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Title: The Richest Widow Author: Hulbert Footner * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1500351h.html Language: English Date first posted: Mar 2015 Most recent update: Mar 2015 This eBook was produced by Colin Choat and Roy Glashan. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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Mme. Storey was determined not to be beaten—not even by the sea.
But sometimes the sea holds secrets which are past finding out.
After all the excitement and distress of the "Cold Trail" case, which turned out so badly for us, my employer, Madame Storey, decided to give herself a two months' vacation in Paris, and asked me to accompany her. At this time she had a notion of writing her memoirs, and expected to use me as an amanuensis. As it turned out, we were immediately caught in a fresh whirl of events in Paris, and no writing was done. However, that is another story.
She engaged accommodations on the Baratoria, her favourite ship. According to her custom we were booked under assumed names, but on this occasion it did her no good, for during the uproar of a mid-afternoon sailing a dozen people recognized her, and it soon spread all over the ship that the famous Mme. Storey was aboard.
Amongst the acquaintances she ran into was Mrs. Hibbert Lacy, the widow of the tin-plate magnate, a lady who had cut a wide swathe in the town since the death of her domineering husband. Mrs. Lacy was a slender little woman who had preserved her figure better than her face. All that the most expensive artists in beauty could perform on her had been performed, but it only gave a sort of pickled effect.
However, she appeared happily unconscious of that, and was posing and coquetting all over the boat deck for the news photographers. She was an amusing sort of woman to meet socially; the consciousness of great wealth at least gave her the courage to be herself; but you never know what you may find when you scratch the social veneer.
Amongst her crowd of hangers-on, we were introduced to Miss Sigismonda Van Vliet, her secretary; Walter Lacy and Harold Lacy, her nephews, cousins to each other, and Ronald Mackworth, a young English actor who had made quite a hit in New York the preceding season in a play called, "Over the Fence Is Out." He could not act, but he had a smile revealing white teeth in a tanned face that no woman could resist. He was a good thirty years younger than Mrs. Lacy.
The richest widow had fairly screamed with delight at the sight of Mme. Storey. Such was her style. "We must see a lot of each other, Rosika!"
My employer and I shared the joke with straight faces.
"We must indeed!" she said to Mrs. Lacy. "I had expected to bury myself in work on the way over, but I am always yours to command, Fanny."
"Not command, darling! It's the other way 'round. I only have money, but you have brains!"
"I'm glad somebody still thinks so," said Mme. Storey, thinking of our last case with a wry face.
"You must tell me the whole story, darling. It will be more exciting than a novel."
Mme. Storey, who never talks about her cases, merely smiled.
Mrs. Lacy asked us to dine with her party in their suite. She had something particular to tell Mme. Storey, she said. It is difficult to find an excuse on shipboard, and my employer accepted for us. As she said after we had left them:
"Anyhow it will be more amusing than eating in our cabin alone. If we went down to the saloon we'd be stared out of face."
Mme. Storey and I had communicating rooms forward on B deck. Nowhere on earth can one obtain such a sense of luxury as on a great liner at sea. As we sailed down the bay, and quiet settled over the ship, those charming little rooms filled with flowers, and the soft sea airs blowing through the open ports made me purr with, a sense of well-being. I looked forward to six idle days of delight. Well, it didn't turn out just that way.
We put on our best for the dinner party. Mme. Storey, clad in one of the unadorned velvet gowns hanging from points over her shoulders that she affects, looked regal. Mrs. Lacy had the imperial suite on B deck amidships. You entered a beautiful sitting-room where the table was set, and passed out on a private veranda with sliding windows looking out over the sea. This place, filled with palms and flowering plants, was perfectly enchanting.
The cocktails were put in busy circulation, and tongues unloosed.
Nobody paid any particular attention to me, for which I was glad, as it left me free to use my eyes and ears on the others.
Amidst the happy smiles and light-hearted chatter I soon perceived a suggestion of strain-in fact of several strains. The impulsive Mrs. Lacy made no secret of the fact that she was completely infatuated with the young actor, and her two nephews, who were presumably her heirs, were terrified that something serious might come of it.
On the other hand, Miss Van Vliet, the social secretary, had fallen for Ronny Mackworth herself, and it was bitter to her to lose him to the old woman with money.
When we came to the round table, Mrs. Lacy, keeping Mme. Storey on one side of her, and Ronny on the other, let the rest of us seat ourselves as we would. Mackworth was on one side of me, one of the cousins on the other; then Miss Van Vliet (whom they called. Sigi) next to her, then the other cousin, and so around to Mme. Storey. It was perfectly evident that Mrs. Lacy and Ronny were holding hands under the table. Everybody was aware of it.
Ronny Mackworth was handsome enough to have made any woman's heart ache; moreover, he appeared to be intelligent, good-humored and witty—not too conceited. His feelings were harder to explain. His manner towards her was perfect; simple, affectionate and humorous. He teased her and she adored him for it.
I could only suppose that the glamour of a hundred millions had really persuaded him that he was in love with her.
Such things do happen. It was well known that the money had been left to her outright.
I remember him saying as he held his glass of champagne up to the light and looked through it: "This is an improvement on my last voyage! I crossed to America third-class in an old Dutch hooker when I was looking for a job."
"Well, you've earned this, Ronny," said Mrs. Lacy fondly. "You need never experience such hardship again!"
Mme. Storey asked pleasantly, in order to make conversation:
"What are your plans for next season, Ronny?" Everybody called him Ronny at sight. That was the way he had with you.
Mrs. Lacy spoke up for him. "Oh, he isn't going to act any more. I don't think it's a good business for a man, do you?"
"It depends upon how talented an actor he is," said Mme. Storey smiling.
"Ronny has shown what he can do," said Mrs. Lacy.
"And now he's ready to retire," put in Sigi.
Mrs. Lacy ignored it. "The stage is beset with too many temptations," she said.
"Ronny will always look after number one," said Sigi with her diamond hard smile.
Mrs. Lacy's eyes snapped, and Mme. Storey intervened again.
"Well, if acting is out, what does he plan to do?"
"He should take plenty of time to look around first," said Mrs. Lacy.
"Hang it all, Fanny, can't you let a fellow answer for himself?" grumbled Ronny with his good-natured grin.
"Oh, I'm sorry, darling," she said, fawning on him. "A man must always be his own master."
"Well I don't know what I'm going to do," said Ronny, smiling around the table. "I want to make myself useful one way or another..."
"Why not take up weaving?" suggested Sigi.
Ronny took it with perfect good humor. "Ah, Sigi, you're always getting at me! I can't help it if I'm not as bright as you are!"
Mrs. Lacy was furious at the girl. "He doesn't have to work at anything if it doesn't suit him," she said.
That was pretty direct, and something like consternation descended on the other side of the table. Sigi bit her lip and lowered her head, while the two Lacys turned greenish.
"If I want to spend my money on Ronny who's to prevent me?" Mrs. Lacy went on. "It's my money. Look at him! Isn't he worth it?"
"For Heaven's sake, Fanny," Ronny protested, laughing. "It's not a question of money, I hope."
"Of course it isn't. But just the same it's a great satisfaction to me to fill your pockets and tell you to go and spend it...It's better yours than some others I could mention." She glanced at the ghastly young men across the table.
Both these young men had been given jobs in the tin-plate organization, and had been dropped through sheer incapacity. They were in receipt of large allowances from the Lacy estate, but all the most expensive schools, servants and clothes could not endow them with grace or style.
Harold, the elder, looked like a dressed-up booby, while Wesley's long nose with a quivering tip made him look rat-like. Such young men would have hated the handsome, graceful Ronny anyhow, but when Ronny, in addition, threatened their inheritance, their hatred must have mounted almost to the point of insanity. Neither of them said anything, but their eyes burned when they looked at him.
"You remember my saying that I had something to tell you, Rosika," Mrs. Lacy went on. "Well, this is it. Ronny and I are married."
"Married!" We all exclaimed in tones of stupefaction.
Mrs. Lacy was charmed with the sensation she had created. "Married, sure enough," she said smiling. "All Ronny's bags have been carried into my room yonder."
A ghastly silence fell on us. I couldn't bear to look at the three whose hopes had been so cruelly destroyed. The stewards went around the table filling the champagne glasses, and retired. Something had to be said. Mme. Storey raised her glass.
"To the newly-weds!"
They all drank to it. The wine must nearly have strangled them. Sigi Van Vliet was livid under her make up. These hard, self-controlled women have a terrible capacity for emotion. I pitied her. She kept her head up.
"When did it happen?" she asked, smiling.
"Three hours before the ship sailed," said Mrs. Lacy. "We went down to the Municipal Building and were married by an alderman. I arranged it so that the news would not be released until after we cast off. It will be all over town now."
Silence threatened us again. Mme. Storey averted it by saying: "You're a deep one, Fanny! Fancy exploding a mine under us like this!"
"It was the only thing to do," said Mrs. Lacy. "Think of the disgusting publicity if the news had got out before we sailed!"
Harold Lacy, who had a face like a large suet pudding with some trifling irregularity in its surface, and two raisins sticking out, stammered: "I'm sure I hope you'll be happy, Aunt Fanny."
"How often have I told you not to call me that," she said pettishly. "Coming from a man of your age to me it's ridiculous. Drop the aunt, please, or if you like call me Mrs. Mackworth."
"Sorry," he mumbled.
Rage made his cousin Wesley look meaner and more rat-like than ever. "Congratulations," he drawled.
Mrs. Lacy didn't like the sound of it, and undertook to crack her whip over them.
"Of course my marriage will make a considerable difference in the family situation," she said, smiling unpleasantly. "But I want you and Harold to know that I shall continue to pay you your allowances. And I shall leave you enough to keep you. You'd be out of luck if you were dependent on your own resources. Always provided, of course, that you bear yourselves towards me in a friendly manner. I'm not obliged to leave you anything."
"It was understood..." Wesley began, drawing his lips back over his teeth.
"By whom?" demanded Mrs. Lacy.
"After all, Harold and I are Lacys."
"What of it? Did you and Harold help to make the Lacy fortune? Or did your fathers before you? No! They were both hangers-on of my husband until they died..."
Mme. Storey interrupted this tirade by laying a hand on Mrs. Lacy's arm.
"This is a purely family matter," she murmured. "Bella and I will retire."
Mrs. Lacy gripped her arm.
"I won't have it," she said. "Let the men go if they can't mend their manners."
Harold and Wesley arose, bowed in a hangdog fashion and went out. Wesley's narrowed shoulders were drawn up and bent with rage.
In order to make clear what happened later I must say a word about the arrangement of the suite. On the left of the sitting-room as you faced the veranda was a large bedroom which the two young men shared.
On the right was a similar room which was to be the bridal chamber. A second door on the right gave on a passage leading to Sigi's cabin. In this passage were several doors leading to the inside cabins occupied by the servants of the party.
Well, we were left sitting at the table with Sigi Van Vliet. I noticed that she had emptied her wine glass several times and had filled it without waiting for a servant. She had never ceased smiling at Ronny in her diamond-hard fashion. He avoided her eye. I suppose that Sigi perceived that her goose was cooked with Mrs. Lacy. At any rate she became quite reckless.
"I'm waiting to hear the bridegroom make a speech," she said in a voice like breaking icicles. "It's customary, isn't it? All about the raptures and roses of young love. And the blisses of the wedded state..."
Mrs. Lacy sprang up trembling with rage.
"Silence, miss!...Leave the room!"
Sigi extended her tall figure, and moved from the table.
"With pleasure," she drawled.
"Tomorrow morning you can move to another part of the ship!" cried Mrs. Lacy. "And you can return to New York on this ship, or go to the devil for all I care! Don't think that I can't see through you, miss! I saw through you from the beginning! But you were useful to me. Now I'm through with you!"
"Well, that's nice to hear, too," said Sigi.
"Oh, is it? Is it? Well maybe this won't be so nice! You were useful to me and I put you down in my will for a good round sum. Well you'll never get that now. Not a cent! Not a cent!"
"Saves me the trouble of refusing it," said Sigi, quietly closing the door after her.
Mrs. Lacy dropped back in her chair fairly weeping with rage. Sigi had deprived her of the last word.
"Bella and I must go," said Mme. Storey.
Mrs. Lacy literally held her down. "No! No! No! They've gone now. We can be happy again...I'm glad you were here, Rosika. You have seen what I have to put up with. No one would believe it who hadn't seen it. And, after all I have done for them, the miserable ingrates!"
My employer was becoming just a shade impatient. "Why on earth did you bring them with you on your honeymoon?" she asked.
"Well," said Mrs. Lacy spitefully, "in the case of Harold and Wesley, I thought they needed a lesson. I'm so sick of the way they come around me, trying to pry into my affairs under the pretence of hypocritical affection. Wesley is the worst. He set out to master me. It would make you die laughing. I didn't ask them to come on this, trip. When I told them I was going to England they said they would come along too, to look after me. And I thought: Very well, my lads! If you insist on it, let it be on your own heads!"
"But Sigi Van Vliet...you must have known..."
"Certainly I knew! The way she ran after Ronny was perfectly disgusting. I wanted to give her a lesson, too. I thought it would pay her off to bring her along. I have always hated that girl and her sneery ways. Held herself so high! I put up with it because she was useful to me. Now I don't need her any longer."
Mine. Storey and I glanced at each other without expression. What a world! we were both thinking.
Ronny applied himself to soothing his ruffled bride. He flung an arm around her, and she dropped her head comfortably on his shoulder.
"There, darling!" he murmured. "Forget about them all! They have nothing to do with you and me. I'm glad things came to a show-down with Sigi. Now we won't have to have her around during the rest of the voyage. I wish we could shift the others, too."
"We shall!" said Mrs. Lacy—-I mean Mrs. Mackworth—tearfully.
"Good!" said Ronny. "Then we can be quite alone together. That's what I want—always!"
She raised up, and took his face between her two jewelled hands.
"Oh, Ronny, you're such a dear!" she whispered. "You can always cheer me up. Oh, Ronny, I love you to distraction!"
"That's right!" he said, grinning boyishly. "That's what a wife ought to do!"
Mme. Storey and I took our leave.
We did not turn in right away, but went for a stroll on deck. We said very little about what had happened. It wasn't necessary because we were in agreement about it. As Mme. Storey put it:
"Too much money makes monkeys of people."
"I suppose it's having power without any responsibility," I said.
"Exactly. I'm thankful I've had to work hard for what I've got."
We walked aft where we could get out from under the roof and see the sky. It was an enchanting mild night, the sea heaving slowly like some vast creature with a troubled breast. All the stars were hanging out their little lamps. Mme Storey gazing up at them, murmured:
"What must they think of us foolish mortals!"
Later, in passing the smoking room we saw Ronny Mackworth drinking at the bar with some men. He saw us and presently overtook us on the promenade. He seemed quite untroubled. We stopped and leaned on the rail.
"I see you had the same desire," he said. "A little air. Fanny is preparing to go to bed."
A complicated business with her, I thought, but I didn't say it.
He appeared to feel that some apology was necessary for her. "She's had a hard day," he said deprecatingly. "She got all roiled up."
Mme. Storey had no intention of allowing herself to be drawn into a further discussion of their affairs. "Naturally," she said pleasantly. "Do you know, I think our Orion is a much finer constellation than the famous Southern Cross."
After a few minutes of idle talk he bade us good night and disappeared below.
We continued to stroll about the deck. After a few minutes we saw Ronny coming towards us again. He seemed a little perturbed.
"Have you seen Fanny?" he asked. "No."
"When I left her she said she was going to bed, but when I went back she wasn't there. She hadn't undressed."
"I suppose she wanted a little exercise, too," suggested Mme. Storey.
"Very likely. But I don't see her anywhere."
After having looked in the various public rooms he passed us again. "Good-night," he said. "This is final. Fanny must have gone to call on some of her friends. I'll wait for her below."
We soon followed him.
In the morning we lay late and enjoyed the rare luxury ( for me) of having breakfast in bed. The door was open between our two rooms and we could talk back and forth. Later we dressed and went on deck. It was a delicious sunny morning with a calm sea, and the entire passenger list was lined up on the promenade in deck chairs. We walked.
We saw Sigi Van Vliet, who had already gathered a new circle of friends about her, and was keeping them laughing. A clever and attractive girl, but so hard I couldn't conceive of any man falling in love with her. I suppose that was why she was still hanging from the bough. She greeted us in a friendly fashion, even eagerly.
Passing the veranda café we also saw Harold and Wesley Lacy. They appeared to be quarrelling in low voices. They looked the other way when they saw us.
We were beginning to think about lunch with pleased anticipation when a boy in uniform offered Mme. Storey a note.
"Captain Coulson's compliments, madame, and would you please send an answer by word of mouth."
She read the note and said:
"How nice! The captain asks us to lunch with him in his cabin." She said to the boy: "Madame Storey's compliments to Captain Coulson, and she and Miss Brickley will be delighted to lunch with him."
After having powdered our noses, we proceeded up from deck to deck to the altitude of the bridge where the Commander was waiting for us, a grizzled British seaman, every inch of him. His capacious quarters delighted me even more than the Imperial suite because it was so workmanlike. Lunch was set for three in his sitting-room, but the captain was obviously worried. When we were left alone he said at once:
"I have a confession to make to you. I am taking advantage of our old acquaintanceship..."
"Say friendship," corrected Mme. Storey.
"I hardly dared without some encouragement...Our friendship then. Lunch was only an excuse. I have need to consult with you, and I thought we had better meet here where no one would know of it. It's a serious matter."
Mme. Storey knew that he was no alarmist.
"What's the matter?" she asked quietly.
"It has been reported to me that the rich Mrs. Lacy—or, as I should now call her, Mrs. Mackworth, and her young husband have disappeared from the ship."
Mme. Storey and I sat down very suddenly.
"Good Heavens!" she murmured aghast. "Both of them!"
"Both of them. It is not known yet. I gave orders that the matter was to be kept secret until I had talked with you."
"How long have you known this, Captain?"
"About half an hour. It appears that Mrs. Mackworth's maid, hearing nothing from her mistress or no sound from the room, became alarmed about noon and knocked on the door. Receiving no answer, she tried the handle. It was unlocked. She found the room empty.
"An odd thing is that the young man had undressed. His evening clothes were lying there. But the lady had not. Her night things were waiting for her. Neither bed had been occupied. She sent a steward to inform me. I am having the ship searched from stem to stern."
"Naturally," said Mme. Storey. "But of course nothing will come of it. There is no earthly reason why they should go and hide themselves. Particularly if the young man was in his pyjamas."
The captain sat down then. He pulled out an enormous white handkerchief and mopped his honest, sweating face. "Good God!" he muttered. "Then you think...you think they may have been done away with!"
"There is every reason to think so," said Mme. Storey gravely.
"Oh, this is terrible, madame! Think of the hideous publicity! It will ruin my ship!"
Mme. Storey tersely described the situation that the dinner party revealed. "You see, it has all the potentialities of murder," she said. "Unluckily one can never foresee murder."
"These people," he said excitedly, "the secretary, the two nephews, they must be questioned immediately." He reached for a bell.
Mme. Storey held up her hand. "Wait, Captain! Let me examine the suite first, and question the lady's maid."
"Right!" he said. "I rely on you absolutely. This sort of thing..." he waved his hands helplessly. "But if it had to happen, how lucky I am to have you at my side!"
"Let me go down to the Imperial suite ahead of you," said Mme. Storey. "It will attract less attention."
"But your lunch," he objected.
"Never mind lunch."
In the corridor outside the suite de luxe we came upon a group of stewards and stewardesses gossiping with scared faces. "Please go about your work," said Mme. Storey, a little sharply. "You are to say nothing, and to act as if nothing had happened. Captain's orders." They separated.
In the pretty sitting-room we found a man-servant and a maid servant hanging about not knowing what to do. The woman was weeping quietly. Mme. Storey addressed herself to her.
"You know who I am?"
"Oh, yes, madame."
"The Captain has asked me to help him investigate this matter. He will be here directly." (Captain Coulson came in while Mme. Storey was questioning the woman.) "What is your name?"
"That sounds so unfriendly," said Mme. Storey. "Your first name?"
The woman was middle-aged, and looked a good, faithful soul. She seemed to feel that she had found a friend in Mme. Storey and got a better grip on herself.
"Kate, ma'am," she said.
"Sit down and take it easy," said Mme. Storey. "When did you last see your mistress and Mr. Mackworth?"
Mme. Storey paced up and down the room, smoking. Captain Coulson stood with his back to the windows, watching and listening. He rarely interfered. He was like the judge at this inquiry, Mme. Storey the advocate—and I the clerk.
"It was about eleven o'clock, madame," said Kate. "Soon after the guests had gone. Mrs. Mackworth called me into her bedroom and said..."
"One moment. Was Mr. Mackworth with her?"
"Yes, ma'am. My mistress was sitting at her dressing table taking off her jewels..."
"Are the jewels there?"
"Yes, ma'am. Nothing is missing."
"Mr. Mackworth was standing behind her looking at her in the mirror. They was laughing hearty at each other. Very loving, ma'am."
"What did she say to you?"
"She said she wouldn't want me to help her undress, and I could go to bed. So I left them."
"Where is your room?"
"First door on the right of the little corridor."
"Is there a door from Mrs. Mackworth's room to that corridor?"
"No ma'am. I had to come around through this room to get to her."
"Did you hear anything after you went to bed?"
"Yes, ma'am. In a little while Mr. Mackworth went out."
"How do you know it was Mr. Mackworth?"
"Because I heard him say to her as he crossed this room: 'I'll give you half an hour, darling.'"
"That would be when we first saw him on deck," put in Mme. Storey. "Did you hear anything else?"
"Yes, ma'am. In a little while I heard him come back again. He shot the bolt on the door when he came in."
"But he went out again. We met him on deck a second time."
"Well, he must have bolted the door again when he come in. I was the first up this morning. The door was still bolted."
"How about the rooms of the suite? Were any of them locked?"
"No, ma'am; there were no keys. When we first come aboard the steward offered to supply keys if wanted, but there didn't seem to be any call for them."
Mme. Storey looked at Captain Coulson.
"That narrows it down," she remarked.
He nodded, relieved to discover that no member of his ship's company was involved.
"Did you hear anything else?" she asked Kate.
"No, ma'am. I must have fallen asleep then."
"Are you sure you didn't sleep between the time he went out and the time he came in again?"
"Yes, ma'am. I was putting my things in order then,"
"Could not Mrs. Mackworth have gone out without your hearing her?"
"Seems like I must have heard the doors open and close, ma'am."
"Are you a heavy sleeper, Kate?"
"No, ma'am. The least little thing wakens me. I woke several times during the night."
"And you heard no cry, no struggle, no fall?"
"Nothing whatever, ma'am."
"Well, let's come to this morning."
"I was up at eight, ma'am," said Kate; "but there wasn't anything for me to do until my mistress called me. I went out on the veranda and looked at the sea. I had my breakfast sent up from the servants dining room and ate it in my cabin."
"Did you see Miss Van Vliet?"
"Yes, ma'am. I helped her pack her things."
"How did she look?"
"The same as usual, ma'am. Always the lady, Miss Van Vliet."
"Did she say why she was moving?"
"Just made a joke of it, like. Didn't want to hamper the newly-weds. She went to see the purser about another room, and moved out at ten o'clock."
"Is there a door from her cabin to the corridor?"
"Yes, ma'am. But as the suite was sold as a whole, that door was locked and the key taken away. Miss Van Vliet had to come out this way. The same with Mr. Harold and Mr. Wesley Lacy. They came out this way when they moved."
"Did they say anything to you?"
"No, ma'am. It was not their custom to take any notice of me."
"Did Miss Van Vliet or the Lacys try to see Mrs. Mackworth before they left?"
"No, ma'am. All moved very quiet so as not to arouse her."
Mme. Storey smiled grimly, and turned to Clarkson, the elegant young gentleman's gentleman who had waited upon Ronny.
From him she learned next to nothing. He had been engaged only three days before sailing. Upon coming aboard the Baratoria Ronny had been assigned to cabin B92. Clarkson had helped him to dress for dinner early, and had then superintended the moving of his belongings to Mrs. Lacy's suite. At this hour the members of Mrs. Lacy's party were dressing for dinner and nobody was aware of the move.
Mr. Mackworth had then given him the evening off, and he had gone over to the tourist class where there was a dance. He had returned about eleven, had passed a few words with Mrs. Pinckney and went to bed. His cabin was next to Mrs. Pinckney's. He had heard no unusual sounds during the night. He confessed that he was a heavy sleeper.
Mme. Storey opened the door into the bedroom. "Kate," she asked, "has anything in here been changed since you first opened the door?"
"Absolutely not, ma'am. Nobody has been in there but me."
I followed Mme. Storey in with my notebook. Captain Coulson remained standing in the doorway. My employer said to him:
"I trust you appreciate what a hopeless task you have put up to me, Captain. There is the sea ready to receive any incriminating evidence, and to hide it forever."
"Just the same I am confident that you will solve it anyhow," he said doggedly.
It was a charming room lighted by two large brass-rimmed portholes which stood wide open. Everything was in pairs; twin beds; twin dressing-tables—even twin bathrooms. The one for the lady was done in pink enamel with gold fittings; the man's in black and silver. Across the foot of the beds stretched a chaise-longue.
Beside it on the rug lay a newspaper, some scattered ashes and a cigarette butt which had burned a hole in the rug before going out.
The inference was inescapable that Ronny had lain down to wait for his wife and had fallen asleep. What had happened to him then? And where was she while he waited for her? On a chair near his bed lay his evening clothes neatly folded. The clothes seemed to bring the tragedy horribly near. I shivered.
Meanwhile Mme. Storey, with the magnifying glass that she always carries in her handbag, was examining the room and the two bathrooms, foot by foot. She called out to Kate to ask if she had noticed how many towels there had been in the bathrooms originally.
"Four hand towels and two bath towels in each room," the maid answered. "I noticed particularly."
"Six of the hand towels are missing," said Mme. Storey grimly.
She pointed to a damp spot in the rug near Mrs. Mackworth's dressing-table. "Blood was spilled here," she said. "The murderer washed out the spot, but had no means of drying it quickly."
"Blood!" muttered Captain Coulson scowling.
"He couldn't have shot them nor poisoned them; nor could he have strangled them without a noisy struggle. He must have used a knife."
The portholes with their brass rims, and the strong hooks that were used to support them when they were open, occupied her attention for a while. "He lowered one or both bodies into the sea on a rope," she said finally. "That was to avoid causing a splash that might have attracted attention on deck. The ropes followed the bodies into the sea."
"How do you know he used ropes?" asked the Captain.
She beckoned to him to approach. With the magnifying glass she showed both of us the fuzz that had collected on the edge of the brass rim where the rope had chafed against it.
"Both bodies were disposed of in that fashion," she said after further study. "The first ones he lowered direct, paying out the rope hand over hand. The rope chafed against the edge of the brass rim and some fuzz collected there. That is hempen fuzz. He found that method too difficult and the second time he threw the rope over the hook above the window to take part of the strain off his arms. The fuzz clinging to the hook is cotton fuzz. That's how I know there were two separate operations."
"My God!" murmured Captain Coulson.
She pointed to a slight smear of blood on one of the brass rims. "They always overlook something," she remarked. She stuck her head out of the porthole, and when she drew it in, invited us to take a look. On the black-painted side of the vessel some feet below the porthole was a tell-tale reddish swipe.
"First the woman was lowered while her husband was up on deck," murmured Captain Coulson. "Then the man after he had returned below."
"So it appears," said Mme. Storey.
"But how could he get one and another without any outcry being raised?"
"The man may have been asleep," I suggested.
"Maybe. But the woman wasn't asleep. And if she was sitting there in front of her mirror, she could see anybody who might try to steal up behind her."
"But we're satisfied, aren't we, that it was somebody in the suite, that is to say, somebody she knew?" suggested Mme. Storey. "She wouldn't take any alarm at first sight."
"Bella," said my employer, "find Miss Van Vliet and bring her here—if possible without letting her know what she's wanted for."
"Good God!" cried Captain Coulson with a glance of horror. "Surely no woman could have done this!"
"Like all sailors you are chivalrous," said Mme. Storey with a grim smile. "My experience suggests that women can do anything that men can."
She suddenly opened her hand and showed us a quaint little bow of checked black and white taffeta.
"Found it under Mrs. Mackworth's dressing-table," she said.
The contrast of the gay scene on deck with the grim situation I had left below made a painful impression on me. It seemed to me incredible that people could strut around the promenade in their best clothes, or loll in deck chairs chatting, laughing, flirting, without a care on their minds, while such dreadful things were happening. Perfectly unreasonable of me, of course.
I ran into Sigi Van Vliet parading briskly with two cavaliers. She had already changed her dress since I had seen her before, and was now wearing a stunning yellow sports ensemble that went admirably with her dark hair and eyes. She appeared to be the gayest amongst the gay, and it made my heart harden against her. I paused, and, seeing by my face that I wanted to speak with her, she came to me.
"Mme. Storey would like to see you," I said. "Will you come below?"
"Surely!" she said with an open glance. "I feel honored." She sent the two young men on their way.
Sigi knew that Mme. Storey's cabins lay forward of the imperial suite, and it seemed natural to her when we turned into that corridor. But her eyebrows went up when I paused in front of the suite.
"In here?" she asked.
I nodded. A very strange expression came over her face. However, she instantly grasped the handle of the door and went in. She was still more astonished when she saw the captain there. Her eyes darted around the room.
"Where's Mrs. Lacy?" she demanded breathlessly. She would never refer to that lady by her newly-married name.
"She's missing," said Mme. Storey gravely.
Sigi fell back a step, gasping.
"Missing?...Missing?...What do you mean?"
Mme. Storey spread out her hands. Suddenly with a cry, Sigi ran to the door of the veranda, searched it with her frantic eyes, then to the bedroom searching.
"Ronny! Ronny!" she cried sharply. "Where is Ronny?"
"He's gone too," said Mme. Storey.
Sigi came to a dead stop, pressing her clenched hands hard into her cheeks. Her eyes were daft; her words scarcely intelligible.
"What has happened? I knew...something like this! It was too dreadful a thing to do...wicked!"
"Calm yourself," said Mme. Storey in a friendly way. "This is not like you."
"Like me?" the girl flashed on her. "What do you know about me? You have seen only my dress uniform."
"Help us to establish what has happened to Mrs. Mackworth," urged my employer.
"I care nothing about her," retorted the girl. "Serves her right. She asked for it, didn't she? You heard her!..." Sigi's voice broke. "Oh, Ronny! Ronny! Ronny! In the sea!" In her distracted state she seemed about to rush out on the veranda and cast herself over. Captain Coulson stepped in front of the door.
The girl's surprise and consternation appeared to be so overwhelming that the honest sailor exculpated her on the spot, but Mme. Storey and I reserved judgment yet awhile. We had been fooled before by good acting under similar circumstances.
"When did you last see Mrs. Mackworth?" Mine. Storey asked quietly.
The direct question pulled the girl up all standing. She drew a mask over her tormented face. She took her time about answering.
"Why, you were present," she said quietly enough. "You heard her dismiss me."
"Didn't you see her after that?"
"Certainly not! What for? To listen to more insults?"
"Don't lie to me," said Mme. Storey persuasively. "I wish, to be your friend."
"I don't understand you," said Sigi haughtily.
"Well, let's get at it another way. When were you last in that bedroom?"
"I never was in that bedroom," said Sigi instantly. "When we came aboard yesterday we went to our own rooms. I never had any occasion to go into Mrs. Lacy's bedroom. I wasn't her servant."
Mine. Storey produced the little black and white bow from her hand bag. "Then how did this get in here?"
Sigi looked at it in horror, and ran her hands through her hair. She was unable to speak.
"Are you going to tell me that this did not come off the dress you wore last night?" Mine. Storey quietly persisted. "Do you want me to send Bella to fetch the dress?"
Sigi raised her shoulders, spread out her hands and let them fall. "You have me," she said apathetically. "I was a fool to lie. I was in there last night. But I assure you Mrs. Lacy was very much alive when I left her. Ronny, too. He was with her."
"Just when was this?" asked Mme. Storey.
"Immediately after you and Miss Brickley left. In fact I waited for you to go. I didn't want you to see me humiliated further."
"What did you go back for?"
"Well, it had to do with a valuable set of antique jewelry; a gold and turquoise necklace, brooch, pair of earrings and pair of bracelets. A cousin of mine had asked me to try to sell it to Mrs. Lacy for her. My cousins are poor. Mrs. Lacy said she would buy it, but she hadn't paid me for it.
"Rich as she was, she wasn't always prompt in paying her debts. After she dismissed me so summarily, it occurred to me that I must get either the money or the jewelry before I left the suite, as she certainly would never allow me to approach her again."
"I see. What happened while you were in her room?"
"Mrs. Lacy brought out the jewellery. Just to torment me she tried to beat me down on the price that had already been agreed on. I lost my temper and snatched up the box. It was then that she caught at me, and I suppose the little bow come off in her hand. I never missed it. I succeeded in getting out of the room with my box intact."
"Have you any proof that the scene took place in this manner?" asked Mme. Storey.
A puzzled look came into Sigi's face. "Ronny was there," she said.
"He can't confirm your story now."
"I have the jewellery in my cabin. I can show it to you."
"That would hardly be proof, would it?"
Sigi was at a loss. Mme. Storey turned to the maid. "Kate, can you confirm the fact that Mrs. Mackworth had such a set of jewelry in her possession for a time?"
"I never saw it, ma'am." The woman's honesty compelled her to add: "But that's no proof she didn't have it. I didn't see all her things."
A look of relief broke in Sigi's harassed face. "Harold Lacy knew the circumstances," she said. "He saw the jewels in his aunt's possession. He tried to persuade her not to buy them. He hated her to spend money."
"Very well, we'll ask him," said Mme. Storey. "What did you do after you got the jewels back?"
"Returned to my room and stayed there until morning."
"You heard nothing?"
"Nothing. The two bathrooms were between my cabin and Mrs. Lacy's. There were three closed doors between us."
"I suggest," said Mme. Storey, "that you waited until Ronny had left his wife before you went in to her."
"That's not so," said Sigi. "It happened exactly as I have told you...Heavens, do you think that I made away with her?" she burst out.
"I am not accusing you," said Mme. Storey mildly. "But you see, you might have had a powerful motive."
"What was that?"
"Mrs. Mackworth told you in my hearing that she intended to cancel the substantial legacy she had put down for you."
"I never gave it a thought," said Sigi with curling lips.
While Mme. Storey was questioning the girl there was a knock at the door, and upon being bidden to enter, Harold Lacy showed his anxious, clay-coloured face. He came in looking blankly from Mme. Storey to Captain Coulson, to Sigi. Before he could speak Wes Lacy followed at his heels. Harold turned on him.
"What are you following me about for he snarled.
"To find out what you are up to, you sneak!" retorted Wes.
Then both of them, looking around, asked simultaneously: "Where's Mrs. Lacy?"
When Mme. Storey told them succinctly what the situation was, astonishment, whether real or assumed, rendered them both dumb. But whereas Harold looked frightened, Wes smiled in a mean way.
"Is it good news to you?" Mme. Storey asked him dryly.
"No!" he snarled, recoiling.
"Then why do you smile?"
"It is just my way," he answered, smiling still.
"Well, we are very glad you have both come," said Mme. Storey dryly. "We look to you to help us clear up this matter. Please answer a few questions. First you, Mr. Harold, in relation to a set of antique gold and turquoise jewellery that had been offered to Mrs. Lacy and was in her possession up to last night. I have been informed that you had seen this jewellery, and had advised her not to purchase it. Is that true?"
Harold hesitated in an agony of indecision before answering, looking around from face to face and moistening his pale lips.
"Can't you answer a plain question?" barked the captain.
"I know nothing about such a set of jewellery," said Harold. "Certainly it was never shown me."
Sigi said nothing, but only smiled scornfully. That smile said: You would say that! and from that moment I believed in her innocence. Because it seemed obvious to me that the man was lying. My employer thought so too.
"Thank you," she said dryly. "Next we are anxious to learn what was the status of you and your cousin in respect to the Lacy fortune. You started to say last night that it was understood, when Mrs. Lacy shut you off. What was understood?"
Harold answered promptly now. "That my cousin and I were to share it equally upon her death. It was my uncle's wish."
"Had she made a will to that effect?"
"Have you seen the will?"
"So far as you know it's the last will she made?"
"You fool; you're sending yourself to the chair!" muttered Wes.
"Silence!" shouted Captain Coulson.
"Did you know that your aunt had married Mr. Mackworth before she told you last night in this room?"
"Had you a suspicion that he was courting her or, shall we say, that she was courting him?"
"Then her announcement was a complete surprise?"
"Absolutely!" Wes answered at once. Harold, however, hesitated, looking around from face to face in an agony, trying to read what had taken place before he came in. Finally he mumbled: "It was a complete surprise to me.
"Thank you very much," said Mme. Storey ironically. "Now we're getting somewhere."
I couldn't see it, but I don't pretend to follow all her subtleties.
Still addressing herself to Harold, Mme. Storey went on:
"Please tell us what happened after you and Mr. Wes retired to your room last night."
Harold looked at her stupidly.
Mme. Storey, taking note of their hateful suspicious glances at each other, said at a venture:
Harold, startled, said:
"Certainly we quarrelled," he burst out. "Why lie about it? I had cause enough to quarrel with him, God knows! It was all his fault that she cast us off, He wouldn't leave her alone; always hanging around her and plaguing her and trying to pry into her affairs! She always considered us together, though she had no reason to. We had nothing in common. I always despised him for a fool, but I had to pretend to stick to him because our interests were identical. Well, if she's gone there's no further need for that. I'll go my own way now."
Captain Coulson stared incredulously at this naïve confession of meanness. Mme. Storey made no attempt to stop Wes' outburst. It was all grist to her mill.
Harold turned on Wes then.
"Oh, why don't you tell them what you did when we went into that room. You stood with your ear at the crack of the door listening to everything that was said in here!"
"Sure, I did," said Wes, brazening it out.
"It was a natural thing to do. I had a big stake in what was going on."
"Perfectly natural," agreed Mme. Storey. "So you heard Mrs. Lacy dismiss Sigi; you heard Miss Brickley and I leave; you heard Sigi return to Mrs. Lacy's room, and perhaps you heard a bit of the quarrel over the jewellery that ensued."
"Sure, I heard all that," said Wes coolly.
"Then you heard Ronny go out?"
"We both heard that," said Wes. "Because he spoke to his wife as he crossed this room. Said he'd be back in half an hour."
"Then what happened?" asked Mme. Storey softly.
Wes grinned hatefully and looked at Harold. "Ask him," he said.
"Nothing happened," stammered Harold.
Wes waited, grinning still, as if he wanted to enjoy the full flavor of the joke before sharing it. "You're a fool if you expect me to lie for you," he said to Harold. "It's every man for himself now." He looked at Mme. Storey. "Harold left me," he said.
"So he left you," said Mme. Storey. "Where did he go?"
"You can search me."
"He's lying," mumbled Harold. "He watched from the bedroom door to see where I went. He saw me cross this room and go out the door into the corridor."
"That's not so," said Wes. "I didn't care where he went. He went out of our room, closing the door after him, and I heard nothing more."
"When did he come back?"
"He never came back. I didn't see him again until this morning. Still in his dinner clothes at nine in the morning."
"You went over to your aunt's room," Mme. Storey suggested to Harold.
"No!" he cried, sweating and shaking. "I told you I left the suite. I only wanted to get away from him, the liar. Always at me! Always at me! Blamed me for everything that happened. I couldn't sleep in the same room with him. So I got out."
"Wait a minute!" said Mme. Storey. "Kate's room is just on the other side of the wall. She was awake. She heard Ronny Mackworth go out, and half an hour later she heard him come in again. She didn't hear you go out."
"That was because I went softly," stammered Harold. "I tiptoed out, and closed the door after me without making a sound. I didn't want to attract my aunt's attention."
Captain Coulson suddenly burst out:
"Ah! I have no patience with this whining wretch! You knew that your aunt was alone in her room! You knew that you had half an hour before her husband would return! You knew that she was about to make a new will and you would have to act quickly! You went over there and made certain that no more wills would be written.
"You then reflected that her husband was bound to inherit a large share of her wealth anyhow. You hid yourself and waited for him. You waited until he fell asleep. You stabbed him and disposed of his body, like his wife before him, out of the porthole! It is perfectly clear."
"No! No!" whined Harold. "I never knew they were gone until I came into this room just now." Suddenly he seemed to pluck up a little spirit. "If they're gone you can't prove anything anyhow. You can't prove a murder without producing the body!"
Captain Coulson stepped forward, and for a moment I thought he was going to strike the man down.
"So that's the line you take!" he cried furiously. "That's almost as good as a confession! I'll make it my business to see that you confess! We'll hang you with your own words!"
"You can't!" insisted Harold. "Because I didn't do it!"
Mme. Storey asked for the captain's indulgence with a smile.
"One moment, please."
The old man turned away puffing with anger, violently wiping his face.
"Why does he want to badger me?" whimpered Harold. "If I had done it, would I come back to this room of my own free will this morning?"
"I don't know," said Mme. Storey dryly. "Perhaps you couldn't stand the suspense any longer."
"It's not so! I came back to try to make it up with Mrs. Lacy. I couldn't afford to quarrel with her. Now it's too late."
"Not too late if the will stands," said Mme. Storey very dryly indeed.
"I didn't do it," Harold reiterated sulkily.
"Well, when you left this suite as you say, where did you go?"
"I just wandered around," mumbled Harold. "I wanted to be alone. I'd had a blow. I'd had a blow. I went out on deck through the front end of the corridor. I went down to the deck where the third-class passengers stay. I sat down there to think things out."
"Did anybody see you sitting there?" asked Mme. Storey.
"No. There wasn't anybody around."
"Too bad," she said. "How long did you stay there?"
"A long time. I don't know. I got cold and came in again. I looked for a steward. I found one and told him—well, I admit I told him a story. I told him my cousin snored so loud I couldn't sleep, and asked him if there was a vacant cabin where I could lie down. He showed me one, and I slept there just as I was...The steward can prove it! We can easily find him!"
"What time was it when you spoke to him?"
"I don't know exactly. About half past twelve."
"No good," said Mme. Storey. "Both Mrs. Lacy and her husband were gone then. We have pretty definitely established the fact that she was dropped overboard before eleven thirty."
"Well, what do you pick on me for?" whined Harold. "Why couldn't Wes have done it? I left him alone in his room. And Mrs. Lacy was alone in her room. He always makes out he's so much cleverer than me. Calls me a fool."
"Certainly Wes could have done it," said Mme. Storey calmly. She turned to Wes, who was grinning confidently. "What did you do after Harold left you?" she asked.
"Went to bed and slept till morning," said Wes definitely, "and nobody can prove otherwise!"
"You appear confident," said Mme. Storey, pleasantly.
"What's to be done now, ma'am?" asked Captain Coulson.
She said: "I recommend that the three suspected persons be confined in separate cabins, with a steward outside each door."
"You've got nothing on me!" snarled Wes Lacy.
"No," said Mme. Storey. "But you could have done it, you see."
She went on in a lower tone for the captain's ear alone:
"You'd better put the girl in an inside cabin."
He said, startled:
"You think that she..."
"No, I don't," said Mme Storey. "But she was desperately in love with the missing man. She might cast herself out of the porthole as a gesture."
"Very well, ma'am."
Mme. Storey went on:
"I must have your authority to search the effects of the three suspected persons. Also Mrs. Mackworth's effects and Ronny's."
"You have it, ma'am."
"I don't know what I shall find. Incriminating evidence, as you know, can always be thrown overboard. But it's obviously something that must be done. As soon as I've finished my search I'll let you know."
So the inquiry was adjourned, and the suspected three led away. Mme. Storey ate a bite and I set to work. I need not go into the details of the tedious search. Suffice it to say that it was after dinner before we finished.
At nine o'clock we were gathered again in the sitting-room of the Imperial suite. The commander, his staff captain, who was in direct charge of the passengers, and a couple of under officers were present. The suspects were brought in.
Mme. Storey went direct to the point.
"Amongst Miss Van Vliet's effects I found nothing that throws any fresh light on the case. The jewellery she described to us was there. As Mr. Wes Lacy has confirmed her story of how she recovered it from Mrs. Mackworth there is nothing against Miss Van Vliet, and I suggest that she be released from further surveillance."
Captain Coulson was greatly pleased. He had never believed that Sigi was guilty.
"You are free, miss," he said. "And my apologies for having subjected you to inconvenience."
Sigi, with her usual hard smile, started to assure him that he was forgiven, but she broke down in the middle of it and began to cry. If she had only known how much more attractive she was without her "dress uniform!"
Mme. Storey went on, in the quiet voice that conveyed no intimation of the bombshell she was about to throw: "Amongst Mr. Harold Lacy's effects I found nothing that could interest us. In the pocket of one of Mr. Wes Lacy's bags I made an interesting discovery." From her hand bag she produced a sheaf of engraved bonds and spread them on the table. "Twenty-five one-thousand-dollar Liberty bonds of the unregistered type."
Wes Lacy lost his confident, grinning air. "Those are not mine!" he cried out sharply. "I never saw them before! If they were found in my baggage they were planted there!"
"What connects them with the murders, ma'am?" asked Captain Coulson.
Mme. Storey said: "I'm coming to that. Mrs. Mackworth was a methodical woman. Amongst her things I found a notebook in which she was accustomed to enter all her financial operations. Under yesterday's date I find this entry: 'Today I presented my dear husband with twenty-five one thousand-dollar Liberty bonds as a wedding gift.'...The numbers of the bonds follow," Mme. Storey quietly concluded. "These are the bonds."
Captain Coulson struck his fist into his palm.
"Then it was he who did it!" he cried.
"It's a lie!" cried Wes shrilly. "I tell you they were planted on me...planted!" He pointed a shaking finger at his cousin. "And he did it!"
It was Harold's turn to smile then. He could smile just as hatefully as his cousin.
"Well, a British jury will decide that," said the captain in grim satisfaction. "And my opinion is that those bonds will hang you!"
That ended the scene. The Lacys were taken away. I thought the good captain would never have done pumping my employer's arm up and down. "I said you'd do it in spite of all!" he cried. "And you did!"
Mme. Storey shrugged deprecatingly.'
When we returned to our own cabins I noticed that she was looking pale and thin-lipped. "What a horrible case!" I said. "I'm thankful that you got to the bottom of it so quickly!"
"To the bottom of it!" she said with a strange look. "I have scarcely scratched the surface!"
She swore under her breath. "Ah, I hate to be beaten!" she muttered, pacing the little room. "I hate to be beaten—even by the sea!"
"I don't understand!" I said.
"You have heard all the evidence," she said. "Think it through!"
That was all I could get out of her. She never will confide her thoughts in anybody until she has arrived at positive conclusions.
Upon Mme. Storey's recommendation Captain Coulson immediately wirelessed an announcement of the tragedy back to America. "If it is any longer delayed, it will react against you," she warned him. So it was done. One could picture the sensation that was created.
The bluff captain detested the methods of the sensational press, and his message to the shore was characteristically terse. Consequently the ship was immediately deluged with messages demanding further details. Some fantastic prices were offered him for an exclusive story. He tore these messages up and paced his cabin in a rage. Mme. Storey expostulated with him.
"You can't buck the press, captain. They will always get back at you. Let me write out a plain, straightforward story and send it in your name."
This was done.
Fantastic rumours had begun to fly around the ship, and it was obvious that the passengers must also be told what had happened. Captain Coulson insisted on writing this announcement himself, and next morning the following characteristically British notice was pinned up on the ship's bulletin board:
"Captain Coulson regrets to announce that Mrs. Ronald Mackworth (the former Mrs. Hibbert Lacy) and Mr. Mackworth have disappeared from the ship, and are believed to have been flung overboard. Mr. Wesley Lacy and Mr. Harold Lacy, nephews of the late Hibbert Lacy, are being detained in custody for the police."
The effect of this on the passengers can be conjectured. They almost went out of their minds with baulked curiosity. They made the lives of the under officers miserable; they stormed Sigi Van Vliet's cabin, and our cabin, they tried to bribe the stewards to tell them in what part of the ship the prisoners were confined; they even ventured into the sacred precincts of the captain's cabin and demanded information. Individual passengers were by this time receiving messages from shore asking for stories. They had nothing to tell.
Captain Coulson was of a mind to have clapped them all in irons had that been possible. Mme. Storey finally persuaded him that the best way to deal with the situation was to allow her to receive a committee of the passengers in her cabin and tell them all we knew. This was done, and the storm subsided somewhat. But what a voyage!
It was generally assumed that Mme. Storey had completed her case, and that the rest was up to the British police. Only the commander and I knew that she was working on it in her own way throughout the remaining days of the voyage.
First she wirelessed her agent, Latham Rowe, in code, asking him to obtain the particulars of Mrs. Mackworth's will, and send them. In a few hours the answer came which, when decoded, read:
Mrs. M. made new will the morning she sailed. After several bequests the entire residual estate to her husband, Ronald Mackworth. Interest on trust fund three hundred thousand to each nephew. Sigismonda Van Vliet gets fifty thousand outright.—Latham.
Mme. Storey put the message away without making any comment. So the nephews, either or both, had murdered in vain! I thought.
My employer spent the days wandering over the big ship in the guise of a simple curiosity-seeker, with particular reference to the tourist class and third. She ate a meal in each of these classes. "Just to see what they get," she said, and attended some of their entertainments. She made friends with the stewards everywhere, and with the employees in every department of the ship. Whatever it was she was looking for she didn't find it, because when she was off her guard that slight harassed line was never absent from between her brows.
The only clue I got to her anxiety came when once she burst out impatiently:
"The danger is that the stolid British jury will convict Wes Lacy on the evidence of those bonds."
"I hope they do," I said.
She grinned at me. "You only say that because he's a mean wretch, and everybody likes to see a mean wretch hanged.
"But I don't want to share in the responsibility of hanging him. The evidence is insufficient. If Wes is clever enough to have carried out this double crime it isn't reasonable to suppose that he would have left the bonds where anybody could find them."
"Then Harold must have planted them," I said.
"Maybe he did. But I can't hang it on him. There is also the possibility that neither of them committed the murders."
"Who else could have done it?"
"I don't know. That's what I'm trying to dope out."
We had to go on to Southampton, of course, instead of disembarking at Cherbourg. The English are supposed to be a steadier, more stable race than we are, but I must say that they were just as excited over the Lacy case as Americans could have been. Luckily the docks at Southampton are shut off from the town by gates, and by stationing guards at the gates the authorities were able to keep the populace out. The London train comes alongside the ship, and we just had a glimpse of the immense crowds from the car windows as we moved out.
We were told that thousands of people were already gathering around Waterloo Station in London.
However, the railway officials circumvented them by stopping the train at a little-used station called Vauxhall, whence we were spirited to our hotel in taxis.
Mme. Storey and I went to the Carlton. The news soon spread about, and hundreds of people began to mill around the building in the hope of getting a glimpse of us. Just like home.
We had to go to Scotland Yard and submit to endless questioning by the heads of the C.I.D. Mme. Storey was well-known to them by reputation, and they were courteous and respectful. Very fine men they are, too; but naturally, under the circumstances, they could not carry the case one step further. In the minds of the public Wes Lacy was already as good as hanged, but no professional investigator was satisfied with the evidence.
One of the strangest figures in the case was little Mrs. Mackworth, Ronny's mother, who at a single stroke lost her only son and found herself one of the richest women in the world. Mme. Storey's first act when she was free to do so, was to go to see her. It was purely an impulse of kindness, for Ronny's mother could have had no connection with the murders.
She lived in the suburb of Croydon in a little yellow brick house grimed with soot, one of an endless row of such houses lining both sides of a curving street. A more depressing street I have scarcely ever seen, but I must say that each of these horrid houses had a charming garden in the rear. The English are past masters of the art of gardening.
A maid admitted us, and we were taken through into the garden where a tea table was set. Mrs. Mackworth received us all in a flutter. She was a widow, fifty, I suppose; had been pretty in an insignificant way but it was now a very faded prettiness. A gentle, weak, ineffectual sort of woman, she wept copiously the whole time we were there.
We listened to a history of Ronny's life from birth. She brought out her photographs and we looked at Ronny in long baby clothes and short; in pinafores, knickers and slacks. Mrs. Mackworth had a fresh reserve of tears for almost every picture. She had some reason for her pride; Ronny had been a beautiful child at every age. Mine. Storey bore herself toward the little woman with endless kindness and sympathy. It was an exhausting call.
When it was printed in the newspapers that she had fallen heir to the Lacy fortune, the poor little woman was driven almost frantic by the hordes of people who descended on her; reporters, press photographers, beggars and curiosity-seekers generally.
After two days of this, her solicitor spirited her out of town without telling anybody where he was taking her.
As soon as Scotland Yard expressed itself as being through with us, Mme. Storey and I flew over to Paris and put up at the Meurice under assumed names. For the moment we succeeded in keeping our identity a secret. But all the bloom had been taken off her vacation by this miserable tragedy. She worried over the case continually. When it should be called for trial we expected to go back to London.
One day she said out of the blue:
"Mrs. Mackworth is in Paris. Let's go and call on her."
We found her in a modest hotel on the Rue Jacob, where she was known as Mme. Dare. She was unaffectedly glad to see us. She wept a little, but presently dried her tears. She was beautifully dressed. She felt it incumbent on her to apologize for the dinginess of her surroundings.
"Of course I could have gone to the Ritz, but my solicitor thought it wiser to live here under an assumed name. The estate won't be settled for months to come, but they tell me I can have all the money I want. I can hire a motor whenever I want, and I can buy clothes. It is all I have to do because I don't know anybody in Paris, and my solicitor said I must be very careful whom I spoke to."
And so on. And so on. Like a child. She was a touching figure. One trembled for her future.
At the end of the week we went to see her again. The concierge of the little hotel told us that Madame Dare had gone away. Left no address. Mme. Storey shrugged.
When we got back to the Meurice she telegraphed to England and later she went to the central office to telephone. She did not tell me then what it was all about, but next morning on receipt of a message from England she said we were leaving for Orleans in half an hour.
"What for?" I asked.
"To try to find Mrs. Mackworth."
"What has she got to do with it?" I cried.
"I don't know," said Mme. Storey enigmatically. "There's something unexplained there, and I mean to find out what it is."
When we got to Orleans the bird had flown. We went to Lille, and from Lille half across France to Toulouse; then all the way back to Grenoble, a city at the foot of the Alps. From the style of telegrams that Mme. Storey received it was evident that she was having the little woman trailed The success with which Mrs. Mackworth was evading us, suggested that she had her scouts out, too. Well, where a hundred millions is concerned, expense is no object.
In Grenoble we caught up with her for an hour. Walking along the little triangular plaza which forms the city centre, we saw her looking in a shop-window across the way. It is wonderful what clothes will do for a woman; in one of the smart black dresses with a hat to match she looked almost young and beautiful. Mme. Storey pulled me into a doorway before she saw us.
One of Mme. Storey's sleuths brought word to our hotel that Mrs. Mackworth was at the Majestic. He was sent back to watch, and to report to us when she went out again. Mme. Storey then intended to go to the Majestic, and if possible secure a room next to Mrs. Mackworth's.
When Mme. Storey asked the peasant if we were on the right road to Digne, he and his womenfolk roared with laughter. Why Digne lay a good fifty kilometres over the mountains to the South. Why hadn't he watched the signs?
Our driver broke into a torrent of apologies and self-reproaches; cast his cap on the ground and tore at his hair. How could he have been such a fool as to take the wrong turning! We were not in the least deceived by this display. It was clear that he meant us no good.
But we assumed that his object was simply robbery, and Mme. Storey being armed, felt confident that she could handle the situation. It never occurred to us that he might be in the pay of those who were trying to spirit poor Mrs. Mackworth away.
She asked the nearest place where we could spend the night and was told there was a village about thirty kilometres ahead of us and it had a good hotel. Whereupon she sternly ordered the driver to get under his wheel and drive on.
It grew quite dark. The sky was heavily overcast. There was no more conversation from the front seat, but the driver kept sadly shaking his head as if to assure us of his undying remorse. Mme. Storey had the little gun lying on the seat beside her. For reasons of his own the man now drove very slowly. When Mme. Storey ordered him to speed up, he twiddled the levers on his wheel and told her it was impossible. There was something wrong with his spark.
We climbed again, crossed another pass, and saw lights in the far distance below us. My heart lifted up a little; the promised village! We wound down a mountainside, and came out above a lake. The village lay at the other end of it, all the lights casting long spears of light into the dark water.
The road here was carved out of the solid rocky slopes above the lake. The water, I should say, was about a hundred feet below us at the bottom of a deep slide of rock with bushes growing here and there in the interstices. Our driver slowed down more and more, and Mme. Storey brusquely commanded him to go on.
He grinned at us over his shoulder, hideously. Instead of obeying, he suddenly turned the car out of the road. As he went over the edge, he slipped from under the wheel and dropped off the running board. We plunged down. I heard myself screaming. In three seconds I died a hundred deaths.
It was Mme. Storey's marvellous quickness that saved both our lives. She got the door open, but she had the wit not to fling herself out, nor let me do so. Our brains would have been dashed out on the rocks. She waited until the car plunged into the water. The impact with the water smashed the open door clean off its hinges. Then somehow she struggled out through the door, dragging me after her.
We rose to the surface of the water. She clapped a hand over my mouth to keep me from screaming again. She whispered urgently in my ear:
"He will be watching to make sure that we are gone!"
You may be sure that I closed my mouth then.
We paddled softly back to the rocks, and crept along the edge, keeping our bodies submerged, until we came to some bushes which cast a shadow over our heads. There we hung in the icy water. We could hear the man coming cautiously down the slope, displacing stones which rattled down ahead of him.
Presently we could vaguely make him out, standing at the edge of the water, peering this way and that and listening. I held my breath. When he was certain that we were done for, he cast his cap out on the water, and deliberately letting himself into it, while clinging to the rocks, ducked his head under. Then climbing out, he started to claw his way up the rocks bawling for help. The little mountain lake echoed with his cries.
Mme. Storey laughed. "What an actor!"
We drew ourselves out of the water. Our would-be murderer set off running in the road towards the village, still bawling. We wrung the water out of our clothes as well as we could, and restored circulation by climbing up to the road. We, too, turned toward the village.
In a few minutes we saw some jigging lights approaching and heard voices. "We must hide," said Mme. Storey.
We climbed up the bed of the torrent until we were well above the road, and sat down to watch.
Presently the villagers came straggling along the road with their lanterns. In the van staggered our chauffeur like a man drunk with grief, crying and tearing his hair. Rage churned inside me, and I prayed that that scoundrel might come to a bad end.
When they had gone, we returned to the road. Outside the village it ran into a North and South road. The South arm of the signpost was marked "Digne 58 kilometres" and we turned that way. Ranges of dark mountains barred our way; there was not a light anywhere in that direction, and I confess that my heart sunk into my boots.
However, at the top of the first long rise, we met a motor-lorry toiling up the other side. It was driven by a young lad who was singing at the top of his lungs. How amazed he was when his lights picked up two bedraggled ladies standing in the road! He stopped, and Mme. Storey parleyed with him. A simple youth.
He had been to Nice with a consignment of wool and was returning empty. He still had a hundred kilometres to go before he would be home. My employer told him a very sketchy story of having been held up on the road, and our car stolen. He appeared to take it at face value. We were going to Nice, she said; would he turn around and help us on our way.
He demurred, thinking of home and supper. Why not let him take us back to Payol-sur-lac? There was a hotel. He had only just enough essence (gasoline) to take him home. Mme. Storey assured him that she would buy the essence, and would pay him well besides, for his time.
"I have money hidden on me that the robbers overlooked," she said.
Finally he consented, and we climbed into the seat beside him. I don't think he discovered that our clothes were damp, but anyhow he gave us a blanket which we wrapped around both of us. He turned his truck around and we banged down the other side of the hill. Mme. Storey laid herself out to win him, and that was not hard. His name was Henri.
By the time we had reached Digne two hours later, he was her slave. She let him understand in a subtle manner that there was a certain mystery connected with our movements, and that he must protect our secret. He swore eternal fealty, and announced that he was going to drive us to Nice if she would condescend to use so rude a conveyance. Fatigue was unknown to him. Why not drive straight through that night?
We reached Nice at dawn and had ourselves carried to a little hotel in the Italian quarter, so humble that our bedraggled state would not be conspicuous. Henri was very reluctant to leave us. He was sure that we would require his services later. We could trust him to the death.
Mme. Storey reminded him that he must think of his family. Meanwhile she had got hold of a map, and she gave Henri a letter that for certain mysterious reasons, must positively be posted in a certain village to the east of his usual route home. Thus she kept him out of Payol-sur-lac.
As soon as the stores opened we bought some clothes and moved to a better lodging, but still in the Italian quarter, the oldest and poorest part of the town. We were not likely to run into anybody who knew us there.
Owing to our accident, Mme. Storey had lost touch with her agents. But as it had become increasingly evident that her agents were under the surveillance of somebody else's agents, she let them go. Having visited the Riviera on several occasions, she was acquainted with the Chief of Police of Nice, and she sent him a note. The great man himself came to visit us at our humble hotel during the afternoon, very plainly dressed, and further disguised by a pair of dark glasses.
Mme. Storey told him what had happened to us; and from his expletives and from the way his eyes flashed I judged that the villainous Marbaud was going to get his, all right. However, that had to wait for the moment.
"This Englishwoman obviously, has fallen into the hands of criminals," Mme. Storey told the Chief of Police. "I don't yet know what their game is, though I may have my suspicions. At any rate since the murder of her son and her son's wife has not been satisfactorily solved, it is up to us to discover what is going on."
It was quite simple for the police to find Mrs. Mackworth. An hour after he had left us, the Chief of Police was able to telephone Mme. Storey that she was registered at the Hotel Negresco under the name of Mme. Thomas. She had taken a place for the performance of "Faust" at the Casino that night. Upon hearing this, Mme. Storey arranged with him to introduce us into the hotel while Mrs. Mackworth was out of it.
With the police backing us, it was all quite simple. The people who occupied the room next to Mrs. Mackworth's were shifted to another part of the hotel, and at ten o'clock Mme. Storey and I were conducted through a service entrance, and carried upstairs in a service elevator, and taken into the room without having met anybody. Our room had a door communicating with Mrs. Mackworth's room, locked of course. My employer was provided with a key to it. Also she had borrowed a gun from the police.
If, as Americans are fond of terming it, Nice is France's Atlantic City on the Mediterranean, the Negresco is the Traymore of Nice. Rather old-fashioned according to our notions, it is still a magnificent hotel occupying the choicest position on the front. Mrs. Mackworth had taken one of the best rooms facing the sea. Evidently the little woman was coming out.
Mme. Story sat down close to the communicating door where she could hear anything that took place in the next room. I drifted to the window of our room to watch the throngs of people weaving back and forth on the promenade.
Shortly after eleven my employer smiled at me, and her lips shaped the words: "She has come home." And a few minutes later: "She has a visitor."
Mme. Storey picked up the telephone and I went to the door to listen. I heard the rumble of a man's voice in Mrs. Mackworth's room, but could not distinguish what he was saying. Meanwhile my employer was telephoning to the policeman who was awaiting such a call, to tell him to take up his position outside Mrs. Mackworth's door, to allow no one to leave. He was to tap lightly on our door when he came, to let us know he was at his post.
We heard his signal. Mme. Storey taking the gun in her hand, but keeping it behind her, went to the communicating door. She softly inserted the key, turned it, and pulled the door open. Quick as she was, the man in the next room was quicker. He was gone when we looked in. We had heard a door close. As no sound came from the corridor, we knew that he must have slipped into the bathroom.
Mrs. Mackworth wearing a charming evening dress, and with her hair touched up and dressed by a master coiffeur, gazed at us in stupefaction. So complete was her surprise, that a moment passed before she recognized us.
"Madame...Madame Storey!" she stammered.
"Sorry to walk in on you like this," said my employer, "but I must see your visitor."
Mrs. Mackworth's hand went to her throat. She swallowed hard. "I...have no visitor," she whispered huskily.
Mme. Storey silently pointed to an expensive Panama hat, light-weight overcoat and malacca stick lying on a chair. Mrs. Mackworth gave up. She began to tremble and weep in a piteous manner.
"Open the bathroom door," said Mme. Storey. "Speak to him first or he may decide to shoot you in mistake for me."
The wretched little woman crossed the room. Her legs would scarcely bear her up. At the door she faltered:
"Come out. It is no use."
Mme. Storey took up a position where she would be behind the door when it opened. He came out. He too, was armed. Mme. Storey said sharply:
"Drop that gun or I'll shoot!"
Turning his head he saw that she had him covered. The gun clattered to the floor and I pounced upon it.
It was Ronald Mackworth. He had dyed his hair, added a blond mustache, and in some manner had bleached his tanned skin. His appearance was greatly altered, but he could not conceal his good looks.
"Mme. Storey! This is a surprise!" he said impudently.
"Surprise is not the word for it!" she retorted dryly.
She looked at me, and I went to the hall door and summoned the policeman. Mme. Storey said to him:
"You are to arrest this gentleman. Put the handcuffs on him."
Mrs. Mackworth collapsed on a sofa with a pitiful cry.
Ronny stepped back showing his teeth. But Mme. Storey's gun was still in play.
"Must I submit to this humiliation?" he muttered.
"Well, naturally," said my employer. "You know what you're wanted for."
"You believe that I am a murderer," he said, "but it's not true! Mother," he cried in theatrical fashion, "do you believe that I did this thing?"
"No! No! No!" she wailed.
Mme. Storey signalled to the policeman to do his duty and the steel bracelets clicked around Ronny's elegant wrists. He ground his teeth in despair.
"So you are innocent," said Mme. Storey dryly.
"Do you care to explain your extraordinary disappearance after the tragedy?"
He had recovered his assurance. He shrugged.
"I'll have to explain it to the police. Why not to you? May I smoke?"
Mme. Storey handed a cigarette to the policeman, who stuck it in Ronny's mouth and put a match to it. He drew on it deeply.
"I have to confess to cheating and deceit," he began in his cultivated English voice, "but not to murder. What was I? A penniless young actor—not even a good actor. My face was my fortune as the milkmaid said. This rich old woman fell in love with me and asked me to marry her. Who wouldn't have jumped at the chance? I said I would, though I was in love with another woman. The other woman urged me to take her. She wouldn't live forever, we told each other."
"Yes, yes," said Mme. Storey impatiently. "This is an ordinary story. But how did you contrive to disappear?"
He smiled. "Well, it's something to be able to baffle Mme. Storey. I was booked twice on the Baratoria under two different names and in two different classes, first and tourist. I was provided with two passports, two sets of baggage and in fact, two wives—and one child in the tourist class. I was two entirely different people."
"What was your name in your second incarnation?"
He hesitated at this question, scowling.
"You might as well tell me. There are hundreds to identify you."
He shrugged. "John Thurlow."
"What was the purpose of this elaborate deception if you were not planning the murder of Mrs. Lacy?"
"Merely so that I would not be parted from the other one. I wanted to be able to visit her during the voyage."
"How could you have visited her?"
"First-class passengers are permitted to wander at will over the vessel. I could have gone to her room, put on my disguise and showed myself on deck with her."
"Were you married to her?"
"No. I would have been if I could. She had a husband living."
"And the child?"
"How did you start the business?"
"Perfectly easy. John Thurlow, wife and child, boarded the tourist section of the Baratoria two hours before she sailed, as many passengers do. After showing myself all over that part of the vessel, I took off my disguise in my cabin—so many people milling about the ship nobody noticed the new face—and returned inconspicuously to the pier. There I met my man-servant who had brought my baggage down, we went aboard over the first-class gangway, and established ourselves."
"Very ingenious," said Mme. Storey. "And what happened that night?"
"When I first missed my wife—I mean my real wife, I went in search of her over the vessel. I met you and Miss Brickley, you remember. Not finding her, I returned to the Imperial suite to wait for her. When she failed to return, I became anxious. I noticed, what had escaped me in the be ginning, a wet spot on the floor that suggested blood might have been spilled there, and later washed out.
"I had every reason to suspect my wife's nephews by marriage. Not knowing that she had already made a will in my favour, I guessed that they had put her out of the way. Well, since the will was in my favour, I knew that I would never be able to persuade the world that I had not killed her, and the easiest way out seemed to be to make it appear that they had killed me too. So, by leaving my clothes there, I made my way by unfrequented passages back to the tourist class; resumed my disguise and remained the r e throughout the voyage."
"Of course you had the advantage of the pretended wife and child for additional camouflage."
"And during the last few days you have been trying to get in touch with your mother in order to obtain money."
"Sure, I had to have money," he coolly admitted.
"You were counting on the fact that your mother would have to stand by you."
"Well, she's my mother."
"You have made a mistake though, in trying to have me murdered," Mme. Storey went on in the same dry voice. "That makes me a little unsympathetic to your story."
"I don't know what you mean," he said, trying to stare her down.
"Never mind," she said.
Of course she didn't believe his preposterous story, which after all, included so much that was true. He didn't expect her to believe it. What he banked on was, that no jury would convict in the absence of the body.
"One more question," said Mme. Storey. "What was the number of the cabin in the tourist class occupied by the Thurlows?"
He hesitated again for a fraction of a second; but reflecting that this was bound to come out anyway, answered: "437."
"Bella," said Mme. Storey, "there's a tourist agency in the hotel. It will be closed at this hour of course, but I want you to try find the person in charge of it. If you can get hold of him, obtain from him a cabin plan of the steamship Baratoria."
I left them. I found that the tourist agent occupied a small room in the hotel, and by great luck I found him in bed. Inside of half an hour I was back in Mrs. Mackworth's room with the desired plan.
Mme. Storey spread it out on the table, studied it, counted the marked portholes on each deck from stem to stern. The manacled Ronny affected to grin, but there was anxiety in his eyes. Finally Mme. Storey said:
"I find that room 437 in the tourist class is on 'D' deck, immediately under the principal bedroom of the Imperial suite on 'B' deck. I assume that you as Thurlow, made sure of that when you booked the cabin. What happened is now clear to me. Let me tell you my story."
"Go ahead," said Ronny.
"You stabbed your wife as soon as you were left alone with her. You lowered her body into the sea with a piece of hempen rope that you had brought for that purpose and threw the rope after her. You then made believe to search the ship for her. This was to provide evidence that She had died before you, so that you could inherit without dispute.
"I assume that your plan was a matter of gradual development. Only thus can I explain the fact that the second piece of rope you bought was of a different sort. This was cotton rope, a piece twice as long as necessary. In the middle of this piece you made a slip knot over the hook above the porthole, and let the slack hang down outside the ship.
"You then lowered yourself down the rope—let us assume it had knots in it, until you were opposite the porthole of cabin 437. There the lady who passed as Mrs. Thurlow pulled you in.
"All you had to do then, was to pull the slack end of the rope, bring away the slip knot above, and throw the rope into the sea.
"A very daring plan, but I suppose the stake of a hundred millions and freedom justified it."
Ronny's head had sunk down between his shoulders. He was breathing hard and showing his teeth. Not beautiful then. But he still attempted to brazen it out.
"We'll see!" he sneered.
We did see. As everybody knows, he was hanged. It happened that he was not married to the lady who passed as Mrs. Thurlow. Consequently under the curious workings of the law of inheritance, Mrs. Mackworth, poor little woman, continues in possession of the great Lacy fortune. Well, it is better that she should have it than the two weakling nephews.
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