,
"Not the slightest need to go into your personal matters, Mrs. Bowman. We know them already. We knew also of your visit to Mr. Gilbert's study that night, and that you didn't go there alone. Had the testimony been of any importance to us, we'd have called in both you and James Edwards."
I could see that her deep concern for another steadied Laura Bowman.
"How do you know all this?" she demanded. "Who told you?"
"Your husband, Doctor Bowman."
Up came the red in her face, her eyes shone with anger.
"He did follow me, then? I thought I saw him creeping through the shrubbery on the lawn."
"He did follow you. He has told us of your being at the study—the two of you—when young Gilbert was there."
"See here, Cummings," I put in, "if Bowman was around the place, then he knows that Worth left before the crime was committed. Why hasn't he told you so?"
"He has," Cummings said neatly; and I felt as though something had slipped. Barbara kept a brave front, but Mrs. Bowman moaned audibly.
"And still you've charged Worth Gilbert? Why not Bowman himself? He was there. As much reason to suspect him as any of the others. Do you mean to tell me that you won't accept Mrs. Bowman's testimony—and Dr. Bowman's—as proving an alibi for Worth Gilbert? I'm ready to swear that he was at Tait's at five minutes past ten, was there continuously from that time until a little after midnight, when you yourself saw him there."
"A little past midnight!" Cummings repeated my words half derisively. "Not good enough, Boyne. We base our charge on the medical statement that Mr. Gilbert met his death in the small hours of Sunday morning."
I looked away from Barbara; I couldn't bear her eye. After a stunned silence, I asked,
"Whose? Who makes that statement?"
"His own physician. Doctor Bowman swears—"
"He?" Mrs. Bowman half rose from her chair. "He'd swear to anything. I—"
"Don't say any more," Cummings cut her off. And Dykeman mumbled,
"Had the whole history of your marital infelicities all over the shop. Too bad such things had to be dragged in. Man seems to be a worthy person—"
"Doctor Bowman told me positively," I broke in, "on the Sunday night the body was found, that death must have occurred before midnight."
"Gave that as his opinion—his opinion—then," Cummings corrected me.
"Yes," I accepted the correction. "That was his opinion before he quarreled with Worth. Now he—"
"Slandering Bowman won't get you anywhere, Boyne," Cummings said. "He wasn't here to testify at the inquest. Man alive, you know that nothing but sworn testimony counts."
"I wouldn't believe that man's oath," I said shortly.
"Think you'll find a jury will," smirked Cummings, and Dykeman croaked in,
"A mighty credible witness—a mighty credible witness!"
While these pleasant remarks flew back and forth, a thumping and bumping had made itself heard in the hall. Now something came against our door, as though a large bundle had been thrown at the panels. The knob rattled, jerked, was turned, and a man appeared on the threshold, swaying unsteadily. Two others, who seemed to have been holding him back, let go all at once, and he lurched a step into the room. Doctor Anthony Bowman.
A minute he stood blinking, staring, then he caught sight of his wife and bawled out,
"She's here all right. Tol' you she was here. Can't fool me. Saw her go past in the hall."
I looked triumphantly at Dykeman and Cummings. Their star witness—drunk as a lord! So far he seemed to have sensed nothing in the room but his wife. Without turning, he reached behind him and slammed the door in the faces of those who had brought him, then advanced weavingly on the woman, with,
"Get up from there. Get your hat. I'll show you. You come 'long home with me! Ain't I your husband?"
"Doctor Bowman," peppery little old Dykeman spoke up from the depths of his chair. "Your wife was brought here to a—to a—"
"Meeting," Cummings supplied hastily.
"Huh?" Bowman wheeled and saw us. "Why-ee! Di'n' know so many gen'lemen here."
"Yes," the lawyer put a hand on his shoulder. "Conference—over the evidence in the Gilbert case. No time like the present for you to say—"
"Hol' on a minute," Bowman raised a hand with dignity.
"Cummings," said Dykeman disgustedly, "the man's drunk!"
"No, no," owlishly. "'m not 'ntoxicated. Overcome with 'motion." He took a brace. "That woman there—'f I sh'd tell you—walk into hotel room, find her with three men! Three of 'em!"
"How much of this are these ladies to stand for?" I demanded.
"Ladies?" Bowman roared suddenly. "She's m' wife. Where's th' other man? Nothing 'gainst you gen'lmen. Where's he? I'll settle with him. Let that thing go long 'nough. Too long. Bring him out. I'll settle him now!"
He dropped heavily into the chair Cummings shoved up behind him, stared around, drooped a bit, pulled himself together, and looked at us; then his head went forward on his neck, a long breath sounded—
"And you'll keep Worth Gilbert in jail, run the risk of a suit for false imprisonment—on that!" I wanted to know.
"And plenty more," the lawyer held steady, but I saw his uneasiness with every snore Bowman drew.
Barbara crossed to speak low and earnestly to Dykeman. I heard most of his answer—shaken, but disposed to hang on,
"Girl like you is too much influenced by the man in the case. Hero worship—all that sort of thing. An outlaw is an outlaw. This isn't a personal matter. Mr. Cummings and I are merely doing our duty as good citizens."
At that, I think it possible that Dykeman would have listened to reason; it was Cummings who broke in uncontrollably,
"Barbara Wallace, I was your father's friend. I'm yours—if you'll let me be. I can't stand by while you entangle yourself with a criminal like Worth Gilbert. For your sake, if for no other reason, I would be determined to show him up as what he is: a thief—and his father's murderer."
Silence in the room, except the irregular snoring of Bowman, a rustle and a deeply taken breath now and again where Mrs. Bowman sat, her head bent, quietly weeping. On this, Barbara who spoke out clearly,
"Those were the last words you will ever say to me, Mr. Cummings, unless you should some time be man enough to take back your aspersions and apologize for them."
He gave ground instantly. I had not thought that dry voice of his could contain what now came into it.
"Barbara, I didn't mean—you don't understand—"
But without turning her head, she spoke to me: "Mr. Boyne, will you take Laura and me home?" gathering up Mrs. Bowman's hat and veil, shaking the latter out, getting her charge ready as a mother might a child. "She's not going back to him—ever again." Her glance passed over the sleeping lump of a man in his chair. "Sarah'll make a place for her at our house to-night."
"See here," Cummings got between us and the door. "I can't let you go like this. I feel—"
"Mr. Dykeman," Barbara turned quietly to her employer, "could we pass out through your room?"
"Certainly," the little man was brisk to make a way for us. "I want you to know, Miss Wallace, that I, too, feel—I, too, feel—"
I don't know what it was that Dykeman felt, but Cummings felt my rude elbow in his chest as I pushed him unceremoniously aside, and opened the door he had blocked, remarking,
"We go out as we came in. This way, Barbara."
It was as I parted with the two of them at the Capehart gate that I drew out and handed Mrs. Bowman a small piece of dull blue silk, a round hole in it, such as a bullet or a cigarette might have made, with,
"I guess you'll just have to forgive me that."
"I don't need to forgive it," her gaze swam. "I saw your mistake. But it was for Worth you were fighting even then; he's been so dear to me always—I'd have to love any one for anything they did for his sake."
THE BLOSSOM FESTIVAL
Two hours sleep, bath, breakfast, and I started on my early morning run for the county seat. Nobody else was going my way; but even at that hour, the road was full of autos, buggies, farm wagons, pretty much everything that could run on wheels, headed for the festival, all trimmed and streaming with the blossoming branches of their orchards. These were the country folks, coming in early to make a big day of it; orchardists; ranchers from the cattle lands in the south end of the county; truck and vegetable farmers; flower-seed gardeners; the Japs and Chinese from their little, closely cultivated patches; this tide streamed past me on my left hand, as I made my way to Worth and the jailer's office, trying with every mile I put behind me, to bolster my courage. Why wasn't this shift of the enemy a blessing in disguise? Let their setting of the hour for the murder stick, and wouldn't Worth's alibi be better than any we should have been able to dig up for him before midnight?
From time to time I was troubled by recollection of Barbara's crushed look from the moment they sprung it on us, but brushed that aside with the obvious explanation that her efforts in bringing Mrs. Bowman to speak out had just been of no use; surely enough to depress her.
Worth met me, fit, quiet, not over eager about anything. They let us talk with a guard outside the door. Once alone, he listened appreciatively while I told him of our interview with Cummings and Dykeman as fast as I could pile the words out.
"Nobody on earth like Bobs," was his sole comment. "Never was, never will be."
"And now," I reminded him nervously, "there's the question of this alibi. You went straight from the restaurant to your room at the Palace and to bed there?"
"No-o," he said slowly. "No, I didn't."
"Well—well," I broke in. "If you stopped on the way, you can remember where. The people you spoke to will be as good as the clerks and bell-hops at the Palace for your alibi." He sat silent, thoughtful, and I added, "Where did you go from Tait's, Worth?"
"To a garage—in the Tenderloin—where they keep good cars. I'd hired machines from them before."
"Oh, they knew you there? Then their testimony will—"
"I don't believe you want it, Jerry. It only accounts for the half hour—or less—right after I left you; all I did was to hire a car."
"A car," I echoed vaguely. "What kind of a car? Hired it for when?"
"I asked them for the fastest thing they had in the shop. Told 'em to fill it all round, and see that it was tuned up to the last notch. I wanted speed."
"My God, Worth! Do you know what you're telling me?"
"The truth, Jerry." His eye met mine unflinchingly. "That's what you want, isn't it?"
"Where did you go?" I groaned. "You must have seen somebody who could identify or remember you?"
"Not a solitary human being to identify me. Those I passed—there were people out of course, late as it was—saw my headlights as I went by. But I was moving fast, Jerry. I was working off a grouch; I needed speed."
"Where did you go?"
"Straight down the peninsula on the main highway to Palo Alto, made the sweep across to the sea, and then up the coast road. I ran into the garage about dawn."
"No stops anywhere?"
He shook his head.
"And that's your alibi?"
"That's my alibi." Worth looked at me a long while before he said finally,
"Don't you see, Jerry, that the other side had all this before they encouraged Bowman to change his mind about when father was shot?"
I did see it—ought to have known from the first. This was what they had back of them last night in Cummings' room; this explained the lawyer's smug self-confidence, Dykeman's violent certainty that Worth was a criminal. A realization of this had whitened Barbara's face, set her lips in that pitiful, straight line. As to their momentary chagrin over Bowman; no trouble to them to get other physicians to bolster any opinion he'd given. Medical testimony on such a point is notoriously uncertain. All the jury would want to know was that there could be such a possibility. I sat there with bent head, and felt myself going to pieces. Cummings was right—I was no fit man to handle this job. My personal feelings were too deeply involved. It was Worth's voice that recalled me.
"Cheer up, Jerry, old man. Take it to Bobs."
Take it to Bobs—the idea of a big, husky old police detective running to cast his burden on such shoulders! I couldn't quite do it then. I went and telephoned the little girl that I was doing the best I could—and then ran circles for the rest of the day, chasing one vain hope after another, and finally, in the late afternoon, sneaked home to Santa Ysobel.
Now I had the road more to myself; only an occasional handsome car, where the wealthy were getting in to the part of the festival they'd care for. In the orchards near town where the big picnic places had been laid out with rough board tables and benches, seats for thousands, there were occasional loud basket lunch parties scattered. All at once I was hungry enough to have gone and asked for a handout.
I went by back streets down to the house to get my mail. There seemed no human reason that I should feel it a treachery to have Worth in jail at San Jose, and be able to walk into his house at Santa Ysobel a free man. The place was empty; Chung had the day off, of course. It was possible Worth's cook, even, didn't know what had happened to his employer. Santa Ysobel had no morning paper. In the confusion of the blossom festival, I ventured to guess that not more than a score of people did as yet know of the arrest. Our end of town was drained, quiet; nobody over at the Vandeman bungalow; looking down at the Square as I made my sneak through, I had caught a glimpse of Bronson Vandeman, a great rosette of apricot blossoms on his coat lapel, making his speech of presentation to the cannery girl queen, while his wife, Ina, her fair face shaded doubly by a big flower hat and a blossom covered parasol, listened and looked on.
One of my pieces of mail concerned the Skeels chase. If my men down there had Skeels, and Skeels was Clayte, it would mean everything in handling Cummings and Dykeman. I took out the report and ran hastily through it; a formal statement; day by day stuff:
"Found Skeels and Dial at Tiajuana. Negotiating to buy saloon and gambling house. Arranged with Jefico for arrest of S. (Expense $20.) Rurales took S. to jail. (Expense, $4.50) I interviewed S., and he said he came here to open a business where he could sell booze. D. was his partner in proposition. S. knew nothing of bank affair. Would waive extradition and come back to stand trial at our expense. Interviewed D. He says combined capital of two is $4500., saved from S's business and D's miner's wages. D. said—"
Not much to show up with; but there were three photographs enclosed that I wanted to try on Cummings and Dykeman. No telling where I'd find either, but the Fremont House was my best bet. Getting back there through the crowd, I saw Skeet Thornhill in a corner drugstore, waiting at its counter. I was afoot, having been obliged to park my roadster in one of the spaces set apart for this purpose. I noticed Vandeman's car already there.
I lingered a minute on that corner looking down the slope that led to City Hall Square. Tent restaurants along the way; sandwiches; hot dogs; coffee; milk; pies; doughnuts. Part way down a hurdy-gurdy in a tent began to get patronage again; the school children in white dresses with pink bows in their hair had just finished a stunt in the Square. They and their elders were streaming our way, headed for the snake charmers, performing dogs and Nigger-in-the-tank. In the midst of them Vandeman and his wife came afoot. He caught sight of me, hailed, and when I joined them, asked quickly, glancing toward the drugstore entrance,
"Worth come with you?"
I shook my head. He made that little clucking sound with his tongue that people do when they want to offer sympathy, and find the matter hard to put into words.
A seller of toy balloons on the corner with a lot of noisy youngsters around him; the ka-lash, ka-lam of a mechanical piano further down the block; and young Mrs. Vandeman's staccato tones saying,
"I tell Bron that the only thing Worth's friends can do is to go on exactly as if nothing had happened. Don't you think so, Mr. Boyne?"
I agreed mutely.
"Well, I wish you'd say so to Barbie Wallace," her voice sharpened. "She's certainly acting as though she believed the worst."
"Now, Ina," Vandeman remonstrated. And I asked uncomfortably,
"What's Barbie done? Where is she?"
"Up at Mrs. Capehart's. In her room. Doesn't come out at all. Isn't going to the ball to-night. Skeet said she refused to speak to Mr. Cummings."
"Is that all Skeet said? Vandeman, you've told your wife that Cummings swore to the complaint?"
"Yes, but—er—there's no animus. The executor of Gilbert's estate—With all the talk going around—If Worth's proved innocent, he might in the end be glad of Cummings' action."
"Oh, might he?" Skeet Thornhill had hurried out from the drugstore, a package of medicine in her hand. Her eyes looked as though she'd been crying; they flashed a hostile glance over the new brother-in-law, excellently groomed, the big flower favor on his coat, the tall, beautiful sister, all frilly white and flower festival fashion.
"If Worth's proved innocent!" she flung at them. "Bronse Vandeman, you've got a word too many in when you say that."
"Just a tongue-slip, Skeeter," Vandeman apologized. "I hope the boy'll come through all right—same as you do."
"You don't do anything about it the same as I do!" Skeet came back. "I'd be ashamed to 'hope' for a friend to be cleared of a charge like that. If I couldn't know he was clear—clear all the time—I'd try to forget about it."
"See here, Skeet," Ina obviously restrained herself, "that's what we're all trying to do for Worth: forget about it—make nothing of it—act exactly as if it'd never happened. You ought to come on out to the ball with the other girls. You're just staying away because Barbara Wallace is."
"I'm not. Some damn fool went and told mother about Worth being arrested, and made her a lot worse. She's almost crazy. I'd be afraid to leave her alone with old Jane. You get me and this medicine up home—or shall I go around to Capehart's and have Barbie drive me?"
"I'll take you, Skeeter," Vandeman said. "We're through here. We're for home to dress, then to the country club—and not leave it again till morning. That ball out there has got to be made the biggest thing Santa Ysobel ever saw—regardless. Come on." The crowd swallowed them up.
Making for the Fremont House, I passed Dr. Bowman's stairway, and on impulse turned, ran up. I found the doctor packing, very snappish, very sorry for himself. He was leaving next day for a position in the state hospital for the insane at Sefton. His kind have to blow off to somebody; I was it, though he must have known I had no sympathy to offer. The hang-over of last night's drunk made emotional the tone in which he said,
"After all, a man's wife makes or breaks him. Mine's broken me. I could have had a fine position at the Mountain View Sanitarium, well paid, among cultured people, if she'd held up her damned divorce suit a little longer."
"And as it is, you have to put up with what Cummings can land you with such pull as he has."
"I'm not complaining of Cummings," sullenly. "He did the best he could for me, I suppose, on such short notice. But a man of my class is practically wasted in a place of the sort."
I had learned what I wanted; I carried more ammunition to the interview before me. I found Dykeman in his room, propped up in bed, wheezing with an attack of asthma. A sick man is either more merciful than usual, or more unmerciful. Apparently it took Dykeman the former way; he accepted me eagerly, and had me call Cummings from the adjoining room. The lawyer was half into that costume he had brought from San Francisco. He came quite modern as to the legs and feet, but thoroughly ancient in a shirt of mail around the arms and chest, and carrying a Roman helmet in his hand as though it had been an opera hat.
"Trying 'em on?" Dykeman whispered at him.
Cummings nodded with that self-conscious, half-tickled, half-sheepish air that men display when it comes to costume. His greeting to me was cool but not surly. What had happened might go as all in the day's work between detective and lawyer.
"Just seen Bowman," was my first pass at them. "I gather he's not very well pleased with the position you got him; seems to think it small pay for a dirty job."
"What's this? What's this?" croaked Dykeman. "You been getting a place for Bowman, Cummings?"
"Certainly," the lawyer dodged with swift, practical neatness. "I'd promised him my influence in the matter some little time ago."
"Yes," I said, "mighty little time ago—the day he promised the testimony you wanted in the Gilbert case."
"Anything in what Boyne says, Cummings?" Dykeman asked anxiously. "You know I wouldn't stand for that sort of stuff."
The lawyer shook his head, but I didn't believe it was ended between them; Dykeman was the devil to hang on to a point. This would come up again after I was gone. Meantime I made haste to shove the photographs before them. Cummings passed them back with an indifferent, "What's the idea?"
"You don't recognize him?"
"Never saw the man in my life," and again he asked, "What's the idea?"
"You'd recognize a picture of Clayte?" I countered with a question of my own.
"Yes—I think so," rather dubiously. "But Dykeman would. Show them to him."
Dykeman reached for the photographs, spread them out before him, then looked up from them peevishly to say,
"For the good Lord's sake! Don't look any more like Clayte than it does like a horned toad. Is that what you've been wasting your time over, Boyne? If you ask me—"
"I don't ask you anything," retrieving the pictures, planting them deep in an inner pocket. Then I got myself out of the room.
Standing on the sidewalk in front of the Fremont House, I felt sort of bewildered. This last crack had taken all the pep I had left. I suddenly realized it was long after dinner time, and I'd had no dinner, no lunch, nothing to eat since an early breakfast. Worth had sent me to the girl—and I hadn't gone. I dragged myself around to Capehart's cottage as nearly whipped as I ever was in my life.
I found Barbara with Laura Bowman, every one else off the place, out at the shows. Those girls sure were good to me; they fed me and didn't ask questions till I was ready to talk. Nothing to be said really, except that I'd failed. I told them of meeting the Vandemans, and gave them Ina Vandeman's opinion as to how Worth's friends should conduct themselves just now.
"So they'll all be out there," I concluded, "Vandeman and his wife leading the grand march, her sisters as maids of honor—except Skeet, staying at home with her mother. Cummings goes as a Roman soldier; Doctor Bowman as a Spanish cavalier. Edwards didn't see it as the Vandemans do, but after I'd talked to him awhile, he agreed to be there."
And suddenly I noticed for the first time how the relative position of these two women had shifted. Laura Bowman wasn't red-headed for nothing; out from under the blight of Bowman and that hateful marriage, she had already thrown off some of her physical frailness; the nervous tension showed itself now in energy. She was moving swiftly about putting to rights after my meal while she listened. But Barbara sat looking straight ahead of her; I knew she was seeing streets full of carnival, every friend and acquaintance out at a ball—and Worth in a murderer's cell. It wouldn't do. I jumped to my feet with a brisk,
"Girl, where's your hat? We'll go to the study and look over all our points once more. Get busy—get busy. That's the medicine for you."
She gave me a miserable look and a negative shake of the head; but I still urged, "Worth sent me to you. The last thing he said was, 'Take it to Bobs.'"
Dumbly she submitted. Mrs. Bowman came running with the girl's hat, and, "What about me, Mr. Boyne? Isn't there something I can do?"
"I wish you'd go to the country club—to the ball—the same as all the others. Got a costume here, haven't you?"
"Yes, I can wear Barbara's," she glanced to where a pile of soft black stuff, a red scarf, a scarlet poppy wreath, lay on a chair, "She was to have gone as 'The Lady of Dreams.'"
Barbara went with me out into the flare of carnival illumination that paled the afterglow of a gorgeous sunset. No cars allowed on these down-town streets; even walking, we found it best to take the long way round. To our left the town roared and racketed as though it was afire. Nothing said between us till I grumbled out,
"I wish I knew where Cummings was keeping Eddie Hughes."
Barbara's voice beside me answered unexpectedly,
"Here. In Santa Ysobel. Eddie was at Capehart's fifteen minutes before you got there; he came for Bill. A gasoline engine at the city hall had broken down."
I pulled up short for a moment, and looked back at the town.
"Where'd he go?"
"With Bill, to the city hall. Eddie's one of the queen's guards. They're all to be at the country club at ten o'clock to review the grand march that opens the ball."
I mustn't let her dwell on that. I hurried on once more, and neither of us spoke again till I unlocked the study door, snapped on the lights, brought out and put on the table the 1920 diary and the little blue blotter—the last bits of evidence that I felt hadn't been thoroughly analysed. Barbara just dropped into a chair and looked from them to me helplessly.
"You've read this all—carefully?" she sighed.
It shook me. To have Barbara, the girl I'd seen get meanings and facts from a written page with a mere flirt of a glance, ask me that. What I really wanted from her was an inspection of the book and blotter, and a deduction from it. As though she guessed, she answered with a sort of wail,
"I can't, I can't even remember what I did see when I looked at these before. I—can't—remember!"
I went and knelt on the hearth with a pretext of laying a fire there, since the shut-up room was chill. And when I glanced stealthily over my shoulder, she had gone to work; not as I had ever seen her before, but fumbling at the leaves, hesitating, turning to finger the blotter; setting her lips desperately, like an over-driven school-child, but keeping right on. I spun out my fire building to leave her to herself. Little noises of her moving there at the table; rustle and flutter of the leaves; now and again, a long, sobbing breath. At last something like a groan caused me to turn my head and see her, with face pale as death, eyes staring across into mine.
"It was Clayte—Edward Clayte—who killed Mr. Gilbert here—in this room."
The hair on the back of my neck stirred; I thought the girl had gone mad. As I ran over to the table and looked at what was under her hand, it came again.
"He did. He did. It was Clayte—the wonder man!"
"Do—do you deduce that, Barbara?"
"Did I?" she raised to mine the face of a sick child. "I must have. See—it's here on the blotter: 'y-t-e,' that's Clayte. Double l-e-r; that's 'teller,' 'Avenue' is part of 'Van Ness Avenue Bank.' Oh, yes; I deduced it, I suppose. Both crimes end in a locked room and a perfect alibi. But—but—don't you see, if it is true—and it is—it is—we're worse off than we were before. We've the wonder man against us."
"Barbara," I cried. "Barbara, come out of it!"
"See? You don't believe in me any more," and her head went down on the table.
I let her cry, while I sat and thought. The broken sentences she'd sobbed out to me began to fit up like a puzzle-game. By all theories of good detective work, I should have seen from the first the similarity of these crimes. But Clayte, slipping in here to do this murder—and why? What mixed him up with affairs here? And then the icy pang—Dykeman had seen a connection—Cummings had found one. With them, it was Clayte and his gang—and his gang was Worth Gilbert. I went and touched Barbara on the shoulder.
"I'm going to take you home now."
"Yes," tears running down her face as she stumbled to her feet. "I'm a failure. I can't do anything for Worth."
I wiped her cheeks with my own handkerchief and led her out. As I turned from locking the door, it seemed to me I saw something move in the shrubbery. I asked Barbara Wallace about it. She hadn't noticed anything. Barbara Wallace hadn't noticed anything!
I began to be scared for her. Solemn in the sky above boomed out the town clock—two strokes. Half past nine. I must get this poor child home. We were getting in toward the noise and the light when I felt her shiver, and stopped to say,
"Did I forget your coat? Why, where's your hat?"
"The hat's back there. I had no coat. It doesn't make any difference. Come on. I can't—can't—I must get home."
I looked at her, saw she was about at the end of her strength, and decided quickly,
"We'll go straight through the Square. Save time and steps."
She offered no objection, and we started in where the bands played for the street dances, amid the raucous tooting of a thousand fish-horns, the clangor of cow-bells, and the occasional snap of the forbidden fire-cracker. As we turned from Broad Street into Main, I found that the congestion was greater even than I had supposed. Here, several blocks away from the city hall, progress was so difficult that I took Barbara back a block to get the street that paralleled Main. This we could navigate slowly. Here, also, everybody was masked. Confetti flew, serpentines unreeled themselves out through the air, dusters spluttered in faces, and among the Pierrettes, Pierrots, Columbines, sombrero-ed cowboys, bandana-ed cow-girls, Indians, Sambos, Topsies and Poppy Maidens, Barbara's little white linen slip and soft white sweater, and my grey business suit, were more conspicuous than would have been the Ahkoond of Swat and his Captive Slave. Even after the confetti had sprinkled her black hair until it reminded me of Skeet's blossom wreath, infinitely multiplied, I still saw the glances through the eye-holes of masks follow us wonderingly.
Opposite the city hall, where we must cross to get to the Capehart street, we were again almost stopped by the dense crowd. The Square was a green-turfed dancing floor; from its stand, an orchestra jazzed out the latest and dizziest of dances; and countless couples one-stepped on the grass, on the asphalt of the streets, even over the lawns of adjacent houses, tree trunks and flower beds adding more things to be dodged. At one corner, where the crowd was thick, we saw a big man being wound to a pole by paper serpentines. Yelling and capering, the masked dancers milled around and around him, winding the gay ribbons, while others with confetti and the Spanish cascarones, tried to snow him under. As we came up, a big fist wagged and Bill Capehart's voice roared,
"Hold on! Too much is a-plenty!"
He tore himself loose, streaming with paper strips, bent and filled his fists from the confetti at his feet. His tormentors howled and dropped back as much as they could for the hemming crowd; he rushed them, heaving paper ammunition in a hail-storm, and reached us in two or three jumps.
"Golly!" he roared, "Me for a cyclone cellar! This is a riot. You ain't in costume, either. Wonder they wouldn't pick on you."
With the words they did. I put Barbara behind me, and was conscious only of a blinding snow of paper flakes, the punch and slap of dusters, in an uproar of horns and bells.
"Good deal like fighting a swarm of bees in your shirt-tail with a willow switch," old Bill panted at my shoulder. "Gosh!" as the snapping of firecrackers let loose beneath our feet. "Some o' these mosquito-net skirts'll get afire next—then there'll be hell a-popping!"
Close at hand there was a louder report, as of a giant cracker, and at that Barbara sagged against me. I whirled and put an arm about her. Bill grabbed her from me, and lifted her above the pressure of the crowd. I charged ahead, shouting,
"Gangway! Let us through!"
Willing enough, the mob could not make room for passage until my shoulder, lowered to strike at the breast, forced a way, that closed in the instant Bill gained through. It was football tactics, with me bucking the line, Bill carrying the ball. Fortunately, the bunch was a good-natured festival gathering, or my rough work might have brought us trouble. As it was, a short, stiff struggle took us to the outer fringe of the mob.
"How is she? What happened?" I grunted, coming to a stop.
"Search me." Bill twisted around to look at the white face that lay back on his shoulder, with closed lids. Three strokes chimed from the city hall tower. Barbara's eyes flashed open; as the last stroke trembled in the air, Barbara's voice came, sharp with breathless urgence,
"A quarter of ten! Quick—get me to the country club!"
"Take you there? Now, d'ye mean?" I ejaculated; and holding her like a baby, Bill's eyes flared into mine. "Did something happen to you back there, girl? Or did you just faint?"
"Never mind about me! There," that glance of hers that saw everything indicated a parking place packed with machines half a block away up a side street. "Carry me there. Take one of those cars. Get me to the country club. Don't—" as I opened my mouth, "don't ask questions."
I turned and ran. Bill galloped behind. Barbara had lifted her head to cry after me,
"The best one! Pick the fastest!"
I plunged down the line of cars, looking for a good machine and one with whose drive I was familiar. The guard rushed up to stop me; I showed him my badge, leaped into the front seat of a speed-built Tarpon, and had it out by the time Bill came up with the girl in his arms. I turned and swung open the tonneau door. Almost with one movement, he lifted her in and climbed after. I started off with braying horn, and at that I had to use caution. Making my way toward the corner of the street that led to Bill's house, I felt a small hand clutch the slack of my coat between the shoulders, and Barbara's voice, faint, but with a fury of determination in it, demanded,
"Where are you going? I said the country club."
"All right; I'll go. I'll look after whatever you want out there when I've got you home."
"Oh, oh," she moaned. "Won't you—this one time—take orders?"
I went on past the corner. She had a right to put it just that way. I gave the Tarpon all I dared in town streets.
"What time is it?" I heard her whispering to Bill. "Eight minutes to ten? I have to be there by ten, or it's no use. Can he make it? Do you think he can make it?"
"Yes," I growled, crouching behind the wheel. "I'll make it. May have to kill a few—but I'll get you there."
By this, we'd come out on the open highway, better, but not too clear, either. There followed seven minutes of ripping through the night, of people who ran yelling to get out of our way and hurled curses behind us, only a few cars meeting us like the whirling of comets in terrifying glimpses as we shot past; and, at last, the country club; strings of gay lanterns, winking ruby tail-lights of machines parked in front of it, the glare from its windows, and the strains of the orchestra in its ballroom, playing "On the Beach at Waikiki." When she heard it, Barbara thanked God with,
"We're in time!"
I took that machine up to the front steps over space never intended for automobiles, at a pace not proper for lawns or even roads, and only halted when I was half across the walk. Bill rolled from the tonneau door and stood by it. I jumped down and came around.
"Lift me out, and put me on my feet," Barbara ordered. "Help me—one on each side. I can walk. I must!"
We crossed a deserted porch; the evening's opening event—the grand march—had drawn every one, servants and all, inside. So far, without challenge, meeting no one. We had the place to ourselves till we stood, the three of us alone, before the upper entrance of the assembly room. In there, the last strains of Waikiki died away. I looked to Barbara. She was in command. Her words back there in town had settled that for me.
"What do we do now?" I asked.
White as the linen she wore, the girl's face shone with some inner fire of passionate resolution. I saw this, too, in the determined, almost desperate energy with which she held herself erect, one clenched hand pressed hard against her side.
"Take me in there, Mr. Boyne. And you," to Capehart, "find a man you can trust to guard each door of the ballroom."
"What you say goes." Big Bill wheeled like a well trained cart-horse and had taken a step or two, when she called after him,
"Arrest any one who attempts to enter."
"Arrest 'em if they try to git in," Capehart repeated stoically. "Sure. That goes." But I interrupted,
"You mean if they try to get out."
At that she gave me a look. No time or breath to waste. Bill, unquestioning, had hurried to his part of the work. I took up mine with, "Forgive me, Barbara. I'll not make that mistake again"; slipped my arm under hers to support her; dragged open the big doors; shoved past the hallman there; and we stepped into the many-colored, moving brilliance of the ballroom.
THE COUNTRY CLUB BALL
The ballroom of the country club at Santa Ysobel is big and finely proportioned. I don't know if anything of the sort could have registered with me at the moment, but I remembered afterward my impression of the great hall fairly walled and roofed with fruit blossoms, and the gorgeousness of hundreds of costumes. The mere presence of potential funds raises the importance of an event. The prune kings and apricot barons down there, with their wives and daughters in real brocades, satins and velvets, with genuine jewels flashing over them, represented so much in the way of substantial wealth that it seemed to steady the whole fantastic scene.
Barbara and I entered on the level of the slightly raised orchestra stand and only half a dozen paces from it. Nobody noticed us much; we came in right on the turn of things—floor managers darting around, orchestra with bows poised and horns at lips, the whole glittering company of maskers being made ready to weave their "Figure of Eight" across the dancing floor. My poor girl dragged on my arm; her small feet scuffed; I lifted her along, wishing I might pick her up and carry her as Bill had done. I made for an unoccupied musicians' bench; but once there, she only leaned against it, not letting go her hold on me, and stood to take in every detail of the confused, moving scene.
The double doors had swung closed behind us; the hallman there who held the knob, now reinforced by a uniformed policeman. The servants' way, at the further end was shut; men in plain clothes set their backs against it. And last, Big Bill himself in overalls, a touch of blunt blue realism, came fogging along the side-wall to swing into place the great wooden bar that secured the entire group of glass doors which gave on the porch. Barbara would have seen all these arrangements while I was getting ready for my first glance, but I prompted her nervously with a low-toned, "All set, girl," and then as she still didn't speak, "Bill's got every door guarded."
She nodded. The length of the room away, in the end gallery, was the cannery girl queen and her guard. Even at that distance, I recognized Eddie Hughes, in his pink-and-white Beef Eater togs, a gilded wooden spear in his hand, a flower tassel bobbing beside that long, drab, knobby countenance of his. There he was, the man I'd jailed for Thomas Gilbert's murder. Below on the dancing floor, were the two, Cummings and Bowman, who had put Worth behind the bars for the same crime. At my side was the pale, silent girl who declared that Clayte was the murderer.
Whispered tuning and trying of instruments up here; flutter and rush about down on the dancing floor; and Barbara, that clenched left hand of hers still pressed in hard against her side, facing what problem?
Crash! Boom! We were so close the music fairly deafened us, as, with a multiplied undernote of moving feet, the march began. On came those people toward us, wave behind wave of color and magnificence, dotted with little black ovals of masks pierced by gleaming eye-holes. I could sense Barbara reading the room as it bore down on her, and reading it clearly, getting whatever it was she had come there for. Myself, I was overwhelmed, drowned in the size and sweep of everything, struggling along, whispering to her when I spotted Jim Edwards in his friar's robe, noticed that the Roman soldier who must be Cummings, and Bowman, the Spaniard, squired the Thornhill twins in their geisha girl dresses; the crimson poppies of a Lady of Dreams looked odd against Laura Bowman's coppery hair.
At the head of the procession as they swung around, leading it with splendid dignity, came a pair who might have been Emperor and Empress of China—the Vandemans. To go on with affairs as if nothing had happened—though Worth Gilbert was in jail—had been the laid-down policy of both Vandeman and his wife. I'd thought it reasonable then; foolish to get hot at it now. The great, shining, rhythmically moving line deployed, interwove, and opened out again until at last the floor was almost evenly occupied with the many-colored mass. I looked at Barbara; the awful intensity with which she read her room hurt me. It had nothing to do with that flirt of a glance she always gave a printed page, that mere toss of attention she was apt to offer a problem. The child was in anguish, whether merely the ache of sorrow, or actual bodily pain; I saw how rigidly that small fist still pressed against the knitted wool of her sweater, how her lip was drawn in and bitten. Her physical weakness contrasted strangely with the clean cut decision, the absolute certainty of her mental power. She raised her face and looked straight up into mine.
"Have the music stopped."
I leaned over and down toward the orchestra leader to catch his eye, holding toward him the badge. His glance caught it, and I told him what we wanted. He nodded. For an instant the music flooded on, then at a sharp rap of the baton, broke off in mid-motion, as though some great singing thing had caught its breath. And all the swaying life and color on the floor stopped as suddenly. Barbara had picked the moment that brought Ina Vandeman and her husband squarely facing us. After the first instant's bewilderment, Vandeman and his floor managers couldn't fail to realize that they were being held up by an outsider; with Barbara in full sight up here by the orchestra, they must know who was doing it. I wondered not to have Vandeman in my hair already; but he and his consort stood in dignified silence; it was his committee who came after me, a Mephistopheles, a troubadour, an Indian brave, a Hercules with his club, swarming up the step, wanting to know if I was the man responsible, why the devil I had done it, who the devil I thought I was, anyhow. Others were close behind.
"Edwards," I called to the brown friar, "can you keep these fellows off me for a minute?"
Still not a word from Barbara. Nothing from Vandeman. Less than nothing: I watched in astonishment how the gorgeous leader stopped dumb, while those next him backed into the couple behind, side stepping, so that the whole line yawed, swayed, and began to fall into disorder.
"Cummings," as I glimpsed the lawyer's chain mail and purple feather, "Keep them all in place if you can. All."
In the instant, from behind my shoulder Barbara spoke.
"Have that man—take off his mask."
A little, shaking white hand pointed at the leader.
"Mr. Vandeman," I said. "That's an order. It'll have to be done."
The words froze everything. Hardly a sound or movement in the great crowded room, except the little rustle as some one tried to see better. And there, all eyes on him, Bronson Vandeman stood with his arms at his sides, mute as a fish. Ina fumbled nervously at the cord of her own mask, calling to me in a fierce undertone,
"What do you mean, Mr. Boyne, bringing that girl here to spoil things. This is spite-work."
"Off—take his mask off! Do it yourself!" Barbara's voice was clear and steady.
I made three big jumps of the space between us and the leading couple. Vandeman's committee-men obstructed me, the excited yip going amongst them.
"Vandeman—Bronse—Vannie—Who let this fool in here?—Do we throw him out?"
Then they took the words from Edwards; the tune changed to grumblings of, "What's the matter with Van? Why doesn't he settle it one way or another, and be done?"
Why didn't he? I had but a breath of time to wonder at that, as I shoved a way through. Darn him, like a graven image there, the only mute, immovable thing in that turmoil! I began to feel sore.
"You heard what she said?" I took no trouble now to be civil. "She wants your mask off."
No flicker of response from the man, but the Empress of China dragged down her mask, crying,
"Heard what she said? What she wants?" Over the shoulders of the crowd she gave Barbara Wallace a venomous look, then came at me.
A little too late. My hand had shot out and snatched the mask from the face of China's monarch. A moment I glared, the bit of black stuff in my grasp, at the alien countenance I had uncovered. Crowding and craning of the others to see. Jabbering, exclaiming all around us.
"Corking make-up; looks like a sure-enough Chinaman."
"No make-up at all. The real thing."
"What's the big idea?"
"Why did he unmask, then?"
"Didn't want to. They made him."
And last, but loudest, repeated time and again, with wonder, with distaste, with rising anger,
"The Vandeman's Chinese cook!"
For with the ripping away of that black oval, I had looked into the slant, inscrutable eyes of Fong Ling. Hemmed in by the crowd, he could but face me; he did so with a kind of unhuman passivity.
And the committee went wild. Their own masks came off on the run. I saw Cummings' face, Bowman's; Eddie Hughes slid from the balcony stair and bucked the crowd, pushing through to the seat of war. The grand march had become a jostling, gabbling chaos.
Barbara, up there, above it all, knew what she was about. I had utter confidence in her. But she was plainly holding back for a further development, her eyes on the entrances; and what the devil was my next move?
Ina Vandeman wheeled where she stood and faced the room, both hands thrown up, laughing.
"It was meant to be a joke—a great, big foolish joke!" her high treble rang out. "Bron's here somewhere. Wait. He'll tell you better than I could. At a masquerade—people do—they do foolish things.... They—"
"Is Bronse Vandeman here?" I questioned Fong Ling. The Chinaman's stiff lips moved for the first time, in his formal, precise English.
"Yes, sir. Mr. Vandeman will explain." He crossed his hands and resigned the matter to his employer. And I demanded of Ina Vandeman, "You tell us your husband's present—in this room? Now?" and when her answer was drowned in the noise, I roared,
"Vandeman! Bronson Vandeman! You're wanted here!"
No answer. Edwards took up the call after me; the committee yelled the name in all keys and variations. In the middle of our squawking, a minor disturbance broke out across by the porch entrance, where Big Bill Capehart stood. As I looked, he turned over his post to Eddie Hughes, who came abreast of him at the moment, and started, scuffling and struggling toward us, with a captive.
"I had my orders!" his big voice boomed out. "Pinch any one that tried to get in. Y'don't pass me—not if you was own cousin to God A'mighty!"
On they came through the crowd, all mixed up; blue overalls, and a flapping costume whose rich, many-colored silk embroideries, flashed like jewels. A space widened about us for them. The big garage man spun his catch to the center of it, so that he faced the room, his back to the orchestra.
"Wanted in, did ya? Now yer in, what about it?"
What about it, indeed? In Bill's prisoner, as he stood there twitching ineffectually against that obstinate hold, breathing loud, shakily settling his clothes, we had, robe for robe, cap for cap, a duplicate Emperor of China!
And the next moment, this figure took off its mask and showed the face of Bronson Vandeman.
Dead silence all about us; Capehart loosened his grip, abashed but still truculent.
"Dang it all, Mr. Vandeman, if you didn't want to get mussed up, what made you fight like that?"
"Fight?" Vandeman found his voice. "Who wouldn't? I was late, and you—"
"Bron!" After one desperate glance toward the girl up on the platform, Ina ran to him and put a hand on his arm. "They stopped the march.... Your—the—they spoiled our joke. But have them start the music again. You're here now. Let's go on with the march ... explain afterward."
"Good business!" Vandeman filled his chest, glanced across at Fong Ling, and gave his social circle a rather poor version of the usual white-toothed smile. "Jokes can wait—especially busted ones. On with the dance; let joy be unrefined!"
Sidelong, I saw the orchestra leader's baton go up. But no music followed. It was at Barbara the baton had pointed, at Barbara that all the crowded company stared. Her little white dress clung to her slender figure. I saw that now she was in the strange Buddha pose. A few flecks of silver paper, still in her black hair, made it sparkle. But it was Barbara's eyes that held us all spellbound. In her colorless face those wonderful openings of black light seemed to look through and beyond us. For an instant there was no stir. Hundreds of faces set toward her, held by the wonder of her. Fong Ling's yellow visage moved for the first time from its immobility with a sort of awe, a dread. And when my gaze came back to her, I noticed that, with the dropping of her hands to join the finger-tips, she had left, where that little, pressing fist had been, a blur of red on the white sweater. Over me it rushed with the force of calamity, she had been wounded when she sank down back there in the crowd. It was a shot—not a giant cracker—we had heard.
"Vandeman," I whirled on him, "You shot this girl. You tried to kill her."
Sensation enough among the others; but I doubt if he even heard me. His gaze had found Barbara; all the bounce, all the jauntiness was out of the man, as he stared with the same haunted fear his eyes had held when she concentrated last night at his own dinner table.
She was concentrating now; could she stand the strain of it, with its weakening of the heart action, its pumping all the blood to the brain? I shouldered my way to her, and knelt beside her, begging,
"Don't, Barbara. Give it up, girl. You can't stand this."
Her hands unclasped. Her eyes grew normal. She relaxed, sighingly. I leaned closer while she whispered to me the last addition in that problem of two and two—the full solution. Armed, I faced Vandeman once more.
Something seemed to be giving way in the man; his lips were almost as pale as his face, and that had been, from the moment he uncovered it, like tallow. He looked withered, smaller; his hair where it had been pressed down by mask and cap, crossed his forehead, flat, smooth, dull brown. I saw, half consciously, that Fong Ling was gone. An accomplice? No matter; the criminal himself was here—Barbara's wonder man. It was to him I spoke.
"Edward Clayte," at the name, Cummings clanked around front to stare. "I hold a warrant for your arrest for the theft of nine hundred and eighty seven thousand dollars from the Van Ness Avenue Savings Bank of San Francisco."
He made a sick effort to square his shoulders; fumbled with his hair to toss it back from its straight-down sleekness, as Clayte, to the pompadoured crest of Vandeman. How often I had seen that gesture, not understanding its significance. Cummings, at my side, drew in a breath, with,
"Why—damn it!—he is Clayte!"
"All right," I let the words go from the corner of my mouth at the lawyer, in the same hushed tones he'd used. "See how you like this next one," and finished, loud enough so all might hear,
"And I charge you, Edward Clayte—Bronson Vandeman—with the murder of Thomas Gilbert."
Disgrace was in the air; the country club had seen its vice president in handcuffs. There was a great gathering up of petticoats and raising of moral umbrellas to keep clear of the dirty splashings. It made me think of a certain social occasion in Israel some thousands of years ago, when Absalom, at his own party, put a raw one over on his brother Amnon, and all the rest of King David's sons looked at each other with jaws sagging, and "every man gat himself up upon his mule and fled." Here, it was limousines; more than one noble chariot—filled with members of the faction who'd helped to rush Vandeman into office over the claims of older members—rolled discredited down the drive.
Yet a ball is the hardest thing in the world to kill; like a lizard, if you break it in two, the head and tail go right on wriggling independently. Also, behind this masked affair at the country club was the business proposition of a lot of blossom festival visitors from all over the state who mustn't be disappointed. By the time I'd finished out in front, getting my prisoner off to the lock-up, sending Eddie Hughes, with Capehart and the other helpers he'd picked up to guard the Vandeman bungalow, handed over to the Santa Ysobel police the matter of finding Fong Ling, and turned back to see how Barbara was getting on, the music sounded once more, the rhythmic movement of many feet.
"The boys have got it started again," Jim Edwards joined me in the hall, his tone still lowered and odd from the amazement of the thing. "Curious, that business in there yesterday," a nod indicated the little writing room toward which we moved. "Bronse stepping in, brisk and cool, for you to question him; pleasant, ordinary looking chap. Would you say he had it in his head right then to murder you—or Barbara—if you came too hot on his trail?"
"Me?" I echoed sheepishly. "He never paid me that compliment. He wasn't afraid of me. I think Barbara sealed her own fate, so far as he was concerned, when she let Worth pique her into doing a concentrating stunt at Vandeman's dinner table last night. The man saw that nothing she turned that light on could long stay hidden. He must have decided, then, to put her out of the way. As for his wife—well, however much or little she knew, she'd not defend Barbara Wallace."
At that, Edwards gave me a look, but all he said was,
"Cummings has suffered a complete change of heart, it seems. I left him in the telephone booth, just now, calling up Dykeman. He'll certainly keep the wires hot for Worth."
"He'd better," I agreed; and only Edwards's slight, dark smile answered me.
"There's a side entrance here," he explained mildly, as we came to the turn of the hall. "I'll unlock it; and when Barbara's ready to be taken home, we can get her out without every one gaping at her."
He was still at the lock, his back to me, when a door up front slammed, and a Spanish Cavalier came bustling down the corridor, pulling off a mask to show me Bowman's face, announcing,
"I think you want me in there. That girl should have competent medical attention."
"She has that already," I spoke over my shoulder. "And if she hadn't, do you think she'd let you touch her, Bowman? Man, you've got no human feeling. If you had a shred, you'd know that to her it is as true you tried to take Worth's life with your lying testimony as it is that Vandeman murdered Worth's father with a gun."
"Hah!" the doctor panted at me; he was fairly sober, but still a bit thick in the wits. "You people ain't classing me with this crook Vandeman, are you? You can't do that. No—of course—Laura's set you all against me."
Edwards straightened up from the door. With his first look at that fierce, dark face, the doctor began to back off, finally scuttling around the turn into the main hall at what was little less than a run.
They had Barbara sitting in the big Morris chair while they finished adjusting bandages and garments. Our young cub of a doctor, silver buttoned velveteen coat off, sleeves rolled up, hailed us cheerily,
"That bullet went where it could get the most blood for the least harm, I'd say. Have her all right in a jiffy. At that, if it had been a little further to one side—"
And I knew that Edward Clayte's bullet—Bronson Vandeman's—had narrowly missed Barbara's heart.
"This wonderful girl!" the doctor went on with young enthusiasm, as he bandaged and pinned. "Sitting up there, wounded as she was, and forgetting it, she looked to me more than human. Sort of effect as though light came from her."
"I was ashamed of myself back there in the Square, Mr. Boyne," Barbara's voice, good and strong, cut across his panegyric. "Never in my life did I feel like that before. My brain wasn't functioning normally at all. I was confused, full of indecision." She mentioned that state, so painfully familiar to ordinary humanity, as most people would speak of being raving crazy. "It was agonizing," she smiled a little at the others. "Poor Mr. Boyne helping me along—we'd got somehow into a crowd. And I was just a lump of flesh. I hardly knew where we were. Then suddenly came the sound of the shot, the stinging, burning feeling in my side. It knocked my body down; but my mind came clear; I could use it."
"I'll say you could," I smiled. "From then on, Bill Capehart and I were the lumps of flesh that you heaved around without explanation."
"There wasn't time; and I was afraid you'd find out what had happened to me, and wouldn't bring me here," she said simply. "I knew that the one motive for silencing me was the work I'd been doing for Mr. Boyne."
"Sure," I said, light breaking on me. "And every possible suspect in the Gilbert murder case was under this roof—or supposed to be—the grand march would be the show-down as to that. And just then the clock struck! Poor girl!"
"It was a race against time," Barbara agreed. "If we could get here first, hold the door against whoever came flying to get in, we'd have the one who shot me."
"But, Barbara child," Laura Bowman was working at a sweater sleeve on the bandaged side. "You did get here and caught Bronson Vandeman; it had worked out all right. Why did you risk sitting up in that strained pose, wounded as you were, to concentrate?"
"For Worth. I had to relate this crime to the one for which he'd been arrested. Within the hour, I'd gathered facts that showed me Edward Clayte killed Worth's father. When I brought that man and his crime to stand before me, and Bronson Vandeman and his crime to stand beside it—as I can bring things when I concentrate on them—I found they dove-tailed—the impossible was true—these two were one man." She looked around at the four of us, wondering at her, and finished, "Can't they take me home now, doctor?"
"Sit and rest a few minutes. Have the door open," the young fellow said. And on the instant there came a call for me from the side entrance.
"Mr. Boyne—are you in there? May I speak to you, please?"
It was Skeet Thornhill's voice. I went out into the entry. There, climbing down from the old Ford truck, leaving its engine running, was Skeet herself. Her glance went first to the door I closed behind me.
"Yes," I answered its question. "She's in there." Then, moved by the frank misery of her eyes, "She'll be all right. Very little hurt."
She said something under her breath; I thought it was "Thank God!" looked about the deserted side entrance, seemed to listen to the flooding of music and movement from the ballroom, then lifting to mine a face so pale that its freckles stood out on it, faltered a step closer and studied me.
"They phoned us," scarcely above a whisper. "Mother sent me for the girls and—Ina. Mr. Boyne," a break in her voice, "am I going to be able to take Ina back with me? Or is she—do they—?"
"Wait," I said. "Here she comes now," as Cummings brought young Mrs. Vandeman toward us. She moved haughtily, head up, a magnificent evening wrap thrown over her costume, and saw her sister without surprise.
"Skeet," she crossed and stood with her back to me, "there's been some trouble here. Keep it from mother if you can. I'm leaving—but we'll get it all fixed up. How did you get here? Can I take you back in the limousine?"
The big, closed car, one of Vandeman's wedding gifts to her, purred slowly up the side drive, circling Skeet's old truck, and stopped a little beyond. Skeet gave it one glance, then reached a twitching hand to catch on the big silken sleeve.
"You can't go to the bungalow, Ina. As I came past, they were placing men around it to—to watch it."
"What!" Ina wheeled on us, looking from one to the other. "Mr. Boyne—Mr. Cummings—who had that done?"
"Does it matter?" I countered. She made me tired.
"Does it matter?" she snapped up my words, "Am I to be treated as if—as though—"
Even Ina Vandeman's effrontery wouldn't carry her to a finish on that. I completed it for her, explicitly,
"Mrs. Vandeman, whether you are detained as an accomplice or merely a material witness, I'm responsible for you. I would have the authority to allow you to go with your sister; but you'll not be permitted to even enter the bungalow."
"It's nearly midnight," she protested. "I have no clothes but this costume. I must go home."
"Oh, come on!" Skeet pleaded. "Don't you see that doesn't do any good, Ina? You can get something at our house to wear."
She gave me a long look, her chin still high, her eyes hard and unreadable. Then, "For the present, I shall go to a hotel." She laid a hand on Skeet's shoulder, but it was only to push her away. "Tell mother," evenly, "that I'll not bring my trouble into her house. Oh—you want Ernestine and Cora? Well, get them and go." And with firm step she walked to her car.
I nodded to Cummings.
"Have one of Dykeman's men pick her up and hang tight," I said, and he smiled back understandingly, with,
"Already done, Boyne. I want to speak to Miss Wallace—if I may. Will you please see for me?"
A moment later, he marched shining and jingling, in through a door that he left open behind him, pulled off his Roman helmet as though it had been a hat, and stood unconsciously fumbling that shoe-brush thing they trim those ancient lids with.
"Barbara," he met the eyes of the girl in the chair unflinchingly, "you told me last night that the only words I ever could speak to you would be in the way of an apology. Will you hear one now? I'm ready to make it. Talk doesn't count much; but I'm going the limit to put Worth Gilbert's release through."
There was a long silence, Barbara looking at him quite unmoved. Behind that steady gaze lay the facts that Worth Gilbert's life and honor had been threatened by this man's course; that she herself was only alive because the bullet of that criminal whom his action unconsciously shielded missed its aim by an inch: Worth's life, her life, their love and all that might mean—and Barbara had eyes you could read—I didn't envy Cummings as he faced her. Finally she said quietly,
"I'll accept your apology, Mr. Cummings, when Worth is free."
In the dingy office of the city prison, with its sand boxes and barrel stove, its hacked old desks, dusty books and papers, I watched Bronson Vandeman, and wondered to see how the man I had known played in and out across his face with the man Edward Clayte, whom I had tried to imagine, whom nobody could describe.
Helping to recover Clayte's loot for Worth Gilbert looked to the opposition their best bet for squaring themselves. Dykeman from his sick bed, had dug us up a stenographer; Cummings had climbed out of his tin clothes and come along with us to the jail. They wanted the screws put on; but I intended to handle Vandeman in my own way. I had halted the lawyer on the lock-up threshold, with,
"Cummings, I want you to keep still in here. When I'm done with the man, you can question him all you want—if he's left anything to be told." I answered a doubtful look, "Did you see his face there in the ball room as he looked up at Barbara Wallace? He thinks that girl knows everything, like a supreme being. He's still so shaken that he'd spill out anything—everything. He'll hardly suppose he's telling us anything we don't know."
And Vandeman bore out expectations. Now, provided with a raincoat to take the place of his Mandarin robe, his trousers still the lilac satin ones of that costume, he surveyed us and our preparations with a half smile as we settled our stenographer and took chairs ourselves.