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Title: Murder Runs in the Family Author: Hulbert Footner * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 0801401h.html Language: English Date first posted: Mar 2015 Most recent update: August 2020 This eBook was produced by Colin Choat and Roy Glashan. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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LANCE MCCREA set his door open an inch and listened. She was always the first of the lodgers to come home in the afternoon. At this hour there was nobody in the house except the servants at work in the basement, and Professor Sempill, buried in his study in the extension.
When Lance heard her firm light step on the first flight of stairs, a curious breathlessness took possession of him. He had known the girl only a week, but she had done things to him. Most inconvenient to fall in love when you were out of a job. He knew her name—Freda Rollin—and that was all.
He timed his exit from the room so that they came face to face at the top of the stairs. Both started with surprise. Freda's start was genuine; Lance's made to order. The girl's face lighted up at the sight of him, but instantly became grave again. Lance's eyes dwelt on her with a kind of hungry pleasure. Without appearing to, he blocked the way to her room.
"You're earlier than usual," he said, just to be saying something.
"No," she answered. "Just the same as usual."
"Is your work far from here?" he asked.
His face fell. He was always trying to lead her into telling him something about herself, but she always evaded it.
He tried again. "You're lucky to have a job in times like these."
She sighed. "I suppose so."
"Don't you consider yourself lucky?" he asked, in surprise.
"Oh yes," she answered, listlessly. "But you get a kind of yen for freedom. You can't help longing to see the world."
"I know," said Lance, quickly. "What a good time we could have in the world if we had a little money!"
She looked away without answering. Lance's eyes ate her up. She used neither lipstick nor rouge, and her brown hair was drawn straight back and twisted in a bun at the nape of her neck. She seemed determined to make herself look as plain as possible, but it only had the effect of emphasizing her clear beautiful features and her steady eyes, Lance thought. It was the blue eyes that had plunged him in a maze. They were full of sadness. This girl could both think and feel. The silence lasted so long that she became uneasy.
"Were you going out?" she asked.
"No, just looking for ink," he said. "So that I could answer a couple of dozen more ads."
"I have some ink," she said. "No need to go all the way downstairs."
"No hurry," said Lance, blocking her way. However, she quietly pushed past him and went into her room, leaving the door open. She occupied the top floor rear in Mrs. Peale's lodging-house, and Lance had the hall room adjoining. He looked wistfully through the door of her room. It was just an ordinary lodging-house room, but the little things of her own that she had spread around lent it a wonderful grace in his eyes. He was trying to spy out whether there were any photographs of young men displayed.
"Can I come in?" he asked, diffidently.
"No," she said, calmly.
Lance blushed and looked a little foolish. She was always turning him down like this, nevertheless his instinct told him that she liked him. There was that quick blush when she had met him unexpectedly on the stairs.
She brought the bottle of ink to the door, but Lance would not take it right away, for then she would have closed the door. "This house is like a tomb in the day-time," he said. "All day I am waiting for you to come home."
She smiled at his impulsiveness, but there was not much fun in it. "Surely you don't stay in your room all day."
"No," he said. "But I've pretty well canvassed the local situation by now. There's nothing to do but wait for something to turn up."
"Why do you stay in Lounsbery?" she asked. "Wouldn't you have a better chance in Boston or New York?"
He shook his head. "Things are worse in the big cities. It is only in Lounsbery that business is stirring a little."
She extended the ink-bottle and he had to take it. "I wish you the best of luck," she said, making as if to close the door.
It had a horribly final sound, and Lance put his foot against the door. "All day I am waiting for you," he said, and you shut yourself up as soon as you come home."
"I have work to do at home."
"You can't work all the time. You are young like me."
A frankly bitter smile twisted her lips. "I must forget all that," she murmured.
"Why?" he demanded.
"It is not polite to ask questions," she said, gently pressing the door against his foot as a hint.
Lance began to feel desperate. "Won't you come out with me tonight?" he blurted out. "To the pictures. Or anywhere?"
For an instant her set face relaxed enchantingly, and the blue eyes sought his in a soft warm glance. But she got her grip immediately. "You can't afford it," she said.
"Yes, I can," he said, eagerly. "I'm not broke yet."
Her face was like marble now. "It is useless for you to ask me," she said, firmly. "I can't come, ever."
"But why? why?" he pleaded. "At least tell me that."
She released the pressure on the door. "All right. It is better to be frank and open. It will save trouble later. I cannot be friends with you."
Lance scowled blackly. He had as good a conceit of himself as most young men. He was perfectly well aware that he was good-looking and well formed. Most girls fell for him. "What's the matter with me?" he demanded, sorely.
"Nothing," she said. "But I am not free. There are circumstances that I don't care to explain. It would be much better for you if you passed me as a stranger when we meet after this. And kinder to me."
"I couldn't do that," he mumbled, wretchedly.
"Then you should find another lodging-house," she said, relentlessly.
He removed his foot from the door, and she closed it. He went back to his room and flung himself down on his bed. He had never met a girl like this before. He felt humiliated. He raged against her in his mind, but that didn't make him feel any better.
Her bed was on the other side of the wall from his. Evidently she had forgotten how thin the walls were. He heard a sound that caused him to spring up with a face of dismay. She was lying on her bed, crying. He distinctly heard the soft catch of her breath on the little strangled sobs.
Lance turned red in the face and ran out of his room. He was beyond all thinking of what he was doing. Conventions and proprieties didn't mean a thing in the world to him then. He threw open the door of her room and ran in.
"Freda! What is the matter?" he cried with all his heart in his voice.
She jumped up, blushing with shame and anger. "How dare you!...How dare you come into my room?" she gasped.
Lance stopped, half abashed. "I couldn't help myself," he said, simply. "I couldn't bear to hear you crying. It was like little knives hacking at my breast."
"Go!" she said, pointing to the door like an offended queen. "You have nothing to do with me."
A healthy anger came to Lance's support, and instead of turning tail he went nearer to her. "I don't know about that," he said, stubbornly. "Something tells me that you were crying because it hurt you to turn me down, and I mean to find out."
She laughed cuttingly. "That's just your vanity. All men are the same."
"Why do you want to fight me?" he asked, wondering at her bitterness. "I'm your best friend. I love you."
"No!" she cried out, as if in pain. "That's ridiculous. You have known me only for a week."
"A week is long enough," said Lance. "A man knows in one moment when he has found the right woman."
"Don't say it! Don't say it!" she cried, covering her ears like a child.
"Why not?" he asked. "I may as well tell you now as any time. I shall never change. No woman has ever got me like you have. We are down to rock-bottom things now. For me it is you or no one."
Freda was all hunched up on the edge of her bed. "This is madness! This is madness!" she was whispering.
He went closer to her. "Don't you feel it, too?" he asked.
She stood up. Her face was working painfully. "No! No! No!" she cried, wringing her hands. "You are hateful to me! You are ridiculous! You make me laugh!"
"I don't believe you," said Lance. "You make too much fuss about it!" He went closer to her.
"Go away! Go away!" she cried, fending him off with her hands.
But he flung his arms around her and drew her close. With a shiver her body relaxed. Her head fell back and he pressed his lips to hers. For an instant she lay quiet and happy in his arms; her lips responded to his. Then recollection seemed to return to her. She stiffened, and thrust him away.
"Go!" she cried. "You are torturing me."
Lance had left the door wide open when he entered the room, and they had forgotten about it. At this moment a new voice made itself heard; a man's voice snarling and hateful: "Who the hell is this fellow?"
Freda clapped a hand over her mouth to stifle a cry, and went staggering back. Lance whirled around. In the doorway he saw a big man, middle-aged, a commanding figure, vaguely familiar; obviously a man of wealth and position. Normally dark and swarthy, his face had now turned almost black with rage.
Lance stiffened. "If it comes to that, who are you?" he asked, coolly.
"I have a right to ask that question, and you have none!" shouted the big man. "Get out of here!"
"Try and put me out!" said Lance.
The girl sank down on the edge of the bed. "Oh, don't fight!" she gasped.
No power on earth could have kept them from fighting. They had reverted to first principles. They glared at each other. They asked no questions; neither had any desire except to get at the other.
The big man rushed at Lance, swinging his arms like flails. He was as strong as a bull, but he had no science. Lance side-stepped, and sent in a right-arm blow to the cheekbone that jarred him badly. He backed off, scowling at his opponent with a new respect.
The immemorial fighting look was fixed in Lance's face. He smiled. "Well, come on!" he said.
With a snarl of rage, the other man lowered his head and charged again. His head collided with Lance's fist, but it didn't stop him. He was extraordinarily quick for his weight. Foreseeing Lance's side-step, he turned and flung his arms around the slenderer man. His hot foul breath was in Lance's face. All the younger man could do was to jab at him ineffectually with half-arm blows.
The big man lifted Lance from the floor and flung him down. He aimed a brutal kick at him, but Lance, as quick as a cat, rolled out of the way and, gaining his feet, came back and jarred him before he recovered from his own impetus.
He ran at Lance again, and the latter gave ground. The older man was already sobbing for breath, and Lance coolly allowed himself to be chased around the room. As the big man clawed at his shoulders, Lance slung a light chair behind him. The other tripped over it and rolled on the floor. The fall partly knocked the wind out of him, and he was in no hurry to get up.
"Have you had enough?" asked Lance, contemptuously.
The other man got to his feet blind and insane with rage. No one would have thought of calling him a distinguished figure then. His fine clothes were soiled with dust, his face almost dehumanized. With the object of making him angrier still, Lance drawled:
"Your arteries are bad, old man. You drink too much for this sort of work!"
With a hoarse cry the man snatched up the chair and aimed a blow at Lance that would have killed him had it met its mark. Lance evaded it and the chair was smashed to pieces on the floor.
The man kicked the pieces aside and came at Lance with his head down, only to be met by a hard right and left full in the face. Lance continually gave ground, but only enough to escape the embrace of the powerful arms, getting in a blow when he could.
The room was too small and too much obstructed with furniture to permit of free movement. Lance's retreat was blocked by an easy-chair. Instantly the big man sprang, forced Lance back into the chair, knelt on his body, and gripped his throat in his powerful hands. The fight appeared to be over. The girl moaned and covered her face.
But Lance's body, threshing wildly in the chair, contrived to overturn it. As they struck the floor, Lance broke free and, scrambling away on hands and knees, put a table between him and his adversary.
"Not quite good enough," he said, grinning, as he rose. The big man got up slowly, and stood lowering and swaying. He was sobbing hoarsely; his eyes were bloodshot. He felt his strength ebbing, and his eyes darted instinctively this way and that in search of a weapon.
"I'll kill you! I'll kill you!" he muttered.
His eyes fell on a pair of scissors lying on a trunk below the window, and he ran for them. Lance saw them, too, and got there first. Snatching up the scissors, he flung them under the bed. The other man, balked of his intention, stood before him with his guard down. Lance hauled off and struck him with all his force on the point of the jaw. He dropped like a felled ox and lay motionless.
"It was a shame to do it," said Lance working his numbed fingers, "but he asked for it."
Freda paid no attention to what he was saying. "What shall I do?" she murmured to herself, heartbrokenly.
"Come with me!" said Lance warmly. "We must face realities. You and I belong to each other now. Nothing else matters."
She made no reply.
"It's true I haven't got much money," he went on. "But I can work for you. I'm not exactly a fool. We'll get along."
Still she said nothing. Her eyes were fixed in horror on the floor. Following the direction of her glance, Lance saw that the big man had returned to his senses. Raising his bruised and bloated face, he regarded Freda with an ugly grin. "Well, what is your answer?" he said, as if quite sure of himself. "What are you going to do?"
"You know what I am going to do," Freda whispered. "This scene was not of my making."
"Well, tell him, tell him!" said the man, triumphantly. "Put him wise. Tell him that you are going to marry me as soon as I am free."
Freda, with a white and stony face, repeated the words like a child saying its lesson. "I am going to marry you as soon as you are free."
"Tell him that nobody is forcing you to this. It is your own free choice."
"Nobody is forcing me to this," whispered Freda. "It is my own free choice."
"Tell him that you love me."
"I love him," said Freda.
Lance turned sick at heart. Pride would not allow him to show his feelings. "Well, that lets me out," he said, smiling. He looked at the soiled and battered figure on the floor. "I wish you joy of your husband," he said, grimly.
He turned and walked out of the room, down the stairs, out of the house. He kept his head up and his expression was much the same as usual, but he was not in the least aware of what he was doing.
LANCE did not return home until the following morning. He had been walking during the greater part of the night, but he was not conscious of fatigue. He met his landlady, Mrs. Peake, in the front entry—an innocent, talkative woman in a homemade flannel wrapper.
"Good Land! Mr. McCrea, where you been?" she exclaimed. "You look as if you was drawed through a knot-hole!"
Lance looked at her in pure hatred. There was no particular harm in Mrs. Peake, but he hated everybody and everything this morning. "I just been out to get some medicine," he muttered. "A touch of neuralgia."
"Do you know what happened in Miss Rollin's room last night?" Mrs. Peake demanded, with sharp curiosity.
"No," he answered, coolly. "I was out."
"There was a chair broke up and I don't know what," said Mrs. Peake. "Of course she paid me for the chair, but she wouldn't tell me what broke it, and I guess I got the right to know what goes on in my own house. And Miss Rollin such a quiet girl and all. It just shows you never ran tell. She's gone now. Moved out last night at ten minutes' notice."
Lance was not surprised to hear this news. "Where did she go?" he asked, dully.
"I don't know. Wouldn't leave no address."
"Well, it's nothing in my life," said Lance, with a shrug of bravado. He moved on towards the stairs.
At the back of the hall the door into Professor Sempill's room was standing open, and a sudden yearning for human companionship overcame him. He went back. Early as it was, the Professor was bending over his books. The long room was cluttered with books and papers and the apparatus of chemistry. Nobody was ever allowed to tidy it.
"Can I come in?" asked Lance, diffidently.
The old man raised his mild, serene face framed in an aureole of floating gray hair. "Surely! Surely!" he said. "The sight of you reminds me I haven't had my breakfast yet. We'll eat together."
Lance made a gesture of distaste. "Nothing for me, thanks!"
"Tut!" said the Professor. "An egg and a cup of cocoa never hurt anybody...I don't know how I'll ever remember to eat, now that Freda has gone away."
A spasm of pain passed over Lance's face, but the old man didn't see it. "Did you see her before she left?" Lance asked, casually.
"No. She wrote me last night to explain why she hadn't been in."
He bustled around the room, making his preparations. In his quaint professor-like way he was quite efficient. He always repudiated the title of Professor, by the way, saying: "I am not connected with any institute of learning; I am only a humble investigator on my own." But "Professor" clung to him, nevertheless.
When food was put before him Lance found that he could eat. In spite of himself the hard, tight strain eased a little. The Professor chattered away, dropping his pearls of wisdom in an inconsequential way. In a pause Lance said, looking around him:
"This room is like...like a little harbor. Everybody in the house feels it. There are no hard feelings in here, no meanness or crookedness; nobody is trying to get ahead of anybody. It braces a man up. It's like getting a shot of decency."
The Professor laughed in his silent old-man fashion. "Well, if you think all that is here, then it is here," he said. After a while he remarked, quietly: "You seem a bit down this morning. Lance."
Lance felt a great desire to confide his trouble into so wise an ear—not in plain words, but just enough to win sympathy. "Oh, it's the usual thing," he said, with a pretense of lightness.
"You mean a girl?" said the Professor, smiling. "Well I have been through that in my day."
"None of them are any good!" said Lance, harshly.
"Oh, I wouldn't go so far as that," returned the Professor, quaintly. "Very often when they make us rage it is all our own fault."
"Not in this case," said Lance, bitterly. "I meant well by this girl. I went all out for her."
"What happened?" asked the Professor.
"She has engaged herself to a middle-aged man. A man already married, it seems, who is divorcing his wife. He is more than twice her age, you understand, and a foul brute! Fat, dissipated, overbearing. How could she do it?"
"Well, I don't know," murmured the Professor. "Sometimes good women have a genius for crucifying themselves. If something has persuaded her that it is her duty to marry this man, nothing can stop her."
Lance looked up sharply. This put a new aspect on the matter. "You mean he may have obtained some hold over her?" he asked, eagerly.
"How can I tell?"
A new light came into the young man's eyes. "Well, I'll find out about that," he said, setting his jaw. "I feel better now."
"Take another piece of toast," said the Professor.
When Lance got up to go, the old man handed him a stamped and addressed letter. "Would you mind posting this for me?" he asked. "I don't want to go out."
Lance looked down idly at the envelope and read:
Miss Freda Rollin, 237 Franklin Street, City.
His face flushed. This seemed like a little miracle. He glanced sharply at the Professor to see if he was on to anything. But the old man's face was all innocence. He was busy gathering up the breakfast dishes.
"Sure," said Lance. "See you later." He hastened out of the house.
He posted the letter in the first box, and kept on walking. Franklin Street was on the north side of town, something less than a mile away. If I get a move on I'll be there before she starts for work, Lance told himself. He had no clear idea of what he was going to do. As soon as he learned where Freda was, some power outside himself drew him there.
No. 237 was a boarding-house, a more modern establishment with a neat yard, distinctly better style than Mrs. Peake's. By the time he had reached it, Lance's courage had failed. If Freda had refused to give him any information yesterday, there was not much chance that she would do so today. Better use indirect means to get at what he wanted. He walked up and down in front of the house, gazing at the windows and wondering which one might light Freda's room.
The door of the house opened and the man Lance had beaten the day before came down the steps. Lance's face turned bitter with jealousy. He noted that the man's black eye had been painted out by an expert. His clothes expressed the perfection of elegance. There was a handsome limousine waiting at the curb, which was no doubt his. Lance would not give ground, but waited grimly for him on the sidewalk.
Under ordinary circumstances and when things were going well, this was a handsome and distinguished-looking man in his dark style, but when he saw Lance his face turned as mean and ugly as Satan's. His right hand went to his pocket with a significant gesture. "What the hell are you doing here?" he growled.
"Just taking a morning walk," said Lance, with a hardy smile.
The man took his hand out of his pocket and exhibited a black automatic lying on the palm. He held it in such a way that the chauffeur could not see it. "I'm ready for you now, you thug! Keep your hands off me, or I'll shoot you down like a dog!"
Lance laughed. "You started it last night!"
"Don't speak to me!" barked the man as one who was accustomed to authority. "Keep away from me, do you hear? Keep out of my affairs, or I'll step on you as I would a worm!"
"Thanks for the warning," drawled Lance. "I'll think it over."
The man dropped his gun in his pocket, entered his limousine, and was driven away. "That man will kill me, if I don't get him first," Lance thought, involuntarily. At that moment a taxi came through the street, and, yielding to a sudden impulse, he hailed it. If it was war between him and this man, it was necessary to learn what he could about him. "Follow that car," he told his driver, "and stop when he stops."
The limousine skirted around the north side of the city, and turning east on the Hartford road, drew up before the buildings of the Beardmore Linen Mills, the largest works in Lounsbery and the mainstay of the town. The dark man alighted and went into the offices of the firm without a backward glance. The limousine drove away.
Lance paid off his taxi and went slowly along the sidewalk, looking over the ground. Beardmore's was a magnificent modern establishment with handsome buildings set amidst an extensive park, brilliant with flower-beds. The offices were in a small separate building like a little Greek temple facing a stone-bordered pool set about with Italian cypresses.
There was a gardener transplanting flowers in a bed beside the public sidewalk—a little man with a face like a withered apple and a wise bright eye. Lance stopped before him.
"Who is that guy that just went into the office?" he asked, casually.
"Him?" said the gardener. "That's the big boss. That's Jim Beardmore."
Lance whistled softly, and a slightly gone look came into his face. "Gee!" he murmured. "The biggest man in town!"
"In town?" said the gardener, scornfully. "Jim Beardmore could buy up half a dozen towns like Lounsbery and never feel it! Say one of the biggest men in the U.S.A. and you'll be nearer to it."
"Reckon you're right," said Lance, heavily. He looked on the ground. "It would be funny, wouldn't it, if a young unknown fellow who didn't even have a job set out to beat Jim Beardmore."
"Funny!" said the gardener, dryly. "It would be a scream."
"How is it," asked Lance, "when the whole country is in the dumps, that the Beardmore Linen Mills are working full time and said to be making money hand over fist?"
"Read the slogan over the door of the office. It's all in that."
Lance, following the pointing finger, read, "Linen for the price of cotton."
"That's the plain truth," said the gardener. "Beardmore's can sell linen for less than cotton and make a handsome profit. It's all owing to a new process invented by Peter Beardmore, Jim's father. Peter discovered a way of getting the fiber out of flax with a saving of months of time and labor. They got more mills in the South and the West and all over Europe. Their output is only limited by the amount of flax they can buy. They say that the change from cotton to flax is going to alter the whole face of the earth."
"What sort of man is Jim Beardmore personally?" asked Lance.
The gardener looked at him shrewdly. He evidently made up his mind that the young man was to be trusted, He spat sideways and said: "He's a swine, that's what he is, with all his money. You can take it from me, fellow. I get a worm's-eye view of the man!"
Lance's hand shot out involuntarily. "Put it there!" he said.
They shook hands heartily.
"What's your name?" asked Lance.
"I'm Lance McCrea. I'll be seeing you, Bob." Lance turned back towards town.
Twenty minutes later he was climbing the stairs at Mrs. Peake's. He was weary enough then, in all conscience, because the heart had gone out of him. One of the richest men in the United States! How could you blame the girl for marrying him? Perhaps she had a family dependent on her.
At the top of the last flight the door of Freda's former room stood open. All the grace had departed from it. The rug had been taken up, and the mattress was lying doubled up on the naked springs. Lance's face twitched and he quickly turned his head.
When he opened the door of his room he instantly saw the note lying on his bureau, and a remarkable change took place in his face. It was addressed in a hand that he had already seen that morning. It must have been lying there since the night before. This was the first time Lance had been in his room. Snatching it up and tearing it open, he read:
It is wrong of me to write to you, but I can't help myself. I just can't bear to have you think of me as a kind of gold-digger who is bent on making a rich marriage whatever may come. There is more in it than that, Lance. I care nothing about money. I am just in a jam. I can't help myself. It is through no fault of mine. I didn't have any luck, that's all.
Please, please, do not try to find me. It would only make it harder for both of us. You cannot help me. Nobody can. There is no way of getting out of it. I just have to keep a stiff upper lip and make the best I can of my life. After all, happiness isn't everything. Think as kindly of me as you can.
When he had read these pitiful broken sentences, Lance fell into a study, and a deep line etched itself between his brows. In his mind's ear he could hear the sound of Freda's soft, strangled sobs. Slowly his face hardened into the lines of a grim resolve. So intense was his absorption that he murmured aloud:
"There is one way she can be saved..." And a moment afterwards, "It doesn't matter what happens to me."
He put the letter in the drawer of his bureau, and locked it. He counted the money he had on him. He started downstairs with his head bent, still studying.
On the ground floor he looked back, and seeing that the door at the rear of the hall stood open, he turned that way, irresistibly drawn by the thought of the old man's serene wisdom.
Professor Sempill was conducting an intricate chemical experiment with his books, his notes, his test-tubes. Wholly absorbed as he was, he could still smile at Lance.
"Sit down," he said. "Smoke up. I can put this down directly."
Lance obeyed, and gave himself up to the peaceful, studious atmosphere of the laboratory. His face smoothed out, but the look of resolution in his eyes did not weaken.
After a while Professor Sempill put the tubes in their stands and wiped his hands on a towel. "Well, how goes it?" he asked. "You don't look quite so broken up as you did this morning."
"No," said Lance, seriously. "I have learned more about that case I told you about. The girl is all right. She is not just shallow and mercenary as I thought. That was what knocked me flat. I banked on her."
"I understand," said the Professor. "A man can stand anything better than being let down by one he trusts."
"What are you doing?" asked Lance.
The old man described the experiment he was making, which had something to do with the last unknown element of nature. It must be confessed that Lance understood very little about it. From chemistry they got to talking about human conduct, and Lance led up by degrees to the question he wanted to ask. It came out very off-handedly.
"Professor, do you think that a man is ever justified in killing another?"
"Why, certainly," came the prompt answer. "I can think of many cases in which murder would be a positive benefit to the community."
"Right!" murmured Lance, in deep satisfaction.
The old man glanced at him shrewdly. It must have occurred to him that this was not very prudent advice to offer hot-blooded youth. "Of course I am only speaking in the abstract," he went on. "I am a scientist. I live and have my being in the laboratory. As you know, I almost never go out-of-doors, and I am completely cut off from the practical affairs of life. Considered in the abstract, there are circumstances in which murder might be entirely justifiable, but practically considered, the laws and the state of public opinion being what they are, I should say that it would be very, very foolish."
"Oh, sure!" said Lance, "but if a man was satisfied he was doing right, what else would matter?"
"What are the circumstances you have in mind?" asked the Professor, with a smile that invited confidence.
"Oh, I didn't have any particular circumstances in mind," said Lance, carelessly. "It was just a supposititious case." He led the conversation back to the safe ground of chemistry.
Lance presently left him to his work. Issuing from the house, the young man made his way in the direction of South Chatham Street, which ran from the Civic Center down to the station. He had noticed several pawnshops along here. He turned into one which displayed an assortment of firearms in the window.
Lance was keyed up to concert pitch, though nobody could have guessed it from his wooden face. The look of that pawnshop was bitten into his brain for life: its curious blend of furtiveness with luxury; the fur coats, the jewelry, the field-glasses, the musical instruments and the weapons; the sharp glance of the young man who was prepared to be arrogant if Lance came to borrow or obsequious if he came to buy. He had greasy black curls plastered on his forehead and his eyeglasses were crooked.
"I want a gun," said Lance.
The clerk accepted this life-and-death request coolly. "What sort of gun?"
"An automatic. About thirty-two caliber. Large enough to do the trick without weighing me down."
The clerk turned towards the window where they were displayed. Lance, who did not know what the law of Connecticut was in respect to firearms, thought it better to add: "I've got a job as watchman, and I have to protect myself."
The clerk betrayed no interest in Lance's circumstances. He spread a felt cloth on top of the showcase, and laid the guns upon it.
Lance with a steady hand tested the mechanism of each, and soon made his choice. He paid the asked price, somewhat to the surprise of the clerk, and added a box of ammunition to his purchase. The clerk produced a blank book.
"Name and address," he said.
"John Williams," said Lance. "The Antlers Hotel."
It was written down in the book, together with the serial number of the gun.
Lance went home, flung himself on his bed, and slept throughout the middle part of the day.
JIM BEARDMORE'S interview with Freda Rollin early that morning had been very unsatisfactory from his point of view, and he came to his offices in a savage temper. All his employees immediately became aware of it. In the outer hall Colonel Morton, the elegant old gentleman who received callers, glanced in his face and bade him a gentle good morning. Jim merely snarled at him and banged through the door.
In the general office the clerks and stenographers stole timid glances in his face and made themselves small. Jim rarely noticed his minor employees, but this morning his furious eyes traveled from one to another, looking to see if they took notice of the marks on his face. They kept their eyes down.
In his own room he threw himself into his chair, cursing aimlessly. It was a wonderful room, furnished in a taste better than Jim's, with rare Oriental rugs and fine paintings. It had windows on two sides looking out on lawns and flower-beds. The brutalized, evil-tempered occupant was the only discordant note. He took a mirror from one of the drawers of his desk and studied his face in it. The result was not reassuring. He flung the mirror in the drawer and slammed it shut.
Presently John Moseley entered his room. Moseley was the first vice-president of the company and Jim's principal associate. In fact, owing to Jim's erratic habits and his preoccupation with his pleasures, the principal burden was carried by Moseley's shoulders. Some years older than Jim, he was a cold, capable, gray-faced man who kept his private thoughts to himself.
He noticed Jim's condition and a slight look of contempt appeared in his eyes. "We're waiting for you," he said, good-humoredly enough.
"Who's waiting for me?" Jim demanded, brutally.
"The directors. Have you forgotten that a meeting was called for early this morning to discuss the affairs of the Irish company?"
"To hell with the Irish company!" said Jim. "Postpone the meeting until some other time."
"Why?" asked Moseley. "The matter is important."
"Why?" snarled Jim. "Because I'm fed up, that's why! I'm in no humor to listen to a lot of asses braying."
Moseley shrugged and left the room.
A few minutes later, the dummy directors having been dismissed, the three men who really counted in the company, apart from Jim, met in Moseley's room.
"What's the matter with him?" asked Clinton Beardmore. Clinton was Jim's half-brother, a handsome, suave, and agreeable man, the very antithesis of his elder. Clinton was vice-president in charge of manufactures and personnel. He was fifteen years younger than Jim.
"Don't ask me," said Moseley. "From the look of his face he appears to have been in a fight. At any rate, he's in a vile temper."
"How long have we got to put up with this sort of thing?" cried Clinton, in exasperation.
"Oh, Dad's got a wonderful constitution," said Tony Beardmore, cynically. "He'll outlive you, Clint." Tony had lately been taken into the concern merely because he was Jim's only son. An elegant young man with something of a European manner, and frankly dissipated, he made no pretense of taking a serious interest in business.
Rainer Stanley spoke up. He was a Beardmore by marriage and vice-president in charge of foreign business. "It's damnable!" he said, hotly. "We have one of the best businesses going here, and a unique opportunity to make it the greatest business in the world. And this drunken opinionated fool can block everything we do just because he owns a majority of the stock! He isn't capable of running the show himself, and he won't let us do it for him! We are letting opportunities slip by that would make millions for all of us!"
"What a blessing it would be," drawled Tony, "if one of Dad's numerous enemies took a shot at him!"
"Good God! your own father!" cried Clinton Beardmore, horrified.
"Well, why not?" retorted Tony, coolly. "It's what we're all thinking, isn't it? Why shouldn't I say it? He's always treated me like a dog. He spoils the lives of everybody who is connected with him—wife, children, business associates. You don't know the half of it, my friends!"
"Just the same, such things should not be said," said Clinton, uncomfortably.
As it drew on towards noon, Jim Beardmore received a telegram that changed his humor. His face flushed; he showed his yellow teeth in a triumphant grin. Pressing a bell, he ordered the scared boy who answered it, to ask Miss Rollin to step in.
Freda entered his room pale and self-possessed. Her face was calm, but there was a look around her eyes that suggested she hadn't had much sleep the night before. She was carrying her notebook. When Jim's eyes fell on it, he cried out:
"Put your book away. I don't want to see you as my secretary now, but as my future wife!" Freda drew a long breath as if to steady herself for what was before her. "Look! I've had a telegram from Reno," Jim went on. "The divorce decree has been issued. I'm a free man!" Freda read the telegram without comment. "Have you nothing to say?" demanded Jim, sorely. "Aren't you glad? Can't you congratulate me?"
"I can't make pretenses," Freda answered in a low tone. "You know that. I've agreed to marry you. I'll make you the best wife I can. You mustn't expect any more."
"Lord! I'm sick of this shop and the fools who plague me here!" cried Jim. "Let's chuck it for the time being. We'll get married and go abroad. I'll buy the biggest suite on the biggest liner afloat. We'll visit all the capitals of Europe, and you shall be turned loose in the shops. My God! with the proper jewels and clothes, you'd outshine them all! You don't realize your own possibilities, girl!"
Freda looked at him coldly. "Do you think you are pleasing me with this talk?" she asked, coldly.
"Well, what do you want?" he grumbled.
Freda looked out of the window. There was an unfathomable wistfulness in her eyes. "Let me go free," she murmured. "I have never done you any harm."
Jim's face instantly turned ugly. "Others have that you know of," he said, darkly.
"You have been repaid many times over."
"I won't let you go!" he cried. "You're in my blood! You have laid a spell on me with your beauty and your cool ways. I can't live without you. I've got to have you, fair means or foul!"
Freda shrugged. "Then don't talk about what I want," she said.
"We could be happy, too," Jim went on, sorely. "It's up to you. If I act ugly it is only because you drive me crazy with your air of contempt. If you treated me decently you could do what you wanted with me!"
"I can only act as I feel," murmured Freda.
Jim blustered around the room in order to avoid facing the issue. "We'll get married today," he said, loudly, "and end all this discussion. I guess that'll be a slap in the old girl's eye."
Freda looked at him levelly. "Do I have to do it?" she asked, very low.
"Why do you put it that way?"
"Such a thing would be horrible to me. Think of the comment in the newspapers."
"Oh, I'm used to that," said Jim.
"I'm not. I think it's disgusting to rush from one marriage into another in that way."
"All right! All right!" said Jim, sullenly. "We'll put off the marriage. We'll put it off as long as you like—as long as you don't keep me waiting. Why should we wait? We're free, white, and twenty-one. We'll go off on a little private honeymoon."
Freda turned red and then pale again. "Do you have to insult me?" she murmured.
Jim scarcely heard her. "Nobody need know anything about it. We'll keep on working at our desks here if you'd rather. I suppose my face is too well known to go to a hotel anywhere. But I tell you what we'll do. I've thought it all out. There's that big house of mine outside town, Fairfield, not a soul in it! We'll go out there and picnic by our two selves. What fun..."
Freda's eyes flashed. She seemed to add inches to her height. "Stop it!" she cried.
It was the first time in his life that Jim Beardmore had ever been so addressed by an employee. He stared at her dumbfounded.
"I'd sooner die!" said Freda, passionately. "Remember that I always have that way out, and don't push me too far!"
As the man stared at her his face turned dark and ugly. "I believe you've fallen for that young counter-jumper in the lodging-house!" he muttered.
Freda shrugged. "Must we go over that again?"
"Are you in love with him?" demanded Jim. "Let's have a little of that truth you're always bragging about. I dare you to tell me the truth!"
"Certainly I'm not in love with him," she returned, coldly. "He's only been there a week."
"Well, you're attracted by him."
"Yes, I was attracted by him," she answered, defiantly. "He's young and friendly and honest."
"All the things that I am not," sneered Jim. She made no answer. "What was he doing in your room?"
"He came in. I didn't invite him."
"This honest young man!" he sneered. She said nothing. "Seems to me there was a pretty passionate scene going on when I happened along."
"Not on my side," she said.
"He's in love with you. He was ready to fight me at the drop of the hat."
"Well, I can't help that," said Freda. "I left the house immediately in order to please you. What else can I do?"
"He has already followed you to Franklin Street."
"I shall refuse to see him."
A hateful look came over Jim's face. "Well, if you play any tricks on me you know the penalty," he snarled.
There was a knock at the door. Freda immediately sat down and spread her notebook on the flap of her employer's desk as if she were taking dictation. Jim glared at her with a speechless rage. Freda's strength lay in her capacity for keeping her mouth shut. Jim was aware of all the things she had refrained from saying. The bruises on his face burned under the paint.
"Come in," he growled.
It was a boy to say that Mr. William Dooley was calling. A look of craft came into Jim's face at the sound of that name. He lowered his eyes to hide it.
"Show him in," he said.
Freda slipped out of the room.
Mr. Dooley was a little man of Irish extraction with a thin, cunning face. Like Jim Beardmore, the habit of command was in his eye, and like Jim he spent a lot of money on his attire, but their styles were different, Jim's conservative, and Bill Dooley's flashy.
"Have a cigar," said Jim.
They lighted up, watching each other warily, each waiting for the other to make an opening. Finally Jim said:
"Well, Bill, what can I do for you?"
Bill smiled in a catlike fashion. "I guess you know, Mr. Beardmore. Every year about this time I come to see you, and you contribute your check to the war chest."
"I don't know why I should go on doing it," said Jim, coolly.
Bill still smiled. "Well, the boys have got in the way of expecting it," he said, deprecatingly, "and this year it's needed more than ever along of the unemployment and all."
"I don't believe your boys are unemployed," said Jim, dryly.
"They have their families," said Bill. "Surely it's worth something to you, Mr. Beardmore, to have a ward of your own, so to speak. And always to be sure of having your own men on the City Council to speak up for you."
"All that is changed," said Jim. "In former years I was just a rich man and a fair mark for anybody. Now, with my mills working full time in a world of unemployment, I'm a kind of savior of the town, a public benefactor. I could have anything I wanted from the City Council just by holding up my finger."
"Sure, sure," agreed Bill. "But maybe it won't always be like that. You can't tell what's going to happen. You might have labor troubles. Every business man has labor troubles sooner or later. Then you'd want a supply of non-union labor as well as armed guards to protect your property."
"When I need them I can hire them," said Jim.
"Sure!" said Bill, smoothly. "But a wise man is always prepared beforehand. He builds up his organization. Now, if I may say so, you already have your organization in the boys of my ward. Why break it up for the lack of a sum which means nothing to you? My boys would do anything for you, Mr. Beardmore. Why don't you use them more? Surely a man in your position must have many a little piece of business that would be better for being carried out quietly and all. Just give it to my boys."
Jim Beardmore's upper lip lifted from his teeth in an ugly fashion. He looked away from Bill Dooley. "Such as removing any inconvenient man who might be in my path?" he asked.
Bill laughed heartily. "You will have your joke!" he said. "Of course I couldn't countenance any job of that sort, being a law-abiding man and all. Just the same I'll lay you anything you like that if I was to mention around the ward that there was a certain guy Mr. Beardmore didn't like the color of his hair or anything, that guy would just naturally fade. And neither you nor me wouldn't need to know nothing about it. The boys are so damn grateful for all you've done."
Jim laughed, too, but it had a strained sound. He didn't look at Bill, because he knew his eyes were giving him away. "I've a good mind to take you up," he said. "Let the stake be the amount of my annual contribution to the war chest. There's a certain young fellow I have in mind. He doesn't mean anything to me in particular, but he'll do as an object. He'll never be missed. His name is Lance McCrea, and he lives at Mrs. Peake's lodging-house on Simpson Street. I don't know where he works. If he should accidentally get stepped on within the next few days, you can come around and the usual check will be waiting."
Bill Dooley was not in the least taken in by Jim's parade of indifference. He observed the painted-out bruises on the millionaire's face and drew his own conclusions. He was experienced in such matters. He smiled in his catlike fashion. "Okay, Mr. Beardmore. You can consider the thing as good as done. Put it there!"
They shook hands. Jim avoided Bill's eye. "Have a drink before you go," he said. "I feel the need of a nip myself."
He opened the door of his cellaret and got out a bottle of his old vatted Glenlivet. Mr. Dooley's eyes brightened and he rubbed his mouth with the back of his hand in anticipation. Even a ward leader could not come by such whisky. The two men parted in great amity.
LATE that afternoon Lance returned to the neighborhood of the Beardmore Linen Mills. In addition to the ornamental grounds surrounding the mills, the Beardmores had purchased a large tract of land opposite and had presented it to the city to be used as a park for the benefit of their employees and the public generally. Naturally it had been given their name.
Lance found a bench inside the park that was sufficiently screened from view, yet afforded a good point of reconnaissance. The handsome little building housing the offices of the firm faced him, with the ornamental pool between it and the street. Tall cypresses rose at each end of the pool, with brilliant beds of late-blooming flowers in the foreground. Behind, partly screened by trees, were the wide-spreading buildings that housed the thousands of looms. The whole plant was one of the show places of the state.
Shortly before the whistle blew the same green limousine that had carried Jim Beardmore earlier in the day drew up before the offices. Lance smiled with grim satisfaction. His man was still at work. Lance engaged a passing taxi-cab and ordered the driver to wait a little way up the street. Sitting in the back seat, he watched the limousine through the front window. There was a deep furrow etched between his brows, and his eyes had the awful steadiness of the man who is possessed by a single idea.
The street became crowded with the home-going employees of the mill, and emptied again before the limousine moved. When Jim Beardmore finally came out of the office building Lance's eyes fastened on him searchingly. Even at the distance it could be seen that Beardmore felt pretty good. There was a spring in his walk, heavy as he was, and a complacent smile about the corners of his thick lips. The flower in his buttonhole, the slight swagger, suggested a rendezvous with a woman, and Lance's eyes grew hot as he took it in.
The limousine headed downtown, with the taxicab following. Beardmore stopped at Murdoch's, Lounsbery's fashionable leather store. The limousine moved on, and Lance, paying off his taxi, watched from across the street. He saw Beardmore appear within a window of the store and point to an expensive luncheon-basket that was displayed there. It seemed like an odd sort of purchase for him to make. Lance was still more surprised when he came out of the store carrying the basket, instead of having it sent home.
Beardmore did not hail a car, but walked around a couple of corners and disappeared within a handsome building on Harrison Street. This building had a semi-public look, but it was neither a hotel nor an office building. Lance put it to a postman who was passing on his last round.
"Say, George, what building is that?"
"The Lounsbery Club, fellow. All the big bugs belong to it."
Lance concealed himself within the mouth of an alley opposite, and watched the club. A long time passed, but the fixed gray eyes showed neither weariness nor boredom. The street gradually emptied as people sought their dinners. The windows began to light up.
It was almost dark when Beardmore came out of the club again. He still carried the luncheon-basket. His festive air was slightly accentuated as if he had had a few drinks inside. He disregarded the taxi-drivers who eagerly bespoke his attention, and turned down to the Civic Center, where he boarded a trolley car marked "Morrell Park."
Lance followed. The car was crowded, and the young man was safely hidden on the back platform. His intent gaze missed nothing. He saw, from the way that Beardmore carefully set the basket between his feet, that it was heavy. Where was the rich man going in a plebeian trolley car with a basketful of lunch?
As one person after another left the car, Lance realized that he must eventually be discovered. He dropped off at the next stop and waited for a taxi to come along. He instructed the driver to follow the car. More and more people got off, but Beardmore remained sitting stolidly in his corner. City gave place to suburbs and suburbs to the open country. Beardmore was the last passenger left in the car.
He rode to the terminus of the line. Lance stopped his taxi a couple of hundred yards short of the car, and paid the driver. Beardmore was walking on over the country road carrying the basket. It was quite dark now, but an occasional electric light enabled Lance to keep him in view. He was not the kind of man who looked over his shoulder. Too sure of himself. Lance followed, taking advantage of every bit of cover that offered alongside the road.
All this country was unfamiliar to Lance. As far as he could judge, it was pleasant rolling land. Many of the heights were crowned with fine country houses. They met nobody.
Suddenly Beardmore disappeared. Lance, in his anxiety, ran ahead. At the point where he had last seen his man there was a gateway to one of the estates of the neighborhood. "Fairfield" was painted upon it. Lance listened with bent head, and presently distinguished Beardmore's heavy tread crunching the gravel. With a grim smile he followed him through the gate.
Inside, the trees met overhead, and it was as dark as a windowless room. Lance, walking on his toes, followed his man by the sound of his steps. It was quite a considerable park, with dense woods and open glades no doubt very beautiful by day. Finally a wide space opened up with the house in the middle.
It was an immense, extravagant house with long rows of pillars and a balustraded roof, more fitting to serve as the palace of a duke than as the home of a plain American. Even by night the place had an indefinable air of neglect, as if it had been abandoned before it was finished. No light showed anywhere in the endless ranks of windows. The solitude was complete.
Beardmore left the road and struck straight across the grass like one well accustomed to the place. Lance, fearing to expose himself, hung back in the shadow of the trees. He was able to follow Beardmore's movements by the big white basket he was carrying. He saw the basket mount the front steps of the house, hesitate for a moment, and disappear inside. Lance ran across the grass. No lights came on inside the house.
In front of the house Lance showed his first moment of irresolution. He prowled up and down. He was not eager to enter that dark doorway. Too much like a trap. Better wait outside until his enemy reappeared. Lance settled himself in a corner of the terrace commanding the front door.
But he could not remain still. Judging from the food he had brought, Beardmore expected to remain in the house all night or longer. And it was obvious that he was up to some devilment. Lance hovered uneasily around the door. The question was, how to get in? If he pounded or rang, it might bring his enemy to the door—or it might merely enable him to escape. Above all Lance wanted to find out what he was up to. Lance tried the handle of the door, not expecting any result. To his astonishment, the door opened. He went in, closing it softly behind him.
Inside all was dark and still. He could not hear Beardmore's heavy tread, nor any other sound. His hand encountered a heavy oak chair, and he instinctively crouched behind it. It was possible that Beardmore was within a yard's distance, perhaps, watching him.
Gradually his eyes became a little accustomed to the darkness. It appeared that there was a gigantic window in the back of the house, and enough light came through it to show Lance that he was in a sort of central hall that ran up to the roof and had several galleries running around it. A noble stairway went up at the back to a broad landing under the window, where it divided.
One by one Lance spotted the possible hiding-places in the hall, and satisfied himself that Beardmore was not concealed in any of them. There was not a sound through the house. The millionaire had disappeared like a stone dropped in water.
Corridors opened right and left out of the hall, and Lance cautiously explored them. On the left-hand side he softly opened several doors, only to get a glimpse in each case of big formal rooms filled with shrouded furniture. On the other side of the house, the same.
He started up the stairs a step at a time, gun in hand. Always peering and listening. He couldn't understand why Beardmore should keep himself so quiet. The house was his; or at any rate he possessed a key to it. But the silence and darkness were those of the grave.
On the next floor there were likewise long corridors on the right and the left. Lance went up the right-hand branch of the stairs. On this side nothing. He passed around the gallery, and as he looked into the corridor on the other side, he stiffened. Under the first door on the left showed a crack of light.
His first feeling was one of relief. Light suggested everything that was normal and living and human, and nightmare terrors evaporated. Jim Beardmore was behind that door. Lance smiled grimly and approached it.
For a moment he paused outside, debating the best way to act. The most direct way was surely the best. He suddenly turned the handle with his left hand, and stepped over the threshold with his gun ready.
A long room ending in a bay at the far end; a library lined with books. Brightly lighted. It contained only a few comfortable pieces of furniture covered with dust-cloths. And Beardmore was there. He sat in a chair at the other end near the windows, his back turned to Lance. Not wanting to shoot him in the back. Lance spoke brusquely.
The man never moved, and in that instant Lance realized that he was dead.
The young man's eyes goggled with horror, his pistol hand shook like a leaf, a fine sweat broke out on his forehead. He had entered the house not more than three minutes after Beardmore, yet in so short a time the deed was done! Quick work! The murderer could not be far away. Still in the room, perhaps. Lance's eyes darted, looking for possible hiding-places. The room had no other door but the one he had entered by. He closed it to guard against surprise from that side. In a moment he had got a grip on himself. The murderer was not in the room. Lance approached the body. All his feeling of enmity left him. Beardmore's head had fallen a little forward and to one side, as if he had dropped into a doze. The hues of life had not yet faded from his coarse face.
A gun was lying on the floor at his feet. Lance took note of powder burns on the breast of his coat, and for a moment he thought it a case of suicide. But the ridiculous luncheon-basket lying on a table near by gave the lie to that. No! Somebody else had done Lance's work for him. He dropped his gun in his pocket. Meanwhile a dark wet stain was spreading through the breast of Beardmore's jacket.
Lance suddenly bethought himself of his own hazardous situation; he looked around him nervously. Where was the murderer? Had they passed each other silently in the dark house? How to get out, himself, now? Was the other lying in wait for him in the corridor?
As he glanced towards the door of the room he suddenly congealed into ice. The handle was slowly turning. He drew his gun and instinctively dropped on one knee, partly covered by the table. The door opened, slowly, slowly, just an inch or two. Lance waited.
It opened no farther. A man's hand appeared around the edge of the door—a hand in a brown glove, the cuff of a gray homespun suit showing above. He was fumbling for the key. Lance suddenly understood his intention and leaped to his feet with a shout. He ran for the door, but the room was long. The hand pulled the key out and slammed the door. Lance fired a shot through the door. It was no good; the key had turned.
LANCE flung himself against the locked door. But since it opened towards him, there was no possibility of forcing it out. Like any living creature suddenly finding itself trapped, a panic seized him. He looked wildly around the room in search of a weapon to smash his way free. The luxurious library offered nothing. The door was of heavy mahogany.
Lance was filled with an unreasoning terror of the dead man who shared his prison. It seemed to him that the head of the sinister figure was nodding slightly, as if Jim Beardmore was laughing. Slinging the basket to one side, he turned the table upside down and, standing on it, wrenched violently at one of the legs. He was afraid to look at the dead man and afraid to turn his back on him.
He succeeded in smashing one of the legs off. Running back to the door, he swung the club with all his might against the panels. The crashing blows echoed strangely through the quiet house. Lance kept glancing in terror over his shoulder at the dead man. His efforts were in vain. He only succeeded in bruising his hands and numbing his arms with the force of his own blows. He slung the club aside and snatched up a heavy brass poker that stood at the fireplace. Useless. The poker bent double in his hands.
He leaned against the door, panting. All the time better sense was telling him that this would never do. With a powerful effort of the will he quieted his shaking nerves. He forced himself to go back to the dead man and gaze at him steadily. Beardmore's face was waxen now. He was dead, all right. He would never jeer at anybody again. The dead are harmless.
Lance tried to think things through. What strange coil of circumstances had he gotten himself into? What had brought the arrogant millionaire out here with his basket of lunch? Why had the murderer locked him in with his victim? To try to shift the crime to Lance, perhaps. Not such a bad idea when Lance had been bound on the same errand. A cold sweat broke out all over him as he considered the difficulty of proving his innocence. Perhaps the killer knows all about me, he thought.
Then the thought came to him like a sudden flash of light: Jim Beardmore is dead and Freda is free! Life seemed terribly sweet to Lance then. The only way for him to save himself would be to establish the truth of the matter. With a shiver of repulsion, he started going through the dead man's pockets. They were empty; money, keys, everything had been taken.
Lance reached for the pistol on the floor, but drew back his hand in fright, remembering fingerprints. He examined the weapon without touching it; an old-fashioned revolver of large caliber, with silver and mother-of-pearl mountings. On a silver plate on the butt the owner's name was engraved—James Beardmore. Jim's own gun.
Lance wondered how the revolver could have been placed against Jim's breast without his resistance. A bruise on his temple supplied the explanation. He had been knocked down first. The bullet had gone completely through his body. After some search Lance found it imbedded in the floor near the door. He was then able to piece together what had happened. As he entered the door Jim had been struck by a black jack or some such weapon, and as he lay on his back on the floor he had been shot through the heart. The murderer had then dragged him to the chair. The fact that he had procured Jim's own gun suggested that the killer was some one close to him.
Lance went through the luncheon-basket. It contained nothing but lunch—lobster mayonnaise, a salad, dainty sandwiches, a couple of bottles of champagne, and coffee in a thermos bottle. Service for two! Was it possible that a woman had killed Jim Beardmore? The blackjack is not customarily a woman's weapon. Perhaps there was more than one engaged in it.
A sound outside, or a fancied sound, recalled Lance to a sense of his own terrible danger. He instinctively turned out the lights in the room. He went to the windows. The land fell away at the back of the house, and there was a drop of about thirty feet below him. It might have been possible to make a rope out of the heavy curtains and the dustcloths, but that would take time.
The side window of the bay faced a window of the adjoining room. A space of three feet or so separated them. Possible to step across. To think of it was to put it into effect. Lance threw the sash up to its farthest extent, and standing on the sill, supporting himself by the window frame, leaned over and kicked in the next window. Pieces of the glass shivered on the stone paving below.
Reaching over with his hand, he found the latch and turned it. To raise the sash in that strained position was not easy, but he finally succeeded in moving it an inch. When he could work the toe of his shoe under it, he got a better leverage. He crossed over to the other sill and let himself into a dark room. He felt his way to the door, and turned the handle, with his heart in his mouth. The door was not locked!
But he was afraid of what might be waiting for him outside. He opened the door and stepped back and to one side, gun in hand, half expecting a rush of bodies, or possibly a shot. But all was dark and quiet in the corridor. He slipped out. Down at the far end a window showed a pale rectangle of light. He inched along towards the stairs, instinctively keeping his back against the wall, and trying to look both forward and back. His body struck against the key in the door of the library. Removing it, he dropped it in his pocket with the idea of delaying the discovery of the murder as long as possible.
For some moments he hesitated at the mouth of the corridor, dreading to trust himself in the comparative lightness of the great hall. But delay was dangerous. He started down the stairs a step at a time, pressing against the wall. The silence of the place was absolute, and his confidence increased. An instinct told him that the house was empty now, and he went down the last few steps boldly.
At the bottom of the steps his heart suddenly turned to water with fear, for he heard the roar of an approaching squad of motorcycles. He ran to the front door. He was too late. They were arriving outside. Through a window he saw them dismounting—half a dozen motorcycles followed by a big police truck full of men. They ran up the steps. Lance had but just time enough to shoot a bolt in the big door. They heard the sound and flung themselves against the door. Lance retreated from it.
For the second time the panic of the trapped creature gripped him. Why hadn't he let himself down from the window? He ran blindly into the corridor on the right, opening this door and that, seeking a way of escape. But whenever he approached a window he saw police outside. They were surrounding the house, throwing their lights along the walls. A driveway ran all the way around the house, making their job easier.
Lance, blocked at one end of the house, ran blindly back through the corridor. As he crossed the great hall a mighty blow was delivered on the door, that shook the whole house. They had improvised a battering-ram. The sound lent wings to Lance's feet.
At the next blow the door went in with a crash. Men ran in. Somebody found the light switch and the central hall was flooded with light. Lance, in the side corridor, opened a door at random, and darted into a room. There was no key in the door to lock it behind him. It was a dining-room. He fell over a chair. The sound was heard, and a shout was raised behind him. Running feet pounded along the corridor.
The dining-room had another door. Lance flung himself through it. A swing door; pantry inside. Through an archway he collided with the rail of a stair. He ran up. There was a door at the head of the stairs, and this one had a key in it. He turned it, and leaned against the door, panting.
He was at the end of the upstairs corridor. At his right hand was the same window he had seen before. Through it he could see a motorcycle policeman in the driveway below, turning his headlight this way and that on the building. No escape that side.
His pursuers were throwing themselves against the door he had locked. Fortunately for Lance, they were in a cramped space at the head of the stairs. Lance ran back through the corridor to the central hall. Nobody had come up the main stairs yet. It was an ordeal to face the lighted gallery, but he had no choice, for they must soon break through the door behind him.
He dropped to all fours and crawled around the gallery, keeping as far as possible from the balustrade. He could hear voices below. He was seen, or heard, for a shout was raised, and men started up the stairs. Lance rose to his feet, and ran like a deer through the far corridor. He felt that he was coming to the end of his rope now.
He opened a door at the end. It had a key in it. He slammed it shut and locked it behind him. He was in a bedroom. It was merely exchanging one trap for another. A corner room. The back windows opened on the sloping roof of a porch. Lance raised one of the windows softly. Over the edge of the porch he could see the reflected radiance of a headlight, but the light itself was invisible.
When his pursuers threw themselves against the door of the bedroom he climbed out on the roof. His last stand, he told himself, for there was a policeman waiting in the drive below. There was a tall tree growing at the edge of the porch, with one long branch overhanging the roof. It offered a desperate chance, and Lance took it. He sprang for the branch, caught it, and drew himself up.
He worked his way in to the trunk of the tree, and sat on the branch, embracing it. He could see the police-man now, turning his light this way and that, and watching. Presently two men appeared at the window of the bedroom Lance had quitted. They had flashlights which they threw around. The lights did not pick up Lance, but the policemen saw the tree and guessed which way he had gone. They called to the man below. Had he seen anybody? No. Then their man was in the tree. They climbed out on the roof. Lance edged around to the far side of the tree trunk, and crept out on another long branch. The trees grew thickly on this side. When his branch began to sway under him dangerously, he leaped for a branch of the next tree and caught it. He gained the ground by way of the trunk of the second tree, still unseen, and set off running, stumbling over the rough ground, dodging the trees. He was heard, and the three policemen came after him.
He turned sharply to the right, and after running a few steps crouched in the shelter of a thick bush. The three men charged by, all unaware of him. He rose and crept softly in the other direction. Silence was of more importance to him than speed. Presently he heard his pursuers running back.
He struck a path, and turned into it in the direction away from the house. In a hundred yards it ended at the shore of an ornamental lake winding away in the dark amongst the trees. There was a small boat tied to the bank, with oars in it. Lance was an oarsman and he knew he could make twice as good time in the boat as they could follow through the pathless woods. He untied it and pushed off.
At that moment a policeman came running down the path and shouted. Other men answered him. Lance rowed swiftly away in the dark. Forever afterwards the slightly stale smell of a fresh-water pond was associated in his mind with the events of that night. He could see the Great Bear over the tree-tops, and the North Star, and he noted that his course was sou'-sou'-east. Not that it did him any good, for he was totally unacquainted with the neighborhood. His pursuer was crashing through the bushes alongshore. Lance gained on him rapidly.
The little narrow lake was only about quarter of a mile long. At the other end Lance found another boat drawn up, and his heart sank. He couldn't stop to investigate. The path began again. He followed it, warily peering ahead.
As soon as he left the lake he heard footsteps in the winding path behind him, and the cold hand of fear was laid on his breast. Not the policeman, because he could still hear him floundering through the bushes in the distance. Soft padding steps behind him. When Lance stopped the sound ceased; when he started it recommenced. Fear of the unknown made Lance's skin turn clammy.
In a moment or two he saw lights through the trees and left the path. The footsteps behind him turned aside when his did. The woods ended abruptly, and a wide, flat field stretched before him. There was a main highway on the other side of the field, with cars running to and fro in it. These were the lights he had seen.
Lance was a runner, and he instinctively trusted to his legs. He sprang away across the field. He had not taken half a dozen steps when he collided with an invisible wire fence which yielded under the impact of his body, and, tautening, flung him violently back on the ground. Before he could recover himself his pursuer had dropped on him and was kneeling on his chest.
A man of flesh and bone like himself, Lance was no longer afraid of him. He regretted that he had run. It was a heavy man whose knees crushed Lance's ribs and hindered his breathing. He had a soft hat pulled down over his eyes, and the lower part of his face was hidden under a cloth. Lance struggled with all his might, but he was at a hopeless disadvantage.
Once, as he flung a hand up, he struck the man's watch, and a tinkling sound issued from it. A repeater. Lance was to remember that sound. The man raised his right hand with significant action and brought it down with terrible force. Lance heard the blow on his own skull. His senses reeled. The blow paralysed a nerve center. All the strength ran out of his limbs. He was as helpless as a log of wood. It was like a nightmare. Yet he remained conscious. While the man's hands ran over Lance's body, feeling in his pockets, he was muttering in a low, toneless voice: "What luck! What luck! What luck!"
He pulled out Lance's gun. "Christ! what a piece of luck!" he muttered. He gave Lance a shake. "Can you hear me? This is too good to keep! I'm going to shoot you with your own gun and leave it beside you! They will call it murder and suicide!"
"So this is the murderer!" thought Lance.
The shot was never fired. A sound from the direction of the woods caused the man crouching on Lance's body to turn his head sharply. Another figure ran out from amongst the trees. The man sprang up from Lance and turned to face the newcomer. Lance found strength enough to drag himself away through the grass.
He instinctively headed for the shelter of the trees and the undergrowth. Behind him he heard the sounds of a furious quiet struggle. Lance crawled into the middle of a bush, and lay there until he could recover more strength.
There was a shot from the struggling men—then silence. Lance heard the survivor running to and fro in the grass, cursing frantically under his breath, looking for Lance, no doubt. Other men could be heard running up by the path through the woods. The man ran away.
Lance was able to stand now, and he lost no time in putting space between himself and the men who were coming. He ran along in the shadow of the edge of the woods. As the footsteps drew closer he struck into the woods and went down on all fours, feeling the ground in front of him, and creeping ahead a foot at a time to avoid making any sound. He gradually lost the other men.
After a considerable time he came to a fence, and climbing it, found himself in a rough cart track, with the woods on one side and a field on the other. He followed the track past a dark and silent farmhouse, and finally came out on a main highway.
He dared not take to the highway for fear of being picked up by the lights of the cars that occasionally passed back and forth, but made his way through the fields parallel with the road, climbing the fences as he came to them. The reflected light in the sky showed him in which direction the city lay.
From the city a big police car came roaring down the highway at sixty miles an hour, bearing reinforcements to the searchers. Other cars followed it, filled with reporters, perhaps, or mere curiosity-seekers. Lance gave the road a wider berth. Coming to a cross-road, he skirted that, making a detour around the city so that he could enter it from a different quarter.
After a long walk he came to another highway, and eventually to the terminus of a trolley line, not the same line that he had left town by. A car was waiting, ready to return. Lance put his clothes in order as well as he could, smoothed his hair, wiped the mud off his shoes, and boarded it. Nobody took any particular notice of him.
As the car filled on its way in to town his fears died down. When he got off at the Civic Center and lost himself amongst the crowds on the sidewalks, a delicious sense of safety filled him. After all, nobody in the vicinity of the murder had had a close look at him, except the murderer, and he was in no position to denounce Lance.
He was astonished to discover from the street clocks that it was not yet nine o'clock. Only two hours since he had left town! It seemed as if the events of half a lifetime lay between. Pausing in front of a lighted store window and examining himself in a mirror, he saw that he looked much the same as usual; a little strained about the eyes, perhaps. It was hard to believe that a man could be so little changed.
LANCE went home, changed his clothes, and immediately set out for Franklin Street. He could not rest that night until he had talked with Freda.
When he asked for her at the boarding-house he was invited to wait in the parlor. The other boarders, all elderly, were sitting around the room, playing cards and doing fancy-work. Lance preferred to remain in the hall.
When she came down, so pretty, so quiet, so straight, he began to tremble all over. He clenched his hands to control it. It was as if he were really seeing her for the first. There was a strange look in her eyes. She had on her hat and coat, and she said at once:
"Let us walk out. There is no place in this house where we can talk."
When the front door closed behind them, Lance caught up her hand and pressed it hard. Speech almost failed him. All he could get out was: "Oh, Freda!...Oh, Freda!"
"What's the matter?" she asked, sharply. She pulled her hand away.
"Jim Beardmore is dead," he said.
"I know it," said Freda, in a smothered voice.
Lance stopped short on the steps. "How did you know?"
"His son Tony just called me up and told me."
A sharp stab of jealousy went through Lance. "What is Tony Beardmore to you?" he demanded.
"Nothing," said Freda. "But Jim Beardmore is my employer. I'm his secretary."
Lance stared at her while he digested this piece of information.
They went down the balance of the steps. In the path leading through the front yard Freda turned to him with that extraordinarily level look of hers and asked him, quietly, "How did you know it?"
Lance turned red, and then all the color faded from his face. Too late he saw what a mistake he had made in rushing to her with the news. "I...I heard it downtown," he stammered. "Everybody is talking about it."
Freda's eyes were still fixed on his face. "You are lying," she said. "Anybody could see it."
He couldn't find a word to say.
There was a bench beside the path for the use of the boarders in fine weather. Freda dropped on it as if all the strength had suddenly run out of her legs. "Did you kill him?" she whispered.
"No!" cried Lance. "I swear it!"
"What need to swear it," she said, "unless your conscience is bad?"
He was silent.
She covered her face with her hands and her body rocked on the bench. The sight was more than Lance could bear. "Freda, I didn't do it! I didn't!" he murmured, brokenly. He put a hand on her shoulder, but she jerked away with so terrible a shudder he dared not touch her again.
"Then how did you know it so soon?" she whispered.
"I won't lie to you any more," he said, recklessly. "I followed him this afternoon when he left the office. First downtown and then to a big house out in the country."
"For what purpose?" she asked.
"I wanted to find out what kind of a hold it was that he had over you. I could see that he was spoiling your life. I wanted to save you."
"You meant to kill him!" she whispered, accusingly.
Lance straightened up. "Well, I might have killed him," he said, quietly. "There mustn't be anything but the truth between you and me. When I got that note from you I saw red."
"Oh!" gasped Freda. "And now you're saying I put you up to it!"
Lance bent over the crushed figure, longing to take her in his arms. "No!" he said, deeply. "I stand by my own acts...I might have killed him. But somebody else was before me."
Freda crouched lower on the bench. "Do you expect me to believe that!" she whispered.
"It's the truth," said Lance. "I found him dead in the big house. Shot with a gun that was marked with his own name. It wasn't suicide, though. I met the killer in the woods afterwards. He tried to shoot me."
"This is an incredible story!" she murmured. "You are lying."
"Freda, look at me!" he begged. "You saw it in the beginning when I tried to lie; now you ought to see that I'm telling the truth...I love you! O God, how I love you! From the first moment I saw you I was no further use to myself! And now I love you a thousand times more! Look at me! Look at me!"
She obstinately kept her face hidden. "Did you think you could win me through a murder?" she whispered.
"No! When I bought the gun I never thought of myself at all. I just wanted to save you."
"Yet you came to me the moment he was dead!"
"I would not have come if I had killed him," said Lance, somberly. "I would just have disappeared."
Freda was silent.
"I came to you instinctively," Lance went on. "I couldn't rest until I had seen you. I haven't asked you what was between you and Jim Beardmore because, whatever it was, I know that you're on the square. I reckon I took it for granted that you would trust me the same way. I see my mistake."
"You started in by lying to me," she said.
He hung his head. "I was a fool," he muttered. "You looked at me so suspiciously, it seemed to cut all the ground from under me. I lost my head for the moment."
"I can't believe you now," she said in a muffled voice. "Leave me! I can't stand any more of this."
"Freda, I believe you love me a little," he said, softly, "or this wouldn't hurt you so much. Look at me! The other day when I held you in my arms I was sure of it!"
She sprang away from him. "No! You are horrible to me!" she murmured, hysterically. "I wish I had never laid eyes on you. I never want to see you again! Go! Go!"
Lance turned sore then. "Oh yes?" he said. "Women are a good bit different from men, it seems. I did not kill Jim Beardmore, but if I had it would have been to save you. If you had killed him—I reckon you had plenty of reason to do so—I wouldn't have asked the whys or wherefores of it. My only thought would have been to stand by you."
His anger stimulated her. She got the better of her weakness. "How dare you speak to me like that!" she said, facing him out. "You know nothing about me or what my feelings are. I didn't ask you to interfere in my life. I asked you to keep out of it!"
"Day before yesterday you kissed me," he murmured.
"That's not so!" she said, indignantly. "You are stronger than I. When you seized me I was helpless!"
"Oh, well, you can always get rid of me by informing against me to the police," said Lance, bitterly. "I don't mind telling you that it would be damned hard for me to clear myself if I were taken. I was too close to the murder to-night—to two murders, I reckon. I believe there was a cop killed later. With my gun."
"Do you have to insult me?" said Freda, sorely. "Go away! I only want to forget you."
"I'm going," said Lance, curtly.
At the first move he made to turn away her voice broke. "Wait!" she said, breathlessly. "What are you going to do?"
"What is it to you?" he muttered, sullenly.
"You must get out of town. You must go far away. Have you sufficient money?"
"I'm not going to run for it," he said, stubbornly.
"But this is suicidal!" she said, wringing her hands. "The death of Jim Beardmore will rouse the whole country. The police will never rest until they have run you down. All the millions of the Beardmore family will be back of them. You'll be caught!"
"All right," he said, "let them catch me. I'm not going to get out of Lounsbery until I get to the bottom of this business. I'm going to find out for myself who killed Jim Beardmore, and why."
"Think of me!" she pleaded. "You said that you did this for me."
"I didn't do it," said Lance.
"...And that I egged you on to do it! What about me if you are tried and perhaps convicted?"
"Your name won't be mentioned at the trial. At least not by me."
"This is no good!" said Lance, harshly. He left her.
EARLY next morning Lance, lying wakeful on his bed, heard the newspaper-truck speed through the street. Five o'clock. He knew that a bundle of papers had been dropped at the stand on the corner, but he dared not venture out to get one. Such unusual eagerness to read the news might arouse somebody's suspicion.
He forced himself to remain in his room until seven, when plenty of other people were moving in the street. Then he went out, bought his paper and, bringing it back to his room, applied himself to it with a feverish intensity. He read:
'At seven-twenty last night the police of the Northeastern station received a telephone call from an unknown man who stated that he had just seen Mr. James Beardmore entering his country place, Fairfield, on foot, and that he was followed by a furtive figure skulking in the dark.
'Captain Edward Higgins, the commander of the Northeastern division, thought it extremely improbable that the head of the great Beardmore Mills should be walking along the country roads in the dark, but as he did not want to take any chances in exposing Lounsbery's leading citizen to danger, he immediately dispatched every available man to Fairfield, and took command of them himself.
'As the police mounted the steps of the mansion they heard the bolt of the front door shoot across. They immediately broke the door down. A man was heard running through the corridors of the deserted house and a wild chase took place through one room after another, upstairs and down. The fugitive finally escaped through an upstairs window, across a porch roof and into a tree.
'The police then divided their forces. The larger party was sent out to scour the grounds, while Captain Higgins and the balance of his men searched the house. In a locked library on the second floor they found the body of Mr. Beardmore shot through the heart. He was seated in a chair. He had been dead but a short time. The pistol with which the deed had been committed was lying at his feet.
'In the meantime the men who were searching the shores of the artificial lake on the property, heard a shot from the far end of the lake. Upon running to the spot they found the body of their comrade, Sergeant Doty. Doty had been shot through the temple and instantly killed.
'This shocking double crime which has aroused the whole city bears several unusual and baffling features. Everybody in Lounsbery knows Fairfield, the magnificent Palladian mansion standing in its own park of over one hundred acres on the Hartford road. When Mr. and Mrs. Beardmore separated last July, and Mrs. Beardmore went to Reno to establish residence, the house was closed up and has not been used since.
'A gardener called Timothy Wilson and his wife were left in charge as caretakers. They live in a cottage a couple of hundred yards from the big house. Wilson has stated to the police that at 5:30 yesterday afternoon Mr. Beardmore called him up and told him that he was going to give a little party at Fairfield that night. He wouldn't want any attendance, he said, and Wilson and his wife were to go out to spend the night. They went to Mrs. Wilson's sister's. Wilson was positive that it was his master's voice. No other voice was like his, he said.
'It has transpired that when Mr. Beardmore left his office at the close of business, he was driven downtown to Murdoch's traveling-goods store. Here he dismissed his chauffeur. In Murdoch's Mr. Beardmore purchased an expensive luncheon-basket with service for two. He carried the basket to the Lounsbery Club near by, and ordered the steward to stock it with the best the club afforded, including a couple of bottles of champagne from his private locker.
'Several of the club members with whom Mr. Beardmore chatted while he was waiting for his lunch to be packed have reported to the police that he appeared to be in the highest spirits. He left the club shortly before seven, carrying the basket, and he must have proceeded directly to Fairfield, since it was only about half an hour later that the police received their call. Why Mr. Beardmore chose to enter his place on foot cannot be explained.
'Everything points to the fact that the murdered millionaire was decoyed to Fairfield for an appointment with a woman. But apparently the woman was not actually concerned in the crime, because no woman's footprints have been found around the place. The tracks of two different men have been established.
'The gun with which Mr. Beardmore was shot bears his own name. His valet, William Beddowe, has informed the police that this gun was not brought into town with Mr. Beardmore's other effects, but was left at Fairfield in a drawer of the desk in the library where the murder took place. This suggests that the deed was committed by somebody who was thoroughly familiar with the house.
'Suspicion has been directed towards the servants at Fairfield who were discharged when the house was closed. Mr. Beardmore had had trouble with his servants. Mr. and Mrs. Wilson, the caretakers, are being held as material witnesses, though they have proved to the satisfaction of the police that they were not near the spot when the shot was fired.
'The library shows evidences of a struggle having taken place, but as the dead man's clothing was not in any way disarranged, it is supposed that he had no part in it, but was struck down as he entered the room, and then shot. According to the theory of the police there were two men engaged in the killing. After the shot was fired they quarreled. One locked the other in the library with the dead man, and went away to telephone the police. It has been proved that the telephone call came from the mansion itself.
'The man who was locked in the room smashed a leg off the table and tried to batter his way out through the door. Failing in this, he stood on the window-sill, kicked in the window of the adjoining room, and escaped in that manner. This was the man, of course, that the police chased through the house. The police have his fingerprints.
'Just what happened when Sergeant Doty came to his death will never be known unless the culprits confess. Oddly enough, judging from the tracks in the vicinity, both the killers seem to have been on the spot. It is possible that they may have patched up their quarrel and joined forces again. No trace of them has yet been found.
'Sergeant Doty was one of the most popular members of the Lounsbery police force. He has been a policeman for twenty-three years, and every resident of the Northeastern quarter is familiar with his rubicund face and friendly smile. Every one of his comrades, from the commissioner down to the rawest recruit, takes his death as a personal matter and is determined to bring the murderers to justice.
'Unfortunately, the police did not get a good look at either of the two men, and no description of them can be broadcast. However, it is thought that the rewards which have been offered will produce quick results. John Moseley, as acting head of the Beardmore Mills, has offered ten thousand dollars' reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the murderer or murderers of James Beardmore, to which the Patrolmen's Benefit Association has added fifteen hundred dollars for the apprehension of the killers of Sergeant Doty. It is expected that the city and perhaps the state will increase these amounts.
'It is a singular coincidence that a decree of absolute divorce was awarded to Mrs. Beardmore only yesterday. Mr. Beardmore had been apprised of the fact by telegraph. It is not believed, however, that this had anything to do with what happened later.
'Mrs. Beardmore, notified of the sad occurrence by telephone, has signified her intention of returning to Lounsbery immediately with her daughter. In the meantime the family is represented by Mr. Anthony Beardmore, the son. An inquest will be held today, but it will be merely a formality. Mr. Beardmore's funeral will take place on Thursday, and a half holiday will be declared at the mills in order to allow the employees to attend.
'This distressing event recalls the tragic end of Mr. Beardmore's father, the late Peter Beardmore, twenty-two years ago. However, there was no mystery about that. The elder Beardmore, founder of the great business that bears the family name, was shot in his office by one Thomas Rondel, an employee who imagined that he had a financial grievance against the head of the firm. Rondel escaped after firing the shot, and has never been apprehended, though the police of the entire civilized world joined in the search for him.
The pious platitudes that closed the story brought a grim smile to Lance's lips. "This was no servant's job," he murmured.
FOR a long time Lance paced up and down his little room, smoking one cigarette after another while he doped out a course of action. The grim smile frequently played around his lips, for the plan he proposed to himself had both its dangerous and its humorous aspects. Finally he finished dressing with some care, and started out.
After eating a good breakfast, he proceeded out to the plant of the Beardmore Mills on the outskirts of town. The vast place showed no change. Freight-cars were being shunted in the rear; trucks were passing in and out of the mill yard; and while he was still some distance off Lance could hear the clack of the thousands of looms. Business was going on as usual, though the master of it all lay dead with a bullet hole through his heart.
The ornamental pool with its border of flower-beds and cypress trees sparkled in the sunshine. There were a number of loiterers on the sidewalk, gazing at the mill buildings open-mouthed, as if what they had read in the newspapers invested the place with a romantic interest for them. As he passed by Lance could hear snatches of their talk.
"Well, all Jim Beardmore's money's no good to him now!...You said it, friend!...A hard race, them Beardmores; like father, like son!...But you got to admit they done something for this town...Yeah! a dollar for the town and ten for their own pockets!"
Lance entered the elegant neo-Greek temple that housed the firm's offices. In the superb outer hall which they called the atrium there was but a single desk, occupied by a beautiful snowy-haired old gentleman who inquired Lance's business with distinguished courtesy.
"I want to see somebody about applying for a position in the office force," said Lance.
The old gentleman modified his courtesy when he found that he had merely a job-seeker to deal with. "Write your name on this card," he said.
Lance presently found himself in a small office facing a hard-eyed young man no older than himself. This was Mr. Watson, chief of the office personnel. He gave Lance a cursory glance and went on paring his nails.
"I would like to apply for an office position," said Lance.
The other young man smiled disagreeably. "So would a few thousand others," he said.
"I'm a first-rate stenographer and accountant," said Lance. "I can furnish good references."
"Have you got any letters of introduction to the heads of the firm?"
"Do you know anybody here?"
"Not interested," said the young man. "We already got a waiting list with near a hundred names on it."
"If you'd try out my stenography..."
"Got something else to do."
Lance glanced dryly at the nail-paring operation. "I thought perhaps that the death of Mr. Beardmore might result in certain changes."
"Maybe you'd like his job," said the young man.
"Not exactly," said Lance, with obstinate good humor.
"Nothing doing," said the other, glancing towards the door.
"Will you take my name and address?"
"What's the use?"
Nevertheless Lance insisted on writing it on a card. He had a well-defined impression that the card was slipped into the wastebasket as soon as he turned away towards the door.
A job-hunter has to learn to take such rebuffs philosophically. Lance, with a shrug, walked home studying to find a means of getting past the hard-boiled Mr. Watson.
In the lower hall of the boarding-house he met his landlady, Mrs. Peake, as always, untidy, good-natured, and garrulous.
"Did the fellow overtake you?" she asked at once.
"What fellow?" said Lance, staring.
"Why, you hadn't no more than gone out this morning when a young fellow rang at the door, asking for a Mr. Andrews."
"I haven't any Mr. Andrews," I says.
"Tall young fellow," he says, "well-built, with black hair and gray eyes. Has a business-like look about him."
"You must mean Lance McCrea," I says. "There he goes up the street now."
"I can easy overtake him," he says, and he sets off after you."
"He must have got discouraged," said Lance, dryly. "I never saw him."
"Oh well, no doubt he'll call again," said Mrs. Peake, innocently.
Lance went upstairs with a sober face. It would have been obvious to anybody but a born fool like Mrs. Peake that this inquiry was merely a ruse to obtain Lance's name.
A few minutes later the result appeared. A note for Lance was delivered by hand at the door. It read:
Dear Mr. McCrea:
Since you were here this morning an opening has developed. If you will come back and see me at your earliest convenience, it is possible that I may be able to place you.
"Hm!" murmured Lance, grimly. "Henry has had his orders from above."
He planted his elbows on his table and dug his knuckles into his cheeks. There was a deep furrow between his brows. Unable to come to a decision, he took a sheet of paper and a pencil, and drawing a line down the middle of the paper, wrote "For" at the top of one half, and "Against" at the top of the other. Under "For" he wrote:
"Jim Beardmore was certainly murdered by somebody who was close to him. My only chance of solving the crime is to get a job at the mills and watch his associates."
Under "Against" he wrote:
"The murderer knows my name now, and this offer of a job is merely a trick to get me into his power. He has already tried to murder me. I know too much for his safety."
Then under "For":
"If I appear to fall into his trap it will put him off his guard, and he will likely betray himself."
"But if he knows me and I don't know him, the advantage will be all on his side."
"But as long as I am warned and as long as I keep my eyes open I can protect myself."
"If he's in a position of power at the mills I would be helpless."
"I've got to take this job in order to find out anything."
"I couldn't guard against an ambush."
"I've got to take this job."
Lance found that his exercise was becoming monotonous. He saw that his mind was made up. He tore up the piece of paper and reached for his hat.
He found the atmosphere of the Beardmore offices more salubrious than upon the occasion of his first call. The beautiful old gentleman in the atrium (Colonel Morton) was polite, while Watson had become positively effusive. As with all men of his type, his arrogance was compensated by an equal obsequiousness.
"How are you, McCrea?" he said. "Funny thing, you hadn't been gone out of my office half an hour this morning when I got a call from the bosses for a male stenographer and secretary. So I sent a boy right after you in a car."
Lance would have liked to ask him how he had come to address his note to "Lance" McCrea instead of to "Lawrence," as he had written it upon the card, but he discreetly held his tongue. "Want to try out my stenography?" he asked.
"I won't take the time," said Watson. "The bosses are in conference now. You can go in and speak up for yourself."
He led Lance into a big handsome room at the back of the building, with a row of tall windows looking out on flower-beds and trees, the mill buildings rising in the background. This was called the board-room. There was an immense mahogany table with three prosperous-looking gentlemen sitting at one end of it, and a male stenographer a yard or two away, ready with pencil and notebook.
All three gentlemen were dressed in mourning, with black cravats. Their three faces bore the conventional expressions of grief, but there was a covert shine in each pair of eyes that gave them the look of prisoners who had suddenly found their freedom. Many papers were spread on the table, and it was obvious that they had important matters to discuss this morning; nevertheless, when Watson pronounced Lance's name they looked at him with an intensity of interest they could not hide. A crawling of the skin at the back of his neck warned Lance of danger.
All three of the officials were heavy men. Lance was looking for a heavy man. His ribs were still sore from the weight which had crushed them in the night before. Chief amongst the three was a gray-faced man with a neat pointed beard who had something the look of a respectable wolf in correct mourning clothes. This was Mr. John Moseley, acting president of the company. He said, in a voice as smooth as soap:
"Mr. Watson tells us that you have applied for a position as stenographer. Owing to the tragic death of Mr. James Beardmore there will be a good many changes here. The extra duties that have fallen on Mr. Anthony Beardmore will make it necessary for him to have a male secretary. Unfortunately, he is out now. So many things to see to in respect to his father's funeral. But I have no doubt that you will suit him if we are satisfied."
This speech did not ring true. It was too explanatory to come from the head of a great company to a humble job-seeker. Lance bowed and waited for more.
"Thank you, Mr. Watson," said Mr. Moseley, affably, and Watson retired. Mr. Moseley introduced his associates as Mr. Clinton Beardmore and Mr. Rainer Stanley, both vice-presidents of the company. The latter spoke up sharply. He was an odd-looking man with a prominent fleshy nose and retreating forehead and chin, which made him look like a codfish.
"What led you to apply for a position with our company?"
Lance had naturally a frank and open look, and was quite capable of using it as a concealment when it suited him. "No particular reason," he answered, smiling. "Everybody says that this is the only concern in town that is doing any business."
"Were you acquainted with Mr. James Beardmore?" asked Moseley, with a gimlet-like glance.
Lance hesitated for the fraction of a second before answering. It was obvious that these men knew a good deal about him. Consequently, to lie would only be to show his hand. He told the truth.
"I met Mr. Beardmore, but I can't say that I was acquainted with him."
The third man spoke up quickly, "Under what circumstances did you meet him?"
This was Clinton Beardmore, known to Lance as Jim's brother. He was much younger than Jim, and the most elegant of the three sitting at the table. He looked like a hackney stallion carefully groomed for the show ring—a hackney of uncertain temper.
"Miss Rollin used to live in the same house that I do," Lance answered, coolly, "and Mr. Beardmore came to see her there. She introduced us."
The three partners exchanged uneasy glances. "So Miss Rollin is a friend of yours?" said Mr. Moseley, with a polite smile and an ugly glitter in his cold eyes.
"Well, such a friend as you make when you live in the same house," said Lance.
"If you knew Mr. Beardmore, why didn't you apply to him for a position here?" asked Moseley.
"To tell you the truth," said Lance, smiling, "he was so big a man I didn't have the nerve to brace him."
Moseley appeared to be satisfied. "Mr. Abbott," he said to the stenographer at the table, "lend Mr. McCrea your notebook for a moment...Take a sample letter, Mr. McCrea."
He dictated rapidly. Lance had no difficulty in getting it down, and reading it off afterwards.
"Very good," said Moseley, with his frosty smile. "I expect you'll do."
"Don't you want to investigate my references?" asked Lance, with a look of surprise.
"Oh," said Moseley. "I thought Watson had attended to that. Let Abbott take down the names of the firms you have worked for, and we will communicate with them."
Lance handed over his letters of recommendation.
He was told that his first job must be to open the letters and telegrams of condolence that were piling up on Anthony Beardmore's desk, and to draft answers to the same for Anthony to pass on when he came in. Abbott conducted him to his new office, and the three partners turned to the other business that awaited them.
In the corridor outside the board-room, Abbott, an unwholesome-looking lad with a complexion the color of a chestnut worm, said, with an ill-natured smile: "I never saw a job landed easier than that one."
"Yeah," said Lance with an innocent happy grin. "Bit of luck for me, wasn't it?"
A door opened beside them and they came face to face with Freda Rollin in the passage. The unexpected meeting gave the girl a nasty shock. Her mouth opened, and her pale face became paler still. She put out her hand against the wall behind her for support. Abbott watched the effect of this meeting with his mean eyes almost starting out of his head with curiosity.
"Good morning," said Lance, cheerfully. Freda seemed incapable of replying. "I've landed the job of secretary to Anthony Beardmore," said Lance, with the foolish, happy grin for Abbott's benefit.
Freda forced herself to smile. "Congratulations," she said. She went on her way.
Abbott showed Lance into Tony Beardmore's office. "Fine girl that," said Abbott, watching Lance's face. "She pretty damn near runs this joint."
"That so?" said Lance, innocently. "Certainly is a fine girl."
After he had gone the door opened and Freda appeared. She closed the door and leaned against it, breathing fast. Her hands were clenching and unclenching in the folds of her dress. "This is madness!" she whispered.
Lance's hardy grin softened. She looked so completely feminine in her distress. Obviously her first thought was for his safety. She seemed to be begging mercy of him. How could a man retain anger against her? He approached her.
"Why is it more dangerous for me here than any place else?" he asked.
"Because you have enemies here, and they will stop at nothing!"
"That's what I wanted to find out," said Lance.
"Well, now you know it. Go! Oh, please go! Slip away on any pretext! I can't bear it!" She clasped her hands in entreaty.
His glance at her was tender, but he opposed her still. "I won't go until I prove to you that I didn't do what you suspect me of," he said.
She lowered her head. "I no longer believe that you did it," she whispered.
This was sweet in Lance's ears. "What has changed you?" he asked.
She hesitated a second before answering. "Well...your coming here to apply for a job."
"You're lying," he said, softly. "You're no better a liar than I am." Freda said nothing. "Something has happened since I saw you last night that has proved to you I didn't do it," he said at a venture.
She darted a frightened glance in his face. "You're wrong," she said. "Nothing has happened."
"You know who did it!" said Lance.
Her hand stole to her throat. "Oh no! no!" she whispered, staring at him. "I know nothing."
"Well, you could give a darn good guess who did it!"
She did not answer. All she could say was: "Oh, please go away from here. You are in danger every minute! Please go!"
"I'll go on one condition," said Lance.
"What is that?"
"That you come with me."
She turned from him with a weary, helpless gesture. "Oh, don't!" she whispered. "I have been through so much! I can't stand it!"
"Why shouldn't you come with me?" he pleaded. "Jim Beardmore is dead and I didn't kill him. You are free. What do you want with the Beardmores now? Let me take you out of this rotten place. It smells of rottenness! What difference does it make how poor we are. We will live free!"
She turned away from him. Like a weary child she put up her arm against the wall and leaned her head against it. "Oh, don't!" she said. "We never can be anything to each other. Go away and leave me in peace!"
"Would it be peace?" he asked, bluntly. "Give me a straight answer."
She gave him no answer at all. "Aren't you free?" he demanded.
"No," she whispered. "Nothing is changed."
"Will you tell me the whole truth, then?" he pleaded.
"I can tell you nothing," she breathed. Her words were like the merest ghosts of words.
"Then here I stay until they get me or until I learn the truth for myself," he said, stubbornly. She left the room.
LANCE was engaged in sorting the letters and telegrams and answering such as he could when the door of the room was softly opened and Rainer Stanley stuck his elongated cod's head around it. There was a sly expression in his dull, protuberant eyes that instantly put Lance on his guard.
"Tony hasn't come in?" he said.
"Has he telephoned?"
"Not to my knowledge."
Mr. Stanley came in and, after giving a cautious glance back of him into the corridor, closed the door. "How are you getting along?" he said with a smile that was intended to be friendly, but, like everything else about the man, it was fishy.
"All right," said Lance. "I can't always tell which of the condolences are personal and which are just official."
"Oh, assume that they are all official," said Stanley, with a malicious grin. "There isn't anybody who is really sorry that Jim is gone."
Lance didn't know what to say to that, so he said nothing.
"These Beardmores!" said Stanley, shaking his head. Lance smiled noncommittally. "Too much money!" said Stanley. Lance said nothing.
"I've been bothered by something you said in the board-room," said Stanley, coming closer. "I didn't know that Jim was in the habit of calling on Freda Rollin at her boarding-house. Very foolish! The girl was his secretary, you know. You'd think he'd get enough of her during business hours."
Lance remained silent. He had a difficult part to play.
"Did he come there often?" asked Stanley.
"I don't know. I saw him there only once."
"When was that?"
"Day before yesterday."
An unpleasant grin spread across Stanley's face. "How did she come to introduce you to him?"
"She couldn't very well avoid it," said Lance. "I was standing at the door of her room, talking to her, when Mr. Beardmore came up the stairs."
"What did Jim say?"
"Nothing much. I understood that they were engaged to be married."
"What! He told you that! He wasn't divorced then."
"Oh well, people are a little careless about that nowadays," said Lance. "They often get themselves engaged before they are divorced."
"Did you beat Jim up?" asked Stanley, with his slow, evil grin.
Lance was startled. He sparred for time. "What makes you think that?"
"He came into the office yesterday with a painted-out black eye."
"I didn't exactly beat him up," said Lance, cautiously. "There was a little trouble. He resented my speaking to Miss Rollin."
"Tell me the whole story," urged Stanley, with fishy persuasiveness.
"There's nothing more to tell," said Lance.
"Are you sweet on the girl?"
"That's funny!" said Lance.
"Well, it seems to be epidemic around here."
"Not with me. I've been in that house only for a week. Haven't spoken to her more than three or four times."
"You needn't be afraid of me," purred Stanley. "These Beardmores hang together, but I'm not one of them. I'm a Beardmore by marriage. I married Jim's sister. I have to stand out against the tribe in order to call my soul my own."
Lance said nothing.
"You and I ought to be friends," Stanley went on. "If you give me your confidence I'll stand by you. Otherwise..."
Lance's face hardened. "Otherwise what?"
Stanley shrugged. "Well, it would be awkward for you if the police should get hold of this story just at the time when they are looking for somebody with a motive for killing Jim Beardmore."
Lance turned pale, but he smiled it off. "I had no reason to kill him," he said.
"You mean the girl is sweet on you!" said Stanley quickly.
Lance flushed red. "Nothing of the sort!" he said. "Miss Rollin and I are nothing but boarding-house acquaintances."
Stanley turned away. "You'd better think it over before you reject my friendly offers," he said. He went out as softly as he had entered.
Lance remained for a long time scowling at his desk pad and jabbing it with a pencil. He was unable to figure out just what the man's game was.
At half past twelve, since no word had been received from his boss, Lance thought he might as well go to lunch. He lingered in the corridor that served the executive offices, looking longingly from door to door. But the doors were not lettered and he had no way of guessing which was Freda's room.
As he moved on he heard voices raised in anger issuing from the board-room. He dropped to one knee at the door, and untying a shoelace, made believe to be tying it while he listened. There was a hard smile on his face.
He heard Clinton Beardmore saying, angrily, "Since Jim's death I guess I'm the head of the family, ain't I?"
Moseley answered in his cold, precise tones: "In point of years yes, but legally Tony is the head."
"Stop splitting hairs and listen to me!" cried Clinton. "What I say goes around here and you might as well know it! I want that girl for my secretary."
"Be reasonable, Clint," said Moseley. "She's been working for Jim for four years, and her knowledge of executive detail is indispensable to me. I can't get along without her."
"Blah!" shouted Clint. "That's not your real reason."
"All right," retorted Moseley, sharply, "I'll tell you my real reason. It's for your own sake that I won't let the girl work for you. She's done harm enough around here. If she went into your office it would end in an open scandal."
Clinton laughed angrily. "That's not your real reason! Do you think I can't see through you? You're hankering after Freda yourself, old as you are! And, by God! you haven't heard the last of this!"
Lance, fearing that he might come bursting through the door, sprang up and beat a hasty retreat through the corridor. He met no one. He crossed the atrium and went down the path to the street sidewalk with his head down and a deep furrow between his brows. He was turning up more and more pieces for the puzzle, but none of them fitted together. Deeper than the thoughtfulness rested a kind of dread in his eyes—a dread of the answer.
He ate his lunch, and afterwards buying an extra of the local paper, he carried it to the ornamental grounds surrounding the offices, and sat down on a bench to read it. It was now past one o'clock and the mills had resumed work. There was no one near him.
Lance devoured the story with a painful intensity of interest. Amongst a welter of gossip, speculation, and rehash of the earlier account he found three new items of vital interest.
'Police combing the woods in the rear of Fairfield, the James Beardmore country estate, shortly after dawn this morning, found a pistol lying in a bed of ferns. It had obviously not been there long, and was immediately associated with the murders. There had been no attempt to hide it, and apparently it had been cast away by the murderer as he ran.
'It was a new thirty-two-caliber automatic of the latest-pattern Jones and Tandy make. Only one shot had been fired from it. A ballistic expert summoned from New York has positively established the fact that it was a bullet from this gun which killed Sergeant Doty. The serial number of the gun is 7136, and the police anticipate no difficulty in tracing the sale.
'From various tracks found in the vicinity the police have established that one of the two men concerned in the murders wore a 9E shoe with leather cleats across the sole to prevent slipping in the grass. This find considerably damages the theory that the murder was committed by a servant, as such shoes are expensive. They are only worn by gentlemen who can afford the luxury of golf.
'The second man wore an ordinary shoe of a slightly smaller size, probably 8B. It was made on a somewhat straighter last than is commonly sold at the present time.'
Lance glanced down at his straight-last shoes with a grim expression and went on reading.
'Spencer Cupp, a taxi-driver of 723 South Chisholm Street, has reported to the police that he saw a man drop off a Morrell Park car about seven last night. The man waited on the corner, and hailing Cupp as he came along, ordered him to follow the car at a slow rate of speed. He followed it to the terminus of the line, where his fare paid him and walked on along the road in the direction of Fairfield.
'The police believe that this was undoubtedly some one who was following James Beardmore. Cupp has furnished them with a good description of his fare. He was a tall, slenderly-built, athletic young fellow about twenty-six years of age. Height in the neighborhood of six feet; weight about 175 lbs. Black hair, pale skin, gray eyes with a noticeably straight and intent expression. Cupp took no particular notice of his clothes, but he was well dressed; wore no hat.'
Upon reading this Lance lowered the paper and instinctively glanced from side to side with a hunted look. Nobody was watching him. A spasm of fear twisted his face. He lit a cigarette and fought it down. Gradually his expression hardened again.
The only person in sight was a gardener working in a flower-bed fifty yards away. Something familiar about him struck Lance and he looked at him keenly. He recognized the man he had exchanged some speech with the day before. He got up and walked over to him.
"Hello, Bob Fassett!" he said.
The little man raised his droll, seamed face. "Hello, yourself!" he said, grinning. "You seem to know me."
"Don't you remember me?" asked Lance.
"Well, you look kind of familiar, but there's so many guys works around here."
"We were talking about Jim Beardmore yesterday. Remember?"
Bob rested on his spade. He was taking up dahlia roots to be stored for the winter. His old earth-stained pants were tied below the knee in the immemorial way of gardeners. His grin widened. "Sure! I place you now," he said. "You were pretty free in your opinion of the boss."
"So were you," said Lance. "We shook hands on it."
"Little did we think that Jim Beardmore would be plugged through the heart before twelve hours was out," said Bob.
"I took to you at sight," said Lance.
Bob tackled a fresh clump of roots briskly. "Same here," he said. "There's a kind of hush-hush conspiracy around this dump. It's a pleasure to meet a fellow who ain't afraid to say what he thinks."
"Some say it doesn't pay."
"I know. Like my old woman. She says it's the fellows that suck up to the bosses and keeps their traps shut that gets on."
"Women are always strong for regularity," said Lance. "She may be right, but I like to stand on my own bottom."
Bob paused again. His blue eyes twinkled with good sense and good humor. "Same here, fellow! What the hell, I says. A gardener that knows his biz can always land a job, I always took a pleasure in looking Jim Beardmore square in the eye when he passed by. And I encouraged my boy to do the same. He's eighteen year old now."
"What!" exclaimed Lance. "Do you mean to say you've got a boy eighteen years old?"
"Sure," said Bob, "and he's an A-1 gardener."
"I reckon you get on to a lot of things," ventured Lance, "working away in the grounds here and keeping your eyes open."
Bob set to work again. "Yeah, I don't miss much. And I can think things over while I work the soil."
"I reckon there's a lot of talk amongst the hands," said Lance. "What do they think about this crime?"
"I hear them talk," said Bob. "They think Tony Beardmore did it."
"What!" said Lance, startled. "Shot his own father! Is Tony hated by the hands, too?"
"Tony is hated the least of any Beardmore," said Bob. "They know where they stand with him. He don't give them any guff. If he did it, they don't blame him."
"Did the hands speak of any evidence against Tony?"
"No. Just the likelihood of it. Jim was always an unnatural father to Tony. Treated him like dirt. He was jealous of Tony."
"Jealous?" said Lance, staring.
"Yeah. Tony's a rare good-looking lad with the devil in him, and all the women turn their heads after him when he goes by. It made his father sore."
"Jealous of his own son!" murmured Lance. "Good God! what a family!"
"You said it, fellow!" remarked Bob, dryly.
"What do you think?" asked Lance.
Bob smiled. "Well, I noticed Tony has a hefty foot," he said.
"I get you," said Lance. "You've been reading the papers,"
"Yeah, I read the papers. And I found out something on my own, too. But an uneducated guy like me hadn't ought to say too much."
Lance was too wise to question him directly. "Gee! it would be grand if a fellow could land that reward!" he murmured, offhand.
It brought an instant response from the gardener. Bob stopped working. "Oh, Gee!" he said, longingly. "Eleven thousand five hundred, and they say that more will be offered. If I had that I could buy me a place of my own and make snoots at the millionaires! I'd start a nursery garden!" He started digging again. "But what's the use of talking! I know something, but I ain't got the education to follow it up."
"I've got the education—for what it may be worth," said Lance, quietly. "And I know something, too. Why not put what we know together and go into this as partners?"
"Are you a detective?" asked Bob, with a sharp look.
"Do I look it?"
The only way to win a man's confidence is to give your own. "No," said Lance, "I'm just a poor devil who's up against it. Jim Beardmore was after my girl...Do you remember what I said yesterday?"
"Yes, I remember," said Bob, slowly, "though it didn't make much of a mark on me then. You're no detective." After debating for a moment or two he made up his mind. "I had a hunch from the first that you were a good square fellow, and I believe in following my hunches...Put it there, fellow!"
They shook hands.
"Damned if you're not the first white man I have found around here!" said Lance.
"Come on," said Bob, "and I'll show you what I've turned up."
"You go on ahead," said Lance, "and I'll follow after. We ought not to be seen together."
"Sure!" said Bob, with an admiring glance. "That's what it is to have a head on you!"
On the left, facing the mill buildings, the gardens were bounded by a tall hedge of arbor vitae which had been allowed to grow as it would without trimming. Behind this hedge lay the road which served the shipping-yard of the mill, and on the other side of the road grew a similar hedge. Bob Fassett disappeared through an arched opening in the hedge, and Lance followed at a little distance.
Through the second hedge lay the gardener's own special domain. There was a pretty cottage facing the street, with an old-fashioned garden in front of it. Through another hedge at the rear of the cottage was the working garden containing nurseries for young trees and shrubs, seed-beds, greenhouses for forcing in the winter, and all the paraphernalia necessary to produce the show out in front. This space was inclosed within high hedges and eight-foot brick walls.
Bob waited for Lance to come up with him, and led him through paths between the seed-beds towards the rear corner of the plantation. They passed a good-looking lad transplanting young evergreens, who grinned at them amiably.
"My boy Vic," said Bob. "He's safe. Me and him's good pals."
They paused in the angle of the brick walls. A couple of short rows of young lettuce grew at their feet. In the middle of the rows a bushel basket was turned upside down in the soft earth.
"One of my books says you can grow lettuce right up to Christmas with a little protection," remarked Bob, "and I thought I'd try out a few."
He removed the basket, and Lance's startled eyes beheld two deep prints of a large man's foot in the soft earth. When he bent closer he could distinctly see the cleats across the soles.
"Good God!" he murmured.
Bob was delighted with the effect he had produced. "You see he come over the wall not knowing exactly where he would land," he explained, "and the soft bed took an elegant print. He stopped in the path and turned around and smoothed loose earth over the prints, but he couldn't set up the lettuces he had crushed, and that caught my eye when I come by this morning. I went down on my marrowbones and I picked out the earth crumb by crumb until I exposed the tracks again. I put the basket over them until I decided what to do about it."
"You're not such a bad sleuth, yourself," said Lance. "What lies on the other side of the wall?"
"A hard-surfaced road," said Bob. "That won't give no tracks away. There's no houses near. Lonely at night."
"Does the road lead in the general direction of Fairfield?"
"Sure. Not direct, but near enough. Jim Beardmore used to use that road when he lived at Fairfield."
"Where did this guy go from here?"
"The beaten paths don't give you anything to go on," said Bob. "But he was afraid to go around by the front for fear of being seen from my cottage. He forced his way between the arbor vitae trees, and left elegant prints there, one on each side the shipping road."
"Looks as if he was heading for the office," suggested Lance.
"Sure. Somebody who had a key to the office."
"We're narrowing down!" said Lance, with a brightening eye.
"The question is, should we tell the police about these tracks?" asked Bob. "That's what's been bothering me."
"If you do, and they catch the man by means of them, they'll collect the reward, not you."
"That's what I thought."
"We've got to present the police with a real case if we want to touch the money...If it was me I'd rake that bed perfectly smooth. Sooner or later the police will be here to look around, and when they found the tracks you'd get into trouble for not reporting them. We've still got the tracks between the trees to prove our point."
Bob hastened away to his toolhouse, and returning with a rake, smoothed out every vestige of the tracks in the lettuce-bed.
"What next, Mr. Sherlock?" he asked, grinning. "Say, it'll be funny if you and me together can't dope this out. Eleven thousand five hundred! Oh, boy!"
Lance consulted his watch. "I've got to go back to my work now...I got the job of secretary to Tony Beardmore this morning," he added, with a hardy grin. "So I'm in a good post for observation."
"Gee! you've got your nerve, all right!" said Bob, admiringly.
"I'll come to your house after supper tonight," said Lance, "and we'll talk over what we've got to do."
"Right you are!" said Bob.
WHEN Lance returned to Tony Beardmore's office he presently had as a visitor Mr. Vice-President Clinton Beardmore. Clinton's opening was strangely like that of his fellow-officer earlier in the day.
"Have you heard anything from your boss yet?"
"No, sir," said Lance.
"How are you getting along?"
Clinton hesitated, and Lance waited warily for the real object of his coming to appear. He was undoubtedly a handsome man, but a little too sleek. Ordinarily suave, he had the uncertain temper that seemed to be common to all Beardmores. He was so well groomed that it gave him a glossy effect.
"Was the amount of your salary settled this morning?" he asked, affecting to examine his tortoise-shell cigarette-holder attentively.
"No," said Lance.
"Didn't you ask what you were going to get?" he asked, with simulated surprise.
"Well, that's the first time I ever knew a man to take a job without knowing what it was worth!"
"I can always leave if it's not enough," said Lance, with a good-humored smile.
A sneer broke through Clinton's suavity. "You were anxious to get this job, weren't you?"
"I sure was!" said Lance. "I've been out of work for six weeks."
There was a silence. Clinton, lounging against Tony's desk and toying with the expensive cigarette-holder, was unable to appear as completely at ease as he wished.
"Why didn't you ask Freda Rollin to get you in here?" he asked, suddenly.
Lance saw the pitfall and avoided it. "I didn't know her well enough," he said, with a laugh.
Clinton seemed to be driven by a tormented curiosity. "Seen her this morning?" he asked.
"Yes, I met her in the hall."
"Was she surprised to find you here?"
Lance took refuge behind his most candid smile. "Oh, it's nothing in her life."
"But you knew she worked here."
Lance had to think like lightning in order to answer each question without appearing to hesitate. "No, she never happened to mention it."
The door opened quickly and Mr. Moseley came in. "Ah, Clinton, here you are!" he said. "I wanted to consult you about the new vats for the Minneapolis mill."
This was obviously a bit of camouflage, for Mr. Moseley's cold eyes were darting from man to man, sharp to learn what was passing between them.
"Can't it wait?" said Clinton, sulkily.
"Come into my office," said Moseley, slipping his arm through the other man's. "I won't detain you but a minute."
Clinton was led out like an unwilling schoolboy. When the door closed, Lance was left staring at his typewriter with an anxious, furrowed brow. It was remarkable what an interest the officers of this great and powerful company were taking in his insignificant self.
In the middle of the afternoon Lance's own particular boss breezed in. A handsome, stalwart young man, dark as an Italian, with deep lines etched between his nose and his mouth, and a perpetual, devilish smile. Lance's pulse beat more quickly at the sight of him, and he instinctively glanced at his feet. A hefty pair of understandings; 9D would be about his size.
Tony, in his turn, took in Lance all over with a comprehensive glance. "Hello!" he said. "So you are the secretary they have wished on me! Well, God help you!" He flung himself down at his desk and busied himself making some jottings in his notebook, forgetting Lance.
The latter sized him up more particularly. Tony had his father's strong, thick frame, as yet unencumbered with fat. His face was unexpectedly thin and bony. The most extraordinary thing about him was the glance of his black eyes—bold, candid, and shameless. They were the eyes of a man who would stop at nothing, and merely laugh if he were found out.
"Well, what do you make of me?" he said, unexpectedly, without looking up. Lance lowered his eyes in confusion. Tony laughed. "I reckon you haven't been working here all day without getting an earful about your boss. What have they told you?"
"Nothing," said Lance.
"You're lying," said Tony, coolly. "But so much the better. I'll tell you myself...I'm a bad actor. I haven't got a redeeming feature. In short, my father's son. If I ever had any decent feelings, I learned to conceal them long ago..."
Lance permitted himself to smile.
"What are you grinning at?" demanded Tony.
"I used to know a fellow who bragged about how bad he was."
Tony was not at all put about by his secretary's frankness. "I'm not bragging," he said. "You'll soon find out, if you last here. I've got the worst reputation of any man in town. Not that I give a damn. What else could you expect with a bringing-up like mine? At that I'm no worse than a hundred others. No worse than my respectable uncles Clinton and Rainer, nor old whited-sepulcher Moseley. It isn't my many vices that have got me black-listed by the unco' guid, but my one virtue—I never lie...What have you been doing?"
"Answering the letters and telegrams of condolence," said Lance.
"Condolence! Don't make me laugh!"
"Will you look them over and sign them?"
"Not me!" said Tony. "Hypocrisy makes me sick at my stomach. My father hadn't a real friend in the world. Sign 'em and send 'em out yourself."
As Lance proceeded to obey, he was aware that Tony had lighted a cigarette and was sitting studying him with his sharp black eyes. Suddenly he said: "You might as well learn at once that I never let business interfere with pleasure. Why should I work when the family is already lousy with money? You can make a pretty snug berth for yourself here if you can learn to do my job without bothering me."
"If I took you at your word, you'd fall on me like a load of brick," said Lance, smiling.
"Sure!" said Tony, coolly. "You've got to learn to adapt yourself to my caprices. Well, you've got a level eye. You look as if you were capable of it. You've got everything to win. You don't know it, but you're a damn sight better off than me.
"And some day," he went on, "when pleasure begins to bore me and I put a bullet through the roof of my mouth—that is, if somebody else doesn't do it, as was done for my father and my grandfather before me—why, you'll be fitted to step right into my job!"
Tony said this in so strange a voice that Lance looked across at him sharply. But Tony had again forgotten his existence. Drawing a sheet of paper towards him, he started writing a private letter. He became completely absorbed in what he was writing. His pen raced across the paper, line after line. The hard black eyes softened and the cruel mouth was pursed up. Lance would have given something to learn to whom he was writing.
When he had finished, he folded, inclosed, and sealed his letter, and wrote a line across the envelope. "Here!" he said to Lance. But as the latter started to rise, Tony thought better of it. "No!" he said. "Go on with your work." He pressed a button in his desk, and gave his letter to the boy who presently answered it.
"Deliver that," he said. "There's no answer."
In spite of himself, Lance could not keep the shine of curiosity from showing in his eyes. The lynx-eyed Tony marked it, and said, with his cynical grin: "It's to Freda Rollin, if you want to know. She's got a better head on her shoulders than any man around this place."
Lance lowered his eyes to hide the flame of jealousy that sprang up in them. From that time forward he was doubly careful to allow no feeling whatsoever to appear in his face.
Lance worked on at his letters, while Tony sat smoking and studying him with a sort of good-humored sneer. The two were about the same age. Finally Tony said: "What's the gossip around the shop about my father's death?"
"I haven't heard any," said Lance. "They wouldn't be likely to talk to a newcomer like me."
"I'm suspected of the crime," said Tony, with the utmost coolness.
Lance was getting used to his style now, and he betrayed no surprise. "That's absurd," he said.
A quick scowl of irritation made Tony look savage. "Aah! don't try to play up to me!" he said. "I pay you the compliment of being honest with you, and I expect the same in return."
Lance smiled. "Give me time," he said. "A new secretary has to feel his way for a bit. I'd best keep my mouth shut and let you talk for the present."
"You have wit," said Tony, with dry appreciation. "...In the eyes of more than one man that I've talked to today," he went on, "I have seen the belief that I shot my father. And all the time they were pawing me and drooling words of condolence. God! what a mess men are! I would like to have smashed my fist into their false faces!"
Tony's big fist clenched on his desk blotter as he spoke. He glowered down at it. After a while he went on:
"It's not absurd that people should suspect me," he said. "In a state of nature I would have fought with my father long ago, and killed him, because I was the stronger. He treated me like a dog. Ever since I began to grow up he hated me. The plain truth is, he was jealous of me. When I became a man it reminded him that he was becoming an old man, and he couldn't forgive me for it!
"But, as a matter of fact, I didn't shoot him," he went on in a milder voice. "Somebody saved me the trouble...What people don't know is that I had nothing to gain by my father's death. For years he's been telling me daily that he wasn't going to leave me a cent, and he didn't leave me a cent. Nor my mother and sister, either.
"His entire fortune was left in trust. The directors of the mills, including myself, are the trustees. My mother, my sister, and myself each receive an income from the trust equal to what my father allowed us before his death. The rest of the earnings are to be plowed back into the business. The estate is not to be divided until the deaths of my sister and myself. That's what my father thought of his own flesh and blood."
It made Lance extremely uncomfortable to receive these family confidences. He bent over his work and said nothing.
Fixing his burning eyes on Lance as if he would drag the secret from him, Tony said, bluntly: "Do you believe that I shot my father?"
"God knows!" said Lance, quite honestly. "You're a new type to me. I don't get you at all!"
Tony laughed with a kind of secret relish, and dropped the subject.
PRESENTLY Tony was sent for to confer with his associates in the board-room. The meeting lasted some time. Lance made occasion to walk through the hall two or three times. He heard stormy voices around the big table, but they were pitched too low for him to distinguish any words.
When Tony returned to his own office he said, in the sneering voice that was habitual with him: "My respected partners are of the opinion that if you are going to remain here you ought to know something about the business. They have, therefore, ordered a workman called Jess Tillett to show you about and explain everything.
"This Tillett has been with us ever since my grand-father's day. By rights he ought to have been a superintendent or at least a foreman before this, but he's given to hitting the booze, and so he's still only a workman. However, he knows the mills from A to Z. He'll call for you here at ten past five."
"I'll have to come back to the office afterwards, if I'm going to get these letters out," said Lance, offhand. "Do you happen to have a key?"
"A key? Sure!" was the careless answer. Tony detached it from his keyring and tossed it on Lance's desk. "That's to the door in the back of the office building, towards the mills."
"Much obliged," said Lance.
"Oh, don't mention it!" said Tony, with a quick sneering glance and a grin. He snatched up his hat and left.
Lance worked away at his letters until Jess Tillett presented himself. By this time everybody in the offices had gone home. Tillett was not a prepossessing specimen. He had a broken nose and a jutting unshaven chin that made him look like a first-class thug.
Tillett had the gift of the gab. He was too anxious to make friends. He was the type of man who seeks to ingratiate himself with other men by being as foul as possible. Most of his talk was unrepeatable. He said in a hoarse voice: "The bosses told me to show you around the plant and explain everything to you. They said wait till the mill shut down, because they don't want the hands to hear any of the technical stuff. But you must come around during working-hours, too. We got some nifty dolls over there. Anybody could see that you're no Sunday-school boy. You white-collar boys always have a big drag with the spinners, anyhow. And a good-looking fellow like you! You come to me and I'll wise you up to something rare." And so on. And so on.
Lance made believe to be as dissolute as Tillett himself. Tillett concluded by saying, "Well, let's go!" Lance hesitated. However, the man was fifty years old and his strength was sapped by drink. Physically he was no match for a clean-living twenty-five—unless he pulled a gun.
"Okay," said Lance. "You go first and I'll follow." They went out by the door in the rear of the office building, and headed across the private lawn towards the mill. Tillett kept up a running fire of loose talk the whole way. Lance swallowed his disgust and grinned encouragingly.
"Tony, there's a lad for you! Tony crowds as much fun into his life as twenty ordinary young fellows, and he's always looking for more. Nothing can wear Tony down. I knowed him since he was knee high. Always was a young devil. Soon as he put on long pants he went wild. Used to come to me to put him wise. We was always good pals. He calls me his professor of crime, joking-like. Well, I'll say he was a smart pupil!"
"They're saying around the place that it was he who did the boss in," remarked Lance.
"Sure, I hear them," said Tillett, indifferently. "It's nothing in my life. Why pick on Tony? There's many a husband and a father in this burg who had it in for Jim Beardmore. He only got what was coming to him. Tony hadn't no special reason for croaking his old man. It was more the other way about, if you ask me."
Lance's face whitened when he heard this. He did not ask Tillett exactly what he meant by it.
"Tony's riding the top of the wave," Tillett went on. "He has everything—youth, health, good looks, money. He's like the crown prince of this town. Why should he risk going to jail and spoiling all his fun?"
"Don't ask me," said Lance.
When they reached the main entrance to the mill, a few stragglers were still issuing out. A watchman sat just within the door. Tillett introduced Lance to him, and hung about, talking. Tillett just had the habit of talking. While his tongue uttered the loose change that passed current among the mill hands, his sharp little pig's eyes were busy with quite other matters.
When the last of the hands was out, he said: "Well, come on, Lance," and led the way down a half-flight to a fireproof door which he opened and carefully closed behind them. They were then in a vast basement room extending under the entire mill, and filled with row after row of immense porcelain-lined vats, partly sunk in the ground.
"This is the cooking-room," said Tillett. "This is the source of all the Beardmores' millions. Before their time flax had to be thrown into stagnant pools and left there for weeks or months to rot, before you could get out the fiber. But old Pete Beardmore got hold of a chemical formula that does the trick in a few hours. That's what the vats are for."
They walked slowly on between two lines of the vats, Tillett in advance. Each vat stuck about a foot above ground, and around each one was a stout iron rail about three feet high. Tillett's tongue never ceased to wag. Lance marked that he was sweating, though the basement was cool.
"The formula's supposed to be a secret, but a good many knows it now. However, it's protected by patents. The tanks are mostly underground. They're eighteen feet deep. They're filled half full with the mixture, and then the flax is shot in just so full it won't boil over..."
"Boil over?" said Lance. "Then it's a powerful acid."
"You're right it's powerful," said Tillett, grinning. "When a man falls in it dissolves his flesh right to the bone, and you can see the grease floating on top."
"Do men often fall in?" asked Lance, dryly.
"Oh, once in a while! once in a while!"
They stopped beside one of the vats half-way down the line. Far down within the snowy white wall gleamed the liquid, of a beautiful purple color.
"This one's all ready for its shot of flax in the morning," said Tillett.
While he was still speaking, he suddenly squatted on his heels and, seizing Lance by the legs, heaved him over the rail.
Every nerve in Lance's body was alert with suspicion of the man, and he had a firm grip of the rail in each hand. His body described a complete circle in the air, and his heels knocked against the porcelain side of the vat, but he hung on. Tillett, with a brutish moan of rage, started pounding his knuckles with his clenched fists. The pain fetched an involuntary yelp out of Lance, but he hung on.
Tillett was like a man suddenly beside himself. His face was dehumanized with rage, his yellow fangs showing. Dropping to his knees he gnawed at Lance's knuckles until the blood spurted out. Lance hung on.
Tillett's frantic eyes darted this way and that, searching for a weapon. Seeing an iron spanner lying on the floor a yard or two away, he pounced on it. Brief as his respite was, Lance contrived to turn himself and change hands on the rail; to draw himself up and get a leg over the rim of the tank.
Tillett attacked him blindly with the iron bar. Lance let go the rail and clung to the rim of the tank. The blows of the bar clanged harmlessly on the rail. Tillett kicked at him viciously, but kicks were nothing to a desperate man. Lance rolled clear on the floor and scrambled out of the other's reach. He got to his feet.
Tillett rushed at him with the spanner raised high over his head for a killing blow. Lance dove under it and, seizing Tillett around the body, lifted him clear and flung him down on the cement floor. The spanner was knocked out of his hands. He lay there stunned.
Lance turned away and left him lying there. He was filled with a black, blinding rage, but not against the brutish Tillett so much as the rich man who had hired him. He went through the door, closing it behind him, and climbed the half-flight of stairs. He shoved his hands in his pockets to conceal the blood on them. The watchman was seated inside the entrance door, reading his newspaper.
"Where's Tillett?" he asked, idly.
Lance bent a terrible glance on him, seeking to discover if he was in the plot, too. But the man's glance was vague and unsuspicious. It would have been impossible for anybody to act such unconcern.
"He saw a little job he had to do," said Lance, coolly. "He'll be out directly."
Lance strode across the gardens, and let himself in by the back door of the offices with his key. In Tony's office he went direct to the boss's desk to look for evidence. Tony, like most men, kept his more private papers in the wide, shallow middle drawer. It was not locked. Here were his checkbooks, his bills, his private letters.
The first object that met Lance's eyes sickened him of all desire to search farther. Lying on top of some papers was a photograph of Freda in a handsome tooled-leather frame. It was evidently a snapshot that had been enlarged. The background was in somebody's garden, and the girl was shown reaching for a flowering branch and presenting a smiling profile to the camera.
Lance slammed the drawer shut and strode out of the offices with a black face.
LANCE alternately paced his little room or dropped in a chair and pressed his head between his hands. Filled with black rage and jealousy, he was in that state when a man is unable to think consecutively, yet retains sense enough to see that he must think if he is to help himself. Hence the agonizing struggle for control.
Suddenly he stopped pacing. He thought of something that brought a saner light into his eyes. He immediately set about tidying himself, washing the blood off his hands and painting his knuckles with collodion to keep them from bleeding afresh.
He ran down the two flights of stairs and turned towards Professor Sempill's laboratory in the rear extension. He found the Professor finishing the frugal dinner that Mrs. Peake was accustomed to bring in every night. His papers and books and test-tubes were simply moved aside on his table to make room for the tray, and as soon as the tray was taken away they would be moved back again.
Nothing ever surprised the Professor. He started speaking as if Lance had but that moment left him. "Well, this is nice. I was hoping you would drop in. Since Freda moved away I don't see anybody but Mrs. Peake, and she's not exactly stimulating. I have to bark at the woman in order to stop her tongue."
There was something in the mere look of the old man with his innocent wise glance and the aureole of flying gray hair that caused Lance's hard, bitter face to relax. He laughed briefly at the thought of the Professor barking.
"Gosh!" he murmured, looking around wistfully, 'this room with its books, and the quiet work going on—the man who has got this is going somewhere!"
"Eat this pie," said the Professor. "I'm not much for pie."
"Not a mouthful," said Lance. "I'll be going out to my dinner directly."
"Well, what's the news?"
"I landed a job this morning."
The Professor's mild eyes, which took in a good deal more than they appeared to do, rested for a moment on Lance's pale, worn face, and then traveled back to his food. No doubt they remarked on the discrepancy between the good news Lance was announcing and the expression of his face, but he said nothing about it.
Nor did he ask any questions about the job. The Professor dwelt in a world of the abstract, and was frankly uninterested in the practical side of things. And it was a curious thing that most people in his company forbore to press practical things on his attention.
"You never read the newspapers, do you?" asked Lance.
"Bless your heart, no!" answered the Professor. "I read the newspapers thirty years ago."
"A good many things have happened since," said Lance, smiling.
"They differ only in degree, not in kind. What is the use in reading each day's crimes? The motives are always the same."
"You are right," said Lance, "it's a waste of time...unless you happen to be mixed up in a crime yourself," he added, grimly.
The Professor smiled delightfully. "I admit that would alter the case," he said.
"To hell with crime!" said Lance. "Tell me something about your work. I don't understand it, but it does me good."
"Well, I have not found the missing atom," said the Professor, "so I have decided to—what is it you young folks call it?—to lay off the atom for a while and refresh my mind by reading."
"What are you reading?"
"There's an Italian philosopher." The Professor glanced towards a weighty volume beside his tray. "They say nobody can understand him, so I am having a try at it. It's a knotty book, but stimulating."
He went on to explain to Lance the theory of the philosopher who held that men might reduce the conduct of their affairs to an exact science if they would. To the tormented young man the clear phrases burdened with thinking were like a whiff of ozone in a poisonous air.
When the Professor had finished eating he carried his tray to a side table. Coming back, he paused behind Lance and dropped a hand on his shoulder. "You're an excellent lad!" he said. "Stout heart and stout thews! I wish you well!"
Lance laughed in surprise, but he felt more like crying. At the same time he was enormously comforted by the old man's good opinion. "Oh, for God's sake, don't!" he said. "I hope you're right."
"You are greatly troubled," said the Professor. "Do you want to tell me about it?"
"No," said Lance, quickly. "If I started talking I'd go all to pieces."
"Then don't start," said the Professor, calmly. "Let us talk about the theory of the Italian."
Lance left the house looking more like his own man again. He ate a good dinner and took a trolley back to the mills, dropping off at Bob Fassett's cottage.
Bob was waiting for him. He led Lance into the dining-room of his cottage, where the table had been cleared, and two bottles of beer and two cigars placed on it. Lance did not meet the redoubtable Mrs. Fassett on this occasion. Bob closed the door carefully.
"Sit ye down! Sit ye down!" he said, hospitably. "Any news?"
"Nothing much," said Lance, dryly. "Only, Tony Beardmore tried to have me murdered this evening."
"The hell you say!" exclaimed Bob, with eyes as big as saucers. "How come?"
"If we're going to be partners," said Lance, "I'd better tell you the whole story from the beginning."
He proceeded to do so. Bob was a good listener, never interrupting except with low whistles of astonishment. When Lance finished telling the Tillett incident, he said, frowning:
"But that ain't like Tony. Tony ain't no saint, but he ain't two-faced, neither. With Tony everything comes right out."
"I know that's his pose," said Lance, bitterly. "But he killed his father, didn't he?"
"If he did, he did it himself. He didn't hire anybody to do his dirty work. But I ain't satisfied that Tony did it. What reason would he have for smoking his old man?"
"I'll tell you his motive," said Lance. "Jim Beardmore had some kind of hold over the girl, and had extracted a promise from her to marry him as soon as he got his divorce. Tony is in love with her and that's why he put the old man out of the way."
"Maybe so," said Bob. "But it wouldn't be like him to hire a dirty scoundrel like Jess Tillett."
"Tillett was boasting of what pals he and Tony were."
"Tillett's a dirty liar," said Bob. "If he was bragging of friendship with Tony, he would do it to cover his connection with somebody else."
This sounded reasonable. Lance looked at the little man, half convinced.
"Did Tony say he had ordered Tillett to show you around the mill?" asked Bob.
"No," said Lance. "He said his partners wanted me taken around."
"Maybe he was speaking the truth."
"Well, I'll find out, if I live," said Lance, grimly. "Have you turned up anything new?"
Bob grinned. "Yeah. I been looking around when I got the chance. Seems like after the fellow went to the office, he come back again. I found tracks headed this way. Same big foot, but another shoe."
"Between the arbor vitae trees, but in another place."
"Got a flashlight?"
"Let's go take a look."
They went out of the back door of the cottage. In addition to the perfect print between the trees, Bob had found a partial print in the side of a path running across his nursery garden. They bent down to examine it with the flashlight.
"Tain't very plain," said Bob, "but it can't be me or the lad, because we got nails in our work shoes."
"Let me dope this out," said Lance. "Suppose he had left other clothes in the office, and went to fetch them. When he came back maybe he would be looking for a place to hide the clothes he had worn before. He seems to be headed for the greenhouses. What's in there?"
"Nothing," said Bob. "I don't use the glass houses till winter."
"Let's go in."
They entered the glass houses, and casting the light before them, proceeded up and down the various passages. On both sides they were lined by long trays for holding plants, empty now. Into the trays and underneath them, into every corner they flashed the light. Everything was in apple-pie order. The ground showed no sign of having been disturbed anywhere; the hard beaten paths revealed no tracks.
As they were on their way out, Lance's attention was caught by the furnace, just within the entrance door, that heated the place in winter, and he stopped.
"Nobody would ever open the fire-box door until the time came to light a fire," he said.
Unlatching the door, he threw the light in. It picked up a bundle of gray homespun, and he cried out in excitement:
"That's the coat he was wearing when Jim Beardmore was shot! I saw the sleeve when he put his arm around the door!"
He pulled out the bundle, and a pair of expensive golf shoes rolled out of it to the floor. They had the tell-tale cleats on their soles.
"Here! Hold the light," said Lance. "Throw it on the coat. When a suit is made to order the tailor sews a label inside the breast pocket with his name on it, and the owner's name!"
The label had been ripped out. They could see the marks of the stitches, and exclamations of disappointment broke from them. However, they saw something else. From deeper down in the pocket the edge of an envelope was sticking up. Lance snatched it out, dropping the coat. The envelope was covered with dried blood, and there was a tell-tale round hole through it.
"Here's evidence!" cried Lance. "This letter was taken from the dead man's pocket!"
He turned it over, and on the clean side of the envelope they read the superscription: "Mr. James Beardmore." There was something vaguely familiar about the handwriting that struck a chill through Lance's veins. He pulled out the letter, and opening it, read:
I am tired of fighting you. I'll come out to Fairfield tonight at eight, or shortly before. You must be there first, and when you go in, leave the front door on the latch, so I can slip in without having to wait on the doorstep. Wait for me in the library on the second floor. Get rid of the caretakers for the night, and don't take a car out or it will be seen. Don't light up the house or I won't go in. I couldn't bear to have anybody guess that I was there.
Lance had no doubt of the handwriting then. A sick groan was forced from him. His body sagged. "Well, that's conclusive!" he said in a dead voice, passing the letter to Bob.
Bob read it, and handing it back, put his arm around Lance's shoulders for a moment. With the natural tact of a simple man, he refrained from saying anything.
Lance went blindly out of the glass house. Bob stopped to roll up the shoes inside the gray coat and pants, and to thrust the bundle back into the fire-box of the furnace.
NEXT morning amidst all the comment and the guesses about the Beardmore case which filled the columns of Lounsbery's leading paper, Lance found one piece of news of vital importance to him.
'The police have traced the sale of the Jones and Tandy automatic, serial number 7136, to Harris's pawnshop on South Chatham Street. This is the gun which killed Sergeant Doty. Isaac Harris, twenty-two, a son of the proprietor of the place brought his record of the sale to Headquarters.
'This shows that the gun in question was sold on the morning of the murder to a man who gave his name as John Williams, address Antlers Hotel. The name was a fictitious one, of course; no such person is known at the hotel.
'Young Harris remembers the buyer as a young man of twenty-five or twenty-six, tall and well-built, with black hair, gray eyes, healthy pale skin. He wore no hat. He appeared a little nervous, but not so much as to arouse any suspicion as to the use he meant to put the gun. He told Harris that he had just secured a job as night watchman and needed the gun to protect himself.
'It will be seen that Harris's description corresponds in every particular to the young man who was driven out to Morrell Park by Spencer Cupp on the evening of the double murder.'
Lance smiled bitterly and threw the paper down. They were closing in on him, but he no longer cared. All the incentive to fight was gone.
However, there was one thing he wanted to do before he was arrested. He took his hat and went out. Making his way by little-frequented streets, he timed himself to arrive at the corner of Franklin Street next beyond Freda's boarding-house at twenty minutes to nine.
The corner house was quite a fine one with a large yard planted with ornamental shrubbery. Lance took up his stand behind a clump of shrubbery in such a position that he could see all who approached from the direction of Freda's house, while he remained hidden.
When she came along, bound for the office, his purpose almost failed him, she looked so sweet. In the empty street she was off her guard; her face was very pale and marked by suffering, but she carried her head as high as ever. Freda was not a tall woman, but she gave the impression of height, she bore herself so straightly. In the quiet style she cultivated, her dress was always perfection. Lance had never known a woman who was at the same time so alluring and so difficult. But he remembered the blood-stained letter in his pocket and his face turned hard again.
He stepped out of concealment when she came abreast of him. She started back with a gasp of terror. Instantly she recovered herself, and her face flushed red with anger because she had been betrayed into showing fear. "Must you lie in wait for me?" she demanded.
"If I had gone to your house you would have refused to see me," said Lance, somberly. "And at the office we are surrounded by spies."
Freda said nothing.
"It's the last time I'll trouble you," Lance went on. "I have something to say to you, and then I'm through."
Freda's courage was shaken. "What's the matter?" she faltered. "What has happened? Why do you look at me like that?"
"Let's walk on," said Lance. "The police are hot on my trail. I shouldn't like to be arrested while I was talking to a lady."
They instinctively turned down the side street and made their way around by various humble thoroughfares in the general direction of the office. In curt phrases Lance told her of the attempt on his life the previous evening. When he came to the vat of acid, Freda stopped short; her head went down, a shudder went through her.
"Oh, it is too terrible!" she murmured. "I told you you were in danger! I told you!"
"Well, I escaped this time," said Lance, grimly.
When he had come to the end of his tale, Freda's comment was the same as Bob Fassett's—"Tony Beardmore had nothing to do with it."
"You appear to be very sure of that," said Lance, bitterly.
"Nobody knows Tony," she said, very low.
"Except you," put in Lance.
"Tony never had a chance," said Freda. "Under ordinary circumstances he would have made a fine man. But always from a child he's been thrown back on himself. All his parade of scoundrelism is just a kind of whistling in the dark."
This made Lance so angry he could not contain himself. "Well, no doubt you can reform him," he said, harshly.
"I'm not in love with him, if that's what you're implying," she said, quickly. "I know him too well."
"What do you make of this?" demanded Lance, jerking the letter out of his pocket.
Freda caught her breath at the sight of the blood-stains, but she drew the letter out of the envelope with steady fingers. Her eyes flew over the written lines. Lance saw nothing of the shame and confusion that he expected to read in her face. Instead, she raised her eyes to Lance's in a look of unfathomable pain and reproach.
Lance was too angry to get the sense of it. In his eyes she could read only a cruel desire to hurt her. She looked down, and quietly put the letter back in its envelope.
"How did you come by this?" she asked.
"I refuse to say."
She was silent.
Lance could not remain quiet in his torment. "Have you nothing to say?" he cried.
She shook her head.
"You wrote that letter!"
"So it appears!"
"O God! this is more than I can stand!" Lance cried, in a low voice. "You have sold me out! You have made a mock of a man's best feelings. Never again can I believe in decency!"
Meanwhile they were walking along briskly like any ordinary couple on their way to work. "You might spare me this," murmured Freda very low. "What's the use?"
"I don't blame you for tricking the man to his death," said Lance. "I reckon you had cause enough. If you had been honest with me I would have stood by you against the world. But to lie to me the way you did! Good God! you had the face to accuse me of the murder, and to brazen it out to my face!"
"Well, now you know the worst about me, you can chuck the whole business," murmured Freda.
"I'll chuck it, all right! But what have I got left? You have destroyed my belief in decency!" Freda made a move as if to tear the letter across. "Don't do that!" he said, sharply. "It may save me from the chair."
She quietly handed it back to him. "Use it as you see fit," she said.
Lance put it in his pocket. "Oh, I'm not going to use it against you," he said, harshly, "unless I am forced to it. You know that. You know that I'm a fool about you. I reckon you saw it from the first."
Freda said nothing. All this time she had kept her head down and Lance was unable to read her face. Presently they came to a corner, and she murmured:
"You must leave me here. We're getting near the office...Lose yourself while there's still time and forget the whole ugly business."
"I've got to go to the office for a moment," muttered Lance.
She turned the corner and walked rapidly away. She never looked back. Lance lingered, watching her. Notwithstanding the way he had railed at her, the expression of his eyes suggested that she was tearing something out of him as she went. With an effort he turned his back and let her go.
After giving Freda time to get out of sight, Lance followed her to the mill. He stopped at the cottage to ask for Bob. Mrs. Fassett, a gaunt, intense women, looked him over with the contemptuous forbearance that her kind has for all men, and directed him around to the back.
Lance found his friend engaged in watering his transplanted nurslings. Bob's good-natured face lengthened at the sight of Lance's altered look.
"What's up?" he asked, anxiously.
Lance had no heart for explanations. "You read the papers?"
"It's up to me to do a disappearing act. I want you to take this letter and keep it safe and secret. I wouldn't want it found on me if I was arrested. I don't want it produced except in a case of vital necessity."
Bob nodded again. He had absolute faith in Lance's superior attainments.
"If the cops keep me on the run I won't be able to do much towards the partnership," Lance went on, "but I'll tell you what you must do. The murderer can't leave his clothes in the glass house indefinitely. He'll be back some night to get them. You and your boy must keep watch. That's the way to earn the eleven thousand dollars."
"We'll do that," said Bob. "What you going to do?"
"I've got to go over to the office for a minute," said Lance.
"Don't do that," said Bob, earnestly. "Tain't safe. I can let you through the back here. My boy can run you up to Hartford in a couple of shakes."
"Much obliged," said Lance, "but my letters of recommendation are at the office. If I'm going to live I got to get me a job."
"The cops may be laying for you there."
"What the hell!" said Lance.
"Well, shake hands, anyhow," said Bob.
"Sure I'll do that," said Lance, softening for the moment. "You're the only white man in this rotten outfit."
LANCE went in by the main entrance to the offices with a bit of a swagger. However, nobody looked at him particularly; he was not stopped. He was about quarter of an hour late, but he did not suppose his free and easy boss would be there before him. Just the same, Tony was at his desk. He gave Lance a keen glance as he entered, and the devilish smile broadened in his dark, handsome face.
"You're late," he said.
"Sorry," muttered Lance. He contrived to hide his feelings pretty well, though his face stiffened with hatred. The letters of recommendation returned by Abbott were lying on his desk.
"Not that it matters," said Tony, grinning, "for your usefulness here seems to have ended, anyhow."
"You mean I'm fired?" said Lance.
"Not by me," said Tony. "It's just the force of circumstances." He picked up the morning paper and read out the description of the wanted man. "Fits you to a T," he said, wickedly.
Lance glanced at him in a startled way. He could not make Tony out, he was so good-natured. Either Tony was himself the murderer, or else he must suspect Lance of having shot his father. Yet he was perfectly good-natured! There was something uncanny about it.
"I had a private tip from Headquarters," Tony went on, 'that the police were coming out here to give us the once over. You'd better go while the going's good."
"Much obliged," said Lance, stiffly.
"Do you need money?" asked Tony.
At that Lance's sore heart boiled over. "Not from you," he said, furiously.
Tony sat up in his chair and stared in pure astonishment. "What's biting you?" he demanded. "I'm only trying to do the friendly. I came out here early just to give you the tip."
"Damn your friendship!" said Lance, getting his letters and striding out, leaving Tony staring.
In the corridor outside he came upon Freda leaning against one of the doors. She was very white and her breath was coming fast. She caught hold of Lance's arm and drew him through the door and closed it.
"The police have come," she said, breathlessly. "They are going through the general office. Jim Beardmore had a private way out. You can go that way."
She was still drawing him along while she spoke. Lance angrily freed his arm. "What is it to you if they take me?" he said.
Freda wrung her hands. "Oh, please, please" she said, imploringly. "You got into this through me!...Do you need money?"
"No!" said Lance, angrily. "Your partner next door just offered to stake me. Anxious to get me out of the way, aren't you?"
"Don't quarrel with me," begged Freda, "but go! go!" She opened the door into the handsome room that had once been Jim Beardmore's and was now Moseley's. The latter had not yet come.
Lance hung back stubbornly. "Let them take me," he said, viciously. "My life is not exactly a rosy prospect of joy."
Freda's head went down and her hands dropped at her sides. Then she appeared to come to some resolution. "Lance," she said, in a new voice, "do you really think that I wrote that letter?"
"What?" said Lance, sharply. "You were not surprised when I showed it to you."
"That was because I knew such a letter must have been written. It was the only way to account for what happened...But why should I have written such an incriminating letter and signed it? This is my office, and this was Jim's adjoining it. If I had wanted to make a date with him I had only to go in and speak to him. That letter was a forgery!"
"It deceived Jim Beardmore," said Lance. "It decoyed him to his death."
"Oh, men can always make themselves believe what they wish to believe," said Freda, impatiently. "You didn't have to believe it!"
"You as good as told me you wrote it."
"I thought it would make it easier for you to leave me and forget it all."
"Easier!" cried Lance. "It would have been more merciful to put a bullet through me!"
Freda pulled open a drawer of her desk. "Look!" she said.
Lance saw a heap of scraps of torn paper. "What's that?" he asked.
"A trial draft of the forged letter."
"Where did you find it?"
"I knew where to look," she said, bitterly. "Will you take them and put them together and examine them?"
Lance shook his head. "I wouldn't want them found on me. I'm satisfied if you tell me you didn't write it."
In her earnestness Freda came closer to him and grasped his two forearms. "What's the use of swearing?" she said. "Look at me and you must see the truth!"
She raised her eyes to his, and Lance looked into their blue depths as clear as spring water. He knew then that she spoke the truth. "Oh, Freda!...Oh, Freda!" he murmured, brokenly, and drew her towards him.
She resisted a little. "This is not a pledge, Lance," she murmured, with infinite sadness. "You and I can never be anything to each other."
He kissed her, nevertheless.
"Will you save yourself now?" she whispered.
Color and life had come back into Lance's face. "Sure!" he said. "My life is worth something to me now."
"Oh, try to escape!" she said, imploringly. "If they should take you, what shall I do?...Listen, if they take you, say nothing of what you know. I hate to ask you this, you have been through so much already, but if the truth comes out I'm done for!...Oh, I won't let them punish you!" she went on, a little wildly. "If there is any danger of a conviction I will tell the whole story myself. But they may not have much evidence against you. The case may fail..."
"I'll say nothing until you give me leave," said Lance, gravely. "I've learned my lesson. I'll never doubt you again."
"Oh, thank God, you're honest!" she murmured. "If you were not honest yourself you would never believe me. Everything is against me!...Come!"
"Kiss me," said Lance.
She shook her head resolutely. "It only makes it harder."
She led him across the big room. Halfway, the door opened and John Moseley appeared. Lance thought it was all up with him, but the gray-faced man, instantly taking in the situation, grinned in sly approval.
"Good!" he said. "As usual, you have your wits about you, Freda."
Freda opened a door on the other side of the room and showed Lance a landing with a half-flight of stairs leading to a door at the bottom. This door opened on the private garden. He pressed her hand and ran down.
Making his way around the building, he saw a big police car waiting in the street on the other side of the pool. He turned aside into a lateral path which led him across the gardens and through the arched openings in the arbor vitae trees into Bob Fassett's front garden. As he passed through the gate into the street a trolley car came bumping along the rails. Lance boarded it and was carried in to the city.
He was obliged to return to his room to procure the balance of his money. Before venturing into Mrs. Peake's house he gave it a careful survey from a little distance. It did not appear to be watched, and he finally let himself in and ran upstairs.
He got his money and what few articles of value he possessed. He dared not take a bag with any clothes, for fear of attracting attention to himself in the street. As he started down the stairs again he heard the door bell sound below, and his heart sank.
Looking over the stair rail from the second floor, he saw Mrs. Peake go to the door. She admitted a big man who asked in a rasping voice, "Is Lance McCrea in?"
"Yes...no...I don't know," she stammered. "He's working now. He's never home at this time."
Lance waited for no more. He turned the handle of the door which happened to be nearest him, and slipped through it. It was the second floor rear, occupied by Mrs. Woody, a large widow of uncertain age who never made a public appearance until evening. She stood in the middle of the room, clutching a kimono around her, gaping at Lance, terror-stricken.
"Good morning," said Lance, with a bright smile. "Don't scream."
Mrs. Woody's hand stole to her flabby throat. Astonishment rendered her incapable of making a sound.
"It's all right," said Lance, nodding and grinning like a comedian. "The police are after me. Don't give me away."
He ran across the room to a rear window. Throwing it up, he climbed out on the flat roof of the extension below, which contained Professor Sempill's laboratory. All was clear on this side. There were no back fences in the block.
From the rear of the extension he gained the ground with the aid of a shutter and a window-sill, and ran back between two houses to the next street. Before he could turn out of sight, the detective appeared at a window in the top floor of Mrs. Peake's house. Spotting Lance, he put a whistle to his lips and emitted a blast that aroused the entire neighborhood.
Lance's problem was to find a hiding-place at a second's notice in broad daylight. The police car would be around the corner in a moment. On the corner stood a church. Tacked to the door was a printed notice: "This church is open for rest, meditation, and prayer..." Lance instinctively ran in. He slammed the outer door behind him and bolted it.
Rest, meditation and prayer were not for the fugitive. The church was little better than a trap because everybody had been attracted to doors and windows by the whistle, and a dozen must have seen him run in. However, the pews, the gallery, and the organ loft offered innumerable hiding-places, and it would take them a good few minutes to search it.
Lance ran on into the vestry. This room had a door opening on a little porch outside. It closed with a spring lock, and had in addition a big key in the old-fashioned lock below. Lance took the key, let himself out in the porch, locked the door with the key, and threw it in the shrubbery.
From the vestry porch a path led to the house next door, evidently the parsonage, behind a latticed fence covered with vines. Lance, under cover of the fence, ran back between two houses into the next street. This was the street he lived in, but it was empty now.
By this time the police car had run around in front of the church with an infernal clanging of its gong that brought people running from all parts of that quiet neighborhood. Lance was forced to run with them. To try to get away in the opposite direction at such a moment would only have been to attract attention to himself. There was a crowd in front of the church, momentarily growing bigger, and he felt pretty safe in the middle of it. From the actions of the police, it was evident they still believed him to be inside.
The chase was at a deadlock for the moment. The police couldn't get in. The parson had been sent for. Lance listened with grim amusement to the comments of the people around him.
"Who is it? Who is it?" many voices were asking. There is always somebody who has information. "It's the guy that smoked Jim Beardmore. A real good-looking young fellow. He's locked himself in the church...He'd better pray, all right. The cops have it in for him on account of Sergeant Doty...Well, I hope he gets away!"
Lance's heart warmed gratefully towards the last speaker. He couldn't distinguish which one it was.
The parson came running with the latch-key to the vestry. They were no better off than before because the door was double locked. Nobody appeared to be anxious to smash into the church.
"Oh, well," cried a voice, "there's only the two doors. He's safe in there, all right."
A man was sent running for a locksmith.
Somebody else came running from the next street to say that the fugitive had escaped from the church. He had been seen running back between the houses.
Instantly the police set off towards the rear, with the whole mob at their heels, crashing through the shrubbery and trampling the flower-beds, while the owners looked on and cursed them in vain. Lance kept well in the fore-front. It was his first experience of a manhunt, and he was the hunted man.
On the sidewalk of the rear street stood Mrs. Peake, all in disarray in her red-flannel house gown and a dust cap.
"Did you see a man running this way?" demanded a detective—not the same one who had entered her house.
Mrs. Peake's eyes fell squarely on Lance. She blinked and swallowed hard. She was a soft-hearted woman, but the situation was almost too much for her. Hysterics threatened. Lance smiled at her encouragingly.
She nodded feebly to the detective, and pointed down the street past her house with a wavering finger. She got the words out with difficulty. "Down that way. Turned left around the first corner."
Behind them, the police car charged around the corner, clanging its gong. The detectives boarded it, and it sped on down the street, turning the first corner as Mrs. Peake directed. The crowd billowed after it on foot.
Lance now allowed himself to fall behind a little. He had an idea. The crowd was swarming all over the street and over the grass plots. There was nobody behind him but Mrs. Peake. For Lance, running over the inner edge of the grass, it was a simple matter to slip unobtrusively into the narrow passage between Mrs. Peake's house and the house next door as the pursuit swept on ahead of him. He ran around back and let himself into the kitchen. Mrs. Peake employed no servant. Lance ran up through the empty halls of the house with a thankful heart. Since the police had actually seen him escaping from Mrs. Peake's, they would never think of looking there again for him—at least not for the present. He opened his own door.
There, kneeling on the floor, he saw the detective who had first come to the house, rummaging through his trunk. With desperate quickness Lance played his last, his only card.
"Oh!" he said with a look of surprise. "I'm looking for Lance McCrea."
The detective got to his feet and pulled a gun. "So am I," he said, with heavy sarcasm. "And you'll do till he comes along."
Lance stood facing a select group of officials seated at a table in a room at Police Headquarters, Lounsbery. The Commissioner was very red in the face and active of fore-finger.
"Come clean!" he shouted for perhaps the twentieth time. "We know that you shot Jim Beardmore."
"I did not," said Lance, coolly.
"You lie! You can't deny that you were out at Fairfield night before last."
Lance remained silent.
"You left your fingerprints on half a dozen objects in the library!"
"I hear you say so."
"Don't bandy words with me!" shouted the Commissioner. "Who was with you at Fairfield?"
"Ha! That's an admission that you were there yourself!"
"I didn't say I was."
"Who was with you?"
"I am a stranger in Lounsbery," said Lance. "Been here a week. I haven't made any friends. I haven't been out with anybody."
"You lie! Were you at Fairfield night before last?"
"I refuse to answer."
"On what grounds?"
"That it might incriminate me."
"Ha!" exclaimed the Commissioner. "That's answer enough!"
"I read in the papers," said Lance, 'that Beardmore was shot with his own gun. I know nothing about his house at Fairfield or the arrangements there. The gun was in his desk. How was I to know that? I only came here from New York nine days ago."
"What brought you to Lounsbery?" demanded the Commissioner.
"I came to look for work. I have given you a complete account of myself up to the time I lost my job."
The Commissioner took a new line. "Who hired you to kill Beardmore?"
"That's funny," said Lance. "I haven't got a cent in the world except what was found on me when I was arrested."
"It won't be funny when I'm through with you!" growled the Commissioner. "Afterwards you shot Sergeant Doty."
"I did not."
"You lie! You have been positively identified as the purchaser of the gun that killed Doty. Do you mean to say that Harris was lying?"
"No, sir. It is true that I bought a gun from him."
"Ha! Can you produce that gun?"
"No. It was taken from me before Doty was killed."
"Under what circumstances?"
"I refuse to answer."
"Why?" sneered the Commissioner. "On the grounds that it might incriminate you?"
"I don't have to give any reason," said Lance. "I am not in court yet. A prisoner has the right to refuse to answer. I am entitled to counsel."
"Never mind about your rights!" shouted the Commissioner, in a passion. "You answer my questions or I'll find a way to make you!...There were the tracks of two men around the spot where Doty was shot. Who was with you there?"
"Nobody," said Lance.
The Commissioner lost control of himself altogether. A stream of vituperation issued from his lips. "Take him inside!" he shouted.
Lance was led into an inner room which had, significantly, no windows and a double door. The door was closed. Three or four of the worst-favored policemen he had ever seen were standing about the wall, grinning in evil anticipation. One was caressing a three-foot length of thick rubber hose. Lance's jacket was jerked off, his shirt and his under-shirt. Bare to the waist, he was forced to kneel on the floor.
"Now will you come clean?" shouted the Commissioner.
"I will say no more than I have said already without advice of counsel," answered Lance.
"We'll see! We'll see!"
An hour later Lance staggered out of the room between two policemen. He was breathing hard and the sweat was still wet on his face. Fresh blood was gluing his shirt to his back. But his lips were still firmly closed. He had not told what he knew.
"Take him back to the cells and let him rest," said the Commissioner. "Tonight we'll have another go at him."
LANCE lay on his stomach on the plank that served him for a bed, with his head turned to one side. His eyes were closed, and his lips pressed into a thin hard line of endurance. He lay as still as a man in the deepest sleep, yet the first sound at the door of his cell caused him to spring up and turn his eyes eagerly in that direction.
It was the keeper, a young man with a slack face and a furtive expression who looked as if he belonged by rights inside the bars instead of outside.
"You got a visitor," he said.
Lance looked past him with burning eyes, but the man he saw there was a stranger to him, and he lowered his glance to conceal his bitter disappointment. Lance did not stop to think of the hundred good reasons there were why Freda should not visit him in his cell. His terrible longing to see her obliterated every other consideration.
The keeper opened the barred door and the visitor entered. He was a blond young man, very well dressed, with a ruddy face and a hearty, frank manner. Not so young, Lance perceived as he came closer. Youthfulness was merely the line he had adopted. He was really about thirty-eight years old.
The keeper shut the cell door and went away. "Well, here we are locked up together!" said the newcomer, with a laugh. "Gives you a turn, doesn't, it, when the cell door clangs on you. My card."
His heartiness put Lance off somewhat. A look of reserve appeared in his eyes. On the card was engraved:
"Alvah Dort, Attorney and Counsellor-at-law."
"Sit down!" said Dort. He seated himself beside Lance on the wooden shelf that folded back when the cell was to be cleaned. "Have you ever heard about me?" he asked.
Lance shook his head. "I'm a stranger in Lounsbery," he said.
"Then I'll have to play the music for my own entrance," said Dort, laughing. "I'm not giving myself too much when I say I'm the leading criminal lawyer in town. In fact, I'm known throughout the state. I defended Nan Hinkson, and saved her from the chair, too."
Lance had never heard of this accused murderess, and his face remained blank.
"I want to take your case," Dort went on. "The police have got a good deal on you, but it's not a complete case yet. I happen to know they didn't find your prints on the gun with which Jim Beardmore was shot, and they haven't established any motive for you to shoot him. The killing of Doty is a more serious matter, but I can cast a strong doubt on this new science of ballistics in the minds of the jury that I'll pick. In short, if you will put yourself unreservedly in my hands I'll get you off—on one condition."
"What's that?" asked Lance.
"That you keep your mouth shut...Have you told the police anything beyond what they have found out for themselves?" he asked, anxiously.
"No," said Lance, grimly, "and I don't mean to."
"Good!" cried Dort.
He made as if to clap Lance on the back. Lance jerked away. "For God's sake don't touch my back!" he said, sharply.
"Ha! I see!" said Dort. "They have already put you through a course of sprouts."
"They didn't get anything out of me," muttered Lance.
"Fine! I have a good bit on the police myself. I know how to work it so they won't dare lay hands on you again...Unless the police learn what is known only to you about these killings, I will guarantee to get you off," he said, impressively. "But of course you'll have to tell me everything so I'll know how to act."
"I didn't shoot either man," said Lance.
"Sure!" said Dort. "I wouldn't take the case unless I was convinced of your innocence."
This struck false on Lance's ear. "Wait a minute," he said. "I haven't given you the case yet. If you're a well-known lawyer, I haven't got the money to pay you."
"You needn't pay me a cent!" said Dort, slapping his knee.
This generous offer had the effect of increasing Lance's suspicions. "Who is going to pay you?" he asked.
"Nobody," said Dort, laughing. "Damn it all, I'm fairly well off. Can't I do a friendly act once in a while without counting the pay?"
"You're no philanthropist," said Lance, somberly. "You have the look of a man who takes damned good care of number one."
Dort laughed louder. "You're right!" he said. "There's no philanthropy about my offer. This is going to be the most sensational case that has come before the Connecticut courts in years, and I've got to be in it in order to maintain my prestige. And when I get you off it will bring me a hundred new clients with plenty of money."
"That's more like it," muttered Lance.
Dort hitched a little closer to him on the bench. "Come on," he said, lowering his voice. "They will give me only half an hour with you. At that, I had to exert pressure in order to get admitted to your cell. Come on. Give me the main facts of your story."
Lance's face set stubbornly. "No," he said. "I'm not going to be rushed into anything. I never saw you before. I want time to think this over. I'll give you an answer tomorrow."
Dort stared at him in surprise. He was going to get angry, but he thought better of it and laughed. "My dear fellow," he said, 'there's no time to lose. The police will use one pretext after another to delay bringing you into court until they get what they want out of you. If I take your case I'll force them to arraign you at once. You will then be held for trial and will automatically pass under the control of the public prosecutor."
"Tomorrow morning," said Lance, obstinately.
Dort rose with a shrug. "I'll come round after dinner tonight," he said. "That will give you plenty of time to think things over. Ask your friends who Alvah Dort is." He rattled the cell door, and the keeper came and let him out. He went away with the air of a man grieved because Lance showed no enthusiasm for his offer.
Lance was left sitting on his shelf, gripping the edge of it with both hands, and staring before him in a desperate sort of a way. How can a man help himself when he's locked up in a cell?
Shortly after five o'clock he had another visitor. This was Bob Fassett. The friendly little man's face was all screwed up in commiseration. The keeper brought him to the barred door, and retired a step or two. It was possible for Bob and Lance to converse in whispers without being overheard.
"Gee! you look awful!" said Bob.
"Well, I've been through the mill," said Lance, with a hardy grin.
"It ain't right!" whispered Bob, fiercely. "And they call this a free country and all!...Is there anything I can do for you?"
"Yes," whispered Lance, eagerly. "God knows I need a friend. I need advice. Sitting here, cut off from every living soul, not knowing what they are hatching against you, it drives you crazy!"
"Sure! Sure!" murmured Bob, soothingly.
"Did you ever hear of a lawyer called Alvah Dort?"
Bob shook his head. "Seems like I know that name," he said. "But I don't rightly recollect. I don't know nothing about law."
"You're lucky," said Lance. "Can you carry a message to Miss Freda Rollin for me?"
"Sure!" said Bob, delighted to hear of some practical way of showing his friendship.
"You mustn't speak to her around the office," said Lance. "She'll be home now." He gave Bob Freda's address. "Tell her that a man called Alvah Dort has offered to be my lawyer for nothing. Ask her what she knows about him and if she would advise me to take him. Somehow I distrust him, but I don't know anybody else."
"I get you," said Bob.
"Mind!" said Lance, fiercely. "Don't you tell her a word about the police putting me through the third degree, see? Say I'm feeling fine."
"Right!" said Bob.
"And come back here as soon as you can, because I'm expecting this lawyer guy back later."
"Will they let me see you?"
"Give the keeper a dollar. They took my money from me, but I'll see that you're paid back."
"Aah!" growled Bob.
Lance called the keeper to the door. "My friend's going out to see if he can raise some coin for me," he said. "He'll be back in an hour or so. Will you let him in?"
At the same time Bob timidly tendered his dollar.
"Sure!" said the keeper, pocketing the bill. "Always glad to oblige a couple of right guys."
Lance passed a difficult hour, pacing his cell and waiting for Bob's return. The little man was prompt. When he appeared, he put a hand through the bars to shake with Lance, and the latter saw that he was palming a note. Lance took his hand in such a manner that the note was transferred to his own palm without attracting the keeper's attention.
A little color came into Lance's face as he squeezed the note in his hand. "How did she look?" he whispered, eagerly.
"Kind of peaked," said Bob. "But she ain't the kind that carries on. She was real quiet."
"What did she say?"
"She said...but it's in the note. You better read that."
Lance stepped back out of the keeper's range of vision and spread open his note. His face fell because there was no affectionate salutation or close. It was not signed. He read:
'A.D. has been employed by the Beardmores in various secret matters. I suspect that somebody at our office is paying him to defend you. They are frightened by your arrest because they do not know how much you know. A.D. is smart, all right, but he is perfectly unscrupulous. Do not trust him. Do not tell him anything. If certain people suspect that you know too much, a way will be found of stopping your mouth before you ever come to trial.
'I release you from your promise. If you think best, tell everything you know to the police and to the newspapers. Make sure that it is published before A.D. is told. Then matters can take their course. They would have no object in harming you after you had told all. Destroy this as soon as you have read it.
Lance crumpled this contradictory letter into a tight ball, scowling. He returned to the bars. "I can't understand it," he muttered. "First Freda told me to keep my mouth shut. Now she says to tell everything if I want. She's not one to change her mind without reason."
"You're dead right!" said Bob.
"Were you present when she wrote that note?" whispered Lance. "Did she appear to be upset?"
"She was upset, all right," said Bob. "She was near crazy. But she didn't make no noise about it."
A sudden suspicion leaped into Lance's eyes. "You told her that the police had put me through the third degree!"
Bob's guilty face was answer enough.
"You're a nice friend!" said Lance, hotly. "I told you not to tell her! I told you it was important!"
"Well, I didn't aim to tell her," said Bob, in an aggrieved voice. "But I'm no match for an educated woman. She asked me all kinds of harmless-sounding questions, and then she had me trapped. She inwiggled it out of me!"
In spite of himself Lance laughed and his anger was mollified. After all, there was something comforting in the thought that Freda knew he had suffered for her sake. "Oh, well," he said, "that clears up the mystery of her letter. I know now what I have to do. I'll keep my mouth shut."
And when Alvah Dort came to the jail an hour or two later, he was met by Lance at the bars of his cell with a cold hard face. "No need your coming in," Lance said. "There's nothing doing."
Dort could scarcely believe his ears. His ruddy face grew redder still. "But, good God, man! think what you're about!"
"I've got nothing else to do here but think," said Lance, dryly.
"Let me in there," said Dort, impatiently. "Let me talk to you for five minutes."
"Don't unlock the door," said Lance to the keeper. "I guess even a prisoner has got that privilege."
"You're foolish. Lance," put in the keeper in his oily fashion. "Mr. Dort's the best lawyer in town!"
"Shut up!" said Dort to him, furiously. He turned back to Lance. "Do you think you can stand out against the police indefinitely?" he asked. "They'll keep you here without a hearing until they succeed in forcing the truth out of you. Are you prepared to face that?"
"That's a kind of threat, isn't it?" said Lance.
"As you like it. Naturally, I'm not going to work to save another man's client!"
"I'll take my chance of it," said Lance, coldly meeting his eye. "There's nothing doing between you and me."
Dort strode away down the corridor, muttering and shaking his head in his anger, the keeper at his elbow, trying to placate the great man. Lance sat down on his bench and stared at the wall.
As a matter of fact, he was not troubled by the police again that night, nor did they ever lay hands on him again. It was evident that some powerful influence had been set at work to prevent Lance's story being drawn from him by torture.
THE Lounsbery jail was an ancient brick structure that the city had long outgrown. It was now used solely for the confinement of prisoners awaiting trial. As soon as they were sentenced they were transported to a more modern institution in the suburbs.
It was a long, narrow building with a pitched roof and two tiers of cells, each with a window opening on the jail yard. Opposite the cells ran a blank brick wall pierced only in one place on the ground floor. This was the entrance to the jail which gave on a long corridor connecting Police Headquarters in one street with the city courthouse in another.
The corridor and both the buildings that it connected were modern structures. The corridor ran between the jail and the warden's residence, which had once been joined together. The reason the citizens of Lounsbery had never been roused to an active shame of the foul old jail was probably because it was built in the middle of a city block, completely invisible from any street.
At nine o'clock next morning Lance's keeper came to the door of his cell. "You can have half an hour's exercise, if you want. It's optional," he said, indifferently.
Lance sprang up. "O God yes!" he said. "My muscles are ossifying from lack of use!"
As they passed along the jail corridor the keeper said, out of the side of his mouth, "Did your friend bring you any coin last night?"
Bob had not brought him money, but Lance was wary. "Not much," he said. "He's coming again this evening."
"A prisoner can always have little privileges if he can pay for them," said the keeper, suggestively.
The jail was divided into two halves by a central well. Lance and his keeper went through a barred gate, crossed the central lobby, and issued through another gate into the cement-paved yard. The keeper turned Lance out and went back.
The yard was about fifty yards long and half as wide. Small as it was, a part of it was taken up by a dilapidated cooper's shop, long disused. It was bounded on three sides by a twenty-foot wall, and on the fourth by the jail itself with its two rows of barred windows.
Only about a dozen prisoners took advantage of the privilege of exercising. Some stood about, doing setting-up exercises, while others walked listlessly back and forth. Two armed guards sat tipped back in chairs against the jail wall, with their caps pulled over their eyes, watching the prisoners idly from beneath the visors. Prisoners were not supposed to talk, but the guards were lazy and a certain amount of conversation got by.
Lance started to walk. Like every prisoner, his first thought was of escape. His eyes traveled around the boundaries speculatively. The prospect was not encouraging. On his left was the old jail. On the other three sides rose the backs of new city buildings, with only narrow courts separating them from the jail wall. They were joined solidly all around, and supposing you were able to get over the wall, you would still be faced with the problem of getting through one of these buildings. The court-house in front of him, a tall office building on his right, and Police Headquarters behind him.
The windows of the office building were crowded with heads, and from all the pointing that ensued, Lance suddenly realized that he was the object of their interest. He had become famous overnight. He flushed red, and half turned towards the guards, meaning to ask to be taken back to his cell. But his back stiffened and his face turned grim. He continued his walk, refusing to look again at the office windows.
His first encounter in the yard was with a frayed specimen who looked as if he had been on a week's drunk, followed by a battle royal. He was in a mess of dirt and half-healed abrasions. As Lance came abreast of him he asked, hoarsely:
"What are you in for, fellow?"
Lance gave him a hard look. "Murder," he said.
"Cheese!" said the startled souse, hurrying on. Amongst the others in the yard Lance's eye picked out a little fellow with fine shoulders, obviously of Italian extraction. His smartness differentiated him sharply from the rest of the prisoners. Every greased black hair of his head was in place. He wore a silk shirt and an expensive tie. As he approached he said, out of a little hole in the side of his mouth: "So you're the famous Lance McCrea."
"So it seems, famous," said Lance, grimly.
"Funny how things come around," said the Italian, with a wicked grin. "Few days ago I had the job of smoking you."
"Smoking me!" said Lance, amazed.
"Yeah. Jim Beardmore give the word, and I was told off to get you. But you got Jim first, and then there was nothing in it. You were smart, all right. I got to hand it to you."
"Say, listen!" said the astonished Lance. "If I needed you would you testify to that at my trial?"
"Try and get me!" said the Italian, mockingly.
There was a tall, rangy young fellow striding up and down the yard. He had a sallow skin almost the same color as the wrinkled yellowish suit he wore, and bright, unsubdued blue eyes. He had the look of an active and a dangerous customer. By degrees Lance became aware that this man's keen glance was following him about. The fellow steered a course that presently brought him face to face with Lance near one end of the yard.
"Crummy joint, eh what?" he said, with a grin. "Not the jail I would choose for a settled residence."
Lance was attracted by his bold air. "You said it," he answered.
"Lucky it's easy to get out of," said the fellow.
"I shouldn't have thought it," said Lance. "That's what all the boys think," the other retorted, scornfully. "Because of the buildings all around. There's never been an escape out of this jail. Consequently the keepers are careless. They don't bother to watch the yard after the prisoners are locked up for the night..." The ice-blue eyes shot a piercing glance at Lance through lowered lashes. "I'll be the first to get out of here," the fellow said, coolly. "Tonight's the night!"
"For God's sake how?" said the startled Lance. "Don't look so surprised. The keepers are looking this way."
"Hey! Separate, youse two!" yelled one of the keepers at that moment. "You know the rules."
Lance and the other man walked on in different directions. Lance made his face like a mask. When he turned around at the end of the yard he studied his fellow-prisoner as he advanced towards him. There was not an ounce of spare flesh on his sinewy frame. He walked as if he had springs under his heels. With every long step the drab pants flapped around his lean shanks. His hard, yellow, resolute face looked capable of anything. They passed each other without speaking.
After several minutes had passed the lean prisoner paused and murmured rapidly to Lance as he came up: "Friends of mine have taken a room in the office building yonder. There's only a narrow court between their window and the jail wall. At midnight tonight they'll throw a rope over the wall. When I pull it, it will fetch a rope ladder over. At the top of the wall I'll find an extension ladder resting against the other side to go down by. Neat, eh?"
"How will you get out of your cell?"
"My old woman is bringing me an iron bar under her skirts this afternoon. With that I will pry apart the bars at my window. My cell's on the lower tier."
"Why are you telling me this?" asked Lance.
"I'm offering you the chance to come with me."
He walked on without waiting for the keeper to yell at him. Lance walked the other way with a slightly dazed expression. There was a struggle in his face between joy and doubt. Escape would settle all problems. But...Lance had learned to distrust men.
After a suitable interval they spoke again. Lance first this time. His grim eyes fixed on the other man as if to read his soul. "Why do you make this offer to me, fellow?"
The blue eyes coolly met the glance of the gray ones. "I may need help getting out of here," he said, "and I been looking them over. You're the only guy I see with any guts."
Lance was satisfied with the answer.
"You'll have to get yourself transferred to the lower tier," the fellow continued. "Your keeper will do it for a fiver."
"I haven't got it," said Lance, with a long face.
"I'll give it to you—if you'll pay me back."
"I'll pay you back twice over if you get me out of here."
"Listen! When I turn around under the court-house window I'll drop it on the ground folded small, and you pick it up when you get down there. If there's any guy near me when I turn, I'll wait till the next lap."
"How will I let you know where my cell is?" asked Lance.
"You don't have to. They're all talking about you in the jail. If you get yourself changed I'll get the number of your new cell out of my keeper."
"How will you.."
Lance's question was never finished. One of the keepers let his chair fall to the cement on all four legs. "Didn't I tell youse guys to separate?" he rasped. "You keep away from each other or I'll run you back to your cells!"
"Okay, brother! Don't get shirty!" said the lean man, with a hard grin.
He and Lance went their different ways. There were several details of the proposed escape that had not been settled. Lance had not even learned his fellow-prisoner's name. But they could not speak again, for the keepers forced them to continue their promenades on opposite sides of the yard. Lance, however, contrived to pick up the five-dollar bill.
His keeper came down to conduct him back to his cell. As they passed along the corridor Lance said: "You were saying that a man could have privileges if he paid for it. I wish to God I could get transferred to the lower tier."
"There's a guy on my corridor snores so loud I can't sleep."
"Reckon that's Dutch Werfel," said the keeper, with a laugh. "He's the worst hated guy in the house."
"Ought to be put in an underground cell," said Lance. "I'll go bugs if I don't get my sleep."
"How much is it worth to you, fellow?"
"A couple of smackers," said Lance, prudently.
"Not enough," said the keeper. "Make it five and I'll see what I can do."
"Aw, have a heart!" said Lance. "You can get a room at the Waldorf-Astoria for five. And bath."
"Oh yeah? This is an exclusive house. Nothing less than five."
"Five is every cent I've got."
"Five is the price. Slip it to me and I'll go down and ask for a transfer."
"I'll slip it to you when you turn me over to the downstairs keeper," said Lance, warily.
The transfer was made after the midday meal. As Lance's new keeper locked him in he said:
"Got any money, Lance?"
"Not a cent," said Lance. "That cormorant upstairs took it all. But my friend will bring me some this evening."
As soon as the gate at the end of the corridor clanged behind the keeper a busy murmur traveled down the corridor. "Say you in the next cell. Lance McCrea's been brought down to number seventeen." So there was not much doubt that Lance's partner would hear of his new location.
Amongst the voices that reached his ears, Lance listened for the clipped cynical accents of the lean man, but was unable to distinguish them. He might have learned where his partner was by passing an inquiry along at either side, but there was nothing special to be gained by it, and there was the danger that one cell might be occupied by a stool pigeon.
From the door of the next cell came a husky voice:
"Howsaboy, Lance? All us guys are with you to a man. Wasn't no crime to bump off a dirty—like Jim Beardmore."
And from the other side a slyer voice, "What did you have against him, Lance?"
Lance smiled grimly. He said: "Much obliged for the good wishes, fellows. But, naturally, I'm not talking."
The afternoon dragged out its endless length. Lance could not bring himself to take part in the listless chatter that rustled up and down the corridor. He spent most of the time pacing his cell, alternately cast up and cast down. When the lean man's plan was coldly considered, the obstacles multiplied. It looked fantastic. Yet hope would not die.
Shortly after six the keeper brought Bob Fassett to the door of Lance's cell, and leaned against the wall on the other side of the corridor, yawning. When Bob put his hand between the bars to shake Lance's, another little note passed from palm to palm.
"Did you bring any money?" whispered Lance, anxiously.
"Gee! no!" said Bob, remorsefully. "Why didn't you ask me?"
"I didn't like to," said Lance. "Thought maybe you would, anyhow."
"My old woman keeps the purse," said Bob. "I haven't but a quarter on me. Miss Rollin would have sent it if she had thought. Should I go back and tell her? Would they let me in here when I brought it?"
"They will always let anybody in who brings money to the prisoners," said Lance, grimly. He hesitated. It went hard with him to ask Freda for money, but what good would it be to escape with empty pockets? "Wait till I read her letter," he said. "Make out to be whispering to me."
The keeper, leaning against the wall, was looking directly into Lance's cell, but Lance, holding his hands under cover of Bob's body, had spread out his note, and he had only to lower his eyes to read it.
'There is a man called Joe Liggett who is in some kind of plot against you. I couldn't learn the details, but I know that he staged a fake robbery last night in order to get himself committed to the city jail. I don't see how he can harm you in the jail, but for God's sake don't have anything to do with him. This man would stop at nothing.
'In case he's going under another name, he's a tall, thin man about thirty years old, with a small head, yellowish skin, and peculiar blue eyes. When I saw him yesterday he was wearing a sort of light-brownish suit. Keep away from him!
'Send for Walter Pitman to defend you. He is young and honest and able. Find out what fee he requires to take your case, and I will send it to you by Bob. You must do as you think best about telling him the truth. Anyhow, he has no Beardmore connections. He has always fought them.'
When Lance read this letter his rosy hopes of freedom faded. "You needn't go to Freda Rollin for money," he said to Bob, in a flat voice. "I reckon I won't need any."
WHEN the lights were put out and the jail corridor became quiet, Lance flung himself down on his hard shelf, expecting another sleepless night. But Nature exacted her due. He presently fell into a deep sleep. He had not undressed.
He was awakened by some one gently shaking his shoulder; a finger was laid warningly on his lips. He sprang to a sitting position, all confused in his mind, wondering where he was. A voice whispered in his ear:
"Gee! You're a cool head, all right. Sleeping at such a time!"
Lance took in the brick wall of his cell, the barred window and door. Full consciousness returned. He recognized Joe Liggett's clipped voice, and, standing up, backed away from him warily.
"Ain't you woke up yet?" whispered Joe. "Come on!"
Back of him against the light from the yard, Lance saw where two bars at his window had been spread apart sufficiently to allow the passage of a man's body. "You go ahead," he said. "I'm staying here."
"What the hell!" said Joe. "Wake up! Wake up!" He moved towards Lance.
Lance retreated to the door. "Keep your hands off me!" he whispered, sharply.
There was a silence. Joe was apparently at a loss how to deal with this unexpected situation. Lance watched every move of his silhouette against the window. He didn't know what the man had on him. If his old woman could slip him an iron bar, she could slip him a gun, too. And he could shoot Lance, and be out of the window and over the wall before the keepers got to the cell.
Lance's hands were empty. Behind Joe he could see the top of the iron bar outlined against the light. Joe had rested it on the floor upon entering, and the end of it was sticking up above the window-sill. Lance's palms itched to grasp it.
Joe made his voice oily and persuasive. "Come on, fellow! Everything is set. We'll wake up the whole corridor if we stand here talking."
Lance allowed Joe to grasp his arm and draw him towards the window. By this means Lance got between Joe and the window, and turned around. He put his hand behind him and fixed the position of the iron bar with a touch.
"You go," said Lance. "There's nothing doing with me."
"Cheese! Have you gone crazy?" whispered Joe. "Have you lost your nerve?"
"Sure!" said Lance. "Or what you will. What is it to you if you're all set?"
"I want your help."
"That's a lie. All you've got to do is to pull your ladder over the wall and climb it."
"You've damned well got to come!" muttered Joe.
As his hand moved towards his hip pocket Lance snatched up the bar and hit him over the head. Joe collapsed like a bundle of old clothes. The gun he had drawn clattered on the cement. Lance softly put the bar down, and bent his head to listen.
From the next cell came a drowsy voice. "What's the matter with you Lance? Are you sick?"
Lance laughed a little. "Gee! I had a nightmare," he whispered. "I fell off the goldarned bed."
"Well, for God's sake..." the voice trailed off in an indistinguishable mutter.
Lance dropped to his knees beside the body and put his ear to Joe's breast. The man's heart was beating, and Lance released a long breath of relief.
Lance stood in the middle of his cell in agonizing indecision. What was he to do? Rouse the jail and hand Joe over to the keepers? Would they believe his story? Not likely. Joe, when he came to his senses, would find a way of lying out of it. Lance couldn't prove his connection with the Beardmores without dragging Freda into it. Always the same problem. He couldn't make a move to save himself without breaking his word to Freda.
In the end the pull of the spread bars at the window was too strong for Lance to resist. To hell with thinking when the blessed free air was waiting outside. He slipped Joe's gun in his pocket and wriggled his body through the bars. There was a barrel beneath his window. He stood on it and looked up at the stars for a moment. He had never appreciated the stars before.
He dropped lightly to the ground. The yard was illuminated by lights on each corner of the wall, but nobody was watching. All the windows of the buildings that looked down into the yard were dark. Lance knew that there were keepers in the central hall of the jail. They were probably snoozing. However, he took good care not to show himself in front of the door that opened on the yard.
The barrel had served Joe to stand upon while he spread the bars at Lance's window. Lance carried it across the narrow yard to the old cooperage shop, so that if any keeper looked out he would see nothing out of the way. He drew his hand along the wall at the back of the yard, and sure enough it met a light strong rope hanging down. So that part of Joe's story was true. Lance left the rope hanging.
The only other way out of the yard was over the roof of the jail itself. Lance had no idea what lay on the other side of the jail, but trusted to his luck. Keeping close under the wall, he made his way around it back to the jail, and looked up.
There was the barred window of the first tier just over his head; above it the window of the second tier, then the roof. By standing on the cross-bar of the first window and bracing his legs against the uprights, a man might raise himself up until he could grasp the window above. It was an impossible climb, but a desperate man takes no account of the impossible.
Lance thought no more about it, but took off his shoes and hung them about his neck by the laces. He sprang for the sill of the lower window, caught it, breasted it, snatched at the cross-bar above, and drew himself up. If the prisoner within that particular cell had happened to be looking out he would have seen the shadow of a gigantic bat clinging to his bars.
Lance made the roof. Working his body over the edge was the hardest part. It was pretty steep and covered with smooth slates. No reasonable man would have thought of climbing it, but Lance was an escaping prisoner. Spreadeagling himself upon the slates, he inched himself up obliquely, a little at a time. To have gone straight up would have been impossible. If he had started to slip, nothing could have saved him from plunging to the cement-paved yard. He spread himself over the slates like a limpet, like a snail, and refused to slip.
He caught hold of the ridge tiles at last, and breasted them with a groan of relief. He perched, straddling the ridge like a Gothic gargoyle, and surveyed the layout below. He was between thirty and forty feet above the yard.
He couldn't see much more than he had from the ground, because the surrounding buildings were all higher. Below him on the side opposite the yard there was a set-off from the roof of the jail which covered the more recently constructed corridor alongside. This part of the roof was flatter, and the edge of it was not more than fifteen feet above the ground.
Below it as far as Lance could make out there was a little court hidden in the deepest shadow. It could be gained by means of a window in the Police Headquarters building. He let himself down the steep roof an inch at a time, reached the flatter part, sprang for the window which was barred, and dropped into the court.
He cursed his luck when he found there was no way out of it. At his back was the barred window; on his right the blank brick wall of the jail; on his left the rear of a tall warehouse, all its windows having iron shutters barred within. In front of him was another blank wall which formed part of the jail warden's house. It had a window in the second story, but it was as much out of Lance's reach as the moon.
There was nothing for it but to return as he had come. He sprang for the window, gained the roof of the corridor, and started his toilsome and dangerous climb up the steep roof to the ridge. Anger made him careless. He slipped, but the flatter roof caught him. He did not slip again.
Perched astride of the ridgepole again, Lance hitched himself slowly along, like some gigantic clumsy bird of night, to the other end. Here the ridge of the warden's old house struck off at right angles from the jail building. Lance turned the corner and hitched out to the end of the gable, which was masked by a sham Gothic battlement with a flat tin roof.
Lance peered over the battlement, but could see no way down. He looked into the street and wished for wings. It was one of the lesser business streets, lined with commission houses. The ancient house of the warden was the only dwelling that remained in this part of town. The street lamps cast down pools of light on the deserted pavements. The only sign of life to be seen was a cat crossing from curb to curb with its belly hugging the asphalt.
Lance went back to the ridge tiles. On one side the house abutted upon the tall warehouse; on the other side there was a narrow garden below, with the end of the court-house on the other side of it. In the middle of the steep roof there was a dormer window on the side of the warehouse, a garret window, no doubt, and certain to be closed, but it offered Lance his only chance.
He let himself down to it. It was, in fact, closed. The glass was rough with grime. Supporting himself on the sill with an elbow, he worked at the lower sash with his free hand, but was unable to move it. He had no knife on him, nor other object with which to prize it up. But he had a match. Lighting it, and holding it behind his cupped hand, he satisfied himself that the window had no latch inside. It was simply stuck from long disuse.
Lance remembered that he had crossed a loose slate. He went back for it, and worked it clear of its fellows. Gripping it between his teeth, he returned to the window. The slate had a sharp edge, the bottom of the sash was rotten, and with endless, patient working, Lance finally got it inserted under the sash, and using it as a lever had the satisfaction of feeling the old frame move. The rest was easy.
He carefully lowered his body over the sill. Inside, the place smelled of the dust of many years. The floor he found to be of loose boards, making progress over it ten times as dangerous. He assumed that the family was sleeping in the rooms below. The garret was littered in every direction with cast-off household properties. It was as dark as a pit, and he had only his sense of touch to guide him.
He went down on all fours and moved slowly ahead, feeling the way before him and letting his weight down by degrees on each loose board. After a long search he found the stairs and went down, with his heart in his mouth. This was venturing into the lion's den indeed. There was a door at the bottom.
He gave himself a good half minute to turn the handle. When he got it turned and the door opened, he put a hand around to hold the handle on the other side until he could get the door closed again. He was now in the upper hall of an old-fashioned dwelling-house, with doors all around, some open, some closed. There was more light than in the garret.
In spite of his care, the handle of the door clicked when he released it. Immediately from the front of the house he heard a man's quiet voice: "Is that you, Jack?" Lance froze where he stood.
Immediately at his left there was an open door with a bedroom inside. By the light that came in from the street, he could make out the dim outlines of a bed with somebody lying on it. From the front of the house he heard sounds as of somebody getting out of bed, and as swiftly and silently as a cat he flattened himself on the floor of the bedroom and drew himself under the bed.
A heavy man came along the hall and entered the room. By the increased light Lance gathered that he carried a pocket flash. Probably a gun in the other hand. "Jack!" he said. The figure on the bed above Lance's head mumbled sleepily. The figure with the light went away again. Lance heard him moving around a little. Then he went back to bed.
Lance waited a long while, and then inched himself out from under the bed. Before he reached the door the stillness of the house was shattered by the shrill ringing of a telephone bell from the room where the heavy man lay. Lance, with a sickening catch in his breath, dragged himself back under the bed.
He heard the gruff voice at the telephone: "Yes? What is it?" And then, sharply: "Oh, my God! Notify Police Headquarters! Have a general alarm sent out! Let them telephone every patrolman on beat! I'll be there directly!"
The warden came running into the room where Lance lay hidden. He switched on the light and Lance could see his big feet, somewhat warped by the years. They came so close to the bed that Lance could have tickled them. The warden shook his son and the springs creaked over Lance's head.
"Get up! Get up!" he cried. "Lance McCrea has escaped, and another man with him. It's a plot engineered from the outside."
"What the hell..." murmured the younger voice, sleepily.
"Get up!" yelled his father, already halfway to the door. "And get some clothes on you!"
Confusion filled the upper floor of the warden's house. Lance could hear two women's voices asking questions, and the man of the house impatiently silencing them: "Go back to bed! There's nothing you can do! They are certain to be caught!"
Meanwhile in Lance's room a pair of slenderer bare feet came down from the bed into his range of vision. They became clothed in socks, were thrust through a pair of pants and shoved into shoes.
"Which way did they get out?" the young man called to his father.
"Over the wall and through the Sun Life Building. I always had that danger in mind."
"The hell you did," muttered the son to himself, "or you'd have had the yard watched."
"Are you ready?" cried his father at the door.
The two men ran down the stairs, and a moment later Lance heard the slam of the back door that led into the police corridor and so to the jail.
The young man left the light burning in his room. One of the women came in and switched it off, and Lance thanked her silently from his heart. He waited only a second or two and crept out from under the bed.
He listened at the door and peeped around it. The house was all dark again except one of the front rooms, where he could see light shining out of an open door. The women were talking quietly in that room. Lance stole noiselessly down the carpeted stairs.
There was a hat lying on a chest beside the front door. He snatched it up involuntarily. It fitted pretty well. He dared not venture out of the front door, because the women were overhead. He searched for a side door into the garden, and found it in the dining-room. He put on his shoes and softly let himself out.
THE street in front of the warden's house was still quiet and empty. Right and left Lance looked down long vistas of lights shining down on solitude. He made haste to get around the first corner. The muscles of his legs were twitching, but he held himself down. Mustn't run! he murmured to himself.
How strange it was to be walking the streets like other men again! Lance's face showed no strain now. His situation was so completely desperate he was inclined to grin. He expected to be taken any moment. In the meantime how good it was! How good!
He met the cat that he had seen from the roof—or another cat—and addressed it jocularly: "You're lucky to be a cat, old son, and you don't know it!"
At the same time all his faculties were fully on the alert. Hearing a car turn the corner behind him, he slipped like a shadow into a deep doorway before the headlights picked him up. It was full of police in plain clothes. They swept by his doorway unsuspectingly.
He turned another corner and another. His object was to circle around the Civic Center without crossing it. His heart was in his mouth when he turned a corner and saw a policeman in the very act of receiving a message over the phone. However, his back was turned, and Lance withdrew silently around the corner before he turned around.
In a stretch where there was no immediate concealment another motor-car surprised him, and Lance grinned, expecting the end. But it proved to be full of some late roisterers.
A moment or two later he reached one of the residence streets with its trees and lawns and big houses set back. He was in less danger now, for he knew that the system of police phones did not extend beyond the business district. All Lounsbery seemed to be asleep. He kept straight on. The police could not comb every street simultaneously, and one place was as safe as another. If he escaped them it would be a matter of luck, anyhow.
He approached Mrs. Peake's house by the street which ran in the rear of it. He was doing a foolish thing in going home, but he had no choice. It was so foolish that perhaps the police would never suspect he might head that way. As he made his way between the houses in the rear to Mrs. Peake's back garden, his heart bounded; he grunted with thankfulness upon discovering that the windows of Professor Sempill's laboratory were lighted up.
These windows were just over Lance's head. Lance caught hold of the sill of one and, drawing himself up, peeped in. It never occurred to the unworldly Professor to pull down the blinds. There he sat with his distinguished gray head bent over the table, busy with his calculations. Lance's face softened with affection at the sight. He dropped back to the ground, and tapped on the glass with his nail.
The Professor, not in the least alarmed, came to the window and threw it up. He looked down into Lance's face. Lance had a finger on his lips. "Put out the light," he whispered, "and I'll come in." The light went out. Lance breasted the sill and climbed in. He shut the window and pulled down the shade. "You can light up again," he said.
The old man switched on the lights, and at a sign from Lance went around pulling down the rest of the shades. He was perfectly calm. As a matter of fact, it could be seen that his body was moving automatically. His thoughts were still with his calculations.
"What's the matter?" he asked, with only half his attention. "Did you get locked out?"
Lance stared at him in astonishment. "Don't you know what has happened to me?" he asked.
Professor Sempill shook his head. "I've been right busy the last two days," he said, simply. "I suddenly got on the track of the lost atom again."
"Didn't Mrs. Peake tell you anything?"
"No. Now that you speak of it, I remember she was bursting with something when she brought me my lunch yesterday, but I shooed her out. She is always bursting with some gaseous matter that has no substance. And I was busy." His eyes strayed desirously towards the table.
"I'm sorry I broke in on it," said Lance.
"Oh, that's different," said the Professor, quickly, "if you're in trouble."
"I was arrested yesterday," said Lance. "Tonight I broke out of jail. The police are combing the city for me."
The old man took it calmly. "What were you arrested for?"
"If you don't mind, I'd rather not tell you," said Lance. "I am innocent of the charge that was brought against me."
The Professor came close to him. "That's enough for me," he said, laying a hand on Lance's shoulder. "Much better not to tell me any more. After all, my sands are running out and I must get on with my work while there is time...How can I help you?"
"Money," stammered Lance. "I hate to ask you, but I haven't a cent. Without money I might as well go back and give myself up."
"Surely! Surely!" The old man started searching about the room. "By rights I ought to give you some good advice," he said, chuckling, "but I'll leave that to the moralists. A scientist has no morals. There's something romantic to me in the notion of breaking out of jail!"
From a drawer he gathered up a handful of loose bills, and from under some papers on the table another handful of bills and change. "There's plenty of money about," he said, with a bothered look, "if I could only remember where I put it. I just give my checks to Mrs. Peake, and she fetches me the change."
His deliberateness was maddening to Lance, who was twitching in every muscle to be away, but he could not say anything. He raised the window an inch, and put his ear to the crack to listen. As the old man continued his search he could bear it no longer.
"Never mind!" he said. "You've got plenty there. I must get out of this!"
The old man thrust the money into Lance's hand, and Lance shoved it into his pocket. The Professor's eyes dwelt on the young man wistfully. He caught Lance's hands between both of his and shook them.
"Good luck! Good luck!" he said. "I understand what you are going through better than you think! It's terrible to be young! But I wish I were young again."
"I can't say anything," said Lance, helplessly, "but I'll never forget this!"
The Professor switched off the lights and Lance went over the sill.
As he started back over the grass towards the street in the rear, he thought he saw a head jut out from behind a bush, and draw back again. He stopped in his tracks with a fast-beating heart. It was pretty dark in the space between the backs of the houses. The houses themselves cut off the light from the streets on either side like immense screens.
On the other side of the way through which he had to pass, he saw a dark shadow on the grass that moved. At his left hand, pressed against the rear wall of the Professor's laboratory he saw a shape that did not belong there. That was three.
Lance whirled around and ran at top speed in the other direction. Instantly he heard the pad of running feet in the grass behind him. He didn't get far. Ahead of him in the narrow passage between Mrs. Peake's house and the house next door he saw, silhouetted against the light from the street in front, the figure of a man. Four. Hopeless odds.
Lance turned around. Three men were closing in on him. He threw up his hands and said, quietly—because he didn't want to startle the Professor: "All right, boys. I give up."
Nevertheless, the three seized him and flung him down. The fourth man joined them. Lance's arms were jerked behind his back, and a rope cast around his wrists.
"What the hell!" he muttered, indignantly. "There are four of you! I'm not resisting arrest!"
One of the men laughed. "Cheese! He thinks we're..."
"Shut up!" growled another.
Lance cursed them heartily in a low voice, and was rewarded with a violent kick in the ribs.
"Shut his mouth!" said the same voice.
He was turned over. Hard fingers pressed his jaws together, and strips of tape were expertly pasted over his lips. Lance knew then that he had not fallen into the hands of the police, and a cold sweat broke out on him. He would have given all he possessed to see a squad of police heave in view.
Having bound his wrists, they tied his ankles together. They picked him up and ran him quietly and swiftly back to the rear street. There was now a motor-car waiting at the curb. One man was sent ahead to spy up and down the street. "Okay," he whispered.
There was something familiar to Lance about the tallest of his captors. He was the one who was giving orders in a low growling voice. As they came out from between the houses the light of a street lamp fell on his hard yellow face. It was Joe Liggett.
He saw Lance's eyes fixed on him, and struck him a brutal blow in the face. "That's for the crack you give me on the coco," he said, with a callous laugh. "I'll pay it back in installments."
Lance was thrust on to the back seat of the car, with Joe on one side of him and a man unknown to him on the other. They started.
"Where you been all this time?" asked Joe, with his brutal facetiousness. "When I got out of the coop I seen you riding the ridge of the jail like a jockey. I was out here twenty minutes later, but that's two hours ago. I knew you'd try to get home before the alarm was raised."
Lance could not have answered if he would.
"We made the mistake of watching the front of the house," Joe went on. "I thought you'd have a latch-key. There was only one man watching the back, and he was afraid to tackle you single-handed. When he fetched us you were inside."
Joe spoke to the chauffeur. "Slow up, a moment, Kin. I ain't searched this guy yet."
His fingers traveled over Lance. He drew the gun out of his hip pocket. "My own little baby!" he said, tossing it in the air and catching it again. "Comes back to poppa like a homing-pigeon!"
He possessed himself of the crumpled wad of money in Lance's side pocket. "Ha! that's what you were after! Not too bad! This will repay me for my fiver, with interest."
Lance started to protest angrily, but only strangled sounds issued from behind his sealed lips.
Joe laughed heartily. "That's all right! You won't need the jack where you're going, kid!...Step on her, Kin!"
The car sprang ahead.
THEY sped through the dark still streets of Lounsbery; the chauffeur and two other thugs crowded into the front seat of the sedan. Lance behind, bound hand and foot, and with his lips sealed. On one side of Lance the grinning sardonic figure of Joe Liggett, on the other a scowling bravo with a scar from temple to chin. Joe addressed this man as Wat.
Joe was in the highest spirits. He had a peculiar sense of humor. "Well, it's all over now, guys, but the cashing in. Cheese! we near missed out tonight when this —— cracked me over the head. There was I helping him to break jail and he tries to brain me! He took my money and he double-crossed me! Yah!"
Joe with the flat of his hand violently shoved Lance's head and it cracked against Wat's head. Wat, cursing, shoved him in his turn, but Joe, with a laugh, thrust his head forward and escaped the impact. Lance breathed hard and gritted his teeth in impotent anger.
"But we got him, anyhow!" Joe went on. "All we got to do now is plant the stiff and spend our jack. Me, I'm going down to Miami for the winter and lie under the cocoanut trees. I never did like cold weather."
Lance was not sufficiently familiar with the town to follow their entire course. Presently they came out on a through street that he suspected was Morrell Avenue, but the car was traveling too fast for him to read the street signs. There were no trolley cars at this hour. "Ease up!" said Joe, suddenly. "There's a cop ahead. You don't want to draw his attention."
The policeman stepped down from the curb and signaled to them.
"Cheese!" muttered Joe, startled. "Step on it! Step on it!"
The car leaped ahead at full speed. The policeman jumped back out of its way with an angry shout. An instant later he had his gun out and was firing at their tires. Everybody in the car bent over double, his head sunk between his shoulders. The gun exploded in the quiet street like a cannon.
Joe, still leaning over, pulled the gun from his hip pocket. "The bloody murderer!" he muttered.
"Put it up!" growled Wat. "We don't want to kill no more cops!"
In a few seconds they were out of range and unharmed. The policeman could be seen rapping on the door of a drug store to get to a telephone. Upper windows were being flung up all along the street.
The grin had faded from Joe's face. "Cheese! Cheese!" he muttered. "They know he's out! The alarm has been raised!"
"What price Miami now?" growled Wat.
"Shut up!" said Joe. Looking anxiously back through the rear window, he could see the headlights of a car far down the straight, empty street. "Take the first left turn," he ordered the chauffeur. "Lights out while you're turning."
They turned on squealing tires into a roughly paved side street. They turned other corners. Soon they had passed out of hearing distance of the shots, and no more heads appeared at the windows. "Make your way zigzag over to the Lethbridge road," ordered Joe. "We'll leave town on that side, and go round."
After a long detour through poor and sparsely built-up streets they came out into another through highway with trolley tracks. As far as they could see in both directions it was empty.
"Step on her! Step on her!" said Joe, biting his fingers. "If the cop at the telephone gets them headed out north-west, we're safe!"
"We got to strike that road somewheres," said a voice, "before we can get there."
"Time enough to worry about that," said Joe.
The houses became farther and farther apart, and soon they were running between open fields. Joe's eyes were fixed at the rear window, while the three men in front crouched and peered ahead. Traveling sixty miles an hour or better, they rounded a bend and ground to a stop with crying brakes. The chauffeur had snapped off his lights.
"What's the matter?" asked Joe.
"Police barricade across the road," was the curt reply.
Far down the road they could see some flickering lights and the suggestion of figures.
Joe cursed, and bit his fingers. "Crash it! Crash it!" he said.
"Yeah?" said the chauffeur, dryly. "Them's the state police. They can ride around this boat in circles on their motorbikes and pump us full of lead."
"Turn around," said a panicky voice.
Joe hardened under danger. "Yeah?" he said. "And meet the city police coming out?...Abandon the car and take to the fields. They can't follow us there on their motor-bikes."
They piled out and crossed the road, carrying Lance. They flung him over the wire fence with brutal carelessness, and climbed after.
"What we going to do?" asked a voice. "Make a detour around the barricade and hit the road again?"
"That's just what they'd expect us to do when they find the car," said Joe. "We got to cross the fields till we come to another road."
"Cheese! we're getting further and further away from where we got to go. We can't walk all night carrying this—!"
"We'll pick up a car somewheres," said Joe.
Some minutes later, having pitched Lance over three more fences, they came to an old side road. It twisted and turned, but held north for the main part. The four men plodded along, dividing the burden between them, while Joe walked behind, ignoring their sarcastic suggestions that he take a hand. The grumbling was continuous.
"What the hell! We can't make it. We ought to croak this guy and leave him lay, and scatter."
"Oh yeah?" said Joe. "You're a clever guy, ain't you? Brilliant! They know I got him out of jail, don't they? The murder would be pinned on me as soon as he was found...We get our pay for delivering him in a certain spot, and there we're going to take him!"
Presently a dark old farmhouse loomed beside the road, with a big barn at one side and another behind and a clutter of smaller outbuildings. Joe peered in as they came abreast of the place.
"There's an old Ford under a shed," he whispered. "Ten to one the key is in it. You guys walk on and I'll have a look-see...There's no telephone line down this road," he added, with satisfaction.
They walked on. For a few moments there was silence. Then they heard the whirring of the starter and the furious barking of a dog. A bedroom window in the farmhouse was thrown up and an outraged voice yelled down imprecations at the thief. A moment later came the loud, flattish bang of a shotgun. By this time Joe was turning into the road.
He came towards them, with a big dog in pursuit. The four men dropped Lance beside the road and scrambled over the fence. As Joe stopped the car the dog struggled in vain to get at him over the door. Joe coolly pulled his gun and shot him dead.
The four men came back over the wire fence, picked Lance up, shoved him in the back of the car, and clambered after. By this time the farmer in his nightshirt had turned out of the yard and was running towards them, brandishing his shotgun.
Joe let in the clutch and they raced away, the gangsters leaning out of the car, yelling with laughter and making insulting gestures at the enraged farmer.
They were in a fine humor now. "Cheese!" said one. "Did you get an eyeful of that nightshirt? I never seen one before but in the movies!"
Joe drove the old Ford for all there was in her. In a few miles they came to a crossroads in a wood, and he turned to the right. "We can begin to work back now," he said.
Presently they came to a crossing with a north-and-south highway that they knew must be the Lethbridge road which they had abandoned nearer town. It was an anxious moment for them. Before showing themselves they stopped and listened. No sound. Joe turned out his lights and sped across the highway. On both sides they saw the lights of cars at some distance. They themselves could not have been seen and their spirits rose again.
After detouring for four or five miles farther, they reached another through road and turned into it towards the right. The reflection of the lights of Lounsbery was now in the sky ahead of them. There was a high hill between.
"This is the northeastern road," said Joe. "Reckon it's barricaded nearer town. If anything comes, don't take no chance, but hop out and over the fence."
As he neared the top of the high hill Joe turned out his lights. Sure enough, when they were able to look down the other side they saw the twinkling lights that denoted a police barrier about half a mile across the valley. The Ford stopped.
"It's not far from here," said Joe. "We'll walk the rest of the way. You take the Ford, Kin, and lose it somewheres a long way from here. Turn out of the main road at the first crossing."
"Suppose I meet the farmer coming," said Kin, grinning.
"Turn east at the first road and you won't meet him. If the police stop you I reckon you can tell a good story. There's nothing to connect you with Lance McCrea or me. You know where to go tomorrow for your slice. Me, I got to keep under cover for a while."
"Okay," said Kin.
They got out, and Kin took the wheel. He turned the car and set off down the hill the way they had come. The rest of them picked up Lance—Joe had to do his share now—and started down at one side of the road where their footsteps did not ring on the hard pavement. They watched and listened attentively.
A few minutes later they saw the ominous single light of a motorcycle detach itself from the cluster of lights ahead. Instantly they flung Lance over the fence into a cornfield, and climbed after. Joe lay upon Lance's head to deaden any sounds he might make. Lance groaned as well as he could, but the state's trooper swept by in the road, deafened by the sound of his own engine.
Afterwards they did not return to the road, but kept on over the cornfield, stumbling in the furrows and cursing under their breaths. The long rows of cornshocks stretched like ghosts under the stars. A pasture field followed, which made easier going.
After a considerable walk they came to a more elaborate wire fence which suggested the boundary of a private estate. There were thickly growing trees on the other side. "This is it!" said Joe, in satisfaction.
Lance was dropped over the fence, and his bearers clambered after. After feeling their way amongst the trees for a few yards, they came out on a paved road and turned to the left. A bend in the road brought them to a dark cottage amongst the trees. Joe tapped softly on a window pane.
The cottage door opened and a quiet voice said: "Gee! you're late! Where's the car?"
"Sent it back," said Joe. "The roads are lousy with cops. Come on!"
A man issued out of the cottage and accompanied them along the private road. "Mitch is waiting at the house," he said.
"Ain't the boss there?" asked Joe, sharply.
"He waited for you a couple of hours and you didn't come and you didn't send no word.."
"Aah!" put in Joe, "we was otherwise occupied."
"So the boss drove back to town to see what was the matter. He'll be back."
"There are barriers up on all the roads," growled Jim.
"The police wouldn't stop him."
They came out from amongst the trees, and Lance, to his astonishment, saw the long, pillared facade of Fairfield, Jim Beardmore's palatial country house, dim and huge under the night sky. There could be no mistaking that building. There was no other like it.
Their conductor unlocked a door in the basement at one end of the long house. Lights were turned on inside, and a man who had been quietly sitting in the dark passage got up. It was a young man of great physical strength and a somewhat pleasing face, but his first words showed that he was just another of Joe Liggett's gang.
"Cheese! What happened?" he asked. "Must be near morning."
"It's a long story," said Joe, dryly. "What about the boss?"
"Said he'd be right back or telephone the cottage," answered Mitch. "That was about two."
Joe hesitated, scowling. "I'll go back to the cottage and wait for a call," he said. "Carry the guy downstairs and wait for me."
Lance got a good look at his captors in the light. A man has a vital interest in his murderers. Besides Wat, the surly, middle-aged man, there was the good-looking Mitch and two hard-boiled young ones. One of these was nervous. He avoided looking at Lance and kept moistening his lips.
These four picked Lance up, carried him farther along the passage, through a door and down some stairs. Joe put out the lights behind them. The cellar was like a warren of tunnels and deep vaults. The central passage was lighted with an occasional lamp, but darkness lurked under the heavy brick arches and piers at either side.
They came out in a wider vaulted space. In the middle was an open grave with a heap of earth beside it. Lance stared at it with starting eyes. A fine sweat broke out on his face; his breast heaved, but no sound escaped him. Life is sweet at twenty-five.
His captors were irritated because he kept his nerve so well. They carried him up to the edge of the grave and bade him look into it. "Tain't every guy as has the privilege of seeing where he's going to lie," said Wat, with a grin.
"Ain't no worms in that clay," added Mitch, with a laugh of bravado. "I ought to know because I dug it."
In the bottom of the grave was spread a layer of unslaked lime. The barrel of lime stood close by, with a bag of cement, a box containing a heap of sand, and several pails of water. Lance lowered his eyes so that they should not read any signs of weakness there.
They dropped him on the cement at the place where the passage ran past the mouth of the vault, and lit cigarettes.
"I don't like this waiting," growled Wat. "Morning will soon be here."
"The boss will have to keep us in the house through the day," said one of the others. "Reckon there's plenty good beds upstairs."
"Aah! we ought to go ahead and do our job," said Mitch, in his boastful way. "That's what we're getting paid for."
"Oh yeah?" said Wat, dryly. "The boss ain't going to buy no pig in a poke. How's he going to know what we stuck under the cement unless he's here to see it?"
At a moment when Mitch happened to be nearer to Lance than any of the others, he turned his back on his mates and favored Lance with an expressive wink. Lance flushed red and became very pale again. He trembled all over. To learn, at the moment when he had steeled himself to face the worst, that he had a friend in the gang, broke him up worse than any cruelty could have done. He steadied himself with an effort.
Mitch instantly turned back to the others and went on with his boastful laugh: "Look at Ed! He's fair sick about this job! Cheese! Ed, you want to grow up! What's one man the less in a world of the unemployed?"
The four men were grouped at one side of the hole in the cement floor, Wat leaning against the barrel, one of the young fellows sitting on the bag of cement, the other supporting himself with a hand out against the side of the vault. Suddenly all the lights went out, leaving them in darkness blacker than the pit.
Lance felt himself lifted up and carried back into the deeper recesses of the vault. There was a brief silence, then a confusion of voices from the four men:
"Watch the prisoner!...Who's got a flash?...Get out of my way, damn you!" A flash was turned on, and somebody cried out: "My God! he's gone!" Mitch's voice made itself heard above the others. "Cut him off at the stairs, fellows!" They all ran back with the flashlight.
Meanwhile, Lance's friends had turned out of the back of the vault into another passage. They headed towards the deeper recesses of the cellar. They laid him down for a second, and a sharp knife parted his bonds. A woman's voice whispered: "Keep the pieces of rope so they can't track us by them! Take off his shoes and bring them!"
Lance was stood on his feet, and a small, firm hand took hold of his. The voice whispered in his ear: "Don't be afraid of falling. I know the way."
He staggered at first. His body was aching and stiff from his bonds and from his many falls. They moved on. The men were cursing at the other end of the cellar. Lance with his free hand pulled the pieces of tape from his lips, and kept them. With a great leap of the heart he saw a window in front of him as they turned a corner.
It was a shallow, semicircular window, fitting snugly under the arched roof of the vault. It was open, and there was a packing-case standing beneath it. In the faint light that came through Lance saw that there were three persons with him, two men and a woman. "Freda!...Freda!..." he whispered.
"Shh!" she warned, pressing his hand. The two men went up over the box and Lance followed. The last thing he heard was Joe Liggett's voice from the depths of the cellar: "Back, you fools! He didn't come this way!" The window was at ground level outside. Friendly hands pulled him through, and a voice whispered: "I'm Bob Fassett and this is my boy!" Lance pressed their hands.
They leaned down and helped Freda through. "Oh Freda!" murmured Lance, brokenly. "How did you do it?"
"Hush!" she murmured. "Tell you later. Quick! They'll soon find the way we got out. To the lake!"
THEY had come out at the back of the big house where the ground fell away. There was a terrace of grass, then the woods below. After the complete blackness of the cellar they could see very well. Freda knew just where to go. Following her lead, they ran down the grass into the shelter of the woods. She presently found the path she was looking for, and led them on in single file.
Lance started when they came to the end of the little lake in the woods. There lay the boat he had used on the night of Jim Beardmore's death, drawn up on the shore in just the same way. It brought back all the feelings of that other night with uncomfortable acuteness.
The boat was barely large enough to hold the four of them. Bob sat in the bow, his boy Victor bent his strong back to the oars, Lance and Freda sat side by side in the stern. Lance drew Freda's arm under his, but she quietly detached it.
"Please!" she whispered.
"What do I want with my life if you won't share it?" whispered Lance, sorely.
She made no answer.
"God! women can be stony!" he muttered.
After a while he said, "How did you do it?"
She was willing to answer this—within limits. "I knew they were going to pull off something tonight, but I couldn't find out just what it was. I couldn't warn you any more than I had already done. I didn't go to bed. It was after two before I learned the details of the plot..."
"How did you learn them?"
"I have a friend," she said, "who is close to your enemy."
"I got hold of Bob and Victor and we ran out to Fairfield in Bob's car..."
"How did you know you'd be in time?"
"I knew that he...the principal one...the man who hired those thugs, had driven in to town and that nothing would be done until he returned to Fairfield. I only went on a chance, because I thought their plan had miscarried because you had taken my warning. But I wasn't sure and I couldn't rest. I didn't have any plan how to act, but I had a powerful argument to use with him...the principal."
"What was that?" demanded Lance.
That question she would not answer.
"I had got a key to the house from the office," she went on. "When I got out there I found that he...the man I mean...had not got back. There was only one man in the house, the young fellow called Mitchell, and I put it up to him frankly. Well, there was a strain of decency in him, or maybe anybody would consider it better to take the same price for a decent act as for a murder. Anyhow, he agreed to help me. I found the main fuse of the lighting system, and at the right moment I pulled it out."
"You offered Mitch a price?" said Lance, hotly.
"I have drawn the money to pay your lawyer," she said, simply.
"I won't take it!" he said. "...Have you paid Mitchell?"
"No," she said, "but I shall do so, of course."
Lance fumed in silence. After a while he whispered, "Who is the man who is bent on murdering me?"
"I can't tell you that!"
"Will you let him murder me?" he whispered, angrily.
"I have saved you."
"It was only by a chance."
"You disregarded my warning!"
"I did not. I got out of jail by myself. Joe Liggett collared me later."
"It was your own recklessness that got you into all this in the beginning," she pointed out.
"Did you only save my life to drive me mad with your stubbornness?" he muttered.
"Stubborn!" she whispered, bitterly.
They landed at the other end of the little lake and, drawing up the boat, left it. They passed along the little-used path leading through the last stretch of woods and came out at the fence bounding the Fairfield property on the south. Open fields lay beyond.
"This is the spot where Sergeant Doty was shot," said Lance.
"Oh, don't speak of it!" murmured Freda, with a catch in her breath.
Without crossing the fence, they circled around the edge of the property. As far as Lance could judge, it was the same course he had followed in the dark three nights before. At any rate, they finally climbed a fence and found themselves in a rough road such as he had found. It was a mere track running along the edge of a field. Here Bob's car, an old Ford station wagon, was parked.
"The state police have thrown barriers across all the main highways," said Lance, doubtfully.
"We strike Morrell Avenue inside the barrier," said Freda. "Except for a block or two we avoid all the main highways. We're not going anywhere near the center of town."
"This old side-wheeler don't never attract no attention," put in Bob.
"Now you've saved me, what can you do with me?" said Lance, grimly. "The whole state is roused."
"I have a hiding-place for you," said Freda.
"Wait and see." Lance thought he heard the hint of a smile in her voice.
Bob and Victor climbed into the front seat; Freda took one of the small seats behind them, while Lance jammed himself into the space on the floor between Freda's seat and the rear seat. A blessed feeling of relaxation stole over him, and in spite of his cramped position and the awful jolting he fell asleep.
He knew nothing more until he found Freda shaking his shoulder. He found that they had driven into the yard back of Bob's cottage, where the station wagon was lodged in its shed. He climbed out sleepily. Freda was telling Bob and Victor to go to bed and forget everything that had happened that night.
"How are you going to get back to town?" asked Bob.
"It's five o'clock now," said Freda. "I'll go back on the first car at six. That's the most inconspicuous way."
"But it's still dark at six," objected Bob. "Tain't fitting for a lady to be out alone."
"It's all right for me," said Freda. "I'm not a pretty girl."
"I wouldn't say that," said Bob, in his droll way.
"Well, anyhow, I'm a no-nonsense girl. If a man annoys me I know how to handle him."
Lance smiled to himself in the dark. This girl exasperated him to the point of frenzy—but how sweet she was!
"Could you rustle me a bite of grub, Bob?" asked Lance, diffidently. "I'm all in."
"I have it," said Freda, indicating a parcel she carried.
"Wonderful girl!" murmured Lance.
"We stopped at a lunch-wagon and you never woke," said Bob.
They parted. Bob and Victor went to the cottage; Freda and Lance crossed the private gardens of the Beardmore offices and Freda opened the little private door with a key, Jim Beardmore's door.
"What are we going to do here?" asked Lance, wonderingly.
"Wait!" she said.
At the top of the half-stair, instead of turning into the president's office on their right, she opened another door in front of them with a key and showed Lance a stairway leading on upward. They ascended it. She opened a door at the top and led him into a room.
"This must be your home until we can decide what to do," she said.
"I can't see anything," said Lance.
"Well, it's a parlor. Very luxuriously furnished, but dusty now. You can open the windows, but you mustn't show a light. You'll have to feel your way around. There's a bedroom, and a bathroom adjoining.
"Jehosaphat!" exclaimed Lance. "Right on top of the offices! Right on top of him!"
"Him?" said Freda, sharply.
"My enemy. I know who it is. It's Tony Beardmore."
Freda would not be drawn into any answer. "Listen," she said. "When the new offices were built Jim Beardmore designed this flat for himself on the roof. But he never used it as far as I know. I doubt if anybody who works in the building, apart from the directors, knows of its existence, and if they do it doesn't matter. The only two keys to the door at the foot of the stairs are in my possession. The directors have never expressed any curiosity about the place. If they should, I will make believe that I cannot find the keys, and that will give me time to get you out."
A brief amazed laugh escaped Lance. "Right in the citadel of the Beardmores!" he murmured.
"Only a desperate plan can save us," murmured Freda. "Us!" murmured Lance, fondly. "It is the last place that the police or..."
"Or the Beardmores," put in Lance, quickly.
"...would expect to find you. You will not be discovered here unless you betray yourself."
"Right!" said Lance. "You are a woman after my own heart!"
She ignored this. "Here's a sofa," she said. "Sit down and eat."
"Only with you."
"Surely," she said. "I am famishing. There are five ham-and-egg sandwiches. The odd one for you because you're bigger. I'm afraid they're cold now."
"I can do with them cold," said Lance, dryly. They sat down side by side on the sofa in the dark and attacked the food. Lance groaned in satisfaction. Between bites Freda continued:
"Owing to the style of this building with its pediments and entablatures, this little penthouse is invisible from below. That was what tickled Jim Beardmore's fancy. You could even walk around on the roof outside your windows without being seen from below, but I wouldn't advise it in the daytime. You must never make a light at night, for, though the windows cannot be seen, the watchman's attention might be attracted by the reflected glow."
"Is there a watchman in the building?" said Lance, startled.
"He doesn't stay here. One of the men from the mill visits the offices every two hours, makes a round, and punches his clock. His first round is at six in the evening, then eight, ten, and so on until six in the morning. The office-cleaners are in the building any time between six and eight in the morning."
"They took my watch," said Lance.
"I will leave you mine until I can get you another. As for food, I will buy two little suitcases exactly alike, and bring one with me every morning with food enough for the day. I'll put this inside the door at the foot of the stairs as I may get a chance, and you must have the empty one waiting there."
"Give me keys to the door at the foot of the stairs and the little outside door, so I can go out at night," said Lance, eagerly.
"I cannot do that," she said, sadly.
"Then it's still a prison," said Lance, sullenly, "however luxurious!"
"But you must see how dangerous it would be," she murmured, beseechingly. "This is the last trick in the box. If you are caught, what could I do for you?"
"Expose the man who killed Jim Beardmore and Sergeant Doty."
"Ah, don't let's quarrel again!" she said, with a pitiful catch in her breath.
With an effort Lance overcame his anger. He caught up her hand and pressed it to his cheek. "I must go now," said Freda.
"It's not nearly six!" he protested, in dismay.
"I mustn't run it too fine. The watchman might be a few minutes early."
"Wait until he's been and gone, then. We can sit on the stairs and listen for him."
"I must get back in the house before the servants are up."
"What will you do until it's time for the first car?"
"There's a bench hidden among the cypresses beside the pool in front. I will sit there until I hear the car coming." She stood up.
"There's just one thing," said Lance, diffidently. "You've done so much, I hate to speak of it..."
"You must remember that my employers pay me well," she said, with an odd note of bitterness.
"A man in such a ticklish situation as mine ought to have a gun," said Lance.
"Oh! I was forgetting that!" she exclaimed. "I have it for you." She opened the little bag that was always under her arm. "It's a small one, but just as effective, I suppose. I took it out to Fairfield, not knowing what I would find there."
"Oh, Freda! what a woman you are!" he groaned. "So wise and plucky and so infernally charming! How can I help loving you?"
"It's a misfortune!" she said.
It came out so quaintly that Lance was obliged to laugh in the midst of his pain. "What hurts," he said, "is that I believe we were made for each other, poor as I am, and that you're just trying to bluff nature for some reason. What's the use?"
"You are wrong," she whispered. "I do not love you."
"Answer me one question: What argument did you intend to use with the murderer when you went out to Fairfield tonight."
"I cannot answer that."
"Then here's another: Suppose he had got back before you and you had found them already scattering the lime and filling in the grave..."
"Don't!" she cried, sharply. "I can't bear it!"
"Well, what would you have done?" he insisted.
"I would have killed myself," she whispered. "I couldn't have gone on!"
In an instant he had gathered her in his arms. "Darling, darling Freda," he murmured, "you do love me!"
She struggled to free herself, beating ineffectually on his breast with her small fists. "No! No!" she cried. "That is not it! It is just because I got you into this. If they had killed you—if there had been another murder—I couldn't have borne it!...I am in a trap!" she went on, wildly. "Whatever I do I bring disaster on somebody, good or bad! It's not my fault. I never should have been born!"
Lance could not let her go. "Dear, dear Freda," he murmured, "you are lovely! You are fine! You've got nothing to reproach yourself with. I love you better than life!"
She was stiff and unyielding in his arms. "Is this fair," she said, "when I brought you here? when I am in your power?"
He instantly released her. "Oh, if you put it that way,". he said, sullenly, "I'm sorry...But you'd better go, because I can't hold myself."
She ran away down the stairs. As she went he could still hear the pitiful catch in her breath.
WHEN Lance's excited feelings had somewhat calmed down he opened the windows of his stuffy apartment, fetched a blanket out of the bedroom, and lay down on the sofa. Instantly the delicious sense of relaxation stole over him again. He was safe for the moment; his troubles had to wait; he slept.
When he awoke, the afternoon sun was streaming through his windows and Freda's watch told him it was three o'clock. He looked around at his luxurious chamber. A bit garish; too many rugs, cushions, lamps, and pictures. It looked as if it had been ordered in one lot from an expensive department store. However, the contrast with Mrs. Peake's rear hall room made Lance grin.
He took a luxurious bath. There was even hot water from some unknown source and steam in the radiators, all on the Beardmores! There were no towels, but he had plenty of time; he walked around the warm rooms and dried off.
After he had dressed, hunger assailed him. He stole down the stairs and found not only the little suitcase at the foot, but a good-sized bundle. When he put his ear to the office door he could hear the faint clack of a typewriter from the other side—Freda's, perhaps. His face softened and he forgave her all for the dozenth time. Poor lamb! he murmured, she can't have had a wink of sleep.
He carried his loot upstairs and opened it like a kid on Christmas morning, the bundle first. It contained sheets, towels, underclothes, a shirt (big enough in the neck for Primo Carnera), and other things. With them was a note reading:
'It wouldn't be safe for me to try to get any of your things. So I bought these. Hope they're all right. F.'
The little suitcase contained food principally—rolls, butter, cooked meat, salad, eggs, and so on. There were even a little electric stove with a diminutive frying-pan; a thermos bottle full of hot coffee. Fastened around it with an elastic band was another note:
'There wasn't room enough today for the percolator. I'll send it tomorrow with the makings for coffee. It will taste better. F.'
She had forgotten only one thing. It was a natural omission. Lance felt of his chin, and scribbled on the back of her note, grinning:
'Darling F.: A thousand thousand thanks. You forgot only one thing, sweetheart. Can I have a razor and a pot of shaving-cream? Whatever you say, I love you and I always will. L.'
There were two newspapers in the suitcase, the ordinary morning edition which carried no word of the jail-breaking, and an extra which Freda must have bought on her way to the office. The latter sheet had a brief and breathless account spread across the front page. It was clearly the biggest news story that had ever broken in Lounsbery.
The authorities were puzzled, as well they might be. It was clear to them that the prisoner known to them as Jack Wilkens (Joe Liggett) had assisted the famous Lance McCrea to escape from his cell, had indeed got himself committed to the jail for that very purpose, but they could not deduce why the prisoners had parted in the jail yard, as it seemed.
Jack Wilkens, it was clear, had taken the easy route over the jail wall, assisted by friends, and through the Sun Life Building. His friends had hired an office in the building for that purpose. Whereas Lance McCrea had made a terrifying climb to the jail roof, had pried up a window in the garret of the warden's house, and had escaped through the dining-room into the garden.
They knew that it was Wilkens who had gone over the wall, because the car found abandoned in Morrell Avenue had contained the rope ladder. From Morrell Avenue it had been easy to trace the men to the farmhouse where they had stolen a Ford. The farmer's description of the thief tallied exactly with that of Wilkens. The Ford had been found abandoned in Cranford, a village thirty miles from Lounsbery. But of Lance McCrea there was no trace.
Lance read every word in the newspapers. Even the rehash of stories of the Beardmore case in the earlier edition was of absorbing interest to him, for was he not the hero of it all—or at least the leading actor? The amazed comment on his climb up the face of the jail and up the steep slate roof tickled his vanity. It was pleasant to know that Freda had read it.
Darkness put an end to his reading. A great restlessness seized on him. The blank empty hours of the night seemed to stretch ahead to infinity. One of the windows of his sitting-room stretched to the floor. He went out and took a stroll around the flat roof. He could hear all the sounds of a town—the bumping of a trolley car, the purr of motors, the shouts of boys, but he could see nothing except the back of the stone entablature that topped the temple of the Beardmores. By eight o'clock he could stand it no longer. He waited to give the watchman time to make his rounds, and stole down the stairs. He caught back the latch on the door at the foot, so that he could enter again, and closed it after him. In passing he took a peep into the president's office. All quiet. He went on down and out through the little private door into the gardens, leaving it unlatched behind him like the door above.
The gardens at the back of the offices were for the private delectation of the directors, and the public were not admitted. This part was not lighted at night, and Lance felt safe enough, once he got away from the door. He took in deep breaths of the goodly smell of earth, and stretched himself. There had been frosts and the flowers were gone; the trees were dropping their leaves.
Human companionship was what Lance craved, and he headed for Bob Fassett's cottage. Before crossing the public part of the gardens he took a careful survey. Nobody in sight. He got through the opening in the hedge, across the road, and into Bob's front garden in safety. There he crouched behind a bush and debated how to get in communication with his friend without his wife knowing.
After a while the door of the cottage opened and banged shut, and young Victor ran down the steps. Lance rose up and hissed softly. The alert Victor got it instantly and came towards him. He recognized Lance's figure.
"How goes it?" he asked, softly.
"All right. And you?"
"Okay. I'm just going to see my girl for a shake. Then I'll be back to watch in the glasshouse. It's my turn to-night."
"What's your dad doing?"
"Getting ready for bed. He's up at five."
"Could you get him out here without letting the old lady know?"
"I'll wait for him inside the glasshouse." Victor sprang up the steps again and banged into the house. Lance heard him shout, "Oh, Dad, can you lend me a dollar?" and grinned.
While he waited in the glasshouse Lance softly opened the furnace door and thrust his hand inside. His precious evidence was still there. Presently Bob came in. They shook hands warmly.
"Certainly is good to see you," said Bob. "I can stay only a minute," said Lance. "Freda would give me hell if she knew I was out."
"Where you staying?" asked Bob. "Didn't she tell you what she had in mind?"
"Then I'd better not."
"You're right," said Bob, simply. "It's no good crossing the women." Lance grinned, remembering the gaunt grim figure of Mrs. Fassett.
They squatted down on the ground, where they could smoke without showing lights through the glass walls.
"I'll soon be starting work in here," said Bob.
"Then the murderer will be back for his stuff the next night or so. It is somebody who knows pretty well what your work is, or he wouldn't have chosen this for a hiding-place."
"Either me or Vic has watched every night," said Bob.
"Except last night."
"Last night he was otherwise occupied," said Lance, grimly.
"It's too bad you had to lose your sleep. You're a working-man. If I can fix it up with Freda, I'll come and watch, myself, every night. I can sleep all day."
"Oh, I can do without the sleep for the sake of pulling down the reward," said Bob.
"What does your old lady say about it?"
"That's all right. I had to tell her what we went out for every night. She'd do anything for money."
"Have the police been bothering you?" asked Lance.
"I thought maybe they'd be after you because you came to see me in jail a couple of times."
"Sure! There's been a lot of talk about Lance McCrea's mysterious friend. But I never gave my name and address when I went to see you, and the police haven't run me down."
After a smoke and a half an hour's chin with his little friend. Lance headed back contentedly for his 'den of gilded vice' as he called it. His restlessness was eased.
He got safely across the public path leading from the street in to the mill buildings, and vaulted over the locked gate into the dark private gardens. As he rounded the rear corner of the office building, he suddenly stopped still with starting eyes and hanging jaw. Lights were streaming out of three of the tall windows. They were the windows next beyond the little private door by which he had to enter.
He turned to retreat to the safety of Bob Fassett's place—but thought better of it. All was dark and still about him. His face hardened and he began to creep towards the lighted windows, taking advantage of every bit of cover on the way. As he drew close he saw that one sash was raised two or three inches from the bottom.
When he pressed himself against the wall under the window, a murmur of voices came down to him; no distinct words. The sill was about three feet above his head. He looked up longingly. What was going on in that room was perhaps a matter of life and death to him.
He felt over the wall with his hands. Breast high there was a ledge two inches wide, and above that interstices between the stones into which he might dig his fingers. He remembered a little white wooden bench that he had passed under a rose bower in the garden. With the aid of the bench it could be done; but what a fair mark his body would make against the white marble building!
He peered around him with eyes that had become well accustomed to the dark. No movement anywhere. The back windows of the offices faced the mill buildings. There was a private lawn between, with a thick growth of trees and shrubbery extending along the farther side. Lance supposed that the watchman would come through this screen and gain the rear entrance to the office building by the path across the lawn.
However, it was still a long way short of ten o'clock. Lance ran and fetched the little bench and planted it against the base of the building between two windows. Standing on the bench, he planted the side of his foot on the narrow ledge, and slowly drew himself up alongside the open window. Once he was up, he could steady himself with a hand on the end of the sill.
Now he could hear the voices distinctly. But they were quarreling hotly and all was confusion in his ears. Not knowing who the speakers were, nor what it was all about, he possessed no key. But if they were quarreling it was safe to assume that their attention was closely engaged. He ventured to take a brief slant around the edge of the window frame.
THE one glance was sufficient. It was a conference amongst the officers of the Beardmore Mills. The foxy, gray-faced John Moseley sat at the head of the directors' table, with his three vice-presidents grouped around him: Clinton Beardmore, florid and too well groomed; Rainer Stanley, with his curious pointed phiz like a fish's head; and Tony Beardmore, sitting a little apart like an insolent young Lorenzo the Magnificent in modern clothes.
Apparently the three older men were badgering Tony. By degrees Lance learned to distinguish between the various voices—Moseley's cold and precise, Clinton Beardmore's suave and elegant like his person, Stanley's somewhat thick, as if he suffered from adenoids. There was never any doubt about young Tony's cynical and contemptuous tones. The first distinct words that Lance heard were from Tony.
"I'll see you all in hell before I'll resign! I hate my job! I hate the whole damned outfit! But after all I'm my father's son and my grandfather's grandson and the business is rightfully mine. Certainly I'm not going to be shouldered out by a parcel of hypocrites like you three. I won't resign and you can't fire me, because my father appointed me co-trustee with the rest of you. I'll stand on that. You can sue if you like. There will be a nice bundle of dirty linen washed in public!"
All the others expostulated with him in their various fashions. They talked simultaneously, and Lance could distinguish nothing beyond an occasional word. Then Tony's biting voice again:
"Aah! shut up! You nauseate me with your hypocrisy! You're all hinting one way or another that I killed my father and that I'm not fit to sit down with you. It's a lie! I had no cause to love my father, but I didn't happen to kill him. It's a lie, and you know it!" The young man's voice suddenly went quiet. "That is, one of you knows it! Perhaps there are two at the table that sincerely believe I killed my father; but the third one here knows that I didn't!"
There was a horrified silence, then Stanley's and Clinton Beardmore's voices angrily shouting at Tony. The racket was interrupted by a sharp rapping on the table, no doubt from the president. His voice said: "For God's sake lower your voices! Don't you realize that there's a watchman in the building?"
"Makes his next round at ten o'clock," said Clinton, sullenly.
"The walls are supposed to be sound-proof," said Tony, with a reckless laugh.
"This cannot go on!" said Moseley. "If we are unable to sit down together without quarreling, nothing can be discussed, nothing can be decided, and the business will go on the rocks!"
"Get in an outsider," suggested Tony, cynically. "You'll all damned well keep your mouths shut when he's present."
"It's all Tony's fault," said Rainer Stanley, with a snuffle.
"You lie!" said Tony, coolly. "You quarrel just the same amongst yourselves when I'm not present. Apparently everybody suspects everybody else."
"How do you know if you're not here?"
Tony laughed loudly. "I didn't know. It was only a shot in the dark. But now I know by the look on your faces."
"Silence!" said Moseley. "I want to appeal to your better selves. Forget your suspicions, I beg of you. Forget yourselves and think of the great responsibility that rests on all of us. This great business is a sacred trust that we share. Let us put that first."
"Oh, for God's sake, Moseley, cut out the blah!" said Tony. "You are the hardest-boiled citizen of Lounsbery and you're talking to the next three hardest-boiled. Give it to us straight if you want to be listened to!"
"I will not sit here to be insulted by a whippersnapper!" said Moseley, hotly.
"Ha! that's the rub!" cried Tony. "The real reason you three are determined to get me out is because I won't stand for the blah! My comments at this respectable board get under your skins!" Suddenly he began to laugh. "Whipper-snapper!" he cried. "Whippersnapper! That's a good word! I must remember that!"
"Incorrigible flippancy!" cried Clinton, furiously.
"You never dared talk to us like this in your father's time!" added Rainer Stanley.
"If I had he would have killed me—or I him," said Tony.
"I won't stand for it!" cried Moseley.
Another noisy wrangle resulted, of which the listener could make little or nothing, because they all talked at once. When Lance heard his own name come into the discussion he was so startled he almost lost his handhold. It was Tony who first spoke it.
"Which one of you was it who was so much afraid of what Lance McCrea knew? That's what I'd like to find out. Who gave Lance McCrea a job here? I never saw him until I found him in my office on Wednesday."
"I hired him," said Moseley. "I was only thinking of you. I wanted to avoid a scandal that would wreck the company. I thought we ought to keep an eye on him."
"Me, too!" said Rainer Stanley. "And I!" added Clinton.
"How thoughtful of you all!" sneered Tony. "Which one of you was it who gave the order for him to be put out of the way that afternoon?"
"What are you talking about?" demanded Moseley.
"It is all over the mill that Jess Tillett tried to throw Lance into a vat of acid. The lad was too quick for him and, instead, he beat Tillett up."
"Idle gossip!" said Moseley. "I know nothing about it!"
"Nor I! Nor I!" asseverated the other two. "If it's idle gossip, what's become of Tillett? He hasn't been seen around the mill since. Somebody is paying him to keep out of the way!" There was no answer to this.
"How did you find out, anyhow, that Lance was at Fairfield when my father was killed, before the police knew it?"
"I didn't know he had been there!" retorted Moseley. "But it was talked around the office that Jim had been beaten up by a young man who lived in the same boarding-house with Freda Rollin, and naturally, after the murder, I took steps to find out who the young man was. Later I discovered that he had applied here for a job and I gave orders for him to be taken on. I didn't tell the police anything, because I wanted to avoid scandal."
"Same here," said Clinton. "I knew only what John told me.
"Nobody told me anything," said Rainer Stanley. "I just wanted to avoid scandal."
"I won't push this line of questioning any farther," sneered Tony. "If I exerted myself I could find out within twenty-four hours who killed my father. But I'm too lazy, I reckon. Or I'm just another Beardmore. I don't want to raise a stink...But I warn you to lay off me or I might put my mind to it!"
There was no answer from around the table.
"Here's another piece of gossip," Tony presently went on. "One of those items that are passed from ear to ear and never get into the newspapers. They were saying around town this afternoon that the police would never catch Lance McCrea, because he was killed after he broke jail last night."
"By God!" cried Rainer Stanley. "If it's true I say that's the best piece of news I've heard in a dog's age!"
"And I say the same!" added Clinton Beardmore.
"If it's true," said Moseley, eagerly, "we can get together and stop quarreling. There's no further danger of an ugly scandal. Let's forget the whole miserable business and never mention it again. I, for one, am perfectly content to believe that Lance McCrea killed poor Jim without implicating anybody around this table!"
There were enthusiastic cries of assent from Stanley and from Clinton.
"Oh yeah?" said Tony, dryly. "Lance McCrea is nothing to me. I'm not afraid of him, living or dead. However, I'll make you men a sporting offer. You all know that my father was a superstitious man. All of you must have seen the turquoise scarab that he carried as a pocket piece. It was supposed to have magical qualities. He bought it from the Khedive of Egypt for some fantastic sum.
"He believed that as long as he had it on him he would be irresistible," Tony went on. "In love or business! Therefore he was never without it. I have known him to rush back home in terror because he had forgotten it."
"We know all this," said Moseley. "What of it?"
"His precious scarab was not found on him after his death."
"Lance McCrea got it!"
"I doubt it," said Tony, dryly. "The thing was of no intrinsic value, and Lance could not have known about its supposed magical qualities. My notion is that it was taken by somebody who believed in its power. If that is so, the murderer would carry it about with him all the time. And he has it on him now!"
There was a complete silence around the table.
"If your consciences are clear," Tony went on, "let me line you up and search you. If I find the scarab I won't prosecute. I'm just as anxious to avoid raising any further Beardmore stink as you are. But the one I find it on must resign from any further connection with the company. Then this quarreling can cease. If I do not find it I promise to run with the flock like a little lamb hereafter, and never raise a bleat. Is it a go?"
"It's all right with me," said Rainer Stanley, quickly.
"And me," said Clinton Beardmore.
"It's all foolishness," said John Moseley, "but I've no objection. Provided, if you don't find it you will submit to be searched."
"Sure!" said Tony. "To the skin!...I'll begin with you, John."
Suddenly Stanley interrupted in a new voice: "Men, do you realize that that window is open and we've all been talking loud?"
"Oh, hell!" said Tony, "there's nobody to hear but the birdies!"
Lance had no time to climb down from his dangerous perch. He could only snatch his hand back from the end of the window-sill. He heard a step approaching the window. He didn't know which man it was. A hand appeared under the sash, opened, and was withdrawn. The movement was as quick as the dart of a snake's tongue, but the light from the room flashed back from a square-cut emerald on the little finger of the hand. The window shut with a thud.
No further sounds could be heard from within the room. Lance, shaking a little with excitement, climbed down, carried the bench back to its accustomed place, and returned to the grass under the window. With his eye he laid it out in imaginary squares, and searched them one by one with his hands.
He knew it was near ten now, and the watchman due at any moment. He picked out a line of retreat to a bush at his back. While his fingers searched delicately amongst the grass blades, he kept an eye on the point across the lawn where the watchman must appear.
Almost at the precise moment when his hand struck against the little carved stone he saw the man come out from amongst the trees. Lance scuttled for his bush and watched from behind it. When the watchman let himself in through the main rear door of the office building, Lance ran for his little door.
He softly released the catch on the latch as he closed the door behind him. He went up the half-flight to the second door, locked that behind him, and on up the long flight to his refuge in the penthouse.
His heart was beating fast with exultation. With delicate finger tips he felt of the little stone carved in the likeness of a beetle. A match flame revealed the rich blue color and the fine tracery. So long as he had it safe, a more complete examination could wait until morning.
IT was a long time before Lance could go to sleep, consequently he was somewhat late in rising next morning. Upon running downstairs to fetch his day's supplies, he got a shock when he lifted the little suitcase on the landing. It was empty. It was the same one he had left there himself the day before.
He anxiously put his ear to the door of the president's office. There was no sound from the other side. He went slowly back upstairs, feeling that something serious was the matter. There was something different from the way it ought to be in the very atmosphere. Suddenly he realized that what he missed was the familiar clatter of the looms in the big mill. It was Sunday morning, that was all.
A little later a tap at the upper door brought his heart leaping into his throat. His fears were put at rest by a voice saying:
"It's I, Freda. Can I come in?"
Lance flung the door wide. There she stood with her little suitcase, very much Freda, adorably grave, anxious, a little beseeching. There was something in her serious air that always made Lance want to laugh. He laughed now, flung an arm around her, and drew her in.
"Oh, you darling!" he said. "This is a treat I never expected!"
She freed herself from his arm with an affronted air. "I see that I shan't be able to stay," she said.
"Oh, for God's sake, don't say that!" cried Lance. "I'll do anything you want! Anything! Anything!...If I could only make you understand what you mean to me! You're like sunshine to a man in an underground cell!"
"You make it hard for me," she said, stiffly. "Such extravagant language just puts me on the defensive."
"I can't help my language," said Lance. "It busts out of me before I can think. But if you'll only stay a little while I swear I'll keep my hands off you. That ought to be enough. Words can't hurt!"
"Words can hurt very much indeed," murmured Freda.
"Not words of admiration!"
She had no answer to that. She put her bag on the table and started unpacking it with deft, housewifely hands. Lance watched her every movement, fascinated.
"I didn't know if you had ever made coffee for yourself," she said. "So I thought I had better show you how the first morning."
"Angel!" murmured Lance.
Freda frowned, and he had to laugh. She dropped everything and started for the door. Lance caught her hand and detained her.
"Please!" he murmured. "The punishment is too great for the crime! I will be dumb!"
He was laughing still, but Freda relented and resumed the coffee-making.
"Put in a heaping tablespoonful of coffee for each cup. But you must put a little extra water in the bottom of the percolator to allow for evaporation. After the water starts coming through the top, three or four minutes will be enough."
Lance was not watching the coffee-making, but Freda.
"Pay attention!" she said.
"Yes, ma'am!" he said, saluting.
Freda's hands suddenly dropped, and she laughed helplessly. Laughter was rare in her face, and irradiated it like sunshine. "You big silly!" she said, trying to recover herself.
"Don't you be deceived by my silliness," said Lance, quietly. "I love you like a grown-up man!"
Freda frowned, and turned her back on him.
The percolator was plugged into one opening, and the little stove into another. While the water was coming to a boil, Freda made toast on the stove, and put it underneath to keep hot while she fried Lance's ham and eggs. A savor filled the room that made him groan with anticipation. Finally she put it before him.
"I'm sorry it's only a paper plate," she said, "but china ones would rattle in the bag. You can keep the cup and saucer."
"No Roman emperor ever had a better meal!" said Lance, solemnly.
The percolator was now perking briskly. Freda produced a little carton of cream and a package of sugar.
"It needs only one thing to be perfect!" said Lance.
The adorable look of anxiety sprang into her eyes. "Oh, what have I forgotten?"
"You to eat with me!" said Lance.
"I've had my breakfast," she said. "It would have looked funny for me to miss Sunday-morning breakfast."
"Then you did think of it," said Lance, slyly.
She blushed. "But I'll have some coffee in the top of the thermos bottle."
"Oh, it tastes rotten out of tin," said Lance. "Share mine. We can push it back and forth, and fill it often."
While he ate Freda filled the cup and stirred it thoughtfully. "I have a strange piece of news for you," she said. "I don't know how you'll take it."
"Well, spill it quick!" said Lance.
"The man who hired those gangsters to kill you," she began in a low voice, keeping her eyes down, "he went into town, as you know, and he was afraid to return to Fairfield because the police were so active in the streets and along the country roads."
"I know," said Lance. "What of it?"
"He telephoned out to Fairfield. He told Joe Liggett to go ahead with the job without him..."
"Who tells you these things?" demanded Lance.
"There is somebody who is close to this man who tells me...afterwards."
"Well, go ahead!"
"They...they filled in the grave and smoothed it over with cement," faltered Freda. "And...and..."
"They told their boss that I was in it!" cried Lance, staring with wide eyes.
She nodded. "And he paid them what he had promised."
"My God!" murmured Lance. "What a queer note!...That makes me a kind of living dead man!" He slapped his thigh as if he doubted the reality of his own flesh and blood. "Yet here I am! I feel alive!"
There was a silence. Freda kept her head down.
Lance was thinking hard. "One of those four men around the table knew this," he murmured, half unconsciously. "One of them had paid! Yet he never let on! They only hinted that I was dead!"
"What are you talking about?" demanded Freda.
"O gee!" said Lance, recalled to himself. "I didn't mean to let it out...It's nothing, really. I just took a little walk last night..."
"Took a little walk!" murmured Freda, in horror.
"There was a conference amongst the officers of the mills in the board room. One of the windows was open a little, I climbed up the wall alongside and listened."
Freda turned white. "What a risk!" she whispered.
"Not so great a risk as you might think," said Lance. "They were so busy quarreling amongst themselves they were dead to anything outside."
Freda seemed to become paler still. "Have you...did you...did you find out who..."
Lance's face turned grim. "Let's keep off that," he said, "or my food will choke me. No, I didn't find out who it was. But I almost did. With a little more luck..." He was starting to tell her about the scarab, but suddenly changed his mind. Freda, perfect and lovely as she was, was nevertheless, like everybody else, too anxious to shield the murderer. Lance shut his mouth tight.
She saw, of course, that he was holding something back. "What did you learn?" she asked, breathlessly.
"We'd better keep off it," said Lance, "at Sunday morning breakfast...I didn't learn much. From Tony Beardmore's talk it would seem as if it couldn't be him. But how do I know but what he's just a better actor than the others? It was he told the others he had heard I was dead and would trouble them no more. Gosh! you should have heard them cheer at the news. It was funny!"
"It wasn't Tony," murmured Freda.
Lance's face flushed darkly. An ugly look came into it. "Whenever you take Tony's part I see red," he muttered. "God! I hate him! He's rotten through and through."
"He's nothing to me," whispered Freda.
"So you say," said Lance, harshly. "But you're always darn quick to stand up for him."
"I'd better go," she murmured.
Lance sprang up and came around the table. In the very act of embracing her he held his hands. "O God! I promised I wouldn't touch you!" he groaned. "Forget them, Freda dear! The whole rotten bunch!"
"I wish I could!" she murmured.
"How you love to torture me!" he groaned. "With the things you half say!" He went back to his seat.
"Promise me you won't go out again," urged Freda.
"I can't do that," he said, firmly. "I suppose you can't come again until next Sunday. If I had to put in a whole week, night and day, without speaking to anybody I'd go off my bean!"
"But I can't get you out of here yet," pleaded Freda. "I've brought you a newspaper and you can see what the police are doing. They have tightened the lines everywhere. A lot of private detectives from New York have been hired. All the other towns in the state are cooperating. You mustn't go out!"
"I'm not a child," said Lance. "I'm fully aware of the danger I run, and I'm not taking any unnecessary chances."
"How can I get any sleep unless I know you are safe in here!"
His face softened, and his hand crept across the table. "Oh, Freda! do you care as much as that?"
She withdrew her hand. "It's not a question of my caring. It is just a responsibility that I have assumed."
"Pardon me!" he said, dryly. "I'm sorry I can't do what you want, but I know my own limitations. I might as well go back to the city jail."
"How did you get back in last night?"
"I caught back the spring locks on the two doors."
"Suppose the watchman had tried those doors in making his rounds, and had found them unlocked?"
"I had it in mind," said Lance. "And I was careful to get back before he came around."
"You may not be so lucky another time."
"I know it. And that's why I'm going to ask you to let me have keys to the two doors."
"I dare not," she murmured.
"I'm going out, anyhow," said Lance, "and it will be safer if I can lock the doors behind me."
Freda mutely drew the little bag towards her, and opening it took out two keys and shoved them towards him. Her face was hidden.
He pocketed the keys. His face was full of pity for her. "Oh, Freda!" he murmured, "how I wish we didn't have to fight each other!"
She said nothing.
"Look!" he said, "the percolator is empty. Can we fill her up and have another go?"
Lance bustled about, emptying the grounds and putting in fresh coffee, talking in a foolish vein all the while to try to bring a smile to Freda's pale face. But without success.
"Have you had any trouble with the police?" he asked while they were waiting for the water to boil.
"As Jim Beardmore's secretary I've been questioned," she said. "They don't know that there is any connection between you and me."
"The officers of the mill know it."
"They are not telling all they know to the police," said Freda, dryly.
"How about the food that you buy every day?"
"After this it will be bought for me by somebody else. Always in a different place."
Lance scowled as he always did at any suggestion that Freda had friends whom he did not know. His pride would not allow him to question her further about it.
When she drew a cup of coffee and sat opposite him, stirring it, his face cleared again. "Freda," he said, warmly, "you have everything that a man longs to find in a woman—courage and character and looks! In short, you are my ideal!"
"How can I stay here if you talk like that?" she murmured.
"What's the matter with it? I'm not being extravagant now. It's the sober truth I'm telling you. When I see you sitting across the table stirring my coffee for me, it's like...it's like having a home!"
She glanced up suddenly with a stricken look in the blue eyes. They filled with tears, and her fresh lips, usually so firm and competent, began to tremble piteously. "There will never...be such a home for me," she faltered.
Lance jumped up, wild with remorse. "Oh, Freda, what have I said?"
She was already halfway to the door. "Don't follow! Don't follow!" she said, in a strangled voice.
Lance, feeling that he had done harm enough, let her go. When the lower door closed behind her, he flung himself down on the sofa with his head between his arms. "What a blundering fool I am!" he groaned. "She will never come again!"
THAT night between nine and ten o'clock Lance and Bob Fassett were squatting in the dark on the earthen floor of the glasshouse, whispering together.
"Better go to bed now," said Lance, uneasily.
"One more cigarette," suggested Bob.
"Getting too late. Suppose his nibs was to open the door, get a whiff of it, and beat it before we could nab him."
"The side windows are open," said Bob, "and the wind blows through. Reckon if he got as far as the door he'd never escape you."
"Maybe not. But I want to take him with the evidence right in his hands. Go on! As long as you're here I'll talk to you, and he might hear."
Bob was enjoying the night watch in company with a friend, and was reluctant to go. "It's early yet," he said.
"Sure," said Lance, "but this guy probably knows your habits. He may go according to the old saying that first sleep is the soundest and come early."
"Hate to leave you alone here."
"What the hell! Haven't you and Vic been on the job for four nights now? It's up to me."
"Tain't so easy to lie here alone and keep awake."
"There's no danger of my sleeping," said Lance, grimly. "This means too much to me."
"Well, so long, and good luck to you!" said Bob.
"So long, Bob. Take a careful slant out of the door before you go out!"
Lance rolled up inside the blanket Bob left him, and lay down under one of the empty plant shelves that lined the sides of the glasshouse, propping his hand on his head so that he could keep his eyes on the door.
The door was about six yards from where he lay. The house was sunk a little below the level of the ground outside, and there were three steps down from the door. Between the steps and Lance stood the furnace against the right-hand wall. It was sunk in a pit about eighteen inches deeper than the rest of the floor.
At first Lance was borne up by a certain excitement which kept his blood moving. But as the minutes passed in the silence and the dark, that gradually failed. Not a whisper of sound or of life penetrated the walls of the glasshouse. The silence was like something solid, like earth weighing you down.
His earthen bed became harder and harder, and he soon realized that Bob's light blanket was insufficient to keep the chill October air from penetrating to his marrow. His position became ever more cramped, and he feared to change it lest he bring down some of the empty flower-pots that were piled at his feet.
Finally he could stand it no longer. He crept out from under his low roof. He dared not stand upright, for fear of showing a shadow through the glass walls. He trotted up and down the earthen aisle between the shelves bent over double. Even so there was the danger that the man might come to the door and get away unseen. Lance crept back to his hard bed again. How he longed then for a smoke. The best he could do was to stick a cigarette in his mouth and chew it.
In the end he was warned by the sudden increased beating of his own heart of the approach of something outside. A sense more delicate than hearing had distinguished a sound. Lance threw off the blanket that encumbered him, felt in his pocket to make sure the little gun was there, and crouched ready.
Presently he distinguished a dim shadow through the glass door of the greenhouse. Every movement suggested fear, caution, uncertainty. A long time passed before the man ventured to open the door. He did so finally and let it stand open, listening with his head turned over his shoulder. Lance, watching from below, could only distinguish that he was a tall, heavily built man.
He came down, pausing on each step. Lance could hear his rapid breathing then. Lance breathed only from the top of his lungs. His heart was racing like a watch with a broken escapement. The man paused at the edge of the furnace pit, not two yards away from Lance. He went through the motions of pulling a watch from his breast pocket and putting it to his ear. From under his hand Lance heard, like the far-off whisper of a fairy bell, the strokes of the repeater. Ten strokes, a pause, then one more. Quarter past ten.
Lance's crazy excitement suddenly left him. He became hard and cool and grinned into the dark. This was his man!
The man, ever glancing fearfully over his shoulder, stepped into the little pit and softly opened the furnace door. Lance crept out from concealment behind him. The man thrust an arm into the fire-box. Lance waited until he drew it out again, then leaped on his back, throwing him against the furnace.
He let out one surprised squawk of terror, but instantly recovered himself and, dropping his bundle, fought like a tiger. In spite of Lance's efforts to hold him, he contrived to turn and attack his antagonist face to face. He caught Lance's throat in an iron grip and forced him back. He was a heavier man than Lance, but older.
Lance drew up his knee between them, and thrusting out with all his strength, broke the other's hold, and followed it up with a blow in the face that sent him reeling back. He tripped on the edge of the pit and went down on his back. Lance flung himself on him.
Neither could see the other plainly, and many a blow went wide. They rolled on the earthen floor, clear of the pit, and fetching up against piles of flower-pots, brought them rattling down. With a powerful effort the man flung Lance off and, springing up, turned to the steps. But Lance hurled himself on his back and forced him to his knees again, clawing at the steps.
He was a man of naturally powerful physique, though softened in body. He managed to struggle to his feet by main strength, bearing Lance on his back. He flung himself backwards as if to crush Lance under his weight, but the younger man twisted aside and took a glancing blow as they fell.
Lance got his hands around the man's throat and wound his legs about his body. They thrashed wildly among the rolling flower-pots. Lance hung on in spite of all the other's mad efforts to knock him off. The big man's wind failed him rapidly. It was evident from his hoarse sobbing that his heart was almost bursting. Suddenly he went flat on his face under Lance, and gave up, all in.
Lance sat astride his back, and in a voice thrilling with triumph shouted for Bob. Already aroused by the racket in the glasshouse, the Fassetts, father and son, came running, half dressed.
"I've got him!" cried Lance. "Fetch a light!"
"I have it!" answered Victor.
They leaped down the steps into the glasshouse. Vic had his flashlight turned on, and its circle embraced the man prostrate on the dirt floor. He obstinately hid his face between his spread arms, but they all knew him. They recognized the elegantly clothed body, the manicured hands, the thick neck.
"It's Clinton Beardmore!" cried Lance.
"O my God! the big boss!" faltered Bob Fassett.
"The boss!" echoed Vic.
The habit of service was strong in the gardener and his son, and seeing the gone look in their faces, Lance feared that they might fail him at the crisis. "What the hell!" he cried, sharply. "The boss will fetch the same reward as anybody else!"
Bob's courage began to return. "Sure! Sure!" he said. "What you going to do with him, Lance?"
Hearing this name, the beaten man suddenly twisted his body and looked up into Lance's face. The light was partly on it. An inhuman squall of terror was forced from Clinton and he began to struggle again so violently that Lance was almost capsized. He did not try to fight Lance now, but only to get away.
"That face!" he stuttered, crazed with terror. "No! No! No! It wasn't me! I swear I had no hand in it! Joe Liggett went against my orders!"
"But you paid him for it," said Lance, grimly.
"Let me go! Let me go! Let me go!" cried Clinton, completely hysterical.
"What's the matter with him?" said Bob.
"He thought I was under the cellar floor, and the lime eating me," said Lance, with a grim start of laughter. "He thinks the devil has got him now!"
"He'll fetch somebody, with his noise," muttered Bob.
"Let them come!" said Lance, coolly. "I don't mind giving myself up to the police, so I take him with me!"
At the dread word "police" Clinton fell quiet again, only continuing to moan: "Let me go! Let me go!"
Lance twisted a hand in his collar and got off him. "Stand up!" he ordered.
Clinton was unwilling or unable to stand, and they jerked him to his feet.
"Search him!" said Lance.
Bob patted his pockets, and taking a gun from him, handed it over to Lance. Clinton was ashamed now of the exhibition he had made of himself, though he was still shaking hysterically. He hung his head, scowling.
"What you going to do with him?" asked Bob.
"Take him to the office," answered Lance, "and telephone to Police Headquarters. We don't want to risk any slip-up about the reward." Suddenly it came to Lance that if he took his prisoner through the private door he would be betraying Freda's secret. "Search him more carefully," he said to Bob. "See if he hasn't got a key to the office on him."
Clinton was turning ugly now. When Bob approached him for the second time, he thrust him away. "Keep your hands off me, you scum!" he snarled.
"Vic," said Lance, "come and hold this guy. Lock your arms inside his and drag them back!" Lance showed Clinton the gun Bob had just taken from him. "If you make trouble I'll disable you with this," he said, grinning. "I won't kill you because that would deprive me of the pleasure of handing you over."
Clinton made no further objection to being searched. From his pants pocket Bob took a little leather case with several keys strung inside.
"One of those will be the key to the back door," said Lance. "Bring him along."
Clinton hung back. "Wait a minute!" he muttered. "What will you take to let me go? Name your figure!"
"All the money of the Beardmores wouldn't buy me!" said Lance, "after what I've been through."
"Well, you, and you?" said Clinton, addressing the Fassetts. "You're poor men and you'll never be anything else. What'll you take? Double the reward that's offered. Four times the reward!"
Bob and Vic seemed to hesitate.
"Well, how about it?" said Lance to them. "I can do nothing without you two unless I kill the skunk!"
"Aah! we're not going back on a pal!" growled Bob.
"Okay," said Lance, cheerfully. "Let's go!"
Leading their prisoner, they went out through the front yard of the cottage, across the road that served the mill, and through the gardens. In order to save time they forced Clinton to climb the locked gate into the private garden. They got him through the back door of the office building without attracting attention. At this hour the watchman was somewhere within the mill.
Lance led the way into the president's office and turned on the lights. The first thing he saw was the big square-cut emerald on Clinton's little finger. Clinton was snarling at the indignity of being led into the firm's offices with the hand of the gardener's son twisted inside his collar.
"Can't you take your hands off me? What can I do against three?"
"Better keep a hold of him, Vic," said Lance, coolly, "while I telephone. After office hours the switchboard is connected with the secretary's office next door."
"How do you know that?" sneered Clinton.
"You forget I worked here a day and a half."
"Wait!" said Clinton, sharply, as Lance turned to the door of Freda's office. "Let's talk this over as man to man. Do you fellows realize what money will do? You've got me dead to rights. You're in a position to ask whatever you please. Think what it means! Freedom and security for the rest of your lives!"
"We've already been over this," said Lance. "What say, fellows?"
"Right!" answered Bob and Vic.
As Lance turned away, a new and ugly look came into Clinton's face. "You'd better call Freda before you ring Headquarters," he said.
The shot went home. Lance stopped and changed color. "What for?" he demanded.
Clinton grinned evilly. "Just call her up," he said. "Tell her you've got me and are about to call the police, and see what she says."
"Aah! this is just a trick!" said Lance, violently. He went through the door.
"If you give me up it will ruin her!" Clinton called after him.
Lance stopped with his hand on the receiver. He dared not risk it. With a face that was sick and gray with apprehension, he called up Freda's boarding-house. When he heard Freda's voice over the phone he noted that it was sharp with fear even before she knew who was calling.
"Who is it?" she asked.
"I reckon you know who I am," said Lance.
Her voice almost failed her. "Oh!...Yes!...Where are you calling from?"
"Your desk. I have got my man. Caught him with the goods! I was going to call up the police, but he said I'd better let you know first...What about it?"
If Lance's heart had been less stony with pain it must have melted at the sound of the pitiful, gasping voice that came over the wire. Freda could scarcely articulate. "O Lance!...O Lance!...Please...do nothing until I get there!...I'll take a taxi!...Ten minutes!...O God!..."
He had no heart to answer her. He hung up and rested his head between his hands on the edge of her desk in the dark. From the next room Clinton called, impatiently: "Well, what does she say?"
Lance pulled himself together and went into the lighted room with a set, hard face. He lit a cigarette to carry it off. "We'll wait for her," he said, curtly.
In less than the time she had named she was there. Breathless, shaking, white as paper, she was scarcely recognizable as the same woman. Once inside the room, it seemed as if her legs would no longer support her. She dropped into a chair beside the big desk and, leaning her elbow on it, put a hand over her eyes as if to protect them from Lance's burning, angry gaze.
Clinton felt that he had the situation well in hand, and grinned triumphantly. "Well, here you are!" he said. "Tell this fellow he'd better let me go."
"Freda, what does this mean?" cried Lance. "Are you going to compound a murder? Does this mean that I have to go for the rest of my days with the stigma of murder on me?"
She was unable to speak. "Well, tell him! Tell him!" said Clinton, impatiently.
At last her voice came, barely audible. "After all...I can't do it!...Lance is right! It's too much to ask of any man...Things will just have to take their course...I'm done!" She flung out an arm on the desk and let her head fall on it.
Lance was puzzled, but on the whole relieved. "All right," he said, somberly. He turned towards the next room and the telephone.
Clinton thought he was lost. His hands clenched and unclenched, his face worked spasmodically. "By God!" he squalled, "if I go to the chair, I shan't go alone!"
Lance whirled around as it he had been struck from behind. His eyes were fixed and staring. "Freda, what does he mean?" he asked, huskily. "Are you in this?...O God! after all you said! Are you mixed up in these murders?"
She did not make a direct answer. She seemed scarcely to be aware of what she was saying. "I do not ask you to let him off," she murmured. "It is too great a sacrifice!"
"By God! I mean to get to the bottom of this!" cried Lance, savagely. "What is behind it all? Answer me!"
She raised an agonized face. "Ah, don't torture me any more! I'm at the end of my endurance! Go! Go! Telephone and end it!" Her head dropped back on her arm.
"Well, you heard what she said," sneered Clinton. "Why don't you go and call the police?" He saw by the change in Lance's expression that he was safe.
Lance turned on him. "Aah! damn you!" he said, thickly. "You know that I can't hurt her!" He flung up his hands and let them fall. "I won't do it!"
Clinton grinned triumphantly and shook off Victor's grip. The two Fassetts saw that Lance was losing out, but did not understand why. They stood glancing from face to face with puzzled eyes. Meanwhile Clinton smugly brushed the dust from his clothes, and looked at his finger nails to see if they had received any damage.
Freda looked up at Lance with a wild hope. "You would...?" she stammered. "No! I can't let you! What would you do?"
"What does that matter?" said Lance, bitterly.
"It matters everything!" she cried, hysterically. "You are young. Your whole life is before you! I won't let you..."
Lance cut her short with a gesture. "My mind is made up," he said.
Clinton turned to Freda with a jealous snarl. "You'd better cut out the dramatics," he said, "or you'll let out the truth in spite of everything."
Lance's face reddened. "By God! there's no reason why I shouldn't give you something on my own account, you cur!"
He started for Clinton, and the latter retreated, whimpering with fear. Before Lance could hit him they all heard the closing of a door not far off.
"The watchman!" gasped Freda.
Lance let Clinton go with a contemptuous shrug. "Come on, you fellows," he said to the Fassetts. "Let's get out of here."
Freda was already at the door that led to the private stairs. "Down this way," she said, "and out through the little door at the bottom." As Lance passed her she whispered his name imploringly: "Lance!"
He refused to look at her. "I can't hurt you," he said, "but I can't forgive you, either!"
"Perhaps some day you will understand," she whispered.
The last thing he heard as she closed the door behind him was Clinton's voice saying, "You'd better make out to be taking dictation from me."
When they got outside the building Lance experienced a sudden reaction. He stopped short, and his head went down. All his incentive to fight was gone.
"Where you going?" asked Bob.
"I wish you'd tell me!" answered Lance, with a strange laugh.
"Come to our place."
Lance shook his head. "You fellows have risked enough on my account." He looked at Victor, who was wearing an old hat. "Vic can give me his hat if he wants. Just to shade my face. That's all you can do for me."
Vic handed over the hat.
"Have you any money?" asked Bob, anxiously.
"Not a sou!"
"Take this," said Bob, thrusting some change on him.
Lance pocketed it apathetically. "So long, fellows!" He turned away, but immediately remembering how stoutly his humble friends had stood by him, he came back to them. "Look!" he said. "You two have lost out on the reward through me, but I'll tell you how you can make it up, and more, too."
"How?" said Bob, eagerly.
"Go home and hide that evidence in a secure place—the suit, the gloves, the shoes. That is worth more to Clinton Beardmore than the amount of the reward, and he'll soon be after it. Make him pay, and pay good!"
"We'll do that," said Bob.
"Good-by, and good luck to you both," said Lance. He started away. Father and son stood looking after him anxiously, but he never turned his head. Pulling the hat down over his eyes, he made his way around the office building and out to the lighted street, completely unconcerned. If the police had taken him he was in a mood to have laughed in their faces.
THE completely reckless man is rarely taken. Towards morning a hangdog figure tapped on a window of Professor Sempill's laboratory in the rear of Mrs. Peake's house. Lance could never tell where he had spent the intervening hours. Recollection was lost in a fog of pain.
The windows were dark now, but Lance knew that the old man was a light sleeper. Sure enough, he presently appeared at the window, clad in the ancient dressing-gown that he frequently wore for days together. He was not at all surprised. He threw up the sash and Lance climbed over the sill.
The Professor went about and pulled down all the blinds before he turned on lights. His tranquil acceptance of the situation was like a healing balm upon Lance's quivering nerves. But the young man dreaded his kind, searching glance when the lights went up, and tried to create a diversion by asking, with a foolish laugh: "How's the atom coming?"
The Professor ignored the question. "Things have gone badly with you!" he said when he saw Lance's stricken face.
"Don't pity me!" said Lance, sharply. "I couldn't stand it."
"Sure! I understand that," said the Professor.
He pottered about the room, apparently forgetting Lance. He got a bottle from a cupboard and a paper bag from a drawer. This proved to be sherry and biscuits. He put two glasses on the table and filled them; shook some of the biscuits out of the bag. He sat down and began to nibble a biscuit and sip his wine, never looking at Lance.
"When I get up in the night I like a snack," he said. "Freda brought me the wine."
Lance felt as if food would choke him. Nevertheless, he presently drifted to the table and by sheer force of example took a swallow of wine and bit a biscuit. The Professor's eyes twinkled and he slyly filled Lance's glass. Lance took another biscuit. He pulled up a chair and sat down opposite the old man. Speech began to come.
"I came..." he mumbled. "God knows why I came here! It was just a dumb instinct, I guess. I've been walking all night. I hadn't any other place to go."
"You did just right to come here," said the Professor. "Nobody ever troubles me. You must have a good sleep in my bed, and then we'll talk things over."
"I'm not going to turn you out of your bed!"
"I'll sleep on the sofa. Four nights out of five I sleep there, anyhow, because it's nearer my table and I can get up and make notes."
"How about Mrs. Peake when she comes in to clean up tomorrow?"
"I won't let her any farther than the door," said the Professor. "The woman is afraid of me."
Lance grinned crookedly. "Gee! how good it is to find a friend!" he murmured. "When I came here I felt like a homeless mutt! Every man's hand raised against me! I don't know just how I got myself in such a box. I've always been a well-meaning-enough fellow. But everything has gone bad on me! I just haven't had any luck!"
"Luck either good or bad doesn't prove anything," said the Professor. "It's only luck."
"Gee! you're decent to me!" murmured Lance, hanging his head. "Nobody else ever saw me crumble up like this. I don't mind before you. In this room I get the feeling that the game is worth playing, however badly you get licked!"
"Sure!" said the Professor. "I have been through hell myself when young," he added, simply.
"When I was here the other night," Lance went on, very low, "I didn't tell you that the charge against me was...murder."
"Well, that doesn't scare me," said the Professor, gravely. "A man who has reached my age can face it without getting excited. You told me you didn't do it."
Lance suddenly put his hand across the table and grasped the thin arm. His head hung low. "I expected to be turned out," he murmured.
"Not by me!"
"You're too good for this world!"
The Professor laughed somewhat strangely. "Some day I'll tell you my story," he said.
The old man dropped a casual question or two, and little by little Lance's story began to come out. It was an enormous relief to tell it to an understanding and a trustworthy ear.
"If I'd kept all this to myself any longer I'd have gone clean off my nut!" he said. "I can't understand it! That's what drives me crazy. I can't figure out what makes the girl act in such a way!"
"Better tell me the whole thing now," said the Professor. "Maybe I can help with understanding. What was the name of the rich man?"
Lance was too closely concerned with the telling of his tale to notice with what an intensity of interest the old man listened after Jim Beardmore's name had been brought into it. Presently Lance named Freda for the first time. "You know Freda," he said.
"Oh, surely I know Freda," said the Professor, queerly. He got up and turned out the lights. "They hurt my eyes," he said. "You can talk just as well in the dark."
"Sure!" said Lance.
The old man sat on the sofa, listening, so still that he seemed to have ceased breathing. But occasionally he asked a quiet question in the dark. "Did you set out to kill Jim Beardmore when you followed him that night with a gun?"
"No," said Lance. "But I reckon I would have shot him if he had turned ugly," he admitted, honestly. "My idea was to force him to tell me what the hold was that he had over Freda. Once I knew what it was, I could have dealt with it."
"Go on," murmured the old man.
Later he whispered, as if he had forgotten Lance's presence: "What a fool! What a blind fool I have been!"
"What's that?" said Lance, surprised.
The Professor caught himself up. "I mean to be living right here in the middle of all this, and not to know anything about it."
"You had something more important to think about."
"I doubt it!"
The light of dawn was coming through the window blinds when Lance finished his tale. In the dim light the Professor looked as wan as a ghost. There seemed to be nothing to him; he was the merest shadow of a corporeal shape sitting so quietly on the sofa.
"Go and lie down on my bed and sleep," he said, quietly. "When you get up we will talk about this."
"But tell me first what you make of it all," urged Lance; "what you make of her!"
The Professor did not answer. The shadow wavered and seemed about to collapse on the sofa.
"I've worn you out!" said Lance, remorsefully. "I've robbed you of your sleep. What a brute I am!"
"It is nothing!" said the shadowy voice, quickly. "The old don't need much sleep." He paused and seemed to gather new strength. "I take it that the thing which troubles you is your doubt of Freda," he said.
"Sure!" cried Lance, fervently. "I staked everything on Freda. If I could be sure she was straight, I wouldn't care what they did to me."
"Well, you can be sure of it!" said the old man, with quiet certainty. "Freda is not only straight. She's a woman in ten thousand!"
"That's what I want to think," said Lance. "But..."
"Wait until I finish!...I know Freda. She was my only visitor until you came. However, I'm not judging by what I know of her, but from the internal evidence of your own story. Think a minute. Could this girl you have described, so gentle and reserved, and with such a powerful sense of duty, could she plot, or help to plot, a murder?"
Lance jumped up excitedly. "No!" he cried.
"Clearly," the old man went on, "it is her sense of duty that is driving her. A good woman can be like that. She will sacrifice her happiness, her very life, to what she considers is her duty."
"How can I stop her?"
"You can't stop her—except by showing that it is not her duty."
"How can it be her duty to protect this rotten scoundrel?"
"Wait a bit!" said the old man. "Give me a day, or at the most two days, and I promise you that all shall be made clear."
To wait was the hardest thing that anybody could ask of Lance. "I may be arrested any moment," he grumbled.
"If you are, you won't stay long in jail."
"Do you suppose she could have fallen for this damned Beardmore?" queried Lance, anxiously. "You hear of such things happening."
"It is not possible," said the Professor, positively.
"If only I knew where she is now!"
"At home and in bed," said the Professor, with his serene common sense. "Later in the day I'll get Mrs. Peake to call her up and ask her to come see me tonight."
"You have put new life in me!" said Lance, gratefully.
"Go and sleep," said the Professor. His eyes dwelt on Lance with extraordinary kindness.
"Will you sleep, too?" asked Lance.
The bedroom was merely a screened off space at the end of the long room. It contained a cot, chair, wardrobe; nothing more. Lance sat down to unlace his shoes. His mind was still revolving the story he had told the Professor, and he could not stop it. A new aspect occurred to him and he had to go out again and tell his friend about it.
The Professor had turned on his desk light with its opaque shade. He was sitting with a little phial of some colorless liquid in one hand and a hypodermic needle in the other. He did not start as Lance approached, but looked at him in such a strange, remote manner that the young man was abashed.
"Sorry," he mumbled. "I didn't mean to intrude."
"It is no intrusion," said the old man, calmly. Beside him on the table was a porcelain vessel containing a blue liquid. Having filled the hypodermic from the phial with a steady hand, he threw the tiny bottle into the blue liquid. He then plunged the needle into his forearm, and tossed it into the antiseptic after the phial.
"Just a little stimulant," he said, calmly. "Old men need it occasionally."
"What's in there?" asked Lance, pointing to the blue stuff.
"Then it's a poison!" said Lance, opening his eyes.
"Surely," said the old man, carelessly. "I've been experimenting in poisons for years. I know how to handle them."
Lance's ignorance of medicine was complete. The explanation sounded plausible, and he let it go at that. Full of his own matters, he said: "It has just occurred to me that Clinton Beardmore must in some way have inherited the hold that Jim Beardmore had over Freda. It's the same thing!"
"Unquestionably," said the old man, smiling a little at his simplicity. "Go to bed and forget about it for a few hours."
"Sure," said Lance. "Good night!"
"Good night, son," said the Professor, with such a depth of feeling that Lance stopped surprised, and turned around.
"Go on! Go on!" said the old man, humorously waving his hands.
With a mind somewhat eased for the moment, Lance immediately fell asleep.
It was late in the afternoon when he awakened. When he came out into the big room the old man was lying on the sofa, staring up at the ceiling. It was the first time Lance had ever seen him idle. The thin, delicate face was somewhat flushed, but he turned his head, smiling, when he heard Lance.
"Don't you feel well?" asked the young man, anxiously.
"Surely!" said the Professor. "Just a little drowsy. It's a pleasant sensation."
On his table stood a tray with his lunch on it, untouched. "You haven't eaten a thing!" said Lance, accusingly.
"Well, she brought it right after I had finished my breakfast," he retorted, smiling. "I'll be ready for my dinner."
Lance surveyed the tray longingly.
"Eat! Eat!" murmured the old man. "I saved it for you."
Lance sat down and devoured every crumb. Afterwards he surveyed the plates somewhat ruefully. "It doesn't look much like your tray now," he said. "What will Mrs. Peake think?"
"Let her think what she pleases," said the Professor. "The thoughts of Mrs. Peake are of no account."
Lance lit a cigarette and, sitting beside the sofa, picked up his talk at the very point where he had dropped it that morning. Now that he had found a sympathetic listener, there was no end to what he had to say.
As time passed he began to realize that the old man was far away from him. Once he heard him murmur the name of a woman of whom Lance had never heard: "Stella!...Stella!" Yet still when Lance addressed him directly, he came back with the same touching smile.
The evening drew on, and it became harder for the Professor to answer. His lips moved continuously now, though no sound came from them. His breathing was very fast and shallow. Lance touched his cheek and found it burning.
"You have fever!" he cried. "You must have a doctor!"
The Professor smiled. "A little, perhaps," he murmured.
"I must get out of here," said Lance. "So you can ring for Mrs. Peake."
The old man roused himself. "Have you any place to go?" he asked, quite rationally.
"I can walk the streets as long as it is dark," said Lance. "Apparently they don't expect to pick up Lance McCrea in the street. At any rate, nobody bothered me last night. When I get tired I can go back to the penthouse. The secret hasn't been given away. And I still have the keys."
"Good!" whispered the Professor. "I'll send word...by Freda." He drifted far away again.
Lance, tormented by anxiety, scarcely knew what to do. He was of a mind to ring for Mrs. Peake himself, and throw himself on the woman's mercy. His hand moved towards the bell which always stood on the Professor's table. But the old man, coming back from distant places, put his burning hand on Lance's and stopped him. He pointed to the window.
"I'll ring when you are out," he whispered.
Lance went to the window and threw it up. It had become dark. This was a side window in the extension to Mrs. Peake's house and it looked across the back yards of the other houses in the row. There were no fences. There were no lights except what issued from the back windows. All the lighted windows that he could see had their blinds down.
He hung at the window in indecision. He hated to go, yet he could not stay. He returned to the side of the sofa. The old man came back and with a smile of unearthly sweetness, that was like a stab to Lance, he said, with perfect clearness:
"Son, I want you always to keep in mind that it is not difficult for the old to die. An old man welcomes the thought of death and peace!"
"But you're not going to die!" faltered Lance.
"There is your work?"
"Others will carry it on...There's another thing I want to say to you. If you should stumble on my secret, I depend on you to be man enough to keep your mouth shut forever, so that others may not suffer."
"Sure! Sure!" said Lance, brokenly. "But you mustn't talk of dying! We need you!"
But the Professor, having said his say, drifted away again with a sigh, and Lance could not recall him. "Stella!...Stella!" he murmured, softly.
Lance rang the bell and slipped swiftly over the sill.
ON the following afternoon, as it was growing dark. Lance was pacing up and down the sitting-room of the penthouse, trying to keep his rebellious nerves in hand, while he anxiously watched the sky to see when it would be safe to venture out.
There was a tap at the door, and when he ran to open it, there stood Freda. His heart leaped into his eyes, but there was no answering shine in Freda's, and the old look of baffled pain put the light out. He saw that it was not the time to discuss their personal affairs. Freda said at once:
"Professor Sempill is very sick."
"Dangerously?" asked Lance.
Her resolute lower lip trembled slightly. "I'm afraid so."
"What's the matter with him?"
"Typhoid?" echoed Lance. "But...but..."
"Yes, I know. It's very mysterious. The doctor says there have been no cases in Lounsbery lately. We thought he might have infected himself in the laboratory, but he says he has not been working with bacteria for a long time and there is nothing of the sort in the place."
Lance turned away so that Freda could not read his eyes. He perceived what the secret was that had been given him to keep, and drew a long breath to steady himself. When he turned back to her his face was as expressionless as wood. "Then he is conscious?" he said.
"Only at intervals. When we found him this morning..."
"This morning!" exclaimed Lance.
"Why do you say that?" she asked, sharply.
Lance quickly extricated himself from the slip he had made. "No particular reason," he said. "But I thought typhoid was slow in coming on."
Freda continued: "Mrs. Peake said she thought she heard his bell between six and seven last night, but when she went to the door it was locked, and he told her to go away and not bring him any supper. The woman is a fool! She took him at his word. When she went to his room this morning she got no answer. Then she was alarmed. She got a step-ladder and looked through the window, and saw him lying on the sofa, half conscious. She telephoned to me."
"Poor old man!" murmured Lance. "There alone...!"
"Oh, don't!" said Freda, sharply. She went on hurriedly. "The doctor gave him the antityphoid serum immediately and he seemed to answer to it. But this afternoon he relapsed again. A blood count showed that he was much worse. The doctor says he has never seen a case progress with such frightful rapidity. He ought to be in the hospital, but he won't let us move him. I have got a day nurse, and there's a night nurse coming on at seven. We have telegraphed for Dr. Bernard, the famous specialist. He'll be here late tonight."
"Has he been talking much?" asked Lance, cautiously.
"Not much. He's been asking for you."
Lance breathed more freely. He gathered from Freda's answer that the old man had said nothing about his visit of the day before, therefore he knew what line he had to take.
"Lance," said Freda, lowering her eyes, "you have seen him since this trouble came on us."
"Sure," said Lance, wondering what was coming next, "I saw him every day until I was arrested, and then I saw him the night I broke out of jail. He lent me money."
"Lance," she said, breathlessly, "have you told him anything about these things, about you and me, about the Beardmores? Oh, think before you answer. This means everything to me!"
Lance appeared to think. "No," he said, slowly, "I never told him anything. He doesn't read the newspapers. He doesn't even know that Jim Beardmore was murdered. When I saw that, it seemed a shame to upset him with the story, so I didn't tell him. I just told him that I was in trouble with the police; didn't tell him what about. He said he didn't want to know."
Freda dropped in a chair. The tears welled up in her eyes and overflowed. "Oh, thank God! thank God!" she murmured. "That lifts such a load off my heart!" She wept unrestrainedly.
Lance yearned over her, but he would not obtrude himself at such a moment. "All this is a great mystery to me," he said, wistfully. "Can't you explain?"
"Please, please," she said, imploringly. "I know I have no further right to ask you to trust me, but...but..."
"Oh, that's all right," said Lance, gruffly. "Let's forget about it until we get the old man on his feet again."
Freda gave him a grateful look and dried her tears. "He's been asking for you," she went on, quickly. "Whenever he was conscious. The doctor heard him. I hope it's all right. They say that doctors are like priests and never give anything away. Anyway, the doctor hinted to me that I had better get you there if I could, and that he would keep out of the way. What do you think? It's a terrible risk, isn't it?"
"I thrive on risks," said Lance. "Sure I'll come. I'll climb in the window like I did before."
"How will you get downtown?"
"Walk it. I've been walking the streets freely for two nights and nobody has stopped me."
"Could you make it before the night nurse comes, say at six-thirty?" asked Freda, anxiously. "It is as dark then as it is at any time."
"All right," said Lance. "It's really safer then because there are plenty of people in the streets. I can just do it if I leave here at six-ten after the watchman makes his first round...Have the lights out in the main room, and leave the middle window open. That'll be a signal to me that the coast is clear."
"I wouldn't ask it for myself," she said, "but he's such a dear! such a dear!"
"I feel the same towards him as you do," said Lance. "I can scarcely remember my own father, and this was like finding a father after you were old enough to appreciate him!"
Before he realized what she was up to, Freda snatched up his hand and pressed it. She turned to the door. Lance was hard put to it to hold himself in, but he let her go without hindrance.
Half an hour later he followed. He left the mill grounds by way of the Fassetts' front garden. At the moment Bob and his family were eating their supper in the back of the cottage. Lance struck boldly into town by Hartford Avenue. It was the main street of this part of town, and he was soon amongst the stores that lined it almost the whole way in.
The sidewalk was well filled and nobody looked at Lance in his old hat. He mixed amongst the people with an easy feeling of looking just like anybody else. It was pleasant to rub elbows with his own kind after his hours of solitude; pleasant to walk along a brightly lighted street on a cool fall evening.
As he got closer in the stores became more pretentious. In this part most of them closed at six-thirty and there was quite a little rush of last-minute shoppers. Automobiles purred up and down in the center of the street, and the out-of-date trolley cars bumped over the rails and clanged their gongs.
It was like a cold shower on Lance suddenly to discover that somebody was taking an interest in him. A man overtook him, walking fast, giving Lance a sharp look from under his hatbrim as he passed. He went on for fifty feet or so, paused, making believe to look in a store window, then turned around to give Lance the once over as he came up.
There was nothing about him of the typical beefy detective that Lance had learned to recognize. This was a small dark man with a quiet face and intent black eyes. There was something slick and spry about him, like a smooth-haired terrier. He wore a brown soft hat cocked jauntily on one side. He glanced from Lance's face to something he held concealed in his hand, probably a card photograph.
Lance had no notion of giving him time to make up his mind. He turned around and started back without hurrying. He remembered that he had just passed Lounsbery's principal five-and-ten-cent store. Lance knew the place, having bought various small objects there. It was a large double store that ran through the block and had other entrances on the next street.
Lance turned into the five-and-ten-cent store. He would not look over his shoulder, but he was well assured that the brisk man was not far behind him. He made his way through the store with a casual manner. He went out by a rear door, and as he turned onto the sidewalk, took a swift slant behind him. The man was still a few feet inside the store.
The depth of the show windows created a wide vestibule between doors and sidewalk. There was another pair of doors about twenty feet ahead of Lance. He covered it swiftly, and turned back across the vestibule into the store again. It was a simple ruse, but nothing better offered.
He took what cover he could behind the shoppers, and zigzagged amongst the counters to get out of line with the door. When he had got halfway back through the store, he ventured to stop as if to examine some articles on a counter, and looked back. The sharp little terrier was not in sight. Lance let out a breath of relief and wiped his face.
He quickly made his way out by the first door he had gone in. Having lost his confidence in crowded streets now, he took the first turning out of Hartford Avenue into the residential district. Here he walked under the shadow of the trees that lined the way. There were only a few people on the sidewalk.
Turning many corners, he made his way by a wide detour to Mrs. Peake's house, approaching it by the street in the rear. Judging from the dining-room windows, everybody was at supper now and the sidewalks were deserted. Lance walked around the house behind Mrs. Peake's by the path that served the kitchen door, and cut across the back yard.
He dropped behind a bush to take a survey before venturing across the open space. The end wall of the extension of Mrs. Peake's house was about twenty-five yards in front of him. The window on this side gave on the Professor's bedroom recess. A light showed within it and the blind was pulled down. Lance noted that there was a crack between the bottom of the blind and the sash frame.
He crept to one side where he could get an oblique view of the three side windows. They were dark and the middle one raised to the full. So the coast was clear inside. But something warned Lance that all was not right, and he waited yet a while.
While he watched, he saw the shadow of a head rise against the lighted window at the end. He recognized the jaunty tilt of the hat. The man was evidently drawing himself up with his hands on the sill to peep through the crack under the blind. Lance softly and swiftly retreated the way he had come.
He went around the block and took a survey of the front of Mrs. Peake's house from behind a tree at the corner. Presently he saw the familiar shadow come through between the houses, and stand on the sidewalk, looking up and down. The shadow crossed the road, and two other shadows appeared out of the dark and joined it. They consulted for a moment, and the first man went back across the street and between the houses. Lance went swiftly away from there. He went into a drug store a few blocks away and called up Mrs. Peake's house from a booth. Mrs. Peake's foolish, gasping voice answered. Lance, making his voice deep and gruff, asked for Miss Rollin. Presently Freda's voice came over the wire.
"Sorry, I can't make it," said Lance. "The house is watched both front and rear."
"Oh!" said Freda with a world of disappointment in her voice. "His anxiety to see you is pitiful! He cannot rest!"
"If you could open the cellar window on the off side from the laboratory windows, I might make it," suggested Lance.
"I couldn't do it without Mrs. Peake knowing. She means well, but she's not to be trusted for a minute!...Let me think!...Could you call me up in five minutes?" she asked, presently. "Perhaps I can arrange something."
"Sure!" said Lance.
He took a little walk and returned to the drug store. Freda was waiting at the phone this time. Speaking softly and distinctly, she said:
"Do you know where Tupper Street is?"
"Go to Doctor Gannet's office at number 201. He will be waiting for you and will bring you here in his car. Don't tell him who you are or anything that might make trouble for him later. I'll fix everything at this end."
"I get you," said Lance. "Look! Before I get there fix the blind in the end window. It's not pulled all the way down."
Tupper Street was not far away. The doctor's offices faced on the Civic Center and Lance became tense as he approached that dangerous neighborhood. However, the entrance was on the unfrequented side street, and Lance got inside the door without attracting attention.
The doctor, a keen and kindly man who looked as if he had experienced so much that nothing could surprise him, was alone in his offices. "You're the young man who wants a lift to Professor Sempill's house?" he said.
The doctor looked him over closely. "I hope you don't mind if I suggest that your hat is in rather bad shape and that the nights are cold enough now to require an overcoat," he said, dryly.
Lance saw the point. While he was speaking the doctor opened a closet door and produced a hat and overcoat. Lance put them on and, glancing in a mirror, saw that he now looked quite like a doctor himself.
"Come on," said the doctor.
His motorcar, a handsome limousine with a chauffeur, was waiting at the door. "To Mrs. Peake's house," said the doctor, and they started.
"How is the old man?" asked Lance.
"He can't last more than two days," said the doctor, gravely.
Lance was silent. He required time in order to control his voice. "Have you told her...Miss Rollin?" he finally asked, very low.
"Not in so many words," said the doctor. "What's the use? A woman never gives up hope...If I could only get him to the hospital I could make him infinitely more comfortable, but he resists it even when he is not fully conscious. While he is like that, there is no use in insisting on it."
After a moment the doctor went on in his dry, significant manner: "I have been to see him four times today. On my first visit I was questioned by the police at the door. But since then they haven't troubled me. This afternoon I took a colleague with me for consultation, but they paid no attention to him. If they should question you, I can't take any responsibility for you, you understand."
"I get you," said Lance, quietly.
As they approached Mrs. Peake's house, Lance's heart began to beat tumultuously. Just before they stopped, the doctor caught up his wrist and felt of his pulse, then laughed, and gave him an encouraging clap on the shoulder.
Mrs. Peake's was an old-fashioned house standing very close to the sidewalk, consequently they had only a few yards to cover between the car and the steps. No figures stepped out of the shadows to challenge them. Freda was standing just inside the door and they were quickly admitted.
"Mrs. Peake is in the basement," she whispered. "I said I'd open the door."
"Where's the nurse?" asked Lance.
"The day nurse has gone home. I sent the night nurse to the drug store with a prescription. She'll be gone half an hour."
Freda led them swiftly through the hall into the extension.
"I'm going downstairs to talk to the estimable Mrs. Peake," said the doctor, dryly. "I'll get her to boil some water so I can sterilize something."
He left them. Freda took Lance behind the screens. Lance's face turned grave when he saw what a change even twenty-four hours had worked in his friend. The Professor in health had been a wraithlike figure, but now there was a deathly sharpness in his features. The gray head rolled on the pillow, and the parched lips moved without stopping. He was not aware that anybody had entered. Yet when Lance pulled up a chair beside the cot and spoke his name, he came back. Sense and understanding filled his eyes, and his hand feebly sought for Lance's. "Lance!" he whispered. "Thank God you've come!"
Lance took the burning hand between both of his. "What is it?" he whispered. "What can I do?"
The sick man did not answer immediately, but closed his eyes and lay quiet. He was perfectly conscious, for when Freda turned away from the bed to attend to something, he opened his eyes and looked at Lance, imploring and speechless. He glanced at Freda and towards the opening between the screens.
It was perfectly clear what he wanted, but not too easy to bring it about in a natural manner. Lance got up and looked out between the screens. "If anybody was to come through that door I'd be nicely trapped in here," he muttered.
Freda said, instantly: "I'll go outside and watch, if you want."
"If you would!" said Lance. "It's just for a moment or two. I mustn't stay."
When Freda disappeared, the old man motioned feebly towards the bottom drawer of his wardrobe. "In the front," he whispered, "under everything."
Lance softly pulled out the drawer, and feeling under the clothes that it contained, his hand struck against a pasteboard box. "Is this what you want?" he whispered.
The Professor nodded, and motioned to Lance to hide it in his pocket. Lance opened the box and saw several of the little sealed tubes or phials and the hypodermic needle. He hastily closed the cover and slipped it in his breast pocket.
"Destroy it," whispered the Professor. "Terribly dangerous...Destroy by fire!"
Lance took the burning hand between his again. "Sure! Sure!" he murmured, brokenly. "But why did you do it? Oh, why did you do it?"
The heartbreaking smile returned to the wasted face. "Only way," he whispered. "I'm all right...Peace!"
Lance fought hard to restrain the grief that threatened to unman him.
"Better go," whispered the Professor. "You might be stopped. Call Freda."
Lance went to the opening and spoke to her. When she saw the old man quiet on his pillow and smiling, she whispered, joyfully: "Oh, you've done him good already!"
"Tell doctor...hospital...better for me," whispered the sick man.
"He'll get better now!" she breathed, clasping her hands together. She ran away to fetch the doctor.
The old man still smiled like one who was done with earthly troubles. "Good-by," whispered Lance, huskily.
"Good-by, son," he whispered. "God bless you!"
Lance went out. Freda was saying eagerly to the doctor: "He's willing to go to the hospital. Now he'll get better, won't he?"
"I cannot promise that," said the doctor, gravely, "but it will be much better for him. I'll make the arrangements immediately."
"Is it dangerous to move him in his present state?"
"Not at all. We know how to do it nowadays."
Lance and the doctor left the house. There was no one visible outside, and they drove away in the car without interference. Lance kept looking back through the rear window, but amongst the various cars moving in the streets it was impossible to say if one was following them.
They had no conversation on the way. Lance couldn't talk, and the doctor respected his silence. Lance went upstairs to his office with him, and took off the hat and overcoat.
"You can keep them if you want," said Dr. Gannett.
Lance shook his head and took his old hat. He gripped the doctor's hand gratefully and ran downstairs again.
He walked south on Tupper Street, away from the Civic Center. It was one of the best residential streets, and as soon as he had crossed one street, Lance found himself among the fine elms and the wide lawns of the big old-fashioned houses.
It was very quiet, and Lance heard footsteps across the street. Looking over his shoulder, he saw a shadowy figure keeping pace with him. He slackened his gait, and the other man slowed up. He passed under a street light and Lance recognized the soft hat on one side of his head.
The man started across the street. Lance turned and ran blindly across the lawn on his left. "Stop!" shouted the man. And a second later, "Stop or I'll shoot!"
A high board fence faced Lance. He sprang for it, pulled himself up and flung his legs over. The man fired. Lance dropped feet foremost and shattered a glass cold-frame on the other side. His pursuer blew a shrill blast on a police whistle. Doors were opened and windows flung up all around. Excited voices were heard.
Lance felt his way out of the frames, and ran along close to the fence. The detective came flying over the top of the fence and broke more glass. "Men!" he cried to the open doors and windows. "I want help! Lance McCrea is loose in these grounds. Surround the block!"
Running feet approached from every direction. Lance saw a man coming in the dark and got behind a tree just in time. Other men were coming the same way and Lance turned and followed the first one back. It was the only thing he could do. An excited group surrounded the little detective. Lance carried his hat in his hand.
The detective was saying: "Don't hang around me! Surround the block! Fetch the police here!"
"I'll go for the police!" shouted Lance.
He saw a way out to the street and started through. He met men running in. "Where are you running to?" they asked, threateningly,
A car had stopped at the curb, with the driver craning his neck out of the door. "To Police Headquarters!" shouted Lance, breaking away from the men who wanted to stop him. "I'm taking a message!" He climbed in the waiting car. "Police Headquarters!" he said to the driver. "And step on it!"
They sped away. Police Headquarters was but three blocks distant. Lance knew that neighborhood only too well. As they drew up to the door he said to the driver: "You go back in case he wants a car. There's big money in this!"
The car darted away again. Lance walked around the corner.
Half an hour later he entered the Beardmore offices by the private door. It was shortly after eight o'clock and the watchman was safely out of the way. Lance did not immediately return to the penthouse, but searched around on the lower floor for the door into the cellar.
He found it facing the rear entrance door. He dared not turn on lights, but lit matches to see his way down the stairs, putting the burnt ends in his pocket. The boiler was the most conspicuous object in the cellar. The fire was banked for the night, and the door of the firebox stood a little open.
Lance took the poker, and moved the black coals aside until the glowing heart of the fire was exposed. He threw the little cardboard box on it, and watched it catch, then carefully moved the top coals back as he had found them.
He returned up the cellar stairs, went around through the president's office and up the private stairway. He looked around the sitting-room of the penthouse almost with affection. Certainly it was better than being hunted through the streets.
BY all considerations of prudence Lance should have remained in his hideout during the following night. But by the time eight o'clock had come and gone he felt as if he would go mad if he remained any longer alone with the unanswered questions that filled his mind, and he stole out again.
Avoiding all main thoroughfares, he made his way around through unfrequented streets to the north side of town. A force stronger than his own will drew him to the Lounsbery General Hospital where Professor Sempill was lying.
The institution stood adjoining one of the new public parks close to the city limits on this side. Lance approached it cautiously under cover of the park. The neighborhood was deserted except for the cars which occasionally drove up to the hospital or departed. So far as Lance could see there were no unexplained persons hanging around the entrance gates or the door of the building.
He walked up and down the other side of the street, looking up and wondering behind which one of the many windows his friend would be lying. Perhaps the old man had already made his sacrifice and passed on. Why? Why? Why?
Within the entrance gates and opposite to the main door of the hospital there was a parking space for the cars of the doctors. Through the bars of the ornamental iron fence Lance made out Dr. Garnett's handsome limousine amongst the others. Here was the best source of information, and he kept his eye on it. The chauffeur dozed on the front seat.
After a time Lance saw the tall figure of the doctor issue from the hospital and cross the graveled space towards his car. Lance crossed the road, entered the gates, and intercepted him as he opened the door.
"Ah!" said the doctor in his grim but not unfriendly manner.
"How is he?" asked Lance, breathlessly.
"Just alive and no more."
"Then what are you leaving him for?" said Lance, hotly.
The doctor was not offended. He put his hand on Lance's shoulder for a second. "I can do nothing for him," he said, simply, "and there's a man downtown I may be able to save."
"Where's the great specialist?"
"He went back to New York an hour ago...Believe me," Dr. Gannett said, earnestly, "during last night and today everything has been done that science could suggest. It was useless."
Lance was silent for a moment, stiffening himself to take it. "Would they let me see him?" he asked.
"Certainly, if you want to take the risk."
"Are there any suspicious-looking men hanging around inside?"
"Not so far as I could see," said the doctor, dryly.
"What do I have to do?"
"Enter the door and walk to the elevator. Go up to the top floor. Professor Sempill is in room twenty-one. The nurse in the corridor will stop you. Just tell her whom you want to see, and she will go and tell Miss Rollin. You don't have to give any name."
"Thanks," muttered Lance. "Thanks for everything, Doctor."
"It is nothing," said Dr. Gannett. He touched Lance's shoulder again, and climbed into his car.
Lance entered the dimly lighted hall of the hospital, with its waxed linoleum floors and faint smell of antiseptics. There was a head nurse and a young doctor within an enclosed desk, but they paid no attention to him. Nobody else about. The elevator was just in front of him.
The upper corridor was dark except for a light over the head nurse's desk. There was more activity here. Nurses were passing back and forth, rustling in their starched dresses, noiseless on their rubber soles. They looked at the handsome young man with interest but without recognition. Perhaps they had no time to study the newspapers.
Lance told the head nurse whom he wanted to see, and she beckoned to him to follow. He waited while she tapped on a door and entered. She came out, and Freda followed her. Freda's eyes looked enormous in the dim light, but she was her own quiet, collected self. She impulsively put out her hands to Lance, and he enclosed them within his.
"Oh! you shouldn't have come!" she whispered.
"How could I help it?" said Lance. "I..."
"Oh well, it doesn't so much matter now," she said, with a catch in her breath. "Come in."
The austere little room was lighted by a closely hooded lamp on the table. A nurse stood beside the bed, holding the old man's wrist between thumb and finger, and looking at a watch in her other hand. When he had taken two steps farther Lance could see his friend. He looked more peaceful now. His sharp face was turned straight up, eyes closed. He lay as still and remote as if he had already gone from them, but he still had a pulse.
Freda and Lance stood at the other side of the bed. She did not pull her hand out of his. "There is nothing to do but wait," she whispered.
Lance drew her arm through his and held it close. They stood looking down, rapt out of themselves by the sense of an unseen presence in the room.
A subtle change took place in the beautiful worn face on the pillow. The nurse laid his arm with infinite gentleness on the coverlet. "It is over," she said.
Freda's clenched hands went to her breast, but no cry escaped her. "Please leave us," she whispered to the nurse.
The girl went out, closing the door behind her, and all Freda's pent-up grief escaped in a low cry. She drooped over the motionless form, caressing it with her hands. "Oh, Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!" she whispered. "Why did it have to be like this?"
The amazed Lance put a hand on her shoulder. "Freda! Why didn't you tell me? It would have made it easier for both!"
"Not if he had lived!" she said, in a strangled voice.
"I don't understand!" said Lance, helplessly.
Freda was incapable of further explanation then. But she turned to Lance with her arms out like a child seeking comfort, and he gathered her close to him. That did not surprise him; it seemed natural and right.
"O Lance," she murmured, brokenly, "it must have been just an accident, mustn't it? He couldn't have done it himself! But if he had known or guessed what was happening he would have done something like this. After they took him to the hospital I went over his room. There was nothing. He couldn't have done it himself."
"Certainly not!" lied Lance. "It was purely an accident."
"Ever since I grew up," she went on, "I have worked to fix it so that he could have peace to do his work. If I had failed in the end it would be too awful!"
"But he died happy," said Lance. "He was ready to go. Look at him now."
Freda looked and was comforted. She rested her head against Lance's breast and the storm of weeping gradually subsided.
There was a tap at the door and the special nurse entered. "Mr. Beardmore is calling," she said.
Lance and Freda sprang apart. "Tony?" growled Lance.
"Sh!" Instantly Freda was herself again. Two bright spots appeared in her cheeks. "Did you tell him anything?" she whispered, fiercely, to the nurse.
The girl shook her head wonderingly.
"Wait here!" whispered Freda to Lance. She went out with her head up.
She left the door partly open, and Lance stood behind it, listening. The nurse looked on, open-mouthed. Lance heard Clinton's unctuous voice ask, "How is he tonight?"
His eyes widened with amazement when he heard Freda answer: "Better. He has just fallen into a quiet sleep. The fever has left him. You must excuse my looks. I've been crying, it was such a relief!"
"Sure! I understand!" said Clinton. "That's perfectly splendid news! Is there anything I can do?"
"No, thanks. We'll know for sure in the morning. I'll see you then."
Freda came back. Her false strength failed her and she wavered. Lance flung an arm around her. The nurse was staring in suspicion and perplexity.
"But, Miss Rollin," she said, "I have to make my report of the death."
"Certainly make your report," said Freda, sharply. "But just wait until that man is out of the building."
The nurse went out, wondering still.
"If Clinton knew that father was dead he'd run away," said Freda, swiftly. "He must be arrested before he finds out!"
Here was a change! But Lance did not stop to question it then. "Sure!" he said.
"That evidence that you said was in your possession," she went on. "Where is it now?"
"Bob Fassett has it...I told him to sell it to Clinton when I didn't care what happened," Lance said, ruefully. "But perhaps the deal hasn't been pulled off yet. I'll go and find out."
"Yes," she said. "Nothing must be neglected. He's so rich! I have evidence myself in the letter he forged."
"I have other evidence," said Lance. He drew the scarab out of his pocket and showed it on his palm.
"Jim Beardmore's!" said Freda, astonished. "Give it to me! If it was found on you...!"
"As to Clinton being rich," said Lance, "Tony Beardmore is just as rich and he'll help prosecute him."
"Go!" said Freda. "He may have suspected something."
Lance turned up her chin and kissed her briefly. As he left the room he heard her murmuring to the still form on the bed:
"Ah! my dear, forgive me! I cannot even grieve for you in quiet!"
As Lance turned down the corridor, a man who was looking out of the window turned around and advanced towards him. He had the soft hat in his hand now, but Lance recognized the sharp terrier-like features. He put a hand on Lance's shoulder.
"Sorry, at such a time as this," he said, "but duty is duty!"
"Well, I'm damned!" muttered Lance under his breath.
Before he realized what was happening he found his right wrist chained to the left wrist of his captor. The latter said: "Sorry to do this to a gentleman like yourself, but you must allow that you're a slippery one. And a good-plucked one, too. I have to say it!"
Lance wiped his face. "Excuse these signs of agitation," he said dryly, "but I've been through quite a bit the last two-three days."
"Well, you can take it easy now," said the sleuth, soothingly.
"You're not from Lounsbery, I'll bet," said Lance.
The arrest created a soft, rustling sensation in the hospital corridor. The nurses gathered around, gazing pityingly at the handsome young man chained to the ugly detective. Freda received some intimation of what was going on outside, and came flying out into the corridor.
"Oh, what has happened?" she gasped.
"Arrested," said Lance, carrying it off with a shrug. "You'll have to attend to that bit of business we were speaking about."
Freda almost collapsed, but not quite. "O Lance! O Lance!" she breathed, clinging to his arm.
At the sound of that name all the nurses gasped in astonishment. However, they did not shrink from the prisoner who was charged with such heinous crimes. Their eyes adored him. Freda quickly recovered her courage. She whispered in Lance's ear: "It's all right. I'll see to everything. I'll soon have you out. I can tell everything now."
"Sorry, miss," said the detective, "but I can't allow any whispering after an arrest. You'll have to come to the jail to see him."
"It's all right," said Freda, smiling. "I have said everything."
Before them all she caught Lance's cheeks between her hands and, pulling down his head, kissed him on the lips. A concerted sigh escaped from the assembled nurses. In their minds it was the perfect climax.
"You seem to have the dolls on your side," said the detective, dryly, as he led Lance away.
Lance did not hear him. He was floating up high on a rosy cloud.
But he liked the little man right well. Riding to Headquarters in a taxi, and smoking with him. Lance said: "You are some sleuth! I've got to hand it to you. I reckon I had no chance once they put you on the case."
"Oh, this was just a slice of pie," said the detective. "I would have taken you last night if it hadn't been for those boobs in front of the house. They let you come and go with the doctor, though I warned them you would try to get in. When I got to the doctor's you were just leaving."
"I diddled you there," said Lance. "I was the guy that ran to fetch the police!"
"The hell you say!" said the detective, chuckling. "However, I knew you'd try to see the sick man again."
WHEN Lance McCrea was lodged in the Lounsbery jail for the second time, the warden was taking no chances. He stationed a keeper outside the door of Lance's cell with instructions to watch the prisoner until morning.
It was inconvenient because Lance, who had slept most of the day, was in the humor to talk. The presence of the keeper in the corridor shut off all the whispering that usually rustled up and down from cell to cell. All Lance could do was to pace his restricted quarters, three steps forward and back.
Somewhere about midnight he was greatly astonished to receive a visitor. It was no less a personage than Tony Beardmore, as ever, handsome, cynical, grinning, marvelously dressed—Tony, the crown prince of Lounsbery, everybody's friend but his own.
The magical name of Beardmore smoothed all difficulties. The head keeper himself brought Tony along the corridor with an obsequious crook in his neck and a grin on his face, ready to burst into a roar of laughter whenever Tony made a wise crack. The surly keeper at the door of the cell instantly became all smiles and anxiety to please.
The door was opened; the head keeper said: "This is a dangerous man, Mr. Beardmore. I'd better stay with you."
"Thanks, I don't need any help," said Tony, coolly. "If he gets ugly I'll holler for help. You can wait outside."
The cell door was closed behind him. Tony, grinning in his derisive, friendly style, sat down on the hard bench beside Lance and offered him a cigarette out of a gold case. Lance accepted it thankfully.
"Are you surprised to see me here?" asked Tony, pitching his voice too low to carry into the corridor.
"Yes and no," said Lance. "To tell you the truth nothing could surprise me now."
Tony laughed. "You always had it in for me. I don't know why."
"That's all past now."
"You were jealous of me," said Tony, shrewdly. Lance, with a shrug, let it go at that. "Why aren't you jealous of me any longer?"
Lance was not going to give up his secret for the asking. "If a certain lady chooses you," he said, "it's all right with me."
Tony laughed again. "A neat evasion! You know you don't have to worry...As a matter of fact I never offered myself to her. I think too much of her. I'm not a marrying man. It's my belief that the noble name of Beardmore had better end with me."
"You're frank," said Lance.
"It's my only virtue!...Listen!" Tony went on, more seriously. "I don't know if you're aware of it, but my uncle, or, to be exact, my half-uncle, Clinton Beardmore, was arrested a couple of hours ago, and charged with the murder of my father and Sergeant Doty."
A breath of relief escaped Lance. "I didn't know it," he said.
"But you're damned glad to hear it," put in Tony.
"Do you know if Freda got the evidence from Bob Fassett?"
"She did. It seems Bob refused to sell until he was satisfied that you were safe."
"Good old Bob!" murmured Lance.
"They are questioning Uncle Clinton at Headquarters now," Tony went on in his dry way. "So far he has denied everything. They're a good bit easier with him than they were with you, I reckon because he bears the Beardmore label. So far as I can make out he is trusting to family solidarity and family influence to get him off."
Tony paused and flipped the ashes off his cigarette. Lance waited anxiously for what was coming.
"No doubt we could get him off if we stood together," said Tony, "but before I cast my vote for Clinton I want a little more information. Tonight Freda Rollin gave me the blue scarab that my father used to carry as a pocket piece. She said she got it from you. Are you willing to tell me how it came into your possession?"
"Sure!" said Lance. "Glad of the chance!...On Sunday night you and the other officers of the company had a meeting in the board room..."
"How do you know that?" demanded Tony.
"I was hiding in the grounds and I saw the lights in the windows. I clawed my way up the wall and listened. I don't know if you remember it or not, but the window was open a little at the bottom."
"I don't remember," said Tony, "but if you can tell me what took place at that meeting I'll be satisfied that you were there."
Lance told him. Tony's face was a study.
"Just as you were lining them up to search them," said Lance, in conclusion, "it was discovered that the window was open, and somebody closed it..."
"Ha! I remember now!" said Tony. "It was..." He suddenly checked himself. "You tell me who it was."
"I didn't know then who it was," said Lance. "I saw a hand come out and open, then the window went down. On the little finger of the hand was a ring with a fine square-cut emerald. On the following night when I collared Clinton Beardmore..."
"Collared him?" interrupted Tony. "I hadn't heard of that."
Lance described how they had seized the murderer when he came after his clothes. "When I took him over to the office and got the lights turned on I saw the emerald on his finger," he said.
"What did you let him go for?" asked Tony, with strong curiosity.
"I don't care to answer that," said Lance. "...Don't you know?" he added, with a searching glance in Tony's face.
Tony shook his head blankly. "All I know is that there is something rotten behind all this. I have felt it for years past." He stood up. "You win!" he said. "I gave Clinton fair warning on Sunday night. Now he'll have to sink or swim, for me. And the others won't dare to plump for him if I hold off...Will you shake hands with one of the cursed tribe?" he asked, with his attractive, devilish grin.
"Sure!" said Lance.
Tony departed. After another endless period of time had dragged past in the silent jail, Lance heard a slight commotion from the direction of the stairway, and the footsteps of several men approaching along the corridor. A keeper passed the door of his cell, swinging his keys, then a shambling, drooping figure led between two detectives. Lance recognized his enemy, bowed and broken. All the shine was off Clinton Beardmore now. He was put in a cell farther along the corridor, and the door clanged behind him. When the men came back Lance's face was pressed to the bars of the cell door.
"Say, you fellows," he whispered, "you know who I am. Did he confess? Did he confess? God! Don't keep me in suspense! You know what it means to me!"
The first detective said: "We ain't got nothing against you. Lance, but, cheese! it would be worth our jobs to give out a piece of information like that." He passed on.
But the second man grinned at Lance meaningly. It was answer enough. Lance filled his lungs and blew out the air in relief. Then he flung himself down on his hard bench and slept like a babe.
He was awakened by another and a more serious commotion in the corridor. Judging from the sounds, there was an excited, whispering group in front of the cell where Clinton Beardmore was confined. The fat warden came running along the corridor, followed by a doctor with a little satchel.
Now in spite of the keepers and the presence of the warden himself the prisoners could not be kept quiet. An excited whisper traveled along from cell to cell: "What's the matter? What's the matter?" And presently the answers were passed back: "It's Clinton Beardmore in thirty-two...They say it was him killed his brother, and not Lance McCrea...He swallowed poison in the night...He had cyanide concealed on him...He's dead!"
In a few minutes a grotesque little procession passed in front of Lance's cell. In the middle of it two keepers strained under the burden of Clinton Beardmore's limp and lolling body. His face was horrible. All Lance's enmity passed away with him down the corridor. "Best thing he ever did!" he murmured.
At nine o'clock two detectives—not the same two—came to Lance's cell, to lead him to Headquarters to be questioned. There was no offer to handcuff him now. From their generally friendly attitude Lance judged that his star was rising.
He was taken to the same room where he had been questioned before. A kind of informal tribunal awaited him. Beside the Commissioner of Police and the warden, both of whom he knew by sight, there was a third official who, he presently gathered from the talk, was the Public Prosecutor. Tony Beardmore was also present in an ex-officio capacity. Tony straddled a chair with his customary air of making a mock of the proceedings. Nobody ventured to call him down.
The tone of the assemblage was friendly to Lance. "It is only fair to tell you," said the Commissioner, 'that Clinton Beardmore has confessed to killing James Beardmore and Sergeant Doty."
"After the support of the family was withdrawn," put in Tony.
"Can I hear his confession?" asked Lance.
"Just a moment. Answer a few questions first."
The warden broke in: "I wish you'd tell us why you separated from Wilkens that night after he helped you out of your cell."
"I was warned that he was an agent of Clinton Beardmore's," said Lance, "and that the idea was to take me out to Fairfield and quietly murder me."
"The family burying-ground!" murmured Tony.
"Where have you kept yourself since?" demanded the warden.
"I can't answer that," said Lance. "I was helped."
"Not if we promise immunity?" Lance shook his head.
"Let that go for the present," said the Commissioner. "Do you admit that you were on the premises at Fairfield when these murders took place?"
"I do," said Lance.
"You followed James Beardmore out there?"
"You were armed."
"For what purpose did you follow him out there with a gun?"
"I bought the gun because he had twice threatened my life. I followed him because I wanted to find out what he was up to. I had reason to believe that he intended injury to a friend of mine."
"What were the circumstances?"
"I must decline to state the circumstances," said Lance.
"What difference does it make, gentlemen," said Tony, "if you are satisfied that he didn't commit either of the murders?"
"Well, Mr. Prosecutor, it's up to you," said the Commissioner.
"In view of the confession, there is no case," said the Prosecutor. "I don't see what you can hold him on."
"May I hear the confession?" asked Lance.
The Commissioner picked up a paper and read:
'I had private motives for desiring the death of my brother that I shall not divulge. I decoyed him out to Fairfield by forging a letter from a woman in whom he was interested. As he entered the library I hit him over the head, and shot him through the heart as he lay on the floor.
'I put the body in a chair and dropped the revolver at his feet to make it appear like a suicide. As I was leaving the room I heard somebody coming and hid in the corridor. It was Lance McCrea, but I didn't know him then. I thought it was just a common thief. The opportunity seemed too good to miss, so I locked him in the library and went downstairs and telephoned a fake message to the police.
'Afterwards I waited in the grounds to see what would happen. I thought they had him, so I took a boat and rowed down the lake. I heard him coming in another boat, so I waited. I beat him down and took his gun from him. Just then Inspector Doty broke out of the woods and I had to close with him. In the struggle the gun was discharged.
'This is the truth, so help me God! Signed: Clinton Beardmore.'
The Commissioner put down the paper.
"It is the truth so far as I know it," said Lance.
"You are free to go," said the Commissioner.
Lance restrained his joy. "Thank you, gentlemen," he said, and gravely shook hands all around.
"Maybe I'll get a new jail out of your escape," said the warden, grinning.
"There are about ten thousand people waiting outside," remarked Tony. "My car is parked in front of the warden's house. I'll take you out that way, if you like."
"Tain't the first time he's been through my house," said the warden. "Where's my son's hat?"
"I don't know," said Lance, smiling. "I'll have to get him another."
"Well, you needn't mind. It was an old one."
As soon as they had succeeded in evading the crowd around Police Headquarters Lance asked to be put down. He didn't want Tony to know where he was going. However, Tony divined it.
"Freda's taking a holiday," he said. "She's at home."
When Lance rang the bell at the boarding-house Freda herself let him in. She gave him her hand with a shaky smile. "I was waiting for you," she said. "Tony said you would be released this morning."
She led him upstairs to her room. Lance folded her in his arms. "Don't talk about it yet," she whispered. "I can't...I have no words..." They sat down on a sofa and Lance held her close. After a while Freda murmured, "I love you so!"
"Since when?" asked Lance, smiling.
"Since the first minute I saw you. You were so dear...and you couldn't hide your feelings a bit!"
"You hid yours well," said Lance, dryly.
After another silence Lance asked, "When...?" He scarcely liked to finish.
"Tomorrow," she murmured. "I hope we can keep it out of the newspapers. Oh, if we can only bury him in peace and quiet!"
"Your name hasn't been brought into it yet," said Lance.
In the end Freda began to tell her story without any prompting from Lance. "My father's real name is Thomas Rondel," she said, "and of course I am Freda Rondel. Does that suggest anything to you?"
Lance shook his head. "I have heard that name," he said, "but I can't connect it..."
"More than twenty years ago," she went on, in a quiet, level voice, "my father shot and killed Peter Beardmore, Jim's father, in his office."
Lance pressed the girl against his side. "Dearest!" he murmured. "I remember now. The newspaper..."
"But the newspaper was wrong when it said that he did it because Peter Beardmore owed him money. They put that in merely to save the family's feelings. Peter Beardmore did owe my father money. It was my father who invented the process for making linen that has made them all rich. He never got anything out of it but a bare living."
"They must owe you millions," said Lance. "We'll see about that. Tony is fair."
"The real reason," said Freda, "...the real reason..." Her slender body trembled within Lance's arm.
"Don't go on if you don't feel up to it," murmured Lance.
"I must get it over with!...My mother had died the day before. She was a very beautiful woman. In the delirium that preceded her death it came out that Peter Beardmore had grossly insulted her, had, in fact, been persecuting her for a long time. After she was dead my poor grief-crazed father bought a revolver and went to his office and shot him."
"Who would blame him for that?" said Lance.
"There were several eye-witnesses," Freda went on, "but they were too much terrified by the gun to interfere. My father walked out of the offices unhindered—they were downtown in those days—and went home to wait for the police.
"Jim Beardmore got there before the police. He made believe that he was ashamed of his father's actions, and he offered to conceal my father from the police. He spirited him away and hid him so skillfully that they were never able to find him."
"But he should have given himself up!" cried Lance. "Any jury would have acquitted him without leaving the box!"
"He was too unworldly to realize that," said Freda. "He considered that it was his duty to live and to keep out of jail so he could work for me. So he put himself in Jim's hands. He thought Jim was acting out of generosity, but of course Jim never had a generous impulse in his life. He concealed my father because his work as a chemist was valuable to the mills, and Jim saw a way of getting it even cheaper than before.
"I was only a baby when this happened. When my mother was taken sick I was sent away in the care of relatives. After the scandal of the shooting they moved to a different place and called me Freda Rollin.
"When years had passed and the affair was forgotten, Jim Beardmore brought my father back to Lounsbery and established him at Mrs. Peake's where you found him. When I was growing up my father used to come to see me in the guise of a family friend, but I knew by intuition that he was my father, and little by little, I can scarcely say how, I learned the whole story.
"When I became old enough to go to work I came to Lounsbery in order to be near him. Jim Beardmore gave me a job in the office of the mills, and in the course of time I became his secretary. And then he...he..." she hesitated.
"Fell in love with you," put in Lance.
"How can you call it love?" said Freda, disgustedly. "A man like that!...At any rate, I was trapped. I couldn't run away, I couldn't do anything against Jim's will because he had threatened to expose my father. And I knew that if my father should suspect what was going on it would drive him insane. So I just had to endure it. Finally Jim paid his wife to get a divorce so he could marry me. Matters were just at that juncture when you came.
"In the meantime Clinton Beardmore had learned the secret—or perhaps he had always known it. He...oh, you can guess the rest! He seemed to go out of his mind about me. He murdered his brother so that he could approach me himself. He had the effrontery to propose marriage to me before Jim was even in his grave. I didn't know then that he was the murderer, but I suspected it.
"I made it very clear to him that I would never marry him. That brought matters to a deadlock. I wouldn't marry Clinton and he knew it, but he swore that if I ever looked at another man he would expose my father. He began to suspect that there was something between you and me, and...well, you know the rest!"
"Can I ask two questions?" said Lance, diffidently.
"Dearest!" murmured Freda, "a hundred if you want!"
"Who was the person who kept you so well informed of Clinton Beardmore's movements."
"George Arnold, his secretary."
"I suppose he's in love with you, too," said Lance, ruefully.
"It doesn't matter. He knows he has nothing to expect from me...What's the other one?"
"That night when you went out to Fairfield to try to save me, you said you had a powerful argument to use with Clinton. What was it?"
Freda lowered her head. "I would rather not answer that one."
Lance had not the heart to insist. "It doesn't matter," he said, quickly.
"Yes, I will!" she said, raising her head. "All must be made clear between you and me...It is nothing, only it sounds so melodramatic now...I was going to tell Clinton that if anything happened to you I would kill myself...That would have settled all problems, you see. If I was out of the picture Clinton would have had no object in persecuting my father."
"Oh, my dear!" murmured Lance. "Thank God we have come through!"
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