an ebook published by Project Gutenberg Australia
Title: The Missing Link
Author: Carolyn Wells
eBook No.: 2300261h.html
Date first posted: 2023
Most recent update: 2023
This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore
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Chapter 1. - Murray Married A Blonde
Chapter 2. - As To Prussic Acid
Chapter 3. - Isabel Is Sunburned
Chapter 4. - Paul Breezes In
Chapter 5. - Tonka Takes A Bow
Chapter 6. - The Impertinence Of Fleda Garrison
Chapter 7. - Our Saucy Ship’s A Beauty
Chapter 8. - Fleming Stone Goes Skylarking
Chapter 9. - Devil’s Work Going On
Chapter 10. - The Inexplicable Voice
Chapter 11. - Is It Paley We Want?
Chapter 12. - Fleming Stone Goes To It
Chapter 13. - Doctor Mason Spurns Rays
Chapter 14. - Are The Two Murders Connected?
Chapter 15. - Helga Goes To Jail
Chapter 16. - The Rector Approves A Strange Plan
Chapter 17. - Leif Goes To Jail
Chapter 18. - The Missing Link
“Hell and all such things!” outspoke Leif Murray, pitching across the room the book he had been reading.
It landed on a very small occasional table, and, quite naturally, upset it.
The table had held a vase of flowers, which broke as it touched the floor, and the water sank into the thick Oriental rug.
A reader of detective stories was Murray, and of the traditional sort. Like the oft described statesmen, members of Parliament, presidents, kings and even the clergy, he reveled in mystery yarns, if they were good ones.
His notion of a good one was a tale whose interest depended on originality of plot and cleverness of workmanship. One that presented a real puzzle to an intellectual reader.
He wanted no underworld characters, no gangster’s work, no torture chambers or oubliettes, but rather a nice, clean, white-collared murder, with plenty of problems for a ratiocinative mind.
This did not mean dry-as-dust situations or simple village brawls.
For choice, Leif put Eden Phillpotts at the top of his list of favorites and considered A Close Call about the best detective story ever, always excepting Trent’s Last Case.
But Francis Iles, he thought, stepped ahead of all others in his daring.
Indeed, he so greatly admired Malice Aforethought and Before The Fact that he sometimes reread them.
Of late—he thought, as he sat with bookless hands, regarding the overset table—of late, authors had harked back to these two books. It seemed to him, that in the last few months, he had come across at least three stories, wherein, on the very first page, a man had decided to kill his wife. The book he had just flung away had that for its motif.
Though of course, that was not the reason for its discard. He would willingly stand for that fascinating if somewhat hackneyed plot, Uxoricide as a Fine Art, if it were well done. If you were so carried along by the author’s charm of diction and persuasiveness of thought that you fell into step unconsciously and thought and believed only what you were meant to.
Hateful subject—his wayward thoughts ran on—why would a man want to kill his wife? Fancy my killing little Exquise!
He smiled at the idea and stretched himself farther back in his big stuffed chair, his hands behind his head, his pipe alight, his deep blue eyes dancing at the silly thought.
And yet, he mused, I can understand a nature that would do such a thing. And he needn’t be a brute, either. Just a chap so fed up with his wife’s nagging or teasing ways that he couldn’t stand her another minute. Isabel isn’t like that, bless her, and if she is sometimes over-solicitous about me and my doings, it’s only out of the kindness of her heart. And she’s so beautiful, as lovely as the day I married her, three years ago. Oh, she is flowers to see! She’s a carrot fresh scraped and all those archaic posies the old bards sang. I believe she’s the one perfect blonde in the whole world. And damn lucky for me she is a blonde! Suppose I had married Elaine! Elaine, with her soft, satiny black hair and her dark, mysterious eyes. Orbs, I should say. Surely if any eyes ought to be called orbs, hers are the pair! And I escaped marrying her by the merest squeak! At the critical moment she offered me Isabel, and in a miraculous whiff of intelligence, I took her. A fair deal, too, for I had no idea then that it was imperative my wife should be a blonde. Dear little Exquise. There is no other word for her. English falls down before her Gallic charm. Precious child! I’d hate to kill her—but by heck! if she doesn’t stop—
“What are you doing there, Helga?”
The housemaid, who was kneeling on the floor, looked up at him.
Then she answered, truthfully enough; “I’m picking up some broken glass that somebody smashed off of a vase.”
When Leif Murray’s mother chose a name for her infant son, she had hesitated between Leif and Eric. She would. She had found both names in the back of the dictionary, and her vague memories of history told her that both names were Norman or Norseman or Nordic or something smacking of high class nomenclature, and, nobly resisting the temptation to use both, she decided on Leif.
And now he was a man, strong, but not specially silent, learned, but no pedant and his cup running over with the joy of living.
He took no interest in domestics. Whether belonging to a retinue or merely hired help they meant nothing to him.
He preferred Lady Clara Vere de Vere to King Cophetua’s Beggar Maid, but a hint of trouble on a pretty face would give him pause.
And when Helga explained her presence in the room, Murray couldn’t help noticing a quivering lip and a welling tear.
“What’s the matter, youngster?” he said, for the Swedish Helga counted not many years.
“Nothing, sir,” she returned, quietly.
“But I say there is. Why are you in distress?”
His manner commanded a reply, and Helga looked up at him, as the incipient tear ripened and added its volume to the dampness on the rug.
“My kitten is hurt,” she said, piteously.
“Now, that’s too bad. You take it to Simmons, and tell him I said he must put it to rights. He’s a mighty handy man.”
“Yes, sir,” Helga said, deferentially, and went on with her work.
She was rubbing the rug with a neat housecloth, when Leif spoke again.
“What happened to the little cat?” he asked, idly rather than interestedly.
The answer came with a choke in Helga’s throat. “She got kicked, sir.”
“And you love her?”
“Oh, yes, sir!” A wonderful power of loving sounded in the three words.
“All right; go and see about your kitty at once. Tell Mrs. Mendel I want someone else to come here and finish your cleaning up.”
“Yes, sir; thank you very much, sir.”
“Wait a minute,” Leif said, as she was leaving the room, “who kicked your kitten?”
“I don’t know, sir. But it was none of the staff.”
“Did you see the accident?”
“I did, but I can’t say who did it.”
“Why can’t you? Look here, was it Mrs. Murray?”
“Oh, no, sir! Mrs. Murray wouldn’t do such a thing!”
“Then who did? Tell me instantly!”
“It was Mrs. Vernon, sir.”
“Mrs. Vernon! What was she doing with your kitten. Tell me the whole story. At once.”
Frightened but obedient, Helga told.
“It was yesterday,” she said; “Mrs. Murray had brought Mrs. Vernon round back to show her the fruit in the kitchen garden, sir. It’s wonderful this year.”
“And my kitten, she’s a playful piece, ran across Mrs. Vernon’s foot, and the lady gave her a kick that landed her plumb against a stone wall and broke her leg.”
“I see. Well, run along, Helga, and get Simmons to fix the leg. He can do it. You needn’t tell him who broke it.”
“No, sir; but they all know. The laundress was in the drying patch and she saw it all.”
“Tell the staff to say no more about it, I don’t want it discussed at all. Understand?”
“Yes, sir. I will tell them.”
Helga went away and Leif sat back in his chair with a frown between his heavy eyebrows.
So Elaine would kick a little helpless kitten. Women were like that. Not Isabel, though. She wouldn’t do such a thing. Or would she? No, not with her tiny, graceful foot, but how about a well-aimed kick formed of words —forceful, carefully chosen words?
Yes, she could do that—Lord, she could do that!
He looked out of the window. Murray was not a lazy man, but he was an enthusiast, and whatever he did, he did with his might. This afternoon he was resting, relaxing, and he was doing it thoroughly.
He looked out of the window and he saw treetops waving in the breeze.
He loved treetops, and had bought this house because, being built on a side hill, treetops could be seen from certain windows.
Up Westchester way, a sort of exclusive bit of landed property was called Ingleside Heights, and except for the name, it seemed the very place the Murrays wanted to live. So there they were, and had been for nearly three years, liking it better all the time, and adding details of improvement every season.
Hilly, of course, treesy, of course, yet between the high places there were wide level tracts and among the copses were clearings that showed the blue sky or let in the thunder storms.
Their home was of anomalous architecture, yet designed for great comfort, with big rooms, many windows and enormous closets. Lots of porches, screened and open, and well-arranged gardens, just now going cerulean with delphinium and campanula and assisted hydrangeas.
Longacre the place was called, because of its size and shape, and with a certain reserved dignity, it sat upon the hillside among its more or less pretentious neighbors.
Like Cromwell, o’er the distant hills came Isabel, and Leif watched with pride as her light springy steps brought her nearer.
He rose, laid aside his pipe and went out on the porch to meet her.
“What favor do you want?” she smiled at him, “something, of course, must explain this unusual welcome home!”
“Now, now, Pretty,” he said, “don’t talk like that! I’ve been waiting for your coming.”
“Oh, I see. You’ve finished your detective story, then? Why didn’t you begin another?”
“Where’ve you been?” he asked, ignoring the little discord.
“Over to see Elaine,” she replied, as they sat down on a porch settee.
“Have a good time?”
“Yes, except that Hum Paley was there and pestered the life out of me.”
“Next time I’ll go along to take care of you.”
“I wish you would! You see, half of them had cameras, and one couldn’t be sure for a minute—”
“What do you mean, half of them had cameras?”
“Just that. Nearly all the men and lots of the girls had cameras, and they snapped everything and everybody in sight.”
“They didn’t snap you, I hope.”
“Of course they did. How could I help it? Or how could I know I was being snapped?”
“You don’t mean they took your picture when you didn’t even know it!”
“I mean just that. They were all doing it. It’s a fad, a hobby. If you’d go places instead of just sitting around here, you’d know about things.”
“I don’t want to know about the silly things Humbert Paley does. That man isn’t tops, and I wish you wouldn’t have so much to do with him.”
“Oh, I don’t encourage him. He’s whuffy over me, but I can’t help that.”
“Yes, you can. You can show him you don’t like him—”
“But I do like him. I like him quite a lot.”
The provocative smile on Isabel’s perfect face vanquished her husband and he drew her into his arms.
“You are a blonde, thank Heaven,” he said; “but you’re not a blatant one. Not like those the beauty parlors turn out. You’re like a Greuze picture, vague nuances and softened lights, dreamy, shadowy, a person of moonshine.”
“Why this deep gratitude toward me for being a blonde? You often speak like that. Wouldn’t you have loved me if I had been a brunette?”
“I might have loved you, a whole lot, but I wouldn’t have married you. Or if I had, I wouldn’t have stayed married.”
“What nonsense you do talk! I find that brunettes take much better pictures than blondes.”
“Snapshots, maybe. But not with a real photographer.”
“No. Those last pictures I had from Mariano are gorgeous, aren’t they?”
“Gorgeous isn’t the right word. No word is the right word. They are ‘Eclipse first and the rest nowhere’! They are Ossa on Pelion piled, they are—”
“Gosh! what are you talking about?”
A big voice boomed up the porch steps, accompanied, by a very large specimen of humanity, who rejoiced in the name of Giles Trumbull.
“About my wife,” said Leif, as the two rose to greet one of their best and dearest friends. “I’m very fond of her, you know.”
“So I’ve heard,” said Trumbull, beaming at Isabel. “And so am I. I’ve been tramping, and I dropped in to see if you’ve a cocktail handy.”
“Of course,” Isabel answered, and leaned over to touch a bell-push in the wall.
She gave the butler instructions and added;
“And, Simmons, find Miss Tonka, and ask her to join us here.”
There came a girl of perhaps twenty, as Dutch as a windmill and as serene as a plaque. Her yellow hair was banged and bobbed like that of a page, and her eyes were the blue of the darker delphiniums. A definite lack of animation kept her face from being pretty, and an entire absence of cosmetics made her look unfinished.
“You sent for me, Isa?” she said, nodding to Trumbull and plumping herself down on a hassocky, hummocky arrangement of leather pillows.
“I want you here with us, and I thought you might like a cocktail.”
“Yes, thank you.”
And then, Tonka sat silent. She didn’t close her eyes, but she might as well have done so for all the intelligence that could be seen in them. Not at all sullen or even preoccupied, she sat like a statue, insensate of glance, but a living, pulsing body that seemed alive to all material influences.
Trumbull looked at her a moment and then turned back to Isabel. He had seen Tonka many times, but had never been able to rouse one spark of mental activity in this graven image with the queer name. Nor did he care, he told himself, if he never did rouse one.
Simmons wheeled in a wagon-bar, complete with the makin’s, and Leif consulted the tastes of his waiting friends.
“What kind do you want, Tonka?” he asked after the other two had chosen.
“The kind that has licorice in, please.”
“She means absinthe,” Isabel explained. “She’s a natural, you know, not quite like other people.”
“If she wants absinthe she can have it,” Leif said, “and she can call it what she likes.”
He spoke in a disinterested tone and he did not look at the girl.
Tonka was an odd sort and hard to understand, but she was by no means lacking in intellect. A distant cousin of Isabel’s, she lived with them because there was no other known spot on the globe where she could live. Leif didn’t like her because she was afraid of him, and she was afraid of him because he didn’t like her. But her life was happy. She adored doing things for people and she did them in such a habitual, every-day sort of way, and with no thought or expectation of praise or even recognition, that she had become a cherished member of the household, who would be sadly missed if she were not there.
Her name was Constance, but as a child she had found it hard to pronounce, and had called herself Tonka. The name stuck and somehow it suited her.
She accepted her specially prepared cocktail without comment, and said, a little abruptly, “Are you going to fix up the sail tonight, Leif?”
“The sail?” Murray looked blank.
“She means the yacht trip,” explained Isabel, who always helped Tonka out.
“Oh, yes,” and Leif showed enthusiasm. “Stay to dinner, Giles, and we’ll settle all the details this evening. You want to go next week, don’t you, Isabel? ’
“Yes, if I’m well enough.”
“For Heaven’s sake, what ails you now?” Leif’s words were softened by the solicitous smile he gave her.
Tonka set down her glass, and clasped her hands, a startled look in her eyes.
“Nothing, probably,” and Isabel tried to look the neglected sufferer. “Elaine had some beastly canapes, some new kind, and I expect they didn’t agree with me. I don’t know what was in them.”
“Whale blubber, maybe,” and Leif looked knowing. “They’re using that at the clubs.”
“Pemmican, like as not,” Giles opined; “that’s a favorite novelty.”
“Canned stuff,” declared Tonka, scorning the other suggestions. “You take some bi-carb, dear, and forget it.”
“Elaine doesn’t use canned stuff,” urged Isabel. “Not when she has company, anyway.”
“She would if it came from Southern Senegambia,” Giles told them, “some cannery that is not averse to using moribund fish—”
“Oh, do hush!” Tonka scolded him, and took Isabel away to change for dinner.
Later in the evening, they sat out on the terrace, planning the pleasure trip they had in view.
Leif’s eighty-foot power yacht, with its Diesel engines, was a queen, even among the other beautiful craft belonging to the members of the Yacht Club.
A dozen guests could be carried in comfort but Isabel decreed no more than eight or nine.
“I hate a big party,” she declared, “they get lost all the time. Say, eight, Leif, for two tables of Contract, and one odd one for emergencies.”
“All picked out, are they? Reel off the names, then.”
“Four of us right here. Then, Elaine, of course, and Leo Jewett and Antony Ballard, and then, what do you think of Jim and Fleda Garrison?”
“Not Paley?” asked Giles, astonished.
“Not Paley,” said Isabel, decidedly, and Leif nodded enthusiastic agreement.
“All right,” Trumbull said, “it’s your party. But I don’t believe Paley will like it.”
“He doesn’t have to,” Tonka said, slowly; “we’re not making the party for him.”
“We are not,” and Leif went on with his plans. “Isabel has decided on our course, which will be simply to get out in the open, and then go ahead in a generally southern direction until she says turn around, and then we turn around. Something tells me the turning around act will occur ’long about Chesapeake Bay, or what have you?”
“Sounds like a perfect route,” Trumbull agreed; “I don’t want to make a single change in it.”
“When shall we start, Firefly?” and Murray awaited his wife’s reply.
Isabel did a little mental arithematic.
“Today is the first of August,” she said thoughtfully.
“And it’s Monday. Well let’s go on a Monday, but not next week. We’ve too many unbreakable engagements. We’ll go on Monday the fifteenth, just two weeks from today. Anybody not pleased?”
Nobody was, and the date was considered settled.
“Seems like a long time ahead,” Tonka said, musingly, “but there’s a lot to do. We want some sailing togs, Isabel?”
But before such matters could be discussed, a man came along and up the steps of the terrace.
It was Humbert Paley, and the expression of his face and his general air denied his usual happy gayety.
“Come in the house,” he said, almost solemnly; “I’ve something to tell you.”
They went into the big living-room, and all looked at him inquiringly.
“Haven’t heard any—er—any bad news, on the telephone or anyhow, have you?”
“No, we haven’t. Go ahead and tell us.”
Leif was always impatient when a story was held back.
“Shortly told. Pete Tolman is dead.”
“A bad egg but a good fellow,” was Leif’s comment.
Trumbull asked, “What happened to him?”
“Queerest thing! He poisoned himself.”
“Dunno. That’s the question. It seems he had a failing for peach pits, the kernels, I mean. Why, I’ve seen him take an ordinary table-knife and open a peach stone just as a fisherman opens clams or oysters.”
“Can’t be done,” Tonka said, with the calm air of an expert not to be contradicted. “Nobody could do that.”
“Yes, they can, Tonka,” Leif frowned at her. “I can do it myself, with some stones. Others are too hard. But go on, Hum.”
“Well, Tolman was always eating the kernels. He’d collect a lot and carry them round in his pockets. A good many people like them. And I’ve often heard it said, that if the kernel fanciers kept it up too long or ate too many, they’d finally collect enough prussic acid to kill them.”
“And I’ve often heard that contradicted,” Leif said; “I’ve often heard it said that there isn’t enough prussic acid in a whole tree-full of peach stones to kill a small monkey.”
“Believe it or not. Tolman is dead, and there’s evidence a-plenty to prove the peach pit motif.”
“Where is he?” Isabel asked.
“At the Inn,” Paley told her; “the Van Winkle Inn.”
“Who is he?” Tonka inquired, looking blankly uninterested.
“He’s the ex-husband of Mrs. Vernon,” Giles said.
“Then why isn’t he Mr. Vernon?”
“When they were divorced, she came back here to live with her father, and she resumed her maiden name.”
“What’s that man Tolman doing here, anyway?” Leif said, a shade of anger in his voice.
“I don’t know,” Paley answered; “but he’s been pestering Elaine Vernon to see him, and she didn’t want to see him. There’s no reason why she should. They’re legally divorced, and he’s no business bothering her at all. Your wife is an intimate friend of Elaine’s, and I thought you’d be interested in the news.”
“I am,” Isabel said, quickly. “How is Elaine taking it?”
“Poor child, she’s bewildered. She can’t grieve for him, and yet the shock of his sudden death has bowled her over.”
“I’ll go to see her tomorrow,” Isabel said. “We’ve been friends for years, she’ll be glad to see me.”
“I’ll go with you,” Leif offered. “I owe that woman a debt of gratitude. She gave me my wife.”
“How come?” Paley asked.
“Why, Elaine lived here in Ingle Heights, with her father, Doctor Vernon. She and I liked each other a lot, and I was thinking seriously of telling her I could support her in the way to which she had been accustomed, when, a friend came to visit her, and that friend was none other than Miss Isabel Brooks. The moment I saw the lady I forgot the existence of Elaine, and I devoted my every moment to ballyragging Isabel into marrying me. Somehow, I succeeded and we’ve lived happy ever after.”
“Didn’t Elaine mind?” Tonka asked.
“She never said so, in person; and I’ve no reason to think she would have smiled on my suit, anyway.”
“She’s very good-natured,” Isabel observed, “and I’m not.”
“You are, sometimes,” and Leif smiled at her. “You know, Paley, this blotting out of the Tolman person is a real blessing to Elaine. That is, if he was bothering her. I didn’t know he was.”
“Yes. I don’t know his home town, but he showed up about a week or ten days ago, took a room at the Inn, and began to make himself a nuisance.”
“How?” asked Trumbull. “What did he do?”
“All I know is, he kept coming to see Elaine, and he often telephoned and asked her to go somewhere with him—she never would go, of course.”
“She could refuse to see him,” Isabel declared. “How absurd to be bothered by a man like that. But it’s funny she never said anything to me about it. I was there one afternoon lately, and we sat and gossiped for an hour or more, and we settled the affairs of the nation, but she never mentioned Peter Tolman.”
“Just when was that?”
“Let me see; today’s Monday—it was Sunday, a week ago yesterday. I went over there early, and we talked for an hour or so before anyone else came. Then scads of people came, and I didn’t see Elaine alone again. Mr. Tolman was there for a short time, but I didn’t talk to him.”
“How long were they married?”
Isabel thought. “They were married soon after we were and that’s over two years. We went abroad on our wedding trip and were gone four months. Elaine was married while we were away, and went to California to live. Her father and mother still lived here. Well, the next thing I heard of her, she was divorced. Then her mother died, and she came back here and lived with her father and kept house for him. About six months ago, he died, and Elaine has lived alone there ever since. She always seems contented and happy, and I thought Tolman had gone out of her life forever. I was with her this afternoon, just ran over on an errand. A lot of people came while I was there. She didn’t mention Tolman, and so I didn’t. When did he die?”
“Soon after dinner, tonight. Lots of people saw him in the Inn dining room, and he was apparently all right. About eight o’clock I went over there and I heard the news. I talked with the proprietor and with the doctor and I offered to be the one to go and tell Elaine about it, and they were glad to have me do so. So I did, and she was horrified and shocked and all that, but she said any show of sorrow would be hypocrisy. She refused to see anybody tonight, but said she would see reporters, if necessary, tomorrow morning. She told me of some people she wanted me to notify, and you were among them. So now I’ll get along with the rest of the list. You know what Elaine is, gentle and timid by nature, but brave as a lion in an emergency.”
“She isn’t timid by nature, and I don’t see any emergency. Why must she be brave because her ex-husband is dead?” This from Tonka, who was moving about the room, now and then pausing to sit on the arm of a chair. “Elaine Vernon is not one to lose her head, nor will she pretend to any emotion that she does not feel.”
“It isn’t that, Tonka, dear,” Isabel said, “it’s the—”
“Yes, I know, the shock. But why is she shocked?”
“Don’t be silly!” Isabel frowned at her. “If one has been married to a man, even for a short time, she cannot be entirely unmoved at learning of his sudden death. Has he any people, Humbert? Who will come to see about things?”
“I don’t know. I left the Innkeeper, Kenton his name is, and Doctor Barnett in charge. I’m ready to do anything I can for Elaine, of course, but I’ve no reason to look after the affairs of her divorced and deceased husband.”
“Certainly not,” agreed Trumbull; “I say, Leif, will this make—”
Paley had risen and was saying good nights, so Trumbull let himself be interrupted.
The visitor gone, Giles laughed and said, “I nearly made a blunder. I was about to say would it make any difference in our sailing trip! Quite forgetting Paley’s not in on that.”
“No, he isn’t,” Isabel agreed. “I don’t like him and I don’t want him on my party.”
“Our party,” Leif corrected her. “I refuse to be ignored. But we’re not having Paley. I’m wondering if Elaine will go.”
“Why not?” Isabel stared at him. “You don’t think she’s going to wear black and stay at home because a man she detests is dead!”
“She may go conventional,” Giles suggested; “and think she ought to do thus and so as a social gesture.”
“Shall you give up the party if she won’t go?” Isabel asked of her husband.
“I don’t think so. But we must know more about details before we decide.”
And, opportunely enough, just then Antony Ballard came.
“The very man we want!” Isabel cried; “sit right down there, and tell us everything about Peter Tolman!”
“Nothing much to tell. He died of eating too much prussic acid. That’s all.”
“Not enough,” Leif informed him. “I rather like peach kernels myself, I often eat them, but I’m still alive.”
“I know. Lots of people like them. But they eat only a few now and then. Tolman was a fool about them. He ate all he could get, and I understand they are a cumulative poison; if you can get enough of it in your system, you die.”
“Where did he get such a lot of pits?” Tonka wanted to know.
“I asked about that. I’ve been round to the Inn, but I didn’t see the doctor who’s on the case. I talked with a dining-room captain, and he said that the kitchen department had orders to save any nice clean peach pits for Mr. Tolman. Not pits left on plates, but the quantities of pits left when pies or puddings or ice cream was made from peaches. It’s a big Inn, you know, and some days they had baskets of pits. Always freestones, these pits were cleaned and deposited in Tolman’s room. He was a dabster at opening them, and the room cleaners report amazing quantities of halved peach stones carried away.”
“Curious,” Leif mused. “I never supposed enough prussic acid could be absorbed that way to be a fatal dose.”
“Most unusual,” Ballard agreed; “but of course, you never knew anyone who ate them steadily, and kept at it through the winter also. They told me he ate stones from hot house peaches in winter when he could get them, and if not, then from canned peaches. They say the ever-present poison permeated his whole system until it reached the point of saturation, or whatever they call it, and then it acted like a sudden fatal quantity all taken at once would do.”
“Might be,” Leif acquiesced; “how strange people are. I like peach kernels, but I’d never eat more than one or two at a time.”
“It was an appetite with him. If anyone had told him of his danger, he would doubtless have given up the habit.”
“Very likely. What was he here for, anyway?”
“Nobody told me,” Ballard answered, “but I’m a shrewd feller, and I sort of gathered that he wanted to make things up again with his erstwhile wife.”
“What does erstwhile mean?” demanded Tonka.
“Once on a time,” Isabel told her. “Keep quiet, now. Go on, Antony. Were they making up? Were they going to live together again?”
Ballard looked at her amusedly. He was a bit older than the rest of them and sometimes played the counselor.
“Golly, child, I don’t know. To hear Elaine talk, you’d think she held him as scum of the earth, but women are kittle cattle, and you can’t tell. They may have been planning, like the robins, to nest again.”
“I don’t believe it!” and Leif looked stormy. “That man is a scoundrel. Elaine had no business to marry him.”
“He caught her on the rebound, after she lost you,” Ballard chaffed him.
“That’s true,” Isabel said; “I took you away from her, Leif, when she thought she had you nailed ”
“I was all ready to be took. Elaine told me how charming you were and when I met you I found the half had not been told. So I pitched in and won out. She brought it around, herself.”
“There’s an old Spanish proverb,” Antony said, “Never introduce your donah to your pal.”
“What’s a donah?” Tonka wanted to know.
“It’s Spanish for sweetheart. And if you introduce her to your pal, your pal appropriates her at once. So when Elaine showed off Isabel to Leif, the tables turned and Elaine found herself out of the running.”
“Yes,” said Isabel, complacently, “that’s about the way it was.”
“Want to go on a yachting party, Ballard?” Leif asked, greatly desirous of a change of subject.
“On the Terpsichore? Your boat?”
“Yes; just a few of us. Start pretty soon, now, and be gone a week or so.”
“Sure I’ll go. Glad to. You’re a brick to ask me.”
“All right. Don’t say anything about it to Paley. We’re not asking him.”
“Suits me. What about Elaine? Will she go?”
“I don’t see why not? She can’t want to stay home and mourn for Tolman.”
“Hardly. But—well, I see it hasn’t occurred to you, but suppose Tolman didn’t die from his peach stone kernels?”
“What did he die of, then? Mumps?”
“Not likely, but possible. You see, there’s ructions at the Inn. I went there myself, to find out how things were going, and there are two doctors on the job, and theyy don’t see eye to eye.”
"What do you mean?” Trumbull asked. “Did Tolman have a doctor?”
"No; he was found dead in his room. But Barnett was right there, and he said at once it was the peach pits that killed him. Then another doctor butted in and said that diagnosis was all wrong, and though Tolman died of prussic acid poisoning, he must have had a larger dose than could be taken in a few kernels. There was a plateful of split peach pits in his room, but Doctor Matson, that’s the second medico, declared they could not have had a fatal effect.”
"It’s the accumulation that counts,” Trumbull said. "Did the doctors know about that?”
"Dunno. When I was there, I saw Kenton, and he told me the two doctors were squabbling over the point of whether peach kernels could kill or not. I can’t see that it matters. Suppose Tolman took an extra dose of prussic acid, because he wanted to depart this life or suppose he ate too many of his favorite kernels, who cares? He’s gone and the world’s the better for it.”
“Why have you such a down on him?”
“I never did like him. I urged Elaine not to marry him, but she had a sort of infatuation, and would listen to no word against him. I was not surprised to hear of the divorce, and I was glad to know she was rid of him. I hope she’ll marry some good man. But I wish Matson hadn’t intruded. Then they’d have buried Tolman with no to-do. Now, I suppose they’ll stir up an investigation and try to make a case of it.”
“You mean a murder case?” asked Tonka in her straightforward fashion.
“No, child!” and Antony Ballard glared at her. “You mustn’t say such things. Why don’t you teach her better, Isabel?”
“Haven’t they sent for his people?” Leif asked, “I suppose he has some somewhere?”
“Oh, they’ll have to apply to Elaine for all such information,” Ballard said; “and that will pester her to death. I wish she’d let me take care of the business for her.”
“They won’t ask her anything except the address of Peter Tolman’s people, and she can tell them that, without having a nervous breakdown,” Isabel flung out, with a scornful air.
“There’s a chap staying at the Inn,” Ballard went on, ignoring her pettish remark, “that Fleming Stone, you know. He has a big reputation as a private investigator, and if—”
“How you jump at conclusions!” Trumbull put in. “Getting a private investigator, before there’s anything to investigate! A man dying from prussic acid hardly seems to me to call for the services of a famous and very expensive private detective.”
“But he’s right there in the house,” Ballard persisted. “I daresay he’ll take up the matter of his own accord.”
“I daresay he won’t,” Trumbull returned; “those big fellows don’t horn in on a case unless they’re asked to. But if Elaine is going to be bothered in any way, she must have someone to advise her. Some lawyer, I mean.”
“You?” suggested Tonka.
“I don’t see,” Isabel began, “why you’re all so fearful for Elaine. If they do ask her for her ex-husband’s home address, it won’t put her on the front page. I’ll tell you what I think, Leif, it seems to me that we might start on the yacht trip sooner. I’m fond of Elaine, though I don’t see why you all treat her as a child, to be looked after and looked out for. Now I’m practical. And I think that if we go on the yacht a week from today, it would be bctter than two weeks from today. It will take Elaine away from any unpleasantness here, and when we get back it will all be past history.”
“Right, Isabel!” and Leif smiled at her. “You always have the grandest ideas. I doubt Elaine will be pestered at all, but she’ll like to go away for a little time. Sure you can get ready?”
“Of course,” it was Tonka who answered. “There’s not much shopping to do. I’ll look after that mostly. And it’s quite possible Mr. Tolman’s relatives may kick up a bobbery. Suppose they say somebody in the hotel killed him by giving him too many peach kernels, or an extra strong kind or something. A thing like that might have to be investigated and might take a long time. Elaine couldn’t stand it, and she would be of no use here, much better to get her away.”
“Tonka,” and Leif spoke sternly, “I want you to shut up about murder. Have you been reading detective stories?”
“Yes, and so have you. You read them every afternoon.”
“Hush, Tonka,” Isabel chided, “don’t intrude on a conversation that doesn’t concern you. Now, I want you men to go. It has been an upsetting evening and I want to go to bed. Good night, Giles. Good night, Antony. Come, dear.”
She took Tonka by the hand and the two went from the room.
“Notwithstanding Isabel’s way of looking at it,” Antony began, “I think we must look after Elaine in any way we can. Kenton didn’t say it in so many words, but he intimated that if the doctors should agree that there must have been more poison taken by Tolman than could have been in the kernels, then it would be a case for the police.”
“Good Lord!” and Leif looked startled. “But that’s absurd. Who could have done such a thing? Where was any motive?”
“If I had to answer that question,” Giles said, “I’d investigate Tolman’s life since his divorce from Elaine. He must have been somewhere, and whatever he was doing, I’ll bet he was up to no good. There must be people he had dealings with, and they are the ones to question. Find them.”
“Looking at it that way for the moment,” Leif objected, “why would the deed be done here? Tolman had no friends here, but neither did he have any enemies. I mean he was a stranger. Or almost one. Isabel and I were on our wedding trip when Elaine met him and married him. We were away a long time, and when we returned, the Tolman pair were living in California. They came back here once or twice while Elaine’s parents were living, and then the divorce happened, and Elaine came home to live. How could anyone living here have any such grouch against Tolman as to murder him? No, that’s nonsense. Either his death was caused by the peach pits or by an accident of some sort.”
“I didn’t say anyone living here killed him,” Giles explained; “but some enemy he made during his life, some time, somewhere, followed him here for the purpose of killing him and did so.”
“All surmise, and rather absurd surmise at that,” was Ballard’s comment on Giles’ speech, and the two men went away.
But matters at the Inn were in decided turmoil. It was nearly midnight and the two doctors were still discussing their contradictory knowledge and opinions.
Kenton, the Innkeeper, was beside himself with anxiety.
If the doctors would only agree on the peach pit theory, and let the dead man be sent back to his people, the episode would soon be forgotten and no memory of it would cling to his Inn. But if it could not be settled and neither doctor would give a burial certificate, then there was danger of a visit from the police, and who knew what long-drawn out consequences might follow!
Kenton thought of conferring with some of his most important and influential patrons, but he feared they might be alarmed at the outlook and leave at once.
Then he bethought him of Fleming Stone, and wondered if he mightn’t ask some advice of him in a friendly way. Anyway, he decided that was the best bet so far, and he went up to Stone’s rooms, on the floor above.
The Inn was not a modern structure, with many stories and elevators, it was a rambling old place, broad and wide but not high.
It was entirely up to date in all its appointments and was furnished well and in good taste.
Stone was not a regular yearly visitor, but he had been there several times before and was friendly with the proprietor.
There was a light under the door of Stone’s study, and Kenton tapped for admission.
The door opened at once and Stone gave him a smiling reception.
“Come in,” he said, cordially. “Sit down, Kenton. How are things going?”
“You’ve heard about Mr. Tolman?”
“May I ask your advice, unofficially?”
“Sure. How can I help you?”
Kenton breathed a sigh of relief at this promising beginning.
“I hardly know myself. But I know if those two medical chaps continue to fight over the situation it will be hard on my business.”
“In what way?”
Kenton lowered his voice. “I scarcely dare breathe it, but they have hinted that they may call in the police. That, Mr. Stone, would empty my Inn in twenty-four hours.”
“But why? I fancy the police would make short work of the matter.”
“You don’t know our police. The town constable is a pompous windbag, who loves to hear himself talk on law and order, and the county Sheriff is so slow and doddering, he never gets anywhere until it’s too late.”
“And what can I do?”
“I hesitate to suggest it, but the reputation of this place means so much to me. I’m wondering if you couldn’t join those two doctors who are wrangling as to the poisonous effect of peach kernels, and make them see the wisdom of dropping the discussion and just say ‘accidental death from prussic acid.’ ”
“But I don’t know that it was accidental.”
“That’s just the point. It must have been. He may have committed suicide, of course, but we never could prove or disprove that, so why not let bygones be bygones, and let his relatives come and take him away?”
“What about murder?”
“That’s out of the question. He knows almost no one around here. No one is his enemy. His fondness for the kernels of peach stones is known by everyone in the hotel. Doctor Barnett declares they are responsible for his death. Barnett is a well-known physician and why shouldn’t we accept his decision without considering another doctor who intruded unasked, on the discussion?”
“And suppose, Mr. Kenton, that afterward it is proved that this death was brought about by a larger amount of the poison than could possibly be obtained from kernels, where would your reputation be then?”
“I should be merely banking on Doctor Barnett’s diagnosis.”
“Then he will have to declare it himself before I can be interested in the matter. Have they held the postmortem?”
“It is being attended to. I have not heard the result yet.”
“Then, in reply to your request, I can only say that I am willing to look into this matter, unofficially, for your sake, but if I cannot agree with your opinions as to further procedure, I must drop out of it.”
“Very well,” and Kenton looked disappointed. “It’s a great kindness on your part, and I hope you will see clearly your duty in the matter. But please remember the catastrophe it would be for me to have the stigma of a murder attached to this house.”
“I will remember,” said Stone, and the two men went downstairs.
“Don’t you make eyes at her,” said Isabel, the next morning, as she and Leif turned into the crazy-paved path that led to Elaine’s front door.
“What do you mean, make eyes?” asked her husband, smiling at her.
“A little trick, in which you are past master. But more especially, don’t you say obscure things to her, with a meaning look—and I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Come now, Beautiful, you’re seeing things. But Elaine is all alone, and if I can be of the least help—”
“All alone! She’s no more alone than any other widow. And she’s quite able to fend for herself.”
Tonka, who had come with them, stepped ahead and clanged the big brass knocker.
The house, built by Elaine’s father, was still in good shape, but a much more heavy, solid affair than the more modern light weight cottages.
A broad veranda ran across the front and there were porches on both sides.
A parlor maid showed them into the room at the right. It had been Doctor Vernon’s waiting room, for his patients, but after her father’s death, Elaine had rearranged it to a very attractive reception room for well people. Isabel crossed the room and appropriated a big stuffed easy chair, far from modernistic in pattern, but of a deep, soft coziness.
“I love this chair,” she said; “I always use it when I’m here. You don’t find such in most of the Ingle houses.”
“I wish we had some in our house,” Leif began, when Elaine appeared.
“Awfully glad to see you,” she said, with a cordial smile. “Of course you’ve heard about Peter?”
“Yes,” Leif said, “Paley told us last night. Came round to see if we could do anything.”
“Well, you see,” Elaine smiled a little, “it isn’t like a death in the family. I’m not in Peter’s family any more, and though sudden death is always a shock, I can’t feel deep emotion.”
“That’s what we thought,” said Isabel. “You’re not going to put on black, I hope?”
She glanced at Elaine’s smart white pique, tailored and trim.
“No, of course not. I shall make no change in my ways and my manners. But it all seems so strange. He was here yesterday, for a short time, and now—dead. I can’t seem to realize it.”
“Somebody coming,” Tonka announced, from her coign of vantage on the window seat Elaine glanced that way.
“It’s Mr. Stone,” she said, “he telephoned to ask if he might come to see me. Don’t go, Leif, I want someone to look after me.”
“I’ll look after you,” volunteered Isabel. “I don’t suppose you’ll be in any real physical danger ”
“Lordy, but he’s a handsome guy!” Tonka informed them, as she watched the arriving caller.
By some unwritten law the guests of the Inn were not always intimate with the residents of the Ingleside Heights, and had never met the famous detective.
Elaine made the necessary introductions, and then Stone at once look up the matter in hand.
“I am emissary from Mr. Kenton, Mrs. Vernon, and at his request I want to ask you a few questions.”
“Social or official?” Tonka demanded, in an exacting but with an appealing gaze in her dark blue eyes.
Both Leif and Isabel were about to reprove her, but Slone spoke first.
He smiled at her, as he replied, “Entirely social, Miss Mead. I have no official standing in this affair.
“Are you calling Peter Tolman’s death an affair?” Elaine inquired, gently. “Why is that!”
“It has even developed into a case, Mrs. Vernon. Last night two doctors at the Inn tried to persuade one another of their theories and beliefs, but they couldn’t get together, and it was necessary to call in the police to help us out. The Inspector came, and ordained the presence of the coroner. So Doctor Coles added his medical knowledge to the two previous physicians, and an autopsy was performed.
“The report affirmed that death was brought about by taking a far larger amount of prussic acid into the system than could have been absorbed from peach stones even granting their cumulative use. Therefore the matter is in the hands of the police, and they want first of all the address of Mr. Tolman’s family or his business interests. Mr. Kenton volunteered to ask you for this data, but as he is beside himself this morning, looking after his excited guests and even more excited staff of helpers, I offered to do this errand for him. I hope, Mrs. Vernon, you have no objection to this arrangement?”
“Not in the least,” Elaine told him. “I will willingly give you all the information that I can. We have been divorced for a long time, but of course, I can tell you the addresses of his people.”
Granting that death did not occur as a result of eating peach kernels, Leif said, slowly, “is any other theory advanced? Do the police apprehend suicide, or that sort of thing?”
“The police have not yet taken up the matter to that extent. They want, first of all, to get in touch with Mr. Tolman’s relatives. It is thought they live in California.”
“They do,” said Elaine. “Mr. Tolman’s mother is still alive. She lives in Pasadena. So do her other two sons, Peter Tolman’s brothers. I can give you all these addresses.”
“And Mr. Tolman’s own address? He did not live in California, I think.”
“No, not in California, but I am not sure just where he did live last. He was a roving sort. He has been here, at the Inn, a short time, and I have seen him occasionally. But I have not seen him alone, and I have had no intimate conversation with him. I believe married people should be fully in one another’s confidence, and have no secrets; but a divorced couple, to my mind, are of no relationship whatever, and have no responsibilities or united interests of any sort. I do not consider Mr. Tolman connected in any way with my present life, and I feel that my life with him is a thing of the past, and not even to be remembered. I have no lingering affection for the man or for his memory, and while I deplore this tragic death, it is to me only as a story I might read in the paper, of a stranger.”
Elaine looked very beautiful, as she explained her attitude. Her dark hair was in clustered curls, and her long, dark eyes were pathetic with a saddened humanity, but not a personal grief. Her curved lips did not quiver, but showed an uncontrollable sympathy for the fate that had fallen on the man she had once loved.
But it was not her undeniable beauty that impressed Fleming Stone. It was the sound of sincerity in her voice, Her dear, honest look in her eyes, the controlled emotion of which he felt sure he discerned a trace and the calm acceptance of a situation that she must and was prepared to meet.
“Thank you, Mrs. Vernon,” he said, simply. “Your pleasant and straight forward manner emboldens me to ask a few more questions, perhaps a bit more personal. While Mr. Tolman was your husband, did he have this habit of eating the kernels of peach stones?”
“Oh, yes. I wondered some times if they were harmful, but he laughed at my fears. I even went to ask a doctor about it, of course, without Mr. Tolman’s knowledge. The physician told me there wasn’t enough prussic acid in peach stones to kill a man, unless he ate them twenty-fours a day for a long spell of years. So I found no more fault with my husband for his fad, and I tried to learn to open peach pits the way he did. He was very deft at it, but I couldn’t do it at all. I mean his way. I could hammer them open, and sometimes I did.”
“I suppose then, Stone,” Leif offered, “it’s a case of either suicide or murder.”
“Looks like it,” agreed the detective. “But aren’t you passing up the suicide theory rather quickly? We’ve no reason to think murder, but there’s always a chance for suicide.”
“We don’t have to discuss it here, do we?” and Elaine looked unwilling.
“No,” Stone answered, “but I do want you to tell me if, in your knowledge of Mr. Tolman, you can imagine his taking his own life?”
“I can imagine anything,” Elaine gave a little smile. “And I can easily imagine the deed you refer to, because, during my life with him he threatened it nearly every day.”
“He seemed in earnest. But he never carried out his threat during our life together. I cannot speak for his intentions or deeds since.”
“I will not trouble you further, Mrs. Vernon. In the police mind I fancy the fact that Mr. Tolman sometimes hinted at suicide, will be taken as a clue and they will go ahead first on that theory. Which, I confess, seems to me may be the right one. You don’t know of anyone sufficiently inimical to Mr. Tolman to want to kill him do you?”
“Mercy, no! Don’t let it come to that! I mean, such a suggestion would almost kill his mother, and she is really a delightful lady. His brothers I know only slightly —but, well, this is what is in my mind, Mr. Stone. If Peter Tolman was murdered, then the case must be brought to light. But to drag through a murder trial, and then discover it was suicide or accident, would be too hard on his relatives. Or at least, it seems that way to me. As I said, it does not affect me deeply, but I do feel sorry for his mother, and his brothers and their families. They are highly esteemed and an unnecessary murder trial would disgrace and crush them. Of course, if it has to be, that’s different.”
“I agree with Mrs. Vernon,” Isabel said, as Elaine stoppcd speaking. “If you have in view a person who might have killed Mr. Tolman—by the way, have you?”
“I haven’t,” Stone informed her. “But I know little about the man. I spend a week or two at the Inn some summers, and other years I don’t come here at all. I’ve met Tolman on the veranda or in the lounge, but I’ve never chummed with him. I am not officially interested in the matter. I came over here to oblige Mr. Kenton, for the poor man is in real trouble. His guests won’t stand by him if this thing turns out to be a murder. And he can’t tell about that without official investigation of some sort. The arrival of the police force would empty his Inn in a few days. Now, Mrs. Vernon, I don’t believe I need trouble you again. I came mainly for these addresses. What are the street numbers, please.”
Stone jotted down the addresses, and went away. “Stunning man,” exclaimed Isabel. “Such graceful manners yet such a poise!”
“What is a poise?” inquired Tonka.
“Something you’ll never have, dear,” said Isabel, smiling.
“Pooh, I have it now.” Tonka suddenly drew herself up, and assumed a dignified position, with a calm, courteous expression on her face. She had an air of superiority that was not hauteur, but a gentle look of high birth and breeding.
“Gosh, Tonka,” Leif exclaimed, “what hit you? You looked a real First Lady of the Universe for a few minutes. Don’t do it again, it gets on my nerves.”
“I don’t like the way things are going,” Isabel complained. “We want you to go on a yacht trip with us next week, Elaine, and if you get mixed in with this case, you may be subpoenaed, or whatever they call it, and you can’t go.”
“Nonsense,” Elaine said, “I can’t be called on to testify or anything like that. I have no interest in Peter Tolman, dead or alive. And of course I shan’t be mixed up in the case in any way.”
“I don’t see why Elaine has anything to do with the inquest, or whatever they call it. She was Mr. Tolman’s wife, but when she came all unmarried, she was no relation to him at all,” Tonka informed them.
“What do you mean, inquest?” Leif said, sharply. “Nobody said anything about an inquest. As I told you, you read too many detective stories.”
I don’t read as many as you do,” Tonka stated, tranquilly. “You’re all wrapped up in one now. That new one, about the man who killed his wife.”
“If his wife was like you, I don’t blame him much.”
“Be quiet, Leif,” Isabel admonished him. “You’ll go with us, Elaine, won’t you?”
“Yes; I don’t see why not. I love yachting parties, and I’ll be glad to get away from this atmosphere. I daresay Peter’s brothers will come—one of them, anyway. I’m still friendly with the family, you know, but I don’t care about seeing them.”
“We’ll be gone a week and maybe longer,” Leif told her. “If Isabel keeps well she’ll enjoy it.”
“Aren’t you well, dear? What’s the matter?”
“I don’t know, but I feel sort of gone—”
“Gone where?” Tonka inquired, solicitously.
“Just gone. You are a dumb bunny, Tonka, but you must know what that gone feeling is. I’m limp and weak, I stumble when I walk, my head feels thick and woozy, and I haven’t any zip.”
Leif stared at her.
“Why, dear, you were all right yesterday,” he said; “what has come over you?”
“Oh, never mind, you wouldn’t think it was anything.”
In his secret heart Leif was conscious of a growing conviction that it was entirely conceivable that a man could feel he was justified in doing away with his wife, and it did seem that Isabel went out of her way to fling mean speeches at him.
But as he looked at the hurt expression on her lovely face, he knew himself for a brute, and he said, gently;
“Yes, I do, dear. And your face looks red, doesn’t it, Elaine?”
“A little, but it looks to me like sunburn.”
“It is, too. I’m always telling Isabel she goes in too strong for sunbaths.”
“I think so, too,” Tonka declared. “When she isn’t stretched out on the lawn, letting the sun pour down on her, she’s in the sun parlor, where the glare is hotter than out of doors. But it’s only on the left side of her face. See? She always sleeps that side up.”
“Oh, no, Tonka,” Leif interposed. “That isn’t so.”
“It is of late,” Isabel said. “For the last two or three days, the left side of my face has seemed to be burned through. But the sunshine is good for me. The doctor said so, and I like it. Anyway, sunburn doesn’t make me feel wobbly when I walk.”
“The yacht trip will knock all those doldrums out of you,” Leif said, cheerily. “Once you get on the water, all the queer feelings will fly away.”
“Of course they will,” echoed Tonka. “You often have a spell like this, darling. It’s an over dose of sunburn, and it makes you feel upset. Let’s go home now, and I’ll play nurse and fix you up all right.”
They left Elaine’s house but didn’t go home at once, for Isabel said she must stop at the Garrisons’ and invite them.
“Don’t go there, if you’re feeling rocky,” Leif urged her. “I can stop and invite them.”
“No, that wouldn’t do.” Isabel was very decided. “Fleda is the only other woman to be asked, and I must do it myself. I’m all right. You make too much fuss over a bit of sunburn.”
So they stopped at the Garrisons’ and found them at home.
“What a horrible thing has happened over at the Inn,” Fleda burst out after a hurried greeting. “Isn’t Mrs. Vernon in hysterics?”
“Don’t you know Elaine better than that?” and Isabel frowned at her. “Indeed she isn’t in hysterics, she’s as calm and composed as they come. And why not? She’s no relation to Peter Tolman since her divorce.
“No, I know that; but still it must upset her. Sit here, Isabel, why, how you’re burned. You overdo that sunning racket.”
“Oh, no, it’s nothing. I went to sleep in the sun parlor and I had a longer sunbath than I intended. It’ll be all right in a day or two. We came to ask you two dears to go on a yachting party with us. Start next Monday and stay till we come back. How about it?
“Yes, about it,” exclaimed hearty Jim Garrison. “We’re just awful happy to go. Eh, Fleda?”
“Oh, rather! You know, Leif, there’s nothing I enjoy like your sailing parties. Tell us all about it. Will Elaine go?”
“Yes, of course, why not?” Isabel spoke a little curtly, and Tonka added, “Elaine is crazy to go; she adores our sailing parties, too.”
“Doesn’t she have to appear at the inquest?
“Is there to be an inquest?” Leif asked, a little sharply. “We have just been talking with Fleming Stone, and he said nothing about an inquest. Did you hear of it at the Inn, Jim?”
“No,” Garrison looked a trifle embarrassed. “I guess we just sort of assumed there would be.”
“I assumed it,” Fleda owned up. “Jim didn’t. But won’t there have to be one?”
“They can’t tell yet, I think,” Leif said, gently; “you see Fleda, it’s rather a mysterious death.”
“Whatever they do about it,” Isabel observed, “it will be all over by the time we get back, if not, indeed, before we start. I don’t believe for a minute anybody murdered Peter Tolman. Who would have any motive? Either he did it himself, feeling he wanted to end it all, or it was an accident of some sort.”
“Or,” put in Tonka, “maybe the peach pits did it after all. You know one of the doctors thinks that’s the explanation, and it may well be so. One doctor knows as much as another—or more.”
“Yes,” Garrison agreed, “I’ve always heard that a steady diet of those things would get you, in the long run. That’s what did for Tolman. I don’t believe anyone murdered him, either, Isabel. Don’t let it damp the spirits of our party.”
“No, indeed,” and Isabel rose to go. “We’ll depend on you two, then. It isn’t a big party, but a carefully chosen one.”
With one of her most cordial smiles, Isabel said her good-bys and went away with her family.
“They’re all invited now,” she said, as they reached the street, “except Leo Jewett. You go around and see him, Leif, and Tonka and I will go home. I feel tired and want to rest.”
“Seems to me,” Tonka said, as she and Isabel walked the tree-shaded street, “they make a lot of fuss about that dead man. He’s of no national importance, he seems to have no friends, and yet they’re as concerned as if a president had been shot.”
“Oh, no; what they’re doing is the regular routine in case of any unexplained death.”
“But just having that big detective on the job makes it a big case.”
“I don’t think Fleming Stone is in charge officially. He’s interested because he happens to be staying at the Inn.”
“Oh, well, all right. If it doesn’t interfere with the yacht trip, I don’t care what they do. Look, Isabel! Isn’t that Mr. Stone, down the street, coming this way?”
It was, and they saw Stone turn in at their own gateway, before they reached it themselves.
“Wait for us,” Tonka called out, as she ran ahead. They waited for Isabel to join them and the three went into the house together.
“I came for a bit of talk with Mr. Murray,” Stone told them. “Is he at home?”
“He will be, very soon,” Isabel said; “sit down and talk to us till he comes. Is there any further development in the Tolman case?”
“Yes, but nothing startling. Mr. Kenton telegraphed to Paul Tolman, Peter’s brother, in California, told him of Peter’s death and asked for instructions. Paul telephoned back, asking for more details, and then said, to do nothing definite until he came. Said he was leaving by aeroplane at once, and will be here tomorrow morning. So, of course, everything waits on his arrival. I’ve made some inquiries at the Inn about the late Mr. Tolman, but the replies I got were so contradictory and so vague, that I determined to ask Mr. Murray for a little more information. Perhaps you will do as well, if you don’t mind being questioned a little.”
“Indeed I don’t I’ll tell you anything I can. Who is in charge of it all? Mr. Kenton?”
“Oh, no. It’s in the coroner’s hands now. Dr Coles, and a mighty good chap he is.”
“Then he’ll have an inquest, won’t he?” Tonka broke in on the conversation. “Can I go to it? Oh, Mr. Stone, you get me a pass, or an invitation or whatever does the trick! Won’t you?”
“We’ll see about it,” Stone said, glancing at the girl and then turning back to Isabel. “One thing I’d like to know concerns Mr. Tolman’s financial status. Had he money of his own, or was his wife the wealthy one?”
“I’m not entirely sure,” Isabel told him, “but I think Mr. Tolman was not a rich man. He did not depend entirely on his wife’s income, but Elaine’s people were very well off and her father gave her a large allowance and kept it up after she was married. There was no question of alimony, for Elaine did not want it.”
“Do you know why Mr. Tolman was staying at the Inn, this summer? He seems to have had few friends there. Was he here because he was still fond of his one-time wife?
“I don’t think so. I have a vague idea Mr. Tolman was in some large business deal, and one of the other men concerned was spending the summer at our Inn. This place is quite a summer resort, you know. So Mr. Tolman came, a week or two ago, to see that man. I don’t know who he is, but Mr. Murray knows and will tell you all he can. Do you want him to go to see you, or can you wait here a while longer?”
“Not very much longer, I’m afraid. Then, I take it, Mrs. Murray, you didn’t know Mr. Tolman very well.”
“No, not well at all.”
And even as she spoke the words, Isabel went very white, and fell back in her chair in a dead faint.
WHEN Leif returned to his home, Doctor Craddock was just leaving the house.
“What’s up?” Leif inquired; “any of the servants got the colic?”
“No,” Craddock said, gravely. “I came over to see your wife. She had a fainting spell, and Tonka telephoned for me.”
“Isabel! fainted? Let me go to her—”
“Wait a minute. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with her. But we must take care of her.”
“Give me your orders.”
“They’re simple, but I want them followed. Sit down here.”
They sat on a lawn bench, and Craddock went on.
“I’m almost positive there’s nothing really the matter with her, but she fainted suddenly and was unconscious they tell me for ten or fifteen minutes.”
“Who was with her?”
“Tonka and Mr. Stone; the detective, you know.”
Leif looked perplexed.
“Did Stone say anything to make her keel over?”
“I don’t think so. When I arrived he went right away. I saw he thought his presence was an intrusion. Tonka was in charge and Jenny, the maid, was hovering about. I called Simmons and helped him get Mrs. Murray upstairs and on her bed. She came back to consciousness then, and was a little rambling, but quite sensible. Jenny and Tonka made her comfortable, I gave her a sedative, and when she wakes, she’ll be all right, I’m sure. But I want her kept quiet, and not subjected to any strain or excitement, mentally or physically.”
“But what happened to her? What ails her?”
“I can’t say for certain. But it seems like sunstroke. She walked quite a bit this morning, Tonka says.”
“I know. But only on shady streets, and it isn’t a hot day.”
“And then, she’s been overdoing that sun bathing she’s so crazy about. Women are hipped on that subject nowadays. You must see that she gives up those long and frequent sunbaths. All right for some women but not for her. And don’t let her get excited. Is she worried over this Peter Tolman business?”
“Not worried, but greatly interested.”
“Oh, because he was the husband of Elaine Vernon, Isabel’s very close friend.”
“Well, I don’t mean to shut her up in the house, but stop that ridiculous sun bathing, and don’t let her get excited over the Tolman case. I left some medicine for her, and if she comes along all right, Tonka can do for her, with Jenny’s help. But if she doesn’t improve, I’ll send over a nurse.”
“We’re planning a yachting trip for next week, will it be all right for her to go?”
“Best thing in the world for her. Let her stay out on deck a lot, but not in the glaring sun.”
“Her face is very sunburned on one side; did you notice that?”
“Oh, yes; I think that will pass off if she stays in the shade. Make it clear to her she must stop that going to sleep in the broiling sun. Will she see reason?”
“She doesn’t like to see it. I’ll do what I can, but you must keep an eye on her. Of course, she’ll obey your directions, when she won’t listen to mine. She’s a headstrong piece, that little girl of mine. How did Tonka behave? Is she a good nurse? If not we’ll have the trained sort.”
“Tonka is all right, if all goes well. I’m not alarmed about Mrs. Murray, but there are some symptoms I don’t like. I’ll drop in this evening and take a look at her.”
The doctor went away and Leif took the veranda steps two at a time.
In the living-room he met Tonka who was waiting for him.
“I saw you talking to the doctor,” she said. “Don’t let him alarm you too much. Isabel is all right, just a little overcome by the heat.”
“But it isn’t a real hot day.”
“It was for her. Then she’s sort of worked up over Elaine and the Tolman excitement, and she just collapsed. It’s nothing, and if she’s let alone, she’ll be all right by tomorrow. I don’t want a nurse. Jenny is good and I know a lot about nursing. But you keep out of it, and when you do see her don’t talk of serious matters, just chaff her, and pet her up. Did the doctor tell you she could go on the yacht?”
“Yes, he said it would do her good.”
“That’s what he told me. Now, we’ll keep her quiet until we start, and she’ll be queen of the party. Don’t worry, Leif, if there’s the least necessity, I’ll tell the doctor to get us a trained nurse.”
“You’re a good girl, Tonka. Sometimes I mistrust you, but I believe you’re sound at heart.”
“I’m all of that,” and Tonka went away, about her business.
“Queer child,” Leif mused, looking after her. “Sometimes I think she’s a born fool, and then she blossoms out into a sweet sensible person. And yet no comeliness that I should desire her.”
He dawdled about the house, feeling at loose ends.
He and Tonka had luncheon together and it seemed a desert without Isabel’s presence.
“Don’t storm at me Leif, but can’t I go to the inquest?”
“Yes, if you can give me a good sound reason why you want to go.”
“I don’t believe I have what you would call a good sound reason. I just want to go, to see how it’s carried on. How managed, you know.”
“Yes, and what do you want to know that for?”
“Oh, just so I’ll know things. You like to know things, don’t you?”
“I know most things already. And I know why you want to go to the inquest to see how it’s managed.”
“All right, smarty, what is it?”
“Because you want to write a detective story, and you want to know the mechanism.”
Tonka looked chagrined for a moment, and then she burst into laughter.
“Good guess!” she cried; “and exactly right! Oh, Leif, do you think I can do it?”
“Dunno. You may as well make a try at it. Gosh, Tonka, but I’m restless. I don’t know what to do. Want a game of tennis?”
“No, I don’t want to leave Isabel. I don’t have to be with her every minute, but I must be within call.”
After luncheon she went back upstairs, and Leif wandered round the rooms in search of entertainment. In the library he found a pile of books, new ones just arrived. He glimpsed them carelessly, looking for a detective story. He found one entitled EVER WIDENING.
H’m, he said to himself. I’ll bet it’s a tale of why he killed his wife. How does it run, now? Oh, yes; “It is the little rift within the lute, That by and by will make the music mute, And ever widening, slowly silence all.” Slowly silence all. Yes—he looked through the pages —he saw that it was that same tale over again, and was about to discard it, when a paragraph caught his eye. It ran:—“Karl loved his wife with a deep passionate affection, but there were moments when he knew, solemnly, he never wanted to see her again, never could bear to look at her again. It was in one of these moments that he killed her.”
He turned back to the title-page.
“Translated From The Danish.”
He might have known. He did know those Danish stories—blunt, strong, often gruesome, but always true to human nature. He was tired of Crippen yarns, as he called them, but this author wrote well, more than well, he was a master worker in words.
Taking the book, he flung himself into a long easy chair by the window and gave himself up to the print.
Tonka came in and drawing near she looked over his shoulder at the chapter title at top of the page.
“Shall you never learn how to kill your wife?” she cried gaily. “Well you’ve a chance now. Isabel wants to see you.”
Leif jumped up quickly and hastened up the stairs.
“The glad cry with which he greeted the invalid gave no hint of homicidal intent, and he pushed the slender form farther back, as he sat down on the edge of the bed.
Leif was not of the bromidic type that says, “how are you?” he said, “how much better you are looking! Your sleep did you good.”
“Yes,” she returned, “I feel a lot better.”
Now Leif Murray knew his contradictory wife too well to be fooled by this gently spoken agreement.
If she had felt better she would have complained lustily of pains and aches and miseries, till she made herself out a feminine Job.
He observed, too, a faint trace of eruption on her left cheek, noting a careful application of skin lotion and powder evidently meant to hide it.
He smiled at her with deep affection, and said, “Don’t worry about your schoolgirl complexion, nothing can harm that, it’s perfect.”
“Is it, Leif? Well, what is the matter with me? I don’t like this fainting in coils.”
“Temporary reversion to Victorianism, that’s all. Your grandmother used to be cutting up that trick all the time. But while you’re in such a submissive frame of mind, I’m going to tell you that Craddock says you must follow his orders implicitly or you’ll have a nervous breakdown or some of those tiresome things. He says, if you obey his laws, you’ll be not only able to go on the yacht trip, but it will do you a heap of good. So be Angel Child and do as you’re told, won’t you?”
“What does he want me to do?”
“Oh, just give over those excessive sunbaths and sun naps, and act normally about such things. The fainting spell you had was a sort of sunstroke, though you weren’t in the sun at the moment. Oh, Lord, Isabel, why do I have to tell you these things as if you were a baby? You must see the common sense of not boiling yourself to death in the hot sun!”
Isabel looked at him, her beautiful blue eyes full of reproach.
“If you were suffering as I am, Leif, I wouldn’t be so cruel to you.”
“I’m not cruel, Silly! Just because I want you to get well of whatever ails you, and get that red burn and that eruption off of your beautiful face. Do you feel like getting up?”
“I don’t feel like anything. You’re so cross and horrid, and I’m so ill and ailing.”
“Craddock wants you to have a trained nurse.”
“Well, I don’t want one. I’d rather have Tonka. She has a kind heart, much more thoughtful and gentle than yours.”
“Now I know you’re getting well! When you begin to ballyrag me, it means you feel better. I’ll bet tomorrow, you’ll be your own sweet wilful, wayward self again. Hooray for our Isabel! She always comes out on top!”
“Don’t be so noisy. Have you heard anything further from the Inn?”
“Nothing more to hear. The police have locked everything up and shut everything down until the arriving Tolman gets here. I say, dear, do you know anything about Pete Tolman’s will?”
“Will? Mercy, no. Did he make one?”
“I’ve no idea. I fancy he hadn’t much to make a will of. But I’ll bet that will be the first thing brother Paul asks about.”
“How suspicious you are. Because you are callous hearted and have no sympathy for another’s sorrow, you think other men are all like that.”
“Oh, come now, Seraph, don’t scarify me. I daresay Paul is inconsolable over Peter’s death. But his financial affairs will have to be settled up. That’s none of our business, though, and I hope Elaine doesn’t get mixed up in it.”
“There you go again! Why suggest such unpleasant things? Elaine has no more to do with Peter Tolman and his will than I have. When you’re divorced from a man, you’re through with him for good and all.”
“All right, then you are.”
“Stop that humoring air. I hate to be talked to as if I were imbecile! Can’t you go away, and then perhaps I can get a little sleep.”
“Of course, I’ll go away, darling. I didn’t know you wanted to sleep.”
Leif kissed his wife gently, smiled at her and left the room.
In the afternoon he drifted over to the Inn.
To his surprise, things there were pretty much as usual. The body of Peter Tolman had been removed to the mortuary, and Innkeeper Kenton had resumed his customary smile and bland manner.
Fleming Stone was seated in one of the continuous line of porch rockers, and he rose to greet Murray.
“How is your wife?” Stone asked, as the two men went around to a less thickly populated veranda; “all right again, I hope?”
“Oh, yes”; Leif said. “Or nearly. She had taken a rather long walk and it keeled her over. She’ll be all right tomorrow. Anything doing over here?”
“Nothing but what I’m doing myself. I’d much better keep out of it, but as a case it intrigues me. I can’t help seeing it as a murder, and yet, there’s no killer in sight, and no motive that anybody knows of.”
“Then why think it criminal?”
“One of my hunches. Interesting conditions. Man crazy about peach pits, dies of prussic acid poisoning. Strong medical authority against the possibility of peach pits doing the trick. So what? So some human hand assisted the pits and somehow added some real prussic acid to the deadly dose.”
“Not very plausible.”
“No; what ingenious murder is? If I could find out anything, I’d take a real interest in the case or I’d throw it over.”
“Who found the body?”
“A chambermaid, going in on her evening tour of the rooms. Sensible girl; didn’t scream or raise any fuss, just went down and told Mr. Kenton quietly. He told her to keep still about it, but of course it was all over the hotel in ten minutes.”
“Did Tolman have any strange visitors yesterday?”
“None known of. I’m looking for romance. Was there any lingering affection between him and his former wife?”
“No. For heaven’s sake don’t drag Mrs. Vernon into this thing! Poor woman, must that brute pester her even after he is dead? The police aren’t suspecting her, are they?”
“I don’t think so. Why should they?”
“I’ve no idea. I’ve no interest in the affair.”
“But you were in love with her before you met Mrs. Murray.”
Leif smiled, good-naturedly. “Now, who told you that? Yes, it’s true, I suppose, but when I met Isabel all thoughts of Elaine went right out of my mind.”
“How did she like that?”
“Oh, I don’t think she cared. She married Tolman soon after.”
“And you haven’t any backward looks in her direction?”
Stone wondered the other man didn’t knock him down for his impertinence, but Leif only said;
“Lord, no! Isabel is all I can look after. She’s a handful, but such a wonder-girl. You’ve seen her at a disadvantage; just now she’s suffering from a bad case of sunburn. But we’re going for a spot of yachting and that will bring her round all right. Maybe you’d like to go with us.”
“Next Monday. A week or ten days, just drifting about.”
“May I leave the question open? Until I see how Paul Tolman shapes up? I’d love to accept your invitation, but I can’t say yet.”
“Yes, indeed. Let me know when you decide. Mrs. Murray will be greatly pleased to have you.”
* * * * * * *
Early the next morning Paul Tolman came.
Wind and weather had favored his flight from California, and he reached Van Winkle Inn about nine o’clock.
A big man, of aggressive bearing and strong determined face.
He strode to the desk and demanded the proprietor.
Kenton fairly jumped into view and led his new guest quickly into his own private office.
“What happened to my brother?” Tolman asked, almost belligerently. “What did he die of?”
Kenton told him all he knew. Ignoring his listener’s interruptions, the Innkeeper gave him the straight story; concluding with a somewhat definite request that Mr. Paul Tolman would take over and take care of all future arrangements or provisions for Mr. Peter Tolman and his affairs and estate, and that Mr. Kenton, Innkeeper, should have no further responsibility for any Mr. Tolman, past, present or to come.
Mr. Kenton further explained that the untimely death had already done incalculable harm to his hostelry, and any further developments of the tragedy would doubtless prove the wreck and ruin of his popular and well-kept inn, and he fervently hoped Mr. Paul Tolman’s stay would be short.
Mr. Paul Tolman looked at the speaker with cold disdain, and gave him to understand that he had no slightest interest in the welfare of his negligible inn, but that he proposed to investigate his brother’s death, letting the chips fall wherever their fancy led them.
One word might have led to another, save that Fleming Stone, without so much as a tap at the door, intruded upon them.
“Kenton,” he said, pleasantly, “you’re wanted at the desk, and if you agree, I’d like to carry off Mr. Tolman to breakfast with me in my rooms.”
Greatly pleased to shift the burden of responsibility to Fleming Stone’s competent shoulders, the Innkeeper agreed and the two men went off together.
Stone ordered a well-chosen breakfast, and soon Paul Tolman was doing full justice to it, and asking questions at the same time.
“Kenton gave me the main facts,” he said to the detective, “but I don’t get it. Who the hell would want to kill Peter? Me, now, I have hordes of enemies, but Peter couldn’t help making friends. They just fell for him every time.”
“Since we are down to brass tacks,” Stone said, “I may as well say that your brother had few friends around these parts. Not many give him the good word.”
“That’s because he’s dead now. But never mind that. What did he die of?”
“What do you know about his fondness for peach pits?”
“I know all about it. He had that habit as a boy. Mother went to see several doctors about it. They all laughed at her fears. Said all the peaches that ever grew couldn’t give up enough prussic acid to kill a man, just by eating the kernels. If he distilled them, that was a different matter.”
“But some doctors say that the accumulation—”
“Oh, I know all that. And it’s all poppycock. Anyway, the coroner must settle that question. Where’s Elaine?”
“Sure. His wife.”
“Not his wife of late, was she?”
“Are you a lawyer?”
“No; though I know some points of the law.”
“Well, never mind that now. Tell me this. Have they found Pete’s will?”
“Not that I know of. But I think his belongings are locked up, waiting for you. Had he a large estate?”
“You don’t know my brother very well, do you?” and Tolman smiled wryly. “No, Peter never had a large estate, but he was this way. He’d make a lot and then he’d lose a lot. So if he died after a good transaction of some sort, he’d have something to leave. While if he died right after one of his failures, he probably left only debts.”
“Why was he here, just now?”
“That’s what I want to know. You see, if he left no will—”
“Then his family connections inherit, I suppose. You have a brother?”
“Yes, and a mother. But then, there’s Elaine.”
“But unless Peter left a will, Mrs. Vernon can’t inherit.”
“I don’t know whether she can or not. Never mind that now. Did you say Peter’s private papers were awaiting my investigation? Lead me to ’em!”
Tolman rose from his hearty breakfast, with the air of a general preparing to rush to the battlefield.
“Outside my jurisdiction,” Stone told him. “All in the hands of the police. They’ll soon show up. The inquest will be held this afternoon.”
“Well, I want to get busy. Can’t I telephone headquarters?”
“I wish you’d answer me one or two questions first.”
“Fire away. You’ve been first-rate to me, what can I do for you?”
“Tell me a few personal bits of information. I assure you they will be kept confidential, unless, of course, justice demands them.”
“Go ahead. I know your reputation and I trust you.”
“Have you ever known your brother Peter to be engaged in or mixed up in any business or adventure not strictly and absolutely aboveboard?”
Paul looked serious.
“I want to answer you truly,” he said, slowly, “but I don’t know. I have never known of any such thing, but —I have suspected it.”
“Thank you, Mr. Tolman, for your frankness. Do you have any reason to think Mr. Peter was here this year to further or engage in any such deal?”
“Again I can only say, that while I have a slight suspicion such was the case, I have no real reason to think so.”
“Just one more query. Do you think your brother came here with any intent or any hope of making up with Mrs. Vernon and marrying her over again?”
“I think he had such a hope, but I think he had little to found it on. I am very sure Elaine would never have— er—remarried him, but I am also sure he greatly wanted her to do so.”
“They were not happy together?”
“Nobody could be happy with Peter. He was my brother, he had great charm and was an all-round attractive fellow, but he was cruel to women—even brutal. Elaine did well to get free of him.”
“Then I think she would not have again put her head in the noose.”
“Indeed she would not!”
CORONER COLES was a fine looking man with a head of very curly auburn hair which gave more than a hint of being professionally marcelled. At least it was much curlier some days than others, but that might have been the effect of the weather.
He had amber-colored eyes, with a glint that boded ill for any witness trying to give a false impression by his evidence.
Greatly to Innkeeper Kenton’s relief, the inquest was held at the Town Hall and not at the Inn.
Though the crowd of visitors filled the place, there were few witnesses to be called. The first was Norah, the chambermaid who had discovered the body. The girl was calm and of respectful manners and answered questions promptly and clearly.
“You take care of Mr. Tolman’s rooms?” asked Coles.
“Then you perhaps know of Mr. Tolman’s peculiar habit of eating peach pits?”
“Oh, yes, sir. I bring him some whenever I have them.”
“You can open the pits?”
“Oh, no, I can’t do that.” Norah looked at her small and pretty hands without a trace of self-consciousness, “It takes a knack to do that. It’s just like opening oysters, you put the point of the knife in just the right place, and the pit just zips apart! Mr. Tolman could do it with his eyes shut.”
“And then he ate the kernals?”
“Well, did he! He was just dotty about them.”
“He had no fear that they would poison him? He didn’t want to die, did he?”
“Oh, no; I don’t think so. But one day he said: ‘Norah, some day I’ll kill myself eating these things.’ But he laughed—he didn’t mean it.”
“He was a pleasant spoken gentleman, then?”
“Yes, sir. Sometimes he gave me a luck penny.”
“That was nice of him. Now, Norah, when you went in his room, Monday night, what was he doing?”
“He had two rooms, sir; a bedroom and a small sitting room. He was in the sitting room, by the open window. He wasn’t reading or anything, just leaning back in his big chair. But he looked queer, oh, he looked terrible! His arms were stretched out and his legs were sort of bent, and his head was thrown way back, and his eyes glaring and shiny like. That’s enough about it, isn’t it?”
“Yes, Norah,” Coles nodded at her kindly. “You may go. If I have to, I’ll call you again.”
The girl gladly went away, and Paul Tolman was called next.
“We will hear the medical evidence later,” the coroner said; “will you tell us, Mr. Tolman, about this strange taste of your brother’s for peach kernels?”
“We never looked upon it as anything strange,” Paul Tolman declared. “I had a school chum who used to chew slate pencils. That was far more peculiar. Peter liked the bitter taste of the kernels and ate all he could get. Some people said they’d kill him and some said they wouldn’t. Who shall decide when doctors disagree? But I don’t see where the mystery or even uncertainty comes in. A chap eats peach kernels all his life, then he dies of prussic acid poisoning. Why assume murder? You have cause and effect, what more do you want?”
“We are not considering that question now, Mr. Tolman. Have you any reason to think your brother would take his own life?”
“I most certainly have not. Peter was a happy-go-lucky sort, he took things as they came, but he liked to live, of that I’m sure.”
“But I’ve understood he threatened suicide.”
“If he did he didn’t mean it? Why all the fuss? He ate peach pits all his life. He died of them. Why call it murder?”
“We have to be sure of our facts, Mr. Tolman. Was your brother on good terms with all your family?”
“Certainly. A good-natured guy was Pete. I’m sorry he’s gone, but we must all die some time. Yes, he was always fond of his happy home. A rover, but sure to turn up sooner or later with presents for all and sundry. As his legal representative, I suppose his belongings will be turned over to me. I’d be glad to have that little matter attended to and get away. I’m a busy business man, and I can tell you I wasn’t at all pleased to make this trip east just now.”
“Sorry, Mr. Tolman, but I can’t let you start homeward just yet. Yes, your brother’s property will be turned over to you, and I wish you would make search for any bit of evidence that might point to some useful truth.”
Paul Tolman was quite evidently annoyed at his detention and turned sulky, as might clearly be seen on his expressive face.
“Then, until I can find that mythical evidence, why am I kept here in the witness chair. I’ve told you all I know.”
“Do you know for what purpose your brother came to Ingleside Heights this summer?”
“I daresay there were several reasons. He likes this place, he has been at the Inn before. He probably had friends both at the Inn and in residence.”
“Did he perhaps come, for the purpose of renewing acquaintance with his former wife, Mrs. Elaine Vernon?
“That I cannot tell you. I know he had great admiration and respect for the lady, although they were divorced.”
Tolman was allowed to stand down and the coroner called the two doctors who had examined the dead man.
Doctor Barnett testified first.
He said that he was staying the summer at the Inn, that he had known Peter Tolman and that he knew of his extraordinary fondness for peach kernels. Asked further as to their deadly possibilities, he said:
“No, sir; it’s all poppycock. No man could be killed by the infinitesimal amount of prussic acid found in a peach stone kernel. While cyanide is among the most deadly of poisons, it must be in a more concentrated form to be a fatal dose.”
But when Doctor Matson took the witness chair, he declared that the long continued use of peach kernels as a diet caused a cumulative poisoning of the system which must result sooner or later in death as a result of prussic acid.
These opposing theories were discussed by the two doctors until Coroner Coles put a stop to it.
“We cannot take the time now,” he decreed, “to settle that complicated question. If you two physicians cannot decide to agree upon it, we must get the opinion of some other authority.”
Whereupon he dismissed the pair, and called Elaine to the chair.
It was with a gentle dignity she moved across the room and took her place as directed.
“You were at one time the wife of Peter Tolman?” Coles asked.
“Yes,” she said, not curtly, but with quiet acquiescence.
“When you lived with him did he eat peach stone kernels habitually?”
“He did. It surprised me at first, but I grew used to his peculiarity and thought nothing of it. The doctors I spoke to about it, believed, as does Doctor Barnett, that they were in no way harmful to his health.”
“You were then, greatly surprised to learn of his death from that cause?”
“I was surprised, of course. It was a revelation to me that the kernels could have a fatal effect.”
“You have seen Mr. Tolman since he has been in Ingleside Heights, this summer?”
“Many times. He has been at my house, and I have met him at the homes of my friends.”
“You were then, on friendly terms with Mr. Tolman?”
“We were friendly, yes. I see no reason why divorced people should treat one another other than courteously.”
“Certainly not. Was Mr. Tolman still in love with you?”
“I consider that an impertinent question; but I will answer it. I have no way of knowing the state of his feelings toward me, as I never saw him alone during his stay here, and one does not discuss such matters with others present.”
“You did not see Mr. Peter Tolman alone, during his visit at the Inn this summer?”
It was astonishing how much dignity Elaine could put into her voice without seeming in any way resentful or annoyed.
“Call back the maid, Norah,” Coles directed.
The girl came in, and stood before the coroner, quite evidently ill at ease, and not looking at Elaine.
“Norah,” Doctor Coles said, “you know this lady?”
“Yes, sir.” Norah’s voice was faint.
“Have you ever seen her walking with Mr. Tolman?”
“Yes, sir.” Even more faint came the accents.
“Speak up, girl. Where did you see them walking?”
“In the woods, one evening last week.”
“What were you doing in the woods?”
“I was walking, too, with my boy friend.”
“And you are sure you saw Mrs. Vernon with Mr. Tolman?”
“Yes, sir, I am sure.”
“That will do. You may go.”
Norah disappeared and the coroner turned to Elaine. “Do you care to explain this seeming discrepancy?” he asked.
“There is no explanation needed. The girl is in error. She did not see me walking in the woods with Peter Tolman, because I did not do so. You must choose between the veracity of the maid-servant and myself. I repeat my denial of her statement.”
“You had no further interest in the man after you were divorced from him?”
“No interest of affection or intimacy. I met him as I would meet any acquaintance, and though his sudden death is a shocking thing I cannot feel deep personal emotion. You understand, I think?”
If Doctor Coles’ bump of understanding had been a deep cavity, the calm sympathy shown in Elaine’s manner, and the sorrow in her deep, dark eyes would have assured him of a tender compassion which even her impersonal attitude failed to hide.
“Can you tell me, Mrs. Vernon, anything about the financial status of the late Mr. Tolman?”
The graceful eyebrows went up a trifle.
“No,” she said; “I cannot. I think Mr. Tolman was never a rich man, but I think his fortunes varied, and his income was therefore uncertain.”
Coroner Coles was famous in the county for his ability to put very personal and impertinent questions with a suave air of uttering the merest commonplaces. He tried it now, saying:
“Had it occurred to you, Mrs. Vernon, that Mr. Tolman came here to attempt to win you back again? To persuade you to re-marry him?”
For a moment Elaine looked at him.
Then she gave a brief, fleeting smile that held unmistakable scorn and derision.
“What extraordinary questions you do ask,” she said, in a light tone that yet made Coles quiver with embarrassment in all his nerves. “If he had any such intention he didn’t mention it to me. How shrewd of you to read it into his purpose!”
“That will do, thank you, Mrs. Vernon. You are excused.”
Elaine returned to her seat next Leif Murray, and retained her look of calm indifference, which, however, was startled at the coroner’s next words.
It was Coles’ habit to call his witnesses as he chose. Often he had learned much that he wanted to know before an inquest was opened.
And often, too, he had surprise witnesses that gave important and unexpected evidence. These he delighted to spring on his jury and on the listening audience.
In a quiet, pleasant voice, he asked Miss Constance Mead to take the witness chair.
Both Murray and Elaine Vernon stared as Tonka rose and with absolute poise walked to the chair and sat down. She wore a white sports frock, with a jade green scarf round her throat.
She had on no hat, and her flaxen bobbed hair hung thick and straight across her forehead and over her ears.
With the appearance of a child anxious to do her duty, she attentively awaited questioning.
“Miss Mead, were you acquainted with the late Peter Tolman?”
“Not definitely. I met him now and then at a cocktail party or tennis match.”
“Will you describe a recent occasion on which you heard his conversation?”
“Sure. It was at the Inn.”
“Where were you?”
“I was up in a tree around on the north side of the Inn. That old sycamore, you know. It’s a lovely place to read of a summer afternoon, and I often take a book and go over there.”
“And from your perch you can hear conversation of people on the veranda below?”
“I wouldn’t put it that way.” Tonka looked reproachful. “If people sit on that veranda and talk loudly, I can’t help hearing them. But they seldom do, and anyway, I never listen. Their chatter doesn’t interest me.”
“But on this occasion we speak of, it did?”
“Yes. Mr. Tolman was talking with another man. I paid no attention, until they raised their voices in anger, and then I couldn’t help hearing what they said. They were discussing some business deal, I gathered, and they disagreed as to the amount of money each should receive. I didn’t care how the money was divided, and I had no interest in their talk, until I heard Mr. Tolman say, ‘I could put you in jail for that!’ And the other man said, ‘No, you couldn’t! I’d take precious good care that you didn’t do that.’ And then Mr. Tolman sounded a little scared-like, and he said, ‘There’s only one way you could prevent me!’ and the other man said, ‘That’s the way I mean.’ And he sounded murderous, and then one of them went away, I don’t know which one, and in a few minutes the other one went away. I didn’t look down, for I didn’t want to be seen, and after they had gone I climbed down and went home.”
“You live with Mrs. Murray, I believe.”
“Yes; that is, I am making her a visit which I hope will last all my life.”
“Now, Miss Mead, answer carefully. Do you know who the man was who talked with Mr. Tolman?”
“Yes, I do.”
“You are sure?”
“Then tell me his name.”
“It was Mr. Paley.”
“Mr. Humbert Paley?”
“That will do, Miss Mead. You are excused.”
Tonka returned to her seat, with no apparent notice of the amazed stares of many in the audience. She showed no trace of self-consciousness, indeed she seemed to be thinking of something far away.
Immediately Humbert Paley was called to the stand. A large man, with a jovial face, he showed a slight scowl of annoyance which changed to a smile as he sat down and faced the jury.
“You heard the evidence of the last witness?” he was asked.
“What have you to say about it?”
“Nothing. Unless there is something definite you want to ask.”
“I do. Was the story true?”
“In the main details, yes. But, as often happens, the witness stated her own interpretation of what she heard, and her statements were incorrect.”
“Will you, then, tell the gist of that session between you and Peter Tolman?”
“Of course. Or, as much as I care to. Mr. Tolman and I were deeply interested in a business project, the details of which I have no intention of making public. It concerned a rather clever gadget connected with radio manufacture, the nature of which I refuse to define any further. We were about to put it on the market, and we were, not surprisingly, discussing the financial arrangements of our contract. It may seem to you a public place to talk over private business, but we had no thought of eavesdroppers in trees, and anyway, the points we discussed were not desperately secret.”
Paley leaned back in the chair and let his glance wander over the crowd, finally letting it come to rest on Tonka.
The girl looked at him without visible interest and then looked away. It was quite clear that she didn’t care what he said about her.
“And did you, Mr. Paley,” the coroner went on, “make the remarks to Mr. Tolman that the witness repeated?”
“Not at all as they were repeated.” Paley smiled. “Ladies are admittedly inaccurate in their account of an incident or a speech, and I fear Miss Mead misunderstood or misheard the conversation.”
“Just what did you say to Mr. Tolman that could be construed as a threat against his life?”
“Oh, nothing as bad as that! We were discussing money matters, and I think it is human nature to try to get all one can in a business contract. We were both doing that, and I said something, I don’t recollect what, that Tolman construed as libel or slander or something of the sort, and he remarked, in jest, of course, that he could jail me for that. I contradicted him and he said there was only one way I could stop him. And I said I’d take that way.”
“And what way did you mean, Mr. Paley?”
“Why, that I would retract my words, of course. I spoke impulsively, and I was quite willing to take it back. To be sure, he couldn’t have put me in jail, and also he had no idea of my taking it seriously. But I owed him an apology, and later, I made it.”
“And then it all blew over?”
“Absolutely. We resumed our discussion of our contract.”
“And came to an agreement?”
“Yes, of course, the deal is too important to be held up at this stage of its development.”
“And what are you going to do, now that Mr. Tolman can no longer assist in the enterprise?”
“I have not yet decided, and I’ve no intent of telling the public when I do.”
Again Paley gave his friendly smile, and the public were with him to a man.
Though not a favorite in the community, Humbert Paley had been known to show sympathy and support to some unfortunates and had rallied and assisted some otherwise lost causes.
Leif Murray had never liked the man, but he knew of his kindness and generosity. However, he was greatly annoyed at the fact that Paley sometimes tagged after Isabel, though she, too was intolerant of him.
And now, Leif blamed Paley for the unnecessary and unpleasant publicity given to Tonka. How Coles had found out about the sycamore tree Leif didn’t know, but he was quite ready to take Tonka to task for it, when the time came.
As the girl sat, looking so calm and untroubled, he was more than ever annoyed at her, and almost made up his mind to ask Isabel to send her away.
Then Antony Ballard was called.
“I haven’t much to offer as evidence,” he told the coroner, “but I’ve been looking up that peach pit business, and I find from very competent authority, that all peach kernels are not alike. I mean as to the amount of prussic acid they contain. Once in a while there is one that is especially charged with it, and it may have been that Tolman struck one of those, which would account for his sudden death. I got this from a man high up in the toxicological department of a great laboratory, and I know he is a sound scholar. If that occurred, then death was an accident, or as the lawyers call it, an act of God. I only give out this information in hope it will be useful to the coroner and the jury. I don’t want anyone accused of murder unless we are pretty sure murder has been done.”
“That’s right, Mr. Ballard,” Coles agreed. “I’d like now, to have Mr. Stone testify to his decisions so far.”
Fleming Stone took the chair, looking grave.
“I wish I might agree entirely with Mr. Ballard,” he said; “but though it is quite true that an occasional peach stone holds more poison than its neighbors, it is held by the experts that even that kernel would not produce death. I am giving no advice, making no suggestions as to the jury’s procedure, but I trust further investigations will be made. I want to offer one small piece of evidence that may or may not prove of importance. It is this envelope, which I picked from the waste basket under the desk in the sitting room of Mr. Tolman. There is inside it a faint odor of bitter almond, which suggests that it was brought to Mr. Tolman with pits or kernels in it. It may amount to nothing, but in my opinion it should be looked after and examined for finger prints or any traces of its previous ownership.”
Coles took the envelope, a plain white one, and sniffed at it.
“I note the odor you mention, Mr. Stone,” he said; “and I quite agree that the matter must be looked into. There are also, other questions that I feel ought to be answered before the case goes to the jury. I therefore adjourn this inquest for such time as may be needed for these further investigations. I will reconvene it at such a time as seems to me proper. This audience is dismissed.”
A disappointed crowd surged out of the Town Hall.
Most of the audience had hoped for something more sensational, had hoped, indeed, to be told that Peter Tolman had been foully murdered.
It seemed an anti-climax to go to an inquest only to have the thing adjourned for goodness knew how long.
Paul Tolman, who had watched and listened to the proceedings came quickly to Fleming Stone.
“Look here,” he said, excitedly; “I want to engage your services. I want you to work for me and me only. If you’re tied up with anyone else get out of it, and take on my case. I know Peter was killed, I know who did it, but I’ll have to tell you all about it before you can set to work. You’re at the Inn, I shall stay there, too, so we can work together.”
ELAINE walked with Leif Murray back to Longacre, whither Tonka had preceded them.
They found the girl pouring out the story of the inquest to Isabel who listened languidly and seemed little interested.
“Tonka,” said Leif, as he followed Elaine into the living-room, “whatever possessed you to make such a holy show of yourself?”
“Didn’t I look all right?” the girl cried, anxiously; “didn’t I, Elaine?”
“Oh, you looked all right,” Leif answered her; “but why the interview? You must have volunteered the information that you had been playing spy.”
“What do you mean?” asked Isabel, putting her arm round the girl, who was sitting beside her on a sofa.
“You tell, Elaine,” Tonka said; “Leif will make me out a hellion.”
“It was all right, Isabel,” Elaine said, smiling, “Tonka just staged a scene of her own. Very effective, and she took a bow with aplomb and éclat and all such proper capers.”
“But what was it all about?” Isabel persisted.
“I’ll tell you myself,” Tonka decided. “You know, Is, I often go over to the Inn, and climb up in the big sycamore, and loaf there I read and I muse and sometimes I drop to sleep.”
“If you drop out of the tree does it wake you up?” Leif wanted to know, “or do you sleep right through it?”
“No,” Tonka went on, her yellow hair tousling in the breeze that came in at the window, “no, Leify dear, I don’t ever fall out of the tree. And I don’t bother about the people on the veranda under me. But this time I did hear an important conversation, and I thought I ought to pass on my information to that nice, mushy looking coroner. And I did, and bless you, he said I must tell it to a waiting world at the inquest. Also, which I done.”
“Pipe down, Tonka,” Leif commanded, “I’ll go on.” He did, and told Isabel the conversation which Tonka had overheard from her perch in the tree.
He implied no blame to the girl, he gave a straight story, mimicking Tonka’s voice a little, which made Elaine laugh.
“Now,” said Tonka, triumphantly, as Leif finished; “where was the harm in that? It gave the jury information, and I performed my duty to my country.”
“Do keep still, Tonka,” Leif said, curtly; “you’ve had your little show-off, now give your betters a chance to talk. What do you think about it all, Elaine?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I wish it had happened anywhere else than here. I can’t believe Pete was murdered, that’s too spectacular. Of course, it wasn’t suicide, he didn’t want to die when he had this project on hand. I know all about that; it’s his own invention, mostly, and he wants to get it patented and put on the market. I don’t want to tell anything about it, for I don’t think I have a right to. It’s Mr. Paul Tolman’s property now, of course, and particulars must be asked of him. But surely, Peter wouldn’t step off when the matter was pending. I don’t see why they have to be so fussy. He ate prussic acid all the time, he died of prussic acid, why not say ‘cause and effect’ and let it go at that?”
“Was Paley in this business with Peter?” Leif asked.
“I don’t know,” Elaine replied, “but from Tonka’s story it seems he must have been. Let’s don’t bother about it any more. I’m glad you didn’t go to the inquest, Isabel; it was deadly dull. Tonka’s piece was the only bright spot in it. Let’s talk about the yacht. You’re getting better, aren’t you, dear? I’m so glad. Your face is much less red.”
“Oh, no, Elaine, it isn’t better. It’s worse in some ways.”
“It will get better, once you’re on the yacht. You always love it, and it will set you up right away.”
“I only hope so,” Isabel tried to smile, with but partial success. “But I feel so weak and when I try to think, a sort of stupor comes over me—”
“That’s the menace of today,” Leif said, gaily. “Dear Heart, you mustn’t try to think. You may bring on cerebro-vacuum or something like that. I’ll do your thinking for you, and you just devote your energies to getting back your kindergarten complexion. You’re awful red at the back of your neck—haven’t been lying prone in the sun again, have you?”
“No, of course not, I’ve given up all sun treatments. Unberufen! here comes Fleda Garrison across the lawn. I don’t want to see her, I’m going up to my room.”
“Don’t you do it!” cried Leif. “You look all right. If you’re going to be with her all next week, she may as well get used to your super-rosy cheeks. Don’t faint, that’s all I ask of you.”
Fleda breezed in, flung her wide-leafed hat on the floor, and plumped herself down on a big, soft leather hassock.
She was an alert little person, with shining brown eyes and auburn dyed hair.
“I do think it’s too bad,” she fretted, “to call poor old Pete’s death a murder! Why, we never have such things here in Ingleside!”
“Who’s calling it a murder?” Leif asked her. “It wasn’t decided so at the inquest. Weren’t you there?”
“Wasn’t I there! Isabel, your husband is the rudest person on record. Wasn’t I there! Why, Leif, I shook hands with you three times, and every time you said, ‘Hello, Fleda, I didn’t know you were here!’ I told Jim, and he said he’d never speak to you again!”
“Poor Jim, he’ll lose a lot,” Leif said. “He won’t go on the yacht with us, then?”
“Oh, yes, we’ll be there. But you must remember we are there.”
“I’ll do that,” and Leif smiled into the saucy face that looked up at him.
Then Leopold Jewett came, and in his careless easygoing way, he greeted Isabel, nodded at the others, pulled Tonka’s hair and settled himself in a deep stuffy armchair, behind a cigarette.
“This kicketty-go about poor old Tolman won’t delay your cruise, will it?” he asked of Isabel.
“Oh, I hope not. I think it will be all over before we start, don’t you?”
“Sure to. Coles is a dabster at settling up. He’ll reopen the inquiry, in a day or two, and then he’ll push through to a finish of accidental death, or murder by person or persons unknown.”
“Why do you look for a murder element?”
“Well, you see, Leif, the detective feller, that Stone— he can make two mysteries grow where one grew before. And something tells me that chap is scenting foul play.”
“That all you’ve got to go by—your vivid imagination?”
“Oh, no; I’ve lots of secret knowledge that I daren’t tell.”
“What is it?” cried Tonka; “you must tell us!”
“Be quiet, girl,” Leif scolded her. “Mr. Jewett is guying you. He doesn’t know any more than we do, if as much. It’s all too bad, Leo, but drop it now, will you? My women folks love to mull over its more gruesome points, but I’m getting fed up with it.”
“All right, at that. Answer me a few asks about your party, and I’ll be for moving on. May I take my camera, my big one?”
“No,” said Isabel, “I’d rather you didn’t. I’m camera shy just now.” She turned her left cheek toward Jewett.
“Bless you!” he said; “what is it? poison ivy?”
“Why, maybe it is!” Tonka cried; “I never thought of that.”
“It might be,” and Leif looked a little relieved. “I hope you’re right, Leo. We feared something more exotic. Poison ivy is bad enough, Lord knows, but it’s better than Kyauktaw Tetter.”
“Don’t listen to him, Leo,” Isabel said. “He’s just making up. I’m all right, or I shall be by Monday, and I’ll be glad to get away from this murder infested town.”
“Oh, come now, don’t exaggerate. It’s only a nine days’ wonder. It will be all forgotten when we get back. Why, the brother Tolman is going back to California tomorrow, taking the late Peter with him.”
“I’m glad of that,” said Tonka. “I’ve had enough of inquests. I go to one, and make a brave showing, setting the detectives on the right track, and what do I get? A blowing up from my home circle and cold looks from all bystanders.”
“Nonsense, Tonka,” Elaine praised her, “you were a good witness. I dare say Humbert Paley will try to get even with you, but you can evade him.”
“Sure I can. But how can Paul Tolman walk off when the inquest isn’t finished and he hasn’t fixed up the great business deal that I listened in on?”
“You talk too much, Tonka,” Leif said; “those things, I feel sure, will be attended to, without your assistance.”
“Oh, pooh, I’ve lost interest in the whole thing. But stay! Ha! my interest is reviving! Look who’s coming!”
Tonka left the window seat, where she had been perched, and ran to a mirror, where she smoothed her rebellious hair, made up her pretty, saucy little face, and finished in time to greet Fleming Stone as he came in at the door.
“Did I do my part all right?” she asked, so earnestly, that Stone paused to smile at her, and say, “Yes, indeed, you were perfect!”
Then he went on to Isabel and the others, bringing up beside Leif.
“I was passing,” he said, “and I stopped to tell you that I shall be very glad to go on your sailing party. I find I can leave all right by Monday, unless something very unexpected turns up. The inquest will wait over for ten days or a fortnight, as there are some matters to be looked after in California.”
“I’m right down glad, Mr. Stone, that you can be in our crowd,” Leif said, genially. “And, of course, if it is absolutely necessary for you to come back here on some sudden emergency, why, we won’t be so very far away, and you can scurry back.”
“And we shall all be glad to have you,” Isabel added, with one of her brightest smiles.
She couldn’t help seeing the quick glance of surprise as Stone noted her blemished face. On the left side, the malady had increased. There were splotches of red on the fair white skin, and tiny ulcers showed here and there.
He pretended to ignore them, but his startled glance had registered and Isabel turned redder yet from embarrassment and chagrin.
Tonka picked up the situation.
“Thank goodness all that poison ivy trouble will be gone in another day or two,” she said. “It’s been a bad case, but it’s nearly well now. Gorgeous to have you go with us, Mr. Stone. I hope you like a life on the ocean wave, for sometimes it waves a lot.”
“I’m a good sailor,” he returned. “And I want a rest. You’re not strenuous game-players, are you?”
“Only those that want to be. We have quite a large party, so there will be plenty of live wires and plenty of lotus-eaters. You’ll leave your murder-work behind, won’t you?”
“Yes, indeed,” replied the detective enthusiastically, though he was far from sure that he was speaking the truth.
As, indeed, he most certainly was not.
“I think that coroner is a funny man,” Fleda Garrison said; “he looks as if he didn’t know anything.”
“But he does,” Stone informed her. “There are coroners, I’ve had experience with them, who await orders, and then do just as their superiors tell them. And there are coroners who run their business to suit themselves. Coles is that sort. He’s a shrewd chap, and he sees farther into the truth than he seems to, but after all, it’s a baffling case. If it’s merely the physical effect of the accumulated poison from the peach kernels, there’s no case at all. If it’s accidental, by which I mean, if one pit had an extraordinary amount of poison in it, there’s also no case. If it’s a suicide, there’s no case. But so long as there’s a chance of its being murder, we must proceed with our investigations.”
“My husband says,” Fleda went on, “that Doctor Coles is very easily influenced by other people’s advice. He thinks the inquest should not have been adjourned, and that it was owing to Paul Tolman that it was.”
“Mrs. Garrison,” Stone said, in his straightforward way, “I wish you’d advise your husband against making such sweeping statements. Mr. Paul Tolman certainly did want the inquest adjourned, for he wants to go back to California for the funeral. But the adjournment would have been made anyway, as the coroner has some further data to find and some definite investigation to be made. As I say, Coles is a capable man, and he is conducting his inquiry with what I consider admirable judgment.”
“Oh, Mr. Stone,” Fleda fluttered, “I didn’t mean to seem critical. Nor Jim either. He’s a wise man, and knows a lot about law and all that, but he isn’t a criminal lawyer.”
Stone smiled at her pleasantly, and went on;
“As to being influenced by outside advice, I find Doctor Coles has a strong will of his own, and does as he sees fit, irrespective of criticism.”
“Isn’t that life!” and Fleda giggled. “You go and get a notion in your head, and along comes somebody and tells you you’re all wrong! I think you’re wonderful, Mr. Stone, to see through people the way you do. But do tell me this, won’t you? Did Peter Tolman leave a will?”
“None has been found as yet, Mrs. Garrison. But of course it may turn up. Our ignorance of such matters is a principal reason for adjourning the inquest. Mr. Tolman’s papers and documents have been given over to his brother, who will report on them at his convenience.”
“Oh, I see. Are you engaged on this case, Mr. Stone?”
Stone gave her a comical glance, as he replied;
“My services have been asked for, but I have not yet entirely decided on my answer. When I do, I shall be happy to advise you.”
It was not often Fleming Stone let himself use a touch of sarcasm, but impertinent curiosity irritated him.
Fleda, however, was impervious to the snub, and went on gaily;
“Well, since you’re going with us on the yacht trip, we can follow your marvelous mental processes, and as I have a knack that way, I may be able to help you in solving the problem.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Garrison,” Stone said, politely, if curtly, and then he turned to Isabel.
Whereupon Fleda diverted her attentions to Elaine. “Funny, wasn’t it, Elaine,” she said, “about that servant seeing you walking in the wood with Pete Tolman?”
“She didn’t see me,” Elaine said, calmly. “You’re in a gossippy mood today, Fleda, and I think you’d better be careful. If any of us choose to tell of these things you’re saying, you might be checked up for slander.”
“Why, what do you mean? That maid, Norah, said she saw you—”
“But she didn’t,” Elaine spoke more decidedly. “She was mistaken. She may have seen somebody, walking in the wood with Peter Tolman, but it was not I. Please don’t run that line in your daily gossip. Of course, it’s only my word against hers, you can take your choice.”
“Don’t be a ninny, Fleda,” Leif took up the cudgels. “If you’re going to take the word of an Inn chambermaid against our Elaine, you can’t go on our yacht party.”
“Nothing like that,” and Fleda leaned over and took Elaine’s hand. “I don’t care who walked in the wood with Pete Tolman. Do you know I rather liked that man. He had his good points, hadn’t he, Elaine?”
“M—h’m—” Elaine assented; “but I’m going home now. Want to walk along?”
“Yes, I must go, too,” and Fleda rose.
She crossed the room, and laid her hand on the arm of Fleming Stone.
“Just a second,” she said, smiling at him, and urging him over to a window, where they were a little apart from the others. “Mr. Stone, you must listen to me, for your own good. I am—well, not exactly clairvoyant, you know—but I have a sort of second sight, that enables me to tell a wrongdoer when I see one. A murderer or a lesser criminal, they can’t deceive me. It’s a gift I have.”
Her bright brown eyes looked into Stone’s, and he marveled what sort of foolishness she was going to get off now.
“It must be a convenient gift,” he said, disinterestedly.
“Oh, it is. And it’s always true. I’m telling you, so if you think you’ve found Pete Tolman’s murderer, you tell me and I’ll prove your suspicions right or not. When we’re on the yacht, I mean. You’ll be thinking it over of course, and you can confide in me and I’ll be good help. See?”
Fleda looked very pretty and very helpful as she gazed into Stone’s deep and somewhat bored-looking eyes.
“Thank you, Mrs. Garrison,” he said, with a vague intonation. “I may be glad to remind you of your offer.”
Then Fleda and Elaine went away, and Jewett went with them, leaving Stone with the Murray family.
“A woman with a tongue like Fleda Garrison’s can do a lot of harm,” Leif said, angrily.
“Yes,” agreed Stone, “but, too, she often may give out a bit of help. I don’t yearn to hear specimens of her clairvoyance, but if she has any facts, I might be interested. Have you known of her second sight?”
“I don’t think Fleda means real clairvoyance,” Isabel said, “but she has great intuition, and sometimes sees into a person’s character amazingly well. And she is especially sensitive to falsehood or treachery. She can spot a lack of sincerity with astonishing correctness.”
“It is a gift,” Stone said; “not many people have it, but when it’s the real thing it’s pretty fine. I foresee a caucus of would-be detective spirits on our voyage.”
“I hope it won’t bother you,” Isabel said, anxiously. “It’s so hard to make guests behave on shipboard. Maybe they’ll make your life miserable.”
“Don’t worry,” and Stone smiled. “If they get too intrusive, I can pitch them overboard.”
“I wish you’d pitch Fleda Garrison first,” Leif told him. “She’s one of the few women I can’t abide. We have to invite her because her husband is an old friend of mine, who would break his heart at being left out of our yacht trips.”
“Fleda’s all right most of the time,” Isabel declared. “It’s only when she gets curious about something that is none of her business, that she makes herself a nuisance. But when we get away by ourselves on the rolling deep, I hope we’ll all forget things like inquests and coroners and peach pits—”
“And Tolmans,” added Tonka. “Oh, bless my soul, Isabel, who do you think is coming now? She’s getting out of a taxicab, and it’s—Aunt Phoebe!”
Tonka was in the window seat, as usual, and so could see the approach of visitors.
“A family guest?” asked Stone. “Perhaps I’d better be going.”
“Wait a minute and see her,” invited Isabel. “You never saw a more amusing person.”
So Stone waited to meet the newcomer.
An elderly lady, with mid-Victorian appointments stepped mincingly into the room.
“How-do, Leif,” she called out, as he went forward to greet her. “And Izzy, dear, how are you? Why, my child, my child, whatever ails you? You ought to be in a leper’s colony!”
“Hush, Aunt Phoebe,” and Leif scowled at her. “How dare you speak to Isabel like that? She has a bad case of sunburn, but we don’t speak like that about it!
“Sunburn my eye!” cried the old lady. “Looks to me more like pellagra or anthrax or those fearful—”
“Stop your noise, Aunt Phoebe!” Tonka cried out. “I am surprised at your rudeness. Have you come to stay?
“No,” said the visitor, turning from Isabel to the others. “I am motoring through this section, and stopped in for a minute to see my nephew. Who is this strange gentleman?”
“Mr. Stone, Aunt,” and Leif made introduction. “Mrs. Bingham, Mr. Stone. My aunt from Quebec. Not staying over night, Aunt Phoebe?”
“No, Leif. In fact, I just dropped in for a few moments. My friends with whom I am motoring, stopped at the Inn, for dinner, and I came on here. I shall rejoin them and continue our trip. I am glad to meet you, Mr. Stone. I suppose you are the Mr. Stone who finds out things. I’ve interested myself a great deal in detective work, and I’d like a chance to talk it over with you. But not now, no, don’t insist; I can’t take time for it now.”
Stone had no intention of insisting, but he said politely, “That’s too bad,” and then excusing himself he rose to go.
“Ah, Mr. Stone,” the old lady said, giving him what seemed a wicked wink, “if you knew of the secret between myself and my nephew, you would be interested, I do assure you. But we cannot tell it to you, we are bound to inviolate secrecy. Yes, sir, inviolate is the word! And don’t you try to get it out of Leif, he won’t tell you! Indeed, why should he?”
“Now, now, Aunt Phoebe, you mustn’t detain Mr. Stone. He’s a very busy man. Good-by, Stone, come round again. I have some business to transact with Mrs. Bingham, and her time is short. Come with me. Aunt Phoebe, into my study.”
The two went away, and Fleming Stone turned to Isabel.
He saw she was quivering with excitement of some sort, which had the appearance of fright, but she could not feel fear of a harmless old lady of good address and evident refinement.
For though erratic and blunt mannered, Mrs. Bingham was a gentlewoman.
Tonka, however, was choking with laughter.
“Isn’t she a character, Mr. Stone. Leif’s old aunt, and what they know, in secret, is some dire and devilish enterprise.”
“No, no, Tonka,” Isabel contradicted; “not that. It is a secret, yes, but of course, it is nothing wrong. Forget it, Mr. Stone.”
“But of course, Mrs. Murray. She is a delightful piece of property, and I am not at all curious. If her secret ever becomes public property, let me know.”
“I wish I could tell you now—but I can’t.”
“No, no, of course not. Keep faith, always. Good-by, look after your sunburn. Good-by, Tonka.”
And Fleming Stone went away.
IT WAS Monday morning, and a finer day to start on a yachting trip never dawned on this old earth of ours.
The Terpsichore, a houseboat of very modern type and with luxurious appointments, waited in readiness at the docks of the Viking Yacht Club, a small and select club of yacht owners.
The start was set for noon, and the guests were already assembled at the Clubhouse, though their hosts had not yet arrived.
They were delayed because of Isabel’s illness.
She had wakened with a severe headache and after a slight convulsion had lapsed into a semi-stuporous condition that made her limp and uncertain of motion.
But she insisted that she would go on the trip.
Leif was determined to cancel the invitations and call the trip off, but she would not hear of it.
Tonka, always sensible, had called Doctor Craddock and he was now with the invalid, deciding what she should do.
“I look at it this way,” he said, as Jenny stood by, holding Isabel’s hat and coat in readiness, “if Mrs. Murray stays at home from this trip she will worry herself into a fever and become really ill. If she goes along it may well be that the sea air and the pleasant company will so chirk her up, that she will begin at once to improve. Don’t let her sit in the sun, but keep her in the open air, and guard her from all care or anxiety. You’ll do your part, won’t you?” the doctor looked at Isabel, hopefully.
“Yes,” she said, “I’ll do anything if you’ll let me go. If you keep me at home, and the rest go, I’ll have a tantrum right away!”
The look that came over her marred face proved the truth of her threat. The left cheek and left temple were in a state of mild eruption, which showed plainly through the film of powder Jenny had artfully applied.
“You see,” Craddock went on, “if Mrs. Murray improves, all will be well, but if she doesn’t and you think better to have further advice, you can stop off somewhere, can’t you, and see a doctor?”
The truth was Doctor Craddock was at his wits’ end. Unless this was a most exaggerated case of sunburn, he did not know what it was. He had no desire to admit this, and he was secretly glad to have this troublesome patient go away, and if necessary, pass the responsibility to someone else.
“Her maid, Jenny, will go with her, I suppose,” he said.
“No,” Tonka answered him. “We’re a large party, and we’re not taking Jenny. I can look after Isabel, and I’ll take better care of her than anyone else could.”
“Very well, my dear. I will give you a list of directions which you must follow carefully, and I think there will be no cause for anxiety. Indeed, Mrs. Murray is bracing up already just at the idea of going.”
And Isabel did look more like herself as she braced up to the occasion, and asked Jenny to bring her things.
In a swagger yachting costume, Isabel donned her smart hat and coat, and smiled as she announced herself ready.
Leif, greatly bucked up by her sudden improvement, led her out to the car which was to take them to the Club.
“Perfectly grand that you’re so much better, darling,” he said, “now, remember you’re not to make any exertion, just relax and take it easy on board. Don’t even try to entertain people, I will look after that, with Tonka’s help and Elaine’s.”
“Don’t you let Elaine do any hostess act,” and Isabel looked annoyed.
“No, indeed, Starlight! You are Queen of the Terpsichore and no one else has a look-in.”
At the Clubhouse, they found the waiting crowd, and it was but a short time before they were really afloat, in high spirits and happy mood.
Fleming Stone was with them, having telephoned at the last minute that he found he could surely come.
Isabel was quite like her own merry self, and as a tray of cocktails soon made its appearance, one of those added to her well-being.
“Glad you could make it, Stone,” Leif greeted his distinguished guest. “Who’s looking after the Tolman case?”
“I am,” returned the detective. “I don’t always have to appear in person, you see, and I plan to keep in touch with all interested parties. You won’t mind if I spend more or less time in the seclusion which my cabin grants. I am working on the case, you know, but I’m always at your disposal in any way.”
“Of course I understand, and your time is entirely your own. But I don’t believe you mean to be mysterious and you mustn’t mind if I ask you how you can work on a case far away from the scene and the personnel and the possible developments.”
“Oh, a detective’s life has a lot more work in it than absolute material investigation. I’ll tell you all about it sometime, and then you’ll understand the mechanism. But I don’t want to talk shop in this good company.”
The company scattered, as a steward appeared to show them to their staterooms, and Fleming Stone was much pleased to find himself in a large, light cabin, with ample room for the books and papers he had found it necessary to bring with him.
For the detective was not on board merely to enjoy a pleasure trip. Experience had taught him how to combine his pleasure with his work, and it was seldom that he went anywhere entirely for a vacation.
A valet came and offered his services and Stone told him at once and concisely just what he wanted from him, and when to make his appearances.
Always friendly of manner, Stone gave the man a substantial douceur and felt sure that happen what might he had an ally on board.
Not that he expected anything untoward to happen, but he lived in a state of preparedness for anything that might turn up.
A bugle call announced luncheon and it proved to be a hilarious meal.
Isabel, who was feeling fine, was a charming hostess, and though the eruptive inflammation on the left side of her face was painfully evident, it was so skillfully ignored by all that she almost forgot it herself.
Leif sat next to his wife, having bid Giles Trumbull to sit at the foot of the table.
Trumbull, a host in himself, obeyed understandingly, and so left Murray free to look after his wife.
And it was as well, for when Isabel rose to leave the table, saying they would have coffee on deck, she stumbled and would have fallen but for Leif’s quick grasp of her arm.
“You look after the coffee, Tonka,” Leif said, as he led Isabel away to her stateroom.
So Tonka did the honors, and William, the chief steward passed the cups round.
“Poor darling,” Tonka said, “she’s always like that the first day out. She’ll be all right by tomorrow, and maybe by tonight. We’ll let her alone and play by ourselves this afternoon. Anybody who wants deck games and things like that, just tell William and he’ll set ’em up.”
“I’m just going to loaf,” Elaine declared. “I like that place aft, all full of hammocks and big pillows and things. I’ve a book to read, but if anybody interrupts my reading, I shan’t mind a bit.”
“Now that’s an invitation I like,” said Leo Jewett. “Expect an early interruption, my dear.”
Coffee over, the two Garrisons drifted around to where Fleming Stone was sitting beside Tonka.
The all-seeing William pushed up deck chairs and Fleda began her interminable babble.
“It’s so delightful to have you along, Mr. Stone,” she said; “my husband is eager to talk with you. He has heard so much about you.”
“Oh, come now, Mrs. Garrison,” Stone parried, “I’m not a film queen. I disclaim all this popularity you credit me with.”
“Naughty man!” and Fleda shook a girlish forefinger at him. “You must accept your celebrity, you can’t disguise it. Now, we want to know, Jim and I do, just what you think of the Tolman affair and just what you’re going to do about it.”
Stone told them. He did not speak impromptu, he had arranged his speech for this very occasion, and he was prepared to use it. He had hesitated a moment, lest Jim Garrison might not be the impertinent sort his wife was; but he concluded the man was quite as intrusive and inquisitive as was his better half. So he let them have it.
“It is an abstruse question,” he began with a look of profound seriousness, “but I know you will understand me when I tell you the ethical side of the case. Ethical? Nay, I may say psychological. For if ever a case showed need for a psycho-physicist’s reasoning, surely we have it here. An apperception almost clairvoyant is distinctly called for, and I remember with great pleasure, Mrs. Garrison, your modest admission of your own ability in that direction. Your familiarity then, with ideology, indeed, with noöscopics, will readily suggest to you that this case can be treated only by psycho-analysis. Do you not agree with me? But of course you do. And you will not be surprised that I ask you, even before we begin our discussion, to set forth your own excogitations, so that I can intelligently supplement and complement them with my own.”
For once in her voluble, garrulous life Fleda Garrison was at a loss for words. She could have followed Stone’s words had he spoken more slowly, or had they been written words which she could read and digest.
But he rattled it off so quickly, and Fleda’s erudition was really so superficial that she didn’t half sense his speech. This made her embarrassed and she floundered sadly.
“I quite—quite agree with you, Mr. Stone. But—but I think, as you are the discoverer of these grave issues connected with the Tolman case, I think it would be fairer to me for you to tell me first, your own outlook on the subject and your own plan of procedure.”
“Willingly, Mrs. Garrison, willingly. Now, at what point do you want me to begin? We must view it in unison, you know, and if you will tell me the—let us say, the mental chiaroscuro you wish to utilize, we can get a start.”
Fleda was helpless. So also was Jim Garrison.
The man had a dim idea that Stone was spoofing them, but Fleda had no such suspicion and she was merely terrified.
Always she could impress people by her pseudo erudition, and now, to fall down at the very time she most wanted to shine was heart-rending.
Anxious to help his wife, Jim said, boldly; “I think Mrs. Garrison doesn’t quite understand you. I’m sure I don’t.”
“Oh, yes, I do, Jim! Of course I understand Mr. Stone. I’m thinking though, that I must give this thing a little more thought before I can formulate my decisions. Suppose we let the matter wait over until tomorrow, Mr. Stone, and then take it up afresh in the morning. After such a luxuriant luncheon as I fear I ate, I cannot feel my brain is at its best. But I assure you when it is at its best it’s a swift-working little engine, isn’t it, Jim?”
“Yes, indeed, honey, it is that! All right, Mr. Stone, let’s adjourn this meeting not sine die, but until tomorrow morning.”
“Fine idea and I fully agree. And as I too want to give the subject a bit more thought, I’ll go to my desk for a while. See you at tea time, Mrs. Garrison.”
He went away, half chuckling at the rise he had taken and half ashamed of himself for doing so.
Tea time, of course, was merely a euphemism for the cocktail hour, and the party collected themselves on the after deck for the occasion.
The women had donned frilly frocks and Isabel, in a trailing gown of shadowy blue, made a brave effort to play the happy hostess. And succeeded too. Always willing to sacrifice herself for others, she overcame her weariness and ignored the shooting pains that now and then attacked her in the back of the neck, and grew more and more painful.
Only Leif realized to the full what she was suffering, and he sat beside her, answering questions for her and parrying jests about her alleged mal de mer, an ailment she had never experienced.
“Where are we going?” Fleda asked, as she lounged prettily in a deck chair, her filmy gown of reddish brown crepe just matching her wavy auburn hair.
“Just playin’ around,” Leif told her. “We have no sailing orders as yet, but any may be offered from you all. As an objective point I had in mind Atlantic City, but if it doesn’t appeal, our good natured Captain Pike will turn into any other lane. Have you any choice, Fleda?”
“No, indeed, I’m perfectly happy just drifting. What does it matter where we go? I love Atlantic City. It’s so delightfully rakish, in a cheap way. Oh, I don’t mean inexpensive, you can spend lots of money at A. C. But its atmosphere is cheap. That’s what makes it so amusing.”
“What you mean, Fleda,” Elaine told her, “is that Atlantic City is not distinctly highbrow. I like that about it. Ingleside Heights is so stuffed with culture, you can’t say ‘It’s me,’ if you want to.”
“I should never want to commit such a solecism,” Fleda returned, in a tone of utter disdain.
“I don’t think you commit solecisms, dear. I think you are guilty of them.”
Fleda turned red, and Antony Ballard helped out. “Now, now, girls, no grammar lessons while we’re on holiday. On this yacht we can all be guilty of whatever we choose and commit anything we are craving to commit. Hey, Leif?”
“Of course. The ship is yours from stem to stern. I’m having the time of my life. Nothing gives me such ideal happiness as to be off in this craft with a few congenial spirits and fair weather.”
“Isn’t it life!” breathed Fleda, in a tense voice and with her fat little hands clasped to her breast.
“Ideal,” agreed Tonka. “And now I’m going to walk a thousand times around the deck for the sake of my svelte lines. Who’ll walk with me? You, Antony Ballard?”
“Honored,” said the always amenable man. “Come right along.”
The two started off to walk at a brisk pace, which soon settled down to a more leisurely stroll, and Tonka looked up at the big man towering above her.
“Let’s sit down here,” she directed, as they reached a bench far from the merry group. “Now, tell me, Antony B., what do you think ails Isabel?”
“Gosh, Tonka, I don’t know! Hasn’t she had the doctor? Doesn’t he say sunburn?”
“Sunburn, your grandmother! It’s something more than that. But if you don’t know, you don’t. I had an idea you were the medicinal sort. Who is? On board, I mean. Leif won’t worry about it at all—I can’t make him. Elaine won’t, either. But I am worried, and I know Isabel is. I’ve talked to Giles, and he appreciates the seriousness of it, but he says if it were anything dangerous, Doctor Craddock wouldn’t have let Isabel come. I am appealing to you, because I think you are wise and you know things. Can’t you see, without being a doctor, that Isabel is really ill? She tries to hide it, but she is getting worse.”
“I do understand, Tonka, and I do see the possibility of her becoming worse, but there is also the chance that a day or two at sea will brace her up and make her really well again. Shan’t we try it? You don’t mean you want to turn round and go home, do you?”
“I don’t know what I want.” The girl looked pitifully helpless, and the big-hearted man felt very sorry for her. But Ballard was a bachelor, and knew little of feminine nature, which, he had been led to believe was, in a general way, querulous, pettish and complaining. Women were not like that, when they were with him;, but he had a notion they were so, at home.
He was not a woman-hater, by any means, but he could easily find happiness in life with his books and his dogs and his occasional journeys to distant countries.
But he was a born comforter, and he had always liked Tonka, she was so different from the average girl.
“I think, you know,” he said, gently, “you are worrying unnecessarily about Isabel. I’ve been in tropic countries and I’ve seen deep sunburn that nearly ate the life out of a man. Isabel overdid her foolish sunbaths, but I’m sure it’s a case of ‘remove the cause and the effect will cease.’ At any rate, Tonka, girl, let’s try it. Give Isa a couple more days and nights to get over it, and see if she isn’t well on the mend by that time. If not—well, if not, I’d advise stopping off somewhere and seeing a doctor. There are lots of stopping places down along the Jersey coast, we can hug the shore, and if it seems wise, we can land and see about the matter. Hey, girl, that all right?”
“Y—yes, I suppose so. Nobody agrees with me as to Isabel’s condition. Giles Trumbull just laughs and says she’ll be all right in a day or two. Leif says the same and now you. I suppose I’m silly, but—well, here’s another thing. Now, don’t laugh, but her hair is coming out.”
“No, Tonka, I won’t laugh, but you mustn’t be utterly foolish. I’ve been told that when hair is falling out, the sun rays on it are most beneficial. I don’t know much about these matters, but I don’t believe sunburn makes your hair fall out!”
“No, it isn’t likely. But here’s the point, Antony. If Isabel’s pretty hair came out just a little, I wouldn’t think much about it. But it’s shocking, the way it is gone from the left side of her head.”
“I haven’t noticed it.”
“No, nor anyone else. Of course any woman could cover up a defect like that from ordinary observers. Isabel’s golden curls are so lovely, and she has so much hair, that she can draw it over to cover up the bald places and she ties a ribbon in to keep it so. As I say, a little thinning wouldn’t show, but when it comes out in patches, I can’t help wondering.”
“Part of the burning, I should say. But you do as I said, Tonka; wait a couple of days longer, then if matters get worse, I’ll talk to Leif about it. What does Isabel think, herself?”
“I can’t make her out. Sometimes she flouts it all, and says she’s perfectly well and there’s nothing the matter with her. Then again, she’ll burst out crying and say she’s going to die, and nothing can help her.”
“She doesn’t want to die?”
“My gracious, no! Of course not. She’s a great woman, Isabel is, much more fine and splendid than most people give her credit for. Sometimes I think Leif doesn’t fully appreciate her wonderful nature.”
“Sometimes I think that too,” and Ballard smiled a little. “If we’re talking straight goods, Tonka, I’ll say, she sometimes shows Leif a side of her nature not quite so wonderful as you’re making her out. She’s quick with her tongue, you know, and her tongue at times is sharp. Leif has never said a word to me, but I’ve heard her go out of her way to give him a mean slap sometimes.”
“I wouldn’t listen to that from anyone else,” and Tonka looked at the man with grave reproof. “But I have to admit, that you’re right in part, and I’ve heard Isabel say pretty hard things to Leif without any real reason for it. I adore Isabel, but that doesn’t mean I think she is perfect. Anyway I’ll do as you advise about her illness. You’re a real comfort, Antony. What do you think of our famous guest, the detective?”
“I like him, don’t you? No swank about him, no mystery-monging, no scorn of others’ opinions. I wish he’d talk shop more, but he doesn’t like to do that. Seems queer, though, why he came off on this pleasure trip, when he’s engaged on that Tolman case.”
“Is he engaged on it? By whom?”
“I don’t know. I supposed by the brother of Tolman. I’ve lost interest since we’ve come away. Up home, I couldn’t wait to hear the latest news, but away here by ourselves, I don’t care to hear the news at all.”
“I don’t either. I never listen in on the radio. But if anything turns up in the Tolman case, we’d know of it, wouldn’t we?”
“Oh, yes, we get all the radio news. Come on, girl, let’s play a game of skittles before dinner time.”
“I’ll go you,” Tonka said, but just then Fleda came along with Leo Jewett, and they stopped to talk.
“You ought to see Isabel,” Fleda said; “she’s dancing.”
“Dancing!” exclaimed Tonka, “she mustn’t do that.”
“Why ever not?” asked Fleda in surprise. “She’s in fine shape, and feels so well. Why can’t she dance, I’d like to know!”
“Oh, its probably all right,” Tonka answered, “but Doctor Craddock gave me a list of things she must not do, and dancing is one of them. I’m not going to disobey the doctor’s orders. Stay here, you people, and I’ll go and see about it.”
“Now, isn’t that life!” Fleda exclaimed as Tonka ran off. “Try your best to get Isabel braced up, and more like herself, and then get called down for it!”
“Did you set her dancing?” Ballard asked.
“Why, yes. We wanted her to brace up and be herself, so I proposed she dance with my husband and she seemed glad to do so. Tonka is foolishly fussy about her. Isabel would be all right if Tonka would let her alone.”
“I don’t agree, Fleda,” and Ballard looked at her reprovingly; “Tonka has the doctors orders and she is carrying them out. She’s all right, you let her alone.”
“Oh, very well. I’m sure I don’t want to harm Isabel. I thought a little dance would do her good.”
“And probably it has,” Jewett put in. “I think the best way for any of us to help Isabel is to refrain from advising her about this or that. I try to chirk her up, but I don’t advise. Come along, Fleda, let’s go back and dance some more.”
“You go, Leo. I’ll stay and talk with Antony for a bit.”
The dismissal was so definite, Jewett gave a grimace and walked off.
“Nice boy, Leo,” Fleda said, “but a little of him goes a long way. See here, Antony, you don’t think Isabel is so awful sick, do you?”
“Look here, Fleda, how do I know? Everybody is asking me about Isabel’s health or lack of health, as if I were a blooming specialist in skin troubles. I don’t know anything about eczema or athlete’s cheek or whatever she’s got, but I admit it looks pretty bad to me. I talked easy to Tonka, poor child. She’s all bothered about it. But I told her to wait a few days and see how Isa gets along. And I think that’s the right thing to do.”
“So do I, Antony. I think she’ll get well herself if we all let her alone. Come along and have a dance with me.”
They danced, thoughtlessly enough, the while an insidious foe was slowly gaining in a war against Isabel Murray’s well-being. Slowly undermining her health, her strength, her very life.
Small need to wonder if she were ill, she was indeed ill, and getting worse every moment.
UNTIL the occasion of Peter Tolman’s death, the police headquarters of Ingleside Heights had been such in name only. The headquarters were there, two rooms in the Town Hall building, air-conditioned and well conditioned otherwise, correctly and almost attractively appointed, and kept spotlessly clean by two alternating Swedish scrubwomen.
Furnished with all necessary fittings, the place was unused because of the utter absence of criminals or crimes to be investigated.
And now the time had come. The place justified itself, its name was no longer a misnomer, for it housed the papers and documents of the Tolman case, and several officials bustled in in the morning and bustled out again in the afternoon, putting in, except for a couple of luncheon hours, a busy day.
That Monday afternoon, just at the moment Fleming Stone, on the yacht Terpsichore, was ragging Fleda Garrison about psycho-analysis, the county coroner and the police detective were in confab.
“It seems to me,” Coles said, “a very queer thing for Mr. Stone to take on the Tolman case, to engage himself to Paul Tolman, and then to go off skylarking on a yacht trip with a gay crowd.”
“I dunno,” Lieutenant Browning returned; “I’ve had dealings with Fleming Stone before and I never knew him to do anything but what he had good reason for it.”
“All the reason he’s got is that he wants to have a good time and he couldn’t resist the temptation. That’s a mighty fine craft of Leif Murray’s and they have high old times on it.”
“Houseboat, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, that’s what they call it, but it isn’t much like what we use to mean by houseboat. I went in one once and it was like a bungalow set on a scow. But this is a regular high-flyer yacht, with a beautiful house on it, well it’s more like a great big cabin and it looks all shipshape.”
“Yes, I’ve seen them, they’re grand. Well’s I say, I’ll bet F. Stone knows what he’s about and he’ll stay about it till he gets it done.”
“And by then it’ll be too late to do any further investigating up here. How long is that trip going to be?”
“He didn’t tell me. Just said to carry on till he came back. If you want to pick up that inquest where you dropped it, you don’t have to wait for him.”
“I know I don’t. But truth to tell, I kinda depend on him for advice and things. He’s a wise one, he is; and good-natured, too. And, anyway, I haven’t any new evidence and I don’t see any way to get any.”
“Hold on there, Coles. Ain’t I the police detective, and ain’t it my business to hike up evidence?”
“Haven’t got any, have you?”
“I don’t say as I have and I don’t say but I have. I expect to talk with Mr. Stone tonight, and if there’s anything you want me to ask him, I will.”
“What do you mean, talk to him?”
“He’s going to call me on the telephone at ten o’clock this evening.”
“Where will he be then?”
“He’s going to step off the ship at Long Branch, and give me a call.”
“What do you s’pose? To see if I have any news about Tolman matters. Wish I had.”
“I say, Browning, can’t I talk to him? You’ve nothing to tell him, turn him over to me for ten minutes, won’t you?”
“How’ll he like that? He didn’t tell me to do anything of that sort.”
“But I have something to tell him, and he’ll be glad to know of it.”
“All right, you give me your message, and I’ll pass it along. I don’t want to do what I ain’t told to do, see?”
“No, I don’t see, and I want to talk to him myself.”
“All right, then, I’ll do this. After I have my confab with him, I’ll ask him if he’ll talk with you.”
“No, don’t put it that way; tell him I want to talk to him and ask him if I may.”
“All right, I’ll do that. And you try to persuade him to come back here. He can leave the yacht any time, they’re just drifting along, stopping wherever and whenever anybody wants to. I think Atlantic City is their objective point and then, if Mrs. Murray gets better, to go along further south. Like as not wind up at Gibson Island.”
“One of the swanky places to go to. In Chesapeake Bay, I think.”
“That’s a long way off.”
“Yeah. It’s all of that. Lordy, I want F. S. to come back, too. If he wasn’t mixed in with us, I’d go ahead on my own. But he is a genius, you know, and I’d ruther tag along with him, than make a mad dash myself, and maybe find it all wrong.”
“All right, Browning; I’ll be here tonight at ten, and I hope to goodness, we can get some satisfaction out of our disappearing detective.”
“What’s up? Has the rolling Stone rolled away?”
Humbert Paley walked into the room, and seated himself.
“Yes,” Browning answered him, “he’s gone on a cruise with the Murrays.”
“I thought he was retained by Pete Tolman’s brother.”
“He is. He proposes to work at long distance.”
“He seems to combine work and play, then,” complained Coroner Coles.
“I’m not so keen on him,” Paley declared; “does Paul Tolman know he’s deserted?”
“Nonsense,” Browning said; “Mr. Stone hasn’t deserted. He went on the trip for reasons of his own, and they were in some way connected with the work he’s doing for Paul Tolman. Don’t you get any notion that Fleming Stone is anything less than the best.”
“Sez you and who else?” Paley got up to go. “No use my staying here, nobody knows anymore about things than I do.”
Coles gave the speaker a peculiar glance.
“That thought has passed through my mind, Paley,” he said, and his voice held no tone of banter. “Suppose you tell us some of the things you know.”
“Look out there, Doctor Coles; are you making what the poet calls a veiled hint?”
“Well, if it seems veiled, I’ll make it more distinct. Can you tell me anything from your store of knowledge that would remove these vague fears that haunt me?”
“Of what nature are your vague—er, suspicions?”
“Suspicions being your word, not mine. Perhaps they’re hallucinations, but I seem to imagine you as somewhat deeply mixed up in this Tolman passing.”
“Meaning Pete’s death? I hate that term, passing— always sounds like a spiritualistic seance.”
“I never attended one of those, though I’ve heard of them. All right, can you convince me that you had nothing to do with the causes that brought about Peter Tolman’s death?”
“If you’ve made up your mind, and you seem to have done so, that I killed Tolman or assisted at his killing, I doubt if anything I can say will convince you to the contrary. I do say, though, that I did not have anything to do with the poisoned gumdrop—I mean the poisoned peach kernel, which undoubtedly killed the poor chap. And I believe that’s what happened. I do not believe the poison stuff in the peach pits killed him. Nor do I want to discuss that question here and now. But I do ask you, Coroner Coles, if you suspect me of murder, as your speech and attitude lead me to suppose?”
“Suspect is too strong a word, at the present stage of investigation, Mr. Paley. Also, this conversation is not at all official, you needn’t carry on, unless you choose. But sometimes a little talk clears the atmosphere and proves helpful. I wish you would tell me if the story told by Miss Mead was true in the main.”
“In the main, yes. Pete Tolman and I were inventing a helpful adjunct to a radio instrument. It is practically complete, and about to be patented, and we were settling up the final details of our personal contract before taking out our patent. As is not an isolated case, we disagreed as to the division of the proceeds. We had talked over this matter several times, and we hoped that day to come to a final conclusion. The conversation was private but not secret. If anyone had overheard us, we might have been annoyed, but not angry. Some jesting remarks we passed seemed to that Tonka girl to be threats of rather a serious nature. There was nothing of that sort. Tolman and I were very old friends. We had worked before on mechanical inventions, but we had never previously brought any of our work so near to perfection. If you look at the matter fairly, you will see at once that the last thing I desired was Pete Tolman’s death. Why, it throws the whole responsibility of our invention right back on me, and I can’t swing it all. As is the case, in most collaborations, one does a certain part of the work, and the other does the rest. It was so with us. We had each contributed our separate parts of the work, and as you can readily understand, it will be difficult for me to finish up my own details and look after Pete’s, too. I may have to engage the services of some skilled mechanician to see me through, but that I do not want to do. At least not until I try to do it all myself. This may sound grasping, but I’m sure you can see how unfair it would be to bring in a third party to share the profits that should have gone to Tolman. The whole matter must of course be delayed, but I’m telling you this, to show you how unfortunate it is for me that Peter died just now, quite aside from the natural grief I feel at losing my good friend.”
Coles looked thoughtful.
“I have had experience with witnesses, Mr. Paley,” he said, “and I don’t mind telling you that your words carry weight with me.”
“Me, too,” exclaimed Browning, heartily. “I was a mite suspicious, Paley, but you’ve changed my ideas a bit. I can see how you meant those speeches that Tonka Mead repeated with a different twang to ’em. She’s a queer stick, anyway, and they do say she’s half-witted.”
“They say a base libel, then,” and Coles looked irate. “Tonka Mead is an odd sort, but she has a good head and a fine intellect. She has a queer streak in her, but she is deeply devoted to Mrs. Murray, and cares for her with real love and affection. I think we’d better forget her account of the sycamore tree, and turn our efforts to tracking down the murderer of Peter Tolman. I am not putting you out of my mind entirely, Paley, and I am frankly telling you so. Now, knowing Tolman as you did, can you suggest anybody who might come under suspicion?”
“Well, no; unless it might be some of the maids. Pete was not above carrying on flirtations with servants and even while he was married to Mrs. Vernon, he was none too particular in choosing his sweethearts.”
“Yes, I know that,” and Coles shook his head. “It might well be that something of that sort led to the divorce.”
“Maybe,” agreed Browning, and then the caucus broke up and the men went their different ways.
At ten o’clock, though, the two policemen were at the tryst to wait for Fleming Stone.
The detective called promptly on the hour, and Lieutenant Browning answered him.
“Any new developments?” the detective asked. “Nothing definite, Mr. Stone,” Browning told him. “How’s the trip starting off?”
“Fine. Is Doctor Coles going to reopen the inquest while I’m away?”
“I’m not sure, he isn’t sure himself. He’s right here, and he wants to talk to you.”
“All right, Lieutenant; but wait a minute, I wish you’d get busy on the subject of Peter Tolman’s will. I don’t know that he left one, but try every way to find out. Telegraph or telephone Paul Tolman, find out any way you can, but be sure your information is authentic.”
“I’ll get about it first thing in the morning. When do you expect to return?”
“Can’t tell yet. I’m having a delightful time, I love sailing.”
“Hum Paley has been here. He’s sore because you went off skylarking when you ought to be here looking after this case.”
“He says I went off on a spree and neglected my responsibilities to Paul Tolman and to the police?”
“That’s about the way he puts it.”
“Well, tell him he has sized me up fine. He’s just right in his opinions.”
“Oh, pshaw, now, Mr. Stone, I’m not saying we think that. We know you better.”
“Never mind explaining, Browning. But I don’t mind telling you that to find the murderer of Peter Tolman is like hunting for a needle in a haystack, and you know that is not an easy trick. All right, if you’ve no more to tell me, give me Doctor Coles.”
The coroner took over and asked first regarding Mrs. Murray.
“She’s all right so far,” Stone replied. “I rather think the sea air will do her good, though she is in a pretty bad way. Any news, Doctor?”
“No. As a matter of fact I thought I wanted to talk to you about Mr. Paley; but he was in here today for a chat, and I think I may say I’ve gone over to his side.”
“Just what do you mean by that?”
“Well, I sort of gathered from the story of the girl who was up in the tree, that Paley was a man to be looked after. But today he was so straightforward and convincing in what he said, that I have no slightest suspicion of him in connection with the death of Tolman.”
“What did he say, that was so convincing?”
“Why, that they were working together on an invention, and were about to get it patented, and that Tolman’s presence was as necessary as his own to put the thing over. That it upset things terribly to have Tolman go off just now, and he feared he might not be able to swing the matter alone. He was so frank and honest about it all, that I revised my opinion of the man. Lots of people don’t like him, and I had a sort of prejudice against him myself, but I feel different since we talked it over. What’s your opinion of him, Mr. Stone?”
“As a murder suspect, do you mean?”
“Yes, or in any way.”
“I can’t quite ticket him yet, but don’t let him get away. I shall be back by Thursday night, I feel sure, and we may be glad to have Paley as a material witness. Any how, Doctor, see to it that he stays in town.”
“If he goes off and I don’t know it, what then?”
“Don’t let that happen. Get the Inspector to arrange to keep him covered and at the first sign of his leaving town, tell him he can’t go. Don’t let him give you the slip.”
“You suspect him, then?”
“I don’t say that. Just put it in the proper hands and say I said Mr. Paley must not leave Ingle Heights before my return. If he tells you, in his frank, convincing way that he has a most important errand in Kamschatka, and you let him go, see that he is closely and carefully followed by your best shadower.”
“You make it sound important, Mr. Stone.”
“It is important. Never forget that. Watch him, Doctor Coles. Note anything he does, that seems the least bit out of the ordinary. You won’t regret a close attention to this advice.”
“Of course, I shall remember and carry out your directions, Mr. Stone. I may expect you, then, by Thursday?”
"Yes, you may expect me and I shall probably be there, but I can’t say positively. Yachting cruises are uncertain affairs, and as Paley says, I am an irresponsible sort.”
“You’re in Long Branch, I take it. Are you staying there all night?”
“Oh, no. We’ll go back to the yacht for the night. After we have seen a few more of the bright lights. I’m a gay bird, you know.”
After a few further amenities, Coles offered the telephone to the Lieutenant, but he shook his head, so the coroner exchanged good nights with the detective and then cradled the instrument.
“I don’t get that man,” Coles said; “he’s friendly enough, but he certainly was a bit sarcastic about Paley.”
“Oh, I don’t know, but I think it jarred him to know Paley looked on him as a deserter.”
“I wish you wouldn’t use that word. Who is he deserting? He is under no obligations to the police; he is working for Paul Tolman, and he has a right to conduct his course as he sees fit.”
“You’re daffy over him. I believe if he suspected you, you’d say he had a right to. Or me.”
“You, yes. But not me. I’m certain of my own integrity, but I’m always a bit skeptical about yours.”
“Of course. That’s because you don’t know what integrity means.”
It was the habit of these two old friends to wrangle jocularly, and without further discussion of the absent detective, they went to their respective homes.
Fleming Stone, at his end of the line, looked satisfied with the interview in which he had just taken part, and after sitting a few moments in deep thought, he rose and left the building.
Like the traditional sailors, Stone had friends in every port, and he went in search of a medical man he knew. Parrott was not a practicing physician, but a consulting authority of high standing.
He greeted his old friend with pleasure, and though Stone could stay but a short time, he learned what he wanted to know.
As to the peach pits, Parrott was of the very positive conviction that death could not be brought about by the kernels unassisted, and he advised Stone to look for the murderer among men of strength and brutality rather than of subtle character. Stone had long ago come to this conclusion, but he nodded in agreement and went on;
“Why men? Seems to me like a woman’s work. Say, one of the maids at the Inn. She would have constant opportunities and he was forever making up to those girls.”
“All right; that’s your work. But take it from me, there was more prussic acid in the kernel that killed Tolman, than nature ever put in it.”
“All right. Now here’s another question. Can the rays of the sun, as indulged in by people who are batty about sunbaths, sun soaking and sun extravagance generally, so affect these devotees as to make them seriously ill?”
“In two conditions, yes. One is, that some few—very few, people have a peculiar and particular sensitivity to sunlight and to them such an over-indulgence is certainly dangerous, and might, in very rare instances, prove fatal. The other condition is based on the fact that our good old sun has in it an obscure and little known poisonous ray, that plays the devil with some people and in some circumstances. This is an acknowledged and recorded truth, but if your doctor never heard of it, don’t blame him too much. Lots of doctors are entirely ignorant of it, and they are just as well off.”
“Never mind other doctors, Parrott, you stand for the statement that given certain conditions the sun can poison a human being?”
“Yes; but the conditions are hard to come by. In fact, I should say that I think the case would have to occur in the tropics or equatorial regions, though that stipulation I am not prepared to swear to.”
“Oh, you’re not on your oath, old man, but it’s a case I’m deeply interested in, and I want to learn all I can about it.”
Stone then detailed the developments of Isabel’s illness, so far as he knew them, and Parrott listened attentively.
“Too complicated,” he said, at last. “Impossible to dissert on such a case without full knowledge and close observation. It might be some tropical disease, contracted in some unknown way. It might be pellagra or some kindred disorder. And it might be, merely and only the work of that bad old ray in our great and glorious sun. No can say.”
“Who would know?”
“In my opinion only the Almighty. I fear any doctor who might undertake to diagnose it would be overcome by the exuberance of his own verbosity and would give you sound without sense.”
“If you say so, it’s so,” and Stone rose to go. He had known Parrott many years and had often come to him for wisdom and knowledge, and he knew if his friend had any more definite or satisfactory data to give, it would have already been spoken.
Leaving the house, Stone went to the hotel, where he would meet the crowd from the yacht.
Isabel had not come. She said she felt well enough for the party, but her face was so badly ulcered on one side, and her pretty hair was so deficient on that same side, that she laughingly declared her vanity simply refused to let her show herself at a Night Club.
Tonka stayed with her, but they both insisted that Elaine and Fleda must go. There were plenty of men, and the two women must go with them to make a proper party.
Leif was for staying on board, but Isabel wouldn’t hear of that and shooed her husband off to play host to his guests.
Antony Ballard stayed behind and Trumbull wanted to, but he finally went off with the others.
Ballard was an expert entertainer and he did his best to make the time pass pleasantly.
He convulsed both Isabel and Tonka with some funny stories he told; he turned on the radio, and keeping his finger on the stop, unseen, he interpolated words of his own now and then, with ludicrous effect.
But he soon saw weariness overtake Isabel.
She nestled uneasily in her big chair, then she moaned a little and suddenly she was in the throes of a violent and frightening convulsion.
Tonka sprang toward the writhing figure, but Antony drew her back.
The girl understood, and just stood helplessly by until the crisis passed and like sun shining through the clouds, Isabel smiled again.
“What happened?” she said, naturally. “Did I drop asleep?”
“No, dear,” Antony said, “but you must go to sleep now. Tonka will take care of you.”
He carried her to her cabin and laid her on the bed. Under the gentle ministrations of Tonka, Isabel fell into a quiet, peaceful sleep.
NEXT morning a steward came to Fleming Stone’s cabin and asked if he would see Mr. Ballard for a few minutes.
“Yes, indeed,” Stone said, and Ballard shortly appeared.
“I want to say,” the visitor began, after the cabin door was closed on the two men, “that there’s the devil’s work going on in this ship.”
“You think so too?” Stone said, quietly.
“So you’ve noticed things. Well, I’m not a practiced observer nor a shrewd reasoner, but I think there’s something uncanny about Isabel Murray’s illness.”
“What do you know?” Stone’s voice was deep and genuine, without a trace of curiosity.
“That’s just it; I don’t know anything. And that makes me all the more alarmed. Did you hear what happened last night?”
“Yes, from Leif. He didn’t take it very seriously.”
“Well, he ought to! I declare I don’t understand that man. I know he loves Isabel, he adores her and always has, but he is not terribly cast down by her mysterious illness.”
“Is it mysterious? Anything more than sunburn to the nth power?”
“I think so. But what do I know of such things? Who told Leif about last night? Did he say?”
“If you didn’t, Tonka must have. There was no one else here. Leif wouldn’t accept a servant’s story. I think Mrs. Murray told him herself. I hear she’s all right this morning. You tell me about it.”
“Why, it was simply that Isabel had a bad turn—a very bad one. She had a distressing spasm, then a dreadful convulsion. I’ve seen epileptics, but this was more —more maniacal. Her eyes rolled almost out of sight, and she looked, well, not only demented but demoniac, she didn’t look like a human being at all! Her face was so distorted with some strange emotion or possession that I could scarce believe it was Isabel. I motioned to Tonka to keep still and not touch her, for she was like a wild creature. Not ferocious, I don’t mean that, but as if possessed by an evil spirit that was tearing at her vitals. Don’t think me hysterical, Stone, but I want you to see her as I did, or somewhere near it. Now, nothing will ever make me believe that the results of a bad sunburn could have such an effect.”
“What do you believe, then?”
“If we were in the medieval ages, I’d believe that she was possessed of a demon, literally. But I suppose that is out of the question, so I’m forced to think that by some hocus-pocus somebody is poisoning her.”
“Somebody on the boat, then?”
“I can’t subscribe to that.” Ballard looked as if at his wits’ end. “Everybody on board is her friend and loves her. Could it be that somebody at home, someone back in Ingle Heights, gave her some poison to bring along with her, and she is taking it with no thought of harm?”
“It seems incredible, but so few things are really impossible of belief. I won’t say, Ballard, that this idea is entirely new to me, but it is so astounding, so monstrous I can’t seem to adjust myself to it.”
“I don’t wonder at that. I feel just the same way. And yet, they say she is all right this morning. Is there any vile potion, any tropical slimy poison stuff that could be given her secretly?”
“But how? No one has access to her alone, except Leif and Tonka. You can’t suspect them, can you?”
“Oh, Stone, I thought you’d understand! Of course I don’t suspect anyone and I shan’t until I have to; but could it be possible? If so we can take up manner, motive and identity afterward.”
And then Stone told him of the things that Doctor Parrott had revealed the night before.
“So you see,” the detective wound up, “it may possibly be plain, everyday sunburn to an exaggerated degree, it may be some rare and insidious disease and it may be something which Doctor Parrott didn’t recognize because I didn’t state the case in extenso. But, as I look at it, Ballard, it’s not a question for you or me, we know nothing of these obscure ailments. If asked, I should advise getting the sick woman to a hospital as quickly as possible. But I’ve no right to advise her husband unless I am asked. And even then, I should merely make the suggestion. It is for Leif Murray, or for Isabel herself to decide what shall be done. She is sane enough between attacks, isn’t she?”
“Yes—but I don’t look on them as periodic attacks, I think some day soon she will have one of these strange convulsions and die in it.”
“I think it probable you are right. It is a terrible situation. I am quite ready to do anything to help, but I don’t see my way clear. Can you advise me? I feared I was going beyond the proprieties when I consulted my medical friend. And, look here, Ballard, I won’t take any step without consulting Murray. He may know more than we do about her illness, and not want to tell. You know how people are about certain diseases. Mayn’t this be some strange form of cancer? You know that has many vagaries.”
“I think Craddock would have known if it were cancer. Yes, that is unpredictable in its various forms, but— well, I don’t know what to do, I’m sure.”
“Don’t do anything for the moment. Wait through today, unless indeed Mrs. Murray grows rapidly worse. Then let’s have a session with Murray himself and find out just where he stands.”
So Ballard went away, and joined the group on the after deck, while Fleming Stone leaned back in his chair, with a feeling he had not experienced for a long time, the feeling of utter despair.
Suddenly, acting on an impulse, he rang the bell that called William.
That impeccable automaton appeared at once and awaited orders.
“Do you know where Miss Mead is?” Stone asked him.
“Yes, sir; she is on the after deck, with the others."
“Go to her, William, and ask her if she will come here to see me for a few moments. If possible, ask her without the rest hearing, but don’t seem to make a secret of it.”
“I understand, sir.”
William was good at understanding, and the result was Tonka’s appearance at Stone’s cabin door, shortly.
“Come in, Tonka,” Stone greeted her. “I wonder if you care to be perfectly frank with me and tell me exactly how Mrs. Murray was affected last evening.”
Though not beautiful, Tonka looked very attractive. Sport clothes were becoming to her, especially those with the nautical touch. Her yellow hair was tossed by the deck breezes and her tan was very becoming.
At Stone’s words, she flung herself into a chair and looked at him helplessly, while big tears formed in her eyes.
“It’s all so strange,” she said, almost in a whisper; “but bad as the attack was—and it was horrible—it is the mystery of it all that frightens me. How could Isa, how could anybody have that fiendish convulsion, and then wake up this morning perfectly well and in good spirits, seemingly. Of course, she isn’t perfectly well, but except for her poor scarred face, no one would know it.”
“No other symptoms of illness this morning?”
“Oh, I can’t say that. Yes, there are other things. She can’t seem to walk without assistance. She stumbles in her speech, too. And she is just a little flighty, but not much. Yet she is as gay as a lark in her manner, and her smile is bright and even happy.”
“There was no immediate reason, that you know of, for her attack last night?”
“Oh, no. We had a pleasant evening, almost a gay one. Antony was in his nonsensical vein, and when he’s that way, he’s awfully funny. And we had champagne and caviare sandwiches and Isabel enjoyed them.”
“Nothing she ate or drank upset her?”
“No. It was an hour or more after we had the champagne that she was so ill.”
“Who told Leif about it? You?”
“Yes; and I didn’t make it out quite as bad as it really was. You know Leif hated to go ashore and leave her here, but it was lucky he did. If she had had that spasm in a restaurant, it would have been too awful. Leif is so devoted he never wants to be away from her, but she made him see that he owed it to his guests to go with them. And of course, he could have done nothing for Isabel if he had been here. It was a dreadful scene. Don’t tell Leif, but I honestly thought she was going to die. And I know Antony thought so. He didn’t say so, afterward, but I could see the fear in his eyes when Isabel seemed to be fighting for the very breath of life.”
“Tonka,” Stone spoke suddenly, “is there any foul play going on?”
He scarcely knew himself what response he looked for, but it certainly was not the reply he got.
The piquant little face changed utterly. A red flush dyed it for an instant and then passed leaving it deathly white. The eyes showed fear, shame and a sort of horror, and Tonka grasped the chair arms with trembling fingers.
“So—so you’ve found me out,” she said, in a low whisper.
Fleming Stone stared at her.
Almost unable to speak, he grasped the situation and mastered it.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said, with a little smile, “suppose you tell me about it.”
The girl was struggling to regain her poise and was succeeding. She was quiet now, and her breathing was even and normal.
“About what you think I have found out—and perhaps I have.”
But Tonka was herself again.
“Oh, well,” she said, lightly, “if you find anything out, you’d better tell me. Aren’t you coming out on deck? Better come along. They’re fixing up a gala of some sort for tonight. Are you keen on that sort of thing? I trow not.”
Tonka laughed in his face, and indeed it was laughable to think of that stern-faced man being interested in anything of a gala nature.
But the infectious laugh of the girl stirred some responsive chord, and he said, almost gaily;
“You bet I am! I adore that sort of thing! Try me and see.”
“Come on, then,” and Tonka grasped his hand, as he rose from his chair.
Just outside they met Elaine and Giles Trumbull.
“Run along, Tonka,” Giles said, “we’ll all follow in a few minutes.”
Tonka ran along and the other three went into Stone’s cabin.
“Just a few well chosen words,” Elaine asked for, and they sat down.
“I may have no right to ask you,” she went on; “in fact I was afraid to come here, but Giles said he’d protect me if you became very ferocious.”
“Go to it,” Stone said, wondering what was coming now.
“It’s about Isabel, and I don’t know just how to put it”
“Put it as plainly as possible,” Stone told her, in his gentlest way.
Elaine ran her fingers through her dark curls.
“I will,” she said, slowly. “Well, then, I have a feeling, perhaps absurd, that there is something wrong with Isabel. Something more, I mean, than any known disease, however obscure and rare.”
“Yes?” said Stone, encouragingly; “you mean—”
“Speak out, Elaine,” Giles prompted, but her appealing glance at him made him go on, himself.
“To put it plainly,” he said, “Elaine means something supernatural. A curse—or the evil eye, or something weird and mysterious.”
In spite of his desire not to, Stone had to smile a little at these two seemingly sensible people proposing to him this ridiculous theory.
But he spoke seriously.
“Do you mean this literally?” he asked Elaine. “Do you really have some such idea?”
“Yes, to that!” She grasped at the expression. “Yes, that’s the way I want it put. Some such idea is what I have. But it doesn’t get me anywhere. I know all superstition is not only wrong but it is silly. All the same, your wide experiences must have taught you that there are people in this world, of wide knowledge and wise understanding, who are superstitious and are not ashamed of it.”
“Yes, Mrs. Vernon, I do know that. I have known such. I am not superstitious myself, but I have no scorn for those who are. I myself believe in certain signs and portents that others might laugh at. Do you care to tell me more in detail what you are getting at? Does your superstition have any bearing on the matter of Mrs. Murray’s illness?”
“Why, yes,” and Elaine looked troubled. “You see, Isabel and I are such old friends and such dear friends that I can’t speak to her about this without hurting her feelings. I mean, when I humor her superstitious moods she is glad and she gets expansive and tells me things. But if I seem to disapprove, she gets hurt and shuts up like a clam.”
“That’s so,” Trumbull corroborated, “I’ve often ragged Isabel about her foolish notions, and she sure does get huffy. So I’ve learned to let her alone on the subject.”
“Does her husband hold with these chimeras?” Stone asked.
“No,” Elaine said, hesitatingly. “Really, that is the one flaw in their happiness. I never knew a more devoted couple; their tastes are alike, almost always. Then they always like the same people and the same places, and they never squabble over anything unless the subject of superstition comes up.”
“It seems unfortunate,” Stone said, musingly. “But are you linking up superstition with Mrs. Murray’s illness?”
“That’s what perplexes me,” Elaine looked thoughtful. “She links them. She has a crazy notion that this skin disease that she has, is sent her by a wicked fate of some sort as a punishment for the pride she took in her lovely complexion. She was vain of it, any woman would be. But what I want to ask you, Mr. Stone, is this.” Elaine shook her shoulders and seemed to straighten herself as if getting down to cases. “Do you advise me, when she talks of her superstitious fears, to humor her, by which I mean seem to agree with her, or to tell her, as kindly as I can, not to look on it as a punishment for her sinful vanity, but to accept it as an illness which we must use every possible means to cure?”
“I don’t want to seem ungracious, Mrs. Vernon, and I know you will think I am merely tossing the ball back to you; but as I know Mrs. Murray so slightly, that is, so superficially, I scarcely dare advise. In so far as my advice is of any use, I feel I ought to tell you that it always seems to me dangerous to humor such important errors as Mrs. Murray seems to have fallen into. Yet there are exceptions, and as I say, I cannot judge whether this case is one of those exceptions or not. But may I, without offense, tell you that I feel sure you will choose the wisest course. I have observed the sincere and trusting friendship between yourself and Isabel Murray. And I feel that such a deep affection as exists between you two will show you what is undoubtedly the best thing to do. Perhaps you could cleverly steer a course between agreeing with her too readily and differing from her too abruptly. If you can, avoid or dismiss the subject when it comes up. Though I well know that would need adroit effort, I am sure you could compass it, often if not always.”
“Good for you, Stone,” and Giles Trumbull’s big fine face showed his appreciation of the detective’s speech. “Now, Elaine, aren’t you glad I made you come here and get just the very advice and encouragement you needed?”
“Yes, Giles, I am. You’re a great help, Mr. Stone, and I shall not forget a word you said. I’ll think it over and mentally digest it, and it will be of definite use to me in my dealings with Isabel. She is such a darling, I hate to cross her in any way, but as you have shown me, I do see my way clear to do the right thing. How can I ever thank you?”
“Your kind and sincere appreciation is all the thanks I want, Mrs. Vernon. That, and a promise that you will tell me if things work out well, and you find you can avert, even to a slight extent, that fear and dread of the supernatural that now torments Mrs. Murray.”
“Come on, now,” Giles urged; “let’s join the crowd, or they’ll think we’re plotting treasons, stratagems and spoils.”
But when they joined the others, it was Isabel herself who made the accusation. “I know what you people have been up to,” she said, shaking a playful finger at them.
And it was pitiful to see how the slender finger shook with an intractable force, quite apart from the roguish motion Isabel meant to give it.
Every muscular action of her left side was uncertain and trembling.
When she walked her left foot dragged. When she moved her arms the left one followed laggingly behind the other.
That Isabel was conscious of this was shown by the efforts she made to hide it. So no one appeared to notice it, and the party carried on as if there were no terrifying fear hanging over their heads, no hint of tragedy to come.
And, too, Isabel was in the highest of spirits. She was nervous and tremulous physically, but mentally she was unusually quick-witted and seemed to be thoroughly enjoying herself.
“I know what you people have been up to,” she said; “you’ve been concocting some fun for tonight. You can’t deny it. All right, but you must tell Leo about it He’s master of ceremonies and he’s a good one.”
“I’ll be a good one, all right,” Jewett told them, “if you’ll give me good numbers. Some of them are arranged, and I’ll vouch for them, myself. Mr. Stone, we want something from you. What’s your specialty in parlor tricks?”
“A spiritualistic séance,” Fleming Stone replied, seemingly unconscious of one or two startled gasps from somewhere.
“Oh, glorious!” exclaimed Fleda Garrison. “I’d love that of all things! Do put it over, Leo.”
“Of course he will,” came Isabel’s clear voice. “I’d love that, too. You don’t mind, Leif?”
For Murray was scowling as if really angered at the suggestion.
“I take it you mean a burlesque one, Stone,” he said, “not the real thing.”
“Is there a real thing?” Stone said, chaffingly. “Yes, I mean a burlesque. I thought our whole program was to be fun-making.”
“So it is.” Leif seemed relieved. “All right; I’ll do my farmyard buffoonery, shall I, Heartsease?”
“Yes, do,” Isabel said, with an affectionate smile. “I haven’t heard that in the longest while, and I love it. You’ll enjoy that, Mr. Stone.”
“I’m sure I shall; what is it?”
“You’ll find that out when you hear it. Leif does it so cleverly. Now fix up your séance, Mr. Stone. I’m strong for that.”
Antony Ballard was a fine ventriloquist and he agreed to do his bit.
As it turned out there would be too many turns for one evening, they decided to make it up for two, half taking part one night and half the next.
All day, Isabel remained happy and well, save for her disfigured face, and she seemed oblivious of that as she turned her attention to the preparations for the entertainment.
Leo Jewett was a prestidigitator of real merit, and needing a lady assistant he chose Isabel for the part, and trained her in the tricks he meant to play. This, however, was to come on the second night’s program.
Late in the afternoon, Elaine persuaded Isabel to go to her cabin for a rest before the evening’s gayeties. She went willingly enough, and soon Tonka reported her as being peacefully asleep.
“Why in the world,” Elaine found occasion to say to Fleming Stone, “did you plan a séance, of all things? I thought you wanted me to keep Isabel off such things.
“In earnest, yes,” Stone returned. “But my idea is just a burlesque, you know. We sit round in a circle and odd speeches and such things happen, and I’m hoping it will lead Mrs. Muray to see the ridiculous side of it, and so feel less confidence in it.”
“Oh, I see. You’ve conversation planned?”
“Only in part. But impromptu stuff is better than cut and dried lines. I’m sure it will be amusing.”
“Of course it will. Can I be in it?”
“If you please, I’m depending on you to watch Mrs. Murray. See how she takes it. I want to know exactly what she does or says. I’d ask Tonka to do this, but the girl has so much on her mind. She’s practically hostess, you see.”
When they assembled in the big living-room, gay with lights and flowers, Isabel was the life of the party.
She chaffed Jim Garrison on being too quiet, and told him she had a stunt for him to do the next night and it would make a big hit. She flirted with Leo Jewett, and told him a funny wisecrack that he could put in his monologue.
Then she went and cuddled down beside Leif on a love seat, and waited for the séance to take place.
At last its turn came, and Isabel took her place at the round table, whereon everybody laid two outstretched hands, little fingers touching their neighbors. And the place went dark.
A queer sort of little figure scampered across a white sheet hung on the wall and Micky Mouse squeaked out a message to Ballard, avowedly from his faraway sweetheart.
They all knew it was Antony’s skilled ventriloquism and the laughter was more and louder.
The number was nearly over, and they sat in the darkness, listening for the final absurdity, when a deep, almost guttural voice said:
The words were not spoken clearly, they were slurred, but that only made them more startling. The effect they gave was so different from Ballard’s foolery, that it was hard to believe it was his work. Yet what else?
There was silence for a moment and then a loud scream from Isabel, followed by a rattle in her throat and an unearthly groan that was like nothing human.
Stone flashed on the lights, he had made sure that it would be in his power to do this, and they saw Isabel in the throes of an awful convulsion, her head turned awry, her eyes staring, her breath coming in audible gasps, and a wild shriek of mad laughter coming at intervals from her frothing lips.
Elaine went on deck the next morning, she found Leif already there, smoking and musing.
“Dear Leif,” she said, gently, “I am so sorry for you. How is Isabel this morning?”
“She’s asleep now,” and there was a quiver in the man’s voice. “She had a bad night. Not convulsions, no, but restless and jerky motions and pitiful moans. Then she’d talk, gosh, how she talked! Rattled away like mad, and all of it senseless, light-headed talk. Not like delirium but just babbling, with little bursts of silly laughter. That was the worst, I think. It made us fear she was losing her mind.”
“Us? Who was with you?”
“Tonka. She heard Isabel laugh and she came in about dawn, so I could get a rest. Tonka’s a good girl. I have never liked her, but she is a marvel with Isabel. She can quiet her when I can’t do anything with her.”
“I can manage Isabel, too. It’s a knack. Call me next time she is so restless.”
“I will. I say, Elaine, I’m thinking of stopping today at Atlantic City. I’ll go ashore and go to the hospital. Then if I can get a doctor, a sort of specialist, you know, to come over here, I’ll bring him back with me and let him take a look at Isabel. What do you think?”
“I think it’s a fine idea. But he’ll tell you she ought to be taken to the hospital.”
“All right, then we’ll take her. I think she ought to go there myself. I’ve just begun to realize that she is in a bad way. In a dangerous way.”
“Yes, everybody else has already seen that. But that’s not surprising. It’s the nearest and dearest who are blinded to such things. Can we get her over there in case we decide to take her?”
“Oh, yes, Tonka will go along, and if necessary, William can carry her across the dock.”
“I’ll go along, too. I’ll keep her tuned up.”
“She feeling pretty fair this morning. Not quite herself, as she was yesterday morning, but calm and peaceful”
“She was far from peaceful last night. I was so frightened, Leif.”
“It’s when she’s quiet that I’m frightened. This morning, she is not only gentle and mild, but she is amiable and docile. With Isabel that always means something is the matter with her. Always, if she has a cold or a headache she at once becomes gracious and kindly, and if she turns considerate or grateful, I know it’s something serious.”
Elaine couldn’t help smiling.
“Oh, Leif, how absurd! Don’t say such things about the poor darling. She is ill, of course; and I think it is a very mysterious case. Don’t you?”
“I don’t know why it should be to experienced physicians. That’s why I want to get the best possible advice. And I’m sure at Atlantic City the doctors will be specially
experienced in sunburn diseases. For of course, this trouble of Isabel’s has to be some sort of sun poison. You’ve heard of sun poison, haven’t you?”
Oh, yes; siriasis is the professional name for it.”
“I forgot you had a doctor for a father.”
“I did; and I learned a smattering of knowledge from him. Especially about nursing. I took care of him in his last illness, and I became quite a good nurse. That’s why I want you to let me help with Isabel. Tonka is well-meaning but ignorant.”
“Now, now, Tonka is a right good nurse. But, Lord knows, if you can do anything more, for my blessed wife, I hope you will. You go and see her, and if she wants you to stand by, you stand. Don’t offend little Tonka, she’s a good scout, if she doesn’t know all of her onions.”
The Garrisons came along then and Elaine slipped away to Isabel’s cabin.
Ballard appeared from somewhere and Fleda at once began her petty babble.
“Oh, Mr. Ballard, you were just too wonderful last night. And the way you said, ‘Beware, Isabel!’ sounded just as if a ghost said it.”
Antony gave the speaker a quick look and then turned to Murray.
“Leif,” he said, speaking slowly, “I want it thoroughly understood that I did not say those two words, ‘Beware, Isabel.’ I did not. And I want that thoroughly understood.”
“Oh, Mr. Ballard, didn’t you?” and Fleda looked at him with wide open eyes. “Then it must have been a real spook! For nobody here can ventriloquize the way you do. Oh, how exciting!”
“It’s more than exciting, Fleda,” Leif said, gently, “and I want you to take it more seriously. Isabel is very ill, and today I’m going to see a doctor about her.”
“Where, Leif? Atlantic City?”
“Yes; I’ll stop there this afternoon, and go ashore to see a doctor at the hospital. Then—”
“Oh, can I go with you? Can I get off at Atlantic City?”
“Be quiet, Fleda,” Leif said, shortly. “Yes, you can go ashore, if you like, providing you are back at the dock, when you are told to be there. If not, we’ll go on without you.”
“Oh, I’ll be there. Jim will be with me, and he’ll keep track of the time, won’t you, Jim?”
“Of course; but keep still now, dear, Leif is worried.”
“Indeed he is,” Ballard put in. “We all are, or ought to be.”
“Oh, I am,” and Fleda looked deeply distressed. “I’m going to see Isabel now. Is she in her cabin?”
“Yes; and Tonka is in charge. If she says you can’t see Isabel this morning, don’t insist.”
“I’ll go along and look after my girl,” Jim Garrison said, smiling, and the two went away.
“I say, Ballard,” Leif began, “do you really mean you didn’t speak that warning, or whatever it was.”
“Of course, I didn’t, Leif. But, equally of course, it was no spook. Someone on board is a ventriloquist besides myself. What price Jewett?”
“But why would he cut up such a trick?”
“Why would anybody? Yet somebody did. Here comes Stone. Let’s ask him about it.”
“I didn’t think Ballard did it,” Stone said, when he was asked. “The whole voice was quite different from his. You noticed that, Leif?”
“Not definitely, no. I was sorry we had the fool thing. I never would have consented, but Isabel begged so hard, I couldn’t refuse her. She said of course it was only burlesque, but even now, I’m sure she thinks it was a supernatural voice that spoke to her.”
“Then there’s some knavery,” Stone suggested.
“No,” Leif answered gently, “not that. But someone with a twisted idea of humor must have spoken the words. And we were all pretty well keyed up for fun and for general burlesque. But I can’t think who did it. It may have been Jewett. He’s not quite our sort. I invited him because he and Elaine are rather beaux, and I thought she’d like to have him along.”
“Did you notice the way the words were spoken?” Stone asked. “The b’s were not sounded. Instead of ‘Beware Isabel,’ that voice really said, ‘Eware Isawel.’ That was because a clearer pronunciation would have made the voice more recognizable. It might well have been Jewett. He’s a jolly sort, and he may have had no thought in the matter except to add a bit of verity to the performance. We must find out if he is a ventriloquist. If not, he must be counted out. For whoever spoke knew enough to throw his voice. And also knew enough not to pronounce the letters that would be indicative. I don’t believe anybody did it with the intent of scaring Mrs. Murray.”
“Nor I,” and Leif looked relieved. “Well, now, we mustn’t let it spoil our trip. You fellows forget it and have a good day’s sail. We’ll hang up for a time this afternoon at Atlantic City, and you’d better go ashore, you can find some fun, of most any kind you like best.”
The group dispersed, and just then Elaine returned, and Giles Trumbull was with her.
“Hello, you two,” Leif said, “just the ones I wanted. Be serious now. Did you see Isabel, Elaine?”
“No; Tonka said she was asleep, and better not disturb her.”
“Tonka is one handsome liar. But never mind that. Listen here. I’m going ashore right after luncheon, and I’m going to a hospital. There must be some in Atlantic City. I want Giles to go with me but not anyone else. No, not you, Elaine. But here’s what I want of you. Both of you. If I find that Isabel must go to the hospital and stay there for treatment or something like that, then I do not want the party broken up. I shall stay with her, of course, and Tonka. But I want all the rest of you to continue the cruise. And I want you two to act as host and hostess. The captain has my sailing orders, and you can change or amend them as you like. My idea was to go on down to Old Point Comfort and up Chesapeake Bay, Gibson Island and all that. But if you prefer, go some other way. William will take your orders and the Captain will carry them out. And you two must make it a pleasant and satisfactory trip to those who stay on board. That is, the Garrisons, Jewett, Ballard, and Stone, if he stays on. I don’t know what he will do. Get it?”
“Yes,” Elaine said, “and I’ll do my best, Leif. I hope it won’t be necessary; I hope the doctor will fix up Isa without her having to go to the hospital. But if it all goes as you suggest, then Giles and I will hold the fort till you two come back. Won’t we, Giles?”
“Sure. If it’s really the best that way. How about calling the trip off if Isabel has to go to the hospital? Take it later in the season, after she gets all well?”
Leif looked at him.
“Isabel will never get all well,” he said, slowly. “Don’t tell the others, but I feel certain that her brain is affected. It is more than delirium that makes her talk so wildly. However, forget it now, after I see the doctor we can make our plans. I’m sorry the trip is such a disappointment to you all, but things may clear up yet.”
Leif rose and walked away.
“Such a dear boy,” Elaine said, looking after him. “I’m so sorry for him, but I daren’t say so, he doesn’t like to be pitied.”
“I know it. Well, all we can do is to fall in with his plans, whatever they may be, and do anything he wants us to. We can be of no help to him in Atlantic City, so we may as well stay on the yacht and cruise about until further orders.”
“Some people might not consider that a hard task,” Elaine tried to smile; “but I’m anxious about Isabel myself. And too, I own up, I’m a bit superstitious. I thought that deep voice last night was a real spook. And —I think so yet. There’s a lot in that spiritism that I don’t scoff at.”
“Don’t let’s discuss that now, Elaine. As Leif advised, let’s forget it for the time being. Of course, I don’t mean forget our Isabel, but forget what happened last night. Here’s Fleda Garrison coming this way! Excuse me while I disappear.”
Giles whisked himself out of sight just in time to escape the newcomer, and Elaine assumed at once her role of hostess.
“Were going to call at Atlantic City, this afternoon,” she said; “want to go ashore?”
“Oh, yes, we’re going,” Fleda said, “Leif invited us. Won’t it be gay! I love Atlantic City.”
Elaine felt amazement at Fleda’s attitude of gayety in spite of the tragedy that seemed imminent, but she could say nothing of this.
And so, in the afternoon, everybody went to Atlantic City except Isabel and Tonka.
Leif, with Giles, went to a hospital, and gained audience with Doctor Appleton, a famed specialist.
Fleming Stone had recommended this man, and was of help in arranging the interview. Stone proposed to wait for the doctor’s opinion and then go back to Ingle Heights at once, not returning to the Terpsichore at all.
Doctor Appleton listened to Leif’s recital, at first, calmly, and then, as the tale went on, becoming more excited and at last horrified.
“Stop, man, stop! I can’t stand any more horrors. I must see her at once! You must get me to your yacht straightaway. Come along. It may be meningitis, and yet—no, more like some tropical disease—sleeping sickness, oh, I hope not!”
With the doctor still murmuring to himself they went back to the yacht, and straight to Isabel’s cabin.
She was awake, but her eyes had a wide, vacant stare and she paid no attention to the entrance of Leif and the strange doctor.
She was talking, in a low, uninflected tone, about cameras and snapshots, but the words carried no meaning, only senseless repetitions.
When the doctor questioned her, she answered mostly at random, but now and then with real understanding.
Appleton examined closely the eruption on the left side of her face.
He rose abruptly and left the room.
Leif followed and Giles too. They went into an unused cabin and Giles shut the door.
“I am baffled,” Doctor Appleton began, looking very bewildered. “I had notions of pellagra or something on that order. But, no; there are contradictory symptoms. Then, I thought, some skin poison, like a very exaggerated case of poison ivy. But that would certainly spread to the other side of her face. I still think it may be some unusual phase of cancer of the skin, entirely unknown to us—but in any case, she must be taken to the hospital just as soon as possible, and kept there until all danger is over.”
“Then she isn’t going to die?” Leif’s face lighted up as with an inner radiance.
“I hold out no hopes,” Appleton said, gravely, “but if she remains here she will certainly die, and speedily. To treat her properly I need the apparatus and appointments of a hospital, also the consultation and advice of other physicians. I would rather leave the transference till tomorrow, but I fear that might be too late.”
Both Leif and Giles sat as if stunned, looking at the scholarly face and feeling sure that the words they heard were true ones.
“It must be as you say, Doctor,” Leif told him, choking a little.
“Then I say we must start action at once.”
The decree was obeyed by everyone concerned.
Leif told Giles that he must now be the host of the party, and Elaine the hostess, as he had already explained to them.
He said he hoped they could have a pleasant trip, wherever they chose to go. That they could keep in touch with him by telephoning from various ports.
“I wish now,” he said, “I had a wireless telephone on board. I didn’t have it, because I wanted a chance to escape from all communications. But perhaps the hospital doings will result in a certainty as to what is the trouble and a swift and sure cure for it.”
William the ever present and always capable steward packed up his master’s things for a stay at a hotel, listened attentively to the orders Leif gave him, and agreed to give Trumbull the same loyal service he had always given Leif.
Isabel, for the most part delirious, was rational now and then, but for brief periods only.
Leif began to feel a queer numbness creeping over him. He couldn’t believe that it was really Isabel and himself who were thus being looked after. That he was taking orders from this strange doctor, and carrying them out to the best of his ability.
He went in to look at Isabel, and she chanced to be sane for the moment.
“Hello, Leif,” she said, smiling at him just as she used to. “What’s up?”
“It’s all right. We’re going to take you for a little visit in another house.”
“Visit? House? What do you mean, dear? You know I’m a bear—a big, big bear, with a grizzly head—oh, Leif dear, all my pretty curls are coming out! Will you get me some more?”
Isabel looked so sweet and dear and yet her mind was surely gone. Leif couldn’t stand it and he went off to his own cabin and shut himself in alone.
Soon Ballard came to fetch him, saying it was time to start.
“And I’m going with you, Leif,” he said; “you and I will stay at the hotel nearest to the hospital, and Tonka, too, unless they will let her stay in the hospital, to be with Isabel. Come along, old chap, everything is ready.”
Always in command himself, Leif had to adjust his thoughts to being told what to do.
But Ballard managed well, and before they entirely realized it, the little journey was over and Isabel was safely in bed in a large airy room, and white garbed nurses were looking after her.
Then they went to the Hotel Eiffel, where Antony had secured a suite, and Leif and Tonka, Fleming Stone and Ballard sat down in the pleasant sitting room for a conference.
But there was little to be said. As soon as the first report came in from the doctor, Stone planned to leave them and go back to Ingle Heights to look after his work there.
Tonka went to her room, and the three men sat for a moment in silence.
Then Stone said, “Who said that ‘Beware Isabel,’ last night?”
“That’s what I’d like to know,” Antony said. “It’s attributed to me, but I didn’t say it.”
“No, I knew it was not your voice. That’s a thing I have to find out and I don’t see just how I’m to do it. But I’ll get it somehow.”
“Write to Giles Trumbull,” Leif suggested. “He’ll pick up mail and telegrams at Cape May. Or, better, I’ll do it for you, and telephone results to you. I’ve nothing to do here, and I’ll explain it to Giles, who’s clever at such things. But I think it was Jewett. He has a hick sense of humor, and I think he meant it as a joke.”
“Probably that is the way it happened. All right, you write to him then, and telephone me the results, if any. I’ll be at the Inn for a while, and of course, I want to hear how our patient is.”
Fleming Stone did not say that he had already made arrangements to have definite and frequent reports from the hospital, as to Isabel’s progress.
Tonka joined the group again, and when the telephone rang Antony proposed that the girl answer it. He knew she was eager to get the news, and he knew too, if it was not encouraging she was better fitted to hear it than Leif.
Doctor Appleton made the report, and he said that though they had done all they could at present, they were not prepared to say just what the ailment was. Siriasis was indicated, but it seemed probable there was some other and different trouble.
Certain tests had to be made and experiments tried, and there would be no further report until the next morning, when they might call him at eleven o’clock. No, they could not visit her, but he hoped he could soon raise the ban. Everything possible was being done for Mrs. Murray, and she was suffering no pain. Indeed they found it best to keep her under the influence of mild opiates most of the time.
The doctor’s report ended and Tonka was about to cradle the instrument, when Stone stopped her by a gesture and took the telephone himself.
“Just a moment, doctor,” he said. “May I ask a favor?”
“Certainly, Mr. Stone, what is it?”
“This; will you have a nurse who can take down most or much of what the patient says in her delirium? I mean any definite or surprising speeches; and especially the name of anyone she calls for or seems to want to see. I think the nurse will understand. I want to learn how Mrs. Murray’s brain is working. What she thinks about, and principally, what, if anything, she has on her mind that troubles her. Get me?”
“Oh, yes; we would have recorded most things you mention anyway. But I’ll have it made more specific and send you the results. Where?”
Stone told him and said good-by.
“Now,” he said to the others, “I want you to go to dinner with me. I know a most amusing place, Tonka will love it. There is no cause for worry about Isabel just now, and you people must not give way to dumps and doldrums.”
“That’s the talk,” said Ballard, heartily. “Get ready, Tonka, and you, Leif, come along.”
Leif seemed pleased with the idea and each put up a brave front, for the sake of the others.
Dinner over they dropped in at a show, and then Stone left them, to take a night train to New York.
“Good sort,” Antony said, after his departure. “I never thought big detectives could be so likable.”
“Why not?” asked Tonka. “They’re bound to be wise.”
“Wisdom is better than rubies, but it doesn’t always help along human camaraderie.”
“He is fine,” Leif declared. “And he surely knows things. How I wish we could have stayed on the yacht, and kept him with us. And Isabel. I say, Antony, she isn’t going to die, is she?”
“Lord, no, man! But I’m lots better satisfied to have her under skilled care. They say Appleton is the best ever on mental troubles.”
“Whatever made Isabel have mental trouble?” Leif wailed the question like a frightened child.
“I don’t think the sun did that. But tomorrow we’ll know a whole lot more than we do now. You run along to bed, Tonka. I’ll carry Leif off for a nightcap, and we’ll all meet at breakfast.”
REACHING the Inn late Wednesday night, Fleming Stone was awake and alert early next morning and was downstairs by nine o’clock.
Kenton came to greet him and corroborated his expectation that the police would come to see him about eleven and that Paul Tolman was expected in the late afternoon.
“Good work,” and Stone nodded appreciation. “Mr. Paley showed up yet?”
“No,” said Kenton, “and they’re in a fine pother about it. Me, I say, why worry? Paley hasn’t been kidnapped, and if he has, what of it?”
“I don’t look at it just that way,” Stone told him; “I hope Paley will turn up and soon. What’s the feeling of the G.P.?”
“Oh, folks in general think Paley most likely did for Tolman. But of course, they haven’t any real evidence. That Mead girl started them off with her yarn, and they’re always glad to grab at a suspect. When Paul Tolman gets here, we may get some more facts, but I’m not sure we will. Are you?”
“Oh, yes, I think we will. Hope so, anyway.”
Stone was glad to get back to the quiet atmosphere of the Inn. He had gone on the yacht for reasons of his own, and he was glad he went, but he was fed up with Fleda’s foolishness, and Leo Jewett’s unattractive personality. And his friends, the Murrays were in such trouble, it made his heart ache to remember. Here in the big, roomy, tree-shaded Inn, he could relax and think over things. For the most part the guests were not intrusive, and Kenton’s tact and intuition kept them from forcing themselves on Stone’s attention.
When Coroner Coles and Lieutenant Browning arrived, they found the detective waiting for them on a small side porch, which he had more or less pre-empted.
“I am sorry to say, Mr. Stone,” Coles began, after they were seated, “but Mr. Paley escaped our vigilance. We were watchful and we remembered our promise to you to keep him in our pocket, but he got away.”
“Kidnapped, maybe,” Stone said.
“Maybe,” assented Browning, “but more likely he just desired a change of scene. And it was an easy trick. We shadowed him a lot, but we didn’t follow his every footstep. When he went to New York, he always came back in the early afternoon, and when he went there yesterday, we assumed he’d come back as usual, but he hasn’t come.”
“I’m sorry, Lieutenant, but I know how hard it is to keep your eye on a man in the circumstances. Perhaps he’ll turn up yet, but I’ll be more surprised if he does than if he doesn’t. Did you find out any facts about Peter Tolman’s will?”
“Try as we would we couldn’t get a lead in that direction. I feel sure that he left no will, but if he did, it is doubtless in the possession of Paul Tolman. Don’t think we are slacks, Mr. Stone, but what can we do? All the papers and personal belongings of Peter Tolman were carried off by Paul Tolman, when he went back home. He’s coming tonight, and he can speak for himself.”
That was Doctor Coles’ speech and though of mild language, there was a touch of resentment in the tone, which clearly indicated that he had been asked to make bricks without straw. This he found himself unable to do, and Fleming Stone was the last man to misunderstand that.
“All right, Coles,” he said, genially, “I don’t wonder you couldn’t pull it off. Paul Tolman will certainly know about the will, if he has it, and if not he may know whether it is in a lawyer’s keeping or what not. Now I’ll tell you what I’ve found out. And that is that Peter Tolman did not die from the unassisted effects of the prussic acid in peach pits. I consulted with an expert toxicologist in Long Branch and also with a medical man of highest standing in the hospital where Mrs. Murray now is. Both these physicians assured me, of their own individual knowledge, that death could not ensue from the eating of peach kernels. Therefore it is my intention to look upon this death of Peter Tolman as wilful murder, and I propose to make an effort to hunt down the criminal. This, of course, with the sanction of Mr. Paul Tolman who has retained me on the case. But if Paul Tolman prefers to dispense with my services, then I shall go on with my investigations on my own. I have become deeply interested in the case, and I want to proceed with some plans I have made.”
“Looks pretty hopeless to me,” Browning observed. “I think unless we can get Paley and get him pretty quick, we can take no further step. I can’t see any other prospect for a murderer.”
“Yet there might be several,” Stone suggested. “We know really very little of Peter Tolman’s friends or enemies. We know little of the events or incidents of his recent life, and we have looked into such matters almost not at all. However, I propose to wait for Paul Tolman and his views on the subject. Have you that envelope, Doctor Coles, in which peach kernels came to Peter Tolman?”
“I have the envelope I think you refer to, but I cannot swear that peach kernels came to Tolman in it.”
“No, of course not. But I’d like to see it, if I may. I have a notion it might throw a ray of light on our uncertainties.”
“I don’t see how, I’m sure, Mr. Stone, but of course you may see it.”
“Suppose I walk over to Headquarters with you now. Is it over there?”
“Yes. Come along, if you like.”
The three went along to the coroner’s office, but a sort of damper had somehow fallen on their conversation.
The policemen were feeling a bit chagrined that they had not done the two errands Stone had asked of them. Stone wasn’t minding this so much, but he was hoping they had the envelope he wanted, intact and unsoiled. They chatted casually, remarked on the beauty of the golf course, commented on the new playground being arranged for the children of the town and finally arrived at headquarters.
“Here you are, Mr. Stone,” and Coles took an envelope from his desk. “Do you want to take it away with you?”
“Oh, no, thanks. I just want to see how it compares with this one. Pretty close, isn’t it?”
Stone took an envelope from his pocket, and from it took another envelope, which, on being compared proved to be exactly like the one Coles had handed him.
“Gosh!” exclaimed Lieutenant Browning. “Where’d you get that. They’re just alike!”
“Almost,” Stone said; “A trifle different weight, I think.”
He restored his envelope to its encasing envelope and put both in his pocket, handing the other envelope back to Coles.
Both policemen looked disappointed.
“Secrets, Mr. Stone?” asked Browning, smiling good-naturedly.
“No, not exactly. But experiments. Not yet ripe for publication. I shall be at the Inn for a time, and glad to see you whenever you choose to come over.”
“You’re not going to rejoin the yacht, then?”
“Oh, no. Mr. Murray will not, I feel sure. If Mrs. Murray recovers, they will come back home, I think, and if— if she does not get well, the cruise will be abandoned and they will all come home.”
“You think Mrs. Murray will live, don’t you?” Browning asked, solicitously.
“I hope so, and I do think so; but she is a very ill woman, and it is a dreadful case.”
“Just what is the disease?” Coles inquired, interestedly.
“They’re not yet sure. You know of siriasis, of course, Doctor Coles?”
“Yes, a very exaggerated form of sunburn or sunstroke.”
“Exactly; and Mrs. Murray’s illness is undoubtedly something of that sort. With possibly, other complications.”
“It’s too bad,” the sympathetic Browning went on, “she is a lovely lady, and Leif Murray is an all-round fine chap.”
“They may stop the progress of the ailment at the hospital,” Stone said, hopefully, “but it is a very serious illness. Though I am of an optimistic nature, I can scarcely say I look for Mrs. Murray’s recovery. But please don’t quote me as saying that.”
Stone felt anxious and restless and wanted to be doing something. He had many ideas to examine into, many possibilities to consider, and he was eager to be alone and get started on these things.
So he took leave and went back to the Inn, wondering a little why the two policemen seemed less cordial and kindly to him than before.
Once up on the little balcony on which the French windows of his study opened, he drew a long breath, and leaned back in his wicker porch chair, enjoying the cool breeze and the hilly treesy landscape.
He let his thoughts run riot. He allowed his imagination to suggest possibilities that he discarded next moment as being beyond all reason only to take them back again for further consideration.
He had thoughts that were so absurd he almost laughed at them, and the next instant gravely assured himself that they might be true.
He was not dallying with foolish ideas, he was seriously considering the astounding possibilities and realizing that he had them or would have them to cope with.
His telephone bell rang and when he heard Antony Ballard’s voice he was eager for his message.
“Our patient is about the same,” Ballard told him. “I know that is an unsatisfactory bulletin, but it’s all I can say. The hospital doctors are deeply interested, of course, and they are studying the strange case. For they admit it is strange to them and very mystifying. Today, Isabel is quiet and calm. Stuporous much of the time, and when awake, flighty and rambling. Her poor face grows worse, and it is not, to me, a hopeful outlook. I try to cheer up Leif, poor fellow, he is so amenable to a grain of encouragement. I am not in our hotel now, I came outside to telephone, so he shouldn’t hear me. Tonka is a brick, keeping up her own spirits for Leif’s sake. I have telephoned to Giles Trumbull and Elaine. They are trying to enjoy their yacht trip and there is no reason why they should not. They can do nothing for Isabel or for Leif. So they may as well have a good time. Elaine is deeply saddened, but that flibbertigibbet, Fleda, is gay and festive, from all I can gather. I will keep you posted, and if I call when you aren’t available I’ll leave a message as to Isabel’s progress.”
“You’re a fine reporter, Ballard, thank you. Now I wish you’d do something for me. Send me all the word you can, by telephone or by mail as to the doctors’ decisions or opinions as to the nature of Isabel’s illness. If too troublesome or if you can’t relate the medical terms, get one of the hospital men to do it. Some young interne, not very busy, might like to do me that kindness. And if it’s professional in any way, pay the shot and I’ll square you. I don’t want opinions and presumptions, but if they come out flat-footed with a definite statement of the name or nature of the disease, you’ve no idea how I’d be grateful to hear of it.”
“All right, Stone; and if I can’t hit on the right one, I’ll have Tonka write it out for you. Dear girl, she has nothing to do. She’s not keen on the jamborees down here, and she’s not allowed to see Isabel often or long. She will be glad to do that business for you.”
“All right, but tell her to omit all argument or unauthorized statements and just give me the best conclusions of the best brains.”
Ballard agreed, and after a few more words of sympathy and cheer, they said good-by.
It was lunch time then, and Stone had a tray sent up to his balcony, where he could continue his cogitations.
He had learned no exact information from Ballard, but he had asked for the conclusions of the wise men and he hoped for some real and true instruction in the near future. But hoping and wondering palled, and he wanted action.
He concluded to go into Paley’s room and scout about. He told Kenton of this desire and he was given the key, which Paley had left at the desk the last time he left the Inn.
Can’t be anything to look for, if he left his key behind, Stone mused, as he went back upstairs with his trophy.
He unlocked Paley’s door and went in.
The room was messy and untidy. Elimination was sadly needed.
The caretakers had done their work all right. Everything belonging to the Inn was clean and neat. But Paley’s personal belongings were here and there, and Stone felt sure it was so because he had forbidden the maids to put them away.
Stone took little interest in golf clubs and tennis rackets. Or in fishhooks and lines. But the open desk and the litter of papers drew his attention like a magnet.
He sat down and looked them over.
But he found absolutely nothing that meant anything to him in any way.
Unpaid bills, uncashed checks, unopened letters, all went to prove Paley’s careless and heedless ways.
In a small box were two or three stamps torn from envelopes, probably because of their real or supposed philatelic value.
No notes from anyone he knew; no memoranda of anything he wanted to know about; no hint of where he had gone or when he would be back.
And yet Stone had a notion of where Paley had gone. Not from anything he found, rather from something he did not find. And he felt fairly sure that Humbert Paley had no intention of ever stepping his foot inside the door of Van Winkle Inn again.
The papers on the desk bored him. Even the checkbooks, though they showed sums now and then drawn to the order of some lady’s name, meant little to the detective.
He had a strong suspicion of Paley, but he could do nothing about it until he saw Paul Tolman.
Sternly reproaching himself for being fidgetty, Stone acknowledged to himself that he was, and he concluded to go over to the Golf Club and have a round.
It proved a wise move, for he met up with a man he liked to play with and they had a most exciting game. Moreover, the man didn’t ask him a single question about his work, his plans or his hope of success.
Even at the nineteenth hole as they discussed their own or each other’s skill, no reference was made to any phase of the Tolman case.
When Stone got back to the Inn, he learned that Paul Tolman had arrived.
He sent an invitation for the newcomer to dine with him on his balcony, and went to his shower.
“Cozy place you’ve got here,” Tolman said later, after greetings were said and the cocktails were arriving.
“Yes, pleasant enough,” Stone returned. “I don’t know how much longer I shall stay.”
“You,” and Stone smiled at his guest.
“Remain in, then. I want you more than ever.”
“All right. Let’s leave details till after dinner. Tell me, how is your mother? Not ill, I trust, after her sad experiences.”
“Mother is a trump. She’s broken-hearted, of course, but she makes a plucky effort to hide it, for the sake of her family.”
“You are a married man, Mr. Tolman?”
“No; I am the sort of bacheolor generally called confirmed.”
“That’s the kind that oftenest gives way under pressure.”
“It might be. Let the pressure come on and try. You’ve been on a cruise, I’m told.”
“A cruise, yes, but not a pleasure trip. You’ve doubtless heard of Mrs. Murray’s illness?”
“Yes, yes. Very dreadful. I’m sorry for Murray, fine man, very fine man. Elaine Vernon was with you?”
“Yes; a beautiful woman and an entertaining companion.”
“All of that—yes, all of that. Where is she now?”
“Still on the yacht. The Murrays stopped off at Atlantic City, to have Mrs. Murray cared for, and the rest went on cruising. It seemed the best plan.”
“Yes, yes, I see. And the odd young lady, Miss—er, Mead?”
“Oh, Tonka, yes. A dear girl, though, as you say, odd. She is with Mrs. Murray.”
Finally the waiters came to clear the table, and lighting cigars the two men began their talk.
“When I say I want to retain your services, Mr. Stone,” Tolman started off, “it is not entirely in the same way I meant at first. I find I have been mistaken in some things and I want to get straightened out.”
“I agree to that, and I want to stipulate that if I remain in your service, we must be frank with one another. This does not mean that we must tell each other everything we know or think we know. But we must not let the other remain under a delusion if we can correct it.”
Tolman looked a trifle uncertain. He was an outspoken man, but Stone felt sure that if he preferred to hold back some item of information, he would do so, even if he had promised not to.
Moreover, when roused, he became choleric and sometimes profane.
“No, Mr. Stone, damme, no! I don’t subscribe to that in toto. I sure do not. You ask me to agree to tell you anything I may know about my brother’s affairs! Well, I’m damned if I do that!”
“You don’t have to, Mr. Tolman. Don’t take it so hard. If you prefer to have it that way, all right. To be plain with you, I don’t care whether you retain me or not. I’m going on with this Tolman murder on my own. For it is murder. I have consulted the highest authorities in this country, and I am convinced that your brother did not die from the prussic acid contained in the peach kernels he ate. Somebody—someone who desired the death of your brother gave him a dose of prussic acid to kill him; banking on the belief that thus his death would be attributed to the peach pits, as it was. Now, the question is, who wanted Peter Tolman’s death?”
“Only one person on this green earth, Humbert Paley.”
“Why are you so sure?”
“Well, this is one of the matters I didn’t propose to tell you. But there’s devil’s business going on, and I think it wiser to let you know. I have all Peter’s papers, except what Paley stole, damn him!”
“Don’t make such statements in public, Mr. Tolman. They might easily get you into trouble.”
“Never fear. I make no statements that I do not know to be true. I know Paley took special papers from Peter’s desk before I got here last week. I know that he took them because they are important to the business he and my brother were engaged in. But he had no right to those papers. They are necessary to the obtaining of a patent on Peter’s invention. Now, Paley has no interest in that invention except that he is putting some money into it. That was necessary for Pete, as he hadn’t enough money of his own to commercialize the thing. Paley isn’t a rich man, but he has rich friends and a persuasive way with him. So he thought he could collect some sponsors for the thing, and then they’d rush the patent through and slam the finished product on the market. All that was good, devilish good. But, poor Peter dies, and what does Paley do? Grabs up all Pete’s papers, and disappears. Gone down south or out west or up into Canada or Lord knows where, to patent the thing himself and have all the profits.”
“How much of your tirade is founded on fact and how much is fairy tale?”
Tolman looked at Stone sharply, then broke into a laugh.
“Well, I leave it to you, Mr. Stone. Isn’t there a pretty plain signboard pointing to the undeniable facts that Paley has the necessary papers to get out the patent rights, and—Paley has disappeared?”
“Sounds convincing, the way you put it. Would it help you, if you had Paley here?”
“Would it help! Don’t tease me, Mr. Stone. Why, if we had Paley here, we’d tuck him safely into the electric chair, and my brother’s heirs could patent the invention themselves.”
“Me and my brother and my mother, we are his natural heirs. Pete left no will.”
“How do you know he didn’t?”
“None has been found.”
“Maybe Paley has it.”
“My God, man! You don’t mean that!”
“Why not? If Paley had access to your brother’s papers, isn’t a will the first thing he would take? Granting that is, it was not made out in his favor. He would want to destroy it, as soon as possible, lest the invention processes should pass out of his hands.”
“Oh, well, I don’t believe, if Pete did make a will, that he left the invention to anybody. It was all in the air, you know. He and Paley thought they could pull it off, but Pete was no angel to deal with, and they probably came to blows over it. You know what the Mead girl said about their quarrelsome words. Now, in business affairs, Paley was a far better man than Pete, and after Paley found out all about the invention, and found out all the details of Pete’s plans, why not accept the chance offered and put Pete out of his way by that very clever peach pit racket, and then go ahead with the invention himself.”
“And just why did he disappear? If he was clever enough to kill your brother, why wouldn’t he stay here and stand the gaff? Paley is not a timid man. What was he afraid of?”
“Afraid his plans wouldn’t work so well as he hoped. It took no bravery to kill a man the way he killed Pete. Just send him, or take to him a few peach kernels, one of which had been provided with an extra dose of the prussic poison. It was a fine idea. All in keeping with Pete’s daily food, as you may say. But I can readily see how Paley got scared afterward. Gosh! I never murdered anybody, but if I did, I bet I’d suffer the tortures of the damned after it was over. Imagine the horrors of realizing you had ended a human life!”
“And if you had Paley here, it would help you to settle the whole question?”
“I guess, yes!”
“I think I can produce him, if you want him so badly.”
“Are you joking? For God’s sake, don’t play me for a fool!”
“I’m not. I think I can hand him over to you in twenty-four hours.”
Paul Tolman looked at him with dazed eyes.
“Go to it,” he said, in a frightened whisper.
FLEMING STONE was not a magician.
He did not propose to pull Humbert Paley out of a silk hat, nor yet materialize him from a bunch of ectoplasm.
He never forgot the delightful old story about the lost horse.
“An’ I thort ef I wuz a horse, where wud I go? An’ I went there and he had!”
So, likewise, when Stone pondered on the disappearance of Humbert Paley, he thought: Were I Paley, where would I go? and he went there.
He left Paul Tolman without further word. Tolman was his employer, and he had said, “Go to it.” So Stone went to it.
He packed a small suitcase, left the Inn by a side door, went to the beflowered and beclamshelled railroad station that was the pride of Ingleside Heights, and entrained for New York.
At the Grand Central Station he took a taxicab to the Pennsylvania Station and ensconced himself in a Pullman compartment.
And when he stepped off that train, he found himself among the magnificent distances of Washington, D. C.
He took a room at the Mayflower Hotel, had a shower and a breakfast and then set out to pick his particular needle out of the city’s haystack.
Now Fleming Stone was not a lunatic, he was entirely rational in his procedure.
He knew that if he had in his possession the papers, drawings and plans of a possibly salable invention, he would lose no time in getting his patent applied for.
He assumed, confidently enough, that that was what Paley had done. And he had.
It was more tricky than Stone had anticipated to find his man.
He was sure Paley was clever enough to choose one of the best patent office lawyers and follow his instructions to the letter.
This Paley had done and after three or four unsuccessful attempts, Stone found the lawyer that Paley had employed.
The lawyer, Kinsey by name, listened to the story Stone chose to tell him. The story was true in the main, but Stone refrained from the use of the Tolman name, for he did not want to bring in that element if it could be avoided.
But he did not go deeply into details, for he soon learned from the lawyer that Mr. Paley had gone to the Patent Office that morning, and in all likelihood was there right now.
Whereupon Stone left his new acquaintance and struck the trail again.
After some maneuvers, he found the right room and tracked Paley to his lair.
He walked right in upon his prey, saying; “Hello, Paley.”
His prey looked up at him, smiled what seemed like a real welcome and said;
“Hello, Stone. Can you wait just a minute? I’ve only a bit to finish.”
Almost before he stopped speaking, Paley was rapidly writing again, and Stone could see he was filling out blanks.
“All right, I’m in no hurry. Finish your job.”
Paley nodded and went on writing.
Stone was a bit surprised. His quarry showed no trace of embarrassment, no sign of nervousness, and the hand that held his fountain pen was as steady as any hand can be.
Shortly, he reached the end of the page, read it over carefully, signed his name and capping his pen replaced it in his breast pocket.
“Just a minute more, and I’m with you,” he said, and with a smiling nod at Stone he went through a door which closed after him.
Stone’s heart gave a jump.
Had he found his man only to lose him? Would Paley return, or wouldn’t he?
Stone almost wished he had told Tolman he would try to get his man; or, he hoped to bring him back. But, no; he had stated positively—
And then he was glad he had, for Paley reappeared, and announced himself at Stone’s service and what could they do to have some fun?
“First, we’ll get out of here,” was the reply, and when they reached the street, Stone said;
“Come around to my place. It’s only a step.”
Once in Stone’s room, with some pleasant-looking drinks before them, Paley said;
“Chasing me, Mr. Stone?”
“Exactly that, Paley.”
“I seldom feel curiosity, but how did you know I would be here?”
“Human nature is easy to read. You have a wish to patent a device of some sort. You have all the necessary papers, drawings, documents and such, where would you make tracks for but the Patent Office?”
“By gum! You’re a smart one!”
“So I’ve been told. Now are you going to be a smart one and go back with me to Ingle Heights? Or otherwise?
“Otherwise, I think.”
“Oh, think again. In that case you’ll be dragged out of your lair by individuals far more formidable than I am. You know, those strong, silent men who wear blue coats with shiny buttons.”
“And you’d set them on my trail? Oh, fie!”
“They’re on it now. I’m not certain, but I’m almost sure I was followed when I left the Ingle Dingle.”
“Who sent you?”
“Want to know, really? Then—don’t faint—Paul Tolman.”
“Paul Tolman! Then you bet I won’t go back! He doesn’t love me.”
“Well, no. But he’s more likely to, if you go back and have it out than if you don’t.”
“Something in that. Has he Pete’s will?”
“Haven’t you that?”
“No, of course not.”
“Then how are you assuming all the plans and papers about the invention are yours?”
“Pete told me if anything happened to him for me to take over all that business and the invention and anything I could get from it was to be mine.”
“Have you that in writing?”
“Well, no. Peter had no thought of dropping off, and I guess neither of us showed much business sense. As a matter of fact I hadn’t great faith in the invention anyway; but the Patent people seem impressed by it. So I’m going ahead with the application.”
“In your own name?”
“Seems so. I’d hardly take out a patent in the name of Peter Tolman’s heirs and assigns, whoever they may be.”
“I doubt if Tolman left a will.”
“So do I. It would be the first looking ahead piece of business he ever pulled off.”
“Had he a lawyer whom he employed?”
“Not to my knowledge.”
“Was he still in love with his ex-wife, Mrs. Vernon?”
“He was in love with her bank account. He was trying to get her to finance his invention. But she wouldn’t hear of it. I don’t know whether he was in love with her aside from financially or not. He never spoke of her to me, except to say that he still hoped to persuade her to put money into the project.”
“What is the project?”
“Oh, merely to patent, manufacture and market Pete’s invention.”
“What is the invention?”
“Well, we electrical wizards don’t give out our secrets on demand. I don’t mind telling you it was a gadget to attach or affix to a radio, to help along its use and beauty. Should it appear in the market and should it catch on, there’s a fortune in it.”
“Why not? Pete gave me the goods.”
“Oh, come now, Stone, I was just about to say I’d go back with you, but if you’re going police, I’m not sure I shall.”
“Look here, Paley, did you kill Peter Tolman, or have any hand in his killing?”
“I did not.”
Fleming Stone’s experiences had taught him that when a man looks you straight in the eye and makes a calm statement, with an air of absolute veracity, he is not necessarily telling the truth. He had known fine, upstanding men to state with dignity and quite evident integrity, the most whopping falsehoods.
He believed this statement of Paley’s, but not because it was made in a voice that rang true, and with an air of simple sincerity, but because circumstances, as he saw them, convinced him that though Paley might have stolen the drawings and documents, he did not murder Tolman in order to do so.
He had not forgotten Tonka’s story of how Paley made a veiled threat in his conversation with Tolman, but a host of little arguments were against the idea of Paley’s murderous intent.
“Then come along. I’m not concerned with you and your patent applied for, but I promised Paul Tolman I’d bring you to him within twenty-four hours, and I’d like to make good.”
“And you shall, if I can help. Let’s go.”
And that’s how it came about that Fleming Stone and Humbert Paley walked up the pathway of crazy pavement that led to Van Winkle Inn.
And that Stone was well within the limits of his promised time of arrival.
Paul Tolman greeted them on the front porch and the three went up to Stone’s pleasant study.
In a few words Stone explained the situation as it looked to him, and then put it up to Tolman.
Paul looked at Paley with a searching gaze that gave no hint of what he was thinking about.
“You intended to return?” he asked, casually.
“Maybe and maybe not,” Paley said. “It’s my way to do the duty nearest by, as the poet puts it. Peter is gone. Peter’s plans, which included my own plans, are all in my hands. Peter was about to apply for patent rights. Was it not up to me to make that application? If so, why delay?”
“You intended to return?”
Paul Tolman was one of those annoying men who repeat a question if it isn’t answered.
But that didn’t bother Paley.
“Maybe and maybe not,” he reiterated.
“If not, where were you going?”
Paley spoke pettishly. “How do I know? I go about my business, and one thing leads to another and I follow the leads. I don’t plan ahead.”
“I see. Mr. Paley, did you kill my brother?”
Paley looked at him. He didn’t have exactly a twinkle in his eye, but there was something very like it.
“You know I’ll say no, but you want to see how I’ll say it? Well, Mr. Tolman, no, I did not kill your brother.”
It was the same speech Paley had made to Stone, and said in the same way.
Tolman shrugged his shoulders.
“That may mean anything or nothing,” he said, “What are you going to do now?”
Humbert Paley stared at him.
“I beg your pardon,” he said, still staring.
Paul turned red, and fidgeted nervously.
“Perhaps I was a bit crude,” he said, an apologetic note in his voice. “I think the Headquarters people would like to see you.”
“To ask me if I killed your brother? You tell them that I didn’t and that you know I didn’t.”
“All right,” Paul sighed as if wearied with this unaccustomed contest of words.
“Do you know if Peter left a will?” Paul resumed, as no one else put up any conversation.
“No; do you?” Paley returned.
“If I did, I shouldn’t ask you.”
Paley passed this bid, and Fleming Stone, a little bored, rose, saying; “I want to do some telephoning. Call me if you want me.”
He went into his bedroom and closed the door.
He called up the hotel in Atlantic City, where Leif Murray was staying, and was answered by Tonka.
She said Leif was over at the hospital, but she would answer questions.
“First, how is Mrs. Murray?”
“No better,” Tonka said, sadly. “Not much worse, but growing steadily weaker. The eruptions on her face are spreading and are endangering her eyes. She is sane only occasionally, and then her wonder and astonishment at her surroundings are so pathetic, we are almost glad when she again loses consciousness.”
“Tonka, do you think she will get well?”
“No, Mr. Stone, I don’t. Leif has not given up hope. He is trying hard to believe she will recover, but it is a false hope. We don’t discuss that point. I try to talk of other things, and sometimes I go over little incidents in their past life, it somehow rouses him a bit, but mostly he sits alone, looking so depressed and downcast it is pitiful to see him. Antony is still with us, and he is a tower of strength. I don’t know where Leif would be without him.”
“What do you hear from the people on the yacht?”
“They’re still cruising about. Not far from land, so they can telephone often. Elaine is dear and sends loving messages. But Fleda talks to us seldom. I don’t believe she ever thinks of Isabel unless somebody reminds her.”
“I must go now,” Stone said; “Hark, Tonka. Have notes made of everything Isabel says when she is rational. Don’t skip a word. This is far more important than you have any idea of. But you must take my word for that, and keep the record carefully.”
“I will, Mr. Stone. I promise.”
“And don’t tell Leif—don’t tell anyone that you are doing this. If anybody knows of it at all, don’t say how important it is, or how interested I am in it. Remember, Tonka.”
“I will remember, Mr. Stone. You can trust me to the last ditch.”
“I’m sure I can. Tonka, I suppose all of Isabel’s belongings were left on the yacht?”
“Yes, except the few things I packed up and brought over here. I brought a street gown and hat, in case they cured her all up. Such things I have with me here at the hotel. Only a few personal things went with her to the hospital. Why?”
“Nothing much. See that everything of hers is taken care of after—Tonka, do the doctors say how long she can hold out?”
“Not exactly. They don’t like to say anything. And different ones say different things. The nurses won’t say a word. Of course they are forbidden to. But Isabel can’t last much longer. She gets worse so rapidly. I hear Leif’s step in the hall. Better say good-by, unless you want to speak to him.”
“No, not now. Good-by.”
* * * * * * * * *
Stone went back to his study.
He found Tolman and Paley eagerly arguing about something that did not seem at all connected with the question of Peter’s murderer, if any.
They stopped talking abruptly at his appearance, but he cared little to know the reason why. His thoughts were now with the dying woman in the hospital.
He told them somewhat of the news Tonka had given him, and said, “I suppose Tolman, as I am in your employ now, I should ask your sanction, but I want very much to go down to Atlantic City for a few hours, and I don’t see how that can inconvenience you.”
“Not at all, Mr. Stone. Go right along.”
“I don’t mean tonight. Say, tomorrow or day after.”
“Suit yourself. I want you to find the murderer of my brother. I know you will bend all your energies to that and if you are attending to other matters at the same time, it is not my business.”
“Good for you, Tolman; that’s man’s talk,” and Paley grinned his appreciation. “But, Stone, don’t desert the ship. Won’t Coles reopen the inquest? Don’t you want to be here for that?”
“If and when the inquest is taken up again, I’ll be on hand.”
The three separated then, and though they met again at dinner time, they spoke no word of wills or inventions or inquests.
After dinner Stone strolled over the ups and downs of the village streets until he came to Elaine Vernon’s house.
Uncertain whether there was anyone staying there or not, he rang the doorbell and was answered by a tidy, white aproned cook.
“Mrs. Vernon is not at home, sir,” she said, courteously, and waited for Stone to go.
“I know it,” he said; “don’t you remember me? I’ve been here before. Mr. Stone.”
“Oh, yes, sir. What is it you want?”
“I am on an errand for Mrs. Vernon. She asked me to get a letter for her from her desk. The desk in the living-room, not the desk in her boudoir. Will you help me?”
Mrs. Jamison had pretty strict orders regarding men who called in her mistress’ absence, but she knew Fleming Stone for the great detective and she no more thought of objecting than if it had been the Chief of Police himself.
“Oh, yes, sir”; and she led him to the pretty desk in the large living-room.
Stone looked over the pigeon holes, opened the drawers and showed disappointment.
“No letters here at all,” he said; “Only blank paper and envelopes. I don’t want to intrude on her private papers, but she was most anxious I should find the letter.”
“Oh, come along upstairs to her boodore, sir. It might be there.”
They went up and the desk in question was not only unlocked but open.
No better success, however. No letters were in sight, and the neatly arranged stationery was the same as that downstairs.
“No,” Stone said, as Mrs. Jamison offered to unlock some of the drawers, “Mrs. Vernon said it would be right out in sight. A plain envelope addressed to her and bearing a New York postmark.”
He gave up the quest, thanked Mrs. Jamison for her assistance and said he would report to Mrs. Vernon and get her further advice.
Then he went over to Longacre.
There he found Mrs. Mendel in charge and glad to see him, as she longed for definite news of her loved Mrs. Murray.
Stone told her many things that he knew would interest her, though not disclosing how very ill Isabel really was.
Then he dismissed her, saying he wanted to look for a book in the library.
She went off to her own quarters and Stone looked over the books on the shelves somewhat, and then turned his attention to the desk.
As always it was the acme of tidiness; there was paper of various sizes, paper with Longacre at its top, another kind that showed a tiny telephone and railway, another kind that had the address of the Yacht Club and a picture of the Terpsichore, and another kind entirely plain.
Stone glanced them over, put two or three sheets of the paper in his pocket, with matching envelopes, turned back to the bookshelves again, and finally, seeming satisfied, pushed the bell that would bring Mrs. Mendel.
“Everything going all right?” he inquired, kindly.
“Yes, sir,” Mrs. Mendel sniffed, “except I’m that worried about my dear lady.”
“Yes, Mrs. Mendel, we’re all anxious about her. Mr. Murray is trying to bear up, and Miss Tonka is, of course, a great help and comfort to him. But, though Mrs. Murray is of course very ill, while there is life there is always hope, and we must just keep on hoping. I’m going now. I suppose they will let you know if—if anything happens?”
“Yes, sir. Miss Tonka keeps me posted. Thank you, sir.”
Stone went away feeling a little bewildered. Some bits of what had seemed to him important evidence were crumbling to nothing before his eyes.
Some facts on which he was confidently building a most likely theory turned out to be no facts at all.
He went back to the Inn, in the soft summer dusk, wondering why he ever had supposed he had detective instinct. If he had any instinct at all it was merely an imperative urge to make mistakes!
Up on his own little balcony he tried to straighten out things. Only with the result of a much greater degree of physical comfort, but also a much greater degree of mental discomfort, discord and distress.
How reconcile the amazing contradictions he had run into today? How make his firm belief in Paley’s innocence in the matter of Tolman’s death gee with the obvious method and opportunity Paley had had. Why paint Paley white so suddenly and so emphatically?
He sat listening to the various sounds that haunt the trees in the late hours of an August night.
Then his telephone bell intruded upon the softer voices, and he went inside to answer it.
It was Ballard, calling from Atlantic City.
“Isabel is worse,” Ballard said; “much worse. She is failing rapidly, and the doctors think the end is very near. I wonder if you would come down here.”
“Right away? Now?”
“Yes. Can’t you fly down?”
“You think it urgent?”
“I sure do. Come along, Stone.”
“All right. Be there soon’s I can make it.”
STONE reached Atlantic City early next morning. He telephoned the hospital first, and learned that Mrs. Murray was still alive, though unconscious.
Then he went straight to the hotel and had breakfast with his friends there.
He felt a formal question would be easier for Leif to answer than a sympathetic remark.
“Is there hope of Mrs. Murray’s recovery?” he asked. Leif maintained a composed air, but his twitching fingers showed nervousness and dark shadows under his eyes told of a night of wakeful anxiety.
“No,” he said, quietly, “they tell me she will probably not recover full consciousness again, but will sink into a final coma.”
The measured, even staccato sounds betokened the struggle the man was making to speak at all, and Fleming Stone forbore to continue the subject.
“Can I do anything for you,” he said, “in New York or at your home? I am returning this afternoon or tonight, but I have time for any errands.”
“No,” said Leif, blankly; “no, I think of nothing now.”
“You can do something for me,” Tonka said. “I’ll give you a note for Mrs. Mendel, and I’d like you to take it to her yourself. Just a list of things I want her to look after. And she’ll be glad to have you see her personally and tell her about Isabel. Am I asking too much of you?”
“Not a bit. I’ll gladly do any errands I can.”
“All right,” said Leif, suddenly. “Look after this then, will you? Of course, we’ll stay right here until the end. Then we’ll go right home, taking Isabel with us. Motor up, most likely. Can you see to it that no account or story of Isabel’s illness and death is put in the local papers, without my seeing it first, or seeing a proof. I don’t mean merely a notice, Ballard will see to those in the New York papers and the locals.”
“I understand. Yes, I’ll see the local editors myself, and make sure they understand. Are you going over to the hospital?”
“Not until later,” Leif said; “they’ll telephone me of the slightest change, and the waiting room over there is too ghastly. A private room to wait in is no better. The whole atmosphere of the place gets on my nerves and the odors and sounds are so suggestive that I want to scream.”
“I know. It’s awful. Is Mrs. Murray’s mind clear, when she is conscious?”
“Oh, no. She says the wildest things. That breaks me all up, too. I’m not an emotional man and I’m not ordinarily a nervous sort, but this illness of my wife’s takes the very life out of me.”
“I don’t wonder at that. You’re going through a dreadful ordeal. I can only hope that she will not suffer—at the last.”
“I think not. The doctor says she will pass away in a coma.”
“And I hope it will be soon,” Tonka declared. “It will wear Leif out if this horror goes on much longer. I love Isabel, she has been a perfect angel to me for years, but the suspense is wearing on us all.”
Stone looked at the girl with a new interest. He had never before heard her speak so complainingly or with such apparent callousness.
Leif paid no attention to Tonka, or to anyone. He continued to look out the window with what was evidently an unseeing gaze.
Stone was not surprised, for men do not show their deepest feelings before other men.
Antony Ballard rose.
“I’m going over to the hospital,” he said. “Want to come along, Stone? It may be your last chance to see Isabel alive.”
Stone was shocked at the casual way they all referred to Isabel’s approaching death.
“Telephone back as soon as you have seen Isabel,” Leif said to Ballard. “No matter if there’s no change, telephone anyway. I’ll be waiting here.”
“I will,” Antony told him, and he and Stone went off.
“Don’t be surprised at Leif’s queerness,” Ballard said to Stone, as they walked along. “He’s never had any serious trouble in his life and he doesn’t quite know how to take it. He tries so hard to be brave and courageous that he overdoes it a little. If he’d let himself go, it’d be better for him.”
“I think so, too. Or if he could do anything for her. It’s this sense of helplessness that gets on the nerves. Of course Murray wants no diversion or entertainment, and so he just has to endure. I incline to Tonka’s wish that the end may come soon. Is Leif fond of Tonka?”
“No romance. He has always rather disliked her, and she ignored him. But his trouble has stirred her sympathy and she is sorry for him.”
“She’s more than sorry for him. She’s in love with him.”
“Well, maybe. But Leif scarcely sees her. Of course she can’t live with him now, and he’ll be glad of it.”
“We speak as if Isabel were already dead, but I suppose there is really no slightest hope?”
“No, none.” They turned in at the hospital gate. “Do you want to see her?”
“Oh, yes. And I want to see her doctor and her nurses. I may stay here some time. In fact, Ballard, I want to find out what she died of, if possible.”
“I see. Well, we’ll go up to her room, and then I’ll go and telephone Leif, and you carry on in your own way.”
The nurse in charge was a middle-aged, capable looking Miss Galton, who was willing they should come in if they would make no noise.
“I doubt if a fire-cracker would waken her,” the nurse said, “but I have my orders.”
Had he not been warned, Fleming Stone might have voiced an exclamation when he looked at the dying woman. It was scarcely possible to realize it was Isabel, so changed was she.
She lay with the left side of her face up. It was covered with blotches of crimson and purple, and unsightly ulcers. The hair was gone from that side of her head and she was so wasted that it seemed they were looking at a bare skull.
Fleming Stone showed no repugnance, but deep interest. He looked at the poor distorted countenance intently.
“You don’t let her husband see her looking like this?” he said to the nurse, in a low tone.
“I have to,” she returned. “He insists upon it.”
Ballard had gone off to telephone and Stone took Miss Galton’s arm and led her behind a screen.
“Tell me,” he whispered, “what is she dying of?”
The nurse was not of kindly or even courteous nature.
“How should I know?” she snapped, though not speaking loudly. “Every doctor gives it a different name. When they can’t think of a new name, they make one up. Who knows the truth? I don’t.”
“Do you suspect it?”
She looked at him with a frightened face. Her eyes were staring and her lip trembled as she said;
“I don’t know what you mean! Suspect what?”
Stone ignored her question.
“What do the doctors call it?” he asked; “tell me quickly.”
Just then a doctor entered the room, and quite calmly Miss Galton moved the screen, stepped forward and introduced Stone to Doctor Mason.
Pomposity was Mason’s most obvious characteristic, and as he showed with it an occasional touch of would-be humor, he was, naturally a most unpleasing person.
“Ah,” he said, “Mr. Stone, the deteck-a-tuf? We are honored to have you beneath our roof. And glad you could come without any assistance, wheeled chair, stretcher, not even a crutch, I see.” The man gave a smirk, which made Stone his enemy for life, and then went on.
“You are a friend of our Mrs. Murray? Poor, dear lady, what a pity! What a pity is her hard lot!”
Mason was a physician of the highest reputation and was famous all over the country for his skill and knowledge. But he had an unfortunate manner and when a trifle embarrassed talked at random.
Stone paid no attention to this, his chance had come and he took it.
“Doctor Mason,” he said, “a detective may discover lots of things not noticed by the average onlooker, but he cannot deduce a fact by a science of which he knows nothing. I am here to learn the nature of Mrs. Murray’s illness, and I am glad that I may make application for that knowledge to the highest source of information in this institute, if not, indeed, in the whole medical profession.”
“You do me too much honor, Mr. Stone,” and now Mason spoke more practically. “I will be frank. You say you wish to know the nature of this peculiar illness. That I can tell you, the nature of it, yes. It is of the nature of meningitis, of pellagra, of siriasis, of cancer—yet it is no one of these things. We are, as yet, not entirely certain what to call this dread disease, this fearful scourge. We wish we knew. Could you, perhaps, help us, Mr. Stone?”
“No. I’m sorry, but such things are outside my field. You hope to save your patient’s life?”
“I regret to say we cannot hope that. Unless some miracle occurs, I see no way to look for the patient’s recovery.”
“Then you have, of course, considered and rejected all thoughts of—er—what do you call ’em? Rays, you know.”
“Rays,” Doctor Mason returned to his supercilious attitude and his ironic tone. “I suppose you are hinting at ultra-violet rays or something of the sort, and you are not more explicit because, as you yourself remarked, such a subject lies in a field of science of which you know nothing. May I suggest, Mr. Stone, that you confine your efforts to the clever deductions you are so adroit at making and refrain from dabbling in matters of which you have only a crass ignorance.”
This speech and its accompanying scornful glance, roused Stone’s ire and he returned it in kind.
“You may suggest it, certainly, Doctor Mason, but I am not at all in the habit of following suggestions. They seldom appeal to me.”
A sound from the invalid caused the doctor to step over to the bed, and Fleming Stone did the same.
Isabel opened her lovely blue eyes, as yet unharmed by the rapidly encroaching eruptions, and looked straight at the doctor.
“Doctor Mason,” she said, in a voice seemingly both conscious and sane, “you don’t think Leif cares for her, do you? No, I know you don’t. Dear Leif, he cares for nobody but me. His blessing—that’s what he calls me, his blessing. Dear Leif.”
Her lifted head fell back on the pillow, the blue eyes closed and Isabel breathed softly again.
Miss Galton spoke. “She’s been saying that all day. A dozen times she’s asked me if her husband cared for anyone else. I told her no, and she’d drop right off to sleep again.”
This time Isabel had turned a little and her face showed the right side now, which was almost without a blemish.
Fleming Stone had a question he greatly desired to put to the doctor, but he deemed it would be an unwise gesture and he didn’t do it.
Ballard came back to the room, and started in surprise as he saw Isabel looking so lovely.
“I’m going to call Leif and Tonka over,” he said, starting for the door, “she may never look so like herself again.”
“She probably will not,” Mason assured him, and then went out to the hall with him.
Once outside the doctor whispered to Ballard;
“It looks to me now as if she would not sink into a coma, but she may die any minute. Get her husband and Miss Mead over, anyway.”
Ballard called at once and Tonka answered.
He said for them to come over, because of Isabel’s appearance, and they came at once.
When Tonka saw Isabel her bravery gave way at last and she had a violent crying spell. Miss Galton took her in the next room, which belonged to the suite, and soothed her back to quietude.
“She looks s-so lovely,” Tonka sobbed. “I don’t want her to die.”
“Don’t break down now,” Nurse Galton said; “you’ve been so fine, and too, you must keep for Mr. Murray’s sake. He depends on you.”
“Yes, he does,” and Tonka roused herself to duty.
She bathed her eyes, fixed up her pale face and went back to the bedside.
Leif was standing by, gazing at Isabel, who lay asleep.
Suddenly she woke, sat straight up in the bed and looked at Leif.
She leaned forward and peered at him, as if her eyesight were failing, and then said, in a clear ringing voice;
“Think of it! After years of devotion, to murder me!”
She sank back on the pillow, gave one short gasp and died.
Doctor Mason, who had seen it coming, stepped forward, felt for her heart and her pulse, and then, unable to restrain his pompous manner, he said, as one announcing the death of a queen;
“The great lady is gone.”
It was Nurse Galton who hastened to the bedside and turned Isabel’s head until the scarred cheek was hidden, and then looked toward Leif Murray.
He was still standing where he had taken his position on entering the room. He was looking at Isabel, with a strange expression in his eyes.
Galton feared a collapse of some sort and she moved a chair to him and urged him to sit down.
Leif did so with the air of a man who does not know what he is doing.
“Don’t bother Leif,” Tonka said, quietly; “Mr. Ballard and I will look after things. Mr. Stone, shall we see you again before you go back?”
“If you will, please,” Stone said, gently. “Unless I can do anything for you, I will go now, and I’ll come round to your hotel about five o’clock, shall I?”
“And don’t you want me to do some wiring? Let me tell the people on the yacht, and notify any you want me to at Ingle Heights. Ballard will have enough to do. How shall I tell Trumbull and Elaine?”
She gave him a Cape May call that would reach them, and some other addresses for him to notify.
“Don’t stay here longer than you can spare the time,” she said; “you are good help, but I know you’re awfully busy, and Leif will be all right soon. I know him so well, you see, and I know how he takes a knock-down blow. He is all in, at first, then he rises to the occasion and is just fine. Afterward, when he’s alone he probably goes to pieces again.”
“I’ll attend to these messages,” Stone told her, “and I’ll see you sooner than I said. About two, or three?”
“Come to the hotel about three,” Tonka said. “We’ll not be having a regular luncheon, but come around anyhow.”
Stone agreed and went his way.
And his way took him through a hall, in one of whose doorways a young looking doctor lay in wait for him.
“Just a minute,” the young man said, laying his hand on Stone’s arm, “can’t I speak to you a minute? It’s very important.”
“Why, of course, you can,” Stone smiled into the earnest, pleading face. “But I’m on a most important errand. Maybe an hour, or three-quarters. Where can I find you then?”
“Not here. But I’ll meet you wherever you say.”
“Make it noon. Where’s a quiet lunch place?”
“The Arab Tent, on Seaweed Avenue. It isn’t a tent, really, you know, and it’s all right. And my name Is Doctor Horner.”
“All right, Horner, I’ll be there at noon. You know Mrs. Murray died?”
“Yes, that’s why I want to talk to you.”
Much mystified, Stone hurried away to attend to Tonka’s errands.
It took more time than he had expected, to get the various long distance calls, but he managed them all and was at the tryst on the minute.
Doctor Horner was waiting for him and took him to a cozy alcove where they could be alone.
They made short work of giving their orders, and Horner eagerly began to talk.
“What do you think Mrs. Murray died of?” he said; “I wish you’d tell me.”
“I wish I knew. But how come a hospital doctor asks a layman such a question as that?”
“None of the hospital doctors knows what she died of; or if they do they won’t tell.”
“Isn’t that an odd state of things?”
“Very odd. And if you don’t know, there’s no use pursuing the subject.”
Doctor Horner looked so disappointed that Stone tried to help him.
“You have something in your mind,” he said, gravely, looking at Horner. “I imagine you think you know what killed Mrs. Murray. I fancy you suggested it to the heads, and they turned you down.”
Horner stared at him.
“Have you heard anything to make you say that?”
“Not a word. But I had a similar experience myself.”
“Just now? In the hospital?”
“Yes. Want me to tell you about it?”
“I do indeed!”
“It happened this morning,” Stone began; “just before I left the hospital. I was mistakenly trying to learn Doctor Mason’s ideas on the subject and he snubbed me with a right good will.”
“What did you say to him that stirred him up so?”
“I asked him if it could have been rays.”
“And he said?” Horner looked eager.
“He said he assumed I meant ultra-violet rays, and he asked what I meant by speaking of a subject of which I was crassly ignorant. I didn’t exactly mean ultra-violet rays, I’m not at all particular about the color, but I meant X-rays, a subject on which I am really crassly ignorant.”
“I like that word crass, it makes you feel like the scum of the earth, when it’s handed out to you.”
“I’ve always felt that way, too,” Stone agreed. “Now, tell me. Could X-rays, used ad lib., bring about such conditions as Mrs. Murray’s case showed?”
“That’s what I had the temerity to hint, and I received proper whackings same like you.”
“Why is such a diagnosis so unwelcome to the powers that be?”
“I’m not sure, but probably because all that Roentgen business, and the psychology which follows in its train are outside the consideration of the old-time savants who recognize nothing more subtle than chills and fever.”
“But you see a possibility?”
“I do, and that’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”
“And I’d like nothing better than a good long confab. But I’m too tied up with engagements for that, so let’s get to it, and do all we can in this hour. You have a definite knowledge of the possibility of an X-ray treatment causing this death?”
“I have a definite knowledge that it could do so, but I know too little of the circumstances to speak authoritatively about it. Could Mrs. Murray have received such treatment, about—well, say, about three or four weeks ago?”
“That I don’t know. But of course I can find out when I go back.”
“Then I can only say that you’d better look into the matter. All the tentative decisions of our best physicians have omitted any hint of X-rays. I may be all wrong, but at any rate, I hope you’ll put it up to some New York medical experts and—may I ask you to let me know your results?”
“I shall, of course, do as you suggest and I shall be glad to let you know anything I find out. You mean, I take it, that Mrs. Murray, for some ailment was given an X-ray treatment, and it proved too much for her, and brought about her fearful illness and death.”
“That’s what I mean, even though put into language it sounds a highly improbable suggestion. But that’s what you had in mind, before I spoke to you?”
“Yes, I did. I don’t know where I got the notion. But her terrible symptoms seemed to me somehow like what I’ve heard or read about X-rays.”
“You can find out, can’t you, if she had a series of X-ray treatments for any disorder? I’m sure it would need a series of them to bring about such a desperate case.”
“I should think it would be an easy matter to find that out. Her local doctor would know, and of course Mr. Murray and Miss Mead would know. There could be no reason for concealing such a thing. I’m glad you spoke of this to me. I planned to make inquiries on my return to New York. I go about it now with a better assurance. But I must be very discreet. And I trust you will not feel it necessary to tell of this conversation.”
“Oh, no. I am only too glad to have met you to disregard your wishes in any way. Here is my card, and if I can be of the slightest help, let me know.”
Stone’s time was up and he had to go.
He went straight to the hotel and to the Murray suite. He reported his sendings of telegrams and telephones, and said he would start for New York at once, and asked their plans.
Tonka replied that they were waiting for further word from the hospital, but would probably go home by motor the next day.
Leif was calmer and less nervous, and made plans, which Tonka and Antony Ballard carried out.
Casually, among other things, Stone asked if Isabel had been recently subjected to X-ray treatment.
“Mercy no!” Tonka cried. “She hated such things. She had to have her teeth X-rayed once, and she nearly went wild.”
“No,” Leif corroborated. “Isabel never had an illness that called for such treatments, and she wouldn’t have consented to them anyway.”
“Did the doctors give a certificate?”
“Yes,” Tonka said. “They said death was caused by cerebral edema and necrosis.”
STONE went back to New York by train. He sat in a club car and gave himself over to thinking about Isabel Murray and her dreadful death.
He came on the yacht trip because he had a vague suspicion of some secret reasons for her strange illness, and he couldn’t rid himself of a dim, grim notion of foul play.
But though he had been alert and unwearying in his keen scrutiny while on board, he was able to find no slightest hint of any sort of wrong doing on the part of anyone present.
Moreover, they were all friends of Isabel and all showed love and affection for her.
True, she was a little trying at times, but as Tonka said, who wouldn’t be, with such a stiff ordeal as Isabel was going through? Her ailment, whatever it was, was annoying and irritating, if not actually painful. The last day or two on board, she had been very ill in body and flighty of mind.
They took her to the hospital none too soon, though the doctors said they could not have saved her life had she arrived sooner.
Stone had a conviction that somebody was to blame for the tragedy, but as he could get no similar opinion from any doctor there, he began to feel that he might well be mistaken. If so, the matter was out of his hands and he had no further concern with it. And, in fact, if Horner hadn’t stopped him and asked him about it, he would never have queried the hospital doctors’ decision.
Stone sometimes played his hunches, but not when it was a matter of life and death, and concerned a matter entirely within the knowledge and experience of the most learned members of the medical profession.
Doctor Horner’s taking up the question decidedly changed Stone’s viewpoint, and he began to rearrange his thoughts.
Horner was a young man, but by no means to be ignored for that reason.
He was up to the minute cognizant of all new discoveries, experiments or theories.
So, granting Horner’s right to say what he had said, Stone began to cast about for a possible murderer.
He did not do this happily; he was not the sort of detective who revels in the new problem just for the experience. He had become fond of the Murray family, and he liked their guests. He could not conceive of any of them guilty of murder, and he at once concluded that the murderer was not on board the yacht.
That was what he had gone to find out, and he felt sure the answer was negative. He felt fairly well acquainted with all the party, unless perhaps the Garrisons and Leo Jewett.
He just couldn’t pin it on either or both of the Garrisons, so left was only Jewett.
He would look into that possibility, of course, but what motive could the man have? To be sure Stone often told himself to make other deductions and the motive would soon show itself. How could he know what relations Leopold Jewett held with Isabel Murray, or ever had held?
Suddenly he remembered the words Isabel spoke just the moment before she died. She had looked straight at her husband and had said, clearly, “Think of it! After years of devotion, to murder me!”
Could an accusation be more direct?
Yet he must remember she was out of her head. Her mind and memory were both greatly impaired.
True, she had sane moments, but was it not obvious that those were spoken without real intent?
Leif Murray could not murder his wife nor could she think he would. No, the words came from a disordered brain, and meant just nothing at all.
He tried to forget the subject and turn his thoughts to the imminent question of the Tolman murder. He was retained on that, and he was doing wrong to spend any time on outside affairs, until it was settled.
He knew that Paul Tolman had resented his going on the yacht party, but he couldn’t make himself regret that move.
If it should turn out that Isabel was murdered, he would have much knowledge that he could bring to bear upon it.
Better wait until he was asked to do so!
Leif Murray, he knew, was an easy-going, good-natured chap, but put up to him some unpleasant question and see how he could turn on you.
But Isabel had said—
That, he told himself was the raving of a diseased brain and he must not think of it seriously. He must never mention to Leif the possibility of foul play, and it was a thousand to one there had never been any.
He ate his dinner in the restaurant car, gazing out at the none too inspiriting scenery of southern New Jersey.
But if he had been traveling through the Garden of the Hesperides, it would have made but slight impression on him.
He reached Ingle Heights in the late evening and went directly to the Inn.
After greeting Kenton he went up to his rooms, and with his never-failing promptness, he called up the newspaper office and delivered Leif’s messages and then called Mrs. Mendel at Longacre. He told her he would go to see her the next morning and tell her the particulars of Mrs. Murray’s death, and give her messages from Miss Mead.
Mrs. Mendel burst into audible sobs.
“Oh, sir,” she said, chokingly, “who did it? Who did it?”
“Hush, Mrs. Mendel,” was the stern response. “Don’t say such things on the telephone! Don’t say them at all. Don’t say anything about the sorrowful news until I see you. Will you promise?”
“Y-yes, Mr. Stone. When w-will you come?”
“Tomorrow morning, as early as possible. Tell Simmons to say nothing about it to anyone, and don’t tell anybody else.”
“No, sir. I won’t.”
Stone heard the receiver put down clumsily, and he judged the poor woman couldn’t see for the blinding tears.
But why did Mrs. Mendel say “Who did it?”
Just as if she was expecting a murder!
Nonsense, he was getting dotty on the subject himself.
Then he went to Paul Tolman’s room.
Always suave and gracious, Tolman received him with a welcome and inquired the news.
Stone told him the main facts of Isabel’s death, and though not surprised, Tolman was most sympathetic.
“Hard on Murray,” he said; “I don’t know that man well, but he strikes me as a thoroughbred.”
“Me, too,” Stone assented. “They seemed to me an ideal couple. They’re all coming back here tomorrow.”
“Elaine, too? Where is she?”
“She stayed on the yacht, when the Murrays stopped at the hospital. They are on the way home. Will arrive tomorrow some time. How are things with you?”
“Stalled. Glad you’re back. Now, let’s give up search for Peter’s will. I don’t believe he ever made any. I have a lawyer here, a friend of mine up from New York, and he’ll look after all legal queries. But I don’t want you to give up hunting my brother’s murderer. I believe in the old Mosaic law, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. And ‘whosoever slayeth a man by man shall be slain.’ Don’t think I’ve quoted that quite right, but good enough. Anyway, I want to get the damned villain that did for Pete. I’d like to kill him with a poison that would set him writhing in agony. I’m not ordinarily a vindictive chap, but—well, you never had a brother murdered.”
“No; will Coles reconvene the inquest?”
“Dunno. He isn’t sure himself. He would like to strut his stuff again I’m sure of that. But he can’t seem to get hold of any new evidence. I doubt he ever will. But I’m not ready to give up quite yet. You got any new ideas?
“About your brother’s death? Sorry to say, no. But I believe it was wilful murder. I snatched an opportunity to talk to a couple of doctors down at the hospital, and they were positive it could not have been the kernels alone. They said it would be so easy to take a hypodermic and introduce a bit of real prussic acid into the kernel, and put it among others, and let Peter take it when its turn came.”
“And I think that’s what happened.” Tolman almost shouted in his excitement. “That’s what the scurvy villain did! That’s how Peter was killed. Now you dig deeper into the mystery and find the devil and I’ll double your fee. I tell you, Mr. Stone, I want retribution, and I’m going to have it if it can be had. You’ve won out in other cases, put your best licks on this! I’m a plain man but I’m not a poor man, and what I want I can pay for. So put up your goods and send in your bill.”
“I’ll do my best, Tolman, but you know sometimes we can’t get what we want, even if we have the price.”
“Not often. But I know you’re doing your damnedest, and I’m satisfied with your progress.”
“Why, I haven’t made any yet,” and Stone looked at him in real astonishment.
Tolman favored him with a wink.
“You don’t fool me. You’ve got something up your sleeve. You know some points that you’re not yet ready to proclaim on the housetops, and that’s all right. Keep your own counsel till you get good and ready to spill it. Now, I’ll leave you, for I know you’re a busy one. And, too, here is our beloved and respected Sir Kenton.”
“Hello, Mr. Stone,” the Innkeeper greeted him. “Glad to see you back. Sad news you’re bringing.
“Yes. Who told you?”
“Mr. Ballard called me up from Atlantic City, and bade me tell some few people. Poor lady, she’ll be a great loss to the whole town. Such a pretty little piece of property. I’m told the funeral will be on Tuesday.
“Yes. Not a large funeral, I believe.”
“I don’t know as to that. How’s my friend, Doctor Coles?”
“Sorter riled at your going away.”
“He’ll get over that. Good man, Coles.”
At last Stone was left to himself, and he went out on his little balcony to give his problems a little more thoughts.
And as his thoughts grew less and less clear and became mere visions or hazy, dreamy notions, he realized he was very tired and sleepy and his best bet was to go to bed.
He came to himself with a positive jerk, as a sudden thought snapped into his brain.
He almost spoke aloud, but not quite, as he said to himself— Those two murders are connected!
Then he laughed outright at his own foolishness. The moon has affected my brain, he decided.
But he sat a moment trying to think it out. No, he concluded, there’s no tiny spark of connection. No reason to think that the murderers had anything in common. And, of course, I’m not yet entirely sure that Isabel Murray was murdered. But, if asked, I’d bet my last cent on it.”
Next morning Fleming Stone awoke refreshed and clear-headed.
He suddenly remembered his last waking thoughts of the night before. But looking them squarely in the face, he felt less sure about them.
Was it common sense to think Isabel Murray was murdered? And by an X-ray, of all things!
To Fleming Stone’s experienced mind, common sense came before deductive genius in detective work. He had a hair-trigger intellect and a self-starting brain, his imagination was limitless and his sense of relative values well-nigh perfect. But in spite of all these, he had come to the conclusion that a large part of his success in his work was due to his sound common sense.
And now, he asked himself, wasn’t his suspicion of murder outside the pale of rational thought?
And, if as his wild flight of fancy the night before had suggested, he suspected Isabel had been murdered by Tolman’s murderer, that meant she might have been murdered by Paley, and could common sense go farther astray than that?
Not that he felt sure Paley had killed Tolman. But there was no other way to look, and surely Paley had motive. His talk about the invention and the patent rights was all very well, but if he had killed Tolman in order to grab the impending fortune from the sale of Tolman’s brain-child, it was barely possible that Mrs. Murray had some bit of private knowledge that might make trouble for him.
Stone realized this idea was problematical, unlikely and probably absurd, but he most certainly proposed to look into it before discarding it entirely.
While he depended on common sense, he had an eye out for hunches or inspirations or whatever they could be called.
And after he had dressed and eaten his breakfast, somehow the theory of one murderer for the two deaths did not seem so tenable, and he put it out of his mind.
He went over to Longacre first, as he had promised Mrs. Mendel.
She was composed enough but very sorrowful and on the verge of tears.
“It’s all very dreadful, Mrs. Mendel,” Stone began, “but we haven’t much time. I know you must be busy, and there are some things Miss Mead wanted me to tell you about the housekeeping, also give you these lists. Mr. Murray and Miss Mead will be home this afternoon, and—”
“And Mrs. Murray’s body?” she asked, as Stone paused.
“Will come at the same time. It will be left at the mortuary. The funeral will probably be on Tuesday, but I am not sure about that. Miss Mead will be here tonight, and she will tell you the plans. You’ll stay on, Mrs. Mendel?”
“I’m not sure, sir.” She pursed her lips and shook her head a little. “Helga, she’s leaving today.”
“Who is Helga?”
“The parlormaid. She’s a young thing and foolish.”
“Well, I hope Miss Mead will have no trouble with the staff. And I hope you can persuade them to stay quietly for a few days, even if they leave after the funeral. Bring in that parlormaid, will you? I’d like to speak to her.”
When the neatly uniformed Swedish girl came in, Stone looked at her in surprise. She had a very pretty blonde face but on it appeared such a frown that its beauty was almost lost.
“What are you scowling at, Helga?” Stone said, kindly.
“You the dee-tective?” she asked.
“Yes, I am. Have you anything to tell me?”
“Tell you? Nossir.”
“I think you have,” Stone said, firmly. He felt sure, from the girl’s manner, she knew something. “You know, if you have any information, and hold it back from the police, you may be put in jail.”
“You the po-lis?”
“Surely. Now, what is it you’re keeping secret?”
“Me, sir? Nothing.”
Stone saw at once that he could not intimidate her nor reason with her. He didn’t let it bother him, as Helga was not in his scheme of hunting the Tolman murderer, and he had no intention of questioning anybody about the death of Isabel Murray.
He dismissed Helga and asked to see Jenny, Isabel’s own maid.
Mrs. Mendel went to fetch her, and Stone looked about the attractive living-room, thinking of the family it had housed, now so broken up. For Tonka Mead could scarcely live there alone with Murray, and he doubted if Leif would continue to live there himself.
He scanned the bookshelves, marveling at the large number of scientific works, especially physics and electrical matters. He smiled at the array of detective stories, many of them being among his own favorites. He noted a shelf of light recent fiction, and concluded that was Isabel’s property or maybe Tonka’s.
Jenny came, but proved unsatisfactory.
To most of his questions she answered, “I don’t know, sir,” and she showed not the slightest interest in the death of her mistress or the manner of her taking off.
“You were fond of your mistress, were you not?” Stone asked.
“What does that mean?”
“Why, sometimes she was decent to me, and sometimes she raked me over the coals for no reason at all.”
“Was she more ill-tempered during this last illness of hers?”
“Oh, yes; she was most always kind and pleasant before she took sick. Though she was always a nagger.”
“What do you mean by nagger?”
Why, she’d tell me to do something, and every few minutes she’d nag at me to know if I’d done it. Or if she was going out, she’d pester me to get her hat and wraps long before it was time.”
“I see. Shall you stay on, to maid Miss Mead?”
“Yes, if I’m asked to. Miss Tonka is queer, but I like her. She’s fair and square ”
“Very well, Jenny, I’ve no more hard questions to ask you. Do you think Mrs. Murray’s illness had any cause other than her sunbaths and long naps in the sun?”
“Oh, yes, sir,” and the girl looked positively scared. “Somebody put the evil eye on her.”
“Nonsense, don’t talk like that. What do you mean.”
“Just that. Nothing else would explain it.”
“The way she went off. Getting so thin and peaked and then her poor face all breaking out, her, who never had a mar on her beautiful skin, and her hair coming out and her having spasms and losing her mind and her memory, oh, what does all that mean but the curse somebody put on her?”
Jenny’s tone was so intense and her face so white and frightened, Fleming Stone was a little stirred.
But he only said, in his matter-of-fact way;
“Better cut that out, Jenny, it means nothing and may get you into trouble. When Miss Mead comes, do all you can for her; poor girl, she has sad responsibilities.
Stone went away and went directly back to the Inn. There he found Tolman in confab with a stranger. They were in one of the small reception rooms, which could be used privately by the guests of the Inn.
“Come in,” called Tolman when Stone tapped at the door, to which Kenton had directed him.
Stone went in and was glad to find that the stranger was a police detective who had just returned from his vacation.
Scott was a strapping big fellow, of genial manner and he greeted Stone with hearty expressions of admiration.
“What have you done toward finding the will?” Stone asked him, in hope of cutting off his stream of compliments.
“Found out that there isn’t any will to find,” Scott replied, “isn’t that all right?”
“Fine,” Stone said. “How did you get it?”
“Well, if a man dies, having never had a lawyer or a doctor or a minister, isn’t it a safe bet he never made a will?”
“Not entirely convincing,” Stone smiled, “but if it’s good enough for Mr. Paul Tolman, it’s good enough for me. How about it?” he looked at Paul.
“Why, it seems to me this way, Mr. Stone. We have done all we can to find my brother’s will, and it hasn’t turned up. I think we are justified in assuming that he didn’t leave any, and going ahead without it.”
“Or we’ll never get anywhere,” supplemented Scott. Stone had not felt drawn to the new detective at first, but he began to like him better. He surely seemed to have common sense.
“Very well,” Stone said. “We must pull together, Mr. Scott. What seems to you the first move?”
‘To apply in the proper quarters to have Paul Tolman appointed executor of his brother’s estate. And then to discover just what said brother’s estate comprises.”
“I can tell you that,” Paul said; “there’s the invention. That may be worth much or nothing, but whatever it is worth, it belongs to Pete’s legal heirs, and they are his mother and two brothers. See? Well, then Pete had some old stock in some old company. I’m not sure just what it is, but mother has the securities or whatever you call them, and that’s an asset or not, according as it pans out. So you see there isn’t much.”
“What about insurance?” asked the astute Scott.
“I don’t know,” Paul returned. “If he had any, I bet he let it lapse or sold it out for present cash. You must remember, Mr. Scott, that my brother was the world’s worst business man. I have all his papers—that is—except any that Paley took—I mean, may have taken. By the way, Stone, can’t we get the papers back from Washington that Paley left there?”
“If he took them illegally, we most certainly can. But Mr. Scott knows more about such things than I do. I say, Tolman, are you a ventriloquist?”
“How you do jump around,” Paul smiled. “Why, yes, —isn’t everybody, to a degree? We all used to do it at school.”
“But you were the poorest at it of all!”
The words seemed to come from the distant side of the room, and the two men listening, jumped and stared hard at the wall.
Paul couldn’t help laughing and Scott burst into guffaws as he realized the truth.
Tolman had done it himself, thus proving he had real skill in that direction.
And then they set to work in earnest. Paul had all the papers he possessed of Peter’s estate, and he and the two detectives went over them rapidly, finding they could destroy or dispense with many and easily take care of others, until all was pretty well attended to save for the papers Paley still held.
IT was the following Wednesday, and the day before, the remains of the one-time beautiful Isabel Murray had been laid to rest in the village cemetery.
The funeral had been a small one, only family friends being invited, and to the accompaniment of garden flowers, soft music and the sonorous intoning of the service by the well-loved rector, Isabel was taken away from her home.
One friend who had attended the funeral had remained at Longacre and was there still. This was Mrs. Bingham, the important personage whom Leif called Aunt Phoebe, and who descended on the Murrays for occasional visits.
She was an Englishwoman who lived in Quebec and her husband was Leif’s uncle. She was quaint and interesting and all that, but everyone who knew her conceded that a little of Phoebe Bingham went a long way.
Garrulous, opinionated, dictatorial, determined— many more such adjectives would fit Aunt Phoebe.
About sixty years old, she had the energy and vivacity of a young woman and still preserved much of her youthful charm. Her hair was white, abundant and naturally curly. It was short, and lay in loose, soft ringlets, a very halo of beauty.
Her eyes were dark and piercing, and she gave the impression of seeing everything, which she very nearly did.
Today, as she sat in the living-room with Leif and Tonka, she was planning their future with avid enjoyment.
Tonka, at first interested, grew bored, as she heard the disposition about to be made of herself, and remarked, pointedly, that she did not approve of it, and would not consent to it.
Leif looked deeply concerned. Tonka couldn’t understand why he was so interested in the old lady’s babble.
He said no word of agreement, but neither did he raise any objections.
Aunt Phoebe’s plans were vague, and seemed based on the general idea that both Leif and Tonka would remove their place of residence to Quebec or at any rate to Canada.
Tonka was about to declare emphatically and with no minced words, that she, for one, would positively not move to Canada or any other place not selected by herself.
But just then Fleming Stone and the police detective Scott arrived and Aunt Phoebe gleefully gave over baiting the girl and turned to the new arrivals.
Leif looked up wearily as Stone introduced his companion, and paid an unwilling attention to an explanation of their presence.
Scott was spokesman and saying he had some news of importance to divulge, perhaps Mr. Murray would rather see him alone.
“Not at all,” said Aunt Phoebe, briskly; “anything of importance must be said before me. I am a part of Leif’s family.”
“Same as. My husband is Mr. Murray’s uncle. He is the brother of Mr. Murray’s mother, who was a Canadian girl, Cicely Bingham.”
“You corroborate this, Mr. Murray?” Scott asked.
“Oh, yes. Mrs. Bingham is an authority on our family tree. So, come right out with whatever you have to say. Miss Mead is a member of the family also. You two men in cahoots?”
“Yes,” Stone told him. “We have had news from the hospital where Mrs. Murray was a patient and we feel you ought to know it. Go ahead, Scott.”
“It is this, Mr. Murray.” Though often loud of voice and manner, Scott spoke quietly, addressing himself to Murray, with a glance now and then at Tonka. He seemed to have forgotten the elder lady’s presence.
Ordinarily this would have roused Aunt Phoebe to wrath, but so interested was she in learning the promised news, she sat breathlessly waiting for it.
“It is this,” Scott said; “a letter has come from Doctor Horner, stating that further tests and certain unlooked-for developments have proved beyond all question that Mrs. Murray’s death was the result of X-ray treatments given to her recently. Nothing further is known, I mean as to how or where the treatments were administered. We are here to ask you if you know of any such treatments given to your wife, or is there a possibility that she took them secretly—”
Leif interrupted the speaker.
“Let up on that line of talk,” he said, not rudely, but with an air of helpfulness; “there is no possibility that my wife ever took X-ray treatments of her own will. I cannot imagine her taking them unwillingly, unknown to me. I make no comment on the decision of the doctors as to the cause of Mrs. Murray’s death, nor do I feel any deep interest in the matter. By which I mean that since my dear wife is dead from some painful and little-known disease, I prefer that my memories of her shall be of her healthy, happy days and I do not care to mull over the sad tragedy of her illness and death.”
“But, Murray,” Stone said, “the point is there is a possibility that someone gave her these treatments with an evil intent; or what may have turned out by accident to be an evil result. There may have been criminal action or negligence that brought about her death. You want the matter followed up, don’t you?”
“I don’t know that I do.” Leif’s face showed a stubborn expression. “Why do you want to worry into it? It cannot bring my Isabel back to me, it cannot lessen my burden of grief. It would rather add to my sorrow, to dig and delve into the mystery, to question and investigate, to argue and deduce. No, Stone, my wife is dead, and no effort can help or alleviate that. I do not want to forget any least moment of her bright and happy life, but I should be glad to forget the sad memories of the last few weeks. I think you understand, Mr. Scott?”
Murray turned to the police detective, as if already sure that his friend, Fleming Stone was in full sympathy with what he had said.
“I do,” Scott said, straightforwardly; “and I am quite of your way of thinking, personally. But as a government executive, I have a duty to perform and I cannot keep this new information to myself. It is my duty to report to my superiors.”
“Oh, hell!” said Leif, bothered to death with this new quandary in addition to the trouble he was already experiencing with Aunt Phoebe and her claims. “What do you want to do?”
“My nephew,” said Mrs. Bingham, in her most austere voice, “do not treat a grave matter so lightly. Mr. Scott, who is an arm of the law, has a right to exact your obedience to whatever course he deems right and necessary. I have unusual percipience and I gather Mr. Scott means there has been foul play. In other words he is implying that he suspects our Isabel was murdered—”
“Stop!” Tonka cried out, as if in physical pain, “Aunt Phoebe, you stop that sort of talk! He doesn’t mean that, does he, Mr. Stone?”
“I think it quite likely he does, Tonka,” and Stone spoke with infinite gentleness. “Tell her, Scott.”
“Yes, Miss Mead, I do mean that. There has been great uncertainty, even mystification as to the cause of Mrs. Murray’s death, and this explanation just received is so explicit and so undeniable that we have no choice but to accept it and follow up its claims.”
“You’ll have to tell me more before I give my consent,” Leif said, his tone almost belligerent.
“Without meaning offence, Mr. Murray,” Scott told him, “I have to tell you that our procedure is not dependent on your consent.”
“You mean,” and Aunt Phoebe’s attitude had changed to angry defiance, “you mean that because a lot of ignorant doctors are unfamiliar with a certain disease, they call it murder to hide their own deficiency!”
“I didn’t say that, Mrs. Bingham,” Scott returned, in polite fashion. He then turned to Leif and said, “I am here, Mr. Murray, in the pursuance of my duty. I am sure you will put no obstacles in my way, and I venture to think you will give me any assistance that you can.”
Leif, too, had changed his attitude. He realized that if the police had made up their minds to look upon Isabel’s death as a murder, it was his best course to string along with them and do anything he could to aid them in their search for the murderer.
“You are right, Mr. Scott,” he said, “and here and now, I want to engage Mr. Stone’s services as my private detective, to see me through this ordeal, as I fear it must prove. I know, Stone, you are engaged on the Paley case, but can’t you run the two, side by side? As it’s all right here in the Heights, I’m hoping you can do that.”
“I don’t see why not,” Stone assented. “I am so interested in the case of Mrs. Murray, I should follow it up anyway. And Mr. Scott is an experienced detective and will be working with me on both cases.”
“Then, Mr. Scott,” Leif said, in a matter of fact way, “I am at your disposal. What do you want me to do? And don’t misunderstand me; if my wife was murdered, I most certainly do want to discover and punish the killer. I have thought of this, of course, but I could figure out no way in which such a deed could be accomplished. Nor do I see that yet, but I assume that part is up to you. But do put the thing through with all the speed possible. I am worn out and I feel the need of going away somewhere for rest and relaxation. Need it necessarily drag along through weeks of investigation?”
“I hope not, indeed, Mr. Murray, but of course you know we cannot time our procedure to our own wishes.”
“You know that, Leif,” Stone said, “and I’m sure you will be good help in our search. There will probably be an inquest, and that may give us some clues at once, and we will get more from other sources. Let us hope to make our investigation short and successful. A dreadful crime like this cannot be ignored or evaded. Coles will hold the inquest, and Mr. Scott and I will try our best to discover evidence that shall help us out.”
Mrs. Bingham sat in stony silence. She was furious because no one paid any attention to her or cared for her opinions. In high dudgeon she remarked coldly;
“I shall go home tomorrow, then, Leif,” she said, with the air of one pronouncing a dread ultimatum.
“Yes, Aunt,” Leif said, in a preoccupied voice. “That will be best, I think. I shall doubtless be busy with these men, and could give you little of my time. We will have a talk this evening, and I will keep you posted as to how the case progresses.”
But that evening Elaine came over to see them all, and when Leif told her of the new investigation to be made, she was sympathy itself.
“Oh, how hard for you,” she said, her dark eyes filled with grief. “As if you hadn’t enough to bear already! What can I do? I came to ask Tonka to stay with me for a time, and let you go away for a rest, Leif. I didn’t know Mrs. Bingham was here. But I’ll be glad to have her come, too.”
“I can’t go away now, Elaine,” Leif explained. “I have to be at the beck and call of the police, you see.”
“Why do you?”
“To give evidence of sorts. To answer questions of more sorts. And, too, a runaway is not highly looked upon, you know.”
“Yes, I understand. But where did they ever pick up such a notion?”
“I don’t know, I’m sure. Except that they had word from some of the hospital doctors that the cause of Isabel’s death was positively some X-ray treatments she must have had.”
“But Leif, X-rays aren’t poisonous of themselves. I’ve had them, a long time ago, and they’re beneficial.”
“If given properly, I suppose. I don’t know much about such things, but I know Isabel hated the sound of the word. Ever since she had her teeth X-rayed, she was afraid of such treatment. You know that.”
“Of course I do. And how could she have had any such treatments without anyone knowing it?”
“I suppose she could if she had wanted to. She had a very strong will, had my little girl.”
“My gracious!” Tonka put in. “Suppose she went to some specialist to be cured of something by rays. Suppose Friend Specialist was a beginner or didn’t quite know how to work the machine and gave her too much or something. Do you want to electrocute him?”
“Surely,” said Elaine. “An amateur has no reason or right to practice if he isn’t expert.”
“I don’t believe it was anything like that,” Leif said, but Aunt Phoebe interrupted;
“That’s just what it was, though, Leif. I knew of a case something like it. If you leave the thing turned on too long, it burns the patient’s insides, and makes her ill just exactly like Isabel was ill, and then she slowly dies.”
“Unless you’re perfectly sure of your facts, Mrs. Bingham,” Elaine said, reprovingly, “you oughtn’t to make such statements. Do you know it to be true?”
“I heard it,” declared Aunt Phoebe; “that’s all anyone can say. Of course, I am not a doctor.”
“That reminds me,” Stone said, “Horner told me that if Isabel did die from too strong treatments by X-rays, then the murderer must have been a doctor. He said, no layman could bring it about. So, if the diagnosis is right where’s a doctor who would kill our Isabel?”
“Not intentionally,” Elaine suggested. “But maybe a specialist, giving her treatments of some sort—why, you know the Beauty Parlors nowadays have all kinds of queer engines that do things to you, to make you thinner or fatter, or more lithe and elegant or improve your complexion or your hair—oh, there’s no end to the things they do to you.”
“Isabel wasn’t like that,” Leif said; “she didn’t go to Beauty Parlors; she didn’t have to, she was beautiful enough.”
“Oh, Leif, don’t be a dumbo!” and Tonka laughed at him. “Isabel did go to such places, I’ve been with her.”
“Only for a manicure or shampoo, then,” Leif insisted.
“Will all these things be asked about at the inquest?” Tonka inquired, earnestly.
“I suppose so,” Leif told her. “But don’t climb trees and listen for clues.”
“But if I know anything, I have to tell it, don’t I?”
“If you know it really and truly, yes. But listen, Tonka, if you are asked anything you know partially, or may know inaccurately, say you don’t know. More harm is done by uncertain evidence than any other one thing at an inquest.”
“I’ve always been taught that if you know anything and don’t tell it you’re a criminal.”
“Yes, and they put you in jail!” declared Aunt Phoebe, unable longer to keep out of the discussion.
Simmons came in then, carrying a large tray and followed by Helga with a smaller tray.
The butler arranged plates and glasses and Helga passed them round.
“What’s it like in jail?” Tonka kept up her inquiries.
“May you never know,” said Aunt Phoebe. “I know, for I go on certain days to entertain the poor prisoners shut in their cells.”
“Do they like it?” Leif asked, dryly.
“Of course they do, as much as they can like anything. After they’ve been there a long time, they’re not like people, they’re more like animals.”
“So you see, Tonka,” Leif said, “you’d better keep out of jail. If you know something you want to tell, tell it to me first, and I’ll advise you.”
“All right, I will,” said Tonka, who was taking the matter seriously.
Elaine went home, and then Aunt Phoebe told Leif she wanted a talk with him.
“All right, Aunt,” he said, pleasantly enough, ‘I suppose that matter must be settled.”
They drifted off to Leif’s study, and Tonka, left alone, read for a while and then went up to her room.
She didn’t go to bed for a long while, but sat at the window, thinking.
She did know something she didn’t want to tell, and more, she intended not to tell, but she hoped she wouldn’t have to. Tonka would not balk at a lie, if told in the right place and at the right time. But she didn’t like the idea of going to jail. And her one-track mind told her that to refrain from telling something was definitely a lie. She never minced matters or begged questions or whipped the devil around the stump, but she cowered back at the thought of incarceration. It had never come home to her before that she had any responsibilities concerning anyone but herself.
There was a tap at her door, and she rose and opened it. Aunt Phoebe stood there, seemingly placid, but Tonka detected a repressed excitement in her voice.
“Not gone to bed yet?” she said, seeing the girl still in the gown she had been wearing; “then, I wish you’d come downstairs and have a little confab with us.”
“Of course, Aunt Phoebe; what’s it all about?”
Mrs. Bingham did not answer this, but started back down the stairs and Tonka followed.
They went to Leif’s study and found him there, looking weary and sad, but more than that, perplexed.
“Sit down,” he said, rising and pushing chairs for them. “Tonka, you are invited to a conference.”
“Glad to be included,” she said; “my wisdom and good judgment are world renowned.”
“You’ll need them both,” and Leif looked at her kindly, but with a strange, even curious expression, as if he had never seen her before.
The conference lasted over an hour, and Tonka went back to her room, with a stunned feeling as if something had hit her, and she didn’t know what.
She went to bed, still in a daze, and lay there thinking, thinking until she fell asleep from sheer exhaustion.
* * * * * * * * * *
In another part of the house another young girl lay in her bed, sleepless also.
The pretty parlormaid, the Swedish Helga, lay motionless, her hands clasped on her breast and her wide-open eyes staring at the ceiling.
She did not toss about in her nervous excitement, but her lips moved slightly as she argued with herself.
“I must do it,” she murmured. “It is for me to do, and I must. I am a good girl and I must do what is right. How can I? But it is not how can I? it is I must. Well, then, I will.”
And without further discussion with herself Helga calmly went to sleep.
And she awoke next morning with an unshaken determination to do what she felt certain was her immediate duty.
She neglected no part of her early morning work, and in tidy and trim uniform and clean apron she waited at breakfast.
Tonka sat in Isabel’s place. Though preferring to breakfast in bed, she now came to the table, hoping her company would make Leif a little less lonely. She was deeply sorry for him, and though there was little she could do to help him bear his burden, she watched out for more.
Though a little forced, the breakfast table conversation was pleasant and cheerful.
“I suppose matters will take shape at headquarters,” Leif said, “but until they do, I shall not take any steps. I’ve engaged the best detective I know of, and I hope he’ll prove expeditious. You’ll stay a few days, Aunt Phoebe?”
“Yes, unless I hear bad news from home. Your Uncle Joseph may have a stroke or a crisis of some sort at any time. I shall have to go at once in such case.”
“Of course. I understand. If necessary I’ll send you up there in an aeroplane.”
“I’d rather stay on the ground, but we’ll see about it. More hot waffles, Helga; they are very good.”
Breakfast over, Helga went to her room. With no expression of doubt or uncertainty on her round little Swedish face, she dressed herself in her Sunday best. It was a bit gay—a green suit, piped with red, a green hat with a red feather and a flaunting red and green scarf.
She went down to the pantry and reported to Mrs. Mendel, who looked at her in surprise.
“Please let me to go out this morning, ma’am,” Helga said, so earnestly that the housekeeper checked the refusal she had meant to pronounce.
“Where are you going?”
“Please,” Helga said, her cornflower blue eyes turning darker as she plead. “Please, no matter where—I’ll be back very soon—oh, Mrs. Mendel, ma’am, please!”
“Well, as you’re making such a fuss of it, go. You’re a good girl, Helga, and I trust you not to do anything wrong.”
“Oh, no, ma’am, it’s right—very right.”
“Run along, then; tell Simmons I said you might go, and be back by lunch time.”
“I will,” and Helga did not run along, but walked slowly, almost, it seemed, unwillingly toward the door.
She walked slowly, too, when she reached the street. But, suddenly, her face assumed a more determined air, she quickened her pace, and in a distinctly Swedish way, she stomped along, turned corners and walked blocks until she stood before the jail.
This building was attractive outside, like a famous cup and platter, but what might be inside was already giving Helga the shudders, and she stood on the pavement, staring, before she made her way in.
Then, gritting her teeth audibly, she strode up the path and rang the bell.
A formidable looking man, presumably, she thought, the jailer, opened the door.
He looked at her curiously, and then said;
“Now what do you want?”
“I want to see the jail.”
AT Longacre the rector had come to make a morning call.
Though Doctor Chalmers’ white hair was like some of Sargent’s pictures of the prophets, his mien was far from patriarchal.
Perhaps this was due to the fact that so many of his parishioners were of the younger or near younger generation.
This was not the first time the rector had called since he had read the service over Isabel’s casket, and he allowed himself a little more lightness of speech.
“Are you going away for a time, Mr. Murray?” he asked. “I can’t help thinking a short trip somewhere would do you worlds of good, physically.”
“I can’t do that at present, my dear sir. You see—ah, here comes Mr. Ballard. Excuse me just one moment.”
Leif jumped up and went quickly to the hall, where he had a few words with Ballard, and then both returned to the living-room.
“Come in to my study, all of you, please,” Leif said, and held the study door open while they filed through.
He looked so serious, that no one made any laughing rejoinder or asked why the session.
Aunt Phoebe stalked ahead, then Tonka. Doctor Chalmers followed, and Leif said;
“Come along Antony, we may want you for a witness.”
Ballard entered the room and then Leif came in and shut the door and locked it.
“Mystery?” Ballard asked, trying to speak lightly.
“No,” Leif said, “but this is a secret conclave. You must all promise to keep absolutely confidential whatever may happen in here now.”
They all gave the required promise, and then Leif laid before them the strangest proposition that had ever been heard by any of them, including Murray himself.
They listened carefully, they pondered wisely, and then, after some necessary questions and answers, they one and all gave approval to this unheard of thing.
The rector kept nodding his white crown of glory even after he had voiced his consent to the plan.
Aunt Phoebe fairly plumed herself in her satisfaction; Tonka put on her blank gaze that made her look an absolute imbecile, and Antony Ballard though he couldn’t shake off his amazed, astounded, even flabbergasted air, had a twinkle in his eye that guaranteed his spoken approval.
“Grand!” he cried, “perfectly splendid! How did you ever think of it, Leif? You brave man, you wise, sensible person. The most efficient gesture I’ve ever heard of. Go to it!”
So Murray went to it.
It is possible he might have hesitated longer had he known of the accusing angel standing at the door of the jail.
When Swedish Helga said “I want to see the jail,” she spoke to a man who was susceptible to big blue eyes, yellow hair and pink cheeks, in addition to a troubled expression of countenance.
Moreover he was the Junior Warden, and quite sufficiently in authority to show off his beloved jail to anybody who really wanted to see it.
“Well, you don’t have to have a ticket,” he told the applicant, “but you have to tell me why you want to see inside of this caravansary.”
“Don’t ask me that,” and two big tears glistened in the blue eyes. “Just show me the—you know—the cells. Please do.”
He was about to class her as a fine candidate for village idiot, but the look in her eyes after those two tears had rolled down her cheeks, made him hastily revise his intention.
“Come along, then,” he said, and led the way.
Helga followed and was shown cells of varying degrees of discomfort, and shuddered to find that the very best one was far from her idea of what the well-dressed criminal ought to occupy.
She looked so disappointed that Warden Dennis, not wishful to see any more of those crystal-clear teardrops, thought it was time to jolly her a bit.
“Was you thinkin’ of occupyin’ one yourself, lady?” he inquired, gently.
“No.” Helga drew back into herself, and said, impersonally; “Please tell me where I can find the Head of Police?”
“The Chief, you mean? He isn’t here; he’s at Headquarters.”
“Head quarts? What is that? Where is it?”
“Headquarters, Miss. Over 0n Ransome Street, and a block down.”
“I have to tell somethings. Could it that I go there?” When Helga became excited or nervous her English gave way a little.
“Yes, of course. Run right along. Ask for an Inspector, —any Inspector.”
“I wish Mr. Scott.”
“Oh, you do? Well ask for Mr. Scott, then. Ask for whatever you want and take whatever you get.”
“Good by, sir. I think I go there.”
The red and green vision faded from the Warden’s view and Helga dragged herself over to Headquarters.
After some inquiries she found herself in the presence of Detective Scott who looked at her in well-concealed surprise.
Scott was partial to yellow-haired dolls.
“Who are you and what do you want?” he asked tersely but not curtly.
“I am Helga and I have to tell you something.”
“Sit down then, and tell it rapidly.”
“I know who killed Mrs. Murray.”
“Oh, you do? Who told you?”
“Nobody told me. I live there.”
“At Longacre. At the Murray place. I am parlormaid.”
“Oh, you are? Parlormaid at the Murrays?”
“Yes, sir, that’s what I said, and it’s true.”
“I don’t doubt you. And you have something to tell me? Well, tell it. You say it is about Mrs. Murray’s death?”
“Yes, sir. Her husband killed her. Mr. Murray killed her.”
“Look out, young woman! You can’t sling that sort of talk around. Now tell me all you know or think you know. Don’t be afraid, only tell the truth.”
“Yes, sir. Well, I knew three four weeks ago that Mr. Murray was making to kill his wife. Also that he was going to do it soon. Also which he done.”
“You’re one too many for me, miss. I’ll call for help.” He put two fingers in his mouth and whistled.
The shrill sound brought a response from the next room and Fleming Stone appeared at the doorway.
“Why, Helga,” he said, “what are you doing here?”
“Come in, Stone,” Scott invited. “Shut the door, that’s right. Now sit down and help me listen to a witness of sorts.”
“All right, Scott. Give me a chance first. Why are you here, Helga?”
“To tell what I know, Mr. Stone. You said you don’t tell what you know, you go to jail. I went and looked at jail. I do not like it. So I think I tell my story.”
“I’m not so sure about that, Helga. What is your story about?”
“About that Mr. Murray killed his wife.”
“So? And how did he kill her?”
“Oh, you know. With x y z things, whatever they are.”
“Scott,” Stone said, seriously, “we must listen to this girl. I know her and she is a strange mixture of wisdom and ignorance. I don’t think she can help us, though she may. But we must plumb her depths lest she overset the cart of the apple. Now, Helga, out with it. Don’t say Mr. Murray killed his wife, don’t dare to hint it, but tell what makes you think so.”
Though in awe of the stern look on the faces of both men, Helga was ready to tell her story truly and promptly.
“About four weeks ago,” she began, “Mr. Murray was reading a book in the library. He threw it across the room. He often does that. It hit a wee table and upset it, glass vase of flowers and all. The vase broke, the water spilled and the book was soaked sloppy.
“I went for a cloth and began to wipe up the wet, when Mr. Murray looked up and asked what I was doing. I told him and then he talked to me a little.”
“What about?” asked Scott.
“About my kitten. It got hurted.”
“Just where does the wife murder come in?” Scott said, coldly.
“Here,” and Helga’s voice dropped lower. “I cleaned up all the wet and the broken glass and all, and as the book was all soppy wet, I hung it out in the sun to dry. And when I took it back to Mr. Murray, he shouted at me to throw it away, he never wanted to see it again.
“So I kept it myself and read it, and—ooh!—it was awful. All about the man who kilt his wife, and all through it Mr. Murray had turned down pages and marked places on the edge of the leaves, and yet the outside was all nice and pretty so I kept it.”
“Why wasn’t the cover soaked too?” Scott wanted to know.
“Why, you see the book fell on the floor, open, and then the vase smashed right on top of it, on the open place, and it soaked the pages, but the cover most not at all. Was there any harm in my keeping it? If you want it, I’ll bring it back. I have it still.”
“Yes, Helga,” Stone said. “You bring it to me, and don’t rub it or try to clean it up any more than you have. Any more to your story?”
“Well, no sir. Except I liked that book terrible, and— must I tell, sir?”
“You surely must.”
“Well, then, I looked on the shelves to see if there were any more stories about a man murderin’ his wife, and there was a lot of ’em!”
“All standing together?” Stone asked.
“How’d you know! Yes, they was. All in a row. I read ’em all.”
“Are you allowed access to the library shelves?” Scott said, in surprise.
“I think so, aren’t you, Helga?”
“Yes, Mr. Stone. We can all take books offen the library shelves if we like. Not many do, though. Simmons, he reads Westerns, and I like the detective stories. I like the bungstarter kind best—”
“You mean the gangbuster kind.”
“Yes sir, that’s what I said.”
“All right, Helga, carry on.”
“Well, I heard a lot of things. You see, I can’t help it. I have to go in and out of the rooms and they never notice me. They’re so used to me they never stop their talk when I come in, and so I can’t help hearing. I never tell anything, not even to Mrs. Mendel, but I can’t help hearing.”
“Of course you can’t, Helga,” Stone spoke kindly; “and you are right to tell us whatever you heard. Any more?”
“Well, you see, sir, Miss Tonka she sorta caught on that Mr. Murray he read so many detective stories about killing his wife, and she pretended he meant to kill his own wife. Why, one day, Mr. Murray, he said to Mrs. Murray, ‘Thank the Lord, Isabel, that you have fair hair and blue eyes, otherwise I’d have to kill you.’ And she said, ‘I could bleach it,’ and he only laughed and kissed her.”
“Seems to me, Helga,” Stone said, “that contradicts your theory. If Mr. Murray admired fair hair and blue eyes, then he had no reason to kill his blonde wife.”
Helga looked puzzled.
“I know,” she said, “but there was times when Mr. Murray would get real mad at her. You see, she nagged him. Some men, they don’t like to be nagged at. Once, she had said awful mean things to him, and he just broke loose, and he said—”
“Wait a minute, Helga,” Scott said, abruptly, “tell what you started to, but be very sure you are telling the cxact truth.”
“Yes, sir, I am. Well, she was like a little hell-cat, if you know what I mean, and he grabbed her by the shouldcrs and shook her and said, ‘when I do kill you, Isabel, would you rather be strangled or poisoned?’ ”
“And what did Mrs. Murray reply?”
“She just laughed and snuggled into his arms and he kissed her.”
“So you see it meant nothing, he was just jollying her.”
“Just as you say, sir.”
“You have opportunity to overhear a great deal,” Stone put in; “I hope, Helga, you never repeat any of it.”
“I don’t, sir. But how can I help overhearing? I must be in and out of the living-room all the time, and they will keep right on talking.”
“I see; you can’t help it. And yet, knowing that Mr. Murray was only fooling when he teased Mrs. Murray, you still think he killed her?”
“Didn’t he, sir?” Helga’s blue eyes were simply inquiring. “Don’t you think he did?”
“No, Helga, of course not. You mustn’t expect to understand the ways of ladies and gentlemen. They often say just the opposite of what they mean. You cannot judge. You come of peasant people and you must not think at all about your betters.”
Fleming Stone knew Helga’s position and he knew her limited outlook on life, so he spoke plainly.
“Yes, sir, that is so. They do talk queer. Miss Tonka, now, she’s all the time jollying Mr. Murray. She says, every time he brings home a new book, ‘Another treatise on how to kill your wife?’ and then they both laugh.”
“Is Mr. Murray in love with Miss Mead?” Scott inquired, casually.
“Oh, no, sir! Sometimes he doesn’t even speak to her. I think he likes her a little better than he used to, because she has been so good to Mrs. Murray. But he scorns her mostly.”
“Will Miss Mead continue to live at Longacre?” Scott was trying to make hay while the Swedish sun shone.
“I don’t know what she’s going to do. She doesn’t know herself. Maybe she will go home with Mrs. Bingham and live with her.”
“I think that’s enough about the family and their prospects,” Stone said, smiling at Scott. “You run along, now, Helga, and don’t tell anyone you have been here, if you can help it. Just why did you come?”
“Last night I was in the hall, waiting for Simmons, and then we were both taking trays into the living-room. And while I waited there, just outside the door, I heard them talking and Miss Tonka, she asked if anybody knew anything and didn’t tell it, would they go to jail. And Mrs. Bingham and everybody said they would. And Simmons came and we both went in with our trays, and they kept on talking about jail and all, so that’s why I went to look at the jail. It isn’t nice at all, I thought it would be more like a hotel. But I don’t want to go there, so I came to tell. And I’ve told.”
“You haven’t told much, Helga,” Stone observed. “Only that Mr. Murray joked his wife about making believe to kill her. You know yourself he didn’t mean it, but as you say, it was right for you to tell us. Now you forget it, and don’t say or think another word about it. I’ll see to it that you don’t go to jail, but if you overhear anything again, you’d better tell me. Mind now, keep this all under your hat. If you don’t—if you babble to anybody, you may land in jail yet. Promise?”
“Oh, yes, Mr. Stone. I don’t want to talk about it to anybody, I’m sure. Mrs. Mendel and Simmons and me, we don’t gossip in the servants’ hall. That Jenny, she tries to, but we don’t answer her.”
“Will Jenny be leaving now?”
“I don’t know. Maybe Miss Tonka will keep her on.”
“All right, Helga; run along now. Keep your own counsel, and you’ll keep out of jail.”
The red and green object went away, and the two men looked at each other inquiringly.
“I know the girl,” Stone said, “and I know the Murrays like her very much. But I mean as to her work and behavior. I don’t believe Mrs. Murray or Tonka ever thought of her as a human being, listening to their talk and having any opinions of her own about themselves. To people like the Murrays servants are inanimate objects, to be used when needed, like a sewing machine or lawn mower, and the rest of the time ignored and forgotten. Of course, no one talks really secret affairs before the servants, but that very fact goes to prove that Leif’s idea of the general subject of wife-killing was far from serious and merely a byword of some sort. And yet—”
“Yet I myself heard Isabel Murray’s last words.”
“And what were they?”
“She looked straight at her husband who was standing at the bedside, and she said, ‘after years of devotion, then to murder me!’ But we must remember she was not entirely sane.”
“And she died right after that speech?”
“Yes, in a few moments. But she said no other word. It can’t mean anything for they were really a devoted pair.”
“So far as you know.” Scott spoke slowly as if weighing his words. “And you know that in cases of insanity, the patient often becomes sane at the last and speaks rationally once and then dies.”
“You make it sound melodramatic.”
“It is melodramatic, but true. Ask any doctor who has to do with insane patients and he will tell you that.”
“Yes, I’ve often heard it. And I may as well tell you, I have a list, made out in the sick room of Mrs. Murray, of all the things she said that had any bearing on her illness. Not rambling talk or flighty speeches but just her exclamations or confidences to the nurses or to Miss Mead.”
“And—remember you’ll be put in jail if you don’t tell —and were any speeches recorded that might tend to make it seem that Mrs. Murray was being murdered?”
“There are records of things said by Mrs. Murray that might be taken to mean that. But I put no credence in them as the poor lady was entirely irresponsible and much of the report shows that she talked at random, saying anything that came into her head. Her poor distorted brain could easily have mistaken her husband for someone else and she may have meant to accuse her real murderer, who most certainly was not Leif Murray.”
“How do you know?”
“I don’t know, Scott. And I am willing, anxious to make inquiries and find out. But let us walk delicately. That man has had and is having trouble enough, without any unjust accusations flung his way.”
“You mean, we must make our investigations secretly?”
“So far as possible, yes. And remember our limitations. That Horner medico told me that Mrs. Murray died of the effects of excessive use of X-rays. And he said that only a doctor experienced in that branch of science could have administered the treatments. Now where are we? Doctor Craddock, her family physician, certainly had no reason to murder one of his most desirable patients, for Isabel was everlastingly calling him in for some minor ailment. And, too, if he had given her a long series of treatments, her husband must have known of it.”
“What do you propose?”
“First that we talk it over with the Chief and get his views, and then do some real sleuthing over at Longacre. That would mean clearing out the people, but if necessary that can be done. I am working on the Tolman case, you know, but that’s no reason I can’t take up this new investigation too.”
“You’re some dynamo, and I’m proud to work with you. What comes first?”
“A straightaway talk with Murray himself. I think if we put it to him squarely, he will help us—that is, in the event of his being innocent, which I am betting that he is.”
“Who then, is the guilty party?”
“That’s for us to discover. I have heard hints of incompetent practitioners in the Beauty Parlors, but I don’t think much of that notion. No worthwhile Beauty Parlor would dare have an inefficient or inexpert worker, and Mrs. Murray would never go to any such place but the best. Nor do I think the wretch who gave her the X-ray treatment was necessarily a doctor. The villain who killed her, was so smart and so ingenious, that he could have learned how to work a portable X-ray and perhaps have carried out his deadly purpose even without Mrs. Murray’s own knowledge.”
“Don’t draw too long a bow. She must have known he was doing something to her. I say! how about a camera? She thought he was taking pictures when he was giving her treatments.”
“You are thinking of her husband as the criminal?”
“Maybe and maybe not. Everybody is camera conscious these days. Everybody is taking pictures or being taken. Any way, it’s an idea.”
“And far be it from me to scorn it. It is a possibility, I’ll go that far. I heard Mrs. Murray say once that Humbert Paley was everlastingly taking her picture when she didn’t know it.”
“There you are! I don’t mean Paley is the murderer, but if one man can take pictures and not let the subject know it, another can do the same thing, apparently, yet have an X-ray machine disguised as a camera.”
“Then it would have to be her husband or someone living in the house.”
“What about the Tonka person?”
“Too easy. To dispose of the lady and marry the surviving husband.”
“Tonka is too dumb for such a clever dodge.” Stone smiled at the idea. “Come along, Scott, let’s have a hobnob with the Chief.”
THAT afternoon, there was a conference at Longacre.
It had to do with the futures of the three people who were doing the conferring.
“Do look at it rationally,” Aunt Phoebe was saying, with her usual air of authority. “I must go home soon to look after Joseph. Now, if Tonka goes with me and spends the winter, that settles her. If you take a good long trip abroad, you will be doing what you have long wanted to do. If it were not for Joseph, Tonka and I could go with you. But that is out of the question. Poor Joseph cannot live very long, not more than a few months, the doctors say. You can’t stay here alone in this big house. You could come up to Quebec and live with us, but I doubt you’d like that. Yet we must come to some agreement, for I must go home, and you can’t stay here alone with Tonka. Can you, now?”
“No,” Leif said, gloomily. “But I can stay here alone without Tonka. You take her home with you, and I’ll stay here with the same servants we’ve had so long. I’ll be lonely, of course, but I’d be that wherever I am. And I can go off on the yacht, or take a small apartment in New York, to run down to for a change.”
Elaine came then, and demanded to know what the so serious confab was all about.
“Ways and means,” Leif told her, and then they began it all over again.
With her tendency to cut Gordian knots, Elaine said at once. “Too easy. You go abroad, Leif, that’s the only way for you to pick up your life and go on with it. Then Tonka can make a choice. Go up to Quebec and live with Aunt Phoebe, or come and live with me. Or if she likes better, stay part of the time with me and part of it in Quebec. Anyway, try that plan and see how it works out. What say, Tonka?”
“I don’t know what to say, Elaine. Can’t we let the matter wait over a day or two? I can’t seem to pull myself together. I’ve been looking over Isabel’s things. She had such lovely clothes, you know.”
“And I propose you take some of them, Elaine,” Leif said. “Tonka must have her furs and laces, but there are some frocks that neither Tonka nor Aunt Phoebe can wear, and they’ll just fit you, I’d say.”
“Oh, Leif, I’d love to have some of her things. We used to talk over what we’d leave each other in our wills.
“All right. You and Tonka fix it up, whenever you like.”
“I’ll come over tonight, then, and I’ll bring a suitcase and take home a few. There are two or three I like especially, and I’ll love to wear them because they were Isabel’s.”
“Very well, Elaine. Gosh! here comes Stone. I want to see him, but he has friends with him. No, don’t go, Elaine. I’ll see them in my study.”
But Leif was mistaken on that point, for the two men with Stone were Detective Scott and Chief Inspector Watkins, and they seemed bent on quick action.
The Inspector stepped up to Leif, and putting a hand on his shoulder, said;
“I’m very sorry, Mr. Murray, but I have to arrest you on charge of murder. Anything you say may be used as evidence. I hope you will go with me quietly.”
“Why should I go any other way, Inspector? May I ask what evidence you have in proof of my guilt?”
“Not here and now. Come along, please.”
“I may pack a bag?”
“Oh, yes. Don’t be too long about it. Go with him, Scott.”
The two men went upstairs.
Tonka flew across the room, and flung herself down on the sofa beside Aunt Phoebe, who put an arm round her.
“Will you tell me, Mr. Stone, what this means?” Mrs. Bingham asked.
“It means that Inspector Watkins has learned of some evidence which makes him believe Mr. Murray is a criminal. The arrest is the first step in the process of finding out whether Mr. Murray is guilty or innocent. As I am already working on the case in his interests, I shall continue to do all I can to have the suspect soon set free?”
“Oh, can you do that?” Elaine exclaimed. “I shall be so glad to have him freed!”
“Are you taking him away now?” Tonka asked in a shaking voice.
“I am sorry to say we are,” the Inspector said, as kindly as he could, for he was convinced of Murray’s guilt.
“I can’t stand it!” Tonka cried out, and she ran away to her own room.
“Don’t go,” Aunt Phoebe said, as Elaine rose to follow. “Tonka hates to be petted. Leave her alone with her sorrow, it’s the kindest way.”
Stone said no word, but went into Leifs study and closed the door.
He looked over some papers, but his principal work was to put things away in drawers and pigeon holes, and lock the desk and the files and whatever he deemed needed locking. He was sure Giles Trumbull would take the case, as he was Leif’s friend and a famous lawyer.
Something he saw on the floor made him first smile and then look very surprised and almost frightened.
He went back to the living-room just as Leif came downstairs with Scott.
There was no occasion for the assistance of the Sergeant, who appeared unexpectedly, for Murray went without objection.
He bowed to his aunt and to Elaine, waved his hand to them, and with a nod to Stone, he went away.
Stone looked after them as they left, said a few words to Scott, and remained with Aunt Phoebe and Elaine. He looked very grave and speaking slowly, he said;
“If either of you know anything about this whole matter that has not been brought to my attention, I hope you will tell me. I am fully convinced of Murray’s innocence, but it is going to be difficult to convince a judge or jury. I have a feeling that somebody is working against us, that an enemy is trying to thwart my efforts.”
“Leif is his own worst enemy,” Aunt Phoebe said, “you’ve no idea, Elaine, how carelessly he seems to take it all. He doesn’t, really, I know that, but he acts as if he was in no danger. I’ll bet, even now, he’s calmly sitting in his cell asking the warden if he can have a bigger ashtray.”
“Can we go to see him, Mr. Stone?” Elaine asked, ignoring the old lady’s chatter.
“I’ll see about that. Of course, there are visitors’ days and a lot of red tape, but I think Scott and I can get around the rules and regulations. I didn’t want them to arrest him, but after all, it will expedite matters, and we may get along more rapidly.”
“Look at me, Fleming Stone,” said Aunt Phoebe, with a little quiver in her voice; “do you honestly believe you can get my boy off? I’ve thought things over a lot, and while we all know he loved Isabel dearly, and wouldn’t harm a hair of her head, yet there are things that I know will look suspicious to some people. Leif had enemies, I mean just people who disliked him. He was curt, sometimes rude, to those he didn’t like and it may react against him.”
“You’re right about that, Mrs. Bingham,” Stone agreed. “It is an unfortunate fact that Mr. Murray was independent in lots of ways, and he was ready to pick a quarrel if occasion turned up. But this was only with men whom he definitely disliked. Or men who had offended him purposely.”
“I often told Leif to be more friendly with the people he didn’t like,” Elaine said; “there’s no use making enemies unnecessarily. I think I’ll be going now, Aunt Phoebe. Mr. Stone may want to talk with you alone. You think I’d better not speak to Tonka before I go?”
“Oh, yes,” Mrs. Bingham said; “go up to her room, anyway. And look over Isabel’s things with her. Get her interested in something. Poor child, I don’t know what to do with her.”
Elaine went off and Aunt Phoebe looked helplessly at Stone.
“What shall I do?” she said, piteously. “Leif was my stand-by, I felt no responsibility so long as he was at the helm. But now, I am like a ship without a rudder. Look at it squarely, Mr. Stone. I am needed at home to care for my husband, who is very ill with an incurable disease. He may die soon or he may linger for some months yet. But I ought to be with him and I want to be with him. Yet I want to stand by Leif, and I must care for Tonka. Do you advise me to let Tonka go to live with Elaine?”
“Don’t decide that today, Mrs. Bingham. There may be developments soon that will let us see more clearly how to act. Can you stay away from home a few days longer?”
“Oh, yes; you see Mr. Bingham’s mind is not entirely clear, and he does not miss me as he would if he were himself.”
“I see, dear lady; now you just stay quietly here with Tonka for a few days and then I will know better how to advise you. And keep up a good heart for we may be able to bring Leif Murray through with bells on.”
“And maybe not?”
“Yes, Mrs. Bingham, and maybe not. Don’t say that to Tonka, though. To her speak only hopefully, even certainly of his speedy release. By the way was the rector over here today?”
“I—I didn’t say so,” Aunt Phoebe looked a little startled.
“But he was?”
“Why—yes. He ran over this morning for a short call.”
“Leif is good friends with him, isn’t he?”
“Oh, yes. They like each other immensely. Tell me more about—about where Leif is. Can we take or send him things?”
“Oh, I think so. I doubt if he’ll like the food. Their cooks are not like you have here. But it can be arranged to have his meals sent to him, I’m sure. If you are called home suddenly, let me know before you plan anything. I will come at a moment’s notice. Make no plans for Tonka without my knowledge. And don’t let her go to other houses. Nor see callers. That blessed child can’t help telling all she knows, even if she promises not to. She’s an odd piece but I think I understand her, and I like her lots. I’m going now, and I’ll see you again tomorrow, and I may have news for you.”
Elaine came down then, and said that Tonka had brightened up a bit as they overlooked Isabel’s wardrobe.
“I think if she can be kept interested in something, she will be a lot better,” Aunt Phoebe said.
“Yes,” Elaine agreed; “we picked out the things I am to have. I’m coming over this evening to get them. I shall bring a suit case for them.”
“I’ll send Simmons with them,” Aunt Phoebe said, and Elaine thanked her, and then she went along home. Stone, leaving at the same time walked along with her. “Tell me,” she said, looking up at him, with eyes full of tears, “is there anything I can do, Mr. Stone?”
“I don’t know of anything, Mrs. Vernon,” he returned, in a kind voice. “I know how hard it is to stand idly by, and do nothing to help. But you can see for yourself there is little that can be done by anybody. My work for him is important, but I can’t rush at it, as I would like to do. I have to wait for this or that condition or for some bit of information.”
“Leif will have a lawyer, of course?”
“Oh, yes, Giles Trumbull will take over and he will get any assistance he needs.”
“It will be the talk of the town,” and Elaine sighed deeply.
“I fear it will. So we who are his friends must guide the talk into the right channels.”
“Indeed, yes. I always feel like giving thanks that I am not of the impulsive sort who give everything away every time they open their mouths.”
“Nor of the sort who tell things that are not meticulously true.”
“I am a good keeper of secrets,” and Elaine gave him a little smile. “By the way, Mr. Stone, are you making any progress with the Tolman case?”
“Yes, a little. Slow but sure has to be the slogan for that puzzle. Would you be surprised to learn that I have a sort of notion that those two crimes are connected?”
“It surprises me very much. Do you mean the same person committed the two murders?”
“I haven’t said that. There is a missing link. Until I can find that link, I can’t come to a positive conclusion.”
“Can’t I help? Really, Mr. Stone, my father used to say I have some real detective instincts, and if you would trust me with some of your minor problems I might be of good help to you.”
‘Thank you for that offer, Mrs. Vernon. I may be glad to ask your assistance. Do you know anything about X-rays?”
Elaine looked disappointed.
“Not a thing,” she said. “I meant I could question people or track down clues. I know little of medicine and nothing at all of scientific gadgets or contraptions.”
“Your father left quite a lot of paraphernalia and instruments, I heard somebody say.”
“Somebody who knows more than I do about Dad’s things. But I know who it must have been. That new doctor who has just come to town. I forget his name, but he lives way down in the valley. He won’t cut out Dr Craddock, but he will build up a practice among the younger generation. Craddock is getting along in years.”
“Do you know this new man?”
“No, but he wants to buy father’s surgery instruments or some of them. He sent a message by Doctor Craddock to know if I would consider the matter.”
“And shall you?”
“Not just now. I can’t bother about it at present. I want Tonka to visit me, and I mean to try to cheer her up. I plan to take her on little motor trips, and beach weekends, and I want to be free to entertain her.”
“Kind of you to do that. The girl needs looking after, and Aunt Bingham doesn’t seem to me the one to do it.”
“I quite agree with you. This is my corner, Mr. Stone. Good morning, and remember I am to help you in your work. I don’t want to be intrusive, but I want to do anything I can for Leif and Tonka.”
“I will remember. Good morning, Mrs. Vernon.”
He looked at her as she turned and walked away. What an energetic person she was, to be sure. And very good-looking.
But her picture quickly faded as he neared the jail. Leif Murray was in there. Murray with his riches, his beautiful home, and until lately his beautiful wife.
To himself he repeated the words he had heard Isabel say: years of devotion—and then to murder me!
Clearly she knew she had been put to death. Had been the victim of wilful murder.
Yet conditions didn’t seem right.
If Isabel had been killed by the intentional over application of X-rays, how could Leif compass that?
Horner had said, or somebody had, that such a death could be brought about only by a doctor. Nobody knew of Doctor Craddock having attempted to cure Isabel by such a new-fangled method. Stay, how about the new chap? The one who wanted to buy the apparatus that had belonged to Elaine’s father? He had not heard of this man before, and if he had treated Isabel for anything, in any way, surely it would have been spoken of during those hospital days at Atlantic City.
Still, he must look into it. If the moment seemed propitious, he would ask Leif today.
He went on to the jail, went in, and soon found himself in Leif’s cell.
Up to date, the Ingleside jail had never had an inmate guilty or even suspected of a heinous crime. Speeding and inebriety were the usual, and even those were rare.
Leif had the best cell, to be sure, and it was neat, tidy and sufficient. But sadly lacking in beauty, which was to Leif Murray the most important thing in the universe.
There were two chairs, and in one of them Murray sat, for the first time in his life looking absolutely down and out.
Stone sized up his attitude in one glance, but made no reference to it.
Instead, he seated himself in the other chair, hard ones both, and looking at his client, said, in a low voice;
“Why did you marry Tonka this morning, without telling me?”
Stone had surprised men before, in his life, but never had he seen a client of his so utterly stunned with amazement.
“What do you mean? Marry Tonka?”
“Just that. All right, and I know you must have a good reason, but I can’t conduct your case properly unless I can keep abreast of your moves.”
“How do you know I did? Tonka tell you?”
“No, nor Aunt Phoebe, nor anybody else. I deduced it. What’s the use of my being a detective if I can’t detect? And what’s the use of detecting, if you run around doing things I don’t know about?”
Murray looked very grave.
“It was done on an impulse, Stone. But it is merely a mariage de convenance. I shall not hold her to it. Don’t look at me as if I were a brute.”
“It sounds brutish to me. Have you forgotten Isabel?”
“No.” Murray’s voice was low and very sad. “It is a matter quite apart from Isabel. How did you learn of it? I don’t believe you discovered it yourself. How could you?”
“This way. After you left the house today, I remained for a time. I went into your study, and on the floor I saw a grain of rice.”
“Only one. But it seemed to me it could mean only one thing. A wedding. I couldn’t believe it, but I wondered. I went back and joined the others, and a casual question told me that the rector had been there this morning. It seemed to me that two and two made a perfect four. But I found no corroboration. I’m asking you for the explanation, if any.”
“There isn’t any,” and Leif looked despairing. “That is, nothing that I can tell you.”
“Don’t tell, then. Is it anything that will retard your acquittal?”
“I suppose if the fact is known, it will militate against me in any way. But, Stone, since the rector approved of it, and performed the ceremony, I think you may believe it is all right.”
“Are you going to live with Tonka?”
“You want the marriage kept secret?”
“I do. Inviolably so.”
“I give it up.”
“Give up the case?”
“I didn’t mean that, but how can I go on?”
“You must go on, Stone. I have done nothing wrong. Nothing that insults the memory of Isabel. But you’ll have to take my word for it. I am willing to tell you all about it, and I will soon. I would do so right now, but it’s not alone my secret.”
“I have thought before, Murray, that you were shielding somebody, and this seems to corroborate my belief. Be careful how you take up such a deal as that. I have seen more trouble come from a mistaken shielding of another person than from many deeper reasons. I thought, too, perhaps you did it because a wife need not testify against her husband. Is that the big idea? You are not marrying Tonka because you love her?”
“No, for I don’t altogether love her. I do like the child better than I used to. She was very good to Isabel, and she seems more human of late. I used to think her a natural. No, I hadn’t thought that she might ever be asked to testify against me. I don’t think she would want to.”
“Well, certainly, you’re not shielding her. Who is it you’re anxious about?”
“If you’re a detective and a smart enough detective to deduce that very private wedding ceremony, why can’t you deduce whom I am shielding, if any?”
“I think I do know, but as a rule my clients are ready to help me when I ask them to.”
“I’m sorry, Stone, real sorry, but if I am shielding anyone, and mind I don’t say that I am, I can’t mention any name yet. Perhaps I can, soon.”
“All right, Murray. I’m trusting you that it is all right. When I don’t trust you, I throw over the case.”
“Have you thrown over the Tolman case?”
“No, I’m still working on that.”
“And this matter of mine at the same time?”
“Yes. And I shall not be too surprised if there is a link between the two cases.”
“You don’t mean that Paley killed Isabel! Why?”
“I haven’t yet said for publication that Paley killed Tolman. But we’ve enough to do with our own affairs. Let’s have a serious talk.”
The serious talk lasted so long that Tonka and Aunt Phoebe, who had been promised an evening call on Leif, arrived before Stone left.
And that was why, when Elaine, with her suit case went over to Longacre to get the dresses that had been Isabel’s, there was no one there to welcome her.
But she told Simmons that it was no matter, and she would just go up to Mrs. Murray’s room, where the dresses had been left, and take them herself.
She was almost certain the servants were having their dinner, and Simmons didn’t deny it, so she ran lightly up the stairs, carrying her suit case, and saying she would pack it herself and needed no help.
But before she finished, she rang for Helga, and asked her help with some of the things.
Helga was a deft little person, and she stowed away the pieces so cleverly, that she got them all in.
“You won’t stay, ma’am, till my ladies come home?”
“No, Helga. You tell them that Mrs. Vernon took the things, and that I will run over tomorrow to see them.”
“Yes, ma’am, Mrs. Vernon, and I’ll send this heavy suit case over to your house this evening.”
‘Thank you, Helga; it was light when I came, but it’s heavy now.”
FLEMING STONE spent most of that night thinking. He sometimes thought of his work as a jigsaw puzzle, one of those large ones which you keep laid out on the table, and work at different parts of it at different times.
He had been diligently working at different parts of his detective puzzle, and it was nearing the time when he could add a few connecting pieces and make it come a coherent whole.
Through the night he had made plans for seeing a few people, telephoning a few people, asking about a few people, and by utilizing all the information he could acquire in those ways, he hoped to get his puzzle so nearly complete, that he could jump to its conclusion.
Such jumping might be a dangerous feat for some detectives, but Stone had his evidence so well in hand, his clues so carefully tested, his beliefs so certain, that he was well prepared. Moreover, the theories of which he was not certain he had not banked on, and so if they had to be discarded it would not dislodge any of his staunch uprights.
About dawn he fell into a restful sleep, and woke, quite ready for a busy day.
His first errand was to see Paul Tolman, and for this purpose he invited Tolman to breakfast with him, on his little balcony.
Very pleasant it was, with the tree branches waving just above their heads, and the scent of garden flowers coming up from the flower beds.
“I take it for granted,” Tolman was saying, “that your new problem of Mrs. Murray’s death will not cause you to leave my case.”
“You may do just that,” Stone returned. “In fact, I hope it will not be long now, before I can complete both of those solutions.”
“That’s good hearing. You’ve learned something new:
“Dunno. Look here, man, you said most all your friends could make a stab at ventriloquism. Can Elaine do it? Do you think Peter taught her how?”
“I know he tried to teach her but she couldn’t learn. You know not everybody can do it, even if they practice. Oh, they can do it in a poor, inefficient way, but not so it would fool anybody. Why?”
“Well, do you think either of the Garrisons could?”
“Jim is a good ventriloquist, I know that. I don’t know about Fleda.”
“We had more or less trials of it while on the yacht, but I daresay it was of no importance. Here’s another thing. Is Paley a photographer, or is Leopold Jewett?”
“Photographer? As a business?”
“No, I mean do they run around with a camera, as so many people do nowadays?”
“Oh, I guess not. Weren’t they on the yacht?”
“Paley wasn’t. Jewett was, but I didn’t see him using a camera.”
“What do you want to know? Maybe I can find out.”
“Do if you can. I want some pictures of Mrs. Murray, any pictures of her, that were taken about four weeks ago. I know she had some taken one Sunday afternoon at Mrs. Vernon’s house, and I think Paley took them. Can you find out without asking Mrs. Vernon directly? I don’t want her to think I’m snooping. She’s been so good answering my questions, and they generally turn out to be futile.”
“Oh, I can work it. I go over there a lot. You see—”
“Well, yes, Tolman, I think I have seen it. You are a victim to those soft brown eyes, and I am sure they look kindly on you. Does she know that there is any suspicion of a flaw in the divorce?”
“I’m sure she doesn’t and I hope she never will. It may come out when Peter’s murderer is found, and—”
“I am sure it will come out then, but don’t say anything about it sooner.”
“I promise, if you’ll promise to push matters as fast as you can.”
“I’ll do that, for my own sake as much as for anyone else. But don’t you see, Tolman, if there is a serious flaw in the divorce decree, then Mrs. Vernon is the widow of your brother and is entitled to a part, at least, of his estate.”
“I’ve thought of that, and—well, if you’ll keep it secret, I’ll confide in you that I do love Elaine, and I want her to marry me. I’ve not asked her yet, it’s too soon after Peter’s death, but I have reason to think she likes me, and perhaps later on, she may say yes. And, look here, Stone, don’t you think I want her because she may be the heir to Peter’s invention, for I don’t take much stock in that myself. But I loved Elaine even before Peter did, and I feel I can win her in time.”
“I believe you, old man, and I think you are wise to go slow; but if Elaine doesn’t know there is a flaw in her divorce papers, she won’t apply for any share in Peter’s estate, will she?”
“No; but if she marries me, it won’t matter. Perhaps I’d better speak to her soon, but I’m afraid she’ll take offence if I seem too impatient.”
“Wait a few days, anyhow. I’m not neglecting your business, but I am a bit busy with the Murray case, and— listen to this, but keep it strictly under your hat—I feel that there is a link of some sort between the two cases.”
“You don’t! Why, such a thing isn’t possible! Tell me how you mean. I can see Paley killing Pete, though I don’t now think he did; but I can’t see Paley doing in Mrs. Murray. He couldn’t have been in love with her, because he is heart and soul devoted to Elaine, and she knows it.”
“Why didn’t she ask to have him included in Murray’s yachting party?”
“Oh, she isn’t ready to show her feelings yet. Beside, she had Leo Jewett on board, and she didn’t want all her boy friends at once.”
“She seems to possess a host of admirers.”
“And why not? Beautiful, charming, and rich in her own right. Her father left her a fortune, I have heard.”
“So I understand. Perhaps she doesn’t want any of your brother’s estate.”
“First human being I ever heard of then, who didn’t want any money that seemed to be headed her way.”
“Well, things are moving, Mr. Tolman, and I’ll ask as a favor that you do nothing that you don’t tell me about, for I have some traps set, and I want to see how well they will work. Give me a couple of days longer, and I think I’ll have some news for you.”
Tolman agreed to this and went off to the Golf Club for a spot of exercise.
Stone started to the jail for a session with Murray. He had arranged to meet Trumbull there and discuss the legal aspect of things.
But he stopped on his way, at Headquarters, where Scott told him of a matter of decided importance.
“You see,” Scott said, “as soon as we were sure the death weapon was an X-ray machine, I felt I must search for the equipment that had been used. I was at a loss where to look, for there was no sense in asking Doctor Craddock if he had put the lady away. I thought of other places, and then I had a hunch to look in the most likely place and I found it.”
“You what?” Fleming Stone stared at the speaker.
“Yes, that’s sure. I went around to the Murray house very early this morning. Soon after sunrise I went, and I waited until there seemed to be someone in the kitchen or pantry.
“I rapped softly at the back door, and the butler opened it. I put the fear of God into him and I forced him by will power and by threats to take me up to Leif Murray’s room and also show me the lumber room or attic or junk room of any sort.”
“Good work, Scott,” and Stone’s eyes shone with interest. “Did you find anything?”
Scott spoke slowly.
“I’ll say I did, my friend. I found a Portable X-ray, short wave machine. It was on a shelf in the smaller attic, there are two, and it was covered with an old leather cover that didn’t fit it, and boxes were piled on it.”
“So?” and Fleming Stone looked fairly stunned. “Well, old man, you’ve thrown a monkey wrench in my gear. I looked for something of the kind, but—”
“You thought we’d find something of the sort!”
“Why, since that was the instrument used, we had to do our damnedest to find it, of course. But I looked for different details of the situation.”
“Come now, Stone, don’t minimize my find. I’m so proud of it.”
“And you have a right to be. I congratulate you from my heart. But I have to readjust my decisions. Tell me again where it was? A lumber room or a sort of laboratory?”
“Oh, no, nothing like a workshop. It was just a fairly big room, clean and in good order, but apparently a store room. The X-ray sat on a shelf, covered up as I said. I hardly knew what it was at first. I’ve seen one only once. I’m pretty sure of my facts, but I want you to go up there and take a look for yourself.”
“I shall. Well, I suppose you think that settles the question of Leif Murray’s guilt.”
“I’ll say I do. Shall we go over and question him?”
“Not this morning. Give me the rest of today, Scott. I’m on a promising trail. Let’s tell the chief, first.”
They went in to the chiefs room only to find he was not in the building.
“I’m going over to the jail,” Stone said; but I have another errand first, and I wish you’d help me out. You go to the jail, and see Murray. You stay with him until I get there, it won’t be long. And don’t say anything about this X-ray you found until I am there with you. Don’t think I am stealing your thunder, the matter is too serious for that. You discovered a most important fact, and if you tell it too soon it will lose its importance. Can you believe that? And will you do as I ask?”
“Of course I will. I’m proud to work with you, and I know you are far above petty considerations. Let’s go.”
Stone liked the whole-hearted faith Scott showed in him, and he felt a return confidence.
The two men started together and soon separated. Scott went to see Leif and Stone went to a public telephone and called Antony Ballard. A few words with him, and then the detective went on his other and more important errand and then back to the jail.
When Scott entered Leif’s cell, he hadn’t quite got rid of the excitement he had felt at telling Stone of his prowess, and he nearly told Murray, so greatly did he anticipate surprising him.
But he had promised Stone, so he said nothing of X-rays, and instead, he spoke of the new doctor and asked if he had ever been to the Murray home, professionally.
“No,” Leif said, “not professionally or socially either. I never met him and I am sure my wife never did. We have had very little medical attendance in our married life, and Doctor Craddock has always taken good care of us.”
“The place is really large enough, I think, to support two doctors,” Scott said, and then Fleming Stone came in, and took charge of the interview himself.
“I say, Murray,” he began, “have you a portable X-ray among your belongings?”
“No, indeed. Nor a bricked-in one nor a self-starter. Why?”
“Did Mrs. Murray ever have one?”
“Never. She was afraid of the things. I wish you’d tell me what you mean by these absurd questions. Just because somebody has jammed me into this place with no reason for it, you needn’t think I’m an imbecile and unable to understand what’s going on.”
“I think, Murray,” and Stone’s voice was gentle, “you are not taking this situation in quite the right way. Try to realize that irrespective of your guilt or innocence you are under arrest for the murder of your wife. There are many points that tell against you, and the police authorities are strongly convinced that you are guilty. You have asked me to take up the case and I am doing so, but I must have your co-operation.”
“Then you must keep me more closely informed of your progress.”
“All right; I agree to that, because many things are happening and we must work together. Scott, you tell Mr. Murray about the X-ray you found.”
So Scott told his story, and Murray listened with such excited amazement that his hearers felt it could not be feigned.
“Absurd!” Leif cried; “tell me again just where you found it. On which shelf, I mean.”
“On the next to lowest shelf, to the right of the window. It was next to an old clock. Not a grandfather’s clock, but a big mantel clock, the kind with a moon coming out of the clouds.”
“I know,” Leif said. “We’re going to have that clock overhauled some day, so it will go. And you say this dingbat stood next the clock?”
“It stands there still. I didn’t touch it. It has a cover on it—”
“I know. That’s the cover that belongs to my typewriter. That’s the place my typewriter stands, or ought to. But I took it with me on the cruise, and it hasn’t been put away. It’s downstairs yet. I didn’t take the oilcloth cover, I kept it in its box. The sea air is bad for it. And you tell me somebody planted an X-ray machine in its place? I don’t get it. Why, I left orders that Simmons should give that lumber room a thorough overhauling while we were away, and have it scrubbed and cleaned. You ask Simmons if it was there when they cleaned.”
“Who could have put it there?” Scott wondered. “It must have been someone in the house. No one from outside could store that thing in the house and then go there and train it on Mrs. Murray. How does it work? Does the patient have to hold it?”
“No,” Stone said: “it works something like a camera. But it could not have been used by anyone in the house, or somebody must have seen the performance. It’s no snapshot business.”
“Could the lady use it herself?” Scott went on.
“I don’t think so; and as Mrs. Murray disliked the performance and as we have no reason to think she wanted to kill herself, we can’t look that way. Now, see here, Leif, since you are looked upon as guilty by the powers that be, many of them, and with reason, you ought to do a little necessary explaining. Why, in your own home have you sometimes threatened to kill your own wife?” Murray stared at him.
“You’re going pretty far to find evidence if you quote jolly nonsense that I often used to tease Isabel with. I know, I think, what you mean. I am a reader of detective stories, and of late many of them have been founded on the plot of wife murder. Tonka teased me about it— we all tease each other at our house—and I used to pretend to choke Isabel, just for fun.”
“And you collected story books about wife murderers?”
“Not collected. I have a liking for detective stories, and I like those that are by the best writers. It happens that some of the best writers of late have used the plot of Uxoricide, and when it is done well it makes a thrilling story. But if I read a story of a man killing his best friend, I don’t run out and murder Giles Trumbull or Antony Ballard. It seems to me pretty silly to think I’d kill my wife.”
“Then why the X-ray in your lumber room?”
“I’ve no idea. Someone must have put it there. I state I did not murder my wife—I swear it. I have no argument, I make no confessions, I did not take Isabel’s life and I don’t know who did. I don’t know what Isabel meant by that seeming accusation of me on her death bed, but God is my witness I did not kill her.”
“It is too bad,” Scott said, “that there are such telling facts against you. You threatened many times to kill her; you continually read books that described ways to do it; you have in your possession the sort of thing that killed her. She denounced you with her last words, and yet you declare you are innocent.”
“You must remember Isabel’s mind was affected when she spoke that last sentence she ever uttered. She was murdered, she must have been; but it was not I who did it, and she did not think I did.”
“That is probably true,” Stone said. “I have lists, made by the hospital nurse, and by Tonka, and there are dozens of things Mrs. Murray said, that show clearly they were the speech of an unhinged mind. To be sure, she had sane moments now and then, but her mind was gone and she talked at random. Now I’ve a few more errands to attend to and a few experiments to make and then this evening I want to hold a powwow at Longacre, I think we may learn a lot.”
Giles Trumbull came to talk legal matters with Leif, and Stone went away.
As to the finding of the X-ray in Leifs room, Trumbull said at once it was planted there.
“But by whom?” he added, casting a glance around. Only Leif and the detective Scott were there, and they had no reply to make.
“Oh, well,” Trumbull went on, “it’s bound to come out. I think a canvass of the servants would soon show that. Nobody could walk into the house with a big parcel like that and not be seen. Probably put there while the family were on the yacht.”
“Not likely,” Scott said, rising to go. “Well I’ll leave you two to your confab. Make your will, Murray. Much trouble comes when a man dies without making a will.”
“Graceful allusion,” Trumbull thought, as the detective went away. But he said nothing about it and turned the subject to business.
“I wish I could be at that powwow tonight,” Leif said, pathetically.
“I wish you could, old chap. But I’ll report every word that is said. And I think Stone has something up his sleeve. That’s a way he has, you know. Get those interested together, and then spring a surprise on them.”
“Well, tell me all that goes on. I say, Giles, this is rotten business, keeping me here on suspicion, when there’s nothing to suspect.”
“They think they have enough. Leif, haven’t you any tiny hint to give as to who the killer might have been?”
“None definite or certain enough to mention. You say a word and first you know you’re quoted as telling the most astounding things.”
And then they turned to the questions to be considered in case Leif Murray has proved to have been guilty of his wife’s death.
* * * * * * * * *
Stone did his small accumulation of errands and then turned back to the Inn. He was deeply engrossed in his thoughts and was watching his step with meticulous care.
At the Inn he found Paley, and collecting Tolman, the men went for a game of golf.
It was Stone’s habit to take some open air exercise before a conference that would call for great mental concentration.
But even though the golf was exhilarating its effects seemed to have worn off when he started for Longacre that evening.
For one reason he felt a little apprehensive because he was going to attempt a new sort of detection. It might succeed and it might prove a dead failure.
In the big living-room there gathered a lot of people who knew Leif Murray, and who were all interested in his present situation.
Some were there to help, some to hinder, and Fleming Stone could easily read enmity on some of the faces.
The rector was there, and Doctor Craddock. Tolman and Paley, sitting either side of Elaine. Aunt Phoebe and Tonka on a sofa side by side, and the two Garrisons near by.
Trumbull was there and Antony Ballard, Jewett, and of course, Scott and Fleming Stone.
“While this can scarcely be called a social gathering,” Stone began, “I propose to start off with a social entertainment. One which was popular many years ago, and whose popularity seems to be revived just now. I mean, a Spelling Bee. The sort they have on the radio. Do not be afraid, the words will not be very hard, yet they are not all easy. Mrs. Garrison, I appoint you and Mr. Paley Captains of the two sides and you will please choose your spellers.”
A little bewildered, Fleda chose Ballard first, and Paley chose Elaine. They went on alternately, until all were standing in two lines.
Fleming Stone gave out the words. As he had said, they were not terrors, but some were tricky. More spellers failed on household words like fricasse, desiccated, and harassed, than on more unusual words. Fleda missed nearly every word given her, and Elaine was well nigh perfect. Then, spelling down, many dropped by the wayside, till Elaine and Antony Ballard stood alone.
Several words Stone gave them and Ballard coped successfully with exegesis, Scheherazade and houyhn-hnms.
Elaine, sure of her letters, spelled correctly, fluoroscope, inductotherm, diathermy and comprex.
Then Antony missed on plaguy and Elaine spelled it right, and was declared winner.
Then Stone said;
“That is all of the social part of our program, and now the questions I ask will be serious ones.
“I have been diligently seeking the person who murdered Mrs. Murray and also the person who killed Peter Tolman. Has anyone here any information to offer about these two deaths? No one speaks, then I will tell you that I have discovered who is responsible for them. You may be surprised to learn it was the same person who committed both murders.”
“I am surprised at that,” said Jim Garrison. “I understood Tolman died from prussic acid poisoning and Mrs. Murray from over treatment of X-rays.”
“You are right in both respects, Mr. Garrison, but both deaths were brought about by the same murderer. I will tell you about it, and if anyone chooses to interrupt, or ask a question, I shall be perfectly willing to reply.
“As some of you may know, the X-ray apparatus that killed Mrs. Murray, is at present in a room in her own home. This has been taken to prove that Mr. Murray is the criminal, but that is not so. The X-ray is in this house now, but it was not here when it performed its deadly work on Mrs. Murray. The treatment was given some four weeks or so before the resultant death occurred. Only one treatment was given, but that was such a long one that no other was necessary.
“The human being who cleverly killed Mrs. Murray, did so with malice aforethought. It was a clever piece of work. Few would have thought of the long treatment that would prove fatal, but, after a space of four weeks or more. Few could face the thought of that beautiful woman slowly fading away, slowly becoming a wreck of her former self, a stricken, demented creature, denuded of her beauty and her brain.
“Also, the same inhuman, diabolically clever mind conceived the plan of killing Peter Tolman with an instrument never to be suspected. Who but a devil incarnate would utilize the man’s taste for peach kernels to turn it into a means of death? Yet that is the truth.
“The murderer is in this room. The murderer sits here among us. Will the murderer confess or shall I pronounce the name?
“No response? Then I will tell you how it came about, and how I found it out. Consider a case of this sort. Imagine two men and two women. Let us call them A and B, also C and D. A and B are married to each other, and C and D are also man and wife. Now, suppose one of the women is in love with the man who is not her husband. That is, suppose C the wife of D is in love with A the husband of B. To win him, to marry him, C must be rid of both B the wife of the man she cares for, and also D, her own husband. Is not that a large order, to put out of existence two living persons so that she can marry the man she wants? Yet that is what the murderer of Mrs. Murray did accomplish. Have you grasped it?”
“Not entirely,” Paul Tolman said, in a shaking voice. “Are you telling me my brother was killed by—”
“By his one-time wife?” Fleming Stone said. “Yes, I am. Mrs. Vernon killed Peter Tolman by giving him peach kernels in an envelope. I have the envelope. One of these kernels had an extra dose of prussic acid put into it by means of a hypodermic needle. Mr. Tolman ate the kernels, and when he came to the fatal one, he died almost instantaneously.
“Also, Mrs. Vernon is the murderer of Mrs. Murray. I had almost proved this, entirely so to my own satisfaction, but to make assurance doubly sure, I used a final test this evening. As you know, the doctors agreed that the death by X-rays must have been brought about by a physician or a layman highly skilled in that line of modern science. Mrs. Vernon is the daughter of the late Doctor Vernon, who, as some of you remember was one of the most famous doctors of his generation. He was ahead of his time in the use of modem discoveries, and his daughter was both interested and experienced in his practices. She planned the awful death of her long time friend by a method as horrible as it was clever.”
“Hush your lies!” The words were fairly screamed at him by Elaine Vernon, who was seemingly turned into a veritable fiend. “You cannot say such things and get away with them! You lie!”
“I have proof, Mrs. Vernon,” Stone said, so quietly that it calmed the frantic woman a little. “Do you remember the Sunday afternoon that Isabel Murray sat for more than an hour in the large chair that is in your living-room? It is right beside a bookcase. In that bookcase you had concealed the X-ray machine, knowing that if you kept her sitting beside it long enough, she would be poisoned from the effects and would eventually die as she did die. In that bookcase, not a foot away from her lovely face, the X-ray did its deadly work, and she felt no discomfort. Mr. Paley came in, as you may remember. He chatted with you two ladies for a while then he took your pictures, and he went away. This is, I am sure, clear to your memory, for you cannot forget how you sat there murdering your friend. I have gained this knowledge bit by bit from various sources, but all authentic, and—you cannot deny any part of what I have said.”
Elaine said no word of confession, she looked at Stone scornfully and said, “You have it all wrong. You great Detectives always get things wrong, though you think yourselves so smart. I admit nothing. I decline to speak until I have had the advice of a lawyer.”
“I will go on with the tale of your crime, Mrs. Vernon.” Stone spoke as if he had not heard her. “You are one of the four married people I spoke of. You wanted to marry Leif Murray. To do so you had to get rid of both Isabel Murray, and your own husband, Peter Tolman.”
“He was not my husband! I was divorced from him.”
“No, you were not. It was discovered that the divorce was not legal, because of the fact that there had been collusion between you and your husband to have it decreed. You were still his wife and he came here to stay for a time in order to see you about it. Or to put it in another way, he came here to tell you that you were still his wife, but that if you would pay him a large amount of money to commercialize his new invention, he would not tell of the defect in your divorce. It was really blackmail and you fell for it, because you had already started Mrs. Murray on her dread journey. So, it was up to you to get rid of Peter Tolman or see all your plans fall through. You did rid yourself of him, in a clever way which would never have been found out, but for your own carelessness.”
“How?” cried Elaine, too excited to realize that the one word was a confession.
“You are an exceedingly clever women, Mrs. Vernon, and you planned a way to get the poison in a peach pit to Peter Tolman, while he was staying at the Inn. When he was at your house, one afternoon, you gave him a few peach pit kernels in a small white envelope. You were careful not to use one of your own envelopes. Indeed, you took an envelope from this house to use for your purpose. I know this, for I still have that envelope and it bears your finger prints. You are well versed in medical matters, you lived with your father many years, and you learned much. You were clever enough not to use an envelope of your own, but you were not clever enough to think of finger prints. I doubt if your knowledge of police work is as great as your medical learning, but your finger prints were easily found on that envelope. The Murrays have those envelopes here with the home address and also on the yacht, engraved with the yacht’s name. And, too, they have in their stationery racks, plain envelopes of the same kind, but with no engraving. It was one of these plain ones you used, thinking it so inconspicuous it would not be traced. It was no trouble for the finger print experts to discover that the envelope showed prints of only your fingers and Peter Tolman’s. The envelope was found in his waste basket where he had thrown it after eating the fatal kernel, one into which you had introduced some prussic acid.”
The company sat in a shocked silence. No one seemed to have any questions or any comments to make.
Then Fleda Garrison spoke out in her high, piping voice;
“Maybe Elaine did do what you say with the kernels, but she couldn’t have killed Isabel with one X-ray treatment.”
“Yes, she could, Mrs. Garrison,” Stone said; “take a look at this photograph. It is a snapshot Mr. Paley made while Mrs. Murray was sitting in her death chair. See, it is Mrs. Vernon’s living-room. Mrs. Murray sits beside the bookcase. In that bookcase was a portable X-ray machine, which acted on Mrs. Murray all the time she sat there. She couldn’t know it, but that long exposure brought about the horrible afflictions from which she at last died. Both Mr. Scott and myself have questioned the servants at Mrs. Vernon’s and we learned that Mrs. Murray did sit in that same place for more than an hour. Various people were in and out, and talked to her, and two or three people snapped her picture.”
“What a yarn,” Elaine said; “as if anything like that could have happened! The X-ray that killed Isabel Murray is now up in Leif Murray’s room. It never was in my house. The police have fixed up this story to shield Leif.”
“The X-ray is now in this house, Mrs. Vernon,” Stone said, looking at her sternly, “and you put it there last evening. You brought it over here in a suit case, in which you were to take home some dresses. You put the X-ray machine in Mr. Murray’s store room, and covered it with an old typewriter cover of enameled cloth. Again you showed your ignorance of finger print clues, for your finger prints were found all over the machine and some on the cover. I am told you do not read detective stories and so you are not familiar with the tales finger prints tell upon occasion.”
“I don’t believe it! You can’t have my finger prints! They never were taken, or whatever you call it.”
“It is not necessary to take them, they are all over the furniture and appointments of your home. Your crimes have been discovered, Mrs. Vernon, and for them you must stand trial. And I feel sure that Mrs. Murray knew or suspected that it was you who brought about her death. I feel sure that her dying words referred to you and not to her husband. You were not present, but the nurse’s records prove that Mrs. Murray often seemed to speak to people who were not there. When she said, ‘years of devotion, and then to murder me!’ it is evident she was referring to the years of devoted friendship you two had known, and yet you killed her.”
“All right then, I did kill her! She stole away my man! Leif and I were on the verge of engagement, when Isabel came along and took him from me. I never forgave her. I married Peter Tolman, but I always loved Leif, and he cared for me before he met Isabel. Then Pete came back and tried to make me see that I was still his wife. I didn’t want the thing dragged through the courts again, so I— yes, I did give him a kernel with an extra bit of prussic acid in it. I found plenty in Father’s pharmacy, and I used it. And now,” Elaine rose, and stood, like a beautiful statue, “now, that I learn that Leif has married Tonka, my last hope has fled and I have no reason or wish to live.”
She raised her hand to her lips, then let it drop again, and with a smile as of a vanquished martyr, she sank to the floor.
Ballard sprang toward her and so did Trumbull and together they took her up and laid her on a couch.
But she died instantly, nothing could be done for her, and the white haired rector looked on in deep grief as they carried her out of the room.
Yet, even in this moment of tragedy, Fleda could not control her curiosity, and she spoke out, loudly;
“What did she mean, Leif has married Tonka? Is that true, Tonka?”
“Yes, Fleda,” Tonka said, and gave an inquiring glance at Aunt Phoebe.
“I will tell about that,” Mrs. Bingham said. “Leif and Tonka were married yesterday. Dr Chalmers performed the ceremony, and if you care to hear why the marriage took place, I will give you details.”
The silence that followed gave ample proof of a desire to hear the story, and Aunt Phoebe told it.
“I am the aunt of Leif Murray by marriage,” she began. “My husband, Joseph Bingham is a brother of Leif’s mother. My husband is a very rich man and because his wealth came to him from his Bingham ancestors, he wanted it to descend to the Bingham family, of which Leif is now the only living member. My husband has made a will leaving me a goodly annuity, and the rest of his estate he leaves to Leif Murray, son of his sister, and the only heir, direct or collateral. Here, I have to tell you, regretfully, that my husband is not in his right mind. He made his will when he was perfectly sane, though eccentric in some ways. He cannot make another will, for in his mental condition it would not be valid. And now my husband is at death’s door. He is suffering from cancer and his death can be only a blessed release. He is all the time under opiates and though I want to hasten back to him, he does not miss me. Now, his eccentricity made him draw his will in this fashion. It will sound ridiculous when I tell you, but my brother was in earnest about it. His will provides for me and for many of his friends and dependents, and the residuary, about four million dollars, is bequeathed to Leif on one condition. This is, that at the time of my husband’s death, Leif shall be living happily with a wife, who has blue eyes and yellow hair. Isabel, of course, fulfilled that condition, but now she is gone, and as my husband may die any day now, if Leif were unmarried the alternative legatee would inherit the money.”
“And who is this other legatee?” Fleda almost screamed out to know.
“My husband was always greatly distressed at the Bread Line formed in the cities at a late hour on winter nights. Coming home from a party, if we ever saw the line of shivering, hungry men, Mr. Bingham was all upset. He sometimes got out of the car and gave them money, but the managers didn’t like this, it made for disorder.
“Therefore, the alternative legatee was a Board of Trustees, to whom the four million should be entrusted, and all should be spent to provide whisky for the poor unfortunates in the bread lines of certain cities. You can readily see that this would be an ill-advised charity. A little wrong doing on the part of members of the Board would mean untold trouble. And, too, Leif would be deprived of a property rightfully his. Well, we put it up to Doctor Chalmers, and he considered it very carefully. He would make no decision, give us no advice, but if we wished him to do so, he would perform the marriage ceremony for Leif and Tonka. That’s how it came about; and soon after, Leif was carted off to jail. There will, of course, be harsh criticisms, but it seemed to me better so, and since Doctor Chalmers was willing to sanction it, I persuaded Leif to take that course.”
“Why, Tonka,” and Fleda rushed across the room and sat down by the girl, “why didn’t you tell me about this, right away?”
“I told no one,” Tonka said, in a dignified way, “except Elaine. She was here, and I didn’t mean to tell her, but—somehow I did. I wanted her to hear it from me rather than through gossip.”
“But you had no wedding!”
“Oh, yes I did. I scattered a few grains of rice around, so we’d have good luck.”
“And do you love Leif?” Fleda persisted.
Tonka looked at her, and a lovely smile came to her quaint little face.
“I worship the ground he walks on,” she said, “and I’m going now to tell him so.”
She bowed courteously to the astonished group and left the room.
“Well, I’ll be blowed!” Humbert Paley remarked, emphatically, and many of the others silently agreed with him.
“How did you ever come to suspect Elaine?” Fleda asked Stone.
“I don’t want to talk over the case now,” Stone answered, “but my first hint of it was on the yacht, the night we had the séance. Do you remember a strange voice said, ‘Beware, Isabel!’ It sounded to me a bit like Mrs. Vernon’s voice and she seemed to have difficulty in pronouncing the words. Lately I learned that the Tolmans were all ventriloquists and had tried to teach the art to Elaine, but she was not an expert. Then I began to hunt every bit of evidence in both cases, and I soon found overwhelming proof of clever criminal work. But it was the discovery that there was a flaw in the Tolman’s divorce decree that convinced me. Then, I realized that Mrs. Vernon wanted to get rid of her impediment of a husband and very cleverly did so.
“Somebody had wanted both Peter Tolman and Isabel Murray dead. It might have been Leif, but it wasn’t, it was Elaine.
“And when I found the X-ray machine had been secretly carried from her house to his, I knew I had found the truth. I planned the spelling match to discover if Mrs. Vernon was familiar enough with certain technical words to spell them correctly. She did not miss one. I hold that the average person, with no knowledge of those medical terms would not know their correct spelling. Her confession, forced from her though it was, proves many suspicions that I had held, but could scarcely bring myself to believe.”
“If Elaine hadn’t confessed, herself, I couldn’t believe it, even now,” Fleda said, her voice trembling with tears.
“No,” Fleming Stone said, gently, “it is almost unbelievable. I was baffled for a time because I could not connect the two murders. Even when I learned that the X-ray apparatus had been found here at Longacre, I couldn’t think Murray was the criminal. So I went myself over to Mrs. Vernon’s house, having first asked Mr. Ballard to ensure Mrs. Vernon’s absence from her home, and I found, on a shelf in the unused surgery of the late Doctor Vernon, a space in the dust just the shape and size of the Ray apparatus; and I knew beyond further doubt that Mrs. Vernon had taken the thing and carried it over here in a suit case, which she used to take back home some things that Murray had arranged to give her.
“She went upstairs alone first, no one was in the house but the servants, she put the machine in the place where it was later found, and then she called Helga to help her pack.
“You see, she had wormed out of Tonka the fact of the marriage, and then realizing that she had lost Leif Murray forever, she moved the machine because she thought it would be proof positive of his guilt. When I realized all this, I knew I had at last found the Missing Link.
“Poor soul, since she is beyond our judgment or punishment, let us forget her and hope that Leif and Tonka will forget also, and live happily the life that Fate has so strangely decreed for them.”
“Amen!” said Aunt Phoebe, devoutly, and the white haired rector echoed the word.
Project Gutenberg Australia