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Title: The Phantom Woman
Author: Melville Davisson Post
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1801201h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  December 2018
Most recent update: December 2018

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The Phantom Woman


Melville Davisson Post

Sir Henry Marquis, Chief of the Criminal Investigation Department of Scotland Yard, has a monograph on this case. He said we were accustomed to believe that the dead were impotent in human affairs; but it was a thing of which no man could be certain. How could we know whether the power of those gone out of sight and hearing, waxed or waned, or ceased; or by what means, or in what manner they might be able to move the living to their will. He said this case profoundly impressed him.

We stopped in the pine woods to listen. The music seemed to fill the world; it was low and soft, a sort of vague elfin music appearing as by some enchantment. There was this strange quality in it—that it seemed to emerge from the wood itself, to be a part of this aspect of nature, the filtered sunlight, the odor of the wood and the soft air from the sea. And it drugged the senses in us. One heard it and was transported to a kingdom of the fairy and all things about it took on the glamour of a dream.

I stopped beside Sir Henry Marquis on the path, behind us was the village and its inn where we had gone for luncheon at the end of our motor journey from London that morning. And before us, at the end of the path through the wood, was the house and below it the sea. It was a lovely artistic house that my father's wife had built here for this romantic marriage after my father's death; and now that she, too, was dead it remained in the possession of this Hungarian fiddler. When one considered the man alone, when one looked coolly at him, it was past belief that my step-mother should have been so infatuated with him. The Count Andreas was, merely to the eye, what I have written, a Hungarian fiddler. It must have been this music that had entranced the woman, for out of the spell of it she seemed to be also out of the spell of this strange creature. For when she lay dying in her London house she expressed the wish that a bracelet of Burma rubies in the Count's possession should be given to me. And when her solicitor pointed out that her verbal wish could have no effect against the Count's resistance, she said, "I will return and make him do it!"

Count Andreas would make no reply to my solicitor. And so on the morning I went with Sir Henry Marquis, Chief of the Criminal Investigation Department of Scotland Yard, to this interview with him. The verities of justice were on my side, the rubies had come from my American mother, had been passed on by my father to his second wife, and now by operation of the English law this Hungarian fiddler took them. I felt crowded out of my inheritance by a combination of evil events. My father's wife had tried to return my mother's jewels to me and here by the running of this English law I was dispossessed. I had gone from my solicitor to Sir Henry Marquis for he had known my mother in the old days, and remained a friend.

He had listened with rather a strange face, I thought, when I had related to him all the details of the matter.

"Sarah," he said, "you have your mother's eyes and that lovely line of the hair around the forehead."

Then he had got up and walked about the room.

"We shall go down and see this Count Andreas. I know something of him."

And so we had come down, on this August morning, where the great moors lay above the sea fringed along their edges by the pine trees. It was a lovely prospect in the sun; the bracken of the wild moors, the wood along their face when they fell sheer into the sea, and the sea itself with its great colored patches lying below the blue water as though it were on a painted floor.

We could see the grass terrace before the house; for the house stood on a shelf of the moor—a space had been cut out of the pine woods for it—and this green terrace flanked by the wood on either side and the house behind looked down on the sea. It was two hundred feet above but one could have cast a stone into the water. The brow of the moor here dropped like a plummet into the ocean. The music came from the terrace. We could see a man, walking about on it, a violin at his shoulder, his bow hand flying. And in the glamour of the melodies he was a sylvan creature. One held the breath to see him, and ventured softly lest he vanish...I saw how the hypnotic virtues of this music had entranced my father's wife, especially when she felt alone and with age before her. The man when he played was within the music as in a golden haze...but when he stepped out of it he was the Hungarian fiddler.

He stepped out of it as we came up, but he was a very clever person, carefully dressed and with a suave demeanor.

"It is Sir Henry Marquis," he said, "and Miss Sarah Whitney. I am honored."

Then he spoke directly to Sir Henry Marquis.

"You arrive quickly. My telegram to Scotland Yard could not have reached London before an hour of noon."

I caught the fleeting evidence of surprise in Sir Henry's face but there was no surprise in his voice or manner. He had not journeyed here at the call of any telegram from the Count to Scotland Yard; but his profession was not one permitting of surprises. The situation before Sir Henry, I thought was difficult. And I wondered what Delphic answer he could make.

"What are the details of this matter?" he said. It was a key that would fit any lock.

The Count put his violin down carefully on a stone seat and went with us toward a window on the first floor of the house on the farther side. The house sat parallel with the terrace in its longest direction; there was a hall in the center and a stairway going up and on one side the drawing-room with the dining room on the opposite side across the hall. It was not a large house but it was beautifully designed and its furnishings were artistic.

But Count Andreas did not go on directly to the window. He stopped.

"It was all very cleverly done," he said, "there was no sound...I am puzzled to know if the woman was alone, or had an accomplice."

Sir Henry put a query then.

"Were you alone in the house?"

Again it was a key for any lock for he did not know what was before him and whether it had happened in the night or day, or in fact what it was in which a woman had been concerned.

Count Andreas made a vague gesture.

"I am very careless," he said. "I sleep here alone, the servants come out from the village of a morning, but I have no fear."

Sir Henry made a rather strange reply.

"It is very dangerous," he said, "to have no fear."

The Count shrugged his shoulders.

"I am not a practical man," he said, "or else I would have taken my wife's jewels to London and a bank vault; but I wished her room in this house to remain as she left it...nothing has been changed or moved in it, the dust, and the spiders have their way...I had forgotten that her jewels remained in a little drawer of her writing table."

Then he turned quickly about to me; as though some sharp amazing thing had suddenly occurred to him.

"Alas! Miss Sarah," he cried. "You will be a loser with me; for the ruby bracelet about which you wrote me is gone with the other jewels." The words were like a blow to me, for I had hoped to recover this heirloom of my mother—this bracelet of rubies set in a gold work that hinged between the stones. It was of great value and had been in my mother's family for a hundred years.

I suppose I must have looked the despair I felt, and I could not keep back a mist of tears.

Sir Henry touched me gently.

"Perhaps we shall find it," he said—and he went on behind the Hungarian who had faced about after the delivery of his blow. He also hoped that the jewels would be recovered, he said. No doubt Sir Henry Marquis would find them. Scotland Yard was so wonderful and wise. It was marked fulsome flattery, but it had in it I thought a note of the praise of the prophet for the accomplishments of Baal. I fear that I was a rather pathetic figure as I came on behind them. Sir Henry Marquis did not put any query; he followed the man to the window. The Count directed Sir Henry's attention first to the window and after that to the flower bed below it.

"Here," he said, "the thief entered; the bolt fastening the window was probably turned from the inside, or by collusion with one of the servants. You will observe that when the window is unfastened the knob stands perpendicular, in precisely the same position as when it is closed, so no one would notice that it was unfastened."

He paused a moment.

"I say she, Sir Henry, because you will see that it was a woman; a woman about the size of Miss Whitney. There are her tracks quite clearly marked in the soft earth of this flower bed below the window."

And there were the tracks, indeed to be seen where the woman had stood before the window while she had carefully pushed the swinging window that opened the house to her.

Sir Henry examined these footprints.

"The lady," he said, "has been very considerate of us. These faint footprints are in the very best position on this soft earth to remain clear."

Then he turned to Count Andreas.

"But why do you say 'a woman about the size of Miss Whitney'?"

The man hesitated as though puzzled to find a reply, then he gave the reason.

"I was thinking of my wife's maids," he said; "they have been all women of about Miss Whitney's size; and this robbery will be the work of some one familiar with the house."

"On the contrary," replied Sir Henry, "these footprints were made by a thin woman—Miss Whitney will weigh nine stone—an incredibly thin woman."

The Count was astonished.

"Look at the print," he said. "These footprints might have been made by Miss Sarah Whitney."

Sir Henry turned to me.

"Quite so," he said; "the prints here might have been made by Miss Whitney's slipper if there was no such thing as gravity." Then he addressed me directly. "Sarah," he said, "will you kindly walk from the flag path of the terrace to this window and stand a moment before it."

I did as he directed, although I was puzzled to understand what it meant; was I perhaps to be indicted as the thief?

Count Andreas cried out in confirmation of Sir Henry.

"You see the prints are almost identical."

"Ah, so!" replied Sir Henry. "But you fail to note the important feature. You will observe that the heel of Miss Whitney's slipper sank into the turf on her way from the flag path and here in the flower bed it makes a deep footprint. While the heel of this other woman's shoe cannot be seen on the turf which she must have crossed from the path and here in the flower bed where she stood the footprints are clear but faint...these evidences could mean only one thing—an absence of weight!"

Then he stooped suddenly over as though to look closely at the footprints, but he was looking rather, I thought, at the grass beside the flower bed; it appeared, even to my unpracticed eye, pressed over, faintly, as though something long and heavy, and of some bulk had been put down there.

But he made no comment and presently turned to Count Andreas. His face strange.

"Gravity has been negatived here," he said. "This will be a sort of miracle."

The astonishment in Count Andreas's manner gave way to a suave irony.

"How clever," he said. "Yours, Sir Henry, is an extraordinary profession!"

But Sir Henry Marquis replied as if the compliment were sincere.

"Ah, Count," he said, "if we were only clever enough no criminal would escape us. One may think what he likes and be safe but when one acts he leaves behind him evidences that indicate him. And if we have the skill to assemble and fit together these evidences, we can in a fashion build up the criminal agent...but one's deductions must be correct."

"Like this deduction of yours about the miracle here!" cried the Count.

"Precisely," replied Sir Henry.

"I would call that inspiration," said the Count.

Sir Henry Marquis looked grave.

"I fear that would be an unhappy word here," he replied. "Inspiration has usually served only to mislead the one that it pretended to enlighten." Then he added a rather queer comment. "My deduction here that this was a thin woman may be too comprehensive...that the body of the woman lacked weight may be as far as I ought to go...we usually associate weight with bulk, but the relation is not constant even in nature and outside of nature, in what we call the supernatural there may be bulk without weight or with little weight...the small size of these footprints and the depths to which they are sunk in the earth, to be precisely accurate, indicate a woman of very little weight—as we understand weight!"

Count Andreas looked puzzled; and I was certainly puzzled at this speech. But Sir Henry Marquis was not pausing to consider us. He was going on into the house. Count Andreas overtook him and led the way up the stairs to the room which his wife had occupied and from which the jewels had been taken. It adjoined the room which the Count himself occupied separated only by a thin partition. Count Andreas stopped at the door leading from the hall at the head of the stairs into his wife's room.

"I have not permitted this room to be disturbed," he said, "it remains as my wife left it. I preferred to think of her, here, in this setting where she was in loving sympathy with me, and not in the London house where she had the strange delusions against me."

Sir Henry Marquis stopped short as though suddenly seized with some idea, until then vague.

"Ah, yes," he said, "it was in her London house that this lady died, during your absence in Paris, and it was there she called a solicitor 'wishing to bequeath' this ruby bracelet to Miss Sarah Whitney; and it was to this solicitor that she made her strange remark: 'I will come back and make him do it.'"

The Count's shoulder moved as at some unpleasant touch, but he made no reply. He turned at once to the door.

"I regret, sir," he said, "that I am unable to say whether this door was locked, or unlocked, when the thief entered last night. If it were locked, then the thief had a key to it, which is in line with the evidences that this is the work of some discharged servant familiar with the house." Then he turned about to Sir Henry. "Perhaps you can tell this by an examination of the lock."

But Sir Henry Marquis declined to give the door the slightest attention. I was no less astonished than Count Andreas. The door was the way into the room, whether it was fastened or opened seemed to me to be of the very vitals of this inquiry. There was only one possible explanation and the Count put that in his query.

"Do you, perhaps, conclude that the thief did not enter through this door?"

"Oh, no," replied Sir Henry. "The thief entered by this door, but I have a theory that this door was no bar to the sort of creature that accomplished this robbery...perhaps no door in this house would have been any bar...I am inclined to believe that the door means nothing."

But on the inside of the room Sir Henry's interest in physical evidences seemed to reassert itself.

It was a lovely room done in dainty shades of blue. There was an inlaid writing desk near a window; a dressing table with a great mirror and two clothes presses in the wall, with double doors. There was a thin partition between this room and the one occupied by Count Andreas, as though this space had all originally been a single room; there was a door of which the whole face was a mirror standing closed between the two rooms. There was a severity of good taste about the room; no clutter of ornaments; the only picture on the wall was a painting of Count Andreas, by a famous Italian, in a simple frame. It hung over the mantel.

The room gave evidence that it had been long closed; the dust lay in it and there was a great spider web stretching along the bottom of the frame to the wall below it.

But the room was in disorder, everything in it had been opened, pulled out and searched. This search had been minute and thorough. There remained no drawer unopened. It was the work of some one going carefully to be sure that no place of concealment would remain unopened.

Count Andreas made a gesture to indicate this disorder.

"It is I," he said, "who have searched the room. I took this robbery to be the work of some discharged maid, or her accomplice; such a one would know, that I am leaving England and that the house will be presently closed. She might, therefore, if she were clever, conceal the jewels about the room here, in some other place, intending to return later when the house was closed and regain them. This would greatly reduce the risk in the robbery; first, because the ruby bracelet especially, is a piece of conspicuous jewelry. Burma stones so large and of so pure a color could not be accounted for if found in possession, and the gold work about them is distinguished. And in the second place, I wished to be certain that my wife had not, herself, placed these jewels elsewhere in some drawer of the room instead of the little drawer of her desk which was opened." Sir Henry Marquis glanced about the room.

"You were quite right," he said, "it is the common custom of the thief to conceal a stolen article near the very spot from which it was taken, especially if he is familiar with the place and able to return to it...he reasons that the owner, finding only a single locked drawer opened, will conclude that the lost articles have been taken away...I congratulate you, Count, on your acumen...and besides you have saved me the labor of this search."

He gave no attention to this confusion. He went directly to the inlaid writing table, near the window, which Count Andreas indicated. It had a little row of drawers in the center behind the writing pad. The top drawer of this series had been the one from which the jewels were taken.

Count Andreas called Sir Henry's attention particularly to it.

"This drawer was the one in which my wife kept her jewels. I had supposed that it was locked, but it seems to have been open like the others. You will observe that it is in no manner broken."

Again Sir Henry's interest seemed to be intermittent in the affair. He gave no attention to any evidences of a breaking—a thing, one has heard criminal investigation take every care with—but stooped over, put his monocle into his eye and looked carefully at the lock on the drawer.

Then he sat down in the chair before the desk; his hand gathered about his chin like one profoundly puzzled.

"This drawer was locked," he said.

"Impossible," cried Count Andreas. "It was not broken."

"It was unlocked with the key," said Sir Henry. "Who had the key?"

"My wife only had the key," replied the Count.

Then he added, as a thing incredible.

"You mean that this drawer was locked and last night was unlocked by some one having possession of the key?"

"That is precisely what I mean," replied Sir Henry. "Dust gathered in this lock as it gathered over all things in this room, the key and the moving bar of the lock have just disturbed it. The thing has been done by someone who knew where the key was."

Count Andreas put the query that must have occurred to us all.

"But what living person could know where the dead Countess had concealed the key to her desk?"

Sir Henry passed his hand slowly over his face, as though he were in some doubt how to reply; then finally he answered.

"But are events in the world exclusively directed by the living? How do we know what will to compel them the dead can exert. All our theories of the existence and influence of the dead are in fact vain imaginings...Did not the Countess, as she was leaving the world, bequeath this ruby bracelet to Miss Sarah Whitney and when the solicitor pointed out that you would take it by operation of law, reply, with a mysterious sentence."

Count Andreas's face darkened.

"Unfortunately," he added, "my wife was influenced against me in her last illness. I was not in England, and my enemies were with her."

His face grew hard and determined.

"And therefore," he continued, "I disregard the bequest made under the influence of enemies, and this threat. And now I cannot help it that a thief has removed them...that the Countess Andreas, dead, and out of the world had any part in this affair is a ridiculous suggestion."

Sir Henry rose; stood a moment as in some reflection and began to walk about the floor. He walked with his head forward, his hands behind him, touching now and then an open drawer or some disturbed article, and stopping, like one whose mind is wholly on some distant thing, to close the open drawer or to carefully replace the disturbed article. He set a little frame neatly on a table; he spread down a corner of a rug; he opened the folding doors to the closets in the wall where the dead woman's clothes hung and shut them carefully; he stopped before the mantel and flecked the mantelpiece absently with his finger. He looked like one in some queer somnambulism, his motions languid; his face vague, with the thick monocle screwed into his eye, with no cord to hold it as though it clung there and must be pulled away in order to remove it. He glanced up at the painting of Count Andreas where the big spider web attached the bottom of the gilded frame to the wall, peered at it a moment as in the ineptitudes of a trance and passed on.

He made a vague comment like one profoundly concerned with some difficult introspection.

"This spider," he said, "will not have favored the thief here as the Scotch spider favored the Bruce, for it took days to make a big strong tough web like that."

He reached the door; put out his hand in the manner of one so detached that his senses no longer guide him. Then suddenly he faced about and addressed Count Andreas, as though there had been no interval after the man's comment.

"And shall we say that the Countess has not been here?"

He crossed with a stride to one of the closets and threw the door open. There was a little shelf across the bottom of the closet on which were a row of shoes. Sir Henry took up a pair of slippers and brought them over to Count Andreas.

"Look," he said, "there are bits of earth on the heels of these slippers; it is garden earth, and it is quite fresh."

He held out the slipper and his eyeglass to the Hungarian.

"The monocle," he said, "is a rather tremendous lens."

The Count stepped back from Sir Henry's extended hand. But the big Englishman did not seem to notice that shrinking gesture.

"The theory is against all experience of life," Sir Henry went on, "but here are the evidences. One enters this house through a window probably fastened, through a door probably locked, opens a drawer in a desk with a key which the dead woman had hidden, and removes its contents, all so noiselessly that Count Andreas sleeping within a dozen steps is not awakened...these slippers belonging to the dead Countess have walked before the window, but with only the weight of a phantom on them...How shall we say that she has not been here?"

The Hungarian faced about as for some stern endeavor. His voice was harsh. "The dead do not return; this will have been done by some one of my wife's maids, who prepared for it in advance, by taking away with her the key to these drawers and the slippers. The window has probably been unfastened a long time, and the door, as I have said, was probably not locked...It does not require a ghost to go noiselessly about a robbery!"

But one could see that the man's logic did not even convince himself. He did not believe it.

Sir Henry looked strangely at the man.

"This was not the work of any mortal woman! Mortal women have weight!"

He advanced a step toward Count Andreas, and his voice took on a low penetrating menace.

"If I show you that no living person could have done this thing, will you take that for an evidence of your dead wife's will in this affair, and release these bracelets to Miss Whitney...if I can find them."

The Hungarian laughed, as in a sort of harsh in a sort of ugly challenge.

"Yes," he said, "if you can find them."

There was a certain confidence of victory behind the laugh.

But Sir Henry regarded him like one with some deep serious intent.

"It is a bargain," he said, "before a witness and I accept it."

Then there came into his voice a suave apologetic note.

"Assuming, as a theory, that the Countess Andreas was able to carry out her threat; where should we look to find these jewels? Let us reflect."

He looked steadily at the man before him.

"The dead woman would be at this work to remove these rubies from your possession, and she would place them where you would not look to find them...then to find them we must look in that place which you have not searched." He paused.

"There is only one place in this room," he said, "where you have not looked, and you will agree with me that no living person, on last night, could have concealed the jewels in that place."

He turned abruptly and indicated the Count's portrait fastened to the wall by the great spider web.

He went on.

"No living person could remove that frame without breaking that web, and yet the jewels are concealed in the old folded paper that holds the bottom of this frame out a little from the wall."

Count Andreas made a swift stride forward; but Sir Henry was before him, he wrenched the folded paper from under the frame and thrust it into his pocket. I thought Count Andreas looked about him for a weapon. Then the menace fell from him and he sat down.

"You are right," he said, "the dead woman has been here."

"If any woman has been here," replied Sir Henry Marquis.

Outside, on the path of the little wood to the village, with the priceless rubies in my hand, I turned to Sir Henry Marquis.

"Did the dead woman come back to carry out her threat?"

"Perhaps the dead woman carried out her threat," he replied, "but she did not come back to do it. Who can say what power the dead have to move the living to their will!

"Count Andreas wished to be rid of your insistence, so he prepared these false evidences to indicate that a discharged maid had entered the house and accomplished the robbery. But he was a conspicuous bungler, for all his care; the woman's footprints which he made in the flower bed, by lying down on the turf and pressing the Countess's slipper into the soft earth with his hand, did not show a print deep enough for the weight of a woman...Of course he had the key to the desk drawer."

"But the spider web?" I cried. "How could he move the frame of the portrait to conceal this bracelet behind it, and not break that web?"

Sir Henry fingered the cord to his big monocle.

"The trouble with the spider web," he replied, "was that it is the web of a wood spider, who does not build in a house, and, no matter where he builds he does not fasten his web to its supports with American mucilage.

"The lens of my eyeglass," he added, "is one of the strongest Arnold grinds in Zurich."


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