BY John T. McIntyre
Author of "Ashton-Kirk Investigator," "Ashton-Kirk Secret Agent," "Ashton-Kirk Special Detective," etc.
ILLUSTRATIONS BY RALPH L. BOYER
THE PENN PUBLISHING COMPANY PHILADELPHIA 1918
COPYRIGHT 1918 BY THE PENN PUBLISHING COMPANY
To my friend Edward W. Mumford
It is always a task of much difficulty to select an experience of Ashton-Kirk's from among the many which have been set down in the records under his name.
A maze of episodes in these records attracts the mind, and one finds there a train of singular adventures, any one of which would make a book. The experiences which go to make up the volume "Ashton-Kirk, Investigator" were chosen because they dealt with a rather arabesque murder, the hidden features of which were brought to light in an extraordinary way. In "Ashton-Kirk, Secret Agent," the elements seemed uniquely mixed, and shed an unusual light upon the windings of European diplomacy.
In the third volume, "Ashton-Kirk, Special Detective," the note of horror was rung shrilly, and the confident talents of this extraordinary young man were brought smartly into play. It may be that the appearance in this history of the detective's big, good-natured, strong-handed friend, Bat Scanlon, had something to do with its finding a place in this series. In the present book this engaging personality has again a part in the drama.
But aside from this influence, the episode makes a powerful appeal; the brilliancy of the criminologist's work in the case treated here would surely have compelled a place for it in any list of his experiences.
I. THE GATHERING CLOUD 11
II. BAT SCANLON IS SURPRISED 21
III. THE CLOUD GROWS DARKER 32
IV. ASHTON-KIRK MAKES ONE VISIT, AND PLANS ANOTHER 50
V. THE HOUND AND THE SCENT 68
VI. ASHTON-KIRK ASKS QUESTIONS 79
VII. SOME NEW DEVELOPMENTS 88
VIII. SCANLON MAKES A NEW ACQUAINTANCE 100
IX. A PLACE OF FEAR 113
X. THROUGH THE WINDOW 124
XI. DENNISON TALKS ONCE MORE 132
XII. A DOUBLE SHADOW 142
XIII. SOMETHING UNEXPECTED 157
XIV. ASHTON-KIRK VISITS HEADQUARTERS 170
XV. SCANLON STATES HIS POSITION 179
XVI. "CONFESSED!" 192
XVII. THE WATERS ARE TROUBLED 203
XVIII. NORA GOES TO STANWICK 216
XIX. IN THE DARK 225
XX. QUEER INTELLIGENCE 234
XXI. WHAT THE BURGLAR SAID AT GAFFNEY'S 243
XXII. WHAT DANNY SAW AT QUIGLEY'S 260
XXIII. A WOMAN! 270
XXIV. MR. QUIGLEY IS INTERVIEWED 285
XXV. NORA TALKS AND SCANLON LISTENS 297
XXVI. CONCLUSION 309
HE WAS STEADFASTLY WATCHING THE GIRL Frontispiece
"EVERY CHAMBER LOADED" 74
HE LIFTED THE BLADE ONCE MORE 146
THEN THE DOOR SWUNG OPEN 294
THE GATHERING CLOUD
Impatiently, Ashton-Kirk threw down the last of the morning newspapers.
"Commonplace," said he. "And sordid. I am inclined to agree with De Quincey's 'Toad-in-the-Hole' that the age of great criminals has passed."
The man to whom he spoke sat opposite him in the lounging room of Scanlon's Gymnasium; a pair of puffy white hands were folded over a bloated paunch; he had a sodden air of over-feeding and over-stimulation.
"And a good job, too," spoke this gentleman. "We can get along very well without those fellows."
"I am not sure that I quite agree with that," said Ashton-Kirk. He lighted a cigar and its smoke drifted across the high ceilinged room. "Crimes are growing no fewer; and if we must have crimes I should personally prefer their perpetrators to have some little artistry."
The swollen gentleman grunted.
"You were always an odd kind of fish," said he. "But, you know, every one hasn't your love of this kind of thing."
"They have not given it the same amount of consideration, that is all. An artist in crime is, in his way, well worthy of a certain sort of admiration. Who could drive a knife in a man's back with a braver air of deviltry than Benvenuto Cellini? And yet he could turn himself from the deed and devote himself to the producing of a Perseus, or to playing the flute well enough to attract the attention of a Pope. And his own countrymen, the Borgias, had as pretty a talent for assassination as they had for government."
"Very like," admitted the other. "But ain't we well rid of such bloodthirsty apes?"
"I wonder," said he, "if you have ever read an engaging little volume called 'A Book of Scoundrels.' No? Well, I was afraid that would be so. And you have missed a treat. However, I suppose we can't expect every one to enthuse over such things. It has been said of music that the ability to appreciate it is only second to that of being able to produce it. And this must also be true in the case of crime.
"Stevenson, now, had a magnificent appreciation for a well executed enormity. In his story 'Markheim' he gives a skilful picture of a really deft assassination; and in the 'Suicide Club' he has created what I would class as a master criminal. The Russian writers have a power in this mood that is truly wonderful. Dostoyeffsky in his 'Crime and Punishment' has conceived a most tremendous homicide—one which would have thrilled De Quincey himself."
The listener held up one pudgy hand in protest.
"Don't," he requested. "Please don't. No more. If you knew what I've gone through you wouldn't dwell on this theme."
Just then a very big man with massive shoulders and chest came in; he was about forty-five, but he looked pink and swift and fit; and as he paused at the side of the heavy paunched one, the latter looked physically shabby in contrast.
"Hello!" Bat Scanlon, trainer, ex-wrestling champion, and border character, greeted Ashton-Kirk with a pleased look. "Glad to see you. Come in to dust off the mat with me?"
"I think I will take a turn," replied the criminologist, as he yawned, with widely stretched arms. "I've been going a bit stale lately."
Scanlon turned his glance upon the other man.
"How are you, Mr. Dennison?" he said. "Back once more, eh?"
"Believe me, it's not because I want to," returned Dennison, huskily. "It's because I have to. I'm not right, Scanlon; I can't stand anything out of the ordinary. Just a little extra tax on me, and I'm done."
Bat surveyed him, valuingly.
"No wonder," said he. "You've got a belt of felt about your waist that only a champion could wear. You must have kept your feet under the table many and many a bitter hour to win it."
"Now, confound it," said the pudgy one, exasperated, "I don't eat so much."
"Maybe not." Scanlon looked his disbelief. "But the pangs of hunger and you are not very intimate. Your most active moments are spent in a limousine or a club window." He winked humorously at Ashton-Kirk. "I'll say nothing against the limousine; it's a fine invention; but legs were made to walk on. And if you think the club window thing will ever reduce the size of your collar, you're bound to be a disappointed man."
"But I ride every day in the park," said Dennison, "and I go to the country club three times a week for my golf."
"Riding is a grand exercise—for the horse," commented the athlete. "And the people who get the most out of a golf course are paid for what they do."
"Well, a fellow's social life must be seen to," said the defective one, a fat white hand stroking an equally fat, but blue, jowl. "He's got to have a bit to eat and drink, and a trifle of leisure to look things over."
A telephone bell rang in another room, and a squeaky voice was heard answering the call.
"If you care to come in every day and work, all right," said Scanlon, carelessly, for he understood the case perfectly. "But the eating and drinking must scale down to what I think is right."
Dennison appealed to Ashton-Kirk.
"The last time he had me here, he made me toil like a day laborer, and feed like his helper," said he, gloomily. "But I've got to stand it, confound the luck. I'm too short in the neck to carry weight and stand excitement. That thing fairly floored me when I heard it this morning."
"What thing?" asked Ashton-Kirk.
Dennison looked at the speaker as though astonished that any one could be for even a moment in doubt as to his meaning.
"Why," said he, "that murder—last night."
"I guess that's one I haven't heard about," said Bat Scanlon, and Ashton-Kirk regarded the man with the paunch steadily, but said nothing.
"Not heard of that!" The man pointed an amazed finger at the discarded heap about the investigator's chair. "Why, every paper in town is just screaming about it. The police are at a standstill. The papers say they don't know what to do."
Just then a door opened; a fiery head was thrust into the room and a squeaky boy-voice called out:
"Mr. Scanlon! On the 'phone!"
When he reached the little office which opened from the lounging room, the red-haired boy further informed Bat:
"It's a lady, and she sounds like she was in a hurry."
Scanlon went to the telephone and took down the receiver.
"Scanlon speaking," said he, briefly.
There came a gasping, breathless little exclamation of relief in his ear.
"Oh, Bat, I'm glad you're there. I'm very glad!" The voice was full and vibrant; it had a rare quality of resonance that even the telephone could not stifle.
"What, Nora! Is that you?" The big athlete was plainly surprised.
"Yes, it's Nora," replied the voice. "Foolish Nora Cavanaugh, who is always in some sort of trouble. I had left word that I must not be worried by this matter, because I have my work to think of, and the constant ringing at the door-bell and telephoning was wearing me out. And just now, Bat, it occurred to me that you would be sure to have heard of this dreadful thing, and have been one of those turned away."
Scanlon's face was one of mystification and concern.
"Nora," said he, "why this rush of folks at your front door, and who were they?"
"The reporters have never stopped since early morning; and the police have been here a half dozen times."
"The police!" Bat's voice rose with a sudden sharpness that caused the red-haired boy to jump. "What do you mean by——?"
But the full, beautiful voice checked him.
"I must see you, Bat, I must see you at once," it said. "No, no, don't come here," hurriedly, as he began proposing such a venture. "There is a cab waiting at the door now. I shall be at your place in twenty minutes."
"All right, Nora; anything you say. But if you'll only let me——"
"In twenty minutes," said the rare voice. "Good-bye."
The blank which followed told him that the girl had hung up; he turned to the boy.
"Danny," said he, "there'll be a lady along in a little while. Have her come in here and let me know right away."
"Yes, sir," said Danny, obligingly.
With his brows puckered in perplexity Bat went back to the lounging room. Ashton-Kirk was looking out at the crowds passing in the street; Dennison was reading a blackly headlined story on the front page of one of the newspapers, his pudgy hands shaking and his eyes feverish.
"The worst thing of the kind I ever heard of," said he with a kind of gurgle of horror. "The very worst. The police have been bragging about their efficiency during this last administration; now let's see what they can do. Here's a case that'll try them out."
"Oh, yes," said Bat, absently. "You were talking about being upset by this thing. It was——" He paused suddenly, remembering that he had not yet heard.
"A murder," said the detective, as he threw down the newspaper. "A most brutal and devilish murder. I talked with Tom Burton last night only a few hours before this terrible thing must have happened."
"Tom Burton!" Scanlon's big, ruddy face went a little pale. "Not the 'Bounder'?"
"Yes, they did call him that," confessed the other, a little resentfully. "But that was all wrong. Burton was a good fellow when you knew him."
But Bat Scanlon was not listening; he had snatched up one of the newspapers. In staring head-lines he was reading:
MYSTERIOUSLY STRUCK DOWN STRANGE DEED AT STANWICK! Tom Burton, Well-Known Man About Town, the Victim. Police Are Puzzled!
In the body of the type the hurried details of the crime were given—or as many of them as the journal had been able to gather before going to press.
Stanwick was a new suburb on a branch line; and some time after midnight a policeman, Colby by name, had been patrolling his beat, which was along Duncan Street. A girl in the dress of a nurse, and much frightened, rushed up to him, and in great agitation announced that there was a man lying dead on the floor at 620. Colby, startled and excited, accompanied the girl to the house indicated, and there found the body of Thomas Burton, a "well-known clubman," stretched out upon the floor of the sitting-room—dead—and with a frightful wound in the head.
"The house is occupied by Frank Burton, the cartoonist for the Morning Standard, and his sister Mary, who has been an invalid for some years. These are the son and daughter of the dead man. They say they had not, up to last night, seen their father for a long time; his visit was a surprise and not at all a welcome one, it would appear, as they had not been upon good terms. According to the story told by young Burton, he and his sister left the room in which their father sat; when the young man returned, he found his father dead, as stated."
Paper after paper was feverishly scanned by Bat, but they merely repeated the few, bare facts. Ashton-Kirk had turned from the window and was watching the big trainer in some surprise.
"It's a pretty hard pull for a man when he's talked comfortably with a friend, and said 'good-bye' to him, and, then, the next thing he hears, is that he's been outrageously murdered." Dennison seemed unable to rid his mind of this overpowering fact. "It was then I started to go under; it was just as if somebody had struck me under the heart, and I caved right in."
Here there came a sudden bustle from the office, the closing of doors, the dragging of a chair across the floor. Then the voice of Danny came squeakingly.
"Mr. Scanlon! Wanted in the office!"
"Right," said Bat, promptly. Then, to Ashton-Kirk, he added: "Stick around for a little, will you? I may have something to tell you."
And then, with hurried steps, he vanished into the adjoining room.
BAT SCANLON IS SURPRISED
In the office, Bat Scanlon felt himself suddenly clutched by a creature who seemed at first to be all rich silks, soft furs, dazzling complexion and delicate perfume; but an instant later this impression failed; for he knew that she was all eyes—great, brown, intelligent eyes—and a voice which made one's heart tremble when she spoke.
"Oh, Bat, I'm glad you're in this big, cold city this morning," said the voice, gratefully, while the long lashes held two great perilous tears. "If you hadn't been, I don't know what I should have done."
"Danny," said Bat to the red-haired boy, "go sweep up, or something."
"Yes, sir," replied Danny, promptly, and was gone.
Mr. Scanlon then saw that his unusual visitor was settled comfortably in a big, wide-armed chair, and he took a seat opposite her.
"I don't wonder that you're feeling so," said he. "It's a sudden kind of thing, isn't it? And do you know," there was an apologetic note in his voice, "this is the first morning I missed looking over the paper for months. When you had me on the telephone a while ago I knew nothing at all about the matter."
The girl shivered a little and drew her cloak around her shoulders.
"As soon as I heard of it, I knew what was to happen," she said, a trifle bitterly. "Nora Cavanaugh, celebrity, was to be dragged further into the light. Nora Cavanaugh, who had just opened in a successful play—the woman whose pictures were in all the magazines—was the wife of the murdered man! Instantly the police, who would be much better employed seeking a solution of the crime, must hunt out and torment me with their questions; the newspapers must suddenly go mad with a desire to exploit my years of work and my personality as a background for a sordid crime. My press agent, my manager, are quivering with anxiety that no shred of publicity be lost. My very maid is subtly suggestive as to ways in which value could be gained from the circumstances."
"Too bad!" said Bat "It's a pretty messy kind of a job. But it's the regular thing. They are not picking specially on you." He sat looking at her for a moment in silence. Then he added: "Anyhow, in spite of all this, there is one thing you might be thankful for, isn't there?"
She drew in a long breath; her hands clasped tightly, and for a moment her eyes were closed.
"You mean that Tom Burton is dead?" she whispered.
"Yes," said the man.
Again there was a silence, and this time it was broken by the girl.
"I have never thought of him as dying," she said, and there was something like wonder in her voice. "He had gradually become settled in my mind as a sort of incubus—I felt that I was to see him always, smiling, immaculate and unscrupulous—a sort of beast with whom cleanliness took the place of a soul."
"You should have divorced him," said Bat. "It would have been the easiest way."
"He knew I would never do that," she answered. "He knew I was forever set against any such thing. My religion is against it; then," she gave a little gesture of loathing, "the actress and the divorce court had become associated in common jest; and I made up my mind that I would not add to its truth."
"He knew that, and he took advantage of it," said Bat.
"Was there anything that promised him a profit that Tom Burton did not take advantage of?" Her glorious eyes flashed and her head, superbly crowned with masses of bronze hair, was reared, the round, beautifully moulded chin was held high with scorn. "Was there anything, no matter how mean, that he wouldn't stoop to, so long as it enabled him to coddle his vices and go on in his idle way of life?"
Bat sat looking at the wonderfully beautiful and splendidly spirited creature; and he found himself wondering what had ever led her into a marriage with a man such as the one she had just described. And, as though in answer to his thought, she went on:
"But he had a way with him; his only study in life, so he told me once, had been women; and he knew how to get the better of them. When I first met him I was playing in a middle western city in a stock company which gave two performances a day and paid a fairly respectable salary. It was the first good engagement I'd ever had; the following of the theatre liked me and I began to be talked about; the east, and the creating of important parts did not seem so impossible as they had only a little while before.
"Maybe he heard some whisper of this; I don't know. But we became acquainted; and I was carried away by him. Never had I met a man who showed so many brilliant sides of character; he could talk about anything, and in a way which indicated a mastery of the matter. Every ambition I cherished met with his approval; everything I longed for seemed within reach when he talked. It was a species of hypnotism, Bat; nothing else explains it."
"How a fellow like that could so put it over on a woman like you, Nora, puzzles me," said Bat Scanlon, shaking his head.
"It would puzzle any right sort of a man," said the girl. "Only a woman would understand it thoroughly—or a man like Tom Burton. Well, it was while I was feeling that way about him, completely under his influence, that I married him. And in a week," here she arose, the cloak falling from her shoulders as she flung out her arms in a gesture of despair, "I knew just what I had done. The man was a cheap pretender; he'd never had an honest thought in his life; he had familiarized himself with all my little weaknesses and aspirations before he met me; all his learning was a sham; his good nature was a mask."
"Some discovery for a week old bride to make," acknowledged Bat, frowning. "Some discovery."
"He was a man who lived by his wits; it was common report that he'd been expelled from a club, somewhere, for cheating at cards. His first wife had died a long time before through his studied neglect and bad treatment. He had heard of my good salary and increasing prospects, and so had made up his mind to attach himself, after the manner of all parasites, to one who promised to be a source of income."
"Was it then that you left him?" asked the man.
"It was." She bent her head, the white hands covered her face; her bosom, deep and wonderful as that of a young Juno, rose and fell with the sobs that shook her. "I thought I should die at first. To think that I, who had prized myself so, should come to that; made the victim of such a cheap, tawdry trick! Once or twice I actually thought of killing myself; but I suppose I am too normal for that. At any rate, within another week, I had thrown aside every tie I had, and they were not many," with a little added break in the voice, over which she was struggling for control, "and so I came east."
"But that wasn't the last you saw of Burton, though," said Bat, with a grimace of dislike.
"While I was fighting to make a fresh way for myself, he did not disturb me," said the girl. "But no sooner had I scored than he reappeared; by every device known to his kind he began to bleed me."
"You did not allow that!" cried the man, surprised.
"I did," with a gesture of meek acknowledgment. "He mastered me with his cunning. Not a thing escaped him—every weakness, every shrinking, every faltering I had, seemed known to him; he kept me in an agony of suspense; rather than be hampered and embarrassed by him at every turn I tried to get rid of him by giving him money."
"It would take near all the money in the world to drive away a coyote like that," said Bat.
"I soon found that out," said Nora Cavanaugh. "For from that time on I was haunted by him; he kept demanding of me, and I never had the moral courage to refuse him until last night."
"Last night!" Bat found himself staring at her. "Did you see him last night?"
She looked at him suddenly, and there was a startled sort of look in the wide brown eyes, a fleeting expression of fear; and at the same time her hand went to her breast in a convulsive movement.
"Yes," she said, and her voice had sunk to a whisper. "He came last night after I returned from the theatre. My maid had instructions not to admit him, but he pushed her aside and came directly to my room."
"You're right," said Bat Scanlon, glowering, "he had a way with him. It's a pity you hadn't a brother—or some one—all these years to take care of you. His study of women would have done him little good if he had had a man to meet."
"He wanted money," said Nora. "He was wheedling and threatening by turns; he did everything he had ever done before, and more. I don't know what gave me the resolution—perhaps it was the way he forced his presence upon me—but anyhow, I refused him."
"He went away empty handed," said Scanlon, gleefully. "Good!"
"I gave him nothing," said Nora. "And I think he saw in my attitude what the future was to be; for when he left me he wore a look I had never seen upon his face before."
"Well," and the big trainer expelled a great breath, "it won't make much difference now what he thought; he'll never bother you again."
"No," she repeated, "he'll never bother me again—never!" The beautiful voice quavered and grew faint as she said this; and the hand was still held tightly against her breast.
"What do you want me to do, Nora?" said the man. "A fellow who was brought up outside, as I have been, is not much at comforting a woman."
"Bat," said the girl, and the hand left her breast and rested upon his arm, "it has eased my heart just to hear you speak. You were always good to me—always. But to-day you have given me courage—when I needed it so badly." There was a little pause; she came closer to him, and now both her hands were upon his arm, the two beautiful, capable hands, whose whiteness had always amazed him; the faint perfume which always clung about her was in his nostrils, and the brown eyes, so perfectly spaced, so wonderfully colored, were opened wide and regarding him steadily. "There are two things I want you to do, Bat," she said, "and they are not at all difficult. You are acquainted in the detective department, and I wish you would ask them not to bother me any more. If they do," and here he felt the two white hands flutter and heard her breath drawn in sharply, "I shall break down with fright."
"I'll fix it," the man assured her. "Leave it to me."
"Thank you, Bat; you're the best creature in the world," she said gratefully. "And, too, I want you to go to Stanwick. I would like you to see what the police are doing—everything you can. They must have found out something by this time. Ask questions and keep your eyes open. And when you have it all, come to me at once and let me know."
"Sure," said he, "I'll go right away."
"Thank you." She drew the rich cloak about her and then held out her hand. "You're a dear, good fellow, Bat; I've always known that, but now I'm surer of it than ever."
"Why, Nora, it's not hard to do things for you," said he, as he held the hand for a moment.
"And you'll hurry?" Her eyes were full of pleading. "You'll find out everything you can—but you'll hurry, won't you?"
"As soon as I've looked things over carefully," said he, "you'll hear me at your door."
"Thank you, again," she said. "And good-bye."
And as the door closed behind her, Bat Scanlon stood in the middle of the floor, his arms folded across his big chest.
"Cop stuff," said he, to himself. "What do you think of that?"
When he returned once more to the room in which he had left the others, Scanlon found Dennison buttoning up his top-coat.
"I'll be in to-morrow," said the man; "and my togs will be sent around to-day."
When he had departed, Scanlon looked at Ashton-Kirk.
"I guess you'll have to take your work-out with the big Greek," said he. "Stanwick's my next stop; and I'm going to get the first train."
"Stanwick?" Ashton-Kirk's keen eyes regarded him inquiringly.
"Funny thing, ain't it? Here I didn't know a thing about this murder, and then I get it piled in on me from two places. That was Tom Burton's wife just in to see me—Nora Cavanaugh."
"Oh, yes, to be sure. She is—or was—his wife, wasn't she?"
"She had a fine lot of excitement with her. Dennison ain't the only one who saw Burton last night. He called on Nora after the show, and wanted money, as, it seems, he always did. But she refused him and he went away sore."
"He was an utter scamp," said Ashton-Kirk. "It's rather remarkable, though, how he managed to keep just outside the reach of the law."
"Nora's been pestered by the cops, and she wants me to have them called off," said Bat. "And she's asked me to go out to Stanwick and see what they are doing there."
"Yes. I don't know just what it's all about; but Nora knows, and that's enough for me."
Ashton-Kirk smiled as the big man went to a closet and took out a long coat and a soft hat.
"Miss Cavanaugh is fortunate in the control of such an obedient geni," said he, quietly. "But good luck on your trip; and while you are gone, I'll grapple with the Greek, as you suggest."
THE CLOUD GROWS DARKER
Stanwick was a "made" suburb; ten years before its site had been occupied by farms; but a keen-eyed realty man had seen promise in it and bought it up, shrewdly. The streets were wide, the walks were narrow and lined with trees that would one day spread nobly. The houses were built in rows, each independent of the other, mounted upon little terraces, fronted by guards of iron railing and prim little flower gardens. Bat Scanlon, as he regarded it, nodded knowingly.
"It's the kind of a place where the seven-twenty is the chief topic in the morning, and the five-fifteen in the afternoon," he told himself. "The habits of the rubber plant are common property; and every man in every street thinks his roses have it all over the man's next door."
Duncan Street proved much like the others; and No. 620 had all the characteristics to be expected of it. When Scanlon stopped before it he found a little group of idlers standing on the walk, each member of which stared at him with a curiosity that was active and acute.
"Hello, Kelly!" saluted Bat, as he recognized a portly policeman at the little iron gate.
"How are you, Bat?" responded the policeman, in a surprised tone. "What are you doing away out here?"
"Just thought I'd run out and take a look around," said Scanlon. He had seen to the training of the athletic team of the police department for several years, and was well known to most of the officials and many of the patrolmen. And it just happened that the man on guard at the gate, due to Bat's instructions, had been the winner of the heavyweight wrestling honors in the last inter-city tournament. "Anything new?"
"I haven't heard anything," replied Kelly. "Osborne, from headquarters, went in a few minutes ago with the coroner's assistant. The sergeant and a couple of men have been here all morning."
Bat opened the gate and went slowly up the path. The house was a bright, cheerful-looking place; the little garden was laid out in walks, the trees were carefully trimmed; and though it was still October, everything had been made ready for the winter season.
"Nice little home," commented the big man. "Shows care and thoughtfulness. No place at all for a murder."
In reply to his ring the door was opened by a second policeman. A few words brought the sergeant in charge to the door; and he shook hands with Scanlon and asked him to step in.
"Any interest in this case?" he asked, and his broad, red face displayed a great deal of that very thing. "Is your friend Ashton-Kirk along with you?"
"No," replied Bat, easily, "he's not. But from what I hear, it's the kind of a thing he'd like."
The sergeant shook his head.
"Oh, between you and me it's simple enough," said he. "The newspapers have played it up some, that's all. To my mind, the party that croaked Burton ain't out of reach by a long shot; and if they'd have left it to me I'd had him at City Hall an hour ago."
"That so!" Bat looked surprised. "I thought it was one of those things all bundled up in mystery."
He went slowly down the hall and turned in at the first door to the left, which stood partly open, and from behind which he heard voices. A burly, good-natured looking man with a derby hat in his hand was talking to a dapper, quick-eyed personage whose carefully trimmed beard and immaculately white waistcoat gave him the conventional "professional" look. Near a window was a big chair, among the pillows of which reclined a young girl with a pale, sweet face and that appearance of fragility which comes of long-continued illness; beside her stood an anxious-looking young man whose haggard countenance told of a sleepless night and a harassed mind.
Scanlon at once recognized in the big man the "well-known"—as the newspapers always put it—city detective, Osborne; and so calmly advanced and shook his hand.
"Glad to see you," spoke Osborne, affably. "Meet Dr. Shower, assistant to the coroner," indicating the white waistcoated gentleman.
"These investigations are not exactly the thing I care for," Dr. Shower told Osborne, after acknowledging the presentation, graciously. "As a matter of fact I think they are entirely within the duties of the police. We of our office shouldn't be dragged out to view dead bodies in all sorts of places; it consumes a great deal of time, and, as far as I can see, can do no possible good."
Osborne shrugged his heavy shoulders.
"Well, Doctor," spoke he, "maybe you've got it right. But when old Costigan was coroner he always insisted that a body—especially in a case like this—should not be touched until he had looked at it and asked his questions."
"Costigan was romantic," stated Dr. Shower, as he stroked his beard with a firm hand; "he had imbibed a great deal of theoretical detective nonsense, and tried to act up to it. However," with a lifting of one eyebrow, "here I am, so I might as well get to work." He looked about. "Where is the body?"
"In the room just across the hall," said Osborne.
"Just so." Dr. Shower looked at the young man and the young woman. "And these are—?"
"The son and daughter of the murdered man," answered the detective.
"To be sure." Shower smoothed his waistcoat with the same firm gesture. "Of course." Then to the young man: "Am I right in understanding that your father did not reside here?"
The young man laughed suddenly; the sound was unexpected and full of bitterness, and caused Bat Scanlon to look swiftly toward him.
"Yes, you are quite right in that," said the son. "Quite right! My father did not live here."
There was a feeling behind the words that was not to be mistaken; and a slight pucker appeared between the eyes of the assistant coroner which a person well acquainted with him would have told you indicated increasing interest.
"You are reported to have said to the police sergeant," stated Dr. Shower, referring to some memoranda scribbled upon the back of an envelope, "that the relationship between your father and yourself has not been an agreeable one."
"There has been no relationship between my father and myself—none whatsoever—for a number of years."
There was a gleam in the eyes of the speaker and a shaking quality in his voice which showed intense feeling; the thin hand of his sister rested upon his arm for an instant; he looked at her quickly, and then bent over while she whispered something in a tone so low that none of the others could hear a word.
"Very well, Mary," he said. "It's all right. Don't worry."
"What you say being the case," said Dr. Shower, "your father would not be likely to be a frequent visitor."
"We've lived here for five years; he was never here before. Up to last night I had not seen him for at least seven years."
"Humph!" The pucker between the assistant coroner's eyes deepened; he took a firm clutch upon his beard. "Then the visit of last night was quite unusual—unique, I might say."
"He was the last person in the world I expected to see," said the young man. "I did not get home until late. I had a cartoon to do for the sporting page and ideas were not flowing very easily; my usual train is at eleven-ten, but I was held up until the twelve-twenty-two. As I came down the street I saw a light burning in the sitting-room window; but I thought my sister was waiting for me, as she sometimes does. But when I came in and saw my father with her, I was so astonished that for a moment I could not speak."
"Just so. And now," here the hand of the questioner fell to caressing the trimmed beard, tenderly, "tell me this: Your father's visit, so late at night, and after so long an estrangement, must have had some special reason behind it. Would you mind saying what it was?"
For a moment there was silence. Bat Scanlon saw Osborne's eyes narrow as he watched the young man; he saw from the assistant coroner's attitude that this was a most important question. And, more than anything else, he saw in the pale, sweet face of the invalid girl a look of subdued terror; the fragile hands were clasped together as though she were praying. And at length young Burton spoke:
"I don't know that there was any reason for the visit. He gave me none."
Shower turned upon the invalid girl quickly.
"Did he say anything to you?"
"No," replied the girl, in a low tone. "No; he said nothing."
"What did he talk about?" asked Osborne.
"I do not know," said the girl, her voice even fainter than before. "I never understood my father. He—he always frightened me by the way he looked and the way he laughed."
She sank back, exhausted, among the pillows; her brother bent over and spoke soothingly and encouragingly to her. When she had recovered a little he turned once more to the others, and Scanlon saw a bitter anger in his face—a cold, hard fury, such as only comes of a hurt that is deep and long rankled.
"You heard what she said?" he asked. "She never understood him. How could a girl like her understand a man like that! He frightened her by the way he looked and the way he laughed! Do you know what that means? It's a thing born in her—got from her mother—a mother who lived in fear of that man for years. And then he finally drove her to her grave. He was a monster—a human beast—he had no more remorse than——"
"Frank!" The girl's faint voice checked him. He looked down at her, the same expression in his face as Scanlon had seen there before.
"No, she doesn't know what he talked about," the young man resumed, in a lower tone, and with a quieter manner. "She never saw him in her life but what she almost died through fear of him."
With a gesture the assistant coroner seemed to put aside this phase of the matter.
"Very well," said he. "But tell us, please, what happened after you reached home last night and saw your father, so unexpectedly."
"I was angry," said the young artist "I asked him what he was doing here."
"And then what?"
"He merely jeered at me. I looked at my sister; she seemed very ill, and I understood the cause of it at once, and tried to cross toward her."
"You tried to cross the room," said Osborne. "What was to prevent you?"
"My father tried to!" said the young man. "It was a way he had—I remember it from a boy—a love of threatening people—a desire to mock, a kind of joy in persecution. But he had forgotten that I had grown into a man, and I threw him out of my way as soon as he stepped into it."
"Well?" asked the questioner, after a pause.
"I saw that my sister had undergone a severe strain; she has been in bad health for some years. So I took her at once to her room."
"Your father remained in the sitting-room?"
"Yes. At least I suppose so. For when I returned, perhaps a quarter of an hour later, I found him lying upon the floor, just as he is now; the blood from a wound in his head was soaking into a rug and he was quite dead."
"A quarter of an hour elapsed between your leaving the room and your return?"
"During that time you heard no unusual sounds?"
"What other occupants are there here, beside you two?"
"A maid, who also does the cooking. And there is a nurse who has been attending my sister for some time past."
"Bring them here," said Dr. Shower to the policeman who had been standing at the room door during the greater part of this examination. As the man departed the assistant coroner turned his glance toward the sick girl.
"How long was your father here before your brother arrived?"
"I am not sure," she replied in her low voice. "It may have been an hour—perhaps it was more."
The nurse and the maid had evidently not been far away, for the policeman now led them into the room. The maid was an exceedingly black negro girl, and obviously frightened; the nurse wore her trim uniform well; her face was calm and her eyes were level and serene; apparently long training in the hospitals had not been wasted in her case.
"What's your name?" inquired Dr. Shower, of the maid.
"Rosamond Wyat, suh," replied the girl. And, then, eagerly: "But, deedy, boss, I don't know nothing about this killing! I was back in that yeah kitchen, and——"
"Answer my questions, please," said the assistant coroner, severely. "You were present in the house last night?"
"Yes, suh. I done lef' dat man in. But that's all I know——"
"Had you ever seen him before that?"
"I declah I never did, suh! And I was mighty s'prised when he tole me he was Miss Ma'y's fathah. I never knowed she had a fathah."
"Did you hear nothing later? No loud talking—the noise, or shock of a fall?"
The inquisitor now turned to the nurse.
"Wheeler," she said, quietly. "Susan Wheeler."
"Tell us what you know of this matter, if you please, Miss Wheeler."
"Miss Burton had been feeling rather better all day yesterday," said the nurse, "and as the evening went on she said I could go to bed, as she meant to wait up for her brother."
"And did you do so?"
"No, sir," replied the nurse. "Miss Burton once or twice before had overestimated her strength, and ever since then I have been careful never to be too far away. Instead of going to bed I came into this room, got a book and began to read."
Osborne coughed behind his hand; the eyes of the assistant coroner snapped with appreciation. But Bat Scanlon gave his attention to young Burton and his sister; the girl had sat up with sudden, unlooked-for strength, and was regarding the quiet young nurse with dilated eyes. The face of the brother had gone gray; he held to the heavy frame of his sister's chair, and the big trainer noted that he swayed slightly.
"And were you in this room when the man, now dead, was shown into the one across the hall?"
"I was," replied the nurse, with the calm impersonal manner of her kind. "I heard the ring and heard what he said to the maid; and, like her, I was surprised to hear that it was Miss Burton's father. However, I paid little attention, but went on with my reading."
"Did you hear any of the conversation?"
"I heard voices—or to be more correct, I heard a voice. The father did all the talking as far as I could hear; but, as I have said, I was interested in my book."
"You don't recall any scraps of talk—a detached phrase?—anything?"
The nurse shook her head.
"The only clear impression I have is of the man's laugh; there was something irritating about it, and I wished he'd stop."
"When the younger Mr. Burton came home—what then?"
"The voices rose suddenly; but the two doors were closed and I could only catch a word here and there. But I did hear young Mr. Burton call his father a rascal and order him to leave the house. Just about then I thought of the maid and went back to the kitchen to tell her she might go to bed. But she had already gone. There were a few things I had to do in the kitchen and I remained there until I had finished them. Then I came back here."
"They were still talking in the sitting-room—rather loudly, I thought."
"Did you hear any sound like a struggle?"
The maid stood with her rather thin lips pressed tightly together for a moment; then she said, reluctantly:
"Anything more?" Dr. Shower's fingers were now twisted in the trimmed beard, eagerly.
"Miss Burton cried out. Then there was a sudden jar that made everything shake."
"Like some one falling?"
"Yes," replied the nurse, with lowered head.
"Ah!" This was a low, long-drawn exclamation and came from Osborne; and it was followed by a deep silence during which the rapid ticking of a small clock upon a writing table seemed to suddenly swell into an overwhelming volume of sound.
It was the sick girl who spoke first. She threw out her frail, white hands in a gesture of protection toward her brother.
"Frank!" she cried. "Do you hear?"
The young man, ashen of face, and with eyes wide open, had been staring at the nurse. But at the sound of his sister's voice he roused himself, and said hurriedly:
"All right, Mary. All right, my dear!" Then to the assistant coroner he added: "Very likely what Miss Wheeler says is true. There was a struggle, though not much of a one, and perhaps my sister was frightened and did cry out."
"But what of the sudden jar—'as though some one had fallen'?" asked Osborne.
"It must have been when my father struck the wall as I pushed him aside," said the young man as he passed one hand across his face. "That is the only way I can account for it."
"What more was there, Miss Wheeler?"
"A few moments later, Mr. Burton took his sister up-stairs to her room. I expected to be called, but was not. In a little while Mr. Burton came down once more and I heard him go into the sitting-room. There was a pause after this; then he called my name. I went out at once. He was standing in the hall, with the sitting-room door partly closed, and his hand upon the knob. It was then he told me what had happened—that some one had struck down his father, and that he was afraid he was dead, and that I must call in the police."
"You did not see the body?"
"Yes, sir; as I said, the sitting-room door was partly open. I saw the body, plainly."
The assistant coroner asked a number of other questions, but nothing of value was brought out.
"Very well," said the questioner finally, to the two women. "That will be all for the time being. Thank you." And then, as they left the room, he added to Osborne, "And now, let us have a look in the next room."
The two went out into the hall; promptly, Mr. Scanlon followed. The sitting-room door was exactly opposite, and they entered silently. Through the shutters a dim light was admitted, and fell across the floor; almost in the center of this a huddled form lay in a twisted, sidelong fashion; the head rested upon a rug, one end of which was thick and hard with blood; a white cloth covered the dead man's face.
"Just as he dropped when hit," said the police sergeant, who was in the room. "Nobody has stirred him an inch."
Osborne's practiced eye went about the apartment.
"Is everything else as it was?" he asked.
"Not a thing touched," the sergeant assured him. "I got here an hour after it happened, and I made it a point to see that there was no tramping in and out. The room's been under guard ever since."
Osborne nodded his approval of this, and then turned toward the assistant coroner, who had knelt beside the body and was now lifting the cloth.
"What's it look like?" he asked, bending over.
"A frightful blow," said Dr. Shower. "And it was a strong arm that struck it." Then, with suddenly increased interest, he peered still closer at the terrible wound in the side of the head. "Hello," said he, "this is rather unusual in shape." He looked up at the sergeant who was passing his hand behind a row of books upon a shelf. "What sort of a weapon was used?" he asked.
The police sergeant turned a look at the questioner over his shoulder.
"We haven't been able to find any," said he, "and we've looked everywhere. I've been over this room a dozen times myself, and I'm going over it again. It wasn't done with the kind of a thing a man would carry in his pockets—I'm sure of that."
"Right," said Osborne, who had also closely examined the wound by this time. "The cut's too wide for a blackjack, or what the English call a 'life-preserver'; and it's too deep. It was made with something with a sharp edge—something wide and heavy."
"Are you quite sure of that?" The voice was that of Frank Burton, and looking in the direction of the door, they saw that the young man had entered the room. "Is it not possible that the wound was caused by a regulation weapon of some sort after all; is the shape of the cut an infallible test as to the character of the instrument used?"
There was an anxious eagerness in the voice; the gray pallor of the face, and the feverish eyes were those of a man whose nerves were clamoring, but whose roused mind refused to give them rest.
"Such is the case in the great majority of instances," said Dr. Shower, firmly. "We are seldom led astray."
"There has been no weapon found," persisted young Burton; "and that being the case do you not think it possible——"
But here a sudden exclamation from Osborne, who had gone to one of the windows and stood looking out, interrupted the speaker. In spite of his bigness the detective was in excellent training; with a spring he went through the window which opened upon a walk fringed with autumn-brown bushes; and in another moment he was back in the room.
"Don't be too sure about no weapon being found," said he, triumph in his face and voice. "What would you call this?"
As he spoke he held up a heavy brass candlestick; it had a solid base of metal, and the edge of this was darkly clotted with blood.
ASHTON-KIRK MAKES ONE VISIT, AND PLANS ANOTHER
Ashton-Kirk sat cross-legged upon a sofa, the amber bit of his Coblentz pipe between his teeth, and the wreaths of smoke curling above his head. About him were scattered bound volumes of police papers; and upon his knees rested a huge book, canvas covered and seeming full of carefully spaced entries done in a copper plate hand.
"I knew the 'Bounder' had gone along without much friction with the police," said the investigator; "but I'll admit that I'm a bit surprised at the completeness of the thing."
A dapper young man who stood at a filing case, going over a thick inset of cards, laughed a little.
"I'll venture to say that there is not a police blotter in any large city in the country that holds the name of Tom Burton," said he. "But there are dozens of other names—poor devils, rounded up in some risky operation of which the 'Bounder' was the instigator."
"One might call that 'dogging it,'" said he, "or it might be viewed as exceedingly clever work. It altogether depends upon the point of view. To maintain such an attitude in the background over a long period of time calls for a rigorous self-repression. Burton was evidently a criminal of some parts."
"Well, looking at it from that side, I suppose it's so," said the dapper young man. "But I've been accustomed to seeing Burton and his kind as a sort of dregs, and I was just a little surprised when you began to look him up."
Ashton-Kirk smiled and drew a long draft of smoke from the big pipe.
"It is, very likely, time wasted," he said; "for it's a hundred to one that nothing——"
Here there came a long "blurr-r-r" from the lower part of the house, and the investigator stopped short.
"I rather think," added he, "that I'll reduce the odds. For, unless I am much mistaken, that is Bat Scanlon's touch at the door-bell."
A few moments later, Stumph, Ashton-Kirk's man servant, entered the study, gravely.
"Mr. Scanlon, sir," he said.
The big form of Scanlon filled the doorway and then advanced into the room.
"Didn't expect to see you again to-day," said he. "But there's a little matter came up that I thought I'd get your advice on before I went any further."
"Good," said the investigator, briskly. Then to the grave-faced servant: "Stumph, get these books away. And Fuller," to the dapper young man, "I'd like to have transcripts of those Treasury Department papers at once."
"Very well," said Fuller.
When the investigator and his caller were alone, the former offered the other some cigarettes.
"These are Porto Ricos of unusual flavor," he said. "Sent me by a planter for whom I chanced at one time to do a small service."
He put aside the Coblentz, and with Scanlon lighted one of the cigarettes. The full rich aroma of the island herb drifted through the room like a heavy incense; and under its influence the troubled look which Scanlon's face had worn lightened a trifle.
"I guess I'm a little up in the air," admitted he, finally. "It's always that way with me when things begin to break wrong in anything I'm interested in. Just when I need all my nerve and judgment, I get as anxious as an old lady who's been sold the wrong kind of tea."
"You have no monopoly on the condition," smiled Ashton-Kirk. "It comes to all of us, and in just the way you've described." His singular eyes were studying the big man's face, and in their depths was a sort of calm expectancy. "The personal equation has many queer results. But what is the cause of your present upheaval?"
Bat shook the ash from the cigarette into a pewter bowl at his elbow.
"It's this murder," he said. "You know I went to Stanwick to-day to look things over as per request."
"Have you made your report to Mrs. Burton?"
"Now, look!" exclaimed the big man. "Don't call her that! She was Burton's wife for one week, and that's the extent of her use of the name."
"Very well," nodded Ashton-Kirk. "Cavanaugh is a good old name, and is sounded just as easily."
"Yes, I called on her after I got back," said Bat. "But I had only a few minutes to talk to her; it was at the theatre, for she had a rehearsal to-day, you see."
"Was there anything new to tell her?"
Here Bat related to the investigator the details of what he had seen and heard at the Burton home; Ashton-Kirk listened attentively; now and then a pointed question came through the little clouds and rings of smoke with which he had surrounded himself, but, save for this, he made no interruption until Bat had finished.
"Dr. Shower, eh?" said he, after a little pause. "I'm rather well acquainted with his method, and the fact that he's been given charge of the coroner's examination isn't a very hopeful sign. He's a sort of pedant, who has come to think that the mixture of medical learning and knowledge of police conventions which he possesses makes him a paragon of efficiency."
"I noticed that he had a confident kind of a way with him," said Bat.
"Confidence is an excellent thing," spoke Ashton-Kirk. "A man does not go far without it. But the sort kept in stock by Dr. Shower is rather a hindrance. When he has once arrived at a conclusion, he shuts his eyes and stops his ears to everything else. Osborne, now, is different; while he's a plodding kind of a fellow with very little imagination, he's shrewd enough to accept advantages wherever he finds them." The speaker added another cloud to those already hovering about him. "Miss Cavanaugh was satisfied with what you told her, I suppose?"
But Bat shook his head, and a good part of the old troubled look returned.
"She wasn't. As a matter of fact I could see that it worried her. When I left her she was fidgeting; and if Nora does that, something's wrong. But the worst didn't happen until about a half hour ago. I was back at my place, and the 'phone bell rang. When I went to it I found it was Nora calling. And she was all excited once more."
"Ah!" said Ashton-Kirk, expectantly, "excited!"
"She started off by asking me to forgive her, and saying she must be a great bother to me. But something had happened—something that had scared her. As she came home from the theatre she heard the newsboys calling their papers on the street corners. She couldn't quite make out what they were saying, so she had the car stop and her driver get one of the papers. Then she got the facts of the matter. Young Frank Burton has been arrested for his father's murder."
"So!" said Ashton-Kirk. "I expected to hear that had happened. For, from what you've told me, the police have a fair tissue of evidence."
"That's about what I told Nora. But it bowled her over completely. Her voice began to shake and I knew she was crying."
"'But he didn't do it,' she says. 'He didn't do it. He's innocent—I know he is.'
"I tried to reason with her," proceeded Bat. "But she wouldn't listen. She kept repeating that he was innocent—that he had suffered enough at that man's hands while he was alive, and that he mustn't go on suffering now that the father was dead."
"Well?" asked Ashton-Kirk, as the other paused; "what then?"
"Then," said Scanlon, "she was on my neck to get him out of the thing. I must do it! I must not let them harm him! And all that kind of thing. She seems to think that I've got a heavy drag with the police, and all there is for me to do is to snap my fingers and they'll sit up and perform. I tried to persuade her that this was a dream; but I couldn't convince her. And the result was that I had to promise to see her right away." Bat looked dolefully at his friend. "I'm on my way there now," he said, "and I thought I'd stop in and ask what I'd better do."
Ashton-Kirk arose and took a turn up and down the room; then throwing away the cigarette end, he paused in front of his friend and asked:
"What would you say if I suggested that I go with you?"
"Fine!" Scanlon jumped up, an expression of relief upon his face. "The very thing! Get your hat. My cab is still at the door. I couldn't have asked for anything better than that."
Within five minutes the two were on the street—a street lined with fine wide houses of a bygone time, but which was now a bedlam of throaty voices, a whirling current of alien people, a miasma of stale smells. The taxi soon whirled them out of this section and into another, equally old, but still clinging to its ancient state. The houses were square fronted and solid looking, built of black-headed brick and trimmed with white stone; there were marble carriage blocks and hitching-posts at the curb.
"I wonder how long before this will begin to go," said the investigator, as they alighted. "There is scarcely an old residential street left unmarred in the big cities of the east."
"That is Nora's house—there with the scaffolding at the side. Take care you don't step in that mortar. These fellows seem to slap their stuff around and don't give a hang."
"I had no idea Miss Cavanaugh lived in this section," said Ashton-Kirk, after Scanlon had rung the bell, and they stood waiting on the steps.
"Why, you see, she's different. Naturally, she's a housekeeper. The big hotel or the glittering apartment house doesn't appeal to her. She gets all that when she's on the road."
A trim maid admitted them and showed them into a room hung with beautiful tapestry and excellently selected paintings. In a few moments there came a light hasty step and Nora stood framed in the doorway. She wore a sort of soft, gauzy robe-like thing which clung to her magnificently strong, yet completely youthful figure, causing her more than ever to resemble a young Juno. The gleaming bronze hair was gathered in a great coil at the back of her head; her wonderfully modeled arms were bare; the right was clasped about with a heavy bracelet of what seemed raw, red gold.
"Bat!" she said, gladly, and then stopped short at sight of a stranger.
"This is Mr. Ashton-Kirk," said Scanlon, presenting his companion. "You've heard me speak of him, I think."
Nora Cavanaugh held out her hand with that frankness which is always so fascinating in a beautiful woman.
"I am very glad to see you," she said. "And I recall very well what I heard of you. It was that queer affair of the Campes, and the strange dangers which haunted the hills about their country place." Her eyes were fixed steadily upon Ashton-Kirk as she spoke; the smile of welcome was still in them; but behind this there was something else—a something which evidently interested Ashton-Kirk intensely.
"I've been telling Kirk of the thing at Stanwick," spoke Scanlon, as they all three sat down at a west window, through which the lowering sun was throwing its crimsoning touch. "He's a little interested and thought he'd like to hear what you had to say."
The smile went completely out of Nora's eyes; the sombre thing at the back of them came at once to the surface; and Ashton-Kirk saw her hand, as she lifted it to her face, tremble.
"The police are fools!" she declared. "Frank Burton is innocent. It is shameful to attribute any crime to him—but to accuse him of the murder of his father"—here a shudder ran through her—"it's horrible!"
"He'll have to carefully explain a number of things, though, before the authorities change their minds," said Scanlon. "Not only have they certain definite facts on him; but they have the notion that he's not told them everything."
"He is innocent," protested Nora.
"Maybe so!" Bat shrugged his shoulders. "But I had a chance to look him over to-day, and while I liked his appearance, I agree with the cops that he was holding back on them."
The girl rose and stood facing them.
"It may be that he is," she said, and there was a break in the rare voice. "But why fix upon this so readily as a sign of guilt? Consider the circumstances. He is the son of a man whose life was a continuous shame; there very likely was not a day that did not bring some fresh knowledge of wrong-doing to the boy—some mean thing beneath contempt, which made him shrink and quiver. And now there comes another thing—a last and horrible one! It may be," and the beautiful arms lifted in a gesture of despair, "that in this there was additional shame. Can you wonder, then, that he hesitated?"
Bat Scanlon did not reply, contenting himself with merely nodding his head. This side of the thing had not occurred to him; but now that she had pointed it out, it seemed quite reasonable. Ashton-Kirk fixed his singular dark eyes upon the beautiful woman who stood so appealingly before them.
"Scanlon mentioned to me a while ago," spoke the investigator, "that you were interested in doing what you could to help this young man. I make it a point never to judge the merits of a case until I have examined it at close range. However, I will say this: From a distance, this matter begins to show promise; so much, indeed, that I feel I must know more about it."
She looked at him, her hands twining together, nervously; but she did not speak, and he went on:
"What you say about the police is largely true. They are superficial, and the arrest of young Burton may not be at all warranted by the facts. As it happens, Miss Cavanaugh," easily, "there are no very pressing matters to engage me just now; and since you are so interested, suppose I look into it, and see if I can gather up any stray threads missed by the police."
Bat Scanlon brought his palms together in great satisfaction; but, to his astonishment, when he looked at Nora he saw hesitancy plainly written in her beautiful face; indeed, there was more than hesitancy; refusal of the offer trembled upon her lips. But this was only for an instant; a sudden rush of excitement seemed to possess her, and she held out her hand to Ashton-Kirk, warmly.
"This is good of you," she said, "and I thank you a thousand times. If you can, in any way, make it clear to Frank Burton's friends—to every one—that he is not guilty, you'll do the best deed of your life; and," here the great brown eyes opened widely, "you will be helping me more than I can say."
"Very well," said the investigator. Going to a window, he stood with his back to them looking at the sky, now blotched red and gold in the waning rays of the sun. He was motionless for a moment or two and then he turned, briskly.
"It's a pity there are not a few hours more of daylight," said he. "For my experience has shown me that most cases, in which there is any doubt, do not stand delay. A few hours sometimes dims what otherwise would be hopeful clues; traces which, had they been taken up in time, might have led directly to the criminal, are rendered cold and useless."
"Couldn't something be done out at Stanwick to-night?" asked Bat, anxiously.
But the criminologist shook his head.
"It would be impossible," said he. "Night always puts any sort of intelligent examination out of the question. But," and he looked at Nora with an alertness of manner which showed how his keen mind was already taking hold, "the time between now and daylight need not be altogether lost."
"What can we do?" she asked, eagerly.
"Sometimes even the smallest scrap of information is of great value," said he. "The movements—the conversation of a suspect—or a victim—immediately before the crime, has more than once provided the thing necessary to a successful solution."
"Why, yes, that would be true, of course." But the eagerness had gone out of her manner suddenly; her hands seemed to flutter at her breast. "Small, seemingly unimportant things, even in my work, add greatly to a result."
The keen eyes of Ashton-Kirk never left her face.
"About what time was it last night that your husband came here?" he asked.
"It must have been between eleven-thirty and twelve o'clock," she replied, slowly. "I had just got home from the theatre."
"He demanded money, I believe?"
"Yes; that was always the cause of his visits."
"Will you tell me, as nearly as you can remember, what passed?"
"When I came in," said Nora, "I went directly to my own rooms. My maid followed me a few moments later, but just then there was a ring at the bell. The lateness of the hour gave me a feeling of uneasiness—it were as though I subconsciously realized who was at the door. When the maid answered the ring he pushed her aside, and I heard his feet running up the stairs. The impulse arose in me to lock my door; at any other time I think I would have done so; but just then I felt aroused—I was bitterly angry; that he should force himself upon me in such a way made me desire to face him—to tell him what I thought in very plain words."
"This was not your usual state of mind when he visited you?"
"No." She bent her proud head humbly. "When I first learned his true character, I left him in just that spirit; but when I had won my way by hard work, and he began persecuting me, I thought it better to give him the money he asked and avoid his poisonous falsehoods."
"You were afraid of him?"
"Not of him—but of my public—of the world in general. He threatened me with the divorce court. Divorce, with its humiliations, its confessions of failure, its publicity, had always appalled me. The sneer 'another actress being divorced' made me a coward. He knew that; he had found it out, somehow; his great talent was in bringing weaknesses to the surface. He detailed the charges he would bring against me; every one of them was a lie, but they were so ingenious, so plausible, so unutterably slimy that I couldn't bear up against them. It was in that way he broke my spirit."
"There was a hound for you!" said Bat Scanlon. "That is, if I'm not injuring the hound family by the comparison."
"But last night," said Nora Cavanaugh, "I had lost all this fear of him and his threats. I don't know why. It wasn't really because he had forced his way into my room, for he had done that before. It must have been that this was a sort of culmination—the breaking point. At any rate, I refused his demands! I answered his sneers in a way which I saw took him aback; he resumed his old threat of the divorce court, but I defied him. Then, after about half an hour, he went away."
"That was all?"
The girl stood in such a position that the waning daylight fell full upon her beautiful face. Ashton-Kirk said, quietly:
"Thank you." Then as she was about to turn toward Scanlon he added: "Pardon me; you have had a little accident, I notice."
Her hand went to her brow, and her eyes, startled and big, looked at him swiftly.
"I hadn't noticed it," he went on, quietly, "until you pushed your hair back a moment ago. It must have been very painful."
"Oh, yes—yes!" She hurriedly drew down some strands of the heavy bronze hair over an ugly, dark bruise near the temple. "I had forgotten. Yes, it was very painful, indeed, when it happened. You see," and she laughed in a breathless, nervous sort of way, "my maid left the door of a dressing cabinet open in my room at the theatre, and as I bent over I struck against it."
He murmured something sympathetically; and then looked at Scanlon, who obediently arose.
"In the morning," said Ashton-Kirk, "we'll take the first train for Stanwick; and by this time to-morrow evening we may have some news of importance for you."
"I hope so," she answered, "I sincerely hope so."
The maid entered in reply to a ring, and brought their hats and coats.
"It may be that you or your people, here in the house, can be of help to us," said Ashton-Kirk, evenly. "I should like to feel that I can count on that at any time."
"To be sure," Nora turned to the maid. "Anna, Mr. Ashton-Kirk is doing me a great service. Anything he asks must be done."
"Yes, Miss Cavanaugh," said the maid.
Then the two men bid the charming actress good-bye; when they had climbed into the cab and rolled away, the investigator lay back against the hard leather padding and closed his eyes. Scanlon looked at the keen outline of the face with interest. It was an altogether modern countenance, in perfect tune with the time; but, for all that, there was something almost mystic in it. It may have been that the mind which weighed and valued so many things, unnoticed by the crowd, had given something of the same touch to the face as the pondering of the secrets of life is said to give to the oriental anchorites.
But after a little, the investigator sat upright.
"When does Miss Cavanaugh have a matinee?" he asked.
"Not until Saturday," replied Scanlon.
A look of annoyance came into the face of Ashton-Kirk.
"Too bad," said he. "Then we shall have to arrange something." He reflected for a moment, snapping his fingers impatiently, as though for an idea. Then his countenance suddenly lighted up. "I have it! Young Burton is in the county prison awaiting action of the Grand Jury. What more natural thing than that she should visit him there to offer sympathy and encouragement—say between two and five to-morrow afternoon."
"You mean——" and Bat looked at him, only dimly grasping what was behind the words.
"That I depend upon you to suggest this to her," said the other. "It's the sort of thing she'll do, once it's in her mind."
"But," asked the astonished big man, "what's it for?"
"I want to pay another visit to her house," said Ashton-Kirk, coolly, "when she is not there."
THE HOUND AND THE SCENT
The next morning at a trifle past nine, Bat Scanlon once more presented himself in Ashton-Kirk's study. He found the investigator attired in a well-fitting suit of rough, gray material; a light stick and a cap lay upon a table, while their owner, his hands deep in his trousers pockets, paced the floor.
"I've been through a half dozen newspapers since breakfast," said he. "The reporters and the city editors have had a great deal to say about what they call the 'Stanwick Mystery'; but they have unearthed nothing that's at all suggestive."
"Not a thing," verified Bat. "At least, nothing that I haven't seen or heard myself—except that the sick girl—Mary Burton—has taken to her bed."
"That's bad," said his friend. "But, you see, the arrest of her brother was sure to have some such effect."
"Well, it's turned a little trick for me, anyway," said Bat "The girl being suddenly taken down has got to Nora; and she called me this morning to talk about it. She's going down there this afternoon. It was her own idea. And so I won't have to do any 'under cover' stuff with her."
"Good," said the investigator. "It's always much better to have a thing come about naturally, if possible."
A big motor car waited for them at the door; it carried them swiftly out of the city proper into the suburb of Stanwick, and finally drew up in front of 620 Duncan Street.
The same policeman stood at the gate who had guarded it the day before.
"Hello, back again!" he saluted at sight of Scanlon.
"Yes; thought another look would do no harm," returned Bat. "Any one inside?"
"Osborne's there," replied the policeman. "But no one else—outside the family."
"Were you present when young Burton was arrested?" asked Ashton-Kirk.
"A little," grinned the policeman, "seeing as I was the party who brought him out to the wagon."
"Did he have anything to say when accused?"
"Not much. He didn't seem surprised, though. Osborne says to him: 'We'll have to hold you in this case till we get further evidence.' And he says: 'I didn't do it. If I had thought of it, maybe I would. But I didn't do it.'"
The investigator and Bat Scanlon walked up the path; as they reached the door, it was opened for them, and they saw the burly form of Osborne standing in the hall.
"How are you?" greeted the headquarters man, good-humoredly. "Saw you from the window, and felt so honored that I'm letting you in myself." He shook Ashton-Kirk by the hand, warmly enough. "Kind of a surprise to see you down here."
The two men entered and the door closed behind them; then they made their way into the sitting-room, following Osborne. The body of the murdered man was no longer there; the rug stiffened with blood was gone; the room was now quiet and conventional—a peaceful calm filled it.
Ashton-Kirk's keen glance went about; he talked steadily to Osborne all the while, but Bat Scanlon observed that not a single detail of the apartment escaped him. The headquarters man wore a look of frank curiosity as he, too, watched the investigator, and saw him fixing the position of things in his mind.
"Just where did the body lie when the policeman arrived on the night of the crime?" he asked.
"Right here," and Osborne indicated the spot "The head was here. The wound was made with a candlestick—quite a heavy one; and the blow was meant to stop the victim for good."
"Any further marks on him besides the one on the head?"
"No," said Osborne. "We looked for something of that kind, but there was none."
Ashton-Kirk went to a window overlooking the stretch of green sod at the side of the house.
"I understand you found the candlestick just under this?"
"Yes. The window was a little open; and I guess, after he'd finished the job, the murderer wanted to get rid of the weapon. So he dropped it outside."
"Nothing to be had here," said Ashton-Kirk, after a few moments' study of the sitting-room. "At least not just now."
He threw up the window and stepped out, followed by Scanlon; standing upon the paved walk the investigator looked about. The Burton house, like the others on Duncan Street, sat fairly in the center of a plot of ground perhaps two hundred feet square. Along the division fence between that and the next house was a stretch of smooth sod, with grass, still green. At one place upon this was a sort of rose arbor, the browned, hardy shoots of a perennial twining thickly around it.
"There have been a half dozen policemen walking about here," said Ashton-Kirk, pointing to the soft earth under the window. "And that is fatal to any sort of close work, even had there been anything in the first place."
However, in spite of this, he went over every yard of the space about the house; at the rose arbor he paused.
"Directly in line with the sitting-room window," he said. "No doubt young Burton placed it with that in mind; the invalid sister would love to see the roses in early summer."
He walked behind the structure, and then Bat Scanlon saw him pause suddenly and bend over, rigid with eagerness.
"What is it?" asked the big man.
For answer the criminologist pointed to the ground; sharply indented in the sod were the marks of a small, high heeled shoe; and Scanlon stood staring at them perplexed.
"What do they signify?" asked he. "There are likely to be footprints all over the place—male and female. I'll venture to say that half the residents of the street have been prowling about in this space since the murder was done."
"That is a possibility always to be guarded against," said Ashton-Kirk, quietly. "But there has been a policeman on guard all the time, so, you see, the chances are greatly reduced." He studied the narrow imprints with great care; they were firmly pressed into the damp sod, the high heels making a decided puncture. "The night before last was a bright one," he added, finally, as he straightened up and looked at Scanlon. "At about the time the murder was committed the moon hung about there, full and unobstructed, if you remember. Now, suppose you, for some secret reason, entered the grounds at that time. The whole space on this side was flooded with light; and yet you desired to get a view of what was going on in the sitting-room; at the same time you were most anxious not to be seen. What would you be most likely to do?"
Scanlon looked around and considered.
"About the only thing to do in a case like that," said he, "would be to take cover behind this rose arbor."
"Right!" approved the investigator. "And now, consider: once behind it, the only place from which you could fully overlook the window desired would be here," indicating a certain spot; "the vine has 'made wood' too heavily at all the other points to permit of uninterrupted vision. And right here, you will notice these footprints are the most often repeated; they are also deeper, showing that the woman, whoever she was, stood here for some little time."
Scanlon was impressed; but at the same time there was a dubious look in his eye.
"A woman did stand there," he agreed; "and maybe she was looking in at the window. But what do you draw from that?"
"Nothing—as yet. We'll just note the fact, old chap, and pass on to the next. Later we'll put the two together, and see if any meaning is to be had from the combination."
He was silent after that, moving here and there over the ground, his head bent and his attention fixed. Scanlon chuckled as he watched him, and marveled at the similarity between the movements of his friend and those of a thoroughbred hound.
"And almost with his nose to the ground," observed Bat. "He's so fixed in what he's doing that the European war could move into the next county, and he'd never know it."
Once more the investigator came to a stop; from beneath the division fence where the grass was rather long, he picked a shining object which at once brought Bat Scanlon to his side.
"A revolver!" exclaimed the big man, amazed.
"With every chamber loaded," said the investigator. "It's a Smith and Wesson; it's of a small calibre, commonly called a 'ladies' revolver.'"
"Funny how it got there, ain't it?" said Bat. "For it couldn't have had anything to do with the killing of the 'Bounder,' seeing that he passed out through being bumped with a candlestick."
"Nevertheless," said Ashton-Kirk, as he slipped the weapon into his pocket, "the thing being here, and at this time, is rather interesting."
He proceeded with his inspection of the ground, striking off toward the front of the house as though following a trail. Bat lost sight of him for a few moments; then, as he, too, reached the front of the house, he saw the other standing, his hands in his pockets, a puzzled look on his face.
"Well," said Scanlon, "what now?"
"Suppose we have a look at the other side of the building," replied the other.
Here the police had also done some going to and fro; the broad foot of Osborne was distinctly marked everywhere.
"And here is the sergeant's," said Ashton-Kirk, pointing. "The policeman's shoe is not to be mistaken, and Sergeant Nailor always wears soles that have been pegged."
Under one of the windows the investigator came to a halt. It was a window smaller than any of the others and much higher in the wall. Beneath it was a cellar opening with an iron grating.
"Look there," said the investigator, as he pointed to this latter.
Bat Scanlon looked, and saw a little ridge of mud upon one of the bars.
"From some one's foot," declared he. "It scraped off on the grating when they climbed up on it, maybe to reach the window."
Ashton-Kirk studied the particles clinging to the bar with much interest, an eager look in his eyes.
"It may be a coincidence," said he, "but I'm inclined to think not."
"What may be a coincidence?" asked Scanlon, as the other carefully scraped the particles from the grading into a compartment of a paper fold. But Ashton-Kirk made no reply except:
"Give me a 'boost' up to that window."
The big man obediently did so; on the ledge were the marks of fingers in the dust which damp had caused to stick there.
"And newly done," said Ashton-Kirk, as he dropped to the ground, a glint in his eye. "Very little dust has attached itself since they were made."
He began searching the surface of the ground under the window; finally he took a strong lens from his pocket and with increased interest resumed the inspection.
"Very likely one of the cops did this," said Scanlon. "Wanted to see if the window was fast."
Ashton-Kirk got up from his stooping position and slipped the lens back into his pocket.
"They would have tried the window from the inside in that case," said he. "It would have been easier to get at." He stood for a moment, reflecting; then he continued: "There seems to be very little more to be hoped for. Let us speak to Osborne before we go."
The big headquarters man was in the room across the hall from the one in which the crime had been committed.
"Well, all through?" he asked, genially, and with the manner of one whose position is assured.
"Yes, I think so," said Ashton-Kirk.
"We covered it all pretty well outside there," nodded Osborne, complacently, "and we got nothing from it. Depend on it, this thing was an inside job. The party that did it belonged right here in the house."
"Too bad," mused Ashton-Kirk, as he looked about the comfortable, homelike room. "Too bad! That will mean that another home is wrecked; and this one seems decidedly worth keeping together—nice etching and rugs and some very good bits of old brass." He took up a candlestick from the end of a shelf. "Here is a real old Colonial candlestick which must weigh at least five pounds."
Osborne looked at the piece, grimly.
"If Tom Burton were alive," said he, "he might be able to tell you something about the weight of such things. It was with just such another he was killed."
"Oh, indeed!" Ashton-Kirk replaced the candlestick upon the shelf and dusted his fingers with a handkerchief. "Well, we'll be running along, Osborne." They shook hands with the detective. "Sorry we hadn't any better luck."
"So am I," said Osborne, still complacently. "But it breaks that way sometimes. We can't turn up new stuff where it doesn't exist."
"True," said Ashton-Kirk, as he descended from the porch to the paved walk. "That's very true. But thank you just the same. And good-bye."
And so with Scanlon at his side, he set off at a smart pace toward the railroad station.
ASHTON-KIRK ASKS QUESTIONS
Ashton-Kirk dismissed his car in front of a restaurant in the center of the city; he and his friend had luncheon in a quiet corner, then lighted cigars and smoked while they sipped their coffee.
"This is the second little matter I've had to put up to you," said Bat Scanlon. "I hope it won't grow into a habit."
"If it has any of the entertaining qualities of the other case," smiled the investigator, "I shall be greatly beholden to you."
Bat shook his head, and watched a cloud of white, thin smoke vanish in the air.
"That hardly seems likely," said he. "Stanwick ain't the place for mystery that Warwick Furnace was; and on the face of it, anyway, 620 Duncan Street can't touch Castle Schwartzberg for thrills. Beside that, the Campe affair just sizzled with stuff, while this one, like as not, is finished already."
Ashton-Kirk smiled, and drew slowly at his cigar; this latter had a spicy tang, a flavor which suggested hot suns and heavy dews; the taste was rich, and the effect heady.
"Here is a cigar," said he, "which has all the flavor and shock of a richer looking and more suggestive leaf." He indicated the rather negative wrapper, and went on: "As you see, it hasn't any of that lush darkness which one usually associates with potent tobacco. And all because the wrapper was grown in Pennsylvania; for a casual inspection tells nothing of the tropical growth within."
"All of which is meant to mean——?" and Bat Scanlon looked at his friend inquiringly.
"That one must not be too hasty in judging a thing by its externals. The Campe case was surrounded by a sort of natural melodrama; the gloomy hills, which appear to have impressed Miss Cavanaugh, the huge bulk of Schwartzberg Castle, the unaccountable messages, and unknown agencies all led one to expect something unusual. In this present affair, however, the stage settings are not nearly so sensational; and yet," here the singular eyes of the investigator were fixed upon Scanlon intently, "who knows? Unlooked-for results may not be lacking."
"Why—do you mean to say——?" Scanlon began the question in a voice pitched in the key of sudden surprise; but the other stopped him before he could finish.
"As I said a while ago, at Stanwick," remarked Ashton-Kirk, "it is not yet time to declare anything. Just now we are picking up what facts and suggestions we can; later we'll try fitting them together." He drew out his watch and looked at it. "Two-thirty," he said. "Miss Cavanaugh must have started for Stanwick before this; so suppose we go now for our call."
Scanlon made a wry face as he arose.
"I don't like calling," spoke he, "and I especially don't like this one. When I was deputy marshall out in the Gunnison country I once made a call at the house of a gentleman who had locked himself up with a barrel of ammunition and a half dozen Winchesters, and bid defiance to the law. It was no soft job, but I'd rather do it again, than this."
"I think you are a little thin-skinned in the matter," spoke Ashton-Kirk. "Miss Cavanaugh is extremely anxious to go further into this case, and has asked our help. As I see it we can greatly increase our chances of success by this visit; and we'll also save her the anxiety of seeing us prowling around."
It was about a half hour's walk to Nora Cavanaugh's house; and when they rang the bell the same trim maid opened the door.
"Is Miss Cavanaugh at home?" inquired Ashton-Kirk.
"No, sir," replied the maid. "She went out about a half hour ago."
"I'm sorry," said the investigator, a look of vexation upon his face. "However, I suppose, though, it makes no difference. You recall what Miss Cavanaugh said to you when we were here yesterday."
"Oh, yes, sir; very well."
"Excellent!" said Ashton-Kirk. "And, now, we'd like to ask you a few questions, if you please."
The girl admitted them to a bright old reception room; the investigator laid his hat and stick upon a table.
"It was you who admitted Mr. Burton the last time he was here, was it not?"
"I opened the door for him, yes, sir. And he pushed by me."
"I see. How long had it been since his previous visit?"
"I'm not sure; but some time."
"What sort of a temper was he in?"
"He was always disagreeable, sir; but he was real nasty that night. He pushed me aside as if I was nothing at all."
The black eyes of the maid flashed at the recollection.
"I suppose you attend Miss Cavanaugh at the theatre as well as at home?"
"Oh, yes; she has no other maid."
Ashton-Kirk smiled and shook his finger at the girl.
"Then it was you who left the door of a cabinet open in the dressing-room and so caused that little accident."
"An accident!" The girl looked at him surprisedly. "I don't think I know just what you mean."
"Oh, well, never mind," said the investigator, carelessly. "A little mistake of mine, no doubt."
There was a vague sort of trouble in the face of Bat Scanlon; he smoothed his chin with one big hand, and shifted his weight uneasily from one foot to the other.
"And now," said Ashton-Kirk, to the maid, "when Burton pushed past you that night, where did he go?"