John T. McIntyre
Author of "In the Dead of Night," &c.
ILLUSTRATIONS BY RALPH L. BOYER
To my Friend GRANT GIBNEY
Ashton-Kirk, who has solved so many mysteries, is himself something of a problem even to those who know him best. Although young, wealthy, and of high social position, he is nevertheless an indefatigable worker in his chosen field. He smiles when men call him a detective. "No; only an investigator," he says.
He has never courted notoriety; indeed, his life has been more or less secluded. However, let a man do remarkable work in any line and, as Emerson has observed, "the world will make a beaten path to his door."
Those who have found their way to Ashton-Kirk's door have been of many races and interests. Men of science have often been surprised to find him in touch with the latest discoveries, scholars searching among strange tongues and dialects, and others deep in tattered scrolls, ancient tablets and forgotten books have been his frequent visitors. But among them come many who seek his help in solving problems in crime.
"I'm more curious than some other fellows, that's all," is the way he accounts for himself. "If a puzzle is put in front of me I can't rest till I know the answer." At any rate his natural bent has always been to make plain the mysterious; each well hidden step in the perpetration of a crime has always been for him an exciting lure; and to follow a thread, snarled by circumstances or by another intelligence has been, he admits, his chief delight.
There are many strange things to be written of this remarkable man—but this, the case of the numismatist Hume, has been selected as the first because it is one of the simplest, and yet clearly illustrates Ashton-Kirk's peculiar talents. It will also throw some light on the question, often asked, as to how his cases come to him.
A second volume that shows the investigator deep in another mystery, even more intricate and puzzling than this, is entitled "Ashton-Kirk and the Scarlet Scapular."
CHAPTER I. PENDLETON CALLS UPON ASHTON-KIRK II. MISS EDYTH VALE STATES HER CASE III. THE PORTRAITS OF GENERAL WAYNE IV. STILLMAN'S THEORY V. STILLMAN ASKS QUESTIONS VI. ASHTON-KIRK LOOKS ABOUT VII. THE SCHWARTZ-MICHAEL BAYONET VIII. THE NEWSPAPERS BEGIN TO PLAY THEIR PART IX. MISS VALE TELLS WHAT SHE KNOWS X. ASHTON-KIRK ASKS QUESTIONS XI. PENDLETON IS VASTLY ENLIGHTENED XII. ANTONIO SPATOLA APPEARS XIII. A NEW LIGHT ON ALLAN MORRIS XIV. MISS VALE UNEXPECTEDLY APPEARS XV. MISS VALE DEPARTS SUDDENLY XVI. STEEL AGAINST STEEL XVII. WHAT HAPPENED ON THE ROAD XVIII. ASHTON-KIRK TELLS WHY XIX. THE TWO REPORTS XX. ONE OF THE OLD SORT XXI. ASHTON-KIRK BEGINS TO PLAN XXII. ASHTON-KIRK IS ANNOYED XXIII. THE SECRET OF THE PORTRAIT XXIV. THE SECOND NIGHT XXV. APPROACHING THE FINISH XXVI. THE FINISH
"JUST AS I THOUGHT" ... FRONTISPIECE "YOU DO NOT MEAN TO GO THERE" HE RAPPED SMARTLY ON THE WINDOW WHAT SHE SAW MUST HAVE STARTLED HER
PENDLETON CALLS UPON ASHTON-KIRK
Young Pendleton's car crept carefully around the corner and wound in and out among the push-cart men and dirty children.
About midway in the block was a square-built house with tall, small-paned windows and checkered with black-headed brick. It stood slightly back from the street with ancient dignity; upon the shining door-plate, deeply bitten in angular text, was the name "Ashton-Kirk."
Here the car stopped; Pendleton got out, ascended the white marble steps and tugged at the polished, old-fashioned bell-handle.
A grave-faced German, in dark livery, opened the door.
"Mr. Ashton-Kirk will see you, sir," said he. "I gave him your telephone message as soon as he came down."
"Thank you, Stumph," said Pendleton. And with the manner of one perfectly acquainted with the house, he ascended a massively balustraded staircase. The walls were darkly paneled; from the shadowy recesses pictured faces of men and women looked down at him.
Coming in from the littered street, with its high smells and crowding, gesticulating people, the house impressed one by its quiet, its spaciousness, and the evident means and culture of its owner. Pendleton turned off at the first landing, proceeded along a passage and finally knocked at a door. Without waiting for a reply, he walked in.
At the far end of a long, high-ceilinged apartment a young man was lounging in an easy-chair. At his elbow was a jar of tobacco, a sheaf of brown cigarette papers and a scattering of books. He lifted a keen dark face, lit up by singularly brilliant eyes.
"Hello, Pen," greeted he. "You've come just in time to smoke up some of this Greek tobacco. Throw those books off that chair and make yourself easy."
One by one Pendleton lifted the books and glanced at the titles.
"Your morning's reading, if this is such," commented he, "is strikingly catholic. Plutarch, Snarleyow, the Opium Eater, Martin Chuzzlewit." Then came a host of tattered pamphlets, bound in shrieking paper covers, which the speaker handled gingerly. "'The Crimes of Anton Probst,'" he continued to read, "'The Deeds of the Harper Family,' 'The Murder of ——'" here he paused, tossed the pamphlets aside with contempt, sat down and drew the tobacco jar toward him.
"Some of the results of your forays into the basements of old booksellers, I suppose," he added, rolling a cigarette with delicate ease. "But what value you see in such things is beyond me."
Ashton-Kirk smiled good-humoredly. He took up some of the pamphlets and fluttered their illy-printed pages.
"They are not beautiful," he admitted; "the paper could not be worse and the wood cuts are horrors. But they are records of actual things—striking things, as a matter of fact—for a murder which so lifts itself above the thousands of homicides that are yearly occurring, as to gain a place outside the court records and newspapers, must have been one of exceptional execution."
"There is a public which delights in being horrified," said Pendleton with a grimace. "The things are put out to get their nickels and dimes."
"No doubt," agreed the other. "And the fact that they are willing to pay their nickels and dimes is, to my way of thinking, a proof of the extraordinary nature of the crime chronicled." The speaker dropped the prints upon the floor and lounged back in his big chair. "There is Plutarch," he continued; "the account of the assassination of Caesar is not the least interesting thing in his biography of that statesman. Indeed, I have no doubt but that the chronicler thought Caesar's taking off the most striking incident in his career; that the Roman public thought so is a matter of history.
"Countless writers have dwelt upon the taking of human life; some of them were rather commercial gentlemen who always gave an ear to the demands of their public, and their screeds were written for the money that they would put in their pockets; but others, and by long odds the greatest, were fascinated by their subjects. Both Stevenson and Henley were powerfully drawn by deeds of blood. Did you know they planned a great book which was to contain a complete account of the world's most remarkable homicides? I'm sorry they never carried the thing out; for I cannot conceive of two minds more fitted to the task. They would have dressed every event in the grimmest and most subtle horror; why, the soul would have shuddered at each enormity as shaped and presented by such masters."
Pendleton regarded his friend with candid distaste.
"You are appalling to-day," said he. "If you think it's the Greek tobacco, let me know. For I have to mingle with other human beings, and I'd scarcely care to get into your state of mind."
The strong, white teeth of Ashton-Kirk showed in a quick smile.
"The tobacco was recommended by old Hosko," he said, "and you'll find nothing violent in it, no matter what you find in my conversation."
"What put you into such a frame of mind, anyway? Something happened?"
But Ashton-Kirk shook his head.
"I don't know," said he. "In fact, I have been strangely idle for the last fortnight. The most exciting things that have appeared above my personal horizon have been a queer little edition of Albertus-Magnus, struck off in an obscure printing shop in Florence in the early part of the sixteenth century, and a splendid, large paper Poe, to which I fortunately happened to be a subscriber."
A volume of the Poe and the Albertus-Magnus were lying at hand; Pendleton ignored the dumpy, stained little Latin volume; its strong-smelling leather binding and faded text had no attractions for him. But he took up the Poe and began idly turning its leaves.
"It is a mistake to suppose that some specific thing must be the cause of an action, or a train of thought," resumed the other, from the comfortable depths of his chair. "Sometimes thousands of things go to the making of a single thought, countless others to the doing of a single deed. And yet again, a thing entirely unassociated with a result may be the beginning of the result, so to speak. For example, a volume of Henry James which I was reading last night might be the cause of my turning to the literature of assassination this morning; your friendly visit may result in my coming in contact with a murder that will make any of these," with a nod toward the scattered volumes, "seem tame."
Pendleton threw away his cigarette and proceeded to roll another.
"It is my earnest desire to remain upon friendly terms with you, Kirk," stated he, with a smile. "Therefore, I will make no comment except to say that your last reflection was entirely uncalled for."
Lighting the cigarette, he turned the tall leaves of the beautiful volume upon his knee.
"This edition is quite perfection," he remarked admiringly. "And I'm sorry that I was not asked to subscribe. However," and Pendleton glanced humorously at his friend, "I don't suppose its beauty is what attracts you to-day. It is because certain pages are spread with the records of crime. I notice that this volume holds both 'The Murders in the Rue Morgue' and the 'Mystery of Marie Roget.'"
"Right," smiled Ashton-Kirk. "I admit I was browsing among the details of those two masterpieces when you came in. A great fellow, Poe. His peculiar imagination gave him a marvelous grasp of criminal possibilities."
Ashton-Kirk took up the "Confessions of an English Opium-Eater" and turned the leaves until he came to "Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts."
"In some things I have detected an odd similarity in the work of De Quincey and Poe. Mind you, I say in some things. As to what entered into the structure of an admirably conceived murder they were as far apart as the poles. The ideals of the 'Society of Connoisseurs in Murder' must have excited in Poe nothing but contempt. A coarse butchery—a wholesale slaughter was received by this association with raptures; a pale-eyed, orange-haired blunderer, with a ship carpenter's mallet hidden under his coat, was hailed as an artist.
"You don't find Poe wasting time on uncouth monsters who roar like tigers, bang doors and smear whole rooms with blood. His assassins had a joy in planning their exploits as well as in the execution of them. They were intelligent, secret, sure. And in every case they accomplished their work and escaped detection."
"You must not forget, however," complained Pendleton, "that De Quincey's assassin, John Williams, was a real person, and his killings actual occurrences. Poe's workmen were creatures of his imagination, their crimes, with the possible exception of 'Marie Roget,' were purely fanciful. The creator of the doer and the deed had a clear field; and in that, perhaps, lies the superiority of Poe."
Ashton-Kirk sighed humorously.
"Perhaps," said he. "At any rate the select crimes are usually the conceptions of men who have no idea of putting them into execution. And that, upon consideration, is a fortunate thing for society. But, at the same time, it is most irritating to a man of a speculative turn of mind. Fiction teems with most splendid murders. Captain Marryat, in Snarleyow, created an almost perfect horror in the attempted slaughter of the boy Smallbones by the hag mother of Vanslyperken; the lad's reversal of the situation and his plunging a bayonet into the wrinkled throat, makes the chapter an accomplishment difficult to displace. Remember it?"
Pendleton arose and opened one of the windows.
"Even the noise and smell of this street of yours are grateful after what I have been listening to," said he. Then, after a moment spent in examining the adjacent outdoors, he added in a tone of wonderment. "I say, Kirk, this is really a hole of a place to live! Why don't you move?"
The other arose and joined him at the window. Old-fashioned streets alter wonderfully after the generations of the elect have passed; but when Eastern Europe takes to dumping its furtive hordes into one, the change is marked indeed. In this one peddler's wagons replaced the shining carriages of a former day—wagons drawn by large-jointed horses and driven by bearded men who cried their wares in strange, throaty voices.
Everything exhaled a thick, semi-oriental smell. Dully painted fire-escapes clung hideously to the fronts of the buildings; stagnant-looking men, wearing their hats, leaned from bedroom windows. The once decent hallways were smutted with grimy hands; the wide marble steps were huddled with alien, unclean people.
A splendidly spired church stood almost shoulder to shoulder with the Ashton-Kirk house. Once it had been a place of dignified Episcopal worship; but years of neglect had made it unwholesome and cavern-like; and finally it was given over to a tribe of stolid Lithuanians who stuck a cheaply gilded Greek cross over the door and thronged the street with their wedding and christening processions.
"Perhaps," said Ashton-Kirk, after a moment's study of the prospect, "yes, perhaps it is a hole of a place in which to live. But you see we've had this house since shortly after the Revolution; four generations have been born here. As I have no fashionable wife and I live alone, I am content to stay. Then, the house suits me; everything is arranged to my taste. The environment may not be the most desirable; but, my visitors are seldom of the sort that object to externals."
"Well, you have one just now who is not what you might call partial to such neighborhoods," said Pendleton. "And," looking at his watch, "you will shortly have another who will be, perhaps, still less favorably impressed."
"Ah!" said Ashton-Kirk.
He curled himself up upon the deep window sill while Pendleton went back to his chair and the tobacco.
"It's a lady," resumed Pendleton, the brown paper crackling between his fingers, "a lady of condition, quality and beauty."
"It sounds pleasant enough," smiled the other. "But why is she coming?"
"To consult you—ah—I suppose we might call it—professionally. No, I don't know what it is about; but judging from her manner, it is something of no little consequence."
"She sent you to prepare the way for her, then?"
"Yes. It is Miss Edyth Vale, daughter of James Vale, the 'Structural Steel King,' you remember they used to call him before he died a few years ago. She was an only child, and except for the four millions which he left to found a technical school, she inherited everything. And when you say everything in a case like this, it means considerable."
"She is a distant relative of mine," resumed Pendleton; "her mother was connected in some vague way with my mother; and because of this indefinite link, we've always been"—here he hesitated for an instant—"well, rather friendly. Last night we happened to meet at Upton's, and I took her in to dinner. Edyth is a nice girl, but I've noticed of late that she's not had a great deal to say. Sort of quiet and big-eyed and all that, you know. Seems healthy enough, but does a great deal of thinking and looking away at nothing. I've talked to her for ten minutes straight, only to find that she hadn't heard a word I'd said.
"So, as you will understand, I did not expect a great deal of her at dinner. But directly across from us was young Cartwright—"
"Employed in the Treasury Department?"
"That's the man. Well, he began to talk departmental affairs with some one well down the table—you know how some of these serious kids are—and as there seemed to be nothing else to do, I gave my whole attention to the interesting performance of Mrs. Upton's cook. I must have been falling into a dreamy rapture; but at any rate I suddenly awoke, so to speak. To my surprise Edyth was talking—quite animatedly—with Cartwright, and about you."
"Ah!" said Ashton-Kirk. "That's very pleasant. It is not given to every man that the mention of him should stir a melancholy young lady into animation."
"Have you done anything in your line for the Treasury Department lately?" asked Pendleton.
"Oh, a small matter of some duplicate plates," said Ashton-Kirk. "It had some interest, but there was nothing extraordinary in it."
"Well, Cartwright didn't think that. I did not come to in time to catch the nature of your feat, but he seemed lost in admiration of your cleverness. He was quite delighted, too, at securing Edyth's attention. You see, it was a thing he had scarcely hoped for. So he proceeded to relate all he had ever heard about you. That queer little matter of the Lincoln death-mask, you know, and the case of the Belgian Consul and the spurious Van Dyke. And he had even heard some of the things you did in the university during your senior year. His recital of your recovery of the silver figure of the Greek runner which went as the Marathon prize in 1902 made a great hit, I assure you.
"But when he answered 'No' to Edyth's earnest question as to whether he were acquainted with you, she lost interest; and when I promptly furnished the information that I was, he was forgotten. During the remainder of the dinner I had time for little else but Edyth's questions. When she learned that you had taken up investigation as a sort of profession, she was quite delighted, and before we parted I was asked to arrange a consultation."
"She will be here this morning, then?" asked Ashton-Kirk.
Pendleton once more looked at his watch.
"Within a very few minutes," said he.
MISS EDYTH VALE STATES HER CASE
It was exactly three minutes later when the continuous tooting of a horn told of the approach of another motor car along the crowded street. Then the door-bell rang.
Ashton-Kirk arose and touched one of a series of buttons in the wall. Almost instantly a buzzer made sharp reply. He lifted a tube.
"If it is Miss Edyth Vale," spoke he, "show her up."
A little later a knock came upon the door. The grave faced German opened it, ushering in an astonishingly lovely girl; tall, most fashionably attired and with a manner of eager anxiety. Both men arose.
"Considering that you are under twenty-five," said Pendleton, "you are remarkably prompt in keeping your engagements, Edyth."
But the girl did not answer his smile. There was a troubled look in her brown eyes; she tugged nervously at her gloves to get them off.
"This is Mr. Ashton-Kirk?" she asked.
"It is," answered Pendleton. "Kirk, this is my cousin, Edyth Vale."
Ashton-Kirk gave the girl a chair; she sat down, regarding him all the time with much interest. The gloves were removed by now; but she continued plucking at the empty fingers and drawing them through her hands.
"I have heard of you quite frequently," said she to Ashton-Kirk, "but did not dream that I would ever be forced to benefit by your talents. Mr. Pendleton has been kind enough to arrange this interview at my request; and I desire to consult you upon a most important matter—a very private matter."
Pendleton caught the hesitating glance which she threw at him and reached for his hat.
"Edyth," said he, "after all I have done for you, this is very distressing. I had not expected to be bundled out in this manner."
She smiled faintly, and nodded.
"Thank you, Jimmie," she said. "You are a nice boy."
After Pendleton had gone, Miss Vale sat for some moments in silence; and all the time her eyes went from one part of the room to another, curiously; she seemed to be trying to estimate the man whom she came to consult by his surroundings.
At one side, rank on rank of books ran from floor to ceiling; others were scattered about in chairs, on stands and on the floor. At one spot the wall was racked with glittering, and to her, strange looking instruments. An open door gave a glimpse of a second apartment with bare, plastered wall, fitted with tables covered with sheet lead and cluttered with tanks, grotesquely swelling retorts, burners, jars and other things that make up a complete laboratory.
But these told her nothing, except that the man was a student; and this she had heard before.
So she gave her attention to Ashton-Kirk himself. He stood by the open window, the morning light beating strongly upon his dark, keen face, apparently watching the uncouth surging in the street below.
"He's very handsome and very wealthy," her friend Connie Bayless had informed her only that morning. "Comes of a very old family; has the entree into the most exclusive houses, but practically ignores society."
"Oh, yes, I know him," her uncle, an eminent attorney, had told her. "A very unusual young man. I might call him acutely intellectual, and he is an adept in many out of the way branches of knowledge. He would make a wonderful lawyer, but has too much imagination. Thinks more of visionary probabilities than of tangible facts."
"As an amateur actor," Pendleton had confided to her, "Kirk is without an equal. If he adopted the stage, he'd make a sensation. At college he was a most tremendous athlete too—football, cross-country running, wrestling, boxing. And I'm told that he still keeps in training. Clever chap."
"I never saw a more splendid natural equipment for languages," said Professor Hutchinson. "The most sprawling dialect seemed a simple matter to him; Greek and the oriental tongues were no more trouble in his case than the 'first reader' is to an intelligent child."
She had spoken with Mrs. Stokes-Corbin over the telephone. Mrs. Stokes-Corbin was related to Ashton-Kirk, and her information was kindly but emphatic.
"My dear," said the lady, "I do hope you haven't fallen in love with him. No? Well, that's fortunate. He's one of the dearest fellows in the world, but one of the most extraordinary. I can't fancy his marrying at all. His ways and moods and really preposterous habits would drive a wife mad. You can't imagine the extent of them. He spends days and nights in positively uncanny chemical experiments. Without a word to anyone he plunges off on some mysterious errand, to be gone for weeks. They do tell me that he is to all intents and purposes a policeman. But I really can't quite credit that, you know. He loves to do things that others have tried and failed. Even as a boy he was that way. It was quite discouraging to have a child straighten out little happenings that we had all given up in despair. Sometimes it was quite convenient, but I'm not sure that I ever liked it. A charming talker, my dear; he knows so much to talk about. But he's eccentric; and an eccentric young man is a frightful burden to those connected with him."
All these things passed through the mind of Edyth Vale, as she sat regarding the young man at the window. Finally he lifted his eyes and turned them upon her—beautiful eyes—remarkable, full of perception, compelling. As he caught her intent, inquiring look, he smiled; she colored slightly, but met his glance bravely.
"Last night I heard you spoken of," she said, "and it occurred to me that you could aid me."
"I should be glad to," said he. "It sometimes happens that I can be of service to persons extraordinarily circumstanced. If you will let me hear your story—for," with a smile, "all who come to see me as you have done have a story—I shall be able to definitely say whether your case comes within my province."
She hesitated a moment, her hands nervously engaged with the gloves. Then she said, frankly.
"I suppose it is only sensible to speak quite candidly with you, Mr. Ashton-Kirk, as one does with a lawyer or a physician."
"Of course," said he.
For another moment she seemed to be turning her thoughts over and seeking the best means of making a beginning.
"It is very silly of me, I know," she said; "but I feel quite like the working girl who writes to the correspondence editor of an evening paper for advice in smoothing out her love affairs." She bent toward him, the laugh vanishing from her face, a troubled look taking its place, and continued. "I am to be married—some day—and it is about that that I wish to speak to you."
"I realize the difficulties of the subject," spoke Ashton-Kirk quietly.
"What I am going to tell you, I have never mentioned to anyone before. It has been three years ago—four years at Christmas time—since I first met Allan Morris," she said. "Our engagement so quickly followed that my friends said it was a very clear case of love at first sight. Perhaps it was!
"However that might be, we were very happy for a time. But trouble was in store for us. I had always disbelieved in long engagements, had always been very outspoken against them, in fact. This is perhaps what made me so quickly notice an absence of haste on Mr. Morris' part as to the wedding. When the subject came up, as it naturally would, he seemed to avoid it. At first I was surprised; but finally I grew annoyed, and spoke my mind very frankly.
"You see, he is not at all well off, and I am—well I have a great deal. I thought this might have something to do with his apparent reluctance. But no, it was something else. As I just said, I spoke frankly; and he was equally candid, after a fashion. He said it was quite impossible for us to be married for some time. There was a something—he did not say what—which must first be settled. Naturally I grew curious. I desired to know what it was that so stood in the way of our happiness. He replied that it was something that must not be spoken of, and was so very earnest in the matter that I did not mention it again—for a long time.
"You may think, Mr. Ashton-Kirk, that my fiance was no very ardent lover. But I was assured, and I do not lack perception, that he was passionately fond of me. And I still think so. But as time went by, things did not alter; our wedding was a vague expectation; even more than before Mr. Morris avoided mention of anything definite.
"I am not naturally patient; and my rearing as the only child of an enormously rich man has perhaps added to my impetuousness. In a burst of temper one day, I broke the engagement, gave him back his ring and did a number of other rather silly things. But he was so tragic in his despair—so utterly broken hearted and white—that I immediately relented and we patched the matter up once more. That he loved me was plain; but that he could not marry me—for some mysterious reason—was even plainer.
"After this I began to notice a change in him. He was rather silent and given to reverie; he seldom laughed. Sometimes he was haggard and so wrought up, apparently, that he could scarcely contain himself. He would pace the floor, evidently with little realization as to what he was doing. Once he was really dreadfully agitated. I calmed him as well as I could, and he sat for a long time, thinking deeply. As I watched him, he sprang to his feet and dashing his fist upon a table, cried out, passionately:
"'The black-hearted rascal! He's mocking me!'
"Then like a flash he realized the strangeness of his conduct, and with anxious, alarmed face, asked my pardon. I felt that this was an opportunity to put an end to a situation that was growing intolerable. My persistent questioning gained me something, but, on the whole, not a great deal.
"The thing that was troubling him was a business matter. In some way he was in the hands of some one—these are the indefinite threads that I gathered—a mocking, jeering, smiling someone whom he hated, but from whom he could not free himself.
"I began to tell him that there could be nothing strong enough in itself to prevent our happiness; but he stopped me in such a way that I did not feel inclined to continue. In an outburst, filled with denunciations of his enemy and protestations of devotion to myself, I caught the name of Hume. He had dropped this inadvertently. I knew it instantly because of the swift look that he gave me. But I allowed no hint of what I thought to show in my face. He was more subdued during the remainder of his stay; the mentioning of the name had startled him, and he was doubtless afraid that his state of mind would lead him into further indiscretions.
"As you may suppose, the name—the first tangible thing that I had learned—was of much interest to me. If I could but find out who this person was, I could probably get to the bottom of the matter."
At this point Miss Vale paused; and Ashton-Kirk noted her head lift proudly.
"Perhaps," she continued, "it might be thought that I had no right to make such an effort in a matter which Mr. Morris saw fit to keep from me. Were you thinking that? But I am not a silent sufferer. I usually make an end of annoying things without delay. And I would have done so in this case long before, but I was in love; and I could not bear to see Allan suffer by my insistence.
"However, here was an opportunity to perhaps aid him; and I set to work. In a few hours next day I had located every person of the name of Hume in the city. Mr. Morris is a consulting engineer. Anyone named Hume who, from his occupation, would be likely to have dealings with him especially attracted my attention. There were only a few, and long before the day was over I had satisfied myself by personal visits at their places of business that they did not even know him."
Ashton-Kirk smiled. One of his well-kept hands patted applause upon the arm of his chair.
"You are strong," said he. "I recognized your type when you came in. It is a pleasure to have one's judgment so thoroughly and satisfactorily proven."
Miss Vale looked pleased.
"I am glad that you approve of what I did," she said. "I confess I had some hesitancy, but not enough to prevent my carrying out the design. But when the first effort proved without result, I set about making a study of all the Humes in the directory. I had my secretary make me a typed list of them, with their addresses and occupations, and I pored over this for hours at a time.
"There was one that caught my eye after a while; probably this was because of the unusualness of his business. The directory gave him as a numismatist; but I drove by his shop in my car, and the sign over the window said that he was also a dealer in curiosities of art.
"This gave me an idea. Mr. Morris is an ardent collector; his hobby is engraved gems, and for a man of his means his possessions in this line are quite remarkable. It was easily within the range of possibility that he had had transactions with this particular Hume—at least that he was acquainted with him. The more I thought of this, the more curious I grew; and one afternoon I paid the place a visit. It is on the second floor, the entrance is through a side door and up a narrow, dusty stairway. Then I had to make my way along a dark windowless passage to the office, or shop in the front.
"This shop was well lighted, and literally stuffed with what were well termed 'curiosities of art.' I never before saw such queer carvings, such freakish pottery, such weird and utterly impossible bric-a-brac. At a table sat a flabby looking man with a short sandy beard. One glance told me that he was an habitual drunkard, for he had the sodden look that is unmistakable. But when he arose and bid me good evening his manner struck me like a blow in the face. Allan Morris had spoken of a mocking person who jeered and smiled. And that described this man exactly. There was mockery in every glance of his dull eyes; every twitch of his mouth was a fleer; with each gesture he seemed making game of one; sneering incredulity was stamped all over him."
Ashton-Kirk leaned forward with keen interest.
"My manner must have betrayed me," the girl went on, "for I saw an inquiring crease come into his forehead. When he asked the nature of my business his voice was sharp and insolent.
"I had not thought as to what I should say, what excuse I should give in this case. But almost instantly my mind was made up. About the most conspicuous thing in the room was a squat Japanese idol—a fat, grinning, hideous thing which sat upon a sort of pedestal near the door. So I laid my hand in it.
"'I was told of this,' said I, examining the idol minutely, 'and came in to see it.'
"'Ah, yes,' said he. But it was plain enough that he did not believe me.
"I inquired the price of the figure. He named a high one; and I believe I astonished him by purchasing it without another word. The idol was delivered late that afternoon. I had it unpacked at once and placed where Mr. Morris could not fail to see it when he called."
"A clever plan," commented Ashton-Kirk, admiringly.
"He saw it when he entered the room and greeted me. He was smiling; and the smile froze on his lips, his face went pale, and he turned a look upon me that filled me with fear, it was so wan and startled.
"I had intended telling him the full truth if my ruse succeeded. But after that look I could not. I convinced him by a nonchalant manner and story, that I had come by the idol accidentally. At least I think I convinced him, though I noticed his watching me steadily from under very level brows more than once during the evening. But if he had any suspicions that I was deceiving him, he did not put them into words."
Here Miss Vale paused for a moment. Then she resumed:
"I tried, in various ways, to gain a knowledge of the relationship between my fiance and this sneering shopkeeper; but they were all ineffectual. Mr. Ashton-Kirk, this occurred fully three months ago, and the situation remains the same as it was upon that night."
Then with a suddenness that startled the young man she lifted two trembling hands to her face and began to sob gaspingly. When she took the hands away there were no signs of tears, but her beautiful face was drawn with pain and her voice shook as she said:
"I don't think I can stand it much longer. I beg of you not to think lightly of my story; for the thing that stands between Allan Morris and myself is deadly. As I watch him I can see that his heart is breaking; his health is failing, there is a look of fear in his eyes." She reached forward and her hand rested upon the sleeve of Ashton-Kirk. "He is at the mercy of this mocking monster that I have described to you. It is killing him, and through him it is killing me. Help me, please."
Ashton-Kirk smiled reassuringly.
"As far as I can see," said he, "the case is a simple one. However, it may turn out the reverse. But in either event I can promise you a swift and energetic attempt to set the matter right."
"Thank you!" She stood up. "And you will begin to-day?"
"You are kind." She held out her hand; he took it. "Thank you, again."
Stumph appeared, in answer to the bell. She turned to go.
"There is nothing more that you can tell me?" he inquired.
"I had supposed that. Your recital sounded pretty complete."
When the door closed upon her, he stood for a few moments in the middle of the floor, his head bent forward, his hands behind him. Then he turned and touched another of the system of bells.
Immediately a brisk, boyish looking young man presented himself.
"Fuller," spoke Ashton-Kirk, "I want instant and complete information upon one Hume, a local numismatist, and Allan Morris, consulting engineer."
"Very well, sir." And Fuller turned at once, and left the room.
THE PORTRAITS OF GENERAL WAYNE
When Ashton-Kirk returned that evening from the theatre, where he had gone to witness a much heralded new drama, he sat with a cigar, in his library; and stretching out his length in great comfort, he smoked and smiled and thought of what he had seen and heard.
"The drama as a medium of expression is necessarily limited," the young man was saying to himself, "and of course, in fitting human action to its narrow bounds, the dramatist is sometimes tempted to ignore certain human elements. In spots, the people of the play acted like puppets; upon seven different occasions, by actual count, the entire matter would have been cleared up if someone had sharply spoken his mind. But he did not, and the thing was allowed to become hopelessly involved because of it."
He knocked the ashes from his cigar; and a smile came to his lips.
"It would not have served the purpose of the dramatist, I suppose; his play would have ended abruptly, and far short of the prescribed time. He tried to tell a human story and chose an unhuman method."
There was another pause; the smile now disappeared and a thoughtful look came into his face.
"And yet," he mused, "is the playwright really so far wrong? Is his stage story very far removed from actuality after all? In Miss Edyth Vale, we have a girl of most unusual character, of splendid education, apparently. And yet in the building of her own drama she has outstripped the inventor of stage plays in the matter of hesitancy. Her natural inclination urged her to make a firm stand; but other feelings proved the stronger, and she held her tongue much after the fashion of the girl in the play."
He was puffing at a second cigar when there came a knock on the door, and Fuller entered.
"Well?" said Ashton-Kirk.
"I thought you'd perhaps like to look over this data before morning," said the young man, as he laid a number of typed sheets and a photograph at Ashton-Kirk's elbow. "As you required instant action I got Burgess on the Hume end of it before noon; after luncheon I took up Morris myself."
"Thank you," said the other.
"Morris," with a nod toward the photograph, "is rather uneventful, personally. And it was no very difficult matter to get the facts concerning him. But Burgess had a much more interesting time. Hume seems to have lots of color as a character. Not that there was a great deal shown—the time was too short. But the indications are promising."
When Fuller had gone, Ashton-Kirk took up the sheets and began to read them carefully. They were brief, pointed and evidently the work of men who were familiar enough with their business to eliminate all non-essentials. The first one ran:
"Allan Barnett Morris, Consulting Engineer. Specialty, Marine Construction. Lives at the Crompton Apartments. Born October 15, 1879. Graduate of Cornell; class of 1900. Special honors. Brilliant student. Was at once engaged by the New England Ship Building Company. Soon became their right hand man. Resigned in 1905; took offices in the Blake Building. Is much employed by the Government. Has the reputation of a growing man in his line and is admitted by competent persons to be an expert.
"He is unmarried and has no relatives. The last of these to die was his father—a trifle more than three years ago. The father had a reputation for great brilliancy and hard drinking. He was an inventor of some note. See the Morris Smoke Consumer—the Morris Propeller—the Morris Automatic Brake. But he never made much out of any of these. The appetite for liquor forced him to surrender, for very little, interests that made fortunes for other men.
"Young Morris is clear of the drink habit, and is a hard and persistent worker. He is a member of the University and the Brookdale Field Clubs; goes into society, and is reported to be the accepted suitor of Miss Edyth Vale, daughter of the late James Vale, manufacturer of structural steel."
"A clean bill of health, as far as it goes," commented Ashton-Kirk. "However, surface inquiries tell very little, sometimes."
He turned to the remaining pages.
"David Purtell Hume, Numismatist, philatelist, dealer in objects of art and curiosities. Resides at his place of business, second floor of 478 Christie Place.
"Hume located in this city in 1899. Where he came from is not definitely known, but there is some slight cause for supposing that he is an American who had been living abroad. However, an examination of the steamship passenger lists for 1898-99 fail to show his name.
"Is well known in his line and is reputed to be wealthy. Is much disliked by his neighbors and others in the same trade. Even those who patronize him have an aversion to him; but as he is an authority, and his stock always contains rarities, they do not take their custom elsewhere.
"Hume has been under suspicion upon several occasions. But the police could gather no positive evidence against him, at any time. The robbery of the Hailesbury gallery at London, when the famous Whistler portrait of the Duchess of Winterton was cut from its frame, was traced almost to his door. But the scent died out before they could clinch the matter, and he escaped. It was believed that the thing was planned by him and executed by a confederate. Several other occurrences of like nature, but of less importance, have been laid against him. But, if he was concerned in them, he was always cunning enough to hide his tracks.
"He is an habitual drinker, of violent temper, and is reputed to have a positive genius for discovering raw spots in an acquaintance and goading him for the sheer joy of seeing him writhe. It is this trait that causes the general dislike for him in the Christie Place section.
"He is a free liver, spends much money and has a passion for music."
Ashton-Kirk laid down the sheets and threw away his cigar.
"As Fuller remarked, Mr. Hume seems to be a colorful character. And apparently one that would be likely to lead Mr. Allan Morris a very lively dance if he had a hold of any sort upon him."
He arose to his feet, a pleased light in his eye, and began walking up and down the floor.
"It is more than likely that it will prove some trifle that Morris' fears have lifted to the plane of a tragedy. But, somehow, the parts of the case seem to fall in a promising manner. I get a sort of pleasure in anticipating a possible grapple with Mr. David Purtell Hume."
For a full hour, Ashton-Kirk moved up and down the library, his eyes half closed, varying expressions appearing and disappearing upon his face. At length there came a smile of satisfaction and he paused in his pacing.
"That is probably it," said he. "At any rate it is a very favorable coincidence. However, I must have more information than the hurried reports of Burgess and Fuller to be certain. Yes, this promises to be interesting."
With that he went to his room and to bed.
The dull gray of a damp spring morning was peering in at his window when he awoke. By the light he knew that it was hours before his usual time. Something had aroused him; but he could not say what. He sat up in bed, and as he did so there came the long continued and smothered ringing of a bell.
"The telephone," said he.
"R-r-r-r-ring-g!" it persisted. And then again: "R-r-r-r-ring-ing-ing! R-r-r-ring!"
Ashton-Kirk heard a door open and close softly on the floor above; then slippered feet came pat-patting down the stairs. The wild rattle of the bell suddenly stopped; a muffled voice could be heard protesting dismally against the din. But suddenly the vague complaint gave way to a higher note.
"Alarm," said Ashton-Kirk. "Something has happened."
He reached up and turned on the electric bulb that hung above his head; then he drew his feet up under him after the fashion of a Turk and waited, calmly.
The padded steps swiftly approached his door; a sharp knock sounded on the panels.
"Well?" demanded the young man.
"There is an urgent call, sir," came the voice of Stumph—"on the telephone. It's the lady who called yesterday—Miss Vale."
Ashton-Kirk slipped from the bed; a step brought him to the door, which he threw open.
"Very well, Stumph," said he, quietly. "You may go back to bed."
The grave-faced German went stolidly down the hall; the young man pulled on a pair of felt slippers; in the library he put the detached receiver to his ear and spoke evenly:
"Well, Miss Vale?"
There was a small, gasping exclamation from the wire, a sort of breath-catching flutter of sound such as a person might utter who had been running hard. Then Edyth Vale, her voice shaking and filled with fear, said:
"Oh! Is that you! I'm glad—glad!"
"Get a firm grip on yourself," advised Ashton-Kirk. "If anything has happened we can no doubt remedy it."
There came a series of moaning sobs across the wire; the girl had evidently broken down and was crying. Ashton-Kirk said nothing; he waited patiently. Finally she spoke once more.
"What has happened can never be remedied." Then her voice sank so low that he could scarcely catch the breathless words. "There has been murder done."
The investigator felt the blood prickle beneath his skin. However, his voice was steady as he replied; his calmly working mind shook off the fear which she so strongly suggested.
"Who has been murdered?" he asked.
"The man whom I told you about yesterday—the numismatist, Hume."
"Ah!" Ashton-Kirk drew in a long breath and his eyes began to glow. There was an instant's pause, then he said: "The hour is rather unconventional; but if you will receive me, I'll have you tell me about this matter privately and at once."
"By all means," she answered, eagerly. "I was about to beg of you to come."
"In a half hour," said he, briefly. "Good-by."
He hung up the receiver and touched one of the buttons. When Stumph came, he said:
"Turn the cold water into my bath. Then order the car in haste."
"Afterwards you can lay out a rough suit, heavy shoes and a soft hat."
Within twenty minutes Ashton-Kirk ran down the steps and sprang into the powerful looking car that awaited him; and well within the half hour he rang the bell at the marble palace built by the steel magnate during the last years of his life. A heavy-eyed man servant admitted him with astonished resentment. Miss Vale, looking very tall and very pale, met him in the hall. But for all her pallor she seemed quite collected, even smiling.
"Oh, I'm so sorry to have brought you out so early and on such a dismal morning," she said, lightly, leading him into a room at one side. "I'm sure it is very damp."
She sat down and motioned him to a chair; he studied her with some surprise; the transition from wild terror to her present calm was most notable.
"There has been a recovery of poise, evidently," Ashton-Kirk told himself. "She is still frightened, but for some reason is anxious to hide it."
"This morning," said Miss Vale, with a laugh that rang perfectly, "I found that I was only a woman after all. This—this dreadful thing so startled me that for a time I did not know what to do. My first impulse was to call you, and I acted upon it. But," with a pretty gesture of apology, "when I had recovered myself somewhat, I saw that I had disturbed you unnecessarily."
"You don't mean that, after all, Hume is not—"
She held up her hand for him to stop. A strong shudder seemed to run through her; she bent her head so that the light would not fall too strongly upon her face. In a moment, however, she recovered.
"Yes, yes," she said, her voice perfectly under control. "He is dead—shockingly murdered. What I mean is, that while the event is very dreadful—still, it does not really concern me more than any other crime of the same nature which we see staring at us from the columns of the newspapers every day. This man's being in my mind so much of late caused me to become unnerved when I heard the news."
"When did it occur?"
"Sometime since midnight."
There was a silence. Miss Vale arose and began to pace the room. The long white cloak that had draped her fell away; she wore a ball dress and her arms and shoulders shone splendidly under the lights.
"How did you hear of it?" asked Ashton-Kirk.
There was a scarcely perceptible hesitancy; then she answered:
"Through the newspapers. We were returning from Mrs. Barron's about three o'clock. The papers had just come out, and I felt a curiosity to see them wet from the press. When I reached home the first thing that caught my eye was the account of Hume's death."
"Did you call me up at once?"
"Yes. As I have said, it was the first thing that occurred to me. And again I beg your pardon for having disturbed you uselessly."
Ashton-Kirk gestured this aside.
"It may be that the affair will turn out to have some interesting features," said he. "And with that possibility in view, I am rather pleased than not in having an opportunity of getting so early upon the ground."
She paused in her pacing, and turned upon him a startled look.
"You do not mean to go there—to Christie Place," she said.
"I may as well. I may be of use." He looked at her for a moment steadily, then asked: "Do you know of any reason why I should not go?"
Instantly the startled look vanished; a smile lit up the pale face, wanly.
"Of course not," she cried. "You are interested in dreadful happenings—I had forgotten that. I suppose you are really quite delighted; and instead of my craving pardon I should be expecting praise, for putting you in the way of this one."
She laughed lightly; a smile flitted across his keen face, as he rose and said:
"What has happened may make a change in the affairs of Allan Morris."
She came to him and laid a hand upon his arm. Her coolness won his admiration.
"I beg of you to forget all that I told you yesterday," she said. "I had been brooding so long that I had begun to fancy all sorts of impossible things. I see very clearly now that this man Hume could have had nothing of any consequence to do with Mr. Morris. It was a romance—a rather foolish fancy, and a very wild one."
There was sweet seriousness in her manner; and the lurking smile still hovered about her lips. It was as though a return to reason had driven away the fears of the day before—the alarmed girl had given place to a sensible woman.
But behind all this, Ashton-Kirk could detect something else. The almost swooning terror of the girl who had spoken to him over the telephone was still there—held rigidly in check to be sure, but unquestionably there. While her lips smiled, the eyes sometimes betrayed her; and there was a tenseness about her that almost screamed. Her good-by was soft and kindly spoken; she held out her hand, frankly, and thanked him for his interest. There was nothing hurried in her manner; it was all smoothly and leisurely done. And yet he felt that if she had followed the impulse that filled her, she would have taken him, by the shoulder and bundled him from the room in order that she might be alone.
"Alone—to think," he said, as he got into his car at the curb. "But to think about what?" Aloud he said to the driver: "Christie Place."
By this time the early workers were beginning to thicken in the street; street cars were more frequent; the dull night hum of the city was growing in volume. The spark had set the car's engine throbbing heavily, and the driver was about to start when a second vehicle drew up and Ashton-Kirk found himself looking into the alarmed face of young Pendleton.
"Heavens, Kirk!" cried the newcomer, as he leaped out, "has anything serious happened?"
"To whom?" asked the investigator, quietly, his eyes fixed upon the young man's face.
"To Edyth, of course. Has any thing been seen of her?"
"I have just left her; she seemed a bit agitated, but perfectly well."
A look of relief crossed Pendleton's face.
"Oh!" said he. "All right. I was beginning to think that something was up. You see," and here he lowered his voice, "I danced with her about midnight at Mrs. Barron's; about two o'clock her aunt, Mrs. Page, came to me in great distress and said she was strangely missing. She had slipped away somewhere without a word."
Ashton-Kirk looked at him keenly.
"Of course it was up to me to find her," said Pendleton; "but my efforts were without result. Her car was gone, and the man said Miss Vale had called it about one o'clock; also that she had driven away in it alone.
"At this news Mrs. Page grew quite ill, and I brought her home here in my car. Then I departed upon a vague sort of search. As the matter was to be kept perfectly quiet and I was to ask no questions of anybody, you can imagine how much chance I had of doing anything. But if she's at home, it's all right. At sight of you I thought it had proved to be something alarming and that they had sent for you."
"I was sent for," said Ashton-Kirk, dryly, "but not to hunt for Miss Vale. Now jump in here and come along; I've got a little matter that may be of interest."
"I haven't had breakfast," said Pendleton; "but there's always something piquant to your little affairs. I'll go you."
He dismissed his own car and climbed into that of his friend. As they whirled up the street, Ashton-Kirk suddenly directed his driver to stop. Then he called to a man with a great bundle of newspapers who stood calling them monotonously upon a corner.
Again the car started with the investigator deep in the sheaf of papers which he had purchased. Page after page failed to reveal anything to his practised glance; at length he swept them to the floor of the car. A smile was upon his lips—the smile of a man who had received a nod of approval from Circumstances.
"The first edition of the morning dailies lacks interest," he said. "A crime of some moment can be committed between midnight and dawn, and not a line appear in type concerning it until the later issues."
Pendleton looked at him with mock disapproval.
"One would suppose," said he, "that you had expected to find some such criminal narrative in those," and he indicated the discarded newspapers.
"There were reasons why I should," answered Ashton-Kirk. "And very good reasons, too. But," and he laughed a little, "for all that, I had an indefinite sort of feeling that I should not find it. This may sound a trifle queer; but nevertheless it is true."
"The account was to have been of a murder," accused Pendleton. "I can see it in your face, so don't take the trouble to deny it. I had hoped that your plunge into what you styled the 'literature of assassination' would not last—that a good night's rest would turn your thoughts into another groove."
"Perhaps it would have been so," said Ashton-Kirk. "But things have happened in the meantime."
"And you don't appear at all put out that they have done so. That is possibly the most distressing feature of the business. If anything, you seem rather pleased. Of course, an odd murder or so is to be expected in the ordinary course of events; but one hardly counts upon one's intimates being concerned in them. It is disconcerting."
He crossed his legs and pursed up his lips.
"If you don't mind," added he, "now that I have expressed myself, I'll listen to the details of whatever you have in view."
"There is not a great deal to tell," said Ashton-Kirk. "A man has been murdered in Christie Place. It happens that I have an interest in the matter; otherwise I would not think of dipping into it."
Pendleton looked at him reproachfully.
"After all, then," exclaimed he, "you are but a dilettante! Assassination in the abstract is well enough, but you have a disposition to shirk practical examples. I have been deceived!"
Christie Place was some distance west and ran off from a much frequented street. It was notable for the wilderness of sign boards that flared from each side. The buildings were apparently let out in floors and each lessee endeavored to outdo his neighbor in proclaiming his business to the passing public. The lower floors were, for the most part, occupied by small grocers, dealers in notions, barbers, confectioners and such like.
"What a crowded, narrow little place," commented Pendleton, as the car turned into the street. The air in the street seemed to him heavy.
About midway in the block a small group stood about a doorway; from a window above swung a sign bearing the name of Hume. The car stopped here; Ashton-Kirk and his friend got out; the group at the doorway parted and a big man stepped forward.
"Why, hello," said he, cordially. "You're the last person I was looking for. How did you hear about this?"
"Good morning, Osborne," said Ashton-Kirk, shaking the big man's hand. "I'm glad to find you in charge. I got it in an unusual sort of way, and came down to have a look."
Osborne, though in plain clothes, was emphatically a policeman. His square face, his big frame, his dogged expression, somehow conveyed the impression as plainly as words.
"It must have been unusual," said he, "because even the reporters haven't got it yet; headquarters is keeping it quiet until the chief gets in."
Ashton-Kirk looked vastly pleased.
"Excellent," said he to Pendleton. "We'll have a look at the place before it has lost the atmosphere of the crime." Then to Osborne: "May we go up?"
"Sure," answered the other readily. "Only don't pull things around any. That young fellow that they've elected coroner is awful touchy about such things. He wants to be first always."
"Nothing of importance shall be disturbed," promised Ashton-Kirk. Then motioning Pendleton to follow, he ascended the flight that led to the second floor.
It was narrow and dusty, as Miss Vale had said. The walls were smutted, the hand rail felt greasy, the air was stale. A passage, dim and windowless, ran the depth of the building; from the front there came a patch of daylight through a ground glass door. Upon this latter could be easily read the words:
DAVID P. HUME NUMISMATIST PHILATELIST ART CURIOSITIES
A policeman stood at the head of the stairs smoking a cigar in an informal way.
"All right," said he, "if Osborne let you come up I've got nothing to say. He's the boss."
"Have you looked over the place?"
"Just a glance. The floor has been fitted up as an apartment. Hume occupied all the rooms. The body," pointing to the front room, "is in there."
Ashton-Kirk turned the knob of the door nearest, the one with the lettering upon it. The room was without windows; the investigator closed the door and lighted the gas.
"Just a moment," said he.
The door leading to the front room stood wide. He disappeared through this for a moment; when he returned, his face wore a tightened expression; his eyes were swift and eager.
"This is a sort of store room, I should say," spoke Pendleton.
Pictures hung about upon the walls and stood packed in corners; statues of bronze, marble and plaster were on every side; brass bas-reliefs, rugs of Eastern design and great price, antique armor, coin cabinets, ponderous stamp albums, Japanese paintings and carvings and a host of queer and valuable objects fairly crammed every inch of space.
"I had heard that Hume was wealthy," commented Ashton-Kirk. "And this seems to prove it. This room contains value enough to satisfy a fairly reasonable person."
The two young men passed through into what appeared to be a kitchen. There was an ill kept range upon one side cluttered with cooking things. A bare oaken table of the Jacobean period held the remains of a meal. A massive Dutch side-board, covered with beautiful carving, stood facing them; every inch of available space upon it was crowded with bottles, decanters and glasses.
"The gentleman was not averse to an occasional nip, at any rate," said Pendleton. "And his taste was rather educated, too," examining the sideboard's contents carefully. "The best was none too good for him."
Beyond this again was a bedroom. The bed was a huge Flemish affair, and also elaborately carved; over it was a spreading Genoese canopy, which through lack of care had grown dusty and tattered. Rich old rugs were spread upon the neglected floor; a beautiful Louis Quinze table had its top covered with discolored rings made by the bottoms of glasses, and the lighted ends of cigars had burned spots on it.
"The bed of a prince and the floor coverings of a duke," said Pendleton with indignation. "And used much as a coal heaver would use them. Now, this table is really a scandal. If its owner has been murdered, I don't wonder at it. Some outraged lover of such things has probably taken the law into his own hands."
But Ashton-Kirk was paying little attention to the things that appalled Pendleton.
"Look," said he.
He indicated the walls. Here and there the plaster was broken as though some fastened object had been violently torn away. At one place an empty picture frame, its glass smashed, hung askew from a hook. As Pendleton caught sight of other empty frames littered about the room, the glass of each broken, their pictures torn out, he exclaimed in astonishment:
"Hello! Someone has torn them down and smashed them. What an extraordinary thing to do!"
The pictures, mostly engravings, but with here and there a painting, were strewn about. Ashton-Kirk carefully gathered them up and spread them upon the table. They were by various hands, but unquestionably represented the same person—a handsome, resolute looking man in the uniform of an officer in the army of Washington.
"General Anthony Wayne," said Ashton-Kirk, softly.
There was something in the tone that made Pendleton look at him swiftly. The splendid head was bent over the portraits; eagerness blazed in the dark eyes; the keen face was rigid with interest.
"Some drunken freak, do you think?" asked Pendleton, more to hear his friend's view than anything else.
But Ashton-Kirk shook his head.
"On the contrary, the thing seems full of a vague meaning," said he. "There were seventeen pictures upon the walls of this room; fourteen have been torn down and destroyed; the other three are undisturbed."
Pendleton gazed at the pictures that remained upon the walls. Two were of fine looking houses of the colonial type; the third was the portrait of a man—a man of repulsive, sneering face, heavy with evil lines and with unusually small eyes.
"If they had destroyed that one it would have had some meaning to me," commented Pendleton. "But, as it is, I hardly think I follow you."
"The meaning that I find," replied Ashton-Kirk, "lies in the fact that the pictures violently used were those of General Wayne only. Mark that fact. That they were deliberately selected for destruction is beyond question."
"How do you make that out?"
"It is simple. If this were a mere random stripping of the room of its pictures, all would have suffered. Look," indicating a spot in the wall, "here is a place where the plaster is broken. A hook had been driven here to hold one of the portraits; and the breaking of the plaster shows that some determination was required to tear the picture down. Yet—next this—is an engraving of an old mansion which remains untouched. The next four again were portraits of the General, and all have been demolished."
"That's true," said he. "Whoever did this was after the Revolutionary hero alone. But why?"
"We'll look into matters a little further," said he. "Perhaps there are facts to be gathered that will shed some light upon the things that we have already seen."
They repassed through the other rooms; with his hand upon the frame of the door leading to the show room, Ashton-Kirk paused.
"Better brace yourself for rather a shocking sight," said he to his friend.
"Go on," said Pendleton, quietly.
There were four good-sized windows in the show room, all overlooking the street. It was a large, square place, and, as Miss Vale had said, literally stuffed with odd carvings, pottery of a most freakish sort, and weird bric-a-brac. Two large modern safes stood at one side, behind a long show case spread with ancient coins. At the end of this case was a carpeted space, railed in and furnished with a great flat-topped desk. Upon the floor at the foot of the desk, and with three separate streams of blood creeping away from it, lay the huddled, ghastly figure of a man.
Pendleton, though he had been warned, felt his breath catch and his skin grow cold and damp.
"Heavens!" said he, under his breath. "It's the man whose picture we saw inside there on the wall."
Even the shock of death could not, so it seemed, drive the sneer from the thick lips; mockery was frozen in the dead eyes.
"What a beast he must have been," went on Pendleton. "Like a satyr. I don't think I ever saw just that type of face before."
Ashton-Kirk was bending over the body; suddenly he raised himself.
"There is a heavy bruise on the forehead," said he. "He was felled first; then bayoneted."
"Bayoneted!" Pendleton peered at the body.
"There it is, sticking from his chest." Ashton-Kirk drew aside the breast of the dead man's coat and his companion caught sight of a bronze hilt. The broad, sword-like blade had been driven completely home.
"If we attempted to move the body," said the investigator, "I should not be surprised if we found it pinned to the floor. It took brawn to give that stroke; the man who dealt it made sure of the job."
With soft, quick steps he crossed the room. The doors of the safes were locked.
"If the purpose was robbery," said Ashton-Kirk, "the criminal evidently knew where to look for the most portable and valuable articles. There seems to be no indication of anything having been tampered—" He stopped short, his eyes upon a huge vellum covered tome which lay open upon the floor. He whistled softly between his teeth. "General Wayne once more!" he said.
The volume, as far as Pendleton could see, was a sort of scrap book in which had been fastened a great number of prints. Upon the two pages that they could see, six prints had been affixed by the corners. Of these, four had been torn out and lay upon the floor.
"Gambetta and John Bright have been spared," said Ashton-Kirk, pointing at the book, "but," and he gathered up the fragments of the mishandled prints, "upon Mad Anthony they laid violent hands four separate times."
Pendleton wrinkled his brow.
"Now what the deuce can it mean," he asked, vexedly. "Not only what did the fellow mean who did this, but what did he mean," pointing at the dead man, "by having so many portraits of General Wayne?"
"I think something might be found to point the way if we could only look for it," said Ashton-Kirk, his face alight with eagerness. "But we'll have to await the coroner's people."
"When will they come?"
The investigator shrugged his shoulders.
"Probably not for hours," he answered. "However, as the coroner himself appears to be new in the office, he may be more anxious to get his work over with than the usual official. In the mean time we'd better go down and have a talk with Osborne. If I remain here I'll succumb to temptation, go rummaging about and so get myself into trouble."
He turned the knob of the door with the ground glass panel; but it was fast. They passed into the store room, and so out into the hall.
"Any signs of the people from the coroner's office?" asked Ashton-Kirk of the policeman who stood there.
"Someone just drove up a minute ago," answered the man. "I hear him down there talking to Osborne now."
Ashton-Kirk was about to go down when there came a tramping on the stairs. The big figure of the headquarters detective was first; after him came a nervous, important looking young man and a stolid-faced old one.
With a large gesture Osborne laid his hand upon Ashton-Kirk's shoulder.
"Mr. Stillman," said he to the nervous looking young man, "this is Mr. Ashton-Kirk. I guess you've heard of him."
The important manner of the young coroner visibly increased as he held out his hand.
"I have heard of you frequently, sir," he stated, firmly, "and I am quite delighted to meet you. More especially, sir, at a time like this."
"A very nasty looking affair," returned the investigator. "Osborne has been good enough to let me glance about," in explanation.
"I trust," said Stillman, "that you have disturbed nothing."
"Except for gathering up a few scattered pictures in the bedroom, we have done nothing but look," assured Ashton-Kirk.
"I find that the exact conditions must remain if we are to secure even a fairly good idea of the crime's environments," stated Stillman, nervously. "It is a thing that I insist upon from the police in every instance."
"Sure, sure," said Osborne. "Headquarters does its best never to make trouble for you, Mr. Stillman."
The nervous young coroner seemed to be relieved to hear this. He waved his hand in a gesture that might have meant anything and turned to the stolid looking, elderly man who accompanied them. They conversed for a few moments; the stolid man seemed to be explaining something carefully, to which Stillman listened with the utmost attention. Osborne bent his head toward Ashton-Kirk.
"The old party is a left-over in the coroner's office, of many years' standing," said the detective. "He knows the ropes and puts the newly elected ones on to the points of the game."
Stillman finally turned; there was an added importance in his manner, and his nervousness had also increased.
"Mr. Osborne," said he, "please let us have what facts the police have gathered."
"That won't take long," said Osborne. "Just before daylight—three o'clock, I think she said—the woman whom Hume employed to scrub the passage-way and stairs got here. She has almost a dozen such jobs in the neighborhood, and as she must have them all done before business begins, she's compelled to get at it early. She has a key to the street door; so she let herself in, came up these stairs and started for the far end of the hall, where there is a water tap. She didn't notice anything unusual until she returned with her pail filled; then she saw this door," pointing to that of the store room, "standing open."
"I see," said Mr. Stillman; and he gazed very hard at the door.
"Hume, according to the scrub-woman's story," resumed the big man, "was a queer kind of a chap. You didn't always know just how to take him. He's lapped up a good bit of booze first and last and sometimes he's come home pretty well settled. So when the woman sees the door open, this is the first thing that enters her mind. But to make sure, she goes into the room and calls him by name. The room's dark and there's just a touch of daylight coming in through the open door leading into the front room. So as there was no answer, she takes a peep in there and sees him on the floor."
"And is that all she can tell?"
"Yes; except that she bolted down the stairs in a hurry, met Paulson here," with a nod to the policeman, who had now discarded his cigar, "and told him what she had seen."
"What is her name and address?"
Osborne consulted a note book.
"Mrs. Dwyer, 71 Cormant Street," read he.
"Please make a note of that," said Stillman to his clerk. "And send for her later in the day." Then turning once more to Osborne, he continued. "Before doing anything else we will endeavor to find out how the criminal gained an entrance."
"That's the way with these Johnnie Newcomers," grumbled Osborne as Stillman turned once more to his aide. "They want to do it all. Why don't he go in, look at the body and leave the police business to the police."
"Too much earnestness may have its drawbacks," said Ashton-Kirk, "but it is to be preferred to the perfunctory methods of the accustomed official, for all."
"From your angle, maybe so," said Osborne with a frown; "but not from ours."
Stillman began rubbing his palms together with what was intended to be business-like briskness; he stepped up and down the dark hall, peering right and left. But for all his assumption of confidence, his nervousness was very apparent.
"You say," said he to Osborne, "that the scrubwoman unlocked the street door. Very good. That shows that it was fast at all events. Now what other means are there of entering the building?"
"None, except by the fire-escapes and windows. But the windows on this floor are all secured except for those at the front."
"Except for those at the front." The young coroner paused in his hand rubbing. "Would it not have been possible for the person or persons who did this murder to enter by one of those?"
"It would have been possible," returned the big headquarters man, "but no sane person would do it. They'd have to swarm up the face of the building in full view of anyone that might be passing at the time."
"Exactly," said Stillman, stiffening under what he was half inclined to consider a rebuff. "Well, that eliminates that possibility. Now to the next one. Who occupied the building besides the murdered man?"
"A man named Berg keeps a delicatessen store on the first floor. His place in no way communicates with the rest of the building. The third and fourth floors are used for storage purposes by a furrier. Except in the spring and fall, so Mrs. Dwyer tells me, he seldom visits the building."
"Is there any way of getting in from the top of the house—the roof?" asked the coroner.
A look of something like respect came into Osborne's face. Clearly the question was one which he considered worth while.
"There is a scuttle," he replied. "The bolt is rusted and broken; it has probably not been fastened for months, perhaps years."
"Now we are beginning to come at something," cried Stillman, well pleased. "In all probability the assassin entered by way of the scuttle." He turned as though for the approval of the stolid-faced man. "Eh, Curran? What do you think of that?"
"It looks very like it, Mr. Stillman."
"At all events," spoke the coroner, "we will now examine the rooms."
He advanced and tried the door of the show room.
"Ah, locked!" said he. He turned and entered the store room, the others following. The gas was still burning; the coroner stuck a pair of big-lensed eyeglasses upon his rather high nose and gazed about him intently.
"There seems to be nothing of an informing nature here," said he, after a time. "Where is the body?"
Osborne led the way into the front room. After a glance at the ghastly, huddled figure upon the carpet near the desk, the coroner took a careful survey of the apartment.
"Did Mr. Hume employ any person to assist him?" he asked.
"The scrub-woman told me that there was a young man here always when she came during the business day for her wages. A sort of clerk, she thought."
"He will be able to tell us if anything has been disturbed, no doubt," remarked Stillman.
Then he examined the body minutely. In the pockets were found a wallet containing a large sum of money, a massive, old-fashioned gold watch with a chain running from pocket to pocket of the waist-coat. Upon the little finger of Hume's left hand was a magnificent diamond.
"Worth two thousand if it's worth a cent," appraised Osborne.
"If the criminal had meant robbery these things would unquestionably have been taken," commented the young coroner. "Eh, Curran?"
"That is a very safe rule to go by, Mr. Stillman," replied his assistant, with the utmost stolidity.
Through his big lenses the coroner gazed curiously at the bronze haft protruding from the dead man's chest.
"A bayonet," said he. "Not a common weapon in a crime like this. In fact, I should say it was rather in the nature of an innovation."
"It probably belonged in Hume's stock," suggested Osborne. "There seems to be about everything here."
But Stillman shook his head.
"We have already about concluded that the intention of the criminal was not robbery," stated he. "And now, if we make up our minds that the bayonet belonged to Hume—that the assassin, in point of fact, came here without a weapon—it must be that he did not intend murder either."
"Maybe he didn't," ventured Osborne. "There might have been a sudden quarrel. The person who struck that blow may have grabbed up the first competent looking thing that came to his hand."
Stillman turned to Ashton-Kirk.
"That sounds reasonable enough, eh?"
"Very much so," replied Ashton-Kirk.
"A bayonet is a most unusual weapon," said the coroner thoughtfully, readjusting his glasses. "And I think it would be a most awkward thing to carry around with one. Therefore, it would be a most unlikely choice for an intending assassin. I am of the opinion," nervously, "that we may safely say that it was a sudden quarrel which ended in this," and he gestured with both hands toward the body.
The safe doors were tried and found locked; a cash register was opened and found to contain what had been apparently the receipts of the day before. An examination of the cabinets and cases disclosed hundreds of ancient coins and other articles the value of which must have been heavy. But their orderly array had not been disturbed. A long curtain of faded green material hung from the wall at one side, as though to screen something from the sunlight and dust.
"What have we here?" said the coroner.
He stepped across the store and whisked the curtain aside. A large gilt frame was disclosed; and from it hung the slashed remains of a canvas.
"Hello!" exclaimed Osborne, with interest. "This begins to look like one of the old affairs that they say Hume's been mixed up in. Somebody's tried to cut that picture from the frame."
They examined it carefully. A keen knife had been run around the top and both sides, close to the frame. The painting hung down, its gray back displayed forlornly.
Stillman regarded it with great satisfaction.
"Here," said he, "we at least have a possible motive."
Ashton-Kirk took a twisted walking stick from a rack, and with the end of it, raised the slashed canvas so that its subject could be seen. It was a heroic equestrian figure of an officer of the American Revolution. His sword was drawn; his face shone with the light of battle.
Pendleton was just about to cry out "General Wayne," when the stick fell from his friend's hand, the canvas dropping to its former position. While the others were trying to get it into place once more, Ashton-Kirk whispered to Pendleton:
"Say nothing. This is their turn; let them work in their own way. I will begin where they have finished."
After a little time spent in a gratified inspection of the painting, Stillman said:
"But, gentlemen, let us have a look at the other rooms. There may be something more."
They re-passed through the store room and into the living room. Nothing here took the coroner's attention, and they entered the bedroom. Both these last had doors leading into the hall; upon their being tried they were found to be locked.
The smashed pictures upon the bedroom floor at once took the eye of Stillman. He regarded the broken places in the plaster and prodded the slivers of wood and glass with the toe of his shoe with much complacency.
"This completes the story," declared he. "It is now plain from end to end. The criminal entered the building from the roof, made his way down stairs and gained admittance through the door which the scrub woman found unlocked. His purpose was to steal the painting in the front room.
"In a struggle with Hume, who unexpectedly came upon him, the intruder killed him. Not knowing the exact location of the picture he wanted, he first looked for it here. The light probably being bad he tore down every picture he could reach in order to get a better view of it. When, at last, he had found the desired work, he set about cutting it from its frame. But, before he had finished, something alarmed him, and he fled without the prize."
The stolid man listened to this with marked approval. Even Osborne reluctantly whispered to Pendleton:
"He's doped it out. I didn't think it was in him."
After a little more, the coroner said to his clerk:
"I think that is about all. Curran, see to it that the post-mortem is not delayed. Put a couple of our men on the case, have them make extensive inquiries in the neighborhood. Any persons who appear to possess information may be brought to my office at three o'clock. Especially I desire to see this Mrs. Dwyer, Berg, who keeps the store on the ground floor and the young man who was employed by Hume. I'll empanel a jury later." He took off his eye-glasses, placed them in a case and, in turn, carefully slipped this into his pocket. "At three o'clock," he repeated.
"If I should not be intruding," said Ashton-Kirk, "I should like to be present."
Stillman smiled with the air of a man triumphant, but who still desired to show charity.
"I shall be pleased to see you, sir," he said, "then or at any other time."
STILLMAN ASKS QUESTIONS
It wanted a few minutes of three o'clock when Ashton-Kirk, still accompanied by the curious Pendleton, walked into the outer room of the coroner's suite.
"Mr. Stillman will be here at any moment now," said Curran. Then lowering his voice and making a short little gesture from the elbow, he added: "These people are the ones he wanted to see."
As he and Pendleton sat down, Ashton-Kirk looked at the persons referred to. The first was a thin, wiry little woman, unmistakably Irish, cleanly dressed and with sharp, inquisitive eyes. Engaged in a low-pitched conversation with her was a thick-necked German, heavy of paunch and with a fat, red face. The third was a spectacled young Jew, poring over a huge volume which he seemed to have brought with him. He had a tremendous head of curling black hair; his clothing was shabby. There was a rapt expression upon his face; plainly nothing existed for him at that moment outside the pages of his book.
After a brief space, the coroner came in,
"Ah, how do you do, gentlemen," greeted he. He was good-natured and strove to be easy; but his natural nervousness clung to him. "I am glad to see you."
He looked at Curran and nodded at the three inquiringly.
"Yes, sir," replied the clerk; "these are the parties."
"Then we will get down to business." He opened a door and entered an inner room. "Will you come in?" he asked of Ashton-Kirk and Pendleton.
They followed him at once; and Curran, addressing the little Irishwoman, said:
"Now, Mrs. Dwyer, this way, please."
She arose briskly and also entered the inner room. Stillman seated himself at a desk and carefully perched his glasses upon his nose.
"I perhaps take more trouble than is customary in these cases," he said to Ashton-Kirk. "It is usual to hear statements, I believe, only when they are proffered as testimony at the inquest. But it seems to me that the office should be carried on in a more thorough way. Preparation, I think, is necessary to get at the facts."
Then he faced the woman who had taken a chair beside the desk.
"Your full name, please," said he.
"Honora Dwyer. I'm a widow with four children; I live at 71 Cormant Street, an' me husban' has been dead these three years," declared she, in a breath.
"You don't believe in keeping anything back, Mrs. Dwyer, I can see that," said he. "And a very good trait it is." He leaned back in his swivel chair and looked at her through the glasses. "You are the person who discovered the body of Mr. Hume, are you not?"
"Yes, sir, I were," replied Mrs. Dwyer; "and God spare me such another sight."
"Tell us about it," said the coroner.
"I work as scrub woman for a good many in Christie Place an' the immejeat neighborhood," said Mrs. Dwyer, genteelly. "But I always gets to Mr. Hume's first."
"You are quite sure you found the street door locked?"
"And you noticed nothing unusual about the place?"
"Only the open door to the store room, sir. Mr. Hume was always particular about closing up, sir. For a man who was in the habit of taking a sup of drink, sir, I'll say he was very particular."
"When you noticed the door being open you went in at once, I suppose?"
"No, sir; I did not. After I got me water, I set down on the top step to get me breath. When I saw the door stan'nin' open, thinks I to meself, thinks I; 'Mr. Hume is up early this mornin'.' But everything was quiet as the grave," in a hushed dramatic tone. "Sorra the sound did I hear. So I gets up and goes in. And in the front room I sees him lyin'. Mr. Hume was never a handsome man, sir; and he'd gained nothing in looks by the end he'd met with. God save us, how I ever got out into the street, I'll never know."
She rocked to and fro and fanned herself with her apron.
"It must have been a very severe shock, Mrs. Dwyer," agreed the coroner. "Now," after a pause, "do you know anything—however slight, mind you—that would seem to point to who did this thing?"
Mrs. Dwyer shook her head.
"Me acquaintance with Mr. Hume was a business one only, sir," she said. "I never set foot into his place further than the hall except on the days when I went to get me pay—and this morning, save us from harm!"
"You know nothing of his friends then—of his habits?"
"There is the Jew boy, outside there, that worked for him. He's a nice, good mannered little felly, and is the only person I ever see in the office when I went there, barrin' the boss himself. As for Mr. Hume's habits, I can say only what everybody knows. He were drunk when he engaged me, and he were drunk the last time I seen him alive."
"That will be all, Mrs. Dwyer," said Stillman. "Thank you. Curran, I'll see the young man next."
As Curran and Mrs. Dwyer went out the young coroner turned to his two visitors.
"I am still assured that we have the motive for the crime in the attempt to steal the painting," he said. "But it will do no harm to get all the light we can upon every side of the matter. The smallest clue," importantly, "may prove of the utmost value at the inquest."
Ashton-Kirk smilingly nodded his entire assent to this. Then Curran showed in the clerk.
The young man still carried the thick volume and, when he sat down, laid it upon a corner of Stillman's desk. Its back was turned toward Ashton-Kirk and he noted that it was a work on anatomy such as first-year medical students use.