THE MYSTERY OF THE BOULE CABINET
A Detective Story
BURTON E. STEVENSON
With Illustrations by THOMAS FOGARTY
I A CONNOISSEUR'S VAGARY II THE FIRST TRAGEDY III THE WOUNDED HAND IV THE THUNDERBOLT V GRADY TAKES A HAND VI THE WOMAN IN THE CASE VII ROGERS GETS A SHOCK VIII PRECAUTIONS IX GUESSES AT THE RIDDLE X PREPARATIONS XI THE BURNING EYES XII GODFREY IS FRIGHTENED XIII A DISTINGUISHED CALLER XIV THE VEILED LADY XV THE SECRET OF THE UNKNOWN FRENCHMAN XVI PHILIP VANTINE'S CALLER XVII ENTER M. ARMAND XVIII I PART WITH THE BOULE CABINET XIX "LA MORT!" XX THE ESCAPE XXI GODFREY WEAVES A ROMANCE XXII "CROCHARD, L'INVINCIBLE!" XXIII WE MEET M. PIGOT XXIV THE SECRET OF THE CABINET XXV THE MICHAELOVITCH DIAMONDS XXVI THE FATE OF M. PIGOT XXVII THE LAST ACT OF THE DRAMA XXVIII CROCHARD WRITES AN EPILOGUE
CLUTCHING AT HIS THROAT, HE HALF-TURNED AND FELL
"I GRABBED HER AGAIN, AND JUST THEN MR. VANTINE OPENED THE DOOR AND CAME OUT INTO THE HALL."
"A MOMENT LATER M. FELIX ARMAND WAS SHOWN IN"
WITH HIS BACK TO THE DOOR, STOOD A MAN RIPPING SAVAGELY AWAY THE STRIPS OF BURLAP
A CONNOISSEUR'S VAGARY
"Hello!" I said, as I took down the receiver of my desk 'phone, in answer to the call.
"Mr. Vantine wishes to speak to you, sir," said the office-boy.
"All right," and I heard the snap of the connection.
"Is that you, Lester?" asked Philip Vantine's voice.
"Yes. So you're back again?"
"Got in yesterday. Can you come up to the house and lunch with me to-day?"
"I'll be glad to," I said, and meant it, for I liked Philip Vantine.
"I'll look for you, then, about one-thirty."
And that is how it happened that, an hour later, I was walking over toward Washington Square, just above which, on the Avenue, the old Vantine mansion stood. It was almost the last survival of the old regime; for the tide of business had long since overflowed from the neighbouring streets into the Avenue and swept its fashionable folk far uptown. Tall office and loft buildings had replaced the brownstone houses; only here and there did some old family hold on, like a sullen and desperate rear-guard defying the advancing enemy.
Philip Vantine was one of these. He had been born in the house where he still lived, and declared that he would die there. He had no one but himself to please in the matter, since he was unmarried and lived alone, and he mitigated the increasing roar and dust of the neighbourhood by long absences abroad. It was from one of these that he had just returned.
I may as well complete this pencil-sketch. Vantine was about fifty years of age, the possessor of a comfortable fortune, something of a connoisseur in art matters, a collector of old furniture, a little eccentric—though now that I have written the word, I find that I must qualify it, for his only eccentricity was that he persisted, in spite of many temptations, in remaining a bachelor. Marriageable women had long since ceased to consider him; mothers with maturing daughters dismissed him with a significant shake of the head. It was from them that he got the reputation of being an eccentric. But his reasons for remaining single in no way concerned his lawyers—a position which our firm had held for many years, and the active work of which had come gradually into my hands.
It was not very arduous work, consisting for the most part of the drawing of leases, the collecting of rents, the reinvestment of funds, and the adjustment of minor differences with tenants—all of which were left to our discretion. But occasionally it was necessary to consult our client on some matter of unusual importance, or to get his signature to some paper, and, at such times, I always enjoyed the talk which followed the completion of the business; for Vantine was a good talker, with a knowledge of men and of the world gained by much travel and by a detached, humourous and penetrating habit of mind.
He came forward to meet me, as I gave his man my hat and stick, and we shook hands heartily. I was glad to see him, and I think he was glad to see me. He was looking in excellent health, and brown from the voyage over.
"It's plain to see that the trip did you good," I said.
"Yes," he agreed; "I never felt more fit. But come along; we can talk at table. There's a little difficulty I want you to untangle for me." I followed him upstairs to his study, where a table laid for two had been placed near a low window.
"I had lunch served up here," Vantine explained, as we sat down, "because this is the only really pleasant room left in the house. If I didn't own that plot of ground next door, this place would be impossible. As it is, I can keep the sky-scrapers far enough away to get a little sunshine now and then. I've had to put in an air filter, too; and double windows in the bedrooms to keep out the noise; but I dare say I can manage to hang on."
"I can understand how you'd hate to move into a new house," I said.
Vantine made a grimace.
"I couldn't endure a new house. I'm used to this one—I can find my way about in it; I know where things are. I've grown up here, you know; and, as a man gets older, he values such associations more and more. Besides, a new house would mean new fittings, new furniture—"
He paused and glanced about the room. Every piece of furniture in it was the work of a master.
"I suppose you found some new things while you were away?" I said. "You always do. Your luck's proverbial."
"Yes—and it's that I wanted to talk to you about, I brought back six or eight pieces; I'll show them to you presently. They are all pretty good, and one is a thing of beauty. It's more than that—it's an absolutely unique work of art. Only, unfortunately, it isn't mine."
"It isn't yours?"
"No; and I don't know whose it is. If I did, I'd go buy it. That's what I want you to do for me. It's a Boule cabinet—the most exquisite I ever saw."
"Where did it come from?" I questioned, more and more surprised.
"It came from Paris, and it was addressed to me. The only explanation I can think of is that my shippers at Paris made a mistake, sent me a cabinet belonging to some one else, and sent mine to the other person."
"You had bought one, then?"
"Yes; and it hasn't turned up. But beside this one, it's a mere daub. My man Parks got it through the customs yesterday. As there was a Boule cabinet on my manifest, the mistake wasn't discovered until the whole lot was brought up here and uncrated this morning."
"Weren't they uncrated in the customs?"
"No; I've been bringing things in for a good many years, and the customs people know I'm not a thief."
"That's quite a compliment," I pointed out. "They've been tearing things wide open lately."
"They've had a tip of some sort, I suppose. Come in," he added, answering a tap at the door.
The door opened and Vantine's man came in.
"A gentleman to see you, sir," he said, and handed Vantine a card.
Vantine looked at it a little blankly.
"I don't know him," he said. "What does he want?"
"He wants to see you, sir; very bad, I should say."
"Well, I couldn't just make out, sir; but it seems to be important."
"Couldn't make out? What do you mean, Parks?"
"I think he's a Frenchman, sir; anyway, he don't know much English. He ain't much of a looker, sir—I've seen hundreds like him sitting out in front of the cafes along the boulevards, taking all afternoon to drink a bock."
Vantine seemed struck by a sudden idea, and he looked at the card again. Then he tapped it meditatively on the table.
"Shall I show him out, sir?" asked Parks, at last.
"No," said Vantine, after an instant's hesitation. "Tell him to wait," and he dropped the card on the table beside his plate.
"I tell you, Lester," he went on, as Parks withdrew, "when I went downstairs this morning and saw that cabinet, I could hardly believe my eyes. I thought I knew furniture, but I hadn't any idea such a cabinet existed. The most beautiful I had ever seen is at the Louvre. It stands in the Salle Louis Fourteenth, to the left as you enter. It belonged to Louis himself. Of course I can't be certain without a careful examination, but I believe that cabinet, beautiful as it is, is merely the counterpart of this one."
He paused and looked at me, his eyes bright with the enthusiasm of the connoisseur.
"I'm not sure I understand your jargon," I said. "What do you mean by 'counterpart?'"
"Boule furniture," he explained, "is usually of ebony inlaid with tortoise-shell, and incrusted with arabesques in metals of various kinds. The incrustation had to be very exact, and to get it so, the artist clamped together two plates of equal size and thickness, one of metal, the other of tortoise-shell, traced his design on the top one, and then cut them both out together. The result was two combinations, the original, with a tortoise-shell ground and metal applications; and the counterpart, applique metal with tortoise-shell arabesques. The original was really the one which the artist designed and whose effects he studied; the counterpart was merely a resultant accident with which he was not especially concerned. Understand?"
"Yes, I think so," I said. "It's a good deal as though Michael Angelo, when he made one of his sketches, white on black, put a sheet of carbon under his paper and made a copy at the same time, black on white."
"Precisely. And it's the original which has the real artistic value. Of course, the counterpart is often beautiful, too, but in a much lower degree."
"I can understand that," I said.
"And now, Lester," Vantine went on, his eyes shining more and more, "if my supposition is correct—if the Grand Louis was content with the counterpart of this cabinet for the long gallery at Versailles, who do you suppose owned the original?"
I saw what he was driving at.
"You mean one of his mistresses?"
"Yes, and I think I know which one—it belonged to Madame de Montespan."
I stared at him in astonishment, as he sat back in his chair, smiling across at me.
"But," I objected, "you can't be sure—"
"Of course I'm not sure," he agreed quickly. "That is to say, I couldn't prove it. But there is some—ah—contributory evidence, I think you lawyers call it Boule and the Montespan were in their glory at the same time, and I can imagine that flamboyant creature commissioning the flamboyant artist to build her just such a cabinet."
"Really, Vantine," I exclaimed, "I didn't know you were so romantic. You quite take my breath away."
He flushed a little at the words, and I saw how deeply in earnest he was.
"The craze of the collector takes him a long way sometimes," he said. "But I believe I know what I'm talking about. I am going to make a careful examination of the cabinet as soon as I can. Perhaps I'll find something—there ought to be a monogram on it somewhere. What I want you to do is to cable my shippers, Armand et Fils, Rue du Temple, find out who owns this cabinet, and buy it for me."
"Perhaps the owner won't sell," I suggested.
"Oh yes, he will. Anything can be bought—for a price."
"You mean you're going to have this cabinet, whatever the cost?"
"I mean just that."
"But, surely, there's a limit."
"No, there isn't."
"At least you'll tell me where to begin," I said. "I don't know anything of the value of such things."
"Well," said Vantine, "suppose you begin at ten thousand francs. We mustn't seem too eager. It's because I'm so eager, I want you to carry it through for me. I can't trust myself."
"And the other end?"
"There isn't any other end. Of course, strictly speaking, there is, because my money isn't unlimited; but I don't believe you will have to go over five hundred thousand francs."
"You mean you're willing to give a hundred thousand dollars for this cabinet?"
"Maybe a little more. If the owner won't accept that, you must let me know before you break off negotiations. I'm a little mad about it, I fancy—all collectors are a little mad. But I want that cabinet, and I'm going to have it."
I did not reply. I only looked at him. And he laughed as he caught my glance.
"I can see you share that opinion, Lester," he said. "You fear for me. I don't blame you—but come and see it."
He led the way out of the room and down the stairs; but when we reached the lower hall, he paused.
"Perhaps I'd better see my visitor first," he said. "You'll find a new picture or two over there in the music-room—I'll be with you in a minute."
I started on, and he turned through a doorway at the left.
An instant later, I heard a sharp exclamation; then his voice calling me.
"Lester! Come here!" he cried.
I ran back along the hall, into the room which he had entered. He was standing just inside the door.
"Look there," he said, with a queer catch in his voice, and pointed with a trembling hand to a dark object on the floor.
I moved aside to see it better. Then my heart gave a sickening throb; for the object on the floor was the body of a man.
THE FIRST TRAGEDY
It needed but a glance to tell me that the man was dead. There could be no life in that livid face, in those glassy eyes.
"Don't touch him," I said, for Vantine had started forward. "It's too late."
I drew him back, and we stood for a moment shaken as one always is by sudden and unexpected contact with death.
"Who is he?" I asked, at last.
"I don't know," answered Vantine hoarsely. "I never saw him before." Then he strode to the bell and rang it violently. "Parks," he went on sternly, as that worthy appeared at the door, "what has been going on in here?"
"Going on, sir?" repeated Parks, with a look of amazement, not only at the words, but at the tone in which they were uttered. "I'm sure I don't know what—"
Then his glance fell upon the huddled body, and he stopped short, his eyes staring, his mouth open.
"Well," said his master, sharply. "Who is he? What is he doing here?"
"Why—why," stammered Parks, thickly, "that's the man who was waiting to see you, sir."
"You mean he has been killed in this house?" demanded Vantine.
"He was certainly alive when he came in, sir," said Parks, recovering something of his self-possession. "Maybe he was just looking for a quiet place where he could kill himself. He seemed kind of excited."
"Of course," agreed Vantine, with a sigh of relief, "that's the explanation. Only I wish he had chosen some place else. I suppose we shall have to call the police, Lester?"
"Yes," I said, "and the coroner. Suppose you leave it to me. We'll lock up this room, and nobody must leave the house until the police arrive."
"Very well," assented Vantine, visibly relieved, "I'll see to that," and he hastened away, while I went to the 'phone, called up police headquarters, and told briefly what had happened.
Twenty minutes later, there was a ring at the bell, and Parks opened the door and admitted four men.
"Why, hello, Simmonds," I said, recognising in the first one the detective-sergeant who had assisted in clearing up the Marathon mystery. And back of him was Coroner Goldberger, whom I had met in two previous cases; while the third countenance, looking at me with a quizzical smile, was that of Jim Godfrey, the Record's star reporter. The fourth man was a policeman in uniform, who, at a word from Simmonds, took his station at the door.
"Yes," said Godfrey, as we shook hands, "I happened to be talking to Simmonds when the call came in, and I thought I might as well come along. What is it?"
"Just a suicide, I think," and I unlocked the door into the room where the dead man lay.
Simmonds, Goldberger and Godfrey stepped inside. I followed and closed the door.
"Nothing has been disturbed," I said. "No one has touched the body."
Simmonds nodded, and glanced inquiringly about the room; but Godfrey's eyes, I noticed, were on the face of the dead man. Goldberger dropped to his knees beside the body, looked into the eyes and touched his fingers to the left wrist. Then he stood erect again and looked down at the body, and as I followed his gaze, I noted its attitude more accurately than I had done in the first shock of discovering it.
It was lying on its right side, half on its stomach, with its right arm doubled under it, and its left hand clutching at the floor above its head. The knees were drawn up as though in a convulsion, and the face was horribly contorted, with a sort of purple tinge under the skin, as though the blood had been suddenly congealed. The eyes were wide open, and their glassy stare added not a little to the apparent terror and suffering of the face. It was not a pleasant sight, and after a moment, I turned my eyes away with a shiver of repugnance.
The coroner glanced at Simmonds.
"Not much question as to the cause," he said. "Poison of course."
"Of course," nodded Simmonds.
"But what kind?" asked Godfrey.
"It will take a post-mortem to tell that," and Goldberger bent for another close look at the distorted face. "I'm free to admit the symptoms aren't the usual ones."
Godfrey shrugged his shoulders.
"I should say not," he agreed, and turned away to an inspection of the room.
"What can you tell us about it, Mr. Lester?" Goldberger questioned.
I told all I knew—how Parks had announced a man's arrival, how Vantine and I had come downstairs together, how Vantine had called me, and finally how Parks had identified the body as that of the strange caller.
"Have you any theory about it?" Goldberger asked.
"Only that the call was merely a pretext—that what the man was really looking for was a place where he could kill himself unobserved."
"How long a time elapsed after Parks announced the man before you and Mr. Vantine came downstairs?"
"Half an hour, perhaps."
"Let's have Parks in," he said.
I opened the door and called to Parks, who was sitting on the bottom step of the stair.
Goldberger looked him over carefully as he stepped into the room; but there could be no two opinions about Parks. He had been with Vantine for eight or ten years, and the earmarks of the competent and faithful servant were apparent all over him.
"Do you know this man?" Goldberger asked, with a gesture toward the body.
"No, sir," said Parks. "I never saw him till about an hour ago, when Rogers called me downstairs and said there was a man to see Mr. Vantine."
"Who is Rogers?"
"He's the footman, sir. He answered the door when the man rang."
"Well, and then what happened?"
"I took his card up to Mr. Vantine, sir."
"Did Mr. Vantine know him?"
"No, sir; he wanted to know what he wanted."
"What did he want?"
"I don't know, sir; he couldn't speak English hardly at all—he was French, I think."
Goldberger looked down at the body again and nodded.
"Go ahead," he said.
"And he was so excited," Parks added, "that he couldn't remember what little English he did know."
"What made you think he was excited?"
"The way he stuttered, and the way his eyes glinted. That's what makes me think he just come in here to kill hisself quiet like—I shouldn't be surprised if you found that he'd escaped from somewhere. I had a notion to put him out without bothering Mr. Vantine—I wish now I had—but I took his card up, and Mr. Vantine said for him to wait; so I come downstairs again, and showed the man in here, and said Mr. Vantine would see him presently, and then Rogers and me went back to our lunch and we sat there eating till the bell rang, and I came in and found Mr. Vantine here."
"Do you mean to say that you and Rogers went away and left this stranger here by himself?"
"The servants' dining-room is right at the end of the hall, sir. We left the door open so that we could see right along the hall, clear to the front door. If he'd come out into the hall, we'd have seen him."
"And he didn't come out into the hall while you were there?"
"Did anybody come in?"
"Oh, no, sir; the front door has a snap-lock. It can't be opened from the outside without a key."
"So you are perfectly sure that no one either entered or left the house by the front door while you and Rogers were sitting there?"
"Nor by the back door either, sir; to get out the back way, you have to pass through the room where we were."
"Where were the other servants?"
"The cook was in the kitchen, sir. This is the housemaid's afternoon out."
The coroner paused. Godfrey and Simmonds had both listened to this interrogation, but neither had been idle. They had walked softly about the room, had looked through a door opening into another room beyond, had examined the fastenings of the windows, and had ended by looking minutely over the carpet.
"What is the room yonder used for?" asked Godfrey, pointing to the connecting door.
"It's a sort of store-room just now, sir," said Parks. "Mr. Vantine is just back from Europe, and we've been unpacking in there some of the things he bought while abroad."
"I guess that's all," said Goldberger, after a moment. "Send in Mr. Vantine, please."
Parks went out, and Vantine came in a moment later. He corroborated exactly the story told by Parks and myself, but he added one detail.
"Here is the man's card," he said, and held out a square of pasteboard.
Goldberger took the card, glanced at it, and passed it on to Simmonds.
"That don't tell us much," said the latter, and gave the card to Godfrey. I looked over his shoulder and saw that it contained a single engraved line:
M. THEOPHILE D'AURELLE
"Except that he's French, as Parks suggested," said Godfrey. "That's evident, too, from the cut of his clothes."
"Yes, and from the cut of his hair," added Goldberger. "You say you didn't know him, Mr. Vantine?"
"I never before saw him, to my knowledge," answered Vantine. "The name is wholly unknown to me."
"Well," said Goldberger, taking possession of the card again and slipping it into his pocket, "suppose we lift him onto that couch by the window and take a look through his clothes."
The man was slightly built, so that Simmonds and Goldberger raised the body between them without difficulty and placed it on the couch. I saw Godfrey's eyes searching the carpet.
"What I should like to know," he said, after a moment, "is this: if this fellow took poison, what did he take it out of? Where's the paper, or bottle, or whatever it was?"
"Maybe it's in his hand," suggested Simmonds, and lifted the right hand, which hung trailing over the side of the couch.
Then, as he raised it into the light, a sharp cry burst from him.
"Look here," he said, and held the hand so that we all could see.
It was swollen and darkly discoloured.
"See there," said Simmonds, "something bit him," and he pointed to two deep incisions on the back of the hand, just above the knuckles, from which a few drops of blood had oozed and dried.
With a little exclamation of surprise and excitement, Godfrey bent for an instant above the injured hand. Then he turned and looked at us.
"This man didn't take poison," he said, in a low voice. "He was killed!"
THE WOUNDED HAND
"He was killed!" repeated Godfrey, with conviction; and, at the words, we drew together a little, with a shiver of repulsion. Death is awesome enough at any time; suicide adds to its horror; murder gives it the final touch.
So we all stood silent, staring as though fascinated at the hand which Simmonds held up to us; at those tiny wounds, encircled by discoloured flesh and with a sinister dash of clotted blood running away from them. Then Goldberger, taking a deep breath, voiced the thought which had sprung into my own brain.
"Why, it looks like a snake-bite!" he said, his voice sharp with astonishment.
And, indeed, it did. Those two tiny incisions, scarcely half an inch apart, might well have been made by a serpent's fangs.
The quick glance which all of us cast about the room was, of course, as involuntary as the chill which ran up our spines; yet Godfrey and I—yes, and Simmonds—had the excuse that, once upon a time, we had had an encounter with a deadly snake which none of us was likely ever to forget. We all smiled a little sheepishly as we caught each other's eyes.
"No, I don't think it was a snake," said Godfrey, and again bent close above the hand. "Smell it, Mr. Goldberger," he added.
The coroner put his nose close to the hand and sniffed.
"Bitter almonds!" he said.
"Which means prussic acid," said Godfrey, "and not snake poison." He fell silent a moment, his eyes on the swollen hand. The rest of us stared at it too; and I suppose all the others were labouring as I was with the effort to find some thread of theory amid this chaos. "It might, of course, have been self-inflicted," Godfrey added, quite to himself.
Goldberger sneered a little. No doubt he found the incomprehensibility of the problem rather trying to his temper.
"A man doesn't usually commit suicide by sticking himself in the hand with a fork," he said.
"No," agreed Godfrey, blandly; "but I would point out that we don't know as yet that it is a case of suicide; and I'm quite sure that, whatever it may be, it isn't usual."
Goldberger's sneer deepened.
"Did any reporter for the Record ever find a case that was usual?" he queried.
It was a shrewd thrust, and one that Godfrey might well have winced under. For the Record theory was that nothing was news unless it was strange and startling, and the inevitable result was that the Record reporters endeavoured to make everything strange and startling, to play up the outre details at the expense of the rest of the story, and even, I fear, to invent such details when none existed.
Godfrey himself had been accused more than once of a too-luxuriant imagination. It was, perhaps, a realisation of this which had persuaded him, years before, to quit the detective force and take service with the Record. What might have been a weakness in the first position, was a mighty asset in the latter one, and he had won an immense success.
Please understand that I set this down in no spirit of criticism. I had known Godfrey rather intimately ever since the days when we were thrown together in solving the Holladay case, and I admired sincerely his ready wit, his quick insight, and his unshakable aplomb. He used his imagination in a way which often caused me to reflect that the police would be far more efficient if they possessed a dash of the same quality; and I had noticed that they were usually glad of his assistance, while his former connection with the force and his careful maintenance of the friendships formed at that time gave him an entree to places denied to less-fortunate reporters. I had never known him to do a dishonourable thing—to fight for a cause he thought unjust, to print a fact given to him in confidence, or to make a statement which he knew to be untrue. Moreover, a lively sense of humour made him an admirable companion, and it was this quality, perhaps, which enabled him to receive Goldberger's thrust with a good-natured smile.
"We've got our living to make, you know," he said. "We make it as honestly as we can. What do you think, Simmonds?"
"I think," said Simmonds, who, if he possessed an imagination, never permitted it to be suspected, "that those little cuts on the hand are merely an accident. They might have been caused in half a dozen ways. Maybe he hit his hand on something when he fell; maybe he jabbed it on a buckle; maybe he had a boil on his hand and lanced it with his knife."
"What killed him, then?" Godfrey demanded.
"Poison—and it's in his stomach. We'll find it there."
"How about the odour?" Godfrey persisted.
"He spilled some of the poison on his hand as he lifted it to his mouth. Maybe he had those cuts on his hand and the poison inflamed them. Or maybe he's got some kind of blood disease."
Goldberger nodded his approval, and Godfrey smiled as he looked at him.
"It's easy to find explanations, isn't it?" he queried.
"It's a blamed sight easier to find a natural and simple explanation," retorted Goldberger hotly, "than it is to find an unnatural and far-fetched one—such as how one man could kill another by scratching him on the hand. I suppose you think this fellow was murdered? That's what you said a minute ago."
"Perhaps I was a little hasty," Godfrey admitted, and I suspected that, whatever his thoughts, he had made up his mind to keep them to himself. "I'm not going to theorise until I've got something to start with. The facts seem to point to suicide; but if he swallowed prussic acid, where's the bottle? He didn't swallow that too, did he?"
"Maybe we'll find it in his clothes," suggested Simmonds.
Thus reminded, Goldberger fell to work looking through the dead man's pockets. The clothes were of a cheap material and not very new, so that, in life, he must have presented an appearance somewhat shabby. There was a purse in the inside coat pocket containing two bills, one for ten dollars and one for five, and there were two or three dollars in silver and four five-centime pieces in a small coin purse which he carried in his trousers' pocket. The larger purse had four or five calling cards in one of its compartments, each bearing a different name, none of them his. On the back of one of them, Vantine's address was written in pencil.
There were no letters, no papers, no written documents of any kind in the pockets, the remainder of whose contents consisted of such odds and ends as any man might carry about with him—a cheap watch, a pen-knife, a half-empty packet of French tobacco, a sheaf of cigarette paper, four or five keys on a ring, a silk handkerchief, and perhaps some other articles which I have forgotten—but not a thing to assist in establishing his identity.
"We'll have to cable over to Paris," remarked Simmonds. "He's French, all right—that silk handkerchief proves it."
"Yes—and his best girl proves it, too," put in Godfrey.
"His best girl?"
For answer, Godfrey held up the watch, which he had been examining. He had opened the case, and inside it was a photograph—the photograph of a woman with bold, dark eyes and full lips and oval face—a face so typically French that it was not to be mistaken.
"A lady's-maid, I should say," added Godfrey, looking at it again. "Rather good-looking at one time, but past her first youth, and so compelled perhaps to bestow her affections on a man a little beneath her—no doubt compelled also to contribute to his support in order to retain him. A woman with many pasts and no future—"
"Oh, come," broke in Goldberger impatiently, "keep your second-hand epigrams for the Record. What we want are facts."
Godfrey flushed a little at the words and laid down the watch.
"There is one fact which you have apparently overlooked," he said quietly, "but it proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that this fellow didn't drift in here by accident. He came here of intention, and the intention wasn't to kill himself, either."
"How do you know that?" demanded Goldberger, incredulously.
Godfrey picked up the purse, opened it, and took out one of the cards.
"By this," he said, and held it up. "You have already seen what is written on the back of it—Mr. Vantine's name and the number of this house. That proves, doesn't it, that this fellow came to New York expressly to see Mr. Vantine?"
"Perhaps you think Mr. Vantine killed him," suggested Goldberger, sarcastically.
"No," said Godfrey; "he didn't have time. You understand, Mr. Vantine," he added, smiling at that gentleman, who was listening to all this with perplexed countenance, "we are simply talking now about possibilities. You couldn't possibly have killed this fellow because Lester has testified that he was with you constantly from the moment this man entered the house until his body was found, with the exception of the few seconds which elapsed between the time you entered this room and the time he joined you here, summoned by your cry. So you are out of the running."
"Thanks," said Vantine, drily.
"I suppose, then, you think it was Parks," said Goldberger.
"It may quite possibly have been Parks," agreed Godfrey, gravely.
"Nonsense!" broke in Vantine, impatiently. "Parks is as straight as a string—he's been with me for eight years."
"Of course it's nonsense," assented Goldberger. "It's nonsense to say that he was killed by anybody. He killed himself. We'll learn the cause when we identify him—jealousy maybe, or maybe just hard luck —he doesn't look affluent."
"I'll cable to Paris," said Simmonds. "If he belongs there, we'll soon find out who he is."
"You'd better call an ambulance and have him taken to the morgue," went on Goldberger. "Somebody may identify him there. There'll be a crowd to-morrow, for, of course, the papers will be full of this affair—"
"The Record, at least, will have a very full account," Godfrey assured him.
"And I'll call the inquest for the day after," Goldberger continued. "I'll send my physician down to make a post-mortem right away. If there's any poison in this fellow's stomach, we'll find it."
Godfrey did not speak; but I knew what was in his mind. He was thinking that, if such poison existed, the vessel which had contained it had not yet been found. The same thought, no doubt, occurred to Simmonds, for, after ordering the policeman in the hall to call the ambulance, he returned and began a careful search of the room, using his electric torch to illumine every shadowed corner. Godfrey devoted himself to a similar search; but both were without result. Then Godfrey made a minute inspection of the injured hand, while Goldberger looked on with ill-concealed impatience; and finally he moved toward the door.
"I think I'll be going," he said. "But I'm interested in what your physician will find, Mr. Coroner."
"He'll find poison, all right," asserted Goldberger, with decision.
"Perhaps he will," admitted Godfrey. "Strange things happen in this world. Will you be at home to-night, Lester?"
"Yes, I expect to be," I answered.
"You're still at the Marathon?"
"Yes," I said; "suite fourteen."
"Perhaps I'll drop around to see you," he said, and a moment later we heard the door close behind him as Parks let him out.
"Godfrey's a good man," said Goldberger, "but he's too romantic. He looks for a mystery in every crime, whereas most crimes are merely plain, downright brutalities. Take this case. Here's a man kills himself, and Godfrey wants us to believe that death resulted from a scratch on the hand. Why, there's no poison on earth would kill a man as quick as that—for he must have dropped dead before he could get out of the room to summon help. If it was prussic acid, he swallowed it. Remember, he wasn't in this room more than fifteen or twenty minutes, and he was quite dead when Mr. Vantine found him. Men don't die as easily as all that—not from a scratch on the hand. They don't die easily at all. It's astonishing how much it takes to kill a man —how the spirit, or whatever you choose to call it, clings to life."
"How do you explain the address on the card, Mr. Goldberger?" I asked.
"My theory is that this fellow really had some business with Mr. Vantine; probably he wanted to borrow some money, or ask for help; and then, while he was waiting, he suddenly gave the thing up and killed himself. The address has no bearing whatever, that I can see, on the question of suicide. And I'll say this, Mr. Lester, if this isn't suicide, it's the strangest case I ever had anything to do with."
"Yes," I agreed, "if it isn't suicide, we come to a blank wall right away."
"That's it," and Goldberger nodded emphatically. "Here's the ambulance," he added, as the bell rang.
The bearers entered with the stretcher, placed the body on it, and carried it away. Goldberger paused to gather up the articles he had taken from the dead man's pockets.
"You gentlemen will have to give your testimony at the inquest," he said. "So will Parks and Rogers. It will be day after to-morrow, probably at ten o'clock, but I'll notify you of the hour."
"Very well," I said; "we'll be there," and Goldberger bade us good-bye, and left the house. "And now," I added, to Vantine, "I must be getting back to the office. They'll be asking the police to look for me next. Man alive!" and I glanced at my watch, "it's after four o'clock."
"Too late for the office," said Vantine. "Better come upstairs and have a drink. Besides, I want to talk with you."
"At least, I'll let them know I'm still alive," I said, and I called up the office and allayed any anxiety that may have been felt there concerning me. I must admit that it did not seem acute.
"I feel the need of a bracer after all this excitement," Vantine remarked, as he opened the cellarette. "Help yourself. I dare say you're used to this sort of thing—"
"Finding dead men lying around?" I queried, with a smile. "No—it's not so common as you seem to think."
"Tell me, Lester," and he looked at me earnestly, "do you think that poor devil came in here just to get a chance to kill himself quietly?"
"No, I don't," I said.
"Then what did he come in for?"
"I think Goldberger's theory a pretty good one—that he had heard of you as a generous fellow and came in here to ask help; and while he was waiting, suddenly gave it up—"
"And killed himself?" Vantine completed.
I hesitated. I was astonished to find, at the back of my mind, a growing doubt.
"See here, Lester," Vantine demanded, "if he didn't kill himself, what happened to him?"
"Heaven only knows," I answered, in despair. "I've been asking myself the same question, without finding a reasonable answer to it. As I said to Goldberger, it's a blank wall. But if anybody can see through it, Jim Godfrey can."
Vantine seemed deeply perturbed. He took a turn or two up and down the room, then stopped in front of me and looked me earnestly in the eye.
"Tell me, Lester," he said, "do you believe that theory of Godfrey's —that that insignificant wound on the hand caused death?"
"It seems absurd, doesn't it? But Godfrey is a sort of genius at divining such things."
"Then you do believe it?"
I asked myself the same question before I answered.
"Yes, I do," I said, finally.
Vantine walked up and down the room again, his eyes on the floor, his brows contracted.
"Lester," he said, at last, "I have a queer feeling that the business which brought this man here in some way concerned the Boule cabinet I was telling you about. Perhaps it belonged to him."
"Hardly," I protested, recalling his shabby appearance.
"At any rate, I remember, as I was looking at his card, that some such thought occurred to me. It was for that reason I told Parks to ask him to wait."
"It's possible, of course," I admitted. "But that wouldn't explain his excitement. And that reminds me," I added, "I haven't sent off that cable."
"Any time to-night will do. It will be delivered in the morning. But you haven't seen the cabinet yet. Come down and look at it."
He led the way down the stair. Parks met us in the lower hall.
"There's a delegation of reporters outside, sir," he said. "They say they've got to see you."
Vantine made a movement of impatience.
"Tell them," he said, "that I positively refuse to see them or to allow my servants to see them. Let them get their information from the police."
"Very well, sir," said Parks, and turned away grinning.
Vantine passed on through the ante-room in which we had found the body of the unfortunate Frenchman, and into the room beyond. Five or six pieces of furniture, evidently just unpacked, stood there, but, ignorant as I am of such things, he did not have to point out to me the Boule cabinet. It dominated the room, much as Madame de Montespan, no doubt, dominated the court at Versailles.
I looked at it for some moments, for it was certainly a beautiful piece of work, with a wealth of inlay and incrustation little short of marvellous. But I may as well say here that I never really appreciated it. The florid style of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Louis is not at all to my taste; and I am too little of a connoisseur to admire a beauty which has no personal appeal for me. So I am afraid that Vantine found me a little cold.
Certainly there was nothing cold about the way he regarded it. His eyes gleamed with a strange fire as he looked at it; he ran his fingers over the inlay with a touch almost reverent; he pulled out for me the little drawers with much the same air that another friend of mine takes down his Kilmarnock Burns from his bookshelves; he pointed out to me the grace of its curves in the same tone that one uses to discuss the masterpiece of a great artist. And then, finding no echo to his enthusiasm, he suddenly stopped.
"You don't seem to care for it," he said, looking at me.
"That's my fault and not the fault of the cabinet," I pointed out. "I'm not educated up to it; I'm too little of an artist, perhaps."
He was flushed, as a man might be should another make a disparaging remark about his wife, and he led the way from the room at once.
"Remember, Lester," he said, a little sternly, pausing with his hand on the front door, "there is to be no foolishness about securing that cabinet for me. Don't you let it get away. I'm in deadly earnest."
"I won't let it get away," I promised. "Perhaps it's just as well I'm not over-enthusiastic about it."
"Let me know as soon as you have any news," he said, and opened the door for me.
I had intended walking home, but as I turned up the Avenue, I met sweeping down it a flood of girls just released from the workshops of the neighbourhood. I struggled against it for a few moments, then gave it up, hailed a cab, and settled back against the cushions with a sigh of relief. I was glad to be out of Vantine's house; something there oppressed me and left me ill at ease. Was Vantine quite normal, I wondered? Could any man be normal who was willing to pay a hundred thousand dollars for a piece of furniture? Especially a man who could not afford such extravagance? I knew the size of Vantine's fortune; it was large, but a hundred thousand dollars represented more than a year's income. And then I smiled to myself. Of course Vantine had been merely jesting when he named that limit. The cabinet could be bought for a tenth of it, at the most. And, still smiling, I left the cab, paid the driver, and mounted to my rooms.
It was about eight o'clock that evening that Godfrey tapped at my door, and when I let him in, I could tell by the way his eyes were shining that he had some news.
"I can't stay long," he said. "I've got to get down to the office and put the finishing touches on that story;" but nevertheless he took the cigar I proffered him and sank into the chair opposite my own.
I knew Godfrey, so I waited patiently until the cigar was going nicely, then—
"Well?" I asked.
"It's like old times, isn't it, Lester?" and he smiled across at me. "How many conferences have we had in this room? How many of your cigars have I made away with?"
"Not half enough recently," I said. "You haven't been here for months."
"I'm sure to drift back, sooner or later, because you seem to have a knack of getting in on the interesting cases. And I want to say this, Lester, that of all I ever had, not one has promised better than this one does. If it only keeps up—but one mustn't expect too much!"
"You've been working on it, of course?"
"I haven't been idle, and just now I'm feeling rather pleased with myself. The coroner's physician finished his post-mortem half an hour or so ago."
"Well?" I said again.
"The stomach was absolutely normal. It showed no trace of poison of any kind."
He stretched himself, lay back in his chair, sent a smoke-ring circling toward the ceiling, and watched it, smiling absently.
"Rather a facer for our friend Goldberger," he added, after a minute.
"What's the matter with Goldberger? He seemed rather peeved with you this afternoon."
"No wonder. He's Grady's man, and we're after Grady. Grady isn't fit to head the detective bureau—he got the job through his pull with Tammany—he's stupid, and I suspect he's crooked. The Record says he has got to go."
"So, of course, he will go," I commented, smiling.
"He certainly will," assented Godfrey seriously, "and that before long. But meanwhile it's a little difficult for me, because his people don't know which way to jump. Once he's out, everything will be serene again."
I wasn't interested in Grady, so I came back to the case in hand.
"Look here, Godfrey," I said, "if it wasn't poison, what was it?"
"But it was poison."
"Inserted at the hand?"
"Goldberger says there's no poison known which could be used that way and which would act so quickly."
"Goldberger is right in that," agreed Godfrey; "but there's a poison unknown that will—because it did."
"It wasn't a snake bite?"
"Oh, no; snake poison wouldn't kill a man that quickly—not even a fer-de-lance. That fellow practically dropped where he was struck."
"Then what was it?"
Godfrey was sitting erect again. He was not smiling now. His face was very stern.
"That is what I am going to find out, Lester," he said; "that is the problem I've set myself to solve—and it's a pretty one. There is one thing certain—that fellow was killed by some agency outside himself. In some way, a drop or two of poison was introduced into his blood by an instrument something like a hypodermic needle; and that poison was so powerful that almost instantly it caused paralysis of the heart. After all, that isn't so remarkable as it might seem. The blood in the veins of the hand would be carried back to the heart in four or five seconds."
"But you've already said there's no poison so powerful as all that."
"I said we didn't know of any. I wouldn't be so sure that Catherine de Medici didn't."
"What has Catherine de Medici to do with it?"
"Nothing—except that what has been done may always be done again. Those old stories are, no doubt, exaggerated; but it seems fairly certain that the Queen of Navarre was killed with a pair of poisoned gloves, the Duc d'Anjou with the scent of a poisoned rose, and the Prince de Porcian with the smoke of a poisoned lamp. This case isn't as extraordinary as those."
"No," I agreed, and fell silent, shivering a little, for there is something horrible and revolting about the poisoner.
"After all," went on Godfrey, at last, "there is one thing that neither you nor I nor any reasonable man can believe, and that is that this Frenchman came from heaven knows where—from Paris, perhaps—with Vantine's address in his pocket, and hunted up the house and made his way into it simply to kill himself there. He had some other object, and he met his death while trying to accomplish it."
"Have you found out who he is?"
"No; he's not registered at any of the hotels; the French consul never heard of him; he belongs to none of the French societies; he's not known in the French quarter. He seems to have dropped in from the clouds. We've cabled our Paris office to look him up; we may hear from there to-night. But even if we discover the identity of Theophile d'Aurelle, it won't help us any."
"Why not?" I demanded.
"Because it is evident that that isn't his name."
"Go ahead and tell me, Godfrey," I said, as he looked at me, smiling. "I don't see it."
"Why, it's plain enough. He had five cards in his pocket, no two alike. The sixth, selected probably at random, he had sent up to Vantine."
I saw it then, of course; and I felt a good deal as the Spanish savants must have felt when Columbus stood the egg on end. Godfrey smiled again at my expression.
"The real d'Aurelle, whoever he may turn out to be, may be able to help us," he added. "If he can't, we may learn something from the Paris police. The dead man's Bertillon measurements have been cabled over to them. Even that won't help, if he has never been arrested. And, of course, we can't get at motives until we find out something about him."
"But, Godfrey," I said, "suppose you knew who he was and what he wanted with Vantine—suppose you could make a guess at who killed him and why—how was it done? That is what stumps me. How was it done?"
"Ah!" agreed Godfrey. "That's it! How was it done? I told you it was a pretty case, Lester. But wait till we hear from Paris."
"That reminds me," I said, sitting up suddenly, "I've got to cable to Paris myself, on some business for Mr. Vantine."
"Not connected with this affair?"
"Oh, no; his shippers over there sent him a piece of furniture that doesn't belong to him. He asked me to straighten the matter out."
I rang for the hall-boy, asked for a cable-blank, and sent off a message to Armand & Son, telling them of the mistake and asking them to cable the name of the owner of the cabinet now in Mr. Vantine's possession. Godfrey sat smoking reflectively while I was thus engaged, staring straight before him with eyes that saw nothing; but as I sat down again and took up my pipe, ready to continue the conversation, he gave himself a sort of shake, put on his hat, and got to his feet.
"I must be moving along," he said. "There's no use sitting here theorising until we have some sort of foundation to build on."
"Goldberger was right in one thing," I remarked. "He pointed out, after you left, that most crimes are not romances, but mere brutalities. Perhaps this one—"
The ringing of my telephone stopped me.
"Hello," I said, taking down the receiver.
"Is that you, Mr. Lester?" asked a voice.
"This is Parks," and I suddenly realised that his voice was unfamiliar because it was hoarse and quivering with emotion. "Could you come down to the house right away, sir?"
"Why, yes," I said, wonderingly, "if it's important. Does Mr. Vantine need me?"
"We all need you!" said the voice, and broke into a dry sob. "For God's sake, come quick, Mr. Lester!"
"All right," I said without further parley, for evidently he had lost his self-control. "Something has happened down at Vantine's," I added to Godfrey, as I hung up the receiver. "Parks seems to be scared to death. He wants me to come down right away," and I reached for my hat and coat.
"Shall I come, too?" asked Godfrey.
Even under the stress of the moment, I could not but smile at the question and at the tone in which it was uttered.
"Perhaps you'd better," I agreed. "It sounded pretty serious."
We went down together in the elevator, and three minutes later we had hailed a taxi and were speeding eastward toward the Avenue. It had started to drizzle, and the asphalt shone like a black mirror, dancing with the lights along either side. The streets were almost empty, for the theatre-crowd had passed, and as we reached the Avenue and turned down-town, the driver pushed up his spark, and we hurtled along toward Fourteenth street at a speed which made me think of the traffic regulations. But no policeman interfered, and five minutes later we drew up before the Vantine place.
Parks must have been on the front steps looking for me, for he came running down them almost before the car had stopped. I caught a glimpse of his face under the street lights, as I thrust a bill into the driver's hand, and it fairly startled me.
"Is it you, Mr. Lester?" he gasped. "Good God, but I'm glad you're here—"
I caught him by the arm.
"Steady, man," I said. "Don't let yourself go to pieces. Now—what has happened?"
He seemed to take a sort of desperate grip of himself.
"I'll show you, sir," he said, and ran up the steps, along the hall, to the door of the ante-room where we had found the Frenchman's body. "In there, sir!" he sobbed. "In there!" and clung to the wall as I opened the door and stepped inside.
The room was ablaze with light, and for an instant my eyes were so dazzled that I could distinguish nothing. Dimly I saw Godfrey spring forward and drop to his knees.
Then my eyes cleared, and I saw, on the very spot where d'Aurelle had died, another body—or was it the same, brought back that the tragedy of the afternoon might, in some mysterious way, be re-enacted?
I remember bending over and peering into the face—
It was the face of Philip Vantine.
A minute must have passed as I stood there dazed and shaken. I was conscious, in a way, that Godfrey was examining him. Then I heard his voice.
"He's dead," he said.
Then there was an instant's silence.
"Lester, look here!" cried Godfrey's voice, sharp, insistent. "For God's sake, look here!"
Godfrey was kneeling there holding something toward me.
"Look here!" he cried again.
It was the dead man's hand he was holding; the right hand; a swollen and discoloured hand. And on the back of it, just above the knuckles, were two tiny wounds, from which a few drops of blood had trickled.
And as I stared at this ghastly sight, scarce able to believe my eyes, I heard a choking voice behind me, saying over and over again:
"It was that woman done it! It was that woman done it! Damn her! It was that woman done it!"
GRADY TAKES A HAND
I have no very clear remembrance of what happened after that. The shock was so great that I had just strength enough to totter to a chair and drop into it, and sit there staring vaguely at that dark splotch on the carpet. I told myself that I was the victim of a dreadful nightmare; that all this was the result of over-wrought nerves and that I should wake presently. No doubt I had been working too hard. I needed a vacation—well, I would take it....
And all the time I knew that it was not a nightmare, but grim reality; that Philip Vantine was dead—killed by a woman. Who had told me that? And then I remembered the sobbing voice....
Two or three persons came into the room—Parks and the other servants, I suppose; I heard Godfrey's voice giving orders; and finally someone held a glass to my lips and commanded me to drink. I did so mechanically; coughed, spluttered, was conscious of a grateful warmth, and drank eagerly again. And then I saw Godfrey standing over me.
"Feel better?" he asked.
"I don't wonder it knocked you out," he went on. "I'm feeling shaky myself. I had them call Vantine's physician—but he can't do anything."
"He's dead, then?" I murmured, my eyes on that dark and crumpled object which had been Philip Vantine.
"Yes—just like the other."
Then I remembered, and I caught his arm and drew him down to me.
"Godfrey," I whispered, "whose voice was it—or did I dream it —something about a woman?"
"You didn't dream it—it was Rogers—he's almost hysterical. We'll get the story, as soon as he quiets down."
Someone called him from the door, and he turned away, leaving me staring blankly at nothing. So there had been a woman in Vantine's life! Perhaps that was why he had never married. What ugly skeleton was to be dragged from its closet?
But if a woman killed Vantine, the same woman also killed d'Aurelle. Where was her hiding-place? From what ambush did she strike?
I glanced about the room, as a tremor of horror seized me. I arose, shaking, from the chair and groped my way toward the door. Godfrey heard me coming, swung around, and, with one glance at my face, came to me and caught me by the arms.
"What is it, Lester?" he asked.
"I can't stand it here," I gasped. "It's too horrible!"
"Don't think about it. Come out here and have another drink."
He led me into the hall, and a second glass of brandy gave me back something of my self-control. I was ashamed of my weakness, but when I glanced at Godfrey, I saw how white his face was.
"Better take a drink yourself," I said.
I heard the decanter rattle on the glass.
"I don't know when I have been so shaken," he said, setting the glass down empty. "It was so gruesome—so unexpected—and then Rogers carrying on like a madman. Ah, here's the doctor," he added, as the front door opened and Parks showed a man in.
I knew Dr. Hughes, of course, returned his nod, and followed him and Godfrey into the ante-room. But I had not yet sufficiently recovered to do more than sit and stare at him as he knelt beside the body and assured himself that life had fled. Then I heard Godfrey telling him all we knew, while Hughes listened with incredulous face.
"But it's absurd, you know!" he protested, when Godfrey had finished. "Things like this don't happen here in New York. In Florence, perhaps, in the Middle Ages; but not here in the twentieth century!"
"I can scarcely believe my own senses," Godfrey agreed. "But I saw the Frenchman lying here this afternoon; and now here's Vantine."
"On the same spot?"
"As nearly as I can tell."
"And killed in the same way?"
"Killed in precisely the same way."
Hughes turned back to the body again, and looked long and earnestly at the injured hand.
"What sort of instrument made this wound, would you say, Mr. Godfrey?" he questioned, at last.
"A sharp instrument, with two prongs. My theory is that the prongs are hollow, like a hypodermic needle, and leave a drop or two of poison at the bottom of the wound. You see a vein has been cut."
"Yes," Hughes assented. "It would scarcely be possible to pierce the hand here without striking a vein. One of the prongs would be sure to do it."
"That's the reason there are two of them, I fancy."
"But you are, of course, aware that no poison exists which would act so quickly?" Hughes inquired.
Godfrey looked at him strangely.
"You yourself mentioned Florence a moment ago," he said. "You meant, I suppose, that such a poison did, at one time, exist there?"
"Something of the sort, perhaps," agreed Hughes. "The words were purely instinctive, but I suppose some such thought was running through my head."
"Well, the poison that existed in Florence five centuries ago, exists here to-day. There's the proof of it," and Godfrey pointed to the body.
Hughes drew a deep breath of wonder and horror.
"But what sort of devilish instrument is it?" he cried, his nerves giving way for an instant, his voice mounting shrilly. "Above all, who wields it?"
He stared about the room, as though half-expecting to see some mighty and remorseless arm poised, ready to strike. Then he shook himself together.
"I beg pardon," he said, mopping the sweat from his face; "but I'm not used to this sort of thing; and I'm frightened—yes, I really believe I'm frightened," and he laughed, a little unsteady laugh.
"So am I," said Godfrey; "so is Lester; so is everybody. You needn't be ashamed of it."
"What frightens me," went on Hughes, evidently studying his own symptoms, "is the mystery of it—there is something supernatural about it—something I can't understand. How does it happen that each of the victims is struck on the right hand? Why not the left hand? Why the hand at all?"
Godfrey answered with a despairing shrug.
"That is what we've got to find out," he said.
"We shall have to call in the police," suggested Hughes. "Maybe they can solve it."
Godfrey smiled, a little sceptical smile, quickly suppressed.
"At least, they will have to be given the chance," he agreed. "Shall I attend to it?"
"Yes," said Hughes; "and you would better do it right away. The sooner they get here the better."
"Very well," assented Godfrey, and left the room.
Hughes sat down heavily on the couch near the window, and mopped his face again, with a shaking hand. Death he was accustomed to—but death met decently in bed and resulting from some understood cause. Death in this horrible and mysterious form shook him; he could not understand it, and his failure to understand appalled him. He was a physician; it was his business to understand; and yet here was death in a form as mysterious to him as to the veriest layman. It compelled him to pause and take stock of himself—always a disconcerting process to the best of us!
That was a trying half hour. Hughes sat on the couch, breathing heavily, staring at the floor, perhaps passing his own ignorance in review, perhaps wondering if he had always been right in prescribing this or that. As for me, I was thinking of my dead friend. I remembered Philip Vantine as I had always known him—a kindly, witty, Christian gentleman. I could see his pleasant eyes looking at me in friendship, as they had looked a few hours before; I could hear his voice, could feel the clasp of his hand. That such a man should be killed like this, struck down by a mysterious assassin, armed with a poisoned weapon....
A woman! Always my mind came back to that. A woman! Poison was a woman's weapon. But who was she? How had she escaped? Where had she concealed herself? How was she able to strike so surely? Above all, why should she have chosen Philip Vantine, of all men, for her victim—Philip Vantine, who had never injured any woman—and then I paused. For I realised that I knew nothing of Vantine, except what he had chosen to tell me. Parks would know. And then I shrank from the thought. Must we probe that secret? Must we compel a man to betray his master?
My face was burning. No, we could not do that—that would be abominable....
The door opened and Godfrey came in. This time, he was not alone. Simmonds and Goldberger followed him, and their faces showed that they were as shaken and nonplussed as I. There was a third man with them whom I did not know; but I soon found out that it was Freylinghuisen, the coroner's physician.
They all looked at the body, and Freylinghuisen knelt beside it and examined the injured hand; then he sat down by Dr. Hughes, and they were soon deep in a low-toned conversation, whose subject I could guess. I could also guess what Simmonds and Godfrey were talking about in the farther corner; but I could not guess why Goldberger, instead of getting to work, should be walking up and down, pulling impatiently at his moustache and glancing at his watch now and then. He seemed to be waiting for some one, but not until twenty minutes later did I suspect who it was. Then the door opened again to admit a short, heavy-set man, with florid face, stubbly black moustache, and little, close-set eyes, preternaturally bright. He glanced about the room, nodded to Goldberger, and then looked inquiringly at me.
"This is Mr. Lester, Commissioner Grady," said Goldberger, and I realised that the chief of the detective bureau had come up from headquarters to take personal charge of the case.
"Mr. Lester is Mr. Vantine's attorney," the coroner added, in explanation.
"Glad to know you, Mr. Lester," said Grady, shortly.
"And now, I guess, we're ready to begin," went on the coroner.
"Not quite," said Grady, grimly. "We'll excuse all reporters, first," and he looked across at Godfrey, his face darkening.
I felt my own face flushing, and started to protest, but Godfrey silenced me with a little gesture.
"It's all right, Lester," he said. "Mr. Grady is quite within his rights. I'll withdraw—until he sends for me."
"You'll have a long wait, then!" retorted Grady, with a sarcastic laugh.
"The longer I wait, the worse it will be for you, Mr. Grady," said Godfrey quietly, opened the door and closed it behind him.
Grady stared after him for a moment in crimson amazement. Then, mastering himself with an effort, he turned to the coroner.
"All right, Goldberger," he said, and sat down to watch the proceedings.
A very few minutes sufficed for Hughes and Freylinghuisen and I to tell all we knew of this tragedy and of the one which had preceded it. Grady seemed already acquainted with the details of d'Aurelle's death, for he listened without interrupting, only nodding from time to time.
"You've got a list of the servants here, of course, Simmonds," he said, when we had finished the story.
"Yes, sir," and Simmonds handed it to him. "H-m," said Grady, as he glanced it over. "Five of 'em. Know anything about 'em?"
"They've all been with Mr. Vantine a long time, sir," replied Simmonds. "So far as I've been able to judge, they're all right."
"Which one of 'em found Vantine's body?"
"Parks, I think," I said. "It was he who called me."
"Better have him in," said Grady, and doubled up the list and slipped it into his pocket.
Parks came in looking decidedly shaky; but answered Grady's questions clearly and concisely. He told first of the events of the afternoon, and then passed on to the evening.
"Mr. Vantine had dinner at home, sir," he said. "It was served, I think, at seven o'clock. He must have finished a little after seven-thirty. I didn't see him, for I was straightening things around up in his room and putting his clothes away. But he told Rogers—"
"Never mind what he told Rogers," broke in Grady. "Just tell us what you know."
"Very well, sir," said Parks, submissively. "I had a lot of work to do—we just got back from Europe yesterday, you know—and I kept on, putting things in their places and straightening around, and it must have been half-past eight when I heard Rogers yelling for me. I thought the house was on fire, and I come down in a hurry. Rogers was standing out there in the hall, looking like he'd seen a ghost. He kind of gasped and pointed to this room, and I looked in and saw Mr. Vantine laying there—"
His voice choked at the words, but he managed to go on, after a moment.
"Then I telephoned for Mr. Lester," he added, "and that's all I know."
"Very well," said Grady. "That's all for the present. Send Rogers in."
Rogers's face, as he entered the room, gave me a kind of shock, for it was that of a man on the verge of hysteria. He was a man of about fifty, with iron-grey hair, and a smooth-shaven face, ordinarily ruddy with health. But now his face was livid, his cheeks lined and shrunken, his eyes blood-shot and staring. He reeled rather than walked into the room, one hand clutching at his throat, as though he were choking.
"Get him a chair," said Grady, and Simmonds brought one forward and remained standing beside it. "Now, my man," Grady continued, "you'll have to brace up. What's the matter with you, anyhow? Didn't you ever see a dead man before?"
"It ain't that," gasped Rogers. "It ain't that—though I never saw a murdered man before."
"What?" demanded Grady, sharply. "Didn't you see that fellow this afternoon?"
"That was different," Rogers moaned. "I didn't know him. Besides, I thought he'd killed himself. We all thought so."
"And you don't think Vantine did?"
"I know he didn't," and Rogers's voice rose to a shrill scream. "It was that woman done it! Damn her! She done it! I knowed she was up to some crooked work when I let her in!"
THE WOMAN IN THE CASE
It was coming now; the secret, however sordid, however ugly, was to be unveiled. I saw Grady's face set in hard lines; I could hear the stir of interest with which the others leaned forward....
Grady took a flask from his pocket and opened it.
"Take a drink of this," he said, and placed it in Rogers's hand.
I could hear the mouth of the flask clattering against his teeth, as he put it eagerly to his mouth and took three or four long swallows.
"Thank you, sir," he said, more steadily, and handed the flask back to its owner. A little colour crept into his face; but I fancied there was a new look in his eyes—for, as the horror faded, fear took its place.
Grady screwed the cap on the flask with great deliberation, and returned it to his pocket. And all the time Rogers was watching him furtively, wiping his mouth mechanically with a trembling hand.
"Now, Rogers," Grady began, "I want you to take your time and tell us in detail everything that happened here to-night. You say a woman did it. Well, we want to hear all about that woman. Now go ahead; and remember there's no hurry."
"Well, sir," began Rogers slowly, as though carefully considering his words, "Mr. Vantine came out from dinner about half-past seven—maybe a little later than that—and told me to light all the lights in here and in the next room. You see there are gas and electrics both, sir, and I lighted them all. He had gone into the music-room on the other side of the hall, so I went over there and told him the lights were all lit. He was looking at a new picture he'd bought, but he left it right away and come out into the hall.
"'I don't want to be disturbed, Rogers,' he said, and come in here and shut the door after him.
"It was maybe twenty minutes after that that the door-bell rung, and when I opened the door, there was a woman standing on the steps."
He stopped and swallowed once or twice, as though his throat was dry, and I saw that his fingers were twitching nervously.
"Did you know her?" questioned Grady.
Rogers loosened his collar with a convulsive movement.
"No, sir, I'd never seen her before," he answered hoarsely.
Rogers closed his eyes, as though in an effort of recollection.
"She wore a heavy veil, sir, so that I couldn't see her very well; but the first thing I noticed was her eyes—they were so bright, they seemed to burn right through me. Her face looked white behind her veil, and I could see how red her lips were—I didn't like her looks, sir, from the first."
"How was she dressed?"
"In a dark gown, sir, cut so skimpy that I knowed she was French before she spoke."
"Ah!" said Grady. "She was French, was she?"
"Yes, sir; though she could speak some English. She asked for Mr. Vantine. I told her Mr. Vantine was busy. And then she said something very fast about how she must see him, and all the time she kept edging in and in, till the first thing I knowed she was inside the door, and then she just pulled the door out of my hand and shut it. I ask you, sir, is that the way a lady would behave?"
"No," said Grady, "I dare say not. But go ahead,—and take your time."
Rogers had regained his self-confidence, and he went ahead almost glibly.
"'See here, madam,' says I, 'we've had enough trouble here to-day with Frenchies, and if you don't get out quietly, why, I'll have to put you out.'
"'I must see Mistaire Vangtine,' she says, very fast. 'I must see Mistaire Vangtine. It is most necessaire that I see Mistaire Vangtine.'
"'Then I'll have to put you out,' says I, and took hold of her arm. And at that she screamed and jerked herself away; and I grabbed her again, and just then Mr. Vantine opened the door there and came out into the hall.
"'What's all this, Rogers?' he says. 'Who is this party?'
"But before I could answer, that wild cat had rushed over to him and begun to reel off a string of French so fast I wondered how she got her breath. And Mr. Vantine looked at her kind of surprised at first, and then he got more interested, and finally he asked her in here and shut the door, and that was the last I saw of them."
"You mean you didn't let the woman out?" demanded Grady.
"Yes, sir, that's just what I mean. I thought if Mr. Vantine wanted to talk with her, well and good; that was his business, not mine; so I went back to the pantry to help the cook with the silver, expecting to hear the bell every minute. But the bell didn't ring, and after maybe half an hour, I came out into the hall again to see if the woman had gone; and I walked past the door of this room but didn't hear nothing; and then I went on to the front door, and was surprised to find it wasn't latched."
"Maybe you hadn't latched it," suggested Grady.
"It has a snap-lock, sir; when that woman slammed it shut, I heard it catch."
"You're sure of that?"
"Quite sure, sir."
"What did you do then?"
"I closed the door, sir, and then come back along the hall. I felt uneasy, some way; and I stood outside the door there listening; but I couldn't hear nothing; and then I tapped, but there wasn't no answer; so I tapped louder, with my heart somehow working right up into my mouth. And still there wasn't no answer, so I just opened the door and looked in—and the first thing I see was him—"
Rogers stopped suddenly, and caught at his throat again.
"I'll be all right in a minute, sir," he gasped. "It takes me this way sometimes."
"No hurry," Grady assured him, and then, when his breath was coming easier, "What did you do then?"
"I was so scared I couldn't scarcely stand, sir; but I managed to get to the foot of the stairs and yell for Parks, and he come running down—and that's all I remember, sir."
"The woman wasn't here?"
"Did you look through the rooms?"
"No, sir; when I found the front door open, I knowed she'd gone out. She hadn't shut the door because she was afraid I'd hear her."
"That sounds probable," agreed Grady. "But what makes you think she killed Vantine?"
"Well, sir," answered Rogers, slowly, "I guess I oughtn't to have said that; but finding the door open that way, and then coming on Mr. Vantine sort of upset me—I didn't know just what I was saying."
"You don't think so now, then?" questioned Grady, sharply.
"I don't know what to think, sir."
"You say you never saw the woman before?"
"Had she ever been here before?"
"I don't think so, sir. The first thing she asked was if this was where Mr. Vantine lived."
"Very good, Rogers," he said. "I'll be offering you a place on the force next. Would you know this woman if you saw her again?"
"I wouldn't like to say sure, sir," he answered, at last. "I might and I might not."
"Red lips and a white face and bright eyes aren't much to go on," Grady pointed out. "Can't you give us a closer description?"
"I'm afraid not, sir. I just got a general impression, like, of her face through her veil."
"You say you didn't search these rooms?"
"No, sir, I didn't come inside the door."
"I was afraid to, sir."
"Yes, sir; I'm afraid to be here now."
"Did Parks come in?"
"No, sir; I guess he felt the same way I did."
"Then how did you know Vantine was dead? Why didn't you try to help him?"
"One look was enough to tell me that wasn't no use," said Rogers, and glanced, with visible horror, at the crumpled form on the floor.
Grady looked at him keenly for a moment; but there seemed to be no reason to doubt his story. Then the detective looked about the room.
"There's one thing I don't understand," he said, "and that is why Vantine should want all these lights. What was he doing in here?"
"I couldn't be sure, sir; but I suppose he was looking at the furniture he brought over from Europe. He was a collector, you know, sir. There are five or six pieces in the next room."
Without a word, Grady arose and passed into the room adjoining, we after him; only Rogers remained seated where he was. I remember glancing back over my shoulder and noting how he huddled forward in his chair, as though crushed by a great weight, the instant our backs were turned.
But I forgot Rogers in contemplation of the scene before me.
The inner room was ablaze with light, and the furniture stood hap-hazard about it, just as I had seen it earlier in the day. Only one thing had been moved. That was the Boule cabinet.
It had been carried to the centre of the room, and placed in the full glare of the light from the chandelier. It stood there blazing with arrogant beauty, a thing apart.
Who had helped Vantine place it there, I wondered? Neither Rogers nor Parks had mentioned doing so. I turned back to the outer room.
Rogers was sitting crouched forward in his chair, his hands over his eyes, and I could feel him jerk with nervousness as I touched him on the shoulder.
"Oh, is it you, Mr. Lester?" he gasped. "Pardon me, sir; I'm not at all myself, sir."
"I can see that," I said, soothingly; "and no wonder. I just wanted to ask you—did you help move any of the furniture in the room yonder?"
"Help move it, sir?"
"Yes—help change the position of any of it since this afternoon?"
"No, sir; I haven't touched any of it, sir."
"That's all right, then," I said, and turned back into the inner room.
Vantine had said that he intended examining the cabinet in detail at the first opportunity; I remembered how his eyes had gleamed as he looked at it; how his hand had trembled as he caressed the arabesques. No doubt he was making that examination when he had heard a woman's cry and had gone out into the hall to see what the matter was.
Then he and the woman had entered the ante-room together; he had closed the door; and then....
Like a lightning-flash, a thought leaped into my brain—a reason—an explanation—wild, improbable, absurd, but still an explanation!
I choked back the cry which rose to my lips; I gripped my hands behind me, in a desperate attempt to hold myself in check; and, fascinated as by a deadly serpent, I stood staring at the cabinet.
For there, I felt certain, lay the clue to the mystery!
ROGERS GETS A SHOCK
Grady, Simmonds and Goldberger examined the room minutely, for they seemed to feel that the secret of the tragedy lay somewhere within its four walls; but I watched them only absently, for I had lost interest in the procedure. I was perfectly sure that they would find nothing in any way bearing upon the mystery. I heard Grady comment upon the fact that there was no door except the one opening into the ante-room, and saw them examine the window-catches.
"Nobody could raise these windows without alarming the house," Grady said, and pointed to a tiny wire running along the woodwork. "There's a burglar alarm."
Simmonds assented, and finally the trio returned to the ante-room.
"We'd like to look over the rest of the house," Grady said to Rogers, who was sitting erect again, looking more like himself, and the four men went out into the hall together. I remained behind with Hughes and Freylinghuisen. They had lifted the body to the couch and were making a careful examination of it. Heavy at heart, I sat down near by and watched them.
That Philip Vantine should have been killed by enthusiasm for the hobby which had given him so much pleasure seemed the very irony of fate, yet such I believed to be the case. To be sure, there were various incidents which seemed to conflict with such a theory, and the theory itself seemed wild to the point of absurdity; but at least it was a ray of light in what had been utter darkness. I turned it over and over in my mind, trying to fit into it the happenings of the day—I must confess with very poor success. Freylinghuisen's voice brought me out of my reverie.
"The two cases are precisely alike," he was saying. "The symptoms are identical. And I'm certain we shall find paralysis of the heart and spinal cord in this case, just as I did in the other. Both men were killed by the same poison."
"Can you make a guess as to the nature of the poison?" Hughes inquired.
"Some variant of hydrocyanic acid, I fancy—the odour indicates that; but it must be about fifty times as deadly as hydrocyanic acid is."
They wandered away into a discussion of possible variants, so technical and be-sprinkled with abstruse words and formulae that I could not follow them. Freylinghuisen, of course, had all this sort of thing at his fingers' ends—post-mortems were his every-day occupation, and no doubt he had been furbishing himself up, since this last one, in preparation for the inquest, where he would naturally wish to shine. I could see that he enjoyed displaying his knowledge before Hughes, who, although a family practitioner of high standing, with an income greater than Freylinghuisen's many times over, had no such expert knowledge of toxicology as a coroner's physician would naturally possess.
The two detectives and the coroner came back while the discussion was still in progress and listened in silence to Freylinghuisen's statement of the case. Grady's mahogany face told absolutely nothing of what was passing in his brain, but Simmonds was plainly bewildered. It was evident from his look that nothing had been found to shed any light on the mystery; and now that his suicide theory had fallen to pieces, he was completely at sea. So, I suspected, was Grady, but he was too self-composed to betray it.
The coroner drew the two physicians aside and talked to them for a few moments in a low tone. Then he turned to Grady.
"Freylinghuisen thinks there is no necessity for a post-mortem," he said. "The symptoms are in every way identical with those of the other man who was killed here this afternoon. There can be no question that both of them died from the same cause. He is ready to make his return to that effect."
"Very well," assented Grady. "The body can be turned over to the relatives, then."
"There aren't any relatives," I said; "at least, no near ones. Vantine was the last of this branch of the family. I happen to know that our firm has been named as his executors in his will, so, if there is no objection, I'll take charge of things."
"Very well, Mr. Lester," said Grady again; and then he looked at me. "Do you know the provisions of the will?" he asked.
"In the light of those provisions, do you know of any one who would have an interest in Vantine's death?"
"I think I may tell you the provisions," I said, after a moment. "With the exception of a few legacies to his servants, his whole fortune is left to the Metropolitan Museum of Art."
"You have been his attorney for some time?"
"We have been his legal advisers for many years."
"Have you ever learned that he had an enemy?"
"No," I answered instantly; "so far as I know, he had not an enemy on earth."
"He was never married, I believe?"
"Was he ever, to your knowledge, involved with a woman?"
"No," I said again. "I was astounded when I heard Rogers's story."
"So you can give us no hint as to this woman's identity?"
"I only wish I could!" I said, with fervour.
"Thank you, Mr. Lester," and Grady turned to Simmonds. "I don't see that there is anything more we can do here," he added. "There's one thing, though, Mr. Lester, I will have to ask you to do. That is to keep all the servants here until after the inquest. If you think there is any doubt of your ability to do that, we can, of course, put them under arrest—"
"Oh, that isn't necessary," I broke in. "I will be responsible for their appearance at the inquest."
"I'll have to postpone it a day," said Goldberger. "I want Freylinghuisen to make some tests to-morrow. Besides, we've got to identify d'Aurelle, and these gentlemen seem to have their work cut out for them in finding this woman—"
Grady looked at Goldberger in a way which indicated that he thought he was talking too much, and the coroner stopped abruptly. A moment later, all four men left the house.
Dr. Hughes lingered for a last word.
"The undertaker had better be called at once," he said. "It won't do to delay too long."
I knew what he meant. Already the face of the dead man was showing certain ugly discolourations.
"I can send him around on my way home," he added, and I thanked him for assuming this unpleasant duty.
As the door closed behind him, I heard a step on the stair, and turned to see Godfrey calmly descending.
"I came in a few minutes ago," he explained, in answer to my look, "and have been glancing around upstairs. Nothing there. How did our friend Grady get along?"
"Fairly well; but if he guesses anything, his face didn't show it."
"His face never shows anything, because there's nothing to show. He has cultivated that sibylline look until people think he's a wonder. But he's simply a stupid ignoramus."
"Oh, come, Godfrey," I protested, "you're prejudiced. He went right to the point. Do you know Rogers's story?"
"About the woman? Certainly. Rogers told it to me before Grady arrived."
"Well," I commented, "you didn't lose any time."
"I never do," he assented blandly. "And now I'm going to prove to you that Grady is merely a stupid ignoramus. He has heard all the evidence, but does he know who that woman was?"
"Of course not," I said, and then I looked at him. "Do you mean that you do? Then I'm an ignoramus, too!"
"My dear Lester," protested Godfrey, "you are not a detective—that's not your business; but it is Grady's. At least, it is supposed to be, and the safety of this city as a place of residence depends more or less upon the truth of that assumption. On the strength of it, he has been made deputy police commissioner, in charge of the detective bureau."
"Then you mean that you do know who she was?"
"I'm pretty sure I do—that is what I came back to prove. Where's Rogers?"
"I'll ring for him," I said, and did so, and presently he appeared.
"Did you ring, sir?" he asked.
He was still miserably nervous, but much more self-controlled than he had been earlier in the evening.
"Yes," I said. "Mr. Godfrey wishes to speak to you."
It seemed to me that Rogers turned visibly paler; there was certainly fear in the glance he turned upon my companion. But Godfrey smiled reassuringly.
"We'd better give him his instructions about the reporters, first thing, hadn't we, Lester?" he inquired.
"Which reporters?" I queried.
"All the others, of course. They will be storming this house, Rogers, before long. You will meet them at the door, you will refuse to admit one of them; you will tell them that there is nothing to be learned here, and that they must go to the police. Tell them that Commissioner Grady himself is in charge of the case and will no doubt be glad to talk to them. Is that right, Lester?"
"Yes, Ulysses," I agreed, smiling.
"And now," continued Godfrey, watching Rogers keenly, "I have a photograph here that I want you to look at. Did you ever see that person before?" and he handed a print to Rogers.
The latter hesitated an instant, and then took the print with a trembling hand. Stark fear was in his eyes again; then slowly he raised the print to the light, glanced at it....
"Catch him, Lester!" Godfrey cried, and sprang forward.
For Rogers, clutching wildly at his collar, spun half around and fell with a crash. Godfrey's arm broke the fall somewhat, but as for me, I was too dazed to move.
"Get some water, quick!" Godfrey commanded sharply, as Parks came running up. "Rogers has been taken ill."
And then, as Parks sped down the hall again, I saw Godfrey loosen the collar of the unconscious man and begin to chafe his temples fiercely.
"I hope it isn't apoplexy," he muttered. "I oughtn't to have shocked him like that."
At the words, I remembered; and, stooping, picked up the photograph which had fluttered from Rogers's nerveless fingers. And then I, too, uttered a smothered exclamation as I gazed at the dark eyes, the full lips, the oval face—the face which d'Aurelle had carried in his watch!
But it wasn't apoplexy. It was Parks who reassured us, when he came hurrying back a minute later with a glass of water in one hand and a small phial in the other.
"He has these spells," he said. "It's a kind of vertigo. Give him a whiff of this."
He uncorked the phial and handed it to Godfrey, and I caught the penetrating fumes of ammonia. A moment later, Rogers gasped convulsively.
"He'll be all right pretty soon," remarked Parks, with ready optimism. "Though I never saw him quite so bad."
"We can't leave him lying here on the floor," said Godfrey.
"There's a couch-seat in the music-room," Parks suggested, and the three of us bore the still unconscious man to it.
Then Godfrey and I sat down and waited, while he gasped his way back to life.
"Though he can't really tell us much," Godfrey observed. "In fact, I doubt if he'll be willing to tell anything. But his face, when he looked at the picture, told us all we need to know."
Thus reminded, I took the photograph out of the pocket into which I had slipped it, and looked at it again.
"Where did you get it?" I asked.
"The police photographer made some copies. This is one of them."
"But what made you suspect that the two women were the same?"
"I don't just know," answered Godfrey, reflectively. "They were both French—and Rogers spoke of the red lips; somehow it seemed probable. Mr. Grady will find some things he doesn't know in to-morrow's Record. But then he usually does. This time, I'm going to rub it in. Hello," he added, "our friend is coming around."
I looked at Rogers and saw that his eyes were open. They were staring at us as though wondering who we were. Godfrey passed an arm under his head and held the glass of water to his lips.
"Take a swallow of this," he said, and Rogers obeyed mechanically, still staring at him over the rim of the glass, "How do you feel?"
"Pretty weak," Rogers answered, almost in a whisper. "Did I have a fit?"
"Something like that," said Godfrey, cheerfully; "but don't worry. You'll soon be all right again."
"What sent me off?" asked Rogers, and stared up at him. Then his face turned purple, and I thought he was going off again. But after a moment's heavy breathing, he lay quiet. "I remember now," he said. "Let me see that picture again."
I passed it to him. His hand was trembling so he could hardly take it; but I saw he was struggling desperately to control himself, and he managed to hold the picture up before his eyes and look at it with apparent unconcern.
"Do you know her?" Godfrey asked.
To my infinite amazement, Rogers shook his head.
"Never saw her before," he muttered. "When I first looked at her, I thought I knew her; but it ain't the same woman."
"Do you mean to say," Godfrey demanded sternly, "that that is not the woman who called on Mr. Vantine to-night?"
Again Rogers shook his head.
"Oh, no," he protested; "it's not the same woman at all. This one is younger."
Godfrey made no reply; but he sat down and looked at Rogers, and Rogers lay and gazed at the picture, and gradually his face softened, as though at some tender memory.
"Come, Rogers," I urged, at last. "You'd better tell us all you know. If this is the woman, don't hesitate to say so."
"I've told you all I know, Mr. Lester," said Rogers, but he did not meet my eyes. "And I'm feeling pretty bad. I think I'd better be getting to bed."
"Yes, that's best," agreed Godfrey promptly. "Parks will help you," and he held out his hand for the photograph.
Rogers relinquished it with evident reluctance. He opened his lips as though to ask a question; then closed them again, and got slowly to his feet, Parks aiding him.
"Good-night, gentlemen," he said weakly, and shuffled away, leaning heavily on Parks's shoulder.
"Well!" said I, looking at Godfrey. "What do you think of that?"
"He's lying, of course. We've got to find out why he's lying and bring it home to him. But it's getting late—I must get down to the office. One word, Lester—be sure Rogers doesn't give you the slip."
"I'll have him looked after," I promised. "But I fancy he'll be afraid to run away. Besides, it is possible he's telling the truth. I don't believe any woman had anything to do with either death."
Godfrey turned, as he was starting away, and stopped to look at me.
"Who did then?" he asked.
"You mean they both suicided in that abnormal way?"
"No, it wasn't suicide—they were killed—but not by a human being —at least, not directly." I felt that I was floundering hopelessly, and stopped. "I can't tell you now, Godfrey," I pleaded. "I haven't had time to think it out. You've got enough for one day."
"Yes," he smiled; "I've got enough for one day. And now good-bye. Perhaps I'll look in on you about midnight, on my way home, if I get through by then."
I sighed. Godfrey's energy became a little wearing sometimes. I was already longing for bed, and there remained so much to be done. But he, after a day which I knew had been a hard one, and with a many-column story still to write, was apparently as fresh and eager as ever.
"All right," I agreed. "If you see a light, come up. If there isn't any light, I'll be in bed, and I'll kill you if you wake me."
"Conditions accepted," he laughed, as I opened the door for him.
Parks joined me as I turned back into the house.
"I got Rogers to bed, sir," he said. "He'll be all right in the morning. But he's a queer duck."
"How long have you known him, Parks?"
"He's been with Mr. Vantine about five years. I don't know much about him; he's a silent kind of fellow, keeping to hisself a good deal and sort of brooding over things. But he did his work all right, except once in a while when he keeled over like he did to-night."
"Parks," I said, suddenly, "I'm going to ask you a question. You know that Mr. Vantine was a friend of mine, and I thought a great deal of him. Now, what with this story Rogers tells, and one or two other things, there is talk of a woman. Is there any foundation for talk of that kind?"
"No, sir," said Parks, emphatically. "I've been Mr. Vantine's valet for eight years and more, and in all that time he has never been mixed up with a woman in any shape or form. I always fancied he'd loved a lady who died—I don't know what made me think so; but anyhow, since I've known him, he never looked at a woman—not in that way."
"Thank you, Parks," I said, with a sigh of relief. "I've been through so much to-day, that I felt I couldn't endure that; and now—"
"Beg pardon, sir," said a voice at my elbow; "we have everything ready, sir."
I turned with a start to see a little, clean-shaven man standing there, rubbing his hands softly together and gazing blandly up at me.
"The undertaker's assistant, sir," explained Parks, seeing my look of astonishment. "He came while you and Mr. Godfrey were in the music-room. Dr. Hughes sent him."
"Yes, sir," added the little man; "and we have the corpse ready for the coffin. Very nice it looks, too; though it was a hard job. Was it poison killed him, sir?"
"Yes," I answered, with a feeling of nausea, "it was poison."
"Very powerful poison, too, I should say, sir; we didn't get here none too soon. Where shall we put the body, sir?"
"Why not leave it where it is?" I asked, impatiently.
"Very good, sir," said the man, and presently he and his assistant took themselves off, to my intense relief.
"And now, Parks," I began, "there is something I want to say to you. Let us go somewhere and sit down."
"Suppose we go up to the study, sir. You're looking regularly done up, if you'll permit me to say so, sir. Shall I get you something?"
"A brandy-and-soda," I assented; "and bring one for yourself."
"Very good, sir," and a few minutes later we were sitting opposite each other in the room where Vantine had offered me similar refreshment not many hours before. I looked at Parks as he sat there, and turned over in my mind what I had to say to him. I liked the man, and I felt he could be trusted. At any rate, I had to take the risk.
"Now, Parks," I began again, setting down my glass, "what I have to say to you is very serious, and I want you to keep it to yourself: I know that you were devoted to Mr. Vantine—I may as well tell you that he has remembered you in his will—and I am sure you are willing to do anything in your power to help solve the mystery of his death."
"That I am, sir," Parks agreed, warmly. "I was very fond of him, sir; nobody will miss him more than I will."
I realised that the tragedy meant far more to Parks than it did even to me, for he had lost not only a friend, but a means of livelihood, and I looked at him with heightened sympathy.
"I know how you feel," I said, "and I am counting on you to help me. I have a sort of idea how his death came about. Only the vaguest possible idea," I added hastily, as his eyes widened with interest; "altogether too vague to be put into words. But I can say this much —the mystery, whatever it is, is in the ante-room where the bodies were found, or in the room next to it where the furniture is. Now, I am going to lock up those rooms, and I want you to see that nobody enters them without your knowledge."
"Not very likely that anybody will want to enter them, sir," and Parks laughed a grim little laugh.
"I am not so sure of that," I dissented, speaking very seriously. "In fact, I am of the opinion that there is somebody who wants to enter those rooms very badly. I don't know who he is, and I don't know what he is after; but I am going to make it your business to keep him out, and to capture him if you catch him trying to get in."
"Trust me for that, sir," said Parks promptly. "What is it you want me to do?"
"I want you to put a cot in the hallway outside the door of the ante-room and sleep there to-night. To-morrow I will decide what further precautions are necessary."
"Very good, sir," said Parks. "I'll get the cot up at once."
"There is one thing more," I went on. "I have given the coroner my personal assurance that none of the servants will leave the house until after the inquest. I suppose I can rely on them?"
"Oh, yes, sir. I'll see they understand how important it is."
"Rogers, especially," I added, looking at him.
"I understand, sir," said Parks, quietly.
"Very well. And now let us go down and lock up those rooms."
They were still ablaze with light; but both of us faltered a little, I think, on the threshold of the ante-room. For in the middle of the floor stood a stretcher, and on it was an object covered with a sheet, its outlines horribly suggestive. But I took myself in hand and entered. Parks followed me and closed the door.