an ebook published by Project Gutenberg Australia
Title: Anything But The Truth
Author: Carolyn Wells
eBook No.: 2300501h.html
Date first posted: 2023
Most recent update: 2023
This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore
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Chapter 1. - An Adopted Daughter
Chapter 2. - At The White Unicorn
Chapter 3. - In Broad Daylight
Chapter 4. - A Cloud of Witnesses
Chapter 5. - A Possible Suspect
Chapter 6. - A Divided Duty
Chapter 7. - Another Tragedy
Chapter 8. - Papers
Chapter 9. - Witnesses
Chapter 10. - Evidence
Chapter 11. - Sister Sarah
Chapter 12. - Dora Reed
Chapter 13. - The Keyhole
Chapter 14. - A Prisoner
Chapter 15. - The Truth About Lennox
Chapter 16. - Crosby At Home
Chapter 17. - At The Roadhouse
Chapter 18. - The Truth
“Game and set!” shouted Tom Kennedy, gleefully, as he spun his tennis racket up in the air.
“We are the people, Lorraine—Molly and Grant, couldn’t beat us in a thousand years!”
“Game and set always makes me think of that silly English trick—Beaver, they call it. It has something to do with whiskers.”
“Yes I know, Molly,” Grant said; “when you see a man with whiskers you cry ‘Beaver!’ and score; and whiskers and moustache both count Double Beaver.”
“Yes, and the story is that when a man was presented to the King, he cried, ‘Beaver—Double Beaver—game and set!’ Lovely story.”
“Lovely,” agreed Lorraine, “but nobody is listening to it.”
“‘I wonder you will still be talking, Signor Benedick—nobody marks you,’” put in Tom, in brotherly sarcasm.
“Well, anyway, we won,” said Lorraine, “now all of you come in to luncheon,” she glanced at her watch, “It’s about time.”
“Can’t,” said Molly, “have to go to a luncheon and bridge at the Club.”
“I can,” said Tom, “and I will.”
“I can,” added Grant Maxwell, “and you bet I will.”
So, as Molly Kennedy went across the lawn to her home next door, her brother Tom and Grant Maxwell went with Lorraine into her own home for luncheon.
The young people approached the house from the back, where the gardens and tennis courts lay between the house and the sea.
A beautiful summer resort was Shoredale, and the streets, well laid out, showed attractive homes, facing the streets, but with large and lovely grounds at the rear that ran down to the sea coast. Near the beach were bathing houses and pavilions, but nearer the houses were the gorgeous gardens of brilliant flowers which delighted the cottagers.
As there were no dividing fences or hedges, the gardens ran together and seemed like one long terrace, which sloped down to the sandy beach and the surf.
The homes in this section were called cottages, but were spacious and elaborate enough to deserve a more pretentious description, and, as is inevitable at summer resorts, each bore a more or less flowery name.
Myrtle Lawn was the one Austin Eldridge had chosen for his well built and well situated house, and as Lorraine walked up from the tennis court between the two young men, they ascended a slightly inclined path cut through grass filled with creeping myrtle.
The house was built on simple lines, a wide hall running straight through the centre. Large rooms were on either side of this, and wings gave space for breakfast porch, sun parlor and such indispensable adjuncts to the modern summer cottage.
Verandahs stretched across both back and front of the main house, but owing to the slope of the land, the one at the back was reached by a flight of steps, while the front one was up only three steps from the street level.
Moreover, the house was very near the street.
Austin Eldridge had greatly desired to set it further back, but he was advised to conform to the line of houses already built, so Myrtle Lawn, like its neighbors, was about fifteen feet back from the wide white concrete sidewalk that glistened hotly in the summer sunshine.
This gave room for no flower gardens in front, but there was a tiny patch of myrtle-starred grass each side of the paved walk.
The staff of servants at Myrtle Lawn was complete and efficient. This was partly due to the desire of Austin Eldridge to have competent service and his willingness to pay for it, and partly to the management of one Mrs. Milliken, who was both cook and captain bold of the whole establishment.
Tall, bony, gaunt, Milliken was a commander born. Generalship was her middle name, and without ever forgetting her place, without ever overstepping the bounds of deference and decorum, she kept house with energy and zeal.
She had two cardinal rules. One, that everything possible or even impossible must be done that could add one iota to the comfort or well-being of Mr. Eldridge and Miss Lorraine, or their guests. Second, that every other human being or animal about the place was not only subservient to herself, but absolutely and abjectly under her thumb.
And Milliken’s long, bony thumb was capable of great and powerful domination.
Though, nominally, the butler, one Lennox, ranked above her, yet if it came to a difference of opinion as to authority, Milliken always retired from the conflict with her shield, never on it.
As to the other servants, they obeyed her lightest wish—or were superseded by those who did.
Among the maids, Milliken had one special pet— this was Essie, whose duties combined those of parlormaid, and lady’s maid to Miss Lorraine.
Essie was a pretty, modest girl, faithful and industrious and all that, but filled with an inherent and insatiable curiosity about her betters.
Her usually down-drooped eyes could flash comprehensive and comprehending glances, when occasion required, which though unnoticeable to others were illuminating to herself.
Then, later, she could—and did—detail the object of these glances to Milliken, who roundly scolded her for such goings on—and listened avidly.
Nor was any great wrong done by this innocent comment on the doings of the household, but Essie was of a romantic nature, even imaginative, and to her a yellow primrose often took on the illusion of an exotic and mysterious orchid.
What seemed to Milliken a detailed account of the merest ordinary routine, Essie conceived to be of ulterior meaning and frequently brought on herself a mild reproof for “crazy-minded babblin’s,” and advice to sweep out her brain.
And so, when Essie saw from the pantry window Lorraine walking toward the house, with an unmistakably admiring young man on either side of her, she remarked to Milliken:
“There she is, between the two of ’em! Both a pinin’ for her—and her not knowin’ which one she wants!”
“She knows, right enough,” and Milliken nodded her sagacious head. “Miss Lorraine knows, all right.”
“Well, the chaps don’t know, then. They’re both lookin’ eager and hopeful. If they knowed, one of ’em’d be droopy and down-hearted.”
“My heavens, Essie, sometimes I think you ain’t a fool, after all!” and Milliken looked positive admiration of the girl’s insight. “But you skittle along now and look after Miss Lorraine; she’ll be tidying up for lunch—likewise the young men also.”
Essie skittled, and was a model of primness and demureness as she presented herself for service.
“Go first, and have a washup, Tom,” said Grant Maxwell, and though Lorraine did not catch a swift glance he threw at her, nor did Tom Kennedy see it, it was not lost on the watchful Essie.
Obediently she escorted Kennedy away, and Maxwell turned to Lorraine and caught her in his arms.
“I can’t wait another day, Sweet,” he whispered, “nor another hour. Let me speak to your father now—I must know what he’ll say. It’s foolish to wait to catch him in a certain humor—he seems always a little grumpy of late. If our affair is the reason for that, I want to know it—I want to know just where we stand—just what we’re up against—”
“But, Grant—oh, I don’t know what to say— maybe it would be better to speak now—to put—”
“To put my courage to the test, and win or lose it all! I think so, dear; is he in the library?”
“Out on the front porch, I think. We’ll see.” She took a step forward, then turned to him again:
“What are you going to tell him about your mother?”
“The truth, of course,” and Grant Maxwell’s jaw set firmly.
Young Maxwell was of the type best described as bright brown. His hair was dark brown but bright, thick, and with a slight tendency to curl.
His eyes were brown and very bright, sparkling in happiness or merriment, but bright even in serious moments, and specially bright in anger.
His complexion was bright—brown and red— his firm, well-shaped lips were bright, and his teeth, too.
Moreover, his expression was bright, and his intellect and perceptions could truly be classed in the same category.
He loved Lorraine Eldridge, and she cared for him, but his declaration of this to Austin Eldridge a week before had brought about a strange condition of things.
There had been an astounding revelation and a command to wait a week before considering the matter settled or even referring to it again.
The week was not up yet, but young Maxwell possessed a strong quality of impatience in addition to his brightness and brownness, and he wanted to know.
Lorraine—it goes without saying—was young, pretty and slender, as what well brought up girl isn’t? But she had also an unusual charm in her expression of pathetic appeal.
Her soft hair was brown—not bright, like Grant’s —but with dusky shadows in its thickness. Her eyes were hazel, and so constructed, somehow, that she always seemed looking up at you. They drooped at the corners, and her mouth drooped at the corners, and, as if in sympathy, her pretty little nose drooped at the corners.
Yet Lorraine was by no means of the drooping type, nor was she the least mite affected or lackadaisical; it was merely a capacity for pathos that her face showed that made one think it must be there.
She rarely had occasion to appeal to anybody for anything, but if she did, the appeal was irresistible.
Her flesh was exquisite and delicate to her finger tips, and altogether she was of the fragile windflower type, that sways in the breeze, yet is firmly erect and anchored when the zephyr passes.
But though Lorraine’s face had pathetic appeal, her nature was of the sunniest, her temperament of the happiest, and she was the joy of the house and the light of Austin Eldridge’s eyes.
Of course she was a social favorite, she had shoals of suitors, but apparently her chief favor had been attained by Grant Maxwell and her next-door neighbor, Tom Kennedy.
These two were widely different in looks, nature and social distinction, for while Maxwell was the son of the wealthiest and most aristocratic widow in Shoredale, Kennedy was the son of a self-made man, who as a self manufacturer and assembler was rather a Ford.
Tom, too, was of a stubby shape, inferior coloring and dilatory wits.
But his heart was in the right place and plenty of it. His executive ability showed a high percentage, and his will was dogged and persevering. Hence his favor with the lovely Lorraine.
And now he docilely trotted off in the wake of Essie, though he well knew his way among the bathrooms. It was not the first time he had washed up after tennis at Myrtle Lawn.
He doused his nondescript colored head into the washbasin and leisurely brushed it into shape again, his thoughts meanwhile in a vague indefinite ecstasy of recollection of Lorraine’s casual and fleeting smiles.
He wondered if she could ever prefer him to that gorgeous Grant Maxwell, and concluded that she could not.
Meanwhile Maxwell and Lorraine went in search of Austin Eldridge, and found him, as she had predicted, in his favorite chair on the front porch.
This big and comfortable chair, drawn to the very verge of the verandah steps, afforded a pleasant outlook up and down the wide and beautiful avenue. There was much passing and Eldridge liked to sit there and watch people go by, now and then nodding a greeting, occasionally asking some one to pause for a chat, and not infrequently nodding in his chair for a short nap.
He greeted the young people pleasantly, but without any further conversational opening.
Eldridge was fifty years old and looked it. But he did not look any more than that. He was handsome, in a grim, hackneyed way. Iron-gray hair, whiter at the temples; deep-set dark grey eyes, that could deserve the epithet of gimlet, but which softened to benignance when they fell on Lorraine.
Clean-shaven face, that showed a pugnacious chin, and a straight, thin-lipped mouth.
A general air of keen alertness and quick receptiveness was always present, and often a quick nod of impatience, as his understanding ran ahead of another’s statements or explanation.
He sat, relaxed, in his arm chair, his hands extended, his legs crossed, but he was not asleep.
Essie saw that, as she gave a hasty glance from the library windows.
The library was at the right as one entered the house, and Essie had duties there connected with cleaning and tidying up. Therefore, she was justified in popping in and out at any hour of the day. And so she could catch furtive glimpses of what went on on the front verandah, but as for actual eavesdropping or even going into the library without a legitimate errand there, she would not have dreamed of such a thing, or, if she had, Milliken would have soon turned the dream into a horrible nightmare.
To evade Milliken’s eye, was next to an impossibility.
So, though Essie saw the pair walk out to speak to Mr. Eldridge, she dared stay to see no further, and with a sigh, went on to her next definite task, her imagination devising wild and weird fancies as to their errand.
For aught she knew, they might have no errand at all with the master, but her keenly observant eye detected an air of suppressed excitement on both the young faces.
“Father,” Lorraine began, but her voice faltered and Maxwell spoke out.
“Mr. Eldridge,” he said, “I know you asked us to wait a week, but—I can’t do it. I suppose you were young yourself, once, sir, and you must know how impatient I am.”
Austin Eldridge looked at the speaker through his eyeglasses. They were not shell-rimmed, but the older-fashioned gold ones, and were worn on an impressive broad black ribbon that fell across his shirt front.
Maxwell always said that that ribbon awed him, even terrified him, but in spite of the awesome thing, he went on:
“Yes,” he tried to speak genially and casually, “I am impatient, and I’m going to ask you, sir, to give me your answer now. I want to know if you will consent to my future marriage with Lorraine, and if we may announce our engagement at once.”
“I will not and you may not.”
The words were spoken in a firm monotone, without inflection of any sort. It was merely a positive statement.
“Oh, come now, Mr. Eldridge,” Grant was determined not to lose his temper. “You know I told you that I don’t care a snip jack that Lorry is not your own daughter but an adopted one.”
“I know that.”
Again the toneless, soulless words carried no hint of emotion of any sort.
“Then why wait?” the young man rushed on, impetuously. “Why must we wait? If you’ve any objections to me as a son-in-law—an adopted son-in-law, say so. If not, I think I have a right to an explanation of some sort.”
“You have no rights at all, that I recognize.”
“I claim that I have, and I claim that Lorraine has, too. I claim the right of our mutual love and our plighted troth, and I claim, also, that since you are not her father, really, you have no right to dictate terms to us at all.”
Eldridge looked at him without expression. He showed no resentment, no anger, no interest, even. Merely a bored indifference.
Yet both of his suppliants knew he loved Lorraine as a daughter. Knew he had treated her as his daughter. And everybody had supposed she was his child.
Maxwell’s request for her hand had brought forth the unwilling acknowledgment that she was adopted, and this only because, Eldridge said, it was impossible to let her marry under false pretences.
“What does your mother have to say about it?” he inquired, still in that cold, uninterested tone.
The brightness faded from the face of Grant Maxwell.
“She is disappointed—” he said.
“Is that all?”
“She disapproves of the engagement—”
“Is that all?”
“No, it isn’t all! She is terribly angry, she is furious, she says I shall not marry a nameless girl—”
“Lorraine is not nameless—she is my legally adopted child, and has as much right to the name of Eldridge as if she had been born to it.”
“My mother won’t see it that way. To her mind the legal adoption does not count the same as birth. But that does not deter me, sir. I love my mother, I have always been a devoted son and always shall be, but in this matter I assert my own right to choose my life mate, and I choose Lorraine in defiance of my mother’s wishes.”
“Yet you require my consent. Why don’t you two elope?”
“We will, if you refuse your consent,” Lorraine spoke up, with spirit, and at this Austin Eldridge for the first time, showed a flash of ill temper.
“Better not, milady,” he said, with a sarcastic bow toward her. “If I cut you out of my will, and if Mrs. Maxwell disinherits her son, you’d find your door set ajar for the entrance of poverty, while your vaunted love dives for the open window.”
“Nothing of the sort!” Maxwell exclaimed, really angry now. “I can support my wife, comfortably, if not luxuriously. That doesn’t trouble us. But we are human—if you are not—and we shrink from the idea of estrangement from the parents we have always loved. It would break my heart to have my mother’s door closed against me, and this is the first Lorraine has heard of your intention of disowning her, but I can see how she feels about it. Oh, Mr. Eldridge, do not let us make this interview a painful one, do say you will consent to our union—or else, tell me why you won’t.”
“Yes, Daddy, tell us why. You’ve always been so sweet and dear to me—whatever you’ve been to others—and, I don’t want to leave you in anger.”
The pathetic appeal in Lorraine’s eyes, ought to have been enough to move the heart of a torturer of the Christian martyrs, but it seemed to make no impression on Austin Eldridge.
“So your mother thinks my adopted daughter is not good enough for her precious son,” he said, and his cold tones cut worse than an actual sneer. Maxwell blushed, but stood his ground.
“That is true,” he said, quietly, “I do not share her opinions but there’s no denying that is what she thinks. I hope, if the engagement is announced, she will change her mind and submit to the inevitable with a good grace.”
“That she will do only if Mrs. Vanderholt advises it—and—she will not—mark my words, she will not.”
“You are implying, and I cannot deny it, that my mother is influenced by the opinions of Mrs. Vanderholt.”
“Influenced! Mrs. Vanderholt is your mother’s oracle, her prayer book, her God.”
“Perhaps not quite that, sir—”
“Yes, quite that, and more. Do you think I do not know? Do you think there is anything about your people or about Shoredale people that I do not know? Nor do I refer to petty women’s gossip. But the big matters that concern the big families here, the big affairs of the big people, the big secrets, even—yes, all these I know—I know. There are those who would willingly see me dead, there are those that would kill me if they dared, because of these things that I know. And you, you young upstart, try to brave me! Why, with one word I could crush you and your mother, too. With one word, I could crush your omnipotent Mrs. Vanderholt—”
“With one word, sir, you could make two young people very happy—”
But Eldridge was not to be softened by any plea. “With one word, sir, I can tell you to get out of here, and don’t come back until I send for you. Go!”
Eldridge had not risen from his chair, had not changed his position, had not even elevated his voice, but his dismissal was as contemptuous, as humiliating as if he had kicked Maxwell out.
Nor was Grant inclined to accept this without resistance.
But Lorraine, alarmed for her lover, urged him to go into the house, for the moment, at least.
“I’ll talk to Dad,” she said, “and at luncheon we’ll all discuss matters more rationally.”
Persuaded by her face and eyes more than her words, Maxwell went slowly in at the front door, and seeing Tom Kennedy on the back verandah, betook himself to the lavatory, glad of a dash of cold water on his heated brow.
“You are making life very hard for me, Daddy,” Lorraine said, as she stood looking down on the imperturbable face and figure of the man, whom she had loved for years as her father, but now, knowing the truth, had begun to distrust and dislike.
“Sorry, dear, but you shouldn’t put me in these embarrassing situations. You made me own up you were not my own child—now, if you keep on, you’ll force me to tell a greater and graver secret—one of more importance to you and that precious cub you’ve honored with your choice.”
“Don’t speak of him like that, Dad,” and Lorraine’s eyes filled with tears.
“I will. I’ll call him any names I choose. He’s a snob and his mother’s a bigger one, and the Vanderholt woman is the biggest of the lot! Ah—if they knew—if they knew!”
“Knew what, Daddy?”
“Knew that you—bend down, Lorraine, listen— that you—”
She bent her ear and listened. She heard. She moved back a few steps and threw herself down in a hammock that was slung across the verandah a few yards from Eldridge’s chair.
Austin Eldridge closed his eyes—the day was very warm.
* * * * * * * * *
“Lunch is ready,” Milliken said. “Go up, Essie, and sound the gong.”
And two minutes later, the sweet toned gong in the hall sounded through the house.
Essie glanced out at the front door, saw the back of Austin Eldridge’s head, and went her way to the dining room.
Lorraine rose from her hammock, and said, “Come, Father, luncheon is ready.”
But the man she summoned did not rise, and the reason was because he was quite dead, with a knife handle sticking out from the spot where the broad black ribbon of his eyeglasses crossed his shirt front.
The business centre of Shoredale, though not much larger than a village “Four Corners,” boasted a church, a bank, a public library and an inn.
Around these were clustered a few shops, the market and the post office, as well as the inevitable tea room and soda fountain.
The Inn was large and ornate and rejoiced in the name of the White Unicorn. Its signboard showed a ferocious plunging animal with a single twisted horn, and its long front verandah showed an innumerable succession of heavy and unwieldy rocking chairs. These were everlastingly being hitched about into groups by gregarious boarders and switched back again into line by bebuttoned pages.
At midday, the verandah chairs were always all occupied, as the guests congregated to await the arrival of the mail, and to have a dish of gossip.
Not only the people staying at the inn were there, but many cottagers came in for the one o’clock dinner, and business men of the town and transients passing through gathered for the meal.
Old ladies rocked back and forth and knitted sweaters placidly, or took occasional stitches in woolwork chair seats.
Young people perched on the porch railing and recounted their morning’s fun or planned for the afternoon.
Middle-aged patrons beamed on their progeny and praised them to one another, while the children more or less made good their mothers’ boasts.
One knickerbockered cub of seventeen, who had been immersed in a recent and popular work of detective fiction, finished the book and flung it down with a disgruntled grunt.
“Why, why, Eddie,” his mother gently admonished, “don’t treat a book like that. Pick it up, son, and lay it aside properly.”
The boy smiled good-naturedly, and sprang from his chair to retrieve the volume, which had fallen at the feet of a man who sat on the rail, smoking.
“Detectives are born, not made,” the boy said, turning his earnest eyes toward his mother, but noticing that the man on the rail was idly listening. “Whoever wrote that book doesn’t know his business.”
“Oh, yes, he does,” and the man on the rail spoke with the easy informality that obtained among the White Unicorn’s guests. “He’s about the best detective story writer we have today, and detectives are made—I know, because I made myself one.”
“Oh, are you a detective? Really? Who are you?”
The lad spoke impulsively and without intentional rudeness, and even as his mother murmured her mild rebukes, the man on the rail smiled and answered kindly:
“Oh, I’m not world-famous—I’m Peter Thorne, at your service,” he gave a smiling bow toward the lady, “and I made a detective out of myself because I wanted to be one.”
“Tell me about it, won’t you,” and the boy slid from his chair and stood by the rail. “I’m Ed Miles, and this is my mother, Mrs. William H. Miles. We’re from New York and we’re spending the summer here.”
He made his introductions with a well-bred carelessness, quite free from self-consciousness, and Peter Thorne took a liking to him at once.
“I’m from New York, too, but I’ve been here only a few days. We’ll talk over detective work together sometime, if you like, but just now I think we’ll follow the crowd.”
The dining room doors at the inn were always thrown open at one o’clock, but a tradition of decorum kept the guests from entering at once. The young people were trained to hold back five or ten minutes and the ultra-polite elders delayed until fifteen or even twenty minutes past the hour.
“I want to hear about it now,” begged young Miles, with his fetching grin. “Mother, won’t you ask Mr. Thorne to sit at our table today—Dad isn’t here for dinner—and then I can talk to him.”
As the indulgent mother rarely refused her young hopeful anything, she extended a pleasant invitation to Thorne, and he accepted.
“I’ve been alone at a small table,” he explained as they seated themselves, “and I’m glad of a chance to chatter. Your White Unicorn people are not overly sociable, Mrs. Miles.”
“You’ll find them so, when you once get started. You’re staying the season?”
“I’m not sure. It depends on how I like it. I came day before yesterday, for a fortnight’s stay, to be extended if the place appeals to me. I’m on a real vacation, just loafing about and resting up.”
“Do you do detective work all winter?” urged Edward, anxiously to get on the absorbing topic.
“Yes, and in the summer I read detective fiction to get more wide-spread learning on the subject.” Peter Thorne was possessed of the dark and inscrutable face that is the recognized prerogative of the detective.
His eyes were of a dark, melancholy blue, and so deeply set that they seemed to peer out from under thick, black eyebrows as birds from under thatched eaves.
His complexion was dark but clear, and red showed in his cheeks. Slightly above average height, he was slender, lithe and of a graceful carriage. But his most attractive trait was a whimsical smile that would flash into sight, light up his whole face, and as suddenly disappear.
His lean jaws and sinewy hands and wrists gave the effect of physical strength and the firm set of his chin betokened will power.
Young Miles gazed at him in frank, undisguised admiration.
“It’s a funny thing,” he observed, “but in the detective stories, they always say the detective didn’t look a bit as you’d expect a detective to look. Now, you do.”
“Of course,” smiled Thorne, “because I made myself, you see.”
“Yes,” and Miles settled back in his chair contentedly, “that’s what I want you to tell me about.’’
Thorne was not averse to talking and he liked the boy.
Moreover, Mrs. Miles seemed interested, and with a kindly willingness to be entertaining, the detective told his own story.
“I was about fourteen,” he said, “when I read my first detective story. It was one of the Sherlock Holmes yarns, and I was entranced with it. I read it over and over, and then eagerly sought for more by the same author. From that I went on to read all the detective stories I could lay my hands on, and though I was still in high school, I resolved to shape my education, to bend my whole career to becoming a detective, and a first-class detective. That’s why I say I am a made detective, not a born one.”
“What did you do first?” Miles’ eyes were big with interest.
“I kept hard at work on such duties as I thought would help me in that work. I cut out literature and music and the fine arts. I went in for the sciences and I studied law and medicine. I couldn’t take degrees in these things but I learned enough to give me a good working knowledge of legal matters and of certain medical branches—such as poisons and gunshot wounds. See?”
“Oh, yes, so you could check up on the coroner!”
Thorne smiled. “That’s it. Then I studied applied psychology, not deeply, but in the light of Miinsterberg’s reasoning, and I learned all about police regulations and tactics, and in fact, I read and studied everything I thought would help me and nothing I thought would not.”
“And now you’re a real detective!”
“I’m getting there. I attend or read the reports of all the criminal cases I can find, and I have done more or less in the way of actual work. It will be a few years longer before I can hope to become well known, let alone famous, but that is my end and aim. Of course, if I should get hold of a big case and make a big success, that would help enormously. But if not, I shall keep on studying and working and hope for success in the future.”
They were having their coffee now, and a man from the next table rose and came toward them, and with an ingratiating nod at Mrs. Miles, dropped easily into the fourth and vacant chair.
“I’m Crosby,” he said, as the lady smiled graciously, “and I couldn’t help hearing your talk over here. May I have coffee with you?”
“Mr. Crosby is an old friend of my husband’s,” Mrs. Miles introduced him, “and Mr. Thorne is a new friend of Edward’s and I hope of us all. I want you to meet Mr. Miles, who will be back this afternoon.”
“Thank you,” Thorne murmured, and made some suitable greetings to Crosby. “I feel that at last I am to be taken into the fold here at the inn. It has been lonesome so far.”
“Sure,” said Crosby, genially. “I’ll see to that. Golf, tennis, people, dancing, cards, politics—any way your fancy runs, I’ll engage to please it.”
“Quite a big order, Mr. Crosby,” Thorne acknowledged, “I hope I can make good.”
“Tell us more about your detective work,” Edward interrupted, unheeding his mother’s admonitory glance.
“Yes, do,” added Crosby. “I came over to hear more about that. Don’t you think, Mr. Thorne, that a man must have some natural bent, some innate talent for the work to be a successful detective?”
“That is, of course, a matter of opinion, but to me it does not seem so. I’ll agree he must have a taste for it. I can’t imagine a detective who dislikes the whole idea of mystery solving. But, given a liking for it, and plenty of time and hard work, I think almost any one might succeed.”
“I don’t agree with you, but I see what you mean. And I think you deceive yourself. I think you had a latent talent, that was awakened by reading the story books—you see, I overheard a lot— and your study and practice has developed your talent, and will further develop it, until it may amount to—why, to genius.”
Peter Thorne laughed outright.
“You are certainly encouraging,” he said. “I shall have my vacation, and then pick up work with renewed vigor, because of your prognostications.”
“You didn’t want any practice this summer?” and Crosby gave him a quick glance.
“Not for a few weeks. I’m resting. By which I don’t mean that I’m tired or stale, but I think everybody is better for a few weeks’ relaxation and recreation.”
“Assuredly,’ and Crosby nodded his handsome head. He was a great corporation lawyer and lived with his sister in one of the most beautiful homes in Shoredale. Like many of the cottagers he spent more of his year in Shoredale than in the city, and therefore, had offices and did business in both places. He usually took his midday meal at the inn, first, as he sometimes said, because it was a dinner and at home it was a luncheon. But it was more because he was fond of talking with his fellow men, and was sure to meet many of them at the White Unicorn in the middle of the day.
Returning to the verandah, Crosby proved himself efficient in the matter of securing a desirable location and a sufficient number of the huge rockers to make their little party comfortable, and offered Thorne his cigar case.
But as they sat down, they noticed a group of men conversing excitedly, and Ben Browning, the proprietor of the inn, came at once over to Crosby.
His round, red face was full of wonder and his small, blue eyes were blinking with horror, as he drew near. He endeavored to whisper to the lawyer but his voice was so tense and strained that all heard him.
“Austin Eldridge is dead—” he said, “murdered—”
“What!” Crosby sprang up, “what do you mean?”
“Just that. He’s shot or stabbed or something—we haven’t the particulars—or rather we’ve too many particulars—they conflict—but anyway, Eldridge is killed.”
“Now, be calm, Mrs. Miles,” Crosby said, though he himself was visibly excited. “You sit right here, and I’ll go and find out about this thing.”
“Lemmego!” cried Edward, jumping from his chair.
But for once his mother was firm.
“You sit still, Eddie,” she commanded. “You stay right still where you are. You can’t go with Mr. Crosby, he won’t want a boy bothering round. Oh, I can’t think it’s true—it must be a mistaken report!”
“Who is Austin Eldridge?” asked Peter Thorne, in a voice of respectful interest.
“Oh, he’s the biggest man in town—I mean the most influential. He’s president of the bank and first director of the library, and he’s at the head of the Apollo Gold Mining Company, and he’s foremost in all good works, civic, political, or church work. Why he’s our leading citizen—he can’t have been killed, he just simply can’t! Oh, how do you do, Mrs. Vanderholt! Sit down here, do. May I present Mr. Thorne—Mr. Peter Thorne, of New York? Oh, have you heard about Mr. Eldridge? You don’t believe it, do you?”
“I don’t know—I don’t know—it has knocked me all of a heap!”
The dignified and haughty Mrs. Vanderholt dropped into the chair Thorne held for her, with a low wail of distress, and her carefully made up complexion showed sad need of reinforcement.
“It can’t be true—it can’t be true—” Mrs. Miles reiterated, until Mrs. Vanderholt lost control of her nerves and screamed: “Do shut up, Emily! It can be true, and it probably is! Why should any one start such a report if it isn’t true?”
“That’s so, mother,” said Edward, eagerly. “Why should they?”
“There may have been an accident,” put in Thorne, anxious to offer some slight hope, “and Mr. Eldridge may not be dead. You know how reports grow in telling.”
“Yes,” and Mrs. Miles caught at the straw. “That’s very likely it. He shot himself, or something, by accident, and the silly crowd yelled ‘murder!’ before they knew the real truth.”
“Doubtless Mr. Crosby will get the facts,” and Thorne looked toward the inn office, where he could see men clustered round the telephone and the desk. In another moment Crosby returned to the group. “I’m afraid it’s true,” he said, in low, awed tones. “I can’t get particulars, but there’s no room for doubt that Eldridge had been killed. Doctor Rhodes just went tearing by in his speeder, and the police have been notified. I’d go right out there—I might be of use—but I feel I ought to go home first. Lucia will go into hysterics if this thing is told her suddenly. I’d better be there. I’ll go now, and then, if I learn anything more, I’ll come back here later. But Browning will keep you informed. Mr. Thorne, this may be an opportunity for a testing of your detective powers.”
“Oh, don’t propose it, Mr. Crosby. If it were necessary—of course—but without doubt the police detectives are efficient, or the family will have their preferences. Don’t say anything about me at present.
“Why, Mr. Thorne,” Edward said, as Crosby went hurriedly away, “this would be a splendid chance for you to practice on a case.”
“Don’t put it that way, Miles,” Thorne said, gravely. “Should I be called on, I am ready to do all I can, but I wouldn’t put myself forward for anything.”
Ben Browning came toward them.
Mrs. Vanderholt was his “star boarder” and he felt it his duty to keep her informed, as far as he knew the news himself.
“Terrible thing,” he said, standing before them, a short, fat man, with bristling, unruly hair and, at present, an unctuous manner. “You leave it to me, Mrs. Vanderholt—I’ll tell you everything as fast as I find it out. I didn’t feel I oughta go up there myself, but I’ve sent Jake—he’s cute and he’ll find out all he can.”
“Why this hesitation?” asked Thorne, curiously. “I should think the whole population would be running out to the scene of the crime.”
“No, Mr. Thorne, no sir. Shoredale ain’t like that. No, until we hear more of the way things are—we don’t feel like intrudin’, that we don’t.”
“And quite right,” said Mrs. Vanderholt, with a look of reproof for the plebeian suggestion of Thorne’s. “We are of aristocratic instincts here in Shoredale, and we don’t obtrude on a house of sorrow.”
Thorne smothered one of his whimsical smiles, for the lady’s punctilious formality struck him as overdone in the case of a murder.
But he respected her prejudices, and merely said, “Is the Eldridge place far out of town?”
“Not outa town at all,” Browning vouchsafed.
“Just a few blocks up the street and one turn to the right. Not a quarter of a mile away. And broad daylight, too—how could he ’a been killed?”
“Don’t you know how he was killed?” Edward Miles asked, even as his mother said, “keep still, Eddie.”
“Well, no, we don’t,” Ben Browning admitted. “You see the telephone stories are so mixed up and they keep getting cut off, and one said he was stabbed, and another said shot—so I don’t really know. But Jake’ll soon be back, and he’ll have the straight of it.”
And then the clergyman strolled over from his rectory a block or so down the street.
His ecclesiastical dignity was a little offset by his somewhat corpulent physique, but he had the proper expression of benignity and piety that befits his calling. He came up the steps and made straight for the group that included Mrs. Vanderholt, who was one of the pet lambs of his flock.
“My dear, my dear lady,” he said, softly, taking both her hands,” how terrible is this blow that has fallen on our peaceful little community.”
“Oh, dreadful, Doctor Ives, dreadful,” and Mrs. Vanderholt quite forgot to release her hands until she found she needed her handkerchief.
Mrs. Miles watched her, cornerwise, and permitted herself an invisible and inaudible sniff.
“Do you know any details, Doctor Ives?” she asked.
“No,” and the reverend shook his head. “I came over here thinking to learn such, and to be advised whether to go to the house at once, or wait to be summoned. What do you think, Mrs. Vanderholt?”
“Oh, wait—wait till they send for you. If this terrible thing is true Lorraine will be too prostrated to see any one just at first—even you, my dear Doctor Ives.”
“Yes, yes; very likely—very likely.”
The minister looked resigned to postponing his visit, and with the rest waited for further news.
“Do you suppose it’s the beginning of a crime wave?” asked Edward, who had a habit of blurting out sudden questions.
“Hush, Eddie,” said his mother.
“No, my child, no,” said the Reverend Ives. “There is no criminal class here. We are all law-abiding citizens, inclined to peace and good works.
What a beautiful faith! thought Peter Thorne, but he said:
“Do you admit a criminal class, then, sir?”
“Yes, yes, Mr. Thorne, we must admit there is such, even while we do our poor best to abolish it.”
“But don’t you agree that the criminal is made so by his early circumstances and environment?”
“Not entirely, no. The instinct of crime may be inborn.”
“And may be eradicated. I hold that the circumstances of the first sixteen years in the life of any human being, determines whether he shall be a criminal or not. The children of your own class, brought up in loving, well-bred conditions, will never become criminals. Their early training precludes it. But the uncared for, neglected, ill-treated children, who roam the streets at night, and who foregather with all sorts and conditions of malefactors, they, poor souls, can seldom escape the fate of becoming one of the criminal class. Our civilization is no civilization while these conditions exist.”
“And, what, Mr. Thorne, is your idea of a remedy?”
“It must be brought about by the state. Charitable organizations, reform schools and such things are all right as far as they go, but they don’t, they can’t, go far enough. Legislation is necessary.”
“Ah, a difficult proposition, I contend.”
“Yes, because nobody cares. Because his own children are cared for and watched over, the average man has no thought for the child in the street. The day will come, I think—I hope—when the Government will take hold of these things and make it impossible for children to grow up into a criminal class.”
“You prophesy a sort of millennium, my friend.”
“I do. And a millennium that can only be brought about by the waking up of the soul of man to see the dangers of the present situation.”
“Very interesting—very interesting, indeed,” and Mrs. Vanderholt raised her gem-studded glass and surveyed Peter Thorne as if he were some exotic rarity offered her for inspection.
Ben Browning hastened toward them.
“Jake’s back,” he exclaimed, “and he says Mr. Eldridge was stabbed to the heart and killed instantly.”
Others on the verandah gathered round to hear the news and Browning addressed them all.
“I guess this is official,” he said, cautiously, “for Jake had it from a newspaper reporter. Austin Eldridge was sitting on his own front porch waiting for dinner to be ready, and—” he paused impressively, “and when they called him to come to dinner, he was dead—dead with a knife sticking straight out of his breast.”
Mrs. Vanderholt so nearly fainted that Doctor Ives had to help sustain her quivering form, but she listened eagerly, with the others present, for more information.
“Who did it?” cried Edward Miles, while his mother shook him into silence.
“Nobody knows who did it,” went on Browning. “It’s the greatest mystery. Why, think of it! A man sits on his own front porch, in the middle of the day, the sun shinin’ bright, and his family about him—and then, when the dinner bell rings, he’s dead —murdered—in broad daylight, on his own front porch!”
Peter Thorne said no word, but he kept his deep eyes fixed on the speaker. Surely the facts of the case—if facts they were—were both startling and dramatic.
At last he asked one question:
“Do they suspect anybody?” he said.
“Not that I know of,” Browning returned. “If they do they haven’t said so. I say, Mr. Thorne, you’re a detective, aren’t you? Why don’t you hike right up there and see about it?”
“For the very good reason,” said Peter, with his funny little smile, “that I haven’t been invited to do so.”
“Well, I s’pose there’s some sort of etiket about that,” and Ben Browning rubbed his jaw, ruminatively. “What is it? Do you have to be asked by the police?”
“By some one,” returned Thorne. “Either the police or the family or the town authorities or somebody who has a right to ask me.”
“Well, I’m goin’ to make it my business to see that you get asked,” the innkeeper declared, and went off at once to put his decision into action.
At Myrtle Lawn the circumstances were as Ben Browning had described them. Austin Eldridge had been stabbed to death, sitting on his own verandah, in broad daylight, with his family about him.
Literally, his family consisted only of Lorraine, but there were two young men visitors, two house guests and several servants, all within a few feet of the crime.
When the gong sounded in the hall, Lorraine had risen from the hammock and had said, “Come on, father, luncheon is ready.”
The hammock hung between the front door and the north porch, and was thus behind the chair in which Austin Eldridge sat, and whose high back hid all of him but the upper part of his head.
As Lorraine rose, Tom Kennedy came round the corner from the north porch where he had been standing, looking across toward his own home, next door.
At the same time, Grant Maxwell came down the stairs from the bathroom, and made for the front door.
Also, from the south porch, which was more or less of a sun parlor, came the two house guests, Mr. and Mrs. Mersereau.
Mr. Mersereau, being the last of the lot to gather at the entrance door, turned to Eldridge, who was his brother-in-law, saying, “Come on, Austin,” and then with a frightened exclamation of “my God!” he stood transfixed with horror at the sight of the knife in the man’s breast and the slowly widening spot of crimson that stained his soft silk shirt.
Mrs. Mersereau turned back, and then all pushed forward and saw the dreadful thing that had happened.
Sarah Mersereau shrieked hysterically, and her husband caught her in his arms. The others, their eyes staring, their jaws drooping, stood aghast, for such a shock paralyzes for an instant all power of thought or speech.
Hearing the scream, Lennox, the butler, and Jane, the waitress, ran from the dining room, where they were waiting to serve luncheon.
Jane clapped her hands over her mouth to suppress a scream, and ran back to summon Milliken, her port in every storm.
Lennox stepped forward to his master’s side, and put out an ignorant, blundering hand toward the knife.
“Don’t touch that!” cried Tom Kennedy. “Don’t touch him, don’t touch anything! Give me a minute to pull myself together—oh, what must we do?”
It was quite evident something must be done—already two or three inquisitive passers-by had paused and were looking in curiously.
The house was so near the street, there was no shielding hedge, and the big porch chair in which the dead man sat was on the very edge, on the top step of the verandah, that the whole scene was in full view of the populace.
But even as they all stood petrified, transfixed with terror, a strong, stern figure stalked through the hall, and out at the front door.
It was Milliken, and involuntarily they fell back to let her pass.
The great, gaunt frame strode along like an avenging angel and it almost seemed as if she cut a swath through the group of numb, dumb people who still stood silently staring.
She paused in front of Austin Eldridge and gave him one quick, comprehending glance. Then, making no outcry or exclamation, she sent her black eyes, darting from one to another as she spoke.
Her words were curt, her tones sharp and incisive, and she interposed her own body as a shield between the man in the chair and the street.
“Lennox,” she ordered, “get your mouth shut and go and telephone for Doctor Rhodes. Don’t tell him a thing but to come here at once—this living minute. Jane, go to the pantry, and look after the food. Keep it hot and don’t let the rolls in the oven burn. Essie, bring out that wicker screen from the sun parlor. Hurry with it—Mr. Tom, please help her. Miss Lorraine, dearie, go inside—go to your room, if you want. Mrs. Mersereau, go with her. Somebody take hold of this screen with me.” Her long arms pulled the screen about until it was a perfect protection for the man in the chair.
There was barely room for the three-leaved affair between the edge of the porch and Austin Eldridge’s feet but Milliken managed to adjust it so that it was secure, without touching anything.
Then she turned to the ever increasing crowd. “Go away from here,” she cried, not in a loud voice but one so tense with authority that many moved on at once.
“Haven’t you any more manners or common decency than to stand gawpin’ at a house where there’s trouble! Go on now, about your business.” For the most part they obeyed her, the rest she left furtively lingering near.
“Mr. Maxwell,” she next directed, “you stay right here and watch that body. Don’t you leave him a minute. I have to go inside, and I leave the care of that man to you.”
It sounded like a solemn trust, and Grant Maxwell stepped nearer and took up his post by the dead man’s chair.
At first he averted his glance, then gazed with an irresistible fascination.
He looked curiously at what he could see of the fatal weapon. To him it appeared to be a carving knife, not a large one, a small steak or game carver.
It was driven in almost to the handle, and had pierced the black ribbon as it entered the flesh. The crimson stain was not large, nor did it now seem to be spreading. But there was no room for doubt that Austin Eldridge was really dead. His face looked as it always had in life, his eyes were closed, and his features in no way distorted. His hands gripped the chair arms, quite in his usual manner of sitting.
Maxwell felt of one hand. It was still warm, though not with a life-like warmth.
“Don’t you touch him!” came a sudden peremptory command, and the young man looked up to see Milliken glowering at him in admonition.
He knew she was right, so he said nothing, and again stood motionless at his post.
“Is—is Lorraine all right?” he faltered.
“I’ll look after Miss Lorraine. You watch that body till the doctor comes, and don’t you stir from the spot. The street is full of loafers and gossips, and I can’t keep them off. I can’t go and shout at ’em, with—with him there like that!” She gave a reverent glance at her late master, and went swiftly into the house.
Pausing in the hall she sounded the Chinese gong again.
As a few faces appeared at one door or another, she said:
“If you folks have any sense, you’ll set down and eat while things is hot and while you’ve got a chance. Lord knows what will happen when anything does! Once the doctor gets here, and the police come, you’ll have small chance for eatin’. And there’s a good luncheon there for you. Jane will wait on you, and you can help her out. I want Lennox myself. Miss Lorraine, try to eat something, and I’ll do everything there is to do just as you would have it done. Sit at the table, dearie, and I’ll send Mr. Maxwell in.”
Lorraine, white and dazed, paid no attention to the woman’s talk, but Sarah Mersereau realizing the sense of it, led the passive girl to the table and she sat down.
“Go in to your lunch,” Milliken said briefly, as she went back to Grant Maxwell. Go and sit next Miss Lorraine and make her eat a meal. I’ll stay here.”
Only too glad to be relieved from his gruesome duty, Maxwell obeyed.
Doctor Rhodes, arriving, found Milliken on guard, standing with folded arms on the front porch, one eye on the body of Austin Eldridge and one on the loiterers on the sidewalk.
The doctor was a quiet, grave man, and stepping behind the screen, set down his bag and proceeded at once to make an examination.
He knew Milliken and her worth, and his orders were short and terse.
“Go inside and telephone for the police—or tell someone else to do it, and then come back here.” She obeyed, and on her return he said, succinctly, “That your knife?”
Milliken looked closely at the knife, and then said, slowly, “that’s what I can’t make out. We’ve such a lot of knives, it might be, and then again, it doesn’t just look like any of our knives that I remember.”
“I should think you’d know your own kitchen knives.”
“Well, we have some with that kind of handle— but—I could tell better if I saw the whole knife.”
“All right, Milliken, it must stay as it is until the coroner comes—then it can be removed. What do you know about all this?”
“Nothing—nothing at all, sir. But they’ll find the beast who did it, won’t they?”
“I hope so, I’m sure. Where are the others?”
“At luncheon. I sent ’em all in—”
“And quite right, too. I’ll go in and speak to Lorry. You stay here.”
Doctor Rhodes went into the house, and was met in the hall by Louis Mersereau.
“As Austin’s brother, I shall assume authority,” he said, a little pompously. “Lorraine is utterly unstrung, and my wife is unfitted for any business of this sort. It’s a dreadful thing, Doctor Rhodes.”
It was such a dreadful thing that the man’s assertion sounded inadequate and perfunctory.
Nor did Rhodes like his calling himself the dead man’s brother, when he was in reality only his sister’s husband.
But somebody had to take the helm, and of course Mersereau was the most appropriate one.
“Yes, a terrible thing,” the doctor assented, briefly. “Do you know any details of the actual crime?”
“You say crime very quickly, Doctor Rhodes. Are you quite sure it is not suicide?”
“Certain. The nature and method of the stabbing entirely precludes all such possibility. Where is Lorraine?”
“Still at the table, though the poor child cannot eat a morsel.”
“I must speak to her,” and the doctor went on to the dining room.
And then the police came.
Coroner Bennett, as county medical examiner, learned the truth from the briefest examination.
“No uncertainty here,” he said to Detective Sergeant Stiles, who was with him. “Somebody drove that knife in with one swift, deft, well-aimed blow, and death was instantaneous. Whoever did it was sure of himself, sure of his intent and mighty sure of his aim. But right here, in broad daylight—it’s incredible! Where’s the family?” he turned to Milliken.
“At luncheon, sir, though I think they’re leaving the table now. You want to see them?”
“Of course I do. But not out here. Call Doctor Rhodes out.”
The two doctors conferred and concluded to take the body inside the house at once.
“And get men to patrol the place,” Bennett directed Stiles. Send for the ones you want, and have the street guarded and the lawn—why, it will have to be roped off, I should say.”
“I’ll see to it,” Stiles nodded, and he went to the telephone.
And then, borne by the reverent hands of the young men present and the doctors, the body of Austin Eldridge was carried in and laid on a couch in his own library.
Sergeant Detective Stiles hastened back to the coroner’s side.
“Take out that knife mighty careful, Doc,” he said, “finger-prints on that is about our only chance. This is a curious case—I don’t get it at all.”
“Pretty early in the game to get anything, Stiles,” the coroner said grimly. “But I’ll look out for the knife all right. You go out there and look for footprints and all that, before things get trampled.”
“Yes, I’m going to,” and Stiles returned to the porch.
He was newly promoted to his present position and fully intended to make the most of this opportunity to prove his ability and win his laurels.
The screen Milliken had placed was still there, and Stiles took advantage of its shelter to scrutinize carefully the chair and the surroundings of the victim of a horrible crime.
Milliken gazed at him, with a blank, unexpressive face, but with a darting light in her eyes that disconcerted him a little.
“You may go,” he said, “I don’t need any help.” She made no reply and stood, unheeding, as he fidgeted about.
“I said you could go into the house.”
“I heard you the first time. Are you looking for clues?”
“Yes, I am,” and his tone betokened anger.
“Well, see that you don’t miss any. And when you get through, shut up that screen and set it back here. No use leaving it there.”
Milliken went into the house, and Stiles searched diligently. But it was hard work. How could he tell whether a mark or scratch on the floor of the porch was made by the foot of a member of the family or by an intruding criminal? How tell, indeed, whether it were made today or yesterday?
How hope to find footprints on a gravel path that was already full of depressions that might be footprints and might not?
It was a hard case, this first assignment of his. Now if it had only been inside the house, in a room that showed half-burned cigars, dropped handkerchiefs or promising waste-baskets, there would be something to investigate.
But a country house porch, with its hammock swings and its rattan couches; its flower-holders and tea tables, what inspiration was there?
He stared hard at the chair in which Austin Eldridge had sat.
It was a large armchair, of fine wicker work, with a pocket-like receptacle on either arm.
These places contained only a couple of books, a newspaper and a half emptied box of cigarettes.
All, doubtless, the property of the dead man— and it was not his property Stiles wanted to find.
It was some belonging of the attacking party that would be of value to him. Yet he had small hope that the villain had kindly left a definite clue to his personality, and finding nothing of the sort, Stiles reluctantly gave up the search and obediently folded away the screen, as Milliken had directed.
Of course, there was the knife. That would be— must be—a definite clue.
Already his thought was crystallizing around some servant, for who else would use a kitchen knife? Still, any member of the family might do that, but it rather precluded the idea of an outsider.
Yet, an outsider was out of the question, for, as he understood it, the people of the house were all on one or other of the porches, and they must have seen or heard any marauder, however stealthy.
He went into the library to find the two doctors and Milliken discussing the knife.
Stiles looked at it without touching it.
The handle was about four inches long and the blade about six inches.
It looked to Stiles like a knife of good quality, but of an old-fashioned pattern. Moreover, the blade had been so many times sharpened that it was far less than its original width. This too, betokened an old knife.
The handle was of bone polished to look like ivory. This was yellowed, as such handles become, and was joined to the blade by a narrow metal band.
The great question was whether this knife was part of the kitchen equipment of the Eldridge house or not.
Milliken, the omniscient, declared herself unable to say.
“I don’t keep track of all the knives in the pantries,” she said; “I’ve other matters to take my mind. Lennox ought to know—or the maids—even the scullery girl might tell you, but I don’t know. We’ve white-handled steel knives, lots of ’em, but if that matches ’em, I don’t know. It might and it mightn’t.”
“Send for Lennox,” said the Coroner, curtly, “and while you’re about it, get all the servants together. I’ll ask them some questions before I inquire of the family.”
Mersereau was present now, and he nodded his head in agreement with this.
“That’s good,” he approved. “Leave the family in peace as long as you can. My wife has somewhat pulled herself together, but Lorraine is almost in hysterics.”
“I’ll go to her,” said Doctor Rhodes, hastily, and left the room.
Lennox appeared, and, being shown the knife, declared he had never seen it before.
“It’s a common enough knife,” he said, eying it fearfully, for it was still stained with the life blood of Austin Eldridge, “but it ain’t ours.”
Essie, however, held that it was.
“What does Lennox know about knives?” she said, with a disdainful toss of her head. “He only has to do with the table silver and cutlery. He has his own pantry carvers, and he never sees the kitchen things—not to notice ’em.”
“That’s so,” said Milliken, “no more he don’t. Cloppy will know—she cleans all the steel knives— she’s the scullery girl.”
Cloppy was summoned, and it transpired that she had received her name because of her shuffling, noisy gait.
She was a half-grown girl, stupid of countenance and vacant-eyed.
She was not intimidated at being called for the first time in her life to the family rooms, but it seemed to be because she hadn’t sense enough to be.
“Is this a knife from the kitchen equipment?” asked Bennett, speaking kindly to reassure her.
“I dunno,” she returned, gazing at him, blankly.
“Try to think. You clean the knives—have you ever cleaned this one?”
“I dunno. But I will if you want me to. It sure needs it.”
Unimpressed by the blood stains on it, probably unaware of their nature, the girl stood looking idly into vacancy.
Bennett spoke more sharply.
“See here, now, you must tell me. Think hard. Is this one of the knives you clean in your daily duties?”
She eyed the knife doubtfully, as if understanding the question, but utterly at a loss for an answer.
Nor did further effort bring any result, and the exasperating Cloppy was sent back to her drudgery.
“She’s always like that,” Essie volunteered. “She ain’t a fool, but she ain’t much else. Honest, she don’t know one knife from another. Now, I’ll bet you that’s our knife. I don’t say I remember it positively —but it just seems like ours. And how would it get here if it wasn’t? Whoever killed poor, dear Mr. Eldridge, never went and borrowed a knife from a neighbor to do it with! Sure, it’s our knife!”
“Don’t talk so much, Essie,” Milliken admonished, “You can’t do any good and you may do somebody harm.”
“Who, for instance?” said Stiles, quickly. “To whom could Essie do harm by her chatter?”
“Oh, Lord, I ain’t meaning anybody in particular. But somebody killed Mr. Eldridge, didn’t they? And you police won’t rest till you fasten the crime on somebody—wrong or right. So, I say, babblin’ does no good. And as to that knife, either it is ours or it isn’t. And you know yourself, until you find the murderer it doesn’t make a speck of difference who the knife belongs to. So, get busy huntin’ for the assassinator, and let the weapon go till later.”
“Not bad advice,” said Louis Mersereau. “Not bad at all. I always said Milliken had more sense than many of her betters. Now where are you going to begin?”
“With you,” said Bennett, turning on him suddenly. “Tell me all you know about the whole affair.
“Don’t know a thing,” and Mersereau looked almost as blank as the unfortunate Cloppy.
“Where were you at the time of the stabbing?”
“My wife and I had been sitting on the south porch for more than an hour. As you know this house faces the west—it has its back to the ocean. Well, the side porch on the south is enclosed—sort of sun parlor, you know, and we were sitting there when the luncheon gong sounded. We always obey that sound promptly, for it puts Mr. Eldridge out to have people late to meals. So, we got up from our chairs and went to the front porch to go in at the front door, and as it happened the others were all there, so that I was the last of the crowd. The last, that is, but Austin. When he didn’t rise, I called out, ‘Come on, Austin,’ or something like that and as he still didn’t move I turned toward him, and I saw—my God, I shall never forget it—I saw that knife sticking out of his breast! I couldn’t believe my eyes for a second, and then I realized what it meant. And then—well, I suppose I uttered some startled exclamation for the others turned back, and in a moment it was all excitement and confusion. That, Mr. Coroner, is all I know about it.”
“And a very clear statement of the actual occurrence. Now, Mr. Mersereau, though a connection by marriage, you are not actually related to the dead man, so I’m going to ask you first, if you have the least suspicion of anybody that was or could have been the criminal?”
“No,” he spoke slowly and thoughtfully, “no, I can’t say as I have. My brother-in-law had enemies—I’ll say that, for it’s no secret. But not one that I know of had any cause or reason to kill him.”
“Yet he was killed.”
“He was. And in—to me—a most mysterious manner. Can you explain, even hypothetically, the way it was done?”
Bennett did not like this man. Aside from his cold and indifferent attitude, aside from his pompous speech, he had an air of superiority that was exceedingly irritating. A sort of supercilious, patronizing air, that made it seem as if he called one “my good man” even though he didn’t use the words.
“It’s not hard to explain the way it was done, sir,” Bennett returned. “Mr. Eldridge sat on his porch with his eyes closed. He may or may not have been asleep. He may or may not have seen his murderer approach. But that murderer did approach, armed with this small carving knife, and did stab him with this knife, and did depart, leaving the knife in the wound. That, Mr. Mersereau, is the way it was done. Now the question is, who did it? There can be but two answers to that. It must have been some one who came in from the front street, who came so inaudibly and invisibly that none of you who were on the porch heard or saw him—or—it was done by some member of this household—family, guest or servant.”
“Stop, stop, sir, don’t say such shocking things! Servants, perhaps, but not, not family or guests! Impossible!”
“There are only the two possibilities. An outsider or an insider. We must find out which. And —an outsider seems out of the question.”
Mrs. Mersereau had nothing to add to her husband’s scant information. Yet her story, though substantially the same as his in matter, was in manner much more graphic, even dramatic.
“We sat in the south porch,” she said, and her handsome, well dressed head was held high, as if to keep itself above this ruck of horrid circumstance which threatened to engulf them all. “We sat there waiting for the luncheon gong, and when it sounded of course, we rose at once—we are prompt people here. Then as I came round the corner of the house, to the front verandah, I saw Austin sitting in his usual place. I scarcely glanced at him, he always sat there, you know, and I passed on toward the front hall door.”
“Yes, Mrs. Mersereau,” Bennett’s tone was suave “and please detail right here, just where the others were—all the others of the party.”
Sarah Mersereau gave a little start, her face looked blank and then a quick understanding dawned in her big, gray eyes.
An instant’s pause, as if collecting herself, and then, “I’m afraid I can’t tell you that,” she said; “I’m poor at observation—”
“You must have a mental picture of the scene,” Bennett snapped out. “Who were on the front porch as you came round the corner?”
“Lorraine was standing about half way between the front door and her father’s chair.”
“Looking at him?”
“Yes—, I think so—Tom Kennedy came round the other corner, from the north porch—I don’t know where Mr. Maxwell was—I didn’t see him—nor any of the servants—it’s all vague to me—”
“You’ve told pretty clearly where they all were,” said Bennett a little dryly. “Now, who first called your attention to Mr. Eldridge?”
“Why, why, I heard my husband exclaim, ‘My God!’ or something like that, and of course, I turned to see—and I saw my brother—with a knife handle showing—”
“That will do, Mrs. Mersereau—sit down, don’t say any more.”
Gratefully, she sank to a chair—she had stood of her own will through the testimony—and arranging herself in careful pose, awaited other revelations.
Grant Maxwell was questioned next, and disclaimed all knowledge of the circumstances, saying when he heard the gong sound he was in the bathroom making himself tidy after a tennis game.
“I was wiping my hands,” he said, meticulously, “on a dinky little towel, with blue initials sewed on it—I slung it under the washstand—it’s probably there yet—and hurried down stairs, for I know how Mr. Eldridge gets annoyed if anybody is late to meals. I was half-way downstairs, when I heard a sort of commotion on the front porch—”
“What sort of commotion?”
“Why—like frightened murmurs and exclamations—no loud voices or outcries, but people stepping about and whispering—well, it was only a moment before I was out there myself, and saw that Mr. Eldridge was dead—”
“You knew he was dead at once?”
“I think I should have known, but anyway, Kennedy grabbed my arm and said, ‘he’s dead!’ and then I looked for myself, and I felt sure he was. Then Milliken came out and she ordered me to stand guard over the body, while she tended to some things in the house, and so I did, until she came back and sent me in to lunch.”
“You obeyed the servant’s order?”
“Why not?” said Maxwell, simply. “Milliken is not exactly a servant, she is housekeeper and general manager, and quite capable of directing matters in an emergency.”
“Yes, she is,” Bennett agreed, and he turned to Tom Kennedy.
Tom’s usually laughing face was not only serious but awestruck.
“I don’t get it,” he exclaimed, before Bennett had time to question him. “It’s the most mysterious thing! There was I just round the corner on the north porch—and it seems silly to distinguish the porches, when really it’s one continuous piazza all round the house. But I was on the north side—”
“What were you doing?” Bennett broke in.
“I don’t see how that affects this case. I was grouching about private troubles of my own.”
“You were waiting for the gong to sound?”
“Yes, I was.”
“Why were you not on the front porch with Miss Eldridge and her father?”
“Because—well, that is—for no special reason.”
“Yes, there was a reason. Was it not because Miss Eldridge and her father were having a sort of discussion?”
“Yes—they were, and of course, I had no wish to intrude.”
“What was the subject of their talk?”
“How do I know? I am not an eavesdropper, I hope!”
“But you do know,” Bennett’s attitude was commanding, and Tom involuntarily resented it.
“I heard no word they said—”
“Yet they were quarreling—”
“If they were I didn’t know it, and I don’t know why you assume it.”
“You know well enough, and you know what they quarreled about. However, that will transpire in its proper time and place. You can tell more, Mr. Kennedy, go on, please. When the gong sounded, what did you do and what did you see?”
“I came round the corner to the front porch, and I saw Miss Eldridge rise from the hammock and I heard her say, ‘Come, father, lunch is ready,’ and then, as she looked toward him, I saw her face change, she gave a little gasp of horror, and then, Mr. and Mrs. Mersereau came in sight, and Grant Maxwell came running out from the hall and, in a moment, all was excitement and confusion. I can’t describe the scene more definitely, I’m afraid.”
“That will do. The reports all agree perfectly. Lennox, I’ll ask you a few questions now.”
The usually serene and imperturbable butler was apparently panic-stricken. He wriggled nervously, and stood at attention, but with a scared, anxious face and twitching muscles.
“You, of course, saw or heard nothing unusual, until you learned of the excitement out on the porch?” Bennett said, calmly.
“No, sir. I was in the dining room—and in and out of the pantry, sir.”
“I see. And did you glance out of the windows at all?”
“No, sir, I had all my mind on my work.”
“Ah, yes, of course, Lennox. And who do you think killed your master?”
The question took everyone by surprise. It was so unexpected, so sudden, that all were startled.
“I d-don’t know, sir—but it must have been some intruder from the outside. It c-couldn’t have been any one in the house!”
“Unless somebody had concealed himself in the house for the purpose.”
“Yes sir—unless that. But that could scarce be done, sir. We all keep watch against anything like that.”
“Why do you? Were you fearing such an occurrence?”
“Well, sir, it was only a week ago, that the master bid us keep a sharp watch out, lest somebody get into the house on the sly.”
“You think Mr. Eldridge expected some such trouble, then?”
“I c-can’t say, sir—only he gave those orders.”
“Who was with you in the dining room, Lennox?”
“Jane, sir; the waitress.”
“I’ll question her next, then. Don’t be frightened, Jane, just tell the truth. Did you see or hear anything unusual that might help our investigation of this awful catastrophe?”
“No, sir,” said Jane, quite at her ease, and showing no sign of fear or embarrassment. “There was nothing unusual occurred, sir.”
“To your knowledge, you mean; certainly something very unusual did occur.”
“I mean inside the house, sir.”
“And did you see or hear anything strange outside the house?”
“No—no, sir—not to say strange.”
“I suppose it’s nothing, but while I was in the dining room, I glanced out of the window, and I saw a man go past the house—on the sidewalk, you know —and then turn around and go back again.”
“That doesn’t seem to be of grave importance, Jane,” Bennett suppressed a slight smile. “However, describe the man.”
“Oh, he was just an ordinary looking man. Just like anybody who would pass by of a morning.”
“Tall or short?”
“I don’t know. Medium, I guess.”
“Stout or thin?”
“I didn’t notice. About half and half.”
“How was he dressed?”
“Lord, sir, I’ve no idea. I didn’t look at him special at all. Do you think he killed the master?”
“I’ve no reason to think so as yet. But you say he passed the house and then turned round and passed back again?”
“Yes, sir. But what he looked like I can’t say in particular. He was just a man.”
Sergeant Detective Stiles took a hand.
“Think, Jane,” he said, persuasively. “This may be of no importance at all, yet, again, it may be of great value. Think hard. Try to picture that man in your mind as you saw him from the window. Do you think he wore a straw hat?”
Jane gave him a contemptuous glance.
“Sure,” she said, “what would he be wearing? A silk topper or a fur cap? Of course he wore a straw hat, like all the other men.”
It was true. Unless for a youth in a tennis cap, what else would be worn?
“Well, now, his clothes, Jane.” Stiles went on. “Was he in white flannels?”
“I shouldn’t say so, sir,” Jane hesitated. “Yet he might have been.”
“Blue serge, likely.”
“Yes, sir, I think it was blue serge.”
“Or maybe, tweeds—knickerbockers—?”
“It might have been such, sir.”
“You see,” and Stiles gave a significant glance at Bennett. “Like all witnesses, absolutely open to suggestion. He carried a cane, didn’t he, Jane?”
“Yes, sir, I think so.”
“You don’t know an earthly thing about it!”
“It’s of no importance, anyway,” Bennett said. “A passer-by couldn’t walk up on the porch, stab Mr. Eldridge with his own carving knife, and go calmly off again, without some of the people on the porches seeing him.”
“How do you know it was an Eldridge carving knife?” asked Stiles, bluntly.
“Well, it’s more likely than that the man Jane saw should be walking the streets carrying such a knife.”
“I saw that man,” said a voice from the group of servants.
“Who spoke?” cried Bennett, excitedly. “Step out here.”
Essie came forward. Not at all averse to being in the limelight, she deposed that she had been upstairs in one of the bedrooms, and had seen a man walk by the house, and then turn and walk back again.
“Did he look toward the house?” asked Stiles.
“Not that I noticed. I only caught a glimpse of him, though, as he was turning around. There was another man passed the house, too, but he went straight on.”
“This talk is futile,” Bennett declared. “Of course, several people must have passed the house about that time. This is a popular avenue, there is always passing. But none of them could have done the fatal deed. The others would have seen him, as well as the people of this house. Our investigation now must be directed toward the inmates of this household at the time of the crime.”
Milliken pushed herself forward.
“There’s nobody left that you haven’t talked to, except me and Miss Lorraine. If you please, sir, I’ll speak for her. There’s nothing she could put forth that I can’t tell for her, and it’ll save her a sight of trouble and pain if you’ll just quiz me in her place.” Bennett looked at the woman gravely.
“I appreciate your thoughtfulness for your young mistress,” he said, “but Miss Eldridge will have to answer a few questions herself.”
It was at that moment that a tall and dignified woman appeared at the door of the library, and with the air of one born to command, walked across the room and sat down beside Grant Maxwell.
“I am Mrs. Maxwell,” she said, with an indifferent nod at Bennett. “I propose to listen to this conference or inquest or whatever you call it. I assume there’s no objection.”
It seemed to Bennett there was no valid one, so he bowed a tacit assent and turned again to a page of notes that lay on the table before him.
But others in the room were more perturbed.
Grant Maxwell himself looked uneasy, even angry. He well knew his mother’s attitude toward Lorraine, and he feared the effect of it on the girl he loved; who was just now about to be questioned by that heartless and irritating coroner.
“Mother, don’t stay here,” he whispered, but for reply, received only an indulgent but stubborn smile.
Milliken bristled with wrath. If there was one superfluous person on the face of the earth, it was, to her mind, Mrs. Maxwell.
“I thought this was a private hearing,” she exclaimed, addressing Bennett. “Are you going to allow strangers to attend?”
“Be quiet,” Bennett admonished her, and though afraid of few, Milliken subsided before the arm of the law.
She sat close to Lorraine, and seemed like a muzzled tigress waiting a chance to spring, should circumstances require it.
Mrs. Maxwell, equally watchful of her own offspring, sat by the restless young man, her hand on his arm, when not impatiently shaken off.
She was of the delicate, Dresden china type, and though age was apparent in her white hair and very white teeth, yet her soft skin and gracefully poised head betokened a well preserved youth, and her erect carriage and the determined set of her firm chin showed an unimpaired and immortal will power.
Through a jeweled lorgnon, she stared at Lorraine, seemingly quite willing to stare her out of countenance and into a state of frenzy.
And the face of the girl gave promise of success in the evil design.
The pathos that always lurked in Lorraine’s countenance was fully in evidence now. She glanced furtively at Mrs. Maxwell, as a timid mouse might glance at a malicious cat.
“I don’t believe I c-can talk,” she burst out as Bennett turned his attention to her, and was unmistakably preparing to quiz her.
“Don’t be alarmed, Miss Eldridge,” Stiles broke in. He had far more tact than Bennett, and much greater kindness. “We must ask you a few questions, but will spare you in every way we can. Now, first of all, tell us, had your father any enemies that would desire his death?”
The effort to speak brought a flood of tears and Lorraine buried her face in her handkerchief, utterly unable to utter a word.
“Ask me, I’ll tell you,” Milliken said, and her head tossed obstinately. “I can tell you those things as well as Miss Lorraine. As to enemies, Mr. Eldridge had nothing but.”
“What do you mean by that?” asked Bennett, interested in spite of his resentment
“I mean that Mr. Eldridge had enemies of all sorts, political, business and society. He was always making new ones, too.”
“Be quiet, Milliken,” gasped Sarah Mersereau, aghast at this revelation. “Mr. Bennett, if Miss Eldridge is unable to tell what you want to know, ask me.”
“Her!” and Milliken’s scorn was superb. “She don’t know a picayune’s worth about her brother’s affairs. She’s been here a week—and till then she hadn’t seen her brother for some years. What does she know? I’m telling you the truth about Mr. Eldridge’s enemies, because that’s what you want to know. Anything else to ask?”
The strong, gaunt figure sat upright in the straight-backed chair. The strong, gaunt face looked straight ahead and the staring black eyes seemed to bore into Bennett’s very brain. She was compelling, was Milliken, and Bennett was compelled.
“Yes, since you seem so well informed, just who are these enemies?”
“Well, there’s Mr. Forbes, the editor of the paper. And there’s Mr. Hatfield, he’s president of the bank—”
“I protest,” spoke up Louis Mersereau. “This is disgraceful! How dare you let a servant impugn these names—among the best known in Shoredale!”
“As I understand it, this witness is not exactly a servant—she is housekeeper here, and she seems to occupy an even more responsible position. Moreover, if she can give any information that will show us a way to look for the solution of this mystery I am sure we want her to do so.”
“I agree with Mr. Mersereau,” said Mrs. Maxwell. “And if the inquest is to be conducted in this extraordinary fashion, I prefer to leave at once. But only on condition that I may take my son with me.”
“You may go or stay, as you wish, madam, but Mr. Maxwell must remain until we have finished this preliminary investigation. I regret that you disapprove of our methods, but this is an extraordinary case, and calls for unusual procedure. Milliken, be quiet, until you are addressed again.”
Bennett was angry now, and with him anger brought about a quiet dignity that made for better work.
“Miss Eldridge,” he said, “I am sure that you want to do all you can in the matter of discovering the criminal and avenging your father’s death. I am sure that you will try to control your feelings sufficiently to answer a few simple questions. First, will you tell me of the circumstances immediately preceding the death of your father. Had he had any quarrel or unpleasantness with any one this morning?
Lorraine raised her pitiful face and wiped away her tears as she said, “Only with me.”
“Yes, we didn’t quarrel—that is not the word— but we—we disagreed on—on a certain subject.”
“What was the subject?”
Bennett’s voice was as gentle as he could make, it; but his tone was inexorable.
Spurred by the emergency, Lorraine had grown calmer, and she said quietly.
“The subject was the question of my marriage with Mr. Grant Maxwell.”
“As there is no question of that now, it is scarcely worth while to refer to it,” came in icy tones from the delicate, chiseled lips of Mrs. Maxwell.
“As it is a strong point at issue, the matter should be taken up right here and now,” was the decided response from Grant Maxwell, who sat by Lorraine and watched her as solicitously as did Milliken herself.
At Mrs. Maxwell’s speech the girl had drawn herself up in dignity. Paying no attention to Grant’s words, she said, “The question of my engagement is not to be discussed here. But the question of my controversy with my father, may be needed as evidence, and I give it willingly. It may be stated right here that I am not Austin Eldridge’s own child, but his adopted daughter—legally adopted, so that I am, in all respects save birth, his child. He always treated me as his own, and no father could have been kinder or tenderer. But when Mr. Maxwell asked him for my hand in marriage, my father deemed it necessary and right to tell him the truth about my birth. This was no obstacle to Mr. Maxwell, but it was a great one to his mother, who,” she looked at the lady in question, “who considered me beneath her son in social importance and refused her consent to the engagement. This is where the matter stood at the time of my father’s death, and this morning, both Mr. Maxwell and myself had discussed the subject with him, but had reached no definite decision. We had expected to resume the discussion at the luncheon table but—”
And here Lorraine’s enforced calm gave way, and she threw herself into Milliken’s waiting arms, while she sobbed on her breast.
Bennett looked grave.
“You discussed this thing with Mr. Eldridge and his daughter?” he said to Grant Maxwell.
“And he refused his consent?”
“Not positively. But he was annoyed at my mother’s objections.”
Mrs. Maxwell glared at her son, but said no word. She was a wise woman.
“And then, as I understand it, Mr. Maxwell, you went off upstairs and left Miss Eldridge and her father still talking about it.”
“Yes, Miss Eldridge thought she might manage him better alone, and she suggested that we talk it over further at luncheon.”
“Thinking that perhaps in the meantime she could persuade him to be more leniently inclined?”
“Something of that sort.”
“And you remained upstairs until the lunch gong sounded?”
“And came down to find the group on the front verandah surrounding the dead man?”
Grant Maxwell hesitated. He didn’t like the smug satisfaction that was beginning to show itself on Bennett’s face.
“Why, yes—that is, I was coming down stairs, and I heard exclamations that sounded mysterious— I mean, not like the laughter and gay speech I expected to hear, and of course, seeing people out front, I went out, and—well, it was all so confused and mixed up, I can’t give a very clear account.”
“Oh, you can’t. Well, Mr. Maxwell, seeing what you did see, and knowing what you do know, who do you think killed Mr. Eldridge?”
“I can’t imagine. I can only say that I know it was no member of his household nor was it one of his guests. That leaves only the possibility of an outsider who managed to effect an entrance and get away again unobserved. I know that sounds vague and also implausible, but it is the only possible assumption, and—you asked me my opinion.”
Detective Sergeant Stiles was torn by conflicting emotions.
Newly appointed to his present post, eager to win bright and sharp spurs, he was elated at the prospect of solving the great Eldridge mystery and achieving praise and encomiums from all concerned.
But the conflicting emotions conflicted horribly.
On the one hand, he wanted to know the truth, to deduce from the evidence and to spot the criminal. On the other hand, the thing was too easy. Clues, evidence and deduction all resulted in one awful conviction, the guilt of Lorraine Eldridge.
In vain Stiles told himself that lovely girl could not and did not kill her father. Even though an adopted father, that lovely, trembling little hand never planted a wicked knife in his breast.
Stiles was no more susceptible to feminine charm than most men, but he was up to the average and the average was too high to allow of a belief in Lorraine’s guilt.
The mere thought of such a thing was only the inevitable outcome of the process of elimination. Who else could it have been? The man who passed along the street was far too vague and visionary to consider seriously. Doubtless he was a figment of Jane’s brain.
The dead man’s sister and her husband seemed clear of suspicion because of their distant position around the corner, in the sun parlor.
Young Maxwell was on the stairs, and young Kennedy around on the other side porch. The servants were accounted for, and it did seem that there was no one left to suspect but the daughter of the house.
Stiles heaved a deep sigh. Twenty-four hours had passed since the crime was committed, and the farce of an inquest had been held and adjourned, hoping for further light on the dark places.
Bennett was no more willing than Stiles to accuse Miss Eldridge openly, but matters must move on and investigations must be continued.
So Stiles sat in the Eldridge library, awaiting the coming of Mr. Crosby, who would go over the Eldridge desk with him.
The two Mersereaus were there, too, for as next of kin Sarah was in command and Louis usurped even her authority.
The lawyer arrived, and in his brisk, dapper way, bustled into the house and seated himself in the swivel chair at the big desk in the middle of the room.
“Now,” he said, nodding at the others, “this whole affair is very distressing, to be sure, but we must force ourselves, for the time being, to ignore the sadness and horror of it all, and turn our full attention to the business details that have become so suddenly of vital importance.”
Louis Mersereau looked very interested.
“To what do you especially refer?” he asked.
“First, in order of procedure, the matter of Mr. Eldridge’s finances and the disposition of his estate, and then, the discovery of his murderer and the avenging of the crime.
“Oughtn’t we to call Lorraine down?” Sarah said, doubtfully.
“Not at first,” said Crosby, with decision. “We must ascertain her status, her real relationship—if any—to Austin Eldridge.”
“Yes, let’s get right at that,” Mersereau said quickly. “She has always claimed that she was legally adopted, but I’ve not been able to find any adoption papers. What do you know about it, Mr. Crosby?”
“Only that Eldridge always seemed to count her as a real daughter, and if so, if she has been legally adopted, she has all the rights of a daughter by birth. But we must see the adoption papers.”
“You’re not hinting that Austin left no will!” exclaimed Sarah, suddenly.
“Just that,” said Crosby. “He had made innumerable wills, varying in minor bequests, and also in some important details, but he had not completed them or the one he was at present occupied with. I don’t know myself what was in his mind, but he seemed to have some secret plan for the disposal of quite a large sum, yet was undecided about it. He assured me only a few days ago, that he would make up his mind soon, and would give me a complete draft of his desired bequests and I could put it into conventional form. This he did not do, and now he is dead and there is no will—that is, none that I know of. Of course, if he has left a signed paper, however informal, it may be of value.”
“The first thing is,” said Sarah, outspokenly, “to see about Lorraine. If she is not legally adopted, I, of course, am my brother’s heir.”
“That is true,” Crosby agreed, and taking the keys which had been in Stiles’ custody, he opened the desk and later, the safe.
They spent several hours going over the papers and letters of Austin Eldridge, and at the end of their task they found themselves in full possession of the knowledge of the extent of his fortune, the number and nature of his securities, and the exact state of his financial assets and liabilities.
No estate could be in better order for examination and appraisal, and Crosby expressed his deep satisfaction at the sinecure his job of accounting would be.
But the accounting of the estate was one thing, the bestowal of it another.
The most careful search failed to bring forth adoption papers for Lorraine nor was there any sign or hint of a last will or testament.
Not even a memorandum of the bequests he intended to make to charities or friends or servants, and Crosby assured them these intents were in Eldridge’s mind.
“And so,” Crosby wound up, “I believe there is some other receptacle for papers that we have not yet discovered, some secret drawer or hidden box—”
“Oh, come, now,” said Mersereau, a little testily, “that’s hackneyed stuff. Hidden drawers and secret panels are found only in old-fashioned novels—people don’t really have them.
“And why would he?” objected Sarah. “If Austin had legal papers, making Lorraine his daughter, which I don’t for a moment believe he did —why would he hide them in a secret place? If he cared enough for her to adopt her, he would want the fact known. And as to a will, since Mr. Crosby says he was working on one, it is quite clear that he had so far destroyed his old lists and expected to start fresh on new ones. You see, I know my brother’s ways, and he was never one to keep useless clutter about. If he discarded a will, he would destroy it, and not keep a lot of old drafts.”
“That was Mr. Eldridge’s habit,” Crosby agreed, “I’ve known him to destroy lots of papers that would have been of great help later if he had filed them instead.”
“Well, he wouldn’t destroy Miss Eldridge’s papers of adoption, would he?” asked Stiles, a bit upset at the way things were going.
“There were none to destroy,” Sarah said, promptly. “I never believed he really adopted that girl. They took her soon after their own baby died. Katherine Eldridge was frantic with grief and disappointment, and Austin acceded to her wish to adopt a girl baby at once. It was done in a great hurry, and I know no papers were taken out then and there. For I went with Austin to get the child. What he did later, I don’t know, but I do know if he had had the matter legalized, the papers would be in evidence.”
“Where did you get the baby?” asked Stiles.
“We went to a sort of home, or nursery—but the matter was arranged through a club in New York that looks out for such things. They have babies for adoption that have been investigated as to parentage and all that.”
“Then you know who Miss Lorraine’s parents were?”
“I don’t, but my brother did. Of course, he must have papers and statements relating to that—”
“Then, as I said,” put in Crosby, “there must be a lot of papers that we haven’t yet run across, and if the data of Miss Lorraine’s parentage can be found, perhaps her adoption papers will be found with it.”
Sarah Mersereau’s face fell in a manner that was almost comical, so plainly did it show her fear that such papers would be found. For if Lorraine was Eldridge’s daughter by legal adoption, she was sole heir, in the absence of any will.
“There’s no secret place here,” she said, looking round with scorn at the idea. “This isn’t an old baronial castle, it’s a modern, summer cottage, built on straight lines and simple plans. I know all about this house, and there’s no more a secret hiding place in it than there is in the church. Nor was Austin the man to have that sort of thing around. He was an autocrat in his own home, and if he gave orders not to have his things meddled with, they weren’t meddled with, and he didn’t have to hide them away to prevent it, either!”
“The matter can wait over a few days, and we can make an exhaustive search,” Stiles said, “there are other things to discuss. As you are, at least for the present, in charge here, Mrs. Mersereau, what do you want done regarding the search for your brother’s slayer? Don’t think, from my question, that you can divert or suspend the activities of the police in their investigation, but I may as well tell you, that several highly influential citizens of Shoredale have hinted that it would be wiser not to probe too deeply.”
“I don’t know what you mean!” Sarah stared at him. “Do you—suspect anybody?”
“Anybody and everybody,” said Stiles, vaguely.
“But some men in the bank, some men in the church, and some men in the Country Club are of the firm opinion that the thing to do is to let the Eldridge case go down in history as an unsolved mystery.”
“Well, I don’t agree to that,” and Sarah’s thin lips snapped out the words. “I see no reason why my brother’s murderer should not be brought to justice—”
“No matter who is implicated?” asked Crosby softly.
“What do you mean?” and Sarah stared at the lawyer’s grave face.
“Lorraine,” he said, simply, and Sarah gasped.
“Yes,” Stiles said, “you may as well know, Mrs. Mersereau, that a strong wave of suspicion has rolled up against Miss Eldridge. She was the only one on any of the porches or in the house who could have stabbed Austin Eldridge without being seen by the others. Also, she is the only one who can be said to have had a motive—”
“What was her motive?” Sarah looked scared.
“First, anger at her father for not granting his consent to her engagement to young Maxwell, and second, if she knew he had made no will, a desire to inherit his money and marry the man of her choice.”
“Absurd!” Sarah Mersereau exclaimed. “Lorraine could never have done that awful thing— she couldn’t.”
“But somebody did. To imagine a man stepping in from the broad highway, at noonday, in a blazing sunlight and killing a man with a kitchen knife— bah, that’s too absurd! No, the deed was certainly done by some one in the house and who could have desired Eldridge’s death but Miss Lorraine and her suitor, Grant Maxwell! Now, we know Maxwell was in the bathroom when the gong sounded and could not possibly have reached the front porch in time to do the deed. In fact, he was half way downstairs when the alarm became general. Which, as you must see, leaves no possibility but Miss Lorraine Eldridge. I think it has now become necessary for us to ask her some questions about it all. Will you call her, Mrs. Mersereau?”
Half dazed, Sarah stumbled from the room and went in search of Lorraine. She found her on the porch, just outside the open window of the library where the conference had been held.
“I heard all you said,” Lorraine informed her. “Eavesdropping, I suppose you’d call it, but I don’t care. I have a right to know what’s being said and done in this matter, and I’m glad I know where the lawyers and the detectives stand. Yes, I’ll go in there and they can question me all they choose. Much they’ll find out!”
Lorraine rose, a slip of a girl looking slenderer than ever in her plain little frock of black georgette, her soft, bobbed hair ringleted over her ears, and her big, pathetic eyes full of sadness and sorrow.
Even Mersereau melted at the appealing sight, and in spirit Stiles grovelled at her feet.
But Crosby was firm. He liked Lorraine—that is, he liked her as a pretty little thing who was the daughter of one of his best and richest clients. He had never thought of her in any other way. But these important questions must be asked and answered, and he steeled his heart against any personal bias and consideration for the girl’s youth and beauty.
“Lorraine,” he said, he had known her from childhood, “don’t be frightened, just tell us a few simple facts about yourself. We know you are Austin Eldridge’s daughter only by adoption. Do you know whether you are his legally adopted child or not?”
“I do know. I am.” The little head was held proudly aloft, and the pleading eyes showed a trace of pride, even hauteur.
“Your father told you so?”
“Have you ever seen any legal papers attesting this? Any certificates of adoption or even letters concerning the matter?”
“I don’t think so. But father assured me that my adoption was so legally true that I was just the same as his own child, where any business matters were concerned.”
“And you loved him as an own father?”
Lorraine hesitated a moment, and then said, slowly, “I did—until he was unwilling to let me marry Grant Maxwell.”
“Why did he object?” Stiles asked, taking the inquiry into his own hands.
“Partly because Mrs. Maxwell, Grant’s mother, was so opposed to it, and partly because—well, I don’t know what his other reasons were—but he had some.”
“You do know what they were!” Stiles stormed at her, for her sudden hesitation and rising color implied concealment of something.
“No—no, I don’t,” she insisted, and Stiles didn’t press the point then.
“Did Mr. Maxwell resent your father’s refusal enough to want to kill him?” he flung at her, suddenly.
“No!” she cried, cringing like a hurt animal, “what an awful thing to say!”
“Then, Miss Eldridge, that leaves only yourself as a possible suspect. Nobody else had motive or opportunity. You had both.”
The icy coldness of Stiles’ voice was not unintentional. He meant to make it incisive, meant to make it cut into her consciousness in the hope of forcing from her a cry of truth.
But no sound came from the blanched lips, no inadvertent exclamation was made by the girl who sat, upright, on the very edge of her chair, her little hands tightly clasping either side of the seat, as her head was thrust slowly forward and her horror-stricken eyes stared into Stiles’ own.
“You think I killed him?” she said, in an awed whisper. “You think I killed my father? Why, I loved him!”
“I don’t say I think you killed him, Miss Eldridge I only tell you you are a possible suspect.”
“I suppose it comes to the same thing.” She paused a moment, and then went quickly on: “I suppose you are going to say next that there are no adoption papers to be found, and that therefore I have no claim as a daughter. Then you are going to tell me that my father left no will, and that therefore, I am penniless. Go on, go on, Mr. Detective and Mr. Lawyer, go on and tell me!”
She was a little hysterical now, and Stiles felt so sorry for her he was almost ready to drop the whole affair.
But Crosby came to his rescue.
“Pull yourself together, Lorraine,” he said, almost coldly, for he had no use for hysterical women. “Listen. You are in a very perilous situation. It is no kindness to you to salve over the facts, or to minimize the seriousness of the situation. You were next your father on the porch at the moment he was killed. No one else was within striking distance of him. You are found to be at odds with him. The weapon is one that you might have secured from the kitchen. You had opportunity to drive that knife into his breast, return to your place in the hammock, and a few moments later when the gong rang, arouse yourself, and say casually, ‘Come, father, lunch is ready.’ You could have done all those things. Did you?”
A sound at the door made them all look up. Milliken stood there, took in the group with a comprehensive glance and then entered and stood facing Detective Stiles.
“You’re a nice detective, you are!” she said, witheringly. “Oh, you’re a fine slooth! If you had seen, a villyanous thug walk in from the street and stab Mr. Eldridge, I suppose you would still say Miss Lorraine did it! What kind of blind bats are the police anyway? Like the blind beggars on the streets, only you don’t need to wear a placard, ‘I am blind,’ for everybody knows it.”
“Hush, Milliken, hush!” cried Crosby, rising and grasping her arm.
But she shook him off with a disdainful gesture. “Hush is what I won’t do!” she said, and her tones were not raised, nor her voice excited. “But I will make good my words and show you how blind is the gimlet eye of him you’ve set to find the master’s murderer. Come.”
Instinctively obeying the single word, so sternly uttered, the lawyer and the detective followed her out to the hall, the others remaining behind.
Milliken led the two men to the front porch, and paused at the chair in which Austin Eldridge had met his death. It was near the front edge of the porch, and close beside it rose a pillar that supported the verandah roof. This column was not a large one, and it had a ledge or pediment running round it at a height of about two feet from the floor.
“You looked for finger prints?” and Milliken’s finger, pointed at the white painted wood of the column, seemed like an accusing signpost.
“Of course I did,” and Stiles scornfully scanned the immaculate whiteness of the paint.
“Huh! You stopped looking a mite too soon. There’s one, isn’t there?”
Fascinated, the two men watched her finger descend until it pointed at a spot under the projecting ledge of the column.
Quickly Stiles stooped down and looked under. To his amazement there was a finger print, red, clearly marked and distinctly visible.
“You wretch!” he cried, in a sudden burst of anger, “that wasn’t there before! You put it there yourself!”
“No,” returned Milliken, quietly, “no, I didn’t. “That was there yesterday, when you and your precious Coroner searched for clues. You look for what is staring at you, but it never occurs to you to look for anything partly hidden.”
Stiles ignored her, greatly excited over the finger print. He sat down on the top step and examined it carefully.
“Apparently the index finger of the left hand,” he said. “We know the murderer used his right hand to drive the knife home—the doctors told us that. And this, you see, is a print from his left hand, which he put against the pillar to steady himself.”
“Humph!” and Milliken sniffed disdainfully, “how you detectives do read clues, to be sure!”
“Comment is unnecessary,” Stiles began, glaring at her, but Crosby said, with quick curiosity: “What do you mean, Milliken? Do you read it differently?”
“Well, I put it to you, sir. Whoever killed the master, you say, stabbed with his right hand. Well, putting his left hand against that post, to—as you said—steady himself, how come that his left hand is already bloody? That finger print must have been made after the stabbing was done, and I’ll ask you why did he want to steady himself then? By that time he was running away as fast as his legs would carry him.”
“This woman still holds to the theory of a man coming in from the street to do the deed,” said Crosby, looking deeply thoughtful. “I’d be only too glad to adopt that view myself, only I can’t see any way it could be done unobserved.”
“Of course, it couldn’t,” Stiles said, impatiently. “This finger print I tell you, has been put there since we examined the premises.”
“Did you peek under that ledge of the column?” asked Milliken, with an air of bland and simple inquiry.
“Why—er—yes,” Stiles replied.
“Did you, yourself, sir?” his inquisitor persisted. “Did you?”
Afraid of the consequences of prevarication, Stiles returned, “Well, I don’t remember definitely, but we all examined the porches thoroughly, and if that mark had been there some of us must have seen it.”
“Ah, yes,” Milliken rejoined, “Police searchin’s. Well I know ’em! See anything that’s no use to see, and overlook all items of partikyler importance.”
“This print may well be of no importance,” Stiles declared. “I fully believe it was placed there by some one with the intent of misleading the police in the search. I shall have it looked into, of course, but I prophesy now that it will be of no help in running down the murderer. And I will go further and say that I believe that you, Milliken, had it put there in a mistaken endeavor to turn the tide of suspicion away from Miss Eldridge. It would be quite like your short-sighted cleverness!”
“I admit the cleverness,” and Milliken tossed her head, “but I’m not short-sighted, either physically or mentally, as you’ll find out, Mr. Detective.”
“At any rate, you have a good opinion of yourself,” Stiles growled.
“No more so than you have, but far better reason for it.”
Crosby, absorbed in his contemplation of the crimson print, paid no heed to this passage at arms. He had not much confidence himself in Stiles’ detecting powers, and though he had small liking for the redoubtable Milliken, he knew that she was blessed with a shrewd common sense, and a rather uncanny intuition.
“What shall you do to find out who made this finger mark?” he asked of Stiles.
“Take a print of everybody in this household, and all the outsiders who were here yesterday. But I’ll tell you now, it won’t help us any. That mark is a false clue, put there to mislead. It may have been done in the night, it may not be blood at all—all these things can be proved—”
“Hoity toity!” Milliken jeered at him. “And a minute ago you were saying the murderer put it there to steady hisself, but when I said his left hand wouldn’t be bloody then, you caught on, and now; it’s a fake! Ha, ha, want any more suggestions, Mr. Detective?”
“Not from you,” and Stiles angrily turned on his heel and went back to the house.
When Crosby followed him in, a few moments later, the detective said, “I’ve telephoned for a finger print expert. He’ll come soon and tell us some details about that mark. If, indeed, the one who put it there hasn’t washed it away by that time!”
After the funeral services of Austin Eldridge a great many people gathered in his library for a consultation. Some of these were there by right, some were invited to be present and some merely thrust themselves in from curiosity or morbid interest.
No one made any objection to anyone’s presence. The lawyer, Crosby, was in charge, in a general way, and the two Mersereaus and Lorraine represented the dead man’s family.
But there was little to do. Crosby stated that he fully believed Mr. Eldridge had died intestate, and that if so, his estate would revert to his nearest of kin. If Lorraine were a legally adopted daughter, she would be sole heir. If not, Mrs. Mersereau would inherit. It all depended, he said, on the finding of papers that would prove the girl’s legal adoption! These he had not yet discovered, but that did not prove that they did not exist.
There was a possibility, even a strong probability that Mr. Eldridge had papers which they had not yet come across. Not necessarily hidden, but in some bank or safe deposit vault of which they were not yet cognizant. The investigation of this matter would, of course, take a little time, and in the meanwhile no decision could be arrived at regarding the inheritance.
“All right,” said Detective Stiles, “that can wait. But the matter of apprehending the criminal must be pushed forward. And I’ll take this occasion when so many of Mr. Eldridge’s friends are here present, to ask a few questions.
Young Edward Miles and his father were among those who had intruded without invitation, and though Mr. Miles felt a deep interest in the fate of his friend, Eldridge, it was really at his son’s insistence that he had come there.
Young Miles was absorbedly interested. His eyes darted from one face to another and he tried to make deductions from what he heard that would, he fondly hoped, lead to the discovery of the murderer.
The boy was more or less imbued with the detective instinct and he had repeatedly urged that his acquaintance at the inn, Peter Thorne, be called to look into the case.
But the police were jealous of their prestige and desired no outside help, especially that of an amateur or special inquiry agent.
Stiles knew of the friendship between Mr. Miles and the murdered man, and he was minded to get any information he could.
“I’m hoping, Mr. Miles,” he said to him, “that you can tell me something of any enemies Mr. Eldridge may have had.”
“Few people in Shoredale could not tell you that,” Miles returned, gravely, “with no intention of speaking ill of the dead, Mr. Eldridge had a perfect talent for making enemies. I should say he had them in all walks of life, from those who worked for him to those he worked for. Though he was a genial gentleman in his home and among his friends, any business enterprise in which he engaged seemed to breed strife and dissension almost from the start. Of course, I speak of large and important deals, not petty matters.”
“You corroborate this, Mr. Crosby?” Stiles said, turning to the lawyer.
“I do, though I had not intended to state it so plainly. But perhaps it is better to face the facts. And I feel sure Miss Eldridge will admit we are right. I am sure she will prefer that we meet the issue and thereby, perhaps make progress in the search for the criminal.”
“Yes,” said Lorraine, thoughtfully, “I do think there must be nothing kept back, nothing glossed over, if we are to find the enemy who killed my father.”
The girl had changed her mental attitude as well as her physical demeanor. She had, apparently, not only accepted the situation, but was prepared to deal with it firmly and straightforwardly.
There was nothing hysterical about her now, she was composed, serene and though sad, she showed indication of an indomitable will and determined energy.
Not far from her sat Grant Maxwell and his mother. To Lorraine the hostility of Mrs. Maxwell was evident. Though veiled beneath an expression of sympathy, Lorraine knew that Grant’s mother was no more kindly disposed than she had ever been, which was not at all.
To Mrs. Maxwell’s ideas of aristocracy, Lorraine was no more a fitting mate for her son if legally adopted by Austin Eldridge than if not. In either case she was, so far as Mrs. Maxwell knew, nameless and of doubtful origin. Surely the heir to all the Maxwells could not marry a girl like that.
So Mrs. Maxwell looked sorrowfully at Lorraine, with quite evident sympathy but kept a wary eye on her own offspring at the same time.
Grant Maxwell himself was in a quandary. From the time of his father’s death, when he was a mere child, he had pledged his life to his mother’s, had vowed to devote himself to her, and to fulfill her every wish so far as he was able.
And now, a girl had come between them.
Grant loved Lorraine, he adored her, but he felt strongly his duty to his mother, and he well knew her wishes in the matter.
For himself, he cared not whether Lorraine had been legally adopted or not, whether she was an heiress or not, whether she was a suspect in the matter of the crime or not. He loved her enough to ignore any circumstances, however unpleasant.
But, he had his mother to consider. Long years of deference to her and devoted consideration of her slightest wish made him unable to refuse her demands upon him.
Nor did she intend that he should do so. Astute and intuitive was Mrs. Maxwell, and she saw and understood perfectly all that went on in her son’s mind.
And cleverly she evaded the issue, cannily she pursued her course, fully intending that Grant should break with Lorraine, but leading up to such a conclusion by clever and skilful machination.
Yet it was with a certain uneasiness that Mrs. Maxwell saw this afternoon a new Lorraine, a stronger, more self-reliant personality.
Alive to every indication, the elder woman noted the strengthened nerves, the fortified will power, and she marveled as she looked.
Nor could Lorraine herself have told how it came about.
For she did not know that her will power and mind strength had been born of the emergency in which she found herself. Did not know that her grip of her nerves and her control of her emotions had been suddenly brought about by the necessity for those very things.
Her pride helped too, and at this time, in this crucial moment, she sat facing the detective, the lawyer and the others of the group with a calm and poise that boded well for her future experiences.
And yet, Stiles was firmly convinced that this girl was the murderer of her adopted father.
He had reached this conclusion through what he was pleased to call elimination. To his mind there was no one else to suspect, therefore suspect Lorraine. She, he concluded, was the one to profit by the death of Eldridge, for, he argued, she had supposed herself sole heir, whether she was or not.
She, he claimed, had exclusive opportunity—he assumed that she had stabbed her father, then returned to her hammock, and carried out the farce of calling him to luncheon.
And yet, he had not sufficient evidence to arrest her. Indeed, he had no real evidence at all. But he was sure—sure and certain that she was the criminal.
As to the finger print, it had so far amounted to nothing. The expert had pronounced it a bona fide print of a left index finger, but though they had taken the prints of everybody in the house and many out of it, no corresponding mark could be found.
Privately, Stiles thought that Milliken had caused it to be made by some entirely unsuspectable person with the intent of diverting suspicion from Lorraine. And this, to his mind, made the guilt of Lorraine all the more certain.
For unless Milliken knew or suspected her young mistress’ guilt, why would she go to such lengths to clear her?
All through the conference in the library Milliken was in and out. Sometimes she merely appeared at the door and looked in; sometimes, she stood and listened; and once, while a discussion was in progress, she entered and took a seat for a time.
But, after all, the discussion and the conversation brought no definite results. Mr. Miles and Mr. Crosby agreed as to the number of enemies that could be counted against Mr. Eldridge, but none of these was sufficiently inimical to be suspected of murder. Nor did any have opportunity.
To come to the home of Austin Eldridge, in the middle of the day, when his household and guests were all about, and stab him without their knowledge, was too preposterous a proposition to be considered.
And as this was agreed to by all, the evidence, such as it was, seemed to point more and more to Lorraine as the only possibility.
As the talk progressed, both Mr. and Mrs. Mersereau became more silent and taciturn. They had no wish to accuse Lorraine, yet they had no other suggestion to offer.
Sarah went over and sat by the girl, and tried to take her hand, but Lorraine shook her off, and showed no inclination to accept her sympathy.
At this Mrs. Maxwell sniffed, as who should say, “A hardened sinner!”
A diversion was created as Mrs. Miles came in, in search of her husband and son. She was accompanied by Mrs. Vanderholt, the exclusive and aristocratic lady from the inn.
“Oh, here you are!” Mrs. Miles cried, spying her husband. “Come, dear, I want you to come home now.”
Miles rose obediently, and Edward, unheeding his mother’s admonition to be quiet, sidled over to Lorraine.
“Please, Miss Eldridge,” he whispered, “won’t you have the great detective who’s staying over at the inn? He could find out all about this thing in a jiffy. Mayn’t I tell him to come to see you about it? Mayn’t I, Miss Lorry?”
Now, Lorraine at this moment was terribly agitated. So much so, that she turned off the boy with an impatient, “I don’t care what you do!” and strove to regain her composure. And what had so disturbed her was only the advent of Mrs. Vanderholt. She stared at that grand lady as if she had never seen her before.
Stiles observed this, and wondered. Crosby, similarly observant, wondered too. And Milliken, passing the doorway, paused, looked at Lorraine, and then at the aristocratic visitor.
But Mrs. Vanderholt showed no signs of perturbation or even interest.
She drew her scarf around her patrician shoulders and held her head high as her eyes roved about the room, observing the details of furnishing.
She seemed to approve, at least her face showed no adverse criticism, and she stood quietly waiting for the Miles’ to be ready to leave.
And then they did leave and as Mrs. Vanderholt went off with them, Lorraine heaved a deep sigh of relief, though the strange, almost agonized expression remained on her lovely face.
Grant Maxwell came over to Lorraine and dropped into a chair beside her.
“Dear,” he said, “I want to talk with you, and I meant to ask you to go for a little walk with me, right now. But mother—I think she divined my purpose —asks me to go home with her now, and she wants me this evening. So, as I particularly don’t want to anger her at present, won’t you meet me tonight late, in the Rambler Arbor? I hate to ask you this, but I must talk without fear of interruption.”
“That’s not so very late—yes, I’ll be in the arbor at eleven.
Maxwell went off with his mother and others dispersed until none was left but the two Mersereaus and Lorraine.
“Now, Lorry,” said Louis, who had been primed by his wife, “let’s get at the root of this matter. Who killed Austin Eldridge?”
Lorraine looked at him. Her eyes held no sign of resentment at his query nor did they show any special interest.
“I’ve no idea,” she said. “I should suspect one of you two, if I could see any way in which you could have accomplished it. But I don’t. So I am forced to the conclusion that it was some one who came in from the street.”
“That’s too absurd!” Louis said. “Are you sure you didn’t do it yourself, Lorraine?”
Again that strange lack of indignation or resentment at his words.
“Yes, I’m sure,” she said, wearily. “It’s the only thing I am sure of.”
“That’s right,” Sarah exclaimed. “You’re certainly not sure of your standing in this house. And I’ll tell you right now, Lorraine, if no papers turn up to prove your adoption and the whole estate comes to me, I’ll give you a decent allowance, but you needn’t think you’ll come in for any considerable share of the property.”
“Thank you,” said the girl, speaking dully, and almost as if she hadn’t heard the speech. But she had, and she continued: “It’s like you, Sarah, to be more stirred up about the property than about the death of your brother.”
Sarah Mersereau tossed her head.
“Oh, I feel sorry enough at Austin’s death, but I can’t help it, nor can I do anything toward finding the murderer. And I wouldn’t if I could,” she added, with a significant glance at Lorraine.
“You mean you think I did it. Well, plenty of others think so. But I didn’t—”
“Bah, of course you’d say you didn’t, if you did,” Louis Mersereau broke in. “Don’t bother to deny it to us. It carries no weight.”
Dinner was a farce. The three were at odds, yet they tried to be casual and pleasant in conversation.
In the evening the Kennedys came over from next door, but though they were most kind and sympathetic, they were of no real help to Lorraine and she was glad when they went.
She excused herself and went to her room early, and sat down to wait for eleven o’clock.
The Mersereaus, too, retired early, and by ten the house was in utter darkness and stillness.
At eleven, Lorraine donned a long, dark cape and going out the back hall door, betook herself to the pretty summer house known as the Rambler Arbor.
She left the door ajar, unlatched, that she might return, and with no thought of secrecy or stealth, she walked across the lawns to the arbor.
She found Grant Maxwell awaiting her, and as she entered he silently clasped her in his arms.
“Dearest,” he whispered, “don’t try to talk for a moment, just rest here.”
He drew her down to a seat, and in his embrace Lorraine rested, almost happily.
Soon she roused herself and said, “I’m better now, Grant. I’m strong enough to bear anything you may have to tell me. What is it? Must you give me up?”
“Don’t put it that way, Lorraine,” the man groaned. “I don’t know what to say or do. You know how I love you, how I want you, how glad I would be to fling to the winds every other consideration and think of you only.
“But I have to consider mother. Father, when he died, left her to me as a sacred trust, and bade me cherish and care for her all my life. I have done so. Aside from my natural affection for her, it has become second nature to me to consider mother’s preferences and to defer to her wishes in everything. I say, without any conceit or self-adulation, that I have continually sacrificed myself and my own desires for her wishes, even for her whims. She is exacting, but I have never ignored her demands nor refused her requests. And now, Lorraine, the time has come when I want to rebel, I want to defy her and turn to you and you only. But an innate sense of duty, of duty to my father as well as to my mother, keeps me chained—yes, chained to her side. I don’t know, darling, what is right. All my heart, my soul, my being calls out for you. Yet you know how mother feels about our engagement. What ought I to do?”
“I understand, Grant,” Lorraine said, softly, “I do understand, and I know just what you are suffering. But, there’s one thing, dearest, we must never lose sight of, and that’s our sense of duty, and intrinsic right. It is your duty, it is absolutely right that you should defer to your mother’s wishes, and though this will break my heart, I know it will break your heart, too—and that’s a comfort!”
A broken little laugh accompanied this speech that went straight to Grant’s heart as sobs or tears could not have done.
“Darling,” he said, holding her close, “I knew you’d understand.”
“I do understand, Grant, because it’s you,” she said; “another man might be making up all this duty talk to get out of a snarl himself. But not you.”
“No, sweetheart,” and Maxwell spoke gravely, “not I. I would be so glad to pick you up and carry you off that I wouldn’t care what happened afterward, but something even higher than love stands behind and prevents me—”
“I know, dear—duty is higher than love. It’s wrong that it should be so, but it is. Duty is higher and stronger than love—the best love—”
“Bless you for that, my darling! And forgive me for fearing you wouldn’t understand. Yes, Lorry, the best love is subservient to duty. And yet, this sounds priggish and stilted and—”
“And Sunday school bookish! I know it, but those are the things that are true after all. Now, Grant, consider all that settled, that you love me but that you are bound by all the laws of God and man to consider your mother first. Now, what are we going to do?”
“My blessed little girl, if you agree, we’re going to do just this. Live and love and hope. Hope that in the future—the near future, I can persuade mother to look at things differently. And, listen, Lorraine—if she doesn’t—if she continues obdurate, then, after a time, I shall feel privileged to take my own way in spite of all. I feel that a certain degree and time of deference is necessary, but I’m a man, and I must carve out my own life. If, after I’ve done all I can, she doesn’t come round to my way of thinking, then—then, my darling, I shall just take you in defiance of her dictum. That is, if you will wait—”
“Of course I’ll wait, Grant—as long as need be. But, dear, what about the immediate present?”
“That’s what I want to talk about. Old Stiles has it in for you.”
“I know it. But there’s a detective who’s staying down at the inn, and I’ve heard he’s fine. What do you think of getting him to look into things? Stiles—you know yourself, is—well, not abnormally clever.”
“He’s a numskull! Get the detective you speak of. If you haven’t the money, I’ll pay him. Of course, dear, all I have is yours—whatever happens.”
“I’d rather like to try that man—”
“Well, do. Get him tomorrow, and I’ll do all I can to help. Now that we understand one another, now that I know you have faith in me, I can stand anything.
“So can I. And I’ll ask that man to come to see me. Now, Grant, I must go in—it must be nearly midnight.”
It was midnight, but it was later yet when the lovers at last turned their steps toward the Eldridge house.
A sure understanding prevailed and they started, hand in hand, to ascend the steps of the back verandah with a peaceful, if not happy, outlook for the future.
As they went up the steps, absorbed in their own affectionate murmurings, Lorraine thought she saw a glimmer of light in the house.
As a matter of fact, Maxwell saw it, too, but he said nothing, not wishing to alarm her.
On they went, but as they reached the top step, a cloaked and hooded figure suddenly darted from the house, rushed past them and down the steps.
Maxwell drew Lorraine back into the shadow of a vine-clad pillar, and held her tightly by the arm.
“Who was that?” he cried, but in a hoarse whisper, as if the words were forced from his lips,
“I don’t know,” she returned, untruthfully, for she had seen clearly and recognized instantly the features of Mrs. Maxwell.
“Some one of the servants, no doubt,” he said, “Yes, probably. Everything is at loose ends in the house now.”
“Good night dear,” Grant said, holding her to him, but his voice trembled and he was quite upset.
“Good night, Grant. Don’t worry over anything —not over anything, for it will all come out right, sooner or later. I didn’t kill father and you didn’t. So let’s wait and see who did. Good night, beloved.”
Maxwell held her in his arms, kissed her good night, yet, as Lorraine sensed, he had changed, he was different.
She was sure then, he had seen and recognized his mother.
But she could do nothing—say nothing—so she let him go, with a final farewell kiss.
After Grant had gone, she lingered on the porch a moment before entering the house.
It was all so strange, and it was getting stranger.
Why was Mrs. Maxwell here so late at night?
But common sense told her there was but one reply. Mrs. Maxwell had, of course, come to see the Mersereaus. She had been so anxious to prevent any possible alliance between her son and the adopted daughter of Austin Eldridge that she had come to enlist the sympathies and services of the Mersereaus in her behalf. And had, doubtless, succeeded.
For the Mersereaus were none too kindly disposed toward Lorraine, and if no adoption papers were found, she, Lorraine, was an orphan, an outcast and generally persona non grata.
Except—and here Lorraine gave a happy smile —except for Grant Maxwell.
He, she knew, would never fail her, never forsake her.
And he was the only human being in the whole world she cared a pin about.
She softly opened the door and stepped into the hall.
The house was dark—but with her intuitive, almost clairvoyant sense, she turned toward the library.
There was no reason why she should do so, but on an imperative impulse, she snapped on the library light.
There, on the floor, lay the dead body of Lennox, the butler.
Lorraine looked at it, considered for a moment, and then went straight to the telephone.
She called up Grant Maxwell, and, getting him, said only, “I just wanted to say good night, dear. Everything is all right.”
Then, as he murmured an affectionate good night, she hung up the receiver, went up to her room and went to bed.
In her own room, Lorraine threw off her cape and sank into a chair, dazed.
What did it mean? What could it mean? Lennox dead, and Mrs. Maxwell rushing from the house!
Her one unconscious, involuntary impulse was to spare Grant, and that was why she had telephoned that all was right. A half formulated hope that thus the death of the butler would seem to have occurred after Mrs. Maxwell’s departure was at the back of her mind and she refused to look ahead.
She was sure no one had seen her go out or come in, and if the new mystery was not discovered until morning, it could not be connected with the visit of Mrs. Maxwell, even if that became known.
Lorraine tried to collect herself, tried to reconstruct the situation.
It was too awful to think that Mrs. Maxwell had killed the butler, yet, if she had done so, there was, of course, a plausible explanation.
If Mrs. Maxwell had come to the house secretly, as Lorraine now thought she had, it must have been on some errand connected with the private papers or business of Austin Eldridge.
The great financier had been so closely associated in business matters with many of the citizens of Shoredale, it would not be at all surprising if he had moneys or securities belonging to Mrs. Maxwell, which, for reasons of her own, she wished to obtain unknown to the lawyers or police.
This was all mere surmise, but Lorraine could think of no other explanation of the midnight visit. And she was positive that the veiled woman was Mrs. Maxwell. She only hoped that Grant had not recognized his mother, and hoped that her false telephone message would lead him away from any thought of a connection between his mother’s visit and the death of Lennox, if he had recognized her.
Yet it seemed impossible to think of Mrs. Maxwell as a murderess—though if she had been surprised in her search by the servant, might she not have snatched up a paper cutter and stabbed the man in a sudden rage?
For it was a paper cutter, a sharp, steel-bladed one that had killed the butler. Lorraine had seen that in her swift glance as she entered the room.
She had not leaned down or touched the body, but the picture was clearly graven on her mind. A sudden thought struck her—suppose Lennox was not dead! Suppose he was badly wounded and unconscious but still alive!
Was it not her duty to see about that?
She trembled all over at the thought of going down stairs again, but as she tried to persuade herself it was none of her business, she became more and more sure that it was.
With a sigh, she rose, and flinging off her dress, put on a kimono, loosened her hair, and taking a small flash light, she went down to the library.
The body lay there, just as she had left it, and forcing herself to place her hand on the brow, she felt sure the man was really dead. She could not bring herself to feel his heart, but she could see no movement of breathing, and she knew he would never breathe again.
She looked about the room, casting her light on the desk and cabinets, and she noted that there were many loose papers strewn about. It seemed strange that the effects of Austin Eldridge should be left thus, to the mercy of any passing observer, and involuntarily, Lorraine gathered up some and put them neatly away.
She closed the desk and locked it, leaving the key in the lock, but feeling that, at least, she had shown a proper care of the papers and letters.
Her mind worked rapidly. Should she alarm the house now, or return to her room and wait till morning for the body to be found.
She concluded less harm would be done by the latter course, and extinguishing her flashlight, she returned softly upstairs, her slippered feet making no sound on the thick rugs.
Again in her room, she was filled with misgivings as to the wisdom of her course. Yet, she argued to herself, she could do no good to Lennox or to any one else by raising the alarm at once, and a delay might be helpful to Mrs. Maxwell, if that lady were implicated in the new tragedy.
How could she be? And yet how could she not be?
Lorraine tried to think that the escaping woman might be some one other than the one she suspected, but she knew it was Mrs. Maxwell. That lady’s majestic mien and aristocratic carriage were quite in evidence, notwithstanding the fact that she was making a surreptitious escape.
Her one hope was that Grant had not recognized his mother. He must, of course, have done so, had he seen her, but Lorraine was hoping he did not see her as Lorraine was really between the pair at the moment of passing. And it was very dark, and Grant was absorbed in Lorraine herself. So, she concluded, it might well be that he did not know of his mother’s presence on the verandah.
She went to bed, but, naturally, could not sleep.
Who could sleep with the knowledge of such a terrible secret, that must be disclosed when the first servant came downstairs in the morning?
And who would be the first one? Always, heretofore, it had been Lennox. His step on the stair frequently woke her, and later would come Milliken and Jane. Essie, the pert, came last, always.
Toward dawn she fell into a restless, troubled sleep, and was wakened from it by Milliken bending over her.
“Wake up, Miss Lorry, dear,” she said, “there’s more terribleness afoot. That Lennox, now, he’s gone and got hisself killed! Just when we needed him so much too. Get up, Miss Lorry, do.”
“Lennox! Who killed him?”
“Lord knows who killed him—but he’s as dead as a doornail. A lyin’ right on the libry floor—of all places! I s’pose some burglar curmudgeon was snoopin’ among Mr. Eldridge’s valuables and Len, he went to see about it, and the vilyun stob him. He used that sharp daggerish paper-cutter, a thing which no Christian oughta keep lyin’ around, as I’ve often enough told Mr. Eldridge—that I have!”
“Is Aunt Sarah down there?”
“She’s a dressin’, and so’s Mr. Mersereau. I told them about it, and then I went and told Essie and then Jane—me, for all the world like a Paul Revere goin’ about tellin’ everybody! But now, Miss Lorry, what ’re we to do with Lennox—what’s left of him?”
“Oh the same proceeding.” Lorraine had thought it out. “Telephone to Doctor Rhodes, and then call the police. Tell Lennox—oh, my gracious, Milliken, I can’t realize he’s dead! What shall we do for a butler?”
“Don’t worry about that, I know a man who’ll be glad to oblige for a time. But the terrible police back here again, Miss Lorry, and the inquestin’ and all that—oh, what a scramdoodle!”
“Go on down, Milliken,” Lorraine said, quietly. “Get breakfast—you and Jane can manage it, or make Essie help, but get it. We all must have our meals regularly whatever happens.”
“That’s so, and so it is,” declared Milliken, and she disappeared.
Deeply thoughtful, Lorraine put on her black frock and went down stairs just as Doctor Rhodes appeared at the front door.
“Another!” he said, gravely, and with a sombre face, Lorraine repeated.
Rhodes went to the library, made a brief but careful examination and returned to Lorraine, who had staid in the hall.
“Stabbed with that wicked, long-bladed paper-cutter,” he said. “Death instantaneous. Who did it?”
“Milliken surmises a burglar, come to steal some of father’s valuables or money.”
“It’s too terrible!” Sarah Mersereau exclaimed, as she came downstairs, “I never heard of such a house! First my brother, and now this man! We may all be murdered in our beds any night!”
Louis Mersereau followed his wife down and as breakfast was then announced they all went to the dining room, including Doctor Rhodes, and in a few moments the police came.
Stiles, of course, took the lead, and as he bustled about the library he exclaimed, “No burglar—but somebody interested in these papers personally. Somebody who wanted certain papers and got ’em, most likely, and then put all these others neatly back in the desk and went away.”
“Having already killed the butler?” asked Bennett.
“Having already killed the butler,” Stiles agreed. “Lennox got killed because he was in the way, because he was doing his duty and looking after things. But the intruder—may have been more’n one, couldn’t stand for his interference, and so stabbed him with the first thing that came handy.”
“H’m,” said Bennett, “and who did the stabbing.”
“We can tell that when we see what papers are missing,” Stiles replied, curtly. “But first, I’ll have to ask a few questions of the house people. They get tired of being questioned, I shouldn’t wonder!” So Stiles went to the dining room, and in an endeavor to make as little trouble as possible, began to ask all and sundry, what they knew of the death of the butler.
One and all, these at the table denied all knowledge of any disturbance in the night. The Mersereaus declared they had gone up to their rooms by or before ten o’clock. Lorraine said that she, too, had gone up as early as that. And all three denied having left their rooms between that time and morning.
The servants, called in, gave similar stories.
“That Lennox,” Milliken said, “that Lennox, he always locks up everything and shuts up the house for the night. He did—I heard him, after I’d gone to bed myself. He locked all the doors and windows and he goes off to his own room. I heard him—”
“At what time?” interrupted Stiles.
“Long about half past ten. Then, you see, later on, that Lennox, he must a heard some sound—somebody gettin’ in—and he went downstairs to see about it.”
This was all distinctly plausible, for the body of the butler was garbed in night clothes, with a pair of trousers drawn on and a pair of felt slippers on his bare feet.
Clearly he had been doing his duty when he met his death.
“Now, all that remains is to find out who did it.” said Stiles, oracularly.
Somehow his manner and tone jarred on Lorraine. She felt that he would make no greater success of this investigation that he had of her father’s death.
Moreover, her thoughts during her sleepless hours of the night had been inclined toward the detective of whom Edward Miles had spoken to her.
What had Stiles ever done? She had known him for years, he was self-confident, sanguine, almost bumptious, but rarely did he make any success.
And now, with two deaths to be cleared up, Lorraine felt she would prefer a clever, skilled investigator to the conceited but stupid Stiles.
She was roused from these thoughts by the realization that Essie was saying something—or rather was being urged to say something.
They were all in the dining room, and Stiles was worrying Essie, much as a playful dog would worry a small kitten.
“Come, now, come, now—” he said, “you hesitated when I asked you if you saw or heard anything unusual last night. Come, now, what did you see?”
“N-nothing,” stammered Essie with an expression of face that would not have deceived a baby.
“Yes, you did—your very hesitation gives you away. Now, what did you see? Answer me!”
Thus adjured, Essie, very much scared, stammered out, “I saw Miss Lorraine go down into the garden about eleven o’clock.”
Milliken flared up. “You and your curiosity! Essie, you saw nothing of the sort.”
“I did, too—she went to the arbor to meet Mr. Maxwell.”
“I did,” Lorraine broke in, speaking with dignity. “I had a perfect right to. I made no secret of it. I went out to the Rambler Arbor to meet my fiance and have a quiet talk with him. Was there anything wrong in that?”
“No, Miss Eldridge,” Stiles said, “there wasn’t. And when did you return?”
“About midnight,” said Lorraine, carelessly.
“And when you returned you saw no signs of a disturbance?”
“None,” she said, steadily.
“Then the murder must have been committed after you went up to your room,” Stiles declared.
“So far as I can judge,” Doctor Rhodes said, judicially, “the murder took place about midnight. It may have been shortly before or shortly after. Not long either way. So, Miss Eldridge may easily have come into the house and gone up to her room just before the crime.”
“Easily,” agreed Stiles.
But the Mersereaus looked dubious.
“It would seem that Lorraine was around the house at about the time the murder was done,” Sarah vouchsafed.
“Yes,” I must have been,” Lorraine acquiesced, with no trace of excitement.
“Essie, what else did you see?” Stiles asked, suddenly.
The girl fairly jumped.
“Nothing, sir,” she said.
“Yes, you did. You are one of those transparent people who can’t tell a lie successfully. So you needn’t try. Now, then, what did you see?”
“Stop that!” Stiles looked threatening. “Tell it out!”
“Well, then—I saw—I saw Miss Lorraine come down stairs again—after she had went up to bed.”
“Did you do this?” Stiles turned to Lorraine.
It was the crucial point. Should she tell the truth or not? Would not her word hold against a foolish girl like Essie? She hesitated only a moment, then said, “No, after I went up to bed, I staid there till morning, when Milliken woke me.”
“Sure I did, the blessed lamb!” Milliken exclaimed. “And her a sleepin’ like a baby. Essie, you gabble too much. You don’t know what you’re talkin’ about.”
From Stiles’ face, Lorraine saw he was determined to carry this matter further, but not at the present moment.
He turned on his heel and left the room, doubtless to think over and decide upon his next line of attack.
Lorraine had not the slightest doubt he thought her guilty not only of her father’s death, but the death of Lennox as well. And with her usual quickness of decision she concluded to send at once for the great detective of whom the Miles lad had told her.
This plan she confided to no one, and going to an extension telephone she managed to get Mrs. Miles.
To her she said that if the man whom Edward had spoken of would come to see her she would be very glad.
And that’s how it came about that Peter Thorne, self-made detective, came to see Miss Lorraine Eldridge that very afternoon.
“It’s this way,” said Lorraine, after they had got down to business, “I am suspected of the death of my father and now of our butler. I am not guilty of either, and I want you to prove that to the satisfaction—yes, and consternation of those who believe it true.”
“If you didn’t commit those murders, it will be easy to prove it,” said Peter Thorne, and his deep-set, very dark eyes looked into her own. He was of a forceful manner and his voice, though kindly and pleasantly modulated, had a steely ring, that betokened justice before all else.
This pleased Lorraine, who was sick of Stiles’ sycophancy and insincerity.
“The trouble is,” she said, “the police think I’m guilty, my relatives here think I’m guilty, the servants in the house—except, perhaps, the housekeeper, think I’m guilty. How do I know I’m not guilty?”
“I know it,” Peter Thorne smiled, “and that’s enough for us both.”
“Can you prove it?” asked Lorraine, slowly.
“I can prove any truth,” said Thorne, positively. “And this is truth, you tell me?”
“It is the truth,” said Lorraine, solemnly.
“Then to begin,” said Thorne, “What about that finger print on the white paint of the porch pillar?”
“You know about that?”
“Oh, of course, I know all about the case. I mean, I know all that has been made public, or semipublic. You see, I’m staying at the inn for a few weeks’ vacation, and I hear talk from all sides. They’ve never found out to whom that finger print belonged?”
“Oh, no. In fact, many think that it was put there purposely to mislead—to put the police on the wrong track, you know.”
“Yes, that may be true. Now, Miss Eldridge, if I’m going to take up this case, I must ask you straightforward questions.”
“Go ahead, Mr. Thorne.”
“Then, to start with, what is your relationship to the late Austin Eldridge?”
“But, Mr. Thorne, that is just what I don’t know.”
“You don’t know? Explain, please.”
“Here’s the explanation in a nutshell. My father —I always called him that, led me to believe through all my childhood and early girlhood, that I was his daughter. When Mr. Grant Maxwell asked father’s permission to marry me, dad felt it was necessary to tell him that I was not a real daughter, but an adopted one. This made no difference to my fiance, but greatly disturbed his mother, who did not and does not want her son to marry an adopted child.”
“But your father knew your parentage and all that?”
“I think he did, and I think he had taken out legal adoption papers, but we can’t find any such documents, and so—”
“And so that’s why they think you were hunting for them last night, and stabbed the butler because he interfered!”
“Good Heavens, Mr. Thorne, I hadn’t thought of that. Maybe they do think that—but it isn’t true. It isn’t!”
“No, I’m sure it isn’t. But give me more facts. If these adoption papers were duly made out and properly in your father’s possession, where would they likely be now?”
“I don’t know. But probably in some safe deposit box, or—possibly in some secret drawer of his desk or filing cabinet.”
“Have you looked?”
Lorraine gave him a quick glance. This was a feeler.
“No,” she said, with dignity, “I have not looked. I suppose you think, like all the rest, that I was poking around to find those last night when poor Lennox got killed. Well, I wasn’t. But I don’t mind admitting I should like to find them.”
“Of course, of course you would. Now, Miss Eldridge, when you came in last night, and found the butler’s dead body, why did you not give the alarm at once?”
Lorraine stared at him.
“What?” she said, in a whisper.
“You heard me,” he returned, “but I will repeat it,” and he did.
“Why—why—now, look here Mr. Thorne, there are other people implicated in this thing beside myself.”
“Yes, I know it. That’s why I ask this. Whom are you shielding?”
“Oh, my heavens and earth! Why do you think I’m shielding anybody?”
“You must be—!”
“Very well, it’s my Aunt Sarah.”
“That’s an awful whopper, but it doesn’t matter since it’s said only to me. Listen, Miss Eldridge, you and I can’t get along at all, unless we’re frank and truthful. You are suspected of crime. You didn’t commit it. You want me to free you from suspicion. Well. This I can do, but only if you are absolutely truthful. See?”
“Suppose,” she said, slowly, “suppose I tell you everything.”
“Suppose you do,” he said, gravely.
And then Lorraine told him, truthfully, of the happenings of the night before. Told of her going to the arbor at eleven to meet Grant Maxwell, told of their coming home and, on the porch, of her seeing the veiled woman, whom she knew to be Mrs. Maxwell. Told of her hope and belief that Grant had not recognized his mother, and then went on to tell how she had come into the house, and seeing the dead butler, had immediately telephoned Grant that all was right.
“But why did you do that?” cried Thorne, astonished.
“Because, otherwise, if he had seen his mother and recognized her, he would have wondered what she had been up to over here. And as it is, when he hears of Lennox’s death, he won’t connect his mother with it, because I telephoned him everything was all right.”
“I see,” said Peter Thorne.
“And so,” Lorraine went on, “I concluded to call you in. You see, if I’m finally adjudged a daughter and the heir to Austin Eldridge’s fortune, of course, I can pay you, if not—that is, if I’m out of it all—Grant Maxwell will pay you—he said he would. But I want you to get at the truth.”
“Don’t worry, Miss Eldridge,” Thorne spoke sincerely. “It will be all right. Detective work is my bread and butter, but when I strike an especial case like this—I may say a unique case—the idea of remuneration is lost, utterly lost, in the interest of the chase.”
“Good for you, Mr. Thorne,” Lorraine exclaimed, “that’s the way I feel. And I want to tell you you’ll have a hard row to hoe, for the ramifications and side issues of my father’s business connections are legion. But none of his business enemies killed him. I’m sure of that.”
“So am I,” agreed Thorne heartily.
“How can you be so sure?”
“Only because I’ve kept in touch with all the developments. I know as much as Stiles knows. I was determined not to take any public interest in the case unless asked to do so, but I’ve watched developments all the way along, and I know where the whole matter stands.’’
“And where does it stand?” asked Lorraine.
“If you mean what is the solution of the whole mystery, I can’t say as yet,” was the grave reply. “But I know you didn’t kill your father, nor did you kill the butler, so, at least, we have those facts to stand on.”
“Were the two victims killed by the same murderer?” asked Lorraine, wonderingly.
“No,” said Peter Thorne, positively—“I don’t know all the details yet, but they were not. I can assure you of that.”
“Then there are two murderers to be found,” said Lorraine.
“There are two murderers to be found,” echoed Peter Thorne, solemnly.
“And you will find them?” she asked.
“I will find them,” he replied.
But when Peter Thorne went back to the inn, and when he sat down by himself to think matters over, he began to fear he had spoken too positively.
Why had he told Miss Eldridge he would find those two murderers when he didn’t know whether he would do so or not? Why had he shown such a cocksure attitude, when, as yet, he had very little evidence and few, if any, clues to work upon?
Moreover, he well knew that the police would not welcome his interference in what they considered their own domain. Always were they annoyed at the advent of a special or private inquiry agent.
However, he had wanted to get into the case, and now he had done so. If there were any unpleasant consequences, he must stand them. And he meant to do his best. Surely, in such a complicated tangle as the Eldridge case seemed to be, there was scope for fine work, room for individual cleverness and ingenuity, and possibly a chance to succeed where the police might fail.
Imbued with the spirit of his chosen profession, filled with eagerness to begin the chase, Peter Thorne commenced to map out his campaign.
A slight tap at his door was followed by an impetuous entrance of Ed Miles.
“Oh, gee,” he exclaimed, “so you’re going to take on the Eldridge case! Can I help you, oh, say, Mr. Thorne, can I—”
“What can you do to help?” and Peter Thorne smiled at him quizzically.
“Oh, lots of things. You’ll want somebody to run errands or watch people, shadow ’em, you know. And you’ll want somebody to talk over things with, like Sherlock Holmes talked to Watson. Don’t you see how much help I can be? Any way, do let me try. Why, I can keep you posted on all sorts of outside talk that you’d never get a chance to hear yourself.”
“There’s something in what you say, lad,” and Thorne looked ruminative. “Yet I don’t want you to become a professional eavesdropper, a listener at keyholes, and all that.”
“No, no, not that, Mr. Thorne. But often I hear my dad and his friends talking over the case— they never pay any attention to me—and I could get pointers from them.”
“Well, suppose you try it on. I doubt, myself, if you pick up anything of value that way, but you might do so. You’re only a boy, Miles, but seventeen is not so very young after all, and I do believe you have the impulse of a detective.”
“Oh, I have, I know I have. Now, you tell me first, Mr. Thorne, what you’ve done, so far.”
Ed Miles sat bolt upright in his chair. His eyes shone with interest, and he gripped his hands together in the intensity of his excitement.
Thorne smiled a little.
“You’ll be disappointed to learn I’ve done practically nothing, and what I have done I’ve probably done wrong.”
“No, I can’t believe that—but, spill it.”
“Then, all I’ve done is to tell Miss Eldridge that I will discover the identity of the men who killed her father and her butler.”
“Men? Then you don’t think the same chap did for both?”
“I told Miss Eldridge I didn’t, but since telling her I’ve regretted it. Maybe I spoke too quickly—”
“What difference, anyway, if one man or two did those murders, we’ve got to find out both answers and if it’s the same man, who cares?”
“That’s true, Miles, and I think, that I’ll begin at the latter end. I mean I’ll try to learn who killed Lennox, and that may be indicative of the other criminal—or the same one in his double role.”
“Yes,” the youngster spoke sagely, “you’d better begin at the Lennox end, because you’re in it now, and you can get all the data of that part of it. You weren’t on deck when Mr. Eldridge was killed and so had no chance to investigate properly. What do you think about Lennox?”
“Either that he was prowling among Mr. Eldridge’s papers or that some one else was. In either case the other person was angry or afraid or both and stabbed the man to save his own skin.”
“Looks more like the other man was doing the snooping and Lennox came down to see what was up.”
“Yes, it looks that way, but the obvious is not always the truth. Now, to find the other man. There’s no use surmising and guessing, we’ve got to get some definite evidence or some unmistakable clue to the real intruder.”
“How are you going to do that?”
“Here’s one thing. Whoever was there, was interested in Mr. Eldridge’s private papers. That we may set down as a certainty. Now, from what I gather, there are plenty of people in Shoredale who are interested in those papers, and would be mighty glad to get hold of a few of them which are more or less incriminating. I sha’n’t go into the matter at all, unless I can have a free hand with those papers. Then I shall know, at least, which way to look. And another thing, granting somebody was there in the night, and that he was surprised by Lennox, and that he stabbed him to get rid of him, it is very strange that he should deliberately pick up and put away so neatly the rest of the papers. They are more carefully arranged than they were before the occurrence.”
“How do you know this? You weren’t there before the occurrence.”
“Good point, Miles! Well taken. As a matter of fact, Stiles told me. On leaving Miss Eldridge this afternoon, I dropped in on Stiles and told him frankly that I had been employed by that lady.”
“Was he mad?”
“That reminds me of the story of the man who said to his neighbor:
‘I’ve just shot my dog—had to do it.’ ‘Was he mad?’ asked the neighbor. ‘Well,’ said the man, ‘he didn’t seem any too well pleased.’ And that’s like Stiles; he didn’t say much, but he didn’t seem any too well pleased. However, Miss Eldridge has engaged me, it’s my first chance at a really big case, and I shall go into it determined to do my best. Now I’m going to have an early supper and go over to the Eldridge house and shut myself into that library, and do all I can to make it give up some secrets. I don’t for a minute expect to find a broken cuff-link or a monogrammed handkerchief, but I do hope to get some illuminating clue—some straw that will at least hint which way the wind blows.”
“Can I go with you?”
“Not this time, boy. Perhaps later, but tonight, I must be alone there and I can’t help feeling I’ll find something.”
“All right, then I’ll hang around Dad, and like as not, I’ll get some bits of news that might help you.”
“Don’t make yourself a nuisance, and above all, don’t say anything to make them think you’re interested.”
“Not I. I’ll just listen in while they’re talking.”
Later, as Thorne took his way over to the Eldridge home, he wondered whether he had been wise in making a confidant of the Miles boy. But Thorne was a good judge of character, and he felt sure Ed Miles could help him. Besides, he was a bit lonely —he had made few friends in Shoredale, and he wanted some one to talk to. The boy, even if not of much help, was at least, sympathetic and interested, and that, Thorne felt, was far better than being officious and inclined to advise, which an older man would doubtless be.
Besides, though he had affected otherwise to Miles, Thorne did want the boy to gather any side lights he could from the conversation of the people at the inn.
The elder Miles was a good mixer, and talked breezily with all sorts of men and he was so accustomed to having his son sit by his side and listen, that he would give it no second thought.
So Thorne strode along, thinking that he would do anything in his power to help that lovely girl, and thinking that a thorough search through Eldridge’s papers must give him some knowledge that would be good to work upon.
When he reached the house he found the family had just sat down to dinner and though Lorraine came out to greet him, he refused to keep her a moment from the table.
“Just shut me into the library,” he begged, “and let me shift for myself.”
She took him at his word, and in a few moments, Peter Thorne found himself alone with the papers and documents that must represent, in part, at least, the recent activities of Austin Eldridge.
Elated, he took a preliminary survey.
One large secretary desk, at which, quite evidently, Eldridge habitually sat, was full of pigeon holes and enclosed compartments, all of which were fairly stuffed with papers.
“Why did he keep so many?” Thorne asked himself in surprise, for as he pulled out some here and there, they seemed of small importance,
A further glance soon showed him that great financier and powerful promoter that Eldridge had been, he was woefully lacking in all sense of order or system regarding the filing of his papers.
There were filing cabinets, filing boxes, filing envelopes, but these, too were bursting with unsorted papers, and unfiled documents.
It had all the effect of the workshop of a man who always means to clear up and straighten out things, but who never gets at it.
Thorne looked around with the deepest interest.
He, himself, was of a most methodical and systematic nature. It was no special credit to him, he always said; he kept things in order, because it was easier for him to do so than to have them in a mess.
But for a man of wide business interests, of enormous responsibilities to himself and to others, to keep things in this inextricable jumble was almost unbelievable.
Yet his chosen task was at hand. To bring order out of this chaos, to bring neatness and tidiness out of this riot, was what he intended to do and intended to enjoy doing. His principal object, to discover clues bearing on the crimes under investigation, was almost lost sight of in a sudden irresistible desire to classify and tabulate all the material at hand.
And then, what might he not find? A man like that would keep such important matters as his will, or the adoption papers of his daughter, in the very midst of the mélee.
Tentatively, he picked up the nearest papers to him.
They were an unpaid tailor’s bill, a circular of a Wall Street broker’s office, and an appealing letter for aid to an organized charity.
Quite evidently part of the last mail the poor man received, yet equally likely to be left over from past weeks.
Two pigeon holes were filled with papers smoothly and neatly laid in.
These, Thorne at once concluded, had been stacked up and put there by the intruder who had been searching there the night before, who had been surprised by Lennox, and in fear of exposure had stabbed him with one of the many paper cutters lying about.
“Then,” Thorne argued to himself, “there may be finger marks on these letters which may point to the marauder—”
Even as he looked at the envelopes, he saw many finger marks, quite evidently made by the same hand, certainly, then, by the one who had gathered them up. The prints were not crimson, nor were they made by soiled fingers. Indeed, many an experienced detective might have overlooked them. But Peter Thorne had made a most complete and exhaustive study of this science, and he saw all the faint, similar prints with a trained eye.
And, he saw, too, that their delicacy and smallness betokened the hand of a woman. Could it then, have been Mrs. Maxwell who came for some incriminating papers, and in self-protection, from the results of her rash visit, had killed Lennox?
All this, he concluded, would be made known by a thorough reading of the letters. Even if Mrs. Maxwell had come to get—say—old letters of her own, and he could understand a society woman doing such a thing—even so, it was extremely doubtful that she could get them all—in that heterogeneous litter.
And this meant, or might mean, that some were left—enough, maybe, to prove Mrs. Maxwell’s motive for a midnight visit to obtain them.
To be sure, this was all surmise, even imagination, but Thorne proposed to put it to the test that very night. He felt sure Stiles would not come over in the evening, and if he could persuade Lorraine— and he felt sure he could—to let him stay there as late as he chose, he thought he could make a clean sweep, even if it took him till daylight to do so.
So, seating himself in Austin Eldridge’s own swivel chair, he carefully laid aside the envelopes that showed the small finger prints, though he thoroughly investigated their contents.
A bunch of keys was in one of the small drawers, and as he had no scruples against using them, he soon learned that they opened all of the locked places, unless, indeed, there might be some secret hidings places, or sliding panels of which he, as yet, knew nothing.
The moments flew by, and Thorne sat, absorbed. At times a flash of remorse or self reproach would interrupt his work, then he would quickly remember that if he didn’t do this thing, Stiles or Crosby would, and he knew—he knew he could do it better than they.
As he rapidly opened a paper and scanned its contents, he would lay it on one of three piles which he dubbed, to himself, unimportant, important, and vital.
The first pile was by far the largest of the three, the second pile of lesser size, and the third pile, as yet, contained less than half a dozen documents. But Peter Thorne’s face had grown very serious and he had a look of amazement in his deep, dark blue eyes that portended thoughts on grave matters.
An hour passed, the family had concluded their simple dinner, and the two Mersereaus had gone out to the porch to enjoy the soft summer evening.
“Is your friend going to stay all night?” asked Sarah, as she noted the closed door of the library.
“I don’t know,” said Lorraine, simply. She had told them of her decision to make use of the services of this detective, and though they had expressed disapproval, it was merely on principle, as they would have expressed disapproval of anything Lorraine did.
“You see,” the girl said, “he may find my legal adoption papers—”
“If they’re there, Mr. Crosby could find them,” said Sarah, snappishly.
“He could, but he hasn’t done so. For nearly a week, Mr. Crosby has been fussing among father’s papers without finding anything at all of importance. Now, if Mr. Thorne finds that I am legally the daughter of Austin Eldridge—”
She paused, for the Mersereaus understood, and Lorraine had no wish to annoy them unnecessarily.
She had always loved Austin Eldridge, but that, she held, gave his sister no claim on her affections, and as for Louis Mersereau, he was the type of man Lorraine liked least of all kinds.
Yet since the three had to live together for the immediate present, they had agreed to be friendly in manner, even if the feeling were not a deep one.
And, too, the Mersereaus knew that there was no room for argument or expression of opinion. Eldridge had brought up Lorraine to think herself his legally adopted daughter and his principal heir. But if the adoption papers could not be found, then Sarah Mersereau must inherit.
It was a matter of future disclosure, and until the question was settled nothing could be done, and as a matter of policy, Sarah meant to be friendly with her niece, as she persisted in calling Lorraine.
So the pair went out to the porch, and Lorraine went to the library and tapped at the door.
“Come in,” said Peter, smiling, as he laid down his cigarette. “I’ve been absorbed—I say, what a jolly untidy chap your father was, eh? Look at the way papers are stuffed into every available space! No law or order here! I’m only just making a beginning.”
“Then you’ve found out nothing as yet?”
“Nothing bearing on the mystery—either of the mysteries. But I’ve found out a lot of things. Look here, Miss Eldridge, you’re sure, aren’t you, that you want me to go on with this? For, I warn you, your father was a man of various and sundry natures— I mean he was mixed up in all sorts of ways with all sorts of people.”
“Nothing actually dishonest, if that’s what you mean—but, well, let us say, questionable. You see, he wasn’t really your father, so you can’t take the matter too much to heart, but Austin Eldridge had good reason for having a horde of enemies.”
“I’m—I’m sorry,” and Lorraine looked so wistful, so pitiably sad, that Thorne hastened to modify his statements.
“Now, now, he was no embezzler or forger, or any such wrong doer. But he—oh, I say, you don’t want details, do you, now?”
“Not now,” she returned, impulsively. “You go on, Mr. Thorne, and finish this task you’ve set yourself. Then—and here’s the gist of the matter—then, if I am proved to be his daughter, I mean legally adopted, and his heir, then I will take up this question, and I will do all in my power to save his reputation and honor his name. But, if no papers are found, if I am forced to the conclusion that he never took out such papers—he was careless and dilatory in many ways, then, in those circumstances, I shall not care to know about his past doings, whether good or bad.”
“Spoken like a brick!” Thorne cried. “Now Miss Lorraine, I’m right in the thick of it, and I’d like to put it through at one sitting. I think I can do it tonight, but it may mean my being here very late—”
“I hope no one will come in and stab you,” she said, and her wan little smile made her speech more serious than joking.
“No one will come, with evil intent,” he assured her, gently, “and if you will let your servants know of the arrangement, they will not walk in on me.”
“I will tell them. We have a new man in Lennox’s place. He is strange, as yet, but he seems willing and capable. Have you noticed the great number of paper-cutters and letter-openers there are about?”
“Yes, was it a hobby of your father’s?”
“One of his many hobbies. He loved to collect, but only odd and unusual things. He never collected books or pictures, though he owned many fine ones, but he had a passion for all kinds of library fittings. Penholders—I believe he has a hundred, valuable ones. Inkstands by the dozen, of all sorts of materials and workmanship. And of late, paperweights have been his fad.”
“I see many around the room, some of rare beauty and value.”
“Yes, but he was most fond of the old-fashioned type known as ‘Millefleurs.’ Do you know those?”
“Are they not the round glass ball, filled with flowers or shells, and mounted on a small slab of marble?”
“Yes, that kind. Well, there is a certain form of those things that represents a snowstorm—”
“Oh, I know! You turn it upside down, and when you turn it back a veritable little snowstorm descends on the landscape. I saw one when I was a child, but I’ve never seen one since.”
“No wonder, for they are exceedingly rare— that is the genuinely old ones. There are modern reproductions, but my father did not care for those, though even those are scarce.”
“Are you sure they are so very rare?”
“Yes, and I’ll tell you why. The glass globe is filled with some very volatile fluid, alcohol or ether or something, and glycerine, too, I’m told, and the snowflakes are tiny specks of wax. Now the ball cannot be made absolutely airtight, and the contents after a few years disintegrate. Then the whole affair is spoiled. Mr. Crosby is as fond of these things as father was, and they used to talk over them together by the hour. I will show you one that father possessed, that Mr. Crosby really coveted. If I am the heir, I am going to give it to Mr. Crosby, for he does so long for it.”
From a cupboard, Lorraine brought forth the trinket in question. It was a clear glass ball, and contained, in the background, a lighthouse, and a cottage nearby. The foreground was sea, on which a tiny sailboat showed. The coloring was bright and attractive, and in the lighthouse gleamed a red light.
With a smile, Lorraine quickly turned the thing over and then back and set it on the table.
Like two children they watched the snow come down in whirling clouds, then slowly grow less and less in volume, until it gradually cleared away and the atmosphere was clear again.
“Fascinating!” exclaimed Thorne, “let me do it.”
Again and again they experimented with the bauble, and Thorne declared he did not wonder at Mr. Eldridge’s penchant for the things.
“He has a large collection,” Lorraine said, “but this is the only one that snows. I’ll leave it here, it may amuse you.”
“Won’t the servants try it and spoil it?”
“Oh, no, they never touch things, except to dust. Nobody will disturb it. Nobody will know what it is. Now, tell me, shall I send you in a lunch, and at what time? I’m not going to stay here and chatter, for you need all your time for your work.”
“I do, though I’d like nothing better than to chatter with you. Yes, if you please, you may send me a plate of sandwiches and a pot of coffee at the servants’ bedtime. Tell them to tap three times, and I will take it in. I don’t propose to open the door to any one else. I’m very much in earnest, and this promises to be a long job. Good night, Miss Eldridge, and thank you.”
With a pleasant smile and a moment’s clasp of his hand, she was gone.
“Well,” Peter Thorne said to himself, “if I fall in love with the pretty Lorraine, that would be a nice kettle of fish, wouldn’t it? I must guard against that, of all things.”
He sat down again to his work. But the spell had been broken. He lay back in his chair musing. His eye fell on the snowstorm paperweight, and he gave it a turn and idly watched the snow.
Suddenly he started. The glass was covered with finger prints. His own and hers.
Silently he reached for his fingerprint outfit, which he had brought in his bag. Silently and gravely he copied and developed the prints, and then did the same with the small and dainty prints that he had found on that bundle of letters in the desk. They were identical.
So, Lorraine Eldridge had stacked away so neatly those letters. That would seem to let out Mrs. Maxwell—or didn’t it? His brain was awhirl.
Nothing proved up, everything was possible, probable, plausible, but nothing was positive.
He was sure of his fingerprint work. He had made an exhaustive study of that. He knew more about it than almost any man in the country, and from it he hoped to prove anything he might suspect in the Eldridge case.
But if everything was going to rebound to Lorraine, did he want to go on?
But going on was what he was there for—so Peter Thorne went on.
Ben Browning was just opening the door of his hospitable inn for the admission of all and sundry who might care to enter. It was only shortly after sunrise, but Ben was of the early bird variety, and held an opinion that servants wouldn’t do their work properly unless the master was around to keep an eye or two on them.
And as the jolly, red faced innkeeper stepped out on his front piazza, he saw one of his own boarders approaching.
“Hello, Mr. Thorne,” he called out. “You’re late, getting home so early! Where you been?”
“I daresay you know. I’m of a notion that you had something to do about getting me mixed up in this murder business—and a bad business it is, to be sure.”
“Yes, it is that, first old Eldridge, and now his man. And a good man, Lennox was. No shady side to that chap. Too bad he had to get bumped off. What you makin’ of the case anyhow?”
“Not much, so far. It’s full of complications as—”
“As Austin Eldridge’s life. I’ll bet there’s hardly a man in Shoredale with any money, that is, who wasn’t more or less mixed up with Eldridge.”
“Did Mr. Eldridge fleece them?”
“N-no, I wouldn’t say that, but they jest naturally gravitated to him. If they wanted to invest money, or borrow money, or make money—ay, or lose money, they drifted to Eldridge like the needle to the pole. Queer—he didn’t seem to invite them, or decoy them or anything like that, but they jest went.”
“And what was the result? Disaster?”
“Not always. Austin Eldridge was no rascal. Lots of times he helped people I know to make fine investments, and get rich offen ’em. Then, sometimes they’d fail—not through any fault of Mr. Eldridge’s. And sometimes the shoe would be on the other foot. I mean the men would give Eldridge something he wanted, ’stead of gettin’ a favor.”
“Such as what, for instance?”
“Well, the minister, Doctor Ives. He was going to read a poor girl outa church—you know what I mean, discommunicate her, or somethin’ like that. Eldridge, he went to see the Dominie about it, and persuaded him to forgive the girl, and let her stay in the Bible Class and Sewin’ Circle and all that. ’Course she could stay all right and proper if the minister stood for it, and he did. And to square off, Eldridge gave a lot of money to the church and a small passel besides, to the dominie himself. I got all that from my wife, the women told her, and I know it’s true.”
“Was Mr. Eldridge in any way responsible for the girl’s being censured in the first place?”
Ben Browning vouchsafed a wink.
“Who knows?” he said, with a shrug. “’Course we all drew our own conclusions. Then there’s Crosby. I guess it’s give and take between those two.”
“Why, right along, for years, whatever Eldridge wanted, in a legal way, he got Crosby to put it over for him somehow. And wicy wersy, whatever Crosby wanted, say money for his land projicks or anything, Eldridge’s bank account was pretty much at his disposal.”
“At his disposal still, isn’t it?”
“Well, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that. Crosby ’ll have to make a careful report to the state, or to the estate or to somebody. But, land, until we find out who’s heir to the estate, there’s not much doin’.”
“Not much doing anyway, is there?” Peter Thorne looked disgusted. “I never saw such dilatory work on the part of the police or the courts or the people generally.”
“Well, I’ll tell you, Mr. Thorne, there’s a lot of people who don’t want that matter pushed too hard. Take the bank, now. They don’t want to investergate too deeply, lessen they find out some of their crowd did the murder. ’Course, I mean the Eldridge murder, that butler is only a side issue. Well, then the political bunch, they don’t care to probe deep, either, for who knows but some evidence will crop up there. Eldridge was goin’ to run for Mayor this fall, and he’d have whitewashed any other candidate. Well, s’pose some rival had put him out of the running— as he was put out—and s’pose it came out, where would the rival candidate stand then? Oh, don’t think I’m makin’ these things up. You know this here inn piazza is a reglar clearin’ house for all the town news, and my office is a hotbed of gossip and scandal and—yes, and truth, the kind that will out.”
“You amaze me with all this, Mr. Browning. I’ve been in Mr. Eldridge’s own library all night long, going over his papers, and while I found some surprising information, there was nothing as serious as these things you tell of.”
“No? Then, listen here, Mr. Thorne. You didn’t get at his privatest papers. For that man must have had some documents and statements that would make your hair curl! It’s none of my business, but I’ve took a shine to you and I’d like to see you succeed in this investigation you’re starting out on. You search further and deeper—Lord knows where, I don’t—but you’ll strike some snappy stuff if you dig deeper. Didn’t you find anything bearing on Doctor Ives and Dora Reed?”
“No not a word. Who’s Dora Reed?”
“The girl who wasn’t read outa church. Well, I’ve got to get about my business now. I’d think you’d be jest about dead for sleep.”
“I’m not sleepy at all. A cold shower and a good breakfast will fit me to go right along. I say, Mr. Browning, don’t repeat this conversation of ours to anybody, will you?”
“Nope, and they wouldn’t be interested anyway. Those yarns are old stuff round here.”
“I suppose so. One thing more, please. Is Mr. Crosby a married man?”
“Not now he ain’t. His wife died five or six years back. He’s the catch of the town, but he don’t take much interest in the womenfolks. He’s a man’s man. Likes his clubs, indoors and out. He lives with his sister—she keeps house for him, in that big house up yonder, but half the time he eats here, and he’s in his office or out at the Golf Club a lot. Miss Lucia she don’t mind, she’s the easy goin’ sort, but hysterical if anything awful happens. They had a terrible time with her the day Mr. Austin died.”
“Well, I’ll skittle upstairs and I’ll be back for breakfast in less than half an hour.”
“It’ll be ready for you.”
Thorne was as good as his word, and on his return downstairs, he found many of the breakfast tables occupied.
Mostly by men who had to take the early train to the city, and also by several who were eagerly talking over the Lennox case, and the inquest which was to be held that morning.
Thorne paused at a table where Stiles and Bennett sat, they having come from the police station where they had been hard at work a good part of the night.
“We’re working together, aren’t we?” Thorne said, with his ingratiating smile.
He had tried from the first to propitiate these two, for he knew they resented his presence, and he meant to win their liking if he could.
“That’s up to you,” Bennett said, a little sourly. “Ready to tell us all you know?”
“Sure, if you’ll tell me all you know.”
“Do you know much?”
“Not very much,” Peter admitted frankly.
“Then I guess we can’t make a dicker,” Bennett growled, and devoted himself to his eggs and bacon.
But Stiles was more hospitably inclined. “Sit down here,” he said, “I want to talk with you.”
“Too public a place,” and with a shrug of his shoulders, Thorne walked on. He had no wish to talk to Stiles, with Bennett sitting by, like a wet blanket.
At another table he saw Mr. Crosby, sitting alone, and as a tentative glance in his direction brought a more cordial response, Thorne accepted his invitation and sat down by him and ordered his breakfast.
“Well, son, what do you think about the whole affair, now.” It was Crosby’s role to be patronizing and fatherly.
“The plot thickens,” said Thorne, with an air of mystery. “I say, Mr. Crosby, you were Mr. Eldridge’s lawyer, don’t you know where he kept all his most particularly private papers?”
“No, I don’t. I wish to heaven I did. There is one box—I mean one box that I know of, that we ought to have at once. None of the questions can be settled, none of the queries answered, none of the mysteries solved, until that box turns up.”
“What’s in it?” asked Thorne, without much show of interest.
“What isn’t in it? It contains Mr. Eldridge’s will, for one thing—”
“I thought he left no will.”
“We don’t know whether he did or not. We can’t know, until we find that box, I know one exists, I’ve seen it.”
“I’ve heard Mr. Eldridge was very exact and punctilious in his business matters. Why would he be careless about such an important affair as that box?”
“It wasn’t carelessness. Whatever he did with that box he did it on purpose. He was careful and accurate as to his financial affairs, his books balance to a penny, his estate is in perfect order. But as to matters that are not financial—even though equally important, he was most peculiar. His desk, now, is a jumble of odds and ends of letters and papers, of which some are of value and some not. Yet he has often thrown away letters and receipts that he ought to have kept. Now, take the matter of the adoption papers of Lorraine. There’s no trace of them to be found anywhere. I don’t believe for a minute that he threw those away, yet why would he hide them so secretly? If he had them—and I’m quite sure he had, then where are they?”
“Were they in the box you say you saw?”
“I don’t know, I never saw the papers myself. But I’m sure there is some place not yet discovered that holds many of his most important documents, and they must be found.”
“Some safe deposit company?”
“That’s what I think. But how find out? Advertising means unpleasant publicity. Yet to inquire of every bank in the country is scarcely feasible.”
“You don’t think there’s a secret panel—”
“I do not. The last thing I’d look for is that. Why, there can’t be any such thing in a new, modern summer cottage! How absurd.”
Peter Thorne thought Mr. Crosby rather overemphasized the impossibility of this secret hiding place, and shrewdly suspected him of intent to deceive.
And Peter Thorne then and there made up his mind if there was such a hiding place within the bounds of Myrtle Lawn, he would find it. Out of doors, perhaps it was, or maybe in the cellar—or attic. Anyway, Crosby’s attitude made him suspicious and he longed for a time when he could make further search. Himself, he thought it would be in the library, and not any further off than Mr. Eldridge’s desk. If so, it was securely hidden, for many had looked for it there.
“Headed for the inquest, I suppose,” Crosby said, as they rose from the table.
“Yes, though such things bore me to death. Those everlasting inquiries that get nowhere, and cross questions and crooked answers that don’t mean a thing.”
The inquest was held in the drawing room at Myrtle Lawn, for the case had become celebrated, and it was assumed that this murder was entirely consequent upon the other. Wherefore the attendance was large and the great drawing room was none too spacious.
There was some preliminary and uninteresting questioning, but it all tended in one direction. It was clear to be seen, from the very first, that Bennett definitely suspected a criminal, and that he made all his inquiries bend in that direction.
Essie repeated what she had told before of seeing Lorraine go out to the summer house to meet Grant Maxwell.
Mrs. Maxwell, who was present, gave a start at this disclosure, and putting up her lorgnon stared so hard at Essie that the poor girl almost sank to the floor.
Milliken, ever of a ready ingenuity, changed her seat so that her own ample form came between the lady and the maid, and the questioning went on.
“Then you saw Miss Eldridge come in?” pursued Bennett.
“Why, yes, sir, she came in an hour or so later.”
“And went straight to her own bedroom?”
“N-no sir, she—she went into the library.”
“Oh, she did. And how long did she stay there?”
“Not long, sir, she—she telephoned next.”
“You are a competent witness! To whom did she telephone?”
“To Mr. Maxwell.”
Essie was fond of Lorraine, though not with the blind devotion that Milliken gave her adored young mistress. But more than anything Essie loved to be in the limelight, and here was her golden opportunity. Here was an enormous room full of people, all hanging on her words, all listening to her as to an oracle.
Essie did not color her story, she had no need to, but she certainly meant to prolong the situation just as long as she possibly could.
“And what did she say to him? Could you hear?”
“Oh, yes, sir, I could hear. I slipped part way down stairs, for I thought if there was anything the matter Miss Eldridge might want me.”
“What made you think anything might be the matter?”
“Why, because it was most unusual for Miss Lorry to be telephoning so late at night, and to somebody who she’d seen a few minutes before.”
“Well, what did she say?”
The room was in absolute silence. Peter Thorne glanced from one tense face to another. Lorraine sat with her eyes closed, as if she could not bear to watch the girl who was arraigning her. Grant Maxwell, beside his mother, sat with clenched hands and white face, powerless to do or say anything, but suffering acutely as the tale was unfolded.
Mrs. Maxwell, her face haughty and stern, let her dark eyes roam from one to another, and it seemed to Peter she had a look of dismay or discomfort on her face.
Tom Kennedy and his sister sat together, holding hands, and glancing over now and then at Lorry, yet not daring to go to her.
Lorry herself sat between Sarah and Louis Mersereau. Sarah had insisted that was the place for the girl, as they proposed to protect and care for her until the dreadful affair was cleared up.
They were small comfort, yet Lorraine was grateful for the feeling of family ties that they so slightly represented.
“What did she say?” repeated the Coroner.
“I dunno as I can repeat her very words, but it was to the effect that she just called him up to say good night, and—she added—” Essie paused, for sheer dramatic effect, “she added that everything was all right—everything was all right!”
Waiting a moment for the murmur of excitement to fade away, Bennett then said:
“What did Miss Eldridge do next?”
“Went straight up to her room and went in and shut the door.”
“Did she see you?”
“I don’t think so, she didn’t seem to.”
“And she staid in her room?”
“No, sir, in about half an hour—maybe less— she was downstairs again.’’
“In the liberry?”
“How long did she stay there?”
“Belike half an hour—near’s I can say.”
“And you watched her come up again?”
“Yes, sir. I thought I might as well see it through. Of course I didn’t know what was goin’ on downstairs.”
“Well, finish it up. Then Miss Eldridge went again to her room, and that time she staid there?”
“Yes, sir, lessen she went down again after I fell asleep. But I don’t think she did, sir.”
“Did any one else in the house see or hear these nocturnal prowlings of Miss Eldridge? Did you, Mrs. Mersereau? Or Mr. Mersereau?”
“No,” said Sarah, speaking for both. “We didn’t. Our rooms are in the front part of the house, Lorraine’s rooms are at the back. The stair carpets are thick and soft, and we would not be apt to hear anyone going up or down.”
“Did you hear anything of it, Mrs. Milliken?”
“That I didn’t, and I make doubt if Essie heard half she rattled off. That girl imagines, sir, that she does, and it’s full more’n likely that she dreamed the hull matter. Don’t take her sayso for law and gospel! She’s that onreliable!”
“I think her story is founded on fact, anyway,”
Bennett declared, and Essie beamed at him and threw a saucy pout at Milliken.
“I think the way to be sure about the matter is to ask the principals,” said Bennett, and he called on Grant Maxwell next.
The poor chap was in a quandary. He had not seen Lorraine alone since they parted the night before. He wanted to say what she wanted him to say. He would willingly perjure himself, if he was sure what line of falsehood she wanted him to take. By no means addicted to lying, Grant was more than ready to achieve his very best in that direction, if he only had an inkling of Lorraine’s desires.
As he hadn’t, he made up his mind to be as noncommittal as possible, and try to hit it off.
“You met Miss Eldridge in the arbor last evening?” Bennett asked, a little ill at ease facing this stern faced young aristocrat.
“At what time?”
“How long did you stay there?
“An hour or more.”
“Then you returned to the house?”
“Did you go into the house?”
“Did you leave Miss Eldridge at her door?”
The monosyllables got on Bennett’s nerves. Out of sheer indecision what to say next, he blurted out, “Did you see any one as you were out there?” Maxwell stared at him. It was really to gain time, but his silent pause bothered Bennett, who flushed and fidgeted.
Maxwell saw this, and inwardly rejoiced. Then, with an icy stare, he said, “No.”
Lorraine drew a long breath. She had been so afraid he would say yes, and that Mrs. Maxwell would somehow be dragged into this thing.
“And you went straight home, after leaving Miss Eldridge?”
“You received a telephone message from her?
As this had already been attested, Grant deemed it judicious to tell the truth. So he said, “Yes.”
“What did she say?”
“She bade me good night again, and said everything was all right.”
“What did she mean by that?”
“What she said, I suppose.”
“But everything was not all right!”
As this was not a question, Maxwell made no reply.
Bennett felt he could stand no more of this witness, and called Lorraine at once.
“You have heard the depositions of Essie the maid and of Mr. Maxwell. Do you admit the truth of both their reports?”
“Yes,” said Lorraine, in a low voice.
“Will you tell me what you meant when you said to Mr. Maxwell over the telephone that everything was all right?”
“Certainly. We had been spending an hour together. It was late, and after he left me and I came in, I discovered the dead body of Lennox. In my excitement I didn’t know what to do, and my first impulse was to call Mr. Maxwell back. I rang him up, and even before he answered, I thought what a mean thing it would be to call him back here at that hour, when he could, of course, do nothing to help. So, by the time he answered me, I had changed my mind, and merely told him good night and that everything was all right. This was an untruth, but I did it from motives of kindness and consideration.”
“I see. And what did you do next?”
“I went up to my room. I have been through so much horror during the past week, I thought I couldn’t bear any more, and I thought I would leave poor Lennox for someone else to find. I may have been a coward, but I was so nervous and unstrung, I really didn’t feel equal to the ordeal of rousing the household just then.”
“Very well, Miss Eldridge, but you came down stairs again, a little later.”
“Yes, and I will tell you why!” Her eyes filled with tears, and her face was pathetic. “I had a sudden thought that possibly poor Lennox might not be dead, after all. I hadn’t touched him, you see, and I thought if he were not dead, I must rouse the others, and do what we could for him. So—so I went down stairs again, and—and I laid my hand on his forehead—and it was—”
“It was cold?”
“Almost—but I could see he didn’t breathe— and—oh, I could see the man was dead—dead—and I was so terrified and so upset, that I ran back to my room as quickly as I could—”
“And went to bed and to sleep—”
“I went to bed but I couldn’t sleep. I was too agitated by the terrible thing I had seen. And I was worried for fear I had not done right—”
“You certainly did not do right! Even if inexperienced in such things, you must know that one who discovers a dead human being must report it at once—”
“No, I didn’t know that. If I had I would have called up my uncle and aunt.”
“But you didn’t—of course, you didn’t. Because, because, Miss Lorraine Eldridge, you had a very good reason for wanting to delay the discovery. Do you remember, all of you, how Mr. Eldridge was killed? With a long, narrow bladed knife, a household knife, and this man, Lennox, was stabbed in exactly the same place, and in the same way, and with an almost exactly similar weapon. The long, thin bladed paper cutter, was just like the knife, the stroke was given by the same person, the only person who had both motive and opportunity for both deaths, the ungrateful daughter who defied her father’s aversion to her marriage, the one who supposed herself inheritor of a great fortune—Miss Lorraine Eldridge.”
There was a murmur of indignation at the Coroner’s accusing words, and as it rose to more than a murmur and became distinctly voiced criticism and even harsh censure, Bennett angrily declared the inquest adjourned for one week, and without a word to anyone strode from the room and out of the house.
Stiles started to follow him, then thought better of it and remained behind.
The crowd slowly dispersed and most of the audience went home. But though Bennett’s rash speech met with general disapproval and he was blamed by many in severe language, yet, also, there were many who were swayed toward the belief he had expressed. Many had secretly thought Lorraine guilty of one or both murders and were glad of the voice of authority to bolster up their opinion.
Black looks were cast at her, as she sat, cringing, beside Sarah.
Milliken couldn’t stand this.
“Get out of here, all of you,” she cried, getting back of the people and shooing them out as if they were flies. “Get out, every mother’s son of you, and don’t show your faces here until the next inquest day. We seem to have ’em about once a week! Go on you, Lew Simmons, you got no call to loiter around. There won’t be no refreshments, and well I know that’s what you’re hangin’ back to see. Get along Mellie Potts, you’ve heard enough gossip to tickle your ears for one day. You go along and tattle-tale to everybody you see. Spread it on good and thick, now —she will anyway, so may’s well tell her to!”
Milliken flurried about, handing a hat to a man or a forgotten fur neck piece to a woman, until by sheer force of will power she had cleared them all from the room.
She followed to the front porch, and from there she herded them to the street and then, considering her duty done in that line, she returned to the drawing-room where the Mersereaus and Lorraine still sat in an uncomfortable silence, while Stiles and Peter Thorne conversed together in low tones.
“Now, you folks,” she said, “come on out to lunch, while the things are hot. If so be you gentlemen would like to come too, there’s enough and to spare.”
“Do come,” said Lorraine, with a glance at Peter Thorne.
He was about to refuse, but her sad expression touched him and he silently nodded acquiescence, while Stiles rose with alacrity, quite ready to start for the dining room.
“Yes, I wish you’d both stay,” Sarah Mersereau said, “for we’ve got to talk this thing over and see where we stand.”
And scarcely waiting until they were seated at the table, she began herself to “talk the thing over.”
“As near as I can make out,” she said, “They’ve accused Lorraine of murder, or two murders. Oh, there’s no use mincing words,”—this in response to the look of horror on more than one face—“you all heard the coroner’s last speech.”
“Yes, and he ought to be hung himself for it,” declared Thorne, hotly. “It was not only bad taste and unethical, but it was against the law for him to talk like that? Wasn’t it, Stiles?”
“I don’t know about the law, but I do know he had no business to do it, and I’m going to tell headquarters all about it, and get Bennett fired if I can. He’s a fool coroner, anyway—he don’t know anything about law—”
“Never mind Bennett,” Thorne said, “I’m more interested in Miss Eldridge. I think she can sue him for libel or slander or something—after it’s all over. But she can’t do it now. What we’ve got to do first, is to clear her from this accusation of murder. She didn’t do it—either of them—and we’ve got to prove it.”
“Who did do it?” Lorraine asked, for the first time seeming to show any interest. “Who killed my father?”
“Miss Eldridge,” Thorne said, “if I can’t discover who killed Mr. Eldridge I will at least prove that you didn’t. And the same with the butler’s death, only in this case, I’ll guarantee to find the murderer.”
“Then you don’t think they’re the same one?” asked Stiles, wonderingly.
“If they are, then so much the less work for us,” Thorne rejoined. “But we’ve work enough ahead, and we must all turn to and help. Mrs. Mersereau, I assume you want to do all you can to further the ends of justice, at least in your brother’s case?”
“Y-Yes,” Sarah hesitated a little. “But if it is to be a very expensive proceeding—”
“It may be,” Thorne hastened to assure her, “There is no telling what unexpected bills will accrue.”
“Then—then—can’t we just—er—let the matter rest? It won’t restore my poor brother’s life to mull over clues and evidences and all that.”
“Well, no, Mrs. Mersereau,” Stiles broke in, “The case can’t be dropped now, especially as Miss Eldridge has become so deeply involved.”
“No matter how deeply involved she is, she must and shall be exculpated!” these words in a strong young voice were from a newcomer, and as Grant Maxwell swung through the door all eyes were turned to him. Milliken ran to place a chair for him next to Lorraine, and the girl’s sad face brightened up for the first time at sight of the determination that shone from her lover’s eyes.
“I shall take these matters in charge,” Maxwell went on, a new firmness in his tone and a new determination written on his fine features. I am Lorraine’s affianced husband, and so I am nearer to her than any one else. I am not familiar enough with the law to know what is the exact procedure when anyone is suspected of murder, but is absolutely innocent. But these things I shall find out, and I shall then proceed according to the best instructions I can get.”
“Fine talk!” exclaimed Sarah, “but what will your mother say to all this?”
“That is outside the question.” Grant colored a little but went steadily on. “My mother is very dear to me, I have always obeyed her least word, but there comes a time to all men when they have to strike out for themselves. My future wife— Lorraine—is in trouble, is in danger, perhaps, and I shall stand firmly at her side to help in any way and every way I can. First of all, Mr. Thorne, I put it to you, what must be done to raise this cloud of suspicion from Miss Eldridge?”
Peter Thorne was silent a moment.
“That question cannot be answered in a few words,” he said, slowly; “it will take time. But there’s no reason the work shouldn’t start at once, and it is detective work, not legal assistance that you need. I do not say this because I am a detective—and, indeed, you may engage the best legal talent you can find, if you choose—but I am convinced that there is much detective work to be done and the sooner it is started the better. Now, do you prefer to employ Mr. Stiles or myself—”
“Both,” said Maxwell, decidedly, “if you can work together peaceably, do so, if not work separately, but I want you both. I will pay your bills or fees, and I will, of course, pay all your incurred expenses, but I want you both to do your very best.”
“I do not seem to be consulted in this matter!” exclaimed Sarah, angrily.
“You are not suspected of the crime,” returned Maxwell.
“Beside which,” amended Thorne, “Mrs. Mersereau is averse to spending money on this matter, and if the truth is to be discovered, money must be spent to achieve that end.”
Lorraine looked almost happy again, as she gazed wonderingly at Grant. She had no idea what had made him take this sudden, decided stand, but she rejoiced that he had done so, and felt a faint hope that all might yet come out right.
“Are you—are you going to see about the adoption papers?” she whispered, and Maxwell replied, “You bet we are! And about the two crimes, and about Mr. Eldridge’s will, and about everything that is now so dark and mysterious.”
“Well,” and Lorraine looked serious, “then I think we’ll have to have a lawyer, too. Mr. Thorne and Mr. Stiles are fine detectives, I’m sure, but a lawyer will be necessary to settle up the estate and—”
“Oh, of course, Crosby, as your father’s lawyer, will look after all such things,” Grant assured her. “But they are all in the future,”
“Can I help in any way?” asked Louis Mersereau. He had taken small part in the conversation, but his was a nature that liked to train with the winning side, and it suddenly began to look to him as if Lorraine would win out against his wife.
“If we can make use of your services, Mr. Mersereau, we’ll let you know,” Peter Thorne assured him, and then, luncheon over, the two detectives repaired to the library, where Grant Maxwell promised to join them shortly.
But first, he took Lorraine for a stroll across the lawn, bringing up at the Rambler Arbor.
“What happened?” she asked eagerly, as he held her in his arms a moment without speaking.
“Well, pretty much pandemonium broke loose!” he smiled ruefully. “My heavens, Lorraine, I never want to go through another scene like that! You see mother heard what that brute of a Bennett said about you, and it was like fire to tow. All the smouldering rancor she has been feeling against you flamed up and there was the wildest conflagration you ever saw! Just now, you know—not an hour ago! Well I let her talk herself out, let her say all she had to say—and then some—and when she stopped from sheer exhaustion, I just put it to her straight. I told her I had heard and understood every word. She needn’t repeat one of them, then or ever. I told her that the time had come for me to state my side. And I stated it in mighty few words. I said that you were dearer to me than my home or my mother or than life itself. I said that since she felt as she did, I couldn’t expect to have you both and that I chose you. That I was indeed sorry to give her up, but that you were my choice. I said I knew she had plenty of money, a good home and oceans of relatives and friends. I hoped she would make a happy life for herself and not miss me out of it too much. I told her that I should henceforth devote my life entirely to you and your affairs. That as soon as you would agree to it, I would marry you, whether before this matter of detectives is finished or after. I told her I would give up my work as far as might be necessary in order to spend all needed time on the investigations, and that when it was over, I would resume my business duties. I then offered to bid her an affectionate but final goodby.”
“What did she do?”
“What do you think?”
“Collapsed utterly. Put her arms around you and—”
“Not much she didn’t, Lorraine! Not by a jug full! On the contrary, she drew herself up proudly —you know how she does—and said that as I had chosen, I could abide by it. Said goodby in a formal, pleasant way, as one might at an afternoon tea, and then walked haughtily across the room and out the door.”
“Leaving you standing there?”
“How did you feel?”
“Honestly, Lorry, I felt like laughing for a moment. Mother does that high tragedy stunt awfully well, and it did strike me funny. But when I went up to my rooms to pack some things, it—it didn’t seem so funny.”
“Did you pack?” This thought, to Lorraine, too, brought an unpleasant idea of finality.
“Oh, I stuffed some things into a suitcase, and left it at the inn. Booked a room there for the immediate present, then I’ll see what I’ll do. Of course mother won’t hold out. I’ll give her a week to be begging me to come back again and all will be forgiven.”
“I’m not so sure.”
“Well, never mind that now. I just wanted you to know how things stood. Now, sweetheart, I must go and confab with those chaps, but remember I’ll be here lots from now on. Shall I be welcome?”
For answer, Lorraine raised her sweet, sad face to his.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “about your mother—but —you must go now, we’ll talk about it some other time.”
Maxwell, buoyed up by excitement and anticipation, left her in the arbor and joined the others in the library.
“We’ll make this place our headquarters,” Thorne was saying, “for it’s right on the premises of the crimes and, too, we’ve a lot of hide-and-seek work to do here.”
“All aboard,” Maxwell said, taking a chair and lighting a cigarette. “Now I don’t know as you fellows quite understand me. I want you to take charge, to direct the proceedings entirely. My part will be to follow your instructions whatever they may be, and to foot the bills. The only things I want out of it are, first, full and free absolution for Miss Eldridge. Next, if possible, proofs of her legal adoption. Third, discovery of her parentage. Incidentally, if we can find a will of Austin Eldridge’s, so much the better. But the most important, the only imperative thing is to free that girl from every trace of suspicion. And this oughtn’t to be so hard a trick to turn, since she really is innocent.”
“Sounds easy,” Thorne said, meditatively, “but it’s not a simple trick.”
“Then we’ll tackle an abstruse one. Now, what can I do, if anything? I don’t profess to any detective training, but I can search documents, or go on investigating tours, say, out of town, or anywhere.”
“You’re a good sort, Maxwell,” Peter Thorne said. “Does your mother approve of this project of yours?”
“Not so you’d notice it! She’s real peeved about it. But it’s on, just the same.”
“Well, Stiles and I have concluded to work together as long as we keep sweet tempered over it. If we get criss-cross, we’re going to separate and each work on his own.”
“Then I take orders from both of you?”
“As long as peace prevails. Anyone who gets miffed has to flock by himself. I’m a stickler for peace and quiet.”
“All right, Thorne. Made any plan of campaign yet?”
“Well, here’s the first principle we’re going to work on. To free Miss Eldridge, it’s necessary to find the real culprit. To find him, if he exists, means to hunt for a needle in a haystack. So the hunt must begin at the edge of the haystack.”
“Meaning the letters and papers in this room— both visible and concealed.”
“Yes. I’ve been over the desk fairly thoroughly, but there are other cabinets and drawers to ransack, and I can’t help feeling there’s a secret place somewhere.”
“If so, wouldn’t Crosby know?”
“I think Crosby does know.”
“And keeps it to himself?”
“Now, come, Thorne,” Stiles interrupted. “why would Crosby do that? Why would he hold back such important information?”
“For his own reasons—I don’t know what they are, however.”
“Then that’s one more thing we must find out,” declared Maxwell.
“That’s the talk!” Thorne exclaimed. “You’ll do, Max. Now do you propose to set to work at once?”
“As soon as I light a cigarette.”
“Good boy! Then, suppose you take this small filing cabinet. See, it holds maybe a hundred letters. Apparently from various and sundry people. Go through it with care, read every letter, and if in the least inexplicable or even uncertain of meaning, lay them aside, in a pile. See?”
“Yes. You mean to make a wide round-up of all his possible enemies,”
“Exactly that. Stiles will take this other one, and I’ll find some for myself.”
For three hours the stillness was broken only by the rustle of paper, the striking of a match or a few short sentences asking or giving advice or opinions.
Then, the tasks set being finished, they drew together to compare reports.
The faces of each showed excitement and their eager expressions betrayed impatience to be heard.
“You tune up first, Maxwell,” Thorne ordained, and Grant began:
“It’s pretty awful,” he said, “but old A. E. was a bit of a rounder.”
The others nodded, not as surprised as they would have been some hours sooner.
“I ran across a small bunch of letters from a woman—a girl, and they prove conclusively that her relations with Mr. Eldridge were—h’m—more than the law allows.”
“What’s her name?” asked Stiles.
“Good Lord, that’s the girl old Doc Ives wanted to put out of his church and Eldridge begged him not to!”
“He did more than beg,” Thorne said, quietly, “he bribed.”
“How do you know?”
“I heard it from a reliable source,” and Thorne’s thoughts went back to his early morning talk with Ben Browning. “Well, Max, did you get any hint that the lady in question might have brought about Eldridge’s taking-off?”
“I don’t see how she could have done so—” Grant looked perplexed “But I’ll agree that she had a grievance.”
“Well, lay that bunch of letters aside, and let’s, step along,” Stiles suggested. “Anything else?”
“Yes. A packet of letters from Editor Forbes, threatening all sorts of terrible things.”
“He claimed that Mr. Eldridge kept him out of the Golf Club.”
“Very likely he did. Forbes is a cad and a coward. Probably Eldridge told him so.”
“That’s just what he did. And Forbes vows he’ll wreck him by means of his power of the press.”
“All right; lay those aside with the others. Any more?”
“No, all the rest are innocuous and uninteresting.
“Well, so much for so much,” and Peter Thorne took the two doubtful packets and dropped them in a box he had prepared for their reception.
Stiles came next, and his grist consisted of a lot of political notes and clippings quite evidently collected for the purpose of defamation of character of Eldridge’s rival candidate in the expected political campaign.
“Looks bad,” said Peter, as he glanced over the text.”
“Is bad,” agreed Stiles. “With that stuff broadcast, Galton wouldn’t have any show at all. Do you suppose Eldridge meant to use it this fall?”
“Sure he did. And if Galton knew it—well there are gunmen and all that, but I can’t see how he’d get anybody to stick up Eldridge the way it was done.”
“You can’t harp on that,” Thorne said. “We agree that it was a mysterious killing, but it was done —and so, even if you’re sure it wasn’t inside work, you’ve got to grant the killing. Now, forget that, and go ahead and get the killer.”
“Well, then I offer the Galton gang as the best bet yet,” Stiles said, and Thorne said, “Gang ”?
“Ill-chosen word,” Stiles admitted. “But that bunch of grafters who are trying to run Galton in for Mayor, deserve to be called most anything.”
“Put your papers in the box,” said Thorne, and one more possibility was added to the list.
“One other,” Stiles said, “a woman. It seems, from this rather long and involved correspondence, that Eldridge palmed off a second mortgage on her and pretended, or implied somehow, that it was a first. The woman lost all her money, and she writes that she’ll kill Eldridge, if he doesn’t make it good to her. That sounds more indicative of trouble than it really was, for the affair happened about ten years ago, and I can’t think that woman rose up in her wrath and stabbed him now.”
“Dump it in,” Thorne said, tersely. “We’re getting more than I expected. These cases must be followed up, secretly and with great caution, but very carefully. I believe this is the way to get at the secrets of Austin Eldridge’s life, and perhaps, in some cases, restitution can be made.”
“Philanthropic, eh?” and Stiles smiled.
“I found nothing myself,” Thorne told them, “but a couple of letters showing that Eldridge remembered in his will a farmer named Warren. Know him?”
“I know who he is,” Stiles said. “I bet he wanted to realize on his inheritance ahead of time.”
“He did,” said Thorne. “Begged Mr. Eldridge to give him at least half of the bequest without waiting for a funeral! But Eldridge didn’t see it, and flatly refused. So Warren grew pettish, and threatened dire revenge. Dunno whether he ever carried out his threats or not, but we must look into it.”
He tossed the packet of letters into his big box and then the three sat back to talk it over.
They agreed it was the best way of setting about their work, but they also agreed that it was doubtful if they could reach the end that way.
“I don’t believe the most important documents of A. E.’s business affairs are here at all,” Maxwell said, looking about. “I think he had some deposit boxes of which no one knew. Now, if so, there must, there simply must be some keys around somewhere, or some memoranda of the boxes, or some jotting in a diary or daybook—the man must have had a record.”
“Yep, I agree,” Thorne declared, “and next thing is to find those records.”
“It may be,” Stiles said, “but I confess I’m pretty well jolted by these letters we’ve dug up. I’d no idea Mr. Eldridge was such a villain. The idea of his being mixed up with Dora Reed! And that about the woman’s mortgage. And you see, these were never made public at all, so he hushed ’em up with as little money as he could get the poor things to take. Probably scared ’em most to death.”
“And it may be that some one of these people was coming in at night to hunt for these incriminating letters, and was surprised by Lennox and stabbed him not in self defense, but to prevent discovery.”
“It isn’t only Eldridge who’s being shown up,” Thorne said, “but other people. How about Doctor Ives? And the political crowd?”
“A bad lot, all of ’em.” Grant Maxwell spoke with stormy eyes and a deep frown. “Everybody’s a bad lot. I tremble to think what else we’ll find in these archives.”
“Find the papers we’re after, and let the others go,” Thorne advised smiling. “Can’t you spy out any possibility of a secret cubbyhole?”
As he talked he walked about, poking into the back of the little cupboards, pulling out drawers and looking behind them, tapping the wall here and there, and finally pulling out a tape measure from his pocket and measuring various sides and depths of the large desk.
“There might be a secret place in that,” Stiles said, “though not likely in the walls of the house. Measure away, Thorne. Note anything?”
“I can’t tell. The desk is so enormous, so solidly built, of such thick wood, that there’s room for a dozen secret places, but no sign of any. See, there’s no waste space along this side edge—but, in the middle part, who can say? Ah, here comes Mr. Crosby. Come in, do. I say, Crosby, do you know of a secret drawer or cubby?”
“Everybody’s asking me that,” said the lawyer, petulantly, “but I don’t. I only wish I did, I’d be glad to dig into it.”
“So would we,” said Thorne, going on with his measuring.
Lawyer Crosby’s office was one of the most richly appointed in all Shoredale. And so large and lucrative had his Shoredale practice become that he had given up his New York office, and took his vacation during the winter months when the cottagers were in the city.
He was deeply engrossed in some important details of the Eldridge estate when he received a call from the two Mersereaus.
“May we see you alone, please?” Sarah asked him, and the lawyer dismissed the secretary and stenographer who were with him.
“Now,” said Mrs. Mersereau, “there’s no use beating about the bush. What have you found out or what do you know about the disposition of my brother’s property?”
She seemed to be the spokesman, and her husband sat by, dumb, and a trifle embarrassed. He was overawed by the splendor of the place, for Louis Mersereau was a man deeply impressed by extravagance, and the Circassian walnut and damask, the stained glass and Oriental rugs seemed to him the pinnacle of luxury and good taste.
But Sarah Mersereau gave these things no heed, indeed, she scarcely saw them as she looked steadily at the lawyer she had come to consult.
“No more than I’ve told you,” Crosby replied to her question.
“That isn’t true,” she said bluntly, “and you know it. Now, see here, Mr. Crosby, I’m Austin’s rightful heir, and I want the fact to be made known. If you know where those adoption papers are—there were such papers, weren’t there?”
He eyed her closely.
“Why do you think so?” he hedged.
“I don’t think it, I know it. And so do you. And you know where they are.”
“You certainly do. And—”
“Well, and what?”
The two looked at one another until the meaning of Sarah’s glance began to dawn on Crosby’s consciousness. His own eyes opened wider.
Louis Mersereau watched the two until the scene got on his nerves.
“Look here,” he growled, “I thought you said there was to be no beating about the bush. And that’s just what you’re doing, you two. Come right out, Sarah. Tell him you want him to suppress those papers, or destroy ’em, and that you’ll pay him well for doing so.”
He then relapsed into his former silence, and sat as if he had not spoken.
But the ice was broken, the plunge had been made.
“Well?” said Sarah, her voice high pitched and nervous.
Crosby pondered. The proposition had come from them, not from him. He could at least afford to play with it.
He assumed a look of outraged innocence and said, coldly, “Do I understand, Mrs. Mersereau, that you mean that—the proposition your husband has voiced?”
“Yes,” she snapped, “just that. If no adoption papers are found, and no will is found, the entire estate comes to me as his next of kin. I, therefore, don’t want these papers to turn up, or that will—if it is not in my favor—and if you can see your way clear to prevent such an occurrence, I will be pleased to give you the sum of one hundred thousand dollars.”
Though he didn’t show it, this proposition quite took Crosby’s breath away. He had expected a fine offer, a large sum—but this—he scarcely dared turn it down, lest the offer be rescinded—yet—he had other plans.”
“Now,” said Sarah, with asperity, “don’t think you’re fooling me. I know perfectly well what you have in mind. You think, if you find those papers you can prove Lorraine the heiress to all—and then” —she screwed her eyes to narrow slits, and leaned toward him, “then, you think you will marry her— but, you won’t. She’s too drivelingly, besottedly in love with Grant Maxwell—and you know it!”
Crosby did know it, and that was the very plan he had firmly in mind. But how did that woman guess it?”
He thought a moment, then he said, “I’m surprised, Mrs. Mersereau, that you should plan such a thing as this.”
“All right,” she snapped, “be as surprised as you like, but—here’s the point, what are you going to do about it? What is your reply?”
Crosby concluded to wait no longer.
“Very well,” he said, “since you put it to me, I’ll say I’ll see what I can do. But I’m not so sure Miss Eldridge would refuse to marry me. I’m a—well any one in Shoredale will tell you I’m looked upon as a catch—yes, ma’am, a catch. I think I may say that Miss Eldridge would be very glad to get me. For, mark you, she never can marry her young Maxwell friend. The old lady won’t listen to it. Not for a minute. She says no child of hers shall marry a nameless girl, and that’s what Lorraine is, adoption or no adoption.”
“But unless you find the papers of adoption, or a will leaving all to her, you don’t want to marry her,” pursued Sarah.
“That’s perfectly true,” Crosby admitted, but if I do—and I think I shall, find those papers, then, I do want her—and—I’ll get her. You’ll see.”
Sarah began to be anxious. Crosby was altogether too sure to suit her.
“Look here,” she said, “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. You find those papers and give them to me, and don’t tell anybody anything about them, and take your hundred thousand dollars, and let it go at that. Don’t bother about the girl or the fortune. Then you’ll have enough money to live on all your life, and you’ll still be free and can do whatever you like. If you care enough for Lorraine to marry her then, that’s your business—and hers. But I know she’ll never marry anybody but that young Maxwell chap. If she can’t have him she won’t have anybody.”
Crosby knew the woman was right. He did want Lorraine, with a fortune, but he knew she was devoted to Maxwell, though he wasn’t quite so positive as Sarah Mersereau seemed to be. And, if she had no fortune, he didn’t want her at all. So, the easiest and best way out seemed to be to accept the offer Sarah Mersereau was making to him at the present moment.
So, casting aside all other considerations, he said, “All right, Mrs. Mersereau, I’ll take your offer, and I assume the matter will never be made public.”
“Certainly not. I’m as little anxious to have the thing known as you are. Very well, then, Mr. Crosby you agree, and my husband is witness to your speech, that you will use your best endeavors to find the adoption papers of Lorraine and the will—if any exists— of Austin Eldridge. That you will give me either or both of these papers if you find them, and that I may do what I please with them, and—no questions asked.”
“I agree to that, Mrs. Mersereau, and the bargain is, that you are to pay me one hundred thousand dollars, immediately on your coming into the property, which, of course, you must do very shortly.”
“Yes, that’s the understanding, and—I think— it need not be set down in black and white?”
“No,” Crosby said, “between old friends like us, no written paper is needed; and, too, a pact like ours is better not recorded.”
“Now, then, the thing is, can you find those papers?”
“I think I can. I have the key to a secret receptacle of Eldridge’s—”
“Then you have the whole thing—”
“No, the trouble is, I have the key, but I don’t know where the keyhole is.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I mean there is some secret receptacle, somewhere, but I don’t know where. I have the key—”
“Taken from Austin’s person, I suppose.”
“Well—I have it, and now I have to find the place that it unlocks. But I’ll find it.”
“Probably in the library.”
“I think so, but I don’t feel sure. However, I’ll hunt for it, and I can’t help feeling I’ll find it.”
The Mersereaus went back to the Eldridge house, satisfied that they had accomplished their object.
“It isn’t as if we were doing anything wrong,” Sarah said to her husband, “but as you well know, I am the rightful heir. Lorraine is not the slightest relation to Austin, and I am his only sister, and so entitled to his property. Even if he did legally adopt her, that doesn’t make her his daughter. Surely a blood relation comes first.”
“Surely, Sarah,” her obedient servant responded. “But do be careful. If it should come out that you connived with Crosby, you’d be in a bad hole.”
“It can’t come out. He won’t tell and certainly I sha’n’t. See to it, that you don’t make any slip that might lead to suspicion.”
In the library at Myrtle Lawn they found the detective, Thorne, talking to Lorraine. Young Miles was present, and though he sat demurely quiet, his eyes were roving about and his ears were taking in all he could compass.
Thorne was asking the girl some questions regarding her father, as she herself always called Eldridge, and scenting interesting disclosures, Sarah entered and seated herself to listen.
Unheeding her presence, Thorne went on.
“But as near as I can make out, Miss Eldridge, your father had few if any really desperate enemies, really belligerent ones. They seem to be mostly people whom he had helped with their investments or other financial affairs, and these ventures had not always turned out successfully.”
“Yes, that is largely true. Father didn’t invite confidences or consultation; these people came to him of their own accord, and he advised them to the best of his judgment—”
“Well, Miss Eldridge, we may as well face facts. The best of his judgment meant what he judged would be best for his own advantage.”
“I’m afraid so,” and Lorraine looked sorrowful. “But some of them were belligerent. The morning of the day he died, he told me, in Grant Maxwell’s presence, that there were people in Shoredale who would kill him if they dared. He said he knew big secrets of the big people—the prominent and influential people—and that with a word he could ruin them, or cover them with shame and ignominy.”
“You know any of these big people?”
Lorraine looked at him with quiet eyes.
“A list of them would merely be a list of the best known citizens of the place. From the minister, Doctor Ives, down to Ben Browning, the inn keeper.” Thorn looked startled.
“Including some women?” he asked.
“Oh, yes. Several.”
“My brother had many enemies,” Sarah Mersereau said, sententiously, “but he had also scores of friends. He was his own worst enemy, he was too kindly disposed, too willing to help all who came to him—and the result was, as might be expected, the very ones he had befriended turned on him and denounced him.”
“Father was both generous and kind hearted,” Lorraine said, “but he did use the confidences and secrets of those who confided in him, to further his own ends and to feather his own nest. I tell this frankly, hoping it may help shed a light on the murder. It must have been one of these disgruntled ones who killed him. You know, Mr. Thorne, it is out of the question that he should have been killed by any one in the house.”
“Of course it is,” declared Milliken, who came in to speak to Lorraine about some household matter. “That chap as passed by the house and turned back is the man you’re after—or ought to be. He’s the one what did for my dear master. For I was that fond of him! I don’t believe in all these wicked stories you’ve trumped up against him—that there passing-by man killed him, and, what’s more there was a woman back of it. Namin’ no names I say there was a woman back of it.”
“What woman, Milliken?” said Thorne, looking at her sternly. “As you’ve gone so far, you must go on and tell her name.”
“Goin’ on is what I aint goin’ to do nothin’ else but,” and the strong, gaunt frame stood upright in the doorway, as Milliken folded her long arms and nodded her determined head. “I say the time has come to speak out, and speak out I’m goin’ to. The woman back of it all is Mrs. Maxwell. Now, don’t you get up in arms, Miss Lorry, dear, that woman is a bad one, and you don’t want nothin’ to do with her. You tie to young Maxwell, but that doesn’t mean tie to his mother.”
“Leave the room, Milliken,” Lorraine said, in a tense, strained voice. “You have no right to intrude like this. Go to the kitchen at once.”
“Excuse me, Miss Eldridge,” Thorne said, “it is not only necessary that Milliken should explain her statements, but it will be better for you and for Mr. Maxwell and for all concerned that she should do so.”
“I should say so!” broke in Sarah, who had been sitting staring at Milliken as she talked. “Whatever can she mean? Mrs. Maxwell! Why she scarcely knew my brother.”
“Well, here’s what I mean,” Milliken declared. “And I’ve got to get it offen my chest. I ain’t a hand for holding secrets, they—why, they fair burn me! I feel it’s my bounden duty to tell what I know, and then, Mr. Detective, you can go ahead and slooth out more to match up with it. And it’s just this. I don’t know who killed Mr. Eldridge, not knowing the name of that vilyun what passed by and turned back to do his ferocious deed, but this I do know. The night Lennox was killed, Mrs. Maxwell was in this house at the time, and not only that—but, she was up in the master’s bedroom.”
“I don’t believe it!” Lorraine cried, but her heart stood still at the remembrance of the veiled woman who ran swiftly past her as she came up the steps of the back verandah, and whom she knew to be Mrs. Maxwell.
“In my brother’s bedroom!” cried Sarah. “Impossible! We, none of us go in there! Don’t listen to her, Mr. Thorne, it’s preposterous!”
“Did you see her, Milliken?” Thorne asked, paying no heed to Sarah’s protest.
“No, if I had, I’d a grabbed her! In master’s room! Her, and her high and mighty ways! A pretty how-de-do!”
“Was she—er—an intimate friend of your master’s?”
“Not her!” and Milliken spoke with scorn. “No, sir, master wouldn’t pick her up with the tongs. But he had a hold on her—that I do know.”
“How do you know? Come, Milliken, where do you get all this information? Surely, Mr. Eldridge didn’t confide in you—and you have small opportunity of eavesdropping—”
“It’s that Essie, Mr. Detective. That Essie, now, she was always and forever getting bits of newsy tales, and she’d repeat ’em to me. I listened, for I didn’t want that Essie to know more about my own people than what I did. Of course, you understand, the only reason I know these things or tell them, is in the hope of helping Miss Lorry, here. And I hold to it, the more I know and the more I tell, the sooner the whole truth will come out, and it won’t be no indetriment to Miss Lorry, neither.”
Thorne suppressed a smile at Milliken’s mistaken word, and followed up this chance that had come to him.
“You are quite right, Milliken,” he assured her. “The truth can be best come at by learning all we can about the matter in any of its aspects. Now, for my main question. How do you know that Mrs. Maxwell was in this house and upstairs in Mr. Eldridge’s room the night that Lennox died?”
“Well, sir, that Essie, she heard it from the servants next door.”
“Yes, sir, the next house as ever was. The Kennedys’ house, you know.”
“And the Kennedy servants saw Mrs. Maxwell here?”
“Just that, sir. There’s two maids over there as is friends of Essie’s and they told her as how they saw Mrs. Maxwell come here, sneakin’ like, and go in the house by the back door. Then, says they, the house being dark, they could see her by her flashlight, a going upstairs and into Mr. Eldridge’s bedroom. It’s on their side of the house, you see, and they say she was pokin’ around that room quite a spell, they a seein’ her figger on the shade like a picture show. I’m thinkin’ she never thought about folks from outside seein’ her, and she just snapped on the room light and went about her business. Which of course, huntin’ for somethin’ is what it couldn’t have been nothin’ else but.”
“That’s true. If Mrs. Maxwell was in that room late at night, it would seem that her errand must have been a search for something of value to herself.”
“Land, yes,” Sarah interrupted. “I know, if Lorraine doesn’t, that there was a time when my brother and Mrs. Maxwell were very friendly, and it may well be that he had some of her letters that she wanted before they fell into the reporters’ hands. They wouldn’t stop at showing them up in the papers, which would be pretty awful for a lady in Mrs. Maxwell’s position.”
“It doesn’t seem to me of any great importance,” Lorraine said. “Suppose she did come over here to look for her own letters—”
“We’re not sure that was her errand, Miss Eldridge,” Thorne said, gently. “It may have been, but we only surmise it. We, must ascertain for sure what she did come for.”
“You don’t suspicion she killed Lennox, do you?” asked Milliken; “maybe now, he came and caught her snoopin’ and she—”
“But he was killed down in the library,” Thorne reminded her.
“Well I know that, but she may’ve come down and snooped in the liberry too. If she was a huntin’ papers, she’d look everywhere—who wouldn’t?” All the time Milliken had been talking she had been playing with the snowstorm paperweight.
Lorraine’s nerves, already on edge, almost gave way as the long, bony fingers continually turned the glass ball over, and set it back, until the snow ceased to fall, and then repeated the process.
“For heaven’s sake, Milliken,” Lorraine said, in utter exasperation, “do leave that thing alone! If you turn it once more, you’ll drive me crazy!”
“Land, now, Miss Lorry, that ain’t no harm. The thing gets me, sort of, I just have to make it go. Look how purty it snows. Ain’t it cute? Say, Miss Lorry dear, give me it, won’t you? You don’t care for it—”
“No,” and Lorraine spoke shortly. “I have planned to give it to someone else.”
“I know,” and the sagacious Milliken nodded her wise head, “Mr. Crosby. He’s daft about it, too, Just as Mr. Eldridge was. The thing’s bewitched, I do believe.” Milliken gave the trinket a final turn, and set in on the table to snow itself out, and took a step toward the door.
“You may go,” said Thorne, looking at her thoughtfully. “I’ll check up on this astonishing tale of yours. But you do nothing in the matter. See?”
“Nothin’ is what I’m a goin’ to do, and I’m goin’ to do it mighty industrious.” And with a heavy step she strode from the room.
“We’ve got to delve deeper than we have yet, before we solve this mystery,” he said; “there are too many possible suspects, even too many probable ones. We must assume a big criminal, I mean a clever, desperate man, one with a big motive, and a big hatred of Austin Eldridge. It could not have been a disgruntled employee or a disappointed investor. Moreover, it must have been that man who passed the house, turned back and repassed it. You see, Miss Eldridge was behind her father’s high-backed chair, and no one else was directly in line of vision. That man could have stepped softly up on the verandah, accomplished his deadly purpose and stepped down again without disturbing any one.”
“Ridiculous!” Sarah exclaimed. “I should have seen him—”
“Not necessarily, Mrs. Mersereau. You were well around the side of the house, the south side. Tom Kennedy was well around on the north side, and Grant Maxwell was upstairs. Who was there to see him, except the two maids who looked out the windows and they say they did see him. That’s your criminal.”
“Now, look here, Thorne,” Louis Mersereau drawled out in his lackadaisical way, “you make that sound fine, but you’re trumping it up to get Lorraine off. Lord knows I don’t want to pin it on Lorraine, and if you think that’s as good a bluff to chuck as any, say so, and we’ll all stand by it. But don’t try to make us think you believe that yarn.”
“But I do,” Thorne asserted. “I hold that man is the only possible suspect. Miss Lorraine couldn’t possibly have done it, even if she had been inclined.”
“Why couldn’t she?”
“Because her movements necessary to get around in front of her father would have been noticed by Tom Kennedy. He was grouching, as he himself admits, and it’s an open secret that his trouble was caused by the apprehension that Lorraine was about to become engaged to his rival—to Grant Maxwell. Therefore, that man’s ears and senses were especially alert for any sound or movement of Miss Eldridge’s but he would pay no heed to any one else. A dozen men could have come up on the porch without disturbing his reverie, but if the girl he loved had made one move, taken one step, he would have been instantly aware of it.”
“Fine arguing, but pretty far fetched,” Mersereau commented, while Sarah merely looked her scorn of this twaddle.
“I don’t want to think Lorry guilty, either,” she said, slowly, “but I do want to find out who killed my brother, and also, I want his affairs settled up. As no papers have been found to prove that Lorraine was ever adopted by my brother, and as no will has been discovered, I am the heir, and I’ve been to see Mr. Crosby, and he tells me the matter can be settled up shortly, and I can go back to my home. I don’t want this house, I shall sell it, and the New York house, too.”
“Not too fast, Mrs. Mersereau,” Thorne said, shaking his head slowly. “Crosby hasn’t the say in these things. The law will step in, I fancy, and see about your inheritance and Miss Eldridge’s position in the matter.”
“Miss Eldridge has no position in the matter,” Sarah blazed forth, angrily. “She has not the slightest claim on me, but I am willing to settle a fair sum on her, as I can’t see her in want.”
“Don’t trouble yourself, Aunt Sarah,” Lorraine said, dully, “I couldn’t accept your charity if I were starving.”
“Fine talk!” Sarah jeered. “But you’ll sing another song when I offer you the money. I know these high strung souls, they come down from their high horse with a bang when the time arrives.”
“Miss Eldridge may not be able to prove her legal adoption by the man she called father,” Thorne said, quietly, “but she will positively be cleared of any suspicion of implication in the murder of that man. As I have said, the man who passed by is the criminal and he must be found. It will not be easy, for we must grant him a man of a high order of intelligence to plan such a crime. Of a quick and agile muscular ability, to put it over. And by no means the least important factor, of an expert knowledge of physiology to be able to strike the blow so surely and so swiftly. No one without surgical training could have accomplished that, and that very point lets Miss Eldridge out. Had she desired to do so, she couldn’t have risen from her hammock, gone round in front of Mr. Eldridge and driven in that slender, sharp blade, between the ribs and true to the heart. You all know that, so why allow the faintest breath of doubt to remain as to her entire innocence?”
“Well put,” said Louis, “and far be it from me to accuse Lorraine. But I hold it isn’t true to say she couldn’t have done it. She studied first aid and all that in war times and she knows where the heart is situated. As to her ability to reach her victim, she had as good a chance, and better at that, than your man in the street.”
“I don’t agree with you,” Thorne said, “but I see that my convictions must be proved, and I propose to prove them. First, I must go and interview Mrs. Maxwell though I admit I hope for little helpful information from that episode.”
It was easier than Thorne had supposed to gain an audience with Mrs. Maxwell. When he reached the beautiful home, Maxwell Manor, he was resolved to put up a fight, if necessary, to gain admittance. But the man who opened the door and took his name, returned very shortly to say Mrs. Maxwell would be down at once.
She came, trailing into the room where Thorn waited, her manner haughty, but not scornful, indifferent, but not repelling.
A very handsome woman, she was at her best in her simple gray housegown, with frills of old yellowed lace, and her carefully dressed white hair rose in an old-fashioned pompadour above her fine brow and piercing black eyes.
“I am glad you came, Mr. Thorne,” she said, in her low, well modulated voice. “May I ask your errand and afterward I will make some inquiries of you.”
Peter Thorne was a little taken aback at this casual treatment of his appearance. He had expected her to be disturbed at his coming.
But he had no time to waste, and so thought it best to come to the point at once.
“I came, Mrs. Maxwell, to ask you why you visited Mr. Eldridge’s house secretly at midnight.”
This shaft struck home. Clearly, it was not what she had looked for.
“I—I didn’t—” she said, but her nervously working fingers and trembling lips belied her words.
“Yes, you did,” contradicted Thorne, “and as you are a sensible, straight-thinking woman, you must know how futile it is to deny it. Would I speak of it if I did not know it to be a fact?”
“How do you know it?”
“You were seen—by the servants in the house next door.”
“Oh, if you are going to accept the gossip of servants in preference to my word—”
“I am, Mrs. Maxwell, because they have no reason for falsifying, and you have. Of course you do not want it known, or you would not have gone stealthily. But it is known and you may as well make the best of it. You went to search for some papers, did you not?”
“Yes,” she returned, and her eyes blazed with anger. “Yes, I did, and I had a perfect right to.”
“They were your own letters? Old letters?”
“That they were not! I never had any affair with Mr. Eldridge, if that is what you are implying.”
“No romance, perhaps, but what about business affairs—investments?”
“Nothing of the sort. Young man, you are on the wrong track. I was not mixed up with Austin Eldridge in any way whatever. I had no dealings with him, romantic, financial or any other sort.”
“Then what papers were you hunting for?”
“That I shall not tell you. But I will tell you that I did not find them. And if you find them, I hope you will tell me.”
“How can I, when I don’t know what they are?”
“You’ll know, if you find them. At any rate, if they are found I shall hear of it.”
“Do you mean his will? Are you a beneficiary?”
It was not Thorne’s habit to ask such direct questions, but his intuitions told him that what he learned from this self-possessed woman must be surprised out of her. She must be led into inadvertent admissions and unintentional statements.
But she was wary. “I don’t know whether I am or not. If so, it would be only to the extent of a keepsake or some memento of our friendship.”
“You were friendly with Mr. Eldridge, then?”
“Oh, yes, we have been friends for years. His wife was a schoolmate of mine.”
“And the papers you sought related to Mrs. Eldridge?”
“I have not said so.”
“Well, Mrs. Maxwell, I think I may say you’ll have to be a little more explicit. Breaking into a closed house at midnight—”
“It wasn’t closed—locked, I mean. I walked right in.”
“No matter, you did not ring the bell or knock. You went in softly, stealthily, and that constitutes what is known as forcible entrance. For this you will have to account, to me or to the police.”
“You do not intimidate me, Mr. Thorne. If the police want to question me, they may do so. I am not afraid of them.”
Peter Thorne concluded this wise woman was not afraid of anybody, so he tried another tack.
“What do you know of the death of Lennox, the butler?” he asked, suddenly.
This told. Mrs. Maxwell, gave a shudder and clasped her hands tightly together.
“Don’t ask me anything about that,” she said, speaking in a mere whisper, and her black eyes peered out from a face distorted with agony.
“I must,” and Thorne followed up his advantage. “And you must tell. Did you kill him? In self defense? Did he attack you? Or threaten you?”
He fired these questions at her rapidly, in an endeavor to break down what small remnant of her calm remained, but, to his surprise, his words seemed to restore her equanimity.
“I kill him!” she exclaimed, in utter amazement. “Mercy, no! Why would I kill Lennox?”
She looked genuinely amazed, and Thorne who had learned to read her face saw that whatever she had done she was guiltless of that murder.
“Who did?” he said, abruptly, and she gave no answer.
“You know who did?” he said, more gently.
“N-no,” she shook her head, but Thorne knew she lied.
“Well,” he said, “then tell me the circumstances. You went there to look for some papers, which you were justified in searching for, but didn’t want the family to know about. That right?”
“Yes,” she admitted.
“And then, knowing they were most likely up in Mr. Eldridge’s bedroom, you went up there to look for them, and you carried a flashlight. Right again?
“Yes.” She spoke warily.
“And you didn’t succeed in finding them?”
“You’re going to look again?”
“No, never!” Her tone was so suggestive of horror, that Thorne readily assumed it was because of the connection of ideas between the midnight visit and the sight of the dead butler. For he now knew that Mrs. Maxwell was not responsible for that crime, but she doubtless knew who was.
“No, of course not,” he said, soothingly. “You have too dreadful a recollection of—”
He paused, and she fell into the trap.
“Yes—yes. Oh, it was awful—poor Lennox, his staring eyes—” she buried her face in her hands as if to shut out the sight.
Thorne tried to work quickly.
“Yes, and the murderer escaping—”
“Yes—” her great eyes met his and perhaps a gleam of triumph on Thorne’s face recalled her to her senses. “No,” she cried, “not the murderer—of course I didn’t see him—the victim—Lennox, you know—.”
“Yes, but who did it? Who stabbed him with that paper-cutter?”
“I’ve not the slightest idea.” She was her own mistress again. She looked him squarely in the eye, and lied magnificently.
Whom could she be shielding? Surely not her son—he was at that time down in the garden with Lorraine. And, too, young Maxwell could have no possible motive for killing the Eldridges’ butler. Unless Lennox had been attacking or threatening Mrs. Maxwell. But Lennox would not do that. Even if he had seen her searching in the house, he might have put her out, but he would have given her no cause to kill him.
Yet somebody had killed him. Somebody had cold-bloodedly murdered him about that very time.
“He was dead when you came downstairs, then?” he shot at her, realizing this method of attack brought the best results.
“Yes.” She shuddered but did not look at him. Her thoughts were quite evidently back at the dreadful scene.
“Why did you go to the library just then?”
“Because I hadn’t found the papers upstairs and I thought I’d look about in the library.”
“And Lennox lay there dead, on the floor?”
“And no one else was about? The murderer had fled?”
“I saw no one.”
Thorne wondered if he could scare her into telling the truth.
“Look here, Mrs. Maxwell, I hate to be brutal, but unless you will tell who killed that man, you will be suspected of the murder yourself.”
Her fine upper lip curled scornfully.
“I am not afraid of that,” she returned, “it is too absurd to be even mentioned.”
“That is not so. This case has become a very mysterious one. If the two crimes are connected, if the killing of the butler is in any way an outcome of the killing of Mr. Eldridge, no one will be spared in the efforts of the police to get at the truth. They would quite as lief suspect a grand lady as the lowest class of criminal.”
She paled a little, but stood her ground.
“I am not afraid,” she repeated, and Thorne had to admit to himself that he had never seen any one look more fearless.
He changed the subject.
“Why did you think there were papers hidden in his bedroom?” he asked, in a conversational tone.
“I don’t know exactly. It just seems as if I had heard he had a concealed safe there, but I may be mistaken. I may have imagined it, because it would seem a likely thing for him to do. I only looked about to see if I could run across such a hiding place.”
“And you did not?”
“Of course, I did not. I have told you my search was unsuccessful”
Thorne couldn’t see his way clear to get anything more out of her. He was sure she had seen and recognized the slayer of Lennox, either during or just after the fatal moment, but he was sure she would not divulge that secret at present.
He hoped to be able to compel her to do so later on, but now it was hopeless.
So he thanked her for the interview, told her that if he discovered any papers he thought would interest her he would let her know, and then he went away.
And with plenty to think about.
Mrs. Maxwell had been so frank and outspoken about her midnight raid on the Eldridge house, he did not believe she went for any other purpose than the one she confessed to, and he did not believe she was involved in any phase or portion of the crimes committed in that house.
That there were important papers she wanted to find was obviously the truth, but, as he well knew, there were hundreds of papers and letters among the effects of Austin Eldridge that would be eagerly and joyfully welcomed if given up to their writers or owners.
Peter Thorne had unearthed enough data regarding shady transactions and matters of bribery and corruption, as well as proofs of improper relations and illicit amours, to show that anywhere from one to two score people would be glad to learn of Austin Eldridge’s death, and would have been willing to have been the instrument thereof, had there been no fear of retribution of justice.
It had sickened Thorne’s heart to realize what a thorough-going scoundrel Eldridge had been, the meanwhile posing as a pillar of the church and the most estimable and worthy citizen of Shoredale.
Had he lived and had he become Mayor, as he hoped and expected, there would have been such a degraded state of politics ensuing as would have led to certain disgrace and disaster to all concerned, and to many who were not.
Thorne walked slowly back to the inn, and arrived there about dinner time.
Ed Miles met him with an eager face, and an alert air of helpfulness. So far the boy had not been of any real or definite help, but he was useful in picking up stray bits of news that often gave Thorne an idea of which way the wind was blowing.
After dinner the detective had a long private confab with Mr. Miles, the boy’s father, from which young Ed was excluded.
Thorne learned that his discoveries of the underlying rottenness of Eldridge’s plans and schemes was not entirely a surprise to Miles. He had not known definitely as much as the detective had found out, but he had had his suspicions.
“I’m not employed to show up Mr. Eldridge’s private sins,” Thorne said, musingly, “but I declare I’d like to mete out justice in a few cases.”
“Go ahead and do so, my boy,” Miles heartily advised him. “Especially in matters where women are concerned. Financially, I mean.”
“Yes,” Thorne agreed, “The one who was swindled in the Apollo business and the one whose mortgage was foreclosed, and the one—oh, there are lots of them. If I could feel it was my place to do so, I could make a few restitutions that would be mighty welcome to the poor victims of that man’s greed and chicanery.”
“It is your place to do so, as far as you can in conformance with your client’s wishes,” Mr. Miles informed him, “and I, for one, advise you to go ahead.”
Which advice Peter Thorne promised to think over.
As Mr. Miles left the detective, his place was quickly snapped up by his son.
“I say, Mr. Thorne,” Ed began, “I thought I was to help you about this Eldridge business—”
“Well, why don’t you?”
“I mean, I thought I was to be your right-hand man—”
“Well, why aren’t you?”
The kindly smile of Peter Thorne took any possible sting from these quizzical speeches, and Ed Miles began to smile himself.
“I suppose you mean I haven’t done anything,” he suggested.
“Something of that sort,” agreed Peter.
“Well, I’ve something to tell you now, anyway. Maybe it’s no good, and maybe it will help.”
“All right, boy, come on up to my room with me, and disclose your secrets to my willing ears.”
Once ensconced in Thorne’s room, the detective took his flute from its case and began to play very softly.
“Go on, Ed,” he said, “this music needn’t disturb you and it does me a power of good.”
“I didn’t know you played the flute. Are you a real musician?”
“Not quite that, but as you know, I am, or want to be, a real detective, and the best authorities always depict a detective as playing a violin or something. So, as a flute is so much smaller and easier to carry about, I adopted it. I have three flutes—”
“Oh, yes, I see the cases, and here’s a tiny little case, empty. Did it hold a little flute?”
“Yes—that is, a piccolo. That’s a piccolo case.”
“Where’s the pic?”
“Gone. I haven’t it now. But what’s this astounding disclosure you want to make?”
“Don’t guy me, Mr. Thorne. It’s about Dora Reed. She says she’d like to see you.”
“Me! How does she know anything about me?”
“I told her. And she says she knew Mr. Eldridge awfully well, and maybe she can be of some help to you.”
“Maybe she can. At any rate I’ll be glad to go to see her. Want to take me, mate?”
“Yes, indeed,” said young Miles, his eyes dancing, for he was always thrilled when Thorne called him mate. “Now?”
“I think so. Just for a short call. Is it far?”
“Oh, no. A few minutes’ walk. Play one more tune first, won’t you?”
Good-naturedly Peter played another tune, and then they started.
Dora Reed proved to be a decent-mannered young woman, attired in flashy clothes and tawdry jewelry. Her mop of yellow hair was bobbed into a frowzled mass and the make-up on her face must have required long and skilful application.
“What do you want?” she asked impudently, as she saw the stranger. Then recognizing Ed Miles, she quickly added, “Lordy, is it the detective?”
“Yes, Miss Reed,” said Thorne, “may I come in?”
“Ray-ther!” and she flew around excitedly. She pushed an easy chair toward him, pushed him down into it, ran for the cigarette box, drew up a smoking stand near him and then plumped herself down on a much becushioned sofa, and cupping her chin in her hands, she sat and stared at him.
“Pretty good-looking for a detective,” she commented, “thought they were hook-nosed and hawk-eyed. Well, so much the better, I sure do admire handsome men.”
“You embarrass me, Miss Reed,” laughed Thorne, “also you disappoint me. I want to look like a detective. It is my aim to do so.”
“Oh, you’re all right.” She tossed off the subject. “Now, how far have you gone in detecting the murderer of Austin Aldridge? Bet you haven’t found out a thing!”
“You win,” said Thorne, gravely, “or if I have found out a few things they’re not, as yet, important enough to solve the case. Have you any opinion?”
“Sure. It was the butler, Lennox, killed Mr. Eldridge, and then that old housekeeper, Billikens, or whatever she is, she killed the butler.”
“An ingenious theory,” Thorne said, politely. “But I can’t see just how Lennox pulled off his crime. He was in the dining room when Mr. Eldridge was stabbed.”
“Says he was. But who knows? And he’d have the carving knife handy.”
“After all, Miss Reed, theories don’t help much. Do you know any facts bearing on the case? I understand you were a friend of Mr. Eldridge’s.”
“You bet I was. And I’ll tell anything I know if it’ll help bring his murderer to the chair. What do you want to know about?”
“Nothing about Mr. Eldridge himself. But about his habits regarding his valuable papers, private records and that sort of thing. You may have been in his confidence.”
“I was in his confidence all right. I know lots about his private business affairs. I know all about the Apollo Mining Company—and a fine old fraud it is. But what I want to know is where is that man’s will. That’s what interests little golden-haired Dolly! For you see, there’s a goodly slice of kale left to me in that missing document.”
“How do you know it is missing?”
“Land, everybody knows that! If it wasn’t, it would be produced and given to the public. But I know where it is.”
“Well, I do and I don’t. I know this much—it’s in a secure hiding place that nobody’s likely to find.”
“How do you know this?”
“Mr. Eldridge often told me so. He said he had the cleverest concealed place for papers that anybody ever devised.”
“What man can hide, man can find,” Thorne said, rather sententiously.
“Then go to it, Mr. Detective. Find that will, and get me my inheritance and I’ll bless you all my life. You see, I know Mr. Eldridge left me an annuity. Of course, he didn’t expect to go off so sudden, or he’d looked after me first. But he did tell me that I was well provided for in case of his death and I want that provision.”
“I’ll be glad to help you get it, Miss Reed. Can’t you give me some hint regarding the secret place?”
“Only that it is up in his bedroom. That I know, but I know no more.”
“That is a help. I had suspected it, but I’m glad to be sure. I hope I can search that room carefully enough to find the place. But why did Mr. Eldridge keep his will so carefully hidden?”
“I dunno. He had a lot of things with it—all the Apollo papers and the adoption papers for Miss Lorraine and—oh, loads of things.”
Thorne’s heart missed a beat. The adoption papers! Then Lorry was legally adopted, and if so, she was the heir, irrespective of the will, providing, of course, that the will did not leave the property elsewhere.
Anyway, there was work to be done and at once. He, Thorne, must find that hiding place before anybody else could do so. He soon discovered that Dora Reed had no more information to give, and he went away determined to spare no efforts in his search of Austin Eldridge’s bedroom.
He dismissed Ed, much to the youngster’s chagrin, but Thorne was so absorbed in his new quest, he thought of nothing else.
At the Eldridge home he found Lorraine and Grant Maxwell on the porch, and suddenly remembered he had something to tell them.
“Look here, my children,” he said, “I’ve a notion that you two saw some one coming out of this house as you came in, the night Lennox was killed.” Neither spoke, but it was plain to see they understood.
“Well, you needn’t answer, but I just want you to know that it was Mrs. Maxwell, and that she was here on no business of wrongdoing. She had a perfectly proper and legitimate errand and she is, of course, innocent of any implication in the death of the butler. She did see his dead body and it so unnerved her, that she made a stealthy and hurried escape.”
“Oh, Mr. Thorne, how kind of you to tell us,” cried Lorraine, her eyes full of tears.”
“I’ve been so worried and anxious about it, and I’ve never mentioned it to Grant—”
“Well, don’t avoid the subject any more. Where’s Milliken? Please send her to me in the library.”
He went on into the house and straight to the library. One glance around the room caused him to set his lips firmly and frown deeply.
“Here I am, sir, whatcha want?” and Milliken’s gaunt form appeared. She entered and closed the door.
“Have you been in this room before this morning, Milliken?”
“No, sir, not till this minute as ever was. Why?”
“Who dusted and tidied up?”
“Essie, sir. It’s her business. Why?”
“Would she touch that paper-weight? That snow storm one?”
“She would not. She’s under your strict orders not to. Likewise what I am.”
“Yes. And who of the family has been in here this morning?”
“Not one, sir, not a livin’ breathin’ one. Those Mersereaus, they went off for the day, on some endurin’ business and Miss Lorry, she’s been gallivantin’ with Mr. Maxwell all morning.”
“Then, Milliken, someone was in here during the night. I left that paperweight fixed so that I could tell if it had been touched. When I left it, I noticed it very carefully. There were three tiny flecks of snow on the sail of the boat and a high little pile on the summit of the lighthouse. Now, as you see, there is one large flake on the sail, and the top of the lighthouse is absolutely bare. It was a trap, and somebody has fallen into it. Somebody turned that toy over in the night, to watch it snow. Who would do it, Milliken?”
“Now, well you know, Mr. Thorne, there’s but one person ever comes into this room, barrin’ myself, that would bother with the thing. Only one who, like myself, is fair crazy about it, and can’t resist playing with it. And I swear, sir, that I didn’t touch it last night or this morning.”
A glance of intelligence passed between the two, and then Thorne said slowly; “It must have been Crosby, then.”
“Yes, sir, that it must. The sneakin’ vilyun to come in here unbeknownst and sly-like! What, now, would he be after? Just to be a playin’ with the glass bauble?”
Thorne smiled. “No, Milliken, he came for bigger game than that. He came to search for a hiding-place for papers.”
“And he’s got a right to,” exclaimed Louis Mersereau, who had opened the door and walked in as Thorne made his statement. “He has the key to that secret place, but he can’t find the place itself.”
Thorne hid his interest in the fact that Crosby had the key, but he was more than ever determined that he would be the one to find the keyhole.
Taking no notice of Mersereau, he went upstairs to Austin Eldridge’s bedroom and vowed to himself that he would not leave it until he had forced it to give up its secret.
He lighted a cigar, seated himself in an easy chair and let his eyes travel slowly and systematically round the room.
As Thorne’s gaze roamed meditatively around the bedroom of Austin Eldridge, his thoughts were tumbling over one another in a chaos of uncertainty.
Dora Reed was uppermost in his mind. Her theory that Lennox killed Eldridge and Milliken killed Lennox, he dismissed with a smile. But her information about the hiding place in the bedroom, and her knowledge of Eldridge’s nefarious practices gave him food for thought. In fact, he was far more interested in finding the will and the adoption papers than in answering the question of who killed Eldridge. And here he sat, knowing that the hiding place was in the room, yet unable to find it. Of course, he had long since looked through all the drawers and cupboards, the closets and wardrobes, every available nook and cranny of the bedroom and its adjoining bathroom.
But all in vain, and though he had now determined to search even more minutely, he could think of no new way to look.
He had his flute with him, and he played softly at intervals. Then he would take up his cigar again, meantime gazing hard at the walls and ceiling.
The household had become accustomed to the sound of his flute and the soft, low strains that he played were pleasant to hear.
He summed up in his mind. First of all, of course, he must find a murderer for Austin Eldridge. Then he must find a murderer for Lennox. Then he must find the will—if one existed, and finally he must find the papers that would make Lorraine the legal daughter of her father by adoption.
Lorraine. His memory lingered fondly on the picture of the girl he loved. Yes, loved, though he knew it was not only hopeless but impossible. He had no right to think of marrying any woman, least of all Lorraine Eldridge. The dark secret of his life stood like an angel with a flaming sword between him and any happiness of romance. Almost he regretted his early vow, his later keeping of it, and his enforced renunciation of all that goes to make up the happiness of man. Yet, he had chosen, and he must abide by his choice.
Softly he played his flute; a slow, sad strain, that seemed the outlet of his heart’s mute agony.
Lorraine. Dear, sweet, wistful-eyed Lorraine. Yet she was happy with Grant Maxwell, and all they wanted was his mother’s sanction to their union.
This Thorne proposed to get for them. How, he didn’t quite know, but after he had adjusted some more pressing matters, he meant to tackle that problem. And perhaps it would settle itself in the meantime.
Other things he had to do were certain restorations and reimbursements that Austin Eldridge owed, morally, if not legally. He meant to see to it that some poor women had their hearts made glad by a righting of the wrongs Eldridge had done them. He meant to expose certain illegal proceedings of some rulers in high places; there would be scandals, there would be ructions, but he did not care. His business was the showing up of intentional frauds and the recompense of the victims. How long or difficult a process this might prove to be, he neither knew nor cared. That was his chosen work. Discovery and conviction of the murderer or murderers would be looked after as well, but financial justice must be meted out, or he would know the reason why.
To his mind the long practiced and systematic chicanery of Austin Eldridge was a greater crime than that of the man who had been responsible for his taking off.
And of late, he had begun to look on Crosby with distrust. At first he had thought the lawyer not only a friend, but a safe and sane adviser of his rich client. Recently he had come to wonder whether Crosby was not as crooked as Eldridge himself.
And now, having heard from Louis that Crosby had the key to the hiding place they were both seeking, Thorne was more than ever determined that he would be the one to find the keyhole.
And whether because of this indomitable purpose or whether by mere chance, his eyes suddenly lighted on a certain place that made him start and sit upright.
It was an apparent space above a built-in wardrobe. Probably the cupboard was open inside clear up to the ceiling, but if it were not, there was a possibility to be investigated.
He sat a moment gazing in absorbed silence.
The wardrobe was built of paneled wood, and there was a deep drawer at the bottom and doors above it. But the doors did not run up to the ceiling, there was a panel above them which occupied about two feet of the height of the wardrobe’s front.
In all probability, Thorne knew, that paneled space was open inside, above the top shelf. But if it were not, there was an available space for storage.
Slowly he rose and walked toward the wardrobe. He made sure the room door was locked, and then opened the wardrobe door. A first glance seemed to show that top space open above the top shelf. But was it? There didn’t seem to be quite so much height inside as outside.
Thorne brought a chair, and stepping up on it, ran his hand cautiously over the inside of the top.
And, as he had scarcely dared hope, there was a hollow sound when he knocked on it, not the sound of a solid top.
Slowly and meticulously he felt all over the surface he was exploring, and at last was rewarded by the feel of a tiny metal disk in one of the front corners. This he proved to his satisfaction was the slot of a Yale lock!
And Crosby had the key!
What would happen when the key was turned?
Careful feeling seemed to show a crack along the whole length of the top. This crack was about in the middle and Thorne concluded that when the place was unlocked the front half would fall down on hinges, and the back half of the long shelf would be the hiding place Austin Eldridge had so cleverly contrived.
It was most ingenious. The neatness of the work precluded any suspicion of its presence there. The crack along the wood was so fine as to be practically indiscernible, or if noticed, it would be taken for a mere seam in the top boards. The tiny keyhole was so far to the front and in the very corner, so that it, too, was unnoticeable, almost unfindable.
Yet there it all was. The secret hiding place was a secret no longer, though as inaccessible as ever to Peter Thorne until he could get possession of the key.
Yet there must be another key. He knew that with any Yale lock the owner is almost invariably given two keys.
However, he had small hope of finding the second key. Eldridge had without doubt hidden that so securely, or, more likely thrown it away, that it was irretrievable.
So his next job was to get the key from Crosby.
Not for a moment did he doubt that Crosby had it in his possession. Louis Mersereau was of the sort who blurt out secrets confided to them, and his statement that Crosby had the key was in all likelihood true.
At first, Thorne thought of getting the key by the help of the police.
Then he concluded that, if possible, he would much prefer to see those papers himself first. Should they be of service to Lorraine he wanted to be the one to offer her that service. And should they be adverse to her interests—well, he wouldn’t decide now what he might do in that case.
He carefully reclosed the wardrobe door, set a chair casually in front of it, and prepared to leave. To be sure there was small chance that the secret he had discovered would be found by any other searcher, but Crosby was almost as indefatigable as himself, and he meant to work rapidly now.
As a means of ascertaining whether Crosby entered the room or not, he went down to the library and brought up the snowstorm paperweight. So long as Crosby did not catch on, this was a perfect trap, for the man could not see the bauble without turning it over and watching the miniature snow flurry.
And by carefully noting the position of the motionless flakes, Thorne could readily ascertain if it had been touched.
This time he saw there were two flakes on the sail of the boat, and three in a straight row on the lighthouse front and a queer shaped little pile on the cottage. Any further snow storm would leave a different arrangement, and jotting it down on a page of his pocket notebook, Thorne left the room.
He went to the police station to have a talk with Stiles.
That worthy had done little or nothing of importance on the case, and was secretly glad to see Thorne, but he put up a bold front of achievement, and condescendingly asked the detective what he had accomplished since last they met.
“Not much as to the murderer,” Thorne confessed, “but I’ve dug up a lot of scandalous behavior on the part of Mr. Eldridge, and some of it, at least, I propose to set right.”
“You don’t think you’re getting outside your proper jurisdiction?” Stiles asked, a little superciliously.
“I do not. To right the wrong wherever and whenever possible is within the jurisdiction of every good citizen.”
“All right, but I’m more keen to find and convict the murderer.”
“One may bring about the other.”
“Have you no idea which way to look for the man who killed Mr. Eldridge?”
“There are too many ways to look. When I find out how many various and sundry people had reason to wish that man dead, I realize that only lack of opportunity could have kept them from killing him.”
“Well, if it isn’t literally true, it’s true that they had motive, and in some cases, will. But opportunity was hard to find—”
“Yet someone found it.”
“Yes, someone with such unbounded determination that he overcame all obstacles and made his own opportunity.”
“And made his own getaway, and so cleverly, that there’s no tracking him down. I say, Mr. Thorne, it’s impossible that a man should come in from the street and do that thing. You know yourself it couldn’t be put over. Somebody must have seen him. Somebody must have heard him. And Mr. Eldridge wouldn’t sit there and let a stranger walk up and stab him without a murmur of protest.”
“Then how do you account for it?”
“Simply that it wasn’t done that way. It was done by a member of the household, by someone who could walk up to Austin Eldridge without exciting his surprise or annoyance—in a word, somebody he knew—and knew well.”
“Miss Eldridge, of course. Now, I know you won’t agree, because she’s a beautiful young girl, and, too, you’re more than half in love with her yourself, notwithstanding she’s engaged to Maxwell.”
Peter Thorne swallowed hard, and repressed his almost ungovernable impulse to knock Stiles down, but he was on his guard.
“You’re wrong on both counts, Stiles,” he said, quietly; “first, that Miss Eldridge killed her father, and second, that I’d dare presume to admire her more than a casual stranger may admire a lovely girl. But since you feel as you do about it, I shall try harder than ever to prove her innocence, and the only way to do that—”
“The only way to do that,” Stiles interrupted him, “is to produce the real murderer.”
“Yes,” said Thorne, “that’s what I was going to say.”
“Go to it, then,” Stiles told him, “and get busy mighty quick, for it can’t be long now before an arrest must be made of—somebody.”
“Yes,” scoffed Thorne, with bitterness in his tone. “Yes, arrest somebody—anybody—only make an arrest!”
“That’s what I’m hired for,” declared Stiles, cheerfully.
“Look here,” and Thorne became suddenly confidential,” tell me this, old man. What do you know of Crosby? As to his integrity, I mean.”
“Oh, that’s a trifle of character that Mr. Crosby doesn’t possess.”
“Whew! That’s strong talk!
“True talk, though. He may have a spurious article to parade upon occasion, but the real thing is lacking from his makeup. This is between us, but I’m trusting you, Mr. Thorne.”
“You may. But I thought Crosby stood for progress and righteousness and—”
“He stands for those things, but he isn’t ’em. No, sir, I’ve small use for Lawyer Crosby, and I dare say he has still less for me. Why, if he’d had a look-in of a chance, I’d suspect him of that murder in one minute! But he was over at the inn at the time— you saw him there?”
“Yes, that is I saw him at the dinner table. Mrs. Miles introduced us—I was a newcomer then.”
“I know. Well, he was there from half-past twelve or so, on. And we know Eldridge was killed at just about one o’clock, because they have lunch at one there. So that lets Crosby out. But what do you want to know about him for?”
“Because I’m thinking of making friends of the Mammon of Unrighteousness.”
“He’s your man, then. If ever a description fitted, he’s that very thing. Him and Eldridge, they were two first-class scoundrels, though they posed as philanthropists, and benefactors. I hate to knock the dead, but this world’s a heap better without Eldridge in it than with him. And the same’s true of Crosby. So, put that in your pipe and smoke it. And another thing, if you undertake any deals with Crosby look out for yourself. He’ll do you in, sure’s shootin’.”
“I believe you, and I shall look out. If you miss me any time, look up Crosby’s alibi.”
“Well,” and Stiles sighed, “to get back to the other thing. You must see I’ve got to arrest Miss Eldridge or—somebody. Say, for choice, that horse marine of a servant housekeeper.”
Thorne laughed outright. “Milliken! Arrest her, do! I wish you joy of it! She’ll lead you a dance. Beside, you haven’t an atom of evidence against her any more that you have against Miss Lorraine.”
“Not as much,” Stiles growled, and Thorne went away, greatly perturbed at the outlook.
Ed Miles joined him on the street, and they walked along together in silence.
“I say, Mr. Thorne,” the boy said, at last, “what-cha waitin’ fer? Ain’t you just sure Mr. Eldridge was bumped off by that man they saw walking along the street, past the house and back, you know.”
“Don’t you think he was the murderer?”
“Yes, Ed, I do. But how are we to find him?”
“For anybody who saw him—I mean, outside the Eldridge people. They say two of the maids saw him, from the house, but somebody outside might’ve seen him, too. Say, somebody walkin’ along did see him fly up on the porch, stab Mr. Eldridge and fly down again, couldn’t he, maybe, describe him, so’s you could get at him? I betcha!”
“It might be, Ed, but it’s one chance in a thousand.”
“In a million, maybe, but it’s a chance. Why don’t you take it?”
“Perhaps I will. I’ll think it over, anyway. Now, skip it, Ed, my boy, I’m going on an errand.”
“Don’t be inquisitive, it isn’t polite.” And with a smiling nod, Thorne turned a corner and strode on ahead of the boy.
Young Miles watched him as he went, saying to himself; “that man’s up against it! I never saw him just like that before. Wonder where he’s going. I’d oughta know.”
And so, Miles dogged the footsteps of the detective, furtively and unseen, until he perceived that he was going to the Crosby house.
Peter Thorne had made up his mind. After Stiles’ wholesale denunciation of Crosby, he felt that his own suspicions of him were justified, and he was the sort who goes to meet trouble half way.
For trouble there was bound to be. So far, Crosby and Thorne had been outwardly friendly, but both knew of the undercurrent of ill-feeling and were wary of the moment when it should break forth in actual enmity.
And now, to Thorne’s mind the moment had arrived. Whatever the result, he must have a plain talk with the lawyer.
He found him at home and not at all unwilling to receive his visitor.
Thorne looked around in admiration at the beautiful room in which he found his host. It was part office and part library, but the details of furnishing and appointments were both luxurious and in perfect taste.
At a great carved desk of early English period, Crosby was seated, and he rose as Thorne approached.
“Glad to see you, Mr. Thorne,” he said, genially, “sit here. Have a cigar.”
He gave Thorne a comfortable chair, drew a smoking stand up to his elbow, offered a box of choice cigars, and then established himself near by.
“Come to chat over the case, I take it,” and Crosby smiled pleasantly. “Just where does it stand now?”
Thorne was wary. He had no desire to antagonize the lawyer, yet he could not bring himself to be chummy.
“In a precarious position,” he answered, gravely. “Stiles tells me he is about to arrest Miss Lorraine Eldridge.”
“Good heavens! That won’t do! We can’t allow that, can we?”
Thorne looked up at him quickly. The words were all right, but Crosby’s tone was peculiar. It sounded almost quizzical, as if he were mocking the detective and the police as well.
“I shouldn’t like to see it done, Mr. Crosby, for though, of course, Miss Eldridge would never be convicted, it would put her to a great deal of useless trouble and distress.”
“Can you prevent it?”
“Mr. Stiles and I have agreed that the only way to prevent it is to find the real criminal.”
“The man in the street?”
“To my way of thinking, yes, the man in the street.”
“You are accepting him as the murderer in order to lift suspicion from Miss Eldridge?”
“I am accepting him as the murderer because it is my sincere conviction that he was the murderer.”
“Ah, yes. And you see no difficulty for him in reaching the verandah unobserved, in striking his blow unseen, and in getting away unnoticed?”
“I see grave difficulties in accomplishing what seems to be almost a miracle, but I am convinced it was done. Can you not conceive of a super-criminal who could and did do just those things?”
“I can conceive of such a one, but it seems to me too great a feat of the imagination to be practically possible.”
“Then you suspect—”
“I can’t say I positively suspect anyone. I have given the subject much thought and I must confess I’ve no clearer idea of who the murderer was than I had when I first heard of the crime.”
“Well, Mr. Crosby, it is a great mystery. But no more so, it seems to me, than some of the eccentricities of Mr. Eldridge’s own behavior. Why, for instance, would he so carefully secrete his will? Or other valuable and important papers?”
“I don’t know that Mr. Eldridge did secrete his will. It is my belief that he had no complete and signed document of that description.”
“Very well, there are other papers that he is supposed to have had in his possession that cannot be found.”
“You refer to the so-called adoption papers of Lorraine?”
“Of those I know no more than you do. I have given up all the knowledge of Mr. Eldridge’s business affairs of which I am possessed. More I cannot do.”
“Not quite all, Mr. Crosby. You have, I believe, a key to a secret hiding place in which the missing papers may be located.”
The lawyer gave a start. “A key!” he repeated.
“Exactly—a key. A Yale key.”
And that was where Peter Thorne made his big mistake.
For Crosby looked at him, with a piercing, divining look.
“A Yale key,” he repeated. “Mr. Thorne, nobody except myself knew it was a Yale key. Therefore, you have found the hiding place. You have discovered a Yale lock.”
Exultantly, he gazed at Peter, a leering, triumphant gaze, as if now he would have everything his own way.
“Nonsense, Mr. Crosby,” Thorne recovered quickly, “that was a trap to catch you—a feeler to see if it was a Yale key—”
“No, no, sir, Mr. Thorne. Your baffed expression a moment ago, showed your real thoughts. Your present bluff won’t work. Now, Mr. Thorne, where is that Yale lock?”
Peter Thorne was not easily intimidated.
“I have not admitted, Mr. Crosby, that I have found any Yale lock to fit the key in your possession, but if I had, I’m not able to see any reason why I should tell you where it is.”
“You most certainly should, because I am Mr. Eldridge’s lawyer, and have charge of all his financial and personal papers or letters or documents.”
Thorne suddenly decided that it would be better to put all his cards on the table.
“Mr. Crosby,” he said, “supposing that I have discovered a hidden receptacle which may or may not contain private papers of Mr. Eldridge’s. Supposing you have a key which may or may not fit that lock. Will you agree to have the box opened in the presence of the police? Shall we ask Mr. Stiles to accompany us—”
“Indeed we will do nothing of the sort. Why should the police be present at the examination of my client’s papers?”
“Very well, then you and I will go together—”
“No, nor that either. As confidential adviser to Mr. Eldridge, it devolves on me to maintain secrecy concerning some of his affairs, and I cannot consent to having anyone present when I open his boxes.
“But how can you open his boxes when you don’t know where they are?”
Thorne purposely used the term boxes, with the intent of leading Crosby’s thoughts away from the hidden place that he had really found.
“I shall know where they are, because you are going to tell me. As you know, you are compounding a felony by refusing to tell—”
“I’m not refusing to tell, I’m merely stipulating that I shall be present at the disclosure of their contents.”
Crosby considered, “Well, well,” he said at last, “I can see no reason against that, for if there is a necessity for further secrecy you will see it as I do, and keep the matter confidential.”
“Doubtless,” returned Thorne.
“Then, as you have practically implied the place we’re after is in the Eldridge house, let us go over there.”
“Yes—or rather, as soon as we have had a cup of tea. I’ve enough of the English habit to want my tea of an afternoon.”
The lawyer touched a bell and when a servant responded he ordered tea brought at once.
“While we’re waiting,” he said, “let me show you some of my rare books and curios. Here is my collection of Millefleur paperweights. Fine ones as you see, but not including a specimen of the snowstorm variety. After the Eldridge estate is finally settled, I mean to try to buy that from the heir. It is a rare piece.”
The two men strolled about the room, and the lawyer showed his treasures with a pride that seemed to Thorne a little childish. Not a collector himself, he took small interest in the old volumes and rare prints.
“My very choicest books are in here,” Crosby opened a small door, which proved to be an entrance to a tiny room, or, more properly speaking, a large closet. It was constructed of steel, and the door was like a safe door. It was, in fact, a sort of vault or strong room for the safe keeping of his rarest volumes. The two men stepped inside, and Thorne exclaimed in admiration at the array of fine and ornate bindings, as well as other books, old and worn in appearance, but of inestimable value.
“A beautiful collection,” the detective said, noting the titles and authors’ names.
“Yes,” said Crosby, and Thorne looked up quickly at the change in his voice. He saw the lawyer standing with his back against the door, which he had closed, and on his face was a smile of triumphant malice. Moreover, he held in his hand a wicked looking automatic pistol, with which he covered the surprised Thorne.
The place was about six feet by nine, lined with steel bookshelves, and quite evidently fire-proof and burglar-proof. It was brilliantly lighted by an overhead electric light, but it had no windows and no door other than the heavy, safe-like door through which they had entered.
Peter Thorne saw at once that he was trapped, and that he had, of his own accord walked into this danger.
He was in a rage at his own stupidity, but he concealed this and said, coolly, “Put down your gun, Crosby. You’ve no intention of shooting me, I well know. What you are staging here is a hold-up for information about that keyhole.”
“Right you are,” said Crosby, with an unpleasant smile. “And that information I purpose to have before you leave this attractive little room.”
“Oh, that’s your game. Forcible detention.”
“Exactly that, and you won’t take it quite so calmly when you realize all it means. For though you may now notice an open ventilator above the door, that can be very effectively closed, and—you may, later on, find the atmosphere in here a bit oppressive.”
Thorne understood. He was to be shut up in this inaccessible place until he nearly—or quite— died of asphyxiation, for the available air could not last very long.
He thought it over.
“I gather, then,” he said, coolly, “that you propose to shut me in here and go off yourself to hunt that keyhole. But you won’t find it, Mr. Crosby. I make no secret of the fact that I have discovered it, but it was by a mere chance—a chance not likely to happen to you.”
“Yet it may,” returned the lawyer, with equal coolness. “Anyway, I have reason to think the hiding place is in Mr. Eldridge’s bedroom, and that is where I shall search. Now if you will tell me just where to find the keyhole it will make it easier for me, and—very much better for you.”
The last words were uttered with distinct menace and an unpleasant glance round the little book-room, was fraught with a hint of what Thorne’s fate would be.
“You are going to leave me shut in here while you go over to the Eldridge house to search?”
“Exactly that, Mr. Thorne. That is the program in any case. But if you tell me before I start just where the keyhole is, I shall return very shortly to let you out. If not—then I may be so long absent that—” he shrugged his shoulders, and Thorne understood.
He temporized a moment longer, unwilling to give up his secret, yet by no means desirous of suffocating to death in the airless cubicle.
“Are you not afraid, Mr. Crosby, that by way of revenge I may destroy or mutilate these rare books of yours. You must know I am exceedingly angry at this situation, and revenge is sweet to an angry man.”
“I am not afraid of that, Mr. Thorne, for you are not that sort of man. I know you fairly well, and your nature is not mean or petty. You could not—and I say this in admiration of your character —you could not bring yourself to do anything like the vandalism you suggest. For you know these volumes are world treasures, not merely mine, but the heritage of the present generation.”
“I do realize all that, but even so, I might become frantically rebellious or even mentally unbalanced, and so forget my sense of right and wrong.”
“I’ll take a chance on that,” and Crosby smiled wickedly. “Well, here’s your last chance, Mr. Peter Thorne. Going to tell me where that keyhole is located?”
“No, damn you!” cried Thorne, his temper giving way.
But when Crosby returned, “all right, then,” and had stepped out of the bookroom and slammed the door shut, Thorne regretted his hasty decision.
How stupid he had been! How foolishly stubborn. It would have been better to let Crosby get at the papers than for him, Thorne, to die here like a rat in a trap! He couldn’t serve Lorraine Eldridge by dying for her, that was certain. He should have lived for her, no matter what conditions that brought about. Crosby was pretty sure to find that keyhole eventually, and so what good had the detective’s persistent secrecy done?
He remembered his vow of years gone by. Well, he had carried that out and so he was ready to die.
But the imminence of a very unpleasant death was hard to contemplate with equanimity.
Perhaps Crosby would come back and give him one more chance. Perhaps he would find the keyhole quickly and come back to set him free before it was too late.
He wondered how long the air in the tiny place would last. Not long, he felt sure, and Crosby had slipped the grating that closed the ventilator, so when he had breathed up his present allowance of air, he must perforce pass out. He idly wondered whether suffocation were painful or not.
His thoughts raced wildly, madly. He thought of Lorraine. How wonderful it would be to love a girl like that. He did love her, he admitted it to himself, for he knew that could do no harm. She would never know it.
Would she know of his death? Would she care? But he felt sure she would never learn of it. The lawyer was a wily villain, and Thorne knew intuitively that Crosby would trump up some story of the detective giving up the case and going back to New York. What disposal would be made of his body Thorne could not imagine, and did not much care. He felt possessed of a hopeless apathy, a dull despair that left him numb and indifferent.
A moment’s investigation had proved to him the utter impossibility of escape from his prison. He could not make anyone hear by pounding on the door or by shouting. Besides, he had no doubt Crosby had seen to it that there should be no one in that part of the house the rest of the afternoon.
The light remained bright, and Thorne discovered there was no way to extinguish it from the inside, Apparently all the switches and locks and ventilator fastenings were on the other side of the door. This was logical, for, ordinarily, the little room was used only with the door open.
Thorne faced the situation apparently calmly, but his mind was in a turmoil.
What could he do? Nothing.
In all the detective stories he had read, at this stage of the game a rescuer happened along. For choice, the heroine of the story.
But Thorne’s story had no heroine. He adored Lorraine Eldridge, but she had no knowledge of it, so she could scarcely be called his heroine.
In a vain effort to divert his mind for a few moments he took down some of the fine books from the shelves and tried to read in them. But they might as well have been written in Greek for all the impression the words made on his mind.
So enraged was he by this time, that he had a very definite wish to tear out the old pages, to scratch and mar the beautiful bindings.
But this impulse passed as quickly as it came, and he put the books carefully back in their places.
Meanwhile he thought the air was getting less breathable. He breathed slowly, waiting as long as he could between each respiration. Then, he decided it were better to have it over quickly, and he breathed as rapidly as possible.
He began to fear he was going to lose consciousness, and then—he began to fear he wasn’t!
Lawyer Crosby, at that moment, was sitting in Austin Eldridge’s room in the very same chair Thorne had sat in when he looked for the secret cupboard.
Beside him on a small table was the snowstorm paperweight, which he turned over again and again, watching the snowflakes whirl and settle.
To him came Lorraine, asking why he was there. “To help you,” he responded, gravely. “Do you know, Lorraine, that unless we find your adoption papers, you will be not only a pauper and a nameless outcast, but you will soon be arrested for murder.” With a half-stifled cry, the girl fell into a chair. Crosby watched her silently.
“Me!” she whispered, “arrested for murder! Of father?”
“Yes, just that. The police are desperate, they are bound to arrest somebody and they hold you the only available suspect. They claim you had both motive and opportunity. You will be what they call railroaded, and that means you will be arrested, tried and convicted, without much chance to put up a fight. Now, listen to me. It is possible I may be able to save you, but I will only do so on one condition. You know?”
Lorraine did know, but she would not admit it.
“What?” she said, and her tone was defiant.
“That you marry me. Think, before you reply. I know you are in love, or think you are, with young Maxwell. But his mother will never permit that marriage—I know her better than you do—and I could make you very happy as my wife. Say, yes, dearest, say you will marry me, and I will guarantee to find your adoption papers before I leave this room. They are here—I’m sure of it. And then, as Austin Eldridge’s legal heir, you won’t be dependent on any will at all. You will be sole inheritor, and that fact will remove all breath of suspicion against you. So, think, dear, before you speak—”
“I don’t have to think! I know whom I love, whom I intend to marry, and it is not you, Mr. Crosby. Now, if you know or can discover where my adoption papers are, you are committing a crime yourself in keeping the knowledge from me. Nothing in this world could induce me to marry you, but now that I have cause to think you can find those papers, you are going to find them! Where are they?”
“I don’t know, Lorraine, truly I don’t, but if you give me an incentive to find them, I might accomplish it. Otherwise, most certainly not.”
“I shall never give you the incentive you ask for —I would rather die than marry you. I wonder you have the presumption to suggest such a thing!”
“There, there, now, don’t take that tone with me! Don’t you realize, you little fool, that I can make you or break you? That I can let you be railroaded to the electric chair, or save you from it?”
Crosby was drawing the long bow, but it seemed to be his only chance to make his propositions, and he was improving it.
“No, I don’t realize it, and I don’t believe it. Where is Mr. Thorne?”
“I believe he has returned to New York. He said he was obliged to give up the case, and I think it was because he felt that the inevitable outcome would be your arrest, and he didn’t want to stay here until that occurred. I fancy he is in love with you—as who isn’t, you lovely thing!”
Lorraine’s eyes were so wistful, her frightened little face so appealing that Crosby lost control of himself and sprang toward her chair, lifting her into his embrace and kissing her with fierce passion.
“Stop?” she cried, “how dare you? Let me go, Mr. Crosby, at once!”
He released her, and with apparent contrition, said, “forgive me, Lorry, darling, I lost my senses. But, oh, how sweet you are! Do come to me, dear, I can love you a thousand times more and better than that jackanapes Maxwell! You don’t know how I adore you—’’
“I don’t want to know, either! If you ever dare touch me again, I’ll—I’ll kill myself! That’s the way I feel about you!”
“Little spitfire! I adore you more than ever when you fly into a temper! Now, be reasonable. I love you so much I’d rather see you dead before me than the bride of anyone else. That’s how a strong man loves!”
“That’s how a bad man loves! Don’t speak to me! And, too, I want you to leave this house! I don’t want you to find my papers! I don’t want to be under obligation to you for anything—anything at all.”
“You’ll have to be, if you get the papers. That precious detective of yours has gone, you’ll never see him again. He asked me to tell you so.”
Lorraine looked at him. “I don’t believe you,” she said, and her lip curled. “Now, you will please leave my house.”
“Your house! Don’t you know that if I don’t intervene in your interests your Aunt Sarah will inherit all her brother’s property?”
“Yes, I know it, but Aunt Sarah will look out for me.”
“A mere pittance she will give you, but that will not matter much as you will shortly be in jail.”
“That I do not believe, either,” but her quivering lips and clenched hands belied her words.
* * * * * * * * *
Ed Miles was in a quandary. He had followed Peter Thorne, unobserved, until he saw the detective go into the Crosby house. Then he had hung about, waiting for Thorne to reappear. But after a long wait, he had seen Crosby come out of the house alone. Where, then, was Thorne?
There might be many answers to that question, but none of them seemed quite to fit, and so Ed Miles wondered. He distrusted the lawyer, he knew Peter Thorne distrusted him, too. Could he have hurt him? Could they have had a fight and Thorne been worsted? Was he even now in the Crosby house with a broken leg or a twisted arm?
Ed was imaginative, and often surmised dangers where none was present.
But he had a queer, uncanny feeling now, that all was not right with his friend. He pondered over the matter, half of a mind to go into the house and demand knowledge of Peter. This, he felt, would be a rash proceeding, but the impulse was too strong to be resisted.
He went up the steps of the Crosby house, and his ring was answered by a stem looking and pompous butler.
Revising his plan, Miles asked for Mr. Crosby.
“He’s not at home,” was the reply.
“All right,” Ed said, jauntily. “I’ll come in and wait for him. I’ve an important message that must be given to him personally.”
This was not an unknown occurrence in the lawyer’s life, and the butler made no objection, but showed the lad into the reception hall to wait.
Left alone, Ed’s eyes roved round the room and after a few moments he rose and peeped into the adjoining rooms. He heard no sounds, for Miss Crosby was out as well as her brother, and the servants were in their basement quarters.
More plainly than ever did the boy feel that something was wrong. As he afterward said, he felt shivers down his spine, and he knew there was something to be found out. He was positive Thorne had not left the house, for he was an indefatigable watcher and would certainly have seen him go.
Moreover, it now seemed to him that Crosby looked unduly excited when he left the house. He had seemed nervous and flurried, Ed thought, and he sensed wrong doing.
Could that man have forcibly detained the detective while he went on some secret errand? Young Miles knew pretty much all that Thorne himself knew regarding the Eldridge case, and he knew how much Crosby had of late laid himself open to suspicions concerning his fidelity and integrity.
Uncertain what course to pursue, the boy strolled into the library, and was, therefore, very near to the incarcerated detective.
But as each was unaware of the other’s proximity, no help was asked or offered.
At last, Miles began, quite unconsciously, to whistle. Not loudly, but in a clear, high key, which, by chance, pierced the door of the bookroom, or in some way made itself audible through the chinks of the ventilator.
By this time, Peter Thorne had given up all hope of rescue, and was beginning to feel very unpleasantly the lack of sufficient oxygen.
But the sound of that whistle gave him new strength, and recognizing, in a moment, that it was Ed Miles, he strove himself to whistle.
It was hard work, for his strength was failing and his breath was gasping. But he managed to emit a shrill, sharp whistle, which, after two or three efforts reached the ear of Ed Miles.
He stopped his own whistling and listened eagerly. Again he faintly heard that sound, quite evidently from some closet or closed place.
He looked quickly about, and discovered the little backroom.
“Locked in there!” he exclaimed to himself. “By golly! What shall I do.”
He ran to the locked door. His efforts to open it were unavailing, the key being in Crosby’s pocket at the time.
“I say, Mr. Thorne, you in there?” he called, not too loud for fear of some servant’s overhearing.
A dull, almost inaudible moan responded, for the effort of whistling had been almost too much for Thorne’s fast fleeting strength.
“I’m on,” Ed told him. “Just tell me where Crosby is? At the Eldridge house? Thought so. I’m off. Now, Peter Thorne, don’t give out. Hold on a few minutes and I’ll be back with that key.”
Thorne really revived at this hope of delivery. It was not a sure thing, he well knew, but Ed Miles was a smart chap, and he would waste not a minute of the precious time. Buoyed up by the chance of help, Thorne began again to breathe slowly and at intervals, sure that if he could live a little longer he would be freed. Yet he also knew on what slight chances his hope rested. If Crosby had left the Eldridge house, if he could not be found, if he had thrown away the key of the bookroom or hidden it securely —oh, what was the use of wondering? In a very few moments now, he must be saved, or—dead.
He waited. And as he waited he sank into an oblivion. His last conscious thought was—good boy, Ed—but too late—too late—.
Miles ran. He ran faster than he had ever run before in his life. His first stop was the police station, where he picked up Stiles, merely shouting: “Come, come, quick! Matter of life and death!”
They ran together, then, for Stiles knew the lad well enough to trust his statement.
They ran to the Eldridge house, and burst in at the door.
It was a very astonished Milliken who met them in the hall.
“What in the michief—” she began, but Ed interrupted her.
“Mr. Crosby here? Get him quick—quick.”
So efficient was Milliken’s response to this order that in a moment she was fairly pushing a somewhat reluctant Mr. Crosby in from an adjoining room.
“Where’s the key of your bookroom?” Miles demanded. “The little one. Mr. Thorne is locked in there by mistake,” he stared hard at Crosby as he said this. He knew it was devil’s work on Crosby’s part, but felt it would be wiser to call it an accident. “I brought Mr. Stiles along to help us.”
And it was the fact that Miles did bring Stiles along, that ensured the success of his efforts. Crosby was afraid to withhold the key with the policeman there, and so, he said, as if astonished, “Thorne? In my bookroom! How did that happen?”
“Dunno, Mr. Crosby, and there’s no time to wonder now. Hand over the key. I can get back there quicker than you can, and there’s need for haste.”
Stiles was beginning to catch on and he glared sternly at Crosby, who, with obvious unwillingness produced the key from his pocket,
“I don’t know about this,” he began, but Ed Miles snatched the key from his hand and ran. As he ran, he called back to Milliken, “You get a doctor on the telephone and tell him to come double quick to Mr. Crosby’s house. Mr. Thorne is in a bad way.”
Ed Miles spoke the truth. When he raced back to the Crosby place, and flung in, unannounced, and rushed to the library and unlocked the door of the little bookroom, Peter Thorne was just on the verge of utter collapse.
“Don’t die, Mr. Thorne—oh, don’t die!” the boy urged, dragging the inert form out through the open doorway into the revivifying air of the library. “Please, sir, don’t die!”
As the fresh air from the open windows filled Peter Thorne’s tortured lungs, he opened his eyes and smiled gratefully on young Miles.
And then the doctor came, and under his ministrations the detective was soon his own man again, though shaken in nerve by the terrible experience he had passed through.
“An accident, I suppose,” the doctor said, but he looked keenly at Thorne.
“An accident, yes,” Thorne returned, for he was not yet quite ready to accuse Crosby of an attempt to murder him. “I was in the little bookroom, examining some rare volumes, and the door—er— blew shut.”
“Ah, yes—blew shut.” The doctor gave a quizzical glance at the heavy door, but made no further comment. He knew Thorne was mendacious for some good reason and he had no wish to intrude on his secrecy.
“You’ll be all right, now, my dear, sir,” Doctor Rhodes promised him, and gathering up his belongings, he departed.
Five minutes later Crosby appeared.
Ed Miles stared at him in undisguised enmity, but Thorne said, casually, “Pretty close call for me, Mr. Crosby. Next time leave the key here at home.”
“My dear fellow, did you suffer? I can never forgive myself—”
“That makes two who can’t forgive you, then,” Thorne grunted, and Ed Miles said, “Three!”
“All right, if I had done it purposely,” Crosby said, with a jaunty air. “But when I left I thought you so absorbed in the old books it was a shame to disturb you.”
“Yes,” Thorne agreed drily. But he had no intention of having the matter out with the lawyer there and then, so he pulled himself together and rose to go.
Crosby held out his hand, but the detective ignored it. He looked in the face of the lawyer, now smiling and debonaire, and marveled at his coolness. He remembered how he had seen that face distorted by the fires of rage and passion that seethed in the wicked soul. He remembered the cold blooded, fiendish plan by which Crosby had tried to murder him, and as he realized that but for a lad’s fealty and watchfulness that plan must have succeeded, he saw Crosby for the villain he really was.
But Thorne was not yet ready to expose him. There were certain matters to be looked into before he could blazon Crosby’s guilt to the world.
“Goodby, Mr. Crosby,” Thorne said, and his tone was coolly civil. “And, by the way, did you succeed in your quest?”
“I didn’t try. I had an interruption and didn’t go on my quest at all.”
“Oh, I see. Then, shall we go together, now?”
“No, thanks. I’m not in the mood.”
“As you choose,’’ and Thorne took young Miles’ hand, and they went away.
“He’s one bad man,” Ed said, as the pair walked along. “He did try to do you in, didn’t he, Mr. Thorne?”
“Yes; but don’t say anything about that until I give you permission. I’ve much to investigate. But, my dear lad, don’t think for a moment that I don’t appreciate what you did for me! You saved my life, and you will not find me ungrateful, I assure you.”
“Oh, that’s nothing—I mean, I’m only too darned glad I happened along.”
“You happened along, because out of the kindness of your heart you were waiting and watching to see if you could be of use.”
“I was, Mr. Thorne. I’d made up my mind Crosby was a bad egg, and I just hung around on a chance. Gee, what did you think about in that hole?”
“By the time you came, I wasn’t thinking much at all. At least, not coherently. I was dully wondering how long it would be before I lost consciousness entirely. Your whistle was about the most heavenly music I ever heard. I recognized you at once, and it gave me new courage and energy to try to respond. I tell you, young man, you’ve put me under the biggest debt of gratitude one man can owe another. I may go out soon, but I’ve some more work to look after before I go. And it shall be done—I vow it shall”
Ed Miles looked at him. For the detective seemed to be talking to himself rather than to his comrade. The boy had no doubt of the man’s gratitude, or of the sincerity of his expression of it, but he was preoccupied, and Miles surmised, and rightly, that his mind was occupied with Crosby’s treachery and crime.
For if the shutting of that safe door was not an accident, then it was a deliberate attempt at murder, and it was no virtue of Crosby’s that it was not a successful attempt.
This, of course, Thorne knew. And it was already opening up a train of other knowledge and convictions which, while staggering to think of, were doubtless true and would lead to new developments.
Thorne made straight for the Eldridge house, and before he reached there, he kindly but decidedly suggested that Miles leave him.
“Sorry, boy, dear,” he said, “but there are big issues about to be met, and I must meet them alone.”
“That’s all right,” said Ed cheerfully. “Let me have a peek at you when you come back to the inn, won’t you?”
“Yes, indeed,” and the voice was hearty, but Miles could see the thoughts were racing away again.
They separated, and deeply immersed in his thoughts, Thorne went on to the Eldridge house.
He was sure Crosby had lied when he said he had not been on his quest, which was, of course, the search for the much wanted keyhole.
“My land, sir!” cried Milliken, as she admitted him, “what ever ailed you that you wanted the doctor in such an endurin’ hurry? And lordy, but you look sick now! What’s the matter, man? Where you been? You look like you been drawn through a knothole, and drawn and quartered and tarred and feathered and rid on a rail!”
“Oh, no, Milliken! Not quite so bad as all that!”
“Yes, you do. You step along o’ me, sir, and I’ll give you a drop of my dandelion wine, that’ll fix you up some.”
Thorne accepted, more to get speech with Milliken than to get her stimulating dose. He followed her into the pantry, and once inside, closed the door and said, “Where’s Miss Lorraine, and how is she?”
“She’s up in her room, Mr. Thorne, and she ain’t so well. I dunno what ails her, but she’s mopin’ over somethin’. That she is.”
“Has Mr. Crosby been here today?”
“He’s in and out all the time. I can’t keep track of his traipsin’s.”
“Was he upstairs in Mr. Eldridge’s bedroom this afternoon.”
“That I can’t say, me bein’ engaged in other parts. But likely’s not he was.”
“Never mind, I’ll find out. I’m going up there and then I want to see Miss Lorraine. Send her there to me, will you, Milliken?”
“That I will, sir.”
Thorne went upstairs and as he had felt certain, the snowstorm paperweight had been turned over. The telltale snowflakes were grouped in a totally different arrangement, and he knew it must have been Crosby who had done it. So, he had pursued his quest, though he denied it. A quick investigation showed, however, that the wily lawyer had not succeeded in finding the obscure keyhole, and when, in a few minutes, Lorraine came, he decided to confide in her.
“I have found your father’s secret hiding place,” he said, gravely. “At least, I feel quite sure I have done so. But Mr. Crosby has—I think—the key to it, and will not give it up. Of course, we could break in, if we got police sanction, but I’d rather unlock it decently and in order.”
“Do you think it will disclose proofs of my legal adoption?” the girl asked wistfully.
“I think it extremely probable, as you say Mr. Eldridge frequently told you that such papers were in his possession.”
“And will they perhaps tell who were my real parents?”
“That is also probable,” Thorne began, but at the look of terror that came to Lorraine’s eyes, he paused, suddenly.
“Don’t you want that known?” he asked gently.
“I—I don’t know—” she was clearly ill at ease.
“Then you have reason to think you already know the truth about that?”
“I—I’m afraid I do—,”
“Lorraine,” Thorne took her two hands in his own and looked deep in her eyes, “I think it my duty to speak plainly. That secret box is going to be opened, soon. If there are papers in it that you know of, and that you don’t want made public, you must employ a lawyer to look after your interests— and it must not be Mr. Crosby.”
“No—I don’t want him any longer—” The flush that rose to her cheeks told Thorne the truth.
“He’s been making love to you?” there was no use now for beating about the bush. It was no time for over-careful reticence.
“Yes—and, oh, Mr. Thorne, he is so dreadful!”
“He is, indeed, Miss Eldridge. He just now tried to murder me.”
“To murder you! How?”
Thorne told her in a few words of the episode of the bookroom, and of young Miles’ timely rescue.
“Wonderful!” she exclaimed. “I am so glad your life was saved! Bless that boy, I shall always love him.”
Thorne’s realization of her quite evident concern for his welfare struck a note of joy to his heart. But it was balanced by the thought that her interest was merely that of friendliness, and that her heart’s affection was now and ever would be all for Grant Maxwell.
But she had shown true friendliness, and he was gladdened by that.
She was grave and thoughtful at the revelation of Crosby’s dastardly action.
“Then you think,” she said, slowly, “I should get another lawyer? At once?”
“Yes, before that box is opened. Miss Eldridge, what do you fear from its revelations? Regarding your birth, I mean?”
“I don’t quite know, myself. But only a short time before—before he died, father whispered to me a secret, so strange, so incredible, that I can’t believe it. I think he was demented to a degree. That his mind was affected, that he was wandering.”
“But he wasn’t ill at all?”
“No, yet I think he feared some disaster, apprehended some danger. Oh, I don’t know, Mr. Thorne, it may be only my imagination, but I think the last two weeks of his life, my father was afraid of something.”
“Of course, I did not know Mr. Eldridge, but from what I have heard since I’ve been here, he was not a man easily intimidated.”
“No, he was not, that’s why I think something had come into his life very recently that made him fear, perhaps expect, the fate that did overtake him. Oh, Mr. Thorne, who did it? Who killed my dear father? I know you have heard hard things about his business career, but I don’t heed those. To me, he was always kind and loving—that is, except for the one matter of my engagement to Grant, and that, I’m sure, he would have consented to, had he lived.”
“You don’t suspect anybody, Miss Eldridge?”
“No, I don’t. Unless—it seems dreadful to hint it—but if he has what is called the murderous impulse—.”
“Ah, you mean Crosby. No. Put that out of your mind once and for all. He was in the dining-room at the White Unicorn at the time your father must have been killed. I can vouch for that, as I saw him, first at a nearby table, and later at the very table where I myself dined with Mrs. Miles and her son. So you see I can vouch for his alibi. But— since you have alluded to the murderous impulse in connection with that man, I will admit that I, too, have thoughts of him in the role of murderer. When he left me to die in that airless place his face wore the evil leer that only a hardened criminal could show. He was certain I could not live long in that confined space. He felt sure that my death there would pass as an accident. He expected to say that he had left me there enjoying his books and that I had either shut the door unintentionally or it had blown shut.”
“Could such a heavy door blow shut?”
“It would be possible, I think. Often those great steel doors move easily and, too, the breeze from the open windows was strong. However, I’m sure that was his plan and doubtless it would have worked well, for, so far as I know, there has been no breath of suspicion raised against Mr. Crosby.”
“That is all true,” Lorraine said thoughtfully. “Then, what further progress have your thoughts made as to the man’s criminal tendencies?”
He answered her with one word. “Lennox.”
She thought a minute, and then nodded her head slowly, and said, “Yes—you are right—Lennox.”
“But can we prove it?”
“Yes,” she said, “we can prove it.”
“Well, it will be most unpleasant to drag her into it, but I am sure Mrs. Maxwell knows something about it. I think, from the frightened way in which she fled down the steps that night, she was even more disturbed than she would have been by the sight of the dead butler. That would, of course, have shocked and terrified her. But she was more disturbed than that. She had the effect of a woman frightened by something that touched herself more nearly than the death, however horrible, of her neighbor’s butler.”
“That is a great deal to read from the expression of a fast fleeting figure—”
“I know, and perhaps I do not make it very clear. But I saw her terror stricken face, and I saw her furtive glances which were turned ahead, not behind her—”
“All of which would be true if she had seen somebody she knew kill that man and then make his escape.”
“Yes, just that. How you do understand. Well, is that theory tenable?”
“More than tenable. It seems to me the inevitable truth. Now, I shall interview Mrs. Maxwell immediately, and find out the facts.”
“She won’t receive you very willingly.”
“I know it, but she’ll have to see me, and I think I can persuade her to be both frank and truthful.”
“Oh, I hope so, for I can’t help feeling that the discovery of the murderer of poor Lennox may be a step toward finding out who killed father.”
* * * * * * * * * *
Thorne went straight to the Maxwell home.
To his surprise, Mrs. Maxwell seemed glad to see him, and glad when he opened the subject of his errand.
There are some natures to whom the keeping of a great secret is a continual wearing sorrow. And Mrs. Maxwell was that sort. She had thought and pondered over what she knew, until it had almost driven her out of her senses.
At night she would lie awake and determine to go the first thing in the morning to the police with her story. Then when morning came she could not bring herself to carry out her resolve.
And so she really welcomed the advent of the detective and his inquiries.
He opened the subject, with hesitation, but she took up the matter herself.
“Yes, that’s what I want to talk to you about, Mr. Thorne. I’m very glad you came. I want to tell the whole story to somebody.”
“Please do, Mrs. Maxwell. I’m sure it will be a relief to yourself, as well as a just and right action.”
“Yes, it will be a relief to me, and yet, I hesitate to inculpate a man of hitherto unblemished character and reputation.”
“You mean without blemish so far as you know. But others may know more to his discredit than has come within your ken.”
“You know who he is, then?” Mrs Maxwell looked incredulous.
“Certainly. You mean Crosby, the well known lawyer.”
“Yes, I do. Mr. Thorne, I saw him kill Lennox, the Eldridges’ butler!”
“And it has been on your nerves ever since.”
“Yes, it certainly has. Why did he do it?”
“I can answer that question better after you tell me the details of the affair. But, Mrs. Maxwell, would you not rather go with me to the police and give your story directly to them—”
“Oh, no, please don’t make me do that. I thought I could tell you and you would tell them for me.”
“Very well, let it be that way, but they may have to see you later for some further inquiries.”
“If that is necessary, very well, but I trust it will not be. I am not exactly afraid of the police, but I have a dread of interviews with them. They have an unpleasant effect on me. I’d far rather talk with you.”
“All right, tell me all about it.”
Thorne watched Mrs. Maxwell closely, for he wanted to find out many things beside the chief subject of their confab. He hoped he could influence her to consent to her son’s engagement to Lorraine, and he hoped she could tell him something of the girl’s parentage.
“I went over to the Eldridge house that night,” she began, and her piercing eyes were fixed on Thorne’s unexpressive face, “to look for some papers of my own. Papers in which no one else in the world has any concern and which in no way affect the estate of Mr. Eldridge or the inheritance of his daughter. What these papers were, I do not propose to tell, and I trust you will not ask.”
“I will not ask, Mrs. Maxwell. I am assuming that they were letters or something of the sort whose import and importance rests entirely with yourself and Mr. Eldridge.”
“That is right. And Austin Eldridge had recently promised to return those letters to me, but had not done so when he was so ruthlessly taken away from us. Had I been on friendly terms with his daughter, I should have gone directly to her and asked for them, but as we are not congenial, I didn’t wish to do that. So I went over when I had reason to think the girl was out for a walk with my boy, and as most of the family were doubtless in bed, I thought the coast was clear. I knew the letters were in Mr. Eldridge’s bedroom, and I hoped I could merely open his desk, snatch the packet and hurry away, unseen.”
“But that you did not accomplish.”
“No. As I came down the stairs, I saw a low light in the library and stepping softly along the hall, I peeped in and saw Mr. Crosby, sitting at Mr. Eldridge’s desk, deeply absorbed in going over some boxes of papers. They were black tin boxes, such as valuable papers are kept in, and I tarried to watch him, only in hopes of seeing him extract the bundle I was in search of. Any other papers or valuables of Mr. Eldridge’s held no interest for me. I hid behind the portieres of the library doorway, and as I looked, Lennox came along. He had heard a sound in the library, and was merely doing his duty in investigating. But Mr. Crosby started in fright and as Lennox came nearer and spoke to him, Mr. Crosby quickly gathered up a lot of papers and thrust them in his pocket. This, I think, made Lennox think or fear something was wrong, and he asked Mr. Crosby by what right he came there stealthily, in the middle of the night.
“This so incensed Mr. Crosby, or so frightened him, that he spoke angrily to Lennox—swore at him terribly. Now Lennox was a wise man and a brave one, and he demanded that Crosby return those papers to their boxes and come next day to see about them in the presence of the family, especially Miss Lorraine.
“This Crosby refused to do, and then Lennox tried to persuade him forcibly. He grasped Crosby’s hand, and took some papers from him, and Crosby was so furious at this that I think he just lost his head, and grabbing up a papercutter, with one swift lunge he stabbed Lennox to the heart and the man went down like a log.”
“What did you do?”
“I didn’t scream, I was too petrified to make a sound. I couldn’t believe he had really killed him, and at first, I think, Crosby couldn’t believe it either.”
“But, after a moment, he did realize it, he felt of the man’s heart and his pulse, and then he recovered his poise at once. He was cool and collected. He picked up the papers he wanted and looking carefully about to make sure no one was stirring, he softly went away. He passed within a foot of me, and I scarcely breathed until he was gone. Then, I thought I must get away myself, and without another glance at that awful sight in the library, I slipped out the back door just as Grant and Lorraine were coming up the steps. I flashed past them so quickly I don’t think they recognized me, but it doesn’t matter now. That, Mr. Thorne, is the true story of the death of Lennox and how it came about.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Maxwell, for your clear and straightforward recital. I shall report it to the police at once, and perhaps what, if any, further questions they desire to put, can be done through me and you need not be annoyed. Now, a few other inquiries and I will go. Why are you so unwilling to let those two young people belong to one another? They are very much in love.”
It seemed to Thorne that his best plan with this woman was to be direct and plain spoken.
She answered with equal directness. “Because I don’t wish my son to marry a nameless girl. How do I know where Austin Eldridge got her? How do I know who her parents were? Perhaps some low, disreputable people—”
“Now, Mrs. Maxwell, to my mind the gentle refinement of Miss Lorraine speaks of at least decent and educated ancestors.”
“Not at all. She could have acquired all that in her life in the Eldridge home. But I cannot consent to have my grandchildren inherit possible unpleasant traits, or show forth perhaps depraved or even criminal tendencies. If I knew the girl’s parentage, even though it might be plebeian, if I knew it was honest and legitimate, I might be persuaded, but not when I know nothing.”
“You have no idea, no hint or suspicion of the truth?”
“None. But I am sure the papers are somewhere in Austin Eldridge’s boxes or safes. And I trust they may be found.”
“I hope they may. Do you think they could be what Crosby was after that night?”
“I do not think so. I think he was after something more closely connected with himself or his own interests.”
“Very likely. Well, Mrs. Maxwell, at least suspend your judgment for a little while. The adoption papers may turn up soon; the missing papers and will are liable to be found shortly, and our next step, of course, is to arrest Crosby, and that will, I am sure, lead to further immediate and important revelations.”
“I hope so, but I shall in no way change my mind or my attitude toward Grant’s engagement unless the girl is proved to have come of the right sort of people. Why, Mr. Thorne, no mother who loves her son would take a chance of his marrying a girl of low or illegitimate birth. It would be a crime against the unborn children. Surely you must agree to that.”
“I only ask you, Mrs. Maxwell, not to make your decision final just yet. Give the girl a chance. If I cannot prove her adoption and her parentage in a few days, then—well, then we will talk over this matter again.”
To this the lady agreed, and Thorne went straight away to the police station with the news.
They were duly appalled and deeply interested.
But a visit to Crosby’s house brought a negative result, for Mr. Crosby could not be found.
It was about eight o’clock in the evening when Peter Thorne, accompanied by the eager and excited Stiles, reached the Crosby home. Thorne had had no dinner, but so anxious was he to find Crosby and face him with the accusation of having killed Lennox, that food was far from his thoughts.
When they were informed by the impassive butler that Mr. Crosby was not at home, the detective stated simply that they would wait until he returned.
Without heeding the servant’s protest, Thorne led the way to the library and placed chairs for himself and the police officer. Then he waved his hand with a gesture indicating dismissal of the hovering butler, who still hesitated, and finally said, “Miss Crosby is at home, sir. Would you wish to see her?”
“No,” said Thorne, “do not disturb the lady. Our business is with Mr. Crosby, and we do not budge from here until we have seen him.”
The worried expression on the butler’s face caught Stiles’ attention, and he asked, “Where is Mr. Crosby?”
“I—I don’t know—”
“How long has he been gone? Why are you so agitated? When do you expect him back? Explain yourself!”
As the policeman had intended, his rain of questions flurried the butler still more, and he wrung his hands nervously as he declared he didn’t know where his master had gone nor when he would return.
“Then get out,” Stiles said peremptorily. “Don’t hang around here any longer—er—what is your name?”
“Well, Blynn, go—and stay gone.”
“Yes, sir—” The man went, but with slow step and uncertain backward glances.
“What’s the matter with that guy?” Stiles said, testily.
“Don’t you get it?” Thorne smiled. “The truth is, Crosby isn’t out at all. He’s in this house, hiding. Blynn knows it, and is worried to death for fear we’ll find him.”
“Oh,” and a light broke upon Stiles. “Then we will find him. You stay here and keep general watch and I’ll search the house.”
But before the search could begin an interruption occurred in the shape of Crosby’s sister.
The proud and haughty face of Miss Lucia Crosby appeared in the doorway, and she sternly inquired the meaning of the intrusion of these two men. Stiles answered her, and informed her that he represented the law and that it was imperative he should see Mr. Crosby as soon as he returned.
“He may not be back tonight,” the lady said, hesitating between her indignation and a wholesome fear of the law.
“Then we’ll wait till he does return,” Stiles calmly informed her, and bowed slightly, as if to indicate the conversation was finished.
But Thorne took it up.
“Where is he, Miss Crosby?” he said, pleasantly. “It’s no secret, is it? If we knew where he was, we could telephone to him—.”
I—I don’t know just where he is—” she was as perturbed as the butler had been.
“Does he usually go out without telling you where he is going?”
“No—that is, yes, sometimes.”
“Then, as you can readily understand, it doesn’t matter. We are quite comfortable here—I take it we may smoke, as I see many conveniences for that gentle vice. Do not concern yourself at all. We will just stay here until Mr. Crosby returns. He’ll doubtless be in before midnight, if not—we’ll willingly wait later.”
Miss Crosby looked baffled. She started to speak, thought better of it, and then, the look of anxiety on her face deepening, she turned quickly and left the room.
Thorne rose and closed the door after her.
Then, with a wink at Stiles, he took a paper pad from the library table and a pencil and writing a few lines, he silently handed the paper over to his comrade.
And silently, Stiles read :
“I am quite sure Crosby is hiding in the book safe —the place where he shut me up this afternoon. I saw Blynn look toward it furtively two or three times. Miss Crosby did, too. The ventilator is open, so he can stay there indefinitely as far as air goes. Can we freeze him out by starvation?”
Stiles read and reread this information. He saw at once it was doubtless true. He scribbled a few words and passed it back.
“No, but maybe we can smoke him out by our conversation. Follow my lead, and let’s give him a scare.”
“The man’s bound to be caught,” Stiles said, aloud, “he can’t stay away forever. As soon as he comes back from wherever he is, he’ll be nabbed.
“Now, if he’d only give himself up and plead self defense or something like that, it’d go a heap easier with him than if he insists on trying to evade arrest. That’s a mistake so many make—.”
“They do so,” Thorne agreed, for Stiles had paused to listen. Both men had heard or imagined they heard a slight sound from the direction of the book safe. “If we had Crosby here now, I’ll bet we could talk things over with him, and he’d be better off than—” purposely he let his voice drop to a whisper, for as a matter of fact he didn’t know just how to end his sentence.
Stiles took the cue. “Yes,” he said, “that element of—you know what—would go far to getting Crosby out of his present scrape, but of course he doesn’t know about that—.”
“No, and we can’t tell him until he gets home. Wonder where he went.”
“Well, wondering is no use. Guess I’ll read a while.”
Stiles got up and walked about the room, looking at the shelves, as if choosing a book. But both men kept eyes and ears open in hopes of some hint of a human presence in the book vault.
Nothing rewarded their vigilance, however, and at last they did both become interested in books they had selected.
It was nearly eleven o’clock when the butler returned to the room.
“Miss Crosby bids me say, sirs, that if you’re minded to remain the night, I will show you to two of the guest rooms. She wishes you to be comfortable.”
“No, Blynn,” Stiles said, decidedly. “I am on duty. I cannot desert my post. Here I must stay until Mr. Crosby comes home, and I hope he’ll come soon. He doesn’t stay out all night without letting his sister know beforehand, does he?”
“No, sir, never,” replied Blynn, and then suddenly retracted his words by adding, “at least, not often, but sometimes he does.”
This did not fool his hearers, who well knew his first and unstudied reply was the true one.
“Simply say to Miss Crosby,” Thorne told him, “that we are much obliged for her offer of hospitality, but we prefer to stay here, and she is not to be further solicitous for our comfort.”
The butler departed and in a few moments more Miss Lucia herself appeared. She wore an ingratiating smile, and undertook to wheedle her self-invited visitors to repair to the bedrooms.
“My dear madam,” Stiles grew impatient at her insistence, “we are not going to leave this room until we see your brother. So your repeated offers, though kindly meant, are not accepted, and I trust you will yourself go to bed, and forget we are here.”
“But I don’t want to leave two strange men in my brother’s library alone,” she pouted a little. “You may damage some of his valuable books. Not knowing their worth, you may handle them carelessly—”
“We promise not to touch the valuable books, Miss Crosby,” said Thorne, and even as he spoke he saw her eyes turn involuntarily toward the book safe. “I know which are the rarities, and as I note you’re looking toward the safe where the most choice volumes are kept, I will put your fears at rest by saying we will not enter that place.”
The sudden frightened start the lady gave convinced both men of her concern for something in that safe beside the rare books.
But her further arguments and urgings availed her nothing, and she was forced to depart with her wishes ungranted.
After another wait, Thorne tried a new tack.
“I doubt Crosby returns at all,” he said; “I think he got wind somehow of his impending arrest, and skipped it. In that case, we are justified in going through his desk and examining his papers.”
“Right you are!” Stiles exclaimed, delightedly. “Let’s wait until eleven-thirty, and then if he hasn’t arrived, it’s our duty to look into matters. You see, the people here expected him long ago, so there’s something in the wind. As an officer I have the right to—” and Stiles dropped his voice in a mumble of meaningless words.
The two had tacitly arrived at the plan of saying something to excite Crosby’s interest or curiosity, and then fail to gratify it. They were assuming that the man was in the little bookroom, and that he could hear them through the open ventilator.
But as all their efforts brought no real response, and as the breathing they thought they heard might have been their own overwrought imagination, the game palled on them after a time.
Suddenly, unable to control his impatience longer, Thorne rose and went over to the closed door of the little bookroom. He stepped up on a chair and looked through the open grating of the transom ventilator. This gave him no view of the lower part of the enclosure, so he could not see whether Crosby was there or not.
But he spoke firmly.
“Crosby,” he said, distinctly, “I know you’re in here, and you’d better come out. You’re wanted for the murder of Lennox, the Eldridge’s butler, and I tell you frankly it’s for your own interests to give yourself up. So open the door—of course you have the key in there—and come on out.”
There was no response and though listening intently, Thorne could hear not the slightest sound.
Then he said: “Since I have no reply, I am justified in assuming there is no one in this book safe. Therefore, there is no reason why I should not shut off this ventilator.”
This brought a sudden involuntary gasp, and Thorne nodded his head at Stiles in silent satisfaction.
“Last chance, Crosby,” he said, in slow, even tones. “I’m going to close the ventilator, and I have reason to know it cannot be opened from the inside. Moreover, if I choose to put a chair under the doorknob, you can’t open the door from your side, even if you have a key. So, if I do that, and if Stiles and I leave the house, you are doomed to the same fate you meant for me this afternoon. Any remarks, Crosby?”
There were no remarks, but again Thorne felt almost sure he heard that little gasp of despair. The man was plucky, he thought, but, after all there was little real danger for him from the closed safe. The threatened chair under the door knob, though useful in some cases, was not always a sure safeguard to a door, but Thorne was trusting that the slowly vitiating air would scare the prisoner into using his key, whether he effected an exit or not.
And that was what happened. After not many minutes, the key turned in the lock and Crosby stepped out into the library.
He breathed deeply a few times, and Thorne realized that this older man had been affected unpleasantly much more quickly than he himself had been.
But his natural breathing restored, Crosby became jaunty and debonair.
“What’s it all about?” he asked, as if he had heard none of their conversation. “Just a case of tit for tat, Thorne? But I assure you I didn’t mean to harm you this afternoon—”
“You can spare your talk, Mr. Crosby,” Stiles said, sternly. “I arrest you for the wilful murder of Lennox, the butler of the late Austin Eldridge. And I warn you that anything you say—”
“Spare your own talk, Stiles,” Crosby retorted. “I don’t propose to say anything. Your charge is too absurd even to refute. So I say nothing at all— here. I give myself up, by which I merely mean I go willingly; take me to your chief, and I will tell my story to him. Then, I think, there will be no further detention of me on this silly, trumped-up charge!”
Thorne was a little taken aback. Could Mrs. Maxwell have been mistaken as to Crosby’s identity? He pondered over this as Crosby said: “Come along, Mr. Stiles, I’m ready. Can we all go together?”
“No, Mr. Crosby,” Stiles informed him, “I’ve only a little car. But you and I will go in that, and Mr. Thorne can betake himself to his belated couch.”
The two went off, Crosby willing and glad to start, apparently, and Thorne cast a searching glance around the room before he followed. Where, he wondered, was that key? Did Crosby have it on his person, or was it by a lucky chance on his desk, and so available? He searched the desk hastily. Blynn or Miss Crosby hearing the departure, might appear at any moment. But if he could only nail that key first!
Meantime, Crosby and Stiles flew along the road in the little car. Suddenly Stiles felt a mighty blow in the face and knew no more.
Swiftly and deftly, Crosby lifted out the unconscious man, laid him on the grass by the roadside, tossed a laprobe over him, and springing back into the car, took the wheel and speeded on toward the Eldridge house.
There were no lights in the house, save in the hall, and one in the back kitchen quarters. This was exactly what Crosby wanted and he hurried around to the rear of the house.
Jumping from the car, he tapped lightly at the kitchen entrance.
A moment and Milliken appeared, irate at the late summons, but curious to see the visitor.
“Good land o’ Goshen, if ’tain’t Mr. Crosby! What the dickens do you want this time o’ night?” Crosby stepped inside.
“Listen, Milliken,” he spoke low and in impressive tones: “There’s no time for explanation, but unless we hustle Lorraine out of this house at once— this very minute—she’ll be arrested for the murder of her father.”
“Bosh! Nonsense! I don’t believe—”
“Milliken, by this delay you are sending her straight to the chair! She is being what they call railroaded, she won’t have a chance to say a word for herself nor you for her. If you delay things now, her death will be upon your head.”
The solemn words startled Milliken, the intensity of the voice convinced her, and trembling she asked what she was to do.
“The police are after her, they are on the way here now, I learned of their intentions and stole their car. They’ve gone for another and will be here in a terribly few minutes. Go and get Lorry, waken her, put a few necessary clothes on her and get her down here with all speed possible. I am saving her life—I am preventing her arrest. Tell her this— she knows she’s being railroaded—she’ll understand. If she’s too sleepy to understand, just make her get ready and get her down—quick—quick.”
Convinced at last, Milliken hurried up to Lorraine’s room, shook her awake and lifted her upright, and then began to dress her before the awakening process was completed.
“Stick the other foot in this stocking, Miss Lorry,” Milliken commanded, and rapidly coming to her full senses, Lorraine demanded to know the meaning of this strange proceeding.
“You’re bein’ railroadered,” said Milliken, succinctly. “And Mr. Crosby’s a savin’ you from it. Here stick your head through—” and Milliken hooked and tied and buttoned as Lorraine absent-mindedly and from sheer force of habit got into her clothes.
“But I don’t understand—”
“Dress first, and understand afterward. It’s danger, that’s what it is, Miss Lorry dear. Danger. Land knows I’ve small love for old man Crosby, but his manner o’ speakin’ leaves me no doubt as he means what he says. And after all, Miss Lorry, we can’t take a chanct. That we can’t. He says as how you know what this here now railroaderin’ means.”
Lorraine shuddered. “Yes, Milly, I know. Come on, I’m ready.”
Softly they went down stairs and out to the kitchen. Essie the curious, her eyes as big as saucers, was hanging around in a dressing gown to learn what was going on.
“You, Essie, come here,” and grasping the maid by the arm, Milliken drew her aside and whispered to her, while Lorraine met Crosby, and begged him to tell her what it all meant.
“Hush, dear,” he said, still speaking in those tones that carried conviction of desperate and immediate danger. “The police are out for you. By the merest chance I learned about it, and stole one of their cars and I’m here to rescue you. They have concluded to arrest you and prove their case afterward. Unless you go with me at once they will take you away tonight.”
“But where are you taking me?” the girl still hesitated.
“Right to my house. They’ll never look for you there, and Lucia will care for you as for a daughter. You will be safe for the present anyway, and we can decide on future plans at leisure. Come, Lorraine, it’s arrest if you don’t. I can’t see you taken to jail—”
“A stifled cry showed this idea had frightened the girl and she moved toward the door. The little car awaited them, and Crosby peered up and down the road, listening, he said, for the approaching police.
“They’ll come from town,” he whispered, “so we’ll go the other way. It’s farther around to our house that way, but we’ll avoid meeting them.”
He bundled Lorraine into the car, and turned to say a word to Milliken before they started.
“I’ll find a way to communicate with you,” he promised her. “I’ll let you know tomorrow of anything Miss Eldridge wants from home, and I think soon I can arrange matters so this whole phase of the affair will blow over, and our girl will be out of danger.”
And so frightened had Lorraine been and so thoughtless of anything but present danger that she had utterly forgotten the discussion she had had with Peter Thorne about Crosby’s possible connection with the murder of Lennox.
It flashed across her mind as he tucked her into the car, and she gave a sudden frightened gasp.
Crosby heard it, but paid no heed, and arranged himself in the seat beside her.
“We’re off,” he whispered, and took the wheel, his mind and thoughts all on the girl beside him and the driving of the car, at which he was an expert.
Wherefore and because of which, he did not see that Milliken, the determined and intrepid Milliken, had climbed to the small and somewhat precarious seat behind, that was rarely used and was illy adapted to the faithful woman’s large and bony frame.
But with grim persistence she clung to the sides and swayed bumpily as they flew along the drive and out onto the highroad.
Meantime, Essie, the curious, stood in the middle of the kitchen, wondering so intently that her mouth was wide open and her hands squeezed each other in a very agony of excitement.
Where had Miss Lorry gone at that time of night with Mr. Crosby? And why, oh why had Milliken gone too?
It was too much for Essie, and her strength giving way she sank into a chair to do her wondering sitting down.
As Crosby drove the car rapidly along, Lorraine, sitting by his side, began to collect her scattered senses and realize, at least, in part, what had happened.
She said nothing for a time, and then she suddenly spoke.
“Mr. Crosby, you are not driving toward your house.”
“I daren’t, yet. I spied the lights of the police car. They are after us—I must get you to a place of safety. Trust all to me, dearest, I will save you from all trouble that may threaten you.”
“There is no trouble I can think of greater than to be way off here alone with you, late at night—”
“Yes, to be arrested and thrown into jail would be far worse, and well you know that. It is a danger no one can save you from but myself, and I’m going to do it, even if against your wishes.”
The man spoke with authority and determination, but there was a gentle quality in his voice, and Lorry began to think perhaps he was right—perhaps he was saving her from a fearful fate.
Yet, she didn’t trust him. She had never liked him and less than ever since he had professed his love for her.
“Where are we going?” she said, sternly, as they turned aside into a by road.
“We have no choice, dear,” he said, quietly. “We dare not strike out toward my house—we should meet them face to face. We must hide somewhere nearby for the rest of the night, and in the morning we can decide what to do.”
“No! I will not go anywhere with you for the rest of the night! Take me to your home, to Miss Lucia, as you promised. I don’t care if we do meet the police, I’d rather be arrested than alone with you!”
“You don’t realize what arrest means. As I told you, Lorraine, if you are run in, it will not be a mere arrest, it will mean the whole program—railroaded straight to the chair!”
“I don’t believe it—”
“I know you don’t—that’s why I’m obliged to take this stand with you. I must save you in spite of yourself. Oh, Lorry, trust me—”
“I don’t trust you, not one little bit! And what’s more, I see through you! I understand at last! You’re afraid of the police yourself! They want you for the murder of Lennox! You’re fleeing from them, and taking me with you!’’
Crosby chuckled—a wicked, satisfied chuckle of achieved deviltry.
“Right, my girl—exactly right! Now, what are you going to do about it?”
“I’m not going to submit tamely, I can tell you that much! I’ll fight you with every ounce of strength and will power I possess, and I’ll win out, too!” Lorry’s voice was brave and her words rang out, full of scorn and defiance, but Milliken, listening from the back seat, recognized the undercurrent of fear, if not despair.
She leaned forward, to hear Crosby’s next words, which he whispered in the girl’s ear.
“You’ll sing a different tune when you find yourself alone with me, behind closed doors! Then, my beauty, you’ll realize the futility of your ‘fighting’ powers and submit to the inevitable.”
And in another moment they were driving up to the entrance of a large house, where a few lights still burned and whose front door stood hospitably open.
Crosby being intent on his driving, Milliken dared to lean over and whisper, “All right, Miss Lorry, dear, I’m here. Hush, not a sound.”
The familiar voice did not startle her into audible expression, and Crosby, on the other side could not hear the faintly breathed words. Lorraine’s heart beat fast for joy. Milliken with her! She had no further fear, no apprehension of danger—now, she must plan the best thing to do. And first of all she must placate Crosby.
Milliken, crouched down behind, listened for the words that would give her a hint as to her own procedure.
“You win, Mr. Crosby,” Lorraine said, in a disheartened but gentle voice. “This place looks pleasant and hospitable, let us stay here the rest of the night. I’m very tired and very hungry. Go in and see if they’ll take us. I promise not to budge till you get back.”
Completely taken in by her apparent acceptance of the situation, Crosby sprang from the car and went into the house.
Lorraine gathered it was a roadhouse, from the general effect, and as Crosby disappeared she turned quickly to Milliken.
“Bless you!” she said, “for a guardian angel! But Milly, there’s desperate work to be done. You must get out of the car, and keep out of the way until Mr. Crosby and I are settled down to supper. I shall insist on specially prepared food and use up all the time I possibly can. You get at the proprietor then. Tell him the truth. Tell him this man is wanted by the police and he, or you, must telephone at once to headquarters in Shoredale, and bid them send a speedy car and men to arrest Crosby. Tell them to hurry, as I may not be able to hold him back as long as I hope. He may suspect my good faith. Hurry, Milliken, get out yourself, now, and hide round the corner of the house. If the landlord seems unwilling to call the police or to let you call them, tell him he’ll be an accessory and he’ll be arrested himself. If you have to, tell him the crime is murder, if you don’t have to, don’t. Quick, get out!”
Milliken was spry, and without a word, she gave Lorraine a fond pat on her shoulder and slid out of the car just in time to be well away before Crosby reappeared from the house.
He was followed by a beaming proprietor, who rubbed his hands in a welcoming way.
“Mrs. Briggs?” he said, “yes ma’am, quite so. Get right out, ma’am.”
Crosby took Lorraine by the arm as she alighted, and whispered, “Don’t say a word, dear, I’ll explain shortly.”
No explanation was needed. Lorry well knew that he had registered Mr. and Mrs. Briggs, and that but for the faithful Milliken she would be in danger of untold horrors.
But she smiled pleasantly at the landlord, and turned to Crosby with an air of trust and content.
“I’m starving,” she announced, as they entered. “Can’t I have supper first of all?” She turned a pleading face to Crosby, who was of no mind to refuse her anything.
“Certainly,” he said. “Can we have a little dining room to ourselves?”
“Sure,” the man replied, with a wink, and led them to a pretty room off the main dining room.
“You want to go to your room and freshen up a bit?” Crosby asked.
“No, not at all. I’m famished! Let’s have our supper at once. What can we have?” she turned to the smiling proprietor.
“Anything you wish,” he returned, bowled over entirely by the wistful face and pleading eyes.
“Then, broiled live lobster, and afterward, some chicken á la king.”
Lorraine had, of course, chosen the dishes which would take longest to prepare, and she meant to follow them up with a salad and a sweet and coffee, if the police were delayed that long.
She had perfect confidence in Milliken’s sagacity and cleverness, and she knew her orders would be carried out exactly.
So, really jubilant at the prospect of relief, she showed a smiling countenance to Crosby and kept him at her side by her sheer fascination.
“I don’t know what to make of you,” he said, “I thought you were going to fight—”
She shrugged her shoulders. “Why put up a fight that is bound to be a losing one? And, I’m hungry. After supper—perhaps I’ll fight you—” Her pretty, hesitating air was adorable, and completely fooled Crosby. He felt she must have decided her only course was to submit to his plans. And, too, he was conceited enough to think that perhaps she did care for him after all, perhaps forced to it by his caveman fashion of carrying her off. Some girls were like that.
But, most of all, his dawning suspicions were lulled by his conviction that she could not have sent any message or messenger to her people, for he had not lost sight of her for a moment, save for the short time he left her in the car, and surely she could have done nothing then. There were no attendants about save a few in the kitchen. A man had been summoned from sleep to look after the car.
So Crosby simply came to the conclusion that all was going his way, that he had secured the girl, and that tomorrow they would start off early and make a dash for freedom in a far state. His plans were hazy about getting money and looking after certain business matters, but he was content for the moment to bask in the smiles of the lovely girl opposite him and let the future take care of itself.
And Lorraine, knowing all that she had at stake, played her part. She was not too suddenly submissive, she was not too definitely amenable, but she was coy, with occasional flattery, shy, with piquant allurement, until Crosby, utterly infatuated, was ready to promise anything.
But Lorraine asked nothing, only for more and different food. Her appetite was exacting. The lobsters were disdained as not being quite fresh. The chicken was sent away after one taste, and other and complicated dishes were ordered, until Lorraine herself feared Crosby’s patience would give out. But so wistful were her eyes and so positive her likes or dislikes of the dainties, that her plan worked well.
She was toying with a cafè parfait, when the door was flung open and Stiles’ triumphant face appeared.
“Ah, Mr. Crosby,” he said, “So we have you at last. Guess you’ll have to leave your supper unfinished and come along now. Good evening, Miss Eldridge. Mr. Marsh is here to look after you. And he will take your servant, too. Come, Crosby. The jig is up.”
And Crosby saw the jig was up. And he knew that Lorraine had done it. How she brought it about he could not imagine, but he knew at once her sweetness and gayety had been mere stalling for time, and that she had in some mysterious way contrived to let the police know where they were.
Nor when he saw the redoubtable Milliken did he quite understand. How in the world did Lorraine get word to her? For he never dreamed he had himself brought Milliken along. He hastily concluded that Lorraine had managed to drop a note or written message somehow, en route. But it mattered little to him how his destruction had been brought about. He concluded that he was surely up against it now.
And he surely was. He was unceremoniously put into a police car, this time more securely guarded. He flung a large banknote to the waiting proprietor who demanded pay for the lady’s elaborate supper.
Lorraine laughed to see this, and turned to Milliken with a weary sigh.
Home they went, and inside an hour Lorraine was once more in her own room and Milliken was helping her to bed.
“Land sakes, Miss Lorry, I’d ten notions to one not to hop on that wobbly little back seat, but I sensed sumpthing wrong and I couldn’t let you go off alone with that hound! My goodness, but I’m glad I went!”
“Yes, Milliken, it was your goodness that saved the day and cooked his goose! Poor old Mr. Crosby, I can’t help being sorry for him; for after all, he was father’s friend—but, Milly, they say he did kill Lennox.”
“’Course he did. I got the whole story outa one o’ them police chaps. The one that druv us home. I give him some hot coffee in the kitchen—he’s down there eatin’ yet, I shouldn’t wonder. Hop into bed, Miss Lorry, dear, and let me go down and see to him.”
The next morning Peter Thorne learned of all that had happened.
His search for the Yale key in Crosby’s library had been futile, and he hoped that now, it could be secured.
And it was, for it hung on Crosby’s key ring, which the police had in charge.
So Peter Thorne, without further delay called together those most interested and declared he was about to unlock the hiding place where many papers of Austin Eldridge were in all probability secreted.
Lorraine and the two Mersereaus were, of course, present, as well as Mr. Miles, Senior, who was the new lawyer Lorraine had retained to look after her interests.
Grant Maxwell and his mother were there and the Eldridge servants hovered in the background.
With no trouble at all, Thorne fitted the little key in the lock he had discovered in the top of the wardrobe, and as he had expected, the front of the high wooden shelf fell down on hinges, and the back part of it proved to be piled with papers, in cases, portfolios and neatly tied bundles.
The whole lot was brought out and placed on a table, and Peter Thorne and Mr. Miles began to run them over hastily.
“Here are the adoption papers!” Thorne cried, as he untied the string of a leather folder. “Here you are, Miss Eldridge, my congratulations!”
He handed the packet over to Lorry, for a single glance had sufficed to show him the nature of the contents.
Sure enough, there were the certified facts of Lorraine’s legal adoption, and all necessary data to ensure her rights as heir to all Austin Eldridge’s possessions, in default of any contradictory will.
The expression on Sarah Mersereau’s face was so angry and grief-stricken as to be almost ludicrous, and funnier still was its immediate change to a fawning affection for Lorraine, as the quick-witted woman realized her entire defeat and her only hope of gratuity.
Lorraine looked toward Grant Maxwell and read in his eyes the joy he felt at her acknowledged position. He was glad she was the legal daughter of Eldridge, for he felt sure the prestige of her good fortune would go far to cause the police to withdraw their absurd suspicions of her possible guilt.
He glanced at his mother, but could read in her face only a polite acceptance of Lorraine’s place in the world—no hint of a desire to look on her as a future daughter-in-law.
But Mrs. Maxwell was so bent on seeing if the packet she wanted was among the findings, she gave small heed to the young people just then. And it was found. Thorne looked it over, and saw it was, as he had supposed, letters from Mrs. Maxwell to Austin Eldridge. Without reading them, he saw a few words of endearing intent, and in a low tone he asked Lorraine if she were willing to turn them over, unread, to Mrs. Maxwell. The girl was more than willing, Mr. Miles agreed, and Mrs. Maxwell received the packet with a gratitude that was unmistakable.
“You may read them some time, if you wish,” she whispered to Lorraine, “But I do not want them ever made public.”
“Of course not,” the girl returned, blessing her stars that she was able to do this kindness to a lady she greatly wanted to propitiate.
The papers were portioned out. Though there was no will, there were several memoranda of certain small bequests or remembrances that the dead man had quite evidently meant to incorporate in a new will, which, however, he had never made. The Mersereaus were not mentioned, but Lorraine assured Sarah that she would at once settle on her a goodly portion of her brother’s wealth, thereby making that hitherto inimical woman her friend for life.
There were many papers that bore on the wrongs to various people that had so aroused the ire of Peter Thorne. These he collected, and with permission from Miles, made a bundle to take away, look over and report upon. The detective had caught sight of the names of the helpless women Eldridge had defrauded, and meant to do all he could, with Lorraine’s sanction, to set these matters right.
Then there were sheaves of papers relating to the Apollo Gold Mining Company, and these, Thorne saw at a glance, incriminated very deeply the lawyer Crosby, and it was without doubt the search for these that resulted in the untimely death of Lennox.
There were other documents, and many letters and memoranda, which the lawyer advised should be left for later examination.
The little crowd broke up and departed, Lorraine assuring the house servants that even if there were no bequests made to them by her father, they should each receive very shortly such sums as she thought would be in accordance with his wishes.
She kept possession of her adoption papers, for they were precious to her, quite aside from the fact that they meant her inheritance of the fortune.
She was glad and proud to know that her father had told the truth when he said she was legally his daughter. The paper, Mr. Miles assured her, made her just as truly Eldridge’s daughter and heir according to law, as if she had been born his child.
To be sure, there was no statement as to who her real parents were or had been, but Lorraine hoped that the papers might lead to further knowledge in this direction.
Armed with the certainty of her position, and made powerful by her inheritance, Lorraine Eldridge became suddenly an important citizen and one to be reckoned with. Not with impunity now, could the police “railroad” her to jail and not to be lightly spoken of was this great heiress and grand lady.
Sensing this change of base, Lorraine took advantage of it, and at once put herself in command.
She arranged the sum to be paid Sarah Mersereau, and with secret joy prepared to speed that parting guest. Nor were the Mersereaus less glad to leave. They had not been comfortable in the Eldridge home, and were delighted at the thought of returning, with their spoils, to their own fireside.
Lorraine gave them, besides the money, many valuable belongings of her father, and never could Sarah complain that her brother’s heiress had treated her other than handsomely.
The Mersereaus out of the way, Lorraine sent at once for Peter Thorne.
“Now,” she said to him, “I’ve cleared up a lot of minor matters, you have agreed to look after those poor people whom my father treated unfairly, and Mr. Miles will see to all the business and financial matters of my inheritance and estate. I am going to devote my whole time and energy and all the money that is needed to the hunt for the man who killed my father. I do not feel that the quest has been sufficiently well pushed, and I’m going to take it in hand myself. Now that Lennox’s murderer is found, and you assure me that my father’s murderer cannot be the same man—”
“I do assure you of that, Miss Eldridge. Crosby killed Lennox in a sudden fit of anger at being discovered in his stealthy visit here. Also, he feared, of course, that Lennox would report his presence here, so he gave him his quietus. Had he paused a moment to consider, I’m sure he would not have struck. But he did not kill Mr. Eldridge. First, he had more to gain from that man living than dead, and second, and decisively, I saw him in the inn dining-room at the day and hour Mr. Eldridge was struck down.”
“Yes, I know that. Well, then, Mr. Thorne, can you find the murderer? For he must be found— and when I say must, I mean it!”
“I know you do,” Thorne spoke gravely. “Have you any—the slightest suspicion yourself?”
“No, I haven’t, that is, not of any individual. But the very day he died, my father said to me, that morning, ‘there are people in this town who would willingly kill me!’ May not that lead to some discovery?”
“I hardly think so. You see, we have checked up on all the people in this town who had reason to have hard feelings toward your father. We have papers and accounts to prove all these things, and I think I may say, that with your sanction and that of your lawyer, I have or will make good all or most of these wrongs. I set myself to do this work thoroughly, for I knew you would prefer to have your father’s name cleared as far as possible of these misdoings.”
“Yes, indeed, Mr. Thorne, and I can’t tell you how I thank you for the personal interest you have shown and the personal effort you have made to straighten out these things. Now, as I say, we come to the question of the murderer? Can you find him?”
“I am not at all sure I can, Miss Eldridge. I know what you’re going to say. You want me to give you a definite answer, and if negative, you want to employ some other detective. I don’t resent this, nor do I blame you in the least. In fact, I am willing to say that since I was instrumental in finding the murderer of your butler, and since I have been of assistance in setting right many of the wrongs attributed to your father, and since I have done my best in the matter of tracing clues and sifting evidence, I think I may say I am willing to abdicate in favor of a new man. When I feared they meant to act on their absurd suspicions of you, I couldn’t give up the quest, but now there’s no further danger of that, especially since you are yourself now definitely on the warpath, and it may well be better that I should step down and let another and better detective be put on the job. You know, Miss Eldridge, I am not an experienced detective, not even a full fledged one. I have much to learn, and what I have accomplished has been largely through good luck and opportunity.”
“I won’t let you so depreciate yourself, Mr. Thorne. You have been goodness itself to me, and you have been shrewd and clever in the work. That you have not succeeded in finding the criminal is in no way your fault. It is an inexplicable case, I’m sure. What do you really think is the solution?”
“I can see no possibility except the man who passed by the house and then turned and repassed. I am told two of your maids saw him do this, and though they cannot describe him plainly, that is not surprising, as no one notes every passerby.”
“But how can we ever find him? How can anyone know how or where to search for him?”
“That’s just it! How can any one? It is my opinion that he was an old enemy of your father’s— there may well be scenes or episodes in your father’s life of which you know nothing. Supposing this man came from some other town, came purposely to kill Mr. Eldridge, walked by, looking things over, saw his chance, and stepped quickly up on the porch, made his swift stab and stepped quietly down again. I grant you it sounds like a fairy tale, but I can only say I see no other solution to the mystery.”
“It’s too unbelievable! I should have seen him!”
“Yet you didn’t see the murderer.”
“No—oh, who could it have been?”
“You haven’t found any letter or paper that points to an enemy or some one who had such a desperate grievance that he would come here to kill your father?”
“No, but why do you suspect someone from out of town? He had enemies enough in Shoredale. As I told you he said, ‘there are those who would kill me—’”
“Yes, only had it been a Shoredale man there would be a strong chance of his identity becoming known.”
“Not such a clever fiend as he must have been. Well, Mr. Thorne, since you seem willing, I will tell you that I do want to get in another detective, a celebrated one, Mr. Fleming Stone. He is recommended by Grant Maxwell, who has heard good reports of his work. I believe his fees are high, but I have money now and I do not mind expense. Please send your bill in to Mr. Miles, won’t you? And do not stint your demands for you have done much and your interest has been unflagging.”
“My interest is unflagging still, but I cannot take payment, Miss Eldridge, for the little I have accomplished. No, I shall send you no bill. But—”
“What is it? Is there something you would like as a souvenir?”
“You will think it strange, but I should like to possess the knife that killed Austin Eldridge. It sounds gruesome to you, I dare say, but this is my first real case, and I mean to keep the weapons of each one so far as I am able.”
“It does seem awful to me, that you want that knife, but I understand the detective’s idea of collecting weapons. It is often done, I believe. I’m sure the police have no further use for it, it certainly has proved no good as a clue. I will willingly try to get it for you, Mr. Thorne. But, of course, you must send a bill as well. I should be very uncomfortable if my father’s estate did not pay all just debts arising from the tragedy of his death.”
Thorne changed the subject and said, “Have you already secured Stone’s services?”
“Mr. Maxwell has written to him, but has not yet had a reply. I do hope he can come. I hesitated about asking him, lest you should think me disappointed in your own work, but since you are so willing I am glad to have Mr. Stone come.”
“And I shall be glad, too. I feel, Miss Eldridge, that I have done all I can. As I have repeatedly said, I am convinced that the man who killed Mr. Eldridge is the man who was seen to pass the house. Apparently he left a decisive clue in that red finger print. Whose else can that be but the murderer’s? The police have carefully checked everybody they could connect with the case, and have found no such print. Now to trace that man by that finger print, is police work. They have far more and better facilities for that sort of thing than any detective can command. Therefore, I do not feel that I am shirking my duty when I say I pass it over to the police department. If Mr. Stone can gather in the man we’re after, so much the better. For, I’ll say frankly, I doubt if the police can catch him.”
“I doubt it, too. They have not shone in the whole affair. You have done wonders, Mr. Thorne, and I shall never forget your kindness and faithfulness.”
“What I have done, Miss Eldridge, has been more in the line of setting wrongs right. I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but Austin Eldridge was not a good man. He was not really your father, so I think you need not resent my speech. He wronged many people, many women, and so far as I have been able to make restitution possible, I am glad.”
“I am glad, too, and I do know my adopted father had many faults—but he was invariably kind and gentle with me, and though I’m glad to have the wrongs you speak of righted, I do feel that I must do my best to avenge his murder. I must find out the truth—”
“Oh, Miss Eldridge,” Peter Thorne exclaimed, suddenly, “Anything but the truth!”
Fleming Stone took the case. Its inexplicable mystery appealed to him and he welcomed a chance to investigate a murder committed at midday on a busy street among a houseful of people.
Grant Maxwell met him on his arrival in Shoredale, and took him to the Eldridge house, for Lorraine had asked the privilege of entertaining the great detective.
The courteous, easy-mannered stranger made a pleasant impression on his young hostess as he came up on the front porch and clasped her welcoming hand.
“Right here?” he said, after the introductions, “in that chair?”
Quite evidently unable to restrain his impatient interest, he pointed to the big armchair, in which Austin Eldridge had sat during his last hour of life.
Lorraine didn’t resent this sudden dip into the all important subject, and she answered, calmly, “Yes, in that very chair. At one o’clock, on a bright sunshiny day, and most of the family within hearing distance.”
“Extraordinary! And more extraordinary that the mystery was not solved at once. Surely such strange conditions cannot fit many explanations.”
“No, said Maxwell, “and that’s what I think strange, too. Why didn’t the police solve it? Why didn’t that amateur, Thorne, solve it? Or even, why can’t we dope out a solution ourselves? Seems to me it would be likely that we, who best know the man and his friends and enemies should first reach the truth of it all.”
“Not necessarily,” Stone said, gazing intently at his surroundings, “you see, the murderer was most infernally clever—the cleverest one I have ever run up against”
“How do you know that so soon?” Lorraine asked.
“Just because the mystery isn’t solved,” Stone replied, with a little smile. He was a handsome man, approaching middle life. His hair was iron-gray, thick and a trifle wavy. His eyes were deep set and dark, and his face was sombre in respose, but genial and even merry when he smiled.
Lorraine liked him from the start, and hospitably urged him to come in the house and rest before he began on his real work.
“There’s a lot in first impressions,” he said, lingering on the porch, which was the scene of the crime. “Let me sit in this chair, and do you, Miss Eldridge, take your place just where you were at that fatal moment. I’m sorry to rouse sad memories, but this will be helpful to me.”
Lorraine threw herself in the swing-hammock, behind the armchair where Stone sat. He looked round the high back and side of the wing-chair.
“You are practically out of sight range, Miss Eldridge,” he said. “And perhaps your eyes were closed?”
“I think they were,” Lorraine returned, “but I can’t be positive as to that. I often do close them out here, as the noonday glare is trying.”
“At any rate, you could not see a man come in from the street unless you were on the alert. Go out and walk along the street, Mr. Maxwell, and turn in here and prove my words.”
Disliking the job, but impelled by Stone’s demands, Maxwell ran out on the sidewalk, and up the street a few steps. Then, turning back he came along, turned in at the little front walk and stepped up on the porch in front of the detective.
To Lorraine’s surprise, she could not see him at all from her hammock, after he turned toward the house.
“And, of course,” Stone said, “you would not have noticed any man coming down the street in this direction before he turned in.”
“No, indeed,” Lorry said. “I was too much absorbed in my thoughts to notice anything. It must be, as Mr. Thorne says, that that man who passed this house and turned back was my father’s murderer.”
“It looks that way,” Stone agreed. “Now, Mr. Maxwell, or you, Miss Eldridge, please stand where young Kennedy stood. You see I know all the details from the newspaper accounts.”
Both of those he addressed went and stood on the north porch, where Tom Kennedy had stood, grouching, as he said, and looking over toward his own house next door.
“Nor would he notice a man passing by,” Stone went on. “Nobody notices those unless they are sitting idle and thoughtless, or unless the passer is unusual in appearance.”
“Then your suspicions tend toward the man in the street?” Maxwell asked.
“So far, yes. But all I know is what I’ve read in the papers. I may change my mind on further investigation. Who is this amateur detective you speak of?”
They told him of Peter Thorne and of the fine work he had done in regard to Austin Eldridge’s crooked business affairs and shady deals. Lorraine bravely admitted her father’s wrong doings, for she meant to be absolutely honest with Stone, and, too, as Thorne had reminded her, the dead man was not her own father, and it was for the good of others that his chicanery should be exposed.
Stone listened with interest, for this was a side of the matter with which he was not familiar. Also, when they told him of Thorne’s discovery of Crosby as the slayer of the butler, and of the incidents in that connection, he expressed a desire to meet the young detective and congratulate him on his work.
“And now,” Lorraine said, “you must come in the house and be shown to your room and freshen up for dinner. You are not only an indefatigable worker, I judge, but eager and impatient to get busy.”
“True,” Stone said, with his pleasant smile. And then Lorraine gave him over to the charge of Milliken, who was hovering just inside the doorway, waiting.
“He’s fine!” Lorraine said to Grant, enthusiastically. “He makes me feel sure that man passing by killed father, and I’m sure, too, that Mr. Stone can track him down.”
“I hope so,” Maxwell returned; “the police wouldn’t do it in a thousand years! And, Lorry, we must set him to hunting out your parents. Mother is rambunctious again about that. It doesn’t satisfy her that you are the legal daughter of Austin Eldridge, she wants to know your ancestors. And, dear, I think she has a sort of suspicion.”
“That they were dreadful people?” asked Lorry, aghast.
“No, on the contrary. That they were people of high standing. She doesn’t think I have caught on, but I have reason to think she knows something a—something that she wants to have proved.”
“Why—I wonder—you see, Grant, just the very morning of the day he died, father whispered to me —oh, I can’t repeat it, even to you—I’m sure he was demented to say such a thing—”
“Tell me, dear. Tell me—or, better yet, don’t tell me, but tell Mr. Stone. He’ll find out your forebears, if anyone can.”
Maxwell went home, and Lorraine telephoned for Peter Thorne to come over for dinner. Mr. Stone had said he wanted to meet him, and as she knew the new detective’s liking for quick action, she decided to have the two meet as soon as possible.
Thorne arrived a few minutes before the other guest came downstairs, and Lorraine received him in the library.
“He’s great!” she announced with enthusiasm. “You’ll like him, I know. And he already likes you, from what we told him.”
“Now, now, Miss Lorraine, you mustn’t over praise me—”
“Oh, I didn’t, I just told him what you have accomplished.”
“And what I haven’t accomplished. I haven’t put a name to your fathers murderer.”
“No matter, you’ve done your share. And I’m hoping Mr. Stone will get at the truth.”
Again Thorne muttered under his breath, “Anything but the truth,” and he looked at Lorry with a longing in his eyes, which he quickly concealed.
The two men met, and as Lorraine made the introduction, she was startled to see a strange look pass between them. It was almost like a lightning-quick flash of intelligence of some sort, that was gone as quickly as it appeared. Almost she could persuade herself there had been nothing of the sort, save in her own imagination, for immediately both pairs of eyes were smiling and two heads bowed in acknowledgment of acquaintance.
Dinner was announced at once, and the trio took their places.
“It is not considered quite the thing to discuss horrors at table,” Lorraine said, her smile fading to a serious look. “But as we are all so deeply interested, I think we will waive the convention and let the topic be broached that is uppermost in all our minds.”
Fleming Stone silently blessed her for this, for he greatly wanted to get busy on the case, and was impatient of conventional dicta.
“What is your opinion as to the man in the street?” Stone asked of the younger detective. “That seems to be the title given to the passer-by that the maids saw.”
“I think he is our only suspect,” Peter Thorne replied, with an air of decision. “The police suspected most of the people in the house, one after another, even including Miss Eldridge herself. But they had to back down on all counts, and there seems to me to be no one left but that vague and shadowy figure.”
“Vague and shadowy?” Stone repeated, “but two maids saw him—”
“Oh, yes, the man was solid flesh and blood all right. But I mean vague and shadowy to us, who are seeking his identity.”
“That must be corrected,” Stone declared, “we must find a local habitation and a name for the man who passed by.”
“That is the next step, surely,” Thorne agreed. “But so far, I haven’t accomplished it.”
“Perhaps we can prove the truth of the old adage, ‘Two heads are better than one,’ and by working together find the identity of our suspect.”
“You honor me, Mr. Stone, in suggesting that we work together,” Thorne returned, “but I know that I can be of no real assistance to a detective of your experience and ability, and so I am going to retire from the case. You can conduct it as it should be conducted and you can do all the work without need of assistance from an amateur like myself. I am both willing and glad to turn over to you all the information, both direct and inferential, that I have gleaned in my investigations, and I will stay if you really prefer it. But, as I say, I have done all I can, and the rest I am glad to leave in your capable and efficient hands.”
The ring of sincerity in Thorne’s tones proved the exact truth of his words and forbade any thought of a petty resentment toward the newcomer or jealousy of his intrusion.
“As you wish, Mr. Thorne,” Stone said, “I should like a long talk with you on the case, and then you must follow your own wishes as to whether you remain here or leave. You have done much—”
“Not very much regarding the murder of Mr. Eldridge,” Thorne interrupted, “but I have unearthed some political intrigues, some fraudulent business schemes, some injustices to helpless women, and these things I have exposed and adjusted so far as lay in my power and in the power of Miss Eldridge’s money. I have cleared some innocent suspects and I have been able to prove that the lawyer, Crosby, now in jail for the murder of the butler, did not also kill Austin Eldridge. The rest I wish to leave to your skilled efforts. If you can find the man in the street and prove his guilt, you have accomplished your end. And I may remind you that there is a plain and clear finger print which will doubtless prove the case for you.”
“Yes, I’ve heard of that finger print, and I regard it as a most curious factor in the case. It has been photographed, of course.”
“Oh, yes, many times. The police have it for you.”
“What could have been a possible motive for this stranger passing by?” Stone asked, thoughtfully.
“We don’t know that he was a stranger,” Thorne reminded him. “But it seems to me he must have been. I visualize him as an old enemy of Mr. Eldridge’s whose enmity was so deep that murder was its intended outcome. I see the man, who had nursed his grudge, probably, for many years, coming to town, inconspicuous and unnoticed, walking quietly by this house to reconnoiter, turning back, as he saw a chance, and with a quick dash committing his fearful deed and fleeing back to the street unseen by any one save his victim, and perhaps not by him.”
“A rash and uncertain procedure—” Stone began, musingly.
“All of that, Mr. Stone, and then some! But, I can see no other reconstruction of the scene, can you? If we grant the guilt of that man whom the maids saw passing, how else can we detail his actions?”
“Quite right, Mr. Thorne, I can imagine no other way. And, if he is the criminal, he simply pulled off his daring and ingenious plan.”
“That’s it. He may have passed and repassed the house many times—though not enough times to make him a familiar figure to the observers.”
“Others on the street must have seen him pass.”
“Doubtless. But who would notice him and why? Ask every householder on this street who passed by today, and they will remember none save acquaintances of their own or some stranger of unusual effect. I learn from the maids who saw this man, that he was inconspicuous, straw-hatted, medium size, height, weight—medium and average in every way. A commonplace, everyday citizen, who claimed the attention of no one. How to set about his discovery, Mr. Stone?”
“Ah, that is the problem. But, quite evidently he is not to be traced by his appearance or personal effects.”
“It seems to me now, that we must look for him in some records of Mr. Eldridge’s past. I quite agree, Mr. Thorne, with all you have said about him. With all your deductions and inferences. And so, I hope to find in Mr. Eldridge’s papers or letters some hint, some mention of this personality we are seeking. And, then, as you say, there is the finger print to prove it.”
“Yes,” said Peter Thorne, and his gaze was faraway and a little sad.
He went away soon after dinner was over, and Stone betook himself to the library and asked for access to all the papers of the late Austin Eldridge as well as any and all the photographs or other portraits of him that Lorraine had any knowledge of.
Wondering a little at this last request, she complied with it, and after a prolonged search, she brought a dozen or more likenesses of her father taken at various stages of his life.
Stone thanked her, and asked to be left alone with his work, stating that he would undoubtedly stay up very late, and nobody was to sit up for him.
Lorraine agreed to his plans and after ordering some lunch to be sent to him later, she went to her own room.
She felt a strange foreboding of disaster. She could not tell herself why but she felt sure Fleming Stone would unravel the mystery, and that the result would be both a shock and a sorrow.
Yet she could think of no reason for these premonitions, unless—might it be that he would solve the mystery of her own parentage, and that it would be a painful revelation?
That reminded her, she ought to have told him of the strange secret her father had whispered to her. Surely, the great detective should know all that she could tell him.
She went down to the library, tapped at the door, and entered to find Stone still poring over the pictures of Austin Eldridge.
He rose and listened courteously to her explanation of her intrusion.
“My father whispered to me,” she said, after she had opened the subject, “that I was the daughter of the sister of Mrs. Vanderholt, a very haughty and aristocratic lady who lived at the inn.”
“You believe this?”
“No, I do not. I believe either that my father was under a sudden and temporary mental aberration, or that he said it to tease me, or for some ulterior purpose of his own.”
“What could such a purpose be?”
“I can’t imagine, unless in hope that I would tell Mrs. Maxwell, and she would then think I was more worthy of her son’s attentions.”
“But a statement of that sort would be easy of proof or disproof.”
“Not easy, Mr. Stone. My father was a peculiar man, he often made statements that were untrue, yet could not be proved false.”
“Miss Eldridge, that statement was not a false one. You are the daughter of the sister of Mrs. Vanderholt.”
“Really!” Lorraine looked dumbfounded. “And you’ve found that out already! How?”
“You gave me the small leather folder that holds your adoption papers. They are apparently the only contents. But in an inconspicuous inner pocket which anyone might have found by a more careful search than was apparently given, I found this.” He took from the receptacle he had mentioned a thin sheet of paper closely written and folded small. “This Miss Eldridge, contains the story of your birth, and while a sad little document, it is worth much to you for it proves your parents the right sort of people and your birth stainless.”
“Tell me the most of it,” said Lorraine, her fingers trembling and her eyes filling with tears as she strove to read the well-nigh illegible words.
“Your father wrote it, and it is attested and signed. It goes to prove that the sister of Mrs. Vanderholt, a girl much younger than that lady, eloped with a neighbor, a young, headstrong chap, and they were married, and later you were born. The family of Vanderholt cut off these two young people entirely, even forbidding the mention of their names. So, when they both died, you were put in an asylum, under your rightful name and with full credentials, and from there you were adopted by Austin Eldridge and his wife. They knew the secret of your birth but preferred not to tell it. That, Miss Eldridge, is the true story, but you will be interested to read its further details at your leisure. Take this paper with you and study it, but preserve it carefully, for it means much to you.”
“Oh, it does, Mr. Stone,” her eyes were shining. “It means my whole life’s happiness! Mrs. Maxwell will readily receive me now! And I think this is what she both hoped and suspected.”
“I daresay, now run along, Miss Lorraine, I am deeply absorbed in my work.”
“Have you discovered anything else? Do just tell me that?”
There was no refusing the wistful eyes, and so Fleming Stone said, “Yes, I have learned who killed Austin Eldridge.”
“Who?” The word fairly burst from Lorraine’s lips.
“That I will not tell you tonight, so you need not ask.”
There was no mistaking the tone of finality, and as Stone turned back to the desk, Lorraine softly went back upstairs.
Long he studied the portraits of the murdered man.
“There can be no doubt,” he said with a sigh. “Now for proof.”
Long and late he sat, hunting through old letters, old notebooks, and old bundles of documents. Swiftly he went through the same papers that other hands had run over and other inquirers examined.
But Fleming Stone found a few things they did not find. He found, especially, in a small, secret pocket of a leather folder—one of a number of the sort Mr. Eldridge possessed so many of—a marriage certificate and a birth certificate that predated the marriage of Austin Eldridge and his Shoredale wife.
This marriage had taken place in California, this child of the union had been born in California, and the date was many, many years ago.
“What shall I do?” mused Fleming Stone. “What must I do?”
Long he mused in uncertainty. Then, with a sudden, impetuous gesture, he swept all the photographs into a desk drawer, and locked it, pocketing the key.
Noticing the sandwiches and sherry on a table nearby, he ate and drank absent-mindedly and then went up to bed and immediately fell asleep.
The next morning he awoke early and with a mind fully made up, he went down to breakfast and greeted Lorraine cheerily.
“Now, young lady,” he said, as they sat at the table. “I’m going to forestall your questions. You bamboozled me into an admission last night, that I was not ready to make. So, forget, if you please, that I said I had made a certain discovery, until I repeat that statement to you. You may as well do this, for I shall answer no questions until I get ready, and, I assure you, I am not ready yet.”
“I’ll bargain with you, Mr. Stone,” said Lorraine, looking unaccountably happy. “I’ll forget the fact that you told me you had discovered something else, if I may tell people of the facts of my birth and adoption.”
“That you may and welcome. Run over to the Maxwells, as soon as you choose. Go to Mrs. Vanderholt, as soon as you—dare.” He smiled.
“Oh, I’ll dare! That lady will receive me with open arms, I’ll wager!”
“Go on, then, Miss Lorraine, and my blessings on you! I shall be closeted with Mr. Thorne, as soon as I can get him over here. Don’t let us be interrupted, please.”
“No. I’ll give orders that nobody is to disturb you. You’ll use the library, I suppose.”
“Yes, I want to appropriate that room during my stay here.”
“Very well,” and Lorraine resumed her breakfast and her light and cheerful chatter.
But an hour or so later, when Peter Thorne arrived, and Stone took him to the library, the atmosphere was far from cheery and Stone’s face was lined with sorrow.
“You know who killed Mr. Eldridge, Mr. Thorne?” the older detective said, making it sound more like a statement than a question.
“Yes,” and Peter Thorne’s eyes met Stone’s in a level gaze.
“You want the truth known?”
“Anything but the truth,” Thorne returned, but his eyes did not falter.
“Yet it would seem it must come out—” mused the other.
“How did you learn it?”
“By some memoranda that was under the nose of all you people who searched the papers and documents hidden in that secret cache.”
“It was!” Thorne was genuinely amazed.
“Yes. But it was merely a few small sheets of thin paper, and they were in a concealed pocket of a sort of leather folder.”
“There are so many leather folders,” Thorne began, and Stone interrupted, saying:
“It was this one.”
He held out a medium sized affair, composed of two pockets that folded against each other, and a smaller concealed pocket behind each.
“So?” Thorne said, gazing at it but making no move to take it.
“You don’t want to examine the papers?”
“No, Mr. Stone. And you know the identity of the man in the street?”
“As well as you do.”
“How did you learn that?”
“From these,” and Stone pulled from the drawer the lot of photographs of Austin Eldridge.”
“Ah, yes, of course, I hadn’t thought of that! You also know the motive?”
“No, Mr. Thorne, that I do not know. Will you tell me?”
“I will. You know that Austin Eldridge was married before he wed the lady who was later Lorraine’s mother by adoption?”
“Yes, I have the marriage certificate of that union and the birth certificate of his child.”
“You have? That is good. Then I will tell you a few details more of that story. Austin Eldridge was married secretly out west.”
“In California, to be exact?”
“In California, to be exact. He was very young, and he married a girl who was not his equal in birth, breeding or education. But she was a good, honest girl, who loved him devotedly. Yet, in a few years he tired of her, and neglected her and her child abominably. He visited her at rare intervals, and supplied her scantily with money, which she eked out by hard work that overtaxed her strength and made her ill and old before her time.”
“She continued to live in California?”
“Yes. She had no choice. Eldridge lived East here, and he became infatuated with a young woman of his own class and social standing. At this time he had been married eight years, but the fact was known to none of his family or friends in the east. He came out to California to see his wife, and urged her to consent to a divorce. This she refused to do, largely because of the child.
This child was then a boy of seven years, devoted to his mother, and a little afraid of the big, splendid father, whom he saw so seldom. But one day, the boy saw his father in a new light; he saw the big man come and bully and threaten the little, frail mother. He heard him tell her that if she didn’t consent to divorce he would leave her to starve, he would never see her again. She still refused, saying it was because of the boy. That boy was the legitimate son of his father. The first-born son and heir to a great name and estate.
“Delicate and weak though the woman was, she fought for her boy, and braved the fierce and terrible anger of the man.”
“Then he lost all control of himself, he vowed he would kill the boy that stood between him and his desires. He snatched up a carving knife from the table and made a lunge at the frightened child. But with a mother’s quick instinct of defense, the woman threw herself in front of the upraised arm of her husband and herself received the blow intended for the boy.
“She dropped like a log, stabbed through the heart. The man, gave one frightened gasp, then he knelt by the dead woman, felt her heart, her pulse and after a moment, without a glance at the child, but with a smile of triumph on his face that Satan himself might envy, he went softly away, closing he door behind him.
“The child, whimpering with fear, slowly crept toward his mother’s still form on the floor. Ignorant of such things, he thought that to pull out the knife would restore her to life. He pulled it out, and the resultant gush of warm life-blood, so frightened him that he screamed in terror.
“And then the neighbors came, cared for the dead woman, cared for the child after a fashion, and at last one big-hearted old dame took the boy to live with her.”
“Go on,” said Fleming Stone, as Thorne dropped his head in his hands. He raised a haggard face, and went on.
“Mr. Stone, then and there, at seven years old, that boy vowed vengeance on that father. Young as he was, he recognized the diabolical nature that could kill and then go away leaving his own son to the mercy of the world.”
“Then and there, he took the knife and swore a mighty vow, no less solemn because of his tender years, that some day he would kill that man with the blade that had taken his mother’s life. Some day that fiend incarnate should have in his own heart the very knife that he had driven into his wife’s breast. Then the years went by. The boy grew up somehow, tended by kind though sadly poor people. They all were aghast at the boy’s story, but with no one to push the matter few investigations were made, and the criminal was, of course, miles away at once. Mother and child had lived under an assumed name—”
“Thorne?” said Stone, quietly.
“Yes, Thorne. So no one ever suspected that the dead woman’s husband was Austin Eldridge. When I grew to be old enough I earned a few pence, and more as occasion permitted. When about fourteen or so, I read my first detective story, one by Conan Doyle. That gave me my great idea, and I vowed that I would become a great detective and as such get opportunity to redeem my death vow, and also by taking the case myself as detective, do away with all chance of discovery. I prepared myself in every way possible to be a really great detective. I studied only branches that would be of help to me in that profession. I studied surgery, that I might learn to strike at a man’s heart. I studied law that I might know how to protect my rights. And I carried always that knife with me—in a piccolo case. I made ready. I found my man—that was easy—and when I came here, waited two days to reconnoitre and lay my plans. The rest you know.”
“It is your finger print?”
“Yes, made on purpose. Of course, luck favored me—or as I prefer to think, justice and right made my path easy. I am the man in the street. I am the instrument of justice that has been able to set right many of the wrongs my father did. To make restitution to poor dupes he defrauded. To cut short a career that held only evil, and that to my knowledge had far more evil planned than he had already committed. I will not dwell upon this phase, but I assure you Mr. Stone, had Austin Eldridge lived a month longer he would have committed incalculable and irremediable wrongs in this town that have been prevented by his taking off.
“Now, you know all. I took up the case as detective, when I was asked to do so. I had no end or aim, but to right what wrongs I could, to absolve anyone who might be wrongly suspected, and—so far as a solution of the mystery was concerned, to bring out anything but the truth. I had hoped to fasten the crime to the unknown man in the street, but as soon as I learned you were coming, I realized it would be a case of diamond cut diamond, and you would cut deepest.
“I have no regret for what I have done. I have rid the world of one of its very worst inhabitants. I have prevented much further crime and evil of whose nature and extent no one will ever know. I have avenged a brutal and diabolical crime, the murder of a young, innocent wife and desertion of a first-born son, and I have no interest in the consequences. If I am made to give up my life for my deed, I shall consider it a willing sacrifice.”
Fleming Stone said no word, but with a strong, steady gaze into Thorne’s eyes he held out his hand.
Thorne took it, and realized from the warm, strong grip all that the celebrated detective felt.
“Good-by, Peter Thorne,” Stone said at last, and, rising, opened the library door.
After one more long, wordless look between the two pairs of deep, strong eyes, Thorne went out to the hall and out at the front door.
Stone turned back to the library, locked himself in, and sat for an hour, thinking.
When Lorraine saw him at luncheon he was his bright, cheery self.
The girl was bubbling over with joy, happy beyond words in her new found contentment. For Mrs. Maxwell and Mrs. Vanderholt had taken her into open, loving arms, and later, Grant Maxwell had done likewise.
“I think you have enough happiness, Miss Eldridge,” the detective said, “not to mind when I tell you that in my estimation it will be useless to seek to find who the man in the street was. With your permission I will advise that the mystery be allowed to remain a mystery. There is so little data to work on, so little sign of a clue, and as I have given you relatives and relatives-in-law, I’m going to ask you to let the other matter rest.”
“Good for you, Fleming Stone,” she cried. “To tell you the truth, I’d rather not have any more of this sleuthing going on. I’m sick of it, and it jars on my happiness. And, you know, he wasn’t my real father—and I’d hate to accuse a murderer just now —when I’m so blissfully happy—”
“So should I,” Stone said.
“And Grant is so happy, too. Any more of these horrors would be an awful mistake. And they say Peter Thorne has left the inn and gone away. So— you drop it all, won’t you, and stay on as a house guest for a while. I want you to know Grant better.”
“I’ll stay a day or two in your pretty home, then I must be about my business.”
“All right, and you’ll call off all the police and everything connected with anything horrible?”
“Yes, Miss Lorraine, I will. You devote yourself to your happiness and rejoice that we have been able to find out anything but the truth.”
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