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Title: The Broken O Author: Carolyn Wells * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1900781h.html Language: English Date first posted: July 2019 Most recent update: July 2019 This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore 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 Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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The summer home called Lovell Terrace was one of the most effective on Long Island, and its simple, straight lines were far more suggestive of cool, pleasant afternoons than were neighbouring houses surrounded by elaborate gardens and fancy hedges.
That is, as to its front lawns. At the back there were flowers a-plenty, and now, in early October, there were chrysanthemums, golden glow, Cosmos, and other autumn blooms, which mingled with the sumac and asters until the place was a mass of colour. The house itself had a great front expanse, with columns from pediment to porch, whose main rectangle had wings concocted by covered passages so large as to be really rooms.
In the garden, two girls were walking, Perilla Fairfax, daughter of the house, who would become a bride tomorrow, and Hilda Sheldon, who would be her maid of honour.
"Just think, Hil, this is the last day Lovell Terrace will be my home!"
"Nonsense, your home as much as ever! You'll have two homes, that's all. Three, in fact, when you get your city home in shape."
"All the homes I want, anyway. You know, I'm marrying Corey for his money, that's all."
"Of course, I know. It's what he's marrying you for that I can't tell."
"I can give you that bit of information, if you want it," and Corey Malden came down the steps of the back porch.
Malden was older than his bride-to-be. He was about thirty-eight, while Perilla was twenty-four. Yet, for some reason, they had from their first meeting felt a congeniality of tastes and opinions, which had quickly grown to friendship and as quickly on to love.
And on the following day they were to be married, and their intimate friends found it hard to say which of the two seemed the happier at the prospect. Malden, extremely rich, thought of his money only to give it to others or use it himself for pleasure or profit, never for ostentation.
Perilla, beautiful but not vain, cared for her beauty only because it pleased her fiance, and brought her the loving praise of his lips and eyes.
A handsome man was Corey Malden, living in Richmond, where he well suited the role of country gentleman. He longed for the day when he would take his lovely bride to Virginia, and though Perilla was not at all like a southern girl, she would hold her own with the best of them.
For, though John Lovell, owner of Lovell Terrace, was a Southerner, he was not the father of Perilla. She was the child of Mrs. Lovell and her first husband, Charles Fairfax. Of a romantic nature, she had named the baby Perilla, and her other child, a boy, Malcolm.
The two Fairfax children had grown up happily and at peace with the family, and two years after the death of their father, they had accepted a new parent with calm approval and good-natured welcome.
Malcolm, though two years older than Perilla, had no romantic leanings, and looked upon her wedding somewhat as a joke.
Perilla, on the other hand, was making a solemn ritual of it, and Malcolm guyed her for it.
"Well, my turtle doves," he said, coming round the corner of the house, "not ready yet to change your plans and give up your mistaken ideas?"
"Not yet, Malky," returned his sister, "but when we do, I'll let you know."
"What time you leaving the house, Pril?"
"Don't know, I'm sure. What time, Corey?"
"Oh, about four or five," said the prospective bridegroom.
"That's the fun of going in your own car," said Hilda. "You don't have to go till you're ready. Get off that brick wall, Perilla. You'll catch a cold."
Perilla jumped off the low wall and, going into Corey's arms, nestled there.
Of course, her speech that she was marrying Malden for his money was a great joke, and Hilda understood it as such. Perilla, accustomed to wealth, gave little thought to the great fortune of the man she was about to marry, and Corey Malden, unostentatious in his tastes, wanted only to give his bride everything she might care for.
Perilla, at twenty-four, was, like the most of her generation, worldly-wise, but she had a good sense of humour, which made her a general favourite, and a kindly generous nature, which brought her crowds of friends.
Until meeting Corey Malden, she had seen no man she cared for especially, but he had captured her staunch young heart, and now she longed to be with him the rest of her life.
Malden, too, had fallen victim to her charms at once, and their courtship had been rapid and sincere.
The parents had approved the match, for though Lovell was a stepfather, he always took an interest in the doings of his wife's children, and was often consulted about them.
The outlook then for the wedding the next day seemed in every way favourable, and preparations were practically completed.
"You don't seem a bit flustrated." said Hilda, shaking her blonde curls as she looked at Perilla; "you ought to be nervous and almost hysterical."
"Why?" asked the bride to be. "Mum is overseeing everything, and she's a marvel of an overseer. Oh, here's Mr. Gaskell. Hello, Mr. Best Man! Corey, tell everybody who's who."
Malden made introductions all round, and the newcomer fitted himself into the circle.
"Call me Tony," he said. "Makes me feel more at home, and then, it's such a pretty name!"
"It is a pretty name," protested Perilla. "I mean, it's a jolly name, one of the sort I like."
"Yes, I know," smiled Gaskell, "like Pete and Billy and such. Me for Marmaduke and Reginald."
"You and I are rather out of it, Malcolm," said Malden, looking downcast, but Perilla slipped her hand into his, and said, "Be it understood, plainly, that there is no name in the world so beautiful as Corey. I have spoken."
"Speak again," begged Gaskell, "I like to hear you talk."
"You don't have to urge her," said Malcolm. "Pril is a chatterbox."
"Thank Heaven for that," and Malden laughed. "It relieves me of a lot of responsibility. I hate to talk!"
"Listen to him," exclaimed Tony. "I've known that guy for years, and as a talker he's a complete radio outfit."
"How come you've known him so long," asked Hilda, "and yet you've never been here before?"
"I have been here before, fair lady, but by ill chance, you were not here at the same time."
"I couldn't get old Tony here very often." said Malden's soft, southern voice. "He's all wrapped up in his law cases. One of the most famous lawyers in Philadelphia, our best man is."
"Thank you, sir," was the gay response, and then catching sight of a stranger, Tony dropped his voice lower, and said, "Don't look now, but who is the houri tripping across the lawn?"
"Just as well look now as any time," said Malcolm. "It's Miss Latimer. Muddie's faithful and trustworthy social secretary. What is it, Jane?"
"Mrs. Lovell wonders if you won't all come into the house: it's teatime."
"We sure will, my soul's awakening," and Malcolm rose. "Wait a minute while I line up these strangers within our gates. But you know Corey Malden—no?"
"Oh, yes, I've met our Mr. Malden several times."
"Of course she has, Mal," said Perilla. "Jane knows everybody here except Mr. Gaskell. Jane, let me present Tony Gaskell, our best man, except this pleasant faced boy named Corey."
An affectionate smile passed from Perilla to her fiance, for the last term that could be applied to Malden was "boy." In fact, he sometimes looked and seemed older than he was. But the lines of his face and the dignity of his bearing were not of age, but because of a studious, thoughtful life, and long hours of scholarly work. Born into a wealthy and educated Virginia family, he had lived most of his life in the south, and being gregarious, he had devoted his time to an intensive study of the religions of the world, and had made discoveries and proved theories, which had set his name high on the roll of honour of his chosen subject.
At times he had needed certain legal assistance and had chosen the help of Tony Gaskell, with whom he had built up a lasting friendship.
"Oh, Mr. Gaskell," cried Jane, "how nice of you to come! I was afraid you wouldn't, and I'd have to take on your duties, too, and I've just all I can attend to!"
Jane, the secretary, was bubbling over with good-humoured smiles. Without any effect of presumption, she was the friend of the family, the helper in all social duties or courtesies, and the general assistant of Perilla and her mother.
"There, there, Mona Lisa," said Malcolm, "you've delivered your message; run along now, and we'll follow."
Jane, laughing, ran along, turning to wave her hand as she went. "Peach of a secretary," declared Tony. "Didn't know they grow like that."
"She's a dear," said Perilla. "Some girls would be spoiled by our foolery, but she takes it beautifully. Malcolm calls her those foolish names, because—"
"I'll tell it," her brother interrupted. "You see, Jane looks just like a picture I once saw in some gallery. So I call her all the pictures I can think of, hoping some time I'll hit the right one and recognise it."
"I'm to help you," said Perilla, looking dismayed. "What will you ever do without me, Malky?"
"Don't worry, darling, it isn't one of the things that matter. Come on, now, didn't you hear the summons?"
Perilla walked ahead between Corey and Tony, while Hilda came after with Malcolm.
"I really think that this time Hilda and Malcolm will hit it off," said Perilla, musingly. "I do hope so."
"How like a woman," said Tony. "No sooner does one get married, than she plans a wedding for a friend. They do look well together, though."
"Yes," Corey agreed, "but that platinum blond hair of Hilda's would look well with anybody's."
"Mine?" asked Tony. "But, after all I think I prefer the picturesque Jane."
"Picturesque, according to Malcolm," agreed Perilla. "He teases that girl terribly, and yet she never seems annoyed at him."
"But that isn't teasing," said Corey. "She is like a picture, not one definite picture, you know, but—"
"A whole film," suggested Tony. "However, I didn't come here to discuss the little seckerryterry. Any other guests to-night, Perilla?"
"Only a couple of ushers. Two friends of Malcolm's. Pete Wilson and Bob Coles. Know them?"
"No, not yet. But I know you like their names."
"Yes, I do. I suppose you think I'm a silly to like silly names."
"I think you everything there is of the most glorious," declared Tony, and Malden chimed in: "That's right, old top. Glorious is just the word for my Perilla. And I want you two to like each other a heap, for you two are just about the only real friends I have."
"Why, Corey?" and the girl's voice was wondering. "You never told me that before."
"Oh, he doesn't mean it literally," and Gaskell laughed. "There are lots of men in his home town who would gladly be more friendly than he likes—yes, and lots of fair maidens who would gladly be bride to the young Lochinvar."
"Well, they've lost their chance," Perilla said, "the girls, I mean. But Corey can have all the men friends he wants."
They reached the house and went in the lounge, a great room with the most comfortable furnishings that could be devised.
Gaskell, who had seen Mr. and Mrs. Lovell on his arrival, sat down by her on a big davenport and waited as Malcolm brought his two chums to be introduced.
"They're gorgeous chaps. Mum." he declared, and Wilson looked modest, while Coles said, enthusiastically: "Well, Pete isn't so gorgeous, Mrs. Lovell, but I am. I just put it the other way so you'd think I was not too self-assertive."
"I think, you're both darlings," Ellen Lovell said, smiling at them. "Now run and play with the girls. I want to talk to Mr. Gaskell."
"What shall we talk about?" said Tony. "To-morrow's doings?"
"Yes. Have a cocktail?" and she herself lifted one from the tray the butler was passing. "It's really absurd for me to ask you such a thing," she went on, "as my fear is imaginary, and I know interference would be useless."
Ellen Lovell was a fine looking woman. Not only her serene, beautiful face attracted attention, but her graceful manner and especially her soft, low voice charmed all who met her. Tony Gaskell, having been at the Lovell home many times, and feeling well acquainted with his hostess, protested that he would follow her wishes in whatever direction they might lead.
"Speak low," she said, "I don't want anyone to hear us. It's just this: You know Corey and Perilla are taking their wedding trip in his motor. Corey's chauffeur, Boynton, is simply perfection; he's a most skilful and careful driver, and a wonderful mechanician as well. You know all this, yet I remind you of it now. Now, here's my trouble. Corey loves to go fast. Not only fast, as anyone else would use the word, but fast like a speeder. Why, when his car is going about seventy, say, he'll say: 'Can't you help her along a little, Jim?'"
"But he's never had an accident, Mrs. Lovell—"
"I know it; that's why I'm afraid. Even Perilla has confessed to me that she's frightened the way Boynton takes corners."
"Now, my dear lady, this is nerves, and nothing but. Have another cocktail."
"No, thank you, but you may. Now, Tony, whether you think me silly or not, I want you to speak to Corey about this, before they start. To-night, perhaps, might be better than to wait until to-morrow. To-morrow will be a crowded day, children get up so late and the ceremony at twelve makes it difficult to get ready. Will you do what I ask."
"Why, of course I will. What shall I say?"
"I don't care how you word it. Just make it clear that I am afraid for my girl if he goes so fast. And tell him, won't you, that you too, feel he is both foolish and unkind to his bride to endanger her safety as he so often does?"
"I do think so, Mrs. Lovell, and I will tell him and ask him just what you suggest. If he is offended, it will be with me, not with you."
"Oh, thank you, Tony. You've lifted a weight from my heart. Of course, I have spoken to him about this, lots of times, but that's just the trouble. A thing you harp on like that loses all power of persuasion; the same subject brought up by another has far more force."
"Yes, but you know old Corey is going to see through us. I'll bet he'll say at once that you put me up to saying it."
"All right if he does. Tell him I did, and tell him that you want to add your persuasion to mine."
"And I do. I quite agree that he has no right to jeopardise his wife's life, whatever he may do with his own. A married man has responsibilities that a single man need never think about."
"Very well. Oh, here's another thing, Tony. I've had to put you and Corey in the same room. You see, we didn't expect Pete and Bobby to stay the night. We thought they wouldn't come until to-morrow morning. So we've been obliged to double up. I've given you and Corey Malcolm's room. It's enormous, with the best bathroom in the house. You won't mind, will you?"
"Not a mite. Seems a pity to turn Malky out, though."
"No, indeed, he's more than willing. Don't you envy Corey?"
"Well, I just do. Every man at the wedding will envy him, married or not! Now, Mrs. Lovell, is there anything else I can do for you? Anything about the ceremony. You know that's what I'm here for."
"You know more about your duties as best man than I do. Don't let Corey drop the ring, and all that. Now, go over there; they're looking for you. And send Miss Latimer to me, please."
"There's a peach! Who is she? I'm mad about her."
"She's a perfect darling. Don't ever take her away from me."
Tony smiled at her, and crossed the room to where Jane Latimer was gaily chaffing the bridegroom.
"Mrs. Lovell wants you, Miss Latimer," Gaskell said. "Come back when you can, won't you?"
"Yes, indeed," and Jane ran away.
"I don't know how I'll get along without Jane," said Perilla; "I think I'll have to have her when I get back. May I, Corey, if I can get her from mother?"
"You may have anything or anybody in the world that I can get for you."
"Now that's the sort of husband to have," said Hilda. "I hope to goodness that's the sort I get!"
"You will have, if you take me," exclaimed Malcolm, who, as they all knew, was deeply in love with his sister's friend.
"Don't bother me about it to-day," she returned, airily. "I've one wedding on my hands now, and I never consider more than one wedding on any one day."
"Don't take it too hard, dear," Perilla begged her. "I'd hate to have you overworked to bring my wedding off properly. But something tells me it will go off beautifully. Are you letter perfect in your part, Corey? Or shall we have a rehearsal?"
"Oh, have a rehearsal!" cried Jane, who had returned to the group. "They're such fun."
"But not a dress rehearsal!" Perilla decreed. "Come on, and dress for dinner now, and we'll have the rehearsal this evening."
So they all went, to their various rooms. Malden, however, did not appear until Gaskell was ready to go downstairs.
"Go along," Corey said. "I was delayed talking to Mr. Lovell about some affairs. You go on, and if I'm late they'll excuse me."
"Righto!" And Gaskell hurried down the stairs, taking them three at a time because he had had a glimpse of Jane Latimer through a doorway.
After dinner, Perilla declared the rehearsal should take place at once.
"Is everybody here that belongs in the procession?" asked Malcolm.
"All but the Tenney girls," his sister said. "You and Bobby run over and get them and we'll have all ready when you get back."
"Now, who, for mercy's sake are the Tenney girls?" exclaimed Tony. "Haven't we enough girls around here now?"
"They're my bridesmaids," Perilla told him. "They're darlings, and they live just up the road a piece."
The great drawing-room was soon arranged, and under the orders of Miss Latimer and Mrs. Lovell, all the necessary furniture was put in place. Flowers and ribbons were not in evidence, and the altar could not be put in till morning, but there was enough scenery to work with.
"Perilla is beautiful," said John Lovell, watching the graceful figure of his stepdaughter as she made sure things were as she wanted them.
"They all are," returned his wife. "I never saw a lovelier wedding group. And here are the Tenneys, quite in the class with the others."
But Corey Malden, looking at his chosen bride, wondered how anyone could see any charm in the others. As Perilla's great dark eyes met his own, and her perfect mouth made a smile just for him, he told himself he had won the very pearl of girls.
He wondered a little at his marvellous luck. He was handsome, in a dignified way, had all the courtesies and graces of his southern breeding, but he was nearly fourteen years older than Perilla, and years count with a young girl.
But he knew well that his darling was marrying him because of her love for him, her dear precious love that left no room for doubt of her fealty, loyalty and true sincerity.
To the idea that she was attracted by his wealth, he gave no thought. Dearly as Perilla loved beautiful belongings, much as she cared for the luxuries of life, Corey Malden knew that her affection for him was the mainspring of her existence now. They had often talked over the difference in their ages, and had put it from their minds.
And Perilla herself, knew her own heart. She was sure of her love, sure of her faith, and she was as happy as it is possible for a girl to be.
Malden's father was dead, and his mother, because of incurable arthritis, was unable to attend the wedding. So they had planned their trip to include the Malden home in Richmond, and Perilla was as anxious to meet Malden's mother as he was to present his bride.
The Tenney sisters, neighbours and long-time friends of Perilla, were excitedly asking questions and making comments, their big blue eyes dancing with delight at every new detail of interest. They made up the list of the bridal party, and as Mrs. Lovell had little to do in her part she took charge.
But the young people were entirely conversant with the tricks and manners of up-to-date weddings, and after going through the manoeuvres twice, declared they could do it blindfold.
The Tenney girls, escorted by Malcolm and Bob Coles, went home early, and at Mrs. Lovell's suggestion Perilla and Hilda were at once sent to bed.
"And no visiting in rooms or whispered good-nights in the hall," the pleasant voice went on. "Now, Jane, you and I will look after a few little matters, and then bed for us, too. John, I can't dictate to these young men as I do to the girls, but you see to it that they go to their rooms soon after Malcolm comes home."
Malcolm and Bob came home soon, and Mr. Lovell handed over his wife's instructions about getting to bed early.
"Suits me all right," Malcolm said. "I feel like the dickens, I'd no idea setting married meant such a lot of fuss. Got any aspirin, Dad? I feel a nervous headache coming on, and I want to be right, for to-morrow."
"There's some upstairs, son; I'll give it to you when we go up, and I think we'll go now."
"Don't take aspirin, you old back number," advised Gaskell. "I've a much better dose. Made up for me by an A-one doctor, who knows his business."
"Sure it's all right?" asked Malcolm.
"Quite sure! Famous doctor's prescription and well-known chemist's make-up." Tony took a small phial from his pocket. "I always have 'em handy. Subject to nervous sleeplessness myself. I'll take mine now."
He took a small white tablet from the bottle, and swallowed it, with a sip of water.
"Give me one, will you?" said Mr. Lovell. "Just what I want."
"All right, sir. Help yourself. I want you to have one, Corey."
He handed one to Malden, and passed him a glass of water.
Mr. Lovell scrutinised the label. "Oh, I know these people, doctor and chemist both. Whatever they put out is all right. Give me one for Mrs. Lovell, will you?"
"Take the bottle, sir. I can easily get the prescription filled again."
"Thank you, Tony, you are surely a capable best man. I'm sure it will do Ellen good. Now I'm going upstairs, and I advise you to follow pretty soon."
Malcolm took a tablet, remarking that the house seemed like a sanatarium.
"Hurry along," said Tony. "We don't want to enact the seven sleepers to-morrow morning."
They all went upstairs then, and to their rooms. Malden and Gaskell shared the large double-bedded room, for which Mrs. Lovell had apologised, saying she had not expected Malcolm's two friends to stay overnight.
Next morning no one overslept.
Gaskell, opening his eyes, found that the prospective bridegrom was already up and in possession of the bathroom.
"Take your time, old top," he called through the closed door, "and wake me up when you come out."
Malden soon appeared and gave his sleeping comrade a shake.
Tony opened his eyes and looked at him. "To think," he said, "that I've full charge of you for nearly a whole day. You've got to come when I say cometh, and go when I say get out! How're you feeling?"
"Fine, couldn't be better. Your little pellet worked like a charm."
Corey Malden went downstairs slowly. He was a thoughtful sort, and the fact that it was his wedding day impressed him more sentimentally than it would many. Thought of the ceremony was a bugbear, but it would soon be over, and he and Perilla would go away together to find their own life happiness.
Most of the men were at the breakfast table, but the girls did not appear.
"How is Mrs. Lovell?" Tony inquired, and her husband replied, "Fine. She took one of your pellets, and she slept like a cherub all night. She'll be down soon. You youngsters better eat your breakfast now."
Just as they finished, the caterers arrived and the group at the table rose and scattered, Malcolm grumbling that there ought to be a law against anybody's sister getting married. The men went out on the screened porch, and drifted off to different pursuits.
"All right about the will?" asked Tony as he and the bridegroom strolled down the garden path.
"Yes, I fixed it with my lawyer to be in Philadelphia to-morrow morning and meet me there. It's all ready but the signatures, and he'll have witnesses so I shan't need you for that. But look after any mail that comes for me here, and forward it. Here's a list of the addresses. The first lot, send to Richmond; we'll be there a few days. With mother, you know. And she'll invite the whole town to see Corey's bride. She'll adore Perilla, as who doesn't? I'll write you from there any further directions."
"How long shall you be away?"
"Haven't a notion. Just as long as Perilla enjoys motoring about the South. We may go to some of the gay resorts, if she wants to. She's the captain."
"All right, old man. And I won't put it in words, but you know, after our years of friendship, that I wish you and her all the happiness in the whole big world."
Malden made no reply, but his handclasp spoke better than words. "Now," Tony said, resuming, his generalship, "you'd better begin to assume the royal garmints. You march, sir, to the robing room, instanter."
And at the same time, Hilda and Jane were trying to get Perilla into her bridal garb. A coiffeuse came and did her hair, and Miss Perilla promptly shook it down and twisted up her curly locks in her usual careless fashion, which, incidentally, was far more becoming.
She was ready in good time, and a fairer, lovelier bride the sun never looked upon.
Noon came; noon went, and Perilla Fairfax was now Mrs. Corey Malden.
Congratulations over, breakfast was served. James Lovell was only a stepfather, but no real father could have put more affection and tenderness in his voice when he proposed the health of the new married pair.
An orchestra gave delightful music and soon the guests were dancing and hilarity ruled. Perhaps Mrs. Lovell enjoyed the scene more than anyone else. Her husband was what is called well off, but their income was as naught compared to the Malden fortune. And the fact that Perilla had married the owner of those millions was as balm to the mother's soul. Not that she was a fortune-hunter, but few women would not be glad to see their daughters so fortunately settled for life.
Moreover, Corey was a charming man. Older than Perilla, to be sure, but in looks and behaviour often younger than his years. And a man of delightful manners, Scion of one of the first families of Richmond, how could he be otherwise Thus ran Ellen Lovell's thoughts, when Tony came and sat beside her.
"It's about time to bid your baby good-by," he said, gently. "Do you want to take her into some other room?"
Almost at the same moment, Bob Coles appeared.
"Mrs. Lovell," he said, "Perilla wants to see you alone, before she goes, and the time is flying."
"Thank you, Bob, I'll go to her at once. No, Tony, you bring her to me, in my little sewing room."
Mrs. Lovell went off, and Gaskell found Perilla and asked her to follow her mother.
The girl looked at him pleadingly, but as Tony had no idea of what she wanted, if anything, he merely escorted her to the staircase and she went upstairs alone. She found her mother awaiting her, and Mrs. Lovell was astounded to find Perilla with tear-filled eyes.
"What is the matter, child?" she asked, restraining her anxiety. "There's nothing wrong, is there? Just a bit sad at leaving the old home, aren't you?"
"Yes—that's it," but Perilla spoke brokenly and Ellen Lovell knew the words were not true.
"Well, brace up now. You must he getting dressed. And remember, dear, I'll write you every day, and you write me whenever you feel like it. Come, dear, don't spoil things at the last minute."
"It isn't that, Mummy; you're on the wrong track. I'm not afraid of Corey, or lonesome for you. It's—it's Bob—"
"Bob Coles! What do you mean? Has he been teasing you?"
"More than teasing. He just now whispered to me to remember that he once told me that if I married anyone except him, he would kill either the bridegroom, or me, or himself."
"Good heavens, child, he didn't mean that. You must know he didn't."
"I didn't think he did at the time, but to-day, a few moments ago, he reminded me of it, and he was—oh, he looked dreadful."
"Well, come along, dear, and get off with Corey, and forget the very fact that Bobby is in existence."
Ellen thought little of Perilla's fears; she felt sure it was a natural nervousness, and that Bob had been merely chaffing her. That he loved Perilla, she knew, and he had often begged her to marry him, but Perilla was a one-man girl, and ever since she had known Corey she had cared for him.
"It isn't imagination, dear," Perilla said earnestly to her mother. "Bob has been queer and frightening all day, and last evening, too. Ask Malcolm, he noticed it. Now, I'll forget him and go away, but I want you and Dad to keep an eye on him, will you?"
"Of course we will. Now, will you be good?"
They went to Perilla's own room, and changed her beautiful white gown for a russet brown knitted silk and a modish hat.
The great hall was crowded with the guests eager for a last glimpse of the now flushed and smiling bride. Halfway down she threw her bouquet. It was caught by Hilda, which was not really surprising, as Perilla threw it directly at her, and Tony Gaskell assisted it a bit on its course.
The car was waiting, and Corey himself helped his wife in. At the wheel was Boynton, skilled chauffeur and mechanician, who could, as well, act as Corey's valet. With him in front was Sarah, one time nurse, and now maid of her beloved Perilla.
As Corey got in, he paused a moment for a last word with Tony, when Bob Coles took the opportunity to jump on the running board on the other side and give Perilla a long, deep kiss, not at all the sort of kiss to bestow in public.
The girl turned white, but preserved her poise, and calling out a gay good-bye to all, clasped Corey's arm as a signal to start.
"Home, James!" Malden shouted, and fluttering handkerchiefs and scarves waved a farewell.
Tony Gaskell turned to tell Coles what he thought of him, but suddenly decided not to. His work as best man was done now, his trust was over. And while he regretted Bob's rudeness, it was not now his business to remark upon it. Stepping past Coles as if he were not there, Tony turned his attention to Ellen Lovell.
"Everyhting went off all right," he said, cheerily, "but I'm quite done up. You fellers don't know what hard work it is to be best man. Well, anyway, it's a gorgeous night to go to Philadelphia in a car like that!"
It was about five o'clock of a crisp, clear October evening. The party watched for the last view of the speeding car as it made for New York, and then turned back to the house.
Tony still made no difference in his attitude towards Bob Coles, but kept his eye on the young man. What, he wondered, made the kid do that? Of course, he was in love with Perilla, but, for that matter, who wasn't? But one needn't behave like a boor. Chancing to catch Ellen's eye, he walked leisurely toward her, and said in a low tone, "Best let it pass?"
"By all means," she replied. "Talk to me about it later."
"I ought to go home," Gaskell said, hesitantly.
"Oh, no," she responded. "Stay overnight, anyway, for the dance at the club. Can't you remain a few days? We'd love to have you."
"Till to-morrow night, then," he agreed.
Meantime the big car bearing Mr. and Mrs. Corey Malden was speeding through the Hudson Tunnel. Perilla had taken off her hat and gloves, and after telling her husband he was a really lovely man, so he was, had calmly put her head on his shoulder and gone to sleep.
Not until they neared Trenton did she waken, and smiling into Corey's eyes began to talk. At the same time, making use of her vanity case, she discussed every detail of the wedding, pausing now and then to bestow rapturous caresses on the man of her heart, and to wonder if they would ever reach Philadelphia, as she was simply starving.
"And what about Bob Coles?" Corey asked. "Did you encourage him to give you that beastly kiss."
"I did not! How dare you hint such a thing? But he's not to be mentioned in polite society any more. And if you ever let him come near me, I'll get a divorce! Now, Corey, tell me all about it. Where are we going first?"
"To whatever hotel in Philadelphia you like best."
"Lordy, I don't care. I hardly know 'em apart."
"That's what I thought. So I just engaged a suite at the one I like best. I have to see Garth to-morrow, you know. Then do you want to stay another day, or push on?"
"Oh, push on. I want to get to Washington, and then on to see your mother, and then—what?"
"Let's wait and see how we feel about it when the time comes. Let's just drift."
"That's what I think. You're a lovely thinker, dear. Oh, look, we must be coming into Philadelphia. Isn't it exciting!"
"To-morrow we'll take a little drive along the Wissahickon, and still have time to see Garth, and push—"
"On to Richmond! But I'd love to take that river drive."
"Let's go to England, Perilla. Have you ever driven through Devonshire and Cornwall?"
"Do you mean go now?"
"Oh, no. After we get all settled in the apartment. Or whenever you like; but soon. And we'll do a bit of France too."
"Life seems like fairyland," and she sighed happily.
"It's going to be, for us," he declared.
But he spoke without a knowledge of the future.
Next morning Perilla said she would accompany her husband on his visit to the lawyer's house, where the important business was the signing and witnessing of Cory's will. It was a somewhat long document, but it had been prepared and drawn up days before, and Malden knew every word of it. The principal matter was that the great bulk of his immense fortune was left at his death to his wife, Perilla Fairfax Malden.
Lawyer Garth, quite familiar with the finances of the Malden family, was interested to see the girl who had won his client's heart.
But no one could be other than pleased at the delicate beauty of the face and form of the bride. Perilla's dark eyes were deeply lashed, and her olive complexion and small dainty features, accompanied by a birdlike poise of her head, made up a brunette beauty not often seen.
The will witnessed and stored away in Garth's safekeeping, he summoned his sister and a little celebration took place.
"Baltimore next stop," said Corey, in answer to Garth's inquiry as to their itinerary. "Then Washington and Richmond."
As they drove back to the hotel, they changed their minds about the river drive and decided to push on to Baltimore.
They reached there in time for a late dinner and found a sheaf of telegrams. Perilla seized on these gleefully, and took them with her to their rooms.
"You may have some of them," she said, picking out several addressed to Corey.
"We'll have dinner up here in our sitting room," she decreed, "Sarah, get me into a negligee and then you take yourself off to a movie. Tell Boynton he may go, too."
"Here, here," cut in Corey, laughing, "don't usury all my rights and duties. Sarah, you send Boynton to me, I'll give him his orders."
"Oh, very well," Perilla returned, "you see, I thought you were too idle to do anything. Your telegrams any good?"
"No, are yours?"
"On the contrary. But here's the waiter for our order, and here's Boynton."
It was not until they were eating their delightful and cosy dinner that Corey said, during an absence of the waiter, "What did you mean when you said your telegrams were contrary?"
"Leave that till after dinner, dear. I can't spoil my digestion for a silly old telegram."
Next morning proved to be beautiful, and the way to Washington was all too short. Perilla was dividing her attention among her husband, the scenery and the contents of her handbag, which she had just emptied into her lap.
"Good gracious, Corio, here's that telegram you wanted to see—I forgot all about it. Want it?"
"If you want me to see it, yes; if not, no."
"Awfully involved sentence, but I get you. And once for all, you may always see all my mail, telegrams or cables."
"All right, then, Prillillgirl, if I may see them, I don't care to. See?"
"Well, look at this one. It's from that Coles reptile."
"Then I don't want to see it! Throw it rway."
Corey tore the yellow paper into a dozen bits and flung them out on the road. "There," he said: "never use him as a topic of conversation. Better talk about this southern scenery you're passing through."
"It's lovely! Oh, I say, will your mother say I'm not a lady 'cause I wasn't born south of the Mason and Dixon line?"
"My mother? Do you mean our mother?"
"'Yes, one of our mothers."
"That's more like it! Oh, Pril, you must like Richmond! Or, any rate, Malden House!"
"Of course I shall. Will mother come to see us in New York?"
"She will if she's well, enough, be sure of that."
They found their hotel suite a veritable bower of flowers, and filled with parcels, books, letters, telegrams and cards of invitation.
"We'll have to stay here weeks, if we're going to accept all these!" Perrilia exclaimed, tossing over the piles of engraved stationery.
"Up to you, Cap'n. Now, listen a minute; I've got a lot of business matters here that must be attended to. Let's have lunch, and then you and Sarah go off on a little shopping or sight-seeing trip, with Boynton, and, I'll go to the offices and get a stenographer, and put my work over in short order and join you in time for the Carmichael tea. We must go to that, you know."
After lunch Corey hurried away, Sarah made Perilla ready, and then went for her own wraps. Left alone for a moment, Perilla stood looking about her and fairly gloating over the happiness that was hers, when a tap sounded at the door. Corey had told her never to open the door if she was alone, but she forgot that utterly, and flung the door wide open to see a charming looking young woman on the threshold.
"Mrs. Corey Malden?" the visitor asked, with a gay little smile.
"Yes," said Perilla, a little disturbed. "What can I do for you?"
"Ask me first of all, to come in, and then I'll tell you who I am."
"I think you'd better tell me that first," and Perilla gave her a pleasant smile, but still stood in the doorway.
"But, of course. I'm Connie Linton, and I bring you a message from Mrs. Malden, your husband's mother."
"Oh, then come right in—and do forgive my seeming inhospitality. My husband forbade me to open the door when I'm alone, but I'm afraid I forgot. Now, I'm glad I did. Sit here, Mrs. Linton."
"Miss," the visitor corrected. "I live in Richmond, and the message I bring is Mrs. Malden's greetings, and she sends her love and hopes to see you soon."
"Then you've known my husband a long time?"
"Years. Corey and I are neighbors, although the houses are pretty far apart. Of course, he's a lot older than I am—"
"Indeed, yes," and Perilla smiled, looking at the young face before her. But at this glance it seemed to her the youthfulness was accentuated by efforts other than nature's, and she considered her guest more closely. For some reason she didn't like her.
But Perilla was a most just little person, and she was all the more sweet and kindly lest she be misjudging her guest.
"What did Corey give you for a wedding gift?" asked Miss Linton.
Now the bride had her husband's present in a small chamois bag hung round her neck, but though she raised her hand to draw it forth, the familiar use of Corey's name struck her unpleasantly, and she moved her hand away.
"Oh, show it to me," Miss Linton urged. "I won't tell the reporters."
They laughed together, and, in her ebullience of pride, Perilla pulled at the ribbon and brought out the little bag.
"It's magnificent!" exclaimed the guest, "altogether too big and gorgeous for a kid like you."
"Corey says I'll grow up to it," and Perilla pouted a little.
"Of course you will, baby. Did you get any other pretties?"
"Lots of them. But I didn't bring them with me. I brought this to show to—to Mrs. Malden."
"Can't quite manage the 'mother' yet, can you? Well, I want you to go for a little drive with me. I want to pick out a little gift for Corey's wife and I want you to help me select it. Are you all ready?"
"But you go with me. Our car is waiting, and I'm just starting out, anyway. Just, wait till I call my maid." Perilla stepped into the little booth to telephone, and called Sarah, but had no reply.
"I can't get her," she said, turning back into her sitting room, "but that means she's on the way here from her room—"
She found herself talking to empty air. There was no Connie Linton in the room, no sign of anybody, and—no sign of the too gorgeous diamond necklace. Perilla picked up the house telephone and asked for the manager.
He was prompt to respond. To him she said, "Please come to me at once, yourself, and also the house detective. Say nothing, but hurry."
In less time than seemed possible, both men were at her door. She quickly told her story. The detective, whose name was Donovan, left the room hurriedly. The manager asked her several quick questions, then sent for her husband.
Corey Malden came quickly, took Perilla in his arms, saying, "It's all right, dear, don't worry," and then turned to the manager.
"Mr. Hardwicke," he said, "how could anyone gain access to this suite without being announced?"
"That is one of the greatest troubles we have to meet, sir. It can only be done by carefully connived trickery. It must be that the woman made her way in, somehow, cleverly, and went boldly to Mrs. Malden's door. Probably the intruder knew the lady was here alone, which further proves carefully laid plans. No doubt there was an accomplice, and possibly one of our own employees was mixed up in it. The booty was of great value, I understand."
"Yes, but that is not so much to the point as that my wife was disturbed and troubled. So far, I cannot see that your people were to blame; a clever thief can almost always gain entrance to a hotel."
Hardwicke looked relieved, but still anxious. "Shall I leave you now, Mr. Malden? Will you see me later?"
"Yes, if you please," and Corey marvelled at the insight of the man.
"But where's Sarah?" said Perilla, who looked troubled but not frightened now that Corey was with her again.
"Here I am," said Sarah herself, as she came to the door accompanied by one of the detective's men. "I'm all right, now."
"You go with Mr. Hardwicke, Sarah," said Corey, "and tell him your story, and then come back here to us."
"Now, darling," he said when they were alone, "tell me every word, just exactly as it happened. Don't be afraid—spill it all."
"Well," Perilla began, "first of all, I disobeyed your orders—"
"That will do! Never use obey or orders to me, now that the marriage service is over. You mean, you forgot my request that you shouldn't open the outside door of the suite when you were alone."
"Yes; and that's just what I did do. And there stood an attractive lady who said she brought me a message from your mother."
"Clever work! And, of course, you couldn't resist that; nobody could. Well, go on, tell me every single bit."
So Perilla, now snug and safe in Corey's arms, told the tale exactly as she remembered it.
"Fine," he commented. "You did a fine job. Now, put the whole matter out of your mind. I'll have every effort made to find the thing, and if it's found, so much the better. If not, we'll pick out another like it, or different, as you prefer. All the diamond necklaces in the world, or at least as many of them as you want, shall never stand in the way of my little girl and her happiness."
"And wasn't she your friend, Corey?"
"I don't think so. I had a friend named Connie Linton, but this wrongdoer merely borrowed her name for the occasion. But forget it now. I'll ring for Sarah, and then I must do a little more important dictation."
Sarah came. It seemed that some man in what looked like hotel livery had knocked at her door, saying he brought a message from Mrs. Malden for her not to go to her until after fifteen minutes had passed. He said Mrs. Malden had a caller.
Sarah thought nothing strange of this and wandered round the corridors.
"It's all right, Sarah, you were in no way to blame," Malden said, after some questioning. "Now, get Mrs. Malden ready to go to the tea, and I'll be back shortly."
The Carmlchael tea, as the Maldens had supposed, turned out to be a cocktail party, and Perilla was feted and flattered until a less steady head than hers would have been turned. Hurrying back to the hotel, they dressed, and started for the Carletons' dinner.
"You'll like the people, dear," Corey said. "Dick Carleton is salt of the earth."
"How you do love your friends, Corey. It's a nice trait. I think. Do they all love you as much?"
"Probably not. Carmichael is a good one, and Gaskell, as you know."
The Carleton dinner dance was of an elaborate type, and Perilla thoroughly enjoyed it. She loved dancing and she loved fine houses and elaborate appointments, and on this trip she was so flattered and belauded that it rather went to her head. She had experienced all the triumphs of bellehood, but this was different, and somewhat intoxicating.
Yet the depth and power of Corey's love, was still more exhilarating, and she longed for the time when they would have their own home and go and come as they chose.
"Do come and live in Washington," a rather uninteresting partner was saying to her as they danced.
"Now how can you think I would do that?" she laughed. "Don't you know I am a New Yorker, born and bred? Do you think I'd change my home town?"
"Richmond isn't home. I understand you're going to live there, in the old Malden house."
"Oh, no, we're not going to do that," she cried, and then, fearing she was saying too much, added, "At least, not at present."
"Why don't you," he followed up, "unless, that is, you can't stand the old lady?"
"If you refer to my husband's mother, please do not speak of her in that way. I have never met Mrs. Malden, but I already love her and deeply respect her."
"Oh, you do! Well, you'll get over that."
Perilla looked round the room, and saw Corey. "There is my husband. Will you be good enough to take me to him?"
"I will not," said the daring young man. "Come on, this is our dance."
"You are mistaken," said Perilla, gaily, for she saw her host approaching. "Oh, Mr. Carleton, won't you take me to Corey, please! I've had an awfully strenuous day, and we have a long ride for to-morrow."
Dick Carleton caught the serious note in her voice, and obeyed her at once.
"I'm very tired," she said, reaching Malden, "may I go home now?"
"Yes, dear," he said gently. "Let us slip away. Dick, my girl is really overdoing this society racket."
"Of course, then. I'll send my wife to you."
"Oh, don't trouble her," said Perilla, "she is busy with her guests. When we come back from Richmond I'll call, if I may."
And that's how it came about that Corey Malden and his wife went home early from the Carleton dinner dance.
Once in their car, she told Corey all the dreadful things the horrid man had said to her about his mother.
To her surprise, he looked grave and said, "I want to tell you about her myself, I've been putting it off from sheer cowardice."
Perilla stared, but just then they reached the hotel. In their living room he drew her down beside him on an old tete-a-tete love seat, and took her in his arms.
"Darling," he said, in a pained voice, "'you won't like mother."
"Not like your mother! Indeed I shall! Why not?"
"She isn't lovable. I don't want to tell you this, but I have to. I wish I had told you sooner."
"Stop it, Corey, whatever it is! I don't care what your mother is, to me she will always be the dearest woman on earth—with my own mother."
Corey rose, then he drew her up beside him. Without a word he put his arms round her, yet, even as he did so, she felt him slip, droop, and his body, relaxing, fell slowly to the floor.
"Corey, darling, what is it?" she cried. She leaned down, bent over him, but he gave no sound, no glance, and more by intuition than reason, Perilla whispered to herself, "He is dead!"
Brave little Perilla, always happy and courageous in the presence of those she loved, was frightened now. For the first time in her sheltered young life she knew the meaning of stark, staring fear.
Corey dead! Corey, her darling,—no, it couldn't be! Her thoughts ran wildly—how could he die, with nothing to kill him? Why would he die, when he loved her so?
Yet, down deep below her foolish, if logical, questions she knew he was dead, knew he would never again speak to her, never again call her tender, loving names, never again vow his love.
What she had to do was clear to her. First of all, she must call Sarah, good old Sarah, her stand-by and help.
But stay, was there, could there, be any mistake. Any hope that he wasn't dead—that help might avail!
She pushed the bell for Sarah, and then turned to telephone.
But she couldn't reach the instrument, and Sarah, coming quickly, found her clutching the edge of a table, staring at the huddled figure of Corey on the floor. Without a word the maid picked up the forlorn little bride, who clung to her tightly.
"What is it, Miss Perilla," she whispered, "what has happened?"
The words and presence of another human being roused Perilla to speech, and she said, steadily and distinctly, "Sarah, Mr. Malden is dead—I think. Now you must help me. Don't give way—help me to keep my balance. I'll have time enough to grieve afterward. First, call Boynton, and then call the night clerk, or whoever is down there now. Make them come at once."
Boynton, who had been expecting a summons, came first. He drew a quick breath at sight of his master.
"Something has happened, Boynton," she said. "You must stand by. I have called the night clerk.
"I cannot tell you what ailed Mr. Malden; I only know he died suddenly as if from a stroke. After the doctor arrives—no, why wait?—go now. Go at once and telephone to father, to Mr. Lovell. You'd better go down to the main switchboard, and get our house on Long Island. No matter if you have trouble, keep at it till you get it. Get Dad and simply say that Mr. Malden has died suddenly, and that he and Mr. Malcolm must come down here to me immediately. Urge them to come at once, in a plane, if possible. Don't leave off till father says he will start at once."
In the doorway Boynton met the night clerk, Hughes, coming in, and paused.
"What is it, Mrs. Malden?" Hughes cried out. "What has happened?"
"I d—don't know," she returned, frightened afresh at his manner, at finding apparent reprimand where she had looked for help.
Sarah took up the cudgels. "Don't you speak to her like that!" she exclaimed sternly. "Can't you see Mr. Malden is dead? He must have had a stroke or something. Call the doctor."
"Call Mr. Hardwicke, the manager; he is nice," said Perilla, recovering her poise.
The note in her voice made Hughes realise he was not playing his part.
"I can't do that, Mrs. Malden," he said, more gently. "Mr. Hardwicke is not on duty. I will call the doctor." He took up the telephone, and, seeing Boynton, said: "Who are you? Why are you here?"
"This is Boynton, my chauffeur, and the valet to my late husband. Boynton, go and do the errand I told you."
No further word was spoken until Dr. Hornby arrived. After a brief examination, he said, "He is dead; has been dead but a few moments. Who is he?"
Not giving Hughes time to reply, Perilla answered, "He is my husband, Corey Malden, of Richmond."
"Malden! of Malden House!"
"Yes," Perilla returned. "We are—were, on our wedding trip."
"Who is in your party?" the doctor asked. "My husband and myself," said Perilla, not noticing the tense of the verb, "and the chauffeur, who also looks after his packing and clothes, and my own maid, Sarah, here."
"And you are from?"
"My home is in New York, Mr. Malden's, as I said, in Richmond. I have never been there: we expected to go to-morrow—that is, to-day."
"I see," and Dr. Hornby returned to his scrutiny of the dead man.
A few moments more, and Boynton returned. "I followed your instructions, Mrs. Malden," he said. "You may expect your father and brother as soon as they can possibly make it. As you know, they are not far from the Roosevelt Airport at Garden City, and will telephone for a plane at once. They hope to be here about five or six in the morning, though it may be a bit later."
"Thank you, Boynton, you did well. Sit down there, please. I want you in strict attendance until father comes. Now, Dr. Hornby, will you please tell me the cause of Mr. Malden's death?"
"I will ask you, first, to tell me the exact circumstances of his passing."
"There is little to tell," Perilla looked sadly at Corey's still untouched body. She looked at the doctor appealingly.
"Why can't he be placed on a bed?" she asked.
"In a few moments," he said, gently. "Tell me about it first."
"We had been out to a dinner dance," Perilla began, "and we came home a bit early, because I was tired. We sat here in this little living room for a few moments, talking of our plans for the following day. It was about twelve o'clock, I should say, when we rose to go to bed."
"This is my room," and Perilla pointed to it, "and the adjoining one is—was, Mr. Malden's. As we stood up, he put his arms round me to say good night. I clasped my arms round his neck, and kissed him—I am assuming you want these details—and as we stood a moment I felt his body begin to sag, to slip down, and he slid, rather rapidly, to the floor. Naturally, his arms drew me along, and not understanding, I too, fell to my knees. Then, I saw a strange look come over his face, and I felt sure he was ill. I jumped up and tried to raise him. I could not do so, and frightened and shocked, I managed to ring for my maid, and that's all I could do, at the moment."
"Did you faint?"
"No, I didn't faint, but I almost lost command of my faculties."
"Answer this carefully, Mrs. Malden. Do you know of any reason, or any suggestion of any reason for your husband's sudden death?"
She looked at him, wonderingly. "No, of course I do not. How could I?"
"Just brief, even terse answers, please. You know of no sort of weakness he had? Of heart, lungs—any organ?"
"I know of nothing of the sort."
"Do you, Boynton?" and the doctor turned to the man.
"No, sir. My master was sound in mind and limb. He was never ill. I'm sure he has no ailment of any sort."
"Then, if you will help me, we will put the body on the bed, and I will make some further examination, which, I feel sure, will merely confirm my decision that he died from an unsuspected weakness of the heart."
The two raised the inert man, and carried him to his own bedroom, where Dr. Hornby completed his work. He turned to Perilla, also facing Hughes.
"That is all I can do; I leave the matter in your hands. I will give you a certificate of death from natural causes. You are expecting your people, Mrs. Malden?"
"Yes, I hope to see my father and brother here this morning. Now, it seems to me, Dr. Hornby, that the mother of my husband should be notified. Do you think it a good idea that you get in touch, by telephone, with their family physician? Then, let him break the news to Mrs. Malden."
"I think that a fine plan. I don't know his name, but I can get the nurse, or a secretary, perhaps, and find out. I will then report to you. And please do not hesitate to call on me for anything I can do to help you."
"Thank you, I may be glad to do so."
"Shall we leave the chauffeur in charge of Mr. Malden's room?" Hughes asked. "And may I send you up some breakfast, and will you take a little rest, then, until your father comes?"
"Yes, thank you. My father's name is John Lovell and my brother is Mr. Fairfax. Mr. Lovell is a stepfather to us two."
Hughes left, and Sarah took the helm. "I think you must dress, dearie," for Perilla had on a teagown, "there's no telling who will come next."
"Yes, Sarah, and order coffee and croissants and a bit of marmalade for both of us. I can't be left alone.
"No, my lamb, you shan't. And we'll let the chambermaid straighten up a bit. You step out on the balcony, meanwhile."
Out to the balcony Perilla went, where the morning sun was just beginning to lighten the horizon. Calmly, quietly, she sat, in a big easy chair, half wondering what it all meant.
Yet, think coherently, she could not; her brain seemed incapable of definite action. Now, it seemed inevitable that Corey should step out through the French window, and quickly she knew she should never see him again.
Never see him again! No, no, that wasn't possible; that, of all things couldn't be!
Breakfast was brought. Mechanically Perilla ate a few bits, and sent it away.
Dr. Hornby returned. "I made connections finally," he said. "I talked to the nurse, and then to the doctor."
"Is Mrs. Malden ill?" asked Perilla.
"Always more or less ill, I fancy. Probably a hypochondriac. She wants to see you, but I feel rather as if she is not going to welcome you with open arms. Do you know her at all?"
"Only what I have heard of her. But she is my husband's mother."
"I didn't talk with her directly, but I was informed that the funeral services would be held at Malden Hall, and that her son would be buried in Richmond."
"Very well, that is for her to decide."
Mr. Hardwicke, manager of the hotel, arrived then, and Perilla and Dr. Hornby went back to the living room to meet him. Just as the doctor was about to suggest calling in a mortician, Mr. Lovell and Malcolm Fairfax arrived.
Perilla threw herself into Mr. Lovell's arms, at the same time drawing Malcolm to her. Only for a moment she gave way to her emotion and then, recovering her poise, she spoke in her usual tone, though her voice trembled.
"Just a moment," said John Lovell. "Perilla, dear, you must—you must tell us just what happened."
"But I don't know, father. I mean I don't know what—what Corey di—I've not the least idea what caused his death."
"Have you, Dr. Hornby?" Lovell went on.
"No, sir. It is a most curious case. There is no possible reason that the man should have died. I have made a most thorough examination, and find no hidden weakness, no unsuspected organic trouble, no flaw in an unusually fine constitution. I should have guaranteed Mr. Malden's life for years. I would be most glad of your further advice, Mr. Lovell. Of course, the family doctor in Richmond, who has doubtless known the subject a long time, will agree or disagree with my findings. I trust I shall be informed which. The case is exceedingly curious, I can find no reason whatever for death, and I am utterly at a loss to explain the circumstance."
"Is there, by any possibility, a chance for wrongdoing, for foul play—"
"Not the slightest! Mr. Malden was here alone with his wife, to all appearances as well as ever, when he simply fell to the floor, dying."
"Let me tell my people about it alone, won't you, doctor. I'm sure you realise what it means to me to go over the details—"
"Certainly, my dear child. Forgive me for unnecessary references. Now. Mr. Lovell, do you not think we should summon the mortuary people?"
"It seems so to me, but am I the one to advise? Will not some of the family or relatives at Malden House come here?"
"I fancy not. Mr. Malden's mother is not able to leave her home, and there are no others in the family except servants. Mrs. Malden has expressed a tentative wish that we take the body of the late Mr. Malden there for burial. Yet, we should not start without further notice.'
"Telephone again," said Malcolm "I'll look after it, get directions and generally supervise."
"Yes, do, Malcolm," said Perilla. "We can't go unannounced, and we must go."
Hardwicke, who had been talking to Boynton, came to the group in the sitting room. "I think." he said, "rather than to have Mr. Fairfax telephone Malden House, I would better do it. I have known the family for years. At any rate, suppose I begin the conversation."
"Oh, do, Mr. Hardwicke," said Malcolm. "I only proposed it to be of assistance."
These two went downstairs, leaving Perilla alone with her father and Sarah.
"Tell me in a few words, dear." Lovell said to his stepdaughter. "We must be ready to meet emergency calls, and we can talk further about it later on."
Briefly, but without omitting any important details, Perilla told just, what had happened.
"Now, Perilla, listen." said Mr. Lovell. "I wasn't going to say this to you, but I think I'd better. You listen, too, Sarah. You know and I know, Perilla, how much you and Cory loved each other. We all know, at home, how devoted you were. But the whole world doesn't know that. There may easily be people in the world, in Washington, even in this hotel, who are ready to think you were instrumental in killing your husband. Hush, dear, don't cry out. This is a thing you must face. It cannot be ignored or forgotten. Don't think about it now, don't worry, don't talk. When we can, we will discuss it, but not now. It may never be spoken of, yet again, it may. I know you understand."
"I do, Dad, oh, I do. I thought of it at once, but we won't cross the bridge until we come to it."
"Good girl. Now here is Malcolm back. What news, boy?"
"Mr. Hardwicke is a fine fellow. He fixed it all up, and we're to go on down to Richmond as soon as we are ready. But don't you think I'd better stay here? There'll be things to see to, I'm sure. Just as you say, though."
Malcolm looked doubtfully at his sister, and she guessed what he was thinking of.
"Out with it, Mal," she said, looking deeply thoughtful. "Are you afraid for me?"
"Afraid of what?"
"Afraid of anything. For, of course, I was here alone with Corey—"
"Hush, not a word. But I do think I'd better stay here, and you two go on to Richmond, with Boynton and Sarah."
"Yes, that's the best." said Lovell. "Perilla, do you know any of Corey's friends in Washington?"
"Two or three fine ones whom I met yesterday afternoon, or last night; that's about all. One in particular, a Mr. Carmichael, is a fine man, and would do anything for us, but we don't want a lawyer, do we?"
"No, of course not," declared her brother. "Well, since you're urged to go, let's start."
"I'm afraid," moaned Perilla. "Can't I say I'm too sick to go?"
"No, indeed. Brace up, girl; everything will be all right. You two, and Sarah and Boynton, will go in your car, Pril. The mortician people will look after things here—Pril, what did keel Corey over?"
"Be quiet, Malcolm," and John Lovell glowered at him.
"No, father," Perilla said quietly, "I must get used to it. My Corey is gone, and I must be brave and dignified, for his sake. Yes, Mal, you have arranged it just right. I mean, about your staying here. Suppose one of those nice men we saw yesterday should come over here, there ought to be someone here to meet him. I can't help thinking Mr. Carmichael will come. Then there may be messages from home. Of course, you must be here. We don't know what will be done as to the funeral, but I must do exactly as Corey's mother wants me to."
"You're a good many kinds of a brick, Pril," said her brother. "Better get off, then. The drive will take you some few hours, I'm thinking."
The mortician's men came, and no mention of this was made to Perilla, for nothing much could be done until Mrs. Malden, Senior, was consulted.
"I dread seeing her," Perilla said, as they started on their drive. "I know she won't like me."
"Don't take it like that, Sis," and Malcolm helping her in, smiled at her kindly. "Maybe you won't like her, either, but you can't help that. You have a part to carry through, and I'll warrant you'll do it just about all right."
Worn by the strain she had so long been under, Perilla's head nodded, and a refreshing sleep brought to Malden House a calm, self-composed young woman, ready to meet whatever might be her fate or her experience.
The place was a typical old Southern home, and had Perilla gone there with Corey, as she had expected, she would have felt all its charm and grandeur, and gloried in thinking she was to become one of the fine old family. But as they went up the long drive the beautiful flowers and foliage seemed to become more and more like a black forest.
As they mounted the steps of the Colonial porch the great doors were swung open by two elderly menservants, who bowed stiffly.
"This way, if you please, ma'am," and the older man, looking almost like Uncle Tom, ushered them into a pleasant reception room, looking out on some gardens.
The man disappeared, only to return in a moment and bid them into another room. This was quite evidently Mrs. Malden's own sitting room, being a comfortable, luxurious type, and showing decorations and mementoes of the past.
In a large and rather formal chair sat an elderly, sharp-featured woman, whose handsome face was deprived of beauty by the expression of ill-nature and unkindness that marred it. Ignoring John Lovell, she stared at Perilla, and in a harsh, cold voice she said:
"So you're the girl who married my son!"
Surprised at this sort of reception, Perilla managed to control the resentment she felt, and said quietly: "Yes, Mrs. Malden, I am, and I—"
A skinny, claw-like hand was shaken in her face, and the croaking voice went on:
"And murdered him."
John Lovell stepped forward in wrath. "Come, Perilla, I will not let you be submitted to another speech like that!"
"You will not go, you will remain!" almost shrieked the old lady, but Lovell stood his ground.
"I will not stay to submit my daughter to another speech like that! A speech that I cannot stoop to reply to."
"I can, father, leave it to me. Did you love your son, Mrs. Malden?"
"Love him! Far more than you can guess or imagine."
"Then you cannot believe he would marry a girl who would murder him. If you loved him, as you say, you know his goodness and charm, you know his tenderness and gentle kindness. I, too, know all those things, and I know even more of his love and devotion than you do. But I know, too, that if you say such a thing as that anyone killed him I know you are insane. Nobody in his right mind could think for a moment that anyone could kill Corey Malden, least of all anyone who loved him."
The old dame fairly quivered as she looked as her daughter-in-law.
"Yet he was killed," she said stormily. "My boy was sound and without weakness or blemish of any sort. The doctors said so, the insurance examiners said so, I, his mother, have all his life known of his strong, marvellous health. Now you come to me and tell me he is dead. You tell me he died suddenly, alone in a room with—with this woman—what can I think but that it was her deed?"
"Come, Perilla," Lovell said, again. "I cannot listen to this, nor let you listen. Say no more to Mrs. Malden, but come away. You are in danger here."
"Well said, she is in danger. Danger of being found out. Danger of having it known that, she committed murder, danger that her black deed be fastened upon her!"
John Lovell took two strides forward and clapped his hand over the speaker's mouth.
"Peace, woman!" he cried. "Not another word from your lying tongue! I knew your son. I knew his fine character, his noble nature. But I did not know that his nobility was great enough to hide the fact that he had a shrew for a mother. How the poor lad has suffered all his life. I am sorry, Mrs. Malden, that my daughter and I have seen you; sorry the memory of you must ever be a cloud on our recollection of Corey. We will go, now, never, I hope, to see you again."
"You will not go, sir. It is my custom to have all my family at a family funeral. Though I hate to see you disgracing the occasion, I must decree that you and your daughter, and your son, if he is available, all make your appearance at the service on Friday."
"You wish us to stay here till Friday?"
"I do. I command it. We need not meet, but you must be present."
"We agree to conform to your wishes, on the provision that, we need not meet. May we now be shown to our rooms?"
"You may, Seymour!" A woman in the uniform of a trained nurse came into the room. "Bid Dillon take these people to their rooms."
The nurse rang a bell, and a footman came, who escorted them from Mrs. Malden's presence. He led them up a long flight of wide, shallow stairs, and opened a door into a large foyer, which, he said, led to Mrs. Malden's rooms.
Perilla was met by a pleasant-faced, rather pretty maid, who ushered her in, while Dillon went on with John Lovell.
Reaching the rooms allotted to him, Lovell asked Dillon to step inside. The man seemed to do so. "Dillon," he said, "who is head of the house now?"
"Mrs. Malden, sir, but she always was. Even when Mr. Corey was alive he had nothing to say about anything."
"Did he resent this?"
"No, sir. He preferred it so. Mr. Corey was a clever man, sir. He knew things would go more smoothly if he let his mother take the helm. And he was here so seldom it really made little difference."
"I'm sorry to say these things, Dillon, but I must ask certain questions, and there seems to be no one else to speak to just now. Is there—any er—danger that during the night, say, Mrs. Malden might visit my daughter's room, and—and cause her any distress?"
"I hesitate to reply to that question, sir, but I feel I must advice you to have Mrs. Malden's own maid in the room with her. As to the housemaid, Marie, she is true blue and may be absolutely depended on. And now, Mr. Lovell, will you and your daughter prefer to have your meals with Mrs. Malden, the elder, or by yourselves?"
"I should much prefer to dine alone to-night, Dillon, but I think it wiser—is the choice left to me?"
"Then, to-night, I will dine with Mrs. Malden, the elder, but my daughter will not be with us. Make whatever arrangement is convenient for her dinner, and let her maid dine with her."
"Yes, sir," and the man looked satisfied.
"Then, that will do, Dillon, and send Boynton to me. He is valet as well as chauffeur."
The man left the room, and Lovell stood by the window, gazing at the beautiful gardens, though scarcely seeing them for his startled thoughts.
Dillon had practically warned him against letting Perilla spend the night without a companion. Well, Sarah was a host in herself when it came to caretaking. But what could happen? Surely that old witch would not attempt to strangle Perilla with those long, bony claws of hers.
But the strangest thing was Corey's lack of reference to his mother. As Lovell remembered, he had never heard Perilla's fiance mention her, and he had wondered why. But it seemed of little importance, since they were going to see her and, as Lovell supposed, Perilla would be welcomed with open arms.
And, doubtless she would have been, had the bridal pair gone to Malden House as they expected. But, granting the suddenness of the tragedy and the erratic mind of the old lady, was it so surprising that she took an antagonistic attitude towards Perilla. A different temperament would have welcomed the stricken young bride, and they would have mingled their tears; but this half-crazy invalid, who idolised her son, felt immediate rancor at the girl who had taken him from her, and now, as she caught at the chance, accused her, in a frenzy of emotion, of killing him.
A light tap at the door aroused him, and at his bidding Boynton came in. John Lovell looked at him, suddenly realising that he knew little about this man.
"How long have you been with Mr. Malden, Boynton?" he asked, pleasantly enough, but watching him closely.
"Upward of four years, sir," Boynton replied, with a straightforward look at his questioner.
"So long? Well, Boynton, you mustn't take it ill if I ask a few questions. This is all a grave matter—very grave. You were also valet to Mr. Malden?"
"When he wished it, sir. He was a man practically without a home. Of course, he lived here, but he was away more than at home. He kept a suite of rooms at his hotel in Philadelphia all the time, and that was his real home. But, if I may say this, after he became a friend of Miss Perilla he spent much time in New York. When they became engaged he was willing, of course, to live wherever she wanted, and they bought the New York apartment. All this you know, sir."
"Yes, of course. Now, Boynton, answer this carefully and truthfully. You were with Mr. and Mrs. Malden all the way to Washington. Did you ever have the slightest reason to think that my daughter was not deeply in love with her husband, and he with her?"
"Never, sir. If ever on the face of God's earth a married pair were devotedly in love with each, those two were. I am not the sort to eavesdrop, but nobody could doubt the affection that showed in their every word and deed."
"Where were you educated, Boynton?"
The man looked up quickly, but answered simply: "At Columbia University, sir. But I didn't specialise, and the crash came, and I could get no position, such as I wanted. So, as I am a mechanician by nature, I chanced upon this job with Mr. Malden, and I gladly took it. It leaves me a bit of time to read, and I don't expect to be a chauffeur all my life. Will you dress for dinner now, sir? It's getting on."
"Very well. One more question: Are you loyal to Mrs. Malden, my daughter?"
John Lovell was looking straight into the other's eyes, and on Boynton's rather good-looking face he saw nothing but absolute frankness and honesty. But it seemed to him that Boynton quivered his eyelashes ever so slightly, as he replied:
"As I was to my master, sir. I had the most sincere respect and admiration for him, and, if I may say so, I have the same feelings towards his wife."
A little time later, a correctly attired, if somewhat bewildered gentleman went downstairs to the drawing-room. His hostess awaited him, impressive looking in a dull, heavy robe of black.
A variety of cocktails was offered him, in which Mrs. Malden joined him, and he noted with relief that the effect upon her was pleasantly exhilarating.
"Your daughter will not dine with us, I understand," she said; "perhaps it is just as well."
"Nor shall I dine with you, Madame, if you make any remark or observation that can be construed as a slight upon my daughter. I may as well tell you now that at any such remark, I will leave your table. I regret extremely that I feel the necessity of saying this."
"You are outspoken, Mr. Lovell," and the bright, beady eyes looked sharply at him, "but that permits me to be outspoken, too."
And then Pierre, the impressive looking French major-domo announced dinner and stooped to assist his mistress from the room.
Lovell followed Mrs. Malden, to find, as he had anticipated, a sumptuous dinner, elaborately served.
She did full justice to the viands, and her guest concluded that whatever ailed her mind her digestion was all right.
The conversation was restricted to general subjects.
With the dessert, Lovell allowed himself to introduce the topic of Malcolm's arrival.
"My son," he said, "who is in Washington, expects to come down here tomorrow. I trust there will be no objection."
"None at all. I think I have not heard of young Mr. Lovell."
"Nor is there one. I am stepfather to my wife's two children, Malcolm and Perilla, Mrs. Malden. By the way, have you any choice as to the exact name my daughter shall use?"
"It is my preference that I be called Madame Malden, and the—" the croaking voice hesitated, as its owner threw a stealthy look at John Lovell, "the girl who married my son be called Mrs. Malden. It is always so in the family."
Lovell saw clearly enough that had he not warned her, Madame Malden would have burst into a tirade against her daughter-in-law, but his stern expression forbade such an outburst.
"That is well," he said. "Who is your lawyer, Madame Malden? I mean, have you a local man, or only Garth, of Philadelphia?"
"Mr. Garth is—was, my son's lawyer. I employ a Richmond man to look after my legal affairs, which, naturally, are not of great importance. My financial matters are in the hands of Mr. Garth, who is really the family lawyer, and has been for many years. Why do you want to know?"
"Because I want him to advise you that, if only for your own sake, you would better refrain from repeating what you said to Mrs. Malden. You must know that slander is severely dealt with, and you are quite liable to get yourself into real trouble while trying to trouble my daughter."
"She isn't your daughter."
Lovell stared at her. "To me she is as dear as any daughter could be. She is very like her mother, whom I adore, and both my wife's children are to me the same as if they were my own. We will not refer to this, again. Nor to the other matter, except this once. And I have to say only that if you again so much as hint or imply or suggest that my daughter could, by any chance, accident or design, have had any hand in the death of her beloved husband you will suffer the direst punishment this country deals out for such an offence, and I can assure you it is not a light one."
There was silence for a few moments, then Pierre entered, followed by Dillon, and the two men led Madame Malden from the room. She left without a word.
Lovell went to Perilla's rooms, and she stepped out on the balcony with him. She felt she could not talk freely, there were so many listening ears about. Lovell understood, and as they talked of various matters he made, as he said, a route to follow when going home, which would be quicker than the one travelled coming down.
Perilla was not surprised when, on his departure, after Sarah's return, he slipped the paper into her hand. Later, she found the note read:—
"Do not be alarmed, Perilla dear; there is no real danger. But do not sleep in a room alone. I mean, let Sarah sleep in the dressing-room adjoining your bedroom. Let no one come in, unless you know who it is, and then no one but the little maid or Madame Malden."
"Dad's all fussed up, Sarah," Perilla said, in a voice she tried to make jesting.
"Never mind. Miss Perilla, you just forget it all and go to sleep. You've had a hard day, Lord knows, and you may have a hard day to-morrow."
"May? I know I shall. And you know it, too, you old humbug."
It was not very long before Perilla was sound asleep with the rest that comes after utter exhaustion. And after a time Sarah, too fell into a deep sleep on the couch in the dressing room.
Neither wakened when the French window from the balcony was softly pushed open and a black robed figure entered Perilla's room. But Perilla's quick hearing caught the sound of breathing and she opened her eyes to see someone leaning over her dressing table.
"Who are you? What do you want?" she said, quietly, at the same time pulling on a small light at the headboard of her bed.
The figure, startled, jumped backward, and Perilla went on, "Why do you come in stealthily, Madame Malden? Had you tapped at my door I would have opened it. I was expecting you."
"Expecting me, were you?" came the response, in that high, screeching voice she had used before to Perilla. "Expecting me to come to get a confession of your guilt!"
"No," said Perilla, in a calm, conversational tone, "and you may as well stop that nonsense at once. I didn't kill my Corey, my darling, and well you know it. You are nobody's fool, except your own, and that is going to bring you to grief. Now, listen to me. I married Corey, not knowing what his mother was like. Nor do I blame him for not telling me, in fact, I don't see how he could bring himself to tell me, now that I have seen you."
Sarah, listening from the dressing room, could scarce suppress a smile.
"I married Corey, and planned to visit you on our wedding trip, supposing you would love me, as I was quite ready to love you. Instead, you greeted me with a terrible, a fearful accusation. I cannot yet think you mean it; I think, I hope, you did not know what you said, so bewildered were you from grief. But my efforts to make peace availed nothing. What are you here for?"
"You needn't tell me, I know. Now here is my last word. For Corey's sake, whose life with you must have been veritable hell, I will forget or seem to forget, what you have said and done. I do not forgive you, Corey himself could not do that, but I will ignore it all if you promise there will be nothing further of the sort. You know what I mean, you know all. I mean—do you promise?"
"I promise," said the old woman, sullenly.
"I am not at all sure you will keep your promise. A Malden would never break a given word, but you are not a Malden. You are not to be trusted in anything, therefore, to-morrow I put the whole business before your lawyer. Everything, mind."
"No, no," came the screeching again, and as Perilla jumped out of bed and held her captive, she called to Sarah to fetch the nurse.
"Find her somehow," she said, "if you have to rouse the whole household."
Sarah soon found her, sleeping soundly, and carried her off to Perilla.
"One moment, Miss Seymour," she said. "Is Madame Malden subject to fancies? To imaginations?"
"At times, yes," the nurse replied.
"Take her away, please, and ask her not to have them any more."
Perilla had just been wakened next morning when Malcolm arrived from the railroad station and she hurried downstairs to greet him.
"Wait a minute, Pril," he said, as he led her to a settee in the corner of the porch. "Listen here. Don't say a single word to anybody, which can be quoted as yours. I mean confine everything you say to casual subjects, like the weather, the beauty of the place, the house, or the city of Richmond. But not a word of Corey, of any of us, of yourself, of anything personal. I can't say more now, but, remember."
Perilla well knew that when Malcolm adopted that tone he was in dead earnest, and she had no thought of disobeying him.
John Lovell joined them, they had a family breakfast, and then Perilla dismissed the servants.
"Did you learn anything in Washington?" she asked her brother.
"No," he returned, "except that we want to keep perfectly quiet, and get away from here and back to New York as soon as we can."
"Tell it all, Mal," said Lovell, "we must know. You can speak low, I doubt anybody is listening."
"Well, then," and Malcolm spoke in a low whisper, "there are hints, or at least, vague murmurs about Pril being alone with Corey in the room—you know. I think, so far, there is no harm done, but it is like a smoldering flame, a breath would set it off. I saw your two friends, Perilla, meaning Carleton and Carmichael, and they agree it will all fade away, if there is nothing more said or done. They tell me to beware of Farman, the little lawyer person down here. But Garth will be here by noon, so he'll handle that issue. You know him, Perilla?"
"Yes, he's a delightful man, and one of Corey's best friends."
"I'm afraid it's going to be difficult to decide what or who a best friend is. And here's another thing. Leave the old 'un to me. I've a notion I can fix her."
Perilla had just summoned the servants when Dillon came with a message for Malcolm. It was a command to visit the sitting room of his hostess at once.
Malcolm was not especially pleased at the tone of the message, but he went with Dillon at once and was received by Madame Malden in her most pompous and antagonistic mood. Yet it seemed to Malcolm's watching eye that her glance softened just a mite at sight of the good-natured face with its kindly and sympathetic smile.
"How do you do, Mrs. Malden?" Malcolm said, cheerfully, grasping Madame Malden's hand with a hearty shake, before she could stop him. "I am Malcolm Fairfax, and I'm glad of an opportunity to talk to you. I think I can be of real help to you."
Corey's mother, who had become more and more amazed at this astonishing young man, began to look a little frightened.
"All right, all right, lady, don't feel the slightest alarm. But we must be alone, it is imperative. Dillon, you may go, and Miss Seymour, too, please." He gave the nurse one of his best smiles.
The two faded from view, and Malcolm drew his chair nearer to the old lady, who was now fuming with anger.
"There, there," Malcolm said, soothingly, "I told you I want to help you. Why get mad at that?"
"You are the madman!" she exploded. "What do you mean by addressing me in this manner?"
"Can't you even understand the meaning of words? My, my! What a pity! Now, I'm a good sort, and truly, I can help you. I have lots of influence. Listen here, now; where do you want to go. Just you tell me, and I'll see that you get there?"
"Get where? I don't want to go anywhere."
"That's too bad, but you'll have to, you know—after—you know—after what you said."
Malcolm spoke the last three words in a thrilling whisper, and with an expression on his now solemn face, which betokened excruciating sorrow.
"What did I say? I didn't say anything that I shouldn't—"
"Oh, piffle. Don't take it that way. That won't help you any. Too many witnesses. Drop it. Now, here's where I come in. You must have a choice of places, and I can tell you that to be able to get your choice is a great thing—yes, sir, a very great thing."
"Choice of what?"
"Of places—places to go. I don't know the nicest ones down here; I know the New York ones, but I suppose you'd rather stay near home. So, out with it! Is there a good one nearby?"
"A good what?"
"Hell, but you're dense. Look here, you're sane now, aren't you?"
"I certainly am."
"Well, lots of times you're not, and they've put up with it just as long as they can, but when you said that—you know—you spilled the beans. Now; you've got to go—"
"Good land, you're stupid! To an institution—an asylum for the insane, if you want it in plain English. Now don't begin to scream; that won't get you anywhere. It will only add to the trouble you're in already. See? It'll just be another proof of your madness—"
Madame's hand was clapped over her mouth; she looked like one hypnotised.
"You see, it was the last straw when you said—"
"What did I say?"
"Poor lady! Don't you even remember? Well, it often goes that way. You said," again Malcolm's deep whisper had a tone of condemnation, "You said—that Perilla murdered Corey! Corey, her beloved; her other self. You never saw them together—I have. Turtle doves, honey bees, sugar plums, orange blossoms—oh, never has been such real, real love. They were born for each other; but, pshaw, all this you know, all this can recall to you the love-making of your own husband, and then you hint, you say outright, that Perilla killed Corey! A long time they have suspected you of being mad, now they know it; you proved it on yourself."
"So, as I say, you must go—go—"
"Not to a madhouse—no, no!"
"Don't shriek. Be quiet. Not to a madhouse now, perhaps, but to an asylum—and then, you'll go on, you know. You can't stop, you've gone too far. You see, an accusation of murder is a pretty serious matter. Whew! I wonder if you know how serious! And you know in your heart Corey was not killed. You know it! Yet to satisfy a small, mean false impulse of—yes, you know of that—of jealousy, against this girl who was loved by your son, you accuse her terribly—too terribly to think of, and—your act, your words recoil on you and will get the well deserved punishment.
"You know all this is true. You know there are great and powerful ones in Washington—who are none too fond of you. Who loved Corey, but who would not raise a finger to save a jealous maniac from the madhouse, where she already belongs. You know Perilla adored her husband, and that your accusation is rubbish. Yet you would willingly drag the old and honored name of Malden through the mud and mire of a silly murder trial, which could have but one result—Perilla's triumphant acquittal and your own infamy and degradation.
"John Lovell is not the man to take quietly an insult to his daughter, and I am not sure he has not already started on the matter of your mental responsibility. Now, you must see for yourself—if this is one of your more rational days—that I am saying all this to you for your own sake as well as my sister's. I don't pretend to an entirely disinterested friendship for you, but I do stand ready to befriend you if you play fair with Perilla.
"Listen to this; it is short; you can learn it:
"Of what did Corey die, according to the doctor's certificate?
"Of heart failure.
"What caused this heart failure?"
"An unsuspected weakness of the heart."
"That was made out and signed by one of the most famous physicians in Washington, and do you dare presume to pit your feeble knowledge of physiology against his? Do you dare say he is wrong and you are right? Especially, as, when you said that fearful thing, you didn't know what you were saying?"
"No, sir—no, Mr. Fairfax," came a trembling voice. "What can I do to set matters right?"
"I fear it is too late for that. As I told you, those words of yours sealed your doom. I only came to offer my help in seeing to it that you got to the institution you preferred. It is not an easy thing to do—they are not pleasant places at best—"
"Oh, Mr. Malcolm, don't let me go! You have influence, you are kindhearted, save me—save me, for Corey's sake, save me!"
"You should have thought of this before you denounced your daughter-in-law. But your lawyer, Mr. Farnam, is coming soon. Perhaps he can find a way out."
"No, he can't—he is a nitwit. Oh, you help me! You are a fine young man, and Farnam is a back number."
"But he knows you said, that about Perilla, and he knows how serious it is."
"I'll tell him I didn't mean it, I'll be lovely to Perilla, and it won't be pretence. I do love her. I took to her at once. And if she will only forgive my—"
"Look here, Mrs. Malden, you'll have to have that out with Perilla. She is not easy to hoodwink, and you'll have to convince her of your sincerity. But if you can do that, the rest will follow. Otherwise, I'm pretty sure you're on the road to somewhere, and that somewhere is only a step in the direction of other somewheres from which one does not come back."
"And will you send Perilla to me?"
"I prefer to be here also. May I ring the hell?"
"Do. That, brass one. You insist on staying with us?"
"I fear I must. But don't let me embarrass you. It will be better for you to have me here."
Perilla was soon found and brought to the sitting-room.
"Sit down." was the gruff invitation. "I want to make up with you."
At a meaning glance from Malcolm. Perilla said pleasantly, "Oh, there's nothing to make up. You didn't want to see me, but now you have seen me again, I'm not so bad, am I?"
"You're lovely! I don't wonder Corey adored you."
Perilla nearly fell off her chair in surprise. What miracle had Malcolm brought about?
"Yes, he did adore me. We planned to be so happy—"
"Yes, dear—yes, yes. Now, to-day I want you to remember that I am your friend, will you? The lawyers will be here, and I want you to see them, if possible, in my place. I can't understand their talk and their arguments as I used to, and you must help me out—both of you."
She smiled at Malcolm, who grinned back at her, and they both said they would do all they could to help.
Perilla said afterwards that she was scared to death that Madame Malden would kiss her, but the nurse came then and took the old lady away.
"Did you hypnotise her?" whispered Perilla to her brother.
"Maybe. Keep quiet now. The game's never out till it's played out. Watch your step, Pril, especially with that Farman lawyer. Garth is all right."
As the day dragged by Farman was persistently at her to give him an exact rendition of this point or that, until she nearly showed her resentment. But not quite. Even when he said for the dozenth time, "But only you two in the room, and his dying without a word, surely you must admit it looks queer."
"I fail to see anything queer about it," she would say, each time. "Now, Mr. Farman, if you have any lingering suspicion that I killed my husband, voluntarily or by accident, I would prefer you to say so, rather than hint such an absurdity. Every one who knows us at all will tell you that my husband and I were on most affectionate terms, and that we looked forward joyously to a happy life together. An unknown heart trouble unexpectedly showed itself, and he died instantly, as many other seemingly healthy men have done. If you believe differently, tell us your proofs, your evidences, your reasons for such belief. You have no such reasons, and I cannot see why you are assuming this attitude. As a lawyer, you must know, it will get you into trouble. If you are not convinced of this fact, ask Mr. Garth when he comes."
When Garth arrived from Philadelphia he was sympathetic and kind in a really comforting way. He called for a conference at once, and gathered about him the widow, her father and brother, and sent for Madame Malden, if she chose to appear. She did not, however, and deputised Perilla to take her place. Farman was, of course, present, and the family doctor, whose name was Spurgeon.
The talk was entirely informal, and Garth, as lawyer for Corey Malden, told the others how matters stood financially. The will would be read on Friday after the funeral services, and as there were many small bequests to friends and servants, he would not bore them with these minor matters. The chief point was that the large part of Corey Malden's enormous fortune was bequeathed to his wife, with a smaller but goodly amount to his mother, this to revert to the wife at the mother's death. There was ample excess to leave funds for keeping up the beautiful estate of Malden House.
Garth, Antony Gaskell and Richard Carleton were executives and trustees for Perilla and Madame Malden. Perilla was glad she had met Dick Carleton in Washington, he was so kind and friendly. Tony, of course, she already knew, and Garth was a splendid man.
There was much more talk and red tape matters were discussed. When luncheon was announced the conference broke up, though there were some questions yet to be settled.
After lunch, Garth asked Perilla to go for a stroll with him through the gardens. He tried to express his deep sorrow for her in her grief, which for the moment must be stifled. He knew what a relief it would be to her when she could relax and give way to her emotions.
"You do understand," she said. "It is hard for me, I am so alone, even though my people are here. And I cannot tell friend from enemy. Madame Malden has 'made up' with me, as she calls it, but there's no telling when she will face the other way. Is she entirely all right, mentally?"
"Dr. Spurgeon is a fine physician, and he says she is sound of brain, but her emotions are so warped and biased it is possible she may give way utterly at any time. I am so glad you and she are friendly, and I am glad, too, you will not live together, for you are right in assuming that she may at any time 'face the other way'."
"Now, don't let her get on your nerves, for after you are gone from here she will cease to think of you at all. That may not sound complimentary, but it is far better so. Now, tell me, very frankly, have you told the full and exact truth as to the circumstances of Corey's death?"
At anyone else Perilla would have felt angry at this flat-footed question.
"Yes, Mr. Garth, I have," she answered readily. "So far as I know there is no point or detail I have left unstated. I know it puts me in a questionable light, for it is true I was alone in the room with Corey, he did die suddenly, and there is no evident cause for his death. But the doctors have said that it was due to a heart weakness that nobody knew he had.
"As to my love for him, though you know me but slightly, you cannot doubt that, can you?"
"No, indeed. And remember, I heard much about you from Corey before I saw you on Sunday morning. Lucky you stopped that morning and fixed up the will."
Garth looked at her. How lovely she was, with her shining chestnut curls, and her sparkling eyes, veiled now by the realisation of what she was going through. Surely, surely, there could be no evil in that heart, no disloyalty to the one she had loved so well.
Garth yearned to get her out of this place, this danger hole, where snakes of venomous type glided about. "You're leaving right after the funeral tomorrow?" he said.
"So immediately that I fear it will bother them. But I don't want to hear the will read again, and most of all I don't want to meet relatives and friends who will look at me curiously—or worse."
"That's right, get away as soon as you can. I'll stay a day or two, in order to overhaul that Farman person and get the low-down on the old lady. May I come to see you when I get back? Where will you be?"
"I'm going right to the New York house. Mother has moved up from the shore, and I'm glad of it. And, Mr. Garth, I want you to carry on just as if Corey were here. I mean as to my business matters. Will you be my attorney or lawyer or whatever the proper word is?"
Garth promised he would. They returned to the house, and Perilla went to her room. Malcolm came up to see her, and advised her to stay where she was. When Mr. Farman came, Perilla refused to see him, saying she had retired for the night. She felt a dread rather, than a dislike of the man, but at any rate she determined not to see him next morning, if she could help it.
As it, turned out, she couldn't help it. Before she was entirely dressed word came to her to come downstairs as soon as possible. After having had her coffee, Perilla went down and found several people awaiting her in the library.
Garth offered her a seat, and calmly and with undisturbed air, Perilla took it. John Lovell spoke first.
"Perilla dear," he said, "these men have some questions to put to you. Pay strict attention and answer carefully."
"Certainly, Dad," she returned showing no excitement.
"I will be spokesman," announced Farman, "as it is in regard to a matter that interests me."
Perilla settled upon him a most irritating stare, which she did not remove.
"You are familiar with drugs, Mrs. Malden?" he asked.
"Not at all, scientifically, if that is what you mean."
"Ah. Then, in any case, may I ask you if this packet is yours?" He held out a small parcel tied in black paper. Perilla cast a glance at it, turned perfectly white, and in a low trembling voice, said, "No," a no which could not possibly be believed.
"Then whose is it?" Farman went on.
"I do not know."
"Have you ever seen it before?"
"No." Again that unbelievable negative.
But Perilla was thinking. Must she take this on her shoulders, too? Might she not tell the truth in this instance? But she had no choice.
Sarah, who had been listening at the door, stepped inside.
"I can tell you about that," she said. "It belongs to Madame Malden, not to my mistress. Madame Malden brought it last night into Mrs. Malden's room, and left it there. She was about to shake its contents into Miss Perilla's glass of drinking water, when I stopped her. The nurse, Miss Seymour, can swear to this—if she chooses to do so."
"Call Miss Seymour," said Garth, and the nurse was called.
"Yes," she said, casually, "I believe Madame Malden did step into Mrs. Malden's; room last night—and she may have had a parcel in her hand."
"I think," Garth said in rather severe tones, "we may end this conference."
This was done, but Malcolm, speaking low to Dr. Spurgeon, said: "What is it?"
And gravely the doctor replied, in the same low tone, "Cyanide."
* * * * * * * * * *
It was the following Tuesday before Perilla Malden found herself entirely. The motor car, whose speed was retarded by Lovell's direction, reached New York on Sunday, and they went directly to the Lovells' city apartment. Ellen Lovell and Jane had made everything bright and pleasant for the arrival of Perilla, and both were surprised when the girl was brought in in a state of such utter exhaustion.
The long and wearing motor ride, after the distressing stay at Malden House, had so taken it out of Perilla that at the doctor's orders she went to bed and stayed there until fully recuperated.
And that time had come. "All right now, Mother," she said. "I want to get up and dress, and oh, Mother, there's so much to tell you. And first of all, here's a shocker for you. I'm going to finish up the work on the apartment, and get into it as soon as I can. Don't oppose me, I'm too ill to fight, but plenty well enough to do what I want to."
"We won't fight you, dear, and you can move in just as soon as we can get things ready. Won't you be lonely there? Do you plan to have any one with you?"
"I do." Perilla gave her mother a dubious glance. "I plan to have—Jane."
"Jane? Merciful Heavens, what do you think I'm going to do? I can't get along without Jane."
"Oh, yes, you can. Let's say, for a month or two, anyway. She can run around here when you want her specially. And maybe she can get you another golden girl such as she is."
"Well, we'll see about it," and Mrs. Lovell sighed. Perilla knew she had won her point, so she dropped the subject.
"Now, we'll have luncheon," she ordered, "and then we'll have what I find they call a conference. Oh, mother, it's all too dreadful! Don't pity me, or even sympathise, if you do I'll break down."
The two tactful women quite understood this and no reference was made to matters at Malden House, until Perilla chose to make it.
Perilla was so near collapse that it seemed no hardship to remain in bed. When she felt equal to the strain she took her mother and Jane up to her own little boudoir, and told them the whole story.
Mr. Lovell and Malcolm came in the late afternoon, having spent the night before with Garth in his Philadelphia home.
"A splendid man, that Garth," declared Lovell. "He's taken over all Perilla's business, and she couldn't have a better lawyer. You won't have to worry about anything, dear."
"Not anything, Dad?"
"I hope not. We won't go into matters now."
"Better have it out, Dad," said Malcolm, who well knew Perilla's persistency.
"Tell 'em what you like; lad. Me for a bath and a bit of rest," he said as he left them.
"Was there any more talk—of—" but Perilla couldn't go on, "nothing. However. I think we put the kibosh on that. You must know mother and Jane, that Corey's mother is not a—well, not an affable person. And she has a complex or whatever you call those things, that Pril—might as well say it right out—that Pril killed Corey. Don't jump, Jane, Perilla has heard this and discounted it."
"The old lady—I wish I could draw her picture for you—well, I had to threaten her with all the torments of the Inferno before she would let up on it. And I did have her stopped; she made up with Perilla and promised to lead a better life, when, after the funeral, she somehow got going again."
"Oh, Malcolm, did she?" cried Perilla. "What did she do?"
"Well, to begin with, she vowed that packet of cyanide was yours, and of course we all know it was hers, and she said you meant to kill her with it, and we know she meant to kill you with it."
"And you let her put it over?"
"Well, see here, Jane. My stand is that she is touched, loony, off her nut, whatever you like to call it, but they look upon her as sane. And here's her platform. She says, and there be those who half agree with her, since Perilla was alone in that hotel room with Corey, and as Corey was declared sound in wind and limb by competent doctors, that the only theory is that Perilla, in some manner and for some reason, killed him in some mysterious way."
"But," said Mrs. Lovell, in her soft voice, "why doesn't Perilla get a lawyer and face this slander—for that's what it is."
"Yes, Mummie, but here's the point. If Perilla takes any notice of this slander, any notice at all, it gives it strength, and a certain possibility, which cannot be ignored. That's why I went at the old lady hammer and tongs to scare her about the madhouse, which is really where she belongs."
"Not really, Mal," Perilla said, "I only wish she did. But she is sane, the doctors declare, and a strong hate or even an unfounded suspicion cannot be regarded as insanity."
"What are you going to do about it?" asked Jane.
"Nothing for the moment. In fact, the longer we remain silent, Garth says, the more chance of her fury blowing over."
"But how did she get stirred up again?" Perilla wanted to know. "She was lovely to me when I left her."
Malcolm drew a deep sigh. "It's all that Farman person," he said. "If he weren't in the thing we could manage all right."
"Why is he down on me?" and Perilla's eyes flashed.
"Because you bothered him. He was afraid of those stares of yours, and also, I think, he had hopes that you would be so fired with his skill and erudition you'd take him for your lawyer."
"Rubbish," remarked Jane. "How did they get hold of the cyanide?"
"They found it somewhere in Perilla's suite of rooms. But of course it was planted there. Sometimes I think the nurse was in cahoots with the old lady, and then I think not."
"What you do want," Mrs. Lovell observed, "is a first-class detective."
"No, Mums, that's just what we don't want. Don't you see the minute we recognise the accusation of Perilla we submit to questioning. We must not do this. We must scorn it, hoot at it, denounce anyone who mentions it, basing all on the theory that Madame Malden is non compos mentis. See?"
"What about the will?" asked Perilla
"It raised no furore," said Malcolm. "Everybody got about what he or she expected, and some of them more. There's oodles of money!"
"Mostly Perilla's?" said Ellen unable to resist.
"Is the Madame jealous?" asked Jane.
"Not at all. She knew all about it beforehand. She has a young fortune for herself, and money matters seem to interest her but slightly. But she idolised Corey, and she can't rid herself of the opinion that Pril married him for his money, and then—"
"Oh, stop!" said Jane. "I can't bear it. We must do something. We can't wait in silence and idleness."
"We must, Janey," and Malcolm spoke gravely; "the whole matter now is in the hands of Garth and Mr. Carleton. They are two of the finest, and best, men I ever met. Father will say so, too, and whatever they decide on we must do."
"Of course," said Perilla, "you won't catch me refusing to do their bidding. Mr. Garth is a wonderful lawyer, Corey said so, and Mr. Carleton is one of Corey's best friends."
"Yes, and they propose to stay quiet for a while, and they absolutely convinced dad and me that that was the best procedure. Well, now, Jane, have we convinced you?"
"I suppose so," she replied, and then in answer to his beckoning nod she rose and left the room with him.
"Jane," Malcolm said when they were alone, "there may be—I only say there may be—troubled waters ahead for that girl."
"What sort of trouble?"
"Oh, because that old harridan down in Richmond has an obsession that Pril killed Corey, her fool of a lawyer, Farman, must needs believe it, too. And, Jane, consider the facts. A young girl marries a man fourteen years older than herself, who has millions of money, they go off on their wedding trip, and, alone in the room with her, he dies. If you, say, disliked the girl, or had a grudge against her, what would be your first thought as to the death of Corey?"
"I s'pose you mean I'd lean to the thought that Perilla killed him somehow or other."
"To inherit his money and have a good time with it."
"Well, there are people ready to look at the matter like that."
"But that's too silly, Malcolm."
"I tell you there are people in Richmond, especially a lot who worship the old Malden family and estates, who would rush to accept the statement falling from the lying lips of he old dame, and the very strangeness and thrill of the awful accusation would make them take it up and talk about it, even if not entirely believing it. Well, anyway, it isn't a question just now of whether there's any such talk going on; the question is how to prevent it—or stop it. If the subject is raised up here it'll be very bad for Pril. Why, Jane, if a breath of suspicion touches her name the fire will spread like a conflagration."
"Then you must tell Perilla that."
"That's where I want your help. You tell her."
"Of course I will, if you want me to. We'll both tell her. But might it not be better not to tell her? Wouldn't she just get all hot and bothered, and if we let her alone she might more quickly forget it."
"Well, I'll leave that part to you. Use your own judgment. Of course, she knows what Mrs. Malden said to her, but I think she doesn't know that the matter is talked over in Richmond—"
"I don't know exactly, but it was doubtless promulgated by that worm, Farman, and then just grew with what it fed on. Anyway, Perilla has got to keep still, and I think she must be told so, and I hope you'll tell her."
"Oh, I will, I promise you that. But I think we ought to do more than that. I don't know exactly what, but I guess it's in my mind we ought to see a lawyer."
"And have him fighting Farman? And have the police step in? I think I shall spill it all to Garth, for he's a man of wonderful judgment, and I'd like his opinion."
"Be careful as to how far you go without telling Perilla. She likes to paddle her own canoe, you know."
"Yes, I know. Bless the kid's heart. Isn't it awful, Jane? For she was wildly in love with old Corey. They planned a tip-top life together. And now the poor kid's a widow for life."
"Not necessarily. She's too young to remain a widow very long."
"Good Lord! I never thought of her marrying again!"
"Well, don't mention it to her. You're likely to blurt out what you think about it. Leave Perilla to me and turn your attention to the beast of a southern lawyer."
"I'll do that, but I wish it could be settled, once and for all. I don't want to kill the wretch but I can understand the impulses of a first-class and earnest killer."
"Good Heavens, Malcolm, whom are you going to kill? You sound positively bloodthirsty."
Perilla appeared at the door of the small sun parlour where Malcolm and Jane were talking and stood looking out of a window.
The Lovell apartment was on one of the streets of the early Nineties, half a block from the Avenue.
Perilla's new apartment, nearby, was on Fifth Avenue and was one of the newest of the new houses. Indeed, some of the apartments were not yet finished, but Corey had seen to it that theirs should be put through with despatch.
"It's just too beautiful," Perilla said, looking gloomily at the others. "I don't see how I can live there alone, and yet, I don't want to live anywhere else."
"No, you couldn't be happy anywhere else," and Jane smiled at her. "Oh, Perilla, there'll be so much to do, even if it's all finished when you go in!"
"Yes, I know. Malcolm, I asked you about your killing, seemingly soon to come off."
"Yes," and Malcolm became serious. "It's that Farman chap. I've a notion he's coming up here—"
"Oh, I don't mean to stay with us here, but he may stay with you if you ask him prettily."
"Let me know when he's coming," said Perilla, "and I'll be out. I'm planning a trip to California, anyway, and I can take it then."
"Perilla, dear, we've got to take up Farman as a burden, you know. You can't leave him to run around by himself, you know."
For a moment Perilla looked panicky, then she said. "But you told me, Malky, to treat him as if he weren't there. I'm ready to do whatever you say, but you must make it clear."
"I will. Also, Garth is coming over from Philadelphia in a few days. Perhaps they'll hit the same time."
"Do we want them to?" Perilla spoke slowly. "Yes, perhaps it would be better. Garth might scare the Farnam person, but as I read him, he isn't easily scared, he seems stupid as an owl, and then you learn he's been fooling you. Well, let him come here if he likes but the sole of his shoe shall not contaminate my home. Oh, Jane, the lounge is ideal! So beautifully black and white—"
"I say, Pril," Malcolm said cheerfully, "will the old 'un take a notion to visit you?"
"Like as not. And if she takes the notion she'll carry it out. I'm going to try to stay friendly with her. I'll bet I can make her over and have her like the ideal mother, a fragile bit of Dresden china, you know."
Malcolm roared, then sobered and said: "It's ten chances to one she'll come at the time Farnam selects."
"Yes, I daresay. In that case I'll have to give her the bestest suite. Lucky I've lots of room. Well, I'll leave you—"
"Wait a minute, Pril," Malcolm detained her. "Remember not to say a word about Farman to anybody. Nor a word about Madame Malden's—"
"Malcolm Fairfax, if you tell me once more to keep quiet about her threats, and why, I'll leave home! Now, I promise to shut my mouth whenever the subject is mentioned, or liable to be mentioned. You think I'm ignoring Farman, Mal; I'm not; I think about him lots. And sometimes I think we're wasting time and energy worrying about him. Some fires burn themselves out if you let them alone, but if you keep trying to put them out they burn more brightly. I have spoken."
* * * * * * * * *
It was November now, and Perilla was settled in her beautiful apartment. While she couldn't be called happy, she was calm and had regained her old-time poise.
Jane was with her, but Jane was a movable feast—always around when wanted or needed, but never in the way. Much of her time she spent at the Lovells' home, and naturally she kept Ellen Lovell informed of Perilla's progress.
"And," as Jane said one morning after about a week's separation, "she isn't so good."
"What's the matter with her?" asked the mother.
"I can't find out. Of course there's her grief for Corey, which seems to grow more poignant rather than less. But, there's something else. She's absorbed in something or somebody. Yet she is excited about it, rather than depressed. Lots of people want to come to see her, but she always says, 'No; not yet.' it keeps me busy shunting them off. However, whatever it is, it interests her, and that's something."
In the meantime Mrs. Corey Malden was going about the business that interested her so. Garbed in one of her smartest broadcloth gowns, and swathed in becoming furs, she directed Bailey, her new chauffeur, to a number in the East Seventies.
Perilla had not kept Boynton, but dismissed him as soon as she came home from Richmond. Boyton never knew why, and would have been greatly surprised to learn that it was because of the quiver of an eyelash.
Reaching an apartment house, Perilla rang the bell of the suite she wanted. Admitted to a smart, interesting looking living-room, she wandered about instead of seating herself.
After a moment she heard a pleasant voice say, "Mrs. Malden?"
"Yes," she replied, turning. "Mr. Stone?"
"I am," replied Fleming Stone, as he drew one chair nearer another. "Will you sit here?"
"I don't know anything about detectives," Perilla began, "but I know a little about lawyers, and I feel rather in the position of one who says to a lawyer. My case is a very odd one, and I don't even know that it is a case."
"Well, suppose you tell me about it. Make it brief."
"Very well, then. If you heard of a bride and groom, on their wedding trip, and one night, when they were alone in a hotel room, she called out for help, and the one who went to help her found the husband dead on the door, and the wife rather bewildered, what would you deduce?"
"Not enough data. Were they in love?"
"More than anyone ever was in the world—or, any two. They adored each other, and had been married only three days. The husband was in perfect health, according to the doctors."
"To what did you attribute death?"
"What could I do but accept the doctor's diagnosis of an unknown and unsuspected weakness of the heart? Moreover, I had no opinin save a—a—"
"A hunch?" asked Stone helpfully.
"Yes," and she smiled. "I do believe a hunch is the only thing to call it."
"And now just what is it you want to know?"
"Who killed him," said Perilla promptly, "and why."
"Why do you think he was killed? How could he be killed with no killer in the room, no weapon and no evidence?"
"Oh, Mr. Stone, that's your part of the detective problem. I can't guess it!"
"No, of course not. And we don't guess detective problems. We solve them."
"Well, can you solve it?"
"I trust so. But as I look at it just this minute I must admit it's a pretty blank prospect."
"But you like a difficult problem better than an easy one?"
"I wouldn't take on an easy one. There are others to do that."
"Are you vain, Mr. Stone?" Perilla's eyed smiled at him.
"Of my work, no. Of my skill, yes. The latter is a gift, and is my greatest pride. My work I do myself, and it is my despair that it is not better. But this case—if it is a case—" and now he smiled at her, "will whet my energies and stir my best efforts."
"Then you'll take it on?"
"If I find it is a 'case.' There's much to do before that can be decided."
"Can you begin at once? And can I help?"
"You'll have to do most of it—at first, anyhow."
"And how do I start?"
"By a brief story of it all right now."
"Well, I was married on Saturday, four weeks ago to-morrow. We planned a motor trip, through Washington to Richmond, winding up at Malden House, the old home of my husband's family."
"You're telling it well, but you didn't start right. Go farther back. When did you decide on the wedding day?"
"We were engaged about six months, and we planned an autumn wedding from the start. I think it was in September that we settled on the date. Early September, so mother could get the cards done."
"And then you selected your bridal party soon?"
"Yes, but rather slowly. That is, Corey chose his men quickly enough, he knew just whom he wanted; but I couldn't settle on my bridesmaids so easily. I have so many friends, and I wanted to ask them all."
"And were they at the house overnight, the night before the wedding?"
"Nearly all," and Perilla gave him, a list of the men who were there overnight. Then she told of the rehearsal for the ceremony, of the two Tenney girls coming over, of Malcolm and Bob taking them home, at which time she and Hilda left the party and went to their rooms.
"Why do you want to know these things?" she asked Stone. "They can't possibly have bearing on the case."
"Not much accustomed to detectives, are you?" he said. "What seems insignificant to you may prove of utmost benefit to me."
"But you don't suspect any of my bridal party!" and Perilla stared at him.
"No, but you do," Stone returned, for Perilla had suddenly turned white and her eyes gazed at him in wonder. Her lips trembled and she had clearly had a sudden and shocking memory.
"Tell me about it," said Stone gravely. "Who was: it?"
"Oh, it's too ridiculous, but one of the ushers, a friend of my brother, told me long ago that if I ever married anyone but him he'd kill the bridegroom or kill me or kill himself—I don't know what he did threaten, but he didn't mean anything—I mean anything serious."
"What's his name?"
"Bob Coles. Why, he's a year or so younger than I am—he's just a boy!"
"Boys can have hot passions. Did he ever follow up that speech, say, when you became engaged to Mr. Malden?"
"Well, he acted up the day of the wedding, but that was only—"
Perilla had been about to say, "only fooling," but she knew that was not true. So she said, "It was after we were in the car, ready to start, he put his head in the window and kissed me in a conspicuous, even insulting way. But afterwards Corey said to forget it, and I did. You see, beside Corey, Bob seemed like a—oh, like a whipper-snapper. I used to like him, but after he got the notion he was in love with me, he was unbearable.
"A friend of your brother? He's all right?"
"Socially he's above reproach. And he's all right, anyhow. He was just teasing me."
"Now, no other act of jealousy or discontentment at the wedding party? None of the other men in love with you?"
"Not that I know of. The best man, Tony Gaskell, is a brick. I think he had given Bob a talking to, but Bob evaded him at the last."
"All right, Mrs. Malden. Now I want you to give me a list of all these people, and their home addresses—"
"But you don't think—you can't think that any of these people—"
"And please get over that jumping at conclusions. Because I speak of anyone I'm not accusing him, not even suspecting him. I want to know these people, as far as I can, including your parents and brother. Remember, a list of the addresses, and any line or word of description you can think of. Perhaps a man's business or a girl's hobby. Much might hang on a chance remark of one of the Misses—what was it?—Tenney."
"Good gracious, you scare the life out of me!"
"Want to drop it?"
"No, oh, no."
"Well, then, here's another thing. I want you to get me a bit of handwriting of all the people we've mentioned and any others who were at the wedding. I suppose you had a guest roll they all signed, but that won't do. I want to get something like a letter or note or memorandum of some sort. Use your ingenuity to get these things. Play some parlour game, write a hurried note that calls for an answer, say you're collecting autographs, with a sentiment attached—any way—but get all you can."
"Do you work by reading handwriting?" and Perilla looked disappointed.
"Not entirely. But there are times when graphology comes in handy. Anyway, do what you can to meet my wishes. Now, you know, we're up against, a most strange problem. We have no crime—that we know of. No suspected criminal. No clues. No evidence. No notion which way to turn. If you fail me in getting the few bits of information I think might be of use, I may as well step down and out."
"Oh, I won't fail you!"
"That's a good girl. Now tell me all about the night of Mr. Malden's death. Every detail."
Perilla again went over the pitiful tale of her tragedy and told fully, but concisely as possible, the story of the inexplicable death.
Stone asked many questions, some trifling, it seemed to Perilla, some a little intimate. She answered carefully. He inquired definitely about the appearance and manner of Madame Malden, then about the servants at Malden House. She said she and her father liked Dillon, the second man.
"You met the family doctor and lawyer, I suppose?" Stone asked.
"Yes; Dr. Spurgeon had little to say. He declared there was no possibility of other than a natural death. He said Madame Malden was subject to wild vagaries, and must not be taken seriously. Lawyer Farman didn't amount to much one way or another. I fancy he only attends to minor matters that need his immediate advice, for Mr. Garth looks after all the affairs of importance."
"And now, Mr. Garth is your lawyer?"
"Yes. Corey had perfect trust in him, and so have I."
"Have your mentioned this subject of foul play to Garth?"
"No; so far, to no one but you."
"Don't speak of it to anyone else, please, for the present. To let it get chattered about might be to ruin all our plans."
"You have plans, then?"
Stone gave her a quick look. "Mrs. Malden, I am quite willing to take up this case, for I feel now that there is a case. I admit my decision is, like your own, largely based on a hunch, but I have known that questionable foundation to prove more solid than a cloud of witnesses."
"Then you'll find out if anybody killed Corey?" Perilla looked excited at the prospect. "Have you any hypothesis, any reasonable explanation?"
"I have not; I can think of none." Just then Stone's man appeared and said that Mrs. Malden was wanted on the telephone.
"Take it here," Stone said, dismissing the man.
After a moment's talk, she turned to Stone and said, "Dillon, from Malden House, is over at my home and wants to see me. Shall I tell him to come some other time?"
"No; tell him to wait there and we will go to see him at once. I'd like to chat with him."
In a few moments they were at Perilla's new apartment, and she asked to have Dillon sent to them.
"See what you think of him," she said, in a low voice. "My staff is not yet satisfactorily completed, and I may take him on as a butler."
Dillon appeared, perfect mannered, and duly deferential.
"You want to see me personally?" Perilla asked him.
"Yes, ma'am. I have seen Mr. Lovell, your father, and he advised me to ask you if you would consider taking me on as a butler."
Perilla was silent a moment. "There's only one objection, Dillon," she said. "I know your work, your long stay with my husband's family is all the reference you need, but—I'm wondering if your presence will not bring up painful memories of Malden House."
Dillon made no reply to this, and Stone remarked, "Can't that be adjusted, Mrs. Malden? Suppose this man wears a totally different livery; suppose he endeavours to change his manner in any minor way possible, a different name if you choose; I'm sure it will not be too difficult. And I imagine that Dillon, because of his devotion to your late husband, will do all in his power to serve you satisfactorily. Is not this so, Dillon?"
"Oh, yes, sir! I looked forward to serving Mr. and Mrs. Malden, for we all knew that after Mr. Corey's marriage, Madame Malden would reduce her staff."
"Why didn't you mention this to me when I was in Richmond?" Perilla asked.
"Because, ma'am, It didn't seem the time. You were so grieved and worried. I—I—"
Fleming Stone turned a stern glance on the man. "Stop lying!" he said.
The two men stared at each other a moment, then Dillon said, "I suppose, sir, you mean I was—er—waiting to see if anything developed from the fearful accusations Madame Malden made against her son's wife. Yes, that was partially the reason."
"Good for you, Dillon," Perilla said. "You owned up bravely. What do you say, Mr. Stone?"
"I advise you to take this man on trial. Say, a week or a fortnight. How's that, Dillon?"
"Quite all right, sir. Shall I report to-morrow, Madame?"
"Yes, Dillon, unless I change my mind. Leave your address and telephone call with Norris. You may go." He left the room, and Perilla turned questioningly to her caller.
"I rather butted in, Mrs. Malden," he smiled, "but it would help amazingly to have that man around for a few weeks. And something tells me you'll like him well enough to continue to employ him."
"I shouldn't wonder," Perilla rejoined. "Dad took to him at once. And you propose to utilise him?"
"I shall have to utilise anyone I can fasten on to. Now here's another thing. Is your staff sufficiently in order to have a dinner party or a bridge game now and then? Of course, I know you're not entertaining, but it is imperative that I meet these people we've spoken of as soon as possible. So I thought a small, informal affair would be convenient for you and cause no comment, especially as Miss Sheldon is coming and you'll have to entertain her a little."
"Yes, indeed, Mr. Stone. I don't propose to shut myself up. Corey wouldn't want me to."
"Very well, then. As soon as Miss Sheldon gets here give her a small welcoming party, and invite me. I shall not disgrace you, and any investigation I may make will be entirely unsuspected."
"I have thought of a trip to California, by motor—"
"Good! Do that, but not until a little later. I can soon divide the people I want to follow up from those who do not interest me."
"Hilda arrives to-morrow. Suppose I have a small bridge supper some night early next week."
"'Capital! Not more than eight this time. I'll make out a list." He jotted down some names on a slip of paper. "And for Heaven's sake," he went, on, "don't conclude I think those are all criminals."
Nearly a fortnight later, Fleming Stone sat thinking in his study. The Malden matter, at the present stage, was the most baffling and absolutely inscrutable proposition he had ever been up against.
Nothing to it, he growled, to himself. Man dead, nobody could possibly kill him except his wife and she wouldn't. If ever I trusted the love and truth of a human being, it's that youngster, Perilla.
It can't have been a natural death; all the evidence is against that. No sign of poison; no symptoms of poisoning. Unless it was given him at the festivities they attended that day. I wonder what poisons act later on, and not immediately.
I wonder if any of the Richmond people could get at him while he was in the hotel. Or if he had any enemies in Richmond who would go so far as to kill him. Or if his mother had a hand in it. She's far more likely to be a murderer than that adoring and adorable bride.
Then there are the people at the Washington tea and the dinner. Suppose one of them had it in for Malden, and had vowed to kill him in his happiest moment. Well, how did he do it? That's for me to find out. And I could find it out if I knew or had any idea it had happened.
So my work is cut out for me. I must make bricks without straw, an omelette without eggs. I'll do it, of course, but how begin?
Just then Mr. Garth was announced, and Stone, glad enough to see him, greeted Perilla's Philadelphia lawyer warmly.
The small and informal bridge supper had taken place at Perilla's the night before, and both men had been there. Also Jane Latimer and Hilda, together with Bob Coles, Gaskell and Malcolm.
It was a pleasant gathering, without being gay, and Stone had devoted his time to studying the others, without appearing to do so.
To his surprise, he had taken a decided liking to young Coles, who had evinced no undue interest in Perilla, though he was thoughtful and kindly in any way possible.
"What do you think of the Coles boy?" Stone asked.
"He's not a bad sort, I've known him for years. Daffy over Mrs. Malden. Sort of moth and star case."
"But he's younger than she is."
"A year or so. Did you glean anything from your observations?"
"Glean is the word! It was like gleaning in a stubble field. Nobody said anything or did anything that the most disinterested mortal couldn't say, for the whole world to hear!"
"You didn't expect someone to blurt out an incriminating speech, did you?"
"Well, yes, I did, and one came pretty near it."
"Never mind for the moment; likely as not, I'm mistaken. Do you know anything of medicine?"
"No, law is my only study, But Corey Malden was as sound as a pippin."
"What killed him, then?"
"Between you and me, I think he was put out of the way, only, there's no possible way that could have happened."
"If a thing did happen, there must be a way it could happen. And if we consider foul play, we must consider motive."
"Motives are legion, with all that money at stake. By the way, what about the woman who stole the diamond necklace from their Washington hotel?"
"She's faded out. They're chasing her in Washington, but it wasn't a diamond necklace. Malden had a duplicate made in paste, same time he had the real one made. I dug that up from the jewellers' people. It was the imitation the visitor made away with."
"Corey had some enemies in Washington," and Garth spoke slowly. "I don't mean actual enemies, but men who were not really friendly with him."
"Dunno, exactly, but some club matter. Hardly a reason for a murder, though."
"That's the worst of the thing, the topography is spread all over. One can't jump from Washington to Richmond and back to New York all the time.
"Why, not decide it is a matter of unsuspected heart-trouble and let it go at that? What else can it be? The doctors say so. What can you assume, suspect or guess?"
"Only murder by person or persons unknown."
"Then you're no longer interested in the health of the victim?"
"Yes, I am. I'm interested in everything about him. Do you know anything you haven't told me?"
Garth looked uncertain. Stone knew he had in mind something very definite, but wasn't quite sure he wanted to tell it.
"Out with it," said Stone. "I'm assuming you want to help Lady Perilla as much as I do, and that you're deterred by some reason of policy. Better be frank."
"I suppose so," and Garth sighed. "Well, it's that there is more or less hinting and whispering about her going on in Washington social circles. It seems that wretched Farman started it, and you know how a rumour spreads. And on their day in Washington Perilla appeared at two of the biggest houses—I don't mean the best houses, I mean the ones where the gossips gather. Her beauty and poise made her conspicuous, and when Farman's remarks were tattled around, the young people took it up and made whoopee of it. Plenty of those girls had set their caps for Corey, and they were mad that this minx should carry him off under their very noses. So they took revenge by believing or pretending to believe the yarns."
"And what were the yarns?"
"Simply that this beautiful girl cajoled Corey, captured him, married him, murdered him and inherited the Malden millions."
Fleming Stone stared at the speaker. "You believe, all that?"
"No," returned Garth, speaking gravely, "I don't believe the stories, but I believe they are current in some Washington circles, and are getting more widely rumoured. Moreover—"
"Moreover," Stone broke in, "if a breath of that libel, that, slander, is heard up here, it will go very hard with Perilla Malden. And if it is current in Washington, it must become known here. Farman will see that it does."
"That is true, Farnan is the one to head off. And, it must be remembered that all Farman's talk is the result of Madame Malden's hatred of her daughter-in-law. I've been down there quite a bit, since Corey's death, and the old dame doesn't seem inclined to relent in any way. That girl is true blue. There's no call to defend her, but great reason to keep her from unjust suspicion. I must be on my way, Stone. May I telephone before I go?"
"Sure. Right there, unless you want a booth. There is one."
"Oh, no: This is all right."
Fleming Stone sat in brooding silence while Garth dialed a number, and had a short conversation. There was vague reference to a registered parcel.
"It's just too bad!" Stone broke forth, as Garth ceased talking, "to think Malden's old mother is to blame for all the Farman rumpus. I shall have to go down there. I want to see those friends of Malden's too. Carmichael and what's the other one? Carleton? Do you know them?"
"Only slightly. Do you feel, then, there's no chance of hushing it all up?"
"Of course I shall hush it all up in the course of time, but it will take a long time, and may be too late. Also, it will take intimidation, even threats, and those are not good weapons to use."
"Do you know Farman?"
"Never saw him. What sort is he?"
"Not a good sort. He is sly, but plausible; clever, but sneaky; smart, but tricky."
When Garth went away, Fleming Stone went to the telephone and dialed a number. A few words of conversation contented him, and he turned to find his man waiting to announce callers. These were Tony Gaskell and Bob Coles, who had both been at Perilla's bridge party the night before, and were now on their way home to Philadelphia.
Young Coles took the lead and said, at once, "I have come to see you, Mr. Stone, to make a little explanation."
"Glad to hear you sir. What is it about?"
Bob turned red and was quite evidently flustered, seeing which, Gaskell took up the tale.
"Coles is a bit embarrassed, Mr. Stone," Tony said; with a half smile, "because he fears you don't understand him."
"I don't, entirely," and Stone gave a smile, "but I should be glad to."
"I mean in regard to Mrs. Malden," Gaskell proceeded. "Bob is by nature a tease, and on her wedding day, he more or less bothered Perilla, and now he's sorry he did."
"Why confess this to me?" asked Stone, in surprise. "Has he said the same to Mrs. Malden?"
"Yes, I have," Bob broke in, his courage returning as he noted Stone's friendly manner. "And she has been good enough to call it square, and let me be friends with her again."
"I am truly glad, but again I must ask why this is retailed to me."
"Now for it," and Tony looked quizzically at the blushing Bob. "Our young friend thinks he has detective instincts—"
"And wants to become a detective—and wants me to take him on as apprentice while he is learning." Stone said with an air mostly bored, but showing a slight glimmer of interest.
"Yes," cried Bob; gleefully, "and you're going to do it, aren't you, Mr. Stone? I see it in your eye!"
"There's a sample of his detective instinct already," laughed Gaskell. "How about it, Stone?"
"You're not altogether right, Bob, but you are, in part. If you'll stay a bit after Mr. Gaskell goes, we'll go into secret session, and talk the matter over."
"I must be going," said Tony. "I only dropped round to bring Bob, and to see if I could be of any assistance. I suppose I knew Corey better than any one of his friends, and to think that night down on Long Island was our last hobnob together.
"He was perfectly well that night?" asked Stone, casually.
"Well? Oh, my, yes! Slept like a top all night—or said he did. I didn't lie awake to see; we had the same room, you know."
"What did you all take pills for," asked Bob. "When I came home from the Tenneys, you were all hitting the pill box to beat the band."
"Corey was nervous," Gaskell said. "I had some capital pellets for that sort of thing and I gave him one. I'll give you the prescription if you like, Mr. Stone. And first thing I knew, they were all taking them, and Mr. Lovell carried off the bottle to feed one to his wife."
Stone had sat tapping absentmindedly on the table with a forefinger. Looking from one to the other, he said:
"I gather that both you men are in love with Mrs. Malden."
"I am," returned Bob sturdily. "It's no use, she looks on me as a child. Yet I'm only a few months younger than she is—she's twenty-four. However, I won't bother her. But if I can help on this detective work," Stone smiled, "that'll be my joy and pride. Yes, Mr. Stone, I am in love with her, she's so sweet, but she won't know it from me—at least, not at present."
"And you, Mr. Gaskell?" Stone further inquired.
"To say I'm not in love with the lady would be a bit discourteous, for as Bob says, she is very sweet. But my admiration is of the passive rather than the active sort, and unless it receives some encouragement, must be kept in the background. Beside, and this means you, Bob, it's a small compliment to express affection to one so recently the victim of a great tragedy. Even if I were more deeply in love with her than I am, I would not presume to tell her so at the present time."
Though Tony had disavowed his deep love for Perilla, Fleming Stone thought he read it in the strong voice and the set features of the man speaking. But it was the courteous, debonair Tony Gaskell who said goodbye.
"Now, what's all this about, and why do you think I want anything to do with you?" asked Stone, after Tony had left them.
"Well," said Bob, "first because I can help you in some minor ways, and you're beginning to see it."
"And what are your minor ways?"
"Verifying rumours or suspicions; interviewing minor characters or possible witnesses; chumming up to somebody you want studied; doing good shadowing, should it be required."
"Those are promises. I prefer achievement. What did you notice last night at the bridge party?"
"That there was very little to be noticed. Few of those present could be looked upon as suspects, even if we want a suspect."
Stone lifted his eyebrows. "We, already?" he said whimsically. "Well, were there any suspects there?"
"Only you and Mr. Garth."
"And why we two?"
"Elimination. We can't suspect Jane or Hilda of any disloyalty to Perilla. We can't imagine Malcolm or Tony in the wrong; I am innocent, but I can't think you wanted that party gathered for no reason at all, so I deduce you have a hankering to suspect Mr. Garth. You and he are the only ones present last night whom I didn't know well."
Fleming Stone broke into laughter. "Good deduction, Bob, if it got us anywhere. You say you're innocent, but how do I know it? I assure you I've as much reason to suspect you as Garth."
"Suspect me of what?"
"Ah, my boy, that's just it. What is it that anybody is to be suspected of? Yet there is suspicion in the air. I feel it and so do you. And I'll say right here that I do want to engage your help. This is too big—too widespread for me to swing alone. I can't be in two or three places at once. What I'd like would be to have you come here for, say, two weeks or so, and run errands for me, or do other routine work. Your first assignment would be a trip to Richmond."
"All right by me," said Bob unsuccessfully trying to conceal his delight.
"And I don't want this boyishness. You're a man—twenty-four is not so young these days. No 'Mr. Stone,' you know. Say 'Stone' as a friend would, and I'll call you Coles, or Bob if I choose. You may visit me here for the time, if you don't bother me. Of course, your time is your own, except when I have definite work for you. Salary to depend on how the treaty turns out; Dost like the pictures?"
"Don't I! I'll do my best, sir."
"No, sirs, and no pleases and thank yous."
"I get you, and it suits me tip-top. I say, Stone, what's this about a Richmond flurry?"
"It's a ticklish job, old man, but I think you can swing it. I want you to go down to Richmond, stay a couple of days, then a day or two in Washington. The idea is to pick up any and all information you can get about Corey Malden's life, his friends, enemies, business acquaintances, and home life. I don't know how you're to do it, that's your business. Get into his clubs, ask questions, quiz his servants, make up to the old lady, chase the girls that set their caps for Corey. I hear there are a lot. Then, in Washington, get hold of Carmichael and Carleton—you must have some friends there who can introduce you—"
"All right. About expenses?"
"Bring me your list. Want some ready money?"
"No, I've plenty, unless the thing runs big, then I'll wire."
"How about your people?"
"Haven't any except Mother. I'll fix it with her, and get off. At once?"
"Yes, say to-morrow. I'll list up some names to-night. Or to-day. You'd better take a night train."
"Do I tell Perilla?"
"Not now. I'll see to that."
"Communicate with you openly?"
"Yes, it isn't really secret service, but get at Farman, and see where we stand. Good-bye, Coles. Drop in this evening for the lists."
With a nod, Bob departed, and Fleming Stone sat down to think over what he had done. An eager chap like Bob might prove of inestimable assistance. He hoped so, anyway. And as to young Coles' mischievous kissing of Perilla on her wedding day, he had no fear such a matter would occur again.
Little he dreamed what would happen, and whither his fears should be directed.
* * * * * * * * *
While his new assistant was away on his Washington trip Fleming Stone was doing all he could to clear up matters against his return.
There were so many things to think about. Was it wise to let Perilla start off on that California trip? He saw no reason against it, and he was glad to have Bob go along. He could keep a sort of tally on the party, and if anything seemed to call for him, Stone could join them anywhere.
Stone had carefully studied the scraps of penmanship that Perilla had dutifully collected for him. While they gave him no exact information, it did stir his imagination that at least two of the wedding party had criminal tendencies, while four or five were liars.
He took this information, however, with a grain of salt, for his knowledge of graphology was not exhaustive. But he felt that if these stray bits of lore corroborated his suspicions, at least that was a step in the right direction.
But depend upon them, he did not.
Nor did he feel over-great interest in the statistics that go to prove the criminal has certain physical characteristics that betoken his depravity to the layman's eye. A physician experienced in moral degeneracy or dementia praecox might be impressed by such physiological details, but not the average student of humanity.
Then, went on Stone's thoughts, since I confess I'm not an expert diagnostician, I must go to one who is. I wonder if old Simpson will remember me. I think he will.
Deciding to go to see Dr. Simpson, Stone rose just as the telephone rang.
It proved to be Perilla. "Come round to dinner," she said. "I'm planning my motor trip." Stone went at once to Perilla's home.
"When will Bob be back?" was her first question.
"I'm not sure; in a few days, I think, probably Monday."
"All right. You'll let him go to California with us, won't you?"
"I'd be sorry to have him miss the chance. And yet—"
"Never mind 'and yet.' Now, are you certain you can't go?"
"Positive. I only wish I might. How long will the trip be?"
"Nearly a month, I suppose. I must get away. This whole affair is getting on my nerves. I thought I was all right, but the doctor advises me to get away."
"Run along then, but don't stay too long. There are many things to be done. I may have some facts by the time you get home again."
"I hope so," said Perilla, slowly. "And if not, do you think we'd better give up the quest?"
"If we can, most assuredly. I fear you don't altogether understand. It isn't up to us. If the Richmond contingent see fit to drop it all we most certainly will be glad to do so. But if they see fit to carry on, then, we must be prepared to meet them on their own ground."
"What, is their own ground?"
"That you are implicated in the death of Corey Malden."
"Yes, but what can they prove? Just nothing at all!" Perilla declared.
"They hold they can prove opportunity and motive," was Stone's reply. "That is perilously near the full requirements of a case. Don't think I am trying to frighten you, but before you go away I want you to know the danger you are in."
"I'd be in just as much danger if I stayed at home?"
"Yes, I think so. That's why I approve of your going. It will do you good in lots of ways. You'll have a wonderful trip."
"Yes; the Dunstans are taking us to their wonderful Santa Barbara home for a week, and I want a few days in San Francisco. You see, Mr. Stone, Corey and I had planned this trip. We meant to get things for our Chinese lounge. I—I have the lists he made out—"
Perilla smiled faintly, and Stone changed the subject. "Who are your guests?"
"Alice and Jack Dunstan, our hosts at Santa Barbara, you know, Hilda Sheldon, Jane, of course; and the men are Bob and Malcolm, Mr. Dunstan and Mr. Garth."
"A good lot. And the third car?"
"Alice's maid and my Sarah. Extra luggage, the chauffeurs' bags and odds and ends, you know. We'll be comfortable, I think. Will Bob be on duty? At his work, I mean?"
"I hope so. He can pick up a lot, I'm sure. But he's discreet and will give nothing away."
"What I am afraid of is the Richmond lot. Yet, surely, Mr. Stone, that incapable, inefficient Mr. Farman couldn't buck up against you and my three executors, could he?"
"Your three executors are also in the same relation to Madame Malden?"
"And what of that?"
"They have to do what she asks of them—to a certain extent. Suppose she wanted you—but let's talk of pleasanter things. Now, lay your plans so I'll know exactly where to reach you at any moment. Garth will attend to such things, but keep him advised if you make any change of plan."
"It won't matter his being away so long, will it?"
"Oh, no. It's a matter of time to settle an estate, and the Malden business will last for a long time. Garth will be back by the time he is needed."
"And Tony and Mr. Carleton can carry on while he is gone."
"Yes, if they will. Those two men are not heavy workers. Garth has done twice as much as either of them already. You like Mr. Carleton?"
"Oh, yes; but I saw him only once—that day in Washington."
"Your husband always spoke highly of him?"
"Yes, but Corey did that of all his friends."
"Well, that's a fine trait. Now, Mrs. Malden, can you—do you wish to arrange it so that any mail coming for you from Washington or Richmond shall be given immediately to me? If this seems to you unfair I won't press it. But if the letter is forwarded to you and you send it back to me we waste valuable time. Are you willing to do as I ask?"
"Oh, yes, indeed. There's no one I would get mail from except the Malden contingent, as you call it. I am perfectly willing, and it can easily be arranged. Dad will look after it. And if you want me in a hurry, let me know and I'll come home by air."
"I can't help feeling that Farman is quiet only temporarily. What he plans I've no idea, but it's probably something underhanded. However, you're not to let all this worry you. If I feared danger or any real trouble, I should advise against your going. So put it all from your mind and have a delightful trip. Perhaps when you return I shall have matters all cleared up.
"Tell me, Mr. Stone—you've looked about a bit now—do you think Corey was—was murdered?"
"Yes, Mrs. Malden, I do."
"But how could it have been accomplished?"
"At this moment I have no more idea than you have. It is probable that I shall learn soon. But I may. And I want to say this to you; it may necessitate an autopsy."
"Oh!" Perilla looked shocked. Then she said, "it is all in your hands, Mr. Stone. Discuss any such matter with my parents and then follow your own judgment."
"Thank you, Mrs. Malden, for your readiness to trust matters to me. I admit this is a seemingly impossible case, but I also want to tell you that I feel sure light will break on us soon."
"You have more information?" Perilla's eager eyes flashed into his own.
"No; sorry, but I haven't. I'm hoping Bob will bring some. Think once more," Stone said. "You are sure Mr. Malden didn't eat or drink anything questionable that day?"
"He didn't eat anything at the tea place. We had a delicious dinner. Unless his portions were 'doctored' he could not have been harmed. As to drinking, all present drank the same things, for all I know. But this is a possibility. If some one intended to poison him, that was a very good opportunity."
"And I am beginning to think that is what happened."
She looked at him doubtfully. "I don't know much about such things, Mr. Stone, but is there a poison that could be administered at the tea or at the dinner which would leave him quite his usual self for several hours, and then bring about his sudden death—death without a sound or a quiver, merely a quick passing?"
"I know of no such poison, I have found no one who knows of such, but what is there to assume?"
"Why assume anything? Why not get facts?"
"To do that in this case would necessitate a post-mortem examination."
"And have I objections to that?"
"Madame Malden objects so strenuously that the question has been dropped."
"Then take it up again. I command it, I have a right to do so. If not, I beg of you that it be done, though I regret the necessity. Ignore Mrs. Malden's wishes, and employ the best talent available for such work."
Perilla was pale, but determined looking, and she did not waver at her own distressing thoughts.
"Then," and Stone's voice was serious, "if a trace of some such poison is found, you know, I suppose what the immediate reaction will be—"
"You mean suspicion will be strengthened against me. I expect so, but I prefer that to this entire lack of knowledge. If we know we have a crime to deal with, then we know where we stand; we know, at least, we have something to look into. You must know by this time, Mr. Stone, that I didn't kill my husband. You must know I want his murderer found and punished, and if my going on this trip will in any way retard your work, I will gladly call it off—"
"No; oh, no. And my notion that we may find some evidence of poison is so slight as to be practically negligible. I am not despairing, you understand. I haven't the slightest doubt of ultimate success, but there are so many obstacles that must be overcome. Go along on your trip. I'd much rather you were already gone when Farman comes, if he does come."
So preparations for the journey went on. Perilla brooded more or less, but not when it might distress others. Bob came home. Stopping only to see his mother in Philadelphia, he went straight to Fleming Stone with his report.
"Bad business, all round," he said succintly. "Farman is on the warpath. Madame Malden, of course, is behind him, prodding him if, when and as he falters. She is getting really nutty now, or she seems so to me. The Washington man, Carleton, is the aloof sort, hard to get at, and unsatisfactory when found. Mr. Carmichael, another friend of Corey's, is much pleasanter, and I wish he'd been an executor instead of Carleton. Now, I've no business to say this, maybe, but I can't help thinking there's some jiggery-pokery going on to reduce the net proceeds due to come to Perilla under that will."
"That's all to the good—what you've deduced, I mean," and Stone looked approvingly at young Coles, "but just now, stick to the rumours about Mrs. Malden and her husband."
"But those are so indefinite. Boiled down, they amount to this; she had motive and opportunity, therefore she did the deed; or, she was alone in the room with him, so it must have been her work. They consider the motive settled; simply that Pril wanted the money and not the man; they consider the opportunity perfect; the method they refuse to consider, but hold that it might be one of several. Why, that unspeakable Farman says he thinks Perilla used a hypodermic needle, with poison in it! Now the devil of that is, it sounds so damned plausible!"
"What became of the instrument?" asked Stone.
"Elementary. She could have hidden it in a hundred places, or passed it over to Sarah, or to Boynton—by the way, where is Boynton?"
"His whereabouts are not unknown. Why?"
"Nothing. But the servants at Malden House seem to have something on him."
"Go on, what else?"
"Well, not much else; only that Farman is coming up here next week, and Carleton will come when you advise him to do so. They have nothing to do with each other, outwardly, you understand. But I did a small bit of shadowing and caught Farman trotting in at Carleton's back gate now and again. Then they'd be closeted in secret session, and I, calling on Mr. Carleton, had to wait until he could see me. I didn't talk real business with him—you told me not to—I just made social calls and flirted with his wife. And I like Mr. Carleton; he's merry and bright; but there's a yellow streak in his make-up somewhere."
"And when is Farman to put in an appearance here?" asked Stone.
"Soon. In a few days, I fancy, though I couldn't find out exactly. I think he means to feather his own nest right well out of the Malden millions, aided and abetted by friend Carleton."
"Corey Malden was always too fond of his friends," Stone observed; "he could see no fault in them. An admirable trait, but it doesn't always work out for the best. What did you make of Carmichael?"
"I didn't see much of him, but he seemed to me to ring true. He admires Perilla immensely, but who doesn't? He's not on good terms with Carleton, though he pretends to be. He doesn't like Tony Gaskell, either. And he has a grudge of some sort against Mr. Garth. That side of him I didn't like so much. As you say, Malden was too lenient towards his friends, but Carleton is the other way. He has a down on almost everybody, and I don't understand it. Why, he hardly knows Tony, and Mr. Garth he has never met. Yet, with it all, I trust him—'way ahead of Richard Carleton."
"I'm glad to get these hints, Bob. I think I shall go to Washington as soon as Perilla's California party gets started, and what you've told me will be a help. You're going on the trip?"
"If you don't want me here."
"No, I want you there. You're to keep a general watch out and give an alarm if anything is alarming. I fear something may turn up, but I may be over-apprehensive. I'll hold the fort here, and of course, they'll have meetings of the executors, which I shall manage to attend—one way or another. Now, I want that expedition to start as soon as may be. Better run up there and see Mrs. Malden. I'm giving a stirrup-cup party the night before you go, so tell her I'm ready for that when she is."
Bob found Perilla in, and she summoned Mr. Buckle, who was to attend to everything in any way pertaining to the trip. His duties embraced arranging itineraries, telephoning ahead for hotel accommodations, looking after luggage, saying when to go and when to stop; in short, he was the major domo.
They decided to go the next day but one. They would spend the first night in Warren, Ohio, and the second in Columbus. It was decided that Stone's party the next evening should include only those going on the trip, Perilla's parents, and a few others at Perilla's discretion.
The Dunstans, though prominent members of the touring crowd, were unable to be with the others, having accepted invitations to another farewelling among some friends of their own. The guests were gay and merry, but it could be easily seen that it was an effort to preserve this mood.
Perilla, herself, began to waver a little as to the wisdom of her plans. She said so to Tony Gaskell. "I wish you were going, Tony," she said; "you're always so dependable and reliable."
"Lots of things I'd rather be called than those two," and Tony made a wry face. "Here, you, Bob! let that bottle alone. I'll give you a highball. Look out for this lad on the trip, Perilla; he's getting too free-handed with the stuff. There, son, that'll do you for now."
Bob grinned and took the modest drink offered him, reinforcing it at first chance.
"You must stay overnight, Tony," Stone said; "you have to be here tomorrow."
"All right, Stone, I mean to stay over. But if you're crowded I'll go to a hotel."
"Not crowded a bit. Nobody here but Coles and you and me."
"Very well, then, I'll stay here, and mighty glad to do so."
Perilla took Jane and Hilda and went home early, and not much later Malcolm and the Lovells went home. The three men left in Stone's apartment sat in silence for a time.
"I do like Mr. Lovell," Stone said; "he's level-headed, and he's as devoted to those two children as if they were his own. Malcolm's a good sort, too, and he sure looks after his sister."
"What a lovely thing she is," said Gaskell, fairly blurting out the words, as if unable to repress them longer.
"We all agree to that," said Bob, with a sigh. "Well, me for bed. Come on, Gaskell, let's leave our host to check up his notes of this evening's doing."
"Wait a minute," Stone held them; "who are these Dunstans?"
"Nobody in particular," Bob told him. "Old friends of the family, going along rather as chaperons, I think. And now, me for bed. No more—er—liquidation, I assume?"
"No!" and his host scowled. "I'll put you in Buckle's care, Bob, and if you hit it up you're to be sent home. See?"
"Yeppy. I'll be good, don't worry." He went off to his room, and Tony said slowly: "Such a nice chap, but headed wrong."
"Oh, he'll be all right; I've my eye on him. And he's always careful when Mrs. Malden is around. Now, when can you get with us for a real meeting of the executors?
"Almost any time. Give me a bit of advance notice and I'll be on deck. Is there much doing yet?"
"Not much until we get more statistics from the banks. But I want to be ready for this Farman person. You know, I suppose, he means war to the knife? And the circumstances are so—so—"
"So definite and so incriminating—"
"Yes, though I didn't mean to put it so strongly. Yet it's the truth. A really disinterested investigator would pounce on Perilla as the obvious suspect."
"I know." Tony drew a deep sigh. "That's the reason I stayed home from the trip—to fight any such investigator."
"You gave up a month's pleasure in the company of the woman you love, to be here on the mere chance of something turning up?"
"Of course." Gaskell looked his surprise. "Wouldn't you? I have loved Perilla for years, long before she knew Corey. But I've no intention of bothering her. And it's all too soon yet. If the time ever comes for me to tell her, very well; if not, then, very well, again."
Gaskell's handsome face looked moody and distressed, but in a moment it cleared, and he smiled.
"Never mind all that," he said. "I did want to go motoring with them, more than I ever wanted anything in all the world, but I had a hunch I could do more for her here. So call on me for anything you want."
"I'll remember that. Now that Bob's gone have a nightcap."
This programme was put over, and the perplexed detective was glad to get to his room, where he could be alone to think; he had picked up some new notions during the evening, and they had to be threshed out.
Bob and Tony were at Perilla's early the next morning. Gaskell drew her aside, and then into a small reception room and closed the door.
"Don't be frightened," he said, smiling at her startled gaze, "I only want to whisper a word of warning. You know I was Corey's best man, now I want to be yours. And I mean only to warn you against one or two things. Don't be too kind to Garth. Oh, I know this sounds like the babble of a jealous fool, and I don't say I'm not that, but if you want to or mean to smile on Roger Garth, wait till you get home again to do it. There'll be time enough then. And don't be angry with me for saying this—"
"I'm not angry, but I fail to see what right you have to dictate my behaviour. You were Corey's best man, but that doesn't mean you are mine!"
"I know. Forgive me, Perilla, I truly meant only to speak for your own good. Oh, darling, if you knew what you mean to me!" and unable to restrain himself, Tony clasped her in his arms.
Just for a moment, though, and then, letting her go, he said, "Now you know—and I'm sorry. I promise never to lose command of myself again, and you're going to forgive me this once, aren't you? Tell me—I can't let you leave me in an uncertainty."
"Well, then I forgive you this once, on condition that never again—"
"Come along, Pril," called Malcolm, through the door. "Buckle is here, and you're needed. Hurry! We're bound for California."
Tony followed Perilla from the room, and set himself to work in earnest, helping stow away small bits of luggage and special belongings of Perilla. He could not wait for the actual departure, nor could Stone, who stopped in for a moment to say good-by.
The first car held the redoubtable Buckle, driving, also Sarah, and Mrs. Dunstan's maid. The second contained Perilla, Hilda, Jack Dunstan and Bob. This was driven by Bailey, Perilla's own chauffeur. The other car brought up the rear with Alice Dunstan and Jane. Malcolm and Roger Garth, driven by Garth's man, Hopper.
About the time the jolly party was emerging from the Holland Tunnel into the New Jersey sunshine Gaskell received a telegram from Richard Carleton, saying he would be in New York by noon, and hoped to have a meeting of the executors that afternoon, as he had to return to Washington on a night train.
Tony called up Stone and also Mr. Lovell, the latter advising that the meeting be held at his home. This was arranged, and at three o'clock a conclave was held for the discussion of Perilla's fortune.
"It seems to me," put in Gaskell, as they looked at the matter from varying angles, "that we are attaching too much importance to details. We, as executors, have no duty to perform except the transfer of Corey Malden's fortune to Mrs. Malden, with the definite exceptions of such bequests as are quite plainly stated in the will. Garth, to be sure, is Corey's lawyer, but as a close friend, I feel that I know all about the matter and can help you see it through as well as Garth can, subject, of course, to his sanction and approval."
Carleton stared at the speaker. "Personally," he said, "I admit I prefer to meet with and be advised by the lawyer who drew up the will, and who is also an executor."
"As you choose," and Tony shrugged his shoulders. "I feel it was unwise for Garth to go off on that long trip just at this juncture—"
"He didn't know this was going to be a juncture," said Lovell, in his mild way. "Of course, we want him at our meetings, but we can do much without him."
"And just why are you here, Mr. Lovell." Carleton asked. "Are you representing someone?"
"My daughter, yes," and Lovell's dignity was such that Carleton raised no further question. "Well," began Tony, his voice a trifle harsh, "we can at least find out where we stand regarding that Richmond lawyer—Farman, isn't it? I'm told he has something on his mind regarding the death of Corey Malden."
There was no response to this, and Stone took up the conversation. "That sort of thing is in my line, I think," he said. "I am engaged, Mr. Carleton, to discover, if I can, the exact cause of Mr. Malden's death. I am told that Mr. Farman has suspicions—I think that is not too strong a word—that Corey Malden was murdered. If this is true—true, I mean, that Mr. Farman suspects that—then he should tell us so plainly. If he has no suspicions of the sort, then he should inform us to that effect. When does Mr. Farman propose to come up here?"
"That I don't know. I am not his confidant, Mr. Stone."
"No, but you might know that. Does he not propose to come while you are here?"
"I've not the slightest idea. I came to-day because I chanced to have other business in New York, and that made it convenient."
"I see." Stone looked at him quizzically. "Perhaps, hereafter, Mr. Carleton, you would be wiser to consider the Malden estate of greater consequence than you seem to now. Then you think Mr. Farman is of the opinion that Malden was murdered, and he has a strong suspicion of the murderer's identity?"
Carleton stared. "I didn't say anything of that sort, Mr. Stone."
"You thought it, however. Do you deny that?"
"How can I tell what Mr. Farman thinks? He can think what he chooses."
"Of course. Now, what do you think?"
"I can see no reason for murder, no method that could have been employed, and no means that could have been used."
"And yet you still believe murder was done."
Carleton looked uncertain and a little embarrassed. "If I do," he said, "It's only because Corey Malden was such a healthy specimen that I can't conceive of his dropping dead from heart failure or any other weakness."
"All right, then," and Stone nodded his head. "I rather agree with you, I think. But I don't want you to think that it was the work of an innocent woman."
"What else is there to think." and Carleton looked sulky. "If there was no one else there to kill him, why wasn't it his wife?"
"What is your business, Mr. Carleton?" Stone asked sternly.
"I'm a lawyer."
"Then you must know you haven't a case against the lady. Now, why do you want one? Why do you hope to find one?"
"I don't," Carleton blurted out, looking with a trace of fear at Tony Gaskell's lowering face.
"Now, gentlemen," said John Lovell, in his placating way, "all this will get us nowhere. To suspect my daughter of murder is too absurd. I am not afraid of such suspicions, but I am afraid that the man who could imagine such a thing as that could bring harm of other sorts to her. She is not unprotected, I'd have you know, and any dishonour cast upon her name will be duly dealt with."
"I am interested to know Mr. Carleton's or Mr. Farman's theories as to murder," Stone said, sauvely.
"Whoever or whatever did Corey Malden, his wife had no hand in it," Gaskell declared.
"You say that," Carleton said, "because Corey is—was your friend. He was my friend, too. I admired his wife—she is beautiful and clever. But that does not preclude wickedness. She—"
"She is entirely above and beyond suspicion," Stone said, slowly, "but that is not what frees her; she is free from any chance of having done evil because she couldn't have done it. How could she? What was her weapon? What became of it? Why would she kill a man she loved so dearly? Yes, we know of her love for him—you do not. We know her young, innocent girlish character—you do not. And moreover, we know that this dastardly hint of suspicion, ay, more than a hint, is the work of a malevolent old woman, a jealous, half-demented person, who hates without cause and accuses without reason. Incidentally, we know that you, Mr. Carleton, have joined issue with the unscrupulous Farman, and your game is to bring disaster to the stricken bride of the murdered man, and obtain from your helpless client ill-gotten gains for yourselves."
Part of the knowledge set forth by Stone in his quiet but forceful harangue was obtained from facts and hints brought to him by Bob, and the rest he had cleverly and truly deduced from what he had learned.
Stone saw that many of his shafts struck home. Yet he had learned nothing new. To be sure, Carleton's face exhibited an unwilling assent to all the darts the detective flung at the objectionable Madame Malden, but this got them nowhere.
"What's this about the elder Mrs. Malden taking cyanide into the room of her daughter-in-law?" he asked.
"I've heard nothing of any such doings," said Carleton, carelessly and untruthfully.
"Oh, I think you have. Be careful, Mr. Carleton; perjury is not a pretty trick. Surely, you heard of it."
"I mean I heard nothing that made me pay any attention to it. Merely the vaguest of rumours."
"Rumours to what effect?"
"Look here, Mr. Stone, I am not here to be quizzed by you. I am not here as a witness; I am here as co-executor of Corey Malden's will, and unless we get at that work and attend to it exclusively, I consider it unnecessary for me to stay here. I do not know why you are at this meeting, anyway. It is a meeting of the executors. Nor does Mr. Lovell belong here. But Mr. Garth should be here. It seems to me the gathering is irregular."
"It does seem so, doesn't it?" and Stone looked round the room. "Isn't it odd how often the wrong people get in the right places, and vice versa?"
"I do not intend it shall happen again. When will Mr. Garth be home?"
"He's not coming till about Christmas time," Tony replied.
"So, Mr. Carleton," Stone took up his quest again, "what were these rumours you were talking about?"
Carleton looked grave. "If we are to run this affair without Garth," he said, "we may as well go to it. Never mind rumours, let's get down to facts. I can tell you, gentlemen, that unless steps are taken to prevent it, you will find the young and innocent Mrs. Malden in serious trouble—even danger."
"Danger of what?" asked Stone.
"Of arrest for the murder of her husband."
"Do you know what you're talking about?"
"I certainly do, Mr. Stone. And so do you. The arrest is pending, I may say it is imminent."
"Who will bring this charge?" Stone was not frightened, but he was anxlious.
"Madame Malden, of course. She has a case, without any doubt. But as I told you, Farman is the lawyer, and he will be here in a few days."
"Will Mrs. Malden, senior, come?" Stone inquired.
"Sooner or later, if required. Not unless it is necessary."
"It will be necessary," and Stone's face wore a sombre look. "I'm sorry you've taken this step, Mr. Carleton; you will deeply regret it. When will the affair come off? Shall we wire the motor party to come back at once?"
"Oh, don't rush things so," cried Tony. "Carleton can't dictate. We must wait for word from Farman."
"Better be ready," Stone went on. "I think I'll send a night letter—"
"I object," and Gaskell scowled. "You can't go ahead like that, without agreement by all the executors."
"Let's adjourn till to-morrow," said Lovell, in his bland way, "and then see about it."
A small and exclusive and very delightful place to live is the village of Scottstown, not far east of Columbus, Ohio. As Perilla's motor party was about to start from Warren, Ohio, on Friday morning, Hilda somewhat timidly mentioned this fact.
"Why, that's where your sister lives, isn't it?" asked Perilla, "the one who married the Hayfield."
"Yes," and Hilda smiled. "You see," she said to the others, who were gathered on the hotel verandah, "my sister Rose married a man named Harry A. Field. As he usually signs it H. A. Field, of course he's called Hayfield. They live in Scottstown and their place is Rosecroft. Now, I'm wondering," she looked appealingly at Perilla, "If you wouldn't all spend to-night at Rosecroft instead of going to a Columbus hotel. I know Rosey could make you comfortable—she has lots of room—"
"And how will sister like a horde of Assyrians coming down like a wolf on the fold?" asked Garth, smiling at the impulsive invitation.
"Oh, she'll adore it! What do you say, Perilla?"
"I think it would be the most awful imposition, but if you guarantee us a welcome I'm ready to go if the others agree."
Hilda clapped her hands. "I'll go and ask Buckle to send some telegrams," and in ten minutes the whole affair was in Buckle's capable hands. Perilla asked Hilda to ride in the car with her, that they might talk it over, and Jack Dunstan and Roger Garth rode with them.
"You'll love the Fields," Dunstan said. "They never know what they're going to do next; we'd better telephone them in the afternoon, when we know about what time we'll arrive."
Telegrams from their enforced host and hostess were received en route, and were all glad hospitality and welcome. They were expected in time for a late dinner, they were told when they telephoned later. On the minute, they drove in at the great gates of Rosecroft, lovely in the gathering twilight.
Hayfield, a big man, and the embodiment of boisterous good nature, checked his merriment at the advent of Perilla. But she, never a spoilsport, met him halfway. Rosy, a blonde doll, pounced upon her sister, and sent the rest to their rooms under guidance of servants.
"Back to the lounge in twenty minutes," she told them. "Come in pyjamas, if you like, but don't waste time prinking." They obeyed her almost literally, and gathered for cocktails at the prescribed time.
The dinner was admirable, and of just the sort calculated to interest a lot of hungry motorists.
"Come on, girls," said Rosy, rising, "we'll have our coffee in peace by ourselves, and the men can come in when they are ready."
But before Perilla left the table, Hay said to her in a low voice, "Don't disappear until I see you again. I have a word for your ear alone."
She nodded and went on to the comfortable lounge where coffee awaited them in front of the blazing log fire.
When the men came in, Hay, going straight to Perilla, led her off to his own small den.
"You see, it's this way," he said, after he had made her comfortable and closed the door, "I never knew your husband, but it chances that two of his friends are my friends also. At least, they have already appeared to be. But I am beginning to doubt one of them."
"Do I know these two friends?" asked Perilla, fearful of what the answer might be.
"I think you do, but I'm not sure. One is Richard Carleton, who is, I think, in New York to-night, and the other is Roger Garth, who is here with you."
"I can understand the idea regarding Mr. Carleton. But we should be sure. Is he the one you are doubting?"
"Yes; there is also another. Do you know Mr. Carmichael?"
"Yes, I do. He was one of my husband's dearest friends."
"And I know nothing about him, personally. But I only want to warn you to be careful how you take up with men pretending to be friends of your late husband. They may be sincere, and they may not."
"Mr. Field, for the last week or more I have been continually warned against this man, that man and the other man. I am obliged for these warnings, I am willing to obey them, but what can I do? I have not been subjected to any disrespect or rudeness from them; how can I take steps to avoid them when they never come my way."
"Haven't you run up against Carleton?"
"No, I have never seen him except at his own house, the day we went there to a tea. Don't you think I am almost too watchfully taken care of?"
"You are in a dangerous position, and while you are in the hands of capable advisers, and assistants, they don't seem to get you anywhere."
"Where do I want to be got to?"
"Where you will be free from the slanders and lies of that poison-tongued old woman, Madame Malden."
"You really think she wants to annoy me, then?"
"Not only annoy you, but get you accused of your husband's murder, and then get you convicted."
"But why, why does she want to torment the girl who loved her son and whom her son loved?"
"That's just it. The old woman really believes you killed Corey. She is not making believe; she is in earnest. You must quash that lie, and if your lawyers can't accomplish it for you, then you must try other lawyers."
"Who told you all this? I expect to see Madame Malden on my return home and find out the exact truth about that woman."
"That's more like it! All I ask of you is ordinary precaution, and from those men the same."
"Do you know Madame Malden?"
"I have met her, but it was some time ago. She was sane then—I think she is sane now, except on the one subject of her son. It is not unheard of for an old woman like that to idolise an only child, and to read into the simplest conditions an intention to injure or kill him. She holds that as you were alone with him when he died, you were necessarily the cause of his death. Mrs. Malden, you can't altogether deny that appearance of evil."
"Don't you suppose I know it? Don't you suppose that's what's driving me mad! I know it better—far better than anyone else. Nor do I blame the old lady for believing it, if we grant she is a little demented. But sane, she couldn't act like that."
"Now, that's the real point. Can you honestly subscribe to that? For there are sane people ready to believe that your 'exclusive opportunity,' as it is called, brings about suspicion of you. Remember, the people in Richmond do not know you as we do—do not love you as we do—they only know that Corey married you—and Corey died."
Perilla raised a piteous face to look into Field's eyes.
"I can't help feeling," she said, "that I have enough to bear in the loss of my husband, without the terror of this monstrous accusation. But since it is in the air, it must be reckoned with. I thank you for telling me frankly, as you have done, the danger I am in, and I hope it may be averted. But I fear that cannot be, so long as Madame Malden is free to pursue her wicked ways. She has, too, an able assistant in that lawyer of hers, Mr. Farman, who is ready to swear black is white if she says so."
"Yes, I know. Now, here's what I want to tell you. Don't take this lying down. Buck up and fight fire with fire. You have able lawyers, Garth and Gaskell are wizards. And then you have the famous Mr. Stone; surely he will find out anything that seems to us mysterious. From what Hilda tells me of your father, I gather he's a fine backer, and if you hold your head high and show no fear of anybody, I'm sure all will be well."
"You're awfully kind, Mr. Field, and I do appreciate it. And truly, I've been keeping up a bold front, but in the last day or two I've felt disheartened. Now, your good advice will help me, I'm sure, and I shall do my best to follow it. I thought this trip would be a good thing for me, and take my mind off my troubles. But I almost wish I'd stayed at home."
"Now, now, don't feel like that. And don't call me Mr. Field. Why, my sister-in-law was your bridesmaid—that makes us related."
"So it does—Hay." And Perilla gave him one of her old time smiles. "Now, let's go back to the crowd."
"Well, for the love of little pancakes," cried Bob, who seemed to be patrolling the corridor, "I thought you'd never come out of conference."
"All over, Bobby, come along, this is our dance," and Perilla tucking her hand through his arm, led him to the lounge where some dancing was going on.
"Garth is hunting for you," he whispered as they danced, "but you can't go till this dance is over; you said it was mine, and it is."
"All right, but don't hold me so closely. I can't breathe!"
"I can't help it. Just to have you near me—and now, to hold you in my arms—oh, Perilla, do—do give me a grain of hope! Do say that after a long time—after a year, you'll let me tell you—"
"Stop it, Bob. If you talk like that, I won't let you talk to me at all, until after a year. Now, behave yourself. Take that look off your face and just grin,—no, a gayer grin—there, that's better. Now, take me over there by Rosey."
Bob managed to control himself and even to grin in the way ordered, and duly deposited Perilla by the side of her hostess.
"I've been having a session with your very nice husband," she said to Rosey, "and as I'm not sure I remembered my manners, you'll tell him I thank him lots for his good advice. He's a dear, and so you are. To let a wild horde descend on you and utilise your home—why it's unprecedented."
"My what a big word! I'd do anything to be unprecedented!"
"Well, you're it. Now I think soon we must be going upstairs. Sure you have room for us all?"
"Nonsense! I've loads of room. This place was built primarily as a guest house. Want to start now? Do plan to stop on your return trip. Hay, you look after the men."
About the time that members of Perilla's motor party turned out the lights for the night at Scottstown, Ohio, Fleming Stone and Tony Gaskell were waiting in New York City, in the Grand Central station. Waiting, to welcome unwelcome visitors, and looking none too pleased about it either.
That afternoon Tony had received a telegram that Madame Malden and the lawyer, Farman, would arrive at midnight, and that she would expect to be entertained by Mrs. Corey Malden, while the lawyer would put up at a hotel.
Mrs. Corey Malden being away from home, Tony asked the Lovells if they would receive Madame Malden, but at this Ellen Lovell rebelled.
"Take into my home the viper that slandered my daughter!" she exclaimed, "I should say not! Take her where you choose, Tony, ship her back to Richmond or send her to a lunatic asylum, but my doors shall never open to admit her!"
There had been no time to acquaint the would-be visitor with this change necessitated in her plans, so the men had to meet her with the news when the Southern train came in.
It was late, and they sat in taciturn silence until the passengers appeared in the station waiting-room. Tony went forward to greet Madame Malden and found she had brought with her a maid and a nurse, besides the pompous and self-important lawyer.
Stone was introduced. He informed them that Mrs. Corey Malden was away on a long motor trip, from which she would not return for several weeks. Madame Malden was extremely angry, and ranted and raved over Perilla's heartlessness in going on a pleasure trip so soon after the death of her husband.
"She had to go," Stone declared, "the doctor ordered her to seek some diversion, lest she be driven insane by your dreadful statements and insinuations. I am glad she is away, for she might feel it her duty to have you at her home."
"Hoity-toity, Mr. Man," she said, peering into his face with sharp, angry eyes. "Who are you who has so much to say?"
"I am engaged by Mrs. Malden to look after her interests. Now, if you will select a hotel, I will send you there, and to-morrow morning I will meet Mr. Farman and have a conference."
"Send me there, indeed! I am not accustomed to being sent to places. As you are looking after Perilla's affairs, you will take me there, and see that I am comfortably taken care of. I do not know your hotels; I wish to go to one of the best."
Stone decided he wanted to go with her anyway, and piloted his charges to the New Nickerbocker. Farman took rooms there, too, and Stone invited them to have a little supper with him.
Under the influence of a little contraband stimulant and with some delicate dishes, Madame Malden seemed to warm toward the detective and soon was chatting pleasantly with him. He found out several things he wanted to know, one being that Madame Malden had no intention of going back home at once, even though Perilla was not in the city. Nor did she intend to stay at an expensive hotel.
"Since my daughter-in-law is not at home," she said, "to-morrow I shall go to stay with Mrs. Lovell. She, of course, takes Perilla's place."
With an unmoved countenance. Tony listened to hear how Stone would get out of this awkward moment. But Stone merely said, carelessly:
"No, Mrs. Lovell cannot have you. In fact, she does not want you. She deeply resents your attitude towards Perilla and she doesn't care to entertain you. You will pardon my speaking so plainly, but if you are staying in New York, I think it better that we understand each other."
"You certainly make yourself easy to understand," said the old lady, dryly. "Naturally, I am no more interested in Mrs. Lovell than she is in me, but for family reasons we must be civil."
"What are your plans, as to legal proceedings?" asked Tony, who could suppress his curiosity no longer.
"I think we must let such questions wait over until to-morrow," said Farman, not unreasonably. "Madame is weary, and we are all tired from a long train ride."
Stone agreed to this, and after making an appointment to meet, he and Tony said good night and went home. Tony was staying at a hotel, declining to make use of Stone's hospitality any longer, though Stone had never failed in cordiality.
Stone was awakened the next morning by the entrance of his man, bringing a telegram. His heart grew chill as he read it:
"Bob Coles died during the night. Mysterious
conditions. Come at once or as soon as possible. Use own judgment
about letting Lovells know. Perhaps she will go to see Mrs. Coles.
Perilla well, but everybody shocked beyond words. No plans till you
Stone telephoned an order for an aeroplane, had a light breakfast and, hastening to the aerodrome, was soon on his sky trip to Scottstown.
* * * * * * * *
If Corey Malden's death was strange and mysterious, Bob Coles' taking off was even more so.
Everybody at Rosecroft had gathered for an early breakfast, with one exception. Bob's place was vacant, and after a time Rosy sent the waitress up to knock on his third-floor door. But the maid returned, saying she had no answer.
"Buckle is in the hall; send him up," said Perilla. Buckle returned in a few moments, saying: "I got no answer and no sound from the room at all. The door is locked on the inside."
"I'll go," said Hay, rising from his place. "Come on, Buckle."
The two went upstairs together, and Hay banged on the door. There was no result, and Hay began to look anxious. "Shall we break down the door?" he said, doubtfully.
"How about a window, Mr. Field? Or is there any other door,"
"No other door, and I doubt if you can get in by a window. They all have patent fastenings that can be regulated at any width of the opening, but they can't be manipulated from the outside."
Buckle suggested a ladder and breaking a window instead of smashing the door. He found Mike, the Field's chauffeur, who said there was no ladder long enough.
"And those doors lock on the inside," went on Mike, "and we can't get at them from the hall. Not a key, you know; a snap lock that turns on the inside."
"All right, then," said Buckle, "we'd better go back and report to Mr. Field."
"All right," said Hay. "Can't you cut out the whole lock, Mike?"
"Yes, sir, I'll get some tools."
Mike made short work of his job. When the door swung open they saw a dark, tousled head on the pillow, with the bedclothing drawn close up round the neck. Buckle stepped to the bed, and said loudly, "Come, Mr. Coles, you'll be late."
There was no reply, and Buckle, going closer, laid a hand on Bob's forehead. He looked at Field significantly. Hay went to the bed, and pulling down the blanket, looked at the still form, and felt for the heart and pulse.
"The boy is dead," he said, turning back to Buckle. "What does it mean? He was locked in here alone—"
"Then he wasn't murdered, if that's what you're thinking. And nobody could get through those windows!"
The windows, there were two, were each open about six inches at the top, admitting air, yet giving no possibility for the entrance of a human being. And they were immovable, owing to the efficacy of the patent fastenings.
"Don't touch anything," said the capable Buckle. "Maybe it's all right, and maybe it isn't. No doubt Mrs. Malden will take her party right back home. I'd better go and report this to her. Lord, what an awful thing!"
"But, Buckle, it can't be foul play, you know—"
"No, Mr. Field, we don't know that. But the people downstairs must be told—at once. Mr. Garth will know just what to do; he's a lawyer, and he's a wise one. Poor young fellow; Mr. Coles was a nice chap."
"Yes, I liked him. We can't lock this door, Mike, so you'll have to stand by and keep guard. You'll be relieved as soon as the police get here."
"Why the police?" queried Buckle. "But we ought to call a doctor at once."
"You're right," said Hay. "Will you look after it?"
Buckle went into the dining room, and going straight to Perilla, said, "I have to tell, you, Madame, that Mr. Coles passed away in his sleep."
"Yes, we found him dead in his bed. I am at your orders, but I think the first necessity is to call in a doctor."
"Wait, Buckle. You're sure he is dead?"
"Yes, Mrs. Malden, I am sure."
"Then a few moments' delay can do no harm. Send a telegram, first of all, to Mr. Stone, asking him to come as soon as he can. Wait, I will write it." Perilla scribbled her message. "There, get that off, and then call a doctor. Or will you do that, Rosy?"
"I'll do it," said Hilda, and jumped up and went to the telephone.
"Don't say much," advised Perilla. "Just ask him to come immediately, as the case is urgent."
When Hilda returned all listened while Buckle told all there was to tell.
"Heart trouble, I suppose," said Malcolm. "They say every other person has it."
But Perilla shook her head. She knew how free from heart trouble Corey was, and how he slipped away from her. And now Bob! She could scarcely believe it. Though intensely sorry for him, and for his mother, too, there was not the poignant grief of Corey's death, and Perilla felt strong to cope with this new tragedy.
Hilda said Dr. Crane would be over at once. Perilla had been silent, and it was evidence from what she next said that she considered it important.
"I want to ask," Perilla said, "that whatever the doctor may say, we do not call the police in until after Mr. Stone gets here. As you doubtless know, he is the most celebrated detective in America. I want him to investigate Bob's death, whether it is a natural death or a suicide or a murder. Dr. Crane will give his opinion, of course, but if except for him, we can keep the room untouched, it will be of immense assistance to Mr. Stone. I'm not knocking your police force, Hay, but since Mr. Stone is at present employed by me, I feel justified in asking this favour for him."
"Oh, that's all right, Perilla," Field returned. "Our force is nothing to brag of. A sheriff, and whatever goes along with that. Our big cases are taken care of in Columbus."
"That's all very well, but I'm sure we must all get back to New York, and have the matter investigated at that end.
"You're turning back, then, Madame?" asked Buckle.
"Oh, yes, we must," said Perilla, quickly. "I'm sorry, Rosy, but we shall probably have to stay here another night, and then go back home."
"Oh, Perilla, dear, the house is yours for as long as we can be of service to you. Here's the doctor."
Dr. Crane, verging on the elderly, said he would go upstairs at once to see the body. But first he asked a few random questions of the crowd now gathered in the lounge.
"How old was the young man?" he asked.
"Between twenty-three and twenty-four," answered Perilla.
"Have you known him long?"
"No, but he was my brother's friend, and often was at the house."
"Did he seem to you like one who would commit suicide?"
"Good heavens, no! The last one I should suspect! Bob was too fond of life."
After Field left with the medical man, Perilla said to Garth, "What do you think, Roger?"
"Not enough data to work on yet," Garth returned. "It seems like a natural death. I hope it will prove to be something of that sort; we don't want any more tragic deaths. I hope we can keep the way clear for Fleming Stone. He ought to get here about noon or soon after."
"But if Dr. Crane orders us to have the police in at once, we must do it."
They waited mostly in silence for the doctor. When he came down his face was very grave.
"It's a queer thing," he said, "but I find no sign of any heart weakness, yet there is no sign of anything else. There was actually nothing the matter with that lad: he was sound from head to foot."
"Well, then?" Malcolm spoke a little sharply.
"Then, I don't know what to say. It is too much for me. I'm no detective and if I were, I doubt if I could solve this puzzle."
"Even considering outside possibilities." said Field, "he couldn't have been shot. There is no weapon of any sort in the room."
"Then," said Garth, "it is one of those 'locked room' problems so frequent in the detective stories."
"It's all of that," said Hay, "and then some. I wonder what Mr. Stone will make of it. You see, Bob went upstairs with the rest of us. I showed him to his room myself, showed him how to work the windows—they're a trifle complicated—showed him the snap lock and the key lock, and then I left him."
"We have to agree with Dr. Crane that it must have been a natural death, brought about by an unsuspected weakness of the heart. He died alone, and, presumably, while asleep. What else could it be but heart failure? He certainly had no enemies here, and no one could get in at these windows, either of them, nor could he get out again. A long ladder would have been needed, and even then, a man could not get through those narrow openings."
"Exactly five inches, sir," said the meticulous Buckle.
"Well Dr. Crane, what do you say? May we wait a while for Fleming Stone, or must we call the police at once?"
"Well; it's this way, Mr. Field." The old man shook his head slowly. "I've been coroner here a long time. I've never gone back on my duty yet, and I guess I can't begin now. But I can tell you there won't be such a lot of time, after all. It's getting on for ten or eleven o'clock now, and while the sheriff may mosey along sooner, the police from Columbus won't arrive before late afternoon or so. Mebbe your Mr. Stone will even get here first. See what I mean? I'll call 'em and they'll come when they get ready, and they don't work so everlastin' fast, anyhow."
"That's all right, doctor," said Perilla, catching on to the fact that the old man had no intention of hustling the strong arm of the law.
The day was a strange one. Twice they had word from Stone and his plane that he would arrive probably about four or five in the afternoon. Perilla and Jane went off together to write letters home and to Bob's mother, the latter, of course, being a heartbreaking task. Early in the afternoon the sheriff, John Gillmore, came. Field took him in charge, and after showing him the body and giving him the main facts, said, "Do you know, I think it would be better all round to shut up that room until Fleming Stone, the famous detective, gets here. You know, he's going to help us. Then you and he start on your work together."
"I agree," and Sheriff Gillmore beamed. "I'd like to see him work. That is, if the police don't get here first. If they do I'll string along with them." Hay nodded, and left Gillmore to his own devices.
Shortly after, Stone came, and at once took possession of Bob's room.
"One o' them locked room puzzles, hey, Mr. Stone?" and Gillmore almost chuckled at the thought of what a treat this would be to the detective.
"Yes, Sheriff," said Stone. "What's your opinion?"
"Suicide, sir, nothin' but suicide. Why, it couldn't be anything else. Could it now?"
"Well, that we'll have to puzzle out. I wonder if I could be here all alone for a little. Leave me to myself, will you? I won't, be long. Oh, by the way, is Dr. Crane still here? Good, send him up. And say, Sheriff, like a good chap, keep everybody else downstairs, won't you? Except young Fairfax—send him up here."
Scarcely realising that he was being excluded, Gillmore did as he was bid. Dr. Crane came ponderously up the stairs, and Malcolm impatiently followed.
"Now, Dr. Crane," Stone began, “let's get quick action here. You agree this is a murder?"
"No, sir. I do not. It is a clear case of suicide."
"You decline to consider other possibilities?"
"Ain't no other possibilities. Can't be murder—no way for the criminal to get in or out. Can't be natural death, subject too well and strong. Gotta be poison, even if we haven't found the container—yet."
"Logical enough, doctor, but you'll admit there had to be a container, and since we find none, we can't go on with the suicide theory."
"Oh, I guess we can. Let's leave the container for the time bein'."
"Very well, that point will keep. Now, as a medical man, what poison will allow its victim to swallow it and then have time enough to undress and go to bed calmly, and pull up the covers and die quietly, and no fuss about it?"
From the corner of his eye, Stone could see the doctor begin to look embarrassed.
"There's lots of poisons," he said, "that don't act right straight off the minute you take 'em."
"True," Stone agreed, "but those poisons, when they do act, draw the victim up into spasms and writhing contortions."
"You're up on poisons, I see," and the doctor scowled.
"Not so much as you are, not as much as I'd like to be; that's why I want your knowledge and skill. How far does your experience carry you? Do you know much about the rarer poisons?"
"Not so very much, Mr. Stone," and Dr. Crane made his admission frankly if a bit unwillingly.
"If Bob was killed by one of those little known drugs that always crop up in the story books," Malcolm put in, "then it's no suicide. Where could he get a thing of that sort? That argues for murder, eh, Mr. Stone?"
"And the motive?" Stone looked thoughtful. As to clues, he looked about Bob's room. "Nothing has been touched. What do we read? Only that Coles came up to his room last night somewhat hastily undressed and tumbled into bed and fell asleep at once. He never woke, not even when the murderer came to his bedside with the deadly draught—if that was the way it was done."
"How else could it have been done?" asked Malcolm.
"It might have been administered by a hypodermic needle. In that case a tiny puncture should show."
"That will be discovered at the autopsy," said Crane, rather pompously, "I will attend to that."
"Poor old Bob," said Malcolm, "he was so happy to be working with you, Mr. Stone."
"He had the instincts of a detective." Stone paused, then said, "I wonder why was he so terribly tired and sleepy that he tumbled into bed."
"How do you know he did do that?"
"By the way he left things. His clothes are properly folded, but not meticulously so. I know his ways, you see. He did not take a tub bath; the bath soap still has its paper jacket on. At home I heard Bob splashing in his tub every night."
"Just lack of time, I think," Malcolm answered. "We had to hurry to change for dinner last night."
"I know, but that doesn't explain his haste to go to bed, later, and to omit his bath!"
"No," said Malcolm, "it is queer."
Just then, Field entered with the police. A big, burly detective looked anything but pleased to see Fleming Stone. The medical examiner followed.
"Here you are, Dr. Merritt," said Field. "Let me introduce Fleming Stone."
Dr. Merritt, the Medical Examiner from the city, was a man of few words. He flung the bedclothes off the dead man, and made a few preliminary tests.
"Died about two or three o'clock this morning," he declared. "Can't tell nearer until we have an autopsy. Better get to the morgue right away and hold the post-mortem soon as possible."
"Wait a minute," said Stone; "what killed him, doctor?"
"You people been here all day, and haven't found that out? Why, somebody had it in for him, and came up here and killed him. Then said person undressed him and put him to bed, went out, pulled the spring-locking door shut after him, and there you are."
"What did he kill him with?" persisted Stone.
"Poison, I suppose, as we find no signs of shooting or stabbing. Yet we may find those things when we get around to a real examination. Stebbins, you call up the morgue and let's get started."
"You don't agree to a natural death, then?" Stone looked straight at him. "Well, I'm glad you're to have an autopsy; I'm curious about some points. And I certainly want to be present."
"You may, of course. Are you a medical man, Mr. Stone?"
"Not quite that, but my calling brings me up against medical matter more or less, and I can't help learning a bit here and there."
"I see. And are you looking for anything definite as a result of the post mortem?"
"Well, yes, I think I may say I am. That is, I'm looking for corroboration."
"Of your own theories?"
"Of my own deductions. I have small use for theories in a murder case."
"I see. I suppose, now, Mr. Stone, you know who did this murder?"
"Yes, I suppose I do."
"And you know the motive?"
"Oh, that; of course."
"And the method used?"
"I think so; but that must be corroborated by the results of the autopsy."
Dr. Merritt's eyes had grown larger and rounder as this conversation went on; but these three statements were more than he could swallow. Sarcasm crept into his voice. "Then, sir, if you know the murderer, the motive, and the method why not divulge your secrets and let us make an arrest?"
"Proof, my dear sir; proof is lacking. My deductions and conclusions are so improbable, so difficult of belief, that I dare not declare them until I can merge them into one perfect statement, and prove it. If the autopsy carries out my beliefs, positively, I will explain. I don't mean to be mysterious. That sort of thing is silly. But I can't risk spoiling my discoveries by handing them out half-baked. You must see that for yourself."
"I see." Stone knew he would say that, even though he saw nothing whatever. "I'll get over to the morgue now," Merritt added. "You come along in about an hour."
When Stone went down the street to the morgue, he was admitted to the operating room. Without seeming to give orders, he issued explicit directions about the care of the remains, and made sure his advices would be carried out.
Photographs and X-rays were made, and much minutiae was listed. At last the unpleasant task was over, and full results promised by late evening. Fleming Stone looked perplexed, but Dr. Merritt seemed satisfied. "I told you so," he said. "Nothing to hint at poison of any sort."
The doctor had told him nothing of the sort, but he had no wish to rouse a controversy.
The sheriff had been persuaded not to order an inquest.
"You see," Stone said to him, "it isn't a case for a coroner at all. Both Dr. Crane and the Medical Examiner report that nothing was learned or discovered at the autopsy which pointed to anything but death from natural causes. They have both given certificates to this effect. Therefore, sheriff, you have no crime, no criminal, and no victim."
This somewhat garbled statement had the desired effect, owing, doubtless, to its source. Fleming Stone had no intent, of wrongdoing; oh the contrary, he was working, and rather rapidly, toward his own ends. He wanted to get back to New York, where he felt he had his work cut out for him.
He sought out Perilla, and had a talk with her. Malcolm was with her, and Garth. It seemed to Stone Garth was always with her, but that was none of his business.
"You want to go home?" he asked the girl.
"Just tell me when we can start."
"We are sending Bob's body on in charge of Fairfax," Stone went on, "and I assume you'll want to go by train. All of you?"
"I shall go by train, of course," said Perilla. "Mr. Stone, I hope you'll go with me, and the rest of you can go as you prefer."
The train was faster, and Perilla felt she had much to attend to. Stone, too, felt he was nearing the light at the end of the tunnel, and though he couldn't see it all clear himself as yet, he was ready to get to work on what promised to be the greatest case of his career.
For no definite reason Stone had wanted another look at Bob's room, so he went up to the third floor again. He found that it had been so thoroughly cleaned and set in order by the servants, that no sign of a clue or bit of evidence could be expected.
Then he saw Bob's luggage, a suitcase and a smaller bag. He found nothing of interest in the suitcase, and was about to close the bag, too, when he saw a small packet of letters or papers. These he extracted and thrust into his own pocket.
On his way downstairs he met Perilla and Garth. Perilla cast a troubled glance at Stone, and he paused by her side.
"Ready for my report, Mrs. Malden?" he asked. "I don't believe I can make it any fuller to-night."
"Yes, glad to hear it at any time," and with a calm smile, she dismissed Garth and walked away with Fleming Stone.
He led her to a little reception room, and closed the door.
"It is not exactly that I want to make a report," Stone began, "but I want to ask you some questions. Some serious questions, which will, perhaps, offend you. Of that I must take the chance, but even if annoyed with me, trust you will answer them."
"I certainly shall, Mr. Stone, to the best of my ability. I am beginning to feel uneasy about that Farman man and Madame Malden. I've tried to throw it off and ignore it, but since Bob's death I'm filled with vague fears."
"Coles was in love with you?"
"Yes, he has said so for a long time. He made a slightly unpleasant scene on our wedding day, as you know, but he was so nice about it afterward, we forgave him. I never encouraged him in any way, but he persisted in telling me how much he cared for me. As he was my brother's friend, I couldn't shake him entirely, and, as I say, he has been different of late. On this trip, he was charming, and I really liked him."
"Did anybody notice this? I mean, did any one take it for granted, perhaps, that you were beginning to turn to Coles, in a serious way?"
"Oh, no, how could any one think such a thing of me, when Corey so lately died?"
"But think again. Couldn't someone notice your rising interest in Bob and be disturbed at it?"
"It's absurd to pretend to misunderstand you. Of course, you mean Roger Garth—don't you?"
"Well, then, since you want plain speaking, that man also professes to care for me. But you must not take these things too seriously."
"It may be they need to be taken in a serious way. You know, of course, that a large proportion of the murders that are done have love for their motive."
"Not real love, you mean a sort of jealousy or desire for possession."
"Yes, that is just what I do mean. Now, two of the men who loved you have been killed in the strangest, most inexplicable fashion."
"But you can't assume any connection between Corey's death and Bob's!"
"Perhaps not a connection, but may they not have been done by the same person?"
"Answer that question yourself. Who wants you so desperately that he would commit murder to get you?"
"How utterly absurd! No one does."
"You know better than that, Mrs. Malden. Can you not think of one?"
"I suppose you mean Mr. Garth. But it's too ridiculous! Do you mean that he killed Corey, in order that he might marry me? And that he then killed Bob Coles, because he, too, was fond of me?"
"Something like that."
Stone spoke gravely, but Perilla heard the ring of conviction in his voice.
"But," she went on, greatly puzzled, "how could it be done? How could Bob have been murdered? I don't believe that for a moment."
"What do you believe?"
"I believe it was a natural death—"
"What! After your other experience? Do you believe Mr. Malden died a natural death?"
"No, I can't believe that."
"Then the circumstances are the same. Since, of course, you didn't kill your husband, it was the same as if he had been in a room alone when he died, as Coles was."
"I don't follow. Just what are you getting at?"
"That if a murderer commits a second crime, he is very likely to use the same method he did in the first instance."
"And you're imagining somebody killed both Corey and Bob, and by the same means!"
"I am considering such a possibility. This is not a case of clues and evidence and testimony; it is a subtle crime, planned with a diabolical cleverness. It has succeeded so far, it may go further. But if there is another murder, it will be by the same method as these two."
"But these two deaths weren't alike," said Perilla. "With Mr. Malden there were three people—myself, my maid, and the chauffeur. They, were not in the room, as I was, but well—how do you theorise the thing was done? You must have a notion how those murders could have been accomplished, no matter how improbable."
"Of course I have," replied Stone, "but my belief is not only so improbable, but so unbelievable, that I can't suggest it until I get a little more proof."
"Look here, Mr. Stone, that room where Bob died was unenterable, wasn't it?"
"You don't read many detective stories, do you?"
"I so seldom find a good one. I don't care for gangster yarns and that sort of thing, but I do like a well thought out problem."
"One of the favourite plots of the detective story writers is the so-called 'hermetically sealed room.' This has been used over and over again, and I confess it always has a charm for me. You know the formula. The expected man does not appear at breakfast, or whenever he is looked for. Servants are sent to his room, but fail to get a response. Then they break in. The victim is found dead in his room, to which there is no possibility of access."
"Just like Bob!"
"Yes. Now, if you've read many, you'll know these stories are always solved in a possible, plausible, interesting way. An experienced reader can usually tell what that way will be, for there are only about a half dozen of them in all. Doubtless this type of plot first appeared in Zangwill's 'Big Bow Mystery.' A corking story, only second to 'Trent's Last Case.' Well, in this tale of Zangwill's all the solutions are suggested and tried out. One, of course, is the right one. I am not sure it is the best one or the most likely one, but it is vastly entertaining. However, the point I am making is that if there are so many possible ways in fiction of solving a mystery of a sealed room, there must be the same ways in real life, and we cannot say any room is unenterable."
"Then you've only to see which method suits the case of Bob Coles to know how his murder—if it is murder—was accomplished—and, can you explain Corey's death?"
"Well, Mrs. Malden, here's just the trouble. Of those six, and perhaps more methods of getting into the sealed room, not one fits the fact of our problems. Each method, though clever in itself, is lacking in some element necessary to fit it to our two cases."
"You will tell me about those different ways of getting into the room?"
"Yes, I will, at the first opportunity,"
Perilla went off with Rosy to the lounge, and found Hilda waiting for her with the news that she had concluded not to go back with her to New York.
"You don't entirely know just what you're up against now," Hilda said, "and if things should clear up and get more serene, I could come along at any time, and stay as long as you'll have me."
"It would be better, Hilda," and Perilla really felt relieved at the new plan. "You see, the Fairy Godmother, Madame Malden, so Mr. Stone informs me, is there waiting for me, and I shall have to play up to her more or less. Well, let's all try to be entertaining now."
But it was hard sledding. Bridge was tried, but the interest was slight. They danced a few turns, but Perilla said she couldn't stand it. She excused herself, and went off to her own room. Rosy followed her, and the two had a little bedtime chat.
"I don't know, Rosy dear," Perilla said, in answer to questions. "I am not exactly afraid, but I have a vague feeling of fear that things will happen. I dislike that whole Washington and Richmond element, though I don't know why I should. I feel so alone without Corey. Mr. Stone is doing all he can, and Mr. Garth is kindness itself. Tony Gaskell, too, is a dear friend, and Malcolm is always a brick. Yet I feel as if I were alone in a dark forest and all unable to find my way out."
"Well, do brace up, dear. You certainly have enough friends and helpers."
The next day Perilla's party found themselves en route for New York City. Perilla and Jane Latimer had a drawing room in one car and Stone and Garth had each a compartment in the next car. They all went together to the dining car for luncheon, and afterward Perilla said, "Won't you come to my drawing room and try a rubber or two of contract?"
They did, and though a trifle overcrowded, it was pleasanter than to go to the club car to play. After three rubbers Perilla said, "I wish we had arranged to return by plane. I want to get home and see how things are. When will you be over to New York, Roger?"
"As soon as you want or need me, dear. I have to attend to some few quick action matters, and then I'll come along."
Stone watched the speaker from the corner of his eye. Not so much the words as the tone in which they were uttered surprised him. He hadn't heard Garth speak to Perilla before with quite that note of affection.
Could he be a murderer? That fine looking man with the calm, serene countenance—no, it was too ridiculous. But these two baffling deaths must be explained whether the explanation were ridiculous or not.
Garth, did look like the type of man whose deep emotions are concealed, but ready to break out on occasion. Suppose he had been so desperately in love with Perilla that he killed Corey to get her, and then fearing a rival in Bob, he killed him, too.
But it was unthinkable.
Stone had said he knew the criminal, but he couldn't be sure. How could one be sure when there was nothing to be sure of? And yet, he had watched Garth closely all through this trip, and he felt there was something wrong about him. Something secret and sinister. But so vague and elusive it could not be put into words.
Nor had he been able to get an opportunity for a long talk alone with the other. Several times he had tried and failed. He had wanted to sound him about his views on the Washington situation and as to his views on crime generally, but Garth, without seeming to evade the detective, prevented any such occasions.
As the train drew into the station at New York, Perilla felt a deeper premonition of impending trouble.
She had schooled herself to the presence of Madame Malden in her home, for Corey's mother must always receive her best attention, but it seemed to her tortured mind that the presence here of Farman, the lawyer, was more than she could bear up under. And why should he be entertained there, anyway? Let him go to some hotel—
She was roused from her thoughts by the voice of Tony Gaskell, who piloted her out to his waiting car. Malcolm was there, too, already welcoming Jane.
Fleming Stone and Garth said goodbye for the present and went their ways, as the quartette started towards Perilla's home.
"Take me right home, Mal," she asked, "but, Tony, you take Jane around to see mother; she'll be hungry for news."
"I'm certainly going with you," said Malcolm. "I want to protect you from the old 'un."
"Yes, send Tony along with me," said Jane, laughing. "You don't want too many breaking in on the Dowager Duchess."
When Perilla entered her apartment the sour-faced creature esconced on a "love-seat" favoured her daughter-in-law with a baleful glance, and seemed to shrink from her as the girl came forward. But Perilla bravely put forth a welcoming hand, which the old lady ignored.
"Well," she said, biting off her words, "so you're up to your tricks again. I suppose you killed off that poor young man, for reasons of your own, just as you killed my son."
Perilla drew herself up with a new dignity.
"Madame Malden," she said, "you shall not remain under my roof and talk to me like that. I am in my own home now, not yours, and I forbid any remarks or hints suggesting that I would harm the man I loved. One more such speech, and I shall have you removed, forcibly, if necessary."
"Hoily toity," almost screamed the dame. "Who are you to dictate what I shall say or leave unsaid?"
"I am the woman your son loved enough to make his wife, and as his widow I shall protect his memory, even from his own mother."
"Fine talk!" said the old lady, "very fine talk, but you must know there's another side to that story. Where's Farman. Farman! where are you?"
The lawyer, who must have been within hearing distance, came into the room sheepishly. Like all bullies, Farman was a coward, and he began to be afraid of this new Perilla. Still wearing her hat and furs, she stood facing Madame Malden, and her attitude, as Malcolm said afterwards, was "terrible as an army with banners."
"What are you doing here, Mr. Farman?" Perilla asked scornfully. "Is it your habit to settle down in houses where you are not invited?"
"He is invited," Madame Malden squealed. "I invited him myself. This is my son's house, and as such I am mistress here."
"No," said Perilla quietly, "no Madame Malden, you are not mistress here. Any more than I am mistress of your house. And unless you make yourself more possible, you cannot stay here."
"You may not be staying here yourself, Mrs. Malden," said Farman, his little eyes glaring at Perilla. "You may find yourself in that building that New York boasts, with an unbeautiful name, The Tombs."
"And you may find yourself in prison for that very speech," cried Malcolm, angered beyond caution. "Shall I put him out, Perilla?"
"Yes. Ring that second bell for Dillon."
"Don't trouble," said Farman, striving to be sarcastic, but only succeeding in showing fear. "I'm only too glad to go, anyway. You see, Madame Malden, I can't stay here."
"You're right, you can't," and Malcolm took him by the arm and put him through the door into the hall. "You'll be out of this house in fifteen minutes, or I'll know the reason why."
Farman, really glad to get away from conditions that seemed to be getting more formidable, basely deserted his employer and fled.
"Pril, you'd have a plate put on my door, like a memorial room in a hospital, you know. And let no one use them unless you say so."
"I don't think they'll be used again by an interloper. Now, Madame Malden, do you want to stay here, on condition that you behave with common decency, or do you want to go elsewhere for your stay in New York?"
"Here I am, and here I shall stay! Don't think you've heard the last of this matter!"
"No, I didn't think that," and Perilla spoke soberly. "But why do you hold these stupid opinions? You know I didn't kill Corey, and you know I didn't kill Bob Coles. Why should I?"
The old woman glared at her, having no definite answer.
"Oho," said Malcolm, "so you're taking that tack again, are you? I see by the fire in your eye that your dementia is coming on again. Well, we have good asylums in New York, and it is easy here to slip patients in. As I told you in Richmond on another occasion, I'll see that you have a good room, and careful attendance."
Something in Malcolm's meaning glance frightened his hearer, and she began to whimper, like a tired child.
"Go away, Mal," said Perilla to her brother; "leave her to me for a while. Perhaps it will help."
Malcolm left the room, and Perilla turned a sweet, sad face to the old lady.
"Dear Mother Malden," she said, using the term for the first time, "can't we learn to love each other? Can't you believe—you must believe that I loved Corey, just as you did. That we looked forward to a happy life together, shared now and then by your presence; you know—you must know that I would have given my life for him, had that been called for. This odd notion of yours that I could or would harm him is a thought put into your brain by some evil chance, and you must get rid of it. We both loved our darling." Perilla dropped to her knses beside the other. "Now that he is gone, let us give that love to one another."
The girl's voice was vibrant with truth and sincerity, and for a moment the old woman gazed at her as if she meant to accede to her plea. But at that moment Farman appeared in the doorway, a black frown on his face.
"I am leaving," he said tersely, "but I will come here as often as I choose. A lawyer may visit his client at will. And after your treatment of me, Mrs. Malden, I may as well inform you that I will have no mercy on you. I will immediately take steps to have you accused of your husband's death. The evidence is so definite, so overwhelming, that you cannot escape arrest, trial and conviction. So be prepared for these things."
Malcolm, following, spoke sternly. "I suppose you know you are putting yourself in grave danger. You will find New York investigation more drastic than in your home town. You will find that your legal knowledge will not go far pitted against our great criminal lawyers. You will be adjudged the criminal, charged with malicious slander against this young woman, who, it can be proved a thousand times; had no thought toward her husband but that of loving affection."
"Well, we'll see about all that," said Farman, with his ugly leer. "But just realise, young Mr. Fairfax, your sister is in desperate straits, and she will soon come to recognise that the way of the transgressor is hard."
"What have I done?" cried Perilla piteously. "Why are you so cruel to me?"
And then Madame Malden tuned up again. Afterward Perilla always said that it was only Farman's arrival at that critical moment that kept the old lady from succumbing to Perilla's plea for reconciliation and frustrated her hopes of peace in the family.
"What have you done?" the termagant screamed. "You killed my boy—my Corey—"
"Hush that," said Malcolm, striding towards her. "Hush that, or you'll find that this talk of lunatic asylums is real and not just make-believe. An expert brain doctor would send you to a retreat as soon as he had given you the once-over, and, by Jove, it would be a good thing all round. I believe I'll send at once for a specialist."
As always Madame Malden began to quiver and shrink at this, for Malcolm's tone denoted a firm intent.
And Malcolm was frightened. He well know, however absurd it was to suspect Perilla of crime, the mere mention of such a possibility would stir up trouble, which would radiate in many directions. He tried a new argument.
"Do you know Fleming Stone is on this case?" he demanded. "You needn't think you can buck up against a man like that. Why, he'll turn your silly Farman inside out, once he gets at him. You'll see. He'll have that oily flathead in gaol before he knows what's happened to him. And then, Madame Malden, what are you going to do, without a friend to help you? I mean a learned friend, a man of legal attainments and knowledge. You will be glad to fall back on Perilla's kindness, but I'm not sure even her kindness will survive forever the shocks you are giving it."
"I'm not afraid," and the old lady tossed her gray head. "Perilla tried just now to pull the wool over my eyes. She thought she could get around me with her sweet smiles and honeyed words. But she didn't work it," and the old dame's smile was like that of a doddering imbecile.
"It would have been better for you if she had," Malcolm returned. "Hello, here comes Stone. Now Madame, sit up and take notice."
Fleming Stone came in calmly, acknowledged his introduction to Madame Malden conventionally, and then proceeded to ignore her.
He talked animatedly to Perilla and Malcolm, mostly about things the ancient dame did not understand, or couldn't quite make out.
At last, unable to stand it longer, she said: "Everybody seems to be forgetting my presence."
"I beg your pardon." Stone said, directly, "did you wish to say something?"
Taken thus, she made no immediate response, and all waited for her to speak.
"What is it you wish to say, Madame?" and Stone looked his impatience.
"No—nothing in particular—" she stammered.
"Then don't interrupt. Leave the matter in the hands of those who have something to say."
"Who are you, to dictate to me? I am not accustomed to being ordered about."
"I am Fleming Stone, and I am investigating the strange death of your son. If you prefer, you may leave the room during our conference."
"No, I prefer to stay."
"Then you will answer question the same as the others do. What is your reason for daring to hint that the beloved wife of your son had a hand in his tragic death?"
"Reason enough! She was alone with him in a room, and he dropped dead at her feet. My son was sound in wind and limb, and never would he have died suddenly like that unless he had been poisoned or, in some way, killed by that woman."
"And why would his wife want to kill him?"
"To get his fortune, and then marry someone else, which is just what she is planning to do now."
Perilla looked her horror at this speech, but said nothing. She began to feel as if a net were closing in about her, a dreadful net, which would envelop her in its meshes until she was unable to escape. She began to feel that the awful old woman who faced her was a harpy or a witch of some sort, who was ready to bring down all sorts of misery on her head. For the first time she felt afraid of Madame Malden, who was capable of twisting the truth into falsehood, and making white appear black.
Not a shred of guilt was attributable to Perilla, she had looked at no man with the slightest degree of personal interest since the loss of her loved husband, but she knew, only too well, that men had looked at her with more than mere interest.
Roger Garth, she knew, was in love with her; Bob Coles had been, too. Tony Gaskell had said little, but his looks and actions had told her of his feelings toward her.
None of these things had impressed her deeply until now, when this old woman's word gave her a sudden shock. "How absurd," she said, quietly. "I beg of you, Madame Malden, do not talk such nonsense. I have quite enough on my mind as it is, without listening to your absurdities."
"You won't think it is absurd, my lady, when you find yourself under arrest."
"And you won't think it so absurd when you find yourself in a padded cell!"
Fleming Stone said this, taking a leaf out of Malcolm's book. Then, peremptorily, he rang the bell and asked that Madame Malden's nurse be sent to her.
"I'm going now," said Stone, ignoring the departing dame. "I think, Mrs. Malden, it is time we hurried things a little. That woman means business, and while she can't really harm you, she can make you a deal of unpleasantness. And that Farman person is all there is of unholy intent. He means to stir up trouble with all his might.
"I want to tell you that I have a new line of investigation started, and if it works out we have a good deal of hope, but if it proves impossible we are not well off."
"Oh, Mr. Stone, do bring it about! I am so anxious and worried. That Farman is ready for war to the knife. We must circumvent him—"
"And we will." Stone spoke more assuredly than he had any right to do, but he felt his client needed cheering up, and hope was the only thing he had to offer.
He left then and went to see his old-time friend, Dr. Simpson, perhaps the most famous toxicologist in the country. He found the old man somewhat feeble, but working away in his great laboratory at problems that few, if any, of his younger colleagues could deal with.
"My, my, but I'm glad to see you!" he exclaimed, shaking Stone's hand. "Do tell me you have a problem for me—a regular sticker!"
"I sure have a problem that's a sticker." Stone returned, "but I don't know whether it's for you. Can you explain away miracles?"
"Of course, since they don't exist."
"No, but problems do, and sometimes they look as impossible as miracles. I wish I had a good old-fashioned murder, committed by a man five feet, ten inches tall, with blue eyes and a gold tooth and Trichinopoly cigar!"
"You don't wish anything of the sort; it would bore you to tears. You want the awful nut to crack that you have, and that you can't even get into the nutcracker's jaws."
"You're right. And now, if you'll manipulate the nutcracker, we'll go right ahead. How does this sound? Two murders."
"No, a month apart."
"As far as I can see, yes. But I can't see far."
"Same answer as before."
"Really, yes; though it doesn't look so."
So Fleming Stone first told old Simps, as he called his friend, all he knew of the Malden murder.
"Why do you call it a murder?" asked the old man.
"That's the miracle part. If it isn't a murder, what is it?"
"A natural death?"
"That's where you come in. What sort of natural death would occur in those circumstances I've described?"
"Not so good. Well, when do we examine him?"
"Whenever you like. But listen to the other murder, if any."
And then Stone gave a full account of the death of Bob Coles. He had arrived at the scene of the tragedy so soon after Bob's death that he could give a graphic description. When Simpson heard the details of death in a locked room, he rubbed his hands in satisfaction.
"Secret passage?" he asked first.
"No, nor any of the other regular and orthodox explanations. We've been all over them and not one fits."
"Hermetically sealed room, eh?"
"Just exactly that. Now as there's no sign of a weapon in either case, what can we look for but poison?"
"Looks like it. Autopsy this time?"
"Yes. Medical examiner and local G.P. But both signed the certificate that there was no trace or hint of poison of any sort known or unknown."
"No curare, no datura?"
"Just that. And no new, inexplicable type of virulent poison that can be imagined or invented."
"H'm. And just what am I to do?"
"Help me in any way you can. But mostly, dig up the cause of death."
"Will be at your disposal when you want them. Do you have to have those of both?"
"Don't be silly! Can I make bricks without straw?"
"Oh, all right. Now, most important of all, can you get about the matter at once? Can you do it up posthaste. Can you tell me results in a few days?"
"No, to all those foolish questions. What do you think I am? An alchemist?"
"Well, can you do all I asked, if it will save an innocent young woman's arrest, and probably trial and possibly conviction?"
"Whew! That sounds serious."
"It is serious. Listen." Stone sketched a brief history of the inimical side, showed how bitter and venomous the Malden faction was, and soon extracted Simpson's promise to go at the business with all possible despatch.
"It's too unbelievable," Simps ruminated. "Poison it's got to be, because it can't be anything else. But what poison? There can't be a new poison available that no one knows anything about. There can't be a resultant death from poison that leaves no trace whatever. They say there is, but there isn't. Except—no, that won't do. Who had access to these two victims that knows—really knows anything about poison?"
"Nobody knows anything about poisons but you, old man; that's why I'm here. And anyway, if somebody did, he wasn't there to administer it. You can't suspect a bride on her wedding trip?
"I can't suspect anybody. Why can't one suspect a bride?"
"We won't argue that; let's keep to the point."
"Very well. Then how about the murderer being some man in love with the bride and also wanting her fortune?"
"Commonplace, but suppose it if you want to. I only want the way it was done. Is there a poison which would kill some time after it was administered?"
"Perhaps. But only after a painful and lingering agony. None which would allow the victim to slip to the floor and die quietly, or to die quietly in his bed."
"You see a resemblance, then? In the two cases, I mean?"
"Resemblance? They are identical. You see, the hotel room was practically sealed because of the fact the two people were shut in it alone. And the second case, the young man, was in a sealed room, you say. So, we're hunting for a method of death, which will not be prevented or impeded by obstacles of any sort."
"Bringing it back to the miraculous."
"If you like. Do you suspect any of the party or household, or whoever were concerned?"
"None of them knows anything about medicine or toxicology."
"Yet the deed was done."
"Yes, and it's up to me to discover who did it, and how and why. I am not backing down on this job. I am not asking help, except, as I always must, in matters of which I know too little. I've made a study of poisons, as you know, Simps, but this is beyond me."
"I don't apprehend a new poison. Stone. If it is poison, it is a new way of using it, or an ingenious method of application—oh, well, when we have the post-mortems we'll know. I'll get those necessary organs—few could manage that trick, and I'm not sure if I can. But I think so, and then, we'll see."
"And you'll make all the haste possible?" said Fleming Stone.
"Of course," replied Dr. Simpson. "You know that without my telling you. You'll have to be here; my eyes are not all they used to be, and I don't want to drag in outsiders."
"I wish you'd give me a hint of what way you're looking."
"Can't do it, boy. At least, not now. I'll call you as soon as I can use you. Day after to-morrow, likely. Till then, you scout around and see if any of your suspects have been over here asking questions."
"Why, has anybody?"
"Yes, but you needn't ask who, for I won't tell you. Am I one to get innocent folks in trouble."
"I wish you could keep that poor girl out of trouble. Mrs. Malden, I mean. She's so brave and plucky, yet she's scared all to pieces. It all depends on our getting at the identity of the criminal before somebody pounces on her."
"Poor child. I'll do all I can. Why do they accuse her of the second death, too?"
"Only because the old dame is looney. I mean really touched, not just angry and excitable."
"Oh, I doubt she's demented. However, that's outside my jurisdiction. You keep a watch on her, though, she may do the little lady harm."
"She has a nurse, and Mrs. Malden's people all have an eye on her. But she can't be the murderer, and that's the one I want to find."
Fleming Stone sat at his wide, flat-topped desk, with many papers spread out before him. A careless observer would think the lot in hopeless disorder, but Stone knew for a certainty just which pile any paper or letter was in, and could lay his hand on it in a moment.
He had a secretary, and a competent one, but his work was largely that of research, and seldom had to do with sorting or filing documents.
Most of the letters before the detective at the moment were those which had made up the packet Stone took from Bob Coles' suitcase when in Scottstown. He knew what they were, and the others were papers Bob had been able to corral, which had to do with the Washington or Richmond elements of the case.
To Stone's disappointment, they had not amounted to much, but a sudden thought had turned his attention back to the mass of documents. Hastily he ran over letters from friends of Corey Malden, as well as small scraps of memoranda or odd notes written by the same people, yet not in any way connected with the matter in hand. Yet he studied them all with meticulous care and sorted them into neat piles of corresponding penmanship.
"There it is," he said to himself, "as plain as day. No chance of mistaking it."
He reached for a good-sized book from the shelves behind him and read the marked paragraphs over.
"This is the sign of a love of a large sum of money, and its prevalence in handwriting has to be carefully estimated. To find one a or o which has this break would have slight significance. One or two, even, might be accidents, but not when the break is constantly repeated."
He called his secretary from the next room.
"Plum," he said as the man appeared, "I'm going round to see Miss Curry, the graphologist. Hold the fort and learn anything you can from callers, but tell no one where I've gone."
In less than a half hour he was earnestly talking with the young woman whom he considered the best handwriting expert he knew.
"You're right, Mr. Stone," she said, after studying the specimens he showed her. "That sign is unmistakable and undeniable. An opening at the top of a small a or a small o merely means garrulity or generosity, but an opening, be it ever so tiny, at the bottom, is something to ponder over. This formation is well-nigh impossible to imitate. To show its full significance it must be universal in the person's writing. One here and there would mean nothing. Found only in the a and not in the o it would be uncertain, but always there, in both these letters, it is positive.
"This is the sign of that trait of humanity which makes them tempted, not by small speculations, but by thefts of very large sums. Often they have but this one temptation, this one weakness. The people who write these broken-based letters are tempted only by quantities of money, not at all by small sums.
"Moreover, this formation indicates mathematical talent. And so, these writers frequently attain positions of trust and at skilled labour. It is easily recognised and it is impossible for the man who uses it to control his hand so that he shall not use it. It is the most terrible 'give-away' in all graphology, and should be well known to all employers, which, alas! it is not."
"This is all most interesting, Miss Curry. To be sure, I have read it in your book, but it is far more definite to hear you say it. I'd rather not show you the writing of this man—"
"It is not necessary, Mr. Stone. The opening at the bottom of the letter is, I am sure, always there. It may be almost undiscoverable, even with a strong lens, but it is there, as you will find, if you try hard enough. And your man who wrote it may seem the soul of honesty, the most punctilious of financiers. And he is, in small or medium matters. But give him a chance at a really big haul and see him fall for it!"
"Do you often meet this letter formation in specimens sent to you to analyse?"
"No; such people and their friends, if the friends know about it, prefer to keep such things hidden. In fact, I have never seen a clearer, more positive delineation of it than the one you showed me."
"All graphologists know of this fact, of course?"
"Oh, yes; and many laymen. I try to broadcast the information for the protection of those who employ high-class accountants. Yet a man might work for one employer for years, and show no trace whatever of the slightest dishonesty, and then comes opportunity, and he succumbs."
Stone showed Miss Curry a few letters he wanted to know about, and then, the interview over, he went home, thinking deeply over the matter of handwriting in general, and his interest in it in particular.
"Guess I'll have to study up on it a bit," he told himself. "I can get the goods from her, all right, but I'd like to know a little more of the art or science, whichever it is. She's got it all at her tongue's end. Very slick young woman."
He went over letters and papers again.
He had told Bob to get all possible bits of handwriting done by anyone connected with the case, and he had also told him to cut off all names or addresses, which would help to identify them.
This, he planned because he wanted to deduce for himself who wrote the various sheets. And knowing Bob would keep a full and detailed account of the writers, he thought the matter safe. Now, he was all afloat, having no list of the writers, and only his own guesses to guide him.
Moreover, he found that two of the specimens, by different hands, both bore that strange o broken at the base.
One of those he knew to be that of the lawyer, Farman. It would be plausible enough to think that Farman was eager for a large sum of money, but far from likely that, he stood any chance of getting it. If he proposed to loot the Malden coffers, he would have to get up very early in the morning. The other one was too ridiculous to think about. Might as well suspect Perilla herself. He continued his task of reading over the letters. It might be possible, he thought, that Miss Curry's information should add some little light on the dark outlook.
The names of the men he sought for were almost never mentioned. He discovered the minor fact that Roger Garth studied to be a doctor before he decided to be a lawyer Also a note added in Bob's hand, stated that Tony Gaskell had worked in a chemical laboratory many years ago, and that Bob himself wished he might do the same.
It was then that Stone concluded to go to see Mrs. Coles. He felt he ought to do so anyway, but he hoped to learn something pertinent to Bob or Bob's work. To his surprise and satisfaction, he found the lady was visiting friends in New York and, therefore, he need not go to Philadelphia. It was not such a long journey, but Stone's time was valuable, and he had a lot to do.
So after telephoning for an appointment to call, the detective went that afternoon to see Bob's mother. He found a sweet-faced, fair-haired little lady who greeted him with a sad smile.
"I am glad to see you." she said, "because Bob had grown very fond of you. He had thought of being a doctor or rather a chemical expert—I don't know just what they call them—but he changed entirely and wanted only to be a detective."
"I wish he might have done so," Stone responded. "I should have been glad and prefer to have him for my assistant."
"He had a fine mind, my Bobby," said Mrs. Coles, and Stone willingly agreed with her.
"You won't mind if I ask you some questions, will you?" Stone said, with a trace of hesitation. "I know you want to know the truth, whatever it may be."
"Why, I do know it," said Mrs. Coles in evident astonishment. "I know my boy is dead. What more is there to know?"
"You're satisfied that his was a natural death?"
"Oh, yes. What else could it be? Surely nobody would want to kill my boy! That would be too absurd. Why should anyone do that, Mr. Stone?"
"I don't say anyone did, but we detectives have to look at things from all sides, you know."
"Well," said Mrs. Coles, "if you want to question me, go right ahead. But please don't say my Bobby was—killed. I can stand the loss of my boy, my dear one, but I couldn't stand it to think he was—was killed!"
Fleming Stone was often up against this sort of thing, especially with mothers. He knew better than to insist. He must hint and suggest, not declare.
"Of course," he said, in agreement. "He was generally well, though, wasn't he?"
"Oh, yes, that. But the doctor told me that heart disease is unusually prevalent just now, and a strong man may be stricken down most unexpectedly."
"And quite right, too. One sees such things in the paper every day. But that poor Mr. Malden—it is assumed by the doctors that he did not die a natural death."
"So I've heard. But he was much older."
Stone wondered how that made his taking off more likely, but he only said, "He was a friend of Bob's wasn't he?"
"No. I think they never met until the wedding party took place. But Bob liked him immensely. He liked all the crowd. You see, Bobby was a friend of Malcolm, and Mr. Corey was a much older man. Bob liked that Mr. Gaskell. And Mr. Garth, too. Oh, they were a nice lot; he told me all about them. He was there overnight, you know, a sort of house party."
"A gay time, I daresay."
"Not so much that, for they all had colds and took aspirin or something. No, not aspirin, a prescription of some sort. I think it upset Bob; he never takes nostrums. But the wedding was lovely. I wasn't well enough to go; I'm rather an invalid. But Bob told me all about it."
"As you're his mother, you won't mind this question. Was Bob in love with Mrs. Malden?"
She looked at him out of one eye, like a bird. Then she nodded her head. "Yes," she said, "he was. But nobody could help loving that girl. She's such a darling."
"And after Corey died, he hoped maybe she might turn to him."
"Yes, Mr. Stone he did. How you understand. And, do you know, I think it might have come about that way, if Bob had lived. She must have learned to love him, I'm sure. He's such a dear boy. Oh, they all were in love with her. Why Roger Garth, he's our neighbor in Philadelphia, he fell in love at first sight. But she only cared for Corey, which was all right, of course. I like a one-man girl. Still if Bob had lived, I do believe he could have made her happy."
"I've no doubt of it. You know, Mrs. Coles, I knew our Bob pretty well. He was a fine character. And he was learning every day. He had a real talent for detective work."
Stone divined that Mrs. Coles loved to talk about her son, so he stayed a bit longer to cheer her all he could, and then under plea of being a busy man he took his leave.
Reaching home again, Stone found Tony Gaskell there, awaiting him. The two had become friendly, even intimate in their many conferences as to Perilla's affairs. Stone had learned that although Tony was deeply in love with the young widow, he had no intention of telling her so at present. Gaskell looked a bit preoccupied, Stone thought, but he stated his errand at once.
"Can you put me up for the night, old chap?" he said. "I know I've trespassed a lot on your hospitality of late, but I've an early appointment to-morrow morning, and a late one tonight."
"Of course, Gaskell. I'm pretty busy myself, so we won't bother each other. Just make yourself at home."
"Thank you lots. I'll start in by telephoning."
"All right. And as I'm running off again, at once, we'll meet at dinner. I'll be in and out all the afternoon, but we can have a confab this evening."
Stone looked over some papers while Tony dialed his call, but left the house before Gaskell received an answer.
He jumped into his waiting car and gave the chauffeur an address. It proved to be that of a tourist agency, and Stone hastened inside. Looking at various clerks who were answering telephone calls, he saw one of them give him a slight nod. Stone went over to him, and sat down till he should be through with his customer.
"Him?" said the detective, ungrammatically, but eagerly.
"Yes, sir. Reservations for Bermuda, day after to-morrow."
"Good. Make me a note of the steamer and time of sailing. You're a first-class worker, Henty. You'll get your reward some day."
From there Stone went to the home of the District Attorney. He knew Morris was not in his office that day, and hoped to catch him at his house.
"Any news from the seat of war?" Stone asked, as he shook hands with his host.
"No real news. Have you any?"
The District Attorney looked anxious. "No, except that no news is always good news."
"In the proverb, yes. In real life, not so surely."
"Well, you'll hold off a couple of days longer, won't you?" Stone's voice was almost cajoling, and his smile was irresistible.
"If I can. You know, Mr. Stone, I can't have a murder accusation brought to me and take no notice of it whatever."
"But if it's a trumped up accusation—"
"I can't prove that. If Farman comes here and says Mrs. Malden poisoned her husband, I've got to listen."
"Yes, but let it go at listening. Tell him, you'll take up the matter next week. Listen to me a few moments, Morris."
The District Attorney did listen, and at last was really impressed by what he heard.
"I didn't mean to tell you quite so much," the detective stated, "but this latest development makes action imperative at once, and I can't act if you and Farman are hobnobbing about Mrs. Malden."
"I see that, of course, but I can promise nothing. If Farman comes in, I'll do the best I can to meet your wishes. That's all I can say."
"Pray heaven, he holds off a bit," said Stone, earnestly, "for that holding off might mean life or death to somebody."
"What comments would be made on my actions if I paid no attention to a death that occurred with only one other person in the room beside the victim?"
"If he was a victim?"
"Oh, well, it will probably drift along all right. And I promise you I'll do the very best I can in your interest and young Mrs. Malden's."
"What you want to do is to realise that it will be best for your own interests to keep yourself pure and unspotted from the world. You recognise Farman's slanders, and you'll see where you'll bring up! Remember, Mr. Morris, I shall have my defence all ready by day after to-morrow, and that will be too late for any mistakes you may have made to-morrow. Such errors as unjust murder accusations cannot be wiped off a slate with a sponge. I have everything ready; I'm waiting only for signed proofs, which will be duly forthcoming. Of course, your accusations would in no way harm Mrs. Malden or her cause, but it would give her unhappy moments, as you can readily see for yourself. You think it over from a personal point of view, and see how it looks to you then. I'll see you to-morrow, if possible, if not, then I'll trust to your commonsense and better judgment."
Stone left the District Attorney in an uncertain mood, but Morris was slowly and surely coming round, to the detective's view of the matter.
When Farman came on his momentous errand, District Attorney Morris greeted him with little enthusiasm.
"It's a terrible thing," Farman said, "to drag the Malden name in the dust, but worse, indeed, to let murder take place without question or comment."
"Why are you so sure it is murder?" asked Morris, coldly.
The shrewd Farman, noticing the change in the manner of the District Attorney, rose to the occasion.
"Given two people alone, and one dead from no apparent cause, what else can be surmised? Nor do we say murder has been committed; we only say the matter must be looked into?"
"But are you prepared? Have you evidence, witnesses, testimony—in a word, are you ready to conduct a murder trial, if it comes to that?"
"We are ready, or can get ready for anything that means law and justice."
"Then go and get ready, and come back when you are all prepared."
The District Attorney had practically lost his temper. Between the pleas of Stone and the threats of Farman, he was more or less in a quandary.
However, the authority or what seemed like it, given by Morris was just what Farman wanted, and well knew how to twist the permission to his own ends. With an exaggerated speech of thanks he left, well pleased with his success.
That evening, Fleming Stone and his self-invited guest were earnestly talking over the immediate outlook.
"That Farman is a villain," declared Gaskell. "I can't see how the old lady stands having him around. For whatever she may be she's nobody's fool."
"She is not," agreed Stone. "Nor is Farman a fool. I wish we could get Mrs. Malden out of their clutches."
"She isn't exactly in their clutches, as I see it, but they're evidently out to make trouble for her."
"They can do that, unless—"
"Unless we can find the real murderer."
"You never spoke a truer word. And, mind you, Stone, I have every confidence and faith in your powers, but I do wish we could hasten matters a bit. Now, don't think for a minute I'm impatient; I only want to see Perilla more at ease. The girl is worried to death, and it isn't surprising. Is it now?"
"Indeed it isn't; and nobody longs for progress more than I do. But it's coming, Gaskell; it's on the way."
"Really? Have you a glimmer of an idea of the criminal's identity?"
"Yes. I'm sure I can say yes to that. Now to pin it on him."
"You're not telling?"
"I am telling as soon as I'm a little more certain on one point."
"Wish I could help."
"You have helped, old man. Mrs. Coles tells me you were fine to Bob, and did ever so much for him when he was anxious to get into the laboratory. Later, it seems, he changed his mind and wanted to be a detective. Those kids never know what they want. But Mrs. Coles spoke most highly of your kindly interest."
"She's a dear little woman, and Bob was a fine chap. What about his death, now?"
"If you don't mind, we won't take that up to-night. I'm all in—me for bed. Plum, you want to set up some drinks?"
"Dying to, Mr. Stone," said his secretary. He rang for ice and glasses, and drew toward him a compact yet roomy cellaret, which he opened.
"What's yours, Mr. Gaskell?" he inquired.
"Just a Scotch highball; not too stiff."
"And yours as usual, Mr. Stone?"
"Yep," answered the detective absent-mindedly. "I say, Tony, do you know Simpson, the great toxicologist?"
"Never heard of him; who is he?" Gaskell was walking idly about the room, but paused to hear Stone's reply.
"He's not well known. An old man, but famous in his line."
"Poisons, I gather, from what you dubbed him."
"Yes. Famous among chemical experts. Wonder if he'd look into this affair."
"You know him. Why not sound him out?"
"I believe I will. Think I'll see him to-morrow."
"Do. Here's your drink, Stone."
Gaskell handed over the glass he had taken from Plum and took the next one himself.
"Oh, that second one is mine," Stone said. "Plum fixes it just right."
"Pshaw," said Tony, "they're exactly alike, aren't they, Plum?"
"Just about, sir. But we'll humour Mr. Stone, he's so tired to-night."
Plum passed another to Gaskell, who handed it across to Stone, the detective saying, "Set it down, Plum, I think—I'm going to—atchoo! atchoo! sneeze, atchoo; there!"
"Yes, I think you are," said Plum, solemnly, "again, I mean. Go ahead, sir, get it off your chest!"
Stone went ahead, sneezed once more and then sat down, laughing through his tears.
"Take it away, Plum. I don't want any more."
"Did you get any?" asked Tony, still laughing.
"Yes, a glassful, I should say. Now I'm going upstairs. Stay down a while, if you like, Tony."
"No. I'm ready to turn in. Give us a couple of nightcaps, Plum, I'll carry them up for the two of us."
The secretary obeyed, and the two men went upstairs, still laughing at Stone's antics.
But once in his own room, his sneezes left him and he swallowed his Scotch and soda with relish. And leisurely undressing, was soon in his first light sleep.
A faint noise brought him to his senses and, sitting up in bed, he watched the knob of his door slowly turning.
"Not Tony," he said to himself, "not Plum, then—"
But before he finished his murmured sentence he was back on his pillow and sound asleep.
It was Tony who turned the knob of Fleming Stone's door. He said so next morning at the breakfast table.
"Do you always lock your bedroom door?" he asked of Stone. "What are you afraid of?"
"I don't know that I'm definitely afraid of anything, but I don't like to think of being kidnapped when I'm asleep. Why? How did you know it was locked? Were you wanting to get in?"
"Just exactly that. I was wakeful, and I thought I'd like to read that philosophy you were talking about."
"Schopenhauer? Yes, It is in my bedroom. I dip into it often when I can't sleep. Too bad. Why didn't you knock louder—or didn't you knock?"
"No, I didn't want to wake you. I tried the door and it wouldn't open, so I just gave it up."
"I'll have it put in your room for you to-night. You're staying over, aren't you?"
“I didn’t intend to, but that business I’m bothered by will last one more day. So—”
"Not another word. Stay just as long as you find it convenient."
"You're a brick, Stone. I'm proud to know you."
"Thank you for pretty compliments. Now I must scoot. I've a lot on for to-day. Be here for dinner; we're having wild duck."
"Good! Trust me to be on hand."
Stone went off in search of Plum, and they made short work of the morning's mail. "I want you to meet me here at eleven-thirty, Plum," the detective said. "Routine work till then, and we must be at old man Simpson's at noon."
"The beginning of the end?" guessed Plum, shrewdly.
"It may be; I sincerely hope so."
Simpson had telephoned Stone early that morning to come round at noon. By good luck he had put the autopsies through sooner than he had hoped, but the results were far from being what he had looked for.
And so, when Fleming Stone and Plum arrived at the offices of the old doctor they were met by a disappointed man.
"I can't get it, Stone," he said. "It is too elusive. It doesn't look like what it must be, and it looks like what it can't be."
"Rather cryptic, aren't you?" Stone said, with a somewhat rueful smile. "Well, since you can't make the grade, suppose you give me the satisfaction of telling me what you were trying to do."
"Trying to find the reason for a natural coronary necrosis, and all I get is a lot of contrary evidence."
"Just what sort of evidence are you getting?"
It had suddenly dawned on Stone that Doctor Simpson was beginning to show the effects of his age. He felt he must tread warily.
"Tell me more," he urged gently. "About this contrary evidence, I mean."
"Well, just take a look at this heart. This one is Malden's, the other is young Coles'."
"Right; I'm looking at them."
"You don't see any foreign matter, do you? Anything extraneous?"
Fleming Stone looked carefully, and them said:
"No, nothing at all. Oh, wait a minute! Just then I saw a tiny flash, as of metal or glass—"
"Oh, man? Did you really? Look again."
"It's gone, I don't see it now. But it was infinitesimal. The merest speck, I hardly saw it at all."
"But glass! If it was glass, it must be here yet. You must find it, look again. Here's a lens—"
Stone took the magnifying glass and scrutinised the place where he had seen or thought he had seen the glass.
"Yes, there it is!" he exclaimed, himself excited now. "But such a tiny speck—it can't mean anything."
"It means everything? Don't lose sight of it again. Here, let me get at it!"
Plum drew near, and all three were quivering with interest as Dr. Simpson lifted, with the tiniest of calipers, a speck of glass, and laid the precious morsel on a small slab.
"Oh," he exclaimed in deepest admiration. "Clever, clever! The perfect method, the complete alibi. Oh, what a mind!"
"I wish you'd let up on your rhapsodies and tell me what it's all about," Stone said to Dr. Simpson. "I only know you have a microscopic bit of glass, and you seem to forget that I gave it to you, at that! What does it mean?"
"Go away, oh, go away!" The old doctor was fairly dancing round in excitement, "Mr. Plum, take the man away or I'll lose all I've gained. Take him away for his own good! I beg of you, obey me! I cannot control myself unless I am let alone. Listen, Fleming Stone! You have done this, you have found the clue to the mystery, but I vow, if you don't take yourself off, I'll destroy this bit of glass and leave you where you were when you came here. Listen! Go off now, and come back at five this afternoon, and I'll tell you everything—everything, I say. Stay a moment now—and I'll tell you nothing, now or at any time."
Even after that peroration, Fleming Stone had to be dragged away by his secretary, who saw the old man was in dead earnest, and feared Stone would be foolish enough to jeopardise his own good fortune. Plum fairly pushed his employer through the door.
"Good for you, Plum," the detective said, laughing. "I confess I was a bit too much imbued with the old man's enthusiasm. But I'm crazy to know what he has discovered. Well, I've enough to do until five o'clock. And so to-night see the wind-up of the Malden case. Do you know who is the criminal, old man?"
"Indeed, I don't. Do tell me, Mr. Stone. I won't tell."
"Nonsense, control your impatience. You'll know all at five o'clock this afternoon. Until then you must have patience—as I must."
They parted company, and Stone made for the nearest telephone. He called up Perilla.
"You're, to have a small party to-night. The list I'll give you now. Pencil handy?"
"Oh, yes," she replied. "Go ahead."
The list Stone gave her was almost the same as the wedding party, he added Madame Malden and Farman, Garth, himself and Plum.
"You see," he went on, "the case is concluded."
"Oh, Mr. Stone!" exclaimed Perilla, "Do you mean that?"
"Yes, but don't ask me questions about it over the telephone. You'll know all this evening. And, Mrs. Malden, you must make all the people come. If anyone seems unwilling or unable to be there, use your cajolery, your persuasion, your wiles, but make them come. See?"
"Yes," said Perilla. "Will it be a shock?"
"I'm afraid it will, but you'll be glad to know the truth at last, I feel sure."
"Oh, yes, I do want to know the truth; it will save me further worry about my own danger."
"Mind now, you make everybody come. Don't forget!"
"She hasn't the least idea," Stone ruminated as he left the telephone booth. "I hope it won't break her heart."
He put in a busy afternoon, more or less assisted by Plum, and five o'clock saw them both back at Dr. Simpson's.
The interview was not long, but was entirely satisfactory. Dr. Simpson told them, as clearly as he could explain to a layman, how the two deaths were accomplished.
"As soon as I heard the story," he said, "I was certain that one man was responsible for both crimes. It was the cleverest piece of work I have ever known of. I don't know the murderer, but I suppose you do. Come and see me to-morrow and tell me all about it. I am too weary to talk further now. You have all the points, you can prove everything from those notes I have given you, but more now I cannot undertake. I am a feeble old man, Stone, and I trust I have given you all the data you want, for I cannot give any more time to this subject. Drop in here to-morrow morning, or send Mr. Plum, so I can know what happens to-night. I wish I could be there with you—no, not that I should enjoy it—far from that. But I'd like to be there to check up on you if you make any mistakes in your explanation. However, Mr. Plum has a good strong grasp of the facts; you can help each other out. And remember, boy, you did it. Had you not spied that bit of glass we would be back where we were at first."
They said good-bye to the old doctor and, promising to see him next morning, they went away.
"Wonderful man," was Plum's comment, and Stone said "Yes," which comprised all the conversation they indulged in on the way home.
The two and Tony Gaskell met at dinner. "Going to the party?" asked Tony as they sat down.
"Oh, yes," said Stone, blithely, "And Plum is going, too."
"Are you a bridge player, Mr. Plum? I understand it's a bridge game."
"I play a fair game," returned Plum, who was a skilled player. "But I seldom get an invitation to a real party."
"I hope we can get away early," said Stone. "I'm up to my ears in work and I planned to get some of it done to-night. Plum, you must come home when I do."
Plum agreed to this, and the talk turned to other topics.
Stone's car came a few minutes before nine and the three men went off in it. They greeted Perilla, and then drifted toward various magnets.
Tony sat down by Jane Latimer, for seeing he couldn't monopolise the hostess he chose her pretty secretary.
"She's looking wonderful to-night," he murmured, needing no mention of a name, for his glance at Perilla was indication enough.
"Yes," agreed Jane. "I made her put a speck of colour on her cheeks; she was so very white."
"Why? Isn't she well?"
"Oh, yes, only horribly bothered by the persistent annoyance of Madame Malden."
And then, a sudden hush fell on the room, for Fleming Stone had risen and stood in a position of dignified importance, as of one who had something to say.
"As you doubtless all know," he began. "I have been employed by Mrs. Corey Malden to investigate the mystery of two recent deaths and to attempt to reach a solution. I have done so, and the real purpose of our coming here to-night is to let me tell you the truth of this matter, and explain the method and motive of the two tragedies.
"I will begin with the death of Mr. Corey Malden. This, as you all know, occurred something more than a month ago, while on his wedding trip. He and his bride were in a Washington hotel, when Mr. Malden died suddenly, and for no known reason. The circumstances are known to you all, so I will only say that the doctors attributed his death to heart failure, which is a term sometimes rather loosely used, but which seemed the only one possible in this case.
"There was no autopsy, as none was deemed necessary. After Mrs. Corey Malden's return to this, her New York home, she sent for me and told me she had a vague idea that there might have been foul play in connection with her husband's death, and asked me to take up the matter and prove her suspicions either right or wrong. I did so, and since working for a few weeks, I have proved her fears were well founded, and the death of Corey Malden was a diabolically clever murder, a remarkable piece of work by a remarkable criminal."
"Is it permitted that one interrupt you with questions, Mr. Stone?"
This came from Gaskell, and Stone answered calmly, "Yes, if the questions are of general interest to the audience, and asked for an intelligent purpose."
"Then I ask if you know the identity of the murderer, and if he is the same one who killed young Mr. Coles."
"I cannot reply to those inquiries at the present moment," Stone said, frowning a little. "As the solver of this double murder mystery, I feel that I have earned the right to tell my tale in my own way. I assure you all that I shall not drag out the story to any unnecessary length, but it is only fair that the facts I have learned be presented in right and appropriate sequence."
"Certainly," said John Lovell, who was paying the deepest attention. "I want to insist that Mr. Stone give us the story, and then we can make our comments or ask our questions afterward."
"Do you remember, Mr. Lovell," said Stone, "the night before the wedding, at your seaside home?"
"Oh, yes, in every detail."
"Then you recollect that several of you took tablets of a simple and harmless nature to induce sleep and rest against the busy day on the morrow?"
"I do." exclaimed Gaskell, smiling. "We called it a tablet party. In fact, I provided the tablets. They were proved later to be harmless."
"Of course they are," said Lovell. "Who's doubting that?'
"Well, then," Stone went on, "all in the house went to bed and slept soundly and well, and no ill effects were felt next day from the tablets. That right?"
"Perfectly right," Lovell agreed. "I've kept tablets of that prescription in the house ever since. They're fine."
"Then came the wedding," Stone proceeded, "and the honeymoon trip by motor car. The newly married couple went their peaceful way, until in Washington the tragedy occurred. Mr. Corey Malden came by his sudden death, and no one could say, could even guess what brought it about."
"I could say," said Madame Malden, in a loud voice. "I could tell you what brought it about.'"
"Be quiet," said Farman, who sitting next her, laid his hand on her arm. "Be quiet, or I shall send for your nurse and you will be taken from the room."
The old lady stopped talking, and looking a little frightened, glanced at Perilla, who was on her other side.
Reassured by the girl's slight smile, she said no more, and Stone proceeded.
"At the time no post mortem was held on Corey Malden's remains. Since then an autopsy has taken place and we are no longer in doubt as to the manner of his taking-off."
"What happened to him?" cried Garth, unable to restrain his curiosity.
Stone ignored the question, determined to tell his story in his own way.
"I now have to remind you of the death of young Robert Coles," Fleming Stone said slowly. "I ask your patience, for the two deaths are so closely related that the method used must be discussed regarding both. You have often heard it said, I have no doubt, that if a criminal commits two crimes they are done in the same way."
"Is that invariably true?" inquired Malcolm, who was quivering with curiosity as to details, but unwilling to annoy Stone with questions.
"I can't tell you for certain," the detective replied, “but it is my own experience that every murderer has his own method and sticks to it. At any rate, the two murders we are speaking of—for Coles was murdered—were done by the same method, and in furtherance of the same end. The end, which is to say, the motive, I will now state.
"The murderer, wanted two things: he wanted the girl that Corey Malden married, and he wanted the fortune which would come to that girl on the death of her husband. These two things, then, were the reasons for the murder of Corey Malden. The criminal knew that the fortune would automatically become Mrs. Malden's at the death of her husband, and the criminal thought or hoped to win Mrs. Malden for his wife."
A hush fell on the assembly. Try as they would it was impossible for some of those present to keep their glances from falling on certain persons.
Gaskell stared openly at Garth with a look that said, "There's your man!" while Farman looked steadily at Perilla with accusation in his small unpleasant eyes.
"And what about Bob?" cried Malcolm. "Who killed him?"
"Bob Coles knew too much about the murderer," was Stone's reply to part of the question. "Wherefore the murderer put him out of the way also."
"I wish you'd tell us who the murderer was," said Gaskell, petulantly. "It had to be some one who was at the hotel in Washington and also at the Fields' house in Scottstown. Which is absurd, unless you are introducing an utter stranger."
"No," said Stone, gravely; "no, I am not introducing an utter stranger. The murderer is with us now, in the group in this room."
Everyone turned and looked about. This statement was too much. Who of the group present could be a murderer?
Only the extreme gravity of Stone's countenance, the solemnity of his expression, could make it seem possible he was speaking the truth.
A grim silence fell, and, now, almost in a montone, the detective continued speech.
"I will tell you now how the murders were committed. If it is any satisfaction to the criminal, who sits listening, I will say that never have I seen or heard of such devilish cleverness. The work of a great brain—gone wrong, the conception of a great mind—gone wrong, the invention of a marvellous genius—gone wrong. If this be praise, let him accept it.
"I went as far as I could go in my investigations, when I was brought to a full stop by my lack of knowledge of the most recent chemical discoveries. Yet, I reasoned thus: whoever contrived the idea of these murders, whoever brought them about, had knowledge of the latest and highest type of chemical research, the newest and greatest discoveries in the field. This, in addition to a real inventive genius and a practical knowledge of the necessary devices.
"These things I do not myself possess, but it is my habit, when up against the limitations of my learning, to go to someone who does know, who can tell me the facts I lack. I went, therefore, to my friend and one time teacher, the famous Dr. Simpson, the best known toxicologist in America, if not in the whole world. He helped me. He solved my problem."
Here Plum interrupted, speaking firmly and without allowing interruption.
"Perhaps, Mr. Stone," the detective's secretary said, "with his usual modesty, will belittle his own share of the revelation about to be divulged. Wherefore I want to say that Dr Simpson charged me, to say that it was Fleming Stone who found the key, who discovered the secret that we have learned, and that Mr. Stone will now explain to you."
With a slight smile, Stone went on.
"It makes small difference who first saw the minute speck that gave us our key, as we may call it.
"And to put the matter in a word, I will say that these murders were done by the use of—radium."
Several of the men gasped in amazement, though the women were in no way enlightened.
Gaskell looked perplexed, and said, "Radium? How?"
Garth said, "Radium! Oh, I see!"
But Stone went steadily on. "I will tell you just what Dr. Simpson said. Those of you who can understand it will do so, and others will please not interrupt as it can be fully explained to them later.
"The famous toxicologist said that the two deaths were brought about in the same way, precisely. In each case the murderer inserted into the heart of the victim a tiny glass bulb, or as they call it, 'seed,' which contained a gaseous substance called radium emanation. This gas, when present in sufficient concentration, causes the death of the tissues immediately surrounding it over an area of about half an inch, within twenty-four to forty-eight hours. This area of necrosis, as is the case in all instances of acute necrosis of tissue, softens and, if subject to strain, will rupture. This is just what happened here—rupture and sudden death.
"The seed containing the radium emanation was inserted into the heart by means of a long hollow needle, similar in appearance to the hypodermic needles generally in use.
"Though, perhaps, not entirely clear to you, this was the method used by the man who killed Corey Malden and young Bob Coles. Now, we have to supply intervening details. I am positive that the murderer gave the radium emanation to Mr. Malden the night they stayed at the Lovells' home, that is the night before the wedding. Yet the radium did not get in its deadly work until three nights later, when the necrotic tissues ruptured and caused death. It was the tiny speck of glass that gave away the situation to Dr. Simpson, and allowed him to prove his case.
"As to the murderer, I can't help feeling that he is ready to make a confession—"
"I am!" and Tony Gaskell sprang to his feet. "You all know, why hold it back? And I'm proud of my deed. Not of killing my friends, but proud of the marvellously clever coup I brought off. I fully intended to put Corey out of the way and gain Perilla for myself—also the Malden money. Why harp on these things? But the glorious plan, the wonderful plot! Did any mortal man ever achieve a cleverer—"
Gaskell's eyes were wild, his face was red and pale by turns, his fingers were working like those of a maniac.
Two plain clothes men stepped forward from behind some curtains.
"If you want him to say anything, be quick," said one of them. "His mind is going—"
"How did you work it, Tony?" asked Malcolm, casually.
"Too easy! Gave Corey a morphine tablet instead of the sort you all took when you asked for aspirin. Just a bit of slight of hand. He went to sleep at once, and I had the whole night to load in the radium stuff. I'm more of a chemical expert than you fellows think. Then Bob, you see, he was at Stone's the night before that trip started. So was I. I dosed him with a doctored highball and he slept like a baby. Then I fixed him with the radium. And a few nights later he popped off. He knew too much. He learned a lot on his Washington and Richmond trip and had to be quieted. Well, that's all. I tried to get Stone, too, but he locked his door. I began to think then that the jig was up. Oh, well, here goes," and with a lightning-like movement, Gaskell threw up the window behind him and leaped out.
A scream from Perilla sent the policemen flying to the elevator, but none in the room ever saw Tony Gaskell again.
"What made you suspect him, Mr. Stone," Malcolm asked.
"Because, first, he made a peculiar letter "o" in his handwriting. That "o," with an opening at the bottom of it, means invariably a thief of large sums of money. Gaskell would never have deigned to stoop to petty thievery, but the great Malden fortune and his admiration of Mrs. Malden also, made him the criminal whose dastardly deeds he did not regret. I don't often go very far in the handwriting science, but the authorities say this "o" business is the one significant point that is unmistakable and invariable.
"Then I was favoured by the fact that Gaskell spent much time at my home. I encouraged this, though I knew he was trying to murder me. But forewarned is forearmed, and I felt sure I could safeguard my own life—with Plum's help. And I could study Gaskell. You see, I can get a dialed telephone call merely by listening. So, often, when Gaskell thought his calls were secret, I knew what they were. And when one was a bank, with which he had some large transactions, and one was a tourist agency, where he bought tickets for Bermuda, I began to hurry things along.
"But without the help of old Dr. Simpson, I never could have discovered how the deeds were accomplished."
"Nor could Simpson have done it without your help," put in the ever loyal Plum. "He told me repeatedly to make that plain."
"You've made it plain enough," and Stone gave him an appreciative smile. "Now, I think, Mrs. Malden, we will go home, and leave you in the hands of your friends to get rested and refreshed. I will see you tomorrow, and perhaps you can learn to forget."
"I can," and Perilla gave one of her loveliest smiles, "if Mother Malden will love me and help me."
"That is all I have to live for," said the old lady, and then her nurse took her away, and one by one they all departed, until only Roger Garth remained to say his good nights.
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