an ebook published by Project Gutenberg Australia
Title: Fuller’s Earth
Author: Carolyn Wells
eBook No.: 2300861h.html
Date first posted: 2023
Most recent update: 2023
This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore
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Chapter 1. - Tea At Silver Spray Farm
Chapter 2. - Where Did Duncan Go?
Chapter 3. - An Anxious Night
Chapter 4. - A Methodical Search
Chapter 5. - White Birch Inn
Chapter 6. - Outside Looking In
Chapter 7. - Still A Mystery
Chapter 8. - Various Theories
Chapter 9. - Alarums And Excursions
Chapter 10. - Fakes And Hoaxes
Chapter 11. - Back To New York
Chapter 12. - Fleming Stone Reappears
Chapter 13. - Stone Goes Ahead
Chapter 14. - A Thorough Search
Chapter 15. - The Only Clew
Chapter 16. - Running Down The Clew
Chapter 17. - Suspects in Succession
Chapter 18. - Stone Learns The Truth
“Now, where the hell is Carlotta?”
Carlotta’s husband spoke mildly, as if more in idle curiosity than in anger.
Then he collected his anatomy, and hoisted it, by a seeming miracle, to an upright position beside the long basket chair in which he had been sprawling.
The reason of his sudden return to civilized demeanor was the sight of two heads, just visible above the privet hedge and steadily drawing nearer the gateway.
A picture postcard of the house at Silver Spray Farm would have been enough to divulge its locality to any one interested in old New England houses.
The noble portico with its two story columns, the fascinatingly elaborate doorway, and the gleaming white paint all stamped the building as one of the finest specimens of Colonial architecture extant. A house to be reproduced in high class camera magazines, in great books of historic Massachusetts homes and in motor-trip guide-books that included the Western end of the Commonwealth.
Not a farmhouse at all, but a mansion of stately aspect and goodly size.
Duncan Searle had bought it at a bargain, and he loved it almost as if it had been his ancestral home.
The farm, its farmhouse now given over to the gardeners, was at a little distance and between it and the house was the beautiful cascade called by the somewhat commonplace name of Silver Spray Falls. Yet the name was descriptive, for the dashing, prancing water often made a fine mist that was gold in the sunlight and pure silver beneath the rays of the moon.
This meant, of course, deep ravines, and mighty crags, which Nature had generously provided.
The house, on a low-mounded knoll, had no steps, the main entrance being level with its wide terrace, from which sloped away broad rolling lawns.
Not far, however. Soon the lawns met trees, in groups, almost in thickets. And, divided only by overgrown undergrowth, there were copses and dells which were never thinned out, and which formed a great encircling wall whose few carefully cut vistas gave the only glimpses of the outer world. That is, in most directions. But in front of the house, a great clearing gave off lanes and roads that led to the highway and eventually to the village, or town perhaps of Chaldea.
Back of the house, however, was the choice spot, the lovely lawn, shaded by a few old forest trees; some quiet arbors, a pergola or two, and occasional seats that had fallen in unexpectedly pleasant places.
Here tea was often served, and even now, Warner, the second man, was wheeling out a tea wagon, followed by Mellon, the butler, watchfully censorious.
The two outside the hedge, came in at the gate, and as they were Leonard Colvin and his wife, intimate friends of the family, they occasioned no disturbance and chose resting places to suit their moods.
“Where is Carlotta?” Duncan repeated, addressing nobody in particular. “I want to see her about something; where is she?”
He stamped about on the turf, a big, heavy man, whose whole make-up went to prove its preponderance of self-importance, and its utter lack of consideration for others.
Handsome of face, dark coloring, sun-tanned skin, perfectly, though carelessly garbed, he almost danced about in his frantic, foolish impatience.
“Do stop!” cried Ronald Booth, a house guest, “you’re ruining the grass! How absurd you are! Carlotta hasn’t been out here all the afternoon.”
The Colvins, the newcomers, lived at Birch Hollow, called “next door” though nearly a mile away.
A mild-mannered man, Colvin, and one who hated excitement of any sort.
“Sit down, old Top,” he advised, looking like a chipmunk reproving a bull dog; “Carlotta will probably appear soon. Or send one of your henchmen for her.”
“She went to take a nap, she said,” drawled Austin Searle, who was Duncan’s younger brother, “can’t Mellon engineer the tea business?”
“I’ll do it,” and Erminie Colvin went over and seated herself at the tea table. “Bring me the things, Mellon.”
Two more people drifted in at the open gate.
These were Norman Bradford, and his sister Dorothy.
“Just in time,” said Dorothy, gayly. “Any iced tea, Mellon?”
“Yes, Miss Bradford. Plain or—”
“Wait a minute,” Ronald Booth said, “I’ve a flagon of marvelous arrack or something of the sort. Guaranteed to take the curse off any tea. I’ll get it,—it’s in my room.”
He started for the house, and was halted by a cry of dismay from Dorothy.
She had left her handbag at home on the porch, and as it contained a bit of valuable jewelry she was taking to be repaired, it must be retrieved at once.
None too willingly, her brother offered to go back for it, and she declared he must go and go quickly.
The Bradfords, too, lived “next door,” but in the other direction. A little more than a mile distant was Lynwood, and Norman went for his car to go on the errand.
Austin glanced at his watch.
He gave a short whistle, and, explaining that he had an appointment to telephone, he hurried round the corner of the house toward the side door.
“I’ll go for that arrack,” said Booth, who was always deliberate of motion; “hold the fort, Erminie, I won’t be a minute.”
“I’m going to look up that wife of mine,” Duncan declared. “She ought to be here. The place full of guests and no hostess!”
“Oh, how warm it’s growing,” Erminie complained, as Duncan disappeared into the house. “Have you a fan, Dorothy?”
“No, but Norman will be back in a minute and there’s one in my bag.”
“Can’t wait,” Erminie returned. “I’m fair melted! I’ll go and get one from the hall table, they’re always there.”
She rose, a French doll of a woman in appearance. Pink-cheeked, blue-eyed, gold-haired, lithe and svelte and lissome and all those adjectives that belong to the siren type.
Yet Erminie was straightforward and plain spoken, a frank, modern temperament that showed the Lorelei complex only in the most advantageous circumstances.
To-day, she stood up, shook her mauve chiffon gown into adjustment, and crossed the lawn to the back door.
As she went through it, Leonard Colvin looked at Dorothy with a smile;
“We’re left to entertain ourselves, willy-nilly,” he said.
“Or, rather, each other,” she smiled back. “We must be polite, you know. What shall we talk about?”
“Oh, the rest of them, of course. We will, anyway, so we may as well start in. What do you think of the Booth man?”
“He’s very good-looking. Bonny Ronny, they call him.”
“What a frightful name! Doesn’t he hate it?”
“Oh, I guess not. He’s poised and kind and very clever.”
“H’m, good enough character you give him. Is he in love with you?”
“Oh, Mr Colvin, you’re priceless! I never met a gentleman gossip before. Well, no, not in love with me.”
“With whom, then. You talk as if you had hidden assets.”
“Of scandal? Perhaps I have. But where are they all? They’ve had time to attend to their errands a dozen times over! Where’s Erminie, for heaven’s sake?”
“Erminie always gets sidetracked. If she goes for a fan, she meets some one or sees something that puts the fan out of her head entirely.”
Dorothy looked her comprehension.
“Hope she doesn’t waylay Austin,” she said; “I fancy him myself and I think he’s a long time telephoning.”
“One could gather, from your talk, Miss Bradford, that you’re not content with your current entertainer.”
Dorothy gave him what her friends called her sunbeam smile.
She was a pretty little thing, about twenty-four or so, and her wavy fair hair and amber eyes went well with her beige knitted silk sports clothes.
The smile rather captivated Colvin, who didn’t get very many such, and who had begun to think that his forty years barred him from certain casual entertainments. He didn’t know the Bradfords well, because Erminie didn’t care for them, or perhaps they didn’t care for her, which meant the same net results.
“I’m never content with anybody current,” she returned, looking a bit wistful. “You see, I always want the one who isn’t with me at the moment.”
“A mighty good idea. Thus, you never get fed up with anybody.”
His pale blue eyes looked at her politely, not staring, but with a certain intentness of gaze. It occurred to her that he resembled a harmless lunatic, though she knew he was far removed from that.
She voiced her thought.
“Yes,” he said, thoughtfully, “I am a bit of a lunatic, but oh, my dear child, not harmless! Don’t think that, for a minute!”
“Then why do you let Erminie go into that house and flirt with Duncan Searle all the afternoon?”
“Is that what she’s doing?” he asked in mild curiosity. “How do you know?”
“What else can she be doing? She could have collected a hundred fans in this time.”
“Well, well, we must see about that. Will you excuse me—”
“No, I won’t. I’ll go with you. But I want my tea, and unless we can corral Erminie, I’ll make it myself, or let Mellon do it.”
“Here we are!” announced Ronald Booth, as, brandishing his precious bottle of arrack he came out of the back door, impatiently tossing away the creepers that hung down from the porch roof.
“Ought to have these dratted weeds trimmed,” he groused, as he untangled a longer vine than usual. “I believe Duncan did say it was time for a barbering. Well, here’s the worth-its-weight-in-gold stuff. The chap who gave it to me said to use it only for my friends from whom I wanted favors. But where is everybody? You two having a petting party?”
“We were just about to,” Dorothy declared, “when you came along, and—”
“And spoiled it. Never mind, there are other times coming—I say, Colvin, I thought your wife was doing the honors. I won’t put this nectar in the hands of a minion! Oh, here comes Austin. What’s the matter, son? Wasn’t she kind on the telephone?”
“Couldn’t get her. I rang and rang and every time they cut us off before we started. The service up here is fierce. That your ridiculous booze, Ronny?”
“You needn’t have any. Did you see Erminie?”
“No, where is she?”
“Dunno. Mellon, you make the tea, will you? Just enough for Miss Bradford, I should say.”
“Yes, I’ll have tea. I want to see how that arrack cuts up.”
Booth joined her in her tea drinking, the other two men telling Mellon what they desired.
After what seemed a long time Erminie came around the house toward the group.
“Where’ve you been all this time?” demanded her husband.
“For goodness’ sake, Erminie, where have you been?” Austin asked, as his quick eye noted a little more color on her cheeks than she had purposely placed there.
“I never knew Erminie to be anywhere, strictly for goodness’ sake,” Leonard drawled.
“Fie, fie,” chided Dorothy, “and you her husband!”
“Of course. Do you think I’d let any one else speak like that of her?”
“Wherever are all the Searlses?” Erminie wondered, making a pretty picture as she manipulated the tea things.
“Here’s the gem of the collection,” Austin told her, “why yearn for the lesser lights?”
Erminie shook her curls at him. Her gold hair was of the ringleted sort, and with only a little judicious training, it behaved just as curls ought to do. Soft rings broke into delicate waves as the breeze touched them, and Erminie’s flower face smiled, but a furtive glance toward the house, showed where her thoughts were.
For utter absence of guile, for outward and visible sign of all the Christian graces, Erminie’s countenance was a guaranty. Her eyes, truly sky blue, were frank and ingenuous, and no one had ever seen her delicately formed lips curved in sarcasm or ill temper.
Which only goes to prove that things are not always what they seem.
“You’re a darling,” she said, looking appraisingly at Austin, “but I want—Carlotta.”
“Which, being interpreted, means Duncan,” Searle laughed back at her. “Didn’t you see him when you were in the house? Thought I heard you talking to him.”
“Where’s the fan you went for, Ermie?” asked Dorothy. “Couldn’t you find one?”
“Am I being baited?” she returned, laughingly. “No, I couldn’t find a fan, and I didn’t see Duncan, and my whole trip was an utter failure!”
“Why want a fan, with this breeze blowing?” Booth inquired. “Though it is sultry weather for late September.”
“If Erminie says she wants a fan, it isn’t a fan she wants,” offered her husband. “If she wanted a fan, she’d declare she was hunting for a parasol. She lives en camouflage, that one.”
There was something about Colvin’s voice that made his words sound whimsical rather than censorious, and everybody smiled a little.
Ronald Booth’s smile was quizzical. He was not old-fashioned, but he disliked this marital bickering before an audience.
“It would make small difference to you which I wanted,” Erminie said, gayly, “since you wouldn’t help me find it.”
“Why should I, when you’ve a legion of men at your beck and call?”
“Do you two sit up nights rehearsing these snappy dialogues?” asked Dorothy.
“We have to,” Erminie told her, “it’s our radio stuff, you know.”
Leonard smiled benignly, and turning to Austin Searle, inquired about Duncan’s new invention.
“Oh, it’s getting on,” Austin replied. “I don’t know much about the details, but I’m sure old Duncan is satisfied with his progress. Those great minds work slowly, you know.”
“And great inventions move slowly,” Erminie observed. “Duncan explained the thing to me, it’s extremely complicated,—”
“Don’t give us fairy tales, little one,” admonished her husband. “An extremely complicated matter, explained to you, is a contradiction in terms.”
She gave him a tolerant smile and went on.
“You see, he has to wait so long for parts of the machinery to be made, and for things to be sent from abroad; and now he is completing—”
“I know,” said Booth, unable to resist, “completing his design, to keep the Menai bridge from rust by boiling it in wine!”
“Something like that,” said Austin as the ripple of laughter passed, “but change the subject, do. If Duncan comes out and hears a word of it, he’ll sail in and keep the floor all afternoon.”
“Oh, here’s Norman, back at last,” cried Dorothy; “did you find my bag?”
“I did,” said her brother, and tossed it in her lap. “It’s cool here, but out on the road it’s torrid. Give me some cooling fluid, some long fizzy gesture.” Mellon responded duly, and Dorothy announced, with satisfaction, that her diamond bracelet was safe and unharmed.
“So many burglars and tramps about of late,” she apologized, and Norman put in;
“That’s right, Sis. I saw the meanest looking specimen as I neared the house just now. Not quite the hobo type, but apparently of caveman extraction. He carried a club—no, not a walking stick, a real club, thick at one end, you know—”
“Yes,” Colvin nodded, “that’s a club, thick at one end.”
“Shaped in fact like the drumstick of a turkey,” suggested Booth.
“Exactly that. Where’s our hostess?”
“Hush, dear, it’s rude to be curious,” Erminie reproved him.
“But I want to know. I can’t stick a party that’s all guests and no host or hostess.”
“You needn’t, any longer,” said a low, pleasant voice, and Carlotta Searle came round the corner of the house.
The homestead at Silver Spray faced North, leaving the Southern exposure for the gardens and lawns that were among its finest features.
There was a door in the middle of each of its four sides, and though the Eastern entrance was mainly for the servants, as it led to the garages, laundry grounds and gardeners’ houses, it was more or less used by the family, when wanting a short cut. The North and South doorways were of beautiful Colonial design and the Western side of the house was pretty much given over to the men’s entertainment. Billiard room, smoking room, gymnasium, small lounge, all had been ordered and appointed to suit masculine tastes, and though Duncan’s laboratory was in a separate building, he had here a study or office which was sacred to his occupancy alone.
A wide hall ran from front to back, and the rooms, not at all in foursquare order, were bewildering to newcomers.
For many had been added as needed, a room had been divided to make it smaller, or a partition knocked down to make it larger. A sort of annex had been added, reached by a short, covered passageway, and three rooms had been joined to form the great lounge library.
All this might have made the exterior of the house inharmonious, save for the fact that the clustering shrubbery was so dense as to hide any defect.
Small trees and beautiful bushes of rare varieties had been planted all round; old and wooded wistaria hung in gnarled loops, and ampelopsis gave out its annual green freshness until autumn reddened its leaves.
Indeed, save for the cleared lawn on the South side, the whole place was a mass of verdure, from old forest trees down to the delicate ferns that lined the rocky sides of the falls and spread far beyond in masses of fairy-like greenery.
Round the corner from the Western side came Carlotta.
To see Carlotta inevitably brought to mind the old lines of Sir Henry Wotton:
“You meaner beauties of the night
That poorly satisfy our eyes,
More by your number than your light,
You common people of the skies,
What are you when the moon shall rise?”
At least it always had that effect on Ronald Booth, who was, in all probability, the only one present who had ever heard of Wotton or his lines.
But it was true. Erminie’s flower-petal blondeness, Dorothy’s healthy, sport-loving effects, faded and waned before the vital charm of Carlotta.
Beautiful, of course, with a calm, grave beauty that left no room for criticism.
Olive-skinned and dark-haired, a shapely, queenly head set somewhat haughtily on her square shoulders, it was her eyes that caught and held attention before all else.
Marvelous eyes they were, of deep pansy color, capable of changing to black at times. Incredibly long lashes, that made you wait, breathlessly, for them to droop on her cheeks again. And when they did, as eagerly waiting for their raising, to see again the eyes themselves.
It must have been that Carlotta Searle was conscious of the beauty of her eyes, but if so she never betrayed it by look or glance.
Never did she coyly let fall the white lids, or gaze seductively at you through the curling lashes. Never did she look raptly upward or pensively downward as a grand-stand play. If these phenomena occurred they were involuntary, and to be accepted by the beholder as a direct dispensation of Providence and acknowledged with appropriate gratitude.
But to talk with her earnestly, even on trivial subjects; to get her interested and then listen to her, that was to know Carlotta’s eyes. She talked with them and through them; in defiance of them, and sometimes even in spite of them.
Yet after all, what really made Carlotta was her poise. Surely no human being ever possessed such calm, such serenity, such composure. Erminie declared she lost half the joy of life because of her inability to be thrilled or excited.
But Carlotta only smiled in her tranquil way, and made no disclaimer.
Whether cause or effect of her temperament, Carlotta was quiet of manner, gentle of motion and slow to anger.
To be sure, there was a tradition to the effect that when she did get mad,—well, words seemed inadequate to express what did happen then. But the matter was legendary and none could speak with authority on the subject.
Dressed in white, a simply made soft silk, Carlotta came round the West corner of the house and joined the waiting group, smiling her welcome on all.
“Sorry to be so shockingly late,” she said, “but it’s Grant’s afternoon out, and I never realize how dependent I am on her, until she whisks herself off. Sometimes I think she hides my things, so I’ll realize more fully her importance.”
“Where’s Duncan?” asked Colvin.
“I don’t know. Hasn’t he been about? Give me some tea, Ermie. What’s that dressy looking bottle?”
“My contribution to the gayety of nations,” said Booth. “Some fancy arrack, Bill Ward gave me. Try it.”
“I will. Does it go in the tea?”
“Yes,” informed Erminie, “and it’s fine. Don’t you know where Duncan is? I want to see him about something.”
“About an hour,” put in Leonard, grinning at her. “Well, you can’t wait much longer, my dear. The shadows are leaping from bough to bough and we have a dinner date, you know.”
“Go and look for Duncan, Austin,” Carlotta said to her brother-in-law. “If Erminie wants to see him, he’s certainly somewhere round. Look in his study. I came down the side stairs, and I saw no one in the house at all. But I didn’t look in the rooms. Where you going to dinner, Ermie?”
“To the Traynors, those new people, you know. I hate it, yet I’ve heard they’re a worthwhile lot.”
“I’ve heard that, too. They say he’s an honest injun artist, and he’s going to make our wilderness up here blossom like a rose on his canvas. I wonder if he’d like to do our falls, they’ve never been properly done.”
“I’ll put it to him to-night. Well, Austin, where’s big brother?”
“Dunno, Erminie. I didn’t stumble on him at all.”
So the Colvins went away without seeing their host again.
The others sat, rather quietly, now Erminie had gone, and looked toward the sunset, which was visible only above the treetops.
“If this were my place, I’d root up or cut down fifty per cent of this jungle,” said Booth, who always made sweeping statements in the mildest possible way.
“I’d like some of it thinned out,” Carlotta agreed, “but don’t suggest it to Duncan. It’s like a red rag to a bull. He’s a determined sort, you know. He’ll never throw away a book or cut down a tree. The bookcases are overflowng, but he wouldn’t discard the cheapest and most rubbishy old volume. Nor would he give up a tree, bush or vine from this whole estate. It’s nothing but stubbornness, of course, he’s sensible enough about most things.”
“Where is he?” asked Norman Bradford. “I’d like to see him, and we must be getting on.”
“You going out to dinner, too?” asked Carlotta. “If not, why not dine here? Informally, of course, and we won’t dress.”
“I’d love to,” Dorothy exclaimed, “and I want to walk down by the falls. Will anybody take me?”
Austin was quite ready to play escort and the two started off.
“Good looking pair,” said Carlotta gazing idly after them; “maybe,—perhaps—”
“Matchmaker!” said Booth. “All women are. Anybody want a go at anything? Tennis? Basketball?”
“No,” said Carlotta, “it’s too warm to race about. And I played a lot this morning. I’m working up for the Field Day at the Club.”
“And you’ll take all the prizes, as you always do,” grumbled Booth. “I don’t think it’s fair for a woman to take sports honors away from strong men.”
“No, you ought to keep your hands for your music,” Bradford said, looking at the beautifully shaped hands, lying in Carlotta’s lap. “How can you run those double barreled scales, or whatever you call ’em—”
“Octave pieces,” put in Booth.
“All right, octave pieces,—and strain your hands all out of shape with tennis and bowling—”
“They aren’t strained out of shape,” Carlotta cried, indignantly, holding out her hands for inspection.
Nor were they. Tanned, of course, but well kept and graceful, they were hands to be proud of; the hands of a worker, not a dreamer.
“Isn’t this conversation rather personal?” she asked, smiling. “What do you think of my feet?”
She held one out for view, daintily shod in a satin pump. Not small, but slender, with an arched instep, it looked little like the foot of a gymnasium worker and a sports fan.
“I don’t see how you keep ’em like that,” Booth said, in admiration. “Any other such outdoorsy piece as you are would have splay feet—”
“That’s enough about my anatomy,” Carlotta said, laughingly, and just then Mellon appeared, to learn how many would be at dinner.
“Two guests,” Carlotta told him. “Have you seen Mr Searle about, Mellon?”
“No, madame. Shall I find him for you?”
“He’s sure to turn up directly. If you see him, ask him to come out here.”
“He’s probably in the laboratory,” Booth said; “he loses all track of time when he gets messing about with his chemicals.”
“What’s he engaged on now?” Bradford inquired, with a show of interest.
“I don’t know exactly,” Carlotta said, as Booth made no answer. “But I never know what his performances mean, except that eventually they are to break upon an astounded public as world-shakers!”
“Not mechanical contrivances?”
“Oh, no, more like alchemy, I think.” Carlotta smiled at him. “He has retorts and furnaces and,— well, all the queer doings we used to have in the lab at college. But they never interested me, and don’t now, except as I try to understand them to please Duncan.”
“You can’t fool him, can you?”
“As to my understanding? I don’t, often, but of course, I can. I only have to nod my head and look wise, and now and then utter a half sentence, which he finishes for me, and then he thinks I said it all. Any woman can fool any man all the time—”
“Oh, come now,” and Ronald Booth roused himself to argument, “you know that isn’t true. You’re just saying it to seem smart.”
“Seem!” Carlotta stared at him in mock disdain. “I don’t have to seem smart,—I am smart! Am I not, Norman?”
“You are, indeed,” he returned, “but of course, I have to say that. And really, you go too far with your ‘any woman’—”
“I mean any woman with brains. I admit we don’t all have them,—of the right kind.”
“Here we are,” called out Dorothy’s voice, as she and Austin appeared. “What are you people discussing so earnestly, on such a warm evening?”
“It isn’t warm here. You’ve been walking, and it’s uphill from the falls.”
“It certainly is,” the girl agreed. “But a lovelier cascade I never saw. You must surely get that new man to make a picture of it.”
“Run in the house, Dorothy,” said her brother, “and tidy up for dinner. I have to watch over that child like a governess. May she, Carlotta?”
“Of course. Run along in, Dot, you know where the dressing rooms are, but don’t be too long. It must be nearly dinner time. We’ll have cocktails out here. If you run across Duncan in the halls tell him to join us. But of course, he’s in the laboratory. Drat him.”
Carlotta seldom used swear words, never current slang, but now and then an old-fashioned expletive or epithet fell quaintly from her lips.
The men moved about, smoking, chatting, going in and out of the house, but the host did not appear.
Dorothy returned, freshly powdered and scented, saying she had seen no one but one or two of the servants.
“I’m so glad to be here, Carly,” she declared. “Norman and I get pretty lonely sometimes. We can’t have guests all the time, and I haven’t as many resources in myself as you have. How do you find time for all you do?”
“It’s my theory that any one can make time for anything one really wants to do. I mean our sort of people. I’ve never wanted to do a thing that I couldn’t find time for, if I gave up some lesser things.”
“And you can’t have too strong a sense of duty, either,” commented Dorothy. “I’d do lots of things if it didn’t leave Norman alone so much.”
“Maybe he doesn’t mind it as much as you think. Oh, I’m not intending rudeness, but I think we often overdo our conscience. I wish Duncan had a least glimmer of a gleam of a sense of duty to his household! But he hasn’t.”
“Shall I serve the cocktails, madame, or wait for the master?”
“Look him up, Warner. Try the study and the laboratory and then his own room. If he’s in his bath, we won’t wait for him.”
The footman departed, and the other guests gathered round.
“Let us go inside,” Carlotta said. “It’s getting dark so fast now, it will be pleasanter in the lounge.”
They went in to the large and delightfully comfortable room.
“Much better,” declared Austin, sinking into an easy chair. “I like lights and little tables and cushions and all that.”
“Sybarite!” and Dorothy frowned at him. “But I like interiors, too. Carlotta is all for the great open spaces—”
“Not all the time,” their hostess smiled. “I, too, like interiors on occasion.”
She paused to listen to Warner, who said he could not find Mr Searle and none of the servants knew where he was.
“Oh, well, then he must have gone to town for some errand. Is the chauffeur about?”
“No, madame. It is Fletcher’s afternoon off.”
“Oh, that’s it, then. Mr Searle has driven himself to town. He’ll be late getting back. Bring the cocktails now.”
Quite unruffled by the contretemps, Carlotta lighted a cigarette, and glanced round at her party. A charming hostess, reserved, as always, but with a talent for making each guest feel that he was particularly in her mind.
“Do you like that chair, Dot? Stay in it, anyway, its coloring just suits your gown. Try one of these cigarettes, Norman. They’re new and really unusual.”
The cocktails were brought and served, even dawdled over longer than usual, to give the delinquent host time to arrive.
At last, Carlotta rose.
“We wait no longer,” she declared. “Dinner will be spoiled and cook will be furious. Come along.”
The dinner was unspoiled, the company was merry, and though the family and the servants listened for a familiar step, the guests cared little that their host was absent.
Ronald Booth, especially, who sat at Carlotta’s right, had the time of his life. Undeterred by watchful eyes at the other end of the table, he devoted himself to his beautiful hostess and found his reward in her gay banter; herself, for once, untrammeled by the presence of her severest critic.
For Duncan Searle, admiring his wife’s character and manner in every particular, was censorious if she deviated from her cool tranquillity and even objected to more than the lightest touch of merriment or gayety.
Not that Carlotta was capable of being rowdy or hoydenish, but her natural reaction to her husband’s restrictions sometimes made her want to break loose and defy him.
She didn’t do it, however, partly because she herself had a preference for dignity and reserve, and somewhat, too, because she was a wee bit afraid of the man.
For Duncan Searle, though suave and amiable as a rule, became exasperated if his wishes were crossed or his plans thwarted in the slightest degree, and definite disobedience infuriated him.
Clever in his work, he had already discovered and invented some aids to science that had brought him considerable renown, and was now engaged on an important piece of work that required much time and energy.
Though a self-centered man, Searle was not unfair to others, and his wide general information and sound judgment resulted in his advice being often sought by friends and even by strangers who had heard of his prowess.
He was erratic, especially as to keeping appointments and remembering engagements, but Carlotta shielded him from reproach, and helped him in any and every way possible.
Austin, though not quite a ne’er-do-well, had little of his brother’s energy or perseverance. Indeed, Austin Searle was more interested in the creature comforts of life than in any of its problems or enterprises.
He admired his brother, and he admired Carlotta, but he expended little thought on either of them. He was housed and fed, without any physical exertion and though he sometimes had a burst of ambitious endeavor, it soon passed away.
The dinner party was delightful. For once, there was no restraining influence such as Duncan’s presence always imposed, even if he were in his mildest mood.
Without themselves realizing why, those who sat at the board felt carefree, lighthearted and even merry.
No one had as yet felt, or at least, no one had voiced the feeling, that there might be anything amiss, or any slightest reason for alarm.
Only Carlotta’s attention was drawn now and then to the anxious look in Mellon’s eyes or an occasional uncertainty in Warner’s usually deft manipulations.
No one else knew the two servants well enough to notice these trifles, and Carlotta’s calm allowed no hint of perturbation to become evident.
After dessert, they all went to the lounge for coffee, and there, after a few moments, Austin broke forth;
“I think it’s damn queer, that’s what I think! Old Duncan never did anything like this before. You’ve never known him to, have you, Carly?”
“I certainly haven’t, Austin. I cannot understand it at all, unless he went out alone in one of the small cars and had some sort of accident—”
“By Jove, that’s it!” Austin exclaimed; “that’s the only thing it could be! Why haven’t we looked into things more, asked more questions and all that!”
“Don’t get so het up, Austin,” and Ronald smiled at him. “We’ve had no idea, and haven’t yet, that there’s anything to ask questions about. How you jump to conclusions!”
“But it seems to me you ought to inquire a bit,” Norman said, earnestly. “I’ve been thinking so, but I didn’t want to butt in.”
“No intrusion, Norman,” Carlotta said, gently. “Ring that farther bell, will you?”
Mellon duly appeared, and at once Austin took on himself the spokesmanship.
“Has Fletcher come back yet, Mellon?” he asked.
“No, sir; once a month, he has the whole afternoon and evening off. This is the day.”
“Who’s in his place?”
“The boy, Tim, Mr Austin. He’s getting clever at the work, and he’s a born driver, sir. Biddable, too, he is, and handy with the tools.”
“Have him in, Mellon.”
“We must get a line on Duncan, somehow, Carlotta. You won’t mind Tim’s coming in?”
“Of course not! Don’t be silly. I want to learn anything we can as much as you do. Let me talk to him, will you, Austin?”
“You can start in, but don’t be surprised if I take him off your hands. You’ll rattle him, I’m thinking.”
“Just what I was thinking about you,” she retorted, and then the boy appeared, in charge of Mellon.
He was a stocky, thickset youth of about seventeen or so, but he had decent manners and showed no sign of being rattled by anybody.
His big gray eyes darted from one to another, and came to rest on Carlotta, as she spoke to him.
“Tim,” she said, “about what time did you take Mr Searle,—Mr Duncan Searle, out in a car this afternoon?”
“Not at all, ma’am,” he replied promptly. “Fletcher took the Ford when he went off for his holiday, and none of the other three cars was out at all. I know, ’cause I was at the garridge all the afternoon.”
“All the time, Tim? Every minute?”
“Yes’m, jest ’cept when Mellon called me to scoot down to the village for some choklit that cook forgot to order.”
“Did you go?”
“Sure I did! I mean, yes, ma’am, I went.”
“But you said you were at the garage all the afternoon?”
“Oh, shucks, I didn’t count a streak down to the market—”
“Take him over, Austin, I can’t do anything with him,” Carlotta said, smiling at the bewildered Tim, who had no notion of wherein he had done wrong.
“You must tell the exact truth, you see, young Tim,” and Austin gave him the name by which he was generally known.
“Yessir, cert’nly, sir. Go to it.”
Mellon scowled at the boy’s delinquent manners, but as the culprit was in blissful ignorance of his fault, the butler’s frown made no impression.
“Now, Tim,” Austin said, slowly, “all we want to know from you is whether you saw Mr Duncan, your master, this afternoon, about half past four or so.”
“No sir. That was jest the time I was whizzin’ down for that there choklit.”
“How do you know the time so surely? Got a watch?”
“Naw! But I crossed the railroad track jest after the Limited buzzed through and her time’s four-forty.”
“I see. Now, when did you see Mr Searle,— to-day?”
“No, this afternoon. Any time say, after lunch.”
“Well, Fletcher he lit out as quick’s he could after our dinner. Then I took over the garridge, of course. But there wasn’t much to do. Fletcher’s a whale for work, and he left everything in spick and span order. His own work, I mean. ’Course it was up to me to do my chores as usual.”
“Get on, boy. When did you see Mr Searle?”
“Didn’t see him a-tall. Oh, yes, he trailed over to the lab soon after Fletcher cleared out, and pretty soon he went back to the house again. Then, he came out the back door and looked at the creepers danglin’ from the porch roof. I couldn’t hear a word he said, but any fool woulda known he was considerin’ havin’ ’em cut. Trimmed, you know.”
“Yes, I know. And to whom was he talking about the creepers?”
“Who to? Why I dunno. Nobody, I guess. I jest sensed it from the way he looked up at ’em, and grabbed one or two, and sorta nodded to himself like. I couldn’t ’a’ heard him if he had been a talking. I was away down along on the East side.”
“Well, all right. What did Mr Searle do then?”
“I dunno. I went about my business and I didn’t see him again till—why, lawsee! I didn’t never see him again! That was mebbe two—three o’clock, and after that I was mostly busy inside, pokin’ in the tool boxes to see they was all right, and then I went on the errand for cook, and now I come to think of it, I don’t believe I saw him again the hull afternoon. No, sir, I didn’t.”
“And all our cars, except the one Fletcher took, were in the garage all afternoon?”
“That’s right, sir, barrin’ of course, that I took the little roadster to hike down to the village.”
“Could any one have used any of the other cars while you were on that errand?”
“Land no, Mr Austin! There’s only the two other cars, the sedan and the ark,—that’s what we call the touring car,—and they never was touched while I was away. Lawks, don’t you s’pose I’d know?” Austin did suppose so, and said as much.
“Well, Tim,” he said, pleasantly, “you’re a bright boy, and I want you to help us. We don’t know exactly where Mr Searle is, but we’re wondering if he could have had a fall or an accident of any sort.”
“Where’d he go?”
“We don’t know that he went anywhere, but he didn’t seem to be about anywhere, when we came in to dinner, and he hasn’t showed up since.”
“Well, he ain’t had no fall nor accident.”
“How do you know?”
“Oh, how could he? A gentleman strolls about his place of a summer evening, and looks at his bloomin’ vines and things, does he come a tumble and break both legs? That ain’t the answer.”
“What is, then?”
“You askin’ me?” Tim’s stout body fairly bulged with his sense of importance.
“I’m asking you to tell anything you know. I’m not asking your opinion or conjectures.”
“Them words is a bit long for me, but I gather you don’t care for my thinks, only for positive facts.”
“Got it in one! Now how about positive facts?”
“None at all. Only—what you call ’em—opinions and conjectures.”
“That’s all, then. You may go. Mellon, bring Fletcher as soon as he returns.”
“But wait a minute,” Booth put in. “I’d like to hear a little of these ‘conjectures,’ even though they may bore you, Austin. Just a sample one, now. Give us one of your opinions, Tim.”
“Oh, I can’t. It’s too fierce!” The boy looked so distressed that Ronald forbore to urge him.
But Carlotta took up the tale.
“Tell me, Tim,” she said, smiling at him. “I’ll tell you if your think is a right one.”
“Oh, no, Lady, I couldn’t tell you, lessen of anybody!”
“Yes, you can,” Carlotta spoke gravely now, “and you must. What is in your mind, Tim? Some accident to your master?”
“Course it musta been an accident, ma’am, Mr Searle wouldn’t do anything himself, now would he, ma’am?”
“Anything—of what sort? Anything like—like—” Purposely Carlotta trailed her voice to a whisper, that the boy might feel moved to take up the tale.
“Like bein’ abducted, ma’am,” he said, in a low tone, while his eyes glittered with excitement.
If his hearers felt moved to mirth, they did not show it, and Booth said straightforwardly, even as man to man;
“Do you mean that, Tim? Do you think for a minute that Mr Duncan Searle, a big, powerful man, could be kidnaped, in broad daylight, in or from his own home?”
Tim looked down.
“It does sound foolish, don’t it?” he said, ingenuously; “but you know they do snap up millionaires, and whiz ’em off—”
“Well, nobody snapped up my brother,” Austin told the lad, not unkindly, but with an air of dismissal, seeing which, Mellon shepherded Tim from the room.
“How about some Contract?” Dorothy asked. “Let’s have a round, and by that time our wandering sheep will be back in the fold, laughing at our fears.”
“Who has any fears?” said her brother. “Only a stable boy. I trust we’re not going to accept his fairy tales! He’s been on a mental diet of Edgar Wallace, and he’s eager to shift those scenes into his real life.”
“All the same, I’m going out to ask a few questions of the staff,” Austin said. “You four have a rubber, and then I’ll come and cut in.”
“Don’t let them think you’re alarmed,” Carlotta cautioned him; “if you get them all stirred up they’ll begin telephoning or something like that. If there’s any calling up to be done, let’s do it ourselves.”
“They mustn’t telephone,” Austin said, decidedly, “and we mustn’t either. Duncan would be furious if he found us making a fuss of his absence!”
“You’re quite right,” agreed Carlotta. “So be careful.”
They settled down at the bridge table.
Carlotta and Norman Bradford played the other two, but, though they were all good players the game fell far below their usual standards.
Dorothy was the most self-composed of the quartette. Her winsome face was smiling and she was interested in her cards. Not a beautiful girl, Dorothy yet had a vivacious charm that was appealing, even provocative. Austin Searle was decidedly interested in her and though Duncan thought her a little ignoramus, he was quite willing she should come into the family.
She was far from being as intellectual as Carlotta or as wise and clever as Erminie, but often her small piquant face would light up with a quick perception and a ready understanding that was sometimes almost uncanny. Her intuition served her well at bridge, and her occasional “psychic bids” were usually successful.
“You people are impossible!” she declared at last. “If you’re worrying about Duncan, let’s stop playing, for I can’t depend on my partner at all.”
“Sorry, Dot,” Booth apologized, “but,—well, I’m not exactly worried, but I am—puzzled. I don’t understand Duncan’s absence and I don’t pretend that I’m not thinking about it.”
“I, too,” Carlotta admitted. “Let’s chuck the game, anyway, until Austin comes back,—he’ll take my hand.”
Austin came in then, and with one accord the bridge players turned toward him.
“There’s hell to pay, out there,” he said, half smiling, half angry-looking; “every one tells a different story and sticks to it. But the outstanding fact is that Duncan couldn’t have left the house in a car—”
“He couldn’t have left it at all,” Booth put in. “Why, we were all sitting about, or chasing in and out of the house right after he left us. Where’d he go?”
“That’s just the point,” Austin returned, “where did he go? The servants seem to have seen him here and there, but they are vague as to time and place, and no two of their stories hang together.”
“That’s natural enough,” Carlotta said, “when you see a familiar person about, you never note the time or place. I doubt if we could any of us tell just when and where we saw Duncan last.”
“Oh, yes, we can,” exclaimed Dorothy. “You weren’t out there, but the rest of us were all on the lawn waiting for you to come to tea, when Duncan said he’d go and fetch you.”
“He did?” Carlotta showed her surprise. “I didn’t see him at all. What time was this?”
“About five,” Ronald said.
“Oh, no,” contradicted Austin, “more like quarter to five. Because I had a telephone call to make at five, and I was watching the hour.”
“But we didn’t get here till nearly five,” Dorothy told them. “And I sent Norman right back home—”
“You did,” her brother corroborated, “and Duncan was just then going in the house,—”
“To look for me?” Carlotta asked.
“Yes, so he said.”
“Well, I never saw him. I was dressing at about five,—my little clock never is quite right, but anyway, I went down stairs and out to the lawn without seeing anybody in the house at all.”
“All that doesn’t make any difference,” Dorothy said, impatiently, “what we want is to know what Duncan did, not what any of us did.”
“That’s the girl!” and Austin looked at her admiringly. “That’s what I tried to get out of the servants, but they are all so dumb, I learned nothing.”
“Shall we telephone to anybody?” Carlotta said, hesitantly: “It’s getting late, you know, and something may have happened—though I can’t think what it could be. For, surely, if Duncan couldn’t telephone us himself, all the more reason somebody should do it for him.”
“Telephone to whom, for instance?” Austin asked, fretfully. “No use broadcasting the fact that Dune stayed out a bit later than usual. If he’s at the home of any one we know, he’d telephone,—or, they would.”
“Stop this hinting and implying some terrible accident,” Dorothy commanded, with a pretty air of authority. “If he had taken a car, we could assume something of the sort, but wherever he went, he walked to it!”
“Unless some one gave him a lift,” supplemented her brother.
“That’s it!” cried Austin. “Duncan started to hoof it over to Mickleham’s or somewhere to see about those new ramblers he’s so crazy over. Then somebody gave him a lift and—”
“And Duncan is still buying ramblers?” Carlotta lifted her eyebrows, “or is his friend still lifting him?”
“And if it wasn’t a friend—” Ronald said, slowly, “if the one who gave him a lift was of evil intent—”
“You mean he was abducted, as Tim calls it?” Dorothy suggested. “No, old Top,—Duncan Searle isn’t going off with a kidnaper!”
“Bigger and braver men than he have been urged into a strange car by forcible means.”
“Oh, do hush!” Carlotta whispered, her white face drawn with sudden terror, and looking more nearly excited than any of them had ever seen her.
“Yes, do,” Ronald said, sternly. “There’s no use mentioning horrors until we have some real reason to think there’s a horror to be considered.”
“Well,” Austin declared, with an air of finality, “we’re not going to mull over this. Now, you can play bridge, or you can all go to bed, or you can sit here and have a gabfest, but the last only on condition that Duncan’s name isn’t mentioned in connection with accident or mishap of any kind. If any such thing has happened we’ll learn of it in due time. I say, Dorothy, you stay here over night and be a comfort to Carlotta. And, Norman, you might stay, too, and hold my hand.”
“Sis can stay, but I’d better skip over home.”
“Why, Norm?” asked his sister. “I’d love to stay with Carly, but I don’t want you to go home alone.”
“ ’Fraid I’ll get kidnapped?”
“You might,” she returned, but the smiles were forced.
It was arranged, though, that both the Bradfords should stay over night, and Carlotta went off to give some orders.
Grant, Carlotta’s maid had returned, and she was directed to make up the daybed in her mistress’ dressing room, for the guest.
“When did you see Mr Searle last, Grant?” Carlotta asked.
“Just before I went out, madame, he was out back, looking at the creeping roses.”
“How did you happen to see him? Were you around that side of the house?”
“No, madame, I was at the garage. Fletcher was to take me to the station when he went.”
“Then you and Fletcher both saw Mr Searle?”
“Yes, ma’am, but we both went away then, and I came back about an hour ago, and Fletcher, he hasn’t come yet.”
“That doesn’t help us, then,” Carlotta sighed. “Mellon, didn’t you see him after he left the group on the lawn?”
“No, madame. I came in the house and remained here until called to serve tea.”
“Did any one,—any of the guests come in the house?”
“Not to my knowledge, ma’am, but I was in the pantries and would not have seen them.”
“Well, Mellon, that’s all. I suppose Mr Austin asked you these same things?”
“Yes, ma’am, but I could tell him nothing.”
“No. Now, Mellon, warn the other servants to tell anything they may be asked, that they know. But don’t let them make up a lot of imaginary yarns, to try to get a thrill out of it all. You know what the girls are, and I want you to forbid them to tell anything outside the exact truth.”
“Yes, madame. Where is the master, madame?” Mellon’s tone was casual, as if he had implicit faith in Carlotta’s omniscience.
“I don’t know, but I’m sure he is safe somewhere. You must sit up for him, Mellon, however late he is, and, if necessary, let Warner relieve you.”
Mellon bowed his assent, and Carlotta returned slowly and thoughtfully to the lounge.
“It’s all fixed up,” Austin told her. “You and Dorothy are to go to bed and we chaps will have a go at billiards and a nightcap and then we’ll turn in.”
“Yes, that will be best,” Carlotta agreed. “Will you sleep in my dressing room, Dot? There’s a most comfortable daybed there and Grant is fixing it for you.”
“Of course I will, and glad to. I sleep like Miss Van Winkle, but if you speak I’ll hear you and run in. Don’t hesitate to speak if I can do the least thing for you.”
Austin’s plans were carried out to the letter, and it was not very long before the men gathered in the smoking room for a last word or two.
“There are just two possibilities,” Booth was saying; “either Duncan is all right, with a perfectly good explanation of his absence and silence, or—”
“Or else he isn’t,” put in Norman, smiling a little.
“Or else,” Ronald went on, not heeding him, “or else, something very serious has happened. If the latter, it is improbable we shall know anything more until morning. The wisest course is for us all to go to bed and to sleep, for to-morrow will be either an ordinary day, or a strenuous one.”
“Still thinking of abduction?” said Norman.
“Why not? What else is there definitely to assume? If Duncan doesn’t turn up to-morrow, and if we don’t hear from him, I shall look for ransom letters soon.”
“You make it sound plausible, Ron,” Austin said, looking worried. “Yet I can’t make it seem to fit in with my ideas of old Dune.”
“Do you know any one who would fit in with your ideas? No? Well, then we must admit its possibility. But we can’t do anything to-night. Mellon will be on duty all night, or Warner. Carlotta said so. Now let’s all turn in and hope for the best.”
“That’s all right, Ronny,” Austin said, slowly, “and you’re all right. And we know Duncan went away. And we know he must have gone either willingly or unwillingly, but we don’t know that unwillingly means at the pistol’s point. It may be he was called away on an unpleasant but imperative errand, and for some reason had no opportunity to let us know.”
“That’s so, Austin!” exclaimed Norman. “That’s good talk. Well, as you say, we can’t do anything about it to-night. Me for abovestairs. Will the redoubtable Mellon show me up?”
Norman was duly dispatched, and the other two exchanged a few more words.
“Well,” said Booth, “here I am and here I rest. Call me for anything you choose. My time my energy and my best efforts are at the disposal of you and Carlotta. Which sounds pretty pompous and all that, but I’m in dead earnest, and I hope to heaven the old boy will show up by morning as good as ever. It was my intention to go home on Monday, but I’ll see this thing through.”
“You speak as if it would be a lengthy matter. Just what are you thinking about it, Ron?”
“I think it promises to be a lengthy matter. Face the facts, Austin. Duncan has left home, voluntarily or involuntarily; temporarily or permanently.”
“How do you know he is not around the place somewhere?”
“I suppose we can’t be positive as to that, until we have made a search. But that would indicate— foul play.”
“Well, why not? Other men have met with foul play—”
“But the circumstances! How could it be possible? He was there with us, he stepped into the house—”
“Did you see him go into the house?”
“Not—not exactly. I had just gone into the house myself, to get a—a bottle of arrack that had been given me. You had just hurried into the house, to—”
“Yes, I know. I came in to telephone. What door did you come in at?”
“The regular door,—the South door, you know. You came around to the West door. I came in and went up to my room at once.”
“Good Lord, Ronald, I’m not quizzing you!”
“I know, but if we’re going to do anything in this matter, we must know the facts—if any.”
“The only fact I know is that Duncan isn’t here and we don’t know where he is. That wouldn’t be an unheard of state of things with some men, but old Dune never did such a thing before, it’s a unique instance.”
“You said the servants each told you a different story. Do you mean really different? Contradictory?”
“Not coherent enough, any of them, to be contradictory. I questioned them, but I tried so hard not to seem alarmed myself, that I didn’t find out much after all.”
“Mellon knew nothing? Of course, he’s the backbone of the whole crew.”
“Of course. No, he seemed utterly blank on the subject. Just said he hadn’t seen Mr Searle all the afternoon, except for the few moments on the lawn, when we were all there.”
“And the women? They generally take notice.”
“I didn’t say much to them. If they had seen Duncan passing through the halls, it wouldn’t mean anything.”
“What are your plans? Suppose he doesn’t materialize to-morrow at all, what are you going to do about it?”
“Heavens, Ron! I don’t know. But he must turn up, you know.”
“I don’t know any such thing. And you’ll save a lot of confusion by deciding what to do in case he doesn’t turn up.”
“Well,—I suppose we ought to telephone the neighbors round about.”
“Asinine! Don’t you suppose if the neighbors round about had him in their charge, they’d telephone you? Say, an accident. If he were at any one’s house or a hospital, or anywhere, he’d have you notified.”
“Unless he were unconscious.”
“Then, of course, they’d let you know. If it’s a case of accident, he’s out on the highroad, or in some wooded place, alone. You must admit there’s a possibility, and it’s about the only possibility I see, that he started off to see about those rambler plants or whatever they are, walking, since there’s no car missing, and he was waylaid and knocked down for whatever he had on him. Did he have much?”
“Duncan always carried a lot of money, but he wore practically no jewelry, his watch and a few studs, —that’s all.”
“It was broad daylight,—no, the dusk was approaching,—but, anyway, it was darkish down by the wooded lanes, if he went that way. And what other way could he go, afoot?”
“Let’s get torches and go out now and have a look round the grounds.”
“No, we’d only stir up the girls and the servants, and we’d find nothing. He couldn’t have been struck down on his own premises, without raising an outcry. And if he was in hiding,—waiting for the dark—”
“What do you mean? Out with it?”
“All right,—out it is!Some woman, then.”
“Nonsense. You know the situation as well as I do. He’s infatuated with Erminie Colvin, that’s an open secret, but where’d be the sense of his hiding about when she was right here?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe she met him later and they eloped.”
Austin stared at the speaker.
“Don’t get theatrical,” he said. “How can they elope,—two respectable, proper married people!”
“Properer and respectabler married people have done that very thing. But I’m only trying to think up all possible solutions to the mystery.”
“You’d better think again. Or, rather, you’d better give up thinking for to-night, and sleep on it. So that’s why you’re staying on a few days, old chap, eh?”
Booth looked uncomfortable.
“Austin,” he said, gravely, “don’t let there be any misunderstanding between us. I do love Carlotta, I worship her, and I’d die myself rather than that any trouble should come to her. I love her too well to rejoice at Duncan’s disappearance and to hope that something sinister has happened to him. I’m staying on to help find him, and to do anything I can for her or for you. If this is self-interest, make the most of it.”
“Forgive me, old chap, I didn’t mean anything rotten. I’m pretty well upset. I have a queer feeling that we’ll never see Duncan again, and I don’t know what to do.”
Booth declared that bed was the place for them both at present, and he went up to his room while Austin went for a final word with Mellon.
There was a comfortable armchair not far from the front door, and near it was a small table with a lamp and sundry reading matter. This was always Mellon’s coign of vantage when he had to wait up late for members of the family, and he sat there now.
He rose as Austin came to him, and stood at attention.
“Mellon,” the other said, abruptly, “did you see a trampish sort of person around here this afternoon?”
“Do you think he had anything to do with the disappearance of Mr Searle?”
“Oh, no, Mr Austin.”
“Well, he was too near and it was too light. Don’t you worry over Mr Searle, sir. He’ll turn up all right, come morning. He went over to see about the ramblers. He was that daft over those flowers nothing would keep him from making sure of them. Well, sir, then couldn’t he have fallen into conversation about flowers in general and stayed till it was so late he didn’t want to take the long walk home in the dark? Mickleham’s old Ford is always on the blink, and they have no telephone, so Mr Duncan he just bunked there and thought no more about it. You know what a man he is for doing as he pleases without aye, yes or no to anybody.”
“But there was company here—”
“Much he’d care for that, begging your pardon, sir. He’s a man of whims, is Mr Searle, and to-morrow, when he comes home, he’ll just stare if anybody jumps on him.”
Never with Duncan, but sometimes with Austin, Mellon allowed himself a slight lapse from his usual unbending dignity.
“Has Fletcher come home yet?”
“He just came in, sir, a few moments since. Shall I fetch him?”
“Yes; bring him to me in the smoking room.”
The interview was not a long one.
Fletcher knew nothing of importance. He had gone off early in the afternoon and had not seen his master since morning.
“Did you notice anything unusual about him?” Austin asked, feeling like a detective.
“Well, yes sir,” Fletcher replied, unexpectedly.
“Such as what?”
“It’s hard to put it into words Mr Austin, but somehow Mr Searle was what we call not himself. I mean he was in a strange mood. You know, he’s often a fair terror, if he gets really angry. Then again, he’s calm and kind as a morning in May. And sometimes, he’s sarcastic—that’s the worst! When he gets to giving us sarcasm, we just shuts up and takes it. But, now, this morning, he wasn’t any of these things, he was irritable. Most unusual for him, sir. He was, well, pettish; he’d flare up and swear over some trifle—”
“What was he doing?”
“Workin’ in his lab’ratory. Monkeyin’ with those glass bulbs he uses, and drippin’ stuff in ’em and out of ’em. The lab being next beyond the garages, I can’t help seein’ and hearin’ him, when he’s off temper.”
“That’s all, then? He was irritable. Probably something went wrong with his experiments.”
“Yes, that’s what it was, he said so. I asked if I could help him,—sometimes he likes me to, but he swore at me and told me where to go,—so I went.”
“And didn’t see him again?”
“No, sir. I’d no call to be where he was. I got ready and went off for my holiday as he was going in to his lunch.”
“Well, not having seen him all afternoon, perhaps you’re better posted than those who did. What do you think has become of my brother, Fletcher? As man to man, now.”
“You want a straight answer, sir?”
“The straightest you know of?”
“Then Mr Austin, sir, I think he went away of his own accord.”
“Whatever for?” Austin cried, in amazement.
“All weared out.” Fletcher was laconic.
“Worn out by what?”
“Life, disappointment, unhappiness, despair—”
Austin Searle looked at the chauffeur with staring eyes. Could this be the man they had all thought a clod, a stupid? All had agreed he was a fine car expert in every way, but a numbskull otherwise.
“Explain yourself, Fletcher,” he said, quietly, “and clearly.”
“Yes, sir. Perhaps I’m saying too much, but I sensed Mr Searle’s mind and I’m sure he was fed up with his life here. Oh, I know any one would say he had all heart could wish and all that, but he wasn’t happy,—you must admit, sir, he wasn’t happy. Was he, now?”
“Few are happy, Fletcher. Anyway, we won’t discuss that point. Stick to your theory. You think, then, being tired of his home, he deliberately—”
“Yes, sir; deliberately left for parts unknown.”
“And will not return?”
“Nor send any word?”
“I think not, sir.”
“Very well, Fletcher, you have, of course, a right to your own thoughts, but keep them under your hat, or—leave the place at once.”
“Yes, sir; thank you, sir.”
After Fletcher left him, Austin sat for a time in the smoking room.
He was not smoking, but he was thinking deeply.
“So, after all, that chauffeur is nobody’s fool. Wonder how much he knows. Wonder how much he’ll tell. Wonder if he’s a spy,—for anybody, or on his own. I must keep a watch on our Fletcher. But there can’t be anything done to-night, so I may as well crawl upstairs.”
He left the smoking room, went through the billiard room and up the side stairs. All was dark and quiet, save for the shaded night lights that were always on all night.
He heard no voices, but as he passed a curtained window seat at the end of the short cross hall, he thought he heard a suppressed breathing, as if some one were trying to be silent.
He paused, and his exceptionally quick hearing told him he was not mistaken; some one, or more than one sat behind the drawn curtains.
A subdued sob decided his course, and he stepped to the curtains and raised one quietly.
As he had partly expected, Ronald sat there, with Dorothy clinging to him in a state of nervous terror.
“All right, Austin,” Booth said, “Miss Bradford is running a temperament, and I’m trying to calm her. I think you’d better get Grant to look after Carlotta and put Dorothy in a guest room by herself.”
“Yes, do,” the girl begged. “I can’t stand it to hear her moaning and sighing.”
“Carlotta moaning and sighing!” Austin repeated in surprise; “that isn’t a bit like her! Is she awake? Let me speak to her.”
“No,” Booth ordained, taking the reins of government in his own hands, “you get Carlotta’s maid, as I told you, and she’ll arrange a room for Dorothy, and then she’ll look after Carlotta herself.”
So definite were the instructions, and so compelling Booth’s tone, that Austin obeyed, wondering at himself as he did so.
He summoned Mellon and told him to find Grant and bring her along. They waited in silence for the maid, and then left the matter in her hands.
Booth followed Austin to his bedroom and followed him in.
“That Dorothy person isn’t a good one to mind Carlotta,” he said, abruptly. “I found them both in hysterics. I had to intrude, for I was really frightened. I brought Dorothy out and questioned her as to what was going on. She said Carlotta had lost her mind and was babbling foolishness, which was ridiculous on the face of it. I hoped you’d come along, and now I think it will be all right. Grant is a sensible piece and she’ll straighten things out, and if necessary she will give those girls sleeping powders or something.”
“I hope not,” Austin said; “Carlotta takes those things too much anyhow.”
“Well, get to bed, old man, and in the morning we can make a fresh start.”
He went away and Austin slowly made himself ready for bed. He didn’t like the situation, he didn’t believe Dorothy had acted like that, he thought Ronald was exaggerating, if not inventing his story.
Then he fell into an exhausted slumber, and woke to find the sun streaming in at his windows.
He made quick work of his toilet and got downstairs as soon as possible.
Warner was waiting for him, being unwilling to go off duty until he had made his report.
“Anything special, Warner?” he asked, having already learned that Duncan had not come home.
“Well, there’s this. Mr Booth came downstairs about four o’clock this morning. He came down the side stairs and went through the billiard room to the smoking room. I asked if I could do anything for him, and he said, no, he just wanted a smoke, and he feared if he smoked in his bedroom the odor might disturb the ladies. Then he shut the door, and I didn’t see him again till he came out half an hour later. He whispered good night, and went softly upstairs.”
“All right, Warner, thank you. Nothing alarming about that, to be sure.”
“Well, out with it, man. You’re keeping something back.”
“Only that Mr Booth was in the office a good bit of the time. I could see the light under the door.”
“If you say so, sir. But I thought it right, the way things are going.”
“Yes? And how are things going?”
“Very bad, sir, as you know yourself. Mr Searle gone, nobody knows where, and Mrs Searle in hysterics, which is not her way at all, sir.”
“Who told you that about Mrs Searle?”
“Grant did. She says it took two opiate things to quiet her.”
“Oh, pshaw, Grant’s a calamity howler,—always was. You’ll see Mrs Searle at breakfast, quite her usual self. Or rather, you won’t. You get yourself to bed, Warner. I suppose you had half the night watch?”
“Yes, sir, but I’m not sleepy.”
“Go to bed and rest, then. Can’t have the staff breaking down. Go right along, now.”
Warner went along and his place as Mellon’s assistant was filled by Sarah, the parlor maid.
Austin strolled out the back door, and looked about him at the bright, sunlit morning. How could the world look so placid and cheerful when there was such black sorrow here and there all over its inhabited surface?
He stood, looking at the trees and flowers but really seeing nothing. The gardens were a riot of color, for the autumn flowers were unusually luxuriant this year.
His thoughts flew to the two women. He didn’t believe Carlotta had lost her grip, and he certainly didn’t believe little Dorothy was such a poor caretaker.
He wondered if Duncan’s absence would lick up further small bobberies, aside from the main tragedy. That is, if it really was a tragedy. Well, after breakfast they’d have to have a conference and decide on what was best to do.
Dorothy joined him, looking very fresh and sweet in a pale blue morning frock. She had wheedled Grant into sending somebody over to her home for some clothes, and she was again her smiling self, whatever she had been in the dark hours.
“Things brighter this morning?” she said, cheerily. “Could you sleep any?”
“Oh, yes,” he said, gazing at her admiringly. “You weren’t too upset, were you? I oughtn’t to have asked you to stay with Carlotta. I didn’t think she’d go to pieces so.”
“Let’s don’t talk about it now. How gorgeous the garden is! This is a perfect home, isn’t it? It makes ours seem poor and mean by comparison.”
“Not that, dear, your home is small and simple, but most attractive and charming. And here’s your brother. All right, Norman? Sleep well?”
“Not well, exactly, but—”
“But soundly and steadily,” his sister said, smiling at him. “Norm could sleep through any sort of alarms and excursions.”
“Who’s going on an excursion?” said Booth, coming along; “and where?”
“In to the breakfast room, as soon as we collect one more passenger,” Austin told him, “and here she is.”
Carlotta came, unsmiling, yet with an air of attempted pleasantry, and if her habitual poise was shaken it was only by a barely perceptible trifle.
She went to Austin first, and laid her hand on his arm.
“Any news?” she said.
He shook his head, and she turned to the others with an entirely apparent determination to play the part of a gracious hostess.
Mellon announced breakfast and they all went in.
The breakfast room, always attractive, was gay with flowers this morning and the sun glittered on the silver and glass of the table appointments.
“Now eat a lot, everybody,” Carlotta advised. “For Lord knows what sort of day we have ahead of us. What are we going to do, Austin? Don’t tell me to wait till after breakfast to discuss it, for I can’t eat till I know. Shall we have to call in the police?”
“Yes, unless Duncan turns up this morning, I think it will be our duty—”
“I don’t care anything about duty, I mean can they find him for us?”
“They are much more likely to do so, than we would be working on our own.”
“What can we do?” put in Ronald. “We can only telephone to friends and neighbors who would have already telephoned us, if they knew anything about Duncan.”
“And what can the police do?” Dorothy asked, who was scared of the law, because she knew nothing about it.
“They have routine work that they put over,” her brother said, a little nervously, for he himself was but slightly acquainted with police procedure.
“It doesn’t matter what they do,” Austin said, dictatorially, “they’ll have to do it. It isn’t fair to Duncan not to give him a show. No use mincing matters. Either something has happened to him, or, it hasn’t. If it has we ought to waste no time in getting assistance and protection. If it hasn’t, if he’s all right, there’ll be no harm done. We’ll get a wigging, but we’ll have done our duty.”
“What happens?” asked Carlotta, staring at him. “Will they come here—the police?”
“Rather! They’ll ask millions of foolish questions and poke around in all the unlikely places, and then when it’s too late for a search to do any good, they’ll start a hunt that will result in nothing at all.”
“I don’t see any sense in all that,” Dorothy observed, with wide open eyes.
“Honors are easy,” Austin told her. “Probably they wouldn’t see any sense in you.”
“But why can’t we do a little searching on our own, Austin?” asked Ronald. “We didn’t put up half a hunt last night, it was so dark. Why not go over the place this morning, methodically and efficiently.”
“They’ll go right over it after us. And,—what are we to look for?”
“Duncan,” Booth said gravely. “May he not have met with an accident in the house or in the grounds? Unable to make us hear, he may have lain all night with a broken leg, or—”
“I never thought of that!” exclaimed Carlotta. “Yes, let us search and if we find nothing, it will then be time to call the police.”
“Come on, let’s start,” Dorothy said, in a nervous excitement, “but give me an easy stunt. Don’t send me up in a dark attic, or into the woods.”
“I’ll portion out the place,” Booth offered. “Austin, you take Mellon and the gardener and go over the grounds. Don’t skip a dell or a dingle. I’ll take Fletcher and do up the outer circles, the falls and the ravines and the big woods and copses. Dorothy, you go round with Grant on the second floor, and look in all the bedrooms, and behind all the curtains and all that. If you don’t like the job tell Grant to take one of the maids to help her. Norman, do the same downstairs. Take some one along, but keep out of Duncan’s private office. Don’t go in there at all.”
“All right,” Bradford returned, and Carlotta, waiting, said:
“You’ve left me out, Bonny. What do I do?”
“Bless my soul, so I have! Well, you annex that young Tim, he’s a host in himself, and you two do up the garages, the laboratory, and all those buildings out in that general direction.” He waved a hand to the East and Carlotta nodded.
Anxious to be busy, they soon collected their partners and separated. As they dispersed from the South lawn, Leonard Colvin came along.
“Where’s Duncan?” he said, tactfully, looking about.
“He hasn’t turned up yet,” Austin said. “We’re going to do a little scouting. Want to join us?”
“Yes, if I can be of any use.”
“Come along of me,” suggested Ronald. “Fletcher and I are taking on the falls, and you’re good for a hike.”
Colvin took the hint, and strode off in the wake of Booth and the chauffeur.
“You’re letting Carlotta search?” he asked, surprised. “Suppose she stumbles on Duncan’s dead body!”
“Not likely,” Booth said; “I gave her the garages and laboratory. They’re the least likely places. The lab is looked after most carefully by Mellon morning and night, for fear of inflammable stuff left about, or any meddler getting busy. And the garages, which, of course, are kept by Fletcher here, and young Tim, are safe as houses. The other buildings out that way are negligible, and all in all, I thought I gave her the safest places to look. Dorothy has merely the bedrooms, and a maid servant will do it up, really. No, Colvin, if we find a dead body it will be out here by the falls, or in the thickets nearer the house.”
“What about attics and cellars?”
“I rather forgot those, but they can be attended to afterward. We haven’t so many workers, you see, and I don’t want anybody to happen on a tragedy alone.”
“You at the helm?”
“Hardly that. But Austin isn’t inclined to go through with this routine search, and I think it ought to be done. If any one had seriously objected, he could have said so.”
“Well, I’ll go as far as the falls, but I don’t think you really need me.”
“Maybe not. The matter wasn’t mentioned at your dinner party last night, was it?”
“Oh, no. Nobody had heard of it. And there was nothing to hear but that Duncan was out late. I would have called up in the evening, but I thought it might stir up the telephone operators and—”
“Good; glad you didn’t. Well, here’s the first ravine. Going down?”
“Yes, I’ll string along. One gets in the notion, you know. Golly, what a place! If one wanted to be a suicide, there couldn’t be a more facilis descensus!”
“But Duncan is not the sort to commit suicide. Why should he?”
“Did any one ever kill himself, and have people say, ‘he’s just the sort to do that!’ No, my boy, whatever has become of Duncan, it’s something nobody could predict or predicate.”
And Leonard Colvin there voiced a mighty truth! Fletcher leading, they went down the precipitous steep, with here and there a few steps built for their convenience, but more often a rocky climb.
Another and deeper ravine brought them down to the base of the falls, where the white, tumbling water fell in a wild torrent, and the spray dashed, silver indeed, in the sunlight, until they were thickly besprinkled.
“Best stand back, gentlemen,” Fletcher advised. “Nothing to be seen, Mr Booth; if the master ever was here, he’s not here now.”
“Where would he be, Fletcher?”
“Washed away, sir. Far down the river by this time. Or maybe drowned deep in this pool at the foot of the falls. One or the other for sure. But Mr Searle never came down here and fell in on purpose! Never! It wouldn’t be his way. If he wanted to kill hisself he’d take a gun, and let fly! That he would. Also, he wouldn’t meander down here at teatime, all alone, to look at Silver Spray! And company on, too! No, sir, Mr Booth, you’re barkin’ up the wrong tree.”
“Where’s the right tree, Fletcher?” Ronald spoke seriously.
Fletcher gave him a quick look, gave Colvin a quicker one, and then scattered his eyesight.
“How should I know, Mr Austin? Right trees don’t grow in every field. But whatever has happened to Mr Searle, it wasn’t his own doing, that’s certain.”
“More important men than he have taken their own lives,” said Colvin, sententiously and a little unpleasantly.
“Let’s leave out the question of my brother’s importance,” Austin said, a veiled reproof in his tone. “It seems to me, too, that it’s absurd to think of Duncan killing himself. Why in the world would he want to? He has everything this world can offer, and he is deeply interested in his new invention, or discovery or whatever it is. I don’t pretend to understand his genius.”
“Do you apprehend an accident, then?” Colvin went on.
“Maybe,” Austin returned. “But more likely, a whim, a sudden determination to go somewhere and a yielding to the urge without consideration of other people. That was one of Duncan’s failings. He was— not so much selfish, as self-centered, self-indulgent, and he did as he please, even when he knew it would incommode others.”
“Do you know you are talking of him in the past tense?” Colvin looked at him curiously.
Austin flung up his head, and his dark eyes showed a deep agony.
“I don’t mean to, Leonard, but somehow, I can’t help it. Do you know, I think he is dead. It isn’t my reason or logic that tells me that, but a sort of intuition or premonition, or general pessimism, I daresay. I hope it’s like a dream that goes by contraries, but I seem to see him all the time, cold and lifeless.”
Colvin looked his amazement and disapproval.
“Don’t talk that way before the others,” he advised. “It’s wrong to take it like that. And, for Heaven’s sake don’t say such things before Erminie. She’d fly into hysterics.”
“Yes, I suppose she would,” and Austin’s tone gave a hint of sarcasm.
“Just what do you mean?” said Leonard, quickly.
“Just what I say,” and Austin smiled a little. “Though I don’t suppose she’d literally have hysterics, but of course, she’ll be terribly upset.”
“And why should she be terribly upset, any more than Dorothy Bradford or any other neighbors?”
“You think Erminie and Duncan were on the same footing, then, as Dorothy and Duncan?”
“What do you mean by footing?”
“Oh, come on, Leonard, don’t keep asking me what I mean by this and that! I don’t mean anything in particular. I say, Fletcher, there’s nothing more to be learned down here, is there?”
“I don’t see how, sir. To be sure, if Mr Duncan has met with foul play, or anything like that, of course, all these woods and thickets would have to be searched. But we’ve no call to think he has.”
“Be rational, Austin,” said Colvin, a little shortly. “Say, something did happen to Duncan, something terrible, how could he get down here without our seeing him go? We were all on the lawn, you know, and to get here, he had to go out—well, which door?”
“Any door,” Austin replied. “Which would be most likely, Fletcher?”
“I can’t tell you that, sir. If, say, Mr Searle wanted to meet somebody down around the falls here, he would most likely go out the West door—was he in the house, sir?”
“Yes, yes,” said Colvin, impatiently, “of course, he was in the house.”
“This talk will get us nowhere,” Austin objected.
“Come on, Colvin, let us go back, and see if anything has been discovered. Fletcher, you stay here a bit longer, and just poke around and see if you can get any lead.”
“Very good, sir,” and the two other men started up the ravines again.
“Some climb,” Colvin grunted, as they reached the top, pretty well winded.
They trudged back to the house, and found Dorothy on the West veranda, waiting for them.
“Any news?” Colvin called out, as they approached.
“No,” Dorothy reported, “not yet. Carlotta hasn’t come back, or Norman, but Grant and I found nothing.”
“I don’t know; he came and went away again. Looking for Carly, I guess. I wish I could go home. It’s too awful here.”
She began to cry, and Austin went to her and took her hands in his.
“Be a brave girl, won’t you, dear? We are in such trouble, and,” he lowered his voice, “no one can comfort me but you.”
She smiled up at him through her tears, and no more was said about her going home.
Ronald Booth came in, looking preoccupied.
“Where’s your gardener, Austin?” he asked.
“Lord, I don’t know. I hardly know his name. Prall, I think,—yes, that’s it. Why, do you want him?”
“Yes; can’t you send for him?”
“Of course. Step inside the hall, old man, and ring the first bell.”
Sarah appeared, saying that Warner was still sleeping.
“That’s all right,” Booth said, “the chap was up half the night. Well, Sarah, you manage somehow to get Prall here, will you?”
The maid went off and Austin dropped into one of the veranda chairs.
“We’re wasting time with this combing the premises,” he declared, “I don’t think Duncan is anywhere around here.”
Prall came, and then Booth sent Sarah to bring in Carlotta and Norman as she could find them.
Austin looked curiously at Booth, who was taking the lead so definitely, but he raised no objection.
“Prall,” Ronald began, “what are these rambler roses Mr Duncan is so keen about?”
“A new sort o’ bloom, sir. Werry pale pink, and large clustered, more like Tausendschön than a rambler rose.”
“Are they rare? Hard to come by?”
“Werry hard, sir. Only a few so far in this country at all. Some day they’ll be common enough, but rare now,—yes, sir!”
“And Mr Searle had a chance to get some?”
“Sorta halfa chance. Old Mickleham, he has some plants, but he’s a hoardin’ of ’em. Wal, he’s reelly holdin’ off for the highest bidder, as you may say.”
“I see. And last night Mr Searle got excited about these plants,—”
“Not to say excited, sir, but he said to me long about noon time, ‘Prall,’ he says, ‘I believe I’ll jog over to Mick’s and see what I can do about them flowers.’ Well, sir, I didn’t see him again at all. I was at work all afternoon, on the East lawns, and I didn’t lay eyes on the master. Still and all, if he’d a gone out, I’d likely known it. I mean, if he was in a car I’d ’a’ seen him, and if he’d ben walkin’ I’d sartin noticed him. But I jest didn’t, and that’s all I know about it.”
“Well, Prall, you and Fletcher—”
“Fletcher’s down by the falls,” Austin interrupted. “What do you want done, Ron?”
“I don’t want to butt in, old chap, but I do think this ought to be attended to. The only lead we have is Mickleham, and we ought to follow it up.”
“And you want to send Prall over there? Very well, why didn’t you say so? Tim can take him; get along, Prall, and tell Tim to take you over to Mickleham’s, and then you learn anything you can about Mr Searle. Don’t give anything away,—just find out a thing or two.”
It must be conceded that whoever picked out the site for the Inn was a person of discernment. Yet no phenomenal degree or quality of discernment would be necessary to select a choice locality in that particular section of the Berkshire hills.
White Birch Inn, the one and only hostelry of the village, was half way up a gently sloping declivity and, facing South, commanded, from various rooms, views of sunset and sunrise, as well as presenting its guests with an all-day panorama of the nearby valley and distant mountains.
The long, low building was a frame structure and liable to go up in smoke at any minute, as the surrounding woods were generally dry, the winds had full play and the volunteer fire department was incompetent and ineffectual and usually unavailable.
But the cheerful proprietor, one Jeremiah Hickox, and the equally cheerful guests showed a fine optimism regarding the ills and cares of life, and spent their days as the days of a summer vacation should be spent.
The background of the Inn was a long, thick clump of white birch trees, and these “ladies of the forest” had been watched and tended so that they were noble specimens of their kind and worthy to take part in the title of the old house.
Jeremiah, or Jere as he was familiarly called, was affable and obliging, always ready to do anything for his guests’ comfort or pleasure, though it must be admitted that being ready was about as far as it commonly went.
He was a big, fat man, with a comfortable laugh and a quick sympathy.
His wife was of the type which is most illuminatingly described as skinny, but though her avoirdupois was not half his, the weight of her opinions and judgment made his side of the scale kick the beam every time.
Among their favorite boarders, for they had favorites, was an elderly gentleman named David Murray. It is to be supposed he was of what is called Scotch extraction, but his general type and make-up gave the effect of one hundred per cent American.
If one were to write a valentine to him, it would run something like this:
Your cheeks are red,
Your eyes are blue,
Your hair is white
And so are you.
For Murray’s eyes were the blue of the delphinium and his cheeks the red of the sumac berry while his white hair was like floss tossed by a high wind. The Good Book says that a white head is a grown of glory if it be found in the way of righteousness.
And while David Murray could not be said definitely to travel in that particular way, his white hair was as nearly like a crown of glory as makes no difference.
Not that he was wicked, especially, he was probably about as good or as bad as his next neighbor, but he knew more than most of them.
He said, quite frankly, sometimes, he wished he could find some one who knew as much as he did, for, he continued, he was of a gregarious sort and he was tired of morons.
All of which sounds ill-natured or conceited, but it wasn’t either, it was merely true.
The picturesque man was of varying ages. There were days when he was surely seventy, and other days when he couldn’t have been more than fifty-five. He was really seventy, as to years, but a day of perfect weather or a chance meeting with a man of wide and sound information, so invigorated him, that his age fell from his as a garment.
And to-day, as David Murray sat in one of the big rockers on the Inn veranda, he was so full of pleasant anticipation that he was almost a boy again.
“What’s the matter, gran’pa?” cried a saucy lad who passed him, “somebody sent you a barrel of cider?”
“Better than that, old Top,” came the retort. “I’m expecting a visit from a relative!”
“Relative? Huh! That’s nothing to get so lit up about,” the boy went on, whistling, and Dave Murray resumed his happy anticipations.
An hour later they were realized, and Murray, on the upper veranda now, sat happily looking at his nephew, Fleming Stone.
“I was afraid you wouldn’t get here, boy,” and the older man rocked more vigorously in his satisfaction; “thought you might have some pot to boil or some hen on.”
“No, I’ve cleared my desk, refused all appeals, and I’m going off, care-free, to see Carcassonne. Better go along.”
“Can’t. Too busy. Oh, I know you think I don’t do anything, or that what I do amounts to nothing, but it pleases me, and that’s all you get out of your holiday.”
“Yes, except that my doctor says, casually, if I don’t let up I’ll break down. I used to hoot at such speeches from the medical wiseacres, but I’ve seen too many of my friends collapse after hooting that I’m going to try the better part of valor.”
“Yes, you! You’ll be mixed up in a murder case before the pilot is cast off!”
“Not so. They can mutiny on the boat if they like, I won’t look for a clew or ask for a bit of evidence.”
“Good chap! Stick to that, Fleming, and you’ll cheat the doctors yet. Nothing definite the matter, is there?”
“Not a thing. Only a bit of lassitude after a given point of sleeplessness, or something of that sort. Had any excitement here, through the summer?”
“Not a ripple. Calm as a millpond, dull as ditchwater. I was glad, for it left me time to idle in peace and quiet. How long can you stay?”
“Just over the week-end. I sail next Saturday, but I’ve a lot of little things to look after.”
“Of course. Well, you won’t want to meet people here, then, and all that sort of thing.”
“No, Uncle, no time. I’ll just put in a few dabs of conversation with you, tramp round a bit, and then hop back.”
Fleming Stone was about starting for Europe on a belated vacation. Again and again he had planned the trip, only to give it up by reason of some pressing problem that came his way and that either from a sense of duty or a personal interest he stayed to solve.
He was a favorite with his uncle, and he admired and respected the old man. They were congenial spirits and could always enjoy one another’s companionship. So a week-end at the White Birch Inn looked good to Stone as he dressed for dinner that evening.
Not a large crowd in the dining room, but enough tables to give the effect of formality and preclude any unconventional scraping of acquaintance.
“Jolly old Inn,” Stone said, as they took their seats. “I don’t wonder you like it up here. Made any friends?”
“Only a few. Half a dozen houses maybe, where I drop in now and then. Nice people, though. The sort that have important summer homes, with bumptious names, but they’re real folks after all.”
“How do you know they are?”
“Well, for one thing, their affections are all misplaced. Give me old Puritan New England for breakers of the Tenth commandment.”
“I didn’t know the commandments went beyond the seventh,” Stone said, idly. “Aren’t you going too far?”
“Well, no. The tenth, my lad, has to do with coveting your neighbor’s wife. And, for some reason or other, that sort of thing is rife up here. It came in with the Pilgrim Fathers, and it came to stay.”
“Not an isolated instance,—Chaldea, I mean. There are other places, Uncle Dave, where such conditions obtain. What did you call the state of things? Rife, I think you said. That’s a lovely word, I shall try to use it more.”
It was late that night, and the two were still sitting on the long veranda, when Hickox came and drew up a chair near them.
“You’re interested in mysteries, Mr Stone, aren’t you?” he said, in a low voice.
“Not just now,” the detective laughed. “I’m on vacation, and if you have a good, fresh mystery to solve, take your wares to some other market.”
“But I’d like to tell you about this—” Hickox hesitated, and then said, determinedly, “I must tell you. Come into my office, I’ll promise to make it short.”
Regretful, but polite, Fleming Stone followed his uncle and their guide to the office, and Hickox shut the door.
“You know Duncan Searle,” he said to Murray.
“Yes, of course,” and the white-haired man nodded at Stone. “You know,—the big, importing chap, who has a side line of inventing things.”
“He sounds an attractive sort,” Stone commented, “but I’ve never heard of him before.”
“Well, he’s disappeared,” said Hickox. “Just plain dissolved into thin air.”
“Old stuff,” murmured David, with the amiable intention of rousing his nephew to contradiction, in which he was successful.
“Not if it’s true,” Stone said, thoughtfully. “Of course, he may have gone forth on some legitimate errand, but if he’s really inexplicably disappeared, it’s among the most engrossing of problems.”
“You’d better look into it,” Murray said.
“Not I. I’m out of that role for three months at least, maybe longer.”
“Going away, Mr Stone?”
“Yes, Jere, going to Europe. No thought of crime or mystery for a while. Only pleasant dallyings in foreign countrysides, and city galleries. And, right now, I’m going to bed, and you can tell my uncle the weird story of your friend’s vanishing from mortal ken.”
“Gimme ten minutes, Mr Stone,” said the wily Hickox, “and then you can go along to bed, and forget it all.”
“I’ll stay till I finish this cigar,” was the reply. “Then I leave you.”
“All right. Well it’s now Saturday night,—nearly midnight. Yesterday afternoon, that would be Friday afternoon, you see, Mr and Mrs Searle and several guests were having tea on the back lawn, at Silver Spray,—that’s his country house. Well, Mr Searle went into the house a moment, for something or other, and he never came out and has never been seen or heard of since.”
“Fine start out,” and Stone nodded his head. “I believe Conan Doyle once said that was the nucleus of a story he meant to write some day; but he never wrote it. However, it’s been the nucleus of hundreds of stories, both fact and fiction. The only interest in it lies in the question of how true it is. Of course, he has been seen or heard of since,—by somebody—unless he’s dead in the house, and that seems scarcely plausible.”
“How’d you hear this?” Murray asked.
Hickox looked rather blank. He was clearly, disappointed at the slight interest the famous detective showed in his announcement, and also miffed at the casual question of Dave Murray, from whom he had expected a burst of surprise and dismay.
A trifle sulkily, he gave his source of information. “Servants’ gossip,” he said. “My chauffeur is beaus with one of the maids at Silver Spray, and he’s had her out driving this evening, and she told him the tale.”
“And you listen to servants’ yarns!” exclaimed Dave, censoriously.
“Hold hard there, Uncle,” Stone put in. “Servants often know a lot more and know it better than their masters do.”
“Oh, all right, then. Well, Jere, what did your chauffeur say?”
“Only that. Searle went in the house and never came out, and isn’t in the house now, and they don’t know where he is.”
“How much have they searched?”
“Everywhere. House and grounds and all the outside buildings and the woods and ravines and falls—”
“Yes, Mr Stone, and now they don’t know what to do. They’re about crazy.”
“Haven’t they notified the police?”
“No, Mrs Searle, and Mr Austin Searle,—that’s his brother,—don’t want the publicity. At least, that’s what they say, but I’m inclined to think there’s a stronger reason. I think they’re afraid of Duncan’s anger, if they drag in the police and make a hullaballoo, and then Mr Searle walks in, perfectly all right, and wanting to know what the trouble is about.”
“H’m, there’ll be trouble, if they don’t report to the police,” Stone said. “What sort of people are they?”
“Best in the world,” returned Hickox. “High class, rich but ree-fined,—kind and decent to neighbors and village people, but a little stand-offish for all that.”
“And how about their morals?” said Dave Murray, his blue eyes twinkling.
“Oh, shucks, don’t be silly. Just ’cause Mr Searle is took a little with that pretty wife of old Len Colvin, doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong there.”
“Colvin isn’t old,—nor his wife, either,” Murray retorted.
“Well, he comes some fifteen years nearer to bein’ old than what she does. He’s forty, that’s what he is, and Mrs Colvin, she ain’t a day more’n twenty-five, if she’s that.”
“And Mr Searle admires the lady?” asked Fleming Stone, without much apparent interest.
“Admires!” derided Jere; “he’s all et up with love for her!”
“And how is his disappearance going to help him?”
“I don’t say it’ll help him,” Hickox spoke earnestly, “but I do say it has something to do with it. S’pose he disappeared pupposely, and s’pose she follows later—”
‘‘But all that would be so easy to learn,” Stone declared. “Did he take money from his bank? Did he take a suitcase of clothing? Did he leave his affairs in order? You see, we know none of the important details.”
“No,” agreed Dave, “and I don’t suppose, Jere, you could learn those things from your servants’ gossip. What say, Fleming, we go over there tomorrow morning?”
“Oh, do,” cried Hickox. “I’ll go along of you, and introduce Mr Stone, and they’ll all be tickled to death of his help.”
“All right,” said Stone dryly, “except for two errors. They won’t want my help and they wouldn’t get it if they did.”
“Why do you feel like that about it, Mr Stone?”
“It isn’t how I feel, it’s how they feel. If they wanted the man searched for they would have called in the police at once, therefore they don’t want him searched for. Also, as I’m just starting for Europe, with tickets and passport all arranged, I couldn’t very well take on a case, even if I were asked.”
Stone went off to bed, and the other two talked over the matter for a long time, agreeing that if the Searle family knew Stone was nearby and if Duncan didn’t turn up by morning, they certainly would be delighted to have his advice, even if he couldn’t take on the case. And they further agreed, settling Stone’s affairs for him, that he could easily devote several days to the matter and still have ample time to make his preparations for his journey, which, his uncle knew, were already practically complete.
So, when Fleming Stone came downstairs on Sunday morning, anticipating a day of delightful indolence, he was met by two enthusiastic dictators who informed him of the program they had planned for him.
Without questioning his inclinations they told him that he must go with them immediately after breakfast, to Silver Spray Farm, and offer his advice as to the proper procedure in the matter of the missing man.
They had had further news, they told him.
Waylaying the Searle chauffeur, who had to pass the Inn on his way to the Post Office for the Sunday mail, Hickox had learned that no word had been received from Mr Searle and no trace of his whereabouts could be discovered.
Mrs Hickox had used her feminine tact on Fletcher, the chauffeur, but there was nothing more to be learned. Mr Searle was missing and none of the staff knew any more than that, whatever the family might know or guess.
As to the behavior of the household, Fletcher naturally knew little. He was not a house man, and his work in the garage occupied much of his time. Tim was a good chap, but needed looking after, and Fletcher seemed to be so busy about his own affairs, that he had no time to speculate on the fate of Mr Searle; beside which, it came out at last, they had all been forbidden to discuss the matter, either among themselves or with outsiders.
Having been pretty well trained to obedience by Duncan Searle himself, they, for the most part, did as they were bid.
Fletcher admitted, after intensive questioning that there had been several visitors at Silver Spray on Saturday, including the neighbors round about, and Mr Everett Brooks, the lawyer, from Boston.
All of this was relayed to Fleming Stone and he was definitely instructed as to his duty of going at once to the rescue of the stricken family.
“But, man alive!” cried Stone to his uncle, in amazement, “I can’t butt in there uninvited, and offer my help!”
“Of course, you can,” decreed Hickox, “and you must. They can’t ask you since they don’t know you’re here, and it’s your duty as a decent citizen to go.”
“It would be the most indecent performance I ever took part in,” he stormed. “And I refuse to do such an absurd, unpardonable thing!”
But as continual dropping is said to wear away a stone, so the repeated insistence of the two men weakened the detective’s determination.
Not that he saw the matter in any different light, but he realized that if he refused to go he would mortally offend good old Hickox, and, what was worse, really hurt his uncle, of whom he was very fond, and who was going to miss the companionship of his nephew during their coming separation.
It ended then, by his consenting to go with his uncle to call, it being deemed better that Hickox stay at home. But it was stipulated that no reference was to be made to the case as a case, or to Fleming Stone’s possible connection with it professionally.
Later in the morning, then, they took the long tramp over the hill which brought them to Silver Spray Farm.
Going to the front door, they were formally admitted by Mellon, and shown into the small reception room at the right of the entrance.
Soon Austin Searle appeared, greeted Murray politely if not cordially and acknowledged the introduction to Stone a little coldly.
“We are not receiving callers,” he said, as they all sat down, “but an old friend like Mr Murray cannot be denied. You have heard of our mystery, no doubt?” he addressed himself to Murray, exclusively. “We still think it only a temporary misunderstanding, and that Duncan will turn up soon. You see, he might have left a note or sent a note which failed to reach us, and anyway, we feel sure it will come out all right.”
“You haven’t notified the police?” Fleming Stone asked, quietly, deeming it a pertinent question.
Austin Searle bristled.
“Every one asks that!” he exclaimed, testily. “No, we haven’t, because we are not really alarmed.”
“Not alarmed, after two nights’ unexplained absence?”
“But you see, Mr Stone,” Austin’s voice grew calmer, “nothing untoward could have happened to my brother. The circumstances preclude that.”
“Do you care to tell me how?”
“Why, Duncan went into the house, and when he didn’t return to us out on the lawn for a reasonable time, we naturally wondered. But we knew he hadn’t had opportunity to meet any one who might be ill-disposed toward him, so we had no fear of harm having come to him from an enemy. Then, it couldn’t be accident, or we should have found him somewhere about, with a sprained ankle or a broken leg. He was not in any danger of amnesia, we have the doctor’s word for that, and there is no madness in our family. He had no domestic troubles and no money troubles. What then, could have happened, save something he brought about himself? And if so, when he has finished the matter, whatever it may be, he will return with his explanation.”
“You really believe all that, Mr Searle?” inquired Stone, gently.
“I really do.”
“And you have no disturbing thought that possibly there may be something sinister back of it all?”
Austin squirmed in his chair.
“I can’t quite say that, since there is always danger of unexpected harm coming to anybody. In fact, I organized a thorough search of the house and grounds, feeling it the right thing to do. But we found no hint nor sign of foul play, or of anything unusual or suspicious.”
“And your own theory, Mr Searle?”
“Well, Mr Stone, I have one, though it is vague. But I haven’t the rooted objection to a theory that many people hold, and I like to enlarge on my own diagnosis of this thing, feeling that I may jolly likely be right.”
“And what is your theory?”
Stone had sensed at once that the way to get information out of Austin Searle was to ask for it in the most straightforward way. Any beating around the bush or sly hints were useless.
“I think, and what else is there to think, that my brother came into the house and for some reason, chose to step out of the front, the North door. That is the only door not in view from where we sat on the lawn. Well, supposing he went on out so far as the high road, why, I don’t know, but suppose he did. Then, he might have been knocked down, either accidentally or purposely, by a motor car, and the occupants picked him up and carried him off. Motive, —common humanity, and they took him to a hospital, or, again, motive more sinister, and they are holding him,—alive or dead,—for ransom. There’s my theory. Don’t quiz me on it, I don’t know the answers, but I do know I can think of no other rational or plausible explanation of such a sudden disappearance.”
“You know of no enemies your brother had, desperate enough to compass his disappearance?”
“No, I know of no enemies he had at all. We all have acquaintances we like less than others, but we can scarcely call them enemies. At least, that’s the way with the Searles. We never have been of a rancorous or belligerent sort, and sometimes we don’t assert our own rights strongly enough.”
Fleming Stone nodded assent without further words, and his uncle realized that he had failed in his efforts and that Stone’s help was in no way desired by Austin Searle.
Stone also realized that Austin Searle had no wish or desire for help in the solution of the mystery that had come to his household, and with his ready tact the detective turned the conversation into other channels, and soon Searle found himself giving advice as to certain desirable portions of the Devonshire country, and also as to the best route through the New Forest.
“I envy you the trip,” Austin said, “a motor journey in Devon and Cornwall is the ideal vacation. I’ve always gone in Spring or Summer, but I am sure Autumn will give you new views and effects.”
Though Stone tried to introduce some further reference to the absence of Duncan Searle, it was not followed up by his brother, indeed, the subject was quickly and definitely changed.
For once in his life, Fleming Stone felt chagrin that he was not sought as an adviser in a mystery. He fairly ached to ask questions, even a few, and he wanted to go over the house with a careful scrutiny.
But he could not insist on, or even ask these favors, and he gave a mental sigh as he said good-by to any hope he may have had of getting into the game.
He and Murray had risen to go, when two people came into the room.
They were Carlotta, and Everett Brooks, the lawyer from Boston.
If Searle had ignored the well known talents of Fleming Stone, not so Brooks. When introduced, his face showed both interest and homage.
“I am glad to see you, sir,” he exclaimed, emphatically, shaking the detective’s hand. “Are you taking on the case?”
“Case!” Austin Searle fairly exploded; “I am not aware there is any case! What do you mean, Brooks? Case?”
“Why, Duncan’s absence,” returned the lawyer, with utmost placidity. “If it isn’t a case, what is it? Have you any idea where he is? Why he went? When he will return? What has happened to him? But I know you can’t answer one of those questions, and so I feel justified in calling it a case. Wouldn’t you say so, Mr Stone? With your wide experience and your vast knowledge, are you not prepared to look upon the matter as a case and a most mysterious one?”
“I am not prepared to look upon it at all,” Stone returned, a trifle coldly. “I know none of the details, I don’t know even the main facts, how then can I look upon the matter with any degree of wisdom or understanding?”
“Now, now, Mr Stone,” Carlotta said, with her most disarming smile, “as a matter of fact we are not asking you to discuss or discourse upon my husband’s disappearance,—or, rather, on his absence. Disappearance has such a horrid sound, hasn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Austin, almost angrily; “I wish you wouldn’t use it. Duncan went off on his own business, he will return when he is ready. That’s all there is to it.”
“I wish I could think so,” put in Brooks, lugubriously. “But really, Mr Stone, are you not here in connection with the matter?”
“Most certainly not,” Austin declared; “Mr Stone and Mr Murray strolled over here for a Sunday morning outing. We were discussing the Devonshire lanes when you came in.”
“And interrupted?” Brooks smiled.
“If you put it that way,” retorted Austin.
“Behave yourselves, children,” Carlotta admonished them. “I’ll fix this thing up. Mr Murray, we are rather a busy lot this morning. Won’t you run along home now, and come back at tea time, and we’ll have a lovely hobnob.”
“With the ‘case’ question taboo,” Austin said.
“Yes,” Fleming Stone agreed, “taboo.”
The two visitors started off and Stone turned around to look at the front door, to which Murray drew his attention.
As Stone turned to look at it, Austin rejoined them, to see, as Stone told his uncle afterward, that they didn’t do any sleuthing en route.
“We’re proud of our doors,” Searle said. “This one holds its own against the masterpieces of Deerfield and Greenfield.”
“It surely does,” Stone said, who knew his doorways. “There are four doors?”
“Four main doors. The back, or South one, is much like this, though a trifle less elaborate. The West door has a porch, and is more for use than ornament and the East door belongs to the servants’ quarters.”
“A beautiful house,” and Stone looked admiringly at the great structure. “Doorways have much to do with the beauty of a Colonial building. And the falls are off in that direction,—I can hear them.”
“Yes; it is an enormous place. But much of it is wildwood and farm land, and, of course, the ravines, so there’s not so much home grounds after all.”
“All right, Austin,” Dave Murray said, “we’ll jog along and we’ll be back for tea. My nephew leaves me in the morning and I want to see all I can of him.”
They parted and after a short silence Stone said to his uncle, “What manner of man is Duncan Searle?”
“First-class,” returned Murray, heartily. “Quick-tempered, sharp-tongued, just, square, generous, cruel and wise.”
“Admirable character,” said Stone, without sarcasm. “Fond of his wife?”
“Oh, a sort of ‘I have been faithful to thee, Cynara, in my fashion.’ As the old Scotchman said, ‘there’s aye some one,’ and I wouldn’t go so far as to say Duncan was monotonously monogamous.”
“Well, can’t his flights of fancy have to do with his disappearance?”
“They may, for all of me. But how does that explain anything?”
“It doesn’t, as I can see. But, mark you, Uncle David, that man has disappeared, in the fullest and most terrible sense of the word.”
“I don’t say that. I mean he has disappeared as the result of a deep-laid, diabolical plan,—and a colossally clever plan.”
“And he won’t turn up?”
“But how will that help Carlotta to marry young Booth?”
“Aha! Sits the wind in that quarter?”
“I’m not sure that it does. Rumor hath it. But aren’t we making bricks without straw?”
“We certainly are. I wish I hadn’t gone over there. It’s got me all het up and that gets me nowhere. Thank Heaven I’m leaving to-morrow! Twenty-four hours more of it and my hat would be in the ring. It’s a wonderful case!”
“You call it a case?”
“Rath-er! The case of the century. When do you think you’ll see Duncan Searle again?”
“Never, if Erminie Colvin can get away and go to him?”
“A poor rule that won’t work both ways. Then, Duncan wants the sprightly Erminie and Carlotta hankers for the good-looking Booth.”
“Oh, I suppose that sums up the matter, but, after all it can’t be the explanation.”
“Well, no, not the way we’ve stated things.”
“The way I’ve stated things; I haven’t noticed many statements from you!”
“Nor will you. I’m on my way, to-morrow morning, and I’ve no time to make statements or to listen to them. I only hope I won’t hear any this afternoon that will stir my curiosity to the boiling point.”
“If they wanted you, Fleming, would you give up your trip and take on this case?”
“I don’t say that, but I’ll say I should be sorely tempted to.”
“I can’t help feeling, however, that neither Austin or Carlotta are seeking your help.”
“They are not! That’s one reason why I want to give it. Well, there’s no use talking. Take me round by some rough and rugged rocks, that I may get a bit of wild scenery to remember when I’m lolling in the lanes and lyns of Devon.”
They went for a long and somewhat tough hike, then back to the White Birch Inn for their midday meal.
“What’d you boys find out?” asked Mally, coming toward them as they sat on the upper veranda, waiting for the summons to the dining room.
“Nothing,” said Murray, shortly, but Stone drawled, “Oh, I don’t know,” in order to prolong the querying.
“You musta got some news,” Mrs Hickox declared. “Who’d you see?”
They gave her an account of their call, and she admitted it was unsatisfactory.
But, learning they were going again in the afternoon, she promised to give them a few pointers as to how to achieve some information.
“Either of the Colvins over there?” she asked, as a real insider.
“No,” Stone said. “What have they got to do with it?”
“Oh, nothin’, only Erminie she’s all et up with love for Duncan, and Len, he’s wild about it.”
“Those things happen in nearly every family, Mrs Hickox,” Stone said, disinterestedly.
“So they do; so they do. Well, I can’t think they had to do with the disappearance, yet you never can tell.”
“Run along, Mally,” advised Murray;. “I think I smell your chicken burning.”
She gave him a glance of tolerant contempt and departed.
“How’d you like the gentleman from Boston?” David asked. “The legal light.”
“Small man, isn’t he? Physically, I mean.”
“Yes, rather. Searle is a small man, too, yet he gives an appearance of much more height and weight than Brooks.”
“Searle small? Austin Searle?”
“A trifle below average. He’s light on his feet, but he has no heft.”
“Couldn’t hold his own in a brawl, then?”
“Perhaps, by skill, but not by strength. But there couldn’t have been a brawl in Duncan’s case. I say, Fleming, what could there have been?”
“Not many obvious conditions, that’s certain.”
“Give me one or two possibilities.”
“Only the general assumptions. He went out to the road, a motor car hit him, purposely or not, he was carried, dead or alive to some place still kept secret.”
“He went off of his own accord. Had his bag packed and cached at his office, say. Slipped out the front door to the road, got away to the nearest railroad station, or met some friend with a car,—oh, Lord, Uncle, there are so many possibilities. Of course, any or all of them are improbable, but the whole thing is too improbable for words. Answer me a few questions. Where was everybody when Duncan went into the house? Who saw whom in the house? What did the servants see? This is not a case to ignore the servants. Quite the contrary. What mood was Duncan in? Colvin? Austin? Who is this Booth, what is he, that everybody speaks of him, but nobody says anything about him? Where is Erminie? Let me see her— oh, my Heavens, I keep forgetting I’m not in this thing. I’m not invited. I’m outside, looking in! The Pori at the Gate. The Man Without a Country. The Unwanted! Unberufen! Oh, me, oh, my, that ever I was born to chop sticks with a wooden hammer!”
“Hush your nonsense, Silly. There’s the dinner-bell. Come along.”
Stone came along, and all mention of the Searle matter perforce stopped lest the other diners become over-interested.
After luncheon that Sunday afternoon, the Silver Spray people sat in the lounge.
Everett Brooks had put his foot down that a decision must be arrived at as to the next step to take, and all agreed to that, though there was some disagreement as to what the next step should be.
But, of course, if Mr Brooks’ foot was down, something had to be done before he could take it up.
“Well, Brooks,” Austin began, “I suppose in Duncan’s absence I am the acting head of the house—”
“Help yourself,” interrupted Carlotta, smiling. “As Duncan’s better half I assume headship. However, I imagine, Austin, that we will not quarrel over that. What I’m worrying about is what to do next. I know, Mr Brooks, you think we ought to notify the police.”
“I do think so, not as a duty, you understand, but as a help. A crime must be reported to Headquarters, but a disappearance, with, so far as we know, no wrongdoing of any sort, carries no real obligation with it.”
“Then why can’t we let it alone?” cried Carlotta. “Why have the horrid publicity, why rouse the town’s curiosity, why do something that would greatly annoy Duncan if he knew it—”
“But, Carly,” Booth said, slowly, “we want to find Duncan; we’ve tried unsuccessfully: now why not give it over to experienced hands and let them take a whack at it?”
“Very well, Ronny, just as you and Austin think best. What would they do?”
“Search the place, I suppose—”
“Why, we’ve done that.”
“They wouldn’t think so.”
“No,” Brooks agreed. “They do their own searching.”
“Very well,” Carlotta said, carelessly. “That’s not much to do. What else?”
“Oh, they ask four million useless questions,” Austin told her, “and we answer to the best of our knowledge and belief.”
“And then do they find Duncan?” Carlotta’s lovely face looked wistful.
“Probably not,” said Brooks. “I say, have you people any theory, any guess?”
“I think we all have the same notion,” Austin said. “I think Duncan drifted away somewhere, on some sudden whim or inspiration that had to do with his work. I don’t believe it was a matter of rosy ramblers. But he’d been thoughtful of late, and irritable. Those things meant worry of some sort. Eh, Carly?”
“Yes, he was always cross when he was bothered. But there was more than that. There was, there must have been, some one else involved.”
“Erminie?” Austin smiled.
“Maybe,” Carlotta said; “but I mean more particularly some outsider, some rival firm or individual who might be secretly spying on Duncan’s work.”
“That is the sort of thing I had in mind,” the lawyer said; “and that is the sort of thing for the police to tackle.”
“Very well,” Carlotta conceded, “let them take it up, then. I withdraw any objections I may have raised, and I’m ready to stand by and to help in any way I can. Duncan is a just and fair man, and if he were to walk in this minute he would say that forty-eight hours, almost, was long enough for us to delay action. Until now, I have thought that he would walk in, casually, and explain his absence, but after two days I feel forced to abandon that hope. If he could have done so, I am sure he would have communicated with us in some way. Since he hasn’t done so, I begin to think he is prevented.”
“I agree to all that,” said Austin, gravely, “as you said, Sister, I think you and I will have no differences of opinion. Ronny, you’ll stand by for a while, won’t you?”
“If you’re sure you want me,” Booth returned, and Carlotta’s smile at him was reply enough.
“Now, here’s another thing,” Brooks went on. “You know the police are earnest and willing, but they are not often brilliant. They may hunt the whole surrounding country for Mr Searle without the slightest result. Do you want to employ that famous detective—you know, Mr Stone—who is staying at White Birch Inn?”
“I don’t,” Austin informed them, “but if Carlotta does, I’m willing enough. He is infallible, I’m told, and yet—”
“That’s the way I feel,” Carlotta declared. “I do want Duncan found, but it seems to me a simple case, not a complicated one, where one needs a magician.”
“Oh, he isn’t a magician,” Brooks put in, “but he invariably succeeds, or so I am told. However, I think, with you, that the police can swing the job.”
“And anyway,” Ronald said, “that Stone person is sailing to-morrow for Europe—he’d hardly put off his trip at the last minute.”
“Do whatever you like,” Carlotta told them. “I was against a detective at first, but now, if the rest of you want him, I consent.”
“No, we don’t want him,” Austin stated, “he’d give me the willies with his finger prints and his cigarette butts and his broken cuff-links.”
“Nonsense, Austin, they don’t strut that sort of stuff nowadays,” and Booth laughed at him.
“They do in story books, anyway.”
“Well, then,” Everett Brooks began, “I suppose I’d better go to see the police at once.”
“I thought they’d come here,” Carlotta demurred, her enthusiasm waning.
“You’d prefer it?”
“Don’t they have to question us and all that?”
“Later, yes. I think I’ll go round and see them first, and let them come here afterward.”
“Very well, there’ll be people here at teatime, anyway.”
“Oh, yes,” said Booth, “you asked that detective, Carly. Why did you do that?”
“For no particular reason, but my natural kindliness of spirit. Do you mind?”
“Of course not. In fact, I rather like him.”
“Look out,” said Austin, “you two will be for engaging his services before you know it.”
“Not I,” Booth avowed. “I’ll bet I could find Duncan myself quicker than Friend Stone could.”
The Colvins came then, and Everett Brooks went off on his errand to the village police station.
By the time Fleming Stone and his uncle arrived at Silver Spray the lawn was a scene of gayety. Stone wondered whether the stately homes of England which he would visit could show him any fairer sight.
Formal flower beds where they were called for, and in other places a tangle of bloom. Iron tables under umbrellas, or canopied chairs. Not far off, tennis courts, croquet grounds, an archery range and a bowling green.
And dominating all, the big white house, with its dignity and grace.
“Beautiful!” said Stone, involuntarily, as he appeared, from the South door of the house. “Let me get my bearings, Mrs Searle. Where are the cardinal points?”
“This is the South lawn,” Carlotta told him, smilingly. “It’s easy, for the house is foursquare, with a door on each side. The front door, which is our joy and pride, is North. This rose-decked affair is South. You’ll like the West porch, and the East porch is the servants’ domain. But you saw it this morning.”
“I know, but I’m fond of architecture. Inside, is there a great hall and a cross hall?”
“Yes, I’d take you in, but I’m expecting guests who must be greeted. Ah, here is Dorothy, she’ll do. Dot, take Mr Stone in the house, will you, and let him view the landscape o’er.”
“Sure. Come along Mr Fleming Stone. And will you detect something for me as we go our rounds?”
“What do you want detected?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Just something I can brag about. Now, here, you see, is the long hall. You must have come through this when you came in. It runs straight through from front to back. The cross hall, as it opens out on the West porch, is wider, almost a room. On the other side, the East side, it holds the grand staircase, there’s a little one tucked into the West side. Behind the great staircase, are the servants’ offices and their door and porch, East, of course. That’s the main layout. To be sure, small rooms and closets are tucked in here and there, but the plan is, after all, simple.”
“I’m thinking how Mr Searle made his exit,” Stone said, looking at her frankly.
Dorothy stared at him.
“Are you detecting something for me? Oh, goody!”
“I know too little about this matter to do any detecting, Miss Bradford, but do I understand these are the only exits—these four?”
“Yes—well, that is, there is another small door that opens from the sun parlor.”
“And where is the sun parlor?”
“Come, I’ll show you.”
It was a fair-sized room, all of glass, reached by a short passage that shot out at a tangent from the Southeast corner of the house.
“But I can’t think,” Dorothy said, “that Duncan Searle went out this way or we’d surely have seen him.”
“Where were you?”
“All out on the lawn, having tea.”
“All of you?”
“Well, no. Ronny had gone in the house for something from his room; Carlotta hadn’t appeared yet; Austin was telephoning; Erminie had gone for a fan—”
“And just how many were left on the lawn?”
“Why,—only Mr Colvin and me! Isn’t that funny? I thought there were a lot of us!”
“And where was Mr Duncan Searle?”
“Why, he went to collect Carlotta. He thought she ought to look after her guests better.”
“Did he find her?”
“Why, no. Carly never saw him at all. Nor did any one else. He just disappeared, you know.”
“Could he have gone to his laboratory?”
“We thought so, of course. But we’ve found no trace of him there.”
“What is his immediate work just now?”
“Almost anybody can tell you that better than I. I’m a positive dumbbell about such things. But, I do know, that he’s working to get the ideal anaesthetic.”
“Yes, or the model hypnotic, or something.”
“Is that his business?”
“Oh, no. He’s President of a great Oriental Importing Company.”
“Curios? Ivories? Jades?”
“Those, yes. And also, hasheesh and hemp and oh, lots of queer drugs.”
“Then his laboratory work is rather on the side?”
“Yes,” said Dorothy, “rather on the side.”
“It’s a large house,” Dorothy said to Stone, as they went through it, “and yet, Carlotta is dissatisfied because there are so few rooms. She’s right, too. She ought to have a morning room of her own downstairs, and a music room and a real library. As you see, she has her piano in the drawing room.”
“A beautiful room,” said Stone, as they entered the elaborate apartment. “And that piano is entirely in keeping.”
“Oh, yes, Carly wouldn’t have a jarring note anywhere. The whole place is the best type of pure Colonial, and all the furniture and appointments are in harmony. But she plays so much, she ought to have an appropriate music room.”
“She is a musician?”
“Rath-er! Far finer than many on the concert platform.”
“She practices a lot then?”
“Yes, although she has somewhat neglected it of late. But she does two or three hours every day, of that I’m sure.”
Fleming Stone idly fingered over some music that lay on the stand.
“Heavens!” he said, “Mrs Searle is a real student. Her Kulak School of octave playing is well worn, and here we have Bach’s Inventions. And his Fugues for several voices! She is a virtuoso. I’d like to hear her play!”
“And why shouldn’t you?” asked Carlotta’s low, resonant voice as she came into the drawing room. “It is a pleasure to play when one’s efforts are appreciated. What will you have? Others are coming in, so make your choice first, Mr Stone.”
Readily enough, he asked for some of his favorites, confident that none was beyond her power or skill.
The audience increased rapidly, for Sunday afternoon was general reception day at Silver Spray, and not always was Carlotta in a mood to play.
Stone watched her as her beautiful hands touched the keys, seemingly without effort, and his gaze strayed upward to her face.
There were those who said Carlotta Searle was not beautiful, but no one could say that of her when she was playing. Not like St. Cecelia—Carly was far from saint-like—but more like a master, and her face had a look of power that might stamp the features of Michelangelo or Rembrandt. She was a creator, her work was perfection, and she knew it. There was, therefore, no conceit or vainglory, she felt her greatness and reveled in it.
This gave her face the spiritual touch it needed, the rapt, exalted gaze that meant the knowledge of achievement.
And it perfected her beauty. Without it she lacked softness, pliability.
All this was clear to Fleming Stone, that reader of faces.
What was not clear to him was Carlotta’s attitude toward her husband. Stone had no way of knowing how matters stood between the two, and while he had no reason to think they were anything but congenial, yet a tiny hint dropped by Mally Hickox suggested matters might be otherwise.
However, it was none of his business, and he continued to watch his hostess and listen to her music.
Then, even as he looked at her, he saw a change come over her features. Her eyes narrowed the merest trifle, her lovely curved lips became a straight line, her delicate nostrils quivered almost imperceptibly. But her hands showed no tremor, there was no flaw to be sensed in her marvelous technique, and even as Stone watched she became herself again. Her smile returned, her expression was one of welcome, and finishing the last notes, she lifted her hands from the keys and greeted the newcomer.
“Erminie!” she cried, “how good to see you. And now you can meet Mr Stone, you know who he is, of course.”
“Of course,” said the childish voice, and Stone found that he was, as he put it to himself, “in for it.”
He felt sure that he would now be monopolized by Erminie Colvin and her friends, and would see no more of Carlotta, in whom he already felt a deep interest.
And he was right, save that as he was about to take leave, his hostess came up to him, saying:
“You haven’t seen the vista through the yew hedge, Mr Stone, and I don’t want you to miss it. It’s the oldest thing on the place, and one of the most interesting.”
She led him away, bidding Dave Murray wait a few moments for his return. They went across the South lawn and down toward the Ravines, branching off, however, before nearing the Falls.
“Never mind the vista,” she said, hurriedly, “I only wanted to tell you that I don’t mean to be ungracious about your taking on this case—”
“Case! Taking on!” Stone found it impossible not to interrupt. “My dear lady what are you saying? I’m leaving to-morrow—”
“I know—I know—” she spoke impatiently, “but everybody is telling me I should have asked you, anyway—”
“Too easy!” said Stone, lightly. “Just tell ’em that you asked me and I said it was impossible.”
“And is it?”
“If you want it to be—yes.”
“Tell me what you think, Mr Stone?”
“As to the truth?”
“I think your husband will return and soon. I think it’s amnesia or something of that sort, and—”
“Amnesia! You might as well say magnesia!”
Fleming Stone laughed aloud. The scorn on her face was so haughty, the derision so scathing, he felt himself justly reproved.
“But why not?” he stuck to his guns. “Cases are not infrequent, as you must know.”
“I do know that, but I also am sure it wasn’t that happened to Duncan.”
“You think something happened to him, then?”
“What else is there to think?”
“You know of nothing else to think?”
Stone spoke very gently, but the color that flamed in Carlotta’s cheeks proved she understood him.
“You mean he went away purposely,” she said, speaking directly; “and you mean it was because of some woman. And, probably, you know the identity of the woman.”
“Do you care to tell me?”
“I’ll tell you what you already know, or think you know. I’ll tell you what other people think they know. I’ll tell you what my immediate family believe. And that is, that my husband cares for Erminie Colvin. Well, I tell you, Mr Fleming Stone, that isn’t true.”
“Of course, I don’t doubt your word, Mrs Searle. And you must see that it helps matters a lot. If we can eliminate the ‘other woman’ element, the mystery will be much more easily solved. It leaves motives and circumstances of a simpler sort. It leaves—but, Heavens and Earth! What am I talking about? I almost thought I was on the case. And now I must—I must run back to Uncle David. He’ll think we’ve disappeared, too!”
“Come then, let us go back. I suppose you can’t give me any advice.”
“Only this, Mrs Searle. Whatever happens, keep your own counsel. Make friends, but don’t make a confidant of anybody. Not any one. Do you understand?”
“Your words, yes. Your meaning, no.”
“Then obey the words. The meaning will take care of itself.”
Carlotta flashed him a mutinous glance which seemed to say she was not in the habit of obeying anybody.
Because of that, Fleming Stone kept back the further advice he had thought to give her, and no word was spoken between them as they strolled back to the house.
But as they joined the others, Carlotta’s mood turned to one of gayety and she waxed merry and full of smiles.
People were leaving now, and she said good-by, often with a hopeful speech, such as, “Come again soon; Duncan will be here next time.” Or, maybe, “Do wait a little longer, Duncan is liable to come in any minute.”
“Do you believe those optimistic hopes you’re slinging around?” Dave Murray asked her, with the freedom of an old friend.
“Of course I do,” she said, seriously, “and you needn’t think you can make me lose faith. Why, what else can be the outcome but his return home? He certainly isn’t intending to stay away forever, and these bugaboo stories of harm coming to him interest me not at all. Am I not right, Mr Stone?”
She bade the two good-by, wishing the traveler a pleasant journey, and asking the other to come over soon to see Duncan.
“Well, that’s that,” said Murray, as they went out to the Inn car that awaited them. “I don’t quite get Carlotta, but I suppose she’s not entirely herself, what with the worry and all.”
“She’s in full command of herself,” Stone said, “but she is putting up a brave front. So much so that she overdoes it a trifle. It’s pride, I should say. She’s afraid the gossips will think Duncan has run away to wait for Mrs Colvin, who will later join him and neither will ever be seen here again.”
“Gosh, I never thought of that. But it’s plausible enough. Did she admit to you that Duncan and Erminie are lovers?”
“On the contrary she denied it, that’s why I think it’s so. She said people think he’s in love with Erminie, but he isn’t.”
“Well, yes, that’s pretty convincing of their affair. Clever of Carlotta to take that stand, but she can’t put it over.”
“Where is Duncan Searle, Uncle Dave?”
“Smarty, aren’t you, boy, to ask me that before I could get round to asking you. Well, I think he’s kidnaped.”
“An honest to goodness abduction case?”
“Just that. Stepped out on that front lawn, there’s never anybody there, and some bad men, who had been waiting round all day, maybe two, three days, grabs him, gags him, jams him in the car, and off they go. They’ll get the demand for ransom soon now. You agree with me?”
“Nixy. I think the man is dead.”
“Maybe. If those kidnapers get scared, course they’re going to kill him.”
“Yes, of course. Any chance of its being an inside job?”
“Servants? Don’t think so. Family? No. He’s their meal ticket, you see. Neighbors? Well, there’s only the Colvins and Bradfords who are neighbors. Erminie couldn’t kill him cause she loves him. Leonard, he’s pretty jealous of that flibbertigibbet wife of his, but as I see it, Len was sitting on the South lawn through the whole performance.”
“There’s usually a dark horse of some sort. An unexpected enemy or an unnoticeable side issue.”
“Well, there’s the hobo.”
“I hadn’t heard of him! Lord, I can’t go into the matter any more deeply! Let up on it all, Uncle. Don’t mention Duncan Searle again! I’m through with the whole thing. Want a game of billiards before dinner?”
Dave Murray did, and they laid aside the matter of the Silver Spray mystery.
And as Fleming Stone left for New York early Monday morning, he heard nothing of the mystery that day.
Mally succeeded in getting the Searle butler on the telephone, but all he could say was that, so far as he knew Mr Duncan had not returned.
So Stone went off, but he left with his uncle a sort of code he had drawn up for his use.
“I admit I’m interested,” he said, “but not enough so to make any effort to be retained on the matter. They’ve shown they don’t want me, but I’ve a notion I could make them change their minds, if I choose to do so.”
“Of course you could, boy, and I wish you would.”
“No, I’ve thought it over and it’s wisest to shake the dust of Chaldea off my feet at once. Now, here’s the code, simple, as you see, but clear. Of course I can learn how things go up to Friday night, when I go on board. But if anything develops while I’m on the ocean or after I land, cable or wireless me at once. See? White, just the word, you know, means, ‘Searle returned. Satisfactory explanation.’ Black, ‘Searle’s body found.’ Red, ‘Murdered. Body found.’ Yellow, ‘Kidnaped. Ransom letters received.’ Green. Searle heard from in— Tell the place of course. Then, further: Daisy, Erminie gone away. Iris, Letter from Erminie to Colvin. Pansy, Letter to Carlotta from Duncan. . . .”
“That’ll do,” said David. “You’ve enough there for the rest of my natural life!”
“But they can’t all happen!” Stone told him, whereupon the older man shook his head and said, solemnly, “They won’t any of ’em happen. We’ll never hear a word from or of Duncan Searle again, alive or dead, murdered or eloped. Never a word.”
“Well, keep the code, in case,” Stone reminded him. “Not only bccause it saves expense, but it is unintelligible to those of a curiosity complex.”
And then Fleming Stone went back to New York and tried his best to forget the Searle case.
But that was Monday morning, and it was the night before that the representatives of law and order called at Silver Spray House.
The police department of the village of Chaldea was sketchy, and as the Searle matter seemed serious, an Inspector and a sergeant detective had been brought from the nearest city.
They appeared promptly and Mellon, a little bewildered by this new type of caller ushered them into the lounge.
Here awaited them Austin and Carlotta, and, of course, Booth and the lawyer, Everett Brooks.
Also, there were the two Colvins and the two Bradfords, for Inspector Mullins had ordered all who were present at tea on the lawn on Friday afternoon, to be at his disposal.
The group showed different aspects. Those not living in the house, the Bradfords and Colvins were quite apparently upset, the men annoyed, the women frightened. Dorothy especially, was restless and shy, like a school child expecting punishment.
Erminie was cool, but so white was her face and so pale her lips that one longed to advise her to renew her make-up.
Nor was she without excuse for this. Well she knew of incidents and conditions, secret until now, that might be ruthlessly brought to light by these hard-faced and doubtless hard-hearted men.
“I will talk to you first,” Inspector Mullins said, including them all with a wave of his great hand. “And I will see the help afterward.”
Naturally no one made any objection to this plan and the big man continued.
He was one of those aggressively huge specimens of humanity, and he filled the large chair which had been awarded him to overflowing.
“When did you last see your brother, Mr Searle?”
“Friday afternoon,” Austin said, and then was silent.
“Yes, but I mean what time Friday afternoon.” Mullins’ voice was suave but there was an undertone of sharpness that seemed to demand exactness of reply.
“I don’t know,” Austin said: “it’s all very well in story books to expect your witness to know the hour and minute that things happen, but it isn’t that way in real life. What were you doing yourself on Friday afternoon, Inspector?”
Mullins thought a moment, and then, as if humoring his witness, said,
“Watching an aeroplane doing stunts above my home.”
“Yes, and exactly what time was it when the aeroplane passed from your vision for the last time?”
“Why—why,—I’ve no idea.”
The Inspector was fairly caught but he had no intention of admitting it and, shaking his head as if dismissing the question, he went right along.
“It is imperative,” he said, slowly, “that we fix the moment as nearly as possible when Mr Searle was last known to be seen by any of you. Mrs Searle, when did you last see him?”
“At luncheon,” Carlotta replied. “After we left the table, I went directly upstairs to my room, and left my husband standing in the lower hall, lighting a cigarette.”
“Do you know what time that was?”
“It must have been about two o’clock. We have luncheon at one, and we usually spend about an hour at the table.”
“There were no guests?”
“Only Mr Booth, who is staying with us.”
“You went at once to your room—your bedroom?”
“My rooms, yes. I have a bedroom, boudoir, dressing room and bath. My husband has an adjoining apartment.”
Carlotta’s poise never deserted her, and her answers were given clearly, not coldly, but with a certain cool aloofness that slightly annoyed the Inspector.
He found he must adjust himself to it, however, as it was quite evidently inseparable from Mrs Searle’s character.
“And you stayed in your rooms,—how long?”
“Until I dressed and went downstairs to join the others on the South lawn.”
“At what time?”
Carlotta smiled. “I am afraid Inspector Mullins, that we’ll come to grief over your insatiable desire to know the time. I can only say that I went down while tea was being served. I don’t know the hour.”
“Your husband was in the house when you went out of it?”
“That I don’t know. I didn’t see him. You know I told you the last time I saw him was directly after lunch.”
“But he went in the house to look for you.”
“If he did, he didn’t find me. He didn’t come to my rooms at all.”
“What were you doing from two o’clock until you went downstairs?”
“I slept for a time, I wrote two or three letters, I had a talk with Mellon about a dinner I am planning to give. I had a bath and dressed leisurely,—I can think of nothing else I did.”
“Whom did you see when you went downstairs?”
“No one at all, in the house. It was the afternoon off for some of the servants, and I assumed the others were doubling up on their duties as they always do. I also supposed the family and guests were on the South lawn, and I found them there.”
“Just who were there?”
“Mr and Mrs Colvin, Mr and Miss Bradford, Mr Booth and Mr Austin Searle. Also, the butler and the second man looking after the tea things.”
“Mr Duncan Searle was not there?”
“Who saw him last?”
“That we can’t say,” Austin stated. “Of the people gathered here, however, only a few were on the lawn when my brother went into the house.”
“Better ask them individually. I wasn’t there, for I had myself just come inside to telephone. Mr Bradford, I know, had gone back home on an errand for his sister. Mr Booth—where were you, Ron?”
“I had come in the house, too. I was up in my room getting a bottle of arrack, somebody gave me. I wanted to present it to the tea drinkers.”
“We’ll come back to you later, Mr Booth,” the Inspector promised, and went on with Carlotta.
“Sorry, Mrs Searle,” he said, “but we may as well get your story all at once. When you came down through the house, then, you saw no one, no one at all?”
“No one at all, Mr Mullins. But I came quickly, also I didn’t come down the main staircase, I came down the side stairs, stepped out the West door, and round the corner of the house to the lawn. I joined the group there, and we had tea. Mr Searle didn’t put in an appearance, and though I thought it strange, I didn’t feel alarmed.”
“Does he often go away without saying where he is going?”
“Almost never. That’s why I thought it strange.”
“You’ve had no letter or message of any sort from him?”
Carlotta looked at him with the tolerant glance one might bestow on an uninteresting but harmless lunatic.
“If I had,” she said, coldly, “I should not now be investigating his absence. No, I have had no letter or message of any sort whatever from him.”
Inspector Mullins had rather expected to run up against a series of blank walls, but he felt discouraged all the same at this first one.
He turned back to Austin and asked him his errand in the house at that particular time.
“I had promised to telephone a friend at half past four,” he said, and then paused, with an air of chagrin.
The Inspector pounced on his prey.
“Yes, sir,” he said, “but I think you said you didn’t know just what time it was that you went in to telephone.”
“I didn’t. My watch had stopped, I neglected to wind it, and I went in the house and telephoned on the chance of getting my friend.”
“Well, no. There was no response at all to my call.”
“You mean no response from Central?”
“No response from anybody. I think something ailed the instrument. I had let it drop to the floor shortly before,—the cord was awfully twisted,—and maybe that’s why I got no answer. I gave it up and went back outdoors.”
“There’s a large clock in the hall; you didn’t notice the time?”
“No, I was so annoyed that I couldn’t get my party, I thought of nothing else.”
“Who was your party?”
“Tom Marshall, in Boston.”
“His number, please?”
Austin gave it willingly enough, and after a moment’s silence he burst forth,
“Inspector Mullins, I know you are doing your duty and all that. But can’t you see for yourself that all these piffling questions get you nowhere? We want to find my brother, who may be quite safe and attending to some business matter, or who may be in trouble or danger,—or worse. Now, our separate stories are of no importance. Especially those of us who were not out on the lawn when Duncan came into the house.”
“That’s true enough,” Mullins agreed.
“And so,” Austin went on, “suppose you turn your attention to finding a missing man, instead of wasting time on insignificant trifles.”
“Well, you see, Mr Searle,” Mullins proceeded, “the finding of the missing man may depend on the insignificant trifles. The matter is too serious to waste time in any way. You must all realize that the circumstances are grave and the outlook terrifying. An unexplained disappearance of a sound and sane man is a problem to be attacked with all the power and skill at our command. While it is true Mr Searle may, at any moment, walk in at the door, yet we must take action without regard to that possibility.”
“And it is the merest possibility, not at all a probability,” put in the sergeant detective, who had sat passively listening to his chief. “Disappearance cases are rare, and one with such simple, or apparently simple conditions is almost unique. For a man to walk into his own home, in broad daylight, and not be seen again, is well nigh unbelievable.”
Canby was a clear-eyed, straight-spoken chap, and he turned to Carlotta as he spoke, seeming to accept her as head of the house.
This attitude did not please Austin, who with no feeling of jealousy or sensitiveness, merely thought a man should be at the helm.
“Leave it to me, Carly,” he said, as she was about to speak. “Don’t say anything at all.”
“Nonsense, Austin,” she returned, calmly, “I shall speak when I choose and say what I like.”
“You bet you will,” returned her brother-in-law: “but I’m telling you for your own good, don’t talk too much.”
“No, don’t,” agreed Booth, and the two men looked at her imploringly.
But Canby smiled at her, in his wide-eyed, boyish way, and said,
“You haven’t much choice in the matter, Mrs Searle. You are supposed only to answer the questions we ask you, and if you have anything further to offer that might prove helpful in finding your husband, I have no doubt you will be glad to tell us.”
“Of course,” said Carlotta. “Now, please don’t attempt to spare my feelings but tell me frankly what are your suspicions, or even your fears as to Mr Searle’s fate.”
“Since you put it that way, ma’am,” Mullins started off, “I will be outspoken. In case of an unnatural death, there are three theories. Suicide, accident and murder. When there is no evidence of any of these, we must assume, regarding a disappearance, that it is intentional, unwilling or unconscious. I mean Mr Searle went away of his own free will, or he was forced to go, or he was taken away unconscious.”
“The first,” Canby supplemented, “is his right and privilege, the other two imply foul play.”
“If any one present,” Mullins said, sternly, “knows of any reason why Mr Searle should have gone away as he did, of his own accord, it is his bounden duty to say so. To withhold such information is against the law and liable to severe punishment.”
If he had hoped to frighten his audience, he signally failed.
No one looked self-conscious or embarrassed, nor did any one look accusingly at another. All seemed interested, but without knowledge of the matter.
Canby covertly watched Mrs Colvin, while Mullins no less closely eyed Carlotta. But they gained no iota of information or suggestion, and Mullins sighed to himself as he decided they were a hard-boiled lot.
The slang term was entirely inappropriate to the rather conventional group before him, but to him it meant merely that they were not to be easily disconcerted.
Nor were they. They gave no impression of a lack of feeling regarding the missing man, but they were quite apparently of no mind to discuss that phase of the tragedy with strangers.
They told simply and straightforwardly of the exhaustive search they had made on Saturday, and Austin added that doubtless the police would also want to make search themselves.
“Probably,” said Mullins. “But I’m glad you hunted the place so well at first. Of course, if you had called us at once—”
“What more could you have done?” demanded Booth. “We had no idea of a mystery, and Mr Duncan Searle is peculiarly averse to publicity of any sort.”
“Had he any secret worries?” Mullins asked Carlotta, sticking to his principle of addressing her always.
“Mr Searle is not a man to worry,” Carlotta said, reverting to the present tense, and surveying the Inspector so calmly that he almost wriggled. “He has no troubles that I know of, and if they are secret, I can scarcely be expected to be aware of them.”
“No, ma’am, of course not. Now this work of his, his shop, you know. Just what is it?”
“I will try to explain it, but I am so ignorant myself of its details I can scarcely make it clear. But he is trying to make,—or to perfect, the ideal local anaesthetic.”
Mullins nodded. This wasn’t so bad, he had heard of anaesthetics.
“You see,” Carlotta went on, “it calls for low toxicity in the concentration employed, it must be stable in aqueous solution and sterilizable by heat; nonirritating and painless; compatible with epinephrine and efficient in dilute solutions.”
By this time the two policemen were helpless wrecks, while Austin and Ronny Booth were endeavoring to preserve their gravity.
But Carlotta had no humorous intent. She so often heard Duncan telling of his hopes and expectations, that the technical terms he used were quite familiar to her, and while not of a full understanding, she knew her ground as far as she trod on it.
But it was as so much Greek to the two policemen and not entirely intelligible to the rest of her hearers.
Austin, partly to air his knowledge and partly to confuse further the gaping Mullins, added some references to butyn, procaine and derivatives of benzoic acid.
Whereupon, Ronald, not to be outdone, declared that the very newest materials used were tutocaine, and psicaine, and expatiated a little on their effects.
It was then that Everett Brooks spoke up, and said frankly that they were wasting time.
“I am here,” he told them, “to be of any help I can, but I know nothing of these details of Mr Searle’s scientific research, and I cannot see that it has any bearing on the matter of his disappearance. If I can be of service, well and good, if not, I should like to go back home as soon as possible. Inspector, what will be your procedure regarding the letters and papers of Mr Searle? Do you propose to investigate them?”
“Oh, no,” cried Carlotta, looking horror-stricken. “I refuse to allow my husband’s papers or belongings to be disturbed. You have no reason to assume anything dreadful has happened to him. I wanted Mr Brooks here for advice, not for legal investigation.”
“But much may be learned from an examination of his desk, and especially his mail for the last two days,” suggested Leonard Colvin, who said little, but was an interested spectator.
“I think Mrs Searle is right,” Austin said. “We have no real reason to think Duncan is disabled or incapacitated. We have no right to touch his papers until we have some definite evidence of his inability to come home. I admit it seems incredible that he should remain away, sending no word, if it is in his power to do otherwise, yet in my estimation it is too soon to assume his permanent absence.”
“Well, there are mighty few explanations possible,” Mullins informed them. “In a disappearance case, the motive is usually money troubles, domestic infelicity or insanity.”
“None of which fits this case,” Carlotta returned, with a calm glance at the Inspector. “Mr Searle has no money trouble, no domestic worry of any sort and his mind is as clear as my own.”
“So far as you know,” amended Mullins. “And doubtless that’s right, Mrs Searle, but we have to proceed with an open mind, and deal with anything that may turn up.”
“And suppose nothing turns up,” suggested Norman Bradford, who was fidgety and wanted to go home.
“Then we can only wait,” the Inspector replied. “Now, Mr Brooks, I think your presence will not be needed here to-morrow, unless there are new developments. Publicity is, of course, a necessity, and when the papers and radio spread the news, we may hope for some helpful information.”
“Newspapers! Radio!” cried a wailing feminine voice, but it was Erminie’s, not Carlotta’s.
The latter sat, with the expressionless face of a sphinx, and showed none of the nervousness and excitement that marked Mrs Colvin.
“Do be quiet, Erminie,” admonished her husband. “There’s enough doing without your having hysterics.”
“I haven’t anything of the sort,” she retorted, angrily, “and I think the situation is enough to call for something beside tranquillity!”
“Where were you when Mr Searle left the party on the lawn and came into the house?”
“I?” said Erminie, staring at him. “Why, I was on the lawn, with the crowd. In fact, I was at the tea table. Mrs Searle was not there, and I told the butler to bring me the things and I would make the tea.”
“And did you?”
“Why, yes, but hardly anybody wanted tea. Mr Booth went off to get—”
“Never mind Mr Booth, he can tell his own story. Was Mr Duncan Searle there then?”
“Yes, he was grousing because his wife wasn’t there. He went in the house to look for her.”
“And you didn’t see him again?”
“Who was on the lawn, then, when Mr Duncan Searle went into the house to look for his wife?”
“Why, all the crowd— Oh, no, Austin had gone in the house, too.”
“And Mr Booth had also gone in?”
“You said you’d get his story from him,” Erminie said, pertly, but the Inspector paid no attention to the point.
“Mr Booth had also gone in?” he repeated, inquiringly.
“Yes. He went to his room to fetch some stuff he had.”
“Leaving Mr and Miss Bradford—”
“No, Mr Bradford had driven back home for his sister’s bag.”
“Leaving then,” the Inspector glanced about, as if counting noses, “only Miss Bradford and your husband?”
“Guess that’s about right. I thought there were more out there.”
“You went in at which door?”
“The back door,—the South door. It opens on the lawn where we were.”
“What room did you enter first?”
“The lounge—this room,” Erminie replied. She was paying careful attention now.
“Who was in this room?”
“Nobody. I was hunting a fan, but I didn’t see any, so I went back.”
“You didn’t pass into any other room?”
“No—well, yes, I stepped into the dining room a moment.”
“To look for the fan?”
“Er—yes. I didn’t touch anything!”
Erminie had a vague resemblance of detective stories that emphasized the fact that nothing must ever be touched, at any time, anywhere.
“Why didn’t you touch anything?”
“Why, I don’t know. I guess there was nothing particular to touch.”
“Inspector,” interrupted Ronald Booth, “you know your own business, but are you entitled to ask these questions that seem to me to belong to an inquest or a trial by jury.”
Brooks looked up with a slight smile, as if, he, too, thought the Inspector was a little overdoing it.
Mullins’ heavy face reddened, but he stood his ground.
“I don’t think, sir, I have exceeded my rights, but you must see for yourself that these matters have to be inquired into if we are to get a line on the work ahead of us.”
“That’s true,” Colvin said, in his direct way. “I was on the lawn when my wife stepped inside the house, and I can tell you there was no one else there then, except Miss Bradford.”
Dorothy nodded. The girl was enthralled with the whole scene. The dramatic side of it appealed to her, and she was too inexperienced to know the real possibilities of tragedy that lay ahead.
“Then,” summed up Mullins, “when Mr Duncan Searle went into the house for the last time, so far as we know, he was seen by three people on the lawn, Mr and Mrs Colvin and Miss Bradford.”
“That is correct, so far as we know,” Colvin agreed.
“And Mrs Colvin returned shortly?”
“In a moment or two,” said Colvin, carelessly.
“Oh, no,” exclaimed Dorothy, “she was gone quite some time. Don’t you remember, Mr Colvin, we had to entertain each other? And both Austin and Ronny Booth came back before Erminie did.”
“We all came back pretty much the same time,” declared Booth, wishing the girl would keep still. Not that she was divulging anything, but Ronny wasn’t for telling the police all he knew.
“Well, then Mrs Searle came,—”
“Yes, but I came first,” Norman Bradford put in. “So then we were all there but our host and hostess, and in a minute, Mrs Searle came.”
“And Mr Searle didn’t come at all,” said young Canby, with an air of finality. “Does it not seem then, that something happened to him between the time he left the lawn party and the time you had all returned to it, but him?”
“It does seem that way,” Austin said, speaking slowly, “and therefore we must find out what happened. If that means publicity, and of course it does, we’ll have to stand it.”
“Of course,” Carlotta agreed with him. “What is the first thing to be done, Inspector?”
The tables seemed turned. Now that the two principal members of the Searle family present declared themselves ready for the annoyances of publicity, the authorities seemed less insistent.
“You see, Mrs Searle,” Mullins demurred, “we don’t know that anything has happened. We don’t know positively that Mr Searle has gone away for good.”
“That’s just the point,” put in Leonard Colvin. “That must be learned first. It’s all foolishness this searching the house and grounds. We’re not playing a game of hide and seek. None of us had shut Duncan up in a dark closet or locked him in a turret room. To be sure the place must be searched thoroughly— I understand it has been—but also, we must look farther afield. What’s the report from the Mickleham person?”
“Nothing,” Austin replied. “I mean, Mr Mickleham says Duncan wasn’t at his house on Friday at all.”
“Then we must look elsewhere. The publicity can’t begin too soon. It should have been started at once.”
Somehow, no one resented Colvin’s dictatorial attitude. He was a sound reasoner and a clear thinker. Moreover, he kept his own counsel. If he objected to the friendship that was known to exist between his wife and Duncan Searle, he never voiced that objection, save in some whimsical or facetious way. And again, forceful though Colvin was, he was no match for his wife. Erminie did as she pleased, she was a law unto herself. Her pink cheeks and gold curls and blue eyes won her way for her against any obstacles, and observers remarked that she had Leonard completely under her thumb.
“I wish I knew what you meant,” she said now. “What could have happened to Duncan? What is it you’re all afraid of?”
No one else replying, Norman Booth said, gently;
“We scarcely know ourselves, Erminie. But I suppose we have vague fears that Duncan was attacked by some evil doers. Carried off by abductors or—or hurt, maybe, by gunmen—”
“You mean murdered!” and Erminie looked straight at him.
“There is that possibility, Mrs Colvin,” Detective Canby said: “but we have no slightest trace of evidence that it is the truth. In these days of violence and ruthlessness, awful deeds occur. But more often in the cities. We can’t expect such things in this quiet countryside. New England is not Chicago.”
“It matters little what we expect, or suspect,” Mullins declared; “the thing is to find out what happened or what could have happened to Mr Searle. Have you some good photographs of him, Mrs Searle?”
“Yes, lots of them. Both snapshots and fine portraits. I will have them brought.”
She rang for Warner, and asked him to bring the photographs.
“Also, a description,” suggested Canby, and he made notes as one after another mentioned Duncan’s characteristics.
“Tall and slender,” Austin said, Booth added; “Not very slender, well set up I’d call him.”
“He is heavier than he looks,” Colvin stated, in his positive way. “And a handsome man, as you can see from the pictures.”
“As to his coloring,” asked Canby, not getting that from the photographs.
“Dark hair and eyes,” Carlotta said; “a good deal tanned, just now. He is deliberate of action but never uncertain or vague as to what he intends to do. He has perfect manners, but he allows himself occasional lapses—”
“I’ll say he does,” chimed in Austin, who though on the best of terms with his brother, had vivid remembrances of wordy wars.
“It’s the physical appearance we want,” Canby reminded them.
Carlotta thought a moment.
“He has a fine, upright carriage,” she said, “but of late I have thought he stooped a little. He is so engrossed in his laboratory work, that sometimes he bends over it for hours at a time.”
“What sort of hat was he wearing?”
“I’ve no idea,” Carlotta said, and Erminie observed that he had no hat on when she saw him.
“No, he didn’t,” Austin confirmed. “We none of us wear hats, when we’re around the place.”
“Then you think he went away with no hat on?”
“How do I know?” Austin almost shouted. “I don’t know that he went away. I don’t know but he collected a hat. I don’t know anything about it.”
“Can any one tell us if a hat is missing?” Mullins asked, with an alert glance about. “Has he a valet?”
“No,” Carlotta answered. “Mr Searle is not fond of being waited on. Mellon and Warner see to his clothes, and my maid looks after his laundry and mending.”
“And can any of these you mention inform us as to his hats?”
“I’ll see,” and she rang for Grant.
The ladies’ maid looked around curiously, as if glad of an opportunity to see a bit of what was going on. She took Carlotta’s orders and went off to see what she could learn.
But her later report was that no hat of Mr Duncan’s was missing.
“Then he went away bareheaded,” said Colvin, after Grant had departed.
“He wouldn’t think about it,” Austin said. “If he was kidnapped, absurd as the thought seems,—if he was forced to go away with his captors, the hat question would mean nothing to him, and probably nothing to them. You can’t suggest any reason for his going, except abduction, can you, Inspector?”
“No. But it seems more probable he was made unconscious first. Then, perhaps put in a motor car and carried off.”
“But I can’t visualize him,” Austin frowned; “I can’t seem to see Duncan alone, out at the front of the house. Why was he there?”
“He may have had a note, a secret summons to be there at a given time.”
“Oh, no, not necessarily anything unpleasant. Maybe a promise of a new rosebush, or some information for his work.”
“At least, that sounds a little plausible,” said Erminie, brightening a trifle.
But Dorothy Bradford looked more grave.
“No,” she said, “it isn’t plausible at all. If that had happened, he’d be back home long ago. Any innocent matter that kept him away two full days and nights, he would have explained by telephone or telegraph, or somehow.”
“Right you are, Dot,” Austin agreed. “You always do hit the nail on the head. Now, as I see it, there’s positively nothing we can do, but to open up our publicity campaign to-morrow morning. What about offering a reward?”
“Wait a few days,” counseled Brooks. “The radio may bring immediate information, and the newspapers will doubtless be a help. I shall go back to Pittsfield to-night, and will come again when you summon me. You still feel you object to opening his desk, Mrs Searle?”
“Wait a day or two. As you say, we may get news within the next twenty-four hours.”
“You are leaving out the very plausible theory that Searle may have been—er—knocked down accidentally by a motor.” This from Booth. “Granting that he was out in front of the house, which, I think, we must assume, he might have made a misstep, and a passing motor might have run him down, and, if living he may have been taken to a hospital. Had he distinguishing cards or letters on him?”
“Probably not cards or letters,” Austin said. “He had on a Palm Beach suit, and a belt. I doubt if he carried any papers.”
“No,” said Carlotta. “He never wears rings and his watch is upstairs on his dressing table. Cuff-links, he doubtless had on, and collar studs, but no other jewelry.”
“No chance that he was attacked for purpose of robbery, then.” The Inspector shook his head as he voiced this deduction, but the thought had been in some minds, and now that theory was nullified.
On Monday morning Austin and Ronald Booth were alone at breakfast. The lawyer had gone home the night before and the neighbors left before the police did.
The men said little, and Warner waited on them in silence.
“You people are going to be grilled to-day,” Austin said, looking at the footman.
“Yes, sir. The Inspector told us to be ready at ten o’clock.”
“All right, Warner. Tell the truth in reply to whatever you are asked, but don’t be over anxious to volunteer information. By which I only mean that unless you are very sure of your facts, you’re liable to get tripped up. So don’t obtrude your own ideas or opinions.”
“No, Mr Austin.”
Booth took a quick glance at the face of the man as he spoke, but he saw nothing to corroborate his half formed notion that Warner knew more than he had told. As they sat over their coffee, David Murray came along the hall and into the breakfast room.
“Had to bob over,” he announced, apologetically; “couldn’t stand it another minute. No news, of any sort, I suppose?”
“No, Mr Murray,” Booth answered; “have you seen the papers?”
“Yes, they rushed it through, didn’t they? Well, it was the only possible course. You ought to get a ransom letter to-day.”
“I daresay,” returned Austin, without much show of interest.
“Whatcha going to do about that, eh?” continued the old man.
“Can’t decide till I see the letter. Of course, in a way, I am acting head of the house, but really, Carlotta is that. I do what I can to relieve her of matters better looked after by men. Though she has as much good sense and wise judgment—”
“As any three men,” Dave Murray interrupted and completed the sentence.
“That’s right,” agreed Booth. “I say, Mr Murray, it seems too bad we couldn’t have had the benefit of your nephew’s advice, since he was right here.”
“Well, to put it plainly, he felt he wasn’t longed for as an advisory board.”
“And he was quite right,” Austin declared. “Why, man, this isn’t a case for a detective. It’s an accident of some sort—”
“Don’t be silly!” said Dave Murray, with all the fine scorn of a slangy youngster. “Accident! You’ll have to take it a little more seriously my boy, before you’re through with it.”
“Austin is serious enough,” Ronald broke in, hastily; “but we all feel it is an accident.”
“Motor accident, I s’pose.”
“Probably nothin’! If a car had knocked that man down, either a hit and runner, or a gentleman, there’d been such a hullaballoo as you’d heard all over this place, big as it is. No, sir. There’s dirty work at the crossroads. And you had a chance at the finest detective on the continent, and you didn’t like his face. Maybe you don’t want to learn the truth!”
“There, there, Uncle Dave,” said Austin, with a tolerant smile, “we have to follow our own judgment, you see.”
Booth was surprised at the mild attitude of his friend. He expected Austin to flare up at the other’s insinuations.
But everybody in and around Chaldea tolerated and humored Dave Murray, or Uncle Dave, as the younger generation called him.
“You’re called on the telephone, Mr Austin,” Mellon said, from the doorway.
“News, maybe!” and Searle hurried to the instrument.
He came back looking decidedly puzzled.
“That was Charley Carman,” he said, “a friend of ours in Boston. He says he saw Duncan in Boston on Saturday, walking along Tremont Street.”
“Did he speak with him?” asked Murray, eagerly.
“No, he says he was hurried,—I mean Carman was, —and Duncan was nearly a block away—”
“It wasn’t Duncan,” Murray shook his head. “Nothing easier than to mistake a man a block away—”
“Nonsense, Uncle Dave, don’t be so positive! Why shouldn’t it be Duncan? Charley knows him as well as I do, and he isn’t mistaking him. Anyway, we must follow it up, and at once. It’s encouraging to have something to do.”
“Mullins will be here in a few moments,” Booth suggested, “better see what he says.”
“And Carlotta,” added Murray. “Where is she?”
“She doesn’t come down to breakfast—”
“Send for her then. Tell her of this, before the police come.”
Carlotta came at the summons, and greeted Murray pleasantly.
They told her of the telephone message from Boston, and she became interested at once.
“One of you boys ought to go right down there. Can’t you go, Ronny?”
“Of course, dear, if you want me to.”
The word slipped out inadvertently, but Carlotta, with her wondrous beauty suddenly illuminated by the news over the telephone, was a woman to be called dear.
Just then, Mullins and Canby came and the story was told to them.
“Canby will go,” said the Inspector, briefly. “You may be wanted here, Mr Booth.”
Getting the address of Austin’s friend, Detective Canby set forth on the first one of many similar errands.
The young man had been on disappearance cases before.
“All alike,” he said, to himself. “There’ll be forty ’leven calls saying our missing friend has been seen here, there and everywhere. And maybe one of ’em will be right, and maybe it won’t. Like as not he is in Boston, or maybe Pittsfield, or New York, or Chicago, or San Francisco,—well, I s’pose he couldn’t get to those places yet,—but he’ll be seen and seen again before he is really located,—if any!”
To follow Canby on his adventure, it may be said, he reached Boston duly, and had no trouble in finding Mr Carman.
He was an Insurance broker, and was ensconced in a well appointed office.
He greeted Canby and listened carefully to his errand.
“Oh, yes, it was Duncan Searle I saw,” said Carman, after Canby had put the question. “I’ve known the man for years. There’s no mistaking his gait and figure. I wasn’t near enough to see his face clearly, but I recognized the man at once. I was coming along Park Street—”
“Tremont Street,” corrected Canby.
The other stared. “Park Street,” he repeated, and Canby said to himself, “Discrepancy number one.” He was a chap who always looked for and usually found uncertainties or variations in the stories told him in good faith.
“Which way was he going?” he continued. “Toward Beacon Street,” Carman said, “but now you’ve mixed me up so, I can’t remember just where I did see him.”
“Take your time. Think slowly. There’s no hurry, but the matter is important.”
“Yes, I gathered that from the paper,” the Boston man said, a little dryly. “Well, that’s about all. I saw him, not near enough to speak, but quite able to recognize him.”
“What was he wearing?”
“Well, now, I’m not sure I can tell you that. I didn’t notice him in any special way, you see; not dreaming I was going to be called to account.”
“Don’t put it like that, Mr Carman. I’m sure you want to help in any way you can to find Mr Searle.”
“Oh, of course, I do. Why, I should say he had on something dark,—gray, maybe. Inconspicuous, anyhow.”
“Not a Palm Beach suit, then?”
“Why, yes. I believe it was. Duncan was all for good clothes, I remember.”
“When have you seen him lately, except on Saturday?”
“Lordy, not for ages. I seldom see the old boy, though we’re good pals. Yes, it must be full two years since I saw him.”
“But he looked just as usual?”
“Just the same. A trifle thinner, maybe. But the same old two and sixpence.”
Canby happened to know that Searle had put on a lot of avoirdupois in the last two years, and he began to lose interest in Charles Carman.
“And his hat?” he asked. “What sort had he on?”
“A—oh, yes,—a brown straw. That’s right, one of those fine brown straws.”
“You could see it was a fine straw, so far away?”
“Well, I mean those new hats, all the smart men are wearing—”
“They’re mostly made of fine straw, you mean?”
“Yes, yes, just that. Odd, to wear that hat with that suit. Duncan always was a most careful dresser.”
“Oh, well, never mind the hat. Now, how can I find this man?”
“Searle? I don’t know, I’m sure. Can I be of use?”
“Indeed you can.”
Whereupon Canby arranged that a notice should be put in the afternoon paper and also broadcast, to the effect that if Mr Duncan Searle would call upon Mr Charles Carman, it would be of inestimable benefit to many interested friends.
“Awful rubbish,” Canby told himself, as he left the Carman office and made for the railroad station. “If Searle is keeping quiet purposely, he won’t pay any attention to us. And if he’s forcibly confined, he won’t be allowed to!”
Also, he further reflected, he didn’t believe that it was Duncan Searle at all. Yet the chance must not be missed, and feeling he had clinched the matter by the plan he had made, he started cheerily back to Chaldea.
Mullins accepted his report and told him he had done well.
Not so, David Murray. He declared it was sloppy work and if his nephew had been on the job, he would have traced down the individual with the light suit and brown straw hat, before he shook Boston’s sacred dust from his feet.
“The hat settles it,” exclaimed Erminie, who with Leonard had come over late in the afternoon to learn any possible news. “Duncan never would wear a brown straw, would he, Carlotta?”
“He never has. But we can’t tell. Suppose circumstances brought him to Boston without any hat. Mightn’t he just run in to a hat shop and buy the first one that fitted him?”
“Clever thinking, Mrs Searle,” Mullins said; “and like as not that’s just what happened. You all say he wore no hat when he left this house, and so he had to get a hat somewhere. Might have been before he reached Boston, at that.”
The telephone rang, and though Austin was called, Inspector Mullins took up the instrument.
“Austin Searle speaking,” they heard him say, and Austin looked a little annoyed.
But after a few more sentences were spoken and the telephone replaced in its cradle, they listened, awestricken to the report.
“As you may have gathered,” Mullins said, looking apprehensively at the women present, “the speaker was, or purported to be, one of the kidnapers. He made plans for the payment of one hundred thousand dollars, whereupon, he said, Mr Duncan Searle would be sent home at once and unharmed. If his plans were not carried out to the very letter, Mr Searle would—well, he threatened violent action. Have you people any intention of meeting such demands?”
“Not unless we have proof of Duncan’s identity,” Austin declared. “The trick is too easy; unless we are satisfied of the validity of their claim—”
“Of course, you won’t give in to their demands!” exclaimed Leonard Colvin. “It’s too transparent! Anybody can call up and demand a fortune.”
“But, Len, what else can they do?” and Erminie’s lovely face wrinkled up in a burst of sobs. “Do pay it, —oh, do, Carlotta! Mustn’t she, Austin?”
“It’s something to think over,” Austin began, but Erminie went on;
“No, no! There isn’t time to think. They may,— they may kill him!”
She didn’t faint, that is not a gesture of to-day, but she did fall back weakly in her chair, like a limp bundle of grief.
Carlotta passed her smelling salts to Dorothy, who applied them to Erminie’s pretty little nose so insistently, that she soon was completely restored.
“One more trick like that, and you go home,” Leonard told her.
“What is the exact plan?” asked Booth.
“Only that a notice be put in the Pittsfield evening papers, or—”
“It’s too late for that,” Austin said. “Why did you say you were I, Inspector?”
“Forgive it, won’t you? But the speaker refused to talk to anyone but Mr Austin Searle, and so, I thought that the best and quickest way out. Beside, it proved it was somebody who didn’t know you, or he would have known it was not your voice.”
“Even if we want to put a notice in the paper, we can’t do it now,” Carlotta said, thoughtfully. “What then?”
“Mrs Searle,” Canby said, in his concise way, “that isn’t the kidnaper of your husband who talked on the telephone. Nor was it Mr Searle whom the Boston man saw.”
“I know, Mr Canby,” Carlotta returned, “that you feel, and rightly, there will be many false alarms, many faked messages. But, as I see it, these must be tracked down, lest we lose the one message that means the truth.”
“Oh, we won’t neglect any of them. We’ll put a notice in to-morrow’s paper, saying we want proof.”
“How could they give us proof?”
“Oh, in lots of ways. The simplest would be, if they really have Mr Searle in custody, to let him speak over the telephone to you. That would settle his identity.”
Carlotta shuddered. It seemed awful to have the young man speak so casually of Duncan’s talking to her on the telephone. Who knew where Duncan was or what had become of him? How was any one to find out? For her part, she didn’t believe those policemen would ever find him, at the rate of progress they were making.
She was roused from her reverie by the Inspector’s summing up of what he had learned from the servants.
It was not much, Mullins seemed to think the staff of the Searle household a rather stupid lot.
But as Austin pertinently remarked, how could the servants know anything of the affair, when the family themselves had no inkling of what had happened.
“I can’t visualize a motor car coming into the grounds,” said the perplexed Inspector. “Still less, can I see Mr Searle walking down the road to where it was waiting. Why didn’t the dog bark?”
Canby repressed a smile. He was an inveterate reader of detective stories, and always there was raised the question of the barking dog.
“We have no dog,” Carlotta’s resonant voice told him. She was so musical, so full of music, that her speaking tones were rhythmical as well as melodious. “You see, we have no dogs or cats because of the birds. We are all devoted to our birds, so a cat is out of the question. And dogs, too, are dangerous. So as neither Mr Searle nor myself are animal lovers, we protect our birds from all possible harm.”
“Very wise, too,” commented Mullins, “but it seems queer to think of a place like this without a dog or two.”
“Also,” put in Leonard Colvin, “a dog would be of help in tracking Duncan. He could tell us, maybe, which way he went when he was taken away.”
“Or went away of his own accord,” supplemented Austin. “I can’t see Duncan carried off like a baby from a perambulator.”
“No,” agreed Booth, “but a clever kidnaper could trump up a yarn that would tempt him to go away quietly. Say, the visitor, let’s assume one, told him he had a load of rambler roses, like the Mickleham lot, and would he step down the road a few yards, and look at them.”
“It might be,” Colvin said. “Duncan is mad about those flowers, especially the new varieties. Then, you mean, when he got down the road a piece, the men got him into the truck, or whatever vehicle they had, and gagged him and carried him off.”
“Yes,” Booth nodded. “Pure theory, of course, but what else have we? We have no evidence, no clews, no motive,—we have nothing but theory, look at it any way you will.”
“Then, if there’s nothing more to be said or done at the moment, may I be excused?” Carlotta asked; “I am worn out, and I want a breath of outdoor air, and then a rest in my room.”
“Certainly, Mrs Searle,” Mullins said; “I will have a little further conversation with your brother-in-law, and then we will go.”
Dave Murray and the Colvins went away together, and Carlotta stepped out to the South door, and started to walk slowly across the lawn.
Ronald Booth followed her, and drawing her hand within his arm, walked by her side, down toward the Ravines.
“How I wish I could help you,” he said, at last, as they entered the small group of white birches that marked the beginning of the path down to the falls.
“It’s a help just to see you, now and then,” she whispered, “but I feel we dare not risk it further. It would be better for you to go home. Austin doesn’t need you, and, too, he is very keen sighted and quick minded. One glance at us, off guard, and he would know the whole story.”
“But, dear heart, there isn’t any whole story. We’ve done nothing wrong,—we don’t propose to do anything wrong.”
“That’s the whole story,” she said, with a ghost of a smile. “But I’m afraid it is more obvious to other people than you think.”
“Do you think Duncan suspected? Carlotta, I have the queerest feelings about him. It is almost as if he was round about us, hovering near, you know—”
“Do you think he is dead?”
The words, in the lowest possible tone, were fraught with a tense agony and Carlotta drew nearer to Booth, in a mere impulse of human contact.
It was more than he could stand, and for the first time he let his arms go round her, let his lips find hers, and let the grim barrier between them give way.
A few seconds only she stood, dazed with the glory of it, then, gently moving away from him, she glanced about.
“Ronald! How could we? How dare we! Let us go back to the house at once.”
“You knew it all the time,—my Carlotta, you knew I loved you—didn’t you?”
“Oh, I don’t know—I can’t think— Ronny, I am very tired.”
“You poor darling, of course you are! Yes, we will go back. Are you all right?”
“No, I am all wrong. How could you surprise my secret? I had no idea you knew, or even dreamed I—I cared for you.”
“I didn’t,—not until these last few moments. Oh, my love,—”
“Hush!” two long, slim fingers were laid gently across his lips. “Don’t you know, don’t you see, we must now, more than ever be careful—careful is too mild a word,—dear, you must go away.”
“Oh, must I?” He gave a little happy laugh. “But we will be discreet.”
“Oh, if Duncan—”
“Never mention his name, Carlotta. He must not be spoken of between us. I am yours and you are mine for all time, in good report or evil report. Nothing can come between us now. But we will be careful, that goes without saying. No, Austin won’t catch on. We’ll see to that. And, too, he’s getting so wrapped up in the little Bradford girl—”
“Never mind Austin. Think of Duncan. Oh, Ronald, he may be at the house when we get back.”
“He won’t. But I hope to heaven he’ll turn up.
“Then we can arrange matters, and see what we can do.”
“Yes, that’s what I mean, divorce. Why be afraid of words? I am sorry indeed, to have to consider such a sordid question, but since it is the only gate to our future happiness, we must clear it at all events.”
“Come on, now. Back to the house, and then I’ll go in my room for a while. I’ll see you at dinner, but not before.”
They walked along with the same casual manner they had always shown, and as they neared the house, Austin joined them.
“There have been more messages,” he told them. “Three, in the last fifteen minutes. Two on the telephone and a telegram. Both the telephoning gentlemen said to put our acceptances of their offers in the morning papers. The telegram was a little different, but is undoubtedly a hoax.”
“Why should there be hoaxes?” asked Carlotta, looking blank.
“Gosh!” remarked Austin, “you women are an ignorant lot! Well, my child, wicked men send us these fraudulent messages, in hopes that we will fall for them and arrange to pay them large sums of money, as ransom. Now they can’t all have Duncan locked in their hall bedrooms, can they?”
“No,” said Carlotta, uncomprehendingly. “But, of course, you investigate fully before you pay, don’t you?”
“We do, but they don’t know that we will. Oh, yes, and Mullins was telephoned to, that three people in Pittsfield, prominent citizens, I believe, saw and talked with Duncan on Sunday,—yesterday.”
“I knew there’d be a lot of this sort of thing,” Booth observed, “but I didn’t think they’d get at it so soon. Everybody gone, Austin?”
“Yes, though I almost had to push Canby out. He’s the limit of energy, that chap. I told Mellon to serve dinner at the usual time, Carly. I think we’ll keep up our morale better if we keep to our regular routine.”
“All right. I’ll join you then, now I’m going to rest.”
“Yes, and,—oh, I say,—I asked Dorothy over for a rubber of Bridge. So lonely of evenings, you know.”
“I’m glad you did, Austin,” and Carlotta went slowly indoors and up the wide staircase.
Austin, too, went in the house, and Ronald threw himself into a lounge chair on the South lawn.
To him came Warner, with the offer of a cocktail.
“No,” said Booth, “I’ll wait until they are served before dinner. Did the Inspector riddle you through and through, Warner?”
“Well, no sir, but he did dig out one bit of information that I wish I’d had the wit to keep to myself.”
“What was it?”
“That Mr Duncan told Mr Austin he would support him alone, but not if he had a wife.”
“Forget it,” said Booth, sternly.
“Yes, sir,” said Warner.
The next day, Tuesday, brought a repetition of the influx of messages by wire and mail.
Canby came early, and with Austin and Booth he opened letters and telegrams until they were bewildered at the number and variety of them.
“They’re usually all alike,” Canby said, “but these are of every type imaginable. Here’s one from a woman, who says Mr Searle came to her house late Friday night, asking for shelter and refreshment. Says he is still there, and she will tell more, if we offer her a reward.”
“Where is she at?” asked Austin, not deeply interested. “Some nut, I suppose.”
“Miss Louisa Rivers, General Post Office, Pittsfield.”
“Hardly worth looking into, is it?”
“These must all be looked into, Mr Searle,” Canby told him. “But if they continue to pour in so rapidly, you’ll have to get an assistant or two. Have you considered a reward?”
“Yes; Mrs Searle approves of offering a good sum. She’d like you people to attend to it. Will you confer with her?”
“Yes, of course. And shall I get you a secretary or clerical assistant of some sort?”
“I wish you would. I can’t spend all my time slitting envelopes, and I don’t want my friend here bored to death with such work.”
“I’ll see to it,” and Canby made a note of the matter. “Now, Mr Searle, will you tell me a little of your brother’s finances? He is a rich man, I suppose.”
“Yes, of course. He inherited the paternal wealth, my father thought me a ne’er-do-well, and he has made a lot of money from two or three of his inventions. He’s a genius, you know. In the chemical line. He has invented or discovered several therapeutic combinations, that he commercialized and put on the market.”
“And he is still deeply interested in such work?”
“Oh, yes. Duncan’s laboratory work is the very breath of life to him.”
“You have no thought, then, of his committing suicide?”
“Lord, no! Last thing he’d think of. That so, Ron?”
“So far as I know,” said Booth, but he spoke with less positiveness than his friend. “Any way, he wouldn’t want to leave this new work of his unfinished. But to my mind, suicide is not entirely out of the question. It seems so much more believable than abduction or accident. Say, he had discovered he had an incurable ailment, cancer, or something. A man would rather go out, than live to face such a fate.”
“But in that case,” Canby said, “we must have found his body. A man can’t compass his own death in such a way that there’s no sign of his remains.”
“That also applies to murder,” Booth went on. “I don’t want to be a calamity howler, but I do think Duncan is dead. I don’t say this before the women. I don’t want to shock them unnecessarily. But I do think, Canby, that you ought to consider that view.”
“Not murdered on the premises, then? I understand you searched all the estate.”
“All the house and other buildings; all the nearby lawns and gardens and grounds; even the ravines and falls, but Good Lord, man, there are lots of hiding places all round about. The farther woods, the farm lands, the hilly bits here and there—oh, there’s a lot of hunting that might be done.”
“Then you look upon all these messages as fakes?”
“Of course I do. They always follow on the heels of a mysterious disappearance.”
“But,” demurred Austin, “who in the world would murder Duncan and what for?”
“Motive is a point we’ve not yet taken up very carefully,” Canby said. He looked from one to the other of the men before him. “It is a subject not exactly outstanding to a stranger. Can you two men, who, of course, know Mr Searle intimately, suggest any possible reason for his being put out of the way? Forcible detention, now, might mean ransom and can be easily understood. Murder, for there’s no use in mincing words, might be for one of two reasons; either a definite desire to take his life, or killing him as a measure deemed necessary because of fear of discovery or some other precautionary motive.”
“Take them in turn,” suggested Austin, “what could bring about a definite desire to take my brother’s life? He was a quiet, reserved sort of man, not overly friendly by nature, but in no sense given to truculence.”
“Might there be some jealousy or envy among the scientists in connection with his work?” The detective looked as if he didn’t think much of this theory himself, although he set it forth.
“Not to the extent of killing him,” said, Austin, rather scornfully. “Scientists feel envy and jealousy all right, but not sufficiently to kill a fellow worker. Try again.”
“Money, then,” and Canby showed a certain satisfaction. “That’s at the root of most crimes; is there any way in which Mr Searle’s death would redound to anybody’s financial gain?”
“Certainly,” Austin replied, coldly. “There are both Mrs Searle and myself. I think we two inherit the bulk of my brother’s property. But neither of us would feel inclined to hasten his death in order to claim that inheritance.”
“No”; Canby agreed. “But others, now. Smaller inheritors, distant relatives, servants, charitable bequests—”
“I don’t know of any such, who would or could have murdered my brother on the chance. For it would be a slim chance, murderers are so often found out.”
“True enough,” put in Booth, “and beside, in that case, where is the body?”
“The crime need not have been committed on the premises,” and Canby looked about him. “Though, as we agreed, there are hiding places yet unsearchcd.” Warner came to them, then, with a sealed envelope which he gave to Austin.
The men were in Duncan’s office, although so far, no letters or papers in or on the desk had been touched.
“Who brought this, Warner?” Austin asked, as the man was turning away.
“One of the gardener’s men found it on the lawn. He thinks it was dropped from an aeroplane.”
“All right, you may go. Well, Canby, here’s the note. As Mr Dooley used to say, ‘it’s interestin’ but not convincin’.’ It doesn’t ring true to me.”
He handed over a sheet of paper, on which appeared in good writing the following statement.
“Mr Austin Searle. Your brother is in our midst. We propose to keep him here until we receive ransom money. We want one hundred thousand dollars, and consider that a reasonable sum. Mr Searle is well and intact to date, but unless you act quickly and obediently, he will not be for long. Also, if you don’t care to give us the money, we will do away with him and you too. Oh, yes, we can get you. Don’t kid yourself about that! And after that, if you don’t behave nicely, we will consider Mrs Searle. So you see, you’d better behave. Just run this line in to-night’s paper: Proposition accepted. Will follow orders. Then, you will get the orders p. d. q. See that you obey them. Or all will take place as above.”
The unpleasant missive was signed “The Dictator,” and Canby read it with deep attention.
“Try it out,” he said; “put the line in the paper—”
“All right, Mr Canby, you do it, will you?” and the detective agreed.
“These things don’t bother me a bit,” Austin said, with a scornful glance at the letter, “but I’d rather Mrs Searle wouldn’t see them, unless necessary. She’d naturally feel alarmed, but I never expect to hear from friend Dictator again, do you?”
“Well,” Canby said, “it depends on how hopeful they are of getting some ransom money. Such people are short-sighted, mentally. They know a man is missing and they assume he is held for ransom. They heedlessly think they may as well get that money as the kidnaper, and so they bang in a claim without waiting to figure out how they’re going to carry off the transaction. You know it’s no easy matter to effect a transference of the ransom money and the victim, without the knowledge of the police. Many kidnapped persons have been killed for that very reason.”
“Looking ahead a bit,” said Austin, a little hesitantly, “don’t think me avaricious, but what is the customary procedure? We can’t go on forever, not knowing whether Duncan is alive or dead. If he fails to show up for some time, I shall have to carry on. Is it a court gesture, or do we just assume his death?”
“It depends on what you want to do,” Canby said. “I’m not entirely clear myself, but I think a year would be long enough to wait before following out his will. Yet, if Mrs Searle wished to re-marry, it might be a matter of seven years, or perhaps five. Your lawyer will tell you all that.”
“I can only speak for myself, I know nothing of my sister-in-law’s ideas on the subject.”
Nor did Canby, but he noticed a red flush rise in Booth’s cheeks and an almost uncontrollable tremor run through his frame.
“Why harp on such things, Austin?” his friend cried, sharply. “We haven’t yet really begun our search for Duncan. And, too, Carlotta is quite able to take care of herself.”
“Of course,” Austin agreed. “But I always like to know where I stand.”
“You won’t know very soon, Mr Searle,” Canby told him. “If your brother remains missing for a long time, with no clew to his whereabouts, the case will doubtless pass out of our hands, but just what will happen I can’t say. Of course, we don’t know that anything untoward has befallen him, but so far, I see no clew of any worth whatever.”
“What could have occurred?” asked Booth, curiously.
“The most plausible theory,” said Canby, “is, that Mr Searle was forced or persuaded to go out to the highroad, or, down into some wood or thicket, and there was either killed or rendered unconscious and, in either case taken away.”
“No sense in killing him,” Austin growled out, “they can’t get ransom for a dead man.”
“He may have been killed unintentionally, perhaps he proved unmanageable, or he may have been killed outright, for some motive other than money. Again, we’ve no proof of his death. Oftentimes, a man disappears, and years later returns voluntarily. It is a complicated case, not at all a simple one, and I wish to heaven, you people had employed Stone, when you had such a good chance to.”
“You do! Why I thought the police hated to have amateurs butting in!”
“You’re right, Mr Searle, but Fleming Stone isn’t an amateur, and we wouldn’t consider his assistance ‘butting in.’ He is especially successful with these puzzling problems, and I don’t mind admitting I’m at the end of my rope. Oh, of course, we’ll go on with the investigation and the search, but it is disheartening when all trails seem to lead nowhere.”
“I thought you could tell a lot,” Austin said, “by handwriting and finger prints and such things.”
“Where’s any place to look for finger prints? And what use are all these fool messages, with their disguised penmanship?”
“No clews of any real use, then?” said Booth.
“None,” said Canby.
Carlotta came into the room.
She wore a white sports suit, and carried a tennis racket.
“I must have some exercise,” she declared, “real, strenuous exercise. Will any one play tennis with me?”
“Of course,” and Booth sprang to his feet.
But Austin said:
“Wait a minute, will you, Carly. I know you want exercise, but we must ask you a few questions.”
“Yes, indeed, Austin. I didn’t mean to be selfish. Can I help?”
“Perhaps not that, Mrs Searle,” said Canby, “but I’d like you to know how things are going. By the way, do you know the terms of Mr Searle’s will?”
“Yes, in a general way.”
“Will you tell me?”
“No, Mr Canby, I have no right to. My husband confided the matter to me, but confidentially, and I shall say nothing about it. If Mr Brooks, the lawyer, chooses to tell you, that’s his business.”
“Very well. Now, here’s another matter. I think the time is ripe to look over the contents of Mr Searle’s desk and filing cabinets. Do you authorize this?”
“Is it for me to say?”
“Perhaps only out of courtesy. But we prefer to have your sanction, rather than to go ahead without it. It is, after all, routine work. Doubtless Mr Searle’s valuables and private papers are in his safe. I only ask to look over the recent letters on the desk here, and consult a few of his memorandum books and such things.”
“May I stay by while you’re doing this?”
“Surely, Mrs Searle. We look upon you as your husband’s representative, rather than Mr Austin Searle.”
“But I’d like Austin to be here, too, and, if there’s no objection, Mr Booth also.”
“Certainly, there’s no objection. Let’s go right at it.”
Canby believed in striking an iron when it was hot, and he stepped over to the flat topped desk and looked first at the unopened mail that had accumulated since Duncan’s disappearance.
Many envelopes obviously contained bills or circulars, and these he tossed impatiently aside, scanning the more interesting seeming missives.
But though there were some personal letters and some invitations and announcements, there was absolutely nothing that threw a glimmer of light on the disappearance of the man to whom they were addressed.
Canby went on to the small drawers of the desk, and drew out a check book.
“That’s petty cash,” Carlotta informed him. “Bills for his chemicals and apparatus, and probably a few household matters and money to me.”
“No, Mellon does those. These are Duncan’s own expenses.”
“Private and personal, I take it, as well as laboratory supplies.”
He was looking at a check stub marked E. C. and, running over the pages, he noted others similarly marked.
“Who is E. C.?” he said, looking at Carlotta.
“I’ve no idea,” she answered, but Austin spoke up sharply.
“What a whopper, Carly! That, Mr Canby, means Erminie Colvin, a neighbor of ours. We all know her. But the matter has no bearing on our search for clews to the mystery, and I trust you will forget it.”
“How can you be sure, Mr Searle, it has no bearing on our search? It seems to me quite possible it may be of importance. At any rate, I can’t agree to forget it. Mrs Colvin and Mr Searle are—friendly?”
“And what if they are?” said Carlotta, coldly. “You’re not implying, are you, that she had a hand in his disappearance?”
“Probably not. But may it not be that she is a part of the motive?”
“You speak in riddles, Mr Canby. Please be explicit. Don’t refrain from a mistaken wish to spare my feelings.”
“Very well, then. Since Mr Searle and Mrs Colvin are so exceedingly friendly, may it not be that he went away to wait somewhere until she can join him?”
“You are surely explicit! Then, you think Mr Searle went away of his own accord?”
“I have thought so from the first. It is the only theory possible to a detective. Accident, suicide or foul play would all necessitate the leaving of a body, dead or maimed. Such a matter couldn’t be carried through in the brief interval that Mr Searle was absent from the lawn, where you all sat at tea.”
“That interval wasn’t so terribly brief,” Austin said, musingly. “He came in the house just after I did.”
“Just after I did, too,” added Ronald. “He was hunting Carlotta. Did you see him, Carly?”
“No,” she returned; “I was in my room with the door closed, until I went down to tea. Did Duncan go upstairs?”
“I don’t know,” and Austin shook his head. “I was in the telephone booth. I didn’t see him at all, but I heard him whistle as he came into the house.”
“I did, too,” said Ronald. “I went to my room for that arrack, and I found a letter there and stopped to read it. But I don’t know where Duncan went.”
“It all doesn’t matter,” said Carlotta, wearily. “If this sort of talk is what you mean when you speak of clews and evidence, it oesn’t seem to me to get anywhere.”
“Clews and evidence are not often instantaneous of action,” Canby told her. “Sometimes they take a long time to mature. But it’s wise to heed them.”
“Yes, if you know what they mean,” put in Booth. “Otherwise, you’re apt to get into trouble.”
“And we’re in trouble enough, as is,” Carlotta observed.
Dave Murray came in then, brisk and alert. “Anything doing?” he asked. “Apparently not, judging from the way you’re all sitting around. If you’d had the wit to engage my nephew the whole matter would be cleared up by now, and you’d know the truth, whatever it might be.”
“That’s all right, Mr Murray,” said Austin, unbelievingly, “but Sergeant Canby here, is a good man and resourceful. He’s doing all that can be done. You see, it isn’t like a crime case—”
“Seems to me it’s mighty like a crime case—”
“No, Uncle Dave,” Carlotta insisted, “there’s no hint of crime. Duncan wasn’t abducted, that’s too ridiculous! He wasn’t killed, that’s clear on the face of it, so he went away of his own accord. He could easily go out the front door, on out the front gate, and along the road half a mile or so. Some passing motor car would willingly give him a lift, and he could go on to wherever he was heading for.”
“And why—why would he cut up this jackanapes trick? Why walk off and leave his home, with no explanation, no good-by, no money—did he have a lot of money with him, Carlotta?”
“Why, I don’t know, Uncle Dave. I never thought of it.”
“Did he?” repeated the old man, turning to Austin.
“Search me. How could we know what he had with him?”
“Don’t you know, Sergeant Canby?”
“Well, a fine lot you are! Lordy, if my nephew had been on this job, he’d know a thing or two about conditions and details! Of course you could find out easily enough. Go to his bank and learn if he drew a big sum just before he went away. If he did, of course he went off intentionally and willingly. If not—if he carried little or no money, then he was persuaded or forced to go.”
Canby looked at the old man with admiration.
“Good talk,” he said; “where does he bank, Mr Searle?”
“Pittsfield,” said Austin, “but I can’t see what good it would do to know about the money. The thing is to find him, dead or alive, and no knowledge of picayune details is going to help in that.”
“Don’t scorn the picayune details, son,” Murray advised, a glint of indignation coming into his blue eyes. “My nephew has built up his biggest successes from the tiniest clews.”
“Story book work,” said Austin, with a good natured grunt. “I’m not belittling Mr Stone’s work, and I know of his great reputation, but I want results not theories.”
“And are you getting them?” asked the old man, dryly. “What are all those letters and telegrams?”
“They’re from would be helpers,” Canby said; “also tricksters, pretenders and demanders of ransom. If all the people who demand ransom can earn it, then Mr Searle was carried off by twenty or thirty men. There are letters from women, too, who claim to have Mr Searle hidden on their premises.”
“Rubbish! I don’t want to hear about all that hoax and fake business. How about Duncan’s will? What are the terms of that?”
“Nobody knows,” said Ronald Booth, quietly, hoping to stem the tide of the old man’s inquisitiveness.
“Carlotta knows, but she won’t tell,” grumbled Austin. “I think she ought to, don’t you, Uncle Dave?”
“Sure I do. Come, Carly, out with it. Why make a secret of it? Brooks will have to tell us, when he’s officially asked.”
“After all, I suppose it doesn’t make any difference whether I tell or not. But you see, Uncle Dave, I want to keep up the dignity and propriety of this whole affair, as I know Duncan would want me to. But the will is a simple one. It leaves the greater part of Duncan’s fortune to be equally divided between Austin and myself. The rest is in small bequests and legacies to charities and a few old friends. But, good gracious, Duncan isn’t dead, why discuss his will?”
“He may be found dead at any minute, Carlotta. The police are carrying on a systematic search that spreads wider each day. They will find something evidential soon. They must. Now, are there any restrictions as to your inheritance?”
“Only that if I marry again I forfeit it all to Austin,” said Carlotta, her head held proudly and her deep eyes fixed on Murray. “But if Duncan is not found dead, there can be no question of my remarriage.”
“Oh, those things can be arranged, my child. Enoch Arden is a back number—”
“Uncle David, I must ask you not to talk like this. It is undignified and in poor taste. If your nephew talks like that, I am glad we did not engage his services.”
“You’re right, my dear,” said the old man, penitently, “and I will mend my manners. Maybe something will turn up to-day.”
But it didn’t, nor the next day, nor the next week. Time just went on, and though the police kept up their work, both routine and occasional, they found no trace of Duncan Searle and learned no word of where he might be.
No genuine request for ransom was received, though many demands came in, which, when investigated proved to be false.
The family and servants were quizzed repeatedly, reward was offered, appeals were made, all to no avail. The police admitted they were up against a stone wall, and at the utter end of their resources.
The days passed until the time came when they usually returned to their city home in New York. And, there being no reason against it, they concluded to go. The mystery of Duncan Searle’s disappearance was as far from solution as on the day they last saw him.
Inspector Mullins came for a final conference with the family before they left for New York.
It was the second week in October and already the autumn tints showed on the trees, and Silver Spray Farm was a mass of glowing russet and gold.
“I suppose it’s all right for us to go, Inspector,” said Carlotta, in her pretty deferential way, which those who knew her were conscious meant just nothing at all.
“Yes, ma’am, certainly, ma’am. I don’t see a mite of reason for your staying here. If anything comes to light we can take care of it, and we’ll let you know.”
“It’s our habit to lock up the place pretty well,” she went on, “but we leave caretakers, the head gardener, Prall, will remain in his cottage and he’ll have a key to the house.”
“That’s all right, ma’am, quite all right. We’ll go on for a time with our routine work, and unless something turns up, the case will wear itself out, I suppose.”
“What sort of routine work do you mean?” Austin inquired.
“Well, there’s some searching to be done yet, the far fields and woods, they haven’t been thoroughly gone into.”
“And what could they yield up?”
Mullins gave a quick glance at Carlotta, and said, “Never can tell, sir. If Mr Searle met with foul play, his body must be about the place somewhere, unless of course, it didn’t take place here.”
Carlotta had turned pale, and her long fingers were tightly intertwined.
But she said, in steady tones, “Yes, Inspector, you must make sure. As you know, we made what we considered thorough search, but your people will carry it on.”
“Yes, ma’am. Then there’s the matter of these letters and telegrams. What about it? Do you want us to open the mail—”
“I think,” Austin said, “you’d better forward to us in New York any mail that comes addressed to Mr Duncan Searle, but such messages as are clearly ransom letters or further reports of his being seen in various places, you open up and deal with them. If you make an error or two, we won’t complain. But we can’t have all that stuff sent to us.”
“No, sir, that’s what I think. Maybe you’ll be up now and again, sir?”
“Why, I might. I’ll certainly come up if you call me, but probably not otherwise. You think, Inspector, we’ll not see Mr Searle again,—alive?”
“I’m sorry, but that’s what I do think. It stands to reason if he could come home he would, for we’ve found no ghost of a motive for his staying away. And if he was kidnapped for ransom, we’d get a genuine demand for money. The ones we have received have been fakes on the face of ’em, and have been proved so! But if more arrive, and they surely will, we’ll investigate just as thoroughly as we did the first one we received.”
“Then we’re leaving the matter in competent hands. You’re satisfied of that, aren’t you, Carlotta?”
“Oh, yes. Perfectly. When shall we leave?”
“In a few days, I should say. You can set the time. There’s no use staying on here, everybody is leaving and we will be better off in New York. There’ll be more diversion for you, you’ll have more friends about you, and the town house will seem cheery after this desolate place. Oh, it’s all right in the summer, but these blustery shrieking winds give me the horrors.”
“Then we’ll go in a few days, Inspector,” Carlotta told him. “Be sure to let us know at once if you discover anything, or learn any new facts.”
Carlotta left the room, and the two men sat in silence a moment.
Then Austin said:
“You believe my brother was killed?”
“Frankly, I do. But I can’t think he was killed here, on the premises. The routine searching is necessary, but I don’t believe it will produce any result. I think he was lured away or forced away, and later, killed, either purposely or accidentally. As I understand it, you were all sitting round on the lawns, one or two going in and out of the house, and the servants here and there. How could any one manage to kill him here, and dispose of the body and all that, without any one seeing or hearing?”
“You’re doubtless right. He must have gone out to the road for some reason. He could do that without being seen, as we were all at the back of the house, and the great gates are in front.”
“It seems to be the only plausible explanation of his disappearance, but it gives us no hint of where or why he went.”
“Well, I shall hold on to a hope as long as I can, that he will yet turn up, safe and sound. How long do people wait in a case like this? You must have had experience.”
Mullins gave him a quick glance.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said; “but I think we’ll know the truth in a short time now.”
“Not if he’s been killed. In that case we may never know it, positively.”
“He and his wife get on all right?”
“Oh, Lord, yes. My brother admires women, but his wife is too sensible to look on it seriously.”
“H’m. There’s a lot of talk about the Colvin lady.”
“Forget it, then. A slight flirtation, perhaps. That’s all.”
“All right, Mr Searle. Anyway, no woman killed him—”
“I should say not! And it would need a fairly strong man to do him in.”
“There may have been a weapon. We know nothing,—nothing at all.” Mullins sighed at thought of his abysmal ignorance. “And it seems too late for a ransom to be asked, yet still it may be. If so, you’d better pay it and pay it quick. It’s no amateurs who’d kidnap a man like that.”
“I wish we could get that detective Stone—”
“You’ve come around to that, have you? Well, it’s too late. He’s traveling abroad, I don’t know just where.”
“I don’t see how he could help, anyway. You’re doing all that can be done.”
This pleased Mullins, as Austin intended it to, and after some further attention to details, the Inspector went away.
Ronald Booth had left a week or more ago, partly because his vacation was over and partly because Carlotta insisted upon it.
She felt she could not trust herself to be so much alone with Booth and refrain from letting their love overcome her will power.
She had cared for him a long time, but with Duncan’s eye upon her, she had preserved a rigidly decorous demeanor. And now, though still with high ideals and firm resolves to stand by them, she found that opportunity brought about temptations too difficult to withstand.
So Booth had gone back to New York, as also had the two Colvins.
Norman Bradford and his sister were going soon, which, of course, made Austin eager to get to the city himself.
“Don’t you think it’s queer,” he said, as he and Carlotta sat together in the lounge the evening before their departure, “that there have been so many people ready to swear they have seen Duncan here, there and all over?”
“I think it the strangest thing I ever heard of,” Carlotta agreed. “I suppose the police are right when they declare not one of them is speaking truthfully, but that makes it all the stranger.”
“Yes, but most of them think they are telling the truth. Why, some men who know Duncan well, vow he was in Baltimore or Chicago or somewhere on a certain date, and they are invariably wrong.”
“What about the reward, Austin? Shall we let it stand, or enlarge it—”
“Don’t ask me those things, Carly. The money is not mine—yet. It is yours, so far as it’s anybody’s. Naturally I’m interested in my own finances. What about me?”
“Don’t bother. Of course, you’ll live in the New York apartment, as always, and I’ll give you the same allowance Duncan did.”
“Not good enough. I want to marry,—as you may have guessed.”
“I have guessed, and I also know Duncan’s opinions on that subject.”
“Not kindly disposed, was he?”
“I wish you wouldn’t say ‘was he.’ Don’t use the past tense till you know he is dead.”
“But you did, yourself, just now.”
“Well, you do it so much you get me confused. But I don’t like it. Now, you know, Austin, Duncan is quite willing to support you in idleness,—though I don’t know why he is,—but he is not willing to support you, if you have a wife. Why don’t you get busy and find yourself a position?”
“What can I do?”
“I don’t know. Don’t ask me that. But you can’t expect your brother to take care of you.”
“Oh, I say, Carly, don’t be mean! How are things fixed, anyway? I mean until Duncan returns, are you to have full sway?”
“I don’t know, Austin, truly I don’t. But I do know you must not ask Dorothy to marry you, unless you can provide for her, without depending on Duncan or me, either.”
“ ’Fess up, Carly. You want to marry Ronald, don’t you?”
“How can you say such a thing? If Duncan were dead, I might think about it, but I have never been unfaithful for a moment to my marriage vows.”
“Not in deed,—but in thought? In wish? Oh Carly, you can’t deceive me!”
“I’m not trying to. Don’t be foolish. Now, talk sense. Until we know positively what has happened to Duncan, I suppose I shall be custodian of his income. I will treat you as he has always done, but I will not give you more. So, shape your life accordingly. Of course you can get a position if you want one. David Murray would take you in his bank any day.”
“I hate banking business. The hours are so—so restricting.”
“Very well, then stay idle, but don’t marry.”
“Well, we’ll see about it. Say, Carly, what’s that bottle of poison in Duncan’s cabinet for?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Yes. In the little wall cabinet in his bathroom, there’s a bottle of cyanide solution—”
“I suppose it belongs to his laboratory work.”
“You don’t suppose anything of the sort. If so, it would be in the lab. Why in his bathroom?”
“I don’t know, Austin, I’m sure. I didn’t know it was there, but there is, of course, some simple explanation.”
“Oh, do you think so? Well, I think he meant to kill himself, and I think he did kill himself. And, if so, I wish we could find out about it, and settle up his estate.”
“Austin, you’re a ghoul! The estate can’t be settled until we know, but I don’t see any chance of our knowing for a long time, if ever. I think the Inspector thinks he will unearth the body somewhere on the place. If so, it will be time then to talk about settling the estate. Meantime, I look upon myself as guardian of the property, and when Duncan returns he will find the accounts correct to a penny.”
“Oh, fudge, he wouldn’t care if he didn’t. Duncan’s no cheese parer.”
“Of course not, but I have a strange feeling of responsibility about all the details of his affairs.” Going upstairs, Carlotta went at once to the wall cupboard in her husband’s bathroom.
Sure enough, there was a small bottle of some sort of cyanide stuff, and she looked at it curiously.
She knew enough about his work and his experiments to be certain the poison had no connection with them, but she wondered what it was for. Could he really have meant to take his own life? Otherwise, why was it there?
She poured it down the drain and rinsed the bottle till it was clean. As she threw away the small vial, she wondered afresh what it was there for. There was nothing else of the sort about. Only the usual supply of tooth pastes, shaving creams and soaps.
Thoughtfully she went on to her own rooms and found her maid awaiting her.
“Grant,” she said, “when you were cleaning around did you see anything odd or peculiar in Mr Searle’s bathroom?”
“No, ma’am,” returned the maid, but her eyelids gave a funny little flicker which, her mistress well knew, always accompanied her insincere speech.
Changing the subject, Carlotta gave some final directions about their motor trip down to New York the next day, and then went to bed.
But not to sleep. She thought over the events of the afternoon of Duncan’s disappearance, and the strange scenes she had been through since.
Strongly objecting to publicity, she had been thrust into the limelight, and she deeply resented it. She was glad she was going away from the scenes of excitement and embarrassment, and she longed for the peace and quiet of the big city apartment.
She had often said one could be more alone in New York City than in the most secluded country retreat. She planned to take time for rest and relaxation before she gave audience to even her nearest and dearest friends.
Except Ronald, of course. In her secret heart, she no longer denied her dependence on him as friend and guide, nor did she disavow her passionate love for him.
She blamed herself for this state of things, which had come about largely since Duncan’s loss. But she had to admit its truth, had to admit that her heart was singing at thought of seeing Booth again, even while she felt poignantly the tragedy she was experiencing.
At last, she fell asleep and woke next morning to a fine, crisp autumn day, on which a long motor ride would be a joy.
Fletcher drove them, and the boy Tim, a native product, was left behind.
“Good-by, Tim,” said Carlotta, kindly. “Go to school all winter and study your books, and next summer we will be back here again and you can help us then.”
“Yes’m, and maybe Mr Duncan will be here.”
“Maybe?” cried Austin, “why, of course he will! He’ll turn up soon, Tim.”
“You think so, lady?” the boy looked at Carlotta.
“Oh, yes, certainly I do. He’ll be back here to give you the reprimands you deserve! You’ve been getting spoiled, Tim. It takes Mr Duncan to keep you in order.”
“He can do it!” exclaimed the boy, with vivid recollections of Duncan’s temper when things went wrong.
The car started, Carlotta smiled a good-by and Austin waved his hand.
Tim watched it roll smoothly down the drive and, even after it was out of sight, still stood, thoughtfully frowning.
“No,” he murmured at last, “no, I ain’t got the nerve,—and I couldn’t if I did have.”
They reached the New York house in mid-afternoon, giving ample time for a rest before dinner.
Austin went off to his club, but Carlotta, after a refreshing bath and a change into a negligee, threw herself on a chaise longue with a sigh of relief at being away from Silver Spray.
She loved the place, and expected to enjoy it again, but just now, it was a house of horror for her.
Soon, Grant came to her saying Mr Booth was on the telephone.
Carlotta sighed, even while her heart bounded for joy.
“No,” she said to him, after he had begged to be allowed to go to her at once. “No, Ron, you mustn’t. Now, you may come to dinner to-morrow night, and don’t be calling me up through the day.”
“Carly, you’re too hard on me!”
“I have to be. Run along, now, I’m resting. Good-by.”
She hung up and Booth had no choice but to do the same.
He was deeply perplexed. He had no wish to be indiscreet, or to get Carlotta talked about, but how was he too keep away from her, now, when she was in the city and freed from the surveillance of Duncan?
He went for a walk, strolled down to his club and went in.
There he met David Murray, who seemed glad to see him again.
Of course they discussed the Chaldea tragedy as it had come to be called and agreed that it was a most inexplicable mystery.
“They’ll never see him again,” said Murray, with a shake of his wise old head.
“Then what will happen?” Booth asked, trying to keep the eagerness out of his tone.
“Nothing,—nothing at all. Carlotta can’t marry you, if that’s what you’re thinking about. Not until the courts pronounce Duncan legally dead.”
“I suppose that is what I’m thinking about,” Booth confessed, looking at Murray with a hopelessness that touched the old man’s heart. “I don’t want to get Carly in bad, but I must see her now and then.”
“Of course you must. And it’s right you should. As an old friend of Duncan’s you’ve a perfect right to continue that friendship with the two that are left. How’s Austin getting on?”
“He was moody and grouchy when I saw him last. You see, he wants to marry the little Bradford girl, and he can’t do it without money, of which he hasn’t any.”
“And if the Duncan matter could be cleared up and the corpse found, the will could be carried out and all would be well for everybody.”
“That’s putting it a little crudely, but it’s about the truth.”
“Ronny, did it ever occur to you, that maybe, perhaps, possibly, speaking at a venture, that Austin might have had a hand in his brother’s disappearance?”
“Don’t say such things, Uncle Dave. Of course I’ve thought of it, as I’ve thought lots of crazy things that come into my mind unbidden. But first, we’ve no evidence of anything of the sort, and second, it wouldn’t be possible. You know Austin was right there with us all, at the time.”
“But was he?”
“Practically, yes. He went in the house to telephone and I went in the house at the same time. Duncan was nowhere about.”
“Where was he?”
“Who knows? He may have been in his own room, or in his laboratory or at the garage, or Lord knows where. He went in to look for Carly, but she never saw him at all. Now Austin couldn’t have pounced on him and done him up in that short time, with us all around him in the various rooms.”
“I don’t mean that Austin did anything himself, but nowadays there is much professional handiwork of that sort to be had for the price thereof.”
“Heavens, man! You don’t mean that Austin engaged a gunman to kill his own brother!”
“The first murder shows a victim of that same relationship.”
“Absurd! Where was this thing staged, pray?”
“Don’t be supercilious. It’s all within the bounds of possibility. You heard of the strange man seen by Bradford.”
“Call him what you like. Why wasn’t he a hired killer?”
“I never heard such rubbish! I decline to listen further. Now, Uncle Dave, don’t you go and publish this thing! You’ll get Austin and Carlotta too, in no end of trouble. And, beside, where’s the logic of your theory? Suppose Austin did do such a thing, how is he profiting by it? Say he wants his share of Duncan’s fortune, as provided by the will, he can’t get it, unless he produces the dead body.”
“I think something slipped up, some little thing went wrong, and the killer had to flee to cover for his own safety. And, incidentally, had to bury or secrete Duncan’s body, lest it be found in his possession.”
A light broke in on Booth’s troubled mind.
“And if it was the hobo seen at Silver Spray that afternoon, you think he concealed the dead Duncan somewhere on the premises?”
“I say it may be so.”
“And that’s why the police are still searching—”
“But, look here. We searched the whole place that first morning.”
“Yes, you searched the house and immediate grounds; also the garages, laboratory, storehouse, gardener’s cottage,—all the nearby buildings. They were all clear. But did you look in the deep thickets, the copses and groves of trees, the tangles of shrubbery? That estate has more growth to the acre than any place in New England, I believe.”
“But it’s bewildering. You act as if Austin was at the root of the matter, and then you put it all on his henchman, if henchman he had. You’re illogical.”
“Maybe so,—maybe so. But that’s the way to begin to look. I’m leaving now. Good-by young man.”
David Murray had a way of rising and departing abruptly, so Ronald was not surprised.
The old man went directly to the Searle home, demanded audience with Carlotta and was granted it.
“You look better already,” he commented gazing at her beautiful eyes, and noting her air of calm dignity.
“I am, Uncle Dave. I’m glad to get away from the atmosphere of police and publicity. Not the house, or place, I’m as fond of Silver Spray as ever, but I’m glad of change just now.”
“Of course you are. Now you mark my words, girl. You give yourself up to diversion. Any sort you enjoy, but go about, take in the shows, meet your friends, be in the world and of it. No reason you shouldn’t. You’re not a widow, you’re not a grass widow, but your husband is indefinitely absent. I’m not afraid of your going giddy. You’re not that sort. You’ll go in for music, the better plays, and intellectual relaxation of sorts. Flirt a little, if you like, it’ll be good for you, and—it will shunt off criticism. See Booth only occasionally, and watch your step.”
Carlotta had been growing more and more annoyed. Now she burst forth:
“You’re a horrid, meddlesome, prying old man! I hate you!”
“Now, now, child,” Dave laughed, “that’s better. I’d rather see you get mad than to be too damned sweet and proper. I’ll drop in now and then, and prod you a bit. Keep your colors flying, all will yet be well. Good-by for now. I just ran in to torment you.”
He went off and Carlotta’s face broke into the first involuntary smile it had known for weeks.
The days went by, the weeks passed, even the months, two of them, were garnered by old Time, and it was now early December.
Already Christmas was beginning to bloom in the shop windows and in the newspaper advertisements.
Carlotta had followed Dave Murray’s advice to a degree, but she found it difficult to take an interest in social gayeties.
Most entertainments bored her, parties made her restless and upset. It was embarrassing to be looked at and probably pointed at as the woman whose husband had mysteriously disappeared, and showed no sign of returning.
The majority of the wiseacres assumed that Duncan Searle had become fed up with his manner of life and had concluded to try fresh woods and pastures new.
Everybody was lovely to Carlotta, of course, but whether fact or imagination she felt an insincerity in their homage and longed to get away from it all.
She was desperately in love with Ronald Booth, and he with her. But they tried to hide it, to conceal it, to deny it, though it grew all the time more evident.
Carlotta was beginning to show the strain. Still her head sat haughtily on her lovely shoulders, still her marvelous eyes showed their unfathomable depths, when those curling lashes were raised. Still, she had that inimitable poise, that calm, gracious manner that charmed even while it awed.
But there were faint shadows beneath the eyes, a line or two barely perceptible on the smooth brow, a faint droop at the corners of that perfect mouth, that made Carlotta at times seem a stranger even to those who knew her best.
Erminie taxed her with it.
“What is the matter with you?” she would say, crossly. “You weren’t so terribly fond of Duncan, and you are terribly fond of Ronny. Now, I was fond of Duncan and I don’t care who knows it. What do you really think, Carlotta? Do you think he is dead?”
“Don’t ask that inane question again, Erminie.” Carlotta looked at her calmly. “How can I possibly tell? If the policemen and detectives can’t find out what became of him, how do you expect me to?”
Then Erminie would cry bitterly and bewail her sad fate. She made no secret of the hopes she had held that divorce proceeding might give Duncan to her but Carlotta, though she knew of her husband’s infatuation for the lovely little blonde, never thought he meant to arrange things so. Also, there was Leonard to be reckoned with.
Colvin was easygoing to a certain point, then, he would break loose and begin to smash things. And he was of no intent to give his wife over to Duncan Searle, no matter how many divorces might be obtained in Reno.
Of late his temper had become more furious at times and more irritable always. Erminie made no effort to propitiate him and when he taxed her with grieving over the absence of Searle such a woebegone expression came to her flower-like face that Leonard forgot all save his own adoration of the lovely witch and hastened to make amends for his harsh words by lavish gifts.
Dorothy Bradford and her brother were frequent guests at the Searle home.
Both Carlotta and Austin disliked dining alone, and seldom did. If no guests were looked for, Austin would often go to his club, and Carlotta would have a tray in her room, or, once in a while, as a rare treat, a tete-a-tete dinner with Ronald.
But both liked company and the Bradfords were always ready to come. Austin’s devotion to Dorothy was an open secret, and Norman’s growing interest in Carlotta was smiled at by all who saw it.
A quiet, studious sort, Bradford cared little for women’s society, but he fell a meek victim to Carlotta’s wondrous charm, and gratefully accepted any chance favors she might carelessly fling his way.
For Carlotta’ reaction to the tragedy of her situation was a new found recklessness, and a growing carelessness of conventions.
This only made her more adorable, for it modified the dignity and reserve that were so much a part of her nature, and it sometimes brought a daredevil glint into those pansy-colored eyes that added a new element to her already irresistible lure.
So Norman came along whenever he and Dorothy were invited and as Austin monopolized the girl, Norman was left to worship at Carlotta’s shrine.
She liked him, but she was careful to give him no tiniest bit of encouragement. They chatted like the most cordial of friends, but that was as far as it went.
“Almost pretty near Christmas,” said Dorothy, as they sat, after dinner, in the Searles’ living room, an apartment of sufficient beauty and grace to be called a salon. “I say, Carly, are you going to have the usual house party at Silver Spray?”
“I don’t know,” was Carlotta’s slow answer. “It seems a strange thing to do—”
“Not at all,” Dorothy declared. “Austin and I think you ought to do it, don’t we, Austin?”
“Yes,—if Carly likes the idea,” Searle replied. “It is a natural thing to do, and, too, if Duncan should come home for Christmas, he will like to find us all up there, ready for him.”
“Oh, yes, have the party,” Dorothy begged. “Have it just as always, with a tree and holly and bells and all the doings. And everybody must give presents to everybody else, and we must be really merry and happy. Don’t misunderstand me, Carly, I want you to get out of this sort of despondency you’ve fallen into, and, I say, will you,—would you mind asking Uncle David? He’s crazy to go.”
“Why, certainly I’ll ask him,” Carlotta said; “I rather like the old dear.”
“All right,” and Dorothy beamed her satisfaction, “and then, invite his nephew, too, that Mr Stone, you know.”
“Oh, he’s traveling abroad.”
“No, he isn’t, he got home yesterday. Do ask him, Carly, don’t you think she might, Austin?”
“Do you mean professionally or socially?” he said.
“Oh, just socially, of course. But if he can discover anything, so much the better.”
“You’re crazy, Dot,” and Carlotta gave her an indulgent smile. “Do you mean discover anything about Duncan, after all this time!”
“Yes, just that; I’m sure he could. I’ve heard a lot about him lately, and he’s a wizard at detecting.”
“But he’d have to take hold at the beginning,” Norman said; “nobody could detect anything after three months or so.”
“Well, anyway,” Dorothy went on, “ask him, Carly, do. He’s a nice man for a party, anyway. He can do magic tricks—”
“It would be a magic trick to find Duncan,” said Austin, “but a most appropriate stunt for the holiday season. Let’s have him, Carlotta. I believe Canby, up there, has some letters he’d like us to look over.”
“Letters! About Duncan?” Carlotta showed the merest hint of excitement. “Why hasn’t he sent them down to us?”
“I fancy they’re not important so much as curious. Mullins is on that job and he’s a stout man.”
“I can’t ask Mr Stone as an ordinary guest,” Carlotta said, decidedly. “It would look as if we meant to use him.”
“Then let’s engage him,” Austin said, suddenly. “There’s money enough. Lord knows.”
And indeed, there was. One of Duncan’s inventions recently put on the market was bringing in astounding returns.
The law firm which looked after the Searle estate, and of which Everett Brooks was a member, allowed Carlotta all she desired for her own use. Austin had no claim, and of course, there was no recourse to the will. But ample funds would be forthcoming to pay Fleming Stone’s bill if Carlotta saw fit to employ him.
She looked at her brother-in-law in surprise.
“Why, Austin, I never thought you’d sanction such a plan!”
“Why not, Carly? You and I are both anxious to know if Duncan is alive or dead, and if Mr Stone can find out, I say let him do so.”
“He can’t be alive,” declared Norman, looking at Carlotta in an agony of apprehension at the idea of losing her.
Norman was not entirely aware of how matters stood between Carlotta and Ronald Booth. The two men seldom met at Carlotta’s home and almost never anywhere else. The infatuated youth thought his chances far stronger than they were.
“If he isn’t alive,” and Austin spoke gently now, “I think Fleming Stone can prove it, and proof is what we want.”
“Do you think he’d take the case?” Carlotta went on, “after the way we turned him down last fall. Not if he’s a man of spirit.”
“Oh, that doesn’t come in,” and Austin waved his hand, airily. “We didn’t engage anybody in his place, you know.”
“I think he’d take the case,” and Dorothy nodded her pretty head sagely. “You see, I’ve been talking to Uncle David, and he thinks Mr Stone is awfully keen about it.”
“Keen about what?” inquired Carlotta.
“There isn’t any case, that I know of.”
“Don’t be silly, Carlotta,” Austin frowned at her, “of course a mysterious disappearance is a case. Now I say have Stone take it up seriously. Will you write him or shall I?”
“Oh, you do it, it will come better from a man. And you invite Mr Murray, or, Dorothy, you do that. I’ll ask the Colvins, and shall we have any others?”
“Better have a couple more girls,” Austin thought. “There’s a preponderance of men, you know.”
“But as it is, we have just the same crowd as were there in the fall. Any friend, Dorothy, you’d like to ask?”
“No, Carly. If you have a dance, I know some girls in Pittsfield. Won’t that do?”
“Yes. I don’t feel, like a gay house party. But it’s a tradition to spend the holidays at Silver Spray, and I’d like to do it. If we keep it a small party.”
So it was settled, and they planned to go up to the farm the day or maybe two days before Christmas.
In their own home, Norman tried to persuade Dorothy she had made a mistake in insisting on having Fleming Stone at the Farm.
“You’re as blind as a bat,” said the outspoken brother. “You couldn’t see that the mere thought of it was distasteful to Carlotta. She cringed at the idea—”
“Why should she?” Dorothy bristled. “And anyway, she did nothing of the sort. She dreads the bringing back of old scenes and old memories, I’m surprised she’s having the party at all. But as to Mr Stone, Carlotta would be as glad as any one to know the truth about her husband.”
“Why do you say so with that significant look on your face?”
“Oh, you dear old nut,” his sister exclaimed, “you can’t see a hole in a ladder. Well, then, Carly wants to know, so she can shape her own life.”
On an evening, soon after, Fleming Stone called at the Searle home. His visit was partly social and partly a matter of business.
As he told them frankly, it must be one thing or the other. He would go to the Christmas house party as a guest, if they wished, or he would go as a detective. But it must be clearly understood which. The matter of fee he brushed aside, saying that could be adjusted later. But he wanted them to know that if he went as a qualified investigator, he would have to have a free hand and conduct the affair as he saw fit. He would not agree to any half-way work.
Austin willingly agreed to any stipulations the detective might make.
But Carlotta demurred somewhat.
“It will make it so awkward for me,” she said, giving Stone one of her rare smiles, rarer than ever of late, and looking at him steadily from her violet eyes. “How can I have a party, especially a Christmas party, with detective work going on at the same time?”
“Then leave my visit until after the party,” Stone suggested; “it is not necessary that they be simultaneous.”
“But I thought you wanted the crowd all there together,” said Austin. “You see, I don’t know what you propose to do, anyway. Say, we regularly engage you and you take the case, what will be your manner of working?”
“Nothing spectacular or even dramatic.” Stone looked very grave. “In fact I don’t want to have anything to do with the matter, unless you two really desire it. I’m afraid my uncle persuaded you into this thing, but I tell you frankly that I cannot touch it, except at your insistence. As a case it appeals to me very strongly, but as a social gesture, no. However, my presence at your party would, I am sure, be in no way a spoilsport. I should, of course, interview your guests, but it need not be obtrusively done.”
“What is your opinion of the whole matter, Mr Stone?” Carlotta asked; “have you a theory?”
“No, Mrs Searle, I am not given to theories. I thought over the matter a great deal while I was away, because it seemed to me a unique case. Not that a disappearance is so rare an occurrence, but the circumstances of this place it in a class by itself. Am I right in thinking you want to learn the truth,— the absolute truth?”
“Oh, yes,” she responded, “the truth, whatever it may be. Don’t we, Austin?”
“Sure,” he said, positively enough, but with less enthusiasm than she had shown.
“And you want my services?”
“Yes, Mr Stone,” Austin was emphatic enough now, “and I’ll be frank with you. I am fond of my brother, of course, we’ve always been good friends, but if he is no longer alive, I want to know it. If he is really dead, Mrs Searle and I will inherit his estate. This may sound ghoulish, but I don’t mean it so. It seems to me common sense to want the estate settled. Of course, if Duncan’s death cannot be proved, then his financial affairs cannot be settled for many years. As one of the chief beneficiaries under his will, I feel that I have the right to take steps to solve the problem.”
“As you put it, Mr Searle, I quite agree with you. Were I in your place, I should want to move heaven and earth before I gave up my search for the truth. But I warn you again, I cannot be hampered. If I go into the matter, I must be absolutely untrammeled, unquestioned and uncriticized. I must conduct the investigation in my own way, and I do not want or need the assistance of the police, unless for routine work. The police are not antagonistic to me, nor I to them, and I may be glad to call on them for help of the kind they can give. But all at my discretion. I’m sorry to be so dictatorial, but remember, this is a peculiar situation. It is very different from a case taken at the outset. It may help me to have as much done as is done, and it may not. But in some ways, it is easier to begin at the beginning.”
“We were opposed to it then,” Austin admitted frankly, “because we hoped the matter would clear itself up. Certainly you shall have full powers in every way. Your word shall be law in the household.”
“In so far as possible, we will ignore the subject,” Stone went on. “I mean, if the Christmas party proves a season of gayety and merriment, as I trust it may, I shall not obtrude my work at unseemly times. But the work must be done, and if it necessitates a sudden errand to New York or anywhere else, I must of course, go. I am glad to be at your Christmas party, and I am glad my uncle is to be there. I think we should get enjoyment out of it—”
“While we can,” supplemented Carlotta, her calm voice without a tremor.
“Just that,” Stone said, looking grave, indeed. “And I feel I must advise that you both be prepared for the worst. It is not at all improbable that we find the body of Mr Searle, and I think it only right to warn you of this.”
He watched Carlotta closely, but she showed no sign of emotion or of fear, and he continued;
“This does not mean that I have any information or knowledge of the truth. But as I see it, Mr Duncan Searle is in all probability dead. It is nearly three months since his disappearance, and he has sent for no money, nor has he been heard of or heard from. The hundreds of mistaken or lying messages do not count at all. If he was abducted, his kidnapers have made away with him, at least, that is my opinion.”
“What alternative can you think of?” Carlotta asked, her eyes, now bright with excitement, eagerly scanning his face.
“Only that he was killed on the premises. It is more likely that he was lured or carried away, but it may be that an assassin, hidden in your shrubbery did the deed. Now, this may seem a strange request I am about to make. But I want to go up to Chaldea a day before the rest of you go. I want to have a look round by myself without even the servants’ presence. I will stay over night at the Inn, if it will upset your household arrangements.”
“Oh, no, it won’t do that, but there will be only Prall and his wife to look after you, so you might be more comfortable at the Inn. Do just as you please.”
“Thank you. I won’t decide at the moment. Probably Uncle Dave will want to go up with me. But he’ll stay at the Inn anyway.”
“It’s all in your own hands, do just as you like,” Carlotta told him. Then she gave him an odd glance and said;
“Aren’t you afraid—of what you may find?”
“No,” said Stone, speaking almost solemnly, “I’m afraid of what I may not find.”
Carlotta’s face showed a trace of curiosity, as if she were about to ask what he meant, but she said nothing.
Austin did, though.
He observed a little crossly, “Don’t be cryptic. Does that speech mean anything?”
Seeming too preoccupied to answer, Stone asked;
“What day do you go up, Mrs Searle?”
“Let me see; I want to go two days before Christmas. It falls on Thursday this year, so I’ll go on Tuesday. We’ll motor up, taking the Colvins and Bradfords with us. We shall have two cars, besides the servants’ car, so if you and Mr Murray want to go with us—”
“No, thank you,—at least, speaking for myself. I will go up on Monday, and I fancy Uncle Dave will string along with me, though he is fond of a motor trip with friends. He’ll let you know. I hope you won’t allow my presence to put a damper on the festivities. For, you need diversion, it will do you good. And perhaps when the time serves you will play for me?”
“I’ll be very glad to,” Carlotta said, albeit a trifle absent-mindedly.
“The piano will be out of tune,” Austin said. “I must tell Prall to have the village tuner look at it. Now, I say, Carly, you’re a bit done up with all this excitement. You run along, now, and leave me to entertain Mr Stone.”
Seemingly relieved, Carlotta rose, in her slow, graceful fashion, and after a polite rather than friendly good night, she left the room.
“You’re sure your sister wants this plan put through?” Stone asked, as the two men sat down again for a bit of further chat.
“Yes,—oh, yes. Though she’s not as keen for it as I am. That is, not openly. You see, Stone, she isn’t bothered about money, as I am, but—”
“Let me say it for you. But if Mr Searle is dead, she wants to know it, so she can plan her future accordingly.”
“Yes, just that. Now, make no mistake, realize once for all, that there never was a truer, more loyal wife than Carlotta Searle. To put the matter in a few words, when they were married, the pair thought they were doing wisely. But as time went by they found they were utterly uncongenial in their tastes and almost never liked the same things or the same people. Yet Carlotta never hinted in word or deed, that she was dissatisfied with her lot. She took an interest in Ronald Booth, but she seldom saw him, never alone, and Duncan had no jealous feeling in that direction. But since he is not here, and she has given way more or less, to her feelings for Booth, and I, for one, don’t blame her. Those two are harmonious and, well,— what they call made for each other. Booth is a brick, but they are both eating their hearts out because they can’t marry. I don’t believe, honestly I don’t, that Carlotta would rejoice to learn of Duncan’s death, but, as you understand, if he is dead, she wants to know it.”
“Of course I understand, and I mean to find out the truth, if possible. You have no suspicions? Don’t answer if you don’t care to.”
“No, I haven’t a shadow of suspicion against any one. I hope no one has any against me.”
“If they did, I don’t suppose you would know it,” Stone spoke musingly.
“Well, I didn’t kill him. Lordy, man, I want the truth as much as Carlotta does,—or more. I want to marry, too. And, you see, you must see, that if Duncan’s death could be established,—I mean, if he is dead,—both my sister-in-law and myself could marry and live happy ever after.”
“You don’t suspect any of your servants?”
“It’s too absurd. Even if they had wanted to, how could they have put it over? No, I’ve no suspicions, it’s all a mystery, a blank mystery, with no ray of light.”
“It is said there is no such thing as a mystery. What seems so is merely lack of knowledge.”
“Very well, I’ll subscribe to that. Now, can you dig up the necessary knowledge?”
“That’s the question. Mrs Searle seems quite willing for me to go up to the house ahead of the crowd.”
“Oh, yes, Carlotta is ready for anything. You stay at the house if you want to. Mrs Prall will do you all right. She’s a good cook and housekeeper.”
“Good thing Mrs Searle can take it all so calmly.”
“She’s always like that. Born calm. Mistress of herself, though China fall. All that sort of thing. I wish she could marry Booth. He’s a brick, and they’re desperately in love.”
“Who’s the family lawyer?”
“Everett Brooks, member of the Brooks and Trowbridge firm. He was up at Magnolia, when Duncan went off. We saw a lot of him. But he can’t do anything. Nobody can, unless they can unearth Duncan.”
“I think I can do that,” said Stone, so gravely that Austin stared at him.
“Then go to it!”
“I mean to, and we’ll hope for success of one sort or another.”
On the Monday before Christmas, then, Fleming Stone wended his way, alone, like James’ solitary horseman, up to the Berkshire farm.
He went by train, and stopped first at the Inn. Here he received a vociferous welcome from fat old Jere Hickox and his more slender wife, the goodhearted Mally.
“Set yourself down,” the latter said, “and tell us all about your trip to the outlandish places.”
“It’s a temptation,” laughed Stone, “for I seldom find a willing audience. I prate of my trip, to be sure, but such a talk usually proves a room-emptier. Now I’ve no time to spare. Give me a quick lunch, Mally, and tell me a few bits of gossip, and I’ll be on my way. Any news whatever about the Duncan affair?”
“No,” answered Jere, as he lighted his old pipe, and settled down for a talk. “And there never will be. That man is dead and buried, long since. If you’d been on the job from the beginning, you might have done some tall sleuthing, but now, no, Mr Stone, it can’t be did.”
“Well, well, Jere, that remains to be seen. Cold season up here?”
“Not so very. Plenty of ice for skating, but no snow for sleighing. Winters ain’t like they used to be. Why, we used to have drifts over the tops of the fences that’d last six weeks or more.”
“You don’t regret them, do you?”
“No, I s’pose not. They made a heap of trouble, them big snowstorms did. But it don’t seem natural like to have no snow at all, or nothing but a flurry in the sunshine. The Silver Spray folks, they like snow and ice and cold weather, but they ain’t had much of it, late years. I’m a mite surprised that they’re coming up this Christmas.”
“Well, there’s really no reason why they shouldn’t. As long as they don’t know for a fact that Mr Searle isn’t alive, there’s no call to act as if they’d had a death in the family.”
“That’s what I say,” declared Mally, pausing near them, with a platter of hot broiled chops in her hands. “And it may be Mr Duncan might come back for Christmas. That’s what they do in the stories. Come on, now, Mr Stone, and eat while things is hot. It’s good to see you again.”
After the well cooked and appetizing meal was finished, Stone betook himself to the small office that served Chaldea as Police Headquarters.
Inspector Mullins was not there, but Canby was, and he greeted Stone heartily.
“Fairy-tale letters still coming in?” asked the caller, as he saw a pile of mail on the desk.
“Yes, sir. People can’t let up telling us how they saw Mr Searle on the street or in a car, everywhere from Katonah to Kalamazoo. We run ’em down and we chase ’em up religiously, but like most religious work it doesn’t get us anywhere. Leastways, it hasn’t so far. You got any new data?”
“Not a bit. The family are coming up to-morrow, as you doubtless know. I’m here a day ahead, just to stand where Moses stood, and view the country o’er. Scarcely expect to see anything indicative, but the views are fine.”
“Yes,” said Canby, absently. “I say, Mr Stone, I think that man’s dead, don’t you?”
“Well, yes. Canby, I think so, but a think is not proof.”
“No, sir. Well, he musta been killed on the premises of Silver Spray Farm. It stands to reason he must.”
“Well, all the questioning that was done right at first, gave no reason to suppose a car came up to the gates, or nearly up to them, and carried him off. If that had been one, somebody would have seen it or heard it.”
“Yes, I know it’s only a maybe proposition. But it stands to reason—”
“Well, let it stand. Now, if we cut out the stranger at the gates, we have left as suspects only the family and servants.”
“Oh, all right, I included them with the family. Now, the family and guests, being out on the South lawn practically all the time, couldn’t very well get opportunity to commit a murder, conceal the body and calmly rejoin the group round the tea table. The servants would have a better chance. How carefully have they been quizzed?”
“Enough to satisfy Mullins, but not me.” Canby spoke moodily and with a decided air of discontent.
“Also how thoroughly has the house been searched?”
“The family did that. I mean the police only gave it a hasty once over. But there’s little hope there. Now, here’s my theory, Mr Stone. Maybe you don’t like theories, but I do. Say, some one of the family, guests or servants, wanted to kill Mr Searle. Say, the murderer made his chance, when Mr Searle went in the house, that afternoon, and temporarily thrust the body into a cupboard or big chest. Then, late at night, Mr Murderer comes softly downstairs, collects his victim, takes him out and buries him in a darksome wood. How’s that?”
“Fine; but according to the witnesses, all the people are accounted for during the time of the tragedy.”
“Witnesses, pah! With the best and most honest intentions, a witness can be half an hour out of reckoning.”
“That’s true talk,” Stone nodded his head.
“Sure it is. Any one of those men on the lawn had ample opportunity. Each says he went into the house at such a minute and out again at such a minute. They don’t know this at all. Nobody ever knows the time exactly if he has no definite reason to know it.”
“Right you are, boy, in the main. That gives us four men to suspect, of the master’s class. And probably four or five men among the servants. You’re not including the ladies, I suppose?”
“Not if it turns out to be a job of burying him darkly at dead of night.”
“Well, pick on the four men, then. How about motives for the brother, the house guest, and the two neighbors?”
“Meaning Mr Austin, Mr Booth, Mr Colvin and Mr Bradford?”
“Exactly as stated.”
“Well, not to beat about the bush, my candidate is Leonard Colvin.”
Fleming Stone stared at him.
“And his reason?”
“Oh, jealousy of his peachy wife. Perhaps you don’t know what a lot of gossip there was about those two,—I mean, Mrs Colvin and Duncan Searle. Any self-respecting husband with a battle-ax temper would have lit into that man sooner. And as I understand it, Searle went into the house, and Mrs Colvin followed him in. Say Colvin saw red, and jumped after them, and landed a blow that was harder than he thought.”
“But, Colvin was out on the lawn all the time. He didn’t go in the house at all.”
“He says so, but hang it all, Mr Stone, I’m not sure about this thing. I don’t know how he could have accomplished such a deed, or where Mrs Colvin was at the time, or whether there was any accomplice, a servant, say, or where were all the other people who were traipsing in and out of the house continual. I don’t know these things, but I do know Len Colvin had motive and a damned quick temper. Now, you go on from there.”
“Did Mrs Searle know of her husband’s intrigue with the little blonde?”
Canby shrugged his Shoulders. “Who can tell what that sphinx knows or doesn’t know? But I’ll bet she knew! There’s mighty little escapes her. Yet if it suits her book, she’d pretend she didn't know. Probably her dignity wouldn’t let her admit the truth. She’d carry it off with a high hand, whatever her husband did. She always pretended the greatest friendship for Fluffy Colvin. How real it was nobody knows. But Leonard wasn’t so placid. He and his wife had terrible rows, I have that straight from folks in the know. Oh, well, Mr Stone, I’m just telling you this, because I’ve mulled over the thing for two or three months, and I can’t get any other theory that holds water at all.”
“Good for you, Canby. I’m glad to have this dope, and I promise you I’ll think it over. Now I’m going to the Farm. Why don’t you come along, and help me in a search of the house? I don’t mean an all-over search, but investigation of a few places that might prove of interest.”
“ ’Course I’ll go. Glad to. They looking for you?”
“The caretakers? Yes. I’ve full powers; let’s go.”
As they neared the house, Fleming Stone was surprised at the majesty of its winter beauty. The really fine architecture showed up as it could not do when half hidden by summer foliage, and the great trees bore their bare branches proudly aloft, as if it devolved on them to make the landscape.
The conifers were triumphant. Blue spruce and Austrian pine made background for the shivering white birches and copper beeches.
Preparation for the next day were progressing, indeed, nearly completed.
Storm doors had been taken off, shutters opened, and the glow of open fires greeted them cheerfully as they entered the front, or North door.
Prall was at work in the greenhouses, but Mrs Prall met them, and offered rest and refreshment.
She was busily engaged in putting up holly and ground pine, assisted by some lads she had collected for the purpose.
Stone bade her go on with her work, saying that he and his colleague would fend for themselves.
“Now,” Stone said, as the woman left them, “if you know the meaning of the word dispatch, make use of it. I’ve none too much time for all I want to do.”
“Who’s the musicker?” asked Canby, hearing piano keys struck.
“Probably the tuner. I know they expected him. Come on, Canby.”
Stone led the way upstairs and on up to the attics. “I may be crazy,” he said, “but I had a notion that there was room for a secret passage or cupboard in these walls.”
“Goody!” cried Canby, boyishly. “A secret passage would be the whipped cream on the clam soup! But just where?”
And, try as they would, no trace of secret passage or room could they find.
“Not only we can’t find it,” Stone lamented, “but it isn’t here.” He twirled his yardstick like a drum major, he let his tape measure roll itself up and pocketed it, his expression a mixture of chagrin and regret.
“Well, since we’re here,” Canby suggested, “let’s make a clean sweep of it.”
They did this, but to no purpose. Nothing rewarded them for their zeal,—nothing but the most commonplace partitions and walls could be found.
“It will be so all the way along,” said Stone, pessimistically. “I took over too late, but that isn’t it. I’ve got a preconceived belief, but that isn’t it. The thing is that the problem outwits me. It’s too inexplicable, too impossible. I can’t swing it.”
“Well, don’t lie down on the job quite so quickly. Give yourself half a chance.”
“You’re a good sort, Canby. I will give myself half a chance, in fact I may give myself a whole chance, if that would help along.”
“Dunno. Chances is chances, but seems to me the only thing to hope for is a bit of luck.”
“And that we’ll get! A crazy problem like this one, must bring its own luck with it. Can’t expect to find any ready-made to fit.”
They finished their search of the attics, but found no clew nor bit of evidence of any sort.
“I didn’t really expect to,” Stone said, sighing, “but a feller can hope even if he doesn’t expect.”
“Cellars?” suggested Canby, laconically.
“Oh, yes,—futile but advisable. Come along.” Down they went to the big, airy, well-lighted cellar rooms.
“Fine housekeeping,” Stone commented, looking round at the tidy and perfectly appointed rooms, cupboards and cubicles. “Mrs Searle look after it, or all this the housekeeper’s doings?”
“Dunno, but I fancy she has an oversight. She’s that sort. Capable, efficient and a born general.”
“She’s wilting though, under this strain of anxiety and worry.”
“Is she? That’s too bad. I fancied she’d stand the gaff.”
“And probably will. But it’s a hard situation. Now, I see little chance of finding anything gruesome down here, for it’s all so everlastingly clean and cleared up. One can’t conceive of a dead body hidden in these immaculate receptacles.”
“I’m thinking we won’t discover any dead body, Canby.”
“Maybe. If you had a body to dispose of, what would you do with it?”
“Bury it,” said Canby, promptly. “Bury it extra deep.”
“Good idea, but a hard job—for one.”
“Might have had help. All problematical.”
“Just that! And a sticker of a problem!”
They finished up the cellar, and went back upstairs, with a slight regret that they had not found an old-fashioned cellar, dark and with a dirt floor and untidy, crowded rooms.
“Your men did all this searching, didn’t they?” asked Stone, as they returned to the first floor and sat down in the lounge.
“Yes, and thoroughly. Also, the family did it in their own way, which probably was as thorough as our own.”
“Like as not. Well, it’s done, anyway. I had a hankering to see for myself how the land lay, and I’ve seen. Duncan Searle’s body isn’t under this roof, unless there is a secret hiding place, which has escaped us.”
“You going through the master bedrooms?”
“I don’t think so. Mrs Prall’s broom has left not so much as a cobweb where it doesn’t belong.”
“Well, I’ll be jogging. Want me to come over tonight?”
“No, I’ll do some cogitating, whatever that is, and turn in early.”
“All right, then, I’ll see you in the morning.” Canby departed, and Fleming Stone sat alone in the comfortable lounge, trying to direct his “cogitations.”
Dave Murray had not come up with him, being tempted by the pleasanter motor ride, so Stone planned to stay at the Silver Spray house over night.
After a short time he rang the bell and Mrs Prall appeared. He told her his plans and then asked to see her husband.
Prall soon came, and Stone bade him be seated, as he wanted a talk with him.
The talk was a frank questioning as to the possibility of any of the house servants being implicated in the tragedy.
“You see, Prall,” Stone said, hoping by casual chat to put the man more at his ease, “I’m beginning to think we’ll never see Mr Searle again.”
“Murder, sir?” asked the gardener, not indifferently, but as one accepting a situation.
“Or accident. But, in either case, I feel sure he’s dead.”
“Must be. Else he’d showed up by now.”
“It seems so to me. Now, to your knowledge, the place has been well searched, hasn’t it?”
“Lord, yes, sir. That is all nigh around. If so be as there’s a chance of that there body being buried fur off, there’s a mort o’ places in the farther woods.”
“I know. That’s the trouble. It’s hopeless to go all over that great expanse of woodland. Well, what I want from you, is a statement of anything you may know or surmise as to the staff. I know how you hate to squeal, but remember this is a matter of life and death. Maybe murder. You can’t hold back, Prall, if you know anything.”
“No, sir, I don’t. The help has been here a long time, most of ’em, and I don’t believe one of ’em would lift a finger against any one of the fambly.”
“And yet, you have a thought in the back of your head that you’re determined not to tell me. Why, Prall, why defeat the ends of justice, why help to cast suspicion in a wrong direction, why not be frank, and tell what you know, or what you surmise?”
“Lordy, sir, you’re a makin’ too much of it, it’s nothing at all, only—only—”
“Yes, go on.”
“Well, it’s young Tim. Not that he knows anything, as I know of, but he’s—well, he’s gone queer, —yes, queer.”
“What does he do or say that seems strange?”
“Nothin’, that’s just it. But he’s whatyoucallit, moody,—yes, sir, moody.”
“With changing moods?”
“Just that. Now, lookin’ like he’s lost his last friend, and then again seemingly happy and gay.”
“Well, that’s not queer for a young lad. Maybe he’s in love.”
“Tim!” the gardener guffawed. “No, indeedy! He’s scared to death of a girl,—he’d run a mile ruther’n meet one.”
“What do you think’s the matter with him, then?”
“I think he’s got some bee in his bonnet about Mr Duncan. Nothing for certain, or he’d tell me, but just some odd notion.”
“Perhaps he fancies himself a detective,—does he read mystery stories?”
“Does he! Nothin’ else but! No, that would only make him alert and spyin’ about. No, he’s weighed down with some sort of feelin’s that I can’t make out.”
“Is he here now?”
“On the place? Yes, sir. He’s always here when Fletcher isn’t. And of course, the folks have Fletcher in the city. He’ll be comin’ up with ’em to-morrow, and prob’ly he can find out what ails Tim.”
After some further talk concerning the other servants, who were all given a clean bill by Prall, Stone dismissed him, and asked him to send Tim along.
The interval of waiting he spent in racking his brain for a hint or thought of some way to look.
“But, old man,” he said to himself, “you’ve often longed for a real sticker, a case without a clew. Now, here it is, ready made to your hand, and yet you are not happy!”
“Hello, Mr Stone,” called out a young voice, and Stone looked up to see a shortish, fattish, self-reliant looking lad in the doorway.
“That you, Tim? Come along in. Sit there.”
Tim sat gingerly on the edge of the chair the other indicated. He was unused to such attentions, but Fleming Stone believed a physically comfortable witness would answer better than a restless one.
“Tim,” Stone began, “I’m a clairvoyant.”
If he hoped to impress the boy, he was not successful, for Tim responded,
“I know what that means, Mister, it’s a feller as can see into another chap’s mind.”
“Yes, just that.” The lad’s assured tone rather balked the detective. “Now, I read your mind and I see you have a secret there, a small secret, but a real one. Something you don’t propose to tell anybody.”
“Right you are, Guv-nor. I don’t.”
“Not even if you’re made to see it’s your duty?”
“I ain’t got much use for duty, I ain’t.”
Tim’s manner showed no trace of impertinence, but he had a decided air that made Stone fear he was in for a difficult argument.
“Tim, do you love anybody in the world?”
“Me mother and me dog. That’s all.”
“Not Mr and Mrs Searle?”
“Oh, them? They’re boss folks. You can’t love people like that, I mean,—people like me can’t.”
“But you’d help them, if you could?”
“Sure. Lead me to it.”
“The first step is to tell me that secret you’re hiding. I have a right to ask, Tim, for I am employed by Mrs Searle and by Mr Austin, to try to find out what happened to Mr Duncan. Now if you—”
“Who said what I know has anything to do with what happened to Mr Duncan?”
“Nobody said so, except yourself. You’re saying it now, with every tone of your voice and every scowl on your face.”
“Nothing of the sort,” but the gray eyes cleared of their storminess, and the loud voice came down several tones.
Stone tried another tack.
“Did it ever occur to you, Tim, that Mr Duncan Searle may have been—murdered?”
He said the last word in a thrilling whisper, with the full intention of startling the boy.
“Murder!” he gasped, “what—what do you mean?”
“What I say. I don’t know that it is a true theory, but it may be. If so, can you still say your secret has nothing to do with it?”
“Sure I can!” Tim had pulled himself together. “Say, Mr Stone, who did him in?”
“You are the most exasperating chap!” Stone cried, smiling in spite of his disappointment. “I didn’t say he was killed, on the contrary, I said I don’t know that he was. Now out with that precious secret of yours, or I’ll have to turn you over to the police.”
“Them?” Tim snapped his fingers, carelessly. “All right, I like Sarge Canby, I’m not so stuck on old Mullins.”
“Will you tell Canby what you know?”
“Nixy, I’d ruther tell you. But honest to goodness, Mister, there’s nothin’ to tell. I s’pose old Prall has been stuffin’ you with tales of me bein’ grouchy. Well, I ain’t. Looky here, Mr Stone, I’ll do this. Lcmme work along o’ you, and if we hit it off together, and if I see, that it would be a wise move on my part, I’ll tell you what’s on my mind, if any. But it’s nothing I know, or even guess, or suspect. It’s just a dim, faraway thought, a sort of—”
“Oh, my, no! Nothing so posertive as that. More like a faint rustlin’ in the trees just before the shower comes up.”
“All right, Tim, clear out now, and I’ll consider your proposal.”
Fleming Stone had no intention of taking Tim into partnership, as the boy had calmly invited him to do. But he feared to antagonize him, if he told him so too plainly.
He decide to temporize and let Tim think he was being made use of more than he was. Yet he had a feeling that the chap was not one to be easily fooled.
And then the detective put away all thought of the matter, and gave himself over to a pleasant season of rest and refreshment.
Mrs Prall served him a wholesome and well-cooked dinner, and afterward, he went to Duncan Searle’s small office for a smoke.
Later on, the Pralls went home to their cottage, and Stone was left entirely alone in the big house.
This was what he wanted, and he at once set about a systematic search of the house. Not a routine search after the police fashion, but a hunt conducted in his own way.
Going up to the third story, he investigated the bedrooms of Mellon and Warner, not going into the women’s rooms at all.
He found little of interest. Naturally the men had taken with them to the city any personal belongings or any letters or documents. Their table drawers gave up no indicative material, and Stone sighed as he realized what he was up against.
He was strongly of the opinion that Duncan Searle had been murdered and his body taken away or most carefully concealed on the estate. Of course, if the former were true, search was well nigh impossible. But if the latter theory could be established, if he could find any least shred of evidence of it, then he meant to track down the murderer.
It was, as he told himself, a sticker. But he wanted a sticker. He had been on a long and delightful vacation, during which he had, at times, missed his work, and he was glad to get back to it. And the fact that the case seemed one of almost insurmountable difficulty, only spurred him on to greater effort.
Disappointed at his failure to find anything at all in the menservants’ rooms, but by no means disheartened, he went down the stairs again to the second story. Here he visited only the rooms of the family, guest rooms seemed to possess no attractions for him.
In Austin’s room, where he went first, he found what he told himself was enough stuff to sink a ship.
The small desk was crammed to overflowing with letters, telegrams, photographs, and souvenirs of various sorts. There were scores of newspaper clippings, referring, for the most part, to gayeties in which he or his friends had taken part. Some, too, were photographs of beautiful girls, who hinted mutely of the chorus or screen.
Altogether, Stone decided, Austin was a gay dog, and he didn’t care who knew it. But of late, Stone felt pretty certain, the young man had settled down to one, and all his lesser loves were forgotten for Dorothy Bradford.
If they could only marry. But, though Duncan Searle had refused support for a married man, it was quite possible that he might have relented. Anyway, if Duncan’s death could be proved, all would yet be well for the lovers.
So Stone only casually looked over the sheaves of missives, yet with an eye to possible clews.
He found nothing he could by any stretch of imagination deem a clew. But seeing such a mass of Austin’s handwriting as he found in the crowded desk, his attention was drawn to its characteristics.
Stone had made a study of graphology, not going into the more subtle phases of the science, but knowing well the rudimentary indications of penmanship. And often, in preference to the formation of the letters, Stone gleaned knowledge of the writer’s character from his flourishes.
Though occasionally one sees a signature free from flourishes, a notable example being that of Rudyard Kipling, yet by far the majority of mankind indulge their vanity or ostentation by more or less elaborate flourishes or tangles above or below their names.
These things meant much to Stone’s practiced eye. The papers in Austin’s writing were infrequently letters, they were unfinished verses of atrocious doggerel, addresses of people, copies of extracts from works of wit and wisdom, and stray pages from an old loose-leaf diary.
Often Searle’s own name appeared, and the complicated flourishes spelled for Stone, what he had already suspected, a nature possessed of finesse, diplomacy and cleverness. A simple flourish beneath a plainly written signature, denotes a strong character, independence and a lack of vanity. But change this to eccentric and exaggerated flourishes, and the opposite traits are indicated.
Again, the observer noted, there was present that indubitable mark of dissimulation, the words that dwindle away to a wavy line, and indistinguishable letters. This means diplomacy over-developed, and entirely suited Stone’s growing opinion of Austin’s character. Also, a peculiar loop of the small letter s, which betokens easy deviation from the truth, was quite in keeping with the rest, and the detective felt he had at least found some corroboration of his decisions.
He couldn’t as yet, in theory or even in imagination, see Austin in the role of Cain, but if Duncan Searle was murdered, somebody must have done it, and it must have been somebody with a motive,—a strong motive.
He took several bits of Austin’s chirography, feeling certain they would never be missed, but ready to confess if accused of purloining them.
The few leaves from what had evidently been a diary, yielded no startling items, being mostly cryptic notes of books or people which he wanted to read or see, or instructions for his tailor or tradespeople.
One list seemed to embody queer notions, so Stone annexed that. It was a list of chemicals, of which the only legible names were plaster of Paris and caustic potash. This seemed to connote Duncan rather than his brother, and Stone’s quick mind flew to the conclusion that it had to do with some laboratory errand for the experimenter.
Outside the desk he found no suggestive evidence. The appointments of the room were simple and of a plain masculine type. Stone felt those flourishes called for a more elaborate scheme of decoration, or at least, some more up-to-date furnishings. But he remembered this was a country house, and it was most doubtful if Austin had had any word in the fitting up of his own rooms.
There were three in his suite. Bedroom, sitting room and bathroom, all now in immaculate tidiness after the ministrations of the efficient Mrs Prall.
Slowly, Stone made his way to the suite of the master of the house.
More elaborate than Austin’s, it was not in any way fussy or over-decorated.
It was quite evidently the result of Carlotta’s good taste and judgment, and was a marvel of comfort and dignified grace.
Exhaustive search of the small desk, here also present, brought only a blank for result. But, of course, Stone mused, the police had been all over this suite with a fine toothed comb. He saw nothing of interest in the carefully cleared up rooms, and stepping into the bathroom, saw there, also, that almost painfully neat condition.
In the bathroom, one towel was unfolded, and hung on the wide rack at full width. It was not soiled, had evidently been used but once, and, with its air of informality gave off a touch of human companionship which Stone was in a mood to appreciate.
He scrutinized the towel, saw nothing peculiar about it, per se, and sighed again.
He looked in at the door of Carlotta’s boudoir, but it seemed a sort of sacrilege to enter. Then he smiled at himself for a silly, and went in. The lovely rooms, done up in pastel tints, seemed a far cry from scenes of sin or evil, but who knew? he might find some illuminating hint even here.
As he turned on the soft, indirect lighting, his thoughts flew to the great lady who belonged here, and he wondered if Duncan Searle were worthy of his queenly wife. And his heart melted within him, for he knew that whatever Duncan Searle was or had been, now Carlotta’s love was not for him, but was for Ronald Booth. It did not need a detective to discover that.
And yet, he knew that until the matter of Duncan’s absence was cleared up once and for all, Carlotta listened only under protest to the voice of the wooer.
Austin had told him of Carlotta’s fidelity to Duncan and her determination to do him no injustice. If now and then she gave way to her own affection for Ronald, it was momentary and involuntary. In her pathetically miserable situation, it would be strange if she could keep up her struggle without faltering.
His search was perfunctory, and more a tour of admiration than investigation. The whole suite was full of feminine atmosphere. Finest linens and laces, softest and most luxurious pillows and coverlets all combined to make a truly fascinating nest for the Bird of Paradise who belonged there.
Stone smiled at his own whimsey. Carlotta was like a Bird of Paradise, and he fancied her flights were above the head of the man who was her husband.
Stone had never known Duncan Searle well, though he had met him. But as he remembered, Searle was self-centered and absorbed in his inventions and experiments. He was erratic and uneven of temper. Now, if he had fallen a victim to the winsome Erminie, it was like Carlotta to ignore the fact, or, at least to make the best of it, and trust it would blow over.
Stone couldn’t see Colvin himself taking the matter calmly, and he couldn’t help a vague feeling that the disappearance of Duncan had to do with the liaison. It seemed to him a logical, even an inevitable conclusion to be drawn.
Just how or in what manner Duncan disappeared, he had no slightest notion, but at the present moment, Fleming Stone was inclined to think the man went off purposely. Now, granting this, could Carlotta know of it? It would be possible,—yes. But that possibility shed no light on the practical problems involved, the definite and insurmountable difficulties of his getting away.
Still, it could be reasoned out. Say Duncan came into the house and went to his own rooms. Say he stayed there until after the others had returned to the lawn, until even Carlotta had gone down to join the crowd at tea.
Then he could have gone out at the front door and walked along the high road until he saw a car or a truck which would take him, unknowing, on his way.
Or, if that was a bit unbelievable, then say he went on and on, through woods or off on a side road to wherever he was going.
The whole theory was spoiled by the fact that Erminie had not followed him. But she may have found it impossible to get away from her jealous lord and master, and be preparing to join Duncan later. The money factor, too, was a snag, But Duncan Searle could have arranged that in half a dozen clever ways.
He had a great deal of money coming in from his patents, and he could have secreted any amount in cash against the time of his departure.
And yet, Fleming Stone was up here, alone, at Silver Spray Farm, to look for the man’s dead body.
Well, no possibility must be overlooked, no hint ignored.
Still, there was positively nothing to be gained from Carlotta’s apartment. He stepped into the bathroom. Everything of the latest and most beautiful pattern, but no garish color schemes or modernistic terrors. All white with marble appointments and fixtures of gleaming silver.
It was now all in readiness for Carlotta’s coming and Stone noted a towel spread in readiness, as was the one in Duncan’s room. Evidently Carlotta gave strict orders about minor details.
Slowly he walked back through the hall to the great staircase. Slowly he went down the steps.
His next move was to be out of doors, and he donned his warm overcoat and a cap and started out.
He went out through the servants’ entrance, on the East side of the house but he made no search of the kitchens and pantries, feeling sure they would turn up nothing of interest. As he went through a small back passage, he saw a board on the wall, with labeled keys, and of these he selected three which he slipped in his pocket.
Then he stepped out the back door.
It was a fine, clear night. Cold, but not windy, moonless, but with a sky full of stars.
He went first to the garage, to which he had brought the key.
But he found nothing in the carefully kept building to interest him at all. Immaculately clean and tidy, as was every place on the estate, there was nothing to be seen but the cars and their appurtenances for cleaning or repairing.
He looked into cupboards, lofts or anything that might be a hiding-place, but discovered nothing.
How could he, he thought, smiling to himself, when the place had been thoroughly searched by the family and by the police?
Leaving the building he went on to the laboratory.
Here he spent a longer time, yet his search was no more fruitful. But it was a fascinating place, with its various tables and work benches, its racks of apparatus and its jars and bottles of chemicals.
Educated though he was in various sciences, most of these matters were beyond his ken, and he marveled at the genius that manipulated them to such wonderful results.
But he wasted little time in admiring the delicate glass and metal paraphernalia, with which the shelves were filled.
He looked into cupboards and cubbyholes, into deep drawers and dark closets.
He didn’t know himself what he expected to find, indeed, he had no definite expectations, he merely hoped for some ray of light, some straw to show which way the wind blew. He hoped he might see meaning in things that conveyed none to the previous searchers. That he might deduce a clew from things that meant nothing to less shrewd observers.
But he found nothing. Everything was so cleared up and so cleaned up that no stray piece of evidence could be found by the sharpest eyes.
Disheartened not so much by his failure as by the utter hopelessness of getting anywhere by this sort of work, Stone tackled the last of the buildings.
This one had originally been a barn, and was now used as a storehouse.
An old barn suggests a fruitful field for gleaning, but as he might have foreseen, this one was as carefully cleaned and tidied as the newer buildings.
Floored and painted, it scarcely had the look of a barn at all, and Stone glanced about hopelessly.
“An old barn, in the country, ought to be full of a mass of junk,” he told himself. “Ought to be chock-a-block with discarded harness, farm implements and left overs from past years. This place is as modern as a speakeasy. Yet I don’t know why I want old time stuff when I’m hunting for—well, clews.”
For some reason, he was loath to admit, even to himself, that what he was really looking for was Duncan Searle’s dead body. He had a conviction that it was somewhere on the premises, yet he had no slightest reason to think so.
Except that he had exhausted all other possibilities.
The storehouse held some supplies for garden and garage, but was mostly given over to the bulky materials used in the laboratory.
Rows of kegs and barrels, all neatly labeled, shelves of cans and jars, chests of drawers that held smaller and more valuable material,—all of these Stone scrutinized without feeling that he was getting anywhere.
Of course, if a body had been stuffed into one of these barrels or chests it would have been discovered in the early stages of the tragedy.
He opened one or two large chests, but they held books and papers, evidently records of research work for past years.
He took the covers from two or three large metal containers, like ashcans, but they contained just what their labels indicated.
Except one marked “Fuller’s Earth.”
Now that, Stone noted, didn’t have in it Fuller’s Earth at all. But then it didn’t have anything else. There was a sort of powdered clayey looking substance down in the bottom of it, which might, after all, be Fuller’s Earth admixtured with some other stuff.
Stone’s half-formed idea of reconstruction was that supposing some one had murdered Searle, the murderer might have hidden his victim in some place, until night time, and then, in the small hours, sneaked to the place, retrieved the body and buried it.
If in the house, he pictured the criminal killing his victim and thrusting him into a wardrobe or clothes closet to wait for nightfall. If in one of these outbuildings, then the body would have been concealed in some big receptacle until it could be safely buried.
This storehouse offered hiding places, but no evidence was forthcoming.
Stone found a stick and poked in the big drum marked Fuller’s Earth.
But the grayish white mass, whatever it was, gave up no information. Stone didn’t expect it to, but he still felt that since the can was nearly empty, it might have been used for a temporary place of concealment.
His poking, however, brought to light a small and peculiar looking bit of metal that shone as his flashlight touched it.
Leaning down, he extracted, with some difficulty, a queer looking gadget.
It seemed to be a small silver ornament of some sort, perhaps two inches wide, and shaped, roughly, like a horseshoe.
At either end were tiny prongs that might have held precious stones or imitations thereof.
A woman’s brooch or hair ornament, first sprang to the detective’s quick imagination, then he remembered women don’t wear hair ornaments these days.
A hat ornament, then? Maybe, but it seemed more likely to be a part of some larger ornament. Or, was it a man’s insignia of some kind? The horseshoe shape connoted a patron of the races, and this thing might be a badge or medal.
Tarnished a little, twisted a little, it was yet almost intact, and those delicately made prongs had certainly held something of value.
Whereupon Fleming Stone put the thing carefully away and devoted himself to a hunt for further treasure trove.
But all to no avail. Punch and poke as he might, he could find nothing in the semi-soft, partly encrusted mass at the bottom of the can.
The stuff might be anything, so far as he knew. He felt sure it was not refuse, for it would have been thrown out. No rubbish or useless material would be found here. And he supposed it some mixture, prepared and stored until wanted.
How the silver trinket got in, he could not think, unless some one leaning over the can had unknowingly dropped it.
It might or might not be a clew, but it was the only thing approaching a clew that he had yet come across, so, he had wrapped it carefully in a handkerchief and put it in his pocket for later study.
Further looking about gave no further information, and in despair, Stone concluded to call it a day and go in the house and to bed.
Taking a final glance round, he saw a round white face, which seemed to be all eyes, peering in at the window.
A moment’s look at the face showed him it was Tim,, the garage boy.
With no show of surprise, Stone beckoned him inside.
Tim came in, looking a little frightened, but with his usual cocky air of assurance.
“Hello, Mr Stone,” he said, genially; “can I help?”
Stone wasn’t quite sure whether he wanted to snub this pert young person or make friends with him, so he temporized.
“Hello, youngster,” he said, rather absently. “What you doing up this time of night?”
“Following round after you,” said Tim, perching himself on the corner of a table.
“Think that’s a nice thing to do?”
“Sure, why not?”
“But I thought you wanted to be my friend.”
“Friend or foe—it’s all one to me, so long as I know what you’re up to.”
There was such a man to man tone in Tim’s voice, such an utter absence of impudence in his manner that Stone began to take notice.
“Tim,” he said, straightforwardly, “what’s your game?”
“To help you if you’re on the right tack, and to fight you if you’re wrong.”
Again that grave decision, that almost ominous look in the big gray eyes.
“Do you know the right tack?”
“No, sir, but I will as soon as you strike it.”
“Haven’t I struck it yet?”
“You haven’t struck anything yet.”
Now Stone was most anxious to know if this lad had seen him dig up the trinket that he had unearthed in the can. He doubted it, for at the time of his finding, he was sure he had not been within range of the window. But he felt he must know.
“How do you know that?”
“I’ve followed you all the way round.”
“Then, didn’t you see me pick up that—well, something in the laboratory?”
“No, I didn’t, and you didn’t pick up anything there. I watched you.”
“And I didn’t pick up anything in the garage?”
“No, sir, you didn’t.”
“But I did here, in the storehouse?”
Stone’s smile, as he intended, belied his words.
“I don’t think so. I lost you for a few minutes, when you were behind the partition, but I’m pretty sure you didn’t fish anything out o’ them kegs or barrels.”
“Why, are you so sure?”
“I’ve poked in ’em myself, and there’s nothing there.”
Tim looked sad, rather than impudent, and Stone felt more puzzled than ever.
What was this boy, and what did he know? He must be carefully handled, that was certain. Yet Stone knew better than to seem to curry favor.
“You’re behaving strangely, Tim. Keep it up if you choose, but watch out you don’t get into trouble by it. You know people, especially young people, can be too smart.”
“I know it.” Tim sighed. “You don’t know me a little bit, Mr Stone. Well, the time may come when I can help you,—or, you can help me.”
With this amazing statement, Tim marched to the door, opened it, and with a brief “Goo’ night,” disappeared into the darkness.
Stone gave an involuntary laugh at the thought of the boy’s help, and then fell into deeper thought. It was half an hour before he roused himself and went back to the house and to bed.
Mrs Prall gave Stone a most satisfactory breakfast, and then he asked that the gardener might be sent to the smoking room.
Prall came to the detective there, and Stone bade him to be seated for a conference.
Prall was a typical New Englander, and though deferential and proper of demeanor, he was a self-respecting man, and held nobody his superior, even though he worked for him and accepted his wages. He felt himself fully the equal of Duncan Searle, even though fate had cast their lots differently. He saw no reason to consider Fleming Stone above him, in any way, and Stone gave him no occasion to change his ideas.
“Well, Mr Stone,” he said, sociably, “you makin’ any progress?”
“I can’t really say. As a matter of fact, I’m puzzled. Prall, what are all those metal barrels out in the storehouse?”
“What are they? They’re barrels.”
“I know,—I mean what are they for? What is in them?”
“Oh, different things. Mebbe packin’ stuff, excelsior, sawdust and the like. Mr Searle was allus sending things away that had to be packed mighty careful.”
“Was it your job,—the packing?”
“Well, I superintended. Young Tim, he’d do the racin’ around like.”
“Not him. That feller never does a thing he can get out of, he don’t. But, after all, there wasn’t such a lot to do. Just now and ag’in, you see.”
“The other barrels? They don’t all hold packing materials.”
“Lord, no, sir. It’s a reg’lar storehouse, you know, and Mr Searle, he kep’ supplies there.
“Well, what’s in the barrels?”
“I dunno, but they’re all labeled. Likewise the kags and chests and boxes. Mr Searle, he’s awful pertikler to have the labels right.”
“But there’s one there labeled ‘Fuller’s Earth,’ and it isn’t Fuller’s Earth at all.”
“Well, then, it’s Fuller’s Earth mixed with sumpthing else. Mr Searle’s likely enough to make messes, most orfle smelling ones, too, and if they’re just a temp’rary test like, he don’t bother to change the label. Why, what about this one? Had I ought to look after it? I haven’t touched any of those bar’ls or kags since Mr Searle was—went away. The p’leecemen told me not to touch anything at all, so I haven’t.”
“Haven’t you done any cleaning or dusting in the laboratory or storehouse?”
“Well, no, not to call it anything. I’ve looked in now and ag’in, but though I might dust away a cobweb, or nose around to see nothin’ was leakin’, I haven’t done any real cleaning. Not much reason to, neither. Nobody messin’ about, so there’s no dirt here and there.”
“Well, here’s a chore for you Prall. I want you to go and look into that can marked Fuller’s Earth, and if you know all about it, know exactly what’s in it, come back here and tell me. But if you’re doubtful, do this. Get another barrel, or something, and take a shovel and a coarse sieve or screen, and put all the stuff from the barrel through it. What I want is to find out if there is anything in it except that mass of mud. Probably you’ll get nothing, but give it a thorough straining. Don’t say anything to anybody. I’m going over to the village now, and if Tim is going on errands he can take me with him. Don’t start this matter till the boy is away.”
“I’m on, Mr Stone. I’ll do just what you say, and I’ll have my report ready when you get back.”
“Good. Mind, now, be thorough. Don’t miss any little piece of metal or any broken bits of anything.” Prall went off, and soon Stone was in the car with Tim en route for Chaldea.
“Want to go to the Inn, Mr Stone?” asked the boy, who seemed a trifle taciturn.
“No, to the police station.”
“Goin’ to give me up?” Tim grinned.
“Not to-day, but you’ll probably fetch up there of your own accord, sooner or later.”
“Prob’ly, most likely,” agreed Tim. “Think Canby can help out, Mr Stone?”
As a matter of fact that was just what Stone was wondering at the moment. Also, he was wondering whether to tell Canby of his find, but he tried not to think about it, lest Tim’s intrusive intuition should discover his very thoughts.
He went to Canby’s office, arranging for Tim to call for him after the market errands were done.
Stone told the other of his search of the outbuildings the night before.
“Gee, I wouldn’t like to poke around those places alone in the dark! Didn’t you see things?”
“I did,” declared Stone, solemnly. “I saw a weird, white face peering in at a window.”
“Really!” and Canby looked distinctly nervous.
“Yes, it was Tim.” Stone had small liking for practical jokes.
“And what was that limb of Satan up to?”
“He isn’t a wrong ’un, but he is certainly queer. He talked to me as if he had the whip hand.”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, he said, he’d no doubt he could help me and maybe I could help him or something of that sort. I say, Canby, what do you think of when I describe a trinket, made of silver—sort of silver wire, but fairly thick,—shaped like a horseshoe, or more like a semicircle, with small neatly made prongs on each end?”
“Not very clear, are you? So far as I get a mental picture, it’s like the horseshoe brooches the ladies used to wear, set with diamonds. They were the great thing when I was a lad.”
“I’ve seen them with diamonds all the way round, but never with them only at the two ends, have you?”
“Not sure, but they made them all sorts of fancy ways. My mother had one and so did two of my aunts. All different of construction and setting.”
“Any like this?” Stone took the trinket from his pocket. He had planned to show it if Canby seemed familiar with such things.
“N—no, not exactly. That’s a funny model. And I say, that isn’t silver, it’s platinum. Where’d you get it?”
“Found it. Then if it’s platinum, it’s a lot more modern, isn’t it?”
“Oh, yes. My folks never had anything set in platinum. All in gold, then. I bet there never was a horseshoe of diamonds set in platinum. By the time platinum was in, horseshoes were out. Does it mean anything to you?”
“I’m not sure yet.” Stone wrapped the thing in a bit of tissue paper and returned it to his pocket. “No further news here?”
“No, except a few more dumb letters. Seems like the public can’t stop writing ’em.”
“Nothing of any value?”
“I should say not! Stuff to make you sick. Saw Searle in Bermuda. Saw him getting into an airplane. Saw him with a lovely lady. All those noises over and over. Family coming to-day, aren’t they?”
“Yes, and guests. Practically the party that was at the house on the day of the disappearance. Only David Murray extra.”
“Think the murderer is in that bunch?”
“Can’t say yet. If he was, he’s all-fired clever, that’s all I can say.”
Mullins came in then, and at once Stone asked him what he knew of the boy, Tim.
“He’s a queer Dick,” the Inspector returned, frowning. “I can’t say there’s anything wrong with him, but he’s sort of uncanny,—what is, I think, called fey.”
“Fey is a word people use in various ways,” Stone said. “Now I don’t think Tim is in any way psychic or clairvoyant—”
“Lord, no,” cried Mullins, “he’s too dumb for that.”
“Oh, he isn’t dumb,” the detective said, quickly. “Whatever he is, he isn’t dumb. He’s as smart as a steel trap, but he is emotional and stubborn. If he takes a notion nothing will budge him from it.”
“I say, Mr Stone, show the Inspector that toy of yours,” Canby suggested.
Now Stone half regretted having shown it to Canby, but since he had done so, it was a secret no longer.
He took it from his pocket, unwrapped it and laid it on the table at which the three men sat.
“Some sort of woman’s trinket,” he said; “used to have stones in the prongs. Diamonds, emeralds, maybe—big pearls. Bought I suppose, from the five and ten. I’m told they have beauties there.”
Inspector Mullins looked at the trinket, as Stone called it, and then he looked at the two men.
“Trinket!” he said; “big pearls!”
His gaze went from one to the other; he looked amazed and amused at the same time. So quizzical did his face become, so evidently was he laughing at them good and plenty, Canby grew annoyed.
“What’s the matter with you?” he cried out. “You look at us like we were fools!”
“Got it in one, my boy! That’s just the opinion I have of you,—both.”
Fleming Stone was not at all angry, but he was mystified and deeply interested. He realized Mullins knew more about this queer thing on the table than either of the others. He saw at once that he had been mistaken as to what it was, and that Canby was equally ignorant.
“What is it, Inspector?” he asked. “I confess I don’t know.”
“You don’t know, Mr Stone?” the speaker looked incredulous. “Did you never see such a thing before?”
“I never did.”
“Open your mouth and shut your eyes.”
Stone had no idea of what this meant, but he obeyed orders implicitly.
Mullins leaned forward a little and took a quick inventory of a sound and unusually fine and complete set of gleaming white teeth.
“All right,” he said, and Stone looked at him again. “You neither of you know the use of this piece of very fine work?” he went on, as if trying to convince himself that such subliminal ignorance existed. “Then I’ll tell you. It is a plate, a bridge, and has at one time held not jewels, but—false teeth.”
“Oh, of course,” exclaimed Canby, but Stone continued to stare at the metal horseshoe.
“You mean, somebody wore that?” he asked, in an awed tone. “How could they?”
“Oh, easy enough, I wear one myself, though no such hifalutin one as that. Why, man, it’s made of platinum! I never saw one made of platinum before.”
“What’s yours made of?” asked Stone, still half unbelieving.
“Gold, of course. It’s a good one, but nothing to compare with this for workmanship. Honestly, now, you’ve never seen false teeth?”
“It may seem strange to you, but I never have. I don’t go to a dentist more than once in three or four years. I’ve never lost a tooth or had one filled. And as the things rather sicken me, I always turn my head if I pass a dentist’s show case. Well, well, and so people go around with things like that in their mouths!”
“That’s a small affair. Some are much heavier and more unwieldy.”
“Never mind details! I don’t think they’ll matter. The thing is, how that,—what do you call it? Bridge? How did it get where it was ?”
“Where was it?”
Stone told him where he found it, and Mullins looked puzzled.
“Supposing,” he said, doing some impromptu reconstructing, “that some one did kill Searle, and did stuff his body into that ashcan, as you call it. Then, suppose the murderer came back to the scene late at night, and carried the body away into the woods and buried it. It would be practically impossible to find it in all those acres of timberland. Then, if this bridge did belong to either of them, it is far more likely it belonged to the murderer than to the victim. For the victim couldn’t open his mouth, and the live man could.”
“All right, so far,” Stone agreed; “but why did the murderer go around with a bridge that had no teeth on it? And, it must have been most uncomfortable. Those prongs would scratch his mouth fearfully.”
“All those things must be investigated. But we know it is a bridge and did at one time have teeth on it. The murderer need not have had it in his mouth. It might have been in his pocket, and he was going to take it to the dentist to be fixed or finished. Anything else in the ashcan?”
“Why do you smile at ‘ashcan’?” asked Stone. “What do you call those things ?”
“Well, I suppose I’d say a metal drum. I saw the lot of ’em, setting in rows in the storehouse, some pretty big and others smaller. I peeked in some of ’em, but that routine work was all done up by the force, and also I believe, by the family. But ashcan is all right, it describes the container, and that’s all we want.”
“All right, Inspector. No, there was nothing else in it that I could find, as I poked around. But I told Prall to sift the stuff, it’s like a heavy powder, and he may strike something. Then we must trace the bridge to its owner.”
“Begins to look like some of the family or neighbors,” Canby observed.
“Maybe,” Mullins nodded, “and maybe a rank outsider. I’m not much inclined to the family myself. There’s no motive.”
“Well, Austin wants his money and Mrs Searle wants her freedom—”
“Heavens, you can’t connect Mrs Searle with this brutal crime,—if any!”
“Not personally, maybe,” Canby went on, “but she could hire an agent—”
“Don’t be silly. Whoever killed him, if he has been killed, you know this is all supposition; he may have dropped the bridge thing there himself, when innocently engaged about his work. What was I saying? Oh, yes. Whoever killed him, if he is killed, is getting nothing out of it. If you can’t prove a man is dead, you can’t get his money or his insurance or his wife can’t remarry.”
“That’s what makes it all so confoundedly mysterious,” Stone said, frowning. “I admit my ignorance about that dental plate, but such a thing never came to my notice before. It may be surprising but it’s true. However, the finding of it, and the knowledge of what it is, doesn’t seem to me to give us much help. Suppose we find out who is its owner, it may be easily explained, and of no significance at all.”
“Think we better put some more men on a search of the woods? It’s pretty hopeless, you know, and costs quite a lot.”
“Wait till they get here,” Stone advised, rising, as he saw Tim approaching. “Don’t say much before the lad. He’s too clever to be trusted with secrets.”
Stone went away then, and Tim and he drove back to Silver Spray.
Prall was at work in the garden and said nothing to either of them about the storehouse matter.
After Stone was settled in the smoking room, Prall went to him, and told him he had found nothing.
“I mean, nothing you can notice,” he said. “The stuff is a sort of dirty white powder. I don’t know what it is, but Mr Searle had all kinds of queer ingrejents. He did a lot more experimenting than people realize, and every experiment cost a lot of money and called for a lot of new apparatus and materials.”
“All right, then,” Stone said, “you didn’t find a piece or a bit of anything except the powder?”
“That’s it. Only the powder and nothing else.”
“Lumpy, was it?”
“Oh, caked a little, not much. I s’pose any expert chemist could tell you what it is.”
“Yes, I daresay. All right, Prall, you may go. Do you keep the storehouse locked?”
“Well, no, sir, not always. Any real valuable truck, Mr Searle keeps in his laboratory.”
“I see. Well, if you notice anything queer or unusual, let me know.”
The gardener departed, and Stone was glad to go to the good luncheon Mrs Prall had prepared for him.
The house servants would arrive shortly, and the gardener’s wife would return to her cottage.
“May I say something, Mr Stone?” she asked, timidly, as she brought in a salad.
“Certainly, Mrs Prall. And if it has any bearing on the mystery, I’ll be glad to hear it.”
“Well, it has, and it’s this: I saw Mr Duncan Searle in the storehouse that afternoon that he disappeared.”
“Yes?” Stone concealed his eager interest. “What was he doing?”
“Didn’t seem to be doing anything. Just stood there.”
“You passed the window?”
“Yes, sir. The window away from the house, you know.”
“What time was this?”
“Lordy, I can’t tell you that. I never know the time. But it was while the ladies and gentlemen was runnin’ back and forth, in and out of the house.”
“Who was with Mr Searle?”
“I couldn’t rightly see, but I’m sure somebody was, ’cause he was waving his arms about like he was awful angry.”
“What were you doing here, in the afternoon? I mean, do you have hours of duty?”
“Not every day, but that day, Grant was off for the afternoon and so was Fletcher, and when anybody’s off, and there are guests, I usually come over and help any way I can. But there wasn’t much to do, and I went home fairly early. I had to pass the storehouse on my way out, of course, so as I passed, I just glanced at the windows, as anybody would.”
“Yes, yes, Mrs Prall, that was all right, to be sure. Did you hear anything?”
“Well, I heard Mr Searle’s voice raised, like he was in one of his tempers, and I just scuttled along.”
“You didn’t make out any definite words?”
“Well, I hate to tell ’em, for fear I may be wrong, but it seemed to me he said, ‘I told you this hour would come—and now it’s here!’ Maybe not exactly those very words but as near as I can remember, sir.”
“This is important, Mrs Prall. Have you told any one else?”
“Only my husband, and when I asked him if he thought I ought to tell you, he said I must do as I thought best. He’s like that, Prall is, never tells me what to do, but bids me judge for myself.”
“Well, don’t tell any one else for the present. You see, it may be important, and then again, it might do a lot of harm to tell it. Keep it to yourself until I think things over a little. You went right along, then?”
“Yes, sir, and never looked back even. I was a little scared,—Mr Searle’s voice was so—so wild.”
“Wild? More than stern or angry?”
“Oh, yes, sir, much more. Just like he was mad— insane, I mean, not angry mad.”
“Perhaps it sounded to you worse than it was. It’s hard to judge when you’re just passing by. Now, remember, no mention of this to any one at all.”
Perhaps Stone’s douceur helped things along, but Mrs Prall promised faithfully to keep her knowledge secret.
After she had gone Stone devoted himself to a survey of Duncan Searle’s receipted bills and check books for the last few years.
There were not a great many, apparently he had kept only the larger and more important items.
At any rate, Stone, with his trained attention, made quick work of the lot and found no bill whatever from a dentist.
He wanted to go up to Austin’s room and look over his desk, but he felt he had no right to do this. As authenticated investigator of the disappearance he was entitled to search Duncan Searle’s belongings, but further than that he was not sure. Moreover the family might arrive at any time now. The servants certainly would.
He ran through the check books, and did find one stub showing the name of Graham Drake, D. D. S.
But this was vague, and though he jotted down the name, he had no knowledge of the man’s address. Moreover, the amount was only fifty dollars and that would not go far toward paying for a platinum bridge.
Fleming Stone was not ashamed of his ignorance of dentists and their work. He had had no experience of his own, and no case he had been engaged on had ever called for such information. He was glad to learn something, as he was always glad of fresh information.
Turning from the bankbooks, he began to make a list of possible suspects.
Not at all sure that Duncan had been murdered, he yet was conscious of a vague theory at the back of his brain, that it was the truth, and that the murderer was some one who knew his victim fairly well.
Stone was not given to list making, but something about this case hinted at various suspects and he wanted them set down in order.
First, he wrote, Austin Searle.
Austin had the clearest motive, for he wanted money in order to marry. True, he couldn’t get it until his brother’s death was discovered or assumed, but that could be taken up later.
The next, in logical order, was Carlotta. Stone almost smiled as he wrote the name, but it quickly changed to a frown.
Carlotta did want her freedom, she did want to marry Ronald Booth, but here again, she could never do so, unless the death could be proved.
Ronald Booth’s name went down next, for if those two were in collusion it was logical to suspect him of the deed.
And Stone was not listing people he suspected, but possible suspects, whose names might occur to the police or to the public.
Next, of course, came Leonard Colvin. He was frantically jealous of his wife, who gave him ample cause. And he was reputed a man of violent temper which manifested itself in spells or spasms at intervals, between which times he was dignified and of gentle demeanor.
Erminie could not be suspected. In love with Duncan, she might connive at his voluntary disappearance and go to join him. But she never killed him.
The two Bradfords, Stone, for the present left out. Something might turn up to incriminate them, but he knew of nothing so far. To be sure, Austin wanted to marry Dorothy, and might try to bring about conditions that would enable him to do so, but of course, that dear little girl never killed anybody!
His list completed, for he had no suspicions so far of the household staff, Fleming Stone conned it and studied over it, until the people arrived.
It was Wednesday, the day before Christmas.
Save for an undercurrent of unrest and anxiety, the house party might have been merely a merrymaking crowd. But each one felt a something in the atmosphere, something that foreboded trouble, and their mirth was a little forced.
In the morning outdoor games were suggested. It was a green Christmas and no snow or ice offered any pleasures. But none seemed inclined to tennis or golf, and now, luncheon over, they sat around the lounge making tentative suggestions of Bridge or billiards.
Then Fleming Stone said, “As you all know, I am here in an official capacity as well as a social one. Of course, I am answerable to Mrs Searle and Mr Austin Searle, but I feel that all the rest of you are also interested in learning any further developments regarding the disappearance of the master of the house. I’m asking now, therefore, whether we shall take up the matter at once, for there is more or less questioning to be done, or shall we leave it until after Christmas day, in order to have a more cheery holiday?”
“I think,” Carlotta said, in her calm way, “if you know anything definite, it would be better to tell us at once. For, otherwise, we’ll be wondering and surmising, which will spoil to-morrow for us just the same.”
“Oh, no,” Austin exclaimed. “Let’s have a fine celebration tomorrow and take up the investigation the day after. We’ve always had a real Christmas up here, and I hate to have it marred by unpleasant doings. If I get you, Mr Stone I think you mean to turn the occasion into a regular quiz-fest. Now, unless you know something really definite and decided about Duncan, it can’t matter if we delay the discussion of it another day. Christmas eve and Christmas day have always been so happily celebrated up here at Silver Spray, that I can’t bear to have our pleasure interfered with. I know if Duncan could speak to us, he would say to go right on, just as usual.”
“Well, there are two opinions,” Carlotta said, smiling at Austin. “As the third member of our family, Ronny, suppose you cast the decisive vote. Which shall it be ?”
Several pairs of eyes turned toward Carlotta at this speech of hers. What did she mean by calling Booth a member of the family?
Quickly sensing their surprise, she said, with no tinge of embarrassment on her beautiful face, “Oh, we’ve always looked on Ronny as one of the family. Duncan always did, and why not?”
“Then I’m one of the family, too,” said Erminie, laughing; “for I think just as much of Duncan as you do of Ron. Oh, wouldn’t it be grand if Duncan came home to-night! You know in stories the wanderer always returns on Christmas eve, and they all live happy ever after.”
“He won’t come home to-night,” said Dave Murray, in so solemn a tone that one could feel shivers in the atmosphere. “I say, get on with the business. If my nephew here knows anything, which I think he does, he’d far better tell it, and get the matter started. You’re not a pack of children to bewail a spoiled holiday. If this is a vote, speak up, the rest of you.”
“It’s immaterial to me what you do about it,” Leonard Colvin declared; “if anybody can find Duncan or can learn what has become of him, then, the sooner the better, I say.”
Colvin’s words were quietly spoken, but a flush on his cheek and a gleam in his eye betokened a troubled mind.
“I think it’s immaterial to all of us,” Norman Bradford put in, “except the Searles themselves. Whatever Carlotta and Austin say, of course, we all agree to. I know they just now expressed varying opinions, but doubtless they can get together and settle the matter for all of us.”
“Get together easily enough,” Austin declared, with a kindly smile at Carlotta. “Whatever the lady says, goes with me. I retract any objections I may have made and I am ready to fall in with her suggestions.”
“Then, I vote that Mr Stone tell us what he has up his sleeve.” Carlotta looked grave but very beautiful. “It may be, though important, nothing that will entirely spoil our festivities to-morrow. You know,” she raised her long lashes and let her wonderful eyes sweep the long room, “I can’t believe Duncan is dead, he may be, of course, but it doesn’t seem so to me.”
“Where is he, then?” cried Erminie. “Away on purpose?”
“I don’t know, Ermie. But I haven’t given up all hope of his return. As you said, he might come tonight.”
The pure pale face seemed to take on a mystic, almost spiritual look. In touch with the season, Carlotta was wearing a gown of holly-berry red, which suited admirably her type.
For the first time it could be noticed that she was a bit worn. Whether the shock of returning to the scenes of last summer, when Duncan had been with them, or whether she was at last wearied by the long weeks of excitement and anxiety, they didn’t know, but several, and especially Ronald Booth, thought they had never seen her show the effects of strain so plainly.
Not that she was perturbed or in any way lacking in poise or in her usual calm, but there were little lines about her eyes that told of sleepless nights and weary hours of solitude.
“Then the question is settled,” Dave Murray declared. “Go to it, Fleming. Tell ’em all you know, and the Lord knows you don’t know much!”
“I’m afraid my uncle is right,” and Stone smiled a little ruefully. “But I chanced on something that may be a clew. If so, it is the only clew that has yet appeared in this most mysterious affair. Now, tell me, you who know, did Mr Searle wear false teeth?”
“Heavens, no!” cried Booth; “he had—he has a magnificent array of his own. Why I think I can say he has the finest teeth I’ve ever seen. Don’t tell me they are store teeth!”
“No,” and Stone had to smile at Booth’s excitement; “but, you know, sometimes people have a back tooth or two missing and wear a, what do you call it?”
“A plate, or a bridge,” said Colvin, helpfully. “I doubt if Duncan does, but if so, it’s no disgrace.”
“Disgrace? I should say not!” and Erminie took up the cudgels with a force worthy of a better cause. “Why? What are you getting at, Mr Stone?”
“You would know,” and ignoring Mrs Colvin, Stone turned to Carlotta. “Has your husband a bridge that supports two back teeth?”
“Not that I know of,” Carlotta faced him calmly. “But that is a thing I would not know about. Mr Searle never speaks of a personal defect or any slight ailment or injury. He is especially punctilious about such things. I never know when he goes to his doctor or dentist. If the bridge you speak of is not noticeable when in use, it may well be that he has one. Is this your clew?”
“Perhaps. Mr Searle, do you know if your brother has such a denture?”
“Not positively, but I remember sometimes seeing him put his hand to his cheek as if pained or annoyed, he never said anything about it, and I may have merely imagined that something was hurting him.”
“If he ever had such a piece of dental work made for him, it would be the best possible work of its sort, would it not?”
“Assuredly,” Carlotta promptly answered. “Duncan is very particular about the quality of his personal belongings and all his wearing apparel or toilet appurtenances are of the finest and best. This would, of course, apply especially to dental work. Why?”
“You asked me that question before,” and Stone gazed into the depths of the great dark eyes that met his own. “I will tell you. This,” he took the article in question from his pocket and laid it on a small table at his elbow, “is a platinum bridge that once held two large back teeth. You can see the empty prongs. Has any one present any reason to think this might be the property of Mr Duncan Searle?”
Stone had arranged with his uncle beforehand that when this sudden disclosure was made, he, Stone, would watch the faces of the two Searles and Booth, while Murray noted the expressions of the two Colvins and the Bradfords.
The plan worked all right, for all who saw the bridge laid before them on the table were so engrossed looking at it, that their faces could be studied at will.
Stone, looking first at Carlotta, saw absolutely no change of countenance, save a very slight look of distaste at the exhibit. She gave it one glance and then turned her eyes quickly away from it.
Stone, who had the same feelings himself, sympathized with her annoyance.
Darting his next glance at Austin, he saw him staring at the bridge as if hypnotized. There was something peculiar in the manner of his regard, and in his fixed gaze, which he seemed unable to tear away from its object. Stone felt sure that the bridge carried some message to the brother of the missing man, however incredible that might seem.
Then Booth came under his observation.
Ronald, too, looked thunderstruck. But his eyes were not turned toward the table, he was gazing at the ceiling. He had the air of one to whom an unpleasant revelation has suddenly come, and he twisted his long fingers as if in a spasm of nervous fear, yet with a determination to conquer it.
Murray, his shrewd, sharp old eyes unostensibly looking from one to another, noticed a slightly sneering curve to the well-cut mouth of Leonard Colvin. He looked, at that moment, almost like Machiavelli, and old Dave permitted himself a small satisfied nod in his direction.
Erminie was silently crying into her chiffon handkerchief, already merely a wet wisp.
Bradford looked on quietly, his face giving away nothing of his thoughts, if, indeed, he had any of interest.
Dorothy, though not crying, was on the verge of it. But she pulled herself together and with a furtive dab at her wet eyes, she forced herself to sit quietly and await further developments.
“Where did you find it?” said Austin, presently, his manner returning to normal.
“I found it,” Stone spoke slowly, but with no hint of wanting to make a dramatic effect, “out in the storehouse—”
“The storehouse!” said Carlotta, scarcely breathing the words.
But Austin exclaimed, “The devil you did! Where, now, exactly, in the storehouse was it?”
“It was in one of those metal cans, one of the big ones.”
“And what in the world was it doing there?”
“I’ve no idea. But as it’s the first clew we have found,—if it is a clew,—we must make the most of it.”
“Reconstruction?” asked Austin, quickly. “Then I say when Dune dropped it there, wherever it was found, he wasn’t wearing it, because nobody could stand those sharp prongs in his mouth.”
“And what was he doing with it?”
“How do I know?” Austin spoke crossly. “But he might have been throwing it away. He’s like that. If any trifling thing displeases him he just flings it away and never thinks of it again.”
“But this is a platinum bridge,” Stone went on; “and they are very expensive.”
“Duncan wouldn’t think of that, if he was angry, or deeply provoked.”
“No, he wouldn’t,” Carlotta corroborated. “Duncan is not a waster, but he has no regard for small sums of money. And if he is through with a thing, it must go, no matter what its value.”
“Perhaps, then,” Stone suggested, “the bridge hurt him so much that he couldn’t stand it, and in a fit of temper threw it away in one of the barrels of rubbish.”
“He never has barrels of rubbish around,” Carlotta said, as if the aspersion of Duncan’s tidiness was a crime in itself. Indeed, for the first time since he had known her, Stone saw a flash of irritation in the deep eyes.
“Well, perhaps it wasn’t rubbish, it was labeled Fuller’s Earth.”
“If it was labeled Fuller’s Earth it was Fuller’s Earth,” she insisted, unwilling to leave a trace of blame on her husband’s orderly habits.
“Well, anyway, that’s where the affair was found,” and Stone looked at her appealingly, as if begging her to desist from discussion of trifles.
“But why are the teeth out of it?” asked Bradford.
“Perhaps in his anger he jerked them from their settings, meaning to keep the bridge and have it repaired. Then, he flung it away after all. This, of course, is only surmise, but there are few theories to fit the case.”
“There are lots of them,” Colvin coolly contradicted. “It may be that Duncan never threw it there at all. He may have dropped it anywhere, and an attendant may have picked up, and thinking it trash, threw it away.”
“I gather,” Ronald Booth said, slowly, “that you are seeking to connect this find with the death of Duncan Searle. No, I didn’t say disappearance, I said death. For in my opinion that is what has happened to him. If so, the bridge is of no evidence whatever. For if somebody came here and killed him, the last thing the murderer would think of doing would be to leave that bridge behind, whether it was in Duncan’s mouth or in his pocket, or on a table. There is no earthly reason to imagine that the bridge was put in the barrel at the time of the—all right, the disappearance. In fact, there is every reason to think it was not.”
Stone looked at him meditatively.
“I agree to that, Mr Booth,” he said, “I think you are right. But, as this bit of metal is the only clew I have found, and as I am very much afraid that it is a murder case we are investigating, I must hold it as valuable until I can prove otherwise. I daresay it is its unexpected and inexplicable appearance that intrigues me, but I admit I think it will yet solve the mystery for us.”
“You don’t even know that it is Duncan’s!” exclaimed Booth, who was getting restless and irritable.
“That must be found out, of course. I fancy not a difficult job.”
“Why how in the world will you get at that?” cried Dorothy, who, wide-eyed, had been following the proceedings with interest.
“Perhaps some one here can tell me the name of Mr Searle’s dentist,” Stone said, looking from one to another.
But no one spoke, and he changed the subject, and also changed his manner of address.
“It must be understood,” he said, straightforwardly, “that I am here as the accredited agent of Mr Searle and Mrs Searle to find out, if possible, the fate that has overtaken Mr Duncan Searle, whatever it may be. This is not a pleasant situation, in view of the friendly nature of our gathering here, and the otherwise happy occasion of this holiday house party. But it is the situation that faces me, and I have to meet it, in spite of my regret at the circumstances. Now, I am going out for a walk in this grand country air, and when I return I will ask you to meet me separately and answer some questions that I must ask. I am confident that your sympathies are all with the Searle household, and that you will assist the wife and brother of the missing man to justify their confidence in my efforts.”
“And why they ever dragged you into the matter at all is more than I see!” growled Colvin.
But he threw Stone a wry smile that took the sting from the actual words.
Then the detective, accompanied by Dave Murray started off for a walk.
The country was picturesque in its ruggedness, and the clear air had a frosty sting that made walking a pleasure.
They made for the Inn, which was Stone’s objective point.
“Well, old man, how goes it?” Stone inquired, as they strode along.
“You’re making progress, boy, and with so little to go on as you have, it seems to me marvelous. I listen to you, knowing that more is meant than meets the ear, and I wonder if even my ears don’t miss a lot.”
“Not yet, Uncle Dave, there’s little going on as yet. But I am positive that my clew will see me through. Still, if it isn’t Duncan Searle’s property after all, my cake is dough, indeed.”
“You’re going to find that out now?”
“Yes, old smarty, how did you guess that?”
“Well, you wouldn’t want to telephone in front of everybody.”
“Quite true. A certain seclusion is indicated. You know, Uncle Dave, I expect to find the murderer among the house party.”
“I know you do, boy, but it seems mighty unlikely to me. There’s much to be explained if that’s the truth we’re seeking.”
“Yes, but granted the necessity, it will, it must be explained.”
Reaching the Inn they received a welcome from both Hickox and his wife and Stone left his uncle to chat with them while he monopolized the telephone.
There were few guests at the Inn and Hickox had agreed that Stone should not be interrupted.
Of course the available telephone books included Boston and New York as well as the nearer towns.
Searching one or two books, Stone came upon the name he wanted, that of Graham Drake. He asked him if he had ever done any work for Duncan Searle, and after stating his right to be told, he learned that Doctor Drake had done so a few times.
“What did you do for him on this occasion?” and Stone mentioned the date he had found in the checkbook against the dentist’s name.
“Not much,” was the reply. “Pulled two teeth and filled a small cavity.”
“Two back teeth, in the lower jaw?”
“Yes, exactly. If you know all about it, why do you bother me?”
Slone paid no attention to this bit of petulance, and continued.
“Did you make him a bridge to replace those two teeth, or did you send him to some other dentist?”
“That’s what I did. He wanted a platinum bridge and I don’t run to fancy fixin’s.”
“I see. To whom did you send him?”
The voice was a little sullen now, but still decently respectful. “I gave him two addresses, one in Boston and one in New York. He could get what he wanted from either one. I don’t know which he chose.”
“You’re sure you don’t know that?”
“I don’t know for certain.”
“All right. Give me the two addresses and I’ll do the rest. Get them right now, or there’ll be trouble.” Drake gave the two addresses, and Fleming Stone excused him from further conversation.
He tried Boston first, but that dentist denied all knowledge of the patient asked about, saying he had no such name on his books, and had never had.
So Stone called the New York number.
It was a tedious process, for the dentist was busy and refused to leave his work. But Stone persuaded the attendant of the necessity for immediate action and after being annoyed by a few cut-offs and crossed wires, a successful connection was established.
“This is Doctor Marquis?” Stone asked.
“My errand is important. Will you tell me if you have ever done any work for Duncan Searle?”
“What was it?”
“Bridge and crown work, in platinum.”
“An unusual material to use?”
“Yes. We only give it when asked for.”
“Now, Doctor Marquis I have your bridge right here. To save a trip to New York, can you identify it from my description?”
Stone, with the succinctness of which he was fully capable, described the denture so meticulously that the dentist at once declared it was his own work.
“Of course,” he said, “I wouldn’t want to swear to this without seeing it, but I never made but that one with the prongs as you describe them, so I am sure it is the Searle piece.”
“When did you make it?”
“About two years ago. Of course, I can give you the exact date from my books.”
“Please do so, Doctor Marquis. But I know you are eager to get back to your work, so I won’t keep you longer. Be good enough, instead, to write and send me by mail the full details of the matter, date, price, and any information as to the fit of the bridge, the comfort or discomfort of it, the number of visits made by the patient, anything at all bearing on the matter. I will also write to you and explain the necessity for all this, and the advisability of keeping the matter confidential.”
A few more words and Stone hung up the old-fashioned receiver and rejoined his uncle.
Without delay, they started back to Silver Spray, knowing it was Christmas eve and nearing teatime.
“I think,” Stone said, as they sprinted along, “we’ll call a truce over the holiday.”
“You’re entitled to it, boy, after that masterly work on the telephone.”
“Oh, that was a bit of luck. If I got the dentist, I had the report. If he had been away for his holiday, or out of his office, the whole matter would have been hung up. I don’t want to wait over Christmas for my own sake. I’d like to put it all right over. But it does seem too awful to plunge that whole party into gloom, when no harm can come of waiting a day longer. And, too, I want to study them a bit more. If none of them did it, we’re as much afloat as ever.”
“Killed Duncan Searle. That man was murdered, as sure as I stand here.”
“If this is what you call standing!”
“You poor duck! Am I hiking you off your legs? Well, we can take it more slowly. Who’s your pet suspect, now, Uncle Dave?”
“I’m wobbling between Booth and Colvin.”
“Ah, crime passionel, eh? No mercenary, money-grabbing motive? Well, I don’t say you’re not right. Booth was knocked galley-west at sight of the bridge thing.”
“And Colvin looked fiendish, like my mental picture of Cesare Borgia!”
Determined not to be a spoilsport on Christmas eve, both Stone and his uncle threw themselves into the festivities with an appearance of enjoyment, whether feigned or not.
From the day of Duncan’s disappearance, the family and their friends had persisted in regarding the matter as a mystery but not a tragedy. If the question was raised, they agreed that it was inexplicable, but refused to admit that it was hopeless.
Carlotta wore colored gowns and Austin acted, in every respect, as a temporary master of the house, ready to hand over the reins of government at any moment, should his brother return.
Roland Booth was a helpful, willing friend, but he never seemed to claim any right or title to Carlotta’s attention.
They all knew the deep affection that existed between the two, but they knew also that nothing could be recorded that would give Duncan cause for anger, should he return.
Yet the situation was growing strained. The lovers, acknowledged or not, were eager for knowledge of the truth, and it is useless to deny that proof of Duncan’s death would be a relief to both.
This was not inexcusable disloyalty on Carlotta’s part, she and Duncan had been drifting apart for some time, and of late he had been openly attentive to Erminie, and had more than once asked Carlotta for a divorce.
This she refused because of her religious scruples, which her vows would not let her ignore.
She and Erminie were outwardly friendly, indeed, Carlotta was not jealous of the other, she only regretted the bonds that held Duncan to herself legally.
She and Ronald went for long walks or drives, when in the country. In the city they went about together, dined at restaurants, attended the theater or dances, but never by word or look did they betray their love to others. If people surmised it, that could not be helped, but they were discretion itself.
Other country houses near Chaldea were often occupied at Christmas, and there were some friends who lived there all the year round.
So Carlotta had collected quite a goodly crowd for her Christmas eve dance and the whole scene was as it had been on previous holiday occasions.
The house, decorated with holly wreaths and garlands of ground pine, was fragrant with flowers and gay with lights, stars, candles and all the Christmas insignia. A great tree bore fruit for all and gifts and favors were liberally bestowed.
Good cheer was not lacking and fine music made dancing a pleasure.
Dave Murray was in his element. Fond of gayety of all sorts, this party was all to his liking, and he entirely forgot Duncan Searle as he spent his time between the dancing hall and the dining room.
Fleming Stone, while not so fond of it all, was a good mixer, and he shone as an entertainer.
A superb dancer, he was beset by the younger crowd, gathered from the neighborhood, and the house party looked on in surprise at the popularity of the detective.
It was characteristic of Stone to put his whole heart into any movement in which he participated, and though perhaps the others enjoyed it more than he did, he was far from bored.
The affair was over at last, and the merrymakers departed.
The group in the lounge lingered to talk over the party, but though their chat was light, and bore not at all on serious matters, Stone felt an undercurrent of unrest, and he wondered if the tension wouldn’t snap before this house party broke up.
Austin had become suddenly silent, and sat broodingly in an easy chair, his eyes fixed on Leonard Colvin.
Colvin, who had partaken of the wassail bowl a little freely, resented Austin’s scrutiny and said so.
“A cat may look at a king,” his host told him, but before there could be a response Dave Murray threw himself into the breach and said;
“As we’ve no cats or kings about, that doesn’t matter. Now, what’s next on our program? As we’ve a day of sports ahead of us to-morrow, I vote we go to bed now. At any rate, I’m going. You young fry can sit up, if you like.”
“I’m going,” Dorothy said, jumping up. “I need my beauty sleep. So do you, Ermie, you look all fagged out.”
“What a dear, good friend you are!” Erminie exclaimed. “I love your little compliments, Dot.”
“Of course you do. Well, they’re sincere, anyway. Only you must take them contrariwise to the way they’re stated.”
“Too complicated for me. Good night, everybody.” Erminie dropped a dainty curtsy, and ran away up the stairs.
Dorothy followed, and there being no other women present, Carlotta felt herself at liberty to go too.
“Back to work to-morrow, Mr Stone?” she said, pausing to speak with him.
Stone looked at her with undisguised admiration.
All in soft white, with decorations of silver sprays, she was like a Christmas sprite or siren.
Her beautiful hair had a light sprinkle of diamond dust, to suit her costume and she wore no jewels save a wonderful diamond necklace that had been Duncan’s wedding gift. None but herself knew that of late he had asked several times that she give it back to him, but this she had steadily refused to do.
Her great, somber eyes met Stone’s levelly, for Carlotta was tall, and she gave him one of her rare smiles.
“I think so,” he replied, slowly. “If you prefer, I will wait until Friday, but I have to go down to New York that day, at least for the morning. Are you very busy to-morrow?”
“I’m not entertaining much. Others are entertaining us. We are all invited to several parties that will keep us on the go from teatime on, but the morning is free.”
“Then I will do some of the questioning that I find is going to be necessary.”
“Have you found a lead?”
“I think so, but it is as yet too vague and uncertain to discuss. Odd, Mrs Searle, that you never knew of your husband’s denture.”
“No, it is not odd. We are a bit conventional, I suppose, but we never speak of such things to one another. I haven’t any store teeth,” she smiled with the pearly set that was hers by right, “but Duncan wouldn’t know it if I had. I think many married people are like that, just as some know every detail of one another’s peculiarities. Indeed, Duncan and I have many mental traits that are not in common, and that we rarely mention. We are a model husband and wife, but we are not—”
“Lovers,” put in Ronald Booth as he came toward the pair. “Come, Carly, you ought to be in bed. Run along now, and we chaps will put out the lights and the cat and anything that needs putting out.”
Colvin had followed his wife upstairs, so there were left only Booth, Austin and Stone.
“Tell us about it, old man,” Austin said; “we’ll have a final nightcap, and you tell us, as a Christmas gift, what you have discovered. I heard you say to Carly there was something.”
“Nothing definite, and nothing strong enough to stand being put into words. Just the merest shadow of a cobweb of a clew.”
“The shadow of a cobweb,” repeated Austin. “That’s a good line.”
“Expressive, too,” added Ronny. “Will your cobweb hang anybody?”
“Not unless it can be strengthened in some way. I say, what do you chaps think about it all? I’m not asking help to do my own work, but it would be illuminating to know.”
“I can’t illuminate,” declared Booth. “To me the whole matter is as inexplicable as the day it happened.”
“But if we learn that Duncan Searle was murdered, —and I fully expect we shall, who would be your suspect?”
“Ask me that,” said Austin, slowly, “and I’ll answer Len Colvin. He was wild at the love-making going on between Duncan and Erminie, and I can’t blame him. It was scandalous,—no, that isn’t the word, for it was hidden. But it was a desperate case, and at first I thought, of course, Duncan had gone off on purpose and Erminie would follow.”
“Then when she didn’t, what did you think?”
“I couldn’t think anything, until at last I came to the conclusion Duncan must be dead. That’s only common sense. How could he live all this time without money? Without letting his lawyers know? Without trying to get in touch with Erminie? No, the man is dead, I’m sure. And if you knew Colvin better, Mr Stone, you’d know he is capable of any crime, any horror, in one of his jealous rages! I’ve seen him, he simply goes berserk. He could kill Duncan, bury him, and then sit around calmly gloating over his deed.”
“But how—how—” Ronald began, when Stone interrupted:
“That’s my work—to find that out. Granted Mr Searle was killed, and I, too, am of that opinion, I must discover how and by whom. You want the truth, Mr Searle?”
“Oh, yes,” Austin said, but he spoke wearily, as if the subject had suddenly grown distasteful. “And, especially, if Colvin is the killer. I’d like to see him gets his just deserts,—if he deserves them.”
“You didn’t express your opinion, Booth,” Stone reminded him. “Do you incline to Colvin?”
“Yes, I do. And so does Canby, and I suppose Mullins. They ought to know.”
“They have no more knowledge than the rest of us.”
“Which is none at all. But Len is different of late. He’s more irritable-—
“And he jumps at a sudden noise,” put in Austin. “He’s nervous as a cat, and he has a furtive gleam in his eye sometimes that makes him look almost a madman.”
“Don’t go too fast,” Stone warned him. “Are these things true?”
“Yes; haven’t you noticed it, Ron?”
“Of course I have and so has Carlotta. Colvin is shaky in his nerves.”
“Is he interested in Duncan Searle’s work? I mean, intelligently so? Does he understand and appreciate all these really wonderful things Searle is accomplishing?”
“Yes, he does,” Austin said, “though I don’t see what that has to do with it. But he knows a lot about chemicals and all that, and I have sometimes thought he had half a notion of stealing Duncan’s thunder.”
“He would, if he could get away with it,” Booth declared. “He snoops around in the laboratory and storehouse every chance he gets.”
“Tell me more,” Stone said; “you know it’s all very well to think we detectives can see things without being told. Some things we can, of course, but much of our work depends on facts we can dig up from the people who know them. Do the two men speak openly of the affair of Mrs Colvin?”
“Oh, yes,” returned Austin. “Dune and Len have had many a fight about it. I’ve even heard Colvin say he’d kill Duncan if he didn’t let his wife alone.”
“That’s not evidence against Colvin,” Stone told them; “that’s rather in his favor. Men don’t threaten the people they really mean to kill.”
“No, I suppose not,” Austin agreed. “I can’t see it except as murder, however, and I can’t see any possible murderer but Colvin. Nobody else has motives—”
“You have,” Stone said, quietly and with no hint of accusation in his tone.
‘Yes, I suppose so.” Austin took it lightly. “I can be said to want the fortune which will come to me on Duncan’s death, but had I done it, I’d have fixed things so I could realize on my expectations.”
“That’s your salvation, Searle,” Stone said, speaking seriously now. “You would be suspected by the police but for that point.”
“Really? Have things gone as far as that? Well, then, let them go further. Find your man, Stone, bring him to the gallows, and let us all get out from under this awful situation. It’s maddening to have it hanging over our heads all the time! How about Ronny here? He has as much motive as I have—”
“That will do, Austin,” Booth said, frowning at him. “I do want to marry Carlotta, that’s an open secret, but she wouldn’t marry me if I were a murderer.”
“Oh, I don’t know, it might make you a hero in her eyes.”
“Not Carlotta’s eyes. Some women, perhaps, but not that fine, strong soul.”
“Well, I’m off,” said Stone, rising. “To-morrow, in spite of the holiday doings, I mean to put you all on the grill, not exactly to learn who is the criminal, but to find out a few minor points bearing on my theory of the case.”
“Didn’t know you went in for theories,” Austin smiled.
“Not merely imaginative ones, but when a lot of facts hang together, and point in one direction, your convictions shape themselves into a theory without your own volition.”
“And you have those facts?”
“Some of them, yes. And I fully expect to get the rest very soon.”
Fleming Stone went upstairs then, and though he made himself comfortable in his pleasant room, he gave no sign of achieving sleep or rest.
He seated himself at a small table, drew out a sheaf of notes from its drawer, and began to look over his lists.
“There were seven people in this house the day of the disappearance,” he reminded himself. “I think one of them murdered Duncan Searle. Now, which ones can I positively eliminate?”
At once he drew his pencil through the name of Dorothy Bradford. Nobody in his sober senses could imagine that delicate, lovely young girl implicated in crime. Moreover, she had no possible motive. From conversation with her and with others, he had learned that she had little personal interest in Duncan, and though she knew her romance with Austin meant dependence on his brother’s generosity, she seemed to take that matter lightly, and Stone had realized that though Austin was deeply in love with her, she was not so desperately fond of him.
Anyway, there was no sense in leaving Dorothy’s name on the list of potential suspects and so it was removed.
Also, it seemed to Stone, Norman Bradford could be dismissed. True, he was devoted to Carlotta, but it was a sort of moth for the star affair, and the detective doubted if Carlotta herself, knew or even cared much about this swain.
Carlotta had had homage paid her in full measure all her life, and the admiration of a young man of good breeding but little distinction could scarcely be expected to appeal to her. Beside, she was over head and ears in love with Booth. And this, Stone was sure, had become a more intense affection, a more compelling situation since Duncan was not there to act as a restraint.
So, Bradford’s name was crossed off, too, and now came the real puzzle.
Fleming Stone was positive that a very strange and very clever murder had been accomplished, and he also felt certain that it was conceived and carried out by some one whose name was on his list.
He had never had the least idea that any of the servants were implicated. And as his present theory grew in possibility and probability, he knew it was the work of a master mind. Moreover, it was of long and deep premeditation, it was carried out with neatness and dispatch and it had been in every way a perfect crime, save for that one, only clew, the platinum bridge.
A light tap at his bedroom door was followed by the appearance of the grizzled head of Dave Murray, and though Stone would rather have been left alone he greeted his uncle cheerily and made him comfortable.
“Give us the low down, boy,” the visitor begged. “I know from your half satisfied air, that you’re half way to a conclusion.”
Stone smiled at the old man’s penetration, and retorted,
“And if so, I daren’t tell you, for you’d give the whole thing away before I’m ready. Inadvertently, of course, but none the less surely. Now, you just sit there, old un, and answer questions.”
“Well, then, who has the most to gain by the death of Duncan Searle?”
“Austin and Carlotta.”
“Shall we call those two our star suspects, then?”
“Not the lady. We have to be sane, at least, and that goddess is psychologically incapable of murder, even if able physically. But how was he killed, O seer?”
“I haven’t a notion. I only know he was killed, he is dead, and in all probability he was murdered.”
“Yes? Well, you do know a lot, which, on the whole means nothing whatever.”
“I’m not so sure of that. All right, Uncle, after the two mentioned, who next has the biggest motive?”
“Booth and Colvin, I’d say, are about even as to that. Booth wants the lady so desperately that he’d commit battle, murder or sudden death to win her. Only, to win her by a crime, would be to lose her,— if I know my Carlotta.”
“And Colvin, if he’s our man, wouldn’t care about the ethics of the case if he can only free his lovely wife from the fascinations of the bad man. But Colvin, it seems, is about the only one who had absolutely no opportunity.”
“Then he couldn’t have done it,” Murray declared.
“I said, ‘it seems.’ Any of them could have done it, so far as opportunity is concerned.”
“Oh, now, now, they were all there in a bunch together. No one could slip away unnoticed for a time long enough to finish off that man.”
“Well, some of them did. There’s no other way out. I’ve gone into all the side alleys and devious bypaths, and I say the murder was done while the house party sat round on the lawn that afternoon.”
“My, my, what a lot you know! Now, I’ll tell one. Listen, Fleming, I’m serious. I think Austin killed his brother, in hopes of hanging the crime on Carlotta, and getting her hanged and so coming in himself for all the estate.”
“Amusing, but too utterly absurd to talk about.”
“Yet, you suspect Carlotta.”
“What! You must be crazy. As you said yourself—but, honestly, Uncle, I haven’t any time to waste in vain conjecture. I have to question the lot to-morrow morning—”
“What do you hope to learn?”
“As to their alibis. Not the truth about them, but I want to get a line from their manner and talk, just how true those alibis are.”
“Think you can do that?”
“I do. You know, when a witness wants to be convincing, he’s mighty apt to overdo it.”
“Well, if you can break down Colvin’s alibi, he’s your man. There’s more sense in his motive than all this foolishness about getting the inheritance.”
“I agree to that. Now, old un, s’pose you run along and go beddy, and let me fight this thing to a finish, so far as I can up to the present moment.”
Murray ran along, and Stone buckled down to his task. It was a problem after his own heart, in that it had no seemingly possible solution. Yet solution there must be, and with the impulse that caused Michelangelo to chisel the angel out of the marble where he felt it lay concealed, Stone determined to wrest the heart from this mystery.
We’ve rather neglected Erminie, he thought, disinterestedly. But she’s so unlikely. Whatever she did, she wouldn’t kill him, and he is dead, I know he is! Erminie would have run away with him, gladly. She would have killed Carlotta to win him. But kill Duncan,—no. To my mind, Erminie is out of it, and I shall cross off her name.
He did so, and then apropos of nothing whatever, his thoughts took a new tack.
It suddenly occurred to him, that there was something very queer about that platinum bridge; something that he hadn’t thought of before.
He got it out and looked at it closely.
Yes, he was right. The teeth that had been held by the metal prongs were gone, but the prongs were not in the least spread or sprung.
How was that? How could the teeth have been removed without bending the prongs a trifle? He had often seen settings from which jewels had been wrenched and invariably the prongs were torn or twisted. Yet the teeth, which naturally had been securely fastened in place, had been removed and no trace of such removal left to show. Well, that must be looked into. Surely, there was a lot to do.
He began to think that only one clew made more work than half a dozen clews.
Pondering on this new development, he went to bed and thought it over.
Next day, everybody came downstairs, apparently in holiday spirit.
Whether assumed or not, all put up a brave face and greetings and good wishes were as hearty and spontaneous as if the place were not under a pall of death and destruction.
Stone set to work early, as he knew they would all be getting away later.
He chose Duncan’s little office as his consulting room, and he treated the matter as lightly as possible.
“Don’t be frightened or alarmed,” he said, with his kindly smile, “I only want to straighten out some details on which I am a bit at sea. Will you come first, Mrs Searle?”
Carlotta, calm as ever, and perhaps a bit more stately than usual, went with him, and sat in the chair he offered.
“You needn’t say so,” he began, “but I’m merely tracking down alibis. As I understand it, they are all about the same, but I have to inquire. What were you doing in the early afternoon?”
“After luncheon, I went to my rooms. I planned to do quite a lot of things, for it was my maid’s day out, and I often take that opportunity to look after matters that I don’t care for her to know about. She is a little curious, is Grant, and I bide my time. I looked over some boxes and bureau drawers, I wrote two or three important letters, I did some telephoning,—I have an extension instrument,—and then I threw myself down on my chaise longue for a rest. I fell asleep and only awakened in time to dress and go downstairs when tea was ready.”
“You didn’t see your husband?—I understand he was looking for you.”
“No, I didn’t see him at all. If he looked into my room, which is not a likely case, he must have seen I was asleep, and didn’t speak.”
“Did you see the others, on the lawn?”
“Yes, when I was dressing, I looked out the window and saw them, and so hurried down.”
“Thank you, Mrs Searle, that will be all. Please send in Mr Searle.”
Fleming Stone was not given to vigorous or even very active detective work. He liked to have the routine business attended to by the police. He liked to keep an attentive watchfulness on possible suspects, and he liked to have his own secret plans carried out by his own trusted agents.
He had two or three clever helpers in his New York office and these he could telephone to in code, and they would obey orders.
He had given them errands to do, and he was anxious to get down to the city and hear the results, but first, he must have his little inquiry meeting.
He had but few questions to ask of any one of them, but he had them all appear before him, separately.
They were all nervous, all with a ragged-edged temper, and all unwilling to talk.
But not much talk was required, and when Austin came into the room, and slammed the door behind him, Stone merely said;
“Sit down, please. I shall keep you but a moment. I’m checking alibis. It may or may not be a matter of form. But just tell me exactly what you did when you came in the house to telephone, that afternoon?”
“Came in the side door. Went in library and called Tom Marshall. Couldn’t get him.”
“Small wonder. You knew he was in California.”
Austin gave a start. “Now, how did you know that?”
“I know a lot of things. Well, never mind. Whom did you see in the house? In the halls? The rooms?”
“Nobody at all.”
“No one at all. You believing me?”
“Yes, I think so. I’ve no reason not to. But isn’t it strange you didn’t hear your brother—or his wife?”
“Well, no. I was interested in my telephone call, and the room door was shut.”
“You were telephoning, then?”
“Yes, to a girl. Didn’t want any one to know, so said it was Marshall.”
“All right. Now, if you’re sure you heard or saw no one at all, I’ve nothing more to ask.”
“Dead sure. That all?”
“Yes. Ask Mr Bradford to come next, will you?”
But Norman Bradford had nothing to tell. He had gone back home for his sister’s bag, and had not returned to the party until quite a bit later.
“All right,” and Stone almost hurried him out. “Give me Booth next.”
Ronald came in, looking a bit worried.
“Just a word or two,” Stone said. “Tell of your errand in the house that Friday afternoon.”
“I came in to get a bottle of arrack from my room. I remember I whistled as I ran upstairs, so any one could have heard me, but I heard or saw nobody.”
“You went right back?”
“No, a letter lay on my table, and I stopped to read it. It was fairly long and I read it twice, so I was in my room for a bit.”
“It’s so hard to judge such things. I’d say about fifteen or twenty minutes, but maybe not so long.”
“Nobody has any idea of time, but that’s always the case. All right. You may go. Ask Mrs Colvin to come next.”
Erminie tripped in, with a little smile, which quickly faded at sight of Stone’s grave face.
“What did you come in the house for that day?” he asked. They had all fallen into the habit of calling it “that day.”
“To get a fan,” she replied glibly.
“I think not. What was your real errand?”
“To see if I could find Duncan! To see if we could snatch a moment alone. Mr Stone, we were,—we are such devoted lovers. I say this shamelessly. Oh, if you could only find him, and give him back to me!”
She cried softly into a large chiffon handkerchief, and Stone was almost amused at her display of grief at this moment. It seemed incongruous, but he knew she could not help it.
“Where were you?”
“All over. I peeped into the morning room, looked in the lounge, I even glanced in at the drawing-room door, but I saw no one, no one at all.”
“Sort of game of hide and seek. No one saw any one else. But perhaps you saw some one and didn’t notice. That often happens if it is some one you expect to be about.”
“Well, I don’t think I did, but anyway, I didn’t see Duncan, or I’d have remembered that!”
“Very well, Mrs Colvin, run along now, and send your husband in here.”
Leonard Colvin chose to be taciturn. He answered in monosyllables, Stone gathered that he had not come into the house at all at that particular time.
This, however, didn’t entirely clear him from suspicion in the detective’s eyes, for he felt sure Colvin could have sneaked into the house by a side door, leaving Dorothy for an unnoticed moment. They were all vague about their exact doings as people usually are, who have been questioned over and over again on one subject.
“Mr Colvin, I think Duncan Searle was murdered.”
“So do I,” returned Leonard, decidedly.
“And how do you think it was accomplished?”
“Isn’t that what you’re here to find out?”
Stone was of no mind to bandy words with this man, and somewhat abruptly he dismissed him, to Colvin’s great surprise.
“If anybody could be sure of anything,” Stone thought, with a sigh. “But a witness so seldom is. Yet I have all I really wanted, and now to straighten it out a bit. If Colvin did it, it was after Carlotta came upon the scene. He could have slipped away and not have been missed for a quarter hour or more. I know they all have a schedule or time table of their own exits and entrances, but no two agree on any data, so why expect it. Likewise, if Austin is the criminal he had opportunity when pretending to telephone. Booth, when he was ostensibly reading and re-reading his letter. But these things don’t matter. Give me the explanation of the platinum bridge for a fulcrum, and I’ll move the whole case.
“It’s all too terrible to think of. If Davis corroborates my findings, I need look no further. Oh, yes, look in at the dentist’s. Well, I can’t do that on Christmas day. But I can see Davis, and get his news. I’ll stay here for luncheon, and then go down to the city, and stay over night.”
He carried out this plan, telling his hosts that he had important business in New York that would not brook delay.
During luncheon, he was entertaining and charming, as he knew well how to be. He avoided the subject of Duncan Searle, and the others were only too glad to follow his lead.
They had engagements for the afternoon, and Stone took an early train for New York.
Back in his own apartment, all Christmas spirit left him, and he became at once the absorbed, thoughtful detective.
Davis, one of his best aides, came to see him as soon as he arrived. “Well, old man,” Stone said, genially. “I’m sorry to drag you away from your Christmas tree, but I fancy you can get back pretty soon. And I’m impatient to get your report.”
“That’s all right, Mr Stone. I’ll stand by as long as you want me to.”
“You got the box I sent?”
“Oh, yes, and had the stuff analyzed.”
“And it is—?”
“What I rather think you guessed,—it is, a detritus of caustic potash, and—”
“And human remains.”
“That’s about it.”
“What did they say, exactly?”
“That it was definitely caustic potash, which had undergone chemical changes that occurred in formation different from the formula.”
“Showing human fats, oils and so forth.”
“Exactly. There is no doubt a body was destroyed in that manner. Does it fit the case?”
“I’m afraid it does,—only too well. This chemical will not destroy platinum, I think?”
“No, it will not. Everything else, however would be annihilated.”
“A very strange affair, Davis. Almost unbelievable. Yet, everything was at hand. Ready and waiting, as you might say. I’ll tell you the whole story and I’ll cut it short, so you can get home.”
“That’s all right, Mr Stone. The children’s festivities won’t begin till I get there, anyway.”
So Stone told his agent the principal facts and told of his beliefs and theories.
“Who did it, Mr Stone?” asked Davis, having heard of the various suspects.
“That’s the question. Who’s your choice, so far as you know?”
“The brother. Motive, opportunity and all conveniences handy. Does he rank high in chemical research work?”
“I think so. Somehow it seems as if all the household and all the guests are more or less up on the subject. I suppose because it was always going on. Mr Searle was a devotee to the science. However, never mind that for the moment. Tell me all you found out regarding the list of matters I sent you.”
The two men pored over some vital statistics and some chemical formulae and other data the detective had asked for, and then he sent Davis home.
After which, Fleming Stone sat alone in the twilight for a time, absorbed in thought.
Then, he put it all, as much as possible, out of his mind, went out to his club to dinner, and afterward to a gay show. He wanted something extremely light and frivolous to divert his weary mind and he got it.
Home afterward, and to bed in his own house, and glad to be there.
But morning found him up early, ministered to by his man, who came betimes.
And as soon as it was possible he presented himself at Doctor Marquis’ dental parlors.
He well nigh closed his eyes as he passed a glass case exhibiting some of the dentist’s handicraft, but once with the doctor, he forgot his silly squeamishness.
He handed over the platinum bridge, and the dental surgeon said, at once;
“Yes, Duncan Searle’s, beyond all doubt. But what happened to it? How is it the teeth are missing and the prongs intact?”
“You tell me, doctor.”
“There can be but one explanation. They were burnt or eaten away.”
“Choose which word you will. I think they were removed by the action of caustic potash.”
“Yes, that would account for it.”
“You know, don’t you, of Searle’s disappearance?”
“Yes, some time ago. Abduction, was it, or did he go of his own accord?”
“That has never been officially settled. I am on the case, and I have concluded that, beyond all doubt, Searle was murdered, his body put in a metal barrel and annihilated by caustic potash. There was left only this platinum bridge, my sole clew. It seems the buttons on his clothes were of pearl or bone, anyway, while there is some detritus remaining, nothing is traceable but this.”
“Amazing story,” commented Marquis, “but no other conditions would account for this bridge.”
“I thought, at first, the bridge had dropped into the barrel, from his pocket, or that he threw it away. It seemed impossible that it dropped from his mouth.”
“Who did it all?”
“That is not yet certain, and I’m going to ask you to hold the matter confidential until you hear further.”
“Of course, but it is the most terrible thing I ever heard of!”
“I agree to that, but these terrible things have to be investigated like the rest.”
Stone returned immediately to Silver Spray. He found few people about, and he went at once to Searle’s office, and sent for Tim.
The boy came, looking scared and white.
“Sit down, Tim,” Stone said, not unkindly, but definitely. “Now, as you know, when I talked to you before about this secret which you refuse to tell, it was merely to learn what you knew,—if any. Now, the case is altered. The disappearance of Mr Searle is, beyond doubt, a matter of murder, and you will have to tell what you know to me or to the police. I am not threatening you, but the penalties for withheld information are very severe, and you’d better come through. And, here’s another thing. You are getting to be a man, and you want, or ought to want, to be a good citizen. Now a good American citizen must abide by the laws of the country, not only from fear of punishment if he doesn’t, not only from a sense of duty, but because of an innate desire to be a real man, a real patriot, and to do what is right and proper always.”
“Yes, sir,” said, Tim, a little bewildered, but very attentive. “Go on.”
“Well, then, it is your duty to tell me anything you know about this storehouse matter. You saw somebody in there that afternoon that Mr Duncan disappeared. Who was it?”
“Mr Duncan himself.”
“Well, you see, that was the time I had to go over to the village—”
“Don’t get that off again! After that, or whenever it was, you saw—”
“I can’t tell you! I don’t want to be a citizen! I’d rather run away—I’d rather be put in jail,—I’d rather—”
“Hush,” said Stone, for the boy was getting hysterical, “just tell me the name—”
“No, no, no!”
“All right. Now, look here. I’ll write a name, and you read it, and you needn’t tell me even whether it’s the right one or not.”
Stone scribbled a name and held it out to the boy’s eyes.
No spoken response was necessary. Tim’s pallid face and burning eyes showed plainly that it was the name he had feared to see.
“All right, kid,” said Stone, gently. “Run along now, and we’ll talk about citizenship some other day.”
Tim departed, walking a bit uncertainly, and Stone sent for Mrs Prall.
“You told me,” he began, “about seeing and hearing Mr Duncan in his storehouse that afternoon. Now, Mrs Prall, come clean. Who was with him?”
“I—I couldn’t rightly see, sir—”
“Yes, you could rightly see. And you did see. And you know who it was, and now you’re going to tell me.”
Perhaps it was the direct, matter of fact way Stone spoke, without bluster of excitement, that inclined Mrs Prall to acquiescence.
“Well,” she said, “well,—he was in a furious temper—”
“I suppose with the person he was talking to.”
“Yes, I suppose so. Now, for the name of that person.”
“I can’t do it,” she declared, after a moment’s pause. “If I should be wrong, it would be too terrible!”
“But he said, ‘The hour has come’—”
“He said, ‘I told you this hour would come, and now it’s here.’ ”
“And this was the person!” he flashed before her eyes the same paper he had shown to Tim.
Again the ruse worked.
Mrs Prall not only turned white but her old face became gray and drawn, and she trembled so violently that Stone was alarmed.
“There, there,” he said, soothingly, “that’s all. You may go, now. Tell nobody about this, unless you choose to tell your husband. No one else.”
She pulled herself together and stumbled from the room.
Fleming Stone remained silent for a long time, thinking deeply. He was interrupted by the entrance of Dave Murray.
“Hello, Uncle,” he said, “glad you turned up. I was just contemplating a sudden and inexplicable disappearance.”
“I fancy it won’t be long before you do disappear from these haunts,” Murray returned, looking gravely at his nephew.
“Meaning that you’ve solved your problem. That you’re going to divulge the truth presently—”
“Oh, that’s a favorite word of mine. It means a lot of things, you know. But I’m here to drag you out of your brown study, and bid you come to tea.”
“I come, and willingly enough.”
The two men joined the group in the lounge, and the refreshment offered him, in a measure revived Stone’s lowered spirits.
The chatter was general, the guests at ease, and the family as usual.
Carlotta, beautiful in a black velvet hostess gown, had, if anything, an added calm, a sort of reposeful dignity that was even more alluring than her habitual indifference.
Booth was devouring her with his eyes, as he always was, and Austin was devoting himself to Dorothy.
Stone, with unmistakable purpose, seated himself near Erminie and kept up a low-toned conversation with her about Duncan Searle.
As this was her favorite topic of conversation, she talked and listened with enthusiasm.
After tea Stone and his uncle went for one of their long walks, and late after dinner, the whole group gathered in the lounge.
A certain tenseness in the atmosphere made some of them feel a climax about to arrive, and they were not mistaken.
“I was engaged,” Stone began, in a business-like voice, “to investigate the matter of Duncan Searle’s disappearance, and to learn, if possible, the truth about it. I have succeeded in my efforts and I ask of my employers whether I shall now divulge the truth, as I have learned it.”
“Of course,” said Austin, “and I, for one, shall be glad to have the suspense ended, whatever the outcome.”
“You, too, Mrs Searle?” asked Stone of Carlotta.
“Yes,” she said, with a slow, sweet smile. “Yes, let us know it all.”
“Very well, then here are my findings. Duncan Searle, the day he disappeared, was murdered. It is not possible to say how, but we may yet learn that. He was killed in his storehouse, out back of the laboratory, or, if not that, then he was killed elsewhere and his body taken to the storehouse.
“It was placed in a large metal container and covered with caustic potash. This dissolved or annihilated the body entirely. Nothing discernible of it remained. With the single exception of the platinum bridge which was his property. I will say right here, that I have seen the dentist who did the work and have proved beyond all doubt that the bit of platinum we found was the dead man’s denture.
“The tale sounds incredible, but it is true that the body remained undisturbed in its hiding place until it passed into nothingness, and the container remained untouched after that until the present time.
“These are facts, and have been proved scientifically, beyond all dispute. As to circumstances, when Mr Searle went into the house that day, he went in one or two rooms and then went on to the storehouse. He was not seen to go, or if he was, it was so natural an incident as to pass unnoticed. With him, in the storehouse, was the murderer, who committed the deed and disposed of the body as I have said.
“Remains only to know the identity of the murderer. And opportunity is here given for confession, failing which, I shall myself announce the name.”
The silence was awesome. No one turned to look at another. They seemed dazed, paralyzed.
Then Erminie burst into convulsive weeping. Dorothy looked at her but made no move to go to her.
Booth gave an agonized groan and buried his head in his hands. Austin stared straight before him, and Carlotta, calm and serene as ever, let a tender little smile come into her eyes as she looked at Ronald.
Then she spoke.
“It is for me to make the confession,” she said, in low, even tones. “I killed Duncan, and I did it in exactly the way Mr Stone has described. I had no accomplice, no helper. But it was not murder,—I killed him in self defence.”
Booth rose and slowly walked over to her. He sat down beside her, and took her hand, but said no word.
“Let me tell it all now,” she went on. “I cannot ever refer to the matter again. Duncan had nearly driven me crazy with his demands that I give him a divorce. This I could not do, legally or morally. My religion does not allow of it. Many times he threatened to kill me if I did not do so. I carried on as best I could, but he grew worse and worse, and I think his mind was a little affected.
“Sometimes he would have a mad light in his eyes and would threaten me with the most terrible tortures. I didn’t believe he would ever really attempt my life, although I knew he had prussic acid in his possession which, he said, he meant to give me unless I obeyed him.
“That day, he came into the house, came into my room, and told me the time had come. He bade me go with him. And he led me to the old storehouse. Somehow I felt no fear, for I never dreamed he was intending to kill me. But when he got me out there, he produced a knife, said he would kill me then, said the hour had come, and added, that he had a clever way of disposing of my body. He showed me the barrel of potash and explained what he meant to do. Then, as I saw his glittering eyes, I knew the hour had come, that he had gone mad, at least, temporarily, and that he was fully in earnest.
“I fought for my life. I watched my chance and when he raised his arm with the knife in his hand, I sprang at his throat and I strangled him. As you know, my hands and forearms are very strong and muscular from my heavy piano practice, also my outdoor exercises. It was not difficult, I merely exerted pressure until he ceased to breathe. Then,—I treated his body as he had planned to treat mine. I’d rather not talk about that. I did it impulsively, and I admit I did it from fright. I felt sure no one would believe my story, that no one would believe my life was in desperate danger, and I feared trial and execution, because I had no obvious defence. Moreover, I scarcely knew what I was doing. It was one occasion on which my usual poise entirely deserted me and I was as wrought up and excited as any human being could possibly be.
“That is all. It was over in a very few moments, I went back to the house, not noticing whether I was seen or not. But I was not, and I went to my room, saw the group on the lawn, and went out there and joined them. I did no wrong, one has a right they say to save one’s own life, and I was ill-advised to hide it. I should have announced at once what I had done. However, having done what I did do, I had to abide by the consequences, and I have done so. Now, I am ready to give myself over to the police, to stand trial, to accept the; verdict, whatever it may be. I am not sorry Duncan is dead, he was a menace and was becoming more so. And it was his life or mine. I preferred to live, and I chose the only way to do so. That is all.”
Carlotta sat upright, looking more like an avenging angel than a criminal. Booth put his arm round her and kissed her. Austin crossed the room and kissed her also.
Unable to meet the inevitable reaction, she rose and said she would go to her room and in the morning they could tell her what she was to do.
Dorothy half started to go with her, but her brother pulled her back, and they all watched the beautiful, proud figure walk from the room alone. It seemed presumptuous to approach her, she was so adequate to the occasion, so haughtily above desiring assistance.
“For my part,” said Booth, as Carlotta went up the stairs, “I’m right with her. She’s a marvel, and to me as innocent and right as an angel.”
“Me, too,” agreed Austin. “Poor girl, what she has had to go through! She falsified, she even lied,—a terrible thing to her,—and she has had all these wretched weeks and months to bear her burden alone.”
“She’s capable of it,” Booth spoke proudly. “Now. Mr Stone, can we get her through her trial successfully? It would go easier with a ‘clinging vine’ type of woman. These strong natures do not get the sympathy that is given to the helpless ones.”
“It will all depend on the jury and the way the trial is conducted,” Stone replied. “It’s a great undertaking, but I have no fears for Mrs Searle’s courage or bravery.”
“How did you get on to the truth?” Colvin asked, seemingly the only one whose thoughts were on aught but Carlotta herself.
“She gave me the cue,” Stone said. “Never did I see her lose her poise for an instant, never did I see an eyelash quiver, except when I asked her questions about her husband. Then, her eyes, or, rather her eyelids, had a slight tremulous wavering that spoke volumes. Then, too her calm, still fingers interlaced and twisted themselves. She didn’t know these things, but they told me the truth, or led me to think about it. Then, a story that I dragged from the boy, Tim, and another from Mrs Prall, corroborated all I had feared, and I faced the inevitable conclusion. Of course, the clew, the only clew, started me off. The denture was the key to the whole situation. But let us leave all unnecessary details till to-morrow. I am weary, and I fancy we all are.”
But to-morrow brought a different phase of the situation.
Grant came to Fleming Stone’s door as he was dressing, and told him that her mistress was dead.
Collecting his uncle, they went at once to the bedroom.
Robed in a white negligee, Carlotta lay on her chaise longue, white and cold in death.
She had taken the prussic acid bought for her by Duncan, and in her hand was a note addressed to Ronald Booth.
This, being sent for, Ronald read to them, in part:
“It must be this way, dear heart. There could be no happiness for you with the memory of my deed always in your heart. Yes, I know you think you could forget, but you could not. As the years went by the terrible bar between us would grow bigger and blacker, and I should read in your dear eyes an aversion you could not conceal. I know you too well, Ronny darling, to believe otherwise. The only thing I can do for you is to die for you. And I go, remembering only our love and the joys we have had, even though stolen sweets. Forget me, and after a time find another to love, whose soft, gentle character will be all unlike
Booth stood, looking down at the exquisite, still face. He murmured, as if to himself, one of his favorite quotations:
“All my days I’ll go softlier, sadlier for that dream’s sake.”
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