A HUSBAND BY PROXY
GROSSET & DUNLAP
Copyright, 1909, by
Desmond FitzGerald, Inc.
I. THE PROPOSITION II. A SECOND EMPLOYMENT III. TWO ENCOUNTERS IV. UNSPOKEN ANTAGONISM V. THE "SHADOW" VI. THE CORONER VII. A STARTLING DISCOVERY VIII. WHERE CLEWS MAY POINT IX. A SUMMONS X. A COMPLICATION XI. THE SHOCK OF TRUTH XII. A DISTURBING LOSS XIII. A TRYST IN THE PARK XIV. A PACKAGE OF DEATH XV. SIGNIFICANT DISCOVERIES XVI. IN QUEST OF DOROTHY XVII. A RESCUE BY FORCE XVIII. THE RACE XIX. FRIGHT AND A DISAPPEARANCE XX. NEW HAPPENINGS XXI. REVELATIONS XXII. A MAN IN THE CASE XXIII. THE ENEMY'S TRACKS XXIV. A NEW ALARM XXV. A DEARTH OF CLEWS XXVI. STARTLING DISCLOSURES XXVII. LIKE A BOLT FROM THE BLUE XXVIII. A HELPLESS SITUATION XXIX. NIGHT-WALKERS XXX. OVERTURES FROM THE ENEMY XXXI. THE FRET OF WAITING XXXII. A TRAGIC CULMINATION XXXIII. FOSTER DURGIN XXXIV. THE RICHES OF THE WORLD XXXV. JOHN HARDY'S WILL XXXVI. GARRISON'S VALUED FRIEND XXXVII. A HONEYMOON
A Husband by Proxy
With the hum of New York above, below, and all about him, stirring his pulses and prodding his mental activities, Jerold Garrison, expert criminologist, stood at the window of his recently opened office, looking out upon the roofs and streets of the city with a new sense of pride and power in his being.
New York at last!
He was here—unknown and alone, it was true—but charged with an energy that he promised Manhattan should feel.
He was almost penniless, with his office rent, his licenses, and other expenses paid, but he shook his fist at the city, in sheer good nature and confidence in his strength, despite the fact he had waited a week for expected employment, and nothing at present loomed upon the horizon.
His past, in a small Ohio town, was behind him. He blotted it out without regret—or so at least he said to himself—even as to all the gilded hopes which had once seemed his all upon earth. If his heart was not whole, no New York eye should see its wounds—and the healing process had begun.
He was part of the vast machine about him, the mighty brain, as it were, of the great American nation.
He paced the length of his room, and glanced at the door. The half-painted sign on the frosted glass was legible, reversed, as the artist had left it:
JEROLD ———— CRIMINOLOGIST.
He had halted the painter himself on the name, as the lettering appeared too fanciful—not sufficiently plain or bold.
While he stood there a shadow fell upon the glass. Someone was standing outside, in the hall. As if undecided, the owner of the shadow oscillated for a moment—and disappeared. Garrison, tempted to open the door and gratify a natural curiosity, remained beside his desk. Mechanically his hand, which lay upon a book entitled "A Treatise on Poisons," closed the volume.
He was still watching the door. The shadow returned, the knob was revolved, and there, in the oaken frame, stood a tall young woman of extraordinary beauty, richly though quietly dressed, and swiftly changing color with excitement.
Pale in one second, crimson in the next, and evidently concentrating all her power on an effort to be calm, she presented a strangely appealing and enchanting figure to the man across the room. Bravery was blazing in her glorious brown eyes, and firmness came upon her manner as she stepped inside, closed the door, and silently confronted the detective.
The man she was studying was a fine-looking, clean-cut fellow, gray-eyed, smooth-shaven, with thick brown hair, and with a gentleman-athlete air that made him distinctly attractive. The fearless, honest gaze of his eyes completed a personal charm that was undeniable in his entity.
It seemed rather long that the two thus stood there, face to face. Garrison candidly admiring in his gaze, his visitor studious and slightly uncertain.
She was the first to speak.
"Are you Mr. Jerold?"
"Jerold Garrison," the detective answered. "My sign is unfinished. May I offer you a chair?"
His caller sat down beside the desk. She continued to study his face frankly, with a half-shy, half-defiant scrutiny, as if she banished a natural diffidence under pressure of necessity.
She spoke again, abruptly.
"I wish to procure peculiar services. Are you a very well-known detective?"
"I have never called myself a detective," said Garrison. "I'm trying to occupy a higher sphere of usefulness. I left college a year ago, and last week opened my office here and became a New Yorker."
He might, in all modesty, have exhibited a scrap-book filled with accounts of his achievements, with countless references to his work as a "scientific criminologist" of rare mental attainments. Of his attainments as a gentleman there was no need of reference. They proclaimed themselves in his bearing.
His visitor laid a glove and a scrap of paper on the desk.
"It isn't so much detective services I require," she said; "but of course you are widely acquainted in New York—I mean with young men particularly?"
"No," he replied, "I know almost none. But I know the city fairly well, if that will answer your purpose."
"I thought, of course—I hoped you might know some honorable—— You see, I have come on rather extraordinary business," she said, faltering a little helplessly. "Let me ask you first—is the confidence of a possible client quite sacred with a man in this profession?"
"Absolutely sacred!" he assured her. "Whether you engage my services or not, your utterances here will be treated as confidential and as inviolate as if spoken to a lawyer, a doctor, or a clergyman."
"Thank you," she murmured. "I have been hunting around——"
She left the sentence incomplete.
"And you found my name quite by accident," he supplied, indicating the scrap of paper. "I cannot help observing that you have been to other offices first. You have tramped all the way down Broadway from Forty-second Street, for the red ink that someone spilled at the Forty-first Street crossing is still on your shoe, together with just a film of dust."
She withdrew her shoe beneath the edge of her skirt, although he had never apparently glanced in that direction.
"Yes," she admitted, "I have been to others—and they wouldn't do. I came in here because of the name—Jerold. I am sorry you are not better acquainted—for my business is important."
"Perhaps if I knew the nature of your needs I might be able to advise you," said Garrison. "I hope to be more widely acquainted soon."
She cast him one look, full of things inscrutable, and lowered her lashes in silence. She was evidently striving to overcome some indecision.
Garrison looked at her steadily. He thought he had never in his life beheld a woman so beautiful. Some wild, unruly hope that she might become his client, perhaps even a friend, was flaring in his mind.
The color came and went in her cheeks, adding fresh loveliness at every change. She glanced at her list of names, from which a number had been scratched.
"Well," she said presently, "I think perhaps you might still be able to attend to my requirements."
He waited to hear her continue, but she needed encouragement.
"I shall be glad to try," he assured her.
She was silent again—and blushing. She looked up somewhat defiantly.
"I wish you to procure me a husband."
Garrison stared. He was certain he had heard incorrectly.
"I do not mean an actual husband," she explained. "I simply mean some honorable young man who will assume the role for a time, as a business proposition, for a fee to be paid as I would pay for anything else.
"I would require that he understand the affair to be strictly commercial, and that when I wish the arrangement to terminate he will disappear from the scene and from my acquaintance at once and absolutely.
"All I ask of you is to supply me such a person. I will pay you whatever fee you may demand—in reason."
Garrison looked at her as fixedly as she was looking at him.
Her recital of her needs had brought to the surface a phase of desperation in her bearing that wrought upon him potently, he knew not why.
"I think I understand your requirements, as far as one can in the circumstances," he answered. "I hardly believe I have the ability to engage such a person as you need for such a mission. I informed you at the start that my acquaintance with New York men is exceedingly narrow. I cannot think of anyone I could honestly recommend."
"But don't you know any honorable young gentleman—like some college man, perhaps—here in New York, looking for employment; someone who might be glad to earn, say, five hundred dollars?" she insisted. "Surely if you only know a few, there must be one among them."
Garrison sat back in his chair and took hold of his smooth-shaved lip with his thumb and finger. He reviewed his few New York experiences rapidly.
"No," he repeated. "I know of no such man. I am sorry."
His visitor looked at him with a new, flashing light in her eyes.
"Not one?" she said, significantly. "Not one young college man?"
He was unsuspicious of her meaning.
For a moment she fingered her glove where it lay upon the desk. Then a look of more pronounced determination and courage came upon her face as she raised her eyes once more to Garrison's.
"Are you married?"
A flush came at once upon Garrison's face—and memories and heartaches possessed him for a poignant moment. He mastered himself almost instantly.
"No," he said with some emotion, "I am not."
"Then," she said, "couldn't you undertake the task yourself?"
Garrison leaned forward on the table. Lightning from an azure sky could have been no more astonishing or unexpected.
"Do you mean—will I play this role—as your husband?" he said slowly. "Is that what you are asking?"
"Yes," she answered unflinchingly. "Why not? You need the money; I need the services. You understand exactly what it is I require. It is business, and you are a business man."
"But I have no wish to be a married man, or even to masquerade as one," he told her bluntly.
"You have quite as much wish to be one as I have to be a married woman," she answered. "We would understand each other thoroughly from the start. As to masquerading, if you have no acquaintances, then who would be the wiser?"
He acknowledged the logic of her argument; nevertheless, the thing seemed utterly preposterous. He rose and walked the length of his office, and stood looking out of the window. Then he returned and resumed his seat. He was strangely moved by her beauty and some unexplained helplessness of her plight, vouchsafed to his senses, yet he recognized a certain need for caution.
"What should I be expected to do?" he inquired.
His visitor, in the mental agitation which had preceded this interview, had taken little if any time to think of the details likely to attend an alliance such as she had just proposed. She could only think in generalities.
"Why—there will be very little for you to do, except to permit yourself to be considered my lawful husband, temporarily," she replied after a moment of hesitation, with a hot flush mounting to her cheek.
"And to whom would I play?" he queried. "Should I be obliged, in this capacity, to meet your relatives and friends?"
"Certainly—a few," said his visitor. "But I have almost no relatives in the world. I have no father, mother, brothers, or sisters. There will be, at most, a few distant relatives and possibly my lawyer."
Garrison made no response. He was trying to think what such a game would mean—and what it might involve.
His visitor presently added:
"Do you consent—for five hundred dollars?"
"I don't know," answered the man. Again he paced the room. When he halted before his client he looked at her sternly.
"You haven't told me your name," he said.
She gave him her card, on which appeared nothing more than just merely the name "Mrs. Jerold Fairfax," with an address in an uptown West Side street.
Garrison glanced at it briefly.
"This is something you have provided purposely to fit your requirements," he said. "Am I not supposed to know you by any other name?"
"If you accept the—the employment," she answered, once more blushing crimson, "you may be obliged at times to call me Dorothy. My maiden name was Dorothy Booth."
Garrison merely said: "Oh!"
They were silent for a moment. The man was pondering the possibilities. His visitor was evidently anxious.
"I suppose I can find someone else if you refuse the employment," she said. "But you will understand that my search is one of great difficulty. The person I employ must be loyal, a gentleman, courageous, resourceful, and very little known. You can see yourself that you are particularly adapted for the work."
"Thank you," said Garrison, who was aware that no particular flattery was intended. He added: "I hardly suppose it could do me any harm."
Mrs. Fairfax accepted this ungallant observation calmly. She recognized the fact that his side of the question had its aspects.
She waited for Garrison to speak again.
A knock at the door startled them both. A postman entered, dropped two letters on the desk, and departed down the hall.
Garrison took up the letters. One was a circular of his own, addressed to a lawyer over a month before, and now returned undelivered and marked "Not found," though three or four different addresses had been supplied in its peregrinations.
The second letter was addressed to himself in typewritten form. He was too engrossed to tear it open, and laid them both upon the table.
"If I took this up," he presently resumed, "I should be obliged to know something more about it. For instance, when were we supposed to have been married?"
"On the 10th of last month," she answered promptly.
"Oh!" said he. "And, in case of necessity, how should we prove it?"
"By my wedding certificate," she told him calmly.
His astonishment increased.
"Then you were actually married, over a month ago?"
"I have the certificate. Isn't that sufficient?" she replied evasively.
"Well—I suppose it is—for this sort of an arrangement," he agreed. "Of course some man's name must appear in the document. I should be obliged, I presume, to adopt his name as part of the arrangement?"
"Certainly," she said. "I told you I came into your office because your name is Jerold."
"Exactly," he mused. "The name I'd assume is Jerold Fairfax?"
She nodded, watching him keenly.
"It's a good enough name," said Garrison.
He paced up and down the floor in silence a number of times. Mrs. Fairfax watched him in apparent calm.
"This is a great temptation," he admitted. "I should like to earn the fee you have mentioned, Miss Booth—Mrs. Fairfax, but——"
"I don't exactly like the look of it, to be frank," he confessed. "I don't know you, and you don't know me. I am not informed whether you are really married or not. If you are, and the man—— You have no desire to enlighten me on these matters. Can you tell me why you wish to pretend that I am your husband?"
"I do not wish to discuss that aspect of the arrangement at present," she said. "It is purely a business proposition that should last no more than a month or two at most, and then terminate forever. I would prefer to have you remain out of town as much as possible."
"A great many haphazard deductions present themselves to my mind," he said, "but all are doubtless inaccurate. I have no morbid curiosity concerning your affairs, but this thing would involve me almost as much as yourself, by its very nature."
His brows were knitted in indecision.
There was silence again between them. His visitor presently said:
"If I could offer you more than the five hundred dollars, I would gladly do so."
"Oh, the fee is large enough, for up to date I have had no employment or even a prospect of work," said Garrison. "I hope you will not be offended when I say that I have recently become a cautious man."
"I know how strange it appears for me to come here with this extraordinary request," agreed Mrs. Fairfax. "I hardly know how I have done so. But there was no one to help me. I hope you will not consider the matter for another moment if you feel that either of us cannot trust the other. In a way, I am placing my honor in your keeping far more than you are placing yourself in charge of mine."
Garrison looked at her steadily, and something akin to sympathy—something that burned like wine of romance in his blood—with zest of adventure and a surge of generosity toward this unknown girl—tingled in all his being. Something in her helplessness appealed to his innate chivalry.
Calmly, however, he took a new estimate of her character, notwithstanding the fact that his first, most reliable impression had been entirely in her favor.
"Well," he said, after a moment, "it's a blind game for me, but I think I'll accept your offer. When do you wish me to begin my services?"
"I should like to notify my lawyer as soon as possible," answered Mrs. Fairfax, frankly relieved by his decision. "He may regard the fact that he was not sooner notified as a little peculiar."
"Practically you wish me to assume my role at once," commented Garrison. "What is your lawyer's name?"
"Mr. Stephen Trowbridge."
Garrison took up that much-addressed letter, returned by the post, and passed it across the table. The one fairly legible line on its surface read:
STEPHEN TROWBRIDGE, ESQ.
"I think that must be the same individual," he said. "I sent out announcements of my business and presence here to nearly every lawyer in the State. This envelope has been readdressed, as you observe, but it has never reached its destination. Is that your man?"
Mrs. Fairfax examined the missive.
"Yes," she said, "I think so. Do you wish his present address?"
"If you please," answered Garrison. "I shall take the liberty of steaming this open and removing its contents, after which I will place an antedated letter or notification of the—our marriage—written by yourself—in the envelope, redirect it, and send it along. It will finally land in the hands of your lawyer with its tardiness very naturally explained."
"You mean the notification will appear as if misdirected originally," said Dorothy. "An excellent idea."
"Perhaps you will compose the note at once," said Garrison, pushing paper, pen, and ink across the desk. "You may leave the rest, with the address, to me."
His visitor hesitated for a moment, as if her decision wavered in this vital moment of plunging into unknown fates, but she took up the pen and wrote the note and address with commendable brevity.
Garrison was walking up and down the office.
"The next step——" he started to say, but his visitor interrupted.
"Isn't this the only step necessary to take until something arises making others expedient?"
"There is one slight thing remaining," he answered, taking up her card. "You are in a private residence?"
"Yes. The caretaker, a woman, is always there."
"Have you acquainted her with the fact of your marriage?"
"Certainly. She is an English servant. She asks no questions. But I told her my husband is away from town and will be absent almost constantly for the next two or three months."
Garrison slightly elevated his brows, in acknowledgment of the thoroughness of her arrangements.
"I have never attempted much acting—a little at private theatricals," he told her; "but of course we shall both be obliged to play this little domestic comedy with some degree of art."
She seemed prepared for that also, despite the sudden crimson of her cheeks.
"One more detail," he added. "You have probably found it necessary to withhold certain facts from my knowledge. I trust I shall not be led into awkward blunders. I shall do my best, and for the rest—I beg of you to conduct the affair according to your own requirements and judgment."
The slightly veiled smile in his eyes did not escape her observation. Nevertheless, she accepted his proposal quite as a matter of course.
"Thank you. I am glad you relieved me of the necessity of making some such suggestion. I think that is all—for the present." She stood up, and, fingering her glove, glanced down at the table for a moment. "May I pay, say, two hundred dollars now, as a retainer?"
"I shall be gratified if you will," he answered.
In silence she counted out the money, which she took from a purse in a bag. The bills lay there in a heap.
"When you wish any more, will you please let me know?" she said. "And when I require your services I will wire. Perhaps I'd better take both this office and your house address."
He wrote them both on a card and placed it in her hand.
"Thank you," she murmured. She closed her purse, hesitated a moment, then raised her eyes to his. Quite coldly she added: "Good-afternoon."
"Good-day," answered Garrison.
He opened the door, bowed to her slightly as she passed—then faced about and stared at the money that lay upon his desk.
A SECOND EMPLOYMENT
For a moment, when he found himself alone, Garrison stood absolutely motionless beside the door. Slowly he came to the desk again, and slowly he assembled the bills. He rolled them in a neat, tight wad, and held them in his hand.
Word for word and look for look he reviewed the recent dialogue, shaking his head at the end.
He had never been so puzzled in his life.
The situation, his visitor—all of it baffled him utterly. Had not the money remained in his grasp he might have believed he was dreaming.
"She was frightened, and yet she had a most remarkable amount of nerve," he reflected. "She might be an heiress, an actress, or a princess. She may be actually married—and then again she may not; probably not, since two husbands on the scene would be embarrassing."
"She may be playing at any sort of a game, financial, political, or domestic—therefore dangerous, safe, or commonplace, full of intrigue, or a mystery, or the silliest caprice.
"She—oh, Lord—I don't know! She is beautiful—that much is certain. She seems to be honest. Those deep, brown eyes go with innocence—and also with scheming; in which respect they precisely resemble blue eyes, and gray, and all the other feminine colors. And yet she seemed, well, helpless, worried—almost desperate. She must be desperate and helpless."
Again, in fancy, he was looking in her face, and something was stirring in his blood. That was all he really knew. She had stirred him—and he was glad of the meeting—glad he had entered her employment.
He placed the roll of money in his pocket, then looked across his desk at the clean, white letter which the postman had recently delivered.
He took it up, paused again to wonder at the meaning of what had occurred, then tore the envelope and drew forth the contents.
He had barely spread the letter open when a knock on the door startled every thought in his brain.
His first conclusion was that Mrs. Fairfax had returned to repudiate her bargain and ask the surrender of her money. With a smile for any fate, he crossed the room and opened the door.
In the hallway stood a man—a little, sharp-faced, small-eyed, thin-nosed person, with a very white complexion, and a large, smooth-shaved mouth, open as if in a smile that never ceased.
"Garrison?" he said sharply. "Wicks—I'm Wicks."
"Wicks?" said Garrison. "Come in."
Mr. Wicks stepped in with a snap-like alacrity. "Read your letter," he said—"read your letter."
Obediently Garrison perused the missive in hand, typed on the steel-plate stationery of the New York Immutable Life Insurance Company:
"At the recommendation of our counsel, Mr. Sperry Lochlan, who is still abroad, we desire to secure your services in a professional capacity. Our Mr. Wicks will call upon you this afternoon to explain the nature of the employment and conclude the essential arrangements.
"Respectfully yours, "JOHN STEFFAS, "Dep't of Special Service."
A wave of gratitude toward Lochlan, the lawyer who had first employed him, and advised this New York office, surged with another, of almost boyish joy, through Garrison's being. It seemed almost absurd that two actual clients should thus have appeared within the hour. He looked up at the little man with a new, keen interest.
"I am glad to meet you, Mr. Wicks," he said. "Will you please sit down? I am at your service."
Mr. Wicks snatched a chair and sat down. It was quite a violent maneuver, especially as that sinister grin never for a moment left his features. He took off his hat and made a vicious dive at a wisp of long, red hair that adorned the otherwise barren top of his head. The wisp lay down toward his left ear when thus adjusted. He looked up at Garrison almost fiercely.
"Obscure, ain't you?" he demanded.
"Obscure?" inquired Garrison. "Perhaps I am—just at present—here in New York."
"You are!" stated Mr. Wicks aggressively.
Garrison was not enamored of his manner.
"All right," he said—"all right."
Mr. Wicks suddenly leaned forward and fetched his index finger almost up against the young man's nose.
"Good at murder?" he demanded.
Garrison began to suspect that the building might harbor lunatics, several of whom had escaped.
"Am I good at murder?" he repeated. "Doing murder or——"
"Ferreting murder! Ferreting murder! Ferreting murder!" cried the visitor irritably.
"Oh," said Garrison, "if you wish to employ me on a murder case, I'll do the best I can."
"You worked out the Biddle robbery?" queried Mr. Wicks.
Garrison replied that he had. The Biddle robbery was the Lochlan case—his first adventure in criminology.
"Take the case!" commanded Mr. Wicks in his truculent manner. "Two hundred and fifty a month as long as you work. One thousand dollars bonus if you find the murderer. Accept the terms?"
"Yes, I'll take the case," he said. "What sort of——"
Mr. Wicks made a sudden snatch at his wisp of hair, adjusted it quite to the other side of his head, then as abruptly drew a paper from his pocket and thrust it into Garrison's hand.
"Statement of the case," he interrupted. "Read it."
Garrison accepted the document, spread it open, and read as follows:
STATEMENT: Case of John Hardy.
Occupation—Real estate dealer (retired).
Residence—Unfixed, changed frequently (last, Hickwood, two days, boarding).
Family—No immediate family (no one nearer than nephews and nieces).
Rating in Bradbury's—No rating.
Insured in any other companies—No.
Insured with us for what amount—Twenty thousand dollars.
Name of beneficiary—Charles Scott.
Residence—Hickwood, New York (village).
Date of subject's death—May 27th.
Place of death—Village of Branchville (near Hickwood).
Verdict of coroner—Death from natural causes (heart failure or apoplexy).
Body claimed by—Paul Durgin (nephew).
Body interred where—Shipped to Vermont for burial.
Suspicious circumstances—Beneficiary paid once before on claim for similar amount, death of risk having been equally sudden and unexplained.
Remarks—The body was found on the porch of an empty house (said by superstitious neighbors to be haunted). It was found in sitting posture, leaning against post of porch. No signs of violence except a green stain on one knee. Deceased uncommonly neat. There is no grass growing before the empty house, owing to heavy shade of trees. No signs of struggle near house. Details supplied by old woman, Mrs. Webber, whose son found deceased. Our company not represented, either at inquest or afterward, as no notification of subject's death was filed until the 31st inst.
At the bottom, written in pencil, appeared the words:
"Quiet case. Steffas."
That was all. Garrison turned the paper. There was nothing on the reverse. Placing it face upward on the table, he thrust his hands into his pockets and looked at Mr. Wicks.
"I'm expected to fasten this crime on Scott?" he inquired. "Is that what your company requires?"
"Fasten the crime on the guilty man!" replied the aggressive Mr. Wicks. "If Scott didn't do it, we'll pay the claim. If he did, we'll send him to the chair. It may not be murder at all."
"Of course," said Garrison. "Who wrote this report?"
"What's that to you?" said Wicks.
"I wondered why the writer drops out of the case," answered Garrison. "That's all."
"I wrote it," said Wicks. "Scott knows me from the former case. If you want the case, you will start this evening for Hickwood and begin your work. Use your own devices. Report everything promptly—everything. Go at once to the office and present your card for expenses and typed instructions. Good-day!"
He had clapped on his hat. He strode to the door, opened it, disappeared, and closed it again as if he worked on springs. Garrison was left staring at the knob, his hand mechanically closed on the statement intrusted to his keeping.
"Well," he said, "I'll be scalloped! Good old New York!"
He was presently out upon the street, a brisk, active figure, boarding a Broadway car for the downtown office of the company.
At half past five he was back once more in his office with a second hundred dollars in his pocket, fifty of which was for expenses.
He was turning away from his desk at last to leave for his lodgings, thence to journey to Hickwood, when a messenger-boy abruptly appeared with a telegram.
When Garrison had signed, he opened the envelope and read the following:
"Wire me you have arrived unexpectedly and will be here at eight, then come.
He almost ran from the building, bought a five-dollar bunch of the choicest roses, and, after wiring in accordance with instructions, sent them to the house.
Garrison roomed in Forty-fourth Street, where he occupied a small, second-story apartment. His meals he procured at various restaurants where fancy chanced to lead.
To-night a certain eagerness for adventure possessed his being.
More than anything else in the world he wished to see Dorothy again; he hardly dared confess why, but told himself that she was charming—and his nature demanded excitement.
He dined well and leisurely, bought a box of chocolates to present to his new-found "wife," dressed himself with exceptional care, and at length took an uptown train for his destination.
All the way on the cars he was thinking of the task he had undertaken to perform. Not without certain phases of amusement, he rehearsed his part, and made up his mind to leave nothing of the role neglected.
Arrived in the West Side street, close to the house which should have been Dorothy's, he discovered that the numbering on the doors had been wretchedly mismanaged. One or the other of two brownstone fronts must be her residence; he could not determine which. The nearest was lighted from top to bottom. In the other a single pair of windows only, on the second floor, showed the slightest sign of life.
Resolved to be equal to anything the adventure might require, he mounted the steps of the lighted dwelling and rang the bell. He was almost immediately admitted by a serving-man, who appeared a trifle surprised to behold him, but who bowed him in as if he were expected, with much formality and deference.
"What shall I call you?" he said.
Garrison was surprised, but he announced:
"Just Mr. Jerold."
A second door was opened; a gush of perfumed air, a chorus of gay young voices, and a peal of laughter greeted Garrison's ears as the servant called out his name.
Instantly a troop of brilliantly dressed young women came running from the nearest room, all in fancy costume and all of them masked. Evidently a fancy-dress party was about to begin in the house. Garrison realized his blunder.
Before he could move, a stunning, superbly gowned girl, with bare neck and shoulders that were the absolute perfection of beauty, came boldly up to where the visitor stood. The others had ceased their laughter.
"Jerold!—how good of you to come!" said the girl, and, boldly patting his face with her hand, she quickly darted from him, while the others laughed with glee.
Garrison was sure he had never seen her before. Indeed, he had scarcely had time to note anything about her, save that on her neck she wore two necklaces—one of diamonds, the other of pearls, and both of wonderful gems.
Then out from the room from which she had come stepped a man appareled as Satan—in red from top to toe. He, too, was in mask. He joined in the laughter with the others.
Garrison "found himself" with admirable presence of mind.
"My one regret is that I may not remain," he said, with a bow to the ladies. "I might also regret having entered the wrong house, but your reception renders such an emotion impossible."
He bowed himself out with commendable grace, and the bold masquerader threw kisses as he went. Amused, quite as much as annoyed, at his blunder, he made himself ready as best he might for another adventure, climbed the steps of the dwelling next at hand, and once more rang the bell.
Almost immediately the dark hall was lighted by the switching on of lights. Then the door was opened, and Garrison beheld a squint-eyed, thin-lipped old man, who scowled upon him and remained there, barring his way.
"Good evening—is my wife at home—Mrs. Fairfax?" said Garrison, stepping in. "I wired her——"
"Jerold!" cried a voice, as the girl in the party-house had done. But this was Dorothy, half-way down the stairs, running toward him eagerly, and dressed in most exquisite taste.
Briskly stepping forward, ready with the role he had rehearsed, he caught her in his arms as she came to the bottom of the stairs, and she kissed him like a sweet young wife, obeying the impulse of her nature.
"Oh, Jerold, I'm so glad!" she said. "I don't see why you have to go away at nine!"
She was radiant with blushes.
He recognized a cue.
"And how's the dearest little girl in all the world?" he said, handing her the box of confections. "I didn't think I'd be able to make it, till I wired. While this bit of important business lasts we must do the best we can."
He had thrown his arm about her carelessly. She moved away with a natural gesture towards the man who had opened the door.
"Oh, Jerold, this is my Uncle Sykey—Mr. Robinson," she said. "He and Aunt Jill have come to pay me a visit. We must all go upstairs to the parlor."
She was pale with excitement, but her acting was perfect.
Garrison turned to the narrow-eyed old man, who was scowling darkly upon him.
"I'm delighted to meet you," he said, extending his hand.
"Um! Thank you," said Robinson, refusing his hand. "Extraordinary honeymoon you're giving my niece, Mr. Fairfax."
His manner nettled Garrison, who could not possibly have gauged the depth of the old man's dislike, even hatred, conceived against him simply as Dorothy's husband.
A greeting so utterly uncordial made unlooked-for demands upon his wits.
"The present arrangement will not endure very long," he said significantly. "In the meantime, if Dorothy is satisfied there seems to be no occasion for anyone else to feel distressed."
"If that's intended as a fling at me——" started Robinson, but Dorothy interrupted.
"Please come upstairs," she said, laying her hand for a moment on Garrison's shoulder; and then she ran up lightly, looking back with all the smiles of perfect art.
Garrison read it as an invitation to a private confidence, much needed to put him properly on guard. He bounded up as if in hot pursuit, leaving her uncle down there by the door.
She fled to the end of the upper hall, near a door that was closed. Garrison had lost no space behind her. She turned a white, tense face as she came to a halt.
"Be careful, please," she whispered. "Some of my relatives appeared here unexpectedly this afternoon. I had to wire on that account. Get away just as soon as you can. You are merely passing through the city. You must write me daily letters while they are here—and—don't forget who you are supposed to be!"
She was radiant again with blushes. Garrison was almost dazzled by her beauty. What reply he might have made was interrupted. Dorothy caught him by the hand, like a fond young bride, as her uncle came rapidly up the stairs. The door was opened at his elbow by a white-haired, almost "bearded" woman, large, sharp-sighted, and ugly, with many signs of both inquisitiveness and acquisitiveness upon her.
"So, that's your Mr. Fairfax," she said to Dorothy. "Come in here till I see what you're like."
Dorothy had again taken Garrison's arm. She led him forward.
"This is Aunt Jill," she said, by way of introduction and explanation. "Aunty, this is my husband, Jerold."
Aunt Jill had backed away from the door to let them enter. Garrison realized at once that Dorothy's marriage had excited much antagonism in the breasts of both these relatives. A sudden accession of boldness came upon him, in his plan to protect the girl. He entered the room and faced the woman calmly.
"I'm glad to meet you," he said, this time without extending his hand. "I beg to impress upon both you and Mr. Robinson that, such as I am, Dorothy chose me of her own free will to occupy my present position."
Mrs. Robinson was momentarily speechless. Her husband now stood in the door.
Dorothy shot Garrison a look of gratitude, but her immediate desire was for peace.
"Let us all sit down, and try to get better acquainted," she said. "I'm sure we shall all be friends."
"No doubt," said her uncle somewhat offensively.
Garrison felt himself decidedly uncertain of his ground. There was nothing to do, however, but await developments. He looked about the room in a quick, comprehensive manner.
It was a large apartment, furnished handsomely, perhaps even richly, but in a style no longer modern, save for the installation of electric lights. It contained a piano, a fireplace, a cabinet, writing-desk, two settees, and the customary complement of chairs.
The pictures on the walls were rather above the average, even in the homes of the wealthy. The objects of art, disposed in suitable places, were all in good taste and expensive.
Quite at a loss to meet these people to advantage, uninformed as he was of anything vital concerning Dorothy and the game she might be playing, Garrison was rendered particularly alert by the feeling of constraint in the air. He had instantly conceived a high appreciation for Dorothy's art in her difficult position, and he rose to a comprehension of the role assigned to himself.
He had earlier determined to appear affectionate; he now saw the need of enacting the part of protector.
In the full illumination of the room, the glory of Dorothy's beauty was startling. His eyes sought her face with no need of acting, and the admiration blazing in his gaze was more than genuine; it was thoroughly spontaneous and involuntary.
The moment was awkward and fraught with suspense for Garrison, as he found himself subjected to the flagrantly unfriendly appraisement of his newly acquired relations.
Aunt Jill had been wilted for a moment only. She looked their visitor over with undisguised contempt.
"Well, I dare say you look respectable and healthy," she said, as if conceding a point with no little reluctance, "but appearances are very deceiving."
"Thank you," said Garrison. He sat down near Dorothy, occupying a small settee.
If Mrs. Robinson was personally pugnacious, her husband harbored far more vicious emotions. Garrison felt this in his manner. The man was looking at him narrowly.
"How much of your time have you spent with your wife since your marriage?" he demanded, without the slightest preliminary introduction to the subject.
Garrison realized at once that Dorothy might have prepared a harmless fiction with which his answers might not correspond. He assumed a calm and deliberation he was far from feeling, as he said:
"I was not aware that I should be obliged to account to anyone save Dorothy for my goings and comings. Up to the present I believe she has been quite well satisfied with my deportment; haven't you, Dorothy?"
"Perfectly," said Dorothy, whose utterance was perhaps a trifle faint. "Can't we all be friends—and talk about——"
"I prefer to talk about this for a moment," interrupted her uncle, still regarding Garrison with the closest scrutiny. "What's your business, anyway, Mr. Fairfax?"
Garrison, adhering to a policy of telling the truth with the greatest possible frequency, and aware that evasion would avail them nothing, waited the fraction of a minute for Dorothy to speak. She was silent. He felt she had not committed herself or him upon the subject.
"I am engaged at present in some insurance business," he said. "It will take me out of town to-night, and keep me away for a somewhat indefinite period."
"H'm!" said Mr. Robinson. "I suppose you'll quit your present employment pretty soon?"
With no possible chance of comprehending the drift of inquiry, Garrison responded:
"I thought so!" exclaimed the old man, with unconcealed asperity. "Marrying for money is much more remunerative, hey?"
"Oh, uncle!" said Dorothy. Her pain and surprise were quite genuine.
Garrison colored instantly.
He might have been hopelessly floundering in a moment had not a natural indignation risen in his blood.
"Please remember that up to this evening you and I have been absolute strangers," he said, with some heat. "I am not the kind to marry for money. Had I done so I should not continue in my present calling for a very modest compensation."
He felt that Dorothy might misunderstand or even doubt his resolution to go on with her requirements. He added pointedly:
"I have undertaken certain assignments for my present employers which I mean to put through to the end, and no one aware of my motives could charge me with anything sordid."
Dorothy rose, crossed the space between her chair and the small settee where Garrison was seated, took the place at his side, and shyly laid her hand upon his own. It was a natural, wifely thing to do. Garrison recognized her perfect acting. A tingle of strange, lawless joy ran through his veins; nevertheless, he still faced Robinson, for his anger had been no pretense.
There was something in his bearing, when aroused, that invited caution. He was not a man with whom to trifle. Mrs. Robinson, having felt it before, underwent the experience anew.
"Let's not start off with a row," she said. "No one means to offend you, Mr. Fairfax."
"What do you think he'll do?" demanded her husband. "Order us out of the house? It ain't his yet, and he knows it."
Garrison knew nothing concerning the ownership of the house. Mr. Robinson's observation gave him a hint, however, that Dorothy's husband, or Dorothy herself, would presumably own this dwelling soon, but that something had occurred to delay the actual possession.
"I came to see Dorothy, and for no other purpose," he said. "I haven't the slightest desire or intention to offend her relatives."
If Robinson and his wife understood the hint that he would be pleased to see Dorothy alone, they failed to act upon it.
"We'll take your future operations as our guide," said Mr. Robinson significantly. "Protestations cost nothing."
Mrs. Robinson, far more shrewd than her husband, in her way, had begun to realize that Garrison was not a man either to be frightened or bullied.
"I'm sure we shall all be friends," she said. "What's the use of fighting? If, as Mr. Fairfax says, he did not marry Dorothy for money——"
Her husband interrupted. "I don't believe it! Will you tell me, Mr. Fairfax, that when you married my niece you were not aware of her prospects?"
"I knew absolutely nothing of her prospects," said Garrison, who thought he foresaw some money struggle impending. "She can tell you that up to the present moment I have never asked her a word concerning her financial status or future expectations."
"Why don't you tell us you never knew she had an uncle?" demanded Robinson, with no abatement of acidity.
"As a matter of fact," replied Garrison, "I have never known the name of any of Dorothy's relations till to-night."
"This is absurd!" cried the aggravated Mr. Robinson. "Do you mean to tell me——"
Garrison cut in upon him with genuine warmth. He was fencing blindly in Dorothy's behalf, and instinct was guiding him with remarkable precision.
"I should think you might understand," he said, "that once in a while a young woman, with a natural desire to be esteemed for herself alone, might purposely avoid all mention both of her relatives and prospects."
"We've all heard about these marriages for love," sneered Dorothy's uncle. "Where did you suppose she got this house?"
Garrison grew bolder as he felt a certain confidence that so far he had made no particular blunders. His knowledge of the value of half a truth, or even the truth entire, was intuitive.
"I have never been in this house before tonight," he said. "Our 'honeymoon,' as you called it earlier, has, as you know, been brief, and none of it was spent beneath this roof."
"Then how did you know where to come?" demanded Mr. Robinson.
"Dorothy supplied me the address," answered Garrison. "It is not uncommon, I believe, for husband and wife to correspond."
"Well, here we are, and here we'll stay," said Mr. Robinson, "till the will and all the business is settled. Perhaps you'll say you didn't even know there was a will."
Garrison was beginning to see light, dimly. What it was that lay behind Dorothy's intentions and her scheme he could not know; he was only aware that to-night, stealing a glance at her sweet but worried face, and realizing faintly that she was greatly beset with troubles, his whole heart entered the conflict, willingly, to help her through to the end.
"You are right for once," he answered his inquisitor. "I have known absolutely nothing of any will affecting Dorothy, and I know nothing now. I only know you can rely upon me to fight her battles to the full extent of my ability and strength."
"What nonsense! You don't know!" exclaimed Mr. Robinson. "Why——"
"It's the truth," interrupted Dorothy. "I have told him nothing about it."
"I don't believe it!" said her uncle. "But whatever he knows, I'll tell him this, that I propose to fight that will, day and night, before my brother's property shall go to any scheming stranger!"
Garrison felt the need for enlightenment. It was hardly fair to expect him to struggle in the dark. He looked at his watch ostentatiously.
"I did not come here expecting this sort of reception," he said truthfully. "I hoped at least for a few minutes' time with Dorothy, alone."
"To cook up further stories, I presume," said Mr. Robinson, who made no move to depart.
Garrison rose and approached Mr. Robinson precisely as he might have done had his right been more than a fiction.
"Do you require Dorothy to go down in the hall, in her own house, to obtain a moment of privacy?" he demanded. "We might as well understand the situation first as last."
It was a half-frightened look, full of craft and hatred, that Robinson cast upward to his face. He fidgeted, then rose from his seat.
"Come, my dear," he said to his wife, "the persecutions have commenced."
He led the way from the room to another apartment, his wife obediently following at his heels. The door they left ajar.
Garrison crossed the room with an active stride and closed the door firmly.
Dorothy was pale when he turned. She, too, was standing.
"You can see that I've got to be posted a little," he said quietly. "To err has not ceased to be human."
"You have made no mistakes," said Dorothy in a voice barely above a whisper. "I didn't expect them. When I found they had come I hardly knew what to do. And when they declared I had no husband I had to request you to come."
"Something of the sort was my conclusion," Garrison told her. "I have blundered along with fact and fiction as best I might, but what am I supposed to have done that excites them both to insult me?"
Dorothy seemed afraid that the very walls might hear and betray her secret.
"Your supposed marriage to me is sufficient," she answered in the lowest of undertones. "You must have guessed that they feel themselves cheated out of this house and other property left in a relative's will."
"Cheated by your marriage?" said Garrison.
She nodded, watching to see if a look of distrust might appear in the gaze he bent upon her.
"I wouldn't dare attempt to inform you properly or adequately to-night, with my uncle in the house," she said. "But please don't believe I've done anything wrong—and don't desert me now."
She had hardly intended to appeal to him so helplessly, but somehow she had been so glad to lean upon his strength, since his meeting with her relatives, that the impulse was not to be resisted. Moreover she felt, in some strange working of the mind, that she had come to know him as well within the past half-hour as she had ever known anyone in all her life. Her trust had gone forth of its own volition, together with her gratitude and admiration, for the way he had taken up her cause.
"I left the matter entirely with you this afternoon," he said. "I only wish to know so much as you yourself deem essential. I feel this man is vindictive, cowardly, and crafty. Are you sure you are safe where he is?"
"Oh, yes, I'm quite safe, even if it is unpleasant," she told him, grateful for his evident concern. "If need be, the caretaker would fight a pack of wolves in my defense."
"This will?" asked Garrison. "When is it going to be settled—when does it come to probate?"
"I don't quite know."
"When is your real husband coming?" he inquired, more for her own protection than his own.
She had not admitted, in the afternoon, that she had a husband. She colored now as she tried to meet his gaze.
"Did I tell you there was such a person?"
"No," said Garrison, "you did not. I thought—— Perhaps that's one of the many things I am not obliged to know."
"Perhaps." She hesitated a moment, adding: "If you'd rather not go on——"
She lowered her eyes. He felt a thrill that he could not analyze, it lay so close to jealousy and hope. And whatever it was, he knew it was out of the bargain, and not in the least his right.
"It wasn't for myself I asked," he hastened to add. "I'll act my part till you dismiss me. I only thought if another man were to come upon the scene——"
The far-off sound of a ringing house-bell came indistinctly to his ears. Dorothy looked up in his face with a startled light in her great brown eyes that awoke a new interest within him.
"The bell," she said. "I heard it! Who could be coming here to-night?"
She slipped to the door, drew it open an inch, and listened there attentively.
Garrison was listening also. The door to the outside steps, in the hall below, was opened, then presently closed with a slam. The caretaker had admitted a caller.
"Good! I'd like to see him!" said the voice of a man. "Upstairs?"
Dorothy turned to Garrison with her face as white as chalk.
"Oh, if you had only gone!" she said.
"What's the trouble?" he asked. "Who's come?"
"Perhaps you can slip in my room!" she whispered. "Please hurry!"
She hastened across the apartment to a door, with Garrison following. The door was locked. She remembered she had locked it herself, from the farther side, since the advent of her uncle in the house.
She turned to lead him round, by the hall. But the door swung open abruptly, and a tall, handsome young man was at the threshold. His hat was on. He was dressed, despite the season, in an overcoat of extraordinary length, buttoned close round his neck. It concealed him from his chin to his heels.
"Why, hello, Dot!" he said familiarly, advancing within the room. "You and your Jerold weren't trying to run away, I hope."
Dorothy struggled against her confusion and alarm.
"Why, no," she faltered. "Cousin Ted, you've never met Mr. Fairfax. Jerold, this is my cousin, Mr. Theodore Robinson."
"How do you do?" said Garrison, nodding somewhat distantly, since none of the Robinson group had particularly appealed to his tastes.
"How are you?" responded Dorothy's cousin, with no attempt to conceal an unfriendly demeanor. Crossing to Dorothy with deliberate intent to make the most of his relationship, he caught her by the arms.
"How's everything with you, little sweetheart?" he added in his way of easy intimacy. "What's the matter with my customary kiss?"
Dorothy, with every sign of fear or detestation upon her, seemed wholly unable to move. He put his arm roughly about her and kissed her twice.
Garrison, watching with feelings ill suppressed, beheld her shrink from the contact. She appeared to push her cousin off with small effort to disguise her loathing, and fled to Garrison as if certain of protection.
"What are you scared of?" said young Robinson, moving forward to catch her again, and laughing in an irritating way. "You used not to——"
Garrison blocked him promptly, subconsciously wondering where he had heard that laugh before.
"Perhaps that day has passed," he said quietly.
The visitor, still with his hat on, looked Garrison over with anger.
"Jealousy already, hey?" he said. "If you think I'll give up my rights as a cousin you're off, understand?"
Garrison stifled an impulse to slap the fellow's face.
"What are your rights as a cousin, if I may ask?" he said.
"Wait and see," replied Robinson. "Dot was mighty fond of me once—hey, Dot?"
Garrison felt certain of his ground in suppressing the fellow.
"Whatever the situation may have been in the past," he said, "it is very much altered at present."
"Is that so?" demanded Theodore. "Perhaps you'll find the game isn't quite finished yet."
Dorothy, still white and overwrought, attempted to mediate between the two.
"I can't let you men start off like this," she said. "I—I'm fond of you both. I wish you would try to be friendly."
"I'm willing," said her cousin, with a sudden change of front that in no wise deceived Garrison, and he held forth his hand. "Will you shake?"
That Dorothy wished him to greet the fellow civilly, and not incur his ill-feeling. Garrison was sure. He took the proffered hand, as cold as a fish, and dropped it again immediately.
Theodore laughed, and stepped gracefully away, his long coat swinging outward with his motion. Garrison caught a gleam of red, where the coat was parted at the bottom—and he knew where he had heard that laugh before. The man before him was no other than the one he had seen next door, dressed in red fleshings as Satan.
It was not to be understood in a moment, and Theodore's parents had returned once more to the door. Indeed, the old man had beheld the momentary hand-clasp of the men, and he was nettled.
"Theodore!" he cried; "you're not making friends with a man who's sneaked off and married Dorothy, I hope! I wouldn't have believed it!"
"Why not?" said his son. "What's done is done."
His mother said: "Why have you got on an overcoat such a night as this?"
"Because I like it," said Theodore.
Garrison knew better. He wondered what the whole game signified.
The old man was glaring at him sharply.
"I should think for a man who has to leave at nine your time is getting short," he said. "Perhaps your story was invented."
Garrison took out his watch. The fiction would have to be played to the end. The hour lacked twenty minutes of nine. He must presently depart, yet he felt that Dorothy might need protection. Having made up his mind that a marriage had doubtless been planned between Dorothy and Theodore—on the man's part for the purpose of acquiring valuable property, probably veiled to Dorothy—he felt she might not be safe if abandoned to their power.
He had found himself plunged into complications on which it had not been possible to count, but notwithstanding which he meant to remain by Dorothy with the utmost resolution. He had not acknowledged that the charm she exercised upon him lay perilously close to the tenderest of passions, but tried to convince himself his present desire was merely to see this business to the end.
It certainly piqued him to find himself obliged to leave with so much of the evening's proceedings veiled in mystery. He would have been glad to know more of what it meant to have this cousin, Theodore, masquerading as the devil in one house, and covering all the signs here at home. He was absolutely helpless in the situation. He knew that Dorothy wished him to depart. She could not, of course, do otherwise.
"Thank you," he said to the elder Robinson. "I must leave in fifteen minutes."
Dorothy looked at him strangely. She could not permit him to stay, yet she felt the need of every possible safeguard, now that her cousin had appeared. The strange trust and confidence she felt in Garrison had given her new hope and strength. To know he must go in the next few minutes, leaving her there with the Robinsons, afflicted her abruptly with a sense of desolation.
Yet there was nothing she could say or do to prevent his immediate retreat.
Young Robinson, made aware that Garrison would soon be departing, appeared to be slightly excited.
"I'll go down and 'phone for my suit-case," he said, and he left the room at once.
Aunt Jill and old Robinson sat down. It was quite impossible for Garrison to ask them again to retire. Dorothy crossed the room and seated herself before the piano. Garrison followed, and stood there at her side.
She had no spirit for music, and no inclination to play, nevertheless she permitted her hands to wander up and down the keys, calling forth a sweetly sad bit of Hungarian song that took a potent hold on Garrison's emotions.
"Is there anything I can do but go?" he murmured, his voice well masked by the melody. "Do you think you may need me very soon?"
"I do not know. I hope not," she answered, for him alone to hear. "I'm sorry it's been so disagreeable. Do you really have to go away from town?"
"To-day you said you had no employment."
"It was true. Employment came within ten minutes of your leaving. I took it. For you know you hardly expected to require my services so soon."
She played a trifle louder, and asked him:
"Where are you going?"
"To Branchville and Hickwood."
The playing suddenly ceased. She looked up at him swiftly. In nervous haste she resumed her music.
"Not on detective work? You mentioned insurance."
"It concerns insurance."
She was silent for a moment.
"When do you return?"
"I hardly know," he answered. "And I suppose I've got to start at once in order to maintain our little fiction."
"Don't forget to write," she said, blushing, as she had before; and she added: "for appearances." She rose from her seat.
Garrison pulled out his watch and remarked, for the Robinsons to hear: "Well, I've got to be off."
"Wait a minute, please," said Dorothy, as if possessed by a sudden impulse, and she ran from the room like a child.
With nothing particularly pleasant to say to the Robinsons, Garrison approached a center-table and turned the pages of a book.
Dorothy was back in a moment.
"I'll go down to the door," she said.
Garrison said good-night to the Robinsons, who answered curtly. He closed the door upon them as he left the room.
Dorothy had hastened to the stairs before him, and continued down to the hall. Her face was intensely white again as she turned about, drawing from her dress a neat, flat parcel, wrapped in paper.
"I told you to-day that I trust you absolutely," she said, in a nervous undertone. "I wish you'd take care of this package."
Garrison took it, finding it heavy in his hand. "What is it?" he said.
"Don't try to talk—they'll listen," she cautioned. "Just hurry and go."
"If you need me, write or wire," he said.
She retreated a little way from him, as if she felt he might exact a husband's right of farewell, which the absence of witnesses made quite unessential.
"Good-night," she answered, adding wistfully; "I am very grateful, believe me."
She gave him her hand, and his own hand trembled as he took it.
A moment later he was out upon the street, a wild, sweet pleasure in his veins.
Across the way a man's dark figure detached itself from the darkness of a doorstep and followed where Garrison went.
Shadowed to his very door, Garrison came to his humble place of abode with his mind in a region of dreams.
It was not until he stood in his room, and his hand lay against his pocket, that he thought again of Dorothy's parcel surrendered to his keeping. He took it out. He felt he had a right to know its contents.
It had not been sealed.
He removed the paper, disclosing a narrow, shallow box, daintily covered with leather. It was merely snapped shut with a catch.
He opened it, and an exclamation of astonishment escaped his lips.
It contained two necklaces—one of diamonds and one of pearls, the gems of both marvelously fine.
Nothing more disquieting than this possession of the necklaces could possibly have happened to Garrison. He was filled with vague suspicions and alarms. The thing was wholly baffling.
What it signified he could not conjecture. His mind went at once to that momentary scene at the house he had entered by mistake, and in which he had been confronted by the masked young woman, with the jewels on her throat, she who had patted his face and familiarly called him by name.
He could not possibly doubt the two ropes of gems were the same. The fact that Dorothy's cousin, in the garb of Satan, had undoubtedly participated in the masking party, aroused disturbing possibilities in Garrison's mind.
What was the web in which he was entangled?
To have Theodore come to the house in his long, concealing coat, straight from the maskers next door; to have him disappear, and then to have Dorothy bring forth these gems with such wholly unimaginable trust in his honesty, brought him face to face with a brand-new mystery from which he almost shrank. Reflections on thefts, wherein women were accomplices, could not be driven from his brain.
Here was Dorothy suddenly requiring a pseudo-husband—for what? Here was a party next door to the house—a party on which he had stumbled accidentally—where a richly dressed young woman chanced to greet him, with her jewels on her neck. Here was, apparently, a family disturbance, engendered by his marriage with old Robinson's niece. And now—here were the necklaces, worth, at the least estimation, the sum of thirty thousand dollars—delivered to himself!
He could not escape the thought of a "fence," in which he himself had possibly been impressed as a tool, by the cleverest intrigue. The entire attitude of the Robinsons might, he realized, have been but a part of the game. He had witnessed Dorothy's acting. It gave him a vivid sense of her powers, some others of which might well lie concealed behind her appearance of innocence.
And yet, when he thought of the beautiful girl who had begged him not to desert her, he could not think her guilty of the things which this singular outcome might suggest. He was sure she could clear up the mystery, and set herself straight in his eyes.
Not a little disturbed as to what he should do with these precious baubles, sparkling and glinting in his hand, he knitted his brow in perplexity. He was due to leave New York at once, on orders from Wicks. No safe deposit vault was available at such an hour. He dared not leave the things behind in this room. There was no alternative, he must carry them along in his pocket.
Inasmuch as the problem could not possibly be solved at once, and in view of the fact that his mind, or his heart, refused to credit Dorothy with guilt, there was nothing to do but dismiss the subject, as far as possible, and make ready to depart.
He opened a drawer to procure the few things requisite for his trip. On top of a number of linen garments lay a photograph—the picture of a sweetly pretty young woman. He took it up, gazed at it calmly, and presently shook his head.
He turned it over.
On the back was written: "With the love of my heart—Ailsa."
He had kissed this picture a thousand times, in rapture. It had once represented his total of earthly happiness, and then—when the notice of her marriage had come so baldly, through the mail—it had symbolized his depths of despair. Through all his hurt he had clung, not only to the picture, but also to some fond belief that Ailsa loved him still; that the words she had spoken and the things she had done, in the days of their courtship, had not been mere idle falsehoods.
To-night, for the first time since his dream had been shattered, the photograph left him cold and unfeeling. Something had happened, he hardly knew what—something he hardly dared confess to himself, with Dorothy only in his vision. The lifeless picture's day was gone at last.
He tossed it back in the drawer with a gesture of finality, drew forth a number of collars and ties, then went to a closet, opened the door and studied his two suit-cases thoughtfully. He knew not which to take. One was an ordinary, russet-leather case; the other was a thin-steel box, veneered with leather, but of special construction, on a plan which Garrison himself had invented. Indeed, the thing was a trap, ingeniously contrived when the Biddle robbery had baffled far older men than himself, and had then been solved by a trick.
On the whole, he decided he would take this case along. It had brought him luck on the former occasion, and the present was, perhaps, a criminal case. He lifted it out, blew off some dust, and laid it, open, on the bed.
To all appearances the thing was innocent enough. On the under side of the cover was a folding flap, fastened with a string and a button. Unremembered by Garrison, Ailsa's last letter still reposed in the pocket, its romance laid forever in the lavender of rapidly fading memories.
Not only was the case provided with a thin false bottom, concealing its mechanism, but between the cover and the body proper, on either side, were wing-like pieces of leather, to judge from their looks, that seemed to possess no function more important than the ordinary canvas strips not infrequently employed on a trunk to restrain the cover from falling far backward when opened. But encased in these wings were connections to powerful springs that, upon being set and suddenly released, would snap down the cover like the hammer of a gun and catch, as in the jaws of a trap, any meddling hands that might have been placed inside the case by a thief, at the same time ringing a bell. To set it was a matter of the utmost simplicity, while to spring it one had barely to go at the contents of the case and touch the trigger lightly.
The springs were left unset, as Garrison tossed in the trifles he should need. Then he changed his clothes, turned off the gas, and was presently out once more in the open of the street, walking to the Grand Central Station, near at hand.
The man who had followed all the way from Dorothy's residence not only was waiting, but remained on Garrison's trail.
At a quarter of ten Garrison ensconced himself in a train for Branchville. His "shadow" was there in the car. The run required fifty minutes. Hickwood, a very small village, was passed by the cars without a stop. It was hardly two miles from the larger settlement.
The hour was late when Garrison arrived. He and his "shadow" alighted from the train and repaired to a small, one-story hotel near the railway depot, the only place the town afforded. They were presently assigned to adjoining rooms.
Garrison opened his suit-case on the bureau, removed one or two articles, and left the receptacle open, with the cover propped against the mirror. Despite the lateness of the hour he then went out, to roam about the village. His fellow traveler watched only to see him out of the house, and then returned in haste.
In the town there was little to be seen. The houses extended far back from the railroad, on considerably elevated hills. There was one main thoroughfare only, and this was deserted. The dwellings were dark. No one seemed stirring in the place, though midnight had not yet struck.
Garrison was out for half an hour. When he returned his suit-case was closed. He thought nothing of a matter so trifling till he looked inside, and then he underwent a feeling as if it had been rifled. But nothing was gone, so far as he could see. Then he noticed the folding-pocket, for its fastening cord was undone. How well he remembered placing there the letter from Ailsa, months ago! A little surprised that he had so utterly forgotten its existence, he slipped his hand inside the place—and found it empty!
Even then he entertained no suspicions, for a moment. The letter, like the photograph, was no longer a valued possession. Yet he wondered where it could have gone. Vaguely uncertain, after all, as to whether he had left it here or not, his eye was suddenly caught by the slightest movement in the world, reflected in the mirror of the bureau. The movement was up at the transom, above a door that led to the next adjoining room.
Instantly turning away, to allay any possible suspicion that he might be aware of the fact that someone was spying upon him, Garrison moved the suit-case to a chair, drew from his pocket a folded paper that might have appeared important—although merely a railroad folder—placed it carefully, as if to hide it, under various articles of apparel, set the springs of the vicious steel-trap, and, leaving the suitcase open as before, took a turn around the room.
All this business was merely for the benefit of the man whom he knew to be watching from over the door. Starting as if to undress, he paused, appeared to remember something left neglected, and hastened from his room, purposely leaving the door more than half-way ajar. Down the hall he strode, to the office, where he looked on the register and discovered the name of his neighbor—John Brown—an obvious alias.
He had hardly been thus engaged for two minutes when the faint, far-off sound of a ringing bell came distinctly to his ears.
"My alarm-clock's gone off," he said to the man at the desk, and he fled up the hall like a sprinter.
A clatter of sounds, as of someone struggling, had come before he reached his room. As he bounded in he beheld his suit-case, over at the window, jerking against the sash and sill as if possessed of evil spirits. No thief was visible. The fellow, with the trap upon his fingers, had already leaped to the ground.
Within a yard of his captured burglar Garrison beheld the suit-case drop, and his man had made good his escape.
He thrust his head outside the window, but the darkness was in favor of the thief, who was not to be seen.
Chagrined to think Mr. "Brown" had contrived to get loose, Garrison took up the case, carried it back to the bureau, and opened it up, by skillfully releasing the springs. Three small patches of finger-skin were left in the bite of its jaws—cards of the visitor left as announcements of his visit.
The room next door was not again occupied that night. The hotel saw no more of Mr. Brown.
Not in the least reassured, but considerably aroused in all his instincts by these further developments of a night already full of mysterious transactions, Garrison, after a futile watch for his neighbor, once more plunged into a study of the case in which he found himself involved.
Vaguely he remembered to have noticed that the man who had come here to Branchville with him on the train carried no baggage. He had no doubt the man had been close upon his trail for some considerable time; but why, and what he wanted, could not be so readily determined. Certain the man had extracted Ailsa's letter from the pocket of the case, yet half convinced that the thief had been searching for the necklaces intrusted to his care, Garrison was puzzled.
There seemed to be no possible connection between the two. He could not understand what a thief who would take the one would require of the other. Aside from his money, the gems were the only articles he possessed of the slightest value or significance. Half persuaded that the diamonds and pearls afforded the booty for which his visitor had searched, he was once more in doubt as to whether he had lost Ailsa's letter or not. He might find it still among his things, at his room in Forty-fourth Street.
He was fully convinced the man would return no more. Nevertheless, when he turned in at last, the jewels were under the pillow.
Branchville, in the morning, proved an attractive place of residence. Half its male population went to New York as commuters. Its housewives then bustled about their gardens or their chicken-coops, at the rear of the houses, and a dozen old men gathered slowly at the post-office store to resume the task of doing nothing.
Garrison experienced no difficulty in searching out Mrs. Webber, the woman who had supplied certain details concerning the finding of the body of the man, John Hardy, whose death had occurred here the previous week.
The house, at the porch of which the body had been discovered, was empty. Mrs. Webber went with Garrison to the place, showed him exactly where the body had reclined, and left him alone at the scene.
He looked the details over carefully. The porch was low and roofed; its eaves projected a foot. If, as Garrison fancied, the stricken man might have come here in weakness, to lean against the post, and had then gone down, perhaps leaving heel-marks in the earth, all signs of any such action had been obliterated, despite the fact that no rains had fallen since the date of the man's demise. Garrison scrutinized the ground closely. A piece of broken crockery, a cork, the top of a can, an old cigar, and some bits of glass and wire lay beside the baseboard—the usual signs of neglect. The one man-made article in all the litter that attracted Garrison's attention was the old cigar. He took it up for a more minute examination.
It had never been lighted. It was broken, as if someone had stepped upon the larger end; but the label, a bright red band of paper, was still upon it. The wrapper had somewhat spread; but the pointed end had been bitten off, half an inch up on the taper.
Aware that the weed might have been thrown down by anyone save Hardy, Garrison nevertheless placed it in an envelope and tucked it away in his pocket. A visit to the local coroner presenting itself as the next most natural step, he proceeded at once to his office.
As a dealer in real estate, a notary public, and an official in several directions, the coroner was a busy man. He said so himself.
Garrison introduced himself candidly as a New York detective, duly licensed, at present representing a State insurance company, and stated the nature of his business.
"All right," said the coroner, inclined at once to be friendly. "My name is Pike. What'd you want to know? Sit down and take it easy."
"As much as I can learn about the case." Garrison took a proffered chair. "For instance, what did you find on the body?"
"Nothing—of any importance—a bunch of keys, a fountain-pen, and—and just some useless trash—I believe four dollars and nineteen cents."
"Oh, some scraps of paper and a picture postal-card."
"Any cigars?" asked Garrison.
"Yep—three, with labels on 'em—all but one, I mean." He had taken one label for his son's collection.
"What did you do with the stuff?"
"Locked it up, waiting orders from the court," replied Mr. Pike. "You bet, I know my business."
Garrison was pursuing a point. He inquired: "Do you smoke?"
"No, I don't; and if I did, I wouldn't touch one of them," said the coroner. "And don't you forget it."
"Did anyone help you to carry off the body—anyone who might have thrown a cigar away, unlighted?"
"No, siree! When Billy Ford and Tom Harris git a cigar it never gits away," said Mr. Pike.
"Did you find out where the dead man came from and what he was doing in the village?"
"He was stopping down to Hickwood with Mrs. Wilson," answered Pike. "His friend there was Charlie Scott, who's making a flying-machine that's enough to make anybody luny. I've told him he can't borrow no money from me on no such contraption, and so has Billy Dodd."
Garrison mentally noted down the fact that Scott was in need of money.
"What can you tell me of the man's appearance?" he added, after a moment of silence. "Did his face present any signs of agony?"
"Nope. Just looked dead," said the coroner.
"Were there any signs upon him of any nature?"
"Grass stain on his knee—that's about all."
"About all?" Garrison echoed. "Was there anything else—any scratches or bruises on his hands?"
"No—nary a scratch. He had real fine hands," said the coroner. "But they did have a little dirt on 'em—right on three of the knuckles of the left hand and on one on the right—the kind of dirt you can't rub off."
"Did it look as if he'd tried to rub it off?"
"Looked as if he'd washed it a little and it wouldn't come."
"Just common black dirt?"
"Yes, kind of grimy—the kind that gits in and stays."
Garrison reflected that a sign of this nature might and might not prove important. Everything depended on further developments. One deduction was presented to his mind—the man had doubtless observed that his hands were soiled and had washed them in the dark, since anyone with the "fine" hands described by the coroner would be almost certain to keep them immaculate; but might, in the absence of a light, wash them half clean only.
He was not disposed to attach a very great importance to the matter, however, and only paused for a moment to recall a number of the various "dirts" that resist an effort to remove them—printers' ink, acid stains, axle grease, and greasy soot.
He shifted his line of questions abruptly.
"What did you discover about the dead man's relatives? The nephew who came to claim the body?"
"Never saw him," said the coroner. "I couldn't hang around the corpse all day. I'm the busiest man in Branchville—and I had to go down to New York the day he come."
"Did you take possession of any property that deceased might have had at his room in Hickwood?"
"Sure," said Pike. "Half a dozen collars, and some socks, a few old letters, and a box almost full of cigars."
"If these things are here in your office," said Garrison, rising, "I should like to look them over."
"You bet, I can put my hand on anything in my business in a minute," boasted Mr. Pike. He rose and crossed the room to a desk with a large, deep drawer, which he opened with a key.
The dead man's possessions were few, indeed. The three cigars which his pocket had disgorged were lying near a little pile of money. Garrison noted at once that the labels on two were counterparts of the one on the broken cigar now reposing in his pocket. He opened the box beneath his hand. The cigars inside were all precisely like the others. Five only had ever been removed, of which four were accounted for already. The other had doubtless been smoked.
On the even row of dark-brown weeds lay a card, on which, written in pencil, were the words:
A BIRTHDAY GREETING—WITH LOVE.
Garrison let fall the lid and glanced with fading interest at the few insignificant papers and other trifles which the drawer contained. He had practically made up his mind that John Hardy had died, as the coroner had found, of heart disease, or apoplexy, even in the act of lighting up to smoke.
He questioned the man further, made up his mind to visit Charles Scott and Mrs. Wilson, in Hickwood, and was presently out upon the road.
A STARTLING DISCOVERY
Garrison walked along the road to Hickwood out of sheer love of being in the open, and also the better to think.
Unfortunately for the case in hand, however, his thoughts wandered truantly back to New York and the mystery about the girl masquerading to the world as his wife. His meditations were decidedly mixed. He thought of Dorothy always with a thrill of strong emotions, despite the half-formed suspicions which had crossed his mind at least a dozen times.
Her jewels were still in his pocket—a burden she had apparently found too heavy to carry. How he wished he might accept her confidence in him freely, unreservedly—with the thrill it could bring to his heart!
The distance to Hickwood seemed to slip away beneath his feet. He arrived in the hamlet far too soon, for the day had charmed bright dreams into being, and business seemed wholly out of place.
The railroad station, a store, an apothecary's shop, and a cobbler's little den seemed to comprise the entire commercial street.
Garrison inquired his way to the home of his man—the inventor.
Scott, whom he found at a workshop, back of his home, was a thin, stooped figure, gray as a wolf, wrinkled as a prune, and stained about the mouth by tobacco. His eyes, beneath their overhanging brows of gray, were singularly sharp and brilliant. Garrison made up his mind that the blaze in their depths was none other than the light of fanaticism.
"How do you do, Mr. Scott?" said the detective, who had determined to pose as an upper-air enthusiast. "I was stopping in Branchville for a day or two, and heard of your fame as a fellow inventor. I've been interested in aeroplanes and dirigible balloons so long that I thought I'd give myself the pleasure of a call."
"Um!" said Scott, closing the door of his shop behind him, as if to guard a precious secret. "What did you say is your name?"
Garrison informed him duly.
"I haven't yet made myself famous as a navigator of the air, but we all have our hopes."
"You'll never be able to steer a balloon," said Scott, with a touch of asperity. "I can tell you that."
"I begin to believe you're right," assented Garrison artfully. "It's a mighty discouraging and expensive business, any way you try it."
"I'll do the trick! I've got it all worked out," said Scott, betrayed into ardor and assurance by a nearness of the triumph that he felt to be approaching. "I'll have plenty of money to complete it soon—plenty—plenty—but it's a long time coming, even now."
"That's the trouble with most of us," Garrison observed, to draw his man. "The lack of money."
"Why can't they pay it, now the man is dead?" demanded Scott, as if he felt that everyone knew his affairs by heart and could understand his meaning. "I need the money now—to-day—this minute! It's bad enough when a man stays healthy so long, and looks as if he'd last for twenty years. That's bad enough without me having to wait and wait and wait, now that he's dead and in the ground."
It was clear to Garrison the man's singleness of purpose had left his mind impaired. He began to see how a creature so bent on some wondrous solution of the flying-machine enigma could even become so obsessed in his mind that to murder for money, insurance benefits, or anything else, would seem a fair means to an end.
"Some friend of yours has recently died?" he asked. "You've been left some needed funds for your labors?"
"Funny kind of friendship when a man goes on living so long," said the alert fanatic. "And I don't get the money; that's what's delaying me now."
"You're far more fortunate than some of us," said Garrison. "Some friend, I suppose, here in town."
"No, he was here two days," answered Scott. "I saw him but little. He died in the night, up to the village." His sharp eyes swung on Garrison peculiarly the moment his speech was concluded.
He demanded sharply; "What's all this business to you?"
"Nothing—only that it shows the world's great inventors are not always neglected, after all," answered Garrison. "Some of us never enjoy such good fortune."
"The world don't know how great I am," declared the inventor, instantly off, on the hint supplied by his visitor. "But just the minute that insurance company gives me the money, I'll be ready to startle the skies! I'll blot out the stars for 'em! I'll show New York! I know what I'm doing! And nothing on earth is going to stop me! All these fool balloonists, with their big silk floating cigars! Deadly cigars is what they are—deadly! You wait!"
Garrison was staring at him fixedly, fascinated by a new idea which had crept upon his mind with startling abruptness. His one idea was to get away for a vital two minutes by himself.
"Well, perhaps I'll try to get around again," he said. "I can see you're very busy, and I mustn't keep you longer from your work. Good luck and good-day."
"The only principle," the old man answered, his gaze directed to the sky.
Garrison looked up, beholding a bird, far off in the azure vault, soaring in the majesty of flight. Then he hastened again to the quiet little street, and down by a fence at a vacant lot, where he paused and looked about. He was quite alone. Drawing from his pocket the envelope containing the old cigar that Hardy had undoubtedly let fall as he died at the porch of the "haunted" house, he turned up the raggedly bitten end.
"By George!" he exclaimed beneath his breath.
Tucked within the tobacco folds, in a small hollow space which was partially closed by the filler which had once been bitten together, was a powdery stuff that seemed comprised of small, hard particles, as of crystals, roughly broken up.
His breath came fast. His heart was pumping rapidly. He raised the cigar to his nostrils and smelled, but could only detect the pungent odor of tobacco.
That the powder was a poison he had not the slightest doubt. Aware that one poison only, thus administered, would have the potency to slay an adult human being practically on the instant, he realized at once that here, at the little, unimportant drug-shop of the place, the simple test for such a stuff could be made in a matter of two minutes.
Eager and feverish to inform himself without delay, he took out his knife and carefully removed all the powder from its place and wrapped it most cautiously about in the paper of the envelope in hand. The cigar he returned to his pocket.
Five minutes later, at the drug-store down the street, an obliging and clever young chemist at the place was holding up a test-tube made of glass, with perhaps two thimblefuls of acidulated solution which had first been formed by dissolving the powder under inspection.
"If this is what you suppose," he said, "a slight admixture of this iron will turn it Prussian blue."